The Marquis of Lossie/Chapter I

The Marquis of Lossie - Chapter I
by George MacDonald

CHAPTER I.

THE STABLE-YARD.

It was one of those exquisite days that come in every winter, in which it seems no longer the dead body, but the lovely ghost of summer. Such a day bears to its sister of the happier time something of the relation the marble statue bears to the living form: the sense it awakes of beauty is more abstract, more ethereal; it lifts the soul into a higher region than will summer day of lordliest splendor. It is like the love that loss has purified.

Such, however, were not the thoughts that at the moment occupied the mind of Malcolm Colonsay. Indeed, the loveliness of the morning was but partially visible from the spot where he stood, the stable-yard of Lossie House, ancient and roughly paved. It was a hundred years since the stones had been last relaid and levelled: none of the horses of the late marquis minded it but one — her whom the young man in Highland dress was now grooming — and she would have fidgeted had it been an oak floor. The yard was a long and wide space, with two-storied buildings on all sides of it. In the centre of one of them rose the clock, and the morning sun shone red upon its tarnished gold. It was an ancient clock, but still capable of keeping good time — good enough, at least, for all the requirements of the house even when the family was at home, seeing it never stopped, and the church-clock was always ordered by it. It not only set the time, but also seemed to set the fashion to the place, for the whole aspect of it was one of wholesome, weather-beaten, timeworn existence. One of the good things that accompany good blood is that its possessor does not much mind a shabby coat. Tarnish and lichens and water-wearing, a wavy house-ridge, and a few families of worms in the wainscot do not annoy the marquis as they do the city man who has just bought a little place in the country. When an old family ceases to go lovingly with nature, I see no reason why it should go any longer. An old tree is venerable, and an old picture precious to the soul, but an old house, on which has been laid none but loving and respectful hands, is dear to the very heart. Even an old barn-door, with the carved initials of hinds and maidens of vanished centuries, has a place of honor in the cabinet of the poet's brain. It was centuries since Lossie House had begun to grow shabby and beautiful, and he to whom it now belonged was not one to discard the reverend for the neat, or let the vanity of possession interfere with the grandeur of inheritance.

Beneath the tarnished gold of the clock, flushed with the red winter sun, he was at this moment grooming the coat of a powerful black mare. That he had not been brought up a groom was pretty evident from the fact that he was not hissing, but that he was Marquis of Lossie there was nothing about him to show. The mare looked dangerous. Every now and then she cast back a white glance of the one visible eye. But the youth was on his guard, and as wary as fearless in his handling of her. When at length he had finished the toilette which her restlessness — for her four feet were never all still at once upon the stones — had considerably protracted, he took from his pocket a lump of sugar and held it for her to bite at with her angry-looking teeth.

It was a keen frost, but in the sun the icicles had begun to drop. The roofs in the shadow were covered with hoarfrost: wherever there was shadow there was whiteness. But, for all the cold, there was keen life in the air, and yet keener life in the two animals, biped and quadruped.

As they thus stood, the one trying to sweeten the other's relation to himself, if he could not hope much for her general temper, a man who looked half farmer, half lawyer, appeared on the opposite side of the court in the shadow.

"You are spoiling that mare, MacPhail," he cried.

"I canna weel du that, sir: she canna be muckle waur," said the youth.

"It's whip and spur she wants, not sugar."

"She has had and sail hae baith, time aboot (in turn); and I houp they'll du something for her in time, sir."

"Her time shall be short here, anyhow. She's not worth the sugar you give her."

"Eh, sir! luik at her!" said Malcolm in a tone of expostulation, as he stepped back a few paces and regarded her with admiring eye. "Saw ye ever sic legs? an' sic a neck? an' sic a heid? an' sic fore an' hin' quarters? She's a' bonny but the temper o' her, an' that she canna help, like the like o' you an' me."

"She'll be the death of somebody some day. The sooner we get rid of her the better. Just look at that!" he added as the mare laid back her ears and made a vicious snap at nothing in particular.

"She was a favourite o' my — maister, the marquis," returned the youth, "an' I wad ill like to pairt wi' her."

"I'll take any offer in reason for her," said the factor. "You'll just ride her to Forres market next week, and see what you can get for her. I do think she's quieter since you took her in hand."

"I'm sure she is — but it winna laist a day. The moment I lea' her, she'll be as ill's ever," said the youth. "She has a kin' a likin' to me, 'cause I gi'e her sugar, an' she canna cast me; but she's no a bit better i' the hert o' her yet. She's an oonsanctifeed brute. I cudna think o' sellin' her like this."

"Lat them 'at buys tak' tent (beware)," said the factor.

"Ow ay! lat them; I dinna objec'; gien only they ken what she's like afore they buy her," rejoined Malcolm.

The factor burst out laughing. To his judgment the youth had spoken like an idiot.

"We'll not send you to sell," he said. "Stoat shall go with you, and you shall have nothing to do but hold the mare and your own tongue."

"Sir," said Malcolm, seriously, "ye dinna mean what ye say? Ye said yersel' she wad be the deith o' somebody, an' to sell her ohn tellt what she's like wad be to caw the saxt comman'ment clean to shivers."

"That may be good doctrine in the kirk, my lad, but it's pure heresy in the horse market. No, no! You buy a horse as you take a wife — for better for worse, as the case may be. A woman's not bound to tell her faults when a man wants to marry her. If she keeps off the worst of them afterwards, it's all he has a right to look for."

"Hoot, sir! there's no a pair o' parallel lines in a' the compairison," returned Malcolm. "Mistress Kelpie here 's e'en ower ready to confess her fauts, an' that by giein' a taste o' them — she winna bide to be speired; but for haudin' aff o' them efter the bargain's made — ye ken she's no even responsible for the bargain. An' gien ye expec' me to haud my tongue aboot them — faith, Maister Crathie, I wad as sune think o' sellin' a rotten boat to Blue Peter. Gien the man 'at has her to see tilt dinna ken to luik oot for a storm o' iron shune or lang teeth ony moment, his wife may be a widow that same market-nicht. An' forbye, it's again' the aucht comman'ment as weel's the saxt. There's nae exception there in regaird o' horse flesh. We maun be honest i' that as weel's i' corn or herrin', or onything ither 'at 's coft an' sell't atween man an' his neibor."

"There's one commandment, my lad," said Mr Crathie, with the dignity of intended rebuke, "you seem to find hard to learn, and that is, to mind your own business."

"Gien ye mean catchin' the herrin', maybe ye're richt," said the youth. "I ken muir about that nor the horse-coupin', and it's full cleaner."

"None of your impudence!" returned the factor. "The marquis is not here to uphold you in your follies. That they amused him is no reason why I should put up with them. So keep your tongue between your teeth, or you'll find it the worse for you." The youth smiled a little oddly, and held his peace. "You're here to do what I tell you, and make no remarks," added the factor.

"I'm awaur o' that, sir — within certain leemits," returned Malcolm.

"What do you mean by that?"

"I mean within the leemits o' duin' by yer neibor as ye wad hae yer neibor du by you — that's what I mean, sir."

"I've told you already that doesn't apply in horse-dealing. Every man has to take care of himself in the horse market. That's understood. If you had been brought up amongst horses instead of herring, you would have known that as well as any other man."

"I doobt I'll hae to gang back to the herrin' than, sir, for they're like to pruv' the honester o' the twa. But there's nae hypocrisy in Kelpie, an' she maun hae her day's denner, come o' the morn's what may."

At the word hypocrisy, Mr Crathie's face grew red as the sun in a fog. He was an elder of the kirk, and had family worship every night as regularly as his toddy: the word was as offensive and insolent as it was foolish and inapplicable. He would have turned Malcolm adrift on the spot, but that he remembered — not the favour of the late marquis for the lad — that was nothing to the factor now: his lord under the mould was to him as if he had never been above it — but the favour of the present marchioness, for all in the house knew that she was interested in him. Choking down therefore his rage and indignation, he said sternly, "Malcolm, you have two enemies — a long tongue, and a strong conceit. You have little enough to be proud of, my man, and the less said the better. I advise you to mind what you're about, and show suitable respect to your superiors, or as sure as judgment you'll go back to your fish-guts."

While he spoke Malcolm had been smoothing Kelpie all over with his palms: the moment the factor ceased talking he ceased stroking, and with one arm thrown over the mare's back looked him full in the face. "Gien ye imaigine, Maister Crathie," he said, "at I coont it ony rise i' the warl' 'at brings me un'er the orders o' a man less honest than, he micht be, ye're mista'en. I dinna think it's pride this time: I wad ile Blue Peter's lang butes till him, but I winna lee for ony factor atween this an' Davy Jones."

It was too much. Mr. Crathie's feelings overcame him, and he was a wrathful man to see as he strode up to the youth with clenched fist.

"Haud frae the mere, for God's sake, Maister Crathie!" cried Malcolm.

But even as he spoke two reversed Moorish arches of gleaming iron opened on the terror-quickened imagination of the factor a threatened descent from which his most potent instinct, that of self-preservation, shrank in horror. He started back, white with dismay, having by a bare inch of space and a bare moment of time escaped what he called eternity. Dazed with fear, he turned and had staggered half-way across the yard, as if going home, before he recovered himself. Then he turned again, and, with what dignity he could scrape together, said, "MacPhail, you go about your business."

In his foolish heart he believed Malcolm had made the brute strike out.

"I canna weel gang till Stoat comes hame," answered Malcolm.

"If I see you about the place after sunset I'll horsewhip you," said the factor, and walked away, showing the crown of his hat.

Malcolm again smiled oddly, but made no reply. He undid the mare's halter and led her into the stable. There he fed her, standing by her all the time she ate, and not once taking his eye off her. His father, the late marquis, had bought her at the sale of the stud of a neighboring laird, whose whole being had been devoted to horses till the pale one came to fetch himself: the men about the stable had drugged her, and taken with the splendid lines of the animal, nor seeing cause to doubt her temper as she quietly obeyed the halter, he had bid for her, and, as he thought, had her a great bargain. The accident that finally caused his death followed soon after, and while he was ill no one cared to vex him by saying what she had turned out. But Malcolm had even then taken her in hand in the hope of taming her a little before his master, who often spoke of his latest purchase, should see her again. In this he had very partially succeeded, but, if only for the sake of him whom he now knew for his father, nothing would have made him part with the animal. Besides, he had been compelled to use her with so much severity at times that he had grown attached to her from the reaction of pity, as well as from admiration of her physical qualities and the habitude of ministering to her wants and comforts. The factor, who knew Malcolm only as a servant, had afterward allowed her to remain in his charge, merely in the hope, through his treatment, of by-and-by selling her, as she had been bought, for a faultless animal, but at a far better price.