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CHAPTER XI
The prayer-meeting on Monday evening was the most exciting ‘occasion’ that had been known on the Loch for years. At this the decision of the prophets would be made known, as the decision of the Kirk Session had already been. It was moonlight, that great necessity of all rural evening gatherings; and from all the corners of the parish came curious hearers eager to know what was the next step to be taken. Mr. William’s wife from Wallacebrae was even one of the audience, undeterred by her husband’s objections. ‘How can I say I’m against them, and my ain wife led away to hear?’ he said. ‘Hoot away! No to hear them, but to see what they will do,’ said Mrs. Diarmid; ‘am I to be led away?’

And Isabel, who had begun to place a certain vague hope in Ailie, after the struggle she had gone through the day before, had made up her mind to obey the injunction so strongly laid upon her, and to go also. ‘I would like to hear what they say, and what they are going to do,’ she said to her sister, in almost the same words which the mistress at Wallacebrae had given as her excuse, owning no sympathy with the enthusiasts, but simple curiosity.

‘But you must not go to hear the Word of God as if it were a play,’ said Margaret, ‘it is always the word of God whoever speaks it. If you are but going out of curiosity, Isabel, it would be better to bide with me.’

‘I would rather stay with you than do anything else in the world; if you would but stay with me,’ said Isabel, with wistful looks, ‘and try, maybe, what Ailie said?’

‘Ye vex me,’ said the dying girl. But the tone was so soft that it could scarcely be called a reproach. And yet Margaret felt that to remain with her in the unbroken quiet of the long evening was more than Isabel could now{74} bear. There were the braes with all their wistful delights to tempt her forth, and her own unquiet, restless heart, tortured by doubt and grief, and distracting gleams of the future; and there was perhaps the lover whom in her heart she yearned for and yet had begun to flee.

‘She is going,’ Isabel said again, after a pause, ‘and you are always so kind, you say ye want for nothing, Margaret. It is not for curiosity. They told me I was warned by name. No, I am not going away after them; I was thinking of different things.’

‘Ever of that miracle?’ said Margaret, with a faint smile, ‘which will never come. If it was not for you, Isabel, it would be a miracle to me to be away. But we will no speak of that; leave little Mary with me if you will go—not that I want anybody, I am real well to-night, and no breathless to speak of; but it’s ill for the bairn.’

‘Oh, Margaret! I feel whiles as if you thought more of that bairn than of your own sister!’ said Isabel, with all the hot jealousy of a heart which felt itself divided and guilty.

‘She is my sister,’ said Margaret, softly; ‘but nobody could ever be like my Bell; it would be strange if you needed to be told that now.’

And then the impatient, impetuous girl wept and upbraided herself. ‘Oh, I am not myself, I am not myself!’ she said; ‘I’m all wrong; it’s as if I could not submit to God.’

‘My bonnie Bell!’ said Margaret, wistfully, gazing at the perplexing creature, whom she could not understand, and laying her hand upon the bowed-down head. A little sigh of weariness mingled with her perplexity. She had come to that point when peace is demanded by worn-out nature; and those tumults were too much for her. ‘Put on something warm,’ she said, ‘and tell her she is not to go too far in; but be home soon and let me hear what’s passed. If Ailie speaks to you, tell her I’m real well and content.’

‘Will I tell her you are better? Oh, will I say you’re mending, Margaret?’

‘Ye cannot think how you vex me,’ said poor Margaret, sighing, ‘you more than all. Why should I mend? I am far on my journey now, and why should I come back just to tread all the weary way over again another time? Tell Ailie I’m winning home. The road is uphill, and maybe the last bit is the steepest; but I am real content. If you will not say that, say nothing, Isabel. And if you are going, it is time for you to go.’

‘But I’ll go and leave you angry, Margaret,’ cried Isabel; ‘angry and vexed at me?’

‘No, no; no angry,’ said Margaret, wearily. The{75} hectic spot had come into her cheek. She laid her head back on the cushions with again a weary sigh. What wonder if she longed for the end—she to whom life had no longer anything to give? She closed her eyes for a moment, and Isabel, feeling more guilty than ever, stole away to warn her stepmother, and to tie on her cottage bonnet and great grey cloak. ‘You’ll watch Margaret that she wants nothing; but you’ll not speak to her to wear her out,’ she said to little Mary, ever jealous of her sister’s love.

The schoolhouse was all dark when the crowd reached it. Instead of the usual preparation for them the door was locked, and the Dominie stood on the step, looking down upon the dark groups as they began to arrive and gather round, with the patience of the rural mind. ‘The door’s no open yet.’ ‘The lights are no lightet.’ ‘I tell’t ye, for a’ your grumbling, we would be here soon enough.’ ‘It’s no often Ailie’s late.’ ‘And what’s the Dominie waiting there like a muckle ghost,’ murmured the crowd.

Mr. Galbraith, to tell the truth, was in no desirable position. He had the key in his hand, but that could not be seen; and he was charged with the dangerous mission of temporising, and commissioned to coax the multitude out of their excitement, and persuade them to go quietly home. If he did not succeed, there was always the key to fall back upon. ‘In the last place, if better is not to be made of it, I’ll let them have their will,’ he had said. Of all offices in the world the least satisfactory. Already he had begun to see that it was a mistake, but it was now too late to withdraw. ‘They should have found a’ dark and been treated to no explanations,’ he said to himself, as he stood with his back against the door and gazed on them. A mob is not an easy thing to deal with in any circumstances; and a religious mob, spurred up to the highest point of spiritual excitement, is the most dangerous of all. Had it not been for the large leaven of mere curiosity which kept down the pitch of agitation, things might have gone badly for the Dominie. He cleared his throat a great many times before he screwed himself to the point of addressing them. The prophets themselves had not yet appeared, and if it might be possible to dismiss the people before the arrival of their leaders, a great point would be gained. Spurred by this thought he at last broke the silence.

‘My friends,’ said the Dominie; and there was an immediate hush of the scraping feet, and the coughs and whispers of impatience. The moon had gone in and all was dark, so that he could distinguish none of the faces{76} turned to him, and felt, as few orators can do, the sense of that vague abstraction, a crowd unbroken by the glance of any exceptional sympathetic face. ‘My friends, I’m here to say a word to you from the Kirk Session. Those that are put over ye in the Lord have taken much thought and counsel together to see what’s best to be done. I am reflecting upon nobody. It’s not my place to tell you who you are to hear, or when you are to forbear. But I appeal to those that are heads of families if there have not been too many of these meetings? The human mind is not equal to such a strain. I’ve studied it all my life, and ye may believe me when I speak. There must be a Sabbath for the body, and the mind’s mair delicate than the body. But any night, every night, have ye no assembled here, to listen to the most agitating addresses, given, I do not gainsay, with what is more touching than oratory, with the whole conviction of the soul. My friends, ye have but a delicate machine to manage. Your minds are no like your ploughs that are simple things to guide. They’re like the new-fangled steam-engines, full of delicate bits of wheels, and cranks, and corners——’

At this moment a figure glided up to him out of the crowd. The Dominie divined at once whose were those swift and noiseless steps, and felt that his oratory and his object were defeated. She came and placed herself beside him holding up her hand, and at that moment the moon burst forth and shone full upon Ailie’s face, which in that light was white as marble, with the full large lambent eyes, almost projected from it, looking out upon the eager spectators.

‘Come na here with your carnal wisdom,’ said Ailie, putting up her hand as if to stop him. ‘Oh come na here! What’s learning, and knowledge, and a’ your science afore the fear of the Lord? And how dare ye stop His servants from constant prayer to Him, and saving souls? Will ye quench the Spirit, O man, with your vain words? Think ye we’re sae little in earnest that we want biggit walls to shelter us, or your fine candles to give us light? The Lord is our light,’ cried the prophetess, stretching out her hand towards the moon that shone full upon her. And there was a rustle and stir in the crowd which told the instant response of the audience.

The Dominie’s own feelings were not beyond the reach of such an apostrophe. He moved uneasily from one foot to another, and began to fumble in his coat-pocket for the key, the last concession which he was prepared to make.

‘I am saying nothing against that, my good lass,’ he{77} said; ‘not a word am I saying, but that for you and the like of you there’s too much of this; and that’s the Kirk Session’s opinion. You shall have plenty of opportunity—plenty of occasion, but, my dear, for the sake of your own life, and for all the rest of them, not every night——’

‘Friends,’ said another voice suddenly from another quarter, ‘it is nothing wonderful if persecution has come upon us. I have expected it from the first. The hand of this world is against the servants of God, and ever will be. We are driven forth like our forefathers to the hill-side. The Church has shut to her doors against us. I told you it would be so. I told you a lukewarm, unawakened Church would never bear that within her bosom that was a reproach to her. And what of that?’ the speaker went on with growing excitement, ‘there is God’s word that they cannot drive us out of, and God’s lights that He has set for us in the heavens, and His ear that is ever open, and His hand that is ready to save. On your knees, my brethren! What hinders that we should pray to Him here?’

Then there arose a murmur among the crowd: ‘It’s Mr. John!’ ‘Eh, it’s the days of the persecution come back.’ ‘We’ll no thole’t.’ ‘Who’s the minister or the Kirk Session either to stand up against the Christian people?’ ‘And quench the Spirit?’ cried a voice above the rest; ‘do they mind that’s the unpardonable sin?’

Mr. Galbraith made vain efforts to speak; the murmurs rose higher and higher, and began at last to direct themselves to him. ‘Is the like of that weirdless Dominie to stand against ye a’, feeble loons?’ cried a woman. ‘Wha’s he that he should daur to stand against us?’ ‘Let me at him!’ ‘Eh, lads, canny, canny, he’s an auld man.’ Such were the cries of indignation and alarm that rose in the stillness. The remnant of people who had been left in the village came rushing forth to see what was the matter. Mr. Lothian was at the other end of the parish, but young Stapylton, who had just returned from a fruitless ramble on the braes, came lounging to the Manse gate. The moon went suddenly behind a cloud, leaving all that darkling mass confused and struggling. Then it was that the Dominie made himself heard. ‘Lads,’ he shouted, his voice reaching the entire crowd though he was himself unseen, ‘I’ve trained ye, and I’m reaping the credit. If it was for your sakes ye might tear the auld man in pieces before you should have your will. Dinna think ye can frighten me. If I give the key to Ailie, it is for the women’s sake; and the bairns. Women, are ye mad that ye bring bairns here?{78}’

‘It’s because their souls are mair precious to us than a’ the world,’ cried some mother in the crowd. ‘It’s little enough you teach them,’ cried another. ‘Where would they hear the Gospel if no in the meetings?’ ‘No in the kirk, wi’ a moderate minister and his moral essays.’ ‘And now when we’ve found the Word of God ye would drive us to the hill-side to seek it.’ ‘They would drive us into the Loch if they had their will,’ cried the crowd.

Isabel Diarmid, with all her sensibilities in arms, humiliated to the dust, indignant, terrified, stood trembling in the midst of this seething, agitated mass, thrust about by its sudden movements, ready to cry or to faint, feeling her self-respect for ever lost, no better than ‘a common lass’ among the crowd. She felt herself drawn along by the movement of the people round her rushing in one body for the door, which, with much noise of the key in the keyhole, had at length been opened. Clinging to her stepmother, vainly resisting, overwhelmed with shame, she felt herself swept out of the fresh air into the dark schoolroom no longer an individual with a will of her own, but a helpless portion of the crowd. When the first pioneers succeeded in lighting one miserable candle to throw a glimmer over the scene, its feeble rays gave no one any assistance, but only cast a wretched twinkle of revelation, showing the struggle—the benches pushed aside by the blind, uncertain crowd; the throng pouring in darkling through the black doorway. By degrees a few other feeble twinkles began to glitter about the room, and the people subsided into seats, with much commotion and struggling.

The strange gloom, the flicker of the candles, the eager look of all those faces turned towards the Dominie’s table, at which stood Mr. John; the thrill of excitement and expectation among them, overcame Isabel’s susceptible nature. All her shame disappeared before the extraordinary fire of popular emotion which she had suddenly caught. If she could be said to have hated any man in the world, Mr. John would have been the man. And yet she sat and gazed at him as if he had been an angel of fate.

‘It’s come at last,’ he said; ‘my brothers, I’ve been looking for it long. None can live godly in Christ Jesus but suffer persecutions. And Satan has found his instruments. Two nights had not gone from your first meeting in this place when the Lord showed me how it would be. But are we to give up our sacred standard because the heathen rage and the people imagine a vain thing—aye, a vain thing! As well might they bind the Loch that the flood should not come up. Has not the{79} Spirit of the Lord come like a flood upon this parish; and they try to stop Him with a key turned in the lock and a shut door! But the Lord has opened us a door, great and effectual. Praise Him, my friends, that He has given us the victory. The horse and his rider has He overthrown in the sea——’

‘But this is awfu’ irregular,’ cried another personage, who rose suddenly out of the darkness, and was discovered after a time to be Samuel Diarmid the elder. He came out of the front row, which was merely a range of dark heads to the people behind, and stepped before the prophet with a small Bible in his hand. ‘My friends,’ he said, ‘though Mr. Galbraith took upon him to shut ye out o’ this public place belonging to the parish, I am here in my capacity as an elder o’ this parish to preside among ye. I hope there’s none here will dispute my right. We’ll open the meeting in the usual way by singing to the praise of God in the Psalms; and after the meeting’s lawfully constituted, ye shall hear whatever word the Lord’s servant may have to say.’

At this announcement, there arose a sudden rustle and resolute thumbing of the Psalms, which were attached to everybody’s Bible. The audience found the place conscientiously, though only a few could by any possibility see the page. Samuel himself led the singing, standing with his book in his hand, and his figure swaying to and forward with the cadence of the ‘tune;’ and seated in darkling rows, with their books held in every possible slope to reach the light, the audience lifted up their voices and sang one of those strange measures at which musicians stand aghast. Isabel sang it with all her heart. No criticism occurred to her. Her ear was not shocked by the false notes, the curious growls and creaks of utterance around her.

And then she closed her little Testament, and stood up, covering her face with her hands for the prayer. It was the prayer of a man having authority which Samuel Diarmid poured forth; and in that darkness through which no man could make out his neighbour’s face, the crowd stood and listened. His prayer was a kind of liturgy in itself. He prayed for her Sacred Majesty, as is the custom in Scotland, and for the Government and magistrates, and every class of men who could be put together in a general supplication. There was something half-comic, half-solemn in his formality; but it did not strike his audience as anything peculiar. They drew a long breath when it was ended, with conscious but unexpressed relief.

‘He’s ay awfu’ dry and fusionless in his prayers,’ Jean whispered to Isabel, ‘but wait till it’s Ailie’s turn.{80}’

When they had all resumed their seats, the speaker opened his Bible and began to read ‘a chapter.’ For some part of this, all went on with perfect quiet and decorum. You might have been in the kirk, Isabel said to herself, had it not been so dark, and the people so thronged together. The thought was passing through her mind when all at once a crash of sound startled her. She rose to her feet in wonder, gazing where it might come from; but to her amazement no one else moved. Heads were raised a little, the attention of the mass was quickened, but nobody except herself thought, as Isabel did, that something terrible had happened. Who could it be that dared to interrupt the worship? But while she gazed and listened, there suddenly arose another sound; this time it was a voice distinct and musical. And Isabel, relieved, sat down again, and lent an attentive ear. The next moment she was once more on her feet in a confusion too great to be restrained. ‘What is she saying? what is she saying?’ she whispered in her stepmother’s ear. Jean, habituated to the wonder, was scandalised by this excitement. She twitched at Isabel’s cloak to drag her back to her seat. ‘Whisht! sit down. It’s nothing but the tongue,’ she said. The girl strained her eyes upon the listening crowd, but no one was moved as she was. She dropped back appalled into her seat. It was Ailie who spoke; and in the intense silence and darkness poured forth an address full of that eloquence of intonation and expression which is perceptible in every language. ‘Is it Latin? is it Hebrew?’ Isabel asked herself, moved by wonder, and awe, and admiration, into an indescribable excitement. When the voice suddenly paused, and changed and turned into ordinary utterance, there was a little rustle of roused attention among the crowd; but Isabel leant back upon the wall and burst into silent tears. The excitement had been more than she could bear. When she came to herself the same fresh youthful voice was making the room ring, and compelled her attention. It was like bringing down to ordinary life the vague grace of youthful fancies. When she awoke from the surprise of her excitement, and found that Ailie was speaking so as everybody understood her, the wonder and the mystery were gone.

‘O ye of little faith,’ cried Ailie, ‘wherefore do ye doubt? are ye feared to go forth from the fine kirk and the comfortable meeting to the hills and the fields? Where was it He went to commune with His Father, that is our example? was it to biggit land, or lightsome town? No; but to the cauld hill-side in the dark, where nothing was but God and the stars looking down out of the lonesome sky. O the puir creatures we are—the{81} puir creatures! Think ye it’s for the good of this bit corner of the earth that He has given me strength to rise up from my bed, and poured forth the gifts o’ tongues, and teaching and prophesying upon this parish? I was like you. He knows how laith—laith I was to come out of the kirk I was christened in, and open my heart to the weary, wanting world. But I take ye a’ to witness it’s no us that have begun. They have lifted up their hands against the ark of the Lord. They’ve tried their best to stop us in our ministry and in the salvation of souls. They’ve scoffed and they’ve said where are the signs o’ His appearing. Look round ye, friends, and see. Me that never learned more than my Bible—I speak wi’ tongues—I see the things that are to come. Think ye that is for nought? It fell on your sons and your daughters in your very presence and is that for nought? Bear ye witness, friends, that I take up my commission this night. Go forth into the world and preach the Gospel to every creature, that is the command that’s given to me. Throw off your bonds, ye that sleep—arise and let us go forth! It’s no a question o’ a parish, or o’ a village, or o’ a kirk or a meeting, but of His coming to be prepared and the world to be saved.’

Whether this wild but sweet voice had come to a natural pause, or whether it was suddenly interrupted and broken by the same extraordinary burst of sounds which had been heard before, Isabel, terrified out of all her self-control, could not tell. She gave a suppressed scream, as Mr. John stood up with his rigid arms stretched out and his features convulsed with the passion of utterance whatever it was. The sound which had alarmed her came from him, bursting from his lips as if by some force which had no relation to his own will or meaning. The cry came from him like the groanings and mutterings of a volcano, moved by some unseen power. Isabel clung to her stepmother in her terror and hid her face in her hands.

Such sounds echoing through the darkened room, over all those hushed and eager listeners, were impressive enough to overawe any lively imagination; and it was with her head bent down on Jean Campbell’s shoulder, and her eyes closely shut, that Isabel heard the inarticulate horror change into words.

‘Hear the voice of the handmaid of the Lord,’ cried Mr. John. ‘The Lord sent His servant to her with a word from Him, saying, Go forth and convert the world; but she would not listen. She said, Who am I that I should go forth and preach? Thy handmaid is a child, she said. But lo! the Lord himself hath taught her. Not to you only, O people of Loch Diarmid; you have{82} had the first-fruits, but the ingathering is not yet! Like those that have not long to be with you, we turn and cry—Repent! Repent, and be converted. You have waited long. And God has sent you prophets, miracles, and wonders, in your midst. And lo! your moment of privilege is nearly over, and He sends His servants forth. Repent! Oh, that my voice were a trumpet, that it might ring into your hearts! Oh, that it were as a rushing, mighty wind to sweep you to the Lord! We are going forth in His name. We are going out upon the world. Give us first-fruits—first-fruits for the Lord! Let us pray! Let us pray! Let us pray!’

Then the darkling mass rose to their feet, and the enthusiast poured forth his prayer. Isabel could scarcely restrain herself from joining in the subdued outcries round her. By degrees, time and place, and all mortal restrictions, vanished from her excited mind. What roused her was Ailie’s voice, once more soft, pleading, sympathetic. A voice that calmed her wild emotions, and brought her back in some degree to herself.

‘I have wondered and wondered, and asked of the Lord,’ said Ailie, ‘what for His gift of speaking wi’ tongues should have come to me—me that kent nothing, that had so little way of speaking forth His praise. But it has pleased Him to show me what He aye says, that out o’ the mouth o’ babes and sucklings His praise is perfected. Eh, neebors! I ken one that’s like the angels of the Lord! She wants faith, but she wants nothing else. She’s wearying, wearying to be at hame with the Lord, and hasna the heart to rise up off her bed, and come forth wi’ me to the salvation of men. You a’ know her as well as me! Maybe it’s Margaret’s prayers that have brought the Spirit on this parish. Ye know how she has prayed for us up bye at the burn, wrestling wi’ the Lord like Jacob. Eh, freends, if I had Margaret I would go forth light as the air! Lord, give her faith! Lord, raise her up! Lord, send thy blessed creature forth with us! Lord, Lord, listen, and give her faith! Oh, my freends, will ye no pray?’

At this moment Isabel’s emotion became altogether uncontrollable. It seemed to herself as if the inspiration she had witnessed had suddenly come upon her. She held up her hands wildly out of her dark corner where no one could see. Then a scream burst from her lips.

‘No,’ she cried out, in a voice so strained with passion that no one would have recognised it for hers. ‘No, no—not for Margaret; she shall not live, she shall have her will. Leave her in peace, and let her die.’

Isabel fell like a dead creature into her stepmother’s arms, not unconscious, with all her senses still wildly{83} vivid, but trembling like a leaf, and helpless as an infant. Then there was a moment of terrified silence, and heads soon turned timidly round in the darkness to search for the new prophet. Ailie, standing with her arms uplifted in sight of them all, gazed intently into the gloom with her great lambent eyes, waiting and listening for some moments after the voice had ceased. Then the prophetess suddenly sank into the girl by a transition so extraordinary that it caught once more the wavering attention of the audience attracted from her by the new miracle. Her arms fell by her side, a flood of tears came pouring from her eyes.

‘Oh, Lord, Lord, Lord! ye have never refused me before!’ said Ailie, with a wild cry of reproach, and sank upon the floor in a burst of weeping so helplessly natural and girl-like that the excited group around her gazed at each other in dismay.

Her sobs were audible through all the wild supplication that followed. But Isabel, worn out, was conscious of little more until she felt herself drawn into the fresh air, and saw the moonlight lying white upon the braes.


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