While tarrying at Inverness, a note which we had been expecting for some little time reached Fellowes and myself from M'Ian junior, to the effect that a boat would be at our service at the head of Loch Eishart on the arrival at Broadford of the Skye mail; and that six sturdy boatmen would therefrom convey us to our destination. This information was satisfactory, and we made our arrangements accordingly. The coach from Inverness to Dingwall - at which place we were to catch the mail - was advertised to start at four o'clock in the morning, and to reach its bourne two hours afterwards; so, to prevent all possibility of missing it, we resolved not to go to bed. At that preposterous hour we were in the street with our luggage, and in a short time the coach - which seemed itself not more than half awake - came lumbering up. For a while there was considerable noise; bags and parcels of various kinds were tumbled out of the coach office, mysterious doors were opened in the body of the vehicle into which these were shot The coach stowed away its parcels in itself, just as in itself the crab stows away its food and impedimenta. We clambered up into the front beside the driver, who was enveloped in a drab great-coat of many capes; the guard was behind. "All right," and then, with a cheery chirrup, a crack of the whip, a snort and toss from the gallant roadsters, we were off.
There is nothing so delightful as travelling on a stage coach, when you start in good condition, and at a reasonable hour. For myself, I never tire of the varied road flashing past, and could dream through a country in that way from one week's end to the other. On the other hand, there is nothing more horrible than starting at 4A.M., half-awake, breakfastless, the chill of the morning playing on your face as the dewy machine spins along. Your eyes close in spite of every effort, your blood thick with sleep, your brain stuffed with dreams; you wake and sleep, and wake again; and the Vale of Tempe itself, with a Grecian sunrise burning into day ahead, could not rouse you into interest, or blunt the keen edge of your misery. I recollect nothing of this portion of our journey save its disagreeableness; and alit at Dingwall, cold, wretched, and stiff, with a cataract of needles and pins pouring down my right leg, and making locomotion anything but a pleasant matter.
However, the first stage was over, and on that we congratulated ourselves. Alas! we did not know the sea of troubles into which we were about to plunge - the Iliad of misfortune of which we were about to become the heroes. We entered the inn, performed our ablutions, and sat down to breakfast with appetite. Towards the close of the meal my companion suggested that, to prevent accidents, it might be judicious to secure seats in the mail without delay. Accordingly I went in quest of the landlord, and after some difficulty discovered him in a small office littered with bags and parcels, turning over the pages of a ledger. He did not lift his eyes when I entered. I intimated my wish to procure two places toward Broadford. He turned a page, lingered on it with his eye as if loath to leave it, and then inquired my business. I repeated my message. He shook his head. "You are too late; you can't get on to-day." "What! can't two places be had ?" "Not for love or money, sir. Last week Lord Deerstalker engaged the mail for his servants. Every place is took." "The deuce! do you mean to say that we can't get on ?" The man, whose eyes had returned to the page, which he held all the while in one hand, nodded assent "Come, now, this sort of thing wont do. My friend and I are anxious to reach Broadford to-night. Do you mean to say that we must either return or wait here till the next mail comes up, some three days hence?" "You can post, if you like: I'll provide you with a machine and horses." "You'll provide us with a machine and horses," said I, while something shot through my soul like a bolt of ice.
I returned to Fellowes, who replied to my recital of the interview with a long whistle. When the mail was gone, we formed ourselves into a council of war. After considering our situation from every side, we agreed to post, unless the landlord should prove more than ordinarily rapacious. I went to the little office and informed him of our resolution. We chaffered a good deal, but at last a bargain was struck. I will not mention what current coin of the realm was disbursed on the occasion; the charge was as moderate as in the circumstances could have been expected. I need only say that the journey was long, and to consist of six stages, a fresh horse at every stage.
In due time a dog-cart was brought to the door, in which was harnessed a tall raw-boned white horse, who seemed to be entering in the sullen depths of his consciousness a protest against our proceedings. We got in, and the animal was set in motion. There never was such a slow brute. He evidently disliked his work: perhaps he snuffed the rainy tempest imminent. Who knows! At all events, before he was done with us he took ample revenge for every kick and objurgation which we bestowed on him. Half an hour after starting, a huge rain-cloud was black above us; suddenly we noticed one portion crumble into a livid streak which slanted down to earth, and in a minute or two it burst upon us as if it had a personal injury to avenge. A scold of the Cowgate, emptying her wrath on the husband of her bosom, who has reeled home to her tipsy on Saturday night, with but half his wages in his pocket, gives but a faint image of its virulence. Umbrellas and oil-skins - if we had had them - would have been useless. In less than a quarter of an hour we were saturated like a bale of cotton which has reposed for a quarter of a century at the bottom of the Atlantic; and all the while, against the fell lines of rain, heavy as bullets, straight as cavalry lances, jogged the white horse, heedless of cry and blow, with now and again but a livelier prick and motion of the ear, as if to him the whole thing was perfectly delightful. The first stage was a long one; and all the way from Strathpeffer to Garve, from Garve to Milltown, the rain rushed down on blackened wood, hissed in marshy tarn, boiled on iron crag. At last the inn was descried afar; a speck of dirty white in a world of rainy green. Hope revived within us. Another horse could be procured there. O Jarvie, cudgel his bones amain, and Fortune may yet smile!
On our arrival, however, we were informed that certain travellers had, two hours before, possessed themselves of the only animal of which the establishment could boast. At this intelligence hope fell down stone dead as if shot through the heart. There was nothing for it but to give our steed a bag of oats, and then to hie on. While the white was comfortably munching his oats, we noticed from the inn-door that the wet yellow road made a long circuit, and it occurred to us that if we struck across country for a mile or so at once, we could reach the point where the road disappeared in the distance quite as soon as our raw-boned friend. In any case waiting was weary work, and we were as wet now as we could possibly be. Instructing the driver to wait for us should we not be up in time - of which we averred there was not the slightest possibility - we started. We had firm enough footing at first; but after a while our journey was the counterpart of the fiend's passage through chaos, as described by Milton. Always stick to beaten tracks: short cuts, whether in the world of matter, or in the world of ethics, are bad things. In a little time we lost our way, as was to have been expected. The wind and rain beat right in our faces, we had swollen streams to cross, we tumbled into morasses, we tripped over knotted roots of heather. When, after a severe march of a couple of hours, we gained the crest of a small eminence, and looked out on the wet, black desolation, Fellowes took out a half-crown from his waistcoat pocket, and expressed his intention there and then to "go in" for a Highland property. From the crest of this eminence, too, we beheld the yellow road beneath, and the dog-cart waiting; and when we got down to it, found the driver so indignant that we thought it prudent to propitiate him with our spirit flask. A caulker turneth away wrath - in the Highlands at least.
Getting in again the white went at a better pace, the rain slackened somewhat, and our spirits rose in proportion. Our hilarity, however, was premature. A hill rose before us, up which the yellow road twisted and wriggled itself. This hill the white would in nowise take. The whip was of no avail; he stood stock-still. Fellowes applied his stick to his ribs - the white put his fore legs steadily out before him and refused to move. I jumped out, seized the bridle, and attempted to drag him forward; the white tossed his head high in air, showing at the same time a set of vicious teeth, and actually backed. What was to be done? Just at this moment, too, a party of drovers, mounted on red uncombed ponies, with hair hanging over their eyes, came up, and had the ill-feeling to tee-hee audibly at our discomfiture. This was another drop of acid squeezed into the bitter cup. Suddenly, at a well-directed whack, the white made a desperate plunge and took the hill. Midway he paused, and attempted his old game, but down came a hurricane of blows, and he started off:
"'Twere long to tell and sad to trace"
the annoyance that raw-boned quadruped wrought us. But it came to an end at last. And at parting I waved the animal, sullen and unbeloved, my last farewell; and wished that no green paddock should receive him in his old age, but that his ill-natured flesh should be devoured by the hounds; that leather should be made of his be-cudgelled hide, and hoped that, considering its toughness, of it should the boots and shoes of a poor man's children be manufactured.
Late in the afternoon we reached Jean-Town, on the shores of Loch Carron. 'Tis a tarry, scaly village, with a most ancient and fish-like smell. The inhabitants have suffered a sea-change. The men stride about in leather fishing-boots, the women sit at the open doors at work with bait-baskets. Two or three boats are moored at the stone-heaped pier. Brown, idle nets, stretched on high poles along the beach, flap in the winds. We had tea at the primeval inn, and on intimating to the landlord that we wished to proceed to Broadford, he went off to engage a boat and crew. In a short time an old sea-dog, red with the keen breeze, and redolent of the fishy brine, entered the apartment with the information that everything was ready.
We embarked at once, a sail was hoisted, and on the vacillating puff of evening we dropped gently down the loch. There was something in the dead silence of the scene and the easy motion of the boat that affected one. Weary with travel, worn out with want of sleep, yet, at the same time, far from drowsy, with every faculty and sense rather in a condition of wide and intense wakefulness, everything around became invested with a singular and frightful feeling. Why, I know not, for I have had no second experience of the kind; but on this occasion, to my overstrained vision, every object became instinct with a hideous and multitudinous life. The clouds congealed into faces and human forms. Figures started out upon me from the mountain-sides. The rugged surfaces, seamed with torrent lines, grew into monstrous figures, and arms with clutching fingers. The sweet and gracious shows of nature became, under the magic of lassitude, a phantasmagoria hateful and abominable. Fatigue changed the world for me as the microscope changes a dewdrop - when the jewel, pure from the womb of the morning, becomes a world swarming with unutterable life - a battle-field of unknown existences. As the aspects of things grew indistinct in the fading light, the possession lost its pain; but the sublimity of one illusion will be memorable. For a barrier of mountains standing high above the glimmering lower world, distinct and purple against a "daffodil sky," seemed the profile of a gigantic man stretched on a bier, and the features, in their sad imperial beauty, seemed those of the first Napoleon. Wonderful that mountain-monument, as we floated seaward into distance - the figure sculptured by earthquake, and fiery deluges sleeping up there, high above the din and strife of earth, robed in solemn purple, its background the yellow of the evening sky!
About ten we passed the rocky portals of the loch on the last sigh of evening, and stood for the open sea. The wind came only in intermitting puffs, and the boatmen took to the oars. The transparent autumn night fell upon us; the mainland was gathering in gloom behind, and before us rocky islands glimmered on the level deep. To the chorus of a Gaelic song of remarkable length and monotony the crew plied their oars, and every plash awoke the lightning of the main. The sea was filled with elfin fire. I hung over the stern, and watched our brilliant wake seething up into a kind of pale emerald, and rushing away into the darkness. The coast on our left had lost form and outline, withdrawing itself into an undistinguishable mass of gloom, when suddenly the lights of a village broke clear upon it like a bank of glow-worms. I inquired its name, and was answered, "Plockton." In half an hour the scattered lights became massed into one; soon that died out in the distance. Eleven o'clock! Like one man the rowers pull. The air is chill on the ocean's face, and we wrap ourselves more closely in our cloaks. There is something uncomfortable in the utter silence and loneliness of the hour - in the phosphorescent sea, with its ghostly splendours. The boatmen, too, have ceased singing. Would that I were taking mine ease with M'Ian!
Suddenly a strange sighing sound is heard behind. One of the crew springs up, hauls down the sail, and the next moment the squall is upon us. The boatmen hang on their oars, and you hear the rushing rainy Whew! how it hisses down on us, crushing everything in its passion. The long dim stretch of coast, the dark islands, are in a moment shut out; the world shrinks into a circumference of twenty yards; and within that space the sea is churned into a pale illumination - a light of misty gold. In a moment we are wet to the skin. The boatmen have shipped their oars, drawn their jacket-collars over their ears, and there we lie at midnight shelterless to the thick hiss of the rain. But it has spent itself at last, and a few stars are again twinkling in the blue. It is plain our fellows are somewhat tired of the voyage. They cannot depend upon a wind; it will either be a puff, dying as soon as born, or a squall roaring down on the sea, through the long funnels of the glens; and to pull all the way is a dreary affair. The matter is laid before us - the voices of the crew are loud for our return. They will put us ashore at Plockton - they will take us across in the morning. A cloud has again blotted the stars, and we consent.
Our course is altered, the oars are pulled with redoubled vigour; soon the long dim line of coast rises before us, but the lights have burned out now, and the Plocktonites are asleep. On we go; the boat shoots into a "midnight cove," and we leap out upon masses of slippery sea-weed. The craft is safely moored. Two of the men seize our luggage, and we go stumbling over rocks, until the road is reached. A short walk brings us to the inn, or rather public-house, which is, however, closed for the night. After some knocking we were admitted, wet as Newfoundlands from the lake. Wearied almost to death, I reached my bedroom, and was about to divest myself of my soaking garments, when, after a low tap at the door, the owner of the boat entered. He stated his readiness to take us across in the morning; he would knock us up shortly after dawn; but as he and his companions had no friends in the place, they would, of course, have to pay for their beds and their breakfasts before they sailed; "an' she was shure the shentlemens waana expect her to pay the same." With a heavy heart I satisfied the cormorant. He insisted on being paid his full hire before he left Jean-Town, too! Before turning in, I looked what o'clock. One in the morning! In three hours M'Ian will be waiting in his galley at the head of Eishart's Loch. Unfortunates that we are!
At least, thought I when I awoke, there is satisfaction in accomplishing something quite peculiar. There are many men in the world who have performed extraordinary actions; but Fellowes and myself may boast, without fear of contradiction, that we are the only travellers who ever arrived at Plockton. Looking to the rottenness of most reputations nowadays, our feat is distinction sufficient for the ambition of a private man. We ought to be made lions of when we return to the abodes of civilisation. I have heard certain beasts roar, seen them wag their tails to the admiration of beholders, and all on account of a slighter matter than that we wot of. Who, pray, is the pale gentleman with the dishevelled locks, yonder, in the flower-bed of ladies, to whom every face turns? What! don't you know? The last new poet; author of the "Universe." Splendid performance. Pooh! a reed shaken by the wind. Look at us. We are the men who arrived at Plockton! But, heavens! the boatmen should have been here ere this. Alarmed, I sprang out of bed, clothed in haste, burst into Fellowes' room, turned him out, and then proceeded down stairs. No information could be procured, nobody had seen our crew. That morning they had not called at the house.
After a while a fisherman sauntered in, and in consideration of certain stimulants to be supplied by us, admitted that our fellows were acquaintances of his own; that they had started at day-break, and would now be far on their way to Jean-Town. The scoundrels, so overpaid too! Well, well, there's another world. With some difficulty we gathered from our friend that a ferry from the mainland to Skye existed at some inconceivable distance across the hills, and that a boat perhaps might be had there. But how was the ferry to be reached? No conveyance could be had at the inn. We instantly despatched scouts to every point of the compass to hunt for a wheeled vehicle. At height of noon our messengers returned with the information that neither gig, cart, nor wheelbarrow could be had on any terms. What was to be done? I was smitten by a horrible sense of helplessness; it seemed as if I were doomed to abide for ever in that dreary place, girdled by these gray rocks scooped and honey-combed by the washing of the bitter seas - were cut off from friends, profession, and delights of social intercourse, as if spirited away to fairyland.
I felt myself growing a fisherman, like the men about me; Gaelic seemed forming on my tongue. Fellowes meanwhile, with that admirable practical philosophy of his, had lit a cigar, and was chatting away with the landlady about the population of the village, the occupations of the inhabitants, their ecclesiastical history. I awoke from my gloomy dream as she replied to a question of his - "The last minister was put awa for drinkin'; but we've got a new ane, a Mr Cammil, an' verra wee! liket he is." The words were a ray of light, and suggested a possible deliverance. I slapped him on the shoulder, crying, "I have it! There was a fellow-student of mine in Glasgow, a Mr Donald Campbell, and it runs in my mind that he was preferred to a parish in the Highlands somewhere; what if this should prove the identical man? Let us call upon him." The chances were not very much in our favour; but our circumstances were desperate, and the thing was worth trying. The landlady sent her son with us to point the way. We knocked, were admitted, and shown to the tiny drawing-room. While waiting, I observed a couple of photograph cases on the table. These I opened. One contained the portrait of a gentleman in a white neckcloth, evidently a clergyman; the other that of a lady, in all likelihood his spouse. Alas! the gentleman bore no resemblance to my Mr Campbell: the lady I did not know. I laid the cases down in disappointment, and began to frame an apology for our singular intrusion, when the door opened - and my old friend entered. He greeted us cordially, and I wrung his hand with fervour.
I told him our adventure with the Jean-Town boatmen, and our consequent helplessness; at which he laughed, and offered his cart to convey ourselves and luggage to Kyleakin ferry, which turned out to be only six miles off. Genial talk about college scenes and old associates brought on the hour of luncheon; that concluded, the cart was at the door. In it our things were placed; farewells were uttered, and we departed. It was a wild, picturesque road along which we moved; sometimes comparatively smooth, but more frequently rough and stony, as the dry torrent's bed. Black dreary wastes spread around. Here and there we passed a colony of turf-huts, out of which wild ragged children, tawny as Indians, came trooping, to stare upon us as we passed. But the journey was attractive enough; for before us rose a permanent vision of mighty hills, with their burdens of cloudy rack; and every now and then, from an eminence, we could mark, against the land, the blue of the sea flowing in, bright with sunlight We were once more on our way; the minister's mare went merrily; the breeze came keen and fresh against us; and in less than a couple of hours we reached Kyleakin.
The ferry is a narrow passage between the mainland and Skye; the current is powerful there, difficult to pull against on gusty days; and the ferrymen are loath to make the attempt unless well remunerated. When we arrived, we found four passengers waiting to cross; and as their appearance gave prospect of an insufficient supply of coin, they were left sitting on the bleak windy rocks until some others should come up. It was as easy to pull across for ten shillings as for two! One was a girl, who had been in service in the south, had taken ill there, and was on her way home to some wretched turf-hut on the hill-side, in all likelihood to die; the second a little cheery Irish-woman, with a basketful of paper ornaments, with the gaudy colours and ingenious devices of which she hoped to tickle the asthetic sensibilities, and open the purses, of the Gael. The third and fourth were men, apparently laborious ones; but the younger informed me he was a schoolmaster, and it came out incidentally in conversation that his schoolhouse was a turf-cabin, his writing-table a trunk, on which his pupils wrote by turns. Imagination sees his young kilted friends kneeling on the clay floor, laboriously forming pot-hooks there, and squinting horribly the while.
The ferrymen began to bestir themselves when we came up; and in a short time the boat was ready, and the party embarked. The craft was crank, and leaked abominably, but there was no help; and our bags were deposited in the bottom. The schoolmaster worked an oar in lieu of payment. The little Irishwoman, with her precious basket, sat high in the bow, the labourer and the sick girl behind us at the stern. With a strong pull of the oars we shot out into the seething water. In a moment the Irishwoman is brought out in keen relief against a cloud of spray; but, nothing daunted, she laughs out merrily, and seems to consider a ducking the funniest thing in the world. In another, I receive a slap in the face from a gush of blue water, and emerge, half-blinded, and soaked from top to toe. Ugh, this sea-waltz is getting far from pleasant. The leak is increasing fast, and our carpet-bags are well-nigh afloat in the working bilge. We are all drenched now. The girl is sick, and Fellowes is assisting her from his brandy-flask. The little Irishwoman, erst so cheery and gay, with spirits that turned every circumstance into a quip and crank, has sunk in a heap at the bow; her basket is exposed, and the ornaments, shaped by patient fingers out of coloured papers, are shapeless now; the looped rosettes are ruined; her stock-in-trade, pulp - a misfortune great to her as defeat to an army, or a famine to a kingdom.
But we are more than half-way across, and a little ahead the water is comparatively smooth. The boatmen pull with greater ease; the uncomfortable sensation at the pit of the stomach is redressed; the white lips of the girl begin to redden somewhat; and the bunch forward stirs itself, and exhibits signs of life. Fellowes bought up the contents of her basket; and a contribution of two-and-sixpence from myself made the widow's heart to sing aloud for joy. On landing, our luggage is conveyed in a cart to the inn, and waits our arrival there. Meanwhile we warm our chilled limbs with a caulker of Glenlivet. "Blessings be with it, and eternal praise." How the fine spirit melts into the wandering blood, like "a purer light in light!" How the soft benignant fire streams through the labyrinthine veins, from brain to toe! The sea is checkmated; the heart beats with a fuller throb; and the impending rheumatism flies afar. When we reached the inn, we seized our luggage, in the hope of procuring dry garments. Alas! when I went up-stairs, mine might have been the carpet-bag of a merman; it was wet to the inmost core.
Soaked to the skin, it was our interest to proceed without delay. We waited on the landlord, and desired a conveyance. The landlord informed us that the only vehicle which he possessed was a phaeton, at present on hire till the evening, and advised us, now that it was Saturday, to remain in his establishment till Monday, when he could send us on comfortably. To wait till Monday, however, would never do. We told the man our story, how for two days we had been the sport of fortune, tossed hither and thither; but he - feeling he had us in his power - would render no assistance. We wandered out toward the rocks to hold a consultation, and had almost resolved to leave our things where they were, and start on foot, when a son of the innkeeper's joined us. He - whether cognisant of his parent's statement, I cannot say - admitted that there were a horse and gig in the stable; that he knew Mr M'Ian's place, and offered to drive us to a little fishing village within three miles of it, where our things could be left, and a cart sent to bring them up in the evening. The charge was - never mind what ! - but we closed with it at once.
We entered the inn while our friend went round to the stable to bring the machine to the door; met the landlord on the stairs, sent an indignant broadside into him, which he received with the utmost coolness. The imperturbable man! he swallowed our shot like a sandbank, and was nothing the worse. The horse was now at the door, in a few moments our luggage was stowed away, and were off. Through seventeen miles of black moorland we drove almost without beholding a single dwelling. Sometimes, although rarely, we had a glimpse of the sea. The chief object that broke the desolation was a range of clumsy red hills, stretching away like a chain of gigantic dust-heaps. Their aspect was singularly dreary and depressing. They were mountain plebs. Lava hardens into grim precipice, bristles into jagged ridge, along which the rack drives, now hiding, now revealing it; but these had no beauty, no terror, ignoble from the beginning; dull offspring of primeval mud. About seven P.M. we reached the village, left our things, still soaked in sea-water, in one of the huts, till Mr M'Ian could send for them, and struck off on foot for the three miles which we were told yet remained.
By this time the country had improved in appearance. The hills were swelling and green; up these the road wound, fringed with ferns, mixed with the purple bells of the foxglove. A stream, too, evidently escaped from some higher mountain tarn, came dashing along in a succession of tiny waterfalls. A quiet pastoral region, but so still, so deserted! Hardly a house, hardly a human being! After a while we reached the lake, half covered with water-lilies, and our footsteps startled a brood of wild-ducks on its breast. How lonely it looked in its dark hollow there, familiar to the cry of the wild bird, the sultry summer-cloud, the stars and meteors of the night - strange to human faces, and the sound of human voices. But what of our three miles? We have been walking for an hour and a half. Are we astray in the green wilderness? The idea is far from pleasant. Happily a youthful native came trotting along, and of him we inquired our way. The boy looked at us, and shook his head. We repeated the question, still the same shy puzzled look. A proffer of a shilling, however, quickened his apprehension, and returning with us a few paces, he pointed out a hill-road striking up through the moor. On asking the distance, he seemed put out for a moment, and then muttered, in his difficult English, "Four mile." Nothing more could be procured in the way of information; so off went little Bare-legs, richer than ever he had been in his life, at a long swinging trot, which seemed his natural pace, and which, I suppose, he could sustain from sunrise to sunset.
To this hillroad we now addressed ourselves. It was sunset now. Up we went through the purple moor, and in a short time sighted a crimson tarn, bordered with long black rushes, and as we approached, a duck burst from its face on "squattering" wings, shaking the splendour into widening circles. Just then two girls came on the road with peats in their laps: anxious for information, we paused - they, shy as heath-hens, darted past, and, when fifty yards' distant, wheeled suddenly round, and burst into shrieks of laughter, repeated and re-repeated. In no laughing mood we pursued our way. The road now began to dip, and we entered a glen plentifully covered with birchwood, a stream keeping us company from the tarn above. The sun was now down, and objects at a distance began to grow uncertain in the evening mist. The horrible idea that we had lost our way, and were doomed to encamp on the heather, grew upon us. On! on! We had walked six miles since our encounter with the false Bare-legs. Suddenly we heard a dog bark; that was a sign of humanity, and our spirits rose. Then we saw a troop of horses galloping along the bottom of the glen. Better and better. "Twas an honest ghost, Horatio!" All at once we heard the sound of voices, and Fellowes declared he saw something moving on the road. The next moment M'Ian and a couple of shepherds started out of the gloom. At sight of them our hearts burned within us, like a newly-poked fire. Sincere was the greeting, immense the shaking of hands; and the story of our adventures kept us merry till we reached the house.
Of our doughty deeds at supper I will not sing, nor state how the toddy-jugs were drained. Rather let me tell of those who sat with us at the board - the elder Mr M'Ian, and Father M'Crimmon, then living in the house. Mr M'Ian, senior, was a man past eighty, but fresh and hale for his years. His figure was slight and wiry, his face a fresh pink, his hair like snow. Age, though it had bowed him somewhat, had not been able to steal the fire from his eye, nor the vigour from his limbs. He entered the army at an early age; carried colours in Ireland before the century came in; was with Moore at Corunna; followed Wellington through the Peninsular battles; was with the 42d at Quatre Bras, and hurt there when the brazen cuirassiers came charging through the tall rye-grass; and, finally, stood at Waterloo in a square that crumbled before the artillery and cavalry charges of Napoleon - crumbled, but never flinched! It was strange to think that the old man across the table breathed the same air with Marie-Antoinette; saw the black cloud of the French Revolution torn to pieces with its own lightnings, the eagles of Napoleon flying from Madrid to Moscow, Wellington's victorious career - all that wondrous time which our fathers and grandfathers saw, which has become history now, wearing the air of antiquity almost. We look upon the ground out yonder from Brussels, that witnessed the struggle; but what the insensate soil, the woods, the monument, to the living eye in which was pictured the fierce strife? to the face that was grimed with the veritable battle-smoke? to the voice that mingled in the last cheer, when the whole English line moved forward at sunset?
M'Ian was an isle-man of the old school; penetrated through every drop of blood with pride of birth, and with a sense of honour which was like a second conscience. He had all the faults incidental to such a character. He was stubborn as the gnarled trunk of the oak, full of prejudices which our enlightenment laughs at, but which we need not despise, for with our knowledge and our science, well will it be for us if we go to our graves with as stainless a name. He was quick and hasty of temper, and contradiction brought fire from him like steel from flint. Short and fierce were his gusts of passion. I have seen him of an evening, with quivering hands and kindling eye, send a volley of oaths into a careless servant, and the next moment almost the reverend white head was bowed on his chair as he knelt at evening prayer. Of these faults, however, this evening we saw nothing. The old gentleman was kind and hospitable; full of talk, but his talk seemed to us of old-world things. On Lords Palmerston and Derby he was silent; he was eloquent on Mr Pitt and Mr Fox. He talked of the French Revolution and the actors thereof as contemporaries. Of the good Queen Victoria (for history is sure to call her that) he said nothing. His heart was with his memory, in the older days when George III was king, and not an old king neither.
Father M'Crimmon was a tall man, being in height considerably above six feet. He was thin, like his own island, where the soil is washed away by the rain, leaving bare the rock. His face was mountainously bony, with great pits and hollows in it. His eyes were gray, and had that depth of melancholy in them which is so often observed in men of his order. In heart he was simple as a child; in discourse slow, measured, and stately. There was something in his appearance that suggested the silence and solitude of the wilderness of hours lonely to the heart, and bare spaces lonely to the eye. Although of another, and - as I think, else I should not profess it - a purer faith, I respected him at first, and loved him almost when I came to know him. Was it wonderful that his aspect was sorrowful, that it wore a wistful look, as if he had lost something which could never be regained, and that for evermore the sunshine was stolen from his smile? He was by his profession cut off from all the sweet ties of human nature, from all love of wife or child.
His people were widely scattered: across the black moor, far up the hollow glens, blustering with winds or dimmed with the rain-cloud. Thither the grim man followed them, officiating on rare festival occasions of marriage and christening; his face bright, not like a window ruddy with a fire within, rather like a wintry pane tinged by the setting sun - a brief splendour that warms not, and but divides the long cold day that has already passed from the long cold night to come. More frequently he was engaged dispensing alms, giving advice in disaster, waiting by the low pallets of the fever-stricken, listening to the confession of long-hoarded guilt, comforting the dark spirit as it passed to its audit. It is not with viands like these you furnish forth life's banquet; not on materials like these you rear brilliant spirits and gay manners. He who looks constantly on death and suffering, and the unspiritual influences of hopeless poverty, becomes infected with congenial gloom. Yet cold and cheerless as may be his life, he has his reward; for in his wanderings through the glens there is not an eye but brightens at his approach, not a mourner but feels he has a sharer in his sorrow; and when the tall, bony, seldom-smiling man is borne at last to his grave, round many a fireside will tears fall and prayers be said for the good priest M'Crimmon.
All night sitting there, we talked of strange "Unhappy far-off things, And battles long ago,"
blood-crusted clan quarrels, bitter wrongs and terrible revenges: of wraiths and bodings, and pale death-lights burning on the rocks. The conversation was straightforward and earnest, conducted with perfect faith in the subject-matter; and I listened, I am not ashamed to confess, with a curious and not altogether unpleasant thrill of the blood. For, I suppose, however sceptical as to ghosts the intellect may be, the blood is ever a believer as it runs chill through the veins. A new world and order of things seemed to gather round us as we sat there. One was carried away from all that makes up the present - the policy of Napoleon III, the death of President Lincoln, the character of his successor, the universal babblement of scandal and personal talk - and brought face to face with tradition; with the ongoings of men who lived in solitary places, whose ears were constantly filled with the sough of the wind, the clash of the wave on the rock; whose eyes were open on the flinty cliff, and the floating forms of mists, and the dead silence of pale sky dipping down far off on the dead silence of black moor. One was taken at once from the city streets to the houseless wilderness; from the smoky sky to the blue desert of air stretching from mountain range to mountain range, with the poised eagle hanging in the midst, stationary as a lamp.
Perhaps it was the faith of the speakers that impressed me most. To them the stories were much a matter of course; the supernatural atmosphere had become so familiar to them that it had been emptied of all its wonder and the greater part of its terror. Of this I am quite sure, that a ghost story, told in the pit of a theatre, or at Vauxhall, or walking through a lighted London street, is quite a different thing from a ghost story told, as I heard it, in a lone Highland dwelling, cut off from every habitation by eight miles of gusty wind, the sea within a hundred feet of the walls, the tumble of the big wave, and the rattle of the pebbles, as it washes away back again, distinctly heard where you sit, and the talkers making the whole matter "stuff o' the conscience." Very different! You laugh in the theatre, and call the narrator an ass; in the other case you listen silently, with a scalp creeping as if there were a separate life in it, and the blood streaming coldly down the back.
Young M'Ian awoke me next morning. As I came down stairs he told me, had it not been Sunday he would have roused me with a performance on the bagpipes. Heaven forfend! I never felt so sincere a Sabbatarian. He led me some little distance to a favourable point of rock, and, lot across a sea, sleek as satin, rose a range of hills, clear against the morning, jagged and notched like an old sword-blade. "Yonder," said he, pointing, "beyond the black mass in front, just where the shower is falling, lies Lake Coruisk. I'll take you to see it one of these days."
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