The Works of Fiona Macleod, Volume IV, "From Green Fire"



Be not troubled in the inward Hope. It lives in beauty,
and the hand of God slowly wakens it year by year,
and through the many ways of Sorrow. It is an Immortal,
and its name is Joy.
F. M.


The Herdsman

On the night when Alan Carmichael with his old servant and friend, Ian M'Ian, arrived in Balnaree ("Baile'-na-Righ"), the little village wherein was all that Borosay had to boast of in the way of civic life, he could not disguise from himself that he was regarded askance.

Rightly or wrongly, he took this to be resentment because of his having wed (alas, he recalled, wed and lost) the daughter of the man who had killed Ailean Carmichael in a duel. So possessed was he by this idea, that he did not remember how little likely the islanders were to know anything of him or his beyond the fact that Ailean MacAlasdair Rhona had died abroad.

The trouble became more than an imaginary one when, on the morrow, he tried to find a boat for the passage to Rona. But for the Frozen Hand, as the triple-peaked hill to the south of Balnaree was called, Rona would have been visible; nor was it, with a fair wind, more than an hour's sail distant.

Nevertheless, he could detect in every one to whom he spoke a strange reluctance. At last he asked an old man of his own surname why there was so much difficulty.

In the island way, Seumas Carmichael replied that the people on Elleray, the island adjacent to Rona, were unfriendly.

"But unfriendly at what?"

"Well, at this and at that. But for one thing, they are not having any dealings with the Carmichaels. They are all Macneills there, Macneills of Barra. There is a feud, I am thinking; though I know nothing of it; no, not I."

"But Seumas mac Eachainn, you know well yourself that there are almost no Carmichaels to have a feud with! There are you and your brother, and there is your cousin over at Sgrr-Bhan on the other side of Borosay. Who else is there?"

To this the man could say nothing. Distressed, Alan sought Ian and bade him find out what he could. He also was puzzled and uneasy. That some evil was at work could not be doubted, and that it was secret boded ill.

Ian was a stranger in Borosay because of his absence since boyhood; but, after all, Ian mac lain mhic Dhonuill was to the islanders, one of themselves; and though he came there, with a man under a shadow (though this phrase was not used in Ian's hearing), that was not his fault.

And when he reminded them that for these many years, he had not seen the old woman, his sister Giorsal; and spoke of her, and of their long separation, and of his wish to see her again before he died, there was no more hesitation, but only kindly willingness to help.

Within an hour a boat was ready to take the homefarers to the Isle of Caves, as Rona is sometimes called. Before the hour was gone, they, with the stores of food and other things, were slipping seaward out of Borosay Haven.

The moment the headland was rounded, the heights of Rona came into view. Great gaunt cliffs they are, precipices of black basalt; though on the south side they fall away in grassy declivities which hang a greenness, over the wandering wave for ever sobbing round that desolate shore. But it was not till the Sgrr-Dhu, a conical black rock at the south-east end of the island, was reached, that the stone keep, known as Caisteal-Rhona, came in sight.

It stands at the landward extreme of a rocky ledge, on the margin of a green Airidh. Westward is a small dark-blue sea loch, no more than a narrow haven. To the northwest rise precipitous cliffs; northward, above the green pasture and a stretch of heather, is a woodland belt of some three or four hundred pine-trees. It well deserves its poetic name of I-monair, as Aodh the Islander sang of it; for it echoes ceaselessly with wind and wave. If the waves dash against it from the south or east, a loud crying is upon the faces of the rocks; if from the north or north-east, there are unexpected inland silences, but amid the pines a continual voice. It is when the wind blows from the south-west, or the huge Atlantic billows surge out of the west, that Rona is given over to an indescribable tumult. Through the whole island goes the myriad echo of a continuous booming; and within this a sound as though waters were pouring through vast hidden conduits in the heart of every precipice, every rock, every boulder. This is because of the sea-arcades of which it consists, for from the westward the island has been honeycombed by the waves. No living man has ever traversed all those mysterious, winding sea-galleries. Many have perished in the attempt. In the olden days the Uisteans and Barrovians sought refuge there from the marauding Danes and other pirates out of Lochlin; and in the time when the last Scottish king took shelter in the west, many of his island followers found safety among these perilous arcades.

Some of them reach an immense height. These are filled with a pale green gloom which in fine weather, and at noon or toward sundown, becomes almost radiant. But most have only a dusky green obscurity, and some are at all times dark with a darkness that has seen neither sun nor moon nor star for unknown ages. Sometimes, there, a phosphorescent wave will spill a livid or a cold blue flame, and for a moment a vast gulf of dripping basalt be revealed; but day and night, night and day, from year to year, from age to age, that awful wave-clamant darkness is unbroken.

To the few who know some of the secrets of the passages, it is possible, except when a gale blows from any quarter but the north, to thread these dim arcades in a narrow boat, and so to pass from the Hebrid Seas to the outer Atlantic. But for the unwary there might well be no return ; for in that maze of winding galleries and sea-washed, shadowy arcades, confusion is but another name for death. Once bewildered, there is no hope; and the lost adventurer will remain there idly drifting from barren passage to passage, till he perish of hunger and thirst, or, maddened by the strange and appalling gloom and the unbroken silence--for there the muffled voice of the sea is no more than a whisper--leap into the green waters which for ever slide stealthily from ledge to ledge.

Now, as Alan approached his remote home, he thought of these death-haunted corridors, avenues of the grave, as they are called in the "Cumha Fhir-Mearanlach Aonghas mhic Dhonuilll"--the Lament of mad Angus Macdonald.

When at last the unwieldy brown coble sailed into the little haven, it was to create unwonted excitement among the few fishermen who put in there frequently for bait. A group of eight or ten was upon the rocky ledge beyond Caisteal-Rhona, among them the elderly woman who was sister to Ian mac lain.

At Alan's request, Ian went ashore in advance in a small punt. He was to wave his hand if all were well, for Alan could not but feel apprehensive on account of the strange ill-will that had shown itself at Borosay.

It was with relief that he saw the signal when, after Ian, had embraced his sister, and shaken hands with all the fishermen, he had explained that the son of Ailean Carmichael was come out of the south, and had come to live a while at Caisteal-Rhona.

All there uncovered and waved their hats. Then a shout of welcome went up, and Alan's heart was glad. But the moment he had set foot on land he saw a startled look come into the eyes of the fishermen-a look that deepened swiftly into one of aversion, almost of fear.

One by one the men moved away, awkward in their embarrassment. Not one came forward with outstretched hand, or said a word of welcome.

At first amazed, then indignant, Ian reproached them. They received his words in shamed silence. Even when with a bitter tongue he taunted them, they answered nothing.

"Giorsal," said Ian, turning in despair to his sister, "is it madness that you have?"

But even she was no longer the same. Her eyes were fixed upon Alan with a look of dread, and indeed of horror. It was unmistakable, and Alan himself was conscious of it with a strange sinking of the heart. "Speak, woman!" he demanded. "What is the meaning of this thing? Why do you and these men look at me askance?"

"God forbid!" answered Giorsal Macdonald with white lips; "God forbid that we look at the son of Ailean Carmichael askance. But----"

"But what?

With that the woman put her apron over her head and moved away, muttering strange words.

"Ian, what is this mystery?

"How am I for knowing, Alan mac Ailean? It is all a darkness to me also. But I will be finding that out soon."

That, however, was easier for Ian to say than to do. Meanwhile, the brown coble tacked back to Borosay, and the fisherman sailed away to the Barra coasts, and Alan and Ian were left solitary in their wild and remote home.

But in that very solitude Alan found hearing. From what Giorsal hinted, he came to believe that the fishermen had experienced one of those strange dream-waves which, in remote isles, occur at times, when whole communities will be wrought by the self-same fantasy. When day by day went past, and no one came near, he at first was puzzled, and even resentful; but this passed, and soon he was glad to be alone. Ian, however, knew that there was another cause for the inexplicable aversion that had been shown. But he was silent, and kept a patient watch for the hour that the future held in its shroud. As for Giorsal, she was dumb; but no more looked at Alan askance.

And so the weeks went. Occasionally a fishing smack came with the provisions, for the weekly despatch of which Alan had arranged at Loch Boisdale, and sometimes the Barra men put in at the haven, though they would never stay long, and always avoided Alan as much as was possible.

In that time Alan and Ian came to know and love their strangely beautiful island home. Hours and hours at a time they spent exploring the dim, green, winding seagalleries, till at last they knew the chief arcades thoroughly.

They had even ventured into some of the narrow, snake-like inner passages, but never for long, because of the awe and dread these held, silent estuaries of the grave.

Week after week passed, and to Alan it was as the going of the grey owl's wing, swift and silent.

Then it was that, on a day of the days, he was suddenly stricken with a new and startling dread.



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