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Title: The Seven Lights
Author: John Mackay Wilson
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0606751.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: August 2006
Date most recently updated: August 2006

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The Seven Lights
John Mackay Wilson


JOHN M'PHERSON was a farmer and grazier in Kintyre--a genuine
Highlander. In person, though of rather low stature than otherwise, he
was stout, athletic, and active; bold and fearless in disposition,
warm in temper, friendly, and hospitable--this last to such a degree
that his house was never without as many strangers and visitors of
different descriptions, as nearly doubled his own household.

To the vagrant beggar his house and meal-chest were ever open; and to
no one, whatever his condition, were a night's quarters ever refused.
M'Pherson's house, in short, formed a kind of focus, with a power to
draw towards itself all the misery and poverty in the country within a
circle whose diameter might be reckoned at somewhere about twenty
miles. The wandering mendicant made it one of his regular stages, and
the traveller of better degree toiled on his way with increased
activity, that he might make it his quarters for the night.

Fortunately for the character and credit of M'Pherson's hospitality,
his wife was of an equally kind and generous disposition with himself;
so that his absences from home, which were frequent, and sometimes
long, did not at all affect the treatment of the stranger under his
roof, or make his welcome less cordial.

But the hospitality exercised at Morvane, which was the name of
M'Pherson's farm, sometimes, it must be confessed, led to occasional
small depredations--such as the loss of a pair of blankets, a sheet,
or a pair of stockings, carried off by the ungrateful vagabonds whom
he sometimes sheltered. There were, however, one pair of blankets
abstracted in this way, that found their road back to their owner in
rather a curious manner.

The morning was thick and misty, when the thief (in the case alluded
to) decamped with his booty, and continued so during the whole day, so
that no object, at any distance, however large, could be seen. After
toiling for several hours, under the impression that he was leaving
Morvane far behind, the vagabond, who was also a stranger in the
country, approached a house, with the stolen blankets snugly and
carefully bundled on his back, and knocked at the door, with the view
of seeking a night's quarters, as it was now dusk. The door was
opened; but by whom, think you, good reader? Why, by M'Pherson!

The thief, without knowing it, had landed precisely at the point from
which he had set out. Being instantly recognised, he was politely
invited to walk in. To this kind invitation, the thief replied by
throwing down the blankets, and taking to his heels--thus making, with
his own hands, a restitution which was very far from being intended.
Poor M'Pherson, however, did not get all his stolen blankets back in
this way.

This, however, is a digression. To proceed with our tale. One night,
when M'Pherson was absent, attending a market at some distance, an
elderly female appeared at the door, with the usual demand of a
night's lodging, which, with the usual hospitality of Morvane, was at
once complied with. The stranger, who was a remarkably tall woman, was
dressed in widow's weeds, and of rather respectable appearance; her
deportment was grave, even stern, and altogether she seemed as if
suffering from some recent affliction.

During the whole of the early part of the evening she sat before the
fire, with her face buried between her hands, heedless of what was
passing around her, and was occasionally observed rocking to and fro,
with that kind of motion that bespeaks great internal anguish. It was
noticed, however, that she occasionally stole a look at those who were
in the apartment with her; and it was marked by all (but whether this
was merely the effect of imagination, for all felt that there was
something singular and mysterious about the stranger, or was really
the case, we cannot decide) that, in these furtive glances, there was
a peculiarly wild and appalling expression. The stranger spoke none,
however, during the whole night; but continued, from time to time,
rocking to and fro in the manner already described. Neither could she
be prevailed upon to partake of any refreshment, although repeatedly
pressed to do so. All invitations of this kind she declined, with a
wave of the hand, or a melancholy, yet determined inclination of the
head. In words she made no reply.

The singular conduct of this woman threw a damp over all who were
present. They felt chilled, they knew not how; and were sensible of
the influence of an indefinable terror, for which they could not
account. For once, therefore, the feeling of comfort and security, of
which all were conscious who were seated around M'Pherson's cheerful
and hospitable hearth, was banished, and a scene of awe and dread
supplied its place.

No one could conjecture who this strange personage was, whence she had
come, nor whither she was going; nor were there any means of acquiring
this information, as it was a rule of the house--one of M'Pherson's
special points of etiquette--that no stranger should ever be
questioned on such subjects. All being allowed to depart as they came,
without question or inquiry, there was never anything more known at
Morvane, regarding any stranger who visited it, than what he himself
chose to communicate.

Under the painful feelings already described, the inmates of
M'Pherson's house found, with more than usual satisfaction, the hour
for retiring to rest arrive. The general attention being called to
this circumstance by the hostess, everyone hastened to his appointed
dormitory, with an alacrity which but too plainly showed how glad they
were to escape from the presence of the mysterious stranger who,
however, also retired to bed with the rest. The place appointed for
her to sleep in, was the loft of an outbuilding, as there was no room
for her accommodation within the house itself; all the spare beds
being occupied.

We have already said that M'Pherson was from home on the evening of
which we are speaking, attending a market at some distance. He,
however, returned shortly after midnight. On arriving at his own
house, he was much surprised, and not a little alarmed, to perceive a
window in one of the outhouses blazing with light (it was that in
which the stranger slept), while all around and within the house was
as silent as the tomb. Afraid that some accident from fire had taken
place, he rode up to the building, and standing up in his stirrups--
which brought his head on a level with the window--looked in, when a
sight presented itself that made even the stout heart of M'Pherson
beat with unusual violence.

In the middle of the floor, extended on her pallet, lay the mysterious
stranger, surrounded by seven bright and shining lights, arranged at
equal distances--three on one side of the bed, three on the other, and
one at the head. M'Pherson gazed steadily at the extraordinary and
appalling sight for a few seconds, when three of the lights suddenly
vanished. In an instant afterwards, two more disappeared, and then
another. There was now only that at the head of the bed remaining.
When this light had alone been left, M'Pherson saw the person who lay
on the pallet, raise herself slowly up, and gaze intently on the
portentous beam, whose light showed, to the terrified onlooker, a
ghastly and unearthly countenance, surrounded with dishevelled hair,
which hung down in long, thick, irregular masses over her pale, clayey
visage, so as almost to conceal it entirely. This light, like all the
others, at length suddenly disappeared, and with its last gleam the
person on the couch sank down with a groan that startled M'Pherson
from the trance of horror into which the extraordinary sight had
thrown him. He was a bold and fearless man, however; and, therefore,
though certainly appalled by what he had seen, he made no outcry, nor
evinced any other symptom of alarm. He resolutely and calmly awaited
the conclusion of the extraordinary scene; and when the last light had
disappeared, he deliberately dismounted, led his horse into the
stable, put him up, entered the house without disturbing any one, and
slipped quietly into bed, trusting that the morning would bring some
explanation of the mysterious occurrence of the night; but resolving,
at the same time that, if it should not, he would mention the
circumstance to no one.

On awaking in the morning, M'Pherson asked his wife what strangers
were in the house, and how they were disposed of, and particularly,
who it was that slept in the loft of the outhouse. He was told that it
was a woman in widow's dress, of rather a respectable appearance, but
whose conduct had been very singular. M'Pherson inquired no further,
but desired that the woman might be detained till he should see her,
as he wished to speak with her.

On some one of the domestics, however, going up to her apartment,
shortly after, to invite her to breakfast, it was found that she was
gone, no one could tell when or where, as her departure had not been
seen by any person about the house.

Baulked in his intention of eliciting some explanation of the
extraordinary circumstance of the preceding night, from the person who
seemed to have been a party to it, M'Pherson became more strengthened
in the resolution of keeping the secret to himself, although it made
an impression upon him which all his natural strength of mind could
not remove.

At this precise period of our story, M'Pherson had three sons employed
in the herring fishing, a favourite pursuit in its season, because
often a lucrative one, of those who live upon or near the coasts of
the West Highlands.

The three brothers had a boat of their own; and, desirous of making
their employment as profitable as possible, they, though in
sufficiently good circumstances to have hired assistance, manned her
themselves, and, with laudable industry, performed all the drudgery of
their laborious occupation with their own hands.

Their boat, like all the others employed in the business we are
speaking of, by the natives of the Highlands, was wherry-rigged; her
name--she was called after the betrothed of the elder of the three
brothers--The Catherine. The take of herrings, as it is called, it is
well known, appears in different seasons in different places,
sometimes in one loch, or arm of the sea, sometimes in another.

In the season to which our story refers, the fishing was in the sound
of Kilbrannan, where several scores of boats, and amongst those that
of the M'Phersons, were busily employed in reaping the ocean harvest.
When the take of herrings appears in this sound, Campbelton Loch, a
well-known harbour on the west coast of Scotland, is usually made the
headquarters--a place of rendezvous of the little herring fleet--and
to this loch they always repair when threatened with a boisterous
night, although it was not always that they could, in such
circumstances, succeed in making it.

Such a night as the one alluded to, was that that succeeded the
evening on which M'Pherson saw the strange lights that form the
leading feature of our tale. Violent gusts of wind came in rapid
succession down the sound of Kilbrannan; and a skifting rain, flung
fitfully but fiercely from the huge black clouds as they hurried along
before the tempest that already raged above, swept over the face of
the angry sea, and seemed to impart an additional bitterness to the
rising wrath of the incipient storm. It was evident, in short, that
what sailors call a "dirty night" was approaching; and, under this
impression, the herring boats left their station, and were seen, in
the dusk of the evening in question, hurrying towards Campbelton Loch.
But the storm had arisen in all its fury long before the desired haven
could be gained. The little fleet was dispersed. Some succeeded,
however, in making the harbour; others, finding this impossible, ran
in for the Saddle and Carradale shores, and were fortunate enough to
effect a landing. All, in short, with the exception of one single
boat, ultimately contrived to gain a place of shelter of some kind.
This unhappy exception was The Catherine. Long after all the others
had disappeared from the face of the raging sea, she was seen
struggling alone with the warring elements, her canvas down to within
a few feet of her gunwale, and her keel only at times being visible.
The gallant brothers who manned her, however, had not yet lost either
heart or hope, although their situation at this moment was but too
well calculated to deprive them of both. Gravely and steadily, and in
profound silence, they kept each by his perilous post, and endeavoured
to make the land on the Campbelton side; but, finding this impossible,
they put about, and ran before the wind for the island of Arran, which
lay at the distance of about eight miles. But alarmed, as they
approached that rugged shore, by the tremendous sea which was breaking
on it, and which would have instantly dashed their frail bark to
pieces, they again put about, and made to windward. While the hardy
brothers were thus contending with their fate, a person mounted on
horseback was seen galloping wildly along the Carradale shore, his
eyes ever and anon turned towards the struggling boat with a look of
despair and mortal agony. It was M'Pherson, the hapless father of the
unfortunate youths by whom she was manned. There were others, too, of
their kindred, looking, with failing hearts, on the dreadful sight;
for all felt that the unequal contest could not continue long, and
that the boat must eventually go down.

Amongst those who were thus watching, with intense interest and
speechless agony, the struggle of the doomed bark, was Catherine, the
beloved of the elder of the brothers, who ran, in wild distraction,
along the shore, uttering the most heart-rending cries. "Oh, my
Duncan!" she exclaimed, stretching out her arms towards the pitiless
sea. "Oh, my beloved, my dearest, come to me, or allow me to come to
you that I may perish with you!" But Duncan heard her not, although it
was very possible he might see her, as the distance was not great.

There were, at this moment also, several persons on horseback, friends
of the young men, galloping along the shore, from point to point, as
the boat varied her direction, in the vain and desperate hope of being
able to render, though they knew not how, some assistance to the
sufferers. But the distracted father, urged on by the wild energy of
despair, outrode them all, as they made, on one occasion, for a rising
ground near Carradale, from whence a wider view of the sea could be
commanded. For this height M'Pherson now pushed, and gained it just in
time to see his gallant sons, with their little bark, buried in the
waves. He had not taken his station an instant on the height, when The
Catherine went down, and all on board perished.

The distracted father, when he had seen the last of his unfortunate
sons, covered his eyes with his hands, and for a moment gave way to
the bitter agony that racked his soul. His manly breast heaved with
emotion, and that most affecting of all sounds, the audible sorrowing
of a strong man, might have been heard at a great distance. It was,
however, of short continuance. M'Pherson prayed to his God to
strengthen him in this dread hour of trial, and to enable him to bear
with becoming fortitude the affliction with which it had pleased Him
to visit him; and the distressed man derived comfort from the appeal.

"My brave, my beautiful boys!" he said, "you are now with your God,
and have entered, I trust, on a life of everlasting happiness." Saying
this, he rode slowly from the fatal spot from which he had witnessed
the death of his children. It was at this moment, and while musing on
the misfortune that had befallen him, that the strange occurrence of
the preceding night recurred, for the first time, to M'Pherson's mind.
It was obtruded on his recollection by the force of association.

"Can it be possible," he inquired of himself, "that the appearances of
last night can have any connection with the dreadful events of to-day?
It must be so," he said; "for three of the lights of my eyes, three of
the guiding stars of my life, have been this day extinguished." Thus
reasoned M'Pherson; and, in the mysterious lights which he had seen,
he saw that the doom of his children had been announced. But there
were seven, he recollected, and his heart sunk within him as he
thought of the three gallant boys who were still spared to him. One of
them, the youngest, was at home with himself, the other two were in
the Army--soldiers in the 42nd Regiment, which then boasted of many
privates of birth and education. M'Pherson, however, still kept the
appalling secret of the mysterious lights to himself, and determined
to await, with resignation, the fulfilment of the destiny which had
been read to him, and which he now felt convinced to be inevitable.

The gallant regiment to which M'Pherson's sons belonged was, at this
period, abroad on active service. It was in America, and formed a part
of the army which was employed in resisting the encroachments of the
French on the British territories in that quarter.

The 42nd had, during the campaigns in the western world of that
period--viz. 1754 and 1758,--distinguished themselves in many a
sanguinary contest, for their singular bravery and general good
conduct; and the fame of their exploits rung through their native
glens, and was spread far and wide over their hills and mountains; for
dear was the honour of their gallant regiment to the warlike
Highlanders. Many accounts had arrived, from time to time, in the
country, of their achievements, and joyfully were they received. But,
on the very day after the loss of The Catherine, a low murmur began to
arise, in that part of the country which is the scene of our story, of
some dreadful disaster having befallen the national regiment. No one
could say of what nature this calamity was; but a buzz went round,
whose ominous whispering of fearful slaughter made the friends of the
absent soldiers turn pale. Mothers and sisters wept, and fathers and
brothers looked grave and shook their heads. The rumour bore that,
though there had been no loss of honour, there had been a dreadful
loss of life. Nay, it was said that the regiment had made a mighty
acquisition to its fame, but that it had been dearly bought.

At length, however, the truth arrived, in a distinct and intelligible
shape. The well-known and sanguinary affair of Ticonderago had been
fought; and, in that murderous contest, the 42nd Regiment, which had
behaved with a gallantry unmatched before in the annals of war, had
suffered dreadfully--no less than forty-three officers, commissioned
and non-commissioned, and six hundred and three privates having been
killed and wounded in that corps alone.

To many a heart and home in the Highlands did this disastrous, though
glorious intelligence, bring desolation and mourning; and amongst
those on whom it brought these dismal effects, was M'Pherson of
Morvane.

On the third day after the occurrence of the events related at the
outset of our narrative, a letter, which had come, in the first
instance, to a gentleman in the neighbourhood, and who also had a son
in the 42nd, was put into M'Pherson's hands, by a servant of the
former.

The man looked feelingly grave as he delivered it, and hurried away
before it was opened. The letter was sealed with black wax. Poor
M'Pherson's hand trembled as he opened it. It was from the captain of
the company to which his sons belonged, informing him that both had
fallen in the attack on Ticonderago. There was an attempt in the
letter to soothe the unfortunate father's feelings, and to reconcile
him to the loss of his gallant boys, in a lengthened detail of their
heroic conduct during the sanguinary struggle. "Nobly," said the
writer, "did your two brave sons maintain the honour of their country
in the bloody strife. Both Hugh and Alister fell--their broadswords in
their hands--on the very ramparts of Ticonderago, whither they had
fought their way with a dauntlessness of heart, and a strength of arm,
that might have excited the envy and admiration of the son of Fingal"

In this account of the noble conduct of his sons the broken-hearted
father did find some consolation. "Thank God!" he exclaimed, though in
a tremulous voice, "my brave boys have done their duty, and died as
became their name, with their swords in their hands, and their enemies
in their front." But there was one circumstance mentioned in the
letter, that affected the poor father more than all the rest--this was
the intimation, that the writer had, in his hands, a sum of money and
a gold brooch, which his son Alister had bequeathed, the first to his
father, the latter to his mother, as a token of remembrance. "These,"
he said, "had been deposited with him by the young man previous to the
engagement, under a presentiment that he should fall."

When he had finished the perusal of the letter, M'Pherson sought his
wife, whom he found weeping bitterly, for she had already learned the
fate of her sons. On entering the apartment where she was, he flung
his arms around her, in an agony of grief, and, choking with emotion,
exclaimed, that two more of his fair lights had been extinguished by
the hand of heaven. "One yet remains," he said, "but that, too, must
soon pass away from before mine eyes. His doom is sealed; but God's
will be done."

"What mean ye, John?" said his sobbing wife, struck with the prophetic
tone of his speech--"is the measure of our sorrows not yet filled? Are
we to lose him, too, who is now our only stay, my fair-haired Ian. Why
this foreboding of more evil--and whence have you it, John?" she said,
now looking her husband steadfastly in the face; and with an
expression of alarm that indicated that entire belief in supernatural
intelligence regarding coming events, then so general in the
Highlands.

Urged by his wife, who implored him to tell her whence he had the
tidings of her Ian's approaching fate, M'Pherson related to her the
circumstance of the mysterious lights.

"But there were seven, John," she said, when he had concluded--"how
comes that?--our children were but six." And immediately added, as if
some fearful conviction had suddenly forced itself on her mind--"God
grant that the seventh light may have meant me!"

"God forbid!" exclaimed her husband, on whose mind a similar
conviction with that with which his wife was impressed, now obtruded
itself for the first time; that conviction was, that he himself was
indicated by the seventh light. But neither of the sorrowing pair
communicated their fears to the other.

Two days subsequent to this, the fair hair of Ian was seen floating on
the surface of a deep pool, in the water of Bran; a small river that
ran past the house of Morvane. By what accident the poor boy had
fallen into the river, was never ascertained. But the pool in which
his body was found was known to have been one of his favourite fishing
stations. One only of the mysterious lights now remained without its
counterpart; but this was not long wanting. Ere the week had expired,
M'Pherson was killed by a fall from his horse, when returning from the
funeral of his son, and the symbolical prophecy was fulfilled--and
thus concludes the story of "The Seven Lights."



THE END



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