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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMalcolm - Chapter 51. The Laird's Burrow
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Malcolm - Chapter 51. The Laird's Burrow Post by :Clivew Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :837

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Malcolm - Chapter 51. The Laird's Burrow


Annie Mair had a brother, a carpenter, who, following her to Scaurnose, had there rented a small building next door to her cottage, and made of it a workshop. It had a rude loft, one end of which was loosely floored, while the remaining part showed the couples through the bare joists, except where some planks of oak and mahogany, with an old door, a boat's rudder, and other things that might come in handy, were laid across them in store. There also, during the winter, hung the cumulus clouds of Blue Peter's herring nets; for his cottage, having a garret above, did not afford the customary place for them in the roof.

When the cave proved to be no longer a secret from the laird's enemies, Phemy, knowing that her father's garret could never afford him a sufficing sense of security, turned the matter over in her active little brain until pondering produced plans, and she betook herself to her uncle, with whom she was a great favourite. Him she found no difficulty in persuading to grant the hunted man a refuge in the loft. In a few days he had put up a partition between the part which was floored and that which was open, and so made for him a little room, accessible from the shop by a ladder and a trapdoor. He had just taken down an old window frame to glaze for it, when the laird coming in and seeing what he was about, scrambled up the ladder, and, a moment after, all but tumbled down again in his eagerness to put a stop to it: the window was in the gable, looking to the south, and he would not have it glazed.

In blessed compensation for much of the misery of his lot, the laird was gifted with an inborn delicate delight in nature and her ministrations such as few poets even possess; and this faculty was supplemented with a physical hardiness which, in association with his weakness and liability to certain appalling attacks, was truly astonishing. Though a rough hand might cause him exquisite pain, he could sleep soundly on the hardest floor; a hot room would induce a fit, but he would lie under an open window in the sharpest night without injury; a rude word would make him droop like a flower in frost, but he might go all day wet to the skin without taking cold. To all kinds of what are called hardships, he had readily become inured, without which it would have been impossible for his love of nature to receive such a full development. For hence he grew capable of communion with her in all her moods, undisabled either by the deadening effects of present, or the aversion consequent on past suffering. All the range of earth's shows, from the grandeurs of sunrise or thunderstorm down to the soft unfolding of a daisy or the babbling birth of a spring, was to him an open book. It is true, the delight of these things was constantly mingled with, not unfrequently broken, indeed, by the troublous question of his origin; but it was only on occasions of jarring contact with his fellows, that it was accompanied by such agonies as my story has represented. Sometimes he would sit on a rock, murmuring the words over and over, and dabbling his bare feet, small and delicately formed, in the translucent green of a tide abandoned pool. But oftener in a soft dusky wind, he might have been heard uttering them gently and coaxingly, as if he would wile from the evening zephyr the secret of his birth--which surely mother Nature must know. The confinement of such a man would have been in the highest degree cruel, and must speedily have ended in death. Even Malcolm did not know how absolute was the laird's need, not simply of air and freedom, but of all things accompanying the enjoyment of them.

There was nothing then of insanity in his preference of a windowless bedroom;--it was that airs and odours, birds and sunlight--the sound of flapping wing, of breaking wave, and quivering throat, might be free to enter. Cool clean air he must breathe, or die; with that, the partial confinement to which he was subjected was not unendurable; besides, the welcome rain would then visit him sometimes, alighting from the slant wing of the flying blast; while the sun would pour in his rays full and mighty and generous, unsifted by the presumptuous glass--green and gray and crowded with distorting lines; and the sharp flap of pigeon's wing would be mimic thunder to the flash which leapt from its whiteness as it shot by.

He not only loved but understood all the creatures, divining by an operation in which neither the sympathy nor the watchfulness was the less perfect that both were but half conscious, the emotions and desires informing their inarticulate language. Many of them seemed to know him in return--either recognizing his person, and from experience deducing safety, or reading his countenance sufficiently to perceive that his interest prognosticated no injury. The maternal bird would keep her seat in her nursery, and give back his gaze; the rabbit peeping from his burrow would not even draw in his head at his approach; the rooks about Scaurnose never took to their wings until he was within a yard or two of them: the laird, in his half acted utterance, indicated that they took him for a scarecrow and therefore were not afraid of him. Even Mrs Catanach's cur had never offered him a bite in return for a caress. He could make a bird's nest, of any sort common in the neighbourhood, so as deceive the most cunning of the nest harrying youths of the parish.*

* (See article Martin Fereol, in St. Paul's Magazine vol. iv. generally.)

Hardly was he an hour in his new abode ere the sparrows and robins began to visit him. Even strange birds of passage flying in at his hospitable window, would espy him unscared, and sometimes partake of the food he had always at hand to offer them. He relied, indeed, for the pleasures of social intercourse with the animal world, on stray visits alone; he had no pets--dog nor cat nor bird; for his wandering and danger haunted life did not allow such companionship.

He insisted on occupying his new quarters at once. In vain Phemy and her uncle showed reason against it. He did not want a bed; he much preferred a heap of spies, that is, wood shavings. Indeed, he would not have a bed; and whatever he did want he would get for himself. Having by word and gesture made this much plain, he suddenly darted up the ladder, threw down the trapdoor, and, lo! like a hermit crab, he had taken possession. Wisely they left him alone.

For a full fortnight he allowed neither to enter the little chamber. As often as they called him, he answered cheerfully, but never showed himself except when Phemy brought him food, which, at his urgent request, was only once in the twenty four hours-- after nightfall, the last thing before she went to bed; then he would slide down the ladder, take what she had brought him, and hurry up again. Phemy was perplexed, and at last a good deal distressed, for he had always been glad of her company before.

At length, one day, hearing her voice in the shop, and having peeped through a hole in the floor to see that no stranger was present, he invited her to go up, and lifted the trapdoor.

"Come, come," he said hurriedly, when her head appeared and came no farther.

He stood holding the trapdoor, eager to close it again as soon as she should step clear of it, and surprise was retarding her ascent.

Before hearing his mind, the carpenter had already made for him, by way of bedstead, a simple frame of wood, crossed with laths in the form of lattice work: this the laird had taken and set up on its side, opposite the window, about two feet from it, so that, with abundant passage for air, it served as a screen. Fixing it firmly to the floor, he had placed on the top of it a large pot of the favourite cottage plant there called Humility, and trained its long pendent runners over it. On the floor between it and the window, he had ranged a row of flower pots--one of them with an ivy plant, which also he had begun to train against the trellis; and already the humility and the ivy had begun to intermingle.

At one side of the room, where the sloping roof met the floor, was his bed of fresh pine shavings, amongst which, their resinous half aromatic odour apparently not sweet enough to content him, he had scattered a quantity of dried rose leaves. A thick tartan plaid, for sole covering, lay upon the heap.

"I wad hae likit hay better," he said, pointing to this lair rather than couch, "but it's some ill to get, an' the spales they 're at han', an' they smell unco clean."

At the opposite side of the room lay a corresponding heap, differing not a little, however, in appearance and suggestion. As far as visible form and material could make it one, it was a grave --rather a short one, but abundantly long for the laird. It was in reality a heap of mould, about a foot and a half high, covered with the most delicate grass, and bespangled with daisies.

"Laird!" said Phemy, half reproachfully, as she stood gazing at the marvel, "ye hae been oot at nicht!"

"Aye--a' nicht whiles, whan naebody was aboot 'cep' the win'." He pronounced the word with a long drawn imitative sough--"an' the cloods an' the splash o' the watter."

Pining under the closer imprisonment in his garret, which the discovery of his subterranean refuge had brought upon him, the laird would often have made his escape at night but for the fear of disturbing the Mairs; and now that there was no one to disturb, the temptation to spend his nights in the open air was the more irresistible that he had conceived the notion of enticing nature herself into his very chamber. Abroad then he had gone, as soon as the first midnight closed around his new dwelling, and in the fields had with careful discrimination begun to collect the mould for his mound, a handful here and a handful there. This took him several nights, and when it was finished, he was yet more choice in his selection of turf, taking it from the natural grass growing along the roads and on the earthen dykes, or walls, the outer sides of which feed the portionless cows of that country. Searching for miles in the moonlight, he had, with eye and hand, chosen out patches of this grass, the shortest and thickest he could find, and with a pocket knife, often in pieces of only a few inches, removed the best of it and carried it home, to be fitted on the heap, and with every ministration and blandishment enticed to flourish. He pressed it down with soft firm hands, and beshowered it with water first warmed a little in his mouth; when the air was soft, he guided the wind to blow upon it; and as the sun could not reach it where it lay, he gathered a marvellous heap of all the bright sherds he could find--of crockery and glass and mirror, so arranging them in the window, that each threw its tiny reflex upon the turf. With this last contrivance, Phemy was specially delighted; and the laird, happy as a child in beholding her delight, threw himself in an ecstasy on the mound and clasped it in his arms. I can hardly doubt that he regarded it as representing his own grave, to which in his happier moods he certainly looked forward as a place of final and impregnable refuge.

As he lay thus, foreshadowing his burial, or rather his resurrection, a young canary which had flown from one of the cottages, flitted in with a golden shiver and flash, and alighted on his head. He took it gently in his hand and committed it to Phemy to carry home, with many injunctions against disclosing how it had been captured.

His lonely days were spent in sleep, in tending his plants, or in contriving defences; but in all weathers he wandered out at midnight, and roamed or rested among fields or rocks till the first signs of the breaking day, when he hurried like a wild creature to his den.

Before long he had contrived an ingenious trap, or man spider web, for the catching of any human insect that might seek entrance at his window: the moment the invading body should reach a certain point, a number of lines would drop about him, in making his way through which he would straightway be caught by the barbs of countless fishhooks--the whole strong enough at least to detain him until its inventor should have opened the trapdoor and fled.

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