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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Minister's Wife » CHAPTER XV
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The death of Margaret Diarmid had been, as people say, sudden at the last. Whether the agitation of that visit had been too much for her, or if Nature at the end, having lingered so long, had succumbed in a moment to some unseen touch, it was impossible to tell. She was dead—that was all that could be said. Things had gone on as usual all the evening through in the dim parlour, where Jean came in from time to time to see that all was safe, and Isabel moved softly about at the appointed hours with her cordials and her medicines. Margaret had been lying, as her stepmother had left her, with her large, humid, wistful eyes fixed, taking less notice of everything around than usual, looking out, as it were, into an unseen world of her own. An intense quietness had fallen upon the house. The children had been sent early to bed; and Jenny Spence, who had volunteered to assist in the watch, was comfortably installed in the big elbow-chair by the fire in the kitchen. ‘We’re better without her,’ Jean had whispered to Isabel; ‘but it’s a real pleasure to her, and she’s a connection; and she’ll no disturb Margaret.’ Jean herself had taken up her position, wrapt in her cloak, just within the parlour door. It was usual for them, at an earlier hour than this, to remove their patient to bed. But Margaret had been so still that they had hesitated to disturb her. ‘By and by,’ she had said to them softly, as she lay there with her white face upturned, and her open eyes. She was not asleep; but so quiet, so smiling, breathing so calmly. Could it be that she had taken ‘a good turn?’ Isabel, seated at the foot of the sofa, her duties over for the moment, kept her watch, praying mechanically, dozing by moments, stupified by grief and weariness. Jean behind backs saw nothing of what was passing. But after a time the stillness became intolerable, and weighed upon her. Her first impulse was to steal out to the kitchen and rouse Jenny Spence, and console herself with a melancholy talk over the fire; and then she bethought herself that it would be cruel to leave Isabel in this atmosphere, which somehow seemed all at once so strangely chilled and silent. Listening intently, it seemed to her that she heard no breathing but her own. Margaret’s hardest paroxysms would have sounded natural and consoling in place of that awful stillness. Jean’s heart began to throb in her ears, and her eyes to dazzle. It was some time before she could move. When she at last summoned her powers and roused{98} herself, it was all clear to her in a moment. The strange silence, the sudden chill, had been death; but thus the long illness, which all the parish expected was to have a triumphant and victorious conclusion, ended softly in the silence, without sound of trumpet or demonstration of exceeding joy.

As for Isabel there was an interval, unfortunately for her a very short interval, in which she was conscious of nothing. Not that the simple, healthful girl, trained in stern Scotch self-restraint, found refuge in any swoon or fit of bodily unconsciousness. But fatigue had so worn and bewildered her, and benumbed all her faculties, that she was incapable of any fresh sensation. The kind women took her to her bed, and the young creature, all broken and worn, slept the heavy sleep of sorrow, that profound, joyless slumber which pain and suffering bring to young eyes. When she woke, it was not with any fresh pang: she had carried the sense of ‘what had happened’ with her throughout her sleep—but with still the same heavy, listless, benumbed sensations. Sometimes, when she started involuntarily at the thought that it was time for Margaret’s wine, or her soup, or her medicine, her heart thus sharply pricked would rouse up, and her eyes gain relief in the measureless tears of youth. But she did not come to herself for days, scarcely until the time of darkness was over, and the procession had gone out from the cottage doors, and her sister was carried away from her, while she herself remained behind. Then her life sprang again out of excess of pain.

It was about a week after the funeral when Jean came in, solemnly tapping at the parlour door, where Isabel sat alone. She was arrayed in her new black gown, and with her freshest cap, and had a certain air of gravity and importance about her. She came in softly and stood by Isabel, half-behind her as she sat at the table. ‘Isabel, my bonnie woman,’ she said, turning her homely voice to its softest cadence, ‘it’s time we were having a talk, you and me, about what we’re to do.’

‘What should we do?’ said Isabel; ‘but sit down and tell me what it is: it’s weary, weary to sit alone.’

‘My lamb!’ said Jean, furtively smoothing the girl’s soft hair. It was seldom she ventured on such a proof of sympathy, for Isabel was proud. But she did not sit down; she stood with some agitation, twisting the table-cover from the table, shifting from one foot to another. At last her burden came forth with a burst. ‘It’s best I should ken; it’s a’ yours now, Isabel; and you were never that fond of me and the poor bairns. I’m your father’s wife, and I’m no a lady born like you; but I’m one that{99} would never thole to be where she wasna wanted. Whisht! whisht; I’m no misdoubting your kindness; for her sake I ken you would aye be kind; but if there was to be a change I would like best it should be now.’

‘Why should there be a change?’ said Isabel, weeping. ‘Oh, is there not change enough to please you? Would you like me to stay my lane in this still house and die? But I could not die—I would go wild; and, maybe, you would not care.’

‘As if I didna care for everything belonging to ye!’ cried Jean, once more timidly caressing her stepdaughter’s bent head. ‘If it was only that, I would be content to be your servant—as near your servant as would be becoming to the Captain’s widow,’ she added, after a momentary pause. ‘But your heart’s touched and tender the noo; and if, after, you should reflect on me for taking advantage of you, or anybody else should reflect——’

‘Who is there that has any right’ cried hasty Isabel, drying her tears with hot and trembling hand. ‘There’s but me now in all the world, and no one that can bid me go or come, or do this or that. Ah, me!’

‘It’s a grand thing to be free,’ said Jean, her voice faltering a little; ‘free o’ them you’re bound to by any bonds but what God has made. When it’s nature it’s different—or when it’s your free choice it’s different; but you and me, Isabel, are free to meet and free to part. I’m no saying but what it would be a sore heartbreak; but if ever there was to come a time when you would reflect——’

‘Oh, dinna speak,’ said Isabel; ‘if it’s your will to leave me, go, and let me take my chance. If I was to go out of my senses or die on the hill-side, what is that to other folk? There is none to care if I was mad or dead to-morrow. If you speak because you’re wearied of me and my silly ways——’

‘Oh, Isabel, my lamb!’ cried Jean, with tears, ‘I’m saying I would be your servant if that was a’. But you maun tell me your will plain if we’re to go or stay. A’s yours. If we live here, the bairns and me, it’s upon you; and that I canna do unless you say plain out—Bide; and let things be as they have aye been.’

‘Is there anything else I could say?’ cried Isabel; ‘maybe you’ve forgotten already what was said to you and me—yon night? But I will never forget. Nothing is changed but one thing. Oh, no, I am saying wrong—the heavens and the earth are changed and all’s different—all’s different!—but not between you and me. And I’ll mind about Jamie,’ she added, once more hotly and tremulously, drying her eyes. ‘He’s to be brought{100} up for a minister, if he has a desire to it. We’ll speak to Mr. Lothian, or Mr. Galbraith, and I’ll not forget.’

Jean shook her head softly behind her stepdaughter’s back.

‘I’m no speaking of Jamie now,’ she said; ‘afore he’s old enough you’ll have a man, Isabel, that may have other meanings. But I’m aye thankful to you for the thought. And a young lass is real solitary by herself. I’ll bide since you say sae; and weel content; but when the time comes that you’re married, my woman, we’ll speak of that no more.’

‘The time will never come,’ said Isabel, hastily. ‘I have had my share of life. I am not like a young lass now.’

‘My bonnie lamb!’ said Jean, with a tender smile, letting her hand rest on the downcast head. It was that last touch of self-pity which broke down Isabel’s reserve. She turned suddenly round, and throwing her arms round her stepmother wept and sobbed on her homely bosom. She clung to her as to her last support, and Jean received her in her motherly arms. Her heart had warmed to the wayward Isabel, all through her faulty youth with a love less reverent, but more familiar than that she had given to Margaret. And now a common grief united them as they had never been united before. She held the girl close, repeating over and over those soft names of homely kindness.

‘My lamb!’ she said, ‘my bonnie Bell! my bonnie woman!’ and bent down her head over her, not with the lavish caress of a lighter nature, but with a strong sustaining pressure. When the sobs grew fainter, and exhaustion mercifully dulled the pain, it was she who smoothed her hair, and dried her wet cheeks, and gave her such comfort as she could bear.

‘Come ben beside the bairns,’ Jean said, drying the tears from her own eyes, ‘and leave this room that is so full of a’ that’s passed. There’s a cheery fire, and the wee things’ faces are aye a comfort. That was her thought: and I’ll make you your cup of tea, and we’ll do our best to bear the burden for her sake.’

There was a cheery fire, as Jean had said, and Isabel was cold with that chill of grief which penetrates into the very heart. The blaze and the warmth gave her a little forlorn consolation; and so after awhile did the sound of voices other than her own, and the care and service that surrounded her.

Jean attended her to her room when it was time for rest, as she would have done had Isabel been her own child, and gave her one of those rare shy kisses, of which the homely Scotch matron was half-ashamed in her{101} intense reticence and self-control. ‘Try and sleep, my lamb,’ she said, ‘I’ll come back and put out the candle.’ And then she returned to her kitchen, to shut her shutters, and put the ‘gathering coal’ upon the fire, and make all snug for the night. When she had ended her silent labours, Jean took her moment of indulgence also, sitting down to think in the elbow-chair, by the side of the dark heaped-up smouldering fire.

‘Na, na,’ she said to herself, ‘I maunna trust to that. If Margaret had set it apart out of her share—but I’m no reflecting upon Margaret. It was a’ the first wife’s siller, and it’s Isabel’s by right; and I dinna doubt her bit warm hasty heart. But if she were to marry that English lad, me and mine would be little to her after; and if she was to marry anybody else—even the minister—he would be for thinking of his ain first, and maybe a family coming. It would be real natural. Na, na! I maunna trust to Isabel; and, maybe, after a’ it’s best for the laddie,’ she said to herself, with a sigh. ‘If the root o’ the matter’s in him, he’ll fight his way to it; and if it’s no, he’ll never try; and when a’ ‘s said and done, maybe that’s the best.’

But it was with a sigh she rose from that moment of reflection and stole back to remove the candle, and saw with affectionate pleasure that Isabel, worn out, had already dropped to sleep. ‘The poor bairn!’ Jean said, in her tenderness, and clambered up to the attic beside her children, with that sense of being the protector and sole guardian of so much helplessness, which fills the heart of a solitary woman with such softness and such strength.


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