Turnbull nodded gravely and glanced round at the huge and hedgeless meadow which fell away towards the horizon into a glimmering high road.
“Nothing will jump out of bushes here anyhow,” he said.
“That is what I meant,” said MacIan, and stared steadily at the heavy hilt of his standing sword, which in the slight wind swayed on its tempered steel like some huge thistle on its stalk.
“That is what I meant; we are quite alone here. I have not heard a horse-hoof or a footstep or the hoot of a train for miles. So I think we might stop here and ask for a miracle.”
“Oh! might we?” said the atheistic editor with a sort of gusto of disgust.
“I beg your pardon,” said MacIan, meekly. “I forgot your prejudices.” He eyed the wind-swung sword-hilt in sad meditation and resumed: “What I mean is, we might find out in this quiet place whether there really is any fate or any commandment against our enterprise. I will engage on my side, like Elijah, to accept a test from heaven. Turnbull, let us draw swords here in this moonlight and this monstrous solitude. And if here in this moonlight and solitude there happens anything to interrupt us—if it be lightning striking our sword-blades or a rabbit running under our legs—I will take it as a sign from God and we will shake hands for ever.”
Turnbull’s mouth twitched in angry humour under his red moustache. He said: “I will wait for signs from God until I have any signs of His existence; but God—or Fate—forbid that a man of scientific culture should refuse any kind of experiment.”
“Very well, then,” said MacIan, shortly. “We are more quiet here than anywhere else; let us engage.” And he plucked his sword-point out of the turf.
Turnbull regarded him for a second and a half with a baffling visage almost black against the moonrise; then his hand made a sharp movement to his hip and his sword shone in the moon.
As old chess-players open every game with established gambits, they opened with a thrust and parry, orthodox and even frankly ineffectual. But in MacIan’s soul more formless storms were gathering, and he made a lunge or two so savage as first to surprise and then to enrage his opponent. Turnbull ground his teeth, kept his temper, and waiting for the third lunge, and the worst, had almost spitted the lunger when a shrill, small cry came from behind him, a cry such as is not made by any of the beasts that perish.
Turnbull must have been more superstitious than he knew, for he stopped in the act of going forward. MacIan was brazenly superstitious, and he dropped his sword. After all, he had challenged the universe to send an interruption; and this was an interruption, whatever else it was. An instant afterwards the sharp, weak cry was repeated. This time it was certain that it was human and that it was female.
MacIan stood rolling those great blue Gaelic eyes that contrasted with his dark hair. “It is the voice of God,” he said again and again.