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CHAPTER XVII

It was some days after this before Isabel actually ventured out upon the braes. One afternoon, standing in the garden, seeing nobody near, a forlorn impulse seized her to visit the birch tree on the braes, which had{107} been so often their trysting-place. Looking up and looking down, the white roads seem to her to extend for miles on every side, without a single passenger upon them. Nobody, then, could criticise or blame her for that sick movement of her heart. Isabel went in softly, feeling her circumstances now too solemn to permit her to run out with a shawl round her as she had once done—and put on her bonnet. And then, with a thrill of excitement, took her way up the hill. Either its steepness or some strange expectation took away her breath. The braes were changed from what they had so lately been. The ferns were crumpled up by the first touch of frost, and tinged yellow. The heather bells were all dry and dead, with the colour and life gone out of them, like so many immortelles. And the turf was wet under Isabel’s feet. The great heather bushes caught her dress, and sprinkled her with showers of rain-drops. She was cold, and her heart sunk within her. Was it maidenly to come and look for him here when he did not seek her? Was it becoming her bereavement to be able now to think of him, to remember anything about the birch, and all the foolish words that had been said under it? She put her arm softly, almost with a sense of guilt, round its silvery stem. There were only young trees on the braes, and this little lady of the woods with its long locks waving, and its graceful, slender stem, was like Isabel. He had said so, moved by the sentiment which sometimes makes the dullest mind poetic. She thought of that as she put her arm round it, and leaned her cheek against the silvery bark. Moved by her touch, the branches dropped a little shower of rain over her. Were they tears? She wept, too, leaning upon her woodland likeness.

‘It is liker me now—far liker me now—for I’m alone! alone!’ said Isabel; and with a pang of exquisite anguish could not tell which she was mourning for—her dead Margaret or her lost love.

But tears will not flow continually, however full the heart may be. They had all dried out of her eyes after a few minutes, and she stood still leaning against the tree, gazing out once more upon that familiar landscape, and wondering if she was to see nothing for ever and ever but the still loch and the roads that stretched away so long and wistful up to the sky on one side, and away to the Clyde on the other, without a living creature upon them to break the stillness—when she heard behind her a rustle as of someone coming. She dared not turn her head to see whom it was, but the sound made her heart thrill and beat with a wild excitement she could not control.{108}

Then, suddenly, an arm was put round her, and a voice sounded in her ear. She had known it must be so. A flood of satisfaction came into her heart. ‘I thought I was never to see him more!’ she said to herself without turning her face to him. But he had come at last, and her mind for the moment required no more.

‘It was a long time before I could make sure that this black figure in a bonnet was you,’ he said, as if they had parted an hour before; ‘I have been gazing and wondering for five minutes who it could be. I ought to have thought of the change of dress.’

Was this all he had to say to her after ‘what had happened?’ Isabel’s heart shrank, with a sense of sudden chill, within her breast.

‘I came out because my heart was sore,’ she faltered. ‘I cannot tell why; I thought I would like to see it again.’

‘Not to see me?’ said Stapylton, coming round where he could see her face.

‘If you had cared for that you might have come before,’ said Isabel, with a little movement of displeasure. How different it was from the conversation she had dreamed of!—the soft words, the tender pity, the assurances of his love.

‘Yes, among all those women that are constantly about you,’ he said, ‘your stepmother, and that old witch Miss Catherine—to see you coddled and kissed and mumbled over! No, Isabel; if I could have had you all to myself, as I have now——’

‘And you never thought. Maybe she wants me sitting there her lane? Oh, Horace! I would not have studied my own pleasure if you had been in trouble.’

‘Well, never mind,’ he said. ‘Of course I am not so good as you are; if I were to show myself so gentle, and patient, and unselfish, it would be taking your r?le. But we must not quarrel now we have met. You are pale, my darling. They have been shutting you up indoors and preaching you to death.’

‘Do you think there is nothing else to make me pale?’ said Isabel, moved once more by a pang of disappointment.

‘Don’t let us speak of that. Why should we dwell on such gloomy subjects?’ said Stapylton. ‘Change of thought is as necessary as change of scene; and, besides, I have other things to tell you of. It is weeks now since I have been able to get near you. Don’t let us be unkind and miserable now that we have met at last.’

Isabel had no answer to make. She was stupified by his tone; and yet how could she, loving him as she did, tell herself that he was heartless? Her startled soul{109} paused and stood still for a moment, and then she said to herself that this must be the way folk thought in England, the custom of the bigger, greater world. No doubt it was only in an out-of-the-way corner like Loch Diarmid that there was time to dwell upon personal grief. She dried her eyes hastily with a furtive hand, and half-upbraided herself with self-indulgence. But she could not reply.

‘I am not very cheerful, either,’ he said. ‘I want you to comfort me, Isabel. I have heard from home since I saw you last, and I have no further excuse to make. I fear I shall have to go away.’

‘To go away!’ cried Isabel, feeling as if the sky had suddenly darkened, and all comfort had gone out of the earth.

‘It is very hard upon me,’ he said, ‘just when I might have had you a little more to myself. But I am not my own master, and the folks at home must be obeyed.’

What could she answer? So much in need of pity, and comfort, and soothing, as she was, so unprepared to encounter any new blow! She gave a little gasp as for breath, leaning again upon the birch-tree. And once more the chill tears from its long drooping branches came down upon them like a shower. Stapylton sprung aside with a little impatience.

‘Hallo!’ he said; ‘mind what you’re about!’ And then, after a pause, ‘Well, it appears you have nothing to say!’

‘What can I say?’ said poor Isabel, shivering with agitation and pain. ‘If you must go, Mr. Stapylton, it cannot matter what I think or what I say.’

‘I knew it would be like that,’ he cried; ‘I knew you would take it as an offence. But, Isabel, look here; I have been dangling after you for more than a year. You are quite willing I should hang about and wait for you here; and perhaps you would let me come down to the cottage and see you, for anything I can tell, now. But as that is all the satisfaction I have ever got, or am likely to get——’

‘What satisfaction would you have?’ said Isabel, under her breath.

‘What satisfaction would I have? that is a charming question to put to me after all that has passed between us. Just look here, Isabel; if it had not been for your ridiculous scruples, think what a different position I should have been in. I’d have written home a penitent letter, saying I was very sorry, and all that, and that I was married, and all about it. There would have been a flare-up, of course; but what could they have done? Whereas, now, what can a fellow say? I cannot moon{110} on here for another six months, or another year, or perhaps more than that. Neither my people, nor anybody’s people, would listen to it for a moment. When I speak plainly you are affected; and yet it is all your own fault.’

‘If I look like that to him, what must I look to other folk?’ Isabel said to herself. Her pride was not roused, but broken down. Even the thought of answering him was absent from her mind. She had to receive the expression of his will; but what could she reply to it? She had nothing to say.

‘So,’ he continued, after a pause. ‘I am to be left to make the best of it, I suppose. You have no answer to give me even now.’

‘You have asked me no question, Mr. Stapylton,’ said Isabel, faintly. ‘You have but found fault with me. It was never my meaning to keep you hanging on, as you say. What you asked me was impossible—then; and if I am aye to be reproached and blamed for what happens, maybe it is best that it should always be impossible. I would not be the one to keep you back—from your own folk—or waste your time—or——’

‘What more?’ said her lover, irritated. ‘Say something more! say you’ve been making game of me all the time. I can believe it. Perhaps that canting hypocrite at Ardnamore would please you better. I hear he was in the cottage not long ago; or the minister——’

Isabel’s heart swelled as if it would burst. She raised her drooping head with what remnants of pride she had left in the utter overthrow of all her strength.

‘I cannot tell,’ she said, with a gasp, ‘what right any man has to say such things to me.’ And she disengaged herself from the birch-tree which had been her prop and support—but softly still, poor child, not to throw upon him the rain with which it was laden—and made a step or two away. Then she paused, finding it hard work to stand alone, and harder work still to restrain the convulsive sobbing which struggled in her breast. ‘If we are to part,’ she said, softly, taking breath between the words, ‘you know best—I am not saying a word; but if we are to part, may not we part friends at least?’

And with a woeful smile she put out her hand to him. She was too weak for pride; she seemed to herself to be dying, too, like Margaret, and dying folk should be kind, she said in her heart. He was but a man, and perhaps knew no better; and she was too much crushed and wounded to be angry. The only anxious desire she had was to be done with this, and to get home to the fire, to feel some sensation of warmth in her once more; and then die.{111}

‘I think you want to drive me mad,’ he said; and then he seized the proffered hand with sudden haste, and drew her almost roughly to him. ‘This is a woman’s way of doing things, I suppose,’ he said, ‘but not mine—crying; you seem to me to do nothing but cry. Look here, once for all, Isabel, you had a reason before, but you have none now. Will you come with me now?’

‘Where?’ she said, in a whisper, not having breath enough or heart enough either for resistance or utterance.

‘Where? what does it matter where? It might be here for anything I care; but all this ridiculous set would object, and there would be time lost, and the news would be sent home. Come with me now—come to-morrow. What does it matter? You have no invalid to keep you back. What! offended again? How is a plain man to understand all your fancies? If you like to be gloomy and cry I can’t help it, Isabel; but what is the good of dwelling on the past? You did all you could be expected to do, and more. Surely you may think of yourself now.’

‘It is you that does not understand,’ said Isabel, with a sudden movement of indignation, withdrawing from him. ‘What can I say that will make you understand?’

‘I don’t want to understand!’ he cried. ‘Come, Isabel, don’t keep me in pain. If you’ll meet me here to-morrow I’ll arrange everything to-night. We’ll go to Kilcranion and get the steamer there, and reach either Glasgow or Edinburgh in the evening. Isabel! no, you shan’t go away! You can leave a note for your stepmother. Surely, I am more to you than she is. You will make me happy, and make everything possible. It is best to write and tell them after it is done. We’ll go and see everything together; and you never were out of your parish before. Isabel, it will bring back the roses to your cheeks again.’

He held her hand, though she struggled away from him, and bent forward gazing into her face. Isabel’s pale cheeks grew crimson with a violent blush; all at once life and force and strength seemed to pour back into her heart with this wild temptation which shook her to the very depth of her being. The stream had sunk so low that this sudden tide swelled all her veins to bursting, and brought noises to her ears, the sound of awakening, confused hum and buzz of every pulse, of her breathing and her heart. Escape out of this grey atmosphere into the ideal light—out of this chill into the warmth of love—out of this stillness into movement and music and sunshine, and all the stir of common life. But again with equal suddenness a sense of the chill, the grey landscape, the falling night, the heavy evening{112} dew came back to her, quenching out the light and stilling the sounds. She uttered a heavy sigh, she clasped her hands together as if relinquishing all outside aid. ‘And Margaret not three weeks in her grave!’ That was all she could find to say.

‘What has that to do with it?’ said Stapylton, ‘you sacrificed yourself to her when she was living—and are you to make no use of your freedom now she is dead? She can’t feel it now: what will it matter to her whether you are here or with me? You are free now; go where you like, it can’t affect her any more.’

He had taken her hand again, but she wrung it out of his almost with violence; a dull flush came over her of nervous passion. ‘You neither understand her nor me,’ she said, with a pang in her heart. ‘Oh, how dare you speak—how dare you speak?’ and in her anger she stamped her foot upon the yielding turf.

‘Now I’ll tell you what, Isabel,’ he said, ‘I am not to be trifled with any more. It must be made an end of one way or another. The steamer leaves Kilcranion at three——’

‘It shall be made an end of,’ cried Isabel, ‘when you can speak to me like that in my trouble—when you can speak of her like that—oh, say no more! It shows me you do not know what love means—not what it means. I bade you farewell, and you would not take it—but now I say, Go, Mr. Stapylton, go! You have said enough—oh, too much, too much! I cannot bear it. Free! and nothing to her! O man, man, have ye a heart within ye? and can you think I would be glad of that?’

‘I can’t speak your cant,’ cried Stapylton. ‘Isabel! this is the last attempt I will ever make——’

He followed her as he spoke, for she had turned from him, making her way towards the highroad. For a few minutes he went on with her, keeping close by her side, speaking rapidly.

‘This is the last time I will speak. The steamer leaves Kilcranion at three; I will be here waiting for you at two o’clock. I will take every precaution, and make every arrangement. Think it over, Isabel, you never made such an important decision. If you do not come to me at two to-morrow we may never meet more in our lives.’

She stopped and stood gazing at him as he came to this conclusion. For his part he had grown pale and breathless with excitement. He looked at her menacingly from beneath his lowering brows. ‘Never in our lives if not to-morrow!’ he repeated, looking intently in her eyes as if to look her down.

But Isabel was roused, too; she met his eyes without{113} flinching, though every particle of colour had left her face.

‘You threaten me!’ she said, with unconscious scorn. ‘If it was me, I would go to the end of the earth for one I loved—not frown at her, and break her heart to do a thing that’s impossible. Oh, how could you ask me to do it? It will have to be never—never! if that is your last word——’

And even then poor Isabel’s maidenly soul was so faithful, so incapable of believing he could mean the cruel things he said, that her eyes grew wistful and woeful looking at him, for one final moment appealing still.

‘I will wait for you all the same,’ he said, with a half-laugh. ‘When you think it all over, you’ll change your mind. At two o’clock I will be here.’

For yet one more moment they stood confronting each other; he with a smile of affected calmness; she with a gaze that gradually clouded into despair. Then she turned with a little wave of her hand, and left him. He did not attempt to follow. He stood on the same spot watching her as she wound her way through the heather. Once or twice he moved a step in the same direction as if to go after her, but immediately stopped himself.

‘If I give in now all’s lost,’ he said to himself, trying to force his lips into a cheerless whistle. ‘She’ll have thought better of it before to-morrow,’ he said unconsciously aloud. After all, a sister is only a sister, a sort of secondary relationship in life. What girl (he thought) would lose a husband for the sake of a dead woman who could interfere with her comfort no more? ‘She’ll think better of it,’ he repeated to himself in his heart.


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