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Ardenmohr
Chapter VII. - Alone on the Hills.—After-Dinner Science.—On Aristocratic Descent—and not from Adam


AS PROPOUNDED BY-

The modern sage—
Who, by geology surmising
How much man’s wisdom needs revising,
Dethrones at once his lore and pride
With fossil bones, and what beside,
By grabbing far in womb of time,
When monster lizards lived in slime—
With mud Silurian quickly poses
Those who believe the Books of Moses;
Then, by development of races,
From newts a Newton clearly traces;
Proves Eden’s garden all a myth,
Unfit for, and not suited with,
Amphibious parents who were nursed
In mud, as other things at first—
And clearly, therefore, like the rest,
Were toads or tadpoles at the best:
But after a few million ages
Their progeny, by lengthen’d stages,
Gain’d limbs and wits more nearly human,
Articulation and acumen,
Progress’d (as shown by retrospection,
And Darwin’s process of selection)—
Frog, fish, bat, bear, and chimpanzee,
Gorilla, bush-man, yon and me;
Then this grand progress drops the veil
Just when our grandsires drop their tail.
“Is this my faith, sweet sages? No, no;
Think I’m an ape? Why, cui bono!”

S. Abbott.

I had been telling Major Duncan of some curious stones which I had seen on the hill, and as he expressed a desire for a specimen, I, this morning, rose early, and went off before breakfast to find some pieces of these stones.

Although a bad riser, when I can conquer sluggishness I do enjoy an early stroll. And this morning was perfection—grey and still, yet no mist; and as I joyfully breasted the hill, feeling the cool dry air, and breathing oxygen, ozone, or whatever stimulating gases do most abound on the hills on early morn, I felt a sort of remorse for past inaction, and even made resolves—alas, too fleeting!

The grouse were flying hither and thither, and crowing on the heather knolls; while overhead great flights of garrulous jackdaws were coming from the rocks for their day’s thieving and mischief.

Sad miscreants, these dwarf corbies; they pry everywhere, from the hill-top to the hen-roost, and devour anything, from a ehiek-pheasant to a dead cat. I remember, some years ago, when the keeper at a Highland shooting-quarter had reared the young of capercailzie grouse, and black game, by setting the eggs under domestic fowls, the little game birds were thriving wonderfully, and it was interesting to watch the shy youngsters running in and out amongst the pine branches spread on the lawn for their shelter; but these pests, the jackdaws, destroyed them all, chiefly by picking out the eyes of the poor things, and the experiment of home-rearing was never there tried again.

I got specimens of the stones, and was back in good time, but, on going in to breakfast, I was worried by the whole fraternity. Ward and Fred asked impressively if it was dyspepsy or headache sent me out so early, and the ungrateful Major said I must be "fey.”

“Ha! what is fey?” asked Fred.

“It is a Scotch word, Freddy. Any one who reverses his usual habits is said to be ‘fey,’ and that he will die soon. A churlish person, for instance, becoming bland—a miser doing a liberal thing—or a noodle saying a witty one.”

“Oh dear! poor Mr. Abbott is doomed,” sighed Fred; “and so near the twelfth—very annoying, is it not, Major?”

"Well, there is some chance for him, as this is hardly a decided case, and Abbott has possibly been before out early. Give him the benefit of the doubt.”

It was settled that this day should be devoted to making up arrears of letters, &c., too long delayed, and perhaps it was as well, the weather being rather bright for fishing. To-morrow was arranged for a visit to some small lochs on the east range of hill, where, Archie said, we should find snipe and probably some teal; and the day following fixed for a salmon chasseon the river. So, having dawdled over breakfast, and enjoyed a social pipe under the old fir-tree, I took my writing-case and note-book, and went off to scribble in a favourite hollow on the hill-side.

This place is a pet retreat of mine, and I can hardly tell why, as there are others equally accessible, and where the views are finer. How is it that one takes to particular places and persons irrespective of any definite excellence? Of the men I meet I prefer the company of certain individuals, not necessarily the wisest or best-mannered; but they suit me somehow; and, like the distaste, to Dr. Fell, the reason why I cannot tell. As to places, Puss and Ponto affect certain nooks for shade or sunshine, and most people do so likewise. I wonder if the French cynic means to indicate the indiffevents when he says that a good digestion and a bad heart are the grand requisites for happiness; for there are people who, provided things about them he comfortable, care little for places or persons.

“Ilalte la I” whispers my mental mentor; “all men are not bundles of whims like yourself.”

True, 0 Mentor; but, en revanche, the want of a little fancy and geniality usually indicates the shell of a human mollusc, not a nice sort of person for a friend. I plead for no extremes—in fact, plead for nothing; so permit me, good Mentor, to get any whims that may crop up among the heather.

In an hour or two I had finished my letters, &c., so, placing the whole in a safe corner, I set off to explore the terra incognita away to the north-east march of the moors. Many people might find such a walk lonely and tiresome, but to me it is delightful. The day bright and hot, but the air, notwithstanding, pure and bracing, and I passed lightly over miles of springy heather, every now and then coming to new peeps of rugged eorries and lonely little glens, and at last I reached a gap in the hills opening on cultivated fields and fir-woods.

I now found, by looking at my pocket-map of Ardenmohr, that I was near the march, and about five miles from the Lodge, so I turned to the right, and went along the course of a brawling burn till I came to a black wood, part of the indigenous forest that once covered so much of the Scottish moorland. None of the trees were of great size, but many had a look of great antiquity, and, on going through the wood, scarce a living thing was seen or heard, save a few tiny woodpeckers creeping on the great boles of the trees, and a pair of “scraichin” jays flitting about the dense crowns of the pines. All through the wood the underground is mostly open; but in some parts, especially near the end, I found a wilderness of bush, huge bramble, juniper, and dense 'willows—cover enough for a wild elephant or a covey of rocs.

Apropos of rocs, what has become of those charming children’s stories of old times? And what dry waifs of fiddle-faddle and false morality now supersede them! For our poor town boys in these delicate times have no fight and make friends, no snow forts, no Sindbad the Sailor, no Bluebeard, except now and then in pantomime. Country boys have rough play, and do well enough. Oh, the delight to a boy, when school and snow-ball fights were over for the day, to sit on the hearth-rug by a mother’s foot, and read the "Forty Thieves ” or "Gulliver’s Travels!” After-life has not many pleasures in store to beat these feelings of stirring adventure, combined with the sweet sense of love and home security.

After passing through the black wood, I took along a rough hollow—nice lying for game—rock, fern, and gorse in wild confusion, interspersed with clumps of hazel and birch. Here I saw a good promise of black game, and, at the end of the hollow, I started three roe-deer; they broke out to the open hill, but soon stopped, and took a good look at me; then, changing their minds, they turned to the wood, and sped swiftly back to cover.

When I had gone a little farther I met the game-watcher of this side of the grounds, and went with him to inspect some vermin-stamps. There was nothing in the stamps but a carrion, crow and a weasel.

The first is the worst of enemies to game-birds. I look on the hoodie as more mischievous than the falcon, which hunts so far and wide after game and wild-fowl, as she only knocks down a grouse or a black-cock now and then about any one place; but the “hoodie crow” haunts the same range day after day, and is, besides, peculiarly destructive to the eggs and young of grouse, and she is continually on the outlook. The common rook sometimes pilfers eggs. I. saw one take the whole of the eggs in succession from a wild duck’s nest on an island, and although I shouted at the outrage from the lake-side.

As for weasels, they are mauvais sujets; but they kill rats—a worse vermin than themselves, and might be forgiven if their love of destruction had limits: their motto seems to be kill, kill, every bird in a nest, mother included, when they find one.

A curious circumstance with a weasel was told me lately by a country gentleman and a close observer of nature. He was sitting at the edge of a wood when he noticed a rabbit run from cover into the open field, and as its movements seemed peculiar, he kept quiet and watched; presently a weasel came out on the rabbit’s track, and Bunny, on seeing the weasel, lay on the ground and squealed, and the little wretch ran in and seized it by the head, and when my friend got up the weasel bolted, and he picked up the rabbit near dead. So when he got home he had it at once skinned, and, on carefully examining, found there was only this one wound on the head, which almost confirmed him in the fascinating power of some animals.

Stoats are worse than weasels, but they are luckily not numerous. I remember of a stoat coming some miles on a winter night, and, after swimming across a small pond, it killed five ducks; but being tracked back over the snow, the animal was destroyed.

On the way to the Lodge I saw some well-grown coveys of grouse, and by the time I got my papers from the cache it was near five o’clock. I found Major Duncan still writing, and he told me that the others had gone up the burn; so I went after them, and about half a mile up found Ward and Pred getting plenty of small trout, and on the way down the bum they caught several of better size.

To-day I had been trusted with the ordering of dinner, and thought I should go a little out of routine and puzzle them. Fred said that snail broth and curried cat might be expected; but we did very well. There was green-pea soup and trout; then came a single dish carefully covered—no one guessed what: it was simply a bunch of teal, beautifully roasted under Burmah's special care. For the proper appreciation of wild-fowl, the appetite should not be palled by pieces de resistance before. A pie of wild berries from the hill, and a cheese omelette, finished the carte; and Fred, who had devoured a couple of the miniature ducks, begged publicly to express his sense of the merits of the caterer, and to drink his health.

After dinner Major Duncan again looked at the stones I had brought in the morning, and as we got on to gossip on geology, he explained by coloured sections the various strata, and touched somewhat on Darwin's theory of natural selection.

“Do you accept that theory, Abbott?" asked Ward.

“Not quite, yet; it is specious, but unproved; even if it did not make against so many of one5s religious ideas, or prejudices, as they may be called by these new lights."

“I am pleased you say so," said Hope. “I do not pretend to scientific knowledge in this theory, but I might ask—where are the remains of these graduating animals? We find in abundance those of the lower grade, and all up to the most perfectly organized, but not the least appearance of any progressive stage, which should be distinctly apparent in the strata of the earth, as the progressive law is declared to go on perpetually.”

“Yes, and must be acting now, if ever. Yet, all through the explored regions of the world—especially in Southern America, where life is superabundant— from the smaller reptiles of early ages to the highest classes of animal existence, we find no graduates, but each genus and species sharply defined. True enough, the monsters of the Crystal Palace are extinct; but no one will suppose that they monopolised the faculty of graduating into giraffes and. greengrocers; while with the others, existing through all times up to the present, this said development seems about limited to the tadpole, and soon ceases to act.”

“Frogs don’t come to much,” said Ward, laughing. “I have, in Paris, eaten the most highly developed —a sort of cannibalism, possibly; but they were very .nice, and had no look of being one’s great ancestors.”.

“Frogs should get on,” the Major said, “for since AEsop’s time they have had a reputation for ambition. Put what do you say of the platypus, a sort of Australian water-rat, which seems to develop at both ends—at one extremity like a mole, and at the other resembling a duck?”

“Ah, yes, Major; but he seems to have settled down, and compromised with the forcing system, as his remains are found in very early strata, and indicate he has made no progress for at least a million of years in bones or beak; and, by the way, I once heard a funny conundrum on this curiosity. Why is he like a tradesman at Christmas?"

“I can’t say.”

“Because he is a beast with a bill.”

“Oh, how jolly good!” cried Fred. “I must book that for school.”

“Why, Fred,” said Hope, “what can you know about bills, unless it be for hardbake or a cricket-bat?”

“You would wonder: many of our fellows owe good sums for dress and trinkets.”

“But you avoid that, Fred, surely?”

“I think so: by no merit, as I get what pocket-money I need, and I am not a great swell.”

We had a good laugh at the little man, which he bore like a Spartan; but he is not the sort to injure others for his indulgence: I never met a more unselfish boy.    .

On looking out before going to bed, there were symptoms of change of weather—gusts of wind and dull sky. The West Highland climate is certainly variable; but even when wet it does not produce the harsh, shivery sensations common on the east coast, and the fine days are just ethereal.

We trusted the morrow, and scattered for the night.


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