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CHAPTER XIV
When Mr. John rushed from the door of the Glebe Cottage mad with grief and sorrow and a sense of impotence, it was not to return to his home or to enter upon any of his usual duties, even such as might have seemed akin to the passion and excitement in his mind. He went up the hill-side without knowing where he went, rushing into the clouds and rain which were sweeping across the invisible braes.

The dark waters of Loch Goil were glimmering just before him ere he arrested his steps; he had climbed and descended the hill without knowing how; he was drenched to the skin, beaten by the wind, wild, half crazed with the multitude of his thoughts; all his new-born sense of power, all his confidence in his changed condition, were gone. He was a man abandoned by hope, and at the same time a prophet forsaken of the Lord. It had been not quite six o’clock when he left the Glebe. It was nearly midnight now when he forced his way through the tough stalks of the heather, crushing them down with his feet, stumbling into the forests of whins, going wildly through the yellowing brackens. Wild creatures rushed out of their coverts as he crossed the braes; it was too dark to see any path, even had he cared to confine himself to it. All was silent and black when he drew near the first inhabited place, the little cluster of cottages above the Manse to which he directed his steps. It was there that Ailie Macfarlane, his co-adjutatrix and predecessor, lived with her father and mother. Not a light was visible in any window. The little congregation of souls, wrapt in the kind protecting darkness, slept and took no note of all the surrounding mysteries of the night. Mr. John went up to Ailie’s door and knocked, waking echoes which seemed to go over all the parish, and rousing the dogs at Lochhead out of the light sleep of their vigilance. It was some time before he had any reply. Then the lattice window, which was on a level with the door, was softly opened. It was Ailie herself who looked out, her fair locks braided about her head like a saint in a picture.

‘Who are ye? what do ye want?’ she said, with a certain anxiety in her voice. ‘Is it a summons to me too?’

Mr. John was too much pre-occupied to observe what she said, but he discerned the signs of some emotion, and took it for fear.

‘Fear me not,’ he said, ‘I’ve come, from wrestling with{95} the Lord upon the hill—and, Ailie, I have a message from Him to you. Fear me not.’

‘I’m fearing nothing,’ said the girl, with momentary surprise—for even had she not been protected by her exceptional character, to speak with ‘a friend’ from a chamber window, even in the middle of the night, was counted no sin on Loch Diarmid. ‘I’m fearing nothing,’ she repeated, steadily, ‘but my heart’s sore and my een are heavy. Say quick what you have to say.’

‘It must be said to-night,’ he said; ‘I speak not of my will, and I will not ask you what is yours. Ailie, the Lord has revealed to me that you and I must go forth together to His work, bound together like Christ and His Church. You cannot go alone for you’re young and weak. He has appointed me to you for a protector. He has said unto me, O man, fear not to take unto thee thy wife! Ailie, this word is to me and to thee. Prepare! I would go forth, if that were possible, as soon as it is day.’

Then there was a pause. The clouds parted, driven by the angry wind, and the sky lightened faintly with a pale gleam which showed the man’s worn face and wild aspect as he stood before the window.

‘Oh, no, no,’ she cried; ‘we must wait. There will be clearer light. If such a thing as this is to be, it will be established in the mouth of two or three witnesses. I wouldna trust to myself, my lane. Oh, no, no; we must wait for clearer light.’

‘Take heed that ye perish not from lack of faith,’ said Mr. John. ‘Take heed that you despise not the Lord’s message. Ailie Macfarlane, hear the Word of the Lord! and see ye sin not against the Holy Ghost.’

A shudder ran through Ailie’s sensitive frame. ‘No,’ she cried, ‘no, no, never that. I’m His handmaid to do His pleasure. But oh, there’s nought can be done this night. The night’s for rest and thought and prayer. It may be the Lord will show His will to me too. And there’s my father and my mother,’ cried Ailie with a little gush of tears.

‘Let the dead bury their dead,’ said her extraordinary suitor, in a voice which seemed to ring round the house like a groan. And then he added with a tone of authority which struck chill to Ailie’s heart: ‘Hitherto you have been a law to yourself, and no man has been set over you; but the wife must take the Lord’s will through her husband who is her head.’

Ailie fell down on her knees trembling, and held fast by the sill of the window.

‘I am no man’s wife,’ she cried; ‘and I’m feared and bewildered, and see naething clear. Oh, for the Lord’s sake, gang away from me for this night!{96}’

Mr. John turned his eyes which had been fixed on the pale opening in the clouds to her face. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I’ll go; the flesh can bear no more. Go on your knees to Him, and not to me. And He may make it clear to you if He thinks fit; but in light or in darkness I call on you to obey. Is His servant to stand still because there is no light?’

‘I’ll pray!’ cried Ailie, with a gasp. And he withdrew from the window, stumbling over the little flower-borders in the cottage-garden, and gazing vaguely up into the white break in the sky. His haggard, pale face fascinated her in its abstraction. She rose, and closed her window with nervous hands, still gazing at him; when suddenly another window opened—that of the attic over the cottage door.

‘Wha’s there?’ cried a voice. Instinctively Ailie shrank back, but yet kept her ear at the opening that she might hear. It was the voice of her mother, who had been roused by the conversation below.

‘Wha are ye, disturbing honest folk in the middle of the night, and what do you want here?’

‘It’s me,’ said Mr. John, raising his head listlessly. ‘I was sent to her with a word from the Lord.’

Old Janet Macfarlane uttered a hasty exclamation. ‘I’m meaning no reproach to you, Mr. John; but I wish your words would come in the day.’

Mr. John made no answer. He stepped over the paling once more, and paused at the door immediately under the old woman’s window. Fatigue was beginning to tell upon him: his passion was dying out. He had no longer any strength to defend himself. Perhaps Janet’s heart smote her as she saw his listless step; or perhaps the natural rural impulse of communicating information was her only motive. She paused a moment, searching in her mind something keen and sharp to say to him—but finding nothing, bent out from her window over the leafy, embowered porch.

‘Mr. John,’ she said, with solemnity; ‘nae doubt you’ve heard the news?’

‘What news?’

‘Margaret at the Glebe is wi’ her Saviour,’ said the old woman. ‘She died at ten o’clock. Good night.’

The noise of the window closing rang over all the silent Loch and silent heavens, and went echoing, echoing away into the hollows of the hills. It struck the man in his despair like the thunder of dissolving earth and Heaven.


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