Mountain Lovers, by Fiona Macleod, 1895



WEEK after week went by, changelessly fine, so that in the strath men began to shake their heads ominously because of the long drought. In the memory of none had there been an autumn so lovely. For a brief spell, in mid August, coming indeed with the storm of wind which had helped the flames utterly to consume the few poor buildings of Anabal Gilchrist on Turuideon, great clouds had travelled inland from the Atlantic, and had burst floodingly upon hill and valley. But in less than a week the sky was clear again, and of a richer, deeper blue. The whole mountain-land was veiled in beauty.

The woods at the end of October were, other than the pine forests, a blaze of glory. Few leaves had fallen, except from the limes and sycamores, and these sparsely only… scarce enough to lay a pathway of flakes of yellow gold before the hinds and fawns that trooped through the sunlit glades. The innumerable rowan-trees wore fiery hues upon their feathery foliage: everywhere the scarlet berries suspended in blood-red clusters against the blue sky or the cool greenness.

The dream, the spell, was not only upon the beautiful green earth. It lay elsewhere than there, or in the deeps of heaven: elsewhere than on the quiet waters, which slept against the shores beyond the mountains, and slumbered immeasurably towards the ever-receding west, with a soft moaning only, wonderful and sweet to hear.

For it was upon the heart and in the brain of each of the mountaineers of Iolair: but most upon Sorcha and Alan.

For them the days had gone past, days of rapt happiness in that golden weather. Already the world had become to them no more than a dream. They went to and fro, hushed, upon the hills, each oblivious of all save the other, all save the ceaseless thrilling wonder of the pagent of the hours from dawn to moonset. That strange rapture which comes at times to isolated visionary dreamers upon the hills, wrought a spell upon Alan. Scarce less was it upon Sorcha, and that less only, if at all, because of the second life that she sustained. The “mirdeeay” was a glamour in their eyes, in their mind, in their head, from the hour of the waning star to the coming of night. Not all an evil thing is it to dream. The world well lost! Ah, shadowy-eyed dreamers that know the secret wisdom, it is well to dream.

None of the strath folk saw them now. The people murmured against them, because of the tragic mystery of the deaths of Torcall Cameron and Anabal Gilchrist. Little had been learned from Murdo, and none now encountered Oona or Nial. But a dropt word, a reluctant admission, a careful evasion, from the shepherd, went far. Hints grew into a legend: soon a perverted yet not wholly misleading version of the facts became current.

On the same morning when, fronm the mountain-sheiling, they had seen the white mare, screaming in her madness, leap from the precipice of Sgòrr-Glan, as though full against the sun, Alan and Sorcha learned from Menlo what had happened. Below all the grief and horror of the double tragedy, there was one thing not to be gainsaid. The hand of God was here.

After their first passionate sorrow they whispered this thing the one to the other. It was ordained. God had wrought thus with the threads of all their lives. There was none to blame, neither Torcall nor Anabal, nor the child Oona, unwitting instrument of the divine will. Is duilich cuir an aghaidh dàn: who can oppose Fate, who in himself against Destiny?

A strange thing, that had a terrifying significance for the strath-dwellers, was this: never were the bodies of Torcal Cameron and Anabal Gilchrist found. The Linn was dragged, the Kelpie's pool poled over and over, the lower reaches of Mairg Water were examined under every shelving bank, or wherever a sunken hole or submerged boulder might have caught the castaways. No trace was seen anywhere, then or later. Possibly it was true, what an old man of Inverglas averred: that there was a slope at the bottom of the Kelpie's Pool, which ran in beneath a shelving ledge, whence the water poured down a funnel-1ike passage into a cavern filled with stalactites, through the innumerable holes and crannies at the base of which the now vanished even as it came.

He had this knowledge, he said, from his father before him, who in the great drought of the first year of the century had seen the pool shrunken so that a man might stand in it and yet not be wet above the knees. “And the word of my father will not be for doubting,” the old crofter added: “for he lived with God before him till he died, and now was with his own folk in Flaiteanas itself, praising Him­self for evermore.”

Thereafter, as was but natural, the home upon Tornideon being no more, Alan and Sorcha lived at Màm-Gorm. There was none to dispute their possession, for Torcall Cameron was without blood-kin, and all that was his was Sorcha’s.

So week after week went by. Even in the strath the people said: “It was willed.” There was no man or woman among; them, even of those who were angry with Sorcha that she was not wedded before the minister— forgetful , always, that it was the minister who had refused to wed Alan and Sorcha, because of the feud between Torcall and Anabal (and, though none had inkling of it, because of the sin he knew of that lay between them, the sin that lived and moved and had its being in the person of the child Onna), and still more who were angry with her because she came never among them, but was as one lost to the world, and she too with the second life in her, when she ought to be seeing and talking to older women-folk — there was none among these who, in his or her heart of hearts, did not recognize that it is ever an idle thing for small wings to baffle against a great wind. It was to be: it would be. That was the unspoken refrain of all thoughts: the undertone of all comments.

The tragic end of Anabal Gilchrist, the doom that had fulfilled itself for Torcall Cameron: what was either but apiece with the passing of the ancient language, though none wished it to go; with the exile of the sons, though they would fain live and die where their fathers wooed their mothers; with the coming of strangcrs, and strange ways, and a new bewildering death cold spirit, that had no respect for the green graves, and jeered at ancient things and the wisdom of old—strangers whom none had sought, none wished, and whose coming meant the going of even the few hill. Folk who prospered in the màchar the fertile meadows and pastures along the mountain-bases? It would to be: it would be.

Among the old there was exceeding bitterness. An angry and a brooding pain frowned in many hearts. But, alas, what good to meet the inevitable with wailing? What had to be, surely would be. Old wifeless men, old childless women took comfort in that bitter-sweet saying of the Psalmist: “Is iad ìobairtean Dhé spiorad briste.”— “The sacrifice of God is a broken spirit.

But, with the harvesting, the strath-folk forgot for a while the very existence of the mountain lovers.

Smitten with the strange apt elation of their dream, Alan and Sorcha still went to and fro as though spellbound. Sometimes he herded the cows alone: as before, Sorcha milked the sweet-breath kine, singing low her songs of holy St. Bridget or old-world cadences rare and nigh-forgotten now as the Fonnsheen, the fairy melodies once wont to be heard on the hills and in remote places. But, though apart for a brief while, it was only to dream the more.

Yet, strange to say, Alan knew in his heart that this could not endure. It couId not be, for overlong: God, soon or late, lays winter upon the heart, as well as upon the song of the bird, the bloom of the flower.

Nevertheless, he had no trouble because of this. There is, at times, in deep happiness, a gloom as of dark water filled with sunlight. While the glow is there, a living joy, the gloom is no more than the quiet sorrow of the world.

Often, of late, he had noticed upon the hillside, upon brier and bramble, fern-covert or dwarf-elder, that indescribable shadow of light, visible too at full noon in that golden weather as well as at the passing of the sun: that glow of omen, known of Celtic poets and seers in far-gone days. The first line of a fragmentary rune, come down from one of these singers who walked nearer to nature than does any now among the sons of men, was upon his lips over and over, because of this thing:

“Tha bruaillean air aghaidh non tom.”
“There is boding gloom on the face of the bushes.”

Once only the gloom lay upon him, the gloom that is upon the mind as a dark cloud upon a held of grain. What if ill should have come to Sorcha?

He turned, and went swiftly home. The gloaming had fallen, and Sorcha was sitting before the flaming peats, with claspt hands and dreaming eyes. She was crooning, half breathing half crooning a song, low and sweet against his ear as the noise of a running brook heard in sleep as one fares by green pastures under a moon strange and new in a strange land. And the song was one he had not known, not since he was a child, and heard Morag, the wife of Kenneth, foster-brother of Fergus Gilchrist, sing it before, in a  day of mourning, she brought forth her first-born:

“An’ O, an’ O, St. Bride’s sweet song ‘t is I am hearing, dearie,
Dearie, dearie,dearie, my wee white babe that ‘s weary,
Weary, weary, weary, with this my womb sae weary,
And Bride’s sweet song ye hear it too, and stir and sigh, my dearie!

“Oh, Oh, leánaban-mo,
Wee hands that give me pain and woe:
Pain and woe, but be it so,
’T is his dear self that now doth grow,
Leánaban-mo, leánaban-mo,
’T is his dear self one day you’ll know
Leánaban-mo, leánaban-mo!

“St. Bridgit dear, the cradle show,
My baby comes, and I must go,
Leánaban-mo, leánaban-mo!
Arone! . . Arò!
Arone! . . Arò!

He had stood in the shadow, silent, listening with awe and a strange joy. His heart yearnd to go to her, but he knew that a mother's first tears were in the dreaming eyes, and that it was not for him, or any save God, to be seeing them.

So Alan turned, and went up through the dusk to the low green summit of Cnoc-na- shee, a brief way from the sheiling. And when he was there he looked and saw nothing in all the light.gloom sky but one star low in the south —, the star of hope. Peace was in his heart. He kneeled down and made a prayer for Sorcha, and the child she bore, and for him too. And when he rose, and went home, and looked back at green Cnoc-na-shee he saw there for a moment a figure as of an angel, shining bright.

Night and day they were alone there. Murdo the shepherd was up at the high sheiling on Ben Iolair, and rarely came to Mám-Gorm save to help with the kye, or do what was needed about the steading. Oona, too, was seldom seen of them; and of late, even she had not always come at sunrise for the food Sorcha placed for her on the bench by the door each morning. As for Nial, he was for long seen of none, save Qona. and where and when that was no one knew.

As October waned, the day of the mountain lovers became more and more a life of joy.  Hand in hand they would sit on the bench in the sun, happily content: or dream, hand clasping hand, before the glowing peats. It was in vain that Murdo, fearing “the quiet madness,” reproached Alan, urging upon him that he should go down into Inverglas and see to the sale of the cattle and the sheep. The young titan shook his head, smiled gently at the shepherd, and once at least murmured those ominous words: “There is a time for all things, and it is my time to be still. I have peace.”

Sorcha, being heavy with child, could not now walk far, and indeed cared little to go beyond the door-bench, or, at farthest, to the green slope of the hillock of Cnoc-na-shee.  Her beauty had not waned, because of her trouble. Her eyes had grown more large and beautiful: wonderful stars of light to Alan always—stars that shone out of infinite depths, wherein his soul could sink till it reached that ninth wave of darkness which is the sea of light beating upon the coasts of heaven.

So, ever and again, glad with his joy and ungrievingly gloomed because of the shadow that day by day wove a closer veil about his spirit, he not grieving because not in himself knowing the mystery, he went out upon the hillside, or into the forest. Often it was, then, that he heard the singing of Oona in the woods at sunrise and during the hot noons. Sometimes now, too, when late wandering throuth the forest at gloaming, he saw afar off the still figure of Nial crouching by the tarn, or seated with bent head among the flags and rushes of the drought-dried pools. More than once, as he went home by the remoter glades, he heard the eIf-man chanting wildly among the pines at night.

It was on one such evening that, returning with his mind strangely troubled because of the soulless man of the woods, and of his futile quest and the bitter wrong and pity of it, he was met by Murdo, with startling news. Sorcha had had a vision; and, being wrought by it, had fallen into premature labor. But she was not alone. He, Murdo, had brought his foster-sister Anna MacAnnadra, back with him from the clachan by the Ford of the Sheep: for as he had gone down with some young ewes that noontide he had seen a look like dead, in Sorcha’s face, so white and drawn was it with sudden pain. Anna, he added, was a leal friend and dear to Sorcha, so that all was well.

And that night, in truth, the child of their great love was born to them. A night it was of pain and joy, of agony and rapture. But when at last the long-waited dawn came --- when, as the woman Anna said, there was no more need to fear, for the death-hour of woman in travail was well past — there was deep breathing of quiet happiness upon the sleeping mother, deep slumber of birth-weariness upon the child that lay against her breast, deep peace in the heart of Alan.

It was not till the eve of that day that Sorcha told him of her vision. She had been sitting in the sun upon Cnoc-na-shee, when she was amazed to see three people pass from the forest and make their way up the hill. Because of the noon-glare she could not discern who they were, though each seemed vaguely familiar. Dark in the glowing light, their figures were visible, till they reached the ancient stones beside the cairn of Marsail. There she thought they passed into the long hollow beyond; but, when she looked again, she saw that they were now four in number, and that they were coming down the kye-path to Màm-Gorm. Her heart had begun to waver; but it was not till they were half-way down that she recognized the white faces of them: Torcall her father and Marsail her mother, Anabal and her man Fergus.  All four walked in peace.  And she heard a thin song in the air, that may have been from them, or may have been behind her, — a song that said, “Beannachd do t’anam is buaidh,--- Blessing to thy soul, and victory,” “Blessing, blessing to thy soul, and peace!”  But still the spirit in her was strong, for why should she fear, dead, those whom she had loved, living?

But is they drew nearer she saw the woman Anabal waving her arms slowly as she advanced, even as the prophesying women of old did before the Lord: and, so waving. she chanted a rune. And the rune that she chanted was the Rune of the Passion of the Mother that no man has ever heard since Time was, and that has been in the ears of those women, only, who are to lose life in the giving of a life unto life. So, hearing this rune, she felt sobbing, with the pain already upon her and but far the coming of Murdo with Anna she would have borne her child on Cnoc-na-shee, the fairy hill — and who knows but its doom might have been that of Nial the soulless?

“This vision, Sorcha added, she would not have told to any one had she felt the death- breath enter her as the child was delivered; but now that the boy was born, and was so fair and lusty, blue-eyed and golden-haired as his father had been before him when he too was a breast-babe, and, too, that all was well with her, she told it. Moreover, sure no harm could come of a song of peace: and as for the Rune of the Passion of Mary, it was no more than an idle tale that saying of Anna MacAnndra's and of other women, that whoso shall hear it, shall surely die within the birth-month.      

And because of her smiling lips and loving eyes, and of the fair lusty child whose little hands wandered clingingly about the white breast of Sorcha, Alan believed that the ancient wisdom was an idle tale.

When the dark fell, and pine-logs were thrown upon the red-hot peals, the two talked in low hushed tones, with eyes that ever sought each other lovingly, dreamed and talked, whispered and dreamed, far into the night.

Then, with close-cIasping arm holding her child to her bosom, as though in her exceeding weakness —a weakness nigh unto death, now that it seemed to float up to her from within, rather than descend upon her from above — she feared her white blossom of love might be taken from her, Sorcha sank suddenly into drowning sleep.

Sitting by the bedside, with his hand stroking or holding hers, Alan revolved other thoughts than those of love only.

Passing strange, passing strange, this mystery of motherhood over which he brooded obscurely. And, truly, who can know the long, bitter travail of the spirit, as well as the pangs of the body, which many women endure— except just such a woman, suffering in just that way? Can any man know? Hardly can it be so. For though a man can understand the agony of birthtide, and even the long ache and strain of the double life, can he comprehend the baffled sense of overmastering weakness, the vague informulate cry against all powers that be?— Man, overlord of the womb: God overlord of men. How many women have prayed, not to Him, but to the one Pontif before whom all thoughts bow down, worshipping in dread : to that shadowy Lord of the veiled face, whom some call Death, that Woman of the compassionate eyes whom others call Oblivion, because of the poppied draught she gives the weary to drink, and the quiet glooms of rest that she holds in the hollow of her hand, and the husht breath of her that is Forgetfulness.

Thoughts such as these, though in crude words and simple symbol, were in Alan's mind.

No, he knew: never again could he even listen to men jeering at birth, he, though he had come to her virginal-pure, yet feared Sorcha's eyes at times, because — though not knowing it for what it was— of the deep buricd spiritual anathema which, in the gaze of the purest and noblest of women, affronts the chained brute that is in the man.

Ah, do men know, do men know—many a woman cries in her heart—do men know that a woman with child dies daily: that she wakes up to die, and that she lies down to die: and that even as hourly she dies so hourly does the child inherit life? Do they know that her body is the temple of a new soul? What men are they, in any land, who profane the sacred altars? Death was of old the just penalty of those who defiled the holy place where godhood stood revealed in stone or wood or living Bread: shall they go free who defile the temple of the human soul?

“Sure, sure,” Alan breathed rather than whispered, with some such thought as this in his mind, “sure I am the priest of God, and she there my temple ... and to, my God!" ... and with that he leaned over and kissed the little rosy fingers, and the hot tears in his eyes fell upon Sorcha's breast, so that she stirred in her sleep, and smiled, dreaming that a soft rain was falling upon her out of the healing Fountains of Tears that is in the midmost Heaven.

It was at sunrise that the door opened, and Oona entered. The child was wet with dew which glistened all over her as though she were a new-pluckt flower.

"Ah, birdeen, it is you!” whispered Alan softly, lest the sleepers should wake: “See, I have been dreaming and sleeping all night before the peats.”

Oona stared at the bed, where all she could see was Sorcha's pale face among its mass of dusky hair.

“Is it true, Alan? That ... over there ... is that true?”

“It is true, dear.”

“Are you sure that a baby has come to Sorcha?”

“It is Himself that sent it.”

“Alan, has it a soul?”

“A soul ... Yes, sure no evil eye is upon it, to the Stones be it said! But why do you ask that thing?”

The child sighed but made no answer, her gaze wandering from Alan round the room, and then to where Sorcha lay.

“Why do you say that, Oona? It is not a safe thing to say: sure it is not a good wishing. Who knows who may be hearing, though I wish evil to no one, banned or blest!”

“I see no one,” Oona began calmly: “I see no one, and how can no one hear? But I will not be for saying an unlucky thing: sure, you know that, dear Alan. Happiness be to this house! . . . And, now, I will be going, Alan, for I...”

“Going? Hush-sh! wait, Oona, wait: sure, you will be wanting to sec the little one?”

“I want to see Nial.”


“He must not come ... just now.”


“At dawn we went up to the top of the hillock, for the 'quiet people' are ever away by then, it is said. And we prayed. I prayed, and Nial said whatever I said. And then, at sunrise, we rose, and went three times round Cnoc-na-shee south-ways, and each time cried Djayseeul! 1

"And what was it you would be praying, Oona?"

1 Deasiul: “the way of the south [i.e.of the sun] (to you!)”  From Deas, the South, and Seol, way of, direction.  The common Gaelic exclamation for luck, in the Highlands at any rate.  Many old crofters still, on coming out of a morning, cry Deasiul!

“That no soul night be in the body of Sorcha's baby.”

Alan stared at her, too amazed at first to be angry.

“What madness is this, Lassie?”

“Sure it is no madness at all, at all, Alan! It is a good thought, and no madness. . . . For . . . for why . . . There is poor Nial; and when Murdo met met, on the hillside last night, and told him about Sorcha, Nial found me out by calling through the woods like a cuckoo, and sure a good way too, for there are no cuckcoos now; and then he and I hoped the baby would have no soul . . . and …”

“Hush-sh! Hush-sh!  Enough! Enough! Bi sàvach! I am not being angered with you, because of the good thought that was in your heart. But say these things no more. Come; look at Sorcha and the child.”

With a light, swift step Oona moved across the room. Silently she looked into Sorcha's face; silently she stood looking awhile at the child.

Alan had no word from her, to his sorrow. Steadfastly she stared; but breathed no whisper even. Then, with a faint sigh, she turned, moved like a ray of light across the room, and, before he knew what had happened, she was gone.

Bewildered at the child going thus quietly away, he went slowly to the door; but she had already vanished. So small a lass could soon be lost in that sunlit sea of green-gold bracken.

For some days thereafter he caught at times a faint echo of her singing in the oods. Once, in a gleaming silver-dusk, he saw the imprint of her small feet, darkly distinct in the wet dew, underneath the little window behind which Sorcha lay. But she did not come again.

It was on the eve of the morning that Oona came, that Nial also, for the first and last time, beheld the little Ivor --- so called after Ivor, the brother of Marsail it that was Sorcha's mother, the noblest man Alan had ever known; “Ivor the good,” as he was called by some, “Ivor the poet” by others.

Alan was out, talking to Anna MacAnndra, when Nial stole into the room. One hope was in his heart: that Sorcha slept.

With gleaming eyes, seeing that this was so, he drew near. The sight of the little white child, close lain against his mother's bosom, made a pain in his heart greater than ever the stillest moonlit night had done, —a suffocating pain that made him tremble.

He drew a long breath, he, too, he knew, had once been small, perhaps white and sweet, like that.

Was it possible that so small, so frail a thing, could have a soul? Sure, it could not be. If not, should he not take it, and keep it by him in the forest, till the day when it could be mate to him, Nial the soulless? But if . . .

His hand touched the skin of the little rosy arm. The child opened its eyes of wonder full upon him.

They gazed unwaveringly, seeing nothing it may be: if seeing, heeding not. Had it cried, even, or turned away its head; but, no, its blue unfearing eyes were fixed upon this creature of another world.

It was enough. With a low, sobbing moan, he turned and stole unseen from the room, and so out on the hillside, and past that praying-place of Cnoc-na-shee, where so vainly he and Oona had urged that which might not be; and so to the forest, that was the home of the wild fawns, and of the red fox, and of Nial.

None, save the child Oona, ever saw again the elf-man that was called Nial the Soulless: none, though Murdo the shepherd averred that, once, as he passed through the forest in the darkness of a black dawn, he heard a wailing cry come from a great hollow oak that grew solitary among the endless avenues of the pines.

It was far within that that month of mother­hood, presaged by the secrct rune heard of Oona, the Rume of the Passion of Mary, that only women dying of birth may hear; it was within this time that an unspeakable weakness came upon Sorcha.

Day by day she grew frail and more frail. Her eyes were pools for the coming shadows of death.

Strange had been their love: strange the coming of it stranger still was their joy in the hour of death.

For this thing upbore her, that was to go, and him, that was to slay: Joy.

Not vainly had they lived in dream. Sweet now was the waning of the dream into long sleep, Sweet is sleep that will never stir to any waking: sweeter that sleep which is but a balm of rest.

For they knew this: that they would awake in the fulness of time.

When, for the first time, the doom-word passed her lips, Alan shuddered slightly, but he did not quail.

“I am dying, dear heart!”

“Sorcha, this thing has been near to us many days. It is not for long.”"

“And thou wilt look to thine own dark hour with joy?”

“Even so.”

“And our legacy to this our child . . . shall be ... shall be ...”

“It shall be Joy. He shall be, among men, Ivor the Joy-bringer.”

No more was said between them, then or later.

It was in the afternoon of the day following this that Sorcha died. She was fain to breathe her last breath on the mountain-side. Tenderly, to the green hillock by the homestead, Alan had carried her. Soft was the west wind upon her wandering hands; warm the golden light out of the shining  palaces of cloud whence that wind came.

He was stooping, with his arm upholding her, and whispering low, when, suddenly, she lifted the little Ivor towards him. Quietly she lay back against the slope of the green grass. She was dead.

Alan quivered. All the tears of his life rose up in a flood, and drowned his heart. He could not see the child in his arms; but he did not sway or fall. Sorcha strengthened him.

Then silently the wave of grief, of a grief that might not be spoken, ebbed. Out of the sea of bitterness his soul rose, a rock with the sun shining upon it.

Slowly he raised the child to his head, till the wind was all about it, and the flooding glory of light out of the west.

A look of serene peace came into his face: within him the breath of an immortal joy transcended the poor frailty of the stricken spirit.

When the words that were on his lips were uttered, they were proud and strong as the fires of the sun against the dawn:

Behold, 0 God, this is Ivor, the son of Sorcha, that I boon unto Thee, to be, for all the days Thou shalt give him, Thy Servant of Joy among men.

There was peace that night upon Iolair. But towards dawn the morrow of that new strange life wherein Alan and the child, with Oona mayhap, were to go forth towards those distant isles, where, as Sorcha had seen in a vision, Ivor's ministry of joy was to be—a great wind arose.

The hills heard, and the moan of them went up before it. The mountains awoke, and were filled with a sound of rejoicing.

Through the darkness that lightened momently it came down the glens and the dim braes of bracken. Many waters felt the breath of it, and leaped.

The silences of the forest were as yet unbroken. Unbroken of the wind at least: for, faint and far, there rose and fell a monotonous chanting, the chanting of a gaunt, dwarfed, misshapen figure that moved like a drifting shadow from pine-glade to pine-glade.

But as dawn broke wanly upon the tallest trees, the wings of the tempest struck one and all into a mighty roar, reverberatingly prolonged: a solemn, slow-sounding anthem, full of the awe of the Night, and of the majesty of the Day, hymning mysteries older than the first dawn, deeper than the deepest dark.

And after the passing of that great wind the forest was still. Only a whisper as of the sea breathed through its illimitable green wave.