The Master of Stair/Book 1/Chapter 6


The Earl of Breadalbane bit his pen and stared thoughtfully out of the window at the gloomy shores of Loch Awe.

He sat in a small chamber contrived by a modern architect out of one of the Gothic halls of the old castle; it was well furnished and contained the luxuries (rare in the Highlands), of a carpet, wall-hangings and a sideboard with a mirror.

These things, however, were none of them new; the Earl's chair showed the horsehair through the broken leather and the carpet in front of his bureau was worn threadbare; the Earl was a wealthy man and a proud, but above everything prudent; he kept his French furniture for Edinburgh and used here things that had served when he was merely Sir John Campbell of Glenorchy.

A sheet of paper was before him; clear save for the heading:

"To Sir John Dalrymple, Master of Stair." The Earl was very clear as to what he wished to write to the Secretary; it was merely to inform him that there was little likelihood of many of the clans coming in by the prescribed time; to advise him that the new regiment of his cousin, Argyll, should be armed and quartered in Glasgow with as little disturbance as possible.

But it was not so easy to couch this in terms satisfactory to his own cautious mind; it must be in his own hand, his name attached; there must be possibility of a perfectly innocent construing of it if ever it were produced.

Breadalbane had often raised his eyebrows of late at the letters the Master of Stair put his hand to; the utterly reckless letters of a man too powerful to heed caution.

"But times change," smiled Breadalbane, "he'd no' be so powerful if there was a revolution." He opened a drawer and pulled out a packet of the Master of Stair's letters; written mostly from Kensington and in a powerful, picturesque style, flowing and eloquent. They set forth a scheme evidently very passionately dear to the writer's heart, namely, the utter destruction of that "damnable den of thieves," the Highlanders.

Breadalbane took up the last and read it over again; it contained these words:

"Your troops will destroy entirely the country of Lochaber, Lochiel's lands, Keppoch's, Glengarry's and Glencoe's. Your power shall be large enough. I hope the soldiers will not trouble the government with prisoners."

The Earl folded and put the letters away. "You are very confident, Sir John," he reflected, "that the clans will no' be coming in."

It was now the third of December and none had taken the oaths; there seemed fair ground for the Master of Stair's eager hope that none would; who was to warn the remote Highlands of the secret vengeance preparing against them; of the soldiers sent quietly in readiness for the first day of the new year, of the Master of Stair, Secretary and Prime Minister for Scotland, waiting for that day with the terrible calmness of a black resolve?

The Highlanders saw none of this; only the suave smile of the loathed Campbell who was the government's instrument, and a demand for the avowal of submission their haughtiness would not stoop to grant.

Breadalbane put down his pen and pushed his chair back.

If the chiefs were not warned...

His light eyes glistened unpleasantly—certainly he had at least the Macdonalds in his hand.

He was returning to his letter with a smile on his thin lips when the door was suddenly opened and he swung round with his swift silent movement.

It was Campbell of Ardkinglass.

"Weel?" demanded the Earl, and his tone was haughty: his common usage.

Ardkinglass gave him a strange glance. "Macdonald o' Glencoe is below," he said dryly. "The chief and his twa sons asking for ye."

Breadalbane rose stiffly:

"Macdonald o' Glencoe—under my roof?" he said with narrowing eyes.

Ardkinglass nodded.

"They will be wishing to take the oaths," he answered. "They've come to attend the conference."

The Earl, always mindful of his dignity before his henchmen, stifled a fierce oath. "I'm no' a sheriff," he said. "Let them begone from my roof—see to it Ardkinglass—tell them I willna' treat with thieves."

"They willna' gang," replied Campbell of Ardkinglass, "they've come, they say, for their share of the bonnie English siller."

The Earl's control broke at that; he cried out passionately:

"The auld leeing thief! He would be asking me for the siller when he owes me more for rent and robbery than his share twice ower!"

"I think they will be coming to see ye in your public capacity," was the answer. "They're no' taking heed of private feuds."

Breadalbane stood silent; the angry color fled from his face and it took on lines of cunning; his eyes shifted under their blond brows; he stroked his chin with his delicate hand and coughed musingly; then he glanced up with a return of his perpetual smile.

"Weel," he said, "I'll come, Ardkinglass." He turned and carefully locked away his papers; then preceded his kinsman down the great gaunt stairs.

The Macdonalds stood in the center of the vast dining-hall, the old chief between his two sons; all three erect with their bonnets in their hands, all huge in height and build.

The two young men were breathing hard, flushed and defiant, their eyes roving quickly from door to window; but the elder Makian's fine old face showed a dignified, placid calm in keeping with his venerable appearance, a benevolent good-will showed in his bright blue eyes and his lips were curved to a kindly smile.

Breadalbane, entering, gave him a quick glance, then stepped forward, motioning to Ardkinglass to stand back against the wall. The two young men swung round, black with mistrust, but Makian spoke in bland Lowland Scotch:

"Ye will be wondering, why we make such a tardy appearance," he remarked gently, "weel, it was the weather—was ower rough."

His manner utterly waived all thought of offense between them; he spoke as if the Campbells and Macdonalds had been friends for centuries.

Breadalbane hitched his sword over his hip so that it lay nearer his hand. "Weel," he answered thoughtfully, "I'll no' be denying that I was expecting Makian, though 'tis ower long since a Macdonald came to Kilchurn."

Makian waved his hand courteously as if he dismissed even the hint of an unpleasant subject. "Ye will be guessing our errand?" he said suavely.

There was the slightest pause; Breadalbane measured the three huge Highlanders in their dark tartans with their dirks stuck through their belts, and the Highlanders eyed the Earl, slender in his Lowland suit of gray velvet with his left hand gently pulling his sword backwards and forwards.

He was the first to speak:

"Yea," he said, "it will be aboot the coos ye have come, Macdonald."

Makian's face was a pleasant blank.

"The coos?" he repeated courteously.

Breadalbane lifted his ash-gray eyes with a sinister flash.

"The coos," he answered, "and the bonnie pasture lands—they have been keeping ye, Macdonald, this mony year, I ken—I willna' be mentioning the gould and siller, the plate and furniture and sic details—for I'm no' doubting ye have come to return the coos."

"I'm no' understanding," said Makian pleasantly. "We hav'na' ane coo in Glencoe." His two sons emphasized the statement with a scowl, but the Earl was imperturbable.

"Weel," he remarked, "ye eat a muckle of meat in a fortnight—it is only that time since ye took a hundred fat coos—but I make no doubt that since ye have eaten them, Macdonald, ye have brought the siller to pay for them."

Again there was a slight pause; the venerable Makian's face assumed a still more amiable expression, but he appeared a little at a loss for an answer; the sons exchanged fierce glances.

Breadalbane, still fondling his sword-hilt, spoke slowly.

"The market value of the coos is twa pund English apiece."

At this one of the young Macdonalds broke out: "Ye play the fule, Jock Campbell! We hav'na' come to prate of coos—but of the oaths to King Wullie."

Breadalbane looked at him calmly.

"So you're thinking of taking the oaths? Weel, I'm no' a sheriff."

Makian interposed:

"We will gang to the sheriff, Jock Campbell, but there was talk of siller for those taking the oaths and I'd no' be adverse to my ain share."

"Weel?" said Breadalbane mildly.

"We'll no' be asking a muckle," said Makian generously. "King Jamie couldna' do more for us than fine words and a siller bawbee apiece—gie us twa hundred of King Wullie's money and we'll be taking the oaths."

"I take your meaning, Macdonald," answered Breadalbane. "The twa hundred pund would just pay for the coos—well, I'll keep it and then you'll be still owing me the rent."

Makian was silent, recognizing a master-stroke of cunning; Ronald had little Lowland speech and could only frown angrily; but Ian, his elder, made a step toward Breadalbane:

"We owe ye neither money nor friendship, Jock Campbell," he cried fiercely, "we come to ye because ye stand for the government—we'll no' be considering what there is between us here and noo."

Breadalbane lifted his head with a little laugh. "Keep back," he said. "Dinna forget that I'm no' ane of your Hieland thieves, but Campbell o' Glenorchy and Breadalbane! Keep back, I say! Do ye ken that in Edinburgh the lifting of my finger would hang ye before the Tolbooth?"

His eyes shone with a steady contained hate, and fire flashed in Ian Macdonald's gaze to meet it.

"Na doot ye could lee awa' a mon's life in Edinburgh, Jock Campbell," he answered, "but noo we stand on our ain ground."

"Ye stand in Kilchurn Castle!" cried the Earl. "Dinna forget that Macdonald!"

A passionate reply was on Ian's lips, but the old chief interposed:

"Ay, we stand in your ain castle, Jock Campbell, because we treat ye as the government's representative—in your public capacity, ye ken. I'll no' be saying it's greatly to our liking to treat with a Campbell, but I will be saying it'll no' be greatly to your credit to be remembering ye are a Campbell."

Breadalbane's hand clutched tightly round his sword-hilt; he struggled to maintain his wonted dignity of demeanor.

"Take the oaths an' ye will, Macdonald," he said. "But dinna think ye'll get ony siller frae me—not a bawbee. Ye owe me in money and kind mony times your share o' the English siller."

Makian drew himself up with stately gravity.

"Ye are wrong," he said. "’Tis not in your right to withhold the money."

"’Tis in my power," flashed Breadalbane. Ian answered fiercely:

"I fling your word of thief back at ye, Jock Campbell!"

He was striding forward when his brother and father caught him by either arm.

"We must have no fighting," cried Ronald in Gaelic. "There are a hundred Campbells here—woe that we ever came!"

Breadalbane, holding himself erect, smiled coldly at them; he had himself well under control; Makian glancing at his set face felt it had been a mistake to cross his threshold.

There was an intense pause; Ronald scowled till his blue eyes were hidden; the wily old chief with one hand tightly on Ian's arm was considering a means to conciliate or to outwit the Earl.

Breadalbane looked at the silent Ardkinglass behind him, then back at the three Highlanders and his lids drooped till his eyes were hidden.

The silence was broken by the opening of the heavy door, and the quick entry of a woman.

It was the Countess Peggy.

She wore a green coat and there was some heavy brown fur about her neck; she carried her hat in her hand and on her shoulders and in her red curls was a faint powdering of snow.

At sight of the three Highlanders she stepped back and the color rushed into her face. And Ronald had seen her; he turned full to where she stood and cried:

"Helen Fraser!"

The two Macdonalds stared at him; but he, breathing fast and flushing, took no heed of them; it was as if the mere sight of her had uplifted him from all thought of aught beside.

The Earl came, very softly, nearer, but he made no attempt to interpose when Ronald strode up to the woman.

"Helen Fraser!" he cried passionately, "what do ye under a Campbell's roof? Ah, God, ye broke bread with me and I cannot forget—I forgive that ye turned on me, Helen Fraser."

She cut him short:

"I am Margaret Campbell," she said, very white, "and that man's wife." She pointed to Breadalbane with a smile of unutterable pride and before the glitter of her green eyes Ronald fell back.

"But—ye broke bread with me," he stammered like a stricken man—"and ye are—Jock Campbell's wife!" He glared round him with bewildered eyes: they were all silent, held in a tense hush. The Countess glanced at her husband, then back to the magnificent figure of Macdonald.

He stared at the Earl with wide eyes, stormy and inscrutable; he spoke very slowly: "So I have kissed Jock Campbell's wife!" and he laughed, as if there were tears in his voice.

The thing was done; with a sound like a rip of silk the Earl's sword was out and the light ran down the length of it before the eyes of the Macdonalds.

"Take the steel's welcome to Kilchurn!" he cried in their own language "Thieves and liars! do ye think Campbell o' Glenorchy is to be insulted in his own castle?"

In a second the Highland dirks were out and the Countess had cried to Ardkinglass: "Call my cousin, Colin—in the name of God haste!"

He dashed from the room and she flung herself forward, with eager eyes on her husband.

He had his back against the wall and was keeping Makian and his son at bay with the sweep of his long sword.

The sight drove the Countess wild: "Two to one!" she shrieked, "ye foul cowards!"

"Hold the woman back!" cried Makian; he had no scruples; what chance had they for their lives if the Campbells came? and Breadalbane was before the door. Ronald started at his father's voice.

"Bolt the door!" cried Ian; Ronald obeyed as if he knew not what he did.

The Countess dashed forward to stop him and a second time Makian cried:

"Hold the woman, Ronald!"

This time he turned and caught her by the arm and swung her, not ungently, back. Under his uplifted arm that held her she saw the crossing swords of her husband and Makian, and Ian standing grimly by; she saw Breadalbane hopelessly overmatched and her eyes flashed to the bolted door.

"Let me go," she said in a quick whisper, staring up into his grave troubled face. "Oh—take your hands away!"

But he held her as firmly against the castle wall as he had done against the mud hut; again her green eyes glanced in agony at her husband and she writhed in Ronald's grip:

"They'll kill him," she said hoarsely.

"And you love him?" said Macdonald in Gaelic.

For answer she, realizing him in a blaze of fury, struck him full across the face with her free hand; he flushed scarlet but never relaxed his hold of her.

There was the sound of steps without and a thundering on the door.

"Jock!" cried the Countess, "Jock!"

Breadalbane had been forced back into the window-seat; the huge figure of Ian almost hid him from her view; Ronald looked over his shoulder at them.

"Jock Campbell is doomed," he said gravely. "Answer me—do you want him saved?"

Even in that moment she was arrested by the serious passion of his face.

"Tell me," he insisted.

"What do you think!" she cried fiercely.

"Yes or no?" said Ronald.

With a wrench the answer came from her: "God in Heaven—yes!"

Instantly he loosed her and swung round on the fighting men; not too soon; the Earl had slipped by the wall and Ian was over him, forcing the sword from his grip; but Ronald caught him by the shoulder and dragged him back with a force that shot the dagger from his hand.

"Get up!" he shouted to Breadalbane; and the Earl, dizzy from the fear of death, staggered to his feet.

The hall was full of Campbells, the Countess had dashed to shoot back the bolt and Ardkinglass had rushed in with a dozen of his kin at his heels.

Makian, breathing hard, glanced round and saw the day lost for him; he had not gathered his son's action; but Ian turned on his brother with bitter curses.

"Are ye mad or traitor, Ronald, that ye give us to the hands of our enemies?"

The Earl pushed past him into the center of the room and stood between the three Macdonalds, sullenly at bay, and the silent Campbells waiting the signal for slaughter.

"Fool! fool! to come to Kilchurn Castle!" said Makian, then fell into silence.

"Will ye have us hang them as thieves?" asked Ardkinglass, "or shall we cut them down noo?"

Breadalbane pushed the blond hair back from his eyes, and glanced round his tacksmen. In the little pause that followed, Ian broke into a furious taunt: "Are ye turning tender, Jock Campbell? Dinna fear the odds—a Macdonald is worth sax Campbells!"

Down from the door came the Countess Peggy into the midst of the men; the brown fur on her bosom was unclasped and showed the tumbled lace of her tie; her red hair had fallen into twists of fine curls onto her shoulders; she was flushed and most beautiful.

"Kill them, Jock," she said.

She held out her hands, red-marked, round the wrist from Ronald's grip. "Kill them, Jock," she said again, and her gaze went straight and defiant to Ronald Macdonald.

Breadalbane did not answer her; he spoke to Makian.

"Your son gave me my life, Macdonald, and you're three against a hundred. I hav'na' need to crush ye by these means and I'll no' be under a debt to a Macdonald. Take your lives and gang."

The Countess made a fierce little sound under her breath: "Ah, no, Jock—kill them—while ye have the chance!"

"He saved my life," the Earl answered briefly, then to the Macdonalds, "leave Kilchurn, and remember I'm no' under a debt to ye."

They came slowly forward, showing little of their surprise in their faces; Ronald's blue eyes were devouringly on the Countess; she drew herself up as he passed and her hand clutched into her furs.

"I wouldna' have let ye go," she cried bitterly, but Breadalbane turned on her:

"Woman, will ye no' remember, I'm master in my ain castle?"

She shrank into herself, submissive under the rebuke; but a hate not to be controlled flashed from her eyes.

"See them out of the castle, Ardkinglass," commanded the Earl, "see they gang at once. I'm no wishing to be robbed under my ain eyes."

Makian, afraid for his life, swallowed the insult and without a backward look or any salutation to the Earl, went heavily from the hall, his sons at his heels.

Ardkinglass and the Campbells followed.

Now they were alone, the Countess Peggy turned passionately to her husband.

"Ah, I thought I had died! ah, my ain love, Jock—why didna' ye kill them?" She caught up his hand and put her cheek to it with a little caressing movement.

He frowned at her absently and put his free hand to his sword-hilt.

"Jock, Jock," she cried, "ye had your chance—all the hate of these hundred years might hae been satisfied—ye shouldna' hae let them gang sae easily—that—Ronald—too," her eyes flashed as she said it, "escapes more lightly than if he'd kissed a Hieland wench against her will—is it for naething I am Campbell o' Glenorchy's wife? Ah, Jock, when ye drew your sword I thought ye had killed him for me—not let him live to—boast—"

Breadalbane turned impatiently.

"Ye dinna understand," he said, "he saved my life for one thing."

"Not for love o' ye," she interrupted fiercely, "but to win a smile frae me—an insult and a disgrace—if ye had killed him none had kenned he spared your life to please your wife!"

The Earl flushed a little at her tone, but he was lapsing into his usual calm manner.

"Woman, ye dinna ken the larger issues," he said dryly. "If I had slain these Macdonalds how think ye it would hae sounded in Edinburgh? Sir John wouldna' hae thanked me for it; it would hae pleased nane but the Jacobites that hae been glad for this handle against me."

She moved a step away from him.

"Ah, ye hae grown too politic," she answered. "When I wed ye, ye wouldna' hae done sae—Campbell o' Glenorchy would hae fought for me nor been dared sae tamely by these thieving Macdonalds!"

Breadalbane looked at her calmly. "I willna' put myself outside the law when I may be avenged inside the law," he said. "In a while not three, but all o' the Macdonalds shall be in my power and without scandal can I use it—dinna ye understand?"

"But they will take the oaths," she answered.

"Not after this—they willna'," said the Earl, grimly

But the Countess Peggy was not appeased; she looked with a frown at the fading marks on her wrist and rebellion against her lord rose within her.

"I'm no' convinced," she said, half under her breath. Breadalbane gave her a cold glance.

"Let a man judge o' a man's affairs," he said curtly, "I'm no' needing your advice on matters o' policy."

He turned to leave the room but the Countess swung round and caught his coat.

"Nay, Jock," she cried, with tears in her eyes, "dinna leave me in anger—forgive me—'tis only that I couldn't bear to think they should live to—to laugh at ye."

"I'm no' angry with ye, Peggy," smiled the Earl, "and for the Macdonalds—dinna fear; they willna' lang be troubling us."