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   Chapter 10 No.10

The Wizard's Son, Vol. 1(of 3) By Margaret Oliphant Characters: 22916

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Kinloch Houran Castle stands out of the very waters of Loch Houran, with its ruined gables and towers clothed with ivy. From the water it looked like nothing but a roofless and deserted ruin. One tower in the centre stood up above the jagged lines of the walls, with something that looked like a ruined balcony or terrace commanding the landscape. The outline was indistinct, for the trees that had got footing in the ruined chambers below grew high and wild, veiling the means by which it was sustained at that altitude: but the little platform itself was very visible, surrounding the solid block of the tower, which showed no window or opening, but looked as if it might yet outlive centuries. As the boat approached, Walter saw the rowers whisper, and give significant looks at Symington, who sat respectfully on one of the cross seats, not to put himself in the way of his master, who occupied the other alone. Hoarse whispers breathed about the other end of the boat, and Symington was progged in the shoulders with an occasional oar. "Will ye no' be letting him see't?" the rowers said. Walter's faculties were eagerly acute in the strangeness of everything around him; the sense that he was going to an impossible house-to a ruin-on an impossible errand, seemed to keep him on the alert in every particular of his being. He could see through the dusk, he could hear through the whistle of the wind and the lashing of the water upon the boat's side, which was like the roar of a mimic storm; and he was not even insensible to the comic element in Symington's face, who waved away the oar with which he was poked, and replied with words and frowns and looks full of such superiority of information, that a burst of sudden nervous laughter at the sight relieved Walter's excitement. He felt that a thrill of disapproval at this went through the boat, and the men in the bow shook their bonnets as they rowed.

"It's nothing to laugh at, my lord," said old Symington, "though I'm not one-and I make no question but your lordship is not one-to lose my presence o' mind. Yon's the phenomenon that they wanted me to call your lordship's attention to," he added, jerking his arm, but without turning his head, in the direction of the tower.

"The light?" Walter said. He had been about to ask what the meaning of it might be. It had not been visible at all when they started, but for the last moment or two had been growing steadily. The daylight was waning every minute, and no doubt (he thought) it was this that made the light more evident. It shone from the balcony or high roof-terrace which surrounded the old tower. It was difficult to distinguish what it was, or identify any lamp or beacon as the origin of it. It seemed to come from the terrace generally, a soft, extended light, with nothing fiery in it, no appearance of any blaze or burning, but a motionless, clear shining, which threw a strange glimmer upwards upon the solid mass of the tower, and downwards upon the foliage, which was black and glistening, and upon the surface of the water. "Yon's the phenomenon," said Symington, pointing with a jerk of his elbow. The light brought out the whole mass of rugged masonry and trees from the rest of the landscape, and softly defined it against the darker background.

"How is it done?" said the young man, simply. He perceived the moment after that his tone was like that of the bagman on the coach, and shivered at the thought. So soft and steady was the light that it had not seemed to him extraordinary at all.

"What do you mean by a phenomenon?" he asked, hastily. He remembered suddenly that the young lady on the coach had spoken of this light, and taken it, so to speak, under her protection.

"If your lordship has ainy desire to inquire into my opinion," said old Symington, "though I doubt that's little likely, I would say it was just intended to work on the imagination. Now and then, indeed, it's useful in the way of a sign-like a person waving to you to come and speak; but to work on the imagination, that's what I would say."

Walter looked up at the light which threw a faint glimmer across the dark water, showing the blackness of the roughened ripple, over which they were making their way, and bringing into curious prominence the dark mass of the building rising out of it. It was not like the moon, it was more distinct than starlight, it was paler than a torch: nor was there any apparent central point from which it came. There was no electric light in those days, nor was Loch Houran a probable spot for its introduction: but the clear colourless light was of that description. It filled the visitor with a vague curiosity, but nothing more.

"To work on-whose imagination? and with what object?" he said.

But as he asked the question the boat shot forward into the narrow part of the loch, and rounded the corner of the ruin. Anything more hopeless as a place to which living passengers, with the usual encumbrances of luggage, were going, could not well be conceived; but after a few minutes' rowing, the boat ran in to some rude steps on the other side of the castle, where there were traces of a path leading up across the rough grass to a partially visible door. All was so dark by this time that it was with difficulty that Walter found the landing; when he had got ashore, and his portmanteau had been put out on the bank, the men in the boat pushed off with an energy and readiness which proved their satisfaction in getting clear of the castle and its traditions. To find himself left there, with an apparently ruined house behind him, his property at his feet, his old servant by his side, night closing in around, and the dark glistening water lapping up on the stones at his feet, was about as forlorn a situation as could be imagined.

"Are we to pass the night here?" he said, in a voice which could not help being somewhat querulous.

The sound of a door opening behind interrupted his words, and turning round he saw an old man standing in the doorway, with a small lamp in his hand. He held it up high over his head to see who the new-comers were; and Walter, looking round, saw a bowed and aged figure-a pale old face, which might have been made out of ivory, so bloodless was it, the forehead polished and shining, some grey locks escaping at the side of a black skull-cap, and eyes looking out keenly into the darkness.

"It is just his lordship, Macalister," said old Symington.

The young man, who was so strange to it all, stood with a sort of helplessness between the two old men who were familiar with each other and the place and all its customs.

"Come away, then, come away," cried the guardian of the house, with a shrill voice that penetrated the stillness sharply. "What are ye biding there for in the dark?"

"And who's to carry up my lord's portmanteau?" said Symington.

"His portmanteau!" cried the other, with a sort of eldritch laugh. "Has he come to bide?"

This colloquy held over him exasperated Walter, and he seized the portmanteau hastily, forgetting his dignity.

"Lend a hand, Symington, and let us have no more talk," he said.

There is a moment when the most forlorn sensations and the most dismal circumstances become either ludicrous or irritating. The young man shook off his sense of oppression and repugnance as he hastened up the slope to the door, while the lantern, flashing fitfully about, showed now the broken path, now the rough red masonry of the ruin, which was scarcely less unlike a ruin on this side than on the other. The door gave admittance into a narrow passage only, out of which a spiral staircase ascended close to the entrance, the passage itself apparently leading away into the darkness to a considerable distance. At the end of it stood a woman with a lighted candle peering out at the stranger as the man had done. He seemed to realise the stones which every one has read of a belated traveller unwillingly received into some desolate inn, which turns out to be the headquarters of a robber-band, and where the intruder must be murdered ere the morning.

"This is your way, my lord," said the shrill old man, leading the way up the spiral stair. The whole scene was like a picture. The woman holding up her light at the end of the long passage, the old man with his lamp, the dark corners full of silence and mystery, the cold wind blowing as through an icy ravine. And the sensations of the young man, who had not even had those experiences of adventure which most young men have in these travelling days, whom poverty and idleness had kept at home in tame domestic comfort, were very strange and novel. He seemed to himself to be walking into a romance, not into any real place, but into some old storybook, a mystery of Udolpho, an antiquated and conventional region of gloom and artificial alarms.

"Come this way, my lord; come this way," said the old man; "the steps are a bit worn, for they're auld, auld-as auld as the house. But we hope you'll find everything as comfortable as the circumstances will permit. We have had just twa three days to prepare, my mistress and me; but we've done our best, as far," he added, "as the circumstances will permit. This way, this way, my lord."

At the head of the stair everything was black as night. The old man's lamp threw his own somewhat fantastic shadow upon the wall of a narrow corridor as he held it up to guide the new-comer. Close to the top of the staircase, however, there opened a door, through which a warm light was showing, and Walter, to his surprise, found himself in a comfortably-furnished room with a cheerful fire, and a table covered for dinner, a welcome end to the discomfort and gloom of the arrival. The room was low, but large, and there were candles on the mantelpiece and table which made a sort of twinkling illumination in the midst of the dark panelled walls and dark furniture. The room was lined with books at one end. It was furnished with comfortable sofas and chairs of modern manufacture. There was a curious dim mirror over the mantelshelf in a heavy gilt frame of old carving, one or two dim old portraits hung opposite, the curtains were drawn, the fire was bright, the white tablecloth with an old-fashioned silver vase in the middle, and the candles burning, made a cheerful centre of light. At the further end was another door, open, which admitted to a bed-room, dim, but comfortable in the firelight. All this was encouraging. Walter threw himself into a chair with a sense that the situation altogether was improving. Things cannot be so very bad when there is a fire and lights, and a prospect of dinner. He began to laugh at himself, when he had taken off his coat, and felt the warmth of the glowing fire. Everything around him was adapted for comfort. There was a little want of light which left all the corners mysterious, and showed the portraits dimly, like half-seen spectators, looking down from the wall; but the comfortable was much more present than the weird and uncanny which had so much predominated on his arrival. And when a dinner, which was very good and carefully cooked, and a bottle of wine, which, though he had not very much skill in that subject, Walter knew to be costly and fine, had been served with noiseless care by Symington, the young man began to recover his spirits, and to think of the tradition which required his presence here, as silly indeed, but without harm.

After dinner he seated himself by the fire to think over the whole matter. It was not yet a fortnight since this momentous change had happened in his life. Before that he had been without importance, without use in the world, with little hope, with nothing he cared for sufficiently to induce him to exert himself one way or another. Now after he had passed this curious probation, whatever it was, what a life opened before him! He did not even know how important it was, how much worth living. It shone before him indistinctly as a sort of vague, general realisation of all dreams. Wealth-that was the least of it; power to do whatever he pleased; to affect other people's lives, to choose for himself almost whatever pleased him. He thought of Parliament, even of government, in his ignorance: he thought of travel, he thought of great houses full of gaiety and life. It was not as yet sufficiently realised to make him decide on one thing or another. He preferred it as it was, vague-an indefinite mass of good things and glories to come. Only this ordeal, or whatever it was-those few days more or less that he was bound to remain at Kinloch Houran, stood between him and his magnificent career. And after all, Kinloch Houran was nothing very terrible. It might be like the mysteries of Udolpho outside; but all the mysteries of Udolpho turned out, he remembered, quite explainable, and not so very alarming after all; and these rooms, which bore the traces of having been lived in very lately, and which were quite adapted to be lived in, did not seem to afford much scope for the mysterious. There were certain points, indeed, in which they were defective, a want of air, something which occasionally caught at his respiration, and gave him a sort of choked and stifled sensation; but that was natural enough, so carefully closed as everything was, curtains drawn, every draught warded off. Sometimes he had an uneasy feeling as if somebody had come in behind him and was hanging about the back of his chair. On one occasion he even went so far as to ask sharply, "Is it you, Symington?" but, looking back, was ashamed of himself, for of course there was nobody there. He changed his seat, however, so as to face the door, and even went the length of opening it, and looking out to see if there was any one about. The little corridor seemed to ramble away into a darkness so great that the light of his candle did no more than touch its surface-the spiral staircase looked like a well of gloom. This made him shiver slightly, and a half-wish to lock his door came over him, of which he felt ashamed as he turned back into the cheerful light.

After all, it was nothing but the sensation of loneliness which made this impression. He went back to his chair and once more resumed his thoughts-or rather was it not his thoughts-nay, his fancies-that resumed him, and fluttered about and around, presenting to him a hundred swiftly changing scenes? He saw visions of his old life, detached scenes which came suddenly up through the darkness and presented themselves before him-a bit of Sloebury High Street, with a group of his former acquaintances now so entirely separated from him; the little drawing-room at the cottage, with Julia Herbert singing him a song; Underwood's rooms on that particular night when he had gone in, in search of something like excitement, and had found everything so dull and flat. None of these scenes had any connection with his new beginning in life. They all belonged to the past, which was so entirely past and over. But these were the scenes which came with a sort of perversity, all broken, changing like badly managed views in a magic lantern, produced before him without any will of his. There was a sort of bewildering effect in the way in which they swept along, one effacing another, all of them so alien to the scene in which he found himself. He had to get up at last, shaking himself as free of the curious whirl of unwonted imagination as he could. No doubt his imagination was excited; but happily not, he said to himself, by anything connected with the present scene in which he found himself. Had it been roused by these strange surroundings, by the darkness and silence that were about him, by the loneliness to which he was so unused, he felt that there was no telling what he might see or think he saw; but fortunately it was not in this way that his imagination worked. His pulse was quick, however, his heart beating, a quite involuntary excitement in all his bodily faculties. He got up hastily and went to the bookshelves, where he found, to his surprise, a large collection of novels and light literature. It seemed to Walter that his predecessor, whom he had never seen-the former Lord Erradeen, who inhabited these rooms not very long ago-had been probably, like himself, anxious to quench the rising of his fancy in the less exciting course of a fictitious drama, the conventional excitements of a story. He looked over the shelves with a curious sympathy for this unknown person, whom indeed he had never thought much upon before. Did that unknown know who was to succeed him? Did he ever speculate upon Walter as Walter was now doing upon him? He turned over the books with a strange sense of examining the secrets of his predecessor's mind. They were almost all books of adventure and excitement. He took down, after a moment, a volume of Dumas, and returned to his easy-chair by the fire, to lose himself in the breathless ride of d'Artagnan and the luckless fortunes of the three companions. It answered the purpose admirably. A sudden lull came over his restless fancy. He was in great comfort externally, warmed and fed and reposing after a somewhat weary day, and the spell of the great story-teller got hold of him. He was startled out of this equable calm when Symington came in to light the candles in his bed-room and bring hot water, and offer his services generally. Symington regarded him with an approval which he did not think it worth his while to dissemble.

"That's right, my lord, that's right," he said. "Reading's a very fine thing when you have too much to occupy your thoughts."

Walter was amused by this deliverance, and happily not impatient of it. "That is a new reason for reading," he said.

"But it is a real just one, if your lordship will permit me to say so. Keep you to your book, my lord; it's just fine for putting other things out of your head. It's Dumas's you're reading? I've tried that French fellow myself, but I cannot say that I made head or tail of him. He would have it that all that has happened in history was just at the mercy of a wheen adventurers, two or three vagrants of Frenchmen. No, no. I may believe a great deal, but I'm not likely to believe that."

"I see you are a critic, Symington; and do you read for the same reason that you have been suggesting to me?-because you have too much to occupy your thoughts?"

"Well, pairtly, my lord, and pairtly just in my idle hours to pass the time. I have made up your fire and lighted the candles, and everything is in order. Will I wait upon your lordship till you're inclined for your bed? or will I--" Symington made a significant pause, which it was not very difficult to interpret.

"You need not wait," Walter said; and then, with an instinct which he was half ashamed of, he asked hurriedly, "Whereabouts do you sleep?"

"That is just about the difficulty," said old Symington. "I'm rather out of call if your lordship should want anything. The only way will just be to come down the stairs, if your lordship will take the trouble, and ring the big bell. It would waken a' the seven sleepers if it was rung at their lug: and I'm not so ill to waken when there is noise enough. But ye have everything to your hand, my lord. If you'll just give a glance into the other room, I can let you see where everything is. There is the spirit-lamp, not to say a small kettle by the fire, and there's--"

"That will do," said Walter. "I shall not want anything more to-night."

The old servant went away with a glance round the room, in which Walter thought there was some anxiety, and stopped again at the door to say "Good night, my lord. It's not that I am keen for my bed-if your lordship would like me to bide, or even to take a doze upon a chair--"

"Go to bed, old Sym.," said the young man with a laugh. The idea of finding a protector in Symington was somewhat ludicrous. But these interruptions disturbed him once more, and brought back his excitement: he felt a sort of pang as he heard the old servant's heavy step going down the winding stair, and echoing far away, as it seemed, into the bowels of the earth. Then that extreme and blighting silence which is like a sort of conscious death came upon the place. The thick curtains shut out every sound of wind and water outside as they shut out every glimpse of light. Walter heard his pulse in his ears, his heart thumping like the hammer of a machine. The whole universe seemed concentrated in that only living breathing thing, which was himself. He tried to resume his book, but the spell of the story was broken. He could no longer follow the fortunes of Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. Walter Methven thrust himself in front of these personages, and, though he was not half so amusing, claimed a superior importance by right of those pulses that clanged in his head like drums beating. He said to himself that he was very comfortable, that he had never expected to be so well off. But he could not regain his composure or sense of well-being. It was a little better when he went into his bed-room, the mere movement and passage from one room to another being of use to him. The sense of oppression and stagnation, however, soon became almost greater here than in the sitting-room. One side of the room was entirely draped in close-drawn curtains, so that it was impossible to make out even where the windows were. He drew them aside with some trouble, for the draperies were very heavy, but not to much advantage. At first it seemed to him that there were no windows at all; then he caught sight of something like a recess high in the wall; and climbing up, found the hasp of a rough shutter, which covered a small square window built into a cave of the deep masonry. That this should be the only means of lighting an almost luxurious sleeping chamber, bewildered him more and more; but it would not open, and let in no air, and the atmosphere felt more stifling than ever in this revelation of the impossibility of renewing it. Finally, he went to bed with a sort of rueful sense that there was the last citadel and refuge of a stranger beset by imaginations in so weird and mysterious a place. He did not expect to sleep, but he determined that he would not, at least, be the sport of his own fancies.

It astonished Walter beyond measure to find himself waking in broad daylight, with Symington moving softly about the room, and a long window, the existence of which he had never suspected, facing him as he looked up from his pillows, after a comfortable night's sleep. Mingled shame and amusement made him burst into an uneasy laugh, as he realised this exceedingly easy end of his tribulations.

"Mrs. Macalister," said Symington, "would like well to know when your lordship is likely to be ready, to put down the trout at the right moment: for it's an awful pity to spoil a Loch Houran trout."

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