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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{15} 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?{16} 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{17} 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?{18}’

‘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{19} 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{20} 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,{21} 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{22} 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.’

‘No—till the next time,’ said Jean Campbell, closing the parlour door after her with rising irritation. ‘Am I a fool to mind what the silly thing says?’ she said to herself, as she fastened the cottage door. Just then the sound of another foot scattering the gravel on the road came to her ear. With natural curiosity she reopened the door, leaving a little chink by which she could see through. ‘I kent it was him,’ she said triumphantly within herself. Though it was so dark, there was something about young Stapylton’s appearance, as a stranger and foreigner, which was instantly distinguishable to rural eyes. Jean looked on with keen curiosity as he passed. He could not see her, nor could he perceive the loophole through which her eyes watched him. To him the house was all dark and silent, shut up in its usual tranquillity. He paused before it, and inspected it all round, evidently with the idea that Isabel might be lingering outside. When he saw the light in the parlour window, he turned away with an exclamation of disgust, and shook his fist at the house which contained his love. The astonished watcher could not hear{23} what he muttered to himself, nor divine what was the cause of his wrath; but she threw the door open, and shook her fist at him in return, with prompt resentment. ‘It’s a dark night for a long walk, Maister Stapylton,’ Jean called out to him, with fierce satisfaction; ‘and there’s an awfu’ ill bit down there where the burn’s broke the bank. Can I len’ you a lantern till you’re past the burn?’

The young man quickened his steps, and went rambling on detaching the stones down the rugged road with some inarticulate angry answer of which Jean could make nothing. The disappointed wooer was in no very good humour either with himself or the household, which he pictured to himself must be laughing over his failure. Jean, for her part, put up the bolt with demonstration when she had thus gratified her feelings. The ‘lad’ whom his lass had left disconsolate on the hill, was fair game in the eyes of the peasant woman, and the little matter was concluded when he was thus sent angry and humbled away.

But it was not so in the parlour where Isabel was telling her story with many tears. Margaret, whose mind had long been abstracted from all such thoughts, listened with a curious mingling of interest and pain. That it could ever have entered into the mind of her sister to leave her thus suddenly, without warning, was an idea that filled her with consternation. She was silent while the confession was being made, confused as if a new world had suddenly opened up before her. Not a word of reproof did Margaret say; but she listened like a creature in a dream. Love!—was it love that could work so, that could be so pitiless? The virgin soul awoke appalled, and looked out as upon a new earth. Even Isabel did not know the effect her words produced. Her penitence fell altogether short of the occasion. She was sorry for having listened, sorry for having given patient ear for a moment to such a project, but she was not utterly bewildered, like Margaret, to think that such a project could be.

‘And he thought, and I thought,’ cried Isabel, alarmed by her sister’s silence, ‘that you could never be long left when Ailie’s cured and well. He would never have dreamed of it, but that he believed, like me——. Oh, Margaret! it’s slow to come, but it’s coming, you’re sure it’s coming? God would never forsake you.’

‘He will never forsake me,’ cried Margaret; ‘but, Bell, I cannot be cured. That is not the Lord’s meaning for me. And if I had been well, you would have run away and left me!’ she added, with a little natural pang. Isabel could not encounter the wistful reproach in her{24} eyes; she threw herself down by her sister’s side, and hid her face in Margaret’s dress.

‘If you had been well, you would not have minded,’ she sobbed: ‘if you had been well, somebody would have been coming for you as well as for me.’

‘For me!’ said the sick girl—her voice was too soft for indignation, too soft for reproach. ‘Yes,’ she said; after a pause, ‘the Bridegroom is soon coming for me; I hear His step nearer and nearer every day. And, Bell, I will not say a word. It is nature, they all tell me; I am not blaming you.’

‘If you would blame me, if you would but be wild at me!’ cried Isabel, weeping, ‘it wouldna be so hard to bear.’

Margaret bent down over the prostrate creature; she put her arms round the pretty head, with all its brown locks disordered, and pressed her own soft, faintly coloured cheek upon it, ‘It is but God that knows us all, to the bottom of our hearts,’ she said, ‘and He is always the kindest. We are all hard upon our neighbours, every one—even me that should know better and am ay talking. But, Bell, it cannot be well for him to tempt you; you should listen to him no more.’

‘I will never, never speak to him again!’ cried Isabel.

‘No that—not so much as that,’ said Margaret; ‘but he should not tempt my Bell to what is not true.’

And then the penitent girl felt her sister’s kiss on her forehead, and knew herself forgiven, and her fault passed over. She rose grateful and relieved, and the weight floated off her mind. The only one with whom the incident of the evening left any sting was the one who had most need of love’s consolation—the sick girl who loved everybody, and whom even God cast into the background, leaving her in the shade. Poor Margaret went to her rest confused and stunned, not knowing what had befallen her. All were preferred to her, both by man and by God.


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