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MEANTIME Ericson grew better. A space of hard, clear weather, in which everything sparkled with frost and sunshine, did him good. But not yet could he use his brain. He turned with dislike even from his friend Plato. He would sit in bed or on his chair by the fireside for hours, with his hands folded before him, and his eyelids drooping, and let his thoughts flow, for he could not think. And that these thoughts flowed not always with other than sweet sounds over the stones of question, the curves of his lip would testify to the friendly, furtive glance of the watchful Robert. None but the troubled mind knows its own consolations; and I believe the saddest life has its own presence--however it may be unrecognized as such--of the upholding Deity. Doth God care for the hairs that perish from our heads? To a mind like Ericson's the remembered scent, the recurring vision of a flower loved in childhood, is enough to sustain anxiety with beauty, for the lovely is itself healing and hope-giving, because it is the form and presence of the true. To have such a presence is to be; and while a mind exists in any high consciousness, the intellectual trouble that springs from the desire to know its own life, to be assured of its rounded law and security, ceases, for the desire itself falls into abeyance.
But although Ericson was so weak, he was always able and ready to help Robert in any difficulty not unfrequently springing from his imperfect preparation in Greek; for while Mr. Innes was an excellent Latin scholar, his knowledge of Greek was too limited either to compel learning or inspire enthusiasm, And with the keen instinct he possessed in everything immediate between man and man, Robert would sometimes search for a difficulty in order to request its solution; for then Ericson would rouse himself to explain as few men could have explained: where a clear view was to be had of anything, Ericson either had it or knew that he had it not. Hence Robert's progress was good; for one word from a wise helper will clear off a whole atmosphere of obstructions.
At length one day when Robert came home he found him seated at the table, with his slate, working away at the Differential Calculus. After this he recovered more rapidly, and ere another week was over began to attend one class a day. He had been so far in advance before, that though he could not expect prizes, there was no fear of his passing.
One morning, Robert, coming out from a lecture, saw Ericson in the quadrangle talking to an elderly gentleman. When they met in the afternoon Ericson told him that that was Mr. Lindsay, and that he had asked them both to spend the evening at his house. Robert would go anywhere to be with his friend.
He got out his Sunday clothes, and dressed himself with anxiety: he had visited scarcely at all, and was shy and doubtful. He then sat down to his books, till Ericson came to his door--dressed, and hence in Robert's eyes ceremonial--a stately, graceful gentleman. Renewed awe came upon him at the sight, and renewed gratitude. There was a flush on Ericson's cheek, and a fire in his eye. Robert had never seen him look so grand. But there was a something about him that rendered him uneasy--a look that made Ericson seem strange, as if his life lay in some far-off region.
'I want you to take your violin with you, Robert,' he said.
'Hoots!' returned Robert, 'hoo can I do that? To tak her wi' me the first time I gang to a strange hoose, as gin I thocht a'body wad think as muckle o' my auld wife as I do mysel'! That wadna be mainners--wad it noo, Mr. Ericson?'
'But I told Mr. Lindsay that you could play well. The old gentleman is fond of Scotch tunes, and you will please him if you take it.'
'That maks a' the differ,' answered Robert.
'Thank you,' said Ericson, as Robert went towards his instrument; and, turning, would have walked from the house without any additional protection.
'Whaur are ye gaein' that gait, Mr. Ericson? Tak yer plaid, or ye'll be laid up again, as sure's ye live.'
'I'm warm enough,' returned Ericson.
'That's naething. The cauld 's jist lyin' i' the street like a verra deevil to get a grup o' ye. Gin ye dinna pit on yer plaid, I winna tak my fiddle.'
Ericson yielded; and they set out together.
I will account for Ericson's request about the violin.
He went to the episcopal church on Sundays, and sat where he could see Mysie--sat longing and thirsting ever till the music returned. Yet the music he never heard; he watched only its transmutation into form, never taking his eyes off Mysie's face. Reflected thence in a metamorphosed echo, he followed all its changes. Never was one powerless to produce it more strangely responsive to its influence. She had no voice; she had never been taught the use of any instrument. A world of musical feeling was pent up in her, and music raised the suddener storms in her mobile nature, that she was unable to give that feeling utterance. The waves of her soul dashed the more wildly against their shores, inasmuch as those shores were precipitous, and yielded no outlet to the swelling waters. It was that his soul might hover like a bird of Paradise over the lovely changes of her countenance, changes more lovely and frequent than those of an English May, that Ericson persuaded Robert to take his violin.
The last of the sunlight was departing, and a large full moon was growing through the fog on the horizon. The sky was almost clear of clouds, and the air was cold and penetrating. Robert drew Eric's plaid closer over his chest. Eric thanked him lightly, but his voice sounded eager; and it was with a long hasty stride that he went up the hill through the gathering of the light frosty mist. He stopped at the stair upon which Robert had found him that memorable night. They went up. The door had been left on the latch for their entrance. They went up more steps between rocky walls. When in after years he read the Purgatorio, as often as he came to one of its ascents, Robert saw this stair with his inward eye. At the top of the stair was the garden, still ascending, and at the top of the garden shone the glow of Mr. Lindsay's parlour through the red-curtained window. To Robert it shone a refuge for Ericson from the night air; to Ericson it shone the casket of the richest jewel of the universe. Well might the ruddy glow stream forth to meet him! Only in glowing red could such beauty be rightly closed. With trembling hand he knocked at the door.
They were shown at once into the parlour. Mysie was putting away her book as they entered, and her back was towards them. When she turned, it seemed even to Robert as if all the light in the room came only from her eyes. But that light had been all gathered out of the novel she had just laid down. She held out her hand to Eric, and her sweet voice was yet more gentle than wont, for he had been ill. His face flushed at the tone. But although she spoke kindly, he could hardly have fancied that she showed him special favour.
Robert stood with his violin under his arm, feeling as awkward as if he had never handled anything more delicate than a pitchfork. But Mysie sat down to the table, and began to pour out the tea, and he came to himself again. Presently her father entered. His greeting was warm and mild and sleepy. He had come from poring over Spotiswood, in search of some Will o' the wisp or other, and had grown stupid from want of success. But he revived after a cup of tea, and began to talk about northern genealogies; and Ericson did his best to listen. Robert wondered at the knowledge he displayed: he had been tutor the foregoing summer in one of the oldest and poorest, and therefore proudest families in Caithness. But all the time his host talked Ericson's eyes hovered about Mysie, who sat gazing before her with look distraught, with wide eyes and scarce-moving eyelids, beholding something neither on sea or shore; and Mr. Lindsay would now and then correct Ericson in some egregious blunder; while Mysie would now and then start awake and ask Robert or Ericson to take another cup of tea. Before the sentence was finished, however, she would let it die away, speaking the last words mechanically, as her consciousness relapsed into dreamland. Had not Robert been with Ericson, he would have found it wearisome enough; and except things took a turn, Ericson could hardly be satisfied with the pleasure of the evening. Things did take a turn.
'Robert has brought his fiddle,' said Ericson, as the tea was removed.
'I hope he will be kind enough to play something,' said Mr. Lindsay.
'I'll do that,' answered Robert, with alacrity. 'But ye maunna expec' ower muckle, for I'm but a prentice-han',' he added, as he got the instrument ready.
Before he had drawn the bow once across it, attention awoke in Mysie's eyes; and before he had finished playing, Ericson must have had quite as much of the 'beauty born of murmuring sound' as was good for him. Little did Mysie think of the sky of love, alive with silent thoughts, that arched over her. The earth teems with love that is unloved. The universe itself is one sea of infinite love, from whose consort of harmonies if a stray note steal across the sense, it starts bewildered.
Robert played better than usual. His touch grew intense, and put on all its delicacy, till it was like that of the spider, which, as Pope so admirably says,
Feels at each thread, and lives along the line.
And while Ericson watched its shadows, the music must have taken hold of him too; for when Robert ceased, he sang a wild ballad of the northern sea, to a tune strange as itself. It was the only time Robert ever heard him sing. Mysie's eyes grew wider and wider as she listened. When it was over,
'Did ye write that sang yersel', Mr. Ericson?' asked Robert.
'No,' answered Ericson. 'An old shepherd up in our parts used to say it to me when I was a boy.'
'Didna he sing 't?' Robert questioned further.
'No, he didn't. But I heard an old woman crooning it to a child in a solitary cottage on the shore of Stroma, near the Swalchie whirlpool, and that was the tune she sang it to, if singing it could be called.'
'I don't quite understand it, Mr. Ericson,' said Mysie. 'What does it mean?'
'There was once a beautiful woman lived there-away,' began Ericson.--But I have not room to give the story as he told it, embellishing it, no doubt, as with such a mere tale was lawful enough, from his own imagination. The substance was that a young man fell in love with a beautiful witch, who let him go on loving her till he cared for nothing but her, and then began to kill him by laughing at him. For no witch can fall in love herself, however much she may like to be loved. She mocked him till he drowned himself in a pool on the seashore. Now the witch did not know that; but as she walked along the shore, looking for things, she saw his hand lying over the edge of a rocky basin. Nothing is more useful to a witch than the hand of a man, so she went to pick it up. When she found it fast to an arm, she would have chopped it off, but seeing whose it was, she would, for some reason or other best known to a witch, draw off his ring first. For it was an enchanted ring which she had given him to bewitch his love, and now she wanted both it and the hand to draw to herself the lover of a young maiden whom she hated. But the dead hand closed its fingers upon hers, and her power was powerless against the dead. And the tide came rushing up, and the dead hand held her till she was drowned. She lies with her lover to this day at the bottom of the Swalchie whirlpool; and when a storm is at hand, strange moanings rise from the pool, for the youth is praying the witch lady for her love, and she is praying him to let go her hand.
While Ericson told the story the room still glimmered about Robert as if all its light came from Mysie's face, upon which the flickering firelight alone played. Mr. Lindsay sat a little back from the rest, with an amused expression: legends of such sort did not come within the scope of his antiquarian reach, though he was ready enough to believe whatever tempted his own taste, let it be as destitute of likelihood as the story of the dead hand. When Ericson ceased, Mysie gave a deep sigh, and looked full of thought, though I daresay it was only feeling. Mr. Lindsay followed with an old tale of the Sinclairs, of which he said Ericson's reminded him, though the sole association was that the foregoing was a Caithness story, and the Sinclairs are a Caithness family. As soon as it was over, Mysie, who could not hide all her impatience during its lingering progress, asked Robert to play again. He took up his violin, and with great expression gave the air of Ericson's ballad two or three times over, and then laid down the instrument. He saw indeed that it was too much for Mysie, affecting her more, thus presented after the story, than the singing of the ballad itself. Thereupon Ericson, whose spirits had risen greatly at finding that he could himself secure Mysie's attention, and produce the play of soul in feature which he so much delighted to watch, offered another story; and the distant rush of the sea, borne occasionally into the 'grateful gloom' upon the cold sweep of a February wind, mingled with one tale after another, with which he entranced two of his audience, while the third listened mildly content.
The last of the tales Ericson told was as follows:--
'One evening-twilight in spring, a young English student, who had wandered northwards as far as the outlying fragments of Scotland called the Orkney and Shetland islands, found himself on a small island of the latter group, caught in a storm of wind and hail, which had come on suddenly. It was in vain to look about for any shelter; for not only did the storm entirely obscure the landscape, but there was nothing around him save a desert moss.
'At length, however, as he walked on for mere walking's sake, he found himself on the verge of a cliff, and saw, over the brow of it, a few feet below him, a ledge of rock, where he might find some shelter from the blast, which blew from behind. Letting himself down by his hands, he alighted upon something that crunched beneath his tread, and found the bones of many small animals scattered about in front of a little cave in the rock, offering the refuge he sought, He went in, and sat upon a stone. The storm increased in violence, and as the darkness grew he became uneasy, for he did not relish the thought of spending the night in the cave. He had parted from his companions on the opposite side of the island, and it added to his uneasiness that they must be full of apprehension about him. At last there came a lull in the storm, and the same instant he heard a footfall, stealthy and light as that of a wild beast, upon the bones at the mouth of the cave. He started up in some fear, though the least thought might have satisfied him that there could be no very dangerous animals upon the island. Before he had time to think, however, the face of a woman appeared in the opening. Eagerly the wanderer spoke. She started at the sound of his voice. He could not see her well, because she was turned towards the darkness of the cave.
'"Will you tell me how to find my way across the moor to Shielness?" he asked.
'"You cannot find it to-night," she answered, in a sweet tone, and with a smile that bewitched him, revealing the whitest of teeth.
'"What am I to do, then?" he asked.
'"My mother will give you shelter, but that is all she has to offer."
'"And that is far more than I expected a minute ago," he replied. "I shall be most grateful."
'She turned in silence and left the cave. The youth followed.
'She was barefooted, and her pretty brown feet went catlike over the sharp stones, as she led the way down a rocky path to the shore. Her garments were scanty and torn, and her hair blew tangled in the wind. She seemed about five-and-twenty, lithe and small. Her long fingers kept clutching and pulling nervously at her skirts as she went. Her face was very gray in complexion, and very worn, but delicately formed, and smooth-skinned. Her thin nostrils were tremulous as eyelids, and her lips, whose curves were faultless, had no colour to give sign of indwelling blood. What her eyes were like he could not see, for she had never lifted the delicate films of her eyelids.
'At the foot of the cliff they came upon a little hut leaning against it, and having for its inner apartment a natural hollow within it. Smoke was spreading over the face of the rock, and the grateful odour of food gave hope to the hungry student. His guide opened the door of the cottage; he followed her in, and saw a woman bending over a fire in the middle of the floor. On the fire lay a large fish boiling. The daughter spoke a few words, and the mother turned and welcomed the stranger. She had an old and very wrinkled, but honest face, and looked troubled. She dusted the only chair in the cottage, and placed it for him by the side of the fire, opposite the one window, whence he saw a little patch of yellow sand over which the spent waves spread themselves out listlessly. Under this window was a bench, upon which the daughter threw herself in an unusual posture, resting her chin upon her hand. A moment after the youth caught the first glimpse of her blue eyes. They were fixed upon him with a strange look of greed, amounting to craving, but as if aware that they belied or betrayed her, she dropped them instantly. The moment she veiled them, her face, notwithstanding its colourless complexion, was almost beautiful.
'When the fish was ready the old woman wiped the deal table, steadied it upon the uneven floor, and covered it with a piece of fine table-linen. She then laid the fish on a wooden platter, and invited the guest to help himself. Seeing no other provision, he pulled from his pocket a hunting-knife, and divided a portion from the fish, offering it to the mother first.
'"Come, my lamb," said the old woman; and the daughter approached the table. But her nostrils and mouth quivered with disgust.
'The next moment she turned and hurried from the hut.
'"She doesn't like fish," said the old woman, "and I haven't anything else to give her."
'"She does not seem in good health," he rejoined.
'The woman answered only with a sigh, and they ate their fish with the help of a little rye-bread. As they finished their supper, the youth heard the sound as of the pattering of a dog's feet upon the sand close to the door; but ere he had time to look out of the window, the door opened and the young woman entered. She looked better, perhaps from having just washed her face. She drew a stool to the corner of the fire opposite him. But as she sat down, to his bewilderment, and even horror, the student spied a single drop of blood on her white skin within her torn dress. The woman brought out a jar of whisky, put a rusty old kettle on the fire, and took her place in front of it. As soon as the water boiled, she proceeded to make some toddy in a wooden bowl.
'Meantime the youth could not take his eyes off the young woman, so that at length he found himself fascinated, or rather bewitched. She kept her eyes for the most part veiled with the loveliest eyelids fringed with darkest lashes, and he gazed entranced; for the red glow of the little oil-lamp covered all the strangeness of her complexion. But as soon as he met a stolen glance out of those eyes unveiled, his soul shuddered within him. Lovely face and craving eyes alternated fascination and repulsion.
'The mother placed the bowl in his hands. He drank sparingly, and passed it to the girl. She lifted it to her lips, and as she tasted--only tasted it--looked at him. He thought the drink must have been drugged and have affected his brain. Her hair smoothed itself back, and drew her forehead backwards with it; while the lower part of her face projected towards the bowl, revealing, ere she sipped, her dazzling teeth in strange prominence. But the same moment the vision vanished; she returned the vessel to her mother, and rising, hurried out of the cottage.
'Then, the old woman pointed to a bed of heather in one corner with a murmured apology; and the student, wearied both with the fatigues of the day and the strangeness of the night, threw himself upon it, wrapped in his cloak. The moment he lay down, the storm began afresh, and the wind blew so keenly through the crannies of the hut, that it was only by drawing his cloak over his head that he could protect himself from its currents. Unable to sleep, he lay listening to the uproar which grew in violence, till the spray was dashing against the window. At length the door opened, and the young woman came in, made up the fire, drew the bench before it, and lay down in the same strange posture, with her chin propped on her hand and elbow, and her face turned towards the youth. He moved a little; she dropped her head, and lay on her face, with her arms crossed beneath her forehead. The mother had disappeared.
'Drowsiness crept over him. A movement of the bench roused him, and he fancied he saw some four-footed creature as tall as a large dog trot quietly out of the door. He was sure he felt a rush of cold wind. Gazing fixedly through the darkness, he thought he saw the eyes of the damsel encountering his, but a glow from the falling together of the remnants of the fire, revealed clearly enough that the bench was vacant. Wondering what could have made her go out in such a storm, he fell fast asleep.
'In the middle of the night he felt a pain in his shoulder, came broad awake, and saw the gleaming eyes and grinning teeth of some animal close to his face. Its claws were in his shoulder, and its mouth was in the act of seeking his throat. Before it had fixed its fangs, however, he had its throat in one hand, and sought his knife with the other. A terrible struggle followed; but regardless of the tearing claws, he found and opened his knife. He had made one futile stab, and was drawing it for a surer, when, with a spring of the whole body, and one wildly-contorted effort, the creature twisted its neck from his hold, and with something betwixt a scream and a howl, darted from him. Again he heard the door open; again the wind blew in upon him, and it continued blowing; a sheet of spray dashed across the floor, and over his face. He sprung from his couch and bounded to the door.
'It was a wild night--dark, but for the flash of whiteness from the waves as they broke within a few yards of the cottage; the wind was raving, and the rain pouring down the air. A gruesome sound as of mingled weeping and howling came from somewhere in the dark. He turned again into the hut and closed the door, but could find no way of securing it.
'The lamp was nearly out, and he could not be certain whether the form of the young woman was upon the bench or not. Overcoming a strong repugnance, he approached it, and put out his hands--there was nothing there. He sat down and waited for the daylight: he dared not sleep any more.
'When the day dawned at length, he went out yet again, and looked around. The morning was dim and gusty and gray. The wind had fallen, but the waves were tossing wildly. He wandered up and down the little strand, longing for more light.
'At length he heard a movement in the cottage. By and by the voice of the old woman called to him from the door.
'"You're up early, sir. I doubt you didn't sleep well."
'"Not very well," he answered. "But where is your daughter?"
'"She's not awake yet," said the mother. "I'm afraid I have but a poor breakfast for you. But you'll take a dram and a bit of fish. It's all I've got."
'Unwilling to hurt her, though hardly in good appetite, he sat down at the table. While they were eating the daughter came in, but turned her face away and went to the further end of the hut. When she came forward after a minute or two, the youth saw that her hair was drenched, and her face whiter than before. She looked ill and faint, and when she raised her eyes, all their fierceness had vanished, and sadness had taken its place. Her neck was now covered with a cotton handkerchief. She was modestly attentive to him, and no longer shunned his gaze. He was gradually yielding to the temptation of braving another night in the hut, and seeing what would follow, when the old woman spoke.
'"The weather will be broken all day, sir," she said. "You had better be going, or your friends will leave without you."
'Ere he could answer, he saw such a beseeching glance on the face of the girl, that he hesitated, confused. Glancing at the mother, he saw the flash of wrath in her face. She rose and approached her daughter, with her hand lifted to strike her. The young woman stooped her head with a cry. He darted round the table to interpose between them. But the mother had caught hold of her; the handkerchief had fallen from her neck; and the youth saw five blue bruises on her lovely throat--the marks of the four fingers and the thumb of a left hand. With a cry of horror he rushed from the house, but as he reached the door he turned. His hostess was lying motionless on the floor, and a huge gray wolf came bounding after him.'
An involuntary cry from Mysie interrupted the story-teller. He changed his tone at once.
'I beg your pardon, Miss Lindsay, for telling you such a horrid tale. Do forgive me. I didn't mean to frighten you more than a little.'
'Only a case of lycanthropia,' remarked Mr. Lindsay, as coolly as if that settled everything about it and lycanthropia, horror and all, at once.
'Do tell us the rest,' pleaded Mysie, and Ericson resumed.
'There was no weapon at hand; and if there had been, his inborn chivalry would never have allowed him to harm a woman even under the guise of a wolf. Instinctively, he set himself firm, leaning a little forward, with half outstretched arms, and hands curved ready to clutch again at the throat upon which he had left those pitiful marks. But the creature as she sprang eluded his grasp, and just as he expected to feel her fangs, he found a woman weeping on his bosom, with her arms around his neck. The next instant, the gray wolf broke from him, and bounded howling up the cliff. Recovering himself as he best might, the youth followed, for it was the only way to the moor above, across which he must now make his way to find his companions.
'All at once he heard the sound of a crunching of bones--not as if a creature was eating them, but as if they were ground by the teeth of rage and disappointment: looking up, he saw close above him the mouth of the little cavern in which he had taken refuge the day before. Summoning all his resolution, he passed it slowly and softly. From within came the sounds of a mingled moaning and growling.
'Having reached the top, he ran at full speed for some distance across the moor before venturing to look behind him. When at length he did so he saw, against the sky, the girl standing on the edge of the cliff, wringing her hands. One solitary wail crossed the space between. She made no attempt to follow him, and he reached the opposite shore in safety.'
Mysie tried to laugh, but succeeded badly. Robert took his violin, and its tones had soon swept all the fear from her face, leaving in its stead a trouble that has no name--the trouble of wanting one knows not what--or how to seek it.
It was now time to go home. Mysie gave each an equally warm good-night and thanks, Mr. Lindsay accompanied them to the door, and the students stepped into the moonlight. Across the links the sound of the sea came with a swell.
As they went down the garden, Ericson stopped. Robert thought he was looking back to the house, and went on. When Ericson joined him, he was pale as death.
'What is the maitter wi' ye, Mr. Ericson?' he asked in terror.
'Look there!' said Ericson, pointing, not to the house, but to the sky.
Robert looked up. Close about the moon were a few white clouds. Upon these white clouds, right over the moon, and near as the eyebrow to an eye, hung part of an opalescent halo, bent into the rude, but unavoidable suggestion of an eyebrow; while, close around the edge of the moon, clung another, a pale storm-halo. To this pale iris and faint-hued eyebrow the full moon itself formed the white pupil: the whole was a perfect eye of ghastly death, staring out of the winter heaven. The vision may never have been before, may never have been again, but this Ericson and Robert saw that night.
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