Part 4 out of 4
much thirled to the Cleuch and tied to his wife's apron. In the
future he would see his friends, and bend the bicker with the
rest of them.
By the darkening they had come to Ninemileburn, where Harden's
road left theirs. Wat had them all into the bare dwelling, and
another skin of ale was broached. A fire was lit and the men
sprawled around it, singing songs. Then tales began, and they
would have sat till morning, had not Harden called them to the
road. Sim, too, got to his feet. He was thinking of the six
miles yet before him, and as home grew nearer his spirits sank.
Dimly he remembered the sad things that waited his homecoming.
Wat made him a parting speech. "Gude e'en to ye, Cousin Sim.
Ye've been a kind man to me the day. May I do as weel by you if
ever the fray gangs by the Cleuch. I had a coo o' yours in
pledge, and it was ane o the beasts the Musgraves speared. By
the auld law your debt still stands, and if I likit I could seek
anither pledge. But there'll be something awin' for rescue-shot,
and wi' that and the gude wark ye've dune the day, I'm content to
ca' the debt paid."
Wat's words sounded kind, and no doubt Wat thought himself
generous. Sim had it on his tongue to ask for a cow--even on a
month's loan. But pride choked his speech. It meant telling of
the pitiful straits at the Cleuch. After what had passed he must
hold his head high amongst those full-fed Branksome lads. He
thanked Wat, cried farewell to the rest, and mounted his shelty.
The moon was rising and the hills were yellow as corn. The
shelty had had a feed of oats, and capered at the shadows. What
with excitement, meat and ale, and the dregs of a great fatigue,
Sim's mind was hazy, and his cheerfulness returned. He thought
only on his exploits. He had done great things--he, Sim o' the
Cleuch--and every man in the Forest would hear of them and praise
his courage. There would be ballads made about him; he could
hear the blind violer at the Ashkirk change-house singing--songs
which told how Sim o' the Cleuch smote Bewcastle in the howe of
the Brunt Burn--ash against steel, one against ten. The fancy
intoxicated him; he felt as if he, too, could make a ballad. It
would speak of the soft shiny night with the moon high in the
heavens. It would tell of the press of men and beasts by the
burnside, and the red glare of Harden's fires, and Wat with his
axe, and above all of Sim with his ash-shaft and his long arms,
and how Harden drove the raiders up the burn and Sim smote them
silently among the cattle. Wat's exploits would come in, but the
true glory was Sim's. But for him Scots saddles might have been
empty and every beast safe over Liddel.
The picture fairly ravished him. It carried him over the six
miles of bent and down by the wood of hazel to where the Cleuch
lay huddled in its nook of hill. It brought him to the door of
his own silent dwelling. As he pushed into the darkness his
heart suddenly sank...
With fumbling hands he kindled a rushlight. The peat fire had
long gone out and left only a heap of white ashes. The gruel by
the bed had been spilled and was lying on the floor. Only the
jug of water was drained to the foot.
His wife lay so still that he wondered. A red spot burned in
each cheek, and, as he bent down, he could hear her fast
breathing. He flashed the light on her eyes and she slowly
"The coo, Sim," she said faintly. "Hae ye brocht the coo?"
The rushlight dropped on the floor. Now he knew the price of his
riding. He fell into a fit of coughing.
Since flaming angels drove our sire
From Eden's green to walk the mire,
We are the folk who tilled the plot
And ground the grain and boiled the pot.
We hung the garden terraces
That pleasured Queen Semiramis.
Our toil it was and burdened brain
That set the Pyramids o'er the plain.
We marched from Egypt at God's call
And drilled the ranks and fed them all;
But never Eschol's wine drank we,--
Our bones lay 'twixt the sand and sea.
We officered the brazen bands
That rode the far and desert lands;
We bore the Roman eagles forth
And made great roads from south to north;
White cities flowered for holidays,
But we, forgot, died far away.
And when the Lord called folk to Him,
And some sat blissful at His feet,
Ours was the task the bowl to brim,
For on this earth even saints must eat.
The serfs have little need to think,
Only to work and sleep and drink;
A rover's life is boyish play,
For when cares press he rides away;
The king sits on his ruby throne,
And calls the whole wide world his own.
But we, the plain folk, noon and night
No surcease of our toil we see;
We cannot ease our cares by flight,
For Fortune holds our loves in fee.
We are not slaves to sell our wills,
We are not kings to ride the hills,
But patient men who jog and dance
In the dull wake of circumstance;
Loving our little patch of sun,
Too weak our homely dues to shun,
Too nice of conscience, or too free,
To prate of rights--if rights there be.
The Scriptures tell us that the meek
The earth shall have to work their will;
It may be they shall find who seek,
When they have topped the last long hill.
Meantime we serve among the dust
For at the best a broken crust,
A word of praise, and now and then
The joy of turning home again.
But freemen still we fall or stand,
We serve because our hearts command.
Though kings may boast and knights cavort,
We broke the spears at Agincourt.
When odds were wild and hopes were down,
We died in droves by Leipsic town.
Never a field was starkly won
But ours the dead that faced the sun.
The slave will fight because he must,
The rover for his ire and lust,
The king to pass an idle hour
Or feast his fatted heart with power;
But we, because we choose, we choose,
Nothing to gain and much to lose,
Holding it happier far to die
Than falter in our decency.
The serfs may know an hour of pride
When the high flames of tumult ride.
The rover has his days of ease
When he has sacked his palaces.
A king may live a year like God
When prostrate peoples drape the sod.
We ask for little,-leave to tend
Our modest fields: at daylight's end
The fires of home: a wife's caress:
The star of children's happiness.
Vain hope! 'Tis ours for ever and aye
To do the job the slaves have marred,
To clear the wreckage of the fray,
And please our kings by working hard.
Daily we mend their blunderings,
Swachbucklers, demagogues, and kings!
What if we rose?-If some fine morn,
Unnumbered as the autumn corn,
With all the brains and all the skill
Of stubborn back and steadfast will,
We rose and, with the guns in train,
Proposed to deal the cards again,
And, tired of sitting up o' nights,
Gave notice to our parasites,
Announcing that in future they
Who paid the piper should call the lay!
Then crowns would tumble down like nuts,
And wastrels hide in water-butts;
Each lamp-post as an epilogue:
Would hold a pendent demagogue:
Then would the world be for the wise!--
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
But ah! the plain folk never rise.
THE KINGS OF ORION
" An ape and a lion lie side by side in the heart of a man."
Spring-fishing in the North is a cold game for a man whose blood
has become thin in gentler climates. All afternoon I had failed
to stir a fish, and the wan streams of the Laver, swirling
between bare grey banks, were as icy to the eye as the sharp
gusts of hail from the north-east were to the fingers. I cast
mechanically till I grew weary, and then with an empty creel and
a villainous temper set myself to trudge the two miles of bent to
the inn. Some distant ridges of hill stood out snow-clad against
the dun sky, and half in anger, half in dismal satisfaction, I
told myself that fishing to-morrow would be as barren as to-day.
At the inn door a tall man was stamping his feet and watching a
servant lifting rodcases from a dog-cart. Hooded and wrapped
though he was, my friend Thirlstone was an unmistakable figure in
any landscape. The long, haggard, brown face, with the skin
drawn tightly over the cheek-bones, the keen blue eyes finely
wrinkled round the corners with staring at many suns, the scar
which gave his mouth a humorous droop to the right, made up a
whole which was not easily forgotten. I had last seen him on the
quay at Funchal bargaining with some rascally boatman to take him
after mythical wild goats in Las Desertas. Before that we had
met at an embassy ball in Vienna, and still earlier at a
hill-station in Persia to which I had been sent post-haste by an
anxious and embarrassed Government. Also I had been at school
with him, in those far-away days when we rode nine stone and
dreamed of cricket averages. He was a soldier of note, who had
taken part in two little wars and one big one; had himself
conducted a political mission through a hard country with some
success, and was habitually chosen by his superiors to keep his
eyes open as a foreign attache in our neighbours' wars. But his
fame as a hunter had gone abroad into places where even the name
of the British army is unknown. He was the hungriest shikari I
have ever seen, and I have seen many. If you are wise you will
go forthwith to some library and procure a little book entitled
"Three Hunting Expeditions," by A.W.T. It is a modest work,
and the style is that of a leading article, but all the lore and
passion of the Red Gods are in its pages.
The sitting-room at the inn is a place of comfort, and while
Thirlstone warmed his long back at the fire I sank contentedly
into one of the well-rubbed leather arm-chairs. The company of a
friend made the weather and scarcity of salmon less the
intolerable grievance they had seemed an hour ago than a joke to
be laughed at. The landlord came in with whisky, and banked up
the peats till they glowed beneath a pall of blue smoke.
"I hope to goodness we are alone," said Thirlstone, and he turned
to the retreating landlord and asked the question.
"There's naebody bidin' the nicht forbye yoursels," he said, "but
the morn there's a gentleman comin'. I got a letter frae him the
day. Maister Wiston, they ca him. Maybe ye ken him?"
I started at the name, which I knew very well. Thirlstone, who
knew it better, stopped warming himself and walked to the window,
where he stood pulling his moustache and staring at the snow.
When the man had left the room, he turned to me with the face of
one whose mind is made up on a course but uncertain of the best
"Do you know this sort of weather looks infernally unpromising?
I've half a mind to chuck it and go back to town."
I gave him no encouragement, finding amusement in his
difficulties. "Oh, it's not so bad," I said, "and it won't
last. To-morrow we may have the day of our lives."
He was silent for a little, staring at the fire. "Anyhow," he
said at last, "we were fools to be so far up the valley. Why
shouldn't we go down to the Forest Lodge? They'll take us in,
and we should be deucedly comfortable, and the water's better."
"There's not a pool on the river to touch the stretch here," I
said. "I know, for I've fished every inch of it."
He had no reply to this, so he lit a pipe and held his peace for
a time. Then, with some embarrassment but the air of having made
a discovery, he announced that his conscience was troubling him
about his work, and he thought he ought to get back to it at
once. "There are several things I have forgotten to see to, and
they're rather important. I feel a beast behaving like this, but
you won't mind, will you?"
"My dear Thirlstone," I said, "what is the good of hedging?
Why can't you say you won't meet Wiston!"
His face cleared. "Well, that's the fact--I won't. It would be
too infernally unpleasant. You see, I was once by way of being
his friend, and he was in my regiment. I couldn't do it."
The landlord came in at the moment with a basket of peats. "How
long is Capt.--Mr. Wiston staying here?" I asked.
"He's no bidin' ony time. He's just comin' here in the middle
o' the day for his denner, and then drivin' up the water to
Altbreac. He has the fishin' there."
Thirlstone's face showed profound relief. "Thank God!" I heard
him mutter under his breath, and when the landlord had gone he
fell to talking of salmon with enthusiasm. "We must make a big
day of it to-morrow, dark to dark, you know. Thank Heaven, our
beat's down-stream, too." And thereafter he made frequent
excursions to the door, and bulletins on the weather were issued
Dinner over, we drew our chairs to the hearth, and fell to talk
and the slow consumption of tobacco. When two men from the ends
of the earth meet by a winter fire, their thoughts are certain to
drift overseas. We spoke of the racing tides off Vancouver, and
the lonely pine-clad ridges running up to the snow-peaks of the
Selkirks, to which we had both travelled once upon a time in
search of sport. Thirlstone on his own account had gone
wandering to Alaska, and brought back some bear-skins and a
frost-bitten toe as trophies, and from his tales had consorted
with the finest band of rogues which survives unhanged on this
planet. Then some casual word took our thoughts to the south,
and our memories dallied with Africa. Thirlstone had hunted in
Somaliland and done mighty slaughter; while I had spent some
never-to-be forgotten weeks long ago in the hinterland of
Zanzibar, in the days before railways and game-preserves. I have
gone through life with a keen eye for the discovery of earthly
paradises, to which I intend to retire when my work is over, and
the fairest I thought I had found above the Rift valley, where
you had a hundred miles of blue horizon and the weather of
Scotland. Thirlstone, not having been there, naturally differed,
and urged the claim of a certain glen in Kashmir, where you may
hunt two varieties of bear and three of buck in thickets of
rhododendron, and see the mightiest mountain-wall on earth from
your tent door. The mention of the Indian frontier brought us
back to our professions, and for a little we talked "shop" with
the unblushing confidence of those who know each other's work and
approve it. As a very young soldier Thirlstone had gone shooting
in the Pamirs, and had blundered into a Russian party of
exploration which contained Kuropatkin. He had in consequence
grossly outstayed his leave, having been detained for a fortnight
by an arbitrary hospitality; but he had learned many things, and
the experience had given him strong views on frontier questions.
Half an hour was devoted to a masterly survey of the East, until
a word pulled us up.
"I went there in '99" Thirlstone was saying,--"the time Wiston
and I were sent--" and then he stopped, and his eager face
clouded. Wiston's name cast a shadow over our reminiscences.
"What did he actually do?" I asked after a short silence.
"Pretty bad! He seemed a commonplace, good sort of fellow,
popular, fairly competent, a little bad-tempered perhaps. And
then suddenly he did something so extremely blackguardly that
everything was at an end. It's no good repeating details, and I
hate to think about it. We know little about our neighbours, and
I'm not so sure that we know much about ourselves. There may be
appalling depths of iniquity in every one of us, only most people
are fortunate enough to go through the world without meeting
anything to wake the devil in them. I don't believe Wiston was
bad in the ordinary sense. Only there was something else in
him-somebody else, if you like--and in a moment it came
uppermost, and he was a branded man. Ugh! it's a gruesome
thought." Thirlstone had let his pipe go out, and was staring
moodily into the fire.
"How do you explain things like that?" he asked. "I have an
idea of my own about them. We talk glibly of ourselves and our
personality and our conscience, as if every man's nature were a
smooth, round, white thing, like a chuckie-stone. But I believe
there are two men-perhaps more-in every one of us. There's our
ordinary self, generally rather humdrum; and then there's a bit
of something else, good, bad, but never indifferent,--and it is
that something else which may make a man a saint or a great
"'The Kings of Orion have come to earth,'" I quoted.
Something in the words struck Thirlstone, and he asked me what
was the yarn I spoke of.
"It's an old legend," I explained. "When the kings were driven
out of Orion, they were sent to this planet and given each his
habitation in some mortal soul. There were differences of
character in that royal family, and so the alter ego which dwells
alongside of us may be virtuous or very much the reverse. But
the point is that he is always greater than ourselves, for he has
been a king. It's a foolish story, but very widely believed.
There is something oi the sort in Celtic folk-lore, and there's a
reference to it in Ausonius. Also the bandits in the Bakhtiari
have a version of it in a very excellent ballad."
"Kings of Orion," said Thirlstone musingly. "I like that idea.
Good or bad, but always great! After all, we show a kind of
belief in it in our daily practice. Every man is always making
fancies about himself; but it is never his workaday self, but
something else. The bank clerk who pictures himself as a
financial Napoleon knows that his own thin little soul is
incapable of it; but he knows, too, that it is possible enough
for that other bigger thing which is not his soul, but yet in
some odd way is bound up with it. I fancy myself a field-marshal
in a European war; but I know perfectly well that if the job were
offered me, I should realise my incompetence and decline. I
expect you rather picture yourself now and then as a sort of
Julius Caesar and empire-maker, and yet, with all respect, my
dear chap, I think it would be rather too much for you."
"There was once a man," I said, "an early Victorian Whig, whose
chief ambitions were to reform the criminal law and abolish
slavery. Well, this dull, estimable man in his leisure moments
was Emperor of Byzantium. He fought great wars and built
palaces, and then, when the time for fancy was past, went into
the House of Commons and railed against militarism and Tory
extravagance. That particular king from Orion had a rather odd
sort of earthly tenement."
Thirlstone was all interest. "A philosophic Whig and the throne
of Byzantium. A pretty rum mixture! And yet--yet," and his
eyes became abstracted. "Did you ever know Tommy Lacelles?"
"The man who once governed Deira? Retired now, and lives
somewhere in Kent. Yes, I've met him once or twice. But why?"
"Because," said Thirlstone solemnly, " nless I'm greatly
mistaken, Tommy was another such case, though no man ever
guessed it except myself. I don't mind telling you the story,
now that he is retired and vegetating in his ancestral pastures.
Besides, the facts are all in his favour, and the explanation is
our own business....
"His wife was my cousin, and when she died Tommy was left a very
withered, disconsolate man, with no particular object in life.
We all thought he would give up the service, for he was hideously
well off and then one fine day, to our amazement, he was offered
Deira, and accepted it. I was short of a job at the time, for my
battalion was at home, and there was nothing going on anywhere,
so I thought I should like to see what the East Coast of Africa
was like, and wrote to Tommy about it. He jumped at me, cabled
offering me what he called his Military Secretaryship, and I got
seconded, and set off. I had never known him very well, but what
I had seen I had liked; and I suppose he was glad to have one
of Maggie's family with him, for he was still very low about her
loss. I was in pretty good spirits, for it meant new
experiences, and I had hopes of big game.
"You've never been to Deira? Well, there's no good trying to
describe it, for it's the only place in the world like itself.
God made it and left it to its own devices. The town is pretty
enough, with its palms and green headland, and little scrubby
islands in the river's mouth. It has the usual half-Arab,
half-Portugee look-white green-shuttered houses, flat roofs,
sallow little men in duck, and every type of nigger from the
Somali to the Shangaan. There are some good buildings, and
Government House was the mansion of some old Portugee seigneur,
and was built when people in Africa were not in such a hurry as
to-day. Inland there's a rolling, forest country, beginning with
decent trees and ending in mimosa-thorn, when the land begins to
rise to the stony hills of the interior; and that poisonous
yellow river rolls through it all, with a denser native
population along its banks than you will find anywhere else north
of the Zambesi. For about two months in the year the climate is
Paradise, and for the rest you live in a Turkish bath, with every
known kind of fever hanging about. We cleaned out the town and
improved the sanitation, so there were few epidemics, but there
was enough ordinary malaria to sicken a crocodile.
"The place was no special use to us. It had been annexed in
spite of a tremendous Radical outcry, and, upon my soul, it was
one of the few cases where the Radicals had something to say for
themselves. All we got by it was half a dozen of the nastiest
problems an unfortunate governor can have to face. Ten years
before it had been a decaying strip of coast, with a few trading
firms in the town, and a small export of ivory and timber. But
some years before Tommy took it up there had been a huge
discovery of copper in the hills inland, a railway had been
built, and there were several biggish mining settlements at the
end of it. Deira itself was filled with offices of European
firms, it had got a Stock Exchange of its own, and it was
becoming the usual cosmopolitan playground. It had a knack, too,
of getting the very worst breed of adventurer. I know something
of your South African and Australian mining town, and with all
their faults they are run by white men. If they haven't much
morals, they have a kind of decency which keeps them fairly
straight. But for our sins we got a brand of Levantine Jew, who
was fit for nothing but making money and making trouble. They
were always defying the law, and then, when they got into a hole,
they squealed to Government for help, and started a racket in the
home papers about the weakness of the Imperial power. The crux
of the whole difficulty was the natives, who lived along the
river and in the foothills. They were a hardy race of Kaffirs,
sort of far-away cousins to the Zulu, and till the mines were
opened they had behaved well enough. They had arms, which we had
never dared to take away, but they kept quiet and paid their
hut-taxes like men. I got to know many of the chiefs, and liked
them, for they were upstanding fellows to look at and heavenborn
shikaris. However, when the Jews came along they wanted labour,
and, since we did not see our way to allow them to add to the
imported coolie population, they had to fall back upon the
Labonga. At first things went smoothly. The chiefs were willing
to let their men work for good wages, and for a time there was
enough labour for everybody. But as the mines extended, and the
natives, after making a few pounds, wanted to get back to their
kraals, there came a shortage; and since the work could not be
allowed to slacken, the owners tried other methods. They made
promises which they never intended to keep, and they stood on the
letter of a law which the natives did not understand, and they
employed touts who were little better than slave-dealers. They
got the labour, of course, but soon they had put the Labonga into
a state of unrest which a very little would turn into a rising.
"Into this kettle of fish Tommy was pitchforked, and when I
arrived he was just beginning to understand how unpleasant it
was. As I said before, I did not know him very well, and I was
amazed to find how bad he was at his job. A more curiously
incompetent person I never met. He was a long, thin man, with a
grizzled moustache and a mild sleepy eye-not an impressive
figure, except on a horse; and he had an odd lisp which made
even a shrewd remark sound foolish. He was the most industrious
creature in the world, and a model of official decorum. His
papers were always in order, his despatches always neat and
correct, and I don't believe any one ever caught him tripping in
office work. But he had no more conception than a child of the
kind of trouble that was brewing. He knew never an honest man
from a rogue, and the result was that he received all unofficial
communications with a polite disbelief. I used to force him to
see people-miners, prospectors, traders, any one who had
something to say worth listening to, but it all glided smoothly
off his mind. He was simply the most incompetent being ever
created, living in the world as not being of it, or rather
creating a little official world of his own, where all events
happened on lines laid down by the Colonial Office, and men were
like papers, to be rolled into packets and properly docketed. He
had an Executive Council of people like himself, competent
officials and blind bats at anything else. Then there was a
precious Legislative Council, intended to represent the different
classes of the population. There were several good men on it-one
old trader called Mackay, for instance, who had been thirty years
in the country-but most were nominees of the mining firms, and
very seedy rascals at that. They were always talking about the
rights of the white man, and demanding popular control of the
Government, and similar twaddle. The leader was a man who hailed
from Hamburg, and called himself Le Foy--descended from a
Crusader of the name of Levi--who was a jackal of one of the
chief copper firms. He overflowed with Imperialist sentiment,
and when he wasn't waving the flag he used to gush about the
beauties of English country life the grandeur of the English
tradition. He hated me from the start, for when he talked of
going 'home' I thought he meant Hamburg, and said so; and then a
thing happened which made him hate me worse. He was infernally
rude to Tommy, who, like the dear sheep he was, never saw it,
and, if he had, wouldn't have minded. But one day I chanced to
overhear some of his impertinences, so I hunted out my biggest
sjambok and lay in wait for Mr. Le Foy. I told him that he was a
representative of the sovereign people, that I was a member of an
effete bureaucracy, and that it would be most painful if
unpleasantness arose between us. But, I added, I was prepared,
if necessary, to sacrifice my official career to my private
feelings, and if he dared to use such language again to his
Majesty's representative I would give him a hiding he would
remember till he found himself in Abraham's bosom. Not liking my
sjambok, he became soap and butter at once, and held his tongue
for a month or two.
"But though Tommy was no good at his job, he was a tremendous
swell at other things. He was an uncommonly good linguist, and
had always about a dozen hobbies which he slaved at; and when he
found himself at Deira with a good deal of leisure, he became a
bigger crank than ever. He had a lot of books which used to
follow him about the world in zinc-lined boxes--your big
paper-backed German books which mean research,--and he was a
Fellow of the Koyal Society, and corresponded with half a dozen
foreign shows. India was his great subject, but he had been in
the Sudan and knew a good deal about African races. When I went
out to him, his pet hobby was the Bantu, and he had acquired an
amazing amount of miscellaneous learning. He knew all about
their immigration from the North, and the Arab and Phoenician
trade-routes, and the Portuguese occupation, and the rest of the
history of that unpromising seaboard. The way he behaved in his
researches showed the man. He worked hard at the Labonga
language-which, I believe, is a linguistic curiosity of the first
water-from missionary books and the conversation of tame Kaffirs.
But he never thought of paying them a visit in their native
haunts. I was constantly begging him to do it, but it was not
Tommy's way. He did not care a straw about political experience,
and he liked to look at things through the medium of paper and
ink. Then there were the Phoenician remains in the foot-hills
where the copper was mined-old workings, and things which might
have been forts or temples. He knew all that was to be known
about them, but he had never seen them and never wanted to.
Once only he went to the hills, to open some new reservoirs and
make the ordinary Governor's speech; but he went in a special
train and stayed two hours, most of which was spent in lunching
and being played to by brass bands.
"But, oddly enough, there was one thing which stirred him with
an interest that was not academic. I discovered it by accident
one day when I went into his study and found him struggling with
a map of Central Asia. Instead of the mild, benevolent smile
with which he usually greeted my interruptions, he looked
positively furtive, and, I could have sworn, tried to shuffle the
map under some papers. Now it happens that Central Asia is the
part of the globe that I know better than most men, and I could
not help picking up the map and looking at it. It was a wretched
thing, and had got the Oxus two hundred miles out of its course.
I pointed this out to Tommy, and to my amazement he became quite
excited. 'Nonsense,' he said. 'You don't mean to say it goes
south of that desert. Why, I meant to--,' and then he stammered
and stopped. I wondered what on earth he had meant to do, but I
merely observed that I had been there, and knew. That brought
Tommy out of his chair in real excitement. 'What!' he cried,
'you! You never told me,' and he started to fire off a round of
questions, which showed that if he knew very little about the
place, he had it a good deal in his mind.
I drew some sketch-plans for him, and left him brooding over
"That was the first hint I got. The second was a few nights
later, when we were smoking in the billiard-room. I had been
reading Marco Polo, and the talk got on to Persia and drifted all
over the north side of the Himalaya. Tommy, with an abstracted
eye, talked of Alexander and Timour and Genghis Khan, and
particularly of Prester John, who was a character and took his
fancy. I had told him that the natives in the Pamirs were true
Persian stock, and this interested him greatly. 'Why was there
never a great state built up in those valleys?' he asked. 'You
get nothing but a few wild conquerors rushing east and west, and
then some squalid khanates. And yet all the materials were
there--the stuff for a strong race, a rich land, the traditions
of an old civilisation, and natural barriers against all
"'I suppose they never found the man,' I said.
"He agreed. 'Their princes were sots, or they were barbarians
of genius who could devastate to the gates of Peking or
Constantinople, but could never build. They did not recognise
their limits, and so they went out in a whirlwind. But if there
had been a man of solid genius he might have built up the
strongest nation on the globe. In time he could have annexed
Persia and nibbled at China. He would have been rich, for he
could tap all the inland trade-routes of Asia. He would have had
to be a conqueror, for his people would be a race of warriors,
but first and foremost he must have been a statesman. Think of
such a civilisation, THE Asian civilisation, growing up
mysteriously behind the deserts and the ranges! That's my idea
of Prester John. Russia would have been confined to the line of
the Urals. China would have been absorbed. There would have
been no Japan. The whole history of the world for the last few
hundred years would have been different. It is the greatest of
all the lost chances in history.' Tommy waxed pathetic over the
"I was a little surprised at his eloquence, especially when he
seemed to remember himself and stopped all of a sudden. But for
the next week I got no peace with his questions. I told him all
I knew of Bokhara, and Samarkand, and Tashkend, and Yarkand. I
showed him the passes in the Pamirs and the Hindu Kush. I traced
out the rivers, and I calculated distances; we talked over
imaginary campaigns, and set up fanciful constitutions. It a was
childish game, but I found it interesting enough. He spoke of it
all with a curious personal tone which puzzled me, till one day
when we were amusing ourselves with a fight on the Zarafshan, and
I put in a modest claim to be allowed to win once in a while.
For a second he looked at me in blank surprise. 'You can't,' he
said; 'I've got to enter Samarkand before I can...' and he
stopped again, with a glimmering sense in his face that he was
giving himself away. And then I knew that I had surprised
Tommy's secret. While he was muddling his own job, he was
salving his pride with fancies of some wild career in Asia, where
Tommy, disguised as the lord knows what Mussulman grandee, was
hammering the little states into an empire.
"I did not think then as I think now, and I was amused to find
so odd a trait in a dull man. I had known something of the kind
before. I had met fellows who after their tenth peg would begin
to swagger about some ridiculous fancy of their own--their little
private corner of soul showing for a moment when the drink had
blown aside their common-sense. Now, I had never known the thing
appear in cold blood and everyday life, but I assumed the case to
be the same. I thought of it only as a harmless fancy, never
imagining that it had anything to do with character. I put it
down to that kindly imagination which is the old opiate for
failures. So I played up to Tommy with all my might, and though
he became very discreet after the first betrayal, having hit upon
the clue, I knew what to look for, and I found it. When I told
him that the Labonga were in a devil of a mess, he would look at
me with an empty face and change the subject; but once among the
Turcomans his eye would kindle, and he would slave at his
confounded folly with sufficient energy to reform the whole East
Coast. It was the spark that kept the man alive. Otherwise he
would have been as limp as a rag, but this craziness put life
into him, and made him carry his head in the air and walk like a
free man. I remember he was very keen about any kind of martial
poetry. He used to go about crooning Scott and Macaulay to
himself, and when we went for a walk or a ride he wouldn't speak
for miles, but keep smiling to himself and humming bits of songs.
I daresay he was very happy,--far happier than your stolid,
competent man, who sees only the one thing to do and does it.
Tommy was muddling his particular duty, but building glorious
palaces in the air.
"One day Mackay, the old trader, came to me after a sitting of
the precious Legislative Council. We were very friendly, and I
had done all I could to get the Government to listen to his
views. He was a dour, ill-tempered Scotsman, very anxious for
the safety of his property, but perfectly careless about any
danger to himself.
"'Captain Thirlstone,' he said, 'that Governor of yours is a
"Of course I shut him up very brusquely, but he paid no
attention. 'He just sits and grins, and lets yon Pentecostal
crowd we've gotten here as a judgment for our sins do what they
like wi' him. God kens what'll happen. I would go home
to-morrow, if I could realise without an immoderate loss. For
the day of reckoning is at hand. Maark my words, Captain--at
"I said I agreed with him about the approach of trouble, but
that the Governor would rise to the occasion. I told him that
people like Tommy were only seen at their best in a crisis, and
that he might be perfectly confident that when it arrived he
would get a new idea of the man. I said this, but of course I
did not believe a word of it. I thought Tommy was only a
dreamer, who had rotted any grit he ever possessed by his mental
opiates. At that time I did not understand about the kings from
" And then came the thing we had all been waiting for--a Labonga
rising. A week before I had got leave and had gone up country,
partly to shoot, but mainly to see for myself what trouble was
brewing. I kept away from the river, and therefore missed the
main native centres, but such kraals as I passed had a look I did
not like. The chiefs were almost always invisible, and the young
bloods were swaggering about and bukking to each other, while the
women were grinding maize as if for some big festival. However,
after a bit the country seemed to grow more normal, and I went
into the foothills to shoot, fairly easy in my mind. I had got
up to a place called Shimonwe, on the Pathi river, where I had
ordered letters to be sent, and one night coming in from a hard
day after kudu I found a post-runner half-dead of fatigue with a
chit from Utterson, who commanded a police district twenty miles
nearer the coast. It said simply that all the young men round
about him had cleared out and appeared to be moving towards
Deira, that he was in the devil of a quandary, and that, since
the police were under the Governor, he would take his orders from
"It looked as if the heather were fairly on fire at last, so I
set off early next morning to trek back. About midday I met
Utterson, a very badly scared little man, who had come to look
for me. It seemed that his policemen had bolted in the night and
gone to join the rising, leaving him with two white sergeants,
barely fifty rounds of ammunition, and no neighbour for a hundred
miles. He said that the Labonga chiefs were not marching to the
coast, as he had thought, but north along the eastern foothills
in the direction of the mines. This was better news, for it
meant that in all probability the railway would remain open. It
was my business to get somehow to my chief, and I was in the
deuce of a stew how to manage it. It was no good following the
line of the natives' march, for they would have been between me
and my goal, and the only way was to try and outflank them by
going due east, in the Deira direction, and then turning north,
so as to strike the railway about half-way to the mines. I told
Utterson we had better scatter, otherwise we should have no
chance of getting through a densely populated native country.
So, about five in the afternoon I set off with my chief shikari,
who, by good luck, was not a Labonga, and dived into the jungly
bush which skirts the hills.
"For three days I had a baddish time. We steered by the stars,
travelling chiefly by night, and we showed extraordinary skill in
missing the water-holes. I had a touch of fever and got
light-headed, and it was all I could do to struggle through the
thick grass and wait-a-bit thorns. My clothes were torn to rags,
and I grew so footsore that it was agony to move. All the same
we travelled fast, and there was no chance of our missing the
road, for any route due north was bound to cut the railway. I
had the most sickening uncertainty about what was to come next.
Hely, who was in command at Deira, was a good enough man, but he
had only three companies of white troops, and the black troops
were as likely as not to be on their way to the rebels. It
looked as if we should have a Cawnpore business on a small scale,
though I thanked Heaven there were no women in the case. As for
Tommy, he would probably be repeating platitudes in Deira and
composing an intelligent despatch on the whole subject.
"About four in the afternoon of the third day I struck the line
near a little station called Palala. I saw by the look of the
rails that trains were still running, and my hopes revived. At
Palala there was a coolie stationmaster, who gave me a drink and
a little food, after which I slept heavily in his office till
wakened by the arrival of an up train. It contained one of the
white companies and a man Davidson, of the 101st, who was Hely's
second in command. From him I had news that took away my breath.
The Governor had gone up the line two days before with an A.D.C.
and old Mackay. 'The sportsman has got a move on him at last,'
said Davidson, 'but what he means to do Heaven only knows. The
Labonga are at the mines, and a kind of mine-guard has been
formed for defence. The joke of it is that most of the magnates
are treed up there, for the railway is cut and they can't get
away. I don't envy your chief the job of schooling that nervous
"I went on with Davidson, and very early next morning we came to
a broken culvert and had to stop. There we stuck for three hours
till the down train arrived, and with it Hely. He was for
ordinary a stolid soul, but I never saw a man in such a fever of
excitement. He gripped me by the arm and fairly shook me. 'That
old man of yours is a hero,' he cried. 'The Lord forgive me!
and I have always crabbed him.'
"I implored him in Heaven's name to tell me what was up, but he
would say nothing till he had had his pow-pow with Davidson. It
seemed that he was bringing all his white troops up the line for
some great demonstration that Tommy had conceived. Davidson went
back to Deira, while we mended the culvert and got the men
transferred to the other train. Then I screwed the truth out of
Hely. Tommy had got up to the mines before the rebels arrived,
and had found as fine a chaos as can be imagined. He did not
seem to have had any doubts what to do. There was a certain
number of white workmen, hard fellows from Cornwall mostly, with
a few Australians, and these he got together with Mackay's help
and organised into a pretty useful corps. He set them to guard
the offices, and gave them strict orders to shoot at sight any
one attempting to leave. Then he collected the bosses and talked
to them like a father. What he said Hely did not know, except
that he had damned their eyes pretty heartily, and told them what
a set of swine they were, making trouble which they had not the
pluck to face. Whether from Mackay, or from his own
intelligence, or from a memory of my neglected warnings, he
seemed to have got a tight grip on the facts at last. Meanwhile,
the Labonga were at the doors, chanting their battle-songs half a
mile away, and shots were heard from the far pickets. If they
had tried to rush the place then, all would have been over, but,
luckily, that was never their way of fighting. They sat down in
camp to make their sacrifices and consult their witch-doctors,
and presently Hely arrived with the first troops, having come in
on the northern flank when he found the line cut. He had been in
time to hear the tail-end of Tommy's final address to the
mineowners. He told them, in words which Hely said he could
never have imagined coming from his lips, that they would be well
served if the Labonga cleaned the whole place out. Only, he
said, that would be against the will of Britain, and it was his
business, as a loyal servant, to prevent it. Then, after giving
Hely his instructions, he had put on his uniform, gold lace and
all, and every scrap of bunting he possessed--all the orders and
'Golden Stars' of half a dozen Oriental States where he had
served. He made Ashurst, the A.D.C., put on his best Hussar's
kit, and Mackay rigged himself out in a frock-coat and a topper;
and the three set out on horseback for the Labonga. 'I believe
he'll bring it off, said Hely, with wild eyes,n'and, by Heaven,
if he does, it'll be the best thing since John Nicholson!'
"For the rest of the way I sat hugging myself with excitement.
The miracle of miracles seemed to have come. The old, slack,
incompetent soul in Tommy seemed to have been driven out by that
other spirit, which had hitherto been content to dream of crazy
victories on the Oxus. I cursed my folly in having missed it
all, for I would have given my right hand to be with him among
the Labonga. I envied that young fool Ashurst his luck in being
present at that queer transformation scene. I had not a doubt
that Tommy would bring it off all right. The kings from Orion
don't go into action without coming out on top. As we got near
the mines I kept my ears open for the sound of shots; but all was
still,--not even the kind of hubbub a native force makes when it
is on the move. Something had happened, but what it was no man
could guess. When we got to where the line was up, we made very
good time over the five miles to the mines. No one interfered
with us, and the nearer we got the greater grew my certainty.
Soon we were at the pickets, who had nothing to tell us; and
then we were racing up the long sandy street to the offices, and
there, sitting smoking on the doorstep of the hotel, surrounded
by everybody who was not on duty, were Mackay and Ashurst.
"They were an odd pair. Ashurst still wore his uniform; but he
seemed to have been rolling about in it on the ground; his sleek
hair was wildly ruffled, and he was poking holes in the dust with
his sword. Mackay had lost his topper, and wore a disreputable
cap, his ancient frock-coat was without buttons, and his tie had
worked itself up behind his ears. They talked excitedly to each
other, now and then vouchsafing a scrap of information to an
equally excited audience. When they saw me they rose and rushed
for me, and dragged me between them up the street, while the
crowd tailed at our heels.
"'Ye're a true prophet, Captain Thirlstone,' Mackay began, 'and I
ask your pardon for doubting you. Ye said the Governor only
needed a crisis to behave like a man. Well, the crisis has come;
and if there's a man alive in this sinful world, it's that chief
o' yours. And then his emotion overcame him. and, hard-bitten
devil as he was, he sat down on the ground and gasped with
hysterical laughter, while Ashurst, with a very red face, kept
putting the wrong end of a cigarette in his mouth and swearing
"I never remember a madder sight. There was the brassy blue sky
and reddish granite rock and acres of thick red dust. The scrub
had that metallic greenness which you find in all copper places.
Pretty unwholesome it looked, and the crowd, which had got round
us again, was more unwholesome still. Fat Jew boys, with diamond
rings on dirty fingers and greasy linen cuffs, kept staring at us
with twitching lips; and one or two smarter fellows in
riding-breeches, mine-managers and suchlike, tried to show their
pluck by nervous jokes. And in the middle was Mackay, with his
damaged frocker, drawling out his story in broad Scots.
"'He made this laddie put on his braws, and he commandeered
this iniquitous garment for me. I've raxed its seams, and it'll
never look again on the man that owns it. Syne he arrayed
himself in purple and fine linen till he as like the king's
daughter, all glorious without; and says he to me, "Mackay," he
says, "we'll go and talk to these uncovenanted deevils in their
own tongue. We'll visit them at home, Mackay," he says. "They're
none such bad fellows, but they want a little humouring from men
like you and me." So we got on our horses and started
the procession--the Governor with his head in the air, and the
laddie endenvouring to look calm and collected, and me praying to
the God of Israel and trying to keep my breeks from working up
above my knees. I've been in Kaffir wars afore, but I never
thought I would ride without weapon of any kind into such a black
Armageddon. I am a peaceable man for ordinar', and a canny one,
but I wasna myself in that hour. Man, Thirlstone, I was that
overcome by the spirit of your chief, that if he had bidden me
gang alone on the same errand, I wouldna say but what Iwould have
"'We hadna ridden half a mile before we saw the indunas and their
men, ten thousand if there was one, and terrible as an army with
banners. I speak feeguratively, for they hadna the scrap of a
flag among them. They were beating the war-drums, and the young
men were dancing with their big skin shields and wagging their
ostrich feathers, so I saw they were out for business. I'll no'
say but what my blood ran cold, but the Governor's eye got
brighter and his back stiffer. "Kings may be blest," I says to
myself, "but thou art glorious."
"'We rode straight for the centre of the crowd, where the young
men were thickest and the big war-drums lay. As soon as they saw
us a dozen lifted their spears and ran out to meet us. But they
stopped after six steps. The sun glinted on the Governor's gold
lace and my lum hat, and no doubt they thought we were heathen
deities descended from the heavens. Down they went on their
faces, and then back like rabbits to the rest, while the drums
stopped, and the whole body awaited our coming in a silence like
" Never a word we spoke, but just jogged on with our chins
cocked up till we were forenent the big drum, where yon old
scoundrel Umgazi was standing with his young men looking as black
as sin. For a moment their spears were shaking in their hands,
and I heard the click of a breech-bolt. If we had winked an eye
we would have become pincushions that instant. But some
unearthly power upheld us. Even the laddie kept a stiff face,
and for me I forgot my breeks in watching the Governor. He
looked as solemn as an archangel, and comes to a halt opposite
Umgazi, where he glowers at the old man for maybe three
minutes, while we formed up behind him. Their eyes fell before
his, and by-and-by their spears dropped to their sides. "The
father has come to his children," says he in their own tongue.
"What do the children seek from their father?
"'Ye see the cleverness of the thing. The man's past folly came
to help him. The natives had never seen the Governor before till
they beheld him in gold lace and a cocked hat on a muckle horse,
speaking their own tongue and looking like a destroying angel. I
tell you the Labonga's knees were loosed under them. They
durstna speak a word until the Governor repeated the question in
the same quiet, steely voice. "You seek something," he said,
"else you had not come out to meet me in your numbers. The
father waits to hear the children's desires."
"'Then Umgazi found his tongue and began an uneasy speech. The
mines, he said, truly enough, were the abode of devils, who
compelled the people to work under the ground. The crops were
unreaped and the buck went unspeared, because there were no young
men left to him. Their father had been away or asleep, they
thought, for no help had come from him; therefore it had seemed
good to them, being freemen and warriors, to seek help for
"'The Governor listened to it all with a set face. Then he
smiled at them with supernatural assurance. They were fools, he
said, and people of little wit, and he flung the better part of
the Book of Job at their heads. The Lord kens where the man got
his uncanny knowledge of the Labonga. He had all their heathen
customs by heart, and he played with them like a cat with a
mouse. He told then they were damned rascals to make such a
stramash, and damned fools to think they could frighten the white
man by their demonstrations. There was no brag about his words,
just a calm statement of fact. At the same time, he said, he had
no mind to let any one wrong his children, and if any wrong had
been done it should be righted. It was not meet, he said, that
the young men should be taken from the villages unless by their
own consent, though it was his desire that such young men as
could be spared should have a chance of earning an honest penny.
And then he fired at them some stuff about the British Empire and
the King, and you could sec the Labonga imbibing it like water.
The man in a cocked hat might have told them that the sky was
yellow, and they would have swallowed it.
"'"I have spoken," he says at last, and there was a great
shout from the young men, and old Umgazi looked pretty foolish.
They were coming round our horses to touch our stirrups with
their noses, but the Governor stopped them.
"'"My children will pile their weapons in front of me." says he,
" to show me how they have armed themselves, and likewise to
prove that their folly is at an end. All except a dozen," says
he, "whom I select as a bodyguard." And there and then he picked
twelve lusty savages for his guard, while the rest without a
cheep stacked their spears and guns forenent the big drum.
"'Then he turned to us and spoke in English. "Get back to the
mines hell-for-leather, and tell them what's happening, and see
that you get up some kind of a show for to-morrow at noon. I
will bring the chiefs, and we'll feast them. Get all the bands
you can, and let them play me in. Tell the mines fellows to look
active for it's the chance of their lives. "Then he says to the
Labonga, "My men will return he says, "but as for me I will
spend the night with my children. Make ready food, but let no
beer be made, for it is a solemn occasion."
"'And so we left him. I will not descrihe how I spent last night
mysel', but I have something to say about this remarkable
phenomenon. I could enlarge on the triumph of mind over matter.
"Mackay did not enlarge. He stopped, cocked his ears, and looked
down the road, from which came the strains of 'Annie Laurie,'
played with much spirit but grievously out of tune. Followed 'The
British Grenadiers,' and then an attempt at 'The March of the
Priests.' Mackay rose in excitement and began to crane his
disreputable neck, while the band--a fine scratch collection of
instruments--took up their stand at the end of the street,
flanked by a piper in khaki who performed when their breath
failed. Mackay chuckled with satisfaction. 'The deevils have
entered into the spirit of my instructions,' he said. 'In a wee
bit the place will be like Falkirk Tryst for din.
"Punctually at twelve there came a great hullabaloo up the road,
the beating of drums and the yelling of natives, and presently
the procession hove in sight. There was Tommy on his horse, and
on each side of him six savages with feather head-dress, and
shields and war-paint complete. After him trooped about thirty
of the great chiefs, walking two by two, for all the world like
an Aldershot parade. They carried no arms, but the bodyguard
shook their spears, and let yells out of them that would have
scared Julius Caesar. Then the band started in, and the piper
blew up, and the mines people commenced to cheer, and I thought
the heavens would fall. Long before Tommy came abreast of me I
knew what I should see. His uniform looked as if it had been
slept in, and his orders were all awry. But he had his head
flung back, and his eyes very bright, and his jaw set square. He
never looked to right or left, never recognised me or anybody,
for he was seeing something quite different from the red road and
the white shanties and the hot sky."
The fire had almost died out. Thirlstone stooped for a moment
and stirred the peats.
"Yes," he said, "I knew that in his fool's ear the trumpets of
all Asia were ringing, and the King of Bokhara was entering
(The Song of NEHEMIAH'S Workmen
How many miles to Babylon?
'Three score and ten.
Can I get there by candle-light?
Yes, and back again.
We are come back from Babylon,
Out of the plains and the glare,
To the little hills of our own country
And the sting of our kindred air;
To the rickle of stones on the red rock's edge
Which Kedron cleaves like a sword.
We will build the walls of Zion again,
To the glory of Zion's lord.
Now is no more of dalliance
By the reedy waters in spring,
When we sang of home, and sighed, and dreamed,
And wept on remembering.
Now we are back in our ancient hills
Out of the plains and the sun;
But before we make it a dwelling-place
There's a wonderful lot to be done.
The walls are to build from west to east,
From Gihon to Olivet,
Waters to lead and wells to clear,
And the garden furrows to set.
From the Sheep Gate to the Fish Gate
Is a welter of mire and mess;
And southward over the common lands
'Tis a dragon's wilderness.
The Courts of the Lord are a heap of dust
Where the hill winds whistle and race,
And the noble pillars of God His House
Stand in a ruined place
In the Holy of Holies foxes lair,
And owls and night-birds build.
There's a deal to do ere we patch it anew
As our father Solomon willed.
Now is the day of the ordered life
And the law which all obey.
We toil by rote and speak by note
And never a soul dare stray.
Ever among us a lean old man
Keepeth his watch and ward,
Crying, "The Lord hath set you free:
Prepare ye the way of the Lord."
A goodly task we are called unto,
A task to dream on o' nights,
--Work for Judah and Judah's God,
Setting our lands to rights;
Everything fair and all things square
And straight as a plummet string.
--Is it mortal guile, if once in a while
Our thoughts go wandering?...
We were not slaves in Babylon,
For the gate of our souls lay free,
There in that vast and sunlit land
On the edges of mystery.
Daily we wrought and daily we thought,
And we chafed not at rod and power,
For Sinim, Ssabea, and dusky Hind
Talked to us hour by hour.
The man who lives in Babylon
May poorly sup and fare,
But loves and lures from the ends of the earth
Beckon him everywhere.
Next year he too may have sailed strange seas
And conquered a diadem;
For kings are as common in Babylon
As crows in Bethlehem.
Here we are bound to the common round
In a land which knows not change
Nothing befalleth to stir the blood
Or quicken the heart to range;
Never a hope that we cannot plumb
Or a stranger visage in sight,--
At the most a sleek Samaritan
Or a ragged Amorite.
Here we are sober and staid of soul,
Working beneath the law,
Settled amid our father's dust,
Seeing the hills they saw.
All things fixed and determinate,
Chiselled and squared by rule;
Is it mortal guile once in a while
To try and escape from school?
We will go back to Babylon,
Silently one by one,
Out from the hills and the laggard brooks
To the streams that brim in the sun.
Only a moment, Lord, we crave,
To breathe and listen and see.--
Then we start anew with muscle and thew
To hammer trestles for Thee.
THE RIME OF TRUE THOMAS
THE TALE OF THE RESPECTABLE WHAUP AND THE GREAT GODLY MAN
This is a story that I heard from the King of the Numidians, who
with his tattered retinue encamps behind the peat-ricks. If you
ask me where and when it happened I fear that I am scarce ready
with an answer. But I will vouch my honour for its truth; and
if any one seek further proof, let him go east the town and west
the town and over the fields of No mans land to the Long Muir,
and if he find not the King there among the peat-ricks, and get
not a courteous answer to his question, then times have changed
in that part of the country, and he must continue the quest to
his Majesty's castle in Spain.
Once upon a time, says the tale, there was a Great Godly Man, a
shepherd to trade, who lived in a cottage among heather. If you
looked east in the morning, you saw miles of moor running wide to
the flames of sunrise, and if you turned your eyes west in the
evening, you saw a great confusion of dim peaks with the dying
eye of the sun set in a crevice. If you looked north, too, in
the afternoon, when the life of the day is near its end and the
world grows wise, you might have seen a country of low hills and
haughlands with many waters running sweet among meadows. But if
you looked south in the dusty forenoon or at hot midday, you saw
the far-off glimmer of a white road, the roofs of the ugly little
clachan of Kilmaclavers, and the rigging of the fine new kirk of
Threepdaidle. It was a Sabbath afternoon in the hot weather, and
the man had been to kirk all the morning. He had heard a grand
sermon from the minister (or it may have been the priest, for I
am not sure of the date and the King told the story quickly)--a
fine discourse with fifteen heads and three parentheses. He held
all the parentheses and fourteen of the heads in his memory, but
he had forgotten the fifteenth; so for the purpose of
recollecting it, and also for the sake of a walk, he went forth
in the afternoon into the open heather.
The whaups were crying everywhere, making the air hum like the
twanging of a bow. Poo-eelie, Poo-eelie, they cried, Kirlew,
Kirlew, Whaup, Wha-up. Sometimes they came low, all but brushing
him, till they drove settled thoughts from his head. Often had
he been on the moors, but never had he seen such a stramash among
the feathered clan. The wailing iteration vexed him, and he
shoo'd the birds away with his arms. But they seemed to mock him
and whistle in his very face, and at the flaff of their wings his
heart grew sore. He waved his great stick; he picked up bits of
loose moor-rock and flung them wildly; but the godless crew paid
never a grain of heed. The morning's sermon was still in his
head, and the grave words of the minister still rattled in his
ear, but he could get no comfort for this intolerable piping. At
last his patience failed him and he swore unchristian words.
"Deil rax the birds' thrapples," he cried. At this all the noise
was hushed and in a twinkling the moor was empty. Only one bird
was left, standing on tall legs before him with its head bowed
upon its breast, and its beak touching the heather.
Then the man repented his words and stared at the thing in the
moss. "What bird are ye?" he asked thrawnly.
"I am a Respectable Whaup," said the bird, "and I kenna why ye
have broken in on our family gathering. Once in a hundred years
we foregather for decent conversation, and here we are
interrupted by a muckle, sweerin' man."
Now the shepherd was a fellow of great sagacity, yet he never
thought it a queer thing that he should be having talk in the
mid-moss with a bird.
"What for were ye making siccan a din, then?" he asked. "D'ye no
ken ye were disturbing the afternoon of the holy Sabbath?
The bird lifted its eyes and regarded him solemnly. "The Sabbath
is a day of rest and gladness," it said, "and is it no reasonable
that we should enjoy the like?"
The shepherd shook his head, for the presumption staggered him.
"Ye little ken what ye speak of," he said. "The Sabbath is for
them that have the chance of salvation, and it has been decreed
that salvation is for Adam's race and no for the beasts that
The whaup gave a whistle of scorn. "I have heard all that long
ago. In my great grandmother's time, which 'ill be a thousand
years and mair syne, there came a people from the south with
bright brass things on their heads and breasts and terrible
swords at their thighs. And with them were some lang gowned men
who kenned the stars and would come out o' nights to talk to the
deer and the corbies in their ain tongue. And one, I mind,
foregathered with my great-grandmother and told her that the
souls o' men flitted in the end to braw meadows where the gods
bide or gaed down to the black pit which they ca' Hell. But the
souls o' birds, he said, die wi' their bodies, and that's the end
o' them. Likewise in my mother's time, when there was a great
abbey down yonder by the Threepdaidle Burn which they called the
House of Kilmaclavers, the auld monks would walk out in the
evening to pick herbs for their distillings, and some were wise
and kenned the ways of bird and beast. They would crack often o'
nights with my ain family, and tell them that Christ had saved
the souls o' men, but that birds and beasts were perishable as
the dew o' heaven. And now ye have a black-gowned man in
Threepdaidle who threeps on the same overcome. Ye may a' ken
something o' your ain kitchen midden, but certes! ye ken little
o' the warld beyond it."
Now this angered the man, and he rebuked the bird. "These are
great mysteries," he said, "which are no to be mentioned in the
ears of an unsanctified creature. What can a thing like you wi'
a lang neb and twae legs like stilts ken about the next warld?"
"Weel, weel," said the whaup, "we'll let the matter be.
Everything to its ain trade, and I will not dispute with ye on
Metapheesics. But if ye ken something about the next warld, ye
ken terrible little about this."
Now this angered the man still more, for he was a shepherd
reputed to have great skill in sheep and esteemed the nicest
judge of hogg and wether in all the countryside. "What ken ye
about that?" he asked. "Ye may gang east to Yetholm and west
to Kells, and no find a better herd."
"If sheep were a'," said the bird, "ye micht be right; but what
o' the wide warld and the folk in it? Ye are Simon Etterick o'
the Lowe Moss. Do ye ken aucht o' your forebears?"
"My father was a God-fearing man at the Kennelhead and my
grandfather and great grandfather afore him. One o' our name,
folk say, was shot at a dykeback by the Black Westeraw. "
"If that's a'" said the bird, "ye ken little. Have ye never
heard o' the little man, the fourth back from yoursel', who
killed the Miller o' Bewcastle at the Lammas Fair? That was in
my ain time, and from my mother I have heard o' the Covenanter
who got a bullet in his wame hunkering behind the divot-dyke and
praying to his Maker. There were others of your name rode in the
Hermitage forays and turned Naworth and Warkworth and Castle Gay.
I have heard o' an Etterick. Sim o' the Redcleuch, who cut the
throat o' Jock Johnstone in his ain house by the Annan side. And
my grandmother had tales o' auld Ettericks who rade wi' Douglas
and the Bruce and the ancient Kings o' Scots; and she used to
tell o' others in her mother's time, terrible shockheaded men
hunting the deer and rinnin' on the high moors, and bidin' in the
broken stane biggings on the hill-taps.
The shepherd stared, and he, too, saw the picture. He smelled
the air of battle and lust and foray, and forgot the Sabbath.
"And you yoursel'," said the bird, "are sair fallen off from
the auld stock. Now ye sit and spell in books, and talk about
what ye little understand, when your fathers were roaming the
warld. But little cause have I to speak, for I too am a
downcome. My bill is two inches shorter than my mother's, and my
grandmother was taller on her feet. The warld is getting
weaklier things to dwell in it, even since I mind mysel'."
"Ye have the gift o' speech; bird," said the man, "and I would
hear mair." You will perceive that he had no mind of the Sabbath
day or the fifteenth head of the forenoon's discourse.
"What things have I to tell ye when ye dinna ken the very
horn-book o' knowledge? Besides, I am no clatter-vengeance to
tell stories in the middle o' the muir, where there are ears open
high and low. There's others than me wi mair experience and a
better skill at the telling. Our clan was well acquaint wi' the
reivers and lifters o' the muirs, and could crack fine o' wars
and the takin of cattle. But the blue hawk that lives in the
corrie o' the Dreichil can speak o' kelpies and the dwarfs that
bide in the hill. The heron, the lang solemn fellow, kens o' the
greenwood fairies and the wood elfins, and the wild geese that
squatter on the tap o' the Muneraw will croak to ye of the merry
maidens and the girls o' the pool. The wren--him that hops in
the grass below the birks--has the story of the Lost Ladies of
the Land, which is ower auld and sad for any but the wisest to
hear; and there is a wee bird bides in the heather-hill--lintie
men call him--who sings the Lay of the West Wind, and the Glee of
the Rowan Berries. But what am I talking of? What are these
things to you, if ye have not first heard True Thomas's Rime,
which is the beginning and end o' all things?
"I have heard no rime" said the man, "save the sacred psalms o'
"Bonny rimes" said the bird. "Once I flew by the hinder end o'
the Kirk and I keekit in. A wheen auld wives wi' mutches and a
wheen solemn men wi' hoasts! Be sure the Rime is no like yon."
"Can ye sing it, bird?" said the man, "for I am keen to hear
"Me sing!" cried the bird, "me that has a voice like a craw!
Na, na, I canna sing it, but maybe I can tak ye where ye may hear
it. When I was young an auld bogblitter did the same to me, and
sae began my education. But are ye willing and brawly willing?
--for if ye get but a sough of it ye will never mair have an ear
for other music."
"I am willing and brawly willing," said the man.
"Then meet me at the Gled's Cleuch Head at the sun's setting,"
said the bird, and it flew away.
Now it seemed to the man that in a twinkling it was sunset, and
he found himself at the Gled's Cleuch Head with the bird flapping
in the heather before him. The place was a long rift in the
hill, made green with juniper and hazel, where it was said True
Thomas came to drink the water.
"Turn ye to the west," said the whaup, "and let the sun fail on
your face; then turn ye five times round about and say after me
the Rune Of the Heather and the Dew." And before he knew the
man did as he was told, and found himself speaking strange
words, while his head hummed and danced as if in a fever.
"Now lay ye down and put your ear to the earth," said the bird;
and the man did so. Instantly a cloud came over his brain, and
he did not feel the ground on which he lay or the keen hill-air
which blew about him. He felt himself falling deep into an abysm
of space, then suddenly caught up and set among the stars of
heaven. Then slowly from the stillness there welled forth music,
drop by drop like the clear falling of rain, and the man
shuddered for he knew that he heard the beginning of the Rime.
High rose the air, and trembled among the tallest pines and the
summits of great hills. And in it were the sting of rain and the
blatter of hail, the soft crush of snow and the rattle of thunder
among crags. Then it quieted to the low sultry croon which told
of blazing midday when the streams are parched and the bent
crackles like dry tinder. Anon it was evening, and the melody
dwelled among the high soft notes which mean the coming of dark
and the green light of sunset. Then the whole changed to a great
paean which rang like an organ through the earth. There were
trumpet notes ill it and flute notes and the plaint of pipes.
"Come forth," it cried; "the sky is wide and it is a far cry to
the world's end. The fire crackles fine o' nights below the
firs, and the smell of roasting meat and wood smoke is dear to
the heart of man. Fine, too is the sting of salt and the rasp of
the north wind in the sheets. Come forth, one and all, unto the
great lands oversea, and the strange tongues and the hermit
peoples. Learn before you die to follow the Piper's Son, and
though your old bones bleach among grey rocks, what matter if you
have had your bellyful of life and come to your heart's desire?"
And the tune fell low and witching, bringing tears to the eyes
and joy to the heart; and the man knew (though no one told him)
that this was the first part of the Rime, the Song of the Open
Road, the Lilt of the Adventurer, which shall be now and ever and
to the end of days.
Then the melody changed to a fiercer and sadder note. He saw his
forefathers, gaunt men and terrible, run stark among woody hills.
He heard the talk of the bronze-clad invader, and the jar and
clangour as stone met steel. Then rose the last coronach of his
own people, hiding in wild glens, starving in corries, or going
hopelessly to the death. He heard the cry of the Border foray,
the shouts of the famished Scots as they harried Cumberland, and
he himself rode in the midst of them. Then the tune fell more
mournful and slow, and Flodden lay before him. He saw the flower
of the Scots gentry around their King, gashed to the breast-bone,
still fronting the lines of the south, though the paleness of
death sat on each forehead. "The flowers of the Forest are
gone," cried the lilt, and through the long years he heard the
cry of the lost, the desperate, fighting for kings over the water
and princes in the heather. "Who cares?" cried the air. "Man
must die, and how can he die better than in the stress of fight
with his heart high and alien blood on his sword? Heigh-ho!
One against twenty, a child against a host, this is the romance
of life." And the man's heart swelled, for he knew (though no
one told him) that this was the Song of Lost Battles which only
the great can sing before they die.
But the tune was changing, and at the change the man shivered
for the air ran up to the high notes and then down to the deeps
with an eldrich cry, like a hawk's scream at night, or a witch's
song in the gloaming. It told of those who seek and never find,
the quest that knows no fulfilment. "There is a road," it cried,
"which leads to the Moon and the Great Waters. No changehouse
cheers it, and it has no end; but it is a fine road, a braw
road--who will follow it?" And the man knew (though no one told
him) that this was the Ballad of Grey Weather, which makes him
who hears it sick all the days of his life for something which he
cannot name. It is the song which the birds sing on the moor in
the autumn nights, and the old crow on the treetop hears and
flaps his wing. It is the lilt which men and women hear in the
darkening of their days, and sigh for the unforgettable; and
love-sick girls get catches of it and play pranks with their
lovers. It is a song so old that Adam heard it in the Garden
before Eve came to comfort him, so young that from it still flows
the whole joy and sorrow of earth.
Then it ceased, and all of a sudden the man was rubbing his eyes
on the hillside, and watching the falling dusk. "I have heard
the Rime," he said to himself, and he walked home in a daze. The
whaups were crying, but none came near him, though he looked hard
for the bird that had spoken with him. It may be that it was
there and he did not know it, or it may be that the whole thing
was only a dream; but of this I cannot say.
The next morning the man rose and went to the manse.
"I am glad to see you, Simon," said the minister, "for it will
soon be the Communion Season, and it is your duty to go round
with the tokens."
"True," said the man, "but it was another thing I came to talk
about," and he told him the whole tale.
"There are but two ways of it, Simon," said the minister. "Either
ye are the victim of witchcraft, or ye are a self-deluded man.
If the former (whilk I am loth to believe), then it behoves ye to
watch and pray lest ye enter into temptation. If the latter,
then ye maun put a strict watch over a vagrant fancy, and ye'll
be quit o' siccan whigmaleeries."
Now Simon was not listening but staring out of the window.
"There was another thing I had it in my mind to say," said he.
"I have come to lift my lines, for I am thinking of leaving the
"And where would ye go?" asked the minister, aghast.
"I was thinking of going to Carlisle and trying my luck as a
dealer, or maybe pushing on with droves to the South."
"But that's a cauld country where there are no faithfu'
ministrations," said the minister.
"Maybe so, but I am not caring very muckle about ministrations,"
said the man, and the other looked after him in horror.
When he left the manse he went to a Wise Woman, who lived on the
left side of the kirkyard above Threepdaidle burn-foot. She was
very old, and sat by the ingle day and night, waiting upon death.
To her he told the same tale.
She listened gravely, nodding with her head. "Ach," she said, "I
have heard a like story before. And where will you be going?"
"I am going south to Carlisle to try the dealing and droving"
said the man, "for I have some skill of sheep."
"And will ye bide there?" she asked.
"Maybe aye, and maybe no," he said. "I had half a mind to push
on to the big toun or even to the abroad. A man must try his
"That's the way of men," said the old wife. "I, too, have heard
the Rime, and many women who now sit decently spinning in
Kilmaclavers have heard it. But woman may hear it and lay it up
in her soul and bide at hame, while a man, if he get but a glisk
of it in his fool's heart, must needs up and awa' to the warld's
end on some daft-like ploy. But gang your ways and fare-ye-weel.
My cousin Francie heard it, and he went north wi' a white
cockade in his bonnet and a sword at his side, singing 'Charlie's
come hame'. And Tam Crichtoun o' the Bourhopehead got a sough o'
it one simmers' morning, and the last we heard o' Tam he was
fechting like a deil among the Frenchmen. Once I heard a
tinkler play a sprig of it on the pipes, and a' the lads were
wud to follow him. Gang your ways for I am near the end o'
And the old wife shook with her coughing. So the man put up his
belongings in a pack on his back and went whistling down the
Great South Road.
Whether or not this tale have a moral it is not for me to say.
The King (who told it me) said that it had, and quoted a scrap of
Latin, for he had been at Oxford in his youth before he fell heir
to his kingdom. One may hear tunes from the Rime, said he, in
the thick of a storm on the scarp of a rough hill, in the soft
June weather, or in the sunset silence of a winter's night. But
let none, he added, pray to have the full music; for it will
make him who hears it a footsore traveller in the ways o' the
world and a masterless man till death.