Read CHAPTER VI - THE APOTHEOSIS OF AGNES ANNE of The Dew of Their Youth , free online book, by S. R. Crockett, on

No word or look included me in the invitation which Miss Irma tendered to my grandmother. Nevertheless I followed, not knowing what else to do. I felt huge, awkward, clumsy of build and knotty of elbow and knee. I was conscious that my knuckles were red. I felt in the way and unhappy. In short, I hulked. Indeed, but that I was able to watch two eyes of darkest grey beneath a wisp of untamed curls on a small and shapely head, and the look of the thing, I would far rather have stopped out on the doorstep with Crazy.

And perhaps that would have been the best place for me, all things considered.

After we had passed two or three rooms in review, all of which were, as it appeared to me, garnished with the ordinary sheets and coverlets of a bedroom, my grandmother abruptly turned upon Miss Irma.

“Let me see your hands!” she said, in her ordinary brusque manner. I was in terror lest we should be shown to the door. But the freemasonry of work, the knowledge of things feminine, the fine little nod of appreciation at a detail which is perfectly lost on a man, the flush of answering approbation had done their perfect work between the old woman and the girl.

Such things were not within my ken, and my grandmother promptly banished me. She set down the little baronet at the same time with a “Run and play, my doo!” She issued directions for me to charge myself with the responsibility. I would much rather have stayed to hear what grandmother and Miss Irma had to say one to the other, because I was more interested in that. But the choice was not given to me. Go I must.

And with her first personal word of acknowledgment that I was a human being, Miss Irma, calling me by name, indicated the “drawing-room” as the place where we might await the end of this first congress of the Holy Alliance.

I was some little alarmed at the place, the name of which so far I had only seen in books, but little Sir Louis whispered in my ear as he took my hand, “We can play there. That’s only what sister Irma calls it!”

When my grandmother and Miss Irma appeared after an absence of half-an-hour they found the two of us deep in a game of bat-ball. I made an attempt to hide the ball, fearing lest Miss Irma might think I usually carried such things about with me (I had confiscated it in class that day). But I need not have troubled, she paid no attention whatever to me, continuing to hold my grandmother’s hand and look into the wise, stormy, tender, emphatic, much-enduring old face. And I wondered at my relative, and saw in this marvel one more proof of her own infallibility.

“You must not stay any longer in this great house alone,” she was saying, “I will send you-somebody.”

Then she looked again at Miss Irma’s hands, and though I did not see why, nor understand at the time, she added, “No-no-it will never do-never do!” I wish I could say that on this first occasion of our meeting, Miss Irma devoted a little of her attention to me. But the truth is, she had eyes for nobody but Mistress Mary Lyon of Heathknowes. True, a glance occasionally came my way, which caused me instinctively to straighten myself up and square my shoulders, as I did in the playground when acting as drill sergeant to the juniors. But the very same glance with quite as much personality in it, passed on to Crazy, who, to the exuberant delight of little Louis, had by this time intruded himself. It was impossible for the most self-conceited to bring away much comfort or encouragement from favours so slight as these.

Even Louis, after the advent of Crazy, considered me only as his drill-sergeant, and valued me according as Crazy consented to show off his tricks at the word of command from me.

“Behave, sir! You are in the kirk!” cried I. And lo! to the boy’s wonder Crazy, who had been gambolling about on the bare floor, sank down with his head between his paws and his eyes hypocritically closed, till I gave the signal, “Now fight the French!” Upon which uprose Crazy like a dancing bear on his hind legs, and jumped about with flaming eyes, barking with all his might. This, being the performance which pleased Crazy most, was also the favourite with the young Sir Louis.

Indeed leavetaking was difficult, though by no means on my account. For Miss Irma was all taken up with grandmother and little Louis with Crazy. Nobody minded me, and Miss Irma did not so much as reach me a finger, though at the last she just nodded, and Sir Louis had to be removed wailing, because he wished to keep his arms tight about the shaggy neck of Master Crazy, that singularly indifferent sheep-dog, but excellent variety entertainer.

It was, however, promised that Crazy should return, and as I knew that Crazy would by no means perform without me, considering himself bound to me by hours of patient labour and persistent fellow truantry, I saw some light on the horizon of an otherwise dark future. I must go back too. But in the meantime Louis wept uncomforted, and “batted” his sister with baby palms in the impotence of his anger as she carried him within.

My grandmother said nothing of any importance on the way home. She was evidently thinking deeply, and confined herself to “Hush, you there!” and “Do ye hear what I was saying to ye?” Under a fire of suchlike remarks, delivered more or less at random, and without the least discrimination between the barking of Crazy (the effect) and me (the cause)-I kept a little in the rear so that I might have a sober face on me when she turned round, while the less subtle Crazy galloped in furious circles yapping and leaping up even in my grandmother’s face. He was, however, useful in drawing her fire, and though I had to keep a sharp look-out for the stones she caught up to throw at Crazy (who ran no personal danger) our home-coming was effected in good order and with considerable amusement to myself.

But on her arrival at Heathknowes, Mrs. Mary Lyon found that there were forces in the universe which even she was powerless to conquer.

Meg, the “indoor” lass at Heathknowes, refused point-blank to go one foot in the direction of the “Ghaist’s Hoose.” She persisted in her refusal even when addressed by the awe-inspiring baptismal name of Margaret Simprin Hetherington, and reminded of the terms of her engagement.

No, Margaret Simprin Hetherington would not-could not-dared not-stay a night in the great house of Marnhoul. Whatever my grandmother might say it was not so nominated in the bond. She had been hired to serve about the farmhouse of Heathknowes, and she did not mind carrying their dinners to the workmen in the saw-mill-

“No,” interpolated my grandmother, “nor taking an hour-and-a-half to do it in!”

Upon which, as if stirred by some association of ideas, Meg added that she would go none to Marnhoul Big Hoose, “because not a soul would come near the place.” It did not matter whether she believed in Grey Ladies with rain-drops pattering through them or not-other people did, and she would not be banished “among the clocks and rattons”-no, not for double wages!

My grandmother, indeed, explained that there was no question of ladies grey or rain-drops pattering, but of obedience to her legal mistress.

But she knew that the cause was lost, and I am quite sure anticipated the reply of Margaret Simprin Hetherington, which was to the effect that no lass, indoor or outdoor, was more willing to obey her mistress than she, but it would be in the place in which she had been hired to serve-there and not elsewhere.

For once my grandmother was nonplussed. Being a good Galloway woman she knew that of all things it is most impossible to run counter to the superstitions of her people. Perhaps she retained a touch of these herself. But, as she said, “The grace of the Lord can overcome all the wiles of the Evil One! And Mary Lyon would like to see witch or warlock, ghost or ghostling, that would come in her road when she went forth under His banner.” On the darkest night she marched unafraid, conquering and to conquer, having the superstitions born in her, but knowing all the same (and all the better for that knowledge) on which side were the bigger battalions.

It was no use to send my Aunt Jen, who had once been “in a place” before. Aunt Jen would go, but-she would take her tongue with her. She had her mother’s command of language, but was utterly destitute of her tact, lacking also, as was natural, the maternal instinct. As, in a moment of exasperation my grandmother once said of her, “Our Jinnet is dried up like a crab-tree in the east wind!”

She would certainly undo all that Mistress Mary Lyon had done, and “that puir young lassie” (as she called Miss Irma) carried a warlike flash in her eye which warned the rugged grandmotherly heart that she and our Aunt Jen could not long bide at peace in the same house.

My mother might have done, as far as temper was concerned, but she wanted what grandmother called the “needcessary birr.” Besides which she had more than enough to do in caring for her own house, mending my father’s clothes and misinforming the public as to Post Office regulations. On the whole, though she loved her married daughter, I think Mary Lyon was not a little sorry for my father, John MacAlpine, in his choice of a housekeeper. I could see this by the occasional descents she made upon our house, and the way she had of going about the rooms, setting things to rights, silent save for a running comment of soft sniffs upon the nose of contempt-the while my mother, after a sympathetic glance at me, devoted herself to silent prayer that grandmother would not light upon anything very bad.

With my grandmother, to fail in the due ordering of a house was a cardinal sin. And my poor mother sinned, not indeed by intention, hardly even in labour, but in that appearance of easy perfection, which in a household is the result of excellent plans thoroughly and timeously carried out. She was apt to be found late of an afternoon in a chair with a book-and the dinner dishes still unwashed. Then Agnes Anne, my sister, would come in without a word. Her school frock would be quickly shrouded under a great coarse apron. If I happened to be within doors I was beckoned to assist. If not, not-and Agnes Anne did them herself while my mother slept on.

But I do not think that grandmother knew this, for she very generally ignored Agnes Anne altogether, having a decided preference for boys in a family. It fell out, therefore, that when she came a little shamefacedly to consult my father, as she sometimes did in days of difficulty-for under a show of contempt she often really submitted to his judgment-it was given to Agnes Anne to say suddenly, “Let me go to Marnhoul, grandmother!” If Balaam’s ass (or say, Crazy), had spoken these words, grandmother could not have been more astonished.

More so still when John MacAlpine nodded approval.

“Yes, let the lassie go-let her put her hand to the work. The burden cannot be too soon laid on young shoulders-that is, if they are strong enough.”

Mary Lyon stared, as if both he and his daughter had suddenly taken leave of their senses.

“Why, what can the lassie do?” she cried; “I thought you were making her nothing but a don in the dead languages!”

“I can bake, and brew, and wash, and keep a house clean,” said Agnes Anne, putting in her testimonials, since there was no one so well acquainted with them. My father nodded. He was not so blind as many might suppose. My mother said, “Aye, ’deed, she can that. Agnes Anne is a good lass. I know not what I should do without her!”

My grandmother looked about at the new air of tidiness, and for the first time a suspicion crossed her mind that, out of a pit from which she was expecting no such treasure, some one in her own image might possibly have been digged among her descendants of the second generation. She looked at Agnes Anne with a ray of hope. Agnes Anne stood the awful searching power of that eye. Agnes Anne did not flinch. Mary Lyon nodded her head with its man’s close-cropped locks of rough white hair in lyart locks about her ears.

“You’ll do, Agnes Anne, you’ll do,” she said, adding cautiously, “that is, after a time”-so as not to exalt the girl above measure. It was, however, recognized by all as a definite triumph for my sister. My grandmother, a rigid Calvinist, who believed in Election with all her intellect, and acted Free Will with all her heart, elected Agnes Anne upon the spot. Had the girl not willed to rise out of the pit of sloth and mere human learning? And lo! she had arisen. Thenceforth Agnes Anne stood on a pedestal, and for a while one sturdy disciple of Calvin’s thought heretically of the pure doctrine. Here was a human being who had willed, and, according to my grandmother, had made of herself a miracle of grace.

But she recalled herself to more orthodox sentiments. The steel was out of the sheath, indeed, but it had to be tried. Even yet Agnes Anne might be found wanting.

“When will you be ready to start?” she said, turning her black twinkling eyes upon her granddaughter.

“In five minutes,” said Agnes Anne boldly.

“And you are not frightened?”

“Of what?”

“Of these vain tales-ghosts, hauntings, and so forth. Our Meg Simprin (silly maid!) would not move a foot, and you are far younger.”

“I am no younger than those who are in the house already,” said Agnes Anne, with great sense, which even I would hardly have expected from her, “and if ghosts are spirits, as the Bible says, I do not see that they can interfere with housework!”

My grandmother rose solemnly from her seat, patted Agnes Anne on the top-knot of her hair, shook hands with John MacAlpine, nodded meaningly at my mother, and said, “Come along, young lass,” in a tone which showed that the aged shepherdess had unexpectedly found a lamb whom she long counted lost absolutely butting against the door of the sheep-fold.

This was the apotheosis of Agnes Anne. Her life dates from that evening in our kitchen, even as mine did from the afternoon when one half the fools of Eden Valley were letting off shot-guns at the back windows of Marnhoul Great House, while Miss Irma withstood the others on the threshold of the front door.