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CHAPTER XVI
The next step in Isabel’s solitary new life was the visit of Miss Catherine, whose entrance Jean permitted a few days earlier than decorum properly allowed.

‘After a’, she’s a connection, and the poor bairn’s best support,’ she said, as she went, wiping her hands on her apron, to open the door to the visitor. ‘Oh, ay, Miss Catherine! come your ways ben; she’ll be glad of a kind word. She’s no suffered that much in her health—God be thankit! But whiles my heart breaks to see her in that weary parlour her lane, and nothing to wile her from her ain thoughts.’

‘I had not the courage to come sooner,’ said Miss Catherine. ‘But, Jean, we must not leave her to her own thoughts.’

There could be but one way of meeting for the two.{102} Isabel stood up for an instant with a nervous attempt at composure, and then dropped weeping into her old friend’s extended arms: and there was first the inevitable attempt at consolation, tender words and encouragements. ‘It’s well with her—it’s better for her. We must not mourn, for her sake.’

‘And now tell me, my dear,’ said Miss Catherine, when poor Isabel had wept herself into quietness, ‘how you’ve settled with Jean? You are young, and it will be a strange life for you here by yourself. Is it settled that everything is to go on as it has been?’

‘Why should there be any change?’ said Isabel. ‘It is her house as long as it is mine. Is she not the nearest I have left?—and, oh, she’s kind! though I have never been good to her all my life.’

‘She is not a drop’s blood to you,’ said Miss Catherine, with some warmth. ‘Isabel, I’m not one to bid you run away from grief; it’s a vain thing to do; but you’re young, and you have a sufficiency, and why should you be burdened with the second family? I had nothing to say against it in the past. Jean was aye kind, poor woman. But I cannot bear to think of you staying here in this room after all that’s come and gone.’

Isabel made no answer. She took up her work with trembling fingers, and made an effort to go on with it, while the visitor, for her part, had enough to do to master the sob in her voice.

‘You are so young,’ she said; ‘you cannot know what you want, or what is best for you. I know a poor gentlewoman in Edinburgh, Isabel, that would be very kind to you. A change would be good, though you cannot think it now. Making and mending is grand work for the mother of a family, but for a young creature alone, it is not to be thought of as an occupation. And there are things you might learn that would fit you for your life to come. How can you tell what your life will be? Your blood, my dear, is as good by the mother’s side as mine; and if you saw a little of the world—You’re a proud thing, Isabel, you’ll not allow you want anything; but the change would do you good, and the novelty would divert your mind——’

‘As if I was asking to be diverted!’ said Isabel. ‘Oh! Miss Catherine, if it’s like that you think of me! I am seeking no change. My life, the best of it, is past. What have I to think about but how to be quiet and do my duty, and consider my latter end?’

‘Oh, bairn! that you should be such a bairn!’ said Miss Catherine; ‘if it were not for what you’ve gone through, I could find it in my heart to be angry. Twenty years after this you’ll not be so sure that your life is{103} past, nor think so much about your latter end. What is likely is that you have a long life before you; and by and by you’ll marry, as most women do. I don’t say now—you’re thinking of nothing of the kind now; but when due time has past, and you have shown the respect you ought—You may think me heartless to speak so, but I’m not heartless, Isabel.’

‘I cannot understand what you are saying,’ said Isabel. ‘Oh, let me be! I am at home, and among my ain folk. I neither want change nor diversion—nor to be married—nor a new life! If there is one thing I would like, it would be to work late and early and take care of the house. But I am too old to learn lessons now, and I am not old enough to be always thinking about myself.’

‘Perhaps it’s best for the present,’ said Miss Catherine, finally giving in, ‘though I always think when there are changes to be made it is well to make them at once. You think you can go on for ever like this, and you’ll find you are far wrong; but, for the present, my dear, let us talk of other things. Jean will be good to you, I don’t doubt. If I were not concerned for your mother’s daughter, Isabel, and anxious to see you free from all those common folk, I would not speak——’

‘She is very kind to me, and she’s the nearest friend I have now,’ said Isabel; ‘and if she was good enough for my father to marry——’

Miss Catherine shook her head.

‘You are aye your old self,’ she said, ‘trying to provoke me for all the sorrow in your heart. But we’ll say no more on that subject. I would tell you the news of the country-side, if I thought you would care; but if you would not care——’

‘Oh, I do!’ cried Isabel, with a violent, sudden blush. She was ashamed of herself for caring, and angry to think that the country-side should be anything to her in her desolation. ‘I was meaning,’ she continued, timidly, ‘if there’s any news about friends.’

‘Mr. Lothian has been ill, Isabel; that is why he has not been here.’

‘Has he not been here—I did not know,’ said Isabel, with profound and calm indifference. Miss Catherine gazed at her for a whole minute, without moving, her eyes fixed with a wonder beyond words on the inexperienced creature who could thus balk the most artful attempts to draw her into any path she did not choose herself.

‘My dear,’ she said, rising, ‘you do not know all the love that good man wastes on you. Would you have been as careless as that if I had spoken of the lad under his roof? As if the minister was not worth twenty of him! and you not to see it, you foolish, foolish Isabel!{104}’

‘Miss Catherine,’ said Isabel, rising too, with fine youthful gravity and superiority, ‘is it right to speak like that to me, at such a time?’

These last words took away Miss Catherine’s breath. She was lost in amaze at the curious innocent dignity and cunning and utter unconsciousness of Isabel’s self-dependence. She felt herself rebuked by the girl who stood so pale before her, who was so resolute and superior and certain of what she said. Had the circumstances been different, she would have laughed at the na?ve skill with which her attempts were baffled. But it was not a moment to laugh, as Isabel had said.

‘Well, well; you will not hear anything I have to say,’ she said, ‘but there may come a time when you will be glad of my counsel. And when that time comes it shall not be denied you. Come to the House and see me when you’re able, Isabel, for the sake of the past. You need not be afraid. I’ll keep silent and give you no advice.’

‘I will always be thankful for your advice,’ cried the unconscious girl, ‘more thankful than I can tell—for who have I to look to now? I would thank you, on my knees, if ye would always tell me what I ought to do.’

Miss Catherine could not restrain a smile; but Isabel’s earnestness and good faith shone out of her serious eyes.

‘If you bid me counsel you in the general, and then turn away from every single thing I say, how can I help you?’ she said, ‘But, my dear, I’ll not stay now—go out and take some exercise, and do not sit brooding here. Jean will take care of you, and the fresh air will do you good.’

‘I was thinking to take a turn—on the braes—where it’s quiet,’ faltered Isabel. Perhaps she was afraid to meet Miss Catherine’s eye; she swerved aside a little so as not to face her, and paused, and then sought refuge in tears, she could not have told why.

‘Eh, but these bairns are strange creatures,’ Miss Catherine said to herself as she left the cottage. ‘Me to think she would be too broken with her grief to mind what she did. But no! for all so young as she is, as fixed in her ways as if she knew the world from beginning to end like an A B C; going her own gait and thinking her own thoughts, and how to have her own way. And not a fortnight yet since my poor Margaret was laid beneath the sod. These creatures nowadays never know what sorrow means. They think of themselves when we would have broken our hearts. And me that was always so fond of that wilful Bell!’

Isabel had but scarce dried her tears, and composed herself as best she could to her solitary labour once more, when Jean stole in with anxious looks.{105}

‘My lamb,’ she said, ‘there’s the minister coming up the hill. He’s been ill, poor man—and white and wan he looks as I never saw him look before. Will I let him in? It’s better now if you can bear to see him; and, Isabel, if you’re feared for his speaking, I will cry upon the bairns and get out the Book, and he’ll give us a word o’ prayer. I dinna ken what he may think, for he’s newfangled in his ways. But that was aye the practice on such an occasion, as long as I mind. Will I let him in?’

Isabel turned away with a hasty gesture of pain; but she was humbled and penitent, and the solitary parlour looked more solitary, more dreadful than ever to her broken and suffering mind.

‘I do not care who comes,’ she said, with petulance. ‘Let them all come. When they have once been here, and spied upon us how we bear it, maybe they will let us be, and come no more.’

‘Oh, Isabel!’ said Jean, ‘it’s no with that thought the minister comes. You know well what’s in his heart, though he might be your father—and a’ the parish kens.’

For the first time this suggestion was a kind of comfort to the poor girl. She had been feeling so ashamed, so wicked, that there was some balm to her in the thought that all the parish was aware with what feelings she was regarded by the first man in it, and the esteemed of all.

‘Let him come,’ she said, sitting down by the window, where she would have the Loch at least to turn to, away from the reproachful affection in Mr. Lothian’s eyes. ‘If they would but let me alone!’ she said to herself; but in her heart—the impatient, petulant, struggling heart, desired anything rather than to be left alone.

Mr. Lothian came in, looking, as Jean had said, white and wan, yet full of a hushed fever of agitation, with flushes of colour crossing his cheek, as he came up to her, and took into his her half-reluctant hands. Then Nature suddenly, as with a stroke, quenched out all the curiosity that had been in Isabel’s heart. The sight of him woke again the tears in their fountains. She could say nothing to him, but only weep helplessly with her head bowed down, almost choked by the convulsive sob which climbed into her throat. His heart was so melted with love and pity that he laid his hand on her head with half-paternal tenderness.

‘Poor child! poor child!’ he said, bending over her, holding the soft small hand which she no longer thought of withdrawing from him. The sight of her tears was almost more than he could bear.

He was still standing by her when she came to herself, and the first thing that roused Isabel was the instinctive{106} homely politeness which her humble breeding had taught her. As soon as her eyes were so clear of tears that she could see, she would have risen to find a seat for him.

‘Sit still, Isabel,’ he said, ‘I have not come to weary you to-day; I shall not stay. Only one moment, my dear, to tell you—but what can I tell you? you know everything I would say.’

Isabel could make no reply; but somehow on the very borders of that outbreak of her sorrow there came to her the sense that her curiosity was satisfied. The man’s voice, though he was so old, like her father, was eloquent and musical with love.

‘I could not come to you sooner,’ he said, ‘and I have not come now to trouble you with words. It is not the time to speak of what one might wish, or what one might dream. But, my dear, I want you not to forget that there is one heart not far off full of love for you. Not a word—not a word. Isabel, I am asking nothing, my dear. I am going away this minute, as soon as I’ve said what I have to say. Kindness you’ll have in plenty—but love is rare. I thought I would just come and tell you of mine.’

‘Oh, Mr. Lothian, I do not deserve it!’ sobbed poor Isabel.

‘And that there is not a trouble you have, nor a tear you shed, but I would fain bear it for you,’ said the minister; ‘and my thoughts never leave you in your sorrow night or day; that is all. My dear, when you think, you’ll understand. It is not to bribe you to give me anything back—it is but to be a comfort to you.’

‘I do not deserve it,’ Isabel repeated, not knowing what she said.

And then the good man sighed, and laid his hand once more tenderly, reverently, upon her drooping head.

‘I might be your father,’ he said; ‘but I love you. And farewell for this time, my dear. That was all I had to say.’

The next moment it was as a dream to Isabel that he had been there. She cast a timid look round her, and he was gone, and the very sound of his footsteps had already died away from the flags at the door.


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