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The health of the earl remained fluctuating. Its condition depended much on the special indulgence. There was hardly any sort of narcotic with which he did not at least make experiment, if he did not indulge in it. He made no pretence even to himself of seeking therein the furtherance of knowledge; he wanted solely to find how this or that, thus or thus modified or combined, would contribute to his living a life such as he would have it, and other quite than that ordered for him by a power which least of all powers he chose to acknowledge. The power of certain drugs he was eager to understand: the living source of him and them and their correlations, he scarcely recognized. This came of no hostility to religion other than the worst hostility of all--that of a life irresponsive to its claims. He believed neither like saint nor devil; he believed and did not obey, he believed and did not yet tremble.
The one day he was better, the other worse, according, as I say, to the character and degree of his indulgence. At one time it much affected his temper, taking from him all mastery of himself; at another made him so dull and stupid, that he resented nothing except any attempt to rouse him from his hebetude. Of these differences he took unfailing note; but the worst influence of all was a constant one, and of it he made no account: however the drugs might vary in their operations upon him, to one thing they all tended--the destruction of his moral nature.
Urged more or less all his life by a sort of innate rebellion against social law, he had done great wrongs--whether also committed what are called crimes, I cannot tell: no repentance had followed the remorse their consequences had sometimes occasioned. And now the possibility of remorse even was gradually forsaking him. Such a man belongs rather to the kind demoniacal than the kind human; yet so long as nothing occurs giving to his possible an occasion to embody itself in the actual, he may live honoured, and die respected. There is always, not the less, the danger of his real nature, or rather unnature, breaking out in this way or that diabolical.
Although he went so little out of the house, and apparently never beyond the grounds, he yet learned a good deal at times of things going on in the neighbourhood: Davie brought him news; so did Simmons; and now and then he would have an interview with his half acknowledged relative, the factor.
One morning before he was up, he sent for Donal, and requested him to give Davie a half-holiday, and do something for him instead.
"You know, or perhaps you don't know, that I have a house in the town," he said, "--the only house, indeed, now belonging to the earldom--a not very attractive house which you must have seen--on the main street, a little before you come to the Morven Arms."
"I believe I know the house, my lord," answered Donal, "with strong iron stanchions to the lower windows, and--?"
"Yes, that is the house; and I daresay you have heard the story of it--I mean how it fell into its present disgrace! The thing happened more than a hundred years ago. But I have spent some nights in it myself notwithstanding."
"I should like to hear it, my lord," said Donal.
"You may as well have it from myself as from another! It does not touch any of us, for the family was not then represented by the same branch as now; I might else be thin-skinned about it. No mere legend, mind you, but a very dreadful fact, which resulted in the abandonment of the house! I think it time, for my part, that it should be forgotten and the house let. It was before the castle and the title parted company: that is a tale worth telling too! there was little fair play in either! but I will not trouble you with it now.
"Into the generation then above ground," the earl began, assuming a book-tone the instant he began to narrate, "by one of those freaks of nature specially strange and more inexplicable than the rest, had been born an original savage. You know that the old type, after so many modifications have been wrought upon it, will sometimes reappear in its ancient crudity amidst the latest development of the race, animal and vegetable too, I suppose!--well, so it was now: I use no figure of speech when I say that the apparition, the phenomenon, was a savage. I do not mean that he was an exceptionally rough man for his position, but for any position in the Scotland of that age. No doubt he was regarded as a madman, and used as a madman; but my opinion is the more philosophical--that, by an arrest of development, into the middle of the ladies and gentlemen of the family came a veritable savage, and one out of no darkest age of history, but from beyond all record--out of the awful prehistoric times."
His lordship visibly and involuntarily shuddered, as at the memory of something he had seen: into that region he had probably wandered in his visions.
"He was a fierce and furious savage--worse than anything you can imagine. The only sign of any influence of civilization upon him was that he was cowed by the eye of his keeper. Never, except by rarest chance, was he left alone and awake: no one could tell what he might not do!
"He was of gigantic size, with coarse black hair--the brawniest fellow and the ugliest, they say--for you may suppose my description is but legendary: there is no portrait of him on our walls!--with a huge, shapeless, cruel, greedy mouth,"--
As his lordship said the words, Donal, with involuntary insight, saw both cruelty and greed in the mouth that spoke, though it was neither huge nor shapeless.
--"lips hideously red and large, with the whitest teeth inside them.--I give you the description," said his lordship, who evidently lingered not without pleasure on the details of his recital, "just as I used to hear it from my old nurse, who had been all her life in the family, and had it from her mother who was in it at the time.--His great passion, his keenest delight, was animal food. He ate enormously--more, it was said, than three hearty men. An hour after he had gorged himself, he was ready to gorge again. Roast meat was his main delight, but he was fond of broth also.--He must have been more like Mrs. Shelley's creation in Frankenstein than any other. All the time I read that story, I had the vision of my far-off cousin constantly before me, as I saw him in my mind's eye when my nurse described him; and often I wondered whether Mrs. Shelley could have heard of him.--In an earlier age and more practical, they would have got rid of him by readier and more thorough means, if only for shame of having brought such a being into the world, but they sent him with his keeper, a little man with a powerful eye, to that same house down in the town there: in an altogether solitary place they could persuade no man to live with him. At night he was always secured to his bed, otherwise his keeper would not have had courage to sleep, for he was as cunning as he was hideous. When he slept during the day, which he did frequently after a meal, his attendant contented himself with locking his door, and keeping his ears awake. At such times only did he venture to look on the world: he would step just outside the street-door, but would neither leave it, nor shut it behind him, lest the savage should perhaps escape from his room, bar it, and set the house on fire.
"One beautiful Sunday morning, the brute, after a good breakfast, had fallen asleep on his bed, and the keeper had gone down stairs, and was standing in the street with the door open behind him. All the people were at church, and the street was empty as a desert. He stood there for some time, enjoying the sweet air and the scent of the flowers, went in and got a light to his pipe, put coals on the fire, saw that the hugh cauldron of broth which the cook had left in his charge when he went to church--it was to serve for dinner and supper both--was boiling beautifully, went back, and again took his station in front of the open door. Presently came a neighbour woman from her house, leading by the hand a little girl too young to go to church. She stood talking with him for some time.
"Suddenly she cried, 'Good Lord! what's come o' the bairn?' The same instant came one piercing shriek--from some distance it seemed. The mother darted down the neighbouring close. But the keeper saw that the door behind him was shut, and was filled with horrible dismay. He darted to an entrance in the close, of which he always kept the key about him, and went straight to the kitchen. There by the fire stood the savage, gazing with a fixed fishy eye of rapture at the cauldron, which the steam, issuing in little sharp jets from under the lid, showed to be boiling furiously, with grand prophecy of broth. Ghastly horror in his very bones, the keeper lifted the lid--and there, beside the beef, with the broth bubbling in waves over her, lay the child! The demon had torn off her frock, and thrust her into the boiling liquid!
"There rose such an outcry that they were compelled to put him in chains and carry him no one knew whither; but nurse said he lived to old age. Ever since, the house has been uninhabited, with, of course, the reputation of being haunted. If you happen to be in its neighbourhood when it begins to grow dark, you may see the children hurry past it in silence, now and then glancing back in dread, lest something should have opened the never-opened door, and be stealing after them. They call that something The Red Etin,--only this ogre was black, I am sorry to say; red was the proper colour for him."
"It is a horrible story!" said Donal.
"I want you to go to the house for me: you do not mind going, do you?"
"Not in the least," answered Donal.
"I want you to search a certain bureau there for some papers.--By the way, have you any news to give me about Forgue?"
"No, my lord," answered Donal. "I do not even know whether or not they meet, but I am afraid."
"Oh, I daresay," rejoined his lordship, "the whim is wearing off! One pellet drives out another. Behind the love in the popgun came the conviction that it would be simple ruin! But we Graemes are stiff-necked both to God and man, and I don't trust him much."
"He gave you no promise, if you remember, my lord."
"I remember very well; why the deuce should I not remember? I am not in the way of forgetting things! No, by God! nor forgiving them either! Where there's anything to forgive there's no fear of my forgetting!"
He followed the utterance with a laugh, as if he would have it pass for a joke, but there was no ring in the laugh.
He then gave Donal detailed instructions as to where the bureau stood, how he was to open it with a curious key which he told him where to find in the room, how also to open the secret part of the bureau in which the papers lay.
"Forget!" he echoed, turning and sweeping back on his trail; "I have not been in that house for twenty years: you can judge whether I forget!--No!" he added with an oath, "if I found myself forgetting I should think it time to look out; but there is no sign of that yet, thank God! There! take the keys, and be off! Simmons will give you the key of the house. You had better take that of the door in the close: it is easier to open."
Donal went away wondering at the pleasure his frightful tale afforded the earl: he had seemed positively to gloat over the details of it! These were much worse than I have recorded: he showed special delight in narrating how the mother took the body of her child out of the pot!
He sought Simmons and asked him for the key. The butler went to find it, but returned saying he could not lay his hands upon it; there was, however, the key of the front door: it might prove stiff! Donal took it, and having oiled it well, set out for Morven House. But on his way he turned aside to see the Comins.
Andrew looked worse, and he thought he must be sinking. The moment he saw Donal he requested they might be left alone for a few minutes.
"My yoong freen'," he said, "the Lord has fauvoured me greatly in grantin' my last days the licht o' your coontenance. I hae learnt a heap frae ye 'at I kenna hoo I could hae come at wantin' ye."
"Eh, An'rew!" interrupted Donal, "I dinna weel ken hoo that can be, for it aye seemt to me ye had a' the knowledge 'at was gaein'!"
"The man can ill taich wha's no gaein' on learnin'; an' maybe whiles he learns mair frae his scholar nor the scholar learns frae him. But it's a' frae the Lord; the Lord is that speerit--an' first o' a' the speerit o' obeddience, wi'oot which there's no learnin'. Still, my son, it may comfort ye a wee i' the time to come, to think the auld cobbler Anerew Comin gaed intil the new warl' fitter company for the help ye gied him afore he gaed. May the Lord mak a sicht o' use o' ye! Fowk say a heap aboot savin' sowls, but ower aften, I doobt, they help to tak frae them the sense o' hoo sair they're in want o' savin'. Surely a man sud ken in himsel' mair an' mair the need o' bein' saved, till he cries oot an' shoots, 'I am saved, for there's nane in h'aven but thee, an' there's nane upo' the earth I desire besides thee! Man, wuman, child, an' live cratur, is but a portion o' thee, whauron to lat the love o' thee rin ower!' Whan a man can say that, he's saved; an' no till than, though for lang years he may hae been aye comin' nearer to that goal o' a' houp, the hert o' the father o' me, an' you, an' Doory, an' Eppy, an' a' the nations o' the earth!"
He stopped weary, but his eyes, fixed on Donal, went on where his voice had ended, and for a time Donal seemed to hear what his soul was saying, and to hearken with content. But suddenly their light went out, the old man gave a sigh, and said:--
"It's ower for this warl', my freen'. It's comin'--the hoor o' darkness. But the thing 'at's true whan the licht shines, is as true i' the dark: ye canna work, that's a'. God 'ill gie me grace to lie still. It's a' ane. I wud lie jist as I used to sit, i' the days whan I men'it fowk's shune, an' Doory happent to tak awa' the licht for a moment;--I wud sit aye luikin' doon throuw the mirk at my wark, though I couldna see a stime o' 't, the alison (awl) i' my han' ready to put in the neist steek the moment the licht fell upo' the spot whaur it was to gang. That's hoo I wud lie whan I'm deein', jist waitin' for the licht, no for the dark, an' makin' an incense-offerin' o' my patience whan I hae naething ither to offer, naither thoucht nor glaidness nor sorrow, naething but patience burnin' in pain. He'll accep' that; for, my son, the maister's jist as easy to please as he's ill to saitisfee. Ye hae seen a mither ower her wee lassie's sampler? She'll praise an' praise 't, an' be richt pleast wi' 't; but wow gien she was to be content wi' the thing in her han'! the lassie's man, whan she cam to hae ane, wud hae an ill time o' 't wi' his hose an' his sarks! But noo I hae a fauvour to beg o' ye--no for my sake but for hers: gien ye hae the warnin', ye'll be wi' me whan I gang? It may be a comfort to mysel'--I dinna ken--nane can tell 'at hasna dee'd afore--nor even than, for deiths are sae different!--doobtless Lazarus's twa deiths war far frae alike!--but it'll be a great comfort to Doory--I'm clear upo' that. She winna fin' hersel' sae lanesome like, losin' sicht o' her auld man, gien the freen' o' his hert be aside her whan he gangs."
"Please God, I'll be at yer comman'," said Donal.
"Noo cry upo' Doory, for I wudna see less o' her nor I may. It may be years 'afore I get a sicht o' her lo'in' face again! But the same Lord 's in her an' i' me, an' we canna far be sun'ert, hooever lang the time 'afore we meet again."
Donal called Doory, and took his leave.
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