The Tale of a Poor Gentleman, and the Little Wars of Lorn
By Neil Munro
William Blackwood And Sons
Edinburgh And London
CONTENTS: (Note: Chapter XII notation skipped in the print copy.)
CHAPTER I.—FROM THE FOREIGN FIELD.
CHAPTER II.—GILLESBEG GRUAMACH.
CHAPTER III.—THE LADY ON THE STAIR.
CHAPTER IV.—A NIGHT ALARM.
CHAPTER V.—KIRK LAW.
CHAPTER VI.—MY LADY OF MOODS.
CHAPTER VII.—CHILDREN OF THE MIST.
CHAPTER VIII.—THE BALE-FIRES ON THE BENS.
CHAPTER X.—THE FLIGHT TO THE FOREST.
CHAPTER XI.—ON BENS OF WAR.
CHAPTER XIII.—WHERE TREADS THE DEER.
CHAPTER XIV.—MY LADY AND THE CHILD.
CHAPTER XV.—CONFESSIONS OF A MARQUIS.
CHAPTER XVI.—OUR MARCH FOR LOCHABER.
CHAPTER XVII.—IN THE LAND OF LORN.
CHAPTER XVIII.—BARD OF KEPPOCH.
CHAPTER XIX.—THE MIRACULOUS JOURNEY.
CHAPTER XXI.—SEVEN BROKEN MEN.
CHAPTER XXII.—DAME DUBH.
CHAPTER XXIII.—THE WIDOW OF GLENCOE.
CHAPTER XXIV.—A NIGHT'S SHELTER.
CHAPTER XXV.—THE ANGRY EAVESDROPPER.
CHAPTER XXVII.—A TAVERN IN THE WILDS.
CHAPTER XXVIII.—LOST ON THIS MOOR OF KANNOCH.
CHAPTER XXIX.—THE RETURN.
CHAPTER XXX.—ARGILE'S BEDROOM.
CHAPTER XXXI.—MISTRESS BETTY.
CHAPTER XXXII.—A SCANDAL AND A QUARREL.
CHAPTER XXXIII.—THE BROKEN SWORD.
CHAPTER XXXIV.—LOVE IN THE WOODS.
To read this tale, dear Hugh, without any association of its incidents with the old respectable chronicles of the Historians is what I should wish you could always do. That is the happy manner with Romance; that is the enviable aptness of the child. But when (by the favour of God) you grow older and more reflective, seeking perhaps for more in these pages than they meant to give, you may wonder that the streets, the lanes, the tenements herein set forth so much resemble those we know to-day, though less than two hundred years ago the bracken waved upon their promontory. You may wonder, too, that the Silver Mines of Coillebhraid, discovered in the time of your greatgrandfather, should have so strangely been anticipated in the age of Gillesbeg Gruamach. Let not those chronological divergences perturb you; they were in the manuscript (which you will be good enough to assume) of Elrigmore, and I would not alter them. Nor do I diminish by a single hour Elrigmore's estimate that two days were taken on the Miraculous Journey to Inverlochy, though numerous histories have made it less. In that, as in a few other details, Elrigmore's account is borne out by one you know to whom The Little Wars of Lorn and Lochaber are yet, as it were, an impulse of yesterday, and the name of Athole is utterly detestable.
I give you this book, dear Hugh, not for History, though a true tale—a sad old tale—is behind it, but for a picture of times and manners, of a country that is dear to us in every rock and valley, of a people we know whose blood is ours. And that you may grow in wisdom as in years, and gain the riches of affection, and escape the giants of life as Connal did the giants of Erin O, in our winter tale, is my fervent prayer.
CHAPTER I.—FROM THE FOREIGN FIELD.
Many a time, in college or in camp, I had planned the style of my home-coming. Master Webster, in the Humanities, droning away like a Boreraig bagpipe, would be sending my mind back to Shira Glen, its braes and corries and singing waters, and Ben Bhuidhe over all, and with my chin on a hand I would ponder on how I should go home again when this weary scholarship was over. I had always a ready fancy and some of the natural vanity of youth, so I could see myself landing off the lugger at the quay of Inneraora town, three inches more of a man than when I left with a firkin of herring and a few bolls of meal for my winter's provand; thicker too at the chest, and with a jacket of London green cloth with brass buttons. Would the fishermen about the quay-head not lean over the gun'les of their skiffs and say, "There goes young Elrigmore from Colleging, well-knit in troth, and a pretty lad"? I could hear (all in my daydream in yon place of dingy benches) the old women about the well at the town Cross say, "Oh laochain! thou art come back from the Galldach, and Glascow College; what a thousand curious things thou must know, and what wisdom thou must have, but never a change on thine affability to the old and to the poor!" But it was not till I had run away from Glascow College, and shut the boards for good and all, as I thought, on my humane letters and history, and gone with cousin Gavin to the German wars in Mackay's Corps of true Highlanders, that I added a manlier thought to my thinking of the day when I should come home to my native place. I've seen me in the camp at night, dog-wearied after stoury marching on their cursed foreign roads, keeping my eyes open and the sleep at an arm's-length, that I might think of Shira Glen. Whatever they may say of me or mine, they can never deny but I had the right fond heart for my own countryside, and I have fought men for speaking of its pride and poverty—their ignorance, their folly!—for what did they ken of the Highland spirit? I would be lying in the lap of the night, and my Ferrara sword rolled in my plaid as a pillow for my head, fancying myself—all those long wars over, march, siege, and sack—riding on a good horse down the pass of Aora and through the arches into the old town. Then, it was not the fishermen or the old women I thought of, but the girls, and the winking stars above me were their eyes, glinting merrily and kindly on a stout young gentleman soldier with jack and morion, sword at haunch, spur at heel, and a name for bravado never a home-biding laird in our parish had, burgh or landward. I would sit on my horse so, the chest well out, the back curved, the knees straight, one gauntlet off to let my white hand wave a salute when needed, and none of all the pretty ones would be able to say Elrigmore thought another one the sweetest Oh! I tell you we learnt many arts in the Lowland wars, more than they teach Master of Art in the old biggin' in the Hie Street of Glascow.
One day, at a place called Nordlingen near the Mid Franken, binding a wound Gavin got in the sword-arm, I said, "What's your wish at this moment, cousin?"
He looked at me with a melting eye, and the flush hove to his face.
"'Fore God, Colin," said he, "I would give my twelve months' wage to stand below the lintel of my mother's door and hear her say 'Darling scamp!'"
"If you had your wish, Gavin, when and how would you go into Inneraora town after those weary years away?"
"Man, I've made that up long syne," said he, and the tear was at his cheek. "Let me go into it cannily at night-fall from the Cromalt end, when the boys and girls were dancing on the green to the pipes at the end of a harvest-day. Them in a reel, with none of the abulziements of war about me, but a plain civil lad like the rest, I would join in the strathspey and kiss two or three of the girls ere ever they jaloused a stranger was among them."
Poor Gavin, good Gavin! he came home no way at all to his mother and his mountains; but here was I, with some of his wish for my fortune, riding cannily into Inneraora town in the dark.
It is wonderful how travel, even in a marching company of cavaliers of fortune, gives scope to the mind. When I set foot, twelve years before this night I speak of, on the gabert that carried me down to Dunbarton on my way to the Humanities classes, I could have sworn I was leaving a burgh most large and wonderful. The town houses of old Stonefield, Craignish, Craignure, Asknish, and the other cadets of Clan Campbell, had such a strong and genteel look; the windows, all but a very few, had glass in every lozen, every shutter had a hole to let in the morning light, and each door had its little ford of stones running across the gutter that sped down the street, smelling fishily a bit, on its way to the shore. For me, in those days, each close that pierced the tall lands was as wide and high as a mountain eas, the street itself seemed broad and substantial, crowded with people worth kenning for their graces and the many things they knew.
I came home now on this night of nights with Munchen and Augsburg, and the fine cities of all the France, in my mind, and I tell you I could think shame of this mean rickle of stones I had thought a town, were it not for the good hearts and kind I knew were under every roof. The broad street crowded with people, did I say? A little lane rather; and Elrigmore, with schooling and the wisdom of travel, felt he could see into the heart's core of the cunningest merchant in the place.
But anyway, here I was, riding into town from the Cromalt end on a night in autumn. It was after ten by my Paris watch when I got the length of the Creags, and I knew that there was nothing but a sleeping town before me, for our folks were always early bedders when the fishing season was on. The night hung thick with stars, but there was no moon; a stiff wind from the east prinked at my right ear and cooled my horse's skin, as he slowed down after a canter of a mile or two on this side of Pennymore. Out on the loch I could see the lights of a few herring-boats lift and fall at the end of their trail of nets.
"Too few of you there for the town to be busy and cheerful," said I to myself; "no doubt the bulk of the boats are down at Otter, damming the fish in the narrow gut, and keeping them from searching up to our own good townsmen."
I pressed my brute to a trot, and turned round into the nether part of the town. It was what I expected—the place was dark, black out. The people were sleeping; the salt air of Loch Finne went sighing through the place in a way that made me dowie for old days. We went over the causeway-stones with a clatter that might have wakened the dead, but no one put a head out, and I thought of the notion of a cheery home-coming poor Gavin had—my dear cousin, stroked out and cold under foreign clods at Velshiem, two leagues below the field of Worms of Hessen, on the banks of the Rhine, in Low Germanie.
It is a curious business this riding into a town in the dark waste of night; curious even in a strange town when all are the same for you that sleep behind those shutters and those doors, but doubly curious when you know that behind the dark fronts are folk lying that you know well, that have been thinking, and drinking, and thriving when you were far away. As I went clattering slowly by, I would say at one house front, "Yonder's my old comrade, Tearlach, who taught me my one tune on the pipe-chanter; is his beard grown yet, I wonder?" At another, "There is the garret window of the schoolmaster's daughter—does she sing so sweetly nowadays in the old kirk?"
In the dead middle of the street I pulled my horse up, just to study the full quietness of the hour. Leaning over, I put a hand on his nostrils and whispered in his ear for a silence, as we do abroad in ambuscade. Town Innera-ora slept sound, sure enough! All to hear was the spilling of the river at the cascade under the bridge and the plopping of the waves against the wall we call the ramparts, that keeps the sea from thrashing on the Tolbooth. And then over all I could hear a most strange moaning sound, such as we boys used to make with a piece of lath nicked at the edges and swung hurriedly round the head by a string. It was made by the wind, I knew, for it came loudest in the gusty bits of the night and from the east, and when there was a lull I could hear it soften away and end for a second or two with a dunt, as if some heavy, soft thing struck against wood.
Whatever it was, the burghers of Inneraora paid no heed, but slept, stark and sound, behind their steeked shutters.
The solemnity of the place that I knew so much better in a natural lively mood annoyed me, and I played there and then a prank more becoming a boy in his first kilt than a gentleman of education and travel and some repute for sobriety. I noticed I was opposite the house of a poor old woman they called Black Kate, whose door was ever the target in my young days for every lad that could brag of a boot-toe, and I saw that the shutter, hanging ajee on one hinge, was thrown open against the harled wall of the house. In my doublet-pocket there were some carabeen bullets, and taking one out, I let bang at the old woman's little lozens. There was a splinter of glass, and I waited to see if any one should come out to find who had done the damage. My trick was in vain; no one came. Old Kate, as I found next day, was dead since Martinmas, and her house was empty.
Still the moaning sound came from the town-head, and I went slowly riding in its direction. It grew clearer and yet uncannier as I sped on, and mixed with the sough of it I could hear at last the clink of chains.
"What in God's name have I here?" said I to myself, turning round Islay Campbell's corner, and yonder was my answer!
The town gibbets were throng indeed! Two corpses swung in the wind, like net bows on a drying-pole, going from side to side, making the woeful sough and clink of chains, and the dunt I had heard when the wind dropped.
I grued more at the sound of the soughing than at the sight of the hanged fellows, for I've seen the Fell Sergeant in too many ugly fashions to be much put about at a hanging match. But it was such a poor home-coming! It told me as plain as could be, what I had heard rumours of in the low country, riding round from the port of Leith, that the land was uneasy, and that pit and gallows were bye-ordinar busy at the gates of our castle. When I left for my last session at Glascow College, the countryside was quiet as a village green, never a raider nor a reiver in the land, and so poor the Doomster's trade (Black George) that he took to the shoeing of horses.
"There must be something wicked in the times, and cheatery rampant indeed," I thought, "when the common gibbet of Inneraora has a drunkard's convoy on either hand to prop it up."
But it was no time for meditation. Through the rags of plaiding on the chains went the wind again so eerily that I bound to be off, and I put my horse to it, bye the town-head and up the two miles to Glen Shira. I was sore and galled sitting on the saddle; my weariness hung at the back of my legs and shoulders like an ague, and there was never a man in this world came home to his native place so eager for taking supper and sleep as young Elrigmore.
What I expected at my father's door I am not going to set down here. I went from it a fool, with not one grace about me but the love of my good mother, and the punishment I had for my hot and foolish cantrip was many a wae night on foreign fields, vexed to the core for the sore heart I had left at home.
My mind, for all my weariness, was full of many things, and shame above all, as I made for my father's house. The horse had never seen Glen Shira, but it smelt the comfort of the stable and whinnied cheerfully as I pulled up at the gate. There was but one window to the gable-end of Elrigmore, and it was something of a surprise to me to find a light in it, for our people were not overly rich in these days, and candle or cruisie was wont to be doused at bedtime. More was my surprise when, leading my horse round to the front, feeling my way in the dark by memory, I found the oak door open and my father, dressed, standing in the light of it.
A young sgalag came running to the reins, and handing them to him, I stepped into the light of the door, my bonnet in my hand.
"Step in, sir, caird or gentleman," said my father—looking more bent at the shoulder than twelve years before.
I went under the door-lintel, and stood a little abashed before him.
"Colin! Colin!" he cried in the Gaelic "Did I not ken it was you?" and he put his two hands on my shoulders.
"It is Colin sure enough, father dear," I said, slipping readily enough into the mother tongue they did their best to get out of me at Glascow College. "Is he welcome in this door?" and the weariness weighed me down at the hip and bowed my very legs.
He gripped me tight at the elbows, and looked me hungrily in the face.
"If you had a murdered man's head in your oxter, Colin," said he, "you were still my son. Colin, Colin! come ben and put off your boots!"
"Mother———" I said, but he broke in on my question.
"Come in, lad, and sit down. You are back from the brave wars you never went to with my will, and you'll find stirring times here at your own parish. It's the way of the Sennachies' stories."
"How is that, sir?"
"They tell, you know, that people wander far on the going foot for adventure, and adventure is in the first turning of their native lane."
I was putting my boots off before a fire of hissing logs that filled the big room with a fir-wood smell right homely and comforting to my heart, and my father was doing what I should have known was my mother's office if weariness had not left me in a sort of stupor—he was laying on the board a stout and soldierly supper and a tankard of the red Bordeaux wine the French traffickers bring to Loch Finne to trade for cured herring. He would come up now and then where I sat fumbling sleepily at my belt, and put a hand on my head, a curious unmanly sort of thing I never knew my father do before, and I felt put-about at this petting, which would have been more like my sister if ever I had had the luck to have one.
"You are tired, Colin, my boy?" he said.
"A bit, father, a bit," I answered; "rough roads you know. I was landed at break of day at Skipness and—Is mother———?"
"Sit in, laochain! Did you meet many folks on the road?"
"No, sir; as pestilent barren a journey as ever I trotted on, and the people seemingly on the hill, for their crops are unco late in the field."
"Ay, ay, lad, so they are," said my father, pulling back his shoulders a bit—a fairly straight wiry old man, with a name for good swordsmanship in his younger days.
I was busy at a cold partridge, and hard at it, when I thought again how curious it was that my father should be a-foot in the house at such time of night and no one else about, he so early a bedder for ordinary and never the last to sneck the outer door.
"Did you expect any one, father," I asked, "that you should be waiting up with the collation, and the outer door unsnecked?"
"There was never an outer door snecked since you left, Colin," said he, turning awkwardly away and looking hard into the loof of his hand like a wife spaeing fortunes—for sheer want, I could see, of some engagement for his eyes. "I could never get away with the notion that some way like this at night would ye come back to Elngmore."
"Mother would miss me?"
"She did, Colin, she did; I'm not denying."
"She'll be bedded long syne, no doubt, father?"
My father looked at me and gulped at the throat.
"Bedded indeed, poor Colin," said he, "this very day in the clods of Kilmalieu!"
And that was my melancholy home-coming to my father's house of Elngmore, in the parish of Glcnaora, in the shire of Argile.
CHAPTER II.—GILLESBEG GRUAMACH.
Every land, every glen or town, I make no doubt, has its own peculiar air or atmosphere that one familiar with the same may never puzzle about in his mind, but finds come over him with a waft at odd moments like the scent of bog-myrtle and tansy in an old clothes-press. Our own air in Glen Shira had ever been very genial and encouraging to me. Even when a young lad, coming back from the low country or the scaling of school, the cool fresh breezes of the morning and the riper airs of the late afternoon went to my head like a mild white wine; very heartsome too, rousing the laggard spirit that perhaps made me, before, over-apt to sit and dream of the doing of grand things instead of putting out a hand to do them. In Glascow the one thing that I had to grumble most about next to the dreary hours of schooling was the clammy air of street and close; in Germanie it was worse, a moist weakening windiness full of foreign smells, and I've seen me that I could gaily march a handful of leagues to get a sniff of the salt sea. Not that I was one who craved for wrack and bilge at my nose all the time. What I think best is a stance inland from the salt water, where the mountain air, brushing over gall and heather, takes the sting from the sea air, and the two blended give a notion of the fine variousness of life. We had a herdsman once in Elrigmore, who could tell five miles up the glen when the tide was out on Loch Firme. I was never so keen-scented as that, but when I awakened next day in a camceiled room in Elrigmore, and put my head out at the window to look around, I smelt the heather for a second like an escapade in a dream.
Down to Ealan Eagal I went for a plunge in the linn in the old style, and the airs of Shira Glen hung about me like friends and lovers, so well acquaint and jovial.
Shira Glen, Shira Glen! if I was bard I'd have songs to sing to it, and all I know is one sculduddry verse on a widow that dwelt in Maam! There, at the foot of my father's house, were the winding river, and north and south the brown hills, split asunder by God's goodness, to give a sample of His bounty. Maam, Elrigmore and Elrigbeg, Kilblaan and Ben Bhuidhe—their steep sides hung with cattle, and below crowded the reeking homes of tacksman and cottar; the bums poured hurriedly to the flat beneath their borders of hazel and ash; to the south, the fresh water we call Dubh Loch, flapping with ducks and fringed with shelisters or water-flags and bulrush, and farther off the Cowal hills; to the north, the wood of Drimlee and the wild pass the red Macgregors sometimes took for a back-road to our cattle-folds in cloud of night and darkness. Down on it all shone the polished and hearty sun, birds chinned on every tree, though it was late in the year; blackcock whirred across the alders, and sturdy heifers bellowed tunefully, knee-deep at the ford.
"Far have I wandered," thought I to myself, "warring other folk's wars for the humour of it and small wages, but here's the one place I've seen yet that was worth hacking good steel for in earnest!"
But still my heart was sore for mother, and sore, too, for the tale of changed times in Campbell country my father told me over a breakfast of braddan, fresh caught in a creel from the Gearron river, oaten bannock, and cream.
After breakfast I got me into my kilt for town. There are many costumes going about the world, but, with allowance for every one, I make bold to think our own tartan duds the gallantest of them all. The kilt was my wear when first I went to Glascow College, and many a St Mungo keelie, no better than myself at classes or at English language, made fun of my brown knees, sometimes not to the advantage of his headpiece when it came to argument and neifs on the Fleshers' Haugh. Pulling on my old breacan this morning in Elrigmore was like donning a fairy garb, and getting back ten years of youth. We have a way of belting on the kilt in real Argile I have seen nowhere else. Ordinarily, our lads take the whole web of tartan cloth, of twenty ells or more, and coil it once round their middle, there belting it, and bring the free end up on the shoulder to pin with a brooch—not a bad fashion for display and long marches and for sleeping out on the hill with, but somewhat discommodious for warm weather. It was our plan sometimes to make what we called a philabeg, or little kilt, maybe eight yards long, gathered in at the haunch and hung in many pleats behind, the plain brat part in front decked off with a leather sporran, tagged with thong points tied in knots, and with no plaid on the shoulder. I've never seen a more jaunty and suitable garb for campaigning, better by far for short sharp tulzies with an enemy than the philamore or the big kilt our people sometimes throw off them in a skirmish, and fight (the coarsest of them) in their gartered hose and scrugged bonnets.
With my kilt and the memory of old times about me, I went walking down to Inneraora in the middle of the day. I was prepared for change from the complaints of my father, but never for half the change I found in the burgh town of MacCailein Mor. In my twelve foreign years the place was swamped by incomers, black unwelcome Covenanters from the shires of Air and Lanrick—Brices, Yuilles, Rodgers, and Richies—all brought up here by Gillesbeg Gruamach, Marquis of Argile, to teach his clans the arts of peace and merchandise. Half the folk I met between the arches and the Big Barns were strangers that seemingly never had tartan on their hurdies, but settled down with a firm foot in the place, I could see by the bold look of them as I passed on the plain-stanes of the street A queer town this on the edge of Loch Finne, and far in the Highlands! There were shops with Lowland stuffs in them, and over the doors signboards telling of the most curious trades for a Campbell burgh—horologers, cordiners, baxters, and such like mechanicks that I felt sure poor Donald had small call for. They might be incomers, but they were thirled to Gillesbeg all the same, as I found later on.
It was the court day, and his lordship was sitting in judgment on two Strathlachlan fellows, who had been brawling at the Cross the week before and came to knives, more in a frolic than in hot blood, with some of the town lads. With two or three old friends I went into the Tolbooth to see the play—for play it was, I must confess, in town Inneraora, when justice was due to a man whose name by ill-luck was not Campbell, or whose bonnet-badge was not the myrtle stem.
The Tolbooth hall was, and is to this day, a spacious high-ceiled room, well lighted from the bay-side. It was crowded soon after we got in, with Cowalside fishermen and townpeople all the one way or the other—for or against the poor lads in bilboes, who sat, simple-looking enough, between the town officers, a pair of old bodachs in long scarlet coats and carrying tuaghs, Lochaber axes, or halberds that never smelt blood since they came from the smith.
It was the first time ever I saw Gillesbeg Gruamach sitting on the bench, and I was startled at the look of the man. I've seen some sour dogs in my day—few worse than Ruthven's rittmasters whom we met in Swabia—but I never saw a man who, at the first vizzy, had the dour sour countenance of Archibald, Marquis of Argile and Lord of Lochow. Gruamach, or grim-faced, our good Gaels called him in a bye-name, and well he owned it, for over necklace or gorget I've seldom seen a sterner jowl or a more sinister eye. And yet, to be fair and honest, this was but the notion one got at a first glint; in a while I thought little was amiss with his looks as he leaned on the table and cracked in a humoursome laughing way with the paneled jury.
He might have been a plain cottar on Glen Aora side rather than King of the Highlands for all the airs he assumed, and when he saw me, better put-on in costume than my neighbours in court, he seemingly asked my name in a whisper from the clerk beside him, and finding who I was, cried out in St Andrew's English—
"What! Young Elrigmore back to the Glens! I give you welcome, sir, to Baile Inneraora!"
I but bowed, and in a fashion saluted, saying nothing in answer, for the whole company glowered at me, all except the home-bred ones who had better manners.
The two MacLachlans denied in the Gaelic the charge the sheriff clerk read to them in a long farrago of English with more foreign words to it than ever I learned the sense of in College.
His lordship paid small heed to the witnesses who came forward to swear to the unruliness of the Strathlachlan men, and the jury talked heedlessly with one another in a fashion scandalous to see. The man who had been stabbed—it was but a jag at the shoulder, where the dirk had gone through from front to back with only some lose of blood—was averse from being hard on the panels. He was a jocular fellow with the right heart for a duello, and in his nipped burgh Gaelic he made light of the disturbance and his injury.
"Nothing but a bit play, my jurymen—MacCailein—my lordship—a bit play. If the poor lad didn't happen to have his dirk out and I to run on it, nobody was a bodle the worse."
"But the law"—started the clerk to say.
"No case for law at all," said the man. "It's an honest brawl among friends, and I could settle the account with them at the next market-day, when my shoulder's mended."
"Better if you would settle my account for your last pair of brogues, Alasdair M'Iver," said a black-avised juryman.
"What's your trade?" asked the Marquis of the witness.
"I'm at the Coillebhraid silver-mines," said he. "We had a little too much drink, or these MacLachlan gentlemen and I had never come to variance."
The Marquis gloomed at the speaker and brought down his fist with a bang on the table before him.
"Damn those silver-mines!" said he; "they breed more trouble in this town of mine than I'm willing to thole. If they put a penny in my purse it might not be so irksome, but they plague me sleeping and waking, and I'm not a plack the richer. If it were not to give my poor cousin, John Splendid, a chance of a living and occupation for his wits, I would drown them out with the water of Cromalt Burn."
The witness gave a little laugh, and ducking his head oddly like one taking liberties with a master, said, "We're a drouthy set, my lord, at the mines, and I wouldn't be saying but what we might drink them dry again of a morning, if we had been into town the night before."
His lordship cut short his sour smile at the man's fancy, and bade the officers on with the case.
"You have heard the proof," he said to the jury when it came to his turn to charge them. "Are they guilty, or not? If the question was put to me I should say the Laird of MacLachlan, arrant Papist! should keep his men at home to Mass on the other side of the loch instead of loosing them on honest, or middling honest, Campbells, for the strict virtue of these Coillebhraid miners is what I am not going to guarantee."
Of course the fellows were found guilty—one of stabbing, the other of art and part—for MacLachlan was no friend of MacCailein Mor, and as little friend to the merchant burghers of Inneraora, for he had the poor taste to buy his shop provand from the Lamont towns of Low Cowal.
"A more unfriendly man to the Laird of MacLachlan might be for hanging you on the gibbet at the town-head," said his lordship to the prisoners, spraying ink-sand idly on the clean page of a statute-book as he spoke; "but our three trees upbye are leased just now to other tenants,—Badenoch hawks a trifle worse than yourselves, and more deserving."
The men looked stupidly about them, knowing not one word of his lordship's English, and he was always a man who disdained to converse much in Erse. He looked a little cruelly at them and went on.
"Perhaps clipping your lugs might be the bonniest way of showing you what we think of such on-goings in honest Inneraora; or getting the Doomster to bastinado you up and down the street But we'll try what a fortnight in the Tolbooth may do to amend your visiting manners. Take them away, officers."
"Abair moran taing—say 'many thanks' to his lordship," whispered one of the red-coat halberdiers in the ear of the bigger of the two prisoners. I could hear the command distinctly where I sat, well back in the court, and so no doubt could Gillesbeg Gruamach, but he was used to such obsequious foolishness and he made no dissent or comment.
"Taing! taing!" said one spokesman of the two MacLachlans in his hurried Cowal Gaelic, and his neighbour, echoing him word for word in the comic fashion they have in these parts; "Taing! taing! I never louted to the horseman that rode over me yet, and I would be ill-advised to start with the Gruamach one!"
The man's face flushed up as he spoke. It's a thing I've noticed about our own poor Gaelic men: speaking before them in English or Scots, their hollow look and aloofness would give one the notion that they lacked sense and sparkle; take the muddiest-looking among them and challenge him in his own tongue, and you'll find his face fill with wit and understanding.
I was preparing to leave the court-room, having many people to call on in Inneraora, and had turned with my two friends to the door, when a fellow brushed in past us—a Highlander, I could see, but in trews—and he made to go forward into the body of the court, as if to speak to his lordship, now leaning forward in a cheerful conversation with the Provost of the burgh, a sonsy gentleman in a peruke and figured waistcoat.
"Who is he, this bold fellow?" I asked one of my friends, pausing with a foot on the door-step, a little surprised at the want of reverence to MacCailein in the man's bearing.
"Iain Aluinn—John Splendid," said my friend. We were talking in the Gaelic, and he made a jocular remark there is no English for. Then he added, "A poor cousin of the Marquis, a M'Iver Campbell (on the wrong side), with little schooling, but some wit and gentlemanly parts. He has gone through two fortunes in black cattle, fought some fighting here and there, and now he manages the silver-mines so adroitly that Gillesbeg Gruamach is ever on the brink of getting a big fortune, but never done launching out a little one instead to keep the place going. A decent soul the Splendid! throughither a bit, and better at promise than performance, but at the core as good as gold, and a fellow you would never weary of though you tramped with him in a thousand glens. We call him Splendid, not for his looks but for his style."
The object of my friend's description was speaking into the ear of MacCailein Mor by this time, and the Marquis's face showed his tale was interesting, to say the least of it.
We waited no more, but went out into the street I was barely two closes off from the Tolbooth when a messenger came running after me, sent by the Marquis, who asked if I would oblige greatly by waiting till he made up on me. I went back, and met his lordship with his kinsman and mine-manager coming out of the court-room together into the lobby that divided the place from the street.
"Oh, Elrigmore!" said the Marquis, in an offhand jovial and equal way; "I thought you would like to meet my cousin here—M'Iver of the Barbreck; something of a soldier like yourself, who has seen service in Lowland wars."
"In the Scots Brigade, sir?" I asked M'lver, eyeing him with greater interest than ever. He was my senior by about a dozen years seemingly, a neat, well-built fellow, clean-shaven, a little over the middle height, carrying a rattan in his hand, though he had a small sword tucked under the skirt of his coat.
"With Lumsden's regiment," he said. "His lordship here has been telling me you have just come home from the field."
"But last night. I took the liberty while Inneraora was snoring. You were before my day in foreign service, and yet I thought I knew by repute every Campbell that ever fought for the hard-won dollars of Gustavus even before my day. There were not so many of them from the West Country."
"I trailed a pike privately," laughed M'lver, "and for the honour of Clan Diarmaid I took the name Munro. My cousin here cares to have none of his immediate relatives make a living by steel at any rank less than a cornal's, or a major's at the very lowest Frankfort, and Landsberg, and the stark field of Leipzig were the last I saw of foreign battles, and the God's truth is they were my bellyful. I like a bit splore, but give it to me in our old style, with the tartan instead of buff, and the target for breastplate and taslets. I came home sick of wars."
"Our friend does himself injustice, my dear Elrigmore," said Argile, smiling; "he came home against his will, I have no doubt, and I know he brought back with him a musketoon bullet in the hip, that couped him by the heels down in Glassary for six months."
"The result," M'Iver hurried to exclaim, but putting out his breast with a touch of vanity, "of a private rencontre, an affair of my own with a Reay gentleman, and not to be laid to my credit as part of the war's scaith at all."
"You conducted your duello in odd style under Lums-den, surely," said I, "if you fought with powder and ball instead of steel, which is more of a Highlander's weapon to my way of thinking. All our affairs in the Reay battalion were with claymore—sometimes with targe, sometimes wanting."
"This was a particular business of our own," laughed John Splendid (as I may go on to call M'lver, for it was the name he got oftenest behind and before in Argile). "It was less a trial of valour than a wager about which had the better skill with the musket. If I got the bullet in my groin, I at least showed the Mackay gentleman in question that an Argile man could handle arquebus as well as arme blanche as we said in the France. I felled my man at one hundred and thirty paces, with six to count from a ritt-master's signal. Blow, present, God sain Mackay's soul! But I'm not given to braggadocio."
"Not a bit, cousin," said the Marquis, looking quizzingly at me.
"I could not make such good play with the gun against a fort gable at so many feet," said I.
"You could, sir, you could," said John Splendid in an easy, offhand, flattering way, that gave me at the start of our acquaintance the whole key to his character. "I've little doubt you could allow me half-a-dozen paces and come closer on the centre of the target."
By this time we were walking down the street, the Marquis betwixt the pair of us commoners, and I to the left side. Lowlanders and Highlanders quickly got out of the way before us and gave us the crown of the causeway. The main part of them the Marquis never let his eye light on; he kept his nose cocked in the air in the way I've since found peculiar to his family. It was odd to me that had in wanderings got to look on all honest men as equal (except Camp-Master Generals and Pike Colonels), to see some of his lordship's poor clansmen cringing before him. Here indeed was the leaven of your low-country scum, for in all the broad Highlands wandering before and since I never saw the like! "Blood of my blood, brother of my name!" says our good Gaelic old-word: it made no insolents in camp or castle, yet it kept the poorest clansmen's head up before the highest chief. But there was, even in Baile Inneraora, sinking in the servile ways of the incomer, something too of honest worship in the deportment of the people. It was sure enough in the manner of an old woman with a face peat-tanned to crinkled leather who ran out of the Vennel or lane, and, bending to the Marquis his lace wrist-bands, kissed them as I've seen Papists do the holy duds in Notre Dame and Bruges Kirk.
This display before me, something of a stranger, a little displeased Gillesbeg Gruamach. "Tut, tut!" he cried in Gaelic to the cailltach, "thou art a foolish old woman!"
"God keep thee, MacCailein!" said she; "thy daddy put his hand on my head like a son when he came back from his banishment in Spain, and I keened over thy mother dear when she died. The hair of Peggy Bheg's head is thy door-mat, and her son's blood is thy will for a foot-bath."
"Savage old harridan!" cried the Marquis, jerking away; but I could see he was not now unpleased altogether that a man new from the wide world and its ways should behold how much he was thought of by his people.
He put his hands in a friendly way on the shoulders of us on either hand of him, and brought us up a bit round turn, facing him at a stand-still opposite the door of the English kirk. To this day I mind well the rumour of the sea that came round the corner.
"I have a very particular business with both you gentlemen," he said. "My friend here, M'Iver, has come hot-foot to tell me of a rumour that a body of Irish banditry under Alasdair MacDonald, the MacColkitto as we call him, has landed somewhere about Kinlochaline or Knoydart This portends damnably, if I, an elder ordained of this kirk, may say so. We have enough to do with the Athole gentry and others nearer home. It means that I must on with plate and falchion again, and out on the weary road for war I have little stomach for, to tell the truth."
"You're able for the best of them, MacCailein," cried John Splendid, in a hot admiration. "For a scholar you have as good judgment on the field and as gallant a seat on the saddle as any man ever I saw in haberschone and morion. With your schooling I could go round the world conquering."
"Ah! flatterer, flatterer! Ye have all the guile of the tongue our enemies give Clan Campbell credit for, and that I wish I had a little more of. Still and on, it's no time for fair words. Look! Elrigmore. You'll have heard of our kittle state in this shire for the past ten years, and not only in this shire but all over the West Highlands. I give you my word I'm no sooner with the belt off me and my chair pulled in to my desk and papers than its some one beating a point of war or a piper blowing the warning under my window. To look at my history for the past few years any one might think I was Dol' Gorm himself, fight and plot, plot and fight! How can I help it—thrust into this hornets' nest from the age of sixteen, when my father (beannachd leis!) took me out warring against the islesmen, and I only in the humour for playing at shinty or fishing like the boys on the moor-lochs behind the town. I would sooner be a cottar in Auchnagoul down there, with porridge for my every meal, than constable, chastiser, what not, or whatever I am, of all these vexed Highlands. Give me my book in my closet, or at worst let me do my country's work in a courtier's way with brains, and I would ask no more."
"Except Badenoch and Nether Lochaber—fat land, fine land, MacCailein!" said John Splendid, laughing cunningly.
"You're an ass, John," he said; "picking up the countryside's gossip. I have no love for the Athole and Great Glen folks as ye ken; but I could long syne have got letters of fire and sword that made Badenoch and Nether Lochaber mine if I had the notion. Don't interrupt me with your nonsense, cousin; I'm telling Elrigmore here, for he's young and has skill of civilised war, that there may, in very few weeks, be need of every arm in the parish or shire to baulk Colkitto. The MacDonald and other malignants have been robbing high and low from Lochow to Loch Finne this while back; I have hanged them a score a month at the town-head there, but that's dealing with small affairs, and I'm sore mistaken if we have not cruel times to come."
"Well, sir," I said, "what can I do?"
The Marquis bit his moustachio and ran a spur on the ground for a little without answering, as one in a quandary, and then he said, "You're no vassal of mine, Baron" (as if he were half sorry for it), "but all you Glen Shira folk are well disposed to me and mine, and have good cause, though that Macnachtan fellow's a Papisher. What I had in my mind was that I might count on you taking a company of our fencible men, as John here is going to do, and going over-bye to Lorn with me to cut off those Irish blackguards of Alasdair MacDonald's from joining Montrose."
For some minutes I stood turning the thing over in my mind, being by nature slow to take on any scheme of high emprise without some scrupulous balancing of chances. Half-way up the closes, in the dusk, and in their rooms, well back from the windows, or far up the street, all aloof from his Majesty MacCailein Mor, the good curious people of Inneraora watched us. They could little guess the pregnancy of our affairs. For me, I thought how wearily I had looked for some rest from wars, at home in Glen Shira after my years of foreign service. Now that I was here, and my mother no more, my old father needed me on hill and field, and Argile's quarrel was not my quarrel until Argile's enemies were at the foot of Ben Bhuidhe or coming all boden in fier of war up the pass of Shira Glen. I liked adventure, and a captaincy was a captaincy, but——
"Is it boot and saddle at once, my lord?" I asked.
"It must be that or nothing. When a viper's head is coming out of a hole, crunch it incontinent, or the tail may be more than you can manage."
"Then, my lord," said I, "I must cry off. On this jaunt at least. It would be my greatest pleasure to go with you and my friend M'lver, not to mention all the good fellows I'm bound to know in rank in your regiment, but for my duty to my father and one or two other considerations that need not be named. But—if this be any use—I give my word that should MacDonald or any other force come this side the passes at Accurach Hill, or anywhere east Lochow, my time and steel are yours."
MacCailein Mor looked a bit annoyed, and led us at a fast pace up to the gate of the castle that stood, high towered and embrasured for heavy pieces, stark and steeve above town Inneraora. A most curious, dour, and moody man, with a mind roving from key to key. Every now and then he would stop and think a little without a word, then on, and run his fingers through his hair or fumble nervously at his leathern buttons, paying small heed to the Splendid and I, who convoyed him, so we got into a crack about the foreign field of war.
"Quite right, Elrigmore, quite right!" at last cried the Marquis, pulling up short, and looked me plump in the eyes. "Bide at hame while bide ye may. I would never go on this affair myself if by God's grace I was not Marquis of Argile and son of a house with many bitter foes. But, hark ye! a black day looms for these our home-lands if ever Montrose and those Irish dogs get through our passes. For twenty thousand pounds Saxon I would not have the bars off the two roads of Accurach! And I thank you, Elrigmore, that at the worst I can count on your service at home. We may need good men here on Loch Finneside as well as farther afield, overrun as we are by the blackguardism of the North and the Papist clans around us. Come in, friends, and have your meridian. I have a flagon of French brown brandy you never tasted the equal of in any town you sacked in all Low Germanie."
CHAPTER III.—THE LADY ON THE STAIR.
John Splendid looked at me from the corner of an eye as we came out again and daundered slowly down the town.
"A queer one yon!" said he, as it were feeling his way with a rapier-point at my mind about his Marquis.
"Do you tell me?" I muttered, giving him parry of low quarte like a good swordsman, and he came to the recover with a laugh.
"Foil, Elrigmore!" he cried. "But we're soldiers and lads of the world, and you need hardly be so canny. You see MacCailein's points as well as I do. His one weakness is the old one—books, books,—the curse of the Highlands and every man of spirit, say I. He has the stuff in him by nature, for none can deny Clan Diarmaid courage and knightliness; but for four generations court, closet, and college have been taking the heart out of our chiefs. Had our lordship in-bye been sent a fostering in the old style, brought up to the chase and the sword and manly comportment, he would not have that wan cheek this day, and that swithering about what he must be at next!"
"You forget that I have had the same ill-training," I said (in no bad humour, for I followed his mind). "I had a touch of Glascow College myself."
"Yes, yes," he answered quickly; "you had that, but by all accounts it did you no harm. You learned little of what they teach there."
This annoyed me, I confess, and John Splendid was gleg enough to see it
"I mean," he added, "you caught no fever for paper and ink, though you may have learned many a quirk I was the better of myself. I could never even write my name; and I've kept compt of wages at the mines with a pickle chuckie-stones."
"That's a pity," says I, drily.
"Oh, never a bit," says he, gaily, or at any rate with a way as if to carry it off vauntingly. "I can do many things as well as most, and a few others colleges never learned me. I know many winter tales, from 'Minochag and Morag' to 'The Shifty Lad'; I can make passable poetry by word of mouth; I can speak the English and the French, and I have seen enough of courtiers to know that half their canons are to please and witch the eye of women in a way that I could undertake to do by my looks alone and some good-humour. Show me a beast on hill or in glen I have not the history of; and if dancing, singing, the sword, the gun, the pipes—ah, not the pipes,—it's my one envy in the world to play the bagpipes with some show of art and delicacy, and I cannot. Queer is that, indeed, and I so keen on them! I would tramp right gaily a night and a day on end to hear a scholar fingering 'The Glen is Mine.'"
There was a witless vanity about my friend that sat on him almost like a virtue. He made parade of his crafts less, I could see, because he thought much of them, than because he wanted to keep himself on an equality with me. In the same way, as I hinted before, he never, in all the time of our wanderings after, did a thing well before me but he bode to keep up my self-respect by maintaining that I could do better, or at least as good.
"Books, I say," he went on, as we clinked heels on the causeway-stones, and between my little bit cracks with old friends in the by-going,— "books, I say, have spoiled Mac-Cailein's stomach. Ken ye what he told me once? That a man might readily show more valour in a conclusion come to in the privacy of his bed-closet than in a victory won on the field. That's what they teach by way of manly doctrine down there in the new English church, under the pastorage of Maister Alexander Gordon, chaplain to his lordship and minister to his lordship's people! It must be the old Cavalier in me, but somehow (in your lug) I have no broo of those Covenanting cattle from the low country—though Gordon's a good soul, there's no denying."
"Are you Catholic?" I said, in a surprise.
"What are you yourself?" he asked, and then he flushed, for he saw a little smile in my face at the transparency of his endeavour to be always on the pleasing side.
"To tell the truth," he said, "I'm depending on salvation by reason of a fairly good heart, and an eagerness to wrong no man, gentle or semple. I love my fellows, one and all, not offhand as the Catechism enjoins, but heartily, and I never saw the fellow, carl or king, who, if ordinary honest and cheerful, I could not lie heads and thraws with at a camp-fire. In matters of strict ritual, now,—ha—urn!"
"Out with it, man!" I cried, laughing.
"I'm like Parson Kilmalieu upbye. You've heard of him—easy-going soul, and God sain him! When it came to the bit, he turned the holy-water font of Kilcatrine blue-stone upside-down, scooped a hole in the bottom, and used the new hollow for Protestant baptism. 'There's such a throng about heaven's gate,' said he, 'that it's only a mercy to open two;' and he was a good and humour-some Protestant-Papist till the day he went under the flagstones of his chapel upbye."
Now here was not a philosophy to my mind. I fought in the German wars less for the kreutzers than for a belief (never much studied out, but fervent) that Protestantism was the one good faith, and that her ladyship of Babylon, that's ever on the ran-don, cannot have her downfall one day too soon. You dare not be playing corners-change-corners with religion as you can with the sword of what the ill-bred have called a mercenary (when you come to ponder on't, the swords of patriot or paid man are both for selfish ends unsheathed); and if I set down here word for word what John Splendid said, it must not be thought to be in homologation on my part of such latitudinarianism.
I let him run on in this key till we came to the change-house of a widow—one Fraser—and as she curtsied at the door, and asked if the braw gentlemen would favour her poor parlour, we went in and tossed a quaich or two of aqua, to which end she set before us a little brown bottle and two most cunningly contrived and carven cups made of the Coillebhraid silver.
The houses in Inneraora were, and are, built all very much alike, on a plan I thought somewhat cosy and genteel, ere ever I went abroad and learned better. I do not even now deny the cosiness of them, but of the genteelity it were well to say little. They were tall lands or tenements, three storeys high, with through-going closes, or what the English might nominate passages, running from front to back, and leading at their midst to stairs, whereby the occupants got to their domiciles in the flats above. Curved stairs they were, of the same blue-stone the castle is built of, and on their landings at each storey they branched right and left to give access to the single apartments or rooms and kitchens of the residenters. Throng tenements they are these, even yet, giving, as I write, clever children to the world. His Grace nowadays might be granting the poor people a little more room to grow in, some soil for their kail, and a better prospect from their windows than the whitewashed wall of the opposite land; but in the matter of air there was and is no complaint The sea in stormy days came bellowing to the very doors, salt and stinging, tremendous blue and cold. Staying in town of a night, I used to lie awake in my relative's, listening to the spit of the waves on the window-panes and the grumble of the tide, that rocked the land I lay in till I could well fancy it was a ship. Through the closes the wind ever stalked like something fierce and blooded, rattling the iron snecks with an angry finger, breathing beastily at the hinge, and running back a bit once in a while to leap all the harder against groaning lintel and post.
The change-house of the widow was on the ground-flat, a but and ben, the ceilings arched with stone—a strange device in masonry you'll seldom find elsewhere, Highland or Lowland. But she had a garret-room up two stairs where properly she abode, the close flat being reserved for trade of vending uisgebeatha and ale. I describe all this old place so fully because it bears on a little affair that happened therein on that day John Splendid and I went in to clink glasses.
The widow had seen that neither of us was very keen on her aqua, which, as it happened, was raw new stuff brewed over at Karnes, Lochow, and she asked would we prefer some of her brandy.
"After his lordship's it might be something of a down-come," said John Splendid, half to me and half to the woman.
She caught his meaning, though he spoke in the English; and in our own tongue, laughing toothlessly, she said—
"The same stilling, Barbreck, the same stilling I make no doubt MacCailein gets his brown brandy by my brother's cart from French Foreland; it's a rough road, and sometimes a bottle or two spills on the way. I've a flagon up in a cupboard in my little garret, and I'll go fetch it."
She was over-old a woman to climb three steep stairs for the sake of two young men's drought, and I (having always some regard for the frail) took the key from her hand and went, as was common enough with her younger customers, seeking my own liquor up the stair.
In those windy flights in the fishing season there is often the close smell of herring-scale, of bow tar and the bark-tan of the fishing nets; but this stair I climbed for the wherewithal was unusually sweet-odoured and clean, because on the first floor was the house of Provost Brown—a Campbell and a Gael, but burdened by accident with a Lowland-sounding cognomen. He had the whole flat to himself—half-a-dozen snug apartments with windows facing the street or the sea as he wanted. I was just at the head of the first flight when out of a door came a girl, and I clean forgot all about the widow's flask of French brandy.
Little more than twelve years syne the Provost's daughter had been a child at the grammar-school, whose one annoyance in life was that the dominie called her Betsy instead of Betty, her real own name: here she was, in the flat of her father's house in Inneraora town, a full-grown woman, who gave me check in my stride and set my face flaming. I took in her whole appearance at one glance—a way we have in foreign armies. Between my toe on the last step of the stair and the landing I read the picture: a well-bred woman, from her carriage, the neatness of her apparel, the composure of her pause to let me bye in the narrow passage to the next stair; not very tall (I have ever had a preference for such as come no higher than neck and oxter); very dark brown hair, eyes sparkling, a face rather pale than ruddy, soft skinned, full of a keen nervousness.
In this matter of a woman's eyes—if I may quit the thread of my history—I am a trifle fastidious, and I make bold to say that the finest eyes in the world are those of the Highland girls of Argile—burgh or landward—the best bred and gentlest of them, I mean: There is in them a full and melting friendliness, a mixture to my sometimes notion of poetry and of calm—a memory, as I've thought before, of the deep misty glens and their sights and secrets. I have seen more of the warm heart and merriment in a simple Loch Finne girl's eyes than in all the faces of all the grand dames ever I looked on, Lowland or foreign.
What pleased me first and foremost about this girl Betty, daughter of Provost Brown, were her eyes, then, that showed, even in yon dusky passage, a humoursome interest in young Elrigmore in a kilt coming up-stairs swinging on a finger the key of Lucky Fraser's garret. She hung back doubtfully, though she knew me (I could see) for her old school-fellow and sometime boy-lover, but I saw something of a welcome in the blush at her face, and I gave her no time to chill to me.
"Betty lass, 'tis you," said I, putting out a hand and shaking her soft fingers. "What think you of my ceremony in calling at the earliest chance to pay my devoirs to the Provost of this burgh and his daughter?"
I put the key behind my back to give colour a little to my words; but my lady saw it and jumped at my real errand on the stair, with that quickness ever accompanying eyes of the kind I have mentioned.
"Ceremony here, devoir there!" said she, smiling, "there was surely no need for a key to our door, Elrigmore—-"
"Colin, Mistress Brown, plain Colin, if you please."
"Colin, if you will, though it seems daftlike to be so free with a soldier of twelve years' fortune. You were for the widow's garret Does some one wait on you below?"
"My mother's in-bye. She will be pleased to see you back again if you and your friend call. After you've paid the lawing," she added, smiling like a rogue.
"That will we," said I; but I hung on the stair-head, and she leaned on the inner sill of the stair window.
We got into a discourse upon old days, that brought a glow to my heart the brandy I forgot had never brought to my head. We talked of school, and the gay days in wood and field, of our childish wanderings on the shore, making sand-keps and stone houses, herding the crabs of God—so little that bairns dare not be killing them, of venturings to sea many ells out in the fishermen's coracles, of journeys into the brave deep woods that lie far and wide round Inneraora, seeking the branch for the Beltane fire; of nutting in the hazels of the glens, and feasts upon the berry on the brae. Later, the harvest-home and the dance in green or barn when I was at almost my man's height, with the pluck to put a bare lip to its apprenticeship on a woman's cheek; the songs at ceilidh fires, the telling of sgeulachdan and fairy tales up on the mountain sheiling——
"Let me see," said I; "when I went abroad, were not you and one of the Glenaora Campbells chief?"
I said it as if the recollection had but sprung to me, while the truth is I had thought on it often in camp and field, with a regret that the girl should throw herself off on so poor a partner.
She laughed merrily with her whole soul in the business, and her face without art or pretence—a fashion most wholesome to behold.
"He married some one nearer him in years long syne," said she. "You forget I was but a bairn when we romped in the hay-dash." And we buckled to the crack again, I more keen on it than ever. She was a most marvellous fine girl, and I thought her (well I mind me now) like the blue harebell that nods upon our heather hills.
We might, for all I dreamt of the widow's brandy, have been conversing on the stair-head yet, and my story had a different conclusion, had not a step sounded on the stair, and up banged John Splendid, his sword-scabbard clinking against the wall of the stair with the haste of him.
"Set a cavalier at the side of an anker of brandy," he cried, "an——"
Then he saw he was in company. He took off his bonnet with a sweep I'll warrant he never learned anywhere out of France, and plunged into the thick of our discourse with a query.
"At your service, Mistress Brown," said he. "Half my errand to town to-day was to find if young MacLach-lan, your relative, is to be at the market here to-morrow. If so——"
"He is," said Betty.
"Will he be intending to put up here all night, then?"
"He comes to supper at least," said she, "and his biding overnight is yet to be settled."
John Splendid toyed with the switch in his hand in seeming abstraction, and yet as who was pondering on how to put an unwelcome message in plausible language.
"Do you know," said he at last to the girl, in a low voice, for fear his words should reach the ears of her mother in-bye, "I would as well see MacLachlan out of town the morn's night. There's a waft of cold airs about this place not particularly wholesome for any of his clan or name. So much I would hardly care to say to himself; but he might take it from you, madam, that the other side of the loch is the safest place for sound sleep for some time to come."
"Is it the MacNicolls you're thinking of?" asked the girl.
"That same, my dear."
"You ken," he went on, turning fuller round to me, to tell a story he guessed a new-comer was unlikely to know the ins and outs of—"you ken that one of the MacLachlans, a cousin-german of old Lachie the chief, came over in a boat to Braleckan a few weeks syne on an old feud, and put a bullet into a Mac Nicoll, a peaceable lad who was at work in a field. Gay times, gay times, aren't they? From behind a dyke wall too—a far from gentlemanly escapade even in a MacLa—— Pardon, mistress; I forgot your relationship, but this was surely a very low dog of his kind. Now from that day to this the murtherer is to find; there are some to say old Lachie could put his hand on him at an hour's notice if he had the notion. But his lordship, Justiciar-General, upbye, has sent his provost-marshal with letters of arrest to the place in vain. Now here's my story. The MacNicolls of Elrig have joined cause with their cousins and namesakes of Braleckan; there's a wheen of both to be in the town at the market to-morrow, and if young Mac-Lachlan bides in this house of yours overnight, Mistress Betty Brown, you'll maybe have broken delf and worse ere the day daw."
Mistress Brown took it very coolly; and as for me, I was thinking of a tiny brown mole-spot she used to have low on the white of her neck when I put daisy-links on her on the summers we played on the green, and wondering if it was still to the fore and hid below her collar. In by the window came the saucy breeze and kissed her on a curl that danced above her ear.
"I hope there will be no lawlessness here," said she: "whether he goes or bides, surely the burghers of Inner-aora will not quietly see their Provost's domicile invaded by brawlers."
"Exactly so," said John Splendid, drily. "Nothing may come of it, but you might mention the affair to MacLachlan if you have the chance. For me to tell him would be to put him in the humour for staying—dour fool that he is—out of pure bravado and defiance. To tell the truth, I would bide myself in such a case. 'Thole feud' is my motto. My granddad writ it on his sword-blade in clear round print letters I've often marvelled at the skill of. If it's your will, Elrigmore, we may be doing without the brandy, and give the house-dame a call now."
We went in and paid our duties to the goodwife—a silver-haired dame with a look of Betty in every smile.
CHAPTER IV.—A NIGHT ALARM.
Writing all this old ancient history down, I find it hard to riddle out in my mind the things that have really direct and pregnant bearing on the matter in hand. I am tempted to say a word or two anent my Lord Marquis's visit to my father, and his vain trial to get me enlisted into his corps for Lorn. Something seems due, also, to be said about the kindness I found from all the old folks of Inneraora, ever proud to see a lad of their own of some repute come back among them; and of my father's grieving about his wae widowerhood: but these things must stand by while I narrate how there arose a wild night in town Inneraora, with the Highlandmen from the glens into it with dirk and sword and steel Doune pistols, the flambeaux flaring against the tall lands, and the Lowland burghers of the place standing up for peace and tranquil sleep.
The market-day came on the morning after the day John Splendid and I foregathered with my Lord Archibald. It was a smaller market than usual, by reason of the troublous times; but a few black and red cattle came from the landward part of the parish and Knapdale side, while Lochow and Bredalbane sent hoof nor horn. There was never a blacker sign of the time's unrest But men came from many parts of the shire, with their chieftains or lairds, and there they went clamping about this Lowland-looking town like foreigners. I counted ten tartans in as many minutes between the cross and the kirk, most of them friendly with MacCailein Mor, but a few, like that of MacLachlan of that ilk, at variance, and the wearers with ugly whingers or claymores at their belts. Than those MacLachlans one never saw a more barbarous-looking set. There were a dozen of them in the tail or retinue of old Lachie's son—a henchman, piper, piper's valet, gille-mor, gille wet-sole, or running footman, and such others as the more vain of our Highland gentry at the time ever insisted on travelling about with, all stout junky men of middle size, bearded to the brows, wearing flat blue bonnets with a pervenke plant for badge on the sides of them, on their feet deerskin brogues with the hair out, the rest of their costume all belted tartan, and with arms clattering about them. With that proud pretence which is common in our people when in strange unfamiliar occasions—and I would be the last to dispraise it—they went about by no means braggardly but with the aspect of men who had better streets and more shops to show at home; surprised at nothing in their alert moments, but now and again forgetting their dignity and looking into little shop-windows with the wonder of bairns and great gabbling together, till MacLachlan fluted on his whistle, and they came, like good hounds, to heel.
All day the town hummed with Gaelic and the round bellowing of cattle. It was clear warm weather, never a breath of wind to stir the gilding trees behind the burgh. At ebb-tide the sea-beach whitened and smoked in the sun, and the hot air quivered over the stones and the crisping wrack. In such a season the bustling town in the heart of the stem Highlands seemed a fever spot. Children came boldly up to us for fairings or gifts, and they strayed—the scamps!—behind the droves and thumped manfully on the buttocks of the cattle. A constant stream of men passed in and out at the change-house closes and about the Fisherland tenements, where seafarers and drovers together sang the maddest love-ditties in the voices of roaring bulls; beating the while with their feet on the floor in our foolish Gaelic fashion, or, as one could see through open windows, rugging and riving at the corners of a plaid spread between them,—a trick, I daresay, picked up from women, who at the waulking or washing of woollen cloth new spun, pull out the fabric to tunes suited to such occasions.
I spent most of the day with John Splendid and one Tearlach Fraser, on old comrade, and as luck, good or ill, would have it, the small hours of morning were on me before I thought of going home. By dusk the bulk of the strangers left the town by the highroads, among them the MacNicolls, who had only by the cunning of several friends (Splendid as busy as any) been kept from coming to blows with the MacLachlan tail. Earlier in the day, by a galley or wherry, the MacLachlans also had left, but not the young laird, who put up for the night at the house of Provost Brown.
The three of us I have mentioned sat at last playing cartes in the ferry-house, where a good glass could be had and more tidiness than most of the hostelries in the place could boast of. By the stroke of midnight we were the only customers left in the house, and when, an hour after, I made the move to set out for Glen Shira, John Splendid yoked on me as if my sobriety were a crime.
"Wait, man, wait, and I'll give you a convoy up the way," he would say, never thinking of the road he had himself to go down to Coillebhraid.
And aye it grew late and the night more still. There would be a foot going by at first at short intervals, sometimes a staggering one and a voice growling to itself in Gaelic; and anon the wayfarers were no more, the world outside in a black and solemn silence. The man who kept the ferry-house was often enough in the custom of staying up all night to meet belated boats from Kilcatrine; we were gentrice and good customers, so he composed himself in a lug chair and dovered in a little room opening off ours, while we sat fingering the book. Our voices as we called the cartes seemed now and then to me like a discourtesy to the peace and order of the night.
"I must go," said I a second time.
"Another one game," cried John Splendid. He had been winning every bout, but with a reluctance that shone honestly on his face, and I knew it was to give Tearlach and me a chance to better our reputation that he would have us hang on.
"You have hard luck indeed," he would say. Or, "You played that trick as few could do it" Or, "Am not I in the key to-night? there's less craft than luck here." And he played even slovenly once or twice, flushing, we could read, lest we should see the stratagem. At these times, by the curious way of chance, he won more surely than ever.
"I must be going," I said again. And this time I put the cartes bye, firmly determined that my usual easy and pliant mood in fair company would be my own enemy no more.
"Another chappin of ale," said he. "Tearlach, get Elrigmore to bide another bit. Tuts, the night's but young, the chap of two and a fine clear clean air with a wind behind you for Shira Glen."
"Wheest!" said Tearlach of a sudden, and he put up a hand.
There was a skliffing of feet on the road outside—many feet and wary, with men's voices in a whisper caught at the teeth—a sound at that hour full of menace. Only a moment and then all was by.
"There's something strange here!" said John Splendid, "let's out and see." He put round his rapier more on the groin, and gave a jerk at the narrow belt creasing his fair-day crimson vest For me I had only the dirk to speak of, for the sgian dubh at my leg was a silver toy, and Tearlach, being a burgh man, had no arm at all. He lay hold on an oaken shinty stick that hung on the wall, property of the ferry-house landlord's son.
Out we went in the direction of the footsteps, round Gillemor's corner and the jail, past the Fencibles' arm-room and into the main street of the town, that held no light in door or window. There would have been moon, but a black wrack of clouds filled the heavens. From the kirk corner we could hear a hushed tumult down at the Provost's close-mouth.
"Pikes and pistols!" cried Splendid. "Is it not as I said? yonder's your MacNicolls for you."
In a flash I thought of Mistress Betty with her hair down, roused by the marauding crew, and I ran hurriedly down the street shouting the burgh's slogan, "Slochd!"
"Damn the man's hurry!" said John Splendid, trotting at my heels, and with Tearlach too he gave lungs to the shout.
"Slochd!" I cried, and "Slochd!" they cried, and the whole town clanged like a bell. Windows opened here and there, and out popped heads, and then—
"Murder and thieves!" we cried stoutly again.
"Is't the Athole dogs?" asked some one in bad English from a window, but we did not bide to tell him.
"Slochd! slochd! club and steel!" more nimble burghers cried, jumping out at closes in our rear, and following with neither hose nor brogue, but the kilt thrown at one toss on the haunch and some weapon in hand. And the whole wide street was stark awake.
The MacNicolls must have numbered fully threescore. They had only made a pretence (we learned again) of leaving the town, and had hung on the riverside till they fancied their attempt at seizing Maclachlan was secure from the interference of the townfolk. They were packed in a mass in the close and on the stair, and the foremost were solemnly battering at the night door at the top of the first flight of stairs, crying, "Fuil airson fuil!—blood for blood, out with young Lachie!"
We fell to on the rearmost with a will, first of all with the bare fist, for half of this midnight army were my own neighbours in Glen Shira, peaceable men in ordinary affairs, kirk-goers, law-abiders, though maybe a little common in the quality, and between them and the mustering burghers there was no feud. For a while we fought it dourly in the darkness with the fingers at the throat or the fist in the face, or wrestled warmly on the plain-stones, or laid out, such as had staves, with good vigour on the bonneted heads. Into the close we could not—soon I saw it—push our way, for the enemy filled it—a dense mass of tartan—stinking with peat and oozing with the day's debauchery.
"We'll have him out, if it's in bits," they said, and aye upon the stair-head banged the door.
"No remedy in this way for the folks besieged," thought I, and stepping aside I began to wonder how best to aid our friends by strategy rather than force of arms. All at once I had mind that at the back of the land facing the shore an outhouse with a thatched roof ran at a high pitch well up against the kitchen window, and I stepped through a close farther up and set, at this outhouse, to the climbing, leaving my friends fighting out in the darkness in a town tumultuous. To get up over the eaves of the outhouse was no easy task, and I would have failed without a doubt had not the stratagem of John Splendid come to his aid a little later than my own and sent him after me. He helped me first on the roof, and I had him soon beside me. The window lay unguarded (all the inmates of the house being at the front), and we stepped in and found ourselves soon in a household vastly calm considering the rabble dunting on its doors.
"A pot of scalding water and a servant wench at that back-window we came in by would be a good sneck against all that think of coming after us," said John Splendid, stepping into the passage where we had met Mistress Betty the day before—now with the stair-head door stoutly barred and barricaded up with heavy chests and napery-aumries.
"God! I'm glad to see you, sir!" cried the Provost, "and you, Elrigmore!" He came forward in a trepidation which was shared by few of the people about him.
Young MacLachlan stood up against the wall facing the barricaded door, a lad little over twenty, with a steel-grey quarrelsome eye, and there was more bravado than music in a pipe-tune he was humming in a low key to himself. A little beyond, at the door of the best room, half in and half out, stood the goodwife Brown and her daughter. A long-legged lad, of about thirteen, with a brog or awl was teasing out the end of a flambeau in preparation to light it for some purpose not to be guessed at, and a servant lass, pock-marked, with one eye on the pot and the other up the lum, as we say of a glee or cast, made a storm of lamentation, crying in Gaelic—
"My grief! my grief! what's to come of poor Peggy?" (Peggy being herself.) "Nothing for it but the wood and cave and the ravishing of the Ben Bhuidhe wolves."
Mistress Betty laughed at her notion, a sign of humour and courage in her (considering the plight) that fairly took me.
"I daresay, Peggy, they'll let us be," she said, coming forward to shake Splendid and me by the hand. "To keep me in braws and you in ashets to break would be more than the poor creatures would face, I'm thinking. You are late in the town, Elrigmore."
"Colin," I corrected her, and she bit the inside of her nether lip in a style that means temper.
"It's no time for dalliance, I think. I thought you had been up the glen long syne, but we are glad to have your service in this trouble, Master—Colin" (with a little laugh and a flush at the cheek), "also Barbreck. Do you think they mean seriously ill by MacLachlan?"
"Ill enough, I have little doubt," briskly replied Splendid. "A corps of MacNicolls, arrant knaves from all airts, worse than the Macaulays or the Gregarach themselves, do not come banging at the burgh door of Inner-aora at this uncanny hour for a child's play. Sir" (he went on, to MacLachlan), "I mind you said last market-day at Kilmichael, with no truth to back it, that you could run, shoot, or sing any Campbell ever put on hose; let a Campbell show you the way out of a bees'-bike. Take the back-window for it, and out the way we came in. I'll warrant there's not a wise enough (let alone a sober enough) man among all the idiots battering there who'll think of watching for your retreat."
MacLachlan, a most extraordinarily vain and pompous little fellow, put his bonnet suddenly on his head, scragged it down vauntingly on one side over the right eye, and stared at John Splendid with a good deal of choler or hurt vanity.
"Sir," said he, "this was our affair till you put a finger into it. You might know me well enough to understand that none of our breed ever took a back-door if a front offered."
"Whilk it does not in this case," said John Splendid, seemingly in a mood to humour the man. "But I'll allow there's the right spirit in the objection—to begin with in a young lad. When I was your age I had the same good Highland notion that the hardest way to face the foe was the handsomest 'Pallas Armata'* (is't that you call the book of arms, Elrigmore?) tells different; but 'Pallas Armata' (or whatever it is) is for old men with cold blood."
* It could hardly be 'Pallas Armata.' The narrator anticipates Sir James Turner's ingenious treatise by several years.—N. M.
Of a sudden MacLachlan made dart at the chests and pulled them back from the door with a most surprising vigour of arm before any one could prevent him. The Provost vainly tried to make him desist; John Splendid said in English, "Wha will to Cupar maun to Cupar," and in a jiffy the last of the barricade was down, but the door was still on two wooden bars slipping into stout staples. Betty in a low whisper asked me to save the poor fellow from his own hot temper.
At the minute I grudged him the lady's consideration—too warm, I thought, even in a far-out relative, but a look at her face showed she was only in the alarm of a woman at the thought of any one's danger.
I caught MacLachlan by the sleeve of his shirt—he had on but that and a kilt and vest—and jerked him back from his fool's employment; but I was a shave late. He ran back both wooden bars before I let him.
With a roar and a display of teeth and steel the MacNicolls came into the lobby from the crowded stair, and we were driven to the far parlour end. In the forefront of them was Nicol Beg MacNicoll, the nearest kinsman of the murdered Braleckan lad. He had a targe on his left arm—a round buckler of darach or oakwood covered with dun cow-hide, hair out, and studded in a pleasing pattern with iron bosses—a prong several inches long in the middle of it Like every other scamp in the pack, he had dirk out. Beg or little he was in the countryside's bye-name, but in truth he was a fellow of six feet, as hairy as a brock and in the same straight bristly fashion. He put out his arms at full reach to keep back his clansmen, who were stretching necks at poor MacLachlan like weasels, him with his nostrils swelling and his teeth biting his bad temper.
"Wait a bit, lads," said Nicol Beg; "perhaps we may get our friend here to come peaceably with us. I'm sorry" (he went on, addressing the Provost) "to put an honest house to rabble at any time, and the Provost of Inneraora specially, for I'm sure there's kin's blood by my mother's side between us; but there was no other way to get MacLachlan once his tail was gone."
"You'll rue this, MacNicoll," fumed the Provost—as red as a bubblyjock at the face—mopping with a napkin at his neck in a sweat of annoyance; "you'll rue it, rue it, rue it!" and he went into a coil of lawyer's threats against the invaders, talking of brander-irons and gallows, hame-sucken and housebreaking.
We were a daft-like lot in that long lobby in a wan candle-light. Over me came that wonderment that falls on one upon stormy occasions (I mind it at the sally of Lecheim), when the whirl of life seems to come to a sudden stop, all's but wooden dummies and a scene empty of atmosphere, and between your hand on the basket-hilt and the drawing of the sword is a lifetime. We could hear at the close-mouth and far up and down the street the shouting of the burghers, and knew that at the stair-foot they were trying to pull out the bottom-most of the marauders like tods from a hole. For a second or two nobody said a word to Nicol MacNicoll's remark, for he put the issue so cool (like an invitation to saunter along the road) that all at once it seemed a matter between him and MacLachlan alone. I stood between the housebreakers and the women-folk beside me—John Splendid looking wonderfully ugly for a man fairly clean fashioned at the face by nature. We left the issue to MacLachlan, and I must say he came up to the demands of the moment with gentlemanliness, minding he was in another's house than his own.
"What is it ye want?" he asked MacNicoll, burring out his Gaelic r's with punctilio.
"We want you in room of a murderer your father owes us," said MacNicoll.
"You would slaughter me, then?" said MacLachlan, amazingly undisturbed, but bringing again to the front, by a motion of the haunch accidental to look at, the sword he leaned on.
"Fuil airson fuil!" cried the rabble on the stairs, and it seemed ghastly like an answer to the young laird's question; but Nicol Beg demanded peace, and assured MacLachlan he was only sought for a hostage.
"We but want your red-handed friend Dark Neil," said he; "your father kens his lair, and the hour he puts him in our hands for justice, you'll have freedom."
"Do you warrant me free of scaith?" asked the young laird.
"I'll warrant not a hair of your head's touched," answered Nicol Beg—no very sound warranty, I thought, from a man who, as he gave it, had to put his weight back on the eager crew that pushed at his shoulders, ready to spring like weasels at the throat of the gentleman in the red tartan.
He was young, MacLachlan, as I said; for him this was a delicate situation, and we about him were in no less a quandary than himself. If he defied the Glen Shira men, he brought bloodshed on a peaceable house, and ran the same risk of bodily harm that lay in the alternative of his going with them that wanted him.
Round he turned and looked for guidance—broken just a little at the pride, you could see by the lower lip. The Provost was the first to meet him eye for eye.
"I have no opinion, Lachie," said the old man, snuffing rappee with the butt of an egg-spoon and spilling the brown dust in sheer nervousness over the night-shirt bulging above the band of his breeks. "I'm wae to see your father's son in such a corner, and all my comfort is that every tenant in Elrig and Braleckan pays at the Tolbooth or gallows of Inneraora town for this night's frolic."
"A great consolation to think of!" said John Splendid.
The goodwife, a nervous body at her best, sobbed away with her pock-marked hussy in the parlour, but Betty was to the fore in a passion of vexation. To her the lad made next his appeal.
"Should I go?" he asked, and I thought he said it more like one who almost craved to stay. I never saw a woman in such a coil. She looked at the dark Mac-Nicolls, and syne she looked at the fair-haired young fellow, and her eyes were swimming, her bosom heaving under her screen of Campbell tartan, her fingers twisting at the pleated hair that fell in sheeny cables to her waist.
"If I were a man I would stay, and yet—if you stay—— Oh, poor Lachlan! I'm no judge," she cried; "my cousin, my dear cousin!" and over brimmed her tears.
All this took less time to happen than it tikes to tell with pen and ink, and though there may seem in reading it to be too much palaver on this stair-head, it was but a minute or two, after the bar was off the door, that John Splendid took me by the coat-lapel and back a bit to whisper in my ear—
"If he goes quietly or goes gaffed like a grilse, it's all one on the street. Out-bye the place is hotching with the town-people. Do you think the MacNicolls could take a prisoner bye the Cross?"
"It'll be cracked crowns on the causeway," said I.
"Cracked crowns any way you take it," said he, "and better on the causeway than on Madame Brown's parlour floor. It's a gentleman's policy, I would think, to have the squabble in the open air, and save the women the likely sight of bloody gashes."
"What do you think, Elrigmore?" Betty cried to me the next moment, and I said it were better the gentleman should go. The reason seemed to flash on her there and then, and she backed my counsel; but the lad was not the shrewdest I've seen, even for a Cowal man, and he seemed vexed that she should seek to get rid of him, glancing at me with a scornful eye as if I were to blame.
"Just so," he said, a little bitterly; "the advice is well meant," and on went his jacket that had hung on a peg behind him, and his bonnet played scrug on his forehead. A wiry young scamp, spirited too! He was putting his sword into its scabbard, but MacNicoll stopped him, and he went without it.
Now it was not the first time "Slochd a Chubair!" was cried as slogan in Baile Inneraora in the memory of the youngest lad out that early morning with a cudgel. The burgh settled to its Lowlandishness with something of a grudge. For long the landward clans looked upon the incomers to it as foreign and unfriendly. More than once in fierce or drunken escapades they came into the place in their mogans at night, quiet as ghosts, mischievous as the winds, and set fire to wooden booths, or shot in wantonness at any mischancy unkilted citizen late returning from the change-house. The tartan was at those times the only passport to their good favour; to them the black cloth knee-breeches were red rags to a bull, and ill luck to the lad who wore the same anywhere outside the Crooked Dyke that marks the town and policies of his lordship! If he fared no worse, he came home with his coat-skirts scantily filling an office unusual. Many a time "Slochd!" rang through the night on the Athole winter when I dosed far off on the fields of Low Germanie, or sweated in sallies from leaguered towns. And experience made the burghers mighty tactical on such occasions. Old Leslie or 'Pallas Armata' itself conferred no better notion of strategic sally than the simple one they used when the MacNicolls came down the stair with their prisoner; for they had dispersed themselves in little companies up the closes on either side the street, and past the close the invaders bound to go.
They might have known, the MacNicolls, that mischief was forward in that black silence, but they were, like all Glen men, unacquaint with the quirks of urban war. For them the fight in earnest was only fair that was fought on the heather and the brae; and that was always my shame of my countrymen, that a half company of hagbutiers, with wall cover to depend on, could worst the most chivalrous clan that ever carried triumph at a rush.
For the middle of the street the invaders made at once, half ready for attack from before or behind, but ill prepared to meet it from all airts as attack came. They were not ten yards on their way when Splendid and I, emerging behind them, found them pricked in the rear by one company, brought up short by another in front at Stonefield's land, and harassed on the flanks by the lads from the closes. They were caught in a ring.
Lowland and Highland, they roared lustily as they came to blows, and the street boiled like a pot of herring: in the heart of the commotion young MacLachlan tossed hither and yond—a stick in a linn. A half-score more of MacNicolls might have made all the difference in the end of the story, for they struck desperately, better men by far as weight and agility went than the burgh half-breds, but (to their credit) so unwilling to shed blood, that they used the flat of the claymore instead of the edge and fired their pistols in the air.
The long-legged lad flung up a window and lit the street with the flare of the flambeau he had been teasing out so earnestly, and dunt, dunt went the oaken rungs on the bonnets of Glen Shira, till Glen Shira smelt defeat and fell slowly back.
In all this horoyally I took but an onlooker's part MacLachlan's quarrel was not mine, the burgh was none of my blood, and the Glen Shira men were my father's friends and neighbours. Splendid, too, candidly kept out of the turmoil when he saw that young MacLachlan was safely free of his warders, and that what had been a cause militant was now only a Highland diversion.
"Let them play away at it," he said; "I'm not keen to have wounds in a burgher's brawl in my own town when there's promise of braver sport over the hills among other tartans."
Up the town drifted the little battle, no dead left as luck had it, but many a gout of blood. The white gables clanged back the cries, in claps like summer thunder, the crows in the beech-trees complained in a rasping roupy chorus, and the house-doors banged at the back of men, who, weary or wounded, sought home to bed. And Splendid and I were on the point of parting, secure that the young laird of MacLachlan was at liberty, when that gentleman himself came scouring along, hard pressed by a couple of MacNicolls ready with brands out to cut him down. He was without steel or stick, stumbling on the causeway-stones in a stupor of weariness, his mouth gasping and his coat torn wellnigh off the back of him. He was never in his twenty years of life nearer death than then, and he knew it; but when he found John Splendid and me before him he stopped and turned to face the pair that followed him—a fool's vanity to show fright had not put the heels to his hurry! We ran out beside him, and the MacNicolls refused the rencontre, left their quarry, and fled again to the town-head, where their friends were in a dusk the long-legged lad's flambeau failed to mitigate.
"I'll never deny after this that you can outrun me!" said John Splendid, putting up his small sword.
"I would have given them their kail through the reek in a double dose if I had only a simple knife," said the lad angrily, looking up the street, where the fighting was now over. Then he whipped into Brown's close and up the stair, leaving us at the gable of Craignure's house.
John Splendid, ganting sleepily, pointed at the fellow's disappearing skirts. "Do you see yon?" said he, and he broke into a line of a Gaelic air that told his meaning.