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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWhat's Mine's Mine - Volume 2 - Chapter 6. The Two Pairs
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What's Mine's Mine - Volume 2 - Chapter 6. The Two Pairs Post by :ispeculate Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :2606

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What's Mine's Mine - Volume 2 - Chapter 6. The Two Pairs

VOLUME II CHAPTER VI. THE TWO PAIRS

The next morning, on the way to the village, the brothers overtook Christina and Mercy, and they walked along together.

The young men felt inclined to be the more friendly with the girls, that the men of their own family were so unworthy of them. A man who does not respect a woman because she is a woman, cannot have thorough respect for his own mother, protest as he pleases: he is incapable of it, and cannot know his own incapacity. Alas for girls in a family where the atmosphere of vile thinking, winnowed by the carrion wings of degraded and degrading judgments, infolds them! One of the marvels of the world is, that, with such fathers and brothers, there are so few wicked women. Type of the greater number stands Ophelia, poor, weak, and not very refined, yet honest, and, in all her poverty, immeasurably superior to father and brother.

Christina's condescension had by this time dwindled almost to the vanishing-point, and her talk was in consequence more natural: the company, conversation, and whole atmosphere of the young men, tended to wake in the girls what was best and sweetest. Reality appeals at once to the real, opens the way for a soul to emerge from the fog of the commonplace, the marsh of platitude, the Sahara of lies, into the colour and air of life. The better things of humanity often need the sun of friendship to wile them out. A girl, well-bred, tolerably clever, and with some genius of accommodation, will appear to a man possessed of a hundred faculties of which she knows nothing; but his belief will help to rouse them in her. A young man will see an angel where those who love her best see only a nice girl; but he sees not merely what she might be, but what one day she must be.

Christina had been at first rather taken with the ploughman, but she turned her masked batteries now mainly on the soldier. During the dinner she had noted how entirely Ian was what she chose to call a man of the world; and it rendered him in her eyes more worthy of conquest. Besides, as elder sister, must she not protect the inexperienced Mercy?

What is this passion for subjugation? this hunger for homage? Is it of hell direct, or what is there in it of good to begin with? Apparently it takes possession of such women as have set up each herself for the object of her worship: she cannot then rest from the effort to bring as many as possible to worship at the same shrine; and to this end will use means as deserving of the fire as any witchcraft.

Christina stopped short with a little cry, and caught Ian's arm.

"I beg your pardon," she said, "but I cannot bear it a moment longer! Something in my boot hurts me so!"

She limped to the road-side, sat down, accepted the service of Ian to unlace her boot, and gave a sigh of relief when he pulled it off. He inverted and shook it, then searched and found a nail which must have hurt her severely.

But how to get rid of the cruel projection! Ian's slender hand could but just reach with its finger-tips the haunted spot. In vain he tried to knock it down against a stone put inside. Alister could suggest nothing. But Mistress Conal's cottage was near: they might there find something to help! Only Christina could not be left behind, and how was she to walk in a silk stocking over a road frozen hard as glass? The chief would have carried her, but she would not let him. Ian therefore shod her with his Glengarry bonnet, tying it on with his handkerchief.

There was much merriment over the extemporized shoe, mingled with apologetic gratitude from Christina, who, laughing at her poulticed foot, was yet not displeased at its contrast with the other.

When the chief opened the door of the cottage, there was no one to be seen within. The fire was burning hot and flameless; a three-footed pot stood half in it; other sign of presence they saw none. As Alister stooped searching for some implement to serve their need, in shot a black cat, jumped over his back, and disappeared. The same instant they heard a groan, and then first discovered the old woman in bed, seemingly very ill. Ian went up to her.

"What is the matter with you, Mistress Conal?" he asked, addressing her in English because of the ladies.

But in reply she poured out a torrent of Gaelic, which seemed to the girls only grumbling, but was something stronger. Thereupon the chief went and spoke to her, but she was short and sullen with him. He left her to resume his search.

"Let alone," she cried. "When that nail leaves her brog, it will be for your heart."

Ian sought to soothe her.

"She will bring misery on you all!" she insisted.

"You have a hammer somewhere, I know!" said Alister, as if he had not heard her.

"She shall be finding no help in MY house!" answered the old woman in English.

"Very well, Mistress Conal!" returned the chief; "the lady cannot walk home; I shall have to carry her!"

"God forbid!" she cried. "Go and fetch a wheelbarrow."

"Mistress Conal, there is nothing for it but carry her home in my arms!"

"Give me the cursed brog then. I will draw the nail."

But the chief would not yield the boot; he went out and searched the hill-side until he found a smooth stone of suitable size, with which and a pair of tongs, he beat down the nail. Christina put on the boot, and they left the place. The chief stayed behind the rest for a moment, but the old woman would not even acknowledge his presence.

"What a rude old thing she is! This is how she always treats us!" said Christina.

"Have you done anything to offend her?" asked Alister.

"Not that we know of. We can't help being lowlanders!"

"She no doubt bears you a grudge," said Ian, "for having what once belonged to us. I am sorry she is so unfriendly. It is not a common fault with our people."

"Poor old thing! what does it matter!" said Christina.

A woman's hate was to her no more than the barking of a dog.

They had not gone far, before the nail again asserted itself; it had been but partially subjugated. A consultation was held. It resulted in this, that Mercy and the chief went to fetch another pair of boots, while Ian remained with Christina.

They seated themselves on a stone by the roadside. The sun clouded over, a keen wind blew, and Christina shivered. There was nothing for it but go back to the cottage. The key was in the door, Ian turned it, and they went in. Certainly this time no one was there. The old woman so lately groaning on her bed had vanished. Ian made up the fire, and did what he could for his companion's comfort.

She was not pleased with the tone of his attentions, but the way she accepted them made her appear more pleased than Ian cared for, and he became colder and more polite. Piqued by his indifference, she took it nevertheless with a sweetness which belonged to her nature as God made it, not as she had spoiled it; and even such a butterfly as she, felt the influence of a man like Ian, and could not help being more natural in his presence. His truth elicited what there was of hers; the trae being drew to the surface what there was of true in the being that was not true. The longer she was in his company, the more she was pleased with him, and the more annoyed with her failure in pleasing him.

It is generally more or less awkward when a young man and maiden between whom is no convergent rush of spiritual currents, find themselves alone together. Ian was one of the last to feel such awkwardness, but he thought his companion felt it; he did his best, therefore, to make her forget herself and him, telling her story after story which she could not but find the more interesting that for the time she was quieted from self, and placed in the humbler and healthier position of receiving the influence of another. For one moment, as he was narrating a hair's-breadth escape he had had from a company of Tartar soldiers by the friendliness of a young girl, the daughter of a Siberian convict, she found herself under the charm of a certain potency of which he was himself altogether unconscious, but which had carried away hearts more indifferent than hers.

In the meantime, Alister and Mercy were walking toward the New House, and, walking, were more comfortable than those that sat waiting. Mercy indeed had not much to say, but she was capable of asking a question worth answering, and of understanding not a little. Thinking of her walk with Ian on Christmas day,--

"Would you mind telling me something about your brother?" she said.

"What would you like to know about him?" asked Alister.

"Anything you care to tell me," she answered.

Now there was nothing pleased Alister better than talking about Ian; and he talked so that Mercy could not help feeling what a brother he must be himself; while on his part Alister was delighted with the girl who took such an interest in Ian: for Ian's sake he began to love Mercy. He had never yet been what is called in love--had little opportunity indeed of falling in love. His breeding had been that of a gentleman, and notwithstanding the sweetness and gentleness of the maidens of his clan, there were differences which had as yet proved sufficient to prevent the first approaches of love, though, once entertained, they might have added to the depth of it. At the same time it was by no means impossible for Alister to fall in love with even an uneducated girl--so-called; neither would he, in that case, have felt any difficulty about marrying her; but the fatherly relation in which he stood toward his clan, had tended rather to prevent the thing. Many a youth falls to premature love-making, from the lack in his daily history of the womanly element. Matrons in towns should be exhorted to make of their houses a refuge. Too many mothers are anxious for what they count the welfare of their own children, and care nothing for the children of other women! But can we wonder, when they will wallow in mean- nesses to save their own from poverty and health, and damn them into comfort and decay.

Alister told Mercy how Ian and he used to spend their boyhood. He recounted some of their adventures in hunting and herding and fishing, and even in going to and from school, a distance of five miles, in all weathers. Then he got upon the poetry of the people, their legends, their ballads and their songs; and at last came to the poetry of the country itself--the delights of following the plough, the whispers and gleams of nature, her endless appeal through every sense. The mere smell of the earth in a spring morning, he said, always made him praise God.

"Everything we have," he went on, "must be shared with God. That is the notion of the Jewish thank-offering. Ian says the greatest word in the universe is ONE; the next greatest, ALL. They are but the two ends of a word to us unknowable--God's name for himself."

Mercy had read Mrs. Barbauld's Hymns, and they had been something to her; but most of the little poetry she had read was only platitude sweetened with sound; she had never read, certainly never understood a real poem. Who can tell what a nature may prove, after feeding on good food for a while? The queen bee is only a better fed working bee. Who can tell what it may prove when it has been ploughed with the plough of suffering, when the rains of sorrow, the frosts of pain, and the winds of poverty have moistened and swelled and dried its fallow clods?

Mercy had not such a sweet temper as her sister, but she was not so selfish. She was readier to take offence, perhaps just because she was less self-satisfied. Before long they might change places. A little dew from the eternal fountain was falling upon them. Christina was beginning to be aware that a certain man, neither rich nor distinguished nor ambitious, had yet a real charm for her. Not that for a moment she would think seriously of such a man! That would he simply idiotic! But it would be very nice to have a little innocent flirtation with him, or perhaps a "Platonic friendship! "--her phrase, not mine. What could she have to do with Plato, who, when she said I, was aware only of a neat bundle of foolish desires, not the God at her heart!

Mercy, on the other hand, was being drawn to the big, strong, childlike heart of the chief. There is always, notwithstanding the gulf of unlikeness between them, an appeal from the childish to the childlike. The childish is but the shadow of the childlike, and shadows are little like the things from which they fall. But to what save the heavenly shall the earthly appeal in its sore need, its widowhood, its orphanage? with what shall the childish take refuge but the childlike? to what shall ignorance cry but wisdom? Mercy felt no restraint with the chief as with Ian. His great, deep, yet refined and musical laugh, set her at ease. Ian's smile, with its shim--mering eternity, was no more than the moon on a rain-pool to Mercy. The moral health of the chief made an atmosphere of conscious safety around her. By the side of no other man had she ever felt so. With him she was at home, therefore happy. She was already growing under his genial influence. Every being has such influence who is not selfish.

When Christina was re-shod, and they were leaving the cottage, Ian, happening to look behind him, spied the black cat perched on the edge of the chimney in the smoke.

"Look at her," he said, "pretending innocence, when she has been watching you all the time!"

Alister took up a stone.

"Don't hurt her," said Ian, and he dropped it.

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