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The Coming of the Sheep
Out beyond the skerries the sea lay smooth as cornsilk in the oppressive heat of the August afternoon. Inshore, south of the farm, great beds of kelp and bladder wrack heaved sluggishly against the ledges of basaltic rock that slack water had exposed. In the bay itself there was no motion at all, save where the burn fanned into the sea's edge like a tuck in a seam, as if, Innis thought, the island itself had shrunk in the hot spell and needed restitching.
She disliked the hot, breathless days, the brassy evenings when the sun hovered long over the Treshnish Isles and made the big blue mountains of Skye seem sullen and ominous. Fortunately such spells were rare on the west coast of Scotland. This one had lasted near a fortnight, though, and had rendered Innis and her sisters bad-tempered. They would girn and grumble and might even have given way to wrestling on the grass, like Neil and Donnie, if their mother had not been there to remind them that not only were they supposed to be ladies but that there was work to be done.
Heavy work it was too in that dusty summer of 1878. In the field on the shoulder of Olaf's Hill the oats and barley crop was almost ready for the sickle. There were calves to be weaned and hay stooks still to be brought in. The running of the farm was left to Vassie and her daughters, for her husband and sons could not be expected to sacrifice so much as one day's fishing, not even to help erect the boundary wall. To hear Vassie speak of it, digging out a drystone dike that had lain half buried since long before the Campbells had set foot on Mull was hardly more than casual repair work. But apart from drawing milk and gathering eggs, farm labours had been put entirely to one side while Vassie and the girls unearthed the ancient wall that divided the fields of Pennypol from the rest of the Fetternish estate.
Shrouded in weeds and bramble-thorn the wall ran from the edge of the pine wood to the shoulder of the burn. From the outset the girls had known that it would test their strength and stamina but the advent of sultry weather had turned the task into racking drudgery.
What they could not have foreseen was the strange effect that uncovering the ancient stones would have on their sister Aileen who had grown hardly at all in stature or intelligence since her tenth year -- she was now fifteen -- and who could not read, or write more than her name. Until recently Aileen's simplemindedness had seemed harmless. In the past year, however, it had taken on a sinister tone, for she was for ever sneaking off to kneel among the standing stones or hide in the ruins of the old fort at Dun Fidra to commune with the people under the hill. She claimed that the fairies spoke with her and played the timpan, the fairy harp, for her benefit and, in payment, she fed them curds and gulls' eggs and offered them wild flowers and berries to appease their mischievous natures.
'Well, now,' Father had said, when Vassie expressed concern about Aileen's mental state, 'Aileen would not be the first in your family to be going the way of the devil.'
'Do you think it is the devil that is in her?'
'Since it cannot be the fairies, who can it be but the devil?'
'Is it not yourself, Ronan Campbell, who has been carried away by the devil?' Mother would say. 'The devil that comes out of a bottle. There is nothing wrong with Aileen that could not be cured by a better example.'
Ronan Campbell was as broad and bulky as a bale of wool, Vassie as thin and sharp as clipping shears. When they argued about the children or the future of the farm, Vassie's voice would rise like the squeak of a nail on wet wood and Father's patient sighs would become wheezy. She would scrape away at him all night long and squeeze no more out of him than a slow, lopsided grin that was so smug and arrogant that Innis did not know whose side to take and, unlike her sister Biddy, wound up taking no side at all.
In temperament if not appearance, Biddy was very much her mother's daughter: all teeth and temper. At twenty she was still without a husband in spite of her beautiful auburn hair, sea green eyes and statuesque figure. While the look of her attracted men like bees to clover, there was within her a devouring quality that soon withered the horns of male lust. Only Aileen, with hair as pale as bog-cotton and eyes as blue as infinity, could render Biddy speechless, for Biddy stood in awe of her little sister and treated her if not with affection at least with caution. There was precious little time to fret about Aileen's antics during August, though, for work on the wall consumed all the girls' energy and attention.
Biddy handled the pick and Innis the spade. Hair spiky with sweat and eyes vacant, Aileen dug out the smaller stones and washed them in the buckets of salt water that Mother lugged up from the sea. She washed them as if they were objects of great value and would croon over them and cradle them in her arms for a moment before she chipped off a rough edge or shaped a coping with the little road-mender's hammer that her father had found for her.
Weather-brown face shiny with sweat, Vassie did most of the lifting and setting and only the biggest of the stones defeated her wiry strength. One hundred and eighty-eight yards of stock-proof boundary wall were gradually redeemed from the earth at the rate of twelve paces a day. Eight days in the fortnight were scorched by bright, glary sunshine. Six were dunned by grey, oppressive heat. Ronan and the boys would come up from the shore in the evening and inspect the wall and, nodding, would stoop and lift a flint or a pebble, fit it into a crack or little vacancy and give it a delicate tap. Then they would step back and murmur with self-approval as if that one stone was all it took to make the women's work complete.
But there was more to unearthing the old stones than Vassie Campbell had imagined. The wall did not end at the Pennypol burn. It swarmed away across the moor and up over the clifftop and across the ridge that led to Quinish and inland to Dervaig, and, for all the Campbells knew, continued on to Mornish and Calgary and the shores of Loch Tuath. If all the buried hummocks and mounds had been unearthed a great chain of stones might have been found to link the lost communities of the Hebridean coast and unite the fragile settlements that the landowners' greed had all but swept away.
Biddy and Innis were too exhausted to consider the wall's historical significance. All they wanted to do was flop on the grass and idly watch the clouds form overhead. They could no longer be bothered to enquire what strange creatures Vassie expected to come trotting down the glen to snuffle at the dike that they had helped her build.
They were two or three yards short of the burn when the first of the sheep stuck its head up out of the bracken. Perched on a short wooden ladder, Vassie stiffened and yelled, 'By God, they are here already,' then she stepped backward into space, landed like a cat and sprang for the dump at the back of the house before Innis and Biddy even knew what was upon them.
Biddy stood motionless, hands on hips, staring inland towards Crove while the bleating came closer and dust from the drove road rose in a pall like smoke. Innis glanced out to sea in the faint, fond hope that Father's boat might come winging around the headland; of course, it did not. So, stirring herself, she scampered down the slope to help her mother with the rusted harrow that she, Vassie, was dragging up from behind the house.
Vassie had knotted a tattered rope to the broken frame. She dragged it like a sled, bouncing and snagging on the tussocks, and yelled at the pitch of her voice, 'Keep away. Keep away,' as if it were Vikings pouring over the hill to pillage and rape and not just a flock of knee-weary sheep seeking green grass.
The first thing Innis saw of Baverstocks' invaders was a rough-coated black and white collie. It reached the wall top with a sharp little scrabble of claws and peered down at them curiously, tongue lolling and tail wagging. Then there was a whistle, and a shout in the English tongue, 'Roy, come down at once.' The dog twisted round in a dainty half-circle and leaped out of sight.
'Quick, quick, we must be quick,' Vassie cried. She yanked at the rope and brought the harrow -- and Innis with it -- to the gap at the end of the wall.
The wooden frame, split in an ugly vee, was not as high as the wall but its spikes would be enough to deter any sheep, however nosy, from breaking through. A rake of stones and brushwood would finish the job well enough. Dipping and ducking through the bracken, the Baverstocks' sheep emerged in single file, silent at first, then, when they reached the turf that lapped down from the moor, breaking into a loud baa-ing and bleating that grew deafening as the flock coagulated, bewildered and rowdy, against the base of the wall.
The shepherd was a spare young man, not much more than twenty-five years old. He was sallow, with jet black hair, sleek as sealskin. He wore a flannel shirt open all the way down so that his lean, hairless chest showed and his flat, hairless belly, down to the belt that supported his breeks. He had no hat on his head and carried nothing but a crook. He said nothing as he approached and did not smile. He seemed as neat and solemn and as out of place as the big, spongy sheep that he drove before him or the lithe collie that tripped obediently at his heel.
Biddy was first to find her voice. She addressed him in English, not Gaelic. 'What is it you are wanting here?' Hands on hips, hair like a mane, bosom heaving, she was so tall and haughty and handsome that even the collie, never mind the shepherd, stopped and blinked.
The incomer answered in English. 'I want nothing here.'
He was no islander, Innis felt sure. He was more like one of the young lairds that came to open the cattle show or one of pursers off the steamers that plied the sightseeing route round Staffa. He had a clean, scrubbed look to him, an expression not so much patronising as patient. In case he was more educated than he looked, though, she tried him in her native tongue. 'Do you not know whose land this is?'
He shook his head and shrugged. He did not understand.
Innis could smell the sheep now. Two hundred Cheviots had a different smell to the handful of little Blackfaces that had once cropped the neighbouring pastures. She had seen enough of Cheviots to suspect that they would not fare well on Fetternish.
'I don't speak the Gaelic, miss. I'm sorry.'
Biddy said, 'Are you an Englishman, then?'
'No, nothing as bad as that.'
'I asked if you knew what place this is?' Innis said.
'The estate of Fetternish, I believe.'
Although his voice lacked the formal quality of island speech it was quite comprehensible, unlike the grating of gruff Glaswegians or the twang of Aberdeen trawlermen whom Innis had encountered on visits to Tobermory. And, thank God, it was a far cry from the mewing of the southern gentry who spilled across the Hebrides in such profusion every summer.
'Aye, sir, the ground upon which you are standing may be the estate of Fetternish,' Vassie said, 'but if you are taking ten more steps then you will be on my ground and I will be putting you off it as a trespasser.'
'Are you afraid I'll eat your grass, Mrs Campbell?'
'So you know who I am, do you now?'
'I've been told who you are. And what you are.'
'And what is it that I am then?' Vassie demanded.
'You are the proprietor of Pennypol, so I'm informed, and as fine a farming lady as is to be found this side of Morven.'
Vassie gave no sign that his flattery pleased her. She was still quivering with the effort of hauling the harrow up the hill. Innis, though, hid a smile behind her hand, for she realised that the young shepherd had been instructed, probably by Mr Thrale, not to antagonise the quarrelsome Campbells.
'It is my father, Ronan Campbell, who is the owner,' Innis said.
This, of course, was a lie. Ten minutes' conversation in the McKinnon Arms at Crove would supply the incomer with the whole truth about Pennypol, whether he wished to hear it or whether he did not. Land, house, stock and plenishings, such as they were, belonged to Vassie not Ronan Campbell. His sole possession was the boat. The arrangement was unique on the north part of the island and the fact that a crofting woman owned land in her own name and in her own right was considered somehow shameful.
'What is your name?' Biddy said.
'My name is Michael Tarrant.'
'What are you, Mr Tarrant?' Biddy went on. 'A hired drover, or have the Baverstocks appointed you to look after their flock?'
'I'm here to stay, if that's what you mean.'
'Where did you come from?'
'Up from the pier at Calgary.'
'She is meaning where is your home,' Vassie said.
'I was raised in the Ettrick Hills in the Border country.'
'Is that where these damned sheep also come from?' Vassie said.
'They were bought at the Perth sales, so I'm told.'
'Were you not there when the purchase was made?' Biddy said.
Michael Tarrant shook his head. 'The purchase was made by Mr Thrale, who I think you already know.'
'Aye, we know Thrale only too well,' Vassie said.
'Will you be settling on Fetternish, Mr Tarrant?' Innis asked.
Uncertain of his bearings, he gestured towards Olaf's Hill. 'In the cottage over -- over in that direction.'
'Then we will be neighbours,' said Innis.
'Friendly neighbours, I hope,' said Michael Tarrant.
'We will never be friendly neighbours,' Vassie informed him. 'You are with the Baverstocks and the Baverstocks will not be our friends, neither them, nor their hirelings, nor their damned sheep.'
'Have you met the brothers, then?' Michael asked.
'No, I have not met them,' Vassie answered. 'Nor will I be likely to meet them since they are Edinburgh gentlemen and will not be wishing to hob-nob with humble folk like us.'
'Well' -- Michael shrugged -- 'I haven't met them either, Mrs Campbell. But by all accounts they are honest enough and intend to do well by Fetternish.'
'To do well for themselves, you mean,' said Vassie. 'I do not have to be meeting them to know that they will be no different from all the other lairds that have come to ruin the Highlands.'
'Because they cleared the crofters' land to make way for sheep, do you mean?' Michael Tarrant said.
'Because they destroyed what was here before they came.'
'And what was that, Mrs Campbell?'
'Crofts and townships ...'
'And poverty?' Michael Tarrant said. 'Dire poverty?'
'Poverty!' Vassie yelled. 'Do you dare to talk to me of poverty? I tell you I have seen the people here who would eat the husks of the oats and gnaw at the tips of the heather plants to fill their empty bellies. I have seen folk standing in Loch Cuin on a winter's day dredging for crabs that even the herons would not take, just to have something to put in their children's mouths.'
Innis had heard the accounts of the enforced evictions so often that she could recite the litany of suffering in her sleep: Calgary in 1822. Mishnish in 1842. The scouring of Ulva in '51. Treshnish in '62. The callous deceptions that had been perpetrated on the crofters of Dervaig to cheat them out of their grazing land. The cottages of Sorn burned down to make way for sheep.
Only a mile or two along the coast, a certain Mr James Forsyth had erected the towering castle of Glengorm, a monument to arrogance and ambition. Though Forsyth had not lived to occupy the place it had become a landmark for every salt and sightseer who rounded the Point of Ardnamurchan or slid past the rocky corner of Ardmore.
Fetternish too had been cleared. Nothing remained of the old communities now except heaps of stones and patches of bright green grass where the middens had been. Fetternish had changed hands several times since then, for none of the owners had been able to make it thrive. Now the long spit of cliffs and moorland had changed hands again, had been put up for auction and sold to two brothers who had never set foot on Mull and who knew little or nothing about farming.
'I'm sorry, Mrs Campbell,' Michael said. 'I didn't mean to offend you.'
Innis felt a certain sympathy for the incomer. He had much to learn about the pride of the islanders and the scars that history had laid upon them.
'Go away,' Biddy shouted. 'We are cattle people and have no dealings with sheep or with shepherds.'
Michael Tarrant regarded Biddy with interest. He watched her shake out her auburn mane and swell her breast and, Innis thought, present a picture that was both alluring and ridiculous at one and the same time. She wondered if they had girls like Biddy on the Ettrick Hills or if, like so many things on Mull, her sister was unique.
'I see you have built a fine wall here, Mrs Campbell,' Michael Tarrant said. 'But, like all walls, it has two sides to it.'
'What is that supposed to be meaning?' Vassie said.
'As you have pointed out, it'll keep me and my sheep from straying on to Pennypol but it will also keep your kye from straying on to Fetternish. The grazings belong to my employers now. I have every right to remain where I am until every blade of grass, every buttercup and docken has been devoured down to the root. Here, where I stand, is not your ground, Mrs Campbell. You have no right to shout at me to move on.'
'I am not shouting at you,' Vassie yelled. 'I never shout.'
'Then all I can say is that conversations on Mull must be conducted at very long distances,' said Michael Tarrant. 'Frankly, Mrs Campbell, I have heard railway engines make less noise coming out of tunnels.'
Vassie had never seen let alone heard a railway engine. Even so the meaning of the insult was clear. She opened her mouth to protest but no words came only a little 'uh-uh-uh,' like a ewe in labour. She leaned against the broken harrow and pointed at the shepherd as if she hoped that she might put the sign of lightning upon him and shrivel him on the spot for his audacity.
Biddy was less backward. She rushed at the incomer with her fists raised but before she could deliver a blow Michael Tarrant tripped her neatly with the tip of his crook and caught her as she fell. He held her as no man had ever done, very tightly, smothering her flailing arms with his hands and deflecting her knees with his thigh to prevent damage to valuable parts of his anatomy.
'No, Miss Campbell,' he murmured. 'No, that will not do at all.'
'Let me go. Let -- me -- go.'
'If I do, will you behave yourself?'
'Let me ...'
He put his cheek against her cheek, not affectionately, and whispered something into her ear.
Biddy was still in an instant. He released her and stepped quickly away.
'I'll be going now,' he said. 'Not because you have ordered it, Mrs Campbell, but because it is high time I got these poor sheep on to the home pasture. How soon will it be dark?'
Innis opened her mouth to answer but Biddy got there before her.
'In four hours.'
'Thank you, Miss Campbell.'
'Biddy. I am called Biddy.'
'Bridget -- an Irish name?'
She blushed, gave her hair a shake and nodded. 'After my grandmother.'
'A very pretty name,' Michael said. 'And you, miss?'
'And what about you, wee lady?' Michael said.
None of them, apart from Michael, had noticed Aileen. She had climbed the inside of the wall and rested her forearms on the coping, her chin supported on cupped hands. Without a trace of fear she stared down at the collie, at the milling sheep and at the stranger. For once her vacant blue eyes had a glitter of interest in them. She did not answer the shepherd's question, though. Instead she giggled, lifted her shoulders, and cocked her head so that her face was coyly veiled by strands of fine, pale hair.
'She is called Aileen,' Innis said.
'There now,' Michael said. 'Have I met you all?'
'Aye, Mr Tarrant, so you will be knowing who we are and how to avoid us.' Vassie had found her voice again. 'There is nothing here for the likes of you.'
He smiled for the first time, a broad grin that showed white, even teeth.
'I would not be so sure of that, Mrs Campbell,' Michael Tarrant said.
It was late in the evening before Ronan Campbell and his sons, Neil and Donnie, returned to the jetty at Pennypol at the end of a profitable day's fishing.
August was the best month for lobsters and the haul from the pots strung out along the reef had been good. They had ferried the catch straight to the slipway at Croig where Mr Drury, a fish agent from Oban, was on hand to pick up the best of it, and servants from the big houses had come to buy fish and shellfish straight from the boats. Since this was the height of the shooting season the island was thick with visitors all demanding to be fed, and the lobsters had fetched higher prices than usual.
There was no inn at Croig but it was just a short sail to Fergus Haggerty's turf-roofed cottage under the cliffs at Arkle where Fergus kept a still going in the byre and maintained a reputation for being able to supply whisky untainted by an exciseman's gauge. The whisky was very dark and tasted of seaweed and peat ash but it was palatable enough after you got the first glass down. Some lairds even claimed to prefer it to the stuff that came out of labelled bottles and presented it to their hardier guests as 'the real McKay', by which they meant that it could lay you on your back faster than a blow from a ten-pound hammer.
Fergus's illicit whisky -- any sort of whisky -- was good enough for Ronan Campbell. Forty odd years of imbibing the stuff had numbed him to its injurious effects. Nobody could recall ever having seen Ronan the worse for drink, possibly because nobody could ever recall having seen Ronan completely sober. The equitable haze that enveloped Ronan Campbell's mental faculty was the sole reason for his popularity. It was impossible to argue with him, to rouse him to disagreement, let alone passion. He seemed so easy-going that even sharp-witted fish merchants and wily cattle dealers could not find it in their hearts to cheat him by much and he appeared to drift through life without a care in the world. No money either, of course. Never a penny to spare to give to his girls to buy earrings or a card of petticoat lace. Never a sixpence left to put into the bank for a rainy day. The farm fed him, the fishing supplied him with money for drink, and as far as Ronan was concerned this system worked just fine.
Whatever small luxuries the Campbells had acquired had been wrested from Ronan's clutches by stealth and deception. Lying was endemic to Vassie's relationship with her husband. It had spilled over into the girls' relationship with their brothers too, so that at times it seemed as if there were not just two sexes sharing the Pennypol cottage but two warring clans. Only on the rare occasions when farm labour demanded more muscle than women could provide would Ronan forsake his creels and lines.
With a sigh, Ronan would say, 'Well, now, Vassie, I suppose you will be needing us for the cutting tomorrow. What do you say, lads? Do you think we should be lending a helping hand?'
'We will have to be thinking about that,' Neil would say, frowning.
'The crop will not wait for you to do your thinking,' Vassie would say. 'It is ripe for the sickle and the weather is dry.'
'It is a pity that there is such a fine run of lobsters on. Still' -- the smile, the sly, crooked smile -- 'still, if that is the way of it I suppose it will just have to be. And a bit of a rest from the boat will do us no harm.'
'It is a pity about the lobsters, though,' Donnie would put in.
'A pity, a great pity. But that is the way of it, is it not? We will just be having to put our work aside to help out the women with theirs.'
The building of the wall elicited no admiration from Ronan and his sons. It was treated as another idiosyncrasy, another of Vassie's fancies. However much it might appear to the contrary, though, Ronan and Donnie understood only too well the importance of having a barrier to keep out the sheep. Even Neil, a huge lummox of a boy, was intelligent enough to suspect that the sale of Fetternish to strangers would alter things on Pennypol and that the establishment of a boundary wall was no whim but a necessity.
Norman McAlpin, the last owner of Fetternish, had been a farmer of sorts. Consequently he had understood the struggle to make ends meet and had been easy in his dealings with his neighbours. McAlpin, though, had overextended himself and had run into debt. To avoid a shameful bankruptcy he had put Fetternish up for auction in the library of the New Athenian Club where, according to rumour, it had been knocked down to the Baverstocks for a song. The Baverstocks were a different kettle of fish from McAlpin. They were businessmen, not farmers. Their wealth stemmed from tweed cloth production. They had inherited the family manufactory in the Border town of Sangster but prudently left the management of the place in the hands of their brother-in-law, Alister Paul, whom they had made a full and active partner.
The fact that Fetternish had brought three previous owners to their knees did not deter the Baverstocks. They had, of course, an immediate outlet for any quantity of wool that Fetternish might produce and would not be at the mercy of brokers and dealers. They had retained Hector Thrale, McAlpin's factor, to manage the estate and, so it was said, had grand plans to refurbish and extend the 'big house'. The coming of the sheep was the first sure sign that the Baverstocks meant business, however, and it was not until Ronan and his sons walked up from the jetty and saw the pale shapes of the Cheviots dotting the hillside that they were willing to concede that Vassie had been right and that it was no bad thing to have a wall behind you after all.
Dusk had come down. The rim of the sun, round as an orange, showed beneath a lid of cloud. Swarms of gnats had risen from bog and beach and hung in spirals in the fetid air. From the calf park and along the shore the roaring of tormented cattle rose loud and prolonged. Inside the cottage a haze of peat smoke and sweltering steam from cooking pots kept the midges at bay and the only annoyance came from the glossy black flies that crawled over pots and plates, impervious to Vassie's irritable attacks with the back of an iron spoon or a rolled-up copy of the Oban Times.
Curved around the stones of the open fireplace, the Campbells' dog, a portly lurcher named Fingal, opened one eye, contemplated the arrivals and, by way of greeting, broke wind and yawned.
'I see that they are here then.' Ronan seated himself at the table that occupied the centre of the room. 'Who drove them across from Calgary? Thrale would it be?'
'No, a shepherd, a new shepherd,' Biddy answered. 'He comes from a place called Ettrick.'
'Aye, like his sheep, I'm thinking,' Donnie said.
Donnie was his father's double, small-boned but muscular, with a square cleft chin and small, almost prissy mouth. His grandmother had been a famous Irish beauty and Donnie's lashes were embarrassingly long, his neck so slender that it made his head seem top-heavy. He was the oldest child of the family, twenty months older than Bridget, who was twelve months older than Neil.
The men occupied the chairs around the table. Aileen perched close to her father on a high four-legged stool that she had used since she was a baby. Ladling and serving were brisk. Broth first of all, then a dish of boiled cod done with potatoes and a thin butter sauce; hard bread sliced thick and tea, tea as black as boiler tar, to wash it all down.
Biddy, by right, took the last chair. Seated on low rush-bottomed stools that placed them beneath the level of the table, Vassie and Innis ate from bowls balanced in their laps. Women as well as men ate quickly, hungrily. Supper was over in ten minutes. Bowls and plates were removed and put outside on the grass for the hens to peck at or for Fingal to lick clean.
Through the open doorway Innis looked out at the darkening sky. The sun had gone down into cloud. There was no iridescence on the surface of the sea and the waves, such as they were, reflected no light in the smothering gloom. There was the sound of them, though, for the doldrums never stilled that rhythm, that soft 'pah-daaah' that on calm nights seemed almost like the beating of your heart.
She was sticky with sweat. Her petticoat clung to her hips and her breasts were pasted to the lining of her bodice. Even her bare legs felt prickly, as if she had walked through nettles. It would be a hot night again too, lying in the vee-shaped loft just under the thatch with Biddy on one side, Aileen on the other and the straw sticking into her and the blanket rough and itchy.
She put down her teacup and, saying nothing, went outside. She did not take the lantern. Later, she would accompany her mother to the calf park to inspect the beasts that had been dropped that summer. Then Mam and she would return arm-in-arm by the back of the byre to see if they could spot where the hens were roosting and where, in the morning, the eggs might be found. There had been a time when Ronan and Vassie had made this last tour of the farm together, in the gloaming or in the dark, but not now, not for years now.
Innis walked to the gable of the cottage and glanced up at the shadowy undulations of the dike. There was no sign of moon or stars, only a faint smear of light in the sky and a slight, almost undetectable cooling in the night air. She unbuttoned her bodice and let the air surround her body then, quickening her step, made for the shallow pool where the burn checked above the beach.
The turf was so dry and hard that it seemed to ring beneath her feet and even on the shoulder of the burn the grass was brittle and slippery. She removed her bodice and heavy outer skirt and, clad only in her shift, felt for the edge of the pool with her toes. The water, spring-fed, was cool and, sighing with pleasure, she stooped and cupped her hands and brought up a little quantity of water and let it trickle over her breasts and down into the waist of her shift. She stooped again and splashed burn water up on to her face, her throat and breasts.
When she straightened she saw him standing above her, a solid grey shape in the half-dark. She was startled but not frightened.
'I'm sorry. I didn't mean to alarm you,' Michael Tarrant said.
'You did not alarm me, Mr Tarrant.'
She stepped back on to the bank, groped for her skirt and bodice and, finding them, pressed them against her breasts.
'Is this fresh water?' he asked.
'It is,' Innis answered. 'As fresh as any you will find on Mull.'
He perched uncertainly on the bank above her then, as if to indicate that his purpose was entirely innocent, lifted his hands and shook the two galvanised pails that he had lugged the half-mile from Pennymain.
'Mr Thrale neglected to tell me where I could find the water supply for the cottage,' he said.
'It is in the hollow just behind your house. It comes out of a pipe in the bottom of the glen. You would be hard put to find it in the dark,' Innis said. 'Besides, the flow will be slight in the drought, or may have dried up altogether.'
'It's not for me, you understand. It's for the dog. He's parched. I didn't know where else to turn.'
'This is our water, Mr Tarrant.'
'When my grandfather first came into possession of Pennypol he made sure that the boundary was drawn beyond the burn so that nobody could steal the water from us or divert it for their own use.'
'Are you saying that I can't have water?'
'No, Mr Tarrant. I'm saying that you may have your water tonight, and welcome, but that my mother will not allow you to draw regularly.'
'Is fresh water scarce on Fetternish?'
'Far from it. Mull is a wet island. Only in the worse droughts do the streams dry up and then, sometimes, there has to be a pump carted up to the Fetternish lochs for watering stock and supplying the big house.'
'Thrale didn't tell me that.'
'I wonder what else Mr Thrale did not tell you?'
'Well, he didn't tell me about ...' He let the sentence trail away as if, Innis thought, he could not bring himself to fashion another compliment.
Although she was only seventeen, Innis was not inexperienced in recognising interest in a man's voice. Michael Tarrant was no silver-tongued seducer, though, of that she was sure. He was more likely to be the sort of man who would keep his emotions under tight rein and would surrender control of his passions reluctantly.
'Where,' he asked, 'is the best place to draw the water?'
'Here, where I am standing,' Innis said. 'If you will allow me to step away, I will make room for you.'
He turned his back on her, allowed her to slip into her skirt and tie her bodice. She was less modest than he might have expected. She was not embarrassed by the situation. She lacked the pettiness that governed manners in the towns. She watched the shepherd crouch by the pool and fill one of the pails. She took it from him and held the cool new metal against her stomach. She could feel the heat going out of her for the first time that day, a strange, passive coolness transmit itself from the pail to her body. She watched him fill the second pail and took it from him too. She waited while he dipped his face in the flow of the burn, drank, bathed his neck and hair, then rose, dripping, and took the pails from her, his fingers touching her fingers, his arm brushing her arm.
The last of the twilight had faded. Darkness wrapped them like a cloak. She could hear the kye roaring on the foreshore, hoarse and distant.
She watched Michael adjust the water pails, one to each hand. He lingered as if he wanted to ask her more questions. Then she realised that however self-sufficient he might appear to be he was lonely for home, for the place he had left behind, for his mother, his sisters and brothers and -- a sudden thought -- his wife and children?
'I'll be on my way, then,' he said.
'Is there no -- have you no wife?' Innis blurted out.
'Not I,' Michael Tarrant told her. 'I'm quite used to doing for myself.'
'How will you find your way back to Pennymain?'
'I'll follow the line of the wall and the track will lead me from there.'
She was tempted to offer to accompany him but decided that it would be too forward. Besides, she had a feeling that she would encounter Michael Tarrant quite often in the days ahead, that this might be more of a new beginning than anyone, even her mother, could possibly have foreseen.
'Goodnight to you then, Mr Tarrant.'
'Goodnight, Miss Campbell,' he said and, turning, set off along the burn towards the wall with the water pails splashing at his sides.
Somehow Biddy and Innis contrived not to discuss the arrival of sheep on Fetternish or, more particularly, the arrival of the personable young shepherd. It was not that they had put Michael Tarrant out of their thoughts -- far from it -- but simply that neither was willing to reveal to the other that, in spite of the acrimony of their first meeting, she had been attracted to the incomer. For once, Innis had one up on Biddy: that secret, late-evening encounter with Mr Tarrant. While she was half inclined to boast about it and make more of the incident than it deserved, she decided to say nothing. An exchange of confidences with Biddy might wind up setting the shepherd on a pedestal to be fought over like a silver cup at the Mull and Morven Agricultural Show and Innis knew that she could not compete with her sister when it came to attracting the attention of a man.
Biddy's auburn hair and full figure, not to mention her ruby red lips and high, arching eyebrows, had a cohesion that Innis felt she lacked. She would study her features in the shell-backed mirror that Grandfather McIver had given her, trying to make the bits and pieces all come together the way they did with Biddy but they never did. All she had to offer was a nose with a narrow bridge and too much snub, eyebrows that had hardly any curve and a mouth that was -- well -- just a mouth. Her eyes were not sea green like Biddy's but indeterminate brown. As for her hair, it was McIver hair, so fine and granular that the only time it seemed to stay in place was when the wind blew hard and it streamed straight out behind her like sand from the top of a dune.
When it became obvious that she was not going to grow up to look like Biddy, Innis concentrated on making herself a more 'interesting' person. She doubted if it would do her much good, though, for men were invariably more attracted by the curve of your hips and the prominence of your bosom than by subtle shades in your character. In addition, Mother had no truck with how her daughters looked, only with their ability to pass themselves off as 'ladies', to be well regarded by the very class of person that she professed to despise.
There was no one to whom Innis could turn for consolation -- except Grandfather McIver. He always seemed to know exactly what troubled her. He had had a great deal of experience of women -- far too much, according to Vassie -- and was very good at offering advice to his granddaughters. It seemed odd to talk of matters of the heart with such a hulk of a man, for Evander McIver was so old and grizzled that Innis tended to think of him not as a person at all but as a sort of immutable geological formation, like a sea-stac or a skerry.
In the past couple of years she had seen little of him, for there was no love lost between Ronan and he, and Evander McIver did not often leave his home on the tiny island of Foss. Every now and then, though, a passing boatman would deliver letters or packets from Foss to show that Grandfather had not forgotten them. While Aileen showed off her latest trinket, a brooch or a ring, and Biddy chirped over a spool of silk ribbon or a card of lace, Innis, with a pleasure quite incomprehensible to her sisters, would unwrap the books that her grandfather had chosen for her. Stout treatises on the anatomy of the horse or the management of cattle, historical biographies, scientific monographs, novels or poems; Innis had no special preference and would devour instructional manuals with the same rapt attention as she read the tales of Meredith and Blackmore.
If she had been a boy, or if the boys had been more like her, perhaps Grandfather McIver would have tried to educate them too, but Neil and Donnie were Campbells to the core. They made fun of old Evander, dubbed him 'the laird of nowhere', and failed to appreciate that his tiny island was in fact a kingdom from which you might survey the whole wide world.
When word came that Norman McAlpin had gone broke, that Fetternish had been sold yet again, Grandfather McIver sailed over from Foss. He had taken Vassie aside and had told her what she must do to protect Pennypol, not only from the predations of new owners but from the idleness of the man with whom she shared bed and board. He had advised her to build the head wall, for whether it was sheep the Baverstocks put on to the ground or whether it was shooting parties there was bound to be change in the air and Pennypol would have to be kept safe from it.
Biddy and Innis were anxious lest Grandfather's predictions were correct and the winds of change would blow away the only way of life that they had ever known. Now that the sheep had come to Fetternish, however, it was difficult to see where the threat lay. There was certainly nothing threatening in the sight of the Cheviots peacefully nibbling the grass on top of the ridge or in the thin column of smoke that rose from the shepherd's cottage where Mr Michael Tarrant was cooking a lonely breakfast and -- perhaps, perhaps -- dreaming of the girls on the farm next door.
Sheep or not, shepherd or not, it was still dry, still hot and there was still work to be done. Hay had been made in the last week in July, late for a grass crop, but the stooks had been left in the field and not brought into the hay loft. It was that task that now occupied the Campbell women.
The hayfield lay north-west of the calf park on the back side of Olaf's Hill. It was shaped like a Valentine heart, squashed at the top by a broken dike and a straggling blackthorn hedge. From the crest of the field you could watch the red funnels of MacBrayne's paddle steamers cleaving up from Staffa and Iona and see the black sails of the luggers drift fishing beyond Coll or the big jibs of east-coast smacks chasing down the herring shoals.
As a rule the girls would lift their heads and glance out to sea whenever one of the funnels went past or, more rarely, one of the scuddy little steam-lighters that were beginning to take over the coastal trade. But that morning Biddy did not look out to sea. Poised with hay on the fork or a stook in her arms she would stare up at the hill and the smoke that rose above it and would arch her eyebrows so high that she seemed to have no brows at all. And Innis would smile to herself -- not in triumph, not yet -- but because she believed that when it came to Michael Tarrant she was already one point up in the game.
The grass had been cut just past bloom and laid out evenly in wind-rows. The rows had been stacked into conical heaps to keep the hay from bleaching while the wall had been constructed. Now Vassie was eager to have the hay brought to the loft before the first autumn storm flattened everything in sight. They did not use the wheeled cart. The ground by the field gate was soft and sandy and an old-fashioned peat sled was best for the job. One of the farm's sturdy Highland garrons was attached to the shafts, Aileen in charge of it. She was less adept at handling animals than Innis but the pony was patient and understood what was required of it. It permitted Aileen to hang on to the rein and yap out instructions while it got on with the job at its own even pace.
It was half past eleven o'clock before Vassie allowed the girls to break for dinner, by which time half the stooks had been transported to the steading. Dinner was brought up in two pails, one containing bread and smoked fish, the other cold unsweetened tea. The pony was released to crop the grass and drink from a bucket of fresh water while Vassie and her daughters flopped on the fringe of the hayfield in the shadow of the thorn hedge. They ate the smoked fish and buttered bread washed down with tin cupfuls of astringent black tea. They listened to flies buzzing in the bracken and the unfamiliar bleating of sheep from somewhere just over the ridge and, on the surface, the day seemed quiet.
Then a voice said, 'Aye, sir, that is them.'
'You, I say, you there.'
Men and dogs formed a tableau on the hillside below the coppice of larch and pine. For a fleeting instant Innis knew what it felt like to be a hare or a rabbit. She would not have been surprised if the man with the shotgun under his arm had snapped it to his shoulder and fired at them, shouting, the way some sportsmen did, when the pellets struck home. She rolled over and struggled to her feet. Vassie was already upright, her thin brown arm extended.
'So it's yourself then, Mrs Campbell,' Hector Thrale said. 'You and your lassies will be taking a breather, if I am not mistaken. Is it not on the late side to be drawing in hay, though?'
'When I draw my hay is none of your business,' Vassie told him.
'And how are you today, Biddy? Are you keeping well?'
Put out by the presence of Michael Tarrant, Biddy ignored the factor's question. The shepherd stood behind the others, the collie at his side, while two monstrous liver-coloured hounds slavered and snuffled about the Baverstocks' shins. The men were obviously brothers, angular and tall, with large, long-fingered hands. The elder sported a trim beard with a trace of grey in its brown strands, while the younger made do with a dainty moustache. They were clad in identical brand-new Norfolk jackets and plus-two trousers tailored from stiff herring-bone tweed and, in spite of the heat of the day, wore tweed caps with buttoned ear flaps. Their leather boots were too new to have been broken in and Innis noticed how they hirpled as they clambered down the hill with the big, ungainly hounds snuffling and lolloping before them.
'Far enough,' said Vassie, then paused and added, 'Mr Baverstock.'
'Hah! I do believe we have been recognised, Walter.'
'I do believe we have, Austin.'
'Pleasure to make your acquaintance, madam.'
Michael remained where he was, the crook resting against his shoulder and one hand held down to let the collie lick his fingers.
He met Innis's eye and gave her a faint smile.
'Will you be good enough to do the honours, Thrale, old chap?' said Walter Baverstock, advancing down the bracken-clad slope. He had the gun cracked open, the barrel pointed downward. The shotgun, Innis saw, was as new as the Norfolk jacket, as smooth and oily as the gentleman himself. He had small sharp white teeth and his eyes had that far-away look that she had noticed before in men of a certain class, as if they were gazing beyond you at something more interesting.
'Mrs Vanessa Campbell, of Pennypol,' Hector Thrale announced.
The factor wore an old black serge suit and stiff-collared shirt. You might have thought that he had just emerged from church if it weren't for the big round-toed brogans on his feet and the soft-brimmed, sweat-stained hat. He was of an age with Walter Baverstock, somewhere about fifty; Austin, Innis reckoned, was three or four years younger.
The long arm, the long hand came over the thorn, the long, bearded chin thrust out, the smile fixed under a remote gaze. 'I am Walter Baverstock and this is my brother Austin.'
Vassie scowled and hesitated. She held up her skirts, showing wrinkled stockings and worn boots. Her hair was tangled, her bodice patched with sweat. She looked like what she was, a peasant woman whittled by weather and hard labour. She was by no means indifferent to the power that these men wielded, however, or to her own little handful of power. She was no mere tenant or crofter, no tacksman's wife eking out a living on the edge of the shore. She too owned land and did not have to grovel to any man, a fact of which the Baverstocks were well aware.
Innis watched her mother wipe her hand on her skirt and reach across the thorn to shake Walter Baverstock's hand. She did the same for Austin and then, at the lairds' request, brought Biddy and Innis forward and introduced them too. When Biddy dropped a curtsey, the remoteness went out of Austin Baverstock's eyes. He no longer seemed to be gazing towards the horizon and thinking of other things. Biddy usually had this effect on strangers and, Innis thought, it would take more than heavy tweeds and a shotgun to protect a man against her sister's wiles if Biddy chose to put on the swank.
'There now,' said Hector Thrale. 'Is it not better to be neighbourly?'
'That remains to be seen,' Vassie said.
'The little one, the child, what's her name?' Walter Baverstock asked.
'She is Aileen, sir,' Biddy answered. 'My other sister.'
'What -- if I may ask -- is she doing?' said Austin Baverstock.
'Drinking her tea,' said Biddy, as if it was the most natural thing in the world for a young girl to crouch on all fours and lap from a tin cup like a pup. 'She says it tastes better that way.'
'How pecul -- I mean, well, perhaps it does. Perhaps it does,' Austin Baverstock conceded. He glanced at Thrale who, with a motion too slight to be offensive, shook his head. 'The menfolk, Mrs Campbell, where are they?'
'They are at the fishing,' Vassie replied.
'Ah, I see,' said Austin Baverstock. 'They attend to the harvest of the sea while you have the farm to keep you busy. An excellent arrangement, Walter, don't you think?'
'Very practical. Very sound.'
At that moment one of the hounds spotted a rabbit on the edge of the hayfield and swarmed over the broken dike and raced away down the slope, its partner on its heels.
'Stay, Roy,' Michael Tarrant said sharply, as the shepherd's collie seemed about to forget his training and rush off through the bracken in pursuit of a quarry that had already vanished. The sheepdog obeyed instantly. He peered up at his master with a puckered frown, then settled on his haunches with an air of virtuous disdain.
'Thor. Odin. Heah. Heah,' Walter Baverstock shouted.
Fishing a silver whistle from his breast pocket, he stuck it in his mouth and blew a summons that the hounds ignored. The sound was sufficiently shrill to rouse the Campbells' lurcher from noonday stupor, however. It brought him padding round the gable to see what all the fuss was about.
'Thor, come to Papa this instant.' Austin added his voice to his brother's. 'Odin, bad dog. Bad, bad dog.'
The daft young hounds would have none of it. They dashed into the bracken where the rabbit, or a memory of the rabbit, lured them and, finding nothing, bayed and bellowed like lost children then, thrashing through the ferns, emerged upon the wrong side of the drystone, in Fingal's territory.
'Do you keep a dog, madam?' Austin Baverstock asked.
'Oh, aye,' said Vassie.
'Is that him?'
'Aye, Mr Baverstock, that's him.'
The hounds quivered into and out of view, tails up and heads down, heads up and tails down, while Fingal, forelegs stiff, ruff bristling, muzzle curled and teeth bared, stalked them confidently. Baying turned suddenly to whining, followed by a fierce frenzy of snarling and yelping. Then the hounds reappeared. One almost on top of the other, they scrambled over the coping, thumped down and raced off, not towards the sound of the silver whistle and the friendly smell of tweed but away across the burn and into the moorland heather.
Fingal appeared at the harrow-gate, planted his forepaws on it, stared uphill at the fleeing hounds for a second then slipped back, gave himself a shake, and lay down, satisfied.
'His name is Fingal,' Biddy informed them while Aileen, attentive now, bounced up and down and clapped her hands.
'What shall we do, Thrale? Have we lost them?'
'Hounds, Mr Baverstock, should be able to find their own way home.'
'Unless they run into Mr Clark's sheep,' Biddy said.
'Sheep?' said Austin Baverstock in alarm.
'A hundred and twenty Blackface,' Vassie said.
'Mr Clark has a gun too.' The men stared at Aileen. 'Mr Clark shoots doggies that worry his sheep.'
'Surely he wouldn't shoot a pedigree hound?'
'Bang!' Aileen cried, gleefully. 'Bang, bang, bang!'
'If you will take my dog back to my cottage,' Michael Tarrant said, 'I'll have a tramp over the moor and see if I can lead the hounds in.'
'Would you, Tarrant? Good suggestion. Jolly good suggestion.'
Michael unlooped a length of twine from about his waist, collared Roy with it and handed the lead to Thrale.
Innis said, 'Do you know what is over there, Mr Tarrant?'
'No, I admit I do not.'
'Then I will come with you.'
'Innis!' Biddy swung round to appeal to her mother. 'Has she not got work to do like the rest of us?'
'Go with the man to the top of the hill,' Vassie said. 'Show him the lie of the land but be back here without fail in half an hour.'
'Aye, Mother,' Innis agreed, then, with a boldness that was more show than anything, beckoned Mr Tarrant to follow her across the strip of the hayfield and up on to the breast of the moor.
* * *
For their first excursion to the wild west coast of Mull the Baverstocks had travelled light. They had left their town-house servants behind in Edinburgh and had brought with them only a cook and a boot-boy. The latter person had been borrowed from their sister, Agnes, who had charge of the family mansion at Sangster. It had been a good twenty-five years since Willy Naismith had been a 'Boots', a fact that the Baverstock brothers somehow managed to ignore. To Walter and Austin, Willy Naismith was and always would be the Boots, a smart, sly, often truculent orphan who, even before he'd reached his teens, seemed to know more than his master's sons about the real world and how it wagged. During school holidays, Willy had led the brothers into many scrapes and adventures, earning not so much gratitude as dependence; which was why, for the grandest adventure of all -- the purchase and establishment of a Highland estate -- Willy had been summoned from Sangster to serve them once more.
What the Baverstocks did not know, and what Willy certainly wasn't going to tell them, was that he'd been damned relieved to be yanked out of Sangster that August. The summons had come at a most opportune moment. Willy's masculine efficiency had run him into trouble with yet another young kitchen-maid who was letting it be known that she had given her all to Mr Naismith on the strength of a promise of marriage and that she was not going to be fobbed off with a groom or a gardener instead.
Eight years ago fate had dealt Willy a similar bacon-saving hand when his wife had been carried off to the bosom of the Lord. He had grieved for Prudence, of course, had worn widower's weeds for months, had even sworn off random intercourse for a while. But Pru's departure had conveniently erased the accusations of adultery that had kept the mansion's staff on tenterhooks, and had opened up for Willy a whole new chapter of seduction.
Willy had four daughters living in Sangster, all happily married. He had two other daughters and a son born out of wedlock to servant girls, all of whom were, or soon would be, employed in the tweed cloth manufactory. To the good citizens of Sangster it seemed like a miracle that Willy Naismith remained a servant of the Baverstock Pauls and had not been dismissed for moral turpitude. Willy could have told them that it was more a mistake than a miracle but he was not the sort to brag about his conquests, upstairs or down.
Mull, however, was the perfect place to lie low while the latest whiff of scandal cleared away and he had travelled to join the brothers in Edinburgh with a light heart, leaving his women and his problems behind.
Whatever his moral failings Willy was a diligent and attentive servant. It didn't surprise Austin and Walter to find him waiting on the doorstep of Fetternish House to relieve them of their caps and jackets, usher them to the bench in the alcove behind the door and, kneeling, haul off their boots and place them -- the boots not the brothers -- into a tall-box for cleaning.
'Did you have a satisfactory morning, Mr Austin?' Willy enquired.
'No, William, we did not have a satisfactory morning.'
'Too hot for you, sir?'
'Far too hot.'
'I've just the medicine for that, sir,' Willy said and directed the gentlemen into the great hall where it was dark and quiet and cool and a jug of gin and tonic and two tall, chilled glasses waited on the table before the empty fireplace. He had the gin poured before Austin or Walter could hobble across the creaking wooden floorboards and settle themselves into the furniture.
Austin eased himself into a Georgian wing chair, one of a pair, stretched out his legs, waggled his toes, and sighed. Willy slid a glass into his hand, a moist glass, deliciously chilled. Austin drank.
'It's cold collation for luncheon, sir. I thought that'd be best on a warm day. Cook's made a salad to go with the last of the veal pie and there's a fresh raspberry mousse to follow.' Willy placed a glass into Walter's outstretched hand then knelt and massaged his master's stockinged feet. 'Now, we can have it in the front room at the big table or we can have it, al fresco, in here.'
'We lost the dogs, William,' said Walter.
'Lost them? How?'
'They ran off,' said Austin.
'Will the Thrale person find them for you?' Willy said.
'The shepherd,' Austin told him.
'So Mr Thrale will not be joining us for luncheon then?'
'No. No, no,' said Walter.
'He'll be back at two o'clock,' said Austin. 'He has some notion to break another piece of ground for cultivation and wishes us to approve his choice of the site. I cannot think why.'
'What does he wish us to cultivate, sir?' Willy asked.
'Root crops,' Walter said. 'Turnips, I believe.'
'What do we know about turnips?' Austin said.
Sod all, Willy thought. That's what you know about most things agricultural. He placed Waiter's foot down gently, crossed to the hexagonal table and refreshed the glasses.
'Sheep like them, I suppose,' Austin went on, after a pause.
'Nourishment,' Walter told him. 'Winter feed.'
Staring into the empty fireplace that reared before them like a bishop's tomb the Baverstocks nodded in unison. A pace or two behind the chairs, Willy waited, jug in hand. He wondered, not for the first time, what the languid city gentlemen were doing here, what they thought they were playing at in buying a rundown rustic property. Fetternish House was chalk against cheese compared to the Baverstock Paul mansion in Sangster or the brothers' elegant town-house in Edinburgh's Charlotte Square. What had possessed them to bid for this bleak old dwelling on an estate composed mainly of bracken and broken rock? The house didn't even have a distinguished history. The plumbing was primitive. There was, of course, no piped gas. The nearest store, let alone a telegraph office, was two miles away across the heather.
'What did you think of her, Walter?' Austin said.
'The Campbell girl. The redhead. At the hayfield.'
'Oh, the Campbell girl,' said Walter Baverstock, vaguely. 'Yes.'
'Stunning, what?' said Austin. 'A solitary reaper.'
'Come now, Austin, don't get carried away.'
'No.' Austin sighed and cupped the tall glass in both hands as if, Willy thought, he was clasping the waist of the little island chick who had already caught his fancy. 'No, I suppose you're right.'
A moment's silence. Walter said, 'What was her name again?'
'Are you smitten, old man?' Walter enquired.
'You know,' Austin answered, 'I do believe I am,' while a step or two behind the brothers, wily Willy Naismith immediately pricked up his ears.
Innis led Michael Tarrant on to the ridge that overlooked Loch Mingary. He walked behind her, not so close that he could not admire the swing of her hips or the shape of her calves if he had a mind to, but more likely out of politeness. She walked with a young woman's gait, swinging her shoulders. Now and then she glanced round to make sure that Michael had not been left behind and noticed how neatly he moved, body upright, head erect and vigilant.
She said nothing until they reached the summit of the ridge. It was marked by a single standing stone ten feet in height. She stepped into the sheep hollow that surrounded the stone, rested her shoulder against it and beckoned Michael to join her.
'Does it have a name?' he asked. 'The stone, I mean.'
'Aye, she is called Caliach.' Innis used the Gaelic pronunciation.
'What does it mean?'
'Old wife. She is the Old Wife of Mingary.'
'Is there a story about her?' Michael said. 'There must be. There's always a story attached to a standing stone. Is she good or evil?'
'She is neither good nor evil,' Innis told him. 'But there is a story about how she came to be here.'
'Tell it to me.'
Innis wondered if he was teasing her, if, like so many incomers, he thought that Gaelic lore and legend was just so much fanciful rubbish.
'No,' he said. 'I mean it.'
'Thousands of years ago,' Innis said, 'the Norsemen came and stole Caliach's children to take back to Norway. She ran after them, cursed them and called on the winds and the waves to turn them round and drive them back.' Innis shook her head. 'Surely you do not want to listen to all this nonsense?'
'It isn't nonsense,' Michael assured her. 'I want to hear the story.'
He had come down into the hollow and stood by the stone, looking up at it. While she spoke he brushed the rough surface with his fingertips as if the faded grey medallions of lichen could be read like an alphabet of the blind.
'Is it too shocking for the ears of an incomer?' he said.
'No, no,' Innis said, and continued. 'One of the sea gods, or it may have been a druid, struck a bargain with Caliach. He told her that he would bring her children back safe if she would agree to become his watch-woman.'
'And did the god, or the druid, keep his word?'
'She is here, is she not?'
'Indeed,' Michael said. 'And her children, what happened to them?'
'The Norsemen were drowned in a sudden squall but all Caliach's children were saved to become the original people of the isles. Because she was a woman of her word, Caliach stands guard upon this part of the coast to this day,' Innis said. 'In winter mists and at dusk sometimes they say you can hear her call out to those of her children who have gone on their journey westward.'
'What does she say to them?' Michael asked.
'She calls out to assure them that she will be waiting for them whenever they choose to return.'
'Have you heard the Old Wife's voice?'
'No,' Innis answered him. 'Not yet.'
'Some day you will?'
'Some day, perhaps.' Inclining her head, she said, 'See, there are your dogs, playing by the sea's edge.'
'I know,' Michael said. 'I spotted them from the top of the hill.'
'Had you not better be fetching them before they drown themselves?'
'Aye, they're daft enough for it,' Michael said.
The Baverstocks' hounds were sniffing about the fringes of a rock pool, oblivious to the fact that they were supposed to be lost.
'I must be getting back now,' Innis said. 'The hay will not wait and I cannot be leaving all the work to Biddy. Do you know where you are, Mr Tarrant?'
'I'm not sure I do,' the shepherd said, then laughed. 'Aye, Miss Campbell, I know where I am.' He rested his shoulders on the stone and surveyed the landscape before him. 'It's fine country, though very different from where I come from.'
There were no fences and few walls, only the shape of the sea loch, like a butter-knife blade and, up towards the head of it, dark clusters of oak, fir and pine. Smoke purled upwards from the Ards, Mr Clark's house, from farm buildings scattered over Quinish and, faint in the distance, timed the sky above the little township of Dervaig.
Innis said, 'Will you be staying, Mr Tarrant?'
'On Mull?' He glanced at her and pushed himself away from the rock. 'Well, from what I gather it's not accommodating country for a shepherd. I've even heard it said that Mull can break a man's heart.'
'That depends on the man, Mr Tarrant,' Innis said.
'What do you think, Miss Campbell? Do you think it'll break my heart?'
'It might, Mr Tarrant,' Innis answered him. 'Aye, it might at that.'
Table of Contents
|1 The Coming of the Sheep||1|
|2 A Sunday Lunch||31|
|3 The People under the Hill||71|
|4 The Harvest Home||101|
|5 A Midnight Courtship||127|
|6 Dead of Winter||167|
|7 The Parting of the Ways||195|
|8 Redwater Fever||233|
|9 The Wedding March||273|
|10 The Duties of a Wife||313|
|11 The Broken Heart||355|
|12 A Promise of Fair Weather||379|