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

The Herdsman


"In the shadow of pain, one may hear the footsteps of joy." So runs a proverb of old.

It was a true saying for Alan. That night he lay down in pain, his heart heavy with the weight of a mysterious burden. On the morrow he woke blithely to a new day--a day of absolute beauty. The whole wide wilderness of ocean was of living azure, aflame with gold and silver. Around the promontories of the isles the brown-sailed fishing-boats of Barra and Berneray, of Borosay and Seila, moved blithely hither and thither. Everywhere the rhythm of life pulsed swift and strong. The first sound which had awakened Alan was of a loud singing of fishermen who were putting out from Aonaig. The coming of a great shoal of mackerel had been signalled, and every man and woman of the near isles was alert for the take. The watchers had known it by the swift congregation of birds, particularly the gannets and skuas. And as the men pulled at the oars, or hoisted the brown sails, they sang a snatch of an old-world tune, still chanted at the first coming of the birds when spring-tide is on the flow again--

"Bui' cheas dha 'n Ti thaine na Gugachan
Thaine's na h-Eoin-Mhora cuideriu,
Cailin dugh ciaru bo's a chro!
Bo dhonn! bo dhonn! bo dhonn bheadarrach!
Bo dhonn a ruin a bhlitheadh am baine dhuit
Ho ro! mo gheallag! ni gu rodagach!
Cailin dugh ciaru bo's a chro--
Na h-eoin air tighinn! cluinneam an ceol!

(Thanks to the Being, the Gannets have come,
Yes I and the Great Auks along with them.
Dark-haired girl!---a cow in the fold!
Brown cow! brown cow! brown cow, beloved ho!
Brown cow! my lovel the milker of milk to thee!
Ho ro! my fair-skinned girl---a cow, in the fold,
And the birds have come!---glad sight, I see!)

Eager to be of help, Ian put off in his boat, and was soon among the fishermen, who, in their new excitement were forgetful of all else than that the mackerel were come, and that every moment was precious. For the first time Ian found himself no unwelcome comrade. Was it, he wondered, because that, there upon the sea, whatever of shadow dwelled about him, or rather about Alan MacAilean, on the land, was no longer visible.

All through that golden noon he and the others worked hard. From isle to isle went the chorus of the splashing oars and splashing nets; of the splashing of the fish and the splashing of gannets and gulls; of the splashing of the tide leaping blithely against the sun-dazzle, and the illimitable rippling splash moving out of the west;--all this blent with the loud, joyous cries, the laughter, and the hoarse shouts of the men of Barra and the adjacent islands. It was close upon dusk before the Rona boats put into the haven of Aonaig again; and by that time none was blither than Ian Maclain, who in that day of happy toil had lost all the gloom and apprehension of the day before, and now returned to Caisteal-Rhona with lighter heart than he had known for long.

When, however, he got there, there was no sign of Alan. He had gone, said Giorsal, he had gone out in the smaller boat midway in the afternoon, and had sailed around to Aoidhu, the great scaur which ran out beyond the precipices at the south-west of Rona.

This Alan often did, and of late more and more often. Ever since he had come to the Hebrid Isles his love of the sea had deepened and had grown into a passion for its mystery and beauty. Of late, too, something impelled to a more frequent isolation, a deep longing to be where no eye could see and no ear hearken.

So at first Ian was in no way alarmed. But when the sun had set, and over the faint blue film of the Isle of Tiree the moon had risen, and still no sign of Alan, he became restless and uneasy. Giorsal begged him in vain to eat of the supper she had prepared. Idly he moved to and fro along the rocky ledge, or down by the pebbly shore, or across the green àiridh, eager for a glimpse of him whom he loved so well.

At last, unable longer to endure a growing anxiety, he put out in his boat, and sailed swiftly before the slight easterly breeze which had prevailed since moonrise. So far as Aoidhu, all the way from Aonaig, there was not a haven anywhere, nor even one of the sea caverns which honeycombed the isle beyond the headland. A glance, therefore, showed him that Alan had not yet come back that way. It was possible, though unlikely that he had sailed right round Rona; unlikely because in the narrow straits to the north, between Rona and the scattered islets known as the Innsemhara, strong currents prevailed, and particularly at the full of the tide, when they swept north-eastward dark and swift as a mill-race.

Once the headland was passed and the sheer precipitous westward cliffs loomed black out of the sea, he became more and more uneasy. As yet, there was no danger; but he saw that a swell was moving out of the west; and whenever the wind blew that way, the sea-arcades were filled with a lifting, perilous wave, Later, escape might be difficult, and often impossible. Out of the score or more great passages which opened between Aoidhu and Ardgorm, it was difficult to know into which to chance the search of Alan. Together they had examined all of them. Some twisted but slightly; others wound sinuously till the green, serpentine alleys, flanked by basalt, walls: hundreds of feet high, lost themselves in an indistinguishable maze.

But that which was safest, and wherein a boat could most easily make its way against wind or tide, was the huge, cavernous passage known locally as the Uaimh-nan-roin, the Cave of the Seals.

For this opening Ian steered his boat. Soon he was within the wide corridor. Like the great cave at Staffa, it was wrought as an aisle in some natural cathedral; the rocks, too,columnar, and rose in flawless symmetry, were as though graven by the hand of man. At the far end of this gigantic aisle, there diverges a long, narrow arcade, filled by day with the green shine of the water, and by night, when the moon is up, with a pale froth of light. It is one of the few where there are open gateways for the sea and the wandering light, and by its spherical shape almost the only safe passage in a season of heavy wind. Half-way along this arched arcade a corridor leads to a round cup-like cavern, midway in which stands a huge mass of black basalt, in shape suggestive of a titanic altar. Thus it must have impressed the imagination of the islanders of old; for by them, even in a remote day, it was called Teampull-Mara, the Temple of the Sea. Owing to the narrowness of the passage, and to the smooth, unbroken walls which rise sheer from the green depths into an invisible darkness, the Strait of the Temple is not one wherein to linger long, save in a time of calm.

Instinctively however, Ian quietly headed his boat along this narrow way. When, silently, he emerged from the arcade, he could just discern the mass of basalt at the far end of the cavern. But there, seated in his boat, was Alan, apparently idly adrift, for one oar floated in the water alongside, and the other swung listlessly from the tholes.

His heart had a suffocating grip as he saw him whom he had come to seek. Why that absolute stillness, that strange, listless indifference? For a dreadful moment he feared death had indeed come to him in that lonely place where, as an ancient legend had it, a woman of old time had perished, and ever since had wrought death upon any who came thither solitary and unhappy.

But at the striking of the shaft of his oar against a ledge, Alan moved, and looked at him with startled eyes. Half rising from where he crouched in the stern, he called to him in a voice that had in it something strangely unfamiliar.

"I will not hear!" he cried. "I will not hear! Leave me! Leave me!"

Fearing that the desolation of the place had wrought upon his mind, Ian swiftly moved toward him, and the next moment his boat glided alongside. Stepping from the one to the other, he kneeled beside him.

"Ailean mo caraidi Ailean-aghray, what is it? What gives you dread? There is no harm here. All is well. Look! See, it is I Ian--old Ian MacIain! Listen, mo ghaoil; do you not know me--do you not know who I am? It is I, Ian; Ian who loves you!"

Even in that obscure light he could clearly discern the pale face, and his heart smote him as he saw Alan's eyes turn upon him with a glance wild and mournful. Had he indeed succumbed to the sea madness which ever and again strikes into a terrible melancholy one here and there among those who dwell in the remote isles? But even as he looked, he noted another expression come into the wild strained eyes; and almost before he realised what had happened, Alan was on his feet and pointing with rigid arm.

For there, in that nigh unreachable and for ever unvisited solitude was the figure of a man. He stood on the summit of the huge basalt altar, and appeared to have sprung from out the rock, or, himself a shadowy presence, to have grown; out of the obscure unrealities of the darkness. Ian stared, fascinated, speechless.

Then with a spring he was on the ledge. Swift and sure as a wild cat, he scaled the huge mass of the altar.

Nothing; no one! There was not a trace of any human being. Not a bird, not a bat; nothing. Moreover, even in that slowly blackening darkness, he could see that there was no direct connection between the summit or side with the blank, precipitous wall of basalt beyond. Overhead there was, so far as he could discern, a vault. No human being could have descended through that perilous gulf.

Was the island haunted? he wondered, as slowly he made his way back to the boat. Or had he been startled by some wild fantasy, and imagined a likeness where none had been? Perhaps even he had not really seen any one. He had heard of such things. The nerves can soon chase the mind into the shadow wherein it loses itself.

Or was Alan the vain dreamer? That, indeed, might well be. Mayhap he had heard some fantastic tale from Morag MacNeill, or from old Marsail Macrae; the islanders had sgeul after sgeul of a wild strangeness.

In silence he guided the boats back into the outer arcade, where a faint sheen of moonlight glistened on the water. Thence, in a few minutes, he oared that wherein he and Alan sat, with the other fastened astern, into the open.

When the moonshine lay full on Alan's face, Ian saw that he was thinking neither of himself nor of where he was. His eyes were heavy with dream.

What wind there was blew against their course, so Ian rowed unceasingly. In silence they passed once again the headland of Aoidhu; in silence they drifted past a single light gleaming in a croft near Aonaig--a red eye staring out into the shadow of the sea, from the room where the woman Marsail lay dying; and in silence their keels grided on the patch of shingle in Caisteal-Rhona haven.

For days thereafter Alan haunted that rocky, cavernous wilderness where he had seen the Herdsman.

It was in vain he had sought everywhere for some tidings of this mysterious dweller in those upland solitudes. At times he believed that there was indeed some one upon the island of whom, for inexplicable reasons, none there would speak ; but at last he came to the conviction that what he had seen was an apparition, projected by the fantasy of overwrought nerves. Even from the woman Morag MacNeill, to whom he had gone with a frank appeal that won its way to her heart, he learned no more than that an old legend, of which she did not care to speak, was in some way associated with his own coming to Rona.

Ian, too, never once alluded to the mysterious incident of the green arcades which had so deeply impressed them both: never after Alan had told him that he had seen a vision.

But as the days passed, and as no word came to either of any unknown person who was on the island, and as Alan, for all his patient wandering and furtive quest, both among the upland caves and in the green arcades, found absolutely no traces of him whom he sought, the belief that he had been duped by his imagination deepened almost to conviction.

As for Ian, he, unlike Alan, became more and more convinced that what he had seen was indeed no apparition. Whatever lingering doubt he had was dissipated on the eve of the night when old Marsail Macrae died. It was dusk when word came to Caisteal-Rhona that Marsail felt the cold wind on the soles of her feet. Ian went to her at once, and it was in the dark hour which followed that he heard once more, and more fully, the strange story which, like a poisonous weed, had taken root in the minds of the islanders. Already from Marsail he had heard of the Prophet, though, strangely enough, he had never breathed word of this to Alan, not even when, after the startling episode of the apparition in the Teampull-Mara, he had, as he believed, seen the Prophet himself. But there in the darkness of the low, turfed cottage, with no light in the room save the dull red gloom from the heart of the smoored peats, Marsail, in the attenuated, remote voice of those who have already entered into the vale of the shadow, told him this thing, in the homelier Gaelic--

"Yes, Ian mac lain-Bàn, I will be telling you this thing before I change. You are for knowing, sure, that long ago Uilleam, brother of him who was father to the lad up at the castle yonder, had a son? Yes, you know that, you say, and also that he was called Donnacha Bàn? No mo-caraid, that is not a true thing that you have heard, that Donnacha Bàn went under the waves years ago.

He was the seventh son, an' was born under the full moon; 'tis Himself will be knowing whether that was for or against him. Of these seven none lived beyond childhood except the two youngest, Kenneth an' Donnacha. Kenneth was always frail as a February flower, but he lived to be a man. He any his brother never spoke, for a feud was between them, not only because that each was unlike the other, and the younger hated the older because through him he was the penniless one, but most because both loved the same woman. I am not for telling you the whole story now, for the breath in my body will soon blow out in the draught that is coming upon me; but this I will say to you: darker and darker grew the gloom between these brothers. When Giorsal Macdonald gave her love to Kenneth, Donnacha disappeared for a time. Then, one day, he came back to Borosay, an' smiled quietly with his cold eyes when they wondered at his coming again. Now, too, it was noticed that he no longer had an ill-will upon his brother, but spoke smoothly with him and loved to be in his company. But to this day no one knows for sure what happened. For there was a gloaming when Donnacha Bàn came back alone in his sailing-boat. He and Kenneth had sailed forth, he said, to shoot seals in the sea-arcades to the west of Rona, but in these dark and lonely passages they had missed each other. At last he had heard Kenneth's voice calling for help, but when he had got to the place it was too late, for his brother had been seized with the cramps, an' had sunk deep into the fathomless water. There is no getting a body again that sinks in these sea-galleries. The crabs know that.

"Well, this and much more was what Donnacha Bàn told to his people. None believed him; but what could any do? There was no proof; none had ever seen them enter the sea-caves together. Not that Donnacha Bàn sought in any way to keep back those who would fain know more. Not so; he strove to help to find the body. Nevertheless, none believed; an' Giorsal nic Dugall Ṃr least of all. The blight of that sorrow went to her heart. She had death soon, poor thing! but before the cold greyness was upon her she told her father, an' the minister that was there, that she knew Donnacha Bàn had murdered his brother. One might be saying these were the wild words of a woman; but, for sure, no one said that thing upon Borosay or Rona, or any of these isles. When all was done, the minister told what he knew, an' what he thought, to the Lord of the South Isles, and asked what was to be put upon Donnacha Bàn. "Exile for ever,' said the chief, 'or if he stays here, the doom of silence. Let no man or woman speak to him or give him food or drink, or give him shelter, or let his shadow cross his or hers.'

"When this thing was told to Donnacha Bàn Carmichael, he laughed at first; but as day after day slid over the rocks where all days fall, he laughed no more. Soon he saw that the chief's word was no empty word; an' yet would not go away from his own place. He could not stay upon Borosay, for his father cursed him; an' no man can stay upon the island where a father's curse moves this way an' that, for ever seeing him. Then, some say a madness came upon him, and others that he took wildness to be his way, and others that God put upon him the shadow of loneliness, so that he might meet sorrow there and repent. Howsoever that may be, Donnacha BAn came to Rona, an' by the same token, it was the year of the great blight, when the potatoes and the corn came to naught, an' when the fish in the sea swam away from the isles. In the autumn of that year there was not a soul left on Ronar except Giorsal an' the old man Ian, her father, who had guard of Caisteal-Rhona for him who was absent. When, once more, years after, smoke rose from the crofts, the saying spread that Donnacha Bàn, the murderer, had made his home among the caves of the upper part of the isle. None knew how this saying rose, for he was seen of none. The last man who saw him--an' that was a year later--was old Padruig M'Vurich the shepherd. Padruig said that, as he was driving his ewes across the north slope of Ben Einaval in the gloaming, he came upon a silent figure seated upon a rock, with his chin in his hands, an' his elbows on his knees--with the great, sad eyes of him staring at the moon that was lifting itself out of the sea. Padruig did not know who the man was. The shepherd had few wits, poor man! and he had known, or remembered, little about the story of Donnacha Bàn Carmichael; so when he spoke to the man, it was as to a stranger. The man looked at him and said--

"'You are Padruig M'Vurich, the shepherd.'

"At that a trembling was upon old Padruig, who had the wonder that this stranger should know who and what he was.

"'And who will you be, and forgive the saying?' he asked.

"'Am Fàidh-the Prophet,' the man said.

"'And what prophet will you be, and what is your prophecy?' asked Padruig.

"'I am here because I wait for what is to be and that will be the coming of the Woman who is the Daughter of God.'

"And with that the man said no more, an' the old shepherd went down through the gloaming, an', heavy with the thoughts that troubled him, followed his ewes down into Aonaig. But after that neither he nor any other saw or heard tell of the shadowy stranger; so that all upon Rona felt sure that Padruig had beheld no more than a vision. There were some who thought that he had seen the ghost of the outlaw Donnacha Bàn; an' mayhap one or two who wondered if the stranger that had said he was a prophet was not Donnacha Bàn himself, with a madness come upon him; but at last these sayings went out to sea upon the wind, an' men forgot. But, an' it was months and months afterwards, an' three days before his own death, old Padruig, M'Vurich was sitting in the sunset on the rocky ledge in front of his brother's croft, where then he was staying, when he heard a strange crying of seals. He thought little of that; only, when he looked closer, he saw, in the hollow of the wave hard by that ledge, a drifting body.

"'Am Faidh---Am Faidh!' he cried; 'the Prophet, the Prophet!'

"At that his brother an' his brother's wife ran to see; but it was nothing that they saw. 'It would be a seal,' said P̣1 M'Vurich; but at that Padruig had shook his head, an' said no for sure, he had seen the face of the dead man, an' it was of him whom he had met on the hillside, an' that had said he was the Prophet who was waiting there for the second coming of God.

And that is how there came about the echo of the thought that Donnacha Bàn had at last, after his madness, gone under the green wave and was dead. For all that, in the months which followed, more than one man said he had seen a figure high up on the hill. The old wisdom says that when God comes again, or the prophet who will come before, it will be as a herdsman on a lonely isle. More than one of the old people on Rona and Borosay remembered that sgeul out of the Seanachas that the tale-tellers knew. There were some who said that Donnacha Bàn had never been drowned at all, an' that he was this Prophet, this Herdsman. Others would not have that saying at all, but believed that the wraith was indeed Am Buachaill Ban, the Fair-haired Shepherd, who had come again to redeem the people out of their sorrow. There were even those who said that the Herdsman who haunted Rona was no other than Kenneth Carmichael himself, who had not died but had had the mind-dark there in the sea-caves where he had been lost, an' there had come to the knowledge of secret things, and so was at last Am Fàidh Chriosd."

A great weakness came upon the old woman when she had spoken thus far. Ian feared that she would have breath for no further word ; but after a thin gasping, and a listless fluttering of weak hands upon the coverlet, whereon her trembling fingers plucked aimlessly at the invisible blossoms of death, she opened her eyes once more, and stared in a dim questioning at him who sat by her bedside.

"Tell me," whispered Ian, "tell me Marsail, what thought it is that is in your own mind?"

But already the old woman had begun to wander.

"For sure, for sure," she muttered, "Am Fàidh . . . Am Fàidh . . . and a child will be born the Queen of Heaven, an' . . . that will be the voice of Domhuill, my husband, I am hearing . . .an' dark it is, an' the tide comin' in . . .an'---"

Then, sure, the tide came in, and if in that darkness old Marsail Macrae heard any voice at all, it was that of Domhuill who years agone had sunk into the wild seas off the head of Barra.

An hour later Alan walked slowly under the cloudy night. All he had heard from Ian came back to him with a strange familiarity.

Something of this, at least, he had known before. Some hints of this mysterious Herdsman had reached his ears. In some inexplicable way his real or imaginary presence there upon Rona seemed a pre-ordained thing for him.

He knew that the wild imaginings of the islanders had woven the legend of the Prophet, or of his mysterious message, out of the loom of the deep longing whereon is woven that larger tapestry, the shadow-thridden life of the island Gael. Laughter and tears, ordinary hopes and pleasures, and even joy itself, and bright gaiety, and the swift, spontaneous imaginations of susceptible natures--all this, of course, is to be found with the island Gael as with his fellows elsewhere. But every here and there are some who have in their minds the inheritance from the dim past of their race, and, are oppressed as no other people are oppressed bythe gloom of a strife between spiritual emotion and material facts. It is the brains of dreamers such as these which clear the mental life of the community; and it is in these brains are the mysterious looms which weave the tragic and sorrowful tapestries of Celtic thought. It were a madness to suppose that life in the isles consists of nothing but sadness and melancholy. It is not so, or need not be so, for the Gael is a creature of shadow and shine. But whatever the people is, the brain of the Gael hears a music that is sadder than any music there is, and has for its cloudy sky a gloom that shall not go; for the end is near, and upon the westernmost shores of these remote isles the voice of Celtic sorrow may be heard crying, "Cha till, cha till, cha till mi tuille": " I will return, I will return, I will return no more."

Alan knew all this well ; and yet he too dreamed his dream--that, even yet, there might be redemption for the people. He did not share the wild hope which some of the older islanders held, that Christ Himself shall come again to redeem an oppressed race; but might not another saviour arise, another redeeming spirit come into the world? And if so, might not that child of joy be born out of suffering and sorrow and crime ; and if so, might not the Herdsman be indeed a prophet, the Prophet of the Woman in whom God should come anew as foretold?

With startled eyes he crossed the thyme-set ledge whereon stood Caisteal-Rhona. Was it, after all, a message he had received, and was that which had appeared to him in that lonely cavern of the sea but a phantom of his own destiny? Was he himself, Alan Carmichael, indeed Am Fàidh, the predestined Prophet of the isles?


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