The Lad with the Curly Black Hair

LITTLE MARY OF LOCHOW.

It is a tale of true love that I am going to tell this time. You know what that means. A man and a maid, with trystings in the gloaming, and a breaking heart at every good-bye. If that was the whole of it, the tale would have an easy telling. But in this adventure of hearts there were three and not two who tried to strike the holy bargain—and when a third creeps in there is sure to be hatred and curses and a clenching of fists, with weeping for the maid before the end. It is hard for the Highland heart to love lightly, and when the other fellow comes between, the fire of hate leaps up in a moment, and the blows are struck before ever the one knows what he is doing or the other knows what he has done. Which shows, I am thinking, that a comely maid is held in great esteem among the hills and by the side of the sea lochs. For the measure of our love for a lass is the selfsame as our hate for the man who tries to steal her love from us.

It was in the Campbell country that it all happened, a good handful of days before the red-haired Lord of Argyle with his jury of Campbells sent James of the Glen to the hanging for the murder of Glenure. That would be a diverting theme to argue over, and it will come to the tip of my pen before long to tell you who killed the Red Fox—but not now. Oh no! this is a love tale. Like all our love tiles, it may be splashed here and there with blood and dool; for though Argyle had by this time taken philabeg and dirk from us, it will not be a thing to wonder at, I am sure, when I tell you that in Argyle’s own countryside there never was any scarcity of steel or tartan all through the time of proscribing. What was sin in Appin and Lochiel was aye God’s own truth in Inneraora. But to my tale.

The three of them were Campbells, which made the matter woree and worse. Little Mary Campbell of Lochow, Nial Campbell of Barbreck, and Colin Campbell of Innismore each of whom was own cousin by, I cannot mind how many removes, to Argyle himself. That is small matter of import, however, for when it comes to cousinship among the clans you may marry us and move us and mix us as you please, yet are we cousins still with no confusion of sentiment or forgetting of our proper lineage.

Little Mary was the sweetest of all the gentlewomen who were staying at the castle of Argyle. She had a head of hair that made envy loup in the heart of all the women—so thick and glossy and long was it, that the waitingmaids used to say it swept the floor of her retiring room like a shower of russet leaves in Autumn when she let it down. It was the real red hair of the Campbells—and when it was coiled on the top of her head it made an aureole of golden glory round the winsomest face that at that time was to be seen at the Court of Inneraora. Her cheeks minded one of a blush rose. Her neck was as white as the swan’s. Her eyes had in them the depths of the blue sea with its lights and shadows and all its mystery. And when she smiled, a pretty pair of dimples appeared from Heaven only knows where, and gave the bonny blushing face that witching power which made men quarrel to the death for very passion in their love of her. She was little and quick witted and mischievous. When she took the floor to tread a minuet she danced with the nimbleness and grace of a fairy queen. And when she laughed—it minded one most irresistibly of the ripple of waves along the sand on a fair sunlit day of Spring. This was Little Mary of Lochow.

I need not now be telling you that all the lads about Argyle’s castle and countryside dreamed of her at night and quarrelled about her by day. But there was one among them whom Argyle himself had set his heart on favouring. Nial Campbell of Barbreck was to marry Little Mary, and none else. So said Mac Cailein Mor, and Cailein’s word was law.

Nial Campbell was a good fighter, but the very poorest of poor hands at making love. The sight of his boney face with the cruel deep-set eyes and the shock of red hair above, had made many a man say his prayers on a sudden when it came to a wrangle and a fight. He wooed as he fought, with a hard face and a silent tongue. So used was he to mastery, that he despised the coaxing ways of those who try to win women with the gentleness of love. So Nial Campbell, the favoured friend and cousin of Argyle claimed Little Mary for his own, as a big lad at play will go up to a group of little lads around a ewe lamb, and,say, “Hey ! that’s mine.”

Little Mary’s eyes flashed whenever he came near her. And before the assembled company in the great ballroom at the castle one night she turned her back on young Barbreck, and gave her hand to Colin Campbell of Innismore. Then the fat was in the fire, as the saying goes. For Colin was poor and proud and handsome to look at, with a heart on fire with love for Little Mary—and Nial was bien and just as proud, with the great Argyle at his back, and that jealousy of passion in his heart which is ever bred in men with plain faces and gawky manners. Forby all that, Colin was a dark Campbell with black curling hair and coal-black eyes— and among Argyle’s people the red Campbells have ever been more favoured than the black.

That night, when the Assembly was over, they had words—and next morning they fought with small swords on the sands, and would have continued to fight till one of them had paid the price, had not Argyle himself come upon them suddenly, and made them swear to forego all future brawls. A promise is easy to give, and just as easy to break when a woman comes into the reckoning. So from that day and for many a day, Nial and Colin lived with murder in their hearts, though their bows in public to one another were the politest, and Argyle flattered himself that he had made peace between them. But one morning when Mac Cailein Mor was walking early in his garden of clipt box hedges, after a night spent pouring over his books and scholar’s studies—poor sport enough for any man who can hold a sword, and the weakness of all the Argyles as fighting men—he heard voices in the alley over the hedge. I will not say that he listened, but I will say that he was a Campbell and an Argyle. So that same afternoon in the bowling green he went up to Nial Campbell of Barbreck.

“Well, Barbreck, and how goes the love affair?”

“Slowly, but I trust well, sir.”

“Ah! are ye not a little heavy-handed with sprite cupid’s bow and arrow? A little more whisperings of love in the morning among the box alleys, and a little less of the sullen dog, friend Nial, and ye would not lose as much ground as some are gaining.”

Argyle passed on with a laugh, and the laugh struck Barbreck on the heart. What is a laugh? One here or there is nothing. But a laugh has killed good men before now. And Nial Campbell left the bowling green of Argyle that day with an ugly look on his face.

I need not be reminding you of all that came and went between the three of them from that day—for my tale has to do with the end of the affair only. Enough if I say, that in the gloaming of a spring forenight when the blackbirds were singing in the woods of Inneraora, Nial Campbell of Barbreck saw Innismore and Little Mary walking together. Colin’s arm was round the lady’s waist, and every now and then she would turn up her bonny face and smile at him, as he poured out his love-talk with a true lover’s self-forgetfulness. At the end of the glade Innismore took her in his arms and kissed her. There was an oath from Barbreck, and a shot rang through the silence of the woods. The red Campbell had fired at them in the dark from behind a tree. The lady screamed, but no harm was done, for Barbreck’s hand trembled so much with passion that the shot lodged in a tree trunk three yards above the lover’s heads.

The affair never got abroad; and Innismore, like a wise man, kept the door of his lips. But in two days’ time Little Mary of Lochow had disappeared from Argyle’s castle. There was a great to-do for a while, but just when Argyle was setting about a search for her, a messenger came from Lochow to say that she was safe at home in her father’s house. But two things struck Argyle as strange. First, whenever Barbreck met Innismore he had a sneering smile on his face as he bowed to his rival, and second, Innismore never made a move to go to Lochow. Instead, Colin took to wandering round the castle aimlessly, and was never out of the high street and back courts of Inneraora. He went about whistling to himself continually, and the tune he whistled was a little pawkie love ballad which he had asked his sweetheart to sing to him many a time when they were alone. The chorus of the song ran in these words :—

“A glowering old red head I never could bear,
But I dote on the lad with the curly black hair.”

He was wandering back and forward one still sunny afternoon below a back part of the castle where there was a row of little barred windows high above the ground. The ground fell away from the castle wall in a grassy bank that was covered with plane trees. At the foot of this little wood was a fosse or moat. Again and again did Innismore parade this walk whistling his silly ballad to himself, and ever casting his eye upwards at the windows as if he expected to see something there, and sideways down through the trees to the fosse as if there might be somebody there to hear his line whistling. But he saw nothing. The whistling went on merrily all the same and he had walked back and forwards for a good half hour, when, at the forty-third turning in his walk he heard the clink of mettle on the stones at his back. He wheeled round quickly and stopped whistling. Then he stooped and picked something up. It was a gold ring with a bit of paper tied to it. The paper was tied to the ring with a strand of red hair. His heart louped within him when he recognised the ring he had given to Little Mary of Lochow. Then he opened the paper hastily and read these words :—

“Colin, dear, I have heard your whistling. I am kept here by one we both ken to our cost. I am to be carried away to some far place the morrow’s night if I yield not myself up to him by then. Be below this window at twelve to-night, and I’ll come down to you. Make no preparations for fear of being suspect. But be there at twelve, and whistle your ballad three times. At the third time I’ll come down. The bars of the window are wide, and I am your own Little Mary.”

There was no more whistling that day, and Colin Campbell of Innismore tried hard to pick a quarrel with Barbreck. But the big red Campbell took all his insults with a smile, and kept carefully out of Colin’s way. In the evening there was a great assembly in the castle ballroom to do honour to young Argyle, whose birthday happened to fall that day. Colin did not dance: nor did Barbreck. The one was restless and ill at ease, and the other kept watching him wherever he went. Innismore saw Barbreck watching him, and at last, mad with annoyance, he left the ballroom and slipped out into the gardens.

It was a clear, still, windless night, and the music of the players came floating out on the air through the open windows of the castle. It wanted half an hour till twelve yet, so Colin wandered down the avenue under the trees. His light shoes made silent going and there was no one about, for all the world of Inneraora was up and about the castle to see the dancing and to drink young Argyle’s health in the banqueting hall.

“A fine night indeed, for our ploy,” said he to himself, as he wandered along beneath the trees.

He was at his place below the window in the wall at the back of the castle long before the appointed time. He could see a light in the window quite plainly, and he would have dearly loved to whistle a bar of “An gille dubh, ciar dubh,” but he durst not make any sound before the time, so he leaned against a tree and waited. It was dreich work. He could hear the revels of some drunk fellow shouting in his cups far away in the courtyard of the castle. Now and then he heard the pipe music within. But down here among the trees at the back wall of the great keep there was no one to be seen or heard. So he waited for the great clock to chime the hour of midnight, with his heart beating double quick. At last the clock struck. He looked up at, the window—the light went out. When the sound of the last chime had died away Innismore began to whistle softly, keeping his eye all the while on the little window above him.

He saw a rope thrown out, and the foot of it dangled high above him, about ten feet from the ground. Where did Little Mary get that rope? But it was no time for questions.

“A glowering old red head I never could bear,
But I dote on the lad with the curly black hair.”

Once he whistled it, twice he whistled it, three times he whistled it, and before he was done he saw Little Mary’s head and shoulders appearing through the window high up.

Innismore did not know what he was doing, but in his anxiety he continued to whistle the pawky song and to crane his neck at the same time to see how it fared with his sweetheart. The rope was very thin, and the distance from the window to the ground was very great. She was now out of the window altogether, and was swinging on the rope.

Innismore still whistling, held out his arms below her to catch her if she fell. Could anyone have seen him in his droll attitude whistling softly with his head thrown back and his arms outstretched, there would have been laughing in the dark that night. Then he stopped whistling.

“Mary, little love, go cannily. I’m here, and will catch you if you fall. Take care, little one.”

She looked down, and the rope swung frightfully.

“Colin, dear, I am coming. Oh! Colin, I can see you.”

“Yes, yes—but have a care, mo chridhe.”

Just then she turned her head and gave a little cry of despair. For some reason or other she began to come down the rope most recklessly. It was too much for the slender cord, and the rope broke. With another cry the little lady fell a full fifteen feet, rope and all, into the arms of her lover, who was standing waiting to catch her. The strong arms were round her in a moment, and her head lay against his breast —a little short-cropped red head, like the head of a boy—and the rope switched across his face.

“My God, Mary—it is your own hair!”

Then a pistol shot broke the quiet of the place, and a bullet whizzed past them.

“Yes—yes—but he is there—I saw him—Barbreck. Oh, Colin, quick!”

“God curse him!”

And turning from his sweetheart, Innismore faced round and was just in time to see Barbreck throw his pistol at his head. The heavy pistol cut Colin’s head open, but he was not conscious of any hurt. Like a wild cat he gathered himself together and made a spring at Barbreck. The suddenness of the spring bore the big red Campbell to the ground; and there they lay locked in one another’s grip, face to face, the breath of the one mingling with the breath of the other as they struggled. Never a word was spoken: their hard breathing was the only sound that could be heard in that quiet spot at the foot of the castle walls. Then a sudden lurch and the two men went rolling down the slope among the trees in the dark to the fosse, locked in one another’s embrace. Would they drown in the stagnant water together?

Then a sudden crack—hollow and harsh and horrid—and one of them had smashed his skull against a tree. The black rolling mass was still.

The lady gave a cry.

“All right—it’s Barbreck—curse him!” called out Innismore from the gloom.

And in another moment Little Mary was kneeling beside the two men in the woody hollow.

“I am going to kill him,” hissed Innismore, between his teeth.

“Colin! would you murder him like that?”

“I would do anything at this moment. I hate him like hell.”

“Ah, don’t? Is it not enough that you have got me? Colin, don’t do it!”

That checked him, and he stood up.

“But what’s to be done? We are not safe if he wakes up. No, no—I’ll have to kill him.”

“Colin—see here! Tie him to the tree with the rope. Tie him up and leave him.”

“What! with my little sweetheart’s hair?”

“Yes, quick. See here—this way!”

And already the little woman with a strength of desperation began to lift the big body of the man she loathed.

Innismore laughed.

“You are right, Mary. My sorrow, how he will curse when he comes to himself! There— that will do. How tight your little rope can draw! The sight of it will sicken him with rage when the daylight comes.”

“Then come away. Colin—quick. We must get away to some place of safety. Will you take me to Lochow?” said she, with a sly laugh.

“No, sweetheart. It is Innismore this time, and for ever.”

And with that Colin Campbell lifted the bit lady in his great arms and ran lightly with her through the wood.

TORQUIL MACLEOD.

Curator: Christian Clay Columba Campbell

Christian Clay Columba Campbell is a Roman Catholic of the Anglican Use. As Senior Warden of the Cathedral of the Incarnation (Orlando, FL), he organised the process by which the parish accepted the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, petitioning to join the Catholic Church. The Anglican Cathedral is now the Church of the Incarnation in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. Personal queries should be directed to me at eccentricbliss dot com.

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