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This carefully crafted ebook: "MALCOLM & THE MARQUIS'S SECRET: Complete Marquise of Lossie Collection (Adventure Classic)" is formatted for your eReader with a functional and detailed table of contents. "Malcolm; or The Fisherman's Lady" tells the story of a poor fisherman Malcolm MacPhail. Young man is raised by his grandfather and discovers that he has noble origins and that he is actually the true son of the Marquise of Lossie. He manages to find employment in the castle and gains the mad laird's trust. Step by step he is entering the new world and introducing the life that was taken from him in the first place. The Marquis' Secret completes the story of Malcolm, a young fisherman set to become new Marquise of Lossie. Malcolm decides to hide his true identity, so he can help his sister who got herself under some very bad influences in London. He reveals the truth about his origins to her and goes on to take his position as a marquis. George MacDonald (1824-1905) was a Scottish author, poet, and Christian minister. He was a pioneering figure in the field of fantasy literature and the mentor of fellow writer Lewis Carroll. His writings have been cited as a major literary influence by many notable authors including W. H. Auden, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Walter de la Mare, E. Nesbit and Madeleine L'Engle. G. K. Chesterton cited The Princess and the Goblin as a book that had "made a difference to my whole existence". MacDonald has been credited with founding the "kailyard school" of Scottish writing.
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Table of Contents
"Na, na; I hae nae feelin's, I'm thankfu' to say. I never kent ony guid come o' them. They're a terrible sicht i' the gait."
"Naebody ever thoucht o' layin' 't to yer chairge, mem."
"'Deed, I aye had eneuch adu to du the thing I had to du, no to say the thing 'at naebody wad du but mysel'. I hae had nae leisur' for feelin's an' that," insisted Miss Horn.
But here a heavy step descending the stair just outside the room attracted her attention, and checking the flow of her speech perforce, with three ungainly strides she reached the landing.
"Watty Witherspail! Watty!" she called after the footsteps down the stair.
"Yes, mem," answered a gruff voice from below.
"Watty, whan ye fess the bit boxie, jist pit a hemmer an' a puckle nails i' your pooch to men' the hen hoose door. The tane maun be atten't till as weel's the tither."
"The bit boxie" was the coffin of her third cousin Griselda Campbell, whose body lay on the room on her left hand as she called down the stair. Into that on her right Miss Horn now re-entered, to rejoin Mrs Mellis, the wife of the principal draper in the town, who had called ostensibly to condole with her, but really to see the corpse.
"Aih! she was taen yoong!" sighed the visitor, with long drawn tones and a shake of the head, implying that therein lay ground of complaint, at which poor mortals dared but hint.
"No that yoong," returned Miss Horn. "She was upo' the edge o' aucht an' thirty."
"Weel, she had a sair time o' 't."
"No that sair, sae far as I see—an' wha sud ken better? She's had a bien doon sittin' (sheltered quarters), and sud hae had as lang's I was to the fore. Na, na; it was nowther sae young nor yet sae sair."
"Aih! but she was a patient cratur wi' a' flesh," persisted Mrs Mellis, as if she would not willingly be foiled in the attempt to extort for the dead some syllable of acknowledgment from the lips of her late companion.
"'Deed she was that!—a wheen ower patient wi' some. But that cam' o' haein mair hert nor brains. She had feelin's gien ye like—and to spare. But I never took ower ony o' the stock. It's a pity she hadna the jeedgment to match, for she never misdoobted onybody eneuch. But I wat it disna maitter noo, for she's gane whaur it's less wantit. For ane 'at has the hairmlessness o' the doo 'n this ill wulled warl', there's a feck o' ten 'at has the wisdom o' the serpent. An' the serpents mak sair wark wi' the doos—lat alane them 'at flees into the verra mouws o' them."
"Weel, ye're jist richt there," said Mrs Mellis. "An' as ye say, she was aye some easy to perswaud. I hae nae doubt she believed to the ver' last he wad come back and mairry her."
"Come back and mairry her! Wha or what div ye mean? I jist tell ye Mistress Mellis—an' it's weel ye're named—gien ye daur to hint at ae word o' sic clavers, it's this side o' this door o' mine ye's be less acquant wi'."
As she spoke, the hawk eyes of Miss Horn glowed on each side of her hawk nose, which grew more and more hooked as she glared, while her neck went craning forward as if she were on the point of making a swoop on the offender. Mrs Mellis's voice trembled with something like fear as she replied:
"Gude guide 's, Miss Horn! What hae I said to gar ye look at me sae by ordinar 's that?"
"Said!" repeated Miss Horn, in a tone that revealed both annoyance with herself and contempt for her visitor. "There's no a claver in a' the countryside but ye maun fess 't hame aneth yer oxter, as gin 't were the prodigal afore he repentit. Ye's get sma thanks for sic like here. An' her lyin' there as she'll lie till the jeedgment day, puir thing!"
"I'm sure I meant no offence, Miss Horn," said her visitor. "I thocht a' body kent 'at she was ill about him."
"Aboot wha, i' the name o' the father o' lees?"
"Ow, aboot that lang leggit doctor 'at set oat for the Ingies, an' dee'd afore he wan across the equautor. Only fouk said he was nae mair deid nor a halvert worm, an' wad be hame whan she was merried."
"It's a' lees frae heid to fiit, an' frae bert to skin."
"Weel, it was plain to see she dwyned awa efter he gaed, an' never was hersel' again—ye dinna deny that?"
"It's a' havers," persisted Miss Horn, but in accents considerably softened. "She cared na mair aboot the chield nor I did mysel'. She dwyned, I grant ye, an' he gaed awa, I grant ye; but the win' blaws an' the water rins, an the tane has little to du wi' the tither."
"Weel, weel; I'm sorry I said onything to offen' ye, an' I canna say mair. Wi' yer leave, Miss Horn, I'll jist gang an' tak' a last leuk at her, puir thing!"
"'Deed, ye s' du naething o' the kin'! I s' lat nobody glower at her 'at wad gang an spairge sic havers about her, Mistress Mellis. To say 'at sic a doo as my Grizel, puir, saft hertit, winsome thing, wad hae lookit twice at ony sic a serpent as him! Na, na, mem! Gang yer wa's hame, an' come back straucht frae yer prayers the morn's mornin'. By that time she'll be quaiet in her coffin, an' I'll be quaiet i' my temper. Syne I'll lat ye see her—maybe.—I wiss I was weel rid o' the sicht o' her, for I canna bide it. Lord, I canna bide it."
These last words were uttered in a murmured aside, inaudible to Mrs Mellis, to whom, however, they did not apply, but to the dead body. She rose notwithstanding in considerable displeasure, and with a formal farewell walked from the room, casting a curious glance as she left it in the direction of that where the body lay, and descended the stairs as slowly as if on every step she deliberated whether the next would bear her weight. Miss Horn, who had followed her to the head of the stair, watched her out of sight below the landing, when she turned and walked back once more into the parlour, but with a lingering look towards the opposite room, as if she saw through the closed door what lay white on the white bed.
"It's a God's mercy I hae no feelin's," she said to herself. "To even (equal) my bonny Grizel to sic a lang kyte clung chiel as yon! Aih, puir Grizel! She's gane frae me like a knotless threid."
Miss Horn was interrupted by the sound of the latch of the street door, and sprung from her chair in anger.
"Canna they lat her sleep for five meenutes?" she cried aloud, forgetting that there was no fear of rousing her any more.—"It'll be Jean come in frae the pump," she reflected, after a moment's pause; but, hearing no footstep along the passage to the kitchen, concluded—"It's no her, for she gangs aboot the hoose like the fore half o' a new shod cowt;" and went down the stair to see who might have thus presumed to enter unbidden.
In the kitchen, the floor of which was as white as scrubbing could make it, and sprinkled with sea sand—under the gaily painted Dutch clock, which went on ticking as loud as ever, though just below the dead—sat a woman about sixty years of age, whose plump face to the first glance looked kindly, to the second, cunning, and to the third, evil. To the last look the plumpness appeared unhealthy, suggesting a doughy indentation to the finger, and its colour also was pasty. Her deep set, black bright eyes, glowing from under the darkest of eyebrows, which met over her nose, had something of a fascinating influence—so much of it that at a first interview one was not likely for a time to notice any other of her features. She rose as Miss Horn entered, buried a fat fist in a soft side, and stood silent.
"Weel?" said Miss Horn interrogatively, and was silent also.
"I thocht ye micht want a cast o' my callin'," said the woman.
"Na, na; there's no a han' 'at s' lay finger upo' the bairn but mine ain," said Miss Horn. "I had it a' ower, my lee lane, afore the skreigh o' day. She's lyin' quaiet noo—verra quaiet—waitin' upo' Watty Witherspail. Whan he fesses hame her bit boxie, we s' hae her laid canny intill 't, an' hae dune wi' 't."
"Weel, mem, for a leddy born, like yersel', I maun say, ye tak it unco composed!"
"I'm no awaur, Mistress Catanach, o' ony necessity laid upo' ye to say yer min' i' this hoose. It's no expeckit. But what for sud I no tak' it wi' composur'? We'll hae to tak' oor ain turn er lang, as composed as we hae the skiel o', and gang oot like a lang nibbit can'le—ay, an lea' jist sic a memory ahin' some o' 's, Bawby."
"I kenna gien ye mean me, Miss Horn," said the woman; "but it's no that muckle o' a memory I expec' to lea' ahin' me."
"The less the better," muttered Miss Horn; but her unwelcome visitor went on:
"Them 'at 's maist i' my debt kens least aboot it; and then mithers canna be said to hae muckle to be thankfu' for. It's God's trowth, I ken waur nor ever I did mem. A body in my trade canna help fa'in' amo' ill company whiles, for we're a' born in sin, an' brocht furth in ineequity, as the Buik. says; in fac', it's a' sin thegither: we come o' sin an' we gang for sin; but ye ken the likes o' me maunna clype (tell tales). A' the same, gien ye dinna tak the help o' my han', ye winna refuse me the sicht o' my een, puir thing!"
"There's nane sall luik upon her deid 'at wasna a pleesur' till her livin'; an' ye ken weel eneuch, Bawby, she cudna thole (bear) the sicht o' you."
"An' guid rizzon had she for that, gien a' 'at gangs throu' my heid er I fa' asleep i' the lang mirk nichts be a hair better nor ane o' the auld wives' fables 'at fowk says the holy buik maks sae licht o'."
"What mean ye?" demanded Miss Horn, sternly and curtly.
"I ken what I mean mysel', an' ane that's no content wi' that, bude (behaved) ill be a howdie (midwife). I wad fain hae gotten a fancy oot o' my heid that's been there this mony a lang day; but please yersel', mem, gien ye winna be neebourly."
"Ye s' no gang near her—no to save ye frae a' the ill dreams that ever gethered aboot a sin stappit (stuffed) bowster!" cried Miss Horn, and drew down her long upper lip in a strong arch.
"Ca cannie! ca cannie! (drive gently)," said Bawby. "Dinna anger me ower sair, for I am but mortal. Fowk tak a heap frae you, Miss Horn, 'at they'll tak frae nane ither, for your temper's weel kent, an' little made o'; but it's an ill faured thing to anger the howdie—sae muckle lies upo' her; an, I'm no i' the tune to put up wi' muckle the nicht. I wonner at ye bein' sae oonneebourlike—at sic a time tu, wi' a corp i' the hoose!"
"Gang awa—gan oot o't: it's my hoose," said Miss Horn, in a low, hoarse voice, restrained from rising to tempest pitch only by the consciousness of what lay on the other side of the ceiling above her head. "I wad as sune lat a cat intill the deid chaumer to gang loupin' ower the corp, or may be waur, as I wad lat yersel' intill 't Bawby Catanach; an' there's till ye!"
At this moment the opportune entrance of Jean afforded fitting occasion to her mistress for leaving the room without encountering the dilemma of either turning the woman out—a proceeding which the latter, from the way in which she set her short, stout figure square on the floor, appeared ready to resist—or of herself abandoning the field in discomfiture: she turned and marched from the kitchen with her head in the air, and the gait of one who had been insulted on her own premises.
She was sitting in the parlour, still red faced and wrathful, when Jean entered, and, closing the door behind her, drew near to her mistress, bearing a narrative, commenced at the door, of all she had seen, heard, and done, while "oot an' aboot i' the toon." But Miss Horn interrupted her the moment she began to speak.
"Is that wuman furth the hoose, Jean?" she asked, in the tone of one who waited her answer in the affirmative as a preliminary condition of all further conversation.
"She's gane, mem," answered Jean—adding to herself in a wordless thought, "I'm no sayin' whaur."
"She's a wuman I wadna hae ye throng wi', Jean."
"I ken no ill o' her, mem," returned Jean.
"She's eneuch to corrup' a kirkyaird!" said her mistress, with more force than fitness.
Jean, however, was on the shady side of fifty, more likely to have already yielded than to be liable to a first assault of corruption; and little did Miss Horn think how useless was her warning, or where Barbara Catanach was at that very moment Trusting to Jean's cunning, as well she might; she was in the dead chamber, and standing over the dead. She had folded back the sheet—not from the face, but from the feet—and raised the night dress of fine linen in which the love of her cousin had robed the dead for the repose of the tomb.
"It wad hae been tellin' her," she muttered, "to hae spoken Bawby fair! I'm no used to be fa'en foul o' that gait. I 's be even wi' her yet, I'm thinkin'—the auld speldin'! Losh! and Praise be thankit! there it's! It's there!—a wee darker, but the same—jist whaur I could ha' laid the pint o' my finger upo't i' the mirk!—Noo lat the worms eat it," she concluded, as she folded down the linen of shroud and sheet—"an' no mortal ken o' 't but mysel' an' him 'at bude till hae seen 't, gien he was a hair better nor Glenkindie's man i' the auld ballant!"
The instant she had rearranged the garments of the dead, she turned and made for the door with a softness of step that strangely contrasted with the ponderousness of her figure, and indicated great muscular strength, opened it with noiseless circumspection to the width of an inch, peeped out from the crack, and seeing the opposite door still shut, stepped out with a swift, noiseless swing of person and door simultaneously, closed the door behind her, stole down the stairs, and left the house. Not a board creaked, not a latch clicked as she went. She stepped into the street as sedately as if she had come from paying to the dead the last offices of her composite calling, the projected front of her person appearing itself aware of its dignity as the visible sign and symbol of a good conscience and kindly heart.
When Mistress Catanach arrived at the opening of a street which was just opposite her own door, and led steep toward the sea town, she stood, and shading her eyes with her hooded hand, although the sun was far behind her, looked out to sea. It was the forenoon of a day of early summer. The larks were many and loud in the skies above her—for, although she stood in a street, she was only a few yards from the green fields—but she could hardly have heard them, for their music was not for her. To the northward, whither her gaze—if gaze it could be called—was directed, all but cloudless blue heavens stretched over an all but shadowless blue sea; two bold, jagged promontories, one on each side of her, formed a wide bay; between that on the west and the sea town at her feet, lay a great curve of yellow sand, upon which the long breakers, born of last night's wind, were still roaring from the northeast, although the gale had now sunk to a breeze—cold and of doubtful influence. From the chimneys of the fishermen's houses below, ascended a yellowish smoke, which, against the blue of the sea, assumed a dull green colour as it drifted vanishing towards the southwest. But Mrs Catanach was looking neither at nor for anything: she had no fisherman husband, or any other relative at sea; she was but revolving something in her unwholesome mind, and this was her mode of concealing an operation which naturally would have been performed with down bent head and eyes on the ground.
While she thus stood a strange figure drew near, approaching her with step almost as noiseless as that with which she had herself made her escape from Miss Horn's house. At a few yards' distance from her it stood, and gazed up at her countenance as intently as she seemed to be gazing on the sea. It was a man of dwarfish height and uncertain age, with a huge hump upon his back, features of great refinement, a long thin beard, and a forehead unnaturally large, over eyes which, although of a pale blue, mingled with a certain mottled milky gleam, had a pathetic, dog-like expression. Decently dressed in black, he stood with his hands in the pockets of his trowsers, gazing immovably in Mrs Catanach's face.
Becoming suddenly aware of his presence, she glanced downward, gave a great start and a half scream, and exclaimed in no gentle tones:
"Preserve 's! Whaur come ye frae?"
It was neither that she did not know the man, nor that she meant any offence: her words were the mere embodiment of the annoyance of startled surprise; but their effect was peculiar.
Without a single other motion he turned abruptly on one heel, gazed seaward with quick flushed cheeks and glowing eyes, but, apparently too polite to refuse an answer to the evidently unpleasant question, replied in low, almost sullen tones:
"I dinna ken whaur I come frae. Ye ken 'at I dinna ken whaur I come frae. I dinna ken whaur ye come frae. I dinna ken whaur onybody comes frae."
"Hoot, laird! nae offence!" returned Mrs Catanach. "It was yer ain wyte (blame). What gart ye stan' glowerin' at a body that gait, ohn telled (without telling) them 'at ye was there?"
"I thocht ye was luikin' whaur ye cam frae," returned the man in tones apologetic and hesitating.
"'Deed I fash wi' nae sic freits," said Mrs Catanach.
"Sae lang's ye ken whaur ye're gaein' till," suggested the man
"Toots! I fash as little wi' that either, and ken jist as muckle about the tane as the tither," she answered with a low oily guttural laugh of contemptuous pity.
"I ken mair nor that mysel', but no muckle," said the man. "I dinna ken whaur I cam frae, and I dinna ken whaur I'm gaun till; but I ken 'at I'm gaun whaur I cam frae. That stan's to rizzon, ye see; but they telled me 'at ye kenned a' about whaur we a' cam frae."
"Deil a bit o' 't!" persisted Mrs Catanach, in tones of repudiation. "What care I whaur I cam frae, sae lang's—"
"Sae lang's what, gien ye please?" pleaded the man, with a childlike entreaty in his voice.
"Weel—gien ye wull hae't—sae lang's I cam frae my mither," said the woman, looking down on the inquirer with a vulgar laugh.
The hunchback uttered a shriek of dismay, and turned and fled; and as he turned, long, thin, white hands flashed out of his pockets, pressed against his ears, and intertwined their fingers at the back of his neck. With a marvellous swiftness he shot down the steep descent towards the shore.
"The deil's in't 'at I bude to anger him!" said the woman, and walked away, with a short laugh of small satisfaction.
The style she had given the hunchback was no nickname. Stephen Stewart was laird of the small property and ancient house of Kirkbyres, of which his mother managed the affairs—hardly for her son, seeing that, beyond his clothes, and five pounds a year of pocket money, he derived no personal advantage from his possessions. He never went near his own house, for, from some unknown reason, plentifully aimed at in the dark by the neighbours, he had such a dislike to his mother that he could not bear to hear the name of mother, or even the slightest allusion to the relationship.
Some said he was a fool; others a madman; some both; none, however, said he was a rogue; and all would have been willing to allow that whatever it might be that caused the difference between him and other men, throughout the disturbing element blew ever and anon the air of a sweet humanity.
Along the shore, in the direction of the great rocky promontory that closed in the bay on the west, with his hands still clasped over his ears, as if the awful word were following him, he flew rather than fled. It was nearly low water, and the wet sand afforded an easy road to his flying feet. Betwixt sea and shore, a sail in the offing the sole other moving thing in the solitary landscape, like a hunted creature he sped, his footsteps melting and vanishing behind him in the half quicksand.
Where the curve of the water line turned northward at the root of the promontory, six or eight fishing boats were drawn up on the beach in various stages of existence. One was little more than half built, the fresh wood shining against the background of dark rock. Another was newly tarred; its sides glistened with the rich shadowy brown, and filled the air with a comfortable odour. Another wore age long neglect on every plank and seam; half its props had sunk or decayed, and the huge hollow leaned low on one side, disclosing the squalid desolation of its lean ribbed and naked interior, producing all the phantasmic effect of a great swampy desert; old pools of water overgrown with a green scum, lay in the hollows between its rotting timbers, and the upper planks were baking and cracking in the sun. Near where they lay a steep path ascended the cliff, whence through grass and ploughed land, it led across the promontory to the fishing village of Scaurnose, which lay on the other side of it. There the mad laird, or Mad Humpy, as he was called by the baser sort, often received shelter, chiefly from the family of a certain Joseph Mair, one of the most respectable inhabitants of the place.
But the way he now pursued lay close under the cliffs of the headland, and was rocky and difficult. He passed the boats, going between them and the cliffs, at a footpace, with his eyes on the ground, and not even a glance at the two men who were at work on the unfinished boat. One of them was his friend, Joseph Mair. They ceased their work for a moment to look after him.
"That's the puir laird again," said Joseph, the instant he was beyond hearing. "Something's wrang wi' him. I wonder what's come ower him!"
"I haena seen him for a while noo," returned the other. "They tell me 'at his mither made him ower to the deil afore he cam to the light; and sae, aye as his birthday comes roun', Sawtan gets the pooer ower him. Eh, but he's a fearsome sicht whan he's ta'en that gait!" continued the speaker. "I met him ance i' the gloamin', jist ower by the toon, wi' his een glowerin' like uily lamps, an' the slaver rinnin' doon his lang baird. I jist laup as gien I had seen the muckle Sawtan himsel'."
"Ye nott na (needed not) hae dune that," was the reply. "He's jist as hairmless, e'en at the warst, as ony lamb. He's but a puir cratur wha's tribble's ower strang for him—that's a'. Sawtan has as little to du wi' him as wi' ony man I ken."
With eyes that stared as if they and not her ears were the organs of hearing, this talk was heard by a child of about ten years of age, who sat in the bottom of the ruined boat, like a pearl in a decaying oyster shell, one hand arrested in the act of dabbling in a green pool, the other on its way to her lips with a mouthful of the seaweed called dulse. She was the daughter of Joseph Mair just mentioned—a fisherman who had been to sea in a man of war (in consequence of which his to-name or nickname was Blue Peter), where having been found capable, he was employed as carpenter's mate, and came to be very handy with his tools: having saved a little money by serving in another man's boat, he was now building one for himself.
He was a dark complexioned, foreign looking man, with gold rings in his ears, which he said enabled him to look through the wind "ohn his een watered." Unlike most of his fellows, he was a sober and indeed thoughtful man, ready to listen to the voice of reason from any quarter; they were, in general, men of hardihood and courage, encountering as a mere matter of course such perilous weather as the fishers on a great part of our coasts would have declined to meet, and during the fishing season were diligent in their calling, and made a good deal of money; but when the weather was such that they could not go to sea, when their nets were in order, and nothing special requiring to be done, they would have bouts of hard drinking, and spend a great portion of what ought to have been their provision for the winter.
Their women were in general coarse in manners and rude in speech; often of great strength and courage, and of strongly marked character. They were almost invariably the daughters of fishermen, for a wife taken from among the rural population would have been all but useless in regard of the peculiar duties required of her. If these were less dangerous than those of their husbands, they were quite as laborious, and less interesting. The most severe consisted in carrying the fish into the country for sale, in a huge creel or basket, which when full was sometimes more than a man could lift to place on the woman's back. With this burden, kept in its place by a band across her chest, she would walk as many as twenty miles, arriving at some inland town early in the forenoon, in time to dispose of her fish for the requirements of the day. I may add that, although her eldest child was probably born within a few weeks after her marriage, infidelity was almost unknown amongst them.
In some respects, although in none of its good qualities, Mrs. Mair was an exception from her class. Her mother had been the daughter of a small farmer, and she had well to do relations in an inland parish; but how much these facts were concerned in the result it would be hard to say: certainly she was one of those elect whom Nature sends into the world for the softening and elevation of her other children. She was still slight and graceful, with a clear complexion, and the prettiest teeth possible; the former two at least of which advantages she must have lost long before, had it not been that, while her husband's prudence had rendered hard work less imperative, he had a singular care over her good looks; and that a rough, honest, elder sister of his lived with them, whom it would have been no kindness to keep from the hardest work, seeing it was only through such that she could have found a sufficiency of healthy interest in life. While Janet Mair carried the creel, Annie only assisted in making the nets, and in cleaning and drying the fish, of which they cured considerable quantities; these, with her household and maternal duties, afforded her ample occupation. Their children were well trained, and being of necessity, from the narrowness of their house accommodation, a great deal with their parents, heard enough to make them think after their faculty.
The mad laird was, as I have said, a visitor at their house oftener than anywhere else. On such occasions he slept in a garret accessible by a ladder from the ground floor, which consisted only of a kitchen and a closet. Little Phemy Mair was therefore familiar with his appearance, his ways, and his speech; and she was a favourite with him, although hitherto his shyness had been sufficient to prevent any approach to intimacy with even a child of ten.
When the poor fellow had got some little distance beyond the boats, he stopped and withdrew his hands from his ears: in rushed the sound of the sea, the louder that the caverns of his brain had been so long closed to its entrance. With a moan of dismay he once more pressed his palms against them, and thus deafened, shouted with a voice of agony into the noise of the rising tide: "I dinna ken whaur I come frae!" after which cry, wrung from the grief of human ignorance, he once more took to his heels, though with far less swiftness than before, and fled stumbling and scrambling over the rocks.
Scarcely had he vanished from view of the boats, when Phemy scrambled out of her big mussell shell. Its upheaved side being toward the boat at which her father was at work, she escaped unperceived, and so ran along the base of the promontory, where the rough way was perhaps easier to the feet of a child content to take smaller steps and climb or descend by the help of more insignificant inequalities. She came within sight of the laird just as he turned into the mouth of a well known cave and vanished.
Phemy was one of those rare and blessed natures which have endless courage because they have no distrust, and she ran straight into the cave after him, without even first stopping to look in.
It was not a very interesting cave to look into. The strata of which it was composed, upheaved almost to the perpendicular, shaped an opening like the half of a Gothic arch divided vertically and leaning over a little to one side, which opening rose to the full height of the cave, and seemed to lay bare every corner of it to a single glance. In length it was only about four or five times its width. The floor was smooth and dry, consisting of hard rock. The walls and roof were jagged with projections and shadowed with recesses, but there was little to rouse any frightful fancies.
When Phemy entered, the laird was nowhere to be seen. But she went straight to the back of the cave, to its farthest visible point. There she rounded a projection and began an ascent which only familiarity with rocky ways could have enabled such a child to accomplish. At the top she passed through another opening, and by a longer and more gently sloping descent reached the floor of a second cave, as level and nearly as smooth as a table. On her left hand, what light managed to creep through the tortuous entrance was caught and reflected in a dull glimmer from the undefined surface of a well of fresh water which lay in a sort of basin in the rock: on a bedded stone beside it sat the laird, with his head in his hands, his elbows on his knees, and his hump upheaved above his head, like Mount Sinai over the head of Christian in the Pilgrim's Progress.
As his hands were still pressed on his ears, he heard nothing of Phemy's approach, and she stood for a while staring at him in the vague glimmer, apparently with no anxiety as to what was to come next.
Weary at length—for the forlorn man continued movelessly sunk in his own thoughts, or what he had for such—the eyes of the child began to wander about the darkness, to which they had already got so far accustomed as to make the most of the scanty light. Presently she fancied she saw something glitter, away in the darkness—two things: they must be eyes!—the eyes of an otter or of a polecat, in which creatures the caves along the shore abounded. Seized with sudden fright, she ran to the laird and laid her hand on his shoulder, crying,
"Leuk, laird, leuk!"
He started to his feet and gazed bewildered at the child, rubbing his eyes once and again. She stood between the well and the entrance, so that all the light there was, gathered upon her pale face.
"Whaur do ye come frae?" he cried.
"I cam frae the auld boat," she answered.
"What do ye want wi' me?"
"Naething, sir; I only cam to see hoo ye was gettin' on. I wadna hae disturbit ye, sir, but I saw the twa een o' a wullcat, or sic like, glowerin' awa yonner i' the mirk, an' they fleyt me 'at I grippit ye."
"Weel, weel; sit ye doon, bairnie," said the mad laird in a soothing voice; "the wullcat sanna touch ye. Ye're no fleyt at me, are ye?"
"Na!" answered the child. "What for sud I be fleyt at you, sir? I'm Phemy Mair."
"Eh, bairnie! it's you, is't?" he returned in tones of satisfaction, for he had not hitherto recognised her. "Sit ye doon, sit ye doon, an' we'll see about it a'."
Phemy obeyed, and seated herself on the nearest projection.
The laird placed himself beside her, and once more buried his face, but not his ears, in his hands. Nothing entered them, however, but the sound of the rising tide, for Phemy sat by him in the faintly glimmering dusk, as without fear felt, so without word spoken.
The evening crept on, and the night came down, but all the effect of the growing darkness was that the child drew gradually nearer to her uncouth companion, until at length her hand stole into his, her head sank upon his shoulder, his arm went round her to hold her safe, and thus she fell fast asleep. After a while, the laird gently roused her and took her home, on their way warning her, in strange yet to her comprehensible utterance, to say nothing of where she had found him, for if she exposed his place of refuge, wicked people would take him, and he should never see her again.
All the coast to the east of the little harbour was rock, bold and high, of a grey and brown hard stone, which after a mighty sweep, shot out northward, and closed in the bay on that side with a second great promontory. The long curved strip of sand on the west, reaching to the promontory of Scaurnose, was the only open portion of the coast for miles. Here the coasting vessel gliding past gained a pleasant peep of open fields, belts of wood and farm houses, with now and then a glimpse of a great house amidst its trees. In the distance one or two bare solitary hills, imposing in aspect only from their desolation, for their form gave no effect to their altitude, rose to the height of over a thousand feet.
On this comparatively level part of the shore, parallel with its line, and at some distance beyond the usual high water mark, the waves of ten thousand northern storms had cast up a long dune or bank of sand, terminating towards the west within a few yards of a huge solitary rock of the ugly kind called conglomerate, which must have been separated from the roots of the promontory by the rush of waters at unusually high tides, for in winter they still sometimes rounded the rock, and running down behind the dune, turned it into a long island. The sand on the inland side of the dune, covered with short sweet grass, browsed on by sheep, and with the largest and reddest of daisies, was thus occasionally swept by wild salt waves, and at times, when the northern wind blew straight as an arrow and keen as a sword from the regions of endless snow, lay under a sheet of gleaming ice.
The sun had been up for some time in a cloudless sky. The wind had changed to the south, and wafted soft country odours to the shore, in place of sweeping to inland farms the scents of seaweed and broken salt waters, mingled with a suspicion of icebergs. From what was called the Seaton, or seatown, of Portlossie, a crowd of cottages occupied entirely by fisherfolk, a solitary figure was walking westward along this grass at the back of the dune, singing. On his left hand the ground rose to the high road; on his right was the dune, interlaced and bound together by the long clasping roots of the coarse bent, without which its sands would have been but the sport of every wind that blew. It shut out from him all sight of the sea, but the moan and rush of the rising tide sounded close behind it. At his back rose the town of Portlossie, high above the harbour and the Seaton, with its houses of grey and brown stone, roofed with blue slates and red tiles. It was no highland town—scarce one within it could speak the highland tongue, yet down from its high streets on the fitful air of the morning now floated intermittently the sound of bagpipes—borne winding from street to street, and loud blown to wake the sleeping inhabitants and let them know that it was now six of the clock.
He was a youth of about twenty, with a long, swinging, heavy footed stride, which took in the ground rapidly—a movement unlike that of the other men of the place, who always walked slowly, and never but on dire compulsion ran. He was rather tall, and large limbed. His dress was like that of a fisherman, consisting of blue serge trowsers, a shirt striped blue and white, and a Guernsey frock, which he carried flung across his shoulder. On his head he wore a round blue bonnet, with a tuft of scarlet in the centre.
His face was more than handsome—with large features, not finely cut, and a look of mingled nobility and ingenuousness—the latter amounting to simplicity, or even innocence; while the clear outlook from his full and well opened hazel eyes indicated both courage and promptitude. His dark brown hair came in large curling masses from under his bonnet. It was such a form and face as would have drawn every eye in a crowded thoroughfare.
About the middle of the long sandhill, a sort of wide embrasure was cut in its top, in which stood an old fashioned brass swivel gun: when the lad reached the place, he sprang up the sloping side of the dune, seated himself on the gun, drew from his trowsers a large silver watch, regarded it steadily for a few minutes, replaced it, and took from his pocket a flint and steel, wherewith he kindled a bit of touch paper, which, rising, he applied to the vent of the swivel. Followed a great roar.
It echoes had nearly died away, when a startled little cry reached his keen ear, and looking along the shore to discover whence it came, he spied a woman on a low rock that ran a little way out into the water. She had half risen from a sitting posture, and apparently her cry was the result of the discovery that the rising tide had overreached and surrounded her. There was no danger whatever, but the girl might well shrink from plunging into the clear beryl depth in which swayed the seaweed clothing the slippery slopes of the rock. He rushed from the sandhill, crying, as he approached her, "Dinna be in a hurry, mem; bide till I come to ye," and running straight into the water struggled through the deepening tide, the distance being short and the depth almost too shallow for swimming. In a moment he was by her side, scarcely saw the bare feet she had been bathing in the water, heeded as little the motion of the hand which waved him back, caught her in his arms like a baby, and had her safe on the shore ere she could utter a word; nor did he stop until he had carried her to the slope of the sandhill, where he set her gently down, and without a suspicion of the liberty he was taking, and filled only with a passion of service, was proceeding to dry her feet with the frock which he had dropped there as he ran to her assistance.
"Let me alone, pray," cried the girl with a half amused indignation, drawing back her feet and throwing down a book she carried that she might the better hide them with her skirt. But although she shrank from his devotion, she could neither mistake it nor help being pleased with his kindness. Probably she had never before been immediately indebted to such an ill clad individual of the human race, but even in such a costume she could not fail to see he was a fine fellow. Nor was the impression disturbed when he opened his mouth and spoke in the broad dialect of the country, for she had no associations to cause her to misinterpret its homeliness as vulgarity.
"Whaur's yer stockin's, mem?" he said.
"You gave me no time to bring them away, you caught me up so— rudely," answered the girl half querulously, but in such lovely speech as had never before greeted his Scotish ears.
Before the words were well beyond her lips he was already on his way back to the rock, running, as he walked, with great, heavy footed strides. The abandoned shoes and stockings were in imminent danger of being floated off by the rising water, but he dashed in, swam a few strokes, caught them up, waded back to the shore, and, leaving a wet track all the way behind him but carrying the rescued clothing at arm's length before him, rejoined their owner. Spreading his frock out before her, he laid the shoes and stockings upon it, and, observing that she continued to keep her feet hidden under the skirts of her dress, turned his back and stood.
"Why don't you go away?" said the girl, venturing one set of toes from under their tent, but hesitating to proceed further in the business.
Without word or turn of head he walked away.
Either flattered by his absolute obedience, and persuaded that he was a true squire, or unwilling to forego what amusement she might gain from him, she drew in her half issuing foot, and, certainly urged in part by an inherent disposition to tease, spoke again.
"You're not going away without thanking me?" she said.
"What for, mem?" he returned simply, standing stock still again with his back towards her.
"You needn't stand so. You don't think I would go on dressing while you remained in sight?"
"I was as guid's awa', mem," he said, and turning a glowing face, looked at her for a moment, then cast his eyes on the ground.
"Tell me what you mean by not thanking me," she insisted.
"They wad be dull thanks, mem, that war thankit afore I kenned what for."
"For allowing you to carry me ashore, of course."
"Be thankit, mem, wi' a' my hert. Will I gang doon o' my knees?"
"No. Why should you go on your knees?"
"'Cause ye're 'maist ower bonny to luik at stan'in', mem, an' I'm feared for angerin' ye."
"Don't say ma'am to me."
"What am I to say, than, mem?—I ask yer pardon, mem."
"Say my lady. That's how people speak to me."
"I thocht ye bude (behoved) to be somebody by ordinar', my leddy! That'll be hoo ye're so terrible bonny," he returned, with some tremulousness in his tone. "But ye maun put on yer hose, my leddy, or ye'll get yer feet cauld, and that's no guid for the likes o' you."
The form of address she prescribed, conveyed to him no definite idea of rank. It but added intensity to the notion of her being a lady, as distinguished from one of the women of his own condition in life.
"And pray what is to become of you," she returned, "with your clothes as wet as water can make them?"
"The saut water kens me ower weel to do me ony ill," returned the lad. "I gang weet to the skin mony a day frae mornin' till nicht, and mony a nicht frae nicht till mornin'—at the heerin' fishin', ye ken, my leddy."
One might well be inclined to ask what could have tempted her to talk in such a familiar way to a creature like him—human indeed, but separated from her by a gulf more impassable far than that which divided her from the thrones, principalities, and powers of the upper regions? And how is the fact to be accounted for, that here she put out a dainty foot, and reaching for one of her stockings, began to draw it gently over the said foot? Either her sense of his inferiority was such that she regarded his presence no more than that of a dog, or, possibly, she was tempted to put his behaviour to the test. He, on his part, stood quietly regarding the operation, either that, with the instinct of an inborn refinement, he was aware he ought not to manifest more shamefacedness than the lady herself, or that he was hardly more accustomed to the sight of gleaming fish than the bare feet of maidens.
"I'm thinkin', my leddy," he went on, in absolute simplicity, "that sma' fut o' yer ain has danced mony a braw dance on mony a braw flure."
"How old do you take me for then?" she rejoined, and went on drawing the garment over her foot by the shortest possible stages.
"Ye'll no be muckle ower twenty," he said.
"I'm only sixteen," she returned, laughing merrily.
"What will ye be or ye behaud!" he exclaimed, after a brief pause of astonishment.
"Do you ever dance in this part of the country?" she asked, heedless of his surprise.
"No that muckle, at least amo' the fisherfowks, excep' it be at a weddin'. I was at ane last nicht."
"And did you dance?"
"'Deed did I, my leddy. I danced the maist o' the lasses clean aff o' their legs."
"What made you so cruel?"
"Weel, ye see, mem,—I mean my leddy,—fowk said I was ill aboot the bride; an' sae I bude to dance 't oot o' their heids."
"And how much truth was there in what they said?" she asked, with a sly glance up in the handsome, now glowing face.
"Gien there was ony, there was unco little," he replied. "The chield's walcome till her for me. But she was the bonniest lassie we had.—It was what we ca' a penny weddin'," he went on, as if willing to change the side of the subject.
"And what's a penny wedding?"
"It's a' kin' o' a custom amo' the fishers. There's some gey puir fowk amon' 's, ye see, an' when a twa o' them merries, the lave o' 's wants to gie them a bit o' a start like. Sae we a' gang to the weddin' an' eats an' drinks plenty, an' pays for a' 'at we hae; and they mak' a guid profit out o' 't, for the things doesna cost them nearhan' sae muckle as we pay. So they hae a guid han'fu' ower for the plenishin'."
"And what do they give you to eat and drink?" asked the girl, making talk.
"Ow, skate an' mustard to eat, an' whusky to drink," answered the lad, laughing. "But it's mair for the fun. I dinna care muckle about whusky an' that kin' o' thing mysel'. It's the fiddles an the dancin' 'at I like."
"You have music, then?"
"Ay; jist the fiddles an' the pipes."
"The bagpipes, do you mean?"
"Ay; my gran'father plays them."
"But you're not in the Highlands here: how come you to have bagpipes?"
"It's a stray bag, an' no more. But the fowk here likes the cry o' 't well eneuch, an' hae 't to wauk them ilka mornin'. Yon was my gran'father ye heard afore I fired the gun. Yon was his pipes waukin' them, honest fowk."
"And what made you fire the gun in that reckless way? Don't you know it is very dangerous?"
"Dangerous mem—my leddy, I mean! There was naething intill 't but a pennyworth o' blastin' pooder. It wadna blaw the froth aff o' the tap o' a jaw (billow)."
"It nearly blew me out of my small wits, though."
"I'm verra sorry it frichtit ye. But, gien I had seen ye, I bude to fire the gun."
"I don't understand you quite; but I suppose you mean it was your business to fire the gun."
"Jist that, my leddy."
"'Cause it's been decreet i' the toon cooncil that at sax o' the clock ilka mornin' that gun's to be fired—at least sae lang's my lord, the marquis, is at Portlossie Hoose. Ye see it's a royal brugh, this, an' it costs but aboot a penny, an' it's gran' like to hae a sma' cannon to fire. An' gien I was to neglec' it, my gran'father wad gang on skirlin'—what's the English for skirlin', my leddy—skirlin' o' the pipes?"
"I don't know. But from the sound of the word I should suppose it stands for screaming."
"Aye, that's it; only screamin's no sae guid as skirlin'. My gran'father's an auld man, as I was gaein' on to say, an' has hardly breath eneuch to fill the bag; but he wad be efter dirkin' onybody 'at said sic a thing, and till he heard that gun he wad gang on blawin' though he sud burst himsel.' There's naebody kens the smeddum in an auld hielan' man!"
By the time the conversation had reached this point, the lady had got her shoes on, had taken up her book from the sand, and was now sitting with it in her lap. No sound reached them but that of the tide, for the scream of the bagpipes had ceased the moment the swivel was fired. The sun was growing hot, and the sea, although so far in the cold north, was gorgeous in purple and green, suffused as with the overpowering pomp of a peacock's plumage in the sun. Away to the left the solid promontory trembled against the horizon, as if ready to dissolve and vanish between the bright air and the lucid sea that fringed its base with white. The glow of a young summer morning pervaded earth and sea and sky, and swelled the heart of the youth as he stood in unconscious bewilderment before the self possession of the girl. She was younger than he, and knew far less that was worth knowing, yet had a world of advantage over him—not merely from the effect of her presence on one who had never seen anything half so beautiful, but from a certain readiness of surface thought, combined with the sweet polish of her speech, and an assurance of superiority which appeared to them both to lift her, like one of the old immortals, far above the level of the man whom she favoured with her passing converse. What in her words, as here presented only to the eye, may seem brusqueness or even forwardness, was so tempered, so toned, so fashioned by the naivete with which she spoke, that it sounded in his ears as the utterance of absolute condescension. As to her personal appearance, the lad might well have taken her for twenty, for she looked more of a woman than, tall and strongly built as he was, he looked of a man. She was rather tall, rather slender, finely formed, with small hands and feet, and full throat. Her hair was of a dark brown; her eyes of such a blue that no one could have suggested grey; her complexion fair—a little freckled, which gave it the warmest tint it had; her nose nearly straight, her mouth rather large but well formed; and her forehead, as much of it as was to be seen under a garden hat, rose with promise above a pair of dark and finely pencilled eyebrows.
The description I have here given may be regarded as occupying the space of a brief silence, during which the lad stood motionless, like one awaiting further command.
"Why don't you go?" said the lady. "I want to read my book."
He gave a great sigh, as if waking from a pleasant dream, took off his bonnet with a clumsy movement which yet had in it a grace worthy of a Stuart court, and descending the dune walked away along the sands towards the sea town.
When he had gone about a couple of hundred yards, he looked back involuntarily. The lady had vanished. He concluded that she had crossed to the other side of the dune; but when he had gone so far on his way to the village as to clear the eastern end of the sandhill, and there turned and looked up its southern slope, she was still nowhere to be seen. The old highland stories of his grandfather came crowding to mind, and, altogether human as she had appeared, he almost doubted whether the sea, from which he had thought he rescued her, were not her native element. The book, however, not to mention the shoes and stockings, was against the supposition. Anyhow, he had seen a vision of some order or other, as certainly as if an angel from heaven had appeared to him, for the waters of his mind had been troubled with a new sense of grace and beauty, giving an altogether fresh glory to existence.
Of course no one would dream of falling in love with an unearthly creature, even an angel; at least, something homely must mingle with the glory ere that become possible; and as to this girl, the youth could scarcely have regarded her with a greater sense of far offness had he known her for the daughter of a king of the sea—one whose very element was essentially death to him as life to her. Still he walked home as if the heavy boots he wore were wings at his heels, like those of the little Eurus or Boreas that stood blowing his trumpet for ever in the round open temple which from the top of a grassy hill in the park overlooked the Seaton.
"Sic een!" he kept saying to himself; "an' sic sma' white han's! an' sic a bonny flit! Eh hoo she wad glitter throu' the water in a bag net! Faith! gien she war to sing 'come doon' to me, I wad gang. Wad that be to lowse baith sowl an' body, I wonner? I'll see what Maister Graham says to that. It's a fine question to put till 'im: 'Gien a body was to gang wi' a mermaid, wha they say has nae sowl to be saved, wad that be the loss o' his sowl, as weel's o' the bodily life o' 'im?"'
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