Tales and Sketches (4)

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Oh, mony a shriek, that waefu' night,
    Rose frae the stormy main;
An' mony a bootless vow was made,
    An' mony a prayer vain;
An' mithers wept, an' widows mourned,
    For mony a weary day;
An' maidens, ance o' blithest mood,
    Grew sad, an' pined away.

THE northern Sutor of Cromarty is of a bolder character than even the southern one, abrupt and stern and precipitous as that is.  It presents a loftier and more unbroken wall of rock; and, where it bounds on the Moray Frith, there is a savage magnificence in its cliffs and caves, and in the wild solitude of its beach, which we find nowhere equalled on the shores of the other.  It is more exposed, too, in the time of tempest.  The waves often rise, during the storms of winter, more than a hundred feet against its precipices, festooning them, even at that height, with wreaths of kelp and tangle; and for miles within the bay we may hear, at such seasons, the savage uproar that maddens amid its cliffs and caverns, coming booming over the lashings of the nearer waves like a roar of artillery.  There is a sublimity of desolation on its shores, the effects of a conflict maintained for ages, and on a scale so gigantic.  The isolated spire-like crags that rise along its base are so drilled and bored by the incessant lashings of the surf, and are ground down into shapes so fantastic, that they seem but the wasted skeletons of their former selves; and we find almost every natural fissure in the solid rock hollowed into an immense cavern, whose very ceiling, though the head turns as we look up to it, owes, evidently, its comparative smoothness to the action of the waves.  One of the most remarkable of these recesses occupies what we may term the apes of a lofty promontory.  The entrance, unlike most of the others, is narrow and rugged, though of great height; but it widens within into a shadowy chamber, perplexed, like the nave of a cathedral, by uncertain cross-lights, that come glimmering into it through two lesser openings which perforate the opposite sides of the promontory.  It is a strange, ghostly-looking place.  There is a sort of moonlight greenness in the twilight which forms its noon, and the denser shadows which rest along its sides; a blackness, so profound that it mocks the eye, hangs over a lofty passage which leads from it, like a corridor, still deeper into the bowels of the hill; the light falls on a sprinkling of half-buried bones, the remains of animals that in the depth of winter have creeped into it for shelter and to die; and when the winds are up, and the hoarse roar of the waves comes reverberated from its inner recesses, or creeps howling along its roof, it needs no over-active fancy to people its avenues with the shapes of beings long since departed from every gayer and softer scene, but which still rise uncalled to the imagination, in those by-corners of nature which seem dedicated, like this cavern, to the wild, the desolate, and the solitary.

    There is a little rocky bay a few hundred yards to the west, which has been known for ages to all the seafaring men of the place as the Cova Green.  It is such a place as we are sometimes made acquainted with in the narrative of disastrous shipwrecks.  First, there is a broad semi-circular strip of beach, with a wilderness of insulated piles of rock in front; and so steep and continuous is the wall of precipices which rises behind, that, though we may see directly over head the grassy slopes of the hill, with here and there a few straggling firs, no human foot ever gained the nearer edge.  The bay of the Cova Green is a prison to which the sea presents the only outlet; and the numerous caves which open along its sides, like the arches of an amphitheatre, seem but its darker cells.  It is in truth a wild, impressive place, full of beauty and terror, and with none of the squalidness of the mere dungeon about it.  There is a puny littleness in our brick and lime receptacles of misery and languor, which speaks as audibly of the feebleness of man as of his crimes or his inhumanity; but here all is great and magnificent, and there is much, too, that is pleasing.  Many of the higher cliffs, which rise beyond the influence of the spray, are tapestried with ivy.  We may see the heron watching on the ledges beside her bundle of withered twigs, or the blue hawk darting from her cell.  There is life on every side of us; life in even the wild tumbling of the waves, and in the stream of pure water which, rushing from the higher edge of the precipice in a long white cord, gradually untwists itself by the way, and spatters ceaselessly among the stones over the entrance of one of the caves.  Nor does the scene want its old story to strengthen its hold on the imagination.

    I am wretchedly uncertain in my dates; but it must have been some time late in the reign of Queen Anne, that a fishing yawl, after vainly labouring for hours to enter the bay of Cromarty, during a strong gale from the west, was forced at nightfall to relinquish the attempt, and take shelter in the Cova Green.  The crew consisted of but two persons,—an old fisherman and his son.  Both had been thoroughly drenched by the spray, and chilled by the piercing wind, which, accompanied by thick snow showers, had blown all day through the opening from off the snowy top of Ben Wyvis; and it was with no ordinary satisfaction that, as they opened the little bay on their last tack, they saw the red gleam of a fire flickering from one of the caves, and a boat drawn upon the beach.

    "It must be some of the Tarbet fishermen," said the old man, "wind-bound, like ourselves, but wiser than us in having made provision for it.  I shall feel willing enough to share their fire with them for the night."

    "But see," remarked the younger, "that there be no unwillingness on the other side.  I am much mistaken if that be not the boat of my cousins the Macinlas, who would so fain have broken my head last Rhorichie Tryst.  But, hap what may, father, the night is getting worse, and we have no choice of quarters.  Hard up your helm, or we shall barely clear the skerries.  There, now; every nail an anchor."  He leaped ashore, carrying with him the small hawser attached to the stern, which he wound securely round a jutting crag, and then stood for a few seconds, until the old man, who moved but heavily along the thwarts, had come up to him.  All was comparatively calm under the lee of the precipices; but the wind was roaring fearfully in the woods above, and whistling amid furze and ivy of the higher cliff; and the two boatmen, as they entered the cave, could see the flakes of a thick snow shower, that had just begun to descend, circling round and round in the eddy.

    The place was occupied by three men, who were sitting beside the fire on blocks of stone which had been rolled from the beach.  Two of them were young, and comparatively commonplace-looking persons; the third was a gray-headed old man, apparently of great muscular strength, though long past his prime, and of a peculiarly sinister cast of countenance.  A keg of spirits, which was placed end up in front of them, served as a table; there were little drinking measures of tin on it; and the mask-like, stolid expressions of the two younger men showed that they had been indulging freely.  The elder was apparently sober.  They all started to their feet on the entrance of the fisherman, and one of the younger, laying hold of the little cask, pitched it hurriedly into a dark corner of the cave.

    "His peace be here!" was the simple greeting of the elder fisherman as he came forward.  "Eachen Macinla," he continued, addressing the old man, "we have not met for years before,—not, I believe, since the death o' my puir sister, when we parted such ill friends; but we are short-lived creatures oursels, Eachen; surely our anger should be short-lived too; and I have come to crave from you a seat by your fire?"

    "William Beth," replied Eachen, "it was no wish of mine we should ever meet; but to a seat by the fire you are welcome."

    Old Macinla and his sons resumed their seats; the two fishermen took their places fronting them; and for some time neither party exchanged a word.

    A fire, composed mostly of fragments of wreck and driftwood, threw up its broad, cheerful flame towards the roof; but so spacious was the cavern, that, except where here and there a whiter mass of stalactites or bolder projection of cliff stood out from the darkness, the light seemed lost in it.  A dense body of smoke, which stretched its blue level surface from side to side, and concealed the roof, went rolling outwards like an inverted river.

    "This is but a gousty lodging-place," remarked the old fisherman, as he looked round him; "but I have seen a worse.  I wish the folk at hame kent we were half sae snug; and then the fire, too,—I have always felt something companionable in a fire, something consolable, as it were; it appears, somehow, as if it were a creature like ourselves, and had life in it."  The remark seemed directed to no one in particular, and there was no reply.  In a second attempt at conversation, the fisherman addressed himself to the old man.

    "It has vexed me," he said, "that our young folk shouldna, for my sister's sake, be on more friendly terms, Eachen.  They hae been quarrelling, an' I wish to see the quarrel made up."  The old man, without deigning a reply, knit his gray, shaggy brows, and looked doggedly at the fire.

    "Nay, now," continued the fisherman, "we are getting auld men, Eachen, au' wauld better bury our hard thoughts o' ane anither afore we come to be buried ourselves.  What if we were sent to the Cova Green the night, just that we night part friends!"

    Eachen fixed his keen, scrutinizing glance on the speaker,—it was but for a moment,—there was a tremulous notion of the under lip as he withdrew it, and a setting of the teeth,—the expression of mingled hatred and anger; but the tone of his reply savoured more of sullen indifference than of passion.

    "William Both," he said, "ye hae tricked my boys out o' the bit of property that suld hae come to them by their mother; it's no lang since they barely escaped being murdered by your son.  What more want you?  But ye perhaps think it better that the time should be passed in making hollow lip, professions of good-will, than that it suld be employed in clearing off an old score."

    "Ay," hickuped out the elder of the two sons; "the houses might come my way then; an', besides, gin Helen Henry were to lose her a'e jo, the ither might hae a better chance.  Rise, brither! rise, man! an' fight for me an' your sweet-heart."  The younger lad, who seemed verging towards the last stage of intoxication, struck his clenched fist against his palm, and attempted to rise.

    "Look ye, uncle," exclaimed the younger fisherman,—a powerful-looking and very handsome stripling,—as he sprang to his feet; "your threat might be spared.  Our little property was my grandfather's, and naturally descended to his only son; and as for the affair at Rhorichie, I dare either of my cousins to say the quarrel was of my seeking.  I have no wish to raise my hand against the sons or the husband of my aunt; but if forced to it, you will find that neither my father nor myself are wholly at your mercy."

    "Whisht, Earnest," said the old fisherman, laying his hand on the hand of the young man; "sit down; your uncle maun hae ither thoughts.  It is now fifteen years, Eachen," he continued, "since I was called to my sister's deathbed.  You yoursel' canna forget what passed there.  There had been grief an' cauld an' hunger beside that bed.  I'll no say you were willingly unkind,—few folk are that, but when they hae some purpose to serve by it, an' you could have none,'but you laid no restraint on a harsh temper, and none on a craving habit that forgets everything but itsel'; and so my puir sister perished in the middle o' her days, a wasted, heart-broken thing.  It's no that I wish to hurt you.  I mind how we passed our youth thegither among the wild buccaneers.  It was a bad school, Eachen; an' I owre often feel I havena unlearned a' my ain lessons, to wonder that you shouldna hae unlearned a' yours.  But we're getting old men Eachen, an' we have now, what we hadna in our young days, the advantage o' the light.  Dinna let us die fools in the sight o' Him who is so willing to give us wisdom; dinna let us die enemies.  We have been early friends, though maybe no for good, we have fought afore now at the same gun; we have been united by the lave o' her that's now in the dust; an' there are our boys,'the nearest o' kin to ane anither that death has spared.  But what I feel as strongly as a' the rest, Eachen, we hae done meikle ill thegither.  I can hardly think o' a past sin without thinking o' you, an' thinking, too, that if a creature like me may hope he has found pardon, you shouldna despair.  Eachen, we maun be friends."

    The features of the stern old man relaxed.  "You are perhaps right, William," he at length replied; "but ye were aye a luckier man than me,—luckier for this world, I'm sure, an' maybe for the next.  I had aye to seek, an' aften without finding, the good that came in your gate o' itsel'.  Now that age is coming upon us, ye get a snug rental frae the little houses, an' I hae naething; an' ye hae character an' credit; but wha would trust me, or cares for me?  Ye hae been made an elder o' the kirk, too, I hear, an' I am still a reprobate; but we were a' born to be just what we are, an' sae maun submit.  An' your son, too, shares in your luck.  He has heart an' hand, an' my whelps neither; an' the girl Henry, that scouts that sot there, likes him; but what wonder o' that?  But you are right, William; we maun be friends.  Pledge me."  The little cask was produced; and, filling the measures, he nodded to Earnest and his father.  They pledged him, when, as if seized by a sudden frenzy, he filled his measure thrice in hasty succession, draining it each time to the bottom, and then flung it down with a short, hoarse laugh.  His sons, who would fain have joined with him, he repulsed with a firmness of manner which he had not before exhibited.  "No, whelps," he said; "get sober as fast as ye can."

    "We had better," whispered Earnest to his father, "not sleep in the cave to-night."

    "Let me hear now o' your quarrel, Earnest," said Eachan; "your father was a more prudent man than you; and, however much he wronged me, did it without quarrelling."

    "The quarrel was none of my seeking," replied Earnest.  "I was insulted by your sons, and would have borne it for the sake of what they seemed to forget; but there was another whom they also insulted, and that I could not bear."

    "The girl Henry.  And what then?"

    "Why, my cousins may tell the rest.  They were mean enough to take odds against me, and I just beat the two spiritless fellows that did so."

    But why record the quarrels of this unfortunate evening?  An hour or two passed away in disagreeable bickerings, during which the patience of even the old fisherman was worn out, and that of Earnest had failed him altogether.  They both quitted the cave, boisterous as the night was,—and it was now stormier than ever,' and, heaving off their boat till she rode at the full length of her swing from the shore, sheltered themselves under the sail.  The Macinlas returned next evening to Tarbet; but, though the wind moderated during the day, the yawl of William Beth did not enter the Bay of Cromarty.  Weeks passed away, during which the clergyman of the place corresponded regarding the missing fisherman with all the lower parts of the Frith, but they had disappeared, as it seemed, for ever.


WHERE the northern Sutor sinks into the low sandy tract that nearly fronts the town of Cromarty, there is a narrow grassy terrace raised but a few yards over the level of the beach.  It is sheltered behind by a steep, undulating bank; for, though the rock here and there juts out, it is too rich in vegetation to be termed a precipice.  It is a sweet little spot, with its grassy slopes, that recline towards the sun, partially covered with thickets of wild rose and honeysuckle, and studded in their season with violets and daisies and the delicate rock geranium.  Towards its eastern extremity, with the bank rising immediately behind, and an open space in front, which seemed to have been cultivated at one time as a garden, there stood a picturesque little cottage.  It was that of the widow of William Beth.  Five years had now elapsed since the disappearance of her son and husband, and the cottage bore the marks of neglect and decay.  The door and window, bleached white by the sea-winds, shook loosely to every breeze; clusters of chickweed luxuriated in the hollows of the thatch, or mantled over the eaves; and a honeysuckle, that had twisted itself round the chimney, lay withering in a tangled mass at the foot of the wall.

    But the progress of decay was more marked in the widow herself than in her dwelling.  She had had to contend with grief and penury; a grief not the less undermining in its effects from the circumstance of its being sometimes suspended by hope; a penury so extreme that every succeeding day seemed as if won by some providential interference from absolute want.  And she was now, to all appearance, fist sinking in the struggle.  The autumn was well-nigh over.  She had been weak and ailing for months before, and had now become so feeble as to be confined for days together to her bed.  But, happily, the poor solitary woman had at least one attached friend in the daughter of a farmer of the parish, a young and beautiful girl, who, though naturally of no melancholy temperament, seemed to derive almost all she enjoyed of pleasure from the society of the widow.  Helen Henry was in her twenty-first year, but she seemed older in spirit than in years.  She was thin and pale, though exquisitely formed.  There was a drooping heaviness in her fine eyes, and a cast of pensive thought on her forehead, that spoke of a longer experience of grief than so brief a portion of life might be supposed to have furnished.  She had once lovers, but they had gradually dropped away in the despair of moving her, and awed by a deep and settled pensiveness, which, in the gayest season of youth, her character had suddenly but permanently assumed.  Besides, they all knew her affections were already engaged, and had come to learn, though late and unwillingly, that there are cases in which no rival can be more formidable than a dead one.

    Autumn, I have said, was near its close.  The weather had given indications of an early and severe winter; and the widow, whose worn-out and delicate frame was affected by every change of atmosphere, had for a few days been more than usually indisposed.  It was now long past noon, and she had but just risen.  The apartment, however, bore witness that her young friend had paid her the accustomed morning visit; the fire was blazing on a clean, comfortable-looking hearth, and every little piece of furniture it contained was arranged with, the most scrupulous care. Her devotions were hardly over when the well-known tap was again heard at the door.

    "Come in, my lassie," said the widow; and then lowering her voice, as the light foot of her friend was heard on the threshold, "God," she said, "has been ever kind to me; far, very far, aboon my best deservings; and oh, may he bless and reward her who has done so meikle, meikle for me!"  The young girl entered and took her seat beside her.

    "You told me, mother," she said, "that to-morrow is Earnest's birthday.  I have been thinking of it all last night, and feel as if my heart were turning into stone.  But when I am alone it is always so.  There is a cold, death-like weight at my breast, that makes me unhappy; though, when I come to you, and we speak together, the feeling passes away, and I become cheerful."

    "Ah, my bairn," replied the old woman, "I fear I'm no your friend, meikle as I love you.  We speak owre, owre often o' the lost, for our foolish hearts find mair pleasure in that than in anything else; but ill does it fit us for being alone.  Weel do I ken your feeling,—a stone deadness o' the heart,—a feeling there are no words to express, but that seems as it were insensibility itself turning into pain; and I ken, too, my lassie, that it is nursed by the very means ye tak to flee from it.  Ye maun learn to think mair o' the living, and less o' the dead.  Little, little does it matter how a pair worn-out creature like me passes the few broken clays o' life that remains to her; but ye are young, my Helen, an' the world is a' before you; and ye maun just try an' live for it."

    "To-morrow," rejoined Helen, "is Earnest's birthday.  Is it no strange that, when our minds make pictures o' the dead, it is always as they looked best an' kindest an' maist life-like; I have been seeing Earnest all night long, as when I saw him on his last birthday; an' oh, the sharpness o' the pang, when, every now an' then, the back o' the picture is turned to me, an' I see him as he is,—dust!"

    The widow grasped her young friend by the hand.  "Helen," she said, "you will get better when I am taken, from you; but so long as we continue to meet, our thoughts will aye be running the one way.  I had a strange dream last night, an' must tell it to you.  You see yon rock to the east, in the middle o' the little bay, that now rises through the back draught o' the sea, like the hull o' a ship, an' is now buried in a mountain o' foam?  I dreamed I was sitting on that rock, in what seemed a bonny summer's morning.  The sun was glancin' on the water, an' I could see the white sand far down at the bottom, wi' the reflection o' the little wavies running o'er it in long curls o' goud.  But there was no way o' leaving the rock, for the deep waters were round an' round me; an' I saw the tide covering one wee bittie after another, till at last the whole was covered.  An' yet I had but little fear; for I remembered that baith Earnest an' William were in the sea afore me; an' I had the feeling that I could hae rest nowhere but wi' them.  The water at last closed o'er me, an' I sank frae aff the rock to the sand at the bottom.  But death seemed to have no power given him to hurt me; an' I walked as light as ever I hae done on a gowany brae, through the green depths o' the sea.  I saw the silvery glitter o' the trout an' the salmon shining to the sun, far, far aboon me, like white pigeons in the lift; an' around me there were crimson star-fish an' sea-flowers an' long trailing plants, that waved in the tide like streamers; an' at length I came to a steep rock, wi' a little cave like a tomb in it.  'Here,' I said, 'is the end o' my journey.  William is here, an' Earnest.'  An', as I looked into the cave, I saw there were bones in it, an' I prepared to take my place beside them.—But, as I stooped to enter, some one called me, an', on looking up, there was William.  'Lillias,' he said, 'it is not night yet, nor is that your bed; you are to sleep, not with me, but with Earnest.  Haste you home, for he is waiting you.'  'Oh, take me to him!' I said; an' then all at once I found myself on the shore, dizzied an' blinded wi' the bright sunshine; for at the cave there was a darkness like that o' a simmer's gloamin'; an' when I looked up for William, it was Earnest that stood before me, life-like an' handsome as ever; an' you were beside him."

    The day had been gloomy and lowering, and, though there was little wind, a tremendous sea, that, as the evening advanced, rose higher and higher against the neighbouring precipice, had been rolling ashore since morning.  The wind now began to blow in long hollow gusts among the cliffs, and the rain to patter against the widow's casement.

    "It will be a storm from the sea," she said; "the scarts an' gulls hae been flying landward sin' daybreak, an' I hae never seen the ground-swell come home heavier against the rocks.  Wae's me for the puir sailors!"

    "In the lang stormy nights," said Helen, "I canna sleep for thinking o' them, though I have no one to bind me to them now.  Only look how the sea rages among the rocks, as if it were a thing o' life an' passion!  That last wave rose to the crane's nest.  An' look, yonder is a boat rounding the rock wi' only a'e man in it.  It dances on the surf as if it were a cork; an' the wee bittie o' sail, sae black an' weet, seems scarcely bigger than a napkin.  Is it no bearing in for the boat-haven below?"

    "My poor old eyes," replied the widow, "are growing dim, an' surely no wonder; but yet I think I should ken that boatman.  Is it no Eachen Macinla o' Tarbet?"

    "Hard-hearted, cruel old man!" exclaimed the maiden; "what can be takin' him here?  Look how his skiff shoots in like an arrow on the long roll o' the surf! an' now she is high on the beach.  How unfeeling it was o' him to rob you o' your little property in the very first o' your grief!  But see, he is so worn out that he can hardly walk over the rough stones.  Ah me! he is down; wretched old man, I must run to his assistance.  But no; he has risen again.  See, he is coming straight to the house; an' now he is at the door."  In a moment after, Eachen entered the cottage.

    "I am perishing, Lillias," he said, "with cold an' hunger, an' can gang nae further; surely ye'll no shut your door on me in a night like this."

    The poor widow had been taught in a far different school.  She relinquished to the worn-out fisherman her seat by the fire, now hurriedly heaped with fresh fuel, and hastened to set before him the simple viands which her cottage afforded.

    As the night darkened, the storm increased.  The wind roared among the rocks like the rattling of a thousand carriages over a paved street; and there were times when, after a sudden pause, the blast struck the cottage as if it were a huge missile flung against it, and pressed on its roof and walls till the very floor rocked, and the rafters strained and shivered like the beams of a stranded vessel.  There was a ceaseless patter of mingled ran and snow, now lower, now louder; and the fearful thunderings of the waves, as they raged among the pointed crags, were mingled with the hoarse roll of the storm along the beach.  The old man sat beside the fire, fronting the widow and her companion, with his head reclined nearly as low as his knee, and his hands covering his face.  There was no attempt at conversation.  He seemed to shudder every time the blast yelled along the roof; and, as a fiercer gust burst open the door, there was a half-muttered ejaculation.

    "Heaven itsel' hae mercy on them! for what can man do in a night like this?"

    "It is black as pitch," exclaimed Helen, who had risen to draw the bolt; "an' the drift flies sae thick, that it feels to the hand like a solid snaw wreath.  An' oh, how it lightens!"

    "Heaven itsel' hae mercy on them!" again ejaculated the old man.  "My two boys," said he, addressing the widow, "are at the far Frith; an' how can an open boat live in a night like this?"

    There seemed something magical in the communication,—something that awakened all the sympathies of the poor bereaved woman; and she felt she could forgive him every unkindness.

    "Wae's me!" she exclaimed; "it was in such a night as this, an' scarcely sae wild, that my Earnest perished."

    The old man groaned and wrung his hands.

    In one of the pauses of the hurricane there was a gun heard from the sea, and shortly after a second.  "Some puir vessel in distress," said the widow; "but, alas! where can succor come frae in sae terrible a night?  There is help only in Ane.  Wae's me! would we no better light up a blaze on the floor, an', dearest Helen, draw off the cover frae the window?  My puir Earnest has told me that my light has aften showed him his bearing frae the deadly bed o' Dunskaith.  That last gun," 'for a third was now heard booming over the mingled roar of the sea and the wind,—"that last gun cam' frae the very rock-edge.  Wae's me, wae's me! maun they perish, an' sae near!"  Helen hastily lighted a bundle of more fir, that threw up its red sputtering blaze half way to the roof, and, dropping the covering, continued to wave it opposite the window.  Guns were still heard at measured intervals, but apparently from a safer offing; and at last, as it sounded faintly against the wind, came evidently from the interior of the bay.

    "She has escaped," said the old man.  "It's a feeble hand that canna do good when the heart is willing.  But what has mine been doin' a' life lang?"  He looked at the window, and shuddered.

    Towards morning the wind fell, and the moon, in her last quarter, rose red and glaring out of the Frith, lighting the melancholy roll of the waves, that still rose like mountains, and the broad white belt of surf that skirted the shores.  The old fisherman left the cottage, and sauntered along the beach.  It was heaped with huge wreaths of kelp and tangle, uprooted by the storm; and in the hollow of the rocky bay lay the scattered fragments of a boat.  Eachen stooped to pick up a piece of the wreck, in the fearful expectation of finding some known mark by which to recognize it, when the light fell full on the swollen face of a corpse that seemed staring at him from out a wreath of weed.  It was that of his eldest son.  The body of the younger, fearfully gashed and mangled by the rocks, lay a few yards further to the cast.

    The morning was as pleasant as the night had been boisterous; and except that the distant hills were covered with snow, and that a swell still continued to roll in from the sea, there remained scarce any trace of the recent tempest.  Every hollow of the neighbouring hill had its little runnel, formed by the rains of the previous night, that now splashed and glistened to the sun.  The bushes round the cottage were well-nigh divested of their leaves; but their red berries, hips and haws, and the juicy fruit of the honeysuckle, gleamed cheerfully to the light; and a warm steam of vapour, like that of a May morning, rose from the roof and the little mossy platform in front.  But the scene seemed to have something more than merely its beauty to recommend it to a young man, drawn apparently to the spot, with many others, by the fate of the two unfortunate fishermen, and who now stood gazing on the rocks and the hills and the cottage, as a lover on the features of his mistress.  The bodies had been carried to an old store-house, which may still be seen a short mile to the west; and the crowds that, during the early part of the morning, had been perambulating the beach, gazing at the wreck, and discussing the various probabilities of the accident, had gradually dispersed.  But this solitary individual, whom no one knew, remained behind.  He was a tall and swarthy, though very handsome man, of about five-and-twenty, with a slight sear on his left cheek.  His dress, which was plain and neat, was distinguished from that of the common seaman by three narrow stripes of gold-lace on the upper part of one of the sleeves.  He had twice stepped towards the cottage-door, and twice drawn back, as if influenced by some unaccountable feeling,—timidity, perhaps, or bashfulness; and yet the bearing of the man gave little indication of either.  But at length, as if he had gathered heart, he raised the latch and went in.

    The widow, who had had many visitors that morning, seemed to be scarcely aware of his entrance.  She was sitting on a low seat beside the fire, her face covered with her hands; while the tremulous rocking motion of her body showed that she was still brooding over the distresses of the previous night.  Her companion, who had thrown herself across the bed, was fast asleep.  The stranger seated himself beside the fire, which seemed dying amid its ashes; and, turning sedulously from the light of the window, laid his hand gently on the widow's shoulder.  She started, and looked up.

    "I have strange news for you," he said.  "You have long mourned for your husband and your son ; but, though the old man has been dead for years, your son Earnest is still alive, and is now in the harbour of Cromarty.  He is lieutenant of the vessel whose guns you must have heard during the night."

    The poor woman seemed to have lost all power of reply.  "I am a friend of Earnest's," continued the stranger, "and have come to prepare you for meeting with him.  It is now five years since his father and he were blown off to sea by a strong gale from the land.  They drove before it for four days, when they were picked up by an armed vessel then cruising in the North Sea, and which soon after sailed for the coast of Spanish America.  The poor old man sank under the fatigues he had undergone; though Earnest, better able, from his youth, to endure hardship, was little affected by them.  He accompanied us on our Spanish expedition; indeed, he had no choice, for we touched at no British port after meeting with him; and, through good fortune, and what his companions call merit, he has risen to be the second man aboard, and has now brought home with him gold enough from the Spaniards to make his old mother comfortable.  He saw your light yester-evening, and steered by it to the roadstead, blessing you all the way.  Tell me, for he anxiously wished me to inquire of you, whether Helen Henry is yet unmarried."

    "It is Earnest! it is Earnest himself!" exclaimed the maiden, as she started from the widow's bed.  In a moment after, she was locked in his arms.  But why dwell on a scene which I feel myself unfitted to describe?

    It was ill before evening with old Eachen Macinla.  The fatigues of the present day, and the grief and horror of the previous night, had prostrated his energies, bodily and mental; and he now lay tossing, in a waste apartment of the storehouse, in the delirium of a fever.  The bodies of his two sons occupied the floor below.  He muttered unceasingly, in his ravings, of William and Earnest Beth.  They were standing beside him, he said; and every time he attempted to pray for his poor boys and himself the stern old man laid his cold swollen hand on his lips.

    "Why trouble me?" he exclaimed.  "Why stare with your white dead eyes on me?  Away, old man; the little black shells are sticking in your gray hairs; away to your place!  Was it I who raised the wind on the sea? was it I? was it I? Uh, u! 'no 'no; you were asleep, you were fast asleep, and could not see me cut the swing; and, besides, it was only a piece of rope.  Keep away; touch me not; I am a free man, and will plead for my life.  Please your honour, I did not murder these two men; I only cut the rope that fastened their boat to the land.  Ha ! ha! ha! he has ordered them away, and they have both left me unskaithed."  At this moment Earnest Beth entered the apartment, and approached the bed.  The miserable old man raised himself on his elbow, and, regarding him with a horrid stare, shrieked out, "Here is Earnest Beth, come for me a second time!" and, sinking back on the pillow, instantly expired.





                             Why start at Death?  Where is he?
Death arrived, is past; not come or gone, he's never here.


I KNOW no place where one may be brought acquainted with the more credulous beliefs of our forefathers at a less expense of inquiry and exertion than in a country lykewake.  The house of mourning is naturally a place of sombre thoughts and ghostly associations.  There is something, too, in the very presence and appearance of death that leads one to think of the place and state of the dead.  Cowper has finely said that the man and the beast who stand together side by side on the same hill-top, are, notwithstanding their proximity, the denizens of very different worlds.  And I have felt the remark to apply still more strongly when sitting beside the dead.  The world of intellect and feeling in which we ourselves are, and of which the lower propensities of our nature form a province, may be regarded as including, in part at least, that world of passion and instinct in which the brute lives; and we have but to analyze and abstract a little, to form for ourselves ideas of this latter world from even our own experience.  But by what process of thought can we bring experience to bear on the world of the dead?  It lies entirely beyond us, a terra incognita of cloud and darkness; and yet the thing at our side—the thing over which we can stretch our hand, the thing dead to us but living to it—has entered upon it; and, however uninformed or ignorant before, knows more of its dark, and to us inscrutable mysteries, than all our philosophers and all our divines.  Is it wonder that we would fain put it to the question; that we would fain catechise it, if we could, regarding its newly acquired experience; that we should fill up the gaps in the dialogue, which its silence leaves to us, by imparting to one another the little we know regarding its state and its place; or that we should send our thoughts roaming in long excursions, to glean from the experience of the past all that it tells us of the occasional visits of the dead, and all that in their less taciturn and more social moments they have communicated to the living?  And hence, from feelings so natural and a train of associations so obvious, the character of a country lykewake, and the cast of its stories.  I say a country lykewake; for in at least all our larger towns, where a cold and barren scepticism has chilled the feelings and imaginations of the people, without, I fear, much improving their judgments, the conversation on such occasions takes a lower and less interesting range.

    I once spent a night with a friend from the south—a man of an inquiring and highly philosophic cast of mind—at a lykewake in the upper part of the parish of Cromarty.  I had excited his curiosity by an incidental remark or two of the kind I have just been dropping; and, on his expressing a wish that I should introduce him, by way of illustration, to some such scene as I had been describing, we had set out together to the wake of an elderly female who had died that morning.  Her cottage, an humble erection of stone and lime, was situated beside a thick fir-wood, on the edge of the solitary Mullbuoy, one of the dreariest and most extensive commons in Scotland.  We had to pass in our journey over several miles of desolate moor, sprinkled with cairns and tumuli—the memorials of some forgotten conflict of the past; we had to pass, too, through a thick, dark wood, with here and there an intervening marsh, whitened over with moss and lichens, and which, from this circumstance, are known to the people of the country as the white bogs.  Nor was the more distant landscape of a less gloomy character.  On the one hand there opened an interminable expanse of moor, that went stretching onwards mile beyond mile—bleak, dreary, uninhabited and uninhabitable—till it merged into the far horizon.  On the other there rose a range of blue, solitary hills, towering, as they receded, into loftier peaks and bolder acclivities, till they terminated on the snow-streaked Ben Weavis.  The season, too, was in keeping with the scene.  It was drawing towards the close of autumn; and, as we passed through the wood, the falling leaves were eddying round us with every wind, or lay in rustling heaps at our feet.

    "I do not wonder," said my companion, "that the superstitions of so wild a district as this should bear in their character some marks of a corresponding wildness.  Night itself, in a populous and cultivated country, is attended with less of the stern and the solemn than mid-day amid solitudes like these.  Is the custom of watching beside the dead of remote antiquity in this part of the country?"

    "Far beyond the reach of history or tradition," I said.  "But it has gradually been changing its character, as the people have been changing theirs, and is now a very different thing from what it was a century ago.  It is not yet ninety years since lykewakes in the neighbouring Highlands used to be celebrated with music and dancing; and even here, on the borders of the low country, they used invariably, like the funerals, to be the scenes of wild games and amusements never introduced on any other occasion.  You remember how Sir Walter describes the funeral of Athelstane?  The Saxon ideas of condolence were the most natural imaginable.  If grief was hungry, they supplied it with food; if thirsty, they gave it drink.  Our simple ancestors here seem to have reasoned by a similar process.  They made their seasons of deepest grief their times of greatest merriment; and the more they regretted the deceased, the gayer were they at his wake and his funeral.  A friend of mine, now dead, a very old man, has told me that he once danced at a lykewake in the Highlands of Sutherland.  It was that of an active and a very robust man, taken away from his wife and family in the prime of life; and the poor widow, for the greater part of the evening, sat disconsolate beside the fire, refusing every invitation to join the dancers.   She was at length, however, brought out by the father of the deceased.  'Little, little did he think,' he said, 'that we should be the last to dance at poor Rory's lykewake.'"

    We reached the cottage and went in.  The apartment in which the dead lay was occupied by two men and three women.  Every little piece of furniture it contained was hung in white, and the floor had recently been swept and sanded; but it was on the bed where the body lay, and on the body itself, that the greatest care had been lavished.  The curtains had been taken down, and their places supplied by linen white as snow; and on the sheet that served as a counterpane the body was laid out in a dress of white, fantastically crossed and re-crossed in every direction by scalloped fringes, and fretted into a species of open work, at least intended to represent alternate rows of roses and tulips.  A plate containing a little salt was placed over the breast of the corpse.  As we entered one of the women rose, and, filling two glasses with spirits, presented them to us on a salver.  We tasted the liquor, and sat down on chairs placed for us beside the fire.  The conversation, which had been interrupted by our entrance, began to flow apace; and an elderly female, who had lived under the same roof with the deceased, began to relate, in answer to the queries of one of the others, some of the particulars of her last illness and death.




"ELSPAT was aye," she said, "a retired body, wi' a cast o' decent pride aboot her; an', though bare and puirly aff sometimes in her auld days, she had never been chargeable to onybody.  She had come o' decent, 'sponsible people, though they were a' low enough the day; ay, an' they were God-fearing people too, wha had gien plenty in their time, an' had aye plenty to gie.  An' though they had been a' langsyne laid in the kirkyard,—a' except hersel', puir body,—she wouldna disgrace their gude name, she said, by takin' an alms frae ony ane.  Her sma means fell oot o' her hands afore her last illness.  Little had aye dune her turn, but the little failed at last; an' sair thocht did it gie her for a while what was to come o' her.  I could hear her, in the butt end o' the hoose, a'e mornin' mair earnest an' langer in her prayers than usual, though she never neglected them, pair body; an' a' the early part o' that day she seemed to be no weel.  She was aye up and down; an' I could ance or twice hear her gaunting at the fireside; but when I went ben to her, an' asked what was the matter wi' her, she said she was just in her ordinar'.  She went oot for a wee; an' what did I do, but gang to her amry, for I jaloused a' wasna right there; an' oh! it was a sair sicht to see, neebors; for there was neither a bit o' bread nor a grain of meal within its four corners,—naething but the sealed up graybeard wi' the whiskey that for twenty years an' mair she had been keepin' for her lykewake; an', ye ken, it was oot o' the question to think that she would meddle wi' it.  Weel did I scold her, when she cam' in, for being sae close-minded.  I asked her what harm I had ever done to her, that she wad rather hae died than hae trusted her wants to me?  But though she said naething, I could see the tears in her e'e; an' sae I stopped, an' we took a late breakfast thegither at my fireside.

    "She tauld me that mornin' that she weel kent she wouldna lang be a trouble to onybody.  The day afore had been Sabbath; an' every Sabbath morning, for the last ten years, her worthy neeboor the elder, whom they had buried only four years afore, used to call on her, in the passing on his way to the kirk.  'Come awa, Elspat,' he would say; an' she used to be aye decent an' ready, for she liked his conversation; an' they aye gaed thegither to the kirk.  She had been contracted, when a young lass, to a brither o' the elder's, a stout, handsome lad; but he had been ca'ed suddenly awa atween the contract an' the marriage, an' Elspat, though she had afterwards mony a gude offer, had lived single for his sake.  Weel, on the very mornin' afore, just sax days after the elder's death, an' four after his burial, when Elspat was sitting dowie aside the fire, thinkin' o' her gude auld neebor, the cry cam' to the door just as it used to do; but, though the voice was the same, the words were a wee different.  'Elspat,' it said, 'mak' ready, an' come awa.'  She rose hastily to the window, an' there, sure enough, was the elder, turning the corner, in his Sunday's bonnet an' his Sunday's coat.  An' weel did she ken, she said, the meaning o' his call, an' kindly did she tak' it.  An' if it was but God's will that she suld hae enough to put her decently under the ground, without going into any debt to any one, she would be weel content.  She had already the linen for the dead-dress, she said; for she had spun it for the purpose afore her contract wi' William; an' she had the whiskey, too, for the wake; but she had naething anent the coffin an' the bedral.

    "Weel, we took our breakfast, an' I did my best to comfort the puir body; but she looked very down-hearted for a' that.  About the middle o' the day, in cam' the minister's boy wi' a letter.  It was directed to his master, he said; but it was a' for Elspat; an' there was a five-pound note in it.  It was frae a man who had left the country mony, mony a year afore, a good deal in her faither's debt.  You would hae thought the puir thing wad hae grat her een out when she saw the money; but never was money mair thankfully received, or ta'en mair directly frae heaven.  It sent her aboon the warld, she said; an' coming at the time it did, an estate o' a thousand a year wadna be o' mair use to her.  Next morning she didna rise, for her strength had failed her at once, though she felt nae meikle pain; an' she sent me to get the note changed, an' to leave twenty  shillings o't wi' the wright for a decent coffin like her mither's, an' five shillings mair wi' the bedral, an' to tak' in necessaries for a sick-bed wi' some o' the lave.  Weel, I ' did that; an' there's still twa pounds o' the note yonder in little cupboard.

    "On the fifth morning after she had been taken sae ill, I cam' in till ask after her; for my neebor here had relieved o' that night's watchin', an' I had gotten to my bed.  The moment I opened the door I saw that the haill room was hung in white, just as ye see it now; an' I'm sure it staid that way a minute or sae; but when I winked it went awa.  I kent there was a change no far off; and when I went up to the bed, Elspat didna ken me.  She was wirkin' wi' her han' at the blankets, as if she were picking off the little motes; an' I could hear the beginning o' the dead rattle in her throat.  I sat at her bedside for a while wi' my neebor here; an' when she spoke to us, it was to say that bed had grown hard an' uneasy, an' that she wished to be brought out to the chair.  Weel, we indulged her, though we baith kent that it wasna in the bed the uneasiness lay.  Her mind, puir body, was carried at the time.  She just kent that there was to be a death an' a lykewake, but no that the death and the lykewake were to be her ain; an' when she looked at the bed, she bade us tak' down the black curtains an' put up the white; an' tauld us where the white were to be found.

    "'But where is the corp?' she said; 'it's no there.  Where is the corp?'

    "'O, Elspat! it will be there vera soon,' said my neebor; an' that satisfied her.

    "She cam' to hersel' an hour afore she departed.  God been very gude to her, she said, a' her life lang, an' he hadna forsaken her at the last.  He had been gude to her when he had gien her friens, au' gude to her when he took them to himsel'; an' she kent she was now going to baith him an' them.  There wasna such a difference, she said, atween life an' death as folk were ready to think.  She was sure that, though William had been ca'ed awa suddenly, he hadna been ca'ed without being prepared; an' now that her turn had come, an' that she was goin' to meet wi' him, it was maybe as weel that he had left her early; for, till she had lost him, she had been owre licht an' thochtless; an' had it been her lot to hae lived in happiness wi' him, she micht hae remained light an' thochtless still.  She bade us baith fareweel, an' thanked an' blessed us; an' her last breath went awa' in a prayer no half an hour after.  Puir, decent body!  But she's no puir now."

    "A pretty portrait," whispered my companion, "of one of a class fast wearing away.  Nothing more interests me in the story than the woman's undoubting faith in the supernatural.  She does not even seem to know that what she believes so firmly herself is so much as doubted by others.  Try whether you can't bring up, by some means, a few other stories furnished with a similar machinery,—a story of the second sight, for instance."

    "The only way of accomplishing that," I replied, "is by contributing a story of the kind myself."

    "The vision of the room hung in white," I said, "reminds me of a story related, about a hundred and fifty years ago, by a very learned and very ingenious countryman of ours, George, first Earl of Cromarty.  His lordship, a steady Royalist, was engaged, shortly before the Restoration (he was then, by the way, only Sir George Mackenzie), in raising troops for the king on his lands on the western coast of Ross-shire.  There came on one of those days of rain and tempest so common in the district, and Sir George, with some of his friends, were storm-bound, in a solitary cottage, somewhere on the shores of Lochbroom.  Towards evening one of the party went out to look after their horses.  He had been sitting beside Sir George, and the chair he had occupied remained empty.  On Sir George's servant, an elderly Highlander, coming in, he went up to his master, apparently much appalled, and, tapping him on the shoulder, urged him to rise.  'Rise!' he said, 'rise!  There's a dead man sitting on the chair beside you.'  The whole party immediately started to their feet; but they saw only the empty chair.  The dead man was visible to the Highlander alone.  His head was bound up, he said, and his face streaked with blood, and one of his arms hung broken by his side.  Next day, as a party of horsemen were passing along the steep side of a hill in the neighbourhood, one of the horses stumbled and threw its rider; and the man, grievously injured by the fall, was carried in a state of insensibility to the cottage.  His head was deeply gashed and one of his arms was broken,—though he ultimately recovered,—and, on being brought to the cottage, he was placed, in a death-like swoon, in the identical chair which the Highlander had seen occupied by the spectre.  Sir George relates the story, with many a similar story besides, in a letter to the celebrated Robert Boyle."

    "I have perused it with much interest," said my friend, "and wonder our booksellers should have suffered it to become so scarce.  Do you not remember the somewhat similar story his lordship relates of the Highlander, who saw the apparition of a troop of horse ride over the brow of a hill and enter a field of oats, which, though it had been sown only a few days before, the horsemen seemed to cut down with their swords?  He states that, a few months after, a troop of cavalry actually entered the same field, and carried away the produce for fodder to their horses.  He tells, too, if I remember aright, that on the same expedition to which your story belongs, one of his Highlanders, on entering a cottage, started back with horror.  He had met in the passage, he said, a dead man in his shroud, and saw people gathering for a funeral.  And, as his lordship relates, one of the inmates of the cottage, who was in perfect health at the time of the vision, died suddenly only two days after."




"THE second sight," said an elderly man who sat beside me, and whose countenance had struck me as highly expressive of serious thought, "is fast wearing out of this part of the country.  Nor should we much regret it perhaps.  It seemed, if I may so speak, as something outside the ordinary dispositions of Providence, and, with all the horror and unhappiness that attended it, served no apparent good end.  I have been a traveller in my youth, masters.  About thirty years ago, I served for some time in the navy.  I entered on the first breaking out of the Revolutionary war, and was discharged during the short peace of 1801.  One of my chief companions on shipboard, for the first few years, was a young man, a native of Sutherland, named Donald Gair.  Donald, like most of his countrymen, was a staid, decent lad, of a rather melancholy cast; and yet there were occasions when he could be gay enough too.  We sailed together in the Bedford, under Sir Thomas Baird; and, after witnessing the mutiny at the Nore,—neither of us did much more than witness it, for in our case it merely transferred the command of the vessel from a very excellent captain to a set of low Irish doctor's-list men,—we joined Admiral Duncan, then on the Dutch station.  We were barely in time to take part in the great action.  Donald had been unusually gay all the previous evening.  We knew the Dutch had come out, and that there was to be an engagement on the morrow; and, though' I felt no fear, the thought that I might have to stand in a few brief hours before my Maker and my Judge had the effect of rendering me serious.  But my companion seemed to have lost all command of himself.  He sung and leaped and shouted, not like one intoxicated, there was nothing of intoxication about him,—but under the influence of a wild, irrepressible flow of spirits.  I took him seriously to task, and reminded him that we might both at that moment be standing on the verge of death and judgment.  But he seemed more impressed by my remarking that, were his mother to see him, she would say he was fey.

    "We had never been in action before with our captain Sir Thomas.  He was a grave, and, I believe, God-fearing man, and much a favourite with at least all the better seamen.  But we had not yet made up our minds on his character,—indeed, no sailor ever does with regard to his officers till he knows how they fight,—and we were all curious to see how the parson, as we used to call him, would behave himself among the shot.  But truly we might have had little fear for him.  I have sailed with Nelson, and not Nelson himself ever showed more courage or conduct than Sir Thomas in that action.  He made us all lie down beside our guns, and steered us, without firing a shot, into the very thickest of the fight; and when we did open, masters, every broadside told with fearful effect.  I never saw a man issue his commands with more coolness or self-possession.

    "There are none of our continental neighbours who make better seamen, or who fight more doggedly, than the Dutch.  We were in a blaze of flame for four hours.  Our rigging was slashed to pieces, and two of our ports were actually knocked into one.  There was one fierce, ill-natured Dutchman, in particular,—a fellow as black as night, without so much as a speck of paint or gilding about him, save that he had a red lion on the prow,—that fought us as long as he had a spar standing; and when he struck at last, fully one half the crew lay either dead or wounded on the decks, and all his scupper-holes were running blood as freely as ever they had done water at a deck-washing.  The Bedford suffered nearly as severely.  It is not in the heat of action that we can reckon on the loss we sustain.  I saw my comrades falling around me,—falling by the terrible cannon-shot as they came crashing in through our sides; I felt; too, that our gun wrought more heavily as our numbers were thinning around it and at times, when some sweeping chain-shot or fatal splinter laid open before me those horrible mysteries of the inner man which nature so sedulously conceals, I was conscious of a momentary feeling of dread and horror.  But in the prevailing mood, an unthinking anger, a dire thirsting after revenge, a dogged, unyielding firmness, were the chief ingredients.  I strained every muscle and sinew; and, amid the smoke and the thunder and the frightful carnage, fired and loaded, and fired and loaded, and, with every discharge, sent out, as it were, the bitterness of my whole soul against the enemy.  But very different were my feelings when victory declared in our favour, and, exhausted and unstrung, I looked abroad among the dead.  As I crossed the deck my feet literally splashed in blood; and I saw the mangled fragments of human bodies sticking in horrid patches to the sides and the beams above.  There was a fine little boy aboard with whom I was an especial favourite.  He had been engaged, before the action, in the construction of a toy ship, which he intended sending to his mother; and I used sometimes to assist him, and to lend him a few simple tools; and, just as we were bearing down on the enemy, he had come running up to me with a knife which he had borrowed from me a short time before.

    "'Alick, Alick,' he said, 'I have brought you your knife; we are going into action, you know, and I may be killed, and then you would lose it.'

    "Poor little fellow!  The first body I recognized was his.  Both his arms had been fearfully shattered by a cannon-shot, and the surgeon's tourniquets, which had been fastened below the shoulders, were still there; but he had expired ere the amputating knife had been applied.  As I stood beside the body, little in love with war, masters, a comrade came up to me to say that my friend and countryman, Donald Gair, lay mortally wounded in the cockpit.  "I went instantly down to him.  But never shall I forget, though never may I attempt to describe, what I witnessed that day in that frightful scene of death and suffering.  Donald lay in a low hammock, raised not a foot over the deck; and there was no one beside him, for the surgeons had seen at a glance the hopelessness of his case, and were busied about others of whom they had hope.  He lay on his back, breathing very hard, but perfectly insensible; and in the middle of his forehead there was a round little hole without so much as a speck of blood about it, where a musket-bullet had passed through his brain.  He continued to breathe for about two hours; and when he expired I wrapped the body decently up in a hammock, and saw it committed to the deep.  The years passed; and, after looking death in the face in many a storm and many a battle, peace was proclaimed, and I returned to my friends and my country.

    "A few weeks after my arrival, an elderly Highland woman, who had travelled all the way from the further side of Loch Shin to see me, came to our door.  She was the mother of Donald Gair, and had taken her melancholy journey to bear from me all she might regarding the last moments and death of her son.  She had no English, and I had not Gaelic enough to converse with her; but my mother, who had received her with a sympathy all the deeper from the thought that her own son might have been now in Donald's place, served as our interpreter.  She was strangely inquisitive, though the little she heard served only to increase her grief; and you may believe it was not much I could find heart to tell her; for what was there in the circumstances of my comrade's death to afford pleasure to his mother?  And so I waived her questions regarding his wound and his burial as best I could.

    "'Ah,' said the poor woman to my mother, 'he need not be afraid to tell me all.  I know too, too well that my Donald's body was thrown into the sea; I knew of it long ere it happened; and I have long tried to reconcile my mind to it, tried when he was a boy even; and so you need not be afraid to tell me now.'

    "'And how,' asked my mother, whose curiosity was excited, 'could you have thought of it so early?'

    "'I lived,' rejoined the woman, 'at the time of Donald's birth, in a lonely shieling among the Sutherland hills,—a full day's journey from the nearest church.  It was a long, weary road, over moors and mosses.  It was in the winter season, too, when the days are short; and so, in bringing Donald to be baptized, we had to remain a night by the way in the house of a friend.  We there found an old woman of so peculiar an appearance that, when she asked me for the child, I at first declined giving it, fearing she was mad and might do it harm.  The people of the house, however, assured me she was incapable of hurting it, and so I placed it on her lap.  She took it up in her arms, and began to sing to it; but it was such a song as none of us had ever heard before.

    "'Poor little stranger!' she said, 'thou hast come into the world in an evil time.  The mists are on the hills, gloomy and dark, and the rain lies chill on the heather; and thou, poor little thing, hast a long journey through the sharp, biting winds, and thou art helpless and cold.  Oh, but thy long after journey is as dreary and dark!  A wanderer shalt thou be, over the land and the ocean; and in the ocean shalt thou lie at last.  Poor little thing, I have waited for thee long.  I saw thee in thy wanderings, and in thy shroud, ere thy mother brought thee to the door; and the sounds of the sea and of the deadly guns are still ringing in my ears.  Go, poor little thing; to thy mother.  Bitterly shall she yet weep for thee, and no wonder; but no one shall ever weep over thy grave, or mark where thou liest amid the deep green, with the shark and the seal.'

    "'From that evening,' continued the mother of my friend, 'I have tried to reconcile my mind to what was to happen Donald.  But oh, the fond, foolish heart!  I loved him more than any of his brothers, because I was to lose him soon; and though when he left me I took farewell of him for ever,—for I knew I was never, never to see him more,—I felt, till the news reached me of his fall in battle, as if he were living in his coffin.  But oh! do tell me all you know of his death.  I am old and weak, but I have travelled far, far to see you, that I might hear all; and surely, for the regard you bore to Donald, you will not stiffer me to return as I came.'

    "But I need not dwell longer on the story.  I imparted to the poor woman all the circumstances of her son's death as I have done to you; and, shocking as they may seem, I found that she felt rather relieved than otherwise."

    "This is not quite the country of the second sight," said my friend; "it is too much on the borders of the Lowlands.  The gift seems restricted to the Highlands alone, and it is now fast wearing out even there."

    "And weel it is," said one of the men, "that it should be sae.  It is surely a miserable thing to ken o' coming evil, if we just merely ken that it is coming' an' that come it must, do what we may.  Hae ye ever heard the story o' the kelpie that wons in the Conon?"

    My friend replied in the negative.




"THE Conon," continued the man, "is as bonny a river as we hae in a' the north country.  There's mony a sweet sunny spot on its banks; an' mony a time an' aft hae I waded through its shallows, when a boy, to set my little scantling-line for the trouts an' the eels, or to gather the big pearl-mussels that lie sae thick in the fords.  But its bonny wooded banks are places for enjoying the day in, no for passing the nicht.  I kenna how it is: it's nane o' your wild streams, that wander desolate through desert country, like the Avon, or that come rushing down in foam and thunder, owre broken rocks, like the Foyers, or that wallow in darkness, deep, deep in the bowels o' the earth, like the fearfu' Auldgraunt; an' yet no ane o' these rivers has mair or frightfuler stories connected wi' it than the Conon.  Ane can hardly saunter owre half a mile in its course frae where it leaves Contin till where it enters the sea, without passing owre the scene o' some frightful auld legend o' the kelpie or the water-wraith.  And ane o' the maist frightful-looking o' these places is to be found among the woods o' Conon House.  Ye enter a swampy meadow, that waves wi' flags an' rushes like a cornfield in harvest, an' see a hillock covered wi' willows rising like au island in the midst.  There are thick mirk woods on ilka side: the river, dark an' awesome, an' whirling round and round in mossy eddies, sweeps away behind it; an' there is an auld burying-ground, wi' the broken ruins o' an auld Papist kirk on the tap.  Ane can still see among the rougher stanes the rose-wrought mullions of an arched window au' the trough that ance held the holy water.  About twa hunder years ago,—a wee mair, maybe, or a wee less, for ane canna be very sure o' the date o' thae auld stories,—the building was entire; an' a spot near it, where the wood now grows thickest, was laid out in a cornfield.  The marks o' the furrows may still be seen amang the trees.  A party o' Highlanders were busily engaged a'e day in harvest in cutting down the corn o' that field; an' just aboot noon, when the sun shone brightest, an' they were busiest in the work, they heard a voice frae the river exclaim, 'The hour, but not the man, has come.'  Sure enough, on looking round, there was the kelpie standin' in what they ca' a fause ford, just fornent the auld kirk.  There is a deep, black pool baith aboon an' below, but i' the ford there's a bonny ripple, that shows, as ane might think, but little depth o' water; an, just i' the middle o' that, in a place where a horse might swim, stood the kelpie.  An' it again repeated its words, 'The hour, but not the man, has come'; an' then, flashing through the water like a drake, it disappeared in the lower pool.  When the folk stood wondering what the creature might mean, they saw a man on horseback come spurring down the hill in hot haste, making straight for the fause ford.  They could then understand her words at ance; an' four o' the stoutest o' them sprang oot frae amang the corn, to warn him o' his danger an' keep him back.  An' sae they tauld him what they had seen an heard, an' urged him either to turn back an' tak' anither road or stay for an hour or sae where he was.  But he just wadna hear them, for he was baith unbelieving an' in haste, an' would hae ta'en the ford for a' they could say hadna the Highlanders, determined on saving him whether he would or no, gathered round him an' pulled him frae his horse, an' then, to make sure o' him, locked him up in the auld kirk.  Weel, when the hour had gone by,—the fatal hour o' the kelpie,—they flung open the door, an' cried to him that he might noo gang on his journey.  Ah! but there was nae answer, though; an' sae they cried a second time, an' there was nae answer still; an' then they went in, and found him lying stiff an' cauld on the floor, wi' his face buried in the water o' the very stane trough that we may still see amang the ruins.  His hour had come, an' he had fallen in a fit, as 'twould seem, head foremost amang the water o' the trough, where he had been smothered; an' sae, ye see, the prophecy o' the kelpie availed nothing."

    "The very story," exclaimed my friend, "to which Sir Walter alludes, in one of the notes to 'The Heart of MidLothian.'  The kelpie, you may remember, furnishes him with a motto to the chapter in which he describes the gathering of all Edinburgh to witness the execution of Porteous, and their irrepressible wrath on ascertaining that there was to be no execution,—'The hour, but not the man, is come."'

    "I remember making quite the same discovery," I replied, "about twelve years ago, when I resided for several months on the banks of the Conon, not half a mile from the scene of the story.  One might fill a little book with legends of the Conon.  The fords of the river are dangerous, especially in the winter season; and about thirty years ago, before the erection of the fine stone bridge below Conon House, scarcely a winter passed in which fatal accidents did not occur; and these were almost invariably traced to the murderous malice of the water-wraith."

    "But who or what is the water-wraith?" said my friend.  "We heard just now of the kelpie, and it is the kelpie that Sir Walter quotes."

    "Ah," I replied, "but we must not confound the kelpie and the water-wraith, as has become the custom in these days of incredulity.  No two spirits, though they were both spirits of the lake and the river, could be more different.  The kelpie invariably appeared in the form of a young horse; the water-wraith in that of a very tall woman, dressed in green, with a withered, meagre countenance ever distorted by a malignant scowl.  It is the water-wraith, not the kelpie, whom Sir Walter should have quoted; and yet I could tell you curious stories of the kelpie too."

    "We must have them all," said my friend, "ere we part.  Meanwhile, I should like to hear some of your stories of the Conon."

    "As related by me," I replied, "you will find them rather meagre in their details.  In my evening walks along the river, I have passed the ford a hundred times out of which, only a twelvemonth before, as a traveller was entering it on a moonlight night, the water-wraith started up, not four yards in front of him, and pointed at him with her long skinny fingers, as if in mockery.  I have leaned against the identical tree to which a poor Highlander clung when, on fording the river by night, he was seized by the goblin.  A lad who accompanied him, and who had succeeded in gaining the bank, strove to assist him, but in vain.  The poor man was dragged from his hold into the current, where he perished.  The spot has been pointed out to me, too, in the opening of the river, where one of our Cromarty fishermen, who had anchored his yawl for the night, was laid hold of by the spectre when lying asleep on the beams, and almost dragged over the gunwale into the water.  Our seafaring men still avoid dropping anchor, if they possibly can, after the sun has set, in what they term the fresh; that is, in those upper parts of the frith where the waters of the river predominate over those of the sea.

    "The scene of what is deemed one of the best authenticated stories of the water-wraith lies a few miles higher up the river.  It is a deep; broad ford, through which horse men coming from the south pass to Brahan Castle.  A thick wood hangs over it on the one side; on the other it is skirted by a straggling line of alders and a bleak moor.  On a winter night, about twenty-five years a servant of the late Lord Seaforth had been drinking with some companions till a late hour, in a small house in the upper part of the moor; and when the party broke up, he was accompanied by two of them to the ford.  The moon was at full, and the river, though pretty deep in flood, seemed no way formidable to the servant.  He was a young, vigorous man, and mounted on a powerful horse; and he had forded it, when half a yard higher on the bank, twenty times before.  As he entered the ford, a thick cloud obscured the moon; but his companions could see him guiding the animal.  He rode in a slanting direction across the stream until he had reached nearly the middle, when a dark, tall figure seemed to start out of the water and lay hold of him.  There was a loud cry of distress and terror, and a frightful snorting and plunging of the horse.  A moment passed, and the terrified animal was seen straining towards the opposite bank, and the ill-fated rider struggling in the stream.  In a moment more he had disappeared."




"I SULD weel keen the Conon," said one of the women, who had not yet joined in the conversation.  "I was born no a stane's-cast frae the side o't.  My mither lived in her last days beside the auld Tower o' Fairburn, that stands sae like a ghaist aboon the river, an' looks down on a' its turns and windings frae Contin to the sea.  My faither, too, for a twelvemonth or sae afore his death, had a boat on ane o' its ferries, for the crossing, on weekdays, o' passengers, an' o' the kirk-going folks on Sunday.  He had a little bit farm beside the Conon, an' just got the boat by way o' eiking out his means; for we had aye enough to do at rent-time, an' had maybe less than plenty through a' the rest o' the year besides.  Weel, for the first ten months or sae the boat did brawly.  The Castle o' Brahan is no half a mile frae the ferry, an' there were aye a hantle o' gran' folk comin' and gangin' frae the Mackenzie, an' my faither had the crossin' o' them a'.  An' besides, at Marti'mas, the kirk-going people used to send him firlots o' bear an' pecks o' oatmeal; an' he soon began to find that the bit boat was to do mair towards paying, the rent o' the farm than the farm itsel'.

    "The Tower o' Fairburn is aboot a mile and a half aboon the ferry.  It stands by itsel' on the tap o' a heathery hill, an' there are twa higher hills behind it.  Beyond there spreads a black, dreary desert, where ane micht wander a lang simmer's day withoot seeing the face o' a human creature, or the kindly smoke o' a lum.  I dare say nane o' you hae heard hoo the Mackenzies o' Fairburn au' the Chisholms o' Strathglass parted that bit o' kintra atween them.  Name o' them could tell where the lands o' the ane ended or the ither began, an' they were that way for generations, till they at last thocht then, o' a plan o' division.  Each o' them gat an auld wife o' seventy-five, an' they set them aff a'e Monday at the same time, the ane frae Erchless Castle an' the ither frae the Tower, warning them aforehand that the braidness o' their maisters' lands depended on their speed; for where the twa would meet amang the hills, there would be the boundary.

    "You may be sure that neither o' them lingered by the way that morning.  They kent there was mony an e'e on them, an' that their names would be spoken o' in the kintra-side lang after themsels were dead an' gane; but it sae happened that Fairburn's carline, wha had been his nurse, was ane o' the slampest women in a' the north of Scotland, young or auld; an', though the ither did weel, she did sae meikle better that she had got owre twenty lang Highland miles or the ither had got owre fifteen.  They say it was a droll sicht to see them at the meeting,—they were baith tired almost to fainting; but no sooner did they come in sicht o' ane anither, at the distance o' a mile or sae, than they began to run.  An' they ran, an' better ran, till they met at a little burnie; an' there wad they hae focht, though they had ne'er seen ane anither atween the een afore, had they had strength eneugh left them; but they had neither pith for fechtin' nor breath for scoldin', an' sae they just sat down an' girned at ane anither across he stripe.  The Tower o' Fairburn is naething noo but a dismal ruin o' five broken stories, the ane aboon the ither, an' the lands hae gane oot o' the auld family; but the story o' the twa auld wives is a weel-kent story still.

    "The laird o' Fairburn, in my faither's time, was as fine an open-hearted gentleman as was in the haill country.  He was just particular gude to the puir; but the family had ever been that; ay, in their roughest days, even whan the Tower had neither door nor window in the lower story, an' only a wheen shot-holes in the story aboon.  There wasna a puir thing in the kintra but had reason to bless the laird; an' at a'e time he had nae fewer than twelve puir orphans living about his house at ance.  Nor was he in the least a proud, haughty man.  He wad chat for hours thegither wi' ane o' his puirest tenants; an' ilka, time he crossed the ferry, he wad tak' my faither wi' him, for company just, maybe half a mile on his way out or hame.  Weel, it was a'e nicht about the end o' May,—a bonny nicht, an hour or sae after sundown,—an' my faither was mooring his boat, afore going to bed, to an auld oak tree, whan wha does he see but the laird o' Fairburn coming down the bank?  Od, thocht he, what can be takin' the laird frae hame sae late as this?  I thocht he had been no weel.  The laird cam' steppin' into the boat, but, instead o' speakin' frankly, as he used to do, he just waved his hand, as the proudest gentleman in the kintra micht, an' pointed to the ither side.  My faither rowed him across; but, oh! the boat felt unco dead an' heavy, an' the water stuck around the oars as gin it had been tar; an' he had just eneugh ado, though there was but little tide in the river, to mak' oot the ither side.  The laird stepped oot, an' then stood, as he used to do, on the bank, to gie my faither time to fasten his boat, an' come alang wi' him; an' were it no for that, the puir man wadna hae thocht o' going wi' him that nicht; but as it was, he just moored his boat an' went.  At first he thocht the laird must hae got some bad news that made him sae dull, an' sae he spoke on to amuse him, aboot the weather an' the markets; but he found he could get very little to say, an' he felt as are an' eerie in passin' through the woods as gin he had been passin' alane through a kirkyard.  He noticed, too, that there was a fearsome flichtering an' shriekin' amang the birds that lodged in the tree-taps aboon them; an' that, as they passed the Talisoe, there was a collie on the tap o' a hillock, that set up the awfulest yowling he had ever heard.  He stood for a while in sheer consternation, but the laird beckoned him on, just as he had done at the riverside, an' sae he gaed a bittie further alang the wild, rocky glen that opens into the deer-park.  But oh, the fright that was amang the deer!  They had been lyin' asleep on the knolls, by sixes an' sevens; an' up they a' started at ance, and gaed driving aff to the far end o' the park as if they couldna be far eneugh frae my faither an' the laird.  Weel, my faither stood again, an' the laird beckoned an' beckoned as afore; but, Gude tak' us a' in keeping! whan my faither looked up in his face, he saw it was the face o' a corp: it was white an' stiff, an' the nose was thin an' sharp, an' there was nae winking wi' the wide-open een.  Gude preserve us! my faither didna ken where he was stan'in,—didna ken what he was doin'; an', though he kept his feet, he was just in a kind o' swarf like.  The laird spoke twa or three words to him,—something about the orphans, he thocht; but he was in such a state that he couldna tell what; an' when he cam' to himsel' the apparition was awa'.  It was a bonny clear nicht when they had crossed the Conon; but there had been a gatherin' o' black cluds i' the lift as they gaed, an' there noo cam' on, in the clap o' a han', ane o' the fearsomest storms o' thunder an' lightning that was ever seen in the country.  There was a thick gurly aik smashed to shivers owre my faither's head, though nane o' the splinters steered him; an' whan he reached the river, it was roaring frae bank to brae like a little ocean; for a water-spout had broken amang the hills, an' the trees it had torn doun wi' it were darting alang the current like arrows.  He crossed in nae little danger, an' took to his bed; an', though he raise an' went aboot his wark for twa or three months after, he was never, never his ain man again.  It was found that the laird had departed no five minutes afore his apparition had come to the ferry; an' the very last words he had spoken—but his mind was carried at the time—was something aboot my faither."


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