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- Highland Ballad - 5/38 -


reforms. But we will not tolerate, we will crush utterly, any attempt at further rebellion."

"Magnanimous?" she mocked, her pride returning. "Is that why you struck me? Is that why you threaten three lonely, bereft women, who have already lost to you all that they loved and held dear?"

"I did what I had to do!" he cried hotly. "And will do more besides, if you don't hold your tongue. These traitors will be found, and punished---drawn and quartered, or hanged from the nearest tree. And anyone who aids them, or does not send word of them to me at once, will receive much the same. Though in the case of three lonely, bereft women, the punishment might be slower, more amusing."

Again she was driven to fearful silence. She hoped that this would be the end of it, but apparently he had not yet received what he came for, a motive, perhaps, not entirely official.

"And now, good widow Scott, I would very much like you to tell me where I might catch a glimpse of your charming daughter. Oh, do stop the theatrics," he said irritably, as she clasped her hands to her bosom and made as if to fall on her knees before him. "If I wanted the services of a whore I have the whole countryside to choose from. It is just that your daughter. . . interests me. For unless I am much mistaken, I have seen her once before."

"I must beg you this last time," she pleaded. "Ask of me anything but this. Take me if you like, kill me if you must; but I cannot---" He had raised his pistol to arm's length as she spoke, and now fired it with a crack at a portrait of the child Mary that hung in the adjacent room. The ball found its mark at her throat, leaving a dark hole through the canvas of the shadow behind, and the frightened woman turned paler still. She tried to speak but he cut her short, his voice low and menacing.

"I swear to you, my Highland whore, you will tell me where she is to be found. Because if you don't, this very moment, I will find her myself, and with this same pistol put a hole in the real Mary Scott, and leave her to die in the dirt!"

"My sister has a second home," she stammered, hardly knowing how she found the words. "On Kilkenny ridge, beyond the ravine. A small path winds up to it from the Standing Stone, one branch left, then two to the right. We quarreled, and the girl has gone off to live with her. It is the whole truth, I swear it. God have mercy on us!"

"I believe you speak the truth at that," he said coolly. And reaching inside his unbuttoned officer's coat, he drew out a felt purse. Loosing the strand with his fingers, he reached inside and removed several gold coins, which he placed gently on a table beside her. "Thank you, Mrs. Scott. I will take that as permission to pay court upon your daughter. I fancy I may even marry her, if she is the girl I'm thinking of. Good day to you."

He stepped past her, out through the open door, and remounted his beautiful bay. Seven

Towards evening the weather did in fact turn foul, with heavy clouds blowing in from the sea. Laden with rain, and stirred to inner violence by the turbulent upland airs, they discharged their burden with a vengeance among deep cracks of thunder. Bolts of white fire stabbed the earth as the deluge broke, turning good roads to bad, and bad to treacherous and impassible quagmire. So forbidding had the mountain paths become that even the young Lord Purceville, the most stubborn and heedless of men, was forced to turn back and seek shelter, postponing, for one day at least, his desired meeting

with young Mary Scott, of whom he had heard such glowing reports.

So deeply, in fact, had the old man's words affected him, that he fancied (though this was unlikely) he truly had seen her once before, gathering wildflowers on a green hillside in Spring. And whether of human or otherworldly origins, the spell, to which he was particularly susceptible, had done its work on him.

He wanted her.

* * *

The man staggered wearily down the high embankment, until he came to the final, near-vertical stretch of cliff. The cold rain lashed him; the need to reach shelter and the warmth of a fire had become all consuming. He had not eaten, or slept, for days. But for all of this, and for the pride that had once been his, he knew that he must now be supremely cautious. One half-hearted grip on the dripping rock, one misplaced footing, would send him crashing to the ground below. And while at this height such a fall might not mean death, it surely would mean broken bones, which in his present plight, hunted and desperate, amounted to one and the same thing.

The stretch of sand was now only a few yards beneath him. The agitated sea roared and pounded just beyond. Weak and trembling, chilled to his very bones, the prisoner at last set foot on level ground. Struggling on in the wet, giving sand, he searched for the entrance of the walled-in hiding place. Even in daylight it would be difficult to find. In the murky dusk it was next to impossible. So far as he knew, no one but himself and his childhood companions had ever found it. Of these all but one had been killed in the war. And as for the girl..... He doubted that she would remember.

At last he found the slight ravine, which led back into the sea-cliffs. A short distance further was the place where the granite had split, and one huge shingle buckled and slid forward. Climbing the slanting crack it formed, he came to the narrow fissure, which in daylight appeared as little more than a deeper shadow among the darkened wedge of the seam. He twisted his shoulders, and crawled forward until he reached the ledge on the other side, within the enclosure. And though he stood hunched in a blackness complete as the hole of Hell, still his spirit rejoiced as if it had fought and clawed its way to Heaven.

He had beaten them. He was free.

With a surge of fierce courage such as he had not felt for many months, he leapt down blind, trusting that the place had remained as he remembered it. His feet landed easily in the soft, giving sand, as his body fell forward in a weary ecstasy of surrender. He embraced its sheltering softness like a lover, then found to his bewilderment that he was crying. This was something he had not done since childhood. He tried to check the tears but could not, as all the pain and fear of the last three years, and of that terrible day, poured out of him.

He thought of the girl and he knew, even then, that though danger still surrounded him, he must see her again as soon as it was safely possible. For he had held her image before him like an icon and a guiding light through the years of brutal captivity, placing his hope, and all his heart, in the belief that she remained, alive and free. That she did not love him in return, but loved another, did not seem to matter now. Nothing mattered except that he must see her, and speak to her, and tell her what she meant to him. Then he would be content, and gladly lay down his life.

With tears still wounding him, he searched the niche in the adjacent wall, until he found the tinderbox that he had left there. Against all odds its contents were intact. The rotting straw beneath it was dry, as was the piled driftwood he had gathered and stored so long ago. Clearing a level space in the sand, he built a waiting bed of straw and thin slivers, then struck flint to steel, shooting tiny sparks into the heart of it. Again and again, until with the aid of his living breath a single tongue appeared, and began to spread. Then with the knowledge acquired of a lifetime, he fed the fire slowly, nurtured it, until at last it grew and swelled into a living, warming blaze.

He hung his head and wept outright. The lingering flame of his life and his love still remained. He groaned, and in a torment of joy and suffering, said her name.

"Mary!"

He stripped off his soaking clothes and draped them across driftwood stands to dry. Lying naked now in the growing warmth of the chamber, he said a defiant prayer of thanks, and with her image before him still, drifted at last into sleep.

Eight

The rain beat against the single window; the door trembled beneath the force of the wind. But for the dry heat that emanated from the blazing hearth fire, Mary would have thought herself in a dank and dripping cave. The night aura of the place had returned as well, with strange shadows playing once more across everything she saw. Half fearfully now she asked her mother to keep her promise, and speak of the hard life which had led her to the present. She herself sat in the rocker, warmly wrapped and with the steaming kettle close at hand, while true to her nature, the old woman sat stiffly and without comforts in the plain unmoving wooden chair.

"All right, Mary, I'll tell you. And you've a bit of salt, no denying, to parry with an old she-wolf in the den. But if the words I speak begin to feel too harsh, like sack-cloth against your delicate skin, I'll understand if you stop me. It's hardly a tale for a lady."

"I won't stop you," said Mary stubbornly, beginning to see that every inch of this woman's bitter fortress would be yielded grudgingly, and that pain and courage were the only measure she respected. "You must tell me everything, from the beginning."

"That would take many days, child, and even then you would not know the half of it. I will tell you now only those events which concern yourself, along with such glimpses of my youth which you will understand, and are needful."

"I'm listening," said the girl.

"Very well." And the old woman began her tale.

"When I was scarcely older than you are now, and no less naive, I fell in love with a man twice my age. He was a fisherman, whose wife had died in giving birth to their only child, a strapping son, now five years old.

"John was a lonely man, and beginning to feel the weight of his years. I was a lonely girl, and to his mind innocent, full with the first bloom of untainted womanhood. I was to be the empty page that he would write upon, the flowering stream beside which he would rebuild his life. He saw nothing but the good in me, and my one desire was to please him, and to give him all that he needed.


Highland Ballad - 5/38

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