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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWhat's Mine's Mine - Volume 3 - Chapter 9. The Marches
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What's Mine's Mine - Volume 3 - Chapter 9. The Marches Post by :paulwoodley Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :3479

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What's Mine's Mine - Volume 3 - Chapter 9. The Marches

VOLUME III CHAPTER IX. THE MARCHES

It was plainly of no use for the chief to attempt mollifying Mr. Palmer. So long as it was possible for him to be what he was, it must be impossible for him to understand the conscience that compelled the chief to refuse participation in the results of his life. Where a man's own conscience is content, how shall he listen to the remonstrance of another man's! But even if he could have understood that the offence was unavoidable, that would rather have increased than diminished the pain of the hurt; as it was, the chief's determination must seem to Mr. Palmer an unprovoked insult! Thus reflecting, Alister tried all he could to be fair to the man whom he had driven to cut his acquaintance.

It was now a lonely time for Alister, lonelier than any ever before. Ian was not within reach even by letter; Mercy was shut up from him: he had not seen or heard from her since writing his explanation; and his mother did not sympathize with his dearest earthly desire: she would be greatly relieved, yea heartily glad, if Mercy was denied him! She loved Ian more than the chief, yet could have better borne to see him the husband of Mercy; what was wanting to the equality of her love was in this regard more than balanced by her respect for the chief of the clan and head of the family. Alister's light was thus left to burn in very darkness, that it might burn the better; for as strength is made perfect through weakness, so does the light, within grow by darkness. It was the people that sat in darkness that saw a great light. He was brought closer than ever to first principles; had to think and judge more than ever of the right thing to do--first of all, the right thing with regard to Mercy. Of giving her up, there was of course no thought; so long as she would be his, he was hers as entirely as the bonds of any marriage could make him! But she owed something to her father! and of all men the patriarchal chief was the last to dare interfere with the RIGHTS of a father. BUT THEY MUST BE RIGHTS, not rights turned into, or founded upon wrongs. With the first in acknowledging true, he would not be with the last even, in yielding to false rights! The question was, what were the rights of a father? One thing was clear, that it was the duty, therefore the right of a father, to prevent his child from giving herself away before she could know what she did; and Mercy was not yet of age. That one woman might be capable of knowing at fifteen, and another not at fifty, left untouched the necessity for fixing a limit. It was his own duty and right, on the other hand, to do what he could to prevent her from being in any way deceived concerning him. It was essential that nothing should be done, resolved, or yielded, by the girl, through any misunderstanding he could forestall, or because of any falsehood he could frustrate. He must therefore contrive to hold some communication with her!

First of all, however, he must learn how she was treated! It was not only in fiction or the ancient clan-histories that tyrannical and cruel things were done! A tragedy is even more a tragedy that it has not much diversity of incident, that it is acted in commonplace surroundings, and that the agents of it are commonplace persons-- fathers and mothers acting from the best of low or selfish motives. Where either Mammon or Society is worshipped, in love, longing, or fear, there is room for any falsehood, any cruelty, any suffering.

There were several of the clan employed about the New House of whom Alister might have sought information; but he was of another construction from the man of fashion in the old plays, whose first love-strategy is always to bribe the lady's maid: the chief scorned to learn anything through those of a man's own household. He fired a gun, and ran up a flag on the old castle, which brought Rob of the Angels at full speed, and comforted the heart of Mercy sitting disconsolate at her window: it was her chiefs doing, and might have to do with her!

Having told Rob the state of matters between him and the New House--

"I need not desire you, Rob," he concluded, "to be silent! You may of course let your father know, but never a soul besides. From this moment, every hour your father does not actually need you, be somewhere on the hills where you can see the New House. I want to learn first whether she goes out at all. With the dark you must draw nearer the house. But I will have no questioning of the servants or anyone employed about it; I will never use a man's pay to thwart his plans, nor yet make any man even unconsciously a traitor."

Rob understood and departed; but before he had news for his master an event occurred which superseded his service.

The neighbours, Mr. Peregrine Palmer and Mr. Brander, had begun to enclose their joint estates for a deer-forest, and had engaged men to act as curators. They were from the neighbourhood, but none of them belonged to Strathruadh, and not one knew the boundaries of the district they had to patrol; nor indeed were the boundaries everywhere precisely determined: why should they be, where all was heather and rock? Until game-sprinkled space grew valuable, who would care whether this or that lump of limestone, rooted in the solid earth, were the actual property of the one or the other! Either would make the other welcome to blast and cart it away!

There was just one person who knew all about the boundaries that was to be known; he could not in places draw their lines with absolute assurance, but he had better grounds for his conclusions than anyone else could have; this was Hector of the Stags. For who so likely to understand them as he who knew the surface within them as well as the clay-floor of his own hut? If he did not everywhere know where the marchline fell, at least he knew perfectly where it ought to fall.

It happened just at this time that THE MISTRESS told Hector she would be glad of a deer, intending to cure part for winter use; the next day, therefore,--the first of Rob of the Angels' secret service--he stalked one across the hill-farm, got a shot at it near the cave-house, brought it down, and was busy breaking it, when two men who had come creeping up behind, threw themselves upon him, and managed, well for themselves, to secure him before he had a chance of defending himself. Finding he was deaf and dumb, one of them knew who he must be, and would have let him go; but the other, eager to ingratiate himself with the new laird, used such, argument to the contrary as prevailed with his companion, and they set out for the New House, Hector between them with his hands tied. Annoyed and angry at being thus treated like a malefactor, he yet found amusement in the notion of their mistake. But he found it awkward to be unable to use that readiest weapon of human defence, the tongue. If only his EARS AND MOUTH, as he called Rob in their own speech, had been with him! When he saw, however, where they were taking him, he was comforted, for Rob was almost certain to see him: wherever he was, he was watching the New House! He went composedly along with them therefore, fuming and snorting, not caring to escape.

When Rob caught sight of the three, he could not think how it was that his father walked so unlike himself. He could not be hurt, for his step was strong and steady as ever; not the less was there something of the rhythm gone out of his motion! there was "a broken music" in his gait! He took the telescope which the chief had lent him, and turned it upon him. Discovering then that his father's hands were bound behind his back, fiercest indignation overwhelmed the soul of Rob of the Angels. His father bound like a criminal!--his father, the best of men! What could the devils mean? Ah, they were taking him to the New House! He shut up his telescope, laid it down by a stone, and bounded to meet them, sharpening his knife on his hand as he went.

The moment they were near enough, signs, unintelligible to the keepers, began to pass between the father and son: Rob's meant that he must let him pass unnoticed; Hector's that he understood. So, with but the usual salutation of a stranger, Rob passed them. The same moment he turned, and with one swift sweep of his knife, severed the bonds of his father. The old man stepped back, and father and son stood fronting the enemy.

"Now," said Eob, "if you are honest men, stand to it! How dared you bind Hector of the Stags?"

"Because he is not an honest man," replied one of them.

Rob answered him with a blow. The man made at him, but Hector stepped between.

"Say that again of my father," cried Rob, "who has no speech to defend himself, and I will drive my knife into you."

"We are only doing our duty!" said the other. "We came upon him there cutting up the deer he had just killed on the new laird's land."

"Who are you to say which is the stranger's, and which the Macruadh's? Neither my father nor I have ever seen the faces of you in the country! Will you pretend to know the marches better than my father, who was born and bred in the heather, and knows every stone on the face of the hills?"

"We can't help where he was born or what he knows! he was on our land!"

"He is the Macruadh's keeper, and was on his own land. You will get yourselves into trouble!"

"We'll take our chance!"

"Take your man then!"

"If he try to escape, I swear by the bones of my grandfather," said the more inimical of the two, inheritor of a clan-feud with the Macruadhs, "I will shoot him."

Bob of the Angels burst into a scornful laugh.

"You will! will you?"

"I will not kill him; I don't want to be hanged for him! but I will empty my shot-barrel into the legs of him! So take your chance; you are warned!"

They had Hector's gun, and Rob had no weapon but his knife. Nor was he inclined to use either now he had cooled a little. He turned to his father. The old man understood perfectly what had passed between them, and signed to Rob that he would go on to the New House, and Rob might run and let the chief know what had happened. The same thing was in Rob's mind, for he saw how it would favour the desires of his chief, bringing them all naturally about the place. But he must first go with his father on the chance of learning something.

"We will go with you," he said.

"We don't want YOU!"

"But I mean to go!--My father is not able to speak for himself!"

"You know nothing."

"I know what he knows. The lie does not grow in our strath."

"You crow high, my cock!"

"No higher than I strike," answered Rob.

In the eyes of the men Rob was small and weak; but there was something in him notwithstanding that looked dangerous, and, though far from cowards, they thought it as well to leave him alone.

Mercy at her window, where was her usual seat now, saw them coming, and instinctively connected their appearance with her father's new measures of protection; and when the men turned toward the kitchen, she ran down to learn what she could. Rob greeted her with a smile as he entered.

"I am going to fetch the Macruadh," he whispered, and turning went out again.

He told the chief that at the word her face lighted up as with the rise of the moon.

One of the maids went and told her master that they had got a poacher in the kitchen.

Mr. Palmer's eyes lightened under his black brows when he saw the captive, whom he knew by sight and by report. His men told him the story their own way, never hinting a doubt as to whose was the land on which the deer had been killed.

"Where is the nearest magistrate?" he inquired with grand severity.

"The nearest is the Macruadh, sir!" answered a highlander who had come from work in the garden to see what was going on.

"I cannot apply to him; the fellow is one of his own men!"

"The Macruadh does what is just!" rejoined the man.

His master vouchsafed him no reply. He would not show his wrath against the chief: it would be undignified!

"Take him to the tool-house, and lock him up till I think what to do with him. Bring me the key."

The butler led the way, and Hector followed between his captors. They might have been showing him to his bed-room, so calm was he: Bob gone to fetch the chief, his imprisonment could not last!--and for the indignity, was he not in the right!

As Mr. Palmer left the kitchen, his eye fell on Mercy.

"Go to your room," he said angrily, and turned from her.

She obeyed in silence, consoling herself that from her window she could see the arrival of the chief. Nor had she watched long when she saw him coming along the road with Rob. At the gate she lost sight of them. Presently she heard voices in the hall, and crept down the stair far enough to hear.

"I could commit you for a breach of the peace, Mr. Palmer," she heard the chief say. "You ought to have brought the man to me. As a magistrate I order his release. But I give my word he shall be forthcoming when legally required."

"Your word is no bail. The man was taken poaching; I have him, and I will keep him."

"Let me see him then, that I may learn from himself where he shot the deer."

"He shall go before Mr. Brander."

"Then I beg you will take him at once. I will go with him. But listen a moment, Mr. Palmer. When this same man, my keeper, took your guest poaching on my ground, I let Mr. Sercombe go. I could have committed him as you would commit Hector. I ask you in return to let Hector go. Being deaf and dumb, and the hills the joy of his life, confinement will be terrible to him."

"I will do nothing of the kind. You could never have committed a gentleman for a mistake. This is quite a different thing!"

"It is a different thing, for Hector cannot have made a mistake. He could not have followed a deer on to your ground without knowing it!"

"I make no question of that!"

"He says he was not on your property."

"Says!"

"He is not a man to lie!"

Mr. Palmer smiled.

"Once more I pray you, let us see him together."

"You shall not see him."

"Then take him at once before Mr. Brander."

"Mr. Brander is not at home."

"Take him before SOME magistrate--I care not who. There is Mr. Chisholm!"

"I will take him when and where it suits me."

"Then as a magistrate I will set him at liberty. I am sorry to make myself unpleasant to you. Of all things I would have avoided it. But I cannot let the man suffer unjustly. Where have you put him?"

"Where you will not find him."

"He is one of my people; I must have him!"

"Your people! A set of idle, poaching fellows! By heaven, the strath shall be rid of the pack of them before another year is out!"

"While I have land in it with room for them to stand upon, the strath shall not be rid of them!--But this is idle! Where have you put Hector of the Stags?"

Mr. Palmer laughed.

"In safe keeping. There is no occasion to be uneasy about him! He shall have plenty to eat and drink, be well punished, and show the rest of the rascals the way out of the country!"

"Then I must find him! You compel me!"

So saying, the chief, with intent to begin his search at the top of the house in the hope of seeing Mercy, darted up the stair. She heard him coming, went a few steps higher, and waited. On the landing he saw her, white, with flashing eyes. Their hands clasped each other--for a moment only, but the moment was of eternity, not of time.

"You will find Hector in the tool-house," she said aloud.

"You shameless hussey!" cried her father, following the chief in a fury.

Mercy ran up the stair. The chief turned and faced Mr. Palmer.

"You have no business in my house!"

"I have the right of a magistrate."

"You have no right. Leave it at once."

"Allow me to pass."

"You ought to be ashamed of yourself--making a girl turn traitor to her own father!"

"You ought to be proud of a daughter with the conscience and courage to turn against you!"

The chief passed Mr. Palmer, and running down the stair, joined Rob of the Angels where he stood at the door in a group composed of the keepers and most of the servants.

"Do you know the tool-house?" he said to Rob.

"Yes, Macruadh."

"Lead the way then. Your father is there."

"On no account let them open the door," cried Mr. Palmer. "They may hold through it what communication they please."

"You will not be saying much to a deaf man through inch boards!" remarked the clansman from the garden.

Mr. Palmer hurried after them, and his men followed.

Alister found the door fast and solid, without handle. He turned a look on his companion, and was about to run his weight against the lock.

"It is too strong," said Rob. "Hector of the Stags must open it!"

"But how? You cannot even let him know what you want!"

Rob gave a smile, and going up to the door, laid himself against it, as close as he could stand, with his face upon it, and so stood silent.

Mr. Palmer coming up with his attendants, all stood for a few moments in silence, wondering at Rob: he must be holding communication with his father--but how?

Sounds began inside--first a tumbling of tools about, then an attack on the lock.

"Come! come! this won't do!" said Mr. Palmer, approaching the door.

"Prevent it then," said the chief. "Do what you will you cannot make him hear you, and while the door is between you, he cannot see you! If you do not open it, he will!"

"Run," said Mr. Palmer to the butler; "you will find the key on my table! I don't want the lock ruined!"

But there was no stopping the thing! Before the butler came back, the lock fell, the door opened, and out came Hector, wiping his brow with his sleeve, and looking as if he enjoyed the fun.

The keepers darted forward.

"Stand off!" said the chief stepping between. "I don't want to hurt you, but if you attempt to lay hands on him, I will."

One of the men dodged round, and laid hold of Hector from behind; the other made a move towards him in front. Hector stood motionless for an instant, watching his chief, but when he saw him knock down the man before him, he had his own assailant by the throat in an instant, gave him a shake, and threw him beside his companion.

"You shall suffer for this, Macruadh!" cried Mr. Palmer, coming close up to him, and speaking in a low, determined tone, carrying a conviction of unchangeableness.

"Better leave what may not be the worst alone!" returned the chief. "It is of no use telling you how sorry I am to have to make myself disagreeable to you; but I give you fair warning that I will accept no refusal of the hand of your daughter from any but herself. As you have chosen to break with me, I accept your declaration of war, and tell you plainly I will do all I can to win your daughter, never asking your leave in respect of anything I may think it well to do. You will find there are stronger forces in the world than money. Henceforward I hold myself clear of any personal obligation to you except as Mercy's father and my enemy."

From very rage Mr. Palmer was incapable of answering him. Alister turned from him, and in his excitement mechanically followed Rob, who was turning a corner of the house. It was not the way to the gate, but Rob had seen Mercy peeping round that same corner--anxious in truth about her father; she feared nothing for Alister.

He came at once upon Mercy and Rob talking together. Rob withdrew and joined his father a little way off; they retired a few more paces, and stood waiting their chief's orders.

"How AM I to see you again, Mercy?" said the chief hurriedly. "Can't you think of some way? Think quick."

Now Mercy, as she sat alone at her window, had not unfrequently imagined the chief standing below on the walk, or just beyond in the belt of shrubbery; and now once more in her mind's eye suddenly seeing him there, she answered hurriedly,

"Come under my window to-night."

"I do not know which it is."

"You see it from the castle. I will put a candle in it."

"What hour?"

"ANY time after midnight. I will sit there till you come."

"Thank you," said the chief, and departed with his attendants.

Mercy hastened into the house by a back door, but had to cross the hall to reach the stair. As she ran up, her father came in at the front door, saw her, and called her. She went down again to meet the tempest of his rage, which now broke upon her in gathered fury. He called her a treacherous, unnatural child, with every name he thought bad enough to characterize her conduct. Had she been to him as Began or Goneril, he could hardly have found worse names for her. She stood pale, but looked him in the face. Her mother came trembling as near as she dared, withered by her terror to almost twice her age. Mr. Palmer in his fury took a step towards Mercy as if he would strike her. Mercy did not move a muscle, but stood ready for the blow. Then love overcame her fear, and the wife and mother threw herself between, her arms round her husband, as if rather to protect him from the deed than her daughter from its hurt.

"Go to your room, Mercy," she said.

Mercy turned and went. She could not understand herself. She used to be afraid of her father when she knew no reason; now that all the bad in his nature and breeding took form and utterance, she found herself calm! But the thing that quieted her was in reality her sorrow that he should carry himself so wildly. What she thought was, if the mere sense of not being in the wrong made one able to endure so much, what must not the truth's sake enable one to bear! She sat down at her window to gaze and brood.

When her father cooled down, he was annoyed with himself, not that he had been unjust, but that he had behaved with so little dignity. With brows black as evil, he sat degraded in his own eyes, resenting the degradation on his daughter. Every time he thought of her, new rage arose in his heart. He had been proud of his family autocracy. So seldom had it been necessary to enforce his authority, that he never doubted his wishes had but to be known to be obeyed. Born tyrannical, the characterless submission of his wife had nourished the tyrannical in him. Now, all at once, a daughter, the ugly one, from whom no credit was to be looked for, dared to defy him for a clown figuring in a worn-out rag of chieftainship--the musty fiction of a clan--half a dozen shepherds, crofters, weavers, and shoemakers, not the shadow of a gentleman among them!--a man who ate brose, went with bare knees, worked like any hind, and did not dare offend his wretched relations by calling his paltry farm his own!--for the sake of such a fellow, with a highland twang that disgusted his fastidious ear, his own daughter made a mock of his authority, treated him as a nobody! In his own house she had risen against him, and betrayed him to the insults of his enemy! His conscious importance, partly from doubt in itself, boiled and fumed, bubbled and steamed in the caldron of his angry brain. Not one, but many suns would go down upon such a wrath!

"I wish I might never set eyes on the girl again!" he said to his wife. "A small enough loss the sight of her would be, the ugly, common-looking thing! I beg you will save me from it in future as much as you can. She makes me feel as if I should go out of my mind!--so calm, forsooth! so meek! so self-sufficient!--oh, quite a saint!--and so strong-minded!--equal to throwing her father over for a fellow she never saw till a year ago!"

"She shall have her dinner sent up to her as usual," answered his wife with a sigh. "But, really, Peregrine, my dear, you must compose yourself! Love has driven many a woman to extremes!"

"Love! Why should she love such a fellow? I see nothing in him to love! WHY should she love him? Tell me that! Give me one good reason for her folly, and I will forgive her--do anything for her!-- anything but let her have the rascal! That I WILL NOT! Take for your son-in-law an ape that loathes your money, calls it filthy lucre--and means it! Not if I can help it!--Don't let me see her! I shall come to hate her! and that I would rather not; a man must love and cherish his own flesh! I shall go away, I must!--to get rid of the hateful face of the minx, with its selfrighteous, injured look staring at you!"

"If you do, you can't expect me to prevent her from seeing him!"

"Lock her up in the coal-hole--bury her if you like! I shall never ask what you have done with her! Never to see her again is all I care about!"

"Ah, if she were really dead, you would want to see her again--after a while!"

"I wish then she was dead, that I might want to see her again! It won't be sooner! Ten times rather than know her married to that beast, I would see her dead and buried!"

The mother held her peace. He did not mean it, she said to herself. It was only his anger! But he did mean it; at that moment he would with joy have heard the earth fall on her coffin.

Notwithstanding her faculty for shutting out the painful, her persistent self-assuring that it would blow over, and her confidence that things would by and by resume their course, Mrs. Palmer was in those days very unhappy. The former quiet once restored, she would take Mercy in hand, and reasoning with her, soon persuade her to what she pleased! It was her husband's severity that had brought it to this!

The accomplice of her husband, she did not understand that influence works only between such as inhabit the same spiritual sphere: the daughter had been lifted into a region far above all the arguments of her mother--arguments poor in life, and base in reach.

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