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CHAPTER XXVI
‘Now,’ said Miss Catherine, when it approached the end of June, and Edinburgh, like other towns, began to empty itself of its prisoners. ‘Now, minister, you may go your ways, and settle down in your parish. I am going to take her home.’

‘Home!’ said Mr. Lothian; ‘to the Glebe?’ and his countenance fell. For, to come and go a dozen times a day to Miss Catherine’s lodgings, and to see her young companion constantly under the shelter of her presence, without awaking Isabel’s susceptibilities or seeming to seek her, was very different from going to visit her in her own cottage, putting her on her guard by the very act.

‘Yes, to the Glebe!’ said Miss Catherine. ‘Don’t look at me as if you thought me an old witch. Maybe I am an old witch. No, she is not coming to my house. I{162} mean to plunge her back into her own—to Jean Campbell and the bairns; and then if you cannot make something of the situation, it will be your fault and not mine.’

Mr. Lothian paused, and mused over this last wile. He smiled a little, and then he shook his head. ‘It might be good for me,’ he said; ‘but it would be cruel to her.’

‘Go away with your nonsense!’ said Miss Catherine; ‘I hope I know the world and what I’m speaking of; but men are fools. I have given her all the change that was good for her here, and she has had just a taste of what life is, a flavour to linger in her thoughts. And now she shall know the cold plunge of the home-coming. Do you think I don’t know it will give her pain? But how can I help that? It will show her what she wants, and where she is to get it; and if she does not make up her mind that it is to be found in the Manse parlour, I tell you again it will be your fault and not mine.’

‘My bonnie young darling!’ said the minister, moved to unusual tenderness; ‘but I feel as if we were cheating her, conspiring and taking advantage of her innocence. If it could be done at less cost—— ’

‘Go away and mind your own affairs,’ said Miss Catherine, ‘leave Isabel to me. Am not I seeking her good? and must I hesitate because my physic has an ill taste? Not I. Go home with your scruples and see what you’ll make of it. And you need not take advantage of my work if you have any objections. It’s in your own hand.’

Upon which the minister went away, shaking his head more and more. ‘You know my scruples will yield but too soon if Isabel is the price held out before me,’ he said. And he obeyed his general and went away; but foolishly freighted himself in the very teeth of Miss Catherine’s plans, with everything he could think of to lessen the dreariness and change the aspect of the Glebe Cottage. He sent a great box before him when he arrived at Loch Diarmid, which was on Saturday; and on the Monday he hastened up to the cottage, and unpacked the case with his own hands, and took from it pictures and bookshelves, and books to fill them, ‘a whole plenishing,’ as it appeared to Jean. ‘What is this all for?’ she said, looking at the arrivals with a sceptical eye.

‘It is that Isabel may not think too much of the past when she comes back—that there may be something new to cheer her,’ said the minister, somewhat struck by a sudden consciousness that his motives were not much more noble or innocent than those of his ally and fellow-conspirator. Jean stood and looked on while he hung the pictures and put up the shelves, very critically, and with her own thoughts.{163}

‘Then Isabel is coming back,’ she said, ‘and I’m glad of it; among all your grandeur she was like to forget her home. And by all I can see you mean her to stay, or you would not spend good siller and time fitting up all this nonsense to please her e’e.’

‘It is to comfort her heart, if that may be,’ said the minister; ‘that coming back may not be more than she can bear.’

Jean was offended, and tossed her head with an impatience she did not attempt to conceal. ‘I’m no one for forgetting them that’s dead and gone,’ she said, ‘nor changing the place they’ve been in. For my part I would keep a’ thing the same. It’s like running away from God’s hand, to run away from the thought of a bereavement. And I would rather mind upon our Margaret than look at a’ your bonnie pictures; and so, if she’s no spoilt, would Isabel.’

On the Saturday of Mr. Lothian’s return to Loch Diarmid, Miss Catherine intimated her intention to Isabel. ‘My dear,’ she said, ‘the summer is wearing on. I would not say a word about it if I did not see how much better you are. But I think, now that you are able to bear it, we should be thinking of home.’

And in a moment the chill which the minister had foreseen fell upon Isabel. It came upon her like a sudden frost, suddenly quenching the light out of her eyes. She said ‘Yes?’ not so much in acquiescence as with a sudden wistful question as to when and how this change was to come.

‘I was thinking of the end of the week,’ said Miss Catherine steadily, ‘if that would be agreeable to you.’

‘Anything would be agreeable to me,’ said Isabel, with a little rush of tears to her eyes—‘whatever pleases you. It has been so kind, oh! so kind of you——’

‘You are not to speak to me of kindness,’ said the old lady. ‘It was a pleasure to myself. But now, God be thanked! you’re well and strong; and bonnie Loch Diarmid will be in all its beauty. Are you not wearying to get home?’

‘Oh, yes. I shall be glad——’ faltered Isabel. But it took the colour from her cheek, and silenced all the little cheerful strain of talk which by degrees had developed in her. ‘You have stayed away all this time for me,’ she said, feeling this a subject on which she could more easily enlarge.

‘Yes,’ said Miss Catherine, without hesitation; ‘I don’t pretend to deny it, my dear. It has been for you. And I am very glad I came. You are a different creature. But all the same it will be a great pleasure to get home.’

Isabel said nothing more. Oh, why was not the{164} minister there to take her part? He would have read the sudden dullness in her eye, the change upon her voice. She sat for the rest of the day quenched out, making attempts to speak now and then, but failing utterly; trying to smile and to talk as Miss Catherine did about the proposed return. Oh! how the girl envied Miss Catherine! The old woman was as lonely as the young one. She had her duties, it was true; but no one to make Loch Diarmid pleasant to her. And yet how pleased she was to go back to all the tedium! Was it only because she was old and Isabel young?

‘You’ll feel the change, my dear,’ said Miss Catherine the day after, as they sat together alone. ‘It will be a trial to you going home.’

‘Oh, no,’ said Isabel, eagerly; and then she made an effort and said, very low, ‘It will bring everything to my mind—but, then, it was never out of my mind; it will be as if it had all happened over again——’

‘It would have been the same sooner or later,’ said Miss Catherine. ‘It has to be got over. And now, I hope, you are able to bear it. And when you weary, my dear, you can come to me. I will always be glad to see you—when I have the time.’

‘Thank you,’ said Isabel, feeling her heart sink in her breast. Glad to see her—when she had time! After having been a mother to her, and her companion for so long, opening up all her various stores of experience and knowledge on Isabel’s behalf, feeding her with legend and tale. And now that was over, too—and Jean Campbell and Jean Campbell’s bairns were all the companions she should have in the dim future. Oh, for Margaret! Oh, for the love that was gone! Oh, for—— Isabel knew not what she would have said. Anything that would have warded off from her the blank that was about to come.

‘It will not be cheerful for you, Isabel,’ said Miss Catherine; ‘but you have a stout heart, and you must not forget it is your duty. This has been very pleasant for the time. It is cheery to see new people and new places. But home is ay home.’

‘Yes,’ assented Isabel, feeling in her heart that she was the most abandoned of sinners not to be able to feel any rapture at the thought.

‘And there is no saying when we may have another such holiday,’ said Miss Catherine, cheerfully. Isabel could make no reply. The full force of the change rushed upon her. The sounds in the street seemed to grow melodious as she thought how short a time she would have it in her power to listen to them. And it seemed to her that her friend was quite unaware of the{165} tumult which this intimation had raised in her breast. Had Isabel known how cunningly Miss Catherine had contrived it, how she had been working up to this climax, and kept the ‘cold plunge’ as her most effectual weapon, the girl’s mind would have risen up in arms against such cruelty. Miss Catherine left her seated, melancholy, over some work, with every line in her face turned downwards, and the new life gone out of her, and retired to her own room that she might be able to chuckle unrestrained over her success. ‘She’ll marry him, if he ask her, in six weeks,’ Miss Catherine said to herself.

Left to herself, Isabel cried—not altogether because she was going home—because she was so wicked as not to be glad at going home—because her badness of heart was such that she regretted her holiday life with all its indulgences. When she returned to the Glebe, should she be able, she asked herself, to resist the movements of her own feelings, to think as little of Stapylton as he did of her, to keep from longing and looking and listening till the suspense brought on another fever? What should she do to occupy herself? to keep off such a humbling absorption in one thought? There was but one bright spot in all the monotonous landscape: the minister would stand by her, whatever happened to her. Night or day she could trust to his sympathy. He would come to her when she called him, stand by her, be her support, her counsellor, her guide. She thought not of him, but of herself, with youth’s spontaneous, unintentional selfishness. It did not occur to her to think of him. But so far already Miss Catherine’s spells had wrought.

They arrived at Loch Diarmid at the end of the ensuing week; and were met, not only by Mr. Lothian and by the carriage and servants from Lochhead, but also by Jean Campbell, eager to see her charge, and rapturous over the change in her appearance. From the moment in which they left the steamer. Miss Catherine began to carry out her remorseless policy. She kissed Isabel as soon as she had stepped ashore, and took leave of her.

‘You’ll come and see me, my dear, whenever you have time,’ she said; ‘but you’ve a good long walk to the Glebe, and I will not hinder you now.’ And Isabel, standing still by her stepmother’s side, waiting till Jean had arranged to have someone sent after them with the boxes, watched her friend drive away with an undescribable sinking at her heart. Miss Catherine compelled the minister to enter the carriage with her. She pulled him by the sleeve, and whispered in his ear, and resorted to violent measures to bring him, as she called it, to himself. ‘Go with her now, and you show her her own power, and{166} you’ll spoil all,’ she said; and the bewildered man yielded. The carriage flashed away, while Isabel stood, not able to believe her eyes, on the little pier. The summer evening light was sweet upon the Loch, glancing down aslant on the braes, which were golden with the setting sun; and the labourers were going home, and all the soft sounds of repose and domestic reunion were in the air. Jean was busy with the man on the pier about the luggage. Since Isabel had left that same spot nearly three months before, nobody of Jean’s appearance or manners had come near her, except as an attendant; and it would be difficult to explain the sudden sense of desertion, the cruel solitude, and mortification and falling back upon herself, with which the girl looked after her friend.

Her friend! Had it been love for her at all which had moved Miss Catherine, or only pity, and a disagreeable duty, from which she was glad to be relieved. Was there anyone in the world who cared for Isabel—for herself? They had been sorry when she was ill; they had pitied her. Even the minister—he was gone too, with Miss Catherine, leaving her in the first moment of her return all by herself. Tears flooded to Isabel’s eyes, and these were driven back by pride, and rushed to her heart again, filling it with a silent bitterness beyond all expression. It was a kind of public affront to her, leaving her there on the pier to make her way home as she could. Even Jean opened her eyes when she returned to the spot where her stepdaughter stood forlorn.

‘They might have taken you with them as far as Lochhead,’ said Jean. ‘Is that the way your grand friends part with you? And the minister, too! I canna understand it. They might have taken you with them as far as Lochhead.’

‘I would rather walk,’ said Isabel, though she had a struggle to enunciate the words; and then the two took the familiar road and went on together, as if it were all a dream.

There was a little consolation in the changed aspect of the little parlour, the engravings on the walls, the little bookshelves, the volumes the minister had chosen. It would not be his fault that he had so left her. And for the first time a sense of pleasure and pride in the watchful, anxious tenderness of her elderly lover came into Isabel’s mind. At that particular moment she was so forlorn that these marks of his thought for her came sweet to her heart. It could not be his fault. As soon as she had taken off her bonnet, she who had come up the road with such languor, feeling a weariness altogether out of proportion with the fatigue she had{167} undergone, came eager to look at her new treasures. He had consulted her about them all, though she had not known why. She it was who had unwittingly chosen the half-dozen prints which so changed the aspect of the grey walls. He had remembered exactly what she liked, what she had said, shy as her opinions on such subjects always were. Her countenance smoothed out under this influence. Jean, who had been rather contemptuous of the ‘nonsense,’ followed her about while she examined everything with anxious eyes. ‘She’s real weel in her health; but oh, I’m feared she’s changed,’ had been Jean’s first thought as Isabel’s abstracted looks and indifferent answers to all her news chilled her warm delight in her stepdaughter’s return. ‘After a’ your grandeur, you’ll no think much of your ain little house,’ she had even said, with a perceptible taunt as they entered it. And Isabel’s first step, which had been to sit down on Margaret’s sofa, and cry her heart out, had, natural as it was, been a blow to Jean. She had herself become callous to the associations of the place; and she had taken so much trouble to set out the tea there, and brighten it for the home-coming. But when Isabel perceived the change about her, and began to brighten, Jean brightened too.

‘Eh! if I had but thought you would have cared,’ she said. ‘There’s the history o’ the Prodigal up in the garret, a’ painted and grand, no like thae black-and-white things. But I never thought ye would care. Oh, aye, it was just the minister! and a foolish thing it was for a man of his years, climbing up on chairs and hammering away like a working man. But so long as you’re pleased——’

‘Did he do everything himself?’ said Isabel.

‘Oh, ‘deed did he—everything; and would have jumpit into the Loch at the end, if that would have pleased ye. The man’s just infatuate. I think shame to see it—at his time of life.’

‘He is not so old,’ said Isabel.

‘Ye’ve gotten to your English the time you’ve been away,’ said Jean; ‘and nae doubt it’s as it should be, for you that’s a lady born—but it doesna sound so kindly as the auld way. And you’re bonnier than ever;’ she added, walking round her stepdaughter with admiring eyes; ‘and it’s a pleasure to see a gown that fits like that; and you’ve gotten a new way of doing your hair; you’re like some of the Miss Campbells that visited Lochhead, or that English young lady that was living down the Loch. But eh, my bonnie woman, ye’re no like the Captain’s Isabel.’

‘I don’t know that there is any difference,’ said Isabel,{168} touched in spite of herself by the tears that rose in her stepmother’s eyes.

‘Nor me,’ said Jean, putting up her apron. ‘I canna tell what it is, but I see it. Eh, Isabel, I’m an auld fool. I’ve been thinking we might be real happy, now you kent me better. But I see the Glebe’s nae place for you now. You’ll no bide long here.’

‘Where should I go to?’ said Isabel, with a little bitterness; ‘no, you need not be afraid. I am wanted nowhere but in my own house.’

‘You couldna be any place where you would be mair thought of,’ said Jean wistfully, ‘but you’re no to be angry at Miss Catherine either. It was want of thought, maybe, or that she took it into her head that you and me—after being so long parted—would like best to be alone.’

‘Angry! why should I be angry?’ said Isabel. ‘It is not that. I did not think of Miss Catherine. She has been very kind, and I hope I am grateful——’

‘You’re her ain kith and kin. I dinna see the call for gratitude,’ said Jean, with a little heat. ‘And she might have brought ye hame in the carriage, and nae harm done. I never understand your fine folk. But sit down, my lamb, and I’ll pour you out your tea, and ye maun try to mind we would a’ lay down our lives for you, and that you’re in your ain house, and can do as you please.’

Perhaps there was a forlorn satisfaction in that, after all. But when Isabel crept to bed, a few hours later, without any visit from the minister, without any communication from Lochhead, her heart was far from light. She wept in the dark when she laid herself down in her own little bed. It had been a dream, that was all; and now she had come back, and was no longer of consequence to anyone—a Miss Diarmid, companion of Miss Catherine, and favourite of society no longer; but only the Captain’s Isabel, too lowly for the lairds, too high for the peasants. Visions came across her mind of the scenes she had lately taken a part in, of the smiles that had been bestowed upon her, of the interest with which her simple words had been listened to; and now no smiles, no flattering tribute of admiring looks, were to be hers. Miss Catherine had put her back decisively into her own place; and the minister—even the minister! Yes, he was very good to her; he had given her books and pictures to amuse her, as if she had been a solitary child. It was the last little mark, no doubt, of the interest in her which she had attributed to another feeling. But why should Mr. Lothian care for her? Why should Miss Catherine care for her? They had been very kind to her, which is quite a different matter. They had cured{169} her of her illness, and done a great deal to improve her; and now they had put her back softly, but firmly, at once into her own place. No doubt it was best, Isabel thought, turning her face to the wall, that she should know at once how it was to be; but yet it was a strange downfall—and very hard to bear.

She did not go to church on the following Sunday, pleading her fatigue; and with an unexpressed hope that Miss Catherine would have sent to take her along with herself; but Miss Catherine took no notice. She made the proper inquiries of Jean, and was sorry to hear Isabel was tired; but that was all. Mortification, anger, and disappointed affection surged up all together in poor Isabel’s mind. One of those forlorn days, with her veil over her face, she made her way, by the most unfrequented paths she could think of, to her sister’s grave. It was in a corner of the churchyard, out of the way of passers-by; and Isabel threw herself down by it and clasped her arms round the white stone in all the abandonment of her immediate pain, though that pain was not primarily called forth by the loss of Margaret. After she had wept out all her tears, she still retained her position, her soft arms wound about the stone, clinging to it as she might have clung to her sister, her head leaning against it, her dilated, tear-worn eyes gazing sadly into the air at their full strain, though she saw nothing.

She was watched, though she did not know that anyone was near. Mr. Lothian had yielded against his will to Miss Catherine’s peremptory counsels, but he had kept upon the watch wherever Isabel went, finding out her movements by that strange mesmerism of sympathy which conveys our secrets through the air. He had seen her to the grave, though she had not seen him. And when her tears were over, and she sank down into this melancholy embrace of all that was left to her, the man’s heart could bear it no longer. She whom he could scarcely refrain from taking to his protecting arms when she felt but little need of him, how could he stand by and see her clinging to the cold gravestone as to her only refuge? Isabel was too much absorbed, too hopeless of any external consolation, to hear the rustle through the grass as he came to her. He had fallen upon his knees by her side before she roused herself to turn those wistful, strained eyes to him. And then all considerations of what he might or might not do had been driven out of his mind. He put his arms tenderly round her, not even thinking of love, thinking of nothing but her need. ‘My bonnie darling!’ he said with a sob, ‘my precious Isabel! It’s the living you must come to, and not the dead, my dear! my dear!{170}’

‘I have nothing but Margaret in the world,’ said the girl, with sudden, sharp anguish, the fountain of her tears once more opened by this unexpected tenderness. She thought as little of love or lovemaking as he did in the sudden flooding of his heart. Nor was Isabel conscious how he drew her away from the chill stone to his own breast, and held her, letting fall actual tears over her as he had not done twice in his life before.

‘No, no; not there!’ he said, unconscious of his own words, holding her close to him, clasping her fast, and thinking, as men so seldom think, not of himself, but of her. It did not even occur to him how sweet it was to appropriate her thus to himself. It was her want, her absolute need of him, her self-abandonment which he could not bear. ‘Here, my darling,’ the man murmured, with a pathetic abnegation of his own feelings, ‘lean here;’ and so held her upon his bosom, schooling himself to be—if need were—her father instead of her lover—anything to comfort her in the moment of her weakness. When Isabel came to herself, he was gazing upon her, as she leant on his shoulder, as if from an unapproachable distance. She was in his arms, and yet his eyes rested on her with wistful reverence, as though she had been miles away.

‘I did not mean to be so weak and so foolish,’ she said, gathering herself away from him with a vivid blush. ‘I thought I was—alone—I thought——’

‘You thought you had nothing in the world but her that is gone,’ said the minister. ‘Isabel! and yet you know who is the light of my eyes, and the desire of my heart?’

She leant her hand again upon the stone, her tears dried, her heart beating, and visibly a crisis before her, which must affect her whole life.

‘I am old enough to be your father,’ he said, with his voice trembling. ‘I never forget that. I’ve seen you grow up bonnie and bright, and loved you more year after year. And now I feel as if I were taking an advantage of my bonnie darling. Isabel, if your life were bright and full of love it would be different. But you are alone. And never man on earth could love you dearer than I do. Will you let me take care of you, my darling?’ he cried, and took her hands and gazed into her face. ‘Will you come to my house and make it glad? I’ll be young for my Isabel!’ said the minister, with tears in his eyes. And the virgin heart within him came to his face and chased away the years as if by magic. He was kneeling, though he was not aware of it; and his eyes and every line in his countenance were pleading more eloquently than words. But Isabel, in whose heart two rival forces{171} were struggling, was too much agitated and blinded by her own feelings to see.

‘Oh, Mr. Lothian, let me go home!’ she cried, stumbling to her feet. ‘How can I think of this—how can I answer you here?’

‘You shall answer me where you please,’ he cried, rising with her, and supporting her with his arms. ‘When you please and where you please, my darling! But it is here of all places that I want you to know—Isabel, you know?—that there is one that loves you above life, above happiness—more than words can say.’

She turned to him for one moment, and gave a sudden, tearful look at his agitated face. ‘I know, I know!’ she cried. ‘Oh, let me go home, now!’

And he drew her hand within his arm, and took her home, saying not another word. All was said that could be said. It was for her to decide now.



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