Penelope's Progress/Chapter 26

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"And soon a score of fires, I ween,
From height, and hill, and cliff, were seen;


Each after each they glanced to sight,
As stars arise upon the night.
They gleamed on many a dusky tarn,
Haunted by the lonely earn;
On many a cairn's grey pyramid,
Where urns of mighty chiefs lie hid."


The Lay of the Last Minstrel.

The rain continued at intervals throughout the day, but as the afternoon wore on the skies looked a trifle more hopeful. It would be "saft," no doubt, climbing the Law, but the bonfire must be lighted. Would Pettybaw be behind London? Would Pettybaw desert the Queen in her hour of need? Not though the rain were bursting the well-heads on Cawda; not though the swollen mountain burns drowned us to the knee! So off we started as the short midsummer night descended.

We were to climb the Law, wait for the signal from Cawda's lonely height, and then fire Pettybaw's torch of loyalty to the little lady in black; not a blaze flaming out war and rumors of war, as was the beacon-fire on the old gray battlements of Edinburgh Castle in the days of yore, but a message of peace and good will. Pausing at a hut on the side of the great green mountain, we looked north toward Helva, white-crested with a wreath of vapor. (You need not look on your map of Scotland for Cawda and Helva, for you will not find them any more than you will find Pettybaw and Inchcaldy.) One by one the tops of the distant hills began to clear, and with the glass we could discern the bonfire cairns upbuilt here and there for Scotland's evening sacrifice of love and fealty. Cawda was still veiled, and Cawda was to give the signal for all the smaller fires. Pettybaw's, I suppose, was counted as a flash in the pan, but not one of the hundred patriots climbing the mountain side would have acknowledged it; to us the good name of the kingdom of Fife and the glory of the British Empire depended on Pettybaw fire. Some of us had misgivings, too,—misgivings founded upon Miss Grieve's dismal prophecies. She had agreed to put nine lighted candles in each of our cottage windows at ten o'clock, but had declined to go out of her kitchen to see a procession, hear a band, or look at a bonfire. She had had a sair sickenin' day, an amount of work too wearifu' for one person by her lane. She hoped that the bonfire wasna built o' Mrs. Sinkler's coals nor Mr. Macbrose's kindlings, nor soaked with Mr. Cameron's paraffine; and she finished with the customary but irrelative and exasperating allusion to the exceedingly nice family with whom she had lived in Glasgy.

And still we toiled upward, keeping our doubts to ourselves. Jean was limping bravely, supported by Robin Anstruther's arm. Mr. Macdonald was ardently helping Francesca, who can climb like a chamois, but would doubtless rather be assisted. Her gypsy face shone radiant out of her black cloth hood, and Ronald's was no less luminous. I have never seen two beings more love-daft. They comport themselves as if they had read the manuscript of the tender passion, and were moving in exalted superiority through a less favored world,—a world waiting impatiently for the first number of the story to come out.

Still we climbed, and as we approached the Grey Lady (a curious rock very near the summit) somebody proposed three cheers for the Queen.

How the children hurrahed,—for the infant heart is easily inflamed,—and how their shrill Jubilee slogan pierced the mystery of the night, and went rolling on from glen to glen to the Firth of Forth itself! Then there was a shout from the rocketmen far out on the open moor,—"Cawda's clear! Cawda's clear!" Back against a silver sky stood the signal pile, and signal rockets flashed upward, to be answered from all the surrounding hills.

Now to light our own fire. One of the village committee solemnly took off his hat and poured on oil. The great moment had come. Brenda Macrae approached the sacred pile, and, tremulous from the effect of much contradictory advice, applied the torch. Silence, thou Grieve and others, false prophets of disaster! Who now could say that Pettybaw bonfire had been badly built, or that its fifteen tons of coal and twenty cords of wood had been unphilosophically heaped together!

The flames rushed toward the sky with ruddy blaze, shining with weird effect against the black fir-trees and the blacker night. Three cheers more! God save the Queen! May she reign over us, happy and glorious! And we cheered lustily, too, you may be sure! It was more for the woman than the monarch; it was for the blameless life, not for the splendid monarchy; but there was everything hearty, and nothing alien in our tone, when we sang "God Save the Queen" with the rest of the Pettybaw villagers.

The land darkened; the wind blew chill. Willie, Mr. Macdonald, and Mr. Anstruther brought rugs, and found a sheltered nook for us where we might still watch the scene. There we sat, looking at the plains below, with all the village streets sparkling with light, with rockets shooting into the air and falling to earth in golden rain, with red lights flickering on the gray lakes, and with one beacon-fire after another gleaming from the hilltops, till we could count more than fifty answering one another from the wooded crests along the shore, some of them piercing the rifts of low-lying clouds till they seemed to be burning in mid-heaven.

Then, one by one, the distant fires faded, and as some of us still sat there silently, far, far away in the gray east there was a faint flush of carmine where the new dawn was kindling in secret. Underneath that violet bank of cloud the sun was forging his beams of light. The pole-star paled. The breath of the new morrow stole up out of the rosy gray. The wings of the morning stirred and trembled; and in the darkness and chill and mysterious awakening, eyes looked into other eyes, hand sought hand, and cheeks touched each other in mute caress.