THE TWO ENDS OF THE LINE

THREE days afterwards Wattie sat at the gates of Ardguys and looked
between the pale yellow ash-trees at the house. There was nobody about
at the moment to forbid his entrance, and he drove quietly in at a
foot’s pace and approached the door. The sun shone with the clear
lightness of autumn, and the leaves, which had almost finished the
fitful process of falling, lay gathered in heaps by the gate, for
Madam Flemington liked order. On the steep pitch of the ancient slate
roof a few pigeons, white and grey, sat in pairs or walked about with
spasmodic dignity. The whole made a picture, high in tone, like a
water-colour, and the clean etched lines of the stripped branches gave
it a sharp delicacy and threw up the tall, light walls. All these
things were lost upon the beggar.

He had informed himself in Forfar. He knew that the place was owned
and lived in by a lady of the name of Flemington, who was the
grandmother of the young man from whom he had lately parted. He had
learned nothing of her character and politics because of the seclusion
in which she lived, and he stared about him on every side and scanned
the house for any small sign that might give him a clue to the tastes
or occupations of its inhabitant. Whilst he was so engaged the
front-door opened and the sound sent all the pigeons whirling from the
roof into the air in flashes of grey-blue and white. Madam Flemington
stood on the top step.

The beggar’s hand went instinctively to his bonnet. He was a little
taken aback–why, he did not know–and he instantly abandoned his plan
of an emotional description of Archie’s plight. She stood quite still,
looking down at him.

Her luxuriant silver hair was covered by a three-cornered piece of
black lace that was tied in a knot under her chin, and she wore the
‘calash,’ or hood, with which the ladies of those days protected their
headdresses when they went out. A short furred cloak was round her.

She considered Wattie with astonishment. Then she beckoned to him to
approach.

“Who and what are you?” she asked, laying her hand on the railing that
encircled the landing of the steps.

That question was so seldom put to him that it struck him unawares,
like a stone from behind a hedge. He hesitated.

“A’ve got news for yer leddyship,” he began.

“I asked your name,” said Madam Flemington.

“Wattie Caird,” replied he. “Skirling Wattie, they ca’ me.”

The countryside and its inhabitants did not appeal to Christian, but
this amazing intruder was like no one she had ever seen before. She
guessed that he was a beggar, and she brushed aside his announcement
of news as merely a method of attracting attention.

“You are one of the few persons in these parts who can afford to keep
a coach,” she remarked.

A broad smile overspread his ribald countenance, like the sun
irradiating a public-house.

“Dod, ma leddy, a’d think shame to visit ye on fut,” said he, with a
wag of his head.

“You have better reasons than that,” she replied rather grimly.

“Aye, aye, they’re baith awa’,” said he, looking at the place where
his legs should have been. “A’m an ill sicht for the soutars!”

She threw back her head and laughed a little.

She had seen no one for months, with the exception of Archie, who was
so quick in mind and speech, and the humour of this vagabond on wheels
took her fancy. There was no whining servility about him, in spite of
his obvious profession.

The horrified face of a maidservant appeared for one moment at a
window, then vanished, struck back by the unblessed sight of her
mistress, that paralyzing, unapproachable power, jesting, apparently,
with Skirling Wattie, the lowest of the low. The girl was a native of
Forfar, the westernmost point of the beggar’s travels, and she had
often seen him in the streets.

“You face life boldly,” said Madam Flemington.

“An’ what for no? Fegs, greetin’ fills naebody’s kyte.”*[*Stomach.]

She laughed again.

“You shall fill yours handsomely,” said she; “go to the other door and
I will send orders to the women to attend to you.”

“Aye, will I,” he exclaimed, “but it wasna’ just for a piece that a’
cam’ a’ the way frae the muir o’ Rossie.”

“From where?” said she.

“The muir o’ Rossie,” repeated he. “Ma leddy, it was awa’ yonder at
the tail o’ the muir that a’ tell’t Maister Flemington the road to
Aberbrothock.”

“Mr. Flemington?”

“Aye, yon lad Flemington–an’ a deevil o’ a lad he is to tak’ the road
wi’! Ma leddy, there’s been a pucklie fechtin’ aboot Montrose, an’ the
Prince’s men hae gotten a haud o’ King George’s ship that’s in by
Ferryden. As a’ gaed doon to the toon, a’ kaipit* [*Met.] wi’
Flemington i’ the road. He’d gotten a clour on ‘s heed. He was
fechtin’ doon aboot Inchbrayock, he tell’t me.”

“Fighting? With whom?” asked Madam Flemington, fixing her tiger’s eyes
on him.

The beggar had watched her face narrowly while he spoke for the
slightest flicker of expression that might indicate the way her
feelings were turning.

“He was fechtin’ wi’ Captain Logie,” he continued boldly, “a fell man
yon–ye’ll ken him, yer leddyship?”

“By name,” said Christian.

“A’m thinkin’ it was frae him that he got the clour on ‘s heed. A’
gie’d him ma guid whisky bottle, an’ a’ got water to him frae a well.
A’ ca’d him awa’ frae the roadside–he didna ken wha would be aifter
him ye see–an’ a’ gar’d a clatterin’ auld wife at the muir side gie’s
a shelter yon nicht. A’ didna’ leave the callant, ma’ leddy, till a’
got a shelt to him. He’s to Edinburgh. A’ tell’t him wha ‘d get him a
passage to Leith–a’m an Aberbrothock man, mysel’, ye ken.”

“And did he send you to me?”

“Aye, did he,” said he, lying boldly.

There was no sign of emotion, none even of surprise, on her face. Her
heart had beaten hard as the beggar talked, and the weight of wrath
and pain that she had carried since she had parted with Archie began
to lighten. He had listened to her–he had not gone against her. How
deep her words had fallen into his heart she could not tell, but deep
enough to bring him to grips with the man who had made the rift
between them.

“Are you sure of what you say?” she asked quickly; “did you see them
fight?”

“Na, na, but ’twas the lad himsel’ that tell’t me. He was on the
ship.”

“He was on the ship?”

“Aye, was he. And he gae’d oot wi’ the sodgers to deave they rebels
frae Inchbrayock. They got the ship, ma leddy, but they didna get him.
He escapit.”

“Did you say he was much hurt?” said Madam Flemington.

“Hoots! ye needna’ fash yersel’, ma leddy! A’ was feared for him i’
the nicht, but there wasna’ muckle wrang wi’ him when he gae’d awa’,
or, dod, a’ wouldna’ hae left him!”

He had no mind to spoil his presentment of himself as Good Samaritan.

So far he had learnt nothing. He had spoken of the Prince’s men as
rebels without a sign of displeasure showing on Madam Flemington’s
face. Archie might be playing a double game and she might be doing the
same, but there was nothing to suggest it. She was magnificently
impersonal. She had not even shown the natural concern that he
expected with regard to her own flesh and blood.

“Go now,” said she, waving her hand towards the back part of the
house; “you shall feed well, you and your dogs; and when you have
finished you can come to these steps again, and I will give you some
money. You have done well by me.”

She re-entered the house and he drove away to the kitchen-door,
dismissed.

If Wattie hoped to discover anything more there about the lady and her
household, he was disappointed. The servants raised their chins in
refined disapproval of the vagrant upon whom their mistress had seen
fit to waste words under the very front windows of Ardguys. They
resolved that he should find the back-door, socially, a different
place, and only the awe in which they stood of Christian compelled
them to obey her to the letter. A crust or two would have interpreted
her wishes, had they dared to please themselves. But Madam Flemington
knew every resource of her larder and kitchen, for French housekeeping
and the frugality of her exiled years had taught her thrift. She would
measure precisely what had been given to her egregious guest, down to
the bones laid, by her order, before his dogs.

The beggar ate in silence, amid the brisk cracking made by five pairs
of busy jaws; the maids were in the stronghold of the kitchen, far
from the ungenteel sight of his coarse enjoyment. When he had
satisfied himself, he put the fragments into his leathern bag and went
round once more to the front of the house.

A window was open on the ground-floor, and Madam Flemington’s large
white hand came over the sill holding a couple of crown pieces. She
was sitting on the window-seat within. Her cloak and the calash had
disappeared, and Wattie could see the fine poise of her head. She
dropped the coin into the cart as he drove below.

As he looked up he thought that if she had been imposing in her
outdoor garments she was a hundredfold more so without them. He was at
his ease with her, but he wondered at it, though he was accustomed to
being at his ease with everybody. A certain vanity rose in him, coarse
remnant of humanity as he was, before this magnificent woman, and when
he had received the silver, he turned about, facing her, and began to
sing.

He was used to the plebeian admiration of his own public, but a touch
of it from her would have a different flavour. He was vain of his
singing, and that vanity was the one piece of romance belonging to
him; it hung over his muddy soul as a weaving of honeysuckle may hang
over a dank pond. Had he understood Madam Flemington perfectly, he
might have sung ‘The Tod,’ but as he only understood her
superficially, he sang ‘Logie Kirk.’ He did not know how nearly the
extremities of the social scale can draw together in the primitive
humours of humanity. It is the ends of a line that can best be bent to
meet, not one end and the middle.

Yet, as ‘Logie Kirk’ rang out among the spectral ash-trees, she sat
still, astonished, her head erect, like some royal animal listening;
it moved her, though its sentiment had naught to do with her mood at
present, nor with her cast of mind at any time. But love and loss are
things that lay their shadows everywhere, and Madam Flemington had
lost much; moreover, she had been a woman framed for love, and she had
not wasted her gifts.

As his voice ceased, she rose and threw the window up higher.

“Go on,” she said.

He paused, taking breath, for a couple of minutes. He knew songs to
suit all political creeds, but this time he would try one of the
Jacobite lays that were floating round the country; if it should
provoke some illuminating comment from her, he would have learned
something more about her, and incidentally about Archie, though it
struck him that he was not so sure of the unanimity of interest
between the grandmother and grandson which he had taken for granted
before seeing Madam Flemington.

His cunning eyes were rooted on her as he sang again.

“My love stood at the loanin’ side
And held me by the hand,
The bonniest lad that e’er did bide
In a’ this waefu’ land;
There’s but ae bonnier to be seen
Frae Pentland to the sea,
And for his sake but yestereen
I sent my love frae me.

“I gie’d my love the white, white rose
That’s at my feyther’s wa’,
It is the bonniest flower that grows
Where ilka flower is braw;
There’s but ae brawer that I ken
Frae Perth unto the main,
And that’s the flower o’ Scotland’s men
That’s fechtin’ for his ain.

“If I had kept whate’er was mine,
As I had gie’d my best,
My hairt were licht by day, and syne
The nicht wad bring me rest;
There is nae heavier hairt to find
Frae Forfar toon to Ayr,
As aye I sit me doon to mind
On him I see nae mair.

“Lad, gin ye fa’ by Chairlie’s side,
To rid this land o’ shame,
There will na be a prouder bride
Than her ye left at hame;
But I will see ye whaur ye sleep
Frae lowlands to the peat,
And ilka nicht at mirk I’ll creep
To lay me at yer feet.”

“You sing well,” said Christian when he had stopped; “now go.”

She inclined her head and turned from the window. As his broad back,
so grotesque in its strange nearness to the ground, passed out between
the gate-posts of Ardguys, she went over to the mantelpiece.

Her face was set, and she stood with clasped hands gazing into the
fireplace. She was deeply moved, but not by the song, which only
stirred her to bitterness, but by the searching tones of the beggar’s
voice, that had smitten a way through which her feelings surged to and
from her heart. The thought that Archie had not utterly broken away
from her unnerved her by the very relief it brought. She had not known
till now how much she had suffered from what had passed between them.
Her power was not all gone. She was not quite alone. She would have
scorned to admit that she could not stand in complete isolation, and
she admitted nothing, even to herself. She only stood still, her
nerves quivering, making no outward sign.

Presently she rang a little hand-bell that was on the table.

The genteel-minded maid appeared.

“Mysie,” said Madam Flemington, “in three days I shall go to
Edinburgh.”