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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWhat's Mine's Mine - Volume 1 - Chapter 16. The Clan Christmas
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What's Mine's Mine - Volume 1 - Chapter 16. The Clan Christmas Post by :ispeculate Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :3243

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What's Mine's Mine - Volume 1 - Chapter 16. The Clan Christmas

VOLUME I CHAPTER XVI. THE CLAN CHRISTMAS

By slow degrees, with infinite subdivisions and apparent reversals of change, the autumn had passed into winter indeed. Cloud above, mire below, mist and rain all between, made up many days; only, like the dreariest life, they were broken through and parted, lest they should seem the universe itself, by such heavenly manifestations, such gleams and glimpses of better, as come into all lives, all winters, all evil weathers. What is loosed on earth is loosed first in heaven: we have often shared of heaven, when we thought it but a softening of earth's hardness. Every relief is a promise, a pledge as well as a passing meal. The frost at length had brought with it brightness and persuasion and rousing. In the fields it was swelling and breaking the clods; and for the heart of man, it did something to break up that clod too. A sense of friendly pleasure filled all the human creatures. The children ran about like wild things; the air seemed to intoxicate them. The mother went out walking with the girls, and they talked of their father and Christian and Mr. Sercombe, who were all coming together. For some time they saw nothing of their next neighbours.

They had made some attempts at acquaintance with the people of the glen, but unhappily were nowise courteous enough for their ideas of good breeding, and offended both their pride and their sense of propriety. The manners and address of these northern peasants were blameless--nearly perfect indeed, like those of the Irish, and in their own houses beyond criticism; those of the ladies conventional where not rudely condescending. If Mistress Conal was an exception to the rest of the clan, even she would be more civil to a stranger than to her chief whom she loved--until the stranger gave her offence. And if then she passed to imprecation, she would not curse like an ordinary woman, but like a poetess, gaining rather than losing dignity. She would rise to the evil occasion, no hag, but a largely-offended sibyl, whom nothing thereafter should ever appease. To forgive was a virtue unknown to Mistress Conal. Its more than ordinary difficulty in forgiving is indeed a special fault of the Celtic character.--This must not however be confounded with a desire for revenge. The latter is by no means a specially Celtic characteristic. Resentment and vengeance are far from inseparable. The heart that surpasses in courtesy, except indeed that courtesy, be rooted in love divine, must, when treated with discourtesy, experience the worse revulsion, feel the bitterer indignation. But many a Celt would forgive, and forgive thoroughly and heartily, with his enemy in his power, who, so long as he remained beyond his reach, could not even imagine circumstances in which they might be reconciled. To a Celt the summit of wrong is a slight, but apology is correspondingly potent with him. Mistress Conal, however, had not the excuse of a specially courteous nature.

Christina and Mercy, calling upon her one morning, were not ungraciously received, but had the misfortune to remark, trusting to her supposed ignorance of English, upon the dirtiness of her floor, they themselves having imported not a little of the moisture that had turned its surface into a muddy paste. She said nothing, but, to the general grudge she bore the possessors of property once belonging to her clan, she now added a personal one; the offence lay cherished and smouldering. Had the chief offended her, she would have found a score of ways to prove to herself that he meant nothing; but she desired no mitigation of the trespass of strangers.

The people at the New House did not get on very well with any of the clan. In the first place, they were regarded not merely as interlopers, but almost as thieves of the property--though in truth it had passed to them through other hands. In the second place, a rumour had got about that they did not behave with sufficient respect to the chief's family, in the point of whose honour the clan was the more exacting because of their common poverty. Hence the inhabitants of the glen, though they were of course polite, showed but little friendliness.

But the main obstacle to their reception was in themselves: the human was not much developed in them; they understood nothing of their own beings; they had never had any difficulty with themselves:--how could they understand others, especially in circumstances and with histories so different from their own! They had not a notion how poor people feel, still less poor people poorer than before--or how they regard the rich who have what they have lost. They did not understand any huftian feeling--not even the silliness they called LOVE--a godless, mindless affair, fit only for the doll-histories invented by children: they had a feeling, or a feeling had them, till another feeling came and took its place. When a feeling was there, they felt as if it would never go; when it was gone, they felt as if it had never been; when it returned, they felt as if it had never gone. They seldom came so near anything as to think about it, never put a question to themselves as to how a thing affected them, or concerning the phenomena of its passage through their consciousness! There is a child-eternity of soul that needs to ask nothing, because it understands everything: the ways of the spirit are open to it; but where a soul does not understand, and has to learn, how is it to do so without thinking? They knew nothing of labour, nothing of danger, nothing of hunger, nothing of cold, nothing of sickness, nothing of loneliness. The realities of life, in their lowest forms as in their highest, were far from them. If they had nearly gone through life instead of having but entered upon it, they would have had some ground for thinking themselves unfairly dealt with; for to be made, and then left to be worthless, unfit even for damnation, might be suspected for hard lines; but there is One who takes a perfect interest in his lowliest creature, and will not so spare it. They were girls notwithstanding who could make themselves agreeable, and passed for clever--Christina because she could give a sharp answer, and sing a drawingroom-song, Mercy because as yet she mostly held her tongue. That there was at the same time in each of them the possibility of being developed into something of inestimable value, is merely to say that they were human.

The days passed, and Christmas drew near. The gentlemen arrived. There was family delight and a bustling reception. It is amazing--it shows indeed how deep and divine, how much beyond the individual self are the family affections--that such gladness breaks forth in the meeting of persons who, within an hour or so of the joyous welcome, self getting the better of the divine, will begin to feel bored, and will each lay the blame of the disappointment on the other.

Coats were pulled off; mufflers were unwound; pretty hands were helping; strong hands were lifting and carrying; every room was bright with a great fire; tea was refused, and dinner welcomed. After dinner came the unpacking of great boxes; and in the midst of the resultant pleasure, the proposal came to be made--none but Christina knew how--that the inhabitants of the cottage should be invited to dinner on Christmas-eve. It was carried at once, and the next afternoon a formal invitation was sent.

At the cottage it caused conference, no discussion. The lady of the New House had not called with her girls, it was true; but then neither had the lady of the castle--for that was the clanspeople's name for the whole ridge on which the cottage stood--called on the new-comers! If there was offence, it was mutual! The unceremonious invitation MIGHT indicate that it was not thought necessary to treat them as persons who knew the ways of society; on the other hand, if it meant that they were ready to throw aside formalities and behave heartily, it would be wrong not to meet them half-way! They resolved therefore to make a counter-proposal; and if the invitation came of neighbourliness, and not of imagined patronage, they would certainly meet it in a friendly spirit! Answer was returned, sealed with no mere crest but with a coat of arms, to the effect that it had been the custom since time forgotten for the chief to welcome his people and friends without distinction on Christmas-eve, and the custom could not be broken; but if the ladies and gentlemen of the New House would favour them with their com- company on the occasion, to dine and dance, the chief and his family would gratefully accept any later offer of hospitality Mr. and Mrs. Peregrine Palmer might do them, the honour to send.

This reply gave occasion to a good deal of talk at the New House, not entirely of a sort which the friends of the chief would have enjoyed hearing. Frequent were the bursts of laughter from the men at the assumption of the title of CHIEF by a man with no more land than he could just manage to live upon. The village they said, and said truly, in which the greater number of HIS PEOPLE lived, was not his at all--not a foot of the ground on which it stood, not a stone or sod of which it was built--but belonged to a certain Canadian, who was about to turn all his territory around and adjacent into a deer forest! They could not see that, if there had ever been anything genuine in the patriarchal relation, the mere loss of the clan-property could no more cause the chieftainship to cease, than could the loss of the silver-hilted Andrew Ferrara, handed down from father to son for so many generations.

There are dull people, and just as many clever people, who look upon customs of society as on laws of nature, and judge the worth of others by their knowledge or ignorance of the same. So doing they disable themselves from understanding the essential, which is, like love, the fulfilling of the law. A certain Englishman gave great offence in an Arab tent by striding across the food placed for the company on the ground: would any Celt, Irish or Welsh, have been guilty of such a blunder? But there was not any overt offence on the present occasion. They called it indeed a cool proposal that THEY should put off their Christmas party for that of a ploughman in shabby kilt and hob-nailed shoes; but on their amused indignation supervened the thought that they were in a wild part of the country, where it would be absurd to expect the SAVOIR VIVRE of the south, and it would be amusing to see the customs of the land. By suggestion and seeming response, the clever Christina, unsuspected even of Mercy, was the motive power to bring about the acceptance of the chief's invitation.

A friendly answer was returned: they would not go to dinner, they said, as it was their custom also to dine at home on Christmas-eve; but they would dine early, and spend the evening with them.

To the laird the presence of the lowland girls promised a great addition to the merry-making. During the last thirty years, all the gentlemen-farmers of the clan, and most of the humbler tacksmen as well, had vanished, and there was a wide intellectual space between all those left and the family of the chief. Often when Ian was away, would Alister, notwithstanding his love to his people and their entire response, have felt lonely but for labour.

There being in the cottage no room equal to the reception of a large company, and the laird receiving all the members of the clan--"poor," I was going to say, "and rich," but there were no rich--as well as any neighbour or traveller who chose to appear, the father of the present chief had had good regard to the necessities of entertainment in the construction of a new barn: companionship, large feasting, and dancing, had been even more considered than the storing and threshing of his corn.

There are in these days many who will mock; but for my part I am proud of a race whose social relations are the last upon which they will retrench, whose latest yielded pleasure is their hospitality. It is a common feeling that only the WELL-TO-DO have a right to be hospitable: the ideal flower of hospitality is almost unknown to the rich; it can hardly be grown save in the gardens of the poor; it is one of their beatitudes.

Means in Glenruadh had been shrinking for many years, but the heart of the chief never shrank. His dwelling dwindled from a castle to a house, from a house to a cottage; but the hospitality did not dwindle. As the money vanished, the show diminished; the place of entertainment from a hall became a kitchen, from a kitchen changed to a barn; but the heart of the chief was the same; the entertainment was but little altered, the hospitality not in the least. When things grow hard, the first saving is generally off others; the Macruadh's was off himself. The land was not his, save as steward of the grace of God! Let it not be supposed he ran in debt: with his mother at the head, or rather the heart of affairs, that could not be. She was not one to regard as hospitality a readiness to share what you have not!

Little did good Doctor Johnson suspect the shifts to which some of the highland families he visited were driven--not to feed, but to house him: and housing in certain conditions of society is the large half of hospitality. Where he did not find his quarters comfortable, he did not know what crowding had to be devised, what inconveniences endured by the family, that he might have what ease and freedom were possible. Be it in stone hall or thatched cottage, the chief must entertain the stranger as well as befriend his own! This was the fulfilling of his office--none the less that it had descended upon him in evil times. That seldom if ever had a chief been Christian enough or strong enough to fill to the full the relation of father of his people, was nothing against the ideal fact in the existent relation; it was rather for it: now that the chieftainship had come to a man with a large notion of what it required of him, he was the more, not the less ready to aim at the mark of the idea; he was not the more easily to be turned aside from a true attempt to live up to his calling, that many had yielded and were swept along bound slaves in the triumph of Mammon! He looked on his calling as entirely enough to fill full the life that would fulfil the calling. It was ambition enough for him to be the head of his family, with the highest of earthly relations to realize toward its members. As to the vulgar notion of a man's obligation to himself, he had learned to despise it.

"Eubbish!" Ian would say. "I owe my self nothing. What has my self ever done for me, but lead me wrong? What but it has come between me and my duty--between me and my very Father in heaven--between me and my fellow man! The fools of greed would persuade that a man has no right to waste himself in the low content of making and sharing a humble living; he ought to make money! make a figure in the world, forsooth! be somebody! 'Dwell among the people!' such would say: 'Bah! Let them look after themselves! If they cannot pay their rents, others will; what is it to you if the rents are paid? Send them about their business; turn the land into a deer-forest or a sheep-farm, and clear them out! They have no rights! A man is bound to the children of his body begotten; the people are nothing to him! A man is not his brother's keeper--except when he has got him in prison! And so on, in the name of the great devil!"

Whether there was enough in Alister to have met and overcome the spirit of the world, had he been brought up at Oxford or Cambridge, I have not to determine; there was that in him at least which would have come to, repent bitterly had he yielded; but brought up as he was, he was not only able to entertain the exalted idea presented to him, but to receive and make it his. With joy he recognized the higher dignity of the shepherd of a few poor, lean, wool-torn human sheep, than of the man who stands for himself, however "spacious in the possession of dirt." He who holds dead land a possession, and living souls none of his, needs wake no curse, for he is in the very pit of creation, a live outrage on the human family.

If Alister Macruadh was not in the highest grade of Christianity, he was on his way thither, for he was doing the work that was given him to do, which is the first condition of all advancement. He had much to learn yet, but he was one who, from every point his feet touched, was on the start to go further.

The day of the holy eve rose clear and bright. Snow was on the hills, and frost in the valley. There had been a time when at this season great games were played between neighbour districts or clans, but here there were no games now, because there were so few men; the more active part fell to the women. Mistress Macruadh was busy all day with her helpers, preparing a dinner of mutton, and beef, and fowls, and red-deer ham; and the men soon gave the barn something of the aspect of the old patriarchal hall for which it was no very poor substitute. A long table, covered with the finest linen, was laid for all comers; and when the guests took their places, they needed no arranging; all knew their standing, and seated themselves according to knowledge. Two or three small farmers took modestly the upper places once occupied by immediate relatives of the chief, for of the old gentry of the clan there were none. But all were happy, for their chief was with them still. Their reverence was none the less that they were at home with him. They knew his worth, and the roughest among them would mind what the Macruadh said. They knew that he feared nothing; that he was strong as the red stag after which the clan was named; that, with genuine respect for every man, he would at the least insolence knock the fellow down; that he was the best shot, the best sailor, the best ploughman in the clan: I would have said THE BEST SWORDSMAN, but that, except Ian, there was not another left to it.

Not many of them, however, understood how much he believed that he had to give an account of his people. He was far from considering such responsibility the clergyman's only. Again and again had he expostulated with some, to save them from the slow gaping hell of drink, and in one case, he had reason to hope, with success.

As they sat at dinner, it seemed to the young fellow who, with his help, had so far been victorious, that the chief scarcely took his eyes off him. One might think there was small danger where the hostess allowed nothing beyond water and milk but small ale; the chief, however, was in dread lest he should taste even that, and caught one moment the longing look he threw at the jug as it passed. He rose and went down the table, speaking to this one and that, but stopped behind the lad, and putting his arm round his shoulders, whispered in his ear. The youth looked up in his face with a solemn smile: had not the chief embraced him before them all! He was only a shepherd-lad, but his chief cared for him!

In the afternoon the extemporized tables were cleared away, candles were fixed in rough sconces along the walls, not without precaution against fire, and the floor was rubbed clean--for the barn was floored throughout with pine, in parts polished with use. The walls were already covered with the plaids of the men and women, each kept in place by a stone or two on the top of the wall where the rafters rested. In one end was a great heap of yellow oat-straw, which, partly levelled, made a most delightful divan. What with the straw, the plaids, the dresses, the shining of silver ornaments, and the flash of here and there a cairngorm or an amethyst, there was not a little colour in the barn. Some of the guests were poorly but all were decently attired, and the shabbiest behaved as ladies and gentlemen.

The party from the New House walked through the still, star-watched air, with the motionless mountains looking down on them, and a silence around, which they never suspected as a presence. The little girls were of the company, and there was much merriment. Foolish compliments were not wanting, offered chiefly on the part of Mr. Sercombe, and accepted on that of Christina. The ladies, under their furs and hoods, were in their best, with all the jewels they could wear at once, for they had heard that highlanders have a passion for colour, and that poor people are always best pleased when you go to them in your finery. The souls of these Sasunnachs were full of THINGS. They made a fine show as they emerged from the darkness of their wraps into the light of the numerous candles; nor did the approach of the widowed chieftainess to receive them, on the arm of Alister, with Ian on her other side, fail in dignity. The mother was dressed in a rich, matronly black silk; the chief was in the full dress of his clan--the old-fashioned coat of the French court, with its silver buttons and ruffles of fine lace, the kilt of Macruadh tartan in which red predominated, the silver-mounted sporan--of the skin and adorned with the head of an otter caught with, the bare hands of one of his people, and a silver-mounted dirk of length unusual, famed for the beauty of both hilt and blade; Ian was similarly though less showily clad. When she saw the stately dame advancing between her sons, one at least of her visitors felt a doubt whether their condescension would be fully appreciated.

As soon as their reception was over, the piper--to the discomfort of Mr. Sercombe's English ears--began his invitation to the dance, and in a few moments the floor was, in a tumult of reels. The girls, unacquainted with their own country's dances, preferred looking on, and after watching reel and strathspey for some time, altogether declined attempting either. But by and by it was the turn of the clanspeople to look on while the lady of the house and her sons danced a quadrille or two with their visitors; after which the chief and his brother pairing with the two elder girls, the ladies were astonished to find them the best they had ever waltzed with, although they did not dance quite in the London way. Ian's dancing, Christina said, was French; Mercy said all she knew was that the chief took the work and left her only the motion: she felt as in a dream of flying. Before the evening was over, the young men had so far gained on Christina that Mr. Sercombe looked a little commonplace.

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