The Old Nurse's Story





I set out one evening for the cottage of my old nurse, to bid her

good-bye for many months, probably years. I was to leave the next day

for Edinburgh, on my way to London, whence I had to repair by coach to

my new abode--almost to me like the land beyond the grave, so little did

I know about it, and so wide was the separation between it and my home.

The evening was sultry when I began my walk, and before I arrived at its

end, the clouds rising from all quarters of the horizon, and especially

gathering around the peaks of the mountain, betokened the near approach

of a thunderstorm. This was a great delight to me. Gladly would I take

leave of my home with the memory of a last night of tumultuous

magnificence; followed, probably, by a day of weeping rain, well suited

to the mood of my own heart in bidding farewell to the best of parents

and the dearest of homes. Besides, in common with most Scotchmen who are

young and hardy enough to be unable to realise the existence of coughs

and rheumatic fevers, it was a positive pleasure to me to be out in

rain, hail, or snow.



"I am come to bid you good-bye, Margaret, and to hear the story which

you promised to tell me before I left home: I go to-morrow."



"Do you go so soon, my darling? Well, it will be an awful night to tell

it in; but, as I promised, I suppose I must."



At the moment, two or three great drops of rain, the first of the

storm, fell down the wide chimney, exploding in the clear turf-fire.



"Yes, indeed you must," I replied.



After a short pause, she commenced. Of course she spoke in Gaelic; and I

translate from my recollection of the Gaelic; but rather from the

impression left upon my mind, than from any recollection of words. She

drew her chair near the fire, which we had reason to fear would soon be

put out by the falling rain, and began.



"How old the story is, I do not know. It has come down through many

generations. My grandmother told it to me as I tell it to you; and her

mother and my mother sat beside, never interrupting, but nodding their

heads at every turn. Almost it ought to begin like the fairy tales,

_Once upon a time_,--it took place so long ago; but it is too dreadful

and too true to tell like a fairy tale.--There were two brothers, sons

of the chief of our clan, but as different in appearance and disposition

as two men could be. The elder was fair-haired and strong, much given to

hunting and fishing; fighting too, upon occasion, I daresay, when they

made a foray upon the Saxon, to get back a mouthful of their own. But he

was gentleness itself to everyone about him, and the very soul of honour

in all his doings. The younger was very dark in complexion, and tall and

slender compared to his brother. He was very fond of book-learning,

which, they say, was an uncommon taste in those times. He did not care

for any sports or bodily exercises but one; and that, too, was unusual

in these parts. It was horsemanship. He was a fierce rider, and as much

at home in the saddle as in his study-chair. You may think that, so long

ago, there was not much fit room for riding hereabouts; but, fit or not

fit, he rode. From his reading and riding, the neighbours looked

doubtfully upon him, and whispered about the black art. He usually

bestrode a great powerful black horse, without a white hair on him; and

people said it was either the devil himself, or a demon-horse from the

devil's own stud. What favoured this notion was that in or out of the

stable, the brute would let no other than his master go near him.

Indeed, no one would venture, after he had killed two men, and

grievously maimed a third, tearing him with his teeth and hoofs like a

wild beast. But to his master he was obedient as a hound, and would even

tremble in his presence sometimes.



"The youth's temper corresponded to his habits. He was both gloomy and

passionate. Prone to anger, he had never been known to forgive. Debarred

from anything on which he had set his heart, he would have gone mad with

longing if he had not gone mad with rage. His soul was like the night

around us now, dark, and sultry, and silent, but lighted up by the red

levin of wrath, and torn by the bellowings of thunder-passion. He must

have his will: hell might have his soul. Imagine, then, the rage and

malice in his heart, when he suddenly became aware that an orphan girl,

distantly related to them, who had lived with them for nearly two years,

and whom he had loved for almost all that period, was loved by his elder

brother, and loved him in return. He flung his right hand above his

head, and swore a terrible oath that if he might not, his brother should

not, rushed out of the house, and galloped off among the hills.



"The orphan was a beautiful girl, tall, pale, and slender, with

plentiful dark hair, which, when released from the snood, rippled down

below her knees. Her appearance formed a strong contrast with that of

her favoured lover, while there was some resemblance between her and the

younger brother. This fact seemed, to his fierce selfishness, ground for

a prior claim.



"It may appear strange that a man like him should not have had instant

recourse to his superior and hidden knowledge, by means of which he

might have got rid of his rival with far more of certainty and less of

risk; but I presume that, for the moment, his passion overwhelmed his

consciousness of skill. Yet I do not suppose that he foresaw the mode in

which his hatred was about to operate. At the moment when he learned

their mutual attachment, probably through a domestic, the lady was on

her way to meet her lover as he returned from the day's sport. The

appointed place was on the edge of a deep, rocky ravine, down in whose

dark bosom brawled and foamed a little mountain torrent. You know the

place, Duncan, my dear, I daresay."



(Here she gave me a minute description of the spot, with directions how

to find it.)



"Whether any one saw what I am about to relate, or whether it was put

together afterwards, I cannot tell. The story is like an old tree--so

old that it has lost the marks of its growth. But this is how my

grandmother told it to me. An evil chance led him in the right

direction. The lovers, startled by the sound of the approaching horse,

parted in opposite directions along a narrow mountain-path on the edge

of the ravine. Into this path he struck at a point near where the lovers

had met, but to opposite sides of which they had now receded; so that he

was between them on the path. Turning his horse up the course of the

stream, he soon came in sight of his brother on the ledge before him.

With a suppressed scream of rage, he rode headlong at him, and, ere he

had time to make the least defence, hurled him over the precipice. The

helplessness of the strong man was uttered in one single despairing cry

as he shot into the abyss. Then all was still. The sound of his fall

could not reach the edge of the gulf. Divining in a moment that the

lady, whose name was Elsie, must have fled in the opposite direction, he

reined his steed on his haunches. He could touch the precipice with his

bridle-hand half outstretched; his sword-hand half outstretched would

have dropped a stone to the bottom of the ravine. There was no room to

wheel. One desperate practibility alone remained. Turning his horse's

head towards the edge, he compelled him, by means of the powerful bit,

to rear till he stood almost erect; and so, his body swaying over the

gulf, with quivering and straining muscles, to turn on his hind legs.

Having completed the half-circle, he let him drop, and urged him

furiously in the opposite direction. It must have been by the devil's

own care that he was able to continue his gallop along that ledge of

rock.



"He soon caught sight of the maiden. She was leaning, half fainting,

against the precipice. She had beard her lover's last cry, and, although

it had conveyed no suggestion of his voice to her ear, she trembled from

head to foot, and her limbs would bear her no farther. He checked his

speed, rode gently up to her, lifted her unresisting, laid her across

the shoulders of his horse, and, riding carefully till he reached a more

open path, dashed again wildly along the mountain side. The lady's long

hair was shaken loose, and dropped, trailing on the ground. The horse

trampled upon it, and stumbled, half dragging her from the saddle-bow.

He caught her, lifted her up, and looked at her face. She was dead. I

suppose he went mad. He laid her again across the saddle before him, and

rode on, reckless whither. Horse, and man, and maiden were found the

next day, lying at the foot of a cliff, dashed to pieces. It was

observed that a hind shoe of the horse was loose and broken. Whether

this had been the cause of his fall, could not be told; but ever when he

races, as race he will, till the day of doom, along that mountain side,

his gallop is mingled with the clank of the loose and broken shoe. For,

like the sin, the punishment is awful; he shall carry about for ages the

phantom-body of the girl, knowing that her soul is away, sitting with

the soul of his brother, down in the deep ravine, or scaling with him

the topmost crags of the towering mountain peaks. There are some who,

from time to time, see the doomed man careering along the face of the

mountain, with the lady hanging across the steed; and they say it always

betokens a storm, such as this which is now raving about us."



I had not noticed till now, so absorbed had I been in her tale, that the

storm had risen to a very ecstasy of fury.



"They say, likewise, that the lady's hair is still growing; for, every

time they see her, it is longer than before; and that now such is its

length and the headlong speed of the horse, that it floats and streams

out behind, like one of those curved clouds, like a comet's tail, far up

in the sky; only the cloud is white, and the hair dark as night. And

they say it will go on growing until the Last Day, when the horse will

falter, and her hair will gather in; and the horse will fall, and the

hair will twist, and twine, and wreathe itself like a mist of threads

about him, and blind him to everything but her. Then the body will rise

up within it, face to face with him, animated by a fiend, who, twining

_her_ arms around him, will drag him down to the bottomless pit."



I may mention something which now occurred, and which had a strange

effect on my old nurse. It illustrates the assertion that we see around

us only what is within us; marvellous things enough will show themselves

to the marvellous mood. During a short lull in the storm, just as she

had finished her story, we heard the sound of iron-shod hoofs

approaching the cottage. There was no bridle-way into the glen. A knock

came to the door, and, on opening it, we saw an old man seated on a

horse, with a long, slenderly-filled sack lying across the saddle before

him. He said he had lost the path in the storm, and, seeing the light,

had scrambled down to inquire his way. I perceived at once, from the

scared and mysterious look of the old woman's eyes, that she was

persuaded that this appearance had more than a little to do with the

awful rider, the terrific storm, and myself who had heard the sound of

the phantom hoofs. As he ascended the hill, she looked after him, with

wide and pale but unshrinking eyes; then turning in, shut and locked the

door behind her, as by a natural instinct. After two or three of her

significant nods, accompanied by the compression of her lips, she

said:--



"He need not think to take me in, wizard as he is, with his disguises. I

can see him through them all. Duncan, my dear, when you suspect

anything, do not be too incredulous. This human demon is, of course, a

wizard still, and knows how to make himself, as well as anything he

touches, take a quite different appearance from the real one; only every

appearance must bear some resemblance, however distant, to the natural

form. That man you saw at the door, was the phantom of which I have been

telling you. What he is after now, of course, I cannot tell; but you

must keep a bold heart, and a firm and wary foot, as you go home

to-night."



I showed some surprise, I do not doubt, and, perhaps, some fear as well;

but I only said: "How do you know him, Margaret?"



"I can hardly tell you," she replied; "but I do know him. I think he

hates me. Often, of a wild night, when there is moonlight enough by

fits, I see him tearing round this little valley, just on the top

edge--all round; the lady's hair and the horse's mane and tail driving

far behind, and mingling, vaporous, with the stormy clouds. About he

goes, in wild careering gallop; now lost as the moon goes in, then

visible far round when she looks out again--an airy, pale-grey spectre,

which few eyes but mine could see; for, as far as I am aware, no one of

the family but myself has ever possessed the double gift of seeing and

hearing both. In this case I hear no sound, except now and then a clank

from the broken shoe. But I did not mean to tell you that I had ever

seen him. I am not a bit afraid of him. He cannot do more than he may.

His power is limited; else ill enough would he work, the miscreant."



"But," said I, "what has all this, terrible as it is, to do with the

fright you took at my telling you that I had heard the sound of the

broken shoe? Surely you are not afraid of only a storm?"



"No, my boy; I fear no storm. But the fact is, that that sound is seldom

heard, and never, as far as I know, by any of the blood of that wicked

man, without betokening some ill to one of the family, and most probably

to the one who hears it--but I am not quite sure about that. Only some

evil it does portend, although a long time may elapse before it shows

itself; and I have a hope it may mean some one else than you."



"Do not wish that," I replied. "I know no one better able to bear it

than I am; and I hope, whatever it may be, that I only shall have to

meet it. It must surely be something serious to be so foretold--it can

hardly be connected with my disappointment in being compelled to be a

pedagogue instead of a soldier."



"Do not trouble yourself about that, Duncan," replied she. "A soldier

you must be. The same day you told me of the clank of the broken

horseshoe, I saw you return wounded from battle, and fall fainting from

your horse in the street of a great city--only fainting, thank God. But

I have particular reasons for being uneasy at _your_ hearing that boding

sound. Can you tell me the day and hour of your birth?"



"No," I replied. "It seems very odd when I think of it, but I really do

not know even the day."



"Nor any one else, which is stranger still," she answered.



"How does that happen, nurse?"



"We were in terrible anxiety about your mother at the time. So ill was

she, after you were just born, in a strange, unaccountable way, that you

lay almost neglected for more than an hour. In the very act of giving

birth to you, she seemed to the rest around her to be out of her mind,

so wildly did she talk; but I knew better. I knew that she was fighting

some evil power; and what power it was, I knew full well; for twice,

during her pains, I heard the click of the horseshoe. But no one could

help her. After her delivery, she lay as if in a trance, neither dead,

nor at rest, but as if frozen to ice, and conscious of it all the while.

Once more I heard the terrible sound of iron; and, at the moment your

mother started from her trance, screaming, 'My child! my child!' We

suddenly became aware that no one had attended to the child, and rushed

to the place where he lay wrapped in a blanket. Uncovering him, we found

him black in the face, and spotted with dark spots upon the throat. I

thought he was dead; but, with great and almost hopeless pains, we

succeeded in making him breathe, and he gradually recovered. But his

mother continued dreadfully exhausted. It seemed as if she had spent her

life for her child's defence and birth. That was you, Duncan, my dear.



"I was in constant attendance upon her. About a week after your birth,

as near as I can guess, just in the gloaming, I heard yet again the

awful clank--only once. Nothing followed till about midnight. Your

mother slept, and you lay asleep beside her. I sat by the bedside. A

horror fell upon me suddenly, though I neither saw nor heard anything.

Your mother started from her sleep with a cry, which sounded as if it

came from far away, out of a dream, and did not belong to this world. My

blood curdled with fear. She sat up in bed, with wide staring eyes, and

half-open rigid lips, and, feeble as she was, thrust her arms straight

out before her with great force, her hands open and lifted up, with the

palms outwards. The whole action was of one violently repelling another.

She began to talk wildly as she had done before you were born, but,

though I seemed to hear and understand it all at the time, I could not

recall a word of it afterwards. It was as if I had listened to it when

half asleep. I attempted to soothe her, putting my arms round her, but

she seemed quite unconscious of my presence, and my arms seemed

powerless upon the fixed muscles of hers. Not that I tried to constrain

her, for I knew that a battle was going on of some kind or other, and my

interference might do awful mischief. I only tried to comfort and

encourage her. All the time, I was in a state of indescribable cold and

suffering, whether more bodily or mental I could not tell. But at length

I heard yet again the clank of the shoe. A sudden peace seemed to fall

upon my mind--or was it a warm, odorous wind that filled the room? Your

mother dropped her arms, and turned feebly towards her baby. She saw

that he slept a blessed sleep. She smiled like a glorified spirit, and

fell back exhausted on the pillow. I went to the other side of the room

to get a cordial. When I returned to the bedside, I saw at once that she

was dead. Her face smiled still, with an expression of the uttermost

bliss."



Nurse ceased, trembling as overcome by the recollection; and I was too

much moved and awed to speak. At length, resuming the conversation, she

said: "You see it is no wonder, Duncan, my dear, if, after all this, I

should find, when I wanted to fix the date of your birth, that I could

not determine the day or the hour when it took place. All was confusion

in my poor brain. But it was strange that no one else could, any more

than I. One thing only I can tell you about it. As I carried you across

the room to lay you down--for I assisted at your birth--I happened to

look up to the window. Then I saw what I did not forget, although I did

not think of it again till many days after--a bright star was shining on

the very tip of the thin crescent moon."



"Oh, then," said I, "it is possible to determine the day and the very

hour when my birth took place."



"See the good of book-learning!" replied she. "When you work it out,

just let me know, my dear, that I may remember it."



"That I will."



A silence of some moments followed. Margaret resumed:



"I am afraid you will laugh at my foolish fancies, Duncan; but in

thinking over all these things, as you may suppose I often do, lying

awake in my lonely bed, the notion sometimes comes to me: What if my

Duncan be the youth whom his wicked brother hurled into the ravine, come

again in a new body, to live out his life, cut short by his brother's

hatred? If so, his persecution of you, and of your mother for your sake,

is easy to understand. And if so, you will never be able to rest till

you find your fere, wherever she may have been born on the face of the

earth. For born she must be, long ere now, for you to find. I misdoubt

me much, however, if you will find her without great conflict and

suffering between, for the Powers of Darkness will be against you;

though I have good hope that you will overcome at last. You must forgive

the fancies of a foolish old woman, my dear."



I will not try to describe the strange feelings, almost sensations, that

arose in me while listening to these extraordinary utterances, lest it

should be supposed I was ready to believe all that Margaret narrated or

concluded. I could not help doubting her sanity; but no more could I

help feeling peculiarly moved by her narrative.



Few more words were spoken on either side, but, after receiving renewed

exhortations to carefulness on the way home, I said good-bye to dear old

nurse, considerably comforted, I must confess, that I was not doomed to

be a tutor all my days; for I never questioned the truth of that vision

and its consequent prophecy.



I went out into the midst of the storm, into the alternating throbs of

blackness and radiance; now the possessor of no more room than what my

body filled, and now isolated in world-wide space. And the thunder

seemed to follow me, bellowing after me as I went.



Absorbed in the story I had heard, I took my way, as I thought,

homewards. The whole country was well known to me. I should have said,

before that night, that I could have gone home blindfold. Whether the

lightning bewildered me and made me take a false turn, I cannot tell,

for the hardest thing to understand, in intellectual as well as moral

mistakes, is how we came to go wrong. But after wandering for some time,

plunged in meditation, and with no warning whatever of the presence of

inimical powers, a brilliant lightning-flash showed me that at least I

was not near home. The light was prolonged for a second or two by a

slight electric pulsation; and by that I distinguished a wide space of

blackness on the ground in front of me. Once more wrapt in the folds of

a thick darkness, I dared not move. Suddenly it occurred to me what the

blackness was, and whither I had wandered. It was a huge quarry, of

great depth, long disused, and half filled with water. I knew the place

perfectly. A few more steps would have carried me over the brink. I

stood still, waiting for the next flash, that I might be quite sure of

the way I was about to take before I ventured to move. While I stood, I

fancied I heard a single hollow plunge in the black water far below.

When the lightning came, I turned, and took my path in another

direction. After walking for some time across the heath, I fell. The

fall became a roll, and down a steep declivity I went, over and over,

arriving at the bottom uninjured.



Another flash soon showed me where I was--in the hollow valley, within a

couple of hundred yards from nurse's cottage. I made my way towards it.

There was no light in it, except the feeblest glow from the embers of

her peat fire. "She is in bed," I said to myself, "and I will not

disturb her." Yet something drew me towards the little window. I looked

in. At first I could see nothing. At length, as I kept gazing, I saw

something, indistinct in the darkness, like an outstretched human form.



By this time the storm had lulled. The moon had been up for some time,

but had been quite concealed by tempestuous clouds. Now, however, these

had begun to break up; and, while I stood looking into the cottage, they

scattered away from the face of the moon, and a faint, vapoury gleam of

her light, entering the cottage through a window opposite that at which

I stood, fell directly on the face of my old nurse, as she lay on her

back outstretched upon chairs, pale as death, and with her eyes closed.

The light fell nowhere but on her face. A stranger to her habits would

have thought that she was dead; but she had so much of the appearance

she had had on a former occasion, that I concluded at once she was in

one of her trances. But having often heard that persons in such a

condition ought not to be disturbed, and feeling quite sure she knew

best how to manage herself, I turned, though reluctantly, and left the

lone cottage behind me in the night, with the death-like woman lying

motionless in the midst of it.



I found my way home without any further difficulty, and went to bed,

where I soon fell asleep, thoroughly wearied, more by the mental

excitement I had been experiencing, than by the amount of bodily

exercise I had gone through.



My sleep was tormented with awful dreams; yet, strange to say, I awoke

in the morning refreshed and fearless. The sun was shining through the

chinks in my shutters, which had been closed because of the storm, and

was making streaks and bands of golden brilliancy upon the wall. I had

dressed and completed my preparations long before I heard the steps of

the servant who came to call me.



What a wonderful thing waking is! The time of the ghostly moonshine

passes by, and the great positive sunlight comes. A man who dreams, and

knows that he is dreaming, thinks he knows what waking is; but knows it

so little that he mistakes, one after another, many a vague and dim

change in his dream for an awaking. When the true waking comes at last,

he is filled and overflowed with the power of its reality. So, likewise,

one who, in the darkness, lies waiting for the light about to be struck,

and trying to conceive, with all the force of his imagination, what the

light will be like, is yet, when the reality flames up before him,

seized as by a new and unexpected thing, different from and beyond all

his imagining. He feels as if the darkness were cast to an infinite

distance behind him. So shall it be with us when we wake from this dream

of life into the truer life beyond, and find all our present notions of

being thrown back as into a dim vapoury region of dreamland, where yet

we thought we knew, and whence we looked forward into the present. This

must be what Novalis means when he says: "Our life is not a dream; but

it may become a dream, and perhaps ought to become one."



And so I look back upon the strange history of my past, sometimes asking

myself: "Can it be that all this has really happened to the same _me_,

who am now thinking about it in doubt and wonderment?"





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