by Fiona Macleod, 1895
THE MOUNTAIN LOVERS
THE wind sighed through the aisles of the hill-forest. Among the lower-set pines there was an accompanying sound as of multitudinous baffled wings. This travelling voice was upon the mountain in a myriad utterance. Round the forehead of Ben lolair it moved as an eagle moves, sweeping in vast circles: the rhythm of its flight reiterated variously against walls of granite, gigantic boulders, and rain-scooped, tempest-worn crags and pinnacles. Lower were corries, furrows that seemed to have been raked into the breast of the hill in some olden time when the solitudes were not barren. Therein the wind slid with a hollow, flute-like call. This deepened into an organ-note of melancholy, when glens, filled with birchen undergrowth and running water, were aloud with the rumor of its passage. Upon the heights, upon the flanks. upon all the sun-swept mass of lolair, the rushing noise of its pinions was as the prolonged suspiration of the sea. Beyond the forest of pines it swooped adown the strath, and raced up the narrow neck of the Pass of the Eagles, and leapt onward again athwart and over the slopes of Tornideon that, gigantic in swarthy gloom, stood over against Ben flair.
In the heart of the pine-woods it was meshed as in a net. The sighing of it through the green-gloom avenues, warts with the diffused ruddiness of the pine-bark, was as the sound of distant water falling from infrequent ledge to ledge in a mountain gorge. Intent by the fringe of the forest, or even upon the underslopes still flooded with afternoon sunlight, one might have heard its rising and falling sough as it bore downward beneath the weight of the branches, or slipt from bole to bole and round ancient girths.
Here and there a hollow was still as deep water. Not a sigh breathed upon the mossy ground, thickly covered in parts with cones and the myriad-shed necks of the pines. Not a murmur came from the spell-bound trees. The vast boughs hung motionless in the silent air. Sometimes the upper branches stirred, but while the shadow-haunted plumes ruffled as with a passing breath it was with a slow, solemn, soundless rhythm.
In one of those sanctuaries of peace, where the forest was thinner and everywhere luminous with the flowing gold of the setting sun, a child danced blithe!y to and fro, often clapping her hands, but without word or sound, and with her wild-fawn eyes ceaselessly alert, yet unquestioning and unsmiling.
In that solitary place she was doubly alone. No eyes were there to espy her, save those of the cushats and a thrush whose heart beat wildly against her callow brood. She was like the spirit of woodland loneliness: a lovely thing of fantasy that might recreate its beauty the next moment in a medley of sun-rays, or as a floating golden light about the green boles, or as a wind-flower swaying among the tree-roots, with its own exquisite vibration of life. So elemental was she, then and there, that if she herself had passed into the rhythm of her rapt dance and so merged into the cadence of the wind among leaves and branches, or into the remoter murmuring of the mountain burns and of the white cataracts even then leaping into the sun-dazzle and seeming never to fall though forever falling if this change had been wrought, as the swift change from shadow-gloom to sun-gloom, nothing of it would have seemed unnatural. She was as absolutely one with nature as though she were a dancing sunbeam, or the brief embodiment of the joy of the wind.
As the child danced, a human mote in that vast area of sun-splashed woodland, the light flooded in upon her scanty and ragged dress of brown homespun, from which her arms and legs emerged as the white chestnut-buds from their sheaths of amber. Her skin was of the hue and smoothness of crudded cream, where not sunburnt to the brown of the wallflower. Dark as were her heavily lashed eyes, her hair, a mass of short curls creeping and twisting and leaping throughout a wild and tangled waviness, was of a wonderful white-like yellow, as of the sheen of wheat on a windy August noon or the strange amber gold of the harvest-moon when rising through a sigh of mist. She was beautiful, but rather with the promise of beauty than beauty itself, as the bud of the moss-rose is lovely but has a fairer loveliness in fee. Though her face was pale, its honeysuckle-pallor eras so wrought by the sun and wind that her checks had the glow of sunlit hill-water. In every line, in every contour of her body, in every movement, every pose, a beautiful untutored grace displayed itself. A glimpse of the secret of all this winsomeness opened at times in the eyes. These were full of a changing light. The "breath" was upon her: on her rhythmic limbs, on her flowing hair, on her parted lips.
To and fro, flickeringly as a leaf shadow, the small body tripped and leapt. Sometimes she raised her arms when with tost-back head she sprang to one side or forward: sometimes she clapped her hands, and a smile for a moment dreamed rather than lay upon her face. But none seeing her could have thought she danced out of mere glee. No birdeen of laughter slipped from the little lips: the eyes had a steadfast intensity amid all their waywardness. Either the child was going through this fantastic by-play for some ulterior reason, or she was wrought by an ecstasy that could he expressed only in this way. Perhaps no one who had met a glance of those wild- wood eyes could have doubted that she was rapt by an unconscious fantasy of rhythm.
A stillness had grown about the heart even of the patient mavis in the rowan beside the winding shadow-haunted pool, a few yards away from the spot where the child soundlessly danced. A clear call came from its mate ever and again: neither feared any loner this dancer in the sunset-shine. The cushats crooned unheedingly. In a glade above, a roe stood, gazing wonder-stricken: but after a restless pawing of the ground she lidded her unquiet eyes, and browsed contentedly under the fern.
Suddenly the dancer stopped. She stood, in that exquisite poise of arrested motion which for a moment the wave has when it lifts its breast against the wind. Intently she listened with eyes dilated, and nostrils swiftly expanding and contracting, like any wild thing of the woodlands.
A voice, strangely harsh in its high, thin falsetto, resounded from the upper glades.
The child smiled, relaxed from her intent attitude, and listlessly moved a step or two forward.
Oona! Oona! Oona!"
It is Nial, she muttered. I don't want him. I am tired of helping him to look for his soul.
The words came from her lips in smileless earnestness. To her, evidently, so fantastical a quest had nothing in it of surprise or strangeness.
The startled roe had already fled. The merest rustle of the bracken hinted the whither-away of its flight instinctively. Oona noticed the sound, and her eyes looked beyond a distant clump of pines in time to see a gleam of something brown Ieap out of and into the tall fern, as a seabird among green running billows.
Almost simultaneously she caught a glimpse of an uncouth dwarffish figure moving slowly through the pine-glades.
Swift as a bird to its covert she slipped into the dusk of the neighboring savannah of bracken.
The voice was nearer, but from its greater lift in the air the child knew that Nial had
stopped, and was doubtless looking about him.She made no response. If the searcher were but ten yards away, he would not have discovered her. No fox among the root crannies, no hate crouching low in her form, could have more easily evaded detection.
The voice was now further away. Clearly Nial had turned westward, and was moving through the glade beyond the pool. Once more she heard the harsh thin voice: but now it was crooning a song wherewith she was familiar, the words of which simulated the plaining of the wild-dove:
Then the silence closed in about her again. A relative silence, for she heard the hum of the brown bee drowsily fumbling to its nest under a bramble, the whirr of the stag-moth, the innumerable indeterminate rustle and hum of the woodlands in summer. The cushats crooned ever and again, hushfully nestling amid the green dusk of the boughs. A fern-owl swooped through the glades, whence already the sunset light had vanished, and after every short flight it would poise on a pine-branch and emit its resonant whirr. In the hollow where Oona lay there was still no breath of air; but overhead the wind stirred the plumes of every tree-crest, and its voice, vibrant, full of rising and falling flute-like calls, loudly surgent, haunting-sweet, was audible on all sides and beyond upon the uplands of Iolair.
The gloaming, creeping from under the bracken and down from amid the branches of the pines, had begun to fill the forest with veils of shadow. It was for this Oona had waited. Gently disparting the bracken, and, herself almost as insubstantial and soundness as a shadow, with one swift glance around her, she vanished into the darkness that involved the columnar pine-glades.
In the dim, fragrant May-gloom there seemed nothing astir save white moths, which flickered from bush to bush. The deer, if any were there, were resting; the rooting black-cock were as silent as the doves. The remoter dusk was full of the voices of the wind, but those distant aerial sounds were as the wings that fan the courts of Silence.
Shadow after shadow moved out of the twilight: soft velvety things, though intangible, that lay drowsily upon the boughs of the pines, or slipped after each other through the intricacies of the fern.
Round the pool were many of those lovely silent children of the dusk. Dim scores were massed under the branches, or crept among the willows. Some hung from the sprays of the birches, peering into the ominous blackness of the water underneath. Others, straight and intent, or all tremulous and wavering, stood among the reeds, the most sensitive of which had still a vague breath of sound. Many of these merged into the pool, but their ranks never thinned. By every reed stood a shadow, intent, inclined before a wind that blew not. Of all that passed into the water not one reached the star that gleamed and moved, and seemed to lift and fall in the heart of the pool. Not one crossed the faintly luminous semi-circle that lay upon the surface. Each sank down, down, till the Star in the depths shone far above. But by the upper margins of the pool, where the pines ran steeply towards it, one shadow sat that did not waver, did not move, that grew darker and more dark, blackly distinct, though all around was blurred or fugitive.
The night advanced. The shadows moved onward before it, or were enveloped in its folds. Though in the forest no travelling susurrus was audible, the wind had arisen again upon the heights. Restless, forlorn, it lifted its wild wings from steep to steep. Its vibrant rise, its baffled fall, re-echoed faintly or dully. At times there was a thin, shrewd, infinitely remote whistling. This was the myriad air-spray of the wind driven through the spires of the heather.
With the second hour of the night, the noon rose over the shoulder of Iolair. For a time a gold dust had glittered along the edges of the granite precipices. Then the summit of the mountain had gleamed like a vast bronze altar lit by hidden lamps. Suddenly, almost in a moment, a gigantic arm swung upward an immense As the moon rose she emitted a more yellow flame. Downward a flood of orange glory poured upon the highest peaks, barren, scoriated, lifeless, but for the lichens that thrive upon snows and chill dews. The globe in which, as in the sun, could be seen a whirling of lightrapidly diminished in size. Less portentous, it swung through space in an added loveliness. Serene, equable, its yellow glow spread over mountain and forest, down every broad strath, each grave-dark glen, down every straggling hill-side corrie.
The coming of the moonbeams wrought a fantastic new life in the forest. The lightward boughs took on a proud armor. The branches moved against the night, mailed like serpents with moving, scales of gold and silver.
When the first comers reached the pool they fell upon it with delight. Forward they leapt, and bathed their lovely golden bodies in the water, which held them to itself with joy. A score died to make a silver ripple, a hundred perished to fill every hands-breadth of water as with molten ore. When a water-snake darted from the reeds, and shot across the surface, its flight dissipated innumerable vibrations and delicate fugitive cup-like hollows and waverings, aureate or radiant with white fires. A few fish rose from the weeds and crevices, where they had lain like drifting leaves. When their fins shivered above the surface there was a momentary dazzle, as though a little flame of moonfire had fallen and for a moment flared unquenched.
The dusk-shadows had long vanished. Those of the night, sombre, motionless, wailed. One only remained: the same sitting shape, darkly distinct, that had stayed when the twilight had waned.
There had been no movement throughout the long withdrawal of the light, the stealthy recapture of the dark. But when the pool, save for the margins, was all one wave of inter-lapsing gold and silver, the shadow-shape at last raised a shaggy peaked head. For a time Nial the dwarf stared vacantly at the transformed water. Then a smile came into his worn fantastic face, so wild and rude, and in a sense so savage, and yet with the unharming, guileless, and even gentle look of most wild creatures when not roused by appetite or emotion.
The play of the moonbeams delighted him. When the last of them slid furtively through the shadows, and turned the reeds into spires of gold, he gazed mournfully at the gloom of the forest tarn. Nothing now moved therein except three wandering star.rays, that quivered and expanded and contracted as though the central phantom-flames were alive, and were feeling tremulusly thorough this dim unknown water-world.
Once Nial rose. His small, high-shouldered, misshapen figure seemed scarcely human; the rough clothes he wore, patches of blurred and broken shadow they appeared now, might have been part of him, as the hide of a deer or the fell of any wild thing. When he moved it was with woodland alertness, with the swift grace of all sylvan creatures.
As his feet plashed among the shallows he stooped. For long he peered earnestly into the water. Then, with a sigh, he stepped back, and moved silently again to the mossy stump where he had sat since night fall.
The late nocturnal sounds that prelude the dawn did not awake him, if asleep he were. The occasional cries of ewes upon the hills were only as remote falling waves in the sea of silence and darkness. The bleating of a restless stag ceased as abruptly as it had begun.
Just before the first trouble of the dawn these sounds multiplied. Ever and again, though at long intervals, there was the splash of a fish, hawking along the undersurface of the tarn, for the twilight-ephemeridæ. The hoarse gurgling call of the capercailzie fell through the pine glades. From invisible pastures came the first muffled, uncertain lowing of the shaggy bulls, standing beyond the still crouching drowsy kye, whose breaths made a faint gray mist in the darkness.
The wind rose and fell. It had now a different sound, as there is a different note in the ascending and decrescent song of the lark. It was, however, still confined to the heights and the upland moors.
With the first sunflood there is something of the same chemic change in the wind as there is in the sea. An electric tremor goes through it. Its impalpable nerves thrill; its invisible pulse beats.
Long, before Nial, in the deep twilight of the forest, saw that morning had come, he was aware of it from the cry of the wind, as it leaped against the sun.
He stirred, listening. The call of that bodiless voice he knew and loved so well had suddenly grown clearer. It was as though the invisible Lute-player who shepherds the clouds with his primeval music, had breathed a high resonant note. To the keen cars of Nial this was enough. He knew that the wind had moved from the south to the northwest: a thing easy to tell at once in the neighborhood of pines, but to be known of a few when heard against remote heights and in the dark.
The dwarf rose and began to pace restlessly to and fro. Once or twice he stool still and shook himself; then, with a searching but unexpectant glance around him, resumed his aimless wandering.
The wind reached the forest before the first lances of the sunlight had thrust themselves through the umbrage at its higher end. Nial heard it lifting the still air of the pine-glooms with its vast wings, and beating it to and fro, sending volleys of flagrant breath from swaying tree-top to treetop. It wandered nearer and nearer: at first overhead, so that only the summits of the pines swayed southward, but soon it came leaping, and blithely laughing through the long aisles of the forest. The indescribable rumor of the sunflood followed. As the old Celtic poets tell us, the noise of the sunfire on the waves at daybreak is audible for those who have ears to hear. So may be heard the sudden rush and sweep of the sunbeams when they first stream upon a wood. The boughs, the branches, the feathery or plume-like summits of the trees do homage at that moment, when the Gates of Wonder open for a few seconds on the unceasing miracle of Creation. The leaves quiver, or curl upward, even though there be no breath of air. It is then that crows, rooks, wood-doves, and, on the heights, the hawks and eagles, lean their breasts against the sunflood and soar far forward and downward on wide-poised motionless wings: a long, unswerving scythe-sweep, strange in its silent and ordered beauty, to be seen similarly at no other time.
The sound was all exultation throughout the forest. Soon the invisible presence dwelt everywhere. Every branch held a note of music; every leaf was a whisper. There was not a frond of bracken, a blade of grass, that did not bend listeningly. The windflowers in the mossiest hollows were tremulous.
When the sunbeams came dancing and leaping in the track of the wind the note of exultation, in deepening, became more indiscriminate. The bleating of the stags. the lowing of the distant kye, the plaintive crying of the ewes and lambs, the calls and songs of the birds, the myriad indeterminate voice of mourning, blent in a universal rumor of joy.
Nial stood listening intently, now to this sound, now to that. He knew the forest, and the life of the forest, as no other man could do. He, too, was a woodlander, as much as the deer, or the shy cushat, or the very bracken.
The birds that flew by paid no heal to him. He was watching a young fox blinking its yellow eyes from under a hollow mass of roots, when a roe trotted rapidly close by him, her hill-pool eyes alert, her long neck strained, her nostrils distended and quivering. He turned, but she did not swerve or hasten. Her fawn followed. It stopped almost opposite to Nial, looked at him curiously, lifted Its delicate forelegs alternately, and sniffed with swift sensitive twitchings He looked quietly into the great violet eyes, filled with a wonderful living amber when turned against the sun. The fawn slowly advanced till the velvety warmth of its lips nibbled playfully at the arm gently extended towards it. The dwarf stroked the smooth muzzle and the long twitching ears. Suddenly, with an elfish whisk, the fawn sprang to one side, spun with abrupt sidelong leaps round the funny two-legged creature; then, finding that its new playmate was so perplexingly staid, leapt away in a light bounding flight in pursuit of its dam, who had halted among the bracken, and had been watching curiously, but unalarmedly.
Strangely, it was with a look more of resentment than of pleasure that Nial turned and walked slowly towards the upper glades.
There was no one there to overhear his muttered words. Perhaps the wood-doves that watched him pass listened unheedingly to his angry exclamations, half sobs, half vague outcries against the bitterness of his fate that he, Nial the Soulless, was shunned by all human beings, or by all save the child Oona, and treated as though he were a wild thing of the woods and that even the creatures of the hillsides and the forest.glades knew him, while not of their own fellowship, to be no human.
These thoughts always tortured him. His unspeakably lonely and remote life, indeed, was one long martyrdom. Rightly or wrongly he, and others, had ever believed he was a changeling, a soulless man, perhaps the offspring of demon parentage. Had he been blessed with the mind-dark he might have gone through his span of life as blithely as any wild wood creature. Two things only, besides his human form, differentiated him from the birds and the beasts he loved so well, though from their world, too, an involuntary exile forever: one, the faculty of speech; the other, the possession of a reasoning, if a restricted and perverted, mind.
How innumerably often he had brooded over the fantastic, and to him part maddening, part terrifying, and wholly obsessive legend of his birth!
All in the region of Iolair knew his story: how he had been found when a little child in the woods, and had been taken care of by Adam Morrison, the minister: how when yet a boy, a cripple and a trial to his foster-father, and all who knew him, he had disappeared with vagrant gypsies, and had not been heard of for fifteen years, till one autumn he was seen among the pines in the forest of Iolair. He had been in the neighborhood for weeks, though none knew of it. During that ensuing winter he was fed and sheltered by Torcall Cameron, or by Murdo the shepherd, or by Alan Gilchrist on Tornideon, the mountain on the north side of Strath Iolair. For the rest, he lived no man knew how, and slept no man knew where. He was an outcast and homeless: but if he lost much, much also he gained. He knew the living world as few could even approximately know it: sight, hearing, smell, each sense was intensified in him. He saw and heard, and was aware of much that to others was non-existent or dubiously obscure.
But the real mystery of his life, to himself as well as to his human neighbors, who half-disowned him, was in the reputed fact that he was the child of the Cailliach.
A year before Mr. Adam Morrison had found the puny wailing child close to the tam in the heart of the forest, a man who lived high on Sliabh-Geal, the mountain that leaned southward from the shoulder of Iolair, had fallen under the spell of the Cailliach, the beanìth or demon-woman. No one knew much about him. He was a shepherd, but none had heard whence he came or of what folk. He asked none to cross his airidh. But the rumor was everywhere held that Black Duncan ---all the name he was ever known by was a changeling. The minister was wont to disavow this, but added that Duncan certainly lived under a curse, though the nature or source of the malediction was beyond the ken of all save the unfortunate man himself, if indeed even he knew of it.
One winter the Cailliach was seen of several women. Her tall figure, clad in a yellow robe, as she drove her herd of deer to the waterside, was unmistakable. She was seen again and again. The following summer as Torcall Cameron was crossing the Gual, the ridge betwixt lolair and Sliabh-Geal, he heard a strange voice singing through the gloaming. Looking about him he discerned a woman sitting in among the bracken, and milking a hind, the while she sang a song that brought a mist about his eyes, and made his heart throb. By her exceeding stature, and the yellow plaid about her, as well as by the unknown words that were wedded to that wild song, he knew her to be the Cailliach. He fled, lest she should turn and ban him. A little later he saw the beansìth again. It was a long way off, but he recognized her: and even while he watched she turned herself into the guise of a gray deer and went leaping towards the high remote sheiling where Black Duncan lived.
That autumn Duncan was more than once heard laughing and talking in shadowy places and in the forest. On the first day of the equinox his body was found in the tarn. The face had all awful look upon it. The same afternoon Mr. Adam Morrison, going to the spot to verify what he had heard, found the miserable little waif he adopted afterwards. No sooner had he taken it in his arms, than a large gray deer sprang from a coven of bracken and leapt into the forest gloom. Despite its size and haste, its passage through the undergrowth was absolutely soundless.
The thing was unmistakable. The Cailliach had put her spell upon Black Duncan. When her hour had come upon her, she had strangled her mortal lover and thrown his body into the tarn. Then she had borne her doubly-cursed babe.
All who heard of these things averred that the child would be soulless. Mr. Morrison said no; that he would give it Christian baptism, and rear it in godly ways, and that God would have pity upon the innocent. The old people of the strath shook their heads. The minister was wise in the Scriptures and in the book-lore, but was it not well known that he knew little of and cared less for their treasured and traditions and legends and obscure ancestral runes? Was it likely he could judge, when he barely knew who or what the Cailliach was? Had he not ever preached from his pulpit that there were no other people" at all?
The good man was wrong.He admitted it, when, three years later, the child Nial so called by Mr. Morrison in memory of a younger brother of his own, and because he had refused to give the foundling the pagan designation of Nicor the Soulless was lost one summer gloaming. When, after long searching, the truant was discovered, the child was no longer the same. The shepherd who had found him said that, earlier in the evening, he had noticed a tall woman leading a child through the forest and stopping every now and again by some tree-bole, as though she listened for some one or to some thing. Later, when he was on the quest for the strayed little one, and as he approached the spot where his search was rewarded, his dog had stopped, snarling, and refused to advance. While he wondered at this, large gray deer spring out of the bracken and disappeared into the forest. As soon as it vanished, the dog recovered from its sudden terror, and ran forward, and was soon harking over the body of the child.
Before this misadventure Nial had been what Mr. Morrison himself called "a waefu' bairn." Weak and ailing from the first, he had grown more and more fretful; and his endless crying and whining had been a sore trial to the good man and to old Jean Macrae.
But after the finding of him in the forest he was no longer the same. He became strangely silent. Even when hungry or when hurt or frightened, he made no sound. He would sit for hours and stare vaguely before him. It was with difficulty that he could he got to speak at all, and if it had not been for the minister's persistency he would have grown dumb.
The questioning and yet remote look in his eyes disconcerted all who looked therein. Old Mary Macbean, the birth-woman, confirmed the general suspicion. The child had no soul, she said; she knew the signs. The Christian baptism and the constant prayers and heed of the minister had preserved or perhaps won a soul to it; but the Cailliach had found her offspring in the woods, and had lured the soul from the body, and had prisoned it in some pine-tree in the depths of the forest. Two or three years passed, and Nial grew more and more deformed, more and more unchild-like. Silent, morose, he was never content save when wandering high on the mountain slopes or among the pines or by Iolair Water as it carve swirling down its steep bouldered channels from the Linn o' Mairg. In one thing alone he transcended all the other dwellers in the strath, young or old. He knew every flower and plant and tree, every bird, every creature, and the haunts of all and the life of all, with a surety of knowledge and a profound intimacy that at once astonished the hill-folk and confirmed them in their belief concerning him.
Then there came a summer when he was hardly ever seen at Mr. Morrison's house. He lived like an outcast, and was seldom met save by a mountain shepherd, or by the two highest hill-dwellers, the widow Anabal Gilchrist on Tornideon and Torcall Cameron of Màm-Gore on Wester Iolair. Fitting company, it was said; for Anabal and Torcall were not only voluntarily isolated from the folk of the strath and held themselves strangely aloof, but were at bitter feud the one with the other.
That autumn a band of gypsies came to the strath. Some were brown-skinned and of foreign race; others were of northern blood and birth; a few were Celtic waifs who had the Gaelic as their familiar speech. When the people of the dust, or the children of the wind, as the Highlanders call these vagrant folk, though commonly by the first designation, moved away again, traceless as is their wont, they took Nial with them. The winter passed, the spring, summer came again, and with the waning of autumn there was still no sign of the changeling. Year after year went by, and the story of Nial, or Nicor the Soulless as he was often named, became vaguer and vaguer. It was nigh upon fifteen years later that he was seen once more in the strath. No one had heard of his return; no one knew of it, except perhaps Torcall Cameron an d his daughter Sorcha, or Anabal Gilchrist and her son Alan; when one day, Murdo, Màm-Gorms shepherd, came along the straits with the news that, as he strode through the forest at dawn he had descried Nial a ragged, fantastically deformed dwarf, aged in appearance as though he were one of "the other people" who live in the heart of the hills. He had recognized him in a moment: but had not spoken with him because when he saw the creature, it was stealing furtively front pine-bole to pine-bole, and sometimes tapping and listening intently or muttering.
"And what would that be meaning?" asked every one to whom he told his tale, though there was not one who did not know the answer aforehand.
"It means that he was looking for his soul, for the soul that the Cailliach won out of him and hid forever in a pine-tree, where neither he nor any one else would be like to find it."
"Until the tree falls by the hand of man, or by the lightning, or the wind," some one would add; but at this Murdo would only shake his head, and say that the beansìth had for sure chosen a tree that neither wind nor flame could easily reach, and that when, after hundreds of years, it would be dying, it would die from within, and so kill the soul that wailed and wept or lay spell-bound in misery within.
Thereafter Nial was occasionally seen. Weeks went by; summer passed, and autumn; and it was clear that he had come back to stay, though he never once drew near the house of old Mr. Morrison, or even sought out his foster-father anywhere, nor held converse with any one save at Màm-Gorm.
He might have been dead or absent, for all the hill-folk know, had it not been for Sorcha Cameron, who told in the strath on the rare Sabbaths when she came down from Iolair, how her father gave occasional shelter and frequent food to Nial; and for the confirming of this by Murdo the shepherd, who said that the dwarf for the most part slept in the woods, but as the nights grew colder had begun to take haven either in a cave, or in an old hut on the hillside, or at Torcall Cameron's sheiling.
"And I doubt if he would cross the airidh at all," he added, "were it not for that little wildfire of a lass, the bit girlie Oona, that Màm-Gorm loves wi all his heart and soul, an better than his bonnie Sorcha, for all he leaves her to flit about like a spunkie owre the fèith. For Nial will speak to Oona when he'11 not even look at any one else; an' the lassie will be awa' wi' him, an no man kens the ay o' 't or the whither-away o thae twain."
And so that winter went, and then another spring, until the coming of May again: and Nial was once more one of the people of the strath, though hardly ever seen in the valley itself, except by the Linn o' Mairg or by the turning water, and then only in the dusk of the morning or in late gloamings.