The Little Gray House on the Brae
F you had peeped in at the window of a
little gray house on a heathery hillside in
the Highlands of Scotland one Saturday
morning in May some years ago, you might
have seen Jean Campbell "redding up" her
kitchen. It was a sight best seen from a safe
distance, for, though Jean was only twelve
years old, she was a fierce little housekeeper
every day in the week, and on Saturday,
when she was getting ready for the Sabbath,
it was a bold person indeed who would
venture to put himself in the path of her broom.
To be sure, there was no one in the family to
take such a risk except her twin brother Jock,
her father, Robin Campbell, the Shepherd of
Glen Easig, and True Tammas, the dog, for
the Twins' mother had "slippit
On this May morning Jean woke up at five o'clock and peeped out of the closet bed in which she slept to take a look at the day. The sun had already risen over the rocky crest of gray old Ben Vane, the mountain back of the house, and was pouring a stream of golden sunlight through the eastern windows of the kitchen. The kettle was singing over the fire in the open fireplace, a pan of skimmed milk for the calf was warming by the hearth, and her father was just going out, with the pail on his arm, to milk the cow. She looked across the room at the bed in the corner by the fireplace to see if Jock were still asleep. All she could see of him was a shock of sandy hair, two eyes tight shut, and a freckled nose half buried in the bed-clothes.
"Wake up, you lazy laddie," she called out to him, "or when I get my clothes on I'll waken you with a wet cloth! Here's the sun looking in at the windows to shame you, and Father already gone to the milking."
Jock opened one sleepy blue eye.
"Leave us alone, now, Jeanie," he wheedled. "I was just having a sonsie wee bit of a dream. Let me finish, and syne I'll tell you all about it."
"Indeed, and you'll do nothing of the kind," retorted Jean, with spirit. "Up with you, mannie, or I'll be dressed before you, and I ken very well you'd not like to be beaten by a lassie, and her your own sister, too."
Jock cuddled down farther into the blankets without answering, and Jean began putting on her clothes. It seemed but a moment before she slid to the floor, rolled her sleeves high above a pair of sturdy elbows, and went to finish her toilet at the basin. There she washed her face and combed her hair, while Jock, cautiously opening one eye again, observed her from his safe retreat. He watched her part her hair, wet it, plaster it severely back from her brow, and tie it firmly in place with a piece of black ribbon. Jock could read Jean's face like print, and in this stern toilet he foresaw a day of unrelenting house-cleaning.
"Aye," he said to himself bitterly, "she's putting on her Saturday face. There's trouble brewing, I doubt! It'll be Jock this and Jock that both but and ben all day long, and whatever is the use of all this tirley-wirly I can't see, when on Monday the house will look as if it had never seen the sight of a bosom! I'll just bide where I am." He closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep.
It is true that Jean's Saturday face had such a housekeepery pucker between the eyes and such a severe arrangement of the front hair that one who did not peep behind the black ribbon might have thought her a very stern young person indeed, but behind the black ribbon Jean's true character stood revealed! However prim and smooth she might make it look in front, where the cracked glass enabled her to keep an eye on it, behind her back, where she couldn't possibly see it, her hair broke into the jolliest little waves and curls, which bobbed merrily about even on the worst Saturday that ever was, and spoiled the effect whenever she tried to be severe.
When she had given a final wipe with the brush, she took another look at Jock. There was still nothing to be seen of him but the shock of sandy hair and a series of bumps under the blanket. Jock could feel Jean looking at him right through the bed-clothes.
"Jock," said Jean,—and her voice had a Saturday sound to it,—"You can't sleep in this day! Get up!"
There was no answer. Jock might well have known that Jean was in no mood for trifling, but, having decided on his course of action, he stuck to it like a true Scotchman and neither moved nor opened his eyes. Jean was driven to desperate measures. She took a few drops of water in the dipper, marched firmly to the bedside, and stood with it poised directly above Jock's nose.
"Jock," she said solemnly, "I'm telling you! Don't ever say I didn't. If you don't stir yourself before I count five, you'll be sorry. One, two, three!" Still no move from Jock. "Four, five," and, without further parley, she emptied the dipper on his freckled nose.
There was a wrathful snort and a violent convulsion of the blankets, and an instant later Jock was tearing about the kitchen like a cat in a fit, but by this time Jean was out of doors and well beyond reach.
"Come here, you limmer!" he howled. But Jean knew better than to accept his invitation. Instead she skipped laughing down the path from the door to the brook which ran bubbling and gurgling by the house. Even in her hasty exit from the cottage, Jean had had the presence of mind to take the pail with her, and now she stopped to fill it from the clear, sparkling water of the burn. It was such a wonderful bright spring morning that, having filled it, she stopped for a moment to look about her at the dear familiar surroundings of her home.
There was the little gray house itself, with the peat smoke curling from the chimney straight up into the blue sky. Back of it was the garden-patch with its low stone wall, and back of that were the fowl-yard and the straw-covered byre for the cow. Beyond, and to the north lay the moors, covered with heather and dotted with grazing sheep. Jean could hear the tinkle of their bells, the bleating of the lambs, and the comforting maternal answers of the ewes. Above the dark forest which spread itself over the slopes of the foot-hills toward the south and east a laverock was singing, and she could hear the cry of whaups wheeling and circling over the moors. They were pleasant morning sounds, dear and familiar to Jean's ear, and oh, the sparkle of the dew on the bracken, and the smell of the hawthorn by the garden wall! Jean lifted her pail of water and went singing with it up the hill-slope to the house for sheer joy that she was alive.
"The Campbells are coming, O ho, O ho!" she sang, and the hills, taking up the refrain, echoed "O ho, O ho!"
True Tammas, who had slept all night under the straw-stack by the byre, came bounding down the little path to meet her, wagging his tail and barking his morning greeting. They reached the door together, but Jock, mindful of his injuries, had shut and barred it, and was grinning at them through the window. Jean sat placidly down upon the step with True Tammas beside her and continued her song. Her calmness irritated Jock.
"Aye," he shouted through the crack, "the Campbells may be coming, but they'll not get in this house! You can just sit there blethering all day, and I'll never unbar the door."
Jean stopped singing long enough to answer: "You'll get no breakfast, then, you mind, unless you'll be getting it yourself, for the porridge is not cooked and the kettle's nearly boiled away. I've the water-pail with me, and there's not a drop else in the house."
She left him to consider this and resumed her song. For several minutes she and True Tammas sat there gazing westward across the valley with the little river flowing through it, to the hills swimming in the blue distance beyond.
At last she called over her shoulder, "Jock, Father's coming," and Jock, seeing that his cause was hopelessly lost, unfastened the door. Jean, her father, and True Tammas all came into the kitchen together, and the moment she was in the room again you should have seen how she ordered things about!
"Set the milk right down here, Father," she said, tapping the table with her finger as she flew past to get the strainer and a pan, "and you, Jock, fill the kettle. It's almost dry this minute. And stir up the fire under it. Tam,"—that was what they called the dog for short, "go under the table or you'll get stepped on!"
You should have seen how they all minded!—even the father, who was six feet tall, with a jaw like a nut-cracker and a face that would have looked very stern indeed if it hadn't been for his twinkling blue eyes. When the milk was strained and put away in the little shed room back of the kitchen chimney, Jean got out the oatmeal-kettle and hung the porridge over the fire, and while that was cooking she set three places at the tiny table and scalded the churn. Meanwhile Jock went out to feed the fowls. By half past six the oatmeal was on the table and the little family gathered about it, reverently bowing their heads while the Shepherd of Glen Easig asked a blessing upon the food.
There was only porridge and milk for breakfast, so it took but a short time to eat it, and then the real work of the day began. The Shepherd put on his Kilmarnock bonnet and called Tam, who had had his breakfast on the hearth, and the two went away to the hills after the sheep. Jock led the cow to a patch of green turf near the bottom of the hill, where she could find fresh pasture, and Jean was left alone in the kitchen of the little gray house. Ah, you should have seen her then! She washed the dishes and put them away in the cupboard, she skimmed the milk and put the cream into the churn, she swept the hearth and shook the blankets out of doors in the fresh morning air. Then she made the beds, and when the kitchen was all in order, she "went ben"—that was the way they spoke of the best room—and dusted that too. "There wasn't really a bit of need of dusting the room, for it was never, never used except on very important occasions, such as when the minister called. The little house was five miles from the village, so the minister did not come often, but Jean kept it clean all the time just to be on the safe side.
There wasn't so very much work to do in the room after all, for there was nothing in it but the fireplace, a little table with the Bible, the Catechism, and a copy of Burns's poems on it, and three chairs. The kitchen was a different matter. There were the beds, and they were hard for a small girl to manage, and the cupboard with its shelves of dishes. There were three stools, and a big chair for the Shepherd, and the great chest where the clothes were kept, and besides all these things there was the wag-at-the-wall clock on the mantel-shelf which had to be wound every Saturday night. If you want to know just where these things stood, you have only to look at the plan, where their places are so plainly marked that, if you were suddenly to wake up in the middle of the night and find yourself in the little gray house, you could go about and put your hand on everything in it in the dark.
Jock stayed with the cow as long as he dared, and went back to the house only when he knew he couldn't postpone his tasks any longer. Jean was sweeping the door-step as he came slowly up the hill.
"Come along, Grandfather," she called out, her brow sternly puckered in front and her curls bobbing gaily up and down behind. "A body'd think you were seventy-five years old and had the rheumatism to see you move! Come and work the churn a bit. 'Twill limber you up."
Jock knew that arguments were useless. His father had told him, girl's work or not, he was to help Jean, so he slowly dragged himself into the house and slowly began to move the dasher up and down.
"Havers!" said Jean, when she could stand it no longer. "It's lucky there's a cover to the churn, else you'd drop to sleep and fall in and drown yourself in the buttermilk! The butter won't be here at this rate till to‑morrow, when it would break the Sabbath by coming!"
She seized the dasher, as she spoke, and began to churn so vigorously that the milk splashed up all around the handle. Soon little yellow specks began to appear, and when they had formed themselves into a ball in the churn, she lifted it out with a paddle and put it in a pan of clear cold water. Then she gave Jock a drink of buttermilk.
"Poor laddie!" she said. "You are all tired out! Take a sup of this to put new strength in you, for you've got to go out and weed the garden. I looked at the potatoes yesterday, and the weeds have got the start of them already."
"If I must weed the garden, give me something to eat too," begged Jock. "This milk'll do no more than slop around in my insides to make me feel my emptiness."
Jean opened the cupboard door and peeped within.
"There's nothing for you, laddie," she said, "but this piece of a scone. I'll have to bake more for the Sabbath, and you can have this to give yourself a more filled-up feeling. And now off with you!"
She took him by the collar and led him to the door; and there on the step was Tam. "What are you doing here?" cried Jean, astonished to see him. "You should be with Father, watching the sheep! It's shame to a dog to be lolling around the house instead of away on the hills where he belongs."
Tam flattened himself out on his stomach and dragged himself to her feet, rolling his eyes beseechingly upward, and if ever a dog looked ashamed of himself, that dog was Tam. Jean shook her head at him very sternly, and oh, how the jolly little curls bobbed about!
"Tam," she said, "you're as lazy as Jock himself. Whatever shall I do with the two of you?"
Jock had already finished his scone and he thought this a good time to disappear. He slipped round the corner of the house and whistled. All Tam's shame was gone in an instant. He gave a joyous bark and bounded away after Jock, his tail waving gayly in the breeze.