Mountain Lovers, by Fiona Macleod, 1895

 

VII.

IT was an hour before midnight when Oona awoke. So often had she slept in the woods, through the hot summer nights, that there was nothing strange or terrifying in the blackness of darkness about her. She could smell the pungent odor of the bracken, and, somewhere near, wild mint. The keen fragrance of the pines and firs everywhere prevailed.

Ah, she was in the forest: how warm and sweet it was! Where was Nial? Scarce more than this drifted through her mind; then the heaviness of sleep came upon her again.

The night waned. Dawn broke upon the eastern hills. Slowly the light travelled downward beyond the crests of the mountains. It reached the forest, and spread an unshimmcring sheen over it, like the silver-calm on a green sea. Then, out of the sky a marvellous flower grew. It was a dusky rosy gray at first, as it lifted through the blucblack heaven, already steel.blue in the east. Green folds of pink uncurled and fell languidly on each side, drooping petals. There was a stir and quiver; then a shaft of gold, another, and another. Suddenly it was as though the heart of the flower burst. In the yellow mist and radiance, wherefrom tall waving foliage of golden fire moved, as though fanned by a wind from within, a cloud of glow­ing flakes arose. These may have been the wild bee; that make the honey of Magh Mell, or the birds of Angus Ogue, belovéd youth god of the yellow hair. Then the golden heart of the miracle swelled, with a mighty suspiration. Petals of rose and gold-green and pale pink, as of shells, unclosed from it. The vast blue flower was aureoled now with an ascendant glory.

One by one the stars melted into heaven. Low in the southwest a planet seemed to divide, then to close again, in a nebulous gleaming haze. Then this night-bloom slowly paled, dwindled, and sank into a deep gulf. An indescribable fragrance, an almost inaudible rustling sound,--- faint, as the roar of the rushing world is faint beyond all ears to hear, --- filled the air. The pulse of the world quickened. The green earth sighed, and was awake.

Through her sleep Oona heard the croodling of doves. Then a bleating fawn in a fern-covert close by made her stir. Suddenly she half rose, stared about her, and felt the breath of the cool wind that, too, had been awakened by the sun, and was now sighing softly through the pine-glades.

Then in a moment there came upon her the remembrance of what had happened.

With a cry she sprang to her feet. What of her foster-father? Had he awaked in the gloam­ing and found the woman Anabal beside him? Had he made peace, or was his anger even now brooding terribly? Who had seen him home? What would he say, what would Sorcha say? Perhaps, even, he had fallen into the Linn, or, it might be, he had tried to make his way home alone through the forest, and now lay some­where in its depths, blind and baffled?

Thus was the child wrought. But what could she do, she wondered. Should she make her way swiftly through the forest and up Wester Iolair to Màm-Gorm, and there see if her foster-father was in his bed and asleep? What would he say and do? Once she had seen hint in a passionate rage, and her heart shook at the remembrance. Perhaps he would kill her. Does it hurt much to be killed, she wondered. Then she thought of Nial. If she could find him, he could discover for her that which she feared to seek herself. Where would he be? For nights past he had not been seen at Màm-Gorm. He might be high upon the mountain, perhaps at Murdo’s remote sheiling on Ben Iolair, by Sgòrr Glan. He might be at the cave Uav-an-teine, the great hollow cavern, dry even in winter weather, which lay but a short way above the Linn o’ Mairg.

Yes, that was likeliest. Nial loved the place. There he might sleep, where no dew or rain could touch hint and with the sound of Mairg Water to be his lullaby through the dark. She would seek him there. But first she would go to the Linn, so that she might know that her foster-father no longer lay by the stream-side.

The heart of the birdeen lightened as she walked swiftly through the dewy fern. She began to call back to the cushals and other birds as they uttered their matin cries. Then she laughed, and broke into snatches of song.

The light was streaming down the strath as she emerged into the open glade above the Linn. Here, among the trees on the slope and in the many cavernous rocks and bosky hollows; deep shadows still lingered. It would be nigh upon an hour before the morning twilight waned hence.

A glance showed her that there was no one at the Linn. She ran down close to it, and peered eagerly here and there, on either side. There was no one visible. With a sigh of relief she was about to step forward to take a sunrise peep into the pool below the Linn, for the great salmon she had never yet been able to descry, when she stopped because of the croaking of a raven.

It was not lucky to go athwart the croaking of a ‘fee-ach’ at sunrise. The great black bird swung on an outspread bough of a hazel, close to the Kelpie’s pool, and croaked with harsh, monotonous reiteration. Oona stooped, lifted a stone, and threw it at the raven, who watched her closely.

“Fitheach! Fitheach! The way of the sun to you! Be off, be off!”

Croak!  Croak!

“Black Fëë-ach, black fëë-ach, go where the dead are, and do not cross my way, or I will put a rosad upon thee!”

Croak! Croak!  Croak!

Half angry, half glad, the child threw an­other stone; then turned, leapt from stone to stone, till she gained the grass again, and then went singing low towards the cave called the Uav-an-teine.

The arch of it was still in shadow, and the bracken on the brow of the arch: though the rowan that leaned forward into the air bathed its upper branches in sunlight. On the smooth thyme-set sward beyond, the yellow shine lay, so warm that the butterflies hovered in and out of the golden area.

With cautious steps Oona advanced. If Nial were there, she wished to surprise him while he slept.

She crawled to one side of the sunswept cave, within which was still a warn dusk. Surely that was the sound of breathing? Yes; she could hear the steady rise and fall, faint though it was. With a smile she moved forward.

Suddenly she stood as one, changed into stone. What was this? What did it mean? No sign of Nial was there, but, among dried bracken and dead leaves, blown or drifted there in autumnal days, and forming a place of rest fit for the weariest deer that ever leaped before the baying hounds, lay two figures, claspt in one another's arms.

For a moment the idea flashed across Oona's mind that the sleepers were Torcall and Anabal. Then she knew who they were, --- for who had such a mass of lovely dark-brown hair as Sorcha, what man of the strath had the curly yellow hair of Alan? So that was where the lovers met! Once or twice, within these last few cloudless days and nights, she knew that Sorcha, when at length the restless lapwings had ceased their querulous crying in the moonlight, had slipt quietly from the house. She knew, too, that once at least Sorcha did not return till sunrise, for she had been awake, and had risen, and had seen her sister moving slow, through the dew, with so wonderful a look in her eyes, so beautiful, so strange, that she had not dared to speak, and had fled back to her bed, with a sob in her throat, she knew not why.

She smiled, and pondered how best to startle them. How she wished Nial were here also, so that he might laugh when Alan and Sorcha suddenly awoke and found themselves observed !

But, as she looked, the change that had already been at work in her of late, swayed her mood otherwise.

She rose to her feet, and leant against the green mossy boulder at the side of the cave. For a while she stood thus, her eyes intent upon the lovers. How beautiful Sorcha's face was, faint-flushed like that! What a new strange light upon her face! And Alan, -- how tall and strong, he was ! how bonnie the rippling gold hair of his head! His fair face, whiter now than she had ever seen it, seemed cut out of stone, so sharp were the outlines. Thus, she thought, must Angus Ogue seem: Angus, the fairest youth of the world, whom none sees now for he is of the Ancient People, who, though still among us, are invisible to mortal eyes. Often had Sorcha told her of him; sure, now, this was he?

Instinctively she looked to seed if white birds hovered anywhere. For the olden tale said that the kisses of Angus Ogue became white birds, and that these flew abroad continually, to nest in lovers' hearts till the moment came when, on the meeting lips of love, their invisible wings should become kisses again.

No, there were no birds; none, at least, for her eyes to see.

The hot sunlight moved upon her bare feet. Soon it would reach her waist, she knew, if she stood brooding there; and when it did that, the glow would be upon the face of Alan, and he would awake.

A sudden fantasy took her. Almost she had laughed aloud. When she moved into the space opposite the cave, it was as though she waded in sunshine. Everywhere in the light the day shone, tilled with unburning fire.

She crossed the sun-space, to where a mass of honeysuckle drooped over a wild brier. With deft fingers she made a crown of this, starred with some pink wild roses, pluckt from a low bush beyond the brier: then, of the dusky yel­low honeysuckle, wove a garland.

Decorated thus, and with sparkling eyes, she turned and faced the cave again. Soundlessly, she began to dance.

At first it was the mere joy of her laughing glee. Soon,she hoped, Alan or Sorcha would wake. Ah, then, how she would laugh, to seethem stare confusedly at her, dancing here in the sunlight!

But as she wavered to and fro in the sun-sea, a dreamy pleasure moved her to half forget­fulness of where she was. A mavis on the rowan over the cave began to sing, the strange late song that sometimes wells forth in silent August, — at first, long, sweet, vibrant notes, then a swift gurgling music, and then, as his heart warmed against the sun, more and more wildly sweet, till the hot air swung with the intoxication of his rapture.

More and more, too, was Oona rapt as she wavered to and fro. The swift rhythm of her joyous dance wrought her as with a spell. A dream lay in her eyes, now set far away, —far away, where Angus Ogue was, and where the sun rose, and the moon waxed and waned to the singing of the White Merle.

The sunlight seemed to drift her onward, as though she were a dancing wave on the fore­head of the tide. Soon she was past the cave, and still, as the sunbeams flickered, she leaped and swayed, rapt in an ecstasy beyond thought or heed.

Suddenly, the thrush ceased. There was a whirr of wings; then a sharp, quickly repeated strident cry.

Another second, and Oona was a laughing child again, crouched low in the bracken. Alan or Sorcha was awake, and had stirred!

Ah, no, she thought, she would not let then see her now. True, they might hear her, where she lay panting like a young bird escaped from a hawk. As soundlessly as she could, for her quick breathing and the rustle of the bracken, she half crawled, half ran, back the way she had come. Soon she was safe, for the pines enclosed her, and then the beeches and birks near the water-slope. From behind a vast beech-bole she watchcd to see if she were pursued or seen. But no one came. All was as before; only, the thrush did not venture back to the rowan, which now threw its flickering finger-like shadows on the smooth turf below in front of the cave.

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