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CHAPTER XXVII
Yet the minister said one more word as he left his love at her own door. He had been debating the question with himself as they crossed the braes, whether he should leave it to her to answer him when she pleased and where she pleased, as he at first said. He took her to her own door without a word more upon this subject of which his heart was full; but ere he left her, he paused a moment, holding her hand in his. ‘Isabel,’ he said, but without looking at her, ‘if I come to-morrow will you give me my answer?’

Isabel made no reply. She gave him an anxious, timid look, and withdrew her hand, yet lingered upon the threshold as if there still might be something to say.

‘I will come to-morrow for my answer,’ he repeated in a more decided tone. And then the cottage-door closed on her, and he went away.

‘Eh, is the minister no coming in?’ said Jean Campbell. ‘Pity me, Isabel, what have ye done to him—him that was for ever in this house, and now he never enters the door?’

‘I have done nothing to him,’ said Isabel. ‘What should I do to him? I have nothing in my power.’

‘Oh, lassie, speak the truth!’ said Jean. ‘You ken weel, and a’ the Loch kens, that you have mair power over him than kith and kin—aye, or the very Presbytery itself. But you’re that perverse, ye’ll listen to nobody; and I doubt but ye’ve been unkind to him, or gibed at him, puir man! and he has nae fault that I ken of but his years.{172}’

‘I don’t think he is very old,’ said Isabel, half under her breath; and she went away into the little parlour which he had decorated for her, and sat down by the window, all alone, without even taking off her bonnet. Never before in her life had she been conscious of having anything so important to think about. Thinking had nothing to do with the matter when Stapylton was concerned. It was nothing but a struggle then between her love and grief—between the lover’s eager wishes on one hand, and all the tender decorums of life, all the claims of the past, on the other. She had struggled, but she had not required to think. But now there had come such an occasion for thought as she had never before known. The question was not one of inclination or any such urgent motive for or against as should have settled it for her, without loss of time; on the contrary, it was of the very nature of those questions which demand the clearest thought. Love, as she had apprehended it once, had floated altogether away, she told herself, out of her life. Of that there was to be no more question, either then or for ever; but yet life would not end because it had been thus divested of its highest beauty. And Isabel knew she was young, and felt that she had a long existence before her. Was she to do nothing for the comfort of that existence—nothing to win it out of the mists and dreams? She sat down breathless, her heart heaving with the agitation through which she had lately passed, her nature all astir and moved by a hundred questionings. She did not love Mr. Lothian. Love was over for her—gone out of her life like a tale that is told; but life had to continue all the same: and what kind of life?

Then she did what, in the circumstances, was a strange thing to do. She went to her room, and took out of the locked drawer, the only one she possessed, Stapylton’s letter, which had lain there for months. But she could not read it there, nor even in the parlour where there were so many signs of the one love and none of the other. She went out, for she was still in her walking dress, carrying the letter in her hand. No, she could not seat herself under the birch-tree on the hill and read it there—the spell of its associations would have been too strong; the very air, the bees among the heather, the rustling of the branches, would have spoken to her of him who had met her so often on that spot. Isabel hesitated for a moment in doubt, and then she crossed the road and ascended the hill opposite the cottage. The place she sought had already grown to be a sacred spot to all the country-side. The burn still ran trickling by, though the sweet thoughts that once accompanied it were still; the rowan hung out its odorous blossoms over the grassy seat.{173} It was Margaret’s little oratory to which her sister went to think over her fate.

And there she read Stapylton’s letter over again. Her own mind had advanced, her manners had changed since she read it last. She had grown used to the delicate, ever thoughtful tenderness of a man who not only loved her, but was full of old-world, chivalrous respect for her womanhood and her youth. Her eyes flashed, her whole heart revolted now, as she read this letter. When she had come to the end she cast it from her like a reptile, and clasped her hands over her face with a sudden thrill of shame that blazed over her like fire. She was ashamed of having inspired, of having received, of having ever reconciled herself to such an address. What could he have thought of her to write to her so?—how could he have dared? Isabel did not know how much her own estimation of herself, and the world, had changed since she read it first. It wrung from her a moaning cry of injury and self-disgust. To think that she should have borne it—that she should have spent her tenderest thoughts on a man who was so confident of his power over her, so insulting in his security! The letter lay white on the grass, and the breeze caught it, turned it contemptuously over, and tossed it to the edge of the burn, where it lay dabbling in the soft little current. It was the first thing that caught Isabel’s eye as she uncovered her face. No, she could not let it float away on the burn to tell the passers-by how little respect her first love had felt for her. She caught it up fiercely and thrust it back into the envelope, as if the paper itself had harmed her.

Then she went silently home, holding Stapylton’s letter in her hand. She did not put it even in her pocket as a thing belonging to her; but held it, wetted by the burn, listlessly in her hand. Yet she put it back once more into the locked drawer. It was one of her possessions still, no more to be parted with than any other legacy of her past life. It was still afternoon, and the broad bright summer sunshine lay over the Loch. Isabel sat down at her parlour window, listless and alone. She was tired with her walk, and had ‘no object,’ as her stepmother said, in going out again. She could not now wander about the braes as she had once done. There was a heap of work lying on the table, domestic mending and making, chiefly for herself; but she could not sit down to that silent occupation at a moment when all the wheels of life were standing still, with an expectant jar and thrill, to await the least movement of her finger. She took a book at first; but her own thoughts and her own situation were more interesting than any book. Then she gazed out, without well knowing what she saw—but by{174} degrees, her perceptions quickening, became aware that Miss Catherine’s boat, with its bright cushions, was gliding out from the beach opposite Lochhead. It was a boat which could be identified at once from all the coarser forms on the Loch. There were ladies in it—young ladies, as Isabel felt. The boat stood out shining on the silvery sunshiny water, with its shadow as vivid below as was the substance above. That was how life went for the others—a life within Isabel’s reach, so near that she could touch it with her finger. It seemed to her that she could hear their voices and laughter while she sat alone. They were going up Tam-na-hara, the highest hill on Loch Diarmid, to judge by the direction they were taking—a merry party, with the sunshine flooding all round them and their joyful way.

When the boat disappeared, Isabel took up some of the work that lay on her table. Had it even been work for the children there might have been some sort of consolation in it; but it was for herself. She seemed to be shut up in a little round all circling in herself—the grey walls her only surroundings—this homely household her only sphere. At six Jean came to the door and called her to tea. The children were seated at their porridge, Margaret’s chair had been carefully put out of the way, and Isabel sat down on her stepmother’s other side, to the curious composite meal. She was not disposed to listen, but Jean was as little disposed to be silent.

‘Mary’s been complaining of her head,’ she said; ‘I think I’ll no send her to the school the morn; maybe you would give her a bit lesson, Isabel, out of one of your books, as you used to do. There’s measles about the Loch. I dinna like to expose her at the school.’

‘Very well—if she likes,’ said Isabel.

‘Na, we’ll no ask her what she likes. Jamie’s been keepit in again the day. If I was Mr. Galbraith, I’d find some means of making a callant work better than ay keeping him in. Losh, I would think shame to be mastered by a wean! And you, ye muckle haverel, why should I be at a’ the trouble, and Isabel at a’ the expense, keeping ye at the school when ye learn nothing? Laddie, ye’ve nae ambition. If Mary had been the lad and you the lass——’

‘I wouldna be a lassie to be the Queen,’ said Jamie in indignation.

‘I can do a’ his lessons better than he can,’ cried little Mary; ‘I never was keepit in in my life. I’m ay dux, and he’s booby—!’

‘Whisht! whisht! and no quarrel,’ said Jean. ‘There’s company at Lochhead, Isabel. Nae doubt that’s the reason Miss Catherine has never been here. But she{175} might have sent for ye when there were young folk about. I’m no meaning a word against you, my bonnie woman; but you were ay a hasty bit thing, and strangers dinna ken the warm heart that’s wi’ it. It’s vexed me, the minister no coming in. You’ve been taking affronts, Isabel, at them; or some of your pridefu’ ways; they were a’ a great deal mair here in the auld time——’

‘It was for another, and not for me,’ said Isabel, with sudden humiliation.

‘I’m no saying that,’ said Jean; ‘but onyway there’s a change. I have my ain pride, though I’m but a cotter’s daughter myself—and you’ve mair right to it, that are a lady born—but if you’ll no take it amiss, Isabel, a young lass like you shouldna show it to the like of them. They’re no used to it. And though you’ve good blood in your veins, you’re no just the same as Miss Catherine; and it canna be a small thing that’s turned the minister that he wouldna come in.’

‘There might be other reasons for that,’ said Isabel under her breath.

‘What are ye saying? The man has worshipped the very ground ye trod on since you were little older than Mary,’ said Jean seriously; ‘I’m no saying I understand it for my part. He’s aulder than me—and figure me fashing my head about a young lad! But if he wearies at the last it can only have been your blame.’

‘I think it would be best not to speak of such things,’ said Isabel, with some heat, ‘before the bairns.’

‘Maybe you’re right there,’ Jean muttered, after a moment’s pause. And then she resumed, ‘Mary, you’ll get your seam if there’s nae lessons to be learned to-night—unless Isabel gives you some of her poetry—and, Jamie, get you your books. If you’re diligent, maybe Isabel will gie ye a hand. Poor thing!’ she said to herself, as she turned away to put her room in order after the meal, ‘it’s the best thing I can do for her—better than sitting hand idle and no a creature to speak to her. If she were a lass that could go to service, or even that could stir about the house. But her that was never brought up to do anything, and a lady born!’

The next morning, when Isabel was putting her books in order, and wiping the dust from the shelves he had put up for her, and pleading his cause to herself, Miss Catherine suddenly appeared at the Glebe. A more unexpected visitor could scarcely have been, and for the moment Isabel was disposed to be stately and affronted. Miss Catherine paused, almost before she spoke, to look round and observe the change in the room. She shook her head as she kissed Isabel. ‘Poor man!’ she said; ‘poor man! that’s what his wisdom suggested to him. To{176} make your own house pleasant and cheery when he should have thought of nothing but tempting you to his.’ This was a sufficient indication of her mission. She sat down steadily with the air of establishing herself for serious work, and pointed Isabel to a seat near her. ‘My dear, sit down; I have a great deal to say to you,’ she said; and the girl’s impatient temper fired at once.

‘Whatever you have to say, Miss Catherine, it can surely be said while I am doing my work,’ she said, turning to her books. But she was held by the glittering eye which her old friend, half-contemptuous of her petulance, fixed upon her, and after a vain attempt to continue her occupation, turned round and dropped into the indicated place. ‘You have not said anything yet,’ said Isabel, but with a feeling that already she was having the worst.

‘I might speak to my housemaid while she was dusting,’ said Miss Catherine, ‘but not to you, Isabel Diarmid. I have come to ask you but one question, my dear. Are you going to be a reasonable creature, and make yourself and an honest man happy? or do you mean to deliver yourself over to weariness and this do-nothing life?’

‘I have plenty to do,’ said Isabel, startled, but without sufficient presence of mind to answer anything but the first natural scrap of self-defence on which she could lay her hand.

‘It is not true, Isabel; you have nothing to do worthy a young woman of good connections by the mother’s side, as you are. And when you have better in your power, and a life that is worth your while, and a man that is fond of you, do you mean to tell me you will throw them all away?’

‘Miss Catherine,’ said Isabel, almost crying, ‘you have been very kind; but I don’t know why you should question me like this. At home I am not so good as you; you don’t care to come to see me or take notice of me. Why should you take any interest in me now?’

‘Well, you may say it is him I take an interest in,’ said Miss Catherine, dryly. ‘If you are affronted, Isabel, as you appear to be, I am come to tell you what will happen if you send him away again as you did before, and take no courage to look into your own heart. Are you happy without him? If it comes to be that he will never pass this road again, never enter this room, nor take more interest in you, will that be a pleasant ending in your eyes?’

Isabel made no answer; she only turned her head away, with flushed cheeks and averted looks.

‘For, don’t deceive yourself,’ said Miss Catherine,{177} ‘that would be the result. He may have been weak, but he has always been able to hope; but if you say “No” now, there will be no middle course for him. If he puts himself in your way again, I, for one, will wash my hands of him; and I will never do anything to throw him in your way. Do you understand what I mean?’

‘Yes, I understand,’ cried the girl; ‘but if you think—if you think—I am to be threatened——! Miss Catherine, you have been very kind; but you are not my mother, or my near friend, to meddle with me now.’

‘But I will meddle,’ said Miss Catherine, ‘and for your good. Will you part with him and me, and all that is best near you, for a dream—a delusion—a fancy of your bit foolish heart? Or will you accept a happy life and a good man, and all that heart can desire, when Providence offers them to you, Isabel?—that is what I have come to ask. And I’ll not go till I get my answer. I was fond of your mother, and fond of Margaret, and I am fond of you,’ said the old lady, with softening eyes. ‘My dear, I would give a good year of my life to see you so safe landed. They are gone that would have advised you better than me; but I cannot stand by and let you throw your life away. It would be a happy, good life. You would be like the apple of his eye. He loves you like the men in books—like the men in your poetry you’re so fond of, him and you. If I were as young as you, and my life in my own hands again—— But when I was your age I was a fool; will you be like all the rest of us, and choose your own dream, and let your life go by?’

‘Were the rest like that?’ said Isabel, suddenly rousing up, with white lips and troubled eyes, to gaze at her monitor, who had thus changed her tone all at once.

‘I could tell you stories of that,’ said Miss Catherine, suddenly taking the girl’s hand into her own, ‘and some day I may. But there is no time for that now. Isabel, will you think well, and ponder what I say?’

‘I am dizzy with thinking,’ said Isabel, putting her hand to her head with a certain despair.

‘Then think no more,’ said Miss Catherine, ‘but take what God sends you. He must not find me here; he would never forgive me. Isabel, me, that was your mother’s friend, I bid you make that man happy, and not sin against your own life. He’ll come before I can get away. God bless you, bairn,’ said Miss Catherine, hurriedly kissing her, ‘and don’t forget what I say.{178}’


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