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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWhat's Mine's Mine - Volume 2 - Chapter 8. The Stag's Head
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What's Mine's Mine - Volume 2 - Chapter 8. The Stag's Head Post by :goldsto Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :1221

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What's Mine's Mine - Volume 2 - Chapter 8. The Stag's Head


Alister went straight to his brother's room, his heart bursting with indignation. It was some time before Ian could get the story from him in plain consecution; every other moment he would diverge into fierce denunciations.

"Hadn't you better tell your master what has happened?" at length said Ian. "He ought to know why you curse one of your fellows so bitterly."

Alister was dumb. For a moment he looked aghast.

"Ian!" he said: "You think he wants to be told anything? I always thought you believed in his divinity!"

"Ah!" returned Ian, "but do you? How am I to imagine it, when you go on like that in his hearing? Is it so you acknowledge his presence?"

"Oh, Ian! you don't know how it tortures me to think of that interloper, the low brute, killing the big stag, the Macruadh stag-and on my land too! I feel as if I could tear him in pieces. But for him I would have killed him on the spot! It is hard if I may not let off my rage even to you!"

"Let it off to him, Alister; he will give you fairer play than your small brother; he understands you better than I."

"But I could not let it off to him that way!"

"Then that is not a good way. The justice that, even in imagination, would tear and destroy and avenge, may be justice, but it is devil's justice. Come, begin now, and tell me all quietly-as if you had read it in a book."

"Word for word, then, with all the imprecations! "returned Alister, a little cooler; and Ian was soon in possession of the story.

"Now what do you think, Ian?" said the chief, ending a recital true to the very letter, and in a measure calm, but at various points revealing, by the merest dip of the surface, the boiling of the floods beneath.

"You must send him the head, Alister," answered Ian.

"Send-what-who-I don't understand you, Ian!" returned the chief, bewildered.

"Oh, well, never mind!" said Ian. "You will think of it presently!"

And therewith he turned his face to the wall, as if he would go to sleep.

It had been a thing understood betwixt the brothers, and that from so far back in the golden haze of childhood that the beginning of it was out of sight, that, the moment one of them turned his back, not a word more was to be said, until he who thus dropped the subject, chose to resume it: to break this unspoken compact would have been to break one of the strands in the ancient bond of their most fast brotherhood. Alister therefore went at once to his room, leaving Ian loving him hard, and praying for him with his face to the wall. He went as one knowing well the storm he was about to encounter, but never before had he had such a storm to meet.

He closed the door, and sat down on the side of his bed like one stunned. He did not doubt, yet could hardly allow he believed, that Ian, his oracle, had in verity told him to send the antlers of his cabrach mor, the late live type of his ancient crest, the pride of Clanruadh, to the vile fellow of a Sasunnach who had sent out into the deep the joyous soul of the fierce, bare mountains.

There were rushings to and fro in the spirit of Alister, wild and terrible, even as those in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. He never closed his eyes, but fought with himself all the night, until the morning broke. Could this thing be indeed his duty? And if not his duty, was he called to do it from mere bravado of goodness? How frightfully would not such an action be misunderstood by such a man! What could he take it for but a mean currying of favour with him! Why should he move to please such a fellow! Ian was too hard upon him! The more he yielded, the more Ian demanded! Every time it was something harder than the last! And why did he turn his face to the wall? Was he not fit to be argued with! Was he one that would not listen to reason! He had never known Ian ungenerous till now!

But all the time there lay at his door a thing calling out to be done! The thing he did not like was always the thing he had to do! he grumbled; but this thing he hated doing! It was abominable! What! send the grand head, with its horns spread wide like a half-moon, and leaning--like oaks from a precipice--send it to the man that made it a dead thing! Never! It must not be left behind! It must go to the grave with the fleet limbs! and over it should rise a monument, at sight of which every friendly highlandman would say, Feiich an cabracli mor de Clanruadli! What a mockery of fate to be exposed for ever to the vulgar Cockney gaze, the trophy of a fool, whose boast was to kill! Such a noble beast! Such a mean man! To mutilate his remains for the pride of the wretch who killed him! It was too horrible!

He thought and thought-until at last he lay powerless to think any more. But it is not always the devil that enters in when a man ceases to think. God forbid! The cessation of thought gives opportunity for setting the true soul thinking from another quarter. Suddenly Alister remembered a conversation he had had with Ian a day or two before. He had been saying to Ian that he could not understand what Jesus meant when he said, "Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also;" and was dissatisfied with the way Ian had answered him. "You must explain it to yourself," Ian said. He replied, "If I could do that, I should not have to ask you." "There are many things," Ian rejoined, "--arithmetic is one--that can be understood only in the doing of them." "But how can I do a thing without understanding it?" objected Alister. "When you have an opportunity of doing this very thing," said Ian, "do it, and see what will follow!" At the time he thought Ian was refusing to come to the point, and was annoyingly indefinite and illogical; but now it struck him that here was the opportunity of which he had spoken.

"I see!" he said to himself. "It is not want of understanding that is in the way now! A thing cannot look hateful and reasonable at the same moment! This may be just the sort of thing Jesus meant! Even if I be in the right, I have a right to yield my right--and to HIM I will yield it. That was why Ian turned his face to the wall: he wanted me to discover that here was my opportunity! How but in the name of Jesus Christ could he have dared tell me to forgive Ruadh's death by sending his head to his murderer! It has to be done! I've got to do it! Here is my chance of turning the other cheek and being hurt again! What can come of it is no business of mine! To return evil is just to do a fresh evil! It MAY make the man ashamed of himself! It cannot hurt the stag; it only hurts my pride, and I owe my pride nothing! Why should not the fellow have what satisfaction he may--something to show for his shot! He shall have the head."

Thereupon rushed into his heart the joy of giving up, of deliverance from self; and pity, to leaven his contempt, awoke for Sercombe. No sooner had he yielded his pride, than he felt it possible to love the man--not for anything he was, but for what he might and must be.

"God let the man kill the stag," he said; "I will let him have the head."

Again and yet again swelled afresh the tide of wrath and unwillingness, making him feel as if he could not carry out his resolve; but all the time he knew the thing was as good as done--absolutely determined, so that nothing could turn it aside.

"To yield where one may, is the prerogative of liberty!" he said to himself. "God only can give; who would be his child must yield! Abroad in the fields of air, as Paul and the love of God make me hope, what will the wind-battling Ruadh care for his old head! Would he not say, 'Let the man have it; my hour was come, or the Some One would not have let him kill me!'?"

Thus argued the chief while the darkness endured--and as soon as the morning began to break, rose, took spade and pick and great knife, and went where Hector and Rob were watching the slain.

It was bitterly cold. The burn crept silent under a continuous bridge of ice. The grass-blades were crisp with frost. The ground was so hard it met iron like iron.

He sent the men to get their breakfast from Nancy: none but himself should do the last offices for Ruadh! With skilful hand he separated and laid aside the head--in sacrifice to the living God. Then the hard earth rang with mighty blows of the pickaxe. The labour was severe, and long ere the grave was deep enough, Hector and Rob had returned; but the chief would not get out of it to give them any share in the work. When he laid hold of the body, they did not offer to help him; they understood the heart of their chief. Not without a last pang that he could not lay the head beside it, he began to shovel in the frozen clods, and then at length allowed them to take a part. When the grave was full, they rolled great stones upon it, that it might not be desecrated. Then the chief went back to his room, and proceeded to prepare the head, that, as the sacrifice, so should be the gift.

"I suppose he would like glass eyes, the ruffian!" he muttered to himself, "but I will not have the mockery. I will fill the sockets and sew up the eyelids, and the face shall be as of one that sleeps."

Haying done all, and written certain directions for temporary treatment, which he tied to an ear, he laid the head aside till the evening.

All the day long, not a word concerning it passed between the brothers; but when evening came, Alister, with a blue cotton handkerchief in his hand, hiding the head as far as the roots of the huge horns, asked Ian to go for a walk. They went straight to the New House. Alister left the head at the door, with his compliments to Mr. Sercombe.

As soon as they were out of sight of the house, Ian put his arm through his brother's, but did not speak.

"I know now about turning the other cheek!" said Alister. "--Poor Euadh!"

"Leave him to the God that made the great head and nimble feet of him," said Ian. "A God that did not care for what he had made, how should we believe in! but he who cares for the dying sparrow, may be trusted with the dead stag."

"Truly, yes," returned Alister.

"Let us sit down," said Ian, "and I will sing you a song I made last night; I could not sleep after you left me."

Without reply, Alister took a stone by the wayside, and Ian one a couple of yards from him. This was his song.


Love, the baby,
Toddled out to pluck a flower;
One said, "No, sir;" one said, "Maybe,
At the evening hour!"

Love, the boy,
Joined the boys and girls at play;
But he left them half his joy
Ere the close of day.

Love, the youth,
Roamed the country, lightning-laden;
But he hurt himself, and, sooth,
Many a man and maiden!

Love, the man,
Sought a service all about;
But he would not take their plan,
So they cast him out.

Love, the aged,
Walking, bowed, the shadeless miles,
Bead a volume many-paged,
Full of tears and smiles.

Love, the weary,
Tottered down the shelving road:
At its foot, lo, night the starry
Meeting him from God!

"Love, the holy!"
Sang a music in her dome,
Sang it softly, sang it slowly,
"--Love is coming home!"

Ere the week was out, there stood above the dead stag a growing cairn, to this day called Carn a' cabrach mor. It took ten men with levers to roll one of the boulders at its base. Men still cast stones upon it as they pass.

The next morning came a note to the cottage, in which Sercombe thanked the Macruadh for changing his mind, and said that, although he was indeed glad to have secured such a splendid head, he would certainly have stalked another deer, had he known the chief set such store by the one in question.

It was handed to Alister as he sat at his second breakfast with his mother and Ian: even in winter he was out of the house by six o'clock, to set his men to work, and take his own share. He read to the end of the first page with curling lip; the moment he turned the leaf, he sprang from his seat with an exclamation that startled his mother.

"The hound!--I beg my good dogs' pardon, one and all!" he cried. "--Look at this, Ian! See what comes of taking your advice!"

"My dear fellow, I gave you no advice that had the least regard to the consequence of following it! That was the one thing you had nothing to do with."

"READA," insisted Alister, as he pranced about the room. "No, don't read the letter; it's not worth, reading. Look at the paper in it."

Ian looked, and saw a cheque for ten pounds. He burst into loud laughter.

"Poor Ruadh's horns! they're hardly so long as their owner's ears!" he said.

"I told you so!" cried the chief.

"No, Alister! You never suspected such a donkey!"

"What is it all about?" asked the mother.

"The wretch who shot Ruadh," replied Alister, "--to whom I gave his head, all to please Ian,--"

"Alister!" said Ian.

The chief understood, and retracted.

"--no, not to please Ian, but to do what Ian showed me was right:--I believe it was my duty!--I hope it was!--here's the murdering fellow sends me a cheque for ten pounds!--I told you, Ian, he offered me ten pounds over the dead body!"

"I daresay the poor fellow was sorely puzzled what to do, and appealed to everybody in the house for advice!"

"You take the cheque to represent the combined wisdom of the New House?"

"You must have puzzled them all!" persisted Ian. "How could people with no principle beyond that of keeping to a bargain, understand you otherwise! First, you perform an action such persons think degrading: you carry a fellow's bag for a shilling, and then himself for nothing! Next, in the very fury of indignation with a man for killing the finest stag in the country on your meadow, you carry him home the head with your own hands! It all comes of that unlucky divine motion of yours to do good that good may come! That shilling of Mistress Conal's is at the root of it all!"

Ian laughed again, and right heartily. The chief was too angry to enter into the humour of the thing.

"Upon my word, Ian, it is too bad of you! What ARE you laughing at? It would become you better to tell me what I am to do! Am I free to break the rascal's bones?"

"Assuredly not, after that affair with the bag!"

"Oh, damn the bag!--I beg your pardon, mother."

"Am I to believe my ears, Alister?"

"What does it matter, mother? What harm can it do the bag? I wished no evil to any creature!"

"It was the more foolish."

"I grant it, mother. But you don't know what a relief it is sometimes to swear a little!--You are quite wrong, Ian; it all comes of giving him the head!"

"You wish you had not given it him?"

"No!" growled Alister, as from a pent volcano.

"You will break my ears, Alister!" cried the mother, unable to keep from laughing at the wrath in which he went straining through the room.

"Think of it," insisted Ian: "a man like could not think otherwise without a revolution of his whole being to which the change of the leopard's spots would he nothing.--What you meant, after all, was not cordiality; it was only generosity; to which his response, his countercheck friendly, was an order for ten pounds!--All is right between you!"

"Now, really, Ian, you must not go on teasing your elder brother so!" said the mother.

Alister laughed, and ceased fuming. "But I must answer the brute!" he said. "What am I to say to him?"

"That you are much obliged," replied Ian, "and will have the cheque framed and hung in the hall."

"Come, come! no more of that!"

"Well, then, let me answer the letter."

"That is just what I wanted!"

Ian sat down at his mother's table, and this is what he wrote.

"Dear sir,--My brother desires me to return the cheque which you unhappily thought it right to send him. Humanity is subject to mistake, but I am sorry for the individual who could so misunderstand his courtesy. I have the honour to remain, sir, your obedient servant, Ian Macruadh."

As Ian guessed, the matter had been openly discussed at the New House; and the money was sent with the approval of all except the two young ladies. They had seen the young men in circumstances more favourable to the understanding of them by ordinary people.

"Why didn't the chief write himself?" said Christian.

"Oh," replied Sercombe, "his little brother had been to school, and could write better!"

Christina and Mercy exchanged glances.

"I will tell you," Mercy said, "why Mr. lau answered the note: the chief had done with you!"

"Or," suggested Christina, "the chief was in such a rage that he would write nothing but a challenge."

"I wish to goodness he had! It would have given me the chance of giving the clodhopper a lesson."

"For sending you the finest stag's head and horns in the country!" remarked Mercy.

"I shot the stag! Perhaps you don't believe I shot him!"

"Indeed I do! No one else would have done it. The chief would have died sooner!"

"I'm sick of your chief!" said Christian. "A pretty chief without a penny to bless himself! A chief, and glad of the job of carrying a carpet-bag! You'll be calling him MY LORD, next!"

"He may at least write BARONET after his name when he pleases," returned Mercy.

"Why don't he then? A likely story!"

"Because," answered Christina, "both his father and himself were ashamed of how the first baronet got his title. It had to do with the sale of a part of the property, and they counted the land the clan's as well as the chief's. They regarded it as an act of treachery to put the clan in the power of a stranger, and the chief looks on the title as a brand of shame."

"I don't question the treachery," said Christian. "A highlander is treacherous."

Christina had asked a friend in Glasgow to find out for her anything known among the lawyers concerning the Macruadhs, and what she had just recounted was a part of the information she had thereby received.

Thenceforward silence covered the whole transaction. Sercombe neither returned the head, sent an apology, nor recognized the gift. That he had shot the stag was enough!

But these things wrought shaping the idea of the brothers in the minds of the sisters, and they were beginning to feel a strange confidence in them, such as they had never had in men before. A curious little halo began to shimmer about the heads of the young men in the picture-gallery of the girls' fancy. Not the less, however, did they regard them as enthusiasts, unfitted to this world, incapable of self-protection, too good to live--in a word, unpractical! Because a man would live according to the laws of his being as well as of his body, obeying simple, imperative, essential human necessity, his fellows forsooth call him UNPRACTICAL! Of the idiotic delusions of the children of this world, that of being practical is one of the most ludicrous.

Here is a translation, made by Ian, of one of Alister's Gaelic songs.


A bright drop of water
In the gold tire
Of a sun's daughter
Was laughing to her sire;

And from all the flowers about,
That never toiled or spun,
The soul of each looked out,
Clear laughing to the sun.

I saw them unfolding
Their hearts every one!
Every soul holding
Within it the sun!

But all the sun-mirrors
Vanished anon;
And their flowers, mere starers,
Grew dry in the sun.

"My soul is but water,
Shining and gone!
She is but the daughter,"
I said, "of the sun!"

My soul sat her down
In a deep-shaded gloom;
Her glory was flown,
Her earth was a tomb,

Till night came and caught her,
And then out she shone;
And I knew her no daughter
Of that shining sun--

Till night came down and taught her
Of a glory yet unknown;
And I knew my soul the daughter
Of a sun behind the sun.

Back, back to him that wrought her
My soul shall haste and run;
Straight back to him, his daughter,
To the sun behind the sun.

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