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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWhat's Mine's Mine - Volume 1 - Chapter 6. Work And Wage
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What's Mine's Mine - Volume 1 - Chapter 6. Work And Wage Post by :voltaire11 Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :1671

Click below to download : What's Mine's Mine - Volume 1 - Chapter 6. Work And Wage (Format : PDF)

What's Mine's Mine - Volume 1 - Chapter 6. Work And Wage

VOLUME I CHAPTER VI. WORK AND WAGE

Alister strode through the night, revolving no questions hard to solve, though such were not strangers to him. He had not been to a university like his brother, but he had had a good educational beginning--who ever had more than a beginning?--chiefly from his father, who for his time and opportunity was even a learned man--and better, a man who knew what things were worth a man's human while, and what were not: he could and did think about things that a man must think about or perish; and his son Alister had made himself able to think about what he did not know, by doing the thing he did know. But now, as he walked, fighting with the wind, his bonnet of little shelter pulled down on his forehead, he was thinking mostly of Lachlan his foster-brother, whose devotion had done much to nourish in him the sense that he was head of the clan. He had not far to go to reach his home--about a couple of miles.

He had left the village a quarter of the way behind him, when through the darkness he spied something darker yet by the roadside. Going up to it, he found an old woman, half sitting, half standing, with a load of peats in a creel upon her back, unable, apparently, for the moment at least, to proceed. Alister knew at once by her shape and posture who she was.

"Ah, mistress Conal!" he said, "I am sorry to see you resting on such a night so near your own door. It means you have filled your creel too full, and tired yourself too much."

"I am not too much tired, Macruadh!" returned the old woman, who was proud and cross-tempered, and had a reputation for witchcraft, which did her neither much good nor much harm.

"Well, whether you are tired or not, I believe I am the stronger of the two!"

"Small doubt of that, Alister!" said mistress Conal with a sigh.

"Then I will take your creel, and you will soon be home. Come along! It is going to be a wild night!"

So saying he took the rope from the neck of the old woman right gently, and threw the creel with a strong swing over his shoulder. This dislodged a few of the topmost of the peats which the poor old thing had been a long way to fetch. She heard them fall, and one of them struck her foot. She started up, almost in a rage.

"Sir! sir! my peats!" she cried. "What would you be throwing away the good peats into the dark for, letting that swallow them they should swallow!"

These words, as all that passed between them, were spoken neither in Scotch nor English, but in Gaelic--which, were I able to write it down, most of my readers would no more understand than they would Phoenician: we must therefore content ourselves with what their conversation comes to in English, which, if deficient compared with Gaelic in vowel-sounds, yet serves to say most things capable of being said.

"I am sorry, mistress Conal; but we'll not be losing them," returned the laird gently, and began to feel about the road for the fallen peats.

"How many were there, do you think, of them that fell?" he asked, rising after a vain search.

"How should I be knowing! But I am sure there would be nigh six of them!" answered the woman, in a tone of deep annoyance--nor was it much wonder; they were precious to the cold, feeble age that had gone so far to fetch so few.

The laird again stooped his long back, and searched and searched, feeling on all sides around him. He picked up three. Not another, after searching for several minutes, could he find.

"I'm thinking that must be all of them, but I find only three!" he said. "Come, let us go home! You must not make your cough worse for one or two peats, perhaps none!"

"Three, Macruadh, three!" insisted the old woman in wavering voice, broken by coughing; for, having once guessed six, she was not inclined to lower her idea of her having.

"Well, well! we'll count them when we get home!" said Alister, and gave his hand to her to help her up.

She yielded grumbling, and, bowed still though relieved from her burden, tottered by his side along the dark, muddy, wind-and-rain-haunted road.

"Did you see my niece to-night at the shop?" she asked; for she was proud of being so nearly related to those who kept the shop of the hamlet.

"That I did," answered the chief; and a little talk followed about Lachlan in Canada.

No one could have perceived from the way in which the old woman accepted his service, and the tone in which she spoke to him while he bent under her burden, that she no less than loved her chief; but everybody only smiled at mistress Conal's rough speech. That night, ere she went to bed, she prayed for the Macruadh as she never prayed for one of her immediate family. And if there was a good deal of superstition mingled with her prayer, the main thing in it was genuine, that is, the love that prompted it; and if God heard only perfect prayers, how could he be the prayer-hearing God?

Her dwelling stood but a stone's-throw from the road, and presently they turned up to it by a short steep ascent. It was a poor hut, mostly built of turf; but turf makes warm walls, impervious to the wind, and it was a place of her own!--that is, she had it to herself, a luxury many cannot even imagine, while to others to he able to be alone at will seems one of the original necessities of life. Even the Lord, who probably had not always a room to himself in the poor houses he staid at, could not do without solitude; therefore not unfrequently spent the night in the open air, on the quiet, star-served hill: there even for him it would seem to have been easier to find an entrance into that deeper solitude which, it is true, he did not need in order to find his Father and his God, but which apparently he did need in order to come into closest contact with him who was the one joy of his life, whether his hard life on earth, or his blessed life in heaven.

The Macruadh set down the creel, and taking out peat after peat, piled them up against the wall, where already a good many waited their turn to be laid on the fire; for, as the old woman said, she must carry a few when she could, and get ahead with her store ere the winter came, or she would soon be devoured: there was a death that always prowled about old people, she said, watching for the fire to go out. Many of the Celts are by nature poets, and mistress Conal often spoke in a manner seldom heard from the lips of a lowland woman. The common forms of Gaelic are more poetic than those of most languages, and could have originated only with a poetic people, while mistress Conal was by no means an ordinary type of her people; maugre her ill temper and gruffness, she thought as well as spoke like a poetess. This, conjoined with the gift of the second sight, had helped to her reputation as a witch.

As the chief piled the peats, he counted them. She sat watching him and them from a stone that made part of a rude rampart to the hearth.

"I told you so, Macruadh!" she said, the moment she saw his hand return empty from the bottom of the creel. "I was positive there should be three more!--But what's on the road is not with the devil."

"I am very sorry!" said the chief, who thought it wiser not to contradict her.

He would have searched his sporan for a coin to make up to her for the supposed loss of her peats; but he knew well enough there was not a coin in it. He shook hands with her, bade her good night, and went, closing the door carefully behind him against a great gust of wind that struggled to enter, threatening to sweep the fire she was now blowing at with her wrinkled, leather-like lips, off the hearth altogether--a thing that had happened before, to the danger of the whole building, itself of the substance burning in the middle of its floor.

The Macruadh ran down the last few steep steps of the path, and jumped into the road. Through the darkness came the sound of one springing aside with a great start, and the click of a gun-lock.

"Who goes there?" cried a rather tremulous voice.

"The Macruadh," answered the chief.

The utterance apparently conveyed nothing.

"Do you belong to these parts?" said the voice.

A former Macruadh might have answered, "No; these parts belong to me;" Alister curtly replied,

"I do."

"Here then, my good fellow! take my game-bag, and carry it as far as the New House--if you know where I mean. I will give you a shilling."

One moment the chief spent in repressing a foolish indignation; the next he spent in reflection.

Had he seen how pale and tired was the youth with the gun, he would have offered to carry his bag for him; to offer and to be asked, however, most people find different; and here the offer of payment added to the difficulty. But the word SHILLING had raised the vision of the old woman in her lonely cottage, brooding over the loss, real or imaginary mattered nothing, of her three far-borne peats. What a happy night, through all the wind and the rain, would a silver shilling under her chaff pillow give her! The thought froze the chief's pride, and warmed his heart. What right had he to deny her such a pleasure! It would cost him nothing! It would even bring him a little amusement! The chief of Clanruadh carrying his game-bag for a Sasunnach fellow to earn a shilling! the idea had a touch of humorous consolation in it. I will not assert the consolation strong enough to cast quite out a certain feeling of shame that mingled with his amusement--a shame which--is it not odd!--he would not have felt had his sporan been full of sovereigns. But the shame was not altogether a shameful one; a fanciful fear of degrading the chieftainship, and a vague sense of the thing being an imposition, had each a part in it. There could be nothing dishonest, however, in thus earning a shilling for poor mistress Conal!

"I will carry your bag," he said, "but I must have the shilling first, if you please."

"Oh!" rejoined Valentine Palmer. "You do not trust me! How then am I to trust you?"

"Sir!" exclaimed Alister--and, again finding himself on the point of being foolish, laughed.

"I will pay you when the job is done," said Valentine.

"That is quite fair, but it does not suit my purpose," returned Alister.

They were walking along the road side by side, but each could scarcely see anything of the other. The sportsman was searching his pockets to find a shilling. He succeeded, and, groping, put it in Alister's hand, with the words--

"All right! it is only a shilling! There it is! But it is not yours yet: here is the bag!"

Alister took the bag, turned, and ran back.

"Hillo!" cried Valentine.

But Alister had disappeared, and as soon as he turned up the soft path to the cottage, his steps became inaudible through the wind.

He opened the door, went in, laid the shilling on the back of the old woman's hand, and without a word hurried out again, and down to the road. The stranger was some distance ahead, tramping wearily on through the darkness, and grumbling at his folly in bribing a fellow with a shilling to carry off his game-bag. Alister overtook him.

"Oh, here you are after all!" exclaimed Valentine. "I thought you had made off with work and wages both! What did you do it for?"

"I wanted to give the shilling to an old woman close by."

"Your mother--eh?"

"No."

"Your grandmother?"

"No."

"SOME relation then!" insisted the stranger.

"Doubtless," answered the laird, and Valentine thought him a surly fellow.

They walked on in silence. The youth could hardly keep up with Alister, who thought him ill bred, and did not care for his company.

"Why do you walk so fast?" said Valentine.

"Because I want to get home," replied Alister.

"But I paid you to keep me company!"

"You paid me to carry your bag. I will leave it at the New House."

His coolness roused the weary youth.

"You rascal!" he said; "you keep alongside of me, or I'll pepper you."

As he spoke, he shifted his gun. But Alister had already, with a few long strides, put a space of utter darkness between them. He had taken the shilling, and must carry the bag, but did not feel bound to personal attendance. At the same time he could not deny there was reason in the man's unwillingness to trust him. What had he about him to give him in pledge? Nothing but his watch, his father's, a gift of THE PRINCE to the head of the family!--he could not profane that by depositing it for a game-bag! He must yield to his employer, moderate his pace, and move side by side with the Sasunnach!

Again they walked some distance in silence. Alister began to discover that his companion was weary, and his good heart spoke.

"Let me carry your gun," he said.

"See you damned!" returned Valentine, with an angry laugh.

"You fancy your gun protects your bag?"

"I do."

The same instant the gun was drawn, with swift quiet force, through the loop of his arm from behind. Feeling himself defenceless, he sprang at the highlander, but he eluded him, and in a moment was out of his reach, lost in the darkness. He heard the lock of one barrel snap: it was not loaded; the second barrel went off, and he gave a great jump, imagining himself struck. The next instant the gun was below his arm again.

"It will be lighter to carry now!" said the Macruadh; "but if you like I will take it."

"Take it, then. But no!--By Jove, I wish there was light enough to see what sort of a rascal you look!"

"You are not very polite!"

"Mind your own politeness. I was never so roughly served in my life!--by a fellow too that had taken my money! If I knew where to find a magistrate in this beastly place,--"

"You would tell him I emptied your gun because you threatened me with it!"

"You were going off with my bag!"

"Because I undertook to carry your bag, was I bound to endure your company?"

"Alister!" said a quiet voice out of the darkness.

The highlander started, and in a tone strangely tremulous, yet with a kind of triumph in it, answered--

"Ian!"

The one word said, he stood still, but as in the act to run, staring into the darkness. The next moment he flung down the game-bag, and two men were in each other's arms.

"Where are you from, Ian?" said the chief at length, in a voice broken with gladness.

All Valentine understood of the question, for it was in Gaelic, was its emotion, and he scorned a fellow to show the least sign of breaking down.

"Straight from Moscow," answered the new-comer. "How is our mother?"

"Well, Ian, thank God!"

"Then, thank God, all is well!"

"What brought you home in such haste?"

"I had a bad dream about my mother, and was a little anxious. There was more reason too, which I will tell you afterwards."

"What were you doing in Moscow? Have you a furlough?"

"No; I am a sort of deserter. I would have thrown up my commission, but had not a chance. In Moscow I was teaching in a school to keep out of the way of the police. But I will tell you all by and by."

The voice was low, veiled, and sad; the joy of the meeting rippled through it like a brook.

The brothers had forgotten the stranger, and stood talking till the patience of Valentine was as much exhausted as his strength.

"Are you going to stand there all night?" he said at last. "This is no doubt very interesting to you, but it is rather a bore to one who can neither see you, nor understand a word you say."

"Is the gentleman a friend of yours, Alister?" asked Ian.

"Not exactly.--But he is a Sasunnach," he concluded in English, "and we ought not to be speaking Gaelic."

"I beg his pardon," said Ian. "Will you introduce me?"

"It is impossible; I do not know his name. I never saw him, and don't see him now. But he insists on my company."

"That is a great compliment. How far?"

"To the New House."

"I paid him a shilling to carry my bag," said Valentine. "He took the shilling, and was going to walk off with my bag!"

"Well?"

"Well indeed! Not at all well! How was I to know--"

"But he didn't--did he?" said Ian, whose voice seemed now to tingle with amusement. "--Alister, you were wrong."

It was an illogical face-about, but Alister responded at once.

"I know it," he said. "The moment I heard your voice, I knew it.--How is it, Ian,"--here he fell back into Gaelic--"that when you are by me, I know what is right so much quicker? I don't understand it. I meant to do right, but--"

"But your pride got up. Alister, you always set out well--nobly--and then comes the devil's turn! Then you begin to do as if you repented! You don't carry the thing right straight out. I hate to see the devil make a fool of a man like you! Do YOU not know that in your own country you owe a stranger hospitality?"

"My own country!" echoed Alister with a groan.

"Yes, your own country--and perhaps more yours than it was your grandfather's! You know who said, 'The meek shall inherit the earth'! If it be not ours in God's way, I for one would not care to call it mine another way."--Here he changed again to English.--"But we must not keep the gentleman standing while we talk!"

"Thank you!" said Valentine. "The fact is, I'm dead beat."

"Have you anything I could carry for you?" asked Ian.

"No, I thank you.--Yes; there! if you don't mind taking my gun?--you speak like a gentleman!"

"I will take it with pleasure."

He took the gun, and they started.

"If you choose, Alister," said his brother, once more in Gaelic, "to break through conventionalities, you must not expect people to allow you to creep inside them again the moment you please."

But the young fellow's fatigue had touched Alister.

"Are you a big man?" he said, taking Valentine gently by the arm.

"Not so big as you, I'll lay you a sovereign," answered Valentine, wondering why he should ask.

"Then look here!" said Alister; "you get astride my shoulders, and I'll carry you home. I believe you're hungry, and that takes the pith out of you!--Come," he went on, perceiving some sign of reluctance in the youth, "you'll break down if you walk much farther!--Here, Ian! you take the bag; you can manage that and the gun too!"

Valentine murmured some objection; but the brothers took the thing so much as a matter of course, and he felt so terribly exhausted--for he had lost his way, and been out since the morning--that he yielded.

Alister doubled himself up on his heels; Valentine got his weary legs over his stalwart shoulders; the chief rose with him as if he had been no heavier than mistress Conal's creel, and bore him along much relieved in his aching limbs.

So little was the chief oppressed by his burden, that he and his brother kept up a stream of conversation, every now and then forgetting their manners and gliding off into Gaelic, but as often recollecting themselves, apologizing, and starting afresh upon the path of English. Long before they reached the end of their journey, Valentine, able from his perch to listen in some measure of ease, came to understand that he had to do, not with rustics, but, whatever their peculiarities, with gentlemen of a noteworthy sort.

The brothers, in the joy of their reunion, talked much of things at home and abroad, avoiding things personal and domestic as often as 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.

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