For the Soul of a Witch 4
John William Brodie-Innes
XVI – THE MAGIC OF THE CIRCLE
As the days went on Sir Wilfred Dunbar grew rapidly stronger. His wounds were quite healed, thanks to the skilful dressing of Master Simon Tulloch, and afterwards the sedulous care of Eochain Beag. The effects of the shock and the loss of blood were also steadily repaired by the quiet and rest and the spell of sleep which came upon him in the Dune under Eochain’s treatment. The long days and nights when he had slept or dozed and known nothing of his own surroundings or of the outer world had given nature a chance to build up again the battered house of life, and now in the warm days of late autumn known as St. Martin’s Little Summer he was able to take his first walks abroad leaning on the arm of Cecily Ross, for he had insisted that Beatrix should take some exercise, and Eochain had guaranteed the paths down by Dallas to be safe.
It was going on for three weeks now since that notable day of the full moon when Beatrix had come there and when the Tower of Blervie had been besieged and overrun by Sir Norman Leslie and his men, yet it was known that he still lingered in the neighbourhood and made no secret of the fact that he was searching high and low to recover his wife—only always to the north side of the hill, for into the haunted and forbidden land his men would not follow him, even if his own superstitious fears would have allowed him to venture himself, and into the lands of Dallas no man might pass without the permission of that branch of the Cummings, unless he were prepared to force a passage at the point of the sword. True, he had Alasdair’s leave to pass through Altyre, but Altyre was not Dallas, and who might be the overlord there he had no means of knowing.
So it was that the old familiar countryside was unsafe for the Lady Beatrix, and Sir Wilfred could not return to Blervie, and where Beatrix was there must Cecily Ross also abide; and so it came to pass that the little quartette—the two old men and the two girls—dwelt happily together, and Cecily took her share of nursing and taking care of Sir Wilfred, in whom there had grown up a curious liking for the strange, weird woman, with her mystic devotion and marvellous visions.
“Tell me, Mistress Ross,” he said, as they walked together from Callifer towards the haunted wood, and looked westwards over the long ranges of the Altyre woods, hill behind hill touched with the glory of the fast setting sun,—“tell me, know you aught of witchcraft?”
The old man’s mind was working on the problems that had exercised him for years, and to which he could still find no solution.
“Nay, Uncle Wilfred,” she replied, for so he had taught her to call him; “I thank our dear Lord that he has kept me from all knowledge of so wicked a rebellion against His holy Name. Though, indeed, I dream sometimes in those nightmare visions which Uncle Eochain has promised to cure and drive away. No! don’t ask me to recall them. And far off in my childhood I seem to remember something—”
“What was it?” said her companion eagerly. “’Tis no idle question, believe me. It pertains to what I am working at. You can help, I am sure. Your wonderful visions, the favour of the Angels, or whatever they are, manifest to you—all this is the good and holy side, and witchcraft is the base and evil side, but they are the same thing. Tell me of your childhood.”
She pressed her hand on her brow.
“If I could but remember!” she said, “but it all seems so faint and far away. I remember a home of luxury, and I know that both my parents died—this I have been told, for some money came to me then, and I was sent to a convent, and when I was there the visions began to come to me. I have a fancy that the nuns were proud of my having these visions, and they made me fast for long hours and days together, lying before the altar, in order that I might see. But then evil dreams began to come too, and then they told me I had no vocation, and I must go out into the world. Oh! and I remember a wonderful knight who came riding past one day, and I thought he was like St. Michael, and I thought how lovely it would be if he would take me and carry me away as his bride. Then, as I fasted and prayed before the altar, a great Angel came and laid a hand on my forehead and bade me remember nothing more, and it all seemed to fade, and I came out into the world; but I was promised that I should have the gift of healing, and that I should take on myself the burdens of others, and should be able to turn evil into good. You yourself, Uncle Wilfred, must have felt that our dear Lord gives healing through my hand when it was laid on some place that ached.”
“That have I indeed. But tell me, Mistress Cecily, can your prayers heal at a distance?”
“Oh, indeed yes! I have imagined myself by the bedside of the sick and laying my hand on them, and they have told me afterwards that they have seen as it were an angel of light, and felt the healing influence.”
“Why, this is the very projection whereof Theophrastus the Bombast wrote to me, and the plastic form. This is all I wanted. If works of mercy, why not works of cruelty? If an angel, why not a hare—or any other form? Mistress Cecily,” he said aloud, for the preceding words had been muttered low to himself, “I thank you; you have solved the questions that have puzzled me for years, and in gratitude I hope we may be able to free you from those terrible dreams you speak of. I think I see now whence they come.”
“God grant you may! Here comes Uncle Eochain.”
“So it is—he has finished his devotions. Leave me with him for a little, my child. I must confer with him over what you have told me. You had better go and rest for a time—you have been over close in your attendance on the old man. Thanks to you, my Beatrix can get fresh air and exercise.”
Cecily passed to the little cottage that was her present home, and Sir Wilfred in a few rapid sentences detailed to the Druid what she had told him, and his own conclusions.
“Yes, it is remarkable,” said the latter,—“and even more so than you think. Cecily Ross the devout mystic seer and Elspet Simpson the Border witch are one and the same person—that I have known for some time. But that it is really two facets as it were of the same nature and powers, under the sway of different dominating moods, make it a problem of marvellous interest. Your wish may be now accomplished, old friend and fellow-student of the long ago! You can study a genuine witch at close quarters, and perhaps in doing so we may be able to heal an unfortunate lady of a dire sickness. This very afternoon we will begin our treatment, and you shall help.”
“What do you propose?” said Sir Wilfred. “I am ready to do anything I can to assist. I earnestly desire to help this poor girl, who has been so good to me and to my Beatrix, and I desire almost equally to study this extraordinary manifestation that has baffled me, and of which not even the sublime Theophrastus can give any very clear account.”
“This girl,” replied Eochain, “is a curiously perfect example for study; her two existences are entirely separate. As Cecily, the religious mystic, she only knows Elspet Simpson as a horrible nightmare dream; as Elspet, the witch, she knows absolutely nothing whatsoever of Cecily Ross. I propose that she shall tell us all about the two existences, and her own history.”
“But surely that will drive her incurably mad, and fix the evil dreams into permanent waking life.”
“Don’t be disturbed, old friend, she will know nothing whatsoever about it; she will remember nothing, but of a restful sleep with beautiful dreams.”
“You are indeed a magician. Well, I am ready to play any part you assign to me.”
“You shall be my acolyte and serve my Mass, and the revelation shall come to us both together. There is my Church, and I need to invoke the powers of good to aid us in the work we are going to try. Here, to the west, is a couch of fern and moss where I often meditate. Rest you there while I prepare myself; then you shall aid me if you will.”
While they were talking they had passed through an opening into the haunted wood, and along a narrow pathway, till the great solemn stones stood before them. The trees were cleared away just enough to leave the outer ring rising from the close-cut sward; beyond this they stood tall and thick and close together, making an impenetrable fence that probably for centuries the people of the district had never dared to break through. The centre was marked by an inner ring of smaller stones, and only some ten or twelve feet diameter.
Eochain stood in the east, his back to the circle, and raised his long staff towards heaven, looking up as in rapt adoration; then he walked slowly round the outer ring, and, returning to the east, he turned and passed into the centre, where he sank on his knees, burying his face in his hands, as his arms rested on the altar stone in the midmost of the ring.
After some moments he rose and stood leaning on his staff, and looking steadily in the direction of the hut where Cecily slept. It was not long before she came out, walking slowly and steadily. Her eyes were fixed, yet she did not seem as one walking in sleep, but rather with a concentration of purpose.
“You called me,” she said.
“No! I did not call, but I wanted you, and you knew it. I want you to help me in an experiment.”
“Gladly. Tell me what I must do.”
“Nothing but consent to what I am going to try. I am going to put the spell of sleep on you, that you may tell me, if you can, all about those nightmare dreams that terrify you so. You are now in full and complete control of all your senses. Are you willing that I should know all the secrets of your life, and Sir Wilfred also? You may perhaps tell us things that you have yourself forgotten. But if you know of anything you had rather not disclose, I will do nothing.”
“You know I trust you entirely,” she answered.
“I know there is something mysterious in my life,—something horrible, as I think,—that I never could fathom; but I don’t think I want to, for whenever I have had a glimpse of it, it seemed so terrible that I shrank in fear. But I should be more glad than I can say for you to know. Perhaps you might help me. Only, I beg you, don’t tell me if it is very dreadful. Let me still forget.”
“I will bring you peace if I can. At all events, you may rely on me that nothing I do will increase your trouble, and I verily think I can mend it. Now you know the old carved stone that stands half-way between here and the Dune, tell me if you remember the central carving on it.”
“Of course I do. It is the shape of a silver mirror.”
“A mirror, yes! but not a silver one. Is it like this?”
From under his long robe he drew a concave disk set on a handle, and painted a deep glossy black, surrounded by a band about an inch broad of a vivid red.
“That is the very thing—what is it?”
“Sit down there, my child.” He pointed to a natural cushion of moss against the central altar stone facing to the east. Obediently she sat where he indicated, leaning against the stone. He stood beside her holding the disk.
This is the magic mirror of the Druids. Look into it without fear, you will see nothing but beautiful things in it.”
She gazed curiously into the slightly hollowed black circle as Eochain held it before her eyes, slightly moving it in a small circle.
“Oh, how wonderful! It is filling with mist like steam, and lovely colours, like rainbows in foam. There are angels there. I think they are clearing the mists away. Ah, yes! I see my old home. How strange! I had forgotten what it was like. I remember it all now. But, oh! it hurts my eyes.”
“Shut your eyes,” he said, and as her eyes closed and her head sank back against the stone, he laid the disk aside, and placing both his hands on her head, he drew them slowly down over her shoulders and along her arms, then horizontally across her brow, saying as he did so—“Sleep! sleep! sleep! When you wake you will remember nothing of what you now see. Do you hear me?”
“Yes,” came the answer very faintly. “Can you see and tell me all that you see and hear?” “Yes.” “Good! I want you to go back and tell me of your youth, before these evil dreams began to come on you.” A curious change seemed to come over the sleeping face—the deadly white pallor was irradiated with a flush of health, still strangely pale. It was the paleness of some wonderful tropical flower, and the masses of her black hair had a strange beauty of their own. She rose and paced slowly round the circle. Her eyes were open, but there seemed no sight in them, only an ecstatic upward gaze to heaven; her arms were crossed over her bosom.
“Where are you now?” said Eochain.
“I am in the great church. The dear nuns are all round me. I am going to offer myself to God. I know my father and mother are dead; I am all alone. But the sweet angel has told me that I am the chosen bride of the dear Lord, and that all my money will be given to the church to do His holy service. . . . Ah! there is a knight comes in—” In an instant her expression changed from the ecstatic religious devotion; there passed over her expressive face an appearance of pure human love.
“Ah! who is he? is it St. Michael? he is like the holy saint on the east window. No! he is human! human! and, my God! how I want him. I long to crush myself against him, to twine myself round him, and absorb all his glorious strength, and let my own feminine nature be drawn in and blended with and become the complement of his magnificent virile life, till my life is lost in his. My heart is beating furiously, painfully, but I must give no sign; these simple nuns must never know. Every nerve is growing tenser and tenser. Ah, God! how he draws me! Suddenly it breaks with a throb—the nerves are all loose—I am faint and limp, but so happy. Two angels lay their hands on my head, and forgetfulness comes. He has gone. I hear the Mother Abbess say, ‘She has fainted.’
“I pray for him—but the fury of desire has passed. I will offer myself to God for him, and I shall be accepted as an atonement for all his sins. Happy thought!
“Now I am in the Convent garden; it is moonlight. I ought not to be here, but I am, and over the hedge I see him riding by. I try to hide, but I don’t want to. He has seen me, he is off his horse, he has crashed through the hedge. Oh, my God! I am in his arms. Heaven were well lost for this. I have no will Left. Norman, take me; body and soul I am all yours. I am enveloped in his tenderness, and in utter abandonment he gives himself up to my frantic caresses. Here is heaven indeed. Ah! all grows rosy,—then dark,—I know no more. . . . The nuns find me in a trance on the ground. I have forgotten everything. They say, ‘Behold the saint.’ But the angels have given me oblivion.
“I have nothing to confess, for I remember nothing. I don’t know how I came to be out there in the convent garden. I am preparing for my reception as a bride of Christ, but I have a strange and unappeasable hunger for I know not what. The time of the full moon is drawing near again. I am ill and weak; they send me out to walk on the hillside, to get fresh air and strength. I am walking there now. There is a strange man coming to meet me—a little old man—he carries a black stick—he is ugly, but he fascinates me. He says he is a doctor—Doctor Finn. He knows I am ill, but he can cure me. He can give me my lover. What can he mean? I am the bride of Christ. Yet if he can cure me, how glad I should be. I do want some strength. He says I should stay at a farm house near where he can attend me. Now I am back in the convent;—the Mother Abhess says I am to go to the farm house to get well and strong before my reception. How strange. This is the finger of God.
“Doctor Finn lays his hand on my head, his thumb pressed between my eyebrows. Instantly I remember my knight; all the details of our meeting in the garden come back with startling vividness. I want him—Oh, God! how I want him. Every fibre of my body aches for him. Dr. Finn asks me if I really want him. Really!—T would go through the pit of hell and brave the Devil for his sake. ‘No need to brave the Master,’ says he, ‘he is kind, but you must be initiated.’ And he tells me that at the full moon I must go to North Berwick, and then I shall have all my desire. I was Finn’s slave—” “Stop,” said Eochain firmly, “that is no use to me. Go to North Berwick.”
As he spoke her expression changed—even the very appearance of her face, the alternation of the love-languid and love-hungry looks, that had succeeded to the devout calm of the religious enthusiast, now gave way to a species of frenzy—her gestures were wild and uncontrolled, though always graceful, her night-black eyes flashed with lambent fires, and her masses of straight black hair curled and twisted in elf locks, seeming almost to writhe like snakes. She paused in a wild dance, facing to the west and looking towards Sir Wilfred.
“I am there,” she cried, exultantly. “How the full moon shines. There are multitudes of us here. Women from everywhere.”
“How did you come?” said Eochain.
“I can’t tell. Dr. Finn brought me and two others; he said we sailed in a sieve. I don’t know; we seemed to be sailing in some thing—I don’t care how we came, it’s glorious to be here, I never felt alive before, I’ve been only half alive, torpid death—now I know—I’m tingling all over with joy and zest of life; so are all of us.”
“Stop! Are you really there? or do you only fancy you are?”
“How can I tell? It all seems real. We are in the old kirkyard. I can see and hear and touch the others—yet it’s all queer, like nothing I ever saw before. There are two girls stark naked, dancing with a goat, and an old woman astride of a broomstick, and a lot more capering over the graves, and a queer little chap with horns playing on panpipes. Yet I fancy I see my body lying asleep in the farm house. Oh, what does it matter? It is life—full, glorious, splendid life. How my heart is racing, and every pulse tingling. I could run and jump and climb and fly now. I could race with a hound, and pull down a stag in his gallop. Ah I what a thing to do.
“Now there’s a huge man, and he’s got a wolf beside him. He is very dark, and his eyes glitter cruelly, but he draws me. I want to be drawn into him; I feel he can give me all I want. Finn leads me up to him. What joy! He is my master. He bids me bare my left breast, and he touches it with his finger. What a wild thrill right through my heart! I never felt real mad bliss before. Now he bids me take his wolf’s head in my hands, and inhale his breath. Oh, glorious I I feel all the untiring strength, all the rapture and joy of life. Now I am his servant wholly. Hark to the wild crash of music! Oh, how we dance, racing and rushing in mad rapture! Now Finn tells me to set my foot on a shell, and to say some words.”
“What are they?”
“I don’t know, he made me forget them as soon as they were said. It’s all gone. I find myself on the edge of a wood, and there is Norman coming to meet me. ‘Ha! my black-a-vised sweetheart,’ he says ‘art come back to me. I knew you could not stop away. A nun, forsooth! nay, leave that to fools with water in their veins. You and I have good red blood, sweetheart, so couple we under the greenwood and breed savages like ourselves.’
“He has a hunter’s camp in the woods, for he loves to hunt alone, only calling his men with his bugle when he needs them, and I think I am useful to him, for I am half gipsy. My father was a pure Romany, and my mother was a countess whom he enticed away from her husband, and her money it was that came to me. So I know all woodcraft by nature, and can tell him where the quarry lies, and I can cook for him, and we are very happy together. But I have grown so tired; we have been a week together and I feel worn out—so thirsty too. No, I cannot drink the fiery wines, I must have the pure water from the brook, and as I drink there are two bright angels beside me, and they lay their hands on my head, and bid me forget all that had passed, and they say than Finn can only have power over me at certain times, and that some day his power shall be broken altogether. There is mist and darkness coming over my eyes. I must sleep.” She stopped. Eochain and Sir Wilfred were amazed at the change in her appearance, even more sudden and complete than before.
Her face was white with the whiteness of death, and her heavy masses of black hair hung straight and lifeless. Her eyes were like two openings into the darkest night; her limbs seemed as though utterly relaxed with fatigue. Eochain, advancing, laid his hand on the nape of her neck, as if he were pouring fresh vitality into her.
“Go on,” he commanded. “Tell me more.”
“I wake just outside the convent; the dear nuns are round me. They tell me I disappeared from the farm house. I must have wandered away in delirium. I have no memory of it. I suppose I was ill, and I tried to get home, and fainted just by the gates. I am so glad to be back. They tell me the Mother Abbess is very ill. I beg them to take me to her, for I know I could heal her, but they will not; they think I am too weak. So I pray before the altar. I can see her room, and I fancy myself going in and laying a cool hand on her, and saying that she should get up quite well.
“They say an angel came in and raised her up. I know the dear Lord let me do this for her.
“I am not to be received yet, though. They say our Lord has given me the power of healing, and I must go out into the world, and heal the sick as He ordained. I remember it was when I was at the farm house that the first of those evil nightmare dreams came on me, and my confessor said I must take it as a mark of our Lord’s special favour to his own bride that I was thus allowed to bear the burdens of others in my sleep, and to transmute evil to good.
“Scenes are passing rapidly—I cannot lay hold of any. It is like a dream of life, many that I heal, and more that I comfort and help.
“Now I am in a cottage where I have been praying with a dying woman. I cannot save her, and she longs to go. It is all over, and I go to the door to breathe the fresh air of heaven. The moon floats in the sky near her full. I hear the sound of a bugle. Heavens, what is it?—a familiar sound,—It is Norman’s call I—What have I been playing at all this time? I must have fallen asleep when I went to the brook for a drink. ‘Here am I, love. Have you been looking for me?’ ‘Aye, have I, sweetheart—you damned gipsy witch—hast bewitched me clean—I tell ye I can’t do without you, lass.’ ‘And I can’t live without you, Norman.’ I put my foot on his as he stoops down from his great war-horse, and there in the face of all his troop he lifts me up to the pommel before him, and we gallop away into the night. How glorious it is to be together again —his bugle woke me. I must have slept long, a heavy, dreamless sleep. We are now in a forest glade. Norman will not let me leave his tent; the tents of all his men are round about, and the horses grazing outside. I see Dr. Finn coming towards me. He tells me I must now do something for the Master, who has done much for me. I want to do so, and I ask what. He says, ‘Not for nothing have you the spirit of a wolf; you must hurt and destroy his enemies.’ ‘And Norman’s,’ I ask. ‘And Norman’s, of course,’ he says, ‘only hurt and destroy, ‘tis the Master’s will, and for this he called you.’”
“Stop,” said Eochain. “Ask Dr. Finn a question from me, and conjure him that he answer truly. In the names and letters of Samael and of Behemoth and in this sign,” he traced a sign in the air with his staff. Cecily replied in a dreamy tone, as if half asleep— “He says he must answer. A mightier than he compels.” “Very well, ask him if he or his Master have control of you always?” “No; he says there were influences of a more powerful magic around me, that he could not overcome, but at the full moon he can call me, and perhaps can retain his influence for several moons; but as the moon wanes it fades, and at last it will vanish altogether.”
“Ask again, when his influence fades, how is it you do not wake in his surroundings—has he charge of your dual life?”
“He replies, I am a valuable instrument for him and his Master, even for the interrupted times that he can control me, so he takes care that when I come to myself it shall be away from all that would jar, as I did after drinking from the brook; and when his influence can come back, he draws me where I can meet with Norman. He is a great magician, and he watches me always. He says that the other magic opposed to him will claim me at last, but first I shall kill and destroy that which I love best.”
Cecily was drooping. The fire had gone from her eyes, and every muscle showed exhaustion. Eochain raised his arms over her head. “Sleep,” he commanded. “But come not out from the shelter and the influence of the ring and the altar stone; sleep and rest for a short while, and be ready with renewed strength to tell me that which I require to know further.”
Obediently she sank down on the mossy seat beside the central altar stone, and was wrapt in a deep, motionless slumber.
Eochain turned to Sir Wilfred—
“Here is a marvellous example for study,” he said. “Saint or witch, she is one of the two, but which is the real woman I know not; both are artificial. The wild gipsy crossed with the wild Countess who ran away with him, would give a sensitive and half-mad nature to start with, and on this the nuns have grafted their exalted visions and dreams, and Dr. Finn has grafted his deviltries. There is madness, but there is strange power also. She must rest awhile. To go through all these varied emotions in so short a time would tax the strongest brain. I think when we can resume this experiment we shall have revelations even more startling.”
“A wonderful study for me,” said Sir Wilfred, “and a close friend of my Beatrix, and a kind nurse to me in my illness. But I am anxious. Can we let her bide here safely with what we know now?”
“The question were rather, can we let her go safely, and of a truth I think not.”
“Explain. Indeed I am somewhat fearful, for Beatrix taketh long, lonely walks in the Glen of Dallas, and I can give her nought to ride.”
“Aye, the matter is tangled now, but we have the threads of it. See you, down on the north all is in the power of the Church, the Abbey lands and the power of the Bishop, and all directed to drive the Lady Beatrix to the arms of this Leslie, whom they regard as her lawful husband, and through these lands also doth he rage like a wild bull seeking her. He knows not where she is, and mayhap if he did know he would not dare to come, and if he did his men dare not follow. Danger lies with yonder girl, if his influence over her should wake again; yet I think I can prevent this so long as she is here; if she were away I could not. On the south is the land of my own clan and of my own branch of it. Once they wanted me to be declared Tannist, and I know that still they have kindly feeling for me. I thought that I had done with these family matters for good, but circumstances are too strong, and I have been compelled for your sake, old friend, and that of the Lady Beatrix, to recall myself to my clan, and I am sure that from my nephew Alasdair will come safety and joy to her. This I have seen in visions that never lie, and I persuaded him to take up the headship of the Dallas Cummings that there might be loyal men who would protect her against Leslie and the powers of the Church, for it is little the Cummings care for Bishop or Abbot.”
“Eochain, you are magnificent. Once when we were boys I thought you were a sullen milksop. Forgive me the thought, it was short-lived.”
A distant trumpet blast sounded from the direction of Forres.
“There is the Leslie scouring the country again,” said Eochain. “I think if he ride till doomsday he will not catch the Lady Beatrix; but as he comes this way we shall see how far my influence can countervail his with this wild girl, for I have brought her to the mood in which she is most subject to him. The experiment will be more valuable even than I thought.”
He was right in his judgment. It was the Leslie, lured out again by the report of Urquhart’s jackal.
“If she be coming up from the Rafford way,” he said to his followers, “then is she returning to Blervie Tower. On Dallas moors is no abiding place. The Cummings there are a broken clan, they have no leader; therefore, friend Urquhart, we have but to rush the Tower now, and my wife returns to her duties and to her loving lord. ’Tis plain she hath been visiting some of the Dunbar lot. Devil catch them! they swarm like rats about here. Now I think of it; she went to Pluscarden. Of course there are Dunbars there. Urquhart, you shall have a wedded pair in your house after all. Damn it! I would it were my black-a-vised sweetheart instead. Never mind; I’ll get her too. The Leslie is not baulked so easily. Ten gold pieces for you, friend Urquhart, the day Ihold Elspet in my arms again, and I won’t let her go so lightly next time.”
XVII – A WITCH’S PACT WITH THE DEVIL
Half an hour had passed, and Cecily still slept profoundly. Eochain, watching her attentively, said to Sir Wilfred, “She is rested now, and we may go on with the experiment. You want to know something of the spells of witchcraft. She shall tell you. Come and stand beside me, and hold her hand while I wake her.”
He leant over her and spoke slowly and impressively in her ear, “You are in North Berwick Kirkyard—your second visit. The dark man you spoke of is there instructing you. I want you to tell me faithfully all that he says.
He passed his hands rapidly in front of her with a serpentine motion, crossing them frequently. She stirred, drew a long breath, and began to speak deliberately and monotonously—
“He is there, standing on an old stone pulpit, and we are gathered round him, a great crowd of women, and a few men. Dr. Finn is there too. He says, ‘My children, I welcome! all ye marked cross and perverse from birth. Ye seek power. So did I, and I won it. Yea, I hurled defiance at the Creator himself. I would have none of His mawkish heaven. When He bade us all bow down before His new creation, His pet humanity, I refused. Should I, Lucifer, the light-bearer, bow myself to these things of clay? And I was cast out of heaven. So much the better, for I revenged myself. I planted the seeds of my sovereignty even in His contemptible darlings. Oho! ’twas fine to see how they padded after me. So now I, even I, am Lord of the world, because I hate them, and ye, my children, ye hate them too. And ye would do my will, and torment and destroy the children of men. Therefore if ye believe on me and worship me, all power shall be yours. Hearken now? Come ye in thought, in fancy, to my kingdom. There are the shadow forms of all things that ever happen on this earth, and ye may manipulate them as ye will; and as ye form them there and call on me, so shall the things ye imagine take place on the earth. Imagine only hurt and harm to those who give allegiance to the Creator, and believe that I will carry it out for you, and it shall happen. And ye shall call me in the names of Samael and Behemoth, and if ye desire ceremonies that be pleasing to me, ye shall take any of those used by the poor puling slaves of the Creator, and ye shall reverse them to mark your contempt. When ye look upon one of his servants, know that from your eyes, and nostrils, and mouth, from your finger tips and from the points of your breasts, there go forth streams of influence that hurt and destroy, that bring sickness and trouble, that bow the will to yours; and if ye doubt not, and in your minds call on me by the words and names I have taught ye, then shall that one obey you, and follow you into his grave when ye will, and ye shall plague him with sickness, and with loss and distress, and as ye doubt not so shall your power be. And ye may make your own spells, for it is in the will, not the word, that the power dwelleth. Rejoice, my children, for I have given you power in my name to work evil on all the sons of men as you will. And in hurting and destroying, in pain and in death, ye shall find a delight, and a rapture, such as none of the Creator’s servants can ever reach in any of the sickly, innocent pleasures. Ha! Come to me, my chosen!’
“He leaps from his pulpit with a wild yell and seizes me—I am carried off in a mad whirl.”
She tore her hand from Sir Wilfred’s and rushed furiously round the circle. Eochain raised his hand, and immediately her arms fell to her sides, and she paused, panting, by the heap of moss whence she had started. He passed his hand over her forehead.
“Pass from there,” he said. “Now you are back with Norman in the camp with his men.”
“I want especially to know,” said Sir Wilfred, “about her power over animals—how she controlled wolves and the like.”
“That you will soon hear, though I think it is not so much a taming as we have imagined. Meantime notice how the Father of Lies has told the truth, for what doth the Founder of your faith deem to be the worst of sins and the service of the Devil—is it not hatred, malice, jealousy, and all uncharitableness? And so saith the dark Master of our poor Cecily here, yet among Christians are such things scarce deemed to be sins at all. Now, listen!”
Cecily looked the wild gipsy girl, her eyes gleaming with eager life, her hair straying in tangled wisps half over her face—a faint hectic flush on her cheeks telling of strange fires within.
“This is life at last,” she said,—“the free life of the woods and the moors! I understand it all so well now—since the Master has taught me. I know the joy of the hunt, and the joy of the kill,— this morning I watched a weasel kill a rabbit,—the joy of the flesh torn through, the struggles and cries of the quarry, and the bright glorious blood leaping from the veins! . . . How the weasel loves the first taste of pure blood from the throat! I think of its rapture when I am in Norman’s arms—’tis the beasts of prey that teach us how to live.
“Glorious! Glorious!—we are rushing along in a mad gallop after a splendid stag. My Norman has dropped his reins and sent a bolt that stopped him, and the dogs have pulled him down. As we gallop up, Norman draws his sharp hunting-knife for the coup de grâce. I too have sprung to the ground, and I am beside him. . . I hold my hand for the knife—he understands. ‘Ha! my sweetheart, wouldst deal him the death blow thyself? Thou shalt, then. Bravo! Thou art as savage as I, and never thought I to find a woman so. Faith! we are well matched—a mad pair, with red blood in our veins, begad! Better that than the lily-livered, snivelling saints. Ha! Grip fast! Grip fast!’ No need to encourage me!—I felt like the weasel on the rabbit as I plunged the knife in his heart, and then slit the big veins in his neck. I remembered the weasel, and the fierce desire comes on me to taste the hot blood as it flows. I dare not let Norman know—savage as he is— himself has said it—he has not yet learned all the life of the wild.—I cast myself into his arms in utter abandon.—‘Take me on your horse, Norman, to ride home! The glory of this morning and the chase is overpowering—hold me close as we gallop!’”
For a few moments she sank back on the moss-heap with closed eyes, her expression passing to the love-languid. Suddenly she started up, exclaiming— “Sunrise—five o’clock! What is that? Light hoofs pattering round.—’Tis roe deer—what a chance for a hunt! Norman is sleeping sound—I can steal out, and have a run before any one is awake.—Oh! I must be as quiet as a cat out on the chase.”
Softly Cecily began to move, treading on tiptoe, cautiously stealing round the circle.
“Ha! there they are—a lovely herd! They have got the alarm—they are off and away! Now for it!—I shall taste the sweet savour of blood again. That fat buck is my quarry.
It was a long-drawn howl, the very cry of a wolf. Eochain and Sir Wilfred looked at each other—they had heard that cry before. She had bent forwards, running swiftly, and thrown off her footgear—now racing round the circle like a horse in a ring with long leaps, touching the ground only with her toes bunched together. Eochain pointed to the mark of her foot on a sandy patch—it was the spoor of a wolf.
She stopped still again, flushed and panting.
“Tell me,” commanded Eochain,—“stand still there, and tell me where you are—what you are doing.”
“Hunting! Hunting! Alive every fibre of me—gaining on the deer. Little by little I draw up on to them. I have marked the buck—he cannot avoid me. I edge round to get him clear of the others. There! He’s down!—my muzzle at his throat! Oh! life is good! Now . . . I must have a wash at the burn. Norman must not know, he knows I can imitate most animals, and he will think this is a wolf’s kill. Perhaps it is. His black-a-vised sweetheart will send her wolf to destroy his enemies. Ah! he is sleeping still, as I snuggle down beside him. ‘What! art there, sweetheart?
Methought I heard a wolf cry. ’Twill be fine hunting—shall we track it?’ ‘Nay, Norman,’ I say. ‘You know the wolf is my familiar, the badge of my family, as the griffin is yours. Only mine is a real beast. We will not harm him—he’s too like you and me.’ ‘Faith! thou art right there, sweetheart!—he’s a true sportsman—shalt have thy pets.’ How delicious to drop asleep in his mighty arms, dreaming of the glory of the chase and the rapture of the kill, and the taste of warm blood on my lips makes his kisses all the sweeter.”
Again she sank to a lethargy. Eochain crossed over to Sir Wilfred.
“I deemed we should find more than a mere taming of wolves. Here you have the origin and source of all the witch-work, and as I conceive here you have also your own assailant. Now do you think, with what we now know, that it is safe to allow her to go forth, with the Lightsome Leslie rampaging over the countryside and calling for her, with her clear jealousy of the Lady Beatrix stirred up by him, and her will to hurt and destroy all who oppose him, and her power to do so? Nay! I think myself that the only safe way for us, and the only course that for her sake and in hope of curing we can adopt, is to keep her in her state of the ecstatic nun, and ward off so far as we may the ideas of Leslie and the witch and the wild animal, and the influence of Dr. Finn.”
“But is this possible? Remember, Leslie is near,—at any time when the moon is near its full she may hear his trumpet,—will not this break all your influence on her?”
As he spoke the blast of a trumpet sounded close as the Leslie’s troop rode up to the Tower, intent on searching for the Lady Beatrix, and the stentorian voice of the burly knight was heard shouting—“Ho, there I art there, my black-a-vised sweetheart?
“Ho, there! Gad! I heard your wolf’s cry, lass! Whether ’twas you that cried, or your familiar, or the Devil, I care not, so as you come to me. Grip fast! Grip fast!”
Cecily started up, listening eagerly. “Norman—Norman!” she murmured. Eochain raised his hand with a commanding gesture over her head. “You hear nothing,” he said. “There was no sound. I order you—forget that sound, forget what it means, forget whose call it is.” Again the trumpet rang out. “What was that?” she said dreamily. “No trumpet should sound here—Norman hath forbidden aught to disturb our rest.” “You see,” said Eochain, “that even now, when the ideas of witchcraft are strongest on her, I have still power to inhibit these sounds from outside. Now, but once more, I must restore her to the condition of Cecily Ross, and wipe all these evil dreams off the tablets of her brain.”
He stooped over her and spoke low in her ear. “Awake again from these nightmare dreams I Among your friends the nuns you shall forget all the horrors you have been through.”
Gradually the wild look faded from her face, the flush died out of her cheeks, the mad tangle of her hair seemed to compose itself orderly, and a rapt expression came upon her, as though listening intently.
“Hark!” she said, “what lovely music! ’Tis the nuns singing ‘O Salutaris.’ There is a sweet- faced Sister leading me back to the convent. I have been delirious, it seems, in the cottage of a workman. I think I remember nursing his wife till she died. I am weak, and I seem to be
frightened of something. I wonder if those terrible nightmare dreams afflicted me?—mercifully I have forgotten them if they did. Ah! there come some of the nuns to greet their little sister Cecily—that was to be my name in religion, you know, if I had been allowed to be professed, because of my music. My own name, of course, was Elspet, and my father’s name was Simpson—it is a great Gipsy name. My mother was a Ross; she dropped her title, though they say she had always a right to it; but the nuns used to call me Sister Cecily all the same. Dear things! they said they had missed my voice in the choir, and there was no one to play the organ as I used to play it. I used to make the thunder, and the wind, and the clattering of the hailstones in the Psalms. And they missed the fairy tales I told them about the flowers and the little people that lived in them, and they missed me when any one was ill. Oh I it is good to he so missed! And I am so glad to be back among them again, though I ought to be thankful that I am allowed to go out into the world and do our dear Lord’s work in healing and comforting those who are sick and in trouble. I wonder if my confessor was right when he said that those terrible dreams that come over me are the evil things that might come upon others, and that I am allowed to bear them instead. If this be so, I ought rather to be thankful for the privilege, and not complain. But I am very thankful that this time I have forgotten all about it.
“There is a girl visiting at the convent just now, the Lady Beatrix Dunbar,—we loved each other directly we met. She is the dearest and sweetest creature I ever knew. They tell me she is proxy-married to a man she never saw. Poor girl! what a terrible fate! How rejoiced I am that I am the bride of our dear Lord and that such things can never disturb me! She lives far away up in the North, and has asked me to visit her. It will be lovely to go, though it is many days’ riding; but the nuns say there is a convent of our Order in Elgin, and they will provide me with an escort, and will give me letters of commendation—they believe that it is a special call to me to go and heal the sick in the far North. But I see a fearful shadow overhanging my dear Beatrix. She will come through trials and afflictions, yet in the end she shall have great joy.”
“Can you see the future?” said Eochain. “Look well and tell me—you have the second sight.”
“Only very dimly and in symbol—the mists sweep over the visions of what is to come. Yet I do see a little. There is a monk who will give himself to win happiness and peace for her. Evil men and evil beasts hungering for her life, but the influence of the monk is round her.
Now I see a Castle in the middle of a loch. Where is it? I never saw aught like to it. It is a ruin—it is her home—but also it is her tomb. . . . I see myself too. I want to help her, but I cannot. I am doomed to kill what I love best—and terrible must be my expiation for my sins. Yet in the end I think I shall save Beatrix, and I think I shall win to peace myself. I see myself back here at last. . . . The mists close over—I can see no more.
“Rest now and sleep. Thus I banish all the visions.” Eochain passed his hands lightly over her forehead. “Go to your cottage now and lie down; in half an hour you shall wake restored and invigorated, and remember nothing of all you have seen, save only the forms of angels and the strains of music and the calm peace of the convent.”
Gravely and silently she passed from the circle, returning to the hut. It was hardly possible to imagine her the same person who had told and enacted all the terrible experiences so recently. The two old men went back to the Dune. Sir Wilfred, full of the new knowledge he had got, was eager to consult his books and find how far the writings of the authorities on witchcraft coincided with what he had heard and seen. The chance of studying at first hand the problem that had perplexed him for so many years and had baffled the most learned authorities from the very earliest times was an epoch in his life, and hardly even yet could he realise its importance.
At the Tower of Blervie the Leslie had again drawn a blank. No opposition was offered to him. The serving men and women were there as usual, and the work of the place went on mechanically, if somewhat perfunctorily; the horses and animals were tended. The boy Hubert opened the door to his impatient summons, and answered to his questions that nothing whatsoever had been heard of Sir Wilfred or of the Lady Beatrix. Oh yes! Sir Norman Leslie was free to go through the Tower if he so pleased. Hubert was in no mood to be forced to yield obedience where he had no power to resist. But in the Tower was no trace of her—indeed, it was plain that none but servants had been there since his last visit.
It was as he came out from the door, savage and disappointed, that the long-drawn howl of a wolf was heard from the haunted wood.
“There it is again!” he cried,—“either Elspet’s hunting call, or the Devil himself. Sound the trumpet, confound you I Let her hear my answer, if she’s there. Where the Devil is my trumpeter? Never a blast when I want it most! Urquhart, go in search of him, damn you!”
Several minutes elapsed before the trumpeter was found occupying his time with a buxom wench in one of the outer cottages round the Tower. The Leslie call rang out, and the knight’s stentorian voice called for Elspet; but there was no response.
“Why not ride through the wood, and settle once for all if the lady be there?” said Urquhart, who as usual was close by Leslie’s bridle.
“Friend Urquhart, I have said before that the good God made thee an ass, and methinks thine ears are growing! What! dost think that I, a christened man, am going to venture my nose right into the very home of the Devil and his imps? Nay, man! for aught of flesh and blood I care not, but these devils of old time no man may face. ’Tis not even the decent Christian Devil that my friends the monks are ever preaching about,—he’ll catch me some time, they tell me,—and by all accounts he’s a fine old sportsman! I might make his acquaintance, sooner or later; but these ill things centuries old—no! not I. Besides, there is nothing human in that wood, nor has there been for over a hundred years; and the last man that ventured there, though he was full of liquor at the time, was found afterwards in several pieces, so they tell me, and that was a hundred and twenty years ago. Who the deuce is that seeking you now, Urquhart?”
“’Tis the youth I sent to look for the Lady—for Dame Leslie, I mean. Give me leave! I will, I trust, bring you some word now.”
“H’m—high time! I have been waiting for news over long.”
Urquhart returned to his patron after a brief colloquy with an individual whose tattered garments and general appearance of dingy disreputability excited the disgust of Leslie.
“There is news at last, and reliable now. The Lady Leslie hath been seen this very afternoon walking down in the Dallas Glen, coming from the direction of Pluscarden.”
“I guessed as much! Damn it! Urquhart, I’ll harry the Priory, and pull their old crows’ nests about their ears, and turn all the shaven crowns adrift, if they dare harbour my wife!”
“Needless to do that. The Bishop will do it for you at a word. But listen a moment. She was in company with a Highlander who wore a red and green tartan and an eagle feather in his bonnet.”
“That must be a Cumming—none other would wear that garb in the Dallas Glen.”
“My man deems it is Alasdair. Some of his gossips there say that Alasdair was the Tannist of Dallas, and hath now taken up the chiefship of that branch of the Cummings, and gone to live among them.”
“Good Lord!—what—Alasdair! He’s but a boy—far too young to be a Chief!”
“As for that, I cannot say. I hear he spoke with rare dignity when he took on himself to allow you to pass through the Altyre lands; and if he be Chief now of the Dallas Cummings, he has at least no ill will to you.”
“Think you that he was in any ways a lover of my wife? Gad! if so, I’ll kill him were he ten times a Cumming, and were he Chief of all the devils in hell.”
“Nay—I am sure not, for I am told they parted with most dignified courtesy, though there were none to see, my man being in the heather. But in two days he was to meet her ladyship again and to show her the cairn on the witch’s hill, which it seems she is most anxious to see.”
“Ha! now we have something solid at last—in two days’ time. Friend Urquhart, there are glimmerings of sense in thee after all. In two days’ time thou with two men shalt get across the way and intercept her ladyship. I will be with all my troop on the Rafford road—and merrily will we ride to Forres.”
“Why not ride down yourself to meet and rescue her?”
“Be not more of a fool than thou canst help. Because if once I or any other man rode with a troop into the Cummings’ lands the whole drove of them would buzz round our ears like bees when boys stir their byke. Man I have ye lived all these years in Forres and not know the Cummings better than to try such a fool game? You yourself with two men might pass unnoticed; or if not, you have Alasdair’s promise of safe-conduct, and you can easily mistake the marches of Dallas and Altyre. You ride on my service, and if at worst they kill you—well I ‘tis no great loss, anyhow. Come away, man! never heed my joking. We’ll crack a flask or two of Spanish wine over this.”
While the Leslie’s troop with much clatter and jangling were ambling down to Forres, Beatrix was just returning to the Dune, and ran gaily up to Eochain, who was pacing up and down outside in the last rays of the declining sum.
“Hardly need I ask if thou hast fared well,” said the old man,—“the roses on thy cheeks and the light in thine eyes tell.”
“Yea, I have fared well. And, Uncle Eochain, I bring a message.”
“A message for me? Nay, not likely! Who could remember Eochain Beag enough to send a message?”
“He who calls himself Alasdair Oge commends himself to you, and desires that you should know that Father Ambrose of Kinloss hath followed your counsel and acted thereon, and hath done that which although you spoke in enigmas he believes was what you desired him to do, and that he has taken up what you persuaded him it was his duty to do. And though he may not now see you personally, yet he desires you to know that great happiness hath come to him in so doing.”
“It is well,” said Eochain. “So, then, you have met Alasdair Oge, and you have spoken of Father Ambrose?”
“Several times I have met him. A nobler, gentler man never did I meet with; but to-day for the first time we spoke of Father Ambrose. Uncle Eochain, there is some sad mystery about that man. Alasdair Oge, as he desires to be called, spoke of him as one who had bartered his hopes of heaven for an earthly consideration, and who must atone by long and grievous penance for some strange sin—he bade me pray for him. Yet indeed I think he is good and true beyond most men, though in sooth I know naught of him.”
“All this he is, yet I trow he may blame himself for what is no offence at all. Nevertheless, pray for him. A good woman’s prayers can hurt no man—not even a monk,” he added sotto voce.
XVIII – THE TRAPPING OF BEATRIX IN THE GLEN
Eochain was perfectly right. In the spell of sleep skilfully administered by him all memory of the wild scenes she had enacted in the stone circle was entirely wiped out from Cecily’s brain. In fact, though the moon was nearing the full, she seemed far less weird, more normal and like other women than Sir Wilfred had ever known her—rather to his disappointment, it must be confessed, for he sought vainly for opportunities of further lights on witchcraft. Visions still came to her, but she spoke of them now rather as dreams, and possibly delusions, than as Divine revelations. To Beatrix also, as they walked out beyond Callifer to the east along the crest of the hill, she spoke much of the teachings of Master Martin Luther and the New Learning.
“Dost remember, Beatrix,” she said, “when you came to stay at the convent in the South, the time when we first met, how I was preparing to be received, and how sad I was when they told me that it could not beat least not for a long time, and then, like an angel of goodness, you invited me to visit you?”
“It was you who were the angel to come, Cecily. I was in great trouble then, and you were a wonderful comfort and stay to me.”
“Ay! I remember they told me then that you had been proxy-wedded to a man you had never seem I pitied you then, though I little knew all it meant—and thankful am I that these troubles can never come my way. I dimly remember a knight who came into the chapel one day. I think if I had not been vowed to the service of Christ—the bride of the Lord, as I have sometimes thought, and as indeed my confessor has told me—I could have loved him as ordinary maidens love and wed. But I am different somehow, I don’t know how, and the knight melted into Saint Michael, and I forget now even what he looked like. But you, my poor child, it is terrible for you. Would that you were like me—or better, that you could go into some peaceful convent and be professed!”
“That is just what they will never allow me to be. I know my husband to be coarse and cruel,— he has many mistresses—they tell me even that he traffics with witches,—he hath no thought of me save for my lands, and for the sake of providing a legitimate heir for the Glen. Yet this, because of the ceremony and the vows I swore in ignorance, the Church would give him. They would forbid me to enter a convent even as a novice, even indeed as a refugee—that shelter may not be. They would forbid me to remain at home with my father, because all this would infringe the connubial rights of my husband, whom I may not leave; and if I were to take another man, however much I might love him, I were an adulteress and in mortal sin, and should burn for ever in hell. See you, Cecily, what a net they have woven round me, from which there is no escape.”
“’Tis a wicked and unholy power, Beatrix, and not all the preaching of all the priests and monks in Scotland would persuade me that such was the will of God. ‘Whom God hath joined together,’ our Master said, not—whom the Church hath been paid to mumble some jargon over, careless whether it is God’s union or not. See how He talked to the woman of Samaria, and offered her the living water; your priests would have burned her in this life, and gladly pushed her into everlasting hell in the next—’ for he whom she then had was not her husband.’ Oh! ye need Master Luther to come and shake the rotten buildings about the ears of the arrogant swarm who would sit in the seat of the Almighty and pretend to declare His will, while they falsify all the teaching of the Saviour, and make love itself a source of gain and power.”
“Think you, then, Cecily, that this Master Luther would not uphold the sentence of the Church—that I must abide by the vows sworn at this proxy ceremony?”
“Uphold them, say you, Beatrix? Know you not that Master Luther hath counselled the priests and monks to take wives to themselves? Nay, he is himself now—though this is for the present a secret—betrothed to the noble Lady Catherine von Brora, who hath left her convent with six other maidens of high rank in consequence of Master Luther’s teaching.”
“It seems strange and terrible, Cecily, almost a blasphemy; yet, after all, the case is not quite the same as mine—this noble Lady Catherine is not married.”
“Nay! I know; but the vows of a nun are more solemn even than the vows of a wife, and the essence of the matter is that they were taken in ignorance, that the heart went not with them— therefore were they wicked vows, and such as it were a sin to keep, or to compel others to keep. So sayeth Master Luther, and he hath himself shown how truly he believeth what he saith; for he was ordained a priest, and he was a monk, yet hath he set it aside, for he saith these vows were not of God, they were evil, and he hath dressed himself as a knight, let his beard grow, and under the name of the Yunker George he abode ten months at Wartburg.”
“Cedily, your Master Luther interests me. I would I could believe in him—yet meseems he would destroy religion and the Church wholly.”
“No—no! That he doth not, but builds it up rather; he would retain all that the Master taught, but would uproot all that men for their own interests have grafted on. Thus he toucheth not the Sacraments nor the power of absolution, but he allows not men to sell the pardon of sins for money, nor to sell any other grace of God, indeed—and you know how the Pope and the Cardinals have made great revenues by such sales. So he alloweth not these wicked vows taken in ignorance to bind men and women, and you know how the Church hath got a vast army of servants by holding them to such vows. So too hath the Church usurped God’s own right to join men and women together, and they say the Church joins them, and thereout they get much money, and they care not whether God have joined that couple or no, for the Church hath the fees for the marriage, and maybe for a dispensation also, and break it ye cannot, save by paying much more money,—’tis your own case, Beatrix dear. But if God hath joined a couple and they pay not the Church, then forsooth they shall be excommunicated in this world and damned in the next. Yet the Master said, ‘Whom God hath joined let not man put asunder.’”
“But can these new teachings ever hold in Scotland, Cecily, think you? Methinks the old faith is too firmly fixed in the hearts of our people. Nor have we the same abuses here.”
“Ay! much of it will come—indeed, there are already some who hold to the New Learning. Ye have met Master David Lindsay, I think? He was ever with the King, and was at Linlithgow Church, before the sad day of Flodden, when an apparition came in, loudly calling for the king, and warning him against proceeding on his expedition against England, then vanishing away like a blink of the sun, or a whisk of the whirlwind. This David will come to high honour yet, and he hath said and writ that nuns should come forth from their convents and love and wed;—yet I hold not with this altogether, for some there be who are, as I, virgin by nature, who desire not man nor love, but only to serve the Lord, and for such there should be place; but the rash vows taken in ignorance should bind none, nor should the Church claim God’s own right to join those who love. Yet I seem to see in my visions that many a weary year, aye and many a century, will pass before men shall see the truth. The New Learning will come to this Scotland of ours, and a great Scotsman will bring it, but the ministers thereof will rivet the shackles of old customs more firmly than ever on the necks of the people. But this too will pass. Master Luther hath dealt its death blow when he taught that it was God, and not Church nor man, that linked man and woman together.”
“Cecily, we must speak more of this. You have taught me more than any I have ever hearkened to; but now you should go and rest, and my father needs me. To-morrow you shall take my place with him. I need another long walk down the valley.
Beatrix hesitated slightly, and blushed somewhat as she spoke, but Cecily marked it not. Slowly, with measured steps, she passed to her tiny cottage for her usual rest, but her sleep was uneasy and feverish, her face flushed, her breath came in quick pantings, and her lips withdrawn showed the gleaming white eye-teeth that were unusually long. She moaned and started, and the indrawn breath throbbed in her throat like a faint echo of the wolf cry. Eochain, finishing his evening devotions in the circle, heard it, and went at once to the hut. Cecily was sitting up on her couch, with her white fur hood drawn over her face, her hands resting on the coverlet. As she leaned on them, thrusting her head forward, her lips drawn almost to a snarl, Eochain raised his hand—“Peace, peace, perturbed spirit,” he said. “Peace, I command. Have I not forbidden these dreams and visions. Now hearken to me. You see lying things. You hear delusive voices. Thus do I brush them away. Now you brain is blank—you hear and see nothing.”
She sank back on her couch in the attitude of one in a profound sleep. “Look again,” he commanded. “You can see truly now that these lying dreams have passed.” “Oh I what a beautiful angel is keeping watch over me,” she said; “and is that Our Lady crowned in the sky above?” “That is Bridhe—the sweet Saint Bride,” said Eochain. “Much the same I trow—yet I know not. Anyhow these twain shall watch thee—and see thou give entrance to no other shape.” Sir Wilfred waited for him outside, for he too had heard the wolf cry, though fortunately Beatrix had not. “’Tis a contest between Finn and me just now,” said Eochain. “The moon is near her full, and Finn nearly succeeded that time. She talks of religion and ecstatic visions and mysteries with the Lady Beatrix, and then must come the reaction; yet it is better she should talk, else would she brood, which were worse. I fear not for her so long as I am near at hand. I think I can always control her, and once the next ten days are past there will be but little risk; every attack I think will be less.”
“It is well perhaps that the Leslie’s trumpet did not sound at that moment.”
“If it had, I fear in spite of me she would have been up and off, but now he may blow as he will she will not hear nor heed.
From early morning on the following day the peasants in the Laigh of Moray were startled by the appearance of various riders in hot haste who wore the insignia of the great religious houses, and some who bore the gold buckles of Leslie on his blue and silver livery. From Kinloss Abbey to the frowning keep of Spynie, that looked over the placid waters of the loch away to the distant Firth, mounted men galloped fast with letters from the Abbot to Bishop James Hepburn, who was maintaining an almost royal state in the great palace, that was more than half a fortress. There suddenly a trumpet was blown from the battlements, scaring the wildfowl in the reedy margin of the loch; and from the barracks to the north east, and from the great hall where the men at arms lounged, and threw dice, and swallowed huge flagons of Spanish wine in the Episcopal service, there sounded answering calls. Then there was bustle and a hurried lacing of jerkins, and donning of breastplates and morions, and mustering of spears and bill-men and bow- men in the huge courtyard. The Bishop sat in a massive carven chair, like a throne, in his private room in the great square keep, robed in a loose purple cassock, over which a heavy gold chain supported his gold pectoral cross, a purple skull-cap was on his head, and his keen handsome face, framed with the long silvery hair, looked very picturesque. James Hepburn, Bishop of Moray, certainly maintained the dignity of his office. His grey goose-quill flying over a sheet of paper soon scrawled a missive, while a serving man stood obsequiously before him.
“These immediately to the Prior of Pluscarden,” he said, as he pressed his great Episcopal signet on the wax. “I see my men are mustered in the Courtyard; it is well, let them remain under arms, but not ride till further word comes from my brother, the Abbot of Kinloss. Then they may ride past Pluscarden into the Glen of Dallas. Warn them that this may be their route.”
The messenger saluted and departed. “Rebel maids must learn that the Church’s arm is long,” he murmured, as he sank back into his chair, and resumed his study of a beautiful Italian illuminated missal of the fourteenth century.
Through the streets of Forres, up to Master Urquhart’s house, clattered two riders in the Leslie livery bearing a note addressed to Master Urquhart himself, which caused that worthy to furbish up his stained and battered jerkin and barrett cap and generally to make himself as presentable as circumstances rendered possible.
“Moving at last,” he said to himself, “high time too, we are near come to our last gold piece. Well, if we fail to catch the lady, there is the Episcopal Command at one end of the Glen and our men at the other.
That should sweep the Cummings out of the way. But I would not the Church should get the good of this, nor the profits neither, if I can help it. There’s good money in it. Lord, what a to-do about a little foxy-haired green-eyed piece of goods. But my Lord of Leslie will have it so. Then I take it we may move at long last against the MacIntoshes, and glad shall I be, for there I may fill my empty exchequer.”
So he sallied forth, and shortly after, with two men at his heels and his disreputable jackal lurking along at a safe distance not to be recognised, he was walking along the Rafford road.
It was shortly after the hour of noon that Beatrix started to walk down into the Dallas Glen, with somewhat of a regretful glance at the tower of Blervie, and a memory of her horses and serving men all useless now, and a little thought over the strangeness of the situation that she and her father could remain there, hidden from all who were searching for them, within a stone’s throw of the tower that was their ancestral home, and within earshot of men riding out on purpose to find them.
Probably such a thing could happen only in Scotland in the sixteenth century. Locomotion was then exceedingly difficult, the roads were hardly passable except on horseback, and even such primitive tracks as existed in the cultivated lowlands were seldom found in the districts inhabited by the wild Highland clans. The superstitious dread of witchcraft, and more especially of the demons belonging to the old heathen remains, was intensely strong; in more than one locality the belief that the old heathen still lived and flourished in remote parts, and were known to carry off living men and women to be slaves or sacrifices to their gods, lingered almost to modern times. Several times in the Middle Ages had the town of Forres resolved to destroy the wood by Blervie Tower, and to put an end to its idol temple, but never could they find any one daring enough to undertake the work, and with the efflux of time the sinister stories had grown. Moreover, the Clan Cumming, since they knew of Eochain’s return, and his dwelling in the haunted wood, and his desire to be unmolested there, had retailed and embellished the gruesome tales of the wood and its terrible demons with all the fervid imagination of the Celt.
Beatrix was now well acquainted with the paths down the Dallas Glen, since for a month past this had been her only walk beyond the short range of the crest of the hill. She had frequently met with Alasdair Cumming, and had been more fascinated than she cared to own even to herself by the courteous chivalry of the young chief. Unlike most women of her time, she found a special attraction in cultured intellect. Courage and muscular strength, skill in games, and in the arts of war, were the common property of every man of any family or station; to possess them was no distinction. Beatrix was fastidious. She required that a man should be exceptional before he appealed to her, and no doubt Alasdair was exceptional. He had wide knowledge of men and affairs, and learning, which at that time was possessed by few save priests. He could talk easily and well on many topics; and despite the strangeness and unconventionality of their meeting and their acquaintance he treated her with marked deference. She wondered where and how he had gained his manners and his learning. She had never heard of any special distinction in Cumming of Altyre’s second family; yet so it was, and her thoughts dwelt on him with a curious persistence. Then she fell to thinking of Cecily. A sweet, unselfish, saintly soul, so Beatrix held her, and of noble ideas too. Of Master Martin Luther she would fain have heard more, but she could not avoid thinking that both he, and Cecily who repeated his words, must have sadly mis- understood the doctrines of the Church; yet how she could not quite tell, for unquestionably the Church had been hard on her. She longed for Father Ambrose. He had spoken to Cecily and had more influence on her than any other Churchman. To Beatrix herself also, though she had never seen the face of the monk, the magnetic spell of his personality, the sensation of the hidden eyes and the soldierly stride under the black robe, remained a vital memory, specially vivid when she was with Alasdair Cumming—though why this should be was an insoluble problem.
She tried hard to fancy what Father Ambrose would say to her present perplexities; but try as she would she could not fancy him as bidding her obey the Church, and yield herself and her estates to the passion and greed of Leslie, nor could she fancy his disapproving of her friendship for Alasdair Cumming. It was a quaint fancy of hers, bred partly of a somewhat lonely life, partly from association with her father, and familiarity with his theories and studies, that led her to impersonate an ideal Father Ambrose, and hold converse with him as though he were a living director.
Musing thus she walked down the path leading to the Glen of Dallas, and did not see Master Simon Tulloch, who was hurriedly stumping up the road from the Abbey towards the Tower. Eochain, however, had spied him, and divining from his haste and from his look that he bore important tidings, had gone out from the wood to meet him, for Simon would by no means trust himself to enter those sinister shades, even in Eochain’s company.
“You bring news, friend Simon?”
“For the Lord’s sake, Master Eochain, keep the Lady Beatrix that she go not to Dallas Glen this day. All the forces of the Church, and of the Devil too, I trow, are searching for her.”
“What mean you? Speak plainly, man.”
“Last night it was rumoured at the Abbey that the Lady Beatrix was to take refuge with the Cummings of Dallas from him whom they call her lawful husband. Ye know, Master Eochain, how the Bishop and the Abbot, and even, they tell me, the Cardinal Legate himself, have been set on this marriage. I ween the Church will get some handsome pickings out of it. They seem to love the Lightsome Leslie better than most honest men do.”
“For the Lord’s sake get on, man. What is your story?
“Well, this morning there were great conferences, and the Sub-Dean was properly angry,—‘All this cometh from letting Father Ambrose go,’ saith he,—and the end was that the Abbot sent letters to the Bishop at Spynie; for ye know we have no men-at-arms at the Abbey, and the Bishop sends a troop of his own men to ride round by Pluscarden, and the Leslie’s men are to ride into the Glen from the Rafford end, and some of the Leslie’s men are to intercept the Lady Beatrix, and if the Cummings should interpose to protect her, on a signal from the Leslie’s trumpet the two troops are to gallop from the opposite ends and join near the Castle of Dallas, and sweep the Cummings before them away into the mountains, and carry off the lady.”
“H’m! I trow Cummings are not so easily ‘swept away, unless the clan have degenerated since I was young, neither do they so easily relinquish any woman whom they hold. Still, thy news is serious, friend. The clan are disorganised, they have only lately got their chief, they have no horses, and but scant supply of arms, and I know the Bishop’s men are stout and well provided.”
“Master Eochain, she must not go.” “Man alive, she’s gone half an hour ago, and my old limbs could never overtake her.” “But mine can, by short cuts; even with a bit stick for a foot; and fast as she steps out, I warrant I overtake her. The Cummings will speed me on my way too, I have mended many a broken head among them, whether for fight or drink matters not—never was a Cumming yet but was good at both. But give me a line, Master Eochain that I may show the lady that I come from you, else I think she will give but small heed to old Simon Tulloch, if she be bent on her own will.”
“That will I gladly, Master Simon.”
Eochain took out his tablets and wrote a few lines, bidding Beatrix for her own safety’s sake to return at once, and postpone her expedition; and Simon started off at a round pace, cutting across the heather and over the end of the hill above Rafford, bent to intercept Beatrix on what he knew to be her favourite path. Nor was it long before he sighted the slight, graceful figure stepping strongly and proudly along the path. Simon paused a moment in undisguised admiration; even at that distance there was no mistaking the thoroughbred air of every movement. He quickened his steps and shouted, but the wind was against him; she passed behind a little knoll of birch trees, and as he hurried forward he expected to see her emerge on the other side, but in vain. She did not reappear, and Simon stood still in wonder till he felt himself violently seized from behind and thrown roughly on the ground.
“What are you doing, fellow,” he cried, as soon as he could catch his breath. “Dost not know me—Simon Tulloch—friendly to all the Cummings?”
“No doubt,” said a voice in his ear, as a brawny knee was pressed on his shoulder, pinning him down, “And no friends of the Cummings pass here just now. They have their own games to answer for by themselves.”
Simon saw that the man bore the Leslie cognisance on his leather jerkin, and felt for his dagger. But at that moment a trumpet sounded hard by, and the man with a surly oath let go of him and ran back along the path. Simon scrambled to his feet and looked anxiously all along the hillside for the dainty form of the Lady Beatrix, but nowhere could he see the least trace of her. She had passed behind that little knoll, but had never emerged the other side. Thoroughly mystified, Simon started off at his best pace down the hill, over boulders and bog and heather, making towards the Castle, with an indistinct idea that if he could only inform the chief of what had chanced all would be put right. He remembered having been sent for, some years ago, to Altyre, when the young Alasdair in some boyish scramble had broken a leg. He had been very friendly then, and Simon thought he might well now recall the incident and ask his help.
Beatrix meanwhile, with her pretty head full of musings on Alasdair Cumming, and on Father Ambrose, and on Martin Luther’s teaching, and her own strange and seemingly inextricable perplexities, was walking down the southern face of the hill. During the last week or two the image of Alasdair had been very constantly in her mind. He was quite different from any man she had ever met; in fact she had not met very many, and in her secluded life with her scholar father they were necessarily restricted to a few types. Old men who had been fellow students with her father, or fellow warriors in his fighting days; young men who were mostly Dunbar cousins, or their friends and comrades; a few churchmen, such as the Chanter, who, not being under monastic vows, were able to talk with a woman, or whose vows sat lightly on them, as was too often the way in those days; priests from Elgin, and a sprinkling of worthy burgesses from that town or from Forres. Such was practically all the society she knew, save in her rare visits to the south. Small wonder, then, that she was haunted by the dark, handsome face of the young chief, with close cropped curls, whose chestnut hue was so dark as to be nearly black, except when under the sun. She recalled the weary look in his keen eyes when at rest, that made his face look almost haggard, and the animation that sprang to it directly he spoke. Beatrix, brought up entirely by her father, was more than half a boy. She could ride and swim and fence, she knew all the points of venerie by heart, and could draw a bow or fly a hawk with any man in Morayshire. So all the instincts of sport that were in Alasdair, as in every Cumming, found a ready echo in her, and gave an additional charm to their unconventional intercourse, when he had shown her all the secrets of the wild life in the Glen, and the hiding-places of the clan, and how his men could start apparently out of the earth at the sound of his call. She caught herself longing even more than usual for their meeting to-day, and the long expedition they had planned to the witch’s cave, high up on the opposite hills.
With a sudden rush two men were beside her, gripping her arms. She wrenched one hand free, and catching a dagger from her belt, struck fiercely at the wrist of him who held her left arm. Her face was white and furiously tense, her eyes flashed green sparkles, and her red lips, contracted almost to a line, showed the small, white, vicious teeth. Even so might a squirrel, driven into a corner, crouch at bay, ready to bite through any attacking hand. The sharp blade ripped the flesh, and the blood spouted over her kirtle. The man dropped her arm with a savage oath, but caught her again with the other hand.
“So, ho! wild cat!” he cried. “I wot your husband shall tame you.” She saw then that he wore the Leslie colours. “Alasdair! help!” she called—she had always thought of him by this name, and forgot for the moment that she never called him so. But scarcely was the word out of her lips, and the men hearing gripped her tighter, when a blow like that from a smith’s hammer, under the ear of him on the right hand, sent him to the ground like a log, and a muscular arm thrown from behind round the throat of the one on the left, who had the wounded hand, brought him backwards, limp as a strangled rabbit. Alasdair stood above them, his grey eyes darting fiery lightnings, and seeming to flash red with his fury. He blew two notes on a silver whistle that hung from a chain round his neck, and four stalwart Highlanders came up, apparently out of nowhere.
“Take these rascals neck and crop, and throw them over our marches—into a bog, or a burn, or where ye will, I care not.”
Beatrix clung to him, her bright hair, loosened in the encounter, flowing free over the breast of his doublet. He wore no armour. He passed his arm round her, leading, almost carrying, her under the shade of the birch trees.
“Sweetheart, the scoundrels have frightened you, I fear. Brave little lass! how splendidly you hit. That brute will carry your mark to his death, I think. Why, she’s trembling all over.”
“With rage, then; not with fear, but how came you there so providentially. I know not what I should have done but for you. One poor maid’s dagger is but little use against such; though it might have freed myself,” she added with meaning.
“God forbid!” said Alasdair, crossing himself. “I was close by you ever since you passed our march, but I did not wish to intrude on your thoughts; I had word that some scoundrels from Forres in the Leslie’s pay were lurking too near, and I thought their intentions could not be honest.”
As he spoke the trumpet sounded on the hill, answered by another faint and far away.
“The Leslie’s call,” said Alasdair, “but I know that the other roads will not be safe till they have retired again. Honour me once more at the castle, and we will wait till all is clear.”
“Call me once more what you called me then, and I will come,” she said, with a quaint, little, wilful air that was eminently fascinating—looking at him with her head on one side, like a very tame squirrel now.”
“Sweetheart! wilt come?” he said, but with a queer catch in his voice as he said it. “Yea, I will gladly.” And side by side they walked down the hillside, seeing not Master Simon Tulloch, who was hurrying towards the castle, and hearing not the signals and answers that were interchanged from end to end of the Glen as Leslie and his clerical allies drew towards each other on the southern slope of Eildon hill.
XIX – LOVE AND FIGHT AT DALLAS CASTLE
They walked together down to the castle, but both were strangely silent. The rough encounter, and the obvious danger it revealed, like a sudden flash of lightning, had shown them to each other with a startling clearness. Alasdair remembered how in an unguarded moment he had called her “sweetheart,” and hoped afterwards that she had not noticed it, till in sweet petulance she had insisted on making him call her the same again. He had held her in his arms for a moment, which he prolonged, and she seemed not anxious to terminate, as he led her into the tiny wood. Then how savagely she had struck at the cur who laid sacrilegious hands upon her. His heart acclaimed her exultantly, and gloried in her pluck, as he gloried in her warm softness to himself, yet of all this his face showed no sign; it was set in the same stern and somewhat weary lines it habitually wore in repose, as though from constant repression and concentration of will. Beatrix stepping along beside him thought too of that word “sweetheart” with a thrill that brought a flush to her sweet face, and of how she had longed to hear him say it again. Was he offended at her daring in bidding him repeat it? She could hardly think so, yet his face was stern and still.
Alasdair Cumming was to do much good for her, so Eochain had said, and so evidently her father also had thought. She looked at him again, and knew that she eared not if he did good or did ill to her, whatever he did that she joyed in, even to be hurt by him were a joy;—and he had called her “sweetheart,” yea, even though he never said another word of kindness, that were enough to live upon, and to dream of for all her life.
So their thoughts drew near to each other, and revolved round each other, as they came up to the gateway now so familiar to Beatrix, with its quaint Rosicrucian emblem.
“Once more you will take shelter here,” he said. “’Twill soon be safe, I think, for you to return. My men have watched the Leslie’s troop of spears for over a fortnight past. They come and gallop along the roads, and blow trumpets, and shout, but about sundown they are always away. I think the attractions of a drink in Forres are strong.”
“Do you really want me to return so speedily?”
“What I want matters not,” he said. “It is what is safe and good for you that matters. Pass in, and pardon me for one brief space while I alter the disposition of the men a trifle. I mean after this to have a dozen or so always on guard in the castle; they will relieve each other and watch day and night. I mean that they shall wear your favour, and be under your orders if ever I am called away, so that in any emergency, or without any emergency, whenever you list, you may come to the castle, and find always a devoted band who would go into hell for you if you asked them.”
“You spoil me! But what would your men say? Those who have been used to follow a war lord would scarce like to be ordered by a simple maid.”
“Trust me, there’s not a Cumming in the Glen but would be proud to be in your service. Pass in—sweetheart—” he lingered over the word as though loath to have done saying it, and for a moment their eyes met; then she passed into the castle, and Alasdair turned back on to the path towards the west.
Just rounding the castle wall he came upon Simon Tulloch.
“Give you good day, Master Alasdair,”—then the old man raised his eyes and met the eyes of the chief, “Good God in Heaven! what do you here? I thought to find Master Alasdair Cumming.”
“You have found him,” said Alasdair, “at your service, Master Simon. Alasdair, the son of Sir Alexander of Altyre am I, and now Chief of the Dallas branch of the Cummings by election as Tannist. In whatever other capacity you have known me, I charge you, now and for ever, hold your peace.”
He spoke sternly, and with a lowering of the straight brows and a wild gleam in the dark grey eyes, then changing instantly to a kindly tone and manner.
“You and I have known various scenes together, Master Tulloch, and you have learned the virtue of a still tongue. Part of my life is behind me, and another, and with God’s grace happier, time is dawning.”
“I understand,” quoth Simon. “But tell me, Master Alasdair, since so I may call you (and none could doubt ye for a Cumming whatever dress ye wore), tell me know ye aught of the Lady Beatrix Dunbar? Sore I fear foul play, and on your own lands too; up in yonder little wood.”
“Allis well, old friend, by the grace of God I was close by, and two scoundrels have ere this been thrown over our marches, I trow not over gently. I commanded not gentleness for them, nor are my men accustomed to handle gently those who come unbidden on our lands. If ye inquire for the lady, she is now within the castle, by her own good will and content, to wait till that ruffian who calls himself Leslie of the Glen hath gone back to his carouses, or whatever form of deviltry amuses his evenings.”
“I thank God for that,” said the other piously, doffing his bonnet as he spoke. “But in sooth she will now perchance have longer to wait than ye think for.”
“What mean you? Speak plainly!”
Why, just this, that the Church hath joined hands with the Leslie. God and the Devil on the same side for once, for the Church is determined to give him his wife, as they hold she is, and the Bishop’s men-at-arms are even now riding up by Pluscarden to meet with the Leslie’s men near the middle of the Glen, and sweep your men before them, and take the lady out of your hands. And, indeed, I leave to yourself to judge how far the Church will look with any favour on yourself.”
“Devilish little grace I’ll get from Bishop or Abbot, I trow; my offence is past forgiveness. But ‘tis well you told me. So they thought to sweep the Cummings out of their own Glen, did they?
Edward of England tried it, and half his men manure our lands, and we are here still. All the same, with a rush and a surprise—if we were unprepared—they might have stolen the lady from us. God’s truth I every Cumming in broad Scotland would have joined to pull their old hornet’s nest about their ears;—ay, and many friendly clans too, who love not shaven crowns, but it would have been too late. O Lord! God’s blessing on you, Master Tulloch, for your news. Now I know. They shall have such a reception as they are little prepared for. Are Leslie’s men and the Bishop’s bound for the same bourne after death, think you? Well, we’ll soon send a goodly company of them to find out. But now, I trow my good old Uncle Eochain and my lady’s father, Sir Wilfred, will be sorely concerned at her absence. You must return at once, Master Simon, and reassure them.”
“Master Alasdair, tell me, does Eochain Beag know who you are?”
“Ay, does he. ’Twas he who bade me come. Many a tough argument had we. I brought him to the faith of Christ and he brought me to the Dallas Cummings. Tell him that Alasdair Oge greets him, and follows his counsels whithersoever they lead. Tell him and Sir Wilfred that the Lady Beatrix is safe, and that Leslie of the Glen may seek her in vain, though all the powers of the whole Church, and of Heaven and Hell to boot, were ranged on his side; so long as a Cumming remains alive in the Glen, and even were the very last of us slain, I think her own poniard would save her from the Leslie.”
“I will go, and pray Heaven I may reach the tower in safety.” “Never mind Heaven just now. I’ll take surer means.” Three quick notes on his whistle, and two stalwart, red-headed giants rose from behind a whin-bush. “Take Master Simon Tulloch, and give him safe conduct along the hollow way, and round by the back of Burdsyards, and so to Blervie. But have a care, the hillside is full of scoundrels who think to hunt Cummings like tods on the moor. We have a lesson to teach them; but not now. Keep out of sight—provoke no conflict. I would keep them on the hillside till I am ready for them. Now go, and send me Watty o’ the Romach as ye pass. He learned his lessons at Flodden, and shall use them now.”
The trio passed away to the westward, and Simon recognised in one of his conductors a man whose wounds and broken head he had often patched up after the broils in which the Cummings of Dallas Glen were not infrequently engaged.
“Ye are bidden to guard well the Lady Beatrix Dunbar,” he said.
“Our Chief’s lady is as sacred as the Chief himself,” was all the reply, but it was all the reply that Simon needed. Spoken as it was, no assurance could be more convincing, for the loyalty of the Dallas men was as well known as their fierceness in fight and their unscrupulous thieving in foray. Beatrix went through the great gate of the castle into the triangular courtyard. She had become very familiar with the interior of this strange building, with its great central tower, and four cruciform arms, and the flanking walls that united their angles; the stables were on her right, and the house of the winds on her left. She climbed the winding stair to the room where she and Alasdair had often shared a simple meal, and talked of many things, and she recalled how she had longed to be in that little room again and with him; and now that only a few moments parted them, she would fain prolong those moments of anticipation, realising, as she did, how their meeting necessarily brought the inevitable parting so much the nearer.
Then he came, and she stood up to greet him. He had held her in his arms up there in the little wood, after he had sent the two knaves sprawling. Would he hold her so again? She was conscious of wishing that he would; but he merely bowed with that grace of movement that was habitual to him, and sat down on a settle near to the great chair, that had now come to be regarded between them as her special seat of honour. His Lace was grave with thought: he wished to warn her, without alarming her, of the mustering of men-at-arms on the hill, and the possibility of her return to Blervie being cut off. She noticed his abstraction.
“Why so distraught?” she said, conscious of a little difficulty in the breathing that came quicker than it should. “I fear me I have come at a time inconvenient, when you have much else to do and think of. Send me away, or let me go on the battlements and muse, till my unworthy husband chooses to betake himself to more congenial amusement than wife-hunting.”
“Little lass, the longer you stay the better pleased am I, and I think you know it; but now, mayhap, your visit may of necessity be longer than you thought or meant.”
“Why, then, so much the better, so only that you be not tired of me.” She spoke with evident sincerity, for her eyes gleamed and her lips laughed with joy. If fate prevented her leaving him for a while, fate was kind indeed. He noticed that she never troubled to ask the reason, yet he must tell her.
“It is more of a serious hunting this time. The Church has joined forces in defence of her own marriage rites—and fees. The Bishop’s men-at-arms are out as well as Leslie’s, and it looks as though this old tower might have to stand a siege.”
“Oh, glorious! and you and I will hold it.”
“Nay. I know not what it may come to. But meantime so large a force will not disperse as soon as we have seen the Leslie Command gallop off when drink time came. But for the present we will think not of this. You will be my guest for a little longer. I have sent to tell your father that he be not anxious, and I have scouts in all directions who will tell us every movement. We have time to spare, and we can sup a little more ceremoniously, if you will deign share my evening meal.”
“Not only so. You shall give me the privilege to cook it. I would fain show you that it is not only the Cummings who can cook. I know you are apt to think so. There are plump birds in the larder, and a glowing turf fire smoulders in the kitchen. Please let me try my skill while you go and give what orders you will, and find out what the enemy are doing.”
She put out her hand pleadingly. Alasdair took it and kissed it reverently, and she fled like a bright bird down the winding stair intent on her idea of preparing their meal. There was a delicious intimacy in it that set all her pulses dancing with joy.
Alasdair went on the battlements and bent his keen eyes on the hillside. Dotted all along he could make out pennons, though not their devices, and the westering sun gleamed on steel breastplates and morions, and the points of spears. One man after another came up and received his orders, and the time slipped rapidly away. At last a step sounded on the stair, and a long lean youth, who looked all wire and whipcord, bent the knee before him.
“Ho, Farquhar! What tidings?”
“Watty o’ the Romach sent out three spies. They donned the MacIntosh tartan, and gave out that they were bound by an oath to slay the Cummings. Up yonder are three troops of the Bishop’s men beside Leslie’s Command. They design to descend at night, or at least after sunset, and attack the castle, but they are feared for the bogs and streams, and none know the way. So our three MacIntoshes are to find them a guide, and we think Tam Gow the Smith were as good as another: he knows the Glen.”
“Excellent! Watty has done well. Go tell him I must have a cordon of men round the castle, but none may enter till I whistle twice. Bid Tam lead them down deviously, but ever on hard smooth ground, so that they think themselves safe, to the black island near the big peat bog. Watty will have all our best men ready, and we will rush them there and teach them how to play with Cummings on their own ground. Now, go!”
Farquhar disappeared down the stair, lithe and noiseless as a wraith. Alasdair followed more slowly, and entered the room that served for a dining-hall, just meeting Beatrix carrying in triumph a couple of blackcock, exquisitely dressed, which she placed on the board already decked with bannocks and other cakes, and a pile of ripe bramble-berries and a dish of rosy apples. Her face was somewhat flushed with her cookery, and she was in high glee over the adventure.
“My Lord is served,” she said. “Shall I minister to your wants? Methinks the hero should have a waiting damsel to tend on him.”
“You shall sit here in your throne, for choicer feast never man partook of. See you those apples, sweetheart? Ye may know them. One of my men was down in the Thigh this morning and brought them up. I think, from your cousin the Chanter. They will have a sweet savour to me. I think of the Chanter’s garden as a home of ancient peace.”
Beatrix’s memory went back to the Chanter’s garden—recalling involuntarily the soldierly stride that seemed so inconsistent with the monkish habit of Father Ambrose. Altogether it was a merry meal. Alasdair was in great spirits, and told many stories of the old fights and loves and romances of the Cummings,—many tales, too, of his own youth and adventures; and Beatrix capped them with stories she had heard from Dunbar cousins, and weird fantasies picked up from her father of elves and witches and were-wolves. None would ever have imagined that these two, so gay and happy in each other’s company, were in fact so strangely thrown together, and were even now expecting, almost with absolute certainty, the attack of a powerful enemy.
Beatrix was trying with some difficulty to recall her early memories of Alasdair. Long ago in her childhood there had been a handsome, petulant boy with whom she had played at robbers, or some such matter, when her father had gone to see Sir Alexander of Altyre on some affair of business; also, that she had found him over-presuming, and had gripped him by the shoulders and flung him in the burn by Altyre, and then challenged him to meet her with a rapier, which he would not do, saying that the claymore was the only weapon fit for a gentleman. But that boy must have been about her own age. Alasdair looked full ten years older, and indeed must be at least that from the events he told her of in which he had borne a part. She asked about that boy, but he merely said—“That must have been my brother, much younger than I. I was in France at that time.”
Now and then, as they dined, there came blasts of trumpets from the distant hillside, but they heeded them not. Then came a long period of silence, during which they had finished their repast, and Alasdair had uncorked a flagon of rare old wine. Sooth to say, it was part of the store of some Jewish pedlars, journeying from the port of Findhorn with wares to offer for sale to my Lord of Moray at Darnaway, and whom a band of Cummings had intercepted and relieved of their loads.
Alasdair filled their glasses. “Confusion to Bishop and bridegroom, and long may the bonny bride bide here!” She honoured the toast, just touching her lips to the glass, and Alasdair’s eyes were caught by a ring she wore on the forefinger of the right hand. “’Tis a marvellous stone,” he said. “A beryl, the stone that crowns the royal sceptre of Scotland. My father gave it me. It is a talisman against were-wolves, they say, and they who have the second sight can see strange visions in it.”
Alasdair took the little strong white hand in his own sinewy brown one, and looked intently into the milky depths of the green opalescent stone, so full of strange fire,—f or he had the second sight, so his old nurse had told him, though the constant activity of a strenuous life had dulled the faculty. Beautiful and glowing pictures seemed to rise in the heart of it. But above all he saw Beatrix always with him, ever clinging to him, sharing good and ill fortune, happy and content to be with him. In the stone he could read the great love that had grown up in her heart for him; it was incredible, but it was true. His sweetheart—so in daring mood he had called her—and so she had loved to be called. Her life was now twined in his.
He raised the little hand to his lips, and felt the fingers close round his in answeri~g pressure, as the green eyes looked full into the grey ones, and darkening, softening mists came over both. His left arm stole round her and held her close. Her head leaned back on his shoulder, the dainty flower-like face was close to his, the red lips pouting with the kiss for which his own so hungered. And so in supreme happiness they clung together, while a wild blast from three trumpets sounding close by was almost unheeded for the moment. Then he started from her embrace. The hour had come when he must lead his clan; the soft dalliance of love must wait till safety was reassured.
“Sweetheart! my sweetheart! All mine at last. Promise me one thing now. By our new-found love I ask it, the first thing I have asked of you.”
“What is it, Alasdair? Whatever you ask of me is granted already ere it be asked.”
“This, my dearest love. I must go forth and lead my men. I think we have the enemy in the hollow of our hand, and I know, I feel, how you would fain go forth with me, and share the danger and the fun. But I ask you, bide within the castle till I return. It may be the roads will not be safe for your return tonight, ’tis already past sunset by an hour. But Dame Gow, Watty’s wife, waits below, and will be proud to be your tiring woman; she hath a chamber prepared for you.”
“Oh, Alasdair! may I not go with you? I will hinder you naught. I can hold sword or rapier, or fire a piece if you will. I will doff my petticoats and wear the belted plaid, or armour if you have a spare suit to fit me. You Cummings are not all giants, are you?”
“Your promise, sweetheart! Besides, I have a post for you;—you can help me far better here in the castle than if you were down with me yonder. See you now, all the enemy, Leslie’s men, and all the three troops of the Bishop’s, are herded together down on an island between the streams. You can see it from here: my own men have guided the guileless souls into a pretty trap, and there we shall deal with them. But it is possible they may have told off some few picked men to rush the castle while the main body hold us in fight. Should they try this, the only path they can come is by the fairy knoll, and over its shoulder for a moment a passing man would be clearly visible in the moonlight. Keep a steady watch on that point, and if so much as a man s head should appear, blow one long blast on this whistle, and that man’s head and his shoulders will part company before he can reach the gate. There are watchmen on the top of the tower and warders at the gate, otherwise you and Dame Gow have the castle to yourselves. I trust your promise, sweetheart.”
He handed her a whistle that hung with some accoutrements on the wall,—of a slightly deeper note than the one he used himself.
“’Tis a hard thing you have asked me, Alasdair, but you shall always know and feel that you can trust your little love. Now, one kiss only, and go. But haste you back with victory.”
A moment he held her in his arms, a moment his lips rested on hers and felt her quick fluttering breath; then he was gone, and passed over the drawbridge, his clay-more in his hand, his great leathern targe with three bosses and a central spike hung round his neck, and his eagle feather jauntily defiant, murmuring to himself as he went—“Well worth it! little sweetheart! Mine, all mine at last. Would she hate me if she knew? Nay, I think not.”
Then blowing his whistle he ran rapidly down the path.
On the island between the streams the four companies of men-at-arms stood to attention, waiting the signal to advance. So far, they had seen no sign of the Cummings. Their guide had indeed done splendidly, for he had brought them in absolute safety over an easy track almost to the very walls of the castle, and that without alarming the clansmen,—the castle rose before them only some two hundred yards distant. The spot on which they were drawn up was an island, but they did not know this, so craftily had Tam Gow lead them. On their left, to the north, was a peat bog, water-logged from recent rains, wherein the incautious traveller might sink knee-deep. In front and behind were tributary streams of the Lossie, that, flowing under heather and whins, were not to be seen in the uncertain moonlight. They were posted on a bare space of gravel and short grass, divided by a tiny rill. Southward of this rill the Bishop’s bowmen (English mercenaries, many of them) were on the right flank. In the centre were Leslie’s men, all mounted and in full armour, between two mounted companies of the Bishop’s forces. His bill-men and pike-men were on the extreme left. Leslie himself, on his powerful black stallion, was in the rear of his own men, with his jackal Urquhart beside him, as usual.
“Gad, Urquhart! I think we are right at last. I have certain knowledge that my wife was seen passing down the side of the hill by Rafford soon after midday, though where the devil she came from I cannot guess. She is not on the hillside, that I swear. She hath not emerged on the other side of the Glen, that the Bishop’s men and the Prior of Pluscarden are ready to swear. Therefore she is within you castle walls, unless she be out on the moor, and I give her credit for too much sense to suppose that. Hence, and ass as you are, you will follow my reasoning thus far: she is within, and ere another hour have passed we shall pull her out; and if this oaf of a Cumming have touched so much as a finger of Dame Leslie’s hand, why, damn it! I’ll hang him as high as Haman, and you, too, Urquhart, if you grin like that. Then hey! for Forres and the bridal feast, and the bridal night at your house, Urquhart, and you shall find the liquor. Devil blast me! we shall all be drunk as swine. An it had been my black-a-vised sweetheart, I would have provided liquor myself for all to swim in, and filled thy own pouch with gold pieces. Sound the trumpets. Damn you! Call the men to attention. At the second blast, a shower of arrows to clear the ground, and then rush the castle. We shall surround it wholly, then face outwards and shoot any man who appears. The bill-men will open the gate for us, and so the game is won and done.”
The trumpets blared out their first call, and, as if by magic, several ranks of men with the Cumming tartan, steel caps, and leathern targes, rose, as it were, out of the ground between them and the castle. The bowmen drew shaft to ear, but before they could loosen a string the men disappeared again as suddenly as they had risen, and with a wild yell two or three score leaped on them from behind, dragging them down, throttling them with bare hands, slashing and stabbing with dirk or broadsword, and cutting their bowstrings as fast as their keen blades could rip.
The mounted men, taken by surprise, wheeled their horses to the right to charge the foe who had so suddenly sprung upon them; but in their haste and confusion the manœuvre was badly executed, and as the right company of the Bishop’s men attempted to jump the little rill, their horses crashed against each other, and many a stark man-at-arms went down tangled in the harness of his steed; others plunged among the scared and disorganised bowmen whom they thought to deliver, and the wild Highlandmen, throwing themselves flat on the ground, hamstrung the horses and stabbed the riders low in the groin with the keen dirk or the skean-dhu.
Meantime the Leslie had seen how the fight went, and had held in his own men and the left company of the Bishop’s forces, and at this instant, clear against the rising moon, was seen the eagle feather of Alasdair Cumming as he walked over the ground where the mysterious appearance of the clansmen had so startled and disorganised the attacking force. The trick, indeed, was excessively simple. Several small burns ran deep under the heather, entirely hidden by the rank growth, and in these the men crouched out of sight till the signal was given to draw the archer’s fire, then they stepped on the banks, and on another signal stepped down again, while their comrades took the bewildered bowmen in the rear.
Now clear before them stood the Cumming chief, surrounded by his men in battle array, and, heedless of the fate of the right company and the unfortunate bowmen, Leslie gave the order to charge.
In the meantime, fired by the hope of a rich reward for himself, and partly being unwilling to be caught in the mêlée of a night-charge, and thus endanger his own precious skin, Master Urquhart left his patron’s side and crept out from the companies, followed by two of his creatures. Chance favoured him, for seeking how to reach the castle he spied a lightly trodden path, that, as it happened, led over comfortably firm ground to the fairy knoll. As he passed the shoulder of this hill two arrows sang past his ear, causing him to crouch close to the ground at the very point where, according to Alasdair’s directions, the head of an approaching enemy would be visible from the castle. Even so he might have been seen, but that just at that moment Beatrix, who till then had been watching intently, for a single instant let her mind wander to her beryl, and pressed her lips on the gleaming stone.
“Come on, lads,” whispered Urquhart, “there are no Cummings here. All are the other side; while they fight we may get the prize and a rich reward. I used to play here as a boy when it was an open ruin, and methinks I know a way in that even the Cumming does not know. Softly now, there are stepping-stones here, and a masked door by that angle. Oh, rare luck, not even a door; they have never found this way. Now, six steps down, then turn to the right and along an under-ground passage, and you reach the stair. Lord, what are they at?”
It was a furious din that struck his ear. Prompt on the signal, the centre and left companies started to gallop, but had scarce got twenty yards when the foremost horse crashed down on his head, tumbling his rider like a sack of meal head-foremost on the soft moss. In another moment a dozen were sprawling among their struggling horses, those behind vainly trying to rein their steeds so as not to trample on the front rank. Then with yells of triumph the Cumming clansmen arose from the heather where they were hidden, and headed by their young chief dashed into the struggling mass. This was the noise that Urquhart had heard, and which for a moment drew Beatrix’s attention off her watch on the fairy knoll. She was playing carelessly with Alasdair’s dress dirk, worn only at Court and on occasions of ceremony, which he had been showing her during their dinner, and which be had changed for a more serviceable weapon. Gently the door opened, and a man first peeped cautiously round, then jumped into the room, raising his arm to sweep aside the tapestry that hung from the lintel.
Quick as a flash Beatrix flung the dirk,—a trick she had learned in childhood from her father,—and as the ruffian raised his arm the sharp point caught him, and, sped by the force of the throw and the heavy hilt, it found his heart, and he tumbled like a log on the stone floor, vomiting streams of blood. Urquhart immediately behind, and expecting to find men on guard, stepped over his follower’s body with his weapon bared. Beatrix caught a rapier from the wall and stood on guard.
“So! wild cat,” he said.
“Touch not the cat, but a glove,” she cried, crossing his sword. In an instant Urquhart’s blade clattered against the wall and fell, as a lunge from the rapier pierced his shoulder and a second quick thrust grazed his cheek, snicking the point of an ear.
“Take up thy carrion and begone,” she called to him, but he was already out of the room and bolting down the stair, followed by his remaining ruffian. Dame Gow heard the clash of weapons, and came running, stumbling over the dead man on the floor.
“Faith, my lady, ye should have been born in Clan Chattan. Our cats scratch shrewdly when they meet with swine. See ye now, from this window the moon shows all clear. They who would attack us are away like a herd of roe deer when the wolf howls. See them fleeing up the hillside. I trow they’ll not readily meddle with the Cummings again. But hearken ye, my bonny doo, my man hath just come in with a message from the chief: he is busied with the affairs of the clan, and seeing to the posting of the guards, and to the burial of some poor fellows of our own who have fallen, and he begs that you will now retire to rest, and he will himself bring his greetings in the morning.”
“I promised him implicit obedience,” said Beatrix, “and he shall not deem that I fail in my word, though I doubt I shall sleep but little this night.”
“Aye, faith, ’tis not every day that ye kill one foul brute and wound another. God’s truth, but I’m proud of ye. I would ye were daughter o’ mine. Come away, my bonny wean, till I tuck ye up, that ye show your bonniest to the chief the morn. God bless him!”
In spite of her forebodings, Beatrix was no sooner put to bed by Dame Gow than she was sound asleep, wearied out with all the events and excitements of the day.
Waking at daybreak, she peeped from her window and saw Alasdair pacing up and down in front of the great gate, his drawn claymore over his shoulder as one on guard.
XX – THE WITCH’S CAVE
She watched him with great admiration, rejoicing in the strength and beauty of him, for indeed he was a splendid figure of a man in all his warlike accoutrements. He was considerably over six feet in height, broad and well-knit, with a supple grace of movement that partially masked his great stature and strength. “Little sweetheart,” he had called her—but Beatrix herself was tall as women go, though her head only reached his shoulder. So absorbed was she in watching him as he paced to and fro that she forgot the scantiness of her own attire, and heard not Dame Gow’s entry.
“Save us, my bonny wean! are ye afoot already; and it’s real lovely ye look after your sleep, like a fresh rose-bud with snow around it. Wat ye that lawn that ye slept in belonged to the chief’s mother, God rest her soul! Eh, sirs, but I would the chief could see ye now.”
Beatrix blushed warmly as the kindly, talkative old dame proceeded with her tiring. “The chief is early astir,” she said. “Early astir! Him! Deed, and it’s no bed that the chief has seen the night. Ever since he dismissed the last of his men to rest he has himself kept guard over ye. Well I wat he thinks ye more precious than any of his possessions. See ye now, I nursed Master Alasdair myself when he was a wee toddling bairn, after his mother died (rest her soul, she was a saint on earth, and is a saint in glory now), and never did I see him much taken with a woman before, though mightily were they taken with him, some of them, But deed, I wonder not he should be mad for ye. I would be so myself if I were twenty years younger and a man. My man tells me ’tis your husband that’s hunting ye. Faith, from what Tam tells me ye are well quit of him.”
“The Church calls him my husband, but indeed I think not so myself. Would the chief hold by the Church’s rule, think ye, Dame Gow?”
Nay, for why then? The Cummings hold not much by the Church’s rules anyway, or by any rules indeed except their own, and ye wat the chief’s own mother—” “You spoke of his mother as dead, Mistress Gow, but I know the Dame Cumming of Altyre.”
“Eh, save the bairn, Dame Cumming of Altyre is not the chief’s mother; fancy that ye should think o’ such a thing. Why, her eldest is ten years younger than lie. Nay, his mother was Helen Grant, daughter to the Laird of Grant; handfasted were she and Alexander now of Altyre (his father was alive then), and married they were to have been if she bore him a boy. ‘Twas an old custom, as ye may know, and the Cummings had adhered to it maybe longer than others. Well, her boy was born, and proudly she looked forward to showing him to Alexander, for he was away at some fighting or another, and ere he could win back she had died. I was with her, rest her sainted soul, and so I took the boy as she wished, and Alexander was proud to own him, and presented him to the Dallas Cummings as their Tannist; and later on, when he showed what was in him, they adopted him as such, but Alexander soon after married Janet Fraser of Philorth— bonnie Jennie they called her,—and she brought him two boys, and the present Dame has three. Never a daughter has Alexander of Altyre. But he will always acknowledge our chief as the best and the favourite, though there have been hot words between them, as indeed there will ever be where there are Cummings, so long as the world stands.”
As she talked the garrulous old dame was busy attiring Beatrix, and when she had completed the task to her own satisfaction, she turned her around, saying—“There, my bonnie doo, now go your ways and greet the chief; its fine and pleased he’ll be to see ye, that I warrant.”
Beatrix ran rapidly down the stairs, just as Alasdair, who had turned in at the great gate and crossed the triangular courtyard, met her at the entrance to the Tower. Almost she sprang to his arms, so much had she been hungering to feel the protective strength of that warm embrace. He held her close with fierce passion, as though he would crush her very being into his, covering her sweet face with his eager kisses, and clinging to her joyfully-yielded lips. Then holding her at arm’s length with his strong hands on her shoulders, his eyes devoured her beauty.
“Little sweetheart, you are as fresh as a wild rose. What other maiden in Scotland could look so, after smiting so shrewdly last night. I heard of your prowess from Dame Gow.”
Beatrix shivered ever so slightly—the killing of a man looked a trifle gruesome in the cold light of morning; but Alasdair approved, and that was all that really mattered. There was a delicious feeling of intimacy in the morning meeting that was infinitely sweet.
“And you were watching all night, my hero. How weary you must be. See, now, I go to prepare your meal,—breakfast, supper,—what is it? Then you must go and rest. You see I have constituted myself your cook, while you do the fighting, and I shall take care of you; indeed, I am sure you need it. When all this danger is passed you shall cook a meal for me before I return.”
Alasdair’s face gloomed.
“Speak not of it, sweetheart. Today is ours, yesterday and to-morrow are with the gods. They exist not. And to-day you are under my roof, and it is a gleam of light bright enough to illumine all a man’s life.”
“To me too. Alasdair, I want to think of nothing save that I am under your roof. I want to be nowhere’ else. Now spare me for half an hour, and come back to me.”
“For half an hour, sweetheart. I must interview some men who went for me to spy out what the enemy are doing, and what they intend. A novice from Kinloss, who preferred a roving life to a shaven crown, and followed me here when I came to take up the leadership of the Dallas Cummings, and who hath been at Spynie, has resumed his habit and gone to mingle with the Bishop’s men to learn their plans. He knows the Captain of the Bishop’s troop, and will feign to come from the Abbey. Farewell for the present, sweetheart. I shall return with news; meanwhile, I bless the danger that keeps you here.”
“Why, so do I,” she replied, as she kissed him again, and they parted.
Half an hour later the morning meal was spread by Beatrix’ own hands, and Alasdair came in with a weary and drawn look in his eyes from the strain of the past two days.
“But little news yet,” he said, as he drained a huge flagon of Spanish wine. “Some of my scouts are back, and they report confusion and anxiety in the enemy’s camp all night, and there be wild counsels, for the more the Leslie is crossed the more determined he groweth to get his own way; and Bishop Hepburn is not the man to stomach an affront. The Bothwell blood is hot, as I have good occasion to know. All seemingly agree that something must be done, but none know what.”
“Meanwhile, Alasdair, it is good for me. For I bide with you, and indeed I care for naught else. But what tale brings your novice in the priest’s frock? He was to bring the surest tidings.”
“Yea, so, but he hath not yet come in.
“Then shall your little sweetheart take charge of you. See, now, if I am your queen, as you say, you must e’en obey my orders, and they are now that you do lie down on that couch of skins where you have made me rest before now, and do sleep while I watch, and give you the word at the faintest indication of anything you should transact yourself. Come, now, set the example of obedience.”
With a pretty assumption of authority she led him to the couch, and scarce was he stretched thereon than exhausted nature claimed her due, and he was sound asleep.
Beatrix sitting close by his head, with eyes and ears and every sense alert, knew in herself that now at last life had realised itself to her in its fullness, and was very good.
But short was the space allowed the weary man to sleep. Dame Gow peeped in, and made a sign of benediction over the pair, and left as silently; then a step sounded in the courtyard. Beatrix rose quietly and stole on tiptoe to the window. A slim, close-shaven man in the Cumming tartan, carrying a bundle, was crossing the triangle. In an instant it flashed on her that this was the novice, and he was carrying his robe, which she had irreverently called the priest’s frock. She bent over Alasdair, stroking his hair gently as she kissed him.
“I fear you must wake, there comes one to see you.” In a moment he was broad awake, and kissed her back. “Good little sweetheart! No man need fear aught with you on watch. ‘Tis my novice,” he said, as he looked from the window. Then he ran hastily down the stairs to learn the news. He was grave and anxious looking when he came back; “We must take instant measures. The talk was of deforcement of the King’s authority in Consistorial matters, as vested in the Bishop. Of rapine in carrying off the wife of an Officer of the King (save the mark, this of Leslie who skulked at Flodden, and brought not his command to help the King). I know not how the law on all this may be, but certain it is that messengers rode last night to the Sheriff, and to the Earl of Moray, and there is talk of other forces also. The Glen of Dallas will no longer be safe, neither can you return. There is but one possibility, we must make our expedition to the witch’s cave a reality.”
“But how, Alasdair? You can never leave your men, neither would I leave them. Every Cumming in the glen is dear to me now.”
“I know it, Beatrix, my sweet! But know you not how readily we Highlandmen take to the mountains. Few could find the witch’s cave; and with my men around on Cairn na Caileach none could reach it,—not a whole army. Give me twenty-four hours and there will not be a Cumming in the Glen. The Earl and the Sheriff and the Bishop and all the armies of Scotland may gallop through if they like, and break their horses’ legs in our bogs and streams,—they will do us no harm. The only danger is from spies. I know there are some hidden around, but where or how many I know not. They know you to be here; they will watch for your exit. We must baffle them. If they know not where you are we may rest in peace.”
“I shall rest in peace with you anywhere, Alasdair, my love. Only tell me what I must do.”
“For the nonce, sweetheart, you must become a clansman of the Cummings. You must, as you said last night, in jest perchance then, don the belted plaid, but ’twill be an old and ragged one. Dame Gow shall clip your hair,—what a sin it seems. No hose, but an old pair of brogues to protect your feet; so will we walk out, two of the clansmen taking to the hills. They will certainly not recognise yell, and if they should know me they will think I am leaving you in the castle, and gladly let me go, thinking to take you easily. Some miles we must foot it over the heather to the base of the hills; there I have ponies ready just as we planned, and you shall ride up the greater part of the way. Then a short scramble and we are in safety, till I find a way to restore you to your father.”
“May that day be long distant, unless you tire of me. I care not how long fate prevents my leaving you. But, truth, ’tis a splendid scheme. Come quickly. I am on fire till we start. Yet, no! You are wearied out Alasdair, you must rest.”
“Nay, sweetheart! Time enough to rest when we reach the cave. My orders have gone out already; in less than an hour’s time the clan will have begun to move to the hills. The word goes from mouth to mouth, and swift runners carry the signals. Watty is to bring me in some of the little Earl of Moray’s cattle; they shall serve our needs while he raids our glen. So ’tis all fair. Now away with you, sweetheart, and change. Ha! there is Dame Gow. Now, mistress, ply your skill, and transform this dainty lady to a stripling boy of our clan.”
“Save us, Master Alasdair, what mad frolic is this?”
“No frolic, i ’faith, but a very serious saving of our skins. The Sheriff and the Lord knows who are to raid the Glen, and in the meantime the Cummings take to the hills as they have often done before. The rascals seek my lady here, but while she prefers to bide with me, I trow it is not the part of a Cumming to give her up. So we are for the witch’s cave, and you must make a boy of her, so that their spies know her not.”
“And well I wat she’ll make a bonny boy. Come away then, my wean; ye’ll look braw in the belted plaid, I’ll wager.” Alasdair, busied over his final arrangements and dispositions, hardly noted the flight of time, and scarcely at first recognised Beatrix in the tall, handsome boy who joined him at the castle gate, though ‘tis true the knees were somewhat whiter than those of a boy of the clan might be expected to be, and Dame Gow, with a coquettish eye to effect, had draped the plaid a thought high to show the shapely limb; and in answer to a shy remonstrance from Beatrix, she said—“Eh, sirs, and they’ll just think ye are a callant that’s outgrown his kilts. Wae’s me, but an I had the time to get a little of the peat water, to give a bit colour to your leg—but eh! ne’er fash yourself about that. There’s many a braw lad that’s as white as ye are, and ne’er will they dream that ye are a lassie, with the kilts as short as you. Now go ye, and glad the eyes of the chief, for it’s himself that thinks all the world of ye, for as little as he says.”
And indeed she looked an exceedingly handsome boy, with the squirrel-coloured curls cropped, but still thick and abundant, as a boy’s might be, tied with a scrap of ribbon over the ear, as boys often tied them in these days when they were going courting. An old and somewhat ragged plaid of the Cumming tartan was belted over a loose and light doublet, and caught with an unobtrusive brooch on the shoulder; a fox-skin sporan was hung round her waist, and a horn- handled dirk girded to her side; her feet were cased in good, serviceable deerskin brogues. The plaid folded across her shoulders and chest gave a look of breadth and strength, proportioned to her height; and though the shapely legs still looked somewhat slender, she might well pass for a slim, growing youth, not greatly to be distinguished, save by his good looks, from any other stripling of the clan.
Alasdair looked at her with unfeigned admiration, and one moment in the shadow of the gate he clasped her close, murmuring— “That is the farewell to my sweetheart, till we reach the witch’s cave. In the meantime—it is Donald Bean, my comrade.”
A number of the clansmen were thronging into the courtyard. Rory among them whispered to Alasdair—“There be spies among us—not here, but lurking in the heather. We have killed two, but I doubt there be others.”
Alasdair himself was dressed now as one of the humblest of the clansmen, and so, mingling with the throng, he and Beatrix passed out together, unnoticeable by the keenest eyes among the spies of the enemy.
Urquhart’s jackal reported that a great throng of ragamuffin Cummings gathered in the castle courtyard and went off to the mountains, but there was no woman among them; that a woman, presumably the Lady Beatrix, had been seen in the castle after the crowd had departed, but where the chief was, none could tell. They had, in fact, seen Dame Gow, who, after the chief and Beatrix had left, made her few simple preparations, and wrapped in a tartan screen, as it was called, with a largish bundle in her hand, took her way through Forres to Altyre, where she found a cousin who took her on his horse across to Cairn na Cailleach.
Meantime two humble clansmen of the Cummings were walking southward across the glen, indistinguishable from any other pair of youths. Most of the boys and striplings of the clan went bare-legged and bare-footed, but it seemed the younger stripling, Donald Bean, felt. the rough heather more than usual, for his companion tore some strips off his plaid and wound them around the boy’s legs above the deerskin brogues, forming a sort of makeshift hose.
Not without adventure, however, were they destined to reach the foot of the hills, for soon after they had passed the burn of Carrhatnich, a stranger wearing the Stuart tartan, and a silver brooch in his bonnet, emerged from behind a knoll and stood in front of them.
“Halt, in the King’s name,” he cried. “Who are you, who make free with our King’s name?” retorted Alasdair fiercely. “I am James Stuart, henchman of the Earl of Moray, and in his name as lieutenant of the King,
and in the name of the King I arrest you, Alasdair Cumming.” Half a dozen in Stuart tartan were panting over the heather twenty yards behind.
The stripling’s dirk flashed, and the stranger’s blade gleamed as he made a pass that clashed on the dirk. Alasdair sprang in front of his companion, and caught the next thrust on his left arm wrapped round with his plaid. In an instant, before the weapon could be with-drawn from the tangling folds, his own sword in a rapid pass went clean through his assailant, just as the followers came in sight around the knoll, and seeing their leader dead, turned and fled.
“A vermin,” said Alasdair. “He was at Flodden with Lord Moray, and was in the pay of the English. I caught him, and he never forgave me. He would have sold our King to England; this is his revenge on me. But it has miscarried!”
He was busy binding up his arm, that had been gashed with James Stuart’s sword; but ere he could do so his companion’s cool skilful fingers had taken the bandage and adjusted it over the wound. In doing so a tiny spot of blood showed on the light doublet.
“Good Heavens! You are wounded.” “Nay, only a scratch, ’tis nothing.” “Scratch or no, it must be bound. We can take no risks. Come, I shall be your surgeon. I have some skill of wounds.” The blood spot was below the right shoulder, and just above where the plaid crossed the breast.
Rapidly Alasdair opened the doublet, and found the wound, which was but slight, yet needed stanching.
“Dame Gow taught me in my boyhood never to move without some linen for bandages and salves for healing. Often I have blessed her forethought, but never more than now.”
The little wound had been dressed and bandaged, and Alasdair turning down the shirt, pressed a kiss that seemed an unusual mark of affection towards a stripling boy.
“Donald Bean, at your service, till we reach the witch’s cave.” “Donald Bean again, now the wound is stanched and bound.” So on they fared till they reached the foot of the hills, and there, as Alasdair had ordered, a few of the clansmen waited with ponies, and right glad were the two weary travellers to mount and ride up the steep slopes to the base of a precipitous craig, that looked absolutely inaccessible; but by scrambling up a sort of crevice, that made what rock climbers call a chimney, it was possible to reach a ledge invisible from below which, running along the face of the craig, and with sundry awkward scrambles, led eventually at the top, which was a grassy slope of some dozen yards broad at the base of another craig, in which was the mouth of the witch’s cave, so often talked of between Beatrix and Alasdair.
It was a fairly spacious hollow in the living rock, with two openings to the north and the west. Alasdair’s men had been already on the spot and had provided some rude comforts, though for couch there was as yet naught but a heap of dried moss, covered with plaids and skins, and no table but a few boards set on trestles. However, a peat fire was burning outside, and a cauldron of broth sent forth a savoury smell that was very welcome after the long tramp. Two of the clansmen were in attendance to wait on them.
“You must feed first, my sweetheart, and then you shall rest and forget all your fatigues. It is Donald Bean no longer now; he has played his part, now it is my sweet.”
Two smoking bowls were placed before them, to which they did ample justice. “Why the witch’s cave. Alasdair? Is there any story?” “A very vague one. A woman once fled up here from Forres, they say, when the citizens wanted to burn her. She could made herself into a fox, or a wolf, and it was said she was in love with one of the Cummings, and killed his enemies. I was shown this cave by an old shepherd when I was a boy, and dreamed then of some adventurous hiding here in time of danger. I didn’t dream of hiding my sweetheart, though.”
The sun had set, and the evening was closing in as they finished their meal, and a few brilliant stars already began to spangle the pale expanse of heaven that was rapidly darkening towards the zenith.
“Lie down and rest, my Beatrix,” he said, “you are utterly safe here. I will watch, and these two brave friends are close within call, and a hundred of the clan are at the foot of the rock.”
She looked at him, at the dark circles round his eyes, at the lips that drooped in spite of himself, and the lips set with the tense will that would not give way. His hand that grasped hers was hot, and shook somewhat. He was wearied out and feverish; in pain, too, from his wound, she judged.
“Not yet, my hero, my love. See you, the night is early yet, and I slept well last night. I am fresh as a bird. If you go to watch now you will but fall asleep, then where may we all be? You shall rest for an hour. I’ heard Dame Gow say she would borrow a pony and be here e’er nightfall” (this, be it said, was a pure fiction of Beatrix’ brain, but it served its turn). “She brings me a few necessaries. Now, if I am your Queen, obey my orders.”
Still holding his hand she led him to the couch, and gently pressed him down, and spread the deerskin over him, as, resting her hand on his head, she sat on the ground beside him, crooning low an old lullaby. Weariness prevailed, and in two minutes he was sound asleep.
Beatrix rose softly, and went to the mouth of the cave, looking forth on the beauty of the gathering night, and the crowding stars momently increasing in number and brilliance, that came out over the dark, solemn shapes of the mountains, and away eastward toward the sea the first gleam of the moon now dwindled to half her full circle. Wondrous was the eerie hush of the starshine over the sleeping world, and Beatrix felt that Fate was indeed very good. The wild blood in her had waked and called, and her whole being responded. Now for the first time out in the absolute wild, alone with nature and with the man she loved, she felt as though her whole self expanded. All that was cramped and confined and artificial fell away like a garment; she could look all creation in the face with her own eyes.
A stir within the cave roused her from her musings. By the tiny lamp that was the only light she saw that Alasdair was tossing feverishly, and moaning in evident pain. She laid a soft, cool hand on his head, stroking the brow, and replaced the wounded arm tenderly in an easier position. With a long, deep sigh of content he passed again into calm slumber. For a while she sat by him crooning gently, then went forth again to the starlight and the rising moon, but shortly another weary moaning cry caught her watchful ear, and returning to the couch she saw that a fevered movement had displaced the bandage, and the arm had broken out bleeding afresh. She knew where the salves and bandages were in his pouch, and very quickly she had them replaced, while for utter weariness he was unconscious all the time. She put her arm under his head, letting him rest against her shoulder, and watched the drawn, haggard look pass from his face, but he shivered a little from the chill of exhaustion, and the loss of blood. And all this he had done for her. But for her and the unlucky entanglements of the Leslie, he might have remained happy in his surroundings, at the head of his devoted clan. Woman-like she exaggerated everything, not realising his toughness of fibre, his joy in fight and in effort, and his overmastering devotion to herself that made the fight all seem a piece of rollicking play to him, his services to her an honour and a privilege. She only was conscious of his present weakness and weariness. No sooner did she move than he grew restless again, and so terribly cold and lifeless. She must give him of her vitality somehow, who had given so much for her.
Closer she crept beside him, holding him ever fast in her arms as the warmth seemed to come back to his limbs, and his breath came deep and calm and even; and Beatrix, nestling close to him beneath the deerskin rug and his own great plaid, cherished him with the vigorous warmth of her own young blood—till she too fell sound asleep.
The sun was already high in the heaven when Alasdair awoke as from a dream of paradise. “Ah! little sweetheart, art really there? I verily thought I had taken the journey to Tir nan Oge.
Nay, then, now nor Church nor Crown nor Heaven nor Hell can ever tear us asunder more.” “But rest still,” she murmured, as she nestled on his arm. “You are wounded and weary. ‘Twill be days e’er you are fit to rise.” “Ah! little one, you know not much of the grit of a Cumming. Faith! my men would disown me if a night’s rest cured not such a day as yesterday. Yet God be thanked for it, since it, and your sweet solicitude, have given you to me now and for ever. Say once more, sweetheart, that you have really come to me.”
“Whom God liath joined, shall no man put asunder,” she said solemnly, and with deep conviction.
He cast back the deerskin, and rose strong and vigorous as ever.
“Now for a plunge in Nature’s shower-bath—the cascade that tumbles over the rocks round the corner, then hey, for breakfast! and the dawn of our new life—our new paradise, I will rather say. Why, Mistress Gow, how won you up here?”
“Deed, Master Alasdair, and think ye the Dame Gow is old and feeble and played out yet. I came by the same way that ye came yourselves, to take care of my bonny wean here. Now away wi’ ye, Master Alasdair. Faith, I trow ye are just the same wild devil that ye ever were; there’s naught will tame ye. Come away then, my bonny doo; the breakfast is a-preparing outside, and I have brought ye some apparel more suitable, and maybe more comfortable, too, than the belted plaid, well as it becomes ye. Come away.”
XXI – HOW THE CUMMINGS TOOK TO THE HILLS
It was no unfamiliar experience of the Dallas Cummings to take to the hills. Lying, as their land did, on the edge of the lowlands, where the Sheriff and the Earl of Moray were supposed to preserve order, the wild and lawless clansmen were in constant risk of being punished for some of their forays. All the same, used as they were to the hills, thought and arrangement were needed to provide for the comfort of all the families, and for security in case of attack; and Alasdair was veritably a father to his people. In all that he did, Beatrix was a most efficient helper. She it was who saw that the women and the young children and the very old were taken care of and comfortably housed. Caves and old bothies and turf shelters they had occupied before were repaired and made habitable, the men doing the rough work, while the women lighted peat fires and disposed the poor stores of household goods they had brought with them, Beatrix often helping with her own hands. To all the clansmen she was a queen, more than amply she shared in their devotion to their chief; her beauty, her pluck and endurance, above all her obvious and proudly acknowledged love for the chief, appealed irresistibly to the romantic imagination of the wild half-savage Sons of the mountains. To herself, it was almost as though her soul had passed into a new body altogether—the old life at Blervie Tower seemed so far away and dreamlike that it was scarcely credible that it should have been her own, rather it looked, whenever she thought of it at all, which was seldom, like the faint memory of some romance she had read but heeded very little. The wild hills and the wild clan, their joys and their dangers, their hopes and fears, were now her life. Since that night when the sudden fear had smitten her heart that Alasdair, her king, her love, was dying, and dying for her sake, and she had crept in under the deerskin to give him the vitality and warmth of her own sweet body, and had wakened in his arms to dreams of joy, she had been a part of him; her separate identity appeared a foolish fiction. The wild blood had awakened in her and called to the wild life of the moors and the mountains, till it seemed to her as if she could never really have lived any other life. The clan and all their traditions and customs were familiarly part of herself, and the lowland civilised life a dream.
There was always much to do, and both Beatrix and Alasdair found the day barely long enough. The disposition of the clansmen had to be arranged with care and forethought, for there were enemies on all sides; scouts and watchers had to be continually on the look out, a system of signals and calls different from those used down in their own glen had to be devised, their food had to be provided for. The herd of cattle driven in by Watty o’ the Romach from the little Earl of Moray fed securely at the foot of the cliffs below the witch’s cave, but these would only last a short while, it was but a small herd—others must be driven up. The lochs and streams yielded a plentiful supply of fish, and Beatrix could grill a dainty dish of loch trout for breakfast.
The moors also were full of game, and a fine fat stag gave variety to their bill of fare, to say nothing of the mountain hares, moorfowl, and grouse; and sacks of meal from the low-lying farms provided materials for bannocks. At last she had come to her own. Every detail of the life of the hills was a keen joy. The feel of the Cumming tartan folded over her breast was a delight, and the little knot of ribbon that tied her crisp short curls. She loved the dances on the heather to the skin of the pipes, and listened with a glow of pride to the stories of clan fights and of raids on the lowlands.
When memories of the old life did come back, and its pictures were vividly contrasted with the present, they served but to deepen her happiness. It came about in this way. Alasdair had been leading a foray against some farmers of the town of Forres who had plundered outlying cottages of the clan, and Beatrix ran down the hill below the cliffs to meet him on his return, for this time she had not gone with him, as there was a sick woman to be made comfortable. Alasdair was in great delight, the foray had been wholly successful. They had not only levied the usual con- tribution paid for protection given by the clan which had fallen into arrear, but had taken beasts and meal sacks and other matters in retribution for plundering, “to teach these rascal farmers,” as Alasdair said, “not to interfere rashly with the Clan Cumming.” One of the clansmen had brought a big bunch of white heather for Beatrix, another a plume of the soft and downy feathers under the wing of an eagle.
“Sweetheart,” said Alasdair after the first greetings, “I have a message from Uncle Eochain. He hath always been in touch with the clan, and you know well how they have always adored him. So hath he heard of our taking to the hills, and of your safety, but both he and Sir Wilfred crave further news, and he thinks that you, too, would fain hear how it fares with them. To this end then have I sent trusty men of the clan to fetch up Master Simon Tulloch, who shall bring us all the news, and take our news and our greeting back to Blervie Tower.”
“How good you are to me, Alasdair; but in truth since we have been here I have hardly cast a thought back on Blervie. Am I a very ungrateful wretch? Of course I love to hear that they are well, but beyond that my life is here with the clan. But tell me, Alasdair, can Master Simon come in safety? I would not that any harm should chance to the dear old man.”
“No harm can come possibly, sweetheart. My men will bring him round by Rafford, and through the hollow way where there are ponies waiting, so he shall ride up the steep part; and now that we have the windlass over the cliff we can draw him up into the witch’s cave, and entertain him in a manner worthy of the Clan Cumming, and send him home with a wallet full of wonders to recount. The scouts tell me that a troop of the Earl of Moray’s horse are encamped in our glen, somewhere betwixt the Black Burn and the Kellas, and the Bishop’s men gallop through frequently, and your Lord of Leslie divides his time between riding up and down with his company of spears, and much cursing and blasphemy, and in the intervals drinking in Master Urquhart’s house in Forres. He still lodgeth at the Abbey, where, as I gather, they are heartily sick of him, but dare not send him away.
“How chances it, I wonder,” she said, “that such a man as he, who hath neither religion nor common decency, should be in high favour with the Church?”
“Know you not, sweet, that he hath an uncle a cardinal, who did much to procure the election of the present Pope, and who may himself be Pope one day. Rome is ruled by Cardinal Leslie. Furthermore, his mother was a Bothwell, and James Hepburn, Bishop of Moray, hath ever held that blood is thicker than water. The Abbot of Kinloss dare not cross Norman Leslie. But for these small matters he would have been excommunicated long since.”
“He ought to have been excommunicated ages ago. But come up now and rest, dear one; you must be sore weary. I would I could have ridden with you. Poor old Marsaly is quite comfortable now. I made broth for her, and kept up the fire; the niece is with her now, so she’ll do well.”
“You are an angel, my Beatrix.”
“Not a bit of it, Alasdair; a very unworthy daughter of the clan, I fear me. Nothing I can do is enough, after all the goodness of the clan to me. And I sorely wanted to be with you to-day. I believe I love a fight as much as any of you, Alasdair. I would give something to meet Master Urquhart again, and see how he liked the prick in the shoulder I gave him. It was worth a king’s ransom to see him turn tail and run.”
Alasdair put his arm tenderly round her, and together they walked up to the foot of the craigs, whence they climbed the rift to the witch’s cave, now rendered much more habitable than it had been at first; for various packs of Jew merchants had been raided to supply stuffs and curtains, and even rude couches, and the primitive carpentry of the clansmen had provided shelters against the wind at the openings. Alasdair threw himself on a couch, and was asleep almost instantly, while Beatrix watched by his head alert for the faintest sound.
As she watched memory and fancy were busy. The sudden mention of Simon Tulloch had revived the fading pictures of Blervie and the old life. She remembered how Simon had come to her aid when her father had been so mysteriously attacked, and then carried off. How it had all happened was still a mystery to her. She remembered now the speculations as to possibilities of witchcraft, and the power of the Church in dealing with such matters, their visit to the Chanter’s house, and her first sight of Father Ambrose in the Chanter’s garden. What had become of the monk now, she wondered, and why was his personality still such a potent spell to move her? Whenever she thought of the scene by the old sundial, when the Father passed by with his soldierly stride, she seemed again to be conscious of those hidden eyes of which she had often dreamed, and to wonder what the face was like that she had never seen. How odd Cecily had been, too, that day. Of all the images in that old life she desired Cecily—the strange, weird girl, with the white face and midnight hair, had never seemed quite to belong to the decorous conventional life of Blervie. Perhaps that was the reason of her romantic devotion to her friend. Perhaps it was just because Cecily seemed not to belong there that she missed her now. Cecily had disappeared before the ceremony of exorcism took place; Beatrix’ dreams now strangely mixed Cecily with Leslie’s hunting of herself. Then her mind pictured her escape, her finding of her father, Cecily’s return, and then her meeting with Alasdair. Then she knew. All her life she had been a squirrel in a cage, a very comfortable cage certainly, wadded and lined with wool, warm and protected, plenty of nuts, and a delicate wheel to exercise in, along the familiar conventional track, but then there came a touch,—the door of the cage was open—she had peeped out half timidly—sniffed the open air—then the sudden rush of spearmen to take her and force her to the arms of her husband was the final push—the little squirrel that had stood hesitating by the cage door was emptied out unceremoniously on to the moss and the tree trunks—and was free.
Free! What mattered it that there was but a cave to sleep in, and that the wind blew shrewdly sometimes across the hills, the food might be scarce, and the softnesses of life unknown? It was life, it was freedom; the little, wild red thing had found her mate, and no more could return to the conventional bars, and the routine of the dull old wheel. She looked at Alasdair, and her heart swelled with pride in his strength and manhood as she thought of all the joys and labours they shared, how she had donned the belted plaid of the Cumming tartan, and marched by his side with the eagle plume in her bonnet, on a foray to drive in some cattle—or in light armour had ridden with him on the hardy little hill ponies when they were bound on some more distant expedition, or in her own robes, the queen and darling of the clan, she had gone among them like an angel of light, helping, nursing, comforting the worn and weary. Glorious! But what would Father Ambrose think of it? The thought would force itself ‘on her mind. Somehow she felt he would not condemn.
Then came the long cry over the moors, and gently she laid her hand on Alasdair’s head. It was the call of the clan announcing an arrival in peace and friendship. The men escorting Simon Tulloch had arrived at the foot of the craigs. Alasdair sprang up, the arras hung over the mouth of the cave was thrown back, the rope lowered by the windlass which they had rigged up to facilitate their own access to their stronghold, and in very short space the old man stumped into the cave with a low reverence to Beatrix and to the chief.
“God save your Ladyship!” he said. “Father! pax vobiscum. Pardon me, my tongue tripped over the rules of the Abbey. I should say—greeting to the chief.”
Alasdair, standing behind Beatrix, had flashed a glance on him with a gesture commanding silence. But Beatrix had caught the first words, and instantly pictures rushed on her brain resolving long pent up and half-formed queries. The form of greeting she had so often heard addressed to monks of the Abbey brought up the Laigh of Moray and her very last ride down into the level lands when they went to the Chanter’s house of Windyhills. That was where she had heard that greeting last—and addressed to She felt again the hidden eyes that so persistently haunted her, saw again the tall, soldierly form of him who had fought at Flodden, who had walked by her side through the terrors of the haunted wood at Callifer, who had stood with Eochain, one on each side of her, when she found her father again. Then the picture of her meeting with Alasdair, and how he seemed as an old friend, though she met him for the first time. Could monks come out as Master Luther had said? The thought rushed through her with the thrill of a great joy; yet she gave no outward sign, and greeted Master Tulloch calmly as though his tongue had made no slip.
“Welcome, Master Simon,” she said, “you find us here taken to the hills like robbers, as they say, but in fair comfort. And I bid you tell my father that though his intent (planned all for my good, as I well know, yet mistaken, as I know also), and all the powers of the Church behind, would make a Leslie of me, yet by my own choice I am and will remain a Cumming, and the clan hath received me with kindness and honour far beyond my dessert. Yet entreat for me my father’s forgiveness, if I seem to have gone against his wishes.”
“And indeed, my lady, no forgiveness need be asked, for ever hath it been Sir Wilfred’s chief desire that ye should be free from that brute and blackguard Leslie of the Glen, and well I wot both he and Master Eochain Beag will rejoice that ye have found a shelter among the Clan Cumming, for indeed ye could not in safety return to the Tower of Blervie, nor do I think ye can with safety bide much longer here.”
“What mean you, Master Simon?”
“Marry! this it is, that you shall not defy the Holy Church with impunity, and this is precisely what ye have set out to do, and the Cardinal Legate is most justly incensed, and hath called on the forces of both Church and State, the Bishop, and the Sheriff, and the Earl of Moray, and others beside. And furthermore hath made agreements with sundry of your hereditary foes among the clans to harry and destroy the Cummings of Dallas until the Lady Beatrix be given up. I hear that several families of the MacIntoshes, with their following, are already burning the heather for a raid on the Cummings.”
“This chimes well with a message I have but now received,” said Alasdair, “a cordial proposal for an alliance and an offer of hospitality from the Laird of Grant. As ye may perhaps know, my mother was his sister, and he enjoyeth now a large share of the old Cumming lands brought to his family a hundred years ago or more, when Sir John, the Sheriff of Inverness, married Bigla Cumming of Glencharnie. He is a powerful chief, and is high in favour at Court, and bears small love to the MacIntoshes. He offers me for the sake of our kinship and the old alliance of our families and for common protection against thieves (whereby, as I think, he signifies MacIntoshes), that we should occupy some of our old lands in Badenoch, with the Castle of Lochindorbh, which is not even yet wholly dismantled. As ye may know, ’tis but a short distance from Freuchie, and his son, my cousin James, whom they call Shemishnan-Creach, the boldest and strongest captain living, adds a message bidding us welcome, and guaranteeing our peaceable possession of the lands till we may return to our own. I pray you, Master Simon, tell this news to my Uncle Eochain, for I think it will greatly please him.”
“That truly will I, and I know it will greatly please Master Eochain, for often hath he said there should be an alliance between the Cummings and the Grants of Freuchie, and even himself thought of journeying down to try and bring it about.”
“He shall come and visit us at Lochindorbh. But. now I pray you, Master Simon, tell us more of the affairs of Blervie and Callifer, and of our friends there.”
“What I have told ye cometh from the Abbey, which, as well ye know, is the centre of all the gossip of the Laigh.”
“Nay, man, what should I know of your Abbey; get on with thy tale,” said Alasdair, impatiently.
Beatrix smiled. His secret was no secret to her now. “I crave pardon! An old man will forget at times. This missive is from Master Eochain Beag.”
Alasdair took it and read eagerly. The fantastic script of the old man, as though he were trying to draw serpents, was a little modified, but it was still quaint. It ran thus— “Dear Nephew,—With much joy I learn that thou hast changed thy habit, and now livest as befits a Cumming. Ere long I hope to visit thee. I rejoice further that the clan have given hospitality and protection to the daughter of my old and true friend, Wilfred Dunbar. I know how thou, nephew, hast loved her, and I know no other lady whom I would more gladly see taken into our clan. Sir Wilfred is now wholly recovered, and would return to his own house of Blervie were it safe for him to do so. But as thou knowest, the times are troublous. Mistress Cecily Ross still abides with us, and is most sedulous in caring for the comfort and welfare of two old men. She is gentle and saintly. But for three days, when the moon was but little past her full, I verily thought that Elspet Simpson must, in spite of me, rejoin Sir Norman Leslie. I conquered, but it was after a hard struggle. Greatly I fear for the future. Yet I am told that Sir Norman must very shortly return to his own house of the Glen, and postpone for this season his vengeance on the MacIntoshes. He sought two things—to punish them, and to capture the Lady Beatrix, who is now by God’s grace under thy protection. He hath accomplished neither, but hath drunk himself into wild savagery in Forres, and honest men had best stand clear of him. Adieu, my good nephew, from your loving
“Carry my duty to my revered uncle,” said Alasdair to Simon, “and say to him that in Lochindorbh I shall expect to welcome him, and shall look to his aid and experience in ruling the clan, and there my lady and I will entertain him royally, being, as he is of right, the chief, though he refused to take it, and I trust he will bring with him Mistress Cecily Ross.”
“Yea, entreat him,” said Beatrix, “that he brings my dear Cecily with him, and say to her that my spirit pines for her. Convey also my loving greetings to my father, and tell him of my welfare. Soon I trust he may be able to return to his own home at Blervie.”
“That, my lady, may well be soon, for if, as I hear is likely, Sir Norman Leslie taketh his departure, there will be no more occasion for all these wild men-at-arms who have so troubled our peaceful land of late, and if your ladyship is away in Badenoch there will be no searching for you in the Laigh of Moray, for all which things we may give thanks to the God of all good.”
“Aye, Master Tulloch, ye may well give thanks that I shall be removed from troubling the fair land. Methinks I have ever been far more of the wild hawk than the domestic dove, but I have striven to conceal it. Farewell, Master Tulloch, ye have been more than good to me in the past, and when these troubles are gone, as ere long they will be, I shall hope to see you often, and that the clan may profit by your skill and your ministrations when there are broken heads among us. I fear that will be as long as there is a Cumming left alive.”
She gave a merry glance at Alasdair as she spoke, and Master Tulloch with a low salutation took his leave and was lowered to the foot of the cliffs, and once more taken in charge by his guides to be conducted back to the Laigh, and to his work at the Abbey of Kinloss.
Beatrix leaned back on the great pile of cushions, looking somewhat quizzically at Alasdair.
“Have I found you out, my hero, surprised your secret. Who could ever have deemed that those great limbs had been hidden under a monk’s frock? This is better than Kinloss, I trow.”
Alasdair looked gloomy and perturbed. This was the moment that he had dreaded for long. The revelation that he had continually put off.
“Can you ever forgive me, Beatrix! I had hoped I had left the old life entirely behind me, and that I might begin again.”
“Forgive, Alasdair! Nay, what is there to forgive?”
I have done you a grievous wrong, Beatrix. You know now that I am, or rather that I was, Father Ambrose of Kinloss, through the slip of that old man’s tongue. Can you love any longer one who has broken his vows
“How can you speak of a wrong, Alasdair. I am a daughter of the clan now, and I know its stories. Do we not both love the memory of your sainted mother, though you never knew her, any more than I did.”
“But that was different. My dear mother would have been married had she lived. I often have words with my father. As you know, we agree not over well, but he is a true, loyal man, better by far than I. Beatrix, do you realise that there is not a priest in all Scotland, or in Europe maybe, who would dare join our hands.”
“And you think I care, Alasdair! I heed the mumbling of priests as little as any Cumming in Badenoch. The Leslie, who calls himself my husband, and his precious Cardinal uncle, may frighten all the priests in Christendom, but that doesn’t alter matters. Do you know, Alasdair, my father taught me many things women do not know usually, and a little bit of law among them, and I know that in this realm of Scotland, at any rate, it is the consent that makes the marriage, and nothing else is needed.”
“Consensus facit connubium. Yes, you are right there, Beatrix, and a learned clerk in Padua expounded to me once that the Sacrament of the Eucharist was administered only by a priest, the Sacrament of Baptism by any one, priest or layman, or woman it may be, but the Sacrament of Marriage was self-administered by the parties to themselves and each other, in the exchange of consent. The priest merely gave the blessing of the Church, and the witnesses were merely for proof, but neither were really necessary.”
“Then are you and I our own priests, Alasdair. That is what Uncle Eochain would say, and no need to heed Pope or Cardinal.”
Her exultant delight was ringing through her voice, but Alasdair’s face gathered gloom again.
“You are sweet and true, my Beatrix; nevertheless I know I have done you a grievous wrong. For consider only—in the eyes of the Church, that you and I both believe in, and belong to, I am a monk under the solemnest vows, and you a married woman, our coupling can be nothing but the deadliest sin.”
“I pray you understand, Alasdair, how little I heed’ all this. To me it is nothing but a light wind blowing over the brae, hardly enough to lift my hair. The one real thing I know—you are my mate—until you weary of me, and then I will go seek the rest of the clan who have crossed over the dark valley, and wait for you there. But now—at times I fear that something terrible must be impending. I am too happy. You and I have both sworn vows. Oh, yes! I know; but Master Luther hath shown us how wicked such vows are, and how right it is to break wicked vows taken in ignorance.”
“I heed not Master Luther, Beatrix, a heretic, excommunicate and condemned. I must needs believe the Church, and the Church says that for broken vows such as ours the end is Hell. Yet truly for myself I say, if Hell be the price for winning you, it is well worth it. Right gladly now would I go down to the pit chanting God’s praises, if I but knew that your sweet soul passed upwards to His glory.”
“Yea so, and no otherwise, think I of you, Alasdair, my lord and my love. So banish now those dark, gloomy looks, and if the Church refuse her blessing, the blame must rest with Cardinal Leslie, and with those who bind burdens impossible to be borne and lay them on the shoulders of men. Now, come! tell me all about that wonderful Lochindorbh, which is to be our home for the present, as it seems.”
Alasdair leant back on the cushions with a long sigh of profound satisfaction. The discovery which he had dreaded, and which he thought was to blow all his dreams of happiness into the air, had come and passed; and lo! he and his sweetheart were more than ever one. No secrets were between them now, and no more doubt could ever enter.”
“Lochindorbh,” he said, “the old home of our race, you will love every stone of it, sweetheart. An old castle—so old no man knows when it was built. It stands in the middle of a Loch, and the walls rise straight from the water. All the armies of England and Scotland could not get into it. The Danes besieged it a thousand years ago or so, and couldn’t get in, and both sides were wearied out, and then the Cumming’s daughter fell in love with the Dane king’s son, and they eloped together, just when the chief and the King had agreed to make peace and marry their balms together. And so the Cumming chief pursued them, and overtook them by the Findhorn banks, but the lovers thought he had come to part, them, and the young Dane pricked the sides of the horse they rode, and he reared and jumped, but fell short, and sank in the river, that was in full spate at the time. They lie at Glenferness, under the Lovers’ Cairn. Edward the First of England, and his grandson after him, besieged Lochindorbh, but the English only took it at last by treachery. That is another love story.”
“Tell it me, Alasdair,” she was nestling close to his side, and her squirrel-coloured head lay on his shoulder, where, as he was used to say, it belonged. “We shall make another love story ourselves to haunt those old walls, and perhaps some day another lover will tell it to his lady, and will wonder if any loved in the old time as well as they two will be loving then.”
He turned and kissed her parted lips, a long indrawn kiss, that never could be quite satisfied, and went on with his story.
“It was the wife of the Cumming this time. She fell in love with a handsome officer in Edward’s own guard. He swam the loch at first to talk to her below her window, and afterwards he came in a boat. At last they say she managed to get the key of the postern gate, and gave it to him that he might come into the castle by night unknown, and they fled together, but not before he had given the key to a comrade, who admitted the enemy privily by night, and that was the way that Lochindorbh was finally taken, and Cochrane who built our own castle, of Dallas was engaged to dismantle it, but there is still enough of it left to give us good shelter.”
“I think we do not need much room, Alasdair, we are never very far apart, about enough for one fat man.” They both laughed merrily. “And was that how your people lost Lochindorbh?”
“In a way I suppose it was. The castle was deserted after that, and the Earl of Moray held some of our lands as the King’s Lieutenant, but some still remained in our possession, and Bigla was the last heiress of them all. The Earl wanted badly to get hold of her lands, and promised her in exchange all the lands she could see from a certain point. She rode to meet him there, and one of her followers carried the title deeds, but with instructions, if she were not satisfied with the Earl’s good faith, she was to wave a red handkerchief, and the man who carried the title deeds was to ride for his life to Freuchie and deposit them there. The Earl, in fact, met her in a dense wood from which she could see but a few yards, so the red handkerchief was waved and the deeds were carried safe to Freuchie. Bigla afterwards married Sir John Grant, the Sheriff of Inverness, and so the Cumming lands, and Freuchie itself, passed to her son, and have been in the hands of the Grants ever since. That was a hundred years ago, but the Grants of Freuchie are proud of their Cumming descent, and they are especially good to me, because my mother was one of them!”
“I shall love them all for your sake. They are kinsmen of mine, too. There have been many Dunbar-Grant marriages, you know. Is not Sir John, the present Laird, called the Bard?”
“He is, and well deserves the name: true man and true poet, if ever there was one. He married one of the Rothes Leslies,—a good family they are, not like your unworthy Lord. His son, James, is a warrior. I think he has a touch of imagination, too, but it doesn’t find much outlet.”
“Alasdair, it is all too delightful. What times we will have in that old castle. I shall people it with all the ghosts you have told me of. I am all impatience till we start.”
“‘Twill not be long, then, sweetheart. My acceptance of Sir John’s offer hath already gone. Our scouts go across the hills tonight. In two days we shall start ourselves.”
Far into the night they sat talking and planning, seeing to the departure of the scouts, arranging for the transfer of their own belongings. The bulk of the clan were to remain on the hills, but they would move to hills nearer to the Spey. The few who were their own special attendants would be quartered close round the loch, and in constant touch with the main body. So with thought and care all was planned out, supplemented with many old yarns and legends, till the shades of sleep fell on Alasdair and Beatrix, happy and content with their life and with each other, as might be a pair of wild kestrels out on the craigs.
XXII – LIFE AT LOCHINDORBH
Fore some time but little occurred that was worth recounting. The migration to Lochindorbh was accomplished without any special incident, for none of those who were bent to harry the clan knew of the move until it had been some time completed. Their route lay through the wild hills away from the glen of Dallas, to the south-west, where none but Cummings or Grants were to be found, and in the rugged districts of Badenoch the Church had but little power or influence. The castle itself, though dismantled and largely demolished, yet contained within the circling walls that rose sheer from the loch, enough of the old buildings to make a habitable shelter for Alasdair and Beatrix, with a fair-sized banqueting hall where they could entertain friends and dependants, and quarters for their serving-men. Dame Gow was installed as Beatrix’s bower-woman, and seemed to grow continually more devoted to her lady, whom she regarded as the most fitting mate that Providence had ever planned for a Cumming. This being in her view the highest destiny to which any woman could possibly aspire, especially when it was a mate for her own nursling and particular darling, Alasdair. Most of the clansmen who had farms in the Glen of Dallas remained there, and as the chief and Beatrix, for whom Church and State were especially hunting, were gone, they were left undisturbed. Others removed to farms in the Grants’ country. The younger men, warriors who wished to wet their spears and prove their manhood, and older men, too, who looked on fighting as the only trade, haply because it was the only one they knew, adhered to the chief, and quartered themselves close round the loch or within the flanking walls that surrounded the castle. To arrange and settle all these was a matter of time. It was like a shipload of colonists settling down in a new country, and the approach of winter made it very desirable that all details should be completed as quickly as possible.
In the Laigh, too, things settled down into comparative peace. Sir Norman Leslie being convinced that Beatrix had gone from the Dallas Glen, whatever had become of her, and that there were no Cummings left there, had reluctantly for the time abandoned his pursuit. And since he had matters that required his attention at his own house of the Glen, though he by no means abandoned his projects of vengeance against the MacIntoshes, he rode away, grumbling heavily, not, however without solemnly charging Master Urquhart of Forres to search high and low for Elspet Simpson.
“I need the wench in the MacIntosh country,” he said. “Indeed, I cannot ride there without her. Damn her! But when I seek my wife I must leave her behind. Then there’ll be trouble, I warrant.”
“But if your lady hath made a flitting with the Cumming? Such things have been before now.”
“Good Lord, Urquhart! What a fool you be! Of course, it may be so. Women have confoundedly bad taste; but what matters it? I must kill him. No great loss that. And I shall get her lands all the same, and she shall bear me an heir to the Glen. I’ll look out that that’s all right. No lovers can get in there. And by that time I shall have my black-a-vised sweetheart back with me again. Confound you, Urquhart, don’t meddle with things you don’t understand. Damned little you could meddle with at that rate, eh!”
So growling he rode off; and not many days later the Bishop’s men, and the Earl of Moray’s men, and the Sheriff’s men, and all the spearmen that had been riding about the Glen of Dallas, having no one’s injuries to redress, and no runaway bride to catch, were quietly withdrawn. Only some bands of MacIntoshes who had been promised pay and plunder for attacking their old hereditary foes of the House of Cumming, still lurked about the neighbourhood, but dared not venture into Badenoch. Kinloss Abbey, relieved of the irksome presence of Sir Norman Leslie, resumed its wonted calm under the wise sway of Abbot Chrystal, and the Sub-Dean Robert Reid, now returned from his important mission, and gravely annoyed at the absence of Father Ambrose, for whom he had a special favour on account of memories of Flodden. But Father Ambrose was gone, and none knew where. He had started under the Abbot’s orders for Strathisla, had been diverted by the Bishop’s orders (whereat the Abbot chafed somewhat), and none knew whither he was gone. He had not arrived at Strathisla, nor been heard of in any other place. He must have fallen in with enemies, and been set upon and murdered. Such was the opinion at Kinloss.
With the restoration of quiet and peace Sir Wilfred Dunbar was able to return to his own good house at Blervie, where for a time Mistress Cecily Ross came often to see him, and tended him like a daughter, indeed in many ways more of a daughter than Beatrix had been, for always the wild had lurked somewhere in her blood, and made certain slight yet marked friction with her scholar father, whom, in spite of his training of her, to which she owed so much of her character, she never quite understood. Cecily, however, seemed instinctively to comprehend every mood of the old man, and the fascination of studying a real live witch at close quarters was irresistible to him. So he watched her without her knowledge, and she tended and honestly loved him, and the queer pair got on very well. Her home was still for the most part in the same little hut beside the old stone circle, under the care of Eochain Beag, but sometimes she stayed at the Tower, where Beatrix’s bower-maiden still remained, and took charge of Mistress Cecily as of old.
Master Simon Tulloch had returned, as Alasdair had said, with a wallet full of wonders; but remembering how much the wisdom of a wise man lies in holding his tongue, he said nothing to any human soul either at the Abbey or at Blervie Tower, of his recognition of Father Ambrose. So he passed by all the wonder and the comments as to the Father’s fate with a stolid stare, as of one who has not even a theory to propound. Often, however, he went up to the Tower, and regaled them there with tales of the witch’s cave, to which the boy Hubert listened with open mouth, and to Sir Wilfred and Eochain he would tell much of the Grants’ invitation, and of his own knowledge of Badenoch.
Time and again Mistress Cecily Ross, by Eochain’s desire, went to the Convent in Elgin on a visit, where her glorious voice and her knowledge of music made her always welcome. But he never failed to recall her before the full moon. The girl herself grew calmer, her nightmare dreams were (or seemed to be) passing away, and she was even growing to look more normal.
At Lochindorbh the first months of the sojourn of Beatrix and Alasdair within its ancient walls belong rather to the story of Clan Grant, and may be read in the chronicles of that family, if ever they are unearthed from the muniment-room at Freuchie, where they have lain unheeded for several hundred years. Much is there told of the help given by Alasdair to the Clan Grant in repelling the raids of rival clans, and in consolidating their own authority in their district. Not very much of Beatrix, though she is mentioned with great honour. In particular, there is a long account of a hard-fought fight on Dava Moor against a strong force of raiders of the Macintoshes. Beatrix was there at Alasdair’s side, and for the first time saw the fierce hand-to- hand struggle of men in dead earnest, bent to kill,—heard for the first time the hiss of the claymores, the yells of the slogans of the clans, and the wild squeal of the pipes. Left to herself, she would have been fighting among the foremost, for the mad excitement was in her blood. But Alasdair, more even than usually careful of her, because of a certain secret she had whispered in his ear not long since, had placed her behind him, with a ring of the biggest and strongest of the Cummings as a body-guard around. Once, however, it chanced that a gigantic and desperate MacIntosh forced through the guard, and springing at Alasdair clung round his neck, and would have borne him to the ground, had not Beatrix, with a remembrance of her old skill, flung her dirk with unerring aim, and pierced his heart. That dirk hung for over a hundred years in the great hall at Freuchie, and may perchance be there yet, but the story of it has been forgotten.
Sir John the Bard made a poem of that battle, whereat the MacIntoshes were thoroughly worsted; and his son, Shemish nan Creach, bade his piper compose a pibroch in honour of the big fight. It is still played by old pipers on Badenoch, and is called, “The Lady’s Salute,” but there are very few who know it; yet it is a fine old tune, the tramp of armed men: the whiz of the claymores, the fierce struggles, the cries of the wounded, are all in that wild music which peals out with a terrible intensity, but ever and anon it sinks quaintly into the veriest love coo that ever was breathed by Highland lass on the moors among the heather in courting time.
For weeks after this battle heavy snow wreaths lay over Badenoch, though the weather was open and mild on the Laigh, and the proposed visit of Eochain Beag to Alasdair and Beatrix had to be deferred. The intercourse between Lochindorbh and Freuchie was constant and intimate. Some of the letters that passed from one house to the other on every possible subject on earth were long preserved among the archives of Freuchie,—possibly they are there still. The correspondence between Beatrix and the Poet Laird of Grant is especially interesting, showing the high culture and ripe understanding which she had attained under her father’s tuition, and the deliciously ideal friendship that had grown up between the old man and the girl.
But at last the snow melted, the flooded burns and rivers rushed down in spate; then the earth dried again, and word came that Eochain proposed to walk across the hills from Blervie to Lochindorbh. Nothing else would serve the vigorous old Druid, who scorned riding-horses and serving-men and all the paraphernalia of wealth and rank. Mistress Cecily Ross, however, so the message came, would ride on her own horse with her serving-man and the Lady Beatrix’s bower- maid to attend her. Alasdair ordered an escort of Cummings to meet her at the march and convoy her safe over the hills; though, indeed, there was nothing now to fear, for the glens were quiet, and since the battle of Dava Moor there had been no MacIntoshes, nor any other hostile clan, in the whole of the Spey valley, from the Romach to Kinrara, where the Clanquhele hold the hills.
It was a warm and delighted greeting the old man received. The moment the tall sturdy figure with the black robe and long white beard, looking like a palmer new come from the Holy Land, appeared descending the hill to the shore of the loch, Alasdair himself put off in the boat with four strong rowers to bring him over to the castle, and Beatrix stood at the great gate to welcome him. The old Laird of Grant and his stalwart son were within, eager to greet the man of whom they had heard so much, “the Apostate” of the old days when Sir John Grant was young, since then the mysterious and learned traveller of whom weird tales were told; then the darling of the clan come back to them, but wholly refusing to take any position among them; above all, the uncle of Alasdair, who had so entirely now won their hearts and their confidence.
But that night after the Grants had gone back to Freuchie, and Beatrix had retired,- the two men sat long talking, and Alasdair could not fail to see that there was great anxiety on his uncle’s mind.
“I am much troubled for Cecily,” he said at length, after a long pause, wherein he seemed debating how far he ought to speak. “I fear, in spite of all my care, the evil fit hath again taken her, and she became Elspet Simpson. You know, perhaps, that I sent her at times to the holy sisters at Elgin, deeming thus to accustom her gradually to remain always in the person of Cecily, even when away from me. But ever I took care to recall her at the dangerous time of the full moon. The last time, however, when I recalled her, she came not, the moon was within five days of her full. I sent to Elgin and found that she had left, ostensibly to return to Blervie, but had not come;—then I heard that a strange woman had presented herself at the Chanter’s house, seeking to confess to Father Ambrose. The Chanter himself had gone out to see her, and had recognised the woman who went there last autumn with his cousin the Lady Beatrix Dunbar. He further sent a message to the Abbey, but the woman came no more. Then I heard of her round about the Abbey of Kinloss, asking of the lay-brethren and labourers there for news of Sir Norman Leslie. Still, I could get no definite trace of her whereabouts; but two days after the full moon I heard that the people of Forres had seen the tracks of a wolf in the’ new fallen snow, and had organised a wolf-hunt with clubs and sticks and torches. All night they hunted, but found nothing, and some there were who spoke not obscurely of witchcraft. But next morning I came on our poor Cecily worn out and faint with exhaustion on the road, just where the path turns up to the tower. Nothing in the world knew she, but spoke of the terrible dreams that had come on her again, and how she started at once to get to me as the only protection, and had sunk exhausted by the roadside. All the rest had passed from her mind.”
“A strange tale,” said Alasdair. “Do you indeed credit that a human being can put on the form of a wild animal?”
“In part it must be true. Since you and I spoke last together I have had opportunities of studying this strange girl closely, and the result has entirely confirmed the teachings of the ancient sages of that faith which they call Druidic. See, now, I will explain if I can, but it is very difficult. With the ordinary person like ourselves, moods and feelings are ever subtly blended, like the tints of the face; but with these strange beings they are sharply divided like the patches of red and white on the face of a guisard in a masquerade. Thus I have heard that it is of great merit in a woman that she have strong sex-passions, yet with marked modesty, and purity, and restraint. ‘Cold to the world, but warm to me,’ says her lover,—and these qualities are intimately blended and form an ideal character. Yet in Cecily they are entirely distinct,—as we know her, she is a mystic visionary, cold as ice, chaste as snow, but the other side is there, only absolutely dormant,—as Elspet Simpson she becomes a sex-mad wanton. Again, most women have a vein of cruelty coupled with a divine compassion, and the two are intimately blended, but Cecily is incapable of even a cruel thought. Elspet rejoices in all forms of savagery and wanton bloodshed and cruelty, and the giving of pain for its own sake. Now, as love is a power for good, so is hate and cruelty an equal power for evil, and hence the power of the witch.
“Consider now that people grow to look like what they think themselves, so do we see men resemble the animals whose dispositions are akin to them: dogs, pigs, monkeys, and the like, and if a man strongly think himself a hero, he will look one. The stronger the thought, the more marked will be the resemblance. In such a case as we have imagined, the concentration of the thoughts and feelings wholly on certain lines amounts to madness, and gives the strength of madness. Elspet is mad, and both her body and her fancy have the strength of madness. The lust of cruelty and bloodshed comes strongly upon her: she thinks of a wolf; she longs to gratify her desires as a wolf; she fancies herself a wolf—madness gives her the physical strength of a wolf, and her mad imaginings are stronger than anything you or I, sane men, can picture; she imitates a wolf, and actually appears to be like a wolf, or indeed to an ignorant peasant’s imagination actually to be a wolf. On her last escapade I heard that two children in Forres had been found literally torn and mangled by a wolf’s fangs.”
Alasdair had listened with absorbed attention to the old man’s discourse.
“It sounds a wild story, like one of those romances of dwarfs and giants. Is it conceivable that it can be true?”
“I have myself seen Cecily become Elspet, and Elspet become a wolf,” and therewith the old man betook himself to his chamber, leaving Alasdair greatly bewildered.
And the next day Cecily came, and the big ferry-boat went over to fetch her, and her horses and serving-man; Alasdair was out when she arrived, and Beatrix greeted her with all the old warmth and delight.
“Such a strange vision, Beatrix darling, as I came in sight of your wonderful castle. The bright angels I always see guarding and caring for you, but this time they were bearing you up in their arms, and two were holding a sheltering rosy veil over you; but behind there were terrible storm- clouds, that seemed to have demon faces in them, and persistently a man racing as if for his life with some cruel and savage beast, and I thought I saw myself mourning disconsolate over some hideous mangled heap.”
“Cecily dear, what a fearful vision, not like your usual dreams of beauty.”
“But all was fair round you, my Beatrix, and even in my dream I delighted that it should be so. The angels carried you away from all the horrors. So you are really married, Beatrix. How strange it seems!”
“Well, I suppose most would say not really, Cecily. The Church devotes me to Sir Norman Leslie, and would refuse to couple me to any other; besides—well, never mind that; at any rate, we have to do without the Church’s blessing, and so far we have done very well. Thanks to your Master Luther. I see how wicked it may be to keep vows that ought never to have been taken, and that the Church would hold us to.”
“But, Beatrix, Master Luther never sanctioned the breaking of marriage vows.”
“He sanctioned the breaking of far more solemn ones, taken to God at God’s own altar—if they were vows that should not be taken, binding men to impossible and unnatural lives. He had no occasion to speak of the marriage vows as yet, but of course that must follow naturally as the greater includes the less.” Unconsciously she was repeating Cecily’s own words and arguments.
“I know not. You are beyond me now, as you know love and marriage come not into my life, pledged as I am to Our Lord. But I am longing to see this wonderful Alasdair of yours, Beatrix, in whom Uncle Eochain told me I should find an old friend, though how or when I have seen him he would not say, nor can I guess.” Then Eochain Beag came in, and Beatrix and Cecily were instantly all anxiety to provide for the comfort of the old man. Soon he was comfortably ensconced in a huge chair beside the ample fire.
“Come now, and resolve our doubts, O man of wisdom,” said Beatrix merrily; “Cecily hath expounded to me the new learning of Master Luther, and partly I agree to it. Yet now she saith that though ye may break solemn vows taken before God at the altar, if they be too hard to keep, yet may ye not break the marriage vows taken, to a man which to me seem not so solemn or sacred, and often may be even more hard to keep, and more likely to be taken in ignorance. It affecteth Alasdair and me, though, as you know, uncle, I heed these scholastic questions but little.”
“There is much to commend in Luther’s doctrine,” replied Eochain. “But also I think there is much danger therein. His arguments in favour of monks and priests being no longer bound by their vows of seclusion and celibacy were good and sound, yet their soundness depended rather on the present corruption of the Church than their own merit; and if inconvenient pledges can thus be broken, I see not where faith can hold any longer among men, or where we can stop, and for marriage vows I say the same. In our ancient faith, which men now call Druidic, the Ard- druid had always the power to dispense any vow, and such power I understand is possessed now by the Pope, but in the corrupt Church is used only for money. If the vows be unbreakable there is much misery; if the parties may themselves dispense themselves, or if any power save the head of the religion of the country may dispense them, then I foresee the time must come when the sanctity of the home will disappear, when divorce will become common, notwithstanding that the founder of Christendom forbade it, and marriage in this country will become a thing of no account. This was, indeed, foretold by some of our old seers, as among the troubles that would fall on Scotland when our Druidic worship had ceased from the land. All this, however, concerns you not, my child, as I think. For I hold that whatever the Church for its own purposes may decree, no consent was ever given by you to your union with Leslie, and were he not as high in favour at Rome as he is, a decree of nullity must be granted. As matters stand, unless there be such a degree, or Providence in mercy should will the death of Leslie, your union with Alasdair is, I well wot, good in sight of God, yet it cannot be legal by the laws of Scotland.”
“But what matters it, uncle? I care not, and Alasdair cares not, and the clan cares not, and the Grants care not; there are no priests in the hills, nor do we desire any, and who is there that matters?”
“Truly, none now; yet ye might have children to whom it might be of moment.” Beatrix blushed brightly. “Yea, then,” she said; “but what of Alasdair’s own vows?” “What vows?” said Cecily. “I knew not that he too was a rebel.”
“Here he is to answer for himself,” said Beatrix, as Alasdair entered. Cecily sprang up to greet him, then stood stock-still as though petrified.
“Father Ambrose!” she cried in amazement and more than half in dismay. This sudden and dramatic illustration of Luther’s doctrine startled her beyond the power of further speech.
“The very same,” said Alasdair, as he ungirded his claymore and hung it on the wall, unbraced his pistols, and threw himself on a couch. “The same that heard your confession and gave you good advice in the Chanter’s chapel; the same who found he had taken vows in over much of a hurry that he could not ever hope to keep, and took his courage in both hands and came out, by the advice of my good Uncle Eochain there, thinking, however, only to do my duty as chief of my clan. But Providence sent an angel in my way, in such manner, moreover, as to give me no choice. He who would refuse an angel were an ass, and such an ass the Gracious Providence allowed me no chance to be. Am I not right, sweetheart?”
Beatrix blushed again; she remembered the deerskin in the witch’s cave, but she said nothing. “Truly,” said Eochain, “I think ye were not made for a monk, nephew.” “Yea, but that under certain conditions was I. The trouble was, the conditions were not fulfilled. Ye might not think it, but I have been from my earliest recollections a man of emotions, and the religious emotions were strong, but the love of fun and fighting was stronger. So went I as a page to Buccleugh, though my father desired me to enter the Church, wishing, I think, to get me out of the way when his family were growing up. Then it was I first met the King, and I loved him from the moment I saw him, and I think he loved me too. But women I never loved, though oft-times the King rallied me; and there were many fair women at Court, and they were not cold, for everyone had her lover; but I cared not for this playing at love, though I blamed not. I loved better to fly a hawk at a heron, than to run mazes after some Court beauty who wanted to be caught in some secluded place. And so said I one day to the King. ‘Ay, Alasdair,’ said he, ‘so think I, and methinks there’s a dainty little heron will stoop to my lure ere long, but be mum, man. I understood not then what he meant, though his glance was merry, and I knew there was some game afoot; but later, when I saw the lovely Lady Heron at Court, I knew. There was no woman in my life then. Better, perhaps, for me if there had been. So when my King was slain, the world was at an end, and the religious emotions woke, and the cloister was the only refuge. I rushed to Melrose as soon as my wounds were healed, passed my novitiate, and was transferred to Kinloss. There, as I worked in the Chanter’s garden, my fate met me. My lady there walked through.”
“And indeed, Alasdair,” said Beatrix, “though I saw not your face, your eyes through your cowl might well have burned up the heart of any young maid they dwelt on.”
“They expressed but little of my fire, sweetheart. But ye see from that moment I could not remain a monk. Hard though I fought with myself, I had to come out, thinking but to drag out a lone and loveless life in the world. Then Fate flung the very rarest jewel of her basket in my lap. So, come what may, I am the favoured of the gods. So ye see, uncle, being as I say a man of emotion, I was made for a monk—but equally I was made for love. The monastery had a hard try for me, but I had not known love, and when Love came he took me captive. Now enough of my own history, which hath little of interest in it. Listen to my news from Freuchie. The Leslie purposes in the spring seriously to ride against the MacIntoshes. He hath asked for leave to pass from Rothes up the Spey, which Sir John hath refused for our sakes, sworn foe though he is to all MacIntoshes; and though my father doth not love me, yet I trow he will now withdraw the permission to pass through Altyre, and so will Sir Norman have no help for it but to ride through the lands of Darnaway and up the Findhorn, where it is odds but he rouse the whole Clan MacIntosh, and not only old Farquhar, who dwells in his hill fastness with his seven sons. ’Tis no affair of mine, but I think if he come not back from that ride there are few would weep.”
Cecily had been sitting motionless as an image, staring fixedly from her. Now she spoke.
“I see it all in vision!—he will die, but not by sword or spear, and she will weep sore who slays him. I see the monk in the dim old garden—prison bars are round him—the bars melt away! I see him avenging and bright as a warrior angel—I see him bathed in the sunshine of love. But ah! the mists of sorrow close round him! Long black robes trail to the ground and hide his bleeding feet—a crown of thorns is on his brow—he hath drained the cup of joy. Ah, Lord! must I be the instrument in all this? Let me save and not destroy!”
Eochain rose and laid his hand gently on her brow.
“Peace! peace!” he said. “I scatter these visions of fear. Angels are round you, or mayhap the gods of our old race—I have come to think they are much the same.”
“How beautiful!” murmured Cecily. “The great golden and rose-winged angels are cradling my Beatrix with their wings—she lies dreaming, I think, waiting for her lover. Ah! now I see no more.
She leant back rigid, with closed eyes and drawn face. Eochain held his hand over her head, saying sternly, “Wake! wake!” Gradually the set muscles relaxed, the eyes opened; she drew a long breath, and sat up with a sort of apologetic look.
“I fear the learned talk of you men sent me asleep—I crave pardon. Come, Beatrix! you promised to show me all your domain, and then to take me to catch fish in your loch, or to ride over the moor.
“Come! we will all go,” said Alasdair; and the party set forth exploring, and intent to show both Cecily and Eochain all the wonders of the wonderful Castle.
As they passed out, Alasdair and Eochain were a little behind, as Beatrix and Cecily in eager delight ran forward to examine the old buildings.
“Why said you, uncle, just now,” quoth Alasdair, “that the angels and the gods of the old race were perchance the same?”
“Much have I thought since our talks in the old circle, after you left Kinloss, and I have come to see that my father’s fat little tame priest at Altyre knew but little of the faith taught by his Master. I have looked also into our own old records and prophecies, and the more I have studied and thought the more clearly I have seen that our seers and wise men of old taught the same thing that Christ your Master taught. But the Church teaches mostly the conventional customs of the time, or the matters of which it makes merchandise.”
“The Church is the vehicle of Christ’s teaching,” replied Alasdair.
“In our ancient rites,” said the old Druid, “there came at Beltane a lumbering ox waggon into the sacred circle. In it was a huge chest of rough wood, and inside this another; innermost of all was a golden box within which was an enamel jewel—the holy serpent’s egg, it was called. Your Church is the’ ox waggon, a vehicle it is true, and it carries the Divine egg, yet no man can see that. But our wise men foretold that a new revelation should come, when what they foreshadowed should actually take place; and so it is, for even as the Ard-druid died symbolically once a year, so did Christ the Master actually die, and rise again, and fulfil all the prophecies. Nephew, I am a Christian of the pure faith of the Master.”
“Then I thank God,” said Alasdair simply. “For this cause did the Bishop send me to you when I left Kinloss.”
“And for this cause did I send you here, to father the clan and to rescue our dear lady from a grievous wolf set on by the Church, and sent her to be rescued by you, and to break the infamous bonds they bound round ye both. Now come, nephew! I see the horses are embarking—they are for a ride on the moor. Old as I am—yea, Druid priest as I am—I can still back a horse and love a gallop, though for a journey I would walk with my staff and naught else.”
Alasdair that night was moody and out of spirits. Like most men who are extra-sensitive, he was subject to moods, and it was sweet to see how perfectly Beatrix adapted herself to every change—his comrade in fight or in the chase; in council over the affairs of the clan her wise little head and her ready sympathy solved many a difficulty. Now she was loving and receptive, seeking only the cause of his gloom.
“Disaster hangs over us, sweetheart. I believe Cecily can see truly.”
“Nay, dear! she saw but Leslie’s death; and if that comes we can be wed, if you desire it—I own I care not myself. The sentence of the Church or the law can make no difference. Only if it please you, dear heart, I would do anything in the world to obtain it.”
“For your sake, Beatrix, I desire it—and,” he whispered low, “for our son’s”; and so saying he lifted her in his mighty arms as though she had been a child, and bore her to their chamber.
And day grew to day and week to week, and still no definite news. All the fortunes of the little group in Badenoch seemed to hinge on what Sir Norman Leslie should do. In the chronicles of Clan Grant, so far as known, this season is almost a blank—a few obscure clan fights, a few little MS. poems by Sir John in honour of Beatrix, a few missives to Shemish nan Creach from the Court on political matters, and foreshadowing his future greatness, that is all; yet there were, and perhaps are still, at Freuchie diaries, letters, and other papers, telling us much. Among other things is a treatise by Eochain, setting forth fully how the so-called Druidism of the British Islands was the forerunner of Christianity, and how he himself, the last of the Druids, became a sincere and convinced Christian. Archæologists and students of comparative religions would give much for a sight of this manuscript. Then we have reports brought by spies of Leslie’s preparations; notes kept by Beatrix of Cecily’s visions, bright and beautiful angels around herself, but otherwise increasing gloom and tragedy, with occasional lapses towards the old nightmare dreams, and notes scrawled in the margin by Eochain of how he had put the spell of sleep on her to counteract these.
One day, Beatrix and Cecily riding on Dava Moor, had passed an old Jew pedlar. They did not know that he was the same whose pack had been raided by the Clan Cumming, but he had seen them both before, and had heard certain inquiries in the town of Forres, and a sly gleam came into his little red eyes as he louted low; and that nigh a message passed to ‘a tramp who slunk along the road like a jackal, and Master Urquhart jingling a couple of guineas in his breeches pocket and wondering where their companions were to come from, or how a decent dinner could be paid for, heard news that caused him to broach a bottle of Spanish wine and troll a song by his window, whereat decent citizens hurried their daughters out of hearing as fast as they might.
When the June sun shone on the mountains, and the whins hung their golden blooms like jewels on the breasts of the Bens, ere yet the snows had wholly melted on their tops, Sir John Grant and his son were summoned to Inverness, and went attended by a goodly following of the clan. Shortly after came the news that Leslie had passed through the town of Forres and was taking the road across the fords of the Findhorn into the Earl of Moray’s land, taking advantage of the strong June moonlight to make forced marches up through the lands of Darnaway.
Then came a morning when there was grief and dismay at Lochindorbh, for Cecily was gone. Her room was empty, her bed unslept in. The watch had been somewhat careless; two warders whose duty it was to guard the gate had seen a black dog trot out in the direction of the boat- house, and had been overcome with sleep.
“Heaven guard all honest men!” said Eochain, when he heard it,—“that’s one of Finn’s spells. It’s a form of the spell of sleep, and produces delusion. The evil time is on her again. God grant we find and bring her back before she can join Leslie!”
Meantime it was abundantly plain that she had slipped out and taken the boat, which she could manipulate perfectly, and had rowed herself ashore and disappeared on the wild moors—nor, for all their searching, could Alasdair or any of his men find the least trace of her.
XXIII – THE WHITE WOLF OUT TO KILL
The hot air of June hung heavily over the glens. For some time there had been great peace and quiet. No clan fights nor even cattle raids had disturbed the serenity of Badenoch. One day Alasdair rode down into Forres, chiefly to see that some people of the Dallas Cummings living on the outskirts of the town towards Burdsyards were diligent in their duty, but partly also to get whatever news there might be. Notwithstanding all his efforts and the inquiries of his scouts, not a trace of Cecily had been found, and he grew anxious. Eochain also was full of apprehension; her disappearance, coincident with the report of the Leslie’s march through Forres, was disquieting.
Beatrix rode not with him now—indeed, she went seldom abroad, remaining for the most part in the care of Mistress Gow, sometimes fishing in the loch from the great flat-bottomed boat, or in long talks with Uncle Eochain, wherein every subject on earth seemed to come under review; and Alasdair, missing her sorely from his side, yet went about his daily avocations with a great joy, and feeling that the world was a far better place than ever he had thought in his younger days.
He was no stranger in the town of Forres. In his boyhood, before he joined the Buccleugh household, he had played many impish pranks on the worthy and respectable bailies and their stout and comely wives; later on, and before Flodden, he had more than once made a dash upon the town at the head of an unruly crowd of Dallas Cummings, and then, as at a later time, in the days of the famous Donald Caird, it had been a case of “Steek the aumbry, lock the kist,” but also (for they loved him in spite of all), it had been “Dinna let the Shirra ken,”—and so now, as the handsome young giant took the causeway, and walked down the street with his swinging stride, having left his horse at the inn, and with his men at his heels, the bail ies and other honest folk got quietly within their doors; but many a sonsy wife had some secret little offering to press upon the Chief, and the lassies peering from door and window gazed after him with looks that promised warmer welcome if he chose to take it, and roused mighty indignation in the breasts of their rustic swains, who, however, kept discreetly out of the path of the Highlanders.
The news he heard was disquieting. From one and another he learned that Leslie had passed through the town, and Master Urquhart had joined him, and that a Jew pedlar had been brought by a noted rascal of the place who was Urquhart’s creature, and was closeted for hours in Urquhart’s house—that Leslie had taken a large company of his men into the Darnaway woods and was camped there many days, and there was word of a woman with him, said to be a witch. There had been tales of a witch about the neighbourhood, but none knew for certain; only Master Keir, who was a grand witch-finder, had dreamed he heard the cry of “Horse and Hattock!” and had seen a woman astride of a broomstick fleeing against a thundercloud over the town. There had been a number of citizens out some few weeks ago, or months it might be, at the time of the full moon, after a wolf, and some of them were sure it was a witch, but they caught her not, whereat they were sure the Devil must be at the bottom of it. One of the Earl of Moray’s men, being full of liquor, had told how he had seen Leslie riding with a woman on his left hand, who, when he made the sign of the cross, shrank to the form of a hare and fled through the grass. But he was very drunk at the time. Still, if there were a witch about, the good folk of Forres would know all about it, and would render service to Heaven by sending her to Hell. Leslie, they believed, had ridden on the previous day, meaning to cross the Findhorn somewhere above Glenferness, and so, passing northwestward of Altyre, where he was not allowed to enter, would reach the MacIntosh country by devious routes. Some Forres men had wished to go and warn the MacIntoshes, for the ill-will they bore to Leslie, but the others would not permit them, for the memory of MacIntosh raids was still fresh in their memories.
All these things caused Alasdair great anxiety. He could not doubt now that Cecily had joined Leslie, and it seemed hopeless to attempt to rescue her. His men could deal with Leslie’s troop, especially with the help of the Grants. But even if he could reach them, it would be in the heart of the MacIntosh country, among his own hereditary and inveterate foes. It would be impossible for him to meet and engage Leslie without rousing the Chief of Moy, and bringing the whole clan about his ears, when without question both he and Leslie would be swept away, and the fiercest clan fight and blood feud known for centuries would be started.
True, he might rouse the whole of Clan-Chattan to punish the lawless depredations of the MacIntoshes. But this would take time, and the Leslie would have accomplished his errand and ridden away. As a fact, the assembling of Clan-Chattan for this purpose took place some years later, as is well known to students of Highland history. Leslie, left to himself, might avoid Moy and reach the Dune where Farquhar dwelt with his seven sons, execute his vengeance on them, and ride away before his presence in the MacIntosh country was known. He had Cecily with him, and Alasdair recalled the account of Finn’s spells, and believed in Cecily’s power to produce delusions. He might certainly get killed in the fight with Farquhar, who was a noted warrior. In this case all would be well; but he might not—and if not he would surely next ride down into Badenoch in search of Beatrix, and with Cecily in her insane mood to guide him, and the Grants away, none could foresee what might happen, and further than this Beatrix’ present delicate state of health gave extra anxiety.
No wonder that as he rode homeward he was heavy and perturbed. One course of action alone presented itself to his mind as feasible. He could establish some communication with the Grants at Inverness, and his scouts, working through Altyre, could get some information along the MacIntosh boundaries. He might thus get to know what chanced to the Leslie troop. If they were successful against Farquhar, there was but one road by which they could ride from his Dune to Lochindorbh. Along this road Alasdair and his men would lie in wait, and would stop them there. Perhaps they might take Uncle Eochain with them, who would know and be able to neutralise any witch spells that might be practised by Cecily, and he might even be able, in spite of Sir Norman Leslie, to bring her back to her sane and normal self. This plan promised well, and he had just developed it in his mind as he rode down the last slope to Lochindorbh, where his heart thrilled with a great tenderness as he saw Beatrix with Uncle Eochain in the great flat-bottomed boat fishing in the loch, and waiting for his return.
Not a hint of all his anxiety did Alasdair allow to escape in his blithe, cheery greeting; not a word of the disquieting news he had heard was in his boyishly humorous account off his visit to Forres, of the audaciously amorous glances of the women, and the sullen timidity or smouldering hostility of the men, the boisterous welcome of his own people, and the reluctance with which those who had to pay blackmail disgorged their hoarded coins, at all of which Beatrix laughed merrily. But Alasdair and Eochain sat long that night discussing the situation. There were dangers all round, and unknown dangers, which are always the worst to face, and clearly the most dangerous element lay in Cecily. Without her Leslie might fail to find Beatrix, or might fail to penetrate into Badenoch. She knew where they were and could guide him. Moreover, none could tell, not even Eochain, precisely what spells she had acquired from Finn, or the exact extent and validity of her compact with the powers of evil. Certain it was that the wolf nature that came at times upon her was very real and terrible; and even supposing that Leslie were vanquished or killed by Farquhar or his men, there was still the chance that Cecily alone, in the wolfish nature of Elspet, might make her way to Lochindorbh. That she should then attack Beatrix, whom in her sane self she loved so well, was more than probable. That Eochain, even if he were immediately at hand, should be able to stop and control her in the full tide of her madness, was doubtful.
On the whole, the only thing to do seemed to be to carry out Alasdair’s scheme, and to wait on events, Alasdair undertaking the task of stopping Leslie, if his victorious troop were to ride down into Badenoch, and Eochain promised never under any condition to quit his post as Beatrix’s guard, never to lose sight of her, and thus to wait for what fortune might bring.
After days of anxious waiting, a scout came down who had scaled the hills lying between Findhorn and Spey, and crouched in a burn-course under the heather, and who reported that he had seen a gallant company of spearmen ride past, accoutred in the Leslie colours, and bearing the gold buckle. At their head was Sir Norman himself and a wonderful white woman rode beside him. The scout reported he had to turn his head, for her loveliness would cause him to forget his errand, forget whence he came—forget almost his Christianity; but he wrenched himself away. And thereafter, hiding in the heather, he came on another man, whom he recognised as a miserable creature in the pay of Master Urquhart of Forres. Him he seized, and by dint of threats to wring his neck, coupled with tempting bribes, he extracted some information. They had, it appeared, slipped unheeded through the MacIntosh country, and that so far Moy knew naught of them. Farquhar’s Dune was only just over the next hill in front of them, and the inhabitants were quite unsuspicious. Two of Urquhart’s men were watching there, with orders to light the heather if there were the least sign of Farquhar’s people knowing anything. It was to be a sudden assault on unprepared men, and butchery without sparing age or sex. Much of Leslie’s success was attributed to the woman who was with him; all obstacles seemed to melt before her. She was the Leslie’s star of fortune without doubt. Having learned this much the scout had come away. Questioned if he had ever seen the woman before, he was sure he had not. In a certain sense she resembled Mistress Ross, who had stayed at Lochindorbh, but quite different, far more beautiful, but wicked, and, the man had told him, cruel beyond measure, delighting in pain and bloodshed.
It was clear now that the time brooked no delay. Alasdair gathered his men and rode out to the point he had selected, the only one by which a troop coming from Farquhar’s Dune could conveniently reach Lochindorbh. Signals were arranged so that he might be able to return to the castle, and not let Beatrix be aware of his absence more than was absolutely necessary. He wished to spare her every cause of anxiety.
The scout was right. Sir Norman Leslie and his men had ridden up the last hill that overlooked Farquhar’s Dune, and were quite unperceived and unnoticed by any of the MacIntoshes. The dark gipsy girl rode beside Sir Norman, a Highland bonnet of white velvet on her night-black hair, with an eagle plume fastened by the golden buckle of Leslie. White fur was round her throat, her black eyes burned with strange fire in her white face, and her red lips looked like a splash of blood.
“Say now, Norman, if I have not guided well There’s something in gipsy cunning after all, is there not? Confess now.”
“There’s the Devil’s own witchcraft in it, an I mistake not. Gad! sweetheart, art a very witch. Thou hast cast spells on me, and I trow thou hast cast spells on all this false brood of MacIntoshes. They drowse, and let their foes ride through their very midst. Eh! by the Lord, but we’ll carouse when this is over. Thou art savage as I, my wench. Blood stings thee to excess of passion. Eh! the Devil take it! Blood and wine till we are well-nigh mad—then rolled in one another’s arms, we love as tigers in the jungle, and can never have enough. Gad! ’tis life, this. But now, how win we inside of yonder Dune? Tell me that, thou witch wife, for faith I see not.”
“Leave it to me, Norman. Let me only get forward and go in. Wait you till you hear the signal—a wolf’s cry. You know it. My hunting cry. Then rush the Dune. Don’t let your trumpets sound till you are inside, then kill! and kill! and kill! Norman, you will let me kill too, won’t you?”
“You fierce little Devil! Yes, I know how killing whips you up, even as it does me. By Gad! but we shall be mad ere we are out of this. Oh, but it is worth ten years of life to have you with me again. We know each other, we two. Now away with you.”
She slipped from her horse, and glided like a grey shadow over the heather, so that those nearest to Sir Norman scarce marked that she was gone, only they saw that her horse was riderless. Leslie beckoned up Urquhart to ride beside him.
“See here, Urquhart! We are near the close of this business, for by Gad my sweetheart will find us a way in, and we shall bring fire and sword on this damned crew, and teach them to interfere with Leslies, and then we will have such feasting, and drinking, and lovemaking as shall stir even thy froggy blood, for indeed I hold thee but half a man. Yet thou hast been a faithful beast, and I will fill thy pouch with gold pieces even as I promised thee. But when that is done there is a work more difficult to do, and it must be done by thee. I ride from here to claim my wife, who lieth now at Lochindorbh. The Cumming thinks to stop me at the Pass. He is a fool. I have three times his men, and well armed, and in hard condition. Besides we fight down hill, he will have to fight up. We could smash him with half his men. But what I have to say now is this. For the time I have to leave my black-a-vised sweetheart behind. She must not come near my wife till all is made safe. Gad! she’d savage an archangel if she got jealous. You’ll have to keep her, Urquhart. Damn it! I wish you joy of the job. But I’ll pay you well. I have paid you well—the Devil catch you!”
Meantime in Farquhar’s Dune there was feasting and merriment. It was a rude makeshift fortification, timber beams and earth for flanking walls, a rough stone building where Farquhar himself and his seven sons held a sort of state, turf hovels around. A crooning song with a twangling accompaniment sounded outside, and a boy reported that a singing gipsy sought leave to entertain the noble chief at the board.
“Bring her in and welcome,” roared old Farquhar. “She’ll help us be merry.”
Men and women sat or lay about the smoke-grimed hall, a butt of Spanish wine newly broached was in their midst, and flagons and horns were filled as fast as they were emptied. A sleepy, lazy song, to the dreamy tinkling of a rebec, came on their ears, and the loud voices of the revellers sank, their wine cups fell unheeded from their grasp as they listened spell-bound. The music talked to the dreamy, music-loving Celts, telling them of the heather, and the hill, the tinkle of the burns, the cry of the wild fowl, the myriad scents of the moorland, ‘of the girls’ lips they had kissed in dreamy heather-scented dells. Softly the song ended with no definite end. Old Farquhar raised his drinking horn.
“Come, lass! sit here and pledge me. Nay, sit on my knee. Lord, but thou art a morsel for a chief, none other shall touch thee. Gipsy or no, art the handsomest wench ever came to the Dune.”
The gipsy sat on his knee, her arm round his neck, stroking his great shaggy head.
“Sing again, wench!” She caressed him softly, and raising his drinking horn she drank a long draught. Then she sang a lilting song, that spoke of youth and joy, of love and sunshine, and the rough warriors melted, and sat dreaming as they followed the tune below their breath, and Farquhar hardly noticed when the gipsy slid off his knees, and a grey shadow passed through the hall. Till the wild howl of a wolf in the outer court startled them all to sudden sobriety, but too late. Two guards sprang to the gate, left carelessly open, but with a savage growl and yelp something rushed on them, the blow of an impact of a huge animal body sent one reeling to the ground, the other felt the rip of claws and teeth as half his face, his shoulder and arm were torn open, gashed, and mangled. Then a wild rush of men, shouts and cries, “Grip fast! Grip fast!” the blare of trumpets, and the Dune was in the hands of its foes. Farquhar swung himself out, a stalwart old giant with a giant’s strength, and threw the two who tried to seize him pell-mell into a corner. In vain. Before he could reach his great claymore, flung down beside him for ease in his feasting, the Leslie gripped him. Both were huge men, but Leslie was armed.
“Villainous old fox, wouldst dare to raid on the Leslies. Let this teach thee.” “Coward! at least come out and fight like a man.” “Never, old rascal! Die like a dog!” A swift downward stroke and the keen dirk drank eagerly the life-blood of the old man, and Leslie spurned with his foot a huddled heap on the floor. What followed was not good to see, even for savage men used to savage sights. It was no fight.
It was simply a brutal massacre of unarmed men, and the women who were feasting with them, and other women and children who had been driven in by the spearsmen in their rush for the enclosure. The banqueting hall became a very shambles. Rough and brutal as they were, even the savage spearsmen shuddered to see the Gipsy with fierce hands and teeth tear away the quivering life from the body of a woman on whom she had thrown herself in the mad lust of blood. Madly they seized the flagons and drained great draughts of the fiery Spanish wine, and shouting their slogan, “Grip fast,” they reeled forth drunkenly from the terrible slaughter-house which they had made of old Farquhar’s hall, leaving it in flames behind them.
Leslie seized the Gipsy girl in his mighty arms and carried her bodily to a cottage that stood near to their camp. It was a place of the unfortunate MacIntoshes, and had evidently been built in expectation of hostile raiding, for the windows had iron stanchions, and the door was of stout old oak. Possibly the Leslie in the exultation over his executed vengeance was disposed to be luxurious, so, at any rate, thought his followers, as they carried thither under his directions all the best of his camp furniture, and many flagons of the best old Spanish wine, Malmsey, and Sack, and others, wherewith he caroused till a late hour with the Gipsy girl, and Master Urquhart and some of his choicest boon convives, while the full moon looked down in reproach on the scene of drunken revelry. Next morning the Gipsy still lay sleeping heavily when the sun was already high in the heavens, like a tired-out animal. At length she turned and moaned for drink, but half- awake. Urquhart, rousing himself heavily from a couch in the next room, brought a horn of wine; she knocked it from his hand.
“Water, you fool! hast no sense.”
Obediently he brought a large goblet of pure cold water, which she drained thirstily, turned over, and slept again. An hour later she sprang up and called. “Norman!” Urquhart appeared at the door.
“Sir Norman has ridden forth to reconnoitre. He bade me assure your ladyship that he would soon return. Meantime to ask you to take some food, and tarry not for him.”
She looked at him inquiringly, then in angry incredulity—
“Liar! Clumsy liar! He never rode forth without me. Never in his life did he leave a message like that for me. You, who are his jackal, his doer of all dirty work, might know him better than that.”
Her eyes blazed with indignation. She rushed to the window and looked out.
“Where is the camp? All gone this morning, and no word to me. I will see for myself. Out of my way, you scurvy fool!”
She ran to the door. It was locked. The iron gratings of the window would scarce let a cat through.
“So I am a prisoner, and you my gaoler. Pitiful cur, hand over the key.”
Urquhart stood irresolute for a moment. If he released her the Leslie would probably slay him at best; if he saved his life, he would lose his reward, for the sake of which he had walked through such leagues of filth at the Leslie’s bidding. But on the other hand, to face this she-fury was more than he dared, sooner face a tigress robbed of her young. Probably even then if he had stood his ground firmly, and lied convincingly, he might have held her. As it was, in his terror he did the worst thing he could.
“Patience! my lady,” he said. “My Lord indeed gave me such a word to say to you. But in sooth he will soon return, he has but gone to claim his wife.”
Then her wrath blazed like the white heat of the levin bolt— His wife! say you—His wife! Low, mean hound, the fires of hell blast you for that word. An he have a wife, I will slay him and her too with my own hand. What! that he, Norman Leslie, who has known me, should seek a wife. Ha! Samael! Behemoth! aid me.”
To Urquhart’s senses, partly perchance bemused with the wines of last night, and on edge with terror, it seemed that she grew taller than mortal, and a lambent blue flame played round her, while a dark sinister shadow gloomed behind her. Her midnight hair crackled and curled with lurid sparks, and her eyes flamed like a panther’s in the dark. No more could he remember, for one buffet as it were from a beast’s paw knocked him senseless on the ground, the key was snatched from the pocket of his jerkin. When found afterwards his arm was broken and mauled, but he was still living; the door stood open, and from the threshold went the spoor as of a wolf, marked in blood. A small child missed in the massacre and left alive had seen a wonderful white woman run from the cottage, oh! so fast! crying as she emerged, “Tell them the white wolf is out to kill, but kills not carrion like that.” Then she cast up her head and sniffed the morning wind, and ran three circles, then gave a long wailing cry and ran away towards the hills. So said the child, when some MacIntoshes attracted by the smoke of the blazing Dune came up to see what was the matter. A dropped surcoat with the three buckles settled beyond all question who was the doer of the deed, and no time was wasted in useless laments; but the fiery cross went forth that day to call the clan to bring fire and sword against the perpetrators of the outrage. For old Farquhar, though an outlaw, and even more of a thief and raider than most of his family, was beloved in the glens for a genial old rascal, and every MacIntosh was indignant.
Meanwhile Leslie, neither knowing of nor caring for the vengeance brewing behind him, was riding rapidly over the moors, making for the Pass, at the foot of which he knew that Alasdair was waiting for him, and he chuckled at the idea of how his men would wipe out the Cummings. Yet had he known, he might have been more anxious than merry, for Alasdair knew all the ground by heart, and was not waiting at the foot of the Pass, but a little farther in, where the path they had to traverse rose slightly between two great cliffs. Here they ambushed on ground where a dozen determined men might stop an army. But knowing not of this, Leslie chuckled, and chuckled also as he thought of Master Urquhart, his jackal, and the butt of his humour, left in the lonely hut to face the Gipsy’s fury. Bolts and bars were strong, however, and he chuckled.
On a knoll beside the path there stood an old, old woman, her grey hair fluttered in the wind, her rags scarcely held together.
“Hail! Sir Norman Leslie!” she cried in a thin, piping voice. “Ye ride for a wife.” “By Gad! that I do, Beldame! what of it?’, “Ye shall not win unless ye hearken to me; there lies an ambush in your path.” “That, too, I know, and we shall wipe them out.”
“That ye will not do, unless ye hearken to me. The winding-sheet clingeth around thy breast and covers thy mouth, and thy wraith hath haunted these moors this many a day. Come ye aside, and I can show thee how thou mayest attain, for I bear thee goodwill.”
Leslie had all the superstitions of his time and class. He signalled to his men to halt, which they gladly did, for the day was hot and the ride had been long and fast, and followed the old wife to a lonely hut lying off the road, wondering as he did so why her form seemed familiar, and why there was a suggestion of a wolf about her.
Alasdair’s ambush was but two miles farther on. A low whistle and the chirk of a crow from the hilltop warned him that the Leslie was approaching, and had halted. Alasdair had been there himself now for two days. He was growing anxious to have this fight over and to return to Beatrix, for her white drawn face had haunted him, and the fire seemed gone out of the green eyes. He was very confident of the result of the fight; his dispositions had been planned with a skill that left nothing to chance. But this halt was inexplicable. Covering himself with a long plaid, whose colours were so exactly those of the heather that at a dozen yards distance he was indistinguishable, he Lay down on the moor and crawled forward to reconnoitre. On and on he crept. Now the Leslie troop were in full sight, many of them sprawling on the ground; the dregs of the fiery wine of last night were in them still, and few of them had the head of their chief, who could swallow three or four flagons with no apparent effect. Alasdair skirted the company unperceived; he saw that Leslie himself was not there. The lonely hut was some few hundred yards before him. He lay still and watched. Suddenly a wild yell of panic fear came down the wind, and an ugly sound of mingled yelp and snarl: he looked at the men, they sprawled and lounged contentedly as though they had heard nothing. Then there came the long wailing cry of a beast in utter pain, the howl of a caged wolf, when anger has died and only hopeless misery is left. Something leaped from the window, a great grey body, and ran round the house, crouching close to the ground, with long padding steps. He could not see very clearly, there seemed a sort of heavy mist, but surely it was, it must be, a large white wolf. He ran to the cottage, careless for the moment of cover or disguise, and looked in through the window. The ghastliness of the sight staggered even his trained nerves, for there on the floor, still covered with what remained of his bravery of apparel, lay a torn and mangled mass, all that was left of Norman Leslie of the Glen. In an instant his memories of the Border, and Elspet Simpson, Eochain’s account of his experiments in the stone circle, Cecily’s flight, the witch woman who had been seen with the Leslie, focused themselves in his brain into a horrible certainty. He had abandoned her; she had followed him. Here was her vengeance: the were-wolf was now loose on the mountains, loose, and, Heaven help all true men! making for Lochindorbh.
The spoor lay straight from the cottage door; his eyes followed it, and far away up the hill he saw a figure—a wolf—no! a woman. He must have been mistaken, then; yet if this was Cedlly, and Cecily in the person of Elspet Simpson, there was deadly danger, but there was this of hope in it, he could outrun a woman! Though a wolf would distance him, he could overtake her before she could reach Lochindorbh, stop her, and hand her over to Uncle Eochain, who would restrain her in some way and prevent mischief. He was a splendid runner, and in perfect training. Leslie’s men would not now attempt the Pass; even if they did, his own company could deal with them. Nothing now mattered, but to overtake Cecily. He swung off easily with his long stride in pursuit; the heather was short and running easy; he was gaining on her continually. As he drew nearer and nearer he saw her more and more plainly.
The wolf story was a fable,—that was Cecily beyond a doubt; mad, possibly, but a woman, and no wolf. Yet she was taking the difficult way over the hills instead of the Pass. The air was insufferably hot. Still he raced on, quickening his pace, but not drawing up so fast as he had hoped; she seemed to go quicker too. He was gaining a little as he neared the crest of the hill, and saw her beginning the descent. The sweat was pouring from his body, his eyes were growing dim, his sinews felt as though they must crack with the fatigue. But he drew a deep breath, shut his teeth hard, and yet more forced his pace. She was only a hundred yards before him now, running easily as though merely in play. Faster and faster he urged his muscles, holding back his labouring breath lest he should pant and fall. One great bound—now he was running beside her. Tense as the string of a cross bow, his arm was round her, and for a moment swept her from her feet.
“Cecily! Thank God I’ve caught you!”
“Fool!” A buffet as from a hammer smote his head. He felt something rip and tear his leg, and fell stunned to the ground.
“Fool! The white wolf is out to kill.”
These were the last words he heard before darkness closed over his eyes and unconsciousness on his brain.
XXIV – A WITCH HUNT
All through that night of the massacre in Farquhar’s Dune and the brutal carouse of Leslie and his men, Eochain Beag had been troubled by ghastly dreams. Gifted as he was by race and heredity with the second sight, he had cultivated the powers to a very high pitch by the methods practised among the priests of that old faith that worshipped in the stone circles. In his dreams that night he knew of the were-wolf waiting, ever waiting, in its lair, ready to rush forth and kill He saw Norman Leslie with the winding sheet slowly rising, till it covered his chin; then he saw the werewolf ranging the desolate hillsides, and to his ear came the wild cry, “The white wolf is out to kill.”
When he woke he thought over his dreams. The were-wolf beyond doubt was Cecily. If Sir Norman was dead, howsoever killed, she would likely be wholly mad, and in her insane jealousy her vengeance would fall on Beatrix. She would be certain to head for Lochindorbh, from whence she had started to join Leslie. Stay, though; would she? She had never been there in the Elspet personality, and in that condition she entirely forgot all that she knew as Cecily. She would therefore much more likely make for Blervie, and perhaps attack old Sir Wilfred again. It was a disquieting thought, for she knew the secret entrance to the tower, but it was impossible to warn Sir Wilfred. Not for one moment must he leave his charge of Beatrix, and there was no one to send. If only Alasdair were at home, he might go himself, failing any other. One hope remained—on the way to Blervie were many streams, and if a were-wolf once gets thoroughly plunged in water the wolfish nature will depart for the time. The country people thought that crossing a running stream would break the spell, but Eochain knew that though this would stop many witches of small power, nothing but complete immersion would force the were-wolf to resume her proper form.
Occupied with these thoughts, he barely noticed the glad and proud expression of Mistress Gow and of Beatrix’ bower-maid, till a faint little wailing cry struck a triumphant chord of joy into his heart. He knew now that all their wishes were fulfilled.
“A lovely boy, master!” said Mistress Gow,—“born at six o’clock precisely—and a Cumming every inch of him. Bless the dear long head!—as like as two peas to his father when I took him away from his dead mother’s arms and nursed him. And my lady looks so sweet—like one of the blessed angels! Who would think now that ever she had worn the belted plaid, and ridden with Master Alasdair, and handled the dirk like a man, too! Little I thought that ever I should see a woman that was a proper mate for my boy, but she’s that, and more.”
Eochain held up his hand—the garrulous old woman would have talked till next morning. Then he went forth and took the small boat and rowed himself over the loch to the western shore, and wandered away into the woods, praising God in deep thankfulness, but with a queer ritual of his own, compounded of immemorial pagan forms, but adapted to the Christianity he had come to believe in. Then he yielded himself to visions. He seemed to see that the old life was changing and passing away—all familiar things had come to their termination. He, the last of the Druids, had been able to see how Christ the Master had come to fulfil all the great teachings of their Order—how the Church was a vehicle, but like their old ox wain, a vehicle that concealed the jewel within, which some day the traditions of the Druid faith might reveal. Alasdair the soldier and monk had come out of the cloister, had realised that hasty vows made against nature were better broken than kept; but the old man seemed to see a further and painful step for him to higher lessons yet. He had won the ideal of loyalty to his King, he had won the ideal of religious devotion, he had won the ideal of love, the three sacred rays of the Druids united to the one central spiritual sun of Divine, selfless love, wherein all three were absorbed. Beatrix, again, had dared to break free from a cramping and dead convention. She had learned her lesson, and won to the highest happiness that mortal woman can reach—what more for her? So all around them he saw the forces of destruction and dissolution gathering. The were-wolf was loose on the hills—what might that betide? And the were-wolf herself, the witch, the child of the Devil, mad with blood-lust and sex, was a saint warped and disguised, and obsessed by powers of evil, that had laid hold of her unwitting. He had fought hard for her soul—he had striven (himself, and the angels only knew how strenuously) to cast out the Devil and restore her to her own self. Just now he seemed to be beaten, but none could tell. Would this were-wolf be the instrument of destruction and of breaking up the present order of things? He cast his eyes on the far mountains of the MacIntosh country, and there he seemed to see the preparations for war, fire and sword, the heather on fire, the gathering of the clan for vengeance. Northward again he looked, and over the town of Forres there brooded a shadow as of superstition and cruelty—the spirit that will torture and mutilate savagely that which it fears, from the sheer mad impulse of fright. He thought of the stories of witch-hunts, and his eyes grew grave.
Then, like the rolling away of mists, the visions closed.
Over Lochindorbh he felt the spirit of peace and goodness like an influence or emanation—that which to poor Cecily’s eyes formulated itself as angels in rose or gold or green. Then he thought of Beatrix with her boy beside her—surely now she had attained the very fulness of joy! Did the future hold trouble and sorrow for her, as was the common lot of mortals? The visions were closed—his sight could tell him nothing. With one final brief prayer, he turned and passed back to the loch. The sun was now climbing high in the heavens. He knew that Beatrix would have asked for him, and would look for him to sit beside her and admire the boy, and tell her old yarns of his mighty ancestors, whom he was to grow up to resemble. Full of these thoughts, he rowed himself back over the loch, and banishing all his forebodings and his visions, he delighted himself with the light he got from the sweet, thin pale face that beamed upon him, and the tiny red morsel nestled against her breast; and for over an hour he sat there, charming her ears with old Cumming legends, till she grew weary, and he saw the green eyes closing. Then he went to the window and looked over the lone hillside.
Some moving speck was coursing over the purple heather. Eochain strained his eyes to see more clearly. A cold fear came over him as he remembered the werewolf loose on the hills. This shape was certainly heading downward towards the Castle. Now it was lost among some trees, then it emerged clearer. It was a wild beast of some kind, large and white. Nay, it was a woman running close to the ground. Involuntarily he thought of Cecily as she ran round the old stone circle in the form of Elspet Simpson. Even his clear and trained eyes began to be glamoured—he saw a great white wolf, and only with effort could he force himself to see a woman. On his ear came a long-drawn howl, remembered only too well—and was it fancy, or did the howl actually fashion itself into the words, “The white wolf is out to kill”? Rapidly he counselled with himself what to do. There was no man left in the Castle. All were away with Alasdair at the foot of the pass, waiting to stop Leslie, who lay dead and mangled in the hut on the hillside. One of the boats was at the boat-house on the farther side, ready for Alasdair, so that there might be no delay in his getting back to Beatrix—the very plan his love had devised might be the means of disaster, for Cecily could work the boat as well as a man.
Nearer and nearer came that fleeing white phantom—now looking like a woman cowering close to the ground, now to his bewildered eyes like a white wolf, with paws and muzzle dabbled with blood, louping in that long awkward canter of a wolf which is faster than a horse’s gallop and practically tireless. She came down the hill to the boat-house, but apparently she saw it not, or did not recognise it, for she plunged into the loch and swam towards the postern gate. For some moments Eochain stood dazed, the glamour still on him, then suddenly realising the danger, and that the postern was open in the entire security they felt, and in order that nothing might even for a moment delay Alasdair on his return, he ran as fast as he could across the room and down the stair and through the enclosed space within the wide flanking walls. Too late! She had landed, and was coming quickly over the open among the ruins of the demolished buildings, drenched and dripping, the water running from her hair, from her dress, making runnels and pools as she came—but it was Cecily, sane, soft, and gentle, as ever they had known her. He recalled the traditions, as he had known them, of the effect of water on a were-wolf—the same wave that washed away the bloodstains from paw and muzzle washed away the wolf nature, for the time at any rate.
She looked wholly dazed, and ran up to him with the frank impulsiveness of a child.
“Oh, Uncle Eochain! I am so glad to see you! A terrible thing happened to me. I had a fearful nightmare, one of those awful dreams—the very worst I ever had, I think—and somehow I must have walked in my sleep, and got out. I suppose they were not guarding the postern properly, and I must have fallen into the water, and waked myself. I just remember struggling and sinking, and then I was wide awake, and found myself swimming in the loch. Isn’t it lucky that I swim so easily? Of course I made for the postern at once, and fortunately found it open. I have been so seared since that I might have alarmed dear Beatrix. She wasn’t frightened about me—was she, Uncle Eochain?”
“She knew nothing,” said Eochain, lying glibly, for conscience’ sake,—“and we don’t want her to know, so keep a still tongue in your head. Her boy was born this morning. Now get away, and get some dry things on. Mistress Gow, or the bower-maid, or some one, will rub you down.”
In his agitation he spoke as though she were a tired horse, and Cecily never noticed it. Eochain accompanied her into the Castle, summoned Mistress Gow, and found means unperceived to convey to her to say nothing to Cecily of her disappearance. This instruction the old woman punctually fulfilled, garrulously enlarging on Beatrix and the birth of the baby, and how close she had to be in attendance, till Cecily, warmed and dried, was taken in to see Beatrix, whom Eochain had already told to keep absolute silence. If only Cecily could be kept from knowing anything of her lapse into the witch personality, all might yet be well. Eochain, of course, did not yet know the terrible events of the last few days, nor how Alasdair was lying stunned and wounded on the heather at that moment.
All, however, was safe at present, and time passed happily in baby-worship and in the exchange of multifarious confidences.
When the sun was sinking low in the west, as Eochain was pacing to and fro in the wide open space inside the flanking walls, the boat grated against the landing by the portal, and Alasdair came in, supported between two of his men. The company whom he had deposited in ambush, after waiting long for him, had grown anxious. Wattie o’ the Romach had sent scouts on to see what was wrong. They had found Leslie’s troop in full flight, back the way they had come, carrying with them the ghastly remains of their late leader; but of Alasdair there was not a trace. They separated widely, therefore, examining all the ground as they came, till they found him under the whin bush where the blow of the were-wolf’s paw had left him. A dash of cold water and a few simple restoratives revived him—he was only stunned, and not seriously hurt. Ten minutes’ rapid exchange of words put him and Eochain in full possession of the situation, and Eochain went in to tell Beatrix of Alasdair’s return safe and sound—only a knock on the head that doesn’t signify much to a Cumming, those long heads of theirs are thick. Beatrix was all agog to see him and show him the boy.
“Safe and sound am I, sweetheart,” he said, after the youngster had been duly admired and given back to Dame Gow. “A crack on the head more or less is no matter.”
“You should have had me with you, Alasdair, to throw my dagger. I warrant I would have felled the varlet ere ever his foul blow got in on your head. But tell me, what of my rascal husband, as he calls himself?”
“Dead, Beatrix,” he replied, crossing himself as he remembered the ghastly mangled heap in the hut. “He will trouble us no more.
“Why, then, if you will, Alasdair—” He understood. “Uncle Eochain, and you, Dame Gow, in your presence I declare that the Lady Beatrix Dunbar is my wedded wife.” “And Alasdair my wedded husband,” she smiled. “Do you feel any different, Alasdair? I can’t say I do.” Eochain had been writing as they spoke—now he handed them a paper. Beatrix was propped up in Cecily’s arms to sign it. Alasdair and the two witnesses added their names. It was nearly thirty years later when that certificate turned up again, when a patent of nobility was applied for and granted to the small red speck of humanity who now howled vigorously in Dame Gow’s motherly arms.
Alasdair and Eochain went out arm in arm.
“We shall still need all our care,” said the latter. “Poor Cecily is not really recovered yet, though I think I can hold her now; but the madness is still upon her. The shock of the cold water, or may be some other more subtle influence, has for the time banished the evil, but it must recur. Also I heard just now that the people of Forres have heard the story of Leslie’s attack on the MacIntoshes, which seems to have been more grizly than either you or I know of, and that the woman with him was a witch, and they are to go out in force witch-hunting. I think I can keep Cecily by the spell of sleep, but we must hold her also with bolts and bars if necessary. I have seen a Forres witch-hunt in my young days, and not for the wealth of all Scotland would I willingly see another. The savagery that I was told of Leslie’s butchery of the MacIntoshes is faint compared with the zeal of worthy burgesses, maddened by terror, doing a helpless woman to death.”
“The Lord help us!” said Alasdair,—“that must not be. We will double the guards, and none shall go in or out of the Castle. By Our Lady’s grace, but if the Forres witch-hunters come here on their foul errand they shall have a warm reception! They have had some experience of the Dallas Cummings before now. But by the Lord! before they should touch a hair of our Cecily, I would burn their rubbishy little Burgh, and every man and woman in it. All will be safe tonight, and tomorrow the men will all be in again, and we will make perfectly secure. There is another thing, too—after that slaying of Farquhar and his sons, all the MacIntoshes will be up, and it will go hard with Leslie’s men; they will retreat the way they came, through Forres, so we may expect to hear of some clan raids on the Burgh, and if the fools are out witch-hunting the Burgh may be burned without my having to take any trouble about it. Well, now, there is no more to see about tonight. My head still rings a bit from that pat that Cecily gave me. I tell you, uncle, the wench smites shrewdly!—I think a horn of Spanish wine before we go to rest will do no harm.”
Long they talked that night, but at last sleep came over them, and perhaps it was natural that both should dream vividly of witch hunting, of savage cruelty perpetrated on poor old women after the fashion of the time, and of bloody clan raids and burning of towns.
In the morning they looked at each other in blank dismay. All their confidence was premature, their precautions too late. Cecily was gone, and a note left on her window-sill explained.
“DEAREST AND KINDEST FRIENDS,—You would save me in spite of myself I know. But I know all now. A few chance words that I overheard gave me the clue. I could not help it. I listened, and partly from talk of the men and maids, but chiefly from yourselves, bit by bit I learned it all. I know that my dreams are not fancy, but a too horrible reality. I know what I was to Sir Norman Leslie, and I know that I killed him. I know that I go mad and become a wolf, and I know only too well that for such women as I there is nothing but death. Dear friends! I go from you, lest in my madness I do you a worse mischief. I feel the madness coming over me again. Farewell! Pray only for me that death may come to me swiftly, and if it be Heaven’s will, as painlessly as possible. God bless my Beatrix, and give you all many happy days. These few last words from your loving and unfortunate “CECIL Y .” The two men were stricken dumb with the horror of it. The were-wolf was loose on the hills, as they had dreaded; but far worse even than this, their poor Cecily was lost, and the superstitious folk of Forres, mad with their terror of a witch, were out in their masses with clubs and pitchforks, and Heaven knows what else, hunting for her life. Something must be done, but what? Clearly Beatrix must know nothing. Clearly also no time was to be lost. Alasdair’s men were straggling in now; some of them had been all night searching for their chief on the hills. One of them brought in word that the whole town of Forres was seething with excitement. A witch, a were-wolf, the Devil himself, had been seen. Master Keir knew all about it. He was guiding and marshalling them. There was to be such a witch hunt as never was known in Forres before, and when the witch was caught she was to be put in a barrel full of spikes and rolled down the Cluny Hill, and there was to be a stake and a bonfire at the bottom. Several citizens had already sent quantities of tar. Oh! be sure it would be the rarest sport.
“Look here,” said Alasdair. “This must not be! I know all about it. ’Tis no witch they hunt; ’tis an innocent woman, an old friend of mine, who hath saved my life. These vermin of Forres do it to spite me and the Dallas Cummings. ’Tis Master Urquhart hath set them on.” Here he spoke at a venture, knowing the opinion they held of Urquhart in the Glen of Dallas. The word went home. “We allow no witch hunt,” they shouted.
“Half of our men will stay here to guard the castle, lest these fools come this way, the other half will go over the hills and intercept this mad crowd. Bring the witch under strict guard here, but whip off the curs in any case.
They departed to execute his orders.
“She will head for Blervie now, beyond a doubt,” said Eochain. “Give me your fastest and surest-horse, Alasdair. I will ride thither, and endeavour to check them.”
“Take anything in the stables. You know them all. I will ride myself through Altyre, and bring all I can get of my father’s men. Then on through Forres, and so I will join you at Blervic, and between us we shall get these frantic idiots in a net. Surround them and hold them till we can rescue our Cecily, and bring her home.”
Alasdair went in to say good-bye to Beatrix before he rode. “Once more I must ride, my Beatrix! The last time, as I hope, before we ride together again.” “Joyful, Alasdair! if it may be so. I know not; my dreams were dark last night. I felt dimly something impending. But this I say, Alasdair! I have lain long here thinking, and I have wanted to say this to you. Bear with roe, dear. Sometime or other we must part, for a time at least. You know death conies to all, and we cannot avoid it. But whenever it comes we two can always know that all that is best and sweetest in life has come to us. We never can know in this world anything better than we have known, because in all the world there can be nothing better. And I feel that I am sure in the future, wherever and whatever it may be, we shall still be together. Whichever of us goes first to that far shore will wait patiently till the other is ready to follow. Kiss me once, Alasdair. Whatever comes, we have known the best that mortals could know. So think of me as one to whom you have brought perfect happiness.”
A long close embrace and he was gone. With foreboding at his heart, Eochain rode hard straight across Dallas Glen to reach Blervie as quickly as might be, while Alasdair struck through the Altyre woods, sending scouts out on either side to gather in men. The estrangement between him and his father had been largely healed by the good offices of the Laird of Grant, and Sir Alexander was willing to help him as far as he reasonably could. Moreover, he hated the witch- hunting superstitions of the time, and was ready enough to do anything to counteract them. Alasdair, therefore, clattered through Forres with a fairly large company behind him, as the moon, little past her full, rose slowly to the east behind the distant Broch, finding the little town well-nigh empty.
Away behind the Cluny Hills they rode. Before them Blervie Tower stood dark and stern, silhouetted against the clear obscure of the summer night. A rosy flush was in the northern sky, throwing up in pale tints of grey and blue the masses of Wyvis, and the hills that stretched away to the westward, till the flush of morning almost met the flush of sunset. It was a calm and peaceful night, and the Cummings trotted gently, with loose rein, having ridden hard through the heat of the day, and surrendered themselves to the influences of the hour and the season. The pale cold moonlight slept on the Laigh of Moray, and outlined in silver the distant hills that looked so dark where their bases merged into the Altyre woods. Beneath that flood of silver light, as on a chessboard, various forces were moving, pregnant with great events in the distant future. In the old Tower of Blervie Sir Wilfred sat, still studying his old manuscripts, and trying to decipher magical formulæ, trying hard to find a reasonable and possible explanation for what had been going on under his very eyes, and of which he was partially aware. The moon looked in at his chamber window from over the shoulder of the great Dune of Callifer. It was not yet a year since he had been attacked and almost killed by the were-wolf in this very room. And that great Dune held the secrets of this, and many another mysterious event, and would be the grave of many more.
Away on the Passes leading from the MacIntosh country into Badenoch the Leslie company had found and taken up the body of their chief. They were sore perplexed what to do. Not obscurely they were aware that the whole MacIntosh clan were agog to avenge the assault on Farquhar’s Dune. Here and there behind them rose the smoke of burning heather, telling its own tale plainly. They were only just emerging from the MacIntosh country—to return the way they came, as they had at first attempted, would have been annihilation. Through Altyre, which lay handy enough, they were forbidden to pass. The only possible route lay down the Spey valley, and so back to their own country, for most of them were from the Rothes district. Then one of their scouts suggested to the Captain that the castle of Lochindorbh lay on their way, dismantled and empty, as he believed. It was many years since he had been there, but it was still a good serviceable castle, where at least they might rest for a night or two, and be safe from any foemen. “On then, in Heaven’s name! guide us there, for indeed we are sore bestead.” And not far behind them through the hills, closer than they had any idea of, came the bands of the MacIntoshes, gathering from various directions over the hills, and all intent to catch and exterminate the Leslie company and avenge old Farquhar’s death.
Between Forres and Rafford also there came a wild and tumultuous assembly. Master Keir, at the head of half the rabble of Forres, with clubs and pitchforks, torches, knives, every kind of implement, men and women howling in mad fury that was more than half blind terror. The white wolf had verily been seen, fleeing before them up into the woods on Monaughty, or some said heading down into the Glen of Dallas. Anyhow she had been in sight, and they could not fail to find the tracks. Then some cried out again, “See, there’s the wolf,” and plainly the wolf was visible running before them, but limping; a paw was wounded, she was weary and ran lame. “If only she crosses running water she must take her own shape again.” “Nay, fool! she cannot cross running water. The Kellas is before her; she must turn.” “There she is now—panting up the hill. On, boys, we have her—we can’t miss her now.” Then a woman’s shrill voice, “Eh! but we’ll have a rare bonfire tonight,” and another, “Gad! but we’ll have some sport with her first. Oh, ’tis the rarest game to bait a witch. Give me but my old kitchen poker red-hot, I’ll tickle her up, I warrant ye.”
“Nay, wench! a kitchen spit is the thing; there’s no fun with a witch till ye draw her blood. But tak’ ye heed that ye don’t kill her before we get to the bonfire, or ye miss the choicest of the sport.”
“There she is now, against the sky on the crest of the hill—rush in, men! ye can’t miss her now.”
“Oh, the devil, where is she? Clean disappeared. Nay, ’tis impossible. Separate, men! Search every inch of the ground—she can’t have gone. Master Keir, did ye chance to see the Devil? Has he carried her away?”
So then it happened that Alasdair and his men, as they reached the summit of the hill, came on a large company of the worthy citizens of Forres hunting about hither and thither, like a pack of terriers, all over the level swampy grounds at the top.
Sternly he bade them disperse and go home’ to their Burgh in peace, and sullenly and reluctantly the half-mad folk obeyed. There was in truth no resisting the stalwart and well-armed Highlanders, and a disorderly rabble ran pell-mell down the slopes by Rafford, never halting nor looking back till they got safe within their own houses. But of Cecily there was no trace. Alasdair, returning from chasing the Forres rabble, met Eochain who from the safe shelter of his haunted wood had watched the mob. He had seen the white wolf pass up the hill, and had stood ready to rescue her, but she avoided the old familiar path to the Druid circle, and ran on eastward; then suddenly he lost her, and knew nothing but the raving crew of witch-hunters. Long they searched and looked, while the placid moon scaled higher and higher in the Heavens until Alasdair’s men drove them home like frightened sheep. Then all at once a light broke on Eochain—“The Dune!” he cried; “that is where she has gone. Of course, she knew the secret of the opening. But she must have come back to her own self. As Elspet she never knew.”
Eagerly they ran over the intervening space, and Eochain swung up the door. There, sure enough, on the couch that had been Sir Wilfred’s, lay poor Cecily, conscious, and in all her sane self, but worn out and dying. She smiled on them as they entered.
“Thank God you have come,” she said; “I had made up my mind I was to die alone. I know all now, and all is well. I came to myself in time to get in here and close the door. Then I saw the fair angels round me, and the hosts of the Devil taking flight, Finn and all his evil crew. They have held me captive for long, but their power is broken now. Were there but a priest to absolve me, I should die happy.”
“Unworthy as I am, I am a priest,” said Alasdair. “We are told the unworthiness of the minister hinders not the Sacrament. But however it be, so far as my poor words have power, dear sister! part in peace. I absolve you in the Name of the most High, The Infinite Supreme.” He laid his hand on her head, and that moment, with a long sigh, her spirit left the body.
The two men reverently uncovered and passed out of the Dune, closing the massive stone over the entrance.
“Her most fitting-resting place,” said Eochain. “I have striven hard for a year to save the soul of a witch. If my weak efforts had aught to do with her winning to peace at last, may this be my thank-offering for my own attainment to the faith of the Master.”
“And my thank-offering,” said Alasdair, “for a year of joy far beyond mortal deserts.”
Even as he was speaking, though he knew it not, the joy passed out of his life, and the eternal shadows closed down.
Far away on Dava Moor the fleeing Leslies were striving to reach Lochindorbh, deserted, as they thought, and the fierce detachments of the MacIntoshes, gathering from all points of their wide territory, were fast gaining on them. Already down the glen came the wild slogan, “Loch Moidheidh! Loch Moidheidh!” The Leslies made a gallant effort to rally, and shouted back, “Grip Fast,” while they made all haste they could to gain the shelter of Lochindorbh, impregnable though a ruin. But as they reached the last slope leading down to the shore, the detachment of Clan Cumming left to guard the castle were upon them. Fierce and desperate was that fight, for the Leslies, caught between two hostile clans, could only sell their lives as dearly as possible, and down on the struggling masses of men swept the wild and furious MacIntoshes. The shores of the loch were wild confusion, the pealing of the war pipes, the shouts of slogans and rallying calls, the shrieks of the wounded and dying, the whiz of the cross-bow bolts through the air, made an utter Pandemonium under the calm cold moonlight.
Beatrix, sleeping with her boy beside her, was wakened by the din. Well she knew the slogans of the clans, and heard the “Grip Fast” with much apprehension, relieved somewhat when the joyous shout of the Cummings overpowered it. A cross-bow shaft whizzed through the window and buried itself in the opposite wall. She sat up and listened, hoping to hear Alasdair’s battle- cry. Then a second shaft, following the first, struck her temple and she fell back dead, without a moan or sigh. Dame Gow coming in to take care of her charge, found her lying peaceful as though asleep, with the baby sleeping beside her. Hurriedly she caught up the boy and fled. Unperceived in the confusion, she got a boat and crossed the loch, and took her way down the Spey to some of her own people. She doubted not that Alasdair had been killed in the savage fight, and to her faithful old soul but one duty seemed clear and prominent, to save the boy by all means.
Thus it chanced that when Alasdair and Eochain came down from Blervie to Lochindorbh the following day, there lay a guard of dead men of three clans around the castle, keeping watch and ward over a dead women who lay within, and the silence of death lay over all.
So Cecily slept her last sleep in the Dune of Callifer, and many long years after, when the Dune was demolished for the sake of the stones, wherewith the farmers around built their dykes, they were astonished to find a heap of bleached human bones lying within, and great was the speculation of the learned on the subject.
Beatrix sleeps at Lochindorbh, waiting, as one believes, and as she ever hoped, for her beloved Alasdair to join her. But Alasdair and Eochain pass for the time out of all mortal ken. It is supposed they went together on pilgrimage. And as years went on Robert Reid, the Sub-Dean, became Abbot of Kinloss, and the best and greatest, as he was the last of all the Abbots, and he sought earnestly for Alasdair, whom he loved greatly for the sake of help given to his father on the field of Flodden. And so men say it came about that, after years had passed by, there grew up a tiny hermitage in the woods above Burgle, where dwelt two anchorites, accounted of rare sanctity; yet never would they join the Church, or associate themselves with any Order, but professed to follow the pure faith of the Master as He had taught it. And the elder died, and the younger laid him in the grave behind their little cell. And some years later, as the news of the world filtered through, came tidings of a Cumming who had done bravely in the service of the lovely and unfortunate Queen Mary, and been knighted on the field. And then the old Hermit raised his dim eyes and said, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.”
TO WHERE BEYOND THESE VOICES THERE IS PEACE
This tale now merges into history. The identity of the young knight may be easily traced by anyone familiar with the history of the time, and all know how that last raid of the MacIntoshes was the occasion of the organising of Clan Chattan, and the final breaking of the power of the most dreaded raiders and reivers of the north. Sir Wilfred Dunbar died without issue, and the tower of Blervie passed to a cousin, whose descendants held it for long, preserving only very dim traditions of the Wizard Laird. The end of Kinloss Abbey and the preaching of Luther’s doctrines in Scotland is known to all.
How far the forecasts of poor Cecily and of Eochain Beag will be fulfilled, is yet to be seen.
Farquhar Cumming, the second son of Sir Alexander of Altyre, became Chief of the Dallas Cummings; but the friction between Dallas and Altyre was never healed, but grew more intense, till the Chief of Dallas renounced the name of Cumming altogether; and for many generations his descendants bore the name of Farquharson.
Any reader who cares to follow the story further will find it all in the records of the town of Forres, in the Muniment room at Freuchie (now Castle Grant), or in the records of Kinloss, or of the Altyre Cummings at Gordonstown. But the key to much that is hard to follow and understand, will be found in the story of Alasdair Cumming and his uncle, and their gallant fight for the soul of a witch.