“Darling child!” said Mrs Sudberry, with her hand on her heart. “How you do startle me, John, with your violence! That is the fifteenth tea-cup this week.”
The good lady pointed to a shattered member of the set that lay on the tray beside her.
“I have just ordered a new set, my dear,” said her husband, in a subdued voice. “Our poor dear boy would benefit, I think, by mountain air. But go on with the cons.”
“Have I not said enough?” replied Mrs Sudberry, with an injured look. “Besides, they have no food in Scotland.”
This was a somewhat staggering assertion. The merchant looked astonished.
“At least,” pursued his wife, “they have nothing, I am told, but oatmeal. Do you imagine that Jacky could live on oatmeal? Do you suppose that your family would return to London in a condition fit to be looked at, after a summer spent on food such as we give to our horses? No doubt you will tell me they have plenty of milk,—buttermilk, I suppose, which I abhor. But do you think that I could live with pleasure on sawdust, just because I had milk to take to it?”
“But milk implies cream, my dear,” interposed the merchant, “and buttermilk implies butter, and both imply cows, which are strong presumptive evidence in favour of beef. Besides—”
“Don’t talk to me, Mr Sudberry. I know better; and Lady Knownothing, who went to Scotland last year, in the most unprejudiced state of mind, came back absolutely horrified by what she had seen. Why, she actually tells me that the natives still wear the kilt! The very day she passed through Edinburgh she met five hundred men without trousers! To be sure, they had guns on their shoulders, and someone told her they were soldiers; but the sight was so appalling that she could not get rid of the impression; she shut her eyes, and ordered the coachman to drive straight through the town, and let her know when she was quite beyond its walls. She has no doubt whatever that most, if not all, of the other inhabitants of that place were clothed—perhaps I should say unclothed—in the same way. What surprised poor Lady Knownothing most was, that she did not see nearly so many kilts in the Highlands as she saw on that occasion in Edinburgh, from which she concluded that the natives of Scotland are less barbarous in the north than they are in the south. But she did see a few. One man who played those hideous things called the pipes—which, she says, are so very like little pigs being killed—actually came into her presence one day, sat down before her with bare knees, and took a pinch of snuff with a salt-spoon!”
“That is a dreadful account, no doubt,” said Mr Sudberry, “but you must remember that Lady Knownothing is given to exaggerating, and is therefore not to be depended on. Have you done with the cons?”
“Not nearly done, John, but my nervous system cannot stand the sustained contemplation of such things. I should like to recover breath, and hear what you have to say in favour of this temporary expatriation, I had almost said, of your family.”
“Well, then, here goes for the pros,” cried Mr Sudberry, while a gleam of excitement shot from his eyes, and his clinched hand came heavily down on the table.
“The sixteenth cup—as near as possible,” observed his wife, languidly.
“Never mind the cups, my dear, but listen to me. The air of the Highlands is salubrious and bracing—”
“And piercingly cold, my dear John,” interrupted Mrs Sudberry.
“In summer,” pursued her husband, regardless of the interruption, “it is sometimes as clear and warm as it is in Italy—”
“And often foggy, my dear.”
“The mountain scenery is grand and majestic beyond description—”
“Then why attempt to describe it, dear John?”
“The hotels in most parts of the Highlands, though rather expensive—”
“Ah! think of that, my dear.”
“Though rather expensive, are excellent; the food is of the best quality, and the wines are passable. Beds—”
“Have they beds, my dear?”
“Beds are generally found to be well aired and quite clean, though of course in the poorer and more remote districts they are—”
“Hush! pray spare my feelings, my dear John.”
“Remote districts, they are not so immaculate as one would wish. Then there are endless moors covered with game, and splendid lakes and rivers full of fish. Just think, Mary, what a region for our dear boys to revel in! Think of the shooting—”
“And the dreadful accidents, my dear.”
“Think of the fishing—”
“And the wet feet, and the colds. Poor darling Jacky, what a prospect!”
“Think of the glorious sunrises seen from the mountain-tops before breakfast—”
“And the falling over precipices, and broken necks and limbs, dear John.”
“Think of the shaggy ponies for our darling Lucy to ride on—”
“Ah! and to fall off.”
“And the dew of early morning on the hills, and the mists rolling up from the lakes, and the wild uncultivated beauty of all around us, and the sketching, and walking, and driving—”
“And bathing and boating—”
“Not to mention the—”
“Dear John, have pity on me. The pros are too much for me. I cannot stand the thought—”
“But, my dear, the place is taken. The thing is fixed,” said Mr Sudberry, with emphasis. Mrs Sudberry was a wise woman. When she was told by her husband that a thing was fixed, she invariably gave in with a good grace. Her powers of dissuasion having failed,—as they always did fail,—she arose, kissed Mr Sudberry’s forehead, assured him that she would try to make the most of it, since it was fixed, and left the room with the comfortable feeling, of having acted the part of a dutiful wife and a resigned martyr.
It was towards the close of a doubtful summer’s evening, several weeks after the conversation just detailed, that a heavy stage-coach, of an old-fashioned description, toiled slowly up the ascent of one of those wild passes by which access is gained into the highlands of Perthshire.
The course of the vehicle had for some time lain along the banks of a turbulent river, whose waters, when not brawling over a rocky bed in impetuous velocity, or raging down a narrow gorge in misty spray, were curling calmly in deep pools or caldrons, the dark surfaces of which were speckled with foam, and occasionally broken by the leap of a yellow trout or a silver salmon.
To an angler the stream would have been captivating in the extreme, but his ardour would have been somewhat damped by the sight of the dense copsewood which overhung the water, and, while it added to the wild beauty of the scenery, suggested the idea of fishing under difficulties.
When the coach reached the narrowest part of the pass, the driver pulled up, and intimated that, “she would be obleeged if the leddies and gentlemen would get down and walk up the brae.”
Hereupon there descended from the top of the vehicle a short, stout, elderly gentleman, in a Glengarry bonnet, green tartan shooting-coat, and shepherd’s-plaid vest and pantaloons; two active youths, of the ages of seventeen and fifteen respectively, in precisely similar costume; a man-servant in pepper and salt, and a little thin timid boy in blue, a sort of confidential page without the buttons. All of them wore drab gaiters and shoes of the thickest conceivable description. From the inside of the coach there issued a delicate elderly lady, who leaned, in a helpless manner, on the arm of a young, plain, but extremely fresh and sweet-looking girl of about sixteen, whom the elder lady called Lucy, and who was so much engrossed with her mother, that some time elapsed before she could attend to the fervent remarks made by her father and brothers in regard to the scenery. There also came forth from the interior of the coach a large, red-faced angry woman, who dragged after her a little girl of about eight, who might be described as a modest sunbeam, and a little boy of about five, who resembled nothing short of an imp incarnate. When they were all out, the entire family and household of Mr Sudberry stood in the centre of that lovely Highland pass, and the coach, which was a special one hired for the occasion, drove slowly up the ascent.
What the various members of the family said in the extravagance of their excited feelings on this occasion we do not intend to reveal. It has been said that the day was doubtful: in the south the sky was red with the refulgent beams of the setting sun, which gleamed on the mountain peaks and glowed on the purple heather. Towards the north dark leaden clouds obscured the heavens, and presaged stormy weather. A few large drops began to fall as they reached the crest of the road, and opened up a view of the enclosed valley or amphitheatre which lay beyond, with a winding river, a dark overshadowed loch, and a noble background of hills. In the far distance a white house was seen embedded in the blue mountains.
“Yonder’s ta hoose,” said the driver, as the party overtook the coach, and resumed their places—the males on the top and the females inside.
“Oh, my dear! look! look!” cried Mr Sudberry, leaning over the side of the coach; “there is our house—the white house—our Highland home!”
At this moment a growl of distant thunder was heard. It was followed by a scream from Mrs Sudberry, and a cry of—
“You’d better send Jacky inside, my dear.”
“Ah, he may as well remain where he is,” replied Mr Sudberry, whose imperfect hearing led him to suppose that his spouse had said, “Jacky’s inside, my dear!” whereas the real truth was that the boy was neither out nor inside.
Master Jacky, be it known, had a remarkably strong will of his own. During the journey he preferred an outside seat in all weathers. By dint of much coaxing, his mother had induced him to get in beside her for one stage; but he had made himself so insufferably disagreeable, that the good lady was thereafter much more disposed to let him have his own way. When the coach stopped, as we have described, Jacky got out, and roundly asserted that he would never get in again.
When the attention of the party was occupied with the gorgeous scenery at the extremity of the pass, Jacky, under a sudden impulse of wickedness, crept stealthily into the copse that lined the road, intending to give his parents a fright.