Literary Thoughts edition presents The Small Dark Man by Maurice Walshl ------ "The Small Dark Man" was written in 1929 by Maurice Walsh (1879-1964) as a fascinating story of the Highlands. The main character is Hugh Forbes, a black-haired Irishman who descends on the Scottish Highlands, where he encounters Frances Mary, and comes into violent conflict with the arrogant Vivian Stark. All books of the Literary Thoughts edition have been transscribed from original prints and edited for better reading experience. Please visit our homepage www.literarythoughts.com to see our other publications.
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Literary Thoughts Editionpresents
Transscribed and Published by Jacson Keating (editor)
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Where Fate has touched
Thou art blind.
In toils of Fate
Rest thou resigned.
“Free am I to come and go.”
But Fate moves thee so—and so.
The small dark man came round the corner into the village street and halted. A group of three people stood before the doorway of the post-office, and he could not get inside to send his wire without shouldering past the tall young fellow who glanced at him with a casual and intolerant blue eye, and made no least offer to give space. The postmaster, a lank man with a bloodless face above a fringe of blue-black beard, was giving particular route directions in a soft Highland blas, and the small dark man, leaning a shoulder against the red letter-box let into the window, waited patiently.
“. . . Down the road—the only road it is, anyway—till you come to the high-cocked bridge over the Croghanmoyle, and at th’ither side of it there’ll be a nice path up through a bonnie bit birch woodie. Don’t be misled by that path. It will land ye in a corrie of screes and boulders, and fair wander ye. Keep the road another mile, till the big rock of Craigvhor—ye canna mistake it—a big humploch o’ granite standing two hundred feet up off the left of the road. At the hinner end o’ it there’ll be a path winding up and up—stiff, stiff; but at the top there’s the easy face of the mountain, and ye canna go wrong till the second cairn.”
“Thank you,” said the tall young man.
“Mind you,” said the postmaster, a forefinger raised in a restrained gesture, “this is no’ the time o’ year for climbing Cairn Ban. No’ the time at all.”
The tall young man lifted a blonde, hawk face to the serene July sky, and his well-opened eyes opened a little wider in confident disbelief, and then narrowed to slits as they failed to focus into that tremendous blue abyss.
The postmaster, Highland and wise, did not fail to notice that unbelief. “I’m tellin’ ye,” he said firmly. “From July on it is a rare day that doesn’t wrap a birl of mist round Cairn Ban of an afternoon.”
The young woman smiled at the postmaster. “I know,” she said in a pleasant voice. “But we have been climbing all the week—Cairn Dearg, Stob Mor, Ben a Mhuic—and there was never a shred of mist.” She pronounced the Gaelic names without the southern click.
“Cairn Ban is the hill for mists, young lady,” said the postmaster, a trace of protest still in his voice. “Cairn an Cludaigh Bhain, the Hill of the White Mantle—and the mantle is not snow. If ye will be risking it——”
“We will,” said the tall young man.—“Come on, Fred.” He turned abruptly, and, after a moment of hesitation, the young woman turned too. The two strode off down the village street, and the fine white dust of the road made a little mist round their brown shoon.
The postmaster shuffled a single stride into the roadway and stood looking after them, reproof in his eye. The young man, striding hugely, was tall and strongly built; his wide shoulders were high-set and rigid under heather homespun, and yet his hips and legs gave the impression of being too bulky for his shoulders, perhaps because of the baggy knickerbockers he wore and of the heavily-muscled calves above light ankles. The young woman was tall too, but slim and supple, and carried herself with a litheness to move a pulse.
“You are right,” spoke a resonant baritone voice behind the postmaster. “She has good legs on her, that one.”
The postmaster turned with remarkable quickness for his years, and there was startled surprise in his deeply blue eyes, and a trace of discomfort too. “I wasna observing her legs,” he disclaimed, but without heat.
“Maybe not, then, but I’ll wager my new hat you and I could tell the colour of her hose without another look.” The rich timbre of the deep voice was a delight, and the dark eyes, half-closed, smiled between black lashes.
The postmaster looked at him for a space of two seconds and smiled back, the clean pallor of his face crinkling about his mouth. “They are light brown stockings she’s wearing—almost cream,” he said, “and there’s a seam down the back of them—silk they would be, maybe——”
“Not to climb hills on—merino wool, more like.”
“What I was observing,” the postmaster hastened to elaborate, “was that her brogues were no’ a comfort to her, and she by way of hiding the beginning of a limp. See how she bears on her crook. That lad with her is not the sort would be noticing a small thing like thon, and she’ll have a sair bad blister when he does.”
“The blonde beast!” remarked the small man speculatively.
“No’ that exactly. A pair of honeymooners they might be.”
“Honeymooners! No. I was observing her eyes.” He was no longer speaking to the postmaster, but meditating aloud, his voice rumbling. “She has the tell-tale grey eye. She is surely in love with him and hungry. His wife, and she might still love him; but—anyway, hunger is man’s duty, and that lad has not that on him—he’s too damn sure.”
“You know them, I’m thinking?”
“Never saw them before, and never want to see them again. He and I would not get on well together, and it would be a great pity for him.”
The postmaster glanced from the small figure leaning against the letter-box to the powerful figure dwindling down the road.
“True for you,” agreed the other frankly. “He is a big lad, and I’ll never love him—or her either. I don’t like her colouring. Too fair in the hair below that wisp of silk, and her skin turns ashen under the sun. For all that, she has her looks; but I must have red hair, and a skin that freckles new farthing pieces.”
“A queer lad this,” considered the postmaster, “wherever he came out of.” And aloud he commented, “That kind can be got too.”
“But not held.” The small man jerked his leaning shoulder from the letter-box and cocked a dark eye interrogatively. “Would you have a brother, by any chance, and he a policeman in Dublin?”
“No,” answered the surprised postmaster. “Yon’s no’ a place for anyone’s brother.”
“As they have taught you. No, I suppose not. Queer thing race. It was the way you gave those two trampers directions: first telling them what to avoid. I mind once in O’Connell Street—you won’t object if I call it O’Connell Street?”
“Is that the name of it?” wondered his puzzled listener.
“Honest men used call it Sackville Street. A game we play. Anyhow, I asked a policeman the way to Mountjoy Prison—nice name for a jail, Mountjoy—where a friend of mine was at the time, and deserved to be. ‘Do you see the Parnell Monument up there?’ This was the policeman. ‘I do.’ ‘Don’t take any notice of that; but do you see the clock up above beyond it?’ ‘I do.’ ‘That’s the clock of Findlater’s Church—don’t take any notice of that either, but go straight on till you come to Dorset Street Corner.’ ‘Will I turn there?’ ‘No, No. Keep straight on till you come to the canal, and at Dunphy’s Corner there’ll be another policeman. Ask him and he’ll tell you—unless it’s Shawn Doherty that’s in it, and he won’t know. Go on, now.’ A tall black fellow he was, with a northern accent.”
“He was no brother of mine, yon,” the postmaster assured him smilingly. The rich, flexible baritone brogue had been worth listening to.
“No. I liked the way you caressed that nice path up through the birch woodie. I’m tempted to set foot in it.”
“And repent it. Are you for Cairn Ban too?”
“I am so, but I’d like to send a wire first. Can it be done?”
“Surely. Come away in and I’ll telephone down to the Kirkton for you.”
The shop was one step down from the street. It was wide and low, and, after the glare of the white road, dusky and cool and with a pleasantly mixed odour of raisins, tobacco, nutmeg, bacon, leather, and toilet soap. A wonderful shop containing everything that a man could need, down to spare washers for soda-water syphons. The post-office business was confined to a high-railed corner near the door, and in there the postmaster slipped and, after fumbling through a unique disarray of official papers, tendered a telegraph form.
The small man did not hesitate over his wire, running it off in one scrawl and not pausing to count the words. “There,” he said, sliding the form across the counter. “That will apprise Tearlath that I am here and coming.”
The postmaster fitted on his spectacles and read it aloud slowly: “Charles Grant, Innismore Lodge, Balwhinnie. Coming over the hill on two feet, Tearlath son. Six leather suit-cases, steamer trunk, and hat-box at the station. Get them.—Aodh MacFirbis.”
The Highlandman, head bent, looked over his spectacles at the small man and hid well his surprise and unbelief. He had already noted the uncreased flannel trousers with the careless triangular rent at the side of a knee, the Donegal tweed jacket so unmistakably hand-me-down, the cheap mat shirt—clean undoubtedly, but collarless and unbuttoned at the neck, and a good neck too, long and broad-throated, finely brown above and with a film of black hair in the white V of the breast—and the brand-new, furry-black velour hat aslant on the back of the head and over one ear. Across one arm was an old burberry, and under the same a seasoned ash-plant.
The postmaster looked again at the wire and wondered. Six leather suit-cases, a steamer trunk, and a hat-box!
“Well you may doubt it,” said the small man agreeably. “The one case that’s in it looks like leather anyway. You see that’s the sort of wire Tearlath would be expecting, and far be it from me to disappoint him or any man. Money it costs me often.”
“Wicked waste in a telegram,” said the Scot, pencil running along the words. “Suit-cases! Hat-box! Wonder do them words count two or four?”
“Hit an average.”
“Long enough as it is. I’ll warrant the Postmaster-General will let me know about it if I’m wrong.” He lifted his blue eyes and hot grievance flashed in them. “Them Post-Office people are a dam’ nuisance,” he said warmly.
“Not every one of you.”
“Accounting and reckoning and explaining even on—and me a busy man. A shilling or sixpence, ay, or a bawbee more or less, and down comes a yellow sheet long as that, and another after it, and a ’phone message like as not, and will I explain this and will I explain that, and t’ither—and about nothing at all. A penny too much, and couldn’t I be using a stamp when I need it? A sixpence out, and couldn’t they be taking it off the few pounds they pay me?—” He stopped, and a slow smile crinkled his face. “Man,” he said in a changed tone, “I’m sometimes tempted to write them the letter the Sutherland man wrote them.”
“It would be a useful letter. There’s a Board in Dublin often troubles me——”
“I’d warn you against using it. The old fellow had a post-office like myself and the same bother with it, and in the heel of a temper he sat down and wrote a word to the Postmaster-General. ‘Dear Mister Postmaster-General, you and your post-office can go to hell.’ That was it.”
“It was enough,” said the small man solemnly. “Brief and with the devil’s own kick.”
“Ay, and they took the post-office from him.” The Highlandman threw the subject behind him with a lift of one shoulder. “Ye ken the laird of Innismore?” he inquired.
“Young Tearlath? Fine that. Himself and myself and a fellow by the name of Allenby captured Jerusalem together, and two of us got no credit for it. I am for over this hill of yours to spend a week or two with him.”
“The long, hard road you’re on.”
“Wait, now. I was coming up the Highland Line reading a guide-book and Sir Walter Scott and looking over a route map. There I was, in a coop of a railway carriage, going down to a place called Muiryside and changing there for a place called Dalbeallachie—that how you call it?—Yes, Dalbeallachie! and changing there for Balwhinnie, and a long dozen miles short of Innismore at the end. Whilst outside was the sun shining, and the moors lifting, pinewoods on the slopes and a white road winding, and Innismore over there, twenty miles as the crow flies. So here I am. Well?”
“That crow would need the wing of an eagle,” said the postmaster. “Did you reckon the miles set up on end?”
“I could see them, and I come from a land of hills.”
“Out of Ireland you’ll be?”
“Whether you hold it against me or not, but I used to be taken for a Jew in Palestine.”
The postmaster looked at the wire that was in no hurry to go. “Aodh MacFirbis,” he murmured.
“Hugh Forbes you would say in the English.”
“I ken, I ken. The Forbes is a good Scots clan—Tomintoul way.”
“And a good Irish clan, too—though not so good, maybe. There are many of the name where I bide, and that’s Glounagrianaan—the sunny glen—where the brown hills rise up on either hand like the blue hills of Donegal.”
“Not hills like Cairn Ban?”
“Not so big, but big enough. And what is one hill—or two hills—to a hillman in a long summer’s day?”
“Ay so,” agreed the postmaster.
Hugh Forbes went to the door, and his dark eyes stared boldly at the grand mountain that towered above him. The postmaster leant his broad hands on the counter and curiously examined the profile of this strange friendly man. Hugh Forbes, an Irishman! A queer breed thon, and black-avised by all accounts. But this was a friendly lad—and queer too. A lad with a skilly tongue and a voice to praise the Lord. Talk he would and could, and he had the art of winning quick confidence—like meeting a fellow-mortal in a lonely place and not being beholden to any secret small quirks o’ the mind. A foreign look he had as well, with that bloodless clear skin and that black crisp hair in a point on the forehead. The face of a fighting man it was, but the mouth was wide and kindly and a muscle twitched at one corner, and the long-lashed eyes had the soft dark fire of a woman’s. . . . Stare away, bonny lad! A hill or two hills might be nothing to you, but yon’s Cairn an Cludaigh Bhain.
“I must be wrong, I know,” said Hugh Forbes from the doorway; “but it looks an easy climb from here—straight across the stream and up over that wooded shoulder.”
The postmaster came to his side and looked at Cairn Ban with him. The great bulk of the mountain towered close above them, and the summer sun poured all its light on the swelling basalt ribs of it. Three thousand feet above, the pinhead of a cairn stood out against the abyss of the sky that no shred of mist clouded. The foot of the first rise was a bare hundred yards away and was a temptation to foot and eye. Across the road from the post-office there was no house, but only a slope of grass, grey-green with dust, running down to the singing waters of the Croghanmoyle, and beyond the stream the steep breast of a perfect birch wood swelled upwards to a shelf that seemed to tail off into the face of the mountain. The drooping branches and heart-shaped leaves slumbered in the heat, but ever and again some small swirl of hot air turned, here and there, a leaf on edge and made a blink of silver.
“Wrong you are,” said the postmaster. “That first ridge is a snare. It drops into a valley of bare stones—flat slabs cheek by jowl with wee pools scooped out—and you’ll find yourself brought up by a two-hundred-foot wall. A waste of time and shoe leather.”
“Is that the top of the mountain up there?”
“The first cairn. Three of them there are in a mile triangle, and the farthest one away is the highest—the one you’ll be aiming for if your mind is set on going that road to Innismore.”
They were silent then, and the old postmaster leant a shoulder against the jamb and admired the mountain that he had been admiring for half a century. “A grand hill,” he whispered.
A musing baritone murmur reached his ears. “I wonder why Cairn an Cludaigh Bhain wraps itself in a white mantle of a summer afternoon?”
“I’ve heard it explained. The forehill of the range—the warm breeze off the Firth strikes the cold front of it——”
“Any damn fool can give the scientific reason.” Hugh Forbes stopped him. “Would you be knowing the real reason?”
“The real reason?”
“Yes, then. What the gods or devils or little people of the hills play at behind their white mantle?”
“We don’t be heeding them old tales any longer,” said the postmaster a little uncomfortably.
“I thought there would be old tales.”
“If you are going that road,” said the Highlandman quickly, “I will just give you the advice yon other two didna bide to hear.”
“Well, oh well!” shrugged Hugh Forbes. “What the Highlandman has visioned the Irishman might see. Give me your wine of advice, wise man.”
“It is worth notice. If you get up to the cairn—and you will—don’t delay there. You’ll be sore tempted, with half the broad of Scotland under your eye; but just take ae look, and four long breaths that you’ll need, and hurry your road. If the mist comes down on you at the cairn, sit on a stone and wait; and if a mist smothers you across the flat, stick your ash-plant in the peat—mostly peat under a powder of granite—and if you have time, put up a stone ten feet away on the line you are going and keep your feet between the stone and the stick. Something calls you to move and, if you wander, the mist—” He paused and went on—“the mist will hang about you. Bide your place and the mist will move off before the wind in half an hour or less and you’ll have a clear bit—but no’ for lang. Go then as if claymores drove you. And ae thing above all—don’t you attempt the descent unless you see your road. The first of it looks easy and it is that, but Glen Dhu drops a thousand feet as sudden as the edge of the counter there. Ae step over that——”
“It would be the devil of a long step,” said Hugh Forbes. “Is there a road down there?”
“Every here and there the snow water has bit a channel down the cliff, and any of them makes a fine ladder—no trouble there and you with a steady head. Down below by Loch Dhu—black it is, I tell you—you’ll have to watch your step. It’s level there and thick with old heather, but the heather hides hummocks of stone that are aye ready to twist an ankle. Haste ye, but cannily, for it’s a chancy place and night comin’ on, as it will be by then. At the foot of the loch where the Abhain Ban leaves it you’ll come on a path—a track Laird Grant made for the ponies—and, your feet on that, you’ll have only walking before you. Ay, walking! the river down below and the brae at your shoulder and the track white in front of you mile after mile—sixteen o’ them, and no’ a house the whole way except an empty bothy half-roads that they use for the stalking. You have it now, Mr Forbes!”
The small dark man had listened with attention, his eye flickering in visualisation. “I have indeed. No blame to you if I fail to strike Innismore.”
“By the light of the moon you’ll strike it. Have you a piece with you?”
“A piece! Ah! you mean provender. No, then—but suppose you give me four ounces of Bendigo plug.”
The two grinned together, and the postmaster turned back into his shop. “Tam o’ Shanter I keep,” he explained, reaching for a flat yellow tin. “I smoke it myself, and I’ll warrant it to stave off the hunger.”
“No harm to give the hunger something else to bite on. What have you?”
“A bit tin o’ meat?”
“Not ever. I read Upton Sinclair’s Jungle, and after that lived for three years on bully-beef. Oh cripes!”
“A skelb o’ cheese?”
“The kind that stays put.”
“And Abernethy biscuits—the best made.”
“So my wife would say.”
The postmaster was surprised, but the glance under his eyebrows scarcely showed it. “Man,” he said easily, “I would never take you to be married.”
“Neither I am. But my wife is going to be Highland as well as red-haired—when I find her—and ’tis the thing she’d say.”
“Ay indeed! The red-haired ones are hard to come by—but you might be lucky as you are.”
“You may well say it,” agreed Hugh Forbes.
He packed one of the side pockets of the old burberry with biscuits and cheese and reached a brown square hand to the postmaster.
“Good-bye now,” he said. “You have been the best man on the road this side of Glounagrianaan, and there are no better men there. The next time I come your way we’ll talk together.”
“Ay, will we.”
The postmaster stood at the door and watched Hugh Forbes depart, and, when he was gone ten yards, gave him the supreme Scots valediction: the final salute, that is never given except where liking is.
“Haste ye back.”
“To be sure,” called Hugh Forbes, and swung into his stride.
A small dark man was he, but well put together, his shoulders moving in a forward thrust, and his legs, that were slightly bowed, swinging from the hips.
O’er mountain walls
Your road lies steep.
Down dim dark glens
That road you keep.
No fear or foe your road may bar—
But Fate has lit a yellow star.
Down the white road marched Hugh Forbes, the swift Croghanmoyle singing on one hand with the birch trees leaning down to listen, and, on the other, a brown moor rolling up to the horizon. Sturdily he went and fast—and yet he gave the curious impression of being unbeholden to time, space, or goal. At the high-cocked bridge, a mile down the road, he leant over the ancient stone parapet and looked down into the river, here feet deep in a still pool and showing every pebble in its green-grey bed. A ten-inch speckled trout seemed to soar fin still half-way down, but, the moment after the dark head appeared, it darted, too quick for eye, under the blackness of a ledge.
“Clear water of the Croghanmoyle,” he murmured sonorously, “I give you best. The hills that ring Glounagrianaan are hills of my heart, but the waters that slide down the wide aprons are the sad brown of peat. Well, one can’t have everything, even in Glounagrianaan.
Sad I was and sore I was,
And lonely to the bone.
Grey o’ grass and green o’ grass
And water over stone,
Set a dream upon a dream
And washed away the lone.”
The bass drone of his singing seemed to vibrate in the grey stone of the bridge. And for long after the song was done he leant on the parapet in some quiet apathy of thought—or no-thought.
The road beyond the Croghanmoyle swerved in towards the foot of Cairn Ban, and the armies of drooping birches flanked it closely. In time he came to that nice but traitorous path winding enticingly upwards among the trees and bracken, and halted at the mouth of it. “The wayward devil you are, Hugh Forbes!” he addressed himself frowningly. “I know you. You hate trailing after that blonde lad and his blonde woman. In spite of anything I can do you’ll set foot on this path and break your damn neck. You will? Go and have a look, then.”
In addressing himself he gave the odd impression of addressing a man he knew well and had no great liking for. It was something more than ordinary thinking aloud, for he seemed to project a personality outside himself and make it the butt of criticism and comment. A man like that might be remote, but never would he be lonely.
Grumblingly he stepped off the road, but, once in the path, resigned himself to himself and buckled down to the work in hand. He climbed well, lifting springingly from heel to toe and placing his whole foot on the upward slope. The path steepened as it ascended; the birches that first brushed him with trailing fronds receded and thinned; and at last he came out on a dome plumed only with grey grass. It says well for his wind that his first deep-breathing halt was on the crown of this dome. He smiled pityingly. He was looking down and across a wide tilt of stone at the impossibly steep face of Cairn Ban. The outline of it was an almost perfect triangle, shaved as with a mighty plane except for a narrow boulder-filled corrie that gashed upward a little to the left of the middle line. That corrie had to be his road—or else he must circle round to an easier face of the mountain.
“Try it, you devil!” he urged warmly, and obeyed that urge.
Out on that hot tilt of stone he found the going not so easy and yet not too difficult. The surface had been split and twisted by primeval fires, and it was pitted with scooped out basins varying in diameter from inches to yards, and all mysteriously full to the brim of limpid water—water as clear as a blue diamond, so nearly invisible that the eye could not gauge it but for the exquisite refraction of light playing through it when some faint tremor of air shivered across its surface. Once the small man lay full length and drank out of a tiny basin. “Wow!” he cried, “but it’s cold. A gallon of good whisky in the punchbowl of it and I’d climb that mountain up there and two more on the top of it.”
At a distance of half a mile the gash in the face of Cairn Ban seemed to be forbiddingly perpendicular, but on a nearer approach it promised better, and actually leant back so that, standing upright, a man could touch the rock with outstretched hand.
“A cataract of stone,” he murmured, his head back into his shoulders and his eyes tracing the terrifying slant above him. “A pebble loose-footed up there, and give me back the cliff at Suvla Beach.”
He tied the sleeves of the old burberry round his neck, drew in a full breath, and started to climb—a persistent grey ant crawling doggedly up the huge, calm face of the mountain. Head steady, hand and foot cunningly seeking sure grip, he went upwards, boulder over boulder, while the valleys and moors below him sank and widened and dwindled.
Two hours later Hugh Forbes was on the shoulder of the mountain a bare hundred feet below the cairn. He had safely surmounted the corrie, and his troubles seemed over. The ridge he was on ran straight up to the cairn, and he had but to make sure of his hand-grips and keep going.
And then it was as if a cold grey finger moved across the eyes that were intent on the rock before them. He steadied his grip and looked sideways into a pearly, opaque swirl that, next instant, poured over him, swallowed him, shut him in a narrow world where some devil whispered that everything was safe and without fear.
“Blast it! I can make the cairn,” said the small man in his throat, and he went on climbing, his face to the rock and his eyes on his hands. He did make the cairn, but he almost butted into it before he saw it. And there he sat on the bottom stones, propped his elbows on his knees and his head on his hands, and drew in hard breaths. The air was thin and chill, and the blood beat painfully in his ears. It was long before that hissing thud died down.
In time he lifted his head and looked around. He could not see ten feet. A steady breeze blew from the north, and the mist went by him with the smoothness of flowing water. It could not flow forever at that rate, he considered; and what was it the postmaster had said? “If a mist comes down on you at the cairn, stay there.” He would do that, and meantime fill a pipe—and save his Abernethys for later on.
As he slowly ground a flake of brown plug between his palms, and stared unseeing into the opaque flow of mist, there came to his ears from somewhere far below a small sibilant whisper, and then something near said “hu-u-sh” warningly, and after that a booming note, weirdly hollow, lifted and went by—close by—and died away, and again came that warning hush. Only the swirl of the breeze in the gouged-out face of the mountain, but the Gael sensed something inimical, and his back hairs lifted.
“They are gathering about,” he whispered, “but they have no power unless I yield it.” He lit his pipe steady-handed and gathered his hardihood close about him.
In less than half an hour the mist cleared off as quickly as it had come. One moment he was staring into nothingness, the next into immensity.
“Thunder o’ God!” he swore aloud. “ ’Tis some devil lustful of beauty that drops a curtain and lifts it to get a sudden blink.”
For the mist actually rolled up like a curtain without leaving even a fringe trailing among the rocks, and the sun-bathed width of Scotland burst on the vision. The startling change from opaque littleness to sunny immensity was dizzying. The eye swooped down and over the dark of woods, the sheen of water, the purpling brown of moors, the green of Moray Lowlands, the steel mirror of the northern firth, and, far beyond, the strung purple of the northern hills.
After a long look Hugh turned east and south and realised desolation in its ultimate. The mist that, a minute before, seemed to enshroud the world was now no more than a thin band of pearly cloud low down against the blue of the sky, and below it was a far-thrown welter of mountains: peaks and ridges and gashes flung to the horizon, dull brown, solemn grey, sombre black, swallowing and denying the sunlight, mocking the blue deeps they crouched under, weighing on the mind with some inscrutable content in their own abiding sterility. The stark white of an occasional patch of snow made that sterility all the more appalling.
“I will go now, in the name of God,” said Hugh Forbes, “for beauty and terror should not be looked upon for long.”
He did not delay long at the real summit. Twice the mist had rolled over him as he crossed the hollowed-out plateau to the summit-cairn, and twice he had waited grimly while the mist-whisperings approached and went by and died out. And always he had felt a great desire to crouch and move away from something that was creeping up behind him.
He had seen all he wanted to see that day; the sun was far down in the west; and somewhere below was Glen Dhu and sixteen miles of winding track. And so from the summit-cairn he went long-strided down the easy eastern slope, his old coat flapping like a mantle behind him, and his eyes watchful for the canyon of Loch Dhu. Presently the gentle slope he was on levelled out and even lifted into a slight ridge, and, thrusting upwards to the brow of it, he stopped dead. The whole side of the mountain was cut sheer away at his feet, and he looked far down into Loch Dhu, a long splash in the deep gut of the mountains. No sunlight shone on it—no sunlight ever did shine on it. In places it was black with depth, and in places purple, and in places dimly grey where basalt ledges came near the surface. At its upper end a fifteen-hundred-foot precipice lifted out of huge boulders into the breast of mighty Ben a Mhuic—a forbidding black precipice slashed with the red of iron and the white of snow. Where Hugh stood was the still clear light of the gloaming, but all Glen Dhu, as far as he could see, was in shadow, though, across the mile-wide chasm, the tops of the peaks stringing northward were lit with orange, a wild glare of colour over the gloom of the glen.
He had no trouble in finding a way down the pitch to the loch side: a stone ladder with the tilt of a steep roof, where a trickle of water slid and fell and tinkled and frail ferns drooped and nodded in the crannies.
When at last he reached the made path at the foot of the loch there was no glow on any hill, and the even hush of twilight was over all that heaped land. And yet the awesomeness had gone out of the landscape. There was no disturbing whisper off the heather, no wailing note from the cliffs of Ben a Mhuic, no sense of an inimical presence tugging at reason. Fifty yards below him the swift Abhain Ban, the clear-running river, ran checking and gurgling over its white-pebbled bed, and a green ribbon of grass looped in the windings of it; the great breasts of the hills, solemnly brown, lifted in a smooth swell to the immense blue arch of the sky where already a star was shining; and the white path of disintegrated granite, winding out of sight round a curve of the valley, called him forwards to a secure haven.
All that was demanded now was steady walking and, at the end, a meal and a drink with his great Tearlath. And meantime, by way of company, he would nibble an Abernethy biscuit and a scrap of cheese, and thereafter light a strong pipe of Tam o’ Shanter. It had been a hard afternoon: a four-thousand-foot mountain, climbed the long way, was behind him; sixteen miles of track curved in front of him; the dim shining night of the north was down on him; but he had still a kick left. A small dark man he was, who had gathered hardihood of mind in a hardy body, and made it natural and unassuming and almost secret. And though he was in a strange upheaved land, on a road he had never before set foot on, with no known landmarks to guide him, he was complete master of himself and not awed by his surroundings. He was a hillman.
Around the horn of that first curve was another curve exactly similar, and beyond that another and another—world without end. In the declining light, with the dim white line of the path ever tailing away in front of him, this similarity grew irksome in time. “A day or half a day might be pleasant on this road,” he said to himself, “but a man condemned to walk it forever would choose some other hell. ’Tis, surely, a terrible hell that begins by being pleasant.”
The zenith was scattered with faint stars, and the sky above the eastern ramparts aglow above a rising moon, when, at last, he won out of that first series of curves into the mouth of a side valley. And there he halted. A quarter of a mile away a small square window glowed at him with a dull-red light.
“The deer-stalkers’ bothy,” he spoke aloud, “and someone in it—two probably, and I’ll be damn’d if I’ll love them.”
In blood or bone
They are not kin.
The pull of Race
Is strong within.
Love limps slow behind hot Hate,
Yet is the weapon tried of Fate.
Charles William Vivian Stark, standing upright, dropped three peat sods on the fire, and raised a mist of ashes and a drove of sparks. The sparks went up the wide chimney above the open hearth in pleasant darts and spirals after the manner of peat sparks, but the ashes found Stark’s nostrils for his foolishness. He stepped back, sneezed, said a word under his breath, and then stood, head adroop, and watched in glum silence the small tongues of flame already licking round the black sods.
Frances Mary Grant opened her mouth to tell him that that was not the way to treat a peat fire, but thought better of it. Instead, she said in a tone of well-assumed disgust, “I am ashamed of myself, Vivian—and we so near home.” But there was no trace of shame or chagrin in the face she turned to him.
She sat back in an old and decrepit wicker-chair, and one knee was lifted over the other. Her eyes left his face and followed her shapely, cream-hosed leg from knee to foot, and there rested. That foot was without its brown shoe, and, instead, a flimsy silk handkerchief was tied under the heel and over the instep. She moved her toes, turned ankle back and forth, and took breath with a little grimace. “Rotten of me to fail you,” she said, and looked up at him.
If silence means consent, Stark agreed that it was rotten of her to fail him so near home. Perhaps she hoped that he would say something agreeably excusing, for the firelight revealed a beseeching look in her glistening grey eyes and a smile faintly wistful on her lips. But his chiselled profile was turned obstinately to her and his eyes remained sullenly on the fire. Indeed this girl had tell-tale eyes. Anyone looking at her then would admit that she liked this young man—at the very least. Liked him for his physical beauty, surely not for his manners!
His eyes still on the fire, he spoke at last out of some context of thought not difficult to follow. “You should have told me earlier, Fred. At Croghanmoyle—we had time then to catch the train at Kirkton.”
“But you were so keen on doing the four big peaks inside the week.” Her voice grew cheerful. “And we have done them, you know. I didn’t want you to miss Cairn Ban.”
Even now he would not commend her. “I could have seen you to the station, climbed the peak, and been home before you.” It was the unkind truth.
“I never thought.” Her voice was quiet, but the sudden creak of the chair showed her discomfort.
“Of course you did splendidly, Fred,” he said, relenting a little. “But this is—I am sorry this happened.”
“So am I, Vivian; but, really, there is no harm done. This old bothy is quite cosy, and after a rest——”
“No, no. A blistered heel is not to be trifled with. The moon will be up in a few minutes, and I can easily make Innismore in two hours, and be back with a pony in other two.”
“After such a hard day——”
“No trouble,” he said shortly. “We must get to Innismore to-night.”
“I suppose so.” She was a little piqued now. “Really, I don’t mind. I am used to these hills, and have stayed a night in a bothy before now.”
“Hardly do, would it?”
She chuckled pleasantly. “Not with a conventional young man like you. I don’t mind.”
He made no reply to that. He moved across the floor to a black doorway in the rear wall and scraped a match on the jamb. “I’ll get you a store of peats,” he said over his shoulder, and then she heard him fumbling in the lean-to back place. He returned with an armful of black sods and built them up on the brick hearth. “That will keep the fire going till I return.” She did not care to tell him that several armfuls would be required to keep a peat fire going for four hours. “You won’t mind being alone, Fred?” he inquired.
“No-o. I can stand it. I am not afraid—in my own hills—of loneliness.” A careful listener might have gathered that she would prefer company—this man’s company.
Perhaps Stark gathered that too, for he turned to the door and spoke briskly. “And there’s the moon—” And there he halted, his mouth half-open and a sudden, small, psychic fear in his Nordic heart.
“What is it?” whispered Frances Mary Grant.
From outside, across the heather, came the sound of a voice singing. Out of that valley of loneliness and silence came a man’s voice in a slow tune that was old as the hills, lonely as the hills, sad as the sadness that lurks in heather valleys. The great long roll of that baritone voice filled rather than pierced the air, and the gutturals of the Gaelic held the rumble of heavy water. Before Sulcoid, before Clontarf, before Largs, Nordic fighting men had heard songs like that song drifting down from the night camp of the Gael, and, having survived the long day’s fight, could never hear again a Gaelic air without remembering the carnage and the defeat.
No home have I, no dear one,
No friend, no kin to cheer one,
No foe to fight or fear one,
Nowhere to go or stay;
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