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CHAPTER XXIV

When Isabel found herself once more in the drawing-room at Lochhead, it wrought the most curious change upon her. She sat almost silent, while Miss Catherine and the minister talked, but with a mind awaking to all the influences about her—the grace, the superior softness, the refinement of the place. Life here must,{150} it seemed to Isabel, be a different thing from the life she had always known. There were books of all kinds about, and her appetite for books was great, though as yet it had been but scantily supplied. The ample window gave an amount of atmosphere and breadth to the room, which Isabel perceived by instinct, without knowing how it was. It was very nearly the same view as that from the parlour window at the Glebe, and she could not tell what made the difference; unless indeed it was the superior grandeur, splendour, amplitude of the life. There were a hundred resources within, which were impossible at her lower level of existence, and a much widened perception of the world without. She had no notion that it was the old furniture and the great windows which impressed this so strangely upon her. It was something in the atmosphere, the expanded breathing, and hearing, and seeing of a larger life.

And as the minister accompanied her home, Isabel, unawares, fell into a little self-revelation. ‘You can see the same view out of the village windows,’ she said, ‘and from the Glebe; but the Loch is grander and the braes are higher, and away down to Clyde is like a picture—I don’t know how it is.’

‘You like it better than the Glebe?’

‘I cannot tell,’ said Isabel; ‘it is so different; and so many things to fill your life. I think I would never tire reading; but then I know my books off by heart, and reading them is little good. And there’s always a seam. I know a seam is right,’ said Isabel, with decision; ‘I did not mean that.’

‘But sometimes you would like something else,’ he said, growing foolish as he looked at her; and finding something half-divine in her girlish simplicity.

‘I don’t know,’ she said; ‘I have made up my mind to be content. But still one has eyes, and one can see it is different. I never thought—of such things—before.’ And a rush of tears came to her pensive eyes.

Mr. Lothian left her finally at the door of the Glebe, and found himself in such a state of attendrissement that he rushed in once more upon Miss Catherine as he passed the house. ‘Life is beginning to stir within her,’ he said with excitement; ‘she is feeling that all is not over and past. The sight of you has done her good.’

‘The sight of me is not difficult to be had,’ said Miss Catherine, ‘though it’s early yet, after a death, to get good from the like of that.’

‘She is so young,’ said the minister, ‘her mind goes quicker than yours and mine. Not that she grieves less; but everything goes quicker—the days, and the events, and the beats of the heart.{151}’

‘I doubt if you would take as much trouble to understand the beats of my heart,’ said Miss Catherine. ‘Minister, you’re a sensible man in other things——’

Mr. Lothian retreated from her look, and turned to the window. In comparison with himself, Miss Catherine was an old woman; but still, when he was brought to task for it, he had nothing to advance in defence of his love.

‘You need not turn away your face,’ she said, with a smile, ‘as if I had not seen it grow red and grow pale many a time at the lassie’s glance. And she’s but a bairn when all is said. It’s a mystery to me. A woman of your age would think as little of a lad of hers, as of an infant. And yet you, an honest man, that might be her father, let such a lassie fill up your very heart. No! you are a man and I am a woman; you might explain till ye were tired, and I would never understand. A man is a queer being, and, so far as I can see, we must take him as he is till his Maker mends him. And about Isabel, if that lad does not come back——’

‘Whether he comes back or not,’ said Mr. Lothian, hotly; ‘he has disgusted her so much that she will never think of him again.’

Miss Catherine shook her head. ‘Make what progress you can while he’s away,’ she said. ‘Keep him away if you can; but don’t you trust to her disgust. He is her first love?’

‘I suppose so,’ said the minister, with a very rueful face.

‘Then she’ll forgive him all,’ said Miss Catherine, with perhaps a thrill of painful knowledge in her voice; there was a vibration in it which made her companion glance round at her with keen momentary curiosity. But her face betrayed no story. ‘She’ll forgive him all,’ she repeated; ‘and to undeceive her would take a long time. Perhaps it’s only by dint of marrying him that a woman finds out what’s wanting in her first love. And you would not like her to go through that process. But if he keep away——’

Mr. Lothian’s face had gone through as many alternations of hope and fear as though he had been on trial for his life. ‘He loves her,’ he said under his breath, ‘as well as he knows how.’

‘But he loves himself better,’ said Miss Catherine; ‘and if he has to hang about at home for fear of being disinherited he’ll save you some trouble here. And there is no other man about the parish to come in your way——’

‘Her thoughts are differently employed,’ he said, with a little {152}annoyance. ‘What does she know of the men in the parish—or care——’

‘That’s very true, no doubt,’ said Miss Catherine, gravely. ‘There was never one like her on the Loch, nor a lad worthy of her, since Wallace Wight. But yet Isabel has eyes like her neighbours. And there is nobody in your way. My word! if I were a comely man like you, little the worse for your years, and not another suitor in the field, she should be Isabel Lothian before the year was out!’

Mr. Lothian coloured like a girl with excitement and gratification. Scarcely on Isabel’s own cheeks could there have risen a purer red and white. He was, as Miss Catherine said, ‘little the worse for his years.’ He was as erect and elastic in his step as if he had been five-and-twenty—his colour as fresh, and his eyes as bright.

‘If it depends on me’—he said, with a sparkle in his eye.

‘And who else should it depend on?’ said Miss Catherine. ‘Take your courage by both hands, and, take my word, you’ll not fail.’

Thus the house of Lochhead rained influence on this eventful day. Isabel went home with a vague longing in her mind for wider air and a fuller life. But when the minister had left the door, going back with his mind full of tenderness, and just touched by hope, she sat down by the parlour window, and took out Stapylton’s letter, and began to read herself into satisfaction with it. The careless words which had struck her like stings at the first reading, she set herself to smooth and soften. ‘He meant them to cheer me,’ she said to herself; ‘to be cheery himself and to cheer me;’ and then she would make an effort and swallow the sentences to which no such explanation could be applied. ‘It was all his love,’ she said again. Words change their character when thus studied. Out of what seemed almost an insult this tender casuistry brought but another proof of the confidence and certainty of love. ‘He did not choose his words,’ Isabel said at length, with a certain indignation against herself; ‘he felt I would understand—how should I miss understanding when I knew his heart?’ And then there were other apologetic murmurings, less assured, but not less anxious. ‘After all, he is but a man—he does not think like the like of us;’ and—‘That will be the English way; he always said it was different.’ Thus the fanciful girl went on with her letter, until at length she kissed and put it away among her treasures, all anger having gone out of her heart.

Through all the interview between Miss Catherine and the minister, in which so very different an aspect of her affairs was discussed, Isabel sat gazing on the Loch as it faded to evening, with a vague smile about her mouth,{153} and liquid soft eyes, and dreamed. She saw how it would all happen as well as she saw the boat on the Loch making its way from Ardnamore. Perhaps he might not come for three or even six months. His friends would tell him what time must pass before Margaret’s sister could consent. His mother would tell him, for surely even in England mothers could not be so far different. And he would come asking pardon with his lips, claiming more than forgiveness. And Margaret would bless her sister—would plead up yonder for a blessing. And the two would stand side by side on the spot where Margaret had died, and plight their troth as it were to her, in her very presence, to love each other for ever and ever. She sat and dreamed while the minister, with unusual light in his eyes, went home to dream on his side of how different an ending. And neither the one nor the other saw aught but boundless happiness, the very climax of life and love, and perfection of human existence in the visionary future that lay beyond.

And then a great quietness came over the Loch. The marriage of Mr. John and Ailie Macfarlane was a nine days’ wonder, but that died out by degrees; and even among his relatives or hers, little, after a while, was said of the pair. They had gone out ‘into the world,’ like Adam and Eve, seeking the unknown region in which their Tongue would be intelligible, and themselves received as the bringers in of a new dispensation. But in the meantime they disappeared from Loch Diarmid, and the lesser prophets they had left behind soon failed to interest the crowd which was used to excitement. Things fell into their former quietness: worldly amusements began again to be heard of.

All was very quiet at the Glebe. Day after day, week after week—nay, month after month, Isabel had sat silent, expecting, looking for the letter which never came, for the familiar step and voice which she had made so sure would come back to her. And neither letter nor visitor had come to break the wistful silence; no one knew the longing looks she cast from her window, as the winter twilight darkened night by night, over the gleaming surface of the Loch. She felt sure he must write, until the time was past for writing; and then a strange confidence that he would come seized upon her. And she had no one to whom she could say a word of her expectations, to whom she could even whisper his name. If Jean perceived her eager watch for the postman, her shivering start and thrill when any footstep was audible by night, or knock came to the door, she mentioned it to no one. Three months and not a word—then six months, the year turning again unawares,{154} the snow melting from the hills, the snowdrops beginning to peep above the surface of the soil—

It would be impossible to describe all the alternations between fear and hope which moved her as the months went on. Spring came, stretching day by day, more green, more warm, more cheery and sunny on the hills. The poor girl, in her loneliness, sat watching, holding on, as it were, to the darker season which melted away under her grasp, taking comfort in every gloomy day, saying to herself, ‘It is winter still!’ The birds warbling in all the trees about was a trouble to her. No; not spring again—not so far on as everybody thought; only a little lightening of the cold, or gleam of exceptional weather. She kept this thought steadily before her mind, through March and April, refusing to understand what months they were. But in May she could no longer refuse to perceive. The trees had shaken out all their new leaves from the folds. The hill-side was sweet with wild flowers, the primroses were over. ‘Everything is so early this year,’ Isabel said to herself with a sick heart.

‘No so early either,’ said Jean, with profound unconsciousness of her stepdaughter’s sentiments; ‘no that early. I’ve seen the lilac-tree in flower a fortnight sooner than now.’

And then the girl could no longer shut her eyes. Winter was over; the charm of early summer was in the air; everything had come again—the lambs, the birds, the flowers, the sunshine, the fresh thrill of life and brightness—everything except Margaret, who was dead; and Stapylton, who was lost; and these two were all in all to Isabel.


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