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Curling Weather.

From "Fancy Farm".
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Curling weather had come, and lasted long enough to make the unslacking outer world of Commerce wonder what was wrong with Scotland, whose business correspondence was gone all ajee, whose English cheques for days incredibly remained uncashed, whose industry seemed mysteriously suspended. "What's the matter? Is it drink?" impatient city houses asked by telegram, and got their first prompt answer at a cost of sixpence - "No, it's curling; nothing doing till a thaw."

A noble frost! The weather-cocks were faithful to the North for weeks; by night the dome was strewn with shimmering hosts of brittle stars that seemed to crackle in the cold; the sun went down each afternoon empurpled by the weather; the bone-dry countryside was hard as tempered metal; and the highways tinkled underfoot like glass. Poor sheep, trembling in the fanks! birds chittering on unsheltered boughs! But strong landward men were happy in that weather. Schawfield was become a place where work was only for women, and their husbands played as in the glorious ancient days of mastery. Only the village baker, hoary himself as if with frost, smashing the ice on his sponging - tubs, or cleaning his oven-sole with a frozen scuffle, was compelled to his daily tasks by the appetites of men, which ever grow more exigent in sport and cold. The blacksmith threw aside his leathern apron, damped his fire, put a rubber ferrule on his timber leg, and spent his days upon the ice. Heaven favoured Divvert with an epidemic of the mumps that closed his school. Merchant bodies balanced their books at night; farmers, with their cattle steaming snug in byres, gave no glance at their fields from that first morning they had hurried past them behind a cart of curling-stones. Even Dr. Cleghorn, on a Friday, dragged himself back to the study from the Whiggate Loch with anguish. Sir Andrew curled, as the blacksmith said, like a man who had done it for a living all his days, and the Hunt was off so long as the wind was North. Norah and Maurice skated on the long, wide river-pool below the bridge. Sometimes, coming home at night, with a weariness that was like a balm to every bone, the baronet would stop, unseen, upon the bank and hear their merry voices echoing under the limey arch. They seemed to occupy another world: he might have been a ghost, so distant did they seem from him, engrossed in young delights. The very night., o'erwhelming and contemplative, appeared to stand outside with him and murmur "Passing! - passing! - passing!" He would go into Fancy Farm to a Spartan meal and a remonstrant Aunt Amelia.

"Come back earlier to-night," she counselled him one morning; "Norah and I are expecting visitors." He was so keen upon his practice for a bonspiel that their interchange of comprehending glances quite escaped him, and it was like him that he should never ask who the visitors might be.

"Oh, I'll be home early," he assured her. "In any case you need not delay dinner."

"You can't stay curling after dark, at least," said Miss Amelia.

"Dear Aunt," said he, "there are such things as candles, and the weather looks like changing. I'm entirely in the hands of providence - and Paterson."

"Paterson?" she repeated on a note of question.

"The eminent poacher," said Sir Andrew, laughing, as he donned his curler's bonnet; "he is skip of our rink to-day."

He walked to the loch; the weather looked like anything but change; John Frost had taken the universe in his hands and squeezed from it the final drop of moisture. In a windless air the woods seemed turned to phantom trees on which no green should ever come again, but beautiful, most intricate! Old snow, drifted in the ditches, showed the tracks of birds and the devices of those eerie beasts that lope across the fields at midnight; a fine wild Arctic sentiment, a hint of chaos, and the chilled and puckered landscape of the moon was everywhere - in creases of the plain, no longer flat, but showing dip and mound with purple shadows, in frozen little waterfalls and icy columns in below the banks. A scent, unnameable, of earth congealed, and rotten leaves, corrupt no longer, but all cleansed by the arresting and aseptic agent, gave to the day a tonic quality that made him feel omnipotent, and set him whistling like a boy.

The loch was in a fold of the foot-hills, hid behind a wood of sombre pines. As he walked between their naked columns with his" footsteps deafened by the fallen needles, and while yet a good way off, he heard the booming of the ice, responsive to the channel-stones; the tiny glen appeared to hum as if its ribs were tightened cords plucked to some inner resonance by the jocund gods. A moment came to him there and then which seemed to concentrate the gladness of a year - an ecstasy that was like an inward ache, that rare and curious mood when we seem on the verge of knowing immortality while yet in our fleshy cells.

He shouted at this wizard portal of the spirit, like a boy again, half fearful of its loneliness and mystery, and the echoes of his voice went clanging like to shaken brass against the precipices. A few steps more and he stood above the loch, and heard the players on its surface crying in the vigour of their game.

"Come awa', laird!" cried his poacher skip; "we're tired waiting on ye, and the factor's got your stanes!"

"They couldna be in better hands," replied Sir Andrew; "let him finish the end" - and he watched the majestic Cattanach, ponderous on earth,,on ice mercurial, deliver a well-laid stone. "A little more elbow-in and he would hae been a better man!" he added hastily as he saw the stone go narrow.

"The same might be said at ony time o' friend Clashgour," said Cattanach, prone to Celtic jibings at the farmer who was never ashamed of his prowess with a bottle. "It would make a splendid motto for his heid-stane."

Sir Andrew took that place in the rink which his factor had kept open for him, and all forenoon 'twas he who kept the poacher's side on the road to victory; rapt in the game as if to curl were human destiny; caressing the Ailsa stones as if he loved them; sending them to their object with an impetus that seemed unfit to carry them half the way, yet had behind it the unseen propulsion of that iron wrist. Withal he played in silence - a thing unusual in the roaring game, and his stance upon the crampit had a curious kind of grace unlike the humped contortions of his comrades.

"Man! laird, ye play like a perfect lady!" cried the rapturous poacher; "ye put doon the stane and it goes to the mark itseP. Soop up, Macrae! Soop up! I like ye weel, Sir Andra!... Tut! tut! ye idiot, ye've given him the shot! I beg your pardon.

Sir Andrew laughed: in the roaring game even a Scottish earl may be an idiot to a poacher who can play. James Birrell, defying rules, and trotting behind his stone with his head side-tilted and his legs in writhing sympathy with the inward curve of his Crawfordjohns, played wretchedly, but always claimed for his poorest shots that at least they lodged a caveat, making a "bonny guard." Clashgour used his broom with an intense ferocity, as if he were mucking byres, and would have sworn like a trooper if the minister and laird had not been there; the poacher skipped with a seaman's shout that rang among the hills; Tarn Dunn, the post-boy of the Schawfield Arms, drew to an inch, or clapped on guards with all the surety of some uncanny mechanism.

"Tarn Dunn! Tarn Dunn! ye're my very brother!" cried the ecstatic baronet on whose side he played. "Ye're a curler!"

"I might be waur, laird!" said the post-boy, grinning modestly.

Divvert, glad of a sport wherein, for once, he could be equal with the folk to whom as yet in other things he was an incomer from whom little was to be expected, was master of a twist that promised to establish his reputation; the minister with his black coat ludicrously walloping, and a cap with flaps tied over his ears that he might not hear, as he said, the objurgations of Clashgour, bent low upon his knees at each delivery as if he sent his stone upon its mission with a silent intercession; the blacksmith, skipping from end to end of the rink with his wooden leg more serviceable than an ordinary member, called it "Jessie" in a jovial spirit, half irony, half affection.

"Two up again, Jess! You and me for bonny curlers!" he would say, with a comical stamp of the rubber ferrule on the ice.

A meal had come to the loch at midday: hot scouse from the kitchen of Mrs. Nish, still scalding, they had placed the pots below some coverings on the ice to await their appetites, which as yet were lagging behind the passion of the game. When they went at last for the pots they were invisible - the holes they had melted for themselves the only evidence of their fate! Ribaldry for the stupid man who had drowned a dinner; a hasty messenger to Mrs. Nish again, and that marvellous lady rose to the situation! The men of the rinks stood on the banks devouring mightily; a world of drift and rime was round them; pinched black trees against the white expanse of brae and moor; a region tenantless, without a single smoking chimney, and, save for their gobbling and gabbling, silent as the very death.

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Pictures for Curling Weather.

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