The Heather Lintie by S. R. Crockett

Janet Balchrystie lived in a little cottage at the back of the Long Wood of Barbrax. She had been a hard-working woman all her days, for her mother died when she was but young, and she had lived on, keeping her father's house by the side of the single-track railway-line. Gavin Balchrystie was a foreman plate-layer on the P.P.R., and with two men under him, had charge of a section of three miles. He lived just where that distinguished but impecunious line plunges into a moss-covered granite wilderness of moor and bog, where there is not more than a shepherd's hut to the half-dozen miles, and where the passage of a train is the occasion of commotion among scattered groups of black-faced sheep. Gavin Balchrystie's three miles of P.P.R. metals gave him little work, but a good deal of healthy exercise. The black-faced sheep breaking down the fences and straying on the line side, and the torrents coming down the granite gullies, foaming white after a water-spout, and tearing into his embankments, undermining his chairs and plates, were the only troubles of his life. There was, however, a little public-house at The Huts, which in the old days of construction had had the license, and which had lingered alone, license and all, when its immediate purpose in life had been fulfilled, because there was nobody but the whaups and the railway officials on the passing trains to object to its continuance. Now it is cold and blowy on the west-land moors, and neither whaups nor dark-blue uniforms object to a little refreshment up there. The mischief was that Gavin Balchrystie did not, like the guards and engine-drivers, go on with the passing train. He was always on the spot, and the path through Barbrax Wood to the Railway Inn was as well trodden as that which led over the bog moss, where the whaups built, to the great white viaduct of Loch Merrick, where his three miles of parallel gleaming responsibility began.

When his wife was but newly dead, and his Janet just a smart elf-locked lassie running to and from the school, Gavin got too much in the way of "slippin' doon by." When Janet grew to be woman muckle, Gavin kept the habit, and Janet hardly knew that it was not the use and wont of all fathers to sidle down to a contiguous Railway Arms, and return some hours later with uncertain step, and face pricked out with bright pin-points of red—the sure mark of the confirmed drinker of whisky neat.

They were long days in the cottage at the back of Barbrax Long Wood. The little "but an' ben" was whitewashed till it dazzled the eyes as you came over the brae to it and found it set against the solemn depths of dark-green firwood. From early morn, when she saw her father off, till the dusk of the day, when he would return for his supper, Janet Balchrystie saw no human being. She heard the muffled roar of the trains through the deep cutting at the back of the wood, but she herself was entirely out of sight of the carriagefuls of travellers whisking past within half a mile of her solitude and meditation.

Janet was what is called a "through-gaun lass," and her work for the day was often over by eight o'clock in the morning. Janet grew to womanhood without a sweetheart. She was plain, and she looked plainer than she was in the dresses which she made for herself by the light of nature and what she could remember of the current fashions at Merrick Kirk, to which she went every alternate Sunday. Her father and she took day about. Wet or shine, she tramped to Merrick Kirk, even when the rain blattered and the wind raved and bleated alternately among the pines of the Long Wood of Barbrax. Her father had a simpler way of spending his day out. He went down to the Railway Inn and drank "ginger-beer" all day with the landlord. Ginger-beer is an unsteadying beverage when taken the day by the length. Also the man who drinks it steadily and quietly never enters on any inheritance of length of days.

So it came to pass that one night Gavin Balchrystie did not come home at all—at least, not till he was brought lying comfortably on the door of a disused third-class carriage, which was now seeing out its career anchored under the bank at Loch Merrick, where Gavin had used it as a shelter. The driver of the "six-fifty up" train had seen him walking soberly along toward The Huts (and the Railway Inn), letting his long surface-man's hammer fall against the rail-keys occasionally as he walked. He saw him bend once, as though his keen ear detected a false ring in a loose length between two plates. This was the last that was seen of him till the driver of the "nine-thirty-seven down" express—the "boat-train," as the employees of the P.P.R. call it, with a touch of respect in their voices—passed Gavin fallen forward on his face just when he was flying down grade under a full head of steam. It was duskily clear, with a great lake of crimson light dying into purple over the hills of midsummer heather. The driver was John Platt, the Englishman from Crewe, who had been brought from the great London and Northwestern Railway, locally known as "The Ell-nen-doubleyou." In these remote railway circles the talk is as exclusively of matters of the four-foot way as in Crewe or Derby. There is an inspector of traffic, whose portly presence now graces Carlisle Station, who left the P.P.R. in these sad days of amalgamation, because he could not endure to see so many "Sou'west" waggons passing over the sacred metals of the P.P.R. permanent way. From his youth he had been trained in a creed of two articles: "To swear by the P.P.R. through thick and thin, and hate the apple green of the 'Sou'west.'" It was as much as he could do to put up with the sight of the abominations; to have to hunt for their trucks when they got astray was more than mortal could stand, so he fled the land.

So when they stopped the express for Gavin Balchrystie, every man on the line felt that it was an honour to the dead. John Platt sent a "gurring" thrill through the train as he put his brakes hard down and whistled for the guard. He, thinking that the Merrick Viaduct was down at least, twirled his brake to such purpose that the rear car progressed along the metals by a series of convulsive bounds. Then they softly ran back, and there lay Gavin fallen forward on his knees, as though he had been trying to rise, or had knelt down to pray. Let him have "the benefit of the doubt" in this world. In the next, if all tales be true, there is no such thing.

So Janet Balchrystie dwelt alone in the white "but an' ben" at the back of the Long Wood of Barbrax. The factor gave her notice, but the laird, who was not accounted by his neighbours to be very wise, because he did needlessly kind things, told the factor to let the lassie bide, and delivered to herself with his own handwriting to the effect that Janet Balchrystie, in consideration of her lonely condition, was to be allowed the house for her lifetime, a cow's grass, and thirty pound sterling in the year as a charge on the estate. He drove down the cow himself, and having stalled it in the byre, he informed her of the fact over the yard dyke by word of mouth, for he never could be induced to enter her door. He was accounted to be "gey an' queer," save by those who had tried making a bargain with him. But his farmers liked him, knowing him to be an easy man with those who had been really unfortunate, for he knew to what the year's crops of each had amounted, to a single chalder and head of nowt.

Deep in her heart Janet Balchrystie cherished a great ambition. When the earliest blackbird awoke and began to sing, while it was yet gray twilight, Janet would be up and at her work. She had an ambition to be a great poet. No less than this would serve her. But not even her father had known, and no other had any chance of knowing. In the black leather chest, which had been her mother's, upstairs, there was a slowly growing pile of manuscript, and the editor of the local paper received every other week a poem, longer or shorter, for his Poet's Corner, in an envelope with the New Dalry postmark. He was an obliging editor, and generally gave the closely written manuscript to the senior office boy, who had passed the sixth standard, to cut down, tinker the rhymes, and lope any superfluity of feet. The senior office boy "just spread himself," as he said, and delighted to do the job in style. But there was a woman fading into a gray old-maidishness which had hardly ever been girlhood, who did not at all approve of these corrections. She endured them because over the signature of "Heather Bell" it was a joy to see in the rich, close luxury of type her own poetry, even though it might be a trifle tattered and tossed about by hands ruthless and alien—those, in fact, of the senior office boy.

Janet walked every other week to the post-office at New Dalry to post her letters to the editor, but neither the great man nor yet the senior office boy had any conception that the verses of their "esteemed correspondent" were written by a woman too early old who dwelt alone at the back of Barbrax Long Wood.

One day Janet took a sudden but long-meditated journey. She went down by rail from the little station of The Huts to the large town of Drum, thirty miles to the east. Here, with the most perfect courage and dignity of bearing, she interviewed a printer and arranged for the publication of her poems in their own original form, no longer staled and clapper-clawed by the pencil of the senior office boy. When the proof-sheets came to Janet, she had no way of indicating the corrections but by again writing the whole poem out in a neat print hand on the edge of the proof, and underscoring the words which were to be altered. This, when you think of it, is a very good way, when the happiest part of your life is to be spent in such concrete pleasures of hope, as Janet's were over the crackly sheets of the printer of Drum. Finally the book was produced, a small rather thickish octavo, on sufficiently wretched gray paper which had suffered from want of thorough washing in the original paper-mill. It was bound in a peculiarly deadly blue, of a rectified Reckitt tint, which gave you dazzles in the eye at any distance under ten paces. Janet had selected this as the most appropriate of colours. She had also many years ago decided upon the title, so that Reckitt had printed upon it, back and side, "The Heather Lintie," while inside there was the acknowledgment of authorship, which Janet felt to be a solemn duty to the world: "Poems by Janet Balchrystie, Barbrax Cottage, by New Dalry." First she had thought of withholding her name and style; but, on the whole, after the most prolonged consideration, she felt that she was not justified in bringing about such a controversy as divided Scotland concerning that "Great Unknown" who wrote the Waverley Novels.

Almost every second or third day Janet trod that long lochside road to New Dalry for her proof-sheets, and returned them on the morrow corrected in her own way. Sometimes she got a lift from some farmer or carter, for she had worn herself with anxiety to the shadow of what she had once been, and her dry bleached hair became gray and grayer with the fervour of her devotion to letters.

By April the book was published, and at the end of this month, laid aside by sickness of the vague kind called locally "a decline," she took to her bed, rising only to lay a few sticks upon the fire from her store gathered in the autumn, or to brew herself a cup of tea. She waited for the tokens of her book's conquests in the great world of thought and men. She had waited so long for her recognition, and now it was coming. She felt that it would not be long before she was recognised as one of the singers of the world. Indeed, had she but known it, her recognition was already on its way.

In a great city of the north a clever young reporter was cutting open the leaves of "The Heather Lintie" with a hand almost feverishly eager.

"This is a perfect treasure. This is a find indeed. Here is my chance ready to my hand."

His paper was making a specialty of "exposures." If there was anything weak and erring, anything particularly helpless and foolish which could make no stand for itself, the "Night Hawk" was on the pounce. Hitherto the junior reporter had never had a "two-column chance." He had read—it was not much that he had read—Macaulay's too famous article on "Satan" Montgomery, and, not knowing that Macaulay lived to regret the spirit of that assault, he felt that if he could bring down the "Night Hawk" on "The Heather Lintie," his fortune was made. So he sat down and he wrote, not knowing and not regarding a lonely woman's heart, to whom his word would be as the word of a God, in the lonely cottage lying in the lee of the Long Wood of Barbrax.

The junior reporter turned out a triumph of the new journalism. "This is a book which may be a genuine source of pride to every native of the ancient province of Galloway," he wrote. "Galloway has been celebrated for black cattle and for wool, as also for a certain bucolic belatedness of temperament, but Galloway has never hitherto produced a poetess. One has arisen in the person of Miss Janet Bal— something or other. We have not an interpreter at hand, and so cannot wrestle with the intricacies of the authoress's name, which appears to be some Galwegian form of Erse or Choctaw. Miss Bal—and so forth—has a true fount of pathos and humour. In what touching language she chronicles the death of two young lambs which fell down into one of the puddles they call rivers down there, and were either drowned or choked with the dirt:

     "'They were two bonny, bonny lambs,
     That played upon the daisied lea,
     And loudly mourned their woolly dams
     Above the drumly flowing Dee.'

"How touchingly simple!" continued the junior reporter, buckling up his sleeves to enjoy himself, and feeling himself born to be a "Saturday Reviewer."

"Mark the local colour, the wool and the dirty water of the Dee—without doubt a name applied to one of their bigger ditches down there. Mark also the over-fervency of the touching line,

     "'And loudly mourned their woolly dams,'

"Which, but for the sex of the writer and her evident genius, might be taken for an expression of a strength hardly permissible even in the metropolis."

The junior reporter filled his two columns and enjoyed himself in the doing of it. He concluded with the words: "The authoress will make a great success. If she will come to the capital, where genius is always appreciated, she will, without doubt, make her fortune. Nay, if Miss Bal—but again we cannot proceed for the want of an interpreter—if Miss B., we say, will only accept a position at Cleary's Waxworks and give readings from her poetry, or exhibit herself in the act of pronouncing her own name, she will be a greater draw in this city than Punch and Judy, or even the latest American advertising evangelist, who preaches standing on his head."

The junior reporter ceased here from very admiration at his own cleverness in so exactly hitting the tone of the masters of his craft, and handed his manuscript in to the editor.

It was the gloaming of a long June day when Rob Affleck, the woodman over at Barbrax, having been at New Dalry with a cart of wood, left his horse on the roadside and ran over through Gavin's old short cut, now seldom used, to Janet's cottage with a paper in a yellow wrapper.

"Leave it on the step, and thank you kindly, Rob," said a weak voice within; and Rob, anxious about his horse and his bed, did so without another word. In a moment or two Janet crawled to the door, listened to make sure that Rob was really gone, opened the door, and protruded a hand wasted to the hard, flat bone—an arm that ought for years to have been full of flesh and noble curves.

When Janet got back to bed it was too dark to see anything except the big printing at the top of the paper.

"Two columns of it!" said Janet, with great thankfulness in her heart, lifting up her soul to God who had given her the power to sing. She strained her prematurely old and weary eyes to make out the sense. "A genuine source of pride to every native of the ancient province," she read.

"The Lord be praised!" said Janet, in a rapture of devout thankfulness; "though I never really doubted it," she added, as though asking pardon for a moment's distrust. "But I tried to write these poems to the glory of God and not to my own praise, and He will accept them and keep me humble under the praise of men as well as under their neglect."

So clutching the precious paper close to her breast, and letting tears of thankfulness fall on the article, which, had they fallen on the head of the junior reporter, would have burned like fire, she patiently awaited the coming dawn.

"I can wait till the morning now to read the rest," she said.

So hour after hour, with her eyes wide, staring hard at the gray window-squares, she waited the dawn from the east. About half-past two there was a stirring and a moaning among the pines, and the roar of the sudden gust came with the breaking day through the dark arches. In the whirlwind there came a strange expectancy and tremor into the heart of the poetess, and she pressed the wet sheet of crumpled paper closer to her bosom, and turned to face the light. Through the spaces of the Long Wood of Barbrax there came a shining visitor, the Angel of the Presence, he who comes but once and stands a moment with a beckoning finger. Him she followed up through the wood.

They found Janet on the morning of the second day after, with a look so glad on her face, and so natural an expectation in the unclosed eye, that Rob Affleck spoke to her and expected an answer. The "Night Hawk" was clasped to her breast with a hand that they could not loosen. It went to the grave with her body. The ink had run a little here and there, where the tears had fallen thickest.

God is more merciful than man.