Thursday, 9 December 2010

The SMRG Advent Calendar - Day 9

Today's advent calendar is a story entitled "The Faithless Highlander" which was published around 1903. It was published along with a roll of men from Banffshire who had served in the recent South African War.

It's not our usual fare, but since I went to the trouble some years ago of transcribing it from the original copy, I was darned if I was going to waste it!

The Faithless Highlander


Jeanie Lamont sat up very straight amongst the heather at the foot of Ben Aigan, staring with flaming cheeks and angry eyes at an open letter in her hand. It was from the man she was going to marry, Corporal Sandy McKellar, of the Banffshire Highlanders, his first letter since he had left the Glen to follow his battalion to South Africa after a spell of sick furlough from India. During his leave they had become engaged. The big soldier and the little lass had found the mountain, glen, and river say such beautiful things to a man and a maid who wander amongst them, that they could not help trying to say them to each other. So they were to marry as soon as this cruel and sudden war would be over, and their good-byes had been an agony of mingled hope and apprehension.

The period of enforced silence whilst Sandy was on the seas was almost intolerable to Jeanie. She tried to picture the great steamer that held him, the broad ocean he was crossing, the vague and distant land he was bound for; but bigger than all these big things, blotting them quite out, the tall form of her man, with his kilt and bonnet, stood ever before her dark eyes until they blinked and grew misty, and almost wished they had never seen him. She guessed at his daily occupation on board, and indeed partly knew it. Thinking of her chiefly it was going to be, he had said, and in spare moments studying to improve his reading and writing to qualify him for promotion. If he could come back a sergeant, nothing in the world would be wanting to complete their happiness. She had written to him twice, and waited feverishly for his first letter; the day of its coming had been foreseen as exactly that of her own birthday. And at the precise hour the old postman had ridden up to the cottage door on his rough pony, with a smile in his eye and a foreign letter in his hand, both for Jeanie. A wonderful thing is the post, but it would not be half so swift and reliable did not all the lovers in the world insist upon its punctuality! Her letter had come at last and Jeanie fled with it to where they had said goodbye, under the shadow of Ben Aigan. And lo! It was not for her! The hills and the heather seemed to reel and disappear as she read the first lines. It was not for her, though the envelope bore her name in fair round copy-book hand under the Ladysmith postmark. Choking and amazed, with shame and anger and bitter disappointment, she read as follows:

My own darling Alice,

Thoughts of you have cheered the weary miles, yet rendered them longer and more melancholy. When shall I retrace them, and bless them bringing me ever nearer to you, instead of, as I do now, curse them for having removed me so far from my love? I have no time now for a long letter. Only this line to assure you, sweet Alice, that you alone of all the world are in my thoughts.

Your affianced,

“Alice!” “Your affianced Sandy!” What horrible letter was this which had fallen into her hands? It was in his writing, but beyond the postmark bore no address. But it was all plain enough. A letter, a letter from Sandy, but meant for another, sealed by mistake into the wrong envelope! No doubt a similar one, intended for her, had gone to this detestable Alice. And what long and difficult words, what beautiful writing, what sweet sentiments! She did not know that her Sandy could even think, much less write like this. Her Sandy! He was hers no longer, and burying her head in the scented heather, poor Jeanie burst into a flood of tears. She did not return to the cottage until evening, miserable, silent, refusing to answer any questions; and the old shepherd, her father, who had been a soldier himself, cursed McKellar under his breath as he watched her. Next week another letter came; Jeanie took it calmly from the postman, so calmly that the smile in the old man’s eyes died very quickly this time. And when he had gone with the puzzled frown which took its place, she walked to the peat fire, and, after hesitating a moment, flung the missive into the flames. Next week another letter, and the week after another, and so on until six had been thrown into the fire. And then they stopped.

He had soon ended his pretence, thought Jeanie scornfully, and she flushed hotly and stamped her foot when she thought of the three letters full of love she had sent him. But as she cried herself to sleep that night, and there was as much love as anger in the bitterness of her tears. And she wept again the next morning, for the casualty list of Elandslaagte was in the paper, and in it she read the following:

“Missing. No. 3250 Corporal S McKellar. Believed to be dead, as nothing known of him by the Boer Authorities.”

Well, dead or not, he was dead to her; and how she had loved him! And she could not hate him now, even though she hated to think that she loved him! At any rate, she could forget him. But they would not let her even do that.

A month later a package arrived from South Africa for her, with a polite communication from McKellar’s Captain to the effect that, as no news had been heard of the vanished Corporal, he must with great regret be presumed to be dead. Furthermore, that as amongst his effects no address or trace of relationship could be discovered except the name and residence of Miss Jeanie Lamont, the Corporal’s property was therefore forwarded to that lady. The Captain added that McKellar’s conduct at Elandslaagte had been most gallant, and that he must have been shot whilst endeavouring to seize one of the enemy’s guns some distance ahead of his comrades, an act, added the Captain, which would have received the award it merited had the doer ever appeared to receive it. So he wasn’t a coward at any rate, thought Jeanie, with swimming eyes as she untied the package. Amongst the paltry contents a few books – a grammar, a geography manual, and the “Aid to Self Education” – caught her eye. These had been Sandy’s stepping stones to the promotion he was never to see, and the eyes of the girl overflowed at the memory of what it was once to mean to them. But he had been faithless, and her eyes dried and her mouth hardened as she thought of that letter which had betrayed him in his true light. Let Alice mourn him, if she liked! Yet Jeanie, being a woman, mourned him too throughout two long years, and his image was ever in her heart.

One June day, two years after, she stood at the cottage door, looking at the hill top opposite. She sighed, how often had she and Sandy come over it together with the rays of the evening sun in their eyes, sometime with his cap held playfully before her face “to prevent,” he had said, “your een pittin’ the great licht yonder oot afore his time.”

Sandy could say such sweet things; oh! That horrible letter, if it had only been for her, how she would have loved the long words and their pretty talk of weary miles. Her eye dropped to the steep path they used to ascend together toward the cottage, walking very close together, for Sandy was big and the path was very narrow – and then her blood froze and her heart stood still. Up the path a tall in figure in Highland uniform moved slowly and painfully with bent head. It was Sandy’s wraith, and Jeanie’s eyes became wide and set with terror. But she could not move, and stood staring wildly at the advancing figure. It came nearer, moving with halting gait, and when about twenty feet from the trembling girl, stooped and raised its head. The face was pale and drawn, the eyes large and inexpressibly sad. The kilt was ragged and worn, and instead of the gay sporran a strip of dust coloured material hung in front and hid the well-known tartan. A Sergeant’s chevron striped the arm, and a bright medal gleamed on the faded coat.

“Sandy,” shrieked Jeanie, “Sandy! Hae ye come back frae the dead?” and she sank half fainting to the ground.

“Dinna be skeert, Jeanie,” replied the well-known deep voice of Sandy himself. “I’m no dead, tho’ I’d as life be since ye’ll no more o’ me. Why did ye no’ write? Ah, lassie, I thocht to get myse’ killed at Elandslaagte, but it wasna’ to be. They only wounded me and took me awa’ to their dirty toon.” Jeanie rose to her feet; fear had given place to wild anger and scorn of the man whose baseness she had discovered.

“And it is you, Sandy McKellar, wha dares to come lopin’ back here. Begone! Get ye to your Alice oot o’ ma sight!”

Sandy’s eyes opened wide in amazement.

“Alice?” he stammered; “Alice? I ken no lassie ca’ad Alice.”

“Liar that ye be!” shouted Jeanie back at him. “Cruel coward of a liar; ye writ to her afore my kisses were dry on your false lips. Were I a man, I’d choke ye with the letter. Bide ye there a wee!” Rushing into the cottage she opened the box wherein the letter had lain for two years, snatched it up, and hurrying out again, flung it at the feet of the Highlander.

“There, tak’ your letter and bear it to Alice; she’s waited land eneuch for it!” Sandy stooped painfully and picked it up, the girl watching him with flaming cheeks and heaving bosom. She laughed bitterly as a dark flush crept beneath the livid tan of the man’s face.

“Aye,” she sneered, “look well at your work, Sandy McKellar! And now begone!”

Sandy looked up and did not move, and Jeanie wondered, yet grew more angry, to see a half smile playing around the sad tired eyes.

“Aye, Jeanie,” he said, gravely, “’Tis ma letter, but ‘tis to no lass on earth, I sweer!”

“Liar,” she flung at him again, “I’ll bear no more o’t. But wait, tak’ your rubbish and yersel’ awa’ together!” and hurrying into the cottage once more she took the package which had rested on a shelf tied up as it had come from McKellar’s Captain two years before, and threw it, like the letter, at Sandy’s feet. As she did so the string broke, and the books and other things fell loose upon the ground. Sandy stooped again, and picked up a book, and stood stupidly turning over the leaves, whilst Jeanie, with one more glance of anger, retired into the cottage, and shut the door in his face. Her cup was full. Enough that her dream had been shattered without this added misery and insult.

She wept and raged alternately in the dark room. She loved him still, the first sight of him, the first sound of his voice had told her that; but never, never again would she see or speak to him. She heard his feet move on the stones outside; he came to the open window, with the book still in his hand.

“Goodbye, Jeanie,” he said, “ye’ll find the answer here,” and he pointed to the book, which he laid face down and open on the sill. Then he turned, and his heavy tread sounded down the path. Jeanie dashed to the window and seized the volume. It was the “Aid to Self Education,” and a heading at the top described the purport of the open page. “Practice in letter writing.” She scanned the page eagerly. “Letter on receiving a present.” “Letter of congratulation on a marriage,” with prim, pedantic sentences under these titles. Then at the bottom, “Letter to a betrothed lady when distant from her,” and lo! Following it the very epistle she had received from Sandy that terrible day. “My own darling Alice,” and all the rest! Jeanie leapt to the door and flung it open.

“Sandy! Sandy!” she called wildly.

The man, who was far down the path, turned at the call, and Jeanie rushed towards him.

“Sandy!” she sobbed, as she flung herself into his open arms, “Oh Sandy! What a miserable fool I ha’ been! Forgive me, laddie; I love ye, my Sandy; can ye love me still?”

It is needless to tell the reader the reply, or how Sandy with many deep blushes told his story. The letter which had wrought so much mischief was of course merely an exercise. Anxious that his first epistle to Jeanie should be worthy of her, the poor lad had studied the “Self Educator,” and selecting the letter therein which seemed best to bear upon their circumstances, had copied it carefully many times by way of practice, and a copy lay upon the ammunition box which formed his desk as he wrote his first letter to his lassie. As he wrote the last words, the alarm bugle sounded, and all the troops in Ladysmith got hurriedly under arms. In the sudden confusion in McKellar’s tent, the unlucky man placed the copied letter instead of the real hastily in the envelope already addressed to Jeanie, and flung it into the post box as he ran on his way to the parade ground of his company. Tents were then ordered to be struck, and the letter which would have given Jeanie so much pleasure was lost in the confusion, whilst the impostor duly wended its disastrous way to the distant Highland glen.

Sandy duly received the three letters written by Jeanie whilst he was at sea, and put down the failure in the fourth week to some accident of the post, but the fifth, sixth, and the seventh mail days proved letter-less, and all the light went out of his life. She could not be ill, or he would have been told; she could only have forgotten him, or have found another man; there were too many young scamps about the Glen. “Curse them one an’ all,” he growled, as he thought how tall Campbell, the under-keeper, or Dan McCrae, the giant stalker, might at that very moment be looking into Jeanie’s bright eyes.

“Dinna fash yersel, mon!” urged his comrade, Dugald, who had perceived his friend’s unhappiness and found out the cause; “There’s as good haddies in the sea, ye ken, as ever cam’ oot, and better forbye; an’ a lass as wukk no’ wait six weeks for her lad, is no gude feesh at a’ to my thinkin’, and I wouldna gie a docken leaf for a bundle o’ such!” But when has such comfort ever availed a man in love? Sandy’s heart was well nigh broken.

Then came Elandslaagte, and the bereaved Corporal rushed to the front through the storm of fire seeking death. But death is as capricious as love, and as hard to capture when wanted. He got far ahead of his Company, which, checked by a wire fence, roared applause to him as he sped on. He gained the summit of the position, flung himself upon the Boer gun which squatted thereon, killed and scattered the gunners, and fell wounded himself across the barrel. And when the Boers fled a few moments later before the onset of his regiment, they bore him with them as a prisoner. Long he lay delirious in the neat hospital of Pretoria, and to his attendants asking for his name, he only muttered “Jeanie Lamont,” a hundred times a day, which they took to be “John Lamont,” and denied all knowledge of any McKellar in their hands when a flag of truce came in to enquire for the fate of the missing.

Release came in time, and Sandy, too weak and ill for further service, was amongst the first sent home, with a Sergeant’s stripes on his arm, the medal for distinguished conduct on his breast, and a hopeless heart inside it. He went straight to Jeanie, more in expectation of having his fate confirmed than altered, with what result has been related. When last I saw him and Jeanie they were standing hand in hand in front of their own, the head keeper’s lodge, laughing up at a very small pink Sandy, who skirled like a little bagpipe as he was held high in tall Campbell’s strong hands.

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