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as he turned, long, thin, white hands flashed out of his pockets, pressed against his ears, and intertwined their fingers at the back of his neck. With a marvellous swiftness he shot down the steep descent towards the shore.
"The deil's in't 'at I bude to anger him!" said the woman, and walked away, with a short laugh of small satisfaction.
The style she had given the hunchback was no nickname. Stephen Stewart was laird of the small property and ancient house of Kirkbyres, of which his mother managed the affairs--hardly for her son, seeing that, beyond his clothes, and five pounds a year of pocket money, he derived no personal advantage from his possessions. He never went near his own house, for, from some unknown reason, plentifully aimed at in the dark by the neighbours, he had such a dislike to his mother that he could not bear to hear the name of mother, or even the slightest allusion to the relationship.
Some said he was a fool; others a madman; some both; none, however, said he was a rogue; and all would have been willing to allow that whatever it might be that caused the difference between him and other men, throughout the disturbing element blew ever and anon the air of a sweet humanity.
Along the shore, in the direction of the great rocky promontory that closed in the bay on the west, with his hands still clasped over his ears, as if the awful word were following him, he flew rather than fled. It was nearly low water, and the wet sand afforded an easy road to his flying feet. Betwixt sea and shore, a sail in the offing the sole other moving thing in the solitary landscape, like a hunted creature he sped, his footsteps melting and vanishing behind him in the half quicksand.
Where the curve of the water line turned northward at the root of the promontory, six or eight fishing boats were drawn up on the beach in various stages of existence. One was little more than half built, the fresh wood shining against the background of dark rock. Another was newly tarred; its sides glistened with the rich shadowy brown, and filled the air with a comfortable odour. Another wore age long neglect on every plank and seam; half its props had sunk or decayed, and the huge hollow leaned low on one side, disclosing the squalid desolation of its lean ribbed and naked interior, producing all the phantasmic effect of a great swampy desert; old pools of water overgrown with a green scum, lay in the hollows between its rotting timbers, and the upper planks were baking and cracking in the sun. Near where they lay a steep path ascended the cliff, whence through grass and ploughed land, it led across the promontory to the fishing village of Scaurnose, which lay on the other side of it. There the mad laird, or Mad Humpy, as he was called by the baser sort, often received shelter, chiefly from the family of a certain Joseph Mair, one of the most respectable inhabitants of the place.
But the way he now pursued lay close under the cliffs of the headland, and was rocky and difficult. He passed the boats, going between them and the cliffs, at a footpace, with his eyes on the ground, and not even a glance at the two men who were at work on the unfinished boat. One of them was his friend, Joseph Mair. They ceased their work for a moment to look after him.
"That's the puir laird again," said Joseph, the instant he was beyond hearing. "Something's wrang wi' him. I wonder what's come ower him!"
"I haena seen him for a while noo," returned the other. "They tell me 'at his mither made him ower to the deil afore he cam to the light; and sae, aye as his birthday comes roun', Sawtan gets the pooer ower him. Eh, but he's a fearsome sicht whan he's ta'en that gait!" continued the speaker. "I met him ance i' the gloamin', jist ower by the toon, wi' his een glowerin' like uily lamps, an' the slaver rinnin' doon his lang baird. I jist laup as gien I had seen the muckle Sawtan himsel'."
"Ye nott na (needed not) hae dune that," was the reply. "He's jist as hairmless, e'en at the warst, as ony lamb. He's but a puir cratur wha's tribble's ower strang for him--that's a'. Sawtan has as little to du wi' him as wi' ony man I ken."
CHAPTER IV: PHEMY MAIR
With eyes that stared as if they and not her ears were the organs of hearing, this talk was heard by a child of about ten years of age, who sat in the bottom of the ruined boat, like a pearl in a decaying oyster shell, one hand arrested in the act of dabbling in a green pool, the other on its way to her lips with a mouthful of the seaweed called dulse. She was the daughter of Joseph Mair just mentioned--a fisherman who had been to sea in a man of war (in consequence of which his to-name or nickname was Blue Peter), where having been found capable, he was employed as carpenter's mate, and came to be very handy with his tools: having saved a little money by serving in another man's boat, he was now building one for himself.
He was a dark complexioned, foreign looking man, with gold rings in his ears, which he said enabled him to look through the wind "ohn his een watered." Unlike most of his fellows, he was a sober and indeed thoughtful man, ready to listen to the voice of reason from any quarter; they were, in general, men of hardihood and courage, encountering as a mere matter of course such perilous weather as the fishers on a great part of our coasts would have declined to meet, and during the fishing season were diligent in their calling, and made a good deal of money; but when the weather was such that they could not go to sea, when their nets were in order, and nothing special requiring to be done, they would have bouts of hard drinking, and spend a great portion of what ought to have been their provision for the winter.
Their women were in general coarse in manners and rude in speech; often of great strength and courage, and of strongly marked character. They were almost invariably the daughters of fishermen, for a wife taken from among the rural population would have been all but useless in regard of the peculiar duties required of her. If these were less dangerous than those of their husbands, they were quite as laborious, and less interesting. The most severe consisted in carrying the fish into the country for sale, in a huge creel or basket, which when full was sometimes more than a man could lift to place on the woman's back. With this burden, kept in its place by a band across her chest, she would walk as many as twenty miles, arriving at some inland town early in the forenoon, in time to dispose of her fish for the requirements of the day. I may add that, although her eldest child was probably born within a few weeks after her marriage, infidelity was almost unknown amongst them.
In some respects, although in none of its good qualities, Mrs. Mair was an exception from her class. Her mother had been the daughter of a small farmer, and she had well to do relations in an inland parish; but how much these facts were concerned in the result it would be hard to say: certainly she was one of those elect whom Nature sends into the world for the softening and elevation of her other children. She was still slight and graceful, with a clear complexion, and the prettiest teeth possible; the former two at least of which advantages she must have lost long before, had it not been that, while her husband's prudence had rendered hard work less imperative, he had a singular care over her good looks; and that a rough, honest, elder sister of his lived with them, whom it would have been no kindness to keep from the hardest work, seeing it was only through such that she could have found a sufficiency of healthy interest in life. While Janet Mair carried the creel, Annie only assisted in making the nets, and in cleaning and drying the fish, of which they cured considerable quantities; these, with her household and maternal duties, afforded her ample occupation. Their children were well trained, and being of necessity, from the narrowness of their house accommodation, a great deal with their parents, heard enough to make them think after their faculty.
The mad laird was, as I have said, a visitor at their house oftener than anywhere else. On such occasions he slept in a garret accessible by a ladder from the ground floor, which consisted only of a kitchen and a closet. Little Phemy Mair was therefore familiar with his appearance, his ways, and his speech; and she was a favourite with him, although hitherto his shyness had been sufficient to prevent any approach to intimacy with even a child of ten.
When the poor fellow had got some little distance beyond the boats, he stopped and withdrew his hands from his ears: in rushed the sound of the sea, the louder that the caverns of his brain had been so long closed to its entrance. With a moan of dismay he once more pressed his palms against them, and thus deafened, shouted with a voice of agony into the noise of the rising tide: "I dinna ken whaur I come frae!" after which cry, wrung from the grief of human ignorance, he once more took to his heels, though with far less swiftness than before, and fled stumbling and scrambling over the rocks.
Scarcely had he vanished from view of the boats, when Phemy scrambled out of her big mussell shell. Its upheaved side being toward the boat at which her father was at work, she escaped unperceived, and so ran along the base of the promontory, where the rough way was perhaps easier to the feet of a child content to take smaller steps and climb or descend by the help of more insignificant inequalities. She came within sight of the laird just as he turned into the mouth of a well known cave and vanished.
Phemy was one of those rare and blessed natures which have endless courage because they have no distrust, and she ran straight into the cave after him, without even first stopping to look in.
It was not a very interesting cave to look into. The strata of which it was composed, upheaved almost to the perpendicular, shaped an opening like the half of a Gothic arch divided vertically and leaning over a little to one side, which opening rose to the full height of the cave, and seemed to lay bare every corner of it to a single glance. In length it was only about four or five times its width. The floor was smooth and dry, consisting of hard rock. The walls and roof were jagged with projections and shadowed with recesses, but there was little to rouse any frightful fancies.
When Phemy entered, the laird was nowhere to be seen. But she went straight to the back of the cave, to its farthest visible point. There she rounded a projection and began an ascent which only familiarity with rocky ways could have enabled such a child to accomplish. At the top she passed through another opening, and by a longer and more gently sloping descent reached the floor of a second cave, as level and nearly as smooth as a table. On her left hand, what light managed to creep through the tortuous entrance was caught and reflected in a dull glimmer from the undefined surface
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