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Weird Tales - Scottish
Highland Snowstorm

By John Wilson (“Christopher North”)

One family, lived in Glencreran, and another in Glencoe—the families of two brothers—seldom visiting each other on working days, seldom meeting even on Sabbaths, for theirs was not the same parish kirk —seldom coming together on rural festivals or holidays, for in the Highlands now these are not so frequent as of yore; yet all these sweet seldoms, taken together, to loving hearts made a happy many, and thus, though each family passed its life in its own home, there were many invisible threads stretched out through the intermediate air, connecting the two dwellings together,—as the gossamer keeps floating from one tree to another, each with its own secret nest. And nest-like both dwellings were. That in Glencoe, built beneath a treeless but high-heathered rock,—lone in all storms,—with greensward and garden on a slope down to a rivulet, the clearest of the clear (oh ! once woefully reddened!), and growing, so it seems, in the mosses of its own roof, and the huge stones that overshadow it, out of the earth. That in Glencreran more conspicuous, on a knoll among the pastoral meadows, midway between mountain and mountain, so that the grove which shelters it, except when the sun is shining high, is darkened 103 by their meeting shadows,—and dark indeed, even in the sunshine, for ’tis a low but wide-armed grove of old oak-like pines. A little farther down, and Glen-creran is very sylvan ; but this dwelling is the highest up of all, the first you descend upon, near the foot of that wild hanging staircase between you and Glen-Etive. And, except this old oak-like grove of pines, there is not a tree, and hardly a bush, on bank or brae, pasture or hay-field, though these are kept by many a rill, there mingling themselves into one stream, in a perpetual lustre that seems to be as native to the grass as its light is to the glow-worm. Such are the two huts, for they are huts and no more —and you may see them still, if you know how to discover the beautiful sights of nature from descriptions treasured in your heart, and if the spirit of change, now nowhere at rest on the earth, not even in its most solitary places, have not swept from the scenes the beautified, the humble but hereditary dwellings that ought to be allowed, in the fulness of the quiet time, to relapse back into the bosom of nature, through insensible and unperceived decay.

These huts belonged to brothers, and each had an only child,—a son and a daughter,—born on the same day, and now blooming on the verge of youth. A year ago, and they were but mere children ; but what wondrous growth of frame and spirit does nature al that season of life often present before our eyes ! So that we almost see the very change going on between morn and morn, and feel that these objects of our affection are daily brought closer to ourselves, by partaking daily more and more in all our most sacred thoughts, in our cares and in our duties, and in knowledge of the sorrows as well as the joys of our common lot. Thus had these cousins grown up before their parents’ eyes—Flora Macdonald, a name hallowed of yore, the fairest, and Ronald Cameron, the boldest of all the living flowers in Glencoe and Glencreran. It was now their seventeenth birthday, and never had a winter sun smiled more serenely over a knoll of snow. Flora, it had been agreed on, was to pass that day in Glencreran, and Ronald to meet her among the mountains, that he might bring her down the many precipitous passes to his parents’ hut. It was the middle of February, and the snow had lain for weeks with all its drifts unchanged, so calm had been the weather and so continued the frost. At the same hour, known by horologe on the cliff touched by the finger of dawn, the happy creatures left each their own glen, and mile after mile of the smooth surface glided away past their feet, almost as the quiet water glides by the little boat that in favouring breezes walks merrily along the sea. And soon they met at the trysting place—a bank of birch trees beneath a cliff that takes its name from the eagles.

On their meeting, seemed not to them the whole of nature suddenly inspired with joy and beauty? Insects, unheard by them before, hummed and glittered in the air; from tree roots, where the snow was thin, little flowers, or herbs flower-like, now for the first time were seen looking out as if alive; the trees themselves seemed budding, as if it were already spring ; and rare as in that rocky region are the birds of song, a faint trill for a moment touched their ears, and the flutter of a wing, telling them that somewhere near there was preparation for a nest. Deep down beneath the snow they listened to the tinkle of rills unreached by the frost, and merry, thought they, was the music of these contented prisoners. Not Summer’s self, in its deepest green, so beautiful had ever been to them before, as now the mild white of Winter; and as their eyes were lifted up to heaven, when had they ever seen before a sky of such perfect blue, a sun so gentle in its brightness, or altogether a week-day in any season so like a Sabbath in its stillness, so like a holiday in its joy? Lovers were they, although as yet they scarcely knew it; for from love only could have come such bliss as now was theirs,—a bliss, that while it beautified was felt to come from the skies.

Flora sang to Ronald many of her old songs, to those wild Gaelic airs that sound like the sighing of winds among fractured cliffs, or the branches of storm-tossed trees, when the subsiding tempest is about to let them rest. Monotonous music ! but irresistible over the heart it has once awakened and enthralled, so sincere seems to be the mournfulness it breathes—a mournfulness brooding and feeding on the same note, that is at once its natural expression and sweetest aliment, of which the singer never wearieth in her dream, while her heart all the time is haunted by all that is most piteous,—by the faces of the dead in their paleness returning to the shades of life, only that once more they may pour from their fixed eyes those strange showers of unaccountable tears!

How merry were they between those mournful airs ! How Flora trembled to see her lover’s burning brow and flashing eyes, as he told her tales of great battles fought in foreign lands, far across the sea— tales which he had drunk in with greedy ears from the old heroes scattered all over Lochaber and Badenoch, on the brink of the grave still garrulous of blood?

“The sun sat high in his meridian tower.”

But time had not been with the youthful lovers, and the blessed beings believed that ’twas but a little hour since beneath the Eagle Cliff they had met in the prime of the morn!

The boy starts to his feet, and his keen eye looks along the ready rifle—for his sires had all been famous deer - stalkers, and the passion of the chase was hereditary in his blood. Lo! a deer from Dalness, hound-driven, or sullenly astray, slowly bearing his antlers up the glen, then stopping for a moment to snuff the air, then away—away! The rifle-shot rings dully from the scarce echoing snow-cliffs, and the animal leaps aloft, struck by a certain but not sudden death-wound. Oh ! for Fingal now to pull him down like a wolf! But labouring and lumbering heavily along, the snow spotted as he bounds with blood, the huge animal at last disappears round some rocks at the head of the glen. “Follow me, Flora!” the boy-hunter cries; and flinging down their plaids, they turn their bright faces to the mountain, and away up the long glen after the stricken deer. Fleet was the mountain girl; and Ronald, as he ever and anon looked back to wave her on, with pride admired her lightsome motion as she bounded along the snow.

Redder and redder grew that snow, and more heavily trampled, as they winded round the rocks. Yonder is the deer, staggering up the mountain, not half a mile off—now standing at bay, as if before his swimming eyes came Fingal, the terror of the forest, whose howl was known to all the echoes, and quailed the herd while their antlers were yet afar off. “Rest, Flora, rest! while I fly to him with my rifle, and shoot him through the heart!”

Up—up—up the interminable glen, that kept winding and winding round many a jutting promontory and many a castellated cliff, the red-deer kept dragging his gore-oozing bulk, sometimes almost within, and then for some hundreds of yards just beyond, rifle-shot; while the boy, maddened by the chase, pressed forwards, now all alone, nor any more looking behind for Flora, who had entirely disappeared ; and thus he was hurried on for miles by the whirlwind of passion,—till at last he struck the noble quarry, and down sank the antlers in the snow, while the air was spurned by the convulsive beatings of feet. Then leaped Ronald upon the red-deer like a beast of prey, and lifted up a look of triumph to the mountain-tops.

Where is Flora! Her lover has forgotten her— and he is alone—nor knows it—he and the red-deer— an enormous animal, fast stiffening in the frost of death.

Some large flakes of snow are in the air, and they seem to waver and whirl, though an hour ago there was not a breath. Faster they fall and faster—the flakes are almost as large as leaves; and overhead whence so suddenly has come that huge yellow cloud?“ Flora, where are you  where are you, Flora?” and from the huge hide the boy leaps up, and sees that no Flora is at hand. But yonder is a moving speck, far off upon the snow. ’Tis she—’tis she; and again Ronald turns his eyes upon the quarry, and the heart of the hunter burns within him like a new-stirred fire. Shrill as the eagle’s cry disturbed in his eerie, he sends a shout down the glen, and Flora, with cheeks pale and bright by fits, is at last by his side. Panting and speechless £he stands, and then dizzily sinks on his breast. Her hair is ruffled by the wind that revives her, and her face all moistened by the snow-flakes, now not falling, but driven—for the day has undergone a dismal change, and all over the sky are now lowering savage symptoms of a fast-coming night-storm.

Bare is poor Flora’s head, and sorely drenched her hair, that an hour or two ago glittered in the sunshine. Her shivering frame misses now the warmth of the plaid, which almost no cold can penetrate, and which had kept the vital current flowing freely in many a bitter blast. What would the miserable boy give now for the coverings lying far away, which, in his foolish passion, he flung down to chase that fatal deer? “Oh, Flora! if you would not fear to stay here by yourself, under the protection of God, who surely will not forsake you, soon will I go and come from the place where our plaids are lying; and under the shelter of the deer we may be able to outlive the hurricane,—you wrapped up in them,—and folded, O my dearest sister, in my arms!” “I will go with you down the glen, Ronald! ” and she left his breast, but, weak as a day-old lamb, tottered and sank down on the snow. The cold—intense as if the air were ice—had chilled her very heart, after the heat of that long race ; and it was manifest that here she must be for the night—to live or to die. And the night seemed already come, so full was the lift of snow; while the glimmer every moment became gloomier, as if the day were expiring long before its time. Howling at a distance down the glen was heard a sea-born tempest from the Linnhe Loch, where now they both knew the tide was tumbling in, bringing with it sleet and snow-blasts from afar; and from the opposite quarter of the sky an inland tempest was raging to meet it, while every lesser glen had its own uproar, so that on all hands they were environed with death.*

“I will go—and, till I return, leave you with God.” “Go, Ronald!” And he went and came, as if he had been endowed with the raven’s wings.

Miles away and miles back had he flown, and an hour had not been with his going and his coming; but what a dreary wretchedness meanwhile had been hers ! She feared that she was dying—that the cold snowstorm was killing her—and that she would never more see Ronald, to say to him farewell. Soon as he was gone, all her courage had died. Alone, she feared death, and wept to think how hard it was for one so young thus miserably to die. He came, and her whole being was changed. Folded up in both the plaids, she felt resigned. “Oh! kiss me, kiss me, Ronald; for your love—great as it is—is not as my love. You must never forget me, Ronald, when your poor Flora is dead.”

Religion with these two young creatures was as clear as the light of the Sabbath day ; and their belief in heaven just the same as in earth. The will of God they thought of just as they thought of their parents’ will; and the same was their living obedience to its decrees. If she was to die, supported now by the presence of her brother, Flora was utterly resigned; if she was to live, her heart imaged to itself the very forms of hei grateful worship. But all at once she closed her eyes, ceased breathing,—and, as the tempest howled and rumbled in the gloom that fell around them like blindness, Ronald almost sunk down, thinking that she was dead.

‘‘Wretched sinner that I am—my wicked madness brought her here to die of cold!” And he smote his breast, and tore his hair, and feared to look up, lest the angry eye of God were looking on him through the storm.

All at once, without speaking a word, Ronald lifted Flora in his arms, and walked away up the glen, here almost narrowed into a pass. Distraction gave him supernatural strength, and her weight seemed that of a child. Some walls of what had once been a house, he had suddenly remembered, were but a short way off; whether or not they had any roof he had forgotten,—but the thought even of such a shelter seemed a thought of salvation. There it was—a snow-drift at the opening that had once been a door —snow up the holes once windows—the wood of the roof had been carried off for fuel, and the snow-flakes were falling in, as if they would soon fill up the inside of the ruin. The snow in front was all trampled, as if by sheep; and carrying in his burden under the low lintel, he saw the place was filled with a flock that had foreknown the hurricane, and that, all huddled together, looked on him as on the shepherd, come to see how they were faring in the storm.

And a young shepherd he was, with a lamb apparently dying in his arms. All colour, all motion, all breath, seemed to be gone; and yet something convinced his heart that she was yet alive. The ruined hut was roofless, but across an angle of the walls some pine branches had been flung, as a sort of shelter for the sheep or cattle that might repair thither in cruel weather—some pine-branches left by the wood-cutters, who had felled the few trees that once stood at the very head of the glen. Into that corner the snow-drift had not yet forced its way, and he sat down there, with Flora in the cherishing of his embrace, hoping that the .warmth of his distracted heart might be felt by her, who was as cold as a corpse. The chill air was somewhat softened by the breath of the huddled flock, and the edge of the cutting wind blunted by the stones. It was a place in which it seemed possible that she might revive, miserable as it was with the mire-mixed snow, and almost as cold as one supposes the grave. And she did revive, and under the half-open lids the dim blue appeared to be not yet life-deserted. It was yet but the afternoon,—night-like though it was,—and he thought, as he breathed upon her lips, that a faint red returned, and that they felt the kisses he dropt on them to drive death away.

“Oh! father, go seek for Ronald, for I dreamt tonight that he was perishing in the snow.” “Flora, fear not—God is with us.” “Wild swans, they say, are come to Loch Phoil. Let us go, Ronald, and see them ; but no rifle—for why kill creatures said to be so beautiful?” Over them where they lay, bended down the pine*-branch roof, as if it would give way beneath the increasing weight; but there it still hung, though the drift came over their feet, and up to their knees, and seemed stealing upwards to be their shroud. “Oh! I am overcome with drowsiness, and fain would be allowed to sleep. Who is disturbing me—and what noise is this in our house?” “Fear not, fear not, Flora,—God is with us.” “Mother! am I lying in your arms? My father surely is not in the storm. Oh, I have had a most dreadful dream!” and with such mutterings as these Flora relapsed again into that perilous sleep, which soon becomes that of death.

Night itself came, but Flora and Ronald knew it not; and both lay motionless in one snow-shroud. Many passions, though earth - born, heavenly all— pity, and grief, and love, and hope, and at last despair, had prostrated the strength they had so long supported ; and the brave boy—who had been for some time feeble as a very child after a fever, with a mind confused and wandering, and in its perplexities sore afraid of some nameless ill—had submitted to lay down his head beside his Flora’s, and had soon become, like her, insensible to the night and all its storms.

Bright was the peat fire in the hut of Flora’s parents in Glencoe, — and they were among the happiest of the humble happy, blessing this the birthday of their blameless child. They thought of her, singing her sweet songs by the fireside of the hut in Glencreran, and tender thoughts of her cousin Ronald were with them in their prayers. No warning came to their ears in the sugh or the howl; for fear it is that creates its own ghosts, and all its own ghostlike visitings; and they had seen their Flora, in the meekness of the morning, setting forth on her way over the quiet mountains, like a fawn to play. Sometimes too, Love, who starts at shadows as if they were of the grave, is strangely insensible to realities that might well inspire dismay. So was it now with the dwellers in the hut at the head of Glencreran. Their Ronald had left them in the morning,—night had come, and he and Flora were not there ; but the day had been almost like a summer day, and in their infatuation they never doubted that the happy creatures had changed their minds, and that Flora had returned with him to Glencoe. Ronald had laughingly said that haply he might surprise the people in that glen by bringing back to them Flora on her birthday, and, strange though it afterwards seemed to her to be, that belief prevented one single fear from touching his mother’s heart, and she and her husband that night lay down in untroubled sleep.

And what could have been done for them had they been told by some good or evil spirit that their children were in the clutches of such a night? As well seek for a single bark in the middle of the misty main! But the inland storm had been seen brewing among the mountains round King’s House, and hut had communicated with hut, though far apart in regions where the traveller sees no symptoms of human life. Down through the long cliff-pass of Mealanumy, between Buchael-Etive and the Black Mount, towards the lone House of Dalness, that lies in everlasting shadows, went a band of shepherds, trampling their way across a hundred frozen streams. Dalness joined its strength, and then away over the drift-bridged chasms toiled that gathering, with their sheep-dogs scouring the loose snows in the van, Fingal the Red Re? ver, with his head aloft on the look-out for deer, grimly eyeing the corrie where last he tasted blood. All “plaided in their tartan array,” these shepherds laughed at the storm,—and hark, you hear the bagpipe play—the music the Highlanders love both in war and in peace.

“They think then of the owrie cattle,
And silly sheep;"

and though they ken ’twill be a moonless night,—for the snowstorm will sweep her out of heaven,—up the mountain and down the glen they go, marking where flock and herd have betaken themselves; and now, at midfall, unafraid of that blind hollow, they descend into the depth where once stood the old grove of pines. Following their dogs, who know their duties in their instinct, the band, without seeing it, are now close to that ruined hut. Why bark the sheep-dogs so ?—and why howls Fingal, as if some spirit passed athwart the night ? He scents the dead body of the boy who so often had shouted him on in the forest when the antlers went by! Not dead—nor dead she who is on his bosom. Yet life in both is frozen— and will the red blood in their veins ever again be thawed ! Almost pitch dark is the roofless ruin ; and the frightened sheep know not what is that terrible shape that is howling there. But a man enters, and lifts up one of the bodies, giving it into the arms of those at the doorway, and then lifts up the other; and by the flash of a rifle they see that it is Ronald Cameron and Flora Macdonald, seemingly both frozen to death. Some of those reeds that the shepherds burn in their huts are kindled, and in that small light they are assured that such are the corpses. But that noble dog knows that death is not there, and licks the face of Ronald, as if he would restore life to his eyes. Two of the shepherds know well how to fold the dying in their plaids,—how gentlest to carry them along; for they had learnt it on the field of victorious battle, when, without stumbling over the dead and wounded, they bore away the shattered body, yet living, of the youthful warrior who had shown that of such a clan he was worthy to be the chief.

The storm was with them all the way down the glen; nor could they have heard each others’ voices had they spoke ; but mutely they shifted the burden from strong hand to hand, thinking of the hut in Glencoe, and of what would be felt there on their arrival with the dying or the dead. Blind people walk through what to them is the night of crowded day-streets, unpausingturn round corners, unhesitating plunge down steep stairs, wind their way fearlessly through whirlwinds of life, and reach in their serenity, each one unharmed, his own obscure house. For God is with the blind. So is He with all who walk on walks of mercy. This saving band had no fear, therefore there was no danger, on the edge of the pitfall or the cliff. They knew the countenances of the mountains, shown momentarily by ghastly gleamings through the fitful night, and the hollow sound of each particular stream beneath the snow, at places where in other weather there was a pool or a water-fall. The dip of the hills, in spite of the drifts, familiar to their feet, did not deceive them now; and then the dogs, in their instinct, were guides that erred not: and as well as the shepherds knew it themselves, did Fingal know that they were anxious to reach Glencoe. He led the way as if he were in moonlight; and often stood still when they were shifting their burden, and whined as if in grief. He knew where the bridges were—stones or logs ; and he rounded the marshes where at springs the wild fowl feed. And thus instinct, and reason, and faith, conducted the saving band along; and now they are at Glencoe, and at the door of the hut.

To life were brought the dead ; and there, at midnight, sat they up like ghosts. Strange seemed they for a while to each others’ eyes, and at each other they looked as if they had forgotten how dearly once they loved. Then, as if in holy fear, they gazed in each others’ faces, thinking that they had awoke together in heaven. “Flora!” said Ronald,—and that sweet word, the first he had been able to speak, reminded him of all that had passed, and he knew that the God in whom they had put their trust had sent them deliverance. Flora, too, knew her parents, who were on their knees; and she strove to rise up and kneel down beside them, but she was powerless as a broken reed; and when she thought to join with them in thanksgiving, her voice was gone. Still as death sat all the people in the hut, and one or two who were fathers were not ashamed to weep.

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