Shenac's Work at Home
By Margaret Murray Robertson
SHENAC'S WORK AT HOME
BY MARGARET MURRAY ROBERTSON
A long time ago, something very sad happened in one of the districts of Scotland. I cannot tell you how it all came about, but a great many people were obliged to leave their homes where they and their forefathers had lived for many generations. A few scattered themselves through other parts of the country; a few went to the great towns to seek for a livelihood; but by far the greater number made up their minds to leave for ever the land of their birth, and rose in the new, strange world beyond the sea a home for themselves and their children.
I could never make you understand what a sorrowful time that was to these poor people, or how much they suffered in going away. For some of the old left children behind them, and some of the young left their parents, or brothers, or sisters; and all left the homes where they had lived through happy years, the kirks where they had worshipped God together, and the kirkyards where lay the dust of the dear ones they had lost.
And, besides all this, they knew little of the land to which they were going, and between them and it lay the great ocean, with all its terrors. For then they did not count by days, as we do now, the time that it took to cross the sea, but by weeks, or even by months; and many a timid mother shrank from the thought of all her children might have to suffer ere the sea was passed. Even more than the knowledge of the many difficulties and discouragements which might await them beyond it, did the thought of the dangers of the sea appal them. And to all their other sorrows was added the bitter pain of saying farewell for ever and for ever to Scotland, their native land. It is true that not among all her hills or valleys, or in all her great and prosperous towns, could be found room for them and theirs; it is true that a home in the beloved land was denied them: but it was their native land all the same, and eyes that had refused to weep at the last look of dear faces left behind, grew dim with tears as the broken outline of Scotland's hills faded away in the darkness.
But out of very sorrowful events God oftentimes causes much happiness to spring; and it was so to these poor people in their banishment. Into the wide Canadian forests they came, and soon the wilderness and the solitary place were glad for them; soon the wild woods were made to rejoice with the sound of joyful voices ringing out from many a happy though humble home. And though there were those among the aged or the discontented who never ceased to pine for the heather hills of the old land, the young grew up strong and content, troubled by no fear that, for many and many a year to come, the place would become too strait for them or for their children.
They did not speak English these people, but a language called Gaelic, not at all agreeable to English ears, but very dear to the heart of the Scottish Highlander. It is passing somewhat out of use now; but even at this day I have heard of old people who will go many miles to hear a sermon preached in that language—the precious gospel itself seeming clearer and richer and more full of comfort coming to them in the language which they learned at their mother's knee.
"It was surely the language first spoken on earth, before the beguiling serpent came to our mother," once said an old man to me; "and maybe afterwards too, till the foolish men on the plain of Shinar brought Babel on the earth. And indeed it may be the language spoken in heaven to-day, so sweet and grand and fit for the expression of high and holy thoughts is it."
It is passing out of use now, however, even among the Highlanders themselves. Gaelic is the household language still, where the father and mother are old, or where the grand-parents live with the rising generation; but English is the language of business, of the newspapers, and of all the new books that find their way among the people. It is fast becoming the language in which public worship is conducted too. There are very few books in the Gaelic. There are the Bible and the Catechism, and some poems which they who understand them say are very grand and beautiful; and there are a few translations of religious books, such as "The Pilgrim's Progress," and some of the works of such writers as Flavel and Baxter. But though there are not many, they are of a kind which, read often and earnestly, cannot fail to bring wisdom; and a grave and thoughtful people were they who made their homes in this wilderness.
Among those who were most earnest in overcoming the difficulties which at every step meet the settler in a new country were two brothers, Angus and Evan MacIvor. Their farms lay next to each other. They were fortunate in securing good land, and they were moderately successful in clearing and cultivating it. They lived to a good old age, and the youngest son of each succeeded him in the possession of the land. It is about the families of these two sons that my story is to be told.
The two cousins bore the same name, Angus MacIvor; but they were not at all alike either in appearance or character. The one was fair, with light hair and bright blue eyes; and because of this he was called Angus Bhan, or Angus the fair, to distinguish him from his cousin, who was very dark. He had a frank, open face and kind manner; and if anyone in the neighbourhood wanted a favour done, his first thought was sure to be of Angus Bhan.
His cousin Angus Dhu, or Angus the black, had a good reputation among people in general. He was honest and upright in his dealings, his word could be relied on; but his temper was uncertain, and his neighbours called him "close," and few of them would have thought of looking to Angus Dhu when they wanted a helping hand.
When these two began life they were very much in the same circumstances. Their farms were alike as to the quality of the soil and as to the number of acres cleared and under cultivation. They were both free from debt, both strong men accustomed to farm-work, and both, in the opinion of their neighbours, had a fair chance of becoming rich, according to the idea of wealth entertained by these people.
But when twenty years had passed away the affairs of the two men stood very differently. Angus Dhu had more than realised the expectations of his neighbours. He was rich—richer even than his neighbours supposed. More than half of his farm of two hundred acres was cleared and under cultivation. It was well stocked, well tilled, and very productive. Near the site of the log-house built by his father stood a comfortable farm-house of stone. All this his neighbours saw, and called him a prosperous man; and now and then they speculated together as to the amount of bank-stock to which he might justly lay claim.
The world had not gone so well with Angus Bhan. There was not so much land under cultivation, neither was what he had so well cultivated as his cousin's. He had built a new house too, but he had been unfortunate as to the time chosen to build. Materials were dear, and a bad harvest or two put him sadly back in the world. He was obliged to run into debt, and the interest of the money borrowed from his cousin was an additional burden. He was not successful in the rearing of stock, and some heavy losses of cattle fell on him. Worse than all, his health began to fail, for then his courage failed too; and when there came to that part of the country rumours of wonderful discoveries of the precious metals in the western parts of the continent, he only faintly withstood the entreaties of his eldest son that he might be permitted to go away and search for gold among the mountains of California. His going away nearly broke his mother's heart; and some among the neighbours said it would have been far wiser for young Allister to stay at home and help his father to plough and sow and gather in the harvest, than to go so far and suffer so much for gold, which might be slow in coming, and which must be quick in going should sickness overtake him in the land of strangers. But the young are always hopeful, and Allister was sure of success; and he comforted his mother by telling her that in two or three years at most he could earn money enough to pay his father's debt to Angus Dhu, and then he would come home again, and they would all live happily together as before. So Allister went away, and left a sorrowful household behind.
And there was another sorrowful household in Glengarry about that time. There was only sorrow in the hearts of Angus Bhan and his wife when their first-born son went away; for he went with their consent, and carried their blessing with him. But there were sorrow and bitter anger in the heart of Angus Dhu when he came to know that his son had also gone away. He was not a man of many words, and he said little to anyone about his son; but in his heart he believed that he had been beguiled away by the son of Angus Bhan, and bitter resentment rose within him at the thought.
A few months passed away, and there came a letter from Allister, written soon after his arrival in California. His cousin Evan Dhu was with him. They had done nothing to earn money as yet, but they were in high spirits, and full of hope that they would do great things. This letter gave much comfort to them all; but it was a long time before they heard from the wanderers again.
In the meantime the affairs of Angus Bhan did not grow more prosperous. It became more and more difficult for him to pay the interest of his debt; and though his cousin seldom alluded in words to his obligation, he knew quite well that he would not abate a penny either of principal or interest when the time of payment came.
A year passed away. No more letters came from Allister, and his father's courage grew fainter and fainter. There seemed little hope of his ever being able to pay his debt; and so, when Angus Dhu asked him to sell a part of his farm to him, he went home with a heavy heart to consult his wife about it. They agreed that something must be done at once; and so it was arranged that if Allister was not heard from, or if some other means of paying at least the interest did not offer before the spring, the hundred acres of their land that lay next to the farm of Angus Dhu should be given up to him. It was sad enough to have to do this; but Angus Bhan said to his wife,—
"If anything were to happen to me, you and the children would be far better with half the land free from debt, than with all burdened as it must be till Allister comes home."
They did not say much to each other, but their hearts were very sore— his, that he must give up the land left to him by his father; hers, for his sake, and also for the sake of her first-born son, a wanderer far away.
That autumn, when the harvest was over, the second son, Lewis, set off with some young men of the place to join a company of lumberers, who were, as is their custom, to pass the winter in the woods. It was a time of great prosperity with lumber-merchants then, and good wages could be earned in their service. There was nothing to be done at home in the winter which his father, with the help of the younger children, could not do; and Lewis, who was eighteen, was eager to earn money to help at home, and eager also to enter into the new and, as he thought, the merry life in the woods. So Lewis went away, and there were left at home Hamish and Shenac, who were twins, Dan, Hugh, Colin, and little Flora, the youngest and dearest of them all. The anxieties of the parents were not suffered to sadden the lives of the children, and the little MacIvors Bhan were as merry young people as one could wish to see.
Though they were not so prosperous, they were a far happier household than the MacIvors Dhu. There was the same number of children in each family; but Angus Dhu's children were most of them older than their cousins, and while Angus Bhan had six sons and two daughters, Angus Dhu had six daughters and two sons. "His cousin should have been a far richer man than he, with so many sons," Angus Dhu used to say grimly. But three of the boys of Angus Bhan were only children still, and one of them was a cripple. And as for the daughters of Angus Dhu, they had been as good as sons even for the farm-work, labouring in the fields, as is the custom for young women in this part of the country, as industriously and as efficiently as men—far more so, indeed, than their own brother Evan did; for he was often impatient of the closeness with which his father kept them all at work, and it was this, quite as much as his love of adventure and his wish to see the world, that made him go away at last. The two eldest daughters were married, and the third was living away from home; so, after Evan left, there were four in their father's house—three girls and Dan, the youngest of the family, who was twelve years of age. The children of these two families had always been good friends. Indeed, the younger children of Angus Dhu had more pleasure in the house of their father's cousin than in their own home; and many a winter evening they were in the habit of passing there.
They had a very quiet winter after Lewis went away. There was less visiting and going about in the moonlight evenings than ever before; for the boys were all too young to go with them except Hamish, and he was a cripple, and not so well as usual this winter, and though the girls were quite able to take care of themselves, they had little pleasure in going alone. So Angus Dhu's girls used to take their knitting and their sewing to the other house, and they all amused themselves in the innocent, old-fashioned ways of that time.
Shenac seldom went to visit her cousins; for, besides the fact that her father's house was the pleasantest meeting-place, her brother Hamish could not often go out at night, and she would rarely consent to leave him; and no one added so much to the general amusement as Hamish. He was very skilful at making puzzles and at all sorts of arithmetical questions, and not one of them could sing so many songs or tell so many stories as he. He was very merry and sweet-tempered too. His being a cripple, and different from all the rest, had not made him peevish and difficult to deal with as such misfortunes are so apt to do, and there was no one in all the world that Shenac loved so well as her twin-brother Hamish.
I suppose I ought to describe Shenac more particularly, as my story is to be more about her than any of the other MacIvors. A good many years after the time of which I am now writing; I heard Shenac MacIvor—or, as English lips made it, Jane MacIvor—spoken of as a very beautiful woman (the Gaelic spelling is Sinec); but at this time I do not think it ever came into the mind of anybody to think whether she was beautiful or not. She had one attribute of beauty—perfect health. There never bloomed among the Scottish hills, which her father and mother only just remembered, roses and lilies more fresh and fair than bloomed on the happy face of Shenac, and her curls of golden brown were the admiration and envy of her dark haired cousins. They called little Flora a beauty, and a rose, and a precious darling; but of Shenac they said she was bright and good, and very helpful for a girl of her age; and her brother Hamish thought her the best girl in the world—indeed, quite without a fault, which was very far from being true.
For Shenac had plenty of faults. She had a quick, hot temper, which, when roused, caused her to say many things which she ought not to have said. Hamish thought all those sharp words were quite atoned for by Shenac's quick and earnest repentance, but there is a sense in which it is true that hasty and unkind words can never be unsaid.
Shenac liked her own way too in all things. This did not often make trouble, however; for she had learned her mother's household ways, and, indeed, had wonderful taste and talent for these matters. Being the only daughter of the house, except little Flora, and her mother not being very strong, Shenac had less to do in the fields than her cousins, and was busy and happy in the house, except in harvest-time, when even the little lads, her brothers, were expected to do their part there.
Hamish and Shenac were very much alike, as twins very often are—that is, they were both fair, and had the same-coloured hair and eyes. But, while Shenac was rosy and strong, the very picture of health, her brother was thin and pale, and often of late there had been a look of pain on his face that it made his mother's heart ache to see. They were all in all to each other—Shenac and Hamish. They missed Lewis less on this account, and they knew very little of the troubles that so often made their father and mother anxious; and the first months of winter passed happily over them after Lewis went away.
Christmas passed, and the new year came in. A few more pleasant weeks went by, and then there came terrible tidings to the house of Angus Bhan. Far away, on one of the rapids of the Grand River, a boat had been overturned. Three young men had been lost under the ice. The body of one had been recovered: it was the body of Lewis MacIvor.
"We should be thankful that we can at least bring him home," said Angus Bhan to his wife, while she made preparations for his sad journey. But he said it with very pale, trembling lips, and his wife struggled to restrain the great burst of weeping that threatened to have way, that he might have the comfort of thinking that she was bearing her trouble well. But when she was left alone all these sad days of waiting, she was ready to say, in the bitterness of her heart, that there was no sorrow like her sorrow. One son was a wanderer, another was dead, and on the face of the dearly-beloved Hamish was settling the look of habitual suffering, so painful to see. Her cup of sorrow was full to the brim, she declared, but she knew not what she said.
For, when a few days had passed, there were brought home for burial two dead bodies instead of one. Her husband was no more. He had nearly accomplished his sorrowful errand, when death overtook him. He had complained to the friend who was with him of feeling cold, and had left the sleigh to walk a mile or two to warm himself. They waited in vain for him at the next resting-place, and when they went back to look for him they found him lying with his face in the snow, quite dead. He had not died from cold, the doctor said, but from heart-disease, and probably without suffering; and this comfort the bereaved widow tried to take to herself.
But her cup of sorrow was not full yet. The very night before the burial was to be, the house caught fire and burned to the ground. It was with difficulty that the few neighbours who gathered in time to help could save the closed coffins from the flames; and it seemed a small matter, at the time, that nearly all their household stuff was lost.
The mother's cup did seem full now. I do not think that the coming of any trouble, however great, could at this time have added to her grief. She had striven to be submissive under the repeated strokes that had fallen upon her, but the horrors of that night were too much for her, weakened as she was by sorrow. For a time she was quite distracted, heeding little the kind efforts of her neighbours to alleviate her distress and the distress of her children. All that kind hearts and willing hands could do was done for them. The log house which their grandfather had built still stood. It was repaired, and filled with gifts from every family in the neighbourhood, and the widow and her children found refuge there.
"Oh, what a sad beginning for a story!" I think some of my young readers may say, in tones of disappointment. It is indeed a sad beginning, but every sorrowful word is true. Every day there are just such sorrowful events happening in the world, though it is not often that trouble falls so heavily at once on any household. I might have left all this out of my story; but then no one could have understood so well the nature of the work that fell to Shenac, or have known the difficulties she had to overcome in trying to do it well.
It was May-day. Oftentimes in the northern country this month is ushered in by drizzling rain, or even by the falling snow; but this year brought a May-day worthy of the name—clear, mild, and balmy. There was not a cloud in all the sky, nor wind enough to stir the catkins hanging close over the waters of the creek. The last days of April had been warm and bright, and there was a tender green on the low-lying fields, and on the poplars that fringed the wood; and the boughs of the maple-trees in the sugar-bush looked purple and brown over the great grey trunks.
There is never a May-day when some flowers cannot be found beneath these trees, and in the warm hollows along the margin of the creek; but this year there were more than a few. Besides the pale little "spring flower," which hardly waits for the snow to go away before it shows itself, there were daffodils and anemones and wake-robins, and from the lapful which little Flora MacIvor sat holding on the bank close beside the great willow peeped forth violets, blue and white. There were lady-slippers too somewhere not far away, Flora was sure, if only Dan or Hughie could be persuaded to look for them a little farther down the creek, in the damp ground under the cedars, where she had promised her mother she would not go.
But the lads had something else to do than to look for flowers for Flora. Down the creek, which was broad and full because of the melting snow, a number of great cedar chips were floating. Past the foot-bridge, and past the eddy by the great rock, and over the pool into which the creek widened by the old ashery, the mimic fleet sailed safely; while the lads shouted and ran, and strove by the help of long sticks to pilot them all into the little cove by the willow where little Flora was sitting, till even the flower-loving little maiden forgot her treasures, and grew excited like the rest.
You would never have thought, looking at those bright faces, that heavy trouble had been in their home for months. Listening to their merry, voices, you would never have imagined that there were, in some hearts that loved them, grave doubts whether for the future they were to have a home together or no. But so it was.
Higher up the bank, where the old ashery used to stand, Shenac and Hamish were sitting. The triumphant shout with which the last and largest of the boats was landed, startled them out of the silence in which they had been musing, and the girl said sadly,—
"Children forget so soon!"
Hamish made no answer. He was not watching the little sailors. His face was quite turned away from them, and looked gloomy and troubled enough. The girl watched a moment anxiously; and then turning her eyes where his had been for some time resting, she cried passionately,—
"I wish a fire would break out and burn it to ashes, every stick!"
"What would be the good of that? Angus Dhu would put it all up again," said Hamish bitterly. "He might save himself the trouble, though. He means to have all the land shortly."
They were watching the progress of a fence of great cedar rails which three or four men were building; and no wonder they watched it with vexation, for it went from line to line, dividing in two parts the land that had belonged to their father. He was dead now, and their brother Allister was far away, they knew not where, in search of gold; and there was no one now, besides themselves, except their mother, and the little ones who were so thoughtless, making merry with the great cedar chips which Angus Dhu sent, floating down the stream.
"Nobody but you and me to do anything; and what can we do?" continued the lad with a desponding gesture. "And my mother scarcely seems to care to try."
"Whisht, Hamish dear; there's no wonder," said Shenac in a low voice. "But about the land. Angus Dhu can never get it surely!"
"He has gotten the half of it already. Who is to hinder his getting the rest?" said Hamish. "And he might as well have it. What can we do with it?"
"Was it wrong for him to take it, do you think, Hamish?" asked Shenac gravely.
"Not in law. Angus Dhu would never do what is unlawful. But he was hard on my father, and he says—"
Hamish paused to ask himself whether it was worth while to vex Shenac with the unkind words of Angus Dhu. But Shenac would not be denied the knowledge.
"What was it, Hamish? He would never dare to say a light word of our father. Did you not then and there show him the door?"
Shenac's blue eye flashed. She was quite capable of doing that and more to vindicate her father's memory.
"Whisht, Shenac," said Hamish. "Angus Dhu loved my father, though he was hard on him. There were tears in his eyes when he spoke to my mother about him. But he says that the half of the land is justly his, for money that my father borrowed at different times, and for the interest which he could not pay. And he wants to buy the other half; for he says we can never carry on the farm, and I am afraid he is right," added the lad despondingly.
"And what would become of us all?" asked Shenac, her cheeks growing pale in the pain and surprise of the moment.
"He would put out the money in such a way that it would bring an income to my mother, who could live here still, with Colin and little Flora. He says he will take Dan to keep till he is of age, and Elder McMillan will take Hugh. You are old enough to do for yourself, he says; and as for me—" He turned away, so that his sister might not see the working of his face. But Shenac was thinking of something else, and did not notice him.
"But, Hamish, we have written to Allister, and he will be sure to come home when he hears what has happened to us."
Hamish shook his head.
"Black Angus says Allister will never come back. He says he was an unsettled lad before he went away. And, Shenac, he says our Allister beguiled Evan, or he never would have left home. He looked black when he said it. He was angry."
Shenac's eyes blazed again.
"Our Allister unsettled—he that went away for our father's sake, and for us all! Our Allister to beguile Evan, that wild lad! And you sat and heard him say it, Hamish!"
"What else could I do?" said Hamish bitterly.
"And my mother?" said Shenac.
"She could only cry, and say that Allister had always been a good son to her and to my father, and a dear brother to us all."
There was a long pause. Shenac never removed her eyes from the men, who were gradually drawing nearer and nearer, as one after another of the great cedar rails was laid on the foundation of logs and stones already prepared for them along the field; and anger gathered in her heart and showed itself in her face as she gazed. Hamish had turned quite away from the fence and from his sister, towards the creek where his brothers were still shouting at their play. But he was not thinking of his brothers; he did not see them, indeed. He made an effort to keep back the tears, which, in spite of all he could do, would flow. If Shenac had spoken to him, they must have gushed out; but he had time to force them back before Shenac turned away with an angry gesture.
"It's of no use, Shenac," he said then. "There's reason in what Angus Dhu says. We will have to give up the farm."
"Hamish, that shall never be done!" said Shenac. "It would break my mother's heart."
"It seems broken already," said Hamish hoarsely. "And it is easy to say the land must be kept. But what can we do with it? Who is to work it?"
"You and I and the little lads," cried Shenac. "There is no fear. God will help us," she added reverently—"the widow and orphan's God. Hamish, don't you mind?"
Hamish had no voice with which to answer for a moment; but in a little while he said with some difficulty,—
"It is easy for you to say what you will do, Shenac—you who are strong and well; but look at me! I am not getting stronger, as we always hoped. What could I do at the plough? I had better go to some town, as Angus Dhu advised my mother, and learn to make shoes."
"Oh, but he's fine at making plans, that Angus Dhu," said Shenac scornfully. "But we'll need to tell him that we're for none of his help. Hamish," she added, suddenly stooping down over him, "do you think any plan made to separate you and me will prosper? I think I see black Angus coming between you and me with his plans."
Her words and her caress were quite too much for Hamish, and he surprised himself and her too by a sudden burst of tears. The sight of this banished Shenac's softness in a moment. She raised herself from her stooping posture with an angry cry. Separated from the rest of the fence-makers, and approaching the knoll where the brother and sister had, been sitting, were two men. One was Angus Dhu, and the other was his friend, and a relation of his wife, Elder McMillan. He was a good man, people said, but one who liked to move on with the current,—one who went for peace at all risks, and so forgot sometimes that purity was to be set before even peace. There was nothing in Shenac's knowledge of the man to make her afraid of him, and she took three steps towards them, and said,—
"Angus Dhu, do you mind what the Bible says of them that oppress the widow and the fatherless? Have you forgotten the verse that says, 'Remove not the ancient land-mark'?"
She stopped, as if waiting for an answer. The two men stood still from sheer surprise, and looked at her. Shenac continued:—
"And do you mind what's said of them that add field to field? and—"
"Shenac, my woman," said the elder at last, "it's no becoming in you to speak in that kind of a way to one older than your father was. I doubt you're forgetting—"
But Shenac put his words aside with a gesture of indifference.
"And to speak false words of our Allister to his mother in her trouble as though he had led your wild lad Evan astray. You little know what our Allister saved him from more than once. But that is not for to-day. I have this to, say to you, Angus Dhu: you must be content with the half you have gotten; for not another acre of my father's land shall ever be yours, though all the elders in Glengarry stood at your back.—I will not whisht, Hamish. He is to know that he is not to meddle between my mother and me. It's not or the like of Angus Dhu to say that my mother's children shall be taken from her in her trouble. Our affairs may be bad enough, but they'll be none the better for your meddling in them."
"Shenac," entreated Hamish, "you'll be sorry for speaking that way to our father's cousin."
"Our father's oppressor rather," she insisted scornfully. But she had said her say; and, besides, the lads and little Flora had heard their voices, and were drawing near.
"Children," said Shenac, "you are to come home. And mind, you are not to set foot on this bank again without our mother's leave. It's Angus Dhu's land now, he says, and not ours."
The creek—that part of it near which the willows grew, and where the old ashery used to stand—had been their daily resort every summer-day all their lives; and they all looked at her with astonishment and dismay, but none of them spoke.
"Come home to our mother, boys.—Flora, come home." And Shenac lifted her little sister over the foundation of great stones, and beckoned to the boys to follow her.
"Come, Hamish, it's time we were home." And Hamish obeyed her as silently as the rest had done.
"Hamish," said the elder, "speak here, man. You have some sense, and tales such as yon wild girl is like to tell may do your father's cousin much harm."
In his heart Hamish knew Shenac to be foolish and wrong to speak as she had done, but he was true to her all the same, and would hold no parley with the enemy. So he gave no heed to the elder's words, but followed the rest through the field. Shenac's steps grew slower as they approached the house.
"Hamish," she said a little shamefacedly, "there will be no use vexing our mother by telling her all this."
"That's true enough," said Hamish.
"But mind, Hamish, I'm not sorry that I said it. I have aye meant to say something to Angus Dhu about the land; though I daresay it would have been as well to say it when that clattering body, Elder McMillan, was out of hearing."
"And John and Rory McLean," murmured Hamish.
"Hamish, man, they never could have heard. Not that I am caring," continued Shenac. "It's true that Angus Dhu has gotten half our father's land, and that he is seeking the other half; but that he'll never get—never!" And she flashed an angry glance towards the spot where the men were still standing.
Hamish knew it was always best to leave his sister till her anger cooled, so he said nothing in reply. He grieved for the loss of the land as much as Shenac did, but he did not resent it like her. Though he believed that Angus Dhu had been hard on his father, he did not believe that he had dealt unjustly by him. And he was right. Even in taking half the land he had taken only what he believed to be his due, and in wishing to possess himself, of the rest, he believed he was about to do a kindness to the widow and children of his dead cousin. He believed they could never get their living from the land. They must give it up, he thought; and it was far better that it should fall into his hands than into the hands of a stranger. Had his cousin lived, he would never have wished for the land; and he said to himself that he would do much for them all, and that the widow and orphans should never suffer while he could befriend them.
At the same time, he could not deny that he would be glad to get the land. When Evan came home, it might keep the lad near him to have this farm ready for him. He had allowed himself to think a great deal about this of late. He would not confess to himself that any part of the uncomfortable feelings that Shenac's outbreak had stirred within him sprang from disappointment. But he was mistaken. For when the girl planted her foot on the other side of the new fence, and looked back at him defiantly, he felt that she would make good her word, and hold the land, at least, until Allister came home.
He did not care much what the neighbours might say about him; but he told Elder McMillan that he cared, and that doubtless yon wild girl would have plenty: to say about things she did not understand, and that she would get ill-minded folks enough to hearken to her and to urge her on. And he tried to make himself believe that it was this, and nothing else, that vexed him in the matter.
"And what's to be done?" asked the elder uneasily, as Shenac and the rest disappeared.
"Done!" repeated his friend angrily. "I shall do nought. If they can go on by themselves, all the better. I shall be well pleased. Why should I seek to have the land?"
"Why, indeed?" said the elder.
"I shall neither make nor meddle in their affairs, till I am asked to do it," continued Angus Dhu; but the look on his face said, as plainly as words could have done, "and it will not be very long before that will happen."
But he made a mistake, as even wise men will sometimes do.
I am glad to say that Shenac did not let the sun go down on her wrath. Indeed, long before sunset she was heartily ashamed of her outbreak towards Angus Dhu, and acknowledged as much to Hamish. Not that she believed he had acted justly and kindly in his past dealings with her father; nor was she satisfied that the future interests of the family would be safe in his hands. Even while acknowledging how wrong and foolish she had been in speaking as she had done, she declared to Hamish that Angus Dhu should neither "make nor meddle" in their affairs. They must cling together, and do the best they could, till Allister should come home, whatever Angus Dhu might say.
That her mother might yield to persuasion on this point, she thought possible; for the widow had lost courage, and saw only the darker side of their affairs. But Shenac stoutly declared that day to Hamish that no one should be suffered to persuade her mother to the breaking of her heart. No one had a right to interfere in their affairs further than should be welcome to them all. For her part, she was not afraid of Angus Dhu, nor of Elder McMillan, nor of any one else, when it came to the question of breaking up their home and sending them, one here and another there, away from the mother.
Shenac felt very strong and brave as she said all this to Hamish; and yet when, as it was growing dark that night, she saw Elder McMillan opening their gate, her first impulse was to run away. She did not, however, but said to herself, "Now is the time to stand by my mother, and help her to resist the elder's efforts to get little Hugh away from us." Besides, she could not go away without being seen, and it would look cowardly; so she placed herself behind the little wheel which the mother had left for a moment, and when the elder came in she was as busy and as quiet as (in his frequently-expressed opinion) it was the bounden duty of all young women to be.
Now, there was nothing in the whole round of Shenac's duties so distasteful to her as spinning on the little wheel. The constant and unexciting employment for hands and mind that spinning afforded, and perhaps the pleasant monotony of the familiar humming of the wheel, always exerted a soothing influence on the mother; and one of the first things that had given them hope of her recovery after the shock of the burning of the house was her voluntary bringing out of the wheel. But it was very different with Shenac. The strength and energy so invaluable to her in her household work or her work in the fields were of no avail to her here. To sit following patiently and constantly the gradual forming and twisting of the thread, did not suit her as it did her mother; and watchful and excited as she was that night, she could hardly sit quiet while the elder went through his usual salutations to her mother and the rest.
He was in no haste to make known his errand, if he had one, and he was in no haste to go. He spoke in slow, unwilling sentences, as he had done many times before, of the mysterious dealings of Providence with the family, making long pauses between. And through his talk and his silence the widow sat shedding a few quiet tears in the dark, and now and then uttering a word of reply.
What was the good of it all Shenac would have liked to shake him, and to bid him "say his say" and go; but the elder seemed to have no say, at least concerning Hugh. He went slowly through his accustomed round of condolence with her mother and advice to the boys and Shenac, and, as he rose to go, added something about a bee which some of the neighbours had been planning to help the widow with the ploughing and sowing of her land, and then he went away.
"Some of the neighbours," repeated Shenac in a whisper to her brother. "That's the elder's way of heaping coals on my head—good man!"
"What do you suppose the elder cares about a girl like you, or Angus Dhu either?" asked Hamish with a shrug.
Shenac laughed, but had no time to answer.
"I was afraid it might be about wee Hughie that the elder wanted to speak," said the mother with a sigh of relief as she came in from the door, where she had bidden the visitor good-night.
"And what about Hughie?" asked Shenac, resuming her spinning. She knew very well what about him; but her mother had not told her, and this was as good a way as any to begin about their plans for the summer.
Instead of answering her question, the mother said, after a moment's silence,—
"He's a good man, Elder McMillan."
"Oh yes, I daresay he's a good man," said Shenac with some sharpness; "but that's no reason why he should want to have our Hughie."
The little boys were all in bed by this time, and Hamish and Shenac were alone with their mother. After a little impatient twitching of her thread, Shenac put aside her wheel, swept up the hearth, and moved about putting things in order in the room, and then she came and sat down beside her mother. She did not speak, however; she did not know what to say. Any allusion to the summer's work was almost surer to make her mother shed tears, and Shenac could not bear to grieve her. She darted an impatient glance at Hamish, who seemed to have no intention of helping her to-night. He was sitting with his face upon his hands, just as he had been sitting through the elder's visit, and Shenac could not catch his eye. It seemed wrong to risk the bringing on of a wakeful, moaning, miserable night to her mother; and she was thinking she would say no more till morning, when her mother spoke again.
"Yes, Elder McMillan is a good man. I would not be afraid for Hugh, and he would be near at hand."
"Yes," said Shenac, making an effort to speak quietly, "if Hugh must go, he might as well go to Elder McMillan's as anywhere—" She stopped.
"And Dan needs a firm hand, they say," continued the mother, her voice breaking a little; "but I'm afraid for him. Angus Dhu is a stern man, and Dan has been used to a hand gentle as well as firm. But he would not be far away."
Shenac broke out impatiently,—
"Angus Dhu's hand was not firm enough to keep his own son at home, and he could never guide our Dan. Mother, never heed them that tell you any ill of Dan. Has he ever disobeyed you once since—since then?" Shenac's voice failed a little, then she went on again, "Why should Dan go away, or any of us? Why can't we bide all together, and do the best we can, till Allister comes home?"
"But that must be a long time yet, if he ever comes," said the mother, sighing.
"Yes, it may be long," said Shenac eagerly. "Of course it cannot be for the spring work, and maybe not for the harvest, but he's sure to come, mother; and think of Allister coming and finding no home! Yes, I know you are to bide here; but the land would be gone, and it would be no home long to Allister or any of us without the land. Angus Dhu should be content with what he's got," continued Shenac bitterly. "Allister will never be content to let my father's land go out of our hands; and Angus Dhu promised my father to give it up to Allister. Mother, we must do nothing till Allister comes home.—Hamish, why don't you tell my mother to wait till Allister comes home?"
"Till Allister comes home! When Allister comes home!" This had been the burden of all Shenac's comforting to her mother, even when she could take no comfort from it herself. For a year seemed a long time to Shenac; but three months of the year had passed already, and surely, surely Allister would come.
Hamish raised his face as Shenac appealed to him, but it was anything but a hopeful face, and Shenac was glad that her mother was looking the other way.
"But what are we to do in the meantime?" he asked, and his voice was as little hopeful as his face. For a moment Shenac was indignant at her brother. It would need the courage of both to make the future look otherwise than dark to their mother, and she thought Hamish was going to fail her. She was growing very eager; but she knew that the quick, hot words that might carry Hamish with her would have no force with her mother, and she put a strong restraint on herself, and said quietly,—
"We can manage through the summer, mother. The wheat was sown in the fall, you know, and the elder said we were to have a bee next week for the oats, and we can do the rest ourselves—Hamish and Dan and I—till Allister comes home."
"It would be a hard fight for you all," said the mother despondingly.
"You should say Dan and you and little Hugh and Colin," said Hamish bitterly. "They could help far more than I can, unless I am much better than I am now." And then he dropped his head on his hands again.
Shenac rose suddenly and placed herself between him and her mother, and then she said quietly,—
"And, mother, the elder thinks we can do it, or he wouldn't have spoken about the bee. Nobody can think it right that Angus Dhu should take our father's land from us; and the elder said nothing about Hugh; and Dan would never bide with Angus Dhu and work our father's land for him. Never! never! Mother, we must try what we can do till Allister comes home."
There was not much said after that. There was no decision in words as to their plans, but Shenac knew they were to make a trial of the summer's work—she and her brothers—and she was content.
There were but two rooms downstairs in the little log house, and the mother and Flora slept in the one in which they had been sitting. So when Hamish came back from looking whether the gates and barn-doors were safely shut, he found Shenac, who had much to say to him, waiting for him outside.
"Hamish," she said eagerly, "what ails you? Why did you not speak to my mother and tell her what we ought to do? Hamish," she added, putting out her hand to detain him as he tried to pass her—"Hamish, speak to me. What ails you to-night, Hamish?"
"What right have I to tell my mother—I, who can do nothing?"
He shook off her detaining hand as if he was angry; but there was a sound of tears in his voice, and Shenac's momentary feeling of offence was gone. She would not be shaken off, and putting her arms round his neck she held him fast. He did not try to free himself after the first moment, but he turned away his face.
"Hamish," she repeated, "what is it? Don't you think we can manage to keep together till Allister comes home? Is it that, Hamish? Tell me what you think it is right for us to do."
"It is not that, Shenac; and I have no right to say anything—I, who can do nothing."
"Hamish!" exclaimed his sister, in a tone in which surprise and pain were mingled.
"If I were like the rest," continued Hamish—"I, who am the eldest; but even Dan can do more than I can. You must not think of me, Shenac, in your plans."
For a moment Shenac was silent from astonishment; this was so unlike the cheerful spirit of Hamish. Then she said,—
"Hamish, the work is not all. What could Dan or any of us do without you to plan for us? We are the hands, you are the head."
Hamish made an impatient movement. "Allister would be head and hands too," he said bitterly.
"But, Hamish, you are not Allister; you are Hamish, just as you have always been. You are not surely going to fail our mother now—you, who have done more than all of us put together to comfort her since then?"
Hamish made no answer.
"It is wrong for you to look at it in that way, Hamish," continued Shenac. "I once heard my father say that though you were lame, God might have higher work for you to do than for any of the rest of us. I did not know what he meant then, but I know now."
"Hush! don't, Shenac," said Hamish.
"No; I must speak, Hamish. It is not right to fret because the work you have to do is not just the work you would choose. And you'll break my heart if you vex yourself about—because you are not like the rest. Not one of us all is so dear to my mother and the rest as you are; you know that, Hamish. And why should you think of this now, more than before?"
"Shenac, I have been a child till now, thinking of nothing. My looking forward was but the dreaming of idle dreams. I have wakened since my father died—wakened to find myself useless, a burden, with so much to be done."
"Hamish," said Shenac gravely, "that is not true, and it's foolish, besides. If you were useless—blind as well as lame—if you were as cankered and ill to do with as you are mild and sweet, there would be no question of burden, because you are one of us, our own. If you were thinking of Angus Dhu, you might speak of burdens; but it is nonsense to say that to me. You know that you are more to my mother than any of us, and you are more to me than all my brothers put together; but I need not tell you that. Hamish, if it had not been for you, I think my mother must have died. What is Dan, or what am I, in comparison to you? Hamish, you must take heart and be strong, for all our sakes."
They were sitting on the doorstep by this time, and Shenac laid her head on her brother's shoulder as she spoke.
"I know I am all wrong, Shenac. I know I ought to be content as I am," said Hamish at last, but he could say no more.
Shenac's heart filled with love and pity unspeakable. She would have given him her health and strength, and would have taken up his burden of weakness and deformity to bear them henceforth for his sake. But she did not tell him so; where would have been the good? She sat quite still, only stroking his hand now and then, till he spoke again.
"Perhaps I am wrong to speak to you about it, Shenac, but I seem to myself to be quite changed; I seem to have nothing to look forward to. If it had been me who was taken instead of Lewis."
"Hamish," said Shenac gravely, "it is not saying it to me that is wrong, but thinking it. And why should you have nothing to look forward to? We are young. A year seems a long time; but it will pass, and when Allister comes home, and we are prosperous again, it will be with you as it would have been if my father had lived. You will get to your books again, and learn and grow a wise man; and what will it signify that you are little and lame, when you have all the honour that wisdom wins? Of course all these sad changes are worse for you than for the rest. We will only have to work a little harder, but your life is quite changed; and, Hamish, it will only be for a little while, till Allister comes home."
"But, Shenac," said Hamish eagerly, "you are not to think I mind that most; I am not so bad as that. If I were strong—if I were like the rest—I would like nothing so well as to labour always for my mother and you all; but I can do little."
"Yes, I know," said Shenac; "but Dan can do that, and so can I But your work will be different—far higher and nobler than ours. Only you must not be impatient because you are hindered a little just now. Hamish, bhodach, what is a year out of a whole lifetime? Never fear, you will find your true work in time."
"Bhodach" is "old man" in the language in which these children were speaking. But on Shenac's lips it meant every sweet and tender name; and, listening to her, Hamish forgot his troubles, or looked beyond them, and his spirit grew bright and trustful again—peaceful for that night at least. The shadow fell on him many a time again; but it never fell so darkly but that the sunshine of his sister's face had power to chase it away, till, by-and-by, there fell on both the light before which all shadows for ever and for ever flee away.
And so, with a good heart, they began their work. I daresay it would be amusing to some of my young readers if I were to go into particulars, and tell them all that was done by each from day to day; but I have no time nor space for this.
The bee was a very successful one. As everybody knows, a bee is a collection of the neighbours to help to do in one day work which it would take one or two persons a long time to do. It is not usually to do such work as ploughing or sowing that bees are had; but all the neighbours were glad to help the Widow MacIvor with her spring work, and so two large fields, one of oats and another of barley, were in those two days ploughed and harrowed, and sowed and harrowed again.
Shenac was not quite at her ease about the bee, partly because she thought it had been the doing of Angus Dhu and the elder, and partly because she felt if they were to be kept together they must depend, not on their neighbours, but upon themselves. But it was well they had this help, for the young people were quite inexperienced in such work as ploughing and sowing, and the summers are so short in Canada that a week or two sooner or later makes a great difference in the sowing of the seed.
There was enough left for Shenac and her brothers to keep them busy from sunrise to sunset, during the months of May and June. There was the planting of potatoes and corn, and the sowing of carrots and turnips; and then there was the hoeing and keeping them all free from weeds. There was also the making of the garden, and the keeping of it in order when it was made. This had always been more the work of Hamish than of any of the rest, and he made it his work still; and though he was not so strong as he used to be, there never had been so much pains taken with the garden before. Everybody knows what comfort for a family comes out of a well-kept garden, even though there may be only the common vegetables and very little fruit in it; and Hamish made the most of theirs that summer, and so did they all.
It must not be supposed that because Shenac was a girl she had no part in the field-work. Even now, in that part of the country, the wives and daughters of farmers help their fathers and brothers during the busy seasons of spring and harvest; and for many years after the opening up of the country the females helped to clear the land, putting their hands to all kinds of out-door work as cheerfully as need be. As for Shenac, she would have scorned the idea that there was any work that her brothers could do for which they had not the strength and skill.
Indeed, Shenac had her full share of the field-work, and much to do in the house besides. The mother was not strong yet, either in mind or body: she would never be strong again, Shenac sometimes feared, and she must be saved as far as possible from all care and anxiety. So the heaviest of the household work fell to Shenac. They had not a large dairy, and never could have again; for the greater part of their pasture and mowing land lay on the wrong side of the high cedar fence so hotly resented by the children. But the three cows which they had were her peculiar care. She milked them morning and evening, and, when the days were longest, at noon too; and though her mother prepared the dishes for the milk and skimmed the cream, Shenac always made the butter, because churning needed strength as well as skill; and oftener than otherwise it was done before she called her brothers in the morning.
Much may be accomplished in a short time by a quick eye and a ready hand, and Shenac had both. The minutes after meal-time which her brothers took for rest, or for lingering about to talk together, she filled with the numberless items of household work which seem little in the doing, but which being left undone bring all things into disorder.
When any number of persons are brought together in circumstances where decision and action become necessary, the leadership will naturally fall on the one among them who is best fitted by natural gifts or acquired knowledge to assume responsibility. It is the same in families where the head has been suddenly removed. Quite unconsciously to herself, Shenac assumed the leadership in the household; and it was well for her brothers that she had duties within-doors as well as in the fields. There were days in these months of May and June which were not half long enough for the accomplishment of her plans and wishes. I am afraid that at such times the strength of Hamish and the patience of Dan must have given out before she found it too dark to go on with their labours. But the thought of the mother, weary with the work at home, made her shorten the day to her brothers and lengthen it to herself.
One of Shenac's faults was a tendency to go to extremes in all things that interested her. She had made up her mind that the summer's work must be successful; and to insure success all other things must be made to yield. It was easy for her to forget the weakness of Hamish, for he was only too willing to forget it himself; and as for Dan, though there was some truth in Angus Dhu's assertion to his mother that "he was a wild lad, and needed a firm hand to guide him," he gave no tokens of breaking away as yet. Shenac had so impressed him with the idea that they must keep the farm as their own, and show the neighbours that they could keep it in order, that to him every successful day's work seemed a triumph over Angus Dhu as well as over circumstances. His industry was quite of his own free will, as he believed, and he gave Shenac none of the credit of keeping him busy, and indeed she took none of the credit to herself. In her determination to do the most that could be done, she might have forgotten her mother's comfort too; but this was not permitted. For if the mother tired herself with work, or if she saw anything forgotten or neglected in the house, she became fretful and desponding, and against this Shenac always strove to guard.
If Shenac were ever so tired at night, it rested her to turn back to look over the fields beginning to grow green and beautiful under their hands. They worked in those days to some purpose, everybody acknowledged. In no neighbourhood, far or near, were the fields better worth looking at than those that had been so faithfully gone over by Shenac and her brothers. Many a farmer paused, in passing, to admire them, saying to himself that the Widow MacIvor's children were a credit to her and to themselves; and few were so churlish as to refrain from speaking a word of encouragement to them when an opportunity came.
Even Angus Dhu gave many a glance of wonder and pleasure over his cedar rails, and gave them credit for having done more than well. He was very glad. He said so to himself, and he said so to his neighbours. And I believe he was glad, in a way. He was too good a farmer not to take pleasure in seeing land made the most of; and I think he was glad, too, to see the children of his dead friend and cousin capable of doing so well for themselves.
It is just possible that deep down in his heart, unknown or unacknowledged to himself, there lurked a hope that when Shenac should marry, as he thought she was sure to do, and when wild Dan should have gone away, as his brothers had done before him, those well-tilled fields might still become his. Perhaps I am wrong, and hard upon him, as Shenac was.
She gave him no credit for his kind thoughts, but used to say to her brothers, when she caught a glimpse of his face over the fence,—
"There stands Angus Dhu, glowering and glooming at us. He's not praying for summer rain on our behalf, I'll warrant.—Oh well, Angus man, we'll do without your prayers, as we do without your help, and as you'll have to do without our land. Make the most of what you have got, and be content."
"Shenac," said Hamish on one of these occasions, "you're hard on Angus Dhu."
"Am I, Hamish?" said Shenac, laughing. "Well, maybe I am; but it will not harm him, I daresay."
"But it may harm yourself, Shenac," said Hamish gravely. "I think I would rather lose all the work we have done this spring than have it said that our Shenac was bearing false witness against our neighbour, and he of our own kin, too."
"Nobody would dare to say that of me," said Shenac, reddening.
"But if it is true, what is the difference whether it is said or not?" said Hamish. "You seem more glad of our success because you think it vexes Angus Dhu, than because it pleases our mother and keeps us all at home together. It does not vex him, I'm sure of that; and, whether it does or not, it is wrong for you always to be thinking and saying it. You are not to be grieved or angry at my saying it, Shenac."
But both grieved and angry Shenac was at her brother's reproof. She did not know which was greater, her anger or her grief. She did not trust herself to answer him, and in a little time Hamish spoke again:—
"It cannot harm him—at least, I think it cannot really harm him, though it may vex him; and I'm sure it must grieve the girls to hear that you say such things about their father. But that is not what I was thinking about. It must harm yourself most. You are growing hard and bitter. You are not like yourself, Shenac, when you speak of Angus Dhu."
The sting of her brother's words was in the last sentence, but it was the first part that Shenac answered.
"You know very well, Hamish, that I never speak of Angus Dhu except to you—not even to my mother."
"You have spoken to Dan—at least, you have spoken in his hearing. What do you think I heard him saying the other day to Shenac yonder?"
"Shenac yonder" was the youngest daughter of Angus Dhu, so called by the brothers to distinguish her from their sister, who was "our Shenac" to them. Other people distinguished between the cousins as they had between the fathers. One was Shenac Bhan; the other, Shenac Dhu.
"I don't know," said Shenac, startled. "What was it?"
"Something like what you were saying to me just now. You may think how Shenac's black eyes looked when she heard him."
Shenac was shocked.
"She would not mind what Dan said."
"No. It was only when Dan told her that you said it that she seemed to mind," said Hamish gravely.
"Dan had no business to tell her," said Shenac hotly; then she paused.
"No," said Hamish; "I told him that."
"I'll give him a hearing," began Shenac.
"I think, Shenac, you should say nothing to Dan about it," said Hamish. "Only take care never to say more than you think before the little ones, or indeed before any one again. You may vex Angus Dhu, and Shenac yonder, and the rest, but the real harm is done to us at home, and especially to yourself, Shenac; for you no more believe that Angus Dhu is a robber—the oppressor of the widow and the fatherless—than I do."
Shenac uttered an exclamation of impatience.
"I shall give it to Dan."
"No, Shenac, you will not. Dan must be carefully dealt with. He has a strong will of his own, and if it comes into his mind that you or any one, except our mother, is trying to govern him, he'll slip through our fingers some fine day."
"You've been taking a leaf out of Angus Dhu's book. There's no fear of Dan," said Shenac.
"There's no fear of him as long as he thinks he's pleasing himself, and that his sister is the best and the wisest girl to be found," said Hamish. "But if it were to come to a trial of strength between you, Dan would be sure to win."
Shenac was silent. She knew it would not be well to risk her influence over Dan by a struggle of any sort. But she was very angry with him.
"He might have had more sense," she said, after a moment.
"And indeed, Shenac, so might you," said Hamish gravely. "There should be no more said about Angus Dhu, for his sake and ours. He has been very friendly to us this summer, considering all things."
"Considering what I said to him, you mean," said Shenac sharply. "I was sorry for that as soon as I said it. But, Hamish, if you think I'm going down on my knees to Angus Dhu to tell him so, you're mistaken. He may not be a thief and a robber, but he's a dour carle, though he is of our own kin, and as different from our father as the dark is different from the day. And I can say nothing else of him, even for your sake, Hamish."
"It is not for my sake that I am speaking, Shenac, but for your own. You are doing yourself a great wrong, cherishing this bitterness in your heart."
Shenac was too much grieved and too angry to speak. She knew very well that she was neither very good nor very wise; but it had hitherto been her great pleasure in life to know that Hamish thought her so, and his words were very painful to her. She was vexed with him, and with Dan, and with all the world. Above all, she was vexed with herself.
She would not confess it, but in her heart she knew that a little of the zest would be taken from their labours if she were sure that their success would not be a source of vexation to Angus Dhu. And then Hamish had said she was injuring Dan—encouraging him in what was wrong— perhaps risking her influence for good over him.
The longer she thought about all this, the more unhappy she became. "Bearing false witness!" she repeated. It was a great sin she had been committing. It had been done thoughtlessly, but it was none the less a sin for that, Shenac knew. Hamish was right. She was growing very hard and wicked; and no wonder that he had come to think so meanly of her. Shenac said all this to herself, with many sorrowful and some angry tears. But the anger passed away before the sorrow. There were no confessions made openly; but, whatever may have been her secret thoughts of Angus Dhu, neither Dan nor Hamish nor anybody else ever heard Shenac speak a disrespectful word of him again.
Dan never got the "hearing" with which she had threatened him. She checked him more than once, when in the old way he began to remark on the evident interest that their father's cousin took in their work; but she did it gently, remembering her own fault.
The intercourse which had almost ceased between the families was gradually renewed—at least, between the younger ones. Shenac could not bring herself to go often to her cousins' house. She always felt, as she said to Hamish, as though Angus Dhu "eyed her" at such times. And, besides, she was too busy to go there or anywhere else. But her cousins came often to see her when the day's work was over; and Shenac, the youngest, who was her father's favourite, and who could take liberties that none of the others could have done at her age, came at other times. She was older than our Shenac by a year or so; but she was little and merry, and her jet-black hair was cut close to her head like a child's, so she seemed much younger. She could not come too often. She was equally welcome to the grave, quiet Hamish and the boyish Dan, and more welcome to Shenac than to either. For she never hindered work, but helped it rather. She brought the news, too, and fought hot, merry battles with the lads, and for the time shook even Hamish out of the grave ways that were becoming habitual to him, and did Shenac herself good by reminding her that she was not an old woman burdened with care, but a young girl not sixteen, to whom fun and frolic ought to be natural.
There were not many newspapers taken in those parts about that time; but Angus Dhu took one, and Shenac used to come over the fence with it, and, giving it to Hamish, would take his hoe or rake and go on with his work while he read the news to the rest. The newspaper was English, of course. Gaelic was the language spoken at home—the language in which the Bible was read, and the Catechism said; but the young people all spoke and read English. And very good English too, as far as it went; for it was book-English, learned at school from books that are now considered out of date. But they were very good books for all that. They used to have long discussions about the state of the world as they gathered it from the newspapers—not always grave or wise, but useful, especially to Shenac, by keeping her in mind of what in her untiring industry she was in danger of forgetting, that there was a wide world beyond these quiet lines within which they were living, where nobler work than the mere earning of bread was being done by worthy and willing hands.
July had come. There was a little pause in the field-work, for all the seed had been sown and all the weeds pulled up, and they were waiting for a week or two to pass, and then the haying was to begin. Even haying did not promise to be a very busy season with them, for the cutting and caring for the hay in their largest field would this year fall to the lot of Angus Dhu. It was as well so, Shenac said to herself with a sigh, for they could not manage much hay by themselves, and paying wages would never do for them. Indeed, they would need some help even with the little they had; for Dan had never handled a scythe except in play, and Hamish, even if he had the skill, had not the strength.
And then the wool. They must have their cloth early this year, for last year they had been obliged to sell the wool, and the boys' clothes were threadbare. If they could get the wool spun early, McLean the weaver would weave their cloth first. She must try to see what could be done. But, oh, that weary little wheel!
Shenac's mother thought it was a wonderful little wheel; and so indeed it was. It had been part of the marriage outfit of Shenac's grandmother before she left her Highland home. It had been in almost constant use all these years, and bade fair to be as good as ever for as many years to come. There was no wearing it out or putting it out of order, for, like most things made in those old times, it had strength if not elegance, and Shenac's mother was as careful of it as a modern musical lady is of her grand piano.
I cannot describe it to you, for I am not very well acquainted with such instruments of labour. It was not at all like the wheels which are used now-a-days in districts where the great manufactories have not yet put wheels out of use. It was a small, low, complicated affair, at which the spinner sat, using both foot and hand. It needed skill and patience to use it well, and strength too. A long day's work well done on the little wheel left one far wearier than a day's work in the field.
As for Shenac, the very thought of it made her weary. If she had lived in the present day, she would have said it made her nervous. But, happily for Shenac, she did not know that she had any nerves, and her mother's wheel got the blame of her discomfort. Not that she ever ventured to speak a disrespectful word of it. The insane idea that perhaps her mother might be induced to sell it and buy one of the new-fashioned kind, like that Archie Matheson's young wife had brought with her, did come into her head once, but she never spoke of it. It would have been wrong as well as foolish to do so, for her mother would never try to learn to use the new one, and half the comfort of her life would be gone without her faithful friend, the little wheel.
"Oh, if I could get one for myself!" said Shenac. She had seen and used Mary Matheson's last summer, and now, hurried as she was at home, she took an afternoon to go with Hamish to see it again.
"Could you not make one, Hamish?" she said entreatingly; "you can do so many things."
But Hamish shook his head.
"I might make the stock if I had tools; but the rest of it—no."
The sheep were shorn. There were sixteen fleeces piled up in the barn; but a great deal must be done to it before it could be ready for the boys to wear. One thing Shenac had determined on. It should be sent and carded at the mill. The mill was twenty miles away, to be sure— perhaps more; but the time taken for the journey would be saved ten times over. Shenac thought she might possibly get through the spinning, but to card it by hand, with all there was to do in the fields, would be quite impossible.
This matter troubled Shenac all the more that she could not share her vexation with Hamish. The idea of selling the grandmother's wheel seemed to him little short of sacrilege; and neither he nor their cousin Shenac could see why the mother could not dye and card and spin the wool, as she had been accustomed to do. But Shenac knew this to be impossible. Her mother was able for no such work now, though she might think so herself; and Shenac knew that to try and fail would make the mother miserable. What was to be done? Over this question she pondered with an earnestness, and, alas! with a uselessness, that gave impatience to her hand and sharpness to her voice at last.
"What aileth thee, Shenac Bhan, bonny Shenac, Shenac the farmer, Shenac the fair? Wherefore rests the shadow on thy brow, and the look of sadness in thine azure eyes?" Hamish had been reading to them Gaelic Ossian, and Shenac Dhu had caught up the manner of the poem, and spoke in a way that made them all laugh. Shenac Bhan laughed too; but not because she was merry, for her cousin's nonsense always vexed her when she was "out of sorts." But her cousin Christie was there, Mrs More, the eldest sister of Shenac Dhu; and so Shenac Bhan laughed with the rest. She was here on a visit from the city of M—- where she lived, and had come over to see her aunt, as Angus Dhu's children always called the widow. A heavy summer shower was falling, and all the boys had taken refuge from it in the house, and there were noise and confusion for a time.
"I want Christie to come into the barn and see our wool," said Shenac Bhan at last, when the shower was over. "And, Shenac—dark Shenac, doleful Shenac—you are to stay and keep the lads in order till we come back."
Shenac Dhu made a face, but let them go.
Mrs More was a pale, quiet woman, with a grave but kind manner, which put Shenac at her ease at once, though she had not seen her since her marriage, which was more than five years before. She had always been very kind to the children when she lived at home, and the memory of this gave Shenac courage to ask her help out of at least one of her difficulties.
"How much you have grown, Shenac!" said her cousin. "I hardly think I would have known you if I had seen you anywhere else. Yes, I think I would have known your face anywhere. But you are a woman now, and doing a woman's work, they tell me."
"We have all been busy this summer," said Shenac; "but our hurry is over now for a while."
Heedless of the little pools that were shining here and there, they went first into the garden, and then round the other buildings, and over to the spot, still black and charred, where the house had stood. But little was said by either of them.
"Do you like living in the city?" said Shenac at last.
"For some things I like it—for most things, indeed; but sometimes I long for a sight of the fields and woods, more for my wee Mary's sake than for my own."
"This is our wool," said Shenac, as they entered the barn; "I wish it was spun."
"Shenac," said her cousin kindly, "have you not undertaken too much? It's all very well for you to speak of Hamish and Dan, but the weight must fall on you. I see that plainly."
But Shenac would not let her think so.
"I only do my share," said she eagerly.
"I think you could have helped them more by coming to M—- and taking a situation. You could learn to do anything, Shenac, if you were to try."
But Shenac would not listen.
"We must keep together," said she; "and the land must be kept for Allister. There is no fear. We shall not grow rich, but we can live, if we bide all together and do our best."
"Shenac," persisted her cousin, "I do not want to discourage you; but there are so many things which a girl like you ought not to do—cannot do, indeed, without breaking your health. I know. I was the eldest at home. I know what there is to do in a place like yours. The doctor tells me I shall never be quite well again, because of the long strain of hard work and exposure when I was young like you. Think, if your health was to fail."
Shenac turned her compassionate eyes upon her.
"But your father was hard on you, folks say, and I have the work at my own taking."
Mrs More shook her head sadly.
"Ah, Shenac dear, circumstances may be far harder on you than ever my father was on me. You do not know what may lie before you. No girl like you should have such responsibility. If you will come with me or follow me, you and Hamish, I can do much for you. You could learn to do anything, Shenac, and Hamish is very clever. There are places where his littleness and his lameness would not be against him, as they must be on the land. Let my father take Dan, as he wished, and let Hughie go to the elder's for a while. The land can lie here safe enough till Allister comes home, if that is what you wish. Indeed, Shenac, you do not know what you are undertaking."
"Cousin Christie," said Shenac gently, "you are very kind, but I cannot leave my mother; and I am strong—stronger than you think. Christie, you speak as though you thought Allister would never come home. Was our Allister a wild lad, as your father says? Surely, he'll come home to his mother, now that his father is dead."
She sat down on the pile of wool, and turned a very pale, frightened face to her cousin. Mrs More stooped down and kissed her.
"My dear," she said gently, "Allister was not a wild lad in my time, but good and truthful—one who honoured his parents. But, Shenac, the world is wide, and there are so many things that those who have lived in this quiet place all their lives cannot judge of. And even if Allister were to come back, he might not be content to settle down here in the old quiet way. The land would seem less to him than it seems to you."
"But if Allister should not come home, or if he should not stay, my mother will need me all the more. No, Cousin Christie, you must not discourage me. I must try it. And, indeed, it is not I alone. Hamish has so much sense and judgment, and Dan is growing so strong. And we will try it anyway."
"Well, Shenac, you deserve to succeed, and you will succeed if anybody could," said her cousin. "I will not discourage you. I wish I could help you instead."
"You can help me," said Shenac eagerly; "that's what I brought you out to say. Our wool—you are going back soon, and if the waggon goes, will you ask your father to let our wool go to the mill? The carding takes so long, and my mother is not so strong as she used to be. And that is one of the things I cannot abide. The weary little wheel is bad enough. Will you ask your father, Christie?"
Mrs More laughed.
"That is but a small favour, Shenac. Of course my father will take it, and he'll bring it back too; for, though it is not his usual plan at this time of the year, he's going on all the way to M—- with butter. There came word yesterday that there was great demand for it. The wool will be done by the time he comes back; and he is to take his own too, I believe."
Shenac gave a sigh of relief.
"Well, that's settled."
"Why did you not ask my father himself?" said Mrs More. "Are not you and he good friends, Shenac?" Shenac muttered something about not liking to give trouble and not liking to ask Angus Dhu. Mrs More laughed again.
"I think you are hard on my father, Shenac. I think he would be a good friend to you if you would let him. You must not mind a sharp word from the like of him. His bark is worse than his bite."
Shenac was inexpressibly uncomfortable, remembering that all the hard words had come from her and not from Angus Dhu.
"Well, never mind," said Mrs More; "the carrying of the wool is my father's favour. What can I do for you, Shenac?"
"You can do one thing for me," said Shenac briskly, glad to escape from a painful subject, and laying her hand on a shining instrument of steel that peeped from beneath the wool on which she was sitting. "You can cut my hair off. My mother does not like to do it, and Hamish won't. I was going to ask Shenac yonder; but you will do it better." And she began to loosen the heavy braids.
"What's that about Shenac yonder?" said that young person, coming in upon them. "I should like to know what you are plotting, you two, together—and bringing in my innocent name too!"
"Nothing very bad," said Shenac, laughing. "I want Christie to cut my hair, it is such a trouble; it takes a whole half-hour at one time or other of the day to keep it neat, and half-hours are precious."
"I don't like to do it, Shenac," said Mrs More.
Shenac Dhu held up her hands in astonishment.
"Cut your hair off! Was the like ever heard of?—Nonsense, Christie! she never means it; and Hamish would never let her, besides. She'll look no better than the rest of us without her hair," continued she, taking the heavy braids out of Shenac's hands and pushing her back on the pile of wool from which she had risen. "Christie, tell Shenac about John Cameron, as you told us last night."
While Shenac listened to the account of a sad accident that had happened to a young man from another part of the country, Shenac Dhu let down the long, fair hair of her cousin, and, by the help of an old card that lay near, smoothed it till it lay in waves and ripples of gold far below her waist. Then, as Shenac Bhan still sat, growing pale and red by turns as she listened, she with great care rolled the shining mass into thick curls over neck and shoulders.
"Now stand up and show yourself," said she, as she finished. "Is she not a picture? Christie, you should take her to the town with you and put her up in your husband's shop-window. You would make her fortune and your own too."
Shenac Bhan had this advantage over her cousin, and indeed over most people—that the sun that made them as brown as a berry, after the first few days' exposure left her as fair and unfreckled as ever; and she really was a very pretty picture as she stood laughing and blushing before her cousins. The door opened, and Hamish came in.
"My mother sent me to bid you all come in to tea;" but he stopped as his eye fell on his sister.
"Tea!" cried Shenac Bhan. "I meant to do all that myself. Who would have thought that we had been here so long?" And she made a movement, as if to bind back her hair, that she might hasten away.
"Be quiet; stay till I bid you go," said Shenac Dhu, hastily letting the curls fall again. "I wonder if all the puddles are dried up?—She ought to see herself. Cut them off! The vain creature! Never fear, Hamish."
"Christie is to cut it," said Shenac Bhan, laughing, and holding the wool-shears towards Mrs More. "I must do it, Hamish; it takes such a time to keep it decently neat. My mother does not care, and why should you?"
"Whisht, Hamish," said Shenac Dhu, "you're going to quote Saint Paul and Saint Peter about a woman's hair being a covering and a glory. Don't fash yourself. Why, she would deserve to be a Scots worthy more than George Wishart, or than the woman who was drowned even, if she were to do it!"
"You had your own cut," said Shenac Bhan, looking at her cousin with some surprise. "Why should I not do the same?"
"You are not me. Everybody has not my strength of mind," said Shenac Dhu, nodding gravely.
"Toch! you cut yours that it might grow long and thick like our Shenac's," said Dan, who had been with them for some time. "Think of your hair, and look at this." And he lifted the fair curls admiringly.
Shenac Bhan laughed.
"It's an awful bother, Dan."
"But it would be a pity to lose it. What a lot of it there is!" And the boy walked round his sister, touching it as he went.
"She never meant to do it; but after that she could not," said Shenac Dhu, pretending to whisper.
"Our Shenac never says what she doesn't mean," said Dan hotly.
"Whatever other people's Shenacs do," said Hamish laughing.
Shenac Dhu made as if she would charge him with the great shears.
"Give them to Christie," said Shenac Bhan. "What a work to make about nothing!"
"She does not mean to do it yet," said Shenac Dhu; but she handed the shears to her sister.
"I don't like to do it, Shenac," said Mrs More. "Think how long it will take to grow again; and it is beautiful hair," she added, as she came near and passed her fingers through it.
"Nonsense, Christie, she's not in earnest," persisted Shenac Dhu.
With a quick, impatient motion, Shenac Bhan took the shears from her cousin's hand and severed one—two—three of the bright curls from the mass. Shenac Dhu uttered a cry.
"There! did I not tell you?" cried Dan, forgetting everything else in his triumph over Shenac Dhu. Hamish turned and went out without a word.
"There," said Shenac Bhan; "you must do it now, Christie."
Mrs More took the great shears and began to cut without a word; and no one spoke again till the curls lay in a shining heap at their feet. Then Shenac Dhu drew a long breath, and said,—
"Don't say afterwards it was my fault."
"It was just your fault, Shenac Dhu, you envious, spiteful thing," exclaimed the indignant Dan.
"Nonsense, Cousin Shenac.—Be quiet, Dan. She had nothing to do with it. It has been a trouble all summer, and I'm glad to be rid of it. I only wish I could spin it, like the wool."
"What a lot of it there is!" And Shenac Dhu stooped down and lifted a long tress or two tenderly, as if they had life.
"What will you do with it, Shenac?"
"Burn it, since I cannot make stockings of it. Put them in here." And she held up her apron.
"Will you give your hair to me, Shenac?" asked Mrs More.
"What can you do with it?" asked Shenac in some surprise. "Surely I'll give it to you, so that I hear no more about it." The curls were carefully gathered, and tied in Mrs More's handkerchief.
"Shenac Bhan," said the other Shenac solemnly, "you look like a shorn sheep. I shall never see you again without thinking of the young woman tied to the stake on the sands, and the sea coming up and up—"
"Shenac, be quiet. It is sinful to speak lightly of so solemn a thing," said her sister gravely.
"Solemn!" said Shenac. "Lightly! By no means. I was putting two solemn things together. I don't know which is more solemn. For my part, I would as soon feel the cold water creeping up my back, like—"
"Shenac," said our Shenac entreatingly, "don't say foolish things and vex my mother and Hamish."
Her cousin put her hand on her mouth.
"You have heard my last word."
But the last word about the shining curls was not spoken yet.
The day when the haying was to have commenced was very rainy, and so was every day for a week or more. People were becoming a little anxious as to the getting in of the hay; for in almost all the fields it was more than ripe, and everybody knows that it should not stand long after that. The fields of the Macivors were earlier than those of most people, and Shenac was especially careful to get the hay in at the right time and in good condition, because they had so much less of it than ever before.
And besides, the wheat-harvest was coming on, and where there were so few to help, every day made a difference. Whenever there came a glimpse of sunshine, Dan was out in the field, making good use of his scythe; for mowing was new and exciting work to him, though he had seen it done every summer of his life. It is not every boy of fourteen that could swing a scythe to such good purpose as Dan, and he might be excused for being a little proud and a little unreasonable in the matter. And after all, I daresay he knew quite as much about it as Shenac. When she told him how foolish it was to cut down grass when there was no chance of getting it dried, he only laughed and pointed to the fields of Angus Dhu, where there were three men busy, and acres and acres of grass lying as it had fallen.
"You are a good farmer, Shenac, but Angus Dhu, you must confess, has had more experience, and is a better judge of the weather. We're safe enough to follow him."
There was reason in this, but it vexed Shenac to have Angus Dhu quoted as authority; and it vexed her too that Dan should take the matter into his own hands without regard to her judgment.
"Angus Dhu can get all the help he needs to make the hay when it fairs," said she. "But if we have too much down we shall not be able to manage it right, I'm afraid."
"There's no fear of having too much down. I must keep at it. Where there's only one man to cut, he must keep at it," said Dan gravely. "If you and the rest of the children are busy when the sun shines, you will soon overtake me."
"Only one man!" "You and the rest of the children!" Vexed as Shenac was, she could not help being amused, and fortunately a good deal of her vexation passed away in the laugh, in which Dan heartily joined.
This week of rain was a trying time to Shenac. Nothing could be done out of doors, for the rain was constant and heavy. If she could have had the wheel to herself, she would have got on with the spinning, and that would have been something, she thought. Her mother was spinning, however; and though she could not sit at the wheel all day, she did not like to have her work interfered with, and Shenac could not make use of the time when her mother was not employed, and very little was accomplished. There was mending to be done, which her mother could have done so much better than she could, Shenac thought. But her mother sat at the wheel, and Shenac wearied herself over the shirts and trousers of her brothers, and at last startled herself and every one else by speaking sharply to little Flora and shaking Colin well for bringing in mud on their feet when they came home from school.