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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMacleod Of Dare - Chapter 9. The Princess Righinn
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Macleod Of Dare - Chapter 9. The Princess Righinn Post by :andrewteg Category :Long Stories Author :William Black Date :May 2012 Read :2911

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Macleod Of Dare - Chapter 9. The Princess Righinn


The people who lived in this land of summer, and sunshine, and flowers--had they no cares at all? He went out into the garden with these two girls; and they were like two young fawns in their careless play. Miss Carry, indeed, seemed bent on tantalizing him by the manner in which she petted and teased and caressed her sister--scolding her, quarrelling with her, and kissing her all at once. The grave, gentle, forbearing manner in which the elder sister bore all this was beautiful to see. And then her sudden concern and pity when the wild Miss Carry had succeeded in scratching her finger with the thorn of a rose-bush! It was the tiniest of scratches: and all the blood that appeared was about the size of a pin-head. But Miss White must needs tear up her dainty little pocket-handkerchief, and bind that grievous wound, and condole with the poor victim as though she were suffering untold agonies. It was a pretty sort of idleness. It seemed to harmonize with this still, beautiful summer day, and the soft green foliage around, and the still air that was sweet with the scent of the flowers of the lime-trees. They say that the Gaelic word for the lower regions _ifrin_, is derived from _i bhuirn_, the island of incessant rain. To a Highlander, therefore must not this land of perpetual summer and sunshine have seemed to be heaven itself?

And even the malicious Carry relented for a moment.

"You said you were going to the Zoological Gardens," she said.

"Yes," he answered, "I am. I have seen everything I want to see in London but that."

"Because Gerty and I might walk across the Park with you, and show you the way."

"I very much wish you would," said he, "if you have nothing better to do."

"I will see if papa does not want me," said Miss White, calmly. She might just as well be walking in Regent's Park as in this small garden.

Presently the three of them set out.

"I am glad of any excuse," she said, with a smile, "for throwing aside that new part. It seems to me insufferably stupid. It is very hard that you should be expected to make a character look natural when the words you have to speak are such as no human being would use in any circumstance whatever."

Oddly enough, he never heard her make even the slightest reference to her profession without experiencing a sharp twinge of annoyance. He did not stay to ask himself why this should be so. Ordinarily he simply made haste to change the subject.

"Then why should you take the part at all?" said he, bluntly.

"Once you have given yourself up to a particular calling--you must accept its little annoyances," she said, frankly. "I cannot have everything my own way. I have been very fortunate in other respects. I never had to go through the drudgery of the provinces, though they say that is the best school possible for an actress. And I am sure the money and the care papa has spent on my training--you see, he had no son to send to college. I think he is far more anxious about my succeeding than I am myself."

"But you have succeeded," said Macleod. It was, indeed, the least he could say, with all his dislike of the subject.

"Oh, I do not call that success," said she, simply. "That is merely pleasing people by showing them little scenes from their own drawing-rooms transferred to the stage. They like it because it is pretty and familiar. And people pretend to be very cynical at present--they like things with 'no nonsense about them;' and I suppose this son of comedy is the natural reaction from the rant of the melodrama. Still, if you happen to be ambitious--or perhaps it is mere vanity?--if you would like to try what is in you--"

"Gerty wants to be a Mrs. Siddons: that's it," said Miss Carry, promptly.

Talking to an actress about her profession, and not having a word of compliment to say? Instead, he praised the noble elms and chestnuts of the Park, the broad white lake, the flowers, the avenues. He was greatly interested by the whizzing by overhead of a brace of duck.

"I suppose you are very fond of animals?" Miss White said.

"I am indeed," said he, suddenly brightening up. "And up at our place I give them all a chance. I don't allow a single weasel or hawk to be killed, though I have a great deal of trouble about it. But what is the result? I don't know whether there is such a thing as the balance of nature, or whether it is merely that the hawks and weasels and other vermin kill off the sickly birds: but I do know that we have less disease among our birds than I hear of anywhere else. I have sometimes shot a weasel, it is true, when I have run across him as he was hunting a rabbit--you cannot help doing that if you hear the rabbit squealing with fright long before the weasel is at him--but it is against my rule. I give them all a fair field and no favor. But there are two animals I put out of the list; I thought there was only one till this week--now there are two; and one of them I hate, the other I fear."

"Fear?" she said: the slight flash of surprise in her eyes was eloquent enough. But he did not notice it.

"Yes," said he, rather gloomily. "I suppose it is superstition, or you may have it in your blood; but the horror I have of the eyes of a snake--I cannot tell you of it. Perhaps I was frightened when I was a child--I cannot remember; or perhaps it was the stories of the old women. The serpent is very mysterious to the people in the Highlands: they have stories of watersnakes in the lochs: and if you get a nest of seven adders with one white one, you boil the white one, and the man who drinks the broth knows all things in heaven and earth. In the Lewis they call the serpent _righinn_, that is, '_a princess;_' and they say that the serpent is a princess bewitched. But that is from fear--it is a compliment--"

"But surely there are no serpents to be afraid of in the Highlands?" said Miss White. She was looking rather curiously at him.

"No," said he, in the same gloomy way. "The adders run away from you if you are walking through the heather. If you tread on one, and he bites your boot, what then? He cannot hurt you. But suppose you are out after the deer, and you are crawling along the heather with your face to the ground, and all at once you see the two small eyes of an adder looking at you and close to you--"

He shuddered slightly--perhaps it was only an expression of disgust.

"I have heard," he continued, "that in parts of Islay they used to be so bad that the farmers would set fire to the heather in a circle, and as the heather burned in and in you could see the snakes and adders twisting and curling in a great ball. We have not many with us. But one day John Begg, that is the schoolmaster, went behind a rock to get a light for his pipe; and he put his head close to the rock to be out of the wind; and then he thought he stirred something with his cap; and the next moment the adder fell on to his shoulder, and bit him in the neck. He was half mad with the fright; but I think the adder must have bitten the cap first and expended its poison; for the schoolmaster was only ill for about two days, and then there was no more of it. But just think of it--an adder getting to your neck--"

"I would rather not think of it," she said, quickly. "What is the other animal--that you hate?"

"Oh!" he said, lightly, "that is a very different affair--that is a parrot that speaks. I was never shut up in the house with one till this week. My landlady's son brought her home one from the West Indies; and she put the cage in a window recess on my landing. At first it was a little amusing; but the constant yelp--it was too much for me. '_Pritty poal! pritty poal!_' I did not mind so much; but when the ugly brute, with its beady eyes and its black snout, used to yelp, '_Come and kiz me! come and kiz me!_' I grew to hate it. And in the morning, too, how was one to sleep? I used to open my door and fling a boot at it; but that only served for a time. It began again."

"But you speak of it as having been there. What became of it?"

He glanced at her rather nervously--like a schoolboy--and laughed.

"Shall I tell you?" he said, rather shamefacedly. "The murder will be out sooner or later. It was this morning. I could stand it no longer. I had thrown both my boots at it; it was no use. I got up a third time, and went out. The window, that looks into a back yard, was open. Then I opened the parrot's cage. But the fool of an animal did not know what I meant--or it was afraid--and so I caught him by the back of the neck and flung him out. I don't know anything more about him."

"Could he fly?" said the big-eyed Carry, who had been quite interested in this tragic tale.

"I don't know," Macleod said, modestly. "There was no use asking him. All he could say was, '_Come and kiz me;_' and I got tired of that."

"Then you have murdered him!" said the elder sister in an awestricken voice; and she pretended to withdraw a bit from him. "I don't believe in the Macleods having become civilized, peaceable people. I believe they would have no hesitation in murdering any one that was in their way."

"Oh, Miss White," said he, in protest, "you must forget what I told you about the Macleods; and you must really believe they were no worse than the others of the same time. Now I was thinking of another story the other day, which I must tell you--"

"Oh, pray, don't," she said, "if it is one of those terrible legends--"

"But I must tell you," said he, "because it is about the Macdonalds; and I want to show you that we had not all the badness of those times. It was Donald Gorm Mor; and his nephew Hugh Macdonald, who was the heir to the chieftainship, he got a number of men to join him in a conspiracy to have his uncle murdered. The chief found it out, and forgave him. That was not like a Macleod," he admitted, "for I never heard of a Macleod of those days forgiving anybody. But again Hugh Macdonald engaged in a conspiracy; and then Donald Gorm Mor thought he would put an end to the nonsense. What did he do? He put his nephew into a deep and foul dungeon--so the story says--and left him without food or water for a whole day. Then there was salt beef lowered into the dungeon; and Macdonald he devoured the salt beef; for he was starving with hunger. Then they left him alone. But you can imagine the thirst of a man who has been eating salt beef, and who has had no water for a day or two. He was mad with thirst. Then they lowered a cup into the dungeon--you may imagine the eagerness with which the poor fellow saw it coming down to him--and how he caught it with both his hands. _But it was empty! And so, having made a fool of him in that way, they left him to die of thirst That was the Macdonalds, Miss White, not the Macleods."

"Then I am glad of Culloden," said she, with decision, "for destroying such a race of fiends."

"Oh, you must not say that," he protested, laughing. "We should have become quiet and respectable folks without Culloden. Even without Culloden we should have had penny newspapers all the same; and tourist boats from Oban to Iona. Indeed, you won't find quieter folks anywhere than the Macdonalds and Macleods are now."

"I don't know how far you are to be trusted," said she, pretending to look at him with some doubts.

Now they reached the gate of the gardens.

"Do let us go in, Gerty," said Miss Carry. "You know you always get hints for your dresses from the birds--you would never have thought of that flamingo pink and white if you had not been walking through here--"

"I will go in for a while if you like, Carry," said she; and certainly Macleod was nothing loath.

There were but few people in the Gardens on this afternoon, for all the world was up at the Eton and Harrow cricket-match at Lord's, and there was little visible of 'Arry and his pipe. Macleod began to show more than a school boy's delight over the wonders of this strange place. That he was exceedingly fond of animals--always barring the two he had mentioned--was soon abundantly shown. He talked to them as though the mute inquiring eyes could understand him thoroughly. When he came to animals with which he was familiar in the North, he seemed to be renewing acquaintance with old friends--like himself, they were strangers in a strange land.

"Ah," said he to the splendid red deer, which was walking about the paddock with his velvety horns held proudly in the air, "what part of the Highlands have you come from? And wouldn't you like now a canter down the dry bed of a stream on the side of Ben-an-Sloich?"

The hind, with slow and gentle step, and with her nut-brown hide shining in the sun, came up to the bars, and regarded him with those large, clear, gray-green eyes--so different from the soft dark eyes of the roe--that had long eyelashes on the upper lid. He rubbed her nose.

"And wouldn't you rather be up on the heather, munching the young grass and drinking out of the burn?"

They went along to the great cage of the sea-eagles. The birds seemed to pay no heed to what was passing immediately around them. Ever and anon they jerked their heads into an attitude of attention, and the golden brown eye with its contracted pupil and stern upper lid, seemed to be throwing a keen glance over the immeasurable leagues of sea.

"Poor old chap!" he said to one perched high on an old stump, "wouldn't you like to have one sniff of a sea-breeze, and a look round for a sea-pyot or two? What do they give you here--dead fish, I suppose?"

The eagle raised its great wings and slowly flapped them once or twice, while it uttered a succession of shrill _yawps_.

"Oh yes," he said, "you could make yourself heard above the sound of the waves. And I think if any of the boys were after your eggs or your young ones, you could make short work of them with those big wings. Or would you like to have a battle-royal with a seal, and try whether you could pilot the seal in to the shore, or whether the seal would drag you and your fixed claws down to the bottom and drown you?"

There was a solitary kittiwake in a cage devoted to sea-birds, nearly all of which were foreigners.

"You poor little kittiwake," said he, "this is a sad place for you to be in. I think you would rather be out at Ru-Treshanish, even if it was blowing hard, and there was rain about. There was a dead whale came ashore there about a month ago; that would have been something like a feast for you."

"Why," said he, to his human companion, "if I had only known before! Whenever there was an hour or two with nothing to do, here was plenty of occupation. But I must not keep you too long, Miss White. I could remain here days and weeks."

"You will not go without looking in at the serpents," said she, with a slight smile.

He hesitated for a second.

"No," said he; "I think I will not go in to see them."

"But you must," said she, cruelly. "You will see they are not such terrible creatures when they are shut up in glass boxes."

He suffered himself to be led along to the reptile house; but he was silent. He entered the last of the three. He stood in the middle of the room, and looked around him in rather a strange way.

"Now, come and look at this splendid fellow," said Miss White, who, with her sister, was leaning over the rail. "Look at his splendid bars of color! Do you see the beautiful blue sheen on its scales?"

It was a huge anaconda, its body as thick as a man's leg, lying coiled up in a circle; its flat, ugly head reposing in the middle. He came a bit nearer. "Hideous!" was all he said. And then his eyes was fixed on the eyes of the animal--the lidless eyes, with their perpetual glassy stare. He had thought at first they were closed; but now he saw that that opaque yellow substance was covered by a glassy coating, while in the centre there was a small slit as if cut by a penknife. The great coils slowly expanded and fell again as the animal breathed; otherwise the fixed stare of those yellow eyes might have been taken for the stare of death.

"I don't think the anaconda is poisonous at all," said she, lightly.

"But if you were to meet that beast in a jungle," said he, "what difference would that make!"

He spoke reproachfully, as if she were luring him into some secret place to have him slain with poisonous fangs. He passed on from that case to the others unwillingly. The room was still. Most of the snakes would have seemed dead but for the malign stare of the beaded eyes. He seemed anxious to get out; the atmosphere of the place was hot and oppressive.

But just at the door there was a case some quick motion in which caught his eye, and despite himself he stopped to look. The inside of this glass box was alive with snakes--raising their heads in the air, slimily crawling over each other, the small black forked tongues shooting in and out, the black points of eyes glassily staring. And the object that had moved quickly was a wretched little yellow frog, that was not motionless in a dish of water, its eyes apparently starting out of its head with horror. A snake made its appearance over the edge of the dish. The shooting black tongue approached the head of the frog; and then the long, sinuous body glided along the edge of the dish again, the frog meanwhile being too paralyzed with fear to move. A second afterward the frog, apparently recovering, sprung clean out of the basin; but it was only to alight on the backs of two or three of the reptiles lying coiled up together. It made another spring, and got into a corner among some grass, But along that side of the case another of those small, flat, yellow marked heads was slowly creeping along, propelled by the squirming body; and again the frog made a sudden spring, this time leaping once more into the shallow water, where, it stood and panted, with its eyes dilated. And now a snake that had crawled up the side of the case put out its long neck as if to see whither it should proceed. There was nothing to lay hold of. The head swayed and twisted, the forked tongue shooting out; and at last the snake fell away from its hold, and splashed right into the basin of water on the top of the frog. There was a wild shooting this way and that--but Macleod did not see the end of it. He had uttered some slight exclamation, and got into the open air, as one being suffocated: and there were drops of perspiration on his forehead, and a trembling of horror and disgust had seized him. His two companions followed him out.

"I felt rather faint," said he, in a low voice--and he did not turn to look at them as he spoke--"the air is close in that room."

They moved away. He looked around--at the beautiful green of the trees, and the blue sky, and the sunlight on the path--God's world was getting to be more wholesome again, and the choking sensation of disgust was going from his throat. He seemed, however, rather anxious to get away from this place. There was a gate close by; he proposed they should go out by that. As he walked back with them to South Bank, they chatted about many of the animals--the two girls in especial being much interested in certain pheasants, whose colors of plumage they thought would look very pretty in a dress--but he never referred, either then or at any future time, to his visit to the reptile house. Nor did it occur to Miss White, in this idle conversation, to ask him whether his Highland blood had inherited any other qualities besides that instinctive and deadly horror of serpents.

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