The Marquis of Lossie/Chapter XXXIX

The Marquis of Lossie - Chapter XXXIX
by George MacDonald



What with rats and mice, and cats and owls, and creaks and cracks, there was no quiet about the place from night to morning; and what with swallows and rooks, and cocks and kine, and horses and foals, and dogs and pigeons, and peacocks and guinea-fowls, and turkeys and geese, and every farm-creature but pigs — which, with all her zootrophy, Clementina did not like — no quiet from morning to night. But if there was no quiet, there was plenty of calm, and the sleep of neither brother nor sister was disturbed.

Florimel awoke in the sweetest concert of pigeon-murmuring, duck-diplomacy, fowl-foraging, foal-whinnering — the word wants an r in it — and all the noises of rural life. The sun was shining into the room by a window far off at the farther end, bringing with him strange sylvan shadows, not at once to be interpreted. He must have been shining for hours, so bright and steady did he shine. She sprang out of bed with no lazy London resurrection of the old buried, half-sodden corpse, sleepy and ashamed, but with the new birth of the new day, refreshed and strong, like a Hercules-baby. A few aching remnants of stiffness was all that was left of the old fatigue. It was a heavenly joy to think that no Caley would come knocking at her door. She glided down the long room to the sunny window, drew aside the rich old faded curtain, and peeped out. Nothing but pines and pines — Scotch firs all about and everywhere. They came within a few yards of the window. She threw it open. The air was still, the morning sun shone hot upon them, and the resinous odor exhaled from their bark and their needles and their fresh buds filled the room — sweet and clean. There was nothing, not even a fence, between this wing of the house and the wood.

All through his deep sleep Malcolm heard the sound of the sea — whether of the phantom sea in his soul or of the world-sea to whose murmurs he had listened with such soft delight as he fell asleep, matters little: the sea was with him in his dreams. But when he awoke it was to no musical crushing of water-drops, no half-articulated tones of animal speech, but to tumult and outcry from the stables. It was but too plain that he was wanted. Either Kelpie had waked too soon, or he had overslept himself: she was kicking furiously. Hurriedly induing a portion of his clothing, he rushed down and across the yard, shouting to her as he ran, like a nurse as she runs up the stair to a screaming child. She stopped once to give an eager whinny, and then fell to again. Griffith, the groom, and the few other men about the place were looking on appalled. He darted to the corn-bin, got a great pottlefull of oats and shot into her stall. She buried her nose in them like the very demon of hunger, and he left her for the few moments of peace that would follow. He must finish dressing as fast as he could: already, after four days of travel, which with her meant anything but a straightforward, jogtrot struggle with space, she needed a good gallop. When he returned he found her just finishing her oats, and beginning to grow angry with her own nose for getting so near the bottom of the manger. While yet there was no worse sign, however, than the fidgeting of her hind quarters, and she was still busy, he made haste to saddle her. But her unusually obstinate refusal of the bit, and his difficulty in making her open her unwilling jaws, gave unmistakable indication of coming conflict. Anxiously he asked the bystanders after some open place where he might let her go — fields, or tolerably smooth heath, or sandy beach. He dared not take her through the trees, he said, while she was in such a humor: she would dash herself to pieces. They told him there was a road straight from the stables to the shore, and there miles of pure sand without a pebble. Nothing could be better. He mounted and rode away.

Florimel was yet but half dressed when the door of her room opened suddenly and Lady Clementina darted in, the lovely chaos of her night not more than half as far reduced to order as that of Florimel's. Her moonlight hair, nearly as long as that of the fabled Godiva, was flung wildly about her in heavy masses. Her eyes were wild also: she looked like a holy mænad. With a glide like the swoop of an avenging angel she pounced upon Florimel, caught her by the wrist, and pulled her toward the door. Florimel was startled, but made no resistance. She half led, half dragged her up a stair that rose from a corner of the hall-gallery to the battlements of a little square tower, whence a few yards of the beach, through a chain of slight openings amongst the pines, was visible. Upon that spot of beach a strange thing was going on, at which afresh Clementina gazed with indignant horror, but Florimel eagerly stared with the forward-borne eyes of a spectator of the Roman arena. She saw Kelpie reared on end, striking out at Malcolm with her fore hoofs and snapping with angry teeth, then upon those teeth receive such a blow from his fist that she swerved, and wheeling flung her hind hoofs at his head. But Malcolm was too quick for her: she spent her heels in the air and he had her by the bit. Again she reared, and would have struck at him, but he kept well by her side, and with the powerful bit forced her to rear to her full height. Just as she was falling backward he pushed her head from him, and, bearing her down sideways, seated himself on it the moment it touched the ground. Then first the two women turned to each other. An arch of victory bowed Florimel's lip: her eyebrows were uplifted; the blood flushed her cheek and darkened the blue in her wide-opened eyes. Lady Clementina's forehead was gathered in vertical wrinkles over her nose, and all about her eyes was contracted as if squeezing from them the flame of indignation, while her teeth and lips were firmly closed. The two made a splendid contrast. When Clementina's gaze fell on her visitor the fire in her eyes burned more angry still: her soul was stirred by the presence of wrong and cruelty, and here, her guest, and looking her straight in the eyes, was a young woman, one word from whom would stop it all, actually enjoying the sight!

"Lady Lossie, I am ashamed of you!" she said with severest reproof; and turning from her, she ran down the stair.

Florimel turned again toward the sea. Presently she caught sight of Clementina glimpsing through the pines, now in glimmer and now in gloom, as she sped swiftly to the shore, and after a few short minutes of disappearance saw her emerge upon the space of sand where sat Malcolm on the head of the demoness. But, alas! she could only see: she could hardly even hear the sound of a tide.

"MacPhail, are you a man?" cried Clementina, startling him so that in another instant the floundering mare would have been on her feet. With a right noble anger in her face and her hair flying like a wind-torn cloud, she rushed out of the wood upon him, where he sat quietly tracing a proposition of Euclid on the sand with his whip.

"Ay, and a bold one," was on Malcolm's lips for reply, but he bethought himself in time. "I am sorry what I am compelled to do should annoy your ladyship," he said.

What with indignation and breathlessness — she had run so fast — Clementina had exhausted herself in that one exclamation, and stood panting and staring. The black bulk of Kelpie lay outstretched on the yellow sand, giving now and then a sprawling kick or a wamble like a lumpy snake, and her soul commiserated each movement as if it had been the last throe of dissolution, while the gray fire of the mare's one visible fierce eye, turned up from the shadow of Malcolm's superimposed bulk, seemed to her tender heart a mute appeal for woman's help.

As Malcolm spoke he cautiously shifted his position, and, half rising, knelt with one knee where he had sat before, looking observant at Lady Clementina.

The champion of oppressed animality soon recovered speech. "Get off the poor creature's head instantly," she said with dignified command. "I will permit no such usage of living thing on my ground."

"I am very sorry to seem rude, my lady," answered Malcolm, "but to obey you might be to ruin my mistress's property. If the mare were to break away, she would dash herself to pieces in the wood."

"You have goaded her to madness."

"I am the more bound to take care of her, then," said Malcolm. "But indeed it is only temper — such temper, however, that I almost believe she is at times possessed of a demon."

"The demon is in yourself. There is none in her but what your cruelty has put there. Let her up, I command you."

"I dare not, my lady. If she were to get loose, she would tear your ladyship to pieces."

"I will take my chance."

"But I will not, my lady. I know the danger, and have to take care of you who do not. There is no occasion to be uneasy about the mare. She is tolerably comfortable. I am not hurting her — not much. Your ladyship does not reflect how strong a horse's skull is. And you see what great powerful breaths she draws."

"She is in agony," cried Clementina.

"Not in the least, my lady. She is only balked of her own way, and does not like it."

"And what right have you to balk her of her own way? Has she no right to a mind of her own?"

" She may of course have her mind; but she can't have her way. She has got a master."

"And what right have you to be her master?"

"That my master, my Lord Lossie, gave me the charge of her."

"I don't mean that sort of right: that goes for nothing. What right in the nature of things can you have to tyrannize over any creature?"

"None, my lady. But the higher nature has the right to rule the lower in righteousness. Even you can't have your own way always, my lady."

"I certainly cannot now, so long as you keep in that position. Pray, is it in virtue of your being the higher nature that you keep my way from me?"

"No, my lady. But it is in virtue of right. If I wanted to take your ladyship's property, your dogs would be justified in refusing me my way. I do not think I exaggerate when I say that if my mare here had her way, there would not be a living creature about your house by this day week."

Lady Clementina had never yet felt upon her the power of a stronger nature than her own. She had had to yield to authority, but never to superiority. Hence her self-will had been abnormally developed. Her very compassion was self-willed. Now for the first time, she continuing altogether unaware of it, the presence of such a nature began to operate upon her. The calmness of Malcolm's speech and the immovable decision of his behavior told.

"But," she said, more calmly, "your mare has had four long journeys, and she should have rested to-day."

"Rest is just the one thing beyond her, my lady. There is a volcano of life and strength in her you have no conception of. I could not have dreamed of horse like her. She has never in her life had enough to do. I believe that is the chief trouble with her. What we all want, my lady, is a master — a real right master. I've got one myself, and ——"

"You mean you want one yourself," said Lady Clementina. "You've only got a mistress, and she spoils you."

"That is not what I meant, my lady," returned Malcolm. "But one thing I know is, that Kelpie would soon come to grief without me. I shall keep her here till her half-hour is out, and then let her take another gallop."

Lady Clementina turned away. She was defeated. Malcolm knelt there on one knee, with a hand on the mare's shoulder, so calm, so imperturbable, so ridiculously full of argument, that there was nothing more for her to do or say. Indignation, expostulation, were powerless upon him as mist upon a rock. He was the oddest, most incomprehensible, of grooms.

Going back to the house, she met Florimel, and turned again with her to the scene of discipline. Ere they reached it, Florimel's delight with all around her had done something to restore Clementina's composure: the place was precious to her, for there she had passed nearly the whole of her childhood. But to any one with a heart open to the expressions of nature's countenance the place could not but have a strange as well as peculiar charm.

Florimel had lost her way. I would rather it had been in the moonlight, but slant sunlight was next best. It shone through a slender multitude of mast-like stems, whose shadows complicated the wood with wonder, while the light seemed amongst them to have gathered to itself properties appreciable by other organs besides the eyes, and to dwell bodily with the trees. The soil was mainly of sand, the soil to delight the long tap-roots of the fir-trees, covered above with a thick layer of slow-forming mould in the gradual odoriferous decay of needles and cones and flakes of bark and knots of resinous exudation. It grew looser and sandier, and its upper coat thinner, as she approached the shore. The trees shrunk in size, stood farther apart and grew more individual, sending out gnarled boughs on all sides of them, and asserting themselves, as the tall, slender branchless ones in the social restraint of the thicker wood dared not do. They thinned and thinned, and the sea and the shore came shining through, for the ground sloped to the beach without any intervening abruption of cliff, or even bank: they thinned and thinned until all were gone, and the bare long yellow sands lay stretched out on both sides for miles, gleaming and sparkling in the sun, especially at one spot where the water of the little stream wandered about over them, as if it had at length found its home, but was too weary to enter and lose its weariness, and must wait for the tide to come up and take it. But when Florimel reached the strand she could see nothing of the group she sought: the shore took a little bend, and a tongue of forest came in between. She also was on her way back to the house when she met Clementina, who soon interrupted her ecstasies by breaking out in accusation of Malcolm, not untempered, however, with a touch of dawning respect. At the same time, her report of his words was anything but accurate, for, as no one can be just without love, so no one can truly report without understanding. But there was no time to discuss him now, as Clementina insisted on Florimel's putting an immediate stop to his cruelty.

When they reached the spot, there was the groom again seated on his animal's head, with a new proposition in the sand before him.

"Malcolm," said his mistress, "let the mare get up. You must let her off the rest of her punishment this time."

Malcolm rose again to his knee. "Yes, my lady," he said. "But perhaps your ladyship wouldn't mind helping me to unbuckle her girths before she gets to her feet. I want to give her a bath. Come to this side," he went on, as Florimel advanced to do his request — "round here by her head. If your ladyship would kneel upon it, that would be best. But you musn't move till I tell you."

"I will do anything you bid me — exactly as you say, Malcolm," responded Florimel.

"There's the Colonsay blood! I can trust that!" cried Malcolm, with a pardonable outbreak of pride in his family. Whether most of his ancestors could so well have appreciated the courage of obedience is not very doubtful.

Clementina was shocked at the insolent familiarity of her poor little friend's groom, but Florimel saw none, and kneeled, as if she had been in church, on the head of the mare, with the fierce crater of her fiery brain blazing at her knee. Then Malcolm lifted the flap of the saddle, undid the buckles of the girths, and, drawing them a little from under her, laid the saddle on the sand, talking all the time to Florimel, lest a sudden word might seem a direction, and she should rise before the right moment had come.

"Please, my lady Clementina, will you go to the edge of the wood? I can't tell what she may do when she gets up. And please, my lady Florimel, will you run there too the moment you get off her head?"

When he had got rid of the saddle he gathered the reins together in his bridle-hand, took his whip in the other, and softly and carefully straddled across her huge barrel without touching her.

"Now, my lady," he said, "run for the wood."

Florimel rose and fled, heard a great scrambling behind her, and, turning at the first tree, which was only a few yards off, saw Kelpie on her hind legs, and Malcolm, whom she had lifted with her, sticking by his knees on her bare back. The moment her fore feet touched the ground he gave her the spur severely, and after one plunging kick, off they went westward over the sands, away from the sun, nor did they turn before they had dwindled to such a speck that the ladies could not have told by their eyes whether it was moving or not. At length they saw it swerve a little; by and by it began to grow larger; and after another moment or two they could distinguish what it was, tearing along toward them like a whirlwind, the lumps of wet sand flying behind like an upward storm of clods. What a picture it was! — only neither of the ladies was calm enough to see it picturewise — the still sea before, type of the infinite always, and now of its repose; the still straight solemn wood behind, like a past world that had gone to sleep, out of which the sand seemed to come flowing down, to settle in the long sand-lake of the beach; that flameless furnace of life tearing along the shore betwixt the sea and the land, between time and eternity, guided, but only half controlled, by the strength of a higher will; and the two angels that had issued — whether out of the forest of the past or the sea of the future, who could tell? — and now stood, with hand-shaded eyes, gazing upon that fierce apparition of terrene life.

As he came in front of them, Malcolm suddenly wheeled Kelpie — so suddenly and in so sharp a curve that he made her "turne close to the ground, like a cat, when scratchingly she wheeles about after a mouse," as Sir Philip Sidney says, and dashed her straight into the sea. The two ladies gave a cry — Florimel of delight, Clementina of dismay, for she knew "the coast, and that there it shelved suddenly into deep water. But that was only the better to Malcolm: it was the deep water he sought, though he got it with a little pitch sooner than he expected. He had often ridden Kelpie into the sea at Portlossie, even in the cold autumn weather when first she came into his charge, and nothing pleased her better or quieted her more. He was a heavy weight to swim with, but she displaced much water. She carried her head bravely, he balanced sideways, and they swam splendidly. To the eyes of Clementina the mare seemed to be laboring for her life.

When Malcolm thought she had had enough of it he turned her head to the shore. But then came the difficulty. So steeply did the shore shelve that Kelpie could not get a hold with her hind hoofs to scramble up into the shallow water. The ladies saw the struggle, and Clementina, understanding it, was running in an agony right into the water, with the vain idea of helping them, when Malcolm threw himself off, drawing the reins over Kelpie's head as he fell, and, swimming but the length of them shoreward, felt the ground with his feet, and stood. Kelpie, relieved of his weight, floated a little farther on to the shelf, got a better hold with her fore feet, some hold with her hind ones, and was beside him in a moment. The same moment Malcolm was on her back again, and they were tearing off eastward at full stretch. So far did the lessening point recede in the narrowing distance that the two ladies sat down on the sand, and fell a-talking about Florimel's most uncategorical groom, as Clementina, herself the most uncategorical of women, to use her own scarcely justifiable epithet, called him. She asked if such persons abounded in Scotland. Florimel could but answer that this was the only one she had met with. Then she told her about Richmond Park and Lord Liftore and Epictetus.

"Ah, that accounts for him!" said Clementina. "Epictetus was a Cynic, a very cruel man: he broke his slave's leg once, I remember."

"Mr. Lenorme told me that he was the slave, and that his master broke his leg," said Florimel.

"Ah! yes! I dare say that was it. But it is of little consequence: his principles were severe, and your groom has been his too-ready pupil. It is a pity he is such a savage: he might be quite an interesting character. Can he read?"

"I have just told you of his reading Greek over Kelpie's head," said Florimel, laughing.

"Ah! but I meant English," returned Clementina, whose thoughts were a little astray. Then laughing at herself, she explained: "I mean, can he read aloud? I put the last of the Waverley novels in the box we shall have to-morrow — or the next day at the latest, I hope — and I was wondering whether he could read the Scotch as it ought to be read. I have never heard it spoken, and I don't know how to imagine it."

"We can try him," said Florimel. "It will be great fun anyhow. He is such a character! You will be so amused with the remarks he will make!"

"But can you venture to let him talk to you?"

"If you ask him to read, how will you prevent him? Unfortunately, he has thoughts, and they will out."

"Is there no danger of his being rude?"

"If speaking his" mind about anything in the book be rudeness, he will most likely be rude. Any other kind of rudeness is as impossible to Malcolm as to any gentleman in the land."

"How can you be so sure of him?" said Clementina, a little anxious as to the way in which her friend regarded the young man.

"My father was — yes, I may say so — attached to him; so much so that he — I can't quite say what — but something like made him promise never to leave my service. And this I know for myself, that not once, ever since that man came to us, has he done a selfish thing or one to be ashamed of. I could give you proof after proof of his devotion."

Florimel's warmth did not reassure Clementina, and her uneasiness wrought to the prejudice of Malcolm. She was never quite so generous toward human beings as toward animals. She could not be depended on for justice except to people in trouble, and then she was very apt to be unjust to those who troubled them. "I would not have you place too much confidence in your Admirable Crichton of menials, Florimel," she said. "There is something about him I cannot get at the bottom of. Depend upon it, a man who can be cruel would betray on the least provocation."

Florimel smiled superior, as she had good reason to do, but Clementina did not understand the smile, and therefore did not like it. She feared the young fellow had already gained too much influence over his mistress. "Florimel, my love," she said, "listen to me. Your experience is not so ripe as mine. That man is not what you think him. One day or other he will, I fear, make himself worse than disagreeable. How can a cruel man be unselfish?"

"I don't think him cruel at all. But then I haven't such a soft heart for animals as you. We should think it silly in Scotland. You wouldn't teach a dog manners at the expense of a howl. You would let him be a nuisance rather than give him a cut with a whip. What a nice mother of children you will make, Clementina! That's how the children of good people are so often a disgrace to them."

"You are like all the rest of the Scotch I ever knew," said Lady Clementina: "the Scotch are always preaching. I believe it is in their blood. You are a nation of parsons. Thank goodness! my morals go no further than doing as I would be done by! I want to see creatures happy about me. For my own sake even I would never cause pang to person — it gives me such a pang myself."

"That's the way you are made, I suppose, Clementina," returned Florimel. "For me, my clay must be coarser. I don't mind a little pain myself, and I can't break my heart for it when I see it, except it be very bad — such as I should care about myself. But here comes the tyrant."

Malcolm was pulling up his mare some hundred yards off. Even now she was unwilling to stop, but it was at last only from pure original objection to whatever was wanted of her. When she did stand she stood stock-still, breathing hard. "I have actually succeeded in taking a little out of her at last, my lady," said Malcolm as he dismounted. "Have you got a bit of sugar in your pocket, my lady? She would take it quite gently now."

Florimel had none, but Clementina had, for she always carried sugar for her horse. Malcolm held the demoness very watchfully, but she took the sugar from Florimel's palm as neatly as an elephant, and let her stroke her nose over her wide red nostrils without showing the least of her usual inclination to punish a liberty with death. Then Malcolm rode her home, and she was at peace till the evening when he took her out again.