Extract

From CHAPTER XV: THE DEN

“You must not call me Lady, Ninian; when I was happy I was Primrose Campbell. Be quick, and get my letter! What was Jennet thinking of that never wrote her friend till this? I wrote her twice and never got a scrape of answer. And she my own dear friend!”

“Now that is strange!” said Ninian, and stopped his searching, staggered. “My lass wrote twice to you, and never got a word. Theres surely some miscarriage!”

“I might be sure of it!” exclaimed the Lady Lovat, biting at her lip. “Now I can understand a lot of things that troubled me. But haste ye, Ninian! give me Jennet’s letter.”

He felt again his pockets carefully, and showed a great concern.

“Is that not most deplorable!” cried he at last; “I havena got it!”

“Oh!” she cried, and wrung her hands, “and you will fail me too!”

He shook his fist. “In all of Albyn there is not a man more stupid or more vexed! Where’s your letter but in Buachaille Etive, in an inn I changed my clothes in. And I was thinking all the time I had it in this pocket!”

She chided him, not harshly – half in smiles, a little woebegone, like one too well acquaint with disappointments to lament one more. “At least,” said she, “its always something just to know that Jennet has not quite forgot me, and to see a face from home.”

“There is a wise old word,” said Ninian, “that will be saying ‘Men may meet, but never the mountains!’ and it is a very strong true word.”

“I do not understand it,” said the lady.

“I daresay not, my lady Primrose – no, I daresay not! In faith, it sounds a little flat in English, but in the Gaelic it will break men’s hearts to hear. I canna put it plainer in the English, but it means that old friends meeting in a foreign land will vex themselves to think the mountains of their home so distant. We canna shift the hills, my dear, my dear! or if we could, a man I ken would bring upon his back to you although his legs would break, Dunchuach! and what is that man’s name but Ninian Campbell!”

“Ah!” she said, and turned a ring upon her finger – “Dunchuach! . . . And Glen Aray, and the woods! There was a lass among them, one time, Ninian, was happy. Many a time I wonder if it could be me. No, no! it wasna me! She died, that lass . . . She was a little wee bit thing and wore a yellow coat, and played wi’ Jennet Campbell.”

“There’s not a printed book on earth that’s worse than Sibbe!” said Ninian with conviction, rising up and looking from the little window. He could not see a thing.

At last he turned about and touched her shoulder. “I’m sorry that I have to ask you this,” he said, – “it’s dreadful low and common in the English; tell me this – Is your man bad to you?”

“And what if he was?” said she, still twisting at her ring.

“What if he was!” cried Ninian ferociously, the crinkle on his face. “My God, mem! is there not the cry of ‘Cruachan!’”

“A far cry to Lochow!” said she, “and farther still to kin. The thing’s beyond redemption, Ninian; tell me about Jennet.”

“Jennet can wait!” He stood before her, catching at her hand. “A man,” said he, “would need to have a breast of stone to look at you and see you sitting there your lone in this bit closet stitching – you the daughter of Mamore, MacCailein’s brother. You might as well be in the jyle! Put on your plaid, my dear, this minute, and I’ll take you, though I had to burst through rocks!”

She made a wan attempt at smiling. “What would Simon Lovat say to that?” says she.

“– Or I would take a word down yonder,” he went on more eagerly, “and bring the clan. I do not like the colour of this country – not one bit! I’m thinking to myself it would be fine for burning! And what is more, I do not like the colour of your face, Prim Campbell – you were like the flower, and now you’re like the cannoch. If your folk thought you suffered they would come here like a fire in heather, and burn out the very roots of Castle Dounie.”

“Ah, no!” said she at that; “the roots of it are deep, deep, deep, and many a hole between them like the beeches of Strongarbh.”

“Indeed I thought she had a dungeon smell! I like her not, your married home, Prim Campbell! You have wrongs – what are they?”

She sat upon the bed, with folded arms, and clicked her heels – a sound most desolate! “I ken the tune of them,” said she, “but I do not ken the words. There are no words.”

“Well, lilt them to me, then!” he whispered. “Just the least bit whistle.”

“Sit down,” she said, “and crack. I’ll neither sing nor whistle. A bird was in the breast of me a year ago, and now it’s dead. And what would be the good in any case? The thing’s beyond remedy.”

For half an hour she kept him plied with questions, drinking up his news like wine until her face had colour, and her heart got almost gay. Ninian was deep in some droll story of some folk she knew when suddenly he saw her pale.

“I hear a cantering,” said she. He listened, hearing nothing but the crows.

And then there was a shout outside, a sound of scurrying feet, the clattering of horses.

“That’s his lordship back,” said she, “I hoped he would be later. And there’s an end to merriment – the happiest hour since I was Primrose Campbell! . . . Make Jennet write me soon – and not by Lovat’s runners next time. You’ll have to see him.”

“Very good!” said Ninian, twitching at his coat tails.

“I dare not ask you back!”

“I’ll maybe ask mysel’. There’s one or two bit things to talk of still –”

“Prim! are ye there?” cried out a voice upon the stairs. “I’m coming up!”

“Take not a bite from him though you were starving, Ninian!” she whispered.

“Indeed and I’m not needing it,” he answered. “I had my own good dinner at the inns, and I did nobly.”

“Are ye there, Prim? Can ye no’ answer me?” Lord Lovat cried again upon the threshold, fumbling at the handle of the door.

“God bless me! Ninian Campbell! Is that you, yourself?” he cried when he beheld his wife’s companion. “What mischief are ye after? I never saw ye in my country yet but ye were at your tricks!”

He looked a man of sixty, portly in the form, and bellied, with a great thick neck, and knots upon his forehead, little slits of eyes with wrinkles round them, and a broad cajoling smile. He wore the Highland dress, with trews so tightly cut they showed his legs were bowly.

“Ah!” said Ninian, chuckling, “your lordship’s just in time! Her leddyship and me was nearly off together.”

“I’m not afraid of that a bit!” said Lovat, leering at her. “Primrose would not leave her Simon.” He tweaked her ear and put an arm about her. He might have been her father. She stood as stiff’s a crag, and like a tomb for coldness. Ninian’s shoulders itched.

“Come away down, the three of us, and have a bite,” said Lovat briskly. “How’s my lord his Grace, and how’s his brother Islay? Have ye letters for me?”

“The only one I had,” said Ninian, with shame, “was for her leddyship, and I’m a stupid man that went and lost it. I had to leave some clothes at Buachaille Etive, and just this moment I found out I left my Jennet’s line in them.”

“Hoots!” said Lovat, “you are getting old! Never put a letter in your pocket; put it next the skin.”

The three of them were standing on the floor; they made the small apartment crowded. “Take you a seat, my dear,” said Lovat to his wife, and she sat down again upon her bed, and clicked her heels, and turned her ring, and looked at things invisible.

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