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.
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.
Categories: English Literature