When I was a child in short-coats a spaewife came to the
town-end, and for a silver groat paid by my mother she riddled my
fate. It came to little, being no more than that I should miss love
and fortune in the sunlight and find them in the rain. The woman
was a haggard, black-faced gipsy, and when my mother asked for more
she turned on her heel and spoke gibberish; for which she was
presently driven out of the place by Tarn Roberton, the baillie,
and the village dogs. But the thing stuck in my memory, and
together with the fact that I was a Thursday's bairn, and so,
according to the old rhyme, "had far to go," convinced me long ere
I had come to man's estate that wanderings and surprises would be
It is in the rain that this tale begins. I was just turned of
eighteen, and in the back-end of a dripping September set out from
our moorland house of Auchencairn to complete my course at
Edinburgh College. The year was 1685, an ill year for our
countryside; for the folk were at odds with the King's Government,
about religion, and the land was full of covenants and repressions.
Small wonder that I was backward with my colleging, and at an age
when most lads are buckled to a calling was still attending the
prelections of the Edinburgh masters. My father had blown hot and
cold in politics, for he was fiery and unstable by nature, and
swift to judge a cause by its latest professor. He had cast out
with the Hamilton gentry, and, having broken the head of a dragoon
in the change-house of Lesmahagow, had his little estate mulcted in
fines. All of which, together with some natural curiosity and a
family love of fighting, sent him to the ill-fated field of
Bothwell Brig, from which he was lucky to escape with a bullet in
the shoulder. Thereupon he had been put to the horn, and was now
lying hid in a den in the mosses of Douglas Water. It was a sore
business for my mother, who had the task of warding off prying eyes
from our ragged household and keeping the fugitive in life. She was
a Tweedside woman, as strong and staunch as an oak, and with a
heart in her like Robert Bruce. And she was cheerful, too, in the
worst days, and would go about the place with a bright eye and an
old song on her lips. But the thing was beyond a woman's bearing;
so I had perforce to forsake my colleging and take a hand with our
family vexations. The life made me hard and watchful, trusting no
man, and brusque and stiff towards the world. And yet all the while
youth was working in me like yeast, so that a spring day or a west
wind would make me forget my troubles and thirst to be about a
kindlier business than skulking in a moorland dwelling.
My mother besought me to leave her. "What," she would say, "has
young blood to do with this bickering of kirks and old wives'
lamentations? You have to learn and see and do, Andrew. And it's
time you were beginning." But I would not listen to her, till by
the mercy of God we got my father safely forth of Scotland, and
heard that he was dwelling snugly at Leyden in as great patience as
his nature allowed. Thereupon I bethought me of my neglected
colleging, and, leaving my books and plenishing to come by the
Lanark carrier, set out on foot for Edinburgh.
The distance is only a day's walk for an active man, but I
started late, and purposed to sleep the night at a cousin's house
by Kirknewton. Often in bright summer days I had travelled the
road, when the moors lay yellow in the sun and larks made a
cheerful chorus. In such weather it is a pleasant road, with long
prospects to cheer the traveller, and kindly ale-houses to rest his
legs in. But that day it rained as if the floodgates of heaven had
opened. When I crossed Clyde by the bridge at Hyndford the water
was swirling up to the key-stone. The ways were a foot deep in
mire, and about Carnwath the bog had overflowed and the whole
neighbourhood swam in a loch. It was pitiful to see the hay afloat
like water-weeds, and the green oats scarcely showing above the
black floods. In two minutes after starting I was wet to the skin,
and I thanked Providence I had left my little Dutch Horace
behind me in the book-box. By three in the afternoon I was as
unkempt as any tinker, my hair plastered over my eyes, and every
fold of my coat running like a gutter.
Presently the time came for me to leave the road and take the
short-cut over the moors; but in the deluge, where the eyes could
see no more than a yard or two into a grey wall of rain, I began to
misdoubt my knowledge of the way. On the left I saw a stone dovecot
and a cluster of trees about a gateway; so, knowing how few and
remote were the dwellings on the moorland, I judged it wiser to
seek guidance before I strayed too far.
The place was grown up with grass and sore neglected. Weeds made
a carpet on the avenue, and the dykes were broke by cattle at a
dozen places. Suddenly through the falling water there stood up the
gaunt end of a house. It was no cot or farm, but a proud mansion,
though badly needing repair. A low stone wall bordered a pleasance,
but the garden had fallen out of order, and a dial-stone lay flat
on the earth.
My first thought was that the place was tenantless, till I
caught sight of a thin spire of smoke struggling against the
downpour. I hoped to come on some gardener or groom from whom I
could seek direction, so I skirted the pleasance to find the
kitchen door. A glow of fire in one of the rooms cried welcome to
my shivering bones, and on the far side of the house I found signs
of better care. The rank grasses had been mown to make a walk, and
in a corner flourished a little group of pot-herbs. But there was
no man to be seen, and I was about to retreat and try the
farm-town, when out of the doorway stepped a girl.
She was maybe sixteen years old, tall and well-grown, but of her
face I could see little, since she was all muffled in a great
horseman's cloak. The hood of it covered her hair, and the wide
flaps were folded over her bosom. She sniffed the chill wind, and
held her head up to the rain, and all the while, in a clear
childish voice, she was singing.
It was a song I had heard, one made by the great Montrose, who
had suffered shameful death in Edinburgh thirty years before. It
was a man's song, full of pride and daring, and not for the lips of
a young maid. But that hooded girl in the wild weather sang it with
a challenge and a fire that no cavalier could have bettered.
"My dear and only love, I pray That little world of thee Be
governed by no other sway Than purest monarchy."
"For if confusion have a part, Which virtuous souls abhor, And
hold a synod in thy heart, I'll never love thee more."
So she sang, like youth daring fortune to give it aught but the
best. The thing thrilled me, so that I stood gaping. Then she
looked aside and saw me.
"Your business, man?" she cried, with an imperious voice.
I took off my bonnet, and made an awkward bow.
"Madam, I am on my way to Edinburgh," I stammered, for I was
mortally ill at ease with women. "I am uncertain of the road in
this weather, and come to beg direction."
"You left the road three miles back," she said.
"But I am for crossing the moors," I said.
She pushed back her hood and looked at me with laughing eyes, I
saw how dark those eyes were, and how raven black her wandering
curls of hair.
"You have come to the right place," she cried. "I can direct you
as well as any Jock or Sandy about the town. Where are you going
I said Kirknewton for my night's lodging.
"Then march to the right, up by yon planting, till you come to
the Howe Burn. Follow it to the top, and cross the hill above its
well-head. The wind is blowing from the east, so keep it on your
right cheek. That will bring you to the springs of the Leith Water,
and in an hour or two from there you will be back on the
She used a manner of speech foreign to our parts, but very soft
and pleasant in the ear. I thanked her, clapped on my dripping
bonnet, and made for the dykes beyond the garden. Once I looked
back, but she had no further interest in me. In the mist I could
see her peering once more skyward, and through the drone of the
deluge came an echo of her song.
"I'll serve thee in such noble ways, As never man before; I'll
deck and crown thy head with bays, And love thee more and
The encounter cheered me greatly, and lifted the depression
which the eternal drizzle had settled on my spirits. That bold girl
singing a martial ballad to the storm and taking pleasure in the
snellness of the air, was like a rousing summons or a cup of heady
wine. The picture ravished my fancy. The proud dark eye, the little
wanton curls peeping from the hood, the whole figure alert with
youth and life—they cheered my recollection as I trod that sour
moorland. I tried to remember her song, and hummed it assiduously
till I got some kind of version, which I shouted in my tuneless
voice. For I was only a young lad, and my life had been bleak and
barren. Small wonder that the call of youth set every fibre of me
I had done better to think of the road. I found the Howe Burn
readily enough, and scrambled up its mossy bottom. By this time the
day was wearing late, and the mist was deepening into the darker
shades of night. It is an eery business to be out on the hills at
such a season, for they are deathly quiet except for the lashing of
the storm. You will never hear a bird cry or a sheep bleat or a
weasel scream. The only sound is the drum of the rain on the peat
or its plash on a boulder, and the low surge of the swelling
streams. It is the place and time for dark deeds, for the heart
grows savage; and if two enemies met in the hollow of the mist only
one would go away.
I climbed the hill above the Howe burn-head, keeping the wind on
my right cheek as the girl had ordered. That took me along a rough
ridge of mountain pitted with peat-bogs into which I often
stumbled. Every minute I expected to descend and find the young
Water of Leith, but if I held to my directions I must still mount.
I see now that the wind must have veered to the south-east, and
that my plan was leading me into the fastnesses of the hills; but I
would have wandered for weeks sooner than disobey the word of the
girl who sang in the rain. Presently I was on a steep hill-side,
which I ascended only to drop through a tangle of screes and jumper
to the mires of a great bog. When I had crossed this more by luck
than good guidance, I had another scramble on the steeps where the
long, tough heather clogged my footsteps.
About eight o'clock I awoke to the conviction that I was
hopelessly lost, and must spend the night in the wilderness. The
rain still fell unceasingly through the pit-mirk, and I was as
sodden and bleached as the bent I trod on. A night on the hills had
no terrors for me; but I was mortally cold and furiously hungry,
and my temper grew bitter against the world. I had forgotten the
girl and her song, and desired above all things on earth a dry bed
and a chance of supper.
I had been plunging and slipping in the dark mosses for maybe
two hours when, looking down from a little rise, I caught a gleam
of light. Instantly my mood changed to content. It could only be a
herd's cottage, where I might hope for a peat fire, a bicker of
brose, and, at the worst, a couch of dry bracken.
I began to run, to loosen my numbed limbs, and presently fell
headlong over a little scaur into a moss-hole. When I crawled out,
with peat plastering my face and hair, I found I had lost my notion
of the light's whereabouts. I strove to find another hillock, but I
seemed now to be in a flat space of bog. I could only grope blindly
forwards away from the moss-hole, hoping that soon I might come to
a lift in the hill.
Suddenly from the distance of about half a mile there fell on my
ears the most hideous wailing. It was like the cats on a frosty
night; it was like the clanging of pots in a tinker's cart; and it
would rise now and then to a shriek of rhapsody such as I have
heard at field-preachings. Clearly the sound was human, though from
what kind of crazy human creature I could not guess. Had I been
less utterly forwandered and the night less wild, I think I would
have sped away from it as fast as my legs had carried me. But I had
little choice. After all, I reflected, the worst bedlamite must
have food and shelter, and, unless the gleam had been a
will-o'-the-wisp, I foresaw a fire. So I hastened in the direction
of the noise.
I came on it suddenly in a hollow of the moss. There stood a
ruined sheepfold, and in the corner of two walls some plaids had
been stretched to make a tent. Before this burned a big fire of
heather roots and bog-wood, which hissed and crackled in the rain.
Round it squatted a score of women, with plaids drawn tight over
their heads, who rocked and moaned like a flight of witches, and
two—three men were on their knees at the edge of the ashes. But
what caught my eye was the figure that stood before the tent. It
was a long fellow, who held his arms to heaven, and sang in a great
throaty voice the wild dirge I had been listening to. He held a
book in one hand, from which he would pluck leaves and cast them on
the fire, and at every burnt-offering a wail of ecstasy would go up
from the hooded women and kneeling men. Then with a final howl he
hurled what remained of his book into the flames, and with upraised
hands began some sort of prayer.
I would have fled if I could; but Providence willed it
otherwise. The edge of the bank on which I stood had been rotted by
the rain, and the whole thing gave under my feet. I slithered down
into the sheepfold, and pitched headforemost among the worshipping
women. And at that, with a yell, the long man leaped over the fire
and had me by the throat.
My bones were too sore and weary to make resistance. He dragged
me to the ground before the tent, while the rest set up a skirling
that deafened my wits. There he plumped me down, and stood
glowering at me like a cat with a sparrow.
"Who are ye, and what do ye here, disturbing the remnant of
Israel?" says he.
I had no breath in me to speak, so one of the men answered.
"Some gangrel body, precious Mr. John," he said.
"Nay," said another; "it's a spy o' the Amalekites."
"It's a herd frae Linton way," spoke up a woman. "He favours the
look of one Zebedee Linklater."
The long man silenced her. "The word of the Lord came unto His
prophet Gib, saying, Smite and spare not, for the cup of the
abominations of Babylon is now full. The hour cometh, yea, it is at
hand, when the elect of the earth, meaning me and two—three others,
will be enthroned above the Gentiles, and Dagon and Baal will be
cast down. Are ye still in the courts of bondage, young man, or
seek ye the true light which the Holy One of Israel has vouchsafed
to me, John Gib, his unworthy prophet?"
Now I knew into what rabble I had strayed. It was the company
who called themselves the Sweet-Singers, led by one Muckle John
Gib, once a mariner of Borrowstoneness-on-Forth. He had long been a
thorn in the side of the preachers, holding certain strange
heresies that discomforted even the wildest of the hill-folk. They
had clapped him into prison; but the man, being three parts mad had
been let go, and ever since had been making strife in the westland
parts of Clydesdale. I had heard much of him, and never any good.
It was his way to draw after him a throng of demented women, so
that the poor, draggle-tailed creatures forgot husband and bairns
and followed him among the mosses. There were deeds of violence and
blood to his name, and the look of him was enough to spoil a man's
sleep. He was about six and a half feet high, with a long, lean
head and staring cheek bones. His brows grew like bushes, and
beneath glowed his evil and sunken eyes. I remember that he had
monstrous long arms, which hung almost to his knees, and a great
hairy breast which showed through a rent in his seaman's jerkin. In
that strange place, with the dripping spell of night about me, and
the fire casting weird lights and shadows, he seemed like some
devil of the hills awakened by magic from his ancient grave.
But I saw it was time for me to be speaking up.
"I am neither gangrel, nor spy, nor Amalekite, nor yet am I
Zebedee Linklater. My name is Andrew Garvald, and I have to-day
left my home to make my way to Edinburgh College. I tried a short
road in the mist, and here I am."
"Nay, but what seek ye?" cried Muckle John. "The Lord has led ye
to our company by His own good way. What seek ye? I say again, and
yea, a third time."
"I go to finish my colleging," I said.
He laughed a harsh, croaking laugh. "Little ye ken, young man.
We travel to watch the surprising judgment which is about to
overtake the wicked city of Edinburgh. An angel hath revealed it to
me in a dream. Fire and brimstone will descend upon it as on Sodom
and Gomorrah, and it will be consumed and wither away, with its
cruel Ahabs and its painted Jezebels, its subtle Doegs and its
lying Balaams, its priests and its judges, and its proud men of
blood, its Bible-idolaters and its false prophets, its purple and
damask, its gold and its fine linen, and it shall be as Tyre and
Sidon, so that none shall know the site thereof. But we who follow
the Lord and have cleansed His word from human abominations, shall
leap as he-goats upon the mountains, and enter upon the heritage of
the righteous from Beth-peor even unto the crossings of
In reply to this rigmarole I asked for food, since my head was
beginning to swim from my long fast. This, to my terror, put him
into a great rage.
"Ye are carnally minded, like the rest of them. Ye will get no
fleshly provender here; but if ye be not besotted in your sins ye
shall drink of the Water of Life that floweth freely and eat of the
honey and manna of forgiveness."
And then he appeared to forget my very existence. He fell into a
sort of trance, with his eyes fixed on vacancy. There was a dead
hush in the place, nothing but the crackle of the fire and the
steady drip of the rain. I endured it as well as I might, for
though my legs were sorely cramped, I did not dare to move an
After nigh half an hour he seemed to awake. "Peace be with you,"
he said to his followers. "It is the hour for sleep and prayer. I,
John Gib, will wrestle all night for your sake, as Jacob strove
with the angel." With that he entered the tent.
No one spoke to me, but the ragged company sought each their
sleeping-place. A woman with a kindly face jogged me on the elbow,
and from the neuk of her plaid gave me a bit of oatcake and a piece
of roasted moorfowl. This made my supper, with a long drink from a
neighbouring burn. None hindered my movements, so, liking little
the smell of wet, uncleanly garments which clung around the fire, I
made my bed in a heather bush in the lee of a boulder, and from
utter weariness fell presently asleep.