As long as Marcella could remember, the old farm-house had lain in shadows, without and within.
Behind it rose the great height of Ben Grief, with his gaunt face gashed here by glowering groups of conifers, there by burns that ran down to the River Nagar like tears down a wrinkled old face. Marcella had read in poetry books about burns that sang and laughing waters that clattered to the sea for all the world like happy children running home from school. But the waters on Ben Grief neither laughed nor sang. Sometimes they ran violently, as though Ben Grief were in a rage of passionate weeping; sometimes they went sullenly as though he sulked.
It was upon Ben Grief that Marcella looked when she went to bed at night and when she wakened in the morning in her little stark room at the back of the house. There was another window in the room from which she could have seen the sea, but Aunt Janet had had a great mahogany wardrobe placed right across it, and only the sound of the sea, creeping sometimes, lashing most often, came to her as she lay in bed, reminding her that the sea was there all the time.
In front of the house rose Lashnagar, the home of desolation, a billowing waste of sand rising to about a thousand feet at the crest. Curlews called and sea-gulls screamed over Lashnagar; heather grew upon it, purple and olive-green; fennel and cooch and henbane sprang side by side with dwarfed stink-nettles, stunted by the salt sand in which they were rooted. But the soil was not deep enough for trees or bushes to take root.
In Marcella's lifetime men had been lost on Lashnagar, and sheep and dogs, adventuring too far, had never come back. Legend had it that hundreds of years ago Lashnagar had been a quiet little village nestling round Castle Lashcairn, the home of Marcella's folks. That was in the year before Flodden Field, a hot, dry time that began with Lady Day and lasted till the Feast of All Souls without rain or storm. In that hot summer a witch-woman, very beautiful, had come to Lashnagar to win the soul of Andrew Lashcairn, winning with his soul his bed and his board. A wild wooing it was, and a wilder wedding. All the wooing had been done by the woman—as was the way of the Lashcairn women ever afterwards—in the dry heat of that unnatural summer when the sap dried in the trees and the marrow in men's bones, while the heated blood surged through their veins more quickly than ever before. On the Feast of All Souls, the wedding day, a copper sun rose in a sky of blood and lead, and all the folks of Lashnagar drank deeply to drive away impending horror. That night, after they slept, while Andrew Lashcairn lay awake in the witch-woman's arms, a great wind came in from the sea, sweeping before it the salt sand of the dunes, covering the village and the castle and the old feet of Ben Grief where sheep and cattle fed. The witch-woman, with her lord and a few servants, fought and battled a way through the storm of sand and stones to settle where the last of the wind-blown desert piled on the knees of Ben Grief. The next year Andrew rode away to the fight at Flodden Field. Unknown to him, the witch-woman who loved him rode close to his heels.
There his pennant, with its sun in splendour and its flaunting "By myself I stand," went down. When the hush of death fell on the noise of battle the witch-woman crawled by night among the dead to find her lord lying with one arm thrown carelessly over his dead horse's neck. It was there, companioned only by the dead, that the witch-woman's twins—a boy and a girl—were born. And it pleased their mother's grim humour to creep about the battlefield in the darkness until she found banners and trappings of the Southrons, whom she hated, to act as birth-clothes for her son and daughter when she carried them back mile after mile to brooding Lashnagar. It was the boy who was Marcella's ancestor.
Lashnagar was her nursery. On Lashnagar she had seen queer things. One night, when everyone was asleep and the path of the full moon lay shining across the sea, she went up on to Lashnagar with the shadows of the flowering henbane clean-cut and inky about her feet. Half-way up a great jagged hole lay gashed. Peering into it—she had never seen it before—she could distinguish the crumbling turret of a church, the roof of a house and the stiff tops of trees buried partly in a soft sea of sand in the middle of which was a depression. The heathery ground on which she kneeled began to crack very gently, and, with beating heart, she started back, realizing that the hillside was hollow, formed here of rotted trees thinly overgrown with turf and sand. Next morning she heard that a shepherd was missing, and then she guessed with horror the meaning of the chasm and the soft depression.
Next day she went back to gaze fascinated at the hole, only to find that already the dry sand had almost filled it, quite covering the cracked place where she had kneeled, the turret and the roof. She told no one but Hunchback Wullie, an old man who tended the green-wood fires in the huts on the beach, where fish were cured. Excepting her mother, he was Marcella's only friend—he it was who had soaked her mind in the legends of Lashnagar and the hills around; he it was who had taught her the beautiful things learnt by those who grow near to the earth and humble living things.
She ran down the hillside to him that day, her eyes—the blue-grey eyes of her people—wide with horror, her long, straight, fair hair, that she wore in two Marguerite plaits, loosened and swinging in the wind. Hunchback Wullie was in the first hut, threading the herrings through their gills on the long strings that went from side to side high up under the roof. His ruddy brown beard glistered with the shining scales of the fish, for he had a habit of standing by the hut door looking out to sea and stroking his beard, when another man would have smoked and rested.
"Things never come tae an ending, lassie," he said, his little red-brown eyes looking out over the grey water. "Either for good or for ill they're always gaun on. They may be quiet like Lashnagar for years, an' then something crops out—like yon crumbling last night that killed young Colin. But it's not always evil that crops out, mind ye."
Marcella did not go on Lashnagar again for months. The next time Wullie was with her, and half-way up the incline they found apple blossom growing about one foot from the ground on a little sapling with a crabbed, thick trunk.
"Why, look at that little apple tree, Wullie—how brave of it! I'm going to root it up and take it to my garden. It can never live here in the sand and the wind."
Wullie sat down and watched her, smiling a little and stroking his beard as she dug with her hands in the friable soil. For a long time she dug, but the sapling went deeper and deeper, and at last she sat down hot and tired.
"D'ye ken what ye're daein', lassie?" he said, looking at the pink and white bloom reflectively. "Ye're diggin' doon intae death! Yon flooer's the reaping of a seedtime many a hundred years gone by. If ye was tae dig doon an' doon all the day ye'd find yon apple tree buried deep i' th' sand. The last time it fruited was afore Flodden, when Lashcairns were kings—"
"What, Wullie, a poor old tree buried all those years, pushing up to light like this? How could it?" said Marcella, staring at it fascinated.
"I've tauld ye afore, Marcella. There's no ending tae things! Sometimes the evil comes cropping oot, like when men get caught an' buried on Lashnagar. Sometimes it's something bonny, like yon flooer. Yon apple was meant to live an' bear fruit; the bonny apple's juist the makeweight. It's the seed that matters all the time—the life that slides along the tree's life. Yon tree was buried before its seedtime, and all these years it struggled, up an' up, till it broke through into the light of the sun. Like God strugglin' at the end through a man's flesh—"
Marcella stared at him: Wullie often talked like this, and she only understood very vaguely what he meant. But she could grasp the idea of something trying to struggle through desperately, and looked pityingly at the little frail plume of blossom.
"And after all these years, to struggle through on this bleak hill! Poor little tree!" she said.
"That happens often to folk's lives. They come struggling through tae something very rough and hard. But it's the struggling that matters. Yon tree may only have one fruit that will seed. And so life goes on—"
He stroked his beard and stared over the sea to where the brown-sailed herring boats of his brother and his nephew were coming in through the morning sunlight.
"It's a bit sad, isn't it?" Marcella said dreamily. "It seems hard on the tree somehow, Wullie. Just as if the poor tree was only a path for the new tree to walk along—"
"Well, that's all life is—a path for other life to walk along."
"I wish you'd explain better, Wullie," she said, staring from him to the plant.
"Explaining's never any use, lassie. Folks have to live things to find them out." He stood up slowly. "There's the boats comin' in, an' I must get on back to the huts. Ye'll learn, Marcella—ye'll come tae it some day that ye're only a path yerself for things to walk along—"
"Wullie—what things?" she demanded.
"Other folks, maybe. Maybe God," he said, and went off to the huts.
Overcome by the pathos of the little hopeful tree, Marcella carried baskets of soil from the farm and pots of water to lay them round about it. She planted stakes round it to keep off the force of the wind. But that year the flowering bore no fruit. And Wullie smiled at her attempts to help the tree.
"The roots are doon too deep, lassie," he said. "Sae deep ye canna reach them. There's little ye can dae for tree or man, Marcella, but juist not hinder them. All we can do, the best of us, is to put a bit of soil an' watter half-way up a tree trunk an' hope we're feeding the roots—"
"Then what can anyone do?" she said, looking at the pitiful little tree, stripped now of its leaves in the autumn chill.
"I tauld ye—juist not hinder. An' lie as quiet as ye can because ye're a path—"
It was in this way that Marcella got her education. Most of the time Wullie talked above her head save when he told her of the habits of animals and plants, of the winds and the seasons. Her mother, before she was too ill, had taught her to read and that was all. Even her mother, drawn in upon herself with pain, talked above her head most of the time, too. The girl turned herself loose in the big room at the farm where books were stored and there she spent days on end when the weather was too wild to be braved. It was a queer collection of books. All Scott's novels were there; she found in them an enchanted land. She lived them, she fed on them. She never read herself into the woman's part in them. Only Jeannie Deans really met her requirements as a "part" and she left much to be desired in the way of romance and beauty. Most often she was young Lochinvar or Rob Roy; sometimes Coeur de Lion led her on full-blooded adventure. There were quaint old books of Norse and Keltic legend, musty, leather-bound books with wood-cut illustrations and long "s's" in the printing. There was Fox's Book of Martyrs: there were many tales of the Covenanters, things hard, austere and chill.
One summer a young student came to the farm for the harvest. He was a peasant lad, a penniless bursary student at Edinburgh University. In the Long Vacation, he worked at his native farming, reading voraciously all the time and feeding sparingly, saving his wages against the coming bleak winter in his fireless attic in an Edinburgh wynd. He talked to Marcella, dogmatically, prodigiously, unanswerably. On her legends and fairy-tales and poetry he poured contempt. He read the "Riddle of the Universe" and the "Kritic of Pure Reason," orating them to Marcella as they worked together in the harvest field. She did not even understand their terminology. He had a quite unreasoning belief in the stolidly utilitarian of German philosophers and laid siege to Marcella's mysticism, but after he went back one day she discovered a box of her mother's poetry books and so Tennyson, Shelley and Keats shone into her life and, reading an ancient copy of "David and Bethsaibe," she gathered that the Bible Aunt Janet read sourly had quite human possibilities. This box of books was her first glimpse of a world that was not a long tale of stern fights; it was her first glimpse of something softly sensuous instead of austere and natural and passionate.
Marcella never knew quite how her folks came to live at the farm; it had happened when she was three years old and she took for granted her world of crumbling, decayed splendours. Hunchback Wullie had told her that the old grey house on Ben Grief used to be her home, and that the lands all about had belonged to her father. But they were his no longer and she was forbidden to pass the old grey house, or even to speak of it.
Andrew Lashcairn, Aunt Janet, two women servants and a man who never seemed to have any wages for their work lived with Marcella at the farm. The man and Aunt Janet planted things in the garden, but on the poor land, among the winds they never grew very well. Oats grew, thin and tough, in the fields, and were ground to make the daily porridge; sometimes one of the skinny fowls that picked and pecked its hungry way through life round about the cattle pen and the back door was killed for a meal; sometimes Marcella ran miles away up Ben Grief when one of the lean pigs screamed its life out in a stream of blood in the yard. She used to feel sorry for the beasts about the farm; the cows seemed to have such huge, gaunt bodies and looked at her with such mournful eyes when she went through the croft in which they were eating the scanty grass. The two old horses who did the ploughing and the harvesting had ribs that she could count, that felt sharp when she stroked their patient sides. The cows lowed a great deal—very plaintively and deep; the pigs squealed hungrily every time a pail clattered in the kitchen or steps passed their sty door.
One dreadful day they squealed all the time while Marcella's little English mother lay on her couch in the window that looked over Lashnagar, and cried. She had lain on this couch for nearly two years now, whiter and thinner every day. Marcella adored her and used to kiss her white, transparent hands, and call her by the names of queens and goddesses in the legends she had read, trying to stretch her own ten years of experience to match her mother's thirty-five so that she could be her friend. And this day when Rose Lashcairn cried because the beasts were crying with hunger and there was no food for them, Marcella thought of Jeannie Deans and Coeur de Lion and Sir Galahad. Buckling on her armour in the shape of an old coat made of the family plaid, and a Tam o' Shanter, she went out to do battle for the helpless creatures who were hungry, and stop her mother's tears.
It was a three-mile walk to the little town. There was a corn factor's shop there at which her father dealt. She walked in proudly. It was market day and the place was full of people.
"Andrew Lashcairn says ye'll please to be sending up a sack of meal and a sack of corn the day," she said calmly to the factor who looked at her between narrowing eyes. The factor was a man imported to the district: he had not the feudal habit of respect for decayed lordship.
"Indeed he does? And why disna Andrew Lashcairn come tae dae his own begging?"
Marcella stared at him and her eyes flashed with indignation though her knees were trembling.
"He is not begging, Mr. Braid. But the beasts are crying for food and he's needin' the corn the night."
The people in the shop stopped talking about prices and listened greedily. They knew what Marcella did not.
"Then ye'll tell him tae go on needin'. When he's paid for the last sack, an' the one afore that, he'll be gettin' more."
"But of course he'll pay," she cried. "My father is busy, and he can't mind things always. If you ask him, he'll pay."
The man laughed.
"He will, fine he will! No, Mistress Marcella, ye can tell yer father not tae go sendin' children beggin' for credit whiles he hugs his bar'l. The corn's here safe enough when he chooses to pay for't."
Marcella went homewards, her mind a maelstrom of conflict. She knew nothing about money; it had never occurred to her that her father had none, and the cryptic allusion to the "bar'l" was even more puzzling. She knew that her father was a man to be feared, but he had always been the same; she expected nothing else of him, or of fathers generally. She knew that he lived most of his time in the little room looking out on Lashnagar and she had certainly seen the "bar'l"—a thirty-six gallon barrel being taken into that room. She did not know that it held whisky; if she had known, it would have conveyed nothing to her. She knew that the green baize door leading to the passage from which her father's room opened must never be approached; she knew that her father had frequent fits of Berserk rage when the little English mother cowered and fainted and things were smashed to splinters. In one such rage, when Marcella was seven years old, he had seen her staring and frowning at him, and the rage he always felt against her because she, the last of his race, was a girl and not a boy, had crystallized. That time he had flung her across the room, breaking her thin little arm. She remembered ever afterwards how he had picked her up, suddenly quietened, and set and bandaged the arm without the suspicion of tenderness or apology or shame, but with cool skill. All the time she heard his teeth grinding, and watched his red-rimmed grey eyes blazing. She gathered that he considered his women-folk belonged to him, and that he could break their arms at will.
Other things she remembered, too—cries in the night from her mother's room when she had been a tiny mite and thought they were the cries of banshees or ghosts; she remembered a terrible time nearly three years ago when she must not sit on her mother's knee and lay her head on her breast because of cruel pain there; she remembered the frightening scene there had been when surgeons had come and stayed in her mother's room for hours; how they had gone past her where she cowered in the passage, smelling a queer, sweet, choking smell that came out when they opened the door. In the book room she had heard raised voices when the Edinburgh surgeon had said, "In my opinion it was caused by a blow—it cannot have come in that particular position except by injury—a blow, Mr. Lashcairn."
There had been a Berserk rage then, and violence before which the doctors had been driven away.
All these things Marcella remembered during her lonely three-mile walk in the winter twilight, and for the first time they co-ordinated with other things, broke through her mist of dream and legend and stood out stark like the summit of Ben Grief.
That night she was more than usually tender to her mother. Kneeling beside her bed, she put her strong young arms under the bedclothes and held her very tight. Through her nightgown she felt very frail—Marcella could touch the sharp bones, and thought of the poor starved cows.
"My queen, my beautiful," she whispered in her mother's ear. "I'm going to be Siegfried and save you from the dragon—I'm going to take you away, darling—pick you right up in my arms and run away with you—"
She stopped, choked by her intensity, while her mother stroked her ruffled hair and smiled faintly.
"You can't take people up in your arms and snatch them out of life, childie," she said. And then they kissed good night.
As she went to her little cold room Marcella heard the padding of feet outside in the croft, and grunts and squeals. The hungry beasts, as a last resort, had been turned loose to pick up some food in the frost-stiffened grass; incredulous of the neglect they haunted the farm-house, the pigs lively and protestant, the cows solemn and pathetic and patient. Marcella had taken her piece of oatcake and cheese at supper-time out to the door. But it was no use to the beasts. The little black pig gobbled it in a mouthful and squealed for more. In her agony of pity something dawned on her.
"I suppose," she said to herself, as she stood shivering, looking over rimed Lashnagar, "that Jesus was as sorry for His disciples as I am for these poor beasts. He knew they'd be so hungry when He had gone away from them. So He gave them His body and blood—it was all He had to give."
She got into bed, but the thought stayed with her. It was to come back again many years afterwards, illuminating.
That night she heard steps about the house—her father's heavy steps—but she felt tired, and fell asleep. It was midnight when her father opened her door and came into the room.
"Marcella, are you asleep?" he said in his beautiful voice that always made her wish he would let her love him.
"No," she said, starting to wakefulness.
"You've no mother now, Marcella," he said, and turned away. She heard him stalk heavily up the passage.
When she ran along after him Aunt Janet was holding a hand-mirror over her mother's mouth and looking at it carefully. She had red-rimmed eyes. Marcella stood still, staring, and thought how white her mother's ear was against the faded blue of her old flannel jacket over which her long black hair lay in two long plaits. Then her father came in and sent her down to the village for the old woman who attended to the births and deaths of people. She went over the croft, among the hungry cows that stared at her, one after one as she passed. Later, when the woman had gone, and the two servant women were crying in the kitchen while they drank scalding tea and spilt it down their aprons from trembling hands, Andrew Lashcairn and Aunt Janet sat in the book-room with all Rose Lashcairn's papers spread out before them. Marcella sat for a while watching.
There were letters, smelling of the lavender and rue that lay among them. They were tied in little bundles with lavender ribbons. There were little thin books of poetry, a few pressed flowers, a few ribbons that had decked Baby Marcella, a tiny shirt of hers, a little shoe, a Confirmation book. All these they threw into the fire, and read some big crackling papers with seals and stamps upon them. Then Marcella crept away along the passages through which the wind whistled while the rats, hungry as everything else about Lashnagar, scuttled behind the wainscotings.
She opened her mother's door. A candle was burning on the table by the bedside. A sheet covered the bed. Underneath it she could trace the outline of her mother's body. As she came across the room, walking softly, as she always did, to avoid the loose board that had so often jerked her mother back to wakefulness and pain, it seemed to her that all the loving kindness of the world had gone from her. From then until her mother was buried she never left her.