Black Duncan became cautious.
"You need not be asking me anything: I know nothing about it," said he shortly. "I am very busy—I——" He hissed at his work more strenuously than ever.
Then Nan knew he was not to be got at that way.
"Oh, well, never mind," said she; "tell me a story."
"I have no time just now," he answered.
Nan's uncle came round the corner of the dyke, no sound from his footsteps, his hands in his pockets, his brows lowering. He looked at the two of them and surmised the reason of Nan's discourse with Black Duncan.
"Women—" said he to himself vaguely. "Women—" said he, pausing for a phrase to express many commingled sentiments he had as to their unnecessity, their aggravation, and his suspicion of them. He did not find the right one. He lifted his hand, stroked again the tangled beard, then made a gesture, a large animal gesture—still the satyr—to the sky. He turned and went down to the riverside. Mid-way he paused and stroked his beard again, and looked grimly up at where the maid and the manservant were blue-black against the evening sky. He shrugged his shoulders, "Women," said he, "they make trouble. I wish—I wish——" He had no word to finish the sentence with, he but sighed and proceeded on his way.
Nan seemed to be lazily watching his figure as she sat in the grass, herself observed by Black Duncan. But she really saw him not.
"Ah well! never mind the story, Duncan," she said at last; "I know you are tired and not in the mood for sguullachd, and if you like I will sing you my song."
"You randy!" he said to himself, "you are going to have it out of me, my dear." And he bent the more industriously to his task.
"Stop! stop!" he cried before she had got halfway through the old song of "The Rover." "Stop! stop!" said he. He threw the binding bands from him and faced the crimson west, with his back to her.
"Any port but that, my dear! If you are grieving because you think you are going abroad you need not be anything of the kind, my leddy. This is the place for you, about your father's door and him away where the fevers are—aye and the harbours too with diversions in every one of them."
"And Uncle Jamie's going to keep me, is he?" said she. "Lucky me! I was aye so fond of gaiety, you mind."
"Whoever it is that's to keep you it might be worse," said he.
"Then there's somebody."
"Somebody," he repeated; "the cleverest young——"
"Stop! stop!" she cried, rising suddenly to her feet; "do not dare to mention a name; spare me that."
He looked at her in amazement.
"Do you think I'm a stone, Duncan?"
"You would not be asking me that twice if I was younger myself," he said redly, looking at her fine figure, the blush like a sunset on her neck, the palpitation of her bosom, the flash and menace of her eyes.
"Well, well, well, go on, tell me more," she cried when she had recovered herself. "What more is there?"
"You are the one that should know most," said he.
"I know nothing at all," she answered bitterly. "It seems that nowadays the lady is the last to be taken into confidence about her own marriage."
"Are you telling me?" he asked incredulously.
"I'm swearing it down your throat," she cried. "If I had a friend in this countryside he would be pitying my shame that I must be bargained for like beast at a fair and not have a word in the bargain."
"My name's what my name may be," said he, putting out an arm and addressing the world, "and you are my master's daughter; I would cut off that hand to save you a minute's vexation. What did Black Duncan know but that you had the picking of the gentleman yourself—and you might have picked worse, though I tell you I did not care to hear about the money in it."
"The money," she exclaimed, turning pale to the lips; "then—then—then there's money in it?"
"He's a smart young fellow——"
"No name, no name, or you are no friend of mine! Money, you say?"
"I could have picked no better for you myself."
"Did you say money?"
"I thought once there might be something."
"Money, money," she repeated to herself.
"A tocher should not be all on one side," said he, "and I know the gentleman would be glad to have you——"
"Perhaps the whole countryside knows more about it than I do; it could scarcely know less. I wondered why they were looking at me in the church on Sunday. Oh! I feel black burning shame—shame—shame!"
She put her hands to her face to hide her tears; she trembled in every part.
"They know; the cries are in at least," said Duncan.
"The cries! the cries!" she repeated. "Is my fate so near at hand as that?"
"You'll be a married woman before the General takes the road," said he.
She took her hands from her face; her eyes froze and snapped, cold as ice, the very redness of her weeping cooling pale in her passion. She had no words to utter; she left him hurriedly, and ran fast into the house.
CHAPTER XXVIII—GILIAN'S OPPORTUNITY
Her father was at the door when she went in. Now for the first time she knew the reason for his change of manner lately, for that bustle about trivial affairs when she was near, that averted eye when she was fond and humorous. She went past him, unable to speak more than an indifferent word, and great was his relief at that, for he had been standing there bracing his courage to consult her on what she must be told of sooner or later. He looked after her as she sped upstairs. "I wonder how she'll take it?" he said to himself, greatly perplexed. "A father has some unco' tasks to perform, and here's a father not very well fitted by nature for the management of a daughter." He took off his hat and dried a clammy brow that showed how much the duty postponed had been disturbing him. "It's for the best, but it's a vulgar business even then. If it was her uncle, now, he would wake her out of her sleep to tell her the news. Poor girl, poor girl! I wish she had her mother."
He went into the barn, where corn was piling up, the straw filling the gloomy gable-ends with rustling gold. Loud he stormed among some workers there; loud he stormed, for him a thing unusual; and they bent silent to their work and looked at one another knowingly, sensible that he was ashamed of himself. Sitting dry-eyed on the edge of her bed, Nan reflected upon her next step. At a cast of her mind round all the countryside she could think of no woman to turn to in this trouble, and only with a woman could she share it. Her pride first, and then the fear of her father's anger, left her only certain limits in which to operate. Her pride would not let her even show curiosity in the identity of the man who was to be her doom, nor confess to another that she did not know his name. And the whole parish, if it was acquainted with her sale (as now she deemed it), must be her enemy. Against any other outrage than this she would have gone straight to her father. He that she loved and caressed, on whose knees sometimes even yet she sat, would not be deaf to any ordinary plea or protest of hers. She would need but to nestle in his arms, and loose and tie the antique queue, and perhaps steal a kiss willingly surrendered, and all would be well But this, all her instincts, all her knowledge of her father told her, was no ordinary decision of his. He had gone too far to draw back. The world knew it; he feared to face her because for once to please her he could not cancel what was done. There was no hope, she told herself, in that direction; even if there was she would not have gone there, for the sordid horror of this transaction put a gulf between them. Feverishly she turned over her lowland letters, and there she found but records of easy heart and gaiety; no sacrificing friends were offering themselves in the pages she had mourned over in her moods of evening loneliness. And again she brought her mind back to her own country, and sitting still dry-eyed, with a burning skin, upon her bed, reviewed her relatives and friends, weighing which would be most like to help her.
She almost laughed when she found she had reduced all at last to one eligible—Elasaid, her old Skye nurse, and the mother of Black Duncan, who was in what was called the last of the shealings, by the lochs of Karnes. Many a time her mother had gone to the shealing a young matron for motherly counsel, but Nan herself had never been there, though Elasaid had come to Nan to nurse her when her mother died. In the shealing, she felt sure, there was not only counsel, but concealment if occasion demanded that.
But how was she to get there, lost as it was somewhere miles beyond the corner of the Salachary hill, in the wild red moors between the two big waters?
First she thought of Young Islay—first and with a gladness at the sense of his sufficiency in such an enterprise. His was the right nature for knight-errantry in a case like hers, but then she reflected that he was away from home—her father had casually let that drop in conversation at breakfast yesterday; and even if he had been at home, said cooler thought, she would hesitate to enlist him in so sordid a cause.
Then Gilian occurred—less well adapted, she felt, for the circumstances; but she could speak more freely to him than to any other, and he was out there in the hazel-wood, no doubt, still waiting for her. Gilian would do, Gilian would have to do. If he could have seen how unimpassioned she was in coming to this conclusion he would have been grieved.
She went out at once, leisurely and with her thoughts constrained upon some unimportant matter, so that her face might not betray her tribulation when she met him.
In the low fields her uncle was scanning the hills with his hands arched above his eyes to shield them from the glare of the westering sun, groaning for the senselessness of sheep that must go roaming on altitudes when they are wanted specially in the plains. She evaded his supercilious eyes by going round the hedges, and in ten minutes she came upon Gilian, waiting patiently for her to keep her own tryst. His first words showed her the way to a speedy explanation.
"Next week," said he, "we'll try Strongara; the place is as full of berries as the night is full of stars. Here they're not so ripe as on the other side."
"Next week the berries might be as numerous as that at the very door of Maam," said she, "and I none the better for them."
"What's the matter?" he cried, appalled at the omen of her face.
"My father is going abroad at once," she answered.
"Abroad?" he repeated. He had a branch of bramble in his hand, plucked for the crimson of its leafage. He drew it through his hands and the thorns bled the palms, but he never felt the pain. She was going too! She was going away from Maam! He might never see her again! These late days of tryst and happiness in the woods and on the hills were to be at an end, and he was again to be quite alone among his sheep with no voice to think on expectantly in slow-passing forenoons, and no light to shine like a friendly eye from Maam in evening dusks!
"Well," she said, looking curiously at him. "My father is going abroad, have you heard?"
"I have not," he answered; and she was relieved, for in that case he had not learned the full ignominy of her story.
"Can you not say so little as 'good luck' to us?" she asked in her lightest manner.
"You—you are going with him, then?" said Gilian, and he delighted in the sharp torture of the thorns that bled his hands.
"No," she answered, "it's worse than that, for I stay. You have not heard? Then you are the only one in the parish, I am sure, so ignorant of my poor business. They're—they're looking for a man for me. Is it not a pretty thing, Gilian?" She laughed with a bitterness that shocked him. "Is it not a pretty thing, Gilian?" she went on. "I'm wondering they did not lead me on a halter round the country and take the best offer at a fair I It was throwing away good chances to give me to the first offerer, was it not, Gilian?"
"Who is it?" he asked, every nerve jarring at the story.
"Do you think I would ask?" she said sharply. "It does not matter who it is; and it is the last thing I would like to know, for then I would know who knew my price in the market."
"Your father would never do it!"
"My father would not do but what he thought he must. He is poor, though I never thought him so poor as this; and I daresay he would like to see me settled before he goes. It is the black settling when I'm cried in the kirk before I'm courted."
"They can never marry you against your will," said Gilian in a dull, lifeless way, as if he had no great belief in what he laid forth.
"And that would be true," she said, "if I had a friend in the whole countryside. I have not one except——"
He flushed and waited, and so did she expectantly, thinking he would make the fervent protest most lads would do under the same circumstances. But in the moment's pause he could not find the words for his profound feeling.
"Except old Elasaid, the nurse on the Kames moor," she continued.
"Oh, her!" said he lamely.
"There's no one else I could think of."
"Look at me," he cried; "look at me; am I not your true friend? I will do anything in the world for you." But he still went on torturing himself with his bramble branch, the most insensible of lovers.
She was annoyed at his want of the commonest courage or tact. "John Hielan'man! John Hielan'-man!" she said inwardly, trying a little coquetry of the downcast eyes to tempt him. For now she was desolate that she almost loved this gawky youth throbbing in sympathy with her tribulation.
"I believe you are my true friend, I believe you arc my true friend, and there is no one else," she said, blushing now with no coquetry, and if he had not been a fool and his fate against him, he might at a hand's movement or a word have had her in his arms. The word to say was sounding loud and strong within him; he took her (only, alas! in fancy) to his breast, but what was she the wiser?
"And I can do nothing?" he said pitifully. "Nothing!" said she; "you can do everything." "Show me how, then," he said eagerly. She had been gazing away from him with her eyes on Maam, that looked so sombre a home, and was certainly now so cruel a home, and she turned then, almost weeping, her breath rising and falling, audible to his ear, the sweetest of sounds.
"Will you take me away from here?" she asked in entreaty. "I must go away from here."
"I will take you anywhere you wish," said he.
He held out his hands in a gesture of sudden offering, and she felt a happiness as one who comes upon a familiar and kind face all unexpectedly in a strange country. Her face betrayed her gladness.
"I will take you, and who would be better pleased?" said Gilian.
She explained her intention briefly. She must leave Maam at the latest to-morrow night without being observed, and he must show her the way to Elasaid's shealing.
"Ah! give me the right," he said, "and I will take you to the world's end." He put out his hands and nigh encircled her, but shyness sent him back to a calmer distance.
"John Hielan'man!" she repeated to herself, annoyed at this tardiness, but she outwardly showed no knowledge of it.
They planned what only half in fun she called their elopement. He was to come across to Maam in the early morning.
CHAPTER XXIX—THE ELOPEMENT
He had ideas of his own as to how this enterprise should be conducted, but on Nan's advice he had gone about it in the fashion of Marget Maclean's novels, even to the ladder. It was not a rope ladder, but a common one of wood that Black Duncan was accustomed to use for ascent to his sleep in the loft.
Gilian, apprised by Nan of its exact situation, crept breathlessly into the barn, left his lantern at the door, and felt around with searching fingers. The place was all silent but for the seaman's snores as he slept the sleep of a landsman upon his coarse pallet. Outside a cock crew; its sudden alarm brought the sweat to Gilian's brow; he clutched with blind instinct, found what he wanted, turned and hastened from the dusty barn.
The house of Maam was jet-black among its trees, no light peeped even in Nan's room.
Carefully he put the ladder against the wall beneath her window, and as he did so he fancied he heard a movement above. He stood with his hand on one of the rungs, dubious, hesitating. For the first time a sense of the risks of the adventure swept into that mind of his, always the monopoly of imagination and the actor. He was ashamed to find himself half-wishing she might not come. He tried to think it was all a dream, and he pinched his arm to try and waken himself. But the blank black walls of Maam confronted him; the river was crying in its reeds; it was a real adventure that must be gone on with.
He lit the lantern. Through the open door of it as he did so the flood of light revealed his face anxious and haggard, his eyes uncertain. He closed the lantern and looked around.
Through the myriad holes that pierced the tin, pin-points of fire lanced the night, streaming in all directions, throwing the front of the house at once into cold relief with a rasping, harled, lime surface. The bushes were big masses of shade; the trees, a little more remote, seemed to watch him with an irony that made him half ashamed. What an appalling night! Over him came the sentiments of the robber, the marauder, the murderer. As he held the lantern on his finger a faint wind swung it, and its lances of light danced rhythmic through the gloom. He put it under his plaid, and prepared to give the signal whistle. For the life of him he could not give it utterance; his lips seemed to have frozen, not with fear, for he was calm in that way, but with some commingling of emotions where fear was not at all. When he gave breath to his hesitating lips, it went through inaudible.
What he might have done then may only be guessed, for the opening of the window overhead brought an end to his hesitation.
"Is it you?" said Nan's voice, just a little revealing her anxiety in its whisper. He could not see her now that his lantern was concealed, but he looked up and fancied her eyes were shining more lambent than his own lantern that smelled unpleasantly.
He wet his lips with his tongue. "The ladder is ready; it's up against your window, don't you see it?" he said, also whispering, but astounded at the volume of his voice.
"Tuts!" she exclaimed impatiently, "why don't you show a light? How can I see it without a light?"
"Dare I?" he asked, astonished.
"Dare! dare! Oh dear!" she repeated. "Am I to do the daring and break my neck perhaps?"
Out flashed the lantern from beneath his plaid and he held it up to the window. Nan leant over and all his hesitation fled. He had never seen her more alluring. Her hair had become somehow unfastened, and, without untidiness, there lay a lock across her brow; all her blood was in her face, her eyes might indeed have been the flames he had fancied, for to the appeal of the lantern they flashed back from great and rolling depths of luminousness. Her lips seemed to have gathered up in sleep the wealth of a day of kissing. A screen of tartan that she had placed about her shoulders had slipped aside in her movement at the window and showed her neck, ivory pale and pulsing.
"Come along, come along!" he cried in an eager whisper, and he put up his arms, lantern and all, as if she were to jump. Something in his first look made her pause.
"Do you really want to go?" he asked, and she was drawing her screen by instinct across her form. An observer, if there had been such, might well have been amused to see an elopement so conducted. There was still no sound in the night, except that the cock crew at intervals over in the cottars. The morning was heavy with dew; the scent of bog-myrtle drugged the air.
"Do I really want?" she repeated. "Mercy! what a question. It seems to me that yesterday would have been the best time to ask it. Are you rueing your bargain?" She looked at him with great dissatisfaction as he stood at the foot of the ladder, by no means a handsome cavalier, as he carried his plaid clumsily. He was made all the more eager by her coldness.
"Come, come!" he cried; "the house will be awake before you are ready, and I cannot be keeping this lantern lighted for fear some one sees it."
"We are safe for an hour yet, if we cared to waste the time," she said composedly, "and if you're sure you want it——"
"Want you, Nan," he corrected, "That's a little more like it," she said to herself, and she dropped the customary bundle at his feet He picked it up gingerly, as if it were a church relic; that it was a possession of hers, apparel apparently, made him feel a slight intoxication. No swithering now; he would carry out the adventure if it led to the end of the world! He hugged the bundle under his arm, as if it were a woman, and felt a fictional glow from the touch of it. "Well?" said she impatiently, for he was no longer looking at her, no longer, indeed, conceding her so little as the light of the lantern, which he had placed on the ground, so that its light was dissipated around, while none of it reached the top of the ladder.
"Well," she repeated sharply, for he had not answered.
He looked up with a start. "Are you not coming?" he said, with a tone to suggest that he was waiting impatiently.
She had the window wide open now; she leaned out on her arms ready to descend; the last rung of the ladder was a foot lower than the sill of the window; she looked in perplexity at her cavalier, for it was impossible to put much of grace into an emergence and a descent like this.
"I am just coming," she said, but still she made no other move, and he held up the lantern for her to sec the better.
"Well, be careful!" he advised, and he thought how delightful it was to have the right to say so much.
"O Gilian!" she said helplessly, "you are far from gleg."
He gazed ludicrously uncomprehending at her, and in his sense of almost conjugal right to the girl failed to realise her delicacy.
"Go round to the barn and make sure that Duncan is not moving; he's the only one I fear," she said. "Leave the lantern."
He did as he was told; he put the lantern on the ground; he went round again to the barn, put his head in, and satisfied himself that his seaman was still musical aloft. Then he hurried back. He found the lantern swinging on Nan's finger, and her composed upon the ground, to which she had made a speedy descent whenever he had disappeared.
"Oh! I wanted to help you," said he.
"Did you?" said she, looking for a sign of the humorist, but he was as solemn as a sermon.
They might have been extremely sedate in Miss Simpson's school in Edinburgh, but at that moment Miss Nan would have forgiven some apparent appreciation of her cleverness in getting him out of the way while she came feet first through a window. They stood for a moment in expectancy, as if something was going to happen, she still holding the lantern, trembling a little, as it might be with the cold, he with her bundle under his arm pressed affectionately.
"And—and—do we just go on?" she asked suggestively.
"The quicker the better," said he, but he made no movement to depart, for his mind was in the house of Maam, and he felt the father's sorrow and alarm at an empty bed, a daughter gone.
She put out an arm, flushing in the dark as she did so, as if to place it on his neck, but drew back and put the lantern fast behind her, lest her fervour had been noticed by the ironic and jealous night. He, she saw, could not notice; the thing was not in his mind.
"In the stories they just move off, then?" said she shyly. "There was the meeting, the meeting—no more, and they just went away?"
"And the sooner the better," said he, again leading the way at last, after taking the lantern from her, and "John Hielan'man, John Hielan'man!" she cried vexatiously within.
She followed, pouting her lips in the darkness. "It's quite different from what I expected," she said, whispering as they passed the front door and down by the burn.
"And with me too," he confessed. "I had it made up in my mind all otherwise. There should have been moonlight and a horse, and many other things." "It seems to me you are not making so much as you might of what there is," she suggested. "Are you sure it is not a trouble to carry the lantern and the bundle too?"
"Oh! no, no!" he cried softly, but eagerly, every chivalric sentiment roused lest she should deprive him of the pleasure of doing all he could for her. She sighed.
"Are you vexed you have come?" he asked, stopping and turning on her his yet wan face full of regret and of dubiety too.
"The thing is done," she answered abruptly, and they were stepping carefully over the burn that ran about its boulders in the dark, gurgling. "Are you sure you are not sorry yourself?"
"I am not a bit sorry," he said, "but—but——"
"Your 'buts' are too late, Gilian," she went on firmly. "If you rued the enterprise now, I would go myself." But she relaxed some of the coldness of her mood as he shifted his lantern to the other hand and put a bashful but firm and supporting hand below her arm to secure her footing in the rough ascent. This was a little more like what she had expected, she told herself, though she missed something of warmth in the action. How could she tell that the hand that held her was trembling with passion, that her shawl fringe as it was blown across his face by the breeze was something he could have kissed rapturously?
And now they were well up the hillside. The house of Maam, the garden, the plantings, the noisy river, were down in the valley, all surrendered to the night. Their lantern, swinging on the lad's finger, threw a path of light before them, showing the short cropped grass, the rushy patches, or the gall they trod odorously, or the heather in its rare clumps. No sound came louder than the tumbling waters; their voices, as they spoke even yet guardedly as people will in enterprises the most solitary when their consciences are unresting, seemed strange and unfamiliar to each other.
Soon they were on the summit of the hill range and below them lay the two glens, and the first breath of the morning came behind from Strone, where dawn threw a wan grey flag across the world. They plunged into the caldine trees of Strongara, sped fast across Aray at Three Bridges, and the dawn was on Balantyre, where the farm-touns high and low lay like thatched forts, grey, cold, unwelcoming in the morning, with here and there a stream of peat reek from the greasach of the night's fires. They became, as it might be, children again as they hastened through the country. He lost all his diffident dubiety and was anew the bold adventurer, treading loverlike upon the very stars. A passion of affection was on him; he would take her unresisting hand and lead her as though she were his, really, and before them was their moated castle. And Nan forgot herself in the fresh zest of the dewy morning that now was setting the birds to their singing in the dens that hang above the banks of the Balantyre burn.
A rosy flush came to the hills where on the upper edges spread the antlers of deer sniffing the wind, rejoicing in the magnificence of the fine highland country in its autumn time. Nan hummed and broke into a strain of the verse of Donacha Ban that chants the praise of day and deer-hunting; she charmed her comrade; he felt the passion of the possessor and stopped and turned upon her and made to kiss. She laughed temptingly, drew back, warding her lips with the screen that now she had arranged in a new and pleasing fashion on her shoulders so that she looked some Gaelic huntress of the wilds. "So, so, Gilian!" said she, "you have found that there might be more in the books than simply to take the girl away with not so much as 'Have you a mouth?' when she stepped out at the window."
"What a fool I was!" he cried. "I was thinking of it all the time, but did not dare." But awakened to the actuality of what he now had dared, he was ashamed to go further.
Nan laughed. He looked odd indeed standing facing her with the lantern burning yet in his hand though the day was almost wide-awake. He was a poet bearing his own light about the world extravagantly while the sun was shining for common mortals.
"Out with your light!" said she. And then she added: "If you dared not do it in the dark when you met me first, you cannot do it now," and he was dashed exceedingly. He puffed out the flame.
"That's aye me!" he said as they resumed their journey up the second hill of their morning escapade. "I am too often a day behind the fair. I was—I was—kissing you a score of times in fancy and all the time you were willing in the actual fact."
"Was I indeed?" she retorted shortly, with a movement to bring her shawl more closely round her. "Do not be so flattering. I like you little over-blate, Gilian, but I like you less over-bold. If you could see yourself you would know which suits you best."
He had no answer. He must face his brae with lacerated feelings, now a step removed from the girl who walked with him. But only for a little was he depressed. She saw she had vexed him, and soon she was humming again, and again they were children of illusion and content.
They reached the pass that led to the lochs, and now Gilian had to confess himself in a strange country, but he did not reveal the fact to his companion. They talked of their coming sojourn in these lovely wilds that her mother had known and loved. The sun would shine constantly for them; the lakes—the little and numerous lakes—would be fringed with dreams and delight, starshine would find them innocent among the heather, remitted to the days of old when they were happy and careless, when no trouble marred their sky. Only now and then, as they sped on their way, Gilian wished fervently he knew more of where he was going, and was certain that life in the wilds would be so pleasant and easy as they pictured it.
When they came at last upon the slope of Cruach-an-Lochain that revealed the great valley of the lakes, they stood raptured by the spectacle before them. Far off, the great hollow among the hills was hazy and mysterious, but spread before them was the moor, tangled with grass and heather, all vacant in the morning dream. A tremor of wind was in the grass about their feet, a little mist tarried about the warm side of Ben Bhreac, caught among the juniper bushes the hunters had put there for shelter. All over brooded calm, a land forgetful of its stormy elements, of the dripping nights, the hail-beat, shrewd ost and hurricane. They could not, the pair of them, flying from a world of anxieties, but stop and look at the spectacle, when they came on the face of the Cruach. For a little they did not speak.
"My God!" said Gilian at last, a lump somewhere at his throat. "It seems as if this place had been waiting on us tenantless since the start of time. Where have we been to be so long and so far away from it? Mo chridhe, mo chridhe!"
"Now that I see it," said she doubtfully, "it seems melancholy enough. I wish——" She hung upon her sentence, with a rueful gaze out of her eyes at the scene.
"Melancholy!" he repeated. "Of course, of course," he quickly came to her reflection, "what could it be but melancholy with all the past unrecoverable behind it? It must be brooding for its people gone. Empty, empty, but I see all the old peoples roaming in bands over it, the sun smiting them, the rain drenching, I cannot but be thinking of shealing huts that spotted the levels, of bairns crying about the doors, of nights of ceilidh round peat fires dead and cold now, but yet with the smoke of them hanging somewhere round the universe."
He stopped, and turned away from her, concealing his perturbation.
She shivered at the thought and partly from weariness and hunger, with a little sucking in of the breath his ear caught, and he turned, a different man.
"You are tired; will we rest before we go further?" "Is it far?" she asked.
He reddened. He cast a fast glance round the country as if to look for some familiar landmark, but all was strange to him.
"I do not know," he confessed humbly. "I was never on the moor before."
"Mercy!" she said. "I thought there was never a lad from town but had fished here."
"But I was different," he replied. "The woods and waters about the door were enough for me. But we'll get to Elasaid's very soon, I'm sure, and find fire, food, and rest."
She bit her nether lip in annoyance at a courtier so ill-prepared for their adventure. She turned to look back to the familiar country they were leaving behind them, and for a moment wished she had never come.
"I wish we could have them now," she said at last; the words drawn from her by her weariness.
"And so we can," said he eagerly, with a delight at a reflection that sprung into his mind like a revelation. "We can go down to the water there and build a fire, and rest and eat. It will be like what I fancied, a real adventure of hunters, and I will be the valet, and you will be the—the queen."
So they went down to the lake side. Heathery braes rose about it, reflected in its dark water; an islet overgrown with scrub lay in the middle of it, the very haunt of possible romance; Gilian straight inhabited the same with memories and exploits. Nan sat her down on the springy heather that swept its scents about her, she leaned a tired shoulder on it, and the bells of the ling blushed as they swayed against her cheek. Gilian put down his lantern, a ludicrous companion in broad sunshine, and was dashed by the sudden recollection that though he had talked of something to eat, he had really no means of providing it!
The girl observed his perturbation and shrewdly guessed the reason.
"Well?" she said maliciously, without a smile; "and where are we to get the food you so nicely spoke of?"
He stood stupefied, and so dolorous a spectacle that she could not but laugh.
"You have got none at all, but imagined our feast—as usual," she said, unfolding her bundle. "It was well I did not depend on your forethought, Gilian," and she took a flask of milk and some bread from within. He was as much vexed at the spoiling of his illusion about the contents of the bundle as at the discovery of his thoughtlessness. What he had been so fervently caressing against his side had been no more romantic than bread and cheese and some more substantial augmentation for the poor table of the old woman they were going to meet!
The side of the loch bristled with dry heather roots; he plucked them and placed them on the side of a boulder beside Nan, and set fire to them, and soon a cheerful blaze competed with the tardy morning chill. They sat beside it singularly uplifted by this domestic hearth among the wilds; he felt himself a sort of householder, and to share as he did the fare of the girl was a huge delight. Her single cup passed between them; at first he was shy to touch at all the object her lips had kissed; he showed the feeling in his face, and she laughed again.
He joined in the merriment, quite comprehending. Next time the cup came his way he boldly turned it about so that where last she had sipped came to his lips, and there he lingered—just a shade too long for the look of the thing. What at first she but blushed and smiled at, she frowned upon at last with a sparkle of the eye her Uncle Jamie used to call in the Gaelic the torch of temper. Gilian missed it; that touch of his lip upon her cup had recalled the warmth of her hand upon the flowers he had gathered when she had let them fall in the Duke's garden, but this was closer and more stirring. As he knelt on the heather he felt himself a worshipper of ancient days, and her the goddess of long-lost times. An uplifting was in his eyes; it would have been great and beautiful to any one that could have understood, but her it only vexed. When he handed back the cup she tossed it from her. It broke—sad omen!—on their first hearthstone. "That'll do," said she shortly, "it's time we were going." And she gathered hastily the remains of their breakfast and made for a departure.
He surveyed her dubiously, wondering why she so abruptly checked the advances he could swear she had challenged.
"I am sorry I vexed you," he stammered. She brought down her brows questioningly. There was something pleasant and tempting though queenlike and severe in her straightened figure standing over him curved and strong and full, her screen fallen to her waist, a strand of her hair blown about her cheek by a saucy wind.
"Vexed?" she queried, and then smiled indifferent. "What would I be vexed at? We are finished, are we not? Must we be burdening ourselves unnecessarily going on a road you neither know the length or nature of?"
And without a word more they proceeded towards the shealing that was to be the end of their adventure.
CHAPTER XXX—AMONG THE HEATHER
Old Elasaid met them at the door. She was a woman with eyes profound and piercing under hanging brows, a woman grey even to the colour of her cheeks and the checks of the gown that hung loosely on her gaunt figure. It was with no shealing welcome, no kind memory of the old nurse even, she met them, but stood under her lintel looking as it were through them to the airt of the country whence they had come. She passed the time of day as if they had been strangers, puckering her mouth with a sort of unexpressed disapproval. They stood before her very much put out at a reception so different from what they had looked for, and Gilian knew that there must be something decisive to say but could not find it in his head.
"Well," said the old woman at last, "this'll be the good man, I'm thinking?" But still she had that in her tone, a sour dissatisfaction that showed she had her doubts.
Gilian was not unhappy at the assumption, but felt warm, and Nan reddened.
"Not at all," she answered with some difficulty. "It's just a friend who convoyed me up."
"Well I kent it," said the old woman, who spoke English to show she was displeased, and there was in her voice a tone of satisfaction with her own shrewdness. "When I saw you coming up the way there I thought there was something very unlike the thing about this person with you. The other one would have been a little closer on your elbow, and a lantern's a very queer contrivance to be stravaiging with on a summer day."
All her contempt seemed to be for Gilian, and he felt mightily uncomfortable.
"Tell me this," she went on, suddenly taking Nan by the arm and bending a most condemnatory face on her; "tell mc this: did you run away from the other one?"
"Mercy on me!" cried the girl. "Is the story up here already?"
"Oh, we're not so far back," said the dame, who did not add that her son the seaman had told her the news on his last weekly visit.
"Then I'll need the less excuse for being here," said Nan, trying to find in the hard and unapproving visage any trace of the woman who in happier days used to be so kind a nurse.
"No excuse at all!" said old Elasaid. "If it's your father's wish you're flying from, you need not come here." She stepped within the house, pulled out the wattle door and between it and the fir post stuck a disapproving face.
"Go away! go away!" she cried harshly, "I have no room for a baggage of that kind." Then she shut the door in their faces; they could hear the bar run to in the staples.
For a minute or two they stood aghast and silent, and Nan was plainly close on tears. But the humour of the thing struck her quick enough—sooner than Gilian saw it—and she broke into laughter, subdued so that it might not reach the woman righteous within, and her ear maybe at the door chink. It was not perhaps of the heartiest merriment, but it inspired her companion with respect for her spirit in a moment so trying. She was pale, partly with weariness, partly with distress at this unlooked-for reception; but her lips, red and luscious, smiled for his encouragement.
"Must we go back?" he asked, irresolute, as they made some slow steps away from the door.
"Back!" said Nan, her eyes flashing. "Am I mad? Are you speaking for yourself? If it must be back for you let me not be keeping you. After all you bargained for no more than to take me to old Elasaid's, and now that I'm here and there's none of the Elasaid I expected to meet me, I'll make the rest of my way somewhere myself." But her gaze upon that rolling and bleak moorland was far less confident than her words.
Gilian made no reply. He only looked at her reproaching for her bitterness, and humbly took up step by her side as she walked quickly away from the scene of the cold reception.
They had gone some distance when Elasaid opened her door again and came out to look after them. She saw a most touching helplessness in the manner of their uncertain walk across the heather, with no fixed mind as to which direction was the best, stopping and debating, moving now a little to the east, now a little to the west, but always further into the region of the lochs. She began to blame herself for her hastiness. She had expected that, face to face with her disapproval, the foolish young people would have gone back the road they came; but here they were going further than ever away from the father in whose interest she had loyally refused her hospitality. She cried loudly after them with a short-breathed Gaelic halloo, too much like an animal's cry to attract their attention. Nan did not hear it at all; Gilian but dreamed it, as it were, and though he took it for the call of a moor-fowl, found it in his ready fancy alarmingly like the summons of an irate father. But now he dared betray no hesitancy; he did not even turn to look behind him.
Elasaid cried again, but still in vain. She concluded they were deliberately deaf to her, and "Let them go!" she said crabbedly, flaunting an eloquent arm to the winds, comforting herself with the thought that there was no other house in all that dreary country to give them the shelter she had denied.
The sun by this time was pouring into the moor from a sky without a speck of cloud. Compared with the brown and purple of the moor and the dull colour of Ben Bhreac—the mount away to the southeast—the heavens were uncommonly blue, paling gradual to their dip. In another hour than this distressed and perplexed one, our wanderers would have felt some jocund influence in a forenoon so benign and handsome.
And now, too, the country began to show more of its true character. Its little lochs—a great chain of them—dashed upon their vision in patches of blue or grey or yellow. The valley was speckled with the tarns. Gilian forgot the hazards of the enterprise and the discomforts to be faced; he had no time to think of what was to be done next for them in their flight, so full was he with the romance of those multitudinous lakelets lost in the empty and sunny wilds, some with isle, all with shelving heathery braes beside them, or golden bights where the little wave lapped. He turned to his companion with an ecstasy.
"Did you ask me if I rued it?" he said. "Give me no better than to stay here for ever—with you to share it."
She met his ardour with coolness. "I wish you had been so certain of that a little ago," she said; "you seem very much on the swither. Have you thought of what's to be done next? It is all very well to be putting our backs to the angry Elasaid behind us there, but all the time I'm wondering what's to be the outcome."
He confessed himself at a loss. She eyed him without satisfaction. This young gentleman, who seemed so enchanting in circumstances where no readiness of purpose was needed, looked very inadequate in the actual stress of things, in the broad daylight, his flat bonnet far back on his brow, his face wan, his plaid awry. And there was something in his carriage of the ridiculous lantern that made her annoyed at herself for some reason.
She stopped, and they hung hesitating, with the lapwings crying about them, and no other sound in the air.
"I'm going back," said she, as if she meant it. His face fell. This time there was no mistaking his distress.
"No, no, you cannot, Nan," he said. "We will get out of it somehow; you cannot return, and what of me? It would be ill to explain."
"We're neither whaup nor deer," said she, shrugging her shoulders, "to live here wild the rest of our days."
Gilian looked about him rather helplessly, and he started at the sight of a gable wall, with what in a shealing might pass for a window in it, and he knew it for a relic of the old days, when the moor in its levels here would be spotted with happy summer homes, when the people of Lochow came from the shores below and gave their cattle the juicy grazing of these untamed pastures, themselves living the ancient life, with singing and spinning in the open, gathering at nights for song or dance and tale in the fine weather.
"There's something of shelter at least," he said, pointing to it. She looked dubiously at the dry-stone walls almost tumbling, the cabars of what had been a byre fallen over half the interior, and at the rank nettles—head-high almost—about the rotten door.
"Is this home-coming?" she said whimsically, forcing a smile, but she was glad to see it. By this time she was master of her companion's mind, and could guess that it would be to him a palace for them both. But they went up towards the abandoned hut, glad enough, both of them, to see an edifice, even in decay, showing man had once been there, where now the world about seemed given over to vacant sunshine or the wild winds of heaven, the rains, and doleful birds. It stood between two lochs that were separated from each other by but a hundred yards of heather and rush, its back-end to one of the lochs, the door to Ben Bhreac.
Gilian went first and trod down the nettles, making a path that she might the more comfortably reach this sanctuary so melancholy. She gathered up her gown close round her, dreading the touch of these kind plants that hide the shame of fallen lintels and the sorrow of cold hearths, and timidly went to the door, her shawl fallen from one of her shoulders and dragging at the other. She put her head within, and as she did so, the lad caught the shawl, unseen by her, and kissed the fringe, wishing he could do so to her lips.
A cold damp air was in the dwelling, that had no light but from the half open door and the vent in the middle of the roof.
She drew back shuddering in spite of herself, though her whole desire was to seem content with any refuge now that she had brought him so far on what looked like a gowk's errand.
He ventured an assuring arm around her waist and they went slowly in together, and stood silent in the middle of the floor where the long-dead fire had been, saying nothing at all till their eyes had grown accustomed to the gloom.
What she felt beyond timidity she betrayed not, but Gilian peopled the house at an instant with all its bygone tenants, seeing the peats ruddy on the stones, the smoke curling up among the shining cabars, hearing ghosts gossiping in muffled Gaelic round the fire.
Yet soon they found even in this relic of old long-gone people the air of domesticity; it was like a shelter even though so poor a one; it was some sort of an end to her quest for a refuge, though the more she looked at its dim interior the more content she was with the outside of it. Where doubtless many children had played, on the knowe below a single shrub of fir-wood beside the loch, Nan spread out the remains of her breakfast again and they prepared to make a meal. Gilian gathered the dry heather tufts, happy in his usefulness, thinking her quite content too, while all the time she was puzzling as to what was next to be done. Never seemed a bleak piece of country so lovely to him as now. As he rose from bending over the heather and looked around, seeing the moor in its many colours stretch in swelling waves far into the distance, the lochans winking to the day and over all a kind soft sky, he was thrilling with his delight.
She summoned him in a little to eat. He looked at her scanty provender, and there was as much of truth as self-sacrifice in his words as he said: "I do not care for eating; I am just satisfied with seeing you there and the world so fine." And still exulting in that rare solitude of two he went farther off by Little Fox Loch and sought for white heather, symbol of luck and love, as rare to find among the red as true love is among illusion. Searching the braes he could hear, after a little, Nan sing at the shealing hut. A faint breeze brought the strain to him faintly so that it might be the melody of fairydom heard at eves on grassy hillocks by the gifted ear, the melody of the gentle other world, had he not known that it had the words of "The Rover." Nan was singing it to keep up her heart, far from cheerful, tortured indeed with doubt and fear, and yet the listener found in the notes content and hope. When he came back with his spray of white heather he was so uplifted with the song that he ran up to her for once with no restraint and made to fasten it at her neck. She was surprised at his new freedom but noway displeased. A little less self-consciousness as he fumbled at the riband on her neck would have satisfied her more, but even that disappeared when he felt her breath upon his hair and an unconscious touch of her hand on his arm as he fastened the flower. She let her eyes drop before his bold rapture, he could have kissed her there and then and welcome. But he only went halfway. When the heather was fastened, he took her hand and lifted it to his lips, remembering some inadequate tale in the books of Margot Maclean.
"John Hielan'man! John Hielan'man!" she said within herself, and suddenly she tore the white spray from her bosom and threw it passionately at her feet, while tears of vexation ran to her eyes.
"Forgive me, forgive me, I have vexed you again," said Gilian, contrite. "I should not be so bold."
She could not but smile through her tears.
"If you will take my heather again and say nothing of it, I will never take the liberty again," he went on, eager to make up for his error.
"Then I will not take it," she answered.
"It was stupid of me," said he.
"It is," she corrected meaningly.
"I never had any acquaintance with—with—girls," he added, trying to find some excuse for himself.
"That is plain enough," she agreed cordially, and she followed it with a sigh.
For a minute they stood thus irresolute and then the lad bent and lifted the ill-used heather. He held it in his hand for a moment tenderly as if it was a thing that lived, and sighed over it, and then, fearing that, too, might seem absurd to her and vexatious, he made an effort and twirled it between a finger and thumb by its stem like any casual wild-flower culled without reflection.
"What are you going to do with it now?" she asked him, affecting indifference, but eyeing it with interest; and he made no answer, for how could he tell her he meant to keep it always for remembrance? "Give it to me," she said suddenly, and took it from his fingers. She ran into the house and placed it in the only fragment of earthenware left by the departed tenants. "It will do very well there," she said.
"But I meant it for you," said Gilian ruefully, "It is a sign of good luck."
"It is a sign of more than that, I've heard many a time," she replied, and he became very red indeed, for he knew that as well as she, though he had not said it. "I'll take it for the luck," she went on.
"And for mine too," said Gilian.
"That's not so blate, John Hielan'man!" said she again to herself. "And for yours too," she conceded, smiling. "When you find that I have taken it away from there you will know it is for your luck too."
"And it will be at your breast then?" he cried eagerly.
She laughed and blushed and laughed again, most sweetly and most merrily. "It will be at—at—at my heart," she said.
"Ah," said he, in an instinct of fear that quelled his rapture; "ah, if they take you from me!"
"When I take your heather," said she, "it will be for ever at my heart."
Oh! then that savage moorland was Paradise for the dreamer, and he was a coquette's slave, fettered by a compliment. The afternoon passed, for him at least, in a delirium of joy; she, though she never revealed it, was never at a moment's rest from her plans of escape from her folly. Late in the afternoon she came to a lame conclusion.
"You will go down to the town to-night," she said, "and——"
"And you!" he cried, alarmed at the notion of severance.
"I'll stay here, of course. You'll tell Miss Mary that we—that I am here, and she will tell you what we—what I, must do."
"But—but—" he stammered, dubious of the plan.
"Of course I can go home again to Maam now," she broke in coldly, and she was vexed for the alarm and grief he showed at the alternative.
"I will go; I will go at once," he cried, but first he went far down on Blaraghour for wood for a fire to cheer her loneliness, and the dusk was down on them before he left her.
She gave him her hand at the door, a hand for once with helpless dependence in the clinging and the confidence of it, and he held it long without dissent from her. Never before had she seemed so beautiful or so affable, so necessary to his life. Her trials had paled the colour of her face and her eyes had a hint of tears. Over his shoulder she would now and then cast a glance of apprehension at the falling night and check a shudder of her frame.
"Good-night!" he said.
"Good-night!" she answered, and yet she did not loose her prisoned hand.
He sighed, and brought, in spite of her, an echo from her heart.
Then he drew her suddenly to his arms and scorched her face with lips of fire.
Nan released herself and fled within. The door closed; she dared not make her trial the more intense by seeing the night swallow up her only living link with the human world beyond the vague selvedge of the moor.
And Gilian, till the dawn came over Cruach-an-Lochain, walked by the side of Little Fox Loch, within view of the hut that held his heart.
That there was some unusual agitation in the town Gilian could gather as soon as he had set foot within the Arches in the early morning. It was in the air, it was mustering many women at the well. There they stood in loud and lingering groups, their stoups running over extravagantly while they kept the tap running, unconscious what they were about Or they had a furtive aspect as they whispered in the closes, their aprons wrapping their folded arms. At the door of the New Inns, Mr. Spencer was laying forth a theory of abduction. He had had English experience, he knew life; for the first time since he had come to this place of poor happenings he had found something he could speak upon with authority and an audience to listen with respect What his theory was, Gilian might have heard fully as he passed; but he was thinking of other things, and all that came to him were two or three words, and one of the errant sentences was seemingly about himself. That attracted all his attention. He gave a glance at the people at the door—the inn-keeper, MacGibbon, with an unusual Kilmarnock bonnet on that seemed to have been donned in a hurry; Rixa, in a great perturbation, having just come out of a shandry-dan with which he had been driving up Glen Shira; Major Paul, and Wilson the writer. The inn-keeper, who was the first to see the lad, stopped his speech with confusion and reddened. They gave him a stare and a curt acknowledgment of his passage of the time of day as the saying goes, looked after him as he passed round Old Islay's corner, and found no words till he was out of sight.
"That puts an end to that notion, at any rate," said the Sheriff, almost pleased to find the Londoner in the wrong with his surmises. And the others smiled at Mr. Spencer as people do who told you so. Two minutes ago they were half inclined to give some credit to the plausibility of his reasoning.
The inn-keeper was visibly disturbed. "Dear me! I have been doing the lad an injustice after all; I could have sworn he was the man in it if it was anybody."
"Pooh!" said Rixa, "the Paymaster's boy! I would as soon expect it of Gillesbeg Aotram."
They went into the hostelry, and Gilian, halfway round the factor's corner, was well-nigh ridden down by Turner on a roan horse spattered on the breast and bridle with the foam of a hard morn's labour. He had scoured the countryside on every outward road, and come early at the dawn to the ferry-house and rapped wildly on the shutter. But nowhere were tidings of his daughter. Gilian felt a traitor to this man as he swept past, seeing nothing, with a face cruel and vengeful, the flanks of his horse streaked with crimson. The people shrunk back in their closes and their shop-doors as he passed all covered upon with the fighting passion that had been slumbering up the glen since ever he came home from the Peninsula.
It was the breakfast hour in the Paymaster's. Miss Mary was going in with the Book and had but time to whisper welcome to her boy on the step of the door, for the brothers waited and the clock was on the stroke. Gilian had to follow her without a word of explanation. He was hungry; he welcomed the little respite the taking of food would give him from the telling of a confidence he felt ashamed to share with Miss Mary.
The Paymaster mumbled a blessing upon the vivours, then fed noisily, looking, when he looked at Gilian at all, but at the upper buttons of his coat as if through him, and letting not so little as the edge of his gaze fall upon his face. That was a studious contempt, and Gilian knew it, and there were many considerations that made him feel no injury at it. But the Cornal's utter indifference—that sent his eye roaming unrecognising into Gilian's and away again without a spark of recognition—was painful. It would have been an insufferable meal, even in his hunger, but for Miss Mary's presence. The little lady would be smiling to him across the table without any provocation whenever her brothers' eyes were averted, and the faint perfume of a silk shawl she had about her shoulders endowed the air with an odour of domesticity, womanhood, maternity.
For a long time nobody spoke, and the pigeons came boldly to the sill of the open window and cooed.
At last said the Paymaster, as if he were resuming a conversation: "I met him out there on horseback; the hunt is still up, I'm thinking."
"Ay?" said the Cornal, as if he gripped the subject and waited the continuance of the narrative.
"He'll have ranged the country, I'm thinking," went on his brother. "I could not but be sorry for the man."
Miss Mary cast upon him a look he seldom got from her, of warmth more than kinship, but she had nothing to say; her voice was long dumb in that parlour where she loved and feared, a woman subjugate to a sex far less worthy than her own and less courageous.
"Humph!" said the Cornal. He felt with nervous inquiry at his ragged chin, inspired for a second by old dreads of untidy morning parades.
"I had one consolation for my bachelordom in him," went on the younger brother, and then he paused confused.
"And what might that be?" asked the Cornal.
"It's that I'm never like to be in the same scrape with a child of mine," he answered, pretending a jocosity that sat ill on him. Then he looked at Miss Mary a little shamefaced for a speech so uncommonly confidential.
The Cornal opened his mouth as if he would laugh, but no sound came.
"I'm minding," said he, speaking slowly and in a muffled accent he was beginning to have always; "I'm minding when that same, cast in your face by the gentleman himself, greatly put you about Jock, Jock, I mind you were angry with Turner on that score! And no child to have the same sorrows over! Well—well——" He broke short and for the first time let his eyes rest with any meaning on Gilian sitting at the indulgence of a good morning's appetite.
Miss Mary put about the breakfast dishes with a great hurry to be finished and out of this explosive atmosphere.
"There was an odd rumour—" said the Paymaster. He paused a moment, looking at the inattentive youth opposite him. He saw no reason to stay his confidences, and the Cornal was waiting expectingly on him. "An odd rumour up the way; I heard it first from that gabbling man Spencer at the Inns. It was that a young gentleman of our acquaintance might have had a hand in the affair. I could not say at the first whether the notion vexed or pleased me, but I assured him of the stupidity of it." He looked his brother in the eyes, and fixing his attention cunningly dropped a lid to indicate that the young gentleman was beside them.
The Cornal laughed, this time with a sound.
"Lord," he cried. "As if it was possible! You might go far in that quarter for anything of dare-deviltry so likeable. What's more, is the girl daft? Her mother had caprice enough, but to give her her due she took up with men of spirit There was my brother Dugald—— But this one, what did Dugald call him—aye! on his very death-bed? The dreamer, the dreamer! It will hold true! Him, indeed!" And he had no more words for his contempt.
All the time, however, Gilian was luckily more or less separate from his company by many miles of fancy, behind the hills among the lochs watching the uprising of Nan, sharing her loneliness, seeing her feet brush the dew from the scented gall. But the Cornal's allusion brought him to the parlour of his banishment, away from that dear presence. He listened now but said nothing. He feared his very accent would betray his secret.
"I'll tell you what it is," said the Cornal again, "whoever is with her will rue it; mind, I'm telling you. It's like mother like child."
"I'm glad," said the Paymaster, "I had nothing to do with the sex of them." He puffed up as he spoke it; there was an irresistible comedy in the complacence of a man no woman was ever like to run after at his best. His sister looked at him; his brother chuckled noiselessly.
"You—you—you——" said the elder brother grimly, but again he did not finish the sentence.
The meal went on for a time without any speech, finished, and Miss Mary cried at the stair-head for her maid, who came up and sat demurely at the chair nearest the door while the Cornal, as hurriedly as he might, ran over the morning's sacred exercise from the Bible Miss Mary laid before him. The Paymaster took his seat beside the window, looking out the while and heedless of the Scriptures, watched the fishermen crowding for their mornings into the house of Widow Gordon the vintner. Miss Mary stole glances at her youth, the maid Peggy fidgeted because she had left the pantry door open and the cat was in the neighbourhood. As the old man's voice monotonously occupied the room, working its way mumblingly through the end of Exodus, conveying no meaning to the audience, Gilian heard the moor-fowl cry beside Little Fox. The dazzle of the sunshine, the sparkle of the water, the girl inhabiting that solitary spot, seemed very real before him, and this dolorous routine of the elderly in a parlour no more than a dream from which he would waken to find himself with the girl he loved. Upon his knees beside his chair while the Cornal gruffly repeated the morning prayer he learned from his father, he remained the remote wanderer of fancy, and Miss Mary knew it by the instinct of affection as she looked at the side of his face through eyelids discreetly closed but not utterly fastened.
The worship was no sooner over than Gilian was for off after Miss Mary to her own room, but the Paymaster stayed him with some cold business query about the farm, and handed him a letter from a low-country wool merchant relative to some old transaction still unsettled. Gilian read it, and the brothers standing by the window resumed their talk about the missing girl: it was the subject inspired by every glance into the street where each passerby, each loiterer at a close mouth, was obviously canvassing the latest news.
"There's her uncle away by," said the Paymaster, straining his head to follow a figure passing on the other side of the street. "If they had kept a stricter eye on her from the first when they had her they might have saved themselves all this."
"Stricter eye!" said the Cornal. "You ken as much about women as I ken about cattle. The veins of her body were full of caprice, that's what ailed her, and for that is there any remede? I'm asking you. As if I did not ken the mother of her! Man, man, man! She was the emblem and type of all her sex, I'm thinking, wanting all sobriety, hating the thought of age in herself and unfriendly to the same in others. A kind of a splash on a fine day upon the deep sea, laughing over the surface of great depths. I knew her well, Dugald knew her——"
"You had every chance," said the Paymaster, who nowadays found more courage to retort when his brother's shortness and contempt annoyed him.
"More chance, of course I had," said the Cornal. "I'm thinking you had mighty little from yon lady."
"Anyway, here's her daughter to seek," said the Paymaster, feeling himself getting the worst of the encounter; "my own notion is that she's on the road to Edinburgh. They say she had aye a crave for the place; perhaps there was a pair of breeches there behind her. Anyway, she's making an ass of somebody!"
Gilian threw down the letter and stood to his feet with his face white. "You're a liar!" said he.
No shell in any of their foreign battles more astounded the veterans he was facing with wide nostril and a face like chalk.
"God bless me, here's a marvel!" cried the Cornal when he found voice.
"You—you—you damned sheep!" blurted the Paymaster. "Do you dare speak to me like that? For tuppence I would give you my rattan across the legs." His face was purple with anger; the stock that ran in many folds about his neck seemed like a garotte. He lifted up his hand as if to strike, but his brother caught his arm.
"Let the lad alone," said he. "If he had a little more of that in his make I would like him better."
Together they stood, the old men, facing Gilian with his hands clenched, for the first time in his life the mutineer, feeling a curious heady satisfaction in the passion that braced him like a sword and astounded the men before him.
"It's a lie!" he cried again, somewhat modifying his accusation. "I know where she is, and she's not in Edinburgh nor on her way to it."
"Very well," said the Paymaster, "ye better go and tell Old Islay where she is; he's put about at the loss of a daughter-in-law he paid through the nose for, they're saying."
The blow, the last he had expected, the last he had reason to look for, struck full and hard. He was blind then to the old men sneering at him there; his head seemed charged with coiling vapours; his heart, that had been dancing a second ago on the wave of passion, swamped and sank. He had no more to say; he passed them and left the room and went along the lobby to the stair-head, where he stood till the vapours had somewhat blown away.
CHAPTER XXXII—AN OLD MAID'S SECRET
Miss Mary bustled about her kitchen with a liveliness that might have deceived any one but Gilian, who knew her to be in a tremendous perturbation. She clattered among pans, wrestled with her maid over dishes and dusters, and kept her tongue incessantly going on household details. With a laughable transparency she turned in a little to the lad and said something about the weather. He sat down in a chair and gloomed into the fire, Miss Mary watching his every sigh, but yet seemingly intent upon her duties.
"Donacha Breck's widow was over before we were up to-day, for something for her hoast," she said. "She had tried hyssop and pennyroyal masked in two waters, but I gave her sal prunelle and told her to suck it till the cough stopped. There's a great deal of trouble going about just now: sometimes I think——" She stopped incontinent and proceeded to sweep the floor, for she saw that Gilian was paying no attention to her. At length he looked at her and then with meaning to Peggy bent over her jaw-box.
"Peggy," said Miss Mary, "go over and tell the mantua-maker that she did not put the leavings in the pocket of my jacket, and there must have been a good deal."
Peggy dried her arms, tucked up the corner of her apron, and departed, fully aware of the stratagem, but no way betraying the fact When she was gone, Miss Mary faced him, disturbed and questioning.
"We had a quarrel in there," said he shortly, "I am not going to put up with what they said about any friend of mine."
She had no need to ask who he spoke of. "Is it very much to you?" said she, turning away and busy with her brush that she might be no spectator of his confusion. A great fear sprang up in her; the boy who had grown up a man for her in the space of a Sunday afternoon was capable of new developments even more rapid and extraordinary.
"It should be very much to anybody," said he, "to anybody with the spark of a gentleman, when the old and the soured and the jealous——"
"I'm thinking you are forgetting, Gilian," said she, facing him now with a flush upon her face.
"What? what?" he asked, perplexed. "You think I should be grateful. I cannot help it; you were the kind one and——"
"I was not thinking of that at all," she rejoined "I was just thinking you had forgotten that I was their sister, and that I must be caring much for them. If my brothers have said anything to vex you, and that has been a too common thing—my sorrow!—in this house, you should be minding their years, my dear. It is the only excuse I can offer, and I am willing to make up for their shortcomings by every kindness." And she smiled upon the lad with the most wonderful light of affection in her eyes.
"Oh," he cried, "am I not sure of that, Auntie? You are too good to me. What am I to be complaining—the beggarly orphan?"
"Not that, my dear," she cried courageously, "not that! In this house, when my brothers' looks were at their blackest for you, there has always been goodwill and motherliness. But you must not be miscalling them that share our roof, the brothers of Dugald and of Jamie." Her voice broke in a gasp of melancholy; she stretched an arm and dusted from a corner of the kitchen a cobweb that had no existence, her eyesight dim with unbrimming tears. At any other time than now Gilian would have been smitten by her grief, for was he not ever ready to make the sorrows of others his own? But he was frowning in a black-browed abstraction on the clay scroll of the kitchen floor, heartsick of his dilemma and the bitterness of the speeches he had just heard.
Miss Mary could not be long without observing, even in her own troubles, that he was unusually vexed. She was wise enough to know that a fresh start was the best thing to put them at an understanding.
"What did you come to tell me to-day?" she asked, composing herself upon a chair beside him and taking up some knitting, for hers were the fingers that were never idle.
"Come down to tell you? Come down to tell you?" he repeated, in surprise at her penetration, and in some confusion that he should so sharply be brought to his own business.
"Just so," she said. "Do you think Miss Mary has no eyes, my dear, or that they are too old for common use? There was something troubling you as you came in at the door; I saw it in your face—ay, I heard it in your step on the stair."
He fidgeted and evaded her eyes. "I heard outside that—that Turner's daughter had not been got, and it vexed me a little."
"Turner's daughter!" she said. "It used to be Miss Nan; it was Miss Nan no further gone than Thursday, and for what need we be so formal to-day? You are not heeding John's havers about your name being mixed up with the affair in a poor Sassanach inn-keeper's story? Eh, Gilian?" And she eyed him shrewdly, more shrewdly than he was aware of.
Still he put her off. He could not take her into his confidence so soon after that cold plunge into truth in the parlour. He wanted to get out of doors and think it all over calmly. He pretended anger.
"What am I to be talked to like this for? All in this house are on me. Is it wonderful that I should have my share in the interest the whole of the rest of the parish has in this young lady lost?"
He rose to leave the room. Miss Mary stopped him with the least touch upon the arm, a lingering, gentle touch of the finger-tips, and yet caressing.
"Gilian," she said softly, "do you think you can be deceiving me? M'eudail, m'ieudail! I know there is a great trouble in your mind, and is it not for me to share?"
"There is something, but I cannot tell you now what it is, though I came here to tell you," he answered, making no step to go.
"Gilian," said she, standing before him, and the light from the window touching her ear so that, beside the darkness of her hair (for she had off her cap), it looked like a pink flower, "Gilian, can you not be telling me? Do you think I cannot guess what ails you, nor fancy something for its cure?"
He saw from the shyness of her face that she had an inkling of at least the object of his interest.
"But I cannot be mentioning it here," he said, feebly enough. "It's a matter a man must cherish to himself alone, and not be airing before others. I felt, in there, to have it in my mind before two men who had worked and fought and adventured all their lives, and come to this at last, was a childish weakness."
She caught hold of his coat lapel, and fingered it, and looked as she spoke, not at the face above her, but at some vision over his shoulder. "Before them, my dear," she said. "That well might be, though even they have not always been the hard and selfish veterans. What about me, my dear? Can I not be understanding, think you, Gilian?"
"It is such a foolish thing," said he weakly, "a thing of interest only to the very young."
"And am I so old, my dear," she said, "not to have been young once? Do you think this little wee wife with her hair getting grey—not so grey either, though—was always in old maid dolours in her garret thinking of hoasts and headaches and cures for them, and her brothers' slippers and her own rheumatics on rainy days? Oh, my dear, my dear! you used to understand me as if it had been through glass—ay, from the first day you saw me, and my brother's sword must be sending me to my weeping; can you not understand me now? I am old, and the lowe of youth is down in its ember, but once I was as young—as young—as—as—as the girl you are thinking of."
He drew back, overwhelmed with confusion, but she found the grip of his coat again and followed up her triumph.
"Did you think I could not guess so little as that, my dear? Oh, Gilian, sometimes I'll be sitting in there all my lone greeting my eyes out over darning hose, and minding of what I have been and what I have seen, and the days that will never come any more. The two upstairs will be minding only to envy and to blame—me, I must be weeping as much for my sin as for my sorrow. Do I look so terrible old, Gilian, that you cannot think of me as not so bad-looking either, with a bonny eye, they said, and a jimp waist, and a foot like the honey-bee? It was only yesterday; ah, it was a hundred years ago! I was the sisterly slave. No dancing for me. No romping for Mary at hairst or Hogmanay. My father glooming and binding me motherless to my household tasks, so that Love went by without seeing me. My companions, and she the dearest of them all, enjoying life to the full, and me looking out at this melancholy window from year to year, and seeing the traffic of youth and all the rest of it go by."
She released his lapel and relapsed, all tears, upon her chair.
"Auntie, Auntie!" he cried, "do not let my poor affairs be vexing you." He put, for the first time in his life, an arm about her waist, bending over her, with all forgotten for the moment save that she had longed for love and seemingly found it not. At the touch of his arm she trembled like a maiden in her teens and forced a smile upon her face. "Let me go," she said, and yet she gloried in that contact as she sat in the chair and he bent over her.
"And was there no one came the way?" he asked. "Was I not worth it, do you think?" she replied, yet smiling in her tears. "Oh, Gilian, not this old woman, mind you, but the woman I was. And yet—and yet, it is true, no one came; or if they came, they never came that I wanted." "And he?" said Gilian.
She paused and sighed, her thin little hands, so white for all their toil in that hard barracks, playing upon her lap. "He never had the chance. My father's parlour had no welcome, a soldier's household left no vacant hours for an only daughter's gallivanting. I had to be content to look at him—the one I mean—from the window, see him in the church or passing up and down the street. They had up Dr. Brash at me—I mind his horn specs, and him looking at my tongue and ordering a phlebotomy. What I wanted was the open air, a chance of youth, and a dance on the green. Instead of that it was always 'Hof Mary!' and 'Here, Mary,' and 'What are you wasting your time for, Mary?'" She was all in a tremble, moist no more with tears, but red and troubled at her eyes. "And then—then—then he married her. If he had taken any one else it would not have seemed so hard. I think I hated her for it. It was long before I discovered they were chief, for my brothers that were out and in kept it from me for their own reasons, and they never kent my feeling. But when she was cried and married and kirked, each time it was a dagger at my heart. Amn't I the stupid old cailleach, my dear, to be talking of such a thing? But oh! to see them on the street together; to see him coming home on his furloughs—I am sure I could not be but unfond of her then! I mind once I wished her dead, that maybe he might—he might see something in me still. That was when Nan was born and—"
"What," cried Gilian, "and was he Nan's father? I—I did not know."
She turned upon him an old face spoiled by the memories of the moment. "Who else would it be, my dear?" said she, as if that settled it. "And you are the first in the world I mentioned it to. He has never seen me close in the face to guess it for himself, before or since. It might have happened if I wished, after, but that was the punishment I gave myself for my unholy thought about my friend his wife."
"Ah, little Auntie, little Auntie," said he in Gaelic "Little Auntie, little Auntie!" No more than that, and yet his person was stormy with grief for her old sorrow. He put his arm about her neck now—surely never Highland lad did that before in their position, and tenderly, as if he had practised it for years, he pressed her to his breast and side.
"And is it all by now but a recollection?" said he softly.
"All by long syne," said she, dashing the tears from her face and clearing herself from that unusual embrace. "Sometimes I'll be thinking it was better as it was, for I see many wives and husbands, and the dead fire they sit at is less cheery than one made but never lighted. You mustn't be laughing at an old lady, Gilian."
"I would never be doing that, God knows," he answered solemnly.
"And I am sure you would not, my dear," she said, looking trustfully at him; "though sometimes I must be laughing at myself for such a folly. Lads and lasses have spoken to me about their courtships and their trials, and they never knew that I had anything but an old maid's notion of the thing. And that's the way with yourself, is it not, Gilian? Will you tell me now?"
Still he hung hesitating.
"Do you—are you fond of the girl?" said she and now it was he who was in the chair and she was bending over him.
"Do I not?" he cried, sudden and passionate lest his confidence should fail. "Ay, with all my heart."
"Poor Gilian!" said she.
"Yes, poor Gilian!" he repeated bitterly, thinking on all that lay between him and the girl of his devotion. Now, if ever, was the time to tell the real object of his visit, how that those old surmisers upstairs were wider of the mark than the innkeeper, and that the person for whom the hunt was up through half the shire was sequestered in the lonely shealing hut on the moor of Karnes.
"I am sorry," she went on, and there was no mistake about it, for her grief was in her face. "I am sorry, but you must forget, my dear. It is easy—sometimes—to forget, Gilian; you must be just throng with work and duty, and by-and-by you'll maybe wonder at yourself having been in the notion of Nan Gordon's daughter, made like her mother (and God bless her!) for the vexation of youth, but never for sober satisfaction. I am wae for you, Gilian, and I cannot help you, though I would tramp from here to Carlisle in my bauchles if it would bring her to you."
"You maybe would not need to go so far," he answered abruptly. "There is a hut behind the hill there, and neither press nor fire nor candle nor companion in it, and Nan—Miss Nan, is waiting there for me to go back to her, and here I'm wasting precious hours. Do you not see that I'm burning like a fire?"
"And you have the girl in the moor?" she cried incredulously.
"That I have!" he answered, struck by the absolute possession her sentence suggested. "I have her there. I took her there. I took her from her father's home. She came willingly, and there she is, for me!"
He held out his arms with a gesture indescribable, elate, nervous with his passion. "Auntie, think of it: you mind her eyes and her hair, yon turn of the neck, and her song? They're mine, I'm telling you."
"I mind them in her mother," said the little lady, stunned by this intelligence. "I mind them in her mother, and they were not at all, in her, for those who thought they were for them. This—this is a terrible thing, Gilian," she said piteously.
He rose, and "What could I do?" he asked. "I loved her, and was I to look at her father selling her to another one who never had her heart?"
"Are you sure you have it yourself, Gilian?" she asked, and her face was exceedingly troubled.
"It's a thing I never asked," he confessed carelessly. "Would she be where she is without it being so?"
"Where her mother's daughter might be in any caprice of spirit I would not like to guess," said Miss Mary, dubious. "And I think, if I was the man, it would be the first thing I would be making sure about."
"What would she fly with me for if it was not for love?" he asked.
"Ask a woman that," she went on. "Only a woman, and only some kinds of women, could tell you that. For a hundred reasons good enough for herself, though not for responsibility."
He bit his lips in perplexity, feeling all at sea, the only thing clear to his mind being that Nan was alone on the moor, her morning fire sending a smoke to the sky, expectation bringing her now and then to the door to see if her ambassador was in view.
For the sake of that sweet vision he was bound to put another question to Miss Mary—to ask her if the reference by her brother to Old Islay bore the import he had given it. He braced himself to it—a most unpleasant task.
"It's true," she said. "Do you mean to tell me you did not know he was the man?" "I did not. And the money?" "Oh, the money!" said Miss Mary oddly, as if now a great deal was explained to her. "Did Nan hear anything of that?"
"She knows everything—except the man's name. She was too angry to hear that."
"Except the man's name," repeated Miss Mary. "She did not know it was Young Islay." She turned as she spoke, and busied herself with a duster where there was no need for it. And when she showed him her face again, there were tears there, not for her own old trials, but for his.
"You must go back there," she said firmly, though her lips were trembling, "and you will tell Miss Nan that whatever Old Islay would do, his son would never put that affront on her. At the worst, the money was no more than a tocher with the lad; it was their start in Drimlee and Maam that are now together for the sake of an old vanity of the factors.... You must tell all that," she went on, paying no heed to the perplexity in his face. "It would be unfair to do less, my dear; it will be wiser to do all. Then you will do the other thing—if need be—what you should have done first and foremost; youll find out if the girl is in earnest about yourself or only indulging a cantrip like her mother's daughter. Ask her—ask her—oh! what need I be telling you? If you have not the words in your heart I need not be putting them in your mouth. Run away with you now!" and she pushed him to the door like a child that had been caressed and counselled.
He was for going eagerly without a word more, but she cried him back. For a moment she clung to his arm as if she was reluctant to part with him.
"Oh!" she cried, laughing, and yet with tears in her voice, "a bonny-like man to be asking her without having anything to offer."
He would have interrupted her, but she would not let him.
"Go your ways," she told him, "and bring her back with you if you can. Miss Mary has something in a stocking foot, and no long need for it."
CHAPTER XXXIII—THE PROMISE
When Gilian came down the stair and to the mouth of the pend close, he stood with some of the shyness of his childhood that used to keep him swithering there with a new suit on, uneasy for the knowledge that the colour and cut of it would be the talk of the town as soon as it was seen, and that some one would come and ask ofthand if Miss Mary was still making-down from the Paymaster's waistcoats. It was for that he used at last to show a new suit on the town by gentle degrees, the first Sunday the waistcoat, the next Sunday the waistcoat and trousers, and finally the complete splendour. Now he felt kenspeckle, not in any suit of material clothes but in a droll sense of nakedness. He had told his love and adventure in a place where walls heard and windows peered, and a rumour out of the ordinary went on the wind into every close and soared straight to the highest tenement—even to the garret rooms. He felt that the women at the wells, very busy, as they pretended, over their boynes and stoups, would whisper about him as he passed, without looking up from their occupation.
Down the street towards the church there was scarcely any one to be seen except the children out for the mid-day airing from Brooks's school, and old Brooks himself going over to Kate Bell's for his midday waters with a daundering step as if he had no special object, and might as readily be found making for the quay or the coffee-house. The children were noisy in the playground, the boys playing at port-the-helm, a foolish pastime borrowed in its parlance and its rule from the seafarers who frequented the harbour, and the girls more sedately played peeveral-al and I dree I dree! dropped it, their voices in a sweat unison chanting, yet with a sorrow in the cadence.
Up the street some men sat on the Cross steps waiting the coming of the ferry-boat from Kilcatrine, for it was the day of the weekly paper. Old Islay went from corner to corner, looking eager out to sea, his hands deep in the pockets of his long coat. Major McNicol put his head cautiously out at his door that his servant lass held open and scanned the deadly world where Frenchmen lay in ambush. He caught a glimpse of Gilian spying from the pend close and darted in trembling, but soon came out again, with the maid patting him kindly and assuringly on the back. From close to close he made a tactical advance—swift dashes between on his poor bent old limbs, and he drew up by Gilian's side.
"All's well!" said he with a breath of relier. "Man! but they're throng to-day; the place is fair botching with them."
Gilian expressed some commonplace and left the shelter of the pend close and went up the street round the factor's corner. He looked behind him there. The ferry-boat from Kilcatrine was in. Young Islay had stepped the first off the skiff and was speaking—not to his father, but to General Turner, whose horse, spattered with foam and white with autumn dust, a boy held at the quay head. The post-runner took a newspaper from his pocket and handed it to the men waiting at the Cross; they hastened into the vintners, and one of them read aloud to the company with no need to replenish his glass. Against the breast wall the tide at the full lapped with a pleasant sound. Mr. Spencer came out to the front of the Inns, smoking a segar, very perjink with a brocade waistcoat and a collar so high it rasped his ears.
Everything visible impressed itself that day acutely on Gilian as he went out of the town; not only as if he were naked but as if he were raw and feeling flesh, and he was glad when the turn of the road at the Arches hid this place from his view.
A voice cried behind him, and turning around he found Peggy running after him with a basket, Miss Mary's afterthought for the fugitive girl on the moor.
Very quickly he sped up the hills; Nan ran out to meet him as he came up the brae from Little Fox. She had been crying in the morning till tears would come no longer, but now she was composed; at least her eyes were calm and her cheeks lost the pallor they had from a night almost sleepless in that lonely dwelling. As he saw her running out to meet him he filled with elation and with apprehension. She was so beautiful, so airy, so seemingly his alone as she ran out thus from their refuge, that he grudged the hours he had been gone from her.
"Oh," she cried, "the Spring was no more welcome to the wood. I hope you have brought good news, Gilian." And up she went to him and linked an arm through his with some of the composure of the companion and some of the ardour of the sweetheart.
"I think it's all well," said he, putting his arm round her as they went up towards the hut together.
"Is it only thinking?" she asked with disappointment in her voice, all the ardour gone from her face, and her arm withdrawn. "I was so certain it would be sureness for once. Will Miss Mary not help me? I am sorry I asked her. It was not right, perhaps, that my father's daughter should be expecting anything from the sister of the Campbells of Keil." She was all tremulous with vexed pride and disappointment.
"Miss Mary is your very kind friend, Nan," he protested, "and she will help you as readily as she will help me."
"I am to go down then?" she cried, uplifted again.
"Well, yes—that is, it is between ourselves."
"That's what I would be thinking myself, John Hielan'man," she thought. And still with all her contempt for his shrinking uncertainty there was a real fondness that might in an hour have come to full blossom in that solitude where they so depended on each other.
"I was to ask you something," he said.
"My wise Miss Mary!" said Nan to herself. "Women have all the wits." But she said nothing aloud, waiting for his explanation.
"I thought there was no need of it myself, but she said she knew better."
"Very likely she was right too," said Nan. "And now you must tell me all about what is going on down-by. Are they looking for me? What is my father saying? Do they blame me?"
Gilian told her all he knew or thought desirable, as they went up to the hut and prepared for the first meal Nan had that day. It was good that the weather favoured them. No sign of its habitual rain and wind hung over the moorland. Soft clouds, white like the wool of lambs new-washed in running waters, hung motionless where the sky met the moor, but over them still was the deep blue, greying to the dip.
They lit a fire in the hut with scraps of candle-fir Gilian had picked up on the way from the town, and a cheerful flame illumined the mean interior, but in a while they preferred to go outside and sit by the edge of Little Fox. In a hollow there the wilds seemed more compact about them; the sense of solitude disappeared; it was just as if one of their berrying rambles in the woods behind Maam had been prolonged a little farther than usual Lazily they reclined upon the heather, soft and billowy to their arms; the kind air fanned them, a melody breathed from the rippling shore.
All the reading in Marget Maclean's books, the shy mornings, the pondering eves, the ruminations lonely by wood and shore, had prepared Gilian for such an hour, and now he felt its magic. And as they sat thus on the bank of the little lake, Nan sung, forgetting herself in her song as she ever must be doing. The waves stilled to listen; the birds on the heather came closer; the clouds, like wool on the edge of Ben Bhreac, tarried and trembled. And Gilian, as he heard, forgetting all that ancient town below of unable elders and stagnant airs, illusion gone and glory past, its gossip at well and close, its rancours of clan and family, knew the message now of the bird that cried across the swampy meadow-land at Kilmalieu. Love, love, love—and death. It was the message of bird and flower, of wave and wind, the deep and constant note in Nan's song, whatever the words might be. No more for a moment the rustic, the abashed shepherd, but with the secret of the world filling his heart, he crept closer to Nan's side as she leaned upon the heather, and put an arm around her waist.
"Nan, Nan," he cried, "could we not be here, you and I, alone together for ever?"
The gaudy bubble of her expectation burst; she released herself from his grasp with "John Hielan'-man! John Hielan'man!" in her mind.
"And was that Miss Mary's question? I thought she was a more sensible friend to both of us."
"Never a better," said he. "She offered her all and——"
"What!" cried Nan, anger flaring in her face, "are you in the market too?"
He stammered an excuse.
"It was not a gift," said he, "but to you and me; and that, indeed, was as much as Old Islay meant, to give him his due."
"Old Islay, Old Islay!" she repeated, turning her face from him to hide its sudden remorse. "Islay, Islay," she repeated to herself. He noticed the hand she leaned upon, so soft, so white, so beautiful, trembled in its nest among the heather. He was so taken up with it there among the heather, so much more beautiful than the fairest flower, that he did not notice how far he had given up his secret.
He caught the hand and fondled it, and still she repeated to herself like a coronach, "Islay, Islay." For once more the rude arm was round her waist in Maam, and the bold soldier was kissing her on the lips.
Gilian stood up and "Oh!" he cried, as he looked from her to the landscape, and back from the landscape to her again, "Oh!" he cried, "I wondered, when you were gone in Edinburgh, what was wanting here. When Miss Mary told me you were come home, I felt it was the first time the sun had shone, and the birds had found a song."
"Young Islay!" she still was thinking, hearing the dreamer but to compare him with the practitioner she knew.
And then the dreamer, remembering that his question was still unput, uttered it shyly and awkwardly. "Do you love me?" said he.
It was for this she had fled from Young Islay, who knew his mind and had no fear to speak it!
"Do I love you?" she repeated. "Are you not too hasty?"
"Am I?" he said, alarmed. And she sighed.
"Oh yes, of course you are! You know so little of me. You have taken me from my father's house by a ladder at night, and share a moor with me, and you know I have no friend to turn to in the world but yourself. You have eyes and ears, and still you must be asking if it is not hasty to find out if I love you. It is a wonder you have the boldness to say the word itself."
"Well," he pursued gawkily, though he perceived her drift clearly, "here I am, and I do love you. Oh, what a poor word it is, that love, for the fire I feel inside me. There is no word for that, there is nothing but a song for it that some day I must be making. Love, quo' she; oh, I could say that truly of the heather kissing your hand, ay, of the glaur your feet might walk on upon a wet day!"