by John Bailey
The pounding of the grey mares' hooves on beaten earth, I hardly heard.
Eight sinuous and grime-smeared legs had hammered on at length, pulling my carriage to the muffling cover of a wooded dell -- then out from the airless foliage -- onto the clatter of a granite stone bridge to smother the water's rush -- down into the glens with thundering haste; carrying away a plundered silence -- forward to steep hills, forward to plough up the mire until the crest and the moorland sweep.
Unrested. Hungry. Onward they flew; twin Pegasus's in flight.
Of the sound of the coachman's whip on their flayed flesh I cared not; of the discomfiture of my own disemboweled body, much less. Haste. I cared a damn sight more for haste -- though those two devils in harness would buck their contrary opinion as they tried to jettison a burdensome post chaise, an unwilling coachman and his sole passenger.
Onwards. Onwards. Sweat and rain lashed; our entourage chased the black fabric of night with a wild orchestration of pummeling hooves, of snorts and whines and of whip lashings and groaning wheels. And of this -- I was hardly aware. Whether man or beast or elemental force would check our flight I was anxiously aware, morbidly so, though I am powerless to say why.
Reason had been ransacked from me for I know not; where or when, nor how precisely it all began. A sea voyage -- vague and hazy from the distant Antipodes -- a train compartment of first class indifference steaming up from London. And now with each revolution of the carriage wheels my mind fixes on the rhythm.
Carrick Castle...Carrick Castle...Carrick Castle.
We had covered twenty leagues, I hazarded, since our departure from Dundee; frequent glances to my pocket watch now put the time at under eight hours, admirable I suppose, considering the terrain -- and though there was no appointed hour to reach my destination, I became increasing unsettled. With no regard to the dislocating motion of the carriage I shield my face from rain and wind and look from the window at each spurious glow. I search for that beacon, that beckoning light of my brother's house on the outlying lands of Glendeveron.
I can bear it no longer. I rap heavily with my cane on the footboard where the coachman sits.
"Have a care not to pass the house!"
"Aye, and miss a dram or a bite to eat!"
The wheels spin. The whip cracks. The cyclical rhythm is maintained. The minutes freeze. Finding it difficult to relax, I lean out of the carriage window and reach for my portmanteau, which is, to my relief, yet secure; its loss would not reduce me to penury but would highly inconvenience me, for my brushes, paints and canvasses are packed with care and purpose.
I do not recollect the inclusion of clothes.
I lean precariously from the window and follow the sweep of the scarecrow's flapping arm before it is swallowed up in a swathe of cloak.
"Aye...mores the likely. I widdnae think you'd be forgetting this god-forsaken place, you know -- with their hames like widden barns and their gare-brained sheep gangling all o'er the glens."
"That I forget, is not possible," I retort. "Twenty years fail to scour the memories." Engaging the coachman in conversation, was I felt, best to be avoided, for I was reluctant to enter into private matters and less disposed to discourse in a tongue which had swaddled me from infancy to youth, but was now largely forgotten. And despite the poignancy of my last recollections of speaking it, I had no doubt that I would gradually become accustomed to the Highland dialect.
The coachman gave another crack of the whip then said.
"Aye, I was thinking about you now...with yer skin tanned and cured like a coo's hide and yer dress of a foreigner...and yer manner o' speaking...ye'll no likely be glad to be back with yer ain folk."
I made no answer. My attention now focussed on the distant glow from the village of Glendeveron.
"Can ye no smell it, now?"
"Smell -- what?"
"The heather, mon -- and the moss hags. Aye, it's good whisky around here that they be making. Mind you now, I would rather have the reek from the lums an galavant roond the howfs -- ye cannie beat the town."
His banter was lost upon me as I concentrated in warding off those painful images, which had so shortly assailed me; prised from the inner recesses of my memory they reminded me how I fell foul, fell victim to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I was a slave to my past. Chained to the events of twenty years ago as surely as if they were my present. One chapter of my early life had closed under brooding grey skies whilst the other opened under that of promising blue. I had cast not a glance backwards.
As I look down to my wrists I find no earthly reason for that burning sensation, which emits forth. The marks glow as if put there by branding irons only yesterday, though they are a livid, indestructible symbol, which I have borne for the past twenty years. Unaware, I find my fingers grating on the marks, willing the dark-brown scars to fade away. It is an instinctive motion. It is something I shall have to avoid doing in the old country.
"Yonder, house. That'll be it no doubt."
* * *
My brother Angus had changed. From the light of the upheld lantern I could see that he had broadened and thickened into a stout oak of a fellow. I remembered him last as a willowy juvenile. Beside him in the penumbra, stood a lady clad in shawl and billowing gown. His wife, Flora, I presumed.
As I neared them, the expression of alarm in their faces dissolved into recognition.
"Angus! Flora!" I cried out. I was embraced, patted, and heartily slapped in rapid succession and almost suffocated in turn by a matronly bosom and muscular chest; their plaids pungent with the odour of heather and heath.
"No letter, mon. I thought ye would write and tell us," said Angus, relaxing a vice-like grip on my shoulder."If ye had told me I would have come to meet ye wherever ye had landed."
Flora threw a shawl over her head and said. "Come awa in, out the cold and ye can talk inside."
Angus and Flora Sutherland's house; a modest but comfortable dwelling as befits a sheep farmer, held for me, a particular country charm. I stepped into the spacious living room, warmly noting Angus and Flora's handcrafted furnishings. From the oak beams hung several oil lamps, which shone on to the Scots Pine furniture and from the stone chimney a peat fire smouldered languidly. While my befuddled mind was struck by this state of ordered homeliness, there was within me, an ethereal yearning, spiriting me across moor and marsh to the crumbling bastions of Carrick Castle.
My quest was about to begin. To delay was unpardonable.
"I'll be glad o' yer company, Stuart," said Angus, thrusting a tumbler of whisky in my hand. "And so will Flora and I hope yer going to stay a wee while."
"Perhaps a week or two."
Angus stroked his red-trimmed beard and stared at the whisky thoughtfully; then his eye caught mine and he said. "Yer own wife -- Isadora -- she didnae come with you?"
"No. She's...she's at home in Melbourne. Isadora's delicate, too delicate. The voyage would have killed her."
Flora hovered over me, fussing and fretting in attendant hospitality until she excused herself to engage in the duties of the kitchen. The dark sheen of Flora's hair and her studious eyes reminded me of Isadora.
When I heard the kitchen door close, I turned to Angus. "I left Melbourne on impulse. I was painting something quite exceptional. I wanted to finish it here."
Angus sat back in the leather armchair, there was a telling glint in his stone-grey eyes. "Aye lad, ye were always a wee bit impulsive." He darted a glance towards the kitchen door and continued. "And I'm not saying it was that what got ye into trouble -- but it didn't help, did it?"
I drew a deep breath. "Does Flora know?"
"Not the whole story. I never spoke about it. What she knows -- she knows from the gossiping wifies down at Glendeveron -- and ye know how they talk. Aye mon, they can spin tales faster than a highland lassie's hands on a crofter's loom."
Absently, I watched as Angus reamed out an old clay pipe, filled it, tamped it down, lit it, and puffed on it furiously till he was enveloped in a filmy haze. Mine was of the metaphysical kind.
"Word o' warning, Stuart," said Angus, pipe clenched tightly in yellowed teeth. "Don't go gangling down at Glendeveron, fer they've got memories longer than William Wallace's claymore. They don't forget what happened to the laird."
"How could I? That debt has been repaid...twenty times over." No, I could never forget. Never. For, the past followed me like a haunting shadow wherever I went and as the mists of time cleared before my eyes I saw once more that upstart of a laird, who had provoked me into a fight. Margaret was spoken for, whether she or I liked it or not. This marriage of convenience was highly inconvenient; I had felt at the time I was told to leave the glen...
"Angus, the fight was fair," I said with little remorse. I stood my ground like a man. The laird had no respect for the Queensberry rules and when he died I was shackled in the Tolbooth. I've paid for my crimes, man. If you can call taking his worthless life a crime."
"Aye, the Tolbooth...from whence you escaped."
"It was that or the gibbet. I was a month in London when the constabulary caught up with me -- their prisons were overcrowded, so I was sentenced to transportation, as you know. Five years in the chain gangs of Botany Bay, Angus, and I was free. I left that hell and settled down in Melbourne."
Branded. Hunted. After twenty years...of the next twenty I cared nought, I cared more to see Carrick Castle and....?
Engaged thus, on the trauma of my early years, I was not aware of Flora entering the room. She laid the rack of roast lamb on the table with a modest bow, intimating that I would be spared no effort to remain and join them in the pleasures of the larder and cellar for the coming days.
We were seated at the table: the wine, the meat, the reminiscent chatter had dulled inner anxieties and now swept with an indolent euphoria, tiredness pressed heavily on me. I stiffled a yawn. I had held back sleep for perhaps the past week, though I don't rightly know precisely, and I now made an effort to contain it for another hour. While talking, I felt Flora's hazel eyes catch mine with a kind but sharp scrutiny and I resolved not to relax with regard to turn of phrase nor a revealing gesture; each time I passed on the cruet set or decanter, I was vigilant to ensure that my shirt cuffs were drawn well over my wrists.
I cut the last morsel of flesh from the ribs. Then I stared at the bone for a few moments." How far is...Carrick Castle?" I said.
I caught Flora glancing at Angus. There was a perturbed look on her face; then turning to me, she said, "Stuart, Carrick Castle doesn't exist. It's a legend. A myth. And don't go wandering about trying to find it -- no good will come o' it."
Angus stroked his red beard trying to hide a roll of laughter. "Stuart. Just ignore her. The lassie is a bit prone to superstition but what she says is true enough -- Carrick Castle doesn't exist."
I rose from the table with a gentle bow. "If you'll excuse me I have something to show you."
I emerged later from the parlour carrying several canvasses which I carefully unwrapped. "Do you recognise it?" I said holding up the unframed canvas.
"No, can't say that I do." replied Angus. He pulled at the fine fronds of his beard thoughtfully; then, rising from the table, he examined the painting under the light from an oil lamp. "I've never seen this castle afore." He eyed me skeptically, then added: "You've done a fine bit o' painting there, Stuart. I like the colours an all that -- but -- a ruined castle? Could ye no just have painted a complete one?"
"Angus. Carrick Castle...that's how I saw it in my mind, an image so indelible, so haunting. I had been painting Isadora..." I brashly uncovered the second painting.
"That's Isadora?" said Angus, scratching his head. "Well -- it's just the spitting image o' Flora."
I passed the painting over to Flora and said, "It seems like the Sutherlands have married very similar ladies, but the point is Angus -- I had been painting Isadora and...as I progressed I began to work on the background. For no earthly reason I found myself painting an old castle...and the more I worked on it the more I was drawn to it. "I gripped Angus's arm. "That image seized me -- it was in front of me day and night, so I hurried to finish Isadora's painting in order to start this masterpiece. I worked like a demon. It was going to be my best, and it will be my best when I put the finishing touches to the canvas."
"And to do that," Flora eyed me quizzically, "ye'll be after finding Carrick Castle?"
"Yes, find that castle and my troubles are over."
"I think Stuart, that yer troubles are about to begin."
* * *
In the room upstairs, I had a fleeting sensation of sleep until daybreak came, arousing me with its caress from silver slivers of light, and dressing hurriedly I went downstairs and made no apologies for wolfing down a generous breakfast or for my inexcusable haste.
Now I gently pass my hand over the grey mane of the bay gelding. He is a my friend. He seems to understand. I feel the halter strap click in its buckle. My hands tremble with impatience. My horse, too, is anxious to be off. He feels the leather bag being strapped on his side -- my painting. I now ease my foot into the stirrup and mount, and before I leave the farm I wave to Angus and Flora. I notice their drawn smiles.
After passing the village of Glendeveron, I was somewhat at a loss as to which direction to take. I felt that Carrick Castle was in a heavily wooded area, and I remembered that, when I had began painting the castle, the sea would be somewhere near. Consequently, I followed the country lanes towards the distant woods.
It was when the summer sky's pale blue became tinged with an ochred hue that I realised my worthy gelding was due for a rest. Tying him with an ample length of rope to the trunk of a chestnut tree, I let him graze as I undid the panniken which Flora had prepared for me. The rabbit's foot which she had thoughtfully laid on top of the napkin gave me cause for amusement.
From under the foliage of the tree, I could see through the filtering light that there was perhaps one more hour until twilight, and resting my head on a grassy knoll I fought back a soporific feeling which had descended like a lead weight consequent to my repast.
I must have dozed a few minutes when I heard what I imagined to be thunder. The thunder grew louder. I sat up straining my ears until the sound became distinct; an agitated rumble of horse's hooves was bearing down along the path towards me like some apocalyptic horse rider.
She was riding side-saddle and trying frantically to bring the beast under control. I flung myself at the horse's neck as the lady cried, "Stop him! Can you stop him, sir!"
I made a grab at the loose bridle and with all my weight forced the frightened beast to lose momentum. By degrees the wild-eyed roan calmed.
"What caused it to take flight, so?" I enquired.
"Nothing, kind sir. I cannot offer explanation. I thank you for your timely help." Her voice held for me a familiar but distant intonation, which I could not immediately place. And as I looked up, I was disappointed to notice a headscarf of pale pink, covering the lower part of her face, allowing only lustering blue eyes, which held me in their gaze for a moment.
Under her brief scrutiny I felt my spine tingle. We had met somewhere -- sometime before -- but where or when, I knew not.
"Your name, good lady," I cried out as she cantered away.
"Lady Carrick, my good man."
Then she was gone. Devoured by the dense undergrowth of the woods. Lady Carrick of Carrick Castle. I had indeed been caught by the chance winds of fortune, though I felt a chill, nevertheless. I fancied her voice echoing throughout the green foliage. Come awa Stuart! Come awa! Tis your Margaret...
* * *
I had been riding into a velvet darkness for quite some hours when I came onto open country; the stars were not yet out and a bleary moon waxed and waned through hazy gossamer, causing me to pass, almost unnoticed, the swinging lantern of what I perceived to be a wayside inn.
"Aye, a room fer the night," said the innkeeper, his pumpkin-shaped head almost touching the low oak beams above the bar counter. "Mind ye, it's not so grand as the Savoy, here...but on the other hand, it's no so expensive."
From the light of the lantern affixed to the oak beam, I noticed his laughing, cavalier face shine with satisfaction, then suddenly change when I asked him where Carrick Castle was.
"Carrick Castle? Ah, now, what would ye be wanting with Carrick Castle, mon?"
"A simple visit -- no less -- no more."
The innkeeper wiped his hand on the remnants of a towel, then said, "Aye, well, then ye'll have just as much luck chasing moonbeams."
I was hardly aware that several of what I guessed to be the inn's regulars had by now, grouped around me.
"Thon castle disnae exist, noo," commented an old man with a wisp of white hair. He laid down his whisky glass reverently, hawkishly watching as the innkeeper refilled his glass. Picking up his glass he studied the honey colour meditatively, took a small draught, then smacked his lips, saying, "Thon castle was burnt doon during the forty-five rebellion -- they laid torch an' cannon tae it -- there's not even a stane left."
"What if I told you I saw Lady Carrick this afternoon."
"Was yon lass on a white roan?"
"She was," I replied.
"Well noo. Whit ye have seen, mon...is a ghost...fer the guid lady died in the rebellion, in the fire that burnt doon the castle, an' so did Lord Carrick."
With a nod of my head I intimated that the landlord fill the old man's glass, then I asked to see my room.
Before me, now, the innkeeper clad in faded corduroy trousers and flapping apron leads the way upstairs like a galleon in full sail. My own feet tread heavily on the creaking staircase. I am tired...tired and restless.
As I lay here neath the casement window, I discern by my pocket watch that it is now two a.m. The minutes tick by. I cannot sleep. I start at the sound of rumbling wheels and muffled voices from the courtyard below; arising, I spy out from the corner of the window and see the inn-keeper hold the reins of a team of horses while a man throws coils of rope into the wagon.
I look at the tumbler and wonder.
I reach for the nightcap, which was brought up to my bedchamber by an insistent host at the stroke of midnight. I pick up the glass and smell it. A sleeping draught, there is no doubt. Enough for a deep sleep, enough, so that others can carry on with their nefarious business, undisturbed. Dressing hastily, I decide to follow.
* * *
Ten minutes of brisk galloping brings me within the half-furlong. The wagon trundles lethargically under the shimmering modulations of moonlight towards the gently rising woodland. I remain at a safe distance. And though I am unseen -- my horse's hooves being muffled with rags -- I feel a strange foreboding. As they enter the woodland I wonder to what outlandish destination they are heading and for what bizarre purpose. We pass by a coppice and the smell of woodchip is pungent; further on, negotiating tall oak and chestnut, the swaying wagon pauses at the crest of a hill then is gone.
I descend slowly, purposefully, until suddenly I come to open heath. What lays before me, causes me to pull up sharply.
The myriad twinkling lights of a reflected ocean fill the castle, which stands majestically, enveloped in filmy mist while beyond the background. Dismounting, I slowly lead my horse along a path to the portcullis, which has been lowered almost as if they had been expecting me. I notice the wagon swing round to the side of the castle as I prudently take take cover under a nearby copse.
I study the battlements, ramparts, and towers -- exactly as I had envisaged -- exactly as I had painted -- all except, that is, the tower on the east wing -- of that I was unclear. Now I fix in my mind the image, for tomorrow I shall return to complete the canvas.
The horse paws the earth. The bats swing and swerve. The moon dips. And I wait. I choose not to enter the castle. Not yet. The hour passes then I hear that creaking cart approaching. The innkeeper lashes at the toiling beasts having difficulty in pulling the heavy burden up the slope. Large wooden casks fill the wagon. This I conjecture, is privately distilled whisky.
I watch the steam rise from the team of Clydesdales as they enter the wood. My interest is now focussed on the castle. I find myself riding across the drawbridge, past the portcullis then to the large oak door. I dismount. My fist pounds the door.
The door is slowly drawn open.
I recognise face and form.
I know my nightmare is about to begin.
"So you came. Your venture, sir, has no gain," says the man in velvet tunic and breeches.
I discern a skein dhu nestling neath a tartan sash and hesitate.
"Please step inside and partake of some mulled wine," he adds. With a flourish, I am beckoned inside, and though I am taken by my host's benign countenance, I am wary. I find myself face to face with the Laird I killed twenty years before. Once again I find myself at an impasse from which there is no turning back.
I step inside.
"The good lady, sir? She is here?" say I, on entering the large drawing room. The shields, swords, and battleaxes, which line the walls, catch my attention. The laird sets down two ruby-encrusted goblets on lacquered rosewood and entreats me to be seated.
"Lady Carrick will be down shortly. My daughter has been waiting for you...longer than you think. Her husband, the good Lord Carrick, has been called away on affairs of state."
"Waiting, perchance, is a womanly duty," says Lady Carrick standing at the doorway. "Well met, my brave Stuart. May I thank you once more for your aid in my moment of distress. I told my father, here, of your daring deed."
I see the woman I love has not changed. She remains, as I left her.
"Aye, the Sutherlands were always a courageous family," says the laird of Glendeveron. "I am beholding to ye man on account of my daughter -- ye saved one life -- but dinna forget, ye snuffed out another -- mine."
As Lady Carrick approached me with outswept arms, I go forward to embrace her, Margaret...more beautiful than ever...there are tears in her limpid blue eyes. I suddenly draw back. "But you are betrothed -- you did not wait as you said you would." Tears fill my eyes.
"He would not have it." Margaret gives a mournful look to her father. "He forced me to marry Lord Carrick -- he planned it all before you killed him -- when you were taken away -- Lord Carrick came to claim me. Oh, Stuart, my marriage was dammed, I knew I couldn't live without you. I poisoned my husband...and myself. Stuart -- I have been dead and cold for twenty years past."
"So incredible," I mutter. "Armor vincit ominia."
"Aye, lad," says the laird, "when ye started on that painting -- ye were doomed. Doomed. Now...if ye still want te claim my daughter's hand...ye will have to fight for it. Ye cannie kill me again...so ye'll have to settle it with Lord Carrick."
The laird raised up the goblet with a flourish. "Here's to ye, man. And this time ye'll have to be careful...for ye'll be dealing with a ghost."
"A Sutherland never runs away," I reply.
"Stuart! Flee while you have a chance. Lord Carrick will surely kill you."
"If that be my fate, then I will join you my dear and my torment will end."
I follow Lady Carrick upstairs to her bedchamber, feeling once more the luckless youth that I once was. Lady Carrick glides over to the French windows and drawing them apart, we step onto the balcony bathed in weak moonlight.
"There...my dear Stuart, the vast ocean beats its breast like I have done -- weeps with thunderous waves as I have done. Many a night have I longed to cross that ocean -- the waves taking me to the other side of the Earth and to you."
As she turned to me her face brushed against mine with a delicate scent of rose, and her lips quivered, searching for mine, and we each sought each other with an animalistic hunger, which was not of this world.
"Stuart. You may stay, but you must be off before the day breaks."
"How can I think of leaving you now." I hold her protectively. It seems but moments since I held Margaret's supple body in my arms and spoke words of endearment that I did not notice the curlew's strident cry announcing the morn, nor of the frantic braying of my horse. I gradually became aware of a strange presence in the bedchamber.
"Look to yourself -- you knave -- you scoundrel!"
Lord Carrick stood at the doorway with a look of cold, hard scorn. He brandished a rapier.
"The lady is mine -- in life or death. -- she is mine," I shout.
"Stuart!" cries Lady Carrick. "You should have run -- fled from here!"
I pluck a rapier from among those fixed upon the wall and say, "You will never have the good woman."
Lord Carrick fought like the devil himself. He was an expert swordsman; if the man had chosen a fist fight, then I would have been sure of having the better of the situation; however, in the event, each parry and blow saw me stepping back onto the balcony.
"The end is nigh! Knave!" said Lord Carrick, delivering a mighty thrust. I felt sharp steel pierce my ribs. Yet another thrust passes through my heart, sending me reeling over the balcony to be dashed onto the rocks below. My fleeting senses tell me that I will soon be with that companion spirit which I cherish for time eternal. I see her rising from the sea to welcome me.
Story © 2003 by John Bailey firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration © 2003 by Alan Rabinowitz / RABZ Illustration email@example.com
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