For the Soul of a Witch 3
John William Brodie-Innes
XI – HOW NORMAN LESLIE BESIEGED BLERVIE
Where the road from Kinloss turns to the last steep ascent to Blervie Tower, but well out of sight, Sir Norman Leslie and his troop halted to reconnoitre. The full moon showed up clearly every detail of the building, in which all apparently lay fast asleep.
Sir Norman beckoned Urquhart to his side.
“Faith! they keep but careless watch. No such slovenly management when I am master there, I’ll warrant! Some of those idle hounds will be on duty all night. Damn it! Urquhart, who can say that even now some of the Inneses or some of those cursed Highland robbers may not have carried off my wife?”
“But what is it that you do yourself, Sir Norman? Dash me, if I can understand you! You summon me to come and help you to bring Dame Leslie home. Yet if you ride into the MacIntosh country, I see not how you can ciimber yourself with a wife, nor indeed where you can leave her in safety if you take her not. For indeed I think she would not bide merely for the love of you.”
“Friend Urquhart, I deem that God made you a fool, and you have since improved on the making by your own efforts. See you not, I must take the lady to get the lands, and this I must make safe before I ride.
Your Churchmen, confound them! must not think me reluctant. And as for keeping her when I’ve got her—I shall just send her in charge of a cousin of my own to the Glen; I think not she will win out of there, especially with Dame Catherine Leslie to keep an eye on her. Oh, but she’s a rare duenna is my Aunt Catherine!—frightened me in my boyhood, I can tell you—sharp as a fox. My lady will play no games there, I’ll warrant—and maybe when I come back there’ll be a son and heir to the Glen. ‘Twill be the summer, anyhow, before I am in that country.”
“Well, then, what do we tarry for, Sir Norman? If you are to take the lady from the Tower there’s no time to be lost, and in any case where the Devil will you take her? Methinks, for all the Church’s favouring of your marriage, she would not be welcomed as a guest at Kinloss Abbey.”
“Faith, no! No women in the Abbey now. Not since old William Culross died—rest his soul! He was a sportsman! No! ‘tis your house we are bound for tonight, Urquhart. Oh! make no wry faces, man,—a bridal pair pay handsomely for their entertainment. But see you, we must needs tarry a bit to be sure there’s no trap; I like not altogether that peaceful calm. At the Glen it would mean a dozen men lying in the reeds with their knives out, ready to slit the throats of the first who came by. Another thing now, and mark me well. I spoke to you before about Elspet Simpson—you have my token for her. Well, Elspet I must have, come what may, and she’s hereabout. You heard that wolf cry some half-hour back? Of course you did!—well, that was Elspet. Man, she can mimic any bird or beast, but I know the meaning of that cry. Down there on the Border I’ve heard her call the wolves that way. Ay! she’s sat on her horse beside me and given that cry, and you would hear an old grey brute answer from the woods, till you would swear they were talking together. Gad! but she looked wild then, with her black hair and the black eyes in her white face, and her lips as red as blood. ’Pon my soul, Urquhart, she was a woman who would tug the very soul out of a man’s body and lead him straight to the Devil if she wanted to. Well! but that cry I heard just now, that was an agreed call between us, so I know she’s hereabouts. Devil take her! she mustn’t savage my wife—jealous little beast, she’s quite capable of it, if I don’t keep a good hold of her. But she’s got to come with me up into the MacIntosh country—I can’t get to Farquhar’s Dune without her. She may bring a whole pack of her wolves there for aught I care, and fatten them on MacIntoshes—I talk to you, Urquhart! Damn it! a man must talk sometimes, and there’s no one else. Ah! here come the two scouts I sent out to view the land. Well, lads, any one about?”
“Not a soul, your honour,—all sound asleep.”
“So! Well, forward then, in the Devil’s name! See here, march quietly,—not a whisper till we hold the outer stair. Forbes and I will be at the top, we are the two biggest, a dozen others on the stair, then give them a rousing call on the trumpet. If they don’t open, Gad! we’ll make ’em. Urquhart, you take the rest of my men and look after the servants sleeping outside. Don’t let them try a rescue—we’ll deal with al] who are in the Tower.”
In about ten minutes the dispositions were carried out as ordered. The Leslie and a hulking giant beside him stood at the top of the outer stair, the lower steps being occupied by his men. Urquhart and the remainder with levelled spears surrounded the base of the Tower. It was thus evident that the besiegers had now obtained the advantage which the building was designed to give to the defenders.
A blare of trumpets sounded the notes of the Leslie’s call, and again came the weird howl of the wolf in response, sounding this time from the haunted wood.
“Ho! there you are!” cried Leslie. “Well! come out, lass. ’Tis our old signal call—you want me, and, by Gad! I want you more than badly. Come out here—how the Devil can I find you in that wood? No wolves to answer you there. Grip fast! Damn it! Come, I say.”
But there was no answer, though the stentorian voice of the knight rang almost as loud as his own trumpets. The serving-men from the cottages round the base of the Tower tumbled out half dressed and with their eyes full of sleep, roused by the din, to find the stair in the possession of a strange band of armed men and spears all round. Wisely enough, they gathered at a respectful distance, watching what should next befall;—their captain and leader was within the Tower, where with three or four of the trustiest he lay just inside the door. There were some other serving-men in the Tower, enough to hold the great door and the outer stair against any attack before the days of firearms.
Sir Norman Leslie thundered on the door with an axe that had hung at his girdle, but there was no response from within—it was like a Tower of the dead.
“Confound it!” shouted Leslie, “why did we not bring an arquebus to blow off that infernal lock? No matter! we’ll just hew down the door. At it, Forbes, man, for all you’re worth!”
Heavy blows from the two axes swung by brawny arms fell on the huge iron-bound door whose mighty timbers were almost as hard as the iron bands that girt them. Many a deep dint was cleft in the door, but it showed no sign of yielding. Some distance away Simon Tulloch, lying hid in a wild patch of bramble and bracken, noted the attack, and piously thanked God that his lady had not returned. He knew the Tower well and the strength of its great door, and surmised to himself that it would take the besiegers many hours’ work before they could batter it down, even though no active resistance was offered; but he was sorely puzzled, as also, truth to tell, was Sir Norman himself, at the apathy of the men within.
The blows of the great axes fell with a wearisome persistence of rhythm; they seemed at last to be beating in his own brain, and even the mighty muscles of the two who were hewing seemed to flag, when suddenly, and with no warning, the great door quietly and silently swung open of itself, not under a blow but actually while the assailants were pausing for breath, and within, a dark cavity yawned before them. Sir Norman, still apprehensive of traps, paused for a space, then cried loudly for torches. Two were quickly passed up from the men below, and thrust through the gaping aperture. Their gleams fell on a knight’s helmet with a golden lion for crest, and a small eagle plume.
“Ho, la! a Cumming here!” cried Sir Norman, and he swung up his ponderous axe. “Well, there’s his quietus, anyhow!” As the axe crashed down, cleaving through crest and skull plate and visor, the helm clattered on the stone floor, and an eyeless skull rolled out.
The Leslie had the superstitions of his country and time; he started back and crossed himself, more it must be admitted from early habit than from faith. The silent, automatic opening of the door that his stoutest efforts had failed to move, the empty passage behind it, the appearance of the helmet and the skull, all combined to pour terror into the soul, whose body had never known any feeling but that of insolent confidence in his brute strength. The next moment the torches’ glare fell on a spear shaft stuck in a niche in the wall, showing clearly what had been the support of the helmet that had scared him.
“Ha! so they think to fright us with a bogy ghost? ’Twas well conceived, my lady,—worthy of my wife! No matter, you and I will speak further tonight over this merry prank. I won’t have such games played on me. Forward, men, and find my lady—we escort her tonight to Forres.”
He seized a torch and led the way himself into the Tower, passing from room to room and searching eagerly, half a dozen men-at-arms following him close. In the banquet-hall the serving-men of the Tower huddled unarmed and defenceless. They had been taken by surprise and, with none to give orders, knew not what to do. With a gesture of contempt for such cowards, Sir Norman motioned to two of his men to guard the entrance to the hall and hold them prisoners, and renewed his search. In the uppermost rooms were shivering in affright Beatrix’s bower maiden and a few of the serving-wenches, but of Beatrix herself not a trace. Sternly interrogated, the bower maiden could say nothing; indeed, she vehemently and with much clamour denounced the Leslie for having abducted her lady. She had gone to rest at the usual time, and nothing more had happened until all were awakened by the unholy clamour of the trumpets, the howling of the wolves, and the unseemly hammering on the door—enough to fright all Christian men and women out of their reason. Moreover, her lady had been ravished away by a most monstrous incursion of midnight robbers, worse far than the Highland caterans. And indeed she knew Leslie quite well enough, a man so please you with whom no woman was safe, who feared neither God nor man. And indeed the Lord Bishop and the Sheriff—ay! and the King himself—should know of this raid.
“I think the King is about three years old,” said Leslie, “and not like to be greatly interested. But ’tis no matter; tie up this brawling wench—she can tell us nothing.”
The burly form of the Leslie with his men behind him emerged on the battlements, having searched the whole Tower without result.
“Gad! but my wife must be hiding in some hole or corner of this ramshackle old place,” he muttered. “I won’t leave it till I find her—what the Devil! a shy bride, is it? Well, so much the better—I like them not over forward. Hello, there! what’s that?”
There was a swishing sound as of draperies against stone, the flutter of a trail of green silk against a window below him on the winding stair. Leslie dashed down in hurried pursuit, upsetting two of his men as he did so, who sat ruefully rubbing their shins, as they heard their master clattering down the stone stair and swearing volubly. At the door of the room which had been Sir Wilfred’s study he thought again that he had caught a glimpse of the flying silk. Undoubtedly the Lady Beatrix was running before him—nay! who knows women?—perhaps she designed to be caught here in the solitary room that had been her father’s. She wanted none of his men to witness their meeting.
“Well, that’s all right,” he chuckled to himself. “Saucy little devil! she knows the game well enough. I’ve known them like that—and, Gad! that sort show good sport.”
He dashed into the room, holding his torch above his head and peering into the corners in search of Beatrix, who, he was convinced, had run in before him. As he did so, turning round, he saw the door quietly and noiselessly close behind him.
“Here, now! none of those games,” he said. “Come out into the open and play fair—you’re caught.”
The idea of a trap was still on him. He rushed to the door and shook it; it was fast, and would not yield to the stoutest tug or hardest kick. Two seemingly gigantic figures emerged from the dark corners by the door, with black masks over their faces, and wolf-skins on their shoulders. In an instant his torch was snatched from his hand and extinguished, and he felt himself seized and thrown roughly to the ground, and held as in a grip of iron; his legs were bound together, his arms tied behind his back, a bit of rope in his mouth and knotted behind his head formed a gag, and he was rolled up against the door and laid across it, with his face to the wail.
Bruised and sore and mightily indignant at the treatment he had received, he yet saw that vengeance sure and swift was in his reach. His men were outside the door. If it did not open on the outside, they would soon batter it down, and his captors could not escape. All very well for two giants to take one man by surprise and throw him down and bind him! But twenty would make short work of two, whoever they were. He lay across the door—they could not pass that way, and the window was impossible for anything but a cat. They must have thought he was alone. All the same, he would rather his men did not find him in this bound and helpless condition—it was hardly dignified. If he could but wrench himself free of these bonds he would be found fighting, anyhow, and his men would complete the job, and pay the rascals back in their own corn. Confound them! they should be tortured for this—he would have some fun out of them before killing them. He tugged hard at his right arm, and found he could contrive to wrench it loose; with a little difficulty he got his left arm also free, and untied the gag. He heard his men at the door, they were trying to get in; then he heard Forbes call to them, “Come away! The master will be angry if you go in when he’s shut the door.” He was rather astonished that his captors had so easily permitted him to free himself even partially from his bonds, and he rolled over to see what they were about, but could see nothing; the torch was extinguished, the moonlight through the window only illuminated a patch on the opposite wall. They must be lurking in the shadows ready to make another attack upon him. He sat up and began to disentangle his legs from the coils of rope wound round them. Springing to his feet, he shouted to his men to break down the door, adding that it had slammed to behind him. He felt at his belt—they had left his axe. Short-sighted not to take that! No matter, so much the better; they should not escape him now, anyhow. He planted himself against the door, grasping his axe firmly; the moon would show him any man who came out to attack him, and give quite enough light for him to cleave any skull that appeared. A swashing blow from Forbes’ axe without shattered the lock; the men rushed in with torches, lighting up every corner and cranny of the room. It was empty!
No trace of the Lady Beatrix—no trace of the two who had seized and bound him!
Leslie swore and raved. Two men were there who had attacked him shamefully, laying hold on him from behind; also the Lady Beatrix his wife was there, he had seen her enter. Round and round the room they searched, tearing down the cases of Sir Wilfred’s books and manuscripts, throwing everything that stood near the walls into a heap on the floor, and probing with their daggers at every joint in the masonry; but neither there nor in the stone floor was there the faintest sign of any entrance or exit; none could pass out either at the window or door, so much was plain.
“This is witch-work,” Leslie roared. “Gad! Urquhart, I like it not! Those men were in wolf- skins—think you they were any familiars of Elspet’s? I warrant that little devil is jealous. Could she have sent these to savage my wife out of pure spite, and they fell on me by mistake? ’Tis like enough—but how the plague gat they in and out? This passes any witch-work I ever knew, and Elspet’s no witch—no! spite of all they say, a little devil of a black-a-vised gipsy lass, with the gift of the wild in her blood, and fool enough to love me. Not much to love—am I, Urquhart? No matter! If she have sold her soul to the Devil, he shall have mine, and I’ll go with her. All the same, I like not this. Out of it, men! We’re for clean fighting, not witch-work.”
They hurriedly unhitched their horses that had been tied up to the trees of the Tower during their wild raid—the men, sooth to say, all glad enough to be quit of a job that savoured far too much of black magic and dealings with the Devil to suit their tastes; wild and lawless and with little enough religion of any sort, they were yet deeply convinced of the reality of the Prince of Darkness, and of the power of his sworn servants.
The deep notes of the single bell from the Abbey floated up, and a pink glow of morning began to spread over the eastern sky beyond the Broch.
“The monks are just going to church for Prime, or whatever they call it,” said Leslie,—“early beggars! Well, we’re just going to bed. Gad! I think they don’t approve of our hours, but the Bishop and the Abbot favour me—they’ve got to support my marriage, and they’ll be bound to get some fat fees out of it! Trust Holy Mother Church for that! So I think they won’t make much ado to let us in. Sorry we can’t oblige you with a newly-wedded pair tonight, Urquhart. Better luck next time.”
So saying, the worthy pair parted. Urquhart back to Forres to curse himself again roundly, and to curse the destiny that drove him to be jackal to so shameful a lion; and Sir Norman to the Abbey, there to knock up some weary, heavy-eyed guest brethren whose duty was to take him and his men to their quarters, after they had stabled their steeds.
Simon Tulloch from his lair among the brambles and bracken watched the going of the troop curiously. That their search had been fruitless he knew; but there was a dejected and beaten air about them which he could ill account for. “Like men who have seen a ghost,” he said to himself,—” they look scared.”
There was a rustle of a light step among the heather. Simon crouched closer—he deemed nothing human was like to pass at that hour, but a roe deer or even a dog might be padding it through the heather. If anything human were by chance afoot he would not willingly be seen.
He felt a light touch on his shoulder, as if a small hand were laid on his jerkin. He looked up, astonished, and saw Cecily Ross standing before him in the moonlight. For a moment he was too surprised to speak; then he saw that her eyes were closed, her face slightly drawn, and her lips lightly parted. She had all the appearance of being fast asleep and, as Simon at once concluded, walking in her sleep.
She spoke slowly and dreamily, as if confirming the idea. “I am sent with a message to you, Simon Tulloch,” she said, and her voice was level, without any intonation. “The Lady Beatrix is safe. She is with her father, and she will nurse him till he is well again. Where she is you cannot find her, and she may not return to this side of the hill for the present. Yet you may see her soon down in the lands of Dallas. You shall have word.”
Then, with a rapid, bewildering change, the words hissed out, as through shut teeth: “Curse it! Cannot I wake?” and the long, nervous hands gripped each other fiercely, as though struggling with something unseen that she would master or strangle.
Simon was petrified for a moment; he knew not what to say or do, though he would fain aid her. His mind ran on soporific herbs and cool lotions such as he had before administered to check nightmare and to relieve brains inflamed with wounds or with drink, but while he thought she had turned and glided swiftly away over the heather,—a short distance off he saw her running rapidly in the direction of the haunted wood, past the now deserted base of the Tower. So fast she fled that pursuit was hopeless, and in utter bewilderment Simon scratched his head and abandoned the effort to pierce the mystery. Nevertheless, his old distrust of Mistress Cecily Ross revived as he trudged down the hill to the cottage he occupied in the Abbey Grange. He slept late into the morning, tired out with his night’s fruitless watching, and his dreams were haunted with the vision of that fleeing figure in the grey mantle, stooping near the ground in the speed of her flight, with the white fur on her hood showing clear in the strong moonlight. It was weird, uncanny, and he felt instinctively there was danger to Beatrix, though as he woke he felt a strong sense of trust in Eochain. He had promised to guard her, and wild, reckless, and lawless as the Cummings were, they never, so Simon reflected, betrayed a trust.
Meanwhile, as Simon was watching the Leslie’s men ride away, two men lying at ease on the soft moss in a small clearing in the haunted wood, beside a slowly dying fire, were talking over the situation.
“You must be weary,” said the elder; “turn in and sleep—I can watch alone for the return of my messenger. Besides, old eyes need not the amount of sleep that young ones must have.”
“I shall not sleep tonight,” said the other. “Let us talk—you promised me the story of your life, will you not tell it now? It is odd, you seem to me now like a human comrade that I can talk to, but a short while since you seemed aloof, impenetrable, you compelled me,—I felt almost as though it were our Holy Father the Pope, or even one greater. Why was this?”
“That too I can explain. Well! since you will not sleep, and I may not, it were perhaps as well to divert the night with a story; but blame me not if you find it dull. My life has not been so adventurous as the lives of many of my kin.”
XII – THE STORY OF EOCHAIN BRAG
“I must have been an odd, precocious boy, I think. I was left very much to myself. I was, you know, the younger son of Cumming of Altyre, the father of the present chief.”
Father Ambrose started slightly, but said nothing.
“My father was away mostly. When he was not at the wars he was fighting with some of the families of the MacIntoshes, or defending himself against some other Highland clan. My eldest brother was away too. No one heeded me much; I was left at home at Altyre with servants. Those were wild and turbulent times when I was a boy. You know the Lords of the Isles always wanted to rule in Moray, and my grandfather was killed at Inverary, fighting under the Earl of Mar to repel them. Then there came into this country one Cochrane,—they said he was a mason’s prentice, but he was a wonderful man, and using the terms of masonry he taught me to understand God as the Architect of the Universe. I was a dreamy, inquisitive boy, left to myself, as I told you, and Cochrane was kind to me; so I trotted about after him everywhere, and sat for hours out on the hillsides to hear him talk. Always he used the language of building, for he was bitterly opposed to the corruption of the priests, and they would have had him burnt for a heretic had he spoken plain. I was at his heels constantly when he built the Castle of Dallas down below us here. Some day you must go and see it; ’tis a wonderful building, teaching indeed many profound truths in symbol in its design and measurements. Also it belongs of right to Alasdair Cumming—the Tannist of the Dallas sept.”
The monk looked up sharply, but Eochain went on in the same level voice.
“Well, so it was that the ordinary religion of my own people had no reality for me. My father kept a tame priest at our own little chapel in the wood. I fancy he was somewhat lenient in giving absolution, and probably my father needed that—most of our race have done so. At any rate, the Mass never touched me, but Cochrane’s discourses opened a new world. Poor Cochrane! When the King’s brother, the Earl of Mar, was murdered, the King gave the earldom to Cochrane, and not long afterwards he was hanged over the bridge of Lauder—not by his own silk scarf, as he begged he might be, but by a hair tether. There are many of his works about the countryside— Kilravock, Cawdor, Spynie, Ernside, and others, besides Dallas, which was his masterpiece. It is forty years ago now since he was hanged, and I was out of Scotland then.
“Well, it was Cochrane’s masonry that showed me first how stones can tell the secrets of nature to the eyes that can read them, and men may set down their knowledge in stones, so that it can only be read by those who are fit to receive it, and so it endures for all time. And that set me wondering about the old stone rings that are scattered all over the country, shunned by ignorant people as heathen temples, and that our priests tell so many lies about; and I could not believe that our own ancestors could have been the wicked and bloodthirsty men they would have us think them. You may imagine me thus, a solitary, queer boy, sullen and unpopular with other boys, despised by men because I cared not for blood-shedding, sneered at by women as fit only to be a monk, everywhere looked on as a very degenerate Cumming, but happy in myself with my own dreams and Cochrane’s teaching, and continually working out new ideas and secrets of the universe. When I grew to be a young man, they wanted me to be the Tannist of the Dallas Cummings. You know it has usually been a younger son of Altyre that has been Tannist and afterwards Chief there; but though I lived with that branch of the family and they were the first who really loved me and were good to me, yet I felt I had a mission and I must study, and could not be the chief of a clan.
“Then, one night, I slept in the great ring at Clava, and never shall I forget that night; for I saw a circle of friends, and I knew them all, and called them by their names, though in actual waking life I never so much as heard of them; and they told me they had waited long for me, and they were our own folk,—kings of Scotland in the very far-away days, and priests that Columba called Druids afterwards,—and they welcomed me, and took me into the great ring, and taught me.
“When I woke I knew I had been in a strange country, but it was far more real and like home to me than the real world as people called it, and I tried hard to get back there, and now and then I succeeded. I’m not going to weary you with all that I learned in those queer dreams of mine—I will only say just now that it seemed to be true teachings of what the little fat tame priest read on Sunday at Mass, only carried down into actual life and made real, which it never was in the world that I knew. For instance, the chief thing that these Druid priests told me they had to do, and taught me, was to heal the sick, and that without any fee or reward, just as men were told to do in the Gospel. I asked our fat little Father about that, and he told me that the days of miracles were over; but that was not true, for I learned to do it. They used no drugs, but they made the patient sleep, and they made him think what they wished, and through the brain they influenced and cured the body.”
“But this is truly miracle,” said Father Ambrose, interrupting.
“Oh no! it is power every one has. You have but to fix your mind with intense concentration on the brain of another when that person is passive and attentive to you, and his thought will begin to follow yours. The rest is merely a matter of training which enables you to concentrate your own thought and will, but you must believe intensely that you can do it, or you will fail.”
“These signs shall follow them that believe,” muttered Father Ambrose; but he said nothing aloud, fearful to check the flow of the other’s story.
“Well, at that time I gave up going to Mass, for it seemed to me a poor pretending at the reality which I had found, and after a while I was told in my dreams of a real Druid temple still served by living men who kept the old faith alive, hidden away in an untravelled district of Asia Minor, where no merchants went.
“Thither, then, I betook myself in fullest confidence, and I was rewarded, for I found the temple, and there for many years I was trained in all the knowledge and the power of the faith. I wish I could tell you my adventures, for I saw much that was interesting and beautiful; but I must leave that for another time. You asked why a while since I appeared aloof and impenetrable; do you see what I had to do? Sir Wilfred was sick of his wounds, and had to sleep that he might recover. His daughter was in danger from a villain, and had to be brought back to him and put in safety. His assailant, whom on the Border you knew as Elspet Simpson, had to be restrained. You yourself were necessary to the performance of all these things—there was no time or chance to explain all in words to you. This was the task set to me, and to do it I had to use all the strength that many years of training had given me. Think, when you are yourself in rapt concentration on some special thing you are giving your whole energies to do, must you not appear to any one who sees you then to be aloof and apart?
“But to resume my story. You may perhaps imagine, perhaps you have even heard, the evil stories that were told of me—Eochain Beag they called me—you would hardly call me the little Eochain now, would you? But I did not go to Mass, I did not follow the ways of the religion that every one else professed, and then I went away without telling any one where I was going—and that was an unforgivable sin; so they invented every sort of scandalous story about me, and ‘the Apostate’ was one of the lightest names they bestowed on me. At length I was reported dead, and after a while the name of ‘Eochain the Apostate’ had passed into a kind of legend; and even my brother, Sir Alexander, was convinced of my death, and I doubt not was secretly much relieved that the family would have no more disgrace to bear. I must pass over my life abroad—some day I will tell you about that. It was wilder and more interesting than most romances.
“At last I was told to return to my own country. You may not know—very few indeed do know—that there are always a few of the trained priests of the old faith living in the country to keep the torch alight. But there was another commission given to me besides this. There has been a peculiar development of witchcraft, and I was ordered to try to oppose it, and do my best to prevent the worst evils that arose from it, and to heal those who suffered from bodily ills brought about in this manner.
“Well, I knew, from what I had learned from Cochrane, how the Dune was constructed, and I soon made the old mechanism work again, and repaired the inner chambers; and here I have lived ever since, until I gave up the outer room to Sir Wilfred, and now the inner one to his daughter. The stone circle you have seen in this wood is to us a church,—in fact, the word ‘circle’ means the same thing,—and so, you see, I have been in the same position as a priest of your faith, living near by, and saying his daily Mass in an old deserted church. Only that for me the angels or spirits in whom I believe actually come to me in my devotions and teach me, which I gather ought to, but very rarely does, happen with those of your faith, and when it does you hail the one who gets such a revelation as a great saint.
“No! don’t interrupt. You shall say anything you have to say afterwards, but I want to tell my story first.
“I told you that my commission here was to try to oppose by faith and prayer the evil power of witchcraft. Some there are who say that there is no such thing, but you must see that if by faith and love we can work miracles, or what the foolish call miracks, of healing, so there must be some who, moved by selfishness and by hatred of the human race, or hatred of particular people, may work similar miracles of harm. And understand that, according to our faith, this is not in any way contrary to the will of God, for they who deserve harm will come to harm; but if one should, from hatred or malice, offer himself as the instrument of that harm, God’s will is still done,—but woe to the human instrument who coveted the satisfaction of doing harm!
“And some there are, perverse and wicked men, who give themselves over for spite and malice to doing harm to their fellow-men, and who take weak women as their instruments and helpers. On these they exercise a power akin to that which is taught to us of causing sleep, and of controlling the will, only being used for evil ends and to compass harm and gratify envy, hatred, and malice it becomes black magic, and the woman so coerced becomes a witch. Many of these poor creatures retain much of the sense of good, and desire to do good, but their wills are dominated by a strong and evil influence, and they cannot escape. It is no wonder that they believe that they have actually sold their souls to the Prince of Evil, for the sake of power or knowledge, or whatever first tempted them. Perhaps it may be true—none of us can say. Those men who coerce and use these poor creatures encourage the idea, in order to render their escape more hopeless.
“Away in the South, near the Border, there is such a man as I have described—strong, learned, and malignant beyond all imagining—his whole thought and aspiration being continually to hurt and destroy. Hate and the wish to hurt are to him as strong a motive of action as the wish to help and to heal are to normal men, and it is developed as strongly as the principle of love is said to be in the greatest saints. This monster—for such he is, he cannot be thought of as human—iS known as IDr. Finn; but whence he came none know, nor where he lives; he appears at rare intervals, always to do some deed of deadly and deliberate cruelty, and disappears again. He has under his control a considerable number of women whom he has coerced, as I have said, and who do his bidding implicitly—among them is one Elspet Simpson.”
Father Ambrose started and was about to speak, but Eochain imperatively imposed silence.
“I know you would say something, and I will gladly hear; but give me leave to finish. You will be able to help greatly in this, if I mistake not.
“Well, this Dr. Finn gave these women power to tame and use various beasts, especially beasts of prey, to harm and destroy those against whom he employed them—wolves and eagles, and even the deadly adder. Some of them carry bags full of adders which they can charm. It is said they have the power to raise storms of wind. It may be so, but I have never seen it. I could pardon them if they looked on Dr Finn himself as being the Devil in human shape, and thought they were bound to him for ever. I was telling you about Elspet Simpson. She came up to this country, following after Sir Norman Leslie. I believe she had been his mistress in the Border country. And when I learned this I knew why I had been sent here.
“To turn now to another thing. I told you how Cochrane taught me to read the language of masonry, which is a secret confined to very few, and when I came to see and examine Blervie Tower I knew at once that it had been built by those who had learned the mysteries of their craft. The builders had provided a way of escape in case of danger by means of a secret passageway running a long distance underground, and emerging in the old stone circle where I now daily perform I my devotions to the God of my fathers—that passage, in fact, by which we entered just now, when we put the fear of God on the Lightsome Leslie. Man! I would not have missed the sight of his face for a year’s rental of my brother’s lands.
“So I watched and waited, for I knew something would be sure to happen presently; and one evening I found the opening of the passage just by the stones was unfastened, and I knew then there was some mischief afoot, so I went myself along the underground way. You know how the secret stair goes up through the thickness of the wall to the little recess behind the wall of Sir Wilfred’s study—the place where we waited for Leslie to come, after you had rustled the silk to entice him. Well, on that day the whole passage was empty. I waited there, and I heard Mistress Beatrix and the one-legged gardener talking together, and I gathered that Sir Wilfred had been attacked and that Simon was dressing his wounds. He is a very skilled man at wounds, and I was sure what he did would be well done, but I was sure also that there was no safety for Sir Wilfred in his own Tower of Blervie; the assailant, whoever it was, knew of the secret entrance, and none other knew it. I might watch, but hate is strong and sleepless. I might fasten up the passage-way so that none could enter that way, but before I could do so another, and probably this time a fatal attack would be made. There was nothing that I could see but to remove Sir Wilfred at once to a place of safety, and the Dime was the safest place I knew of in all the North of Scotland. I just waited till Mistress Beatrix and the gardener were gone, and then I turned the stone pivot. You have seen it, and I think you will agree with me that it is a triumph of masonry; fitting so close that not the thinnest knife-blade can be inserted, it yet opens with a touch from the inside. “There I found that Sir Wilfred had been unmistakably worried by a wolf, and I remembered that wolves had been spoken of as the familiars of Elspet Simpson. Indeed, it was for setting on a wolf to kill a woman on the Border that it was said she had to fly the country, for the country folk suspected her, and would have laid hands on her and burnt her for a witch. I was told that she had been heard telling another woman of how she had gone to North Berwick kirkyard to meet the Devil, sailing thither in a sieve, with two other girls lately enrolled in Dr. Finn’s crew. So there was nothing else for it, and I just lifted Sir Wilfred on my shoulders and carried him out, and that was simply how he came to disappear in the manner that so puzzled all the countryside.
“I have had many a talk with him since, and I find that his calculations had brought him near to the knowledge of the secret entrance; but he never could find it, because he had not the masonic craft. He told me how he had heard tidings that a wolf had been seen prowling about the Tower, and had sent all his servingmen to hunt and destroy it, and while they were all out, as he sat deeply engrossed in his books, he suddenly heard a snarl behind him, and looking round an enormous white wolf sprang on him from behind; he fought hard for his life, but the brute bore him down and fastened on his throat. Then, just as he gave himself up for dead, there came a sound as of some one entering the door, and he felt the great fangs loosen; he fell over on to the ground and fainted, but not before he had seen, or thought he had seen, that the room was empty. The next thing he knew was awaking in the Dune, when I was taking care of him. I could not improve on friend Simon’s bandaging, but I gave him the boon of sleep, and his wounds healed rapidly.
“So you see his mysterious disappearance, ascribed by the kinsmen and the Church to the direct power of the Devil, is very easily accounted for; but I confess the wolf baffles me more. Such power over wild creatures, especially the savage, untamable, lawless brood of wolves, is beyond all the laws of nature, and would seem to confirm the stories of Dr. Finn. I learned much also of this Elspet Simpson from the Borderlands. She is of singular power, and deemed by him a most valuable acquisition; for she has the gift of imagination, and of great concentration, by which it is said she can accomplish more than most of his victims. Yet she has never been completely under his power; indeed, I am told that at any time the Lightsome Leslie has far more influence with her than Finn himself, and at times neither of them could move her at all. But she can influence others, and has obsessed women, and brought several innocent victims into the clutches of this Finn.
“Now I see that you have something to tell me about this Elspet Simpson, and I pray you tell it now. For indeed I know I shall want your help, and it will tax all our united efforts to prevent harm from falling on innocent persons.”
“Your story has been most enthralling to me,” said Father Ambrose slowly, “for I myself also came across this same Elspet Simpson down on the Border. I followed our King there, as perhaps you know, and fought by his side at the fatal field of Flodden. I loved him—a gentler, nobler man never drew breath—and I think he loved me too. We were together much. We knelt together to hear the Mass, we hunted together, and capped rhymes with each other as we passed the wine cup in the evening; we danced together with the village girls, when he would go to a frolic as a plain esquire; and in camp I waited on him, for he would have none other. One day, as we rode along the hill road by North Berwick, we passed a woman on horseback, and she cried to us, ‘0 King, thou art young and proud! The winding-sheet is round thy breast, and I see the spot where thou wilt lie ere many days be passed.’ And the King halted and bade bring her to him, for ever he was gentle, and he would have rewarded her, though she prophesied evil and not good concerning him; and he would have questioned her further, for he had always a desire to know how and when he should die. But his men found her not. Only they heard a wolf’s wild howl in the woods.
“You know how our King was slain at Flodden. Men say now it was his own fault, and that the disposition of the battle was all wrong. I know not. I shall always believe that all he did was right, and he died just because a spirit so rare could not long bide on our gross earth. I was at his side, and got such a crack on the skull that ‘twas thought I was dead too, and a day and a night I lay there, with all the flower of our Scottish nobility around me, thousands of gallant men, and I was as one dead. But when they came to bury that heap wherein I lay, I just recovered my senses enough to crawl away with a broken head and several deep wounds, half starved and faint from loss of blood; so I got into the woods, and found a shepherd’s hut where they gave me shelter and tended me for our dear King’s sake, for they all loved him; and there too I heard more of Elspet Simpson, and how the country people ascribed to her all the disasters of the battle and all the trouble that had fallen on our King and on the country, and they would have burnt her then if they could have caught her, for they said she had sworn that the King should die for some fancied wrong. Leslie, too, should have been at the battle, for he held a command from the King; but this evil witch warned him, so when the roll was called Leslie and his command were missing.
Well, when I fully came to myself, I knew that henceforth the world held nothing for me, and there seemed nothing to do but to make my peace with Heaven. Sincere conviction it was that sent me to the monastery, that I might find that joy and rest in the service of God that I never hoped to find any more in the service of the world; for my King was dead, and the joy of earth had closed with his grave.
“Then one day but a few weeks back there came one tome at the Chanter’s house of Windyhills, seeking ghostly comfort and advice. As a novice, of course, it was no part of my duty, nor was it in my power, to give any priestly consolation; but by the permission, indeed by the command of the Father Abbot, I was told to listen to her story and to give such encouragement and advice as I might feel to be in place. I could hear no confession, neither could I give any absolution, and none such were asked. But behind and over her appeared the form of Elspet Simpson as I saw her that day on the cliff road by North Berwick. But the woman who came seeking my advice was a sweet and saintly soul in great distress from evil dreams and imaginings of some cruel and foul witch, whom I recognised as being Elspet Simpson, and then I thought that this Elspet must have somehow managed to obsess this poor lady—indeed, it had gone so far that I fancied some physical likeness to Elspet, but this must have been imaginary. I knew not then what you have now told me of Elspet’s power to influence other women and to bring recruits to this accursed Finn.
“Her name was Mistress Cecily Ross—a woman who I think should have the makings of a very great saint—indeed, already she is privileged to see visions of angels, and other matters not vouchsafed to us poor ordinary mortals, and I thought it were a deed well worth doing to rescue her from this cruel and evil witch, and set her feet on the path to true holiness that she longs to tread.” “It may be that you are right. I know not this Cecily Ross, yet I have heard of her, and not always with such complete trust as your words would seem to convey. But see, here comes my messenger returning.”
“You never told me who your messenger was.”
“No, I did not. I kept that for a dramatic surprise at the end of my story. What if I have trapped the assailant of Sir Wilfred, and proved that the magic of the powers of love and of help are more potent than those of evil? What if I have coerced the coercer, and forced the would-be murderess to become a messenger of good?”
A woman stooping close to the ground, and running fast, came into the open place where they sat. Her grey robe brushed the heather, and her white hood bordered with white fur caught the light of the now fast sinking moon, and from its shadow a long trail of night-black hair escaped. She raised her face, drawn and white and full of pain.
“That is Elspet Simpson,” said Eochain, “now fast asleep and knowing not what she does—but she must do my bidding.”
“That,” said Father Ambrose, “is Cecily Ross.”
XIII – HOW BEATRIX FOUND THE GLEN OF DALLAS
For a moment the three remained absolutely motionless and intent. Eochain and Father Ambrose fixing concentrated attention, Cecily drawn and white, without will or consciousness, moving like one asleep. In an instantaneous picture the whole position started visibly into Eochain’s mind. In the Dune slept Sir Wilfred Dunbar and his daughter Beatrix, safe hidden for the present from all foes; down in the Abbey Norman Leslie, having seen to the stabling of his war-horse and swallowed a mighty flagon of Spanish wine, was stretching his limbs on his couch in the guest chamber, dreaming of new schemes to possess himself of the person of Beatrix and her lands, and counting on the assistance of Abbot Chrystal, whose voice he thought he could hear in the distance singing the early offices of the Church. The Church had made his marriage, and the Church must stand by it; yet he would not give up his black-a-vised sweetheart, not for a dozen Abbots and Bishops to boot. Simon Tulloch, in his cottage in the Abbey Grange, foresaw the risk to his dear Lady Beatrix, and resolved with all the energy that was in his sturdy, staunch body to foil the Leslie. He perceived, too, the danger from Cecily, but could not exactly understand where it came in; coupled her somehow with the attack on Sir Wilfred, yet knew not how she could have any share therein. Master Urquhart lay in Forres, ready to act his contemptible jackal part for the Leslie, ashamed of himself, but seeing nothing else to do. Farther on, the Altyre woods sheltered the sleep of Sir Alexander Cumming and his stalwart sons, among whom Eochain’s intuition or second sight seemed to see the destined prince who was to break the toils that gathered round Beatrix; though, sooth to say, his intuition only gave him in some mysterious flash the name of Alastair Cumming; and farther still the wild country of the MacIntoshes, the present goal of Leslie’s fighting energies.
How far it was knowledge and memory, and how far second sight or intuition, or a subtle blend of them all, he himself could not have told; it sufficed for him that he knew where the threads of the situation lay. How he knew mattered not—here in a sleeping world his brain was awake and alive to seize the occasion, and the key to it he knew to be with the woman before him, whom as yet he admitted to himself he only half comprehended, though she was now absolutely dominated by his will.
“Hast done my bidding?” he said sternly.
“I have, Master,” she replied, in the same level tone, with no intonation, as though speaking in sleep; then in a fierce, hurried whisper, “Oh, God! let me wake and go.”
“Not yet,” he said, “not till that full moon shows but half her circle, then you shall wake, and thank me for restraining you this time. Now go to your hut, and sleep sound and unconscious for twelve hours, then you shall rouse and eat.”
The strained, tense look passed from her face, which grew to an almost passive gentleness as she bowed low and retired to where, beside the clearing in which they sat, was a tiny hut, not much more than a shelter. Into this she retired, and they heard the door bolted behind her.
“That is indeed Cecily Ross of whom I was telling you,” said Father Ambrose; “there is some weird mystery about her which I cannot fathom. Can you help me?”
“That is indeed Elspet Simpson, the witch of the Border, and the mistress of the Lightsome Leslie,” replied Eochain; “but there is, as you say, a mystery, and vainly at present do I try to solve it. Only this much I think I see. It is only at certain times that the evil spirit is upon her, and it seems to be at the time when the moon is full, though whether it is every full moon I know not yet. At such time I suppose as that Dr. Finn gained his influence over her, and I fancy that at such time also the Leslie has power to draw her, and could probably even draw her away from Finn. But then, again, there are times when neither of them has any power over her; but what is her condition or nature in these intermediate times I have never been able to learn.”
“It must have been in such an intermediate time that she came to me,” said Father Ambrose. “It is strange that I did not recognise her, for, as I told you, I saw her at North Berwick when I was riding with the King, but she looked wholly different, yet I seemed to see the form of Elspet Simpson, as it were, like a wraith behind her or enwrapping her—I cannot tell— perhaps as if one woman were impersonating another. I thought that Elspet Simpson was obsessing her, and almost without my will I said, ‘Elspet Simpson, beware.’ Then it was she sought my aid, and told me how periodically she was beset by dreams of foul evil, in which she was the creature of this Elspet, and driven, so she fancied, to do deeds of lust and cruelty at which she shuddered when awake. Clearly she thought it was all dreams, and she desired to be delivered from them, else why should she come to me. Down there on the Border I think the evil period must have lasted more than the period of a full moon, if one may trust the country folk’s tales of her.”
“She would be more under the direct and constant influence of Finn there,” replied Eochain. He fell silent for a short while in deep thought, then he continued—“The attack on Sir Wilfrid was nearly a month ago, the full moon was then waning. It was the end of her evil period. She opened the secret way and sent, perhaps even conducted, the wolf who mangled him; shortly after she woke and knew nothing of it. Then it was that she came to Blervie Tower, but I imagine she did not wholly recover, for the dread of the dreams still pursued her when she came to you.”
“But why should she set her wolf on Sir Wilfred?”
“She was, as I told you, the mistress, at least so I think, of the Leslie, and he is married by the Church to the Lady Beatrix Dunbar. Here is sufficient cause for jealousy, it may be that Beatrix was the intended victim, and she could not wholly control her familiar. I know not—nothing is really clear—we are groping among guesses. But from my home here in the wood, where no man comes, and the land which is forbid, I have watched her, and as the moon drew towards its full I saw her leave the tower early one morning before the world was astir, and I knew that the evil spirit was on her again. She stood by the edge of the wood, and gave a long weird cry, like the howl of a wolf—a cry to freeze the blood. I have since made sure that this is an agreed signal between her and the Leslie, and she was meaning to join him. So I set the spell of sleep on her. It was with great difficulty, for she struggled hard against it, and it was only when I spoke words that she knew and feared, and compelled her to look at the point of my boar-spear gleaming in the light of early dawn, and advanced it till it dazzled and half blinded her, that I was able to bring sleep on her brain, and ordered her to go to that hut where she now is. And since then I have held her asleep, the creature of my will, and so have kept her from harm for this time, at all events. Now from all this I deem that the evil time comes on her not all at once, but gradually, in the semblance of dreams, growing more and more vivid until they seem to become irresistible; then to herself she seems to sleep entirely, and to dream of cruelty and lust and every kind of evil, until she wakes and loathes the dream. Yet the dream, too, is real; and when she is in this state she forgets wholly the existence of Cecily Ross, or remembers but some dim vision of the self she despises and resents. She glories in every form of evil, delights in lust and bloodshed and in torture; in fact, entirely reverses her nature. Then it is she is a fitting mate for the Leslie. So I have pieced together the indications I have myself observed, and what I have heard, largely cleared up by what you have told me. But it still remains much of a mystery, and I am sure that in this woman there is great danger in the future. I have controlled this fit, but who knows if I can do it again, or even if I shall be there to try; and bad as this period of hers is, it may be worse. Even now she is wholly savage when the fit comes on. Then she is a wild beast, mad with the blood-lust, and still more with spite and jealousy, and the Leslie revels in her savagery, which matches his own.
“But the fit is already passing. She has been half conscious all the time in spite of my efforts, as you saw, when she answered Leslie’s trumpet, and when just now she prayed to wake. I shall allow her to come gradually to consciousness as the brain calms, and in a week’s time or so you will see the Cecily Ross who came to ask your aid, but I hope still calmer and more self- possessed. She will remember nothing of all this wild time save as having had troubled dreams, and I would not that she should know. A cure may be possible; but if once Cecily Ross should realise that she is actually Elspet Simpson in the flesh, and not merely in a nightmare dream, it will be for ever hopeless. We shall need to watch carefully for the first indications of a renewal of the evil fit, for therein will lie great danger, especially if she and the Leslie should meet then. Now my watch is over. I have talked overmuch, I fear, and you are full of sleep too. Out there towards my circle is a shelter where we can lie till morning. Come.”
So ere half an hour had gone by the spell of sleep held fast all the personages of our story, but very diverse were the visions it showed them. Only down in the great Abbey Church the monks were still singing their litanies, wakefully praying for the salvation of a sleeping and unheeding world.
Uneventfully the next few days passed. Beatrix tended her father assiduously under the directions of Eochain. There was nothing needed for him now but recovery of strength from his wounds and loss of blood, but he was cheery as of old, and quite reconciled to his quarters, and Eochain brought him his favourite books and manuscripts, being, as we have seen, able to come and go at will through the secret passage to the tower and to Sir Wilfred’s study. Moreover, he could throw much light on many dark passages that had long puzzled the old knight himself. Of Father Ambrose she saw nothing, and believed him to have departed. Searching into her soul she could find no reason for the peculiar influence the monk had over her; she would not know his face if she saw him; she had never even heard his voice; only she had felt or fancied deep, luminous eyes burning on her through the folds of his cowl, drawn always close to hide his face. At anyrate, now he had passed away, she thought, to the performance of the duties of his Order, and it was unlikely that she would ever again come across him. In any case his religious vows and her unlucky marriage must ever make an impenetrable barrier, and the chance meeting in the Chanter’s garden, and his protective influence as she passed through the terrors of the haunted regions of Callifer, must be relegated to the dreams of the past, beautiful and unrealisable. So she could let her fancy play, imagining what manner of face lay hidden behind that cowl, and treat it all as a fairy tale of childhood.
Father Ambrose, however, did not leave for some time. He had the Bishop’s authority for remaining, and there were many long talks between him and Eochain Beag, much to their mutual enlightenment over their respective faiths, which day by day they discovered to be more strangely alike. And in fact Father Ambrose was often bound to admit that where there were differences they arose from corruptions introduced by the greed of Churchmen in the Middle Ages, more keen for the preservation of their temporal power and the accumulation of wealth to their Church than for carrying out the precepts of their founder. Eochain also had to confess that the real religion of the Saviour of mankind, as taught in the Gospels, and as actually practised by a few true Christians, was a far different thing from the parody of it taught and practised by the fat, little, tame priest kept by Cumming of Altyre, whom he had known in his boyhood, and which had so revolted him. Meanwhile both of them watched over the Lady Beatrix. It was evident that Blervie Tower was no safe place for either her or her father, so long as the Leslie and his men were in the neighbourhood. Every day some scouts of his were reported to be spying about, evidently on the watch for any appearance of the Lady of the Tower, and they surmised, what was the actual fact, that a handsome bonus had been promised to whoever should bring such a report as would enable their lord to carry out his scheme of capturing his wife.
Down by Dallas, however, on the other side of the hill, it was safe. None would pass through the forbidden land of Cahhifer and the haunted wood; and round the base of the hill by Rafford was no public road, and the tracks, such as they were, led through the lands of the Cummings, who were not generally over gentle with strangers passing without permission over their lands. Sir Norman Leslie certainly had leave to pass the lands of Altyre on the way to punish the MacIntoshes, but that by no means entitled him to cross the moors of Dallas, where a different branch of the clan was settled.
This way, then, Beatrix used to walk when not in attendance on her father, and she greatly delighted in the beautiful wild glen. One spot was a special favourite with her, about half-way down the steep slope of the hill almost below Callifer, whence she could see the distant sea and the end of the valley, and to the left the wooded hillside that sloped down to the lovely priory of Pluscarden, nestling as though softly cradled in a nook of the curving hill. Down below her in the flat land that bordered the stream was the castle of Dallas, deserted now, for Ferquhard Cumming, Sir Alexander’s second son and half brother of Alasdair, who afterwards headed that branch, had not yet taken possession of the castle which Eochain called Cochrane’s masterpiece. Beatrix looked often longingly at this castle, and planned a walk down there some day when her father could spare her for so long.
Meanwhile the days passed peacefully enough. Father Ambrose took his leave of Eochain, who was very grieved at losing him, but the monk urged business that brooked no delay, yet promised to return. However, when Beatrix asked Eochain about the monk who had nursed her father, and had protected herself through the terrors of the wood on the night of the full moon, Eochain had said— “He left his blessing—pray for him. I think that Father Ambrose will come back here no more.”
Being questioned further, he said—“Ask nothing more. There are times when it is better for a man to run away from a danger than to face it.” And this sentence remained a puzzle to Beatrix for long. Eochain’s mind was working much over the problem of Elspet Simpson, and one day he asked Beatrix when she last had tidings of her friend, Cecily Ross.
“Oh! the sweet Cecily!” said Beatrix. “How I miss her. I would I could hear news of her. She left suddenly on the morning before the Bishop and the Abbot came to perform the solemn exorcism at the Tower. I suppose it was some errand of mercy and kindness as usual. She is so unselfish, always taking some one else’s burden on her own frail shoulders.” Eochain asked if she had any objection to the services of the Church. But Beatrix, loyal to her friend, would not admit this. “Yet I know that she somewhat favours the New Learning of Master Martin Luther, and she has told me that in vision she saw the monks of Kinloss as though they were shut up behind prison bars.”
Eochain queried if she were well.
“Oh, yes! And yet I don’t know; she was curious, hysterical. I remember she took the most extraordinary alarm at the five-pointed star that I was told to trace in front of my chamber door, and begged and prayed me not to put the sign of the Inneses there.”
“Who advised you to put it there?”
“It was a message from Father Ambrose, brought to me by Simon Tulloch,” said Beatrix, and blushed rosily us she said it, though why she could not tell. Eochain, however, noted the answer and the blush, and enquired if Cecily had shown agitation in any other ways.
“Oh, yes, she did. She was very curious sometimes, and spoke continually of evil dreams, and then since that affair of the star of the Inneses that I had cut on the stone outside my chamber door she came never to my bedside as she had been ever wont to do. And she would go and lie down for long periods. Oh! I fear she must have been ill, now you ask me. I seem to remember so many little things that I never thought of at the time. Poor Cecily! Do you think she went away because she was ill, so as not to be a burden on us in the time of our trouble?”
“I think that is very likely to be the explanation,” said the old man, feeling that she had come in her innocence nearer to the true explanation than she could possibly realise. “But I think she is better now, and I have a sort of premonition that she may come to visit you before long.”
He spoke with careful calculation, for he foresaw that as Cecily recovered her normal senses, released from the spell of sleep he had laid upon her, it would be impossible to keep her and Beatrix apart, and he wished to prepare the latter for her friend’s return. He knew it was a dangerous prospect anyhow; but on the whole the danger seemed less if he could keep Cecily under his own watchful eye. He had carefully thought out all his own information, and all he had learned from Father Ambrose, and all that his learning had taught him about these curious cases of mental imbalance, and he was fully persuaded that when once more awake and normal she would remember nothing of Elspet Simpson, save perhaps a mere name associated with a nightmare dream, and she would know nothing of Leslie—indeed, if she met him by chance, would look on him with utter aversion and loathing. Therefore, the dangers, though still great, seemed to be minimised so far as human foresight could contrive.
One day, as Beatrix sat in a half day dream in her favourite seat looking down the glen and away to the distant sea, she heard a voice behind saying— “Give you good day, Mistress Beatrix,” and turning quickly she saw Master Simon Tulloch, cap in hand, m low salutation. “Ah, Master Tulloch, I am right well pleased to see you. You can give some news of the outer world, which hath been all closed to me since the night of the full moon.”
“’Tis I would ask news of you, Mistress Beatrix. I hope to hear of Sir Wilfred’s welfare.”
“Aye! my father is fast recovering, and he is in good hands—Master Eochain Beag, as he wishes to be called, has tended him, and I believe, under God’s Providence, has saved his life, and I also have been with him since the night of the full moon, and have nursed him till now he is scarce in need of nursing. But tell me, Master Simon, how learned you where I was?”
“That, my lady, I heard from Mistress Cecily Ross on that same night of the full moon. As I lay watching she came to me, walking as I think in her sleep, and bade me come and look for you here, and then she turned and fled, I know not whither; and day by day I have come seeking you and found you not. Now at last I find you.”
“My dearest Cecily!” Beatrix murmured, and then fell silent for a space thinking, wondering how Cecily came to be taking news of her to Simon on that terrible night.
“And what is happening out in the world, Master Simon?” she said at length. “You know Master Eochain saith it is unsafe for me to revisit Blervie Tower, or even to be on that side of the hill.”
“And indeed he is right, my Lady. The Lightsome Leslie still lingers at Kinloss, and I have myself heard him swear that he will seize your ladyship and carry you away somehow, and many a question hath he put to me, but poor is the information that he hath gotten. You know he besieged and took the Tower on the night of the full moon.”
“Nay, I know nothing.”
“Well, there’s no more to it than that, that he and his men came with trumpet-blowing and clattering of horses to the Tower about an hour or more after your ladyship had left, and I thanked God that you had left. And how he gained access to the Tower I know not, but he did, and he and his men were tramping all over the house; but they left at last looking like whipped mongrels with their tails between their legs. Yet ’twas not for any resistance from your serving men, for I heard afterwards there was none. But, as I say, he seeks you still, and his men ride ever up and down through the Lowlands, between Alves Kirk and Forres, but dare not cross the forbidden ground on the hill. I myself came round by Rafford, and some of the Cumming clansmen would have stayed me, but I am well known among the Cummings. I have healed some of their broken heads, of which they have plenty, and they let me by. And that minds me— Master Alasdair Cumming is like to prove a good friend to you, for he hath given permission to Sir Norman Leslie to pass through the Cummings’ lands when he rides to punish the MacIntoshes. But he bears him no good will, and if he should be successful, Master Alasdair designs to hang him on his way back, and if this Leslie should come by a mischance either in the MacIntosh country or in the Altyre lands, I may have to congratulate your ladyship on an easy widowhood, wherein I trow will not be great mourning.”
“And what news from the Abbey, Master Simon?” There was a faint tremor in her voice as she spoke.
“All goes as usual, my lady. Father Robert Reid, our Sub-Dean, hath returned from some mission to the English court, and he was wroth and grieved when he found that Father Ambrose had left. There were words between him and the Abbot about it, for Father Reid’s father was killed at Flodden, and Father Ambrose fought there, and Father Reid desired to hear all about the battle, and so he was angry when he heard that Father Adam Elder and the Abbot between them had sent Father Ambrose on a mission. For indeed I think our worthy Sub-Dean considers the Abbot as an inferior official to himself. And so this morning, as I heard them saying when I was tending some trees, there comes a message from Father Ambrose saying that by the Bishop’s orders he had stayed a while to reason with a straying soul (I think this must have been Eochain, with whom he tarried for a time), but now that mission was ended, and he was free to go. And that, so the Father Abbot said, must mean to Strathisla, and after to Orkney, yet Father Ambrose said not whither he was bound. And his word to Father Adam Elder was that until that demon, whereof the Father knew was conquered, Morayshire would not see aught of Father Ambrose, which word, referring to a matter of confession, the Abbot inquired not of. So I fear me we shall not see Father Ambrose here again for many a long day, whereof I am sorry, for he was a true man, albeit he was a monk.”
Beatrix felt a chill wave pass over her. She had schooled herself to the conviction that the attraction she had clearly felt towards Father Ambrose could be nothing but delusion, that she had built up an ideal probably very far away from th’e truth, and that in any event he could never be more to her than a name; still, with all this, there had remained the feeling that he was a strong spiritual stay. Common sense and reason had resisted the strange physical attraction, but still she had pictured him as possibly her confessor and adviser, the one on whom, if her father were taken away, she could confidently rely. In such light she might surely regard him. Now that ideal too had passed—Father Ambrose had gone out of her life; under what strange circumstances was he to come back into it, if at all, she could not tell.
The following day she extended her walk to the foot of the hill. Here there was no vestige of cultivation. Little streams dashed down the hillside, and wandered over the levels at the bottom of the valley, where they sang over the gravel or crawled sluggishly through the peat bogs, or played at hide and seek under the thick rank growths of heather and the birch woods that grew at frequent intervals through the long glen. At times her feet sank in the soft wet moss, at times she felt the stones, and sprang from one to another in pure joy of living, then again the heather took her almost waist high. On and on she walked, loving every yard of the new and beautiful country that she had never before visited, for all her walks and rides had been confined to the low country to the north of the hill, the land of the wild Cummings being looked on as unsafe for any maiden unless attended by a company of men such as Beatrix seldom rode with.
She sniffed the pure breezes laden with the scents of heather honey, and full of the sting of the salt from the open sea, and bearing on its wings all the music of the brae. The belling of the great red deer came from the opposite hill, and the chirk of the grouse sounded close to her feet. A great golden eagle swept screaming down the glen, and passed away over Carn na Cailleach, the witch’s hill, to his distant eyrie on the top of Ben Rinnes.
Scarcely knowing how far she had wandered, she found herself beside the Black Burn, a line of stepping stones in front of her. Suddenly, from the heather on the other side, rose the forms of two stalwart Highlanders. Their red polls were bare, their plaids were old and torn, they boasted neither stockings nor brogues on their legs, that were hairy and shaggy as a Shetland pony, yet both had the unmistakable carriage of the true gentleman, and Beatrix recognised the green and red of the Cumming tartan.
“Whence come you, lady?” said the elder of the two; “these moors are no fit travelling for stranger maidens.”
“No stranger, I think,” said Beatrix. “I come from Eochain Beag.”
“Ha! then you will be the lady of whom we were told. Humbly I crave your forgiveness, mistress! Right welcome are you, and free to come and go, and there’s no soul in all Scotland shall do you scaith while there remains a Cumming that loves the name of Eochain or that follows Alasdair.”
“Eochain Beag’s word is law in Dallas,” said the younger. “He sent a message that you were to be welcomed, and Lord Alasdair confirmed it, saying you were to be as one of the clan.”
One on each side of her they ranged themselves, walking through the water that they might help her each with a hand, as she crossed the stepping stones, and it was done with a courtly grace that many courtiers might covet. Right before them rose the deserted castle, grey and bleak amid the mosses and molasses, with flights of wild fowl circling round it, and on the battlements a solitary man stood shading his eyes as he looked out towards the sea. A tall eagle feather indicated the chieftain, but no more could be seen at that distance.
Beatrix already felt as though she had known these courteous and kindly guides for half her life. She talked to them with great enjoyment, and they told her the names of all the hill tops in sight, and of the clans that ruled them, and showed her where the moor-fowl bred, and where the herons nested; and now as they came on the castle, with the solitary watcher on the battlements, she said— “Is not that Dallas Castle? I thought it was empty and deserted.”
“So it was, till just now, when Providence has been good to us, and our beloved Alasdair Oge is back with us again; and he has brought us tidings of Eochain Beag, and now the Cummings of Dallas are no longer without a chief.”
“Is that Alasdair Cumming?”
“Aye, it is,” replied the clansman, with a salutation at the name. “ Thomas may have Altyre when old Sir Alexander dies, and for aught I know he may own the lands of Dallas too, but the Cummings of Dallas have ever been led by a younger son, and Alasdair Oge is our chief. Yea! There have been Cummings in the glen when the title, as they say, was in Dallas of that Ilk, or in Hay of Lochloy. We care not for these feudal titles. We are Cummings of Dallas, whoever may profess to own the land.”
Beatrix was seized with a sudden desire to return home, an absolutely unreasoning shyness and self-consciousness roused by the thought of Alasdair Cumming struggling with a great wish to meet the man who had been, she was told, so great a friend to her. Responsive to her lightest wish, the clansmen turned and escorted her to the very margin of the haunted wood, beguiling the time with many an old legend of their clan. Their names, they told her, were Roy and Alpin, sons of the Black Burn, and if she should ever stand in need of help both would gladly lay down their lives for her, for the sake of Alasdair Oge and for the love they bore to Eochain Beag.
As she turned the last corner of the wood path leading to the Dune, Beatrix caught sight of Cecily Ross.
XIV – HOW CECILY ROSS CAME BACK
Beatrix sprang forward delightedly. “Dearest Cecily, where have you come from? All unattended too. Where have you been ever since the day before our solemn exorcism? I found your little note, and I have missed you dreadfully. And how did you find me here?”
“I have been ill, Beatrix dear, terribly ill; and I don’t know what has happened to me. How long ago is it? Yesterday was it not that the Bishop and the Abbot were to come. I got a call that I could not refuse.”
“Dear Cecily! some errand of mercy I know, you good, unselfish creature. Never mind. Don’t tell me. I know you prefer to keep these good deeds of yours in your own true heart. I will ask nothing.”
“Oh, Beatrix! but I never did it. I got a short distance, and I felt so faint I had to sit down by the roadside, and then it seemed I was so weary I must fall asleep just where I was. I struggled—oh how I struggled against it!—but could not keep awake; indeed I thought I was dying, and at last I lost consciousness altogether. Then, oh, Beatrix, such awful dreams! You know how I sometimes have dreadful dreams, and this time I think they were worse than ever. For, besides all the old horrors, I was shut up in prison, and some one was calling—calling—to me to come out and play in the free, wild country, and I couldn’t go; I could only cry in answer. It must have been all yesterday that I was asleep, or fainting, or something. Then through these terrible dreams came the vision of a radiant angel, and I seemed to know that you were wanting me, and I struggled and opened my eyes, and I was just where I had fainted, but there was a dear, benevolent old man with a long white beard standing by me. At first I thought he was a vision too, he looked so like some venerable spirit, and all the influences about him were so good and holy. I think he must have tended me and taken care of me all yesterday. He told me to wait here for you.”
Beatrix remembered that ten days had passed since the day of the exorcism, and that Cecily had lost all count of time. She must have been cared for by some kindly creatures during this time, and have been found by Eochain on the roadside where she had fainted. It would be kinder not to tell her unless she found it out for herself.
“But now tell me, Beatrix dear, about yourself. How do you come to be here and not in the tower! What came of that exorcism? You will think me a terrible heretic, I know, but I was glad I was not there; the monks and churchmen always seem to make me shiver. I can’t help thinking all their vows and their binding are so wrong, Master Martin Luther says so, and he says it is right to break vows that take away people’s freedom.”
“Oh, Cecily! how dreadful! Don’t tell me any more. It cannot be right to break a vow; however wrong or foolish, one must stick to it. Why, one would not even break a promise given to a fellow human being, and is one to break a promise made at God’s own altar.”
“Well, never mind, you dear, holy creature. Keep your sweet faith. But it has been shown to me that the time is coming when the freedom preached by Martin Luther will dawn over all the world. But tell me your news. I am dying to hear of what you did yesterday.”
“Well, nothing much came of the exorcism as far as one could see. It was all very solemn and impressive; but after the Abbot and the Bishop and the monks and the rest of them had gone away, I found, or rather I was brought to, my dear father, who had been close to us here all the time.”
“Oh, Beatrix! and I never knew it! I must have done something very bad that my dear spirits should leave me without knowledge of what mattered so very much to you, and of course to me too, as your friend. Well, go on, dear; is he alive and better?”
“He is both, and perhaps I was wrong to say that the exorcism did nothing, for certainly the evil spirit plagues him no longer, and he is now calm and happy. But for the present I stay here to nurse him. I cannot go back to the Tower.”
“Oh, Beatrix! but why?”
“Because it was attacked and taken possession of by my unworthy lord and master, Sir Norman Leslie of the Glen, hunting for me, and determined to get possession of my poor person and my lands which are, I wean, of more moment to him than the person of any lady.”
Cecily showed no sign of recognition at the name of Leslie.
“How terrible,” she said. “Yes, I remember you told me you had been proxy-married to some brute of that name, and you hoped to be able to break it.”
“So I did; but the power of the whole Church, and the Keys of St. Peter, have tied me up, and not even the Holy Father himself can untie me, unless they can find some irregularity in it, and that is not likely, for my lord is a powerful man, and hath influence at Rome, so they tell me.”
“And can you really believe that a contract like that with a man you never even saw can bind you all your life. Oh, Beatrix! you must see how right Master Luther is.”
“Nay, Cecily! I see only that I am married, and such as it is, I must hold to it. I have given my word at the altar. But willingly I go not with my husband. I must hold myself true to him, blackguard though he be, for so did I in my ignorance promise.”
“Well, you brave soul, you will do as you see right to do. But I am shown a lovely future for you. There is a great golden angel hovering over you now, and his wings form a protection for you against all evil; and I hear voices saying that you shall be blest, and by one whom you have barely seen. The road looks all golden before you;—but I shall be away—I shall do you harm, so I seem to see—but I shall be away before the worst.”
“You could never do harm to me, Cecily; nothing but good. Do you know, your sweet, unselfish example has often kept me from doing wrong things myself, and your wonderful visions of saints and angels have kept my faith alive when it came very near to failing sometimes. You mustn’t get morbid; we must have long walks together, we can’t ride just now. Oh, yes! I know your horse and your man are at the Tower still, eating their heads off, and all my horses. But that brute Leslie—God forgive me that I should have to speak so of my husband—is always on the watch. He does not know where I am, and he must not know.”
“But where are you, Beatrix, if not at the Tower?”
“My chamber is inside the Dune of Callifer, with my dear father. Oh, don’t look so startled; there is a house inside there. But where to entertain you I don’t know. I must ask Eochain.”
“Who is Eochain? Beatrix, you bewilder me. Only two days, and you have got as new a life as if you were another person. A new home, new friends, shall I say new enemies? What does it all mean?”
“’Twould take long to tell. Persecution drove me out, and new friends took me in, and brought me to my father. We shall have plenty of time to talk. I must show you this country; though ‘tis only a mile from time Tower, this side is all as new to me as if it were really another land.”
A thought crossed Beatrix’s mind and troubled her. Hitherto the two girls had shared all their walks and rides whenever Cecily was at the Tower, and there was no secret between them. But now Beatrix felt the strangest reluctance to take her friend to Dallas Castle, or even to say anything about it. That adventure, and the friendliness of the Cummings, and the appearance of the lonely chieftain on the battlements, seemed a sort of sacred possession of her very own, that not even with Cecily could she share.
At this moment Eochain, emerging from the wood, came upon the two girls.
“Mistress Ross, if I mistake not,” he said, with grave courtesy. “I am glad you have found our dear lady; she has missed you greatly. Our ways are rough here, and our accommodation is of the humblest, but I have contrived to prepare a tiny cottage, a hut—really it is no more—for your abode while you will remain the guest of our primitive life. Come and see.”
Together they walked to the haunted wood, where Eochain had with his own hands removed all traces of former occupation, and made the tiny shelter look quite fresh and almost new. Beatrix had never seen it before, and all memory of it had passed completely from Cecily’s mind.
“Oh, how delightful!” she exclaimed. “I am sure there are good spirits very close around here. I see a great golden rose brooding over the roof, and two lovely figures in pure white guarding the door.”
“You will join me at supper here in the open, at the hour of sunset,” said Eochain. “Meantime, will you, my Lady Beatrix, give your father his evening meal. You will find it all ready. I doubt it will be best that he should not see Mistress Ross tonight. He will sleep as soon as he has had his broth—to-morrow, I hope, he may be up for a short time.”
“Do tell me,” said Beatrix, “how in this lonely spot you contrive to provide for us all our meals, and everything as though we were in the Tower, with all our own serving men.”
“I am a Cumming,” replied the old man, “and no Gumming was ever yet at a loss when there was any game to be had, either to kill or to cook it; but within the last few days the clan have come to know of my being here, and I have wanted for no assistance. Game of all kinds, and wine hath been brought daily, and I could have any help I wanted for anything.”
“Are you really one of the wild Cummings,” said Cecily. “I thought they were all—” She checked herself hurriedly. “A wicked and lawless crew,” said the old man, with a smile. “You have gauged us correctly I think, and some there are who would tell you that I am the absolute worst of a very bad family. My elder brother, the chief of Altyre, thinks so still, I believe. I came back to this dear land some time since, but I told no one. Now they have found me out I know that the clan still have some love for the old man. The grey beards who were boys with me have remembered me ever since I went away, and have taught their children to look always for the return of Eochain Beag, as they used to call me, and my nephew Alasdair is the chosen chief of the Dallas branch of the Cummings. I hope he will now take up his position. Long ago they wanted me, but my work lay otherwheres. Now, Mistress Ross, as I think that your strength is not yet wholly returned, I counsel that you rest for awhile, and try to sleep until supper, and the Lady Beatrix will minister to her father. All three of you are for the present the guests of Eochain Beag Cumming, who feels himself honoured to have the privilege of entertaining you. Mistress Ross, I am somewhat of a leech. When we first nmet an hour or so since, you spoke of terrible dreams and nightmares. I hope after supper you will tell me a few particulars. I may be able to put them away altogether.”
“Oh, if you only could!” said Cecily, as she passed into the shelter obediently to carry out the old man’s behest, and repose till supper time.
Beatrix went to the Dune to give her father the usual evening meal, consisting of a savoury broth of various kinds of game, which she found simmering on a turf fire, and she realised with a thrill of sudden compunction how she had accepted all the delicate and gracious hospitality of Eochain Beag and his thoughtful courtesies as a matter of course. When she had first come here fatigue, and the only half-allayed terror of the forbidden land, and her anxiety about her father, and joy at finding him still alive and recovering, and then the heavy hypnotic sleep into which she had been cast, had altogether dulled her senses to the novel strangeness of her surroundings. Then, when she came to herself, Eochain had taken the whole position so naturally that instinctively she felt at home at once, and the old life in Blervie Tower seemed a thing far away and already half forgotten.
Sir Wilfred was cheery as usual; his face had filled out in the last few days, and now had the fresh colour of health; his grey eyes were bright and full of humour.
“Welcome, my child,” he said, “you have brought me a savoury mess such as I love, as the good book says. I recognise Master Eochain’s cooking.”
“Father, how good Master Eochain hath been to us!”
“Good, child—’tis too faint and poor a word. He is a man among ten thousand and of a fine old race. En! my Trixy, what an old fool I was not to wed you to a Cumming. I must have been half besotted. I remember I was studying some manuscripts about witches. Do you remember old Maggie Angus, who used to live in a turf hut in the hollow below the tower on the Rafford road—a hideous, dirty old woman. They said she turned herself into a hare; and one day a boy threw a stone at a hare and broke its fore leg, and the old woman was found with a broken arm. I wanted to know what spell would do this, and I had got some manuscripts from Rome; and the man who gave them to me was in the confidence of the Pope, and he persuaded me that if I were to marry you to Leslie your future was safe. I suppose it was thinking so much of the manuscripts took away my common sense, and he persuaded me that Sir Norman Leslie was high in favour at Rome. I know now that this was true, and that is the trouble, for Rome won’t annul the marriage, the Churchmen are so anxious to get our lands. Eh! if it had only been a Cumming.”
“Never mind, father. There must be some way out. Come, drink your broth and go to sleep. You will be out and about again in a few days.”
In a very short time sleep was coming fast over the old man’s eyes, and Beatrix gently arranged the cushions under the curly grey head, and drew the skin rug over him, and left him sleeping soundly, while she tripped back to rouse Cecily to join Eochain in their alfresco supper.
It was a bright and happy meal. Eochain was no longer the sage or theologian, no longer the Druid priest or the powerful magnetic hypnotist, ruling the bodies and brains of those under his spell. He was simply the courteous host, with the fascinating manners of his race, recounting legends of the countryside, and tales of mischief and adventures of his boyhood, or anon whimsically alluding to some item of their supper and narrating how hard it had been to snare, or how difficult to cook. And from this he told them of the cookery he had learned in gipsy tents,— of roasting a hedgehog in a casing of clay, or baking a blackbird inside a ball of meal.
From that he went on to speak of the gipsies with whom he had had great friendship in various countries, and of their wonderful skill in fortune-telling, and in the interpretation of dreams. Wonderful were the stories he told, and told so simply and graphically the girls were enthralled.
“But you, Mistress Ross,” he said at length, “have had some remarkable experiences of dreams. It would be a great favour if you would tell me some. I have heard of your visions of saints and angels, and you have told me how you have suffered from horrible nightmare dreams. I wish I might lend you my aid to combat the latter. Please tell me something about them. When do they come, and what causes them? Do you know?”
“No! I only wish I did,” she replied. “As for the nightmare itself, it is nearly always of the same kind, and it has something to do with hunting, and it seems that I should never fall into it unless I let myself go. But it comes at last that I can’t help it. I have to let myself go of my own will, too, that is the dreadful part of it.”
“Try and tell me exactly,” said Eochain; “no, don’t be afraid. I can see what you are thinking, you fear lest even the recounting the symptoms may bring back the nightmare. I promise you it shall not.”
“Trust him, Cecily,” said Beatrix, “he is a master of sleep and dreams. He has cured my dear father that way.”
“You are good, I know,” responded Cecily. “I see flocks of good spirits around you. I do trust you, and I’ll try to tell you as well as I can. I always have warnings before an attack of nightmare comes on, by moods and feelings that are quite unnatural to me. Sometimes a slight thing—a sight or sound—will rouse ideas. For instance, I see a hound running, and I think how glorious to run like that, and at once my mind is racing with the hound, my pulses bound, my breath comes quick. But I know what it all means now;—and I force myself to realise that the terror by night will assuredly come upon me, and then I lose all care for running and excitement, and just long to lie still and rest. And then sometimes it is thoughts not stirred by anything, but born of themselves, I suppose. I feel dull, and to amuse myself I imagine I am hunting—I don’t know why, for I never cared for the sport—and then in fancy I am rushing along with the wind in my hair, and the fever in my blood, and the fresh air in my lungs, and I love the wild excitement even in fancy, and I get so excited that I love the kill too. I, who cannot bear to look at even the tiniest, most insignificant creature in pain, but it stirs me up to wilder and wilder excitement—I grow mad—and I love to see the blood flow—to see the quarry mangled and torn to pieces—I have a savage delight in its cries of pain—I want to throw myself upon it—to plunge my hands in its flowing blood, and to tear and to mangle it myself. All this, you know, is when I am awake and conscious, but it is a surging tide of madness that rushes along and carries me with it, till I can no more stop than I could stop if I were sliding down a mountain side on a snow-drift. But when it is over I am utterly exhausted, and oh! so ashamed of myself. Though it is all imagination and fancy, it looks as if it was real, and as if I had really been the cruel, savage monster I let myself imagine that I was. Then I know that an attack of nightmare is near, and that perhaps next time I shall lose consciousness altogether, and be plunged alive into that hell of visions with no power to check, or control, or get out. Then the only thing I can do is to crawl into some solitary place where I can sleep and suffer, and where whatever fury may possess me (for indeed I fear that some day I may actually go mad in one of these attacks), I may at least do no harm to any other.”
“May I interrupt you for a moment,” said Eochain. “You spoke of suffering in sleep; but in the waking premonition I gather that while the fancy is actually going on you exult and rejoice in it.” “I do—I do—while it is going on, it is the most glorious bliss in the world! How can I sit here and say so? But I am trying to tell you the truth absolutely, and so it is; but the dread before it comes on, and the shame after, are the torments of the damned. Perhaps In my nightmare dreams I may exult at the time in the same way. But you see I am unconscious. Then I have only the memory when I wake, and then there is the shame and the terror, and the feeling that I have been down in hell, and that I am fouled beyond all hope of recovery; yet there is sometimes also the memory of a wild excitement, of glorying in mad savagery, and the lust of blood, of giving myself up absolutely to being wholly animal in every thought and desire, and being proud of it, and there is sometimes, too, a great brutal animal man in the dreams, fierce and savage as myself, and I seem to be his willing slave, and to delight in arousing and satisfying all his passions, and in goading him to fouler and coarser indulgence in them. But, as I say, it is the overpowering shame that is with me then, only a remote memory of the excitement.”
“Yet now another question,” said Eochain. “When the fit is coming on, when you have, as you say, a warning, do you not then look on these experiences with pleasure, and a wish to experience them again?”
“Oh, how could you know that? Yes, I do. The thought comes to me sometimes that there is a dream kingdom into which, when I am dull, and life looks all grey, I can enter and have all the joy and excitement and pleasure that seems to have been denied to me in life, and I think I will only just look in, and enjoy just one wild gallop for refreshment, and come back to the round of daily life again; and then before I know I am caught on the downward slope, and there’s no stopping. Fancy will have its way. Sometimes I can resist, and then it looks as though life spread before me like a dull, level flat all grey and sombre, till I think I could not bear the monotony of it. But it’s not always so it begins. Sometimes, even when I am tired and out of spirits, some inner voice seems to tell me to go and look for the dream kingdom, and I don’t want to, I would much rather lie still and rest; but to get quit of the voice I say I will go, and then I feel I have promised, more than ever I felt the binding of a promise to a living being. I feel I must go, and by degrees I feel I want to, and then the rapture of the mad rush catches me, and there is no recovery till exhaustion. But when I lose my consciousness and fall really into sleep and night- mare, then I can tell you nothing, except the terrible memories when I wake, the shame and the disgust.”
As she spoke there broke upon the silent air the sound of the trampling of a troop of horses in the distance, coming nearer, and a peal of a trumpet rang through the startled woodland. It was the Leslie’s call, and a moment after came on their ears the stentorian shout.
“Ho, there! Grip fast! Grip fast! Ho, my black-a-vised sweetheart, art there? Nay, wench! I would pull you out of the pit of hell if I couldn’t get you otherwise.”
The galloping rush of the horses died away towards Alves Kirk as another trumpet peal rang out defiantly.
Eochain kept his eyes steadily fixed on Cecily’s face. Never a muscle quivered, no sign of recognition passed. Only she said, “Some belated reveller, surely. I had not thought your peaceful roads were often troubled by such.”
“Good,” said Eochain to himself, “my spells are not needed there.”
“I fear I shall not sleep tonight,” said Cecily, “I was foolish to talk so much, and excite my brain. Never mind, I know the good spirits will take care of me here.”
“Sleep shall come to you, my child,” said Eochain. “Will you try to read the words on my ring.”
He held out his right hand, on which was an engraved beryl stone. As she bent over it, trying to make out the words upon it, wave after wave of warm drowsy calmness flowed over brain and limbs.
“You are more than half asleep now,” he said. “Retire to your cottage and rest and sleep soundly; in the morning all will be well with you.”
“You are indeed a magician,” she said softly and faintly. “I feel happier and better than for years.”
So they parted, Beatrix going into the Dune to be near in case her father should need anything in the night, and Eochain back to the sacred circle to perform his nightly devotions.
XV – HOW LOVE DAWNED IN DALLAS CASTLE
The castle of Dallas lay in the flat country through which the little river Kellas and the higher waters of the Lossie meandered among peat mosses and heathery moors, and under the shade of graceful groups of birches. The flanking walls, square in form, and already grey and hichened, though the castle was comparatively new, swept round a considerable area; in the centre peered over them the battlemented tower, which formed its chief strength. Narrow lancet windows, irregularly placed, pierced the walls. The river had been turned from its course to form a moat, crossed by a draw- bridge, at the end of which a gloomy looking arch was protected by a portcullis. But on an afternoon two days after Beatrix had first beheld the castle under the escort of the two chivalrous Cummings, the drawbridge was down, the portcullis was raised, ~ and some men were busily at work repairing some dilapidations, and clearing out the moat. In the door- way stood the same figure who had stood on the battlements looking out on the sunset and the sea. He was now directing the men in their work. His bonnet with the chieftain’s eagle plume surmounted a head covered with close-cropped, crisp chestnut curls, which in that day, when men habitually wore the hair rather long, was noticeable in itself, his close shaven face was sun- tanned and scored with keen, eager lines. The face of a poet in thought and fancy, but still more of a man of rapid decision and vigorous action, his figure indicated unusual strength and supple athletic capacity. The belted plaid of the red and green Cumming tartan that he wore was faded and somewhat frayed, his deerskin brogues showed signs of hard wear, but his dress was worn with the debonair grace of a man to whom it was habitual, and who had moved in Courts and among nobles. One could fancy him leading a dance in a stately hall, or racing with his dogs over the heather to pull down a wounded stag, or standing man to man in fierce fight when dirks flashed. Then would he stand for life or death, with palm up and the wrist low, to take the foeman in the groin, and the joy of fight would boil in his brain.
But just now it was building that filled his mind, till at length the job in hand was done, and he dismissed the men. “I shall lie alone here tonight again. Nay, good fellows, heed me not. When once this mouldy place is made habitable again we will have feasting and merrymaking to your hearts’ content. Dallas shall be livelier than Altyre, I promise you. But tonight I have much to think of—good-night! good-night! Come again to-morrow, there is still much to do.”
He made the sign of the cross in benediction, and muttered a Hail Mary as he turned within, and passing over a triangular courtyard, wherein some small Highland beasts were munching the hay, he ascended to a narrow window of the tower, and looked out to the north on the hill that rose towards distant Callifer. More and more steadily he fixed his eyes, as a limber mist seemed to float over the hillside, as though a sea fog were drifting up the valley. The chill sensation of fog came over him, too, as the lines of the hill grew dim, and then were blurred out of recognition. Still he sat and gazed, and on the mist came a round patch of light, or rather of a clearer grey than the rest, and in this he saw the figure of a woman walking. Rapidly she walked, and there was a flush on the fair face, and her red lips were parted as the breath came quickly with the exercise; her bright red-gold hair was stirred by the wind, and formed a golden cloud round her face; she swung her hood in her hand, and her wimple was loosened for air; her eyes gleamed with lambent green lights as she tripped lightly from stone to stone over the rough, uneven ground where no path lay. Then the picture disappeared, and the grey mist lay over all the hillside. His eyes ached and throbbed, and gradually the mist seemed to clear away, the hill came again into sight, with no human figure visible.
“That picture is persistent,” said Alasdair to himself. “But I never saw her like that before. I wonder— yes! it must be now. Old nurse used to say I had the second sight. She is veritably coming to me. Hey! but life is good once more.”
He turned into the Castle again, and looked round the room with some dissatisfaction. It had been his own living-room for the few days he had been staying at the Castle—good enough for him, so he had thought, but now he was to have a visitor it looked strangely rude and uncomfortable—the bare board on trestles that stood for a table, the rough settle, the deer-skin thrown over a heap of moss that served him for a couch. They were mean and unworthy. Hurriedly he dived at a bale that had been brought in by two of the clansmen that morning, and thrown carelessly into a corner till he should have need for it. Some plaids and skins, a dirk and targe, a claymore, and similar articles were hauled out and quickly draped about the room with refined taste, till the bare, mean chamber began to take on the aspect of a Highland chieftain’s hall. Then he ran down to a room on the ground floor that served him for a larder; a peat fire was smouldering in one corner, a pile of oatmeal bannocks and a stoup of milk were ready to his hand, fresh heather honey was in a jar. It was but short work to have a dainty if somewhat primitive meal laid out on the board now decked with a Cumming plaid and a spread of homespun napery sent to him by an old woman of the clan who had saved it for the home- coming of the Chief. Another settle was hauled down from an upstairs room, and the young Chief surveying his preparations was not displeased on the whole.
“She will be here,” he murmured low to himself, “the lady of my dreams, only twice seen in the flesh, and then she knew not I saw her, nor could she ever think ‘twas a Cumming under that strange garb. No matter! The way is long, she will be glad to rest, and to break bread even with me, mayhap.”
His mood was singularly humble. In his earlier days he had known women well, and in the gay and light society of the period he had been petted and made much of, though he had but little responded; but now, before the image of this twice-seen woman who had so inextricably wound herself into his dreams, his self-confidence vanished—he saw himself as merely the rude Highland chief, who could have no attraction for so rare and dainty a flower.
A step sounded on the drawbridge. His pulses raced almost painfully, and notwithstanding all his preparations he half wished he could retreat before he met her. Then he looked from the window and cursed himself for a fool, for it was but a serving-man in the Altyre livery, and bearing a note. He read it hastily. Then he said— “Tell Sir Alexander Cumming of Altyre this from Alasdair Cumming, Chief of the Cummings of Dallas and of Kellas, we are no thralls or bondmen of Altyre, neither will we brook any interference. I, Alasdair, was the Tannist of this clan, and I have now come to take up mine own. If Sir Alexander speaks to me as a father, I will yield him all the reverence due from a son. If he speaks as the head Chief of all the Cummings, then I say if the Clan Cumming goes to fight I and my men will stand by him till the last of us lies dead on the field, be his cause good or evil. But otherwise I will tolerate no interference; the Cummings of Dallas in exercise of their ancient and undoubted right have freely chosen me, the Tannist, for their Chief, and I will abide by them and uphold their rights to the last. Such is my final word to the Chief of Altyre. Stay I A herald is a sacred person. Drink a flagon of wine ere your departure. Now go with what speed you may.”
He spoke hurriedly, once more bidding the youth haste lest night overtake him. Partly his urgency might be due to the sight of a figure in green robe and mantle walking daintily across the level ground by the stepping-stones. And hastily the youth departed, for Alasdair Cumming was not a man to be trifled with; but on his homeward way he too had seen the dainty figure in green, and had reported thereon to his gossip Master Urquhart, in Forres, telling him as a choice piece of scandal how ‘twas small wonder that Alasdair Cumming had taken up his abode in the deserted Castle of Dallas, where metal so attractive might be found— such quarry, in fact, as it was the wont of the Cummings to pursue with especial ardour. And Master Urquhart recognising the description of the lady, saw something to his own advantage in the story, and a creature of his own, jackal of a jackal, had stolen out from Forres along the Rafford road.
Alasdair was very conscious that his nerves had been on edge. The manifestation of second sight to the Highlander is often in itself exhausting, and the expectation of actually seeing the dream lady who, twice beheld in the flesh, and to whom he had never addressed one word, had yet haunted his visions with an extraordinary persistence, thrilled him till the tensity of nerve became almost unendurable. The message from Sir Alexander Cumming of Altyre, touching as it did his dignity and his responsibility as chosen Chief of the Dallas Cummings, fired the train; but the outburst of wrath calmed him. He sat in the window-seat looking to the north, leaning his chin on his hand, and gazing over the watery levels at the foot of the Castle away to the steep dark hill that lay beyond, watching the green-kirtled figure that appeared and disappeared as the path wound among the trees.
Beatrix walking that afternoon down the Glen of Dallas had passed over the stepping-stones. Roy and Alpin, again on sentry duty, saluted her gravely; but as she seemed to desire no help or company they stood aside with doffed bonnets, allowing her to pass. She looked with curiosity at the stern old keep. Eochain had told her somewhat of its history, and of the mysterious Cochrane who had built it, and the stories and legends and the great and hidden truths that he had built into its walls by the secrets of masonry. She longed to have just a peep at such a wonderful and curious place. Of course, if the solitary watcher were again on the battlements, she must turn back. But probably now he would be away, fighting, or hunting, or something. She was rejoiced to find that the battlements were deserted—so then she would go on. All the same, her heart was beating painfully. She had been told that Alasdair Cumming would do her much good, and she felt a curiosity to see him. Yet, would Father Ambrose approve? She had exorcised the vision of Father Ambrose from her mind, but she could not help thinking that somewhere or other, at some future time, very remote probably, Father Ambrose might be her guide, her friend, her confessor, perhaps,—that somehow, some time, she might actually see those eyes that had so burned upon her through the folds of his cowl. Should she confess to him the interest she felt in this young Alasdair Cumming?
Well, anyhow, he was not here—the Castle was obviously empty. If only the drawbridge were down and the portcullis raised, she might have a peep into its wonders. But under this there was certainly a half-acknowledged disappointment that the Castle’s lord was away—disappointment strangely succeeding to relief with which she saw that the battlements were untenanted. And the rapid beating of her heart and stringing of nerves and muscles that had caused her to walk stiffly, and with almost a tremble and a warm glow, gave way to a blank feeling of weariness, and a wish to sit down and rest for a moment.
She was approaching the gate of the Castle, when, as she turned round the last corner of the walls to come on to the drawbridge, a tall figure stood before her in a belted plaid, and wearing the eagle plume in the bonnet, which he doffed in courteous salutation.
“Welcome, fair lady, to the bare hall of a penniless laird! I knew you would come to-day.”
“Impossible!” said Beatrix gravely, and a trifle stiffly, masking the agitation that surged within her,—“impossible! I only knew myself within the last half-hour; indeed, had I known that you–”
She stopped in a little confusion, not knowing exactly how to finish the sentence.
“Nevertheless, I did know,” he replied, “and that an hour ago—before you knew yourself, as it seems. And that you were expected I will prove to you, if you will but deign to come within, and trust yourself for a brief period of rest to a wild Cumming.”
“Indeed I have good cause to bless the name of the wild Cummings,” said Beatrix. “The best friend I have had in my life was he whom I think they call Eochain Beag.”
“Oh! my Uncle Eochain,” replied he. “Yes, you are right—the best, noblest fellow of all our race, as it seems to me. The very worst of a bad brood, some would tell you. Did he tell you of this ramshackle old keep of mine?”
“He did. He told me many stories of the Castle and made me long to see it; but indeed you must think very ill of me that I have thus forced myself on you without any word of invitation.”
Alasdair raised his eyes and looked at her, and at that moment a strange trembling passed over both, though neither of them could have told why, and in a moment were woven those subtle chains, linking two lives indissolubly—each had come into the other’s life, and for good or for ill were never to go out again. Yet not in the least did either of them realise this fact.
He stood with doffed bonnet, and in the silence a strange nervousness came over Beatrix—so clearly his eyes gave the invitation she had said was lacking, so plainly every fibre of him longed for her, yet was held under the severest restraint; and the thrill she felt was like that when she felt the eyes of Father Ambrose upon her in the Chanter’s garden. She must say something—Or run away—or scream! The tension was too great.
“Tell me something of it,” she said. “I came to explore—not thinking to find the Castle’s lord.”
“Not very much to tell; but such as it is, allow me to be your guide and expounder of mysteries.” He spoke with a forced calm he was far from feeling. “Well, first of all, you see that device cut in the stone above the door?”
He pointed to a cutting on the keystone of the arch; it was like a diamond in the centre of which was a cross with equal arms, the ends of whose limbs touched the angles of the diamond.
“That” he said, “has many meanings. In the first place, it is Cochrane’s mason-mark, whereby his work may be known; but secondly it indicates water. The figures upon it—you can’t quite make them out from here, unless your sight is unusually keen—give the exact distance and direction from the door where it may be found. You would say, perhaps, it was superfluous in this valley of streams to indicate the location of water, but the fact is that most of the water about here is so foul with peat as to be undrinkable—that place holds a spring of the purest, clearest water in the whole of Morayshire. I need hardly say how important that is in time of war, or if the Castle is attacked. We have special ways of protecting our access to the well. But then, again, the Castle itself is built on the plan of that device, as I will show you, if you will do me so much honour.”
He stood aside with a courtly bow to permit her to enter. Beatrix hesitated for a moment. Then some feeling stronger than herself overmastered her, and she passed under the arched doorway beneath the strange sign carved on the lintel; the triangular courtyard was before her, and the central tower set cornerwise with the round turret containing the winding stair occupying the nearest angle.
“What a curious arrangement!” she said. “I never saw a castle planned like this.”
“There is, I believe, no other in Scotland,” he answered. “Cochrane put all his knowledge into it—it is a discourse in stone that would take years to expound fully. I know only a very little of it, though it calls me master just now.”
“Tell me,” she said, after a pause.
“Look back,” he answered her.
The open door behind them framed with its sombre shadow a lovely picture. A little hill, crowned with birch and holly and rowan trees laden with their rich red fruit, rose just on the opposite side of the moat; its top, feathered with the graceful branches of the trees, was clear cut against the pale blue, faintly tinged with gold and rose, reflected from the rich sunset sky; behind the trees, on either side of this bill, the glen could be seen stretching far away.
“That is the fairy hill,” he said. “The door faces to the east, from which by tradition we Cummings were sprung; but the fairies stand to protect us from the dangers of earth, and there, you see, is the mystic rowan tree that guards against witchcraft.”
“I was once advised to hang a bough over my chamber door for a protection,” she told him. “And was it successful?” His voice was eager, as though some personal interest lay behind. “It was—quite, I suppose; at all events, I was never attacked as my poor dear father had been, and I escaped with most amazing luck out of deadly dangers. A dear old monk sent me warning.” “Old enough to know all the charms and spells of witches. But surely it was singular knowledge for a monk.” “I don’t know why I should call him old—I never saw his face; but he took an interest in me.” “Oh, depend on it, he was old—a young monk would have thought such things were a trafficking with the Devil. But now look here! The buildings to our right are the stables; that wing points to the north, and Cochrane used to say appropriately contains the animals, the children of earth. The wing opposite contains the kitchens and such like; it points to the south, and is the home of fire. Now we will go up, if you don’t mind.”
“I should love to.” They passed through a low door into the tower. “Isn’t this a curious winding stair?” she said. “I never remember to have seen one just like it.
And what is that queer-looking triangle cut over the window?” “It is a curious stair—I believe it is unique. It has scores of meanings; my Uncle Eochain has told me that Cochrane would talk for hours about that stair. You see all the windows look out to the fairy hill, and each time you come round you see a little bit more over the top of it, so Cochrane used to say in life you go away by a long detour, and at last you come back to near the same point again, but you are a little bit higher up, you know more, and you see a bit farther out. Now see here,” he said, as he opened the door of his own living-room; “here is proof that I expected you, for you see I have prepared for a guest.”
Beatrix looked in amazement. “You are a veritable magician!” she said. “Oh no!—no magician, only an ordinary Highlandman, with a little bit of second sight. But pray sit down and rest. An oatmeal bannock and a draught of new milk will do you no harm after your walk, and then I will show you the view from the battlements. And when you wish to return, I trust you will accept the escort of my young clansmen and cousins, Roy and Alpin, who watch the march on this side. You see, we have always to be ready for a raid, though I think not that there is any present danger.”
Beatrix was glad enough to rest, for in fact she was somewhat weary with the walk and the excitement. The gipsy meal prepared by Alasdair was worthy of the reputation of a noted hunter, and she found herself with some surprise thus frankly accepting the hospitality of a man whom she met now for the first time, and conversing with him as though he were an old and valued friend.
With a sudden impulse she looked up at him, and their eyes met across the table. It was almost like an electric shock. Her breath came quick and her pulses raced, and the room grew dim for an instant—there seemed to her to be a rosy mist around his form; then with a deep breath she recovered herself, and found the grey kindly eyes still fixed on her, calm and steady. This was a man whom no emotion would ever touch, she thought—grave, kindly, learned. But what a grand figure of a man! He stood considerably over six feet, and was broad and muscular in proportion, without an ounce of superfluous flesh. The crisp curly hair and the bronzed handsome face were eminently attractive; and the eyes, though so steady, seemed to burn on her face. Wild thoughts surged through her brain, though she was outwardly calm; she was conscious that every fibre of her being yearned to this man, as never before in her life. All at once she felt the pressure of her life more than ever before. The mysterious attack upon her father now seemed as though from its very mystery it might be repeated at any moment, and who could say that he would come off so well again? Sir Norman Leslie and her ill-fated marriage loomed large before her—all the powers of Church and State combined to force her to this unholy alliance; there seemed to be no escape from the toils that were closing round her on every side. If only this strong man would take her in his arms, and soothe and pet her, till joy and confidence returned! She who hitherto had proudly trusted in herself now perceived her own strength as weakness, and towards this man she felt a trust she had never given before, save perhaps in very early childhood to her father.
Alasdair, however, appeared profoundly unconscious of these wild thoughts. Suave and gracious, he talked like a polished courtier, but without the least appearance of intimacy. From the little half-playful account of his second sight, whereby he had provided a rest and a meal for her, he went on to stories of Highland second sight and of witchcraft, and tales of the district, stories of sport and of adventure and old clan fights. She listened enthralled, and gradually, as she grew physically rested, her nerves became steady again, and together they went up the winding stair to the top of the tower, from whence they could see the peculiar arrangement of the building. Deep in the flat stones that covered the top of the keep was cut the five-pointed star, and from this as a centre the buildings formed a cross, the flanking walls in diamond shape joining point to point surrounding the whole.
There are the four elements,” said Alasdair. “You see, the cattle are to the north—that is earth; and the kitchens, as I told you, to the south—that is fire. To the west a stream flows under the buildings and turns our water-mill—that is water; and to the east the buildings there are open to all the winds of heaven—that is air. And here on the floor the signet star of five points shows how the spirit dominates all the elements—that is the human sign, and shows man’s superiority to the animal creation.”
Thus for a while he discoursed, Beatrix listening with eager attention, till the fading light in the west warned them that it was time for her to return.
Alasdair blew a shrill whistle, and Roy and Alpin could be seen to spring from the heather and race like young deer over the intervening space. The Chief raised his bonnet in courteous salutation and farewell, and under the escort of the two chivalrous clansmen she retraced her steps, in a strange mood of exhilaration. They went with her all the way till she was almost at the margin of the haunted wood, then shouted a peculiar call, which was answered from the wood.
“The Cummings’ signal,” explained Roy. “It was answered by Master Eochain Beag. We may safely leave you here, lady,—you are safe under the protection of the Clan Cumming. For those who are honoured with the friendship of Master Eochain, and of our beloved Chief Alasdair Oge, the clan would lay down their lives. Fare you well, lady!”
In an instant they had disappeared—how she could not tell, but even their extraordinary knowledge of moor-craft did not discover a man who by his dress was a tinker, lying face down in the heather where it was deepest and watching the scene. Neither, though they had seen him, could they have told that he was an emissary of Master Urquhart of Forres.