Volume III, Under a Dark Star,
by Fiona Macleod

 

 

¹The opening sentence is from the tale " Enya of the Dark Eyes, " in The Dominion of Dreams.

 

ALASDAIR THE PROUD ¹

"There were crowns lying there, idle gold in the yellow sand, and no man heeded them. Why should any man heed them? And where the long grass waved, there were women's breasts, so, still in the brown silence, that the flittering moths, which shake with the breaths of daisies, motionlessly poised their wings above where so many sighs once were, and where no more was any pulse of joy."
" And what was the name of the man who led the spears on that day?"
"He had the name that you have---Alasdair; Alasdair the Proud."
"What was the cause of that red trail and of the battle among the hills?"
Gloom Achanna smiled, that swift, furtive smile which won so many, and in the end men and women cursed.
"It was a dream," he said slowly.
"A dream?"
"Yes. Her name was Enya---Enya of the Dark Eyes."
Alasdair M'Ian's grey-blue eyes wandered listlessly from the man who lay beside him in the heather. Enya of the Dark Eyes! The name was like a moonbeam in his mind.
Gloom Achanna watched him, though he kept his gaze upon the dry, crackled sprays of the heather, and was himself, seemingly, idly adrift in the swimming thought that is as the uncertain wind.
How tall and strong his companion was! he meditated. Had he forgotten, Gloom wondered: had he forgotten that day, years and years ago, when he had thrust him, Gloom Achanna, aside, and had then with laughing scorn lifted him suddenly and thrown him into the Pool of Diarmid? That was in Skye, in the Sleat of Skye. It was many years ago. That did not matter, though. There are no years to remembrance; what was, either is or is not.
And now they had met again by the roadside; and if not in Skye, not far from it, for they were now in Tiree, the low surf-girt island that for miles upon miles swims like a green snake between the Southern Minch and the Hebrid seas. It was a chance meeting too, if there is any chance; and after so many years. Gloom Achanna smiled; a sudden swift shadow it was that crossed his face, sleek, sealsmooth, comely, pale beneath his like dark hair. No, it was not chance this, he whispered to himself ; no, for sure, it was not chance. When he looked suddenly at Alasdair M'Ian, with furtive, forgetting eyes, he did not smile again, but the dusky pupils expanded and contracted.
And so, his thought ran, Alasdair M'Ian was a great man in that little world over yonder, the world of the towns and big cities! He had made a name for himself by his books, his poems, and the strange music wherewith he clothed his words, whether in song or story.
H'm; for that, did not he, Gloom know many a dàn, many a wild ̣ran; could he not tell many a sgeul as fine, or finer? Ay, by the Black Stone of Iona! Why, then, should this Englishman have so much fame? Well, well, if not English, he wrote and spoke and thought in that foreign tongue, and had forgotten the old speech, or had no ease with it, and no doubt was Sasunnach to the core.
But for all his fame, and though he was still young and strong and fair to see, had he forgotten? He, Gloom Achanna, did not ever forget.
Indeed, indeed, there was no chance in that meeting. Why had he, Gloom, gone to Tiree at all? It had been a whim. But now he understood.
And Alasdair M'Ian-Alasdair the Proud? What was he there for? There were no idle silly folk on the long isle of Tiree to listen to English songs. Ah yes, indeed; of course he was there. Where would he be coming to, after these long seven years, but to the place where he had first met and loved Ethlenn Maclaine?
Gloom pondered a while. That was a strange love, that of Alasdair M'Ian, for a woman who was wife to another man, and he loving her and she him. She had been the flame behind all these poems and stories which had made him so famous. For seven years he had loved her, and Alasdair the Proud was not the man to love a woman for seven years unless it was out of the great love, which is as deep as the sea, and as wild and hopeless as the south wind when she climbs against the stars.
Then all that he knew, all that he had heard of fact and half fact and cloudy, rumour, all that he surmised, became in Gloom's mind a clear vision. He understood now, and he remembered. Had he not heard but a brief while ago that Alasdair was fëy with his love-dream? Did he not know that the man had endured so long, and become what he was, because for all these years he had held Ethlenn's love, because he believed that she loved him as he her? Was it not by this that he lived; that he made beauty with cunning, haunting words? Was it not true that for all her marriage with the good, loving, frail son of Maclaine of Inch, she was in body and mind and soul wife to the man whom, too late, she had met, and who in her had found the bitter infinite way?
Yes; now, in a myriad sudden eddies of remembrance and surmise, he knew the poor tired soul, with its great dreams and imperishable desires, of Alasdair the Proud; and like a hawk his spirit hovered over it, uttering fierce cries of a glad and terrible hate. And of one thing he thought with almost an awe of laughing joy-that, even then, he had upon him the letter which, more than a week before, he had idly taken from Uille Beag, the lad who carried the few letters in that remote place. It was, as he knew, having read it, a letter from Ethlenn to Ronald Maclaine, her husband, who was then in Tiree, and she somewhere in the Southlands, in her and his home. He loved much to play the evil, bitter seduction of his music; that strange playing upon his feadan which none heard without disquietude, and mayhap fear and that which is deeper than fear., But he smiled when he thought of that letter; and the unspoken, words upon his lips were that he was glad he had now two feadans, though one was only a little sheet of paper.
For two hours they had walked the same road that day, having met by the wayside. Then, having had milk and some oat-bread from a woman who had a little croft, they had rested on the heather, and Gloom Achanna had told old tales, old tales that he knew would fill the mind of Alasdair M'Ian with ancient beauty, and with the beauty that does not perish, for that which was, being perfect, is proudly enduring with other than mortal breath.
In this way he won his companion to forgetfulness.

For a time there had been a dreaming silence. A pyot called loudly; a restless plover wheeled this way and that, crying forlornly. There were no other sounds, save when a wandering air whinnied in the gorse or made a strange, faint whistling among the spires of the heather.
With a stealthy movement, Gloom Achanna drew his feadan from its clasps beneath his coat. He put the flute to his mouth and breathed. It was as though birds were flitting to and fro in the moonshine, and pale moths of sound fluttered above drowning pools.
Alasdair did not hear, or made no sign. After a time he closed his eyes. It was sweet to lie there, in the honey-fragrant heather, in that remote isle, there where he had first seen the woman of his love; healing-sweet to be away from the great city in the south, from the deep weariness of his life there, from the weariness of men with whom he had so little in common. He was so fevered with the bitter vanity of his love that life had come to mean nothing else to him but the passing of coloured or discoloured moments. If only he might find peace; that, for long, he had wante d more than joy, whose eyes were too sorrowful now.
Out of that great love and passion he had woven beautiful things---Beauty. That was his solace; by that, in that, for that, he lived.
But now he was tired. Too great a weariness had come upon his spirit. He heard other voices than those of Ethlenn whom he loved. They whispered to him by day, and were the forlorn echoes of his dreams.
For Beauty: yes, he would live for that; for his dream, and the weaving anew of that loveliness which made his tired mind wonderful and beautiful as an autumnal glen filled with moonshine. He had strength for this, since he knew that Ethlenn loved him, and loved him with too proud and great a love to be untrue to it even in word or deed, and so far the less in thought. By this he lived.
But now he lay upon the heather, tranced, at rest.
He heard the cold, delicate music float idly above the purple bloom around him. Old foonsheen, enchanted airs: these, later, Gloom Achanna played. He smiled when he saw the frown passing from Alasdair's brows, and the lines in the face grow shadowy, and rest dwell beneath the closed eyes.
Then a single, wavering note wandered fitfully across the heather; another, and another. An old, sorrowful air stole through the hush, till the sadness had a cry in it that was as the crying of a lamentation not to be home. Alasdair stirred, sighing wearily. Below the lashes of his eyes tears gathered. At that, Gloom smiled once more; but in a moment watched again, furtively, with grave, intent gaze.
The air changed, but subtly, as the lift of the wind from grass to swaying foliage. The frown came back into Alasdair's forehead.
"Achanna," he said suddenly, raising his head and leaning his chin against his hand,. with his elbow deep in the heather; "that was a bitter, cruel letter you sent to your brothert Alasdair, that is now Alan Dall."
Gloom ceased playing, and quietly blew the damp out of his feadan. Then he looked at it sidelong, and slowly put it away again.
"Yes?" he said at last.
"A bitter, cruel letter, Gloom Achanna!"
"Perhaps you will be having the goodness, Alasdair mac Alasdair, if it is not a weariness to you, to tell me how you came to know of that letter?"
"Your brother Alasdair left it in the house of the woman in Benbecula, when his heart was broken by it, and he went north to the Lews, to find that poor woman he loved, and whom you ruined. And there the good priest, Father Ian Mackellar, found it, and sent it to me, saying, 'Here is a worse thing than any told in any of your stories.' "
"Well, and what then, Alasdair, who is called Alasdair the Proud?"
"Why am I called that, Achanna?"
"Why? Oh, for why am I called Gloom of the Feadan? Because it is what people see and hear when they see me and bear me. You are proud because you are big and strong; you are proud because you have the kiss of Diarmid; you are proud because you have won great love; you are proud because you have made men and women listen to your songs and tales; you are proud because you are Alasdair M'Ian; you are proud because you dream you are beyond the crushing Hand; you are proud because you are (and not knowing that) feeble as water, and fitful as wind, and weak as a woman."
Alasdair frowned. What word he was going to say died unsaid.
"Tell me," he said at last, quietly, "what made you write these words in that letter: 'Brother, because you are a poet, let me tell you this, which is old, ancient wisdom, and not mine alone, that no woman likely to be loved by a poet can be true to a poet?' "
"Why did I write that, Alasdair MaeAlasdair?"
"Yes."
"If you read that letter, you know why. I said they were cowards, these loving women whom you poets love, for they will give up all save the lies they love, the lies that save them."
"It is a lie. It means nothing, that evil lie of yours."
"It means this. They can be true to their lovers, but they cannot be true to love. They love to be loved. They love the love of a poet, for he dreams beauty into them, and they live as other women cannot, for they go clothed in rainbows and moonshine. But . . . what was it that I wrote? They have to choose at last between the steep brae and the easy lily leven; and I am thinking you will not find easily the woman that in her heart of hearts will leave the lily leven for the steep brae. No, not easily."
"What do you know of love, Gloom Achanna---you, of whom the good Father Ian wrote to me as the most evil of all God's creatures?"
Gloom smiled across pale lips, with darkening eyes.
"Did he say that? Sure, it was a hard thing to say. I have done harm to no man that did not harm me; and as to women well, well, for sure, women are women."
"It was well that you were named Gloom. You put evil everywhere."
After that there was silence for a time. Once Achanna put his hand to his feadan again, but withdrew it.

"Shall I be telling you now that old tale of Enya of the Dark Eyes?" he gaid gently at last, and with soft, persuasive eyes.
Alasdair lay back wearily.
" Yes, tell me that tale."

" Well, as I was saying, there were crowns lying there, idle gold in the yellow sand, and no man heeded them. And where the long grass waved, there were women's breasts, so still in the brown silence, that the flittering moths,which shake with the breathsof daisies, motionlessly poised their wings above where so many sighs once were, and where no more was any pulse of joy . . ." And therewith Gloom Achanna told the tale of Enya of the Dark Eyes, and how Aodh (whom he called Alasdair the Proud) loved her overmuch, and in the end lost both kinghood and manhood because of her wanton love that could be the same to him and to Cathba Fleetfoot. And with these words, smiling furtively, he ended the tale---
"This is the story of Alasdair the Proud, Alasdair the Poet-King, who made deathless beauty out of the beauty and love of Enya of the Dark Eyes, who sang the same song to two men."

When Gloom had come to that part of his tale where he told of what the captive woman said to the king, Alasdair slowly turned and again fixed his gaze on the man who spoke, leaning the while on his elbow as before, with his chin in his hand.
When Achanna finished, neither said any word for a time. Alasdair looked at the man beside him with intent, unwavering gaze. Gloom's eyes were lidded, and he stared into the grass beneath the heather.
"Why did you tell me that tale, Gloom Achanna?"
" Sure, I thought you loved sgeulan of the old, ancient days? "
" Why did you tell me that tale?
Gloom stirred uneasily. But he did not answer, though he lifted his eyes.
"Why did you call the man who loved Enya, Alasdair? It is not a name of that day. And why do you tell me a tale little altered from one that I have already told with my pen.
" For sure, I forgot that. And you called the man . . . ? "
" I called him Aodh, which was his name. It was Aodh the Proud who loved Enya of the Dark Eyes."
" Well, well, the end was the same. It was not a good end, that of . . . Aodh the Proud."
"Why did you tell me that tale?"
Suddenly Achanna rose. He stood, looking down upon Alasdair. " It is all one," he said slowly: " Aodh and Enya, or Alasdair and Ethlenn."
A deep flush came into Alasdair's face. A splatch stained his forehead.
" Ah," he muttered hoarsely: " and will you be telling me, Gloom Achanna, what you have to do with that name that you have spoken? "
" Man, you are but a fool, I am thinking, for all your wisdom. Here is a letter. Read it. It is from Ethlenn Maclaine."
" From Ethlenn Maclaine? "
" Ay, for sure. But not to you: no, nor yet to me; but to Ronald Maclaine her man."
Alasdair rose. He drew proudly back.
"I will not read the letter. The letter is not for me." Gloom smiled.
" Then I will read it to you, Alasdair M'Ian. It is not a long letter. Oh no; but it is to Ronald Maclaine."
Alasdair looked at the man. He said a word in Gaelic that brought a swift darkening into Gloom's eyes. Then, slowly, he moved away.
"A fool is bad; a blind fool is worse," cried Achanna mockingly.
Alasdair stopped and turned.
"I will neither look nor hear," he said.
"What was not meant for me to see or hear, I will not see or hear."
"Is there madness upon you that you believe in a woman because she asks you to take her pledged word? Do you not know that a pressed woman always falls back upon the man's trusting her absolutely? When she will be knowing that, she can have quiet laughter because of all her shadowy vows and smiling coward lies that are worse than spoken lies. She knows, or thinks she knows, he will be blind and deaf as well as dumb. It is a fine thing that for a proud man, Alasdair M'Ian! It is a fine thing, for sure! And he is a wise man, oh yes, he is a wise man, who will put all his happiness in one scale of the balance, and his trust in another. It is easy for the woman . . . oh yes, for sure. It is what I would do if I were a woman, what you would do. I would say to the man who loved me, as you love Ethlenn Maclaine, 'You must show your love by absolute unquestioning trust.' That is how women try to put a cloud about a man's mind. That is how a woman loves to play the game of love. Then, having said that, if I were a woman, I would smile; and then I would go to the other man, and I would be the same with him, and kiss him, and be all tender sweetness to him, and say the same things, and trust him to believe all. It is quite easy to say the same things to two men. I have said to you already, Alasdair M'Ian, that a woman like that is not only untrue to the men who love her ' but to love. She cannot say in her heart of hearts, 'Love is the one thing.' She will say it, yes: first to one, then to the other; and perhaps both will believe. And to herself (she will be sorry for herself) she will say, 'I love one for this, and the other for that: they do not clash . . .' knowing well, or perhaps persuading herself so, that this is not a subterfuge. It is the subterfuge of a coward, for she dare not live truly; she must needs be for ever making up to the one what she gives or says to the other. And you . . . you are a poet, they say; and have the thing that makes you see deeper and further and surer; and so it must be you, and not Ronald Maclaine, who will be the one of the two to doubt!" Achanna ceased abruptly, and began laughing.
Alasdair stood still, staring fixedly at him.
" I wish to hear no more," he said at last quietly, though with a strange, thin, shrill voice; " I wish to hear no more. Will you go now? if not, then I will go."
"Wait now, wait now, for sure! Sure, I know the letter off by heart. It goes this way, Alasdair mac Alasdair---
But putting his hands to his ears, Alasdair again turned aside, and made no sound save with his feet as he trod the crackling undertwigs of the heather.
Gloom swiftly followed. Coming upon Alasdair suddenly and unheard, he thrust the letter before his eyes.
Gloom Achanna smiled as he saw the face of Alasdair the Proud flush deeply again, then grow white and hard, and strangely drawn.
As he did not speak, he muttered against his ears: "And this is the story of Aodh the Proud, who made deathless beauty out of the beauty and love of Enya of the Dark Eyes, who sang the same song to two men."
Still silence.
In a whisper he repeated: " Who sang . . . the same song . . . to . . . two . . . men."
A change had come over Alasdair. He was quiet, but his fingers restlessly intertwined. His face twitched. His eyes were strained.
" That is a lie . . . a forgery . . . that letter!" he exclaimed abruptly, in a hoarse voice. " She did not write it."
Achanna unfolded the letter again, and handed it to his companion, who took it, only in the belief that it was Gloom's doing. Alasdair's pulse leaped at the writing he knew so well. He started, and visibly trembled, when he saw and realised the date. The letter fluttered to the ground. When Gloom stooped to pick it up, he noticed that the veins on Alasdair's temples were purple and distended.
From his breast-pocket Alasdair drew another letter. This he unfolded and read. When he had finished, the flush was out of his white face, and was in his brow, where it lay a scarlet splatch.
He was dazed, for sure, Gloom thought, as he watched him closely; then suddenly began to play.
For a time Alasdair frowned. Then two tears rolled down his face. His mouth ceased twitching, and a blank idle look came into the dulled eyes.
Suddenly he began laughing.
Gloom Achanna ceased playing for a moment. He watched the man. Then he smiled, and played again.
He played the Dàn-nan-Ṛn, which had sent Mànus MacCodrum to his death among the seals; and the Davsa-na-Mairv, to which Seumas his brother had listened in a sweat of terror; and now he played the dàn which is known as the Pibroch of the Mad. He walked slowly away, playing lightly as he went. He came to a rising ground, and passed over it, and was seen no more. Alasdair stood, intently listening. His limbs shook. Sweat poured from his face. His eyes were distended. A terror that no man can tell, a horror that is beyond words, was upon him. When he could hear no more, he turned and looked fearfully about him. Suddenly he uttered a hoarse cry. A man stood near him, staring at him curiously. He knew the man. It was himself. He threw up his arms. Then slowly, he let them fall. It was life or death; he knew that; that he knew. Stumblingly he sank to his knees. He put out wavering hands, wet with falling tears and cried in a loud, strident voice.
There was no meaning in what he said. But that which was behind what he cried was, "Lord, deliver me from this evil!   Lord, deliver me from this evil!"

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CONTENTS