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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 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{12} 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 lie
In pastures green; He leadeth me
The 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 rod
And 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;{13} 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{14} 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.


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