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   Chapter 17 THAT SAME NIGHT.

Warlock o' Glenwarlock By George MacDonald Characters: 18840

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

The wind had now risen to a hurricane-a rage of swiftness. The house was like a rock assaulted by the waves of an ocean-tempest. The laird had closed all the shutters, and drawn the old curtains across them: through windows and shutters, the curtains waved in the penetrating blasts. The sturdy old house did not shake, for nothing under an earthquake could have made it tremble. The snow was fast gathering in sloped heaps on the window-sills, on the frames, on every smallest ledge where it could lie. In the midst of the blackness and the roaring wind, the house was being covered with spots of silent whiteness, resting on every projection, every roughness even, of the building. In his own house as he was, a sense of fierce desolation, of foreign invasion and siege, took possession of the soul of the laird. He had made a huge fire, and had heaped up beside it great store of fuel, but, though his body was warm and likely to be warm, his soul inside it felt the ravaging cold outside-remorseless, and full of mock, the ghastly power of negation and unmaking. He had got together all the screens he could find, and with them inclosed the fireplace, so that they sat in a citadel within a fortress. By the fire he had placed for his lordship the antique brocade-covered sofa, that he might lie down when he pleased, and himself occupied the great chair on the other side. From the centre of this fire-defended heart, the room itself outside looked cold and waste: it demanded almost courage to leave the stockade of the screens, and venture into the campaign of the floor beyond. And then the hell of wind and snow that raved outside that! and the desert of air surrounding it, in which the clouds that garnered the snow were shaken by mad winds, whirled and tossed and buffeted, to make them yield their treasures! Lord Mergwain heard it, and drank. The laird listened, and lifted up his heart. Not much passed between them. The memories of the English lord were not such as he felt it fit to share with the dull old Scotchman beside him, who knew nothing of the world-knew neither how pitilessly selfish, nor how meanly clever a man of this world might be, and bate not a jot of his self admiration! Men who salute a neighbour as a man of the world, paying him the greatest compliment they know in acknowledging him of their kind, recoil with a sort of fear from the man alien to their thoughts, and impracticable for their purposes. They say "He is beyond me," and despise him. So is there a great world beyond them with which they hold a frightful relationship-that of unrecognized, unattempted duty! Lord Mergwain regarded the odd-looking laird as a fool; the laird looked on him with something of the pity an angel must feel for the wretch to whom he is sent to give his last chance, ere sorer measures be taken in which angels are not the ministers.

But the wine was at last beginning to work its too oft repeated and now nearly exhausted influence on the sagging and much frayed nerves of the old man. A yellowish remnant of withered rose began to smear his far-off west: he dared not look to the east; that lay terribly cold and gray; and he smiled with a little curl of his lip now and then, as he thought of this and that advantage he had had in the game of life, for alas! it had never with him risen to the dignity of a battle. He was as proud of a successful ruse, as a hero of a well fought and well won field. "I had him there!" stood with him for the joy of work done and salvation wrought. It was a repulsive smile-one that might move even to hatred the onlooker who was not yet divine enough to let the outrushing waves of pity swamp his human judgment. It only curled the cruel-looking upper lip, while the lower continued to hang thick, and sensual, and drawn into a protuberance in the middle.

Gradually he seemed to himself, as he drank, to be recovering the common sense of his self-vaunted, vigorous nature. He assured himself that now he saw plainly the truth and fact of things-that his present outlook and vision were the true, and the horrors of the foregone night the weak soul-gnawing fancies bred of a disordered stomach. He was a man once more, and beyond the sport of a foolish imagination.

Alas for the man who draws his courage from wine! the same ALAS for the man whose health is its buttress! the touch of a pin on this or that spot of his mortal house, will change him from a leader of armies, or a hunter of tigers in the jungle, to one who shudders at a centipede! That courage also which is mere insensibility crumbles at once before any object of terror able to stir the sluggish imagination. There is a fear, this for one, that for another, which can appall the stoutest who is not one with the essential.

Lord Mergwain emerged from the influence of his imagination and his fears, and went under that of his senses and himself. He took his place beside the Christian in his low, common moods, when the world, with its laws and its material insistence, presses upon him, and he does not believe that God cares for the sparrow, or can possibly count the hairs of his head; when the divine power, and rule, and means to help, seem nowhere but in a passed-away fancy of the hour of prayer. Only the Christian is then miserable, and Lord Mergwain was relieved; for did he not then come to himself? and did he know anything better to arrive at than just that wretched self of his?

A glass or two more, and he laughed at the terror by night. He had been a thorough fool not to go to bed like other people, instead of sitting by the fire with a porridge-eating Scotchman, who regarded him as one of the wicked, afraid of the darkness. The thought may have passed from his mind to that of his host, for the self-same moment the laird spoke:

"Don't you think you had better go to bed when you have finished your bottle, my lord?"

With the words, a cold swell, as from the returning tide of some dead sea, so long ebbed that men had ploughed and sown and built within its bed, stole in, swift and black, filling every cranny of the old man's conscious being.

"My God!" he cried; "I thought better of you than that, laird! I took you for a man of your word! You promised to sit up with me!"

"I did, my lord, and am ready to keep my promise. I only thought you looked as if you might have changed your mind; and in such a night as this, beyond a doubt, bed is the best place for everybody that has got one to go to."

"That depends," answered his lordship, and drank.

The laird held his peace for a time, then spoke again:

"Would your lordship think me rude if I were to take a book?"

"I don't want a noise. It don't go well with old wine like this: such wine wants attention! It would spoil it. No, thank you."

"I did not propose to read aloud, my lord-only to myself."

"Oh! That alters the matter! That I would by no means object to. I am but poor company!"

The laird got his "Journal," and was soon lost in the communion of a kindred soul.

By and by, the boat of his lordship's brain was again drifting towards the side of such imagination as was in him. The half-tide restoring the physical mean was past, and intoxication was setting in. He began to cast uneasy glances towards the book the laird was reading. The old folio had a look of venerable significance about it, and whether it called up some association of childhood, concerned in some fearful fancy, or dreamfully he dreaded the necromancer's art, suggested by late experience, made him uneasy.

"What's that you are reading?" he said at length. "It looks like a book of magic."

"On the contrary," replied the laird, "it is a religious book of the very best sort."

"Oh, indeed! Ah! I have no objection to a little religion-in its own place. There it is all right. I never was one of those mockers-those Jacobins, those sans-culottes! Arrogant fools they always seemed to me!"

"Would your lordship like to hear a little of the book, then?"

"No, no; by no means! Things sacred ought not to be mixed up with things common-with such an uncommon bottle of wine, for instance. I dictate to no one, but for my own part I keep my religion for church. That is the proper place for it, and there you are in the mood for it. Do not mistake me; it is out of respect I decline."

He drank, and the laird dropt back into the depths of his volume. The night wore on. His lordship did not drink fast. There was no hope of another bottle, and the wine must cover the period of his necessity: he dared not encounter the night without the sustaining knowledge of its presence. At last he began to nod, and by slow degrees sank on the sofa. Very softly the laird covered him, and went back to his book.

The storm went raging on, as if it would never cease. The sense of desolation it produced in the heart of the laird when he listened to it was such, that with an inward shudder he closed his mind against it, and gave all his attention to George Fox, and the thoughts he roused. The minutes crawled slowly along. He lost all measure of time, because he read with delight, and at last he found himself invaded by that soft physical peace which heralds the approach of sleep. He roused himself; he wanted to read: he was in one of the most interesting passages he had yet come to. But presently the sweet enemy was again within his outworks. Once more he roused himself

, heard the storm raving on-over buried graves and curtained beds, heedless of human heeding-fell a-listening to its shriek-broken roar, and so into a soundless and dreamless sleep.

He woke so suddenly that for a moment he knew himself only for somebody he knew. There lay upon him the weight of an indefinable oppression-the horror of a darkness too vague to be combated. The fire had burned low, and his very bones seemed to shiver. The candle-flames were down in the sockets of the candlesticks, and the voice of the storm was like a scream of victory. Had the cold then won its way into the house? Was it having its deathly will of them all? He cast his eyes on his guest. Sleeping still, he half lay, half leaned in the corner of the sofa, breathing heavily. His face was not to be well seen, because of the flapping and flickering of the candle-flames, and the shadows they sent waving huge over all, like the flaunting of a black flag. Through the flicker and the shadow the laird was still peering at him, when suddenly, without opening his eyes, the old man raised himself to a sitting posture-all of a piece, like a figure of wood lifted from behind. The laird then saw his face, and upon it the expression as of one suffering from some horrible nightmare-so terrified was it, so wrathful, so disgusted, all in one-and rose in haste to rouse him from a drunken dream. But ere he reached him he opened his eyes, and his expression changed-not to one of relief, but to utter collapse, as if the sleep-dulled horrors of the dream had but grown real to him as he woke. His under lip trembled like a dry yellow leaf in a small wind; his right arm rose slowly from the shoulder and stuck straight out in the direction of his host, while his hand hung from the wrist; and he stared as upon one loosed from hell to speak of horrors. But it did not seem to the laird that, although turned straight towards him, his eyes rested on him; they did not appear to be focused for him, but for something beyond him. It was like the stare of one demented, and it invaded-possessed the laird. A physical terror seized him. He felt his gaze returning that of the man before him, like to like, as from a mirror. He felt the skin of his head contracting; his hair was about to stand on end! The spell must be broken! He forced himself forward a step to lay his hand on Lord Mergwain, and bring him to himself. But his lordship uttered a terrible cry, betwixt a scream and a yell, and sank back on the sofa. The same instant the laird was himself again, and sprang to him.

Lord Mergwain lay with his mouth wide open, and the same look with which they found him the night before prostrate in the guest-chamber. His arm stuck straight out from his body. The laird pressed it down, but it rose again as soon as he left it. He could not for a moment doubt the man was dead; there was that about him that assured him of it, but what it was he could not have told.

The first thought that came to him was, that his daughter must not see him so. He tied up his jaw, laid him straight on the sofa, lighted fresh candles, left them burning by the dead, and went to call Grizzie: a doctor was out of the question.

He felt his way down the dark stair, and fought it through the wind to the kitchen, whence he climbed to Grizzie's room. He found she was already out of bed, and putting on her clothes. She had not been asleep, she said, and added something obscure, which the laird took to mean that she had been expecting a summons.

"Whan Ane's oot, there's nane in!" she said. "Hoo's the auld reprobat, laird-an' I beg yer pardon?"

"He's gane til's accoont, Grizzie," answered the laird, in a trembling voice.

"Say ye sae, laird?" returned Grizzie with perfect calmness. "Oh, sirs!"

Not a single remark did she then offer. If she was cool, she was not irreverent before the thought of the awful thing that lay waiting her.

"Ye winna wauk the hoose, will ye, sir?" she added presently. "I dinna think it wad be ony service to died or livin'."

"I'll no du that, Grizzie; but come ye an' luik at him," said the laird, "an' tell me what ye think. I makna a doobt he's deid, but gien ye hae ony, we'll du what we can; an' we'll sit up wi' the corp thegither, an' lat yoong an' auld tak the rist they hae mair need o' nor the likes o' you an' me."

It was a proud moment in Grizzie's life, one never forgotten, when the laird addressed her thus. She was ready in a moment, and they went together.

"The prince is haein' his ain w'y the nicht!" she murmured to herself, as they bored their way through the wind to the great door.

When she came where the corpse lay, she stood for some moments looking down upon it without uttering a sound, nor was there any emotion in the fixed gaze of her eye. She had been brought up in a stern and nowise pitiful school. She made neither solemn reflection, nor uttered hope which her theology forbade her to cherish.

"Ye think wi' me 'at he's deid-dinna ye, Grizzie?" said the laird, in a voice that seemed to himself to intrude on the solemn silence.

She removed the handkerchief, and the jaw fell.

"He's gane til's accoont," she said. "It's a great amoont; an' mair on ae side nor he'll weel bide. It's sair eneuch, laird, whan we hae to gang at the Lord's call, but whan the messenger comes frae the laich yett (low gate), we maun jist lat gang an' forget. But sae lang's he's a man, we maun do what we can-an' that's what we did last nicht; sae I'll rin an' get het watter."

She did so, and they used every means they could think of for his recovery, but at length gave it up, heaped him over with blankets, for the last chance of spontaneous revival, and sitting down, awaited the slow-travelling, feeble dawn.

After they had sat in silence for nearly an hour, the laird spoke:

"We'll read a psalm thegither, Grizzie," he said.

"Ay, du ye that, laird. It'll haud them awa' for the time bein', though it can profit but little i' the him 'er en'."

The laird drew from his pocket a small, much worn bible which had been his Marion's, and by the body of the dead sinner, in the heart of the howling storm and the waste of the night, his voice, trembling with a strange emotion, rose upborne upon the glorious words of the ninety-first psalm.

When he ended, they were aware that the storm had begun to yield, and by slow degrees it sank as the morning came on. Till the first faintest glimmer of dawn began to appear nothing more was said between them. But then Grizzie rose in haste, like one that had overslept herself, and said:

"I maun to my wark, laird-what think ye?"

The laird rose also, and by a common impulse they went and looked at the corpse-for corpse it now was, beyond all question, cold as the snow without. After a brief, low-voiced conference, they proceeded to carry it to the guest-chamber, where they laid it upon the bed, and when Grizzie had done all that custom required, left it covered with a sheet, dead in the room where it dared not sleep, a mound cold and white as any snow-wreath outside. It looked as if Winter had forced his way into the house, and left this one drift, in signal of his capture. Grizzie went about her duties, and the laird back to his book.

A great awe fell upon Cosmo when he heard what visit and what departure had taken place in the midst of the storm and darkness. Lady Joan turned white as the dead, and spoke not a word. A few tears rolled from the luminous dark of her eyes, like the dew slow-gathering in a night of stars, but she was very still. The bond between her and her father had not been a pleasant one; she had not towards him that reverence which so grandly heightens love. She had loved him pitifully-perhaps, dreadful thought! a little contemptuously. The laird persuaded her not to see the body; taking every charge concerning it.

All that day things went on in the house much as usual, with a little more silence where had been much. The wind lay moveless on the frozen earth; the sun shone cold as a diamond; and the fresh snow glittered and gleamed and sparkled like a dead sea of lightning.

The laird was just thinking which of his men to send to the village, when the door opened and in came Agnes. Grannie had sent her, she said, to enquire after them. Grannie had had a troubled night, and the moment she woke began to talk about the laird, and his visitors, and what the storm must have been round lonely Castle Warlock. The drifts were tremendous, she said, but she had made her way without much difficulty. So the laird, partly to send Cosmo from the house of death into the world of life, told him to go with Aggie, and give directions to the carpenter, for the making of a coffin.

How long the body might have to lie with them, no one could tell, for the storm had ceased in a hard frost, and there could be no postal communication for many days. The laird judged it better, therefore, as soon as the shell arrived, to place the body in a death-chapel prepared for it by nature herself. With their spades he and Cosmo fashioned the mound, already hollowed in sport, into the shape of a hugh sarcophagus, then opened wide the side of it, to receive the coffin as into a sepulchre in a rock. The men brought it, laid it in, and closed the entrance again with snow. Where Cosmo's hollow man of light had shone, lay the body of the wicked old nobleman.

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