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Scenes and Legends of The North of Scotland
Chapter XXVII

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”—Hamlet.

I had passed the three first milestones after leaving Forres, when the clouds began to lour on every side of me, as if earth and sky were coming together, and the rain to descend in torrents. The great forest of Darnaway looked shaggy and brown through the haze, as if greeting the heavens with a scowl as angry as their own; and a low, long wreath of vapour went creeping over the higher lands to the left, like a huge snake. On the right, the locale of Shakspere’s witch scene, half moor half bog, with the old ruinous castle of Inshoch standing sentry over it, seemed ever and anon to lessen its area as the heavily-laden clouds broke over its farther edge like waves of the sea ; and the intervening morass—black and dismal at all times— grew still blacker and more dismal with every fitful thickening of the haze and the rain. And then, how the furze waved to the wind, and the few scattered trees groaned and creaked ! The thunder and the witches were alone wanting.

I passed on, and the storm gradually sank. The evening, however, was dark and damp, and more melancholy than even the day, and I was thoroughly wet, and somewhat fatigued to boot. I could not, however, help turning a little out of my way to pause for a few minutes amid the ruins of the old farmhouse of Minitarf, just as I had paused in the middle of the storm to fill my mind with the sublimities of the Harmoor, and do homage to the genius of Shakspere. But why at Minitarf? Who is not acquainted with the legend of the  Heath near Forres”—who knows anything of the history of the Farm-house? Both stories, however, are characteristic of the very different ages to which they belong ; and the moral of the humbler story is at once the more general in its application, and the more obvious of the two.

Isabel Rose, the gudewife of Minitarf, was a native of Easter-Ross, and having lost both her parents in infancy, she had passed some of the earlier years of her life with a married sister in the town of Cromarty. She had been famed for her beauty, and for being the toast of three parishes ; and of all her lovers, and few could reckon up more, she had been lucky enough to lose her heart to one of the best. The favoured suitor was a handsome young farmer of the province of Moray—a person somewhat less shrewd, perhaps, than many of his countrymen, but inflexibly honest, and perseveringly industrious ; and, as he was a namesake of her own, she became his wife and the mistress of Minitarf, and yet remained Isabel Rose as before. The wife became a mother—the mother of two boys. Years passed by; the little drama of her life, like one of the dramas of antiquity, had scarce any change of circumstance, and no shifting of scenes ; and her two sons grew up to maturity, as unlike one another in character as if they had not been bom to the same parents, nor brought up under the same roof.

John, the elder son, was cautious and sensible, and of great kindliness of disposition. There was nothing bright or striking about him; but he united to his father’s integrity and firmness of purpose much more than his father’s shrewdness, and there was a homely massiveness in the character that procured him respect. He was of a mechanical turn ; and making choice of the profession of a house-carpenter—for he was as little ambitious as may be—he removed to Glasgow, where his steadiness and skill recommended him to the various contractors of the place, until in the course of years he became, a good deal to his own surprise, a contractor himself. Sandy, the younger son, was volatile and unsettled, and impatient of labour and restraint, and yet no piece of good fortune could have surprised Sandy. He had somehow come to the conclusion that he was born to be a gentleman, and took rank accordingly, by being as little useful, and dressing as showily as he could. His principles were of a more conventional cast than those of his brother, and his heart less warm ; still, however, there was no positive vice in the character; and as he was decidedly cleverer than John, and a great deal more genteel, his mother could not help sharing with him in the hope that he was born to be the gentleman of the family—a hope which, of course, was not lessened when she saw him bound apprentice in his seventeenth year to a draper in a neighbouring town.

Sandy’s master w^s what is termed a clever man of business ; one of those smart fellows who want only honesty, and that soundness of judgment which seems its natural accompaniment to make headway in the world. He had already threaded his way through the difficulties of three highly respectable failures; he had thrice paid his debts at the rate of fifteen shillings per pound, and had thus realized on each occasion a profit of twenty-five per cent, on the whole. And yet, from some inexplicable cause, he was not making more money than traders much less fertile in expedient than himself. His ordinary gains were perhaps the less considerable from the circumstance, that men came to deal with him as completely on their guard as if they had come to fight with him ; and, though a match for any single individual, he was, somehow, no match for every body, even though, after the Hianner of Captain Bobadil’s opponents, they came only one at a time. His scheme, too, of occasionally suspending his payments, had this disadvantage, that the oftener it was resorted to, the risk became greater and the gain less.

The shop of such a person could not be other than a rare school of ingenuity—a place of shifts and expedients—and where, according to the favourite phrase of its master, things were done in a business-like manner ; and Sandy Rose was no very backward pupil. There are ingenious young men who are a great deal too apt to confound the idea of talent itself with the knavish exercise of it; and who, seeing nothing very knowing in simple honesty, exert their ingenuity in the opposite tract, rather out of a desire of doing clever things than from any very decided bias to knavery. And Sandy Rose was unfortunately one of the number. It is undoubtedly an ingenious thing to get possession of a neighbour’s money without running the risk of stealing it; and there can be no question that it requires more of talent to overreach another than to be overreached one’s-self. The three years of Sandy’s apprenticeship came to their close, and with the assistance of his father, who in a long course of patient industry had succeeded in saving a few hundred pounds, he opened shop for himself in one of the principal streets of the town.

Sandy’s shop, or warehouse, as he termed it—for the latter name was deemed the more respectable of the two—was decidedly the most showy in the street. He dealt largely in fancy goods, and no other kind in the “soft way” show equally well in a window. True, the risk was greater, for among the ordinary chances of loss he had to reckon on the continual changes of fashion ; but then, from the same cause, the profits were greater too, and Sandy had a decided turn for the more adventurous walks of his profession. Nothing so respectable as a large stock in trade; the profits of a thousand pounds are necessarily greater than the profits of five hundred. And so, what between the ready money advanced to him by his father, and the degree of credit which the money procured for him, Sandy succeeded in rendering his stock a large one. He had omitted only two circumstances in his calculation—the proportion which one's stock should bear to one’s capital, and the proportion which it should bear to the trade of the place in which one has settled. When once fairly behind his counter, however, no shopkeeper could be more attentive to his customers, or to the appearance of his shop ; and all allowed that Sandy Rose was a clever man of business. He wrote and figured with such amazing facility, and made such dashes at the end of every word! He was so indefatigable in his assertions, too, that he made it a rule in every case to sell under prime cost! He was, besides, so amazingly active—a squirrel in its cage was but a type of Sandy ! He was withal so unexceptionably genteel! His finest cloths did not look half so well on his shelves as they did on his dapper little person; and it was clear, from his everyday appearance, that he was one of his own best customers.

Sandy’s first half year of business convinced him that a large stock in trade may resemble a showy equipage in more points than one : it may look as respectable in its way, but then it may cost as much. Bills were now falling due almost every week, and after paying away the money saved during the earlier months, the everyday custom of the shop proved too little to meet the everyday demand. Fortunately, however, there were banks in the country—“ more banks than one and his old master was content to lend him the use of his name, simply on the condition of being accommodated with Sandy’s name in turn. Bill, therefore, was met by bill, and the paper of one bank pitted against the paper of another; and as Sandy was known to have started in trade with a few hundreds, there was no demur for the first twelvemonth or so on the part of the bankers. They then, however, began to demand indorsations, and to hint that the farmer, his father, was a highly respectable man. Sandy expressed his astonishment that any such security should be deemed necessary ; his old master expressed his astonishment too; nothing could be more unbusiness-like, he said but the bankers, who were quite accustomed to the astonishment of all their more doubtful customers, were inflexible notwithstanding, and the old man’s name was procured. The indorsation was quite a matter of course, he was told—a thing “ neither here nor there,” but necessary just for form’s sake ; and from that day forward all the accommodation-bills of Sandy and his master bore the name of the simple-minded old man.

I have said that Sandy was one of the most indefatigable of shopkeepers. It was but for the first few months, however, when all was smooth water and easy sailing; in a few months more, when the tide had begun to set in against him, he became less attentive. Some of his fancy goods were becoming old-fashioned, and in consequence unsaleable, and his stock, large at first, was continuing large still. What between the price of stamps, too, the rate of discount, and the expense of travelling to the several banks in which he did business, he found that the profits of his trade were more than balanced by the expenditure. Sandy’s heart, therefore, began to fail him ; and, setting himself to seek amusement elsewhere than behind his counter, he got a smart young lad to take charge of the shop in his absence; and, as it could not add very materially to the inevitable expense, he provided himself with a horse. He was now every day on the road doing business as his own traveller. He rode twenty miles at a time to secure a five-shilling order, or crave payment of a five-shilling debt. He attended every horse-race and fox-hunt in the country, and paid the king’s duty for a half-starved greyhound : Sandy was happy outside his shop, and his lad was thriving within. Matters went on in this train for so long as two years, and the hapless shopkeeper began to perceive that the few hundreds advanced him by his father had totally disappeared in the time, and to wonder what had become of them. Still, however, his stock in trade, though somewhat less showy than at first, was nearly equal in value to one-third his liabilities; the other two-thirds were debts incurred by his old master; and at worst there lay no other obstacle between him and a highly respectable settlement with his creditors than the unlucky indorsations of his father. He rose, however, one morning to learn that his master had absconded during the night, leaving the shop-key under the door-sill; in a few days after, Sandy had absconded too ; and his poor father, who had paid all his debts till now, and had taken a pride in paying them, found that his unfortunate indorsations had involved him in irretrievable ruin. Bankruptcy was a very different matter to the rigidly honest old man from what it was to either Sandy or his master.

For the first few days after the shock, he went wandering about his fields, muttering ceaselessly to himself, and wringing his hands. His whole faculties seemed locked up in a feeling of bewilderment and terror, and every packet of letters which the postman brought him—letters urging the claims of angry creditors, or intimating the dishonour of bills—added to his distress. His son was in hiding no one knew where; and though it was perhaps well that he should have kept out of the way at such a time, poor Isabel could not help feeling that it was unkind. He might surely be able to do something, she thought, to lighten the distress of which he had been so entirely the cause, were it but to tell them what course yet remained for them to pursue. It was in vain that, almost broken-hearted herself, she strove by soothing the old man to restore him to himself: he remained melancholy and abstracted as at first, as if the suddenness of his ruin had deprived him of his faculties. He hardly ever spoke, took scarce any food during the day, and scarce any sleep during the night; and, finally, taking to his bed, he died after a few days’ illness—died of a broken heart. On the evening after the interment, his son John Rose, the carpenter, arrived from Glasgow, and found his mother sitting alone in the farmhouse, wholly overwhelmed with grief for the loss of her husband, and the utter ruin which she saw closing around her.

Their meeting was a sad one; but after the widow’s first burst of sorrow was over, her son strove to comfort her, and in part succeeded. She might yet look forward, he said, to better days. He was in rather easy circumstances, employing about half-a-dozen workmen, and at times finding use for more. And though he could not well be absent from them, he would remain with her until he saw how far it was possible to wind up his father’s affairs, and she would then go with him, and find what he trusted she should deem a comfortable home in Glasgow. Isabel was soothed by his kindness; but it did not escape the anxious eye of the mother, that her son, at one time so robust and strong, had grown thin, and pale, and hollow-eyed, like a person in the latter stages of consumption, and that, though he seemed anxious to appear otherwise, he was evidently much exhausted by his journey. He rallied, however, on the following day. The sale of his father’s effects was coming on in about a week ; and as the farmhouse at such a time could be no comfortable home for the widow, he brought her with him across the Firth to her sister’s in Cromarty, and then returned to Minitarf.

Her sister’s son was a saddler, a sagacious, well-informed man, truthful and honest, and as little imaginative as may be. He was employed at the time at the Mains of Invergordon— some six or seven miles from Cromarty—and slept in an apartment of the old castle, since burnt down. No one-could be less influenced by superstitious beliefs of the period; and yet when, after scaling the steep circular stair that led to his solitary room, he used to shut the ponderous door and pass his eye along the half-lighted walls, here and there perforated by a narrow arched window, there was usually something in the tone of his feelings which served to remind him that there is a dread of the supernatural too deeply implanted in man’s nature to be ever wholly eradicated. On going to bed one evening, and awakening as he supposed after a short slumber, he was much surprised to see the room filled as with a greyish light, in which the walls and the floor could be seen nearly as distinctly as by day. Suddenly the door fell open and there entered a tall young man in black, his hat wrapped up in crape, and with muslin weepers on his sleeves. Another and another entered, attired after the same fashion, until their number might, as he supposed, amount to about fifty. He lay gazing at them in astonishment, conscious of a kind of indistinct wish to ascertain whether he was in reality waking or asleep—a feeling of common enough experience in the dreams of imperfect slumber— when the man who had first come in, gliding up to his bedside, moved his lips as if addressing him, and passing off entered the staircase and disappeared. A second then came up, and heartily shaking him by the hand, also quitted the apartment, followed by all the others in the order in which they had entered, but without shutting the door; and the last recollection of the sleeper was of an emotion of intense terror, which seemed wholly to overpower him when gazing on the dark opening of the stair beyond. It was broad daylight ere he awoke, and his first glance, as the dream of the previous evening flashed on his mind, was at the door, which sure enough lay open. “I must have missed slipping on the latch,” he said, “or some of the servants must have entered during the night;—but how strange a coincidence!” The particulars of his dream—and it cost him no slight effort to deem it such—employed his thoughts until evening; when, setting out for his mother’s, he found his aunt Isabel, in much grief and dejection, seated beside the fire. He had taken his place beside her, and was striving as he best could to lighten the melancholy which he saw preying on her spirits, when a young man, bespattered with travel, and apparently much fatigued, entered the apartment. Isabel started from her seat, and clasping her hands with a fearful presentiment of some overwhelming calamity, inquired of him what had happened at Minitarf? He stood speechless for a few seconds as if overcome by some fearful emotion, and then bursting into tears, “Your son John,” he said, “died this morning !” The poor woman fainted away.

 For the two last days of the sale,” said the messenger, "there was a marked alteration in John’s manner and appearance. There was a something so fixed-like in his expression, and so mournful in his way of looking at things; and then his face was deadly pale, and he took scarce any food. It was evident that the misfortunes of his family preyed deeply on his mind. Yester evening,” continued the lad, “he complained for the first time of being unwell, and retired to bed before the usual hour. The two servant-maids rose early in the morning to prepare for leaving the place, and were surprised, on entering the ‘ha’,’ to find him sitting in the great arm-chair fronting the fire. His countenance had changed during the night; he looked much older, and very like his father; and he was so weak that he could hardly sit up in the chair. The girls were alarmed, and would have called for assistance, but he forbade them. ‘My watch,’ he said, 'hangs over my pillow ; go tell me what o’clock it is.’ It was just twenty minutes past four. ‘Well,’ said he, when they had told him, ‘it is the last hour to me ! there is a crook in my lot; but it’s God’s doing, not man’s.’ And, leaning back in the chair, he never spake more.” The messenger had seen the corpse laid on the bed, and wrapped up in a winding-sheet, before setting out on his melancholy journey. Need I say aught of the feelings of Isabel ? The saddler and his mother strove to persuade her to remain with them till at least after the funeral, but she would not; she would go and take one last look of her son, she said -—of her only son, for the other was a murderer. Early, therefore, on the following morning, the saddler hired a small yawl to bring her across the Firth, and, taking his place in the stem beside h6r, the boatmen bent them to their oars, and the hill of Nigg soon lessened behind them.

After clearing the bay, however, their progress was much impeded by adverse currents; there came on a chill drizzling rain, and the wind, which was evidently rising, began, after veering about oftener than once, to blow right ahead, and to raise a short tumbling sea. Grief of itself is cold and comfortless, and the widow, wrapped up in her cloak, sat shivering in the bottom of the yawl, drenched by the rain and the spray. But she thought only of her son and her husband. The boatmen toiled incessantly till evening; and when night came on, dark and boisterous, they were still two long miles from their landing-place—the effluence of the Naim. Directly across the mouth of the river there runs a low dangerous bar, and as they approached they could hear the roaring of the breakers above all the hoarse sighings of the wind, and the dash of the lesser waves that were bursting around them. “There,” said the saddler, as his eye caught a few faint lights that seemed twinkling along the beach; “there is the town of Naim right abreast of us; but has not the tide fallen too low for our attempting the bar?” The boatmen replied in the negative, and in a minute after they were among the breakers. For a single instant the skiff seemed riding on the crest of an immense wave, which came rolling from the open sea, and which, as it folded over and burst into foam, dashed her forward like an arrow from the string. She sank, however, as it receded, till her keel grated against the bar beneath. Another huge wave came rolling behind, and, curling its white head like the former, rushed over her stem, filling her at once to the gunwale, and at the same instant propelling her into the deep water within. The saddler sprang from his seat, and raising his aunt to the hinder thwart, and charging her to hold fast, he shouted to the boatmen to turn the boat’s head to the shore. In a few minutes after, they had landed.

Poor Isabel, well-nigh insensible—for grief and terror, added to cold and fatigue, had prostrated all her energies, bodily and mental—was carried to the town and lodged in the house of an acquaintance. When morning came she was unable to leave her bed, and so the saddler had to set out for Minitarf alone, which he reached about noon; and on being recognised as a cousin of the deceased, he was ushered into the room where the body lay. He seated himself on the edge of the bed, and raising the coffin-lid, gazed for a few seconds on the face of the dead; on hearing a footstep approaching the door, he replaced the cover. There entered a genteel-looking young man dressed for the funeral; but not the apparition of an inhabitant of the other world would have started the saddler more. He recognised in the stranger the young man of his dream. Another person entered, and him he also recognised as the man who had shaken hands with him; and who now, on being introduced to him as a relative of the deceased tacksman of Minitarf, sure enough, grasped him warmly by the hand. As the room filled around him with the neighbouring farmers attired in their soberest and best, he felt as if he still dreamed, for these were the very men whom he had seen in the old castle; and it was almost mechanically, when the coffin was carried out and laid on the bier, that, as the nearest relative of the dead he took his place as chief mourner. As the funeral proceeded, however, he collected his scattered thoughts. “ Have I indeed had experience,” said he to himself, “of one of those mysterious intimations of coming evil, the bare possibility of which few thinking men, in these latter times, seem disposed to credit on testimony alone. And little wonder, truly, that they should be so sceptical; for, for what purpose could such a warning have been given? It has enabled me to ward off no impending disaster; —nay, it has told its story so darkly and doubtfully, that the event alone has enabled me to interpret it. Could a purpose so idle have employed an agent of the invisible world? And yet,” thought he again, as the train of his cogitations found way into the deeper recesses of his mind, “an end has been accomplished by it, and a not unimportant end either. The evil has befallen as certainly and heavily as if there had been no previous warning; but, is my mind in every respect the same? Something has been accomplished. And surely He who in His providence cares for all my bodily wants, without sinking, in the littleness of the object cared for, aught of the greatness of His character, might, without lessening in aught His character for wisdom, have taken this way of making me see, more distinctly than in all my life before, that there is indeed an invisible world, and that all the future is known to Him.” There was seriousness in the thought, and never did he feel more strongly that the present scene of things is not the last, than when bending over the open grave he saw the corpse lowered down and heard the earth falling hollow on the coffin-lid.

But why dwell longer on the details of a story so mournful ! The saddler, on his return to Naim, found the widow in the delirium of a fever, from which she never recovered. Her younger son was seen in the West Indies ten years after, a miserable slave-driver, with a broken constitution and an unquiet mind. And there he died—no one caring where or how. I am not fond of melancholy stories; but “to purge the heart by pity and terror ” is the true end of tragedy—an end which the gorgeous creations of the poets are not better suited to accomplish than the domestic tragedies which we see every day enacting around us. It is well, too, to note how immensely the folly and knavery of mankind add to the amount of human suffering ; and how, according to the wise saying of the Preacher, “One sinner destroyeth much good.”

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