FIONA, coming down the shoulder of Ben Carrick above the Lodge, blew on her cold fingers and shifted the rifle to the other arm. Behind her the hill looked cold and black against the winter sky, already darkening as a watery sun set over the headlands. The bogs and mud were frozen hard and the edges of her heavy boots left no impression on them. A thin sheet of cat-ice crackled as she crossed the remains of what had been a puddle; in the hollows under the shade of tall rocks where the sun had not penetrated, the frost was still white; by the feel of the air and the stillness there would be another one to-night. However, if the weather continued in this way, frosty and sunny, there was nothing much to complain about. But it was cold.
Ahead, a mile or so farther on and below the wood in front, lay the Lodge. Fiona could see the blue peat-smoke rising from its chimneys and hoped very much that the bath water was hot and that Maggie had lit all the fires. Her elder brother Ninian was there, fuming at being tied to the house in the last stages of convalescence from ‘flu.
Fiona, puffing clouds of vapour into the air in front of her, considered that to-day, although pleasant, had been singularly unfruitful. She had been out after a hind to replenish the larder, and although she had seen several, had been unable to get near any. Either the wind had changed at the last moment, or a sheep had run, bleating like a lost soul, from under a rock, or else a stone, frozen hard into the hillside, had responded to the sun’s faint warmth and had, with Fiona’s added weight, gone bounding and crashing over the hard ground, frightening everything within miles. Lastly there had been a long cold wait when her bare fingers had nearly frozen to the rifle and she had lost all feeling in them. Then when the time came to fire she found she could not press the trigger, and the sudden jerk had sent the bullet wide and the hinds loping off down the hill and out of sight. Ninian would be scathing about all this, and say she wasn’t fit to go out alone and why didn’t she take Davy the old giIlie, who lived in a croft by the river. Fiona smiled to herself: Ninian had not changed at all.
Fiona, at nineteen, was tall and slim and dark. Her hair was kept back from her face by a green ribbon, she was dressed in an ancient tweed coat and breeches, the colour of dried grass and greeny moss, her stockings were referred to by Ninian as sky-blue, which was an exaggeration, and ended in enormously thick black boots dubbined and nailed. Under the coat was a brown Shetland jersey. Notwithstanding all these clothes Fiona’s feet were frozen. At one time she had stepped into a burn that had come above the top of her boot, and she was convinced that she must have frostbite. She jumped from rock to rock, her body tingling, and the rifle banging on her shoulder. In the mud in front of her were the slots of deer, frozen hard: she kicked at them but made no impression beyond vaguely stubbing her toe. Small cold birds sprang up from the heather and fluttered for a moment or two, whistling sadly. Fiona felt sorry for them but hurried on. It would be dark soon, although only four, and she had no desire to be left out on the hill with the night coming on.
What to do to-morrow? Hugh Murray was arriving in the afternoon; Ninian would be recovered enough to come in to Asheenach with her to fetch him. And in a day or two Sandy Stewart, her cousin, and her twin brother and sister would be back from school and arriving either in the bus or fetched by herself or Ninian. And then she supposed another long holiday of days spent on the hills or in Black Swan, their boat. It all rather depended on the weather but it was sure to be fun: Ninian and Hugh would think of things to do, and they might even meet Fergus somewhere in the hills. One never knew with Fergus; he came and went of his own accord, leaving no word of where or when or whether he would ever come back. And when he did reappear it was to pick up the threads of old conversations and ideas as if he had only left them yesterday.
The sun dropped swiftly behind the headlands. The islands were cold and grey in the sea, like the hill behind her. Fiona ran the last half-mile, her boots clattering on the stony track.
The lighted windows of the Lodge showed that it was much darker outside already than she had imagined. It looked warm and inviting. At the sound of her footsteps Ninian came to the door and she saw his tall figure standing in the porch watching her.
Ninian knew that if Fiona had had any luck she would have called out to him, and would already be pouring out the story from half-way along the track.
“You useless woman,” he called to her, “thundering over the hills like an army. Did you get anywhere near any?”
“Beast.” Fiona pushed past him into the hall. “Yes, I did. But it was as cold as the North Pole on the hill.”
“Well, Hugh and the others will just have to starve.” Ninian followed her into the gun-room.
“In a day or two you’ll be able to go out yourself and bring them back by the thousand,” retorted Fiona.
“S’matter of fact,” said Ninian, “Davy brought up some rabbits.”
Fiona took off her coat and boots and padded on wet, peat-stained feet to the foot of the stairs. She was very like her elder brother, in all but character, and would fly into a rage over things that only made him smile.
“I’m going to have a bath,” she announced. “If Maggie hasn’t made the water hot I’ll wring her neck.”
She vanished round a bend in the stairs, and Ninian followed her more slowly into what used to be the old nursery.
Here a huge peat and pine log fire was burning, filling the room with shadows that danced and bobbed on the walls. It hissed and crackled and the room was full of the soft smell of peat. Maggie had not yet brought the lamps, so he sat in the dusk and watched the faint thread of the road and wished that his cheeks and nose were glowing like Fiona’s, and that he had spent the day on Ben Carrick instead of cooped up in the house.
Half an hour later Fiona appeared, smelling faintly of soap and talcum powder, and dressed in a long blue housecoat. She joined Ninian on the window-seat and announced that she had dropped her book into the bath.
“Well, if you must read in the bath,” said Ninian. “By the way, what was it?”
“Well,” Fiona paused, “well, actually it was The Thirty-Nine Steps.”
“You are the absolute end,” said Ninian. “Why don’t you read your own books if you must read in the bath?”
“Well, you read in the bath too,” pointed out Fiona.
“Yes, but I don’t drop them in,” said Ninian.
“Oh, dear, I’m very sorry, but I think it’ll be all right.” She produced it from where it had been hidden behind her back. The edges of each page had become large and curly. Ninian looked at it with horror as she wiped it with a dishevelled handkerchief and stood it up by the fire.
“Absolutely ruined,” Ninian growled.
Fiona knelt in front of the fire, throwing small pieces of peat and twigs on to it so that it blazed and crackled and made her face glow orange.
“What time’s Hugh arriving to-morrow?” asked Ninian, from the depths of an arm-chair.
“The 2.40,” said Fiona. “Can you come and meet him too?”
“Gracious, yes. You seem to think I’m a sort of invalid,” said Ninian.
They were both silent for a moment until Fiona said, “Listen!”
There was the sound of a far-away roaring in the trees down by the burn.
“Wind,” said Ninian. “Probably means the frost will stop.”
“It would be too much if it rained.” Fiona sat back on her heels and the fire flickered over her back. There was another roaring, in the chimney this time, and suddenly the burn sounded nearer and then grew faint again.
Ninian went over to the window and looked out. Clouds covered the stars and it was very dark. He could see the tops of the birch trees dipping and swaying.
“I’m sure it’ll rain,” he said.
“How typical,” said Fiona. “Now I suppose it’ll pour and pour and we shan’t be able to stir out of doors.”
The window rattled at a sudden gust and downstairs a door slammed.
“It was such a heavenly day on the hill, too,” said Fiona. “I had hoped it might snow, but there’s not much chance now. Where’s the toboggan, Ninian?”
“Somewhere about, in the byre, I think. Tin trays were the fashion last time, I seem to remember.”
“Well, we’ve all grown rather since then,” Fiona pointed out. “Do you remember Jamie in the big meat dish?”
This led to long reminiscences, until Maggie appeared and asked them if they would not rather have dinner in the nursery as it was so cold.
“Oh, yes, please,” said Fiona, “like we used to, on a table in front of the fire.”
Ninian, who felt this was only another instance of his being coddled, said nothing, but there was something rather nice and cosy about the thought of dinner in front of the fire. He threw some more peat on and then remembered the chestnuts he had brought up from London. He reached a long arm up to the mantelpiece and pulled down a brown paper bag which split and showered its contents over Fiona.
“Typical,” she said, scooping them up in handfuls. “Doesn’t one have to prick them or something?”
There was a toasting-fork in the grate and with the aid of that and Ninian’s penknife they pricked them and set them to roast among the peat. Then they sat on cushions before the fire and had dinner off a tray on a low stool.
“Like we used to when we were small,” said Ninian, rescuing one of the chestnuts from the flames. He looked at Fiona, who, with her hair tied back and her nose pink and shining from a hot bath and roasting the chestnuts, looked about twelve.
“You don’t look any different either,” she said, reading his thoughts, “now you’ve shaved off that ridiculous moustache.”
The sound of a car made them both look up.
“Who on earth?” said Fiona.
“At this time of night,” said Ninian.
They leapt up and ran to the window. The car had come through the last gate and was just rounding the bend before the bridge. Powerful headlights shone on the bare branches of the birch trees and over the tumbling water of the burn.
“He must be lost,” said Ninian, “unless something frightful has happened.”
“It’s not Murdoch’s car,” said Fiona (Murdoch being the policeman).
They watched while it crossed the burn and climbed the hill just below the Lodge. Then the horn began to blow. Four short blasts.
“H!” murmured Ninian.
Two short, one long.
“Hugh!” shrieked Fiona, and dashed out of the room just as the car stopped. Ninian followed her and they flew downstairs and opened the door. A rush of cold damp windy night came pouring in and Fiona shivered. The car door slammed.
“Anyone at home?” called Hugh.
“Hugh!” they both shouted.
“What are you doing here?” cried Fiona.
“I got off a day early, so here I am.” Hugh came towards them, enormous in a greatcoat buttoned up to his nose. He thrust a parcel into Fiona’s arms and murmured something about ham.
“Delicious.” Fiona sniffed. “Ninian, come back; you’ll catch pneumonia.”
“Oh, rubbish!” Ninian was at the car, delving into it and producing suitcases and rugs. “I’ve finished with coddling. And it’s not very cold.”
“Personally I think it’s freezing.” Hugh followed Fiona into the hall. “And talking of freezing, what about the car?”
“There’s room in the byre; I’ll show you.” Fiona started towards the door.
“No, I refuse. You look much too glamorous in that blue thing to come messing about in any byre,” said Hugh firmly. “Anyway, as if I didn’t know the way blindfold.”
He vanished into the night, shutting the cold out. Fiona flew into the kitchen with the ham to tell Maggie to bring some more dinner and for Morag to light a fire and make the bed in Mr. Murray’s room. Then she went upstairs to put some powder on her nose. Hugh might have said she looked glamorous but Ninian had just told her she looked about twelve.
When Hugh and Ninian came stamping and shivering into the nursery she was standing by the fire with a decanter of sherry and three glasses beside her.
“Transformation,” grinned Ninian, and Fiona put out her tongue.
They drank each other’s health in the sherry, found some cushions for Hugh and sat once more round the fire.
“It’s going to be a deadly dull winter,” said Fiona, between mouthfuls. “There’s simply nothing to do, apart from occasional hind-shooting. It’ll be icy cold on the sea, and if it’s raining it’ll be simply hell.”
“What rubbish you do talk.” Hugh seized the drumstick of a chicken in his fingers and tore mouthfuls off it. “Have you ever known a dull time up here yet? There’s always plenty to do. What shall we do to-morrow?”
“It sounds to me,” Ninian nodded at the window, “as if it’s going to rain.”
The door rattled and the trees down by the burn made a long sighing noise. Fiona, licking her fingers, picked up a blackened chestnut and started to peel it.