The Master of Stair/Book 1/Chapter 5


Delia Featherstonehaugh shut the door on Jerome Caryl and her brother and began mounting the stairs of the quiet little house. She could hear the low murmur of the men's voices through the frail door and a fine pencil of yellow light fell between the paneling onto the blackness without. Delia stood still a moment in an attitude of hesitation, then went on lightly and swiftly.

At the top of the stairs she fumbled in the dark along the wall, found what she sought, a door-handle, turned it and entered. She was in a small room with a sloping roof and a deep bow-window; there was no light, but through this window poured a great flood of moonshine that showed the plaster walls, the simple wooden furniture and the figure of a man wrapped in a plaid, who leaned on his elbow at the window and gazed over the city.

The rough outline of his profile was clear against the square of cold blue sky, and above the housetops above him hung the great white moon.

Delia let the door slip into its latch with a click, and he turned his head.

"You are longing to be away," she said in her English Gaelic. "And why have you no light, Macdonald?"

"I have no need," he said mournfully.

Delia gave a nervous little laugh and came up to him. "Why, you are well now," she said, "and will soon be free—you have no need to brood in the dark."

He shook his head gloomily.

"’Tis always dark to me," he answered. "I would I had died."

There was a soft stir of satin as Delia seated herself on a wooden stool beyond the patch of moonlight; out of the shadows came her hesitating voice.

"Do not talk so—we have a mission for you, my brother and I."

He made no answer, only dropped his head into his hand and stared at the moon. Delia locked her fingers together; she seemed to have to make an effort to speak, at last she told him of the discussion between her brother and Jerome Caryl, tried to put it forcibly and clearly and ended by offering him the mission of carrying the warning to the Highlands that they must take the oaths of submission to King William.

He listened as if she spoke of something of no importance; the names of the rival kings, of the Master of Stair, had clearly no meaning to him, but he flushed when she mentioned Breadalbane.

"The others may do what they will," he flung out, "but the Macdonalds of Glencoe will never submit to a Campbell."

Delia strove, somewhat falteringly, to show him the unreasonableness of this; presently he said drearily: "For the sake of your bread that I've eaten, I will do your errand."

A silence fell. Delia put her foot forward into the moonlight, and watched the long shadow it made; she shivered once or twice for the room was cold. Ronald Macdonald seemed to have forgotten her the moment her voice ceased; she looked up at him and said, faintly:

"You promised to tell me before you left, Macdonald, the adventure that brought you to the plight my brother found you in."

That appeared to rouse him; he looked round sharply.

"Ye found me near to death, did ye not?" he demanded.

"You have been in great fever," she answered softly. "Yes, very sick."

"Ah!" He drew himself up in the window-seat and frowned reflectively. "I think she was a Campbell."

"Who?" asked Delia, a little breathlessly.

He did not heed her question. "She was like none I have ever seen," he went on. "I would have fought a clan for her—she wore a coat of the Saxon red, but she was of our country—a Campbell—was she a cursed Campbell?"

"Who was she?" said Delia again, still so faintly that he did not hear.

"Certainly she lied to me," he continued moodily. "And 'fair and false as a Campbell,' they say—she fooled me. I would I had killed her before I let her fool me."

It was the first time he had ever spoken of this mysterious woman. Delia fumbled in vain for the meaning.

"What was she like?" she asked.

He flushed and turned his frank eyes toward her.

"She had hair of the Campbell red, and curly like little Oak leaves round her face; her eyes were like a wildcat's, that the light runs in and out of; her mouth was bright as blood, and her face white and sharp; she coughed and shivered, her voice was very cold. I kissed her and she would have killed me for it—yet could it have been only that?—I think she was a Campbell."

He sat up and gazed earnestly into the shadows where Delia sat; his plaid had fallen back and showed the rough hide coat underneath and the strong lines of his bare throat. Delia laughed.

"Whoever she was I think you love her, Macdonald," she said.

"I want her," he answered simply. "I want to look at her again, to touch her, to hear her. If she is a Campbell I hate her—yet I want her—and I cannot rest for this desire."

Delia stood up; there was a gleam of satin as she moved, a quick rustle; she had her hands on her bosom and they rose and fell very quickly.

"Did she shoot you?" she asked.

"Yea," he answered. "Against the mist I saw her harness shine, and like the sun was her yellow hair,—she leaned from the saddle and fired—but I had kissed her." His breath came fast. He smiled. "I held her back against the rowan-tree, the berries all mingled with her fallen curls—I kissed her! She called out in your Southern tongue—then she said, 'You have put that between us that I shall not forget,' and her white lids dropped till her red lashes touched her cheek—and I ... I cannot rest."

Delia Featherstonehaugh laughed as relief to the effect of the romantic wording of the soft tongue and the white coldness of the moonlight; she steadied herself with the thought of her brother and Jerome Caryl talking (very practically) below.

"You are free to go when you will, Macdonald," she said. "Only—if you will see my brother first and take his message to the clans."

She saw his eyes open, with a quick delight, she thought. He turned his face full toward her for the first time.

"I will do anything you wish," he said. "If I may go at once—to-night."

She stiffened and drew further away.

"Why not?" she answered. "You are well enough." Her manner was unnaturally cold, but he took no heed of her; she waited for her answer in vain. "Why not?" she repeated at length. "We only kept you here during your sickness, Macdonald."

Something in her tone seemed to ask for gratitude, the expression of some thankfulness for his life saved, but the inflection was too delicate for him to notice it.

"I will take your message," he repeated. "Only you must not ask us to take the oaths to a Campbell."

"Not to a Campbell," she said. "To the Prince's Government—but will you come and see my brother?"

Instinctive fear and dislike of the Southern struggled with the Macdonald's desire for freedom; he reflected a while, then gave a grave consent.

Delia, watching him, was quick to see that his impulse was to leave without a word, stride off with no backward look at the hated town. With her head held very stately high she preceded him down the stairs and flung open the parlor door.

The two men turned at her entrance. She made a little gesture toward Macdonald, and spoke in English.

"My Highlander—and he is so eager to leave us, Perseus, he would do anything—he will take your message."

Crossing to the fire, she seated herself, leaving Macdonald in the doorway. He eyed the two Saxons with frank interest; his glance rested long on the beautiful face of Jerome Caryl.

"I am to translate, Perseus," said Delia. "What do you want to say?"

Jerome looked at the huge Highlander with approval.

"Ask him to sit down," he said. "He looks honest."

Delia obeyed with an air almost of disdain; Jerome, glancing at her, wondered what had damped her eager spirits; she was very grave and pale; her eyes were fixed with a curious expression on Macdonald; her mouth had a little lift of scorn.

She sat so, very still, translating her brother's questions and explanations into Gaelic, and Jerome Caryl watched her.

Macdonald listened with gravity and attention, appeared to understand what was asked of him and received into his keeping the letters to the Highland chiefs with a solemn promise to deliver them.

Sir Perseus gave him a rough map of his route from Glasgow to Glencoe, a pistol and a few crowns.

These last he respected as useless; he was doubtful, too, of the pistol, but finally stuck it in his belt. Jerome Caryl offered to see him on his way beyond the town gates.

Macdonald declined, gazing from his high window he had marked the gates and could well find them. With cordialities on the part of Sir Perseus, and shy reserve from the Highlander, they took leave of each other.

"I will light you," said Delia.

She rose and took up a candle and led the way down-stairs; Ronald Macdonald, light-footed as a cat, followed.

In the narrow little hall she turned and faced him; in the circle of the candle-light her brown hair glittered with threads of gold and the yellow satin of her gown rippled into reflections and shadows.

"Maybe you will meet the lady with the red curls again," she said.

He looked curiously at the Saxon woman who had nursed him; his blue eyes held some wonder; he had hardly realized her as yet.

"’Tis late to start on a journey," continued Delia; "dark already."

"Day and night are one to me," he answered.

"And you are very eager to be gone," she finished with a faint smile.

He looked at her half-hesitatingly.

"You have been very hospitable to one not of your race," he said slowly. "Beyond Dunblane, on the beginning of the Highlands, lives an old shepherd who knows me well—if you ever need me send to him and I shall hear."

She lifted her head.

"I shall ask for no gratitude, Macdonald," she said gravely and proudly. "Nor am I like to need you—I have my own kin."

A puzzled expression crossed his face.

"Your brother is a Saxon," he answered. "Most Saxons would have shot me where I lay."

Delia Featherstonehaugh smiled faintly:

"My brother is a gentleman."

"And I am a prince of the Macdonalds," said the Highlander, "and I can bring two hundred men to serve you when you will. They would give their lives to one who had given Ronald Macdonald his."

This sudden high-handed overpaying of what she had done at a moment when she was the most considering him ungrateful, brought a quick flush of shame into her cheeks.

"I pray you do not speak of it," she said faintly.

She was leaning against the wall and the candle shook so in her hand that her shadow waved and danced behind her on the paneling; she was very much aware of the nearness of his magnificent presence and the frank half-wonder of his blue eyes turned on her, though her own were very resolutely fixed upon her feet.

"Unbar the door," she asked him, "’tis too heavy for me."

He bent over the iron bolts; as he turned his back she glanced once up then down again.

There was a hoarse creaking and the door swung slowly open on the violet night; it was bitter cold; beneath the rising moon great masses of gray clouds lay piled, and a low stinging wind was abroad.

Macdonald stepped over the threshold and set his face toward the gates; a little wild smile crossed his face.

"Farewell," he said absently, and turned to leave.

A gust of wind blew out the candle and Delia let it drop; with a swish of skirts she came out into the cobbled road, her hair blown about her face.

"Macdonald," she said; he turned and gazed down at her; the moonlight lay on her from head to foot; she was pale and her eyes looked preternaturally large.

"Macdonald," she repeated, then seemed to fumble for her words, "Do you understand?—you must take the oaths." She laid her hand on the corner of his plaid with a timid eagerness that had its effect.

"We will go to Breadalbane's conference," he answered, "and if the others submit—"

"There must be no 'if'!" she cried impetuously. "Don't you see? Take the oaths or woe, woe to Glencoe! For the Campbells will get letters of fire and sword against you, and the whole strength of England would be behind them!"

He appeared to suddenly give heed to some of the danger threatening; his serious face darkened.

"Maybe we will take the oaths—" he answered gloomily, "but not to Breadalbane."

"Lochiel, Glengarry and Keppoch will take them," she said eagerly. "Why not you?"

He turned on her fiercely: "Ye are Saxon! Ye cannot fathom! We hate the Campbells!"

He loosened his plaid almost roughly from her grasp and was gone at a swinging pace down the empty street.

Delia stood where he had left her; she put her loosened hair back and stared after him; she shivered yet did not know it was cold; a few houses off a flickering oil lamp hung across the street; she waited for the great figure to show beneath it, thinking perhaps he might look back since there he reached the turn of the road.

She saw him pass from the moonlight into the lamplight, then disappear into the dark shadow of the houses beyond. He had not turned his head, but with light and quickened pace had gone.

Delia Featherstonehaugh went into the house—shut the door and slowly mounted the stairs. She could hear her brother and Jerome Caryl talking in the parlor and the old woman who was their only servant moving about below; she avoided both and went straight to her own room.

It was a cheerless poor place; as Delia lit the lamp and looked round a vague, sick longing took her heart.

She had never known a home or wished for one; even when her father was alive they had been desperately poor and she had alternated between a foreign convent and a Scotch lodging, according as the fortunes of her father's master, the Duke of York, had shifted.

There had been some little prosperity for them when the Duke, as King James, came to the throne; of that now nothing remained save the empty baronetcy that her brother now held and the memory of her father's death at the Boyne.

Yet she had been happy.

She went on her knees by her bed and buried her face in the pillows; it was strange to feel suddenly tired and lonely; she was half-frightened at the heaviness of her heart.

After a while she rose to her feet with a shudder between shame and fear; she felt restless, distracted, incapable of any continued thought.

She opened the door and looked out.

The house seemed quiet; she crept down-stairs and entered the parlor.

It was empty, but the light still burning. Delia, suddenly aware that she was numb with cold, drew a chair to the fire and held her hands to the flames. Sitting so, she fell into dreams and did not notice when the fire sank and died and the log fell into ashes at her feet; her thoughts were more real than the room; she suddenly called out at them aloud and clasped her hands passionately, then, startled at herself, looked round.

The other side of the hearth stood Jerome Caryl, his melancholy hazel eyes fixed on her.

"Mr. Caryl!" she cried and flushed scarlet.

His small mouth curved into a smile. "Forgive me," he said softly. "I startled you—"

She recovered herself with a half-laugh. "I thought you were gone with Perseus—or abed," she said, "and I—I have let the fire out."

She spoke hurriedly and the color receding from her face, left her very white.

Jerome seated himself. "Miss Delia," he said, "this is a miserable life for you."

"Oh, no," she answered. "No."

"Yes," he insisted gently. "For a woman and a lady, a miserable life; you are very heroic, Miss Delia, to give up so much for King James."

"You forget, Mr. Caryl, that I have no alternative." She smiled frankly at him "And I am a born plotter," she added, "and sanguine—so content, Mr. Caryl."

A silence fell between them; she turned her head away and fell to twisting her fingers together in her lap; he could see her profile in pure strong lines against the background of shadows, the curve of her throat into the lace collar and the loosened knot of dull brown curls in her neck; he studied her with gentle melancholy eyes and his mouth drooped with lines of musing. Presently the girl spoke, shaking off the spell of the silence with an effort.

"Mr. Caryl—do you think the Highlands will take the oath?"

"I hope so—most fervently," he answered. "Indeed, I think so—"

"All of them?" she asked, and her voice faltered a little.

Jerome Caryl considered.

"Some might hate the Campbells more than they feared the government," he said, "but it would, Miss Delia, hardly matter—they would pay the price—they could not involve the others."

"Pay the price," she repeated. "What would that be?—what would the government do to those who did not take the oaths?"

She turned full toward him with grave, intent eyes.

"’Tis not a question of the government," answered Caryl. "But of Breadalbane and the Master of Stair—they are waiting very eagerly, Miss Delia, for the first of January to pass, and they are preparing a great vengeance against those who shall then be outside the law."

"They would be pitiless, you think?" she questioned breathlessly.

"Yes," said Jerome Caryl.

She moved impetuously in her chair. "Why?" she asked, "I can understand Breadalbane—but why the Master of Stair? What has he against the Highlands?"

"The contempt of the statesman for the savage," Caryl answered with a half-smile. "The intolerant arrogance of the powerful against those who oppose him, and the haughty resolution of an imperious soul, Miss Delia."

"I loathe his make," she cried. "Hard and cruel—I have heard horrid tales of him—and how he is accursed—he is a fitting servant of William of Orange!"

The color had come into her face; she set her lips resolutely and flung up her head.

"Do you think that the Macdonalds of Glencoe will take the oaths?" she asked abruptly.

"I cannot tell," he answered gravely.

"And if they did not—" she stopped, then went on bravely. "They are in the heart of the Campbell country—I suppose—I mean, do you think—Breadalbane would—leave any alive?"

"Nay, I cannot tell," said Jerome Caryl, "I think it is not likely that he would forego this chance against his ancient enemies."

She rose up suddenly and her clasped hands fell apart and clenched at her sides.

"Ah!" she cried.

Then she caught his eyes on her and gave a faint laugh.

"Mr. Caryl," she began. She could get no further; her voice broke; she put her trembling hand to her mouth and stared down at him.

He rose.

"Miss Delia," he said gently, "what is it to you that the Macdonalds should take the oaths?"

The direct question threw her off her defenses; she gave him a terrified glance and sank into the chair, turning away her head.

"What is it to you?" he repeated softly.

Her voice came muffled over her shoulder: "Why, nothing—only—you see—I—"

He saw her shoulders heave, and bent over her. She was sobbing; he could see the tears glittering on her cheek; with a great effort she tried for control.

"I am tired—and excited, Mr. Caryl—don't heed me."

He stood still and silent, watching her, his soft mouth curved into a half-sad smile; the light from the flaring candle and his flickering shadow rose and fell over her, now obscuring, now revealing her bent head, and stooping shoulders.

"’Tis nothing," she said, stifling her sobs.

"Miss Delia," said Jerome Caryl, "I think it is a great deal."

She suddenly broke down beyond concealment. "I think my heart is broken," she whispered between passionate sobs "I think I am mad—oh,—I am ashamed!—ashamed!"

She struggled up, hiding her scarlet, tear-stained face.

"Think me mad," she whispered through her fingers, "and forget—I am ashamed—and most unhappy—"

She leaned her forehead against the chimneypiece and sobbed afresh; her yellow skirt trailed in the dead ashes on the hearth, and from head to foot she shuddered.

Jerome Caryl was neither discomposed nor confused; he surveyed her agitation with a tender calmness and his strange melancholy smile deepened.

"I think we can make the Macdonalds take the oaths, Miss Delia," he said, "as an old friend you will let me help you—in what I can?"

She lifted her head and looked at him with a half-wonder.

"What do you mean?" she whispered.

His voice sank melodiously low.

"I mean I think you would not care, Miss Delia, for the man who has left us to be massacred by the Campbells—you would like to think he and his clan were safe."

Delia went white and clutched at the edge of the mantelpiece; she stared with widened eyes at the beautiful face of the man opposite.

"You know," she said at length, "you are very gallant with my folly, Mr. Caryl."

"My sweet friend," he answered, "your folly is a lovely thing—this man is honored by your consideration and I by leave to help you—you have a tenderness toward the life you saved; believe me it does you credit."

A look of relief crossed her face, she gave a little gasping sigh.

"You are generous," she said falteringly, "and I foolish—and ashamed—"

"I have seen strange things in an adventurer's career, Miss Delia," he smiled, "but never any one ashamed with no cause."

She stood abashed, yet comforted; gratitude that he had not guessed and fear that he might struggled together at her heart; she resolved on escape.

"Good-night," she said, and held out her hand.

His cool, firm palm touched her trembling hot fingers; she gave him a wistful look.

"Thank you—Jerome," she said, and with a sweep of skirts was gone.

He noted the way she gave him his name as a great mark of confidence, and smiled quietly.

"So she is in love with that Highlander," he said to himself, "and thinks her heart broken!"

He shrugged his shoulders; then yawned and picked the candle up.

"Perseus is remarkably obtuse," he reflected. "Poor lady!" And he yawned again.