It was not very long before Cousin Edie was queen of West Inch, and we all he_evoted subjects from my father down. She had money and to spare, though non_f us knew how much. When my mother said that four shillings the week woul_over all that she would cost, she fixed on seven shillings and sixpence o_er own free will. The south room, which was the sunniest and had th_oneysuckle round the window, was for her; and it was a marvel to see th_hings that she brought from Berwick to put into it. Twice a week she woul_rive over, and the cart would not do for her, for she hired a gig from Angu_hitehead, whose farm lay over the hill. And it was seldom that she wen_ithout bringing something back for one or other of us. It was a wooden pip_or my father, or a Shetland plaid for my mother, or a book for me, or a bras_ollar for Rob the collie. There was never a woman more free-handed.
But the best thing that she gave us was just her own presence. To me i_hanged the whole country-side, and the sun was brighter and the braes greene_nd the air sweeter from the day she came. Our lives were common no longer no_hat we spent them with such a one as she, and the old dull grey house wa_nother place in my eyes since she had set her foot — across the door-mat. I_as not her face, though that was winsome enough, nor her form, though I neve_aw the lass that could match her; but it was her spirit, her queer mockin_ays, her fresh new fashion of talk, her proud whisk of the dress and toss o_he head, which made one feel like the ground beneath her feet, and then th_uick challenge in her eye, and the kindly word that brought one up to he_evel again.
But never quite to her level either. To me she was always something above an_eyond. I might brace myself and blame myself, and do what I would, but stil_ could not feel that the same blood ran in our veins, and that she was but _ountry lassie, as I was a country lad. The more I loved her the more frighte_ was at her, and she could see the fright long before she knew the love. _as uneasy to be away from her, and yet when I was with her I was in a shive_ll the time for fear my stumbling talk might weary her or give her offence.
Had I known more of the ways of women I might have taken less pains.
"You're a deal changed from what you used to be, Jack," said she, looking a_e sideways from under her dark lashes.
"You said not when first we met," says I.
"Ah! I was speaking of your looks then, and of your ways now. You used to b_o rough to me, and so masterful, and would have your own way, like the littl_an that you were. I can see you now with your touzled brown hair and you_ischievous eyes. And now you are so gentle and quiet and soft-spoken."
"One learns to behave," says I.
"Ah, but, Jack, I liked you so much better as you were!"
Well, when she said that I fairly stared at her, for I had thought that sh_ould never have quite forgiven me for the way I used to carry on. That anyon_ut of a daft house could have liked it was clean beyond my understanding. _hought of how when she was reading by the door I would go up on the moor wit_ hazel switch and fix little clay balls at the end of it, and sling them a_er until I made her cry. And then I thought of how I caught an eel in th_orriemuir burn and chivied her about with it, until she ran screaming unde_y mother's apron half mad with fright, and my father gave me one on the ear- hole with the porridge stick which knocked me and my eel under the kitche_resser. And these were the things that she missed! Well, she must miss them, for my hand would wither before I could do them now. But for the first time _egan to understand the queerness that lies in a woman, and that a man mus_ot reason about one, but just watch and try to learn.
We found our level after a time, when she saw that she had just to do what sh_iked and how she liked, and that I was as much at her beck and call as ol_ob was at mine. You 'll think I was a fool to have had my head so turned, an_aybe I was; but then you must think how little I was used to women, and ho_uch we were thrown together. Besides, she was a woman in a million, and I ca_ell you that it was a strong head that would not be turned by her.
Why, there was Major Elliott, a man that had buried three wives, and ha_welve pitched battles to his name, Edie could have turned him round he_inger like a damp rag — she, only new from the boarding school. I met hi_obbling from West Inch the first time after she came, with pink in his cheek_nd a shine in his eye that took ten years from him. He was cocking up hi_rey moustaches at either end and curling them into his eyes, and struttin_ut with his sound leg as proud as a piper. What she had said to him the Lor_nows, but it was like old wine in his veins.
"I've been up to see you, laddie," said he, "but I must home again now. M_isit has not been wasted, however, as I had an opportunity of seeing la bell_ousine. A most charming and engaging young lady, laddie."
He had a formal stiff way of talking, and was fond of jerking in a bit of th_rench, for he had picked some up in the Peninsula. He would have gone o_alking of Cousin Edie, but I saw the corner of a newspaper thrusting out o_is pocket, and I knew that he had come over, as was his way, to give me som_ews, for we heard little enough at West Inch.
"What is fresh, major?" I asked.
He pulled the paper out with a flourish.
"The allies have won a great battle, my lad," says he. "I don't think Nap ca_tand up long against this. The Saxons have thrown him over, and he's bee_adly beat at Leipzig. Wellington is past the Pyrenees, and Graham's folk wil_e at Bayonne before long."
I chucked up my hat.
"Then the war will come to an end at last," I cried.
"Aye, and time too," said he, shaking his head gravely. "It's been a blood_usiness. But it is hardly worth while for me to say now what was in my min_bout you."
"What was that?"
"Well, laddie, you are doing no good here, and now that my knee is gettin_ore limber I was hoping that I might get on active service again. I wondere_hether maybe you might like to do a little soldiering under me."
My heart jumped at the thought.
"Aye, would I!" I cried.
"But it'll be clear six months before I 'll be fit to pass a board, and it'_ong odds that Boney will be under lock and key before that."
"And there's my mother," said I, "I doubt she'd never let me go."
"Ah! well, she'll never be asked to now," he answered, and hobbled on upon hi_ay.
I sat down among the heather with my chin on my hand, turning the thing ove_n my mind, and watching him in his old brown clothes, with the end of a gre_laid flapping over his shoulder, as he picked his way up the swell of th_ill. It was a poor life this, at West Inch, waiting to fill my father'_hoes, with the same heath, and the same burn, and the same sheep, and th_ame grey house for ever before me. But over there, over the blue sea, ah!
there was a life fit for a man. There was the Major, a man past his prime, wounded and spent, and yet planning to get to work again, whilst I, with al_he strength of my youth, was wasting it upon these hillsides. A hot wave o_hame flushed over me, and I sprang up all in a tingle to be off and playing _an's part in the world.
For two days I turned it over in my mind, and on the third there cam_omething which first brought all my resolutions to a head, and then blew the_ll to nothing like a puff of smoke in the wind.
I had strolled out in the afternoon with Cousin Edie and Rob, until we foun_urselves upon the brow of the slope which dips away down to the beach. It wa_ate in the fall, and the links were all bronzed and faded; but the sun stil_hone warmly, and a south breeze came in little hot pants, rippling the broa_lue sea with white curling lines. I pulled an armful of bracken to make _ouch for Edie, and there she lay in her listless fashion, happy an_ontented; for of all folk that I have ever met, she had the most joy fro_armth and light. I leaned on a tussock of grass, with Rob's head upon m_nee, and there as we sat alone in peace in the wilderness, even there we sa_uddenly thrown upon the waters in front of us the shadow of that great ma_ver yonder, who had scrawled his name in red letters across the map o_urope.
There was a ship coming up with the wind, a black sedate old merchantman, bound for Leith as likely as not. Her yards were square and she was runnin_ith all sail set. On the other tack, coming from the north-east, were tw_reat ugly lugger-like craft, with one high mast each, and a big square brow_ail. A prettier sight one would not wish than to see the three craft dippin_long upon so fair a day. But of a sudden there came a spurt of flame and _hirl of blue smoke from one lugger, then the same from the second, and a rap, rap, rap, from the ship. In a twinkling hell had elbowed out heaven, and ther_n the waters was hatred and savagery and the lust for blood.
We had sprung to our feet at the outburst, and Edie put her hand all in _remble upon my arm.
"They are fighting, jack!" she cried. "What are they? Who are they?"
My heart was thudding with the guns, and it was all that I could do to answe_er for the catch of my breath.
"It's two French privateers, Edie," said I, "Chasse-marries, they call them, and yon's one of our merchant ships, and they'll take her as sure as death; for the major says they 've always got heavy guns, and are as full of men a_n egg is full of meat. Why doesn't the fool make back for Tweedmouth bar?"
But not an inch of canvas did she lower, but floundered on in her stoli_ashion, while a little black ball ran up to her peak, and the rare old fla_treamed suddenly out from the halliard. Then again came the rap, rap, rap, o_er little guns, and the boom, boom of the big carronades in the bows of th_ugger. An instant later the three ships met, and the merchantman staggered o_ike a stag with two wolves hanging to its haunches. The three became but _ark blurr amid the smoke, with the top spars thrusting out in a bristle, an_rom the heart of that cloud came the quick red flashes of flame, and such _evil's racket of big guns and small, cheering and screaming, as was to din i_y head for many a week. For a stricken hour the hell-cloud moved slowl_cross the face of the water, and still with our hearts in our mouths w_atched the flap of the flag, straining to see if it were yet there. And the_uddenly the ship, as proud and black and high as ever, shot on upon her way; and as the smoke cleared we saw one of the luggers squattering like a broken- winged duck upon the water, and the other working hard to get the crew fro_er before she sank.
For all that hour I had lived for nothing but the fight. My cap had bee_hisked away by the wind, but I had never given it a thought. Now with m_eart full I turned upon my Cousin Edie, and the sight of her took me back si_ears. There was the vacant staring eye and the parted lips, just as I ha_een them in her girlhood, and her little hands were clenched until th_nuckles gleamed like ivory.
"Ah, that captain!" said she, talking to the heath and the whin-bushes. "Ther_s a man so strong, so resolute! What woman would not be proud of a man lik_hat?"
"Aye, he did well!" I cried with enthusiasm.
She looked at me as if she had forgotten my existence.
"I would give a year of my life to meet such a man," said she; "But that i_hat living in the country means. One never sees anybody but just those wh_re fit for nothing better."
I do not know that she meant to hurt me, though she was never very backward a_hat; but whatever her intention, her words seemed to strike straight upon _aked nerve.
"Very well, Cousin Edie," I said, trying to speak calmly, "that puts the ca_n it. I 'll take the bounty in Berwick to- night."
"What, Jack! you be a soldier!"
"Yes, if you think that every man that bides in the country must be a coward."
"Oh, you'd look so handsome in a red coat, Jack, and it improves you vastl_hen you are in a temper. I wish your eyes would always flash like that, fo_t looks so nice and manly. But I am sure that you are joking about th_oldiering."
"I 'll let you see if I am joking."
Then and there I set off running over the moor, until I burst into the kitche_here my mother and father were sitting on either side of the ingle.
"Mother," I cried, "I'm off for a soldier!"
Had I said I was off for a burglar they could not have looked worse over it, for in those days among the decent canny country folks it was mostly the blac_heep that were herded by the sergeant. But, my word, those same black shee_id their country some rare service too. My mother put up her mittens to he_yes, and my father looked as black as a peat hole.
"Hoots, Jock, you're daft," says he.
"Daft or no, I 'm going."
"Then you'll have no blessing from me?"
"Then I'll go without."
At this my mother gives a screech and throws her arms about my neck. I saw he_and, all hard and worn and knuckly with the work she had done for m_pbringing, and it pleaded with me as words could not have done. My heart wa_oft for her, but my will was as hard as a flint-edge. I put her back in he_hair with a kiss, and then ran to my room to pack my bundle. It was alread_rowing dark, and I had a long walk before me, so I thrust a few thing_ogether and hastened out. As I came through the side door someone touched m_houlder, and there was Edie in the gloaming.
"Silly boy," said she, "you are not really going."
"Am I not? You'll see."
"But your father does not wish it, nor your mother."
"I know that."
"Then why go?"
"You ought to know."
"Because you make me!"
"I don't want you to go, Jack."
"You said it. You said that the folk in the country were fit for nothin_etter. You always speak like that. You think no more of me than of those doo_n the cot. You think I am nobody at all. I'll show you different."
All my troubles came out in hot little spurts of speech. She coloured up as _poke, and looked at me in her queer half-mocking, half-petting fashion.
"Oh, I think so little of you as that?" said she. "And that is the reason wh_ou are going away? Well then, Jack, will you stay if I am — if I am kind t_ou?"
We were face to face and close together, and in an instant the thing was done.
My arms were round her, and I was kissing her, and kissing her, and kissin_er, on her mouth, her cheeks, her eyes, and pressing her to my heart, an_hispering to her that she was all, all, to me, and that I could not b_ithout her. She said nothing, but it was long before she turned her fac_side, and when she pushed me back it was not very hard.
"Why, you are quite your rude, old, impudent self!" said she, patting her hai_ith her two hands. "You have tossed me, Jack; I had no idea that you would b_o forward!"
But all my fear of her was gone, and a love tenfold hotter than ever wa_oiling in my veins. I took her up again, and kissed her as if it were m_ight.
"You are my very own now!" I cried. "I shall not go to Berwick, but I 'll sta_nd marry you."
But she laughed when I spoke of marriage.
"Silly boy! Silly. boy!" said she, with her forefinger up; and then when _ried to lay hands on her again, she gave a little dainty curtsy, and was of_nto the house.