by Fiona Macleod, 1895
VOLUMES of gray-black cloud swept up the flanks of Iolair. The breath of the southwest wind fell moist upon the land. All the wonderful color of the highland seemed absorbed, as though a sponge had been passed over it. The after-gloom was enhanced by the silence which prevailed, for the thunderous weight in the air hushed the birds. Even the corbies sat sullenly on stone dyke or solitary quicken.
Up at the farm of Màm-Gorm the cloud-skirts went trailing by, sometimes enveloping the whole airidh in dark clinging obscurity, and ever and again lifting high above it as though with a spasmodic leap.
A few yards from the door of the low white-washed house Torcall Cameron stood, his gaunt figure, with its mass of tangled iron-gray hair, thrown into strong relief. Though he grasped a heavy oaken staff, his head was uncovered. From this, Nial inferred that "Màm-Gorm" was not going far: of which he was glad, for there was no one in the house, wild weather was nigh, and it was not a time for a blind man to wander among the hills, with the sheep-paths damp and slippery, and often obliterated in the moist peat.
For, though Màm-Gorm thought he was alone, Nial had been his silent companion for an hour past. Sorcha, he knew, was up at the high sheiling on Iolair, with the cows; Oona, he imagined, was either wandering after the sheep with Mundo, the shepherd, or was in the forest with Nial, or might be flitting here and there on the slopes like the wild fawn she was. As for Nial, Torcall Cameron rarely gave him a thought. The dwarf was like a faithful collie, to be fed and given a kindly clap now and then, while his gratitude and devotion were taken for granted.
This rough, stern, blind and stricken giant was a divine being to the poor child of the woods. In a vague way, Nial thought of MàmGorm as God; like Màm-Gorm, God could provide, could at rare times be tender and pitiful, could be stern, morose, forbidding, terrible in wrath, of a swift avenging spirit, could strike, bruise, drive forth, kill.
When Sorcha had left at sunrise she knew that her father had the gloom upon him. In vain she looked here and there for Oona. The child had vanished. The platter in which she had her porridge was found under a bench near the rowan at the side of the house, where, indeed, Sorcha had looked for it, as she knew Oona's frequent way of carrying her food out of doors, and eating it in a hollow below a rock, or under a tree, or even beneath the bench, like a little wild thing.
She had turned, after she had called Fiona and Donn, the dogs, and gone back to the house, and kissed her father. His blind eyes were upon her, though it was not through them that he knew she was troubled. He felt the sweet breath of her upon his brow. It was like the first day of spring when she kissed him, but he did not smile. Before she went away with the cows she found NIal, and bade him keep watch and ward, though without letting himself be seen.
But all morning and noon Torcall Cameron had sat brooding by the peats. At the turn of the day he rose, ate some of the bread and cold porridge which, with a jug of milk. Sorcha had set on the table beside him: then resumed his listless attitude by the fire, into the heart of which he stared with his blank unwavering eyes.
Nial had grown tired, as a collie will tire if the kye drowse, chewing the cud.
He had wandered far from the airidh, and passed idly through the pines. No more of him might have been seen that day had he not heard Oona singing in the woods. It was in vain that he tried to come upon her. Either she had caught sight of him and wilfully evaded his quest of her, or she was like a birdeen lured by the dancing sun-rays. At the last, hethought of a song she was wont to sing. Across the midst of the high glade where he was, lay the bole of a half-fallen pine. Along this he clambered, till he reached the end boughs, and so out upon a feathery branch which swayed up and down with his weight, as a fir-spray when a cushat alights on it.
It was a harsh and wild music, that song of Oona on the lips of Nial. Brokenly, too, it came, between gasps of breath, for as the branch swayed so the dwarfs excitement grew, and he seized the pine needles as though they were the mane of a horse, and he were riding from death for life:
Suddenly he ceased his fierce ride of the branches. Surely that clear call was from the throat of Oona? Yes, near she was, though invisible. Her song bubbled from her as sunlit water down a brae:
Even the hawk-keen eye of Nial failed to discover Ouna. Her voice came from a covert of bracken, amid which rose craggy, mossed boulders; and, doubtless, behind one of these the girl sheltered.
He lay still now, save for the quivering of his eagerness. The branch was bent by his weight, but did not sway.
The rapid skiff-skiff of a hind leaping through the fern, through the green-glooms to his right, caught his attention; otherwise he must have seen the bending of the bracken in the hollow beyond him, and have heard the faint static as a little cat-like figure swung herself up into a low-branched rowan.
Again he sang in his strange, half-screaming, falsetto voice, first one, then another of the snatches of Gaelic song; which he had learned from Oona, but without response. One of his sudden fits of anger seized him, and he bit savagely at the supporting branch. Then, with a peal of mirthless laughter, he began to sway wildly to and fro again, so that it was a wonder the bough did not break. He was swung this way and that, as an apple on an outspread branch. With short, incoherent cries he rode onwards through the air, for the moment persuaded by his fantasy that he was one of those wind-demons of whom he had heard Murdo, the shepherd, speak, pale elves of the air who race across forest and moor on flying leaves and broken branches, or arc swept screaming in the wake of the wind, as, with out-blown mane and fierce snorting and neighing, "the gray stallion" speeds with mile-long leaps.
A frenzy of insensate wrath shook him so that he nearly lost his grip. Screaming, he hurled towards Oona the curses that seemed to him most dreadful and mysterious, dark anathemas of old-time learned here and there during his far-wanderings.
"Droch cheann ort, Oona! Droch bhàs ort! Och, ochan, bas dunach ort! Gu ma h-ole dhuit! Gu ma h-ole dhuit! 1
A faint, shuddering cry came from somewhere close at hand. In a moment his madness went from him. The dumb animal soul felt the finger of God touch it; all wrath ceased, and a great pity came, and longing, and sorrow. The tears sprang to his eyes, and he lay on the branch sobbing convulsively, so that he was like to fall.
He raised his head at last, and looked eagerly about him.
Still there was no response. His gaze glanced hither and thither like a swallow. If a bee crawled from a fox-glove bell, he noted it; if a spider swung on a glistening thread, he saw her as, spinning, she sank. If a woad. lark stirred, he saw the shadow of its wing flit from frond to frond. But of Oona, no trace.
1Bad end to you! Bad death to you! Ay, and may a death of woe be on you! Evil to you, evil to you!
"Oona, my fairy! Oona, my fawn! I did n't mean it! I didn't mean it! The words were in my throat. I couldn't help it? Not a word was true. Oh, my grief, my grief! Oona mùirnean, Oona ma mùirnean,Ochone, ochone thràisg mo chridhe darling, darling, oh, 't is my heart that is parched!
But the child was obdurite. She made no sign. Nial lay moaning on the branch. The silence was unbroken, save by the sea-like whisper of the wind among the leaves
Suddenly a cushat crooned. Then the low croodling, sound palpitated upon the warm sunlit air that flooded in among the pine-boughs.
The dwarf listened. The gloom in his eyes lifted. He knew how Oona loved his one utterance that was his own, which he had made in imitation of the crooning of a dove. Raising his head, he half mumbled, half sang,
Surely she would respond; ah, yes, that shrill mocking laugh, elfin-sweet in his ears! His gaze leapt along the track of the sound, and then at last he espied her, crouching low in the fork of a rowan with her bare legs hidden by the bole, and only the sparkle of her eyes glinting from behind the screen of leaves.
"Ah," he cried joyously. "I see you, Oona, my dove! Ah, my little white dove, your little black dove sees you!"
Oona drew herself up, leapt to a lower branch, and sprang to the ground.
Chan ann de mo chuideachd thù, chan ann de mo chuideachd thù ars an colman, she cried mockingly; "you are not of my flock, not of my flock, said the dove!1
And with that she spread out her yellow hair with her hands, and went dancing and leaping through the bracken. Onward she flickered like a sunbeam, till she came to a rocky declivity, where she stopped abruptly, and stared intently into the hollow beyond her.
1 A pretty and common onomatipoeic saying, which I remember first hearing as a lullaby when I was a child of three or four.
Turning, she looked to see if Nial were watching her, and when she saw that he still on the swaying pine-branch she cried eagerly,
Look, Nial! Look!
What is it?" he cried, nearly toppling from the bough in his eagerness. "What is it, Oona? What is it?"
"It must be your soul, Nal! it's black and wriggling about, in case you catch it! Bi ealamh! Biealamh! Be quick, be quick!
Then, with a spring, she leapt out of sight. Nial stared after her for a moment, caught his breath spasmodically, crawled swiftly back to the tree, half clambered, half fell to the ground, and then ran like a leaping goat towards the place where Oona had disappeared.
When he reached the ridge of rock which overhung the hollow he stopped, trembling like a reed in a wind eddy. At last! At last! Was he to find his soul at last? Black or white, fair to see or uncouth as himself, what did it matter, if only his long quest were now to be rewarded?
Shaking as in an ague, he crawled forward on his belly, till his shaggy head projected over the ledge. At first he could not see, for the passion in his heart had filmed his eyes.
Then at last he stare down into the greenness. He could see nothing. Not a wild bee fumbled among the moss, not an ant crawled along a spray of grass.
What did it mean?
Was it possible that Oona could see what he could not? Here, perhaps, was his tragic sorrow: that his soul might often be nigh, but was invisible to him.
With a hoarse exclamation, half scream, half call, he cried to Oona to come to him. He had a name for her which he had adopted from Murdo, the shepherd, and by this he called her now.
"Bonnie-wee-lass, bonnie-wee-lass, come to me! Oona mùrnaean, Oona-mo-ghràidh, come to your poor Nial! Oh, my soul, my soul, it will be lost. Oona, it will be lost! Quick, quick, boonie-wee-lass!"
But no answer came. There was no sign of the girl. She might be hiding near, or be already far away, perhaps croodlin' back to the doves in the middle of the forest, or chasing dragon-flies by the tarn, or out upon the hillside flitting from rock to rock like a butterfly, or singing and springing from gale-tuft to heather-tussock as a green lintie in the sunlight. "O lassie, lassie, where is my soul, where is my soul?" he cried despairingly.
Suddenly his own curses came back to him, terrible on Oona's unwitting lips.
"Gu ma h-olc dhuit, Nial! Gu ma h-olc dhuit! A bad end to you too, Nial-without-asoul, and I 'II be telling my father, I will, that you laid your curse on me; ay, and I will also be telling Sorcha too, and Murdo, and Alan, and the dogs; and I'll whisper it to the wind, so that it'll tell the Green lady of the hills; and if I meet your soul I 'II tell it, so that it may be ashamed of you, and go and drown itself in a peat hole!"
Nial listened, quivering. His eyes strained as a crouching hound's.
At last he spoke,
"I was mad, Oona. Forgive me. I see your voice coming from behind that rock. Will you not return and show me my soul?"
"Look in the hollow of the stone beneath you, silly Nial!" came the child's voice mockingly.
Nial stared; then, descrying nothing, leapt into the hollow. The next moment he recoiled, with a look of horror.
An adder lay in a little ferny crevice at the base of the rock. Its writhing black body was trying to get out of sight, but could not. An adder was the one thing in nature that the outcast could not bear to look at. It gave him a horror that at times moved him to frenzy, at times made him flee as a man accursed.
Now, he stood as one fascinated. If the nàthair had wriggled towards him he would have stood motionless.
With a heavy swaying motion of his head he muttered,---
But when the adder saw a crevice elsewhere, that promised better, and swiftly wriggled to it, Nial saw that it was only a crawling beast, this and nothing more.
With a dart like a hawk he seized it by the tail, swung it round his head while he shouted Droch spadadh ort! Droch spadadh ort! Bad death to you! Bad death to you!" and flung it against the face of the rock, so that when it fell across a bracken it lay as though stunned or dead.
A shout of elfish laughter came from Oona, who had sprung from her covert, and watched Nial's discomfiture with malicious glee. He turned slowly. His corrugated brows were knitted grotesquely, as with dull, bewildered eyes he stared in the direction of the laughter. With a furtive motion he kept shifting his weight now to one foot, now to another, occasionally dragging one backward as though pawing the ground. His tormentor knew well these signs of perplexity, and her light tantalizing glee rippled afresh across the glade.
She stood knee-deep in bracken, with her right hand clasping the black and silver bough of a birk; a golden-green hue upon her from beneath from the sunlit fern; upon her from above a flood of yellow sunshine, so that she stood out like a human flower, a new daffodil of the woods.
The wild, rude, misshapen creature who fronted her seemed less human now than his wont, with that bovine stare, that uncouth guise, his over-large and heavy head slowly swaying, his restless stamping and scraping. Suddenly it dawned upon him that Oona had not been in earnest; that she had played with, and now mocked him. His eyes grew red, as those of wild swine do of a sudden, or as those of an angry badger. A spray of froth blew from his hanging lip. His long, horny fingers opened and closed like sheathing and unsheathing claws.
The next moment there stirred in his brain the thought that perhaps, after all, Oona was mocking him because he had lost, perhaps even because he, he himself, had destroyed his long-sought and moment-agone found soul.
With a cry he threw himself on the ground, sobbing convulsively. He lay there like a stricken beast, a quivering ungainly heap. It was no unknowing beast, though, that moaned, over and over. My soul! My soul! My soul! Great tears like a stag's ran down his furrowed checks. Oona, stood amazed. Here was no frenzy of blind rage such as she had seen at times in her companion, but passionate grief sobs, tears.
The child shivered. God surely has the tendrils of a child's heart close-clinging to His own. Perhaps the wind murmured to her, My Grief! My Grief! Perhaps the leaves whispered, "Sorrow, O Sorrow!" Perhaps the blind earth breathed, "My Gloom! My Gloom!" Perhaps the laughing sunlight sighed, or the wild bees crooned, or the doves moaned, "Peace! Peace! Peace!"
Oona's eyes grew dim. A trembling was upon her, like that of a bird in the hollow of the hand. Like a bird, too, was her heart; sure, the flutter of it was an eddy of joy in heaven.
She came towards Nial with swift, noiseless step. He did not hear her approach, or if his wild-wood car caught a rustle, he did not look up. The first he knew of her was the stealing of a small arm around his neck; then the pressure of a warm body against his side; then a wisp of fragrant yellow hair tangled with his coarse shaggy fell, a soft check laid against his, a hand like a little white hovering bird caressed his face. Sweetest of all, the whisper that stole into his dark brain as moonlight: "Nial, darling Nial!"
His sobs ceased. Only his breath came quick and hard. His whole body panted, quivered still.
Forgive me, Nial ! dear, good Nial! I did not mean to hurt you so. I was angry because of your words. But I -- I -- didn't really mean that that was your soul. Nial, Nia!, I didn't see your soul at all!
Slowly he lifted his wet, inflamed face; his eyes agleam through the tangled locks that fell over his brows.
Have you ever seen it, Oona?"
He could just hear the whispered no. A deep sigh passed her ears, and she pressed closer to his sorrow.
"Oona, my fawn. do you think you'll ever see it? Do you think III find it someday?
"Oh, yes, Nial! Yes, yes, yes!"
"And you will help your poor ugly Nial to---tofind it?"
"Sure it is helping, you I will be, with all my heart, Nial-a-ghràidh!"
He stooped his head over hers, lightly shoved her back, and kissed her sunshine-hair. She raised an arm, and pulled his face to hers, and kissed him gently.
A faint smile, a glimmer of sunlight on a wet, dishevelled road, came over his face.
Oona sat back, relieved, but with questioning eyes.
Are you sure you have no soul, Nial? Not even a small dark one, that will grow some day, and be beautiful, just as you will, when---whenyou die?"
I am sure, birdeen. Ask Màm-Gorm, ask Sorcha, or Alan, or Murdo, or any of the people down yonder; they know. And I know, when I look in the tarn, or in the pool below the Linn o' Mairg, or in smooth water anywhere; ay, and when the deer come to me, or the sheep do not stir out of my way, or the kye come close and breathe on me kindly. No bee, will sting me, and the dragon-flies, that even you can't catch, rest sometimes, as the moths do, on my head or arm."
Oona kneeled, and bade the dwarf do likewise. Then she told him that his evil might be because of a rosad upon him, the spell of the Cailliach; and that she knew a sian might please him. With closed eyes and clasped hands she repeated slowly,
1Paidir is literally a Pater; i.e., a Paternoster, Our Father.
Long and earnestly she watched to see if the incantation would effect the miracle. Nial trembled, with downcast eyes.
"Perhaps there is no evil in you, Nial she whispered; "so now I will pray to Himself for you, and you repeat what I say, and shut your eyes and clasp your hands just as I do."
The soulless man and the child knelt side by side among the fern. The light lay all about them as a benediction. The rising wind, with it wet sough in it, came along the pines like an intoning anthem. Around them the bee hummed unwitting; in a tree beyond them a cushat crooned and crooned.
Oonas voice came low and sweet as the hidden dove's:
Silence. Then a hoarse, sobbing voice, --
I pray that you will give Nial a soul!
Then Oona again; and, again, Nial, ---
I pray that Nial may find his soul
I pray that it will be a good soul!
" pray that it may have yellow hair and
I pray that father and Sorcha and Alan and
And that Nial will go to Heaven, Too!
And this is the prayer of Oona,
Oona opened her eyes, looked earnestly at Nial, leaned forward, and kissed him.
"Now, Nial, rise, and turn sun-ways, and cry Deaśul."
The dwarf did as she bade; then, with a happy laugh, she slipped her hand in his.
"Let us go back now. The rain is coming."
so, as the glooms of storm came rapidly over the
mountain, the two moved, silent and happy, through the
sighing glades of the forest.
Lowering skies, with the floating odor of coming rein, already dulled the hill land. A raven, flying athwart lolair, looked larger than its wont. Its occasional croak fell heavily, as though front ledge to ledge of weighty air. The wood-doves, which flew back towards the forest, winged their way at a lower level than usual, the clamor of their pinions beating the atmosphere as with oars; on the moorland the lapwings rose and fell incessantly, with wailing cries. The scattered kye lowed uneasily, or stood below solitary rowans or wild-guins, casing their fly-tormented flanks with their swishing tails. On the farther slopes, the querulous Iambs bleated; everywhere the incessant calling of the ewes made a mournful rumor. The wind moved with a heavy lift, here rising, here falling, anon whirling upon itself, so that all the fern and undergrowth in the corries bent one way, or, for a league, the spires of the heather whitened.
High and low, the innumerous hum of insects vibrated on the air. Thus, may the hum of the wheeling world be heard of Keithoir, who dreams in the hollow of a green hill unknown of man; or of the ancient goddess Orchil, who, blind and dumb, works in silence at the heart of Earth at her loom Change, with the thridding shuttles Life and Death; or of Manannan, who sleeps under the green wave, hearing only the sigh of the past, the moan of the passing, the rune of what is to come.
Before Oona and Nial drew close to the hill-farm, a shrill sustained cry, not unlike that of the bird called the oystercatcher, came along the slopes. Oona knew at once it was Sorcha's summons for her to help with the cows. With a whispered word to her comrade, she sped away by a sheep-path that wound over against Màm-Gorm. Nial slowly advanced to the green hillock of Cnoc-na-shee. He had just flung himself wearily on the grassy slope, when he saw Torcall Cameron stoop and issue from his low doorway.
faced the way of the wind, sniffed the air with sensitive
nostrils, and let his blind eyes feel the balm of the
damp. Then he turned, and returned to his seat by the
fire. Niat watched for an hour. The wind had steady sough
in it, and the clouds were lower, darker, more
voluminously vast and swift, when Cameron came forth
It was this time that he had his staff in his hand, though no cap covered his tangled iron-gray hair.
Nial hoped he was right in believing that Màm-Gorm had come out merely to breathe the caller air; for the dwarf feared the reproach of Sorcha if he let the blind man wander along the perilous moorland, with wind and rain moving like ravenous hounds adown the heights.
When, however, he realised that Torcall Cameron was bent upon making his way to some distant spot, he had not the courage to check him, or even to make known his presene. There was a thunder-cloud on the mans face, one that to Nial was far more sombre and terrifying than any overhead. When, with slow, hesitating steps, the blind man passed close to Cnoc-na-shee, he stopped for a few moments. Doubtless he was listening to the wind going through the pines, with a noise as of the flowing tide against shingly beaches; or, perhaps, to the scattered lowing and bleating of his sheep and cows. But Nial feared that, in some strange way. he had perceived him. He trembled, for he knew that the father" was in one of his dark moods. Deep down in his heart, he dreaded the gaze of those sightless eyes more than anything else in the world: in his heart of hearts he was convinced that they saw, more awfully and searchingly because through a veil.
In his anxiety not to betray his presence, he ground his foot firmer into a heathy hollow, for he had slightly slipped when Cameron stopped. A pebble was dislodged, and made a slight noise.
The blind man lifted his head, startled. "ls any one there?" No answer. The wind sighed along the grass. "Oona, are you there? Nial, is that you?' Silence, but for a faint wind-rustle in the bracken.
"Sst! Down Luath, Fior!"
But no collie barked or whined in response.
Well, peace to your soul, and go hence."
But at last Torcall was convinced he was alone. For he heard the note of a yellow-hammer as it fed its mate, close by. With a sigh he moved on. As he passed within a few Yards of Nial, the dwarf heard him murmuring disconnected phrases: Ochan-achone, tha manam brùthe am chom! . . . ma tin sin an dàn! . . . ma sh́neas Dia mo Iàithean!"1
1 Alas, my soul is oppressed within me . . . if it be ordained . . . if God prolong my days.
He waited till Cameron was some way ahead. Then with light step, stealthy movement, and furtive sidelong glances, he followed.
The first thin rain slanted along the wind. The blind man paid no heed. Indeed, he now walked swiftly and firmly along a sheep-path, as though he were familiar with the way, or had altogether forgotten his infirmity.
Out upon a bleak stretch of moor on one of the higher slopes of Maol-Donn stood a cairn. It was here, so rumor went, though none knew for sure, that Torcall's wife, Marsail, lay buried. It was known that she had perished in a snow-storm and that he had insisted on her burial where she was found; but when the minister and the people came for her body, they were told that she was already in the moots, and that even now the stones of her cairn were upon her.
Beside it was a tall flat slab of rock. It may have been part of a Pictish or Druidic temple, or its resemblance to a sacred stone may have been accidental. It stood erect, one-third embedded in the hillside.
To these Torcall Cameron now made his way. At the Cairn, he did not stop, neither did he drop a stone or even a pebble upon it. When he reached the great rock, he leaned against it, and with folded arms stared sightlessly across the straits to Tornideon, whose vast bulk rose sombre in the deepenng gloom.
The wail of the wind momently increased. The rocks sweated, even where there was no rain falling.
Suddenly, over the high crest to the west, the Druim-nan-Damh, or Ridge of the Stags, there carne a heavy rolling sound, as though a mass of boulder, had fallen down the far side of Iolair.
This first muttering of the thunder aroused the dreamer, he started, checked some exclamation, and then, having stooped and groped till be found what he wanted, threw a small stone on Marsails cairn.
Nial drew closer. A flash of lightning had frightened him. Thunder and lightning were to him as direct agents of a vengeful and irate Power, as they were to the priests and prophets of old.
The first loud crash filled the air; then ensued a splitting and rending as of a granite mountain from whose depths vomited a prolonged howling and roaring as of monstrous beasts. The outcast crawled alongside the tall slab against which the man leaned, and gript a corner with his hand.
When, his white face glimmering in the mirk, he looked up at Màm-Gorm, he shivered with a new dread.
The blind man stood erect, with arms up raised and hands outspread. His face was lit as though a fire burned in his brain. Nial imagined that the dead eyes gleamed, as he had seen toadstools gleam in a dark cave: a dull phosphorescent light, horrible to look upon.
Again a wuthering roar, followed by a scythe-like whirlwind, with the sound of rain-torrents flooding the high corries and washing the windward precipices of Ben Iolair. Nial was about to speak, when he crouched back at the volley of words shouted savagely over his head.
"Oh, my Lord God, strike! Oh, let Death be upon me! Sorrow Thou hast given me, and I have not rebelled; grief Thou hast made my daily portion, and I have not rebuked Thee; but now that Thou hast made my day into a charnel-house and my bed into a grave, now that Thou hast brought before my blind eyes what no eyes may see and live, now that Thou hast set the Dead as a watch upon the living, I cry to Thee, Enough!"
Nial shivered with awe and terror. He saw that a frenzy was upon the man whom he both loved and feared.
There was silence for many seconds. A greenish streak of flame shot across the mountain, intolerably vivid. A sound as of mirthless laughter was drowned in an avalanche-roar overhead. Out of the tumult, later, came wild fragments of human shouting, ---
"Let there be a duel between us then . . . ay, Marsail, you may weep; ay. Fergus, you may leap out of your shroud to be soul to soul with me . . . what do I care for the hounds of the night?. . . Call off thy hounds, O Hunter! . . . Be the day between us, and the night, O God; and the two noons, and the darkness of the coming and the darkness of the going; and the blood of the living, and the corruption of the dead; and the earth and the sea; and the stars beneath the world, and the stars above the world; and the friend of man that is Time, and Thy friend that is Eternity . . . for I will not. I will not, I will not ... no, though I perish forever and forever" ... (and at last, with a scream) . . . "Go Thy ways, O God ... Leave me, if Thou wilt not slay! . . . I will not! I will not! I will not!"
When the next flash and thunder blast had hurtled and gone, Nial thought that Death had indeed come. Then he heard a low whisper.
"What is it that I hear? Do the dead stir? Marsail . . . Marsail . . . or . . . or . . . is it you, Fergus, son of Fergus, son of Ian?"
Sick with fear, Nial sprang to his feet, seized one of the fallen hands in his own, and tried to lead Màm.Gorm away.
The blind man shook as a tuft of canna in a wild-eddy; white, too, as the canna, was his face.
His lips moved convulsively. At last, hoarse, choking, sobbing sounds came forth, and from these grew three or four words,
Nial shrank appalled, but could not withdraw his hands.
"Is it you, Fergus Gilchrist?"
Struggling to escape, he merely added to the paralyzing awe which held his captor.
"Who are you - what are you? Are you the thing of the grave, the black guide I have heard of?"
With a sudden jerk the dwarf freed himself. The next moment he bounded aside, then, without a glance behind him, fled.
Cameron sprang forward, but when he found that he had missed his grip he drew up again, and stood listening intently. If it was a spirit, it made a noise of running like a human; if it was a creature of the grave, it hurried back to no hollow near by; if it was Black Donald himself, Sir Diabhol had fled, affrighted.
Ah, the Cailliach! He had not thought of her! It might well be that the demon-woman had tried to snare him. If so, what, who, had saved him?
Dazed and sick he stood for a moment, because of a crash of a thunderbolt against a near height. The granite splintered like glass. In his mouth his palate shrank; his nerves strained, quivering.
Who, what, hurled that thunderbolt? Was it God? Was He answering his wild prayer?
If it were of God, why had it not stricken him? Hark! A scream far off! Had the leaping Cailliach been slain by the lightning, as a flying man by the spear of his pursuer? Had God given him these things as signs. these voices, that awful touch as of human hands?
He bowed his head. Tears scalded the burning lids of his blind eyes. Suddenly he sank to his knees, and with outstretched arms repeated an ancient rune of his fathers, the Cry to Age, the Rann-an-h' Aoise:---
It was there, lying with his face in the wet heather that Sorcha found her father. She had seen Nial flying as for his life, and, from behind the boulder where she was sheltering a lamb, had sprung forward to stop him. But all the elf-man saw was a woman's figure, --- perhaps the Cailliach who had already stolen his soul, and now wanted his body in this night of storm! With a scream he turned aside, and dashed onward in his wild, ungainly flight.
Sorchas great eyes filled with amazement, then with dread. What did it mean? Her bosom heaved, the swell of the sudden tide at her heart. More beautiful than any FairyWoman that ever herded the deer or sang a fatal song, she stood with one hand at her breast, the color ebbing from her face, her slim, firm body poised as an intent stag.
Slowly her gaze travelled back the way Nial had come. In the gloom of storm she could descry nothing, no one. If the Cailliach were there, she was now invisible.
Again, an almost intolerably vivid flash of blue-green light, out of a dazzling flame that seemed to burst from the hills. The hollow roar and crash that followed dazed her, but in that moment's illumination she had seen the cairn and the stannin' stane, and, beside them, the figure of her father, apparently stricken and allen prone.
Without a thought of fear, either of the storm or the evil spirit that might be roaming the hillside, she half ran, half clambered upward, till she came upon her father lying low. In a moment she was by his side, and had lifted his head, drying his face with her dress, and kissing him, with a crooning as of a mother over her child.
He was not dead. For that she was thankful. She could feel the throb of his heart, and in his throat there was a sound as of sobbing breath.
"Father, father," she cried; then, whispering in his car, ''Father of me, father of me, oh, dear to my heart, all is well! I am Sorcha! There is no evil thing here. Come home! Come home!"
She felt the shiver that went over him. Then he sought with his hand, and clasped that which went to meet it.
"What is it, Sorcha? Where am I?"
Ah, father, dear father, you are well now; arise, I will Iead you home!"
"Yes; do you not hear the wind and the mint Ahh!
Again a bursting roar overhead, and the whole of Iolair a beacon of flame, whereon every boulder and crag stood out clear, as in brilliant moonlight.
I remember! I remember!" Cameron cried, as he staggered to his feet. "Was it you Sorcha, who took my hands a little ago, when when I was speaking to to Marsail? . . .
The girl recoiled in horror. Marsail, her long dead mother!
What is this thing that you say, O Torcall MacDiarmid?" she whispered, awe-struck.
It is nothing. I was dreaming. Sorcha, I came here, dreaming of past days. Your mother lies below the cairn there. I was talking to her to ease my pain. I thought she might hear. And while I spoke, I felt hands clasp mine, and try to pull me down, below the cairn, it may be! And then I fell into a horror, and the darkness came over my mind. And, suddenly, I knew that God spared me, though I had cursed Him, and I fell on my knees and cried the Rune of Age, that is a rune of old forgotten among our people, and therewith I was heard, and my strength knew the Breath, and I fell as you found me."
But, father, father, you are not in the dark way, you are not old, for all the gray of your hair, you are not going to die, and leave your Sorcha and Oona?"
"Would you have me live, nic-chridhe?"
Seldom did he speak to her thus, though often he called Oona his heart's dearie, and other loving names. The tears came to her eyes.
"Yes, yes, faher! I would have you live. I love you."
"My age is come upon me. I am weary."
"Not yet; not yet!
"Do you not know the wisdom of old?--Smairg a dh iarradh an aoise. Woe to him that desireth extreme old age!"
"Come with me, dear! Come! The rain is leaping at us. Come! You are cold and wet and shivering!"
And so, at last, silent and weary, Torcall Cameron toiled back against the tempest, and neither he nor Sorcha saw, as they passed the byre, a squat, misshapen figure, crouching beside Odhar, the calving cow.
It was a night for the peat-glow. Outside, the darkness was intense. The thunder-storm had rolled heavily away, though the far hills still held an echo. But a great wind had arisen, and blew across the heights with a sound like the trumpets of a mighty host. From the forest came a vast, tumultuous sigh, as of the moaning sea.
In the low room, where there was no light save that of the peat-fire, upon which flamed some dry pine logs, Torcall Cameron sat brooding in the Ingle. Opposite to him was Sorcha, on a milking stool, now stirring the porridge in the pot at one side of the fire, now with clasped hands staring into the flames, dreaming of Alan, or of what she had that gloaming heard from her father and from Nial.
At dark she had gone to the byre, and, having found the dwarf, had soothed and entreated him, so that his dark mood passed, and he followed her, in furtive silence, into the room, where, unknowing of his advent, Màm-Gorm sat.
Only once had the blind man spoken since he had seated himself once again before the peaty. It was to ask Sorcha if she thought that the person who took his hands by the cairn could have been Nial. An imploring glance (from the outcast made her refrain from betrayal of his presence; of which she was glad, when, having replied that she was certain it was he, for she had seen him running down the hillside as though terrifed by the lightning, her father broke into a muttered, savage Curse.
At last Màm-Gorm slept. The fire-glow calmed the wrought face. The tangled iron-gray hair fell over his forehead. He looked strangely old; could it be, thought Sorcha, that his prayer had been heard, and that already the Shepherd had found this weary sheep? And yet, so strong was he, so tall and strong; strong as an aged pine on a headland. Surely, his ill was of the stricken heart only!
When his breathing came soft and even, she rose, lightly kissed his gray hair, with a tear for the pity of the old that is in the loving heart of the young, and then went out to the byre to see if Odhar was warm, and under no spell or evil, though her calf was not yet due.
As she went out, Oona slipped in. She was dry and flushed, for at the coming of the storm she had crept into the hayloft, and had there been lulled to sleep by the rush of the rain and the endless rising and falling sough of the wind. Nial made a sign of silence, so she came forward soundlessly. For a time she stared intently at the sleeper; then, seeing that Nial, who had crawled to her side, would not look at her, but sat blinking at the flame, she began to croon a song.
The sweet Gaelic words fell from her ups like soft rain in a wood. The room was filled with a low chime of music. Old strange chants or fugitive songs, one after the other, came fragmentarily to her lips; and the plaintive air of them was sometimes her own, sometimes what she had heard others sing, and once or twice old-world melodies, moreancient than the oldest pine-trees, older even that "the fallen stones" in the place on the south slope of Iolair, called Teampull-nan-Anait, where a thousand years ago none passed who could tell who Anait was, or where her altar had been, or who were her worshippers.
Once the door opened. Sorcha glanced through the flame-lit dusk: a smile on her face, sweet as the dream in her beautiful eyes. The father asleep; Oona crooning before the peats; Nial, quiet hound of Oona, with dark eyes staring up at her from where he lay on the floor: she need not fear to leave, and go out to the roofed hayroom, where Alan's arms yearned for her, where his heart beat for her, where his lips were warm in the a lark, where the dear whisper of his voice was the echo of the white song that clapped its hands rejoicing in the sun-bower in the hollow of her heart.