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CHAPTER II
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, encir{10}cling 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 step{11}mother, but in reality to accompany her visitor to the door, the child knelt