The days at Lindean dragged past, and the last traces of summer began to disappear from the face of the hills. The bent grew browner, the trees more ragged, and the torrent below more turgid and boisterous. Yet no word came from the hills, and, sooth to tell, we almost ceased to look for it. ’Twas not that we had forgotten the minister and Master Semple in their hiding, for the thought of them was often at hand to sadden me, and Anne, I must suppose, had many anxious meditations; but our life at Lindean was so peaceful and removed from any hint of violence that danger did not come before our minds in terrible colors. When the rain beat at night on the window, and the wind howled round the house, then our hearts would smite us for living in comfort when our friends were suffering the furious weather. But when the glorious sun-lit morning had come, and we looked over the landscape, scarce free from the magic of dawn, then we counted it no hardship to be on the hills. And rain came so seldom during that time, and the sun so often, that the rigor of the hill-life did not appal us.
This may account for the way in which the exiles slipped from our memories for the greater part of the day. For myself I say nothing—’twas but natural; but from Anne I must confess that I expected a greater show of sorrow. To look at her you would say that she was burdened with an old grief, so serious was her face; but when she would talk, then you might see how little her heart was taken up with the troubles of her house and the care for her father and lover. The girl to me was a puzzle, which I gave up all attempting to solve. When I had first come to Lindean, lo! she was demure and full of filial affection, and tender to her lover. Now, when I expected to find her sorrowful and tearful at all times, I found her quiet indeed, but instinct with a passion for beauty and pleasure and all the joys of life. Yet ever and anon she would take a fit of solemnity, and muse with her chin poised on her hand; and I doubt not that at such times she was thinking of her father and her lover in their manifold perils.
One day the rain came again and made the turf plashy and sodden, and set the Lin roaring in his gorge. I had beguiled the morning by showing Anne the steps of dancing, and she had proved herself a ready pupil. To pleasure her I danced the sword-dance, which can only be done by those who have great dexterity of motion; and I think I may say that I acquitted myself well. The girl stood by in wonderment, looking at me with a pleasing mixture of surprise and delight. She had begun to look strangely at me of late. Every now and then when I lifted my head I would find her great eyes resting on me, and at my first glance she would withdraw them. They were strange eyes — a mingling of the fawn and the tiger.
As I have said, in a little time she had acquired some considerable skill, and moved as gracefully as though she had learned it from her childhood, while I whistled bars of an old dancing tune. She had a little maid who attended her, — Eff she called her, — and the girl stood by to watch while Anne did my bidding. Then when we were all wearied of the sport, I fell to thinking of some other play, and could find none. ’Twas as dull as ditch-water, till the child Eff, by a good chance, spoke of fishing. She could get her father’s rod and hooks, she said, for he never used them now; and I might try my luck in the Lin Water. There were good trout there, it seemed, and the choice time of taking them was in the autumn floods.
Now I have ever been something of a fisherman, for many an hour have I spent by the big fish pond at Rohaine. So I got the tackle of Eff’s father — rude enough it was in all conscience — and in the early afternoon I set out to the sport. Below the house and beyond the wood the Lin foams in a deep gully, falling over horrid cascades into great churning pools, or diving beneath the narrow rocks. But above the ravine there is a sudden change. The stream flows equably through a flat moor in sedgy deeps and bright shimmering streams. Thither I purposed to go, for I am no lover of the awesome black caldrons, which call to a man’s mind visions of drowned bodies and pits which have no ending. On the moor with the wind blowing about one ’twas a pleasure to be, but faugh! no multitude of fish was worth an hour in that dismal chasm.
I had not great success, and little wonder, for my leisurely ways were ill suited for the alert mountain fish. My time was spent in meditating on many things, but most of all on the strange case in which I found myself. For in truth my position was an odd one as ever man was in.
Here was I bound by my word of honor to bide in the house and protect its inmates till that indefinite time when its master might return. There was no fear of money, for the minister had come of a good stock, and had more gear than is usual with one of his class. But ’twas an evil thing to look forward to — to spend my days in a lonely manse, and wait the end of a persecution which showed no signs of ending.
But the mere discomfort was nothing had it not been for two delicate scruples which came to torment me. Imprimis, ’twas more than any man of honor could do to dwell in warmth and plenty, while his entertainers were languishing for lack of food or shivering with cold in the hags and holes of the mountains. I am a man tolerably hardened by war and travel, yet I could never abide to lie in bed on a stormy night or to eat my food of a sharp morning when I thought of the old man dying, it might be, unsheltered and forlorn. Item, there was the matter of the girl; and I cannot tell how heavy the task had come to lie on my shoulders. I had taken the trust of one whom I thought to be a staid country lass, and lo! I had found her as full of human passion as any lady of the court. ’Twas like some groom who offers to break a horse, and finds it too stiff in temper. I had striven to do my duty toward her and make her life less wearisome, and I had succeeded all too well. For I marked that in the days just past she had come to regard me with eyes too kindly by half. When I caught her unawares, and saw the curious look on her face, I could have bitten my tongue out with regret, for I saw the chasm to whose brink I had led her. I will take my oath there was no thought of guile in the maid, for she was as innocent as a child; but ’tis such who are oftentimes the very devil, since their inexperience adds an edge to their folly.
Thinking such thoughts, I fished up the Lin Water till the afternoon was all but past, and the sunset began to glimmer in the bog-pools. My mind was a whirl of emotions, and no plan or order could I conceive. But — and this one thing I have often marked, that the weather curiously affected my temper — the soft evening light brought with it a calm which eased me in the conflict. ’Tis hard to wrangle in spirit when the west is a flare of crimson, and later when each blue hill stands out sharp against the yellow sky. My way led through the great pine wood above the Lin gorge, thence over a short spit of heath to the hill path and the ordered shrubbery of the manse. ’Twas fine to see the tree stems stand out red against the gathering darkness, while their thick evergreen heads were blazing like flambeaux. A startled owl drove past, wavering among the trunks. The air was so still that the light and color seemed all but audible, and indeed the distant rumble of the falling stream seemed the interpretation to the ears of the vision which the eyes beheld. I love such sights, and ’tis rarely enough that we see them in France, for it takes a stormy upland country to show to its full the sinking of the sun. The heath with its dead heather, when I came on it, seemed alight, as happens in March, so I have heard, when the shepherds burn the mountain grass. But in the manse garden was the choicest sight, for there the fading light seemed drawn to a point and blazing on the low bushes and coarse lawns. Each window in the house glowed like a jewel, but — mark the wonder — when I gazed over the country there was no view to be seen, but only a slowly creeping darkness.
’Twas an eerie sight, and beautiful beyond telling. It awed me, and yet filled me with a great desire to see it to the full. So I did not enter the house, but turned my steps round by the back to gain the higher ground, for the manse was built on a slope. I loitered past the side window, and gained the place I had chosen; but I did not bide long, for soon the show was gone, and only a chill autumn dusk left behind. So I made to enter the house, when I noticed a light as of firelight dancing in the back window. Now, I had never been in that room before, so what must I do in my idle curiosity but go peeping there.
The room was wide and unfurnished, with a fire blazing on the hearth. But what held me amazed were the figures on the floor. Anne, with her skirts kilted, stood erect and agile as if about to dance. The girl Eff sat by the fireplace, humming some light measure. The ruddy light bathed the floor and walls and made all distinct as noonday.
’Twas as I had guessed. In a trice her feet began to move, and soon she was in the middle of the first dance I had taught her, while la petite Eff sang the tune in her clear, low voice. I have seen many dancers, great ladies and country dames, village lasses and burgher wives, gypsies and wantons, but, by my honor, I never saw one dance like Anne. Her body moved as if by one impulse with her feet. Now she would bend like a willow, and now whirl like the leaves of the wood in an autumn gale. She was dressed, as was her wont, in sober brown, but sackcloth could not have concealed the grace of her form. The firelight danced and leaped in her hair, for her face was turned from me; and ’twas fine to see the snow of her neck islanded among the waves of brown tresses. With a sudden swift dart she turned her face to the window, and had I not been well screened by the shadows, I fear I should have been observed. But such a sight as her face I never hope to see again. The solemnity was gone, and ’twas all radiant with youth and life. Her eyes shone like twin stars, the even brown of her cheeks was flushed with firelight, and her throat and bosom heaved with the excitement of the dance. Then she stopped exhausted, smiled on Eff, who sat like a cinder-witch all the while, and smoothed the hair from her brow.
“Have I done it well?” she asked.
“As weel as he did it himsel’,” the child answered. “Eh, but you twae would make a bonny pair.”
I turned away abruptly and crept back to the garden path, my heart sinking within me, and a feeling of guilt in my soul. I was angry at myself for eavesdropping, angry and ashamed. But a great dread came on me as I thought of the girl, this firebrand, who had been trusted to my keeping. Lackaday for the peace of mind of a man who has to see to a maid who could dance in this fashion, with her father and lover in the cold hills! And always I called to mind that I had been her teacher, and that my lessons, begun as a harmless sport to pass the time, were like to breed an overmastering passion. Mon Dieu! I was like the man in the Eastern tale who had raised a spirit which he was powerless to control.
And just then, as if to point my meditations, I heard the cry of a plover from the moor behind, and a plaff of the chill night-wind blew in my face.
Leave a Reply.
John Buchan's first published work... inspired by MOMH???