Happily, the need to consider the query was postponed. The whustler moved. Perhaps the ripple attracted him. The surmise was in accord with a theory which I had been cherishing in secret, and for a moment I thought of broaching the argument to Ronald. A discontented gillie, however, is not an appreciative audience for speculative thought; and I held my peace on all save the topic of the hour.
"Well, we're off again," said I, cheerily, hoping to quiz Ronald out of the doldrums.
" Quite so," he answered; " and practically, sir,—practically, mind ye—it's a new salmon we ha'e to deal wi'—just as fresh and ferocious as if she had only this minute risen at the flee." To himself he added, muttering, "And a bonnie time o' nicht to begin the day's sport!"
I could not understand Ronald. As a rule he was the best of gillies, grudging neither time nor trouble in the pursuit of game, keen and joyous as Tim the terrier in a rabbit warren. There are bonnie lasses in Balquhidder; and Ronald is a youthful warworn hero; and perhaps Spring, which, it will be remembered, deals in a livelier iris,- " Steady, sir, steady ! Sit doon !" exclaimed Ronald, interrupting my apologetic reflections. " See yon !" He nodded westward. I turned for a moment to look.
To within a hundred yards of us, all the loch was churned and seething white, and the dark air was gray with sleet.
Having had some little experience of the storms which suddenly descend upon Highland lochs, I did not like the look of things. Indeed, inwardly I began to sympathise with Ronald's view that we should have anticipated the evil hour by cutting ourselves free from the whustler long before. However, the time was not suited to after-thoughts ; and I pretended not to understand.
" Right O, Ronald ! The gut, I think, will hold—sound Lochleven".
Meanwhile the whustler had led us a considerable distance from the place in which he had rested and been refreshed. As it was now impossible to see the shore, or even the point of the rod, I could not say how far we had gone; but I felt in a general manner that we were still on the eastward course. Ploughing industriously on, the fish had been making no undignified display of anger: indeed, I had come to regard him with the familiar affection in which one holds a good retriever, saying to him, as occasion required, " Steady, lass I" or " To heel, you devil!" or other caressing phrases of the field ; but with the progress of the storm our relations became strained. He began to leap. We could not see him; but we could hear him well enough amid the short thick thuds of the waves beating on the boat and the baritone boom of the squall. It was, I confess, an alarming sound. At each leap I expected the performance to be my last. That seems a strange remark; but it is accurate. When he was down in the water and could be felt, I was not without hope; but that was momentary only. Whenever the line slackened I knew he was aloft in the air, and my heart stopped. Ronald was in similar extremity. The salmon seemed to be aimless in his movements. At any rate, his leap was sometimes on one side of our creaking craft, sometimes on the other; now off the stern, anon off the bow. Thus, Ronald was in perplexity. Sometimes he had to pull away from the fish; sometimes to push towards him. All through this trying time the general drift of things was determined by the wind, which we believed to be still from the west.
"This canna' go on much longer, am thinkin'," said Ronald. "I daurna' pu' either to the north shore or to the sooth, for then we'd be broadside-on and be blawn ower. Forbye, the boat has been lyin' up a' winter, and is brittle. If ane o' they big waves catches her on the side when we're turned to follow the fish, she'll be staved in. I doobt we're by wi't, sir".
Although he had to shout in order to be heard, Ronald delivered this grave opinion in a deliberate, matter-of-fact tone, in which there was no petulance. He was seriously alarmed. Perhaps he had a melancholy satisfaction in the prospect of the evil hour being much worse than he had foreseen.
The hour, however, had not yet struck. Suddenly I realised that we were aground. Our arrival was without violence. As placidly as an express train slips into King's Cross a few minutes after covering full sixty miles an hour, our boat ran up against a shelving bank. I leapt ashore, and renewed my attentions to the whustler. He, too, seemed to realise that the battle had entered into new conditions. He bored about, calmly, almost in a weak manner, as if he were a conger-eel. I reeled the line in, and let it out, according to his comings and goings; but I did not stand still. I had to run about a good deal, and in breaking through the scrub, which came down to the edge of the water, was sorely gashed in hands and face and clothes. Nevertheless, my spirits had gone up with a bound. Even if I lost the whustler, it was now certain that I should have nothing to be ashamed of in the morning. Besides, the squall had gone as suddenly as it had come. A swell as if of the sea was swishing on the shore; but there was not so much as a puff of air, and behind a vast mass of blackness which I took to be a shoulder of Ben Ledi there was a slowly-rising radiance not unlike the glow that a far - off fire sends upwards to the clouds of London. Soon the source of the gentle illumination appeared above the high horizon. She was covered and uncovered as the wrack floated over her face. She was a welcome visitor, tempting to gaiety.
"Methinks the moon frowns with a watery look," said I, inaccurately endeavouring to recall a snatch of appropriate poesy.
"For Goadsake, sir, dinna' sweer—at this time o' nicht and in a graveyaird !"
" A graveyard ?"
"Ay," said Ronald. "Dye no' ken whaur ye are? Yere no' on ordnar' warldly land at a'. Ye're on a sma' island, the buryin'-grun' of the Stewarts of Glenbuckie for mair centuries than onybody can remember".