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CHAPTER XVIII

Isabel went softly down the hill in a concentrated calm, such as only excitement knows. There was a vague, indescribable force in her; a flush of hysterical strength, an exaltation of feeling and bearing and step. Jamie had been sent out by his mother to look for her, and met her some hundred yards from the cottage, stopped short, amazed by her looks, ‘Oh! Isabel, what is it?’ he cried; but Isabel swept past him unaware of his presence. She went in through the parlour to the innermost retirement of her own room, and there sat down to think; but she was not capable of thought. She sat down with her bonnet and shawl still on by the side of the bed on which her sister had lain in the last silence{114} of death, and leaned her head against the chill pillow to still and calm herself.

It was thus that Jean found her half an hour later, when, having heard Jamie’s report of Isabel’s return, she went to seek her wayward charge. Jean’s first glance informed her that the crape on her stepdaughter’s dress was limp, and spoiled with the damp, and that her feet were wet.

‘Oh! Isabel, my bonnie woman, it’s no good for you. You’ve been in the kirkyard again,’ cried Jean putting her apron to her eyes. She could make nothing of the cry, ‘Oh! no, no, not there,’ that came from Isabel’s white lips. Where could she have been but at the grave? It was perhaps a little hard that she should deny it, as if Jean could not enter into her feelings; but no doubt it was natural. Jean took the forlorn creature into her motherly arms.

‘Come ben to the fire, my lamb,’ she said, ‘your crape’s damp and a’ ruined, and your feet are as wet as the moss itself. I canna have ye ill to break my heart. My darlin’, put off your bonnet and come ben to the fire. I’ll change your feet and make ye a cup of tea. Oh, Isabel! it’s an awfu’ loss and an awfu’ trial—but ye maun mind, it’s God’s will and canna be wrong.’

Isabel turned away from her with a cry of despair, which Jean misunderstanding set down but to the renewed vehemence of grief rekindled to its fullest by the melancholy visit which she supposed her stepdaughter to have just paid. When she got her at last into her own elbow-chair by the kitchen fire, and knelt before her chafing the girl’s little white feet in her rough but kindly hands, ‘Isabel, my bonnie woman, you must promise me no to go again,’ she said, surrounding her with kindly ministrations.

‘Oh, let me be!’ sobbed Isabel, ‘let me be;’ and sighing, Jean left her in her own especial sanctuary, by the warm light of the kitchen fire. Unawares her eyes closed, her hands, which had been strained together with a painful pressure, unclasped, her head fell softly back upon the blue and white covering of the high-backed chair. Jean was so moved by the sight when she returned into the kitchen, coming and going at her work, that she turned even little Mary, just coming home from school, out of the darkling place. ‘Can ye no see that Isabel’s sleeping?’ she said sharply to her own flesh and blood.

‘But, oh, what makes her sleep in the day?’ said Mary, following into the parlour with a frightened face, ‘Is she to die too like Margaret?’ and big tears sprang to the child’s eyes.{115}

‘The Lord forbid!’ said Jean, ‘but, whisht now, and be as quiet as a mouse—she’s worn, and wearied, and grieved at her heart. When ane ‘s in sair trouble sleep is sweet.’

‘I wonder if she ay dreams of Margaret like me,’ said little Mary. ‘Eh, mother, Margaret comes and stands by my bed every night!’

‘Oh, bairn, whisht, and no break my heart!’ cried Jean, uneasily. ‘Ye were ay the one for dreams.’

‘But I’m no feared,’ said little Mary, ‘whiles she speaks, but I never can mind what she says. It’s just the same to me as if she was living. Then I used to see her a’ day, and now I see her a’ night—and she has ay light round like an angel out of Heaven.’

‘Oh, whisht, with your dreams!’ cried the mother with a tone of anger, which belied the sudden tremor in her heart. ‘Have ye nae lessons to learn like Jamie? He’s away on the braes, the poor callant! with his book.’

‘He’s making a whistle out of a rowan-tree branch,’ said Mary; ‘I cried upon him as I passed, but he wouldna come in, and he’ll cut his fingers, for it’s getting dark.’

‘Eh me, he’s an awfu’ laddie!’ said poor Jean, rushing to the door. What with her precocious daughter, and her backward son, and Isabel whose heart it was so hard to keep, she had, as she herself expressed it, ‘a bonnie handful.’ But fortunately the one anxiety kept the other in check, and uneasiness about the cutting of Jamie’s fingers dulled in her mind the painful impression of Mary’s dreams; and then night fell, and the children came in, and Isabel awoke to a sense of warmth and comfort. She did not even propose to retire into her dignity in the parlour, but stayed in the elbow-chair, and even smiled as she had scarcely done before. She was glad to take refuge among them—glad to avoid the inevitable encounter with her own thoughts; and indeed her mind had taken refuge in a kind of insensibility. She had felt so much that for the moment she could feel no more.

Thus it was that Isabel did not return to the events of the afternoon during the whole course of the night. The emotions that had been so strong in her seemed to have been somehow lulled to sleep. She made an ineffectual attempt to recall them when she went to her own room, but fatigue and sleep got the better of her. A curious sense of escape came over her. She had expected to be rent asunder with indignation, and that madness which devours the mind when we are wroth with those we love. A hundred terrible questions had seemed on the eve of sweeping down upon her like so many birds of prey to be resolved and settled in a moment. And yet{116} nothing of the kind had happened: instead, a soft insensibility had crept over her mind. She was too weary for anything; and slept, like a tired child, quieted and composed and wrapped in physical warmth and consolation.

These were her feelings when she fell asleep. But Isabel awoke, in the middle of the night, as she thought, in the deep darkness and stillness, broad awake in a second, without any twilight interval between the deep blank of repose and the tremendous struggle of existence.

She turned from side to side in her weary bed, sometimes hoping that out of the gloom there might reveal itself a sudden figure, all blazing with awful brightness, to show her what was needful to be done—counting the steadfast, unbroken, terrible tickings of the clock, feeling the darkness affect her, a thing which weighed down her eyes and oppressed her soul. When the first shade of grey trembled into the dusk, it was to Isabel as a messenger from Heaven. Her heart bounded up with a sense of relief; and as the dawn grew, revealing in a mist the whitening hill-side, and the reflections in the Loch, she found it possible to sleep again and forget her troubles. She fell into a heavy slumber, which still lasted when Jean came softly into the room to rouse her.

‘I dinna like thae long sleeps,’ Jean said to herself, with a sudden pang: ‘Eh, if she should gang too, like Margret!’ and stood by the bedside reluctant to awake her, gazing at the sleeper’s pale face, at the unconscious knitting of her brows, and tremulous movements of her hand. She grew more and more anxious as the morning advanced, and Isabel, trained in the habit of early rising, never woke. The good woman stole repeatedly to her stepdaughter’s bedside, laying her hand softly on Isabel’s forehead, and touching the white arm which lay on the coverlet to discover whether she was feverish. When she opened her eyes at last, Jean was gazing at her with an anxiety which she did her best to dissimulate as soon as she perceived that Isabel was awake.

‘I thought you were never to wake mair,’ she said, with attempted playfulness. ‘Lazy thing! It’s ten o’clock in the day, and half the work of the house done. But, now you’re so late, bide a wee longer, and I’ll bring you your tea.’

‘But I am quite well,’ said Isabel, raising herself with a little start.

‘I canna think it, or you wouldna sleep like that,’ said Jean. ‘You, that were never lazy in the morning. You’ve gotten cauld on the braes.’

Jean did not know what meaning there could be in her words which brought that cloud on her stepdaughte{117}r’s face. She looked at her very anxiously, but could make nothing of it.

‘I shouldna have said a word of where ye were,’ she exclaimed, with sudden compunction. ‘It’s me that’s a thoughtless body, never minding. But we must submit to God’s will, my bonnie woman; and I’ll go, and bring ye your tea.’

‘This will never do,’ Jean said to herself, as she left the room. It will never do. She must have some change. I’ll go and speak to Miss Catherine about it this very day.’ And when she went back, with the tea on a little tray, the suggestion framed itself into speech. ‘What would ye say to going to Edinburgh, and seeing a’ the sights? But—eh! bless me, is the lassie daft?’ cried Jean, thunderstruck by the effect of her words.

‘I will not listen to you,’ said Isabel, with sudden passion. ‘Never! Go to Edinburgh! How dare ye put such things in my head? Go away, and play myself, and be happy—and my Margaret not three weeks in her grave!’

‘My bonnie lamb!’ said Jean, with streaming eyes. ‘To see you happy—or if no happy, a wee cheerful—taking some good of your life—Margret would have given half hers. Do you think she’s mair selfish, mair hard, no so thoughtful now?’

Isabel could but gasp at her with startled, wondering eyes. Was Jean, too, pleading for him? Was she taking his part consciously or unconsciously? She put away the food her stepmother had brought her, with nervous, trembling hands.

‘I cannot lie here,’ she said. ‘I am quite well. Let me get up, and then I will know what to do.’

‘Lie still, my dear,’ said Jean, anxiously. ‘You’ve been waking through the night, and greetin’ sore; and you’ve got cauld on the wet grass. Lie still this day, and rest.’

‘But I cannot rest,’ said Isabel. ‘I cannot breathe. My heart is like as if it were bound with an iron band. I want to rise, and to get the air.’

‘Nae air the day except the air from the window,’ said Jean. ‘I can be positive, too. Na, na; I have the charge of you, and decline’s in the family. You shanna cross the door this day.’

Isabel fell back on her pillow with the strangest sense of relief. She, who had never yielded to her stepmother in her life, felt a certain consolation in this exercise of authority.

‘It is not as if it was my own doing,’ she thought in herself, and kept still, satisfied for the moment with her relief from all responsibility. The manner in which she{118} subsided into sudden listlessness and quiet frightened Jean still more. Had it been anyone else, she might have accepted it as the result of natural weakness or weariness, but nothing of the kind had ever been seen before in wilful Isabel. Nor did it last long. When Jean returned, an hour later, her charge was again struggling with excitement.

‘I am going to get up,’ she said, with two brilliant spots of colour on her cheeks. ‘I feel as if I were in my grave here. I must get out to the fresh air!’

Jean’s answer was to draw away the curtain from the window. Then Isabel saw, looking out on the hill-side, the falling of the noiseless rain. It was no white violent blast with actual colour and solidity, but the fine impalpable dropping which penetrates through every covering, and which the experienced West Highlander looks at with hopeless eyes. ‘To gan out into that wet would be as much as your life is worth,’ said Jean, solemnly. ‘The braes are nae better than a shaking moss, and the roads are running like burns. It’s an awfu’ saft day. Ye may get up and sit by the fire, but across the door ye’ll no go, or else you’ll quarrel with me.’

This time it was with a kind of despair that Isabel listened. He would never think of it—he could not expect her, nor would he go himself on such a day. His departure would be put off, and with it the crisis, and time would be left to think. A little time to think, even an hour more she felt would be something gained. She had another moment of tranquility, gazing out from where she lay through the low window, upon the melancholy braes.

After a temporary lull, however, her fever returned. This time she rose and dressed herself hastily, putting on, in a half-dream, not her new ‘mourning,’ with the crape on it, but a thick winter dress, black enough to indicate any depths of sorrow. Always like a walker in a dream—that was the only explanation she could have given of her own feelings. Clothed for her journey, yet without any intention of taking the journey, she wandered drearily about her sister’s room. One o’clock, struck by the solemn eight-day clock, which gave a kind of mechanical soul to the house, knelled upon Isabel’s ear, as she held her white trembling hands over the fire. It shook her like a convulsion of nature. But one hour more—and all to be decided in that hour—and her mind no nearer the solution, scarcely so near as last night.

‘You’re looking real weakly, my dear,’ said Jean; ‘shaking like a leaf. I’m no sure you should have risen out of your bed. Take this shawl round you, and I’ll give you some broth to warm you. You’ve eaten nothing the whole day.’

‘I could not eat!’ said Isabel, wrapping round her with a shiver the soft warm shawl. Tick, tick, tick! Would nothing arrest these inexorable moments? As they went on her thoughts seemed to rise round her like a whirlwind sweeping about and about her bewildered soul; every beat brought nearer to her the last moment when her fate should still be in her own power. And yet she was like one paralysed, and could not move. The minutes pressed and trod upon each other’s heels, and yet were so slow in their confused procession, that it might have been an age instead of an hour. At last, while Isabel sat striving to break the spell which bound her, the door flew open and then closed violently after Jamie rushing in wet and muddy from school.

‘It’s no raining now!’ cried the boy as he dashed forward to the side of the fire. Isabel started as if a shot had struck her. Just then the clock gave its little whirr of warning that it was about to strike the hour. She sprang up to her feet with a sudden cry—then sank down again—her pale head falling back against the chair, her hands falling listless on its arms. Jean, rushing to her, believed for the first moment that Isabel was dead. She was as one dead, her eyes half-closed and ghastly; her colour completely gone; her very lips deserted of all colour. The struggle had been too much for her. She lay insensible in a dead faint before her stepmother’s affrighted eyes.


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