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- Highland Ballad - 10/38 -
himself, and to refrain,
though his reasons were vastly different.
"I'm sorry," he said simply. "I'm afraid you quite carry me away." She gazed back at him, his features half hidden in the gloom, trying to understand the source and meaning of his words. It was impossible.
"Oh," she said in despair. "I didn't want it to end like this. Couldn't you just embrace me, as you would a friend, and say good-night?"
"As a friend ?" So sharp and demanding was his voice, his whole bearing, that she found herself saying, quite against her will:
"Please, just give me a little more time. I'm not ready....."
And these words, like so many other innocent acts, seemed to achieve an end of their own, altogether separate from what she had intended. Stephen was strangely soothed, and gratified, as if hearing exactly what he wanted to. She felt, as much as saw him smile. He came to her, and embraced her gently.
"Oh, Mary," he whispered, as he kissed her cheek. "Thank you for this. Thank you for not giving in. I've been waiting all my life for a feeling, like this." And he kissed her again with heart-breaking softness.
Then he stepped away and swiftly mounted. "I'll be back three days hence. We will ride again, and make our love in the fields." And he rode off, leaving her bewildered and unable to reply.
And all at once the last light of day was gone. The breeze which had seemed so gentle, now fled before the cold and chilling airs of Night. She retreated into the woeful shelter of the hut, and lay down on the bed in confusion.
The prisoner had slept for nearly twenty hours, woken off and on by the cold as his fire grew dim. At such times he would rise only long enough to fuel it once more to a warm and yet (so far as this was possible) a slow burning blaze. He knew the white smoke of the driftwood would be difficult to see, dispersed as it was through the cracks high above, and carried away by the steady breeze from the sea. But still he took no chances, using only pieces that were cracked with age, retaining not the slightest trace of moisture. Then trying to forget his parched throat and empty stomach, he would lie yet again in the sand, sleep remaining the single greatest need.
But as night fell again on the interceding day---even as Mary watched the Englishman ride off---he woke for the last time, feeling troubled and restless. So dry had his throat become that each involuntary swallow brought with it a sharp and brittle pain. His mouth felt lined with parchment, and he was dizzy and weak from hunger. He knew that whatever the risks, he could no longer remain where he was, but must find food and drink. And this meant people, of whom life had made him so mistrustful.
His clothes were dry, nearly scorched. These he had stolen as he fled across the countryside with his companion, who along with himself had broken early from the rest. But the fit of them was bad, and their look on him plainly suspicious.
As he dressed, then climbed carefully up to the narrow opening, he felt a deep trepidation he could not suppress. Because somewhere inside him a voice had said, "Enough. Enough running and hiding and stealing. I must take myself openly to the first villager I see, and ask for help." And while this ran counter to all the hard lessons he had learned in the stockade---that a man must look out for himself, trusting and needing no one else---yet a line had been crossed inside him, from which there was no returning. He did not wish to die, but neither could he live as some hunted and detestable beast. He climbed down from the rock.
The twilit beach was empty and the waves had grown less. Here and again came the sound of gulls, along with the high screech of a sea-hawk somewhere above. He plodded on through the indifferent sand, toward the small fishing village some two miles distant.
Upon leaving the hiding place he had formed no clear plan, and in his bitterness told himself he did not want one. But as the cliffs that walked with him began to diminish and pull back from the shore, leaving the more level expanse and tiny harbor of the village, his mind of necessity began to work again, trying to think of anyone he might know there, who would have no love for the English, and be willing to take him in.
In the midst of his reveries he looked up to see an old man sitting on the porch of a low ancient cottage, separated from the rest of the village, holding aloof as it were on this, the nearer and less accessible side of the harbor. A steep stretch of sand led down from it to the very edge of the horseshoe bay, broken here and there by large projections of stone.
The old man looked back at him placidly, smoking a short pipe and humming quietly but distinctly to himself. The prisoner felt fear, and a deep hesitation, until almost in spite of himself he began to follow the rise and fall of the simple tune. Then with a rush of warmth and melancholy he recognized it: "The Walls of Inverness." It was a song that had been sung at the camp fires of Highland soldiers for time out of mind. The old man was a veteran, in this blessed, unmistakable way telling him that he knew of his plight, and would help.
With relief but at the same time caution, the younger man approached the cottage, and mounted the steps to the weather-beaten porch. The two men regarded each other a moment in silence.
"You know, then?"
"Aye, lad," rejoined the fisherman in his clear baritone. "Three red-coated cavalry were here yesterday, searching about and makin' a fuss. Saw fit to post a threatening bill on the door of the church. `Escaped traitors (traitors, mind) from Edinburgh. . .believed headed. . .fifty pounds reward
. . .death to anyone aiding or abetting.' The usual stuff."
"The villagers will be on the watch for me, then?"
"Nay, lad. That bill was torn down before their horses were out of sight. And you plainly don't know sea-folk if you have to ask." He took a puff on his pipe, and continued without haste.
"We live with death every day of our lives, and would not last one season if we grew afraid every time the word was spoken. That lady out there." He moved his arm to indicate the sea. "She gives and takes life as she pleases, with hardly a warning. God's mistress she is, with moods and temper to match. If we'll not bow to her, then what have we to fear from three young hoodlums, flashing their sabers as if to wake the dead?"
"Meaning no offense," said the other, "and I'm sure you're right. But aren't there some as might be tempted by the money? And might the English not have spies?"
"Perhaps," said the fisherman thoughtfully. "The arm of the Devil is long, and no denying. But you'll have naught to fear of that tonight. I live quite alone, as you see, and in the morning there'll be a fog to blot out the sun." He said this with confidence, as one who had seen it a thousand times before.
Then extinguishing his pipe against the wooden arm of the chair, he rose as if to go inside, with an open hand indicating the door. "Right now I imagine you're hungry, and might do with a mug of stout?"
"Yes. Thank you." No other words would form, as he felt his throat tighten with emotion. They walked through the painted doorway, and into the shelter of stone.
In troubled dream Mary lay upon the bed, restlessly turning. Words and pictures of the day would appear to her, soft and lovely---riding through the magnificent countryside, feeling him close beside her---till with a start she felt again the claw-like hand upon her breast, and beheld the iron gaze which knew no entreaty. And shaking her head in torment, she would drive the images away.
After some time of this she half woke, though her eyes remained closed against the bitter truth of the waking world. She clutched the pillow to her like a lover, and in a moaning, despairing voice said his name.
"Oh, Michael. Where are you?"
Where are you? Where are you? The words resounded in her mind, growing fainter, spiralling through a dark tunnel which became a deep well, leading to the heart of the abyss. And like tiny pebbles they struck the water far below with the faintest echo of sound.
Something stirred, as if woken from a fearful and everlasting sleep.
She saw clearly, now level with her eyes, a dark and shallow pool among a copse of death-black trees, the whole of the scene shrouded by mist and lit by seeping moonlight. And in its midst, lying face downward with only his arched back protruding above the surface of those terrible waters, the figure of a Scottish soldier.
As if sensing her presence the figure lifted its head, bewildered, and stood up. A fearful, long-drawn wail split the night, whether from the spirit or from herself she could not have said, only that the face was that of her beloved, that he was in great pain, and had been struck blind. He turned wildly from side to side, trying to penetrate the blackness of his eyes. And the same words that she had sent to him now became his own, endlessly, hopelessly repeated.
"Where are you? Where are you? Where are you!"
She tried to answer but could not, as if between them they possessed but a single voice. And as he finally stopped thrashing, and she felt her tongue loosed, she became aware of the thing which had stilled him, so utterly that she knew he had lost all hope, confronted by the sinister, solitary figure which parted the mist and stood before him: her hated half-brother, who had stolen and crushed his heart.
All was deathly still as they faced one another in silence. Purceville drew a long pistol, and held it at arm's length. Michael was a statue, head down, hands at his sides in resignation. There was the crack of a
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