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- What's Mine's Mine - 5/89 -
THE SHOP IN THE VILLAGE.
Two or three days have passed. The sun had been set for an hour, and the night is already rather dark notwithstanding the long twilight of these northern regions, for a blanket of vapour has gathered over the heaven, and a few stray drops have begun to fall from it. A thin wind now and then wakes, and gives a feeble puff, but seems immediately to change its mind and resolve not to blow, but let the rain come down. A drearier-looking spot for human abode it would be difficult to imagine, except it were as much of the sandy Sahara, or of the ashy, sage-covered waste of western America. A muddy road wound through huts of turf--among them one or two of clay, and one or two of stone, which were more like cottages. Hardly one had a window two feet square, and many of their windows had no glass. In almost all of them the only chimney was little more than a hole in the middle of the thatch. This rendered the absence of glass in the windows not so objectionable; for, left without ordered path to its outlet, the smoke preferred a circuitous route, and lingered by the way, filling the air. Peat-smoke, however, is both wholesome and pleasant, nor was there mingled with it any disagreeable smell of cooking. Outside were no lamps; the road was unlighted save by the few rays that here and there crept from a window, casting a doubtful glimmer on the mire.
One of the better cottages sent out a little better light, though only from a tallow candle, through the open upper half of a door horizontally divided in two. Except by that same half-door, indeed, little light could enter the place, for its one window was filled with all sorts of little things for sale. Small and inconvenient for the humblest commerce, this was not merely the best, it was the only shop in the hamlet.
There were two persons in it, one before and one behind the counter. The latter was a young woman, the former a man.
He was leaning over the counter--whether from weariness, listlessness, or interest in his talk with the girl behind, it would not have been easy, in the dim light and deep shadow, to say. He seemed quite at home, yet the young woman treated him with a marked, though unembarrassed respect. The candle stood to one side of them upon the counter, making a ghastly halo in the damp air; and in the light puff that occasionally came in at the door, casting the shadow of one of a pair of scales, now on this now on that of the two faces. The young woman was tall and dark, with a large forehead:--so much could be seen; but the sweetness of her mouth, the blueness of her eyes, the extreme darkness of her hair, were not to be distinguished. The man also was dark. His coat was of some rough brown material, probably dyed and woven in the village, and his kilt of tartan. They were more than well worn--looked even in that poor light a little shabby. On his head was the highland bonnet called a glengarry. His profile was remarkable--hardly less than grand, with a certain aquiline expression, although the nose was not roman. His eyes appeared very dark, but in the daylight were greenish hazel. Usually he talked with the girl in Gaelic, but was now speaking English, a far purer English than that of most English people, though with something of the character of book-English as distinguished from conversation-English, and a very perceptible accent.
"And when was it you heard from Lachlan, Annie?" he asked.
After a moment's pause, during which she had been putting away things in a drawer of the counter--not so big as many a kitchen dresser--
"Last Thursday it was, sir," answered the girl. "You know we hear every month, sometimes oftener."
"Yes; I know that.--I hope the dear fellow is well?"
"He is quite well and of good hope. He says he will soon come and see us now."
"And take you away, Annie?"
"Well, sir," returned Annie, after a moment's hesitation, "he does not SAY so!"
"If he did not mean it, he would be a rascal, and I should have to kill him. But my life on Lachlan's honesty!"
"Thank you, sir. He would lay down his for you."
"Not if you said to him, DON'T!-eh, Annie?"
"But he would, Macruadh!" returned the young woman, almost angrily. "Are not you his chief?"
"Ah, that is all over now, my girl! There are no chiefs, and no clans any more! The chiefs that need not, yet sell their land like Esau for a mess of pottage--and their brothers with it! And the Sasunnach who buys it, claims rights over them that never grew on the land or were hid in its caves! Thank God, the poor man is not their slave, but he is the worse off, for they will not let him eat, and he has nowhere to go. My heart is like to break for my people. Sometimes I feel as if I would gladly die."
"Oh, sir! don't say that!" expostulated the young woman, and her voice trembled. "Every heart in Glenruadh is glad when it goes well with the Macruadh."
"Yes, yes; I know you all love my father's son and my uncle's nephew; but how can it go well with the Macruadh when it goes ill with his clan? There is no way now for a chief to be the father of his people; we are all poor together! My uncle--God rest his soul!--they managed it so, I suppose, as to persuade him there was no help for it! Well, a man must be an honest man, even if there be no way but ruin! God knows, as we've all heard my father say a hundred times from the pulpit, there's no ruin but dishonesty! For poverty and hard work, he's a poor creature would crouch for those!"
"He who well goes down hill, holds his head up!" said Annie, and a pause followed.
"There are strangers at the New House, we hear," she said.
"From a distance I saw some young ladies, and one or two men. I don't desire to see more of them. God forbid I should wish them any manner of harm! but--I hardly understand myself--I don't like to see them there. I am afraid it is pride. They are rich, I hear, so we shall not be troubled with attention from them; they will look down upon us."
"Look down on the Macruadh!" exclaimed Annie, as if she could not believe her ears.
"Not that I should heed that!" he went on. "A cock on the barn-ridge looks down on you, and you don't feel offended! What I do dread is looking down on them. There is something in me that can hate, Annie, and I fear it. There is something about the land--I don't care about money, but I feel like a miser about the land!--I don't mean ANY land; I shouldn't care to buy land unless it had once been ours; but what came down to me from my own people--with my own people upon it--I would rather turn the spigot of the molten gold and let it run down the abyss, than a rood of that slip from me! I feel it even a disgrace to have lost what of it I never had!"
"Indeed, Macruadh," said Annie, "it's a hard time! There is no money in the country! And fast the people are going after Lachlan!"
"I shall miss you, Annie!"
"You are very kind to us all, sir."
"Are you not all my own! And you have to take care of for Lachlan's sake besides. He left you solemnly to my charge--as if that had been necessary, the foolish fellow, when we are foster-brothers!"
Again came a pause.
"Not a gentleman-farmer left from one end of the strath to the other!" said the chief at length. "When Ian is at home, we feel just like two old turkey-cocks left alone in the yard!"
"Say two golden eagles, sir, on the cliff of the rock."
"Don't compare us to the eagle, Annie. I do not love the bird. He is very proud and greedy and cruel, and never will know the hand that tames him. He is the bird of the monarch or the earl, not the bird of the father of his people. But he is beautiful, and I do not kill him."
"They shot another, the female bird, last week! All the birds are going! Soon there will be nothing but the great sheep and the little grouse. The capercailzie's gone, and the ptarmigan's gone!--Well, there's a world beyond!"
"Where the birds go, Annie?--Well, it may be! But the ptarmigan's not gone yet, though there are not many; and for the capercailzie--only who that loves them will be here to see!--But do you really think there is a heaven for all God's creatures, Annie? Ian does."
"I don't know what I said to make you think so, sir! When the heart aches the tongue mistakes. But how is my lady, your mother?"
"Pretty well, thank you--wonderfully cheerful. It is time I went home to her. Lachlan would think I was playing him false, and making love to you on my own account!"
"No fear! He would know better than that! He would know too, if she was not belonging to Lachlan, her father's daughter would not let her chief humble himself."
"You're one of the old sort, Annie! Good night. Mind you tell Lachlan I never miss a chance of looking in to see how you are getting on."
"I will. Good night, Macruadh."
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