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Romance of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 66 - News from Afar

Meanwhile, the arrangements for the marriage of a certain lady and gentleman were proceeding in the most agreeable manner imaginable, and the ceremony was only delayed until some definite information could be procured concerning the fate of the old laird and his followers. Even the day was fixed; for three months had elapsed, and no tidings had been heard from Canada. The Glasgow manufacturer who had purchased Lochisla established a splendid household and equipage in Edinburgh. By the marriage of one of his daughters with some retired naval captain, who, like most naval captains, was not very particular in his taste, the Macquabester family continued to squeeze themselves into the assembly-rooms now and then, and to give large routs at home, where they carried on—as the saying is—'at hack and manger ;' and, one way and another, the poor man squandered away his hard-earned thousands, the gains of many a long industrious year, so successfully, that in a short time he was compelled to betake himself to the loom, while his property was pounced upon ravenously by his creditors. His affairs were managed by Messrs. Diddle and Fleece, clerks to the signet, and they transacted matters so effectually, that Macquabester was soon without a stiver, and his creditors did not find themselves 'muckle the better' either. Under its new name of Rosemount, Lochisla was advertised for sale, at a small upset price, and all applications were to be made to Messrs. Diddle and Fleece, at their office in Queen Street. Fifty thousand pounds was the sum required; and Ronald, when he read the advertisement one morning in the mess-room, resolved to become the purchaser, but knew not where to raise the money. While revolving the matter in his mind, without being able to form any definite plan, a servant brought a note from Lord Lisle, requesting to see him immediately. After a consultation with Alice's father, Ronald found himself able to treat with Messrs. Diddle and Fleece, on whom he called in the forenoon at their chambers; and he found them, there being money in the way, the most smooth-faced, obsequious, and polite men of the quill that Edinburgh possessed. After a delay of some weeks, and a mighty deal of fuss, burrowing and searching among the musty records of the Register House, and after all sorts of doubts, difficulties, delays, replies and duplies, duplicates and repetitions, amplifications and expenses had been disinterred or created, brought forward and demolished, the affair was settled, and Stuart found Lochisla his own.

One forenoon he sat in the front drawing-room at Lisle's house, lounging on a very comfortable sofa, and occupied in detailing some of his Peninsular adventures to a bright circle of six young ladies, whose fair fingers were plying the needle with great assiduity, at two large pieces of yellow silk. Several handsome work-baskets lay on the floor, filled with embroidery, gold fringe, silver thistles, letters for battle and achievement, and above all a sphinx, weighty and large enough to please even Campbell, the colonel. The end of the drawing-room, at which the fair workers sat, was covered with shreds and patches like the floor of a milliner's shop. Alice and five of her most intimate companions were busy working a new pair of colours for the Highlanders; and the rolls of silk, upon which the ladies were embroidering, spread from the knee of one to another, like some great piece of ancient tapestry. The ladies were all fair and of noble birth, and Master Ronald, who lay with so much Spanish nonchalance on the sofa, had the happiness to act as their director; and as the damsels were all anxious to attract the attention of the handsome officer, although they knew him to be engaged to their friend, they were continually asking him questions, where such a badge, such a motto, or the name of such a battle should be placed.

A chubby little rogue, with fair hair and merry hazel eyes, who bore the name of Ronald Lisle, was clambering at his namesake's back, and twisting his curly black locks with dimpled little hands, and crowing and laughing aloud to Alice and the ladies, with whom he was ' an angel, a sweet pet, a dear love,' etc., etc. He was the very picture of a plump little Cupid ; and the ladies bestowed so many kisses and caresses upon him, that Ronald became quite envious, and told the fair givers so. He was just in the middle of a very animated detail of his adventures with Cifuentes in the wood of La Nava, when the shrill blast of the well-known war-pipe made him stop so suddenly in his narrative, that all the girls looked up in surprise, for the pipe may be heard at all times in every part of Edinburgh. The performer came nearer and nearer, and the notes of his instrument were making the great square, the lofty dome and portico of St. George's—even the very sky—ring to the warlike blast. It was a great Highland pipe of the largest size, and Ronald's blood came and went in his changing face while he listened.

'That is the "Prince's Lament!"' said he.—'Surely I have heard that pipe and tune before,' said Alice, throwing aside the standard and her needle, and going to the window. She uttered an exclamation of surprise and started back.

"Tis either Donald Iverach or the devil!' cried Ronald impetuously, as he sprung to her side.—'It is indeed poor old Iverach!' replied Alice piteously.

'My father's piper a beggar in the streets of Edinburgh!—a mendicant in his old age!' muttered Ronald through his clenched teeth, striking the floor with his heel till a spur tore the carpet, while the ladies crowded round him with timidity and astonishment. 'What cursed misfortune can have brought this about?'—'Dear Ronald! be composed a little,' said Alice, taking his hands within her own; 'you must obey me just now, and I will obey you by-and-by. I will desire Iverach to be looked after.' She rang the bell violently.

The piper was now in front of the house. He stood at the kerbstone and paused a moment—supposing, probably, that he should not play long in vain before so splendid a mansion. He was clad in the royal tartan; having come of a broken clan, he had always worn the family colours of the house under which his ancestors had been vassals. His kilt, plaid, and coat were worn to rags, and the once bright scarlet checks of the tartan were faded and dark; yet the dirk and claymore were swinging as of old at his nut-brown thigh. He was pale and wan, and evidently broken down with age, want, and sorrow. His silvery hairs were almost destitute of covering, and his feet were in the same condition. The proud expression of his eye was gone; he rarely raised it from the pavement, and when a coin was thrown from a window or the hand of a passer-by, his cheek grew red, and he picked up the gift with such confusion that he forgot to thank the donor.

'Oh, Alice!' groaned Stuart, 'now indeed I know that my father is no more. Death alone could separate Iverach from him; but I have long been prepared to expect the worst. Let some one take care of the old man and bring him here.' While he was speaking the piper was ushered in, and stood near the door, bowing, bonnet in hand, to the ladies successively, with that native dignity and pride, mingled with respect, which a Highlander never, under any circumstances, loses. He bowed profoundly to Ronald, and his keen eyes wandered restlessly over his uniform. Then, as if some sudden recollection flashed upon his mind, the piob mhor fell from his grasp ; he sprang forward, and, bursting into tears, clasped Stuart round the neck.

'It's my ain pairn! It's Maister Ronald! Oich! oich! Got tam! I'm creetin' mair like a bit giglet o' a lassie, than a teuch auld carle that's come through sae muckle! Gude pe thankit we hae met at last, Maister Ronald! I have been wandering to meet ye through many a queer place; but sair and sad are the news I hae to tell ye—sad and sair indeed. So joost prepare yerself for the warst!'

'I suppose you would speak of my father?' said Ronald, with a quivering lip.—'Aich, ay: ta laird, ta laird! Aich, ay! Got pless us!' replied the vassal, bursting again into tears, which he endeavoured in vain to hide by burying his head in the folds of his tattered plaid ; while Stuart half reclined on Alice's shoulder, and turned aside, deeply touched with the old man's sorrow—for grief, like joy, is infectious. 'Ay; I wad speak o' the laird, puir man! an' prood he would hae peen to see his only son coming home frae the wars an' devildoms a stoot an' handsome chield, wi' a proon face, and a hand hardened wi' the hilt o' the proadsword. But, ochone-aree! he's low aneuch the day, an' mony a pretty man tat followed him far awa' ower the wide and trackless seas to the stranger's cauld an' meeserable country.'—'Poor dear old man!' said Alice, while she pressed Ronald's hand to compose him, as the piper was speaking.

'I have sad news to tell you, too, Iverach,' said he. 'Poor Evan Bean —Evan with the fair hair—is no more! I find this to be a sorrowful meeting, Donald ; for I have lost my father, and you your only son.'

The old man smote himself on the forehead, and reeled back giddily as if struck by a blow; but he almost immediately recovered. He stared wildly at the speaker for a moment, and then said, with strange calmness: 'I never again expeckit to pehauld him, for auld Shanet tauld me his weird; and Shanet never spoke in vain, nor tauld an untrue tale. Her father was a taischatr. She said he wad return nae mair—that he was doomed ! The words were hard to pelieve; put I mourned for him then as one that was deid and awa'. Oich! I thought the pang was ower. Put —put, Oh, Maister Ronald! my puir Evan—and whar was he killed?'

'At Toulouse, Donald—at Toulouse, where we gained a signal victory over France. He died bravely, like his comrades, for all were brave alike; I laid him with my own hands in the churchyard of Muret. But, for pity's sake, Donald, tell me of my father, and the fate of the Lochisla people, and then I will tell you more of your son, who, as a token of remembrance, has sent you the clasp which fastened the green feather of his bonnet. Miss Lisle will give it when you are more composed. Come; take courage, Donald, and tell us your story. There are none here but old friends, who have often danced to the sound of your pipes, and shall yet again—ay, next month, and in the old hall of Lochisla, too!'

Alice blushed, and her companions smiled. The old man's eyes flashed a red light through their tears. He looked from one fair face to another, red, as he read nothing but innocence and happiness in them all, he smiled, and appeared to become happy too. After being comforted with a few mouthfuls of mountain-dew, filled from a decanter into an ancient quaigh that he carried, and from which he drank everything, he became quite composed, and commenced his story. After leaving the Clyde, the vessel containing the emigrants encountered a continuance of adverse winds, and was driven from her course far to the northward of the Canadas, upon the coast of Newfoundland—the most barbarous and desolate of all the British colonies. Having lost their rudder, and had their compass washed overboard in a gale, the vessel was, while surrounded by a dense fog, carried into Baboul Bay, or, as it is commonly called, the Bay of Bulls, by the strong current which there runs in-shore. Finding that the brig was drifting among the breakers, and that she was quite unmanageable, the master ordered out the boats to tow her off, but the order was given too late. The boats were swamped among the surf, and a few moments afterwards the vessel grounded on a reef, where the boiling sea made clean breaches over her every instant. She heeled over on her beam-ends, and the foremast went away by the board, carrying with it the main top mast and all the rigging above the top. The vessel thus became a total wreck in five minutes.

'At the time the ship struck,' continued the piper, 'the laird was lying sick in the cabin, unco unwell in mind and body, for he had lang been pining awa' wi' dule and sorrow for leaving you, and the heathery hills o' Albyn, and to find himsel sae far awa' frae his tower and glen, and the graves o' his kindred and forbears. When I found that a' was ower, I determined to save him, or to dee wi' him. Drawing our dirks, and vowing we would slay to the death ony man that opposed us, Alpin Oig and mysel' rushed into the cabin, and bore him therefra in our arms upon the deck, and frae there into a boat, the last ane that was left. The sailors tried to crowd in, but our bare blades keepit them off. Nae man, woman, or bairn frae Lochisla, though death was starin' them in the face, wad hae thocht their ain lives worth savin' if the laird's was lost; and sae a' helpit us into the boat, where we solemnly swore, on the blades of our dirks, to return and take as many frae the wreck as we could, and a line was thrown us to make fast to the shore. The laird lay as if he was dead at the bottom of the boat, wi' naething on but his dressing-gown, and the saut sea pouring like rain ower him. Ochone! it was an awsome time for me! Puir gentleman! he was helpless as a wean in our hands.'

Owing to the denseness of the fog, there was no shore to be seen, but the beach, or what they supposed to be the beach, could be discerned through the unnatural mid-day gloom by the white foam of the breakers, towards which the two brave and determined Celts, who had never been on rougher water than the loch of the Isla, urged their frail bark with all the strength of bending oars and muscular arms. They soon lost sight of the water-logged wreck, which the fog enveloped like a shroud ; but the shrieks and prayers of those on board were heard ringing above the roar of the wrathful breakers, which hurl their crested heads with such tremendous fury on the desert beach of Baboul Bay.

When within a few feet of the shore, their attention was arrested by a loud splitting sound, a crash as if a mighty oak was rending asunder; and a tremendous cry rose from the face of the waters to Heaven. They looked back in dismay. The sea was covered with pieces of the floating wreck, and human heads and hands appeared at times above the white surf, beneath which they were all engulfed in succession. At the same moment nearly that the ship went to pieces, a wave like a mountain rolled against the stern of the boat, with a shock like that of an earthquake. Iverach was stunned by its weight and fury; the light seemed to go out from his eyes, and he heard a horrible hissing in his ears, as he sank into the abyss,—the trough of the sea. Darkness was around him, and agony was in his heart, as he groped about in the sinking boat. He was grasped convulsively in the strong arms of his terrified companion, and down they went together,—down, down, he knew not how deep, for he became senseless, and could feel no more.

When life returned, he found himself lying upon the beach, drenched with the bitter surf, and covered with shells and sea-weed. It was evening, and the sun, setting behind the hills, cast a long line of radiance across the glassy sea. All traces of the brig, save those that lay scattered on the shore, had disappeared. Corpses were strewn upon the sand,— the cold and wet remains of men, women, and children, once the poor but happy cottiers of Lochisla.

Night was closing around him ; he was alone, upon the desert shore of a strange country, and the heart of the aged and superstitious Highlander died away as he looked around him. In front lay the hateful sea, which had destroyed his companions, and behind was a homeless, howling wilderness, a savage solitude, which he shuddered to look upon. He saw everywhere rocks, mountains, bogs, and thickets of stunted firs, which grew to the very edge of the cliffs, and overhung the water ; but there were no signs of any human habitation, and he strained his eyes until they grew stiff in the sockets watching the vast wilderness to the westward,—yet no wreath of smoke rose from it. Save the whistle and whir of the plover and curlew, or the splash of the seals that were sporting and floating among the shattered ruins of an iceberg, no signs of life manifested themselves around him.

Donald gazed at the last-named animals with awe, not unmingled with fear, when they rose from the water and looked steadily at him with their great black eyes. The Highlanders used to consider these animals enchanted beings, and some old and troublesome legends of the Ebudae came thronging upon Donald's mind as he watched their movements among the ice. Beside him lay the unconscious remains of his leader ; but he was joyful rather than grieved to find that he was dead, for he knew that he was now in a better place, and that all his troubles were at an end. To have lived would only have been a continuance of misery, and Donald upbraided the sea for having spared himself. He sat on the point of a rock, at the foot of which rolled the surf, and he watched its advance and retreat, careless of whether he died or lived, until night descended on the sea and land, and then his northern superstitions began to prove more terrible enemies than any he had yet encountered. At last it became quite dark, and he knelt down by the corse of the laird to pray; but when, by the light of the stars, he beheld the bleached and ghastly face of the dead man, a sudden and unaccountable terror seized him, and he fled from the sea-shore into the wilderness, where he could no longer hear the dull boom of the ocean, as its eternal waves came rolling on in monotonous succession on the lonely beach.

At sunrise he again sought the shore, and, digging a grave with his weapon, gently placed the body of Mr. Stuart in the earth, rolling it first in his plaid and a piece of old sail-cloth. He covered the grave with the greenest sods he could find, and toiled the whole day, carrying stones from the shore to pile a cairn above it. and on its summit he placed a rough wooden crucifix, for old Iverach had more of the Catholic than the Protestant in his creed, and he looked upon the cross with reverence and awe. Having performed this last sad duty to the man whom, since they were boys, he had revered and loved with all the devotion of a Highland vassal, he sat down by the grave, and, regardless of his fate, heeded not a ship which was rounding a point of land; and hove in sight about four miles off. But the appearance of other things roused him from this state of apathy. His eye fell upon a gold signet-ring which had fallen from the hand of Mr. Stuart, and lay on the turf beside a splendidly-jewelled dirk, which he was wont to wear on the 19th of August, [The raising of Prince Charles's standard, etc., etc.] and other days which are considered gay anniversaries in the Highlands. There was likewise an antique iron casket, containing family relics, bracelets, rings, lockets, and brooches : and the piper resolved that he would return to his own country, if God spared and protected him, that he might place these trinkets in the hands of Ronald Stuart or Miss Lisle, with whom he knew they would be in safe keeping.

With this intention he quitted the beach, ascended a promontory, and made signals to the ship ; but they were unseen, and he toiled along the shore from one headland to another, clambering ocean-cliffs, tearing asunder thicket and jungle, till his strength began to fail, and darkness again descended, and he could see the ship no longer. As a last resort, by means of the hard flinty stones with which the island abounds, being the only crop it ever produces, he struck a light, and raised a beacon-fire on a rocky peak. Piling drift-wood, fallen trees, and turpentine branches upon it, he raised a giant flame, which lighted the sea and land for miles around, revealing the caverns in the far-off capes and headlands, the barren hills and rocks, the rippling ocean, and the distant sail, which glimmered white and wavering. This scheme succeeded. A boat was despatched to ascertain the meaning of this strange illumination, and the vessel, which proved to be a Quebec ship bound for Saint John's, the capital of the island, took Iverach on board. He was treated with the utmost kindness by the crew, and was carried to the town of Saint John's, whence he procured a passage in a Greenock ship,—disposing of his brooch, pistols, and some other appointments with which the Highlanders are so fond of adorning their garb, to defray his expenses.

After his return he visited Lochisla, and then traversed the west country for some time, till a recruiting-sergeant of the Gordon Highlanders informed him that the regiment had returned to Scotland; upon which he set out on his way to meet them, and having that morning entered Edinburgh, he had screwed up his pipes in Charlotte Square to play for a breakfast, for he had tasted nothing that day.

As he concluded his narrative, he unstrapped a leather dorlach, which he carried on his back, and taking from it the iron casket, the signet-ring, and the jewelled poniard, placed them in Ronald's hand, glad to be rid of them, after having brought them so far and preserved them as sacred relics, even when compelled by poverty to seek shelter in the haunts of infamy and crime, where he had preserved them untouched, though nearly perishing of want. He had often been totally without food for four or five days, while at the same time he carried about him jewels worth four hundred pounds.

'But they werna my ain,' said he; 'and what could I do, though hunger is hard to thole? But a's past noo, and oich! I'll be happy yet, even in my auld and childish days ; and I will end them beneath the roof-tree o' the auld tower when the time comes, and come it must,— some day sune,—oich! oich!'

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