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Romance of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 64 - Lochisla


The bright moon was shedding her lustre over hill and valley, and the traveller soon saw the mountain Isla gleaming beneath her beams as brightly as ever he had seen the Ebro or the Douro, and he listened with delight to the murmur of its falling waters as they poured over the shelving linn at Corrie-avon,—a fortunate ducking in the pool of which had so suddenly changed the sentiments of Alice's father towards him.

Now he was on the old familiar road to his home. It was long past midnight. 'Such a joyful surprise they will have!' said he, communing with himself, 'and a merry new year it will be in the glen; but poor old Donald Iverach, he will look in vain for his fair-haired Evan.'

The road was closely bordered by pine and birch trees. The latter were bare and leafless, and their stems and branches gleamed like a fairy shrubbery of silver in the moonlight; but the former, the solemn black pines of Caledonia, remained in all their rough unfading foliage, and cast around them a gloomy horror. Steep rocks, where the bright-eyed eagle and the giant glede looked forth from their eyry, echoing caves, whilom the residence of wild and wondrous beings, the cairns of long-departed chiefs, rough obelisks, marking the ground of ancient battles, and covered with mossy figures grim and terrible, bordered the devious way; but he hailed them all with delight, for they were the well-known haunts of his childhood, and his terror of the mysterious beings that were said to guard them had long since passed away. He set up his old hunting halloo as he galloped along, to hear if they re-echoed as of old, and in his glee he shouted fearlessly into a yawning chasm called the Uamhachoralaich, an uncouth name, which means 'the cavern of the strange spirit.' He hallooed again and again, to hear the voluminous echo which had so often stricken awe and horror into his heart when he was a child ; and anon he dashed up the glen, scaring the deer in the thicket and the eagle on the rock, and causing the colleys on the distant hills and moors to hearken and howl in alarm.

Now, Lochisla lay before him ! the whole scene burst upon his view at once, as his horse bounded up from the narrow gorge through which the roadway wound. The lonely Highland lake lay sleeping at the foot of the dark and wooded hills, which descended abruptly on all sides towards it. Tall and spectral on its rock, with one side covered with dark ivy and the other gleaming gray in the moonlight, the tower overhung the loch. Far beyond rose Benmore, dim and distant. The declining moon was verging towards his ridgy back, behind which it would soon disappear. In the tower, or the clachan beneath it, no light was visible. Every loophole and window was dark.

'They are all abed; and the poor old watch-dog must be dead, or I should have heard his honest bark before this,' said Ronald aloud, as he rode on towards the gate in the outer wall of the fortalice.

There seemed a stillness, an utter absence of life around him, which occasioned dark forebodings of evil, and he felt a strange sadness sinking on his heart. He longed to hear even the crow of a cock or the bark of a dog, but no sound could he detect, save the hoofs of his horse ringing on the frozen pathway which led from the clachan, or onsteading, to the tower. For a moment he became quite breathless with agitation, and clung to the mane of his horse.

'God be praised, there is no scutcheon over the gate!' he exclaimed; 'but they lack somewhat of their usual care in leaving it open at this hour.' The gate of the barbican, or outer wall, was lying off its hinges on the earth. Janet's turret was dark. Her light, which she was wont to burn the whole night, gleamed there no longer, and a deadly terror chilled the heart of Ronald. He trembled, apprehending he knew not what, and for some minutes surveyed the court and keep before he dismounted and approached the door. Everything was mournfully silent and desolate. Part of the barbican wall had fallen down; the wallflower had sprung up between the stones; the moss and grass grew upon the cope, in the loopholes, and between the pavement of the courtyard. The byres and stables were empty, and midnight depredators had torn away the doors and windows; the once noisy dog-kennel was silent, and the ancient tower was dark and desolate. The watch-dog's mansion was untenanted, and his chain lay rusting on the grassy ground.

All was as still as the tomb, and the soul of the soldier died within him. The flagstaff was yet on the mossy battlement, but the halliard waved wide on the wind. The old rusty carron gun was yet peeping through its embrasure, but a tuft of knotted grass hung down from its muzzle.

His heart, which so lately bounded with pleasure, now throbbed with apprehension and fear, for the silence around him seemed oppressive and terrible, when contrasted with the bustle he had witnessed in the capital a few hours before.

He struck with the hilt of his dirk on the door, knocking long and loud and the building echoed like a huge drum, or some vast tomb. Again and again he knocked, but there was no answer save the mocking echoes. He attempted to force an entrance, but the door was locked and bolted fast, and he was compelled to retire. He looked up to the keystone of the arched doorway, but the armorial bearings, of which his father was so proud, the antique crown, and initial letters, 'R. II. R.' (robertus II. rex) were there no longer. The stone remained, but the ancient sculpture was demolished. He muttered some incoherent things, for the memory of too past came swelling up in his breast, and his tongue clove to the roof of his mouth. He looked across the moonlit lake towards the islet where the ruins of the church tower cast a long deep shadow on the graves of his martial ancestors, and their once numerous brave and devoted vassals.

It was a time of the deepest mental agony. A century seemed to have elapsed since the morning. His thoughts were all chaos and confusion, save one, which was terrible and distinct enough,—that he stood by the threshold of his father's house, a stranger, a wanderer, and there was no hand to grasp his, no voice to bid him welcome. After lingering long, he turned sorrowfully from the tower, to awaken some of the peasantry at the clachan. On repassing the ruined gate, he saw, what had before escaped his observation,—a large ticket or board nailed to the grass grown wall of the barbican. He approached, and by the light of the moon read the following:

Notice.

'Any person or persons found trespassing on the lands of Rosemount Tower, will be punished with the utmost rigour of the law by the Proprietor, Zachary Macquabester, Esq., of Rosemount.

'N.B.—Informers will be handsomely rewarded, on applying to Mr. Macquibble, writer, Spy-gate, Perth.'

The place swam around him.

'Rosemount Tower! The Proprietor, confound him !' exclaimed Ronald, bursting into fury; 'and is it come to this?'

With a heart sick and sore with disappointment, grief, and mortified pride, he descended to the little street of thatched cottages named the Clachan. Here all was silence and desolation too. In some places the roofs had fallen in, and rafters stuck through the thatch, like ribs through the skin of a skeleton ; the chimneys had fallen down, and the doors and windows were gone. The hamlet was in ruins. The household fires had been quenched ; and as he surveyed the deserted place, he became painfully aware that his people—those among whom his race had moved as demi-gods—were gone forth, and that the place of their birth, and which held the bones of their forefathers, knew them no longer.

The glen, which in his boyhood had maintained two hundred men in what seemed ease and competence to a people so primitive, was now desert and waste. The mountains, the wood, and the water were still there, as they had been in the days of Fingal; but the people had passed away, and Ronald Stuart, to whom the Gaelic sobriquet—Ronald an deigh nam finn—might now be truly applied, departed slowly and sadly from Lochisla.

He did not weep,—he was too tough a soldier for that,—and therefore could not experience the calm feeling of resignation and relief given to an overcharged bosom by a gush of hot, salt tears; but, with a heart bursting with fierce feelings and sad remembrances, he departed from the valley just as the waning moon sank behind the darkening mountains. He rode slowly at first, but anon he drove his sharp spurs into the flanks of his horse, and rode towards Inchavon at breakneck speed, as if he would flee from his own thoughts, and leave his sorrows far behind him. But the first gush of gloom and disappointment having somewhat subsided, he strove to calm his agitated spirit, and he derived some consolation in the timely recollection that, although Lowland innovation might have expatriated the people of Lochisla, his father might yet be alive. Eager to learn some tidings, he galloped along with the speed of the wind, outstripping the gathering storm.

'Ah! here is Inchavon at last! Dear Alice will explain to me all this strange mystery.'

Forward he went at a hunting pace, and, keeping his body well back and bridle-hand low, he cleared the wall of the park at a bound, and galloped over the whitening lawn towards the portico, under which he reined up his panting steed. The whole mansion was involved in silence and darkness; and as he looked upon its closed windows and gloomy facade, new apprehensions and terrors began to arise before him. He rang the lobby-bell with fury, and waited long, but without receiving an answer. Again and again he rang, yet no one came. He walked round the house, but every window was closed and dark. The stables were shut up, and the vane on the clock-tower creaked dismally. Neither dogs nor fowls appeared about the kitchen offices; not a bat was stirring, and no sign of life was visible anywhere. Ronald thought that he was bewitched, and that there was a glamour over him, or that the land had been deserted by its inhabitants. The chill snow-flakes were descending thick and fast, and he trembled as much with cold as with apprehension. It was quite a relief when a large mastiff dog bounded forth suddenly, to the full extent of his chain, from his kennel in a corner, and barked furiously ; and standing erect on his hind legs, yelled till the house and the surrounding plantations echoed far and near to the sound. At that moment a light flashed out upon the snow, and a man, half dressed, appeared at an open window, with a gun in his hand. Ronald was so white with snow, that it was impossible to recognise what or who he was, and consequently his reception was rather rougher than he expected.

'Wha may you be, frien', that come prowlin' aboot honest men's doors at this time o' the nicht—or mornin' rather, eh?'—' Hah!' exclaimed Ronald, 'are you Jock Nevermiss,—roaring Jock, the gamekeeper?'

'What the better wad ye be for kennin'?' asked the other cautiously.— 'Come, come, Jock; you must remember me, surely? We have had many a merry day's sport together. Is it possible that you do not know me?' 'Possible eneuch, chield. But it's ower cauld the nicht to hae ony mair giff-gaff; sae come back i' the morning, and then we'll see what like ye are. I like none o' your Southland-tongued folk.'

Ronald was enraged at the fellow's pertinacity; but his fierce reply was interrupted by the soft voice of a female.

'Gude sake! surely I should ken his voice! Oh, Jock! Jock! what hae ye been sayin'? It's the young captain o' Lochisla. It's Mister Ronald Stuart o' the tower—Miss Alice's Joe, come home frae the wars!

Haud awa, ye muckle gowk, Jock! Oh, I ken ye weel, sir; for many a blithe kiss ye've gi'en me to carry to Miss Alice.'

In a twinkling the hall-door was opened, and pretty Jessie Cavers, now Mrs. J. Nevermiss, stood palpitating and trembling, with her nightcap on and her feet unshod, by the side of her stout and buirdly helpmate, whose confusion and earnest apologies Ronald at once cut short, for he well knew that honest Jock had been labouring under a mistake, for the unpleasant effect of which he endeavoured to make amends by a hearty but respectful welcome. Ronald shook the snowflakes from his dress, and from the ample plumage of his bonnet, as they lighted him through a cold but splendid lobby into the library, where a fire was hastily prepared by the nimble little hands of Jessie. Ronald experienced another disappointment. Lord Lisle and the family were in Edinburgh, where they always spent the winter season. In his hurry to reach the North, he had quite forgotten that; but he was now informed that they were all 'as weel as he could wuss them to be;' and Jock, while he stood near the door twirling his bonnet, assured him, with a sly look, that Miss Alice 'was a bonnier and a grander young leddy noo, and had turned the heads o' hauf the country-side. Young Corrieoich, and many mair, were gone clean wud aboot her. Old Mrs. Kantweel, the housekeeper, next appeared to bid him welcome. 'Oh, sir!' said she,' ye seem sair distressed and unsettled. Ye'll hae been up the glen, whar there are nane noo, alake! to greet you at your homecomin'.—'Would to Heaven I had been shot at Waterloo, or anywhere else, rather than have lived till now !' exclaimed he bitterly, flinging away his bonnet and sword, and sinking into a chair. It stung him to the soul to be pitied by servants, however well and kindly they might mean.

'Dinna tak' on sae deeply, sir,' continued the matron;' it's sair to bide, but------'—'Enough of this! You mean kindly, Mrs. Kantweel, but I am unused to such consolation,' replied Stuart, with that native hauteur which he had resumed now that he had again trod upon Highland heather. 'I am very sorry for disturbing you all at so untimely an hour ; but I request that the whole household will retire to bed, except my old comrade of the muirs, Jock the gamekeeper, with whom I wish to have a few minutes' conversation, after he has seen my nag stabled for the night, or rather the remainder of the morning.'

In a few minutes the servants were all in their nests, except Jock, who was invited to seat himself at the opposite side of the library-table, on which Jessie had placed decanters of wine and brandy, with a cold repast, which was, however, left untouched by Ronald.

From Jock he learned the completion of the story of his father's involvement by Macquirk and others, of the sequestration of the effects, the sale of the estate, and of the laird's departure for Canada with his followers ; since which nothing had been heard of him. His grief, during the recital, was excessive ; but, since fortune had put it in his power to undo all that misfortune had done, he resolved to bear his temporary distress with resignation: it was, too, with a kind of grim satisfaction that he now remembered having caught a momentary glimpse of a countenance—which it flashed on his mind was that of AEneas Macquirk— pressed against the bars of a loophole of the ancient Tolbooth of the Canongate, on the day the regiment entered Edinburgh so joyously. The worthy writer having contrived, by his too-sharp practice, to secure himself accommodation in the building, and seeing little prospect of release save by the assistance of the finisher of the law, usurped the functions of that personage, and finished himself, by means of a noose of his own tying.

With the first gleam of dawn, Ronald quitted Inchavon, rode back to Perth, and returned to Edinburgh as fast as a chaise-and-four could take him; but his spirits were oppressed, and his heart saddened and seared, by the adventures of the preceding night.


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