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V. A Handful of Heather Henry van Dyke

Common Heather.

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It was a very pleasant fortnight at Melvich. Mistress Macpherson was so motherly that "takkin' cauld" was reduced to a permanent impossibility. The other men at the inn proved to be very companionable fellows, quite different from the monsters of insolence that my anger had imagined in the moment of disappointment. The shooting party kept the table abundantly supplied with grouse and hares and highland venison; and there was a piper to march up and down before the window and play while we ate dinner--a very complimentary and disquieting performance. But there are many occasions in life when pride can be entertained only at the expense of comfort.

Of course Sandy was my gillie. It was a fine sight to see him exhibiting the tiny American trout-rod, tied with silk ribbons in its delicate case, to the other gillies and exulting over them. Every morning he would lead me away through the heather to some lonely loch on the shoulders of the hills, from which we could look down upon the Northern Sea and the blue Orkney Isles far away across the Pentland Firth. Sometimes we would find a loch with a boat on it, and drift up and down, casting along the shores. Sometimes, in spite of Sandy's confident predictions, no boat could be found, and then I must put on the Mackintosh trousers and wade out over my hips into the water, and circumambulate the pond, throwing the flies as far as possible toward the middle, and feeling my way carefully along the bottom with the long net-handle, while Sandy danced on the bank in an agony of apprehension lest his Predestinated Opportunity should step into a deep hole and be drowned. It was a curious fact in natural history that on the lochs with boats the trout were in the shallow water, but in the boatless lochs they were away out in the depths. "Juist the total depraivity o' troots," said Sandy, "an' terrible fateegin'."

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Sandy had an aversion to commit himself to definite statements on any subject not theological. If you asked him how long the morning's tramp would be, it was "no verra long, juist a bit ayant the hull yonner." And if, at the end of the seventh mile, you complained that it was much too far, he would never do more than admit that "it micht be shorter." If you called him to rejoice over a trout that weighed close upon two pounds, he allowed that it was "no bad--but there's bigger anes i' the loch gin we cud but wile them oot." And at lunch-time, when we turned out a full basket of shining fish on the heather, the most that he would say, while his eyes snapped with joy and pride, was, "Aweel, we canna complain, the day."

Then he would gather an armful of dried heather-stems for kindling, and dig out a few roots and crooked limbs of the long-vanished forest from the dry, brown, peaty soil, and make our campfire of prehistoric wood--just for the pleasant, homelike look of the blaze--and sit down beside it to eat our lunch. Heat is the least of the benefits that man gets from fire. It is the sign of cheerfulness and good comradeship. I would not willingly satisfy my hunger, even in a summer nooning, without a little flame burning on a rustic altar to consecrate and enliven the feast. When the bread and cheese were finished and the pipes were filled with Virginia tobacco, Sandy would begin to tell me, very solemnly and respectfully, about the mistakes I had made in the fishing that day, and mourn over the fact that the largest fish had not been hooked. There was a strong strain of pessimism in Sandy, and he enjoyed this part of the sport immensely.

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Little Rivers
Henry van Dyke

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