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V. A Handful of Heather Henry van Dyke


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The Lewis, with its tail-piece, the Harris, is quite a sizable island to be appended to such a country as Scotland. It is a number of miles long, and another number of miles wide, and it has a number of thousand inhabitants--I should say as many as three-quarters of an inhabitant to the square mile--and the conditions of agriculture and the fisheries are extremely interesting and quarrelsome. All these I duly studied at the time, and reported in a series of intolerably dull letters to the newspaper which supplied a financial basis for my sentimental journey. They are full of information; but I have been amused to note, after these many years, how wide they steer of the true motive and interest of the excursion. There is not even a hint of Sheila in any of them. Youth, after all, is a shamefaced and secretive season; like the fringed polygala, it hides its real blossom underground.

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It was Sheila's dark-blue dress and sailor hat with the white feather that we looked for as we loafed through the streets of Stornoway, that quaint metropolis of the herring-trade, where strings of fish alternated with boxes of flowers in the windows, and handfuls of fish were spread upon the roofs to dry just as the sliced apples are exposed upon the kitchen-sheds of New England in September, and dark-haired women were carrying great creels of fish on their shoulders, and groups of sunburned men were smoking among the fishing-boats on the beach and talking about fish, and sea-gulls were floating over the houses with their heads turning from side to side and their bright eyes peering everywhere for unconsidered trifles of fish, and the whole atmosphere of the place, physical, mental, and moral, was pervaded with fish. It was Sheila's soft, sing-song Highland speech that we heard through the long, luminous twilight in the pauses of that friendly chat on the balcony of the little inn where a good fortune brought us acquainted with Sam Bough, the mellow Edinburgh painter. It was Sheila's low sweet brow, and long black eyelashes, and tender blue eyes, that we saw before us as we loitered over the open moorland, a far-rolling sea of brown billows, reddened with patches of bell-heather, and brightened here and there with little lakes lying wide open to the sky. And were not these peat-cutters, with the big baskets on their backs, walking in silhouette along the ridges, the people that Sheila loved and tried to help; and were not these crofters' cottages with thatched roofs, like beehives, blending almost imperceptibly with the landscape, the dwellings into which she planned to introduce the luxury of windows; and were not these Standing Stones of Callernish, huge tombstones of a vanished religion, the roofless temple from which the Druids paid their westernmost adoration to the setting sun as he sank into the Atlantic--was not this the place where Sheila picked the bunch of wild flowers and gave it to her lover? There is nothing in history, I am sure, half so real to us as some of the things in fiction. The influence of an event upon our character is little affected by considerations as to whether or not it ever happened.

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Little Rivers
Henry van Dyke

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