Chapter 42




The next Saturday but one Alec received a note from Mr Fraser, hoping that his new cousin had not driven him away, and inviting him to dine that same afternoon.

He went. After dinner the old man fell asleep in his chair.

"Where were you born?" Alec asked Kate.

She was more like his first impression of her.

"Don't you know?" she replied. "In the north of Sutherlandshire--near the foot of a great mountain, from the top of which, on the longest day, you can see the sun, or a bit of him at least, all night long."

"How glorious!" said Alec.

"I don't know. I never saw him. And the winters are so long and terrible! Nothing but snowy hills about you, and great clouds always coming down with fresh loads of snow to scatter over them."

"Then you don't want to go back?"

"No. There is nothing to make me wish to go back. There is no one there to love me now."

She looked very sad for a few moments.

"Yes," said Alec, thoughtfully; "a winter without love must be dreadful. But I like the winter; and we have plenty of it in our quarter too."

"Where is your home?"

"Not many miles north of this."

"Is it a nice place?"

"Of course I think so."

"Ah! you have a mother. I wish I knew her."

"I wish you did.--True: the whole place is like her to me. But I don't think everybody would admire it. There are plenty of bare snowy hills there too in winter. But I think the summers and the harvests are as delightful as anything can be, except--"

"Except what?"

"Don't make me say what will make you angry with me."

"Now you must, else I shall fancy something that will make me more angry."

"Except your face, then," said Alec, frightened at his own boldness, but glancing at her shyly.

She flushed a little, but did not look angry.

"I don't like that," she said. "It makes one feel awkward."

"At least," rejoined Alec, emboldened, "you must allow it is your own fault."

"I can't help my face," she said, laughing.

"Oh! you know what I mean. You made me say it."

"Yes, after you had half-said it already. Don't do it again."

And there followed more of such foolish talk, uninteresting to my readers.

"Where were you at school?" asked Alec, after a pause. "Your uncle told me you were at school."

"Near London," she answered.

"Ah! that accounts for your beautiful speech."

"There again. I declare I will wake my uncle if you go on in that way."

"I beg your pardon," protested Alec; "I forgot."

"But," she went on, "in Sutherlandshire we don't talk so horribly as they do here."

"I daresay not," returned Alec, humbly.

"I don't mean you. I wonder how it is that you speak so much better than all the people here."

"I suppose because my mother speaks well. She never lets me speak broad Scotch to her."

"Your mother again! She's everything to you."

Alec did not reply.

"I should like to see her," pursued Kate.

"You must come and see her, then."

"See whom?" asked Mr Fraser, rousing himself from his nap.

"My mother, sir," answered Alec.

"Oh! I thought you had been speaking of Katie's friend," said the professor, and fell asleep again.

"Uncle means Bessie Warner, who is coming by the steamer from London on Monday. Isn't it kind of uncle to ask her to come and see me here?"

"He is kind always. Was Miss Warner a schoolfellow of yours?"

"Yes--no--not exactly. She was one of the governesses. I must go and meet her at the steamer. Will you go with me?"

"I shall be delighted. Do you know when she arrives?"

"They say about six. I daresay it is not very punctual."

"Oh! yes, she is--when the weather is decent. I will make inquiries, and come and fetch you."

"Thank you.--I suppose I may, uncle?"

"What, my dear?" said the professor, rousing himself again.

"Have my cousin to take care of me when I go to meet Bessie?"

"Yes, certainly. I shall be much obliged to you, Mr Forbes. I am not quite so agile as I was at your age, though my gouty leg is better."

This conversation would not have been worth recording were it not that it led to the walk and the waiting on Monday.--They found, when they reached the region of steamers, that she had not yet been signalled, but her people were expecting the signal every minute. So Alec and Kate walked out along the pier, to pass the time. This pier runs down the side of the river, and a long way into the sea. It had begun to grow dark, and Alec had to take great care of Kate amongst the tramways, coils of rope, and cables that crossed their way. At length they got clear of these, and found themselves upon the pier, built of great rough stones--lonely and desert, tapering away into the dark, its end invisible, but indicated by the red light far in front.

"It is a rough season of the year for a lady to come by sea," said Alec.

"Bessie is very fond of the sea," answered Kate. "I hope you will like her, Mr Forbes."

"Do you want me to like her better than you?" rejoined Alec. "Because if you do--"

"Look how beautiful that red light is on the other side of the river," interrupted Kate. "And there is another further out."

"When the man at the helm gets those two lights in a line," said Alec, "he may steer straight in, in the darkest night--that is, if the tide serves for the bar."

"Look how much more glorious the red shine is on the water below!" said Kate.

"It looks so wet!" returned Alec,--"just like blood."

He almost cursed himself as he said so, for he felt Kate's hand stir as if she would withdraw it from his arm. But after fluttering like a bird for a moment, it settled again upon its perch, and there rested.

The day had been quite calm, but now a sudden gust of wind from the north-east swept across the pier and made Kate shiver. Alec drew her shawl closer about her, and her arm further within his. They were now close to the sea. On the other side of the wall which rose on their left, they could hear the first of the sea-waves. It was a dreary place--no sound even indicating the neighbourhood of life. On one side, the river below them went flowing out to the sea in the dark, giving a cold sluggish gleam now and then, as if it were a huge snake heaving up a bend of its wet back, as it hurried away to join its fellows; on the other side rose a great wall of stone, beyond which was the sound of long waves following in troops out of the dark, and falling upon a low moaning coast. Clouds hung above the sea; and above the clouds two or three disconsolate stars.

"Here is a stair," said Alec. "Let us go up on the top of the sea-wall, and then we shall catch the first glimpse of the light at her funnel."

They climbed the steep rugged steps, and stood on the broad wall, hearing the sea-pulses lazily fall at its foot. The wave crept away after it fell, and returned to fall again like a weary hound. There was hardly any life in the sea. How mournful it was to lie out there, the wintry night, beneath an all but starless heaven, with the wind vexing it when it wanted to sleep!

Alec feeling Kate draw a deep breath like the sigh of the sea, looked round in her face. There was still light enough to show it frowning and dark and sorrowful and hopeless. It was in fact a spiritual mirror, which reflected in human forms the look of that weary waste of waters. She gave a little start, gathered herself together, and murmured something about the cold.

"Let us go down again," said Alec.--"The wind has risen considerably, and the wall will shelter us down below."

"No, no," she answered; "I like it. We can walk here just as well. I don't mind the wind."

"I thought you were afraid of falling off."

"No, not in the dark. I should be, I daresay, if I could see how far we are from the bottom."

So they walked on. The waves no longer fell at the foot of the wall, but leaned their breasts against it, gleaming as they rose on its front, and darkening as they sank low towards its deep base.

The wind kept coming in gusts, tearing a white gleam now and then on the dark surface of the sea. Behind them shone the dim lights of the city; before them all was dark as eternity, except for the one light at the end of the pier. At length Alec spied another out at sea.

"I believe that is the steamer," he said. "But she is a good way off. We shall have plenty of time to walk to the end--that is, if you would like to go."

"Certainly; let us go on. I want to stand on the very point," answered Kate.

They soon came to the lighthouse on the wall, and there descended to the lower part of the pier, the end of which now plunged with a steep descent into the sea. It was constructed of great stones clamped with iron, and built into a natural foundation of rock. Up the slope the waves rushed, and down the slope they sank again, with that seemingly aimless and resultless rise and fall, which makes the sea so dreary and sad to those men and women who are not satisfied without some goal in view, some outcome of their labours; for it goes on and on, answering ever to the call of sun and moon, and the fierce trumpet of the winds, yet working nothing but the hopeless wear of the bosom in which it lies bound for ever.

They stood looking out into the great dark before them, dark air, dark sea, dark sky, watching the one light which grew brighter as they gazed. Neither of them saw that a dusky figure was watching them from behind a great cylindrical stone that stood on the end of the pier, close to the wall.

A wave rushed up almost to their feet.

"Let us go," said Kate, with a shiver. "I can't bear it longer. The water is calling me and threatening me. There! How that wave rushed up as if it wanted me at once!"

Alec again drew her closer to him, and turning, they walked slowly back. He was silent with the delight of having that lovely creature all to himself, leaning on his arm, in the infolding and protecting darkness, and Kate was likewise silent.

By the time they reached the quay at the other end of the pier, the steamer had crossed the bar, and they could hear the thud of her paddles treading the water beneath them, as if eagerly because she was near her rest. After a few struggles, she lay quiet in her place, and they went on board.

Alec saw Kate embrace a girl perhaps a little older than herself, helped her to find her luggage, put them into a chaise, took his leave, and went home.

He did not know that all the way back along the pier they had been followed by Patrick Beauchamp.




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