Salted With Fire

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The same moment to her ears came the cry of an infant. Her first thought was, "Can that be Himsel, come ance again as he cam ance afore?"

She stopped in the dusky starlight, and listened with her very soul.

"Andrew!" she cried, for she heard the sound of his steps as he plodded on in front of her, and could vaguely see him, "Andrew, what was yon?"

"I h'ard naething," answered Andrew, stopping at her cry and listening.

There came a second cry, a feeble, sad wail, and both of them heard it.

Maggie darted off in the direction whence it seemed to come; nor had she far to run, for it was not one to reach any distance.

They were at the moment climbing a dreary, desolate ridge, where the road was a mere stony hollow, in winter a path for the rain rather than the feet of men. On each side of it lay a wild moor, covered with heather and low berry-bearing shrubs. Under a big bush Maggie saw something glimmer, and, flying to it, found a child. It might be a year old, but was so small and poorly nourished that its age was hard to guess. "With the instinct of a mother, she caught it up, and clasping it close to her panting bosom, was delighted to find it cease wailing the moment it felt her arm. Andrew, who had dropped the things he carried, and started at once after her, met her half-way, so absorbed in her treasure trove, and so blind to aught else, that he had to catch them both in his arms to break the imminent shock; but she slipped from them, and, to his amazement, went on down the hill, back the way they had come: clearly she thought of nothing but carrying the infant home to her father; and here even the slow perception of her companion understood her.

"Maggie, Maggie," he cried, "ye'll baith be deid afore ye win hame wi' 't! Come on to my mither. There never was wuman like her for bairns! She'll ken a hantle better nor ony father what to dee wi' 't!"

Maggie at once recovered her senses, and knew he was right--but not before she had received an instantaneous insight that never after left her: now she understood the heart of the Son of Man, come to find and carry back the stray children to their Father and His. When afterward she told her father what she had then felt, he answered her with just the four words and no more--

"Lassie, ye hae 't!"

Happily the moon was now up, so that Andrew was soon able to find the things they had both dropped in their haste, and Maggie had soon wrapped the baby in the winsey petticoat she had been carrying. Andrew took up his loaf and his other packages, and they set out again for Bogsheuch, Maggie's heart all but overwhelmed with its exultation. Had the precious thing been twice the weight, so exuberant was her feeling of wealth in it that she could have carried it twice the distance with ease, although the road was so rough that she went in constant terror of stumbling. Andrew gave now and then a queer chuckle at the ludicrousness of their home-coming, and every second minute had to stop and pick up one or other of his many parcels; but Maggie strode on in front, full of possession, and with the feeling of having now at last entered upon her heavenly inheritance; so that she was quite startled when suddenly they came in sight of the turf cottage, and the little window in which a small cresset-lamp was burning. Before they reached it the door opened, and Eppie appeared with an overflow of question and anxious welcome.

"What on earth--" she began.

"Naething but a bonny wee bairnie, whause mither has tint it!" at once interrupted and answered Maggie, flying up to her, and laying the child in her arms.

Mrs. Cormack stood and stared, now at Maggie, and now at the bundle that lay in her own arms. Tenderly searching in the petticoat, she found at last the little one's face, and uncovered the sleeping child.

"Eh the puir mither!" she said, and hurriedly covered again the tiny countenance.

"It's mine!" cried Maggie. "I faund it honest!"

"Its mither may ha' lost it honest, Maggie!" said Eppie.

"Weel, its mither can come for't gien she want it! It's mine till she dis, ony gait!" rejoined the girl.

"Nae doobt o' that!" replied the old woman, scarcely questioning that the infant had been left to perish by some worthless tramp. "Ye'll maybe hae't langer nor ye'll care to keep it!"

"That's no vera likly," answered Maggie with a smile, as she stood in the doorway, in the wakeful night of the northern summer: "it's ane o' the Lord's ain lammies 'at he cam to the hills to seek. He's fund this ane!"

"Weel, weel, my bonnie doo, it sanna be for me to contradick ye!--But wae's upo' me for a menseless auld wife! come in; come in: the mair welcome 'at ye're lang expeckit!--But bless me, An'rew, what hae ye dune wi' the cairt and the beastie?"

In a few words, for brevity was easy to him, Andrew told the story of their disaster.

"It maun hae been the Lord's mercy! The puir beastie bude to suffer for the sake o' the bairnie!"

She got them their supper, which was keeping hot by the fire; and then sent Maggie to her bed in the ben-end, where she laid the baby beside her, after washing him and wrapping him in a soft well-worn shift of her own. But Maggie scarcely slept for listening lest the baby's breath should stop; and Eppie sat in the kitchen with Andrew until the light, slowly travelling round the north, deepened in the east, and at last climbed the sky, leading up the sun himself; when Andrew rose, and set his face toward Stonecross, in full but not very anxious expectation of a stormy reception from his mistress before he should have time to explain. When he reached home, however, he found the house not yet astir; and had time to feed and groom his horses before any one was about, so that, to his relief, no rendering of reasons was necessary.

All the next day Maggie was ill at ease, in much dread of the appearance of a mother. The baby seemed nothing the worse for his exposure, and although thin and pale, appeared a healthy child, taking heartily the food offered him. He was decently though poorly clad, and very clean. The Cormacks making inquiry at every farmhouse and cottage within range of the moor, the tale of his finding was speedily known throughout the neighbourhood; but to the satisfaction of Maggie at least, who fretted to carry home her treasure, without any result; so that by the time the period of her visit arrived, she was feeling tolerably secure in her possession, and returned with it in triumph to her father.

The long-haired horse not yet proving equal to the journey, she had to walk home; but Eppie herself accompanied her, bent on taking her share in the burden of the child, which Maggie was with difficulty persuaded to yield. Eppie indeed carried him up to the soutar's door, but Maggie insisted on herself laying him in her father's arms. The soutar rose from his stool, received him like Simeon taking the infant Jesus from the arms of his mother, and held him high like a heave-offering to him that had sent him forth from the hidden Holiest of Holies. One moment in silence he held him, then restoring him to his daughter, sat down again, and took up his last and shoe. Then suddenly becoming aware of a breach in his manners, he rose again at once, saying--

"I crave yer pardon, Mistress Cormack: I was clean forgettin ony breedin I ever had!--Maggie, tak oor freen ben the hoose, and gar her rest her a bit, while ye get something for her efter her lang walk. I'll be ben mysel' in a meenute or twa to hae a crack wi' her. I hae but a feow stitches mair to put intil this same sole! The three o' 's maun tak some sarious coonsel thegither anent the upbringin o' this God-sent bairn! I doobtna but he's come wi' a blessin to this hoose! Eh, but it was a mercifu fittin o' things that the puir bairn and Maggie sud that nicht come thegither! Verily, He shall give his angels chairge over thee! They maun hae been aboot the muir a' that day, that nane but Maggie sud get a haud o' 'im--aiven as they maun hae been aboot the field and the flock and the shepherds and the inn-stable a' that gran' nicht!"

The same moment entered a neighbour who, having previously heard and misinterpreted the story, had now caught sight of their arrival.

"Eh, soutar, but ye ir a man by Providence sair oppressed!" she cried. "Wha think ye's been i' the faut here?"

The wrath of the soutar sprang up flaming.

"Gang oot o' my hoose, ye ill-thouchtit wuman!" he shouted. "Gang oot o' 't this verra meenit--and comena intil 't again 'cep it be to beg my pardon and that o' this gude wuman and my bonny lass here! The Lord God bless her frae ill tongues!--Gang oot, I tell ye!"

The outraged father stood towering, whom all the town knew for a man of gentlest temper and great courtesy. The woman stood one moment dazed and uncertain, then turned and fled. Maggie retired with Mistress Cormack; and when the soutar joined them, he said never a word about the discomfited gossip. Eppie having taken her tea, rose and bade them good-night, nor crossed another threshold in the village.

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