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CHAPTER XXVIII
Miss Catherine’s words had scarcely died out of Isabel’s ear when the minister himself stood at the door.

She was standing where her kinswoman had left her—standing in front of the window, where the light fell full upon her face and figure, her hands held softly together, her eyes full of uncertainty and anxious thought. When Mr. Lothian came in she raised them to him with a dumb entreaty, which went to his heart. He had come to have an answer to his love-suit; and she who had to decide it stood gazing at him, praying him meekly to tell her what to do and what to say!

He came forward at that appeal, and took her hands into his.

‘Isabel,’ he said, with a voice full of emotion, ‘must I leave it over till another time, and come back when you have made up your mind? My darling, you are not to make yourself unhappy for me.’

‘Oh, no, no,’ she said, half-sobbing; ‘I cannot tell what to do. Tell me what to do. It is you that know best.’

And once more she raised her eyes to her lover—humble, beseeching, asking his counsel. Surely never man was in so strange a dilemma before. He made a little pause to master himself; he made an effort to throw off from him his natural interest in his own suit. He looked at her, into her beseeching eyes, to see her heart through them, if that might be. His voice sunk to the lowest passionate tones.

‘Isabel,’ he said, clasping her hand so closely that he hurt her, ‘do you love him still?’

Then there came a cry as of a dumb creature, and big tears rolled up into her eyes.

‘No!’ she said, gazing at him with those two liquid globes—dark, unfathomable seas, in which all his skill and wisdom failed. It seemed to him as if she had, by some craft of nature, veiled the eyes which he might have divined, with the unshed tears which he could not divine.

‘You only can tell,’ he cried, losing such semblance as he had of calm—‘you only can tell! Isabel, do you love him still?’

‘No!’ she repeated, with more energy; ‘no, oh, no—never again!’ and let the tears drop, and looked at him softly, with her eyes unclouded.

‘Then come to me!’ he said, almost with violence, letting her hands fall and holding out his arms to her.{179}

She paused; a flood of colour rushed over her face, that had been so pale. Her eyes fell before his. She held out to him the two hands he had loosed his hold of, and put them into his. It was not such love as he had dreamed. His heart, that was so young and full of fire, ached with the pang of the almost disappointment, though it was better to him than any other satisfaction. She gave herself to him sweetly, gently, with a soft, virginal calm.

‘Yes,’ she said under her breath, ‘if you will take me—this way—if you are content——’

‘My dear, my dear, more than content!’ he cried, his heart beating with love and joy, and disappointment, and mortification, and happiness. She was so gently acquiescent, so calm, so—resigned—yes, that was the word; while he was full of all a young man’s fervour and passion. And yet, at last, she was his, and it was sweet. When he left her he did his best to school himself in the tumult of his emotions. Was it not always so? Could one mortal creature ever fully satisfy another at that supreme moment and junction of two lives? Was there not ever too little or too much—a failure from the perfect dream, the unspeakable union? But she was his all the same—to be cherished, cared for, made happy—she who was so unfriended. About that side of the matter there would be no doubt; and she would consent to his happiness, acquiesce in it, smile with soft wonder at his passion. Well, after all, was not that a woman’s natural part?

Isabel, for her part, was very giddy when it was all over, and felt like a creature in a dream. When she stood up the light seemed to swim away from her eyes, and a blackness came over the world. Something sang and buzzed in her ears; strange colours seemed to creep over the Loch and prismatic reflections. But yet amid all the bewilderment and confusion was a sense of comfort that it was settled at last. She had no more need to question with herself—no effort to make after a decision; a sense of quiet stole into her soul, the storm was over, and she had reached the haven.

That was an exciting day at the Glebe. Miss Catherine returned in the afternoon in the carriage, which was a rare grandeur, and kissed Isabel, and blessed her. She had gained her purpose, and it was no longer needful to shut the girl out from her house and her life. As the first symptom of the great change over, she carried Isabel off in the carriage to join the visitors at Lochhead; and it was Miss Catherine who intimated the great news to Jean, who had been much startled and mystified by the commotion in the house, though without any very clear idea what it meant. It was an intimation not without its importance to Jean, and took away her breath; but{180} she received it with a stoical concealment of her own individual feelings, with a few tears, and a shower of good wishes. ‘And me that was finding fault with Isabel because the minister wouldna come in!’ she said, with an unsteady laugh.

Meanwhile Isabel, with her head swimming, had gone back to the other sphere for which she had sighed, and found herself the object of a thousand little regards and observations. Miss Catherine, after her neglect, did not seem able to do enough to show her affection; and ere long the minister, now no longer her friend and adviser, but her lover and affianced husband, joined the party. The sight of him had the most curious effect on Isabel; she was immediately covered, as by a shield, from Miss Catherine’s too demonstrative satisfaction, from the overwhelming comments of the others; but for herself her head swam more than ever, and the solid earth seemed to have grown unsteady under her feet. She was in a dream; not such a sweet dream as he was walking about in, his head in the clouds; and not painful either, as one doomed and going to the sacrifice. It was only confusion—a mist which she could not penetrate—something which blurred all the outlines and confounded one object with another. She kept apart, and kept silent, feeling that if she spoke she would be incoherent, and if she moved might totter. It was all so new. When she had time to use herself to ‘what had happened,’ things would be different; such, at least, was what she said to herself.

But things were very little different until the wedding took place, which was a few days after the completion of the year of mourning for her sister. During the interval she scarcely ever regained her balance. She was as composed as usual, and took everything with outward calm; but she did not know what she was doing. The notes of her being were jangled out of tune—not harshly, but vaguely. The effect upon her was not to distort, but to dim everything. The world became vague, and all that was in it. It did not seem to her that she was to begin only a new chapter of existence, but that a new book, mysterious and strange, lay before her, beyond the crisis which she slowly approached. And at last the day came; a September day, early in the month, when the heather had just died out of bloom, and the crack of the sportsman’s gun was heard on the hills. There was no church-going procession, no pretty stream of bridal maidens from the Glebe to the church. The marriage took place in the little grey parlour, with the decorations in it which the bridegroom had put up, and with the associations that were so sacred to both. They stood where Margaret’s sofa had stood, where she had died,{181} and were made man and wife. And when it was done and had become irrevocable the bride woke up with a little cry—the mist vanished from her eyes and she saw things clear—a cloud of interested, smiling faces around her, a man by her side who was her husband—the new life, no longer a matter of the future, but present, had begun.

‘Did you speak, my darling?’ said her new husband, drawing her arm through his, and looking at her with the ineffable satisfaction in his eyes of a man who had attained all his desires, and reached the summit of content.

Isabel gazed up at him, attracted and touched in spite of herself by that wonderful look of happiness, scarcely able to refrain from being glad for him, notwithstanding the sharp and new impression of reality which weighed so strangely on herself. ‘I never thought it would come true,’ she sighed, turning her head away with momentary petulance, and burst into uncontrollable tears.

The bystanders were too much interested in the bride to notice if any cloud passed over the minister’s face. Had there been so, it would have been foolish; for was it not to be expected that a bride the moment she was married should signalise that wonderful event by the most natural sign of emotion? It was but what everyone looked for, an almost duty of her position. The women took her from her husband and kissed and blessed and cried over her in their turn. ‘And nae mother to support her at sic a time,’ the humbler wedding-guests said to each other as they stood about the door. There were two lines of sympathetic gazers all round the post-chaise when it came to take the bridal pair away; fashion was not urgent on that point on Loch Diarmid—but Mr. Lothian, with all the poetry of youth still in him, was eager to carry his love away and have her all to himself. She was very pale and trembled excessively as she was led out of her father’s house; but at last she had fully awakened out of all her dreamings, and felt the force of the change she had made. And Isabel did not turn from, but to, her husband in that dangerous crisis of her being. Whatever might happen, she was conscious that he was her support and comforter. She put her hand into his trustfully, and went away—not happy as he was, yet at peace. Into the long summer stretch of life, the existence without passion, without suffering, that lay before her now all was over; taking farewell—was it for ever?—of the cottage in which she had been born.


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