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CHAPTER XXI
While all this had been going on at the Glebe, a drama of a different kind was evolving itself among scenes of strange devotion, and plans as wild as enthusiast ever formed, at the other corner of the Loch. Mr. John’s madness had come to a height on the night of Margaret’s death. The sudden announcement of that event falling on him at a moment when he had already worked himself into a kind of frenzy, had brought to a climax this supreme crisis of his being. He went away from Ailie’s cottage, vaguely wandering across the gloomy moor to the Glebe, and throwing himself down{130} there on the wet heather, watched through the starless, solitary night within sight of the melancholy house which held his dead love.

The result of this terrible watch was an illness against which he fought with feverish passion, never resting nor stopping one of his ordinary occupations. He was in the churchyard on the day of Margaret’s funeral, shivering and burning, and scarcely able to sustain himself, but keeping up by force of will, grasping at the cold tombstones, stopping the melancholy train, as it dispersed, to hear ‘the word of the Lord.’

‘You have closed her up in her grave,’ he cried, his voice hoarse with sickness and passion; ‘but when He comes, think you, your green turf and your cold stones will hide His saint from giving Him a welcome.’

‘Come home! come home!’ said the minister, approaching the haggard prophet, with a compassion, in which there was some touch of fellow feeling, ‘you are too ill to be out of your bed, much less here.’

‘By God’s grace I will never yield to what you call illness,’ said Mr. John; ‘is it for me to rest and let them leave the place where they have laid her, with hearts like stones in their bosoms? Is she to have lived—and is she to die, in vain?’

‘Mr. John, this is worse than folly,’ said Mr. Lothian; ‘no one here will let Margaret’s dear name be made an occasion of strife. For her sake, go home and take thought, and rest.’

‘For her sake, I will rest no more till He comes, or till I die,’ cried the inspired madman: ‘but I shall not die, I will live and declare the works of the Lord.’

There were many of the wondering party thus accosted who believed that Mr. John had been betrayed by his grief into a new vice, the most common failing of the country-side. ‘He’s been drinking,’ they said among themselves: ‘puir fellow!—to make him forget.’ ‘Na, na, it’s no drink, it’s grief,’ said others. ‘And wha are ye that speak like them in Jerusalem,’ cried a third party, ’"they’re drunk with new wine,” when it was the Spirit of the Lord?’

And then, a few days later, it became known in the parish that he had bidden Ailie Macfarlane in the name of God to become his wife, and excitement rose very high on Loch Diarmid. Something in the passionate, haggard face, which looked like that of a man on the point of death, and yet was to be seen more than ever at kirk and market, awed the common mind and threw a certain light of reality upon those desperate and tragic motives which had led him to such a proposal.

{131}

‘He’s lost Margret for this world; and now he thinks to force the Lord to come afore His ain time and get her back,’ said Jenny Spence.

‘And Ailie—poor thing!—is to be his tool that he’ll work with. I see his meaning—a’ his meaning, as clear as daylight. He’s out o’ his wits about Margret Diarmid; and he’s ta’en to the drink for consolation,’ said another gossip, ‘and he hasna strength to stand it. It’ll be his death, and that you’ll see.’

Poor Ailie, however, on her side, was of a very different mind. When ‘the word of the Lord’ had burst upon her on that night of Margaret’s death, her very heart had failed in dismay and consternation. She had implicitly believed all that had been revealed to herself of her own mission, and was ready to set out at any moment without staff or scrip, with all the simplicity of a child. But her faith failed her when Mr. John’s strange proposal fell on her ear. ‘Is this a time for marrying or giving in marriage?’ she asked, with something like indignation, when, with infinitely greater vehemence, he renewed his commands to her as the handmaid of the Lord. ‘Is not the time of His appearing near? and are we to be burdened with earthly ties and earthly troubles when the Lord comes to His ain work? Oh, man! I’m no made to be ony man’s helpmeet. There are plenty round you that are better for that; it’s my meat and my drink to serve God. I couldna think of the flesh to please my husband, but of the Spirit to please the Lord.’

‘And yet you contradict His Spirit and refuse His message,’ said Mr. John, ‘which I brought to you out of the darkness of the night—out of a mind rent and torn with pain, not lightly, or with common thoughts, but from His presence. Will you please Him by rejecting His word?’

‘But it might be a lying spirit,’ said Ailie. ‘It might be to tempt us—as if you and me had need of alliance in the flesh.’

‘We have need of alliance for the work,’ he said, with his great, heavy, passionate eyes fixed upon her. ‘Men have gone before, but never man and woman. The Lord has said to me, Go in to the prophetess. Fear not to take unto thee thy wife. If you disobey, the sin be upon your head.’

‘But it has never been revealed to me,’ cried Ailie, her cheeks crimsoning with shame, and whitening with terror. ‘When there have been messages concerning this life, they have been revealed to them that were to profit, and no to another. And in the mouth of two or three is every testimony to be established. If the word comes to me I’ll no resist the Lord.{132}’

‘The head of the woman is her husband,’ said Mr. John, loftily, ‘it is the sign of God’s will towards you. If you are to be given to me, your instructions, your directions, must come through my hands. It is to me it is revealed, for I am the head. Listen to the Lord’s voice. Want of faith has laid one head low that should have shone above us all. Will you let it overcome you now that have triumphed in your time? Ailie, beware! The blasphemy that cannot be pardoned, and the sin that may not be forgiven, is the sin against the Holy Ghost.’

‘But I canna see it! I canna see it!’ cried poor Ailie, bursting into tears. Her dignity seemed to have deserted her, and all her spiritual gifts. She kept indoors, shut up in her room, spending her time in feverish prayers and divinations from the Bible. ‘I will do what the Lord wills,’ she said to herself and others twenty times in a day; but when any text which seemed to favour Mr. John’s cause caught her eye on opening ‘the Book,’ she would shut it again hastily, and try again, without any acknowledgment. All her partizans, and indeed the entire parish, took an interest in the question which no previous features in the movement had elicited to such an extent. The matter was discussed everywhere, involving as it did the interest of a personal romance along with the intense charm of the religious excitement, and calling forth a hundred different opinions. There were some who thought that Ailie—‘set her up!’—had won what she aimed at in making herself so conspicuous, and that her reluctance was pretence. And there were some who, without going so far, still felt that the promotion of a gentleman’s hand thus offered to her, was enough to make the prophetess forget her calling. Miss Catherine, who was of a sceptical mind, and had never given in to Ailie’s pretensions, was so much moved by her kinsman’s madness, that it almost broke down the barrier which had divided them since the time when Mr. John’s evil ways had finally closed her doors against him. She even hesitated at the church-door whether she would not pause and accost him, and see what reason could do to turn him from his fatal intention; but was deterred by the haggard look, the watery bloodshot eyes, the parched and feverish lips, which struck her like a revelation. ‘I understand it all now,’ she said, so much agitated by the supposed discovery, that she went in tremulous to the Manse, to recover herself. ‘It is not a common failing among us Diarmids of the old stock—but that accounts for everything. And as for arguing with a man in that state——’

‘You mistake,’ said the minister; ‘indeed you mistake.’

Miss Catherine shook her head. ‘Well I know the{133} signs of it,’ she said; ‘it is not a failing of the race, but when it comes it is all the worse for that. The unhappy lad! One would think that the words of Scripture came true, and that such a man was delivered over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.’

‘He has been wrong, no doubt; but not in that way,’ said Mr. Lothian. ‘It is grief—despair if you like; and all this excitement, and agitation, and sickness, which he will not give in to—but not what you suppose.’

Once more Miss Catherine shook her head. ‘He is but a distant cousin, thank God,’ she said to herself. But yet he was related nearly enough to throw upon the house of Lochhead a certain share of the responsibility. ‘I am glad his poor mother is safe in her grave,’ she added; ‘ye preach, and ye preach, you ministers, but ye never will persuade the young what a weary wilderness this world is, nor the old that there’s anything but tribulation and sorrow in it. Will ye marry them when all is done and said?’

This question was asked so abruptly, that Mr. Lothian was startled. ‘Marry whom?’ he asked.

‘Those I am speaking of: John Diarmid and that lass. Is it a thing you can bless, you that are an honest man, and know your duty, and have some experience in this world?’

‘My dear Miss Catherine,’ said the minister, ‘you have too much experience yourself not to know that if they’ve made up their minds it will make little difference what I do or what I think. I have no right to say they are not to marry if they please.’

‘No; I wish you had,’ said Miss Catherine, rising: ‘and I wish there was some kind of a real government, or some control, that men should not be left to make fools of themselves and put shame upon an old name whenever they please.’

‘She is not his equal,’ said Mr. Lothian, ‘but there is no shame.’

Miss Catherine marched out of the Manse gates strenuously shaking her head. ‘A lass that has preached and prayed and ranted in a public place!’ she said, with a mixture of lofty indignation and contempt, shaking out her great shawl and rustling her silk gown, so that the minister felt himself buried and lost in their shadow. And she continued to shake her head as she went majestically alone down the slope and took her way home through the village.

When the minister was left by himself at his own gate a sudden impulse seized him to interfere in this delicate matter; or perhaps not to interfere—but at least to exercise that privilege of curiosity or interest which a{134} clergyman, like a woman, is permitted to feel. He went up the brae towards the little line of cottages where Ailie lived, with kindness in his heart to the visionary girl, notwithstanding all her recent denunciations of his lukewarmness and interference with his business. Half way up, he met Mr. John coming down in his rapid, excited, breathless way. The two men paused and came to a stop opposite to each other, without for the first moment any attempt to speak. Mr. Lothian was half alarmed when he saw the ravages which so short a time had wrought on the enthusiast’s face. He himself looked young and ruddy beside John Diarmid, who must have been at least a dozen years his junior. There were deep lines under his eyes and about his haggard mouth; his cheeks were hollow, his eyes seemed increased in size as well as in fire; and a beard, a wonder in those days, the only symptom by which he had betrayed the languor of the fever which had been consuming him, covered the lower part of his face. This beard had been visible at church that morning for the first time to the general public, and the parish had involuntarily looked with distrust upon its prophet when they saw that symptom of eccentricity on his chin. But Mr. Lothian was not so easily shocked. Nevertheless, it was Mr. John who was the first to speak.

‘You will soon be free of us,’ he said, in his deep voice; ‘the time of the visitation of Loch Diarmid is nearly at an end. Him that is unworthy let him be unworthy still. We’ll hand them back to you and your sermons. A greater work is opening before us now.’

‘If you will tell me what it is, I will be glad,’ said Mr. Lothian. ‘I have heard, but vaguely. Where are you going? and with whom? and to whom? You are not a villager, like the rest, Mr. John, but know the world.’

‘I have bought my knowledge dear,’ he said; ‘but I’ve offered it all up on the altar with the rest. I make no stand on my knowledge of the world. Henceforward we know no man after the flesh. I answer you, we are going to the world; the Lord will direct us where.’

‘But will you start,’ cried the minister, ‘and with a young woman unused to such fatigue on no better indication than that?’

‘The same indication that Israel had—the pillar of cloud by day and the banner of light by night. But I cannot discuss it with a carnal mind. The Lord will direct where we are to go.’

‘And that is all?’

‘That is all; if you had fathomed Heaven and earth, could you know more than that, or have a guidance more sure?{135}’

‘Mr. John,’ said Mr. Lothian, with a certain impatience; ‘you know so much better than the rest. Whatever they take into their heads they will believe in: but you, who are a man of the world——’

Mr. John gave a sweep of his hand as if it were to say, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan,’ and passed his questioner. ‘I am the servant of the Lord,’ he said. There was in the man’s look, in his nervous movements, in the extraordinary absorbed expression of his face, such a sense of the reality of his extraordinary purpose that the minister found not another word to say. He paused and looked after the wayfarer making his way, absorbed and intent upon his own thoughts, down the hill. It was no vulgar enthusiasm at which a man of higher training might smile. By whatsoever process Mr. John had arrived at it—whether it was all honest throughout, or if there had been any deception to begin with, it was sufficiently true now. He at least believed in his own mission. Mr. Lothian turned and continued his way with a sigh. There is something in such fervour of conviction which moves the mature, experienced man of thought to a certain envy. No inducement in the world could have moved the minister to such straightforward, downright belief in any mission of reformation. ‘Therefore, I will never move a multitude,’ he said to himself, ‘and who knows——’

Who knows? I am a fool for Christ’s sake, said Paul who was no fool. Was not there something divine in the conviction, even if that were all?

When the minister reached the cottages on the brae, the first thing that caught his eye was Ailie standing at the open door, her face contracted as if with pain, and her hands clasped fast in each other with a certain beseeching gesture like a silent prayer. There was no conviction in Ailie’s face. In the Sabbath quiet, when all the world had retired into their houses, the prophetess stood—‘as if it was an every-day,’ her mother said, who felt the dereliction keenly—at the open door. The girl’s face was full of doubt and trouble and nervous disquietude. The man who claimed to share her fate had just left her. He had been fulminating into her ear once more ‘the message of the Lord.’ He had upbraided her for her doubt, her love which was failing from the love of espousals, her strength which was growing weary in the way. ‘That lack of faith with which she had reproached Margaret Diarmid was now imputed to herself. And Mr. John had left the prophetess who was to him ‘the sister, the wife,’ of apostolic precedent, quivering all over with{136} wounded pride and feeling. Poor Ailie did not know it was pride. She believed it was the tenderness of conscience, the tenderness of heart, which could not bear to feel itself guilty of the ingratitude imputed to her. But she was sore and wounded, not knowing how to bear it, fighting blindly against what it was more and more evident must be the will of God and her fate.

‘Ailie!’ said Mr. Lothian, looking at her with kind, fatherly eyes. It was true he was Isabel’s lover, strange even to himself as such a position was; but in presence of every other woman in the world, he was a man growing old, a man calm and sobered, fully sensible of his age. ‘Ailie, I have come to ask for you, though it is long since I have seen you of your own will. You have higher pretensions nowadays; but still you are one of my flock——’

Ailie lifted upon him her lucid, visionary eyes which were full of a certain despair. ‘Oh, aye, oh, aye!’ she said; ‘I’m but one of the flock. I thought I had the Spirit of the Lord. But the oracle’s dumb and the books are closed. Oh, minister, you’re no a man of light, but I think in your heart you’re a man of God. If you were required to walk in a new path, and had nae instruction given to your ain soul, what would ye do—what would ye do?’

Mr. Lothian was brought to a stand-still by the eagerness in her eyes, and the pathos in her voice. He was in earnest, it is true, in wishing her well, and yet in pursuing his own religious way. But he was not in such deadly earnest as this. It was not a matter of life and death to him to come to a certain conclusion on any one point that remained to be considered in life. And in the calm of his age he could scarcely understand the young creature’s passionate eagerness. He faltered a little in his answer. ‘Ailie,’ he said, as any other man of his years would have done, ‘I would consider which was best.’

Ailie, who had been gazing wistfully at him, as if with some new hope, turned away her head suddenly, throwing up her hands with an expression of despair. ‘The best!’ she cried; ‘God’s way is aefold, and no many. His will is one, and has to be done. Oh, ye that think ye can shift and dally to please Him this way or that way. Am I asking which is best? Can ye no wake out of your sloth and open the eyes of your spirit and tell me what’s the will of God?’

She had expected no answer, and indeed turned from him leaning her head against the portal of the humble door. But the minister felt himself called upon to speak.{137}

‘Nature is God’s servant as well as you and me,’ he said, ‘and Nature is speaking against this, Ailie—speaking loud. Whatsoever leads ye from your natural duties and affection, you may be sure is not the will of God.’

Ailie raised her head and looked at him, wondering beyond expression to find herself so admonished. ‘I’ve nae duties but to follow God’s will,’ she said; ‘to follow Him to the end of the earth. Oh, if I could but open the way of the Lord to you and the like of you. Nature’s but a poor handmaid of His grace, no a mistress nor a guide. Oh, man, with your grey head, that should ken what God’s service is, how can you speak of nature to me?’

‘And what if it were that you wanted to consider above all else?’ said the minister, laying his kind hand on her shoulder. Ailie put him aside without a word. A little shudder seemed to run through her at his touch. If it was her ecstasy that was coming upon her, or if it was merely a movement of the nature which she defied, Mr. Lothian could not tell; but she passed him thus, taking no further notice, and glided across the road like a ghost to the heathery braes which stretched away into the distance.

‘As if it were but an every-day,’ said her mother, who appeared in the passage behind, ready to pour out a flood of troubles into the minister’s ear. The Sabbath-day was a more rigorous institution in Scotland then than now, and the inhabitants of the surrounding cottages, most of whom would have considered a Sunday walk, which was not a work of necessity, to be something like a crime, looked on perturbed, and not knowing what to make of it, when Ailie, thus driven by the intensity of her feelings, sought solitude and counsel on the hill.

‘There’s Ailie away across the braes,’ cried a weary young prisoner in one of the neighbours’ houses. ‘It canna be a sin. Oh, let me go too!’

‘Are ye a prophet of the Lord like Ailie?’ said the mother with fierce contempt. The Holy Maid was above those laws which weighed so rigorously upon ‘common folk.’


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