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CHAPTER X
The next day, which was Sunday, carried the news of this decision through all the parish. It was a bright morning after the rain, one of those radiant pathetic days which are so usual in the Highlands. The women came across the hill with their dresses ‘kilted’ and pinned up to preserve them from the moisture which glistened on the heather. The birch-trees hung their glistening branches out to the sun. The paths ran with the recent rain; and at the same time the sun shone brilliantly upon everything reflected from the dazzling mirror of the Loch, where not a boat or sign of life disturbed the Sabbatical repose. The gathering of the kirk-going crowd is always a pretty sight. Dissent scarcely existed in those days in such rural places. Groups came gathering along all the paths; the village emptied itself of all but an occasional housewife, or the old grannie too deaf or feeble to join the congregation. While the cracked and miserable bell tingled forth its ten minutes from the tower, the women and children poured into the church, while the men lingered in a crowd in the churchyard waiting till the tingle should be over. This was the habit of the Loch; but to-day these groups were animated by a livelier interest than usual. There was no question of crops outside among the men, nor of measles and whooping-cough among the women rustling and whispering in their pews. ‘Have ye heard the news that the meetings are stopped?’ ‘I have heard it, but I canna believe it.’ ‘I’m very thankful, for there was nae saying what they might have turned to;’ or, ‘I’m awfu’ sorry, and such good as they were doing in the parish.’ ‘But the thing is, will Ailie submit, or Mr. John?’ These were the words that were whispered from one to another as the bell jingled forth its summons to church. The two thus conjoined had{66} come to be regarded universally as the leaders of the movement; they were patronised and supported by many parochial personages of weight, but in the end it was evidently they who must decide.

Mr. Lothian’s sermon, as was expected, bore some reference to the momentous crisis of affairs. With that natural perversity to which even the best of men yield like their inferiors, the minister’s sermon, instead of being as Samuel Diarmid had suggested, ‘rousing,’ was calmer than usual in its tone; and he was so bold, almost rash, all things taken into consideration, as to take his text from the strange description in the Old Testament of those prophets whom Saul joined in their wild rapture of inspiration. By a rare self-denial he refrained from absolutely quoting the words which were on the lips of all his parishioners. ‘Is Saul also among the prophets?’—but dwelt upon the wild outburst which had so little effect upon the condition of the people, and upon the sorrowful calm of Samuel to whom no such ardour of religious excitement seemed to have been given. ‘From all we can see,’ said the minister, ‘he stood and looked on, not disapproving, but well aware in his heart how little was to be expected from such bursts of enthusiasm.’ The attention in the church was absorbing. Sometimes there would be a stolen glance at Ailie, who listened like the rest with profound attention, a gleam of colour now and then flitting over her visionary face; and he was happy who could obtain from his seat a glimpse of the Ardnamore pew, with Mr. John’s dark head relieved against the high back. He sat alone, and was very conspicuous in the front of the gallery, and at any time he would have been notable among the shrewd, expressive, peasant countenances round him. Something of the finer and more subtle varieties of expression given by education and intercourse with the world, and—though he was at best but a country squire—something of the flavour of race was in the passionate, dark face, fixed upon the preacher with a defiant attention which seemed likely at any moment to burst into utterance. People said he had actually risen to sneak when Mr. Lothian hastily gave the benediction and concluded the service. There had not been so exciting a ‘diet of worship’ on the Loch in the memory of man. The congregation, as it dispersed, broke into little groups, discussing the one subject from every point of view.

‘I wonder how he daur speak, with her yonder before him like one of the saints, and sae humble for a’ her gifts.’ ‘And, eh, I wonder how a young lass could sit and listen to a’ yon from the minister and still bide steadfast in her ain way, said the gossips. ‘But I canna{67} haud with that way o’ finding fault with Scripture,’ said one of the fathers of the village. ‘A’ Scripture’s written for our instruction; and wha gave ony man authority to judge the auld prophets as if they were not examples every ane?’

‘It’s a fashion nowadays,’ said another. ‘I’ve heard some o’ them as hard on Jacob, honest man, as if he had been a neebor lad; and as for King Dawvid and his backslidings——’

‘Had he been a neebor lad, as ye say, he had never come within my door,’ cried Jenny Spence, ‘and seeing the Lord puts them to shame Himsel, wherefore should we set up for making them perfect? And, bless me, if ye think of a wheen naked men, tearing their claes, and ranting afore decent folk——’

‘Haud your tongue, Jenny!’ said John, ‘or speak o’ things ye understand.’

‘If I didna understand better nor you lads that never take thought of naething, it would be queer to me,’ retorted Jenny. ‘What wi’ your work, and your clavers, and Luckie Bisset ower the hill——’

‘Whisht! whisht! woman, it’s the Sawbath-day,’ said an older neighbour; and then the original subject was resumed.

Among the many church-going parties there was the habitual one from the Glebe. Jean Campbell, in her best attire, the heavy, well-preserved, but somewhat rusty weeds which became the Captain’s widow was an imposing figure. Her crape was rather brown, but it was a more perfect evidence of rank to her than silk or satin. Her fresh, comely face looked out pleasantly from the white crimped borders, and overshadowing pent-house of black, which marked her condition. Not a new-made widow on all the Loch had deeper weeds than she; though Isabel by her side in her grey gown and with her rose ribbons looked fresh as the day.

Jean had many salutations to make as they issued out of church; and pretty Isabel, who was very conscious of the little step of superiority in her position which make her notice of her rustic neighbours, ‘a compliment,’ distributed her little greetings like a princess, shyly looking out for Miss Catherine, with whom she was wont to walk home a far as the gate of Lochhead, thus separating herself from the common level on which her stepmother stood.

‘Look well at Isabel of the Glebe as you pass her; you maun make your new frock like yon,’ an anxious mother would say to her daughter. ‘They say she’s aye meeting that young Stapylton on the braes, but he daurna come near her on the Sabbath-day.’ ‘Eh, no, I’m thinking he wouldna have the face, and her waiting for Miss{68} Catherine.’ Isabel was softly conscious of the comments made upon her. When Margaret and she were children, standing together waiting for their father on the same spot ten years before, the same looks had been turned upon them; the same curious observations made on their dress and their ‘manners;’ and ‘Ye dinna see the wee ladies behaving like that,’ had been a common admonition to the unruly children around.

‘I hope you are all well,’ she said to Jenny Spence with the pretty ‘English,’ which the Loch admired, and which, to tell the truth, Isabel herself often forgot, except on those Sabbatical occasions. And Jenny felt the compliment of the salutation and the pride of the connection so profoundly that she rushed into eager tender inquiries about Margaret, overwhelming the girl with her reverential affection. While she stood, with smiling dignity, listening to Jenny Spence, another little incident occurred that increased still further her importance with the crowd. Ailie Macfarlane was not in the habit of speaking to anyone as she left the church. She would pass through them all with her little Bible folded in her hands, her eyes either cast down or gazing rapt into the air, while everybody made way for her. But when she approached Isabel on this memorable day, Ailie paused. She took one of her hands from her Bible, and suddenly laid it upon Isabel’s. It was cold; and the girl, who had not expected it, made a little start backward from the touch.

‘It’s like ice to your warm blood,’ said Ailie; ‘and so am I to you. But I’m no acting on my ain notion. Isabel Diarmid, promise me you’ll come to the prayer-meeting the morn.’

‘O Ailie, how can I promise?’ said Isabel in dismay, ‘and Margaret so ill.’

‘Dinna set that up for an excuse. I’m bidden to ask you by them that will have no excuse,’ said Ailie. ‘To her ain Master she standeth or falleth—I’m no judging Margaret. But, Isabel, I’m bidden to summon you.’

‘I cannot leave my sister,’ faltered Isabel, raising her eyes to the crowd with a mute appeal for defence.

‘You can leave her for the hill,’ said Ailie, very low; and then she added hurriedly. ‘It’s no me that speaks. There’s awfu’ trouble and sorrow in your way, and you’re but a soft feckless thing to bear it. Come to the prayer-meeting the morn.’

It was just at this moment that Miss Catherine appeare. Isabel’s eyes had been diverted for the moment away from the church, and she had not seen the approach of her friend; who laid her hand upon the girl’s shoulder as Ailie repeated her invitation.{69}

‘Ailie Macfarlane,’ Miss Catherine said, while Isabel started nervously at the unexpected touch. ‘You are not to bid her to your meetings; she is too young, and she is my kinswoman, and I cannot let her go.’

‘If she was the queen’s kinswoman I would bid her,’ said Ailie. ‘What are your ranks and degrees to the Spirit of the Lord? I’m offering her far more than you can offer her, though you’re a lady and me but a simple lass. Now that persecution has come upon us, as was to be looked for, it canna be but the Spirit will be poured out double. It’s out of love to Isabel I ask her, that she may taste the first-fruits and be kent for ane of the chosen. Who are you that would stand between the Lord and His handmaid? I’m freed from earthly bonds this day. Isabel, I’ll say nae mair to ye; but tell Margaret I bid her arise and meet me—for the corn is whitening to the harvest; and come yoursel.’

When she had said these words she passed on with the same rapt look as before, speaking to no one, seeing no one. The people round had gathered close to hear what she said, and dispersed slowly out of her path as she turned, making way for her reluctantly, and full of curiosity. Some of the women even plucked at her dress as she passed. ‘Eh, Ailie! speak one word. Will’t bring judgment on the parish?’ said one anxious voice. But Ailie made no reply. She glided away from them, with that directness and silent speed of motion which gives a certain spiritual and ghostly air to the very movements of the abstracted and impassioned.

Isabel had forgotten her simple vanity. She stood trembling, with tears in her eyes, by Miss Catherine’s side, not even capable of pride in being thus adopted as the special charge of the great lady of the parish.

‘She says I’m coming to grief and trouble,’ sobbed poor Isabel. ‘Oh, is it my Margaret she means?’

‘Hush!’ said Miss Catherine drawing Isabel’s hand through her own; ‘you must not cry before all these folk. Come and tell me all that ails you. Is Margaret worse that you tremble so? and what can that poor thing know about it more than you or me? Can she know as well as Margaret herself?’

‘But if it was true that she had the Spirit?’ faltered Isabel through her tears. ‘And oh, Miss Catherine, it goes to my heart what she aye says—if Margaret had but faith!’

‘Margaret has all the faith a Christian woman wants—be you sure of that,’ said Miss Catherine, with impatience; ‘and I wish the minister had taken order sooner to put a stop to all this. But, Isabel, there might be worse things in your way than the grief we all share. My dear, I{70} have been wanting long to speak to you. Put Ailie and her raving put of your mind, and come cannily up to Lochhead with me.’

‘Margaret will want me,’ said Isabel, awakening suddenly to a sense that admonitions of another kind were hanging over her.

‘I’ll not keep you long,’ said Miss Catherine, ‘and Jean shall say where you are. Good-day, Mrs. Diarmid. I am taking Isabel with me to have a talk. Give Margaret my love, and I’ll walk up to see her this afternoon and bring her sister back. There’s no change?’

‘I canna say there’s ony change, Miss Catherine,’ said Jean, divided between the melancholy meaning of what she said and the glory of this address; for even Miss Catherine, punctilious as she was in giving honour where honour was due, seldom addressed her by the dignified title of Mrs. Diarmid; ‘but she’s aye wearing away, and weaker every day.’

‘The Lord help us, there’s nothing else to be looked for,’ said Miss Catherine, sadly. And Isabel, who had regained her composure to some extent, fell weeping once more, silently leaning on her friend’s arm. There was nothing more said till they descended the brae, and made their way through the village. The Loch had never been trained to the custom of curtseying to the lady of the manor. The groups stood aside with kindly looks to let her pass, and here and there a man better bred than usual took off his hat, but the salutations in general were rather nods of friendly greeting and smiles that broadened the honest rural faces than more reverential servilities. ‘How are all at home, John?’ Miss Catherine said, in her peremptory way as she passed. ‘How is all with ye, Janet?’ And then there was a needful pause, and the story of the children’s recovery from some childish epidemic would be told, or of the letter from ‘the lads’ in Canada, or of family distress and anxiety. When they were quite free of these interruptions, which had once more the effect of bringing composure to Isabel, whose April tears dried quickly, and whose heart could not be coerced out of hope, Miss Catherine turned to the special charge she had taken upon her.

‘My dear,’ she said, ‘I am going to be a cruel friend. I have made up in my mind all manner of hard things to say to you, Isabel. You are not to take them ill from me. We’re kindred far removed, but yet there’s one drop’s blood between you and me, and I know nobody on the Loch that wishes you well more warmly. Will you let me speak as if I were your mother? Had she been living it would have been her place.{71}’

‘Miss Catherine,’ said Isabel, with a thrill of nervous impatience, a sudden heat flushing to her face, ‘how can you ask it? Ye have always said whatever you liked to me.’

‘And you think I’ve sometimes been hard upon you?’ said Miss Catherine. ‘Well, we’ll not argue. Your mother was younger than me, Isabel, and she had no near friends any more than you. If she had had a father or a brother to take care of her, she never would have married Duncan Diarmid. I am meaning no offence to the Captain. He did very well for himself, and a man that makes his way is always to be respected; but he was a different man from what your mother thought when she married him, and her life was short, and far from happy. She was a sweet, wilful tender, hot-tempered thing, just like you.’

‘Eh, I’m no wilful!’ said Isabel, thrilling in every vein with the determination to resist all advice that could be given to her. They were almost alone on the green glistening road which wound round the head of the Loch, and the water rippled up upon the pebbles, and flashed like a great mirror in the sunshine. The girl’s heart rose with the exhilaration of the brightness.

‘Your mother would take no advice,’ said Miss Catherine, ‘and she died at five-and-twenty, and left you, two poor babies, without a mother to guide you in the world.’

‘But, oh, it was not her fault she died,’ cried Isabel. ‘Folk die that are happy too.’

‘I’ll tell you what it was,’ said Miss Catherine; ‘not to put you against your father. He never pretended to more than he was. Duncan was aye honest, whatever else. But your mother saw qualities in him that no mortal could see. And when the hasty thing saw her idol broken, her heart broke too; and you’re like her—too like, Isabel.’

‘For one thing at least, I’m wronging nobody; and why should you say all this to me?’ cried the girl all flushed and resentful, and yet struggling with her tears.

‘How can I tell what you might be tempted to do? Margaret Diarmid—that’s your mother—gave me her word she would take time and think, and the very next Sabbath she was cried in the kirk! Isabel, I said I would be cruel. Do you know, do you ever think, what’s coming upon you, bairn?’

Isabel made no answer—her resentment could not stand against this solemnity of tone. She raised her eyes to Miss Catherine as one who awaits the sentence of fate.

‘While you are running about, out and in, like a{72} butterfly or a bird, and singing your songs, and working at your seam, and meeting strange folk upon the braes’—said Miss Catherine with emphasis. ‘I am not blaming you, even for the last. But all this time there’s coming a day when you will be left alone in the world, Isabel. Your bit cottage will still be yours—so to speak a home; but a home that’s empty and desolate, what is that? And none to lean on, none to advise you, none to be your guide—silence in the chambers, and cold on the hearth; and you no better than a bairn, used from your cradle to lean on her and turn to her: what will you do when you are alone in the world?’

‘Oh, my Margaret!’ cried Isabel, drawing her hand from Catherine’s arm and bursting into a passion of tears. They were within the gate at Lochhead, and there was no one by to see the girl’s weeping, which was beyond control. She had been told of it again and again, and realised it to some degree, but never until now had brought her imagination to bear on the life that remained for herself after her sister was gone. Miss Catherine was softened by the violence of her emotion. She took Isabel into her arms and let fall a tear or two out of her old eyes, to mingle with those scorching drops that came wrung out of the other’s very heart.

‘Oh, you are cruel, cruel,’ cried Isabel, struggling out of her embrace; ‘I will die too! I canna bear it; I canna bear it! It is more than I can bear.’

Then Miss Catherine led her, blind with her tears, to a grassy seat hid among the trees, and sat down by her and did her best to administer comfort. ‘Isabel, you know well it must be so,’ she said at length, with some severity. ‘It cannot be that you have found it out for the first time to-day.’

‘Oh, do not speak to me,’ cried Isabel; ‘how can ye dare to say it is to be, when God could raise her up in a moment like Ailie? And there was Mary Diarmid down the Loch that was—dying—that’s what they said—and even she got the turn. Oh, do not speak to me, God is not cruel as you say.’

All these reproaches Miss Catherine bore, sitting compassionately by her victim until the force of her passion was spent; and when Isabel, faint and exhausted, like a creature in a dream, could resist no longer, she resumed where she had left off.

‘My dear, I am thinking what is to become of you when this comes to pass—and so does Margaret. Bless her, she thinks of you night and day; and many a talk we have about you, Isabel, when you’re little thinking {73}of us. There is one good man in the parish that loves you well——’

‘I want no love,’ answered the girl, almost sullenly. ‘Oh, Miss Catherine, don’t speak like this to me.’

‘But I am speaking for Margaret’s sake. There is one that would be a comfort and strength and blessing to any woman. And there is the other lad. Isabel! your father was rough and wild, and not a match for my kinswoman Margaret Diarmid; but he had always a heart. This lad has little heart. If you but heard how he can speak of them you hold most dear——’

‘Miss Catherine,’ said Isabel, with a voice of despair, starting to her feet, ‘I will run home to Margaret; I can bear no more.’


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