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Book of Scottish Story
The Vacant Chair - Part 1

YOU have all heard of the Cheviot mountains. They are a rough, rugged, majestic chain of hills, which a poet might term the Roman wall of nature; crowned with snow, belted with storms, surrounded by pastures and fruitful fields, and still dividing the northern portion of Great Britain from the southern. With their proud summits piercing the clouds, and their dark, rocky declivities frowning upon the glens below, they appear symbolical of the wild and untamable spirits of the Borderers who once inhabited their sides. We say, you have all heard of the Cheviots, and know them to be very high hills, like a huge clasp riveting England and Scotland together ; but we are not aware that you may have heard of Marchlaw, an old, gray-looking farm—house, substantial as a modern fortress, recently, and, for aught we know to the contrary, still inhabited by Peter Elliot, the proprietor of some five hundred surrounding acres. The boundaries of Peter’s farm, indeed, were defined neither by fields, hedges, nor stone walls. A wooden stake here, and a stone there, at considerable distances from each other, were the general landmarks; but neither Peter nor his neighbours considered a few acres worth quarrelling about ; and their sheep frequently visited each other’s pastures in a friendly way, harmoniously sharing a family dinner, in the same spirit as their masters made themselves free at each other’s tables.

Peter was placed in very unpleasant circumstances, owing to the situation of Marchlaw House, which, unfortunately, was built immediately across the "ideal line,” dividing the two kingdoms; and his misfortune was, that, being born within it, he knew not whether he was an Englishman or a Scotchman. He could trace his ancestral line no farther back than his great-grandfather, who, it appeared from the family Bible, had, together with his grandfather and father, claimed Marchlaw as their birthplace. They, however, were not involved in the same perplexities as their descendant. The parlour was distinctly acknowledged to be in Scotland, and two-thirds of the kitchen were as certainly allowed to be in England ;—his three ancestors were born in the room over the parlour, and, therefore, were Scotchmen beyond question ; but Peter, unluckily, being brought into the world before the death of his grandfather, his parents occupied a room immediately over the debatable boundary line which crossed the kitchen. The room, though scarcely eight feet square, was evidently situated between the two countries; but, no one being able to ascertain what portion belonged to each, Peter, after many arguments and altercations upon the subject, was driven to the disagreeable alternative of confessing he knew not what countryman he was. What rendered the confession the more painful was, that it was Peter’s highest ambition to be thought a Scotsman. All his arable land lay on the Scottish side ; his mother was collaterally related to the Stuarts ; and few families were more ancient or respectable than the Elliots. Peter’s speech, indeed, betrayed him to be a walking partition between the two kingdoms—a living representation of the Union; for in one word he pronounced the letter ‘r’ with the broad, masculine sound of the North Briton, and in the next with the liquid ‘burr’ of the Northumbrians.

Peter, or, if you prefer it, Peter Elliot Esquire of Marchlaw, in the counties of Northumberland and Roxburgh, was, for many years, the best runner, leaper, and wrestler between Wooler and Jedburgh. Whirled from his hand, the ponderous bullet whizzed through the air like a pigeon on the wing ; and the best "putter" on the Borders quailed from competition. As a feather in his grasp, he seized the unwieldy hammer, swept it round and round his head, accompanying with agile limb its evolutions, swiftly as swallows play around a circle, and hurled it from his hands like a shot from a rifle, till antagonists shrunk
back, and the spectators burst into a shout. "Well done, squire! the squire for ever ! " once exclaimed a servile observer of titles. "Squire! wha are ye squiring at?" returned Peter. “Confound ye! where was ye when I was christened squire? My name’s Peter Elliot—your man, or onybody’s man, at whatever they like!"

Peter’s soul was free, bounding, and buoyant as the wind that carolled in a zephyr, or shouted in a hurricane, upon his native hills ; and his body was thirteen stone of healthy substantial flesh, steeped in the spirits of life. He had been long married, but marriage had wrought no change upon him. They who suppose that wedlock transforms the lark into an owl, offer an insult to the lovely beings who, brightening our darkest hours with the smiles of affection, teach us that that only is unbecoming in the husband which is disgraceful in the man. Nearly twenty years had passed over them ; but Janet was still as kind, and, in his eyes, as beautiful as when, bestowing on him her hand, she blushed her vows at the altar; and he was still as happy, as generous, and as free. Nine fair children sat around their domestic hearth, and one, the youngling of the flock, smiled upon its mother’s knee. Peter had never known sorrow ; he was blest in his wife, in his children, in his flocks. He had become richer than his fathers. He was beloved by his neighbours, the tillers of his ground, and his herdsmen: yea, no man envied his prosperity. But a blight passed over the harvest of his joys, and gall was rained into the cup of his felicity.

It was Christmas-day, and a more melancholy-looking sun never rose on the 25th of December. One vast, sable cloud, like a universal pall, over-spread the heavens. For weeks the ground had been covered with clear, dazzling snow; and as throughout the day the rain continued its unwearied and monotonous drizzle, the earth assumed a character and appearance melancholy and troubled as the heavens. Like a mastiff that has lost its owner, the wind howled dolefully down the glens, and was re-echoed from the caves of the mountains, as the lamentations of a legion of invisible spirits. The frowning, snow-clad precipices were instinct with motion, as avalanche upon avalanche, the larger burying the less, crowded downward in their tremendous journey to the plain. The simple mountain rills had assumed the majesty of rivers; the broader streams were swollen into the wild torrent, and, gushing forth as cataracts, in fury and in foam, enveloped the valleys in an angry Hood. But at Marchlaw the fire blazed blithely; the kitchen groaned beneath the load of preparations for a joyful feast ; and glad faces glided from room to room.

Peter Elliot kept Christmas, not so much because it was Christmas, as in honour of its being the birthday of Thomas, his first-born, who that day entered his nineteenth year. With a father’s love, his heart yearned for all his children; but Thomas was the pride of his eyes. Cards of apology had not then found their way among our Border hills; and as all knew that, although Peter admitted no spirits within his threshold, nor a drunkard at his table, he was, nevertheless, no niggard in his hospitality, his invitations were accepted without ceremony. The guests were assembled; and the kitchen being the only apartment in the building large enough to contain them, the cloth was spread upon a long, clean, oaken table, stretching from England into Scotland. On the English end of the board were placed a ponderous plum-pudding, studded with temptation, and a smoking sirloin; on Scotland, a savoury and well-seasoned haggis, with a sheep’s-head and trotters; while the intermediate space was filled with the good things of this life, common to both kingdoms and to the season.

The guests from the north and from the south were arranged promiscuously. Every seat was filled - save one. The chair by Peter’s right hand remained unoccupied. He had raised his hands before his eyes, and besought a blessing on what was placed before them, and was preparing to carve for his visitors, when his eyes fell upon the vacant chair. The knife dropped upon the table. Anxiety Hashed across his countenance, like an arrow from an unseen hand.

"Janet, where is Thomas?” he inquired; "hae nane o’ ye seen him?" and, without waiting an answer, he continued—"How is it possible he can be absent at a time like this? And on such a day, too? Excuse me a minute, friends, till I just step out and see if I can find him. Since ever I kept this day, as mony o’ ye ken, he has always been at my right hand, in that very chair; I canna think o’ beginning our dinner while I see it empty."

"If the filling of the chair be all," said a pert young sheep-farmer, named Johnson, "I will step into it till Master Thomas arrive."

"Ye’re not a father, young man," said Peter, and walked out of the room.

Minute succeeded minute, but Peter returned not. The guests became hungry, peevish, and gloomy, while an excellent dinner continued spoiling before them. Mrs Elliot, whose good-nature was the most prominent feature in her character, strove, by every possible effort, to beguile the unpleasant impressions she perceived gathering upon their countenances.

"Peter is just as bad as him," she remarked, "to hae gane to seek him when he kenned the dinner wouldna keep. And I’m sure Thomas kenned it would be ready at one o’clock to a minute. It’s sae unthinking and unfriendly like to keep folk waiting.” And, endeavouring to smile upon a beautiful black-haired girl of seventeen, who sat by her elbow, she continued in an anxious whisper—"Did ye see naething o' him, Elizabeth, hinny?"

The maiden blushed deeply; the question evidently gave freedom to a tear, which had, for some time, been an unwilling prisoner in the brightest eyes in the room; and the monosyllable, "No," that trembled from her lips, was audible only to the ear of the inquirer. In vain Mrs Elliot despatched one of her children after another, in quest of their father and brother; they came and went, but brought no tidings more cheering than the moaning of the hollow wind. Minutes rolled into hours, yet neither came. She perceived the prouder of her guests preparing to withdraw, and, observing that "Thomas’s absence was so singular and unaccountable, and so unlike either him or his father, she didna ken what apology to make to her friends for such treatment ; but it was needless waiting, and begged they would use no ceremony, but just begin.”

No second invitation was necessary. Good humour appeared to be restored, and sirloins, pies, pasties, and moorfowl began to disappear like the lost son. For a moment, Mrs Elliot apparently partook in the restoration of cheerfulness; but a low sigh at her elbow again drove the colour from her rosy cheeks. Her eye wandered to the farther end of the table, and rested on the unoccupied seat of her husband, and the vacant chair of her first-born. Her heart fell heavily within her; all the mother gushed into her bosom; and, rising from the table, "What in the world can be the meaning o’ this?" said she, as she hurried, with a troubled countenance, towards the door. Her husband met her on the threshold.

"Where hae ye been, Peter?” said she, eagerly. "Hae ye seen naething o’ him?’

"Naething, naething,” replied he; "is he no cast up yet?” And, with a melancholy glance, his eyes sought an answer in the deserted chair. His lips quivered, his tongue faltered.

"Gude forgie me," said he, "and such a day for even an enemy to be out in! I’ve been up and doun every way that I can think on, but not a living creature has seen or heard tell o’ him. Ye’ll excuse me, neebors," he added, leaving the house; "I must awa again, for I canna rest.”


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