All the gentlemen at the New House left it together, and its ladies
were once more abandoned to the society of Nature, who said little
to any of them. For, though she recognized her grandchildren, and
did what she could for them, it was now time they should make some
move towards acquaintance with her. A point comes when she must
stand upon her dignity, for it is great. If you would hear her
wonderful tales, or see her marvellous treasures, you must not
trifle with her; you must not talk as if you could rummage her
drawers and cahinets as you pleased. You must believe in her; you
must reverence her; else, although she is everywhere about the
house, you may not meet her from the beginning of one year to the
end of another.
To allude to any aspect of nature in the presence of the girls was
to threaten to bore them; and I heartily confess to being bored
myself with common talk about scenery; but these ladies appeared
unaware of the least expression on the face of their grand-mother.
Doubtless they received some good from the aspect of things--that
they could not help; there Grannie's hidden, and therefore
irresistible power was in operation; but the moment they had their
thoughts directed to the world around them, they began to gape
inwardly. Even the trumpet and shawm of her winds, the stately march
of her clouds, and the torrent-rush of her waters, were to them
poor facts, no vaguest embodiment of truths eternal. It was small
wonder then that verse of any worth should be to them but sounding
brass and clanging cymbals. What they called society, its ways and
judgments, its decrees and condemnations, its fashions and pomps and
shows, false, unjust, ugly, was nearly all they cared for. The truth
of things, without care for which man or woman is the merest puppet,
had hitherto been nothing to them. To talk of Nature was
sentimental. To talk of God was both irreverent and ill-bred.
Wordsworth was an old woman; St. Paul an evangelical churchman. They
saw no feature of any truth, but, like all unthinkers, wrapped the
words of it in their own foolishness, and then sneered at them. They
were too much of ladies, however, to do it disagreeably; they only
smiled at the foolish neighbour who believed things they were too
sensible to believe. It must, however, be said for them, that they
had not yet refused anything worth believing--as presented to them.
They had not yet actually looked upon any truth and refused it. They
were indeed not yet true enough in themselves to suspect the
presence of either a truth or a falsehood.
A thaw came, and the ways were bad, and they found the time hang yet
heavier on their unaided hands. An intercourse by degrees
established itself between Mrs. Macruadh and the well-meaning,
handsome, smiling Mrs. Palmer, and rendered it natural for the girls
to go rather frequently to the cottage. They made themselves
agreeable to the mother, and subject to the law of her presence
showed to better advantage.
With their love of literature, it was natural also that the young
men should at such times not only talk about books, but occasionally
read for their entertainment from some favourite one; so that now,
for the first time in their lives, the young ladies were brought
under direct teaching of a worthy sort--they had had but a mockery
of it at school and church--and a little light began to soak through
their unseeking eyes. Among many others, however, less manifest, one
obstruction to their progress lay in the fact that Christina, whose
percep in some directions was quick enough, would always make a dart
at the comical side of anything that could be comically turned, so
disturbing upon occasion the whole spiritual atmosphere about some
delicate epiphany: this to both Alister and Ian was unbearable. She
offended chiefly in respect of Wordsworth--who had not humour enough
always to perceive what seriously meant expression might suggest a
One time, reading from the Excursion, Ian came to the verse--not to
be found, I think, in later editions--
"Perhaps it is not he but some one else":--
"Awful idea!" exclaimed Christina, with sepulchral tone; "--'some
one else!' Think of it! It makes me shudder! Who might it not have
Ian closed the book, and persistently refused to read more that day.
Another time he was reading, in illustration of something,
Wordsworth's poem, "To a Skylark," the earlier of the two with that
title: when he came to the unfortunate line,--
"Happy, happy liver!"--
"Oh, I am glad to know that!" cried Christina. "I always thought the
poor lark must have a bad digestion--he was up so early!"
Ian refused to finish the poem, although Mercy begged hard.
The next time they came, he proposed to "read something in Miss
Palmer's style," and taking up a volume of Hood, and avoiding both
his serious and the best of his comic poems, turned to two or three
of the worst he could find. After these he read a vulgar rime about
an execution, pretending to be largely amused, making flat jokes of
his own, and sometimes explaining elaborately where was no occasion.
"Ian!" said his mother at length; "have you bid farewell to your
"No, mother," he answered; "what I am doing is the merest
consequence of the way you brought us up."
"I don't understand that!" she returned.
"You always taught us to do the best we could for our visitors. So
when I fail to interest them, I try to amuse them."
"But you need not make a fool of yourself!"
"It is better to make a fool of myself, than let Miss Palmer make a
fool of--a great man!"
"Mr. Ian," said Christina, "it is not of yourself but of me you have
been making a fool.--I deserved it!" she added, and burst into
"Miss Palmer," said Ian, "I will drop my foolishness, if you will
drop your fun."
"I will," answered Christina.
And Ian read them the poem beginning--
"Three years she grew in sun and shower."
Scoffing at what is beautiful, is not necessarily a sign of evil; it
may only indicate stupidity or undevelopment: the beauty is not
perceived. But blame is often present in prolonged undevelopment.
Surely no one habitually obeying his conscience would long be left
without a visit from some shape of the beautiful!