Read CHAPTER XXI. - SEVEN BROKEN MEN. of John Splendid The Tale of a Poor Gentleman‚ and the Little Wars of Lorn , free online book, by Neil Munro, on ReadCentral.com.

At last there was but one horseman in chase of the six men who were fleeing without a look behind them - a frenzied blackavised trooper on a short-legged garrón he rode most clumsily, with arms that swung like wings from the shoulders, his boots keeping time to the canter with grotesque knockings against the gaunt and sweating flanks of his starven animal.  He rode with a shout, and he rode with a fool’s want of calculation, for he had left all support behind him and might readily enough have been cut off by any judicious enemy in the rear.  Before we could hurry down to join the fugitives they observed for themselves that the pursuit had declined to this solitary person, so up they drew (all but one of them), with dirks or sgians out to give him his welcome.  And yet the dragoon put no check on his horse.  The beast, in a terror at the din of the battle, was indifferent to the rein of its master, whom it bore with thudding hooves to a front that must certainly have appalled him.  He was a person of some pluck, or perhaps the drunkenness of terror lent him the illusion of valour; at least, when he found a bloody end inevitable he made the best of the occasion.  Into the heaving sides of the brute he drove desperate spurs, anew he shouted a scurrilous name at Clan Campbell, then fired his pistol as he fell upon the enemy.  The dag failed of its purpose, but the breast of the horse struck an elderly man on the brow and threw him on his back, so that one of the hind-hooves of the animal crushed in his skull like a hazel-nut.

Who of that fierce company brought the trooper to his end we never knew, but when M’Iver and I got down to the level he was dead as knives could make him, and his horse, more mad than ever, was disappearing over a mossy moor with a sky-blue lochan in the midst of it.

Of the five Campbells three were gentlemen - Forbes the baron-bailie of Ardkinglas, Neil Campbell in Sonachan, Lochowside, and the third no other than Master Gordon the minister, who was the most woebegone and crestfallen of them all.  The other two were small tacksmen from the neighbourhood of Inneraora - one Callum Mac-Iain vie Ruarie vie Allan (who had a little want, as we say of a character, or natural, and was ever moist with tears), and a Rob Campbell in Auchnatra, whose real name was Stewart, but who had been in some trouble at one time in a matter of a neighbour’s sheep on the braes of Appin, had discreetly fled that country, and brought up a family under a borrowed name in a country that kept him in order.

We were, without doubt, in a most desperate extremity, If we had escaped the immediate peril of the pursuing troopers of MacDonald, we had a longer, wearier hazard before us.  Any one who knows the countryside I am writing of, or takes a glance at my relative Neill Bane’s diagram or map of the same, will see that we were now in the very heart of a territory hotching (as the rough phrase goes) with clans inimical to the house of Argile.  Between us and the comparative safety of Bredalbane lay Stewarts, MacDonalds, Macgregors, and other families less known in history, who hated the name of MacCailein more than they feared the wrath of God.  The sight of our tartan in any one of their glens would rouse hell in every heart about us.

Also our numbers and the vexed state of the times were against us.  We could hardly pass for peaceable drovers at such a season of the year; we were going the wrong airt for another thing, and the fact that not we alone but many more of Argile’s forces in retreat were fleeing home would be widely advertised around the valleys in a very few hours after the battle had been fought For the news of war - good or ill - passes among the glens with a magic speed.  It runs faster than the fiery cross itself - so fast and inexplicable on any natural law, that more than once I have been ready to believe it a witches’ premonition more than a message carried on young men’s feet.

“But all that,” said Sonachan, a pawky, sturdy little gentleman with a round ruddy face and a great store of genealogy that he must be ever displaying - “But all that makes it more incumbent on us to hang together.  It may easily be a week before we get into Glenurchy; we must travel by night and hide by day, and besides the heartening influence of company there are sentinels to consider and the provision of our food.”

Ardkinglas, on the other hand, was a fushionless, stupid kind of man:  he was for an immediate dispersion of us all, holding that only in individuals or in pairs was it possible for us to penetrate in safety to real Argile.

“I’m altogether with Sonachan,” said M’Iver, “and I could mention half a hundred soldierly reasons for the policy; but it’s enough for me that here are seven of us, no more and no less, and with seven there should be all the luck that’s going.”

He caught the minister’s eyes on him at this, and met them with a look of annoyance.

“Oh yes, I know, Master Gordon, you gentlemen of the lawn bands have no friendliness to our old Highland notions.  Seven or six, it’s all the same to you, I suppose, except in a question of merks to the stipend.”

“You’re a clever man enough, M’Iver - ”

“Barbreck,” corrected my friend, punctiliously.

“Barbreck let it be then.  But you are generally so sensitive to other folk’s thoughts of you that your skin tingles to an insult no one dreamt of paying.  I make no doubt a great many of your Gaelic beliefs are sheer paganism or Popery or relics of the same, but the charm of seven has a Scriptural warrant that as minister of the Gospel I have some respect for, even when twisted into a portent for a band of broken men in the extremity of danger.”

We had to leave the dead body of our friend, killed by the horse, on the hillside.  He was a Knapdale man, a poor creature, who was as well done, perhaps, with a world that had no great happiness left for him, for his home had been put to the torch and his wife outraged and murdered.  At as much speed as we could command, we threaded to the south, not along the valleys but in the braes, suffering anew the rigour of the frost and the snow.  By midday we reached the shore of Loch Leven, and it seemed as if now our flight was hopelessly barred, for the ferry that could be compelled to take the army of Mac-Cailein over the brackish water at Lettermore was scarce likely to undertake the conveying back of seven fugitives of the clan that had come so high-handedly through their neighbourhood four days ago.  On this side there was not a boat in sight; indeed there was not a vestige on any side of human tenancy.  Glencoe had taken with him every man who could carry a pike, not to our disadvantage perhaps, for it left the less danger of any strong attack.

On the side of the loch, when we emerged from the hills, there was a cluster of whin-bushes spread out upon a machar of land that in a less rigorous season of the year, by the feel of the shoe-sole, must be velvet-piled with salty grass.  It lay in the clear, grey forenoon like a garden of fairydom to the view - the whin-bushes at a distant glance floating on billows of snow, touched at their lee by a cheering green, hung to the windward with the silver of the snow, and some of them even prinked off with the gold flower that gives rise to the proverb about kissing being out of fashion when the whin wants bloom.  To come on this silent, peaceful, magic territory, fresh out of the turmoil of a battle, was to be in a region haunted, in the borderland of morning dreams, where care is a vague and far-off memory, and the elements study our desires.  The lake spread out before us without a ripple, its selvedge at the shore repeating the picture on the brae.  I looked on it with a mind peculiarly calm, rejoicing in its aspect Oh, love and the coming years, thought I, let them be here or somewhere like it - not among the savage of the hills, fighting, plotting, contriving; not among snow-swept mounts and crying and wailing brooks, but by the sedate and tranquil sea in calm weather.  As we walked, my friends with furtive looks to this side and yon, down to the shore, I kept my face to the hills of real Argile, and my heart was full of love.  I got that glimpse that comes to most of us (had we the wit to comprehend it) of the future of my life.  I beheld in a wave of the emotion the picture of my coming years, going down from day to day very unadventurous and calm, spent in some peaceful valley by a lake, sitting at no rich-laden board but at bien and happy viands with some neighbour heart A little bird of hope fluted within me, so that I knew that if every clan in this countryside was arraigned against me, I had the breastplate of fate on my breast “I shall not die in this unfriendly country,” I promised myself.  “There may be terror, and there may be gloom, but I shall watch my children’s children play upon the braes of Shira Glen.”

“You are very joco,” said John to me as I broke into a little laugh of content with myself.

“It’s the first time you ever charged me with jocosity, John,” I said “I’m just kind of happy thinking.”

“Yon spectacle behind us is not humorous to my notion,” said he, “whatever it may be to yours.  And perhaps the laugh may be on the other side of your face before the night comes.  We are here in a spider’s web.”

“I cry pardon for my lightness, John,” I answered; “I’ll have time enough to sorrow over the clan of Argile.  But if you had the Sight of your future, and it lay in other and happier scenes than these, would you not feel something of a gaiety?”

He looked at me with an envy in every feature, from me to his companions, from them to the country round about us, and then to himself as to a stranger whose career was revealed in every rag of his clothing.

“So,” said he; “you are the lucky man to be of the breed of the elect of heaven, to get what you want for the mere desire of it, and perhaps without deserve.  Here am I at my prime and over it, and no glisk of the future before me.  I must be ever stumbling on, a carouser of life in a mirk and sodden lane.”

“You cannot know my meaning,” I cried.

“I know it fine,” said he.  “You get what you want because you are the bairn of content.  And I’m but the child of hurry (it’s the true word), and I must be seeking and I must be trying to the bitter end.”

He kicked, as he walked, at the knolls of snow in his way, and lashed at the bushes with a hazel wand he had lifted from a tree.

“Not all I want, perhaps,” said I; “for do you know that fleeing thus from the disgrace of my countrymen, I could surrender every sorrow and every desire to one notion about - about - about - ”

“A girl of the middle height,” said he, “and her name is - ”

“Do not give it an utterance,” I cried.  “I would be sorry to breathe her name in such a degradation.  Degradation indeed, and yet if I had the certainty that I was a not altogether hopeless suitor yonder, I would feel a conqueror greater than Hector or Gilian-of-the-Axe.”

“Ay, ay,” said John.  “I would not wonder.  And I’ll swear that a man of your fate may have her if he wants her.  I’ll give ye my notion of wooing; it’s that with the woman free and the man with some style and boldness, he may have whoever he will.”

“I would be sorry to think it,” said I; “for that might apply to suitors at home in Inneraora as well as me.”

M’Iver laughed at the sally, and “Well, well,” said he, “we are not going to be debating the chance of love on Leven-side, with days and nights of slinking in the heather and the fern between us and our home.”

Though this conversation of ours may seem singularly calm and out of all harmony with our circumstances, it is so only on paper, for in fact it took but a minute or two of our time as we walked down among those whins that inspired me with the peaceful premonition of the coming years.  We were walking, the seven of us, not in a compact group, but scattered, and at the whins when we rested we sat in ones and twos behind the bushes, with eyes cast anxiously along the shore for sign of any craft that might take us over.

What might seem odd to any one who does not know the shrinking mood of men broken with a touch of disgrace in their breaking, was that for long we studiously said nothing of the horrors we had left behind us.  Five men fleeing from a disastrous field and two new out of the clutches of a conquering foe, we were dumb or discoursed of affairs very far removed from the reflection that we were a clan at extremities.

But we could keep up this silence of shame no longer than our running:  when we sat among the whins on Leven-side, and took a breath and scrutinised along the coast, for sign of food or ferry, we must be talking of what we had left behind.

Gordon told the story with a pained, constrained, and halting utterance:  of the surprise of Auchinbrcac when he heard the point of war from Nevis Glen, and could not believe that Montrose was so near at hand; of the waver ing Lowland wings, the slaughter of the Campbell gentlemen.

“We were in a trap,” said he, drawing with a stick on the smooth snow a diagram of the situation.  “We were between brae and water.  I am no man of war, and my heart swelled at the spectacle of the barons cut down like nettles.  And by the most foolish of tactics, surely, a good many of our forces were on the other side of the loch.”

“That was not Auchinbreac’s doing, I’ll warrant,” said M’Iver; “he would never have counselled a division so fatal.”

“Perhaps not,” said the cleric, drily; “but what if a general has only a sort of savage army at his call?  The gentry of your clan - ”

“What about MacCailein?” I asked, wondering that there was no word of the chief.

“Go on with your story,” said M’Iver, sharply, to the cleric.

“The gentry of your clan,” said Gordon, paying no heed to my query, “were easy enough to guide; but yon undisciplined kerns from the hills had no more regard for martial law than for the holy commandments.  God help them!  They went their own gait, away from the main body, plundering and robbing.”

“I would not just altogether call it plundering, nor yet robbing,” said John, a show of annoyance on his face.

“And I don’t think myself,” said Sonachan, removing, as he spoke, from our side, and going to join the three others, who sat apart from us a few yards, “that it’s a gentleman’s way of speaking of the doings of other gentlemen of the same name and tartan as ourselves.”

“Ay, ay,” said the minister, looking from one to the other of us, his shaven jowl with lines of a most annoying pity on it - “Ay, ay,” said he, “it would be pleasing you better, no doubt, to hint at no vice or folly in your army; that’s the Highlands for you!  I’m no Highlander, thank God, or at least with the savage long out of me; for I’m of an honest and orderly Lowland stock, and my trade’s the Gospel and the truth, and the truth you’ll get from Alexander Gordon, Master of the Arts, if you had your black joctilegs at his neck for it!”

He rose up, pursing his face, panting at the nostril, very crouse and defiant in every way.

“Oh, you may just sit you down,” said McIver, sharply, to him.  “You can surely give us truth without stamping it down our throats with your boots, that are not, I’ve noticed, of the smallest size.”

“I know you, sir, from boot to bonnet,” said Gordon.

“You’re well off in your acquaintance,” said M’Iver, jocularly.  “I wish I kent so good a man.”

“From boot to bonnet,” said Gordon, in no whit abashed by the irony.  “Man, do you know,” he went on, “there’s a time comes to me now when by the grace of God I can see to one’s innermost as through a lozen.  I shudder, sometimes, at the gift.  For there’s the fair face, and there’s the smug and smiling lip, and there’s the flattery at the tongue, and below that masked front is Beelzebub himself, meaning well sometimes - perhaps always - but by his fall a traitor first and last.”

“God!” cried M’Iver, with a very ugly face, “that sounds awkwardly like a roundabout way of giving me a bad character.”

“I said, sir,” answered Gordon, “that poor Beelzebub does not sometimes ken his own trade.  I have no doubt that in your heart you are touched to the finest by love of your fellows.”

“And that’s the truth - when they are not clerics,” cried John.

“Touched to the finest, and set in a glow too, by a manly and unselfish act, and eager to go through this world on pleasant footings with yourself and all else.”

“Come, come,” I cried; “I know my friend well, Master Gordon.  We are not all that we might be; but I’m grateful for the luck that brought me so good a friend as John M’Iver.”

“I never cried down his credit,” said the minister, simply.

“Your age gives you full liberty,” said John.  “I would never lift a hand.”

“The lifting of your hand,” said the cleric with a flashing eye, “is the last issue I would take thought of.  I can hold my own.  You are a fair and shining vessel (of a kind), but Beelzebub’s at your heart.  They tell me that people like you; this gentleman of Elrigmore claims you for his comrade.  Well, well, so let it be!  It but shows anew the charm of the glittering exterior:  they like you for your weaknesses and not for your strength.  Do you know anything of what they call duty?”

“I have starved to the bone in Laaland without complaint, stood six weeks on watch in Stralsund’s Franken gate, eating my meals at my post, and John M’Iver never turned skirts on an enemy.”

“Very good, sir, very good,” said the minister; “but duty is most ill to do when it is to be done in love and not in hate.”

“Damn all schooling!” cried John.  “You’re off in the depths of it again, and I cannot be after you.  Duty is duty in love or hate, is it not?”

“It would take two or three sessions of St Andrews to show you that it makes a great differ whether it is done in love or hate.  You do your duty by your enemy well enough, no doubt, - a barbarian of the blackest will do no less, - but it takes the better man to do his duty sternly by those he loves and by himself above all Argile - ”

“Yes,” cried I, “what about Argile?”

The minister paid no heed to my question.

“Argile,” said he, “has been far too long flattered by you and your like, M’Iver.”

“Barbreck,” put in my comrade.

“Barbreck be it then.  A man in his position thus never learns the truth.  He sees around him but plausible faces and the truth at a cowardly compromise.  That’s the sorrow of your Highlands; it will be the black curse of your chiefs in the day to come.  As for me, I’m for duty first and last - even if it demands me to put a rope at my brother’s neck or my hand in the fire.”

“Maybe you are, maybe you are,” said John, “and it’s very fine of you; and I’m not denying but I can fancy some admirable quality in the character.  But if I’m no great hand at the duty, I can swear to the love.”

“It’s a word I hate to hear men using,” said I.

The minister relaxed to a smile at John’s amiability, and John smiled on me.

“It’s a woman’s word, I daresay, Colin,” said he; “but there’s no man, I’ll swear, turning it over more often in his mind than yourself.”

Where we lay, the Pap of Glencoe - Sgor-na-ciche, as they call it in the Gaelic - loomed across Loch Leven in wisps of wind-blown grey.  Long-beaked birds came to the sand and piped a sharp and anxious note, or chattered like children.  The sea-banks floated on the water, rising and dipping to every wave; it might well be a dream we were in on the borderland of sleep at morning.

“What about Argile?” I asked again.

The minister said never a word.  John Splendid rose to his feet, shook the last of his annoyance from him, and cast an ardent glance to those remote hills of Lorn.

“God’s grandeur!” said he, turning to the Gaelic it was proper to use but sparingly before a Saxon.  “Behold the unfriendliness of those terrible mountains and ravines!  I am Gaelic to the core, but give me in this mood of mine the flat south soil and the dip of the sky round a bannock of country.  Oh, I wish I were where Aora runs!  I wish I saw the highway of Loch Firme that leads down the slope of the sea where the towns pack close together and fires are warm!” He went on and sang a song of the low country, its multitude of cattle, its friendly hearths, its frequented walks of lovers in the dusk and in the spring.

Sonachan and Ardkinglas and the tacksmen came over to listen, and the man with the want began to weep with a child’s surrender.

“And what about Argile?” said I, when the humming ceased.

“You are very keen on that bit, lad,” said the baron-bailie, smiling spitefully with thin hard lips that revealed his teeth gleaming white and square against the dusk of his face.  “You are very keen on that bit; you might be waiting for the rest of the minister’s story.”

“Oh,” I said, “I did not think there was any more of the minister’s tale to come.  I crave his pardon.”

“I think, too, I have not much more of a story to tell,” said the minister, stiffly.

“And I think,” said M’Iver, in a sudden hurry to be off, “that we might be moving from here.  The head of the loch is the only way for us if we are to be off this unwholesome countryside by the mouth of the night.”

It is likely we would have taken him at his word, and have risen and gone on his way to the east, where the narrowing of the loch showed that it was close on its conclusion; but the Stewart took from his knapsack some viands that gave a frantic edge to our appetite and compelled us to stay and eat.

The day was drawing to its close, the sun, falling behind us, was pillowed on clouds of a rich crimson.  For the first time, we noticed the signs of the relaxation of the austere season in the return of bird and beast to their familiar haunts.  As the sun dipped the birds came out to the brae-side to catch his last ray, as they ever love to do.  Whaups rose off the sand, and, following the gleam upon the braes, ascended from slope to slope, and the plover followed too, dipping his feet in the golden tide receding.  On little fir-patches mounted numerous blackcock of sheeny feather, and the owls began to hoot in the wood beyond.