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Green Branches






FIONA MACLEOD


In the year that followed the death of Manus MacCodrum, James Achanna
saw nothing of his brother Gloom. He might have thought himself alone in
the world, of all his people, but for a letter that came to him out of
the west. True, he had never accepted the common opinion that his
brothers had both been drowned on that night when Anne Gillespie left
Eilanmore with Manus.

In the first place he had nothing of that inner conviction concerning
the fate of Gloom which he had concerning that of Marcus; in the next,
had he not heard the sound of the feadan, which no one that he knew
played except Gloom; and, for further token, was not the tune that which
he hated above all others--the "Dance of the Dead"--for who but Gloom
would be playing that, he hating it so, and the hour being late, and no
one else on Eilanmore? It was no sure thing that the dead had not come
back; but the more he thought of it the more Achanna believed that his
sixth brother was still alive. Of this, however, he said nothing to any
one.

It was as a man set free that, at last, after long waiting and patient
trouble, with the disposal of all that was left of the Achanna
heritage, he left the island. It was a grey memory for him. The bleak
moorland of it, the blight that had lain so long and so often upon the
crops, the rains that had swept the isle for grey days and grey weeks
and grey months, the sobbing of the sea by day and its dark moan by
night, its dim relinquishing sigh in the calm of dreary ebbs, its
hollow, baffling roar when the storm-shadow swept up out of the sea--one
and all oppressed him, even in memory. He had never loved the island,
even when it lay green and fragrant in the green and white seas under
white and blue skies, fresh and sweet as an Eden of the sea.

He had ever been lonely and weary, tired of the mysterious shadow that
lay upon his folk, caring little for any of his brothers except the
eldest--long since mysteriously gone out of the ken of man--and almost
hating Gloom, who had ever borne him a grudge because of his beauty, and
because of his likeness to and reverent heed for Alison. Moreover, ever
since he had come to love Katreen Macarthur, the daughter of Donald
Macarthur who lived in Sleat of Skye, he had been eager to live near
her; the more eager as he knew that Gloom loved the girl also, and
wished for success not only for his own sake, but so as to put a slight
upon his younger brother.

So, when at last he left the island, he sailed southward gladly. He was
leaving Eilanmore; he was bound to a new home in Skye, and perhaps he
was going to his long-delayed, long dreamed-of happiness. True, Katreen
was not pledged to him; he did not even know for sure if she loved him.
He thought, hoped, dreamed, almost believed that she did; but then there
was her cousin Ian, who had long wooed her, and to whom old Donald
Macarthur had given his blessing. Nevertheless, his heart would have
been lighter than it had been for long, but for two things. First, there
was the letter. Some weeks earlier he had received it, not recognizing
the writing, because of the few letters he had ever seen, and, moreover,
as it was in a feigned hand. With difficulty he had deciphered the
manuscript, plain printed though it was. It ran thus:

"Well, Sheumais, my brother, it is wondering if I am dead, you will
be. Maybe ay, and maybe no. But I send you this writing to let you
know that I know all you do and think of. So you are going to leave
Eilanmore without an Achanna upon it? And you will be going to Sleat
in Skye? Well, let me be telling you this thing. Do not go. I see
blood there. And there is this, too: neither you nor any man shall
take Katreen away from me. You know that; and Ian Macarthur knows
it; and Katreen knows it; and that holds whether I am alive or dead.
I say to you: do not go. It will be better for you, and for all. Ian
Macarthur is away in the north-sea with the whaler-captain who came
to us at Eilanmore, and will not be back for three months yet. It
will be better for him not to come back. But if he comes back he
will have to reckon with the man who says that Katreen Macarthur is
his. I would rather not have two men to speak to, and one my
brother. It does not matter to you where I am. I want no money just
now. But put aside my portion for me. Have it ready for me against
the day I call for it. I will not be patient that day; so have it
ready for me. In the place that I am I am content. You will be
saying: why is my brother away in a remote place (I will say this to
you: that it is not further north than St. Kilda nor further south
than the Mull of Cantyre!), and for what reason? That is between me
and silence. But perhaps you think of Anne sometimes. Do you know
that she lies under the green grass? And of Manus MacCodrum? They
say that he swam out into the sea and was drowned; and they whisper
of the seal-blood, though the minister is wrath with them for that.
He calls it a madness. Well, I was there at that madness, and I
played to it on my feadan. And now, Sheumais, can you be thinking
of what the tune was that I played?

"Your brother, who waits his own day,

"GLOOM."

"Do not be forgetting this thing: I would rather not be playing the
'Damhsa-na-Mairbh.' It was an ill hour for Manus when he heard the
'Dan-nan-Ron'; it was the song of his soul, that; and yours is the
'DAVSA-NA-MAIRV.'"

This letter was ever in his mind; this, and what happened in the
gloaming when he sailed away for Skye in the herring-smack of two men
who lived at Armandale in Sleat. For, as the boat moved slowly out of
the haven, one of the men asked him if he was sure that no one was left
upon the island; for he thought he had seen a figure on the rocks,
waving a black scarf. Achanna shook his head; but just then his
companion cried that at that moment he had seen the same thing. So the
smack was put about, and when she was moving slowly through the haven
again, Achanna sculled ashore in the little coggly punt. In vain he
searched here and there, calling loudly again and again. Both men could
hardly have been mistaken, he thought. If there were no human creature
on the island, and if their eyes had not played them false, who could it
be? The wraith of Marcus, mayhap; or might it be the old man himself
(his father), risen to bid farewell to his youngest son, or to warn him?

It was no use to wait longer, so, looking often behind him, he made his
way to the boat again, and rowed slowly out toward the smack.

Jerk--jerk--jerk across the water came, low but only too loud for
him, the opening motif of the "Damhsa-na-Mairbh." A horror came upon
him, and he drove the boat through the water so that the sea splashed
over the bows. When he came on deck he cried in a hoarse voice to the
man next him to put up the helm, and let the smack swing to the wind.

"There is no one there, Callum Campbell," he whispered.

"And who is it that will be making that strange music?"

"What music?"

"Sure it has stopped now, but I heard it clear, and so did Anndra
MacEwan. It was like the sound of a reed pipe, and the tune was an eery
one at that."

"It was the Dance of the Dead."

"And who will be playing that?" asked the man, with fear in his eyes.

"No living man."

"No living man?"

"No. I'm thinking it will be one of my brothers who was drowned here,
and by the same token that it is Gloom, for he played upon the feadan.
But if not, then--then----"

The two men waited in breathless silence, each trembling with
superstitious fear; but at last the elder made a sign to Achanna to
finish.

"Then--it will be the Kelpie."

"Is there--is there one of the--cave-women here?"

"It is said; and you know of old that the Kelpie sings or plays a
strange tune to wile seamen to their death."

At that moment the fantastic, jerking music came loud and clear across
the bay. There was a horrible suggestion in it, as if dead bodies were
moving along the ground with long jerks, and crying and laughing wild.
It was enough; the men, Campbell and MacEwan, would not now have waited
longer if Achanna had offered them all he had in the world. Nor were
they, or he, out of their panic haste till the smack stood well out at
sea, and not a sound could be heard from Eilanmore.

They stood watching, silent. Out of the dusky mass that lay in the
seaward way to the north came a red gleam. It was like an eye staring
after them with blood-red glances.

"What is that, Achanna?"

"It looks as though a fire had been lighted in the house up in the
island. The door and the window must be open. The fire must be fed with
wood, for no peats would give that flame; and there were none lighted
when I left. To my knowing, there was no wood for burning except the
wood of the shelves and the bed."

"And who would be doing that?"

"I know of that no more than you do, Callum Campbell."

No more was said, and it was a relief to all when the last glimmer of
the light was absorbed in the darkness.

At the end of the voyage Campbell and MacEwan were well pleased to be
quit of their companion; not so much because he was moody and distraught
as because they feared that a spell was upon him--a fate in the working
of which they might become involved. It needed no vow of the one to the
other for them to come to the conclusion that they would never land on
Eilanmore, or, if need be, only in broad daylight, and never alone.

* * * * *

The days went well for James Achanna, where he made his home at
Ranza-beag, on Ranza Water in the Sleat of Skye. The farm was small but
good, and he hoped that with help and care he would soon have the place
as good a farm as there was in all Skye.

Donald Macarthur did not let him see much of Katreen, but the old man
was no longer opposed to him. Sheumais must wait till Ian Macarthur
came back again, which might be any day now. For sure, James Achanna of
Ranza-beag was a very different person from the youngest of the
Achanna-folk, who held by on lonely Eilanmore; moreover, the old man
could not but think with pleasure that it would be well to see Katreen
able to walk over the whole land of Ranza, from the cairn at the north
of his own Ranza-Mor to the burn at the south of Ranza-beag, and know it
for her own.

But Achanna was ready to wait. Even before he had the secret word of
Katreen he knew from her beautiful dark eyes that she loved him. As the
weeks went by they managed to meet often, and at last Katreen told him
that she loved him too, and would have none but him; but that they must
wait till Ian came back, because of the pledge given to him by her
father. They were days of joy for him. Through many a hot noon-tide
hour, through many a gloaming he went as one in a dream. Whenever he saw
a birch swaying in the wind, or a wave leaping upon Loch Laith, that was
near his home, or passed a bush covered with wild roses, or saw the
moonbeams lying white on the boles of the pines, he thought of
Katreen--his fawn for grace, and so lithe and tall, with sunbrown face
and wavy, dark mass of hair, and shadowy eyes and rowan-red lips. It is
said that there is a god clothed in shadow who goes to and fro among the
human kind, putting silence between lovers with his waving hands, and
breathing a chill out of his cold breath, and leaving a gulf of deep
water flowing between them because of the passing of his feet. That
shadow never came their way. Their love grew as a flower fed by rains
and warmed by sunlight.

When midsummer came, and there was no sign of Ian Macarthur, it was
already too late. Katreen had been won.

During the summer months it was the custom for Katreen and two of the
farm-girls to go up Maol-Ranza, to reside at the shealing of
Cnoc-an-Fhraoch: and this because of the hill-pasture for the sheep.
Cnoc-an-Fhraoch is a round, boulder-studded hill covered with heather,
which has a precipitous corrie on each side, and in front slopes down to
Lochan Fraoch, a lochlet surrounded by dark woods. Behind the hill, or
great hillock rather, lay the shealing. At each weekend Katreen went
down to Ramza-Mor, and on every Monday morning at sunrise returned to
her heather-girt eerie. It was on one of these visits that she endured a
cruel shock. Her father told her that she must marry some one else than
Sheumais Achanna. He had heard words about him which made a union
impossible, and indeed, he hoped that the man would leave Ranza-beag. In
the end he admitted that what he had heard was to the effect that
Achanna was under a doom of some kind, that he was involved in a
blood-feud; and, moreover, that he was fey. The old man would not be
explicit as to the person from whom his information came, but hinted
that he was a stranger of rank, probably a laird of the isles. Besides
this, there was word of Ian Macarthur. He was at Thurso, in the far
north, and would be in Skye before long, and he--her father--had written
to him that he might wed Katreen as soon as was practicable.

"Do you see that lintie yonder, father?" was her response to this.

"Ay, lass, and what about the birdeen?"

"Well, when she mates with a hawk, so will I be mating with Ian
Macarthur, but not till then."

With that she turned and left the house, and went back to
Cnoc-an-Fhraoch. On the way she met Achanna.

It was that night that for the first time he swam across Lochan Fraoch
to meet Katreen.

The quickest way to reach the shealing was to row across the lochlet,
and then ascend by a sheep-path that wound through the hazel copses at
the base of the hill. Fully half an hour was thus saved, because of the
steepness of the precipitous corries to right and left. A boat was kept
for this purpose, but it was fastened to a shore boulder by a padlocked
iron chain, the key of which was kept by Donald Macarthur. Latterly he
had refused to let this key out of his possession. For one thing, no
doubt, he believed he could thus restrain Achanna from visiting his
daughter. The young man could not approach the shealing from either side
without being seen.

But that night, soon after the moon was whitening slow in the dark,
Katreen stole down to the hazel copse and awaited the coming of her
lover. The lochan was visible from almost any point on Cnoc-an-Fhraoch,
as well as from the south side. To cross it in a boat unseen, if any
watcher were near, would be impossible, nor could even a swimmer hope to
escape notice unless in the gloom of night or, mayhap, in the dusk.
When, however, she saw, half-way across the water, a spray of green
branches slowly moving athwart the surface, she new that Sheumais was
keeping his tryst. If, perchance, any one else saw, he or she would
never guess that those derelict rowan branches shrouded Sheumais
Achanna.

It was not till the estray had drifted close to the hedge, where, hid
among the bracken and the hazel undergrowth, she awaited him, that
Katreen descried the face of her lover, as with one hand he parted the
green sprays, and stared longingly and lovingly at the figure he could
just discern in the dim, fragrant obscurity.

And as it was this night so was it many of the nights that followed.
Katreen spent the days as in a dream. Not even the news of her cousin
Ian's return disturbed her much.

One day the inevitable meeting came. She was at Ranza-Mor, and when a
shadow came into the dairy where she was standing she looked up, and saw
Ian before her. She thought he appeared taller and stronger than ever,
though still not so tall as Sheumais, who would appear slim beside the
Herculean Skyeman. But as she looked at his close curling black hair and
thick bull-neck and the sullen eyes in his dark wind-red face, she
wondered that she had ever tolerated him at all.

He broke the ice at once.

"Tell me, Katreen, are you glad to see me back again?"

"I am glad that you are home once more safe and sound."

"And will you make it my home for me by coming to live with me, as I've
asked you again and again?"

"No: as I've told you again and again."

He gloomed at her angrily for a few moments before he resumed.

"I will be asking you this one thing, Katreen, daughter of my father's
brother: do you love that man Achanna who lives at Ranza-beag?"

"You may ask the wind why it is from the east or the west, but it won't
tell you. You're not the wind's master."

"If you think I will let this man take you away from me, you are
thinking a foolish thing."

"And you saying a foolisher."

"Ay?"

"Ah, sure. What could you do, Ian Mhic Ian? At the worst, you could do
no more than kill James Achanna. What then? I too would die. You cannot
separate us. I would not marry you, now, though you were the last man in
the world and I the last woman."

"You are a fool, Katreen Macarthur. Your father has promised you to me,
and I tell you this: if you love Achanna you'll save his life only by
letting him go away from here. I promise you he will not be here long."

"Ah, you promise me; but you will not say that thing to James
Achanna's face. You are a coward."

With a muttered oath the man turned on his heel.

"Let him beware o' me, and you, too, Katreen-mo-nighean-donn. I swear it
by my mother's grave and by St. Martin's Cross that you will be mine by
hook or by crook."

The girl smiled scornfully. Slowly she lifted a milk-pail.

"It would be a pity to waste the good milk, Ian-gorach, but if you don't
go it is I that will be emptying the pail on you, and then you will be
as white without as your heart is within."

"So you call me witless, do you? Ian-gorach! Well, we shall be seeing
as to that. And as for the milk, there will be more than milk spilt
because of you, Katreen-donn."

From that day, though neither Sheumais nor Katreen knew of it, a watch
was set upon Achanna.

It could not be long before their secret was discovered, and it was with
a savage joy overmastering his sullen rage that Ian Macarthur knew
himself the discoverer, and conceived his double vengeance. He dreamed,
gloatingly, on both the black thoughts that roamed like ravenous beasts
through the solitudes of his heart. But he did not dream that another
man was filled with hate because of Katreen's lover, another man who
had sworn to make her his own, the man who, disguised, was known in
Armandale as Donald McLean, and in the north isles would have been
hailed as Gloom Achanna.

There had been steady rain for three days, with a cold, raw wind. On the
fourth the sun shone, and set in peace. An evening of quiet beauty
followed, warm, fragrant, dusky from the absence of moon or star, though
the thin veils of mist promised to disperse as the night grew.

There were two men that eve in the undergrowth on the south side of the
lochlet. Sheumais had come earlier than his wont. Impatient for the
dusk, he could scarce await the waning of the afterglow; surely, he
thought, he might venture. Suddenly his ears caught the sound of
cautious footsteps. Could it be old Donald, perhaps with some inkling of
the way in which his daughter saw her lover in despite of all; or,
mayhap, might it be Ian Macarthur, tracking him as a hunter stalking a
stag by the water-pools? He crouched, and waited. In a few minutes he
saw Ian carefully picking his way. The man stopped as he descried the
green branches; smiled as, with a low rustling, he raised them from the
ground.

Meanwhile yet another man watched and waited, though on the farther side
of the lochan, where the hazel copses were. Gloom Achanna half hoped,
half feared the approach of Katreen. It would be sweet to see her again,
sweet to slay her lover before her eyes, brother to him though he was.
But, there was chance that she might descry him, and, whether
recognizingly or not, warn the swimmer.

So it was that he had come there before sundown, and now lay crouched
among the bracken underneath a projecting mossy ledge close upon the
water, where it could scarce be that she or any should see him.

As the gloaming deepened a great stillness reigned. There was no breath
of wind. A scarce audible sigh prevailed among the spires of the
heather. The churring of a night-jar throbbed through the darkness.
Somewhere a corncrake called its monotonous crek-craik; the dull,
harsh sound emphasizing the utter stillness. The pinging of the gnats
hovering over and among the sedges made an incessant murmur through the
warm, sultry air.

There was a splash once as of a fish. Then, silence. Then a lower but
more continuous splash, or rather wash of water. A slow susurrus
rustled through the dark.

Where he lay among the fern Gloom Achanna slowly raised his head, stared
through the shadows and listened intently. If Katreen were waiting there
she was not near.

Noiselessly he slid into the water. When he rose it was under a clump of
green branches. These he had cut and secured three hours before. With
his left hand he swam slowly, or kept his equipoise in the water; with
his right he guided the heavy rowan bough. In his mouth were two
objects, one long and thin and dark, the other with an occasional
glitter as of a dead fish.

His motion was scarcely perceptible. None the less he was near the
middle of the loch almost as soon as another clump of green branches.
Doubtless the swimmer beneath it was confident that he was now safe from
observation.

The two clumps of green branches drew nearer. The smaller seemed a mere
estray, a spray blown down by the recent gale. But all at once the
larger clump jerked awkwardly and stopped. Simultaneously a strange, low
strain of music came from the other.

The strain ceased. The two clumps of green branches remained motionless.
Slowly, at last, the larger moved forward. It was too dark for the
swimmer to see if any one lay hid behind the smaller. When he reached it
he thrust aside the leaves.

It was as though a great salmon leaped. There was a splash, and a
narrow, dark body shot through the gloom. At the end of it something
gleamed. Then suddenly there was a savage struggle. The inanimate green
branches tore this way and that, and surged and swirled. Gasping cries
came from the leaves. Again and again the gleaming thing leaped. At the
third leap an awful scream shrilled through the silence. The echo of it
wailed thrice, with horrible distinctness, in the corrie beyond
Cnoc-an-Fhraoch. Then, after a faint splashing, there was silence once
more. One clump of green branches drifted slowly up the lochlet. The
other moved steadily toward the place whence, a brief while before, it
had stirred.

Only one thing lived in the heart of Gloom Achanna--the joy of his
exultation. He had killed his brother Sheumais. He had always hated him
because of his beauty; of late he had hated him because he had stood
between him, Gloom, and Katreen Macarthur--because he had become her
lover. They were all dead now except himself, all the Achannas. He was
"Achanna." When the day came that he would go back to Galloway, there
would be a magpie on the first birk, and a screaming jay on the first
rowan, and a croaking raven on the first fir; ay, he would be their
suffering, though they knew nothing of him meanwhile! He would be
Achanna of Achanna again. Let those who would stand in his way beware.
As for Katreen: perhaps he would take her there, perhaps not. He smiled.

These thoughts were the wandering fires in his brain while he slowly
swam shoreward under the floating green branches, and as he disengaged
himself from them and crawled upward through the bracken. It was at this
moment that a third man entered the water from the further shore.

Prepared as he was to come suddenly upon Katreen, Gloom was startled
when, in a place of dense shadow, a hand touched his shoulder, and her
voice whispered:

"Sheumais, Sheumais!"

The next moment she was in his arms. He could feel her heart beating
against his.

"What is it, Sheumais? What was that awful cry?" she whispered.

For answer he put his lips to hers, and kissed her again and again.

The girl drew back. Some vague instinct warned her.

"What is it, Sheumais? Why don't you speak?"

He drew her close again.

"Pulse of my heart, it is I who love you, I who love you best of all; it
is I, Gloom Achanna!"

With a cry she struck him full in the face. He staggered and in that
moment she freed herself.

"You coward!"

"Katreen, I----"

"Come no nearer. If you do, it will be the death of you!"

"The death o' me! Ah, bonnie fool that you are, and is it you that will
be the death o' me?"

"Ay, Gloom Achanna, for I have but to scream and Sheumais will be here,
an' he would kill you like a dog if he knew you did me harm."

"Ah, but if there were no Sheumais, or any man to come between me an' my
will!"

"Then there would be a woman! Ay, if you over-bore me I would strangle
you with my hair, or fix my teeth in your false throat!"

"I was not for knowing you were such a wild-cat; but I'll tame you yet,
my lass! Aha, wild-cat!" And as he spoke he laughed low.

"It is a true word, Gloom of the black heart. I am a wild-cat, and, like
a wild-cat, I am not to be seized by a fox; and that you will be finding
to your cost, by the holy St. Bridget! But now, off with you, brother of
my man!"

"Your man--ha! ha!"

"Why do you laugh?"

"Sure, I am laughing at a warm, white lass like yourself having a dead
man as your lover!"

"A--dead--man?"

No answer came. The girl shook with a new fear. Slowly she drew closer,
till her breath fell warm against the face of the other.

He spoke at last:

"Ay, a dead man."

"It is a lie."

"Where would you be that you were not hearing his good-bye? I'm thinking
it was loud enough!"

"It is a lie--it is a lie!"

"No, it is no lie. Sheumais is cold enough now. He's low among the weeds
by now. Ay, by now: down there in the lochan."

"What--you, you devil! Is it for killing your own brother you would
be?"

"I killed no one. He died his own way. Maybe the cramp took him.
Maybe--maybe a Kelpie gripped him. I watched. I saw him beneath the
green branches. He was dead before he died. I saw it in the white face
o' him. Then he sank. He's dead. Sheumais is dead. Look here, girl, I've
always loved you. I swore the oath upon you. You're mine. Sure, you're
mine now, Katreen! It is loving you I am! It will be a south wind for
you from this day, muirnean mochree! See here, I'll show you how I----"

"Back--back--murderer!"

"Be stopping that foolishness now, Katreen Macarthur! By the Book, I am
tired of it. I am loving you, and it's having you for mine I am! And if
you won't come to me like the dove to its mate, I'll come to you like
the hawk to the dove!"

With a spring he was upon her. In vain she strove to beat him back. His
arms held her as a stoat grips a rabbit.

He pulled her head back, and kissed her throat till the strangulating
breath sobbed against his ear. With a last despairing effort she
screamed the name of the dead man: "Sheumais! Sheumais! Sheumais!" The
man who struggled with her laughed.

"Ay, call away! The herrin' will be coming through the bracken as soon
as Sheumais comes to your call! Ah, it is mine you are now, Katreen!
He's dead and cold--an' you'd best have a living man--an'----"

She fell back, her balance lost in the sudden releasing. What did it
mean? Gloom still stood there, but as one frozen. Through the darkness
she saw, at last, that a hand gripped his shoulder; behind him a black
mass vaguely obtruded.

For some moments there was absolute silence. Then a hoarse voice came
out of the dark:

"You will be knowing now who it is, Gloom Achanna!"

The voice was that of Sheumais, who lay dead in the lochan. The murderer
shook as in a palsy. With a great effort, slowly he turned his head. He
saw a white splatch, the face of the corpse; in this white splatch
flamed two burning eyes, the eyes of the soul of the brother whom he had
slain.

He reeled, staggered as a blind man, and, free now of that awful clasp,
swayed to and fro as one drunken.

Slowly Sheumais raised an arm and pointed downward through the wood
toward the lochan. Still pointing, he moved swiftly forward.

With a cry like a beast, Gloom Achanna swung to one side, stumbled,
rose, and leaped into the darkness.

For some minutes Sheumais and Katreen stood, silent, apart, listening to
the crashing sound of his flight--the race of the murderer against the
pursuing shadow of the Grave.





Next: The Four-fifteen Express

Previous: The Mysterious Sketch



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