Mountain Lovers,by Fiona Macleod, 1895

 

V

SO the weeks went till the coming of the season that, because of the heats and of the drought, is called the month of the hanging of the dog's mouth.1

1 Mios crochaidh nan con. This month is he period from the middle of July till the middle of August.

Great heat, with many thunders, had pre­vailed. For nine clays at the beginning of July the rain poured, —or ceased only to let rainbow's come and go upon the gleaming hills. During this time Oona and the blind man at Mám-Gorm were much together. A change had come upon the child. She looked at her foster-father often, with a wistful gaze. Some thing puzzled her. In the air, some vague trouble moved like a vanishing shadow. Of Nial she saw little. Now and again she heard his signal in the forest, and answered it: sometimes, at dawn or dusk, coming upon him on the hillside, sitting solitary on some isolated boulder, or crouching by a pool, and staring intently into its depths. But he would not come across the airidh. No one knew how he lived. Once or twice Murdo, the shepherd, gave him to eat; and, every morning and night, Oona put a small crock of porridge and oat-cakes, or other food, in a place where the vagrant could have it if he willed, —and thrice, at least, she found it empty. On the few moonlit nights she fancied she saw a pale misty column of thin smoke rise above the pines.

Still more was she troubled about Sorcha. Her beautiful sister had grown even lovelier to look upon, but there was a new look in her eyes, a new hush in her voice. She shepherded on the mountain as one in a trance; as one in a dream she moved about the house. At night, in her sleep, she sighed often, and moaned gently: and once, turning and finding Oona by her, she put her arms round the child, and, sleeping still, whispered, "Ah, heart of my heart, joy of my joy".

She knew that Sorcha and Alan Gilchrist loved each other. She knew, also, that this was why Alan could never come to Mám-Gorm, for her foster-father had laid his ban upon their love. But what did this love mean? What, she pondered vaguely, did this tragic silence, this tragic yet happy silence, bide? "I know now." she said one day to Sorcha, at the coming home of the kye, "I know now why it is that Alan, when he meets you in the gloaming by the byre, or in the hay-shed, or down in the strath by the Mairg Water, calls you Dream.''

Sorcha was startled, and the beautiful face flushed at the knowledge that she had been seen at these secret meetings with Alan. Oona's unconsciousness of any cause of embarrassment, however, reassured her.

"So you have seen us, Oona my flower? Well, see to it that you say nothing of this to father, or to any one. And, Oona, my bonnie, how do you know he — Alan — callsme 'Dream,' and what do you mean by saying you know now what that means?"

"I heard him call you so that moonlight night last week, when you came hand in hand through the wood.  He called you Sunshine, Joy, and then Dream; and you said that 'Dream' was best, for it was the name he gave you ‘that day' . . . Sorcha!"

"Yes, birdeen."

"What was ‘that day’?

The girl turned her face aside, because of the flame in it: but the flush was in the white neck as well, and the child laughed.

"Ah, it was when he first kissed you!"

"Yes, dear," Sorcha answered, flushing again; "yes, it must have been then."

Sorcha, tell me, do you love him very much?"

"Yes. More than I Can tell you, my sunbeam. When you are a woman you will understand."

"When I am a woman I am going to marry Nial."

" Nial !"

"Yes. No one will love him, because he has no soul ; but / love him, and will marry him.  Half of my soul will then be his."

"Is that so, then? Sure ‘t  is a south wind for Niall!  And where will you live, Oona-­my-heart?"

"The White Merle will show us the way."

"Ah, I see, it is a fairy tale.  Well. . . Oona, I will tell you a secret. I have heard the song of the White Merle!"

The child's eyes grew big with wonder and excitement.

"When? Where? Was it where the old yews are in the Upper Strath "

"It was now here and now there."

“But when, when?

“Whenever Alan called me 'Dream’, and the other names, I heard the song of the White Merle."

"Ah, it is you that I envy! Sorcha, do you think that if Nial called the beautiful names, I should hear it too?"

"I fear not, dearie . . . not yet. Perhaps---­perhaps if youcalled Nial those beautiful names, he could hear the song."

"Then I will."

"No, not yet, Bonnikin. You will only harm Nial. But now run away. Father will be seeking you."

"Ah, and who will be seeking you?" Cried Oona, as she danced away, laughing. "Ah, It is a good name, Dream; for you are always dreaming in your eyes now, Sorcha!"

Yet day by day thereafter the child laughed less blithely. There was a shadow about her foster-father. It held her spell-bound. Never had she been so long away from the words before, never before had she been so long in­doors. She was glad to be with the blind man, and to take his hand when he went out to stride sometimes for miles along the tough ways of the hills. She talked much to him about the White Merle, and the "guid-folk," and the quiet people; sometimes of Nial, and of the strange things he saw and heard, and how the birds and beasts would come to him, and how he harmed none, nor they him.

Sometimes she asked about the Cailliach, or about the wind-spirits; or strange questions about the people of the strath, glimpses of whom she had occasionally, and for whom, particularly for the black-garbed minister, she did not conceal her contempt and dislike. Sometimes she sang; and that was what the blind man liked best. Once only she spoke of Alan: how she thought that Christ must he like him, so fair to see was he: how she loved his low voice and soft touch and grave sweet eyes.

But she saw at once that no good would come out of any mention of that name. Her foster-father grew moodily taciturn; and when, after a long silence, he spoke, it was to ask her, in a harsh voice, if she had ever broken his command, and climbed the opposite slopes of Tornideon.

"Never, father."

“And have you ever sought the woman Anabal, that is mother of Alan?"

“No.”

He seemed satisfied, and asked nothing fur­ther. But as for Oona, she brooded over this more and more, and wondered more and more because of the ban upon Alan. and because of the feud between Torcall Cameron in his loneliness on Iolair and Anabal Gilchrist in her loneliness of Tornideon.

The first day of August came with settled weather and almost tropic heat.

All that day Torcall Cameron had been strangely restless. If Oona left him for more than a few moments he grew impatient, then angry. Again and again she begged him to come into the green shadowy woods, or even to climb to the Ridge of the Stags on Iolair; but he would not. At last, weary with the heat and the long blank hours, weary, too, with Oona’s importunities, and not wholly unwilling to humor her for his own sake, he let her take his hand and lead him forth at her will.

Sorcha alone knew that, for some reason which she never fathomed, her father's “black day" was this first day of August. Year after year his “dubhachas,” his gloom, came upon him with that dawn, so that he would have word with none. She knew, too, that when the dark day was gone, her father was better for weeks there­after, and sometimes smiled and laughed like other men.

The night before had been an ill passing of July, Murdo, the shepherd, had come in, his face white. As he had come down the moun­tain he had heard a wild and beautiful singing, and had descried a herd of deer being driven with the wind, keeping close together.  He had not seen the demon-woman, for he had turned his head away, and muttered a sian to keep the evil of her from coming about him like a snake. But he thought the wind brought some of the words of her song to him, and they were of death and the grave. Then, muttering. "Glacar iad 's na innleachtlan a dhealbh iad," —Let them be taken in the device, they have imagined, —he had fled. Later, Ooma came with a strange story from Nial. He had been crossing the highland behind Mám Gorm, and had seen two men and two women walking silently with bowed heads. One man was tall and dripping wet, as though the he had come out of water, and his lank hair hung adown his face. The other man was Mám-Goren himself. The faces of the others he could not see; but one woman was tall and gaunt, with wild straggling gray hair, --- a woman like Anabal Gilchrist on Tornideon. He heard only one word spoken, and that was when Mám-Gorm stopped, looked at the house, and said. "C’aite am bheil an eilidriom?"1

“What is an eilidriom, Sorcha?" Oona had added. To which her sister had replied that she did not know, and that she was to say nothing of this in the house.

1”Where is the hearse?” Eilidriom (prounced like a-ee-drem) is used in Skye and the isles, rarely if ever on the mainland.  Snaoimh (bier) is the common word, though when a hearse is actually meant it is alluded to as the carbad-mhá.

"And what then, Onna?"

Nial, the child resumed, had heard no more. But when he turned and looked towards the strath he saw nine men moving away front Mám-Gorm, carrying in their midst a long black box. When he glanced back, the four way­farers he had seen had disappeared.

Yet, as Sorcha knew, her father had not stirred front the house that day. Nothing of what Murdo or Nial had seen came to his ears __of that she was heedful. But suddenly, while they were eating the porridge, Onna asked her foster-father what an "eilidriom" was.

Cameron sprang to his feet, pale as death, and shaking, with the milk that he had spilt from the mug in his hand running down his breast, as though his lifeblood were pouring from him, white too with fear.

“What is that you say, Oona?" he cried hoarsely; “what is that you say” Do you see a carbad-mhárbh---at the door---coming here?

“No---no —“ murmured the child, terrified.

"Then how do you know that word for it? Who told it to you? I have not heard it said for years. No man uses it in this country. I have not heard it since--since Marsail died—and then it was from — from the people yonder on Tornideon, for Anabel Gilchrist was of the isles."

But here Sorcha had interposed, and said that Oona had picked it up in some way, in one of the old runes told her by Murdo, no doubt.

For the rest of that night Torcall Cameron only once opened his lips, and that not at the covering of the peats, or when Sorcha sang one of the sweet orain spioradail he loved so well, after she had read a while in the Book of Peace. It was when she came to him after he had lain down in his bed, and kissed him, and let her flooding tears fall warm upon his blind up-star­ing eyes; then he pulled her head closer, and whispered, " Sorcha, Sorcha, my soul swims in mist.

It was a night of beauty, and still. All slept. But towards dawn a voice arose in the corries. From height to height it went, and the long wait of it swept past the green airidh of Mám­ Gorm and wandered sobbing through the forest. Then all was still again. The dawn that came soon after was of pale gold and faintest wild-rose. Peace was in the heaven.

But with that sudden passing wail, so often heard on the mountains when there is not a cloud in the sky, and when, far and near, not a branch sways, and the gnats dance in long col­umns perpendicularly, without drifting this way or that, — with that voice out of the hills, Torcall awoke.

When Sorcha arose she heard him, moaning. Wearily she wondered what this fatful date meant.— this dreaded first day of the eighth month. When she went to him, he said no other word than this: " I have heard the lamentable cry of death.”

"The cry of death? " she repeated questioningly.

“Ay, truly, the lamentation of the demon-woman mourning for the dead."

So it was that all that day Torcall Cameron had been as a man in an ill dream, weary of the long hours, yet dreading the passing of them into the shadow. So, too, it was that at the last he went forth with Oona.

At first they wandered into the forest; but here Torcall was never at ease, and so after a time they strolled hand in hand from glade to glade, till the sound of Mairg Water came soothing-cool through the heat.

The peace and utter quietude lay as balm upon the weary man. He grew drowsy at last, as his trouble seemed to lift from him. More than once he would have stopped and thrown himself on the ground, content to stir no fur­ther; but Oona urged him to come on to where the river ran through shelving ledges with a singing sound, and nothing else was to be heard but the whisper of the silver birches and the thin green reeds.

The crooning of the cushats was in his ears.  Sweet it was to have that soft touch of sound after the Iamentable cry of the hills, that mourning cry now dulled, so that it was there only as a shadow in a darkened room.

He was glad when the breath of the water me upon his face, and he could sit down among the bracken and fragrant gale, and do no more than listen idly to the passage of the water. The whispering water, the scarce audi­ble susurrus of faintly stirred leaves overhead, the singing of the gnats, the low, incessant croon of the cushats, — these were all the sounds to hear. Not a breath of wind moved in the pine­wood, so that it gave not even that vast slow suspiration which may be heard in forests once or twice between sunrise and sundown even on stillest days. All the birds were sill, though few sang even at daybreak in that season of the young brood. Over the reaches of the water the swallows skimmed, hawking silently.

An hour paced. Thinking that he slept, and weary of sitting still so long, Oona rose and slipped away. At first, she went to a great yew that towered near the fringe of the forest, to see if the wood doves she had heard crooning there had fallen asleep, for now they no longer made their crooning moan. Then, having espied them, sitting close with fluffed plumage and drooping wings, as they drowsed in the warm shadow, she peered here and there for the nest of a shrew-mouse, for often she had heard there­abouts the patter of the wild mice in days of drought.

Her quest led her on and on.  A sudden splash made her look at the narrow river. A grisle had leapt half out of the clear amber-brown water, and missed the dragon-fly which had been poising its arrow-flight close to a wreath of circling foam. The tumult of the Linn, a score of yards beyond her, was pleasant in her ear. She forgot the shrew-mice, and thought only of the great salmon that Nial declared slept or lay waiting night and day under a ledge at the bottom of the Linn. Yes, she could steal across the rocks, and creep in among the boulders, and lie along the lowest ledge that sloped to the seething hollow, whose black depths, and the deafening noise of whose tumult, had ever an irresistible fascination for her.

She seemed like a water-sprite herself as she stood on a high rock, at a place where the ledges sloped sheer into a crevice, at the bottom of which a snake of brown water writhed through holes and crannies till it leapt out into a back eddy of the river whence it came. She had plucked a branch of rowan-berries, some still green or ruddy brown, but others already kissed into flame by the sun. This she waved slowly to and fro before her, partly to keep the midges away, partly because the rhythm of the running water was flowing through her brain, and so along all the nerves of her body. The sunflood beat full upon her. Her short, ragged, scanty dress glowed like a chestnut-husk in the sunlight; in the hot yellow sunshine the tanned skin of her legs and feet gleamed ivory white. With parted lips and shining eyes she stood, intent, transfigured.

Suddenly she started. A look of curiosity, of astonishment, came into her eyes.

What, she wondered, was that unfamiliar object lying in a ferny hollow of the rocks which formed the bridge of Mairg Water, whence the stream fell in a rushing cataract into the Linn? A human figure, clearly; a woman, too. Who could she be? Was she alive or dead? Was it Sorcha? No. Could it be one of the fairy-women of whom she had heard so often; the Cailliach, of whom she had been told so many tales; or that green-clad, yellow-scarfed, mysterious Bandruidh, the sorceress who won the souls out of grown men, and whose glance was fateful as a kelpie’s? A kelpie’s!  Ah, was this indeed not the kelpie of the Linn o' Mairg lying there in wait for her; or might it be in truth the kel­pie, yet only asleep there in the great heat? If so, now was the time to espy it, and perhaps steal or find a hair of its head, which, wound about the third finger of her left hand, would make her a princes; among the secret people, and enable her to know what no one in the whole strath or the greater strath of the world beyond would know, to see what no one would see.

These were the thoughts which passed through her mind, while her blue eyes gazed unwaver­ingly at the woman, dead or asleep.

At last, slowly and with careful heed, she drew nearer and nearer. When still many yards away she recognized the sleeper, whose deep regular breathing reassured her. It was Ana­bal Gilchrist, the mother of Alan, the woman banned to her and Sorcha by their father as though she were accursed. True to her word, Oona had never been at Ardoch-brag, the widow Anabal's farm; but several times she had caught a glimpse of the solitary woman, and now knew her at the first glance. Once, more than two years back, she had been luring trout one even­ing in the Mairg Water, near Ardoch ford, and had been startled by the sudden appearence of a woman has seized her in her arms, and kissed her over and over, sobbing confulsively the while.  The woman had drawn her plaid over her head, and what with this and the dusk and her fear, Oona had not time to discover who it was.  Later, she was convinced that it was no other that the mother of Alan.

When she saw her now before her, she stood hesitatingly.  She felt drawn to this sad-faced woman who had once snatched her in the dusk and covered her face with kisses; but she was still more attracted by the mystery which enveloped her.

It was only a quarrel, Sorcha had told her; and often she had heard her sister say that if only her father and Anabal would meet, all might be explained.  In a flash an idea came into the child’s mind.  The thought sent the blood leaping from her heart.  Her eyes shone.

Two motives impelled Oona.  Neither was of itself, but one was interwrought with the other.  The love of mischief, with her innate audacity and fearlessness, urged her to place her foster-father in the last place in the world where he would fain be; but, also something in her heart pleaded for the quite bringing together, in that hushed and beautiful sun-going, of these two bitter haters.

Yes, she would do it, though she knew that her foster-father’s wrath might fall heavily upon her.  If---if only Sorcha---no, she did not care, she would do it.  She would watch, and if the woman rose and went away, she would come back and take her foster-father’s had and lead him home again.

Though the woman slept, overcome with weariness, why was it that a trouble of deep sorrow still lay upon her face, as the trouble of waters even after the sea-wind had died into the blue calm of the air?  The tears were still wet upon the had that lay across her breast; why had they fallen.  The child stood awile, brooding.  What did it mean?  Slowly she glanced about her.  No one was visible.  It was clear that by the way the woman lay she had not fallen.

At that moment Oona noticed that Torcall had slipped a little, because of the slope whereon he had lain.  Drowsily he was feeling about him for an easier rest.

Like a hare, as swift and as soundlessly, she made her way to him.

“Rise, father,” she whispered; “come further up the stream.  It is pleasanter there.”

For nights, Torcall Cameron had had little or no sleep.

Weary with these long, long hours; weary with his fasting and his restless idleness; weary with the windless heat; and, above all, weary of his own thoughts and of himself, he resigned himself gladly into Oona’s hands.

Even as he walked he swayed. Sleep was so heavy upon him that the roar of the waters of the Linn came to him no loudlier than as the muffled song and humming rhythm of the stream itself.

Gently, with her heart beating the while, the child led the blind man to the place where the woman Anabal, after long weeping, had fallen into deep slumber. He lay down like a child. The noise of the rushing waters lulled him, the ancientest, sweetest cradlesong in all the wide green world. If he heard at all the breathing of the sleeping woman, no other thought could have come to him than that it was Oona.

She stared down at them with awe-struck eyes. What was this unthinkable terror that shook her like a leaf? For a moment she con­quered her fear, a fear so vague, and of the soul only, that she did not know she was afraid, though the nerves in her body leapt to the breath of it.

The tears came into her eyes. Yellow was the light that fell upon the tangled iron gray hair of the weary sleeper at her feet; yellow as yellow flowers was the gleam upon the brown-gray tresses of the weary sleeper by his side.

The hand of the woman moved. Out of the sun-glow the arm crept like a snake; then it lay still in the shadow betwixt the two, who slumbered unheeding.

Oona knew not why she did it, or even what she did; but with a touch, light almost as the warm sunbeam itself, she guided the hand of Anabal towards that of Torcall. As two ships draw together on a calm sea, though far apart, so the hands of those two, who had not spoken one with the other for weary years, slipped at last side by side. The man stirred a moment, smiled, and gently clasped the hand in his.

Then, when all was well, Oona shivered with actual dread. What if they should die so? What if they were already dead? Once more she fought back this terrifying emotion. How quiet they seemed! Sweet is the gray sleep of the old.

Tha iad rèidha nis,” she sighed rather than whispered: "they are at peace now."

But now no longer could she stay. Like a fawn, after she had crept back upon the grassy ledges, she leapt from boulder to boulder. Soon she was at the verge of the forest. Inexplicable fear drove her like a whip. Minute alter min­ute passed, and still she fled as though pursued. Nearly a mile had she gone before she stopped, only to fling herself into the bracken in a sheltered place, a kind of cave formed by the gigantic roots of a fallen pine tree, long years ago wrenched away like it reed and stricken to the ground. There, sobbing at she knew not what, she cried herself to sleep at last. When the dark came, her slumber was unbroken.  A solitary moonbeam that made its way through the dense covert to where she slept, lay upon her feet, upon her slow moving breast, upon the white flower of her face, upon the out-spread tangle of her hair, which it clothed with fugitive pate gold. No vision of ill disturbed her. Once only she stirred as, in dreamland, site thought site heard the song of the White Merle.

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