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   Chapter 14 No.14

The Wizard's Son, Vol. 1(of 3) By Margaret Oliphant Characters: 24500

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Two days after this night scene there was a gathering such as was of weekly occurrence in the Manse of Loch Houran parish. The houses were far apart, and those of the gentry who were old-fashioned enough to remain for the second service, were in the habit of spending the short interval between in the minister's house, where an abundant meal, called by his housekeeper a cold collation, was spread in the dining-room for whosoever chose to partake. As it was the fashion in the country to dine early on Sunday, this repast was but sparingly partaken of, and most of the company, after the glass of wine or milk, the sandwich or biscuit, which was all they cared to take, would sit round the fire in the minister's library, or examine his books, or, what was still more prized, talk to him of their own or their neighbours' affairs. The minister of Loch Houran was one of those celibates who are always powerful ecclesiastically, though the modern mind is so strongly opposed to any artificial manufacture of them such as that which the Church of Rome in her wisdom has thought expedient. We all know the arguments in favour of a married clergy, but those on the other side of the question it is the fashion to ignore. He who has kept this natural distinction by fair means, and without compulsion, has however an unforced advantage of his own which the most Protestant and the most matrimonial of polemics will scarcely deny. He is more safe to confide in, being one, not two. He is more detached and individual; it is more natural that all the world about him should have a closer claim upon the man who has no nearer claims to rival those of his spiritual children. Mr. Cameron was one of this natural priesthood. If he had come to his present calm by reason of passion and disappointment in his past, such as we obstinately and romantically hope to have founded the tranquillity of subdued, sunny, and sober age, nobody could tell. An old minister may perhaps be let off more easily in this respect than an old monk; but he was the friend and consoler of everybody; the depositary of all the secrets of the parish; the one adviser of whose disinterestedness and secrecy every perplexed individual was sure. He did all that man could do to be absolutely impartial and divide himself, as he divided his provisions, among his guests as their needs required. But flesh is weak, and Mr. Cameron could not disown one soft place in his heart for Oona Forrester, of which that young person was quite aware. Oona was his pupil and his favourite, and he was, if not her spiritual director, which is a position officially unknown to his Church, at least her confidant in all her little difficulties, which comes to much the same thing: and this notwithstanding the fact that Mrs. Forrester attended the parish church under protest, and prided herself on belonging to the Scottish Episcopal community, the Church of the gentry, though debarred by providence from her privileges. Mrs. Forrester at this moment, with her feet on the fender, was employed in bewailing this sad circumstance with another landed lady in the same position; but Oona was standing by the old ministers side, with her hand laid lightly within his arm, which was a pretty way she had when she was with her oldest friend. It did not interfere with this attitude, that he was exchanging various remarks with other people, and scarcely talking to Oona at all. He looked down upon her from time to time with a sort of proud tenderness, as her grandfather might have done. It pleased the old man to feel the girl's slim small fingers upon his arm. And as there were no secrets discussed in this weekly assembly her presence interrupted nothing. She added her word from time to time, or the still readier comment of smiles and varying looks that changed like the Highland sky outside, and were never for two minutes the same. It was not, however, till Mr. Shaw, the factor, came in, that the easy superficial interest of all the parish talk quickened into something more eager and warm in her sympathetic countenance. Shaw's ruddy face was full of care; this was indeed its usual expression, an expression all the more marked from the blunt and open simplicity of its natural mood to which care seemed alien. The puckers about his hazel grey eyes, the lines on his forehead which exposure to the air had reddened rather than browned, were more than usually evident. Those honest eyes seemed to be remonstrating with the world and fate. They had an appearance half-comic to the spectator, but by no means comic to their own consciousness of grieved interrogation as if asking every one on whom they turned, "Why did you do it?" "Why did you let it be done?" It was this look which he fixed upon the minister, who indeed was most innocent of all share in the cause of his trouble.

"I told you," he said, "the other day, about the good intentions of our young lord. I left various things with him to be settled that would bide no delay-things that had been waiting for the late Lord Erradeen from day to day. And all this putting off has been bad, bad. There's those poor crofters that will have to be put out of their bits of places to-morrow. I can hold off no longer without his lordship's warrant. And not a word from him-not a word!" cried the good man, with that appealing look, to which the natural reply was, It is not my fault. But the minister knew better, and returned a look of sympathy, shaking his white head.

"What has become of the young man? they tell me he has left the castle."

"He is not far off-he is at Auchnasheen; but he is just like all the rest, full of goodwill one day, and just inaccessible the next-just inaccessible!" repeated the factor. "And what am I to do? I am just wild to have advice from somebody. What am I to do?"

"Can you not get at him to speak to him?" the minister asked.

"I have written to know if he will see me. I have said I was waiting an answer, but there's no answer comes. They say he's on the hill all day, though the keepers know nothing about his movements, and he does not even carry a gun. What am I to do? He sees nobody; two or three have called, but cannot get at him. He's always out-he's never there. That old Symington goes about wringing his hands. What says he? he says, 'This is the worst of a'; this is the worst of a'. He's just got it on him--'"

"What does that mean?"

"Can I tell what that means? According to the old wives it is the weird of the Methvens; but you don't believe such rubbish, nor do I. It has, maybe, something to do with the drainage, or the water, or the sanitary arrangements, one way or the other!" cried the factor with a harsh and angry laugh.

Then there was a momentary pause, and the hum of the other people's talk came in, filling up with easier tones of conversation the somewhat strained feeling of this: "He's a good shot and a fine oar, and just a deevil for spunk and courage: and yet because he's a little vague in his speaking!" "But, I say, we must put up with what we can get, and though it's a trial the surplice is not just salvation." "And it turned out to be measles, and not fever at all, and nothing to speak of; so we just cheated the doctors." These were the broken scraps that came in to fill up the pause.

"I saw Lord Erradeen the other night," said Oona, whose light grasp on the old minister's arm had been tightening and slackening all through this dialogue, in the interest she felt. Both of the gentlemen turned to look at her inquiringly, and the girl blushed-not for any reason, as she explained to herself indignantly afterwards, but because it was a foolish way she had; but somehow the idea suggested to all their minds was not without an effect upon the events of her after-life.

"And what did he say to you? and what is he intending? and why does he shut himself up and let all the business hang suspended like yon fellow Machomet's coffin?" cried the factor, with a guttural in the prophet's name which was due to the energy of his feelings. He turned upon Oona those remonstrating eyes of his, as if he had at last come to the final cause of all the confusion, and meant to demand of her, without any quibbling, an answer to the question, Why did you do it? on the spot.

"Indeed, he said very little to me, Mr. Shaw. He looked like a ghost, and he said-he was going away in a day or two."

Sudden reflection in the midst of what she was saying made it apparent to Oona that it was unnecessary to give all the details of the interview. Mr. Cameron, for his part, laid his large, soft old hand tenderly upon hers which was on his arm, and said, in the voice which always softened when he addressed her-

"And where would that be, my bonnie Oona, that you met with Lord Erradeen?"

"It was on the beach below Auchnasheen," said Oona, with an almost indignant frankness, holding her head high, but feeling, to her anger and distress, the blush burn upon her cheek. "Hamish had some errand on shore, and I went with him in the boat. I was waiting for him, when some one came down from the road and spoke to me. I was half-frightened, for I did not know any one was there. It was Lord Erradeen."

"And what?-and why?-and-"

The factor was too much disturbed to form his questions reasonably, even putting aside the evident fact that Oona had no answer to give him. But at this moment the little cracked bell began to sound, which was the warning that the hour of afternoon service approached. The ladies rose from their seats round the fire, the little knots of men broke up. "Oona, my dear, will ye come and tie my bonnet? I never was clever at making a bow," said Mrs. Forrester; and the minister left his guests to make his preparations for church. Mr. Shaw felt himself left in the lurch. He kept hovering about Oona with a quick decision in his own mind, which was totally unjustified by any foundation; he went summarily through a whole romance, and came to its conclusion in the most matter-of-fact and expeditious way. "If that comes to pass now!" he said to himself. "She's no Me'ven; there's no weird on her; he can give her the management of the estates, and all will go well. She has a head upon her shoulders, though she is nothing but a bit girlie-and there will be me to make everything plain!" Such was the brief epitome of the situation that passed in the factor's mind. He was very anxious to get speech of Oona on the way to church, and it is to be feared that Mr. Cameron's excellent afternoon discourse (which many people said was always his best, though as it was listened to but drowsily the fact may be doubted) made little impression upon Shaw, though he was a serious man, who could say his say upon religious subjects, and was an elder, and had sat in the Assembly in his day. He had his opportunity when the service was over, when the boats were being pushed off from the beach, and the carriages got under way, for those who had far to go. Mrs. Forrester had a great many last words to say before she put on her furred mantle and her white cloud, and took her place in the boat; and Mysie, who stood ready with the mantle to place it on her mistress's shoulders, had also her own little talks to carry on at that genial moment when all the parish-or all the loch, if you like the expression better-stood about exchanging friendly greetings and news from outlying places. While all the world was thus engaged, Oona fell at last into the hands of the factor, and became his prey.

"Miss Oona," he said, "if ye will accord me a moment, I would like well, well, to know what's your opinion about Lord Erradeen."

"But I have no opinion!" cried Oona, who had been prepared for the attack. She could not keep herself from blushing (so ridiculous! but I will do it, she said to herself, as if that "I" was an independent person over whom she had no control), but otherwise she was on her guard. "How could I have any opinion when I have only seen Lord Erradeen twice-thrice?" she added, with a heightening of the blush, as she remembered the adventure of the coach.

"Twice-thrice; but that gives you facilities-and ladies are so quick-witted. I've seen him but once," said the factor. "I was much t

aken with him, that is the truth, and was so rash as to think our troubles were over; but here has everything fallen to confusion in the old way. Miss Oona, do you use your influence if you should see his lordship again."

"But, Mr. Shaw, there is no likelihood that I shall see him again-and I have no influence."

"Oh no, you'll not tell me that," said the factor, shaking his head, with a troubled smile. "Them that are like you, young and bonnie, have always influence, if they like to use it. And as for seeing him again, he will never leave the place, Miss Oona, without going at least to bid you good-bye."

"Lord Erradeen may come to take leave of my mother," said Oona, with dignity. "It is possible, though he did not say so; but even if he does, what can I do? I know nothing about his affairs, and I have no right to say anything to him-no right, more than any one else who has met him three times."

"Which is just no person-except yourself, so far as I can learn," the factor said.

"After all, when you come to think of it, it is only once I have seen him," said Oona, "for the night on the loch was by chance, and the day on the coach I did not know him; so that after all I have only, so to speak, seen him once, and how could I venture to speak to him about business? Oh no, that is out of the question. Yes, mamma, I am quite ready. Mr. Shaw wishes, if Lord Erradeen comes to bid us good-bye that we should tell him--"

"Yes?" said Mrs. Forrester, briskly, coming forward, while Mysie arranged around her her heavy cloak. "I am sure I shall be very glad to give Lord Erradeen any message. He is a very nice young man, so far as I can judge; people think him very like my Ronald, Mr. Shaw. Perhaps it has not struck you? for likenesses are just one of the things that no two people see. But we are very good friends, him and me: he is just a nice simple gentlemanly young man-oh, very gentlemanly. He would never go away without saying good-bye. And I am sure I shall be delighted to give him any message. That will do, Mysie, that will do; do not suffocate me with that cloak. Dear me, you have scarcely left me a corner to breathe out of. But, Mr. Shaw, certainly-any message--"

"I am much obliged to you; but I will no doubt see Lord Erradeen myself, and I'll not trouble a lady about business," said the factor. He cast a look at Oona, in which with more reason than usual his eyes said, How could you do it? And the girl was a little compunctious. She laughed, but she felt guilty, as she took her mother's arm to lead her to the boat. Mrs. Forrester had still a dozen things to say, and waved her hands to the departing groups on every side, while Shaw, half-angry, stood grimly watching the embarkation.

"There are the Kilhouran Campbells driving away, and I have not had a word with them: and there is old Jess, who always expects to be taken notice of: and the Ellermore folk, that I had no time to ask about Tom's examination: and Mr. Cameron himself, that I never got a chance of telling how well I liked the sermon. Dear me, Oona, you are always in such a hurry! And take care now, take care; one would think you took me for your own age. But I am not wanting to be hoisted up either, as if I were too old to know how to step into a boat. Good-bye, Mr. Shaw, good-bye," Mrs. Forrester added cheerfully, waving her hand as she got herself safely established in the bow, and Hamish, not half so picturesque as usual in his Sunday clothes, pushed off the boat. "Good-bye, and I'll not forget your message." She even kissed her hand, if not to him, to the parish in general, in the friendliness of her heart.

Mr. Shaw had very nearly shaken his clenched fist in reply. Old fool he called her in his heart, and even launched an expletive (silently) at Oona, "the heartless monkey," who had betrayed him to her mother. He went back to the manse with Mr. Cameron, when all the little talks and consultations were over and everybody gone, and once more poured out the story of his perplexities.

"If I do not hear from him, I'll have to proceed to extremities to-morrow, and it is like to break my heart," he said. "For the poor folk have got into their heads that I will stand their friend whatever happens, and they are just keeping their minds easy."

"But, man, they should pay their rents," said Mr. Cameron, who, when all was said that could be said in his favour, was not a Loch Houran man.

"Rents! where would you have them get the siller? Their bit harvest has failed, and the cows are dry for want of fodder. If they have a penny laid by they must take it to live upon. They have enough ado to live, without thinking of rents."

"But in that case, Shaw," said the minister, gravely-"you must not blame me for saying so, it's what all the wise men say-would they not do better to emigrate, and make a new start in a new country, where there's plenty of room?"

"Oh, I know that argument very well," said Shaw, with a snort of indignation. "I have it all at my fingers' ends. I've preached it many a day. But what does it mean, when all's done? It means just sheep or it means deer, and a pickle roofless houses standing here and there, and not a soul in the glen. There was a time even when I had just an enthusiasm for it-and I've sent away as many as most. But after all, they're harmless, God-fearing folk; the land is the better of them, and none the worse. There's John Paterson has had great losses with his sheep, and there's yon English loon that had the shooting, and shot every feather on the place; both the one and the other will be far more out of his lordship's pocket than my poor bit crofters. I laid all that before him; and he showed a manful spirit, that I will always say. No, minister, it was not to argue the case from its foundations that I came to you. I know very well what the economists say. I think they're not more than half right, though they're so cocksure. But if you'll tell me what I should do--"

This, however, was what Mr. Cameron was not capable of. He said, after an interval, "I will go to-morrow and try if I can see him, if you think it would not be ill taken."

"To-morrow is the last day," said the factor gloomily: and after a little while he followed the example of all the others, and sent for his dog-cart and drove himself away. But a more anxious man did not traverse any road in Great Britain on that wintry afternoon: and bitter thoughts were in his heart of the capricious family, whose interests were in his hands, and to whom he was almost too faithful a servant. "Oh, the weird of the Me'vens!" said Mr. Shaw to himself, "if they were not so taken up with themselves and took more thought for other folk we would hear little of any weirds. I have no time for weirds. I have just my work to do and I do it. The Lord preserve us from idleness, and luxury, and occupation with ourselves!" Here the good man in his righteous wrath and trouble and disappointment was unjust, as many a good man has been before.

When Hamish had pushed off from the beach, and the little party were afloat, Oona repented her of that movement of mingled offence and espièglerie which had made her transfer the factor's appeal from herself to her mother: and it was only then that Mrs. Forrester recollected how imperfect the communication was. "Bless me," Mrs. Forrester said, "I forgot to ask after all what it was he wanted me to say. That was a daft like thing, to charge me with a message and never to tell me what it was. And how can I tell my Lord Erradeen! I suppose you could not put back, Hamish, to inquire?-but there's nobody left yonder at the landing that I can see, so it would be little use. How could you let me do such a silly thing, Oona, my dear?"

"Most likely, mamma, we shall not see Lord Erradeen and so no harm will be done."

"Not see Lord Erradeen! Do ye think then, Oona, that he has no manners, or that he's ignorant how to behave? I wonder what has made ye take an ill-will at such a nice young man. There was nothing in him to justify it, that I could see. And to think I should have a message for him and not know what it is! How am I to give him the message when it was never given to me? I just never heard of such a dilemma. Something perhaps of importance, and me charged to give it, and not to know what it was!"

"Maybe, mem," said Mysie from the other end of the boat, with that serene certainty that her mistress's affairs were her own, which distinguishes an old Scotch family retainer, "maybe Miss Oona will ken."

"Oh, yes, I suppose I know," said Oona, reluctantly. "It is something about the cotters at the Truach-Glas, who will be turned out to-morrow unless Lord Erradeen interferes; but why should we be charged with that? We are very unlikely to see Lord Erradeen, and to-morrow is the day."

This piece of information caused a great excitement in the little party. The cotters to be turned out!

"But no, no, that was just to frighten you. He will never do it," said Mrs. Forrester, putting on a smile to reassure herself after a great flutter and outcry. "No, no; it must just have been to give us all a fright. John Shaw is a very decent man. I knew his father perfectly well, who was the minister at Rannoch, and a very good preacher. No, no, Oona, my dear-he could never do it; and yon fine lad that is so like my Ronald (though you will not see it) would never do it. You need not look so pale. It is just his way of joking with you. Many a man thinks it pleasant to tell a story like that to a lady just to hear what she says."

"Eh, but it's ill joking with poor folks' lives," cried Mysie, craning over Hamish's shoulder to hear every word.

"It's none joking," said Hamish, gruffly, between the sweep of his oars.

"It's none joking, say ye? Na, it's grim earnest, or I'm sair mistaken," said the woman. "Eh, Miss Oona, but I would gang round the loch on my bare feet, Sabbath though it be, rather than no give a message like yon."

"How can we do it?" cried Oona; "how are we to see Lord Erradeen? I am sure he will not come to call; and even if he did come to-morrow in the afternoon it would be too late."

"My dear," said Mrs. Forrester, "we will keep a look out in the morning. Hamish will just be fishing at the point, and hail him as soon as he sees him. For it was in the morning he came before."

"Oh, mem!" cried Mysie, "but would you wait for that? It's ill to lippen to a young man's fancy. He might be late of getting up (they're mostly lazy in the morning), or he might be writing his letters, or he might be seeing to his guns, or there's just a hundred things he might be doing. What would ye say if, may-be, Miss Oona was to write one of her bonnie little notties on that awfu' bonnie paper, with her name upon't, and tell him ye wanted to see him at ten o'clock or eleven o'clock, or whatever time you please?"

"Or we might go over to-night in the boat," said Hamish, laconically.

Mrs. Forrester was used to take much counsel. She turned from one to the other with uncertain looks. "But, Oona," she said, "you are saying nothing! and you are generally the foremost. If it is not just nonsense and a joke of John Shaw's--"

"I think," said Oona, "that Mr. Shaw will surely find some other way; but it was no joke, mother. Who would joke on such a subject? He said if Lord Erradeen called we were to use our influence."

"That would I," said Mrs. Forrester, "use my influence. I would just tell him, You must not do it. Bless me, a young man new in the country to take a step like that and put every person against him! No, no, it is not possible: but a lady," she added, bridling a little with her smile of innocent vanity, "a lady may say anything-she may say things that another person cannot. I would just tell him, You must not do it! and that would be all that would be needed. But bless me, Oona, how are we to use our influence unless we can see him?-and I cannot see how we are to get at him."

"Oh, mem!" cried Mysie, impeding Hamish's oars as she stretched over his shoulder, "just one of Miss Oona's little notties!"

But this was a step that required much reflection, and at which the anxious mother shook her head.

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