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CHAPTER VII
Excitement had once more sunk into calm at the Glebe Cottage; but Margaret, though she had recovered her composure, had suffered so much from the shock as to be unable to leave her bed next day.

On the other side of the wall sat Isabel trying in vain to occupy herself with her usual work. Her sister’s state had filled all her thoughts the previous night. Hopes and fears about her recovery, awe and excitement about the means to be used, a terrible strain of suspense, and blank of disappointment when all was over, had withdrawn Isabel’s mind entirely from her own affairs.

All at once she started, and sprang to her feet, changed as by a spell. She stood for a moment, irresolute, between her seat and the window. Then, by degrees, her whole expression altered. Her lip melted into the ghost of a smile, light came back to her pretty eyes; after a pause of consideration, she sat down once more by the wall. ‘I couldna leave Margaret,’ she said to herself. And she took up her work again, and worked briskly for about thirty seconds. Then she paused{42}—listened—smiled. Ah! there could be no doubt about it. That was the accidental pebble that had struck the window. That was the soft, faint whistle, the merest whisper of a call which breathed on the air. He had come back, after all. It changed the entire current of Isabel’s thoughts in a moment. She had no further desire to go out, no impatience of her loneliness. These sounds had reconciled her to life and to herself. He was there, that was enough. She had even a pleasure in thinking he would have his walk and his waiting for nothing. She reminded herself of her anger and of her duty. Nothing in the world could induce her to leave Margaret. Her closed lips took a demure expression, as she sat and listened with a certain mischievous content. The blank which had seemed so intolerable and so permanent a few minutes before, flushed now with a thousand rosy colours. It was easy to deny herself, it was rather a pleasure than a pain to remain alone, so long as she knew that he watched for her and that she had not been forsaken.

Half an hour passed, and twice Isabel had heard, with a widening of the smile or half-smile round her mouth, the familiar pebble on the window, when Jean Campbell came suddenly into the room where she was sitting. It had once occurred to Isabel, with some anxiety, that Margaret alone, in her retirement, lying still in the unbroken silence, might hear these sounds and interpret them aright; but she thought of no one else, and cared for no one else, in her youthful pride. Her stepmother’s entrance disturbed her and moved her to impatience. It was seldom Jean came so far without special invitation, and never to join Isabel, who was less gentle, less patient, and had a much warmer, hastier temper than Margaret. She came in, however, on this occasion without so much, the girl angrily remarked, ‘as a knock at the door.’ Isabel stopped working and raised her astonished eyes to Jean with a demonstrative surprise. ‘Did you want anything?’ she asked, in her pretty, clear, but, so far as poor Jean was concerned, unsympathetic voice.

‘I wanted to see if you were here,’ said Jean, with a mixture of softness and resentment.

‘Where could I be but here,’ said Isabel, ‘and Margaret lying in her bed? Maybe you thought I was out enjoying myself,’ she added, with a certain pique; and just at that moment, borne upon a stronger gust than usual, came a bewildering echo of the distant whistle. In spite of herself she changed colour a little, and clutched at her work, as if to shut out the sound.

‘Eh, listen!’ said Jean; ‘what’s that? I’ve heard it{43} near an hour about the house. I hope it’s nae ill-doer waiting about to watch for an open door.’

To this unsuitable accusation Isabel listened very demurely, returning to her work. The idea amused her, and converted the half-suppressed irritation with which she was too often in the habit of addressing Jean Campbell, to a certain equally repressed sense of fun. As for Jean, she looked suspiciously at her companion, and continued—

‘There’s mair ways of stealing than one. It might be some lad that would never meddle with siller or gold; but there’s things mair precious than siller or gold—eh, Isabel, my woman!’ cried honest Jean, with a thrill of true feeling in her voice.

‘What are you speaking of?’ said Isabel, coldly. ‘To hear you, folk would think you had some meaning. There’s little to steal at the Glebe, if that’s what you are thinking. Most likely it’s your son Jamie, wasting his time on the moor instead of learning his lessons. You need not be feared for him.’

‘I’m no feared for my Jamie,’ cried Jean, indignant. ‘He’s your father’s son as well as mine, Isabel, though you’re so proud. He’s your brother, and maybe the time will come when you’ll be glad to mind that. If I could think,’ she added, suddenly changing her tactics and making a direct attack, ‘that you had the heart to keep your lad waiting on the hill, and our Margret in her bed! Eh, and there’s the proof,’ she added, as an indiscreet pebble at that moment glanced upon the window. ‘I said it, but I could not think it—the like of this from you!’

Isabel’s cheeks flushed scarlet. She had been full of a great burst of indignation when this sudden evidence against her struck her ear and checked her utterance. To be sure she was in no way to blame, but yet appearances were against her, and her indignant self-defence was shorn of its fullness.

‘I have nothing to do with it,’ she cried; ‘I’ve sat by Margaret’s bedside the whole day. How am I to tell what folk may do outside? It’s no concern of mine. And you’ve no business to meddle with me,’ cried the girl, with hot unwilling tears.

‘Isabel,’ cried Jean, with solemnity, ‘you think very little of me. I’m no a lady like you, though I was your father’s wife; but I’m the oldest woman in the house, and I ken mair than you do, aye, or Margaret either. There was ane that warned me that I should do my duty to you and speak out. It would be easier for me to hold my tongue. It’s ay the easiest to {44}hold your tongue; but ane that is your friend——’

‘I know who that is,’ cried Isabel, with flashing eyes, ‘and I think he might have known I could guide myself, and would have no meddling from you!’

‘Na, you didna ken who it was,’ said her stepmother; ‘it was ane that has kent you all your days; and it’s no that he has any cause to be jealous like him you’re thinking o’. Eh, that other ane! Poor man! it makes my heart sair to look in his face. A man that might ken better—and no a thought in his head but how to please a lassie’s heedless eye.’

‘There is many a thought in his head,’ cried Isabel, ‘I’ll not have you speak of my friends. Let me alone. I’m sitting listening if Margaret cries on me, and thinking of nobody. If the best man in the world was there, i would not go to the window to look at him; but don’t torment me, or I cannot tell what I may do.’

‘I’ll no be threatened,’ said Jean, with equal spirit. ‘and I’ll say what’s in my heart to say. If you go on with that English lad it’ll be to your destruction, Isabel. I was warned to say it, and I’ll say it—like it or not, as you please. When I have a burden on my mind, it’s no you that will stop me. If you take up with the lad at the Manse, the English lad——’

‘Mr. Lothian will disapprove,’ said Isabel, with a toss of her head.

‘I’ve nothing ado with Mr. Lothian,’ she said. ‘I’m no speaking from him. You’ll rue the day, Isabel. I’m no for putting a lass in a prison and forbidding her to speak to a man. Would I mind if it was a’ in play? I was ance a young lass mysel. But yon lad, he’s in earnest. And if he beguiles you to listen to him, you’ll rue the day!’

Isabel had risen to her feet in indignation, and was about to reply, when a faint call from Margaret interrupted the combatants. Probably Jean had raised her voice unduly, though neither of them were aware of it. It was Isabel Margaret called, and ‘Let her come too,’ added the invalid. This was how they generally described to each other their father’s wife. The two paused abashed, and went into the little room behind. Margaret had raised herself up on her pillows, and sat erect, with a flush on her cheeks. The excitement of the previous night had not yet died away. Its effect was to give her the feverish beauty which belongs to her complaint. She had her small Bible clasped between her two white worn hands, as she had been reading it. ‘Come in,’ she said, ‘come in,’ holding out her hand to Jean, who lingered at the door. Though she was so beautiful in her weakness, it was death that was in Margaret’s face.{45}

‘I want to speak to you both,’ she said; ‘why will ye quarrel, you two, the moment I’m away?’

‘We were not quarrelling,’ said Isabel, turning her back upon her stepmother.

‘Na,’ added Jean, in explanation; ‘it was nae quarrel. It was me that was speaking. I’m no a lady born like you; but I’m the Captain’s widow, and a woman of experience, and I will not hold my tongue and see a young lass fall into trouble. Margaret, it’s no meaning to vex you; but she’s aye keeping on a troke and a kindness with that English lad.’

Isabel turned round with hasty wrath and flushed cheeks; but her resentment was useless. She caught her sister’s eye, to whom she could never make any false pretences; and suddenly bent down her head, and hid her face. To Margaret she had no defence to make, even though at this moment she was without blame.

‘Then it is him I hear on the hill,’ said Margaret. ‘Isabel, go and bring him in to speak to me.’

‘Bring him in—here?’ asked both the bystanders in a breath, aghast at the command. The amazement of their tone, and the glance they cast round the little room, brought a slight additional colour to Margaret’s cheek.

‘Bring him here,’ she repeated; ‘I’ve gone so far on my way that I’m free to do what I please. I cannot seek him out or stop him on the road. Isabel, go and bring him in to me.’

Isabel, who had grown suddenly pale and begun to tremble, hesitated to obey. ‘O my Maggie!’ she said, clasping her hands; and in her desperation she turned to her stepmother with an appealing glance. Jean was at her wits’ end, divided between lively dislike and repugnance to ‘the English lad,’ and that absolute reverence for Margaret which made it difficult to resist any of her wishes.

‘He’s no worthy,’ she said, with trembling eagerness; ‘he’s no fit to come into this chamber and speak face to face with the like of you. Let me gang and speak to him. We mustna be ower anxious; he’s but coortin’ like the other lads. It’s no as if him and Isabel had given each other their troth. It’s but a diversion, like a’ the rest. I’ll speak to him canny, and send him away.’

‘It’s no diversion,’ said Isabel, hotly, under her breath. Margaret sat in the abstraction of her weakness between the two who were so warm with life and all its emotions, clasping her little Bible in her hands.

‘No,’ she said, softly; ‘you mistake Bell. She is not like one of the lasses at Lochhead, to meet him and speak to him for diversion, as you say. It’s different{46}. And there’s none to guard her but me. You’re very good—you’ve always been good to us both. Don’t be angry if she’s impatient. She’s but young,’ Margaret went on, with a pathetic smile and her eyes fixed on Jean, who by this time was crying without restraint; ‘when she knows more of the world, she’ll see that you’re a good woman and have ever been a help and comfort to her and me. But I am mother and sister and all to Isabel as long as I live; and I’ll no live long, and I would like to speak a word to him. Bell, you must dry your eyes and bring the young man to me.’

‘I’ll do what you bid me, if it was to break my heart,’ said the weeping Isabel.

Margaret made no reply. She knew that Isabel was perfectly sincere, and yet she knew that the flutter in the girl’s bosom was not for her sister but her lover. While Isabel stole slowly, reluctantly away, Margaret sat propped among her pillows, watching with soft eyes. She was herself so much beyond the world—so ready to go; so far on her way, as she herself expressed it, that the tumult of feeling in her sister’s bosom appeared to her almost like the baby flutterings of childhood. But Jean, whose experience was of a different kind, stood looking after the girl with mingled indignation and sympathy.

‘It’s hard on her,’ said the stepmother. ‘You ken an awfu’ deal mair than me, Margret; but you dinna see it’s hard upon her as I do: though I could never forgive her thinking of anything serious, and you so ill. We maun a’ hae our little diversion,’ Jean added, after a pause. ‘It’s but that. It couldna be marrying and giving in marriage the lass was thinking of, and you so far from well.’

‘Would it not be more unkind if it was mere diversion?’ said Margaret.

‘Na,’ said Jean quickly, ‘a lass like a bairn must whiles have the play. We’re a’ the better o’t. And Isabel meant nae mair. She’s thoughtless whiles, but she has a tender heart. You canna believe she was planning out her life and you lying suffering here?’

‘She’s so young,’ said Margaret, though a momentary contraction passed over her face. It was meet that Isabel’s life should be planned out before she was left alone in the world.

Isabel for her part went very slowly to the door, and looked up and down the road, to cheat her own conscience into the belief that she was obeying her sister. She took a few steps round the house in the wrong direction to look for the watcher, and went back to the door with a relieved heart, not having seen him. Her{47} heart was not detached from her first love, but she had been much shaken in her belief in him at their last meeting; and though she denied indignantly that it was ‘diversion,’ she trembled to bring Stapylton to the length of an interview with Margaret, thereby binding him and herself for ever. So Isabel thought in her simplicity. ‘It would be as bad as being married,’ she said to herself; and she had no desire to be married. All that her heart asked could be given by those chance meetings, by the sweet sense of being loved, the charm of the tender secret which was between the two. To go any further at such a moment would have shocked and startled the girl; and what was to be done if she brought him to Margaret, but that the most serious consequences might follow. She was incapable of ‘diverting herself,’ as Jean thought, but yet had no inclination to quicken the pace of life, or rush upon facts. Serious existence looked still distant and far off, and Isabel approached it with tender delay, with soft wistfulness and reluctance. It would come to that eventually, no doubt. But why should Horace, why should Margaret, be so impatient now?

Isabel stood at the door, and her flushed face cooled in the evening air, and the beating of her heart grew less loud; but she could not see her lover on the road. ‘He must have gone away back, if he was ever there,’ she said, when she returned to Margaret’s room, or ‘maybe it was but the peeweep on the hill.’

‘It was nae peeweep,’ said Jean Campbell, turning round; but she was charitable enough to say no more, when she saw the look of anxiety on Isabel’s face.

‘If he’s gone there is no more to be said,’ said Margaret; and then she sighed. ‘It is not because I’m going,’ she added, with a smile, as it were correcting herself, ‘but because I would fain put myself in God’s place for my bonnie Bell; as if He did not love her more than I can—as if she were not safest with him!’

And then poor Isabel, full of remorse, bent down her head upon her sister’s outstretched hands. Could she trust Margaret, perfect as she was, to see all her thoughts; all the fancies that rose in her mind as God did? Jean Campbell, whose homely mind was free of these complications, withdrew at this point, drying her eyes and shaking her head.

‘And she’s nae aulder than Isabel!’ said the humble stepmother. It was the most pathetic commentary that could have been made.


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