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Consider the Lilies

Consider the Lilies

by Iain Crichton Smith

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'Consider the Lilies' focuses on the eviction of an old women from her croft. Betrayed by the Church, she finds comfort from an unlikely source and, as she recalls her life in flashbacks, she is forced to make a painful but honest reappraisal of her entire world.


'Consider the Lilies' focuses on the eviction of an old women from her croft. Betrayed by the Church, she finds comfort from an unlikely source and, as she recalls her life in flashbacks, she is forced to make a painful but honest reappraisal of her entire world.

Product Details

Gollancz, Victor Limited
Publication date:
Canongate Classics Ser.
Product dimensions:
5.51(w) x 8.66(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Her name was Mrs Scott and she was an old woman of about seventy. She was sitting on an old chair in front of her cottage when she saw the rider. The rider was Patrick Sellar, factor to the Duke of Sutherland, and he wasn't riding his horse very well, though he felt that in his position he ought to have a horse. He was an ex-lawyer, and horses aren't used to that kind of law. Also, it was a white horse which was one of the reasons why the old woman paid such particular attention to it.

    She was just an old woman sitting in the sun watching a few hens scrabble in the dust, and she wasn't really thinking of anything. Dreaming perhaps: for as far as an old woman is concerned there is little difference between reality and dream. She might have been dreaming of her youth or of her son in Canada or of her husband who had been a soldier. Or she might have been watching the horse neither dreaming nor thinking, though half-noticing how it sheered its head away from its rider, its nostrils flaring. She was wearing black, and was very frail-looking.

    She didn't know much about horses and she didn't know anything about Patrick Sellar. Nor, for that matter, did he know much about her. As far as he was concerned, she was a disposable object. As far as she was concerned, he was a stranger and to be treated with hospitality even though she was old.

    At first she couldn't see him very well, for her sight was beginning to fail a little. All she could tell was that there was a white horse with a man riding it. As he came closer she saw that he was wearing a sort of blueuniform with gold buttons and that he was short and fat. He took a long time dismounting, for his horse didn't seem to be making it easy for him. She could tell that he liked to feel dignified, even though he had small burning eyes.

    She saw, when he was off his horse, that he carried a whip. Perhaps he had been using it on the animal. The horse, however, relieved of its burden, was very quiet and began calmly to chew grass though now and then it would toss its head in the air.

    He came over to where she was sitting.

    Because she had been taught to be courteous and obedient to her superiors she stood up. It wasn't easy, but she succeeded. She was surprised that he didn't tell her to sit down for some of his superiors did this. Some of them even meant it, and had a kind of careless politeness, which this man didn't have.

   'Good day to the gentleman,' she said.

    She expected him to say 'good day' in return but he only grunted.

    'Will the gentleman go in?' she asked.

    'All I have to say to you can be said here,' said the man.

    But of course that wouldn't do. It wouldn't be polite to keep a stranger outside the house.

    She went inside and waited for him to follow her, which he did. At first she felt a little dazed going inside, for the room was dark and slightly chilly after the warmth outside. She sat down on one of the two chairs. She noticed that the stranger didn't want to sit but she signed to him to do so and he sat on the bench, which was close to the door. He kept hitting his whip against the bench and even though this irritated her she didn't ask him to stop. He was, after all, a guest in her house. She waited in silence with her hands crossed for him to begin to speak, staring into the empty grate.

    'I suppose you'll know why I am here,' he began.

    And then she had a flash of revelation. Perhaps he had come about her pension. Her husband had been killed in the war in a place called Spain, and now that she came to think of it he had talked to her once of a man on a white horse.

    'It is about the pension?' she asked.

    'What pension?' he asked.

    'The pension for my man,' she said, 'They said I would get a pension.'

    She had also received a letter from the King which the elder had read to her. It was beautifully printed on very important-looking paper. Very thick paper, with very large print on it. It was very beautiful and it was nice and thoughtful of the King to have gone to such trouble, especially when he had so much to do. She had framed the paper and it was hanging in the other room — the only other room — at that moment. Her mind began to wander a little after he had told her it wasn't because of the pension that he was here. She had a picture of her husband dead on a foreign field. He was wearing the uniform the Duke of Sutherland had given his men, the volunteers for his regiment. Her husband had always been adventurous with a streak of the boy in him.

    'I'll tell you what I came for,' said the fat little man thumping the bench with his whip.

    She looked up: she had almost forgotten him. And suddenly she saw that his burning little eyes were those of an enemy. She couldn't think why this should be so. She was sure she had never seen him before in her life and she couldn't understand how she had offended him.

    'Will the gentleman have a cup of tea?' she said, though that would mean setting and lighting a fire and she was very tired.

    'No, I haven't time for tea.'

    She didn't wonder why he didn't say 'Thank you' or 'Tapadh leibh' because sometimes they said it and sometimes not. It depended what mood they were in. Anyway, he wouldn't know any Gaelic.

    She didn't particularly like the look of him. His head wasn't Highland. It was too heavy and the face was too fat and red, and the eyes in the head were small and burning.

    'I came to tell you,' he was saying, 'that you'll have to leave the house.' When he said this she was looking at his lips. For such a heavy head and such red cheeks the lips were very thin. For that reason she didn't at first take in what he had said. As well as this she was distracted by the sound of the whip with the silver knob at the top of it hitting the bench.

    After a while the words came back into her mind.

    'I came to tell you that you'll have to leave the house.'

    Of course the words didn't make any sense. What should she leave the house for?

    It was ridiculous to say that she must leave the house. She had nowhere else to go and in any case she didn't want to go anywhere else. Perhaps he hadn't spoken the words after all, but when she looked at him he was staring at her and his lips were quivering with anger. She found this disturbing and surprising and felt that she had done something wrong.

    'Is it the pension?' she asked tremulously. 'Is it because of the pension you said that?'

    He looked at her in astonishment and said:

    'No, of course it's not the pension. I don't know what you're talking about.'

    So it wasn't the pension. Then perhaps she had offended him in some other way. She went back in her mind over the past few minutes, how he had come riding on his white horse, how he had dismounted, how she had offered him tea. But no, she couldn't think of anything she had done to offend him. In addition, she felt a dull pain beginning in her left knee — the sciatica again.

    She raised her curdled face and listened to him.

    'It's the Duke who sent me. The Duke. Do you know him?'

    No, of course not, how could she know the Duke? She had seen him but she didn't know him. What a silly question. She had seen him in full regimentals with his recruiting clerk sitting at a table in the open air. On the table was a bag with a pile of coins. Her husband had got some of the coins when he joined the Duke's regiment. She had also seen the Duchess once, in the grounds of the Castle. But she didn't know them. Anyway, they were away from Sutherland most of the time, especially in the winter.

    Once the Duchess had sent a man with some meal when the crops were bad. At first they thought they were going to get it free, but they had to pay for it some time afterwards when they'd forgotten about it. That was what made it worse. If they had told them at the time it wouldn't have been so bad. But they hadn't. So they decided that in future they wouldn't take any meal if it was offered. It wasn't easy to pay it back. Perhaps the Duke and the Duchess hadn't known about it. Perhaps the man had put the money in his own pocket. Still, there was little they could do about it. They could only complain to the man himself and he wasn't going to tell his employers. Then, again, the Duke and the Duchess might have known about it and if they had complained to the man he might have said that they hadn't given him any money. Then they would have been worse off than before. It was best not to say anything.

    'I'm sorry,' she said, 'the gentleman was speaking.'

    'Of course I'm speaking. I'm saying that the Duke sent me to put you out.'

    She stood up very slowly and pulled the curtain across the window, because the sun was in her eyes. Equally slowly she sat down again.

    She felt that her slow movements irritated the man. But then he didn't know what it was to be old. You had to be old to know what it was to be old. The earth began to pull at your feet as if it wanted to get you inside, and the sooner the better.

    'I don't understand,' she said in the half-darkness.

    If only he would speak a little more slowly. He spoke faster than the people she was used to.

    Her visitor drew a deep breath.

    'It's very simple,' he said, 'the Duke wants you out of here because ...'

    'Is he wanting the house for himself?' she asked.

    Her visitor laughed but it wasn't a good laugh. It was a mocking laugh, the kind of laugh rich and grand people laughed, especially rich clever people, who didn't make allowances for you when you were old, and didn't understand your language at all.

    She didn't think that she was superior to her visitor because she could speak in two languages, though not so well in English as in Gaelic, whereas he knew only one. After all, rich people and rich people's servants didn't know Gaelic: that was the way it was.

    'Imagine it,' he was saying, 'the Duke wanting this house!'

    Well, true enough, the Duke lived in a castle but her house wasn't a bad one either. She had a dresser and two chairs and a bench and she had cups and saucers ranged on the dresser and she had a table and a lamp. What more did you need? But certainly the Duke lived in a castle just the same.

    'No,' said her visitor, his laugh having stopped very quickly. 'He's going to pull the house down.'

    He said this as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world. Pulling her house down, when after all it was her house. She had never lived in any other house in all her seventy years. On the death of her parents — she hadn't married till they were both dead — her husband had come to live in this house. She had been born in the house, had spent her girlhood there, and had spent all the years of her marriage — such as they were — in it.

    She couldn't exactly put it into words but she knew that if she left the house she would die. Naturally, she hadn't long to live anyway, perhaps five years, perhaps ten. But if she left the house she would die. And anyway, there was no other place for her to go. How could she sleep in any other bed than the one she had? And who would carry the grandfather clock away for her? No, it was out of the question. She couldn't leave the house alive. But at the same time she didn't have the words to explain all this to the visitor in the way she would have liked. She might have said 'I'm too old' or 'I'm seventy years old' but for some reason she didn't want to appeal to his pity. She had her pride to keep. Her husband had made one of the chairs himself with his own hands. For a weakening moment she thought of the gaiety of her early married days, after the long illness of her mother. But she put the thought out of her mind as soon as it came.

    'My mother used to sit in that chair,' she said.

    At the end her mother had been very difficult. She believed that she was going to hell, though no one knew what had put that idea into her head. She would get up in the night screaming that she was on fire. One night they had found her in her nightgown by the banks of a loch. Was she going to throw herself in, her face twisted in the light of the moon, turned at bay like an animal without teeth but with very very bright eyes? But of course her visitor wouldn't know about this, nor the helpless overwhelming pity she had felt for her mother. Nor did he know about those long patient years which had put a hardness in her, a hardness which her husband had often commented upon. Sometimes she had to fight against her own inflexible will when dealing with her son.

    'How do you get on here anyway?' said her visitor. 'You seem to be on your own.'

    'No,' she answered with panic, 'there's the neighbours; there's James the Elder, and there's Big Betty, and there's Annie. She gets the water for me.'

    As well as that she went to church every Sunday. She liked going to church. In fact she wouldn't know what she would do if there was no church. She liked the minister because he talked well and told the truth. To speak well and sincerely was a great gift, and furthermore he was dignified and was said to be very learned. She also liked the silence of the church when she could sit there as in a cool well and feel all her troubles and sorrows and tensions unravelling themselves, leaving her quite clean and whole. She liked to be shaken by the hand by the minister when she was going out. It gave her the impression that she was someone, though she never looked the minister in the face during those brief conversations they had. He had very plump cheeks — this she could see when he was preaching — and a way of smacking his lips at the end of sentences. But the most striking thing about him was his dignity. She could rely on him, though she didn't have occasion to up until now.

    'Of course it won't be exactly like this house,' her visitor was saying. 'In fact it will be better, cleaner and made of stone. You might even have a carpet on the floor.'

    She got up again painfully and went over to the window. From there she could see the churchyard and some of the tombstones leaning towards each other. Her husband wasn't buried there but her father and mother were. She didn't even know whereabouts her husband was buried though it was in a place called Spain.

    'What are you looking at?' said her visitor angrily. 'At your land? What good has it ever done you? It's all stone, isn't it? If you had any sense you wouldn't worry about leaving it. This new house will be in the north by the sea.'

    But she wasn't looking at the land, she was looking at the churchyard.

    'My father and mother are buried in the churchyard,' she said.

    'Yes, you people are always talking about the dead.'

    Well, why shouldn't they? The dead were always around them. Soon she herself would be dead. The dead just didn't go away for ever. They were near the house, present in the house. The bed she had was her father's and mother's marriage bed. The grandfather clock had been passed down through generations. Also, very few people would go near the churchyard at night. Did he think the dead went away for ever? Of course not. She remembered her own father dying, with his long white beard. He was a good age when he died, yet was as frightened as a child in the silent house. Her father and mother remained as presences in the house. So did her husband, even though he had died in another country. She remembered his small alert moustached face emerging dripping out of the basin of water.

    'This is my father's house,' she said at last.

    'I thought it belonged to you,' said her visitor quickly. 'We were told it belonged to you,' and then he stopped. 'But of course your father can't possibly be alive.'

    Why 'of course'? Of course he was alive. People didn't die as easily as that. More than memories remained of them. There were the clothes and the objects they had used. The print of their hands was still on them. She hadn't been living in an empty house.

    'Can the gentleman tell me why the Duke wants the house?'

    'I've told you,' he almost screamed. 'He's going to pull it down. He needs the land for the sheep.'

    She didn't understand half of what he was saying. She understood the last sentence, and so said:

    'Sheep don't have souls. The gentleman knows that.'

    '"The gentleman knows that",' he repeated. 'Why do you always talk in the third person?'

    He stopped looking out of the window and began to speak another lot of words which she didn't take in much. She didn't need to, for he seemed to be speaking to himself.

    'It's true I'm a servant of the Duke, but don't think I value him as much as you think. I may even value him less than you do. He had all the advantages. I haven't any. But I must be in London too. To have my own coach and my own horses and, by God, you're not going to stop me — nor a thousand like you.'

    He turned violently away from the window and something about her bowed submissive posture seemed to irritate him even more for he lashed the whip against his leather leggings and said:

    'Don't think you're going to stop me.'

    He came towards her and spoke in a calmer voice.

    'It's not as if you aren't getting a better house. As I have told you already, it will be cleaner and better-appointed than this. We'll even take your furniture up there for you. We're not brutes, you know. I can't understand why you don't accept such an offer at once.'

    'The house belongs to my husband,' she said, 'and to my son.'

    Something flickered at the back of his eyes.

    'Your son? Where is your son? I didn't hear anything of a son.'

    'In Canada. My son is in Canada.'

    Married to a wife she'd never see. With children she'd never see. He turned away then, as confident as ever.

    She considered for a long time knowing that something was wrong. Then she turned round and said:

    'But the sheep aren't needing houses to live in. The sheep graze on the grass.'

    She sat down. And he stood up, speaking very slowly as if through gritted teeth.

    'No,' he said, 'sheep don't need houses. But they need land. And they need your land. And this house is in their way. Do you understand that?'

    One would think that it was he himself who was demanding the land, yet he was only a servant of the Duke. Why therefore was he so angry? What did it have to do with him? She wanted to pass her hands wearily over her eyes, as he paced violently up and down, but she kept them crossed in her lap as he spoke.

    'You've never been to London, have you? Of course not. But I have. It is a city full of lights, and big houses, and coaches. You can go to the theatre and to concerts and to gaming houses. You don't know about that. How could you? What comparison has this little village with London? What civilisation do you have here? What do you do but plant and sow and reap, year in, year out? What sort of life is that? Tell me.'

    Her eyes shuttled back and forth, following him on his frantic pacing as if he were a caged animal.

    'Do you think I want to live here? Why do you want to live here? Why does anyone? This is an animal life. You people never see anybody new from one year's end to another. You never see anything new either. And you think about hell all the time. Well, what are your lives but a living hell? You talk to me about sheep. What are you but sheep?'

    What was he saying about a living hell? What did he mean?

    'What would I be doing in another house?' she asked.

    She tried to recall when she had last been away from this one, but could only remember the one instance when she had gone to see her sister at a place about five miles away. No, it was just like a potato. You tore it away by the roots and soon it would rot. It was natural for a potato to grow in the earth. If you took it out of the earth before its time it would die.

    'Look,' he began. 'I didn't live here always. I come from a place a good distance away. Does that mean I'm not happy here? Of course not. Naturally I sometimes remember the place I came from, but I came to this place. My work brought me here. You're going to a better place too. Perhaps in a year or two I'll be moving to another place.'

    But she couldn't think of any place she could go to. To go somewhere else would mean taking this place with her, and she couldn't do that. How could anyone do that? She remembered a dog her husband had got once. It had run back to where it came from. They had let it go. Why, even animals didn't like being moved about.

    'My man wouldn't like the new place,' she said. 'He'd say: "I can't come in with my dirty boots." That's what he'd say.'

    'I thought you said your man — your husband — was dead.'

    'He's dead, but he wouldn't like it just the same.'

    Why couldn't this man understand the simplest things? You had to keep telling him things which he ought to know already, things which everybody knew. It was very tiring. She made an effort. 'And anyway, there's no church up there.'

    He looked at her triumphantly: 'The church is being pulled down as well.'

    She was looking at a square of sunlight on the floor. In the middle of it she noticed a patch of grey. Funny how she hadn't noticed that before. She tried to think what had caused it and was angry with herself because she couldn't think of it, in the same way as she was angry when she couldn't remember someone's name. She pecked at a memory just on the very edge of her mind as hard as she could. What an effort it was to remember anything these days. There was a time when she could tell you everyone's genealogy and what part of the country he or she came from and what his or her relations had died of, even sometimes in what month of the year he or she had been born. But she couldn't think what had caused that grey patch. She was irritated with the sunlight for revealing it so clearly.

    But what had he just said? Something about the church being pulled down. That of course was untrue. He must be joking. Who had ever heard of a church being pulled down? At least she hadn't heard of this happening. And she was sure the minister wouldn't allow it. Or the elder.

    'I'm sorry,' she said. 'The gentleman said they were going to pull the church down.'

    'It's true enough,' said her visitor, tapping the whip against his legs. 'We'll pull it down stone by stone and then we'll take it up to where the new village is going to be. And your minister will go up there as well.'

    What was he talking about? Stone by stone? What did he mean by it? Surely he must be making fun of her. But she swished he would go away just the same. Inside herself she was praying: 'Please God don't let him take the house away from me. Don't let him take the house away from me.'

    Then she was angry with herself. God wouldn't let him do it. God wouldn't let him take the church away either. God was stronger than anyone, stronger even than the Duke. God who had saved her mother at the end when she was going to kill herself after thinking she was going to hell.

    'God won't let you,' she heard herself saying.

    And he laughed. He just laughed and didn't say anything. Naturally she didn't expect God to strike him down there and then. After all, the rich and the servants of the rich often laughed at God and nothing happened to them at the moment they did it. But they paid for it in the end. God would not be mocked. On their death-beds they paid for it. If not before. And if not then or before, afterwards.

    'I don't want your house,' she said. 'And tell the Duke, he can keep the pension if that's what's worrying him.

    'This house is full of my people's blood.'

    'You'll have to leave just the same,' he said, rising.

    'God won't let you put me out,' she said.

    Now she remembered. That grey spot must have been caused by the milk she had spilt hot from the pot That was it. The hot milk from the pot. She must get a scrubber and scrub it clean.

    'You haven't got much longer,' said her visitor at the door. 'And remember what I told you. You'll get a new house. Don't worry about that. But you'll have to get out. You haven't got more than a week.'

    She wanted to ask her visitor if he was married, but didn't dare. He didn't act as if he were married, or had suffered the pains of life. If he had had the Gaelic she might have been able to speak to him properly. But then he was clever and she was not. And even if he had had the Gaelic he might not have been able to understand, for he seemed to be quite young. And she herself hadn't understood her parents very well, though she did understand them a little at the end.

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