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PORTLOSSIE AND SCAURNOSE
Meantime things were going rather badly at Portlossie and Scaurnose; and the factor was the devil of them. Those who had known him longest said he must be fey, that is doomed, so strangely altered was his behaviour. Others said he took more counsel with his bottle than had been his wont, and got no good from it. Almost all the fishers found him surly, and upon some he broke out in violent rage, while to certain whom he regarded as Malcolm's special friends, he carried himself with cruel oppression. The notice to leave at midsummer clouded the destiny of Joseph Mair and his family, and every householder in the two villages believed that to take them in would be to call down the like fate upon himself. But Meg Partan at least was not to be intimidated. Her outbursts of temper were but the hurricanes of a tropical heart--not much the less true and good and steadfast that it was fierce. Let the factor rage as he would, Meg was absolute in her determination that, if the cruel sentence was carried out, which she hardly expected, her house should be the shelter of those who had received her daughter when her severity had driven her from her home. That would leave her own family and theirs three months to look out for another abode. Certain of Blue Peter's friends ventured a visit of intercession to the factor, and were received with composure and treated with consideration until their object appeared, when his wrath burst forth so wildly that they were glad to escape without having to defend their persons: only the day before had he learned with certainty from Miss Horn that Malcolm was still in the service of the marchioness, and in constant attendance upon her when she rode. It almost maddened him. He had for some time taken to drinking more toddy after his dinner, and it was fast ruining his temper: his wife, who had from the first excited his indignation against Malcolm, was now reaping her reward. To complete the troubles of the fisher folk, the harbour at Portlossie had, by a severe equinoctial storm, been so filled with sand as to be now inaccessible at lower than half tide, nobody as yet having made it his business to see it attended to.
But, in the midst of his anxieties about Florimel and his interest in Clementina, Malcolm had not been forgetting them. As soon as he was a little settled in London, he had written to Mr Soutar, and he to architects and contractors, on the subject of a harbour at Scaurnose. But there were difficulties, and the matter had been making but slow progress. Malcolm, however, had insisted, and in consequence of his determination to have the possibilities of the thing thoroughly understood, three men appeared one morning on the rocks at the bottom of the cliff on the west side of the Nose. The children of the village discovered them, and carried the news; whereupon, the men being all out in the bay, the women left their work and went to see what the strangers were about. The moment they were satisfied that they could make nothing of their proceedings, they naturally became suspicious. To whom the fancy first occurred, nobody ever knew, but such was the unhealthiness of the moral atmosphere of the place, caused by the injustice and severity of Mr Crathie, that, once suggested, it was universally received that they were sent by the factor--and that for a purpose only too consistent with the treatment Scaurnose, they said, had invariably received ever since first it was the dwelling of fishers! Had not their fathers told them how unwelcome they were to the lords of the land? And what rents had they not to pay! and how poor was the shelter for which they did so much--without a foot of land to grow a potato in! To crown all, the factor was at length about to drive them in a body from the place--Blue Peter first, one of the best as well as the most considerable men among them! His notice to quit was but the beginning of a clearance. It was easy to see what those villains were about--on that precious rock, their only friend, the one that did its best to give them the sole shadow of harbourage they had, cutting off the wind from the northeast a little, and breaking the eddy round the point of the Nose! What could they be about but marking the spots where to bore the holes for the blasting powder that should scatter it to the winds, and let death and destruction, and the wild sea howling in upon Scaurnose, that the cormorant and the bittern might possess it, the owl and the raven dwell in it? But it would be seen what their husbands and fathers would say to it when they came home! In the meantime they must themselves do what they could. What were they men's wives for, if not to act for their husbands when they happened to be away?
The result was a shower of stones upon the unsuspecting surveyors, who forthwith fled, and carried the report of their reception to Mr Soutar at Duff Harbour. He wrote to Mr Crathie, who till then had heard nothing of the business; and the news increased both his discontent with his superiors, and his wrath with those whom he had come to regard as his rebellious subjects. The stiff necked people of the Bible was to him always now, as often he heard the words, the people of Scaurnose and the Seaton of Portlossie. And having at length committed this overt outrage, would he not be justified by all in taking more active measures against them?
When the fishermen came home and heard how their women had conducted themselves, they accepted their conjectures, and approved of their defence of the settlement. It was well for the land loupers, they said, that they had only the women to deal with.
Blue Peter did not so soon hear of the affair as the rest, for his Annie had not been one of the assailants. But when the hurried retreat of the surveyors was described to him in somewhat graphic language by one of those concerned in causing it, he struck his clenched fist in the palm of his other hand, and cried,
"Weel saired! There! that's what comes o' yer new--"
He had all but broken his promise, as he had already broken his faith to Malcolm, when his wife laid her hand on his mouth and stopped the issuing word. He started with sudden conviction and stood for a moment in absolute terror at sight of the precipice down which he had been on the point of falling, then straightway excusing himself to his conscience on the ground of non intent, was instantly angrier with Malcolm than before. He could not reflect that the disregarded cause of the threatened sin was the greater sin of the two. The breach of that charity which thinketh no evil maybe a graver fault than a hasty breach of promise.
Peter had not been improving since his return from London. He found less satisfaction in his religious exercises; was not unfrequently clouded in temper, occasionally even to sullenness; referred things oftener than formerly to the vileness of the human nature, but was far less willing than before to allow that he might himself be wrong; while somehow the Bible had no more the same plenitude of relation to the wants of his being, and he rose from the reading of it unrefreshed. Men asked each other what had come to Blue Peter, but no one could answer the question. For himself, he attributed the change, which he could not but recognise, although he did not understand it, to the withdrawing of the spirit of God, in displeasure that he had not merely allowed himself to be inveigled into a playhouse, but, far worse, had enjoyed the wickedness he saw there. When his wife reasoned that God knew he had gone in ignorance, trusting his friend, he cried,
"What 's that to him wha judges richteous judgment? What's a' oor puir meeserable excuzes i' the een 'at can see throu' the wa's o' the hert! Ignorance is no innocence."
Thus he lied for God! pleading his cause on the principles of hell. But the eye of his wife was single, and her body full of light; therefore to her it was plain that neither the theatre nor his conscience concerning it was the cause of the change: it had to do with his feelings towards Malcolm. He wronged his Friend in his heart, half knew it, but would not own it. Fearing to search himself, he took refuge in resentment, and to support his hard judgment, put false and cruel interpretations on whatever befell. So that, with love and anger and wrong acknowledged, his heart was full of bitterness.
"It 's a' the drumblet (muddied, troubled) luve o' 'im!" said Annie to herself. "Puir fallow! gien only Ma'colm wad come hame, an' lat him ken he 's no the villain he taks him for. I'll no believe mysel' 'at the laad I kissed like my ain mither's son afore he gaed awa' wad turn like that upo' 's 'maist the meenute he was oot o' sicht, an' a' for a feow words aboot a fulish play actin'. Lord bliss us a'! markises is men.
"We'll see, Peter, my man," she said, when the neighbour took her leave, "whether the wife, though she hasna' been to the ill place, an' that's surely Lon'on, canna tell the true frae the Cause full better nor her man, 'at kens sae muckle mair nor she wants to ken? Lat sit an' lat see."
Blue Peter made no reply; but perhaps the deepest depth in his fall was that he feared his wife might be right, and he have one day to stand ashamed before both her and his friend. But there are marvellous differences in the quality of the sins of different men, and a noble nature like Peter's would have to sink far indeed to be beyond redemption. Still there was one element mingling with his wrongness whose very triviality increased the difficulty of long delaying repentance: he had been not a little proud at finding himself the friend of a marquis. From the first they had been friends, when the one was a youth and the other a child, and had been out together in many a stormy and dangerous sea. More than once or twice, driven from the churlish ocean to the scarce less inhospitable shore, they had lain all night in each other's arms to keep the life awake within their frozen garments. And now this marquis spoke English to him! It rankled!
All the time Blue Peter was careful to say nothing to injure Malcolm in the eyes of his former comrades. His manner when his name was mentioned, however, he could not honestly school to the conveyance of the impression that things were as they had been betwixt them. Folk marked the difference, and it went to swell the general feeling that Malcolm had done ill to forsake a seafaring life for one upon which all fishermen must look down with contempt. Some in the Seaton went so far in their enmity as even to hint at an explanation of his conduct in the truth of the discarded scandal which had laid Lizzy's child at his door.
But amongst them was one who, having wronged him thus, and been convinced of her error, was now so fiercely his partisan as to be ready to wrong the whole town in his defence: that was Meg Partan, properly Mistress Findlay, Lizzy's mother. Although the daughter had never confessed, the mother had yet arrived at the right conclusion concerning the father of her child--how, she could hardly herself have told, for the conviction had grown by accretion; a sign here and a sign there, impalpable save to maternal sense, had led her to the truth; and now, if anyone had a word to say against Malcolm, he had better not say it in the hearing of the Partaness.
One day Blue Peter was walking home from the upper town of Portlossie, not with the lazy gait of the fisherman off work, poised backwards, with hands in trouser pocket, but stooping care laden with listless swinging arms. Thus Meg Partan met him--and of course attributed his dejection to the factor.
"Deil ha'e 'im for an upsettin' rascal 'at hasna pride eneuch to haud him ohn lickit the gentry's shune! The man maun be fey! I houp he may, an' I wuss I saw the beerial o' 'im makin' for the kirkyaird. It's nae ill to wuss weel to a' body 'at wad be left! His nose is turnt twise the colour i' the last twa month. He'll be drinkin' byous. Gien only Ma'colm MacPhail had been at hame to haud him in order!"
Peter said nothing, and his silence, to one who spake out whatever came, seemed fuller of restraints and meanings than it was. She challenged it at once.
"Noo, what mean ye by sayin' naething, Peter? Guid kens it's the warst thing man or woman can say o' onybody to haud their tongue. It's a thing I never was blamed wi' mysel', an' I wadna du't."
"That's verra true," said Peter.
"The mair weicht's intill't whan I lay 't to the door o' anither," persisted Meg. "Peter, gien ye ha'e onything again' my freen' Ma'colm MacPhail, oot wi' 't like a man, an' no playac' the gunpoother plot ower again. Ill wull's the warst poother ye can lay i' the boddom o' ony man's boat. But say at ye like, I s' uphaud Ma'colm again' the haill poustie o' ye. Gien he was but here! I say't again, honest laad!"
But she could not rouse Peter to utterance, and losing what little temper she had, she rated him soundly, and sent him home saying with the prophet Jonah, "Do I not well to be angry?" for that also he placed to Malcolm's account. Nor was his home any more a harbour for his riven boat, seeing his wife only longed for the return of him with whom his spirit chode: she regarded him as an exiled king, one day to reappear, and justify himself in the eyes of all, friends and enemies.
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