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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMacleod Of Dare - Chapter 12. White Heather
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Macleod Of Dare - Chapter 12. White Heather Post by :ow24160 Category :Long Stories Author :William Black Date :May 2012 Read :1709

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Macleod Of Dare - Chapter 12. White Heather

CHAPTER XII. WHITE HEATHER

And now behold! the red flag flying from the summit of Castle Dare--a spot of brilliant color in this world of whirling mist and flashing sunlight. For there is half a gale blowing in from the Atlantic, and gusty clouds come sweeping over the islands, so that now the Dutchman, and now Fladda, and now Ulva disappears from sight, and then emerges into the sunlight again, dripping and shining after the bath, while ever and anon the huge promontory of Ru-Treshanish shows a gloomy purple far in the north. But the wind and the weather may do what they like to-day; for has not the word just come down from the hill that the smoke of the steamer has been made out in the south? and old Hamish is flying this way and that, fairly at his wits' end with excitement; and Janet Macleod has cast a last look at the decorations of heather and juniper in the great hall; while Lady Macleod, dressed in the most stately fashion, has declared that she is as able as the youngest of them to walk down to the point to welcome home her son.

"Ay, your leddyship, it is very bad," complains the distracted Hamish, "that it will be so rough a day this day, and Sir Keith not to come ashore in his own gig, but in a fishing-boat, and to come ashore at the fishing quay, too; but it is his own men will go out for him, and not the fishermen at all, though I am sure they will hef a dram whatever when Sir Keith comes ashore. And will you not tek the pony, your leddyship? for it is a long road to the quay."

"No, I will not take the pony, Hamish," said the tall, white-haired dame, "and it is not of much consequence what boat Sir Keith has, so long as he comes back to us. And now I think you had better go down to the quay yourself, and see that the cart is waiting and the boat ready."

But how could old Hamish go down to the quay? He was in his own person skipper, head keeper, steward, butler, and general major-domo, and ought on such a day as this to have been in half a dozen places at once. From the earliest morning he had been hurrying hither and thither, in his impatience making use of much voluble Gaelic. He had seen the yacht's crew in their new jersies. He had been round the kennels. He had got out a couple of bottles of the best claret that Castle Dare could afford. He had his master's letters arranged on the library table, and had given a final rub to the guns and rifles on the rack. He had even been down to the quay, swearing at the salmon-fishers for having so much lumber lying about the place where Sir Keith Macleod was to land. And if he was to go down to the quay now, how could he be sure that the ancient Christina, who was mistress of the kitchen as far as her husband Hamish would allow her to be, would remember all his instructions? And then the little granddaughter Christina, would she remember her part in the ceremony?

However, as Hamish could not be in six places at once, he decided to obey his mistress's directions, and went hurriedly off to the quay, overtaking on his way Donald the piper lad, who was apparelled in all his professional finery.

"And if ever you put wind in your pipes, you will put wind in your pipes this day, Donald," said he to the red-haired lad. "And I will tell you now what you will play when you come ashore from the steamer: it is the 'Farewell to Chubraltar' you will play."

"The 'Farewell to Gibraltar!'" said Donald, peevishly, for he was bound in honor to let no man interfere with his proper business. "It is a better march than that I will play, Hamish. It is the 'Heights of Alma,' that was made by Mr. Ross, the Queen's own piper; and will you tell me that the 'Heights of Alma' is not a better march than the 'Farewell to Gibraltar?'"

Hamish pretended to pay no heed to this impertinent boy. His eye was fixed on a distant black speck that was becoming more and more pronounced out there amidst the grays and greens of the windy and sunlit sea. Occasionally it disappeared altogether, as a cloud of rain swept across toward the giant cliffs of Mull, and then again it would appear, sharper and blacker than ever, while the masts and funnel were now visible as well as the hull. When Donald and his companion got down to the quay, they found the men already in the big boat, getting ready to hoist the huge brown lugsail; and there was a good deal of laughing and talking going on, perhaps in anticipation of the dram they were sure to get when their master returned to Castle Dare. Donald jumped down on the rude stone ballast, and made his way up to the bow; Hamish, who remained on shore, helped to shove her off; then the heavy lugsail was quickly hoisted, the sheet hauled tight; and presently the broad-beamed boat was ploughing its way through the rushing seas, with an occasional cloud of spray coming right over her from stem to stern. "Fhir a bhata," the men sung, until Donald struck in with his pipes, and the wild skirl of "The Barren Rocks of Aden" was a fitter sort of music to go with these sweeping winds and plunging seas.

And now we will board the steamer, where Keith Macleod is up on the bridge, occasionally using a glass, and again talking to the captain, who is beside him. First of all on board he had caught sight of the red flag floating over Castle Dare; and his heart had leaped up at that sign of welcome. Then he could make out the dark figures on the quay, and the hoisting of the lugsail, and the putting off of the boat. It was not a good day for observing things, for heavy clouds were quickly passing over, followed by bewildering gleams of a sort of watery sunlight; but as it happened, one of these sudden flashes chanced to light up a small plateau on the side of the hill above the quarry, just as the glass was directed on that point. Surely--surely--these two figures?

"Why, it is the mother--and Janet!" he cried.

He hastily gave the glass to his companion.

"Look!" said he. "Don't you think that is Lady Macleod and my cousin? What could have tempted the old lady to come away down there on such a squally day?"

"Oh yes, I think it is the ladies," said the captain; and then he added, with a friendly smile, "and I think it is to see you all the sooner, Sir Keith, that they have come down to the shore."

"Then," said he, "I must go down and get my gillie, and show him his future home."

He went below the hurricane deck to a corner in which Oscar was chained up. Beside the dog, sitting on a campstool, and wrapped round with a tartan plaid, was the person whom Macleod had doubtless referred to as his gillie. He was not a distinguished-looking attendant to be travelling with a Highland chieftain.

"Johnny, my man, come on deck now, and I will show you where you are going to live. You're all right now, aren't you? And you will be on the solid land again in about ten minutes."

Macleod's gillie rose--or, rather, got down--from the campstool, and showed himself to be a miserable, emaciated child of ten or eleven, with a perfectly colorless face, frightened gray eyes, and starved white hands. The contrast between the bronzed and bearded sailors--who were now hurrying about to receive the boat from Dare--and this pallid and shrunken scrap of humanity was striking; and when Macleod took his hand, and half led and half carried him up on deck, the look of terror that he directed on the plunging waters all around showed that he had not had much experience of the sea. Involuntarily he had grasped hold of Macleod's coat as if for protection.

"Now, Johnny, look right ahead. Do you see the big house on the cliffs over yonder?"

The child, still clinging on to his protector, looked all round with the dull, pale eyes, and at length said,--

"No."

"Can't you see that house, poor chap? Well, do you see that boat over there? You must be able to see that."

"Yes, sir."

"That boat is to take you ashore. You needn't be afraid. If you don't like to look at the sea, get down into the bottom of the boat, and take Oscar with you, and you'll see nothing until you are ashore. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir."

"Come along, then."

For now the wild skirl of Donald's pipes was plainly audible; and the various packages--the new rifle, the wooden case containing the wonderful dresses for Lady Macleod and her niece, and what not--were all ranged ready; to say nothing of some loaves of white bread that the steward was sending ashore at Hamish's request. And then the heaving boat came close to, her sail hauled down; and a rope was thrown and caught; and then there was a hazardous scrambling down the dripping iron steps, and a notable spring on the part of Oscar, who had escaped from the hands of the sailors. As for the new gillie, he resembled nothing so much as a limp bunch of clothes, as Macleod's men, wondering not a little, caught him up and passed him astern. Then the rope was thrown off, the steamer steamed slowly ahead, the lugsail was run up again, and away the boat plunged for the shore, with Donald playing the "Heights of Alma" as though he would rend the skies.

"Hold your noise, Donald!" his master called to him. "You will have plenty of time to play the pipes in the evening."

For he was greatly delighted to be among his own people again; and he was eager in his questions of the men as to all that had happened in his absence; and it was no small thing to them that Sir Keith Macleod should remember their affairs, too, and ask after their families and friends. Donald's loyalty was stronger than his professional pride. He was not offended that he had been silenced; he only bottled up his musical fervor all the more; and at length, as he neared the land, and knew that Lady Macleod and Miss Macleod were within hearing, he took it that he knew better than any one else what was proper to the occasion, and once more the proud and stirring march strove with the sound of the hurrying waves. Nor was that all. The piper lad was doing his best. Never before had he put such fire into his work; but as they got close inshore the joy in his heart got altogether the mastery of him, and away he broke into the mad delight of "Lady Mary Ramsay's Reel." Hamish on the quay heard, and he strutted about as if he were himself playing, and that before the Queen. And then he heard another sound--that of Macleod's voice:

"_Stand by lads!... Down with her!_"--and the flapping sail, with its swinging gaff, rattled down into the boat. At the same moment Oscar made a clear spring into the water, gained the landing-steps, and dashed upward--dripping as he was--to two ladies who were standing on the quay above. And Janet Macleod so far forgot what was due to her best gown that she caught his head in her arms, as he pawed and whined with delight.

That was a glad enough party that started off and up the hillside for Castle Dare. Janet Macleod did not care to conceal that she had been crying a little bit; and there were proud tears in the eyes of the stately old dame who walked with her; but the most excited of all was Hamish, who could by no means be got to understand that his master did not all at once want to hear about the trial of the young setters, and the price of the sheep sold the week before at Tobermory, and the stag that was chased by the Carsaig men on Tuesday.

"Confound it, Hamish!" Macleod said, laughing, "leave all those things till after dinner."

"Oh, ay, oh ay, Sir Keith, we will hef plenty of time after dinner," said Hamish, just as if he were one of the party, but very nervously working with the ends of his thumbs all the time, "and I will tell you of the fine big stag that has been coming down every night--every night, as I am a living man--to Mrs. Murdoch's corn: and I wass saying to her, 'Just hold your tongue, Mrs. Murdoch'--that wass what I will say to her--'just hold your tongue, Mrs. Murdoch, and be a civil woman, for a day or two days, and when Sir Keith comes home it iss no more at all the stag will trouble you--oh no, no more at all; there will be no more trouble about the stag when Sir Keith comes home.'"

And old Hamish laughed at his own wit, but it was in a sort of excited way.

"Look here, Hamish, I want you to do this for me," Macleod said; and instantly the face of the old man--it was a fine face, too, with its aquiline nose, and grizzled hair, and keen hawk-like eyes--was full of an eager attention. "Go back and fetch that little boy I left with Donald. You had better look after him yourself. I don't think any water came over him; but give him dry clothes if he is wet at all. And feed him up: the little beggar will take a lot of fattening without any harm."

"Where is he to go to?" said Hamish, doubtfully.

"You are to make a keeper of him. When you have fattened him up a bit, teach him to feed the dogs. When he gets bigger, he can clean the guns."

"I will let no man or boy clean the guns for you but myself, Sir Keith," the old man said, quite simply, and without a shadow of disrespect, "I will hef no risks of the kind."

"Very well, then; but go and get the boy, and make him at home as much as you can. Feed him up."

"Who is it, Keith?" his cousin said, "that you are speaking of as if he was a sheep or a calf?"

"Faith," said he, laughing, "if the philanthropists heard of it, they would prosecute me for slave-stealing. I bought the boy--for a sovereign."

"I think you have made a bad bargain, Keith," his mother said; but she was quite prepared to hear of some absurd whim of his.

"Well," said he, "I was going into Trafalgar Square, where the National Gallery of pictures is, mother, and there is a cab-stand in the street, and there was a cabman standing there, munching at a lump of dry bread that he cut with a jack-knife. I never saw a cabman do that before; I should have been less surprised if he had been having a chicken and a bottle of port. However, in front of this big cabman this little chap I have brought with me was standing; quite in rags; no shoes on his feet, no cap on his wild hair; and he was looking fixedly at the big lump of bread. I never saw any animal look so starved and so hungry; his eyes were quite glazed with the fascination of seeing the man ploughing away at this lump of loaf. And I never saw any child so thin. His hands were like the claws of a bird; and his trousers were short and torn so that you could see his legs were like two pipe-stems. At last the cabman saw him. 'Get out o' the way,' says he. The little chap slunk off, frightened, I suppose. Then the man changed his mind. 'Come here,' says he. But the little chap was frightened, and wouldn't come back; so he went after him, and thrust the loaf into his hand, and bade him be off. I can tell you, the way he went into that loaf was very fine to see. It was like a weasel at the neck of a rabbit. It was like an otter at the back of a salmon. And that was how I made his acquaintance," Macleod added, carelessly.

"But you have not told us why you brought him up here," his mother said.

"Oh," said he, with a sort of laugh, "I was looking at him, and I wondered whether Highland mutton and Highland air would make any difference in the wretched little skeleton; and so I made his acquaintance. I went home with him to a fearful place--I have got the address, but I did not know there were such quarters in London--and I saw his mother. The poor woman was very ill, and she had a lot of children; and she seemed quite glad when I offered to take this one and make a herd or a gamekeeper of him. I promised he should go to visit her once a year, that she might see whether there was any difference. And I gave her a sovereign."

"You were quite right, Keith," his cousin said, gravely; "You run a great risk. Do they hang slavers?"

"Mother," said he, for by this time the ladies were standing still, so that Hamish and the new gillie should overtake them, "you mustn't laugh at the little chap when you see him with the plaid taken off. The fact is, I took him to a shop in the neighborhood to get some clothes for him, but I couldn't get anything small enough. He _does look ridiculous; but you mustn't laugh at him, for he is like a girl for sensitiveness. But when he has been fed up a bit, and got some Highland air into his lungs, his own mother won't know him. And you will get him some other clothes, Janet--some kilts, maybe--when his legs get stronger."

Whatever Keith Macleod did was sure to be right in his mother's eyes, and she only said, with a laugh,--

"Well, Keith, you are not like your brothers. When they brought me home presents, it was pretty things; but all your curiosities, wherever you go, are the halt, and the lame, and the blind; so that people laugh at you, and say that Castle Dare is becoming the hospital of Mull."

"Mother, I don't care what the people say."

"And indeed I know that," she answered.

Their waiting had allowed Hamish and the new gillie to overtake them; and certainly the latter, deprived of his plaid, presented a sufficiently ridiculous appearance in the trousers and jacket that were obviously too big for him. But neither Lady Macleod nor Janet laughed at all when they saw this starved London waif before them.

"Johnny," said Macleod, "here are two ladies who will be very kind to you, so you needn't be afraid to live here."

But Johnny did look mortally afraid, and instinctively once more took hold of Macleod's coat. Then he seemed to have some notion of his duty. He drew back one foot, and made a sort of courtesy. Probably he had seen girls do this, in mock-heroic fashion, in some London court.

"And are you very tired?" said Janet Macleod, in that soft voice of hers that all children loved.

"Yes," said the child.

"Kott bless me!" cried Hamish, "I did not know that!"--and therewith the old man caught up Johnny Wickes as if he had been a bit of ribbon, and flung him on to his shoulder, and marched off to Castle Dare.

Then the three Macleods continued on their way--through the damp-smelling fir-wood; over the bridge that spanned the brawling brook; again through the fir-wood; until they reached the open space surrounding the big stone house. They stood for a minute there--high over the great plain of the sea, that was beautiful with a thousand tints of light. And there was the green island of Ulva, and there the darker rocks of Colonsay, and farther out, amidst the windy vapor and sunlight, Lunga, and Fladda, and the Dutchman's Cap, changing in their hue every minute as the clouds came driving over the sea.

"Mother," said he, "I have not tasted fresh air since I left. I am not sorry to get back to Dare."

"And I don't think we are sorry to see you back, Keith," his cousin said, modestly.

And yet the manner of his welcome was not imposing; they are not very good at grand ceremonies on the western shores of Mull. It is true that Donald, relieved of the care of Johnny Wickes, had sped by a short-cut through the fir-wood, and was now standing in the gravelled space outside the house, playing the "Heights of Alma" with a spirit worthy of all the MacCruimins that ever lived. But as for the ceremony of welcome, this was all there was of it: When Keith Macleod went up to the hall door, he found a small girl of five or six standing quite by herself at the open entrance. This was Christina, the granddaughter of Hamish, a pretty little girl with wide blue eyes and yellow hair.

"Halloo, Christina," said Macleod, "won't you let me into the house?"

"This is for you, Sir Keith," said she, in the Gaelic, and she presented him with a beautiful bunch of white heather. Now white heather, in that part of the country, is known to bring great good fortune to the possessor of it.

"And it is a good omen," said he, lightly, as he took the child up and kissed her. And that was the manner of his welcome to Castle Dare.

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