E-text prepared by Robin Eugene Escovado
A NOBLE LIFE
DINAH MARIA MULOCK CRAIK
Author of John Halifax, Gentleman, Christian's Mistake, &c., &c., &c.
New York Harper & Brothers, Publishers Franklin Square
Dedicated, with the affection of eighteen years, To Uncle George
Many years ago, how many need not be recorded, there lived in his ancestral castle, in the far north of Scotland, the last Earl of Cairnforth.
You will not find his name in "Lodge's Peerage," for, as I say, he was the last earl, and with him the title became extinct. It had been borne for centuries by many noble and gallant men, who had lived worthily or died bravely. But I think among what we call "heroic" lives—lives the story of which touches us with something higher than pity, and deeper than love—there never was any of his race who left behind a history more truly heroic than he.
Now that it is all over and done—now that the soul so mysteriously given has gone back unto Him who gave it, and a little green turf in the kirk-yard behind Cairnforth Manse covers the poor body in which it dwelt for more than forty years, I feel it might do good to many, and would do harm to none, if I related the story—a very simple one, and more like a biography than a tale—of Charles Edward Stuart Montgomerie, last Earl of Cairnforth.
He did not succeed to the title; he was born Earl of Cairnforth, his father having been drowned in the loch a month before, the wretched countess herself beholding the sight from her castle windows. She lived but to know she had a son and heir—to whom she desired might be given his father's name: then she died—more glad than sorry to depart, for she had loved her husband all her life, and had only been married to him a year. Perhaps, had she once seen her son, she might have wished less to die than to live, if only for his sake; however, it was not God's will that this should be. So, at two days old, the "poor little earl"—as from his very birth people began compassionately to call him—was left alone in the world, without a single near relative or connection, his parents having both been only children, but with his title, his estate, and twenty thousand a year.
Cairnforth Castle is one of the loveliest residences in all Scotland. It is built on the extremity of a long tongue of land which stretches out between two salt-water lochs—Loch Beg, the "little," and Loch Mhor, the "big" lake. The latter is grand and gloomy, shut in by bleak mountains, which sit all round it, their feet in the water, and their heads in mist and cloud. But Loch Beg is quite different. It has green, cultivated, sloping shores, fringed with trees to the water's edge, and the least ray of sunshine seems always to set it dimpling with wavy smiles. Now and then a sudden squall comes down from the chain of mountains far away beyond the head of the loch, and then its waters begin to darken—just like a sudden frown over a bright face; the waves curl and rise, and lash themselves into foam, and any little sailing boat, which has been happily and safely riding over them five minutes before, is often struck and capsized immediately. Thus it happened when the late earl was drowned.
The minister—the Rev. Alexander Cardross—had been sailing with him; had only just landed, and was watching the boat crossing back again, when the squall came down. Though this region is a populous district now, with white villas dotted like daisies all along the green shores, there was then not a house in the whole peninsula of Cairnforth except the Castle, the Manse, and a few cottages, called the "clachan." Before help was possible, the earl and his boatman, Neil Campbell, were both drowned. The only person saved was little Malcolm Campbell— Neil's brother—a boy about ten years old.
In most country parishes of Scotland or England there is an almost superstitious feeling that "the minister," or "the clergyman," must be the fittest person to break any terrible tidings. So it ought to be. Who but the messenger of God should know best how to communicate His awful will, as expressed in great visitations of Calamity? In this case no one could have been more suited for his solemn office than Mr. Cardross. He went up to the Castle door, as he had done to that of many a cottage bearing the same solemn message of sudden death, to which there could be but one answer—"Thy will be done."
But the particulars of that terrible interview, in which he had to tell the countess what already her own eyes had witnessed—though they refused to believe the truth—the minister never repeated to any creature except his wife. And afterward, during the four weeks that Lady Cairnforth survived her husband, he was the only person, beyond her necessary attendants, who saw her until she died.
The day after her death he was suddenly summoned to the castle by Mr. Menteith, an Edinburg writer to the signet, and confidential agent, or factor, as the office called in Scotland, to the late earl.
"They'll be sending for you to baptize the child. It's early—but the pair bit thing may be delicate, and they may want it done at once, before Mr. Menteith returns to Edinburg."
"Maybe so, Helen; so do not expect me back till you see me."
Thus saying, the minister quitted his sunshiny manse garden, where he was working peacefully among his raspberry-bushes, with his wife looking on, and walked, in meditative mood, through the Cairnforth woods, now blue with hyacinths in their bosky shadows, and in every nook and corner starred with great clusters of yellow primroses, which in this part of the country grow profusely, even down to within a few feet of high-water mark, on the tidal shores of the lochs. Their large, round, smiling faces, so irresistibly suggestive of baby smiles at sight of them, and baby fingers clutching at them, touched the heart of the good minister, who had left two small creatures of his own—a "bit girlie" of five, and a two-year-old boy—playing on his grass-plot at home with some toys of the countess's giving: she had always been exceedingly kind to the Manse children.
He thought of her, lying dead; and then of her poor little motherless and fatherless baby, whom, if she had any consciousness in her death-hour, it must have been a sore pang to her to leave behind. And the tears gathered again and again in the good man's eyes, shutting out from his vision all the beauty of the spring.
He reached the grand Italian portico, built by some former earl with a taste for that style, and yet harmonizing well with the smooth lawn, bounded by a circle of magnificent trees, through which came glimpses of the glittering loch. The great doors used almost always to stand open, and the windows were rarely closed—the countess like sunshine and fresh air, but now all was shut up and silent, and not a soul was to be seen about the place.
Mr. Cardross sighed, and walked round to the other side of the castle, where was my lady's flower-garden, or what was to be made into one. Then he entered by French windows, from a terrace overlooking it, my lord's library, also incomplete. For the earl, who was by no means a bookish man, had only built that room since his marriage, to please his wife, whom perhaps he loved all the better that she was so exceedingly unlike himself. Now both were away—their short dream of married life ended, their plans and hopes crumbled into dust. As yet, no external changes had been made, the other solemn changes having come so suddenly. Gardeners still worked in the parterres, and masons and carpenters still, in a quiet and lazy manner, went on completing the beautiful room; but there was no one to order them—no one watched their work. Except for workmen, the place seemed so deserted that Mr. Cardross wandered through the house for some time before he found a single servant to direct him to the person of whom he was in search.
Mr. Menteith sat alone in a little room filled with guns and fishing rods, and ornamented with stag's heads, stuffed birds, and hunting relics of all sorts, which had been called, not too appropriately, the earl's "study." He was a little, dried-up man, about fifty years old, of sharp but not unkindly aspect. When the minister entered, he looked up from the mass of papers which he seemed to have been trying to reduce into some kind of order—apparently the late earl's private papers, which had been untouched since his death, for there was a sad and serious shadow over what otherwise have been rather a humorous face.
"Welcome, Mr. Cardross; I am indeed glad to see you. I took the liberty of sending for you, since you are the only person with whom I can consult—we can consult, I should say, for Dr. Hamilton wished it likewise—on this—this most painful occasion."
"I shall be very glad to be of the slightest service," returned Mr. Cardross. "I had the utmost respect for those that are away." He had the habit, this tender-hearted, pious man, who, with all his learning, kept a religious faith as simple as a child's, as speaking of the dead as only "away."
The two gentlemen sat down together. They had often met before, for whenever there were guests at Cairnforth Castle the earl always invited the minister and his wife to dinner, but they had never fraternized much. Now, a common sympathy, nay, more, a common grief—for something beyond sympathy, keen personal regret, was evidently felt by both for the departed earl and countess—made them suddenly familiar.
"Is the child doing well?" was Mr. Cardross's first and most natural question; but it seemed to puzzle Mr. Menteith exceedingly.
"I suppose so—indeed, I can hardly say. This is a most difficult and painful matter."
"It was born alive, and is a son and heir, as I heard?"
"That is fortunate."
"For some things; since, had it been a girl, the title would have lapsed, and the long line of Earls of Cairnforth ended. At one time Dr. Hamilton feared the child would be stillborn, and then, of course, the earldom would have been extinct. The property must in that case have passed to the earl's distant cousins, the Bruces, of whom you may have heard, Mr. Cardross?"
"I have; and there are few things, I fancy, which Lord Cairnforth would have regretted more than such heir-ship."
"You are right," said the keen W.S., evidently relieved. "It was my instinctive conviction that you were in the late earl's confidence on this point, which made me decide to send and consult with you. We must take all precautions, you see. We are placed in a most painful and responsible position—both Dr. Hamilton and myself."
It was now Mr. Cardross's turn to look perplexed. No doubt it was a most sad fatality which had happened, but still things did not seem to warrant the excessive anxiety testified by Mr. Menteith.
"I do not quite comprehend you. There might have been difficulties as to the succession, but are they not all solved by the birth of a healthy, living heir—whom we must cordially hope will long continue to live?"
"I hardly know if we ought to hope it," said the lawyer, very seriously. "But we must 'keep a calm sough' on that matter for the present—so far, at least, Dr. Hamilton and I have determined—in order to prevent the Bruces from getting wind of it. Now, then, will you come and see the earl?"
"The earl!" re-echoed Mr. Cardross, with a start; then recollected himself, and sighed to think how one goes and another comes, and all the world moves on as before—passing, generation after generation, into the awful shadow which no eye except that of faith can penetrate. Life is a little, little day—hardly longer, in the end, for the man in his prime than for the infant of an hour's span.
And the minister, who was of meditative mood, thought to himself much as a poet half a century later put into words—thoughts common to all men, but which only such a man and such a poet could have crystallized into four such perfect lines:
"Thou wilt not leave us in the dust: Thou madest man, he knows not why; He thinks he was not made to die, And Thou hast made him—Thou are just."
Thus musing, Mr. Cardross followed up stairs toward the magnificent nursery, which had been prepared months before, with a loving eagerness of anticipation, and a merciful blindness to futurity, for the expected heir of the Earls of Cairnforth. For, as before said, the only hope of the lineal continuance of the race was in this one child. It lay in a cradle resplendent with white satin hangings and lace curtains, and beside it sat the nurse—a mere girl, but a widow already—Neil Campbell's widow, whose first child had been born only two days after her husband was drowned. Mr. Cardross knew that she had been suddenly sent for out of the clachan, the countess having, with her dying breath, desired that this young woman, whose circumstances were so like her own, should be taken as wet-nurse to the new-born baby.
So, in her widow's weeds, grave and sad, but very sweet-looking—she had been a servant at the Castle, and was a rather superior young woman —Janet Campbell took her place beside her charge with an expression in her face as if she felt it was a charge left her by her lost mistress, which must be kept solemnly to the end of her days—as it was.
The minister shook hands with her silently—she had gone through sore affliction—but the lawyer addressed her in his quick, sharp, business tone, under which he often disguised more emotion than he liked to show.
"You have not been dressing the child? Dr. Hamilton told you not to attempt it."
"Na, na, sir, I didna try," answered Janet, sadly and gently.
"That is well. I'm a father of a family myself," added Mr. Menteith, more gently: "I've six of them; but, thank the Lord, ne'er a one of them like this. Take it on your lap, nurse, and let the minister look at it! Ay, here comes Dr. Hamilton!"
Mr. Cardross knew Dr. Hamilton by repute—as who did not? Since at that period it was the widest-known name in the whole medical profession in Scotland. And the first sight of him confirmed the reputation, and made even a stranger recognize that his fame was both natural and justifiable. But the minister had scarcely time to cast a glance on the acute, benevolent, wonderfully powerful and thoughtful head, when his attention was attracted by the poor infant, whom Janet was carefully unswathing from innumerable folds of cotton wool.
Mrs. Campbell was a widow of only a month, and her mistress, to whom she had been much attached, lay dead in the next room, yet she had still a few tears left, and they were dropping like rain over her mistress's child.
No wonder. It lay on her lap, the smallest, saddest specimen of infantile deformity. It had a large head—larger than most infants have—but its body was thin, elfish, and distorted, every joint and limb being twisted in some way or other. You could not say that any portion of the child was natural or perfect except the head and face. Whether it had the power of motion or not seemed doubtful; at any rate, it made no attempt to move, except feebly turning its head from side to side. It lay, with its large eyes wide open, and at last opened its poor little mouth also, and uttered a loud pathetic wail.
"It greets, doctor, ye hear," said the nurse, eagerly; "'deed, an' it greets fine, whiles."
"A good sign," observed Dr. Hamilton. "Perhaps it may live after all, though one scarcely knows whether to desire it."
"I'll gar it live, doctor," cried Janet, as she rocked and patted it, and at last managed to lay it to her motherly breast; "I'll gar it live, ye'll see! That is God willing."
"It could not live, it could never have lived at all, if He were not willing," said the minister, reverently. And then, after a long pause, during which he and the two other gentlemen stood watching, with sad pitying looks, the unfortunate child, he added, so quietly and naturally that, though they might have thought it odd, they could hardly have thought it out of place or hypocritical, "Let us pray."
It was a habit, long familiar to this good Presbyterian minister, who went in and out among his parishioners as their pastor and teacher, consoler and guide. Many a time, in many a cottage, had he knelt down, just as he did here, in the midst of deep affliction, and said a few simple words, as from children to a father—the Father of all men. And the beginning and end of his prayer was, now as always, the expression and experience of his own entire faith—"Thy will be done."
"But what ought we to do?" said the Edinburg writer, when, having quitted, not unmoved, the melancholy nursery, he led the way to the scarcely less dreary dining-room, where the two handsome, bright-looking portraits of the late earl and countess still smiled down from the wall —giving Mr. Cardross a start, and making him recall, as if the intervening six weeks had been all a dream, the last day he and Mr. Menteith dined together at that hospitable table. They stole a look at one another, but, with true Scotch reticence, neither exchanged a word. Yet perhaps each respected the other the more, both for the feeling and for its instant repression.
"Whatever we decide to do, ought to be decided now," said Dr. Hamilton, "for I must be in Edinburg tomorrow. And, besides, it is a case in which no medical skill is of much avail, if any; Nature must struggle through—or yield, which I can not help thinking would be the best ending. In Sparta, now, this poor child would have been exposed on Mount—what was the place? to be saved by any opportune death from the still greater misfortune of living."
"But that would have been murder—sheer murder," earnestly replied the minister. "And we are not Spartans, but Christians, to whom the body is not every thing, and who believe that God can work out His wonderful will, if He chooses, through the meanest means—through the saddest tragedies and direst misfortunes. In one sense, Dr. Hamilton, there is no such thing as evil—that is, there is no actual evil in the world except sin."
"There is plenty of that, alas!" said Mr. Menteith. "But as to the child, I wished you to see it—both of you together—if only to bear evidence as to its present condition. For the late earl, in his will, executed, by a most providential chance, the last time I was here, appointed me sole guardian and trustee to a possible widow or child. On me, therefore, depends the charge of this poor infant—the sole bar between those penniless, grasping, altogether discreditable Bruces, and the large property of Cairnforth. You see my position, gentlemen?"
It was not an easy one, and no wonder the honest man looked much troubled.
"I need not say that I never sought it—never thought it possible it would really fall to my lot; but it has fallen, and I must discharge it to the best of my ability. You see what the earl is—born alive, anyhow—though we can hardly wish him to survive."
The three gentlemen were silent. At length Mr. Cardross said,
"There is one worse doubt which has occurred to me. Do you think, Dr. Hamilton, that the mind is as imperfect as the body? In short, is it not likely that the poor child may turn out to be an idiot?"
"I do not know; and it will be almost impossible to judge for months yet."
"But, idiot or not," cried Mr. Menteith—a regular old Tory, who clung with true conservative veneration to the noble race which he, his father, and grandfather had served faithfully for a century and more —-"idiot or not, the boy is undoubtedly Earl of Cairnforth."
The gentlemen then sat down and thoroughly discussed the whole matter, finally deciding that, until things appeared somewhat plainer, it was advisable to keep the earl's condition as much as possible from the world in general, and more especially from his own kindred. The Bruces, who lived abroad, would, it was naturally to be concluded—or Mr. Menteith, who had a lawyer's slender faith in human nature, believed so —would pounce down, like eagles upon a wounded lamb, the instant they heard what a slender thread of life hung between them and these great possessions.
Under such circumstances, for the infant to be left unprotected in the solitudes of Loch Beg was very unadvisable; and, besides, it was the guardian's duty to see that every aid which medical skill and surgical science could procure was supplied to a child so afflicted, and upon whose life so much depended. He therefore proposed and Dr. Hamilton agreed, that immediately after the funeral the little earl should be taken to Edinburg, and placed in the house of the latter, to remain there a year or two, or so long as might be necessary.
Janet Campbell was called in, and expressed herself willing to take her share—no small one—in the responsibility of this plan, if the minister would see to her "ain bairn;" that was, if the minister really thought the scheme a wise one.
"The minister's opinion seems to carry great weight here," said Dr. Hamilton, smiling.
And it was so; not merely because of his being a minister, but because, with all his gentle, unassuming ways, he had an excellent judgment— the clear, sound, unbiased judgment which no man can ever attain to except a man who thinks little of himself; to whom his own honor and glory come ever second, and his Master's glory and service first. Therefore, both as a man and a minister, Mr. Cardross was equally and wholly reliable: charitable, because he felt his own infirmities; placing himself at no higher level than his neighbor, he was always calmly and scrupulously just. Though a learned, he was not exactly a clever man: probably his sermons, preached every Sunday for the last ten years in Cairnforth Kirk, were neither better nor worse than the generality of country sermons; but that matters little. He was a wise man and a good man, and all his parishioners, scattered over a parish of fourteen Scotch miles, deeply and dearly loved him.
"I think," said Mr. Cardross, "that this plan has many advantages, and is, under the circumstances, the best that could have been devised. True, I should like to have had the poor babe under my own eye and my wife's, that we might try to requite in some degree the many kindnesses we have received from his poor father and mother; but he will be better off in Edinburg. Give him every possible chance of life and health, and a sound mind, and then we must leave the rest to Him, who would not have sent this poor little one into the world at all if He had not had some purpose in so doing, though what that purpose is we can not see. I suppose we shall see it, and many other dark things, some time."
The minister lifted his grave, gentle eyes, and sat looking out upon the familiar view—the sunshiny loch, the green shore, and the far-away circle of mountains—while the other two gentlemen discussed a few other business matters. Then he invited them both to return with him and dine at the Manse, where he and his wife were accustomed to offer to all comers, high and low, rich and poor, "hospitality without grudging."
So the three walked through Cairnforth woods, now glowing with full spring beauty, and wandered about the minister's garden till dinner-time. It was a very simple meal—just the ordinary family dinner, as it was spread day after day, all the year round: they could afford hospitality, but show, with the minister's limited income was impossible, and he was too honest to attempt it. Many a time the earl himself had dined, merrily and heartily, at that simple table, with the mistress—active, energetic, cheerful, and refined—sitting at the head of it, and the children, a girl and boy, already admitted to take their place there, quiet and well-behaved—brought up from the first to be, like their parents, gentlemen and gentlewomen. The Manse table was a perfect picture of family sunshine and family peace, and, as such, the two Edinburg guests carried away the impression of it in their memories for many a day.
In another week a second stately funeral passed out of the Castle doors, and then they were closed to all comers. By Mr. Menteith's orders, great part of the rooms were shut up, and only two apartments kept for his own use when he came down to look after the estates. It was now fully known that he was the young earl's sole guardian; but so great was the feudal fidelity of the neighborhood, and so entire the respect with which, during an administration of many years, the factor had imbued the Cairnforth tenantry, that not a word was said in objection either to him or to his doings. There was great regret that the poor little earl— the representative of so long and honored a race—was taken away from the admiration of the country-side before even a single soul in the parish, except Mr. and Mrs. Cardross, had set eyes upon him; but still the disappointed gossips submitted, considering that if the minister were satisfied all must be right.
After the departure of Mr. Mentieth, Mrs. Campbell, and her charge, a few rumors got abroad that the little earl was "no a'richt"—if an earl could be "no a' richt"—which the simple folk about Loch Beg and Loch Mhor, accustomed for generations to view the Earls of Cairnforth much as the Thibetians view their Dali Lama, thought hardly possible. But what was wrong with him nobody precisely knew. The minister did, it was conjectured; but Mr. Cardross was scrupulously silent on the subject; and, with all his gentleness, he was the sort of man to whom nobody ever could address intrusive or impertinent questions.
So, after a while, when the Castle still remained shut up, curiosity died out, or was only roused at intervals, especially at Mr. Menteith's periodical visits. And to all questions, whether respectfully anxious or merely inquisitive, he never gave but one answer—that the earl was "doing pretty well," and would be back at Cairn forth "some o' these days".
However, that period was so long deferred that the neighbors at last ceased to expect it, or to speculate concerning it. They went about their own affairs, and soon the whole story about the sad death of the late earl and countess, and the birth of the present nobleman, began to be told simply as a story by the elder folk, and slipped out of the younger ones' memories—as, if one only allows it time, every tale, however sad, wicked, or strange, will very soon do. Had it not been for the silent, shut-up castle, standing summer and winter on the loch-side, with its flower-gardens blossoming for none to gather, and its woods— the pride of the whole country—budding and withering, with scarcely a foot to cross, or an eye to notice their wonderful beauty, people would ere long have forgotten the very existence of the last Earl of Cairnforth.
It was on a June day—ten years after that bright June day when the minister of Cairnforth had walked with such a sad heart up to Cairnforth Castle, and seen for the first time its unconscious heir—the poor little orphan baby, who in such apparent mockery was called "the Earl." The woods, the hills, the loch, looked exactly the same—nature never changes. As Mr. Cardross walked up to the Castle once more—the first time for many months—in accordance with a request of Mr. Menteith's, who had written to say the earl was coming home, he could hardly believe it was ten years since that sad week when the baby-heir was born, and the countess's funeral had passed out from that now long-closed door.
Mr. Cardross's step was heavier and his face sadder now than then. He who had so often sympathized with others' sorrows had had to suffer patiently his own. From the Manse gate as from that of the Castle, the mother and mistress had been carried, never to return. A new Helen— only fifteen years old—was trying vainly to replace to father and brothers her who was—as Mr. Cardross still touchingly put it— "away." But, though his grief was more than a year old, the minister mourned still. His was one of those quiet natures which make no show, and trouble no one, yet in which sorrow goes deep down, and grows into the heart, as it were, becoming a part of existence, until existence itself shall cease.
It did not, however, hinder him from doing all his ordinary duties, perhaps with even closer persistence, as he felt himself sinking into that indifference to outside things which is the inevitable result of a heavy loss upon any gentle nature. The fierce rebel against it; the impetuous and impatient throw it off; but the feeble and tender souls make no sign, only quietly pass into that state which the outer world calls submission: and resignation, yet which is, in truth, mere passiveness—the stolid calm of a creature that has suffered till it can suffer no more.
The first thing which roused Mr. Cardross out of this condition, or at least the uneasy recognition that it was fast approaching, and must be struggled against, conscientiously, to the utmost of his power, was Mr. Menteith's letter, and the request therein concerning Lord Cairnforth.
Without entering much into particulars—it was not the way of the cautious lawyer—he had stated that, after ten years' residence in Dr. Hamilton's house, and numerous consultations with every surgeon of repute in Scotland, England—nay, Europe—it had been decided, and especially at the earnest entreaty of the poor little earl himself, to leave him to Nature; to take him back to his native air, and educate him, so far as was possible, in Cairnforth Castle.
A suitable establishment had accordingly been provided—more servants, and a lady housekeeper or governante, who took all external charge of the child, while the personal care of him was left, as before, to his nurse, Mrs. Campbell, now wholly devoted to him, for at seven years old her own boy had died. He had another attendant, to whom, with a curious persistency, he had strongly attached himself ever since his babyhood—young Malcolm Campbell, Neil Campbell's brother, who was saved by clinging to the keel of the boat when the late Lord Cairnforth was drowned. Beyond these, whose fond fidelity knew no bounds, there was hardly need of any other person to take charge of the little earl, except a tutor, and that office Mr. Menteith entreated Mr. Cardross to accept.
It was a doubtful point with the minister. He shrank from assuming any new duty, his daily duties being now made only too heavy by the loss of the wife who had shared and lightened them all. But he named the matter to Helen, whom he had lately got into the habit of consulting—she was such a wise little woman for her age—and Helen said anxiously, "Papa, try." Besides, there were six boys to be brought up, and put into the world somehow, and the Manse income was small, and the salary offered by Mr. Manteith very considerable. So when, the second time, Helen's great soft eyes implored silently, "Papa, please try," the minister kissed her, went into his study and wrote to Edinburg his acceptance of the office of tutor to Lord Cairnforth.
What sort of office it would turn out—what kind of instruction he was expected to give, or how much the young earl was capable of receiving, he had not the least idea; but he resolved that, in any case, he would do his duty, and neither man nor minister could be expected to do more.
In pursuance of this resolution, he roused himself that sunny June morning, when he would far rather have sat over his study-fire and let the world go on without him—as he felt it would, easily enough— and walked down to the Castle, where, for the first time these ten years, windows were opened and doors unbarred, and the sweet light and warm air of day let in upon those long-shut rooms, which seemed, in their dumb, inanimate way, glad to be happy again—glad to be made of use once more. Even the portraits of the late earl and countess—he in his Highland dress, and she in her white satin and pearls—both so young and bright, as they looked on the day they were married, seemed to gaze back at each other from either side the long dining-room, as if to say, rejoicing, "Our son is coming home."
"Have you seen the earl?" said Mr. Cardross to one of the new servants who attended him round the rooms, listening respectfully to all the remarks and suggestions as to furniture and the like which Mr. Menteith had requested him to make. The minister was always specially popular with servants and inferiors of every sort, for he possessed, in a remarkable degree, that best key to their hearts, the gentle dignity which never needs to assert a superiority that is at once felt and acknowledged.
"The earl, sir? Na, na"—with a mysterious shake of the head— "naebody sees the earl. Some say—but I hae nae cause to think it mysel'—that he's no a' there."
The minister was sufficiently familiar with that queer, but very expressive Scotch phrase, "not all there," to pursue no farther inquiries. But he sighed, and wished he had delayed a little before undertaking the tutorship. However, the matter was settled now, and Mr. Cardross was not the man ever to draw back from an agreement or shrink from a promise.
"Whatever the poor child is—even if an idiot," thought he, "I will do my best for him, for his father's and mother's sake."
And he paused several minutes before those bright and smiling portraits, pondering on the mysterious dealings of the great Ruler of the universe —how some are taken and some are left: those removed who seem most happy and most needed; those left behind whom it would have appeared, in our dim and short-sighted judgment, a mercy, both to themselves and others, quietly to have taken away.
But one thing the minister did in consequence of these somewhat sad and painful musings. On his return to the clachan—where, of course, the news of the earl's coming home had long spread, and thrown the whole country-side into a state of the greatest excitement—he gave orders, or at least, advice—which was equivalent to orders, since everybody obeyed him—that there should be no special rejoicings on the earl's coming home; no bonfire on the hill-side, or triumphal arches across the road, and at the ferry where the young earl would probably land— where, ten years before, the late Earl of Cairnforth had been not landed, but carried, stone-cold, with his dripping, and his dead hands still clutching the weeds of the loch. The minister vividly recalled the sight, and shuddered at it still.
"No, no," said he, in talking the matter over with some of his people, whom he went among like a father among his children, true pastor of a most loving flock, "no; we'll wait and see what the earl would like before we make any show. That we are glad to see him he knows well enough, or will very soon find out. And if he should arrive on such a night as this"—looking round on the magnificent June sunset, coloring the mountains at the head of the loch—"he will hardly need a brighter welcome to a bonnier home."
But the earl did not arrive on a gorgeous evening like this, such as come sometimes to the shores of Loch Beg, and make it glow into a perfect paradise: he arrived in "saft" weather—in fact, on a pouring wet Saturday night, and all the clachan saw of him was the outside of his carriage, driving, with closed blinds, down the hill-side. He had taken a long round, and had not crossed the ferry; and he was carried as fast as possible through the dripping wood, reaching, just as darkness fell, the Castle door.
Mr. Cardross, perhaps, should have been there to welcome the child— his conscience rather smote him that he was not—but it was the minister's unbroken habit of years to spend Saturday evening alone in his study. And it might be that, with a certain timidity, inherent in his character, he shrank from this first meeting, and wished to put off as long as possible what must inevitably be awkward, and might be very painful. So, in darkness and rain, unwelcomed save by his own servants, most of whom even had never yet seen him, the poor little earl came to his ancestral door.
But on Sunday morning all things were changed, with one of those sudden changes which make this part of the country so wonderfully beautiful, and so fascinating through its endless variety.
A perfect June day, with the loch glittering in the sun, and the hills beyond it softly outlined with the indistinctness that mountains usually wear in summer, but with the soft summer coloring too, greenish-blue, lilac, and silver-gray varying continually. In the woods behind, where the leaves were already gloriously green, the wood-pigeons were cooing, and the blackbirds and mavises singing, just as if it had not been Sunday morning, or rather as if they knew it was Sunday, and were straining their tiny throats to bless the Giver of sweet, peaceful, cheerful Sabbath-days, and of all other good things, meant for man's usage and delight.
At the portico of Cairnforth Castle, for the first time since the hearse had stood there, stood a carriage—one of those large, roomy, splendid family carriages which were in use many years ago. Looking at it, no passerby could have the slightest doubt that it was my lord's coach, and that my lord sat therein in solemn state, exacting and receiving an amount of respect little short of veneration, such as, for generations, the whole country-side had always paid to the Earls of Cairnforth. This coach, though it was the identical family coach, had been newly furnished; its crimson satin glowed, and its silver harness and ornaments flashed in the sun; the coachman sat in his place, and two footmen stood up in their place behind. It was altogether a very splendid affair, as became the equipage of a young nobleman who was known to possess twenty thousand a year, and who, from his castle tower —it had a tower, though nobody ever climbed there—might, if he chose, look around upon miles and miles of moorland, loch, hill-side, and cultivated land, and say to himself—or be said to by his nurse, as in the old song—
"These hills and these vales, from this tower that ye see, They all shall belong, my young chieftain, to thee."
The horse pawed the ground for several minutes of delay, and then there appeared Mr. Menteith, followed by Mrs. Campbell, who was quite a grand lady now, in silks and satins, but with the same sweet, sad, gentle face. The lawyer and she stood aside, and made way for a big, stalwart young Highlander of about one-and-twenty or thereabouts, who carried in his arms, very gently and carefully, wrapped in a plaid, even although it was such a mild spring day, what looked like a baby, or a very young child.
"Stop a minute, Malcolm."
At the sound of that voice, which was not an infant's, though it was thin, and sharp, and unnatural rather for a boy, the big Highlander paused immediately.
"Hold me up higher; I want to look at the loch."
"Yes, my lord."
This, then—this poor little deformed figure, with every limb shrunken and useless, and every joint distorted, the head just able to sustain itself and turn feebly from one side to the other, and the thin white hands piteously twisted and helpless-looking—this, then, was the Earl of Cairnforth.
"It's a bonnie loch, Malcolm."
"It looks awful' bonnie the day, my lord."
"And," almost in a whisper, "was it just there my father was drowned?"
"Yes, my lord."
No one spoke while the large, intelligent eyes, which seemed the principal feature of the thin face, that rested against Malcolm's shoulder, looked out intently upon the loch.
Mrs. Campbell pulled her veil down and wept a little. People said Neil Campbell had not been the best of husbands to her, but he was her husband; and she had never been back in Cairnforth till now, for her son had lived, died, and been buried away in Edinburg.
At last Mr. Menteith suggested that the kirk bell was beginning to ring.
"Very well; put me into the carriage."
Malcolm placed him, helpless as an infant, in a corner of the silken-padded coach, fitted with cushions especially suited for his comfort. There he sat, in his black velvet coat and point-lace collar, with silk stockings and dainty shoes upon the poor little feet that never had walked, and never would walk, in this world. The one bit of him that could be looked at without pain was his face, inherited from his beautiful mother. It was wan, pale, and much older than his years, but it was a sweet face—a lovely face; so patient, thoughtful— nay, strange to say, content. You could not look at it without a certain sense of peace, as if God, in taking away so much had given something—which not many people have—something which was the divine answer to the minister's prayer over the two-days-old child— "Thy will be done."
"Are you comfortable, my lord?"
"Quite, thank you, Mr. Menteith. Stop—where are you going, Malcolm?"
"Just to the kirk, and I'll be there as soon as your lordship."
"Very well," said the little earl, and watched with wistful eyes the tall Highlander striding across brushwood and heather, leaping dikes and clearing fences—the very embodiment of active vigorous youth.
Wistful I said the eyes were, and yet they were not sad. Whatever thoughts lay hidden in that boy's mind—he was only ten years old, remember—they were certainly not thoughts of melancholy or despair. "God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb," and "the back is fitted to the burden," are phrases so common that we almost smile to repeat them or believe in them, and yet they are true. Any one whose enjoyments have been narrowed down by long sickness may prove their truth by recollecting how at last even the desire for impossible pleasures passes away. And in this case the deprivation was not sudden; the child had been born thus crippled, and had never been accustomed to any other sort of existence than this. What thoughts, speculations, or regrets might have passed through his mind, or whether he had as yet reflected upon his own condition at all, those about him could not judge. He was always a silent child, and latterly had grown more silent than ever. It was this silence, causing a fear lest the too rapidly developing mind might affect still more injuriously the imperfect and feeble body, which induced his guardian, counseled by Dr. Hamilton, to try a total change of life by sending him home to the shores of Loch Beg.
One thing certainly Mr. Cardross need not have dreaded—the child was no idiot. An intelligence, precocious to an almost painful extent, was visible in that poor little face, which seemed thirstingly to take in every thing, and to let nothing escape its observation.
The carriage drove slowly through the woods and along the shore of the loch, Mr. Menteith and Mrs. Campbell sitting opposite to the earl, not noticing him much—even as a child he was sensitive of being watched —but making occasional comments on the scenery and other things.
"There is the kirk tower; I mind it weel," said Mrs. Campbell, who still kept some accent of the clachan, though, like many Highlanders, she had it more in tone than in pronunciation, and often spoke almost pure English, which, indeed, she had taken pains to acquire, lest she might be transferred from her charge for fear of teaching him to speak as a young nobleman ought not to speak. But at sight of her native place some touch of the old tongue returned.
"That is the kirk, nurse, where my father and mother are buried?"
"Yes, my lord."
"Will there be many people there? You know I never went to church but once before in all my life."
"Would ye like not to go now? If so, I'll turn back with ye this minute, my lamb—my lord, I mean."
"No, thank you, nurse, I like to go. You know Mr Menteith promised me I should go about every where as soon as I came to live at Cairnforth."
"Every where you like that is not too much trouble to your lordship," said Mr. Menteith, who was always tenaciously careful about the respect, of word and act, that he paid, and insisted should be paid, to his poor young ward.
"Oh, it's no trouble to me; Malcolm takes care of that. And I like to see the world. If you and Dr. Hamilton would have let me, I think I would so have enjoyed going to school like other boys."
"Would you, my lord?" answered Mr. Menteith, compassionately; but Mrs. Campbell, who never could bear that pitying look and tone directed toward her nursling, said, a little sharply,
"It's better as it is—dinna ye ken? Far mair fitting for his lordship's rank and position that he should get his learning all by himsel' at his ain castle, and with his ain tutor, and that sic a gentleman as Mr. Cardross—"
"What is Mr. Cardross like?"
"Ye'll hear him preach the day."
"Will he teach me all by myself, as nurse says? Has he any children— any boys, like me?"
"He has boys," said Mr. Menteith, avoiding more explicit information; for with a natural, if mistaken precaution, he had always kept his own sturdy, stalwart boys quite out of the way of the poor little earl, and had especially cautioned the minister to do the same.
"I do long to play with boys. May I?"
"If you wish it, my lord."
"And may I have a boat on that beautiful loch, and be rowed about just where I please? Malcolm says it would not shake me nearly so much as the carriage. May I go to the kirk every Sunday, and see every thing and every body, and read as many books as ever I choose? Oh, How happy I shall be!—as happy as a king!"
"God help thee, my lamb!" muttered Mrs. Campbell to herself, while even Mr. Menteith turned his face sedulously toward the loch and took snuff violently.
By this time, they had reached the church door, where the congregation were already gathering and hanging about, as Scotch congregations do, till service begins. But of this service and this Sunday, which was so strangely momentous a day in more lives than one, the next chapter must tell.
The carriage of the Earl of Cairnforth, with its familiar and yet long unfamiliar liveries, produced a keen sensation among the simple folk who formed the congregation of Cairnforth. But they had too much habitual respect for the great house and great folk of the place, mingled with their national shyness and independence, to stare very much. A few moved aside to make way for the two grand Edinburg footmen who leaped down from their perch in order to render customary assistance to the occupants of the carriage.
Mrs. Campbell and Mr. Menteith descended first, and then the two footmen looked puzzled as to what they should do next.
But Malcolm was before them—Malcolm, who never suffered mortal man but himself to render the least assistance to his young master; who watched and tended him; waited on and fed him in the day, and slept in his room at night; who, in truth, had now, for a year past, slipped into all the offices of a nurse as well as servant, and performed them with a woman's tenderness, care, and skill. Lord Cairnforth's eyes brightened when he saw him; and, carried in Malcolm's arms—a few stragglers of the congregation standing aside to let them pass—the young earl was brought to the door of the kirk where his family had worshiped for generations.
Two elders stood there beside the plate—white-headed farmers, who remembered both the late lord and the one before him.
"You's the earl," whispered they, and came forward respectfully; then, startled by the unexpected and pitiful sight, they shrank back; but either the boy did not notice this, or was so used to it that he showed no surprise.
"My purse, Malcolm," the small, soft voice was heard to say.
"Ay, my lord. What will ye put into the plate?"
"A guinea, I think, today, because I am so very happy."
This answer, which the two elders overheard, was told by them next day to every body, and remembered along the loch-side for years.
Cairnforth Kirk, like most other Scotch churches of ancient date, is very plain within and without, and the congregation then consisted almost entirely of hillside farmers, shepherds, and the like, who arrived in families—dogs, and all, for the dogs always came to church, and behaved there as decorously as their masters. Many the people walked eight, ten, and even twelve miles, from the extreme boundary of the parish, and waited about in the kirk or kirk-yard on fine Sundays, and in the Manse kitchen on wet ones—which were much the most frequent—during the two hours' interval between sermons.
In the whole congregation there was hardly a person above the laboring class except in the minister's pew and that belonging to the Castle, which had been newly lined and cushioned, and in a corner of which, safely deposited by Malcolm, the little earl now sat—sat always, even during the prayer, at which some of the congregation looked reprovingly round, but only saw the little figure wrapped in a plaid, and the sweet, wan, childish, and yet unchild-like face, with the curly dark hair, and large dark eyes.
Whatever in the earl was "no a'richt," it certainly could not be his mind, for a brighter, more intelligent countenance was never seen. It quite startled the minister with the intentness of its gaze from the moment he ascended the pulpit; and though he tried not to look that way, and was very nervous, he could not get over the impression it made. It was to him almost like a face from the grave—this strange, eerie child's face, so strongly resembling that of the dead countess, who, despite the difference in rank, had, during the brief year she lived and reigned at Cairnforth, been almost like an equal friend and companion to his own dead wife. Their two faces—Lady Cairnforth's as she looked the last time he saw her in her coffin, and his wife's as she lay in hers—mingled together, and affected him powerfully.
The good minister was not remarkable for the brilliance of his sermons, which he wrote and "committed"—that is, learned by heart, to deliver in pseudo-extempore fashion, as was the weary custom of most Scotch ministers of his time. But this Sunday, all that he had committed slipped clean out of his memory. He preached as he had never been known to preach before, and never preached again—with originality, power, eloquence; speaking from his deepest heart, as if the words thence pouring out had been supernaturally put into it; which, with a superstition that approached to sublimest faith, he afterward solemnly believe they had been.
The text was that verse about "all things working together for good to them that love God;" but, whatever the original discourse had been, it wandered off into a subject which all who knew the minister recognized as one perpetually close to his heart—submission to the will of God, whatever that will might be, and however incomprehensible it seemed to mortal eyes.
"Not, my friends," said he, after speaking for a long time on this head —speaking rather than sermonizing, which, like many cultivated but not very original minds, he was too prone to do—"not that I would encourage or excuse that weak yielding to calamity which looks like submission, but is, in fact, only cowardice; submitting to all things as to a sort of fatality, without struggling against them, or trying to distinguish how much of them is the will of God, and how much our own weak will; daunted by the first shadow of misfortune, especially misfortunes in our worldly affairs, wherein so much often happens for which we have ourselves only to blame. Submission to man is one thing, submission to God another. The latter is divine, the former is often merely contemptible. But even to the Almighty Father we should yield not a blind, crushed resignation, but an open-eyed obedience, like that we would fain win from our own children, desiring to make of them children, not slaves.
"My children—for I speak to the very youngest of you here, and do try to understand me if you can, or as much as you can—it is right —it is God's will—that you should resist, to the very last, any trial which is not inevitable. There are in this world countless sorrows, which, so far appears, we actually bring on ourselves and others by our own folly, wickedness, or weakness—which is often as fatal as wickedness; and then we blame providence for it, and sink into total despair. But when, as sometimes happens, His heavy hand is laid upon us in a visible, inevitable misfortune which we can not struggle against, and from which no human aid can save us, then we ought to learn His hardest lesson—to submit. To submit—yet still, while saying 'Thy will be done,' to strive, so far as we can, to do it. If He have taken from us all but one talent, even that, my children, let us not bury in a napkin. Let us rather put it out a usury, leaving to Him to determine how much we shall receive again; for it is according to our use of what we have, and not of what we have not, that He will call us 'good and faithful servants,' and at last, when the long struggle of living shall be over, will bid us 'enter into the joy of our Lord.'"
When the minister sat down, he saw, as he had seen consciously or unconsciously, all through the service, and above the entire congregation, those two large intent eyes fixed upon him from the Cairnforth pew.
Children of ten years old do not usually listen much to sermons, but the little earl had heard very few, for it was difficult to take him to church without so many people staring at him. Nevertheless, he listened to this sermon, so plain and clear, suited to the capacity of ignorant shepherds and little children, and seemed as if he understood it all. If he did not then, he did afterward.
When service was over, he sat watching the congregation pass out, especially noticing a family of boys who occupied the adjoining pew. They had neither father nor mother with them, but an elder sister, as she appeared to be—a tall girl of about fifteen. She marshaled them out before her, not allowing them once to turn, as many of the other people did, to look with curiosity at the poor little earl. But in quitting the kirk she stopped at the vestry door, apparently to say a word to the minister; after which Mr. Cardross came forward, his gown over his arm, and spoke to Mr. Menteith—
"Where is Lord Cairnforth? I was so glad to see him here."
"Thank you, Mr. Cardross," replied a weak but cheerful voice from Malcolm's shoulder, which so startled the good minister that he found not another word for a whole minute. At last he said, hesitating,
"Helen has just been reminding me that the earl and countess used always to come and rest at the Manse between sermons. Would Lord Cairnforth like to do the same? It is a good way to the Castle—or perhaps he is too fatigued for the afternoon service?"
"Oh no, I should like it very much. And, nurse, I do so want to see Mr. Cardross's children; and Helen—who is Helen?"
"My daughter. Come here, Helen, and speak to the earl."
She came forward—the tall girl who had sat at the end of the pew, in charge of the six boys—came forward in her serious, gentle, motherly way—alas! She was the only mother at the Manse now—and put out her hand, but instinctively drew it back again; for oh! what poor, helpless, unnatural-looking fingers were feebly advanced an inch or so to meet hers! They actually shocked her—gave her a sick sense of physical repulsion; but she conquered it. Then, by a sudden impulse of conscience, quite forgetting the rank of the earl, and only thinking of the poor, crippled, orphaned baby—for he seemed no more than a baby —Helen did what her warm, loving heart was in the habit of doing, as silent consolation for every thing, to her own tribe of "motherless bairns"—she stooped forward and kissed him.
The little earl was so astonished that he blushed up to the very brow. But from that minute he loved Helen Cardross, and never ceased loving her to the end of his days.
She led the way to the Manse, which was so close behind the kirk that the back windows of it looked on the grave-yard. But in front there was a beautiful lawn and garden—the prettiest Manse garden that ever was seen. Helen stepped through it with her light, quick step, a child clinging to each hand, often turning round to speak to Malcolm or to the earl. He followed her with his eyes and thought she was like a picture he had once seen of a guardian angel leading two children along, though there was not a bit of the angel about Helen Cardross—externally at least, she being one of those large, rosy, round-face, flaxen-haired Scotch girls who are far from pretty even in youth, and in middle age sometimes grow quite coarse and plain. She would not do so, and did not; for any body so good, so sweet, so bright, must always carry about with her, even to old age, something which, if not beauty's self, is beauty's atmosphere, and which often creates, even around unlovely people, a light and glory as perfect as the atmosphere round the sun.
She took her seat—her poor mother's that used to be—at the head of the Manse table—which was a little quieter on Sundays than week-days, and especially this Sunday, when the children were all awed and shy before their new visitor. Helen had previously taken them all aside, and explained to them that they were not to notice any thing in the earl that was different from other people—that he was a poor little crippled boy who had neither father, mother, brother, nor sister, that they were to be very kind to him, but not to look at him much, and to make no remarks upon him on any account whatever.
And so, even though he was placed on baby's high chair, and fed by Malcolm almost as if he were a baby—he who, though no bigger than a baby, was in reality a boy of ten years old, whom papa talked to, and who talked with papa almost as cleverly as Helen herself—still the Manse children were so well behaved that nothing occurred to make any body uncomfortable.
For the little earl, he seemed to enjoy himself amazingly. He sat in his high chair, and looked round the well-filled table with mingled curiosity and amusement; inquired the children's names, and was greatly interested in the dog, the cat, a rabbit, and two kittens, which after dinner they successively brought to amuse him. And then he invited them all to the Castle next day, and promised to take them over his garden there.
"But how can you take us?" said the youngest, in spite of Helen's frown. "We can run about, but you—"
"I can't run about, that is true; but I have a little carriage, and Malcolm draws it, or Malcolm carries me, and then I can see such a deal. I used to see nothing—only lie on a sofa all day, and have doctors coming about me and hurting me," added the poor little earl, growing confidential, as one by one the boys slipped away, leaving him alone with Helen.
"Did they hurt you very much:" asked she.
"Oh, terribly; but I never told. You see, there was no use in telling; it could not be helped, and it would only have made nurse cry—she always cries over me. I think that is why I like Malcolm; he always helps me, and he never cries. And I am getting a great boy now; I was ten years old last week."
Ten years old, though he seemed scarcely more than five, except by the old look of his face. But Helen took no notice, only saying "that she hoped the doctors did not hurt him now."
"No, that is all over. Dr Hamilton says I am to be left to Nature, whatever that is; I overheard him say it one day. And I begged of Mr. Menteith not to shut me up any longer, or take me out only in my carriage, but to let me go about as I like, Malcolm carrying me— isn't he a big, strong fellow? You can't think how nice it is to be carried about, and see every thing—oh, it makes me so happy!"
The tone in which he said "so happy" made the tears start to Helen's eyes. She turned away to the window, where she saw her own big brothers, homely-featured, and coarsely clad, but full of health, and strength, and activity, and then looked at this poor boy, who had every thing that fortune could give, and yet—nothing! She thought how they grumbled and squabbled, those rough lads of hers; how she herself often felt the burden of the large narrow household more than she could bear, and lost heart and temper; then she thought of him—poor, helpless soul!—you could hardly say body—who could neither move hand nor foot—who was dependent as an infant on the kindness or compassion of those about him. Yet he talked of being "so happy!" And there entered into Helen Cardross's good heart toward the Earl of Cairn forth a deep tenderness, which from that hour nothing ever altered or estranged.
It was not pity—something far deeper. Had he been fretful, fractious, disagreeable, she would still have been very sorry for him and very kind to him. But now, to see him as he was—cheerful, patient; so ready with his interest in others, so utterly without envying and complaining regarding himself—changed what would otherwise have been mere compassion into actual reverence. As she sat beside him in his little chair, not looking at him much, for she still found it difficult to overcome the painful impression of the sight of that crippled and deformed body, she felt a choking in her throat and a dimness in her eyes—a longing to do any thing in the wide world that would help or comfort the poor little earl.
"Do you learn any lessons?" asked she, thinking he seemed to enjoy talking with her. "I thought at dinner today that you seemed to know a great many things."
"Did I? That is very odd, for I fancied I knew nothing; and I want to learn every thing—if Mr. Cardross will teach me. I should like to sit and read all day long. I could do it by myself, now that I have found out a way of holding the book and turning over the leaves without nurse's helping me. Malcolm invented it—Malcolm is so clever and so kind."
"Is Malcolm always with you?"
"Oh yes; how could I do without Malcolm? And you are quite sure your father will teach me every thing I want to learn?" pursued the little earl, very eagerly.
Helen was quite sure.
"And there is another thing. Mr. Menteith says I must try, if possible, to learn to write—if only so as to be able to sign my name. In eleven more years, when I am a man, he says I shall often be required to sign my name. Do you think I could manage to learn?"
Helen looked at the poor, twisted, powerless fingers, and doubted it very much. Still she said cheerfully, "It would anyhow be a good thing to try."
"So it would—and I'll try. I'll begin tomorrow. Will you"—with a pathetic entreaty in the soft eyes—"it might be too much trouble for Mr. Cardross—but will you teach me?"
"Yes, my dear!" said Helen, warmly, "that I will."
"Thank you. And"—still hesitating—"please would you always call me 'my dear' instead of 'my lord;' and might I call you Helen?"
So they "made a paction 'twixt them twa"—the poor little helpless, crippled boy, and the bright, active, energetic girl—the earl's son and minister's daughter—one of those pactions which grow out of an inner similitude which counteracts all outward dissimilarity; and they never broke it while they lived.
"Has my lamb enjoyed himself?" inquired Mrs. Campbell, anxiously and affectionately, when she reappeared from the Manse kitchen. Then, with a sudden resumption of dignity, "I beg your pardon, Miss Cardross, but this is the first time his lordship has ever been out to dinner."
"Oh, nurse, how I wish I might go out to dinner every Sunday! I am sure this has been the happiest day of all my life."
If the "happiest day in all his life" had been the first day the earl spent at Cairnforth Manse, which very likely it was, he took the first possible opportunity of renewing his happiness.
Early on Monday forenoon, while Helen's ever-active hands were still busy clearing away the six empty porridge plates, and the one tea-cup which had contained the beverage which the minister loved, but which was too dear a luxury for any but the father of the family, Malcolm Campbell's large shadow was seen darkening the window.
"There's the earl!" cried Helen, whose quick eye had already caught sight of the white little face muffled up in Malcolm's plaid, and the soft black curls resting on his shoulder, damp with rain, and blown about by the wind, for it was what they called at Loch Beg a "coarse" day.
"My lord was awful' set upon coming," said Malcolm apologetically; "and when my lord taks a thing into his heid, he'll aye do't, ye ken."
"We are very glad to see the earl," returned the minister, who nevertheless looked a little perplexed; for, while finishing his breakfast, he had been confiding to Helen how very nervous he felt about this morning's duties at the Castle—how painful it would be to teach a child so afflicted, and how he wished he had thought twice before he undertook the charge. And Helen had been trying to encourage him by telling him all that had passed between herself and the boy—how intelligent he had seemed, and how eager to learn. Still, the very fact that they had been discussing him made Mr. Cardross feel slightly confused. Men shrink so much more than women from any physical suffering or deformity; besides, except those few moments in the church, this was really the first time he had beheld Lord Cairnforth; for on Sundays it was the minister's habit to pass the whole time between sermons in his study, and not join the family table until tea.
"We are very glad to see the earl at all times," repeated he, but hesitatingly, as if not sure that he was quite speaking the truth.
"Yes, very glad," added Helen, hastily, fancying she could detect in the prematurely acute and sensitive face a consciousness that he was not altogether welcome. "My father was this minute preparing to start for the Castle."
"My Lord didna like to trouble the minister to be walking out this coarse day," said Malcolm, with true Highland ingenuity of politeness. "His lordship thocht that instead o' Mr. Cardross coming to him, he would just come to Mr. Cardross."
"No, Malcolm," interposed the little voice, "it was not exactly that. I wished for my own sake to come to the Manse again, and to ask if I might come every day and take my lessons here—it's so dreary in that big library. I'll not be much trouble, indeed, sir," he added, entreatingly; "Malcolm will carry me in and carry me out. I can sit on almost any sort of chair now; and with this wee bit of stick in my hand I can turn over the leaves of my books my very own self—I assure you I can."
The minister walked to the window. He literally could not speak for a minute, he felt so deeply moved, and in his secret heart so very much ashamed of himself.
When he turned round Malcolm had placed the little figure in an arm-chair by the fire, and was busy unswathing the voluminous folds of the plaid in which it had been wrapped. Helen, after a glance or two, pretended to be equally busy over her daily duty—the common duty of Scotch housewives at that period—of washing up the delicate china with her own neat hands, and putting it safe away in the parlor press; for, as before said, Mr. Cardross's income was very small, and, like that of most country ministers, very uncertain, his stipend altering year by year, according to the price of corn. They kept one "lassie" to help, but Helen herself had to do a great deal of the housework. She went on doing it now, as probably she would in any case, being at once too simple and too proud to be ashamed of it; still, she was glad to seem busy, lest the earl might have fancied she was watching him.
Her feminine instinct had been right. Now for the first time taken out of his shut-up nursery life, where he himself had been the principal object—where he had no playfellows and no companions save those he had been used to from infancy—removed from this, and brought into ordinary family life, the poor child felt—he could not but feel— the sad, sad difference between himself and all the rest of the world. His color came and went—he looked anxiously, deprecatingly, at Mr. Cardross.
"I hope, sir, you are not displeased with me for coming to-day. I shall not be very much trouble to you—at least I will try to be as little trouble as I can."
"My boy," said the minister, crossing over to him and laying his hand upon his head, "You will not be the least trouble; and if you were ever so much, I would undertake it for the sake of your father and mother, and—" he added, more to himself than aloud—"for your own."
That was true. Nature, which is never without her compensations, had put into this child of ten years old a strange charm, and inexpressible loveableness which springs from lovingness, though every loving nature is not fortunate enough to possess it. But the earl's did; and as he looked up into the minister's face, with that touchingly grateful expression he had, the good man felt his heart melt and brim over at his eyes.
"You don't dislike me, then, because—because I am not like other boys?"
Mr. Cardross smiled, though his eyes were still dim, and his voice not clear; and with that smile vanished forever the slight repulsion he had felt to the poor child. He took him permanently into his good heart, and from his manner the earl at once knew that it was so.
He brightened up immediately.
"Now, Malcolm, carry me in; I'm quite ready," said he, in a tone which indicated that quality, discernible even at so early an age—a "will of his own." To see the way he ordered Malcolm about—the big fellow obeying him, with something beyond even the large limits of that feudal respect which his forbears had paid to the earl's forbears for many a generation, was a sight at once touching and hopeful.
"There—put me into the child's chair I had at dinner yesterday. Now fetch me a pillow—or rather roll up your plaid into one—don't trouble Miss Cardross. That will make me quite comfortable. Pull out my books from your pouch, Malcolm, and spread them out on the table, and then go and have a crack with your old friends at the clachan; you can come for me in two hours."
It was strange to see the little figure giving its orders, and settling itself with the preciseness of an old man at the study-table; but still this removed somewhat of the painful shyness and uncomfortableness from every body, and especially from Mr. Cardross. He sat himself down in his familiar arm-chair, and looked across the table at his poor little pupil, who seemed at once so helpless and so strong.
Lessons begun. The child was exceedingly intelligent—precociously, nay, preternaturally so, it appeared to Mr. Cardross, who, like many another learned father, had been blessed with rather stupid boys, who liked any thing better than study, and whom he had with great labor dragged through a course of ordinary English, Latin, and even a fragment of Greek. But this boy seemed all brains. His cheeks flushed, his eyes glittered, he learned as if he actually enjoyed learning. True, as Mr. Cardross soon discovered, his acquirements were not at all in the regular routine of education; he was greatly at fault in many simple things; but the amount of heterogeneous and out-of-the-way knowledge which he had gathered up, from all available sources, was quite marvelous. And, above all, to teach a boy unto whom learning seemed a pleasure rather than a torment, a favor instead of a punishment, was such an exceeding and novel delight to the good minister, that soon he forgot the crippled figure—the helpless hands that sometimes with fingers, sometimes even with teeth, painfully guided the ingeniously cut forked stick, and the thin face that only too often turned white and weary, but quickly looked up, as if struggling against weakness, and concentrating all attention on the work that was to be done.
At twelve o'clock Helen came in with her father's lunch—a foaming glass of new milk, warm from the cow. The little earl looked at it with eager eyes.
"Will I bring you one too?" said Helen.
"Oh—thank you; I am so thirsty. And, please, would you move me a little—just a very little; I don't often sit so long in one position. It won't trouble you very much, will it?"
"Not at all, if you will only show me how," stammered Helen, turning hot and red. But, shaking off her hesitation, she lifted up the poor child tenderly and carefully, shook his pillows and "sorted" him according to her own untranslatable Scotch word, then went quickly out of the room to compose herself, for she had done it all, trembling exceedingly the while. And yet, somehow, a feeling of great tenderness—tenderer than even she had felt successively toward her own baby brothers, had grown up in her heart toward him, taking away every possible feeling of repulsion on account of his deformity.
She brought back the glass of creamy milk and a bit of oatcake, and laid them beside the earl. He regarded them wistfully.
"How nice the milk looks! I am so tired—and so thirsty. Please— would you give me some? Just hold the glass, that's all, and I can manage."
Helen held it to his lips—the first time she ever did so, but not the last by many. Years and years from then, when she herself was quite an old woman, she remembered, giving him that drink of milk, and how, afterward, two large soft eyes were turned upon hers so lovingly, so gratefully, as if the poor cripple had drank in something besides milk —-the sweet draught of human affection, not dried up even to such heavily afflicted ones as he.
"Are the lessons all done for to-day, papa?" said she, noticing that, eager as it was, the little face looked very wan and wearied, but also noticing with delight that her father's expression was brighter and more interested than it had been this long time.
"Done, Helen? Well, if my pupil is tired, certainly."
"But I'm not tired, sir."
Helen shook her motherly head: "Quite enough for to-day. You may come back again to-morrow."
He did come back. Day after day, in fair weather or foul, big Malcolm was to be seen stepping with his free Highland step—Malcolm was a lissome, handsome young fellow—across the Manse garden, carrying that small frail burden, which all the inhabitants of the clachan had ceased to stare at, and to which they all raised their bonnets or touched their shaggy forelocks. "It's the wee earl, ye ken," and one and all treated with the utmost respect the tiny figure wrapped in a plaid, so that nothing was visible except a small child's face, which always smiled at sight of other children.
It was surprising in how few days the clachan, and indeed the whole neighborhood, grew accustomed to the appearance of the earl and his sad story. Perhaps this was partly due to Helen and Mr. Cardross, who, seeing no longer any occasion for mystery, indeed regretting a little that any mystery had ever been made about the matter, took every opportunity of telling every body who inquired the whole facts of the case.
These were few enough and simple enough, though very sad. The Earl— the last Earl of Cairnforth—was a hopeless cripple for life. All the consultations of all the doctors had resulted in that conclusion. It was very unlikely he would ever be better than he was now physically, but mentally he was certainly "a' richt"—or "a' there," as the country-folk express it. There was, as Mr. Cardross carefully explained to every body, not the slightest ground for supposing him deficient in intellect; on the contrary, his intellect seemed almost painfully acute. The quickness with which he learned his lessons surpassed that of any boy of his age the minister had ever known; and he noticed every thing around him so closely, and made such intelligent remarks, that to talk with him was like talking with a grown man. Before the first week was over Mr. Cardross began actually to enjoy the child's company, and to look forward to lesson hours as the pleasantest hours of his day; for, since the Castle was close, the minister's lot had been the almost inevitable lot of a country clergyman, whose parish contains many excellent people, who look up to him with the utmost reverence, and for whom he entertains the sincere respect that worth must always feel toward worth, but with whom he had very few intellectual sympathies. In truth, since Mrs. Cardross died the minister had shut himself up almost entirely, and had scarcely had a single interest out of his own study until the earl came home to Cairnforth.
Now, after lessons, he would occasionally be persuaded to quit that beloved study, and take a walk along the loch side, or across the moor, to show his pupil the country of which he, poor little fellow! was owner and lord. He did it at first out of pure kindness, to save the earl from the well-meant intrusion of neighbors, but afterward from sheer pleasure in seeing the boy so happy. To him, mounted in Malcolm's arms and brought for the first time into contact with the outer world, every thing was a novelty and delight. And his quick perception let nothing escape him. He seemed to watch lovingly all nature, from the grand lights and shadows which moved over the mountains, to the little moorland flowers which he made Malcolm stop to gather. All living things too, from the young rabbit that scudded across their path, to the lark that rose singing up into the wide blue air—he saw and noticed every thing.
But he never once said, what Helen, who, as often as her house duties allowed, delighted to accompany them on these expeditions, was always expecting he would say, Why had God given these soulless creatures legs to run and wings to fly, strength, health, and activity to enjoy existence, and denied all these things to him? Denied them, not for a week, a month, a year, but for his whole lifetime—a lifetime so short at best;—"few of days, and full of trouble." Why could He not have made it a little more happy?
Thousands have asked themselves, in some form or other, the same unanswered, unanswerable question. Helen had done so already, young as she was; when her mother died, and her father seemed slowly breaking down, and the whole world appeared to her full of darkness and woe. How then must it have appeared to this poor boy? But, strange to say, that bitter doubt, which so often came into Helen's heart, never fell from child's lips at all. Either he was still a mere child, accepting life just as he saw it, and seeking no solution of its mysteries, or else, though so young, he was still strong enough to keep his doubts to himself, to bear his own burden, and trouble no one.
Or else—and when she watched his inexpressibly sweet face, which had the look you sometimes see in blind faces, of absolutely untroubled peace, Helen was forced to believe this—God, who had taken away from him so much, had given him something still more—a spiritual insight so deep and clear that he was happy in spite of his heavy misfortune. She never looked at him but she thought involuntarily of the text, out of the only book with which unlearned Helen was very familiar—that "in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven."
After a fortnight's stay at the Castle Mr. Menteith felt convinced that his experiment had succeeded, and that, onerous as the duty of guardian was, he might be satisfied to leave his ward under the charge of Mr. Cardross.
"Only, it those Bruces should try to get at him, you must let me know at once. Remember, I trust you."
"Certainly, you may. Has any thing been heard of them lately?"
"Nothing much, beyond the continual applications for advances of the annual sum which the late earl gave them, and which I continue to pay, just to keep them out of the way."
"They are still abroad?"
"I suppose so; but I hear very little about them. They were relations on the countess's side, you know—it was she who brought the money. Poor little fellow, what an accumulation it will be by the time he is of age, and what small good it will do him!"
And the honest man sighed as he looked from Mr. Cardross's dining-room window across the Manse garden, where, under a shady tree, was placed the earl's little wheel-chair, which was an occasional substitute for Malcolm's arms. In it he sat, with a book on his lap, and with the aspect of entire content which was so very touching. Helen sat beside him on the grass, sewing—she was always sewing; and, indeed, she had need, if her needle were to keep pace with its requirements in the large family of boys.
"That's a good girl of yours, and his lordship seems to have taken to her amazingly. I am very glad, for he had no feminine company at all except Mrs. Campbell, and, good as she is, she isn't quite the thing— not exactly a lady, you see. Eh, Mr. Cardross—what a lady his mother was! We'll never again see the like of the poor countess, nor, in all human probability, will we ever again see another Countess of Cairnforth.
"Yet," continued Mr. Menteith, after a long pause, "Dr. Hamilton thinks he may live many years. Strange to say, his constitution is healthy and sound, and his sweet, placid nature—his mother's own nature (isn't he very like her sometimes?)—gives him so much advantage in struggling through every ailment. If he can be made happy, as you and Helen will, I doubt not, be able to make him, and kept strictly to a wholesome, natural country life here, it is not impossible he may live to enter upon his property. And then—for the future, God knows!"
"It is well for us," replied the minister, gravely, "That He does know —every thing."
"I suppose it is."
And then for another hour the two good men—one living in the world and the other out of it—both fathers of families, carrying their own burden of cares, and having gone through their own personal sorrows each in his day, talked over, the minutest degree, the present, and, so far as they could divine it, the future of this poor boy, who, through so strange a combination of circumstances, had been left entirely to their charge.
"It is a most responsible charge, Mr. Cardross, and I feel almost selfish in shifting it so much from my own shoulders upon yours."
"I am willing to undertake it. Perhaps it may do me good," returned the minister, with a slight sigh.
"And you will give him the best education you can—your own, in short, which is more than sufficient for Lord Cairnforth; certainly more than the last earl had, or his father either."
"Possibly," said Mr. Cardross, who remembered both—stalwart, active, courtly lords of the soil, great at field-sports and festivities, but not over given to study. "No, the present earl does not take after his progenitors in any way. You should just see him, Mr. Menteith, over his Virgil; and I have promised to begin Homer with him tomorrow. It does one's heart good to see a boy so fond of his books," added the minister, warming up into an enthusiasm which delighted the other extremely.
"Yes, I think my plan was right," said he, rubbing his hands. "It will work well on both sides. There could not be found any where a better tutor than yourself for the earl. He never can go much into the world; he may not even live to be of age; still, as long as he does live, his life ought to be made as pleasant—I mean, as little painful to him as possible. And he ought to be fitted, in case he should live, for as many years as he can fulfill of the duties of his position; its enjoyments, alas! he will never know."
"I am not so sure of that," replied Mr. Cardross. "He loves books; he may turn out a thoroughly educated and accomplished student—perhaps even a man of letters. To have a thirst for knowledge, and unlimited means to gratify it, is not such a bad thing. Why," continued the minister, glancing round on his own poorly-furnished shelves, where every book was bought almost at the sacrifice of a meal, "he will be rich enough to stock from end to end that wilderness of shelves in the half-finished Castle library. How pleasant that must be!"
Mr. Menteith smiled as if he did not quite comprehend this sort of felicity. "But, in any case, Lord Cairnforth seems to have, what will be quite as useful to him as brains, a very kindly heart. He does not shut himself up in a morbid way, but takes an interest in all about him. Look at him, now, how heartily he is laughing at something your daughter has said. Really, those two seem quite happy."
"Helen makes every body happy," fondly said Helen's father.
"I believe so. I shall be sending down one of my big lads to look after her some day. I've eight of them, Mr. Cardross, all to be educated, settled, and wived. It's a 'sair fecht,' I assure you."
"I know it; but still it has its compensations."
"Ay, they're all strong, likely, braw fellows, who can push their own way in the world and fend for themselves. Not like—" he glanced over to the group on the grass, and stopped. Yet at that moment a hearty trill of thoroughly childish laughter seemed to rebuke the regrets of both fathers.
"That child certainly has the sweetest nature—the most remarkable faculty for enjoying other people's enjoyments, in which he himself can never share."
"Yes, it was always so, from the time he was a mere infant. Dr. Hamilton often noticed it, and said it was a good omen."
"I believe so," rejoined Mr. Cardross, earnestly. "I feel sure that if Lord Cairnforth lives, he will neither have a useless nor an unhappy life."
"Let us hope not. And yet—poor little fellow!—to be the last Earl of Cairnforth, and to be—such as he is!"
"He is what God made him, what God willed him to be," said the minister, solemnly. "We know not why it should be so; we only know that it is, and we can not alter it. We can not remove from him his heavy cross, but I think we can help him to bear it."
"You are a good man, Mr. Cardross," replied the Edinburg writer, huskily, as he rose from his seat, and declining another glass of the claret, of which, under some shallow pretext, he had sent a supply into the minister's empty cellar, he crossed the grass-plot, and spent the rest of the evening beside his ward and Helen.
Days, months, and years slip smoothly by on the shores of Loch Beg. Even now, though the cruelly advancing finger of Civilization has touched it, dotted it with genteel villas on either side, plowed it with smoky steam boats, and will shortly frighten the innocent fishes by dropping a marine telegraph wire across the mouth of the loch, it is a peaceful place still. But when the last Earl of Cairnforth was a child it was all peace. In summertime a few stray tourists would wander past it, wondering at its beauty; but in winter it had hardly any communication with the outer world. The Manse, the Castle, and the clachan, with a few outlying farm-houses, comprised the whole of the Cairnforth; and the little peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water, and on the fourth by hills, was sufficiently impregnable and isolated to cause existence to flow on there very quietly, in what townspeople call dullness, and country people repose.
For, whatever repose there may be in country life—real country— there is certainly no monotony. The perpetual change of seasons, varying the aspect of the outside world every month, every week—nay, almost every day, is a continual interest to observant minds, and especially so to intelligent children, who are as yet lying on the breast of Mother Nature only, nor have begun to feel or understand the darker and sadder interests of human passion and emotion.
The little Earl of Cairnforth was one of these; and many a time, through all the summers of his life; he recalled tenderly that first summer at Cairnforth, when, no longer pent up between walls and roofs, or dragged about in carriages, he learned, by Molcolm's aid and under Helen's teaching, to chronicle time in different ways; first by the hyacinths and primroses vanishing, and giving place to the wild roses—those exquisite deep-red roses which belong especially to this country-side; then by the woods—his own woods—growing fragrant with innumerable honeysuckles; and lastly by the heather on the moorland— Scotland's own flower—which clothes entire hillsides as with a garment of gorgeous purple, and fills the whole atmosphere with the scent of a spice-garden; and when it faded into a soft brown, dying delicately, beautiful to the last, there appeared the brambles, trailing every where, with their pretty yellowing leaves and their delicious berries. How blithe, even like a mere "callant," big Malcolm was, when, leaving the earl on the sunny hill-side under Miss Cardross's charge, he used to wander off, and come back with his hands all torn and scratched, to feed his young master with blackberries!
"He is not unhappy—I am sure the child is not unhappy," Helen often said to her father, when—as was his way—Mr. Cardross would get fits of uncertainty and downheartedness, and think he was killing his pupil with study, or wearying him, and risking his health by letting him do as much as his energetic mind, always dominant over the frail body, prompted him to do. "Only let him love his life, and put as much in it as he can, be it long or short, and then it will never be a sad life or a life thrown away."
"Helen, you're not clever, but you're a wise little woman, my dear," the minister would say, patting the flaxen curls or the busy hands—large and brown, yet with a certain grace about them, too—helpful hands, made to hold children, or tend sick folk, or sustain the feeble steps of old age. She was "no bonnie" Helen Cardross; it was just a round, rosy, sonsie face, with no features in particular, but she was pleasant to look upon, and inexpressibly pleasant to live with; for it was such a wholesome nature, so entirely free from moods, or fancies, or crochets of any kind—those sad vagaries of ill-health, ill-humor, and ill-conditionedness of every sort, which are sometimes only a misfortune, caused by an unhappy natural temperament, but oftener arise from pure egotism, of which there was not an atom in Helen Cardross. Her life was like the life of a flower—as natural, unconscious, fresh, and sweet: she took in every influence about her, and gave out freely all she had to give; desired no better things than she possessed, and where she was planted there she grew.
It was not wonderful that the little earl loved her, and that under her sunshiny soul his life too blossomed out as it might never otherwise have done, but have drooped and faded, and gone back into the darkness, imperfect and unfulfilled; for, though each human life is, in a sense, complete to itself, and must work itself out independently, clinging to no other, still there is a great and beautiful mystery in the way one life seems to influence an other, sometimes for ill, but far, far oftener for good.
Lord Cairnforth was not much with the Cardross boys. He liked them, and evidently craved after their company, but they were very shy of him. Sometimes they let Malcolm bring him into their boat, and condescended to row him up and down the loch, a mode of locomotion in which he greatly delighted, for, at best, the shaking of the great lumbering coach was not easy to him, and he always begged to be carried in Malcolm's arms till he found how pleasantly he could lie in the stern of the Manse boat, and float about on the smooth water, watching the mountains and the shores.
True, he could not stir an inch from where he was laid down, but he lay there so contentedly, enjoying everything, and really looked, what he often said he was, "as happy as a king."
And by degrees, with a little home persuasion from Helen, the boys got reconciled to his company—found, indeed, that he was not such bad company after all; for often, when they were tired of pulling, and let the boat drift into some quiet little bay, or rock lazily in the middle of the loch, the little earl would begin talking—telling stories, which soon caught the attention of the minister's boys. These were either fragments out of the books he had read, which seemed countless to the young Cardrosses, or, what they liked still better, tales "out of his own head;" and these tales were always the last that they would have expected from one like him—wild exploits; wanderings over South American prairies, or shipwrecks on desert islands; astonishing feats of riding, or fighting, or traveling by land and sea—every thing, in short, belonging to that sort of active, energetic, adventurous life, of which the relator could never have had the least experience, and never would have in this world. Perhaps for that very reason his fancy delighted therein the more.
And his stories were enjoyed by others as much as by himself, which no doubt added to the charm of them. When winter came, and all the boating days were done, many a night, round the fire of the Manse parlor, or in the "awful eerie" library at the Castle, the earl used to have a whole circle of young people, and some elder ones too, gathered round his wheel-chair, listening to his wonderful tales of adventure by flood and field.
"Why don't you write them out properly?" the boys would ask sometimes, forgetting—what Helen would never have forgotten. But he only looked down on his poor helpless fingers and smiled.
However, he had, with great difficulty and pains, managed to learn to write—that is, to sign his name, or indite any short letter to Mr. Menteith or others, which, as he grew older, sometimes became necessary. But writing was always a great trouble to him; and, fortunately, people were not expected to write much in those days. Had he been born a little later in his century, the Earl of Cairnforth might have brightened his sad life by putting his imagination forth in print, and becoming a great literary character; as it was, he merely told his tales for his own delight and that of those about him, which possibly was a better thing than fame.
Then he made jokes, too. Sometimes, in his quiet, dry way, he said such droll things that the Cardross boys fell into shouts of laughter. He had the rare quality of seeing the comical side of things, without a particle of ill-nature being mixed up with his fun. His wit danced about as brilliantly and harmlessly as the Northern lights that flashed and flamed of winter nights over the mountains at the head of the loch; and the solid, somewhat heavy Manse boys, gradually growing up to men, often wondered why it was that, miserable as the earl's life was, or seemed to them, they always felt merrier instead of sadder when they were in his company.
But sometimes when with Helen alone, and more especially as he grew to be a youth in his teens, and yet no bigger, no stronger, and scarcely less helpless than a child, the young earl would let fall a word or two which showed that he was fully and painfully aware of his own condition, and all that it entailed. It was evident that he had thought much and deeply of the future which lay before him. If, as now appeared probable, he should live to man's estate, his life must, at best, be one long endurance, rendered all the sharper and harder to bear because within that helpless body dwelt a soul, which was, more than that of most men, alive to every thing beautiful, noble, active, and good.
However, though he occasionally betrayed these workings of his mind, it was only to Helen, and not to her very much, for he was exceedingly self-contained from his childhood. He seemed to feel by instinct that to him had been allotted a special solitude of existence, into which, try as tenderly as they would, none could ever fully penetrate, and with which none could wholly sympathize. It was inevitable in the nature of things.
He apparently accepted the fact as such, and did not attempt to break through it. He took the strongest interest in other people, and in every thing around him, but he did not seem to expect to have the like returned in any great degree. Perhaps it was one of those merciful compensations that what he could not have he was made strong enough to do without.
So things went on, without any other variety than an occasional visit from Mr. Menteith or Dr. Hamilton, for seven years, during which the minister's pupil had acquired every possible learning that his teacher could give, and was fast becoming less a scholar than an equal companion and friend—so familiar and dear, that Mr. Cardross, like all who knew him, had long since almost forgotten that the earl was—what he was. It seemed the most natural thing in the world that he should sit there in his little chair, doing nothing; absolutely passive to all physical things; but interested in every thing and every body, and, whether at the Manse or the Castle, as completely one of the circle as if he took the most active part therein. Consulted by one, appealed to by another, joked by a third—he was ever ready with a joke—it was only when strangers happened to see him, and were startled by the sight, that his own immediate friends recognized how different he was from other people.
It was one day when he was about nineteen that Helen, coming in to see him with a message from her father, who wanted to speak to him about some parish matters, found Lord Cairnforth deeply meditating over a letter. He slipped it aside, however, and it was not until the whole parish question had been discussed and settled, as somehow he and Helen very often did settle the whole affairs of the parish between them, that he brought it out again, fidgeting it out of his pocket with his poor fingers, which seemed a little more helpless than usual.
"Helen, I wish you would read that, and tell me what you think about it"?
It was a letter somewhat painful to read, with the earl sitting by and watching her, but Helen had long learned never to shrink from these sort of things. He felt them far less if every body else faced them as boldly as he had himself always done.
The letter was from Dr. Hamilton, written after his return from a three days' visit at Cairnforth Castle. It explained, after a long apologetic preamble, the burden of which was that the earl was now old enough and thoughtful enough to be the best person to speak to on such a difficult subject, that there had been a certain skillful mechanician lately in Edinburg who declared he would invent some support by which Lord Cairnforth could be made, not indeed to walk—that was impossible— but to be by many degrees more active than now. But it would be necessary for him to go to London, and there submit to a great amount of trouble and inconvenience—possibly some pain.