It was time that I was cutting loose from this ill-omened company and continuing my road Edinburgh-wards. We were lying in a wide trough of the Pentland Hills, which I well remembered. The folk of the plains called it the Cauldstaneslap, and it made an easy path for sheep and cattle between the Lothians and Tweeddale. The camp had been snugly chosen, for, except by the gleam of a fire in the dark, it was invisible from any distance. Muckle John was so filled with his vapourings that I could readily slip off down the burn and join the southern highway at the village of Linton.
I was on the verge of going when I saw that which pulled me up. A rider was coming over the moor. The horse leaped the burn lightly, and before I could gather my wits was in the midst of the camp, where Muckle John was vociferating to heaven.
My heart gave a great bound, for I saw it was the girl who had sung to me in the rain. She rode a fine sorrel, with the easy seat of a skilled horsewoman. She was trimly clad in a green riding-coat, and over the lace collar of it her hair fell in dark, clustering curls. Her face was grave, like a determined child’s; but the winds of the morning had whipped it to a rosy colour, so that into that clan of tatterdemalions she rode like Proserpine descending among the gloomy Shades. In her hand she carried a light riding-whip.
A scream from the women brought Muckle John out of his rhapsodies. He stared blankly at the slim girl who confronted him with hand on hip.
“What seekest thou here, thou shameless woman?” he roared.
“I am come,” said she, “for my tirewoman, Janet Somerville, who left me three days back without a reason. Word was brought me that she had joined a mad company called the Sweet-Singers, that lay at the Cauldstaneslap. Janet’s a silly body, but she means no ill, and her mother is demented at the loss of her. So I have come for Janet.”
Her cool eyes ran over the assembly till they lighted on the one I had already noted as more decent-like than the rest. At the sight of the girl the woman bobbed a curtsy.
“Come out of it, silly Janet,” said she on the horse; “you’ll never make a Sweet-Singer, for there’s not a notion of a tune in your head.”
“It’s not singing that I seek, my leddy,” said the woman, blushing. “I follow the call o’ the Lord by the mouth o’ His servant, John Gib.”
“You’ll follow the call of your mother by the mouth of me, Elspeth Blair. Forget these havers, Janet, and come back like a good Christian soul. Mount and be quick. There’s room behind me on Bess.”
The words were spoken in a kindly, wheedling tone, and the girl’s face broke into the prettiest of smiles. Perhaps Janet would have obeyed, but Muckle John, swift to prevent defection, took up the parable.
“Begone, ye daughter of Heth!” he bellowed, “ye that are like the devils that pluck souls from the way of salvation. Begone, or it is strongly borne in upon me that ye will dree the fate of the women of Midian, of whom it is written that they were slaughtered and spared not.”