Short story XVI

The trail stretched ahead in gathering darkness. The wind sighed through the blanced grasses of winter, with a few snow flurries hitching a lift. The traveller wearily glanced up, to the south. Snow-capped peaks reared up to his left, slowly disappearing in the gathering gloom. Long since had the comfortable homes by the shore been left behind. A long way yet to shelter. Why had he left his departure so late? It was late November, and he knew the sun would be gone by four o'clock. Ach, it was pretty clear what had delayed him. The glow of the memory kept him warm. A face in front of his mind's eye encouraged him to carry on. Presently, a lowly cairn marked a fork in the road.

Into the gathering gloom, the traveller continued, the little cairn now but a memory behind him. With but a hint of daylight remaining, he was only just in time to reach the walls of the bothy. No light shone out of its window, but quickly, a fire was lit and warmth spread around the room. After heating up a can of baked beans, and brewing up some tea, the bunk in the far corner looked increasingly appealing. It had been a long and trying day, so within an hour or two, the fire slowly died down and the traveller slumbered away. His journey to Harris had only just begun.

Dawn broke late, and with a steely quality to its light. The windows of the bothy faced two ways, one looking back, where the path meandered down the hillside. Others glanced out over the sea, where one island lay nearby, and others strung in the far distance on the horizon. Poking up the embers in the fireplace, the traveller prepared his morning cup of tea, and seeking to regain some warmth. A dusting of snow covered the nearest hilltop, snow that was not likely to disappear in the cold winter sun. Although more driftwood presently helped to revive the fire, the man was not warmed through by it. His journey would really only start today, and he would not be the only one on it.

Was it true then? The story seemed confused. The industrial historian kept leafing through the old papers, related to a now defunct textiles mill. Vast fortunes were made in the industry in the nineteenth century, and more often than not, the proprietors had more money than they knew what to do with. A splurge on a country pile, commissioning their own yachts for sailing the oceans of the world. But their empire came to an end, as did they. What happened to their riches? An image of distant mountains was conjured up by the writing in the papers. The historian himself had never been to the north. But as the daylight faded, and his working week came to a close, he made a decision. Maybe the story was true.

The explosion reverberated around the valley. Few would have heard, apart from those carrying out the demolition. Not good enough. A new edifice would have to be erected. The mountains to the east frowned with disapproval. But there were no people to mount any sort of protest. Their only legacy was the cairn at the fork in the road. And it was from there that the wagon slowly bumped its way downhill. An atrocious track, not even worthy of the description. Some of the workers had, with supreme irony, dubbed it the Golden Road.

Slowly, the procession wound its way up the track, bearing left at the cairn. When the people had left, they had built the cairn, each leaving a stone. Each promising to pick it up one day, when they would return. But return they never did. The stones remained, whilst their bearers went beyond these seas and eventually beyond this life. Others, fewer, had taken their land for entertainment. But taming the wilderness proved impossible, the ruins of these efforts soon passed by the procession. The stern hills of the west reared up over the track, which grew rougher as it wound its way south. It took a long time for the wagons to reach their final destination, the final resting place of the lady whose remains were to be laid to rest. Down what was to be called the Golden Road, in mockery of the state it was in. Down to Harris.

The loose rocks shifted under the traveller's feet. The Golden Road, indeed. Frustrated with his poor rate of progress, he flopped down on a roadside boulder and proceeded to brew up a cup of tea. His wife had pleaded with him not to go on this wild goose chase, certainly not in late November. He could have been warm at home with her. The weather forecast had not been too bad, but the promised change was already moving across the sky, and he would catch some rain before the day was out. Clouds were sinking over the tops of the mountains to the east, wreathing them in mournful grey. Fortified by his refreshment, the walker resumed his travels and after an hour emerged into a plain of green by the sea.

Quietly, the ferry drew into the bay and lowered its ramp onto the slipway. One vehicle disembarked and disappeared along the tree-lined road - if road was the appropriate name for a poorly metalled track. The incongruity was startling when, after a mile, the trees opened out onto a clearing in which a red, sandstone building resembling a castle stood. The historian alighted from his vehicle and took a moment to take in his surroundings. Although it was late autumn, and the leaves had long been blown off the trees, the vista down the loch was still stunning. He proceeded down the road in his vehicle, then spoke to someone who advised him to leave the motorcar at the castle and continue inland on foot. After explaining his reason for visiting, the islander showed the historian into Kinloch Castle.

Was impressive the word? A Grecian temple, and some ruins in the grass, tiles, the letter B. The surrounding landscape was far more impressive. Mountains to the east, the open ocean to the south. Harris Bay was deserted. Whose idea was it to spread the rumour that some of the riches of the Globe Works in Accrington were buried there? What riches there had been, had well and truly been spent, if not squandered. On Kinloch Castle, on the yacht Rhouma. The traveller and the industrial historian had compared notes, and felt like fools. A sentiment that was quickly blown away in the thin, cold wind that blew in from the sea. The two men took in their surroundings, then turned round and started on the eight mile trek back to the castle. The Bulloughs continued to slumber in their mausoleum, a folly in memory of a folly.

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