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

 

The Herdsman

II

In the hour that this terror came upon him Alan was alone upon the high slopes of Rona, where the grass fails and the lichen yellows at close on a thousand feet above the sea.

The day had been cloudless since sunrise. The sea was as the single vast petal of an azure flower, all of one unbroken blue save for the shadows of the scattered isles and the slow-drifting mauve or purple of floating weed. Countless birds congregated from every quarter. Guillemots and puffins, cormorants and northern divers, everywhere darted, swam, or slept upon the listless ocean, whose deep breathing no more than lifted a league-long calm here and there, to lapse breathlike as it rose. Through the not less silent quietudes of air the grey skuas swept with curving flight, and the narrow-winged terns made a constant white shimmer. At remote altitudes the gannet motionlessly drifted. Oceanward the great widths of calm were rent now and again by the shoulders of the porpoises which followed the herring trail, their huge, black, revolving bodies looming large above the silent wave. Not a boat was visible anywhere; not even upon the most distant horizons did a brown sail fleck itself duskily against the skyward wall of steely blue.

In the great stillness which prevailed, the noise of the surf beating around the promontory of Aonaig was audible as a whisper; though even in that windless hour the confused rumour of the sea, moving through the arcades of the island, filled the bollow of the air overhead. Ever since the early morning Alan had moved under a strange gloom. but of that golden glory of midsummer a breath of joyous life should have reached his heart, but it was not so. For sure, there is sometimes in the quiet beauty of summer an air of menace, a premonition of suspended force--a force antagonistic and terrible. All who have lived in these lonely isles know the peculiar intensity of this summer melancholy. No noise of wind, no prolonged season of untimely rains, no long baffling of mists in all the drear inclemencies of that remote region, can produce the same ominous and even paralysing gloom sometimes born of ineffable peace and beauty. Is it that in the human soul there is a mysterious kinship with the outer soul which we call Nature; and that in these few supreme hours which. come at the full of the year, we are, sometimes, suddenly aware of the tremendous forces beneath and behind us, momently quiescent?

Determined to shake off this dejection, Alan wandered high among the upland solitudes. There a cool air moved always, even in the noons of August; and there, indeed, often had come upon him a deep peace. But whatsoever the reason, only a deeper despondency possessed him. An incident, significant in that mood, at that time, happened then. A few hundred yards away from where he stood, half hidden in a little glen where a fall of water tossed its spray among the shadows of rowan and bircli, was the bothie of a woman, the wife of Neil MacNeill, a fisherman of Aoinaig. She was there, be knew, for the summer pasturing; and even as he recollected this, he heard the sound of her voice as she sang somewhere by the burnside. Moving slowly toward the corrie, he stopped at a mountain ash which over hung a pool. Looking down, he saw the woman, Morag MacNeill, washing and peeling potatoes in the clear brown water. And as she washed and peeled, she sang an old-time shealing hymn of the Virgin-Shepherdess, of Michael the White, and of Columan the Dove. It was a song that, years ago, far away in Brittany he had heard from his mother's lips. He listened now to every word of the doubly familiar Gaelic; and when Morag ended, the tears were in his eyes, and he stood for a while as one under a spell.š

"A Mhicheil mhin! nan steud geala,
A choisin cios air Dragon fala,
Air ghaol! Dia 'us Mhic Muire,
Sgaoil do sgiath oirnn dan sinn uile,
Sgaoil do sgiath oirnn dan sinn uile.

"A Mhoire ghradhach! Mathair Uain-ghil,
Cobhair oirnne, Oigh na h-uaisle;
A rioghainn uai'reach! a bhuachaille nan trend!
Cum ar cuallach cuartaich sinn le cheil,
Cum ar cuallach cuartaich sinn le cheil.

"A Chalum-Chille: chairdeil, chaoimh,
An ainm Athar, Mic, us Spioraid Naoimh,
Trid na Trithinn! trid na Triath!
Comraig sinne, gleidh ar trial,
Comraig sinne, gleidh ar trial.

Athair! A Mhic! A Spioraid Naoimh!
Bi'eadh an Tri-Aon leinn a la's a dh-oidhche!
'S air chul nan tonn, no air thaobh nan beann,
Bi'dh ar Mathair leinn, 's bith a lamh fo'r ceann,
Bi'dh ar Mathair leinn, 's bith a lamh fo'r ceann.

Thou gentle Michael of the white steed,
Who subdued the Dragon of blood,
For love of God and the Son of Mary,
Spread over us thy wing, shield us all!
Spread over us thy wing, shield us all!

Mary beloved! Mother of the White Lamb,
Protect us, thou Virgin of nobleness,
Queen of beauty! Shepherdess of the flocks!
Keep our cattle, surround us together,
Keep our cattle, surround us together.

Thou Columba, the friendly, the kind,
In name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit Holy,
Through the Three-in-One, through the Three,
Encompass us, guard our procession,
Encompass us, guard our procession.

Thou Father! thou Son! thou Spirit Holy!
Be the Three-in-One with us day and night.
And on the crested wave, or on the mountain side.
Our Mother is there, and her arm is under our head,
Our Mother is there, and her arm is under our head."

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šThis hymn was taken down in the Gaelic and translated by Mr. Alexander Carmichael of South Uist.
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Alan found himself repeating whisperingly, and again and again--

"Bi 'eadh an Tri-Aon leinn, a la's a dh-oidhche!
  'S air chul nan tonn, no air thaobh nam beann."

Suddenly the woman glanced upward, perhaps because of the shadow that moved against the green bracken below. With a startled gesture she sprang to her feet. Alan looked at her kindly, saying, with a smile, " Sure, Morag nic Tormod, it is not fear you need be having of one who is your friend." Then, seeing that the woman stared at him with something of terror as well as surprise, he spoke to her again.

"Sure, Morag, I am no stranger that you should be looking at me with those foreign eyes." He laughed as he spoke, and made as though he were about to descend to the burnside. Unmistakably, however, the woman did not desire his company. He saw this, with the pain and bewilderment which had come upon him whenever the like happened, as so often it had happened since he had come to Rona.

"Tell me, Morag MacNeill, what is the meaning of this strangeness that is upon you? Why do you not speak ? Why do you turn away your head?"

Suddenly the woman flashed her black eyes upon him.

"Have you ever heard of am Buachaill Bān--am Buachaill Buidhe?"

He looked at her in amaze. Am Buachaill Bān ! . . . The fair-haired Herdsman, the yellow-haired Herdsman! What could she mean? In days gone by, he knew, the islanders, in the evil time after Culloden, had so named the fugitive Prince who had sought shelter in the Hebrides; and in some of the runes of an older day still the Saviour of the World was sometimes so called, just as Mary was called Bhtachaile nan trend--Shepherdess of the Flock. But it could be no allusion to either of these that was intended.

"Who is the Herdsman of whom you speak, Morag?"

"Is it no knowledge you have of him at all, Alan MacAilean?"

"None. I know nothing of the man, nothing of what is in your mind. Who is the Herdsman?"

"You will not be putting evil upon me because that you saw me here by the pool before I saw you?"

"Why should I, woman? Why do you think that I have the power of the evil eye? Sure, I have done no harm to you or yours, and wish none. But if it is for peace to you to know it, it is no evil I wish you, but only good. The Blessing of Himself be upon you and yours and upon your house!"

The woman looked relieved, but still cast her furtive gaze upon Alan, who no longer attempted to join her.

"I cannot be speaking the thing that is in my mind, Alan MacAilean. It is not for me to be saying that thing. But if you have no knowledge of the Herdsman, sure it is only another wonder of the wonders, and God has the sun on that shadow, to the Stones be it said."

"But tell me, Morag, who is the Herdsman of whom you speak?"

For a minute or more the woman stood regarding him intently. Then slowly, and with obvious reluctance, she spoke--

"Why have you appeared to the people upon the isles, sometimes by moonlight, sometimes by day or in the dusk, and have foretold upon one and all who dwell here black gloom and the red flame of sorrow? Why have you, who are an outcast because of what lies between you and another, pretended to be a messenger of the Son-ay, for sure, even, God forgive you, to be the Son Himself?"

Alan stared at the woman. For a time he could utter no word. Had some extraordinary delusion spread among the islanders, and was there in the insane accusation of this woman the secret of that which had so troubled him?

"This is all an empty darkness to me, Morag. Speak more plainly, woman. What is all this madness that you say? When have I spoken of having any mission, or of being other than I am? When have I foretold evil upon you or yours, or upon the isles beyond? What man has ever dared to say that Alan MacAilean of Rona is an outcast? And what sin is it that lies between me and another of which you know?

It was impossible for Morag MacNeill to doubt the sincerity of the man who spoke to her. She crossed herself, and muttered the words of a seun for the protection of the soul against the demon powers. Still, even while she believed in Alan's sincerity, she could not reconcile it with that terrible and strange mystery with which rumour had filled her ears. So, having nothing to say in reply to his eager questions, she cast down her eyes and kept silence.

"Speak, Morag, for Heaven's sake! Speak if you are a true woman; you that see a man in sore pain, in pain, too, for that of which he knows nothing, and of the ill of which he is guiltless!"

But, keeping her face averted, the woman muttered simply, "I have no more to say." With that she turned and moved slowly along the pathway which led from the pool to her hillside bothie.

With a sigh, Alan walked slowly away. What wonder, he thought, that deep gloom had been upon him that day? Here, in the woman's mysterious words, was the shadow of that shadow.

Slowly, brooding deep over what he had heard, he crossed the Monadh-nan-Con, as the hill-tract there was called, till he came to the rocky wilderness known as the Slope of the Caverns.

There for a time he leaned against a high boulder, idly watching a few sheep nibbling the short grass which grew about some of the many caves which opened in slits or wide hollows. Below and beyond he saw the pale blue silence of the sea meet the pale blue silence of the sky ; south-westward, the grey film of the coast of Ulster; westward, again the illimitable vast of sea and sky, infinitudes of calm, as though the blue silence of heaven breathed in that one motionless wave, as though that wave sighed and drew the horizons to its heart. From where he stood he could hear the murmur of the surge whispering all round the isle; the surge that, even on days of profound stillness, makes a murmurous rumour among the rocks and shingle of the island shores. Not upon the moor-side, but in the blank hollows of the caves around him, he heard, as in gigantic shells, the moving of a strange and solemn rhythm: wave-haunted shells indeed, for the echo that was bruited from one to the other came from beneath, from out of those labyrinthine passages and dim, shadowy sea-arcades, where among the melancholy green glooms the Atlantic waters lose themselves in a vain wandering.

For long he leaned there, revolving in his mind the mystery of Morag MacNeill's words. Then, abruptly, the stillness was broken by the sound of a dislodged stone. So little did he expect the foot of fellow-man, that he did not turn at what he thought to be the slip of a sheep. But when upon the slope of the grass, a little way beyond where he stood, a dusky blue shadow wavered fantastically, he swung round with a sudden instinct of dread.

And this was the dread which, after these long weeks since he had come to Rona, was upon Alan Carmichael.

For there, standing quietly by another boulder, at the mouth of another cave, was a man in all appearance identical with himself. Looking at this apparition, he beheld one of the same height as himself, with hair of the same hue, with eyes the same and features the same, with the same carriage, the same smile, the same expression. No, there, and there alone, was any difference.

Sick at heart, Alan wondered if he looked upon his own wraith. Familiar with the legends of his people, it would have been no strange thing to him that there, upon the hillside, should appear the wraith of himself. Had not old Ian Mclain--and that, too, though far away in a strange land--seen the death of his mother moving upward from her feet to her knees, from her knees to her waist, from her waist to her neck, and, just before the end, how the shroud darkened along the face until it hid the eyes? Had he not often heard from her, from Ian, of the second self which so often appears beside the living when already the shadow of doom is upon him whose hours are numbered? Was this, then, the reason of what had been his inexplicable gloom? Was he indeed at the extreme of life? Was his soul amid shallows, already a rock upon a blank, inhospitable shore? If not, who or what was this second self which leaned there negligently, looking at him with scornful smiling lips, but with intent, unsmiling eyes.

Slowly there came into his mind this thought: How could a phantom, that was itself intangible, throw a shadow upon the grass, as though it were a living body? Sure, a shadow there was indeed. It lay between the apparition and himself. A legend heard in boyhood came back to him; instinctively he stooped and lifted a stone and flung it midway into the shadow.

"Go back into the darkness," he cried, "if out of the darkness you came; but if you be a living thing, put out Your hands!"

The shadow remained motionless. When Alan looked again at his second self, he saw that the scorn which had been upon the lips was now in the eyes also. Ay, for sure, scornful silent laughter it was that lay in those cold wells of light. No phantom that; a man he, even as Alan himself. His heart pulsed like that of a trapped bird, but with the spoken word his courage came back to him.

"Who are you?" he asked, in a voice strange even in his own ears.

"Am Buachaill," replied the man in a voice as low and strange. "I am the Herdsman."

A new tide of fear surged in upon Alan. That voice, was it not his own? that tone, was it not familiar in his ears? When the man spoke, he heard himself speak; sure, if he were Am Buachaill Bān, Alan, too, was the Herdsman, though what fantastic destiny might be his was all unknown to him.

"Come near," said the man, and now the mocking light in his eyes was wild as cloudfire--"come near, oh Buachaill Bān!"

With a swift movement, Alan sprang forward ; but as he leaped, his foot caught in a spray of heather, and he stumbled and fell. When he rose, he looked in vain for the man who had called him. There was not a sign, not a trace of any living being. For the first few moments he believed it had all been a delusion. Mortal being did not appear and vanish in that ghostly way. Still, surely he could not have mistaken the blank of that place for a speaking voice, or out of nothingness have fashioned the living phantom of himself? Or could he? With that, he strode forward and peered into the wide arch of the cavern by which the man had stood. He could not see far into it ; but so far as it was possible to see, he discerned neither man nor shadow of man, nor anything that stirred; no, not even the gossamer bloom of a beārnan-bride, that grew on a patch of grass a yard or two within the darkness, had lost one of its delicate filmy spires. He drew back, dismayed. Then, suddenly, his heart leaped again, for beyond all question, all possible doubt, there, in the bent thyme, just where the man had stood, was the imprint of his feet. Even now the green sprays were moving forward.

 

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