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Sketch Book of the North
Across Bute

Tea is over—the large eggs, snowy scones, and home-made cheese, that loaded the table half an hour ago, have been satisfactorily demolished; the full-bodied brown teapot has yielded its final drop, and the crofter’s warm-hearted wife is at last assured that her hospitality has received ample justice. It is time to go, for there is a nine miles’ tramp across the island yet to be done. Wait a little! The good woman and her husband will see us to the hill by a short path through their fields. She will "just put a peat on the fire first." Sweet the air is in the doorway, and peaceful is the hour! The sun is just setting beyond the Cantyre hills, and out there, over the water, the lonely peaks of Arran are purple in the evening light. Scarcely a cloud lingers in the clear green sky, and the calm sea stirs but at intervals with the incoming of the tide. The tan-brown sails of the fishing-boats that came out of Loch Ranza an hour ago have hardly moved a mile yet up Kilbrannan Sound. The rooks have gone home to the Mount Stuart woods, the whirr of the reaping-machine in the cornfield over there has ceased, all the air is still. The grey smoke rising from thatched roofs here and there in the little strath tells that the evening meal is being prepared. Presently the darkness will come down, and the simple crofter hamlet by the shore will sink to rest. And the weary and the disappointed, soiled with the dust of the far-off city, striving all their lives after what they will never win, have forgotten that sweet bread may be earned on the cornlands, and fair fish caught in the sea; that there is music for listening, here by the murmuring brooks, and rest in the setting of the sun.

Soft shadows are gathering in the hollows of the hills, and the road rising inland through the quiet moors shows its white winding line among the heather. This wandering by-path, too, among the fields, is pleasant. Fitches are flowering yet, purple and yellow, in the hedges, as well as the delicate harebell—bluebell of Scotland—on the bank below. The wild poppies have mostly seeded now, but here and there a spot of flame tells where a late bloom lingers. Among the feathery grasses in this untouched corner of the field rich heads of the pink clover are still to be seen, and creamy tufted clouds of meadowsweet rise on their dark stems. Above, amid the prickly sprays of wild brier, the glossy hips are already a bright yellow, and on the uncut branches of the thorn clustering bunches of haws are becoming brown. Along the straight "rigs" of the cornfield here, where the crofter was shearing to-day, the dusky stooks of oats stand in long rows. The good man casts a pleased glance along their lines, for the straw is long this year, and the heads are heavy. There is a quiet satisfaction in the completion of a day’s work among the fields which never comes to the mere mercantile toiler. The ploughman strolls forth at night to gaze at the broad acres he has furrowed, and the eye of the reaper is rewarded with fair stooks of winnowing grain.

Healthy as could be the crofter’s children look as they pick their way with bare feet along the grassy edge of the stubble-field. No one need wonder that their cheeks and legs are so chubby and brown; for they get their school holidays in harvest-time, and have been helping their father, all day long, to bind his sheaves. Both boy and girl have caught the clear blue of heaven in their eyes; and the straying locks of their bonnetless hair are just the yellow colour of the corn. Donald, here, will make a sturdy ploughman some day; and that wild Lizzie will soon be a strapping lass. Theirs are the free air of the mountain, the lusty bowl of porridge, and thick broth of stalwart kale.

The road lies close beyond this plantation. But, take care! the ground is boggy here, and one may sink over the boot-head in the soft peat. Step on the hussocks of grass, though, and the footing will be firm enough. In the late light, the higher branches of the pines up there among their dark green foliage shine as red as copper: it is the colour of the rich new bark. Not a blade of grass springs beneath the firs, and the floor of the wood is soft and dry under foot with its carpet of brown fallen needles. Only the green feathery fronds of solitary bracken rise here and there in the spaces.

The wood ends at the road, and our little friendly escort need come no further. A hearty hand-shake from the crofter; a kindly God-speed from his wife; a laugh and retreat by Lizzie at suggestion of a kiss; and as we scale the mossy dyke, they turn back among the trees. A comfortable, contented couple they are, rearing children that will be healthy and strong as themselves. After all, is not this the existence that best fulfils life’s real ends? As he cares for the patient beast and reaps the autumn corn, a man need not be told to glorify God; and here, under sunshine and starshine, where the fruitful earth smells fresh with the rainfall and the dew, he cannot help enjoying Him.

The winding lines of telegraph-poles that mark the road can be seen stretching away for miles among the hills. The sun has set now, and night, falling earlier in the late autumn, is coming down. It is the gloaming hour. Out of the grass-field here by the roadside the trailing-footed kine, with patient eyes and deep udders, are turning down the hill towards their byre. Their satisfied breathing fills the air as they pass with the warm sweet scent of clover. The red-cheeked farm lass fastens the gate-hurdle to its post when the last beast has gone, and slowly follows it homewards. A comely lass she is, with eyes like the sloe, and teeth like milk, and doubtless her sweetheart knows she has a soft voice and a dewy lip. This is the traditional courting time in the country—

‘Tween the gloamin’ and the mirk,
When the kye come hame.

Not another creature is to be seen on the upland road; only now and again the lonely cry of the curlew is still to be heard far off upon the moor. The last field is passed, and the last shieling lies behind in the valley. The air is full of the honeyscent of the heather, but the last belated bee hummed homewards half an hour ago.

The summit of the climb at last! Look! Down there on the left, dark and silent under the hills, lies Loch Fad with, on the far edge of it, a glimmer of silver, the reflection of the full-orbed moon. Could the birth of Aphrodite be fairer, as she rose from the soft sea of the south? Hark! too, there is the sound of lingering footfalls on the road in front, and the murmur of a deep bass voice. The voice suddenly ceases, and two figures linked together drift past in the dusk. Just a glimpse of shy, happy eyes can be seen—a glimpse worth remembering—and the outline of a modest face. It is the old, old story. The lovely Pagan goddess of the far AEgaean has worshippers still among these simple-hearted people of the hills. Happy rustic dreamers! — gamekeeper’s lad and gardener’s lass, maybe. Sweet is their courting-place and courting-time, with the deep woods to listen to their whispers and the stars to look down in kindly sympathy. Other lovers there are, alas! whose feet do not tread among the blue forget-me-nots, and for whom no blackbird warbles the vesper song.

Civilisation, however, is approaching, and cultivated fields begin to occupy the strath. A hawk, beating about with broken wing, has alarmed the birds here; peeweets are startling the night with their untimely cries, and their white breasts ever and anon glance by the roadside. Was that faint sound the first bell of the steamer? There is little time to linger. Below, however, shine the clustered lights of Rothesay; presently the bright firepoints of the yachts at anchor in the bay appear; the old chapel and its graveyard of stones mouldering within their wall is passed—a somewhat eerie place under these dark trees by the roadside;--then, half-way among the quaint houses of the old town, with their jutting gables, the ancient castle—grey, silent, moated—where old King Robert III. died of grief at the news that his son James I. was taken by the English. With threatening clamour the second bell rings up from the steamer, and, with a wild rush down through the newer town and across the fashionable esplanade amid the dazzling lights and fair promenaders of a seaside resort, there is only time to reach the pier and get on board before the last bell rings and the moorings are thrown off.

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