A STRANGE NIGHT.
The youths had not left the city a
mile behind, when a thick snowstorm came on.
It did not last long, however, and they fought their
way through it into a glimpse of sun. To Robert,
healthy, powerful, and except at rare times, hopeful,
it added to the pleasure of the journey to contend
with the storm, and there was a certain steely indifference
about Ericson that carried him through. They trudged
on steadily for three hours along a good turnpike
road, with great black masses of cloud sweeping across
the sky, which now sent them a glimmer of sunlight,
and now a sharp shower of hail. The country was
very dreary a succession of undulations
rising into bleak moorlands, and hills whose heather
would in autumn flush the land with glorious purple,
but which now looked black and cheerless, as if no
sunshine could ever warm them. Now and then the
moorland would sweep down to the edge of the road,
diversified with dark holes from which peats were
dug, and an occasional quarry of gray granite.
At one moment endless pools would be shining in the
sunlight, and the next the hail would be dancing a
mad fantastic dance all about them: they pulled
their caps over their brows, bent their heads, and
At length they reached their first
stage, and after a meal of bread and cheese and an
offered glass of whisky, started again on their journey.
They did not talk much, for their force was spent on
After some consultation whether to
keep the road or take a certain short cut across the
moors, which would lead them into it again with a saving
of several miles, the sun shining out with a little
stronger promise than he had yet given, they resolved
upon the latter. But in the middle of the moorland
the wind and the hail came on with increased violence,
and they were glad to tack from one to another of the
huge stones that lay about, and take a short breathing
time under the lee of each; so that when they recovered
the road, they had lost as many miles in time and
strength as they had saved in distance. They did
not give in, however, but after another rest and a
little more refreshment, started again.
The evening was now growing dusk around
them, and the fatigue of the day was telling so severely
on Ericson, that when in the twilight they heard the
blast of a horn behind them, and turning saw the two
flaming eyes of a well-known four-horse coach come
fluctuating towards them, Robert insisted on their
getting up and riding the rest of the way.
‘But I can’t afford it,’ said Ericson.
‘But I can,’ said Robert.
‘I don’t doubt it,’ returned Ericson.
‘But I owe you too much already.’
‘Gin ever we win hame I
mean to the heart o’ hame ye can pay
‘There will be no need then.’
’Whaur’s the need than
to mak sic a wark aboot a saxpence or twa atween this
and that? I thocht ye cared for naething that
time or space or sense could grip or measure.
Mr. Ericson, ye’re no half sic a philosopher
as ye wad set up for. Hillo!’
Ericson laughed a weary laugh, and as the coach stopped
in obedience to
Robert’s hail, he scrambled up behind.
The guard knew Robert, was pitiful
over the condition of the travellers, would have put
them inside, but that there was a lady there, and their
clothes were wet, got out a great horse-rug and wrapped
Robert in it, put a spare coat of his own, about an
inch thick, upon Ericson, drew out a flask, took a
pull at it, handed it to his new passengers, and blew
a vigorous blast on his long horn, for they were approaching
a desolate shed where they had to change their weary
horses for four fresh thorough-breds.
Away they went once more, careering
through the gathering darkness. It was delightful
indeed to have to urge one weary leg past the other
no more, but be borne along towards food, fire, and
bed. But their adventures were not so nearly
over as they imagined. Once more the hail fell
furiously huge hailstones, each made of
many, half-melted and welded together into solid lumps
of ice. The coachman could scarcely hold his
face to the shower, and the blows they received on
their faces and legs, drove the thin-skinned, high-spirited
horses nearly mad. At length they would face
it no longer. At a turn in the road, where it
crossed a brook by a bridge with a low stone wall,
the wind met them right in the face with redoubled
vehemence; the leaders swerved from it, and were just
rising to jump over the parapet, when the coachman,
whose hands were nearly insensible with cold, threw
his leg over the reins, and pulled them up. One
of the leaders reared, and fell backwards; one of
the wheelers kicked vigorously; a few moments, and
in spite of the guard at their heads, all was one
struggling mass of bodies and legs, with a broken
pole in the midst. The few passengers got down;
and Robert, fearing that yet worse might happen and
remembering the lady, opened the door. He found
her quite composed. As he helped her out,
‘What is the matter?’
asked the voice dearest to him in the world the
voice of Miss St. John.
He gave a cry of delight. Wrapped
in the horse-cloth, Miss St. John did not know him.
‘What is the matter?’ she repeated.
’Ow, naething, mem naething.
Only I doobt we winna get ye hame the nicht.’
‘Is it you, Robert?’ she
said, gladly recognizing his voice.
‘Ay, it’s me, and Mr.
Ericson. We’ll tak care o’ ye, mem.’
‘But surely we shall get home!’
Robert had heard the crack of the breaking pole.
‘’Deed, I doobt no.’
‘What are we to do, then?’
‘Come into the lythe (shelter)
o’ the bank here, oot o’ the gait o’
thae brutes o’ horses,’ said Robert, taking
off his horse-cloth and wrapping her in it.
The storm hissed and smote all around
them. She took Robert’s arm. Followed
by Ericson, they left the coach and the struggling
horses, and withdrew to a bank that overhung the road.
As soon as they were out of the wind, Robert, who
had made up his mind, said,
‘We canna be mony yairds frae
the auld hoose o’ Bogbonnie. We micht win
throu the nicht there weel eneuch. I’ll
speir at the gaird, the minute the horses are clear.
We war ’maist ower the brig, I heard the coachman
‘I know quite well where the
old house is,’ said Ericson. ’I went
in the last time I walked this way.’
‘Was the door open?’ asked Robert.
‘I don’t know,’
answered Ericson. ’I found one of the windows
open in the basement.’
‘We’ll get the len’
o’ ane o’ the lanterns, an’ gang
direckly. It canna be mair nor the breedth o’
a rig or twa frae the burn.’
‘I can take you by the road,’ said Ericson.
‘It will be very cold,’
said Miss St. John, already shivering, partly
’There’s timmer eneuch
there to haud ‘s warm for a twalmonth,’
He went back to the coach. By
this time the horses were nearly extricated.
Two of them stood steaming in the lamplight, with their
sides going at twenty bellows’ speed. The
guard would not let him have one of the coach lamps,
but gave him a small lantern of his own. When
he returned with it, he found Ericson and Miss St.
John talking together.
Ericson led the way, and the others followed.
‘Whaur are ye gaein’,
gentlemen?’ asked the guard, as they passed the
‘To the auld hoose,’ answered Robert.
‘Ye canna do better. I
maun bide wi’ the coch till the lave gang back
to Drumheid wi’ the horses, on’ fess anither
pole. Faith, it’ll be weel into the mornin’
or we win oot o’ this. Tak care hoo ye gang.
There’s holes i’ the auld hoose, I doobt.’
‘We’ll tak gude care,
ye may be sure, Hector,’ said Robert, as they
left the bridge.
The house to which Ericson was leading
them was in the midst of a field. There was just
light enough to show a huge mass standing in the dark,
without a tree or shelter of any sort. When they
reached it, all that Miss St. John could distinguish
was a wide broken stair leading up to the door, with
glimpses of a large, plain, ugly, square front.
The stones of the stair sloped and hung in several
directions; but it was plain to a glance that the
place was dilapidated through extraordinary neglect,
rather than by the usual wear of time. In fact,
it belonged only to the beginning of the preceding
century, somewhere in Queen Anne’s time.
There was a heavy door to it, but fortunately for Miss
St. John, who would not quite have relished getting
in at the window of which Ericson had spoken, it stood
a little ajar. The wind roared in the gap and
echoed in the empty hall into which they now entered.
Certainly Robert was right: there was wood enough
to keep them warm; for that hall, and every room into
which they went, from top to bottom of the huge house,
was lined with pine. No paint-brush had ever passed
upon it. Neither was there a spot to be seen
upon the grain of the wood: it was clean as the
day when the house was finished, only it had grown
much browner. A close gallery, with window-frames
which had never been glazed, at one story’s
height, leading across from the one side of the first
floor to the other, looked down into the great echoing
hall, which rose in the centre of the building to
the height of two stories; but this was unrecognizable
in the poor light of the guard’s lantern.
All the rooms on every floor opened each into the
other; but why should I give such a minute
description, making my reader expect a ghost story,
or at least a nocturnal adventure? I only want
him to feel something of what our party felt as they
entered this desolate building, which, though some
hundred and twenty years old, bore not a single mark
upon the smooth floors or spotless walls to indicate
that article of furniture had ever stood in it, or
human being ever inhabited it. There was a strange
and unusual horror about the place a feeling
quite different from that belonging to an ancient
house, however haunted it might be. It was like
a body that had never had a human soul in it.
There was no sense of a human history about it.
Miss St. John’s feeling of eeriness rose to
the height when, in wandering through the many rooms
in search of one where the windows were less broken,
she came upon one spot in the floor. It was only
a hole worn down through floor after floor, from top
to bottom, by the drip of the rains from the broken
roof: it looked like the disease of the desolate
place, and she shuddered.
Here they must pass the night, with
the wind roaring awfully through the echoing emptiness,
and every now and then the hail clashing against what
glass remained in the windows. They found one
room with the window well boarded up, for until lately
some care had been taken of the place to keep it from
the weather. There Robert left his companions,
who presently heard the sounds of tearing and breaking
below, necessity justifying him in the appropriation
of some of the wood-work for their own behoof.
He tore a panel or two from the walls, and returning
with them, lighted a fire on the empty hearth, where,
from the look of the stone and mortar, certainly never
fire had blazed before. The wood was dry as a
bone, and burnt up gloriously.
Then first Robert bethought himself
that they had nothing to eat. He himself was
full of merriment, and cared nothing about eating;
for had he not Miss St. John and Ericson there? but
for them something must be provided. He took
his lantern and went back through the storm. The
hail had ceased, but the wind blew tremendously.
The coach stood upon the bridge like a stranded vessel,
its two lamps holding doubtful battle with the wind,
now flaring out triumphantly, now almost yielding up
the ghost. Inside, the guard was snoring in defiance
of the pother o’er his head.
‘Hector! Hector!’ cried Robert.
‘Ay, ay,’ answered Hector. ‘It’s
no time to wauken yet.’
‘Hae ye nae basket, Hector,
wi’ something to eat in ‘t naething
gaein’ to Rothieden ‘at a body micht say
by yer leave till?’
’Ow! it’s you, is ‘t?’
returned Hector, rousing himself. ’Na.
Deil ane. An’ gin I had, I daurna gie ye
’I wad mak free to steal ‘t,
though, an’ tak my chance,’ said Robert.
‘But ye say ye hae nane?’
‘Nane, I tell ye. Ye winna
hunger afore the mornin’, man.’
‘I’ll stan’ hunger
as weel ‘s you ony day, Hector. It’s
no for mysel’. There’s Miss St. John.’
‘Hoots!’ said Hector,
peevishly, for he wanted to go to sleep again, ’gang
and mak luve till her. Nae lass ‘ll think
o’ meat as lang ’s ye do that.
That ‘ll haud her ohn hungert.’
The words were like blasphemy in Robert’s
ear. He make love to Miss St. John! He turned
from the coach-door in disgust. But there was
no place he knew of where anything could be had, and
he must return empty-handed.
The light of the fire shone through
a little hole in the boards that closed the window.
His lamp had gone out, but, guided by that, he found
the road again, and felt his way up the stairs.
When he entered the room he saw Miss St. John sitting
on the floor, for there was nowhere else to sit, with
the guard’s coat under her. She had taken
off her bonnet. Her back leaned against the side
of the chimney, and her eyes were bent thoughtfully
on the ground. In their shine Robert read instinctively
that Ericson had said something that had set her thinking.
He lay on the floor at some distance, leaning on his
elbow, and his eye had the flash in it that indicates
one who has just ceased speaking. They had not
found his absence awkward at least.
‘I hae been efter something
to eat,’ said Robert; ‘but I canna
fa’ in wi’ onything. We maun
jist tell stories or sing sangs, as fowk do in
buiks, or else Miss St. John ‘ill think lang.’
They did sing songs, and they did
tell stories. I will not trouble my reader with
more than the sketch of one which Robert told the
story of the old house wherein they sat a
house without a history, save the story of its no
history. It had been built for the jointure-house
of a young countess, whose husband was an old man.
A lover to whom she had turned a deaf ear had left
the country, begging ere he went her acceptance of
a lovely Italian grayhound. She was weak enough
to receive the animal. Her husband died the same
year, and before the end of it the dog went mad, and
bit her. According to the awful custom of the
time they smothered her between two feather-beds, just
as the house of Bogbonnie was ready to receive her
furniture, and become her future dwelling. No
one had ever occupied it.
If Miss St. John listened to story
and song without as much show of feeling as Mysie
Lindsay would have manifested, it was not that she
entered into them less deeply. It was that she
was more, not felt less.
Listening at her window once with
Robert, Eric Ericson had heard Mary St. John play:
this was their first meeting. Full as his mind
was of Mysie, he could not fail to feel the charm
of a noble, stately womanhood that could give support,
instead of rousing sympathy for helplessness.
There was in the dignified simplicity of Mary St. John
that which made every good man remember his mother;
and a good man will think this grand praise, though
a fast girl will take it for a doubtful compliment.
Seeing her begin to look weary, the
young men spread a couch for her as best they could,
made up the fire, and telling her they would be in
the hall below, retired, kindled another fire, and
sat down to wait for the morning. They held a
long talk. At length Robert fell asleep on the
Ericson rose. One of his fits
of impatient doubt was upon him. In the dying
embers of the fire he strode up and down the waste
hall, with the storm raving around it. He was
destined to an early death; he would leave no one
of his kin to mourn for him; the girl whose fair face
had possessed his imagination, would not give one sigh
to his memory, wandering on through the regions of
fancy all the same; and the death-struggle over, he
might awake in a godless void, where, having no creative
power in himself, he must be tossed about, a conscious
yet helpless atom, to eternity. It was not annihilation
he feared, although he did shrink from the thought
of unconsciousness; it was life without law that he
dreaded, existence without the bonds of a holy necessity,
thought without faith, being without God.
For all her fatigue Miss St. John
could not sleep. The house quivered in the wind
which howled more and more madly through its long passages
and empty rooms; and she thought she heard cries in
the midst of the howling. In vain she reasoned
with herself: she could not rest. She rose
and opened the door of her room, with a vague notion
of being nearer to the young men.
It opened upon the narrow gallery,
already mentioned as leading from one side of the
first floor to the other at mid-height along the end
of the hall. The fire below shone into this gallery,
for it was divided from the hall only by a screen
of crossing bars of wood, like unglazed window-frames,
possibly intended to hold glass. Of the relation
of the passage to the hall Mary St. John knew nothing,
till, approaching the light, she found herself looking
down into the red dusk below. She stood riveted;
for in the centre of the hall, with his hands clasped
over his head like the solitary arch of a ruined Gothic
aisle, stood Ericson.
His agony had grown within him the
agony of the silence that brooded immovable throughout
the infinite, whose sea would ripple to no breath
of the feeble tempest of his prayers. At length
it broke from him in low but sharp sounds of words.
‘O God,’ he said, ’if
thou art, why dost thou not speak? If I am thy
handiwork dost thou forget that which thou
He paused, motionless, then cried again:
‘There can be no God, or he would hear.’
‘God has heard me!’ said
a full-toned voice of feminine tenderness somewhere
in the air. Looking up, Ericson saw the dim form
of Mary St. John half-way up the side of the lofty
hall. The same moment she vanished trembling
at the sound of her own voice.
Thus to Ericson as to Robert had she appeared as an
And was she less of a divine messenger
because she had a human body, whose path lay not through
the air? The storm of misery folded its wings
in Eric’s bosom, and, at the sound of her voice,
there was a great calm. Nor if we inquire into
the matter shall we find that such an effect indicated
anything derogatory to the depth of his feelings or
the strength of his judgment. It is not through
the judgment that a troubled heart can be set at rest.
It needs a revelation, a vision; a something for the
higher nature that breeds and infolds the intellect,
to recognize as of its own, and lay hold of by faithful
hope. And what fitter messenger of such hope
than the harmonious presence of a woman, whose form
itself tells of highest law, and concord, and uplifting
obedience; such a one whose beauty walks the upper
air of noble loveliness; whose voice, even in speech,
is one of the ’sphere-born harmonious sisters?
The very presence of such a being gives Unbelief the
lie, deep as the throat of her lying. Harmony,
which is beauty and law, works necessary faith in
the region capable of truth. It needs the intervention
of no reasoning. It is beheld. This visible
Peace, with that voice of woman’s truth, said,
‘God has heard me!’ What better testimony
could an angel have brought him? Or why should
an angel’s testimony weigh more than such a
woman’s? The mere understanding of a man
like Ericson would only have demanded of an angel proof
that he was an angel, proof that angels knew better
than he did in the matter in question, proof that
they were not easy-going creatures that took for granted
the rumours of heaven. The best that a miracle
can do is to give hope; of the objects of faith it
can give no proof; one spiritual testimony is worth
a thousand of them. For to gain the sole proof
of which these truths admit, a man must grow into
harmony with them. If there are no such things
he cannot become conscious of a harmony that has no
existence; he cannot thus deceive himself; if there
are, they must yet remain doubtful until the harmony
between them and his own willing nature is established.
The perception of this harmony is their only and incommunicable
proof. For this process time is needful; and
therefore we are saved by hope. Hence it is no
wonder that before another half-hour was over, Ericson
was asleep by Robert’s side.
They were aroused in the cold gray
light of the morning by the blast of Hector’s
horn. Miss St. John was ready in a moment.
The coach was waiting for them at the end of the grassy
road that led from the house. Hector put them
all inside. Before they reached Rothieden the
events of the night began to wear the doubtful aspect
of a dream. No allusion was made to what had
occurred while Robert slept; but all the journey Ericson
felt towards Miss St. John as Wordsworth felt towards
the leech-gatherer, who, he says, was
a man from some far region sent,
To give me human strength,
by apt admonishment.
And Robert saw a certain light in
her eyes which reminded him of how she looked when,
having repented of her momentary hardness towards him,
she was ministering to his wounded head.