Mountain Lovers, by Fiona Macleod, 1895

 

IX.

IN a brief space, Murdo learned what Nial could tell him. For all his shepherd-eyes, he could discern nothing in the pool but a vague blur of darkness far down.

What was he to do? He could not think, with these two staring at him there. Whispering to Nial that he would be back shortly, that he was going upstream to where Oona’s clothes were, and adding that when he brought them back Nial was to lead the little lass away, take her hone. And and tell Sorcha.

When, some minutes later, Murdo returned with the small bundle, he saw that the child was weary with heat and fatigue, as well as with what she had endured. There would be no trouble with her.

And indeed, when once she was in her scanty garb again, Oona went without a word. Nial whispered that he would be back as soon as he could; and would bring the gray horse with him.

The last Murdo saw of them was a momentary glimpse as they disappeared among the bracken, under the pine. The elf-man was carrying the sleeping Oona in his strong crooked arms.

The shepherd, who had betrayed no emotion as yet, stood staring into the pool. A mist came into his eyes, and one or two tears rolled down his furrowed face. A grim satisfaction moved into his mind, along with his dull pain; for now he remembered how his father, who had been shepherd on Màm-Gorm of Iolair before him, had had “the sight" of this very happening. The old man had been laughed at in the strath; though, by the waterside, he had thrice seen Màm-Gorm's wraith rise out of the Kelpie's Pool. Now the foolish folk down there would not be laughing.

After a time he bethought himself that Niat might not be back for long. It was nigh upon noon, and he wished to get the body away as soon as might be. It was now he remembered that Nial could not tell Sorcha, for he had met her and Alan going after the kye to the hill-pastures. This was well, meanwhile.

At the Ford of Ardoch there was an old boat not used for years past, save by himself, by Sorcha, or by Alan. In it were fishing poles, a rope, and other things of his and Alan's.

They would serve now, he muttered. So once more the gaunt plaided shepherd strode up stream, mumbling as he went through his red tangled beard, and with his wild hill-eye: shin­ing with the thoughts of life and death that were slowly filling his brain thoughts, memo­ries, superstitious fears, and vague, strange phantasms rising from the dull ache of sorrow.

To his ears, the most familiar of sounds, the bleating of ewes and lambs, came down from the mountain as a lamentable cry. That night there world be dread in his heart, because of the lonely hillside, and the wide darkness, and the wraith that would be moving through that darkness.

Soon he found what he wanted, and speedily returned. At first be thought he would need help, but after a time he decided to do what he could himself. To one of the long polar he fastened his shepherd staff, with its strong curved cromak.

The sweat poured from his face with heat and weariness long before he succeeded, at last, in getting a grip of the corpse. But, undaunted by failure after failure, and these even after he had first caught hold, he raised it slowly to the shelving ledge which ran out a few feet below the surface. The rest was easy. He slipped the rope over the feet, arms, and waist; then slid the body along the slippery ledge, and so with a rush to the face of the pool, and thence to a wide cranny in the rock beside him.

Sure, there was no mistake, Màm-Gorm himself, in truth; for all he was so quiet and pale, with the dark frown out of his flace now, and all the stern, brooding life of the man no more than an already nigh-forgotten idle song.

So this was the end of Torcall Cameron of Màm-Gorm. There had been none prouder and more aloof than he in all Strath lolair. Ay, he was a proud man. And now there was an end of it all. Sure, it was a bitter ending. God save us the dark hour of it. Ay, the dull knock and the muffled voice that cone soon or late, in the mirk of day or night, at the soul-gate of each of us---Torcall mhic Diarmid had heard them. . . . Thus, over and over, variously, yet ever on the same lines, Murdo revolved in his mind the peering of Màm-Gorm.

At last, to his satisfaction, he heard the pecu­liar cry which Nial was wont to give as a signal. Then followed the trampling of a horse: finally both appeared, coming along a stony path in the forest that in winter was a clattering water course.

It did not take long for the two to lift the body on to the small shaggy white horse, and there to secure it; with the white face staring blankly up at the blue sky, the open eyes fronting with unwinking gaze the pitiless glare of the sun. While they worked, Nial told how he had carried Oona home, and laid her on Sorcha's bed, sound asleep and warn. He had feared to leave her there all alone, lest she waked, or lest evil came to “her out of the shadow”; but he did what he could, and that was to take down the great Book from the shelf by the bed where Torcall Cameron would sleep never again, and lay it at the lassie's feet. Then he had gone out to the kailyard, and let Doon the collie leave her two pups awhile, and had given her a shawl of Sorcha’s to smell, and then had sent her up the mountain to seek for Màm Gorm's daughter, wherever she might be with the sheep and kye.

As soon as all was ready, the crossing of the Mairg Water was done at the Ford, and then the ascent begun to Ardoch-beag. Murdo stalked in front, the rope-bridle looped over his arm. Raoilt, the white mare, staggered and stumbled after him up the craggy Path. Then came Nial, his shape not more fantastic than the shadow which waxed and waned mockingly before him, as he toiled upward, with bent head and tear-wet quivering face. Finally, lagging some yards behind, limped Murdo's two collies.

The August heat-wave silenced every bird on the hillside. Not even the grouse cluttered. Far away, in a marshy place, there was a drumming of snipe.

The air was heavy with the smell of honey-ooze from the pale ling and the purple bell-heather. Now and again there was the sharp twang in it of the bog-myrtle, sweltering in the sun-glow.

The thin dust rose from the path, or even from the face of the granite rocks. The shadows of the wayfarers lay pale-blue against the hill-road, when the path widened into it. The dogs crawled, panting, their long tongues lulling like quivering bloody snakes. Nial wearily wagged his shaggy peaked head to and fro: at times, too, he let his great swoolen tongue fall half out of his mouth, as though to cool the thirst of it against the parched air. Poor Raoilt sweated at every pore of her body, while dark streaks of wet ran down her flanks. Murdo showed less fatigue; but his weather brown face had become deep red, and about his moist brow a haze of midges hovered. Quiet and cool, one only: cool and quiet, the rider on the white horse, for all that his (ace was as baked clay in the yellow glare, that his staring eyes were upon the whirling disk of flame in the zenith.

With a sigh of relief Murdo saw at last the cottage of the Gilchrists, sole house on the easter side of Tornideon.

Not a word had he said hitherto to Nial as to the taking of the corpse to Ardoch-beag. If the dwarf had thought of a destination at all, apart from Màm-Gorm, it was doubtless of the minister's house, which lay three miles beyond Ardoch-beag, at the far end of Inverglas.

But suddenly he waked to the knowledge that Murdo was off the road, and on the path lead­ing to the byres of the widow Anabal.

What was the meaning of it, he asked; but Murdo would not hear. As they stopped at the ring-stone, between the byre and the cottage, he went up to the shepherd.

“Why will you be doing this thing, Murdo MacMurdo?” he demanded.

At first the man gloomed upon him, then he smiled grimly.

“Wait.”

Having said this, Murdo strode to the door­way of the cot. He knocked; there was no answer. He knocked again; again no answer. Then he opened the door, He did not expect to see Alan, but he was sure the woman Anabal would be in. There was no trace of her. The bed had not been slept in. The peats were black in the fireplace. Yet strange to say, an open Bible lay on the low deal table, and on the near page was a pair of horn spectacles.

It was very strange. Well, he would search everywhere, both but and ben, outhouses, and byre, and stable.

There was not even a dog about the place. He returned to Nial, downcast.

"There is a spell upon this place, Nial-of-the-Woods. I wish we had not come."

"Why did you come?"

"This, man, this — this — is why!" he muttered savagely, and as he spoke he drew from his pocket a gold ring.

"That is one reason, Nial-of-the-Woods! Look you, I found that ring in a crevice in the rocks on the further left side of the Linn o' Mairg. Look you again, I know the ring. Do you see these letters? Ah, well, you can't read, poor elfin-creature that you are; but I'Il tell them to you. They are F. G. and A. G. And now will you be knowing what F. G. and A. G. are for? They are for Fergus Gilchrist and Anabal Gilchrist—and this ring here, that I found by the Linn o’ Mairg, is the wedding-ring of Aanbal Gilchrist!”

The outcast stared, vaguely impressed, but without understanding what Murdo was driving at. The man saw he was puzzled, so with a rough gesture he pulled him over to the near flank of the mare. "And here, you poor fool —to Himself be the praise, for this and that! — is the other reason. Look at that!"

What he pointed to was a Long tress of gray hair, gray-streaked brown hair, firmly clutched in the right hand of the dead man.

A glimmering of Murdo's meaning came into Nial's mind. He glanced at the shepherd, appalled.

"Ay" whispered the latter, divining his thought: "sure that there is nothing else but a tress of the hair of the woman Anaibal. Andyou be telling me, Nial, if you can, what Anabal Gilchrist was doing last night or today afore dawn, that she should leave her golden wedding-ring lying by the Linn-side, and that a tress of her hair__ and there is none like it, no, none o' that witchy gray-brown, in all the strath — should be held even now in the death.grip o' Torcall Cameron o' Màm-Gorm.

"And that is why you have come here, with . . . with . . . him!'

"That is why."

The two looked at each other. A fierce anger and lust of revenge burned in the heart of the shepherd. To Nial everything was simply a horrible incomprehensible mystery. But Murdo knew something, perhaps more than any one else, of what had lain between Torcall Cameron and Anabal Gilchrist; whatever the outcast knew, or vaguely surmised, was too deep down in his mind now to swim up into remembrance.

It was Nial who broke the silence.

" What of Alan?"

"The curse is upon him too — to the Stones be it said!"

"He will be far up on the north side of Tornideon . . . or with Sorcha on Iolair."

The woman must have fled. Or ... ah, for sure that thought was never coming to me. Nial, my man, you never thought o' that, did you? You never thought that perhaps there were two bodies down there in the pool! Ay, for sure, for sure: Màm-Gorm was not the man to die alone!"

“Perhaps . . . Murdo, perhaps it was . . . perhaps it was ... he ho . . .”

The words failed. The gaunt shepherd looked down at the speaker, frowning darkly.

“May be, may be," he muttered at last. "If I thought that, I would he letting him lie in his own house. Nial, see that no word o this gets upon your lips if you meet any one. No one must think that. No one in the strath must think an evil thing o' Màm-Gorm."

Once more Murdo left, and made a diligent search everywhere. When he came back, he was muttering constantly, with a wild look in his eyes.

"Did you hear that?" he asked in a hoarse whisper.

"That? That? I heard nothing."

"Did ye not hear some one in the shadow ayont the byre crying, Cian! Cian! Cianalas! Dubachas!1

1 Pron. Kean ! Kean ! Kean ! Keen-al-u-as !Doov-ach-us! To Celtic ears, not unlike the wailing cry of the plover.The words, moreover, mean “For long, ever! Melancholy! Gloom!”  The word feadag (pron. Faa’ ak), in the ensuing centences, has two meanings, - a plover, and a flute.  The binn fheadag is the “shrill voice of the plover.”  Murdo turns the word both ways: feadag, the bird and feadag, the flute; the flute made of wind and shadow that sometimes is heard on the hills when a (tamhasgtavak moves thrugh the gloom of night.

"No, no," murmured Nial, trembling; "I saw the shadow of a bird on the grassy place yonder, and a cry like the binn fheadag."

"Ay, the feadag, the feadag, but no flying bird, for twas a wraith playing the dark song of the dead on the shadowy feadag that no man has ever seen, though there be those who hear it . . . God save us!"

Nial shuddered. It might be so, he thought. He believed he had seen a plover only, had heard no more than the wailing cry of a plover; but doubtless Murdo knew.

The shepherd stood staring at him gloomily. Ad last he spoke.

"This is a dark thing, Nial, my man. There is no light upon it to me whatever. But it will be looking to me as though I should go down to the pool again, and be seeing if she is there too. And if not, then I must seek out Alan upon the hill. Do you think this thing too?”

Nial shook his head despondently; he could think neither one way nor another. Màm-Gorm lay there dead — white, stiff, staring up to the sun. He knew that.

"Ah, poor fool that you are," Murdo went on, pityingly, and as though talking to himself , "sure, I need not be asking you. How can a souless thing o' the woods think: wi’ a head like an addled egg, and a poor bit body withouten a spirit in it, as all decent folk have. Well, well, 't is Himself has the good reason, praise be His! And, now, Nial, I will be doing this thing. I told you the Book lay open on the table in there. Well, I will be for going by whatever the word is that is on my sight when I first look. If it tell me to go into Inverglas, and speak of this evil day, then it is going there I will be; if it tell me to go and seek in the pool, well, I will be going there; and whatever I see, it will be the way for me. If I am to speak, it is speaking, I will be; if I am to be silent, it is silent I will be."

And with that the shepherd turned, moved slowly away, and entered the cottage for the third time.

Where would he look, he wondered, when he stood by the table, and stared down upon the open Gaelic Bible. Sure, he would accept the sign in the sentence across which Anabal's spectacles lay.

He stooped, and with pointing finger read slowly and with dificulty, word by word:—

"Cur, a Thighearna, faire air mo bheul; gléudh dorus mo bhilean!”
“Set O Lord, a watch before my mouth, keep the door of my lips!”

"That will be enough," he muttered with bated breath, and went out. As he approached the horse, Nial saw that he had found the “wisdom.” Vaguely he wondered if Murdo had noticed any "living words,”—the mysterious phrase that ever perplexed, and sometimes terrified him.

"Nial, I have found the word. It is not for me to go into the strath with news of the dead. The Book said, 'Keep a watch before the mouth, keep the door of the Màm-Gorm, too, loved as much as Donn or Fior or any o' the dogs, wise beasties. . . . Well. I will be going now, down to the pool: then, one way or the other. I will be looking for Alan Gilchrist. An' it is for you to wait here, Nial. lest he or any other come. We'll put the mare and . . . and . . . Màm-Gorm . . . into the byre just now. And you wait, you will be minding!"

In silence Raoilt, with her rigid burden, was Ied into the hot gloom of the byre Then the door was partially closed, for there was no fas­tening to it, and Murdo made ready to go.

"Leave me one o the dogs," said Nial, sullenly.

"And for why?"

"I will not be staying here alone, in this treeless, foreign place, Murdo MacMurdo; no, that I won't, unless you will be leaving me one of the dogs."

The shepherd grunted surlily, for the collies were his best friends, and good company. But if so to be, then so to be. He would take Braon and leave Luath. It was safer, at such a time, to be alone with a dog, than a bitch: for bitches were known often to be in league with demons and evil spirits. As for Nial, not being human himself, there would be Iess risk. Now that he noticed it, there was a red glare in Luath 's eyes, and the bitch moved about in a strange way. For sure he would take Braon.

The time went wearily for the watcher at Ardoch-beag. The sweltering heat made him long doubly for the green forest that was his home. He did not dare enter that lonely house. Who or what might be sitting there, or standing looking at him from the inner room? Neither could he venture into the byre, though, but for her awful burden, he would rather have the company of the mare Raoilt than of the bitch Luath.

For a long while he sat in the shadow of a dyke that was the south side of the winter sheepfold. But he grew more and more uneasy as time passed. What it Murdo did not come back till after nightfall?

He rose and stared about him. Where was Luath? He could not see the collie anywhere. He had noticed her trotting idly up the steep bend of the road beyond the cottage.

“Ah, there she is;' he muttered, as he saw a shadow flit bluely across the blinding way. But what wan the matter with the beast? She came along at a swift, slinking run, her tail skiffing the ground between her feet. As she passed, she gave him a furtive glance. The upper lip, taut, just showed a glimmer of white fangs.

“Luath! LuathI Luath!”

But the collie would pay no heed; or, rather, she paid this heed, that she broke into a race, and flew down the road to the Ford till she was no more than a black blur beyond a whirling eddy of dust.

This was the last straw. Nial gave one look more all around him. Then he listened at the byre, to hear if Raoilt were munching at her hay. What if Màm-Gorm should get tired of being dead, and should dismount, and, rigid and white, step out into the sunlight? The thought made him shiver, for all the blazing heat.

Silently as his shadow, he was out upon the road. Suddenly the whim took him to go the other way rather than by the path he and the others had come. Below Cnoc-Ruadh the road dipped for a bit; and there was a sheep-path front it that would lead him down to the ford of Ath-na-chaorach, whence he would soon be in Iolair forest again.

But no Ford of the Sheep did Nial see that day.

For after he had reached the summit of the road at that part, to the westward of Ardoch-beag, he saw a sight that brought the heart suffocatingly to his mouth. It was this, then, that had made Luath slink swiftly away, with currled lip and bristling fell.

There, as though carven in stone, sat the woman Anabal, rigid andmotionless as the thing that was in the byre. She was on the extreme verge of Cnoc-Ruadh, where a double ledge runs out from the great boulder which overhangs the strath, and whence for nigh upon a score of miles the eye can follow the course of Mairg Water.

At the far end a heat-haze obscured mountain-flank, and bracken-slope, and birk-shaw, all save the extreme summits of the hills, purple-gray shadows against the gleaming sky. Nearer, in the north strath, the smoke of many cot, sheilings, and bothan rose in their perpendicular or spiral columns of pale blue mist.

From where Nial stood he could see her face. It was as wan and awful as that of the dead man in the byre, but he saw that the eyes lived. The woman sat dumb, blind, oblivious of the flaming heat, her gaze fixed, unwavering. Fire burned in them, a fire that would never be quenched, till the clay of the grave.

He could not tell whether she was alive or dead, whether a woman or a wraith. But he noted the long tangled locks of hair which hung over her shoulder, brown hair streaked, with gray, like the tress that the dead man still clutched in his right hand.

It was a thing to flee from.  One desire only possessed him now, to reach the safe green quietudes of the pine-forest once more. There all was familiar; there he could evade man or wraith.

And so he, too, left that solitude, where, once again, Torcall and Anabal were nigh one to another, and not knowing it.

How could he know: none but God knew: that in the woman's ears was the roar of the Linn forever, that the laughter of a kelpie wrought her ever to an excruciating terror. Dumb, motionless, staring unwaveringly; so was she at the flame-red setting, as she had been since the first blaze had lightened along the peaks of the east.

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