George MacDonald.

Malcolm online

. (page 27 of 43)
Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldMalcolm → online text (page 27 of 43)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

and retreating a few steps, with the pistol cocked in his hand.

"Dinna ye think it wad be better to lock the door, for fear the
shot sud bring ony o' the fowk?" suggested Malcolm, as he rose to
his knees and leaned his hands on a chair.

"You're bent on murdering me - are you then?" said the marquis,
beginning to come to himself and see the ludicrousness of the

"Gien I had been that, my lord, I wadna hae waukent ye up first."

"Well, what the devil is it all about? - You needn't think any
of the men will come. They're a pack of the greatest cowards ever

"Weel, my lord, I hae gruppit her at last, an' I bude to come an
tell ye.''

"Leave your beastly gibberish. You can speak what at least resembles
English when you like."

"Weel, my lord, I hae her unner lock an' keye."

"Who, in the name of Satan?"

"Mistress Catanach, my lord!"

"Damn her eyes! What's she to me that I should be waked out of a
good sleep for her?"

"That's what I wad fain yer lordship kent: I dinna."

"None of your riddles! Explain yourself; - and make haste; I want
to go to bed again."

"'Deed, yer lordship maun jist pit on yer claes, an' come wi'."

"Where to?"

"To the warlock's chaumer, my lord - whaur that ill wuman remains
'in durance vile,' as Spenser wad say - but no sae vile's hersel',
I doobt."

Thus arrived at length, with a clear road before him, at the opening
of his case, Malcolm told in few words what had fallen out. As
he went on, the marquis grew interested, and by the time he had
finished, had got himself into dressing gown and slippers.

"Wadna ye tak yer pistol?" suggested Malcolm slyly.

"What! to meet a woman?" said his lordship.

"Ow na! but wha kens there michtna be anither murderer aboot? There
micht be twa in ae nicht."

Impertinent as was Malcolm's humour, his master did not take it
amiss: he lighted a candle, told him to lead the way, and took his
revenge by making joke after joke upon him as he crawled along.
With the upper regions of his house the marquis was as little
acquainted, as with those of his nature, and required a guide.

Arrived at length at the wizard's chamber, they listened at the
door for a moment, but heard nothing; neither was there any light
visible at its lines of junction. Malcolm turned the key, and the
marquis stood close behind, ready to enter. But the moment the
door was unlocked, it was pulled open violently, and Mrs Catanach,
looking too high to see Malcolm who was on his knees, aimed a good
blow at the face she did see, in the hope, no doubt, of thus making
her escape. But it fell short, being countered by Malcolm's head
in the softest part of her person, with the result of a clear
entrance. The marquis burst out laughing, and stepped into the room
with a rough joke. Malcolm remained in the doorway.

"My lord," said Mrs Catanach, gathering herself together, and
rising little the worse, save in temper, for the treatment he had
commented upon, "I have a word for your lordship's own ear."

"Your right to be there does stand in need of explanation," said
the marquis.

She walked up to him with confidence.

"You shall have an explanation, my lord," she said, "such as shall
be my full quittance for intrusion even at this untimely hour of
the night."

"Say on then," returned his lordship.

"Send that boy away then, my lord."

"I prefer having him stay," said the marquis.

"Not a word shall cross my lips till he's gone," persisted Mrs
Catanach. "I know him too well! Awa' wi' ye, ye deil's buckie!"
she continued, turning to Malcolm; "I ken mair aboot ye nor ye ken
aboot yersel', an' deil hae't I ken o' guid to you or yours! But
I s' gar ye lauch o' the wrang side o' your mou' yet, my man."

Malcolm, who had seated himself on the threshold, only laughed and
looked reference to his master.

"Your lordship was never in the way of being frightened at a woman,"
said Mrs Catanach, with an ugly expression of insinuation.

The marquis shrugged his shoulders.

"That depends," he said. Then turning to Malcolm, "Go along," he
added; "only keep within call. I may want you."

"Nane o' yer hearkenin' at the keye hole, though, or I s' lug mark
ye, ye - !" said Mrs Catanach, finishing the sentence none the more
mildly that she did it only in her heart.

"I wadna hae ye believe a' 'at she says, my lord," said Malcolm,
with a significant smile, as he turned to creep away.

He closed the door behind him, and lest Mrs Catanach should
repossess herself of the key, drew it from the lock, and, removing
a few yards, sat down in the passage by his own door. A good many
minutes passed, during which he heard not a sound.

At length the door opened, and his lordship came out. Malcolm looked
up, and saw the light of the candle the marquis carried, reflected
from a face like that of a corpse. Different as they were, Malcolm
could not help thinking of the only dead face he had ever seen. It
terrified him for the moment in which it passed without looking at

"My lord!" said Malcolm gently.

His master made no reply.

"My lord!" cried Malcolm, hurriedly pursuing him with his voice,
"am I to lea' the keyes wi' yon hurdon, and lat her open what doors
she likes?"

"Go to bed," said the marquis angrily, "and leave the woman alone;"
with which words he turned into the adjoining passage, and disappeared.

Mrs Catanach had not come out of the wizard's chamber, and for a
moment Malcolm felt strongly tempted to lock her in once more. But
he reflected that he had no right to do so after what his lordship
had said - else, he declared to himself, he would have given her
at least as good a fright as she seemed to have given his master,
to whom he had no doubt she had been telling some horrible lies.
He withdrew, therefore, into his room - to lie pondering again
for a wakeful while.

This horrible woman claimed then to know more concerning him than
his so called grandfather, and, from her profession; it was likely
enough; but information from her was hopeless - at least until
her own evil time came; and then, how was any one to believe what
she might choose to say? So long, however, as she did not claim
him for her own, she could, he thought, do him no hurt he would be
afraid to meet.

But what could she be about in that room still? She might have gone,
though, without the fall of her soft fat foot once betraying her!

Again he got out of bed, and crept to the wizard's door, and
listened. But all was still. He tried to open it, but could not:
Mrs Catanach was doubtless spending the night there, and perhaps at
that moment lay, evil conscience and all, fast asleep in the tent
bed. He withdrew once more, wondering whether she was aware that
he occupied the next room; and, having, for the first time, taken
care to fasten his own door, got into bed, finally this time, and
fell asleep.


Malcolm had flattered himself that he would at least be able to
visit his grandfather the next day; but, instead of that, he did
not even make an attempt to rise - head as well as foot aching
so much, that he felt unfit for the least exertion - a phase of
being he had never hitherto known. Mrs Courthope insisted on advice,
and the result was that a whole week passed before he was allowed
to leave his room.

In the meantime, a whisper awoke and passed from mouth to mouth
in all directions through the little burgh - whence arising only
one could tell, for even her mouthpiece, Miss Horn's Jean, was such
a mere tool in the midwife's hands, that she never doubted but Mrs
Catanach was, as she said, only telling the tale as it was told
to her. Mrs Catanach, moreover, absolutely certain that no threats
would render Jean capable of holding her tongue, had so impressed
upon her the terrible consequences of repeating what she had told
her, that, the moment the echo of her own utterances began to
return to her own ears, she began to profess an utter disbelief in
the whole matter - the precise result Mrs Catanach had foreseen
and intended: now she lay unsuspected behind Jean, as behind a
wall whose door was built up; for she had so graduated her threats,
gathering the fullest and vaguest terrors of her supernatural
powers about her name, that while Jean dared, with many misgivings,
to tamper with the secret itself she dared not once mention
Mrs Catanach in connection with it. For Mrs Catanach herself, she
never alluded to the subject, and indeed when it was mentioned in
her hearing pretended to avoid it; but at the same time she took good
care that her silence should be not only eloquent, but discreetly
so, that is, implying neither more nor less than she wished to be

The whisper, in its first germinal sprout, was merely that Malcolm
was not a MacPhail; and even in its second stage it only amounted
to this, that neither was he the grandson of old Duncan.

In the third stage of its development, it became the assertion that
Malcolm was the son of somebody of consequence; and in the fourth,
that a certain person, not yet named, lay under shrewd suspicion.

The fifth and final form it took was, that Malcolm was the son of
Mrs Stewart of Gersefell, who had been led to believe that he died
within a few days of his birth, whereas he had in fact been carried
off and committed to the care of Duncan MacPhail, who drew a secret
annual stipend of no small amount in consequence - whence indeed
his well known riches!

Concerning this final form of the whisper, a few of the women of
the burgh believed or thought or fancied they remembered both the
birth and reported death of the child in question - also certain
rumours afloat at the time, which cast an air of probability over
the new reading of his fate. In circles more remote from authentic
sources, the general reports met with remarkable embellishments,
but the framework of the rumour - what I may call the bones of it
- remained undisputed.

From Mrs Catanach's behaviour, every one believed that she knew
all about the affair, but no one had a suspicion that she was the
hidden fountain and prime mover of the report - so far to the
contrary was it that people generally anticipated a frightful result
for her when the truth came to be known, for that Mrs Stewart would
follow her with all the vengeance of a bereaved tigress. Some indeed
there were who fancied that the mother, if not in full complicity
with the midwife, had at least given her consent to the arrangement;
but these were not a little shaken in their opinion when at length
Mrs Stewart herself began to figure more immediately in the affair,
and it was witnessed that she had herself begun to search into
the report. Certain it was that she had dashed into the town in a
carriage and pair - the horses covered with foam - and had hurried,
quite raised-like, from house to house, prosecuting inquiries. It
was said that, finding at length, after much labour that she could
arrive at no certainty even as to the first promulgator of the
assertion, she had a terrible fit of crying, and professed herself
unable, much as she would have wished it, to believe a word of the
report: it was far too good news to be true; no such luck ever fell
to her share - and so on. That she did not go near Duncan MacPhail
was accounted for by the reflection, that, on the supposition
itself, he was of the opposite party, and the truth was not to be
looked for from him.

At length it came to be known that, strongly urged, and battling
with a repugnance all but invincible, she had gone to see Mrs
Catanach, and had issued absolutely radiant with joy, declaring
that she was now absolutely satisfied, and, as soon as she had
communicated with the young man himself, would, without compromising
any one, take what legal steps might be necessary to his recognition
as her son.

Although, however, these things had been going on all the week that
Malcolm was confined to his room, they had not reached this last
point until after he was out again, and mean time not a whisper of
them had come to his or Duncan's ears. Had they been still in the
Seaton, one or other of the travelling ripples of talk must have
found them; but Duncan had come and gone between his cottage and
Malcolm's bedside, without a single downy feather from the still
widening flap of the wings of Fame ever dropping on him; and the
only persons who visited Malcolm besides were the Doctor - too
discreet in his office to mix himself up with gossip; Mr Graham,
to whom nobody, except it had been Miss Horn, whom he had not seen
for a fortnight, would have dreamed of mentioning such a subject;
and Mrs Courthope - not only discreet like the doctor, but shy
of such discourse as any reference to the rumour must usher in its

At length he was sufficiently recovered to walk to his grandfather's
cottage; but only now for the first time had he a notion of how
far bodily condition can reach in the oppression and overclouding
of the spiritual atmosphere.

"Gien I be like this," he said to himself, "what maun the weather
be like aneth yon hump o' the laird's!"

Now also for the first time he understood what Mr Graham had meant
when he told him that he only was a strong man who was strong in
weakness; he only a brave man who, inhabiting trembling, yet faced
his foe; he only a true man who, tempted by good, yet abstained.

Duncan received him with delight, made him sit in his own old chair,
got him a cup of tea, and waited upon him with the tenderness of a
woman. While he drank his tea, Malcolm recounted his last adventure
in connection with the wizard's chamber.

"Tat will be ta ped she 'll saw in her feeshon," said Duncan, whose
very eyes seemed to listen to the tale.

When Malcolm came to Mrs Catanach's assertion that she knew more
of him than he did himself -

"Then she peliefs ta voman does, my poy. We are aall poth of us in
ta efil voman's power," said Duncan sadly.

"Never a hair, daddy!" cried Malcolm. "A' pooer 's i' the han's
o' ane, that's no her maister. Ken she what she likes, she canna
pairt you an' me, daddy."

"God forpid!" responded Duncan. "But we must pe on our kard."

Close by the cottage stood an ivy grown bridge, of old leading the
king's highway across the burn to the Auld Toon, but now leading
only to the flower garden. Eager for the open air of which he had
been so long deprived, and hoping he might meet the marquis or Lady
Florimel, Malcolm would have had his grandfather to accompany him
thither; but Duncan declined, for he had not yet attended to the
lamps; and Malcolm therefore went alone.

He was slowly wandering, where never wind blew, betwixt rows
of stately hollyhocks, on which his eyes fed, while his ears were
filled with the sweet noises of a little fountain, issuing from
the upturned beak of a marble swan, which a marble urchin sought
in vain to check by squeezing the long throat of the bird, when the
sounds of its many toned fall in the granite basin seemed suddenly
centupled on every side, and Malcolm found himself caught in
a tremendous shower. Prudent enough to avoid getting wet in the
present state of his health, he made for an arbour he saw near by,
on the steep side of the valley - one he had never before happened
to notice.

Now it chanced that Lord Lossie himself was in the garden, and,
caught also by the rain while feeding some pet goldfishes in a
pond, betook himself to the same summer house, following Malcolm.

Entering the arbour, Malcolm was about to seat himself until the
shower should be over, when, perceiving a mossy arched entrance
to a gloomy recess in the rock behind, he went to peep into it,
curious to see what sort of a place it was.

Now the foolish whim of a past generation had, in the farthest corner
of the recess, and sideways from. the door, seated the figure of a
hermit, whose jointed limbs were so furnished with springs and so
connected with the stone that floored the entrance, that as soon
as a foot pressed the threshold, he rose, advanced a step, and held
out his hand.

The moment, therefore, Malcolm stepped in, up rose a pale, hollow
cheeked, emaciated man, with eyes that stared glassily, made a long
skeleton like stride towards him, and held out a huge bony hand,
rather, as it seemed, with the intent of clutching, than of greeting,
him. An unaccountable horror seized him; with a gasp which had
nearly become a cry, he staggered backwards out of the cave. It
seemed to add to his horror that the man did not follow - remained
lurking in the obscurity behind. In the arbour Malcolm turned -
turned to flee! - though why, or from what, he had scarce an idea.

But when he turned he encountered the marquis, who was just entering
the arbour.

"Well, MacPhail," he said kindly, "I'm glad - "

But his glance became fixed in a stare; he changed colour, and did
not finish his sentence.

"I beg yer lordship's pardon," said Malcolm, wondering through all
his perturbation at the look he had brought on his master's face;
"I didna ken ye was at han'."

"What the devil makes you look like that?" said the marquis, plainly
with an effort to recover himself.

Malcolm gave a hurried glance over his shoulder.

"Ah! I see!" said his lordship, with a mechanical kind of smile,
very unlike his usual one; " - you've never been in there before?"

"No, my lord."

"And you got a fright?"

"Ken ye wha's that, in there, my lord?"

"You booby! It's nothing but a dummy - with springs, and - and
- all damned tomfoolery!"

While he spoke his mouth twitched oddly, but instead of his bursting
into the laugh of enjoyment natural to him at the discomfiture of
another, his mouth kept on twitching and his eyes staring.

"Ye maun hae seen him yersel' ower my shouther, my lord," hinted

"I saw your face, and that was enough to - " But the marquis did
not finish the sentence.

"Weel, 'cep it was the oonnaiteral luik o' the thing - no human,
an' yet sae dooms like it - I can not account for the grue or the
trimmle 'at cam ower me, my lord, I never fan' onything like it i'
my life afore. An' even noo 'at I unnerstan' what it is, I kenna
what wad gar me luik the boody (bogie) i' the face again."

"Go in at once," said the marquis fiercely.

Malcolm looked him full in the eyes.

"Ye mean what ye say, my lord?"

"Yes, by God!" said the marquis, with an expression I can describe
only as of almost savage solemnity.

Malcolm stood silent for one moment.

"Do you think I'll have a man about me that has no more courage than
- than - a woman!" said his master, concluding with an effort.

"I was jist turnin' ower an auld question, my lord - whether it
be lawfu' to obey a tyrant. But it's na worth stan'in' oot upo'.
I s' gang."

He turned to the arch, placed a hand on each side of it, and leaned
forward with outstretched neck, peeped cautiously in, as if it were
the den of a wild beast. The moment he saw the figure - seated
on a stool - he was seized with the same unaccountable agitation,
and drew back shivering.

"Go in," shouted the marquis.

Most Britons would count obedience to such a command slavish; but
Malcolm's idea of liberty differed so far from that of most Britons,
that he felt, if now he refused to obey the marquis, he might be a
slave for ever; for he had already learned to recognize and abhor
that slavery which is not the less the root of all other slaveries
that it remains occult in proportion to its potency - self slavery:
he must and would conquer this whim, antipathy, or whatever the
loathing might be: it was a grand chance given him of proving his
will supreme - that is himself a free man! He drew himself up,
with a full breath, and stepped within the arch. Up rose the horror
again, jerked itself towards him with a clank, and held out its
hand. Malcolm seized it with such a gripe that its fingers came
off in his grasp.

"Will that du, my lord?" he said calmly, turning a face rigid with
hidden conflict, and gleaming white, from the framework of the
arch, upon his master, whose eyes seemed to devour him.

"Come out," said the marquis, in a voice that seemed to belong to
some one else.

"I hae blaudit yer playock, my lord," said Malcolm ruefully, as he
stepped from the cave and held out the fingers.

Lord Lossie turned and left the arbour.

Had Malcolm followed his inclination, he would have fled from it,
but he mastered himself still, and walked quietly out. The marquis
was pacing, with downbent head and hasty strides, up the garden:
Malcolm turned the other way.

The shower was over, and the sun was drawing out millions of mimic
suns from the drops that hung, for a moment ere they fell, from
flower and bush and great tree. But Malcolm saw nothing. Perplexed
with himself and more perplexed yet with the behaviour of his
master, he went back to his grandfather's cottage, and, as soon as
he came in, recounted to him the whole occurrence.

"He had a feeshon," said the bard, with wide eyes. "He comes of a
race that sees."

"What cud the veesion hae been, daddy?"

"Tat she knows not, for ta feeshon tid not come to her," said the
piper solemnly.

Had the marquis had his vision in London, he would have gone straight
to his study, as he called it, not without a sense of the absurdity
involved, opened a certain cabinet, and drawn out a certain hidden
drawer; being at Lossie, he walked up the glen of the burn to the
bare hill, overlooking the House, the royal burgh, the great sea,
and his own lands lying far and wide around him. But all the time
he saw nothing of these - he saw but the low white forehead of
his vision, a mouth of sweetness, and hazel eyes that looked into
his very soul.

Malcolm walked back to the House, clomb the narrow duct of an
ancient stone stair that went screwing like a great auger through
the pile from top to bottom, sought the wide lonely garret, flung
himself upon his bed, and from his pillow gazed through the little
dormer window on the pale blue skies flecked with cold white
clouds, while in his mind's eye he saw the foliage beneath burning
in the flames of slow decay, diverse as if each of the seven in the
prismatic chord had chosen and seared its own: the first nor'easter
that drove the flocks of Neptune on the sands, would sweep its
ashes away. Life, he said to himself, was but a poor gray kind of
thing after all. The peacock summer had folded its gorgeous train,
and the soul within him had lost its purple and green, its gold
and blue. He never thought of asking how much of the sadness was
owing to bodily conditions with which he was little acquainted, and
to compelled idleness in one accustomed to an active life. But if
he had, the sorrowful probabilities of life would have seemed just
the same. And indeed he might have argued that, to be subject to
any evil from a cause inadequate, only involves an absurdity that
embitters the pain by its mockery. He had yet to learn what faith
can do, in the revelation of the Moodless, for the subjugation of
mood to will.

As he lay thus weighed upon rather than pondering, his eye fell on
the bunch of keys which he had taken from the door of the wizard's
chamber, and he wondered that Mrs Courthope had not seen and taken
them - apparently had not missed them. And the chamber doomed to
perpetual desertion lying all the time open to any stray foot! Once
more at least, he must go and turn the key in the lock.

As he went the desire awoke to look again into the chamber, for
that night he had had neither light nor time enough to gain other
than the vaguest impression of it.

But for no lifting of the latch would the door open. - How could
the woman - witch she must be - have locked it? He proceeded to
unlock it. He tried one key, then another. He went over the whole
bunch. Mystery upon mystery! - not one of them would turn. Bethinking
himself, he began to try them the other way, and soon found one to
throw the bolt on. He turned it in the contrary direction, and it
threw the bolt off: still the door remained immovable! It must then
- awful thought! - be fast on the inside! Was the woman's body
lying there behind those check curtains? Would it lie there until
it vanished, like that of the wizard, - vanished utterly - bones
and all, to a little dust, which one day a housemaid might sweep
up in a pan?

On the other hand, if she had got shut in, would she not have
made noise enough to be heard? - he had been day and night in the
next room! But it was not a spring lock, and how could that have
happened? Or would she not have been missed, and inquiry made
after her? Only such an inquiry might well have never turned in the
direction of Lossie House, and he might never have heard of it, if

Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldMalcolm → online text (page 27 of 43)