The Master of Stair

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Marjorie Bowen

The Master of Stair

Published by Good Press, 2021

EAN 4064066201630

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Table of Contents


Table of Contents

Some fifty men were making slow progress through the pass of Glenorchy, which lies in the heart of Invernesshire and so in the very depths of the wild Highlands. A thick white mist hung over the landscape; it was the end of October and a raw and chilly day; the dull purple heather, disclosed now and then by the lifting vapor, the gaunt firs and faded bracken that grew along the pass, were shivering under the weight of dripping moisture.

The men strained their eyes to pierce the drifting mist, and drew closer the damp tartans that showed they were of the Clan of Macdonald; they were all on foot: some led shaggy ponies on whose rough backs were strapped packages and what appeared to be the plunder of some great house, for the objects included silver and gilt cups and goblets tied together by the handles; and, slung across the saddle, handsome garments such as the Saxons wore, and guns of a make not often seen in a Highlander’s hands.

A drove of fine cattle were driven in the rear of the Macdonalds, and a man who was obviously the leader walked a few paces ahead of the others. He was distinguished from his followers by the faded laced cloth coat under his plaid, the pistols in his belt, and his high cowskin boots, the others being barefoot and wearing nothing but their tartans and rude garments of untanned leather.

The mist began to lift a little, the dim forms of the surrounding mountains became visible; the leading Macdonald stopped his men and looked about him: the mist had confused even his innate knowledge of the country. Such of the landscape as they could see was pure desolation, vast brown hills and tracts of heather: there were no roads, not so much as a foot-path to guide them.

The only sign of life was an eagle who circled high above their heads, and now and then swept into view, screaming dismally.

The leader of the Macdonalds shuddered in the damp cold and was making the signal for his men to continue, when his quick ear caught a distant sound. He paused, the train of Highlanders motionless behind him.

It was the sound of the jingle of harness, the soft thud of horses’ hoofs on the heather: a party of horsemen riding near.

With the stealthy alertness of men who are always either hunters or hunted, the Macdonalds drew together in the pass; the foremost threw themselves flat on the ground and closed their hands round their dirks. The mist was closing round them again, but it was not so thick that they could not discern a group of horsemen crossing the pass at a swift trot. It was impossible to see how many there were; they were very swiftly gone, and utter silence fell again.

The Macdonalds began to move cautiously. The mist thickened so that they grew uneasy, their eyes were strained for another sight of the strangers, their ears for the sound of the bridle bells.

The eagle flew close, then past them and out of sight; they were feeling their way a step at a time, the ponies stumbled over the wet rocks the heather concealed, the men could hardly see each other. They began talking in whispers, wondering who these horsemen might have been, disputing about the way.

Then it came again, the thud thud of a horse.

The Macdonalds stopped dead; their leader softly cursed the mist and held himself on the alert.

It seemed to be only one horse now, and very close; they could hear it slipping among the rocks, the sound of the clinking harness, but they could see nothing. It died into the distance; the mist rose a little and they caught a sudden glimpse of a red figure on a dark horse in front of them, then they lost sight of it again in the thick vapor.

They pushed on slowly, teased with the faint sound of the unseen horsemen, ready for a stranger and enemy, yet baffled by the mist.

Suddenly the sound grew louder; the Macdonalds looked round fiercely. Their leader was almost thrown by the swift passing of a huge brown horse bearing a rider in a scarlet coat, who crossed in front of him and was swallowed into the mist. He had only a glimpse, and the bells were again tinkling in the distance; the horseman did not appear to have seen him, but as he passed a whip had struck Macdonald lightly on the face.

With a fierce cry the Highlander was plunging through the mist after him; the sound guided him; he ran forward swiftly, maddened by that slash on the cheek, striving to cleave aside the blinding fog.

All at once he heard it coming again, saw the brown horse looming toward him, and made a wild dash at the reins. But it swept past him. He thought he heard the rider say something or give a little cry.

The mist began to lighten, grow thinner; he saw the rider ahead and ran after him with his dirk undrawn. His strength was almost a match for the horse which was evidently very jaded and weary; his rider looked back and urged him faster, but the Macdonald was gaining.

It was clear enough now for him to see who he was pursuing. A slender figure in a scarlet roquelaure with the collar turned up to his ears, his beaver and feather hanging limp with the rain; both his dress and his horse were of the lowlands. The Macdonald’s eyes glowed at the sight of the Saxon; he was too stung to care that he had missed his men in the pursuit. He came on at a run, silently. The horseman had gained rising ground and stood outlined against the sky.


The mist changed to a drizzling rain: they were able to see each other distinctly; the tired horse stumbled and stopped, the rider wheeled him round and drew up, facing the Highlander. In the vast gloomy scene he was the only spot of color on his smooth bright chestnut horse with the glittering harness, with his vivid red coat and the long draggled brown feather hanging on his shoulders.

The Macdonald stopped a pace or two away from him that he might see who this Saxon could be, sitting very still and calm, with his head lifted—haughtily, it seemed. Then he cried out and fell back a step.

It was a woman who looked down at him from the brown horse: a proud, still woman’s face that showed in the high collar.

She calmly viewed his utter amazement, sitting utterly motionless, very upright.

After a second she spoke; slowly, in Gaelic.

“What do you want with me?”

Her voice sounded thin and unnatural coming through the vast open space; she broke her words with a cough and shuddered as if she was very cold.

The Macdonald had stood motionless, eagerly surveying her; when she spoke he came toward her slowly, with the caution and curiosity of a wild animal scenting the unknown.

She too looked at him, but covertly, and her face expressed no interest as her eyes dwelt on his magnificent figure and torn and faded clothes; she waited for him without a movement or a word.

As he came to her saddle bow he pulled off his bonnet and stood erect in the straight rain, his frank blue eyes on her face.

“My name is Ronald,” he said, “and I am a prince of the Macdonalds of Glencoe.”

The horsewoman coughed and shivered again before she answered; she had noted the half-sullen, half-proud defiance of his bearing and replied to that:

“Why do you speak so?” she said. “You give your speech a turn of bitterness.”

He came still closer and laid his hand on her fallen reins.

“I thought you were a Campbell,” he said, and watched for the effect of the loathed name on her; there was none; she merely shook her head.

“I am a stranger,” she answered. “I came with my kinsfolk on a mere family affair—”

His face lightened.

“I saw them through the mist,” he said.

She looked round her.

“And now the mist hath gone and I am utterly lost.” She shivered.

Suddenly she glanced down at him; he was very young, of a giant’s make; his square cut fresh face, tanned the color of ripe corn, looked up at her; his clear eyes were very steady under the rough brown hair; she gave a slow faint smile.

“Are you too lost?” she asked.

“It were not possible for me to lose my way to Glencoe,” he answered. “But I have missed my men.”

He was still studying her with a frank absorbed curiosity; she pushed her heavy rain-soaked hat a little off her face and at sight of her red-blonde hair, he cried out, fiercely:

“Ye are a Campbell!”

Her face expressed a cold surprise.

“I am Helen Fraser,” she said quietly, “and no kin to the Clan of Campbell.”

It would have been difficult to disbelieve her unconcern; Macdonald hesitated, not knowing what to do.

“Will you put me on my way?” she asked as a probe to his silence. “I am wet and cold—and most utterly lost.”

At the note in her voice all his Highland hospitality woke.

“Will you come to Glencoe?” he asked simply.

She shook her head. “I must find my people,” she said resolutely. “Tell me the way—they ride in the direction of Glenorchy.”

Macdonald’s eyes flashed.

“Jock Campbell’s castle—you go there!” he cried.

“I go that way—not there,” she answered, “but to Loch Awe.”

He was appeased again. “Glenorchy is three miles from here,” he said. “And Glencoe some ten—as you are a woman I will go with you to find your people.”

She made no show of either gratitude or refusal. “I shall die of cold,” she said impatiently. “Take the bridle and lead the way.”

The drizzle had settled into a steady downpour; the sky was a merciless even gray; the distant hills wreathed with heavy rain clouds, the gloomy rocks about them running with water.

Macdonald took the horse’s head in silence and led him across the squelching heather. They were at the top of the ravine; the country before them was broken and utterly wild, but he had no fear of losing his way while he had the use of his eyes. The woman shuddered closer into her coat. “Put me on the road to Glenorchy,” she said. “My people will be looking for me.”

“Would you not be afraid alone, Helen Fraser?” he asked.

“No,” she answered quietly.

“Are you friendly with the Clan of Campbell?” he said, “for you must cross their lands.”

“I know nothing of them,” came the tired voice from the great collar. “But—I say—I am not afraid.”

He was silent again; he knew little or nothing of the distant Clan of Frasers, he marveled at the dress and refined appearance of this woman: he had never seen any but the Campbell’s women in this Lowland habit.

Neither spoke as they wound through the rocks and heather; he at the horse’s head, heedless of the cold and rain; she huddled on the saddle, shivering under it.

She spoke at last so suddenly that he turned with a start.

“Who are those?” she said.

He looked in the direction her gloved hand pointed.

From the branch of a great fir-tree two men were dangling, the rain dripping forlornly from their soaked clothes and the fair hair that fell over their dead faces.

“Campbells,” answered Macdonald. “Would there were more than two.”

She turned her gaze from the dead men; her face was utterly unmoved.

“How you hate these Campbells, Macdonald of Glencoe,” she said curiously.

He was bewildered by her note of wonder, turned it over in his mind and could think of nothing to say but:

“I am a prince of the Macdonalds.”

“God fend me from these feuds!” she cried. “My people live at peace.”

“They would not, Helen Fraser, if they were two hundred men alone in the country of the Campbells.” He looked at her over his shoulder, his color risen. “To one side of us we have MacCallum More himself—to the other Jock Campbell of Breadalbane and his vassals swarm in their hundreds—but we do no homage—because there has been no Campbell yet dare enter Glencoe.”

He had stopped with the force of his words and his fierce eyes measured her narrowly.

She gave her slow smile:

“Well—go on,” she said. “I have no call to be the Campbells’ friend.”

He went on at his steady even pace and she said no more.

They were crossing a level tract of moor; once she looked back at the men on the fir-tree; the rain was blotting them from sight, but she could see them faintly, dark against the sky.

Presently the dismal screaming of a bird of prey broke the desolate stillness.

“There is an eagle—has found a meal,” remarked Macdonald.

“How he skrieks!” she answered, and leaning from the saddle peered forward. “Look—ahead of us—”

A great brown eagle was hovering a few feet off the ground and another circled slowly above him.

“What have they found?” whispered the woman. She looked half-eagerly, half-fearfully; they were near enough for her to see a tumbled heap of plaid in the heather with something smooth and shining white in the midst.

The eagle wheeled his slow flight closer and she saw that his beak dripped with blood.

“Who are those he feeds on?” she asked very low.

Macdonald turned the horse’s head away from the eagle’s orgy.

“It is Campbell’s tartan and a Campbell’s skull,” he said. “What else?”

She was still straining her eyes after the ghastly bundle they were leaving behind them.

“It is a woman!” she cried.

“Yes,” he answered, “we got her yesterday from Jock Campbell’s house—we burnt a house of his two days ago—you could see the flames from here.” His eyes sparkled with pride. “They were three to one,” he added, “but the Campbells always fight like Lowlanders.”

She put her hand to a face grown ghastly white.

“You keep your eagles well fed,” she said. “I would not be a Campbell in your hands, Macdonald of Glencoe!”

He looked up, puzzled at her tone; he had not properly seen her face nor could he see it now for the collar and the hat; it occurred to him that she did not understand the bitterness of this hate.

“There is the sword and the flame between us two,” he said. “A Campbell has not broken bread with a Macdonald for a thousand years—we are the older race and by craft they have the mastery.”

“Of the whole Highlands, I do think,” she put in.

“Yes,” he cried fiercely. “But not Glencoe—we have that yet, and we harry them and goad them to curses and slay them, and thwart them though we are but two hundred—now my tacksman return home with the plunder of Jock o’ Breadalbane’s house—we left his door-step wet with blood, not for the first time!”

She caught her breath.

“Some day you will pay the price,” she said, “for he has the Saxons and the Southrons behind him—he is a mighty man.”

The Highlander flung up his head. “Let the Saxons try to reach Glencoe,” he said grimly. “Let Jock Campbell turn his claymores out to touch us here—there will be more blood for the eagles at Strath Tay!”

She lapsed into silence again; the rain was growing colder, changing into a fine sleet; she was numb and frozen.

“Give me rest,” she said faintly, “or I die—is there not one hut in all this barrenness?”

He looked surprised that her endurance should be exhausted already; hesitated with a desire to be rid of her encumbrance.

She put out her hand and touched him delicately on the shoulder; for the first time he saw her eyes, green and very bright, as she leaned forward.

“Ah,” she said very softly. “You would not leave me—when I am lost—or make me ride when I am like to faint—find me shelter for awhile, Macdonald!”

“I would not have left you,” he answered, “and though I know none of you, Helen Fraser, I will find you shelter.”

There was a wattled hut near by, often used as an outpost by the Macdonalds in their plundering raids; he turned toward it now; it was very little off the road to Glenorchy.

Helen Fraser looked at his great figure before her, his resolute strength, his firm face, and she gave a little inscrutable smile.


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Ronald Macdonald had kindled a peat fire in the hut and strengthened it with dried fir boughs from the stack of wood in the corner.

A bright flame leaped up and showed the rude interior, the mud walls, the earth floor, the rough-hewn log seat and the figure of Helen Fraser taking off her dripping red coat.

She flung it over the log, swept off her hat and stood straight and slim in her close brown dress, while she held her hands over the flame.

Macdonald, leaning against the wall, looked at her and wondered.

She was young and very slender; eminently graceful; her hands were perfect; she had an oval, clear white face, a thin scarlet mouth, eyes narrow and brilliant, arched red brows and a quantity of red-blonde hair that hung damp and bright onto her shoulders.

Macdonald had never seen a woman of this make before; now he had her close and could study her at his ease, he found her grace and self-possession wonderful things. The sight of her hair as she shook it out to dry made his face cloud for a moment. “’Tis the Campbell color,” he said.

She smiled over her shoulder. “I did not know that till to-day,” she answered. “Many of the Fraser’s women have hair like this.”

She took up the long curls in her white hand, and held them in the firelight where they glittered ruddy gold. Her green eyes surveyed him.

They looked at each other so a full minute—then he spoke.

“Why did you strike me when you rode past?”

She gave a sudden laugh.

“My whip slipped—I meant it for the horse,” she said, “not for you, Macdonald of Glencoe—why should I?”


The thick peat smoke, that circled round the hut before it found the rude aperture that served as a chimney, made her cough and shudder.

“Where are we now?” she asked.

“By the entrance to Glenorchy,” he answered, gazing hard at her.

“Ah,” she said, “Jock Campbell’s lands—his castle lies there, you said?”

She was leaning against the wall; her eyes indifferently on the smoke and flame; then suddenly she lifted them and Macdonald started; they were such a vivid color, green as those of a wildcat.

“You are bold to come so near Glenorchy when you have burnt Jock of Breadalbane’s house,” she smiled.

“He is in the Lowlands,” Macdonald answered. “And I have said—no Campbell would follow where I go—to Glencoe—though Campbell of Breadalbane is serpent-cunning and very full of lies.”

“You hate him very deeply?” she questioned.

His frank eyes flew wide.

“He is the loathed devil of all the Campbells,” he cried, “surely you know that?”

She gave a little laugh.

“What are his qualities?” she asked. “Why do you hate him so?”

“Ask every soul in the Highlands or the Lowlands,” he answered fiercely, “and if ye find one to say a good word for Jock Campbell—then will I tell ye of his qualities.”

He came across the hut and stood towering over her.

“I do mistrust you,” he said. “I think you are over quiet.”

She drew herself a little closer against the wall, the green eyes glittered up at him.

“I think you are a Campbell,” said Macdonald, breathing hard.

“By Christ, I am not,” she answered resolutely. “Nor any friend of theirs.”

There was a little pause, the heavy sweep of the rain without came distinctly, mournfully, and a low wind howled through the rough window.

Macdonald gazed into her eyes: she did not wince, but suddenly smiled; the color came into her cheeks.

“Ye have a wonderful face, Helen Fraser,” he said. “Are you a princess of the clan?”

“I am Lord Fraser’s daughter,” she answered, “and heiress of our family.”

“They should be proud of you,” said Macdonald. “Are you a maid or wife?”

“I am unwed,” she said, “and am ever like to be, for I do find it hard to love.”

He turned away from her and pointed to the log.

“Will you sit?” he said with a grave courtesy.

She complied at once with a deepening of her smile.

In one corner was a pile of skins; Macdonald lifted these and brought out from under them two goblets of pure gold.

As he raised them he looked at the woman; she showed through the cloudy smoke brown and gold and brilliant; her hair was as vivid as the little tongues of flame she held her hands over.

“From the Campbells,” he said, putting the goblets down, “and this from the King—in France.”

He brought out a slender bottle of wine and stripped off the wicker covering.

“We keep these things hidden here,” he explained, “so that when any cannot reach the Glen they may find food.”

He turned over the skins and heather till he found a rough cake of grain. Helen Fraser rose and came up behind him.

“Are these your takings from the Campbells?” she asked, and picked the goblets up. They were very handsomely engraved with the arms of John Campbell, Earl of Breadalbane.

Macdonald lifted the glittering wine with an eager smile.

“We drink as royally as Jock Campbell with his Lowland luxuries,” he cried. “This is King’s wine.”

She held out one of the goblets while he filled it and let the other drop.

He put his lips to it, then held it out to her with something like a challenge in his eyes.

“Drink with me, Helen Fraser.”

She took it, drank, and gave it back to him with the same unmoved smile.

“Now we are pledged friends,” he cried. “But wait—ye shall break bread with me—”

“I cannot eat,” she said. “Believe me—I am sick with weariness.”

He looked at her keenly over the brim of the brilliant wine-cup.

“Ye shall do it,” he said. “I would be allied with thy clan.”

He broke the bread and salt that to him formed a rite impossible to violate and gave it her with eager blue eyes on her face.

She took it slowly, afraid to show reluctance, and ate a little while he watched her closely.

Then he put one of the skins on the log and another under her feet, and stirred up the fire to give her warmth.

She had become very silent; she took his care with no thanks, passively, but all the while her jewel-like eyes were covertly studying him.

He came and sat opposite to her; his huge shadow dancing behind him. Between them lay her steaming red coat, the gold wine-cups, and the elegant French bottle, brilliant on the mud floor.

Outside the rain was coming down less heavily, but the wind had risen and they could hear the rocking of the fir-trees.

She spoke at last, in her quiet voice: “Do you go to the conference Breadalbane holds at Glenorchy?” she asked. “You know he calls the Highlands thither to treat of peace—and loyalty to the new King.”

Macdonald laughed:

“And the gold he hath to buy us fills his own coffers—there will be no peace while Jock Campbell treats,” he answered.

“But many great chiefs have gone,” she said, “And the whole force of the new King is behind Breadalbane—”

“We may go,” replied Macdonald. “But we will not take the oaths.”

Another silence fell; she stirred the smoldering peat with her foot; he seemed to be utterly absorbed in watching her; she had taken his wild fancy most suddenly, most completely.

“I must go on,” she said at last. “They will be searching for me.”

She rose and put back her glittering hair.

“And I will go with you,” said Macdonald, rising too.

She looked over her shoulder; seemed to hesitate, a drift of the peat smoke floated between them, through it he saw her face, white, calm, and her narrow, brilliant eyes.

She picked up her damp coat and hat.

“I can go alone if you will put me on my road to Loch Awe,” she said. “It cannot be far.”

“Too far for you alone,” he cried. “You—surely you are afraid?”

Helen Fraser put on her coat and turned up the great collar before she answered.

“And are not you afraid to go any further through Jock Campbell’s lands?”

He was stung by her poise and strangeness. “Helen Fraser, ye are mad to think to go alone!”

She had caught up her hat and very swiftly opened the rough door.

The first blast of the wind made her shudder, but she stepped out into the rain with a resolute carriage.

Her horse was tethered close under some fir-trees: his glittering harness was the only bright thing in the gloomy landscape; he lifted his head at sight of his mistress and she turned toward him.

But she was stopped by Macdonald’s hand on her shoulder.

“Look about ye, Helen Fraser—and think if ye would go alone!”

She glanced at him and then about her; below them the river Orchy, tumbled through the ravine, about them the mountains towered into the mist, to either side were great broken spaces of heather, moss and bog; straight before them ran a strip of dirty white road that wound through the Glen of Orchy. Over all was the veil of the pitiless rain and the sound of the tossing fir-trees.

Helen Fraser, erect, bareheaded, looked on it unmoved.

“Where does that road lead?” she asked.

Macdonald’s blue eyes flashed.

“To Castle Kilchurn—Jock Campbell’s house,” he answered. “Not your way—your kinsfolk can have no business there.”

“No,” she said, and coughed and shivered. She gave no sign of where she was going or upon what errand she and her clan were bound, and he, having broken bread with her, would not deign to question; she might be concerned in some of the intricate politics or feuds of the Highlands; he felt it no matter of his, but he also felt he would not lose sight of her so easily.

She spoke again, suddenly:

“I would rather go alone—I can find my way—I have been here before.”

A great color came into Macdonald’s face; he put his hands on her shoulders and turned her round so that she faced him.

“Why do you so loathe my company?” he demanded. “I am a prince.”

She breathed a little heavily to feel him holding her—but her face was unmoved.

“I have a friendship for you and all the Macdonalds,” she said.

“Well, prove it,” he answered eagerly.

“Let go of me,” she said a little unsteadily. “I have broken bread—and drunk with ye.” She shook her head, tossing the damp red curls off her white forehead and her lips trembled a little.

“Let go of me,” she repeated.

He looked at her steadily and smiled: “The witches of the mountains have brought us together, Helen Fraser—I shall find you again—and as a pledge—ye shall kiss me.”

“I will not,” she answered. “Take your hands away, Macdonald of Glencoe!”

But he held her gently against the mud walls of the hut; heedless of her shudder under his touch.

A great rowan-bush full of dull berries grew close; her scarlet dress pressed against the dripping leaves as she drew as far as she was able away from him.

“Ye shall—” he said simply. “Why not?”

She was still and quiet though she saw she was helpless.

“We are strangers,” she said quickly.

“I would not have it so,” he answered eagerly. “Through war or peace I would be a friend to thee and thine—and I would have thy kiss on it—so that there may never be feud between mine and thine—kiss me, Helen Fraser!”

She crushed further into the rowan-tree and gave one quick glance round the utter desolation.

“No!” she said. “No! I—”

But her words were stifled, for he had caught her up to him—and kissed her lightly, full on the mouth.

Like flames piercing ice a sudden passion flared from her calm; she called out something fiercely in the Lowland language that he could not understand, and wrenched away with the furious color in her face.

“A Macdonald’s kiss will not harm ye!” he cried hotly, roused by her wrath.

At the sight of his face she controlled herself and set her lips.

“Ye have done what ye wished,” she said unsteadily. “Put something between us that I shall remember.” She was trembling; passionately clasping and unclasping her hands; he came toward her; she clutched at the reins of her horse and leaped into the saddle.

She flung on her hat, her eyes shone through the floating feather and hair; she had a perfect seat in the saddle; Macdonald noticed how gloriously she sat and how her proud look became her face.

“I am very glad to come with ye,” he said, his fair face flushed. “I will not leave ye, Helen Fraser, until ye find your kinsfolk.”