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Anna Jane Vardill

The Last Leaf of the Parish-Register

Part Three

On a fine September day,—we will not be precise in the year,—Roderic M‘Leod, usually called “of the Isles,” set forth in his boat, with two stout rowers, to cross from Harries to an islet in the neighbourhood of Staffa. Another passenger was joint proprietor of this boat’s accommodation; but M‘Leod, like a true laird, deemed himself the most considerable personage, and cast an eye rather scornful on his temporary companion; whose straight discoloured boots, striped stockings, and black neck-kerchief, intimated no genuine Highland blood. Certain, however, that he was not one of the spruce clerks that swarm in the outer Court of the Scotch Parliament-house among the agents, or men of business, so formidable to old estates, M‘Leod condescended to look occasionally at the Stranger, and by degrees fancied he saw something in his countenance not unlike the “Clerk” of the Law-Courts. He might indeed have seen at least as many wrinkles about the eyes, and a fringe as deep hanging from the brows; but except in the sharp care-worn outline, and a half hidden glitter in the eyes themselves, there was no distinct similitude. M‘Leod was one of the few fat men to be found in the Hebrides, and his broad towerlike head, square nose, and glossy red cheeks, were varieties of the Scotch physiognomy quite strange enough to justify the traveller’s earnest survey. Confiding in his surmise, M‘Leod said something of St. Giles’s cathedral, and by a right and easy digression, touched on the buildings near it in the Parliament Close, the statues in the two Inner Houses of deceased Judges; and, lastly, on the Judges themselves; Duncan Forbes, and President Blair. There was something of a smile, a bitter smile, in the listener’s face, when one of these was said to have been a “living Equity;” and M‘Leod made no doubt that he was voyaging with a most illustrious barrister incog. This certainty redoubled his ambition to shew the wonders of the isles in their richest and rarest light, and the traveller seemed much more willing to talk of Fingal’s cave, than of the Lords-Ordinary, or any of their decisions. He was forced, however, to admit, that he knew the two great bookshops in the High-street; and then followed a dissertation on Oman’s hotel, no way discreditable to his taste in claret and salmon.—“Ay,” said M‘Leod, forgetting a little of his courtesy in his Highland zeal, “I remember when an honest lawyer would not have disdained a good pewter stoup of claret, and a salmon killed overnight, though they had not been brought up in a better place than the Cannon-gate!—Your Princes’-streets and your High-streets! your thirty miles’ rides to see an elbow of the Tweed, and the old stones of Drybergh! What would your ‘Walter the Abbot’ have written if he had been born among these cathedrals of Nature’s own making?”

“Very little, perhaps,” replied the traveller modestly, “for he would have had nothing left to imagine, and could not have found words rich enough to clothe the wonders he really saw. Our Lowland poet, who had every great quality except temperance, as his country has every thing precious except the diamond, was born in and near no splendid scenery. Kirkalloway and Doon are not what Robert Burns describes, yet how could he have described them better?”

“O, I grant ye,” answered M‘Leod, “he has made the ‘auld haunted kirk’ as fearful as if it had been Gabriel’s Road. And, by the bye, Mr.—, I think you said your name was Clerk, or Cranstoun,—by the bye, I wonder Allan has never tried his pencil on that strange scene. The instant when the poor tutor was seized, sitting grimly and ghastly, by the road side, after he had slain his pupils, would be a subject, a countenance,—an attitude worth his art.”

The traveller answered, after a pause which might have characterized Clerk, but in a voice too hoarse and broken for the mellifluous Cranstoun, “They might suit him when he is sitting in his Circassian robe in his cabinet full of daggers and javelins,—but—but I know nothing of paintings, I have seen Gavin Hamilton’s when I was abroad, and I think as a Scotch artist,—as almost the first, he was not unworthy the Duke of Hamilton’s patronage;—and, sir, if scenery could produce painters, as Scotch poetry seems to have done in Scotland, here would be worthier subjects.”

This evasion, though it applied to M‘Leod’s favourite prejudice in behalf of island-beauty, was not quite successful. “They hanged Gabriel with his red hand,” added M‘Leod, “within an hour after the deed, according to Scotland’s good old law. What would M‘Queen of Braxfield, or Lord Forbes, have said to our wilderness of idle forms?”

“They had hearts so humane,” said the traveller, “that to judge gently was rather a necessity than a virtue in them.”

M‘Leod began to doubt whether he was in company with any of the Argusses of the Scotch bar; and his companion had the pleasure of changing the subject without effort, for the boat had touched a landing-place in that small isle so noted for its resemblance to the ribs and keel of a three-decker, and M‘Leod was in a fit of picturesque enthusiasm. Perhaps it was the traveller’s great anxiety to find food for it, that led him to discover a rent among the rocks which opened a superb view over the Deucaledonian sea with its hundred isles. But M‘Leod saw something more, an inscription rudely made with ochre, both in Gaelic and English, to this purpose,—

“The wife of Angus Ogg was brought to this place by force on the 5th day of October 17...”

M‘Leod might have seen strange things also in the face of his companion, but he only laid his finger on his broad forehead, then on his firm well-set nose, and exclaimed, “Ha! how!—this reminds me, Mr. Cranstoun, of a decision of that court of session we were talking of—”

“Who was Angus Ogg’s wife?” interposed the traveller, in a tone which seemed to imply the question was not asked for information.

“One of my neighbour’s, the Laird of Blackmyre’s daughter; and he foolishly brought up with her two nephews, very unequal in pretensions, or at least in his favour. The cousins quarrelled, the poor one was turned out pennyless, and he revenged himself by robbing his uncle, and carrying off the lady. The plate-chest was found and the lady’s bride-clothes buried together;—and our Justiciary convicted him of theft and murder.”

“Here is an inscription,” said the stranger, “which tells of the lady’s forcible abduction here; but how was her death proved?”

M‘Leod had no leisure to answer this query, for a new link of ideas had formed themselves. “By this good light!—M‘Queen and the rest of the Fifteen might have judged wrong!—Now I remember on an October day,—it might be the fifth of October ten years ago, I came to this isle, to this very place, and saw a young sailor boy held,—hair and throat, by one of the grimmest sea-monsters among these channels. And he said there was mutiny on board his ship, a pirate-ship, a rascal smuggler known well enough, but not a man of mine would lay hand on him, and my boat and I steered off.”

“A woman!—most probably the woman you think dead!”

“Nothing of woman-kind, my friend, as you shall hear. These ruffian shipmates left their cabin-boy on that peak of rock,—you might see it in a day less hazy,—the rock westward of St. Kilda, a bare precipice, where the natives of that island keep their fish. When my steward goes there, as he does yearly, to receive the tribute they pay me, he found there a young sailor-lad, the same I had seen, and he told him old Adam Irvine, the mayor of St. Kilda, had taken him before he was half-famished, and treated him like a grandson.”

“Your steward removed him then, of course?”

“You are mistaken, the boy had no gladness in the thought. He was fatherless and motherless, he said, and afraid of that sea-robber, Ronald of Skye,—he could weave nets and dress fish cleverly; old Adam Irvine and his wife, Tamar have no young children, and this boy is become the Benjamin of their tribe.”

“And he is married there?”

“Married! no:—my steward says, he is a ‘wee reekit de’il;’ and as he can never climb Stackarmin, nor row the huge boat which belongs to the whole island, he need not hope to find a lass willing to care for him. Not that they want money, for they know no difference between a bawbee and a moidore; but he must give his bride a pair of solan geese for her half boots; and he cannot buy there what he has not manfulness enough to kill.”

“But if this seeming boy should prove a girl?”

“My good friend, what girl would choose to stay where women have no better finery than boots of goose-skin, and brooches of copper as large as a trencher?”

“I must see this island,” said his companion, after a grave and long pause—“If money is still unknown in St. Kilda, no wonder it is called the Happy Isle of the West.”

“There are no lawyers in it,” answered the laird; “which is another reason for calling it so, and a great proof that there is no money.”

M‘Leod clustered up the wrinkles about his sharp grey eyes with a sneer quite as sarcastic as his words; but when he looked again at the mysterious compression of his hearer’s lips, and the dazzling light of his eye, his fears of the great “Clerk” returned on him again, and he almost expected to see one of his innumerable dogs start forth from beneath the boat’s thwart. But the boat went quietly on, the sail was hoisted, and the prow turned towards M‘Leod’s home. After another pause, the traveller drawing down the lids of his deep eyes, then raising them sternly, yet speaking in a voice rather hollow than sonorous, said, “You, Mr. M‘Leod, who appear and are so well acquainted with the Courts of Edinburgh, must have heard my name in them.”

“Very often, sir, by my certie,” answered the Laird, nothing doubtful that the great forensic orator now meant to announce himself—“we have all heard of you, from Johnny Groat’s to the Isle of Skye, and your last speech—”

“I am sorry,” said the unknown, “that a case so embarrassed with dubious circumstances should have fallen to my lot to defend; but as far as my intention, my conscience—”

“Oh!” interrupted poor M‘Leod, beginning to fear his agent in Edinburgh had not honestly satisfied his advocate’s conscience in the usual way;—“if a matter of money is in the way, I’m no the man to starve the suit.”

“Sir, I thank you, but my trust is in myself; and though I failed when last this case was heard,—”

“Not a bit blame to you, my good friend—nobody ever spoke Scotch yet, ay and good broad Scotch too, with such a luck to win men’s ears right or wrong;—and if you could but make it appear that old Angus had warranty and title to the merk lands of Blackmyre, so as to make over the possession fully to me—”

“Which I will guarantee,” interposed his guest, in a much louder tone, and in genuine Scotch, “I am Angus of Blackmyre’s rightful heir.”

Had Jeffery, Moncrieff, or Lord Robertson himself, stood before M‘Leod, he would not have made a more extravagant gesture of amazement. “You see,” added the stranger, “the oracles of the Scotch bench may be deceived. I am the unfortunate nephew whose guilt was thought certain. Listen to a short story. I was concealed in one of the huge empty chests of a dark room in my uncle’s house, one with a crevice in the lid contrived for the holiday-jest of the ball of tow, on the morning of my cousin’s marriage. I was not surprised to see my uncle enter, and take from his strong coffer of family-plate and jewels an antique essence-box set with emeralds. He meant it, probably, as a bridal gift. But I was surprised to see him take also from the coffer some shreds of paper, and set fire to them by the taper he carried, saying, as his motto is, “I make sure.”—My movement in the empty chest startled him, he blew out his taper, and departed,—I seized the half burned papers, enough remained to shew me I had saved the baptismal document of my birth,—my legitimate birth as the only son of his elder brother:—I had still in my pocket the ball of tow used in the superstitious follies of Scotch boys and maidens;—I unwound it, and rolling up the relics of my testimonials in the least compass possible, twined it round them till the whole was hidden in the semblance of an ordinary ball,—liable to no suspicion if found on my person. Thus enriched, I went into my uncle’s hall in the brogues and bonnet I wore as his herdsman. “How, rude Gillie as ye are,” he said, “dare ye enter uncalled?”

“It suits your brother’s heir,” I answered, “to call, not to be called for, on his own hearth.”—More and bitterer words passed;—he offered bribes;—but I quitted his house, and stopped but one night at an Argyleshire change-house.”

M‘Leod put on his magisterial frown—“You say true, Ivone Angus, but that change-house was kept by Ronald of Skye, a most notorious pirate.”

“Sir, I know it:—that is, I knew him when I saw his face thrust into the door-way of the hovel where my dog and I were resting. He charged me with a robbery;—I burst from his clutches, but the ruffian did not know I had seen his haunts:—It was rash to watch them,—but I saw my uncle’s jewel-chest landed near one of his dens of plunder, and I returned at night to convince myself. Officers of justice found me searching among the brushwood:—you know my trial, my condemnation, and my escape. You were my father’s friend;—you are a highland gentleman, and I trust to your honour.”

The highland gentleman was as much amazed at this romance as the audience of the Court of Session when one of the Judges read a chapter of “Guy Mannering” from the Bench. But it amused and affected him quite as much: and shaking his guest most arduously by the hand, he swore by the red cross of the M‘Leods to see justice done. Ivone Angus only asked permission to accompany his steward in the annual visit to St. Kilda; a permission readily granted, for M‘Leod began to consider that it would be wiser not to accompany him. He was a magistrate, Ivone was an outlaw; and by sending him to the island with his deputy, he was in fact sending him out of danger with an official person instructed to give him protection, yet to keep him in custody. Part or all of this was seen by Ivone, but he knew and confided in his own purpose. The ship-boy might be only what he seemed, and might know nothing of the lady’s fate: but he would be precious as an evidence against the pirate, his former captain. M‘Leod’s small sloop put to sea with his steward and his guest, and a favourable gale brought them to St. Kilda. “Yonder is Stack-armin!” said the steward; “and those dark specks that seem fluttering about in the air, are fowlers swinging by ropes from the peaks of rock twice thirty fathom deep. There, on your left, is the ruined house where Lord Grange concealed his suspected wife half as many years; and under it is the little crescent-alcove, where, as these people and my sailors say, the song of the water-spirit is heard every new moon.”

“What, thus late in the world’s age!”

“Ay, sir, no longer ago than last month; and the helmsman would swear he saw a woman’s head and neck there; and it was an ill sight for him, as Flora bodes death when she shews her face aboon water.”

Ivone and his companion went with no rowers but themselves into the pavillion of damp green rocks called Flora’s Cave. It was the first night of the new moon; and, as they expected, they heard a low wild strain of music sung in the pauses of the wind. The dashing of their oars was probably heard also, for the song ceased, and presently a hand was put through a little crevice in the wall that over-hung the rocks, and a ball of yarn or tow dropped from it, “I have waited for you three moons, but do not come on shore to-night, the mayor of St. Kilda keeps a feast,—I have no other jewel left.”—These words were written on the shred of paper rolled within the ball with the jewelled essence-box belonging to Margaret Angus. This was enough. They sprang on shore, and entered the ruins of Lady Grange’s house as Margaret herself was stealing from it. At the voice rather than at the sight of Ivone, she fell on her knees before M‘Leod’s steward, and implored his protection It was useless to protest his innocence,—she was obstinate in her mistrust. Ronald of Skye had waylaid her while in her father’s garden, and his ship had carried her off, as she was assured, by Ivone’s connivance:—she had been lodged a few nights in the Argyleshire change-house, and had heard his voice there, had seen his favourite dog, and could have no doubt of his confederacy in the outrage offered her. But when Ivone had repeated circumstantially and distinctly all that had befallen him, it was his turn to demand by what means she had been persuaded to stay at St. Kilda, and why she had not returned to her father and her husband;—her father, whose intellects had sunk under her supposed death, and her husband, who seemed to be a disconsolate widower. This was intelligence which appeared incredible to Margaret, but Ivone’s resolute enquiry probed the truth. She had seen her husband,—he had arrived at St. Kilda three days after the good old man had brought her to his dwelling, and had earnestly entreated her to continue in her disguise. He had represented to her, that he was himself an outlaw, accused by his cousin Ivone’s means, and by the aid of his ruffian accomplices, of having robbed his uncle, and secreted the evidence of his cousin’s birthright. He repeated all the circumstances of Ivone’s trial, taking care to omit the facts which he himself well knew, and ending by an assertion that his own ruin was complete. Margaret had no suspicion that her husband hoped, by secluding her in this desert place, to enjoy unrivalled and unmolested the rich inheritance of her father. He had caused his cousin to be banished;—if he could keep his wife concealed, the fruits of his bold guilt were safe. She was young, tender, and confiding: and he, artfully reminding her of Ivone’s supposed league with the pirate-crew, threw a dark and false colouring on his elopement. In short, he prevailed on her to receive his secret visits at St. Kilda, in the ruins of Lady Grange’s prison; where at appointed times, and generally when the full moon favoured him, she waited for his boat, and gave him notice that no spies were near, by dropping a ball of tow. And thus, during ten years, the place chosen for a prison by a jealous husband, was cheerfully endured by a confiding and devoted wife. When he had heard this history, Ivone said, “I must keep, Margaret, this ball which you designed for your husband, because it contains a proof of your identity; but, in exchange, I give you as a hostage, one which encloses the last leaf of the Parish Register, the proof of my hereditary claim to your father’s estate;—and I also pledge, in the presence of this representative of the island’s chief magistrate, my honour, as your kinsman and the king’s servant, to convey you safely to your father, and to convince him and the world, by the evidence of Ronald of Skye, that your husband’s bribes, not mine, were the cause of your conveyance here.” Margaret, convinced of her husband’s guilt, but jealous of her own honour, demanded from the mayor of the isle, and from its lord’s deputy, a solemn attestation of all the circumstances attending her arrival, her stay, and her departure. She left St. Kilda the next morn, committing herself to the protection of her cousin Ivone and M‘Leod’s steward; though the natives of St. Kilda earnestly begged her to delay one day; for they had seen, they said, her apparition on the shore, with a wet shroud rising to her throat. This omen did not deter a woman whose only link to life was her fair fame, and the vessel was soon near the coast of Scotland. During their short voyage, Ivone told her more fully how he had escaped an unjust sentence, by what chance he had discovered Ronald of Skye’s crime, and the circumstances which had given motive and hope to his successful search for her. Successful is a word too large. The natives of St. Kilda had not judged ill of the weather’s threats, and the vessel’s unfitness. The night was stormy, their pilot unskilful, and they stranded on the sharp rocks of Strathaird. Ivone brought only Margaret’s dead body to the shore.—He lived himself to have the misery,—if possible, the greater misery,—of hearing her pure name questioned. Her base husband, seizing this second opportunity to profit by false appearances, sent officers of justice to the place where Margaret’s corpse lay yet unburied under the same roof which covered her unfortunate kinsman, bruised almost to death in body and spirit.—He was again accused, with still greater semblance of probability, as the seducer and secreter of his kinsman’s wife; but the powerful evidence of the laird M‘Leod, the mayor of St. Kilda, the repentant pirate, Ronald, and especially of the fatal ball of tow which contained the lost leaf of the Parish Register, convicted Angus Ogg of the whole guilt, and acquitted Ivone, who survived,—happy, at least, in the restoration of his honour, more happy in the rescue of Margaret’s.”

My manuscript closed here, and the good old minister of the parish waited in silence to see its effect on my uncle, for he well knew who were the real persons disguised under the fictitious names of Ivone and Margaret, Angus and Blackmyre. Though some anachronisms in this story, and the agitated voice of the narrator, might have betrayed to any other hearer how many recent family events were hidden under a thin veil of feudal romance, Sir Launcelot only smiled, and laying his hand on the moist cheek of his adopted daughter, said, “Poor Isabel! these tales come too near a young girl’s heart!” then pausing while the clock struck five, as if that sound had touched some finer and yet unbroken chord of his memory, he added, “Forgive me, M. Denon, if I leave one guest, and go to meet another. This is the hour appointed for my nephew’s return, and my daughter must be with me to receive him.”—He rose as I had been prepared to expect, and went, leaning on his young supporter’s arm, to the gate of his park. “Here,” said my tutor, as he followed with me at a little distance, “you will see him seat himself on the road-side, and wait patiently till he feels the cold night air; then rising with a quiet sigh he will say, ‘Well! we shall find him here to-morrow.”—Thus he has done and said every day since the stupor of deep grief gave place to harmless imaginations.”—I listened, feeling an agony, and straitness of heart I cannot bear to remember. When my blind uncle was seated, I spurred my horse, rode rapidly towards him, and dismounted by his side. “Colonel Vivian is arrived!” said my tutor, in a voice which expressed as much emotion as my sudden return could have caused. Sir Launcelot started, gasped for breath, and, when he felt my hand in his, burst into such tears as are most piteous to see flowing from an old man’s eyes. “My dear nephew!—my brother’s son—May God forgive the dying and the dead!—Isabel!—why do you shrink from me?—Isabel, you have been widowed long enough, I charge you, make amends for your father.”—It was sad to hear these efforts of instinctive feeling and broken memory, he made one more to join our hands, and swooned as he bent his head to bless us. We conveyed him safely home, and my good curate whispered, “It is over, the weight is off his heart:—he will die happy now, and it has cost only one moment’s confusion to that fair girl, who would not regret it, if she knew how beautiful it looked.”—“Do you think,” said I, “that it shall cost even that for no purpose?—or do you think, because I dressed my character in such colouring as suited an old romance, that I need devote myself to Isabel’s memory?—Her place in her father’s house, and in his affection, has been well supplied by her unhappy husband’s sister; and if she chooses, she may take hers also in mine. Was there no other reason to respect, I mean, if she had been less tenderly dutiful to my forlorn uncle, she is an orphan, the sister of a ruined man, and that man was my enemy.”—When I said this, I believed myself sincere, and the lady was at last convinced: but it was long before she could suppose my offer any thing more than a part of the drama meant to amuse Sir Launcelot. But he lived to hear me pledge my faith to her, and had the pleasure of believing that he gave me his daughter and heiress to atone for the lost leaf of the Parish Register.


The European Magazine, Vol. 80, December 1821, pp. 511-516