ON THE HIGH MOORS.
Before me stretched a black heath, over which the mist blew in gusts, and through whose midst the road crept like an adder. Great storm-marked hills flanked me on either side, and since I set out I had seen their harsh outline against a thick sky, until I longed for flat ground to rest my sight upon. The way was damp, and the soft mountain gravel sank under my horse’s feet; and ever and anon my legs were splashed by the water from some pool which the rain had left. Shrill mountain birds flew around, and sent their cries through the cold air. Sometimes the fog would lift for a moment from the face of the land and show me a hilltop or the leaden glimmer of a loch, but nothing more—no green field or homestead; only a barren and accursed desert.
Neither horse nor man was in any spirit. My back ached, and I shivered in my sodden garments, while my eyes were dim from gazing on flying clouds. The poor beast stumbled often, for he had traveled far on little fodder, and a hill-road was a new thing in his experience. Saladin I called him—for I had fancied that there was something Turkish about his black face, with the heavy turban-like band above his forehead—in my old fortunate days when I bought him. He was a fine horse of the Normandy breed, and had carried me on many a wild journey, though on none so forlorn as this.
But to speak of myself. I am Jean de Rohaine, at your service; Sieur de Rohaine in the province of Touraine—a gentleman, I trust, though one in a sorry plight. And how I came to be in the wild highlands of the place called Galloway, in the bare kingdom of Scotland, I must haste to tell. In the old days, when I had lived as became my rank in my native land, I had met a Scot,—one Kennedy by name,—a great man in his own country, with whom I struck up an intimate friendship. He and I were as brothers, and he swore that if I came to visit him in his own home he would see to it that I should have the best. I thanked him at the time for his bidding, but thought little more of it.
Now, by ill fortune, the time came when, what with gaming and pleasuring, I was a beggared man, and I bethought me of the Scot’s offer. I had liked the man well, and I considered how it would be no ill thing to abide in that country till I should find some means of bettering my affairs. So I took ship and came to the town of Ayr, from which ’twas but a day’s ride to the house of my friend. ‘Twas in midsummer when I landed, and the place looked not so bare as I had feared, as I rode along between green meadows to my destination. There I found Quentin Kennedy, somewhat grown old and more full in flesh than I remembered him in the past. He had been a tall, black-avised man when I first knew him; now he was grizzled,—whether from hard living or the harshness of northern weather I know not,—and heavier than a man of action is wont to be. He greeted me most hospitably, putting his house at my bidding, and swearing that I should abide and keep him company and go no more back to the South.
So for near a month I stayed there, and such a time of riot and hilarity I scarce remember. Mon Dieu, but the feasting and the sporting would have rejoiced the hearts of my comrades of the Rue Margot! I had already learned much of the Scots tongue at the college in Paris, where every second man hails from this land, and now I was soon perfect in it, speaking it all but as well as my host. ‘Tis a gift I have, for I well remember how, when I consorted for some months in the low countries with an Italian of Milan, I picked up a fair knowledge of his speech. So now I found myself in the midst of men of spirit, and a rare life we led. The gentlemen of the place would come much about the house, and I promise you ’twas not seldom we saw the morning in as we sat at wine. There was, too, the greatest sport at coursing and hunting the deer in Kennedy’s lands by the Water of Doon.
Yet there was that I liked not among the fellows who came thither, nay, even in my friend himself. We have a proverb in France that the devil when he spoils a German in the making turns him into a Scot, and for certain there was much boorishness among them, which to my mind sits ill on gentlemen. They would jest at one another till I thought that in a twinkling swords would be out, and lo! I soon found that ’twas but done for sport, and with no evil intent. They were clownish in their understanding, little recking of the feelings of a man of honor, but quick to grow fierce on some tittle of provocation which another would scarce notice. Indeed, ’tis my belief that one of this nation is best in his youth, for Kennedy, whom I well remembered as a man of courage and breeding, had grown grosser and more sottish with his years, till I was fain to ask where was my friend of the past.
And now I come to that which brought on my departure and my misfortunes. ‘Twas one night as I returned weary from riding after a stag in the haugh by the river, that Quentin cried hastily, as I entered, that now he had found something worthy of my attention.
“To-morrow, Jock,” says he, “you will see sport. There has been some cursed commotion among the folk of the hills, and I am out the morrow to redd the marches. You shall have a troop of horse and ride with me, and, God’s death, we will have a taste of better work!”
I cried out that I could have asked for naught better, and, indeed, I was overjoyed that the hard drinking and idleness were at an end, and that the rigors of warfare lay before me. For I am a soldier by birth and by profession, and I love the jingle of steel and the rush of battle.
So, on the morrow, I rode to the mountains with a score of dragoons behind me, glad and hopeful. Diable! How shall I tell my disappointment? The first day I had seen all—and more than I wished. We fought, not with men like ourselves, but with women and children and unarmed yokels, and butchered like Cossacks more than Christians. I grew sick of the work, and would have none of it, but led my men to the rendezvous sullenly, and hot at heart. ‘Twas well the night was late when we arrived, else I should have met with Kennedy there and then, and God knows what might have happened.
The next day, in a great fit of loathing, I followed my host again, hoping that the worst was over, and that henceforth I should have something more to my stomach. But little I knew of the men with whom I journeyed. There was a cottage there, a shepherd’s house, and God! they burned it down, and the man they shot before his wife and children, speaking naught to him but foul-mouthed reproaches and jabber about some creed which was strange to me. I could not prevent it, though ’twas all that I could do to keep myself from a mad attack.
I rode up to Quentin Kennedy.
“Sir,” I said, “I have had great kindness at your hands, but you and I must part. I see that we are made of different stuff. I can endure war, but not massacre.”
He laughed at my scruples, incredulous of my purpose, until at last he saw that I was fixed in my determination. Then he spoke half kindly:
“This is a small matter to stand between me and thee. I am a servant of the king, and but do my duty. I little thought to have disloyalty preached from your lips; but bide with me, and I promise that you shall see no more of it.”
But my anger was too great, and I would have none of him. Then—and now I marvel at the man’s forbearance—he offered me money to recompense me for my trouble. ‘Twas honestly meant, and oft have I regretted my action, but to me in my fury it seemed but an added insult.
“Nay,” said I angrily; “I take no payment from butchers. I am a gentleman, if a poor one.”
At this he flushed wrathfully, and I thought for an instant that he would have drawn on me; but he refrained, and I rode off alone among the moors. I knew naught of the land, and I must have taken the wrong way, for noon found me hopelessly mazed among a tangle of rocks and hills and peat-mosses. Verily, Quentin Kennedy had taken the best revenge by suffering me to follow my own leading.
In the early hours of my journey my head was in such a whirl of wrath and dismay, that I had little power to think settled thoughts. I was in a desperate confusion, half angry at my own haste, and half bitter at the coldness of a friend who would permit a stranger to ride off alone with scarce a word of regret. When I have thought the matter out in after days, I have been as perplexed as ever; yet it still seems to me, though I know not how, that I acted as any man of honor and heart would approve. Still this thought was little present to me in my discomfort, as I plashed through the sodden turf.
I had breakfasted at Kennedy’s house of Dunpeel in the early morning, and since I had no provision of any sort with me, ’twas not long ere the biting of hunger began to set in. My race is a hardy stock, used to much hardships and rough fare, but in this inclement land my heart failed me wholly, and I grew sick and giddy, what with the famishing and the cold rain. For, though ’twas late August, the month of harvest and fruit-time in my own fair land, it seemed more like winter. The gusts of sharp wind came driving out of the mist and pierced me to the very marrow. So chill were they that my garments were of no avail to avert them; being, indeed, of the thinnest, and cut according to the fashion of fine cloth for summer wear at the shows and gallantries of the town. A pretty change, thought I, from the gardens of Versailles and the trim streets of Paris to this surly land; and sad it was to see my cloak, meant for no rougher breeze than the gentle south, tossed and scattered by a grim wind.
I have marked it often, and here I proved its truth, that man’s thoughts turn always to the opposites of his present state. Here was I, set in the most uncharitable land on earth; and yet ever before my eyes would come brief visions of the gay country which I had forsaken. In a gap of hill I fancied that I descried a level distance with sunny vineyards and rich orchards, to which I must surely come if I but hastened. When I stooped to drink at a stream, I fancied ere I drank it that the water would taste like the Bordeaux I was wont to drink at the little hostelry in the Rue Margot; and when the tasteless liquid once entered my mouth, the disenchantment was severe. I met one peasant, an old man bent with toil, coarse-featured, yet not without some gleams of kindness, and I could not refrain from addressing him in my native tongue. For though I could make some shape at his barbarous patois, in my present distress it came but uneasily from my lips. He stared at me stupidly, and when I repeated the question in the English, he made some unintelligible reply, and stumbled onward in his way. I watched his poor figure as he walked. Such, thought I, are the canaille of the land, and ’tis little wonder if their bodies be misshapen, and their minds dull, for an archangel would become a boor if he dwelt here for any space of time.
But enough of such dreams, and God knows no man had ever less cause for dreaming. Where was I to go, and what might my purpose be in this wilderness which men call the world? An empty belly and a wet skin do not tend to sedate thinking, so small wonder if I saw little ahead. I was making for the end of the earth, caring little in what direction, weary and sick of heart, with sharp anger at the past, and never a hope for the morrow.
Yet, even in my direst days, I have ever found some grain of expectation to console me. I had five crowns in my purse; little enough, but sufficient to win me a dinner and a bed at some cheap hostelry. So all through the gray afternoon I looked sharply for a house, mistaking every monstrous bowlder for a gable-end. I cheered my heart with thinking of dainties to be looked for; a dish of boiled fish, or a piece of mutton from one of the wild-faced sheep which bounded ever and anon across my path. Nay, I was in no mood to be fastidious. I would e’en be content with a poor fare, provided always I could succeed in swallowing it, for my desire soon became less for the attainment of a pleasure than for the alleviation of a discomfort. For I was ravenous as a hawk, and had it in my heart more than once to dismount, and seek for the sparse hill-berries.
And, indeed, this was like to have been my predicament, for the day grew late and I came no nearer a human dwelling. The valley in which I rode grew wider, about to open, as I thought, into the dale of a river. The hills, from rising steeply by the wayside, were withdrawn to the distance of maybe a mile, where they lifted their faces through the network of the mist. All the land between them, save a strip where the road lay, was filled with a black marsh, where moor birds made a most dreary wailing. It minded me of the cries of the innocents whom King Herod slew, as I had seen the dead represented outside the village church of Rohaine in my far-away homeland. My heart grew sore with longing. I had bartered my native country for the most dismal on earth, and all for nothing. Madman that I was, were it not better to be a beggar in France than a horse-captain in any other place? I cursed my folly sorely, as each fresh blast sent a shiver through my body. Nor was my horse in any better state—Saladin, whom I had seen gayly decked at a procession with ribbons and pretty favors, who had carried me so often and so far, who had always fared on the best. The poor beast was in a woeful plight, with his pasterns bleeding from the rough stones and his head bent with weariness. Verily, I pitied him more than myself, and if I had had a crust we should have shared it.
The night came in, black as a draw-well and stormy as the Day of Doom. I had now no little trouble in picking out the way from among the treacherous morasses. Of a sudden my horse would have a forefoot in a pool of black peat-water, from which I would scarce, by much pulling, recover him. A sharp jag of stone in the way would all but bring him to his knees. So we dragged wearifully along, scarce fearing, caring, hoping for anything in this world or another.
It was, I judge, an hour after nightfall, about nine of the clock, when I fancied that some glimmer shot through the thick darkness. I could have clapped my hands for joy had I been able; but alas! these were so stiff, that clapping was as far from me as from a man with the palsy.
“Courage!” said I, “courage, Saladin! There is yet hope for us!”
The poor animal seemed to share in my expectations. He carried me quicker forward, so that soon the feeble gleam had grown to a broad light. Inn or dwelling, thought I, there I stay, for I will go not a foot further for man or devil. My sword must e’en be my fourrier to get me a night’s lodging. Then I saw the house, a low, dark place, unillumined save for that front window which shone as an invitation to travelers. In a minute I was at the threshold. There, in truth, was the sign flapping above the lintel. ‘Twas an inn at length, and my heart leaped out in gratitude.
Categories: English Literature