Read CHAPTER XIII. - WHERE TREADS THE DEER. of John Splendid The Tale of a Poor Gentleman‚ and the Little Wars of Lorn , free online book, by Neil Munro, on ReadCentral.com.

When the English minister, in his odd lalland Scots, had told us this tale of the dying MacDonald, I found for the first time my feeling to the daughter of the Provost of Inneraora, Before this the thought of her was but a pleasant engagement for the mind at leisure moments; now it flashed on my heart with a stound that yon black eyes were to me the dearest jewels in the world, that lacking her presence these glens and mountains were very cold and empty.  I think I gave a gasp that let John Splendid into my secret there and then; but at least I left him no doubt about what I would be at.

“What’s the nearer way to Strongara?” I asked; “alongside the river, or through Tombreck?”

He but peered at me oddly a second under his brows - a trifle wistfully, though I might naturally think his mood would be quizzical, then he sobered in a moment That’s what I loved about the man; a fool would have laughed at the bravado of my notion, a man of thinner sentiment would have marred the moment by pointing out difficulties.

“So that’s the airt the wind’s in!” he said, and then he added, “I think I could show you, not the shortest, but the safest road.”

“I need no guidance,” I cried in a hurry, “only - ”

“Only a friend who knows every wood in the country-side, and has your interest at heart, Colin,” he said, softly, putting a hand on my elbow and gripping it in a homely way.  It was the first time he gave me my Christian name since I made his acquaintance.

His company was not to be denied.

We made up some bear-meal bannocks, and a collop of boiled venison in a knapsack that I carried on my back, borrowed plaids from some of the common soldiery, and set out for Strongara at the mouth of the night, with the snow still driving over the land.

MacLachlan was for with us, but John turned on him with a great deal of determination, and dared him to give extra risk to our enterprise by adding another man to the chance of the enemy seeing us.

The lad met the objection ungraciously, and John took to his flattery.

“The fact is, MacLachlan,” said he, taking him aside with a hand on his lapel, and a show of great confidence - “the fact is, we can’t be leaving this place in charge of a lot of old bodachs - Sir Donald the least able of them all, - and if there’s another attack the guidance of the defence will depend on you.  You may relish that or you may not; perhaps after all you would be safer with us - ”

MacLachlan put up his chest an inch or two, unconscious that he did it, and whistled a stave of music to give evidence of his indifference.  Then he knitted his brows to cogitate, as it were, and -

“Very well!” said he.  “If you come on my coz, you’ll bring her back here, or to the castle, I suppose?”

“I had no thought of running away with the lass, I’ll take my oath,” cried John, sticking his tongue in the cheek nearest me.

“I wish I could fathom yon fellow’s mind,” I said to my comrade, as we stepped out through the snow and into the wooded brae-side, keeping a wary eye about for spies of the enemy, whose footprints we came on here and there, but so faint in the fresh snowfall that it was certain they were now in the valley.

“Do you find it difficult?” asked John.  “I thought a man of schooling, with Latin at his tongue’s-end, would see to the deepest heart of MacLachlan.”

“He’s crafty.”

“So’s the polecat till the fox meets him.  Tuts, man, you have a singular jealousy of the creature.”

“Since the first day I saw him.”

John laughed.

“That was in the Provost’s,” quo’ he, and he hummed a song I caught the meaning of but slightly.

“Wrong, wrong!” said I, striding under the trees as we slanted to the right for Tombreck.  “His manner is provoking.”

“I’ve seen him polish it pretty well for the ladies.”

“His temper’s always on the boil.”

“Spirit, man; spirit!  I like a fellow of warmth now and then.”

“He took it most ungraciously when we put him out of the Provost’s house on the night of the squabble in the town.”

“It was an awkward position he was in.  I’d have been a bit black-browed about it myself,” said John.  “Man! it’s easy to pick holes in the character of an unfriend, and you and MacLachlan are not friendly, for one thing that’s not his fault any more than yours.”

“You’re talking of the girl,” I said, sharply, and not much caring to show him how hot my face burned at having to mention her.

“That same,” said he; “I’ll warrant that if it wasn’t for the girl (the old tale! the old tale!), you had thought the young sprig not a bad gentleman after all.”

“Oh, damn his soul!” I blurted out “What is he that he should pester his betters with his attentions?”

“A cousin, I think, a simple cousin-german they tell me,” said John, drily; “and in a matter of betters, now - eh?”

My friend coughed on the edge of his plaid, and I could swear he was laughing at me.  I said nothing for a while, and with my skin burning, led the way at a hunter’s pace.  But John was not done with the subject.

“I’m a bit beyond the age of it myself,” he said; “but that’s no reason why I shouldn’t have eyes in my head.  I know how much put about you are to have this young fellow gallivanting round the lady.”

“Jealous, you mean,” I cried.

“I didn’t think of putting it that way.”

“No; it’s too straightforward a way for you, - ever the roundabout way for you.  I wish to God you would sometimes let your Campbell tongue come out of the kink, and say what you mean.”

With a most astonishing steady voice for a man as livid as the snow on the hair of his brogues, and with his hand on the hilt of his dirk, John cried -

“Stop a bit.”

I faced him in a most unrighteous humour, ready to quarrel with my shadow.

“For a man I’m doing a favour to, Elrigmore,” he said, “you seem to have a poor notion of politeness.  I’m willing to make some allowance for a lover’s tirravee about a woman who never made tryst with him; but I’ll allow no man to call down the credit of my clan and name.”

A pair of gowks, were we not, in that darkening wood, quarrelling on an issue as flimsy as a spider’s web, but who will say it was not human nature?  I daresay we might have come to hotter words and bloody blows there and then, but for one of the trifles that ever come in the way to change - not fate, for that’s changeless, but the semblance of it.

“My mother herself was a Campbell of an older family than yours,” I started to say, to show I had some knowledge of the breed, and at the same time a notion of fairness to the clan.

This was fresh heather on the fire.

“Older!” he cried; “she was a MacVicar as far as ever I heard; it was the name she took to kirk with her when she married your father.”

“So,” said I; “but - ”

“And though I allow her grandfather Dpl-a-mhonadh [Donald-of-the-Hills] was a Campbell, it was in a roundabout way; he was but the son of one of the Craignish gentry.”

“You yourself - ”

“Sir!” said he in a new tone, as cold as steel and as sharp, misjudging my intention.

“You yourself are no more than a M’Iver.”

“And what of that?” he cried, cooling down a bit “The M’ivers of Asknish are in the direct line from Duncan, Lord of Lochow.  We had Pennymore, Stron-shira, and Glenaora as cadets of Clan Campbell when your Craignish cross-breeds were under the salt.”

“Only by the third cousin,” said I; “my father has told me over and over again that Duncan’s son had no heir.”

And so we went into all this perplexity of Highland pedigree like old wives at a waulking, forgetting utterly that what we began to quarrel about was the more serious charge of lying.  M’lver was most frantic about the business, and I think I was cool, for I was never a person that cared a bodle about my history bye the second generation.  They might be lairds or they might be lackeys for all the differ it made to me.  Not that there were any lackeys among them.  My grandfather was the grandson of Tormaid Mor, who held the whole east side of Lochow from Ford to Sonachan, and we have at home the four-posted bed that Tormaid slept on when the heads of the house of Argile were lying on white-hay or chaff.

At last John broke into a laugh.

“Aren’t you the amadan to be biting the tongue between your teeth?” he said.

“What is it?” I asked, constrained to laugh too.

“You talk about the crook in our Campbell tongue in one breath,” said he, “and in the next you would make yourself a Campbell more sib to the chief than I am myself.  Don’t you think we might put off our little affairs of family history till we find a lady and a child in Stron-gara?”

“No more of it, then,” said I.  “Our difference began on my fool’s notion that because I had something of what you would call a liking for this girl, no one else should let an eye light on her.”

By now we were in a wide glade in the Tombreck wood.  On our left we could see lying among the grey snow the house of Tombreck, with no light nor lowe (as the saying goes); and though we knew better than to expect there might be living people in it, we sped down to see the place.

“There’s one chance in a million she might have ventured here,” I said.

A most melancholy dwelling!  Dwelling indeed no more but for the hoodie-crow, and for the fawn of the hill that years after I saw treading over the grass-grown lintel of its door.  To-night the place was full of empty airs and ghosts of sounds inexplicable, wailing among the cabars that jutted black and scarred mid-way from wall to wall The byre was in a huddle of damp thatch, and strewn (as God’s my judge) by the bones of the cattle the enemy had refused to drive before them in the sauciness of their glut A desolate garden slept about the place, with bush and tree - once tended by a family of girls, left orphan and desolate for evermore.

We went about on tiptoes as it might be in a house of the dead, and peeped in at the windows at where had been chambers lit by the cheerful cruisie or dancing with peat-fire flame - only the dark was there, horrible with the odours of char, or the black joist against the dun sky.  And then we went to the front door (for Tombreck was a gentle-house), and found it still on the hinges, but hanging half back to give view to the gloomy interior.  It was a spectacle to chill the heart, a house burned in hatred, the hearth of many songs and the chambers of love, merrymaking, death, and the children’s feet, robbed of every interest but its ghosts and the memories of them they came to.

“It were useless to look here; she is not here,” I said in a whisper to my comrade.

He stood with his bonnet in his hand, dumb for a space, then speaking with a choked utterance.

“Our homes, our homes, Colin!” he cried.  “Have I not had the happy nights in those same walls, those harmless hospitable halls, those dead halls?”

And he looked broadcast over the country-side.

“The curse of Conan and the black stones on the hands that wrought this work!” he said.  “Poison to their wells; may the brutes die far afield!”

The man was in a tumult of grief and passion, the tears, I knew by his voice, welling to his eyes.  And indeed I was not happy myself, had not been happy indeed, by this black home, even if the girl I loved was waiting me at the turn of the road.

“Let us be going,” I said at last.

“She might be here; she might be in the little plantation!” he said (and still in the melancholy and quiet of the place we talked in whispers).

“Could you not give a call, a signal?” he asked; and I had mind of the call I had once taught her, the doleful pipe of the curlew.

I gave it with hesitancy to the listening night.  It came back an echo from the hills, but brought no other answer.

A wild bird roosting somewhere in the ruined house flapped out by the door and over us.  I am not a believer in the ghostly - at least to the extent of some of our people; yet I was alarmed, till my reason came to me and the badinage of the professors at college, who had twitted me on my fears of the mischancy.  But M’Iver clutched me by the shoulder in a frenzy of terror.  I could hear his teeth chittering as if he had come out of the sea.

“Name of God!” he cried, “what was yon?”

“But a night-hag,” said I.

He was ashamed of his weakness; but the night, as he said, had too many holes in it for his fancy.

And so we went on again across the hill-face in the sombre gloaming.  It was odd that the last time I had walked on this hillside had been for a glimpse of that same girl we sought to-night.  Years ago, when I was a lad, she had on a summer been sewing with a kinswoman in Car-lunnan, the mill croft beside a linn of the river, where the salmon plout in a most wonderful profusion, and I had gone at morning to the hill to watch her pass up and down in the garden of the mill, or feed the pigeons at the round doo-cot, content (or wellnigh content) to see her and fancy the wind in her tresses, the song at her lip.  In these mornings the animals of the hill and the wood and I were friendly; they guessed somehow, perhaps, no harm was in my heart:  the young roes came up unafraid, almost to my presence, and the birds fluttered like comrades about me, and the little animals that flourish in the wild dallied boldly in my path.  It was a soft and tranquil atmosphere, it was a world (I think now) very happy and unperplexed.  And at evening, after a hurried meal, I was off over the hills to this brae anew, to watch her who gave me an unrest of the spirit, unappeasable but precious.  I think, though the mornings were sweet, ’twas the eve that was sweeter still.  All the valley would be lying soundless and sedate, the hills of Salachary and the forest of Creag Dubh purpling in the setting sun, a rich gold tipping Dunchuach like a thimble.  Then the eastern woods filled with dark caverns of shade, wherein the tall trunks of the statelier firs stood grey as ghosts.  What was it, in that precious time, gave me, in the very heart of my happiness, a foretaste of the melancholy of coming years?  My heart would swell, the tune upon my lip would cease, my eyes would blur foolishly, looking on that prospect most magic and fine.  Rarely, in that happy age, did I venture to come down and meet the girl, but - so contrary is the nature of man! - the day was happier when I worshipped afar, though I went home fuming at my own lack of spirit.

To-day, my grief! how different the tale!  That bygone time loomed upon me like a wave borne down on a mariner on a frail raft, the passion of the past ground me inwardly in a numb pain.

We stumbled through the snow, and my comrade - good heart! - said never a word to mar my meditation.  On our right the hill of Meall Ruadh rose up like a storm-cloud ere the blackest of the night fell; we walked on the edges of the plantations, surmising our way by the aid of the grey snow around us.

It was not till we were in the very heart of Strongara wood that I came to my reason and thought what folly was this to seek the wanderer in such a place in dead of night.  To walk that ancient wood, on the coarse and broken ground, among fallen timber, bog, bush, water-pass, and hillock, would have tried a sturdy forester by broad day; it was, to us weary travellers, after a day of sturt, a madness to seek through it at night for a woman and child whose particular concealment we had no means of guessing.

M’lver, natheless, let me flounder through that perplexity for a time, fearful, I suppose, to hurt my feelings by showing me how little I knew of it, and finally he hinted at three cairns he was acquaint with, each elevated somewhat over the general run of the country, and if not the harbourage a refugee would make for, at least the most suitable coign to overlook the Strongara wood.

“Lead me anywhere, for God’s sake!” said I; “I’m as helpless as a mowdie on the sea-beach.”

He knew the wood as ’twere his own garden, for he had hunted it many times with his cousiri, and so he led me briskly, by a kind of natural path, to the first cairn.  Neither there nor at the second did I get answer to my whistle.

“We’ll go up on the third,” said John, “and bide there till morning; scouring a wood in this fashion is like hunting otters in the deep sea.”

We reached the third cairn when the hour was long past midnight I piped again in vain, and having ate part of our coilop, we set us down to wait the dawn.  The air, for mid-winter, was almost congenial; the snow fell no longer; the north part of the sky was wondrous clear and even jubilant with star.