That conversation marked an epoch for Marcella. To use the doctor's phrase, it made her shake hands with her body. His medicine cured the neuralgia, though it would probably have cured itself now that the strain of her father's illness was over. But the headaches persisted right on until the springtime, bringing gusts of impatience and strange demands and urgencies that made her begin to get tired of the farm and Lashnagar and set her feet longing to be away on strange roads.
One sunny dawn she came down to the beach and, throwing off her clothes, ran across the strip of shingle, and then, with rapture in the softness of the air after the sharp bite of winter and spring mornings, she flew as if on wings over the yellow sand and into the water that was sliding in gently, almost motionlessly. She danced in the little lazy waves. They seemed playmates to-day, though usually they fought and buffeted her; she had her usual swim out to the islet where the fishermen kept their nets and it seemed very splendid just to be alive. Then she swam back to the shore where her clothes lay in a little heap, and it occurred to her that she had brought no towel.
"I'll have to dry like washing does—in the sun," she laughed, wringing her hair in her hand as she stood in a motionless little rock pool. The drops sparkled round her and, looking down at their little splashes, she caught sight of her reflection in the pool as she stooped forward to shake her hair. For a moment she stared, as Narcissus once stared. But unlike Narcissus she did not fall in love with herself. From the reflection she let her eyes travel over her body, and noticed that curves and roundnesses were taking the place of boyish slimness.
"Oh—how horrible!" she cried and dimly realized that the change in her appearance had something to do with the doctor's prediction of physical disability. She loathed and resented it immediately. Suddenly conscious of her bare legs she ran home, horrified at the tightness of her frock that showed the roundness of her figure. As she passed the Mactavish cottage the mother sat in the doorway, suckling the newest baby. Instead of staying to talk as usual Marcella flew by, her cheeks crimson. As soon as she reached home she ran up to her mother's room to find a frock that was not so tight; tearing an old linen sheet into strips she wound it round her body like a mummy wrap, so tightly that she could scarcely breathe, and then, putting on a blouse of her mother's that was still too tight to please her, she surveyed herself in the mirror with supreme dissatisfaction.
"I look horrible! It's beastly for people's bodies to show like that," she cried, and, sitting down on the floor, put on the shoes and stockings she had had for her father's funeral, that hurt her feet. She ran down to the beach to discuss it with Wullie. Half-way there she discovered that she could not possibly mention it to anyone. This puzzled her. She could not understand things one could not mention.
"We're very grand the day, Marcella," he said, watching her curiously. "Where are ye gaun?"
"I've come to see you," she said, sitting down in a shadowy corner.
"Have ye had breakfast? I saw ye, hours ago, swimming oot by the nets. There's seed cake in yon box that Jock's wife's sent doon, and buttermilk in the can."
Even indignation with her figure could not conquer her appetite, and she divided the cake between them, eating her share before she spoke.
"Seed cake's the nicest thing in the world," she said at last. "I love the wee blacks in it, don't you, Wullie? Wullie, when I'm dying I'll come here and Bessie shall make seed cake. Then I shall never die. I love the smell of it, too—it makes me think of the Queen of Sheba bringing spices and gold to King Solomon."
"Ye seem to be having a fine queer lot of thoughts the day, Marcella," said Wullie, eating slowly and looking at her.
She flushed and looked away from him.
"I have, Wullie, horrible thoughts. About getting old."
"So old, lassie—ye're nearly a woman now," he said gently.
"Wullie, I won't be a woman! I hate it! The doctor's been telling me disgusting things about being a woman. And so has Jean. Why should they be weak and get ill? Oh, I won't! I'll do as I like."
"Ye're too young tae understand yet," began Wullie.
"I'm not. I'm not too young to understand that I won't be weak—tied down. The doctor said women were all weaker than men, and I thought perhaps most women might be. But not me. And then—Wullie, I want to be like a lion or a tiger, and kill things that get in the way, and—oh, I'll hate being a human being with a body that gets in the way."
"My poor old carcass has always been in the way," said Wullie wistfully, and she ran out of the hut, unable to bear the pity of that, right up on Ben Grief. But before she reached the top she had to take off the tight bandages, for she found she could scarcely breathe, much less climb in them, and her shoes and stockings she hid under a bush until she came back, for they crippled her feet.
For three days she did not bathe and undressed in the dark every night. But after that the water called her insistently, and she went back to it, swimming in a deliberately unconscious way, as though she had promised someone she would not notice herself any more.
But insensibly her dreams changed; instead of being a Deliverer now she dreamed, in spite of herself, of a Deliverer with whom she could go hand in hand; as the mild May days drew along to a hot June the dreams varied strangely. Up on Ben Grief all alone in the wind, hungry and blown about she would see herself preaching in the wilderness, eating locusts and wild honey, clad in the roughest sheep-skins. At home, or on Lashnagar, or in the water she saw herself like Britomart in armour—always in armour—while a knight rode at her side. When they came to dragons or giants she was always a few paces in front—she never troubled to question whether the knight objected to this arrangement or not. At feasts in the palace, or when homage was being done by vast assembled throngs of rescued people, he and she were together, and together when they played. She had definitely dismissed the doctor's talk of natural weakness. Not realizing all its implications she had nevertheless quite deliberately taken on the man's part.
Then came a gipsy to the kitchen door one morning when Jean was in the byre. It was a good thing Jean was not there or she would have driven her away as a spaewife. She asked for water. Marcella gave her oatcake and milk and stood looking at her olive skin, her flashing eyes, her bright shawl curiously.
As she drank and ate slowly she watched Marcella without a word. At last she said in a hoarse voice:
"You will go on strange roads."
"I wish I could," said Marcella, flushed with eagerness. "This place is—"
"You will go on strange roads and take the man you need," said the gipsy again.
Marcella glimpsed her splendid knight riding in at the gate with her, and the farm-yard ceased to be muddy and dirty and decayed; it became a palace courtyard, with glittering courtiers thronging round. It did not occur to her that the gipsy had heard the Lashcairn legend in the village—the most natural thing for a legend-loving gipsy to hear—she was accustomed to believing anything she was told, and that the gipsy's words confirmed her own longings made them seem true.
"I'm afraid there's not much chance of strange roads for me," she said, looking out over the sea with beating heart to where a distant ribbon of smoke on the horizon showed a ship bound for far ports.
"When were you born?"
Marcella told her and, taking a little stick from under her shawl, the gipsy scratched strange signs in the mud.
"You were born under the protection of Virgo," said the gipsy, and Marcella's eyes grew round and big. "You will go by strange paths and take the man you need. There will be many to hurt you. Fire and flood shall be your companions; in wounding you will heal, in losing you will gain; your body will be a battle-ground."
"Oh, but how can you know?" cried Marcella, and suddenly all those stern Rationalists she had read, Huxley and Frazer, Hegel and Kraill, all very bearded and elderly, all very much muddled together, passed before her eyes. "It seems so silly to think you can see from those scratchy marks what I am going to do in years and years and years."
But as the gipsy went away, smiling wisely, and asking none of the usual pieces of silver, all the Kelt in Marcella, which believed things had no roots, came rushing to the surface and sent her indoors to write down the gipsy's prophecy. Later, with a sense of mischievous amusement she rummaged in the book-room to find one of the Rationalist books. But they had been sold, most of them. Professor Kraill's "Questing Cells" was there and she copied the prophecy into it, on the fly-leaf.
"Talk about a battle-ground!" she said, smiling reflectively. "Professor Kraill and a gipsy!"
She turned several pages, and once more got the feel of the book, though still much of it was Greek to her. Then she got down from the window seat, for her aunt was calling her to tea, and she was hungry.
There was an unusual pot of jam on the table. She looked at it in surprise as she sat down.
"That is some of Mrs. Mactavish's bramble jelly that she sent up for the funeral; I thought we'd not be needing it just then. But now I see it's beginning to get mildewed. So it'll need to be eaten before it's wasted," said Aunt Janet, peeling off the top layer of furry green mould and handing the pot to Marcella.
"Oh I do love bramble jelly," she cried, passing it to Jean, who always ate with them in the good old feudal fashion, right at the foot of the long table. Jean took a small helping and so did Aunt Janet. After a while Marcella peered into the pot again.
"Shall we finish it up, Aunt?" she asked, and Aunt Janet shrugged her shoulders.
"To-day or to-morrow, what's the difference? Do you really like it so much as that?" she added, watching the girl curiously.
"I love it! Bramble jelly and seed cake! What do you think, Aunt? When I get very old and die, Mrs. Mactavish and Jock's wife will be in heaven already, brought for the purpose by the Angel Gabriel, and they'll make bramble jelly and seed cake for the love feast for me!" she said, eating a spoonful without spreading it on oatcake, encouraged by her aunt's unwonted extravagance. "I can't be philosophical about bramble jelly!"
Aunt Janet watched the girl as though she could not believe in anything so sincere as this love of sweet things. Then she said a little sadly:
"There's not a thing on earth that I want or love."
"Because you've ruled yourself out of everything! I love to want things because always they may be just round the corner. And if they aren't, there's the fun of thinking they are. And always there's another corner after the last one. I'd rather die of hungriness than never be hungry."
"Oh, you'll die of hungriness, I expect. That is, if you're lucky," said Aunt Janet. "I shall just drop out of life some day."
Suddenly time gave a sharp leap forward and Marcella saw herself sitting there as Aunt Janet was sitting, a dead soul in a dulled body, waiting to drop out of life. The words of Wullie and the gipsy slid into her mind—"they go on strange roads"—and she got a swift vision of herself in armour riding out gaily along a strange road with her knight beside her. Elbowing that out came something she had seen that had amazed her a few days ago. In the evenings she and Aunt Janet sat in the book-room, into which they had taken a little table of Rose's and a few chairs. Beside the fire-place had been one of those ancient presses in which the old farmer had kept his whisky, his pipes and his account books. When the man from Christy's came to buy the furniture he had noticed the beautifully carved oak doors of the press and offered such a tempting sum for them that Aunt Janet had let them go, nailing a piece of old crested tapestry across the press to hide her books and needlework inside. They usually sat there together, Marcella reading or dreaming, Aunt Janet sewing or sitting listless, not even dreaming. But into Marcella's dreams had come frequent movements of her aunt's hand going in behind the curtain. Several times when she had spoken to her, Aunt Janet had waited a few seconds before answering, and then had spoken in a queerly muffled voice. One day, looking in the cupboard for needle and cotton, Marcella had seen a big paper bag full of sweets—a thing she had not seen at the farm since her mother died. They were acid drops; she took one or two and meant to ask her aunt for some in the evening when they sat together. But she forgot until, falling into one of her dreams and staring in the fire, she noticed her aunt take something almost slyly from the cupboard and put in her mouth behind the cover of her book, glancing at her furtively as she did so. The amazing fact that she was eating the acid drops secretly came into her mind and she sat trying to reason it out for some minutes.
"Mean thing—she doesn't want me to have any," was her first thought which she dismissed a moment later as she remembered certain very distinct occasions when her aunt had been anything but mean, times when she had deliberately stayed away from a scanty meal that the others should have more—little sacrifices that Marcella was only just beginning to understand.
"I don't believe she's mean—anyway, I know she isn't. I believe she doesn't have half enough to eat and these sweets make up for it! Or else—she likes sweets frightfully and doesn't want me to know she's so—so kiddish."
Quick tears had sprung into Marcella's eyes, tears of pity and of impotence as she wondered what on earth she could do for Aunt Janet. After a while, when she was quite sure the acid drop was swallowed, and no other had taken its place, she knelt down on the hearth and, after a minute, shyly drew herself over to her aunt's side.
"Aunt Janet," she said, taking one of the thin blue-veined hands in hers, "Auntie—"
"What is it, Marcella?"
"I—I don't know. Oh, Aunt Janet, I do wish there was something I could do for you."
"Marcella!" cried her aunt, almost shocked.
"Oh dear, you make me cry, Aunt Janet, to see you sitting here so lonely and so still. You seem like father—there's a wall all round you that I can't get inside. Oh and I do love you! I'm simply miserable because I want to do something nice for you."
She stared at her aunt with swimming eyes, and Aunt Janet, quite at a loss to understand the outbreak, could not get outside her wall.
"You will find it's much better to rule love out, Marcella," said Aunt Janet gently, holding the girl's hand in hers, which was cold. "It is better not to pity anyone or love anyone. Oh yes, I know you pity me, child. But love and pity have exactly doubled the pain of the world, because, in addition to the tragedy of the person you love is your own tragic desire to do something for them. You take my advice, Marcella—don't love. Rule love out—"
"Oh my goodness—acid drops," whispered Marcella to herself as she sat down to think out this astonishing heresy.
From that day she had been filled with a choked pity for Aunt Janet—and now, suddenly, as she sat with the jam spoon full, poised over her plate she saw herself getting like that—slyly eating acid drops because she was ashamed to admit so small, so amiable a weakness, having conquered all the big ones.
She dropped the spoon with a clatter and pushed the pot away from her.
"Acid drops," she whispered to herself.
"You may as well eat it up, Marcella. It only means you won't have any to-morrow. Neither Jean nor I want it—and the pot can be washed and put away then."
"No—no. I don't want it," cried the girl passionately. "Aunt Janet, I want to go away."
Her eyes were sparkling, her breath coming fast and short.
"Yes. I can't stay here. What's to happen to me if I do? Oh what's to happen to me?"
"You'll be happier staying here till you drop out of life," said the woman, looking at her intently.
"Oh no—no! I'd rather be smashed up and killed—like grandfather was," cried Marcella passionately.
"Yes, I suppose one would—at eighteen," Aunt Janet mused reminiscently. "But where can you go?"
"Oh anywhere—I don't care. I'll go anywhere—now—to-night. Aunt, I'm not cruel and unkind, am I, to want to go away? I'll come back to you. I'll be kinder when I come back," she cried anxiously. "I can't stop here and be petrified."
For two days Aunt Janet thought and pondered while Marcella raged about Ben Grief with the wings of all the swifts and swallows on earth in her feet. She faced many things these two days—she planned many things. She was like a generalissimo arranging details of the taking of the enemy's entrenchments before ever the recruiting for his army had begun. She was full of thoughts and intentions as ungraspable and spacious as the Milky Way. She was not quite sure, up there with the winds lashing her face with her hair, whether she was going to save the world from whisky, materialism or dreams; she was not quite sure whether she was going to save women from having smaller brains and weaker bodies than men, or whether she was going to train herself out of being a woman. At any rate, she was going out on the battle-path, glittering in armour. As long as her eyes were on the stars and her hair streaming in the wind it did not seem to matter much where her feet were. They would, she felt sure, follow her eyes.
And then Aunt Janet announced, at the end of two days, that she should write to Australia, to a brother of Rose Lashcairn's who lived in Victoria on a big sheep run. He had written at Rose's death, offering to have the child—one little girl more or less on his many acres would not count. But Andrew had refused stiffly, insolently, and there the matter had dropped. Now Aunt Janet sat down, and, quite characteristically bridging six years of silence and rather rude neglect, stated that Andrew was dead, the farm was not prospering, and she was sending Marcella out to him, as he had expressed a wish for her before. She did not ask if this would be convenient. It did not occur to her that Uncle Philip might be dead, or have left Wooratonga; with Lashcairn high-handedness—to quote Wullie—she expected all the world to do her bidding.
She did not mention the letter to Marcella until it was written; she lived so much inside her wall that the interest the letter must necessarily have for the girl did not occur to her until she called her downstairs and put it into her hand.
"You'll need to take this letter to Carlossie, Marcella. Jean is too busy to-day. And ask about the postage to Australia. I believe it's only a penny."
"Who do we know in Australia?" asked Marcella.
"Your mother's brother Philip. I've written to tell him you'll be coming to him. He wrote when your mother died saying he would have you, but your father refused then. I've told him you'll be coming shortly, so we'll need to cable when we've looked up the boats and everything."
Marcella stared at her aunt in dead silence. She did not in the least resent this way of disposing of her. She was used to it—she would have disposed of herself in just the same high-handed fashion if it had occurred to her. But she was stricken silent with inarticulate joy at the prospect of going away—especially of going across the sea just as far as possible without getting over the edge of the world.
"But do you think he'll have me?" she said tremulously when she could speak again.
"He'll need to," said her aunt calmly.
"Anyway, if he doesn't someone else will," said Marcella casually. To her hitherto the world had meant Lashnagar, Pitleathy and Carlossie. She had never been as far as Edinburgh. She had lived in a world of friends—a world that knew her, barefoot and hungry as she was, for the last of the Lashcairns, a world that had open doors for her everywhere. And Aunt Janet knew about as much of life outside the wall that held her own smouldering personality as Marcella knew.
It was only years afterwards that Marcella wondered where her aunt got the money to buy her the clothes that came from Edinburgh—not many of them, but things severely plain and severely expensive. She knew that the man from Christy's came again—she knew that two great oak chests, one from the landing and one from her mother's room, went away. Later she missed the old weapons that used to be in the armoury at the old grey house and that had lain in her father's bedroom where he could see them ever since they came to the farm—great-swords and dirks and battle-axes—that had rung out a clear message of defiance on many a battlefield. But she did not associate their going with her own until she was out in mid-ocean, and then she felt sickened to think what it must have cost Aunt Janet to part from them.
In the midst of her preparations Jean told her one day that she was going away soon.
"Going away?" she cried. "Then what will Aunt Janet do? Why, Jean, I never thought you'd leave her," she added reproachfully.
"Ye're leavin' her yersel'," said Jean grimly. "But I'm not gaun of ma ain accoont. The mistress hersel' was tellun me she'll not be needin' me ony mair."
"Well! but what's she going to do, then?" said Marcella, arrested in her careful tidying of her father's old books on the shelves. "I'm going straight away to ask her."
But her aunt simply told her that it was no concern of hers, but that she was going to live very quietly now.
"But who'll look after you? Who'll do the work? What will you live on?"
"I am not accustomed to being cross-questioned," said Aunt Janet in a definite way that forbade questions. But Marcella lay awake worrying very late during her last few nights at the farm, picturing her aunt all alone, without Jean, without her, without even the beasts, for a butcher from Carlossie had come and slaughtered the last old tottery cow, Hoodie.
"What is she going to do?" the girl asked herself again and again as she tossed on her hard bed that night. She tried to imagine Aunt Janet bringing in wood for the fire, breaking the ice of the well in winter, cleaning and cooking as Jean did, and her imagination simply would not stretch so far. Then she saw the nights when she would sit in the big book-room with the ghosts walking about the draughty passages, up and down through the green baize door, looking for their swords and dirks, the beds and tables and chairs that had been sold while the rats scuttered about the wainscoting. And she got a terrible vision of her aunt looking round furtively as her hand went behind the curtain to a paper bag of cheap sweets.
"Oh, I can't leave her!" she cried. "Poor Aunt Janet!"
But even as her lips told her she could not go, her feet tingled like the swallows' wings in September and knew that, whoever suffered for it, she would have to go.
Ghosts and shadows crowded round her next day when she ran down to the beach to say good-bye to Wullie. On the gate of the farm was fixed a notice saying that Miss Lashcairn desired the villagers to come to the house next day if they wished a free joint of beef, as she had no further use for her cattle. "As the beast in question is old," went on the firm, precise writing, "the meat will be tough. But probably it is quite worth consideration by those with large families."
Marcella was crying as she banged open the door of Wullie's hut.
"I thought ye'd be coming, Marcella," he said, looking at her with mournful brown eyes that recalled Hoodie's. "Jock's wife's made ye a seed cake to eat the day, and anither tae pack in yer grip. She says if ye'll pit it intill a bit tin an' fasten it doon tight it'll maybe keep till ye're at Australia. But I'm thenkin' she doesna rightly ken whaur Australia is on the map."
"Oh, Wullie," cried Marcella, flinging herself down on the ground beside him. "I feel as if I can't bear it all. Hoodie killed, and going to be eaten, Jean going to Perth to live, and Aunt Janet all alone in the old farm, living with the rats."
"Ye're awa' yersel', Marcella, mind," said Wullie gravely.
"Wullie, I wish I could explain. I don't want to go, really, but if I don't I'm so afraid I'll get frozen up and dead. Oh, and acid drops," she added frantically.
"Eh?" he asked.
"Oh, that's nothing. Only something I was thinking," she said quickly. "But I've got to go; only I hate to think of things being uprooted here."
"Then dinna think aboot it. I knew ye'd be awa' afore long. It's in ye, juist as it's in the birds. But ye'll come flying back like they do."
"Oh, Wullie, do you think I shall?" she pleaded, watching him as he stroked his beard and looked out across the sea.
"Ye'll be back, Marcella. Very glad ye'll be tae come back, an' ye'll find me here, juist the same. Things change little. It takes millions of years to change everything save folk's spirits. I'll never change, till His hand straightens me oot some day for a buryin'. But ye'll be changed, Marcella, like Lashnagar—things will have cropped out in ye, and things will have walked over ye."
Wullie's words comforted her, gave her a sense of security as she sat at his side toasting fish for the last time and eating the cake that somehow did not taste quite so good as usual. As she said good-bye to him before she went the round of the village bidding everyone good-bye, something impelled her to kiss his brown cheek. The last she saw of him was his bent figure silhouetted in the doorway of the hut with a fire glow behind it, and the setting sun shining on his eyes that were bright with tears.
But that night she was too excited to feel really unhappy as she looked at the boxes ready in the book-room, her little leather case lying open waiting for the last-minute things next morning. When, even, she blundered into the dairy to find rope and caught sight of a horrible red pile of meat that had been Hoodie, she could not cry about it. She was too busy thinking that, out of her adventuring, a day would come when the old place would be warmed and lighted again, and she told this to Aunt Janet, who was sitting, sunk in thought, by the fire in the book-room.
"I wouldn't be dreaming too much, Marcella," she said gently. "Even if dreams come true to some extent, they are very disappointing. A dream that you dreamed in a golden glow comes to pass in a sort of grey twilight, you know. And you'll never bring happiness here. Get the thought out of your head. There are too many ghosts. Could you ever kill the ghost of little Rose lying there with pain inside her, eating her life out? Or your father raging and hungering, like a pine tree in a window-pot?" She shook her head sadly. "No, Marcella, till you've killed thought you'll never be happy—till you've killed feeling—"
"Look here," began Marcella quickly, kneeling beside her aunt and suddenly holding her stiff body in her quick young arms. "Auntie," she said, using the diminutive shyly, and even more shamefacedly adding, "dear—I'm not going to listen to you. So there! I'm going away, and I'm going to come back and simply dose you with happiness, like we used to dose the old mare with medicine when she was ill. If you won't take it, I'll drown you in it. Or else what's the use of my going away?"
"You're going away because you feel it in your feet that you've got to go, Marcella," said Aunt Janet calmly. The wind roared down the chimney and sent fitful puffs of smoke out into the room. "If I tried to stop you, you'd go on hungering to be away."