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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesHeather And Snow - Chapter 12. The Earth-House
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Heather And Snow - Chapter 12. The Earth-House Post by :Kevin_McNally Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :2954

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Heather And Snow - Chapter 12. The Earth-House

CHAPTER XII. THE EARTH-HOUSE

About a year after Francis Gordon went to Edinburgh, Kirsty and Steenie made a discovery.

Between Corbyknowe and the Horn, on whose sides David Barclay had a right of pasturage for the few sheep to which Steenie and Snootie were the shepherds, was a small glen, through which, on its way to join the little river with the kelpie-pot, ran a brook, along whose banks lay two narrow breadths of nice grass. The brother and sister always crossed this brook when they wanted to go straight to the top of the hill.

One morning, having each taken the necessary run and jump, they had began to climb on the other side, when Kirsty, who was a few paces before him, turned at an exclamation from Steenie.

'It's a' the weicht o' my muckle feet!' he cried, as he dragged one of the troublesome members out of a hole. 'Losh, I dinna ken hoo far it michtna hae gane doon gien I hadna gotten a haud o' 't in time and pu'd it oot!'

How much of humour, how much of silliness, and how much of truth were wrapt up together in some of the things he said, it was impossible to determine. I believe Kirsty came pretty near knowing, but even she was not always sure where wilful oddity and where misapprehension was at the root of a remark.

'Gien ye set yer fit upon a hole,' said Kirsty, 'what can the puir thing du but gang doon intil 't? Ye maunna be oonrizzonable wi' the craturs, Steenie! Ye maun be fair til them.'

'But there was nae hole!' returned Steenie. 'There cudna hae been. There's the hole noo! My fit made it, and there it'll hae to bide! It's a some fearsome thing, divna ye think, 'at what aiven the fit o' a body dis, bides? What for disna the hole gang awa whan the fit lifts? Luik ye there! Ye see thae twa stanes stan'in up by themsels, and there's the hole--atween the twa! There cudna hae been a hole there afore the weicht o' my fit cam doon upo' the spot and ca'd it throuw! I gaed in maist til my knee!'

'Lat's luik!' said Kirsty, and proceeded to examine the place.

She thought at first it must be the burrow of some animal, but the similarity in shape of the projecting stones suggesting that their position might not be fortuitous, she would look a little farther, and began to pull away the heather about the mouth of the opening. Steenie set himself, with might and main, to help her. Kirsty was much the stronger of the two, but Steenie always did his best to second her in anything that required exertion.

They soon spied the lump of sod and heather which Steenie's heavy foot had driven down, and when they had pulled that out, they saw that the hole went deeper still, seeming a very large burrow indeed--therefore a little fearsome. Having widened the mouth of it by clearing away a thick growth of roots from its sides, and taken out a quantity of soft earth, they perceived that it went sloping into the ground still farther. With growing curiosity they leant down into it, lying on the edge, and reaching with their hands removed the loose earth as low as they could. This done, the descent showed itself about two feet square, as far down as they had cleared it, beyond which a little way it was lost in the dark.

What were they to do next? There was yet greater inducement to go on, but considerations came which were not a little deterrent. Although Steenie had worked well, Kirsty knew he had a horror of dark places, associating them somehow with the weight of his feet: whether such places had for him any suggestion of the grave, I cannot tell; certainly to get rid of his feet was the form his idea of the salvation he needed was readiest to take. Then might there not be some animal inside? Steenie thought not, for there was no opening until he made it! and Kirsty also thought not, on the ground that she knew no wild animal larger than fox or badger, neither of which would have made such a big hole. One moment, however, her imagination was nearly too much for her: what if some huge bear had been asleep in it for hundreds of years, and growing all the time! Certainly he could not get out, but if she roused him, and he got a hold of her! The next instant her courage revived, for she would have been ashamed to let what she did not believe influence any action. The passage must lead somewhere, and it was large enough for her to explore it!

Because of her dress, she must creep in head foremost--in which lay the advantage that so she would meet any danger face to face! Telling Steenie that if he heard her cry out, he must get hold of her feet and pull, she laid herself on the ground and crawled in. She thought it must lead to an ancient tomb, but said nothing of the conjecture for fear of horrifying Steenie, who stood trembling, sustained only by his faith in Kirsty.

She went down and down and quite disappeared. Not a foot was left for Steenie to lay hold of. Terrible and long seemed the time to him as he stood there forsaken, his darling out of sight in the heart of the earth. He knew there were wolves in Scotland once; who could tell but a she-wolf had been left, and a whole clan of them lived there underground, never issuing in the daytime! there might be the open mouth of a passage, under a rock and curtained with heather, in some other spot of the hill! What if one of them got Kirsty by the throat before she had time to cry out! Then he thought she might have gone till she could go no father, and not having room to turn, was trying to creep backward, but her clothes hindered her. Forgetting his repugnance in over-mastering fear, the faithful fellow was already half inside the hole to go after her, when up shot the head of Kirsty, almost in his face. For a moment he was terribly perplexed: he had been expecting to come on her feet, not her head: how could she have gone in head foremost, and not come back feet foremost?

'Eh, wuman,' he said in a fear-struck whisper, 'it's awfu' to see ye come oot o' the yird like a muckle worm!'

'Ye saw me gang in, Steenie, ye gowk!' returned Kirsty, dismayed herself at sight of his solemn dread.

'Ay,' answered Steenie, 'but I didna see ye come oot! Eh, Kirsty, wuman, hae ye a heid at baith en's o' ye?'

Kirsty's laughter blew Steenie's discomposure away, and he too laughed.

'Come back hame,' said Kirsty; 'I maun get haud o' a can'le! Yon's a place maun be seen intil. I never saw, or raither faun' (_felt_) the like o' 't, for o' seein there's nane, or next to nane. There's room eneuch; ye can see that wi' yer airms!'

'What is there room eneuch for?' asked Steenie.

'For you and me, and twenty or thirty mair, mebbe--I dinna ken,' replied Kirsty.

'I s' mak ye a present o' my room intil 't,' returned Steenie. 'I want nane o' 't.'

'Ill gang doon wi' the can'le,' said Kirsty, 'and see whether 't be a place for ye. Gien I cry oot, "Ay is't," wull ye come?'

'That I wull, gien 't war the whaul's belly!' replied Steenie.

They set out for the house, and as they walked they talked.

'I div won'er what the place cud ever hae been for!' said Kirsty, more to herself than Steenie. 'It's bigger nor ony thoucht I had o' 't.'

'What is 't like, Kirsty?' inquired Steenie.

'Hoo can I tell whan I saw naething!' replied Kirsty.

'But,' she added thoughtfully, 'gien it warna that we're in Scotlan', and they're nigh-han' Rom', I wud hae been 'maist sure I had won intil ane o' the catacombs!'

'Eh, losh, lat me awa to the hill!' cried Steenie, stopping and half turning. 'I canna bide the verra word o' the craturs!'

'What word than?' asked Kirsty, a little surprised; for how did Steenie know anything about the catacombs?

'To think,' he went on, 'o' a haill kirk o' cats aneath the yird--a' sittin kaimin themsels wi' kaims!--Kirsty, ye _winna think it a place for _me_? Ye see I'm no like ither fowk, and sic a thing micht ca (_drive_) me oot o' a' the sma' wits ever I hed!'

'Hoots!' rejoined Kirsty, with a smile, 'the catacombs has naething to du wi' cats or kaims!'

'Tell me what are they, than.'

'The catacombs,' answered Kirsty, 'was what in auld times, and no i' this cuintry ava, they ca'd the places whaur they laid their deid.'

'Eh, Kirsty, but that's waur!' returned Steenie. 'I wudna gang intil sic a place wi' feet siclike's my ain--na, no for what the warl cud gie me!--no for lang Lowrie's fiddle and a' the tunes intil't! I wud never get my feet oot o' 't! They'd haud me there!'

Then Kirsty began to tell him, as she would have taught a child, something of the history of the catacombs, knowing how it must interest him.

'I' the days langsyne,' she said, 'there was fowk, like you and me, unco fain o' the bonny man. The verra soun o' the name o' 'im was eneuch to gar their herts loup wi' doonricht glaidness. And they gaed here and there and a' gait, and tellt ilka body aboot him; and fowk 'at didna ken him, and didna want to ken him, cudna bide to hear tell o' him, and they said, "Lat's hae nae mair o' this! Hae dune wi' yer bonny man! Haud yer tongues," they cryit. But the ithers, they wadna hear o' haudin their tongues. A'body maun ken aboot him! "Sae lang's we _hae tongues, and can wag them to the name o' him," they said, "we'll no haud them!" And at that they fell upo' them, and ill-used them sair; some o' them they tuik and burnt alive--that is, brunt them deid; and some o' them they flang to the wild beasts, and they bitit them and tore them to bits. And--,

'Was the bitin o' the beasts terrible sair?' interrupted Steenie.

'Ay, I reckon it was some sair; but the puir fowk aye said the bonny man was wi' them; and lat them bite!--they didna care!'

'Ay, of coorse, gien he was wi' them they wadna min' 't a hair, or at least, no twa hairs! Wha wud! Gien he be in yon hole, Kirsty, I'll gang back and intil't my lee lane. I wull noo!'

Steenie turned and had run some distance before Kirsty succeeded in stopping him. She did not run after him.

'Steenie! Steenie!' she cried, 'I dinna doobt he's there, for he's a'gait; but ye ken yersel ye canna aye see him, and maybe ye wudna see him there the noo, and micht think he wasna there, and turn fleyt. Bide till we hae a licht, and I gang doon first.'

Steenie was persuaded, and turned and came back to her. To father, mother, and sister he was always obedient, even on the rare occasions when it cost him much to be so.

'Ye see, Steenie,' she continued, 'yon's no the place! I dinna ken yet what place yon is. I was only gaein to tell ye aboot the places it min't me o'! Wud ye like to hear aboot them?'

'I wad that, richt weel! Say awa, Kirsty.'

'The fowk, than, ye see, 'at lo'ed the bonny man, gethert themsels aye thegither to hae cracks and newses wi' ane anither aboot him; and, as I was tellin ye, the fowk 'at didna care aboot him war that angert 'at they set upo' them, and jist wud hae nane o' them nor him. Sae to hand oot o' their grip, they coonselled thegither, and concludit to gether in a place whaur naebody wud think o' luikin for them--whaur but i' the booels o' the earth, whaur they laid their deid awa upo' skelfs, like in an aumry!'

'Eh, but that was fearsome!' interposed Steenie. 'They maun hae been sair set!--Gien I had been there, wud they hae garred me gang wi' them?'

'Na, no gien ye didna like. But ye wud hae likit weel to gang. It wasna an ill w'y to beery fowk, nor an ill place to gang til, for they aye biggit up the skelf, ye ken. It was howkit oot--whether oot o' hard yird or saft stane, I dinna ken; I reckon it wud be some no sae hard kin' o' a rock--and whan the deid was laid intil 't, they biggit up the mou o' the place, that is, frae that same skelf to the ane 'at was abune 't, and sae a' was weel closed in.'

'But what for didna they beery their deid mensefulike i' their kirkyairds?'

''Cause theirs was a great muckle toon, wi' sic a heap o' hooses that there wasna room for kirkyards; sae they tuik them ootside the toon, and gaed aneth wi' them a'thegither. For there they howkit a lot o' passages like trances, and here and there a wee roomy like, wi' ither trances gaein frae them this gait and that. Sae, whan they tuik themsels there, the freens o' the bonny man wud fill ane o' the roomies, and stan' awa in ilk ane o' the passages 'at gaed frae 't; and that w'y, though there cudna mony o' them see ane anither at ance, a gey lottie wud hear, some a', and some a hantle o' what was said. For there they cud speyk lood oot, and a body abune hear naething and suspec naething. And jist think, Steenie, there's a pictur o' the bonny man himsel paintit upo' the wa' o' ane o' thae places doon aneth the grun'!'

'I reckon it'll be unco like him!'

'Maybe: I canna tell aboot that.'

'Gien I cud see 't, I cud tell; but I'm thinkin it'll be some gait gey and far awa?'

'Ay, it 's far, far.--It wud tak a body--lat me see--maybe half a year to trevel there upo' 's ain fit,' answered Kirsty, after some meditation.

'And me a hantle langer, my feet's sae odious heavy!' remarked Steenie with a sigh.

As they drew near the house, their mother saw them coming, and went to the door to meet them.

'We're wantin a bit o' a can'le, and a spunk or twa, mother,' said Kirsty.

'Ye s' get that,' answered Marion. 'But what want ye a can'le for i' the braid mids o' the daylicht?'

'We want to gang doon a hole,' replied Steenie with flashing eyes, 'and see the pictur o' the bonny man.'

'Hoot, Steenie! I tellt ye it wasna there,' interposed Kirsty.

'Na,' returned Steenie; 'ye only said yon hole wasna that place. Ye said the bonny man _was there, though I michtna see him. Ye didna say the pictur wasna there.'

'The pictur 's no there, Steenie.--We've come upon a hole, mother, 'at we want to gang doon intil and see what it's like,' said Kirsty.

'The weicht o' my feet brak throu intil 't,' added Steenie.

'Preserve 's, lassie! tak tent whaur ye cairry the bairn!' cried the mother. 'But, eh, tak him whaur ye like,' she substituted, correcting herself. 'Weel ken I ye'll tak him naegait but whaur it's weel he sud gang! The laddie needs twa mithers, and the Merciful has gien him the twa! Ye're full mair his mither nor me, Kirsty!'

She asked no more questions, but got them the candle and let them go. They hastened back, Steenie in his most jubilant mood, which seemed always to have in it a touch of deathly frost and a flash as of the primal fire. What could be the strange displacement or maladjustment which, in the brain harbouring the immortal thing, troubled it so, and made it yearn after an untasted liberty? The source of his jubilance now was easy to tell: the idea of the bonny man was henceforth, in that troubled brain of his, associated with the place into which they were about to descend.

The moment they reached the spot, Kirsty, to the renewed astonishment of Steenie, dived at once into the ground at her feet, and disappeared.

'Kirsty! Kirsty!' he cried out after her, and danced like a terrified child. Then he shook with a fresh dismay at the muffled sound that came back to him in answer from the unseen hollows of the earth.

Already Kirsty stood at the bottom of the sloping tunnel, and was lighting her candle. When it burned up, she found herself looking into a level gallery, the roof of which she could touch. It was not an excavation, but had been trenched from the surface, for it was roofed with great slabs of stone. Its sides, of rough stones, were six or seven feet apart at the floor, which was paved with small boulders, but sloped so much toward each other that at the top their distance was less by about two and a half feet. Kirsty was, as I have said, a keen observer, and her power of seeing had been greatly developed through her constant conscientious endeavour to realize every description she read.

She went on about ten or twelve yards, and came to a bend in the gallery, succeeded by a sort of chamber, whence branched a second gallery, which soon came to an end. The place was in truth not unlike a catacomb, only its two galleries were built, and much wider than the excavated thousands in the catacombs. She turned back to the entrance, there left her candle alight, and again startled Steenie, still staring into the mouth of the hole, with her sudden reappearance.

'Wud ye like to come doon, Steenie?' she said. 'It's a queer place.'

'Is 't awfu' fearsome?' asked Steenie, shrinking.

His feeling of dismay at the cavernous, the terrene dark, was not inconsistent with his pleasure in being out on the wild waste hillside, when heaven and earth were absolutely black, not seldom the whole of the night, in utter loneliness to eye or ear, and his never then feeling anything like dread. Then and there only did he seem to have room enough. His terror was of the smallest pressure on his soul, the least hint at imprisonment. That he could not rise and wander about among the stars at his will, shaped itself to him as the heaviness of his feet holding him down. His feet were the loaded gyves that made of the world but a roomy prison. The limitless was essential to his conscious wellbeing.

'No a bittock,' answered Kirsty, who felt awe anywhere--on hilltop, in churchyard, in sunlit silent room--but never fear. 'It's as like the place I was tellin ye aboot--'

'Ay, the cat-place!' interrupted Steenie.

'The place wi' the pictur,' returned Kirsty.

Steenie darted forward, shot head-first into the hole as he had seen Kirsty do, and crept undismayed to the bottom of the slope. Kirsty followed close behind, but he was already on his feet when she joined him. He grasped her arm eagerly, his face turned from her, and his eyes gazing fixedly into the depth of the gallery, lighted so vaguely by the candle on the floor of its entrance.

'I think I saw him!' he said in a whisper full of awe and delight. 'I think I did see him!--but, Kirsty, hoo am I to be sure 'at I saw him?'

'Maybe ye did and maybe ye didna see him,' replied Kirsty; 'but that disna metter sae muckle, for he's aye seem you; and ye'll see him, and be sure 'at ye see him, whan the richt time comes.'

'Ye div think that, Kirsty?'

'Ay div I,' returned Kirsty, confidently.

'I s' wait,' answered Steenie, and in silence followed Kirsty along the gallery.

This was Steenie's first, and all but his last descent into the _earth-house, or _Picts' House_, or _weem_, as a place of the sort is called: there are many such in the east of Scotland, their age and origin objects of merest conjecture. The moment he was out of it, he fled to the Horn.

The next Sunday he heard read at church the story of the burial and resurrection of the Lord, and unavoidably after their talk about the catacombs, associated the chamber they had just discovered with the tomb in which 'they laid him,' at the same time concluding the top of the hill, where he had, as he believed, on certain favoured nights met the bonny man, the place whence he ascended--to come again as Steenie thought he did! The earth-house had no longer any attraction for Steenie: the bonny man was not there; he was risen! He was somewhere above the mountain-top haunted by Steenie, and that he sometimes descended upon it Steenie already knew, for had he not seen him there!

Happy Steenie! Happier than so many Christians who, more in their brain-senses, but far less in their heart-senses than he, haunt the sepulchre as if the dead Jesus lay there still, and forget to walk the world with him who dieth no more, the living one!

But his sister took a great liking to the place, nor was repelled by her mistaken suspicion that there the people of the land in times unknown had buried some of their dead. In the hot days, when the earth-house was cool, and in the winter when the thick blanket of the snow lay over it, and it felt warm as she entered it from the frosty wind, she would sit there in the dark, sometimes imagining herself one of the believers of the old time, thinking the Lord was at hand, approaching in person to fetch her and her friends. When the spring came, she carried down sod and turf, and made for herself a seat in the central chamber, there to sit and think. By and by she fastened an oil lamp to the wall, and would light its rush-pith-wick, and read by it. Occasionally she made a good peat fire, for she had found a chimney that went sloping into the upper air; and if it did not always draw well, peat-smoke is as pleasant as wholesome, and she could bear a good deal of its smothering. Not unfrequently she carried her book there when no one was likely to want her, and enjoyed to the full the rare and delightful sense of absolute safety from interruption. Sometimes she would make a little song there, with which as she made it its own music would come, and she would model the air with her voice as she wrote the words in a little book on her knee.

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