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CHAPTER XII
There was little said upon the walk home. Isabel was too much exhausted to make any reply to the questions, and half reproaches, and soothing speeches, made in regular succession by her stepmother.

‘What put it into your head to speak out like yon? And, eh, I’m glad naebody saw it was you. It would break my heart to hear them say the Captain’s Isabel was gane after them. Lean heavier, my lamb. It was naething but the love and the contradiction in your bit warm heart. Ye’ve never been drawn to me, Isabel, but I was aye ane that kent ye had a warm heart.’

Thus they went on clinging to each other along the white line of road between the dark rustling whin-bushes and tough stalks of heather which caught at their dresses as they passed. When the light in her own low window at last appeared, a very fervent ‘God be thanked’ burst from Jean Campbell’s lips. ‘I canna face thae awfu’ lonely roads. Ye never ken wha ye mayna meet, face to face,’ she said as the cottage became fully visible, her soul encouraged by the sight of it.

To go out of the magic, significant night, silent with such excess of meaning, into the absolute stillness of the little parlour, all grey and brown, with its one window{84} shuttered and curtained, and the two candles twinkling solemnly on the table, and Margaret dozing in her chair, was the strangest contrast. The clock was still ticking steadfastly as if it never would stop, through and through the house; little Mary, with very large wide-open eyes, sat on a footstool opposite Margaret, from whom she never removed her anxious gaze. ‘She’s been dozing and waking, dozing and waking,’ said Mary; ‘and eh, but ye’ve been lang, lang!’

‘It was a lang meeting the night,’ said Jean. ‘But what way have ye closed up the window, and Margaret sae fond of the view? I would have gotten an awfu’ fright to see a’ dark if we had come round by the Loch.’

‘It was like as if something terrible might come and look in,’ said little Mary, with a shudder. And then Margaret, roused by the stir, opened her feverish bright eyes and asked what news.

‘You’ve been long,’ she said. ‘And were ye as pleased as you thought you would be, Isabel?’

Isabel had taken off her bonnet and pushed back her hair from her aching forehead. She looked up at her sister with the intention of replying, and then suddenly overpowered, hid her face in her hands and burst into tears.

‘Ah, she may well cry,’ said Jean. ‘If I was ever mair shamed in my life! Isabel, the Captain’s daughter, and a lady born!—she was that led away, Margaret, that she spoke like the rest.’

Isabel gave her stepmother an indignant warning look, and then rose, throwing aside her cloak, and placed herself behind Margaret’s chair out of reach of those eyes which she could not bear.

‘Isabel—spoke—like the rest! I cannot understand,’ said Margaret faintly. ‘Are you meaning that it came upon her—in power?’ And the invalid turned round wistful and wondering. Could it be that God had passed over her in her suffering and given this gift to Isabel? Perhaps, for the first time, there came to Margaret a touch of that strange, wondering envy which all her friends had already felt in her behalf. She had been content that Ailie should have the privilege denied to herself. But Isabel! She turned and sought her sister with her eyes, wandering. ‘It is because I am not worthy,’ she said to herself, but not without a pang.

‘It was them that were speaking of you,’ said Isabel; ‘that you wanted faith; and that we were to pray, and that you were to be made to arise and go forth with Ailie to convert the world. It made me mad. I couldna sit still and keep silence. I cried out—“She shall have her will. It’s not for you to say"—and then Mr. John{85} said it was a lying spirit and not from the Lord; and then I mind no more!’

‘My poor Isabel,’ said Margaret, with a smile of relief and tenderness; ‘it was true love that spoke and nothing else. But she’s not to go there again—neither Isabel nor little Mary. It can do them nothing but harm.’

‘It does me no harm that I ken,’ said Jean. ‘It’s awfu’ exciting whiles; but I never find myself the worse.’

‘You’re different from these young things,’ said Margaret; ‘but, oh! you’ll always mind—both of you—that it’s my wish you should not go there. I’m not uneasy about it from the present. After—when I’ll, maybe, not be here to speak—you’ll both mind.’

‘Go to your bed this moment, bairn,’ cried Jean, with the petulance of grief, ‘sitting glowering at Margaret with thae big e’en! but mind ye dinna waken my poor Jamie going up the stair. It’s getting late, and time we’re a’ in our beds after such a night.’

‘I am very comfortable,’ said Margaret. ‘I am not disposed to move. I’m better here than in my bed, with that glimmer of the fire. I was always fond of a fire. It’s like a kindly spirit with its bits of flames, crackling and chattering. I have it in my mind to speak to you both, if you’ll have patience and listen. Don’t contradict me, Isabel. I know I am going fast, and why should you say no? But it would be a real comfort to speak and tell you what I wish before I die.’

‘Oh, Margaret! anything but that,’ cried Isabel.

The invalid shook her head with an expression of pain. ‘Nothing but this,’ she said; ‘if you want to cross me, and vex me, and drive me to be silent, it’s in your power: but my sister will never do that. I must speak, if you would leave my heart at rest. Dry your eyes, Isabel. I’m selfish, but ye must yield to it. If it was you that were going, would not your heart burn to speak before you left to them you hold dear? and to-night you must think not of yourself, but of me.’

It was a strange group: the room so poorly lighted, with the two candles on the table, the fire smouldering in the grate, dying into dull embers; Margaret laid out on her invalid chair supported by pillows, her pale face absorbing all the light there was; Jean sitting crouched together on the stool with her honest, comely countenance, serious now and full of anxiety, turned to her stepdaughter; and Isabel in her chair apart against the wall, as if she were not one of them—her face visible only in profile—her hands hanging listless in her lap—her eyes cast down. The dying girl, who did not understand it, was wounded by her sister’s withdrawal; and yet what did it matter?—perhaps it left her more free to{86} speak than if Isabel’s tender eyes had been searching out the meaning in her face before she could utter it? Even the irritation and half-estrangement of a grief too poignant to be submissive, Margaret could understand.

‘I am thinking most of Bell,’ she said. ‘I’ve always thought most of Bell. It was natural. There were but the two of us in the world. And I’ve always been a woman, you’ll mind. When she was but a bairn playing on the hill-side, I was like her mother. That was my nature; and now the sorest thought I have is to leave her without a guide in this hard world.’

Isabel could not speak—but she made a hasty, deprecating gesture with her hand.

‘You would say, no,’ said Margaret; ‘but, Isabel, I know best. I am not vaunting myself, but I know best. For a while past you’ve been that you did not understand yourself. Your heart has been breaking to part with me, and yet you could not bear the sight of me. It is wearying to everybody when a poor creature takes so long to die. Oh, Bell, dinna say a word! Do you think I doubt you? I’m speaking of nature. And when I’m gone—so young as you are, and so hasty, and so feeling;—you’ve been a trouble to yourself and a mystery already, and what will you be then, with none near you to turn it all over in their minds?’

‘If there’s only me,’ said Isabel, gazing into the vacant air before her, ‘who will care?’

‘I’ll care wherever I am,’ said Margaret. ‘Oh, you canna think I could be happy in Heaven and my bonnie Bell in pain or sorrow. If you could but harden your heart against the movements that come and go—if ye would but take patience and think before you put your hand to aught. You were aye so hasty and so innocent. Do you mind when Robbie Spence fell into the Loch, and her after him in a boat before a man could move?’

‘Ay, do I,’ said Jean, ‘and our ain Jamie when he broke his arm——’

‘It was Isabel that carried him home, that big laddie!’ said Margaret with pathetic smiles and tears; ‘aye hasty, though she was so young and so slight; but there’s worse danger than that. Ye might take burdens upon you that would be harder to carry. Oh, my bonnie Bell! if I could but have seen you in a good man’s hands!’

‘I’ll not hear you speak,’ cried Isabel, almost wildly; ‘am I wanting any man?’

‘If you would promise to take thought before you made up your mind,’ said Margaret; ‘I’m no myself when I think of my Isabel in trouble. If you would go to your room, and take a while to think. I canna tell what’s beyond the veil, nor what’s permitted yonder;{87} but, Bell, I would aye promise you this—not to appear to be a terror to you. But if you would take time to think, and shut to your door, and say to yourself, “Margaret loved me well. She’s been dead and gone for years and years, but she couldna forget her sister wherever she is. What would Margaret say if she were here?” And, Bell, I promise you this—not to frighten you, or appear like one coming from the dead, but to draw near and let you know what I’m thinking. Always if it is permitted—I canna tell.’

‘Oh, Margaret! Margaret! I will die too,’ cried Isabel, suddenly throwing herself at her sister’s feet; ‘I can bear no more.’

‘No, there’s plenty more to bear,’ said her sister, caressing the head which was buried in her coverings. ‘You cannot get out of the world like that. It is me that has the easy task. I have but to bide quiet and let Him do a’—me that took pride in being the wisest of the two, and able to guide you. And it is you that will have all to bear. But, Bell, it’s a promise—you’ll mind when the time comes? I will not say, Take this one or take that, for the heart is free. But take thought, Isabel!—oh, my darling, take thought; and I’ll always give you my opinion, not in your ear like the living that are bound in the flesh—but into your heart. And now,’ she added, raising herself a little, with a cheerful tone in her voice, ‘I have but two or three more words to say.’

Isabel did not move nor speak. She had her face hid in the coverlid as if she were weeping. But she did not weep. Her eyes were blazing, covered by her hands, like stars, parched with drought, almost fiery in their light; her heart beat with the violence of a creature at the fullest height of life. But no one saw those wild heavings; she knelt there with her face hidden, and only her soft hair, which had fallen into disorder, within reach of Margaret’s hectic hand.

‘You’ll aye take care of her as long as may be,’ Margaret went on addressing Jean. ‘When she’s older she’ll understand. It is just that all should be hers—everything we have; but she’ll not depart from my desire about Jamie, you may be sure of that. And, Isabel, you’ll no rebel, but let her be good to you, all her days. And be a good sister to the bairns. I’m real foolish,’ she went on, with a smile; ‘as if me being away would make such a change—I’m real vain. But you’ll no blame me, you two.’

‘Blame you!’ said Jean, with her handkerchief to her eyes; ‘O Margaret, you’re ower thoughtfu’; but it was that the callant should be bred for a minister? that was what you meant?{88}’

‘If he turns his mind to it,’ said Margaret. ‘And I think that is all. You’ll be good to her, Bell, and she’ll be good to you. And keep little Mary out of the meetings. She’s very keen and bright, brighter than Jamie. You’ll not let her go astray. And be kind to everybody for my sake,’ Margaret said with a smile, which touched the very extremity of self-control, and had a certain flicker almost of delirium in it—‘I am fit for no more.’



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