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Sketch Book of the North
By a Western Firth


"Good-bye, my dear!"

How beautiful the old lady looks as she stands in the porch overclustered with its tangle of budding roses and honeysuckle, a kindly smile on her lips, and her eyes shining, and her silver hair, in the last light of afternoon! For the sun is setting now, across the water, behind the hills of Bute, and the glory that fills the heavens and floods the full-ebbed sea casts about her, in its departing moments, a halo of peace serene as the hours of her life’s own afternoon. "Good-bye, my dear!"

Sunshine and silence sleep now on the hillside strath above, where the woods hang motionless, and the sward here and there, in the open spaces, is lit with the golden flame of gorse in blossom; but across that hillside once long ago raged the tide of a relentless war. Here, blood-red in the setting sun, waved the standard of a Scottish king, and yonder, down to the shore and to the wrecks of his ships, was driven back the shattered strength of the invading Norseman. The corries were filled then with the bodies of the dead, and the brown waters were stained a dreadful purple in the burn-pools where the trout leap now after the evening fly. That was the Scottish Salamis.

No one is in sight upon the white road, and no sound to be heard of distant footstep or departing wheels. There is only the lingering lapse of the quiet ripples as the sea sows its pearl-seed along the shore. A perfect calm rests upon the waters while the light slowly leaves them, and the red sun goes down behind the hills: only at one place across the glassy surface where the tide is stirring, run, on the tiny wavelets, a hundred flickering tongues of fire, and, far out, the reflection of the great yellow cloud aflame in the west shimmers like frosted gold upon the sea.

Gently the gloaming falls. The last mellow pipe of the mavis floats from the garden shrubbery behind, and bats begin to jerk about with their uncertain flight under the trees, their wings making a curious eerie creaking in the air. Only a dim green light falls through the leaves interlaced overhead as the road leaves the bay and dips inland through the woods. The day’s work is over. It is the sacred hour, and, far from "the stir and tumult of the street," in these still aisles, carpeted soft with fallen bud-sheaths and grass, roofed with the fretted canopy of branch and leaf, and hung with the fringed banners of larch and birch, ascends to heaven with the last notes of the woodland choristers the sweet incense of a thousand flowers. Mossy dykes run into the wood-depths here, and among the tall feathery grasses under the trees there are places purple with a mist of wild hyacinths. A crimson shadow, too, lies here and there, where the wood geranium throws its profusion, and pink and white sandflowers grow in the dry ditch-sides. By the clear mossy roadside well, and among the withered leaves in the glades, rise the first green spires of the foxgloves; a golden haze betrays the beds of yellow crowfoot; and in some sequestered spots pale primroses are still starring the rivulet banks.

Amid the woods, a secluded nook, nestles a cottage: the gamekeeper’s lodge, with its low slate roof, and sweetbrier trained upon the white walls, yellow pansies asleep beneath its window-sills, and crimson fuchsia and wild dog-roses blossoming in the hedge. The little flower-garden about it is trimly kept, with its southernwood and thyme, its clipped box edgings and gravelled path; and in the grassy hollow under the wood behind are the rows of boxes for breeding the young pheasants. A faint luscious smell hangs in the air of the spot—suggestive of frying trout freshly caught, in the brown burn that gurgles close by in the darkness. The keeper, too, is sitting outside the quiet doorway enjoying his evening pipe; and the fragrance of the southern weed mingles with the sweet scent of the pink hawthorn flowering over the wicket. Tread softly, though, on the grassy edge of the road for a little way. The kennel is at hand, and the slightest sound will set every dog baying his loudest. The rattle of a terrier’s chain is enough, sometimes, to set the woods echoing for full ten minutes.

The air grows less heavy as the road again approaches the shore, and there comes up with the murmur of the shingle the faint salt smell of the sea. Away in front the bright blaze streaming out in the darkness strikes from the lighthouse tower at the outmost sea-edge, receiving its signal, like the bale-fires of old, from the beacon on the opposite coast, and flashing it on to the next point up channel. Far out, too, on the firth a red light is moving, and the faint beat of paddles comes across the water. It is the last river-steamer making for the watering-place opposite. Singularly still the air is, to carry so distinctly the throbbing of that distant pulse. Not another sound is to be heard, and nothing astir is to be seen. Only, the moon has risen, a clear sickle, on the edge of the dark hill above. On such a night loveliness and mystery swim together on the air; the blushing of the rose is the fairer for being but half seen in the dim light; the woods above have ceased their amorous whisperings; and the sea amid the silence is kissing the shore’s wet lips.

What white shadow comes yonder, though, moving under the high hedge in the darkness? It might almost be one of those wraiths of which the country-folk speak with bated breath—the awful Something seen moving in the dusk from the house where a man has died. There is a sound of hoofs, here, and the spectre proves to be but the gaunt Rozinante of some wandering gipsies—the grey and pitiful counterpart, doubtless, of a once-gallant steed. Delicate hands may have patted the neck worn bare now by the collar, and sweet sugar-bits may have been offered by dainty fingers to the lips that tremble now as they crop the dusty roadside grasses. Does memory ever come to the brain behind those patient eyes? See! close by in the little dell among the flowering broom twinkles the camp-fire of its owners. Their dark figures lie about it asleep, for the night is warm and they are a hardy race; while at hand stands their quaint house on wheels, overhung with baskets of all sorts and uses. A strange, lawless life they live in the midst of nineteenth-century civilisation, those Bedouins of the broomfields and commons.

But here is our inn, a long-forgotten hostelrie, where one can sit at noon in the shade by the doorway with a book, and watch the ships far out go by upon the firth, while the cool sea glistens below, and all day long there is the drowsy hum of bees about the yellow tassels of the laburnums at the gable ends. A pleasant spot it is even now in the darkness. The lilac-trees in the garden are a-bloom, and the air is sweet with their scent. A pleasant place, where the comely hostess will welcome the tired pedestrian, where his supper will taste the better for the fresh night air from the open window, and where, presently, he will fall asleep between sheets that smell of the clover-field, to dream of the firmly-grasped tiller, the snowy cloud of sails overhead, and the rushing of the water under the yacht’s counter of the morrow.


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