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Book of Scottish Story
The Vacant Chair - Part 2


"I ken by mysel, friends," said Adam Bell, a decent-looking Northumbrian, "that a faither’s heart is as sensitive as the apple o' his e’e ; and I think we would show a want o’ natural sympathy and respect for our worthy neighbour, if we didna every one get his foot into the stirrup without loss o’ time, and assist him in his search. For, in my rough, country way o’ thinking, it must be something particularly out o’ the common that would tempt Thomas to be amissing. Indeed, I needna say tempt, for there could be no inclination in the way. And our hills," he concluded, in a lower tone, "are not ower chancy in other respects, besides the breaking up o’ the storm."

"Oh!" said Mrs Elliot, wringing her hands, "I have had the coming o’ this about me for days and days. My head was growing dizzy with happiness, but thoughts came stealing upon me like ghosts, and I felt a lonely soughing about my heart, without being able to tell the cause ; but the cause is come at last ! And my dear Thomas—the very pride and staff o’ my life—is lost-lost to me for ever!"

"I ken, Mrs Elliot," replied the Northumbrian, "it is an easy matter to say compose yourself for them that dinna ken what it is to feel. But, at the same time, in our plain, country way o’ thinking, we are always ready to believe the worst. I’ve often heard my father say, and I’ve as often remarked it myself, that, before anything happens to a body, there is a something comes ower them, like a cloud before the face o’ the sun; a sort o’ dumb whispering about the breast from the other world. And though I trust there is naething o’ the kind in your case, yet as you observe, when I find myself growing dizzy, as it were, with happiness, it makes good a saying o’ my mother’s, poor body.

‘Bairns, bairns,’ she used to say, ‘there is ower muckle singing in your heads tonight; we will have a shower before bedtime.’ And I never, in my born days, saw it fail."

At any other period, Mr Bell’s dissertation on presentiments would have been found a fitting text on which to hang all the dreams, wraiths, warnings, and marvellous circumstances, that had been handed down to the company from the days of their grandfathers; but, in the present instance, they were too much occupied in consultation regarding the different routes to be taken in their search.

Twelve horsemen, and some half-dozen pedestrians, were seen hurrying in divers directions from Marchlaw, as the last faint lights of a melancholy day were yielding to the heavy darkness which appeared pressing in solid masses down the sides of the mountains. The wives and daughters of the party were alone left with the disconsolate mother, who alternately pressed her weeping children to her heart, and told them to weep not, for their brother would soon return ; while the tears stole down her own cheeks, and the infant in her arms wept because its mother wept. Her friends strove with each other to inspire hope, and poured upon her ear their mingled and loquacious consolation. But one remained silent. The daughter of Adam Bell, who sat by Mrs Elliot’s elbow at table, had shrunk into an obscure corner of the room. Before her face she held a handkerchief wet with tears. Her bosom throbbed convulsively ; and, as occasionally her broken sighs burst from their prison house, a significant whisper passed among the younger part of the company.

Mrs Elliot approached her, and taking her hand tenderly within both of hers-"Oh, hinny! hinny” said she, "yer sighs gae through my heart like a knife ! An’ what can I do to comfort ye? Come, Elizabeth, my bonny love, let us hope for the best. Ye see before ye a sorrowin’ mother—a mother that fondly hoped to see you an’-I canna say it—an I am ill qualified to gie comfort, when my own heart is like a furnace ! But, oh! let us try and remember the blessed portion, ‘ Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth.’ an’ inwardly pray for strength to say ‘ His will be done !’ "

Time stole on towards midnight, and one by one the unsuccessful party returned. As foot after foot approached, every breath was held to listen.

"No, no, no,” cried the mother, again and again, with increasing anguish, "it’s no the foot o’ my ain bairn;" while her keen gaze still remained riveted upon the door, and was not withdrawn, nor the hope of despair relinquished, till the individual entered, and with a silent and ominous shake of his head, betokened his fruitless efforts. The clock had struck twelve; all were returned, save the father. The wind howled more wildly; the rain poured upon the windows in ceaseless torrents; and the roaring of the mountain rivers gave a character of deeper ghostliness to their sepulchral silence; for they sat, each wrapt in forebodings, listening to the storm ; and no sounds were heard, save the groans of the mother, the weeping o’ her children, and the bitter and broken sobs of the bereaved maiden, who leaned her head upon her father’s bosom, refusing to be comforted.

At length the barking of the farm dog announced footsteps at a distance Every ear was raised to listen, every eye turned to the door; but, before the tread was yet audible to the listeners—"Oh! it is only Peter’s foot !” said the miserable mother, and, weeping, rose to meet him.

"Janet, Janet!” he exclaimed, as he entered, and threw his arms around her neck, "what’s this come upon us at last?"

He cast an inquisitive glance around his dwelling, and a convulsive shiver passed over his manly frame, as his eye again fell on the vacant chair, which no one had ventured to occupy. Hour succeeded hour, but the company separated not; and low, sorrowful whispers mingled with the lamentations of the parents.

"Neighbours,” said Adam Bell, "the morn is a new day, and we will wait to see what it may bring forth ; but, in the meantime, let us read a portion o’ the Divine Word, an’ kneel together in prayer, that, whether or not the day-dawn cause light to shine upon this singular bereavement, the Sun o’ Righteousness may arise wi’ healing on His wings, upon the hearts o’ this afflicted family, an’ upon the hearts o’ all present."

“Amen!” responded Peter, wringing his hands; and his friend, taking down the "Ha’ Bible,” read the chapter where-in it is written—"It is better to be in the house of mourning than in the house of feasting;” and again the portion which saith—"It is well for me that I have been afflicted, for before I was afflicted I went astray.”

The morning came, but brought no tidings of the lost son. After a solemn farewell, all the visitants, save Adam Bell and his daughter, returned every one to their own house; and the disconsolate father, with his servants, again renewed the search among the hills and surrounding villages.

Days, weeks, months, and years rolled on. Time had subdued the anguish of the parents into a holy calm; but their lost first-born was not forgotten, although no trace of his fate had been discovered. The general belief was, that he had perished on the breaking up of the snow; and the few in whose remembrance he still lived, merely spoke of his death as a "very extraordinary circumstance," remarking that "he was a wild, venturesome sort o’ lad.”

Christmas had succeeded Christmas, and Peter Elliot still kept it in commemoration of the birthday of him who was not. For the first few years after the loss of their son, sadness and silence characterised the party who sat down to dinner at Marchlaw, and still at Peter’s right hand was placed the vacant chair. But, as the younger branches of the family advanced in years, the remembrance of their brother became less poignant. Christmas was, with all around them, a day of rejoicing, and they began to make merry with their friends; while their parents partook in their enjoyment with a smile, half of approval and half of sorrow.

Twelve years had passed away; Christmas had again come. It was the counterpart of its fatal predecessor. The hills had not yet cast off their summer verdure; the sun, although shorn of its heat, had lost none of its brightness or glory, and looked down upon the earth as though participating in its gladness; and the clear blue sky was tranquil as the sea sleeping beneath the moon. Many visitors had again assembled at Marchlaw. The sons of Mr Elliot, and the young men of the party, were assembled upon a level green near the house, amusing themselves with throwing the hammer, and other Border games, while himself and the elder guests stood by as spectators, recounting the deeds of their youth. Johnson, the sheep-farmer, whom we have already mentioned, now a brawny and gigantic fellow of two-and-thirty, bore away in every game the palm from all competitors. More than once, as Peter beheld his sons defeated, he felt the spirit of youth glowing in his veins, and, "Ohl” muttered he, in bitterness, "had my Thomas been spared to me, he would hae thrown his heart’s blude after the hammer, before he would hae been beat by e’er a Johnson in the country!"

While he thus soliloquized, and with difficulty restrained an impulse to compete with the victor himself, a dark, foreign-looking, strong-built seaman, unceremoniously approached, and, with his arms folded, cast a look of contempt upon the boasting conqueror. Every eye was turned with a scrutinising glance upon the stranger. In height he could not exceed live feet nine, but his whole frame was the model of muscular strength; his features open and manly, but deeply sunburnt and weather-beaten; his long, glossy, black hair, curled into ringlets by the breeze and the billow, fell thickly over his temples and forehead; and whiskers of a similar hue, more conspicuous for size than elegance, gave a character of fierceness to a countenance otherwise possessing a striking impress of manly beauty. Without asking permission, he stepped forward, lifted the hammer, and, swinging it around his head, hurled it upwards of five yards beyond Johnson’s most successful throw. "Well done!" shouted the astonished spectators. The heart of Peter Elliott warmed within him, and he was hurrying forward to grasp the stranger by the hand, when the words groaned in his throat, "It was just such a throw as my Thomas would have made !—my own lost Thomas!" The tears burst into his eyes, and, without speaking, he turned back, and hurried towards the house to conceal his emotion.

Successively, at every game, the stranger had defeated all who ventured to oppose him, when a messenger announced that dinner waited their arrival. Some of the guests were already seated, others entering ; and, as heretofore, placed beside Mrs Elliot was Elizabeth Bell, still in the noontide of her beauty; but sorrow had passed over her features, like a veil before the countenance of an angel. Johnson, crest-fallen and out of humour at his defeat, seated himself by her side. ln early life he had regarded Thomas Elliot as a rival for her affections ; and, stimulated by the knowledge that Adam Bell would be able to bestow several thousands upon his daughter for a dowry, he yet prosecuted his attentions with unabated assiduity, in despite of the daughter’s aversion and the coldness of her father. Peter had taken his place at the table; and still by his side, unoccupied and sacred, appeared the vacant chair, the chair of his first-born, whereon none had sat since his mysterious death or disappearance.

"Bairns,” said he, "did nane o’ ye ask the sailor to come up and tak a bit o’ dinner wi’ us?"

"We were afraid it might lead to a quarrel with Mr Johnson," whispered one of the sons.

"He is come without asking," replied the stranger, entering; "and the wind shall blow from a new point if I destroy the mirth or happiness of the company."

"Ye’re a stranger, young man," said Peter, "or ye would ken this is no a meeting o’ mirth-makers. But, I assure ye, ye are welcome, heartily welcome. Haste ye, lasses," he added to the servants; "some o’ ye get a chair for the gentleman."

"Gentleman, indeed!" muttered Johnson between his teeth.

"Never mind about a chair, my hearties," said the seaman; "this will do!" And, before Peter could speak to withhold him, he had thrown himself carelessly into the hallowed, the venerated, the twelve years unoccupied chair! The spirit of sacrilege uttering blasphemies from a pulpit could not have smitten a congregation of pious worshippers with deeper horror and consternation, than did this filling of the vacant chair the inhabitants of March-law.

"Excuse me, sir! excuse me, sir!” said Peter, the words trembling upon his tongue; "but ye cannot—ye cannot sit there!”

"O man! man! " cried Mrs Elliot, "get out o’ that! get out o’ that !—take my chair !—take ony chair i’ the house !—but dinna, dinna sit there! It has never been sat in by mortal being since the death o’ my dear bairn! and to see it filled by another is a thing I canna endure!”

"Sir! sir!” continued the father, "ye have done it through ignorance, and we excuse ye. But that was my Thomas’s seat! Twelve years this very day—his birthday—he perished, Heaven kens how. He went out from our sight, like the cloud that passes over the hills—never, never to retum. And, O sir, spare a father’s feelings! for to see it filled wrings the blood from my heart ! ”

"Give me your hand, my worthy soul!" exclaimed the seaman; "I revere—nay, hang it! I would die for your feelings! But Tom Elliot was my friend, and I cast anchor in this chair by special commission. I know that a sudden broadside of joy is a bad thing ; but as I don’t know how to preach a sermon before telling you, all I have to say is—that Tom aint dead. ”

"Not dead!" said Peter, grasping the hand of the stranger, and speaking with an eagerness that almost choked his utterance. "O sir! sir! tell me how!—how!—-Did ye say living?—Is my ain Thomas living?”

"Not dead, do ye say?” cried Mrs Elliot, hurrying towards him and grasping his other hand—"not dead! And shall I see my baim again? Oh! may the blessing o’ Heaven, and the blessing o’ a broken-hearted mother be upon the bearer o’ the gracious tidings! But tell me, tell me, how is it possible? As ye would expect happiness here or hereafter, dinna, dinna deceive me!"

"Deceive you!” returned the stranger, grasping, with impassioned earnestness, their hands in his—"Never! —never! and all I can say is—Tom Elliot is alive and hearty.”

"No, no! ” said Elizabeth, rising from her seat, "he does not deceive us; there is that in his countenance which bespeaks a falsehood impossible.” And she also endeavoured to move towards him, when Johnson threw his arm around her to withhold her.

"Hands off, you land-lubber! ” exclaimed the seaman, springing towards them, "or, shiver me! I’ll show daylight through your timbers in the turning of a handspike.” And, clasping the lovely girl in his arms, "Betty! Betty, `my love! " he cried, "don’t you know your own Tom? Father, mother, don’t you know me? Have you really forgot your own son? If twelve years have made some change on his face, his heart is as sound as ever.”

His father, his mother, and his brothers clung around him, weeping, smiling, and mingling a hundred questions together. He threw his arms around the neck of each, and in answer to their enquiries, replied—"Well! well! there is time enough to answer questions, but not to-day—not to-day!”

"No, my bairn," said his mother, "we’ll ask you no questions—nobody shall ask you any! But how—how were you torn away from us, my love? And, O hinny! where—where hae you been?”

"It’s a long story, mother," said he, "and would take a week to tell it. But, howsoever, to make a long story short, you remember when the smugglers were pursued, and wished to conceal their brandy in our house, my father prevented them; they left muttering revenge—and they have been revenged. This day twelve years, I went out with the intention of meeting Elizabeth and her father, when I came upon a party of the gang concealed in Hell’s Hole. In a moment half-a-dozen pistols were held to my breast, and, tying my hands to my sides, they dragged me into the cavern. Here I had not been long their prisoner, when the snow, rolling down the mountains, almost totally blocked up its mouth. On the second night they cut through the snow, and, hurrying me along with them, I was bound to a horse between two, and, before daylight, found myself stowed, like a piece of old junk, in the hold of a smuggling lugger. Within a week I was shipped on board a Dutch man-of-war, and for six years was kept dodging about on different stations, till our old yawning hulk received orders to join the fleet, which was to fight against the gallant Duncan at Camperdown. To think of fighting against my own countrymen—my own flesh and blood—was worse than to be cut to pieces by a cat-o’-nine tails; and, under cover of the smoke of the first broadside, I sprang upon the gunwale, plunged into the sea, and swam for the English fleet. Never, never shall I forget the moment that my feet first trod upon the deck of a British frigate! My nerves felt as firm as her oak, and my heart free as the pennant that waved defiance from her masthead ! I was as active as any one during the battle; and when it was over, and I found myself again among my own countrymen, and all speaking my own language, I fancied—nay, hang it! I almost believed—I should meet my father, my mother, or my dear Bess on board of the British frigate. I expected to see you all again in a few weeks at farthest ; but, instead of returning to old England, before I was aware, I found it was helm about with us. As to writing, I never had an opportunity but once. We were anchored before a French fort; a packet was lying along-side ready to sail; I had half a side written, and was scratching my head to think how I should come over writing about you, Bess, my love, when, as bad luck would have it, our lieutenant comes to me, and says he, ‘Elliot,’ says he, ‘I know you like a little smart service; come, my lad, take the head oar, while we board some of those French bum-boats under the batteries’. I couldn’t say no. We pulled ashore, made a bonfire of one of their craft, and were setting fire to a second, when a deadly shower of small shot from the garrison scuttled our boat, killed our commanding officer with half of the crew, and the few who were left of us were made prisoners. It is of no use bothering you by telling how we escaped from a French prison. We did escape, and Tom once more fills his vacant chair."

Should any of our readers wish farther acquaintance with our friends, all we can say is, the new year was still young when Adam Bell bestowed his daughter’s hand upon the heir of Marchlaw, and Peter beheld the once vacant chair again occupied, and a namesake of the third generation prattling on his knee.

John Mackay Wilson


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