Authors: Evelyn Anthony
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A Macdonald Romance
The twelfth century was just beginning when the first of the Frasers built his fortress at Clandara at the top of the sweeping hillside that overlooked Loch Ness. The grey castle walls were weathered by hundreds of years of biting Highland winds and mellowing suns. It stood like a sentinel above the clear blue waters of the Loch, magnificent yet dwarfed by the majestic purple mountains that rose up behind it, their peaks shrouded in grey mists. Little had changed in the land of Scotland since the great Highland chieftain began his fortress; the Castle itself had seen the passage of time and dynasties. The Stuarts had ruled from Edinburgh and the tragic Mary, Queen of Scots, had stayed a night at Clandara, and her great-grandson James II had been driven from the throne of England and his son the Old Pretender, James Stuart, was a homeless exile in Rome. Many wars had raged around Clandara, but none fiercer than the bitter siege of two hundred years before when the Red Fraser seized the child of his neighbours, the Macdonalds, and held her to ransom in the Castle.
The Macdonalds had invested Clandara with two hundred clansmen and brought up crude battering-rams to break down the massive oak doors, but at the end of two months, when the dead lay thick around the walls, the siege was raised, and the unhappy daughter of the Macdonald chief was never seen again. Tradition in both families held that the Red Fraser had starved his prisoner to death and then buried her somewhere in the eight-foot-thick walls. That had been the beginning of the feud which ravaged more than thirty miles of the surrounding countryside and brought the Macdonalds and their men out against the crofts and cattle of the Frasers, burning and laying waste what they could not steal.
What the Red Fraser had begun, his enemies continued in cruel and unremitting warfare. Both families had indulged in such a sustained orgy of atrocity and murder that the moment came when they faced each other at a standstill, impoverished and threatened with ruin. And it was then that the Chief of the Frasers, Andrew, Earl of Clandara, made peace with his enemies and married Margaret Macdonald, ward and cousin of the Chief of the Macdonalds.
He had not expected his own daughter to remind him of that marriage. They stood in the Green Salon at Clandara with a table between them, the Earl leaning forward, his daughter standing back from him, very straight, with her blue eyes blazing defiance and her magnificent hair shining like fire in the afternoon sun. Katharine Fraser had always been beautiful. As a child, her delicate features and glorious colouring had made her the pet of every servant in the Castle and the spoiled favourite of her family.
She was all the more loved as she grew from a child into a woman and her nature matched her beauty. A classic beauty, graceful and poised and exquisitely educated like all the Highland nobility, but with a proud and wilful temperament.
“You made peace with the Macdonalds!” she accused her father again, and then suddenly she pointed to a figure sitting so still and silent in a chair that she might have been a statue. A pale, plain woman, for ever sewing in some corner.
“You married a Macdonald yourself, how can you forbid me!” The Earl turned and glared at his second wife. In his eyes her insignificance was her only virtue. If she had possessed all the graces known to woman he could not have changed his feeling for her. She was the cousin of his enemy Sir Alexander Macdonald of Dundrenan, and she had been bartered to him like so many head of cattle when the two families made their peace. The Earl loathed her as he loathed all her kin.
His face flushed angrily.
“I have a father's right!” he retorted. “You've aye forgotten yourself, my child. I've a right to forbid you to wed and a right to make you if I choose. How dare you stand there and tell me that I married a Macdonald as if that were an excuse for what you've done! I made a marriage on paper after you and your brother were growing up to put an end to a clan war. That's very different from my daughter marrying that villainous James Macdonald himself and giving me a parcel of Macdonald grandchildren! I sent you to your cousins in France to befit yourself for a proper marriage to someone like Henry Ogilvie and you come back and dare to tell me that you've been dandling after the most notorious blackguard in Scotland!”
“James is not a blackguard,” Katharine answered. “And even if he is,” she added, “I don't care! I love him, Father. I loved him from the first moment I saw him at Cousin Marie's reception.”
“Ach!” The Earl turned away from her in disgust. Privately he cursed his kinswoman, the Marquise de Betrand, to hell and back again for allowing his precious Katharine, committed to her charge, after all â he thought furiously â to meet a man like James Macdonald. Mischievous, frivolous little wretch! â¦ He could hardly wait to compose a letter to her expressing his opinion of the way she had abused her position as Katharine's chaperon. James Macdonald. It was inconceivable, horrifying. He turned back to his daughter and tried again.
“This noble gentleman of whom you speak,” he said, “bolted three of our families into their crofts and set fire to them. That was when you were still a child. This same man killed Andrew Crawford's son because he spilled a glass of wine over his sleeve at dinner. He's known up and down the Highlands for picking quarrels with anyone just for the love of killing them. As for his morals â¦ no woman of good reputation can afford to be seen in his company. Ask anything in the world of me and I'll give it to you,” he entreated, “but no father would permit his child to marry such a man. I'd sooner see you dead first.”
Katharine had been brought up with hatred of the Macdonalds as part of the accepted pattern of life, like rising in the morning and eating and drinking. As a child her old nurse had whispered dreadful tales of the evil deeds of the Black Macdonald, as the Highlanders called the heir to Dundrenan. More cruel than his father, more quarrelsome, more violent and pitiless than all his fearful kindred put together. His name was a bogey with which the Fraser mothers frightened their children. Katharine too had been afraid; afraid because she was not permitted to ride out alone or far beyond the confines of Clandara without an escort of a half-dozen armed clansmen to protect her. The Macdonalds lurked like birds of prey, waiting for the unwary Fraser, irrespective of age or sex, in order to fall upon them. When her own people had returned after a foray into the land of the Macdonalds their exploits were praised, as if in killing the women and children of their enemies they were merely hunting down the devil. And then, with all this heritage of hate and prejudice behind her, Katharine had met her family's enemy himself, but far away from the pervasive Scottish atmosphere, brought face to face with him in the supper room of a French chateau.
What use were her father's warnings? What use her own impassioned denials of what she knew very well to be the truth? “I love him.” Her own avowal came back to her and it was at once her only weapon and the only one she needed.
“Father,” Katharine said slowly, “Father, I don't expect you to believe me when I say that whatever James was, or has done, loving me has changed him. I know that if I tell you that he is the most gentle, tender man that I have ever met you will laugh and say that he is only making mock of me. I cannot persuade you. And yet,” she said, “it's true.”
“He has bewitched you,” the Earl answered her. “Nothing could change that scoundrel. Nothing could erase the infamy of his life for the last twenty years. If you must have it plain, Katharine, he was frequenting the stews of Edinburgh at fifteen!”
Again she pleaded with him, and as she did so she was unaware of her step-mother's eyes watching her, their expression so guarded that they might have been the eyes of a blind woman.
“And if he did,” Katharine countered passionately, “have we Frasers never done the same or worse? Are we so perfect, Father, that you condemn James as if our whole family and all who went before were saints in virtue? Oh, I beg of you to consider a little! Please, please, forget all the old hates and wrongs that lie in the past. Receive James and give him your blessingâ”
“My blessing!” The Earl swung round upon her. “My curse, and the curse of your ancestors for generations! Enough now, Katharine. I've heard enough. I shall write to Marie de Betrand and inform her of the harm her stupidity has done us all, and I advise you to put all thought of this ruffian out of your head. If you cannot forget him I shall devise another journey for you. There is an excellent convent in Bavaria where you would have time to consider your folly and your disobedience. Now go to your room.”
Unlike his favourite child, he had not inherited the flaming Fraser colouring. He was grey now, and he wore a powdered periwig in the French style, but in his youth the Earl had been as fair as his only son Robert. Even Robert would not have supported his sister on this issue. Since their mother's death the two had been inseparable, bound by common loss and loneliness, and when the first Countess of Clandara died he himself had been too grieved and selfish to admit his children into his life until they were grown up and the bonds of love were so strongly forged between them that they transcended the duty they owed their father. He adored Katharine; he loved her spirit and her recklessness, so terribly evident in this tragic passion for a man so unfit to approach her that his name was never spoken in the Castle. He loved her and he meant what he said when he told her death was preferable to the marriage she proposed. But if his love for Robert was less, his pride in him was greater. Robert was sound and kind and sensible, yet his character was strong, stronger perhaps than his father's own, more reminiscent of the firm and gentle woman who had won Clandara's heart twenty-five years ago and retained it even after she was long years in her grave.