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The Minister's Wife
Mrs. Margaret Oliphant
The Glebe Cottage at the head of Loch Diarmid was something between a primitive cottage and a little house of gentility, commonly called by that name. The hill-side of which it was the sole inhabitant had once been ecclesiastical soil belonging to the church of Lochhead, which was about a mile distant across the braes—and still, so far as this one dwelling was concerned, retained the name. It had originally been a building of one story thatched and mossy; but lately a few additional rooms had been built over one part of it, and covered with respectable slates. It was composite and characteristic, a human thing, growing out of human rules, and consequently more picturesque than if it had been the result of the most picturesque intention. The thatched end of the cottage was surrounded by no enclosure; the soft rich mossy grass of the hills broken by great bushes of heather pressed up to its very walls; while the other half, or western end, was cultivated and formed into a pretty homely garden. Hardy roses and honeysuckles, and a wavering wealth of fuchsias, hanging rich with crimson bells, clothed the southern front and west end—the refined part of the cottage. On the mountain side, there was nothing but the rough, low whitewashed wall, the overhanging thatch, the heather within a yard of the house. And here, some thirty years ago, lived a family of Diarmids, as curiously varied in internal constitution as was the aspect of their home.
The father of the household had been a soldier ‘in the war,’ and, though little more than a peasant by birth, had risen from the ranks and won his commission by sheer daring and bravery. It is very doubtful whether he was much the happier for it. When he had won his epaulettes another piece of luck befell him: he caught the eye and fancy of a pretty, romantic girl, who married him for his valour and his inches and his red coat. To him she was an heiress, though the actual amount of her wealth was small. Probably he meant, in his gratitude and pride, to be a good husband and live happy ever after, and for this end bought the cottage he had been born in, and added some modern additions to it for the comfort of his lady-wife. But Duncan was Duncan still, notwithstanding his good fortune and his epaulettes; and his poor young wife, finding out her mistake, died at the end of a year or two, after bringing a pair of twin girls into the world. After this Captain Diarmid saw a great deal of service in all quarters of the world, and when he came back married again, a homely ‘neighbour lass,’ and died after she too had become the mother of two children. They all lived together in the Glebe Cottage—two sets of people as different as could well be conceived. During the Captain’s lifetime a certain arbitrary link united them; but after his death it was not expected by the country-side that there could be any further family union between the twin sisters to whom everything belonged, and the homely widow with her girl and boy. It was a wonder to many of the genteel people of the neighbourhood when it was discovered that Margaret and Isabel meant to permit their father’s widow, Jean Campbell, to share their house. Even old Miss Catherine at the Lochhead gave it as her opinion that ‘Jean and her bairns had no claim on them.’ But the sisters, it was evident, thought differently, though it was not without a certain conflict within and between themselves that the decision was made. They were then between nineteen and twenty, two girls who had grown up as Nature would, with little training of any description, but with that curious refinement of race or tradition which is so often to be found in those who, springing from a higher origin, have yet lived chiefly among the poor. They were ‘ladies born,’ as was acknowledged by ‘all the Loch’—and universal respect was paid them; although they were not, except on formal occasions, dignified by the title of ‘the Miss Diarmids,’ but were generally distinguished only as ‘the Captain’s Margaret,’ and ‘the Captain’s Isabel.’ Margaret had fallen into bad health some years before her father’s death, and sickness and a more elevated type of character had made her as much the elder of the two as if her seniority had been a matter of years instead of minutes. It was she whose will had prevailed in respect of her stepmother.
‘She was his wife after all,’ Margaret had said, ‘and they are our brother and sister. We have no right to forget that——’
‘She had no right to be his wife!’ said hasty Isabel, with sudden tears. ‘If she were a poor body in a cot-house do you think I would grudge her anything? but I cannot bear it, because she’s thought to belong to us—her and those weary bairns.’
‘They are my father’s bairns,’ said the invalid; and then she added after a pause, ‘And I hope they are God’s bairns, Bell—and you too.’
‘Me!’ said Isabel, looking round, as with a hasty determination even to deny this bond of union; but when the meaning of the words reached her, a shade of compunction, a gleam of sorrow, shot one after another over her face which expressed all she thought, ‘Oh, Margaret, no like you,’ cried the impulsive girl, ‘no like you!’
‘Dinna break my heart,’ said the other, falling in her emotion into the soft vernacular which both in their composed moments avoided; ‘are we not all God’s bairns? But we shut our hearts and shut our door the one on the other; the like of us can be grand and proud and high—but the like of Him was neighbour and mair to all the poor folk. We ay forget that.’
‘You never forget,’ said Isabel; ‘I’ll do what you like, my dear, my dear! I’ll serve them on my knees night and day if you’ll but stay and be content.’
‘I’m very content to stay,’ said Margaret, with a smile,—‘too content. It’s not for me to judge; but, Bell, we’ll never be parted if I stay or if I go.’
To this the other girl made no answer, but fell down on her knees beside the invalid’s chair, and hid her face in her sister’s dress, weeping there in silence. Margaret laid her thin hand upon the bright hair and smoothed it tenderly. She was no older than the creature at her feet, and yet it seemed to be her child, warm with all the passion of life, whom she was caressing in her calm and patience. And she smiled, though Isabel saw it not.
‘I’ll go no further than to Him,’ she said, ‘and you’ve ay access to Him at all times. I’ll take a grip of His robe that’s made of light, and I’ll hear your voice when He’s listening to you. I’ll tell Him it’s my sister:—as if He needed us to tell Him,’ she added, with a soft laugh of contempt at herself; and her eyes lighted up in her pale face, and went away far beyond Isabel kneeling at her side, far beyond the homely walls and little humble house.
By and by Isabel’s weeping ceased, and she became aware, by her sister’s silence, and by the chill touch of the hand which rested on her head, that Margaret’s mind had stolen away from all their trials and troubles. She rose up softly, not disturbing her, and throwing one piteous look at the pale, soft countenance, withdrew to a corner. One or two hot, hasty tears fell on the work she had taken up mechanically. It was little Mary’s black frock, her other sister—Jean Campbell’s little girl. That was how Isabel succinctly described the children; Jean Campbell’s bairns; and was that to be all she would have for a sister when God had His way?
This was how it came to be settled that Jean Campbell and her bairns should remain in the Glebe Cottage. Jean had few qualifications for the office of guardian to these girls, but she was in some sort a protector to them, and took care of their goods and managed their humble affairs. She was not a woman of such elevation of character as might have fitted her to take the command of the situation; but she was one of those kind and faithful souls who so often hide the sweeter qualities of their nature under an almost harsh, quite uncaressing and undemonstrative appearance. She, too, had mother-wit enough to see through the Captain, though no doubt his rank had dazzled her at first; but now that Captain Duncan was gone, she would have defended his memory to her last breath, and she was very good and tender in her own way to his daughters. She accepted her position loyally, without any attempt to better or change it. The state of Margaret’s health was too apparent to leave bystanders in any doubt: and Jean was often uneasy—it is impossible to disguise the fact—as to what might become of herself and her children in such a case.
But in the meantime she was very kind to her husband’s daughters, and cared for their goods as if they had been her own, and was a faithful servant to them. She and her children were as comfortable in their end of the cottage as were Margaret and Isabel in their half, to which by times the gentlefolks of the district would come as visitors, out of consideration for the good blood which ran in their veins by their mother’s side. It was Isabel who was the representative sister out-of-doors, and whom Miss Catherine carried with her to return calls, and make such return as was possible to the civilities of her neighbours and connections. But it was Margaret who was the queen within and received all the homage. Day by day, however, carried the elder sister more out of the range of worldly affairs. It was, as Jean said, ‘a decline’ that had seized her. Not a violent disease, but a soft fading. The current of her life kept shrinking into always a narrower and a narrower channel. She still went every day to a certain spot on the hill-side above the house, where a little burn went trickling from stone to stone, and a mountain-ash drooped its leafy branches over a little green knoll. For many years it had been her daily custom to sit and ponder, or to pray in this silent grassy place. It was long before she knew that anyone watched her daily pilgrimage: but nothing escapes the keen inspection of a rural community. When it had just begun to be a toil to her to seek her little oratory, a poor mother from the village, who had been hanging wistfully about, accosted her with a humble petition that she would ‘think upon’ a suffering child ‘when she gaed up bye to the brae.’ It was too late then for her to change or to hide her custom, and by degrees she became used to the petition. She went up with tremulous, feeble step day after day, bearing upon her tender soul the burden of other people’s troubles, penitences, and fears. Not a soul in the parish would willingly have gone that way to disturb the saintly creature, as she knelt under her rowan-tree, with the soft burn singing in her ear, and the soft breeze blowing her hair; and offered her offering and made her intercession. They were stern Puritans in the village below, and rampant Protestants; but they sent their white spotless virgin to intercede for them, with a faith which no doctrine could shake.
She was stealing down softly in the slowly falling twilight, when the country was brightening into spring, six months after her father’s death. She had a warm shawl wrapped closely round her shoulders, and her step was not quite steady as she left the soft grass of the hill-side for the path. It was but a few yards to the cottage, but her strength was no more than equal to the exertion. There were two people standing waiting for her near the door; one of them a tall, vigorous, old lady, wrapped like herself in a large, soft, black and white shawl, who stood talking, with some eagerness, to the clergyman of the parish, a fresh, rural, middle-aged man, with clear eyes, clear complexion, and a general distinctness about him. It was Miss Catherine of the Lochhead who was speaking to the minister. Family names were unusual in the parish, for the population, with some trifling exceptions, were all Diarmids. Miss Catherine was in some respects the squire of the district. Her brother, it is true, was the real laird, but he was seldom at home, and Miss Catherine reigned in his stead. She was discussing the great topic of the moment with Mr. Lothian; and the two were not quite agreed.
‘Don’t speak to me about miracles,’ said Miss Catherine. ‘I’m not one of your believing kind. I don’t deny that some of the things are very surprising, but they’re all to be accounted for. We are surrounded by surprising things. I never lift my hand to my head, but when I think of it, it is a wonder to me—but as for direct miracles——’
‘Here is Margaret,’ said the minister; ‘we’ll ask her; you all believe her better than you’ll ever believe me.’
Margaret came up with her slightly faltering, uncertain step as he spoke; and the two gazed at her with that mingled awe and pity which a creature standing on the boundary between life and death naturally calls forth in every sympathetic soul. Mr. Lothian drew her hand through his arm as her father might have done.
‘You should not walk so far till you get stronger,’ he said. Margaret looked at him with a smile, and shook her head.
‘You know I will never get stronger,’ she said. ‘It is not like you to say what you don’t mean. But you’ll come in. My feet are failing already, and it’s not often we see Miss Catherine here.’
‘My dear,’ said the old lady, speaking quickly as if to shake the tears out of her voice, ‘the horses are all busy at the plough, and I’m a poor walker. I always hear how you are all the same.’
‘You’re vexed to look at me,’ said Margaret. ‘I know what you mean. You’re like to break your heart when you see my face; but I’m not grieved for my part. I cannot see what great difference there can be between this world and the other. God is ay the same. I would like to see Isabel and know that the poor bairns are doing as they ought——’
‘Oh, Margaret, do not break my heart with your bairns,’ cried Miss Catherine, with tears in her eyes. ‘It’s you I’m thinking of—I care nothing for other folk.’
‘You would hate me if I thought that,’ said Margaret, with her soft smile; ‘and I would be very glad to have your advice. I’m troubled about Jamie’s education. Isabel is young; she’ll maybe not think as I do. I am very anxious for your advice.’
‘We were talking of different things,’ said Mr. Lothian, leading the invalid into the house. ‘We were discussing what has happened in the country-side. If anybody can convince Miss Catherine it is you, Margaret. She will not believe the story everybody is full of—though I saw Ailie with my own eyes, one day helpless on her bed, the next walking down the hill-side far more strongly, my poor child, than you.’
‘It was hysterical; nothing will make me believe different,’ said Miss Catherine; ‘fanciful illness, fanciful cure. I’m not gainsaying the facts, but you’ll never get me to believe it was miraculous. What is Ailie Macfarlane that God should do miracles for her? If it had been Margaret here——’
‘But He knows I want no miracles,’ said Margaret; ‘I’m very content with what I get. I’m fond of both the bairns myself; but I give most to little Mary; not that she deserves it most, or that I like her best, but because her nature’s ay craving. It’s the same thing. Ailie craves, too, and God knows the nature He gave her; but for me—He sees I’m content.’
‘And you would be content if you were cut in little pieces for Isabel and Jean Campbell’s weans,’ cried Miss Catherine, with an indignation that was assumed to hide something else. ‘It takes little to content you.’
‘Everybody is so good to me,’ said Margaret. ‘You are not so good to Ailie Macfarlane. You take up her little words, and you’re angry at God for doing more for her than for me; but I take it as a compliment, for my part,’ said the girl, with a smile. She was so near her Father in Heaven, that she spoke of Him almost as she would have done of a father on earth.
‘Well—well,’ said Miss Catherine, impatiently, ‘we must all believe just what you like to tell us. Where is Isabel? I think she might be here to look after you and keep you comfortable instead of wandering all the day among the hills.’
‘She is never away from me,’ said Margaret, warmly; ‘she would carry me in her arms if I would let her. I sent her out for change, poor Bell! It would be a hard thing if I was to let her put all her happiness on me.’
‘Better on you than on that English lad,’ said Miss Catherine, with heat, ‘that nobody knows. In my day, we were never allowed to speak to a young man till his kith and kin were known. You think you’re wiser now—but I wish it may come to no harm,’ said the old lady. She was an old woman given to opposition, but the strength of her indignation now lay in the absolute necessity she felt to do or say something which should not drop into weak lamentation and tears.
Margaret made no answer. She bent back in her invalid chair, and threw off the shawl which wrapped her, and untied the bonnet which surrounded her delicate face like a great projecting frame. As for the minister, his face flushed, and his hands grew restless with agitation; though on the surface of things it would have seemed that he had very little to do with the matter.
‘There is no meaning in it,’ said Mr. Lothian; ‘they’re children both; she is not the one, especially now—No, you need not think of that.’
And with this speech he rose up and went to the window, and gazed out, not knowing what to say. Miss Catherine held up her hands commenting on his excitement as women do—half contemptuous, half amused—
‘What is it to him that might be her father?’ she said, leaning over Margaret, in a whisper. And Margaret smiled with the indulgent quiet of old age.
‘Let them be,’ she said, softly; ‘God will guide it His own way. I’m not afraid for my Isabel. When I’m away you’ll see what is in her. My shadow is ay coming in, though you don’t think it, between her and you.’
At this moment the minister turned round, as with a little impatience, and interrupted the side-talk.
‘And as we speak of her, here comes Isabel,’ he said, with a hasty sigh. Both the women knew at once more distinctly than if he had said it, that the ‘English lad,’ young Stapylton, the one idler of the country-side, was with Isabel. As the young pair approached, the elder visitors prepared to go away. Miss Catherine was absorbed in her anxiety and grief for Margaret, but other feelings stirred in the mind of her companion. He was eager to leave the cottage before Isabel and her escort should appear, and hurried the old lady in her leave-taking.
‘We must not tire her out,’ he said, pressing Margaret’s hand with a certain petulant haste, which she forgave him. It was true he was old enough to be Isabel’s father; but even that reflection, though he had often insisted upon it in his own thoughts, had not moved him as it ought to have done. He could not wait to meet her, but nodded his head with a poor assumption of carelessness, and hurried Miss Catherine down the opposite path. Even Mr. Lothian’s secret sentiments had been discovered, like other things, by the country-side; and the old lady perceived what he meant, and dried the tear in her eye, and looked at him with a certain grim, half-pitying smile about the corner of her mouth.
‘Isabel will think we are angry,’ she said, watching him with a certain interest—almost amusement in his suffering; ‘though, poor thing, I don’t know that she is to blame.’
‘Miss Catherine, you forget that an innocent girl should not be spoken of so,’ said the minister, with a heavy sigh.
‘I forget nothing, Edward Lothian—nor that you, like an old fool, are breaking your heart about her; a girl that might be your daughter—a mere silly bairn!’
‘Hush!’ he said. A faint colour had crept upon his face. He made no attempt to deny the accusation. ‘I hope I am not a man to break my heart, as you say, for anything in the world,’ he added, after a pause, ‘as long as there is the parish, and my work;’ and the poor man unconsciously once more rounded his sentence with a sigh.
It was almost twilight when Isabel and Horace Stapylton entered the little parlour where Margaret lay back wearily in her chair, longing for rest and the silence of the night; but she smiled softly at her sister, and half rose from her seat, weak, but courteous to acknowledge the presence of the stranger. Stapylton was the son of an English squire, who had been sent to Scotland to study agriculture, and from the high farming of Lothian had found his way to Ayrshire on the score of cheesemaking, and thence to the other side of the Loch to Mr. Smeaton’s great stock farm. It had been autumn when he came, and the grouse was a still more potent attraction. And after a while he had found his way over the braes to see Mr. Lothian, who had once been tutor to the young earl (before he came to be marquis), and had many English friends. A Scotch Manse is the home of hospitality, and young Stapylton found himself comfortable and saw Isabel, and discovered many attractions in the place; and, after a succession of flying visits, had settled down as Mr. Lothian’s permanent guest. In the primitive world of Loch Diarmid he was distinguished by his nationality, which placed him on a little pedestal apart from all competitors. He was ‘yon English lad’ to the prejudiced multitude; and more kindly bystanders entitled him ‘the young Englishman at the Manse.’ He was a ruddy, well-looking, not highly refined type of man; but he was a stranger and ‘English,’ and surrounded with a certain agreeable half-mystery in consequence. His accent had a sound of refinement and elevation in it to ears used to the broader vowels and ‘West-country drawl’ of the vernacular. And to Isabel Diarmid he had a charm more subtle even than the attraction of singularity and unlikeness to the multitude. He was the first man who had openly and evidently owned her power as a woman, which of itself is a great matter. It did not matter where she went, he knew of it as by magic, and was always at hand, a kind of persecution which is not always disagreeable to an inexperienced girl. It gave to Isabel that vague, sweet sense of being one of the princesses of romance which tells for so much in a young life. She went in now, to her sister, with life breathing about her, with the wild perfume of the summer blossoms, the heather she had been brushing against, the bog-myrtle she had been treading under foot, like an atmosphere round her; and love untold and hope without bounds, all tender, vague, and splendid, encircling her like the air she breathed. This was the difference between the two sisters, and it was a strange difference. If Margaret had been an ordinary invalid it would have been a touching and melancholy contrast. But as it was the advantage was not all on her sister’s side.
‘We’ve been hearing of Ailie Macfarlane,’ said Isabel, eagerly; ‘I have seen her. If it is faith that has cured Ailie, why should you lie there so weak? Oh, my bonnie Maggie! If it was the like of me it would be different; but why should Ailie be well and strong and you lie there?’
‘I think because it’s God’s will,’ said Margaret: ‘but Miss Catherine has been here, and I have done nothing this hour but talk of myself; it is not the best subject. Mr. Stapylton, I thought you were leaving the Loch? There is not much to take up a young man like you here.’
‘There is more here than anywhere else in the world,’ said young Stapylton; ‘I should like to stay all my life—I hate the very thought of going away.’
‘But your friends are all in England,’ said Margaret. ‘and your life—it is not easy for me now to feel what life is. I am like one lying by a riverside, seeing it glide and glide away. I can do little but speak, and that’s poor work. But you that are young and strong are different—you and Isabel. You should not put off each other’s time.’
‘We met by chance,’ said Isabel, with a sudden blush; ‘and I have done all I had to do. There are times when one cannot work; it’s gloaming now and the day is past. There is a meeting down at the Lochhead with Mr. Lothian and all the ministers. But I would rather stay with you. She’s coming in from the Lochhead, and the bairns are ready for their supper—and, Margaret, we’ve wearied you.’
She was Jean Campbell, the stepmother to whom Isabel was less kind and tolerant than her sister, and whom presently they heard come in with a little commotion into the large low kitchen where the family took its meals. Little Mary had been with her mother, and by and by a little knock at the parlour-door announced her approach. The lady-visitors were very great people to the child, and only she of ‘the other family’ ever ventured uninvited into that splendid apartment. She was like Isabel, though Isabel was indignant to be told so—with two large excitable, brilliant brown eyes, which at this moment blazed out of the little flushed and agitated face. She had been at the meeting, and had heard all, and felt all, with precocious sensibility. While Isabel went out under pretence of helping her stepmother, but in reality to accompany her visitor to the door, the child knelt down on the stool she had been sitting on by Margaret’s side, and began her little passionate tale.
‘It was like in the Bible,’ said little Mary; ‘in the middle of the reading the Holy Spirit came. O Margaret, I couldn’t bear it! Ailie gave a great cry, and then she spoke; but it wasna her that spoke: her countenance was shining white, like the light—just like the Bible; and she spoke out like a minister, but far better than the minister. It was awfu’ to hear her; and, O Margaret, I couldn’t bear it; I thought shame.’
‘Why did you think shame?’ said Margaret. ‘You should have been glad to hear, thankful to hear—even if it was too high for a bairn like you to understand.’
‘It wasna that,’ cried the child. ‘I thought shame that it wasna you. Why can Ailie do it, and no you? And they say you are as good as Ailie, and as holy; but they say you havena faith. O Margaret, would you let her ay be the first, and a’ the folk going after her? I canna bear it! I have faith mysel. You could get up this minute, and go and speak like Ailie, if you would but have faith.’
Margaret put her arm softly round the excited child, and the little thing’s agitation found vent in tears. She put down her head on her sisters shoulder, and sobbed with childish mortification and wounded pride. Whether any echo of that cry woke in the patient soul thus strangely reproached, the angels only know. Margaret said nothing for some minutes; she held the child close with her feeble arm, and calmed and soothed her; and it was only when the sobs were over and the excitement subdued that she spoke.
‘So you think God’s no so kind to me?’ she said softly in the darkness. ‘My little Mary, you are too little to understand. I am not one that craves for gifts; I am content with love. I am best pleased as it is. Ailie and me are two different spirits; not that one is better and the other worse. If we had both been angels, we would still have been different. You are too little to understand. I am not the one to speak and to work; I am the one to be content.’
‘But you shouldna be content,’ said little Mary; ‘you should have faith. O Margaret, I’m little, but I’ve faith. Rise up, and be well and live! They a’ say that to be ill and die is a sin against the Holy Ghost.’
The child had risen up in her excitement, and stood stretching out her little arms over her sister. The room was dark and still, with but the ‘glimmering square’ of the window fully risible, and night gathering in all the corners. Margaret’s form was invisible in the soft gloom; the outline of her reclining figure, the little phantom standing over her, the suggestion of a contrast, intense as anything in life, was all that could have been divined by any spectator. Presently soft hands stretched upwards, and took hold of the little rigid arms of the would-be marvel-worker; and a voice still softer—low like the coo of a dove, came out of the darkness.
Margaret attempted no reply; she made no remonstrance; she only repeated that psalm which is as the voice of its mother to every Scottish child—the first thing learnt, the last forgotten:—
‘The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want,He makes me down to lieIn pastures green; He leadeth meThe quiet waters by.
Yea, though I walk in death’s dark vale,Yet will I fear none ill;For Thou art with me, and Thy rodAnd staff me comfort still.’
As the soft familiar voice went on, poor little Mary’s excited nerves broke down. She burst once more into tears, and ere the psalm was ended added her small faltering voice to the low and steady tones of her sister. She was overcome by influences much too exciting to be understood by a child. The little creature yielded, because her physical endurance was not equal to the task she had set herself, but her mind was unchanged. She was impatient, angry, and mortified. Her sister’s rival had triumphed, and little Mary could not bear it. As for Margaret, she rose when her psalm was ended, and took her little sister’s hand and led her into the kitchen, where the family table was prepared. Margaret sat down in the cushioned chair which awaited her, still holding little Mary by the hand. She had to pause to take breath before she spoke, and the child stood by her like an eager little prisoner, with her big eyes shining. Mary’s mind was precocious, and stimulated into premature action by the strange circumstances that surrounded her. She felt as profoundly as if she had been twenty, that while Margaret and Isabel were the Miss Diarmids, she was only ‘Jean Campbell’s bairn;’ and now a sure way of obtaining individual distinction, the highest of all grades of rank, had burst upon the child; therefore she was in no mood for the half-reproof which she foresaw was to come.
‘I think little Mary is too young for the meetings,’ said Margaret; ‘not that I mean she should not learn; but she is very quick and easy moved, and she is but a bairn.’
The stepmother looked up with a little flash of not unnatural suspicion.
‘She is no a lady born like you,’ said Jean, hastily; ‘but in my way of thinking that’s a reason the more why she should learn.’
‘But no when she is so young,’ said Margaret. ‘Her little face is all moving, and the bairn herself trembling. It’s her nerves I’m thinking of,’ said the sick girl, with a deprecating smile; at which, however, Jean only shook her head, as she looked at the child’s glowing, startled face.
‘Nerves! I never heard of nerves in her kith or kin,’ said the woman; and then added, ‘You may speak to Isabel about nerves, Margaret; she’s been greeting about the house like an infant, and tells me “naething,” when I asks what ails her. It’s to her you should speak.’
Margaret looked at her sister across the table, and shook her head. ‘You all take your own way,’ she said, with a touch of sadness, ‘though you say it is to please me. I am thankful beyond measure that you care for the kirk and for prayer, but little Mary might be as well if she was left with me. We are great friends. And, Isabel, you’ll make your bonnie eyes red, but you’ll no give up a hard thought or a hasty word; and yet that would be worth more than miracles. Jamie, come and tell me what has happened to-day on the hill.’
‘Me!’ said Jamie, looking up with his mouth full of porridge, and his eyes large with wonder. ‘There’s never naething happens till me.’
‘Is that a way to answer when Margaret speaks to you?’ cried his mother. ‘But he’ll never learn manners—never, whatever you do. I think whiles he’s no better than a natural born.’
‘But he knows every creature on the hill, and every bird on the trees,’ said Margaret, ‘and is never cruel to one of them. That’s grand manners. He’s good to everything God has made. Jamie, did you see the minister to-day?’
‘Hunting flowers on the hill,’ said Jamie promptly, thrusting away his thick matted white hair from his round, staring, wondering eyes.
‘So mony great things going on at his very side, and him gathering a wheen useless flowers! And it was well seen on him,’ she cried; ‘there was Mr. Fraser of the Langholm and Mr. Wood on the other side of the hill, that took it a’ upon themselves; though Ailie’s in our parish, and a’ the stir. And our ain minister without a word to say! I’ve ay said he was ower much taken up with his flowers, and his fancies; no, but what I think it would be a far better thing for Isabel——’
‘Nothing about me, if you please,’ said Isabel, flashing into sudden wrath; and then she gave Margaret a guilty look. As for Margaret she but shook her head softly once more.
‘He is not so sure in his own mind,’ she said ‘that is what makes him silent. Mr. Wood and Mr. Fraser are different kind of men. Some can just believe without more ado, and some have to think first. Isabel, if you’re ready, it is the bairns’ bedtime, and we can go.’
‘You’re awfu’ anxious to-night about the bairns,’ said Jean, still irritable and displeased.
‘She is so little,’ said Margaret, stooping over little Mary to kiss her. ‘If you would but believe me, and no take her down yonder. How can she understand at her age? And she has nerves as well as Isabel. Will you promise me not to think to-night? But just to fall asleep, little Mary, as soon as you’ve said your prayers?’
‘I’ll pray for you, Margaret,’ cried the child, with the tremulous tones of excitement, ‘and you’ll, maybe, be well and strong like Ailie the morn’s morn.’
‘Then wait till morning comes,’ said Margaret, ‘for to-night I am wearied, and I want to rest.’
Thus they separated, the sisters with their candles retiring to their little parlour—the lights in the window of which were watched by more than one watcher from far, with tender thoughts of the young inmates. But Margaret was weary—too weary—for the counsel she had to give. She went to bed leaving Isabel, the latest of all the house, sitting alone, in a fever of thought which she could now indulge for the first time. The lonely little window sent a feeble ray upon the hill-side road, and was visible on the Loch to such a late hour as seldom witnessed any window alight in Loch Diarmid. There were many causes for the tumult of fancies which absorbed the girl and made her forget the progress of time. The very air around her was full of excitement; her sister for anything she knew might the next day rise healed from her bed. She herself might be free as the winds to choose her own life; and it was at the very climax and crisis of this life that Isabel stood.
It will have been guessed by what has been already said that one of the periodical fits of religious excitement to which every primitive country is liable, had lately taken place in the parish of Loch Diarmid. There had been a general quickening of popular interest in religious matters. Religion had taken a new meaning to the fervid primitive mind. A miraculous world, all glowing with undeveloped forces, rose up around them. The end might be that the Lord would come, bringing confusion to His enemies and triumph to His people, or, at least, that such supernatural endowments would come as should make poor men and peasant maidens the reformers of the world. At the first outset there was something splendid, something exalting, in this hope. And the strange story which a short time before had run round the Loch as by magic gave it instant confirmation. Ailie Macfarlane, a young woman known to be hopelessly ill, who had been visited, and sympathised with, and ministered to by all the kindly gossips of the parish—whose parents had been condoled with on her approaching loss—and whose symptoms were as well known to the community as their several and individual sufferings, had risen up all at once from her sick bed and gone out on a journey at the call of faith. The astonished parish had suddenly encountered her afoot upon its public roads, yet knew with a certainty beyond all power of deception, that the day before she had been a helpless sufferer.
Such a wonder had an immense effect upon the popular mind, as indeed a thoroughly ascertained fact of the kind would have had anywhere. Whether or not she might turn out a prophetess, as she claimed to be, this wonderful preliminary was certain. She had risen up and walked like the paralytic in the Gospel, in defiance of all physicians and human means of cure, and was visible among them in restored health and activity a creature who had been on the verge of the grave. Throughout the whole country, great and small, without exception, were occupied by Ailie Macfarlane’s wonderful recovery. Nobody could deny, and nobody could explain it.
The thrill of strange expectation which thus ran through the parish was, as may be supposed, more strongly felt by Margaret’s friends than by any other of the rustic neighbours. The strength of their love for her tempted them almost to accuse, and certainly to reproach, the wilful sufferer who would not avail herself of her known favour with Heaven and be healed like the other. It was this certainty that set her sister free (or at least, so she thought,) to entertain visions of happiness to herself independent of Margaret. On the very next evening, when the sun had set upon the loch, but still lingered red upon the further hills, Isabel resumed the subject which had occupied her thoughts. Could she do it? Sunder her future life from her past at a leap—set herself free from all the present claims upon her—could it be possible to do it? or, on the other hand, would she, could she give up her love?
Isabel’s brain had grown giddy by dint of thinking, when suddenly she heard a little gravel thrown on the corner of the parlour window—the signal that she was waited for without. She threw her shawl round her hastily, drawing it over her head, and stole out. Margaret was not there to be disturbed. She had gone to her place of prayer some time before, and was still in that silent nook, with the sweet rowan-tree blossoms scenting the air round her. Isabel stole out with a certain guilty sense that her errand was not one to be approved by any beholder. Some way up, beyond the cottage, among the great bushes of whims and heather, lingered a single figure. Few passengers cared to wade among that thick undergrowth; here and there it was treacherous moss in which the foot sank; here and there a young birch waved its brown locks pathetically in the evening breeze; and the heather-bushes, with their gnarled stalks like miniature oaks, were not very pleasant to walk among. But the two who had appointed their meeting there did not care for the heather stalks, or the trembling moss. They were thinking but of themselves—or, rather, as they would have said, of each other.
‘Have you thought it all over?’ said the young man, eagerly. ‘Isabel, you cannot mean to cast me off. Don’t tell me so; don’t look as if you could be so cruel. I could bear anything for your sake, but that I could not bear.’
This was said in haste and excitement, after a long pause; for Isabel had nothing to say to her lover, but went on with him in silence, turning her face away from his anxious looks.
‘I never thought of casting you off,’ said Isabel; ‘how could that be? If we were to be parted for ever and ever, I could never cast you off; but I canna do it, Horace—I canna do it. You must ask me no more.’
‘Why cannot you do it?’ he said. ‘What is to prevent you? I have told you everything, Isabel. They will say I am too young to marry if I ask them at home—and they don’t know you. If my mother knew my Isabel, it would be different. And if we were but married, it would be different. Once married, everything would come right. And what matter is it if we were married in private or in public? It is always in a house here in Scotland. I only ask that one little sacrifice. Is it much to ask when I am ready to do anything—everything——’
‘But there is nothing for you to do,’ said Isabel; ‘it would all be me. You are making me deceive them now. I never said what was not true all my life before; and now I’m false to everybody—everybody but you.’
‘It would put an end to that if you would do what I say,’ cried the young man. ‘We should go away; and then when we came back, everybody would know. I am asking so little—only to have it done privately. We would come back, and all would be right. My people would make up their minds to it when they could not help it; and yours——’
‘Ah!’ cried Isabel, ‘to speak to me of running away and being married, and my Margaret—my only sister, lying dying! How can you name such a thing to me?’
‘Now, Isabel,’ said young Stapylton, ‘this is nonsense, you know. If you break my heart, what good will that do to her? It will not cure her. Besides,’ he added with suppressed scorn, ‘you know yourself—you have told me—that Margaret might be well if she liked. She is very good, isn’t she? Better than that girl whom you are all talking of—and she ought to be cured. If she keeps herself ill on purpose, it is cruel and selfish of her. Why should she spoil your life and her own too?’
‘How dare you speak like that of my sister?’ said Isabel, with blazing eyes, ‘and her so near the angels? Oh, Horace, you would never think so of Margaret if you were really, really caring for me.’
‘If you can doubt me, I have no more to say,’ said the young man; and then they started apart, and the briefest lovers’ quarrel ensued—a quarrel soon made up in the inevitable, universal way, strengthening the position of the one who attacked, and weakening that of the defender. Stapylton drew Isabel’s hand through his arm when she gave it him in reconciliation and led her through the heather farther and farther from home. ‘You are never to utter such cruel words any more,’ he said, ‘nor so much as to think them. Am not I ready to give up everything for you? The old Hall, and my father’s favour, and all I might have if I pleased. It is different from Loch Diarmid, Isabel; but I care for nothing but you; and you will not make the least little sacrifice for me.’
‘I would make any sacrifice—any sacrifice; there is nothing so hard but I would try to do it—for you, Horace,’ said the girl with tears.
‘And yet you will not come away with me for two or three days, and be made my wife! What are you afraid of, Isabel? Can you not trust me? Do you think I would harm you? Tell me what it is you fear?’
‘Fear!’ said Isabel surprised, lifting her eyes to his face. ‘When you are with me what can I fear?’
‘Then why don’t you trust me?’ said the young fellow, with a sudden flush on his face.
‘I trust you as I trust myself,’ said Isabel. ‘Could I care for anyone as I care for you, and not trust him? It is my own folk I am thinking of. I cannot deceive my own folk. Oh, dinna ask me, Horace, and I will do anything else in the world.’
‘Your own folk!’ said Horace, with a little contempt; ‘Jean Campbell, perhaps, that is not good enough to be your housekeeper. I am deceiving father and mother for you, Isabel, and I never grumble. To think of your father’s widow in comparison with me!’
‘I think of Margaret,’ said Isabel, ‘my twin sister. Oh, never ask me more! It would kill my Margaret. Me to deceive her that has been part of herself. Oh, Horace, dinna ask me! I would die to please you; but not even to please you, would I hurt her. I canna do it. I would sooner die!’
Young Stapylton’s face grew red all over with a passionate, furious colour: then he drew his breath hard and restrained himself. For one moment he grasped Isabel’s hand, which rested on his arm, with a firm pressure, which would have made her scream had she been less startled. Then he loosed it with a strange little laugh which was not pleasant to hear.
‘Isabel.’ he said, ‘if you don’t make me hate Margaret before all’s over, it will be a wonder. Do you forget what you have told me? or do you think I forget? Would I ever ask you to leave your sister, if things were here just as they are in other places? Have you not told me that the age of miracles has come back; and don’t I know that there is nobody in the place so good as Margaret? Why should she die when the rest recover? It stands to reason; and you are not going to spend all your lives together, you two. Of course you will marry some time: and so will she—when she is better,’ the young man added after a pause.
‘Margaret marry? Never, never!’ cried Isabel ‘You cannot understand; and you dinna say that as if you believed it either—but like a scoffer,’ she added, ‘that thinks nothing is true.’
‘I think my Isabel is true,’ said the young man, ‘and I believe anything she says.’
‘Oh, no me, no me,’ cried Isabel, with tears, ‘dinna call me true. I am false to everybody belonging to me. I am cheating and deceiving all my own folk. I am true to nobody but you.’
‘After all, that is the most important,’ said Stapylton, with an attempt at playfulness. ‘Isabel, am not I the first now? the first to be loved—the first to be considered? I know you are to me.’
Isabel made a long pause. She wandered on with him, for they were walking all the time, with her eyes bent on the sweet grass she trod under foot and the heather-bushes among which they picked their way. After a long interval a ‘No’ dropped from her lips. ‘No,’ she went on, shaking her head slowly. ‘I must not think of you first—not now. I must think of Margaret first. Dinna be angry, Horace. It is but a year since I saw you first, and she has been my best friend and my dearest for twenty years. And you are well and strong, and she is dying; and you have plenty of friends, and she has no one but me. I must think of her before you.’
‘Then you don’t love me!’ cried the young man. ‘I see how it is: you have a liking for me—that is all. You are pleased to keep a man dangling about at your orders, waiting for you, as they say here, at kirk and market; but as for loving—giving up all and following your husband—you’re not the girl for that, Isabel. I see: you’re Scotch, and you’re cautious; and you won’t take one step till you see what is to be the next; and as for speaking of love——’
Isabel looked up at him nastily with indignant, tender eyes, wounded to the heart. She drew her hand out from his arm. Not love him, and yet deceive her friends for him and leave Margaret alone the long, slow evening through! The colour rose violent and hot to her face. But she was very proud as well as very warm in her affections. She would not explain. Turning away from him as she disengaged her hand, her eye suddenly caught the dreary blank of the moor around them, from which the light had faded. Never before in all their rambles had they wandered so far. The cottage was invisible, as well as every other habitation. The night was falling. It was time already for the family supper, and Margaret, all alone, would be waiting for her sister, while Isabel was far from home, in the dark on the moor, with only her lover beside her. A little cry of consternation burst from the girl’s lips. Had she had wings, she could scarcely have gone back quick enough to save Margaret from anxiety and wonder, and perhaps fear. Her companion saw her start, her painful surprise, and forgot his upbraiding. He seized her hand again suddenly, and drew it almost with a degree of force within his arm.
‘Isabel,’ he cried energetically, ‘it’s night, and nobody will see us; and we are as near to Loch Goil as we are to the Glebe—I think nearer, Isabel. It’s but to go on, now you are so far on your way. There shall be nothing to worry, nothing to frighten you. Let us go down on the other side, and get it over. It is not a great matter, if you love me. Margaret will be anxious, but we’ll send her word to-morrow. I know a good woman to take you to. I know a quiet way down, where nobody will see us. Isabel, Isabel! You don’t mean to say you’re angry. You are not afraid of me?’
‘I’m feared for no man,’ cried Isabel, drawing herself away from him, and turning back with startled, gleaming eyes. She made no further answer, but folded her shawl close round her, and turned her back upon her eager, pleading lover. He had to follow her as she made her way with nervous haste back to the highroad which crossed the hill. Even then he did not think his cause lost. The night was growing dark, and he had brought her far from home, and the road led both ways. He went after her, entreating, praying, using every art he knew.
‘They will be anxious now as they can be,’ he said; ‘they will think we have gone; they will be better pleased to see you come back to-morrow my wife than to have all the parish telling that you and I were here so long on the hill. Isabel, it will be all to do over again, anxiety and everything. The worst is over. Come; an hour’s walk will bring us to Loch Goil.’
He put his hand on her arm as he spoke. They were on the verge of the highroad, which by this time was scarcely distinguishable from the moor. He had followed closely across the heather, as she sped along, keeping by her side, urging his anxious arguments. Now, for the first time, he put out his hand, drawing her closer to him, drawing her the other way, on the downward path which led to another life. Isabel snatched herself away and stood facing him for a moment. It was a moment of breathless suspense to both. He knew her so little that he believed she might still decide for him; and held his breath in expectation: while the indignant, proud, tender creature stood looking at him, uncertain whether she should part with him for ever, or throw herself into his arms in a momentary storm of love and upbraiding, making him understand at once and for ever the possibilities and impossibilities in her nature. She stood lingering for that moment of doubt—and then she turned suddenly from him without a word, and drew her shawl over her head and fled homewards like a deer or a child of the hills. While he stood still in consternation he heard her rapid feet scattering the pebbles on the road, going as fast as a mountain-stream. The young man made a plunge after her; but she was already far in advance, and had known the path all her life, and there was neither credit nor advantage in pursuing a runaway maiden. He came to a dead pause and ground his teeth in vexation and disappointment. He was passionately ‘in love’ with the girl, and yet he called her names in the bitterness of his mortified feelings. ‘I’ll have her yet, all the same, whether she will or no,’ he said with fury, as he found himself thus left in the lurch. As for Isabel, she took no time to think. She knew every step of the road along which she rushed in the darkness. Her heart was hot and burned within her; if it was anger, if it was excitement, if it was misery, she had no time to decide. The only thing before her was to get home. If she could but reach home, and find Margaret tranquil, as was her wont, then the whole matter should be ended for ever. This was what Isabel was thinking, so far as she could be said to think at all.
When she came at last within sight of the dim light in the kitchen window, a low lattice, out of which the lamp was faintly shining like a glowworm on the ground, Isabel’s flying pace was quickened. She could distinguish already some vague outlines of more than one figure round the door. Had the occasion or her feelings been less urgent, she would have paused to recover her breath, to put back her shawl, and end her precipitate course with an attempt at decorum; but she was too much agitated now to think of any such precautions. They heard her rapid feet as she began to hear the soft sound of their voices in the summer gloom; and Jean Campbell had but time to call out ‘Who goes there? is it oor Isabel?’—when the girl rushed into the midst of them, breathless, her hair ruffled by the shawl, her face glowing with the unusual exercise, her eyes shining. She rushed into the midst of the little group, catching hold of her stepmother in her agitation to stop herself in her headlong course. And the watchers started and gave place to her with a mixture of joy and terror.
‘Lassie, you’ll have me down!’ cried Jean Campbell, staggering under the sudden clutch, ‘but it’s you, God be praised. Here’s your sister half out of her mind. And where have you been?’
‘Is Margaret there?’ cried the panting Isabel. ‘And it so late, and the dew falling—and all my fault! But I did not mean it—I never thought it was so late; and then we got astray on the hill; and I’ve run every step of the way,’ cried Isabel hastily.
‘And what were you doing on the hill?’ began the stepmother. Margaret interrupted the expostulation. She put her hand out in the darkness to her sister. ‘I am not able to stand longer—now Isabel’s come,’ she said; ‘I am wearied and faint with waiting—say nothing to-night—the morn will be a new day.’
‘Aye,’ said Jean Campbell to herself, when the sisters had gone in; ‘the morn’s ay a new day; but them that’s lightheaded and thoughtless the night will be thoughtless the morn. Naething is to be counted on with a young lass. She’ll hae her fling though she’s a lady born. And Margaret there, puir thing, that never kent what it was to have the life dancing in her bits of veins! I’m, maybe, hard on her mysel,’ Jean murmured, pausing a moment at the closed door of the parlour. There was a sound of weeping from within, which touched her heart. She listened, hesitating whether to interfere. ‘If she had twa-three words to say to her lad on the hill, there was nae harm in that,’ said Jean to herself; and moved by recollections, she knocked at the door. ‘Lasses, ten’s chappit,’ she said. ‘The bairns are in their beds, and Margaret should ay be bedded as soon as the bairns. As for her there, likely she meant nae harm. Let her gang to her bed and say her prayers, and we’ll think on’t nae mair.’
‘I hope my own sister may say what she likes,’ said Isabel, starting up and turning on the good-natured mediator with her bright eyes full of tears. ‘There is nobody has a right to meddle between Margaret and me.’
‘Oh, hush, hush,’ said Margaret, ‘you two. I am not finding fault with her—and she is not ungrateful to you. It is a thing will never happen again.’