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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWhat's Mine's Mine - Volume 1 - Chapter 7. Mother And Son
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What's Mine's Mine - Volume 1 - Chapter 7. Mother And Son Post by :voltaire11 Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :2756

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What's Mine's Mine - Volume 1 - Chapter 7. Mother And Son

VOLUME I 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 old-fashioned easy chair stood by the chimney; and one sat in it whom to see was to forget her surroundings.

In middle age she is still beautiful, with the rare beauty that shines from the root of the being. Her hair is of the darkest brown, almost black; her eyes are very dark, and her skin is very fair, though the soft bloom, as of reflected sunset, is gone from her cheek, and her hair shows lines of keen silver. Her features are fine, clear, and regular--the chin a little strong perhaps, not for the size, but the fineness of the rest; her form is that of a younger woman; her hand and foot are long and delicate. A more refined and courteous presence could not have been found in the island. The dignity of her carriage nowise marred its grace, or betrayed the least consciousness; she looked dignified because she was dignified. That form of falsehood which consists in assuming the look of what one fain would be, was, as much as any other, impossible to Isobel Macruadh. She wore no cap; her hair was gathered in a large knot near the top of her head. Her gown was of a dark print; she had no ornament except a ring with a single ruby. She was working a bit of net into lace.

She could speak Gaelic as well as any in the glen--perhaps better; but to her sons she always spoke English. To them indeed English was their mother-tongue, in the sense that English only came addressed to themselves from her lips. There were, she said, plenty to teach them Gaelic; she must see to their English.

The one window of the parlour, though not large, was of tolerable size; but little light entered, so shaded was it with a rose-tree in a pot on the sill. By the wall opposite was a couch, and on the couch lay Ian with a book in his hand--a book in a strange language. His mother and he would sometimes be a whole morning together and exchange no more than a word or two, though many a look and smile. It seemed enough for each to be in the other's company. There was a quite peculiar hond between the two. Like so many of the young men of that country, Ian had been intended for the army; but there was in him this much of the spirit of the eagle he resembled, that he passionately loved freedom, and had almost a gypsy's delight in wandering. When he left college, he became tutor in a Russian family of distinction, and after that accepted a commission in the household troops of the Czar. But wherever he went, he seemed, as he said once to his mother, almost physically aware of a line stretching between him and her, which seemed to vibrate when he grew anxious about her. The bond between him and his brother was equally strong, but in feeling different. Between him and Alister it was a cable; between him and his mother a harpstring; in the one case it was a muscle, in the other a nerve. The one retained, the other drew him. Given to roaming as he was, again and again he returned, from pure love-longing, to what he always felt as the PROTECTION of his mother. It was protection indeed he often had sought--protection from his own glooms, which nothing but her love seemed able to tenuate.

He was tall--if an inch above six feet be tall, but not of his brother's fine proportion. He was thin, with long slender fingers and feet like his mother's. His small, strong bones were covered with little more than hard muscle, but every motion of limb or body was grace. At times, when lost in thought and unconscious of movement, an observer might have imagined him in conversation with some one unseen, towards whom he was carrying himself with courtesy: plain it was that courtesy with him was not a graft upon the finest stock, but an essential element. His forehead was rather low, freckled, and crowned with hair of a foxy red; his eyes were of the glass-gray or green loved of our elder poets; his nose was a very eagle in itself--large and fine. He more resembled the mask of the dead Shakspere than any other I have met, only in him the proportions were a little exaggerated; his nose was a little too large, and his mouth a little too small for the mask; but the mingled sweetness and strength in the curves of the latter prevented the impression of weakness generally given by the association of such a nose and such a mouth. On his short upper lip was a small light moustache, and on his face not a hair more. In rest his countenance wore a great calmness, but a calmness that might seem rooted in sadness.

While the mother might, more than once in a day, differ to fault-finding from her elder-born--whom she admired, notwithstanding, as well as loved, from the bottom of her heart--she was never KNOWN to say a word in opposition to the younger. It was even whispered that she was afraid of him. It was not so; but her reverence for Ian was such that, even when she felt bound not to agree with him, she seldom had the confidence that, differing from HIM, she was in the right. Sometimes in the middle of the night she would slip like a ghost into the room where he lay, and sit by his bed till the black cock, the gray cock, the red cock crew. The son might be awake all the time, and the mother suspect him awake, yet no word pass between them. She would rise and go as she came. Her feeling for her younger son was like that of Hannah for her eldest--intensest love mixed with strangest reverence. But there were vast alternations and inexplicable minglings in her thoughts of him. At one moment she would regard him as gifted beyond his fellows for some great work, at another be filled with a horrible fear that he was in rebellion against the God of his life. Doubtless mothers are far too ready to think THEIR sons above the ordinary breed of sons: self, unpossessed of God, will worship itself in its offspring; yet the sons whom HOLY mothers have regarded as born to great things and who have passed away without sign, may have gone on toward their great things. Whether this mother thought too much of her son or not, there were questions moving in his mind which she could not have understood--even then when he would creep to her bed in the morning to forget in her arms the terrible dreams of the night, or when at evening he would draw his little stool to her knee, unable or unwilling to enjoy his book anywhere but by her side.

What gave him his unconscious power over his mother, was, first, the things he said, and next, the things he did not say; for he seemed to her to dwell always in a rich silence. Yet throughout was she aware of a something between them, across which they could not meet; and it was in part her distress at the seeming impossibility of effecting a spiritual union with her son, that made her so desirous of personal proximity to him. Such union is by most thinking people presumed impossible without consent of opinion, and this mistake rendered her unable to FEEL near him, to be at home with him. If she had believed that they understood each other, that they were of like OPINION, she would not have been half so unhappy when he went away, would not have longed half so grievously for his return. Ian on his part understood his mother, but knew she did not understand him, and was therefore troubled. Hence it resulted that always after a time came the hour--which never came to her--when he could endure proximity without oneness no longer, and would suddenly announce his departure. And after a day or two of his absence, the mother would be doubly wretched to find a sort of relief in it, and would spend wakeful nights trying to oust it as the merest fancy, persuading herself that she was miserable, and nothing but miserable, in the loss of her darling.

Naturally then she would turn more to Alister, and his love was a strengthening tonic to her sick motherhood. He was never jealous of either. Their love for each other was to him a love. He too would mourn deeply over his brother's departure, but it became at once his business to comfort his mother. And while she had no suspicion of the degree to which he suffered, it drew her with fresh love to her elder born, and gave her renewal of the quiet satisfaction in him that was never absent, when she saw how he too missed Ian. Their mutual affection was indeed as true and strong as a mother could desire it. "If such love," she said to herself, "had appeared in the middle of its history instead of now at its close, the transmitted affection would have been enough to bind the clan together for centuries more!"

It was with a prelusive smile that shone on the mother's heart like the opening of heaven, that Ian lowered his book to answer her question. She had said--

"Did you not feel the cold very much at St. Petersburg last winter, Ian?"

"Yes, mother, at times," he answered. "But everybody wears fur; the peasant his sheep-skin, the noble his silver fox. They have to fight the cold! Nose and toes are in constant danger. Did I never tell you what happened to me once in that way? I don't think I ever did!"

"You never tell me anything, Ian!" said his mother, looking at him with a loving sadness.

"I was suddenly stopped in the street by what I took for an unheard-of insult: I actually thought my great proboscis was being pulled! If I had been as fiery as Alister, the man would have found his back, and I should have lost my nose. Without the least warning a handful of snow was thrust in my face, and my nose had not even a chance of snorting with indignation, it found itself so twisted in every direction at once! But I have a way, in any sudden occurrence, of feeling perplexed enough to want to be sure before doing anything, and if it has sometimes hindered me from what was expedient, it has oftener saved me from what would have been wrong: in another instant I was able to do justice to the promptitude of a fellow Christian for the preservation of my nose, already whitening in frosty death: he was rubbing it hard with snow, the orthodox remedy! My whole face presently sharpened into one burning spot, and taking off my hat, I thanked the man for his most kind attention. He pointed out to me that time spent in explaining the condition of my nose, would have been pure loss: the danger was pressing, and he attacked it at once! I was indeed entirely unconscious of the state of my beak--the worst symptom of any!"

"I trust, Ian, you will not go back to Russia!" said his mother, after a little more talk about frost-biting. "Surely there is work for you at home!"

"What can I do at home, mother? You have no money to buy me a commission, and I am not much good at farm-work. Alister says I am not worth a horseman's wages!"

"You could find teaching at home; or you could go into the church. We might manage that, for you would only have to attend the divinity classes."

"Mother! would you put me into one of the priests' offices that I may eat a piece of bread? As for teaching, there are too many hungry students for that: I could not take the bread out of their mouths! And in truth, mother, I could not endure it--except it were required of me. I can live on as little as any, but it must be with some liberty. I have surely inherited the spirit of some old sea-rover, it is so difficult for me to rest! I am a very thistle-down for wandering! I must know how my fellow-creatures live! I should like to BE one man after another--each for an hour or two!"

"Your father used to say there was much Norse blood in the family."

"There it is, mother! I cannot help it!"

"I don't like your holding the Czar's commission, Ian--somehow I don't like it! He is a tyrant!"

"I am going to throw it up, mother."

"I am glad of that! How did you ever get it?"

"Oddly enough, through the man that pulled my nose. I had a chance afterwards of doing him a good turn, which he was most generous in acknowledging; and as he belonged to the court, I had the offer of a lieutenant's commission. The Scotch are in favour."

A deep cloud had settled on the face of the young man. The lady looked at him for a moment with keenest mother-eyes, suppressed a deep sigh, and betook herself again to her work.

Ere she thought how he might take it, another question broke from her lips.

"What sort of church had you to go to in St. Petersburg, Ian?" she said.

Ian was silent a moment, thinking how to be true, and not hurt her more than could not be helped.

"There are a thousand places of worship there, mother," he returned, with a curious smile.

"Any presbyterian place?" she asked.

"I believe so," he replied.

"Ian, you haven't given up praying?"

"If ever I prayed, mother, I certainly have not given it up."

"Ever prayed, Ian! When a mere child you prayed like an aged Christian!"

"Ah, mother, that was a sad pity! I asked for things of which I felt no need! I was a hypocrite! I ought to have prayed like a little child!"

The mother was silent: she it was who had taught him to pray thus--making him pray aloud in her hearing! and this was the result! The premature blossom had withered! she said to herself. But it was no blossom, only a muslin flower!

"Then you didn't go to church!" she said at length.

"Not often, mother dear," he answered. "When I do go, I like to go to the church of the country I happen to be in. Going to church and praying to God are not the same thing."

"Then you do say your prayers? Oh, do not tell me you never bow down before your maker!"

"Shall I tell you where I think I did once pray to God, mother?" he said, after a little pause, anxious to soothe her suffering. "At least I did think then that I prayed!" he added.

"It was not this morning, then, before you left your chamber?"

"No, mother," answered Ian; "I did not pray this morning, and I never say prayers."

The mother gave a gasp, but answered nothing. Ian went on again.

"I should like to tell you, mother, about that time when I am almost sure I prayed!"

"I should like to hear about it," she answered, with strangest minglings of emotion. At one and the same instant she felt parted from her son by a gulf into which she must cast herself to find him, and that he stood on a height of sacred experience which she never could hope to climb. "Oh for his father to talk to him!" she said to herself. He was a power on her soul which she almost feared. If he were to put forth his power, might he not drag her down into unbelief?

It was the first time they had come so close in their talk. The moment his mother spoke out, Ian had responded. He was anxious to be open with her so far as he could, and forced his natural taciturnity, the prime cause of which was his thoughtfulness: it was hard to talk where was so much thinking to be done, so little time to do it in, and so little progress made by it! But wherever he could keep his mother company, there he would not leave her! Just as he opened his mouth, however, to begin his narration, the door of the room also opened, flung wide by the small red hand of Nancy, and two young ladies entered.

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