The Marquis of Lossie/Chapter XLIX

The Marquis of Lossie - Chapter XLIX
by George MacDonald

CHAPTER XLIX.

THE PHILTRE.

Before he came again to himself Malcolm had a dream, which, although very confused, was in parts more vivid than any he had ever had. His surroundings in it were those in which he actually lay, and he was ill, but he thought it the one illness he had before. His head ached, and he could rest in no position he tried. Suddenly he heard a step he knew better than any other approaching the door of his chamber; it opened, and his grandfather in great agitation entered, not following his hands, however, in the fashion usual to blindness, but carrying himself like any sight-gifted man. He went straight to the washstand, took up the water-bottle, and with a look of mingled wrath and horror dashed it on the floor. The same instant a cold shiver ran through the dreamer, and his dream vanished. But instead of waking in his bed, he found himself standing in the middle of the floor, his feet wet, the bottle in shivers about them, and, strangest of all, the neck of the bottle in his hand. He lay down again, grew delirious, and tossed about in the remorseless persecution of centuries. But at length his tormentors left him, and when he came to himself he knew he was in his right mind.

It was evening, and some one was sitting near his bed. By the light of the long-snuffed tallow candle he saw the glitter of two great black eyes watching him, and recognized the young woman who had admitted him to the house the night of his return, and whom he had since met once or twice as he came and went. The moment she perceived that he was aware of her presence she threw herself on her knees at his bedside, hid her face and began to weep. The sympathy of his nature rendered yet more sensitive by weakness and suffering, Malcolm laid his hand on her head and sought to comfort her. "Don't be alarmed about me," he said: "I shall soon be all right again."

"I can't bear it," she sobbed. "I can't bear to see you like that, and all my fault."

"Your fault! What can you mean?" said Malcolm.

"But I did go for the doctor, for all it maybe the hanging of me," she sobbed.

"Miss Caley said I wasn't to, but I would and I did. They can't say I meant it — can they?"

"I don't understand," said Malcolm feebly.

The doctor says somebody's been an' p'isoned you," said the girl with a cry that sounded like a mingled sob and howl; "an' he's been a-pokin' of all sorts of things down your poor throat." And again she cried aloud in her agony.

"Well, never mind: I'm not dead, you see, and I'll take better care of myself after this. Thank you for being so good to me: you've saved my life."

"Ah! you won't be so kind to me when you know all, Mr. MacPhail," sobbed the girl. "It was myself gave you the horrid stuff, but God knows I didn't mean to do you no harm no more than your own mother."

"What made you do it, then?" asked Malcolm.

"The witch-woman told me to. She said that — that — if I gave it you — you would — you would ——" She buried her face in the bed, and so stifled a fresh howl of pain and shame. "And it was all lies — lies!" she resumed, lifting her face again, which now flashed with rage, "for I know you'll hate me worse than ever now."

"My poor girl, I never hated you," said Malcolm.

"No, but you did as bad: you never looked at me. And now you'll hate me out and out. And the doctor says if you die he'll have it all searched into, and Miss Caley she look at me as if she suspect me of a hand in it; and they won't let alone till they've got me hanged for it; and it's all along of love of you; and I tell you the truth, Mr. MacPhail, and you can do anything with me you like — I don't care — only you won't let them hang me, will you? Oh, please don't!" She said all this with clasped hands and the tears streaming down her face.

Malcolm's impulse was of course to draw her to him and comfort her, but something warned him. "Well, you see I'm not going to die just yet," he said as merrily as he could; "and if I find myself going I shall take care the blame falls on the right person. What was the witch-woman like ? Sit down on the chair there and tell me all about her."

She obeyed with a sigh, and gave him such a description as he could not mistake. He asked where she lived, but the girl had never met her anywhere but in the street, she said.

Questioning her very carefully as to Caley's behavior to her, Malcolm was convinced that she had a hand in the affair. Indeed, she had happily more to do with it than even Mrs. Catanach knew, for she had traversed her treatment to the advantage of Malcolm. The midwife had meant the potion to work slowly, but the lady's-maid had added to the pretended philtre a certain ingredient in whose efficacy she had reason to trust; and the combination, while it wrought more rapidly, had yet apparently set up a counteraction favorable to the efforts of the struggling vitality which it stung to an agonized resistance.

But Malcolm's strength was now exhausted. He turned faint, and the girl had the sense to run to the kitchen and get him some soup. As he took it her demeanor and regards made him anxious, uncomfortable, embarrassed. It is to any true man a hateful thing to repel a woman: it is such a reflection upon her. "I've told you everything, Mr. MacPhail, and it's gospel truth I've told you," said the girl after a long pause. It was a relief when first she spoke, but the comfort vanished as she went on, and with slow perhaps unconscious movements approached him. "I would have died for you, and here that devil of a woman has been making me kill you! Oh, how I hate her! Now you will never love me a bit — not one tiny little bit forever and ever!"

There was a tone of despairful entreaty in her words that touched Malcolm deeply. "I am more indebted to you than I can speak or you imagine," he said. "You have saved me from my worst enemy. Do not tell any other what you have told me, or let any one know that we have talked together. The day will come when I shall be able to show you my gratitude."

Something in his tone struck her, even through the folds of her passion. She looked at him a little amazed, and for a moment the tide ebbed. Then came a rush that overmastered her. She flung her hands above her head, and cried, "That means you will do anything but love me!"

"I cannot love you as you mean," said Malcolm. "I promise to be your friend, but more is out of my power."

A fierce light came in the girl's eyes. But that instant a terrible cry, such as Malcolm had never heard, but which he knew must be Kelpie's, rang through the air, followed by the shouts of men, the tones of fierce execration and the clash and clang of hoofs. "Good God!" he exclaimed, and forgetting everything else, sprung from the bed and ran to the window outside his door. The light of their lanterns dimly showed a confused crowd in the yard of the mews, and amid the hellish uproar of their coarse voices he could hear Kelpie plunging and kicking. Again she uttered the same ringing scream. He threw the window open and cried to her that he was coming, but the noise was far too great for his enfeebled voice. Hurriedly he added a garment or two to his half-dress, rushed to the stair, passing his new friend, who watched anxiously at the head of it, without seeing her, and shot from the house.