Dominion of Dreams, by Fiona Macleod

THE DARK HOUR OF FERGUS

In September of last year, I was ferried across the Sound of Kerrera by an old boat-man.
That afternoon I went with my friend, a peasant farmer near the south end of Kerrera, and lay down in the grassy, bouldered wilderness beneath the cliff on which stands the ruin of Gylen Castle. The tide called in a loud insistent whisper, rising to a hoarse gurgle, from the Sound. The breeze that came from the mountains of Mull was honey-sweet with heather smell. The bleating of the ewes and lambs, the screaming of a few gulls---nothing else was audible. At times, it is true, like a deep sigh, the suspiration of the open sea rose and fell among the islands. Faint echoes of that sigh came round Gylen headland and up the Kyle. It was an hour wherein to dream of the sons of Morven, who had landed here often, long before the ancient stronghold was built; of Fionn and the Féinn; of the coming and going of Ossian in his blind old age; of beautiful Malvina; of the galleys of the Fomorians; of the songs and the singers and all the beautiful things of "the old ancient long ago." But the tale that I heard from my friend was this.

You know that my mother's people are Skye folk. It was from the mother of my mother that I heard what you call the Incantation of the Spirit, though I never heard it called anything but old Elsie's Sian. She lived near the Hart o' Corry. You know the part? Ay, true, it is wild land---wild even for the wilderness o' Skye. Old mother Elsie had "the sight" at times, and whenever she wished she could find out the lines o' life. It was magic, they say. Who am I to know? This is true, she knew much that no one else knew. When my mother's cousin, Fergus MacEwan, who was mate of a sloop that sailed between Stornoway and Ardrossan, came to see her-and that was in the year before my mother was married, and when she was courted by Fergus, though she was never for giving her life to him, for even then she loved my father, poor fisherman of Ulva though he was (though heir, through his father's brother, to his crofter-farm on Kerrera here)---when Fergus came to see her, because of the gloom that was upon his spirit, she foretold all. At first she could "see" poorly. But one wild afternoon, when the Cuchullins were black with cloud-smoke, she bade him meet her in that lonely savage glen they call the Loat o' Corry. He was loath to go, for he feared the place. But he went. He told all to my mother before he went away next dawn, with the heart in him broken, and his hope as dead as a herring in a net.
Mother Elsie came to him out of the dusk in that wuthering place just like a drifting mist, as he said. She gave him no greeting, but was by his side in silence. Before he knew what she was doing she had the soles of her feet upon his, and her hands folding his, and her eyes burning against his like hot coals against ash. He felt shudders come over him, and a wind blew up and down his back; and he grew giddy, and heard the roaring of the tide in his ears. Then he was quiet. Her voice was very far away when she said this thing, but he remembered every word of it:

By that which dwells within thee,
By the lamps that shine upon me,
By the white light I see litten
From the brain now sleeping stilly,
By the silence in the hollows,
By the wind that Slow subsideth,
By the life-tide slowly ebbing,
By the death-tide slowly rising,
By the slowly waning warmth,
By the chill that slowly groweth,
By the dusk that slowly creepeth,
By the darkness near thee,
By the darkness round thee,
By the darkness o'er thee---
O'er thee, round thee, on thee---
By the one that standeth
At thy side and waiteth
Dumb and deaf and blindly,
By the one that moveth,
Bendeth, riseth, watcheth,
By the dim Grave Spell upon thee,
By the Silence thou has wedded. . . .
     May the way thy feet are treading,
     May the tangled lines now crookéd
     Clear as moonlight lie before me.

Oh! oh! ohrone, ochrone! green the branches bonnie:
Oh! oh! ohrone, ochrone! red the blood-drop berries:
Achrone, arone, arone, arone, I see the green-clad Lady,
She walks the road that's wet with tears, with rustling sorrows shady. . . .
Oh! oh! mo ghraidh.

Then it was that a great calm came upon Fergus, though he felt like a drowned man or as one who stood by his own body, but speechless, and feeling no blowing of wind through his shadow-frame.
For, indeed, though the body lived, he was already of the company of the silent. What was that caiodh, that wailing lamentation, sad as the Cumha fir Arais, which followed Elsie's incantation, her spell upon "the way" before him, that it and all the trailed lines of this life should be clear as moonlight before her? "Oh! oh! ohrone, ochrone! red the blood-drop berries"; did not these mean 'no fruit of the quicken-tree, but the falling drops from the maimed tree that was himself? And was not the green-clad lady, she who comes singing low, the sprouting of the green grass that is the hair of the earth? And was not the road, gleaming wet with ruts and pools all of tears, and overhung by dark rustling plumes of sorrow, the road that the soul traverses in the dark hour? And did not all this mean that the Grave Spell was already upon him, and that the Silence was to be his?
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¹
(1)The Cumha fir Arai, pronounce Kuv'ah feer Arooss) means the lament of the Man of Aros---i.e. the chieftain. Aros Castle, on the great island of Mull, overlooking the Sound, was one of the strongholds of Macdonald, Lord of the Isles. (2) The quicken (rowan, mountain-ash, and other names) is a sacred tree with the Celtic peoples,and its branches can either avert or compel supernatural influences. (3) The green-clad Lady is the Cailleach, the Siren of the Hill-Sides, to see whom portends death or disaster. When she is heard singing, that portends death soon for the hearer. The grass is that which grows quick and green above the dead. The dark hour is the hour of death,-- i.e. the first hour after death.
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But what thing it was she saw, Elsie would not say. Darkly she dreamed awhile, then leaned forward and kissed his breast. He felt the sob in her heart throb into his.
Dazed, and knowing that she had seen more than she had dreamed of seeing, and that his hour was striding over the rocky wilderness of that wild Isle of Skye, he did not know she was gone, till a shuddering fear of the silence and the gloom told him he was alone.
Coll MacColl (he that was my Kerrera friend) stopped here, just as a breeze will suddenly stop in a corrie so that the rowan berries on the side of a quicken will sway this way and that, while the long, thin leaves on the other will be as still as the stones underneath, where their shadows sleep.
I asked him at last if Elsie's second-sight had proved true. He looked at me for a moment, as though vaguely surprised I should ask so foolish a thing.
No sleep came to Fergus that night, he resumed, quietly, as though no other words were needed, and at daybreak he rose and left the cot of his kinsman, Andrew MacEwan. In the grey dawn he saw my mother, and told her all. Then she wished him farewell, and bade him come again when next the Sunbeam should be sailing to Portree, or other port in Skye; for she did not believe that her mother had seen speedy death, or death at all, but perhaps only a time of sorrow, and even that she had done this thing to send Fergus away, for she too had her eyes on Robert MacColl, that was my father.
"And so you will come again, Fergus, my friend," she said; and added, "and perhaps then you will be telling me of a Sunbeam ashore, as well as that you sail from Ardrossan to the far-away islands!"
He stared at her as one who hears ill.
Then he took her hand in his, and let it go suddenly again. With one arm he rubbed the rough Uist cap he held in his left hand; then he brushed off the wet mist that was grey on his thick, black beard.
"You are not well, Fearghas-mo-charaid," my mother said, and gently. When she saw the staring pain in his eyes, she added, with a low sob, " My heart is sore for you!"
With that he turned away, and she saw him no more that day or any day of all the days to come.
"And what thing happened, Coll?
"They kept it from her, and she did not know it for long. It was this: Fergus MacEwan did not sail far that morning. He was ill, he said, and was put ashore. That night Aulay Macaulay saw him moving about in that frightful place of the Storr Rock, moaning and muttering. He would have spoken to him, but he saw him begin to leap about the pinnacled rocks like a goat, and at last run up to The Old Man of Storr and beat it with his clinched fists, blaspheming with wild words; and he feared Fergus was mad, and he slipped from shadow to shadow, till he fled openly. But in the morning Aulay and his brother Finlay went back to look for Fergus. At first they thought he had been drowned, or had fallen into one of the fissures. But from a balachan, 'bit laddie,' as they would call him in the town over the way [Oban], they heard that a man had pushed off that morning in John Macpherson's boat, that lay about a mile and a half from the Storr, and had sailed north along the coast.
"Well, it was three days before he was found---stone-dead. If you know the Quiraing you will know the great Needle Rock. Only a bird can climb it, as the saying goes. Halfway up, Finlay Macaulay and a man of the neighbourhood saw the body o' Fergus as though it were glued to the rock. It was windless weather, or he would have been blown away like a drifted leaf. They had to jerk the body down with net-poles. God save us the dark hour of Fergus, that died like a wild beast!

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