The Master of Stair/Book 1/Chapter 2


Ronald Macdonald had kindled a peat fire in the hut and strengthened it with dried fir boughs from the stack of wood in the corner. A bright flame leaped up and showed the rude interior, the mud walls, the earth floor, the roughhewn log seat and the figure of Helen Fraser taking off her dripping red coat.

She flung it over the log, swept off her hat and stood straight and slim in her close brown dress, while she held her hands over the flame.

Macdonald, leaning against the wall, looked at her and wondered.

She was young and very slender; eminently graceful; her hands were perfect; she had an oval, clear white face, a thin scarlet mouth, eyes narrow and brilliant, arched red brows and a quantity of red-blonde hair that hung damp and bright onto her shoulders.

Macdonald had never seen a woman of this make before; now he had her close and could study her at his ease, he found her grace and self-possession wonderful things. The sight of her hair as she shook it out to dry made his face cloud for a moment. "’Tis the Campbell color," he said.

She smiled over her shoulder. "I did not know that till to-day," she answered. "Many of the Eraser's women have hair like this."

She took up the long curls in her white hand, and held them in the firelight where they glittered ruddy gold. Her green eyes surveyed him.

They looked at each other so a full minute—then he spoke.

"Why did you strike me when you rode past?"

She gave a sudden laugh.

"My whip slipped—I meant it for the horse," she said, "not for you, Macdonald of Glencoe—why should I?"

The thick peat smoke, that circled round the hut before it found the rude aperture that served as a chimney, made her cough and shudder.

"Where are we now?" she asked.

"By the entrance to Glenorchy," he answered, gazing hard at her.

"Ah," she said, "Jock Campbell's lands—his castle lies there, you said?"

She was leaning against the wall; her eyes indifferently on the smoke and flame; then suddenly she lifted them and Macdonald started; they were such a vivid color, green as those of a wildcat.

"You are bold to come so near Glenorchy when you have burnt Jock of Breadalbane's house," she smiled.

"He is in the Lowlands," Macdonald answered. "And I have said—no Campbell would follow where I go—to Glencoe—though Campbell of Breadalbane is serpent-cunning and very full of lies."

"You hate him very deeply?" she questioned.

His frank eyes flew wide.

"He is the loathed devil of all the Campbells," he cried, "surely you know that?"

She gave a little laugh.

"What are his qualities?" she asked. "Why do you hate him so?"

"Ask every soul in the Highlands or the Lowlands," he answered fiercely, "and if ye find one to say a good word for Jock Campbell—then will I tell ye of his qualities."

He came across the hut and stood towering over her.

"I do mistrust you," he said. "I think you are over quiet."

She drew herself a little closer against the wall, the green eyes glittered up at him.

"I think you are a Campbell," said Macdonald, breathing hard.

"By Christ, I am not," she answered resolutely. "Nor any friend of theirs."

There was a little pause, the heavy sweep of the rain without came distinctly, mournfully, and a low wind howled through the rough window.

Macdonald gazed into her eyes: she did not wince, but suddenly smiled; the color came into her cheeks.

"Ye have a wonderful face, Helen Fraser," he said. "Are you a princess of the clan?"

"I am Lord Eraser's daughter," she answered, "and heiress of our family."

"They should be proud of you," said Macdonald. "Are you a maid or wife?"

"I am unwed," she said, "and am ever like to be, for I do find it hard to love."

He turned away from her and pointed to the log.

"Will you sit?" he said with a grave courtesy.

She complied at once with a deepening of her smile.

In one corner was a pile of skins; Macdonald lifted these and brought out from under them two goblets of pure gold.

As he raised them he looked at the woman; she showed through the cloudy smoke brown and gold and brilliant; her hair was as vivid as the little tongues of flame she held her hands over.

"From the Campbells," he said, putting the goblets down, "and this from the King—in France."

He brought out a slender bottle of wine and stripped off its wicker covering.

"We keep these things hidden here," he explained, "so that when any cannot reach the Glen they may find food."

He turned over the skins and heather till he found a rough cake of grain. Helen Fraser rose and came up behind him.

"Are these your takings from the Campbells?" she asked, and picked the goblets up. They were very handsomely engraved with the arms of John Campbell, Earl of Breadalbane.

Macdonald lifted the glittering wine with an eager smile.

"We drink as royally as Jock Campbell with his Lowland luxuries," he cried. "This is King's wine."

She held out one of the goblets while he filled it and let the other drop.

He put his lips to it, then held it out to her with something like a challenge in his eyes.

"Drink with me, Helen Fraser."

She took it, drank, and gave it back to him with the same unmoved smile.

"Now we are pledged friends," he cried. "But wait—ye shall break bread with me—"

"I cannot eat," she said. "Believe me—I am sick with weariness."

He looked as her keenly over the brim of the brilliant wine-cup.

"Ye shall do it," he said. "I would be allied with thy clan."

He broke the bread and salt that to him formed a rite impossible to violate and gave it her with eager blue eyes on her face.

She took it slowly, afraid to show reluctance, and ate a little while he watched her closely.

Then he put one of the skins on the log and another under her feet, and stirred up the fire to give her warmth.

She had become very silent; she took his care with no thanks, passively, but all the while her jewel-like eyes were covertly studying him.

He came and sat opposite to her; his huge shadow dancing behind him. Between them lay her steaming red coat, the gold wine-cups, and the elegant French bottle, brilliant on the mud floor.

Outside the rain was coming down less heavily, but the wind had risen and they could hear the rocking of the fir-trees.

She spoke at last, in her quiet voice: "Do you go to the conference Breadalbane holds at Glenorchy?" she asked. "You know he calls the Highlands thither to treat of peace—and loyalty to the new King."

Macdonald laughed:

"And the gold he hath to buy us fills his own coffers—there will be no peace while Jock Campbell treats," he answered.

"But many great chiefs have gone," she said, "And the whole force of the new King is behind Breadalbane—"

"We may go," replied Macdonald. "But we will not take the oaths."

Another silence fell; she stirred the smoldering peat with her foot; he seemed to be utterly absorbed in watching her; she had taken his wild fancy most suddenly, most completely.

"I must go on," she said at last. "They will be searching for me."

She rose and put back her glittering hair.

"And I will go with you," said Macdonald, rising too.

She looked over her shoulder; seemed to hesitate, a drift of the peat smoke floated between them, through it he saw her face, white, calm, and her narrow, brilliant eyes.

She picked up her damp coat and hat.

"I can go alone if you will put me on my road to Loch Awe," she said. "It cannot be far."

"Too far for you alone," he cried. "You—surely you are afraid?"

Helen Fraser put on her coat and turned up the great collar before she answered.

"And are not you afraid to go any further through Jock Campbell's lands?"

He was stung by her poise and strangeness. "Helen Fraser, ye are mad to think to go alone!"

She had caught up her hat and very swiftly opened the rough door.

The first blast of the wind made her shudder, but she stepped out into the rain with a resolute carriage.

Her horse was tethered close under some fir-trees: his glittering harness was the only bright thing in the gloomy landscape; he lifted his head at sight of his mistress and she turned toward him.

But she was stopped by Macdonald's hand on her shoulder.

"Look about ye, Helen Fraser—and think if ye would go alone!"

She glanced at him and then about her; below them the river Orchy, tumbled through the ravine, about them the mountains towered into the mist, to either side were great broken spaces of heather, moss and bog; straight before them ran a strip of dirty white road that wound through the Glen of Orchy. Over all was the veil of the pitiless rain and the sound of the tossing fir-trees.

Helen Fraser, erect, bareheaded, looked on it unmoved.

"Where does that road lead?" she asked.

Macdonald's blue eyes flashed.

"To Castle Kilchurn—Jock Campbell's house," he answered. "Not your way—your kinsfolk can have no business there."

"No," she said, and coughed and shivered. She gave no sign of where she was going or upon what errand she and her clan were bound, and he, having broken bread with her, would not deign to question; she might be concerned in some of the intricate politics or feuds of the Highlands; he felt it no matter of his, but he also felt he would not lose sight of her so easily.

She spoke again, suddenly:

"I would rather go alone—I can find my way—I have been here before."

A great color came into Macdonald's face; he put his hands on her shoulders and turned her round so that she faced him.

"Why do you so loathe my company?" he demanded. "I am a prince."

She breathed a little heavily to feel him holding her—but her face was unmoved.

"I have a friendship for you and all the Macdonalds," she said.

"Well, prove it," he answered eagerly.

"Let go of me," she said a little unsteadily. "I have broken bread—and drunk with ye." She shook her head, tossing the damp red curls off her white forehead and her lips trembled a little.

"Let go of me," she repeated.

He looked at her steadily and smiled: "The witches of the mountains have brought us together, Helen Fraser—I shall find you again—and as a pledge—ye shall kiss me."

"I will not," she answered. "Take your hands away, Macdonald of Glencoe!"

But he held her gently against the mud walls of the hut; heedless of her shudder under his touch.

A great rowan-bush full of dull berries grew close; her scarlet dress pressed against the dripping leaves as she drew as far as she was able away from him.

"Ye shall—" he said simply. "Why not?"

She was still and quiet though she saw she was helpless.

"We are strangers," she said quickly.

"I would not have it so," he answered eagerly. "Through war or peace I would be a friend to thee and thine—and I would have thy kiss on it—so that there may never be feud between mine and thine—kiss me, Helen Fraser!"

She crushed further into the rowan-tree and gave one quick glance round the utter desolation.

"No!" she said. "No! I—"

But her words were stifled, for he had caught her up to him—and kissed her lightly, full on the mouth.

Like flames piercing ice a sudden passion flared from her calm; she called out something fiercely in the Lowland language that he could not understand, and wrenched away with the furious color in her face.

"A Macdonald's kiss will not harm ye!" he cried hotly s roused by her wrath.

At the sight of his face she controlled herself and set her lips.

"Ye have done what ye wished," she said unsteadily. "Put something between us that I shall remember." She was trembling; passionately clasping and unclasping her hands; he came toward her; she clutched at the reins of her horse and leaped into the saddle.

She flung on her hat, her eyes shone through the floating feather and hair; she had a perfect seat in the saddle; Macdonald noticed how gloriously she sat and how her proud look became her face.

"I am very glad to come with ye," he said, his fair face flushed. "I will not leave ye, Helen Fraser, until ye find your kinsfolk."

She had one hand in the pocket of her coat. Her green eyes were on him; she suddenly spurred her horse forward.

Macdonald taken by surprise, stood still a moment, then impulsively came after her. He saw her turn in the saddle with something glittering in her hand. The next second the report of a pistol rang out; a flash of fire through the rain.

Ronald Macdonald cried out and fell on his side, shot through the ankle.

A sweep of color came into her face as she saw his plaid prone on the heather; she thrust the smoking pistol into her holster and turned her horse's head down the white road that led to Castle Kilchurn.