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CHAPTER XXII
Ailie went forth, not to seek counsel of flesh and blood, but to lay, as she would have said, her ‘burden before the Lord.’ Her eyes were bent upon the ground, for her heart was heavy; her mind was full of a wandering chaos of thoughts, through which she sought in vain for{138} anything which she could take as an indication of the will of God.

The braes lay lonely under the faint occasional glimpses of a watery sun. It was Sabbath all over the silent country; something exceptionally still marked the exceptional day. The little steamer that fumed and fretted up the Loch every afternoon about this hour was of course invisible, and so were the boats which for use or pleasure dotted the water on week-days, and added one characteristic sound to the usual noises. The people going home from church had all disappeared. Nothing moved except the blue smoke from the cottage-roofs, and sometimes a shy rabbit or invisible wild creature among the high heather. And yet by and by even Ailie, absorbed as she was, became aware that she was not the only wanderer on the hill-side. Under the birch-tree, someone sat crouched together, whose heart was full, like her own, of many thoughts. There was but one creature on the Loch who was likely to seek such a hermitage. Perhaps had Ailie’s thoughts been at their usual strain she would never have remarked her companion; but earthly things had come in to confuse the current of her imagination; and a certain sense of companionship, and even of possible help, came to her. ‘She’s but a simple thing,’ was her first idea, and then, ‘She’s Margret’s sister,’ the young enthusiast added to herself. Ah, blessed Margaret! maiden Margaret! whom Ailie had striven to keep out of that quiet, sheltering grave and to deliver to all those cares of life which for the first time had now come upon herself. She drew close to Margaret’s sister with a faint throb of expectation. ‘Am I to judge whence the word may come?’ she said to herself. ‘Is it not out of the mouths of babes and sucklings that He perfects praise?’

Isabel had not yet made her appearance at church to her stepmother’s infinite distress, though it was one of the unalterable etiquettes of rural life ‘after a death.’ The wilful girl had declared with tears that she could not bear it. ‘With everybody looking, and looking, and all the folk going past, that used to stop and say, How is she? It would break my heart,’ said Isabel. And she had stolen out to the braes when Jean and the children returned from church, feeling the silence a consolation to her.

At that moment she was more absorbed in her thoughts than Ailie, being hopeless and expecting no consolation or deliverance; and when the rustle of the heather caught her ear, and looking up she saw Ailie’s slender figure standing over her, a movement of impatience woke in Isabel’s mind. Nobody could give{139} her any comfort, could they not then leave her alone? It was all she asked. To be left to brood over the ending of her early, lonely life and all her dreams. This was all that now remained to her. To others, life renewed itself, changed its fashions, put forth new blossoms, extended, full of light and hope, into the future; but hers was over. Could they not have the charity to leave her at least alone?

‘Is it you, Isabel?’ said Ailie, coming to her side.

‘Aye, it’s me. I thought I was sure to be alone here. Do you take your walks all the same on the Sabbath day?’

‘To me a’ days are the same,’ said Ailie. ‘If I ken mysel I have nae desire but to ay be doing my Master’s business. Sabbath or every day, I make no difference. And the silence is fine, and the air sweet to-day, like every day.’

‘It is not silence now,’ said Isabel, with the fitful, hasty temper for which, as soon as the words were said, she was sorry and penitent.

‘No,’ said Ailie, from whom the great perplexity she was in had taken much of her solemn aspect. ‘It’s no silence now, and whiles there are better things than silence. Isabel, when I saw ye among the heather, I felt that the Lord sent ye to give me an answer in my trouble. It’s like drawing the lot; and I’ve done that o’er and o’er by myself, and I canna see it. But you, you’re innocent, and ken nothing about him or me. I’ll draw the lot at you, Isabel. I’m no saying it to make you vain. It’s because you’re young, and soft, and no learned in the ways of this world, but like a little bairn. Isabel,’ said the young prophetess, kneeling down suddenly at her side, and gazing into her face with those visionary eyes which were wild in their pathos, ‘am I to do what he bids, or no?’

The question raised Isabel out of her personal brooding. She was startled—almost frightened by the vehemence of the appeal. ‘Oh! how can I tell you, or what do you want me to say?’ she said, clasping her hands; and then she remembered what she had heard about Ailie and Mr. John, and shrank at the thought of the responsibility thus placed in her hands.

‘Tell me aye or no,’ said Ailie, gazing so into her face, into her eyes, that Isabel’s very soul was moved. She bore the look as long as she could, and then she covered her face with her hands.

‘Your eyes go through and through me,’ she said, ‘and I cannot judge for you. I am not like her that is gone. I am but Isabel. I cannot guide myself. And you that have more light than all the rest—how should I help you?{140}’

‘I am giving no reasons,’ said Ailie, ‘it’s no a time for reasons. It’s out of the mouth of babes and sucklings—Isabel, say aye or no?’

‘Then I’ll say aye,’ said Isabel, suddenly lifting her head with a gleam of her old impatience. It was far from being spoken like an oracle of God. It was uttered hastily, with a certain nervous distaste to being thus questioned. But when she saw the effect her words produced, her heart failed her. Ailie sank down helplessly on the road. She did not faint, as Isabel, being somewhat pre-occupied by her own first experience of bodily weakness, thought. She sank down in a heap without making an effort or a struggle. Every tint of colour fled from her face. Her eyes, which alone seemed to have any life left in them, were raised with a look of such reproach as made her hasty adviser tremble. But Ailie did not say a word. She lay with the air of one stunned and helpless among the heather. Then after the first minute a sob came from her lips. Isabel was overcome by her own fears.

‘Oh, Ailie!’ she cried, ‘I meant nothing. Why should you put such weight on what I say? I was impatient, and I said the first word that came to me. I did not mean it. I meant No instead. Oh, Ailie, will you listen now to what I say?’

‘When I’m come to myself,’ said Ailie, waving her hand. Her voice was so low as scarcely to be audible. Then her pale lips moved, though no sound came from them at first; and her eyes turned upward with such an expression of submission and pain, as Isabel had never seen. ‘No my will,’ Ailie murmured, with her hands holding her breast, ‘no my will, but Thine.’ It was a voice as of despair, when a little thrill of renewed vigour made it audible. Awe stole over her companion, whose careless words had done it. Isabel, in her self-reproach, rose up from her seat in haste. She took off the shawl in which she was wrapped, and kneeling down beside Ailie endeavoured to place it under her. She put her arms round her with a remorse that made an end of pride. ‘Oh, Ailie, I meant nothing! It was my hasty way,’ she cried, bending over her, kissing her even in her eagerness. Ailie did not resist the soft caress. She laid her head down upon Isabel’s shoulder, and closed her eyes, which were strained and painful with so much emotion. ‘My soul is poured out as water—my strength hath He weakened in the way,’ she said, leaning back with closed eyes. The struggle was over. She had resisted long; but in this fantastic way at last she had satisfied herself, and would struggle no more.

And thus the soft air breathed on them, and the still{141} moments passed over those two young creatures, clinging to each other among the silence of the hills, with the sorest ache in their hearts which each had ever known. Isabel in her fright had almost forgotten hers. She sat embracing Ailie who leant upon her, and wondering what it was which had moved the girl so strangely to the exclusion of her own thoughts, which had been bitter enough. Once before Isabel had spoken in her haste, and her voice had been taken for an oracle of God. She had never forgotten the awful sense that, had she but held out and struggled against utterance, Margaret’s life might have been spared; she had given way to her feelings then and again now; and what was it that she had done this time?—something which she had never anticipated and did not yet understand. In her trouble she spoke, with a voice that trembled, closely in her companion’s ear.

‘O Ailie, you are not to mind! I was not thinking what you meant or what it was. I said the first thing that came into my head, as I am always doing. Ailie, tell me what it is and then we’ll think—we’ll try and see what is best.’

‘No,’ said Ailie, faintly, ‘it wasna that I wanted. I wanted but one word, the first that came into your head. It was drawing the lot. If you had kent what I meant it would have been different. No, it’s a’ past. I’ve struggled and fought in my mind like a profane person. It has ay been the same in the Book itself; whiles one word, whiles another; but ay saying, “Yes, yes"—ay about the bridegroom and the bride. But I said to myself, the next time it will be different. And now there’s you. I thought She’ll say No, the innocent thing. She’ll divine by my eyes that my heart’s broken. And you didna look at me, Isabel, to let yourself be turned away, but said what was put into your mind.’

‘Is it about you and Mr. John?’ said Isabel, bending down to her ear.

A shudder ran through Ailie’s frame. ‘Ay,’ she said, with a long sobbing sigh. ‘But if it’s the Lord’s will, nae man shall hear me say a word more. And, Isabel, if it come to pass, and ye see him and me together as we’ll have to be, you’ll not take any notice; what I must do I will do to the full, and no in part.’

‘But, O Ailie! you’ll never do it; you must not do it—if you don’t love him!’ said Isabel.

She shrank and hesitated to say the word. It seemed to her a kind of blasphemy.

‘Could I have said it to Margaret?’ she asked herself. And was not Ailie, too, like Margaret, a dedicated virgin, above such suggestions of this common earth?{142}

‘Oh, whisht!’ said Ailie, with a wild, sudden flush of colour flaming over her face. ‘Whatever the Lord’s will may be, I am His handmaid to do it. But, eh! how I’m punished now! I wouldna let your Margaret be. I would bid her back to earth when she was at Heaven’s door—no thinking what was waiting for myself. Though I’m no murmuring against the Lord.’

And then there was a moment of silence, on the one side full of eager revolt and determination to oppose; on the other of that stunned submission which comes after a great blow.

‘Oh, no—no! it cannot be,’ cried Isabel, clasping in her arms the girl for whom, up to this moment, she had felt so little sympathy. ‘I will never believe it is God’s meaning. If you did not love him you would hate him. How could you help it? It cannot be—it must not be!’

‘Whisht—whisht!’ said Ailie, with a faint momentary smile, ‘you’re ay so earnest. Oh, if ye would come with us, Isabel, for her sake, and put yourself on the Lord’s side. Whisht!—What’s God’s doing can never harm His servants. I’m no rebelling now, that’s a’ past. The worst is I canna see my work, nor what remains for me in this world,’ she added, with a piteous gentleness, ‘for the spirit of prophecy is ta’en from me as would be fit, when I’m under another, and no free in my ain power. Or, maybe, it’s my een that are blinded,’ she said, putting her hand up to them with a close pressure, as if they ached. But it was not because they ached. It was because they were full to overflowing with a stinging salt moisture. She would not yield to that common mode of relief. ‘Why should I greet when the Lord’s will is manifest?’ she said, all at once. ‘It would more suit me to greet if I knew not what that was.’

‘But it cannot be God’s will and you so sore—sore against it,’ cried eager Isabel, ‘in your heart.’

‘I’m no such a rebel,’ cried Ailie, with a start. ‘Oh, I’m no so ill as you think—me that am set to be a sign to His people. Now it’s all past,’ she added, raising herself up. ‘And, Isabel, though you dinna understand, you’ve been real good to me, and I’ll never forget it. Oh, will ye no come and open your heart now to the Lord, as long as the day of visitation lasts? I canna bide to think that Margret’s sister should be on the world’s side, and no on the Lord’s.’

‘I never was on the world’s side,’ said Isabel, with something of her natural impatience, rising, as Ailie did so, to her feet.

‘He that is not with us is against us,’ said the young prophetess. ‘O Isabel! Dinna trust in the good that’s just nature. The day is near past—the night is at hand.{143} And you thinking of love, and pleasure, and the delights of this life, and no of that awfu’ day.’

‘Delights!’ said Isabel, holding up the heavy crape on her dress to the intent eye which remarked no such homely particulars; and then she turned hastily and went away—partly irritated, partly weary. She had forgotten her own burden to minister to the other. And she had need of consolation and encouragement herself, not of weariness and excitement. She turned, as was her hasty way, and left the visionary creature standing behind her on the hill. Ailie stood and gazed after the rapid, retreating figure, not offended as in a different region of society she might have been. This parting sans fa?on was not extraordinary among the homely country folk. She stood and looked after her with a wistful interest, stronger than any human sentiment which perhaps had ever before crossed her mind. A girl free to live her natural life, free to make her natural choice, bound by no mysterious rules, prepared to no awful office as God’s ambassador to man—

There was a meeting the same night. Ailie shut herself up for all the afternoon of this memorable day. She went into the little room, at the window of which, in the middle of the night, Mr. John’s extraordinary proposal had been first made to her, and placed her open Bible on her bed, and knelt down before it. There she remained, fasting, in one long trance of prayer and reverie, while the short autumn day came to an end, and the twilight closed round her. Had her fate been to go to the stake on the morrow, her preparation for it would have been triumphant in comparison. But the stake could not have been a more supreme proof of her devotion to the service of God than was this act of submission to what she believed His will. She accepted the bitter cup from God’s hand, and made no further struggle against her fate.

When the hour for the meeting came, Ailie wrapped herself in her plaid and went out alone down the dark road. Her mother was in weak health, and, with that strange diversity which is so often met with in life, was a homely, sober woman, who thought there were ‘far ower mony meetings,’ and was more scandalised than flattered by the prominent position taken by her daughter in them. There was a little controversy between them before Ailie went out, over a cup of tea, which the anxious mother importuned her child to take. ‘O Ailie! do you mean to break my heart and murder yourself?’ she said. ‘Neither bit nor sup has crossed your lips since morning. You’ve been ower nigh death to be that careless of your health—if it were but for your puir{144} auld faither’s sake, that canna bear ye out of his sight.’

‘I couldna swallow it,’ said Ailie; ‘and he’ll have to bear the want of me. I must forsake father and mother for the work of the Lord.’

‘Oh, lassie, ye make my heart sick,’ said the mother: ‘as if the Lord couldna do His ain work without the help of a bit lass like you.’

But Janet’s mind did not dwell on the words. Such words were usual enough in the highflown, religious phraseology of the moment, and the ‘work of the Lord’ might mean no more than a series of meetings, or retirements to her room for prayer. Neither was the mother alarmed by Mr. John’s proposal. It was ‘an awfu’ compliment;’ but in her heart she felt that even a special revelation could not make such a mésalliance possible; and that rather than suffer such an extraordinary downfall, the aristocracy of the clan Diarmid would procure some powerful remonstrance with Heaven itself against such a removal of all natural boundaries. ‘Na, na, Miss Catherine will never allow it,’ she had said when she heard; though a thrill of natural pride went through her. ‘If she would take a little pains with herself, and put up her hair like the rest, our Ailie is a bonnie lass,’ the mother had added to herself, not without complacency, ‘But, na, na, it couldna be.’

The meeting was to be held that night on the south side of the Loch, in a barn reluctantly granted by Mr. Smeaton for the accommodation of the prophets. Before entering it, Ailie went into the cottage of the shepherd who lived close at hand. There she found Mr. John seated by the fire, along with several leaders of the movement. There was no other light in the room, and he sat with his dark head, relieved against the blaze, leaning on his hands. The others were talking around him, arranging their little services, exchanging experiences; but Mr. John sat silent and took no part among them. Ailie went up to him, penetrating through the group. She held out her hand to him, standing before the fire.

‘It shall be as you say,’ she said with a voice which almost failed her at the last.

Mr. John turned round and gazed up at her for a moment, the ruddy light shining in his face, as it did in hers. He was dark and haggard in that illumination, she very pale, and with a look of exhaustion on her face. He took her hand and held it for a moment, and then he let it drop out of his.

‘You acknowledge the Word of the Lord, at last?’ he said, almost with severity. And then he sprang up and interposed in the order that was being arranged for{145} the services, with a nervous hurriedness which struck her strangely. She had thought that, perhaps, he at least would be glad. But he was not glad. He rushed into the discussion which he had retired from with an unwonted eagerness. Thus Fate had caught them both in her net. And though Mr. John had set his heart on this thing, it filled him with such an acute pang now he had gained it, that only instant movement and occupation prevented him from betraying himself. But the meeting of that night was such an ‘outpouring’ as few people present had ever known before. A feverish earnestness filled them, born of the very excess of pain.

‘Eh, but Ailie was awfu’ grand to-night,’ the people said. ‘Eh, if you had but heard Mr. John!’ They were both in a half-craze of misery, speaking like people in a dream. And thus, as the assembly foresaw, everything was settled that night.


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