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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWhat's Mine's Mine - Volume 1 - Chapter 13. The Lake
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What's Mine's Mine - Volume 1 - Chapter 13. The Lake Post by :ispeculate Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :1818

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What's Mine's Mine - Volume 1 - Chapter 13. The Lake


Silence lasted until they reached the shoulder of the hill that closed the view up the valley. As they rounded it, the sun went behind a cloud, and a chill wind, as if from a land where dwelt no life, met them. The hills stood back, and they were on the shore of a small lake, out of which ran the burn. They were very desolate-looking hills, with little heather, and that bloomless, to hide their hard gray bones. Their heads were mostly white with frost and snow; their shapes had little beauty; they looked worn and hopeless, ugly and sad--and so cold! The water below was slaty gray, in response to the gray sky above: there seemed no life in either. The hearts of the girls sank within them, and all at once they felt tired. In the air was just one sign of life: high above the lake wheeled a large fish-hawk.

"Look!" said Alister pointing; "there is the osprey that lives here with his wife! He is just going to catch a fish!"

He had hardly spoken when the bird, with headlong descent, shot into the water, making it foam up all about. He reappeared with a fish in his claws, and flew off to find his mate.

"Do you know the very bird?" asked Mercy.

"I know him well. He and his wife have built on that conical rock you see there in the middle of the water many years."

"Why have you never shot him? He would look well stuffed!" said Christina.

She little knew the effect of her words; the chief HATED causeless killing; and to hear a lady talk of shooting a high-soaring creature of the air as coolly as of putting on her gloves, was nauseous to him. Ian gave him praise afterwards for his unusual self-restraint. But it was a moment or two ere he had himself in hand.

"Do you not think he looks much better going about God's business?" he said.

"Perhaps; but he is not yours; you have not got him!"

"Why should I have him? He seems, indeed, the more mine the higher he goes. A dead stuffed thing--how could that be mine at all? Alive, he seems to soar in the very heaven of my soul!"

"You showed the fox no such pity!" remarked Mercy.

"I never killed a fox to HAVE him!" answered Alister. "The osprey does no harm. He eats only fish, and they are very plentiful; he never kills birds or hares, or any creature on the land. I do not see how any one could wish to kill the bird, except from mere love of destruction! Why should I make a life less in the world?"

"There would be more lives of fish--would there not?" said Mercy. "I don't want you to shoot the poor bird; I only want to hear your argument!"

The chief could not immediately reply, Ian came to his rescue.

"There are qualities in life," he said. "One cannot think the fish-life so fine, so full of delight as the bird-life!"

"No. But," said Mercy, "have the fishes not as good a right to their life as the birds?"

"Both have the right given them by the maker of them. The osprey was made to eat the fish, and the fish, I hope, get some good of being eaten by the osprey."

"Excuse me, Captain Macruadh, but that seems to me simple nonsense!" said Christina.

"I hope it is true."

"I don't know about being true, but it must be nonsense."

"It must seem so to most people."

"Then why do you say it?"

"Because I hope it is true."

"Why should you wish nonsense to be true?"

"What is true cannot be nonsense. It looks nonsense only to those that take no interest in the matter. Would it be nonsense to the fishes?"

"It does seem hard," said Mercy, "that the poor harmless things should be gobbled up by a creature pouncing down upon them from another element!"

"As the poor are gobbled up everywhere by the rich!"

"I don't believe that. The rich are very kind to the poor."

"I beg your pardon," said Ian, "but if you know no more about the rich than you do about the fish, I can hardly take your testimony. The fish are the most carnivorous creatures in the world."

"Do they eat each other?"

"Hardly that. Only the cats of Kilkenny can do that."

"I used a common phrase!"

"You did, and I am rude: the phrase must bear the blame for both of us. But the fish are even cannibals--eating the young of their own species! They are the most destructive of creatures to other lives."

"I suppose," said Mercy, "to make one kind of creature live on another kind, is the way to get the greatest good for the greatest number!"

"That doctrine, which seems to content most people, appears to me a poverty-stricken and selfish one. I can admit nothing but the greatest good to every individual creature."

"Don't you think we had better be going, Mercy? It has got quite cold; I am afraid it will rain," said Christina, drawing her cloak round her with a little shiver.

"I am ready," answered Mercy.

The brothers looked at each other. They had come out to spend the day together, but they could not leave the ladies to go home alone; having brought them across the burn, they were bound to see them over it again! An imperceptible sign passed between them, and Alister turned to the girls.

"Come then," he said, "we will go back!"

"But you were not going home yet!" said Mercy.

"Would you have us leave you in this wild place?"

"We shall find our way well enough. The burn will guide us."

"Yes; but it will not jump over you; it will leave you to jump over it!"

"I forgot the burn!" said Christina.

"Which way were you going?" asked Mercy, looking all around for road or pathway over the encircling upheaved wildernesses.

"This way," answered Ian. "Good-bye."

"Then you are not coming?"

"No. My brother will take care of you."

He went straight as an arrow up the hill. They stood and watched him go. At what seemed the top, he turned and waved his cap, then vanished.

Christina felt disappointed. She did not much care for either of the very peculiar young men, but any company was better than none; a man was better than a woman; and two men were better than one! If these were not equal to admiring her as she deserved, what more remunerative labour than teaching them to do so?

The thing that chiefly disappointed her in them was, that they had so little small talk. It was so stupid to be always speaking sense! always polite! always courteous!--"Two sir Charles Grandisons," she said, "are two too many!" And indeed the History of Sir Charles Grandison had its place in the small library free to them from childhood; but Christina knew nothing of him except by hearsay.

The young men had been brought up in a solemn school--had learned to take life as a serious and lovely and imperative thing. Not the less, upon occasions of merry-making, would they frolic like young colts even yet, and that without the least reaction or sense of folly afterwards. At the same time, although Ian had in the village from childhood the character, especially in the workshops of the carpenter, weaver, and shoemaker, of being 'full of humour, he was in himself always rather sad, being perplexed with many things: his humour was but the foam of his troubled sea.

Christina was annoyed besides that Mercy seemed not indifferent to the opinion of the men. It was from pure inexperience of the man-world, she said to herself, that the silly child could see anything interesting in them! GENTLEMEN she must allow them--but of such an old-fashioned type as to be gentlemen but by courtesy--not gentlemen in the world's count! She was of the world; they of the north of Scotland! All day Mercy had been on their side and against her! It might be from sheer perversity, but she had never been like that before! She must take care she did not make a fool of herself! It might end in some unhappiness to the young goose! Assuredly neither her father nor mother would countenance the thing! She must throw herself into the breach! But which of them was she taking a fancy to?

She was not so anxious about her sister, however, as piqued that she had not herself gathered one expression of homage, surprised one look of admiration, seen one sign of incipient worship in either. Of the two she liked better the ploughman! The other was more a man of the world--but he was not of her world! With him she was a stranger in a very strange land!

Christina's world was a very small one, and in its temple stood her own image. Ian belonged to the universe. He was a gentleman of the high court. Wherever he might go throughout God's worlds, he would be at home. How could there be much attraction between Christina and him?

Alister was more talkative on the way back than he had been all day. Christina thought the change caused by having them, or rather her, to himself alone; but in reality it sprang from the prospect of soon rejoining his brother without them. Some of the things he said, Mercy found well worth hearing; and an old Scotch ballad which he repeated, having learned it of a lowland nurse, appeared to her as beautiful as it was wild and strange. For Christina, she despised the Scotch language: it was vulgar! Had Alister informed her that Beowulf, "the most important of all the relics of the Pagan Anglo-Saxon, is written in undeniable Scotch, the English of the period," it would have made no difference to Christina! Why should it? She had never yet cared for any book beyond the novels of a certain lady which, to speak with due restraint, do not tend to profitable thought. At the same time, it was not for the worst in them that she liked them; she did not understand them well enough to see it. But there was ground to fear that, when she came to understand, shocked at first, she would speedily get accustomed to it, and at length like them all the better for it.

In Mercy's unawakened soul, echoed now and then a faint thrill of response to some of the things Alister said, and, oftener, to some of the verses he repeated; and she would look up at him when he was silent, with an unconscious seeking glance, as if dimly aware of a beneficent presence. Alister was drawn by the honest gaze of her yet undeveloped and homely countenance, with its child-look in process of sublimation, whence the woman would glance out and vanish again, leaving the child to give disappointing answers. There was something in it of the look a dog casts up out of his beautiful brown eyes into the mystery of his master's countenance. She was on the edge of coming awake; all was darkness about her, but something was pulling at her! She had never known before that a lady might be lovely in a ballad as well as in a beautiful gown!

Finding himself so listened to, though the listener was little more than a child, the heart of the chief began to swell in his great bosom. Like a child he was pleased. The gray day about him grew sweet; its very grayness was sweet, and of a silvery sheen. When they arrived at the burn, and, easily enough from that side, he had handed them across, he was not quite so glad to turn from them as he had expected to be.

"Are you going?" said Christina with genuine surprise, for she had not understood his intention.

"The way is easy now," he answered. "I am sorry to leave you, but I have to join Ian, and the twilight will be flickering down before I reach the place."

"And there will be no moon!" said Mercy: "how will you get home through the darkness?"

"We do not mean to come home to-night."

"Oh, then, you are going to friends!"

"No; we shall be with each other--not a soul besides."

"There can't surely be a hotel up there?"

Alister laughed as he answered,

"There are more ways than one of spending a night on the hills. If you look from a window--in that direction," he said, pointing, "the last thing before you go to bed, you will see that at least we shall not perish with cold."

He sprang again over the burn, and with a wave of his bonnet, went, like Ian, straight up the hill.

The girls stood for some time watching him climb as if he had been going up a flight of stairs, until he stood clear against the sky, when, with another wave of his bonnet, he too disappeared.

Mercy did not forget to look from her window in the direction Alister had indicated. There was no room to mistake what he meant, for through the dark ran a great opening to the side of a hill, somewhere in the night, where glowed and flamed, reddening the air, a huge crescent of fire, slowly climbing, like a column of attack, up toward the invisible crest.

"What does it mean?" she said to herself. "Why do they make such a bonfire--with nobody but themselves to enjoy it? What strange men--out by themselves in the dark night, on the cold hill! What can they be doing it for? I hope they have something to eat! I SHOULD like to hear them talk! I wonder what they are saying about US! I am certain we bored them!"

The brothers did speak of them, and readily agreed in some notion of their characters; but they soon turned to other things, and there passed a good deal that Mercy could not have followed. What would she, for instance, have made of Alister's challenge to his brother to explain the metaphysical necessity for the sine, tangent, and secant of an angle belonging to its supplement as well?

When the ladies overtook them in the morning, Alister was reading, from an old manuscript volume of his brother's which he had found in a chest, a certain very early attempt at humour, and now they disputed concerning it as they watched the fire. It had abundance of faults, and in especial lacked suture, but will serve to show something of lan's youthful ingenium.


Gentle vagrant, stumping over
Several verdant fields of clover!
Subject of unnumbered knockings!
Tattered' coat and ragged stockings,
Slouching hat and roving eye,
Tell of SETTLED vagrancy!
Wretched wanderer, can it be
The poor laws have leaguered thee?
Hear'st thou, in thy thorny den,
Tramp of rural policemen,
Inly fancying, in thy rear
Coats of blue and buttons clear,
While to meet thee, in the van
Stalks some vengeful alderman?--
Each separate sense bringing a notion
Of forms that teach thee locomotion!
Beat and battered altogether,
By fellow-men, by wind and weather;
Hounded on through fens and bogs,
Chased by men and bit by dogs:
And, in thy weakly way of judging,
So kindly taught the art of trudging;
Or, with a moment's happier lot,
Pitied, pensioned, and forgot--
Cutty-pipe thy regium donum;
Poverty thy summum bonum;
Thy frigid couch a sandstone stratum;
A colder grave thy ultimatum;
Circumventing, circumvented;
In short, excessively tormented,
Everything combines to scare
Charity's dear pensioner!
--Say, vagrant, can'st thou grant to me
A slice of thy philosophy?
Haply, in thy many trudgings,
Having found unchallenged lodgings,
Thy thoughts, unused to saddle-crupper,
Ambling no farther than thy supper--
Thou, by the light of heaven-lit taper,
Mendest thy prospective paper!
Then, jolly pauper, stitch till day;
Let not thy roses drop away,
Lest, begrimed with muddy matter,
Thy body peep from every tatter,
And men--a charitable dose--
Should physic thee with food and clothes!
Nursling of adversity!
'Tis thy glory thus to be
Sinking fund of raggery!
Thus to scrape a nation's dishes,
And fatten on a few good wishes!
Or, on some venial treason bent,
Frame thyself a government,
For thy crest a brirnless hat,
Poverty's aristocrat!
Nonne habeam te tristem,
Planet of the human system?
Comet lank and melancholic
--Orbit shocking parabolic--
Seen for a little in the sky
Of the world of sympathy--
Seldom failing when predicted,
Coming most when most restricted,
Dragging a nebulous tail with thee
Of hypothetic vagrancy--
Of vagrants large, and vagrants small,
Vagrants scarce visible at all!
Matchless oracle of woe!
Anarchy in embryo!
Strange antipodes of bliss!
Parody on happiness!
Baghouse of the great creation!
Subject meet for strangulation,
By practice tutored to condense
The cautious inquiry for pence,
And skilful, with averted eye,
To hide thy latent roguery--
Lo, on thy hopes I clap a stopper!
Vagrant, thou shalt have no copper!
Gather thy stumps, and get thee hence,
Unwise solicitor of pence!

Alister, who all but worshipped Ian, and cherished every scrap from his pen, had not until quite lately seen this foolish production, as Ian counted it, and was delighted with it, as he would have been had it been much worse. Ian was vexed that he should like it, and now spent the greater part of an hour trying to show him how very bad in parts, even senseless it was. Profusion of epithets without applicability, want of continuity, purposelessness, silliness, heartlessness--were but a few of his denunciations. Alister argued it was but a bit of fun, and that anybody that knew Ian, knew perfectly he would never amuse himself with a fellow without giving him something, but it was in vain; Ian was bent on showing it altogether unworthy. So, not to waste the night, they dropped the dispute, and by the light of the blazing heather, turned to a chapter of Boethius.

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