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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 4 (July 1, 1936)

Limited Night Entertainments

page 42

Limited Night Entertainments

Part XIV.
The Queen'S Earrings.

It is at a point a little north of where the wriggly black lines—which, on the map, represent the Main Trunk railway—cross the 40th degree of latitude that the Queen's Earrings may be found.

They lie in a wooden casket beneath the hearthstone of a farmhouse on the eastern slope of a fertile valley. The casket which is of Maori origin dates from about 1850, but the earrings, two exquisite fire-opals set in whorls of beaten gold are much older than that, for their story goes back to a day in May, 1568.

On that day Mary, Queen of Scots, her army in rout, fled from the battle of Langside, and came, hotly pursued, to the home of the Lenzies of Glenmayne. The gates were flung wide to her, but even as she drew herself from her horse the figures of the Regent's men appeared over the brow of the hill. Malcolm Lenzie, who was then laird of Glenmayne, drew her inside the gate, and, seizing the cloak from her shoulders and the cap from her head, himself leaped upon her horse, and shouting for her companions to follow him, led the pursuit far afield, and eluded them by hiding in a cavern in the glen.

Lenzie returned by himself, and the Queen, fed, rested, and mounted upon a fresh horse, escaped by another road to Dumfries. In token of her gratitude she presented Malcolm Lenzie with a pair of earrings and promised that when she returned to Scotland great wealth and power should be his.

* * *

Chapter II.

The centuries are turned as the pages of a book, and there stands at the gates of Glenmayne Priory a wizened little man dressed in tight black clothes with an ill-fitting lum-hat crammed over his ears. He carries a hump on his back and a leather satchel beneath his arm, and to judge by the dour lines about his mouth he is not the type to conjure ghosts nor heed the fine flavour of romance that clings forever to age-old stone and iron-studded oaken doors. One would say that such impalpable things, having no counterpart in the chink of coin or the scrawly signature on a banker's draft, would be beyond his ken; so it is idle to suppose that he would realise that his coming marked the anniversary of a highly romantic happening.

It was the two hundred and eightyninth anniversary, to be exact, of the day on which old Malcolm Lenzie, standing by these very gates, had watched two figures on horseback grow small with distance as they cantered side by side down the lowland road. Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, and his own son Robin; and presently, as they turned their horses from the main road into a cow-path that would take them by devious ways to Michael's Cross, old Lenzie raised a hand to shield his eyes from the level rays of the sun which by now was low in the western sky. As though in answer to his movement one of the figures half turned in the saddle and flung up an arm in farewell salute. It was a gesture comradely and full of confidence. But old Lenzie, weary with the day's excitement and uneasy in spirit had read something final, a foreboding of the fate, perhaps that in spite of her brave assurances to the contrary, awaited the Queen in England, and which had already ordained that she was never again to set foot in Scotland.

The road down which old Lenzie gazed that day ran undulating through pastures bright with spring grass; there was flowering may in the hedgrows and behind stone walls the tumbled white and pink foam of fruit trees in blossom. Glenmayne Priory had at once dominated and harmonised with the countryside in all its moods, greystone walls, built with an artist's care for background, had toned perfectly with bright spring colouring, mellow autumn tints and the low grey skies of winter. But now all that was changed, for, like the hulk of an old ship dreaming at her moorings in a busy harbour, the house in May, 1857, had become something of an anomaly.

On all sides chimneys reared gaunt outlines. Slag heaps, reeking black cones, darkened the brightest noons with sulphurous dust and smoke, and lining the road, fouled now with coaly slime, were drab little worker's dwellings. Hideous erections these, of grimy brick and plaster, devoid of all the things that make a home a delight; mere kennels, to house in their less useful moments the men, women and children who went daily to toil fourteen and sixteen hours a day in the pits, the shops, and at the looms of the great industrial district which during the past hundred years had been growing up steadily on the south bank of the Clyde.

Mr. McWhin, for that, if it may be read as the son of a gorse-bush, was the rather fitting name of the caller at Glenmayne Priory, tugged at the iron bell-handle beside the gate and waited without any sign of impatience for some five minutes before his summons was answered, for he occupied the time in pleasant thoughts of the old house's demolition. Glenmayne, with its adjacent land occupied a position which represented thousands of pounds as a building site for yet more tenements, factories, and smoke-belching chimneys.

Mr. McWhin had not progressed very far with his vandalistic speculations when the gate was opened and an old woman of forbidding aspect, who acted as factotum to the Lenzie household, demanded his business.

“To see Mr. Ardoch Lenzie,” he replied.

“What would ye be wanting with him? He is only just got back from London, and in no mood to entertain,” —she regarded Mr. McWhin disdainfully—“baillies.”

“My business is private,” Mr. McWhin answered precisely, “and,” relapsing a shade truculently into broader speech, “I ken fine he has been tae London tae bury his father—that's why I'm here.”

The old woman favoured him with a sour look, “I'll tell him,” she said and, carefully chaining the gate, left Mr. McWhin some minutes more to the enjoyment of his own company upon the roadway. Presently she returned and led him towards the library where, seated at a desk littered with documents, page 43 sat the new laird of Glenmayne, Ardoch Lenzie.

Ardoch, a man between thirty and thirty-five years of age, was a true son of his red-headed forebears, and he fixed Mr. McWhin with an uncompromisingly cold blue eye.

much did he borrow from you?” demanded Ardoch.

much did he borrow from you?” demanded Ardoch.

“What might your business be, sir?” he demanded when the old woman had left them. Mr. McWhin did not answer the question directly.

“I understand, Mr. Lenzie,” he said in his mincing, precise manner of speaking, “that you saw very little of your father during the last ten years or so of his life?”

Ardoch made an impatient gesture. “Possibly,” he replied, “I have managed the estate here since I came of age—my father lived in London.”

“In body perhaps,” Mr. McWhin smiled faintly, “in spirit he lived in ancient Babylon.”

“Be good enough to tell me what your business is,” Ardoch snapped, “I have a great many important matters to attend to.”

“Aye,” Mr McWhin returned smoothly, “I'll be coming to it fast enough. Your father was a grand scholar, Mr. Lenzie, and a charming gentleman, but he was a trifle careless, shall we say, about everyday affairs. You see he lived in a world of his own; a world of golden chariots and human sacrifices, a heathen, blasphemous world, but between you and me, a verra interesting one in spite of what the minister might say!”

“Many a time,” he continued holding up his hand, for Ardoch was about to interrupt him again, “I dined with him in a wee room overlooking Bloomsbury Square, and he would lay down knife and fork to fetch a piece of pottery like enough to an old broken flowerpot, but covered with scratchings such as a spider might ha’ made if it fell into an ink-well. ‘It's all there McWhin,’ he would say, ‘the key to the riddle o’ life, if we could only read it'!

“It seemed there was only part of these scratchings he could read, the parts about the horses and the kings with their jewels and the women's lips outlined wi’ scarlet paint. Oh aye,” Mr. McWhin chuckled, “he could tell about those things right enough, which perhaps was the reason why I was so lenient with him.”

“What do you mean.” Ardoch demanded, “lenient?”

“It takes money, Mr. Lenzie, to live in a world three thousand years old, even more it seems than it does to live in the present-day one. And those old flower-pots they dig up in Egypt or some such fantastic place, are mighty expensive to come by.”

“Do you mean my father borrowed money from you?” Ardoch's tone was scornful, for to be sure Mr. McWhin's appearance would not suggest any very great financial resources.

“Well,” Mr. McWhin fingered his scrubby chin, “often enough at the end of one of our evenings together he would mention the wicked prices he had to pay for things in London, and how this or that society wanted a subscription to dig up more flowerpots or whatnot, and after such a good dinner and such interesting talk I found it hard to refuse him.”

“How much altogether did you lend him?” Ardoch, anxious to be rid of his unwelcome visitor, dipped his pen in the ink and opened a book of blank cheques.

Mr. McWhin cleared his throat nervously, “The amounts were no’ large, Mr. Lenzie, not for a man like your father with this house and two hundred acres of valuable property behind him. But a scholar, a man whose thoughts are all in the past is apt to be careless about details of interest and such, compound interest ye understand, and the first of the loans was made over twelve years ago.”

“The amount, man, the amount!” Ardoch drummed impatiently on the desk top.

Mr. McWhin extracted a pair of steelrimmed spectacles from his pocket and adjusted them carefully over the bridge of his nose, then he opened his leather satchel and took from it a bundle of documents bound with black ribbon. Peering over the top of his spectacles he read from a slip of paper tucked beneath the ribbon.

The suavity was gone from his voice, his obsequious manner had become suddenly harsh and aggressive.

“The amount,” he said, “is eighteen thousand, seven hundred, and sixty-one pounds, eleven shillings.”

For a moment there was dead silence, then Ardoch leaped to his feet, overturning his chair with a crash.

“What the devil do you mean?” he shouted, “how dare you come to me with such a fabrication at a time like this?”

“It's no fabrication,” Mr. McWhin assured him calmly, “you'll find all the amounts there if you take the trouble to look.”

Ardoch caught up the papers and tore off the ribbon that bound them. For a moment he scanned them, and then faced Mr. McWhin again, his face dark with anger.

“Interest at fifteen per cent.!” he stormed, “what do you mean by such extortionate rates?”

“I was dealing wi’ a dreamy forgetful man,” Mr. McWhin replied.

Ardoch sat down with a mirthless laugh, “Well,” he said, “the farm is not paying, I have no such amount at call—how do you expect to collect your money?”

“What's that!” asked Ardoch.

“What's that!” asked Ardoch.

“Oh, I'm well covered.” Mr. McWhin turned once more to his leather satchel and took from it a further sheaf of papers. “Here,” he said, tapping them with a bony forefinger, “are deeds of mortgage over this house and property—shall I read them to you?”

page 44

page 45

All Ardoch's instincts prompted him at this moment to show Mr. McWhin the door at the toe of his boot. Indeed he was half out of his chair to do so ere he realised that it was an impulse as vainly incongruous as if old Glenmayne Priory itself, awakening from the sleep of centuries to find the web of industrialism spread over and about it, had tried with an angry convulsion to rid the neighbourhood of the grimy tenements and foul air that polluted it.

He was caught. Five minutes’ perusal of the usurer's documents convinced him of that fact. Desperately he sought a way out, there were cousins and distant branches of the family who had in the past looked to Glenmayne as its head. They perhaps would be unwilling to see the old place pass into alien hands. They could—they must help. He demanded time from Mr. McWhin in which to arrange a settlement.

But Mr. McWhin shook his head. He had laid his plans a long time ago, and laid them well. For thirty-five years he had watched the city of Glasgow and its environs growing like a monstrous fungus over the countryside. Coal-pits, factories, and their attendant rows of grimy houses had overwhelmed a farm here, a village there. Someday, some time, the old house and green pastures of Glenmayne would be able to hold out no longer, and that day would be a very lucrative one for the man who, untrammelled by sentiment, owned the title to the estate. Not for many years, not until well after Mr. McWhin could hope to be alive, would the Lenzie family be likely of their own free will to relinquish their holdings. Land speculators in the past had received short shift at their hands; it would only be by chance that an outsider might obtain a title.

Chance had brought Mr. McWhin into contact with Gavin Lenzie, Ardoch's father. Gavin had been delicate from boyhood and spent the greater part of his early life in Italy where, living with his doting mother in a Florentine villa, he developed a passion for archaeological study, and grew up unpractical to a degree. When he succeeded to the Glenmayne estate at the age of fortyseven he had little taste for the northern climate or the hard work therein. He left the management of his affairs to agents, and as soon as his son was of age took himself off to live permanently in London.

Mr. McWhin had told Ardoch only half a truth when he spoke of the archaeologist's dinners and talks. It was he himself who had all but forced the loans, professing a deep interest in the Babylonian fragments and musty manuscripts. He had cultivated Gavin's friendship and gained his confidence at the same time that he had spun his web about him. Gavin had belonged to certain societies interested in the excavation of ancient ruins and tombs in Asia Minor, and Mr. McWhin had found it an easy matter to pass off loans for the furtherance of these activities as temporary obligements between gentlemen of kindred interests. The notes of hand which he received in return and which were subsequently made over into mortgages on Gavin's property, were, he declared with wellfeigned unconcern, a mere formality.

Thus it was that he gained little by little a hold over the whole Glenmayne estate and no part of it was redeemable by the sale of the treasures which were occasionally unearthed, for he had always taken care that the loans, though contracted in Gavin's name, were for the benefit of the societies. As for allowing Ardoch time to try and get outside assistance to clear the debt, he smiled wolfishly: all the payments were long overdue; he preferred to foreclose!

And now, as he rose from his chair, “I'll give you a month,” he said, “in which to make your arrangements. At the end of that time I shall expect to find Glenmayne Priory and its adjacent lands ready to be handed over to my agents!”

Chapter III.

It is doubtful if Ardoch Lenzie ever realised to the full how much he owed to the sympathy and understanding of his wife, Catherine, during the terrible weeks that followed Mr. McWhin's visit. At first he was completely broken, alternating periods of black despair with fits of violent rage. It was incredible to him (in whom the tradition and pride of family was implanted deeper than any religion) that his ancestral home should be taken from him, that everything he had worked for had perished. He would sit for hours brooding in the library, his eyes vacant, his strong hands idle before him, then suddenly seizing hat and stick, he would set off down the road, scarcely knowing where he walked, but with some vague idea in his mind of coming face to face with the wizened little man who had brought about his ruin.

A view of Palmerston North Station, North Island, New Zealand, about 1900.

A view of Palmerston North Station, North Island, New Zealand, about 1900.

But Mr. McWhin was far away in London, and when Ardoch returned, haggard, muddy and utterly worn out, it was Catherine who awaited him, scolding him gently as she helped him off with his boots and poured him a drink; bringing him back to reason with brave and consoling words.

“Ardoch,” she said one day, “have you ever thought that there is a certain type of man who always strives to maintain the balance of things. The man who brings order and peace and culture, the man who clings to the soil and enriches it with his work. The man who thinks more often of those about him than of himself?”

“I have known such men—in the past,” Ardoch replied.

“The Lenzies were like that,” Catherine continued, choosing to ignore the hint of bitterness in his tone.

“They were—“Ardoch retorted, “but there is no future for them in a country where human beings are herded like cattle, where the grass is withered before it can seed, and a trickster can—”

Catherine rose and laid a hand over his mouth; “there are still places left in the world where life may be worth living,” she said gently.

She said no more at that moment, but later in the evening she brought out a wooden box in which she kept odds and ends of sewing, trinkets, old letters and the like. Some of the letters in this box were written in a flowing, full-bellied script, decorated with quaintly scribbled drawings in page 46 page 47 the margins; and Catherine, rather ostentatiously opening one of these, presently laughed outright.

“What is it?” Ardoch demanded a trifle irritably from the other side of the room.

Catherine glanced sidelong, “only one of my brother's old letters—you always thought them rather silly.”

“Aye, and I still do.”

“But Ardoch, he has such fun—he always seems to be laughing.”

“There's more to life than just having fun. As the master of a ship he shows a deplorable lack of dignity, to my mind!”

Catherine pouted and was silent, presently she chuckled again, “Oh, do look, here's a picture of him being chased by a chief of the Ma-ories, I think they're called.”

Ardoch leaned forward and lit a long churchwarden pipe at a candle. Then he rose, and crossing the room, stood behind Catherine's chair looking over her shoulder.

“What's that?” he demanded, suddenly pointing with the stem of his pipe.

“That? That's a bird, I think, but it's very queer, isn't it? Charles calls it a K-I-W-I; how do you suppose you pronounce that?”

“I don't know. Where does he find these things?”

“In New Zealand. He has made four or five trips there now. The first was to the Otago settlement seven years ago: he says it's a wonderful country where it's always summer, and al the first Otago settlers are farming their own land and doing famously.”

Ardoch turned the letters idly while Catherine watched him covertly with a new-found happiness in her heart. A month ago he would scarcely have glanced up at her remarks about the drawings, far less have crossed the room to look at them. He had been a self-centred, rather austere, and wholly independent man, but the recent turn of events had struck at the very roots of his being, cast him all adrift from the settled habit of his life, and brought him nearer to her, perhaps, than he had been since the day they were married, five years ago.

Presently he selected a letter from the pile and laid it in Catherine's lap. “Will you read one to me?” he asked, and leaning against the mantlepiece, it seemed to him that as Catherine's gentle voice read from that flowing script, the script that swelled and bellied like topsails in trade wind latitudes, that the oak-panelled walls of the room faded and gave way to a vast expanse of ocean. There was a green island where gulls screamed and fought over the carcases of whales and try-pots flared and stank in the dusk of a summer evening. There was a deep winding river with new grass spronting along its banks; sunny pastures sheltered by tall bush trees and distant blue mountains. A vigorous life went pulsing through the pages. Stories untold of adventure and hardship and glorious triumph.

For a long time after Catherine finished reading Ardoch puffed at his pipe in moody silence. He said no more that night, but on other evenings that followed more of the letters were read and when the reading of them was done he began to ask tentative questions concerning them. How far was it to New Zealand? How much would it cost to go there? Where was Captain Barcle, who had written the letters and presumbaly knew all about the country, now?

Then one day he made a trip to the port of Greenock.