The Master of Stair/Book 1/Chapter 3


Loch Awe lay vast and gloomy under the gray skies; it was twilight and the sky burnt gold and purple with the last of the setting sun behind Castle Kilchurn. Though it no longer rained, great black clouds lay over the distant mountains and a thick mist hung over the placid water. The castle itself, standing huge and magnificent on the tongue of land that runs into the loch at the foot of Ben Cruachan, bore on the Gothic turrets the English standard: a symbol of the authority with which the government had invested the Earl of Breadalbane.

Along the road that wound by the edges of the loch to the castle, rode a woman in a scarlet cloak.

The vast expanse of cloudy sky, the huge outlines of misty mountains, the gloomy castle and the great storm-twisted fir-trees were all tinged with an air of awe and melancholy.

The woman and her bright brown horse were reflected among the shadows of the broken clouds in the still water; she rode slowly with her face lifted to the flaring sky and her red hair blown back from her face.

There were lights in the windows of the Castle Kilchurn, and the outer gates stood open.

The horsewoman rode through and up to the great entrance, where she alighted. Before she had time to knock, four or five servants came hurrying across the courtyard to take her horse, and the door was flung wide.

She silently entered the vast stone hall, and looked about her; a couple of white hounds came running up to her; a gray-haired butler stepped forward. She asked him in Saxon:

"Is my lord here yet?"

"Nay, my lady; he is looking for your ladyship, when he found ye were missing, he returned to find ye, my lady."

"Let one go after him," she answered, "to say I am arrived—is my cousin, Colin, here?"

"Yea, my lady; and all the other gentlemen."

She flung off her damp coat and ascended the great, bare unfurnished stairs.

On the first landing she came into a glare of light that fell through an open door; servants were passing to and fro, and there was the sound of many voices.

She entered; stood in the doorway looking down the room.

It had been the dining-hall of the old castle; it was a large room with tapestry on the walls and a huge log fire burning on the hearth.

Round the black oak table a party of gentlemen were dining by the light of a hundred candles. At sight of the woman in the doorway they all rose with one exclamation:

"The Countess Peggy!"

She came down the room smiling.

"Ye did expect I had fed the eagles by now?" she asked. "Weel, I'll no be saying but I was fearfu' of it mysel'—welcome to Kilchurn, gentlemen—gude even to ye, Colin."

She held out her hand to the gentleman at the head of the table and took her place beside him, while the others reseated themselves.

"So my lord wanders on the mountains searching for me?" she said. "And ye'll no be having a great opinion of my wits for getting lost."

The green eyes glanced round; some ten men were seated there; all fair-haired, unmistakably of one race, her own, Campbells with keen faces.

"I was no greatly fearing for ye," said her cousin, Colin Campbell of Ardkinglass. "Ye will be knowing these parts vera weel, I thought ye could find your way to Kilchurn."

The Countess Peggy laughed.

"Weel, I'm blithe to be out of the mist and wet," she said. "Albeit I have gotten a great cold."

"Ye didna' come in with any of the murdering Hielandmen?" asked one of the gentlemen.

The Countess poured out some wine and drank it before she answered.

"Yea—I was put on my way by one of the Glencoe men."

A murmur ran round the table.

"Macdonald o' Glencoe!"

Lady Breadalbane's green eyes flashed: "Ay," she said. "He'd been thieving an' murdering—burning one of my lord's houses, he said. He showed me Campbells rotting on the trees and—"

She checked herself abruptly; her keen glance roved round the grim Campbell faces. "I think we've taken enough from these Macdonalds of Glencoe," she said slowly.

There was a little deadly pause; it was not easy for a Campbell to voice his feelings for a Macdonald.

It was the Countess who spoke first: "They're vera simple, these savages; I told him I was a Fraser."

"It was wise," remarked her cousin dryly. "If he had kenned ye were Breadalbane's wife, weel, ye would n a' be here noo."

"Indeed, they do hate my lord," she answered. "I had to listen to some miscalling of Jock Campbell—as they name him." Her thin lips curled into a bitter smile. "I tried to sound him about this conference—ye ken—this matter my lord has on hand for quieting the Hielands—'we'll never take the oaths'—he says—'Jock Campbell's got the money in his coffers for himsel'—we may come,' he says, 'but we'll enter into no treaty with a Campbell.'"

"Puir fules," said one of the company. "They think we want them to be taking the oaths to King William?"

"They're no' so simple as that," answered another. "But they consider the new government'll need something for its money—an' if a Campbell can't quiet the Hielands—some one else can try—it's plain they're bent on ruining the negotiations out of spite to Breadalbane."

The Countess Peggy set her wine-glass down fiercely: "Weel," she said, "’tis the end of October noo, an' they must take the oaths by January—they've been dallying for two years—but I'm no' thinking either we or the government will be taking any more."

"Lochiel and Glengarry show signs of yielding," said Colin Campbell, "though they demand, ye ken, too much of the money—and Coll a' the Cows, the ould murdering thief, he'll come in to save his ugly neck—but Macdonald of Glencoe will na'."

"I dinna think we shall be troubled as how to treat them," answered another. "They'll be rebels—it'll be a fine chance to be clearing the country of a den of thieves."

The Countess Peggy's eyes flashed at the speaker a meaning look.

"My lord'll be equal to them," she smiled.

In their hearts they all assented; they knew the Earl of Breadalbane, ruthless and cunning even for a Campbell; of a fine ability and a power that made him next to his cousin Argyll, the master of the Highlands; and these kinsmen of his, a body-guard of Campbells kept always about him, regarded him with a respect that only great cunning, great falseness and great power could have engendered in their shrewd souls.

Dinner over, they rose; they had come from Edinburgh that day and were mostly weary.

The Countess Peggy, whose masterful spirit they obeyed, dismissed them.

She was going to wait up for the Earl, she said, and needed no company.

It was hardly late yet; but the Campbells were never of a roistering spirit; most of them went to bed; the Countess waited alone in the dining-hall.

It was full of the mellow light of candles and the bright glow of the fire; the arms and trophies of the chase on the tapestried walls glittered in points of light.

She seated herself in a large oak chair that almost concealed her slender figure; her buckle shoes were held out to the blaze; her fine, thin face was outlined against the ruby head cushion; she sighed, finding herself tired.

One of the boar-hounds had found its way in and lay by her side; her long white hand hung idly down and caressed his silky ears; all her movements were very graceful; her body as supple as her face was unmoved and hard.

The heavy clock in the corner had struck ten, but she gave no sign of impatience; her lids drooped over her brilliant eyes, though her firm, thin mouth was unrelaxed.

It struck the half-hour. She looked round; the table was set, nothing was wanting for her husband's welcome; she lapsed into musing again.

Presently she started into alertness; there was a sound without; the door opened suddenly.

"Jock!" she cried and sprang up.

A slight gentleman in a shining cuirass stood in the doorway.

In a second the dog was at his side and the woman half way down the room with out-held hands to meet him.

"Jock!" she said again; the change in her was wonderful; she flushed into an animated color, all hardness left her face; with sparkling eyes and parted lips she came to him.

"Weel," he smiled, "I didna' think ye would be lost on your own Hielands." He stooped and kissed her; then with a sudden half-laugh to hide the unsteadiness in his voice:

"Ye gave me a bitter moment, Peggy, when I found ye had missed us."

"’Twas the mist!" she cried. "I dropped my whip and turned back for it—then the mist thickened; ah, my dear, ye canna ken how lonesome I felt alone in the wild hills."

She trembled; her overwrought control leaving her at sight of him; he led her to the table and drew her down beside him; he was more relieved at sight of her safe in Kilchurn than he would have cared to put into words, and it was with a sigh of relief that she looked at him; she had had disturbing visions of the wild Macdonalds meeting the hated Breadalbane.

She sank on a little stool beside him while he eat his supper, with her green eyes, very soft now, on his face.

He was a man of a remarkable appearance; of a very elegant build and upright carriage, though barely of the middle height; his face was thin and hollow in the cheeks, his lower jaw projecting gave him a sinister expression; his nose, a high aquiline, his eyes large, light gray and very restless; his thick brown hair of a blond so pale that it appeared gray.

There was an air of great delicacy and dignity about him; he smiled continually, but taken without the smile the face was hard and cruel.

When he looked at his wife, however, it entirely softened and his unpleasant eyes flashed into a passion that redeemed them as she caught his free hand and laid it against her cheek.

"’Tis the last time I lose sight of ye when we cross the Hielands, Peggy," he said. "Did ye meet any?"

"Yea," she answered under her breath; "a Macdonald o' Glencoe."

The Earl turned in his chair with a flash of steel and gold.

"One of those thieves!" he cried. "What did he do?"

A deep color came into her face.

"He showed me the way," she said. "He showed me also Campbells he'd slain—he showed plunder from your house—he named you devil—and—"

"Ah, he didna' ken ye were a Campbell?" asked Breadalbane.

"Why no, Jock—I told him I was a Fraser—I didna' desire to be murdered."

"Ye will have deceived him," remarked the Earl. "Ye are a bonnie liar, Peggy."

He gave the strange compliment in all sincerity and so she took it.

"But ye hav'na' heard the finish," she said. "Jock—will ye ever forgive me?"

She lifted eager glowing eyes and laid her hand on his arm.

Breadalbane put down his wine-glass.

"Weel?" he questioned. "Ye look ower serious, Peggy."

She gave a great shudder as at the remembrance of something loathly.

"I have broken bread with a Macdonald," she cried bitterly. "And—"

"Weel?" he insisted.

"And then—by force—he kissed me, Jock."

The Earl's hollow face flushed scarlet.

"A Macdonald o' Glencoe kissed ye!" he cried.

"Ay," she answered passionately. "But I dinna think he'll live to boast of it. I left him on the mountain, shot through the ankle."

"It should have been his heart," said Breadalbane grimly.

"Yes, I ken, but I couldna'—'tis work for you, Jock, not for me—I just shot to prevent his following me—tis likely he'll die of hardship." She rose restlessly to her feet.

"I wish he hadna' kissed me," she cried. "A Macdonald o' Glencoe!"

Breadalbane's pale eyes flashed and narrowed, but he spoke quietly:

"The Macdonalds and I will come to issues yet, Peggy—and then—by Heaven! I shallna' forget this."

"Ah, I ken, Jock but—I would he hadna' kissed me."

Her face flushed and trembled; the Earl set his mouth dangerously as he marked her wrathful distress; he held his hand out to her and she very passionately caught hold of it.

"We've taken enough from these Macdonalds," she cried. "I saw the plunder of a house of yours to-day—and murdered Campbells feeding the eagles—"

She swung round on him with tears gathering in her eyes: "Jock, ye are almost master in the Hielands; are ye going to leave this knot of thieves in your midst to harry and insult ye?"

"Nay," cried Breadalbane fiercely. "I'm only waiting, ye ken—ye canna touch the Glencoe men openly—ye might as weel try to hunt the eagles off Ben Cruachan as the Macdonalds out o' Glencoe—but if they dinna take the oaths—" He finished with one of his sudden smiles.

"Yea," said the Countess Peggy breathlessly. "Ye'll have the government behind ye then, they'll be rebels and proscribed men—ye'll have them in your hand, Jock. Ah, but do ye think they willna' take the oaths?"

Breadalbane drew her down beside him and kissed her flushed forehead.

"Dinna fear, Peggy; not ane of the Hielanders will take the oaths—or if Glengarry or Lochiel do, the Macdonalds willna'."

"Ah!" she took a deep breath. "And then ye will have the law to help ye."

"I shall get letters of fire and sword from the government," said Breadalbane, "and clear the Hielands of the Macdonalds."

There fell a little pause; the two utterly absorbed in themselves and each other did not notice or heed the falling fire and guttering candles or the lifting wail of the storm without.

The Countess spoke; under her breath:

"But at Edinburgh—in England, where they want the Hielands quiet—will they no demand an account of ye?—will they support ye?"

The room was growing cold; unconsciously she felt it and shivered, drawing closer to her husband.

"I have the most powerful man in Scotland behind me," said the Earl slowly. "And he has great weight in England—is a close friend of the King—and he is not willing for the Hielands to take the oaths."

"Who do you mean?" she questioned eagerly.

A dying log on the hearth fell and broke into a shower of sparks; a gust of wind blew down the chimney.

"The Master of Stair," said Breadalbane. "Being the Secretary and a close friend of the King, he can do what he will with Scotland."

"Yet I do think he is the most hated man in the country," mused the Countess. "I did notice a fury of hate in Edinburgh against his father and him—he couldna' be more unpopular."

"I dinna care," smiled Breadalbane. "He has the power—and a fine ability. He wasna' for buying the Hielands. Put the money into powder and shot, he said—and now, when we've been dealing with them for two years in vain—he says the same.

"Weel, then," she cried. "All ye have to do is to wait till after the first day of January. Then get the letters of fire and sword—and the Master of Stair will support ye."

"Both he and his father," he answered. "Both the Dalrymples. If any take the oaths, weel, they'll be within the law—but, as the King said to Balcarras—let those who stay without the law, look to it—as they must expect to be left to the law."

He rose abruptly and crossed to the fire, where the last light from the glowing embers was reflected in his cuirass.

His wife followed him with shining eyes; it was the first time even she had so enjoyed his confidence; the first time he had so spoken of his affairs, though he had always been assured of her passionate sympathy. He fell into silence as he leaned against the heavy chimneypiece and she noticed that his delicate face had fallen into lines of weariness.

"Ye look tired, Jock," she said tenderly.

"Unlace me," he smiled. "This thing is heavy."

She came up and unstrapped his armor; as he shook himself free of it, he gave a sigh of relief.

"I shallna' need to be riding my own lands armed when the Macdonalds of Glencoe are—weel, treated as to their desserts," he remarked as he shook out his crumpled buff coat.

As she laid down his cuirass he spoke again:

"What was the name of this Macdonald to-day?" he asked quietly.

"Ronald—the chief's son he said," she answered.

Breadalbane yawned, then glanced with half-shut eyes at his sword hilt.

"Ronald, the son of Makian," he said—"maybe the laddie will live."

He glanced at his wife.

"Ronald, the son of Makian," he repeated. "Weel, a Campbell always has a vera gude memory."