Mountain Lovers, by Fiona Macleod, 1895

 

IV

BUT, from that day, the gloom lay more heavily on Torcall Cameron even than of yore. Oona herself could hardly win speech from him. During the week of fine weather that followed the thunder-storm she was rarely at Màm-Gorm. The forest held her with its spell, though often she was on the heights with Murdo when he Ied the kye to the hill-pastures at sunrise, or with Sorcha at the milking of the cows at sundown.

During the noons, she sought — alone or with Nial —that white merle of which Sorcha had told her once, which had haunted her waking and sleeping dreams ever since. Whoever heard its song would be in fairyland for a thousand years, though the joy of that would be no more than a year and a day of mortal time. Whoever saw it might follow its flight, and for the seer of the white merle there would open wonder after wonder. The green spirits of the trees would come forth, chanting low their murmurous rhyme; the souls of the flowers would steal hand-in-hand, from leaf-covert to leaf-covert, or dance in the golden light of the sunbeams; the singing of the birds, the crooning of the cushats, the hum of the wild-bee and the wood-wasp, the voices of all living things, from the low bleat of the fawn to the singing stir of the gnats by the pool or in the hollows, all would become clear as human speech, and would be sweet to hear.

Long, long ago that white merle had flown out of Eden. Its song has been in the world ever since, though few there are who hear it, knowing it for what it is, and none who has seen the flash of its white wings through the green-gloom of the living wood, — the sun-splashed, rain-drenched, mist-girt, storm-beat wood of human life.

But Oona watched for the white shimmer, for the magic song. She looked everywhere save where the white merle nested, - in the fair soul of her; listened everywhere save where its secret song was, —in the music of her young life in heart and brain. Ah, the sweet song of it!

As for Nial, he crouched for hours at a time, lest by noon or dusk he might hear or see the in bird. If only he could catch but a glimpse of the white merle, sure he would see his lost soul somewhere among the green spirits who, Oona said, would be seen coming out of the trees, which were their bodies. Neither did he know that there was one place where it rested often on a spray in its singing flight, a fugitive Hope; or that notes of its unreachable song pierced the gloom of his bitter pain.

Sorcha alone, only Sorcha, started at times as though she heard it; and in her dreams, and in the dreams of Alan, it sang, a white wonder on a golden bough, in the moonlight.

But for Turcall Cameron in his sorrow there was no white merle. Oona asked him once what its first notes were like.

“Bron!  Bron!  Mo Bron!” he answered, “mo brow, mo bron, ochone, arone! Doilghios orm’ sa, tha mo chridhe briste!” 1

Almost every afternoon he went out alone upon the heights, though never again by the cairn where Marsail lay. Sometimes he would sit on a boulder, brooding dark; at times Sorcha or Oona would descry him kneeling in the heather, often with fierce gestures, as he prayed wild prayers. —fragments of which the wind sometimes bore to the listener, who no more durst approach.

1 “Grief, my grief! O grief, my grief, ochone, arone!  Sorrow upon me, my heart is broken!”

Ever since that day by the cairn Nial had kept out of his way. Not without reason; for once, as the dwarf lay sleeping in the noon-heat, under the shadow of a rock, he was suddenly seized in an iron grip

It was in vain for him to struggle. What he saw in the face of his captor gave him the courage of desperation.

“Let me go, Màm-Gorm!” he muttered, in a voice hoarse with passion. “Let me go. I am Nia1 of the woods.”

“Ay. Nial of the woods! Spawn of the Evil One! Think you I don't know you to be the child of the Cailliach? You talk of your lost soul, poor fool! Your lost soul, you that never had and never will have a soul!

“Let me go, Màm-Gorm !”

"Let you go, —and where will I be letting you go to, you that are no man, but only an elfish creature of the woods? Was it you that come out of the grove that day, —that day by the cairn?”

“And what will you do, Màm-Gorm?”

“What will I do? What will I do? By the blood on my soul, I will drive a stake through your body, so that no more shall you haunt the living!”

“Let me go, Torcall Cameron, in the name of God!”

The blind man relaxed his grip a little, which had become like a vice. The words brought a shock to his heart. He had never heard Nial call him by his name before; and if he were of demon birth, how could he say"an ainnt an Athar"?

“Let me go, Torcall Cameron, or I will put a rosad upon you, a spell that no sian of Oona or Sorcha will save you from.”

You, you thing of the woods, you put a spell upon me: you who had my bread, and had my fire, and who would have died but for me? Ay, and you would put a spell upon me! And what would that rosad be like now, from you that have never consorted with men, and have learned nothing save from the lassie Oona?"

“When I was with the children of the wind," Nial began, to be interrupted at once by his captor, who muttered, “Ah, the gypsies I forgot—“ and grew grave, as with the shadow of a fear.

When I was with the children of the wind, Màm-Gorm, I learned some things that even you may not know. And in the woods I have learned that which on man knows. And if I put the evil upon you, you will die slowly, year by year, from the brain that is behind your eyes to the last bones of your feet!"

Cameron shuddered.

“It may be so. God forgive me any way. You have done me no harm. But look you, Nial of the woods, keep out of my way when I wander abroad — and let me hear no more of your spells. There, you are free to go. Yet even now that my hand is off you, I long to make sure that you are not the thing that came out of the cairn."

With a dark, vengeful face the elf man moved out of reach; then he whispered in a slow, meaning way, ---

“I am going, for I see Marsail coming down the hill from the cairn, and with her is a man ---”

“A man! A man!” shouted Cameron, trembling as in an ague. "Who is the man? What is he like? Give me your hand, Nial, give me your hand, for the love of God!”

“He is tall and fair, and dripping wet, with his hair lank about his head, with the water in it.”

Ah, he had his revenge now! Màm-Gorm gave a low moan, and sank to his knees. There he cowered, muttering incoherently.

“Nial," he whispered hoarsely at last, “Nial, Nial, do they come this way —Marsail and—and — the man who is dripping wet ?”

The dwarf raised his head and stared about him. He was tempted to make his late tor­mentor suffer but the brute heart of the soul­less man was melted because of the agony of one of the lords of life.

“I see no one now, Màm-Gorm.”

“No one --- no one ?”

“No.”

“Are you sure, Nial?”

“I am sure.”

“Give me your hand.”

“You will do me no hurt?”

“On my soul !”

Nial slowly advanced, took the outstretched hand in his, and helped the trembling in man to rise.

Nial, tell me this thing. Have you seen these — these — these two before this?” “I have never seen the woman.”

“Then how do you know it was Marsail, who is dead years and years and years agone?”

“Is it forgetting you are that when I was a child I saw her body, on the day of the snow?”

There was a pause, wherein the questioner brooded darkly. At last, in a low, strained voice, he asked,

“Have you ever seen the man?”

“No."

“Do you know who he was?”

“Can you guess who he was?”

Silence.

"Speak, Nial!"

Silence.

“Speak, Nial, whom I have fathered.”

“He was dripping wet, as though, as though— ”

"Well?"

"As though he had fallen into the Linn o' Mairg.”

A savage spasm came into Cameron's face. The nails of his fingers drew blood in the prisoned hand, which was snatched away as Nial again moved out of reach.

“I will lay my curse upon you, you evil beast!" Cameron shouted hoarsely, — "Dho­nas's a dholas ort! Bas dunach ort! — Ay, ay, Nial the Soulless, son of the demon-woman, God against thee and in thy face, drowning on sea and burning on land, a stake of the whitethorn between thy heart and the pit of thy belly!” 1

1 “Dhonas’s a dholas ort” — Bas dunach ord: i.e., Evil and sorrow to you! . . A death of woe be yours!  “God against thee, etc”: this dreadful and dreaded anathema runs in the Gaelic —“Dia ad aghaidhh ’s ad aodann, bathadh air mur is losgadh air tir, crogan sgithhich eadar do chridhe ’s t” airnean:” from which is will be seen, by those who know Gaelic, that I have not translated literally either “crogan” or “airnean.”

Of the few curses he knew, none seemed to Nial so terrible, so mysterious, so straight upon life out of Death, as that conveyed by the two words, “Marbh’ asg ort!”

He waited tilt the fury of the man was spent. Then, frowning darkly, with his red bloodshot eyes agleam, he muttered, “Marbh’ asg ort! . . .

Your death-wrappings be about you!” So low was his voice that it fell unheeded.

Cameron turned his sightless eyes upon him. He shivered. The blindness of his king hurt him as a searing pain.

“What was the thing you said, Nial of the brutes?"

With a great effort the bitter word was slain ere it was spoken. The voice that came from that wild fantastic woodland thing, with its shaggy peaked head, its faun-like ears, its rude, misshapen body, was ever harsh as a branch grating in the wind; but now it was gentle. Tears that were unshed softened it. The grief of the pariah was its benediction.

“Màm-Gorm, my father, the thing I said was a bitter thing out of Nial the herd; but this thing that I say to you is by poor Nial of the brutes, and that is, God preserve you. . . . ay, gu’n gleidheadh Dia thu Torcall-mo-maighstir!

And with that the brute turned from the man who had cursed him, and with slow steps and bent head made his way across the hillside, till he entered the forest, whence he came not for three days, and where none, not even Oona, saw him.

It may be that he had heard at last the song of the White Merle.

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