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- Highland Ballad - 6/38 -


"But my parents, being blind with wealth and comfort, could not see him as I did, could never know the honest depth of his soul, or the gentle touch of his big, calloused hands as he held me. The need and loving warmth he showered over me quite stole my heart..... They saw only that such a match was beneath me, as the only daughter of a respected landowner, a man of solid means and family background.

"So we eloped, John and I, and were married in a chapel by the sea. When my father learned of it he was furious, and disowned me. It was the last time he ever spoke to me, as this will be the very last, I warn you, that I will ever say of him. Child-lusting bastard! Had me in his bed more than once, when we were alone and I could not escape him.

"Don't look so shocked. It is always within the most staid, aristocratic families that the heart is most deeply rotted. So don't feel yourself cheated, girl, that you never knew your father---the man you most want to love, but in the end must despise more than any.

"But never mind all that. It hardly matters. Good, decent John MacCain and I were married, and lived happily enough for two years. I still bear his name, though it is seldom remembered. But if there is one thing the cruel Christian God will not tolerate---he, too, is called the Father---it is those who find meaning and bounty without him. We had little enough in the world's eyes, and never more than we needed to live day by day. But what of that? We had each other, and the boy, who had come to think of me as his mother. We had the sun and the sea, and the land behind. Our Scotland.

"Then one day he took the boy and went out in his boat, as ever, to earn our daily bread. It was as fine an April morning as you could ask, and I saw them off under a gentle sky, with softly lapping waves to put a woman's heart at ease. It need hardly be said that the skies soon darkened, and a gale blew in like thunder---

"Nay, girl, back to your chair; I don't want pity. That was the way of it, and nothing to be said or done now.

"He did not return that night. And after three days' fruitless vigil, there was no use hoping further. A priest came to our small cottage, and said some words as empty as the promise of afterlife. My brother and I held candles in our hands, and I think he was truly shocked that I shed not a single tear. He could not know that my nights for many years had been filled with them, and that those last, worry-sick three had drained the well to its dregs, and beyond. That was the end of it. My first love was gone, leaving me a widow at nineteen, wholly without means.

"My brother did what he could for me, I'll give him that. And he would have played the father well enough for you, if the Fever* hadn't got him first. They're not all bad; I do know it. But the good ones with hearts that feel, are forever and always at the mercy of them that don't---the aggressive lot who just take, and trample, without thinking.

*Typhus.

"But here, I'm ahead of myself, and you look near done-in. Into bed with you now, and enough of my sad stories."

"No!" said her daughter at once. "You promised. I want to hear it all!" Though she was in fact tired and morose, and beginning to feel again the ache of her affliction, Mary sensed that now or never would she learn the whole truth. She must show this woman that she too could be strong, and was not afraid of dark reality.

The widow MacCain looked hard at her, trying to gauge the depth, and source, of her daughter's desire to know. But at the same time she felt the slow stirrings of concerned motherhood, and at that not the detached, objective instincts of a guardian, the role she had been forced to assume, and grown accustomed to these many years. She turned away, and wrung her hands as if deep in thought.

"All right," she said at last. "But we must get you into bed in any case. I'll not have you seriously ill."

She rose, and took the tea-cup from Mary's hand. She turned down the covers for her, and saw her securely tucked in. Then to her dismay as she sat down on the bed beside her, felt such a surge of tenderness for this innocent extension of her own flesh, that it was only with difficulty she did not bend down and kiss her damp, flushed forehead.

"Go on," said Mary, who in her mother's eyes crossed that very hour from adolescence into womanhood. There was no denying the soul inside her.

"Are you very sure, lass? I do not say it in mockery, but truth be told it's not a tale to make the young heart glad. I'll understand if you've had enough."

"No, really, I'm all right now. Mother," and she took her hand. "I want to know."

The woman gave a sigh, and shook her head. She found herself cornered, and not by the hounds and hunters of treachery, but by honesty and simple love. There was only one way out: forward, through memories and emotions she had long banished. There was nothing else for it. She continued.

"My father grew old and finally died, with my mother not far behind. My brother became man of the house then, and one of the first things he did was to send for me, though it was not straight away that I went to him.

"I had been earning my modest keep as a teacher to the children of the fishing village, and living alone in the spare, two-room schoolhouse that they built for me. I'd had chance enough for suitors if I wanted them. But I did not, could not think to put myself through such pain again. And though I loved them well enough for the simple, hard-working folk they were, but for my John I never met one as stirred the embers of any true romantic feeling. Of course the men of the distant gentry wanted no part of me, a dowerless widow who had shamed her family and married beneath her class. They were not all so heartless, and I kept a good deal to myself. But the truth remains that none ever cared enough to overcome the obstacles, and learn what lay hidden in my heart.

"So the years went by and I found myself at thirty. My mother had died, and my brother taken Anne for a wife, who had borne him a child. So at last I swallowed my pride, and thinking to be useful, went back to the big house that still haunted my dreams. Both Bryan and your aunt were kind enough in their awkward, Christian way, and did what they could to make me feel welcome and at home. But as Michael continued to grow---yes, child, who else would it be?---they naturally began to feel a tight bond of family that did not include me.....

"But here the way becomes less clear. It is never a single incident, nor even a closely knit series of events that makes us what we are, but a lifetime of broken promises and shattered dreams. They say that hope springs eternal, and I dare say that's true. More's the pity, since it must always end in disillusion, and finally, in dark and lonely death."

She felt her daughter's hand grasp her own, and saw that there were standing tears in her eyes. As if a veil had been drawn aside between them, she saw at last the terrible loss the girl had already suffered, and was suffering still, in the form of an impossible love for a man three years dead. Yes, thought the dark widow to herself, she deserves to know the truth.

"I began to feel the need for solitude, and a place to dwell on the long chains of thought that had taken root inside me. So I made this place my own, and spent long hours, whole days and nights here, learning. For I had been shown three books of Druid lore during the first year of my mourning, by an old Welsh woman who lived in the village, my only real companion. She taught me the ancient tongues, and asked me to copy them out in English, along with other tales and spells which she knew only in her mind, that they might not be lost at her death. Yes, Mary, she was a witch, though that name need not mean all that fear implies." She paused.

"A priest has a kind of power over men, because he appeals to the angelic, or 'right' side of the soul---all filled with yearning for the light, and the fear of God. The witch works through the left, no less powerful, because its roots lie in corrupted instinct: vanity, unclean desire, treachery and violence. And to the weak and abusive, men such as my father, it is only that much harder to deny. The daughters of Lug cast no darkness of their own, create no evil that does not already exist in a man, but only turn that inner blackness to his own undoing.

"Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. These words are attributed to the great God of Christian and Jew alike. But what men cannot see, because their simplicity demands a single being to worship and fear, is that the One God is divided into many facets, wholly separate beings, with moods and purposes all their own. I have chosen the god Dagda, as He has chosen me. His passion is for retribution against the violent---the axe-wielders and plunderers, the outwardly strong. It is He who spoke through the prophet long ago."

"Mother," said Mary. "Please don't be angry, but you're frightening me. You know I don't pass judgment, and that I'm trying to understand. . . and love you. But this isn't what I want, what I need to know."

With this the old woman, whose eyes had lost their focus and begun to stare off into space, came back to herself. "Aye, lass, I hear what it is you're telling me. I was only trying to give you a glimpse of that part of myself which cannot be shown in outward events. You'll be wanting to know about the circumstances of your birth..... About your father."

At this the cold eyes gleamed with unspeakable malice, and with a shiver of stark insight Mary discovered the source, the burning heart of her mother's hatred. It was as if all the bitter rage she felt for the world of men, every grudge, even blame for the war itself, had been focused upon this one man as the symbol, the living embodiment of evil, and sole object of revenge. And with a second shock, and full knowledge that had somehow eluded her, she realized that this him, this monster her mother wished to destroy, using her as a vehicle, was the first, the original Lord Purceville. Her father, who formed half her living flesh.

And as much as she knew him for the man he was, as much as she sympathized with her mother and abhorred his rape of her, yet again she felt that sudden and all-inclusive pang: the orphan, who after years in the lonely dark, discovers a natural parent, living still.

But now the old woman was speaking again, had in fact been speaking all the while these thoughts raced through her, no longer aware, it


Highland Ballad - 6/38

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