Mountain Lovers, by Fiona Macleod, 1895

 

X.

IT was within an hour of nightfall when, from the verge of the forest below Màm-Gorm, Nial caught sight of the kye coming down from the hill-pastures. He could not see Sorcha, but he knew she must be there; probably with Alan, who for days past had been wont to depute his own shepherding on Tornideon to a herd laddie who lived with an old drover just beyond the Pass of the Eagles.

Nial had already been up at the farm. Oona lay where he had left her, and was still in the same profound and, but for her low breathing, deathlike slumber. Thence he had wandered back to the forest, thinking that he would de­cend towards the Linn o' Mairg, and see if Murdo were still there in his quest for Anabal. He had scarce entered the pine-glades when, happening to glance backward, he saw the cows coming home.

Sure enough, in a few minutes Sorcha appeared: and, as he had surmised, Alan with her. They walked together, his arm about her waist, while slowly they followed the leisurely kye. As they came nearer, Nial heard Sorcha singing one of her many milking songs. Often he had heard her sing that which now came, rippling down the heather, and he could have given her word for word for it.

“O sweet St. Bride of the
Yellow, yellow hair:
Paul said, and Peter said,
And all the saints alove or dead
Vowed she had the sweetest head,
Bonnie, sweet St. Bride of the
  Yellow, yellow hair.

“White may my milking be,
  White as thee:
Thy face is white, thy neck is white,
Thy hands are white, thy feet are white,
For they sweet soul is shining bright,---
Oh dear to me,
Oh, dear to see,
St. Bridget white !

“Yellow may my butter be,
Soft and round,
They breasts are sweet,
Soft, round, and sweet.
So may my butter be:
So may my butter be, O
Bridget sweet!

“Safe they way is, safe O
Safe, St. Bride:
May my kye come home at even,
None be fallin’, none be leavin’,
Dusky even, breath-sweet even|
Here, as there, where O
St. Bride thou

“Keepest tryst with God in heav’n,
Seest the angels bow
And souls be shriven---
Here, as there, ‘t is breath-sweet even,
Far and wide---
Singeth thy little maid
Safe in the thy shade
 
Bridget, Bride !”

Nial hesitated. He would have gone to her at once, but he did not wish to speak before Alan. Moreover, what was he to say to Angus Ogue, as Anabal's son was called by the strath­folk on account of his beauty and because he was a dreamer and a poet, though but a shep­herd of the hills. How could He tell of Murdo’s quest by the pool, and also of the spirit or wraith he had seen sitting on Cnoc-Ruadh that is beyond Ardoch-beag on Tornideon?

The flanks of the cows gleamed in the light as with filled udders they swung slowly homeward, their breaths showing in whorls of mist whenever they were in shadow, where the dews were already falling after the extreme of heat. Behind them, now on a sloping buttress of rock and heather, now on the smooth thymy hollows which lay like green pool, among the purple ling. Alan and Sorcha moved, both bathed in the sunglow, his left hand clasping her right and swinging slow. Ah, fair to see, thought Nial: fair to see.

But, even while he pondered, he saw Alan take Sorcha in his arms, kiss her, and then with lingering hand-clasp, turn to go up the mountain again, or, as might be, to cross to Tornideon. Not far did he go, though, for, as Nial watched, he saw Sorchas lover lean against a great boulder, where he stood like a fair god, because of the sunflood falling upon him in gold waves out of the west. Beautiful the rolling of that sea of light across the sloping surface of the forest: with the yellow-shining billows flowing and rippling among the summits of the pines, and ever and again spilling into branchy crevices or dark, green under-glooms.

Doubtless Alan was waiting to see her reach Màm-Goren, and perhaps for a signal thereafter: if so, thought Nial, he had best see Sorcha at once, though he knew not the way of the thing to be said, or if he could speak at all while Oona slept.

Slowly he moved towards her. She had descried him, for she did not follow the cows, but stood waiting. The gloaming was already about her. She was like a spirit, he thought, with the windy hair about her face--- for with the going of the sun a sudden eddy had arisen, and the air of its furtive, wavering pinions was upon Sorcha.

"Nial!" she cried blithely, when he was a brief way off: “Is the peat-smoke a bird that it has flown away from the house—for not a breath of smoke do I see? Is father in: and Oona? Have you seen her? I’ve called thrice, but St. Bridget herself wouldn’t be having an answer from Oona if she's hiding somewhere. Oona . . . Oona . . . Oona !

“Don't be calling upon the child, Sorcha. She is tired, and is sleeping. "

“And father?”

Then in his heart of hearts Nial knew that he had not the courage to say what he had to say. Sure, too, there was something he did not understand. After all, the woman he had seen on Croc-Ruadh, could be no other than Anabal Gilchrist. And if she could be drowned, and yet come alive again, perhaps Torcall Cameron could, ay, was perhaps already up and, blind as he was, feeling blankly round the walls of the strange place he was in, to be out soon, and, later, in the dark, come striding into Màm­-orm.

"And father, Nial, and father? Is he in, or is he out upon the hill, with the gloom upon him this night again?"

“It will be a strange thing that I am telling you, Sorcha-nighean-Thorcall, but one that will be glad and warm in your heart."

"Speak:”

"There is . . . there is peace now between Màm-Gorm and the woman Anabal, that is mother of Alan."

"Peace! Oh, Nial! To Himself the praise of it! Oh, glad I am at the good thing that you say. Sure, glad am I!"

“It is true. Ay, and he has gone over to Tornideon, and will sleep this night at Ardoch- beag!”

Sorcha stared bewildered. Even her joy at the news, which meant so much for her and Alan, was forgotten in sheer amaze. Her father go to Tornideon, her father asleep at Ardoch-beag!

Words of his came to her remembrance: she, too, muttered "my soul swims in mist."

“Nial is this—a true thing?" . . .

“Ay.”

“Is it — is it — a true thing that he is up at Ardoch-beag, and will sleep there . . . and . . . and . . . is at peace?"

"Ay, sure, he is up at Ardoch-beag, and will sleep there, and sure, too, sure he is at peace."

A wonderful light came into the girl's beautiful eyes. Her twilight beauty was now as a starry dusk.

"Nial,” she whispered, "dear Nial, you and Murdo see to the milking of the kye for me this night . . . do, dear good Nial, do! And you can ask Oona, too, to help you . . . for . . . for, Nial, all is well now . . . and I can go to Alan ... oh glad am I, and like as though a bird sang in my heart! "

And then, before he realized what he had brought upon himself, before he could say a word of yea or nay, Sorcha had turned, and with swift steps was hurrying through the gloaming to where Alan still stood on the hillside, watching and dreaming, dreaming and hoping.

Nial stood gazing after her. Strange this mystery of beauty. All his trouble waned out of the glare of day into a cool twilight. The passing of her there on the hill was like music in his ears. Ah, to be Alan, to have so tall and strong a body, so fair a face, to have Sorcha’s love, to have a soul! The fairer soul the finer body; that seemed to him a truth—for what had he to go by but the three he knew best and loved best, Oona and Sorcha and Alan, the fairest man, the most beautiful woman, time loveliest child he had ever seen or dreamed of there in Strath lolair, or during those mysterious wanderings of his when he was far from the mountainland with the gypsy-people. No beauty like theirs, no others like them in any way; sure, it was because the souls of them were white, and all three kindred of the forgotten "people of the sun," whom Sorcha sometimes sang or spoke of as the Tuatha-de-Dánan, and Màm-Gorm had told him once were old forgotten gods — fair, deathless folk.

In truth it was with joy that Sorcha hastened towards Alan. He saw the light in her eyes before she was near enough to speak. Often, beholding her, he was aware of something within him that was as a sun-dazzle to the eye that looks upon a shining sea or a cloudless noon. Sometimes his heart beat low, and an awe made a hushed, fragrant, green-gloom dusk in his brain; sometimes he grew faint, strangely wrought, as a worshipper when the spirit for a brief moment unveils its sanctuary and irradiates, transforms the whole trembling body, but most the face and the eyes of wonder. At other times all the poet in him arose. Then he laughed low with joy because of her beauty; and saw in her the loveliness of the mountainland. Then it was that she was his “Dream,” his “Twilight,” his “Shining star,” his “Soft breath of dusk.” Dear she was to him as the fawn to the hind, sweet as the bell heather to the wild bee, lovely and sweet and dear beyond all words to say, all thought to image. Then there were their blithe hours of youth—hours when he was Alain-aluinn and she Sorcha- maiseath; seasons of laughing happiness, and light ripple of the waters of peace. Children of the sun they were in truth, in a deeper sense than they, as all the kindred of the Gael, were children of the mist.

But of late both —and he particularly --- had been wrought more and more by the passion of love. Ever since the refusal of the minister at Inverglas to marry them, because of the feud between Torcall Cameron and Anabal Gilchrist and of the ban laid by each against the offspring of the other, they had troubled themselves no more about what, after all, to them, in their remote life in these mountain solitudes, meant little. In the dewy, moth-haunted, fragrant nights of May, when it was never quite dark upon the hills, and even in the forest the pineboles loomed shadowy, they had become dearer than ever to each other. Day by day thereafter their joy had grown, like a flower moving ever to the sun; and as it grew, the roots deepened, and the tendrils met and intertwined round the two hearts, till at last they were drawn together and became one, as two moving rays of light will converge into one beam, or the song of two singers blend and become as the song of one. As the weeks passed, the wonder of the dream became at times a brooding passion, at times almost an ecstasy. Ossian and the poets of old speak of a strange frenzy that came upon the brave; and, sure, there is a mircath 1 in love now and again in the world, in the green, remote places at least. Aodh the islander, and Ian-bàn of the hills, and other dreamer-poets know of it--- the mirdhei, the passion that is deeper than passion, the dream that is beyond the dreamer, the ecstasy that is the rapture of the soul, with the body nigh forgot.

This mirdhei was now more and more upon Alan; upon Sorcha, too, the dream-spell lay.

So it was in a glad silence that he watched her coming. For the moment she was not Sorcha, but Bándia-nan-sleibhtean, a goddess of the hills, fair as the Banrigh-nan-Allsean the fairy queen. Often, singing or telling her some of the songs of Oisin mhic Phionn, he had called her his Darthula, after that fairest of women in the days of old, because she too had deep eyes of beauty and wonder. Therefore the word came out of his heart, like the single mating-note of a mavis, when, as she drew nigh to him and whispered low, “Alan!  Alan! ” he murmured only “Darthula . . Darthula-mo-chree!”

1The “mircath” or war-frenzy, is mire-chath, the “passion of battle,” as the “mirdeeay” is mire-dheidh, the “passion of longing.”  The word Darthula---infra--- is a lager Gaelic variant of Dearduil (almost identally pronounced), the Scoto-Gaelic equivalent of the Erse Dierdrê, the most beautiful woman of old.

In a few words she told him the marvelous news: Torcall and Anabal at peace; her father now at Ardoch-beag!

At first he too could scarce believe it. Then, little by little, the smaller wonder waned, and the wonder of his love — the wonder of Sorcha grew.

Hand in hand they wandered slowly up the mountain as in a dream. A strange new joy had come to them. The world fell further away, far beneath them. Even the strath became a shadowy place - a foreign strand where their voyaging boats need never coast.

When the moon rose, first through a tremulous flood of amber-yellow light, thence to emerge as a pale-gold flower, low in the Lios-nan-speur, the “garden of the starry heavens,” the mountain lovers were already far up Ben Iolail, and nigh the great Sg̣rr-Glan, the precipice that on the eastern flank falls sheer front the Drum-nan-Damh, the Ridge of the Stags, for close upon two thousand feet. Here in a sheltered place known as the Bad-a-sgailch ann choire-na-gaoithe the shading clump of trees in the windy corrie, was the sheiling of Murdo, the shepherd, which for weeks past had been used by Alan rather than his own hill-sheiling high on Tornideon, where the east wind blew with a fierce breath, and the hill-slope was barren, and there was no Sorcha.

They could hear the wind among the heights, but the moon wave was everywhere with quiet light, and there was peace.

For a while they stood at the door of the cot. The moonshine touched them with a beam of pale gold —a finger out of heaven. Silent and still it was: no sound but the furtive crying of the wind among the invisible corries and peaks, with a flute-like call among the serrated pinnacles of the Ridge of the Stags.  At intervals, as a vagrant breath, came the sigh of the hill-torrents as they fell towards the Srùantshrà, the wild stream that foams from the lochan of Mairg beyond the Pass of the Eagles, and surges hoarse and dark, even in the summer droughts, at the base of the great precipice of Sg̣rr-Glan.

Hand in hand they stood, silence between them. Their eyes dreamed into the moonlit dusk. In the mind of Alan Sorcha moved as a vision: in the mind of Sorcha there were two shadowy figures of dream — Alan, and the child over whose faint breath of life in her womb her heart yearned as a brooding dove.

When Oona awoke she saw that it was dark. In the peat-glow she could descry the figure of Nial crouching in the shadow of the ingle, his gaze fixed upon her.

What is it, Nial; what have you been doing?”

The dwarf saw that as yet she had not remembered. He feared for the child, though he knew not, what none knew, how the strange fatalism of the race was already strong within her, strong and compelling as hunger, thirst, or sleep.

“Oona, my fawn, you must have food. I am hungry too. You have not eaten since last night.”

A startled look came into her eyes. He saw it, and hurriedly resumed---

“So, a little ago, I lit the peats, which had smouldered into ash; and now, bonnie we doo, I will be making the porridge for you, and see . . . the water is boiling that is in the kettle, and I’m thinking it is singing Oona, Oona, mochree, Oona, Oona, mochree, come and be having the food with poor Nial!  And, Oona, look you, there is the warm milk, and the bread; for I milked the brown cow Aillsha-bàn, when Sorcha went up the hill with Alan. An' I couldn't be milking the white one, Gealcas, for she wouldn't give without Sorcha's singing, an' I could not be minding that song; no, not I; but I knew the song for Aillsha-bàn:—

“Aillsha-bàn, Aillsha-bàn
Give way to the milking!
The holy St. Bridget
Is milking, milking
This self-same even
The white kye in heaven---
Ay sure, my eyes scan
The green place she is in,
Aillsha-bàn, Aillsha-bàn:
And her hand is so soft
And her crooning so sweet
As my milking is soft
Upon thee, Aillsha-bàn,
As my crooning is sweet
Upon thee Aillsha-bàn,
  Aillsha-bàn---
So soft is my hand and
My crooning so sweet,
  Aillsha-bàn!”

Poor Nial's singing was not restful, for his voice was at all times shrill and hoarse, and now it had an added quaver in it. But Oona, listened, drowsily content.

She had remembered all. Yes: Sorcha was right that day when she said Death roamed through every hour, and that the moment before each new hour Death stood at the duoor and broke the link that held the going and the coming in one bond.

If her foster-father was dead, he was dead. The fact was absolute to her. Once she had seen a stag die. She had been up near the summit of flair, and was about to quench her thirst from a small black tarn, hid among the rocks, when she caught sight of a wounded deer. The hunter had maimed, not slain it: and though it had escaped, it was only to sink with weariness by the tarn, and lie there watching its blood trickle steadily into the crimsoned water, till there should be no more flow. As long as life remained in the stricken beat, Oona could not believe in the possibility of death. In its extremity it made no further effort when she drew close; only a gurgling sob showed its broken heart, and great tears fell from its violet eyes. Either instinct let the stag know that she would do it no harm, or it was too weak to resent a touch; but in the end the dying deer let Oona take its nozzle in her lap, while she smoothed the velvety skin and wiped away the blood and sweat. Even when kissing it and calling it tender impos­sible names, she saw the veil come over the eyes, she could not admit that death could come then — there. But when there was not a quiver, and the rigid limbs were cold, her tears dried, and she looked at it meditatively. It was dead: what had she in common with it?

A little ago, her heart throbbed with loving pity; now she glanced at the great beast curiously. Its strong odor was disagreeable; its bloodied mouth and breast disgusted her. There was no good in being sorry. It was dead.

In a different, but kindred way, her foster-father was the stricken deer. She had seem him almost to his death; she had seen the drowned body; almost she had died of her wild and passionate grief. Then she had slept through the noon-heats, and the afternoon, and the evening: and now she awoke to the no longer overwhelming but irrefutable fact, that her foster-father was dead.

She had meant well. Why did the woman Anabal not see to the blind man? But it did not matter. He was dead now: dead. God willed it so. It was to be. Not all the striving in the world could have prevented this. In wild winter nights, before the peats, she had heard Torcall himself chant the rune of Aodh the poet, with that haunting ending which Sorcha sang often to herself; that Alan had on his lips at times as always in his heart; and that even Murdo muttered when it was tempetuous weather, and Death was abroad, and the gloom of the rocks was heavy upon him. Ah, the words evaded her: but Nial would know, Nial, who was the tuneless harp that caught all wandering strains, from sheiling-song to the Way of the wind among leaves.

"Nial, what is the thing, that Sorcha sings often . . . and that . . . that he sang some­times, about the quiet at the end?"

Nial stared, puzzled for a moment; then he repeated in a low voice---

“Deireadh gach comuinn, sgaoileadh:
Deireadh gach cogaidh, sith!”

Over and over Oona murmured the words: “The end of all meeting, parting: the end of all strining, peace.”

She was tired. She would think no more about her foster-father. He had seen God by now. He would know why she had away from the Linn: and how the fear was upon her in the wood; and, afterwards, how the sorrow of him pulled at her heart. And now...

How she wished Sorcha were home, to sing to her. Warm was the peat-glow, and she was tired. She closed her eyes again, murmuring drowsily the refrain of an old song.

Silence was in the dusky room again. Nial sat crouching by the fire: patient, as was his wont. There was not a sound within, save the low breathing of the child and the dull spurt to of the flame among the red fibres on the underside of the peats. Outside there was a melancholy wail in the sough of the hill wind.

The first hour of the dark passed. What was the night to bring forth, he wondered. Where was Murdo? What had he found:

Another hour passed. A weary sleep was on him. He dozed, woke, stared at the shadowy figure of Onna, dozed again. At last he too slumbered, the duain-samhach, that is too calm for dreams, too deep for sorrow.

It was in the middle of the third hour that he stirred because of the howling of a dog.

Nial could do what was impossible even for Murdo the shepherd: he could tell in the dark, and by the sound only, which of the dogs barked. He knew now that the howling came neither from Donn nor Luath. It was not the coming of Murdo then, for these were his two dogs, and that was not the howl of either, if they were near, their baying would be audible.

Yes, it was Fior. She must have left her pups, and be roaming round the sheiling. Why was she not in the barn? What had alarmed her?

If it were not because of Oona, he would go and quiet her. Tenderly he glanced towards the bed, he rose slowly, his heart beating.

In the flicker of the fire he saw the child sitting upright, her eyes wide open and staring fixedly.

She said no word. He feared to speak. Her unwavering gaze disconcerted him, though now he saw that it was not upon him. He would just whisper to her, he thought:

"Oona-mùirnean, Oona-uanachan, it is only Fior. She will be baying against the moon, because of the spell against her pups."

She paid no attention to him. He shivered as he saw that her eyes were now unnaturally bright: and that their gaze shifted, as though they followed one who moved about the room.

The child shivered, but seemed more in startled amaze than dread. There was more fear in Nial than with her, when he heard her speak.

"Why do you come here?"

Nial stared. There was no one visible.

Is coma leam thu!” I hate you, I hate you!" cried the child, with a passionate sob. “Go back to him. I left him with you! He is not here; He is dead . . . he is dead . . . he is dead!”

Trembling. the dwarf advanced a step or two.

“Oona! Oona! It is I, Niall! Speak to me!”

"Stand back, Nial: The woman Anabal, wife of Fergus, is speaking to me."

With a groan he staggered to one side. Was she here, then, and not still sitting on the great rock overlooking the strath? Sure, then, a spirit must she be: and no wraith now, for his eyes were void of her.

But for all his dread, he must guard his lamb. If only he knew one of the spells in the Book that he had placed at Oona's feet!

"And what will An ---what will she be saying to you, my bird?”

She says: Leanabh, dh’ eirich dha; dh’ eirich dohm,; eirich dhuit!”

Nial slowly repeated the words below his breath: “Child, it has happened to him; It is has happened to me: it will happen to you. Oona must be ill, he thought; as Murdo was two winters ago, that time he came back from the strath, on the last night of the year, lurching and swaying, and saying wild meaningless things.

"And what else will she be saying to you, birdeen!"

Thig thu gu h’anamoch!

Thou shalt come later; sure now, dear, there is no meaning in that Oona, my bonnie, lie down; lie down, wee lassie, and sleep, and sleep!"

But even as he spoke, he saw a change in her face. It was like moonshine suddenly moving on dark water.

He caught fragmentary words . . . swain . . . śth . . . and then, with "sleep" and "peace" still on her lips, she lay back, smiling.

Slowly and soundlessly he approached the bed. In the intense stillness he heard his breath going like the slow, heavy beat of a heron's wing. Outside, the baying of the dog had suddenly ceased.

She was asleep, or nigh so. He stooped, and kissed the yellow tangles that overspread the pillow.

Her lips moved.

What was the thing he whispered? He could not hear; ah, she was murmuring it again . . . anail! . . . breath of . . . breath of . . .

Hush-sh-sh, birdeen,” he whispered low; then, seeing that her lips again muttered drowsily, he put his ear to them.

And then . . . she . . . smiled . . . and said: Do not . . . fear! (a pause, a sigh) . . . sacred is the . . . breath . . . the breath of . . . a mother.”

The child slept. He stole back to the ingle. There was peace now; even the wind, though it moans and swelled more and more loudly, was as a soothing song.

And so the night passed;  Nial sleeping fitfully, waking often, and ever when he woke pondering that last saying of the child, “Is blàth anail na mathar.”

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