Hugh had watched the green corn grow, and ear, and turn dim; then brighten to yellow, and ripen at last under the declining autumn sun, and the low skirting moon of the harvest, which seems too full and heavy with mellow and bountiful light to rise high above the fields which it comes to bless with perfection. The long threads, on each of which hung an oat-grain--the harvest here was mostly of oats--had got dry and brittle; and the grains began to spread out their chaff-wings, as if ready to fly, and rustled with sweet sounds against each other, as the wind, which used to billow the fields like the waves of the sea, now swept gently and tenderly over it, helping the sun and moon in the drying and ripening of the joy to be laid up for the dreary winter. Most graceful of all hung those delicate oats; next bowed the bearded barley; and stately and wealthy and strong stood the few fields of wheat, of a rich, ruddy, golden hue. Above the yellow harvest rose the purple hills, and above the hills the pale-blue autumnal sky, full of light and heat, but fading somewhat from the colour with which it deepened above the vanished days of summer. For the harvest here is much later than in England.
At length the day arrived when the sickle must be put into the barley, soon to be followed by the scythe in the oats. And now came the joy of labour. Everything else was abandoned for the harvest field. Books were thrown utterly aside; for, even when there was no fear of a change of weather to urge to labour prolonged beyond the natural hours, there was weariness enough in the work of the day to prevent even David from reading, in the hours of bodily rest, anything that necessitated mental labour.
Janet and Margaret betook themselves to the reaping-hook; and the somewhat pale face of the latter needed but a single day to change it to the real harvest hue--the brown livery of Ceres. But when the oats were attacked, then came the tug of war. The laird was in the fields from morning to night, and the boys would not stay behind; but, with their father's permission, much to the tutor's contentment, devoted what powers they had to the gathering of the fruits of the earth. Hugh himself, whose strength had grown amazingly during his stay at Turriepuffit, and who, though he was quite helpless at the sickle, thought he could wield the scythe, would not be behind. Throwing off coat and waistcoat, and tying his handkerchief tight round his loins, he laid hold on the emblematic weapon of Time and Death, determined likewise to earn the name of Reaper. He took the last scythe. It was desperate work for a while, and he was far behind the first bout; but David, who was the best scyther in the whole country side, and of course had the leading scythe, seeing the tutor dropping behind, put more power to his own arm, finished his own bout, and brought up Hugh's before the others had done sharpening their scythes for the next.
"Tak' care an' nae rax yersel' ower sair, Mr. Sutherlan'. Ye'll be up wi' the best o' them in a day or twa; but gin ye tyauve at it aboon yer strenth, ye'll be clean forfochten. Tak' a guid sweep wi' the scythe, 'at ye may hae the weicht o't to ca' through the strae, an' tak' nae shame at bein' hindmost. Here, Maggy, my doo, come an' gather to Mr. Sutherlan'. Ane o' the young gentlemen can tak' your place at the binin'."
The work of Janet and Margaret had been to form bands for the sheaves, by folding together cunningly the heads of two small handfuls of the corn, so as to make them long enough together to go round the sheaf; then to lay this down for the gatherer to place enough of the mown corn upon it; and last, to bind the band tightly around by another skilful twist and an insertion of the ends, and so form a sheaf. From this work David called his daughter, desirous of giving Hugh a gatherer who would not be disrespectful to his awkwardness. This arrangement, however, was far from pleasing to some of the young men in the field, and brought down upon Hugh, who was too hard-wrought to hear them at first, many sly hits of country wit and human contempt. There had been for some time great jealousy of his visits at David's cottage; for Margaret, though she had very little acquaintance with the young men of the neighbourhood, was greatly admired amongst them, and not regarded as so far above the station of many of them as to render aspiration useless. Their remarks to each other got louder and louder, till Hugh at last heard some of them, and could not help being annoyed, not by their wit or personality, but by the tone of contempt in which they were uttered.
"Tak' care o' yer legs, sir. It'll be ill cuttin' upo' stumps."
"Fegs! he's taen the wings aff o' a pairtrick."
"Gin he gang on that get, he'll cut twa bouts at ance."
"Ye'll hae the scythe ower the dyke, man. Tak' tent."
"Losh! sir; ye've taen aff my leg at the hip!"
"Ye're shavin' ower close: ye'll draw the bluid, sir."
"Hoot, man! lat alane. The gentleman's only mista'en his trade, an' imaigins he's howkin' a grave."
And so on. Hugh gave no further sign of hearing their remarks than lay in increased exertion. Looking round, however, he saw that Margaret was vexed, evidently not for her own sake. He smiled to her, to console her for his annoyance; and then, ambitious to remove the cause of it, made a fresh exertion, recovered all his distance, and was in his own place with the best of them at the end of the bout. But the smile that had passed between them did not escape unobserved; and he had aroused yet more the wrath of the youths, by threatening soon to rival them in the excellencies to which they had an especial claim. They had regarded him as an interloper, who had no right to captivate one of their rank by arts beyond their reach; but it was still less pardonable to dare them to a trial of skill with their own weapons. To the fire of this jealousy, the admiration of the laird added fuel; for he was delighted with the spirit with which Hugh laid himself to the scythe. But all the time, nothing was further from Hugh's thoughts than the idea of rivalry with them. Whatever he might have thought of Margaret in relation to himself, he never thought of her, though labouring in the same field with them, as in the least degree belonging to their class, or standing in any possible relation to them, except that of a common work.
In ordinary, the labourers would have had sufficient respect for Sutherland's superior position, to prevent them from giving such decided and articulate utterance to their feelings. But they were incited by the presence and example of a man of doubtful character from the neighbouring village, a travelled and clever ne'er-do-weel, whose reputation for wit was equalled by his reputation for courage and skill, as well as profligacy. Roused by the effervescence of his genius, they went on from one thing to another, till Hugh saw it must be put a stop to somehow, else he must abandon the field. They dared not have gone so far if David had been present; but he had been called away to superintend some operations in another part of the estate; and they paid no heed to the expostulations of some of the other older men. At the close of the day's work, therefore, Hugh walked up to this fellow, and said:
"I hope you will be satisfied with insulting me all to-day, and leave it alone to-morrow."
The man replied, with an oath and a gesture of rude contempt,
"I dinna care the black afore my nails for ony skelp-doup o' the lot o' ye."
Hugh's highland blood flew to his brain, and before the rascal finished his speech, he had measured his length on the stubble. He sprang to his feet in a fury, threw off the coat which he had just put on, and darted at Hugh, who had by this time recovered his coolness, and was besides, notwithstanding his unusual exertions, the more agile of the two. The other was heavier and more powerful. Hugh sprang aside, as he would have done from the rush of a bull, and again with a quick blow felled his antagonist. Beginning rather to enjoy punishing him, he now went in for it; and, before the other would yield, he had rendered his next day's labour somewhat doubtful. He withdrew, with no more injury to himself than a little water would remove. Janet and Margaret had left the field before he addressed the man.
He went borne and to bed--more weary than he had ever been in his life. Before he went to sleep, however, he made up his mind to say nothing of his encounter to David, but to leave him to hear of it from other sources. He could not help feeling a little anxious as to his judgment upon it. That the laird would approve, he hardly doubted; but for his opinion he cared very little.
"Dawvid, I wonner at ye," said Janet to her husband, the moment he came home, "to lat the young lad warstle himsel' deid that get wi' a scythe. His banes is but saft yet, There wasna a dry steek on him or he wan half the lenth o' the first bout. He's sair disjaskit, I'se warran'."
"Nae fear o' him, Janet; it'll do him guid. Mr. Sutherland's no feckless winlestrae o' a creater. Did he haud his ain at a' wi' the lave?"
"Haud his ain! Gin he be fit for onything the day, he maun be pitten neist yersel', or he'll cut the legs aff o' ony ither man i' the corn."
A glow of pleasure mantled in Margaret's face at her mother's praise of Hugh. Janet went on:
"But I was jist clean affronted wi' the way 'at the young chields behaved themselves till him."
"I thocht I heard a toot-moot o' that kin' afore I left, but I thocht it better to tak' nae notice o't. I'll be wi' ye a' day the morn though, an' I'm thinkin' I'll clap a rouch han' on their mou's 'at I hear ony mair o't frae."
But there was no occasion for interference on David's part. Hugh made his appearance--not, it is true, with the earliest in the hairst-rig, but after breakfast with the laird, who was delighted with the way in which he had handled his scythe the day before, and felt twice the respect for him in consequence. It must be confessed he felt very stiff, but the best treatment for stiffness being the homťopathic one of more work, he had soon restored the elasticity of his muscles, and lubricated his aching joints. His antagonist of the foregoing evening was nowhere to be seen; and the rest of the young men were shame-faced and respectful enough.
David, having learned from some of the spectators the facts of the combat, suddenly, as they were walking home together, held out his hand to Hugh, shook his hard, and said:
"Mr. Sutherlan', I'm sair obleeged to ye for giein' that vratch, Jamie Ogg, a guid doonsettin'. He's a coorse crater; but the warst maun hae meat, an' sae I didna like to refeese him when he cam for wark. But its a greater kin'ness to clout him nor to cleed him. They say ye made an awfu' munsie o' him. But it's to be houpit he'll live to thank ye. There's some fowk 'at can respeck no airgument but frae steekit neives; an' it's fell cruel to haud it frae them, gin ye hae't to gie them. I hae had eneuch ado to haud my ain han's aff o' the ted, but it comes a hantle better frae you, Mr. Sutherlan'."
Hugh wielded the scythe the whole of the harvest, and Margaret gathered to him. By the time it was over, leading-home and all, he measured an inch less about the waist, and two inches more about the shoulders; and was as brown as a berry, and as strong as an ox, or "owse," as David called it, when thus describing Mr. Sutherland's progress in corporal development; for he took a fatherly pride in the youth, to whom, at the same time, he looked up with submission, as his master in learning.