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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMalcolm - Chapter 57. The Laird's Quest
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Malcolm - Chapter 57. The Laird's Quest Post by :ORACC Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :1710

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Malcolm - Chapter 57. The Laird's Quest

CHAPTER LVII. THE LAIRD'S QUEST

Things were going pretty well with the laird: Phemy and he drew. yet closer to each other, and as he became yet more peaceful in her company, his thoughts flowed more freely, and his utterance grew less embarrassed; until at length, in talking with her, his speech was rarely broken with even a slight impediment, and a stranger might have overheard a long conversation between them without coming to any more disparaging conclusion in regard to him than that the hunchback was peculiar in mind as well as in body. But his nocturnal excursions continuing to cause her apprehension, and his representations of the delights to be gathered from Nature while she slept, at the same time alluring her greatly, Phemy had become, both for her own pleasure and his protection, anxious in these also to be his companion.

With a vital recognition of law, and great loyalty to any utterance of either parent, she had yet been brought up in an atmosphere of such liberty, that except a thing were expressly so conditioned, or in itself appeared questionable, she never dreamed of asking permission to do it; and, accustomed as she had been to go with the laird everywhere, and to be out with him early and late, her conscience never suggested the possibility of any objection to her getting up at twelve, instead of four or five, to accompany him. It was some time, however, before the laird himself would consent; and then he would not unfrequently interpose with limitations, especially, if the night were not mild and dry, sending her always home again to bed. The mutual rule and obedience between them was something at once strange and lovely.

At midnight Phemy would enter the shop, and grope her way until she stood under the trapdoor. This was the nearest she could come to the laird's chamber, for he had not only declined having the ladder stand there for his use, but had drawn a solemn promise from the carpenter that at night it should always be left slung up to the joists. For himself he had made a rope ladder, which he could lower from beneath when he required it, invariably drew up after him, and never used for coming down.

One night Phemy made her customary signal by knocking against the trapdoor with a long slip of wood: it opened, and, as usual, the body of the laird appeared, hung for a moment in the square gap, like a huge spider, by its two hands, one on each side, then dropped straight to the floor, when, without a word, he hastened forth, and Phemy followed.

The night was very still--and rather dark, for it was cloudy about the horizon, and there was no moon. Hand in hand the two made for the shore--here very rocky--a succession of promontories with little coves between. Down into one of these they went by a winding path, and stood at the lip of the sea. A violet dimness, or, rather, a semi-transparent darkness, hung over it, through which came now and then a gleam, where the slow heave of some Triton shoulder caught a shine of the sky; a hush also, as of sleep, hung over it, which not to break, the wavelets of the rising tide carefully stilled their noises; and the dimness and the hush seemed one. They sat down on a rock that rose but a foot or two from the sand and for some moments listened in silence to the inarticulate story of the night. At length the laird turned to Phemy, and taking one of her hands in both of his, very solemnly said, as if breaking to her his life's trouble, "Phemy, I dinna ken whaur I cam frae."

"Hoot, laird! ye ken weel eneuch ye cam frae Go-od," answered Phemy, lengthening out the word with solemn utterance.

The laird did not reply, and again the night closed around them, and the sea hushed at their hearts. But a soft light air began to breathe from the south, and it waked the laird to more active thought.

"Gien he wad but come oot an' shaw himsel'!" he said. "What for disna he come oot?"

"Wha wad ye hae come oot?" asked Phemy.

"Ye ken wha, weel eneuch. They say he 's a' gait at ance: jist hearken. What for will he aye bide in, an' never come oot an' lat a puir body see him?"

The speech was broken into pauses, filled by the hush rather than noise of the tide, and the odour-like wandering of the soft air in the convolutions of their ears.

"The lown win' maun be his breath--sae quaiet!--He 's no hurryin' himsel' the nicht.--There 's never naebody rins efter him.--Eh, Phemy! I jist thoucht he was gauin' to speyk!"

This last exclamation he uttered in a whisper, as the louder gush of a larger tide pulse died away on the shore.

"Luik, Phemy, luik!" he resumed. "Luik oot yonner! Dinna ye see something 'at micht grow to something?"

His eyes were fixed on a faint spot of steely blue, out on the sea, not far from the horizon. It was hard to account for, with such a sky overheard, wherein was no lighter part to be seen that might be reflected in the water below; but neither of the beholders was troubled about its cause: there it glimmered on in the dimness of the wide night--a cold, faint splash of blue grey.

"I dinna think muckle o' that, sir," said Phemy.

"It micht be the mark o' the sole o' his fut, though," returned the laird. "He micht hae fist setten 't doon, an' the watter hae lowed (flamed) up aboot it, an' the low no be willin' to gang oot! Luik sharp, Phemy; there may come anither at the neist stride-- anither fut mark. Luik ye that gait an' I'll luik this.--What for willna he come oot? The lift maun be fu' o' 'im, an' I 'm hungert for a sicht o' 'im. Gien ye see ony thing, Phemy, cry oot."

"What will I cry?" asked Phemy.

"Cry 'Father o' lichts!'" answered the laird.

"Will he hear to that--div ye think, sir?"

"Wha kens! He micht jist turn his heid; an' ae luik wad sair me for a hunner year."

"I s' cry, gien I see onything," said Phemy.

As they sat watching, by degrees the laird's thought swerved a little. His gaze had fixed on the northern horizon, where, as if on the outer threshold of some mighty door, long low clouds, with varied suggestion of recumbent animal forms, had stretched themselves, like creatures of the chase, watching for their lord to issue.

"Maybe he's no oot o' the hoose yet," he said. "Surely it canna be but he comes oot ilka nicht! He wad never hae made sic a sicht o' bonny things to lat them lie wi'oot onybody to gaither them! An' there's nae ill fowk the furth at this time o' nicht, ta mak an oogly din, or disturb him wi' the sicht o' them. He maun come oot i' the quaiet o' the nicht, or else what's 't a' for?--Ay! he keeps the nicht till himsel', an' lea's the day to hiz (us). That 'll be what the deep sleep fa's upo' men for, doobtless--to haud them oot o' his gait! Eh! I wuss he wad come oot whan I was by! I micht get a glimp o' 'm.--Maybe he wad tak the hump aff o' me, an' set things in order i' my heid, an' mak me like ither fowk. Eh me! that wad be gran'! Naebody wad daur to touch me syne. Eh! Michty! come oot! Father o' lichts! Father o' lichts!"

He went on repeating the words till, growing softer and softer, his voice died away in silence, and still as his seat of stone he sat, a new Job, on the verge of the world waters, like the old Job on his dunghill when he cried out,--

"Lo, he goeth by me, and I see him not; he passeth on also, but I perceive him not--Call thou, and I will answer; or let me speak and answer thou me.--Oh that I knew where I might find him! that I might come even to his seat!--Behold I go forward, but he is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive him; on the left hand, where he doth work, but I cannot behold him; he hideth himself on the right hand, that I cannot see him."

At length he rose and wandered away from the shore, his head sunk upon his chest. Phemy rose also and followed him in silence. The child had little of the poetic element in her nature, but she had much of that from which everything else has to be developed-- heart. When they reached the top of the brae, she joined him, and said, putting her hand in his, but not looking at, or even turning towards him, "Maybe he 'll come oot upo' ye afore ye ken some day --whan ye 're no luikin' for him."

The laird stopped, gazed at her for a moment, shook his head, and walked on.

Grassy steeps everywhere met the stones and sands of the shore, and the grass and the sand melted, as it were, and vanished each in the other. Just where they met in the next hollow, stood a small building of stone with a tiled roof. It was now strangely visible through the darkness, for from every crevice a fire illumined smoke was pouring. But the companions were not alarmed or even surprised. They bent their way towards it without hastening a step, and coming to a fence that enclosed a space around it, opened a little gate, and passed through. A sleepy watchman challenged them. "It 's me," said the laird.

"A fine nicht, laird," returned the voice, and said no more.

The building was divided into several compartments, each with a separate entrance. On the ground in each burned four or five little wood fires, and the place was filled with smoke and glow. The smoke escaped partly by openings above the doors, but mostly by the crannies of the tiled roof. Ere it reached these, however, it had to pass through a great multitude of pendent herrings. Hung up by the gills, layer above layer, nearly to the roof, their last tails came down as low as the laird's head. From beneath nothing was to be seen but a firmament of herring tails. These fish were the last of the season, and were thus undergoing the process of kippering. It was a new venture in the place, and its success as yet a question.

The laird went into one of the compartments, and searching about a little amongst the multitude within his reach, took down a plump one, then cleared away the blazing wood from the top of one of the fires, and laid his choice upon the glowing embers beneath.

"What are ye duin' there, laird?" cried Phemy from without, whose nostrils the resulting odour had quickly reached. "The fish is no yours."

"Ye dinna think I wad tak it wantin' leave, Phemy!" returned the laird. "Mony a supper hae I made this w'y, an' mony anither I houp to mak. It'll no be this sizzon though, for this lot's the last o' them. They're fine aitin', but I'm some feart they winna keep."

"Wha gae ye leave, sir?" persisted Phemy showing herself the indivertible guardian of his morals as well as of his freedom.

"Ow, Mr Runcie himsel', of coorse!" answered the laird. "Wull I pit ane on to you?"

"Did ye speir leave for me tu?" asked the righteous maiden.

"Ow, na; but I'll tell him the neist time I see him."

"I 'm nae for ony," said Phemy.

The fish wanted little cooking. The laird turned it, and after another half minute of the fire, took it up by the tail, sat down on a stone beside the door, spread a piece of paper on his knees, laid the fish upon it, pulled a lump of bread from his pocket, and proceeded to make his supper. Ere he began, however, he gazed all around with a look which Phemy interpreted as a renewed search for the Father of lights, whom he would fain thank for his gifts. When he had finished, he threw the remnants into one of the fires, then went down to the sea, and there washed his face and hands in a rock pool, after which they set off again, straying yet further along the coast.

One of the peculiarities in the friendship of the strange couple was that, although so closely attached, they should maintain such a large amount of mutual independence. They never quarrelled, but would flatly disagree, with never an attempt at compromise; the whole space between midnight and morning would sometimes glide by without a word spoken between them; and the one or the other would often be lingering far behind. As, however, the ultimate goal of the night's wandering was always understood between them, there was little danger of their losing each other.

On the present occasion, the laird, still full of his quest, was the one who lingered. Every few minutes he would stop and stare, now all around the horizon, now up to the zenith, now over the wastes of sky--for, any moment, from any spot in heaven, earth, or sea, the Father of lights might show foot, or hand, or face. He had at length seated himself on a lichen covered stone with his head buried in his hands, as if, wearied with vain search for him outside he would now look within and see if God might not be there, when suddenly a sharp exclamation from Phemy reached him. He listened.

"Rin! rin! rin!" she cried--the last word prolonged into a scream.

While it yet rang in his ears, the laird was halfway down the steep. In the open country he had not a chance; but, knowing every cranny in the rocks large enough to hide him, with anything like a start near enough to the shore for his short lived speed, he was all but certain to evade his pursuers, especially in such a dark night as this.

He was not in the least anxious about Phemy, never imagining she might be less sacred in other eyes than in his, and knowing neither that her last cry of loving solitude had gathered intensity from a cruel grasp, nor that while he fled in safety, she remained a captive.

Trembling and panting like a hare just escaped from the hounds, he squeezed himself into a cleft, where he sat half covered with water until the morning began to break. Then he drew himself out and crept along the shore, from point to point, with keen circumspection, until he was right under the village and within hearing of its inhabitants, when he ascended hurriedly, and ran home. But having reached his burrow, pulled down his rope ladder, and ascended, he found, with trebled dismay, that his loft had been invaded during the night. Several of the hooked cords had been cut away, on one or two were shreds of clothing, and on the window sill was a drop of blood.

He threw himself on the mound for a moment, then started to his feet, caught up his plaid, tumbled from the loft, and fled from Scaurnose as if a visible pestilence had been behind him.

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