Mountain Lovers, by Fiona Macleod, 1895

 

VIII

ALREADY the breath of the day was windlessly hot.

Flushed with her dancing in the sunlight, and with the languor of August in her blood, Oona listened eagerly to the cool sound of the running of Mairg Water.

The next moment she was free of her scanty raiment, and was by the stream-side. As she stood among a duster of yellow irises, the sun­light Iay upon the gold of her hair and the glowing ivory-white of her body, and then seemed to spill in yellow fire among the tall blooms about her feet. A faint green glimmer from the emerald iris-sheaths dusked the small white thighs.

A leap like a fawn, and she was in the water. A hundred miniature rainbows gleamed in the dazzle of spray as she splashed to and fro, after she had come to the surface some yards down­stream. What joy it was to feel the cool brown water laving her body: to dive and swim like an otter; to float slowly with the current under overhanging foliage, and see the young sedge-warblers in the reeds or among the water-wil­lows, or to look up at the curving boughs of a birch or rowan, deep green against the deep blue! Then the wonder and beauty to rest with outspread arms, and breast against the flow; to stare down into the mirroring depth, and see the flickering feathers of the quicken and the red rowan-berries marvelously real and near, with lovely shadow-birds flitting to and fro among the shadow-branches, and, strangest of all, another white Oona drifting like a phantom through that greenshine underworld.

When she swung round suddenly, and held herself back against the down-flow, as an otter half-alarmed will do, it was not because she was drifting too near the race” just above the cataract. A strange sound came from the Linn, or beyond it. The noise of the water was in her ears, and she could not hear distinctly; but surely that noise was the cry of one in sorrow, and, at any rate, human.

With a swift movement she slid to the bank, caught at a tuft of flowering sedge, and then stood, dripping and all agleam in the sunlight, while with inclined head she listened intently.

Now she could hear more distinctly: certainly some one was by or near the Linn. The noise of the churned water rose and fell in a long, wavering, unequal sigh; and in one of the downward hushes her keen ears caught tones and even words she fancied she recognized.

She hesitated for a moment as to whether to run back for the handful of clothes she had left upstream, but then bethought her that it was only Nial and no stranger who might throw stones at her as a kelpie — as some boys from the strath, who at Belltane had been burning small fires and cooking wild-bird's eggs, had done many weeks agone at Nial. How often in her wanderings with Nial she had bathed, to his wonder and awe at her white beauty, her daring, her skill. As for him, though he loved the running water almost with a passion, noth­ing would induce him to enter it, except when alone and in the dim light. As a boy he had been as much at home in it as any creature of the river. But once, after he had come to know Oona, and to find in her the one person in the world whose soul did not loom too infinitely remote above his drear loneliness of spirit, he had leapt one dead-calm noon into the water; and there and then, for the first time, realized, in the phantom which swam with him or beneath him, the misshapen ugliness of his body, the savagery of his distorted head and features. From that day he had never entered the stream save at late dusk or on moonless nights.

In many parts of the Highlands it is still the wont of children at Beltane (May-day) to light fires in woods or on rocky spurs, and there cook eggs, or play pranks, sometimes very fantastic ones.  These meaningless observances are a survival of the days of Druidic worship.  Beltane means the sacred fire.  Baal, beal or bel is not the Gaelic word for the Sun, or the Sun-god: though the Druids may have had Baal from the Phœnician mariners who came to Ireland. The ancient Celtic word is Bea’uil, “the life of everything,” “source of everything.”  Beal (proun. Bel) and and teine, “fire,” give “Beltane”---the Festival of the Sun.

So with swift steps, which left small pads of damp upon the rock-ledges, Oona ran towards the great boulder which overhung the cataract.

As she passed the place where, a few hours ago, she had left her foster-father and the woman Anabal, she glanced here and there for any trace of either she might not have seen be­fore. The next moment she caught sight of Nail.

She watched him curiously. What did it mean, she wondered. He was crouching, with his back to her, on the extreme of the ledge overlooking the kelpie’s pool,—that deep caldron which received all that was at last disgorged from the maelstrom of the Linn. His head was bent forward, and sometimes he leaned on his hands, and sometimes swayed backward or side­ways.

What startled her more were the strange, wild, barbaric words that Nial was chanting, with thin, hoarse, monotonous wail. What was this rune he chanted? Why did he crouch there, chant­ing and swaying, swaying and chanting?

Sometimes he ceased for a few moments that crooning, mourning, appealing, inexplicable chant, and appeared to be speaking, and to gesticulate as he spoke.

Fantastic thoughts flashed through the child's brain. Perhaps it was the kelpie who was try­ing to lure Nial to her arms; or mayhap Nial had seen her, and was putting a rosad upon her. She knew that the people of the strath, and even Murdo the shepherd - in truth, Alan, too, and perhaps Sorcha, though she would not say it - believed that the elf-man was in league with all the mysterious or dreadful creatures of the shadow, from the harmless "guidfolk" of the hill-hollow to the yellow-clad demon-woman who drove her herd of deer and sang her death-song, and to the dark and terrible kelpie who lurked in the deep pool in that wild place be­yond the Linn o' Mair. Or, again, Nial might be uttering some incantation; or be at his old quest, the seeking of his lost soul.

Surely, it must be that, she thought, as sound­lessly she approached hint.

Within the last minute or two a change had come over him. Every now and then he raised his head, often clasping and unclasping his hands, swaying to and fro the while, and speak­ing or chanting rapidly, with wild, scarce-coher­ent words. He was as one in an ecstasy. Oona, for the first time, feared him. She stood, only a few yards behind him now, and listened.

“Ochan, ochone, arone! And so fair too, and so fair!
O white you are as the canna that floats in the breeze,
Or as the wool of the young lamb that Murdo found dead in the heather,
Or as the breast of Sorcha, or as Oona, little Oona!
O, O, arone, arone, Death of me, Woe!
Oh, white too and fair, and I black as the wet peats,
Black and ugly, so that even the deer know,
And Fior and Donn and all the dogs
Think me no more than a sheep, than the kye, ochan, ochone!
But, oh, it’s dead your are and drowned, Anam, my Soul!
And it’s there you lie . . . gray and still . . . with . . .
. . . and you laugh at me may be . . .
And it may be your are the shadow only that will go if I leap at you!
. . . and hair like mine thick with dew. . . .
Or . . . or the kelpie . . .
And true it was, with the fëë-ach, and the feannag, and the corbie,
The corbie, the hoodie-craw, anf the raven!”

At these words Oona glanced swiftly to right and left. Nowhere had she heard again the croaking of the raven, and now she could de­scry neither of Nial's three birds of omen. But just as her gaze was wandering back to the dwarf, she caught sight of the fiteach further down-stream, perched upon a dead branch near some rocks, and even as she looked she heard its harsh, savage croak! croak!

"Ay, ay, rōc, fëë-ach, rōc! Dean rocail, dean rocail!" began Nial again, with a wild gesture. . . .

“Nial!  Nial!”

He ceased all movement, all sound, as though smitten into silence. Her fear partially over­come, now that she had gathered from his words that he thought he had found his soul at last, but that it was dead — yet with a dread in her heart because of the thing that lay there in the pool, whether alive, dead, or asleep, or treacher­ously assuming life — she called again, and more loudly, --

"Nial! Nial!"

Slowly he looked round. A bewildered terror in his eyes waned. It was only Oona.

“Nial, Nial-mo-ghrāidh, what is it?”

“Hush,  mo-mųirnean,” he muttered, beckoning to her to creep close to him. The slight breeze that had sprung up for its brief life crept along the stream, and whispered along the grass and in the hot-smelling fern. The murmurous sound of it made the child glance apprehen­sively behind her. She dreaded the elfin foot­steps that folk said could be heard at times near Nial.

“What is it, dear Nial?”

Ssh! hush ! Come here: look! . . . look! he whispered.

Gently she stole beside him, leaned over the ledge, and stared down into the pool. A mere breath of the breeze ruffled the surface, and all she could see was a dark mats with a dusky-white splatch, looming shadowily through the amber water, and strangely distorted by the silver shimmer caused by the wind eddy, which came and went round the circuit of the pool like a hauled bird.

What is it? Who is it? What is it, Nial?”

“Hush! do not speak so loud. It is my soul.”

“Your soul, Nial?”

“Ay, true. Sure it is my soul. All night I was in the woods, and I heard a tap-tapping going ever before me, and at dawn it led me down by the Mairg, and then the spirit flew away before me, and the annir-choille was just like a woodpecker! And when it flew up by the Linn I . . .”

“Whisper louder, Nial! I can't hear.”

“When it flew up by the Linn I saw it change into a curlew, and it wheeled over the Linn and called cian- cian-cianalas, and then I was afraid, though the annir-choille that was like a wood­pecker had made hope to me of finding my soul.”

“Who is the annir-choille, Nial?”

He gloomed at her silently. Then in a con­strained voice, and with averted eyes —

“How should I know? I know nothing. I am Nial.”

“ But what have you been told?”

“They call her the wood-maid — the tree-maid.”

“Ah-h . . . and Nial . . .”

But when I came near, the curlew flew away. Then it was that I looked into the pool. And then, and then it was, Oona-mo-rųn, that I saw my soul lying here—big as a man's soul should be, and with a face as white as yours; ay, a fair good body like Alan's, an with clothes on, too -- dark, beautiful clothes; an' the hands of him that moved about were white; an' . . oh, Oona-birdeen, look you now, and see if it is not as I say?''

The awed child stared into the brown depths, where the surface was still ruffled silvery here and there, with a glinting, glancing shimmer that made all things below shiftily uncertain.

“Do you see it, Oona?” cried an eager whisper at her ear.

“Ay, sure.”

“Oona, Oona, is it dead? Oona, birdeen, Oona, mo-ghrāidh, it may—it may be living! O Oona, the white soul o' mewhite as you, my fawn!”

The blue eyes glanced up from the pool, and at the speaker. She looked at him, then downward again.

“Nial!”

“Yes . . . yes, Oona . . .”

“The wood-maid has been playing with you.”

“No, no. no; that is not a true word on your lips!”

“Sure, a true thing it is. Look, Nial: see how big it is. The white face of it is yonder by the salmon-hole, and one foot is moving against the rock below us!”

“And what of that! Sure, it is a beautiful soul, dead or alive; and big as a man's should be and fair and white and strong !”

“Nial ... It may be alive, for I see its hands moving ... but ... but"—and here tears came into the child's eyes, and her voice shook with sorrow for her hapless friend —"but . . . Oh. Nial . . . so big a soul will never be able to creep into your body . . . for you are small, dear, small, and — and . . . an' then it is so big and strong !”

Alas, the pity of it! Never once had Nial thought of this; never had he dreamed that so large a soul could not get into his dwarfish, mishapen frame.

He stared in wild amaze, first at Oona, then at the drowned thing in the water — his soul, or a phantom, or a body, or mayhap the kelpie, he knew not which, now— then at Oona again. A fierce pain was in his eyes. He bit his lip, in the way he did whenever Mām-Gorm struck him, — a thing that had not been for months past A little rivulet of blood trickled into his thin matted beard, tangled and twisted this way and that like a goats.

“ Nial! Nial!” moaned Oona, pitifully.

“Ay, it is true . . . that is a true thing that you will be saying, Oona. Sure, it would need to be a soul as small as your own that would do for poor Nial.”

No, no, Nial!” cried the child, comfortingly, “bigger than mine, really, really, yes and . . . and . . . fitter!”

A sob shook his heavy frame. Oh, the long seeking, and the near goal, and the bitter futile finding! Still, Oona's sympathy was sweet. Dear birdeen that she was, to say he would have a bigger soul than hers, bigger and fatter, too. But no, he thought — no. better to have one the same as Oona's, for all he was so much older and bigger and stronger than she was.

“Ah, Oona-mųirnean, if I could only find my soul at all—anywhere, anywhere!”

“But you will find it, Nial! You will find it! Sorcha told me that you are sure to find it. Never mind what they say down there in the strath. What do they know about souls? And . . . and . . . Nial!

“Yes, my birdeen.”

“If . . . if . . . you can’t find your soul anywhere—and all this summer we'll go seeking, seeking for it, till we have listened at every tree in the forest and on the momrtain side — if you can’t find it anywhere, I am going to rnarry you!”

Nial looked at the child bewildered. He knew little of what marriage was, save that in the st rat h two married people lived in one house, and that the woman was called by the name of her man, and that they were sadder, and led dullcr lives, so at least it seemed to him. Sure, it would be for pleasure that he and Oona should have a cot of their own, though he, and she too, for that, preferred the pinewood; and a thing for laughter that she, the bit birdeen Oona, should be called Bean Nial!

“Why would you be marrying poor Nial, Oona my doo?”

“Because you would then have half my soul. Yes, yes, Nial! don't shake your head like that; I know you would. Sorcha told me it was in the Book:"

For the moment the outcast forgot what lay in the pool. Of three things he stood ever in awe. First, Torcall Cameron, the man of men. Second, the Book, which was a mystery, and held all the sians and rosads, all the spells and incantations in the world, and, as he had heard, was full of "living words," though never had he, being soulless, seen any coming or going to it, like bees, where it lay on the shelf above Torcall's bed. Third, the inscrutable powers which worked somewhere, somehow, behind Torcal, before which even he, Mām-Gorm, was, almost incredible though it seemed, as mist before the wind.

When, therefore, he heard Oona speak of the Book, his awe held him for it moment spell­bound. Never had he so much as dreamed that his name was even mentioned there at all. The wonder, the mystery of it, almost took his breath away. What an ill thing, then, that word of the preaching-man he had met once in the strath; who had told him, in answer to his asking, that he, Nial, could have no name in the Book of Life, because he was unbaptized, and a godless heathen, and a soulless elf-man at that! And now—now— Sorcha had seen his name in the Book — ay, and not in any poor small strath Bible, but in the great Bioball that was Torcall Cameron's own, up at Mām-Goren, on the hillside of Iolair!

But of that mystery he was to hear no more then and there. A cry had come from Oona, a cry of such terror, with moan upon moan, that his heart within him was as a flame in a windy place.

What had happened to the child? Was there a spell upon her, he wondered; was that down there in truth no other than the treacherous, quiet-seeming, murderous kelpie!

He saw that she was shivering all over; that her body was as pallid as her white face.

Not a word came from her. She kneeled forward, staring stonily into the pool.

“Oona! Oona!” he whispered chokingly, ter­rified beyond further power of speech. Without averting her gaze, she slowly raised an arm and pointed at what had hitherto been but a blurred figure at the bottom of the water. The arm, the pointing hand, remained thus, as though paralyzed.

Nial bent over the ledge. The slight breeze had now passed. Not a breath shook the feather-leaf of a rowan. The sun food poured out of the east upon the shimmering land. Though but an hour after sunrise, the heat palpitated. For the first time that morning there was no wind-eddy upon the pool. The brown water was as lucid as a mirror.

The thing — corpse, or soul, or kelpie — had begun to move. It was slowly rising to the surface.

He shuddered. This, then, was the cause of Oona's fear. Yet, even as this thought passed through his brain, he knew that there was some other reason for the frozen agony of the child.

The body ascended gradually, face downward, the arms trailing stiffly beneath it. One foot was still caught by the weeds, which had caught it as in a net. With a slow gyration the corpse swung round, face upward. The weed-thrall gave way. The drowned rose with outstretched arms.

Oona shrieked, then sank back, cowering, and covered her eyes with her hands. Nial! Nial neither thought nor felt; he was stunned by a blank bewildering amaze. For what he saw, and what Oona had seen, was the drowned body and the dead face of ... Torcall Cameron!

In the awful, throbbing silence, broken only by the turmoil of the Linn and by the incessant moaning of the child, the dwarf stared as at some horrible impossibility.

It could not be! Mām-Gorm, of all men in the world! Mām-Gorm, the great, strong, stern man of the hills; no, no. no, sure, it could not be! Moreover, as he knew, Mām-Gorm never left the hillside; in all the time he had known him, he had never come nigh the Linn o' Mairg, nor even near Mairg Water, and how could he be there? And would not Oona for sure have seen him that very morning in his own bed belike? Besides . . . Mām-Gorm . . . it was as though the preaching-man were to cry out, “There is no God!”

At his ear he heard a moaning whisper: “It is my doing; it is my doing.”

“Oona, Oona-lassie, is it mad that you will be?”

“O Nial, Nial, Nial! it is of me, this thing! Ay, sure, ay, sure! Oh, arone! Arone! it was I who left him sleeping nigh the Linn last night, thinking to make peace between him and the woman Anabal that is Alan's mother! And oh, oh, she has gone away in the gloaming not seeing him, and he will be for going home when he wakes, and will be calling Oona, Oona, Oona, and I not be hearing him, for I was away in the wood, with the fear upon me! And (hen he will be moving through the dark, and - and —O Nial, Nial! He is drowned, drowned, and the water is on him because of me! Nial! Nial!”

The child swayed to and fro in her passionate grief. A new fear came upon Nial: that she might throw herself into the pool, to be drowned even as her foster-father was.

But at that moment both were hushed into staring silence.

Slowly the corpse began to sink again. Down, down, it went, leaning forward more and more, till it seemed as though it were standing upright on some unseen ledge of rock. Then, gradu­ally, it revolved further, till once more it hung suspended in the depths, face downward, and with stiff arms adroop beneath.

Without further gyration, motionlessly it seemed, the body sank, till it became blurred, obscure, shapeless. Then there was no more of it than a black shadow far down in the brown depths.

Oona rose to her full height. She gave a long sigh, one short, choking sob. Her eyes stared unwaveringly at nothing; the nails of her fingers cut the small clenched hands. The raven on the dead branch beyond the pool, that had been croaking monotonously ever since she had first heard it, became suddenly still.

Nial rose too. He knew, without word from her, without thought even, what she meant to do.

"Oona!"

She did not glance round, but he saw her throat quiver.

“My birdeen, my birdeen, ah, my bonnie wee fawn! Come back, come back! Sure, it is not Will at all! It is the kelpie, Oona, it is the kelpie!” When the words came from her, hushed and strange, he knew that she knew the truth.

“I will be going . . . now.”

“Oona! come . . . “ then in a flash his arms were about her, as she leaped, and with an effort that nearly hurled both into the pool, he swung her back to the ledge.

There she lay on the grass-covered rock, white and still. Nial bent over her, moaning, trembling, moaning.

An hour later, Mullin the shepherd, coming down front the mountain, and going by the Linn o’ Mairg, so as to reach Inverglas by the west side of the strath, heard a wild barking of his dogs. Through the heat-haze he stared in­differently, then curiously, at two stooping figures.

He approached the pool slowly. The dogs were silent. One had stopped, and was sniffing and staring, the other whined at his feet.

Yes, he was right, he muttered; it was Nial . . . and Oona! But what did it mean?

Both sat silently by the Kelpie's Pool. The wild, fantastic, shrunken figure of Nial was black against the light. He seemed as though rapt, spellbound. The child was naked, her shoulder reddening under the flame of the sun. He could see her strained, streaming eyes.

His heart heat quick with a vague fear as he moved towards them. He stopped, when Oona’s low irregular sobbing was audible.

Beside him the collies crouched, whining.

Nial looked round, rose, and touched Oona. She, too, rose; her sobbing breath ceasing.

“Mām-Gorm is dead, “ said Nial, simply; “he is dead — there.”

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