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- What's Mine's Mine - 10/89 -


they spoke English; but when they saw the lights of the New House, a silence fell upon them. At the door, Alister set his burden carefully down.

"There!" he said with a laugh, "I hope I have earned my shilling!"

"Ten times over," answered Valentine; "but I know better now than offer to pay you. I thank you with all my heart."

The door opened, Ian gave the gun and the bag to the butler, and the brothers bade Valentine good night.

Valentine had a strange tale to tell. Sercombe refused to accept his conclusions: if he had offered the men half a crown apiece, he said, they would have pocketed the money.

CHAPTER VII.

MOTHER AND SON.

The sun was shining bright, and the laird was out in his fields. His oats were nearly ready for the scythe, and he was judging where he had best begin to cut them.

His fields lay chiefly along the banks of the stream, occupying the whole breadth of the valley on the east side of the ridge where the cottage stood. On the west side of the ridge, nearly parallel to, and not many yards from it, a small brook ran to join the stream: this was a march betwixt the chief's land and Mr. Peregrine Palmer's. Their respective limit was not everywhere so well defined.

The air was clear and clean, and full of life. The wind was asleep. A consciousness of work approaching completion filled earth and air--a mood of calm expectation, as of a man who sees his end drawing nigh, and awaits the saving judgment of the father of spirits. There was no song of birds--only a crow from the yard, or the cry of a blackcock from the hill; the two streams were left to do all the singing, and they did their best, though their water was low. The day was of the evening of the year; in the full sunshine was present the twilight and the coming night, but there was a sense of readiness on all sides. The fruits of the earth must be housed; that alone remained to be done.

When the laird had made up his mind, he turned towards the house--a lowly cottage, more extensive than many farmhouses, but looking no better. It was well built, with an outside wall of rough stone and lime, and another wall of turf within, lined in parts with wood, making it as warm a nest as any house of the size could be. The door, picturesque with abundant repair, opened by a latch into the kitchen.

For long years the floor of the kitchen had been an earthen one, with the fire on a hearth in the middle of it, as in all the cottages; and the smoke rose into the roof, keeping it very dry and warm, if also very sooty, and thence into the air through a hole in the middle. But some ten years before this time, Alister and Ian, mere lads, had built a chimney outside, and opening the wall, removed the hearth to it--with the smoke also, which now had its own private way to liberty. They then paved the floor with such stones as they could find, in the fields and on the hill, sufficiently flat and smooth on one side, and by sinking them according to their thickness, managed to get a tolerably even surface. Many other improvements followed; and although it was a poor place still, it would at the time of Dr. Johnson's visit to the highlands have been counted a good house, not to be despised by unambitious knight or poor baronet. Nor was the time yet over, when ladies and gentlemen, of all courtesy and good breeding, might be found in such houses.

In the kitchen a deal-dresser, scoured white, stood under one of the tiny windows, giving light enough for a clean-souled cook--and what window-light would ever be enough for one of a different sort? There were only four panes in it, but it opened and closed with a button, and so was superior to many windows. There was a larger on the opposite side, which at times in the winter nights when the cold was great, they filled bodily with a barricade of turf. Here, in the kitchen, the chief takes his meals with his lady-mother. She and Ian have just finished their breakfast, and gone to the other end of the house. The laird broke his fast long ago.

A fire is burning on the hearth--small, for the mid-day-meal is not yet on its way. Everything is tidy; the hearth is swept up, and the dishes are washed: the barefooted girl is reaching the last of them to its place on the rack hehind the dresser. She is a red-haired, blue-eyed Celt, with a pretty face, and a refinement of motion and speech rarer in some other peasantries.

The chief enters, and takes from the wall an old-fashioned gun. He wants a bird or two, for Ian's home-coming is a great event.

"I saw a big stag last night down by the burn, sir," said the girl, "feeding as if he had been the red cow."

"I don't want him to-day, Nancy," returned her master. "Had he big horns?"

"Great horns, sir; but it was too dark to count the tines."

"When was it? Why did you not tell me?"

"I thought it was morning, sir, and when I got up it was the middle of the night. The moon was so shiny that I went to the door and looked out. Just at the narrow leap, I saw him plain."

"If you should see him again, Nancy, scare him. I don't want the Sasunnachs at the New House to see him."

"Hadn't you better take him yourself, Macruadh? He would make fine hams for the winter!"

"Mind your own business, Nancy, and hold your tongue," said the chief, with a smile that took all the harshness from the words. "Don't you tell any one you saw him. For what you know he may be the big stag!"

"Sure no one would kill HIM, sir!" answered the girl aghast.

"I hope not. But get the stoving-pot ready, Nancy; I'm going to find a bird or two. Lest I should not succeed, have a couple of chickens at hand."

"Sir, the mistress has commanded them already."

"That is well; but do not kill them except I am not back in time."

"I understand, sir."

Macruadh knew the stag as well as the horse he rode, and that his habit had for some time been to come down at night and feed on the small border of rich grass on the south side of the burn, between it and the abrupt heathery rise of the hill. For there the burn ran so near the hill, and the ground was so covered with huge masses of grey rock, that there was hardly room for cultivation, and the bank was left in grass.

The stalking of the stag was the passion of the highlander in that part of the country. He cared little for shooting the grouse, black or red, and almost despised those whose ambition was a full bag of such game; he dreamed day and night of killing deer. The chief, however, was in this matter more of a man without being less of a highlander. He loved the deer so much, saw them so much a part of the glory of mountain and sky, sunshine and storm, that he liked to see them living, not dead, and only now and then shot one, when the family had need of it. He felt himself indeed almost the father of the deer as well as of his clan, and mourned greatly that he could do so little now, from the limited range of his property, to protect them. His love for live creatures was not quite equal to that of St. Francis, for he had not conceived the thought of turning wolf or fox from the error of his ways; but even the creatures that preyed upon others he killed only from a sense of duty, and with no pleasure in their death. The heartlessness of the common type of sportsman was loathsome to him. When there was not much doing on the farm, he would sometimes be out all night with his gun, it is true, but he would seldom fire it, and then only at some beast of prey; on the hill-side or in the valley he would lie watching the ways and doings of the many creatures that roam the night--each with its object, each with its reasons, each with its fitting of means to ends. One of the grounds of his dislike to the new possessors of the old land was the raid he feared upon the wild animals.

The laird gone, I will take my reader into the PARLOUR, as they called in English their one sitting-room. Shall I first tell him what the room was like, or first describe the two persons in it? Led up to a picture, I certainly should not look first at the frame; but a description is a process of painting rather than a picture; and when you cannot see the thing in one, but must take each part by itself, and in your mind get it into relation with the rest, there is an advantage, I think, in having a notion of the frame first. For one thing, you cannot see the persons without imagining their surroundings, and if those should be unfittingly imagined, they interfere with the truth of the persons, and you may not be able to get them right after.

The room, then, was about fifteen feet by twelve, and the ceiling was low. On the white walls hung a few frames, of which two or three contained water-colours--not very good, but not displeasing; several held miniature portraits--mostly in red coats, and one or two a silhouette. Opposite the door hung a target of hide, round, and bossed with brass. Alister had come upon it in the house, covering a meal-barrel, to which service it had probably been put in aid of its eluding a search for arms after the battle of Culloden. Never more to cover man's food from mice, or his person from an enemy, it was raised to the WALHALLA of the parlour. Under it rested, horizontally upon two nails, the sword of the chief--a long and broad ANDREW FERRARA, with a plated basket-hilt; beside it hung a dirk--longer than usual, and fine in form, with a carved hilt in the shape of an eagle's head and neck, and its sheath, whose leather was dry and flaky with age, heavily mounted in silver. Below these was a card-table of marquetry with spindle-legs, and on it a work-box of ivory, inlaid with silver and ebony. In the corner stood a harp, an Erard, golden and gracious, not a string of it broken. In the middle of the room was a small square table, covered with a green cloth. An


What's Mine's Mine - 10/89

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