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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Minister's Wife » CHAPTER V
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Mr. John, whose appearance at the Glebe had thus moved all the spectators, had been for a long time the embodiment of pleasure-seeking and dissipation to the country-side. His had been the jeunesse orageuse, which, as a pleasant discipline and beginning of life, had ceased to be realised on this side of the Channel. A quaint old house on the eastern side of the Loch, and a few hill-sides which had been in the family for centuries, were all his patrimony; but his mother had transmitted a moderate fortune to her only child, which he had got rid of in his younger days in gayer scenes than could be found on the Loch. When he had returned perforce, all his money being spent, to his long-neglected home, Mr. John for some years had taken rank as the Don Giovanni of the district. He had been so far prudent or fortunate as never to be the object of any unusually grave scandal. Miss Catherine, rigid as she was in morality, had not been compelled to shut her doors against her own connection, but had been able to doubt, to extenuate, to find excuses for him. ‘Left to his own will when he was but a callant,’ she would say, ‘flattered and served hand and foot by them that led him away. If I am to shut my doors on the poor lad, where would he get a word of advice, or be shown the error of his ways?’

It was thus that Mr. John, pursuing his pleasures with such daring as was possible, preserved still a shred of superficial character. And then the time had come when vulgar dissipation palled on the man. For a year or two he had partially recovered himself, and turned to a better life; and during this interval it was that he became acquainted with Margaret. Mr. John, whose family was unimpeachable, was a great man to Captain Duncan, whose slender connection with the aristocracy of the district was built more upon the gentility of his first wife than even on his commission. And no doubt{33} a rude attempt at matchmaking had been planned by the old soldier. As for the two principally concerned, Margaret, who knew little of his previous character, had been naturally attracted by the best-bred and best-mannered man she had ever been brought into contact with; and he, a passionate soul in his way, seeking emotion and excitement through all his pleasures, had been suddenly seized upon by the pure and visionary creature, whose life was to him as a new revelation. Yet, notwithstanding his sense of her utter purity, notwithstanding his love for her, and the new germ of moral improvement within him, the habits of his former life, and the contempt in which he held her upstart father, had led him, strange as it may seem, to entertain dishonourable designs towards the spotless girl, who looked up to him as a higher type of manhood than any she had yet met with. Captain Duncan, hot enough in all that concerned his honour, had somehow discovered his suitor’s base meaning, and expelled him from his house with all the violence that belonged to his character. When Margaret became aware of the storm that raged round—when she found her lover shut out from the place, and herself forbidden to think of him, a brief tumult rose in her maidenly bosom. She might have resisted even, for her sense of justice was strong, and she had begun to love, had fiery Duncan been left to manage matters in his own way. But Mr. Lothian had stepped in with his good sense, and Jean Campbell, homely as she was, with his support, had brought her woman’s wit to work on the question. The two between them brought one of Mr. John’s victims quietly by night to tell her miserable story. Other miserable stories poured upon Margaret’s ear when the ice was broken. She gave but one cry, and went away from them and shut herself up in her own room. Nothing was said to her of any intended disrespect to herself. If she ever guessed the existence of such a horror, she never betrayed it to mortal ear; but the parish knew well enough why it was that Mr. John had the door of the house shut upon him, and was curtsied to by Miss Catherine with awful grandeur when they met at the church-door.

This sealed his fate so far as the Loch was concerned. His own race and class abandoned him to the devil and all his angels, to whom accordingly he devoted himself for some months with renewed spirit. But disgust had entered his heart; he had seen better things, and his soul had begun to move uneasily within him. Then commenced the religious movement which stirred the parish of Loch Diarmid. Mr. John, dreary, mournful,{34} and alone, was one of the first to be moved by it. Here was, indeed, a religion worth having, one that held out to him the hope of immediate reward, the highest advantage that flesh and blood could hope for, deliverance from sickness, miraculous strength, favour, and power. He went into it with all the fervour of his nature. He was converted with much rejoicing on the one hand, and blackest painting of all his former errors on the other, as is natural in such cases. From penitence he went on rapidly to the highest grace, to own the inspiration of Ailie, and to believe in her and in himself. It was a curious process altogether, and yet it was not so inconsistent with nature as might have been supposed.

It had been by his special solicitation that this visit to the Glebe was made. Margaret had been ill he knew, but he did not know how ill; and with a man’s natural touch of vanity, he had imagined the illness to be caused partly at least by separation from himself. He had the fullest confidence in Ailie’s powers, and the most entire belief that what he and she together prayed for, in the passionate faith which they shared, would be done for them by God; but he had also in his secret heart some hope that the mere sight of him, a changed and converted man, would do much for Margaret. When he saw her, not tenderly touched by sentimental illness, but worn to the edge of the grave by consuming disease, it would be difficult to describe the shock he sustained. His passion for her revived to its fullest extent; and she was dying—dying, before his eyes. And God had promised in any case, however desperate, to hear the prayer of faith. Yet there she lay, calm, steadfast, content, not eager to be saved, crushing down the excitement at its height with the touch of her soft, cool hand. The agitation which possessed him almost rose to frenzy. He was angry with Ailie, the young leader of his faith, for requiring food and rest, and desiring to go home, instead of ‘wrestling in prayer’ along with him on the grassy bank beneath the Glebe. His vehemence was so extreme, that Ailie herself was moved to reprove it. ‘Brother,’ she said, ‘you’re not thinking of God’s glory, you’re thinking of Margaret’s life. Your mind’s gone wild for love of her. Set up no idols in your heart.’

‘Love!’ cried Mr John, ‘and between her and me!—that will never be. But she must not die. She is a child of God. She is so beloved, I think half the country would follow after her. Shall we lose that great advantage to the Lord’s cause? You have been my teacher in the way of life, must I be yours now?{35}’

‘Aye,’ said Ailie,’ if the Lord has given you something to say.’

It was Mr. Lothian, who had followed them down the hill, who heard this strange conversation. Mr. John’s face changed, as was usual with all the gifted. A kind of spasm passed over him. ‘Hear the word of the Lord,’ he cried; ‘hear and obey! Will you go back to your selfish rest, and eat your selfish bread, and let His saint die? Is it not written, He that asketh receiveth. Shall we submit to be foiled by Satan? He is not an unjust judge, nor you a vengeful woman, and will you do less than He did to save a life? What is a night on the heather, a night on the hill, to the loss of that blessed creature? Never will she be bride of man,’ he cried, with a groan,—‘never bride of mine nor friend of mine that you say I’m mad with love. Our fathers lived in caves of the earth, and were hunted like beasts for the sake of the truth—and will we refuse to watch a night for the salvation of a soul? Could not ye watch with me one night? We are two together that put our trust in Him, and the Lord will remember His promise when we pray.’

‘I will pray in my own chamber,’ cried Ailie. ‘O, John Diarmid, I ken you’re a man of God! but your face frightens me, and your voice frightens me. I cannot bide with you on the hill. Lord, Lord, is it Thy will? I’ll watch for her—I’ll pray for her—I’ll give half my life for Margret; but I darena bide here.’

‘My sins find me out,’ said Mr. John;’ you are afraid of me, Ailie. You think it is the old man that speaks, and not the new.’

‘No,’ said Ailie, controlling herself, ‘I canna fear my brother. I know you are a man of God—but oh, will not the Lord’s purpose be served if we pray at home? He’s as near in a chamber as on the hill. Let us not speak nor waste our strength. Let us bend our minds to it, and pray for our sister going along this weary way. It will be a holy way,’ cried the girl, solemnly marching along, with her young elastic figure drawn up, her hands clasped, and her eyes raised to the sky, ‘if we make every step in prayer. Oh, hear us; oh, open Thy hands to us; oh, save her, dear Lord!’

Mr. Lothian, when he told this tale, would melt almost into tears. ‘She was an innocent creature,’ the minister would say. He followed them softly, unseen, with a man’s secret dread of the reformed sinner, ready to protect Ailie if she should want protection, and saw her move swiftly and silent along the path, never stumbling, never faltering, with her clasped hands and her eyes raised to Heaven. Broken words of prayer fell{36} from her lips as she went on. As for the dark shadow by her side, the minister took less note of that. But he never forgot their joint prayer, sometimes rising to a mutual outburst of supplication as they went before him over the silent road. Mr. John’s spirit was rending itself with wild throes of pain, and at the same time satisfying itself with the violent strain of strongest emotion. Thus they went on until Ailie reached her mother’s cottage at Lochhead. And the silent follower behind them had been praying too. When he went into the Manse, which was too quiet, too lonely for that name, the minister asked himself, would it all be without avail; would God turn a deaf ear, though the very lion and lamb together pleaded with Him for a blessing—though the sinner became pure, and the suffering walked by faith? And for his part he rounded with a sigh the excitement of the evening, and opened the Bible on his table—that Bible within whose pages there are still so many prayers unanswered, waiting till God’s time shall come.

Next morning Mr. Lothian had the events of the night brought before him from another point of view. It was hard upon the minister that his house, of all houses in the parish, should be the one to shelter his young rival—a man in himself totally uncongenial to him. But so it was; he had incautiously received a guest whom he found it impossible to send away; and Mr. Lothian had been compelled to look on and see the young fellow all but win the prize on which his own heart had been set for so long. How the trifling youth could have caught Isabel’s fancy was a mystery to the good man; but naturally such a fact gave to every foolish word he uttered a double importance in his host’s jealous and wondering eyes.

‘I hear there was a prayer-meeting—or something—last night up at the Glebe,’ said Stapylton. ‘Was it effectual, do you know?’

‘What do you mean by effectual?’ said the minister, gravely.

‘Oh, I thought it might have had one of two effects,’ said the young man with careless contempt. ‘It might have cured the patient, you know; or at least, so they say. And they might have prayed her to death, which I should think the most likely, for my part.’

‘I did not know you were so well informed,’ said Mr. Lothian, who was in no conciliatory mood.

‘Oh, yes, I am posted up,’ said Stapylton, with a vain laugh, for which his companion could have knocked him down. ‘I think they will find it difficult to cure consumption; but the greater the difficulty the greater{37} the miracle. It shows, at least, that they are not afraid.’

‘It shows they are not impostors, as you seem to think them,’ said the minister with some heat.

‘Oh, dear, no, not impostors,’ said Stapylton; ‘not any more than other people. We are all impostors, I suppose, more or less.’

‘Your views are too advanced for our rural minds,’ said Mr. Lothian, growing more and more angry in spite of himself. ‘We don’t understand them. Impostors are rare in this country-side.’

‘Oh, yes, I believe you,’ said Stapylton insolently. ‘Do you mean to say you put any faith in that praying crew? Did you think their shouting and bawling could do any good to that poor, consumptive creature——’

‘Is it Margaret Diarmid you are speaking of?’ said the minister; and the men paused and looked in each other’s faces. Stapylton had gone further than he meant to go. Isabel’s sister was nothing to him, though he loved Isabel in his selfish way. He had no respect for Margaret as a woman, or as a sick woman; he had no appreciation of her character. She was to him simply a poor, consumptive creature, whom he would be glad to have killed or cured out of his way. If Isabel were ever his, she should not long retain any foolish devotion to her sister. Therefore he could not understand the scorn and indignation of Mr. Lothian’s eyes.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘I would not hurt her sister’s feelings by calling her so, you know. We’re all impostors, as I said. But still you know that is what the girl is, all the same.’

The minister rose from the table impatiently, and made no answer. And this was the man to whom Isabel had given her heart!


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