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   Chapter 13 No.13

The Wizard's Son, Vol. 1(of 3) By Margaret Oliphant Characters: 30097

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


"And so you have made acquaintance with the young lord-tell us what kind of person he is, Mrs. Forrester-tell us what you think of him, Oona."

This was the unanimous voice which rose from the party assembled on the second day after Walter's visit in the drawing-room in the Isle.

It was by no means out of the world, though to all appearances so far removed from its commotions. A low cottage-mansion on the crest of a rock, in the middle of Loch Houran, six miles from the railway at the nearest spot on which you could land, and with a mile or so of water, often rough, between you and the post-office, is it possible to imagine a more complete seclusion? and yet it was not a seclusion at all. Oona cared very little for the roughness of the water between the Isle and the post-office, and Hamish nothing at all, and news came as constantly and as regularly to the two ladies on their island as to any newspaper-news from all quarters of the world. The mail days were almost as important to them-in one way far more important than to any merchant in his office. Budgets came and went every week, and both Oona and her mother would be busy till late at night, the little gleam of their lighted windows shining over the dark loch, that no one might miss his or her weekly letter. These letters went up into the hill countries in India, far away to the borders of Cashmere, round the world to Australia, dropt midway into the coffee groves of Ceylon. When one of the boys was quartered in Canada, to which there is a mail three times a week, that looked like next parish, and they thought nothing of it. Neither need it be supposed that this was the only enlivenment of their lives. The loch, though to the tourist it looks silent enough, was in fact fringed by a number of houses in which the liveliest existence was going on. The big new house at the point, which had been built by a wealthy man of Glasgow, with every possible splendour, threw the homelier houses of the native gentry a little into the shade; but nobody bore him any malice, his neighbours being all so well aware that their own "position" was known and unassailable, that his finery and his costliness gave them no pang. They were all a little particular about their "position:" but then nobody on the loch could make any mistake about that, or for a moment imagine that Mr. Williamson from Glasgow could rival the Scotts of Inverhouran, the Campbells of Ellermore, of Glentruan, and half a dozen names beside, or the Forresters of Eaglescairn, or the old Montroses, who, in fact, were a branch of the Macnabs, and held their house on the Isle from that important but extinct clan. This was so clearly understood that there was not an exception made to the Williamsons, who knew their place, and were very nice, and made a joke of their money, which was their social standing ground. They had called their house, which was as big as a castle, in the most unobtrusive manner, Birkenbraes, thus proving at once that they were new people and Lowlanders: so much better taste, everybody said, than any pretence at Highland importance or name. And this being once acknowledged, the gentry of the loch adopted the Williamsons cordially, and there was not a word to be said. But all the Campbells about, and those excellent Williamsons, and a few families who were not Campbells, yet belonged to Loch Houran, kept a good deal of life "on the loch," which was a phrase that meant in the district generally. And the Isle was not a dull habitation, whatever a stranger might think. There was seldom a day when a boat or two was not to be seen, sometimes for hours together, drawn up upon the rocky beach. And the number of persons entertained by Mrs. Forrester at the early dinner which was politely called luncheon would have appeared quite out of proportion with her means by any one unacquainted with Highland ways. There was trout from the loch, which cost nothing except Hamish's time, a commodity not too valuable, and there was grouse during the season, which cost still less, seeing it came from all the sportsmen about. And the scones, of every variety known in Scotland, which is a wide word, were home-made. So that hospitality reigned, and yet Mrs. Forrester, who was a skilled housekeeper, and Mysie, to whom the family resources were as her own, and its credit still more precious than her own, managed somehow to make ends meet.

On this particular afternoon the drawing-room with all its slim sofas and old-fashioned curiosities was full of Campbells, for young Colin of Ellermore was at home for his holiday, and it was a matter of course that his sisters and Tom, the youngest, who was at home reading (very little) for his coming examination, should bring him to the Isle. Colin was rather a finer gentleman than flourished by nature upon the loch. He had little company ways which made his people laugh; but when he had been long enough at home to forget these he was very nice they all said. He was in London, and though in trade, in "tea," which is rather aristocratic, he was in society too.

"What kind of person is he, Mrs. Forrester? Tell us what you think of him, Oona," was what this youthful band said.

"Well, my dears," said Mrs. Forrester, "he is just a very nice young man. I don't know how I can describe him better, for young men now-a-days are very like one another. They all wear the same clothes-not but what," she added graciously, "I would know Colin anywhere for a London gentleman with his things all so well made: but Lord Erradeen was just in a kind of tweed suit, and nothing remarkable. And his hands in his pockets, like all of ye. But he answered very nicely when I spoke to him, and said he was more used to Walter Methven than to any other name, and that to be neighbourlike would just be his pleasure. It is not possible to be more pleasant and well-spoken than the young man was."

"Oh, but I want a little more," cried Marjorie Campbell; "that tells nothing; is he fair, or is he dark? is he tall or is he little-is he-"

"He couldn't be little," cried Janet, indignantly, "or he would not be a hero: and I've made up my mind he's to be a hero. He'll have to do something grand, but I don't know what: and to spoil it all with making him small-"

"Heroes are all short," said Tom, "and all the great generals. You don't want weedy, long-legged fellows like Colin and the rest of them. But you know they all run to legs in our family, all but me."

"All this is irrelevant," said Colin with a smile which was somewhat superior, "and you prevent Mrs. Forrester from giving us the masterly characterisation which I know is on her lips."

"You are just a flatterer," said that simple lady, shaking her finger at him; "there was no character coming from my lips. He is just a fine simple-hearted young man. It appears he never knew what he was heir to, and has no understanding even now, so far as I could learn, about the Erradeens. He told me he had been a thoughtless lad, and, as well as I could judge just a handful to his poor mother; but that all that was over and gone."

"You are going too far, mamma," said Oona. "He said he had 'loafed.' Loafing means no harm, does it, Colin? It means mere idleness, and no more."

"Why should you think I am an authority on the subject?" said Colin. "I never loaf: I go to the City every day. When I come back I have to keep up society, so far as I can, and hunt about for invitations, otherwise I should never be asked out. That is not loafing, it is hard work."

"Ask me, Oona," said young Tom; "I can tell you. It is the nicest thing in the world. It means just doing nothing you are wanted to do, taking your own way, watching nature, don't you know, and studying men, and that sort of thing, which all the literary people say is better than cramming. But only it does not pay in an exam."

"Oh, hold your tongue, Tommy," cried his sister. "You will fail again, you know you will, and papa will be in despair. For you are not like Colin, who is clever; you are good for nothing but soldiering, and next year you will be too old."

"It's a shame," cried Tom hotly, "to make a fellow's commission depend upon his spelling. What has spelling to do with it? But I'm going into the militia, and then I shall be all right."

"And did Erradeen," said Colin to Mrs. Forrester, "let out any of the secrets of his prison-house?"

"Bless me, he looked just as cheerful as yourself or even as Tom. There was nothing miserable about him," Mrs. Forrester replied. "He had been all the morning enjoying himself on the loch, and he came up and ate his lunch just very hearty, and as happy as possible, with Oona and me. He was just very like my own Ronald or Rob: indeed I think there's something in his complexion and his way of holding himself that is very like Rob; and took my opinion about the old castle, and what was the meaning of the light on the tower. Indeed," added Mrs. Forrester with a laugh, "I don't know if it is anything in me that draws people to tell me their stories, but it is a very general thing, especially for young persons, to ask for my advice."

"Because you're so kind," said Janet Campbell, who was romantic and admired the old beauty.

"Because you're so clever," said Marjorie, who had a turn for satire.

Oona, whose ear was very quick for any supposed or possible ridicule, such as her mother's little foibles occasionally laid her open to, turned quickly round from Tom, leaving him speaking, and with a little heightened colour interposed.

"We are opposite to the castle night and day," she said. "We cannot go out to the door or gather a flower without seeing it; and at night there it is in the moonlight. So naturally we are better acquainted with what happens than anybody else can be."

"And do you really, really believe in the light?" said Marjorie.

Ellermore lay quite at the other end of the great loch, among another range of hills, and was shut out from personal acquaintance with the phenomena of Kinloch Houran. Colin gave a slight laugh, the faintest possible indication of incredulity, to repeat with an increase of force the doubt in his sister's tone. Oona was not without a healthful little temper, which showed in the flash of her eye and the reddening of her cheek. But she answered very steadily, with much suppressed feeling in her tone-

"What do you call believing?" she said. "You believe in things you cannot see? then I don't believe in the Kinloch Houran light. Because I see it, and have seen it a hundred times as clear as day."

At this there was a little pause among the party of visitors, that pause of half-amused superiority and scepticism, with which all believers in the mysterious are acquainted. And then Marjorie, who was the boldest, replied-

"Papa says it is a sort of phosphorescence, which is quite explainable: and that where there is so much decaying matter, and so much damp, and so much--"

"Faith, perhaps," said Colin, with that slight laugh; "but we are outsiders, and we have no right to interfere with the doctrines of the loch. Oona, give us that credit that we are outside the circle, and you must not send us to the stake."

"Oh, my dears," said Mrs. Forrester, "and that is quite true. I have heard very clever men say that there was nothing made so much difference in what you believed as just the place you were born in, and that people would go the stake, as you say, on one side of the border for a thing they just laughed at on the other."

This, which was a very profound deliverance for Mrs. Forrester, she carried off at the end with a pretty profession of her own disabilities.

"I never trust to my own judgment," she said. "But Oona is just very decided on the subject, and so are all our people on the isle, and I never put myself forward one way or another. Are you sure you will not take a cup of tea before you go? a cup of tea is never out of place. It is true that the day is very short, and Colin, after his town life, will be out of the way of rowing. You are just going across by the ferry, and then driving? Well, that is perhaps the best way. And in that case there is plenty of time for a cup of tea. Just ring the bell, or perhaps it will be safer, Oona, if you will cry upon Mysie and tell her to lose no time. Just the tea, and a few of the cream scones, and a little cake. She need not spread the table as there is so little time."

The interlude of the tea and the cream scones made it late before the visitors got away. Their waggonette was visible waiting for them on the road below Auchnasheen, and five minutes were enough to get them across, so that they dallied over this refreshment with little thought of the waning afternoon. Then there was a little bustle to escort them down to the beach, to see them carefully wrapped up, to persuade Marjorie that another "hap" would be desirable, and Janet that her "cloud" should be twisted once more about her throat. The sunset was waning when at last they were fairly off, and the loch lay in a still, yellow radiance, against which every tree and twig, every rock and stone, stood out dark in full significance of outline. It was cold, and Mrs. Forrester shivered in her furred cloak.

"The shore looks so near that you could touch it," she said; "there will be rain to-morrow, Oona."

"What does it matter about to-morrow?" cried the girl; "it's beautiful to-night. Go in, mamma, to the fireside; but I will stay here and see them drive away."

The mother consented to this arrangement, which was so natural; but a moment afterwards came back and called from the porch, where she stood sheltered from the keen and eager air.

"Oona! Come in, my dear. That Colin one, with his London ways, will think you are watching him."

There was something sublime in the fling of Oona's head, and the erection of her slim figure, as she rejected the possibility.

"Watching him!" She was too proud even to permit herself to resent it.

"Ah! but you never can tell what a silly lad may take into his head," said Mrs. Forrester; and, having thus cleared her conscience, she went in and took off her cloak, and shut the drawing-room door, and made herself very comfortable in her own cosy chair in the ruddy firelight. She laid her head back upon the soft cushions and looked round her with a quiet sense of content. Everything was so comfortable, so pretty and homelike; and by-and-by she permitted herself, for ten minutes or so, to fall into a soft oblivion. "I just closed my eyes," was Mrs. Forrester's little euphemism to herself.

Meanwhile Oona stood and looked at sky and sea and shore. The soft plash of the oars came through the great stillness, and, by-and-by, there was the sound of the boat run up upon the shingle, and the noise of the disembarkation, the voices swelling out in louder tones and laughter. As they waved their hands in a final good-night to the watcher on the isle before they drove away, the young people, as Mrs. Forrester had sa

id, laughed and assured Colin that it was not for them Oona stood out in the evening chill. But, as a matter of fact, there was nothing so little in Oona's mind. She was looking round her with that sort of exaltation which great loneliness and stillness and natural beauty so naturally give: the water gleaming all round, the sky losing its orange glow and melting into soft primrose tints the colour of the daffodil.

"The holy time is quiet as a nun

Breathless with adoration."

All the sensations that belong to such a moment are exquisite; a visionary elevation above the earth and all things earthly, a soft pensiveness, an elation, yet wistful longing of the soul. Before her the old castle of Kinloch Houran lay gloomy and dark on the edge of the water. If she thought of anything it was of the young neighbour, to whom she felt so strangely near in wonder and sympathy. Who might be with him at that moment in the ghostly quiet? What thoughts, what suggestions, were being placed before him? Oona put her hands together, and breathed into the still air a wish of wondering and wistful pity which was almost a prayer. And then, rousing herself with a slight shiver and shake, she turned and went in, shutting out behind her the lingering glory of the water and sky.

Mysie was lighting the candles when she went in, and Mrs. Forrester had opened her eyes. Two candles on the mantelpiece and two on the table were all the ladies allowed themselves, except on great occasions, when the argand lamp, which was the pride of the household, was lighted in honour of a visitor. The warmth of this genial interior was very welcome after the cold of the twilight, and Oona brought her work to the table, and the book from which her mother was in the habit of reading aloud. Mrs. Forrester thought she improved her daughter's mind by these readings; but, to tell the truth, Oona's young soul, with all the world and life yet before it, often fled far enough away while her mother's soft voice, with the pretty tricks of elocution, which were part of her old-fashioned training, went on. Never was there a prettier indoor scene. In the midst of that great solitude of woods and water, the genial comfort of this feminine room, so warm, so softly lighted, so peaceful and serene, struck the imagination like a miracle. Such a tranquil retirement would have been natural enough safely planted amid the safeguards and peaceful surroundings of a village: but in being here there was a touching incongruity. The little play of the mother's voice as she read with innocent artifice and the simple vanity which belonged to her, the pretty work, of no great use, with which the girl was busy, both heightened the sense of absolute trust with which they lived in the bosom of nature. A sudden storm, one could not but think, might have swept them away into the dark gleaming water that hemmed them round. They were not afraid: they were as safe as in a citadel. They were like the birds in their nests; warm and soft, though in the heart of Loch Houran. Mrs. Forrester was reading a historical novel, one of the kind which she thought so good for improving Oona's mind; amusing, yet instructing her. But Oona's mind, refusing to be improved, was giving only a mechanical attention. It was away making a little pilgrimage of wonder about the mystic house which was so near them, longing to know, and trying to divine, what was going on there.

But when the afternoon closes in at four o'clock, and the candles are lighted shortly after, the night is long. It seemed endless on this occasion, because of the too early tea, which Mrs. Forrester had thought it would be "just a farce" to produce again at six o'clock, their usual hour; and from half-past four till nine, when the small and light repast known in the house under the pleasantly indefinite name of "the tray" made its appearance, is a long time. There had been two or three interruptions of a little talk, and the book had been laid down and resumed again, and Oona's work had dropped two or three times upon her knee, when Mysie, coming in, announced that it was just an uncommon fine night, though all the signs (including the glass, which, however, does not always count in the west of Scotland) pointed to rain, and that Hamish was going to take advantage of the moonlight to do an errand at the village above Auchnasheen. Would Miss Oona like to go? It was just awfu' bonny, and with plenty of haps she could take no harm, Mysie said. To see how the girl sprang from her seat was a proof of the gentle tedium that had stolen upon her soul.

"But, my dear, it will be cold, cold. I am afraid of you catching cold, Oona," Mrs. Forrester cried.

"Oh, mother, no. I never catch cold; and besides, if I did, what would it matter? Tell him I'm coming, Mysie; tell him to wait for me. I'll put on my thick ulster, or the fur cloak, if you like."

"Certainly, the fur cloak, Oona. I will not hear of it without that. But, my dear, just think, Hamish will have to leave you in the boat while he goes to the village; and what would you do, Oona, if there is any one on the road?"

"Do, mamma? Look at them, to see if I knew them. And, if it was a stranger, just sit still and say nothing."

"But, my dear! It might be somebody that would speak to you, and-annoy you, Oona."

"There is no person up the loch or down the loch that would dare to do that, mem," said Mysie, composedly.

"How can we tell? It might be some tourist or gangrel body."

"Annoy me!" said Oona, as if indeed this suggestion was too far-fetched for possibility. "If anything so ridiculous happened I would just push out into the loch. Don't you trouble, mother, about me."

Mrs. Forrester got up to envelop her child's throat in fold after fold of the fleecy white "cloud." She shook her head a little, but she was resigned, for such little controversies occurred almost daily. The evening had changed when Oona ran lightly down the bank to the boat in which Hamish was waiting. Everything about was flooded with the keen, clear white moonlight, which in its penetrating chilly fashion was almost more light than day. The loch was shining like silver, but with a blackness behind the shining, and all the shadows were like midnight profound in inky gloom. The boat seemed to hang suspended in the keen atmosphere rather than to float, and the silence was shrill, and seemed to cut into the soul. It was but a few minutes across the cold white glittering strait that lay between the isle and the mainland. Hamish jumped out with an exaggerated noise upon the slippery shingle, and fastened the boat with a rattle of the ring to which it was attached, which woke echoes all around both from land and water, everything under the mingled influence of winter and night being so still. A chance spectator would have thought that the mother had very good cause for her alarm, and that to sit there in the rough boat absolutely alone, like the one living atom in a world all voiceless and asleep, was not a cheerful amusement for a girl. But Oona had neither fear nor sense of strangeness in an experience which she had gone through so often. She called out lightly to Hamish to make haste, and looked after him as he set out on the white road, the peculiarities of his thick-set figure coming out drolly in the curious dab of foreshortened shadow flung upon the road by his side. She laughed at this to herself, and the laugh ran all about with a wonderful cheerful thrill of the silence. How still it was! When her laugh ceased, there was nothing but the steps of Hamish in all the world-and by and by even the steps ceased, and that stillness which could be felt settled down. There was not a breath astir, not enough to cause the faintest ripple on the beach. Now and then a pebble which had been pushed out of its place by the man's foot toppled over, and made a sound as if something great had fallen. Otherwise not a breath was stirring; the shadows of the fir-trees looked as if they were gummed upon the road. And Oona held her breath; it seemed almost profane to disturb the intense and perfect quiet. She knew every hue of every rock, and the profile of every tree. And presently, which no doubt was partly because of this perfect acquaintance, and partly because of some mesmeric consciousness in the air, such as almost invariably betrays the presence of a human being, her eyes fixed upon one spot where the rock seemed higher than she had been used to. Was it possible that somebody was there? She changed her place to look more closely; and so fearless was the girl that she had nearly jumped out of the boat to satisfy herself whether it was a man or a rock. But just when she was about making up her mind to do so, the figure moved, and came down towards the beach. Oona's heart gave a jump; several well-authenticated stories which she had heard from her childhood came into her mind with a rush. She took the end of the rope softly in her hand so as to be able to detach it in a moment. To row back to the isle was easy enough.

"Is it you, Miss Forrester?" a voice said.

Oona let go the rope, and her heart beat more calmly. "I might with more reason cry out, Is it you, Lord Erradeen? for if you are at the old castle you are a long way from home, and I am quite near."

"I am at Auchnasheen," he said. A great change had come over his tone; it was very grave; no longer the airy voice of youth which had jested and laughed on the Isle. He came down and stood with his hand on the bow of the boat. He looked very pale, very serious, but that might be only the blackness of the shadows and the whiteness of the light.

"Did you ever see so spiritual a night?" said Oona. "There might be anything abroad; not fairies, who belong to summer, but serious things."

"Do you believe then in-ghosts?" he said.

"Ghosts is an injurious phrase. Why should we call the poor people so who are only-dead?" said Oona. "But that is a false way of speaking too, isn't it? for it is not because they are dead, but living, that they come back."

"I am no judge," he said, with a little shiver. "I never have thought on the subject. I suppose superstition lingers longer up among the mountains."

"Superstition!" said Oona, with a laugh. "What ugly words you use!"

Once more the laugh seemed to ripple about, and break the solemnity of the night. But young Lord Erradeen was as solemn as the night, and his countenance was not touched even by a responsive smile. His gravity produced upon the girl's mind that feeling of visionary panic and distrust which had not been roused by the external circumstances. She felt herself grow solemn too, but struggled against it.

"Hamish has gone up with some mysterious communication to the game-keeper," she said; "and in these long nights one is glad of a little change. I came out with him to keep myself from going to sleep."

Which was not perhaps exactly true: but there had arisen a little embarrassment in her mind, and she wanted something to say.

"And I came out-" he said; then paused. "The night is not so ghostly as the day," he added, hurriedly; "nor dead people so alarming as the living."

"You mean that you disapprove of our superstitions, as you call them," said Oona. "Most people laugh and believe a little; but I know some are angry and think it wrong."

"I--angry! That was not what I meant. I meant--It is a strange question which is living and which is--To be sure, you are right, Miss Forrester. What is dead cannot come in contact with us, only what is living. It is a mystery altogether."

"You are not a sceptic then?" said Oona. "I am glad of that."

"I am not--anything. I don't know how to form an opinion. How lovely it is, to be sure," he burst out all at once; "especially to have some one to talk to. That is the great charm."

"If that is all," said Oona, trying to speak cheerfully, "you will soon have dozens of people to talk to, for everybody in the county-and that is a wide word-is coming to call. They will arrive in shoals as soon as they know."

"I think I shall go-in a day or two," he said.

At this moment the step of Hamish, heard far off through the great stillness, interrupted the conversation. It had been as if they two were alone in this silent world; and the far-off step brought in a third and disturbed them. They were silent, listening as it came nearer and nearer, the sound growing with every repetition. When Hamish appeared in the broad white band of road coming from between the shadows of the trees the young man dropped his hand from the bow of the boat. He had not spoken again, nor did Oona feel herself disposed to speak. Hamish quickened his pace when he saw another figure on the beach.

"Ye'll no' have been crying upon me, Miss Oona," he said, with a suspicious look at the stranger.

"Oh no, Hamish!" cried Oona, cheerfully. "I have not been wearying at all, for this is Lord Erradeen that has been so kind as to come and keep me company."

"Oh, it'll be my Lord Erradeen?" said Hamish, with a curious look into Walter's face.

Then there was a repetition of the noises with which the still loch rang, the rattle of the iron ring, the grating of the bow on the shingle as she was pushed off. Hamish left no time for leave-taking. There were a few yards of clear water between the boat and the beach when Oona waved her hand to the still figure left behind. "My mother will like to see you to-morrow," she cried, with an impulse of sympathy. "Good night."

He took his hat off, and waved his hand in reply, but said nothing, and stood motionless till they lost sight of him round the corner of the isle. Then Hamish, who had been exerting himself more than usual, paused a little.

"Miss Oona," he said, "yon will maybe be the young lord, but maybe no. I would not be speaking to the first that comes upon the loch side--"

"Oh, if you are beginning to preach propriety--" the girl cried.

"It'll not be propriety, it will just be that they're a family that is not canny. Who will tell you if it's one or if it's the other? Did ye never hear the tale of the leddy that fell off the castle wall?"

"But this is not the castle," cried Oona, "and I know him very well-and I'm sorry for him, Hamish. He looks so changed."

"Oh, what would you do being sorry for him? He has nothing ado with us-nothing ado with us," Hamish said.

And how strange it was to come in again from that brilliant whiteness and silence-the ghostly loch, the visionary night-into the ruddy room full of firelight and warmth, all shut in, sheltered, full of companionship.

"Come away, come away to the fire; you must be nearly frozen, Oona, and I fear ye have caught your death of cold," her mother said.

Oona remembered with a pang the solitary figure on the water's edge, and wondered if he were still standing there forlorn. A whole chapter of life seemed to have interposed between her going and coming, though she had been but half an hour away.

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