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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWhat's Mine's Mine - Volume 3 - Chapter 14. The Peat-Moss
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What's Mine's Mine - Volume 3 - Chapter 14. The Peat-Moss Post by :paulwoodley Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :845

Click below to download : What's Mine's Mine - Volume 3 - Chapter 14. The Peat-Moss (Format : PDF)

What's Mine's Mine - Volume 3 - Chapter 14. The Peat-Moss

VOLUME III CHAPTER XIV. THE PEAT-MOSS

For the first winter the Clanruadh had not much to fear--hardly more than usual: they had their small provision of potatoes and meal, and some a poor trifle of money. But "Lady Macruadh" was anxious lest the new cottages should not be quite dry, and gave a general order that fires were to be burned in them for some time before they were occupied: for this they must use their present stock of dry peats, and more must be provided for the winter. The available strength of the clan would be required to get the fresh stock under cover before the weather broke.

The peat-moss from which they cut their fuel, was at some distance from the castle, on the outskirts of the hill-farm. It was the nearest moss to the glen, and the old chief, when he parted with so much of the land, took care to except it, knowing well that his remaining people could not without it live through a winter. But as, of course, his brother, the minister, who succeeded him, and the present chieftain, had freely allowed all the tenants on the land sold to supply themselves from it as before, the notion had been generated that the moss was not part of the chief's remaining property.

When the report was carried to Mr. Peregrine Palmer, that the tenants Mr. Brander and he were about to eject, and who were in consequence affronting him with a new hamlet on the very verge of his land, were providing themselves with a stock of fuel greatly in excess of what they had usually laid in for the winter--that in fact they were cutting large quantities of peat, besides the turf for their new cottages; without making the smallest inquiry, or suspecting for a moment that the proceeding might be justifiable, he determined, after a brief consultation with men who knew nothing but said anything, to put a stop to the supposed presumption.

A few of the peats cut in the summer had not yet been removed, not having dried so well as the rest, and the owners of some of these, two widows, went one day to fetch them home to the new village, when, as it happened, there were none of the clan besides in the moss.

They filled their creels, helped each other to get them on their backs, and were setting out on their weary tramp home, when up rose two of Mr. Palmer's men, who had been watching them, cut their ropes and took their loads, emptied the peats into a moss-hag full of water, and threw the creels after them. The poor women poured out their wrath on the men, telling them they would go straight to the chief, but were answered only with mockery of their chief and themselves. They turned in despair, and with their outcry filled the hollows of the hills as they went, bemoaning the loss of their peats and their creels, and raging at the wrong they had received. One of them, a characterless creature in the eyes of her neighbours, harmless, and always in want, had faith in her chief, for she had done nothing to make her ashamed, and would go to him at once: he had always a word and a smile and a hand-shake for her, she said; the other, commonly called Craftie, was unwilling: her character did not stand high, and she feared the face of the Macruadh.

"He does not like me!" said Craftie.

"When a woman is in trouble," said the other, "the Macruadh makes no questions. You come with me! He will be glad of something to do for you."

In her confidence she persuaded her companion, and together they went to the chief.

Having gathered courage to appear, Craftie needed none to speak: where that was the call, she was never slow to respond.

"Craftie," said the chief, "is what you are telling me true?"

"Ask HER," answered Craftie, who knew that asseveration on her part was not all-convincing.

"She speaks the truth, Macruadh," said the other. "I will take my oath to it."

"Your word is enough," replied the chief, "--as Craftie knew when she brought you with her."

"Please, laird, it was myself brought Craftie; she was not willing to come!"

"Craftie," said the chief, "I wish I could make a friend of you! But you know I can't!"

"I do know it, Macruadh, and I am sorry for it, many is the good time! But my door never had any latch, and the word is out before I can think to keep it back!"

"And so you send another and another to back the first! Ah, Craftie! If purgatory don't do something for you, then--!"

"Indeed and I hope I shall fall into it on my way farther, chief!" said Craftie, who happened to be a catholic.

"But now," resumed the chief, "when will you be going for the rest of your peats?"

"They're sure to be on the watch for us; and there's no saying what they mightn't do another time!" was the indirect and hesitating answer.

"I will go with you."

"When you please, then, chief."

So the next day the poor women went again, and the chief went with them, their guard and servant. If there were any on the watch, they did not appear. The Macruadh fished out their creels, and put them to dry, then helped them to fill those they had borrowed for the occasion. Returning, he carried now the one, now the other creel, so that one of the women was always free. The new laird met them on the road, and recognized with a scornful pleasure the chief bending under his burden. That was the fellow who would so fain be HIS son-in-law!

About this time Sercombe and Valentine came again to the New House. Sercombe, although he had of late had no encouragement from Christina, was not therefore prepared to give her up, and came "to press the siege." He found the lady's reception of him so far from cordial, however, that he could not but suspect some new adverse influence. He saw too that Mercy was in disgrace; and, as Ian was gone, concluded there must have been something between them: had the chief been "trying it on with" Christina? The brute was always getting in his way! But some chance of serving him out was certain to turn, up!

For the first suitable day Alister had arranged an expedition from the village, with all the carts that could be got together, to bring home as many peats as horses and men and women could together carry. The company was seen setting out, and report of it carried at once to Mr. Palmer; for he had set watch on the doings of the clan. Within half an hour he too set out with the messenger, accompanied by Sercombe, in grim delight at the prospect of a row. Valentine went also, willing enough to see what would happen, though with no ill will toward the chief. They were all furnished as for a day's shooting, and expected to be joined by some of the keepers on their way.

The chief, in view of possible assault, had taken care that not one of his men should have a gun. Even Hector of the Stags he requested to leave his at home.

They went in little groups, some about the creeping carts, in which were the older women and younger children, some a good way ahead, some scattered behind, but the main body attending the chief, who talked to them as they went. They looked a very poor company, but God saw past their poverty. The chief himself, save in size and strength, had not a flourishing appearance. He was very thoughtful: much lay on his shoulders, and Ian was not there to help! His clothes, all their clothes were shabby, with a crumpled, blown-about look--like drifts, in their many faded colours, of autumnal leaves. They had about them all a forgotten air--looked thin and wan like a ghostly funeral to the second sight--as if they had walked so long they had forgotten how to sleep, and the grave would not have them. Except in their chief, there was nothing left of the martial glance and gait and show, once so notable in every gathering of the Clanruadh, when the men were all soldiers born, and the women were mothers, daughters, and wives of soldiers. Their former stately grace had vanished from the women; they were weather-worn and bowed with labour too heavy for their strength, too long for their endurance; they were weak from lack of fit human food, from lack of hope, and the dreariness of the outlook, the ever gray spiritual horizon; they were numbed with the cold that has ceased to be felt, the deadening sense of life as a weight to be borne, not a strength to rejoice in. But they were not abject yet; there was one that loved them--their chief and their friend! Below their level was a deeper depth, in which, alas, lie many of like heart and, passions with them, trodden into the mire by Dives and his stewards!

The carts were small, with puny horses, long-tailed and droop-necked, in harness of more rope than leather. They had a look of old men, an aspect weirdly venerable, as of life and labour prolonged after due time, as of creatures kept from the grave and their last sleep to work a little longer. Scrambling up the steep places they were like that rare sea-bird which, unable to fly for shortness of wing, makes of its beak a third leg, to help it up the cliff: these horses seemed to make fifth legs of their necks and noses. The chief's horses alone, always at the service of the clan, looked well fed, well kept, and strong, and the clan was proud of them.

"And what news is there from Ian?" asked an old man of his chief.

"Not much news yet, but I hope for more soon. It will be so easy to let you hear all his letters, when we can meet any moment in the barn!"

"I fear he will be wanting us all to go after the rest!" said one of the women.

"There might be a worse thing!" answered her neighbour.

"A worse thing than leave the hills where we were born?--No! There is no worse for me! I trust in God I shall be buried where I grew up!"

"Then you will leave the hills sure enough!" said the chief.

"Not so sure, Macruadh! We shall rest in our graves till the resurrection!" said an old man.

"Only our bodies," returned Alister.

"Well, and what will my body be but myself! Much I would make of myself without my body! I will stay with my body, and let my soul step about, waiting for me, and craving a shot at the stags with the big branches! No, I won't be going from my own strath!"

"You would not like to be left in it alone, with none but unfriendly Sasunnachs about you--not one of your own people to close your eyes?"

"Indeed it would not be pleasant. But the winds would be the same; and the hills would be the same; and the smell of the earth would be the same; and they would be our own worms that came crawling over me to eat me! No; I won't leave the strath till I die--and I won't leave it then!"

"That is very well, John!" said the woman; "but if you were all day with your little ones--all of them all day looking hunger in your face, you would think it a blessed country wherever it was that gave you bread to put in their mouths!"

"And how to keep calling this home!" said another. "Why, it will soon be everywhere a crime to set foot on a hill, for frightening of the deer! I was walking last month in a part of the county I did not know, when I came to a wall that went out of my sight, seeming to go all round a big hill. I said to myself, 'Is no poor man to climb to heaven any more?' And with that I came to a bill stuck on a post, which answered me; for it said thus: 'Any well-dressed person, who will give his word not to leave the path, may have permission to go to the top of the hill, by applying to--'--I forget the name of the doorkeeper, but sure he was not of God, seeing his door was not to let a poor man in, but to keep him out!"

"They do well to starve us before they choke us: we might else fight when it comes to the air to breathe!"

"Have patience, my sons," said the chief. "God will not forget us."

"What better are we for that? It would be all the same if he did forget us!" growled a young fellow shambling along without shoes.

"Shame! Shame!" cried several voices. "Has not God left us the Macruadh? Does he not share everything with us?"

"The best coat in the clan is on his own back!" muttered the lad, careless whether he were heard or not.

"You scoundrel!" cried another; "yours is a warmer one!"

The chief heard all, and held his peace. It was true he had the best coat!

"I tell you what," said Donal shoemaker, "if the chief give you the stick, not one of us will say it was more than you deserved! If he will put it into my hands, not to defile his own, I will take and give it with all my heart. Everybody knows you for the idlest vagabond in the village! Why, the chief with his own hands works ten times as much!"

"That's how he takes the bread out of my mouth--doing his work himself!" rejoined the youth, who had been to Glasgow, and thought he had learned a thing or two.

The chief recovered from his impulse to pull off his coat and give it him.

"I will make you an offer, my lad," he said instead: "come to the farm and take my place. For every fair day's work you shall have a fair day's wages, and, for every bit of idleness, a fair thrashing. Do you agree?"

The youth pretended to laugh the thing off, but slunk away, and was seen no more till eating time arrived, and "Lady Macruadh's" well-filled baskets were opened.

"And who wouldn't see a better coat on his chief!" cried the little tailor. "I would clip my own to make lappets for his!"

They reached the moss. It lay in a fold of the hills, desert and dreary, full of great hollows and holes whence the peat had been taken, now filled with water, black and terrible,--a land hideous by day, and at night full of danger and lonely horror. Everywhere stood piles of peats set up to dry, with many openings through and through, windy drains to gather and remove their moisture. Here and there was a tuft of dry grass, a bush of heather, or a few slender-stalked, hoary heads of CANNACH or cotton-grass; it was a land of devoted desolation, doing nothing for itself, this bountiful store of life and warmth for the winter-sieged houses of the strath.

They went heartily to work. They cut turf for their walls and peats for their fires; they loaded the carts from the driest piles, and made new piles of the fresh wet peats they dug. It was approaching noon, and some of the old women were getting the food out of "my lady's" baskets, when over the nearest ridge beyond rose men to the number of seven, carrying guns. Rob of the Angels was the first to spy them. He pointed them out to his father, and presently they two disappeared together. The rest went on with their work, but the chief could see that, stooping to their labour, they cast upward and sidelong glances at them, reading hostility in their approach. Suddenly, as by common consent, they all ceased working, stood erect, and looked out like men on their guard. But the chief making them a sign, they resumed their labour as if they saw nothing.

Mr. Peregrine Palmer had laid it upon himself to act with becoming calmness and dignity. But it would amaze most people to be told how little their order is self-restraint, their regular conduct their own--how much of the savage and how little of the civilized man goes to form their being--how much their decent behaviour is owing to the moral pressure, like that of the atmosphere, of the laws and persons and habits and opinions that surround them. Witness how many, who seemed respectable people at home, become vulgar, self- indulgent, ruffianly, cruel even, in the wilder parts of the colonies! No man who has not, through restraint, learned not to need restraint, but be as well behaved among savages as in society, has yet become a true man. No perfection of mere civilization kills the savage in a man: the savage is there all the time till the man pass through the birth from above. Till then, he is no certain hiding-place from the wind, no sure covert from the tempest.

Mr. Palmer was in the worst of positions as to protection against himself. Possessed of large property, he owed his position to evil and not to good. Not only had he done nothing to raise those through whom he made his money, but the very making of their money his, was plunging them deeper and deeper in poverty and vice: his success was the ruin of many. Yet was he full of his own imagined importance--or had been full until now that he felt a worm at the root of his gourd--the contempt of one man for his wealth and position. Well might such a man hate such another--and the more that his daughter loved him! All the chief's schemes and ways were founded on such opposite principles to his own that of necessity they annoyed him at every point, and, incapable of perceiving their true nature, he imagined his annoyance their object and end. And now here was his enemy insolently daring, as Mr. Palmer fully believed, to trespass in person on his land!

Add to all this, that here Mr. Peregrine Palmer was in a place whose remoteness lightened the pressure of conventional restraints, while its wildness tended to rouse all the old savage in him--its very look suggesting to the city-man its fitness for an unlawful deed for a lawful end. Persons more RESPECTABLE than Mr. Palmer are capable of doing the most wicked and lawless things when their selfish sense of their own right is uppermost. Witness the occasionally iniquitous judgments of country magistrates in their own interest--how they drive law even to cruelty!

"Are you not aware you are trespassing on my land, Macruadh?" cried the new laird, across several holes full of black water which obstructed his nearer approach.

"On the contrary, Mr. Palmer," replied the chief, "I am perfectly aware that I am not!"

"You have no right to cut peats there without my permission!"

"I beg your pardon: you have no right to stand where you speak the words without my permission. But you are quite welcome."

"I am satisfied there is not a word of truth in what you say," rejoined Mr. Palmer. "I desire you to order your people away at once."

"That I cannot do. It would be to require their consent to die of cold."

"Let them die! What are they to me--or to anybody! Order them off, or it will be the worse for them--and for you too!"

"Excuse me; I cannot."

"I give you one more warning. Go yourself, and they will follow."

"I will not."

"Go, or I will compel you."

As he spoke, he half raised his gun.

"You dare not!" said the chief, drawing himself up indignantly.

Together Mr. Palmer and Mr. Sercombe raised their guns to their shoulders, and one of them fired. To give Mr. Palmer the benefit of a doubt, he was not quite at home with his gun, and would use a hair-trigger. The same instant each found himself, breath and consciousness equally scant, floundering, gun and all, in the black bog water on whose edge he had stood. There now stood Rob of the Angels, gazing after them into the depth, with the look of an avenging seraph, his father beside him, grim as a gratified Fate.

Such a roar of rage rose from the clansmen with the shot, and so many came bounding with sticks and spades over the rough ground, that the keepers, knowing, if each killed his two men, they would not after escape with their lives, judged it more prudent to wait orders. Only Valentine came running in terror to the help of his father.

"Don't be frightened," said Rob; "we only wanted to wet their powder!"

"But they'll be drowned!" cried the lad, almost weeping.

"Not a hair of them!" answered Bob. "We'll have them out in a moment! But please tell your men, if they dare to lift a gun, we'll serve them the same. It wets the horn, and it cools the man!"

A minute more, and the two men lay coughing and gasping on the crumbly bank, for in their utter surprizal they had let more of the nasty soft water inside than was good for them. With his first breath Sercombe began to swear.

"Drop that, sir, if you please," said Rob, "or in you go again!"

He began to reply with a volley of oaths, but began only, for the same instant the black water was again choking him. Might Hector of the Stags have had his way, he would have kept there the murderer of AN CABRACH MOR till he had to be dived for. Rob on his part was determined he should not come out until he gave his word that he would not swear.

"Come! Come!" gasped Sercombe at length, after many attempts to get out which, the bystanders easily foiled--" you don't mean to drown me, do you?"

"We mean to drown your bad language. Promise to use no more on this peat-moss," returned Rob.

"Damn the promise you get from me!" he gasped.

"Men must have patience with a suffering brother!" remarked Bob, and seated himself, with a few words in Gaelic which drew a hearty laugh from the men about him, on a heap of turf to watch the unyielding flounder in the peat-hole, where there was no room to swim. He had begun to think the man would drown in his contumacy, when his ears welcomed the despairing words--

"Take me out, and I will promise anything."

He was scarcely able to move till one of the keepers gave him whisky, but in a few minutes he was crawling homeward after his host, who, parent of little streams, was doing his best to walk over rocks and through bogs with the help of Valentine's arm, chattering rather than muttering something about "proper legal fashion."

In the mean time the chief lay shot in the right arm and chest, but not dangerously wounded by the scattering lead.

He had lost a good deal of blood, and was faint--a sensation new to him. The women had done what they could, but that was only binding his arm, laying him in a dry place, and giving him water. He would not let them recall the men till the enemy was gone.

When they knew what had happened they were in sad trouble--Rob of the Angels especially that he had not been quick enough to prevent the firing of the gun. The chief would have him get the shot out of his arm with his knife; but Rob, instead, started off at full speed, running as no man else in the county could run, to fetch the doctor to the castle.

At the chief's desire, they made a hurried meal, and then resumed the loading of the carts, preparing one of them for his transport. When it was half full, they covered the peats with a layer of dry elastic turf, then made on that a bed of heather, tops uppermost; and more to please them than that he could not walk, Alister consented to be laid on this luxurious invalid-carriage, and borne home over the rough roads like a disabled warrior.

They arrived some time before the doctor.

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