The Marquis of Lossie/Chapter LVIII

The Marquis of Lossie - Chapter LVIII
by George MacDonald

CHAPTER LVIII.

THE TRENCH.

Malcolm had not yet, after all the health-giving of the voyage, entirely recovered the effects of the ill-compounded potion. Indeed, sometimes the fear crossed his mind that never would he be the same man again — that the slow furnace of the grave alone would destroy the vile deposit left in his house of life. Hence it came that he was weary, and overslept himself the next morning; but it was no great matter: he had yet time enough. He swallowed his breakfast as a working man alone can, and set out for Duff Harbor. At Leith, where they had put in for provisions, he had posted a letter to Mr. Soutar, directing him to have Kelpie brought on to his own town, whence he would fetch her himself. The distance was about ten miles, the hour eight, and he was a good enough walker, although boats and horses had combined to prevent him, he confessed, from getting over-fond of Shank's mare. To men who delight in the motions of a horse under them the legs of a man are a tame, dull means of progression, although they too have their superiorities; and one of the disciplines of this world is to get out of the saddle and walk afoot. He who can do so with perfect serenity must very nearly have learned with Saint Paul in whatsoever state he is, therein to be content. It was the loveliest of mornings, however, to be abroad in upon any terms, and Malcolm hardly needed the resources of one who knew both how to be abased and how to abound — enviable perfection! — for the enjoyment of even a long walk. Heaven and earth were just settling to the work of the day after their morning prayer, and the whole face of things yet wore something of that look of expectation which one who mingles the vision of the poet with the faith of the Christian may well imagine to be their upward look of hope after a night of groaning and travailing — the earnest gaze of the creature waiting for the manifestation of the sons of God; and for himself, though the hardest thing was yet to come, there was a satisfaction in finding himself almost up to his last fence, with the heavy ploughed land through which he had been floundering nearly all behind him; which figure means that he had almost made up his mind what to do.

When he reached the Duff Arms he walked straight into the yard, where the first thing he saw was a stable-boy in the air, hanging on to a twitch on the nose of the rearing Kelpie. In another instant he would have been killed or maimed for life, and Kelpie loose and scouring the streets of Duff Harbor. When she heard Malcolm's voice and the sound of his running feet she dropped as if to listen. He flung the boy aside and caught her halter. Once or twice more she reared in the vain hope of so ridding herself of the pain that clung to her lip and nose, nor did she, through the mist of her anger and suffering, quite recognize her master in his yacht-uniform. But the torture decreasing, she grew able to scent his presence, welcomed him with her usual glad whinny, and allowed him to do with her as he would. Having fed her, found Mr. Soutar and arranged several matters with him, he set out for home.

That was a ride! Kelpie was mad with life. Every available field he jumped her into, and she tore its element of space at least to shreds with her spurning hoofs. But the distance was not great enough to quiet her before they got to hard turnpike and young plantations. He would have entered at the grand gate, but found no one at the lodge, for the factor, to save a little, had dismissed the old keeper. He had therefore to go on, and through the town, where, to the awe-stricken eyes of the population peeping from doors and windows, it seemed as if the terrible horse would carry him right over the roofs of the fisher-cottages below and out to sea. "Eh, but he's a terrible cratur, that Ma'colm MacPhail!" said the old wives to each other, and felt there must be something wicked in him to ride like that.

But he turned her aside from the steep hill, and passed along the street that led to the town-gate of the House. Whom should he see, as he turned into it, but Mrs. Catanach, standing on her own doorstep, opposite the descent to the Seaton, shading her eyes with her hand, and looking far out over the water through the green smoke of the village below! It had been her wont to gaze thus since ever he could remember her, though what she could at such times be looking for, except it were the devil in person, he found it hard to conjecture. At the sound of his approach she turned; and such an expression crossed her face in a momentary flash ere she disappeared in the house as added considerably to his knowledge of fallen humanity. Before he reached her door she was out again, tying on a clean white apron as she came, and smiling like a dark pool in sunshine. She dropped a low curtsy, and looked as if she had been occupying her house for months of his absence. But Malcolm would not meet even cunning with its own weapons, and therefore turned away his head and took no notice of her. She ground her teeth with the fury of hate, and swore that she would yet disappoint him of his purpose, whatever it were, in this masquerade of service. Her heart being scarcely of the calibre to comprehend one like Malcolm's, her theories for the interpretation of the mystery were somewhat wild and altogether of a character unfit to see the light.

The keeper of the town-gate greeted Malcolm, as he let him in, with a pleased old face and words of welcome, but added instantly, as if it was no time for the indulgence of friendship, that it was a terrible business going on at the Nose.

"What is it?" asked Malcolm in alarm.

"Ye hae been ower lang awa', I doobt," answered the man, "to ken hoo the factor —— But, Lord save ye! haud yer tongue," he interjected, looking fearfully around him. "Gien he kenned 'at I said sic a thing, he wad turn me oot o' hoose an' ha'."

"You've said nothing yet," returned Malcolm.

"I said factor, an' that same's 'maist eneuch, for he's like a roarin' lion an' a ragin' bear amang the people; an' that sin' ever ye gaed. Bow o' Meal said i' the meetin' the ither nicht 'at he bude to be the verra man, the wickit ruler propheseed o' sae lang sin' syne i' the beuk o' the Proverbs. Eh! it's an awfu' thing to be foreordeent to oonrichteousness!"

"But you haven't told me what is the matter at Scaurnose," said Malcolm impatiently.

"Ow, it's jist this — 'at this same's Midsimmer Day, an' Blue Peter — honest fallow; — he's been for the last three month un'er nottice frae the factor to quit. An' sae, ye see ——"

"To quit!" exclaimed Malcolm. "Sic a thing was never h'ard tell o'."

"Haith! it's h'ard tell o' noo," returned the gate-keeper. "Quittin' 's as plenty as quicken (couch-grass). 'Deed, there's maist naething ither h'ard tell o' bit quittin', for the full half o' Scaurnose is un'er like nottice for Michaelmas, an' the Lord kens what it 'll a' en' in!"

"But what's it for? Blue Peter's no the man to misbehave himsel'."

"Weel, ye ken mair yersel' nor ony ither as to the warst fau't there is to lay till 's chairge; for they say — that is, some say — it's a' yer ain wyte, Ma'colm."

"What mean ye, man? Speyk oot," said Malcolm.

"They say it's a' anent the abduckin' o' the markis's boat, 'at you and him gaed aff wi' thegither."

"That 'll hardly baud, seein' the marchioness hersel' cam' hame in her the last nicht."

"Ay, but ye see the decree's gane oot, and what the factor says is like the laws o' the Medes an' Persians, 'at they say 's no to be altert: I kenna mysel'."

"Ow weel, gien that be a', I'll see efter that wi' the marchioness."

"Ay, but ye see there's a lot o' the laads there, as I'm tellt, 'at has vooed 'at factor nor factor's man sail never set fut in Scaurnose frae this day furth. Gang ye doon to the Seaton, an' see hoo mony o' yer auld freen's ye'll fin' there. Man, there a' oot to Scaurnose to see the plisky. The factor he's there, I ken — and some constables wi' 'im — to see 'at his order 's cairried oot. An' the laads they hae been fortifeein' the place, as they ca' 't, for the last ook. They've howki't a trenk, they tell me, 'at nane but a hunter on 's horse cud win ower, an' they're postit alang the toon-side o' 't wi' sticks an' stanes an boat-heuks, an' guns an' pistils. An' gien there bena a man or twa kilt a'ready "

Before he finished his sentence Kelpie was levelling herself along the road for the sea-gate.

Johnny Bykes was locking it on the other side, in haste to secure his eyeshare of what was going on, when he caught sight of Malcolm tearing up. Mindful of the old grudge, also that there was no marquis now to favor his foe, he finished the arrested act of turning the key, drew it from the lock, and to Malcolm's orders, threats, and appeals returned for all answer that he had no time to attend to him, and so left him looking through the bars. Malcolm dashed across the burn, and round the base of the hill on which stood the little wind-god blowing his horn, dismounted, unlocked the door in the wall, got Kelpie through, and was in the saddle again before Johnny was halfway from the gate. When the churl saw him he trembled, turned and ran for its shelter again in terror, nor perceived until he reached it that the insulted groom had gone off like the wind in the opposite direction.

Malcolm soon left the high-road and cut across the fields, over which the wind bore cries and shouts mingled with laughter and the animal sounds of coarse jeering. When he came nigh the cart-road which led into the village he saw at the entrance of the street a crowd, and rising from it the well-known shape of the factor on his horse. Nearer the sea, where was another entrance through the back yards of some cottages, was a smaller crowd. Both were now pretty silent, for the attention of all was fixed on Malcolm's approach. As he drew up Kelpie foaming and prancing, and the group made way for her, he saw a deep wide ditch across the road, on whose opposite side was ranged irregularly the flower of Scaurnose's younger manhood, calmly, even merrily, prepared to defend their entrenchment. They had been chaffing the factor, and loudly challenging the constables to come on, when they recognized Malcolm in the distance, and expectancy stayed the rush of their bruising wit. For they regarded him as beyond a doubt come from the marchionness with messages of good-will. When he rode up, therefore, they raised a great shout, every one welcoming him by name. But the factor — who, to judge by appearances, had had his forenoon dram ere he left home burning with wrath, moved his horse in between Malcolm and the ditch. He had self-command enough left, however, to make one attempt at the loftily superior. "Pray what is your business?" he said, as if he had never seen Malcolm in his life before. "I presume you come with a message."

"I come to beg you, sir, not to go farther with this business. Surely the punishment is already enough," said Malcolm respectfully.

"Who sends me the message?" asked the factor, his lips pressed together and his eyes flaming.

"One," answered Malcolm, "who has some influence for justice, and will use it upon whichever side the justice may lie."

"Go to hell!" cried the factor, losing utterly his slender self-command and raising his whip.

Malcolm took no heed of the gesture, for he was at the moment beyond his reach. "Mr. Crathie," he said, calmly, "you are banishing the best man in the place."

"No doubt! no doubt! seeing he's a crony of yours," laughed the factor in mighty scorn. "A canting, prayer-meeting rascal!" he added.

"Is that ony waur nor a drucken elyer o' the kirk?" cried Dubs from the other side of the ditch, raising a roar of laughter.

The very purple left the factor's face and turned to a corpse-like gray in the fire of his fury.

"Come, come, my men! that's going too far," said Malcolm.

"An' wha ir ye for a fudgie (truant) fisher, to gie coonsel ohn speired?" shouted Dubs, altogether disappointed in the part Malcolm seemed only able to take. "Haud to the factor there wi' yer counsel!"

"Get out of my way!" said Mr. Crathie through his set teeth, and came straight upon Malcolm. "Home with you, or-r-r-r ——" And again he raised his whip, this time plainly with intent.

"For God's sake, factor, min' the mere!" cried Malcolm. " Ribs an' legs an' a' 'ill be to crack gien ye anger her wi' yer whuppin'!" As he spoke he drew a little aside, that the factor might pass if he pleased. A noise arose in the smaller crowd, and Malcolm turned to see what it meant: off his guard, he received a stinging cut over the head from the factor's whip. Simultaneously, Kelpie stood up on end, and Malcolm tore the weapon from the treacherous hand. "If I gave you what you deserve, Mr. Crathie, I should knock you and your horse together into that ditch. A touch of the spur would do it. I am not quite sure that I ought not. A nature like yours takes forbearance for fear." While he spoke, his mare was ramping and kicking, making a clean sweep all about her. Mr. Crathie's horse turned restive from sympathy, and it was all his rider could do to keep his seat. As soon as he got Kelpie a little quieter, Malcolm drew near and returned him his whip. He snatched it from his outstretched hand and essayed a second cut at him, which Malcolm rendered powerless by pushing Kelpie close up to him. Then suddenly wheeling, he left him. On the other side of the trench the fellows were shouting and roaring with laughter.

"Men!" cried Malcolm, "you have no right to stop up this road. I want to go and see Blue Peter."

"Come on, than!" cried one of the young men, emulous of Dubs's humor, and spread out his arms as if to receive Kelpie to his bosom.

"Stand out of the way: I'm coming," said Malcolm. As he spoke he took Kelpie a little round, keeping out of the way of the factor, who sat trembling with rage on his still excited animal, and sent her at the trench. The Deevil's Jock, as they called him, kept jumping, with his arms outspread, from one place to another, as if to receive Kelpie's charge; but when he saw her actually coming, in short, quick bounds, straight to the trench, he was seized with terror, and, half paralyzed, slipped as he turned to flee and rolled into the ditch, just in time to see Kelpie fly over his head. His comrades scampered right and left, and Malcolm, rather disgusted, took no notice of them.

A cart, loaded with their little all, the horse in the shafts, was standing at Peter's door, but nobody was near it. Hardly had Malcolm entered the close, however, when out rushed Annie, and heedless of Kelpie's demonstrative repellence, reached up her hands like a child, caught him by the arm while yet he was busied with his troublesome charge, drew him down toward her and held him till, in spite of Kelpie, she had kissed him again and again. "Eh, Ma'colm! eh, my lord!" she said, "ye hae saved my faith. I kenned ye wad come."

"Haud yer tongue, Annie: I maunna be kenned," said Malcolm.

"There's nae danger. They'll tak' it for sweirin'," said Annie, laughing and crying both at once.

But next came Blue Peter, his youngest child in his arms.

"Eh, Peter, man! I'm bleythe to see ye," cried Malcolm. "Gie 's a grup o' yer honest han'."

More than even the sight of his face, beaming with pleasure, more than that grasp of the hand that would have squeezed the life out of a polecat, was the sound of the mother-tongue from his lips. The cloud of Peter's long distrust broke and vanished, and the sky of his soul was straightway a celestial blue. He snatched his hand from Malcolm's, walked back into the empty house, ran into the little closet off the kitchen, bolted the door, fell on his knees in the void little sanctuary that had of late been the scene of so many foiled attempts to lift up his heart, and poured out speechless thanksgiving to the God of all grace and consolation, who had given him back his friend, and that in the time of his sore need. So true was his heart in its love that, giving thanks for his friend, he forgot he was the Marquis of Lossie, before whom his enemy was but as a snail in the sun. When he rose from his knees and went out again, his face shining and his eyes misty, his wife was on the top of the cart, tying a rope across the cradle.

"Peter," said Malcolm, "ye was quite richt to gang, but I'm glaid they didna lat ye."

"I wad hae been halfw'y to Port Gordon or noo," said Peter.

"But noo ye'll no gang to Port Gordon," said Malcolm. "Ye'll jist gang to the Salmon for a feow days till we see hoo things 'll gang."

"I'll du onything ye like, Ma'colm," said Peter, and went into the house to fetch his bonnet.

In the street arose the cry of a woman, and into the close rushed one of the fisher-wives, followed by the factor. He had found a place on the eastern side of the village, whither he had slipped unobserved, where, jumping a low earth-wall, he got into a little back yard. He was trampling over its few stocks of kail and its one dusty miller and double daisy when the woman to whose cottage it belonged caught sight of him through her window, and running out fell to abusing him, doubtless in no measured language. He rode at her in his rage, and she fled shrieking into Peter's close and behind the cart, never ceasing her vituperation, but calling him every choice name in her vocabulary. Beside himself with the rage of murdered dignity, he struck at her over the corner of the cart. Thereupon from the top of it Annie Mair ventured to expostulate: "Hoot, sir! it's no mainners to lat at a wuman like that."

He turned upon her, and gave her a cut on the arm and hand so stinging that she cried out, and nearly fell from the cart. Out rushed Peter and flew at the factor, who from his seat of vantage began to ply his whip about his head. But Malcolm, who, when the factor appeared, had moved aside to keep Kelpie out of mischief, and saw only the second of the two assaults, came forward with a scramble and a bound. "Haud awa', Peter!" he cried: "this belangs to me. I gae 'im back 's whup, an' sae I'm accoontable. Mr. Craithie" — and as he spoke he edged his mare up to to the panting factor — "the man who strikes a woman must be taught that he is a scoundrel, and that office I take. I would do the same if you were the lord of Lossie instead of his factor."

Mr. Crathie, knowing himself now in the wrong, was a little frightened at the set speech, and began to bluster and stammer, but the swift descent of Malcolm's heavy riding-whip on his shoulders and back made him voluble in curses. Then began a battle that could not last long with such odds on the side of justice. It was gazed at from the mouth of the close by many spectators, but none dared enter because of the capering and plunging and kicking of the horses. In less than a minute the factor turned to flee, and spurring out of the court galloped up the street at full stretch.

"Haud oot o' the gait!" cried Malcolm, and rode after him. But more careful of the people, he did not get a good start, and the factor was over the trench and into the fields before he caught him up. Then again the stinging switch buckled about the shoulders of the oppressor with all the force of Malcolm's brawny arm. The factor yelled and cursed and swore, and still Malcolm plied the whip, and still the horses flew over fields and fences and ditches. At length in the last field, from which they must turn into the high-road, the factor groaned out, "For God's sake, Ma'colm, hae mercy!"

The youth's uplifted arm fell by his side. He turned his mare's head, and when the factor ventured to turn his, he saw the avenger already halfway back to Scaurnose, and the constables in full flight meeting him.

While Malcolm was thus occupied his sister was writing to Lady Bellair. She told her that having gone out for a sail in her yacht, which she had sent for from Scotland, the desire to see her home had overpowered her to such a degree that of the intended sail she had made a voyage, and here she was, longing just as much now to see Lady Bellair; and if she thought proper to bring a gentleman with her to take care of her, he also should be welcome for her sake. It was a long way for her to come, she said, and Lady Bellair knew what sort of a place it was, but there was nobody in London now, and if she had nothing more enticing on her tablets, etc., etc. She ended with begging her, if she was inclined to make her happy with her presence, to bring to her Caley and her hound Demon. She had hardly finished when Malcolm presented himself. She received him very coldly, and declined to listen to anything about the fishers. She insisted that, being one of their party, he was prejudiced in their favor, and that of course a man of Mr. Crathie's experience must know better than he what ought to be done with such people in view of protecting her rights and keeping them in order. She declared that she was not going to disturb the old way of things to please him, and said that he had now done her all the mischief he could, except indeed he were to head the fishers and sack Lossie House. Malcolm found that instead of gaining any advantage by making himself known to her as her brother, he had but given her confidence in speaking her mind to him, and set her free from considerations of personal dignity when she desired to humiliate him. But he was a good deal surprised at the ability with which she set forth and defended her own view of her affairs, for she did not tell him that the Rev. Mr. Cairns had been with her all the morning, flattering her vanity, worshipping her power and generally instructing her in her own greatness — also putting in a word or two anent his friend Mr. Crathie, and his troubles with her ladyship's fisher-tenants. She was still, however, so far afraid of her brother — which state of feeling was perhaps the main cause of her insulting behavior to him — that she sat in some dread lest he might chance to see the address of the letters she had been writing.

I may mention here that Lady Bellair accepted the invitation with pleasure for herself and Liftore, promised to bring Caley, but utterly declined to take charge of Demon or allow him to be of the party. Thereupon Florimel, who was fond of the animal, and feared much, as he was no favorite, that something would happen to him, wrote to Clementina, praying her to visit her in her lovely loneliness — good as the Gloom in its way, though not quite so dark — and to add a hair to the weight of her obligation if she complied by allowing her deerhound to accompany her. Clementina was the only one, she said, of her friends for whom the animal had ever shown a preference.

Malcolm retired from his sister's presence much depressed, saw Mrs. Courthope, who was kind as ever, and betook himself to his old room, next to that in which his strange history began. There he sat down and wrote urgently to Lenorme, stating that he had an important communication to make, and begging him to start for the north the moment he received the letter. A messenger from Duff Harbor, well mounted, would ensure Malcolm's presence within a couple of hours. He found the behavior of his old acquaintances and friends in the Seaton much what he had expected: the few were as cordial as ever, while the many still resented with a mingling of the jealousy of affection, his forsaking of the old life for one they regarded as unworthy of a bred at least, if not a born, fisherman. A few there were still who always had been, for reasons known only to themselves, less friendly. The women were all cordial.

"Sic a mad-like thing," said old Futtocks, who was now the leader of the assembly at the Barn, "to gang scoorin' the cuintry on that mad brute o' a mere! What guid, think ye, can come o' siclike?"

"H'ard ye 'im ever tell the story aboot Colonsay Castel yon'er?"

"Ay, hev I."

"Weel, isna his mere 'at they ca' Kelpie jest the pictur' o' the deil's ain horse 'at lay at the door an' watched whan he flaw oot, an' tuik the wa' wi' 'im?"

"I cudna say till I saw whether the deil himsel' cud gar her lie still."