"My best respects to you, Master Gilian!" said Nan. "You have the fine tongue in your head after all. What a pity we have been wasting such a grand opportunity for it here!" and there was an indulgence in her eye, though now and then the numb regret of a blunder made came upon her spirit.
"Will you come down with me?" he went on, far too precipitate for her fancy.
"When?" she asked, thoughtlessly robbing a heather-tuft bell by bell with idle fingers.
"Now; Miss Mary expects us this evening."
"Miss Mary!" said she, a little amused and annoyed. "You would never have come to the bit but for her."
"Perhaps not," he confessed, "but here I am, and God bless her for bringing me to it! Will you—will you take my white heather now?" And he stood, something of a lout, with nervous hands upon his hips.
"It looks very pretty where it is," she answered playfully. "And for what should I be decking myself in the wilderness?"
She wanted the obvious compliment, but this was a stock from a kail garden, and "Oh, John Hielan'man!" she cried aloud for the first time.
"You promised, you know," he said lamely.
"That was yesterday, and this is to-day, and——" she could not finish for thinking of Young Islay.
"Must I be taking it to you?" he went on, making to move to the door of the hut where lay the symbol of his love and the token of her surrender.
"Wait! wait!" she cried, standing to her feet and approaching him. "Is that all there is in the bargain? Are there no luck-pennies at this sort of market?"
He understood her and kissed her with a heart furious within but in his movement hesitating, shy and awkward.
For her life she could not but recall the other—the more confident and practised one she had fled from. She drew off, red, to give her no more than her due, for the treachery of her mind.
"Leave it," she said to him. "I will get it myself. Does anyone besides Miss Mary know we are here?"
"Then she will tell nobody our secret. You will go down now. We could scarcely go together. You will go down now, and tell her I will follow in the dusk."
"You have given me no answer, Nan," he pleaded; "the heather!"
"The heather will be at my heart!" she cried hurriedly.
It was a promise that sang in his head as he went on his way, the herald of joy, the fool of illusion.
When he had gone and was no farther than the shoulder of the brae lying between the hut and Little Fox, and there was no longer any chance of his turning to repeat his wild adieux, Nan went into the old hut and put the sprig of white heather at her bosom, and gave way to a torrent of tears. She could not have done so in the sunshine outside, but in that poor interior, even with the day spying through the roof, she had the sense of seclusion. She cried for grief and bitterness. No folly she had ever committed seemed so great as this her latest, that she should blindly have fled from a danger unmeasured into a situation that abounded with difficulties. She blamed herself, she blamed her father, she blamed Gilian for his inability to be otherwise than God had made him. In contrast to his gawky shyness—the rusticity of the farm and hill, rose up constant in her remembrance the confident young gentleman she had run away from without so much as a knowledge of his name. She cried, and the afternoon came, a blush of fire and flowing gold upon the hills, the purple of the steeps behind her darkened; upon Big Fox behind, some wild duck floated and gossiped.
She was still at her crying, a maiden altogether disconsolate, with no notion of where next she should turn to, afraid to go home yet never once thinking of going to Miss Mary's refuge as she had promised, and the world was all dolorous round her, when a step sounded near the door. She started in terror and shrank into the darkest corner of the hut. The footstep came not quite close to the door; it was as if the stranger feared to find a house empty and hesitated before setting foot on the threshold. From where she stood she could not see him, though his breath was to be heard, short and panting. The square of the open door was filled with green and purple—the green of the rank nettle, the purple of the bell-heather she had been always careful to spare as she had gone in and out.
Who could it be? Her first thought was of some fisherman or sportsman late upon the hill and attracted by the smoke of the hut that had so long known no fire. Then she thought of her father, more kindly and more contrite to him than she had ever felt before. If it was her father, what should she do? Would she run out and dare all for his forgiveness of her folly, and take his terms if that were possible now that her name and his were ridiculous through all the shire? But it could not be her father. Her father would not be alone and——
Into the square of light stepped Young Islay! He was all blown with the hurry of his ascent after hearing from Black Duncan (who had heard from Elasaid) that Nan had been there in the morning, and now there was no sign of life about the silent hut except the bluereek that rose over the mouldering thatch. He was a brave youth, but for once he feared to try his fate.
As he stood in the doorway and looked into the dark interior, where a poor fire smouldered in the centre of the floor, he seemed so woebegone that Nan could not but smile in spite of her trepidation. He but looked a second, then turned to seek her elsewhere.
As he turned away she called faintly, all blushing and all tears, but yet with a smile on her face that never sat so sweetly there as when her feelings mingled. He started as at the voice of a ghost, and hung hesitating on the threshold till she stepped from her gloomy corner into the light of the afternoon. As he saw her where a moment before was a vacancy he could scarcely believe his eyes. But he did not hesitate long. In an instant, encouraged by her tears and smiles, he had an arm round her.
"Nan! Nan!" he cried, "I have found you! I never was so happy in my life!"
For a moment she did not put him off; and he took her hesitation for content.
"What did it mean? Were you flying from me?" he asked.
All her hardships, all the wrong and degradation leaped into her recollection. She withdrew herself firmly from that embrace that might be the embrace of love and possession or of simple companionship in trial.
"I would never have been here but for you," said she. "Did you—did you pay much?"
"Ah!" he cried ruefully, "there's where you do me injustice! Did you know me so little—and indeed you know me but little enough, more's my sorrow—did you know me so little that you must believe me a savage to be guilty of a crime like that? Must I be saying that before God I did not know that my father and—and—"
"—And my father."
"—And your father, though I would be the last to charge him, were scheming in any commercial way on my behalf? Come, come, I was not blate, was I? the last time we were together; my impudence was not in the style of a man who would go the other way about a wooing, was it?"
"Then you did not know?" She blushed and paused.
"I knew nothing," he protested. "I knew nothing but that I loved you, and you know that too if telling can inform you. I told my father that, and he was well enough pleased, and I could not guess he would make a fool of me and a victim of you in my absence."
She stood trembling to this revelation of his innocence, and, once more the confident lover, Young Islay tried to take her in his arms.
She ran from him, not the young lady of Edinburgh but a merry-hearted child, making for the side of Little Fox, the air as she went flapping her gown till it beat gaily like a flag. She ran light-footed, laughing in her sudden ease of mind, and on the more distant of the two slopes of Cruach-an-Lochain, antlers rose inquiring; then a red deer looked and listened, forgetting to crop the poor grass at his feet.
For a second or two Young Islay paused, wondering at her caprice; then he caught the spirit of it and followed with a halloo. A pleasant quarry—the temptation of it made his blood tingle as no sport in the world could do; his halloo came back in echoes from the hill, jocund and hearty echoes, and Sir Deer at a bound went far to the rear among the bracken.
Nan sped panting yet laughing. Then she heard his cry. "I am coming, I am coming," he called. It might have been the pibroch of the dawn, the hopeful conquering dawn on valley rims. She put more vigour into her flight; her lips set hard; she thought if he caught her before she reached the spot where Gilian last had kissed her, she must be his for good.
"Run as you like, I am coming," cried her pursuer, and he was easily overtaking her. Then he saw how hard and earnestly she strove. With a grimace to himself, he slackened his pace and let her gain ground. "I must be doing my best for Gilian," she thought; but as she risked a glance over her shoulder and saw the pursuit decline, saw his face handsome and laughing and eager, full of the fun of the adventure, across a widening space, saw him kiss his hand to her as he ran leisurely, she forgot that she had meant to run for fair play and Gilian, and she, too, slackened her pace.
A moment more and he caught her, and she relapsed in his arms with a sigh of exertion and surrender.
"Faith, you are worth running for!" said he, turning her to him to see into her eyes. For a little he looked at the flushed and beautiful countenance. Her bosom throbbed against his breast; her head thrown back, showed the melting passion of her eyes like slumbering lakes only half hid by her trembling lids, her lips red and full, tempting, open upon pearls. She was his, he told himself, all his, and yet—and yet, he had half a regret that now he had caught he need chase no more—the regret of the hunter when the deer is home, of the traveller who has reached the goal after pleasant journeyings.
His pause was but for a moment, then on her lips he pressed his; on all her glowing face fell the fever of his kisses.
"Nan, Nan!" he whispered, "you are mine, did I not tell you?"
"I suppose I am," she whispered faintly. Then to herself, "Poor Gilian!"
"And yet," said he, "I'm not worth it."
"I daresay not," she confessed, nestling the more closely in his arras. "But you won me when you saved my life."
"Did I?" said he. "How very wise of me! Give me a kiss, then!"
She tried to free herself, and the white heather at her neck fell between them. She stooped for it and he to get her kiss, but she was first successful. To him she held out the twig of pale bells.
"The kiss or that; you can have either," she said. "One is love and the other is luck."
"Then, sweetheart, I'll have both," said Young Islay.
CHAPTER XXXV—AN EMPTY HUT
The town bell rang, the little shops were shuttered. Miss Mary, with a new cap on to do justice to the occasion, had sat for hours with Gilian at the window, waiting; the Cornal was in bed, and the Paymaster, dubious but not unpleased, was up at MacGibbon's telling the story over a game of dambrod. And still Nan did not appear. There was a sign of changing weather above Strone, and Gilian was full of sorrow to think of the girl travelling to him through darkness and rain, so he started out to meet her by the only path on which she must come.
He reached the lochs as the night was drawing in. The moor was sounding loud and eerie with the call of large birds. Very cold and uncharitable, a breeze came from Cruach-an-Lochain, and in the evening dusk the country seemed most woefully poor and uninhabitable. So it appeared to Gilian for a moment when at last he came to the head of the brae where he should have his first sight of the light that could make that wild as warm and hospitable and desirable as a king's court. There was no light now! At first he doubted his eyesight; then he thought he was not at the right point of view; then he was compelled to confess to himself that darkness was assuredly where before had been a bright spot like one of the stars that shine in murky heavens in the midst of storms to prove that God does not forget.
She had been kept, the dear heart, he told himself; she had been kept by her modesty waiting for the dusk, and fallen asleep for weariness.
He went awkwardly off the customary track so that he might reach the shealing the quicker by a short cut that led through boggy grass. He stumbled in hags and tripped on ancient heather-tufts; the birds wheeled and mocked over him, something in their note most melancholy and menacing to his ear.
The loch with the islet was muttering in its sleep, and woke with the shriek of a thousand frightened birds when this phantom stumbled on its solitude. The tiny island even in the dusk rose black like a hearse plume in the water. At his feet he felt upon a stone the tinkle of broken glass, and he stooped to feel. His finger came upon the portions of the broken cup, and he remembered, with shame for his own share in the scene, how Nan had punished his awkwardness by casting from her the vessel of which this was the fragment She had had her lips to this, her fingers had touched it; it was a gem to put in his pocket, and he put it there. He searched round again as he repeated in his mind all the incidents of that first morning in the moor, and a little farther on he came upon the ashes of their dead fire. Poor dead fire, grey old ashes, flame quenched, warmth departed, loneliness come—the reflections made him shiver.
As he stood there in what was now the dark night, he might have been a phantom mourning for the unrecoverable, the ghost of old revelries, the shade of pleasant bygone hearths and love the ancient.
He shook himself into the present world, and left behind the ashes of their fire and made for the shealing hut, all the way solacing himself with fancy. The girl was his, but he never let his mind linger on the numerous difficulties that lay inevitably between the present hour and his possession of her. He projected himself into the future with a blank unexplained behind, and saw them at unextinguishable hearths, love accompanying them through generations. Through the heather he brushed eagerly now, his eyes intent upon the dim summits of the brae from which again he should see the light of the shealing if it was there. Loch Little Fox, and Great Fox, and all the black and sobbing pools among the heather he passed on the light feet of love, and when he came to the brae top and still found no beacon there, he was exceedingly dashed.
"I hope, I hope there is nothing wrong," he said aloud. And he hurried the faster.
The sky was full of clouds, all but a patch star-sown over Ben Bhreac, and all through the hollows and hags ran a wail of rain-wind most mournful. The birds that had been crying over the pools departed, and there was no sound of animal life. The wind moaned and the pools sobbed. About the black edifice in which he thought was all he prized most dear on earth, blackness hung like a terror. Breathless he stood at the door. It was wide open! It was wide open! It was wide open to the night wind! As if a hand of ice had clutched him at the heart he shook and staggered back.
"God of Grace!" he cried in his mother tongue, then "Nan! Nan!" he called to the dark within. There was no answer, and a bird flew out above his head.
He cried no more there, but out he ran into the vacant moor and loudly he called to the night, "Nan! Nan!" till his voice seemed to himself some terrific chant of long-dead peoples come first to this strange land and crying for each other in the wilderness where they were lost.
"Nan! Nan!" he cried, sometimes entreating, sometimes peremptory, as though she might be hiding in the dark in some childish caprice. "Nan! Nan!" he called plaintively, and he called sharply too and loudly, the possessor. The sides of Ben Bhreac woke to answer "Anan," as people reply in dreams; and the stars of heaven in their little garden over the hill had no interest whatever in his crying; they hung out cool and imperturbable, and the wind wailed, but not for his anxieties, on the reeds of Little Fox.
Then he pressed his hand upon his heart to still its uproar and strained his ears to listen. No sound of a girl's voice, no foot upon the heather. He could scarcely believe his senses. In his mind, as he approached the house she had seemed as essential a part of it as the sky was portion of the universe, and here she was gone!
"After all, she may be in the house asleep," he thought, cheating himself into a moment's comfort; and back he went again. He listened at the threshold for a breath: no sound came to him; the fire was all out, the air was the air of a dungeon. "Nan!" he called timidly. He got no reply.
Timidly now he stepped into that chamber that had been sacred to him before—the holy of holies—and fumbled with a steel. The sparks showed him his hands trembling, but at first he did not dare to look behind him for fears intangible. The dried heather stems caught the flame of the tinder; there was but a handful of them; they flared up in a moment's red glare on the interior, then died out crackling. It was enough to show him the place was empty. It showed him, too, his lantern, the poor companion of his adventure, lying on the floor as if it had been tumbled there in some hasty escape; he picked it up and lit it, the gleam lighting a ghastly face. And then he went out again, not knowing why or what he might do there, but bound to be moving and away from that empty shell where had been his kernel untasted. The wind had risen and was rising higher still. On Little Fox side he stood, a ludicrous object, with the pin-points of light pricking the darkness. He was there the dreamer and the hesitator, his eyes vacant. He wore a short ill-fitting jacket; his vest had come unbuttoned in the haste of his clamber up the moor; his bonnet was drawn low upon his brow. As he cherished the lantern from the wind with his back bent he was no figure of the ideal lover, but yet some tragedy was in the look of him—some great and moving fate that might have made the night pity him. Down again to their little knowe he went, and cast himself upon it and surrendered to emotion. It was for him the grave of love, the new-reared mound of his affection. Even yet he could see where she had pressed down the heather as she reclined. Looking at the heather he remembered the white spray of his affection that she had said would be the sign of his fate. He went back quickly to the hut, the wind still puffing at his foolish lantern, and he found the heather gone. It comforted him exceedingly. She had gone, why or where he could not guess, but she had taken with her the token of his love and thereby left him her capitulation. His heather was at her heart!
Wearied utterly, as much by the stress of his passions as by the ardours of the day, he took possession of her couch and slept till morning.
Fair day in the town, and cattle roved about the street, bellowing, the red and shaggy fellows of the moors, mourning in Gaelic accent and with mild large eyes pondering on the mysteries of change. Behind them went the children, beating them lightly on the flanks with hazel wands, imagining themselves travellers over the markets of the world, and others, the older ones, the bolder ones, went from shop to shop for farings, eating, as they went, the parley-man and carvey-cake of the Fair day. Farmers and shepherds gossiped and bargained on the footpaths or on the grass before the New Inns; the Abercrombie clattered with convivial glass and sometimes rose the chorus to a noisy ditty of Lorn. Old Brooks, with his academy shut for holiday, stood at the Church corner with a pocket full of halfpence for his bairns, and a little silver in his vest for the naughty ones he had thrashed with the ferule and grieved for. "To be good and clever is to be lucky enough," he said; "I must be kind to my poor dunces." Some of them, he saw, went with his gift straight to Marget Maclean's. "Ah," he said, smiling to himself, "they're after the novelles! I wish Virgil was so much the favourite, or even the Grammarian."
All in the pleasant sunshine the people walked abroad on the plain-stones; a piper of the company of Boboon the wanderer, with but two drones to his instrument, played the old rant of the clan as Duke George went past on a thoroughbred horse.
"Do you hear yon?" asked the Paymaster, opening the parlour window to let in that mountain strain his brother loved so truly.
The Cornal cocked an ear, drew down shaggy brows on his attention, and studied, musingly, the tune that hummed from the reeds below.
"'Baile Inneraora'!" said he. "I wish it was 'Bundle and Go.' That's the tune now for Colin Campbell, for old Colin Campbell, for poor Colin Campbell who once was young and wealthy. I've seen the day that rant would set something stirring here "—and he struck a bony hand upon his breast "Now there's not a move"—and he searched still with fingers above his heart. "Not a move! There's only a clod inside where once there was a bird."
He stood with his head a little to the side, listening to the piper till the tune died, half accomplished, at a tavern door. Then the children and the bellowing kine had the world to themselves again. The sound of carriage wheels came from the Cross, and of the children calling loud for bridal bowl-money.
"What's that?" asked the Cornal, waking from his reverie; and his brother put his head out at the window. He drew back at once with his face exceeding crimson.
"What is't?" said the Cornal, seeing his hesitation.
"A honeymoon pair," said the brother, and fumbled noisily with the newspaper he had in his hand.
"Poor creatures! And who is it? Though I never get over the door you'll tell me nothing."
The Paymaster answered shortly. "It's the pair from Maam," said he, and back to his paper again.
Up to his brow the Cornal put a trembling hand and seemed amazed and startled. Then he recollected, and a sad smile came to his visage. "Not a clod altogether yet!" said he, half to himself and half to his brother. "I felt the flutter of a wing. But it's not your grief or mine this time, Jock; it's your poor recruit's."
"He's down in Miss Mary's room, and that's the place for the like of him."
"Is it?" said the Cornal. "Dugald understood him best of any of us; he saw this coming, and I mind that he grieved for the fellow."
"He's grieving plenty for himself, and let him!" said the Paymaster, setting aside his journal. "Look what he dropped from his pocket this morning. Peggy thought it was mine and she took it to me. Mine! Fancy that! I'm jalousing she was making a joke of me." He produced, as he spoke, a scrap of paper with some verses on it and handed it to his brother.
The Cornal held the document far from his failing eyes and perused the writing. It was the first of those heart-wrung fancies that went to the making of the volume that lies before me as I write—the familiar lament for the lost "Maid of the Moor" that shepherds still are singing on his native hills.
"A ballant!" said he, wondering, and with some contempt.
"That's just what it is," said his brother. "There was never the like broke out in this family before, I'm glad to say."
The Cornal screwed his lips firmly. "It's what I would call going altogether too far," he said. "I'm feared your recruit will affront us again. A song, now! did you ever know the like of it? I'll not put up with it! Did you say he was down with Miss Mary?"
"I saw her laying the corner of the table," said the Paymaster, "and I'll warrant it was not to feed herself at this time of day."
The Cornal looked again at the verses, clearing his eyes with his hand, as if he might happily be mistaken. But no, there were the foolish lines, and some sentiments most unmanly frank of love and idleness among the moor and heather. He growled; he frowned below his shaggy brows: "Come down this instant and put an end to it," said he.
"He's with Mary," his brother reminded him, hesitating.
"I don't care a curse if he was with the Duke," said the Cornal. "I'll end this carry-on in an honest and industrious family."
He led the way downstairs, the Paymaster following softly, both in their slippers. Noiselessly they pushed open the door of Miss Mary's room and gazed within. She and her darling were looking over the window at the tumultuous crowd of children scrambling for Young Islay's bowl-money scattered by Black Duncan in the golden syver sand. Miss Mary in that position could not but have her arm about his waist, and her hand unconsciously caressed the rough home-spun of his jacket. The brothers, unobserved, stood silent in the doorway.
"That's the end of it!" said Gilian bitterly, as he came wholly into the room. His face, shone on by the sun that struck above the tall lands opposite from fiery clouds, was white to the lips. Miss Mary looked up into his eyes, mourning in her very inmost for his torture.
"I would say 'fair wind to her,' my dear, and a good riddance," said she, and yet without conviction in her tone.
"I will say 'fair wind' readily," he answered, "but I cannot be forgetting. I know she likes—she loves me still."
Miss Mary showed her pity in her face, but nothing at all had she to say.
"You are not doubting it, are you?" he cried eagerly; and, still unnoticed in the doorway, the Paymaster grimaced his contempt, but his brother, touched by some influence inexplicable, put the poem in his pocket and delayed the entry.
"Are you doubting?" again cried the lad, determined on his answer but dreading a denial.
"It is not your bowl-money the bairns are gathering at the Cross," said Miss Mary simply.
"True," he acknowledged; "but she went because she must. She loves me still, I'm telling you; she has my heather at her heart!"
Miss Mary understood. She looked at her dreamer and stifled a sigh. Then she saw her brothers in the doorway, silent, and her hand went down and met his and fondled it for his assurance as on the day he first stood, the frightened stranger, on that floor, and she had sheltered his shyness in the folds of her bombazine gown.