The Works of "Fiona Macleod", Volume V, The Sunset of Old Tales


"Woe for the doom of a dark soul . . . . "--SOPHOCLES.

"The desert groweth. Who unto him who containeth deserts."--NIETZSCHE.

On the mainland of Ardnamurchan there is a house by the shore, built of grey stones, against which the yellow flags and gallingale run up like surf, and behind which a long slope of bracken looks like the green sea beyond rocks when the wind is heavy on it, though with no more to see than a myriad wrinkling. There is no other house near, nor boat on the shore; and I saw or heard never a sheep, but the few thin beasts of Anndra MacCaskill browsing the salt grass by the long, broken, wandering dune where the rocks lie in a heavy jumble. It is a desolate place. I saw no birds in all the bramble, never a finch in the undershaws, nor shilfa in the tansy-wastes. Even on the shore the white wings of the gulls and terns were not catching the light: I saw nothing but three birds, a dotterel flying and wailing, a scart black-green on a weedy rock, and a grey skua hawking the sighing suck of the ebb. The light was that of storm, though the twilight was already gathering in every corrie and hollow: and in October the day falls soon. The sea south was a dark, tossing waste, with long, irregular dykes of foam that ran and merged when you looked at them, but were like broken walls on fields of black rye when you saw them only through the side of the eyes. South-west and west long splashes of red flame, ruddied the wild sea and brought the black to blue. It was not this year, nor last, nor the year before, that I heard that of which I now write: but I remember it all as though it were of yesterday. A bit of loneroid, gale or bog-myrtle as it is called in the south, wet, with the light green and the dark green on the same stem, will often, in a moment, bring Tighnaclachan before me, so that I see just that desolate shore and no other shore, and hear the scattered lamenting of the few sheep yonder, and see that scart on the weedy rock plucking at its black-green feathers, or that grey skua with its melancholy cry hawking the sighing shallows of the ebb beyond the ledges, to this side of the house itself, half windowless yet it may be, and with the byre-doors open and falling back and rotting.

It was a matter of no moment that took me there: partly to meet one coming another way, partly to see Dionaid Maclure, a frail old woman who kept the place for Neil McNeil, her brother. I had walked some three miles, and was tired; not with the distance, but with a something in the wind, and perhaps from the singular gloom of the place at that hour in that grey loneliness, caught between deserted landsand a sea never quiet, an angry troubled waste, perpetually lamenting, continually shaken with fierce wraths.

As I came close to Tighnaclachan, I saw no smoke above the boulder-held thatch. The ragged pony I had seen there before was not in the airidh beyond. It was with relief I heard the clucking of a hen somewhere. The only other living thing I saw was a magpie by a pool of rain-water, stalking with sharp cries of anger its own restless image.

Yet it was here that, before I heard the tale Neil McNeil told me, I heard words from old Janet which put a beauty into that lonely unhomely place or me, then and for always. I forget what led to the beauty in the old heart, and stirred it: but I remember the shape it took on the old lips. She had given me tea, and we had sat awhile in the brown dusk by the comforting red glow of the peats, and then I told her something, I forget what--perhaps of some one we knew, perhaps a bit of a tale, or a song maybe, likely the sigh of a ballad or song--when she leaned to me. and said, "It's a blessing they are, a healing and a blessing: ay, so they are, the moonlight and the dew. When we're young, summer's sweet wi' them: when we're old, they're in the heart still. It's the song left, the memory o' the song, a sweet air, when the bird's flown for aye. Ay, my dlear, an' there's more than that to be said. God made the sun an' the day: the Holy Spirit, the night an' the stars; but Christ made the moonlight an' the dew."

She was tender and sweet, old Dionaid: fair in life and fair in death. Strange that the beauty of a single thought can thenceforth clothe the desolation in loveliness, and change the grey air and the grey sea and the grey face of a seared land into a sanctuary of peace, as though unknown birds builded there, doves of the spirit. I remember, once, on the waste of Subasio behind Assisi, that some one near me said the barrenness was terrible, more lifeless and sad than any other solitude. To me, at that moment, as it happened, this was not so: the hill glowed with the divine light, that came, not from the east welling it or the west gathering it, but from the immortal life of the heart of St. Francis--and a storm of white doves rose with flashing wings, so that I was dazzled: and only when I saw that they were not there did I know I had seen the prayers and joys of a multitude of hearts, children of him to whom the wind was "brother" and the grass "sister."

But now I must go back to that of which I meant to write. I have given the lonely setting of the place where, when we came in at dayfall for the porridge, Neil McNeil--a tired man, tall, gaunt, grey-black, with cold blue eyes like the solander's--told me of the man McRoban, or MacRobany.

There is no need to tell of what kept me there till long after dark was come, with the flowing tide making so heavy a noise among the loose rock that at times our words sounded hollow and far away: nor of all that we three, waiting there, talked nor what dreams and thoughts came into that flame-lit dark room in the desolate house by the sea. When Neil spoke once, unquestioned, it was after a long silence, when we were unconsciously listening to the loud tick-tack, tick-tack of the great wall clock as though we were eager almost to a strained anxiety to hear urgent tidings, some news expected or feared, or halfguessed, coming mysteriously, on quivering lips: with a foreign sound, broken, meshed in obscurity--hearing at the same time the gathering clamour in the sea's voice, the hoarse scroach-an-scroach of the flung surge on the dragged reluctant beach, and the loud demanding cry of the wind behind the confused and trampling noise of the tide, that by the sound was in the house itself and away inland.

"I can't tell you much about what you asked," he began slowly, "There isn't much to tell. You've been in or near that place away in the Italian country, and may know more than I know. It was this way, then, since I must tell you the little I know. You thought, that day we talked about it, the name was MacCroban. But I'm not knowing if there's any such name: any way it is not the man's name, the man I'm thinking of, the man I have in my mind. His name was MacRóban, or MacRóbany."

"Was ?"


Tick-tack . . . tick-tack . . . and the loud anger of the sea at the door. I was glad when Neil went on.

"He had no home. I met him a long way inland--on the Moss of Achnacree, beyond Morven, across the Sound of Lorne. It was at the edge o' dark, and he was lying with his head on a stone. I stooped and spoke to him. 'Poor man, have you the heavy sickness on you?' I asked, and again in the English, when he did not answer.

"'It is dying you are,' I said. 'I fear, poor man, it is near death you will be if you lie there.'

"'I will give you all things,' he said in a thin voice, weary as a three-day wind in the east: 'Ay, I will give you secrets and all things, if you will give me death.'

"'And for why that?' I asked.

"'I die like this every night,' he said, 'and there are three of us. I am not knowing where my two brothers will be, in what land, west or east: my brother John, and my brother Raphael. But they, too, are like this, like what I am, like what you see me here. They have their heads on stones, in a waste place. They call upon death. if a man stoops as you do, over John, my brother, he will say what I say--"I will give you all, I will give you all secrets, I will give you knowledge and power, if you will give me one thing, if you will give me death." And if any man stoops over Raphael, my brother, he will say that also--that John our brother would say, and that I say.'

"At that I thought the poor man had the black trouble.

"'No.' he said, as though he knew my thought. 'It is not madness I have, but old, old weariness.'

"'And what will your name be? I asked.

"'Here I have been, in this country, for seven years, wandering. And hear my name, by some chance of change, is MacRoban, or MacRobany. And that is no ill change, for it means son of Robani or Robany, and that is what I am. But no,' he added, 'it is not the name you have now in your mind. It is an older name than that. It is a name that has the sand of the desert on its feet. it is a name written on the weeping wall in the Holy City of Zion.'

"I looked at the man, though the darkness was fast falling through the greyness. I remember a crying of many curlews in that waste place, and the suddenness of snipe drumming in a wet hollow a stone's-throw beyond where two lapwings never stopped wheeling and wailing.

"'And who will you be? I said. My voice was hard, for the cold of a fear was in my bones.

"'My name is Robani,' he said, 'Daniel Robani. I am Daniel Robani, and my brother John is Johannes Robani, and my brother Raphael is Raphael Robani. And there's no weariness like our weariness. And every night we lie down to die, but we never die.'

"Then I knew the poor man was mad, and seeing I could not lift him, I gave him my cloak and hurried on to the clachan of Ledaig beyond the Moss to get help. I saw the minister, a stranger come for a month, but a good man and kind. He came with me. We saw no man. We found my cloak, but no man.

"Next day the minister had me into his room. 'Tell me again what words he spoke,' he said to me. I told him. Then he leaned from his chair, and said to me 'Neil McNeil, you have dreamed a dream or seen a mystery. Best go to your home now, and in silence: ay, go away without a word of this. For I do not know what is dream and what is vision, and what is truth and what is madness. But hear this: In the tenth year of this century we live in, a great vase or jar of marble was found in the excavated ruin of an ancient city in the southlands of Italy, called Aquila--which is to say, Iolair, Eagle--and in that jar was a copper plate. On the one side was engraved in the Hebrew, "A plate like this has gone unto every tribe." On the other side, and also in the Hebrew, was engraved the Death Warrant of Jesus of Nazareth, called Jesus the Christ. Aid of the four witnesses who signed the comdemnation of the Christ the names of three were the names of three brothers, Daniel Robani, and Johannes Robani, and Raphael Robani."' Neil ceased abruptly. The noise of the waves was as a multitude of hands batting the walls of the house: the wail and cry of the wind was like a dreadful Spirit. Before the red glow of the peat-fire we sat silent. Tick-tack, tick-tack : and the calling of the sea, the calling of the sea.

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