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CHAPTER XIII
During the week that ensued various events happened in the parish which kept up the local excitement. The prophets, who up to this time had been in external subjection to the authorities, at the first mention of restriction had thrown off all bonds. Mild as was the attempted control it was more than they could bear, and no sooner had they thus emancipated themselves from all habitual restraint than their higher pretensions began to develop.

The intimation that Ailie was about to set out on a mission to the general world could not but be exciting information to the parish; and at the same time there was an arrival of pilgrims from that outer world to inquire into the marvel. Commissions of investigation had already come from the Presbytery of the district, and even from Edinburgh and Glasgow, the news having spread quickly at a moment of general religious excitement; but the inquirers from England, one of whom was soon discovered to be ‘an English minister,’ produced a more marked impression, and thrilled the Loch with indescribable pride.

Margaret was sinking day by day. She had made her last step on the grass, taken her last draught of the fresh mountain air out of doors. From day to day it seemed impossible that she should ever again totter from one room to the other; and yet she managed to do it, retaining her hold upon her domestic place with a tenacity quite unlike the feebleness of her hold upon life. Sometimes, indeed, she had to be carried to the sofa in the parlour, from which she could still gain a glimpse of the Loch, and feel herself one of the family; but she would not relinquish this last stronghold of existence. ‘It will be time enough to shut me up when I’m gone,’ she would say, smiling upon them; and the doctor’s orders had been that she should be humoured in everything. ‘Nothing can harm her now,’ he had said, with that mournful abandonment of precaution, which{89} shows the death of hope. And the parish—nay, ‘the whole Loch,’ held its breath and looked on.

As for Isabel it seemed to her that she lived in a dreadful dream. The vague terror that had been hanging over her so long had settled down, and could no longer be escaped; it seemed years to her since the time when she had believed it might not be—or at least hoped that it might have been delayed.

Perhaps it was because Jean Campbell, too, was in something of the same stupor of exhausted nature, produced by constant watching and want of sleep, that one visitor, whom they had guarded against for days, found his way to Margaret’s bedside. The children had been set to watch on the road, to warn the cottage if the very shadow of Mr. John fell upon the hill, and had repeatedly brought back news of him, which set the watchers on their guard. But, as it happens so often when such a watch goes on for days, there came a moment when the little scouts thought of something else, and when all other visitors were absent, and the road left open for the enemy. Jean had withdrawn to her kitchen while Margaret slept, or seemed to sleep—and had thrown herself, worn out, into the great arm-chair covered with checked linen, where she nodded by the fire. Isabel sat at the foot of the sofa, with her eyes on her sister. And those eyes, too, were veiled by the drooping eyelids, in the fatigue and awful tedium of the protracted watch. Thus the anxious household slumbered at its post, overtaken by weariness and security. How long the doze lasted none of them could tell, but when some faint movement of her sister’s made Isabel start from her insensibility, it froze the blood in her heart, and almost woke her to positive exertion, to see the man they all feared seated by the sofa on which Margaret lay. He had lifted the latch, and come in noiselessly, while they all slept in their exhaustion. There was still light enough to show his dark face, gazing intently upon the white vision on the sofa. All the hectic had gone from Margaret’s cheek. She was as pale as if the end had already come, and lay with her blue-veined eyelids ajar, as it were, the long lashes a little raised from the white cheeks, the pale lips parted with her painful breath. Mr. John sat by the side of the sofa, shadowing over her like a destroying angel. Had it been Death himself in person, the sight could scarcely have been more startling. His countenance was working in every line with suppressed but violent emotion, his lips were moving, his eyes fixed intently upon the face of the sleeper. He had stretched out one hand over Margaret’s couch, not touching her, like one who gave{90} a benediction or enforced a command. Isabel sat and watched, paralysed by the sight. There seemed no power in her to stir or speak. And Margaret still slept, moving sometimes uneasily under that gaze, which seemed capable of penetrating the insensibility of death, but never unclosing her liquid, half-seen eyes, or giving any sign of consciousness. By degrees, half-audible words began to drop from the prophet’s lips.

‘Life, life!’ Isabel could hear him say. ‘My life for hers! My salvation for her life!’

The passion in him gradually became less controllable. It was with God he was struggling, with a vehemence of desire which left no room for reason or for reverence. After a while, he slid downwards upon his knees, always noiseless in the supreme urgency of his passion. He held his hand up over the couch, maintaining the painful attitude with a rigidity beyond all ordinary power.

‘I will not let Thee go, till Thou bless her—till Thou save her!’ Isabel heard him say.

All this appeared suddenly before her, awaking out of her dream. There was not a sound in the house, except the clock ticking through all with its monotonous, merciless beat, and Margaret’s irregular breathing, now louder, now lower, a fitful human accompaniment. At last, the power of self-control could go no further.

‘Rise, rise, woman beloved!’ he cried, hoarsely, springing to his feet. ‘I’ve won you out of the hands of Death!’

The harsh agony of the cry woke Margaret. He was standing between her and the faint light from the window, bending down over her from his great height with outstretched arms: his face invisible in the darkness which was made doubly dark by his shadow. Thus suddenly called back from her temporary oblivion, she woke with a little start. ‘Isabel!’ she said, instinctively. And then in a moment it became apparent to Margaret that another ordeal had come to her worse than the paroxysms of failing breath or palpitating heart in which Isabel could help her. With an instinctive thought for her sister, she raised herself slightly upon her pillows. ‘My dear, my dear, you’re not to blame,’ said Margaret, with a little moan. She had hoped to get out of the world without this trial, but now that it had come it must be borne.

‘She is not to blame,’ said Mr. John. ‘Nobody is to blame. I came stealing in like a thief in the night: they shut me out from you as if I would harm you—I that am ready to give my life for you. Margaret, arise! I’ve won you out of the hands of Death!{91}’

‘Oh, if you would not waste this madness on me!’ said Margaret. ‘Isabel, let him stay. Death thinks no shame and feels no fear. I’m glad that I can speak to him before I go. John Diarmid, dinna drive me wild. This life is no so grand a gift that I should seek it out of your hands. God’s will is more to me than your will. Sit down by my death-bed; and oh, man, be silent, if ye have any heart! It’s for me to speak now.’

‘I will do what you will—whatever you will,’ he said: ‘Margaret! if you will but listen to the Lord’s voice and rise up and live! Can I stand by and see you die?’

A little impatient sigh burst from Margaret’s breast. ‘You stood by,’ she said, ‘once before, and took all the light and all the sweetness out of life. For once I will speak. I have been proud, but it’s not the time for pride now. O, John Diarmid, it is fit it should be your hand to call me back to life as you call it! I would never have upbraided you—no, not by a word. It was a thing settled you were never to come here. But now I will speak before I die.’

‘Speak!’ he cried, going down upon his knees with a crouch of submission in his great frame. ‘Say what you will. I am vile to all and vilest to you. You are as God to me, Margaret, Margaret! But take the life I have won for you and never see me more.’

‘The life you have won!’ said Margaret, with a tone which in any other voice would have been disdain. But her voice was like that of a dove, and had no notes of scorn in it. Yet soft as the approach to contempt was, the dying girl was remorseful of it. ‘I must not speak like this,’ she said; ‘and you must not speak to rouse the ill spirit in me, and me so near the pleasant heavens. Whisht! I canna think shame now, though Isabel is there to hear. John Diarmid, once I was as nigh loving you as now——’

‘You’re nigh hating me!’ he said, with a great sob breaking his voice.

‘No; as I’m nigh being free of all the bonds of this world,’ said Margaret. ‘I was little more than a bairn; I was like Bell. They said you meant me harm; but I never thought you meant me harm——’

As the pathetic voice went on John Diarmid bowed his head lower and lower till at last he sank prostrate on the floor by the side of the sofa. It was her last words that brought him to this abject self-humiliation. He knew better than she did. A groan burst out of the man’s labouring breast. Even Isabel—sitting in a trance at her sister’s feet, roused up out of her stupor, her cheeks burning with a wild flush of jealousy and shame, half-wild that Margaret had descended from her saintly{92} pedestal to avow the emotions of earth, and furious to think that any man had shared her heart—yet felt an unwilling movement of pity for the prostrate sinner. Margaret only continued without any change.

‘I never thought you meant me harm,’ she said, once more smiting with the awful rod of her innocence the man at her feet. ‘But when I heard what you had been, and what you had done, the light died out of the world. I am not blaming you. It was God that gave me my death, and not man; but from that hour I had no heart to live. Why should a woman strive to live, and fight against all the unseen powers, when this world’s so sore-defiled, and not a spot that she can set her foot on,—no one that she can trust? For me I had no heart to struggle more.’

A certain note of plaintive self-consciousness had come into the steady voice, broken only by weakness, with which Margaret told her tale, as if it were a history so long past that all emotion had died out of it. And so it was. Her almost love had faded in her heart; but there still remained a sense of pity for the young forlorn creature whose eyes had been thus opened, and of whom Margaret had half-forgotten that it was herself.

For the moment in her abstraction, in her deadly calm, she was well-nigh cruel. She took no notice of the man who lay abject at her feet, with his face to the ground. Her great spiritual eyes in those pale circles which approaching death had hallowed out, gazed wistfully into the darkness. Perhaps it was the convulsive movement of the prostrate figure by her which roused her at last. Suddenly she stirred, and, putting out a white thin hand, laid it softly on his bowed head. ‘John Diarmid,’ she said, softly, ‘are you walking with God now?’

He seized her hand, raising his head from where he lay, and knelt upright by her, pressing it to his breast, which heaved violently as with sobs. What compunction was in his heart, what sudden knowledge of himself, what remorse, no one could say. It was dark, and they were to each other as ghosts in the gloom. Margaret could see his gestures, but nothing more; if, indeed, anything more could have been learnt from the bent head and hidden countenance. Her voice grew softer and softer when she broke the silence again.

‘I know you’re moved to the heart,’ she said. ‘I am not doubting you now. You are changed, and I see you’re changed. And if you would but tell me there were no more such thoughts in your heart, and that you were walking with God—then I would feel there were some prayers answered before I die.{93}’

‘You have prayed for me, Margaret!’ he cried. The passionate man was subdued to a child. His great frame was shaken by sobs; his eyes were wet with tears. He had not another word to say; his passion, his inspiration, all the prophetic pretensions which clothed him, had vanished like so many cobwebs. He knelt by the purest love of his life with a heart broken and speechless. She dying, and he without power to save.

‘Aye!’ she said, laying her hand once more upon his head; and then there was silence broken only by the groan or sob that came from John Diarmid’s heart.

The next minute familiar sounds and sights broke in. Jean Campbell, with a candle in her hand, came pushing open the closed door. ‘Eh, you’re in the dark, like craws in the mist,’ she said, as she approached.

At the sound of her voice John Diarmid sprang to his feet, rising like a giant out of the darkness. He bent down his head suddenly over Margaret, pressed his motionless lips to her forehead, with a movement of despair, which was no kiss, and passing the astonished woman who held up her candle to look at him, rushed forth like the wind, letting the night and the chill air enter as he plunged forth.

How long Jean might have stood spell-bound by consternation, but for this sudden puff of cold air which blew about the flame of her candle, it is impossible to say; but she was roused instantly by fear of the cold for Margaret, and ran in haste to close the doors.

‘Weirdless loon!’ she cried, as she came back, ‘without so much sense as to think the cauld would harm her. Eh, Isabel, how could you let him in to vex her? It was a’ my fault dovering and sleeping in my chair. My lamb, ye’re weariet to death?’

‘Aye, very near to death,’ said Margaret, with a smile; ‘but there’s nobody to blame; and I’m glad I saw him at the last.’

‘So lang as he didna drive you distracted wi’ his prophecies and his miracles,’ said Jean, looking anxiously with wistful eyes from one to another. Isabel had risen at her stepmother’s entrance, and drying the tears from her cheeks, hastily began to arrange the coverings over her sister; she shrank from Jean’s look, feeling herself somehow to blame, and angry at the thought that had the other watcher been awake this trial would not have come to Margaret. But, as for Margaret herself, she made no effort to avoid Jean’s eye; she lay back on her pillows panting sometimes for breath, with a humid softness about her great shining eyes and a quivering smile on her lips. Very nearly tired to death; and yet ever patient, waiting till a little more should achieve the end.


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