What's Mine's Mind - vol.1

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I have already said that the young men had not done well as hunters. They had neither experience nor trustworthy attendance: none of the chief's men would hunt with them. They looked on them as intruders, and those who did not share in their chiefs dislike to useless killing, yet respected it. Neither Christian nor Sercombe had yet shot a single stag, and the time was drawing nigh when they must return, the one to Glasgow, the other to London. To have no proof of prowess to display was humbling to Sercombe; he must show a stag's head, or hide his own! He resolved, therefore, one of the next moonlit nights, to stalk by himself a certain great, wide-horned stag, of whose habits he had received information.

At Oxford, where Valentine made his acquaintance, Sercombe belonged to a fast set, but had distinguished himself notwithstanding as an athlete. He was a great favourite with a few, not the best of the set, and admired by many for his confidence, his stature, and his regular features. These latter wore, however, a self-assertion which of others made him much disliked: a mean thing in itself, it had the meanest origin--the ability, namely, to spend money, for he was the favourite son of a rich banker in London. He knew nothing of the first business of life--self-restraint, had never denied himself anything, and but for social influences would, in manhood as infancy, have obeyed every impulse. He was one of the merest slaves in the universe, a slave in his very essence, for he counted wrong to others freedom for himself, and the rejection of the laws of his own being, liberty. The most righteous interference was insolence; his likings were his rights, and any devil that could whisper him a desire, might do with him as he pleased. From such a man every true nature shrinks with involuntary recoil, and a sick sense of the inhuman. But I have said more of him already than my history requires, and more than many a reader, partaking himself of his character to an unsuspected degree, will believe; for such men cannot know themselves. He had not yet in the eyes of the world disgraced himself: it takes a good many disgraceful things to bring a rich man to outward disgrace.

His sole attendant when shooting was a clever vagabond lad belonging to nowhere in particular, and living by any crook except the shepherd's. From him he heard of the great stag, and the spots which in the valleys he frequented, often scraping away the snow with his feet to get at the grass. He did not inform him that the animal was a special favourite with the chief of Clanruadh, or that the clan looked upon him. as their live symbol, the very stag represented as crest to the chief's coat of arms. It was the same Nancy had reported to her master as eating grass on the burn-side in the moonlight. Christian and Sercombe had stalked him day after day, but without success. And now, with one poor remaining hope, the latter had determined to stalk him at night. To despoil him of his life, his glorious rush over the mountain side, his plunge into the valley, and fierce strain up the opposing hill; to see that ideal of strength, suppleness, and joyous flight, lie nerveless and flaccid at his feet; to be able to call the thicket-like antlers of the splendid animal his own, was for the time the one ambition of Hilary Sercombe; for he was of the brood of Mephistopheles, the child of darkness, whose delight lies in undoing what God has done--the nearest that any evil power can come to creating.

There was, however, a reason for the failure of the young hunters beyond lack of skill and what they called their ill-luck. Hector of the Stags was awake; his keen, everywhere-roving eyes were upon them, seconded by the keen, all-hearkening ears of Bob of the Angels. They had discovered that the two men had set their hearts on the big stag, an cabrach mor by right of excellence, and every time they were out after him, Hector too was out with his spy-glass, the gift of an old sea-faring friend, searching the billowy hills. While, the southrons would be toiling along to get the wind of him unseen, for the old stag's eyes were as keen as his velvety nose, the father and son would be lying, perhaps close at hand, perhaps far away on some hill-side of another valley, watching now the hunters, now the stag. For love of the Macruadh, and for love of the stag, they had constituted themselves his guardians. Again and again when one of them thought he was going to have a splendid chance--perhaps just as, having reached a rock to which he had been making his weary way over stones and bogs like Satan through chaos, and raised himself with weary slowness, he peeped at last over the top, and lo, there he was, well within range, quietly feeding, nought between the great pumping of his big joyous heart and the hot bullet but the brown skin behind his left shoulder!--a distant shot would forestall the nigh one, a shot for life, not death, and the stag, knowing instantly by wondrous combination of sense and judgment in what quarter lay the danger, would, without once looking round, measure straight a hundred yards of hillocks and rocks between the sight-taking and the pulling of the trigger. Another time it would be no shot, but the bark of a dog, the cry of a moorfowl, or a signal from watching hind that started him; for the creatures understand each the other's cries, and when an animal sees one of any sort on the watch to warn covey or herd or flock of its own kind, it will itself keep no watch, but feed in security. To Christian and Sercombe it seemed as if all the life in the glen were in conspiracy to frustrate their hearts' desire; and the latter at least grew ever the more determined to kill the great stag: he had begun to hate him.

The sounds that warned the stag were by no means always what they seemed, those of other wild animals; they were often hut imitations by Bob of the Angels. I fear the animal grew somewhat bolder and less careful from the assurance thus given him that he was watched over, and cultivated a little nonchalance. Not a moment, however, did he neglect any warning from quarter soever, but from peaceful feeder was instantaneously wind-like fleer, his great horns thrown back over his shoulders, and his four legs just touching the ground with elastic hoof, or tucking themselves almost out of sight as he skipped rather than leaped over rock and gully, stone and bush--whatever lay betwixt him and larger room. Great joy it was to his two guardians to see him, and great game to watch the motions of his discomfited enemies. For the sake of an cabrach Hector and Bob would go hungry for hours. But they never imagined the luxurious Sasunnach, incapable, as they thought, of hardship or sustained fatigue, would turn from his warm bed to stalk the lordly animal betwixt snow and moon.

One night, Hector of the Stags found he could not sleep. It was not for cold, for the night was for the season a mild one. The snow indeed lay deep around their dwelling, but they owed not a little of its warmth to the snow. It drifted up all about it, and kept off the terrible winds that swept along the side of the hill, like sharp swift scythes of death. They were in the largest and most comfortable of their huts--a deepish hollow in the limestone rock, lined with turf, and with wattles filled in with heather, the tops outward; its front a thick wall of turf, with a tolerable door of deal. It was indeed so snug as to be far from airy. Here they kept what little store of anything they had--some dried fish and venison; a barrel of oat-meal, seldom filled full; a few skins of wild creatures, and powder, ball, and shot.

After many fruitless attempts to catch the still fleeting vapour sleep, raising himself at last on his elbow, Hector found that Rob was not by his side.

He too had been unable to sleep, and at last discovered that he was uneasy about something-what, he could not tell. He rose and went out. The moon was shining very clear, and as there was much snow, the night, if not so bright as day, was yet brighter than many a day. The moon, the snow, the mountains, all dreaming awake, seemed to Rob the same as usual; but presently he fancied the hillside opposite had come nearer than usual: there must be a reason for that! He searched every yard of it with keenest gaze, but saw nothing.

They were high above Glenruadh, and commanded parts of it: late though it was, Rob thought he saw some light from the New House, which itself he could not see, reflected from some shadowed evergreen in the shrubbery. He was thinking some one might be ill, and he ought to run down and See whether a messenger was wanted, when his father joined him. He had brought his telescope, and immediately began to sweep the moonlight on the opposite hill. In a moment he touched Rob on the shoulder, and handed him the telescope, pointing with it. Rob looked and saw a dark speck on the snow, moving along the hill-side. It was the big stag. Now and then he would stop to snuff and search for a mouthful, but was evidently making for one of his feeding-places--most likely that by the burn on the chief's land. The light! could it imply danger? He had heard the young men were going to leave: were they about to attempt a last assault on the glory of the glen? He pointed out to his father the dim light in the shadow of the house. Hector turned his telescope thitherward, immediately gave the glass to Bob, went into the hut, and came out again with his gun. They had not gone far when they lost sight of the stag, but they held on towards the castle. At every point whence a peep could be had in the direction of the house, they halted to reconnoitre: if enemies were abroad, they must, if possible, get and keep sight of them. They did not stop for more than a glance, however, but made for the valley as fast as they could walk: the noise of running feet would, on such a still night, be heard too far. The whole way, without sound uttered, father and son kept interchanging ideas on the matter.

From thorough acquaintance with the habits of the animal, they were pretty certain he was on his way to the haunt aforementioned: if he got there, he would be safe; it was the chiefs ground, and no one would dare touch him. But he was not yet upon it, and was in danger; while, if he should leave the spot in any westward direction, he would almost at once be out of sanctuary! If they found him therefore at his usual feed, and danger threatening, they must scare him eastward; if no peril seemed at hand, they would watch him a while, that he might feed in safety. Swift and all but soundless on their quiet brogs they paced along: to startle the deer while the hunter was far off, might be to drive him within range of his shot.

They reached the root of the spur, and approached the castle; immediately beyond that, they would be in sight of the feeding ground. But they were yet behind it when Rob of the Angels bounded forward in terror at the sound of a gun. His father, however, who was in front, was off before him. Neither hearing anything, nor seeing Rob, he knew that a shot had been fired, and, caution being now useless, was in a moment at full speed. The smoke of the shot hung white in the moonlight over the end of the ridge. No red bulk shadowed the green pasture, no thicket of horns went shaking about over the sod. No lord of creation, but an enemy of life, stood regarding his work, a tumbled heap of death, yet saying to himself, like God when he made the world, "It is good." The noble creature lay disformed on the grass; shot through the heart he had leaped high in the air, fallen with his head under him, and broken his neck.

Rage filled the heart of Hector of the Stags. He could not curse, but he gave a roar like a wild beast, and raised his gun. But Rob of the Angels caught it ere it reached his shoulder. He yielded it, and, with another roar like a lion, bounded bare-handed upon the enemy. He took the descent in three leaps, and the burn in one. It was not merely that the enemy had killed an cabrach mor, the great stag of their love; he had killed him on the chief's own land! under the very eyes of the man whose business it was to watch over him! It was an offence unpardonable! an insult as well as a wrong to his chief! In the fierce majesty of righteous wrath he threw himself on the poacher. Sercombe met him with a blow straight from the shoulder, and he dropped.

Rob of the Angels, close behind him, threw down the gun. The devil all but got into Rob of the Angels. His knife flashed pale in the moonlight, and he darted on the Sasunnach. It would then have gone ill with the bigger man, for Bob was lithe as a snake, swift not only to parry and dodge but to strike; he could not have reached the body of his antagonist, but Sercombe's arm would have had at least one terrible gash from his skean-dhu, sharp as a razor, had not, at the moment, from the top of the ridge come the stern voice of the chief. Rob's knife, like Excalibur from the hand of Sir Bedivere, "made lightnings in the splendour of the moon," as he threw it from him, and himself down by his father. Then Hector came to himself and rose. Rob rose also; and his father, trembling with excitement, stood grasping his arm, for he saw the stalwart form of his chief on the ridge above them. Alister had been waked by the gun, and at the roar of his friend Hector, sprang from his bed. When he saw his beloved stag dead on his pasture, he came down the ridge like an avalanche.

Sercombe stood on his defence, wondering what devil was to pay, but beginning to think he might be in some wrong box. He had taken no trouble to understand the boundaries between Mr. Peregrine Palmer's land and that of the chief, and had imagined himself safe on the south side of the big burn.

Alister gazed speechless for a moment on the slaughtered stag, and heaved a great sigh.

"Mr. Sercombe," he said, "I would rather you had shot my best horse! Are you aware, sir, that you are a poacher?"

"I had supposed the appellation inapplicable to a gentleman!" answered Sercombe, with entire coolness. "But by all means take me before a magistrate."

"You are before a magistrate."

"All I have to answer then is, that I should not have shot the animal had I not believed myself within my rights."

"On that point, and on this very ground, I instructed you myself!" said the chief.

"I misunderstood you."

"Say rather you had not the courtesy to heed what I told you-had not faith enough to take the word of a gentleman! And for this my poor stag has suffered!"

He stood for some moments in conflict with himself, then quietly resumed.

"Of course, Mr. Sercombe, I have no intention of pushing the matter!" he said.

"I should hope not!" returned Sercombe scornfully. "I will pay whatever you choose to set on the brute."

It would be hard to say which was less agreeable to the chief-to have his stag called a brute, or be offered blood-money for him.

"Stag Ruadh priced like a bullock!" he said, with a slow smile, full of sadness; "--the pride of every child in the strath! Not a gentleman in the county would have shot Clanruadh's deer!"

Sercombe was by this time feeling uncomfortable, and it made him angry. He muttered something about superstition.

"He was taken when a calf," the chief went on, "and given to a great-aunt of mine. But when he grew up, he took to the hills again, and was known by his silver collar till he managed to rid himself of it. He shall he buried where he lies, and his monument shall tell how the stranger Sasunnach served the stag of Clanruadh!"

"Why the deuce didn't you keep the precious monster in a paddock, and let people know him for a tame animal?" sneered Sercombe.

"My poor Euadh!" said the chief; "he was no tame animal! He as well as I would have preferred the death you have given him to such a fate. He lived while he lived! I thank you for his immediate transit. Shot right through the heart! Had you maimed him I should have been angrier."

Sercombe felt flattered, and, attributing the chief's gentleness to a desire to please him, began to condescend.

"Well, come now, Macruadh!" he began; but the chief turned from him.

Hector stood with his arm on Rob's shoulder, and the tears rolling down his cheeks. He would not have wept but that the sobs of his son shook him.

"Rob of the Angels," Alister said in their mother-tongue, "you must make an apology to the Sasunnach gentleman for drawing the knife on him. That was wrong, if he had killed all the deer in Benruadh."

"It was not for that, Macruadh," answered Rob of the Angels. "It was because he struck my father, and laid a better man than himself on the grass."

The chief turned to the Englishman. "Did the old man strike you, Mr. Sercombe?"

"No, by Jove! I took a little care of that! If he had, I would have broke every bone in his body!"

"Why did you strike him then?"

"Because he rushed at me."

"It was his duty to capture a poacher!--But you did not know he was deaf and dumb!" Alister added, as some excuse.

"The deaf makes no difference!" protested Bob. "Hector of the Stags does not fight with his hands like a woman!"

"Well, what's done is done!" laughed Sercombe. "It wasn't a bad shot anyhow!"

"You have little to plume yourself upon, Mr. Sercombe!" said the chief. "You are a good shot, but you need not have been so frightened at an old man as to knock him down!"

"Come, come, Macruadh! enough's enough! It's time to drop this!" returned Sercombe. "I can't stand much more of it!--Take ten pounds for the head!--Come!"

The chief made one great stride towards him, but turned away, and said,

"Come along, Rob! Tell your father you must not go up the hill again to-night."

"No, sir," answered Bob; "there's nothing now to go up the hill for! Poor old Buadh! God rest his soul!"

"Amen!" responded the chief; "but say rather, 'God give him room to run!'"

"Amen! It is better.--But," added Kob, "we must watch by the body. The foxes and hooded crows are gathering already--I hear them on the hills; and I saw a sea-eagle as white as silver yesterday! We cannot leave Ruadh till he is iznder God's plaid!"

"Then one of you come and fetch food and fire," said the chief. "I will be with you early."

Father and son communicated in silence, and Rob went with the chief.

"They worship the stag, these peasants, as the old Egyptians the bull!" said Sercombe to himself, walking home full of contempt.

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