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- Malcolm - 2/113 -


"The less the better," muttered Miss Horn; but her unwelcome visitor went on:

"Them 'at 's maist i' my debt kens least aboot it; and then mithers canna be said to hae muckle to be thankfu' for. It's God's trowth, I ken waur nor ever I did mem. A body in my trade canna help fa'in' amo' ill company whiles, for we're a' born in sin, an' brocht furth in ineequity, as the Buik. says; in fac', it's a' sin thegither: we come o' sin an' we gang for sin; but ye ken the likes o' me maunna clype (tell tales). A' the same, gien ye dinna tak the help o' my han', ye winna refuse me the sicht o' my een, puir thing!"

"There's nane sall luik upon her deid 'at wasna a pleesur' till her livin'; an' ye ken weel eneuch, Bawby, she cudna thole (bear) the sicht o' you."

"An' guid rizzon had she for that, gien a' 'at gangs throu' my heid er I fa' asleep i' the lang mirk nichts be a hair better nor ane o' the auld wives' fables 'at fowk says the holy buik maks sae licht o'."

"What mean ye?" demanded Miss Horn, sternly and curtly.

"I ken what I mean mysel', an' ane that's no content wi' that, bude (behaved) ill be a howdie (midwife). I wad fain hae gotten a fancy oot o' my heid that's been there this mony a lang day; but please yersel', mem, gien ye winna be neebourly."

"Ye s' no gang near her--no to save ye frae a' the ill dreams that ever gethered aboot a sin stappit (stuffed) bowster!" cried Miss Horn, and drew down her long upper lip in a strong arch.

"Ca cannie! ca cannie! (drive gently)," said Bawby. "Dinna anger me ower sair, for I am but mortal. Fowk tak a heap frae you, Miss Horn, 'at they'll tak frae nane ither, for your temper's weel kent, an' little made o'; but it's an ill faured thing to anger the howdie --sae muckle lies upo' her; an, I'm no i' the tune to put up wi' muckle the nicht. I wonner at ye bein' sae oonneebourlike--at sic a time tu, wi' a corp i' the hoose!"

"Gang awa--gan oot o't: it's my hoose," said Miss Horn, in a low, hoarse voice, restrained from rising to tempest pitch only by the consciousness of what lay on the other side of the ceiling above her head. "I wad as sune lat a cat intill the deid chaumer to gang loupin' ower the corp, or may be waur, as I wad lat yersel' intill 't Bawby Catanach; an' there's till ye!"

At this moment the opportune entrance of Jean afforded fitting occasion to her mistress for leaving the room without encountering the dilemma of either turning the woman out--a proceeding which the latter, from the way in which she set her short, stout figure square on the floor, appeared ready to resist--or of herself abandoning the field in discomfiture: she turned and marched from the kitchen with her head in the air, and the gait of one who had been insulted on her own premises.

She was sitting in the parlour, still red faced and wrathful, when Jean entered, and, closing the door behind her, drew near to her mistress, bearing a narrative, commenced at the door, of all she had seen, heard, and done, while "oot an' aboot i' the toon." But Miss Horn interrupted her the moment she began to speak.

"Is that wuman furth the hoose, Jean?" she asked, in the tone of one who waited her answer in the affirmative as a preliminary condition of all further conversation.

"She's gane, mem," answered Jean--adding to herself in a wordless thought, "I'm no sayin' whaur."

"She's a wuman I wadna hae ye throng wi', Jean."

"I ken no ill o' her, mem," returned Jean.

"She's eneuch to corrup' a kirkyaird!" said her mistress, with more force than fitness.

Jean, however, was on the shady side of fifty, more likely to have already yielded than to be liable to a first assault of corruption; and little did Miss Horn think how useless was her warning, or where Barbara Catanach was at that very moment Trusting to Jean's cunning, as well she might; she was in the dead chamber, and standing over the dead. She had folded back the sheet--not from the face, but from the feet--and raised the night dress of fine linen in which the love of her cousin had robed the dead for the repose of the tomb.

"It wad hae been tellin' her," she muttered, "to hae spoken Bawby fair! I'm no used to be fa'en foul o' that gait. I 's be even wi' her yet, I'm thinkin'--the auld speldin'! Losh! and Praise be thankit! there it's! It's there!--a wee darker, but the same --jist whaur I could ha' laid the pint o' my finger upo't i' the mirk!--Noo lat the worms eat it," she concluded, as she folded down the linen of shroud and sheet--"an' no mortal ken o' 't but mysel' an' him 'at bude till hae seen 't, gien he was a hair better nor Glenkindie's man i' the auld ballant!"

The instant she had rearranged the garments of the dead, she turned and made for the door with a softness of step that strangely contrasted with the ponderousness of her figure, and indicated great muscular strength, opened it with noiseless circumspection to the width of an inch, peeped out from the crack, and seeing the opposite door still shut, stepped out with a swift, noiseless swing of person and door simultaneously, closed the door behind her, stole down the stairs, and left the house. Not a board creaked, not a latch clicked as she went. She stepped into the street as sedately as if she had come from paying to the dead the last offices of her composite calling, the projected front of her person appearing itself aware of its dignity as the visible sign and symbol of a good conscience and kindly heart.

CHAPTER III: THE MAD LAIRD

When Mistress Catanach arrived at the opening of a street which was just opposite her own door, and led steep toward the sea town, she stood, and shading her eyes with her hooded hand, although the sun was far behind her, looked out to sea. It was the forenoon of a day of early summer. The larks were many and loud in the skies above her--for, although she stood in a street, she was only a few yards from the green fields--but she could hardly have heard them, for their music was not for her. To the northward, whither her gaze--if gaze it could be called--was directed, all but cloudless blue heavens stretched over an all but shadowless blue sea; two bold, jagged promontories, one on each side of her, formed a wide bay; between that on the west and the sea town at her feet, lay a great curve of yellow sand, upon which the long breakers, born of last night's wind, were still roaring from the northeast, although the gale had now sunk to a breeze--cold and of doubtful influence. From the chimneys of the fishermen's houses below, ascended a yellowish smoke, which, against the blue of the sea, assumed a dull green colour as it drifted vanishing towards the southwest. But Mrs Catanach was looking neither at nor for anything: she had no fisherman husband, or any other relative at sea; she was but revolving something in her unwholesome mind, and this was her mode of concealing an operation which naturally would have been performed with down bent head and eyes on the ground.

While she thus stood a strange figure drew near, approaching her with step almost as noiseless as that with which she had herself made her escape from Miss Horn's house. At a few yards' distance from her it stood, and gazed up at her countenance as intently as she seemed to be gazing on the sea. It was a man of dwarfish height and uncertain age, with a huge hump upon his back, features of great refinement, a long thin beard, and a forehead unnaturally large, over eyes which, although of a pale blue, mingled with a certain mottled milky gleam, had a pathetic, dog-like expression. Decently dressed in black, he stood with his hands in the pockets of his trowsers, gazing immovably in Mrs Catanach's face.

Becoming suddenly aware of his presence, she glanced downward, gave a great start and a half scream, and exclaimed in no gentle tones:

"Preserve 's! Whaur come ye frae?"

It was neither that she did not know the man, nor that she meant any offence: her words were the mere embodiment of the annoyance of startled surprise; but their effect was peculiar.

Without a single other motion he turned abruptly on one heel, gazed seaward with quick flushed cheeks and glowing eyes, but, apparently too polite to refuse an answer to the evidently unpleasant question, replied in low, almost sullen tones:

"I dinna ken whaur I come frae. Ye ken 'at I dinna ken whaur I come frae. I dinna ken whaur ye come frae. I dinna ken whaur onybody comes frae."

"Hoot, laird! nae offence!" returned Mrs Catanach. "It was yer ain wyte (blame). What gart ye stan' glowerin' at a body that gait, ohn telled (without telling) them 'at ye was there?"

"I thocht ye was luikin' whaur ye cam frae," returned the man in tones apologetic and hesitating.

"'Deed I fash wi' nae sic freits," said Mrs Catanach.

"Sae lang's ye ken whaur ye're gaein' till," suggested the man

"Toots! I fash as little wi' that either, and ken jist as muckle about the tane as the tither," she answered with a low oily guttural laugh of contemptuous pity.

"I ken mair nor that mysel', but no muckle," said the man. "I dinna ken whaur I cam frae, and I dinna ken whaur I'm gaun till; but I ken 'at I'm gaun whaur I cam frae. That stan's to rizzon, ye see; but they telled me 'at ye kenned a' about whaur we a' cam frae."

"Deil a bit o' 't!" persisted Mrs Catanach, in tones of repudiation. "What care I whaur I cam frae, sae lang's--"

"Sae lang's what, gien ye please?" pleaded the man, with a childlike entreaty in his voice.

"Weel--gien ye wull hae't--sae lang's I cam frae my mither," said the woman, looking down on the inquirer with a vulgar laugh.

The hunchback uttered a shriek of dismay, and turned and fled; and


Malcolm - 2/113

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