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CHAPTER XXV
This state of things could not go on for ever. Miss Catherine, who had made a hundred vain exertions to draw her young kinswoman to her house, and out of all the melancholy associations of her own, at last became seriously alarmed about Isabel. And the minister, who all the winter through had been indulging himself in such hopes, slowly woke to a perception of the absorbed looks, the languor, the wandering of her eye, and the paleness of her cheeks. She was very soft to him and gentle, accepting his kindness as she had never done before, looking up to him in a way which filled him with a thousand fond dreams. She had done this with unconscious selfishness, because she wanted the support of affection and kindness, not with any thought of him.{155} She was struggling along her solitary way with so much expenditure of strength and life that it would have seemed hard to Isabel to deny herself that comfort on the road, the anxious devotion that surrounded her like a soft atmosphere. And yet she did not mean to be selfish; but by and by they all found out that her strength and heart were failing her. ‘I canna tell what it is,’ Jean said, with her apron to her eyes; ‘she’ll sit for hours on the hill, and syne she’ll come home that worn, she hasna a word for one of us; and her eyes ay wandering miles away, as if she were looking for somebody. I canna tell what it is.’

‘It cannot be any of their wild notions,’ said Miss Catherine, anxiously, ‘of Margaret coming back from the grave.’

‘Na, na, she has a’ her senses,’ said Jean; ‘she’ll look as pleased now and then when she sees the minister coming up the brae.’

Mr. Lothian’s cheek flushed, but he shook his head. ‘Alas! it is not for me,’ he said; and yet a little secret hope that perhaps it pleased her to watch his approach crept into his heart.

‘It canna be that English lad she’s thinking of,’ said Miss Catherine; and Mr. Lothian, struck as with a sudden chill, raised his head and fixed his eyes anxiously on Jean’s face.

‘She never mentions his name,’ said Jean. ‘I’ve reason to think she was awfu’ angry at him. The time she fainted she let fall words in her sleep—Na, it canna be that.’

‘Provided it is not her health,’ said Miss Catherine; and Jean again raised her apron to her eyes.

‘I darena say it even to mysel,’ she cried. ‘I will not say it: but, O Miss Catherine, that’s my dread night and day. I try to shut my eyes, but I canna forget that our Margaret was much the same. You ken weel she was a perfect saint, and it was prayer and the Book that filled her mind. But at first, when her illness was coming on, she would sit like that—and look and look! It makes me that sick when I think o’t, that I canna sit and look at the other one going the same gait. I canna do it. I think it will break my heart.’

‘The same gait!’ said the minister, raising a blanched face of woe, ‘the same road as—Margaret? No, no—don’t say so. It cannot be!’

But both the women shook their heads.

‘I canna be mistaken, that hae watched them baith,’ said Jean, with her apron to her eyes.

‘And we all know it’s in the family,’ said Miss Catherine, sinking her voice to solemnity.{156}

There came a sudden groan out of the minister’s breast. He turned away from them to the other end of the room, with a pang to which he could give no expression. No, no—God could not do it: it was impossible. Margaret—yes—whose visionary soul was fixed on heaven from her cradle; but Isabel, impetuous, faulty, sweet human creature, whose presence made the whole world bright. No, no; after all, God had some regard for the hopes and wishes of His creatures: He would not thwart and trample upon their hearts like this.

‘It’s in the family,’ repeated Miss Catherine. ‘Her mother, my kinswoman, Margaret Diarmid, was not five-and-twenty—and her sister younger still; and that branch of the family is extinct, you may say, barring Isabel. But so far as flesh and blood can strive, I’ll fight for the lassie’s life.’

Mr. Lothian had no power of speech left; but he came to her and took her hands in his, and pressed them with a look of gratitude such as no words could express.

‘She shall not be lost if I can help it,’ repeated Miss Catherine. ‘It may be a kind of brag to say, but there are many things that can be done when you take it in time. Leave her to me, Mr. Lothian, and do not break your heart.’

This conversation took place while Isabel was absent on one of her usual visits to the hill. When the minister had left them, Miss Catherine turned to Jean and began to inquire into the girl’s symptoms.

‘She has no cough,’ she said; ‘I have noticed that. But now that man is gone, tell me, Jean Campbell, are ye sure it’s not a pining for yon English lad?’

‘I canna tell,’ said Jean doubtfully, shaking her head. ‘Whiles I hae my doubts. She had ay a craving about the post at first. That’s past. But if she hears a footstep sudden in the road, or maybe a neighbour, coming in for a crack, lifting the latch at the outer door, she gives a start that drives me wild; but she never names him. And there were some words she let drop——’

‘Don’t tell me of words,’ said Miss Catherine. ‘It was her first love, and there’s nothing in this world she’ll not forgive him. That’s it. And now I see what I must do.’

But nothing was done that day, nor for several weeks after. It was, as so often happens, the very crisis of Isabel’s affairs on which they first discussed the question. When she came home that evening she was ill. The spring winds were cold, and she had taken a chill on the wet braes; and for some weeks every symptom which could most afflict her friends made its appearance. It was whispered in the Loch, with much shaking of heads, that the Captain’s Isabel was soon to{157} follow her sister: that she had fallen into ‘a decline;’ that she had never recovered Margaret’s death; and even that the twin sisters had but one life between them according to the common superstition, and that the one could not long outlive the other. These prognostications reached the minister’s ears, moving him to a misery of which the people who caused it had not the remotest conception. On the whole the parish, though deeply grieved, enjoyed talking this matter over; and even Jean Campbell, though her heart, as she said, was breaking, had long consultations with Miss Catherine, and with Jenny Spence, and many other anxious visitors, touching the resemblance between Isabel’s illness and the beginning of Margaret’s. She was rather bent, indeed, on making this out to be the case, although her tears flowed at every suggestion of danger to her remaining charge.

‘Her cough has taken no hold of her; she’ll shake it off,’ said Miss Catherine.

‘I mind when Margaret’s was no more than that,’ Jean would answer, shaking her head. And notwithstanding the profound pain which the thought of any approaching misfortune to Isabel gave them, there was almost a degree of mournful enjoyment in the comparing of notes and exchanges of confidences which took place among the nurses. But the effect was very different upon the minister. The mere thought of danger to her acted upon him like a temptation to blasphemy. In such a case what would remain to him but to curse God and die? Wherever he went, people met him with questions. ‘Have you heard how the Captain’s Isabel is the day?’ ‘Eh, I thought she would gang like her sister.’ ‘Ye see twins, ye never can separate them in life or death.’ Such were the comments he was in the daily habit of hearing; and they stung him so that every day was full of torture—pain which, after the bright dreams he had been indulging in, was doubly hard to bear.

But as it turned out the pain was unnecessary. Isabel had caught cold, her body being susceptible at all points, and her mind unhinged—just such a cold as might, had her constitution been weaker, have ended as Margaret’s had done. Jean was right in her diagnosis—just as Isabel’s illness began Margaret’s had begun: there had been, even to some extent, the same cause. The shock which Mr. John’s love, and the painful interruption of it had given her, had unstrung Margaret’s strength just as Stapylton’s absence had done her sister. But there the resemblance stopped. The elder sister’s constitution was feeble and Isabel’s was strong, and other influences besides that of disappointed love had come in, in{158} Margaret’s case. The shock had struck at all the delicacies of her nature, and made her sick of the life in which such thoughts could be. And her contemplative nature, her visionary heart had taken refuge in heaven; but with Isabel it was not so. Her illness, though it lasted only for a few weeks, looked like an interval of months or years. It put Stapylton at a distance from her. So long as she had lain in her sick room, all expectation of his coming or longing for it had gone out of her heart; and as she recovered the thought came back but dimly to her. She had not forgotten him, but time had gone faster than its wont, and he was further off than she could have supposed—drifted away.

Then Miss Catherine, moved by the urgency of the case as she had scarcely ever before been moved, announced her intention of taking Isabel away for change. As soon as she was able to move, they went to one of the watering-places in which Scotland believes—the Bridge of Allan, and then to Edinburgh. It was not a very long journey, but everything was new to Isabel. It roused her in spite of herself. Youth gained the ascendancy over all the facts which had lessened its brightness. So many new things to see, the bright summer weather, the change and movement—the sight of crowds and novelties, drove things more urgent out of her mind.

And then Mr. Lothian came and paid them frequent visits; so frequent that the parish was moved to its depths, and grumbled at his repeated absence. ‘We might a’ dee for what he cares,’ said the women at the village-doors; and even John Macwhirter, though unused to interfere, gave forth his opinion on the subject: ‘I’m no a man to insist on a call from the minister every other day,’ he said. ‘He’s enough ado with his sermons, if he gives his mind to them as he ought; but he’s an aulder man than me that have half a dozen weans to think of; and a bonnie example that is to his flock, trailing over half the country after a young lass. Lord, if I was like him I would bide. Ye wouldna see me bring wife and bairns on my head at his time of life; and a young wife’s a bonnie handful for an auld man. Ye may gloom, Mr. Galbraith, but you’re no far from the same way of thinking yoursel.’

‘I’m thinking there’s many young lasses in Edinburgh and many things of more importance,’ said the Dominie. ‘Mr. Lothian hasna left the parish for years. And his sermons are running dry, if you’ll take my opinion. No doubt the world’s a wicked place, but it does the best of men good to see it now and again. I wouldna say, John Macwhirter, but even you yourself might take a hint{159} from smiths of more advanced views. And as for a divine——’

‘You’re grand at your jokes,’ said the half-offended blacksmith; ‘but if I were to take hints, as ye call it, in the same kind of style as the minister, I would like to ken what my Margret would say? She would be neither to hand nor to mind.’

‘Now, I was saying,’ continued the Dominie, ‘a divine has most need of all. He hears what folk are thinking, and a’ the new wiles o’ the Evil One to fortify your spirits against them. Maybe you think the Auld Enemy is always the same?—which shows how much you know about it. No, no, John. Keep you to your anvil and your iron, and let the minister alone.’

‘Na, if it’s the deevil he’s studying I’ve no a word to say,’ said John; ‘a’ the world kens there’s nae teacher for that like a woman;’ and having thus secured the last word and the victory, as far as the applauding laughter of his audience was concerned, John proceeded to constitute himself the champion of the minister when the Dominie withdrew from the field. ‘After a’ thae prophets and trash, I’m no surprised he should take the play, but he’ll be cleverer than I take him for if he gets bonnie Isabel.’

‘It would be the best thing she could do, a lass with no friends,’ said one of the bystanders.

‘But she’ll not do it,’ said the blacksmith, confidently, wrapping himself all at once in a flaming mist of sparks. Such was the general opinion of the Loch. ‘I canna believe she’ll have the sense,’ Jean Campbell said, to whom it was most important; and after a while the parish almost forgave the minister for his neglect of them in consideration of the interest with which they regarded his suit. Everybody, except Isabel herself, was aware of the conspiracy against her. To herself it appeared strange that Miss Catherine, out of love for her, should leave the Loch and her own home so long, and waste the early summer, which was her favourite season, in the dusty, windy Edinburgh streets. Isabel accepted the sacrifice with the faith of her age in personal attachment, and said to herself that she could never be grateful enough to her old friend. She could not but acknowledge to herself that the change had made of her a new creature. She looked, and thought, and spoke, and felt herself so to do with a touch of soft surprise—like one of the young ladies whom she had sometimes seen at Lochhead. She, too, was a lady born—yet with envy and wonder she had looked at the strangers whose look and air were so different from her own. They were not different now. Insensibly to herself Isabel had acquired another tone and{160} air. Her soft Scottish speech was still as Scotch as ever, but it was changed. She felt herself to move in a different way, all her sensations were different. Sometimes she thought of the Glebe with a thrill of strange alarm. To go back to Jean and her children, and the solitude without books, without variety—could she do it? Or if that was all in store for her, was it not cruel to have brought her to this different life?

‘Now bring me some of your friends from the College, and let her hear you talk,’ said Miss Catherine, in furtherance of her deep design. The minister, whom she addressed, only shook his head with a doubtful smile.

‘What will she care for our talk?’ he said. ‘The nonsense of a ball-room would please her better. She would take my friends for a parcel of old fogies; and so indeed we are.’

‘And ready to go to the stake for your own notions all the same,’ said Miss Catherine, with much scorn. ‘Are you, or am I, the best judge of what she’ll think? As for ball-rooms, heaven be praised, in her mourning that’s out of the question; and if she set her eyes upon a man under forty, except in the street, it may be your fault, but it shall not be mine.’

‘Will that serve me, I wonder? or is it fair to her?’ said the scrupulous minister.

‘The more I see of men, the more I feel what fools they all are,’ said Miss Catherine; ‘go and do what I tell you, minister, and leave the rest to me.’

And accordingly Miss Catherine Diarmid’s lodging became the scene of a few gatherings, which to a girl more experienced in society than Isabel would have looked sufficiently appalling. But Isabel, with her mind and intelligence just awakened, and with that fresh sense of ignorance which made her intelligence doubly attractive, regarded them as banquets of the gods. Mr. Lothian’s friends were unquestionably old fogies; they had their ancient jests among themselves, at which they laughed tumultuously, and the outer world stared; and they had endless reminiscences, also among themselves, which were far from amusing to the uninitiated. But then by times they would talk as people talked in the old days when conversation was one of the fine arts. And Isabel opened her great brown eyes, and her red lips fell a little apart, like the rose-mouth of a child. She listened with an interest and admiration, and shy longing to take part, and shyer drawing back which made it impossible, which altogether rapt her quite out of herself. And her eyes turned with a certain pride to the minister, who would take his full share, and was not afraid to lift his lance against any professor of them all. Isabel raised{161} her pretty head when he spoke, and followed his words with quiet understanding glances, with rapid comprehension of what he meant, with the ever ready applause of her bright eyes. He could hold his own among them all; he was not afraid to enter into any argument. He contributed his full share to all that was going on; and Isabel looking at him grew proud of him—with the partizanship of his parishioner, and friend, and—favourite.

And all this time Miss Catherine sat, like a benevolent crafty spider at the opening of her net. Nobody divined the deep intention in her choice of her visitors. Not a man under forty, as she had betrayed to Mr. Lothian, ever penetrated within her doors. If the question had been suggested to Isabel, no doubt she would have recognised it as unusual that gentlemen in Edinburgh should be all approaching half a century. But it did not occur to Isabel. She was awed and filled with admiration of the men she saw. It did not come into her heart to ask where were the young men who would have better matched herself and the other girls whose society Miss Catherine cultivated for her sake. Even the chatter of these girls did not enlighten her. They talked of pleasures of which she knew nothing—dancing all night, for instance—but how could it ever be possible for Isabel to dance all night? No, was not this better, loftier, a kind of amusement not inconsistent with all those solemnities of life into which she had had premature admission? Therefore the absence of the youth did not strike her. Miss Catherine was old, and it was natural she should choose her friends to please herself.


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