What's Mine's Mind - vol.1

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THE COUNTRY in removing from it its miserable inhabitants, whom the sentimental indulgence of their so-called chief kept contented with their poverty, and with whom interference must now enrage him. How he hated the whole wretched pack!

Mr. Palmer's doing of good to the country consisted in making the land yield more money into the pockets of Mr. Brander and himself by feeding wild animals instead of men. To tell such land-owners that they are simply running a tilt at the creative energy, can be of no use: they do not believe in God, however much they may protest and imagine they do.

The next day but one, he sent Mistress Conal the message that she must be out of her hut, goods and gear, within a fortnight. He was not sure that the thing was legally correct, but he would risk it. She might go to law if she would, but he would make a beginning with her! The chief might take up her quarrel if he chose: nothing would please Mr. Palmer more than to involve him in a law-suit, clear him out, and send him adrift! His money might be contemptible, but the chief should find it at least dangerous! Contempt would not stave off a land-slip!

Mistress Conal, with a rage and scorn that made her feel every inch a witch, and accompanied by her black cat, which might or might not be the innocent animal the neighbours did not think him, hurried to the Macruadh, and informed him that "the lowland thief" had given her notice to quit the house of her fathers within a fortnight.

"I fear much we cannot help it! the house is on his land!" said the chief sorrowfully.

"His land!" echoed the old woman. "Is the nest of the old eagle his land? Can he make his heather white or his ptarmigan black? Will he dry up the lochs, and stay the rivers? Will he remove the mountains from their places, or cause the generations of men to cease from the earth? Defend me, chief! I come to you for the help that was never sought in vain from the Macruadh!"

"What help I have is yours without the asking," returned the chief. "I cannot do more than is in my power! One thing only I can promise you--that you shall lack neither food nor shelter."

"My chief will abandon me to the wolf!" she cried.

"Never! But I can only protect you, not your house. He may have no right to turn you out at such short notice; but it could only be a matter of weeks. To go to law with him would but leave me without a roof to shelter you when your own was gone!"

"The dead would have shown him into the dark, ere he turned me into the cold!" she muttered, and turning, left him.

The chief was greatly troubled. He had heard nothing of such an intention on the part of his neighbour. Could it be for revenge? He had heard nothing yet of his answer to Mercy! All he could do was to represent to Mr. Palmer the trouble the poor woman was in, and let him know that the proceeding threatened would render him very unpopular in the strath. This he thought it best to do by letter.

It could not enrage Mr. Palmer more, but it enraged him afresh. He vowed that the moment the time was up, out the old witch should go, neck and crop; and with the help of Mr. Brander, provided men for the enforcement of his purpose who did not belong to the neighbourhood.

The chief kept hoping to hear from the New House, but neither his letter to Mercy nor to her father received any answer. How he wished for lan to tell him what he ought to do! His mother could not help him. He saw nothing for it but wait events.

Day after day passed, and he heard nothing. He would have tried to find out the state of things at the New House, but until war was declared that would not be right! Mr. Palmer might be seeking how with dignity to move in the matter, for certainly the chief had placed him in a position yet more unpleasant than his own! He must wait on!

The very day fortnight after the notice given, about three o'clock in the afternoon, came flying to the chief a ragged little urchin of the village, too breathless almost to make intelligible his news--that there were men at Mistress Conal's who would not go out of her house, and she and her old black cat were swearing at them.

The chief ran: could the new laird be actually unhousing the aged, helpless woman? It was the part of a devil and not of a man! As he neared the place--there were her poor possessions already on the roadside!--her one chair and stool, her bedding, her three-footed pot, her girdle, her big chest, all that she could call hers in the world! and when he came in sight of the cottage, there she was being brought out of it, struggling, screaming, and cursing, in the grasp of two men! Fierce in its glow was the torrent of Gaelic that rushed from the crater of her lips, molten in the volcanic depths of her indignant soul.

When one thinks of the appalling amount of rage exhausted by poor humans upon wrong, the energy of indignation, whether issued or suppressed, and how little it has done to right wrong, to draw acknowledgment or amends from self-satisfied insolence, he naturally asks what becomes of so much vital force. Can it fare differently from other forces, and be lost? The energy of evil is turned into the mill-race of good; but the wrath of man, even his righteous wrath, worketh not the righteousness of God! What becomes of it? If it be not lost, and have but changed its form, in what shape shall we look for it?

"Set her down," cried the chief. "I will take care of her."

When she heard the voice of her champion, the old woman let go a cat-like screech of triumph, and her gliding Gaelic, smoothness itself in articulation, flowed yet firier in word, and fiercer in tone. But the who were thus ejecting her--hangers on of the sheriff-court in the county town, employed to give a colour of law to the doubtful proceeding--did not know the chief.

"Oh, we'll set her down," answered one of them insolently, "--and glad enough too! but we'll have her on the public road with her sticks first!"

Infuriated by the man's disregard of her chief, Mistress Conal struck her nails into his face, and with a curse he flung her from him. She turned instantly on the other with the same argument ad hominem, and found herself staggering on her own weak limbs to a severe fall, when the chief caught and saved her. She struggled hard to break from him and rush again into the hut, declaring she would not leave it if they burned her alive in it, but he held her fast.

There was a pause, for one or two who had accompanied the men employed, knew the chief, and their reluctance to go on with the ruthless deed in his presence. influenced the rest. Report of the ejection had spread, and the neighbours came running from the village. A crowd seemed to be gathering. Again and again Mistress Conal tried to escape from Alister and rush into the cottage.

"You too, my chief!" she cried. "You turned against the poor of your people!"

"No, Mistress Conal," he answered. "I am too much your friend to let you kill yourself!"

"We have orders, Macruadh, to set fire to the hovel," said one of the men, touching his hat respectfully.

"They'll roast my black one!" shrieked the old woman.

"Small fear for him," said a man's voice from the little crowd, "if half be true--!"

Apparently the speaker dared no more.

"Fire won't singe a hair of him, Mistress Conal," said another voice. "You know it; he's used to it!"

"Come along, and let's get it over!" cried the leader of the ejection-party. "It--won't take many minutes once it's well a going, and there's fire enough on the hearth to set Ben Cruachan in a blaze!"

"Is everything out of it?" demanded the chief.

"All but her cat. We've done our best, sir, and searched everywhere, but he's not to be found. There's nothing else left."

"It's a lie!" screamed Mistress Conal. "Is there not a great pile of peats, carried on my own back from the moss! Ach, you robbers! Would you burn the good peats?"

"What good will the peats be to you, woman," said one of them not unkindly, "when you have no hearth?"

She gave a loud wail, but checked it.

"I will burn them on the road," she said. "They will keep me a few hours from the dark! When I die I will go straight up to God and implore his curse upon you, on your bed and board, your hands and tools, your body and soul. May your every prayer be lost in the wide murk, and never come at his ears! May--"

"Hush! hush!" interposed the chief with great gentleness. "You do not know what you are saying. But you do know who tells us to forgive our enemies!"

"It's well for HIM to forgive," she screamed, "sitting on his grand throne, and leaving me to be turned out of my blessed house, on to the cold road!"

"Nannie!" said the chief, calling her by her name, "because a man is unjust to you, is that a reason for you to be unjust to him who died for you? You know as well as he, that you will not be left out on the cold road. He knows, and so do you, that while I have a house over my head, there is a warm corner in it for you! And as for his sitting on his throne, you know that all these years he has been trying to take you up beside him, and can't get you to set your foot on the first step of it! Be ashamed of yourself, Nannie!"

She was silent.

"Bring out her peats," he said, turning to the bystanders; "we have small need, with winter on the road, to waste any of God's gifts!"

They obeyed. But as they carried them out, and down to the road, the number of Mistress Conal's friends kept growing, and a laying together of heads began, and a gathering of human fire under glooming eyebrows. It looked threatening. Suddenly Mistress Conal broke out in a wild yet awful speech, wherein truth indeed was the fuel, but earthly wrath supplied the prophetic fire. Her friends suspended their talk, and her foes their work, to listen.

English is by no means equally poetic with the Gaelic, regarded as a language, and ill-serves to represent her utterance. Much that seems natural in the one language, seems forced and unreal amidst the less imaginative forms of the other. I will nevertheless attempt in English what can prove little better than an imitation of her prophetic outpouring. It was like a sermon in this, that she began with a text:--

"Woe unto them," she said--and her voice sounded like the wind among the great stones of a hillside--" that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!"

This woe she followed with woe upon woe, and curse upon curse, now from the Bible, now from some old poem of the country, and now from the bitterness of her own heart. Then she broke out in purely native eloquence:--

"Who art thou, O man, born of a woman, to say to thy brother, 'Depart from this earth: here is no footing for thee: all the room had been taken for me ere thou wast heard of! What right hast thou in a world where I want room for the red deer, and the big sheep, and the brown cattle? Go up, thou infant bald-head! Is there not room above, in the fields of the air? Is there not room below with the dead? Verily there is none here upon the earth!' Who art thou, I say, to speak thus to thy fellow, as if he entered the world by another door than thyself! Because thou art rich, is he not also a man?--a man made in the image of the same God? Who but God sent him? And who but God, save thy father was indeed the devil, hath sent thee? Thou hast to make room for thy brother! What brother of thy house, when a child is born into it, would presume to say, 'Let him begone, and speedily! I do not want him! There is no room for him! I require it all for myself!' Wilt thou say of any man, 'He is not my brother,' when God says he is! If thou say, 'Am I therefore his keeper?' God for that saying will brand thee with the brand of Cain. Yea, the hour will come when those ye will not give room to breathe, will rise panting in the agony, yea fury of their need, and cry, 'If we may neither eat nor lie down by their leave, lo, we are strong! let us take what they will not give! If we die we but die!' Then shall there be blood to the knees of the fighting men, yea, to the horses' bridles; and the earth shall be left desolate because of you, foul feeders on the flesh and blood, on the bodies and souls of men! In the pit of hell you will find room enough, but no drop of water; and it will comfort you little that ye lived merrily among pining men! Which of us has coveted your silver or your gold? Which of us has stretched out the hand to take of your wheat or your barley? All we ask is room to live! But because ye would see the dust of the earth on the head of the poor, ye have crushed and straitened us till we are ready to cry out, 'God, for thy mercy's sake, let us die, lest we be guilty of our own blood!'"

A solitary man had come down the hill behind, and stood alone listening. It was the mover of the wickedness. In the old time the rights of the people in the land were fully recognized; but when the chiefs of Clanruadh sold it, they could not indeed sell the rights that were not theirs, but they forgot to secure them for the help- less, and they were now in the grasp of the selfish and greedy, the devourers of the poor. He did not understand a word the woman was saying, but he was pleased to look on her rage, and see the man who had insulted him suffer with her. When he began to note the glances of lurid fire which every now and then turned upon him during Mistress Conal's speech, he scorned the indication: such poor creatures dared venture nothing, he thought, against the mere appearance of law. Under what he counted the chiefs contempt, he had already grown worse; and the thought that perhaps the great world might one day look upon him with like contempt, wrought in him bitterly; he had not the assurance of rectitude which makes contempt hurtless. He was crueller now than before the chief's letter to his daughter.

When Mistress Conal saw him, she addressed herself to him directly. What he would have felt had he understood, I cannot tell. Never in this life did he know how the weak can despise the strong, how the poor can scorn the rich!

"Worm!" she said, "uncontent with holding the land, eating the earth that another may not share! the worms eat but what their bodies will hold, and thou canst devour but the fill of thy life! The hour is at hand when the earth will swallow thee, and thy fellow worms will eat thee, as thou hast eaten men. The possessions of thy brethren thou hast consumed, so that they are not! The holy and beautiful house of my fathers,--" She spoke of her poor little cottage, but in the words lay spiritual fact. "--mock not its poverty!" she went on, as if forestalling contempt; "for is it not to me a holy house where the woman lay in the agony whence first I opened my eyes to the sun? Is it not a holy house where my father prayed morning and evening, and read the words of grace and comfort? Is it not to me sacred as the cottage at Nazareth to the poor man who lived there with his peasants? And is not that a beautiful house in which a woman's ear did first listen to the words of love? Old and despised I am, but once I was younger than any of you, and ye will be old and decrepit as I, if the curse of God do not cut you off too soon. My Alister would have taken any two of you and knocked your heads together. He died fighting for his country; and for his sake the voice of man's love has never again entered my heart! I knew a true man, and could be true also. Would to God I were with him! You man-trapping, land-reaving, house-burning Sasunnach, do your worst! I care not." She ceased, and the spell was broken. "Come, come!" said one of the men impatiently. "Tom, you get a peat, and set it on the top of the wall, under the roof. You, too, George!--and be quick. Peats all around! there are plenty on the hearth!--How's the wind blowing?--You, Henry, make a few holes in the wall here, outside, and we'll set live peats in them. It's time there was an end to this!"

"You're right; but there's a better way to end it!" returned one of the clan, and gave him a shove that sent him to the ground.

"Men, do your duty!" cried Mr. Palmer from behind. "_I_ am here--to see you do it! Never mind the old woman! Of course she thinks it hard; but hard things have got to be done! it's the way of the world, and all for the best."

"Mr. Palmer," said another of the clan, "the old woman has the right of you: she and hers have lived there, in that cottage, for nigh a hundred years."

"She has no right. If she thinks she has, let her go to the law for it. In the meantime I choose to turn her off my land. What's mine's mine, as I mean every man jack of you to know--chief and beggar!"

The Macruadh walked up to him.

"Pardon me, sir," he said: "I doubt much if you have a legal right to disturb the poor woman. She has never paid rent for her hut, and it has always been looked upon as her property."

"Then the chief that sold it swindled both me and her!" stammered Mr. Palmer, white with rage. "But as for you who call yourself a chief, you are the most insolent, ill-bred fellow I ever had to do with, and I have not another word to say to you!"

A silence like that before a thunderstorm succeeded: not a man of the clan could for the moment trust his hearing. But there is nothing the Celtic nature resents like rudeness: half a dozen at once of the Macruadhs rushed upon the insulter of their chief, intent on his punishment.

"One of you touch him," cried Alister, "and I will knock him down. I would if he were my foster-brother!"

Each eager assailant stood like a block.

"Finish your work, men!" shouted Mr. Palmer.

To do him justice, he was no coward.

"Clansmen," said the chief, "let him have his way. I do not see how to resist the wrong without bringing more evil upon us than we can meet. We must leave it to him who says 'Vengeance is mine.'"

The Macruadhs murmured their obedience, and stood sullenly looking on. The disseizors went into the hut, and carried out the last of the fuel. Then they scooped holes in the turf walls, inside to leeward, outside to windward, and taking live peats from the hearth, put them in the holes. A few minutes, and poor Nannie's "holy and beautiful house" was a great fire.

When they began to apply the peats, Alister would at once have taken the old woman away, but he dreaded an outbreak, and lingered. When the fire began to run up the roof, Mistress Conal broke from him, and darted to the door. Every one rushed to seize her, Mr. Palmer with the rest.

"Blackie! Blackie! Blackie!" she shrieked like a madwoman.

While the men encumbered each other in their endeavours to get her away, down shot the cat from the blazing roof, a fizz of fire in his black fur, his tail as thick as his neck, an infernal howling screech of hatred in his horrible throat, and, wild with rage and fear, flung himself straight upon Mr. Palmer. A roar of delighted laughter burst forth. He bawled out--and his bawl was mingled with a scream--to take the brute off him, and his own men hurried to his rescue; but the fury-frantic animal had dug his claws and teeth into his face, and clung to him so that they had to choke him off. The chief caught up Mistress Conal and carried her away: there was no danger of any one hurting Mr. Palmer now!

He bore her on one arm like a child, and indeed she was not much heavier. But she kept her face turned and her eyes fixed on her burning home, and leaning over the shoulder of the chief, poured out, as he carried her farther and farther from the scene of the outrage, a flood of maledictory prophecy against the doers of the deed. The laird said never a word, never looked behind him, while she, almost tumbling down his back as she cursed with outstretched arms, deafened him with her raging. He walked steadily down the path to the road, where he stepped into the midst of her goods and chattels. The sight of them diverted a little the current of her wrath.

"Where are you going, Macruadh?" she cried, as he walked on. "See you not my property lying to the hand of the thief? Know you not that the greedy Sasunnach will sweep everything away!"

"I can't carry them and you too, Mistress Conal!" said the chief gayly.

"Set me down then. Who ever asked you to carry me! And where would you be carrying me? My place is with my things!"

"Your place is with me, Mistress Conal! I belong to you, and you belong to me, and I am taking you home to my mother."

At the word, silence fell, not on the lips, but on the soul of the raving prophetess: the chief she loved, his mother she feared.

"Set me down, Macruadh!" she pleaded in gentle tone. "Don't carry me to her empty-handed! Set me down straight; I will load my back with my goods, and bear them to my lady, and throw them at her feet."

"As soon as we get to the cottage," said the chief, striding on with his reluctant burden, "I will send up two men with wheelbarrows to bring them home."

"HOME, said you?" cried the old woman, and burst into the tearless wailing of a child; "there is a home for me no more! My house was all that was left me of my people, and it is your own that make a house a home! In the long winter nights, when I sat by the fire and heard the wind howl, and the snow pat, pat like the small hands of my little brothers on the window, my heart grew glad within me, and the dead came back to my soul! When I took the book, I heard the spirit of my father reading through my own lips! And oh, my mother! my mother!"

She ceased as if in despair.

"Surely, Nannie, you will be at home with your chief!" said Alister. "My house is your house now, and your dead will come to it and be welcome!"

"It is their chief's house, and they will!" she returned hopefully. "They loved their chief.--Shall we not make a fine clan when we're all gathered, we Macmadhs! Man nor woman can say I did anything to disgrace it!"

"Lest we should disgrace it," answered the chief, "we must bear with patience what is sent upon it."

He carried her into the drawing-room and told her story, then stood, to the delighted amusement of his mother, with his little old sister in his arms, waiting her orders, like a big boy carrying the baby, who now and then moaned a little, but did not speak.

Mrs. Macruadh called Nancy, and told her to bring the tea-tray, and then, get ready for Mistress Conal the room next Nancy's own, that she might be near to wait on her; and thither, when warmed and fed, the chief carried her.

But the terrible excitement had so thinned the mainspring of her time-watch, that it soon broke. She did not live many weeks. From the first she sank into great dejection, and her mind wandered. She said her father never came to see her now; that he was displeased with her for leaving the house; and that she knew now she ought to have stayed and been burned in it. The chief reminded her that she had no choice, but had been carried bodily away.

"Yes, yes," she answered; "but they do not know that! I must make haste and tell them! Who can bear her own people to think ill of her!--I'm coming! I'm coming! I'll tell you all about it! I'm an honest woman yet!"

Another thing troubled her sorely, for which she would hear no consolation; Blackie had vanished!--whether he was killed at the time of his onslaught on Mr. Palmer, or was afterwards shot; whether, disgusted with the treatment of his old home, or the memory of what he had there suffered, he had fled the strath, and gone to the wild cats among the hills, or back to the place which some averred he came from, no one could tell. In her wanderings she talked more of her cat than of anything else, and would say things that with some would have gone far to justify the belief that the animal was by nature on familiar terms with the element which had yet driven him from his temporary home.

Nancy was more than uneasy at having the witch so near, but by no means neglected her duty to her. One night she woke, and had for some time lain listening whether she stirred or not, when suddenly quavered through the dark the most horrible cat-cry she had ever heard. In abject terror she covered her head, and lay shuddering. The cry came again, and kept coming at regular intervals, but drawing nearer and nearer. Its expression was of intense and increasing pain. The creature whence it issued seemed to come close to the house, then with difficulty to scramble up on the roof, where it went on yowling, and screeching, and throwing itself about as if tying itself in knots, Nancy said, until at last it gave a great choking, gobbling scream, and fell to the ground, after which all was quiet. Persuading herself it was only a cat, she tried to sleep, and at length succeeded. When she woke in the morning, the first thing she did was to go out, fully expecting to find the cat lying at the foot of the wall. No cat was there. She went then as usual to attend to the old woman. Mistress Conal was dead and cold.

The clan followed her body to the grave, and the black cat was never seen.

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