THE BLACK COLONEL
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
THE ROMANCE OF A PRO-CONSUL THE EPISTLES OF ATKINS JOHN JONATHAN AND COMPANY NEWS FROM SOMEWHERE MY SUMMER IN LONDON THE GORDON HIGHLANDERS
"A tale of the times of old, of the deeds of the days of other years." Ossian.
JOHN LANE THE BODLEY HEAD LIMITED
TO J. T. M., WHO KNOWS THE
STORY OF THE BLACK COLONEL
Chapters and Contents
I. WE MEET IN THE PASS II. TRAPPED BY THE RED-COATS III. OVER THE HILLS OF HOME IV. THE OPENING ROAD V. A CAIRN OF REMEMBRANCE VI. THE FINGER OF FATE VII. A PARLEY AND A SURPRISE VIII. THE CONQUERING HERO IX. 'TWIXT NIGHT AND MORN X. THE WAY OF A WOMAN XI. THE CRACK OF THUNDER XII. RAIDERS OF THE DARK XIII. THE WOUND OF ABSENCE XIV. THE CARDS OF LOVE XV. NEWS FROM SOMEWHERE XVI. THE WOOIN' O'T! XVII. A SONG OF OTHER SHORES XVIII. MY GARDEN OF CONTENT
Personal and Particular
The strangest thing about this tale is that it happened, though not, may be, as I here relate it; which is merely to seek, in a humble spirit, the great company of George Washington, who could not tell—a story!
That of the Black Colonel came to me in scraps of talk from my mother when, as Byron grandly sang of himself, "I roved, a Young Highlander, o'er Dark Lochnagar," a wild landscape beloved of Queen Victoria, at Balmoral, for, you see, the eminences will come in. My mother had it from her people, a Forbes family long planted in the brave uplands of Deeside, and I was taken a generation nearer to it in the conversation of my grandfather, whose folk were on the no less brave uplands of Donside. Nay, he could remember, what my own father, born like him, and myself, in the Forbes Country, first stirred me by saying, when the Red Coats still garrisoned the Castle of Braemar and the Castle of Corgarff, old Grampian strongholds where they had been installed to overawe the Jacobites of the Aberdeenshire Highlands.
The "Seventeen-Forty-Five," with the "Standard on the Braes o' Mar . . . up and streamin' rarely" for Bonnie Prince Charlie, saw fiery times in those remote parts, and knew times of dule afterwards, and the difficulty about any authentic tale of events, is that, in its passage down time, from mouth to mouth, it necessarily loses immediacy of phrase, even of fable, and that rude frame of living and loving, fighting and dying, in which it was originally set. But human nature does not change, we only think it does in changed circumstances, and if Jock Farquharson, of Inverey, could return from the Hills of Beyond and read our chronicle of himself and others, why, he might recognize it, which would mean, perhaps, that some of the romantic colour, the dancing atmosphere, and the high spirit of adventure of those ancient years, has been saved from them. It was little he did not know about the gallantries and the intrigues of war-making and love-making, holding them the natural occupations of a Highland gentleman, even when he had become a "broken man" and an "outlaw"; as you may now, if you please, go on to learn, with many other things of surprise, diversion and quality.
THE CALEDONIAN CLUB, LONDON, Midsummer Day, 1921.
THE BLACK COLONEL
I—We Meet in the Pass
We might have gone by each other in the Pass, the Black Colonel and I, if his horse had not kicked a stone as we came together. It struck my foot and then a rock, making a rattle in the dark night. You know how noise gains when you cannot see the cause of it, and all your senses are in your ears.
"Woa, Mack!" said the Black Colonel to his beast; "can't you stand still with those mettlesome legs of yours? You may," he went on, more to himself than to the horse, "need them to-night, for our friend, Captain Ian Gordon of his Hanoverian Majesty's forces, is late, and when a man is late it generally bodes trouble; for a woman anyhow, I might confess from my experience. It is less matter if a woman be late, because it is a fashion with the sweet sex that you should wait upon it, and I am always willing to oblige out of my own warmth in gallantry, or so folk say. Eh! Mack? Kept you waiting at many a gate, have I, forgetful that it was cold outside?"
The Black Colonel and I had met before, though slightly, distantly, and I knew his habit of talking to his horse. Not an unnatural thing, because Mack was an animal of fine intelligence, coupled, it is true, with the stallion's devil of a temper, and they had spent much time alone together, which begets understanding. Were they, indeed, not a romance of the countryside, inseparable, with a friendship only found between a lonely man and his horse or his dog? They had been through a whole chapter of adventures together, and were willing to face more, or they would not have been there in the Pass.
When the stone hit my foot I stood still, knowing it must be the Black Colonel, yet wishful to be certain before I spoke. His words to Mack revealed his presence, but left me unsure whether he knew that I was within a few yards of him. Of course the horse knew, for animals of the higher order have an instinct which is often more sure than reason in a man. It is their reason, the shield of guidance which Nature gives to all her creatures.
Suddenly communication seemed to arise between us, although no word of mutual greeting had been spoken. You know how those things come about! No, you don't, nor do I, nor does anybody else, but they do happen out of a world 'twixt earth and heaven. They call them uncanny in our land, which only means they are unknown, the mysteries of them, but some day they will grow clear and be no more black witchery, only golden light.
"Walked all the way from Corgarff Castle?" he abruptly asked, preparing the way, with the usual nothings of conversation. It is oddly difficult to get into natural talk in a dark, dividing night, when eyes, faces, gestures, are hidden, and I just answered, "Yes, walked over the hills, as I've often done before, knowing them well, without having the honour of a safe conduct from you."
"Some day," he snapped, "you'll be able to bring your red-coats by the same paths, knowing them, as you say, well, and capture me for the Lowland money your Government puts on my Highland head. Nobody is too well off in our parts in these times. Captain Gordon, not, it may be, even you, who was born, I suppose, with an eye for prosperity."
It was unfair of him to say that, and as he climbed off Mack and threw the bridle loose on the horse's neck he mumbled as much.
"A touch of temper against your royal employer, nothing worse; not bad temper, merely temper, so pray excuse it. Mostly I have, as you know, been accustomed to express myself with the sword. . . ."
"Except," I interrupted with some sharpness, for I was still nettled, "when you have confided your language to the dirk, or let it speak in silence for itself."
"Now we are even, Captain Gordon, for that is not worthy of you, if, as I take it, you suggest that, on occasion, I have struck foul. No, sir, not that, never on my honour, as a gentleman; outlawed, if you like, though that troubles me little. But the fine ethics of the broad-sword and the dirk are too nice for discussion between a Gordon and a Farquharson; met as we are with, I suspect, a Forbes to attract and divide us. Besides, I spoke clumsily, not meaning any personal insult, since I want, sincerely want, to be friendly, if that be possible. Anger is a poor hostess, believe me, and I, who have been in its way, should know better than you who are young, amiably young."
Mine melted under his soft words, because such, even when they are not deeply sincere, may turn wrath aside like balm. Moreover, he had a wild charm of manner which, if it did not quite capture another man, as almost surely it would have won a woman, yet had its effect. Where exactly it lay I have never been able to decide, but the melody of his tongue had something to do with it, even when he spoke in Sassenach English. We could have talked in the Gaelic, I also having it natively, but the Black Colonel would always speak English if he met somebody to whom he could show his command of the language. It was one of his several accomplishments, acquired by study and travel in England and France, and he prided and guarded them all, as a woman does her graces of the person.
So we stood in the chasm of night and the Pass, one waiting upon the other, because our trouble, as in all affairs where two men and a maid are concerned, was how to begin, more particularly as we had no idea what would be the end. The Black Colonel had said as much when he spoke the name Forbes, the third of our Aberdeenshire clans, though it may not have all the lustre of the Gordons or the Farquharsons.
"Ehum," he murmured, dropping into a Scots mannerism which made no more than an overture to speech between us, and yet signified something already said.
"Your letter was urgent," I said. "It might have been a summons to another hoisting of the Stuart Standard on the Braes of Mar."
"And would you have come?" he inquired; "would you have come?"
"It is hard," I answered coldly, "to tell what a man would or would not do if his honour could always march with his inclination. But no summons from you would bring me to the colours, even of those who were our rightful Scottish kings."
"Still, you have come to-night."
"True, but it must occur to you that it is not of the first order of a gentleman to force a meeting, by wrapping a threat in a woman's Christian name, even when you send your message by so secure a hand as that of your ghillie, Red Murdo."
He turned his head and, I felt, though I could still only see vaguely, was looking straight at me, as, certainly, I was looking at him. While we looked and saw not, a quick, low whistle came from the foot of the Pass and an answering whistle, just as low, blew from the top of it.
II—Trapped by the Red-Coats
Never, in all my experience of the hills, their fragrant peace and their rude surprises, have I been so moved by an unexpected noise as I was then, standing with the Black Colonel in the black Pass. Partly this was because the surprise was complete, being unheralded by a rustle or a movement, but, still more, because it was the magic hour at which the womb of night moves to the birth of a new day.
Mingle the void of heaven and earth, and the sense of unseen spaces; the long, sleeping mountains, with the drowsy trees that guard the foot-hills; the caressing sigh of the wind, and, maybe, the murmur of a stream flowing to the sea, and out of all this catch a whistle and its answer. They sounded strangely eerie as they died into the hills, touching us like the still small voice of the Scriptures and, also, like it, carrying a note of apprehension, even of awe.
Under stress a mind moves instantly, and two thoughts leapt into mine, that a trap had been set for the Black Colonel, and that he must suspect me of it. To be sure I was, myself, within the wings of that trap, but this perfect retort was like a gun in a bad position, it could not be brought to bear. However, my own situation, peculiar as I realized it to be, troubled me less, at the moment, than did the Black Colonel's thoughts, as I conceived them, about my honour, and I do suggest that it would have been the same with any other gentleman.
Ugly thoughts have a trick of riding double, and I fancied I heard him trying his stirrup leathers and bridle, to be satisfied they were in order. Even I thought I saw his hand drop down to his right garter, where a Highlander wears his skean-dhu, or short dirk, an ornament mostly, with its Cairngoram stone in the handle, but likewise a solid weapon in an emergency, like the present.
There, probably, I did him an injustice or, if his hand did make the furtive inquiry, I could think wrongly of the reason behind it. Anyhow, he said never a word, hating to be openly suspicious, where, as I could have sworn, on my conscience, there was no reason for suspicion, whatever might have happened among others, apart from me and my night's doings.
Thus we held our places, two unarmed men, for the Black Colonel had said in his letter that he would come weaponless, as he expected me to come, and a hose-dirk did not count, being, as I have said, in the first place, an ornament for a well-made leg, an Order of the Garter, to borrow an ancient title. We had met in the habiliments and disposition of peace, and if we were to close in strife it would not, I reasoned and hoped, be at our direct wish or bidding. Would it?
He must have been asking himself the same question, for he broke the silence in a changed voice which seemed doubly changed, because he had to keep it low, lest it should be overheard, and what he said was, "How comes all this, sir?"
"I don't know," I answered simply, naturally, truthfully, to his charge, for it was a charge in words and in directness.
"You don't," he went on, and I could not miss the tone which was like the growl of a dog, an ill-natured dog; not like that of my own little Scots terrier, Rob, whose bark is only meant to give himself confidence and never had the snap of biting in it.
"You don't!" repeated the Black Colonel. "I must believe you, though a suspicious man might read the signs otherwise. Still, why should you have kept the red-coats from their sleep this night and morn, in the castles of Braemar and Corgarff? There is no reason, for a talk between Highland gentlemen, if so we be, about a Highland lady, whose ladyship is beyond doubt, needed no garrison as audience. No, no, if the red-coats had been summoned to round-up some poor Jacobite devil, say myself, Captain Ian Gordon would have been with his men, as a soldier should, much as he might—and I put this to his credit—have disliked the mission."
It was idle for me to pretend any misunderstanding of the Black Colonel's meaning. He was taunting me with suspicions which he would not bring himself to believe, having a generous side to his nature, a state of mind that has inflicted much suffering on the human race, ever since the world began to go round. Mostly it occurs between men, for women are more elemental, more red in beak and claw, even when the claw is bejewelled, which indeed may give it another sharpness.
Could I blame him? Not to his face, at all events, because that would be to notice his challenge, to admit that it was not unnatural on his part. Events must be my guarantee, and if there were to be no more, well, let him say quickly why he had asked me very specially to meet him on an urgent private affair. Yes, although it were to have a casual ending, such as characterizes half the affairs of life.
Aye! good thinking, my friends, but our relations were cast in a sterner mould, and they were not to take the road of well-being. This became manifest when the now growing dawn lightly touched the eastern door of the Pass at its highest crag. The Black Colonel put his hand to his eyes, using them as you would a spy-glass, made a hawk-like sweep of the point I have indicated, and murmured harshly, "A red-coat, ah!"
Quickly he followed the wispy, growing light towards the western end of the Pass, and after another moment of hawkish searching growled: "A red-coat there also! It has been shrewdly arranged, this affair, Captain Gordon. My congratulations, for you have earned them well, as well, perhaps, as something else from me."
I said nothing, and indeed I was too full of surprise to think, except in a wondering fashion. It was only by an effort of attention that I heard the Black Colonel's further words, cursed out in a wrath not bred of any anxiety for himself, but, naturally enough, directed at me.
"So the moving picture declares itself, my dear, thoughtful kinsman," he hissed. "The red-coats from Braemar are at the western end of the Pass, those from Corgarff are at the eastern end, and the Black Colonel is within somewhere—isn't he?—keeping a private meeting with an officer in his Georgian Majesty's uniform, an officer and a gentleman! Shrewdly planned, as I say, shrewdly planned, and I suppose you want to intrigue me here until I cannot get away any more. Would you think of trying to hold me yourself, eh? It would be like your adventurous spirit? No!"
This was said with a rough sneer, and the Black Colonel made the sting sharper by adding, "You'll be thinking it an assured capture, with the ends of the Pass sealed by red-coats and its sides so steep that only those tough sheep over there can climb them."
"Truth," said I quickly, gaining my tongue, "will force you to eat those words, for I knew nothing of all this. It will be a bitter meal for you to digest, if I, by good chance, am there to assist you."
"A Highland welcome will be yours," quoth he arrogantly; "a welcome as warm as if I were to bring my riding whip round your shoulders now."
His words, cracking as if they were a lash, stung me beyond endurance. I made a step to strike him, and we might have been at it, like common brawlers, only he saved us from that shame. He had been waiting with his left foot in the stirrup. When I drove at him he swung on to the back of Mack, who turned half round, as a spirited horse does in the process of being mounted. This threw his big body between us, but the Black Colonel leant down and said in my ear, "To our next meeting, my kinsman! May it be soon!"
Then he rode for an opening in the undergrowth which braided the lower slopes of the precipitous Pass, and I was left alone, a man all a-wonder, for events were growing beyond me, as they do when suddenly we find our whole personal fortune, even our spiritual destiny, put to the ordeal of the unexpected.
III.—Over the Hills of Home
How shall I tell, with proper restraint and yet efficiency, what followed the going of the Black Colonel on his black horse?
The Pass, wherein we had met so sharply, lies almost due east and due west. You would have a good idea of its appearance, if you were to suppose a hill twice as long from east to west as it is broad from north to south. Then imagine its length sliced in two, and each half, by force of dead weight, falling away from the other. Heather and whins had seeded on the sliced faces, and after them the hardy silver birch and the hardier green fir had sprung up. Nature makes coverings for the sores suffered by Mother Earth, as a dog licks a bruise until the hair grows again.
The strong Highland winds and the heavy Highland rains and snows had wrinkled the riven hill in a hundred ways. Its twin faces were warted with rocks, from which most of the soil had been washed away, leaving them as though suspended in mid-air. Waters, draining from the higher hills, had run down those faces, making ribboned scores to the bottom. There had been constant falls of earth from above, and here and there a large tree had been thrown over the abyss, and, in that position, holding on by its roots, had taken a new lease of life.
Thanks then to Nature, working for long years, the twin, or rather the divorced hill-cheeks which, at their separation, were raw earth, now had a covering of undergrowth and overgrowth. It would be dead in the winter when the sap is down, budding in the spring when the sap rises, green in the summer when it has run into leafage, brown in the autumn when the storage roots begin to call their own back again.
A sort of rough road, worn by usage, as a short-cut for the folk of the region, ran on the level between the halves of the Pass. Big rocks fallen from above lay around, and I confusedly sat down beside one of these. It broke the snellish wind which had begun to blow with the first dawn, as it often does in those parts, a blast to the parting night and the coming day.
Presently a shot was fired from one end of the Pass and I could make no mistake as to the weapon used. It was the military flintlock, a clumsy gun, better suited to scare crows than shoot straight, but it was the best we had.
A warning, a signal for some purpose, I judged, because it was followed by what I can only describe as a waiting silence. You had the echoes of the shot scattering up the heights of the Pass, and then a tense feeling in the atmosphere, as if a hundred men expected an answer. It came, in another straggling shot, from the other end of the Pass.
Next there was solid evidence that what I heard had been a pre-arranged signal, to which a plan of campaign attached. At each end of the Pass I saw the red-coats multiply until they formed faint bunches of colour. Who, I wonder, first clothed the soldier man in scarlet, for an easier target he could not offer, even to an ill-shooting flint-lock. Scarlet and the pageantry of courts, scarlet and the capturing of women's hearts, but for the soldier himself, when he gets down to his trade, it is scarlet and death.
As I waited intently and looked, I could almost count, up on the brows of the Pass, how many red-coats the sentinels of our first alarm had grown into. They made dots, moving against the skyline, and, as I next made out, they were in concert with other knots of scarlet, active at the end of the Pass below. I did not need to be a soldier of some instinct, which I hope I always have been, to grasp the order and purpose of those doings.
Clearly the plan was to search the bottom of the Pass and its northern top with men who would meet midway, two parties below, and two above. The Black Colonel could not, therefore, get away by the western end, which led to his habitual fastness up the valley of the Dee, for the door of escape was sealed. No hope could lie south, or east, because that would be to come out into open country where numbers would capture any fugitive. There was nothing but the northern side, no possibility of escape except up its stern face, and it was a forlorn possibility, alike on account of the terrible climb and because the red-coats were already there, shaping to cut off even an attempt in this direction.
What would the Black Colonel do? What was he doing? I wondered, and two thoughts came to me, one that as an animal pursued ever makes for home, if only to reach it and die, so a hunted man will do likewise, should there be the smallest prospect of success; the other that possibly it is the sounder doctrine to face great perils in getting clear, when you are sure of an open road and a place of refuge, rather than seek deliverance by an easier door and then land in unknown plights.
True strategy in any tight place, military or civil, is based on a knowledge of human nature, what the enemy will do. That entails the gift of imagination, and there was a touch of it in the disposition going on before my eyes. The knots of red on the bottom pathway drew together, and the red strings on the northern height were also approaching each other. They progressed warily, but I could see an occasional gleam of bare bayonets against the skyline, silhouetted by the trees.
Presently a rumble of displaced stones reached my ear from the other side of the Pass. My eye searched for the spot, halfway up, where the trees grew sparser and the hard, sharp rocks gained the dominance. Out from this streak of trees and rocks rode the Black Colonel on black Mack, and I gasped at his dare-devilry.
I understood instinctively that, by cautious pilotage, probably dismounting and leading his horse at places, he had managed, undiscovered, to get thus far up that northern cliff, for it was almost sheer. But he must next make the upper, still steeper half, with little shelter from the on-coming flint-locks, and the worst kind of footing for Mack. Could any horse foaled of a mare climb that crag and bear his rider to safety, for this was the double, doubtful issue?
When, a moment later, the soldiers caught sight of the Black Colonel they halted in mute surprise, then shouted, as a dog barks on sight of a quarry, the killing instinct in man and beast finding tongue. It was instantly a gamble of the pursued and the pursuers, to escape or to capture, the keenest yet least noble game which can be played, that with a human life for the prize. The Black Colonel, a man with a bar-sinister, but a remarkable man, was the hunted, and two companies of King George's soldiers, decent fellows enough each man of them, were the hunters. The outcome depended chiefly on a horse, but such a horse, Mack!
The King's word had gone round the countryside that our rebel and canteran was to be taken alive or dead. That is a mandate which loses its dividing line when the guns begin to shoot. Therefore, while the soldiers shouted, on getting sight of the Black Colonel, they also began to fire wildly at him. The immediate range was too far for harm to hit him, but it would shorten swiftly enough. Realizing this, he stretched himself along his horse's neck, thus showing a smaller target, and, as I felt sure, whispering words of encouragement into the great creature's ear.
The tradition is that the Black Colonel used his dirk for spur on that ride, but I, who was a witness, know better. He did not need to use it, and would not have done so in any event, loving Mack as he did. His soft Gaelic whisper of bidding was his only spur, and up, up, slowly, yet surely, went the gallant animal. Ah! you should have seen it all. It was fine.
Mack's shapely, muscular body was stretched like whip-cord against the dull grey of the broken precipice. You could fancy you heard the very cracking of his sinews as he rose foot by foot. The reins lay on his neck, and I saw the Black Colonel slip oft the bridle, with its heavy iron bit, to give him the uttermost chance. The rivulet of stones which his hoofs had set going grew into a stream, telling me that, while ever he lost a little on the treacherous ground, he more than made it good with the next stride.
The sight so moved me that I nearly shouted in admiration and quite forgot the pursuers. The soldiers in the hollow of the Pass had met and were loading and shooting with a certain discipline. The Black Colonel's real danger, however, was not from this fusilade but from the intercepting soldiers at the top of the Pass. Theirs had been a longer and rougher way to travel; would they, by the time he reached the summit, if reach it he did, be near enough to capture or shoot him?
Up, up, still panted the noble Mack, almost exhausted, until, with a final effort, he gained the last ridge and, oh, what a relief! His flanks heaved, his beautiful head dropped to the heather, and I could see that his forequarters had turned from black to a lather of white foam, testimony to the great strain of the climb. The Black Colonel sprang from the saddle, walked to the edge of the crag, took his dirk from his garter and put it to his lips. He was vowing the oath of a "broken" Highlander, to be revenged, or thanking Providence for his escape, perhaps both.
He did all this, as I could follow, in the grey morning light, coolly, nay disdainfully, seeming to regard the bullets from the converging sharp-shooters as just so many bees buzzing harmlessly about him. Next, he tightened the girth, which Mack's panting had loosened, bridled the horse again, vaulted lightly into the saddle, touched his bonnet in mock salutation, and rode over the hills for home.
There were those who saw a white horse go up the strath that morning with, as they swore, the Black Colonel for rider, though all knew the actual colour of Mack to be black. There were others who said it was Death on his White Horse, and because a man died in the same small hours those mongers of destiny were believed.
IV—The Opening Road
If this were a story invented, and not a tale of true happenings, there would be an end when the Black Colonel rode triumphantly from the Pass.
But, sitting alone and lonely a few days later in my room at Corgarff Castle, and reflecting on the affair, I said to myself that it was only the beginning. A drama of real life rarely closes with the hero in heroics, the heroine a-swoon in her beauty, and the world a-clap with admiration.
No doubt the Black Colonel had got away very well, almost as if he had leapt through a lighted window, with a resounding crash of broken glass. Well, there would be the fragments to gather up, for the fragments have always to be remembered, or they may cause harm. Here I was a fragment, and I asked myself into what basket I was to be gathered, because, you should know, the hills give those of us who dwell among them a sense of fate—of the inevitable.
I was awakened from these thoughts by the entrance of my lieutenant, who said, "Still sighing that you were out of the chase after the Black Colonel?"
I answered vaguely, "A soldier who is a real soldier, which I may or may not be, is always sorry to miss an enterprise, whether it be duty or merely an adventure."
"Well," he remarked, "you had not been long gone when word came from Braemar Castle that the Black Colonel was to be in the Pass of Ballater about midnight, meeting some unknown person, and asking us to help capture him. We saw nothing of the other person, whether man or woman."
He looked slyly at me, and I remembered having said to him that I had had a tryst to keep among the hills. You must not, I think, mislead people by telling what is untrue, but you need not tell everything if it is going to make mischief. Mostly it is poor policy to try and ram the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, down a man's throat, because your version of it may not be his, and, anyhow, it makes dry eating.
My thoughts have a habit of wandering, of dreaming dreams, often when they should be otherwise occupied, and isn't there a bunch of manuscript verse somewhere in testimony of the same? Knowing this the lieutenant lighted and smoked a pipe of American tobacco, then a novelty and a luxury in the Scottish Highlands. With a wink of the eye he asked, "Who was she, captain? Wench or maid?" And he pronounced the words in different tones, as if I needed to be instructed about the difference he implied by them. A man says nothing to an arch-pleasantry like that, unless he be no man and only a babbler and boaster of his conquests. Then he has had none, and is a liar. No sort of fellow more fills men with contempt, and women, by their woman's instinct, pass him by, for any confidence whatever, in word or in deed.
"Don't let it be one of the Black Colonel's flames," said the lieutenant with a laugh, as he went out again, without the answer he had not expected, being himself a gentleman. "It needs a long spoon to sup with that dark devil at any time, but come between him and his rustic gallantries and you'll need a longer spoon than Corgarff Castle happens to possess."
The Black Colonel and I, as you will have gathered, were on different sides in politics, though we belonged to neighbouring clans which had many associations; he a Farquharson, I a Gordon. He was Jock Farquharson of Inverey, the last of his house, as I can say looking back on him, and doomed, so a woman of second-sight had declared, when he was born, to be the last; while I, Ian Gordon, was a cadet of the Balmoral Gordons, captain in his Majesty's Highland Foot, with no more to expect than what my commission brought me, and that was little enough.
He was a Jacobite, keeping that rebel flame alive in the Aberdeenshire Highlands, when, on the heels of the "Forty-Five," a red and woeful time, we were half-heartedly scotching it with garrisons in the Castles of Braemar and Corgarff. Yes, I wore the scarlet tunic of King George, thanks to family circumstances which had woven themselves before I was born, but the tartan lay under it, next my heart. We were rivals in war, thrown on different sides by the fates which gamble so strangely with mere men. Was there to be a still more vital rivalry? As has been hinted, I had more than rumours of the Black Colonel's strange powers among women. What if he had Marget Forbes in his dark eye?
Wherever the heart is concerned you have intuition, and that is why a woman has more of such super-sense, or rather, I would say, of wonderously delicate feeling, than a man. She needs it, being oftener heart-strung, because the wells of her heart are more emotional.
I suspected, from the first, why the Black Colonel wanted to meet me, and for no other reason would I have consented to meet him. But our meeting had been so brief, so disturbed, so futile as regards its purpose, that I had got no light from him whatever. Still, ever since then I had been seeing, in the mirror of life, the face of Marget Forbes, a daughter of the clan whose name she bore, a handsome lass with a long pedigree, heiress to the lands of Corgarff, now forfeit for the Jacobite cause, when they should come back to her line, and incidentally, but all importantly, a kinswoman both of Jock Farquharson and myself.
Memory is rarely honest with us, because it is imperfect, and unconsciously we tell the best account of things, but I fancy I was wondering on this text when there came at my door the sharp rap of bony, hurried knuckles. "Enter!" I said, and in marched the corporal of the guard. His hand went easily to the salute. He had a message in his face.
"What is it?" said I, for I expected nothing of moment, beyond a poor devil of a Jacobite captured, or a "sma' still" raided and its rude whisky drunk by the red-coat raiders until they were merrily "fou."
"Sir," he answered in the parade voice which the regular soldier soon acquires, this, softened by his nice Scots drawl, "Sir, there's a man outside an' he says he's a letter for you and that he maun gie it to yoursel'."
"What's he like? Where does he come from? Is he friend or no friend?"
"Canna' say, sir. I should think no friend. He's short and swack o' body, red of hair and face, wears a kilt o' Farquharson tartan, and winna' say where he comes frae. He has a letter for you, sir, and is to deliver it himself, an' that's a' he'll tell."
"Bring him in," I ordered, and in came, as, by now, I half expected, Red Murdo, the Black Colonel's henchman. I had seen him before, and by hearsay was more than familiar with his repute as an excellent servant to his not so excellent master.
"A letter," he whispered in his hoarse voice, as if he did not want the corporal to hear. I took the letter, and before I could even break the seal he was gone again, without motion of salute or further word, all quite in the Black Colonel's manner of doing things.
It was addressed "To Captain Ian Gordon," and when I opened the envelope and unfolded the contents I found them to commence with these same words and no other form of ceremony. I instantly knew the strong, irregular, aggressive and yet persuasive handwriting to be that of the Black Colonel, but unconsciously, as a girl tries at the end of a story to find whether happiness be there, I turned to the signature—"your kinsman, Jock Farquharson of Inverey." What went before, when I had time to master it, was this:
"These greetings, which I am inditing in the cold safety of the Colonel's Bed, a fastness where no enemy has yet tracked me, though all my true friends in the countryside know the secret roads to it, will be delivered to you by my faithful Red Murdo, who deserves blessings, whereas I sometimes give him curses; and their purpose is to tell you explicitly why I asked you to meet me in the Pass the other evening, since events, on which I here offer no comment, made it impossible for us to have any plain, forthright talk.
"I'll reveal the heart of my business by recalling that there is a long association between our families, who have always been friends and enemies, and that the Corgarff Forbeses also come into this association, and continue it, in a fashion which takes me to our personal quarrel of Stuart and Guelph, because, by the exercise of a little ingenuity, such as is permissible, and a kinsmanship such as is proper, there may emerge good seasoning for us all.
"Pray remember that if the Corgarff Forbeses were to fail in issue, and there is only one life between them and that failure, the life of a young unmarried lady, I, by descent on the distaff side, which I need not outline in particularity, would be heir to the estates; only as a Jacobite outlawed, a broken man, I can inherit nothing, not even possess, little as it is now, my own in peace.
"But, if I am not ill-informed, and news travels among the hills as swiftly as, we are told, it travels in the desert, King George's advisers would gladly return the Corgarff estates to the Forbes family if that family had a strong man at its head and so such an influence as would keep the region, always a key to the Highlands, I will not exactly say in order for the German king, because that would be a tactless fashion of arranging, but wean it gradually from its sympathy for Prince Charlie, and his house of misadventure and ill-luck.
"Now, if you will be good enough to assume in me qualities for this mission and the willingness to undertake it; if you will accept the circumstance that it would merely be a case of a remote legal heir coming into his own by a round-about way; and if you will set those facts in what I consider the national importance of the matter and help it forward in a form so delicate and chivalrous that I must not even hint it, why, you will be rendering a potent service to the cause which enlists you and which might, who knows, enlist me also!"
That was the letter, considered in language, crafty in purpose, really, an overture for the hand of Marget Forbes, and I sat far into the night, while my peat fire died out in Corgarff Castle, wondering how I was to answer it, and, even more, how I myself stood towards the acute personal situation which it created. For I saw that the Black Colonel meant to make love and do business at the same stroke, not for the first time, perhaps, in his life of emprise; and certainly here was no new thing in the world's queer story.
V.—A Cairn of Remembrance
It is a good way, when you are in doubt, to wait and let events shape a decision, and this was how I came to regard the Black Colonel's letter.
He had set me a pretty puzzle in his written words, because, contrasted with the light touch-and-go of spoken words, these always seem to have something fateful in them, as of a king's signature to a decree. Moreover, I was vaguely conscious of being the guardian of a woman's instinct for safety, an instinct which arrives with the cradle and only goes with the grave, and that made me feel somewhat helpless; a man in depths he cannot fathom, for such is the uncharted sea of womanhood.
Marget Forbes and her mother lived in the Dower House, thrown to them, as a piece of bread might be tossed from a rich man's table, when Corgarff was declared forfeit and the castle occupied by soldiery. Her men-folk had been out with Charlie and had not come back from Culloden, as the Cairn of Remembrance on the hills might have told any seeker for them. Each clansman, as he departed, had put a stone to it, and none had returned to lift that stone again, so it became a tombstone.
They were dead for ever to Corgarff and to the lands which had been the property of their forbears, almost since time was in those blood-heathered Highlands. Families rose and fell, for family reasons, or as the clans to which they belonged prospered or had adversity. Thus vital changes in a corner of the Scottish Highlands, like this of ours, were more frequent than the historians, men apt to assess on surface generalities and neglectful of the hidden human wells, usually make out.
But, as the changes took place within what I may call the ring-fence of the clan system, they really only mattered to those who were directly concerned. Corgarff Castle, however, had been held by the same Forbes family in direct, unbroken line, partly because its successive chiefs had strong right arms, partly because the domain had little to make anybody else covetous. The Sabine women whom the old Romans took, would have been the beautiful ones, and it is the same with the face of Mother Earth. What appears best is taken first!
There was no great personal bitterness in the Aberdeenshire Highlands as between clans or families who were on different sides in the "Forty-Five." The ambition, or the greed of chiefs, often determined the sides, and a consciousness of that made lesser men tolerant with each other. Thus, an acquaintanceship between Marget and her mother and myself, although begun under a certain stress of circumstance, passed naturally into friendship, and, on my part, into something warmer. We were of the same Celtic strain, and, in the heart and mind of upbringing, blood tells all the time. But I had not seen much of them, and nothing at all since the tale of the Black Colonel's escape in the Pass had set the countryside talking and, doubtless, secretly rejoicing.
It was a fine thing, a very fine thing, that he should have escaped from the red-coats so perfectly, so dramatically. They were the living tokens of a government which, on every ground of sentiment, was alien to the Highland people, a government, moreover, that had been tactless in its plans and its acts. The Black Colonel stood for a native royal cause which had colour and flair, even if its genius for government had been exhausted.
We soldiers were only disliked for what we represented, for the dry Hanoverian salt we ate, not for ourselves, because most of us were Highland by bone and heart. The Black Colonel was liked for what he represented, rather than for himself. He had, indeed, a way of commandeering other men's goods, when he needed them, that was inconvenient to those others. But there was a strong local pride in his name and achievements, as the name and achievements of a first-rate fighting man, whose sword-handle held in its silver-work the letter "S," standing for Stuart, an allegiance and a challenge never hidden by him.
Naturally, like every other Forbes, Farquharson, or Gordon—I omit none with those names—Marget would be quietly rejoicing over the Black Colonel's success in out-manoeuvring us. I say "us," although I was not in the pursuit, a fact, I reflected, which might relieve me a little of Marget's scorn if she knew. Did she know? Had gossip carried her that news also? It could not tell her that I was out of the chase after the Black Colonel, because I was meeting him privately, and that her affairs were the occasion of the meeting.
Of the dangers wrapped in all this, I was to have an inkling when I did meet Marget, and that came about as if it did not matter, as if nothing matters! I had been up the Don valley with a patrol, was returning, and scarce a mile from Corgarff Castle, when I saw a woman's figure ahead, going my road, a very soft and gracious sight, believe me, against the hill-side. Soon, thanks either to my eyes which could then see far, or to a man's feeling of instinct for the presence of a woman who interests him, I discovered that it was Marget Forbes. She turned round, perhaps at the approaching sound of our steady tramp, or perhaps moved by some unconscious woman's sense, and, as my men passed on and I fell behind them, she said, "Ah, Captain Gordon, where have you been these many days? Chasing the Black Colonel, eh?"
It was said easily, with a half-smile, as if she were alluding to something which had happened since we last met, as, indeed, it had. It was good, however, that the light was failing, because I could feel my face burn, not with shame, but with a confusion in which there was more than the Black Colonel.
"Oh no, Mistress Marget," I answered, "one cannot always be in the company of the Black Colonel, however interesting some of us may find him." This, observe, was intended as a delicate touch for her, but it probably struck her as clumsy, so much finer is a woman's feeling than a man's.
"You found him interesting then," she merely replied. "I'm glad to hear that, because, as a distant relative of ours, he is really one of the men-folk of the family. Perhaps he has some of the nature which, so they say, characterizes our women? His Forbes grandmother or great-grandmother, whichever she was, would have passed it on to him."
She stopped when she noticed the sweet conceit into which she had fallen, for certainly what she had claimed in name of the Forbes women, was richly present in herself. She had sparkle, bloom, charm, that witching, elusive, mixed something in a woman which nobody can describe but which every true man feels, and she looked it all in the gloamin' of that perfect Highland evening.
"My dear Mistress Forbes," I said more formally, "I could forgive the Black Colonel much if I thought he had any of the qualities of your Forbes women-folk. As it is, I envy him your championship," at which she looked at me with considering eyes.
"A woman naturally champions all her men," she said with a deft smile for me, as being also a relation, "and it would be sad if she didn't; but I have never yet seen the Black Colonel. He has not come our way, although, no doubt, we should, for what has been, make him as welcome as your men, quartered in our old castle, might permit."
"Naturally! Why not?" I said, for I understand her feelings though, somehow, the remark stung me a little. "Perhaps," I added, "you may have your wish gratified and meet him one of these days."
"Do you mean as a prisoner," she asked quickly.
"No. I mean that when the Black Colonel wants to call on anybody, he does not let danger or ceremony stand in his path. So far, I take it, there has been no occasion for you to make his personal acquaintance, and may that continue."
"Why should you say that? Whether he be good or ill, he is a picturesque figure, a stout fighter, a man who has stood up for his faith through thick and thin, and, moreover, one of us. I have heard the things that are said about him, things no woman cares to hear about a man, but to hear is not to believe, is it? Only," and Marget laughed quietly, "here am I defending a rank Jacobite to the Georgian commander of Corgarff Castle, whose business it is to lay that rank Jacobite by the heels—if he can!"
"Oh, we'll catch him some day," I lightly, rather wryly, observed, "but his luck does serve him well."
"There's often a reason for luck," answered she; "more in it than just luck. Now, if a company of soldiers went after a man of resource, like the Black Colonel, would their chance of catching him not be less if they had no captain leading them? A boyish lieutenant may have energetic qualities, but they are hardly likely to be a match for those of the Black Colonel."
We were getting on to ground perilous for me, because Marget had evidently heard something and was determined to test it at first hand. Behind the curiosity there seemed, judging by her tone, to be a fight going on between friendliness and pique. It is a dangerous mixture for a man to have to counteract in a woman, because, responding to the friendliness, he may make admissions which increase the pique.
Therefore I sought to give our talk a turn by saying, "Everybody seems to know everything there is to be known about the Black Colonel's escape, so there's an end of it—until next time."
"But, Captain Gordon, although one knows generally, one may still keep wondering—may one not? A woman always wonders; it is one of her privileges, and often wonder is kinder to her than certainty."
"Wonder, dear lady, is a hard thing to gratify, being illimitable, like . . . !
"Like the hills," she caught me up, "when one is alone among them—alone, or going to meet somebody in the dark of the night, or the dimness of early morning."
"It would depend on the somebody," I said boldly, facing her boldness, "and whether it was a man or a woman that was to be met."
"But," she said quite softly, "it must be a man that any other man would be meeting in these parts, because . . ." She stopped abruptly.
"Because what? Tell me!"
"Nothing; only that every man needs to be mothered by a woman, a charge which any good woman, young or old, will instinctively assume, even if she knows that it may be only a cross for her to bear." Her voice was low, almost a whisper, may be a first whisper of the mother of men in her, a revelation to all women, come it when it may; and that thought kept me silent.
We had, by this time, reached the Dower House, and she said "Good-night," and I answered, as simply, "Good-night."
What I really said to myself was, "Philandering, was I, instead of soldering, on the night the Black Colonel was raided—that's the story she's heard!"
And I was concerned, strangely concerned—like Marget herself.
VI—The Finger of Fate
Here I was in a double tangle of private affairs, for I had the Black Colonel's designs upon Marget Forbes to handle, and I had her mistaken notion of my doings to disperse. It was a drumly outlook for one whose chief equipment was honesty of purpose, with, I am afraid, little of the arts of human diplomacy.
Marget had all the woman's acute anxiety when a man's act seemed hidden, or, at least, uncertain, even if he was no more to her than a kinsman. It is from those delicate things that half our troubles spring, because, as between man and woman, they cannot be explained in words. They must be left to reveal themselves, and meanwhile they may destroy sweet possibilities or gracious relationships.
My difficulty with the Black Colonel was still more complicated, for it was as if a hair-rope of many strands, such as the Highlanders made, enwound us. We were public enemies, sworn to causes which could have no dealings with each other. Yet we had met secretly; and though that mattered little to him it might easily ruin me, or, at all events, my military career.
But, may be, I could remove that danger by a simple report to my superiors saying what had happened. Could I? No; I could not, for a woman's reputation was, all unknown to her, engaged in the affair, and that takes us directly to Marget Forbes and the Black Colonel's designs upon her name and estates.
I knew he would not stop at the sending to me of his letter, and getting no immediate answer, which was the course I had taken, if only because his last throw with affairs was involved. Therefore I looked for some further act, and, having regard to the difficulty of personal meetings, and his amiable weakness for writing, as something in which he excelled, I was not surprised when it came in the form of another dispatch, also borne secretly by the vagrant Red Murdo.
We actually had an old clanish knowledge of each other, this fellow and I, because, although he was a Farquharson, the croft on which his people dwelt was near the Gordon estate of Balmoral. We had played with each other as boys, for the feudal system of the clans was communal and democratic. It was, to take one illustration, customary for the sons of chiefs to have foster-brothers adopted from the commonalty, companions in peace time, comrades and defenders in war time.
When then, Red Murdo, who had been lurking in a peat-moss near Corgarff Castle, surprised me, out-of-doors, one day, it was with the friendly salutation, "Good-morning, Captain Ian."
"Hullo," I said, "isn't it dangerous for you to be here again?"
"Not when it's to see you, but I wis gettin' weary waitin' in this damp hole, an' the Cornel, he'll be wonderin' why I'm no' back."
"Well, my friend," said I coldly; "I won't keep you from him."
"But, I've a word to say to ye for him, and something to gie ye. I'm to say that he expects to hear from ye in satisfaction of his letter. But if you need remindin', will ye study, as conveyin' his feelin's and intents, a plain copy, made by him, which I've carried in my sporran, of my Earl Mar's known epistle to the first Jock Forbes of Inverernan, near by Corgarff."
With this mysterious message haltingly said, as if the Black Colonel had drilled it into his man, which was, no doubt, the truth. Red Murdo held me out a crumpled sheet of paper.
"Tak' it, sir," he added, "an', as advice from a humble man who wishes ye no ill, obleege the Black Cornel if you can, or he'll be tryin' other means. You an' I ken him, Captain, ken him weel, I'm thinkin', an' it disna' dae to neglect him, as I've found mysel' at various times."
It was a famous and familiar document with which I had been served, or, rather, with a fair copy of it, in the Black Colonel's best round-hand; but its use by him to convey his sentiments and intentions to me was quaintly original. Here was he, framing himself in the words of urgency and high consequence, which the Earl of Mar, when that nobleman was raising the "Standard on the Braes o' Mar," flung, like a fiery cross, at Jock Forbes of Inverernan. You will perceive the lordly egotism of the Black Colonel when I give you the missive, as I read it myself, with its new, intimate and individual bearing, immediately Red Murdo had disappeared.
"Jock," it opened, "ye was right not to come with the hundred men ye sent up tonight, when I expected four times that number. It is a pretty thing, when all the Highlands of Scotland are now rising upon the King and the country's account, as I have accounts from them since they were with me, and the gentlemen of the neighbouring homelands expecting us down to join them, that my men should only be refractory.
"Is not this the thing we are about which they have been wishing these twenty-six years? And now, when it is come, and the King and the country's cause is at stake, will they for ever sit still and see all perish? I have used gentle means too long and shall be forced to put other means into execution.
"I have sent you, enclosed, an order for the Lordship of Kildrummy, which you are immediately to intimate to all my vassals; if they give ready obedience it will make some amends, and, if not, you may tell them from me that it will not be in my power to save them—were I willing?—from being treated as enemies by those who are ready soon to join me; and they may depend on it that I will be the first to propose and order their being so.
"Particularly let my own tenants in Kildrummy know that if they come not forth with their best arms, that I will send a party immediately to burn what they shall miss taking from them. And they may believe this only a threat, but by all that's sacred, I'll put it into execution, that it may be an example to others.
"You are to tell the gentlemen that I'll expect them in their best accoutrements, on horseback, and no excuse to be accepted of. Go about this with diligence, and come yourself and let me know your having done so. All this is not only as ye will be answerable to me, but to your King and country."
Straight writing enough! And that was why the Black Colonel had sent me the historic epistle, laughing in his sleeve, I had no doubt, at the slim originality of his method. He was for gentle means, if he could so win his ends and Marget, but if they answered not, then, like my Lord Mar with Jock Forbes of Inverernan, he would be "forced to put other means into execution." While I was the immediate target for his threat, I quite saw that the Black Colonel was aiming at a larger prize behind me.
But what could he, a "broken man," a fugitive from justice, the justice of the Hanoverian though it was, do to compel anybody to his schemes and ambitions? That was to forget his place of notoriety, which gave its own power, among the people of the Aberdeenshire Highlands. Whenever, in going about the hills and the valleys, I met a simple man of the soil he would touch his bonnet in salute to me, never to my uniform, and, after a little, remark in his soft Gaelic, "So the Black Colonel is still defying you all—a tremendous lad, isn't he?" This would be said with a gleam in the eye, to give it delicacy, a bearing of personal courtesy which I did not miss because I was liked for myself, and we all like to be liked for ourselves.
You will apprehend by now, perhaps, that I knew my Highland men, whether I found them digging peats in the moss, or gathering in their skimp harvest of unopened corn, so that it should escape the hungry grouse and the coming winter. They were wholly kindly, as follows from simple living, generous in their narrow outlook, and yet strongly individual. They had, as a people, character, which is the noblest gift of the gods, for everything else depends on it, and hardly anything can be achieved without it.
They took a pride in the Black Colonel, as one of themselves, and in his deeds as a fighter who, on many occasions, had reversed the saying about being willing to wound but afraid to strike. He had, they admitted, wrong ways at times, and if these could not openly be defended, still they were almost forgiven a man with his back to the wall where a shot, or a stab, might find him any day or any night.
Withal, too, he bore about him a touch of romance, a gallant atmosphere, and your Highlander, loving to sit on a stile and look at the sun, will pardon much for that. Thus there was a general sympathy with the Black Colonel, which he could draw upon either as a veil to conceal his doings, or for active help, and it was this knowledge which caused me to be apprehensive.
For, though thirty years had passed since his lordship of Mar peremptorily wrote to the chief of Inverernan, our Highland life had not changed vitally. The same rude passion ran through it, as like mists hung over the Slock of Morvan and the gaping chasm in the side of Lochnagar. Civilization remained primitive, love and hatred could run high on the ebbing Jacobite tide, and the common round was still very much what a strong hand could do and a weak one could not do. Affections and hatreds bloom even more strongly in times of ordeal than in times of tranquillity, perhaps because the moral reins governing them have grown worn, and so become slacker.
It should be said, however, of the Scottish Highlands, that the chiefs, at least, those of the northern ridge of the Grampians, were humane in their doings, even kindly, and certainly they were never fond of taking a clansman's life on the gallows-tree. Their whole code was against that ignoble death, unless when an enemy had played them unfair, or a vassal had proved himself traitor, and then they swiftly slipped a life to the other world, holding this world to have no use for it.
Possibly, too, they found the sight of a corpse dangling from a tree uncanny, a vision armed with threats which made them hold their hangman's hand, for, while crafty enough, they were superstitious to a degree. They let the gallows-tree stand grim and expectant on the hill-side, a terror to foes and a clan discipline, and, when necessary, found a way to their desires by the short dirk or the long sword.
Moreover, at the time of my writing, we were between the immediate butchery of Culloden, a red and rueful business, and the insecurity of tenure in life and home, which was to follow. It was a rough marking of time, when national elements were in the mill, as well as those which go to the chronicle of the Black Colonel, Marget Forbes, and myself.
Here was I, on the edge of such happenings as assail one when he finds subtle intrigue on the one side and innocent misunderstanding on the other. It is always hard enough to manage such elements, but let them get out of hand and a miracle is needed for salvation. Also you have to find the miracle, and I composed myself to search for it in the little things, the natural things of the situation. They have a knack of conducting you to the heart of a problem, if you will only have simple faith and follow them, and be not otherwise, which is presumption.
Faith and miracles go hand in hand, in story as in fact, and when one's mind, working rapidly, if unconsciously, has got an issue down to a point where it can be expressed in a word, a decision has been taken. If it be a human decision, the hills, which grow strangely mothering and kind to their people, seem to know it, for they talk to each other of everything but their own secrets; and they knew that I had decided upon my course of action.
VII.—A Parley and a Surprise
You must ride with fortune if you expect to win many of her favours. Like a woman, she sighs to be courted, even if she fears to be captured. She likes adventures for themselves, and may be good to you if you give her some. But the man who lets her ride by alone, or with somebody who has already bridled her, and then goes out in pursuit, has a long chase before him.
My affair with the Black Colonel was both private and public, and thus, in a two-fold sense, the right policy was to take the offensive. Yes, I would tell him bluntly that there could be nothing between us on the matters he had raised, and that it was war to the dirk, with such an eventual issue as God might will.
This was my decision, and it seemed to me that, as an officer and a gentleman, I must intimate it to him at first-hand by invading his retreat, the Colonel's Bed, over there in Strathdee, near his Inverey. Singly, and alone, I would seek the Black Colonel in his den, honourably shake myself clear of his dark overtures, and tell him to cease his designs.
If I were to read this chronicle as remote from its occurrences as you may do, I should, probably, toss my head and call that a quixotic decision, but I have enough pride in being a Gordon, to wish that I may stand fairly with the future, in small as in great matters. Therefore, I beg you that you put yourself in my place, bearing in mind the difficult conditions of the time in the Scottish Highlands.
A man needs a stout heart, a clear head, and a sure hand, to hold his own in a welter of interests and antagonisms such as beset me. The eternal instinct in a full man is to get through, to achieve, to live, aye, and to love, thus making life a great, clamorous thing not a mere existence. So concluding, I took the first occasion by the hand, with what personal risk there might be, and made across the rugged bridge of mountain which both binds and divides the Don and the Dee, to interview the Black Colonel.
My mood was less heroic by the time I had done the miles of scarped hill, clinging moor, and lifting wood, with bridle-paths for roads, which took me to the locality of the Colonel's Bed. Where it was exactly I did not know, but he had friends around who kept him informed, and I counted on meeting one of them. Then I could send a message to him, saying I desired to speak with him privately, and he would guess the rest.
Things fell out like that, and I was bidden to rest in a Highland shieling, squat of form, thatched with rushes, floored with earth, and eat a bannock and drink a bowl of goat's milk, while my message went forward and an answer returned. Perhaps two hours passed, and I slept a little, for I was tired, before that answer did arrive by the eternal Red Murdo.
To be sure, I would be made welcome by his master, but I must not feel offended if I was blindfolded during the walk to the Colonel's Bed. This request, courteously put by Red Murdo, showed me the situation I had invited for myself, but, having gone so far, I was not to turn back, and I said, "Very well." He tied a coarse tartan scarf of home-spun wool, which he wore himself, tightly round my eyes, so tightly that at first it hurt a little, and we started for our destination.
We had a rough, difficult track, all up and down again, to follow, as my feet discovered, with no sight to guide them. But Red Murdo, a study in loyalty to his chief and in consideration for me, supported me sturdily, and I broke no shin on the many rocks strewing our road.
I was wondering if we should ever arrive, when I heard the rush of a stream almost beneath us. Instinctively I stopped, as one does when an unseen danger is near, but Red Murdo said, "It's a' right; we're near there." Next I felt as if I were walking in a cave, for there was a peculiar hollow echo to our tread. Then the tartan scarf was removed from my eyes, and, opening them, I saw the Black Colonel holding out his hand.
"Glad, Sir Visitor, to see you," he said, "and such hospitality as this poor place can offer is yours."
I took his hand, without holding it, bowed stiffly, and sat myself on a chair made of birch branches, to which he pointed. It was, apart from an equally rude litter-bed and a rough table, the only furniture in the refuge. This I saw by the light of a fire of broken wood and peat which burned slowly in a corner, where, apparently, the smoke found some channel of escape, because it drifted slowly upward in spirals.
My feeling had been right, for this was a cave, or, rather, a tunnel, worn in the course of centuries by the stream which had now deserted it, to flow lower down. Above us, as I judged, rose the side of a small hill, and immediately without there would be a sheer drop to the departed waters, whose noise soughed like a strong wind among pine trees.
It was a retreat made by Nature in her chance moods, and used by the Black Colonel at that straitened time of his life. Probably only he, Red Murdo, and a few others actually knew he was there, though he had boasted that many did, and I should know no more than that I had been a visitor to the Colonel's Bed. And yet I should probably know a good deal more, for otherwise why was I there?
Anyhow, after the previous hour or two of tensity, it was a relief to be face to face with my man, I able to read his, if I could, he able to read mine. It was only in the grey half-light of his hole in the rocks, but, at least, we should look each other in the eyes, as men wish to do when they are acting honestly towards each other, even if later they must fight.
You are quick, at a drawn moment, to seize the picture of a man, to sound his being, and the Black Colonel, as he stood there courteously attentive, intelligently alert, made a picture which vouchsafed a clear personality. He would have been something ripely over thirty, but ten years of adventure and philandering sat lightly on him, and he looked even younger than he was. A dark man keeps the freshness of youth well, until it begins to go in the greying of his hair, when it goes quickly; while a fair man grows middle-aged soon, but fends off old age well, or, at all events, the look of it.
The Black Colonel was dark entirely; dark of skin, or rather olive, as you find men and women among a Celtic people; dark of eye to the point of a scowl, behind which, however, there was a well of mirth; dark of hair and dark of beard. His hair he wore long, not being always within reach of scissors, and his beard had that silky texture which comes of never having known a razor.
Once, as the story went, he asked Red Murdo, so-called for sundry reasons besides his tousled red hair, to shave him with the sharp edge of a dirk. The experiment began so ill that it never actually began at all, and the Black Colonel had a virgin beard in which he took a due conceit—why not? He thought it manly, where, perhaps he was right, and he had learned in France that women thought it manly, so he was doubly right.
The Celts, wherever found, are not generally tall, and the Black Colonel was a pure Celt in body as well as in nature. He was upstanding, bore himself easily, was clean in line and tough of frame. True, he was long of the leg, among a people who, having to climb and descend hills constantly, are, in the providence of fitness, short-legged, but he was all of a part. The kilt tests a man's figure, bringing out any flaw in it, and the Black Colonel's stood the test admirably.
Moreover, he had that physical quality peculiar to the Celt which you might call elasticity, for it is comparable to a mountain ash which bends but does not break. There was, too, a fineness, a delicacy about him, such as proclaims a race which has dreamt dreams and lived with the wild glories of Nature. You cannot make common men of her gentlemen, and her women are music to the French chanson, "It's love that makes the world go round."
None knew this better than the Black Colonel, a Highlander with that venturing air which goes to a woman's heart, because she fondly wants a man who will give her the gamble of danger, and yet be strong enough to save her from herself? You might say that he was born for quest and conquest, what with his suavity of tongue, his grace of manner, his roguery of eye, and his fame as a great lover.
But I was keeping him waiting and I had no desire to do that, so I said, "You may suppose that I am not here very willingly, that it is only duty which brings me."
"Not official duty, I hope," he answered, with an acid emphasis on the words.
"No; I simply want, as between Highland gentlemen, to tell you two things: first, that I return you, point blank, your overtures touching our kinswoman, Marget Forbes, and her estate; and, second, this being done, that I, as an officer of his Majesty's forces, will unrelentingly discharge my commission, as best I can, next time we meet, be it soon or not so soon."
I fired out the words as if I had been loaded with them, which, truly, was the case, but I felt, somehow, as if the shot had not gone home. It had no outward effect on the Black Colonel, who turned the peat ashes of the fire with his brogued foot, and looked at the little spits of smoke and flame which flew up. Evidently he was not so unprepared for my ultimatum as I had expected, but I had delivered it, and the rest was for him.
"Captain Gordon," he said, putting his hands behind his back and looking hard at me, "I appreciate the sense of personal honour which has brought you here. You felt you must clean the private slate between us, before you were free to write what is to be on the public slate. You wanted to give due declaration of war, and you have done it at close quarters, which is the action of a Highland gentleman. But, Captain Gordon, haven't you begun at the end of the story, instead of at the beginning?"
"I am only concerned with the end of the story, although I have probably been foolish in thinking that I must myself bring you news of it."
"No honourable action is ever lost," he rejoined; "and, however events go, I'll always put this to your credit in the account between us."
"Thank you," said I, laconically, and he moved as if my tone had stung him, which I did not intend, because even in a war parley one may be correct—courteous.
"What I wished to say," he went on, "is this: isn't there a way out of our affairs which shall be creditable to you, nay, to us both, and, at the same time, be in the public interest? Can't this private relationship into which we have drifted, thanks to circumstances, be so managed that it shall be fair to you as a soldier of King George, as well as relieve me from my difficulties?"
"Surely, Jock Farquharson," I protested with warmth, "you forget your place when you, an outlaw by decree, the doer, by admission, of many wrongs, presume to make terms with a King's officer, even in his private capacity."
"Strong words, my young friend," and he laughed in an airy tone that stung me; "strong words don't belong to youth, but to the years when the blood grows sour. You say outlaw! Why, yes and no; I am a loyal subject of the King—the King over the water! You say I'm a cateran! Well, I do no more than tax my enemies for what I need, and I need little, holding as I do by the simple life, especially as no other is open to me."
"This," I said stiffly, "is neither the rendezvous nor the time for high-flown sentiments, especially if they have no sincerity."
"That," he added, "would be a windy business, and here the die is far too serious to be played with, anyhow for me. Let us get down to the humanities, which are the final element in solving a problem or leaving it unsolved. There need be no personal bitterness between us; merely we are in antagonism in politics and war, for the two count together just now."
"You are unusually modest to eliminate yourself like that," I cut in, thinking of the Black Colonel's record, but only striking his Highland pride.
"If it so please me," he said almost angrily, "I can afford to be modest, for I have done things. I come of good blood; I bear a name which is old among the hills; I have carved my way to a colonelcy under the Stuart flag, where promotion, like kissing, has often gone by favour, yet sometimes by merit. The Prince himself, when he gave me my rank, called me the Black Colonel in compliment to my beard, which nobody has ever singed. The Black Colonel I remained when the Stuart army melted in the bloody furrows of Culloden, and in truth I have, and need not deny it, left my name in many quarters. I took it with me when I sought the safe retreat of my own corner of the Highlands, among friends, and I submit it with pride to you, Captain Ian Gordon."
He was aflame between wrath and egotism, and I was afraid the contagion might catch me, which was the least desirable thing, because there lies the road to a losing cause. But, next moment, he laughed and said, "No, no; temper beseems neither high nor low, being kitchen work. You are sensible enough, Captain Gordon, to let a full man have his talk, and I have not finished yet." He thought for a moment, as if he expected me to say something, but I only got up from my somewhat hard seat, as if preparing to go.
"Not yet," he said; "stay a little, because, since you are here, it would be a pity if anything remained unclear between us. I gather that you see no course for it but open war, that you refuse the road of solution which my proposal about the Forbes estate opens out. Might I ask why you are so unsympathetic to that idea, which would serve every interest?"
"I am," I declared hotly, "neither a matchmaker, especially for adventurers, nor a scheming politician, and on both grounds I decline to have anything to do with you. Your insistence compels me to speak with a plainness which I would rather have avoided, but you must blame yourself. It's a far cry to Loch Awe, and a farther cry to the pardon of the Black Colonel, but he thinks it might be contrived if he had Marget Forbes and her property for a trump card. A pretty scheme, but not one which my commission for King George instructs me to countenance."
Now I, in turn, had gone aflame, despite all my resolve to the contrary, but if I had spoken the name of Marget Forbes it was, I tried to reflect, as if it had no intimate meaning for me. That would have been to blunder doubly, because it would show me personally, nay, intimately, interested.
The Black Colonel had been silent, and, when I ceased talking, I noticed a strained, even a queer, look in his eye. Was he counting up some element of the game which, thus far, was unknown to me? For when the minds of men rub fiercely against each other, as ours had been doing, they speak quicker than words. A kind of communication springs up, vague of detail, but unfailing in its general import.
I was not surprised, therefore, when the Black Colonel put his hand within his coat and drew a paper from a pocket there. But I was surprised when he said, "I have something here which I owe to the favour of my friends in the south, and you will find that it bears upon our conversation." He unfolded the paper slowly, I seeing, as he did so, that it was an official paper, and then he handed it to me.
It was not easy to read, in the dim light of the Colonel's Bed, thanks to its crabbed orthography and its long formal phrasing, but gradually I made out its wording to be this:
"Whereas, trusty and well-beloved councillors advise it in the interest of our cause in the Scottish Highlands, that influential gentlemen who have been Jacobite in sympathy, and even act, be won over to Our Settled Sovereignship;
"Therefore it is ordered that they shall, wherever possible, be installed in the headship of houses and estates kindred to them, which have been forfeit and estreated, all on strict condition of loyalty to Ourselves and our Crown for ever;
"And this wisely considered and, in our graciousness of heart, clement policy, shall, we instruct, apply to John Farquharson of Inverery, commonly called the Black Colonel, if, and when, he is able to implement its essence in reference to the Forbes estate of Corgarff in the far uplands of Aberdeenshire, where we wish to be loyally regarded by our subjects.
"In token of all which foregoing greetings and intimations on our part, herewith witness our royal signature.
"You understand?" said the Black Colonel, as I lifted my eyes from the document and handed it back to him.
I nodded, mechanically, for I was thinking—thinking chiefly of Marget and myself.
VIII.—The Conquering Hero
It is unbelievable how the sweet face of a lass, or her soft figure, with its air of passion song, will come between two men and make any great affairs of state dividing them, seem as nothing by comparison. The Black Colonel and I would hardly, as individuals, have quarrelled about Stuart and Guelph, knowing well the value which Stuart and Guelph would have put on us. But with Marget Forbes as prize it was another affair altogether, for, in her, a whole bouquet of calling qualities united.
Her heart, so far, was all in the open joy of living, though in the troublous times which surrounded her and her family, she found burden enough of sorrow. She was a flower of the heather, opening late, like it, but perhaps with the same red, rich bloom, for it was not hard to divine that elements of high possibility were enclosed in her young womanhood. It gave you, for all its simplicity, a sense of latent treasure, when it should fully open, even, it might be of surprise to herself.
Seventeen! they say, when girlhood is trembling, quivering on the portal of womanhood, a world of mysteries. But it is not half so dramatic as twenty-five, when a woman, if she be rightly healthy in mind and body, comes into woman's estate, feeling, desiring, some earlier, some later, but roughly then. Peril is there, as well as beauty, for then all the Margets in the wide world are pulling at the silky bonds of sex, thinking these will stretch and stretch, only to find, perhaps, that there is a strain at which they must break or surrender.
If the insurgency of newly-found womanhood can be fitly employed all is well, but remember that most women are, in thought, rebels for romance. Nature, too, runs fullest in the veins of those who live with her naturally, aloof from the veneer of society. Nature is lusty in Nature's lap, and she mothered our Corgarff without let or hindrance, in sun and in snow, Marget Forbes included.
You are to suppose a region far removed even from such a niggard commerce of life as there was then in the Scottish Highlands. It is sixty miles from the warming salt-wash of the sea, and has winds nearly as cold as those that blow from the Arctic. This is because it stands high, and is so bare of trees that they blow unbroken over its area. They catch you with their ice tang in them, untouched by long, sheltering woods, or soft, rolling dales, and they make your face tingle into red and white, the blushes of Mother Nature.
That is the winter, when the land is often covered with snow, and the little burns of the hills are frozen into snake-like icicles. If the picture is hard, it is nevertheless beautiful, looked out upon from the comfort of good clothes and a full stomach. It invites you to explore it, to follow that far track ending on the snow-line of Morven, or yon other, which dips and is lost in the riven sides of Lochnagar. The air sings through your lungs with the force of strong drink and makes you hearty. You feel monarch of all you survey, even if it be not worth having, which is the most stirring feeling a landscape can yield.
Nor would there be much to divide your monarchy; only a chimney, reeking blue into the grey sky, from a fire of peat, a few sheep, or some hardly [Transcriber's note: hardy?] cattle turned out in the height of the day to gather what scraps of food they might, a pair of wandering red deer at the same hard game of finding a living, or a hare, grown bluish-white for the winter-time, to resemble the friendly snow, scampering off before the snap of your foot on the heather. When the rigour of winter lies upon the land, men and women can do little but keep their beasts alive, and themselves sit round the fire, passing the slow time of day with what gossip may be made.
We froze within the old walls of Corgarff Castle, for they were time and weather worn. Gales had beaten them, snowstorms had driven at them, and rains had lashed them, until they were corrugated with furrows and hollows, like the face of an ancient man. It is curious how age, whether in a face or in a building, takes on the same milestones of hollow and hillock, to record the march of time and the dents in a soul.
But come the summer in Corgarff, and the far-flung ranges of hill lose their white severity and assume the kindlier mantle of sprouting heather and green grass; the ptarmigan flies back to its heights above the snow-line, content with the thin picking and the splendid peace which summer there provides; the red deer no more falls hungrily upon the lower pastures, with the roaring fight gone out of the stags and the hinds left bleating to their own company, like so many widowed women of the wild.
Instead, the thin sheep of the clansmen, each with its owner's brand to identify it, wander forth to the common grazings, glad that the bloom of living is on Nature again. That brings a panorama of scenery which lights the eye and braces the heart and mind, hills which run into mountains, mountains which run into the skies, all proclaiming the splendour of God.
Now, I have tried to tell you this, not very well, perhaps, because our surroundings in life have much to do with our actions, and the two sets of circumstance must be comprehended together, especially in a sparsely peopled countryside. You unconsciously take your dispositions from the atmosphere, and you cannot be certain always where you may either begin or end. Thus a simple Highland ball which we soldiers organized at Corgarff Castle, to while away a night, and be a token of friendliness towards our neighbours, developed a deep import in my true story.
It was natural for me to smooth and sweeten, as far as I could, the relations between those in formal authority whom I represented, and the local clan-folk. To that end I organized this dance in the ancient Castle, and made it known that anybody and everybody would be welcome. Any misgiving I had about the response, was balanced by my knowledge of the Highland fondness for dancing. It has been in the Celtic blood from the beginning of time; and gillie-callum, over the swords, the throbbing, squeezing, square reel, the sultry Highland Schottische, and the rest of the figures, will last until the last trump sounds the last morning.
You dance for the joy of life, if you are born in a land of the sun, and in a land of cold you dance for the joy which springs from warmth. It is a primal expression of feeling, and the Scottish Highlanders have always had beautiful dances, and danced them well; dances with the music of sex in them, though they might not admit it, or did not know it. Religion and dancing have often been the only things in their lives, apart from the common round of fighting and working, when they cared for work. Thus, my ball, though it might be an affair of the enemy, had a subtle call to the Highland blood, especially in the women.
My first invitation was to Marget Forbes and her mother, because, if I could only persuade them to be present everything would be well. Let the ladies of the ancient great house come, and there was no reason why the commonalty should stay away. The times had been sorrowful for mother and daughter, as the black they wore betokened, but, I wrote gently, "We must let the dead bury their dead, and try and build some bridge on which the living may meet."
So it was arranged that Marget, the young chieftainess of the Corgarff Forbeses, with her mother, should open the ball. This news was out a week before the event, and we soon learned that, as I had thought, we should have a good muster of guests. I took my soldier men entirely into my confidence, and they grew keen to make the dance a success, being kindly fellows and open to softer adventures, as well as the other kind.
They were collectively to be hosts, and whoever crossed the doorstep on the night was to be received without prejudice and with all honour. Everybody should have what we could give to eat and drink, and when they set home again it would be from a warm welcome and a sincere good-bye. Ah! if I could only have foreseen one acceptance of that general invitation to the countryside; but I didn't, and how could I? Men are not gods in wisdom, and how dull life would be it they were; how dull especially for their women-folk who, thanks be, are not always angels, except of light, and even they know how to darken the radiance.
The famous night came, and in good time came also Marget and her mother, with their small group of servants from the Dower House. Our largest room, where the dance was to be, a sort of hall of the Castle, was filling with robust Highlanders in tartans, and with their women-folk in their best gowns. Personally I felt easy and happy when I shook Marget's hand, saying, "It is kind of you to help me, and perhaps between us we are doing good." Then I conducted her and her mother to seats on a low platform at the further end of the room and quietly ordered the dance to begin.
A brace of fiddlers, seated in a corner, were scraping their catgut into tune for the music, while, outside, a piper was playing a Highland gathering. The Scots bagpipes yield their real melody in the open air, and only then, and to me, from a little distance, they sounded loud and rarely that cold star-lit night. The piper's business was this overture, and presently, when it was completed, he would march in, as grand as you like, and pipe us the first reel, in which Marget, I had fondly thought, was to be my partner. Oh, everything was very well arranged, and nothing happened as had been arranged, which is, perhaps, the peculiarity of life, when we reflect on it as a perpetual drama.
Presently I heard a slight commotion, as if something had happened unexpectedly, and then the hoof of a horse stamping the ground. The sea of heads in the room, pulled by curiosity, bent towards the door, and I realized that some surprise was approaching.
At that moment the piper, a Forbes man, to whom the honour of playing had been given, struck up his reel and strode in upon us. He was big, broad, imposing, with his kilted figure, and he seemed to halt, in order that we might admire him, for a good piper and a peacock are vain; but this was merely my fancy. What I saw, immediately following him, was no fancy but staggering truth; it was the Black Colonel!
Yes, the Black Colonel in full Highland regalia, bowing and nodding to the people about him, who courtesied back with an easy homage, for they knew him instantly; the Black Colonel as large as life, eminently pleased with himself, taking possession of the place and the occasion, as if he were a conquering hero coming into his own; the Black Colonel, Jock Farquharson of Inverey, a chief among the men of whom it has been written that:
"Brak loose and to the hills go they."
If I was stunned, the piper was not, for he walked up the room with a deliberation which the quick step of his tune did not warrant. Behind him paced the Black Colonel, and as he came nearer to myself and the ladies, I saw them turn as if to ask me whether this was in the programme. So far, the Black Colonel had not let his eyes catch ours. He gave himself to the crowd, as a well-graced actor gives himself to the house when it applauds him. He had the music on his side, too, for, at the platform, the piper stepped aside into a corner, still blowing hard, and this brought the Black Colonel full to the front, immediately beside us. Thereupon he slowly bent in salutation to Marget and her mother, while everybody watched and waited, wondering what was to happen now.
"Ladies," he said softly, but distinctly, "I hope that if to-night I have come unbidden by our friend, Captain Gordon, I am not unwelcome to you, aye, and even to him. We are all kins-folk, and I wished to manifest a kindly feeling by joining in this meeting. I also desired to make fuller acquaintance, than has hitherto been possible, with two kins-women who have suffered hardly in times which, let us hope from the promise of this gathering, are about to be forgotten. It would show my boldness forgiven if I might open the ball with Mistress Marget, for Captain Gordon, as host, will wish to conduct her mother."
Again the Black Colonel bowed, as if he were master of the situation, which, in fact, he fully appeared to be. Confident and gracious, he offered Marget his arm, and she took it mechanically, such being the force of suggestion, exercised by a strong man's mind, especially with many eyes looking on. Mechanically, also, I held out my arm to Marget's mother and, while our small world still wondered, I found myself in a foursome reel with the Black Colonel. But he was Marget's partner!
He talked merrily to her when the drowning music would let him, even though she scarcely replied, being still in the custody of his surprise. He was out to please, and he undoubtedly was handsome, or, at all events, striking in his tartans, and he danced perfectly. Why deny it, even if it had not been patent to every onlooking, wondering eye? He made a mightily fine picture, and he knew it, though he did not spoil the picture by showing he knew it.