George MacDonald with son Ronald (right) and daughter Mary
Upon neighbouring stones, earth-fast, like two islands of an archipelago, in an ocean of heather, sat a boy and a girl, the girl knitting, or, as she would have called it, weaving a stocking, and the boy, his eyes fixed on her face, talking with an animation that amounted almost to excitement. He had great fluency, and could have talked just as fast in good English as in the dialect in which he was now pouring out his ambitions — the broad Saxon of Aberdeen.
He was giving the girl to understand that he meant to be a soldier like his father, and quite as good a one as he. But so little did he know of himself or the world, that, with small genuine impulse to action, and moved chiefly by the anticipated results of it, he saw success already his, and a grateful country at his feet. His inspiration was so purely ambition, that, even if, his mood unchanged, he were to achieve much for his country, she could hardly owe him gratitude.
‘I’ll no hae the warl’ lichtly (make light of) me!’ he said.
‘Mebbe the warl’ winna tribble itsel aboot ye sae muckle as e’en to lichtly ye!’ returned his companion quietly.
‘Ye do naething ither!’ retorted the boy, rising, and looking down on her in displeasure. ‘What for are ye aye girdin at me? A body canna lat his thouchts gang, but ye’re doon upo them, like doos upo corn!’
‘I wadna be girdin at ye, Francie, but that I care ower muckle aboot ye to lat ye think I haud the same opingon o’ ye ’at ye hae o’ yersel,’ answered the girl, who went on with her knitting as she spoke.
‘Ye’ll never believe a body!’ he rejoined, and turned half away. ‘I canna think what gars me keep comin to see ye! Ye haena a guid word to gie a body!’
‘It’s nane ye s’ get frae me, the gait ye’re gaein, Francie! Ye think a heap ower muckle o’ yersel. What ye expec, may some day a’ come true, but ye hae gien nobody a richt to expec it alang wi’ ye, and I canna think, gien ye war fair to yersel, ye wad coont yersel ane it was to be expeckit o’!’
‘I tauld ye sae, Kirsty! Ye never lay ony weicht upo what a body says!’
That depen’s upo the body. Did ye never hear maister Craig p’int oot the differ atween believin a body and believin in a body, Francie?’
‘No — and I dinna care.’
‘I wudna like ye to gang awa thinking I misdoobtit yer word, Francie! I believe onything ye tell me, as far as I think ye ken, but maybe no sae far as ye think ye ken. I believe ye, but I confess I dinna believe in ye — yet. What hae ye ever dune to gie a body ony richt to believe in ye? Ye’re a guid rider, and a guid shot for a laddie, and ye rin middlin fest — I canna say like a deer, for I reckon I cud lick ye mysel at rinnin! But, efter and a’, — ’
‘Wha’s braggin noo, Kirsty?’ cried the boy, with a touch of not ill-humoured triumph.
‘Me,’ answered Kirsty; ‘ — and I’ll do what I brag o’!’ she added, throwing her stocking on the patch of green sward about the stone, and starting to her feet with a laugh. ‘Is’t to be uphill or alang?’
They were near the foot of a hill to whose top went the heather, but along whose base, between the heather and the bogland below, lay an irregular belt of moss and grass, pretty clear of stones. The boy did not seem eager to accept the challenge.
‘There’s nae guid in lickin a lassie!’ he said with a shrug.
‘There mith be guid in tryin to do ’t though — especially gien ye war lickit at it!’ returned the girl.
‘What guid can there be in a body bein lickit at onything?’
‘The guid o’ haein a body’s pride ta’en doon a wee.’
‘I’m no sae sure o’ the guid o’ that! It wud only hand ye ohn tried (from trying) again.’
‘Jist there’s what yer pride dis to ye, Francie! Ye maun aye be first, or ye’ll no try! Ye’ll never du naething for fear o’ no bein able to gang on believin ye cud du ’t better nor ony ither body! Ye dinna want to fin’ oot ’at ye’re naebody in particlar. It’s a sair pity ye wunna hae yer pride ta’en doon. Ye wud be a hantle better wantin aboot three pairts o’ ’t. — Come, I’m ready for ye! Never min’ ’at I’m a lassie: naebody ’ill ken!’
‘Ye hae nae sheen (shoes)!’ objected the boy.
‘Ye can put aff yer ain!’
‘My feet’s no sae hard as yours!’
‘Weel, I’ll put on mine. They’re here, sic as they are. Ye see I want them gangin throuw the heather wi’ Steenie; that’s some sair upo the feet. Straucht up hill throuw the heather, and I’ll put my sheen on!’
‘I’m no sae guid uphill.’
‘See there noo, Francie! Ye tak yersel for unco courteous, and honourable, and generous, and k-nichtly, and a’ that — oh, I ken a’ aboot it, and it’s a’ verra weel sae far as it gangs; but what the better are ye for ’t, whan, a’ the time ye’re despisin a body ’cause she’s but a quean, ye maun hae ilka advantage o’ her, or ye winna gie her a chance o’ lickin ye! — Here! I’ll put on my sheen, and rin ye alang the laich grun’! My sheen’s twice the weicht o’ yours, and they dinna fit me!’
The boy did not dare go on refusing: he feared what Kirsty would say next. But he relished nothing at all in the challenge. It was not fit for a man to run races with a girl: there were no laurels, nothing but laughter to be won by victory over her! and in his heart he was not at all sure of beating Kirsty: she had always beaten him when they were children. Since then they had been at the parish school together, but there public opinion kept the boys and girls to their own special sports. Now Kirsty had left school, and Francis was going to the grammar-school at the county-town. They were both about fifteen. All the sense was on the side of the girl, and she had been doing her best to make the boy practical like herself — hitherto without much success, although he was by no means a bad sort of fellow. He had not yet passed the stage — some appear never to pass it in this world — in which an admirer feels himself in the same category with his hero. Many are content with themselves because they side with those whose ways they do not endeavour to follow. Such are most who call themselves Christians. If men admired themselves only for what they did, their conceit would be greatly moderated.
Kirsty put on her heavy tacketed (hob-nailed)shoes — much too large for her, having been made for her brother — stood up erect, and putting her elbows back, said,
‘I’ll gie ye the start o’ me up to yon stane wi’ the heather growin oot o’ the tap o’ ’t.’
‘Na, na; I’ll hae nane o’ that!’ answered Francis.
‘Fairplay to a’!’
‘Ye’d better tak it!’
‘Aff wi’ ye, or I winna rin at a’!’ cried the boy, — and away they went.
Kirsty contrived that he should yet have a little the start of her — how much from generosity, and how much from determination that there should be nothing doubtful in the result, I cannot say — and for a good many yards he kept it. But if the boy, who ran well, had looked back, he might have seen that the girl was not doing her best — that she was in fact restraining her speed. Presently she quickened her pace, and was rapidly lessening the distance between them, when, becoming aware of her approach, the boy quickened his, and for a time there was no change in their relative position. Then again she quickened her pace — with an ease which made her seem capable of going on to accelerate it indefinitely — and was rapidly overtaking him. But as she drew near, she saw he panted, not a little distressed; whereupon she assumed a greater speed still, and passed him swiftly — nor once looked round or slackened her pace until, having left him far behind, she put a shoulder of the hill between them.
The moment she passed him, the boy flung himself on the ground and lay. The girl had felt certain he would do so, and fancied she heard him flop among the heather, but could not be sure, for, although not even yet at her speed, her blood was making tunes in her head, and the wind was blowing in and out of her ears with a pleasant but deafening accompaniment. When she knew he could see her no longer, she stopped likewise and threw herself down while she was determining whether she should leave him quite, or walk back at her leisure, and let him see how little she felt the run. She came to the conclusion that it would be kinder to allow him to get over his discomfiture in private. She rose, therefore, and went straight up the hill.
About half-way to the summit, she climbed a rock as if she were a goat, and looked all round her. Then she uttered a shrill, peculiar cry, and listened. No answer came. Getting down as easily as she had got up, she walked along the side of the hill, making her way nearly parallel with their late racecourse, passing considerably above the spot where her defeated rival yet lay, and descending at length a little hollow not far from where she and Francis had been sitting.
In this hollow, which was covered with short, sweet grass, stood a very small hut, built of turf from the peat-moss below, and roofed with sods on which the heather still stuck, if, indeed, some of it was not still growing. So much was it, therefore, of the colour of the ground about it, that it scarcely caught the eye. Its walls and its roof were so thick that, small as it looked, it was much smaller inside; while outside it could not have measured more than ten feet in length, eight in width, and seven in height. Kirsty and her brother Steenie, not without help from Francis Gordon, had built it for themselves two years before. Their father knew nothing of the scheme until one day, proud of their success, Steenie would have him see their handiwork; when he was so much pleased with it that he made them a door, on which he put a lock: —
‘For though this be na the kin’ o’ place to draw crook-fingered gentry,’ he said, ‘some gangrel body micht creep in and mak his bed intil ’t, and that lock ’ill be eneuch to haud him oot, I’m thinkin.’
He also cut for them a hole through the wall, and fitted it with a window that opened and shut, which was more than could be said of every window at the farmhouse.
Into this nest Kirsty went, and in it remained quiet until it began to grow dark. She had hoped to find her brother waiting for her, but, although disappointed, chose to continue there until Francis Gordon should be well on his way to the castle, and then she crept out, and ran to recover her stocking.
When she got home, she found Steenie engrossed in a young horse their father had just bought. She would fain have mounted him at once, for she would ride any kind of animal able to carry her; but, as he had never yet been backed, her father would not permit her.
Francis lay for some time, thinking Kirsty sure to come back to him, but half wishing she would not. He rose at length to see whether she was on the way, but no one was in sight. At once the place was aghast with loneliness, as it must indeed have looked to anyone not at peace with solitude. Having sent several ringing shouts, but in vain, after Kirsty, he turned, and, in the descending light of an autumn afternoon, set out on the rather long walk to his home, which was the wearier that he had nothing pleasant at hand to think about.
Passing the farm where Kirsty lived, about two miles brought him to an ancient turreted house on the top of a low hill, where his mother sat expecting him, ready to tyrannize over him as usual, and none the less ready that he was going to leave her within a week.
‘Where have you been all day, Frank?’ she said.
‘I have been a long walk,’ he answered.
‘You’ve been to Corbyknowe!’ she returned. ‘I know it by your eyes. I know by the very colour of them you’re going to deceive me. Now don’t tell me you haven’t been there. I shall not believe you.’
‘I haven’t been near the place, mother,’ said Francis; but as he said it his face glowed with a heat that did not come from the fire. He was not naturally an untruthful boy, and what he said was correct, for he had passed the house half a mile away; but his words gave, and were intended to give the impression that he had not been that day with any of the people of Corbyknowe. His mother objected to his visiting the farmer, but he knew instinctively she would have objected yet more to his spending half the day with Kirsty, whom she never mentioned, and of whom she scarcely recognized the existence. Little as she loved her son, Mrs. Gordon would have scorned to suspect him of preferring the society of such a girl to her own. In truth, however, there were very few of his acquaintance whose company Francis would not have chosen rather than his mother’s — except indeed he was ill, when she was generally very good to him.
‘Well, this once I shall believe you,’ she answered, ‘and I am glad to be able. It is a painful thought to me, Frank, that son of mine should feel the smallest attraction to low company. I have told you twenty times that the man was nothing but a private in your father’s regiment.’
‘He was my father’s friend!’ answered the boy.
‘He tells you so, I do not doubt,’ returned his mother. ‘He was not likely to leave that mouldy old stone unturned.’
The mother sat, and the son stood before her, in a drawing-room whose furniture of a hundred years old must once have looked very modern and new-fangled under windows so narrow and high up, and within walls so thick: without a fire it was always cold. The carpet was very dingy, and the mirrors were much spotted; but the poverty of the room was the respectable poverty of age: old furniture had become fashionable just in time to save it from being metamorphosed by its mistress into a show of gay meanness and costly ugliness. A good fire of mingled peat and coal burned bright in the barrel-fronted steel grate, and shone in the brass fender. The face of the boy continued to look very red in the glow, but still its colour came more from within than from without: he cherished the memory of his father, and did not love his mother more than a little.
‘He has told me a great deal more about my father than ever you did, mother!’ he answered.