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   Chapter 9 No.9

The Wizard's Son, Vol. 1(of 3) By Margaret Oliphant Characters: 28332

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

The day on which Walter set out for Kinloch Houran was fine and bright, the sky very clear, the sun shining, the hills standing out against the blue, and every line of the tall trees clearly marked upon the transparent atmosphere. It was not till two days after the conversation above recorded-for there had been much to explain, and Walter was so little acquainted with business that instructions of various kinds were necessary. Miss Milnathort was visible much earlier than usual on the morning of his departure, and he was admitted to see her. She was paler than before, and her little soft face was full of agitation; the corners of her mouth turned down, and her upper lip, which was a trifle too long, quivering. This added rather than took away from her appearance of youth. She was like a child who had exhausted itself with crying, and still trembled with an occasional sob. She stretched up her arms to him as if she would have put them round his neck, and bade God bless him with a tremulous voice.

"You must have plenty of courage," she said; "and you must never, never give up your own way."

Walter was touched to the heart by this look of trouble on the innocent, young-old face.

"I thought it was always right to give up one's own way," he said, in the light tone which he had come to employ with her.

She made an effort to smile in response.

"Oh yes, oh yes, it's the fashion to say so. You are a self-denying race, to believe yourselves; but this time you must not yield."

"To whom am I supposed to be about to yield?" he asked. "You may be sure I sha'n't unless I can't help myself."

The tears overflowed her bright old eyes; her hands shook as they held his.

"God bless you! God bless you!" she said. "I will do nothing but pray for you, and you will tell me when you come back."

He left her lying back upon her cushions sobbing under her breath. All this half-perplexed, half-amused the young man. She was a very strange little creature, he felt, neither old nor young; there was no telling the reason of her emotion. She was so much indulged in all her whims, like a spoiled child, that perhaps these tears were only her regrets for a lost playmate. At the same time Walter knew that this was not so, and was angry with himself for the thought. But how find his way out of the perplexity? He shook it off, which is always the easiest way; and soon the landscape began to attract his attention, and he forgot by degrees that there was anything very unusual in the circumstances of his journey. It was not till the first long stage of this journey was over that he was suddenly roused to a recollection of everything involved, by the appearance of Symington at the carriage window, respectfully requesting to know whether he had wanted anything. Walter had not remembered, or if he had remembered had thought no more of it, that this quietly officious retainer had taken all trouble from him at the beginning of his journey, as he had done during his stay in Mr. Milnathort's house.

"What! are you here?" he said, with surprise, and a mixture of amusement and offence.

"I beg your pardon, my lord," said Symington, with profound and serious respect, yet always a twinkle in his eye, "but as the other man did not turn up-and your lordship could scarcely travel without some attendance--"

He had to rush behind to get his place in the train in the midst of his sentence, and Walter was left to think it over alone. In the balance between anger and amusement the latter fortunately won the day. The comic side of the matter came uppermost. It seemed to him very droll that he should be taken possession of, against his will, by the valet who professed an attachment to the race, not to the individual members of it, whose head was garlanded with crape in the quaint Scotch way for Walter's predecessor, and who had "identified himself with the Erradeens." He reminded himself that he was in the country of Caleb Balderstone and Ritchie Moniplies, and he resigned himself to necessity. Symington's comic yet so respectful consciousness that "the other man" was a mere imagination, was joke enough to secure his pardon, and Walter felt that though the need of attendance was quite new in his life, that it might be well on his arrival in a strange country and a lonely ruined house, to have some one with him who was not ignorant either of the locality or the household.

The country increased in interest as he went on, and by and by he forgot himself in gazing at the mountains which appeared in glimpses upon the horizon, then seemed to draw nearer, closing in upon the road, which led along by the head of one loch after another, each encompassed by its circle of hills. Walter knew very little about Scotland. He thought it a barren and wild country, all bleak and gloomy, and the lavish vegetation of the west filled him with surprise and admiration. The sun was near its setting when the railway journey came to an end, and he found himself at a village station, from which a coach ran to Kinloch Houran. It appeared that there was no other vehicle to be had, and though it was cold there was nothing else for it but to clamber up on the top of the rude coach, which was a sort of char-à-banc without any interior. Walter felt that it would become him ill, notwithstanding his new rank, to grumble at the conveyance, upon which there mounted nimbly a girl whom he had remarked when leaving Edinburgh, and whom he had watched for at all the pauses of the journey. He thought her the very impersonation of all he had ever heard of Scotch beauty, and so would most observers to whom Scotland is a new country. The native Scot is aware that there are as many brown locks as golden, and as many dark maidens as fair ones in his own country; but notwithstanding, to the stranger it is the fair who is the type. This young lady was warmly clothed in dark tweed, of the ruddy heathery hue which is now so general, not long enough to conceal her well-shod feet, closely fitting, and adapted for constant walking and movement. She seemed to be met by friends all along the route. From the carriage window Walter saw her look out with little cries of pleasure. "Oh, is that you, Jack?" "Oh, Nelly, where are you going?" "Oh, come in here, there is room in this carriage," and such like. She was always leaning out to say a word to somebody, either of farewell or welcome. "You will remember me to your mother," old gentlemen would call to her, as the train went on. Walter was greatly in want of amusement, and he was at the age when a girl is always interesting. She became to him the heroine of the journey. He felt that he was collecting a great deal of information about her as they travelled on, and had begun to wonder whether he should ever find out who she was, or see any more of her, when he perceived her, to his delight, getting out, as he himself did, at Baldally. She was met by a respectable woman servant, who took possession of her baggage, while the young lady herself ran across the road to the coach, and with a hearty greeting to John the coachman darted up to the seat immediately behind him, where her maid presently joined her. Walter, and a personage of the commercial traveller class, shared the coachman's seat in front, and Symington and some other humbler passengers sat behind. The coach was adapted for summer traffic, so that there were several lines of empty seats between the two sets of travellers. It gave Walter a great deal of pleasure to hear the soft voice of his fellow-traveller pouring forth, low yet quite audible, an account of her journey to her maid, who was evidently on the most confidential terms with her young mistress.

"Has mamma missed me-much?" she asked after the little Odyssey was over.

"Oh, Miss Oona, to ask that," cried the woman; "how should we no miss you?" and then there ensued a number of details on the home side. The girl had been on a visit in Edinburgh, and had gone to balls, and "seen everything." On the other hand many small matters, faithfully reported, had filled up the time of separation. Walter listened to all this innocent interchange with great amusement and interest as the coach made its way slowly up the ascents of the hilly road. It was not in itself an agreeable mode of progression: the wind was icy cold, and swept through and through the unfortunates who faced it in front, sharpening into almost absolute needle points of ice when the pace quickened, and the noisy, jolting vehicle lumbered down the further side of a hill, threatening every moment to pitch the passengers into the heathery bog on one side or the other. He tried to diminish his own discomfort by the thought that he took off the icy edge of the gale and sheltered the little slim creature in her close ulster behind, about whose shoulders the maid had wound the snowy mass of a great white knitted shawl. The low sun was in their faces as they toiled and rattled along, and the clear wintry blue of the sky was already strewn with radiant rosy masses of cloud. When they reached the highest point of the road the dazzling gleam of the great loch lying at their feet and made into a mirror of steel by the last blaze of the sun before it disappeared, dazzled the young man, who could see nothing except the cold intolerable brightness; but in a moment more the scene disclosed itself. Hills all purple in the sunset, clothed with that ineffable velvet down which softens every outline, opened out on either side, showing long lines of indistinct green valleys and narrower ravines that ran between, all converging towards the broad and noble inland sea fringed with dark woods and broken with feathery islands, which was the centre of the landscape. The wonderful colour of the sky reflected in the loch, where everything found a reflection, and every knoll and island floated double, changed the character of the scene and neutralised the dazzling coldness of the great water-mirror. Walter's involuntary exclamation at this sight stopped for a moment all the conversation going on. "By Jove," he said, "how glorious!" They all stopped talking, the coachman, the traveller, the woman behind, and looked at him. Big John the driver, who knew everybody, eyed him with a slightly supercilious air, as one who felt that the new-comer could not be otherwise than contemptible, more or less, even though his sentiments were irreproachable. "Ay, sir-so that's your opinion? most folk have been beforehand with ye," said John.

The commercial traveller added, condescendingly, "It is cold weather for touring, sir; but it's a grand country, as ye say." And then they resumed their conversation.

The young lady behind was far more sympathetic. She made a distinct pause, and when she spoke again it was with a flattering adoption of Walter's tone to point out to her companion how beautiful the scene was.

"The isle is floating too, Mysie-look! If we could get there soon enough we might land upon one of those rosy clouds."

Walter gave a grateful glance behind him, and felt that he was understood.

"That is just your poetry, Miss Oona," said the maid; "but, bless me, I have never told ye: there has been the light lighted in the castle these two nights past. We have just thought upon you all the time, and how much taken up you would be about it, your mamma and me."

"The light on the castle!" cried the young lady; and at this the coachman, turning slightly round, entered into the conversation.

"That has it," he said; "I can back her up in that; just as clear and as steady as a star. There are many that say they never can see it; but they would be clever that had not seen it these two past nights."

"Who says they cannot see it?" said the girl, indignantly.

John gave a little flick to his leader, which made the whole machine vibrate and roll.

"Persons of the newfangled kind that believe in nothing," he said. "They will tell ye it cannot be-so how can you see it? though it is glinting in their faces all the time."

"You are meaning me, John," said the traveller on the box-seat; "and there's truth in what you say. I've seen what you call the light, and no doubt it has the appearance of a light; but if ye tell me it's something supernatural, there can be no doubt I will answer ye that there's nothing supernatural. If you were to tell me ye had seen a ghost, I would just reply in the same way. No, my man, I'm not impeachin' your veracity. You saw something, I'll allow; but no' a ghost, for there are no ghosts to see."

"That's just an awfu' easy way of settlin' the question," said the maid from behind-and then she went on in a lower tone: "This will be the third night since it began, and we've a' seen it on the Isle. Hamish, he says the new lord maun be of a dour kind to need so many warnings. And he's feared ill will come of it; but I say the new lord, no' bein' here away nor of this country at all, how is he to ken?"

The girl's voice was now quite low, almost a whisper: but Walter being immediately in front of her could still hear. "Has anything been heard," she said, "of the new lord?"

"Very little, Miss Oona, only that he's a young lad from the south with no experience, and didna even know that he was the heir; so how could he ken? as I say to Hamish. But Hamish he insists that it's in the blood, and that he would ken by instinck; and that it shows an ill-will, and ill will come of it."

"If I were he," cried the girl, "I would do the same. I would not be called like that from the end of the world wherever I was."

"Oh, whisht, Miss Oona. It is such an auld, auld story; how can the like of you say what should be done?"

"I would like myself," said the traveller, "to come to the bottom of this business. What is it for, and who has the doing of it? The moment you speak of a light ye pre-suppose a person that lights it and mainy adjuncks and accessories. Now there's nobody, or next to nobody, living in that auld ruin. It's some rendeyvouss, I can easily understand that. The days of conspiracies are gone by, or I would say it was something against the state; but

whatever it is, it must have a purpose, and mortal hands must do it, seeing there are no other. I have heard since ever I began to travel this country of the Kinloch Houran light, but I never heard a reason assigned."

"It's the living lord," cried the maid, "as everybody knows! that is called to meet with--"

Here the young lady interfered audibly-

"Mysie, not a word!" The woman's voice continued, stifled as if a hand had been laid on her mouth.

"With them that are-with ane that is-I'm saying nothing, Miss Oona, but what all the loch is well aware--"

"It's just a ferlie of this part of the world," said John the driver; "nae need of entering into it with them that believe naething. I'm no what ye call credulous mysel'; but when it comes to the evidence of a man's ain senses--"

"And what have your senses said to ye, my fine fellow? that there's a queer kind of a glimmer up upon the auld tower? So are there corpse-candles, if I'm not mistaken, seen by the initiated upon your burial isle-what do you call it?"

"And wha has a word to say gainst that?" cried the driver angrily; whilst Mysie behind murmured-"It's well seen ye have naething to do with any grave there."

Now Walter was as entirely free from superstition as any young man need be; but when he heard the laugh with which the sceptic greeted these protests, he had the greatest mind in the world to seize him by the collar and pitch him into the bog below. Why? but the impulse was quite unreasonable and defied explanation. He had as little faith in corpse-candles as any bagman ever had, and the embarrassed and uneasy consciousness he had that the end of his journey was inexplicable, and its purpose ridiculous, led him much more to the conclusion that he was being placed in a ludicrous position, than that there was anything solemnly or awfully mysterious in it. Nevertheless, so far from ranging himself upon the side of the enlightened modern who took the common-sense view of these Highland traditions, his scorn and impatience of him was beyond words. For his own part he had not been sufficiently self-possessed to join in the discussion; but at this moment he ventured a question-

"Is this old castle you speak of-" here he paused not knowing how to shape his inquiry; then added, "uninhabited?" for want of anything better to say.

"Not altogether," said John; "there is auld Macalister and his wife that live half in the water, half out of the water. And it's the story in the parish that there are good rooms; aye ready for my lord. But I can tell ye naething about that, for I'm always on the road, and I see nothing but a wheen tourists in the summer, that are seeking information, and have none to give, puir creatures. There's a new lord just come to the title; ye will maybe have met with him if ye're from the south, for he's just an English lad."

"England, my man John, is a wide road," said the traveller; "there are too many for us all to know each other as ye do in a parish; this gentleman will tell ye that."

John's satirical explanation that he had not suspected Mr. Smith, whose northern accent was undoubted, of being an Englishman, saved Walter from any necessity of making a reply; and by this time the coach was rattling down upon a little homely inn, red-roofed and white-walled, which stood upon a knoll, overlooking the loch, and was reflected in all its brightness of colour in that mirror. The ground shelved rapidly down to the water-side, and there were several boats lying ready to put out into the loch-one a ponderous ferry boat, another a smaller, but still substantial and heavy, cobble, in which a man with a red shirt and shaggy locks was standing up relieved against the light. Walter jumped down hurriedly with the hope of being in time to give his hand to the young lady, who perhaps had divined his purpose, for she managed to alight on the other side and so balk him. The landlady of the little inn had come out to the door, and there was a great sound of salutations and exclamations of welcome. "But I mustna keep you, Miss Oona, and your mamma countin' the moments; and there's two or three parcels," the woman said. The air had begun to grow a little brown, as the Italians say, that faint veil of gathering shade which is still not darkness, was putting out by degrees the radiance of the sky, and as Walter stood listening all the mingled sounds of the arrival rose together in a similar mist of sound, through which he sought for the soft little accents of the young lady's voice amid the noises of the unharnessing, the horses' hoofs and ostler's pails, and louder tones. Presently he saw her emerge from the group with her maid, laden with baskets and small parcels, and embarking under the conduct of the man in the red shirt, whom she greeted affectionately as Hamish, assume her place in the stern, and the ropes of the rudder, with evident use and wont. To watch her steer out into the darkening loch, into the dimness and cold, gave the young man a vague sensation of pain. It seemed to him as if the last possible link with the human and sympathetic was detaching itself from him. He did not know her indeed, but it does not take a long time or much personal knowledge to weave this mystic thread between one young creature and another. Most likely, he thought, she had not so much as noticed him: but she had come into the half-real dream of his existence, and touched his hand, as it were, in the vague atmosphere which separates one being from another. Now he was left with nothing around him but the darkening landscape and the noisy little crowd about the coach; no one who could give him any fellowship or encouragement in the further contact which lay before him with the mysterious and unknown.

After a few moments the landlady came towards him, smoothing down her white apron, which made a great point in the landscape, so broad was it and so white. She smiled upon him with ingratiating looks.

"Will you be going north, sir?" she said; "or will you be biding for the night? Before we dish up the dinner and put the sheets on the bed we like to know."

"Who is that young lady that has just gone away?" said Walter, not paying much attention; "and where is she going? It is late and cold for the water. Do you ever get frozen here?"

"That is Miss Oona of the Isle," said the landlady; "but as I was saying, sir, about the beds--"

"Are the islands inhabited then?" said Walter; "and where is Kinloch Houran? Does one go there by water too?"

"No, Mistress Macgregor," said Symington's voice on the other side; "my lord will not bide here to-night. I've been down to the beach, and there is a boat there, but not your lordship's own, any more than there was a carriage waiting at Baldally. We must just put our pride in our pockets, my lord, and put up with what we can get. When your lordship's ready we're all ready."

By this time Big John and all the others were standing in a group staring at Lord Erradeen with all their eyes. John explained himself in a loud voice, but with an evident secret sense of shame.

"Hoo was I to ken? A lord has nae business to scour the country like that, like ony gangrel body-sitting on the seat just like the rest of us-Mr. Smith and him and me. Lord! hoo was I to ken? If you hear nae good of yourself, it is just your ain blame. I was thinking of no lord or any such cattle. I was just thinking upon my beasts. As for a lord that gangs about like yon, deceiving honest folk, I wouldna give that for him," John said, snapping his finger and thumb. His voice sank at the end, and the conclusion of the speech was but half audible. Mrs. Macgregor interposing her round, soft intonation between the speaker and the stranger.

"Eh, my lord, I just beg your pardon! I had no notion-and I hope your lordship found them a' civil. Big John is certainly a little quick with his tongue-"

"I hope you're not supposing, Mistress Macgregor, that his lordship would fash himself about Big John," said Symington, who had now taken the direction of affairs. Walter, to tell the truth, did not feel much inclination to enter into the discussion. The gathering chill of the night had got into his inner man. He went down towards the beach slowly pondering, taking every step with a certain hesitation. It seemed to him that he stood on the boundary between the even ground of reality and some wild world of fiction which he did not comprehend, but had a mingled terror and hatred of. Behind him everything was homely and poor enough; the light streamed out of the open doors and uncovered windows, the red roof had a subdued glow of cheerfulness in the brown air, the sounds about were cheerful, full of human bustle and movement, and mutual good offices. The men led the horses away with a certain kindness; the landlady, with her white apron, stopped to say a friendly word to Big John, and interchanged civilities with the other humble passengers who were bringing her no custom, but merely passing her door to the ferry-boat that waited to take them across the loch. Everywhere there was a friendly interchange, a gleam of human warmth and mutual consolation. But before him lay the dark water, with a dark shadow of mingled towers and trees lying upon it at some distance. He understood vaguely that this was Kinloch Houran, and the sight of it was not inviting. He did not know what it might be that should meet him there, but whatever it was it repelled and revolted him. He seemed to be about to overpass some invisible boundary of truth and to venture into the false, into regions in which folly and trickery reigned. There was in Walter's mind all the sentiment of his century towards the supernatural. He had an angry disbelief in his mind, not the tranquil contempt of the indifferent. His annoyed and irritated scorn perhaps was nearer faith than he supposed; but he was impatient of being called upon to give any of his attention to those fables of the past which imposture only could keep up in the present. He felt that he was going to be made the victim of some trick or other. The country people evidently believed, indeed, as was natural enough to their simplicity; but Walter felt too certain that he would see the mechanism behind the most artful veil to believe it possible that he himself could be taken in, even for a moment. And he had no desire to find out the contemptible imposture. He felt the whole business contemptible; the secluded spot, the falling night, the uninhabited place, were all part of the jugglery. Should he voluntarily make himself a party to it, and walk into the snare with his eyes open? He felt sure, indeed, that he would remain with his eyes open all the time, and was not in the least likely to submit to any black art that might be exercised upon him. But he paused, and asked himself was it consistent with the dignity of a reasonable creature, a full-grown man, to allow himself to be drawn into any degrading contact with this jugglery at all?

The boat lay on the beach with his baggage already in it, and Symington standing respectful awaiting his master's pleasure. Symington, no doubt, was the god out of the machinery who had the fin mot of everything and all the strings in his hand. What if he broke the spell peremptorily and retired to the ruddy fireside of the inn and defied family tradition? He asked himself again what would come of it? and replied to himself scornfully that nothing could come of it. What law could force him to observe an antiquated superstition? It was folly to threaten him with impossible penalties. And even if a thing so absurd could happen as that he should be punished in purse or property for acting like a man of sense instead of a fool, what then? The mere possibility of the risk made Walter more disposed to incur it. It was monstrous and insufferable that he should be made to carry out a tyrannical, antiquated stipulation by any penalty of the law. It would be better to fight it out once for all. All the sense of the kingdom would be with him, and he did not believe that any judge could pronounce against him. Here Symington called, with a slight tone of anxiety, "We are all ready, my lord, and waiting." This almost decided Walter. He turned from the beach, and made a few hasty steps up the slope.

But then he paused again, and turning round faced once more the darkening water, the boat lying like a shadow upon the beach, the vague figures of the men about it. The ferry-boat had pushed off and was lumbering over the water with great oars going like bats' wings, and a noisy human load. The other little vessel with that girl had almost disappeared. He thought he could see in the darkness a white speck like a bird, which was the white shawl that wrapped her throat and shoulders. Her home lay somewhere in the centre of these dark waters, a curious nest for such a creature. And his? He turned again towards the dark, half-seen towers and gables. Some of them were so irregular in outline that they could be nothing but ruins. He began to think of the past, mute, out of date, harmless to affect the life that had replaced it, which had taken refuge there. And he remembered his own argument about the courtesy that the living owed to the dead. Well! if it was so, if it was as a politeness, a courtesy to the past, it might be unworthy a gentleman to refuse it. And perhaps when all was said it was just a little cowardly to turn one's back upon a possible danger, upon what at least the vulgar thought a danger. This decided him. He turned once more, and with a few rapid steps reached the boat. Next moment they were afloat upon the dark loch. There had been no wind to speak of on shore, but the boat was soon struggling against a strong running current, and a breeze which was like ice. The boatmen showed dark against the gleaming loch, the rude little vessel rolled, the wind blew. In front of them rose the dark towers and woods all black without a sign of human habitation. Walter felt his heart rise at last with the sense of adventure. It was the strangest way of entering upon a fine inheritance.

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