Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter VIII.: SECLUSION NOT PEACE - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 2
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Chapter VIII.: SECLUSION NOT PEACE - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 2 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1832). Vol. 2.
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SECLUSION NOT PEACE
Murdoch's day of adversity—a day long anticipated by his landlord —was come at last. The fever ran through the family; one of the boys died, and Murdoch himself and his daughter Meg had the greatest difficulty in struggling through. No use had been made of years of tolerable health and prosperity, to store up any resources against a change of times. Murdoch had neither money, food, nor clothes laid by; the most he ever aimed at was to reproduce his capital; if he did more, the surplus was immediately spent; if less, no exertion was made to restore the balance, and he therefore grew gradually poorer. He had already let some of his land out of cultivation, and got his rent lowered in consequence, with due warning, however, that, if the estate was let down any further, he must give up his farm to a better tenant. This winter of illness having consumed more of his little capital, he must have given up at once, if it had not been for Angus's care, skill, and industry. The utmost that all those qualities could do, was to keep up the place in its present extent. It was in vain to think of reclaiming what had become wild, of increasing the stock, or of making any new arrangements of land or buildings; and whatever was effected would not have sufficed to pay the rent and recompense Angus, if the establishment of a communication with a market, and a consequent rise of prices, had not been in prospect. Angus built up the fence, manured the ground, and sowed it with the laird's seed, and then spent the months of winter in bringing the place into such repair as might enable him to proceed to further operations upon the soil in spring.
When Murdoch was so far recovered as to go abroad and see what had been done, he quarrelled with everything he beheld. This was partly from the fretfulness of sickness, but much more from jealousy of Angus. He felt, but would not own, a considerable surprise at the extent of the repairs, well knowing that there was no money of his with, which to carry them on. He affected to be angry at the extravagance, saying that he had always wished to see his place in good condition, but had never thought it right to afford such an outlay; and that they who took upon them to make it might pay the rent. Angus good humouredly explained that one part helped another; the stones of the field to build up the wall, the weeds of the shore to manure the soil, the turf of the bog to cover the cow-shed, and so on.
“And pray, how is all to be paid at last,—the laird, and you, and everybody?”
“Out of the crops, if at all.”
“Ye may well say, ‘if at all.’ The crops never did more than just discharge the rent yet; and here's the funeral, and you, and the doctor, to pay besides.”
“Your barley and oats will sell higher at Oban, or in yon islands, than the price you have reckoned it at with Mr. Callum. When you go with me to sell your crops, or let me sell them for you——”
“You shall never do that, Mr. Angus.”
“As you please, neighbour. As I was saying, it will come to the same thing, if Mr. Callum, knowing you can get a higher price than formerly, takes less for your rent: I shall, of course, be willing to receive my wages in kind, at the same rate; and I hope you may find yourself clear, neighbour, before the next season begins. One ought not to expect more—”
Murdoch laughed bitterly, choosing to suppose that Angus was mocking him. Angus went on,
“Now that you are out of doors again, and have a prospect of being able to work before long, our business will go on faster and more cheerily, and——”
“Cease your mocking!” cried Murdoch, angrily. “You talk to me of work, and I have no more strength than Rob there, when he creeps out into the sunshine like a field-mouse in March, and slinks back again, at the first breath of wind, like a scarce-fledged sea-fowl.”
“I see you are tired, even now,” said Angus, offering him his shoulder to lean upon. “You had better sit on the bench, instead of standing to fatigue yourself; but, as I was saying, it is a great thing to have got out at all, and the power to work will come in time, and then all may go as well as ever with your farm.”
Murdoch was in no humour to believe this; he tottered without assistance to a seat, and sat watching with many bitter feelings the exertions of Angus, to whom he owed thanks instead of jealousy for the activity of his labour. An idle and unjust suspicion had entered his mind, and never afterwards quitted it.
“He wants to supplant me,” he said to himself. “He plies his spade with as much pleasure as if he was setting his foot on my neck at every stroke. He wants to have the rent fall short that he may get the farm himself, and that is why he tries to flatter me that there will be enough to pay every body; that is why he talks so humbly and smoothly about his own wages; that is why his goods are all brought here and stored in Ella'a cottage instead of being landed in Lorn, where all his kin used to live. O aye, he thinks to settle here. But if I cannot keep my farm, that is no reason why he should have it; and Mr. Callum is against him, which is a good thing. I have long meant to give up, and I will do it now, unknown to him, that Callum may let the farm to somebody else over his head. I'll be beforehand with him; and as for what I am to do myself, it will go hard if I cannot get my living by fishing if a woman like Ella can.”
This scheme was no whim of the moment. Murdoch had turned it over in his mind as he lay in the fever, irritated by confinement to which he was little accustomed, harassed by grief, and ready to look on the dark side of every thing. While recovering, he had softened towards Angus, and been sorry for the harsh thoughts he had entertained of him; but mortified vanity now recalled his jealousy, and he was ready, for the sake of baffling the suspected designs of a supposed enemy, to take a precipitate step which might ruin his family. He now determined to probe the intentions of Angus, and himself played the traitor in trying to discover treachery which did not exist.
“I wonder how,” said he, the next time Angus came within hearing, “I wonder how you would set about the management of this place,—so well as you think of it,—if you were the tenant.”
“The first thing I should do,” said Angus, looking up into the sky and watching a black speck which was wheeling just beneath the fleecy clouds, “would be to get at yon eagle that does so much mischief among the fowls. I think the eyrie might be easily found, and should be if you were strong enough to fasten the rope.”
Murdoch answered impatiently, supposing that Angus wished to evade his question; “I am not asking you about the fowls, man. I want to know what you would do with the land if you had a long lease of it?”
“I would spend all the capital I have upon it and get more as soon as I could, and improve the powers of the soil to the utmost, for I am sure it would repay me; at least if a market was opened.”
“Aye, that would be very well if you had a long lease; but if it was a short one?”
“I should still do the same. I would keep the whole in complete repair, and try to remedy the lightness of the soil; and when I had got one good crop, I would apply the profit to taking in again the land that has been let out of tillage, and—”
“That is, you would do exactly as you are doing now till you could get power to do more.”
“What a fool he takes me for!” said Murdoch to himself. “He does not trouble himself to use any deceit.—But, Angus, you forget that your rent would be raised presently, and would take away all your profit. You see mine has been lowered since I let yon fields out of tillage.”
“And have your profits increased again? Rent follows prices instead of leading them. Your rent was lowered in consequence of your losing, and mine would be raised in consequence of my gaining; so that I should have clear gain at first as you had clear loss.”
“Hold your tongue about my losses!” cried Murdoch, in a greater passion than ever.
“I beg your pardon, neighbour,” said Angus, “I forgot for the moment that you were not well yet, and I was led on by what you were saying about rent. To put you in heart again, then— when I was standing looking abroad from yonder crag, I thought what a fine thing might be made of this farm, when once a means of conveyance is set up.”
“I dare say ye did,” muttered Murdoch.
“I saw far off on the north shore, grown men and women as well as children picking up shellfish, and I thought how glad they would be to barter for oatmeal or barley if a boat touched regularly with supplies. I looked into all the deep dells, and not a patch of tillage did I see over the whole island but here, and Ella's single field. I saw the few lean cattle on the moorland there, and thought that if the pasture was improved as it might be, what a fine thing it would be for us all to be supplied with meat. Then the sea towards Oban looked quite tempting, for it was as blue as in summer, and the islands as fair as they seemed when I was a boy, and every rock so well known to me, above or below the water.”
“Well; what has all this to do with my farm?”
“Why, that I longed to be taking my first trip; going with my vessel heaving slowly over the swell, heavily laden with all our produce, and then coming back dancing over the billows as if it was no more than a skiff, and with little other weight to carry than myself and the winnings in my pocket.”
“And you would wish me joy and long life in my farm when you brought me my money, I suppose?”
“To be sure I should: as I do now, and ever have done. Murdoch!” he continued after a pause, “I cannot let you think me such a fool as not to discern that you have some jealousy against me. I have seen enough of the world to know what is meant by such a smile and speech as yours at this moment. Don't let us have any quarrel, for I know you cannot bear it just now; but do keep in mind that I like plain speaking, and would rather know at once when I have offended you.”
Murdoch waived him away contemptuously with his staff, calling his wife to come and hear the news that Angus loved plain speaking. She joined in the laugh, and the invalid Meg came creeping forth from the corner of the hearth, braving the open air for the sake of witnessing the quarrel,—a frequent amusement of highland women. Angus meanwhile was wondering what all this could mean, but was little more tempted to be angry with Murdoch in his present state than he would have been with a cross child. Presently it occurred to him that they might be offended at his never having alluded to his prospect of marrying Ella, they being relations of her's though very distant ones.
“You mean, neighbours,” said he, “that you would have liked me to be more open about my future plans.”—Here they exchanged glances.—
“But I left them to be told by the one, from whom you had a better title to hear them.”
“So he has spoken to Callum already,” thought Murdoch, “and has the art to be beforehand with me after all.”
“If you had heard all from that one, or by some accident before you learned it from me, you ought not to blame me, for you could hardly expect me to be the first to mention it.”
“It would not have been delicate, I warrant, Mr. Angus.”
“I think not, considering how the parties stand to each other: but I am sure if I had thought you would have taken offence, I would have told you long ago.”
“And pray how long has it all been settled?”
“Since the autumn.”
“From the very time you landed?”
“From the very day after.”—Looks more fierce than ever.
“And pray how was your proposal received?”
“Nay,” cried Angus, now angry in his turn, “you push me too far. I have been meek enough while your questions and your sneers regarded only myself. I shall not satisfy your curiosity further, and I am sorry I have borne so much. You may well laugh at delicacy, for you do not know what it is.”
So saying he took a rope with him and went out to war against the eagle, intending to ask Fergus to accompany him with his gun and to remain out the whole day as the best means of avoiding deadly feuds. He left the Murdochs wondering that, after bearing quietly so much reproach and contempt, he should fly off at last through delicacy to Mr. Callum. Never was misunderstanding more complete.
Ella was in the field when Angus appeared on the height. She saw by his step that something had ruffled him, and she hastened towards him to know what had happened. His first words were,—
“Where is Fergus? can he go with me eagle-nesting?”
“How happens it that you have time for sport?” replied Ella. “I thought the season would be too short for your tasks at tim farm.”
“Our poultry suffers,” replied Angus, “We must demolish the eyrie.”
“That is not your only reason, I am sure. Tell me what has happened.—The laird says rightly that neighbours who ought to be the more friendly because they are few, are often the first to quarrel; but you would not quarrel, especially with the Murdochs, and less than ever now?”
“I would not willingly. I tried all I could. But, Ella, when did you tell them of our plans?”
“Never,” said Ella, colouring; “nor did I mean it till summer.”
“Somebody has told, however.”
“Impossible; nobody knows it but the two boys; and they might be trusted as if they were dumb.”
Angus explained, and both conjectured, and the two lads passed their word that they had never told. There was no catching the little bird that had carried the matter; so the two sportsmen set out in chase of the great bird which was their further aim.
“O, Angus,” said Ella; “are ye certain your eye is as steady and your foot as sure as when this was your daily sport?”
“Fear nothing,” said Angus, smiling. “I long to be dangling over the surf again, with the sea fowl flapping and screaming about me, and I feeling myself lord, like a lion in a wood of chattering monkeys. You see we take heed to stake and rope, and that done, all is safe. I will bring you home an egg that shall beat all that Archie ever gave you.”
“I am glad your sport will be out of his sight, or he would be wanting to imitate you. Do you know, we have had to give him a cask to stow his goods in, as we pack our herrings and the kelp. Ronald has carried it over to the Storr and put it under a ledge where it cannot get wet, and Archie is busy filling it to-day.”
“He learns to imitate more and more.”
“He does; and so haste away lest he should come and find out what that rope is for. O, be back before the dusk, lest I should doubt your care for Ronald and me.”
“I will remember Ronald,” said Fergus, laughing as he shouldered his gun—“I leave the rest to Angus.”
Angus found that his favourite sport had lost none of its charms for having been long unpactised. He forgot his wrath when he found himself alone with Fergus in the wild region which the sea-eagles had chosen for their abode. He loved it all the better for having beheld other scenes of sublimity with which he could contrast it. While climbing steep rocky paths, or springing from one point to another where there was no path at all, while looking round in vain for traces of any but marine vegetation, and casting a glance over an expanse which appeared to have no boundary, he related to Fergus what he bad seen in the forests of Canada: how the grass and underwood grow tangled and high, so as to make it difficult to proceed a step; how the trees prevent any thing being seen beyond the stems around; and how, by climbing the highest, no other view can be obtained than closewoven tree-tops spreading, apparently so firm that you might walk over them, as far as the horizon.
“Hist!” said Fergus. “There he sits! his mate is just below on the nest, no doubt. Shall I fire, or wait till he soars?”
“Wait!” said Angus; and he paused to watch the majestic bird, perched on the extreme edge of a jutting crag, and apparently looking abroad for prey. He was motionless, his dusky wings being folded, his black shining talons clasping the verge of the rock, and his large brilliant eye seeming fixed on some object too remote to be distinguishable by human sight. Fergus was going to speak again, but his companion stopped him, only allowing him to intimate by describing a hook, bending his fingers and shuddering, how he pitied the prey that was even now fated to perish under such a beak and talons. Surprised that they were unperceived, and wishing to remain so, Angus pulled his companion back under the brow of the crag to await the departure of the monarch of this solitude. Presently they heard a rushing sound,—whether from a blast among the crags or from the flight of the eagle, they did not for a moment know; but they immediately saw him soaring high and abroad with that peculiar mode of flight which shows that the eagle is not winging his way homewards, but that there is prey beneath. His cry was distinctly heard, even when he was scarcely visible, and it was answered by one so near them that they both started.
“Now, now,” said Angus, “while he is afar, up, Fergus, and fix the stake! Is your gun loaded? You must shoot her as she hovers, while I take the egg.”
“Wait one moment,” cried Fergus. “He will drop this instant. There, there! see him pounce! He drops plump as if he was made of lead. It is but an instant since he was almost too high and the surge too low to be heard, and now he is like a speck among the foam below.”
With all speed, the stake was made fast, the rope secured at one end to this support, and at the other round Angus's waist. When the knots had been tried and found to be firm, the sports men raised a shrill cry to alarm the mate, and the one prepared to take aim and the other to descend as soon as she should rise. In the midst of the din she rushed forth, was immediately struck beneath the wing, and fell fluttering, tumbling, and screaming, from one point to another of the rocks, mingling her dying cry with the distant echoes of the shot. Angus was by this time scrambling to find the nest, sometimes dangling at the end of the rope and buffeted by the sudden gales as they passed, sometimes finding a step for the foot and a hold for the hand, and a resting place where he could pause for an instant. When he discovered the nest, his heart almost smote him for thus taking by storm the palace of the king of the birds; till the sight of scattered feathers and of a few bones reconciled him to the destruction of the formidable enemies of the farm-yard. The large egg was yet warm. Angus put it in his pouch, sent the stray feathers down the wind, cleared out the hole completely, so as to leave no temptation to the enemy to return, and then ascended.
“You have been quick,” observed Fergus, “yet there he is, just below yon cloud, and with a prey in his talons.”
“One can make more speed with an eagle's nest than with a gannet's,” replied Angus. “One is not dizzied with the flapping of more wings than one can count, or stunned with the din of more cries than one's brain will easily bear. Yonder bird is truly the monarch of the wild now. I could pity him, but for the thought of our fowls.”
“If I were he,” said Fergus, “I would finish my lonely meal, he, and away to find another mate.”
“So would not I,” said Angus; “as long as my dead mate lay below, I would sit all day and watch; and when the tides sweep her bones away, I would build again in the same nook for her sake.”
“But do not you mean to carry her home?” asked Fergus. “She lies within reach from the shore. Let us go back that way.”
“With all my heart, and as we have time, we may as well make a circuit by the bog, and send a shot each among the wild fowl. Perhaps Murdoch may thank me for bringing such game when he has forgotten my offences.”
“If he does not thank you,” said Fergus, “I know somebody else who will.”
The bird they had shot was in the agonies of death when they arrived where she lay. Her claws were rigid, a film was over her piercing eye; a faint gasping through the open beak, and a feeble fluttering of the extended wings as she lay on her back, were the only signs of life. Angus put her out of pain, slung her over his shoulder, and proceeded to his sport where sport never fails,—among the pools where wild-fowl collect.
No alarm was excited by their appearance on the margin of the reedy pool where the fowl were diving, splashing, sailing or brooding, as suited their several inclinations. They seemed as tame as farm-yard ducks and geese, and were, indeed, little more accustomed to the report of a gun than they: for Fergus had seldom time for sport, and no one in Garveloch but himself and his brother ever fired a shot. He now offered his gun to Angus.
“You disdain such game after having brought down an eagle,” said Angus, laughing. “All in their turns say I; so now for it.” And another moment made prodigious havoc and bustle among the fowl. As the smoke was wafted from over the pool and slowly dispersed, what a flitting and skimming and huddling together was there on the surface and in the inlets; what a cluttering and cackling of the living, what a feeble cry from the dying, while the dead floated in the eddy made by their terrified companions!
“Two, four, five at the first shot! Well done, Angus! If the bird-king be still watching us, what murderous wretches he will think us!”
“He will revenge his species, perhaps, when the darkness, that is a thick curtain to us, is only a transparent veil to him. He can carry off a kid or a fowl at midnight as well as when he has been staring at the sun. But I hope he will go and seek society, for we have no more prey to spare him. Come, take your aim, and then let us be gone, for the shadows are settling down in the hollows, and we have a difficult way to make homewards.”
Ella was watching for them; not that they were late, but she had new perplexities to relate. She had been up to the farm to try to re-establish a good understanding; for which purpose she made a greater effort and was more ready with concessions than she would have been if the family had been well and prosperous. On explaining to them the reasons why she had not communicated her intended connexion with Angus, she was surprised, and scarcely knew whether or not to be vexed, to find that they had no suspicion of the matter. The interview threw no light whatever on the cause of offence; and Ella came away understanding nothing more than that they seemed to think themselves injured, and had refused to let Angus set foot on their premises again till they should have seen Mr. Callum.
The affair was, of course, more mysterious than ever to Angus, who, however, was less troubled at it than his betrothed.
“I will work for you and Ronald instead, till Mr. Callum comes, or till my boat is ready for her first trip. You will neither of you pay me with abuse, and turn me out as if I had robbed you.”
“We shall not be made fretful by illness, I trust.”
“True; thank you, for putting me in mind of that. I will nourish no anger, and will go at once if they send for me. If they do, I hope it will be while my game is good. I shall be all the better received if I carry a handful of wild ducks, which invalids like better than smoked geese that eat as tough as theirs. I wish they would learn from you, Ella, how to cure their geese,—and many other things.”