Isie hung down her head, and began to have dim perceptions that she might have been doing mischief with the best possible intentions.
"I only tell't Mistress Forbes hoo ill they war to Alec."
After a moment's reflection, Mrs Constable turned with a subdued manner to Mrs Forbes.
"The bairn's a curious bairn, mem," she said. "And she's owerheard her father and me speakin' thegither as gin't had been only ae body thinkin'. For gin ever twa was ane, that twa and that ane is Andrew Constable and mysel'."
"But what right had you to talk about my son?"
"Weel, mem, that queston gangs raither far. What's already procleemed frae the hoose-taps may surely be spoken i' the ear in closets—for oor back-room is but a closet. Gin ye think that fowk'll haud their tongues about your bairn mair nor ony ither body's bairn ye're mista'en, mem. But never ane heard o' 't frae me, and I can tak' my bodily aith for my man, for he's jist by ordinar' for haudin' his tongue. I cud hardly worm it oot o' 'm mysel'."
Mrs Forbes saw that she had been too hasty.
"What does it all mean, Mrs Constable?" she said, "for I am quite ignorant."
"Ye may weel be that, mem. And maybe there's no a word o' trouth i' the story, for I'm doobtin' the win' that brocht it blew frae an ill airt."
"I really don't understand you, Mrs Constable. What do they say about him?"
"Ow, jist that he's consortin' wi' the warst o' ill company, mem. But as I said to Anerew, maybe he'll come oot o' their cluiks no that muckle the waur, efter a'."
Mrs Forbes sank on the sofa, and hid her face in her hands. Annie turned white as death, and left the room. When Mrs Forbes lifted her head, Mrs Constable and her strange child had vanished.
Mrs Forbes and Annie wept together bitterly, in the shadow of death which the loved one cast upon them across the white plains and hills. Then the mother sat down and wrote, begging him to deny the terrible charge; after which they both felt easier. But when the return of post had brought no reply, and the next day was likewise barren of tidings, Mrs Forbes resolved to go to the hateful city at once.
When Alec woke in the morning, it rushed upon his mind that he had had a terrible dream; and he reproached himself that even in a dream he should be capable of striking to the earth the friend who had just saved him from disgrace, and wanted to save him from more. But as his headache began to yield to cold water, discomposing doubts rose upon his clearing mental horizon. They were absurd, but still they were unpleasant. It could be only a dream that he had felled the man twice his age, and half his size, who had once shed his blood for him. But why did it look so like fact, if it was only a dream? Horrible thought! Could it?—It could—It must be—It was a fact!
Haggard with horror as well as revelry, he rushed towards the stair, but was met by Mrs Leslie, who stopped him and said:
"Mr Forbes, gin you and Mr Cupples gang on at this rate, I'll be forced to gie ye baith warnin' to flit. I oucht to hae written to yer mither afore noo. Ye'll brack her hert or a' be dune. Eh! it's a sair thing whan young lads tak to drink, and turn reprobates in a jiffie (moment)."
"I dinna gang to your kirk, and ye needna preach to me. What's the maitter wi' Mr Cupples? He hasna ta'en to drink in a jiffie, has he?"
"Ye scorner! He cam hame last nicht bleedin' at the heid, and i' the han's o' the watchman. Puir man! he cud hardly win up the stair. I canna think hoo he cam' to fa' sae sair; for they say there's a special Providence watches ower drunk men and bairns. He was an awfu' sicht, honest man! A terrible mixter o' reid and white."
"What said he about it?" asked Alec, trembling.
"Ow, naething. He had naething till say. Ye maunna gang near him; for I left him fest asleep. Gang awa benn to yer ain room, and I'll be in wi' yer brakfast in ten minutes. Eh! but ye wad be a fine lad gin ye wad only gie up the drink and the ill company."
Alec obeyed, ashamed and full of remorse. The only thing he could do was to attend to Mr Cupples's business in the library, where he worked at the catalogue till the afternoon lecture was over.
Nobody had seen Beauchamp, and the blinds of Kate's windows were drawn down.
All day his heart was full of Mr Cupples; and as he went home he recalled everything with perfect distinctness, and felt that his conduct had been as vile as it was possible for conduct to be. Because a girl could not love him, he had ceased to love his mother, had given himself up to Satan, and had returned the devotion of his friend with a murderous blow. Because he could not have a bed of roses, he had thrown himself down in the pig-stye. He rushed into a public-house, and swallowed two glasses of whisky. That done, he went straight home, and ran up to Mr Cupples's room.
Mr Cupples was sitting before the fire, with his hands on his knees and his head bound in white, bloodstained. He turned a ghastly face, and tried to smile. Alec's heart gave way utterly. He knelt at Mr Cupples's feet, laid his head on his knee, and burst into very unsaxon but most gracious tears. Mr Cupples laid a small trembling hand on the boy's head, saying,
"Eh! bantam, bantam!" and could say no more.
"Mr Cupples," sobbed Alec, "forgive me. I'll cut my throat, gin ye like."
"Ye wad do better to cut the deevil's throat."
"Hoo could I do that? Tell me, and I'll do 't."
"Wi' the broken whisky-bottle, man. That's at the root o' a' the mischeef. It's no you. It's the drink. And eh! Alec, we micht be richt happy thegither efter that. I wad mak a scholar o' ye."
"Weel, Mr Cupples, ye hae a richt to demand o' me what ye like; for henceforth ye hae the pooer o' life or deith ower me. But gin I try to brak throu the drinkin', I maun haud oot ower frae the smell o' 't; an' I doobt," added Alec slyly, "ye wadna hae the chance o' makin' muckle o' a scholar o' me in that case."
And now the dark roots of thought and feeling blossomed into the fair flower of resolution.
"Bantam," said Mr Cupples solemnly, "I sweir to God, gin ye'll gie ower the drink and the lave o' yer ill gaits, I'll gie ower the drink as weel. I hae naething ither to gie ower. But that winna be easy," he added with a sigh, stretching his hand towards his glass.
From a sudden influx of energy, Alec stretched his hand likewise towards the same glass, and laying hold on it as Mr Cupples was raising it to his lips, cried:
"I sweir to God likewise—And noo," he added, leaving his hold of the glass, "ye daurna drink it."
Mr Cupples threw glass and all into the fire.
"That's my fareweel libation to the infernal Bacchus," he said. "Lat it gang to swall the low o' Phlegethon. But eh! it's a terrible undertakin'. It's mair nor Hercules himsel' could hae made onything o'. Bantam! I hae saicrifeesed mysel' to you. Haud to your pairt, or I canna haud to mine."
It was indeed a terrible undertaking. I doubt whether either of them would have had courage for it, had he not been under those same exciting influences—which, undermining all power of manly action, yet give for the moment a certain amount of energy to expend. But the limits are narrow within which, by wasting his capital, a man secures a supply of pocket-money. And for them the tug of war was to come.
They sat on opposite sides of the table and stared at each other. As the spirituous tide ebbed from the brain, more and more painful visions of the near future steamed up. Yet even already conscience began to sustain them. Her wine was strong, and they were so little used to it that it even excited them.
With Alec the struggle would soon be over. His nervous system would speedily recover its healthy operations. But Cupples—from whose veins alcohol had expelled the blood, whose skull was a Circean cup of hurtful spells—would not delirium follow for him?
Suddenly Alec laid his hand on the bottle. Mr Cupples trembled. Was he going to break his vow already?
"Wadna't be better to fling this into the neist yard, Mr Cupples?" said Alec. "We daurna fling 't i' the fire. It wad set the chimley in a low (flame)."
"Na, na. Lat ye 't sit," returned Mr Cupples.
"I wad be clean affrontit gin I cudna see and forbear. Ye may jist pit it into the press though. A body needna lay burdens grievous to be borne upo' himsel' mair nor upo' ither fowk. Noo, lat's hae a game o' cribbage, to haud's ohn thocht aboot it."
They played two or three games. It was pathetic to see how Mr Cupples's right hand, while he looked at the cards in his left, would go blindly flitting about the spot where his glass had always used to stand; and how, when he looked up unable to find it, his face shadowed over with disappointment. After those two or three games, he threw down the cards, saying,
"It winna do, bantam. I dinna like the cairts the nicht. Wi'oot ony thing to weet them, they're dooms dry. What say ye to a chorus o' Aeschylus?"
Alec's habits of study had been quite broken up of late. Even the medical lectures and the hospital classes had been neglected. So Aeschylus could not be much of a consolatory amusement in the blank which follows all exorcism. But Cupples felt that if no good spirit came into the empty house, sweeping and garnishing would only entice the seven to take the place of the one. So he tried to interest his pupil once again in his old studies; and by frequent changes did ere long succeed in holding tedium at bay.
But all his efforts would have resulted in nothing but that vain sweeping and garnishing, had not both their hearts been already tenanted by one good and strong spirit—essential life and humanity. That spirit was Love, which at the long last will expel whatsoever opposeth itself. While Alec felt that he must do everything to please Mr Cupples, he, on his part, felt that all the future of the youth lay in his hands. He forgot the pangs of alcoholic desire in his fear lest Alec should not be able to endure the tedium of abstinence; and Alec's gratitude and remorse made him humble as a slave to the little big-hearted man whom he had injured so cruelly.
"I'm tired and maun gang to my bed, for I hae a sair heid," said Mr Cupples, that first night.
"That's my doin'!" said Alec, sorrowfully.
"Gin this new repentance o' yours and mine turns oot to hae onything in't, we'll baith hae rizzon to be thankfu' that ye cloured (dinted) my skull, Alec. But eh me! I'm feared I winna sleep muckle the nicht."
"Wad ye like me to sit up wi' ye?" asked Alec. "I cud sleep i' your cheir weel eneuch."
"Na, na. We hae baith need to say oor prayers, and we cudna do that weel thegither. Gang ye awa' to yer bed, and min' yer vow to God and to me. And dinna forget yer prayers, Alec."
Neither of them forgot his prayers. Alec slept soundly—Mr Cupples not at all.
"I think," he said, when Alec appeared in the morning, "I winna tak sic a hardship upo' me anither nicht. Jist open the cat's door and fling the bottle into somebody's yard. I houp it winna cut onybody's feet."
Alec flew to the cupboard, and dragged out the demon.
"Noo," said Mr Cupples, "open the twa doors wide, and fling 't wi' a birr, that I may hear its last speech and dyin' declaration."
Alec did as he was desired, and the bottle fell on the stones of a little court. The clash rose to the ears of Mr Cupples.
"Thank God!" he said with a sigh.—"Alec, no man that hasna gane throu the same, can tell what I hae gane throu this past nicht, wi' that deevil i' the press there cryin' 'Come pree (taste) me! come pree me!' But I heard and hearkened not. And yet whiles i' the nicht, although I'm sure I didna sleep a wink, I thocht I was fumblin' awa' at the lock o' the press an' cudna get it opened. And the press was a coffin set up upo' its en', an' I kent that there was a corp inside it, and yet I tried sair to open't. An' syne again, I thocht it was the gate o' Paradees afore which stud the angel wi' the flamin' sword that turned ilka gait, and wadna lat me in. But I'm some better sin the licht cam, and I wad fain hae a drappy o' that fine caller tipple they ca' watter."
Alec ran down and brought it cold from the pump, saying, as Mr Cupples returned the tumbler with a look of thanks,
"But there's the tappit hen. I doot gin we lea' her i' the press, she'll be wantin' to lay."
"Na, na, nae fear o' that. She's as toom's a cock. Gang and luik. The last drap in her wame flaw oot at the window i' that bottle. Eh! Alec, but I'll hae a sair day, and ye maun be true to me. Gie me my Homer, or I'll never win throu't. An ye may lay John Milton within my rax (reach); for I winna pit my leg oot o' the blankets till ye come hame. Sae ye maunna be langer nor ye can help."
Alec promised, and set off with a light heart.
Beauchamp was at none of the classes. And the blinds of Kate's windows were still drawn down.
For a whole week he came home as early as possible and spent the rest of the day with Mr Cupples. But many dreary hours passed over them both. The suffering of Mr Cupples and the struggle which he had to sustain with the constant craving of his whole being, are perhaps indescribable; but true to his vow and to his friend, he endured manfully. Still it was with a rueful-comical look and a sigh, sometimes, that he would sit down to his tea, remarking,
"Eh, man! this is meeserable stuff—awfu' weyk tipple—a pagan invention a'thegither."
But the tea comforted the poor half-scorched, half-sodden nerves notwithstanding, and by slow degrees they began to gather tone and strength; his appetite improved; and at the end of the week he resumed his duties in the library. And thenceforth, as soon as his classes were over, Alec would go to the library to Mr Cupples, or on other days Mr Cupples would linger near the medical school or hospital, till Alec came out, and then they would go home together. Once home, both found enough to do in getting one of them up to the mark of the approaching examinations.—Two pale-faced creatures they sat there, in Mr Cupples's garret, looking wretched and subdued enough, although occasionally they broke out laughing, as the sparks of life revived and flickered into merriment.
Inquiring after Miss Fraser, Alec learned that she was ill. The maid inquired in return if he knew anything about Mr Beauchamp.
Mr Cupples and Alec were hard at work—the table covered with books and papers; when a knock came to the door—the rarest occurrence in that skyey region—and the landlady ushered in Mrs Forbes.
The two men sprang to their feet, and Mrs Forbes stared with gratified amazement. The place was crowded with signs of intellectual labour, and not even a pack of cards was visible.
"Why didn't you answer my last letter, Alec?" she said.
It had dropped behind some books, and he had never seen it.
"What is the meaning, then, of such reports about you?" she resumed, venturing to put the question in the presence of Mr Cupples in the hope of a corroborated refutation.
Alec looked confused, grew red, and was silent. Mr Cupples took up the reply.
"Ye see, mem, it's a pairt o' the edication o' the human individual, frae the time o' Adam and Eve doonwith, to learn to refuse the evil and chowse the guid. This doesna aye come o' eatin' butter and honey, but whiles o' eatin' aise (ashes) and dirt. Noo, my pupil, here, mem, your son, has eaten that dirt and made that chice. And I'll be caution (security) for him that he'll never mair return to wallow i' that mire. It's three weeks, mem, sin ae drop o' whusky has passed his mou."
"Whisky!" exclaimed the mother. "Alec! Is it possible?"
"Mem, mem! It wad become ye better to fa' doon upo' yer knees and thank the God that's brocht him oot o' a fearfu' pit and oot o' the miry clay and set his feet upon a rock. But the rock's some sma' i' the fit-haud, and ae word micht jist caw him aff o' 't again. Gin ye fa' to upbraidin' o' 'm, ye may gar him clean forget's washin'."
But Mrs Forbes was proud, and did not like interference between her and her son. Had she found things as bad as she had expected, she would have been humble. Now that her fears had abated, her natural pride had returned.
"Take me to your own room, Alec," she said.
"Ay, ay, mem. Tak' him wi' ye. But caw cannie, ye ken, or ye'll gie me a deevil o' a job wi' 'm."
With a smile to Cupples, Alec led the way.
He would have told his mother almost everything if she had been genial. As she was, he contented himself with a general confession that he had been behaving very badly, and would have grown ten times worse but for Mr Cupples, who was the best friend that he had on earth.
"Better than your mother, Alec?" she asked, jealously.
"I was no kith or kin of his, and yet he loved me," said Alec.
"He ought to have behaved more like a gentleman to me."
"Mother, you don't understand Mr Cupples. He's a strange creature. He takes a pride in speaking the broadest Scotch, when he could talk to you in more languages than you ever heard of, if he liked."
"I don't think he's fit company for you anyhow. We'll change the subject, if you please."
So Alec was yet more annoyed, and the intercourse between mother and son was forced and uncomfortable. As soon as she retired to rest, Alec bounded up stairs again.
"Never mind my mother," he cried. "She's a good woman, but she's vexed with me, and lets it out on you."
"Mind her!" answered Mr Cupples; "she's a verra fine woman; and she may say what she likes to me. She'll be a' richt the morn's mornin'. A woman wi' ae son's like a coo wi' ae horn, some kittle (ticklish), ye ken. I cud see in her een haill coal-pits o' affection. She wad dee for ye, afore ye cud say—'Dinna, mither.'"
Next day they went to call on Professor Fraser. He received them kindly, and thanked Mrs Forbes for her attentions to his niece. But he seemed oppressed and troubled. His niece was far from well, he said—had not left her room for some weeks, and could see no one.
Mrs Forbes associated Alec's conduct with Kate's illness, but said nothing about her suspicions. After one day more, she returned home, reassured by but not satisfied with her visit. She felt that Alec had outgrown his former relation to her, and had a dim perception that her pride had prevented them from entering upon a yet closer relation. It is their own fault when mothers lose by the growth of their children.
Meantime, Annie was passing through a strange experience. It gave her a dreadful shock to know that such things were reported of her hero, her champion. They could not be true, else Chaos was come again. But when no exultant denial of them arrived from the pen of his mother, although she wrote as she had promised, then she understood by degrees that the youth had erred from the path, and had denied the Lord that bought him. She brooded and fancied and recoiled till the thought of him became so painful that she turned from it, rather than from him, with discomfort amounting almost to disgust. He had been to her the centre of all that was noble and true. And he revelled in company of which she knew nothing except from far-off hints of unapproachable pollution! Her idol all of silver hue was blackened with the breath of sulphur, and the world was overspread with the darkness which radiated from it.
In this mood she went to the week-evening service at Mr Turnbull's chapel. There she sat listless, looking for no help, and caring for none of the hymns or prayers. At length Mr Turnbull began to read the story of the Prodigal Son. And during the reading her distress vanished like snow in the sunshine. For she took for her own the character of the elder brother, prayed for forgiveness, and came away loving Alec Forbes more than ever she had loved him before. If God could love the Prodigal, might she not, ought she not to love him too?—The deepest source of her misery, though she did not know that it was, had been the fading of her love to him.
And as she walked home through the dark, the story grew into other comfort. A prodigal might see the face of God, then! He was no grand monarch, but a homely father. He would receive her one day, and let her look in his face.
Nor did the trouble return any more. From that one moment, no feeling of repugnance ever mingled with her thought of Alec. For such a one as he could not help repenting, she said. He would be sure to rise and go back to his Father. She would not have found it hard to believe even, that, come early, or linger late, no swine-keeping son of the Father will be able to help repenting at last; that no God-born soul will be able to go on trying to satisfy himself with the husks that the swine eat, or to refrain from thinking of his Father's house, and wishing himself within its walls even in the meanest place; or that such a wish is prelude to the best robe and the ring and the fatted calf, when the Father would spend himself in joyous obliteration of his son's past and its misery—having got him back his very own, and better than when he went, because more humble and more loving.
When Mrs Forbes came home, she entered into no detail, and was disinclined to talk about the matter at all, probably as much from dissatisfaction with herself as with her son, But Annie's heart blossomed into a quiet delight when she learned that the facts were not so bad as the reports, and that there was no doubt he would yet live them all down.
The evil time was drawing nigh, ushered by gentler gales and snowdrops, when she must be turned out for the spring and summer. She would feel it more than ever, but less than if her aunt had not explained to her that she had a right to the shelter afforded her by the Bruces.
Meantime arrived a letter from Mr Cupples.
"Dear Madam,—After all the efforts of Mr Alec, aided by my best endeavours, but counteracted by the grief of knowing that his cousin, Miss Fraser, entertained a devoted regard for a worthless class-fellow of his—after all our united efforts, Mr Alec has not been able to pass more than two of his examinations. I am certain he would have done better but for the unhappiness to which I have referred, combined with the illness of Miss Fraser. In the course of a day or two, he will return to you, when, if you can succeed, as none but mothers can, in restoring him to some composure of mind, he will be perfectly able during the vacation to make up for lost time.
"I am, dear madam, your obedient servant,
Angry with Kate, annoyed with her son, vexed with herself, and indignant at the mediation of "that dirty vulgar little man," Mrs Forbes forgot her usual restraint, and throwing the letter across the table with the words "Bad news, Annie," left the room. But the effect produced upon Annie by the contents of the letter was very different.
Hitherto she had looked up to Alec as a great strong creature. Her faith in him had been unquestioning and unbounded. Even his wrong-doings had not impressed her with any sense of his weakness. But now, rejected and disgraced, his mother dissatisfied, his friend disappointed, and himself foiled in the battle of life, he had fallen upon evil days, and all the woman in Annie rose for his defence. In a moment they had changed places in the world of her moral imagination. The strong youth was weak and defenceless: the gentle girl opened the heart almost of motherhood, to receive and shelter the worn outraged man. A new tenderness, a new pity took possession of her. Indignant with Kate, angry with the professors, ready to kiss the hands of Mr Cupples, all the tenderness of her tender nature gathered about her fallen hero, and she was more like his wife defending him from her mother. Now she could be something if not to him yet for him. He had been a "bright particular star" "beyond her sphere," but now the star lay in the grass, shorn of its beams, and she took it to her bosom.
Two days passed. On the third evening in walked Alec, pale and trembling, evidently ill, too ill to be questioned. His breathing was short and checked by pain.
"If I hadn't come at once, mother," he said, "I should have been laid up there. It's pleurisy, Mr Cupples says."
"My poor boy!"
"Oh! I don't care."
"You've been working too hard, dear."
Alec laughed bitterly.
"I did work, mother; but it doesn't matter. She's dead."
"Who's dead?" exclaimed his mother.
"Kate's dead. And I couldn't help it. I tried hard. And it's all my fault too. Cupples says she's better dead. But I might have saved her."
He started from the sofa, and went pacing about the room, his face flushed and his breath coming faster and shorter. His mother got him to lie down again, and asked no more questions. The doctor came and bled him at the arm, and sent him to bed.
When Annie saw him worn and ill, her heart swelled till she could hardly bear the aching of it. She would have been his slave, and she could do nothing. She must leave him instead. She went to her room, put on her bonnet and cloak, and was leaving the house when Mrs Forbes caught sight of her.
"Annie! what do you mean, child? You're not going to leave me?"
"I thought you wouldn't want me any more, ma'am."
"You silly child!"
Annie ran back to her room, thus compromising with a strong inclination to dance back to it.
When Mr Cupples and Alec had begun to place confidence in each other's self-denial, they cared less to dog each other.—Alec finding at the Natural Philosophy examination that he had no chance, gathered his papers, and leaving the room, wandered away to his former refuge when miserable, that long desolate stretch of barren sand between the mouths of the two rivers. Here he wandered till long after the dusk had deepened into night.—A sound as of one singing came across the links, and drew nearer and nearer. He turned in the direction of it, for something in the tones reminded him of Kate; and he almost believed the song was her nurse's ghostly ballad. But it ceased; and after walking some distance inland, he turned again towards the sea. The song rose once more, but now between him and the sea. He ran towards it, falling repeatedly on the broken ground. By the time he reached the shore, the singing had again ceased, but presently a wild cry came from seawards, where the waves far out were still ebbing from the shore. He dashed along the glimmering sands, thinking he caught glimpses of something white, but there was no moon to give any certainty. As he advanced he became surer, but the sea was between. He rushed in. Deeper and deeper grew the water. He swam. But before he could reach the spot, for he had taken to the water too soon, with another cry the figure vanished, probably in one of those deep pits which abound along that shore. Still he held on, diving many times, but in vain. His vigour was not now what it had once been, and at length he was so exhausted, that when he came to himself, lying on his back in the dry sands, he had quite forgotten how he came there. He would have rushed again into the water, but he could scarcely move his limbs. He actually crawled part of the way across the links to the college. There he inquired if Miss Fraser was in the house. The maid assured him that she was in her own room, whereupon he went home. But he had scarcely gone before they discovered that her room was deserted, and she nowhere to be found. The shock of this news rendered it impossible for him to throw off the effects of his exposure. But he lingered on till Mr Cupples compelled him to go home. Not even then, however, had her body been recovered. Alec was convinced that she had got into one of the quicksands; but it was cast ashore a few days after his departure, and it was well that he did not see it. He did not learn the fact till many years after.
It soon transpired that she had been out of her mind for some time. Indeed rumours of the sort had been afloat before. The proximate cause of her insanity was not certainly known. Some suspicion of the worthlessness of her lover, some enlightenment as to his perfidy, or his unaccountable disappearance alone, may have occasioned its manifestation. But there is great reason to believe that she had a natural predisposition to it. And having never been taught to provide for her own mental sustenance, and so nourish a necessary independence, she had been too ready to squander the wealth of a rich and lovely nature upon an unworthy person, and the reaction had been madness and death. But anything was better than marrying Beauchamp.
One strange fact in the case was her inexplicable aversion to water—either a crude prevision of her coming fate, or, in the mysterious operations of delirious reasoning, the actual cause of it. The sea, visible from her window over the dreary flat of the links, may have fascinated her, and drawn her to her death. Such cases are not unknown.
During the worst period of Alec's illness, he was ever wandering along that shore, or swimming in those deadly waters. Sometimes he had laid hold of the drowning girl and was struggling with her to the surface. Sometimes he was drawing her in an agony from the swallowing gullet of a quicksand, which held her fast, and swallowed at her all the time that he fought to rescue her from its jawless throat.
Annie took her turn in the sick chamber, watching beside the half-unconscious lad, and listening anxiously to the murmurs that broke through the veil of his dreams. The feeling with which she had received the prodigal home into her heart, spread its roots deeper and wider, and bore at length a flower of a pale-rosy flush—Annie's love revealed to herself—strong although pale, delicate although strong. It seemed to the girl she had loved him so always, only she had not thought about it. He had fought for her and endured for her at school; he had saved her life from the greedy waters of the Glamour at the risk of his own: she would be the most ungrateful of girls if she did not love him.—And she did love him with a quiet intensity peculiar to her nature.
Never had she happier hours than those in which it seemed that only the stars and the angels were awake besides herself. And if while watching him thus at night she grew sleepy, she would kneel down and pray God to keep her awake, lest any harm should befall Alec. Then she would wonder if even the angels could do without sleep always, and fancy them lying about the warm fields of heaven between their own shadowy wings. She would wonder next if it would be safe for God to close his eyes for one minute—safe for the world, she meant; and hope that, if ever he did close his eyes, that might not be the one moment when she should see his face. Then she would nod, and wake up with a start, flutter silently to her feet, and go and peep at the slumberer. Never was woman happier than Annie was during those blessed midnights and cold grey dawns. Sometimes, in those terrible hours after midnight that belong neither to the night nor the day, but almost to the primeval darkness, the terrors of the darkness would seize upon her, and she would sit "inhabiting trembling." But the lightest movement of the sleeper would rouse her, and a glance at the place where he lay would dispel her fears.
One night she heard a rustling amongst the bushes in the garden; and the next moment a subdued voice began to sing:
I waited for the Lord my God and patiently did bear; At length to me he did incline, my voice and cry to hear. He took me from a fearful pit, and from the miry clay, And on a rock he set my feet, establishing my way.
The tune was that wildest of trustful wailings—Martyrs'.
"I didna ken that ye cared aboot psalm-tunes, Mr Cupples," murmured Alec.
The singing went on and he grew restless.
It was an eerie thing to go out, but she must stop the singing. If it was Mr Cupples, she could have nothing to fear. Besides, a bad man would not sing that song.—As she opened the door, a soft spring wind blew upon her full of genial strength, as if it came straight from those dark blue clefts between the heavy clouds of the cast. Away in the clear west, the half-moon was going down in dreaming stillness. The dark figure of a little man stood leaning against the house, singing gently.
"Are you Mr Cupples?" she said.
The man started, and answered,
"Yes, my lass. And wha are ye?"
"I'm Annie Anderson. Alec's some disturbit wi' your singin'. Ye'll wauk him up, and he'll be a hantle the waur o' 't."
"I winna sing anither stave. It was lanesome stan'in' upo' the ootside here, as gin I war ane o' the foolish virgins."
"Eh! wadna that be dreidfu'?" responded Annie simply. Her words awoke an echo in Mr Cupples's conscience, but he returned no reply.
"Hoo's Alec?" he asked.
"Some better. He's growin' better, though it's langsome like."
"And do they lippen you to luik efter him, no?"
"Ay. What for no? His mither wad be worn to deith gin she sat up ilka nicht. He canna bide ouybody but her or me."
"Weel, ye're a young crater to hae sic a chairge.—I wrote to Mrs Forbes twa or three times, but I got but ae scrimpit answer. Sae as sune's I cud win awa', I cam' to speir efter him mysel'."
"Whan did ye come, Mr Cupples?"
"This nicht. Or I reckon it's last nicht noo. But or I wan ower this len'th, ye war a' i' yer beds, and I daurna disturb ye. Sae I sat doon in a summer-seat that I cam' upo', and smokit my pipe and luikit at the stars and the cluds. And I tried to sing a sang, but naething but psalms wad come, for the nicht's sae awfu' solemn, whan ye win richt intil the mids o' 't! It jist distresses me that there's naebody up to worship God a' nicht in sic a nicht's this."
"Nae doobt there's mony praisin' him that we canna see."
"Ow, ay; nae doobt. But aneath this lift, and breathin' the houpfu' air o' this divine darkness."
Annie did not quite understand him.
"I maun gang back to Alec," she said. "Ye'll come ower the morn, Mr Cupples, and hear a' aboot him?"
"I will do that, my bairn. Hoo do they ca' ye—for I forget names dreidfu'?"
"Ay, ay; Annie Anderson—I hae surely heard that name afore.—Weel, I winna forget you, whether I forget yer name or no."
"But hae ye a bed?" said the thoughtful girl, to whom the comfort of every one who came near her was an instinctive anxiety.
"Ow, ay. I hae a bed at the hoose o' a sma', jabberin', bitter-barkit crater they ca' King Robert the Bruce."
Annie knew that he must be occupying her room; and was on the point of expressing a hope that he "wadna be disturbit wi' the rottans," when she saw that it would lead to new explanations and delays.
"Good night, Mr Cupples," she said, holding out her hand.
Mr Cupples took it kindly, saying:
"Are ye a niece, or a gran'-dochter o' the hoose, or a hired servan', or what are ye?—for ye're a wice-spoken lass and a bonnie."
"I'm a servan' o' the hoose," said Annie. Then after a moment's hesitation, she added, "but no a hired ane."
"Ye're worth hirin' onyhoo, hinnie (honey); and they're weel aff that has ye i' the hoose in ony capawcity. An auld man like me may say that to yer face. Sae I'll awa' to my bed, and sing the lave o' my psalm as I gang."
Mr Cupples had a proclivity to garrets. He could not be comfortable if any person was over his head. He could breathe, he said, when he got next to the stars. For the rats he cared nothing, and slept as if the garret were a cellar in heaven.
It had been a sore trial of his manhood to keep his vow after he knew that Alec was safe in the haven of a sick-bed. He knew that for him, if he were once happy again, there was little danger of a relapse; for his physical nature had not been greatly corrupted: there had not been time for that. He would rise from his sickness newborn. Hence it was the harder for Mr Cupples, in his loneliness, to do battle with his deep-rooted desires. He would never drink as he had done, but might he not have just one tumbler?—That one tumbler he did not take. And—rich reward!—after two months the well of song within him began to gurgle and heave as if its waters would break forth once more in the desert; the roseate hue returned to the sunsets; and the spring came in with a very childhood of greenness.—The obfuscations of self-indulgence will soon vanish where they have not been sealed by crime and systematic selfishness.
Another though inferior reward was, that he had money in his pocket: with this money he would go and see Alec Forbes. The amount being small, however, he would save it by walking. Hence it came that he arrived late and weary. Entering the first shop he came to, he inquired after a cheap lodging. For he said to himself that the humblest inn was beyond his means; though probably his reason for avoiding such a shelter was the same as made him ask Alec to throw the bottle out of the garret. Robert Bruce heard his question, and, regarding him keenly from under his eyebrows, debated with himself whether the applicant was respectable—that is, whether he could pay, and would bring upon the house no discredit by the harbourage. The signs of such a man as Cupples were inscrutable to Bruce; therefore his answer hung fire.
"Are ye deif, man?" said Cupples; "or are ye feared to tyne a chance by giein' a fair answer to a fair queston?"
The arrow went too near the mark not to irritate Bruce.
"Gang yer wa's," said he. "We dinna want tramps i' this toon."
"Weel, I am a tramp, nae doobt," returned Cupples; "for I hae come ilka bit o' the road upo' my ain fit; but I hae read in history o' twa or three tramps that war respectable fowk for a' that. Ye winna gie onything i' this chop, I doobt—nae even information.—Will ye sell me an unce o' pigtail?"
"Ow, ay. I'll sell't gin ye'll buy't."
"There's the bawbees," said Cupples, laying the orthodox pence on the counter. "And noo will ye tell me whaur I can get a respectable, dacent place to lie doon in? I'll want it for a week, at ony rate."
Before he had finished the question, the door behind the counter had opened, and young Bruce had entered. Mr Cupples knew him well enough by sight as a last year's bejan.
"How are you?" he said. "I know you, though I don't know your name."
"My name's Robert Bruce, Mr Cupples."
"A fine name—Robert Bruce," he replied.
The youth turned to his father, and said—
"This gentleman is the librarian of our college, father."
Bruce took his hat off his head, and set it on the counter.
"I beg your pardon, sir," he said. "I'm terrible short-sichtit in can'le-licht."
"I'm used to bein' mista'en'," answered Cupples simply, perceiving that he had got hold of a character. "Mak nae apologies, I beg ye, but answer my queston."
"Weel, sir, to tell the trowth, seein' ye're a gentleman, we hae a room oorsels. But it's a garret-room, and maybe—"
"Then I'll hae't, whatever it be, gin ye dinna want ower muckle for't."
"Weel, ye see, sir, your college is a great expense to heumble fowk like oorsels, and we hae to mak it up the best way that we can."
"Nae doot. Hoo muckle do ye want?"
"Wad ye think five shillins ower muckle?"
"'Deed wad I."
"Weel, we'll say three than—to you, sir."
"I winna gie ye mair nor half-a-croon."
"Hoot, sir! It's ower little."
"Well, I'll look further," said Mr Cupples, putting on English, and moving to the door.
"Na, sir; ye'll do nae sic thing. Do ye think I wad lat the leebrarian o' my son's college gang oot at my door this time o' nicht, to luik for a bed till himsel'? Ye s' jist hae't at yer ain price, and welcome. Ye'll hae yer tay and sugar and bitties o' cheese frae me, ye ken?"
"Of course—of course. And if you could get me some tea at once, I should be obliged to you."
"Mother," cried Bruce through the house-door, and held a momentary whispering with the partner of his throne.
"So your name's Bruce, is it?" resumed Cupples, as the other returned to the counter.
"Robert Bruce, sir, at your service."
"It's a gran' name," said Cupples with emphasis.
"'Deed is't, and I hae a richt to beir 't."
"Ye'll be a descendant, nae doot, o' the Yerl o' Carrick?" said Cupples, guessing at his weakness.
"O' the king, sir. Fowk may think little o' me; but I come o' him that freed Scotland. Gin it hadna been for Bannockburn, sir, whaur wad Scotland hae been the day?"
"Nearhan' civileezed unner the fine influences o' the English, wi' their cultivation and their mainners, and, aboon a', their gran' Edwards and Hairries."
"I dinna richtly unnerstan' ye, sir," said Bruce. "Ye hae heard hoo the king clave the skull o' Sir Henry dee Bohunn—haena ye, sir?"
"Ow, aye. But it was a pity it wasna the ither gait. Lat me see the way to my room, for I want to wash my han's and face. They're jist barkit wi' stour (dust)."
Bruce hesitated whether to show Mr Cupples out or in. His blue blood boiled at this insult to his great progenitor. But a half-crown would cover a greater wrong than that even, and he obeyed. Cupples followed him up-stairs, murmuring to himself:
"Shades o' Wallace and Bruce! forgie me. But to see sma' craters cock their noses and their tails as gin they had inherited the michty deeds as weel as the names o' their forbears, jist scunners me, and turns my blude into the gall o' bitterness—and that's scripter for't."
After further consultation, Mr and Mrs Bruce came to the conclusion that it might be politic, for Robert's sake, to treat the librarian with consideration. Consequently Mrs Bruce invited him to go down to his tea in the room. Descending before it was quite ready, he looked about him. The only thing that attracted his attention was a handsomely bound Bible. This he took up, thinking to get some amusement from the births of the illustrious Bruces; but the only inscription he could find, besides the name of John Cowie, was the following in pencil:
"Super Davidis Psalmum tertium vicesimum, syngrapham pecuniariam centum solidos valentem, quoe, me mortuo, a Annie Anderson, mihi dilecta, sit, posui."
Then came some figures, and then the date, with the initials J. C.
Hence it was that Mr Cupples thought he had heard the name of Annie Anderson before.
"It's a gran' Bible this, gudewife," he said as Mrs Bruce entered.
"Aye is't. It belanged to oor pairis-minister."
Nothing more passed, for Mr Cupples was hungry.
After a long sleep in the morning, he called upon Mrs Forbes, and was kindly received; but it was a great disappointment to him to find that he could not see Alec. As he was in the country, however, he resolved to make the best of it, and enjoy himself for a week. For his asserted dislike to the country, though genuine at the time, was anything but natural to him. So every day he climbed to the top of one or other of the hills which inclosed the valley, and was rewarded with fresh vigour and renewed joy. He had not learned to read Wordsworth; yet not a wind blew through a broom-bush, but it blew a joy from it into his heart. He too was a prodigal returned at least into the vestibule of his Father's house. And the Father sent the servants out there to minister to him; and Nature, the housekeeper, put the robe of health upon him, and gave him new shoes of strength, and a ring, though not the Father's white stone. The delights of those spring days were endless to him whose own nature was budding with new life. Familiar with all the cottage ways, he would drop into any hoosie he came near about his dinnertime, and asking for a piece (of oat-cake) and a coguie o' milk, would make his dinner off those content, and leave a trifle behind him in acknowledgment. But he would always contrive that as the gloamin began to fall, he should be near Howglen, that he might inquire after his friend. And Mrs Forbes began to understand him better.—Before the week was over, there was not a man or woman about Howglen whom he did not know even by name; for to his surprise, even his forgetfulness was fast vanishing in the menstruum of the earth-spirit, the world's breath blown over the corn. In particular he had made the acquaintance of James Dow, with whose knowing simplicity he was greatly taken.
On the last day but one of his intended stay, as he went to make his daily inquiry, he dropped in to see James Dow in the "harled hypocrite." James had come in from his work, and was sitting alone on a bench by the table, in a corner of the earth-floored kitchen. The great pot, lidless, and full of magnificent potatoes, was hanging above the fire, that its contents might be quite dry for supper. Through the little window, a foot and a half square, Cupples could see the remains of a hawthorn hedge, a hundred years old—a hedge no longer, but a row of knobby, gnarled trees, full of knees and elbows; and through the trees the remains of an orange-coloured sunset.—It was not a beautiful country, as I have said before; but the spring was beautiful, and the heavens were always beautiful; and, like the plainest woman's face, the country itself, in its best moods, had no end of beauty.
"Hoo are ye, Jeames Doo?"
"Fine, I thank ye, sir," said James rising.
"I wad raither sit doon mysel', nor gar you stan' up efter yer day's work, Jeames."
"Ow! I dinna warstle mysel' to the deith a'thegither."
But James, who was not a healthy man, was often in the wet field when another would have been in bed, and righteously in bed. He had a strong feeling of the worthlessness of man's life in comparison with the work he has to do, even if that work be only the spreading of a fother of dung. His mistress could not keep him from his work.
Mr Cupples sat down, and James resumed his seat.
"Ye're awfu' dubby (miry) aboot the feet, Mr Cupples. Jist gie me aff yer shune, and I'll gie them a scrape and a lick wi' the blackin'-brush," said James, again rising.
"Deil tak' me gin I do ony sic thing!" exclaimed Mr Cupples. "My shune'll do weel eneuch."
"Whaur got ye a' that dub, sir? The roads is middlin' the day."
"I dinna aye stick to the roads, Jeames. I wan intil a bog first, and syne intil some plooed lan' that was a' lumps o' clay shinin' green i' the sun. Sae it's nae wonner gin I be some clortit. Will ye gie me a pitawta, Jeames, in place o' the blackin'-brush?"
"Ay, twenty. But winna ye bide till Mysie comes in, and hae a drappy milk wi' them? They're fine pitawtas the year."
"Na, na, I haena time."
"Weel, jist dip into the pot, and help yersel', sir; and I'll luik for a grainy o' saut."
"Hoo's yer mistress, Jeames? A fine woman that!"
"Nae that ill, but some forfochten wi' norsin' Mr Alec. Eh! sir, that's a fine lad, gin he wad only haud steady."
"I'm thinkin' he winna gang far wrang again. He's gotten the arles (earnest) and he winna want the wages.—That's a fine lassie that's bidin' wi' them—Annie Anderson they ca' her."
"'Deed is she, sir. I kent her father afore her day, and I hae kent her sin ever she had a day. She's ane o' the finest bairns ever was seen."
"Is she ony relation to the mistress?"
"Ow, na. Nae mair relation nor 'at a' gude fowk's sib."
And Dow told Cupples the girl's story, including the arrangement made with Bruce in which he had had a principal part.
"Annie Anderson—I canna mak' oot whaur I hae heard her name afore."
"Ye're bidin' at Bruce's, arena ye, Mr Cupples?"
"Ay. That is, I'm sleepin' there, and payin' for't."
"Weel, I hae little doobt ye hae heard it there."
"I dinna think it. But maybe.—What kin' o' chiel' 's Bruce?"
"He's terrible greedy."
"A moudiwarp (mole) wi' ae ee wad see that afore he had winkit twice."
"'Deed micht he."
"Is he honest?"
"That's hard to answer. But I s' gar him be honest wi' regaird to her, gin I can."
"Wad he chait?"
"Ay. Na. He wadna chait muckle. I wadna turn my back till him, though, ohn keekit ower my shouther to haud him sicker. He wadna min' doin' ill that gude micht come."
"Ay, ay; I ken him.—And the ill wad be whatever hurtit anither man, and the gude whatever furthered himsel?" said Mr Cupples as he dipped the last morsel of his third potato in the salt which he held in the palm of his left hand.
"Ye hae said it, Mr Cupples."
And therewith, Mr Cupples bade James good-night, and went to the hoose.
There he heard the happy news that Alec insisted on seeing him. Against her will, Mrs Forbes had given in, as the better alternative to vexing him. The result of the interview was, that Cupples sat up with him that night, and Mrs Forbes and Annie both slept. In the morning he found a bed ready for him, to which he reluctantly betook himself and slept for a couple of hours. The end of it was, that he did not go back to Mr Bruce's except to pay his bill. Nor did he leave Howglen for many weeks.
At length, one lovely morning, when the green corn lay soaking in the yellow sunlight, and the sky rose above the earth deep and pure and tender like the thought of God about it, Alec became suddenly aware that life was good, and the world beautiful. He tried to raise himself, but failed. Cupples was by his side in a moment. Alec held out his hand with his old smile so long disused. Cupples propped him up with pillows, and opened the window that the warm waves of the air might break into the cave where he had lain so long deaf to its noises and insensible to its influences. The tide flowed into his chamber like Pactolus, all golden with sunbeams. He lay with his hands before him and his eyes closed, looking so happy that Cupples gazed with reverent delight, for he thought he was praying. But he was only blessed. So easily can God make a man happy! The past had dropped from him like a wild but weary and sordid dream. He was reborn, a new child, in a new bright world, with a glowing summer to revel in. One of God's lyric prophets, the larks, was within earshot, pouring down a vocal summer of jubilant melody. The lark thought nobody was listening but his wife; but God heard in heaven, and the young prodigal heard on the earth. He would be a good child henceforth, for one bunch of sunrays was enough to be happy upon. His mother entered. She saw the beauty upon her boy's worn countenance; she saw the noble watching love on that of his friend; her own filled with light, and she stood transfixed and silent. Annie entered, gazed for a moment, fled to her own room, and burst into adoring tears.—For she had seen the face of God, and that face was Love—love like the human, only deeper, deeper—tenderer, lovelier, stronger. She could not recall what she had seen, or how she had known it; but the conviction remained that she had seen his face, and that it was infinitely beautiful.
"He has been wi' me a' the time, my God! He gied me my father, and sent Broonie to tak' care o' me, and Dooie, and Thomas Crann, and Mrs Forbes, and Alec. And he sent the cat whan I gaed till him aboot the rottans. An' he's been wi' me I kenna hoo lang, and he's wi' me noo. And I hae seen his face, and I'll see his face again. And I'll try sair to be a gude bairn. Eh me! It's jist wonnerfu! And God's jist....naething but God himsel'."
Although Mr Cupples had been educated for the Church, and was indeed at this present time a licentiate, he had given up all thought of pursuing what had been his mother's ambition rather than his own choice. But his thoughts had not ceased to run in some of the old grooves, although a certain scepticism would sometimes set him examining those grooves to find out whether they had been made by the wheels of the gospel-chariot, or by those of Juggernaut in the disguise of a Hebrew high priest, drawn by a shouting Christian people. Indeed, as soon as he ceased to go to church, which was soon after ceasing to regard the priesthood as his future profession, he began to look at many things from points of view not exclusively ecclesiastical. So that, although he did go to church at Glamerton for several Sundays, the day arriving when he could not face it again, he did not scruple to set off for the hills. Coming home with a great grand purple foxglove in his hand, he met some of the missionars returning from their chapel, and amongst the rest Robert Bruce, who stopped and spoke.
"I'm surprised to see ye carryin' that thing o' the Lord's day, Mr Cupples. Fowk'll think ill o' ye."
"Weel, ye see, Mr Bruce, it angert me sae to see the ill-faured thing positeevely growin' there upo' the Lord's day, that I pu'd it up 'maist by the reet. To think o' a weyd like that prankin' itsel' oot in its purple and its spots upo' the Sawbath day! It canna ken what it's aboot. I'm only feared I left eneuch o' 't to be up again afore lang."
"I doobt, Mr Cupples, ye haena come unner the pooer o' grace yet."
"A pour o' creysh (grease)! Na, thank ye. I dinna want to come unner a pour o' creysh. It wad blaud me a'thegither. Is that the gait ye baptize i' your conventicle?"
"There's nane sae deif's them 'at winna hear, Mr Cupples," said Bruce. "I mean—ye're no convertit yet."
"Na. I'm no convertit. 'Deed no. I wadna like to be convertit. What wad ye convert me till? A swine? Or a sma' peddlin' crater that tak's a bawbee mair for rowin' up the pigtail in a foul paper? Ca' ye that conversion? I'll bide as I am."
"It's waste o' precious time speikin' to you, Mr Cupples," returned Bruce, moving off with a red face.
"'Deed is't," retorted Cupples; "and I houp ye winna forget the fac'? It's o' consequens to me."
But he had quite another word on the same subject for Annie Anderson, whom he overtook on her way to Howglen—she likewise returning from the missionar kirk.
"Isna that a bonnie ring o' deid man's bells, Annie?" said he, holding out the foxglove, and calling it by its name in that part of the country.
"Ay is't. But that was ower muckle a flooer to tak' to the kirk wi' ye. Ye wad gar the fowk lauch."
"What's the richt flooer to tak' to the kirk, Annie?"
"Ow! sober floories that smell o' the yird (earth), like."
"Ay! ay! Sic like's what?" asked Cupples, for he had found in Annie a poetic nature that delighted him.
"Ow! sic like's thyme and southren-wood, and maybe a bittie o' mignonette."
"Ay! ay! And sae the cowmon custom abuses you, young, bonnie lammies o' the flock. Wadna ye tak' the rose o' Sharon itsel', nor the fire-reid lilies that made the text for the Saviour's sermon? Ow! na. Ye maun be sober, wi' flooers bonnie eneuch, but smellin' o' the kirkyard raither nor the blue lift, which same's the sapphire throne o' Him that sat thereon."
"Weel, but allooin' that, ye sudna gar fowk lauch, wi' a bonnie flooer, but ridickleous for the size o' 't, 'cep' ye gie 't room. A kirk's ower little for't."
"Ye're richt there, my dawtie. And I haena been to the kirk ava'. I hae been to the hills."
"And what got ye there?"
"I got this upo' the road hame."
"But what got ye there?"
"Weel, I got the blue lift."
"And what was that to ye?"
"It said to me that I was a foolish man to care aboot the claiks and the strifes o' the warl'; for a' was quaiet aboon, whatever stramash they micht be makin' doon here i' the cellars o' the speeritual creation."
Annie was silent: while she did not quite understand him, she had a dim perception of a grand meaning in what he said.
The fact was that Annie was the greater of the two in esse; Cupples the greater in posse. His imagination let him see things far beyond what he could for a long time attain unto.
"But what got ye at the kirk, Annie?"
"Weel, I canna say I got verra muckle the day. Mr Turnbull's text was, 'Thou, Lord, art merciful, for thou renderest to every man according to his works.'"
"Ye micht hae gotten a hantel oot o' that."
"Ay. But ye see, he said the Lord was merciful to ither fowk whan he rendert to the wicked the punishment due to them. And I cudna richtly feel i' my hert that I cud praise the Lord for that mercy."
"I dinna wonner, my bairn."
"But eh! Mr Cupples, Mr Turnbull's no like that aye. He's bonnie upo' the Gospel news. I wiss ye wad gang and hear him the nicht. I canna gang, cause Mrs Forbes is gaun oot."
"I'll gang and hear him, to please you, my lassie; for, as I said, I haena been to the kirk the day."
"But do ye think it's richt to brak the Sawbath, Mr Cupples?"
"Ay and no."
"I dinna unnerstan' ye."
"What the clergy ca' brakin' the Sawbath's no brakin' o' 't. I'll tell ye what seems to me the differ atween the like o' your Mr Turnbull and the Pharisees—and it's a great differ. They band heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and laid them upo' men's shouthers, but wadna touch sic like to carry them wi' ane o' their fingers: Mr Turnbull and the like o' him beirs their share. But the burden's nane the less a heavy ane and grievous to be borne."
"But the burden's no that grievous to me, Mr Cupples."
"There's no sayin' what you women-fowk will not tak' a pleesur' in bearin'; but the passage refers expressly to the men's shouthers. And faith mine will not endure to be loadent wi' ither fowks fykes (trifles). And sae come alang, deid man's bells."
Annie thought all this rather dreadful, but she was not shocked as a Christian who lives by the clergy and their traditions, instead of by the fresh Spirit of God, would have been. For she could not help seeing that there was truth in it.
But although Cupples could say much to set Annie thinking, and although she did find enlightenment at last from pondering over his words, yet she could have told him far deeper things than he had yet suspected to exist. For she knew that the goal of all life is the face of God. Perhaps she had to learn a yet higher lesson: that our one free home is the Heart, the eternal lovely Will of God, than that which should fail, it were better that we and all the worlds should go out in blackness. But this Will is our Salvation. Because He liveth we shall live also.
Mr Cupples found in the missionar kirk a certain fervour which pleased him. For Mr Turnbull, finding that his appeals to the ungodly were now of little avail to attract listeners of the class, had betaken himself to the building up of the body of Christ, dwelling in particular upon the love of the brethren. But how some of them were to be loved, except with the love of compassionate indignation, even his most rapt listener Thomas Crann could not have supposed himself capable of explaining. As I said, however, Mr Cupples found the sermon in some degree impressive, and was attentive. As he was walking away, questioning with himself, he heard a voice in the air above him. It came from the lips of Thomas Crann, who, although stooping from asthma and rheumatism, still rose nearly a foot above the head of Mr Cupples.
"I was glaid to see ye at oor kirk, sir," said Thomas.
"What for that?" returned the librarian, who always repelled first approaches, in which he was only like Thomas himself, and many other worthy people, both Scotch and English.
"A stranger sud aye be welcomed to onybody's hoose."
"I didna ken it was your hoose."
"Ow na. It's no my hoose. It's the Lord's hoose. But a smile frae the servan'-lass that opens the door's something till a man that gangs to ony hoose for the first time, ye ken," returned Thomas, who, like many men of rough address, was instantly put upon his good behaviour by the exhibition of like roughness in another.
This answer disarmed Cupples. He looked up into Thomas's face, and saw first a massive chin; then a firmly closed mouth; then a nose, straight as a Greek's, but bulky and of a rough texture; then two keen grey eyes, and lastly a big square forehead supported by the two pedestals of high cheek bones—the whole looking as if it had been hewn out of his professional granite, or rather as if the look of the granite had passed into the face that was so constantly bent over it fashioning the stubborn substance to the yet more stubborn human will. And Cupples not only liked the face, but felt that he was in the presence of one of the higher natures of the world—made to command, or rather, which is far better, to influence. Before he had time to reply, however, Thomas resumed:
"Ye hae had a heap o' tribble, I doobt, wi' that laddie, Alec Forbes."
"Naething mair nor was nateral," answered Cupples.
"He's a fine crater, though. I ken that weel. Is he come back, do ye think?"
"What do ye mean? He's lyin' in's bed, quaiet eneuch, puir fallow!"
"Is he come back to the fold?"
"Nae to the missionars, I'm thinkin'."
"Dinna anger me. Ye're nae sae ignorant as ye wad pass for. Ye ken weel eneuch what I mean. What care I for the missionars mair nor ony ither o' the Lord's fowk, 'cep that they're mair like his fowk nor ony ither that I hae seen?"
"Sic like's Robert Bruce, for a sample."
Thomas stopped as if he had struck against a stone wall, and went back on his track.
"What I want to ken is whether Alec unnerstans yet that the prodigal's aye ill aff; and—"
"Na," interrupted Cupples. "He's never been cawed to the swine yet. Nor he sudna be, sae lang's I had a saxpence to halve wi' him."
"Ye're no richt, frien', there. The suner a prodigal comes to the swine the better!"
"Ay; that's what you richteous elder brithers think. I ken that weel eneuch."
"Mr Cupples, I'm nae elder brither i' that sense. God kens I wad gang oot to lat him in."
"What ken ye aboot him, gin it be a fair queston?"
"I hae kent him, sir, sin he was a bairn. I perilled his life—no my ain—to gar him do his duty. I trust in God it wad hae been easier for me to hae perilled my ain. Sae ye see I do ken aboot him."
"Weel," said Mr Cupples, to whom the nature of Thomas had begun to open itself, "I alloo that. Whaur do ye bide? What's yer name? I'll come and see ye the morn's nicht, gin ye'll lat me."
"My name's Thomas Crann. I'm a stonemason. Speir at Robert Bruce's chop, and they'll direc ye to whaur I bide. Ye may come the morn's nicht, and welcome. Can ye sup parritch?"
"Ay, weel that."
"My Jean's an extrornar han' at parritch. I only houp puir Esau had half as guid for's birthricht. Ye'll hae a drappy wi' me?"
"Wi' a' my hert," answered Cupples.
And here their ways diverged.
When he reached home, he asked Annie about Thomas. Annie spoke of him in the highest terms, adding,
"I'm glaid ye like him, Mr Cupples."
"I dinna think, wi' sic an opingon o' 'm, it can maitter muckle to you whether I like him or no," returned Mr Cupples, looking at her quizzically.
"Na, nae muckle as regairds him. But it says weel for you, ye ken, Mr Cupples," replied Annie archly.
Mr Cupples laughed good-humouredly, and said,
"Weel, I s' gang and see him the morn's nicht, ony gait."
And so he did. And the porridge and the milk were both good.
"This is heumble fare, Mr Cupples," said Thomas.
"It maitters little compairateevely what a man lives upo'," said Cupples sententiously, "sae it be first-rate o' 'ts ain kin'. And this is first-rate."
"Tak' a drappy mair, sir."
"Na, nae mair, I thank ye."
"They'll be left, gin ye dinna."
"Weel, sen' them ower to Mr Bruce," said Cupples, with a sly wink. "I s' warran' he'll coup them ower afore they sud be wastit. He canna bide waste."
"Weel, that's a vertue. The Saviour himsel' garred them gaither up the fragments."
"Nae doobt. But I'm feared Bruce wad hae coontit the waste by hoo mony o' the baskets gaed by his door. I'm surprised at ye, Mr Crann, tryin' to defen' sic a meeserable crater, jist 'cause he gangs to your kirk."
"Weel, he is a meeserable crater, and I canna bide him. He's jist a Jonah in oor ship, an Achan in oor camp. But I sudna speyk sae to ane that's no a member."
"Never ye min'. I'm auld eneuch to hae learned to haud my tongue. But we'll turn till a better subjec'. Jist tell me hoo ye made Alec peril's life for conscience sake. Ye dinna burn fowk here for nae freely haudin' by the shorter Carritchis, do ye?"
And hereupon followed the story of the flood.
Both these men, notwithstanding the defiance they bore on their shields, were of the most friendly and communicative disposition. So soon as they saw that a neighbour was trustworthy, they trusted him. Hence it is not marvellous that communication should have been mutual. Cupples told Thomas in return how he had come to know Alec, and what compact had arisen between them. Thomas, as soon as he understood Mr Cupples's sacrifice, caught the delicate hand in his granite grasp—like that with which the steel anvil and the stone block held Arthur's sword—and said solemnly,
"Ye hae done a great deed, which winna gang wantin' its reward. It canna hae merit, but it maun be pleesant in His sicht. Ye hae baith conquered sin i' yersel, and ye hae turned the sinner frae the error o' his ways."
"Hoots!" interrupted Cupples, "do ye think I was gaun to lat the laddie gang reid-wud to the deevil, ohn stud in afore 'm and cried Hooly!"
After this the two were friends, and met often. Cupples went to the missionars again and again, and they generally walked away together.
"What gart ye turn frae the kirk o' yer fathers, and tak to a conventicle like that, Thomas?" asked Mr Cupples one evening.
"Ye hae been to them baith, and I wad hae thocht ye wad hae kent better nor to speir sic a question," answered Thomas.
"Ay, ay. But what gart ye think o' 't first?"
"Weel, I'll tell ye the haill story. Whan I was a callan, I took the play to mysel' for a week, or maybe twa, and gaed wi' a frien' i' the same trade's mysel', to see what was to be seen alang a screed o' the sea-coast, frae toon to toon. My compaingon wasna that gude at the traivellin'; and upo' the Setterday nicht, there we war in a public-hoose, and him no able to gang ae fit further, for sair heels and taes. Sae we bude to bide still ower the Sawbath, though we wad fain hae been oot' o' the toon afore the kirk began. But seein' that we cudna, I thocht it wad be but dacent to gang to the kirk like ither fowk, and sae I made mysel' as snod as I could, and gaed oot. And afore I had gane mony yairds, I cam upo' fowk gaein to the kirk. And sae I loot the stream carry me alang wi' 't, and gaed in and sat doon, though the place wasna exackly like a kirk a'thegither. But the minister had a gift o' prayer and o' preaching as weel; and the fowk a' sang as gin't was pairt o' their business to praise God, for fear he wad tak it frae them and gie't to the stanes. Whan I cam oot, and was gaein quaietly back to the public, there cam first ae sober-luikin man up to me, and he wad hae me hame to my denner; and syne their cam an auld man, and efter that a man that luikit like a sutor, and ane and a' o' them wad hae me hame to my denner wi' them—for no airthly rizzon but that I was a stranger. But ye see I cudna gang 'cause my frien' was waitin' for his till I gaed back. Efter denner, I speirt at the landlady gin she cud tell me what they ca'd themsels, the fowk 'at gathered i' that pairt o' the toon; and says she, 'I dinna ken what they ca' them—they're nae customers o' mine—but I jist ken this, they're hard-workin' fowk, kind to ane anither. A'body trusts their word. Gif ony o' them be sick, the rest luiks efter them till they're better; and gin ony o' them happens to gang the wrang gait, there's aye three or four o' them aboot him, till they get him set richt again. 'Weel,' says I, 'I dinna care what they ca' them; but gin ever I jine ony kirk, that s' be the kirk.' Sae, efter that, whan ance I had gotten a sure houp, a rael grun' for believin' that I was ane o' the called and chosen, I jist jined mysel' to them that sud be like them—for they ca'd them a' Missionars."
"Is that lang sin syne?"
"Ay, it's twenty year noo."
"I thocht as muckle. I doobt they hae fared like maist o' the new fashions."
"Grown some auld themsel's. There's a feow signs o' decrepitude, no to say degeneracy, amo' ye, isna there?"
"I maun alloo that. At the first, things has a kin' o' a swing that carries them on. But the sons an' the dochters dinna care sae muckle aboot them as the fathers and mithers. Maybe they haena come throw the hards like them."
"And syne there'll be ane or twa cruppen in like that chosen vessel o' grace they ca' Robert Bruce. I'm sure he's eneuch to ruin ye i' the sicht o' the warl', hooever you and he may fare at heid-quarters, bein' a' called and chosen thegither."
"For God's sake, dinna think that sic as him gies ony token o' being ane o' the elec."
"Hoo wan he in than? They say ye're unco' particular. The Elec sud ken an elec."
"It's the siller, man, that blin's the een o' them that hae to sit in jeedgment upo' the applicants. The crater professed, and they war jist ower willin' to believe him."
"Weel, gin that be the case, I dinna see that ye're sae far aheid o' fowk that disna mak' sae mony pretensions."
"Indeed, Mr Cupples, I fully doobt that the displeesur o' the Almichty is restin' upo' oor kirk; and Mr Turnbull, honest man, appears to feel the wacht o' 't. We hae mair than ae instance i' the Scriptur o' a haill community sufferin' for the sin o' ane."
"Do ye ken ony instance o' a gude man no bein' able to win in to your set?"
"Ay, ane, I think. There was a fule body that wantit sair to sit doon wi' 's. But what cud we do? We cudna ken whether he had savin' grace or no, for the body cudna speyk that a body cud unnerstan' him?"
"And ye didna lat him sit doon wi' ye?"
"Na. Hoo cud we?"
"The Lord didna dee for him, did he?"
"We cudna tell."
"And what did the puir cratur do?"
"He grat" (wept).
"And hoo cam' ye to see that ye wad hae been a' the better o' a wee mair pooer to read the heart?"
"Whan the cratur was deein', the string o' his tongue, whether that string lay in his mou', or in his brain, was lousened, and he spak' plain, and he praised God."
"Weel, I cannot see that your plan, haudin' oot innocents that lo'e Him, and lattin in thieves that wad steal oot o' the Lord's ain bag—gie them a chance—can be an impruvment upo' the auld fashion o' settin' a man to judge himsel', and tak the wyte o' the jeedgment upo' 's ain shouthers."
Annie began to perceive that it was time for her to go, partly from the fact that she was no longer wanted so much, and partly from finding in herself certain conditions of feeling which she did not know what to do with.
"Annie's coming back to you in a day or two, Mr Bruce," said Mrs Forbes, having called to pay some of her interest, and wishing to prepare the way for her return. "She has been with me a long time, but you know she was ill, and I could not part with her besides."
"Weel, mem," answered Bruce, "we'll be verra happy to tak' her hame again, as sune's ye hae had a' the use ye want o' her."
He had never assumed this tone before, either to Mrs Forbes or with regard to Annie. But she took no notice of it.
Both Mr and Mrs Bruce received the girl so kindly that she did not know what to make of it. Mr Bruce especially was all sugar and butter—rancid butter of course. When she went up to her old rat-haunted room, her astonishment was doubled. For the holes in floor and roof had been mended; the sky-light was as clean as glass a hundred years old could be; a square of carpet lay in the middle of the floor; and cheque-curtains adorned the bed. She concluded that these luxuries had been procured for Mr Cupples, but could not understand how they came to be left for her.
Nor did the consideration shown her decrease after the first novelty of her return had worn off; and altogether the main sources of her former discomfort had ceased to flow. The baby had become a sweet-tempered little girl; Johnnie was at school all day; and Robert was a comparatively well-behaved, though still sulky youth. He gave himself great airs to his former companions, but to Annie he was condescending. He was a good student, and had the use of the room for a study.
Robert Bruce the elder had disclosed his projects to his heir, and he had naturally declined all effort for their realization. But he began at length to observe that Annie had grown very pretty; and then he thought it would be a nice thing to fall in love with her, since, from his parents' wishes to that end, she must have some money. Annie, however, did not suspect anything, till, one day, she overheard the elder say to the younger,
"Ye dinna push, man. Gang benn to the chop and get a cnottie o' reid candy-sugar, and gie her that the neist time ye see her her lane. The likes o' her kens what that means. And gin she tak's 't frae ye, ye may hae the run o' the drawer. It's worth while, ye ken. Them 'at winna saw winna reap."
From that moment she was on her guard. Nor did she give the youth a chance of putting his father's advice into operation.
Meantime Alec got better and better, went out with Mr Cupples in the gig, ate like an ogre, drank like a hippopotamus, and was rapidly recovering his former strength. As he grew better, his former grief did draw nearer, but such was the freshness of his new life, that he seemed to have died and risen again like Lazarus, leaving his sorrow behind him in the grave, to be communed with only in those dim seasons when ghosts walk.
One evening over their supper, he was opposing Mr Cupples's departure for the twentieth time. At length the latter said:
"Alec, I'll bide wi' ye till the neist session upon ae condition."
"What is that, Mr Cupples?" said Mrs Forbes. "I shall be delighted to know it."
"Ye see, mem, this young rascal here made a fule o' 'msel' last session and didna pass; and—"
"Let bygones be bygones, if you please, Mr Cupples, said Mrs Forbes pleasantly.
"'Deed no, mem. What's the use o' byganes but to learn frae them hoo to meet the bycomes? Ye'll please to hear me oot; and gin Alec doesna like to hear me, he maun jist sit and hear me."
"Fire away, Mr Cupples," said Alec.
"I will.—For them that didna pass i' the en' o' the last session, there's an examination i' the beginnin' o' the neist—gin they like to stan' 't. Gin they dinna, they maun gang throu the same classes ower again, and stan' the examination at the end—that is, gin they want a degree; and that's a terrible loss o' time for the start. Noo, gin Alec'll set to wark like a man, I'll help him a' that I can; and by the gatherin' again, he'll be up wi' the lave o' the fleet. Faith! I'll sit like Deith i' the spectre-bark, and blaw intil his sails a' that I can blaw. Maybe ye dinna ken that verse i' The Rhyme o' the Ancient Mariner? It was left oot o' the later editions:
'A gust of wind sterte up behind, And whistled through his bones; Through the holes of his eyes and the hole of his mouth, Half-whistles and half-groans.'
There! that's spicy—for them 'at likes ghaistry."
That very day Alec resumed. Mr Cupples would not let him work a moment after he began to show symptoms of fatigue. But the limit was moved further and further every day, till at length he could work four hours. His tutor would not hear of any further extension, and declared he would pass triumphantly.
The rest of the summer-day they spent in wandering about, or lying in the grass, for it was a hot and dry summer, so that the grass was a very bed of health. Then came all the pleasures of the harvest. And when the evenings grew cool, there were the books that Mr Cupples foraged for in Glamerton, seeming to find them by the scent.
And Mr Cupples tried to lead Alec into philosophical ways of regarding things; for he had just enough of religion to get some good of philosophy—which itself is the religion of skeletons.
"Ye see," he would say, "it's pairt o' the machine. What a body has to do is to learn what pinion or steam-box, or piston, or muckle water-wheel he represents, and stick to that, defyin' the deevil, whase wark is to put the machine out o' gear. And sae he maun grin' awa', and whan Deith comes, he'll say, as Andrew Wylie did—'Weel run, little wheelie!' and tak' him awa' wi' him some gait or ither, whaur, maybe, he may mak' choice o' his ain machine for the neist trial."
"That's some cauld doctrine, Mr Cupples," Alec would say.
"Weel," he would return with a smile, "gang to yer frien' Thamas Crann, and he'll gie ye something a hantle better. That's ane o' the maist extrornar men I ever made acquantance wi'. He'll gie ye divine philosophy—a dooms sicht better nor mine. But, eh! he's saft for a' that."
Annie would have got more good from these readings than either of them. Mr Cupples was puzzled to account for her absence, but came to see into the mother's defensive strategy, who had not yet learned to leave such things to themselves; though she might have known by this time that the bubbles of scheming mothers, positive or negative, however well-blown, are in danger of collapsing into a drop of burning poison. He missed Annie very much, and went often to see her, taking her what books he could. With one or other of these she would wander along the banks of the clear brown Glamour, now watching it as it subdued its rocks or lay asleep in its shadowy pools, now reading a page or two, or now seating herself on the grass, and letting the dove of peace fold its wings upon her bosom. Even her new love did not more than occasionally ruffle the flow of her inward river. She had long cherished a deeper love, which kept it very calm. Her stillness was always wandering into prayer; but never did she offer a petition that associated Alec's fate with her own; though sometimes she would find herself holding up her heart like an empty cup which knew that it was empty. She missed Tibbie Dyster dreadfully.
One day, thinking she heard Mr Cupples come upstairs, she ran down with a smile on her face, which fell off it like a withered leaf when she saw no one there but Robert the student. He, taking the smile for himself, rose and approached her with an ugly response on his heavy countenance. She turned and flew up again to her room; whither to her horror he followed her, demanding a kiss. An ordinary Scotch maiden of Annie's rank would have answered such a request from a man she did not like with a box on the ear, tolerably delivered; but Annie was too proud even to struggle, and submitted like a marble statue, except that she could not help wiping her lips after the salute. The youth walked away more discomfited than if she had made angry protestations, and a successful resistance.
Annie sat down and cried. Her former condition in the house was enviable to this.—That same evening, without saying a word to any one, for there was a curious admixture of outward lawlessness with the perfect inward obedience of the girl, she set out for Clippenstrae, on the opposite bank of the Wan Water. It was a gorgeous evening. The sun was going down in purple and crimson, divided by such bars of gold as never grew in the mines of Ophir. A faint rosy mist hung its veil over the hills about the sunset; and a torrent of red light streamed down the westward road by which she went. The air was soft, and the light sobered with a sense of the coming twilight. It was such an evening as we have, done into English, in the ninth Evening Voluntary of Wordsworth. And Annie felt it such. Thank God, is does not need a poetic education to feel such things. It needs a poetic education to say such things so, that another, not seeing, yet shall see; but that such a child as Annie should not be able to feel them, would be the one argument to destroy our belief in the genuineness of the poet's vision. For if so, can the vision have come from Nature's self? Has it not rather been evoked by the magic rod of the poet's will from his own chambers of imagery?
When she reached Clippenstrae, she found that she had been sent there. Her aunt came from the inner room as she opened the door, and she knew at once by her face that Death was in the house. For its expression recalled the sad vision of her father's departure. Her great-uncle, the little grey-headed old cottar in the Highland bonnet, lay dying—in the Highland bonnet still. He was going to "the land o' the Leal" (loyal), the true-hearted, to wait for his wife, whose rheumatism was no chariot of fire for swiftness, whatever it might be for pain, to bear her to the "high countries." He has had nothing to do with our story, save that once he made our Annie feel that she had a home. And to give that feeling to another is worth living for, and justifies a place in any story like mine.
Auntie Meg's grief appeared chiefly in her nose; but it was none the less genuine for that, for her nature was chiefly nose. She led the way into the death-room—it could hardly be called the sick-room—and Annie followed. By the bedside sat, in a high-backed chair, an old woman with more wrinkles in her face than moons in her life. She was perfectly calm, and looked like one, already half-across the river, watching her friend as he passed her towards the opposing bank. The old man lay with his eyes closed. As soon as he knew that he was dying he had closed his eyes, that the dead orbs might not stare into the faces of the living. It had been a whim of his for years. He would leave the house decent when his lease was up. And the will kept pressing down the lids which it would soon have no power to lift.
"Ye're come in time," said Auntie Meg, and whispered to the old woman—"My brither Jeames's bairn."
"Ay, ye're come in time, lassie," said the great-aunt kindly, and said no more.
The dying man heard the words, opened his eyes, glanced once at Annie, and closed them again.
"Is that ane o' the angels come?" he asked, for his wits were gone a little way before.
"Na, weel I wat!" said the hard-mouthed ungracious Meg. "It's Annie Anderson, Jeames Anderson's lass."
The old man put his hand feebly from under the bed-clothes.
"I'm glad to see ye, dawtie," he said, still without opening his eyes. "I aye wantit to see mair o' ye, for ye're jist sic a bairn as I wad hae likit to hae mysel' gin it had pleased the Lord. Ye're a douce, God-fearin' lassie, and He'll tak care o' his ain."
Here his mind began to wander again.
"Marget," he said, "is my een steekit, for I think I see angels?"
"Ay are they—close eueuch."
"Weel, that's verra weel. I'll hae a sleep noo."
He was silent for some time. Then he reverted to the fancy that Annie was the first of the angels come to carry away his soul, and murmured brokenly:
"Whan ye tak' it up, be carefu' hoo ye han'le 't, baith for it's some weyk, and for it's no ower clean, and micht blaud the bonnie white han's o' sic God-servers as yersels. I ken mysel there's ae spot ower the hert o' 't, whilk cam o' an ill word I gied a bairn for stealin' a neep. But they did steal a hantle that year. And there's anither spot upo' the richt han', whilk cam o' ower gude a bargain I made wi' auld John Thamson at Glass fair. And it wad never come oot wi' a' the soap and water—Hoots, I'm haverin'! It's upo' the han' o' my soul, whaur soap and water can never come. Lord, dight it clean, and I'll gie him 't a' back whan I see him in thy kingdom. And I'll beg his pardon forbye. But I didna chait him a'thegither. I only tuik mair nor I wad hae gi'en for the colt mysel'. And min' ye dinna lat me fa', gaein' throu the lift."
He went on thus, with wandering thoughts that in their wildest vagaries were yet tending homeward; and which when least sound, were yet busy with the wisest of mortal business—repentance. By degrees he fell into a slumber, and from that, about midnight, into a deeper sleep.
The next morning, Annie went out. She could not feel oppressed or sorrowful at such a death, and she would walk up the river to the churchyard where her father lay. The Wan Water was shallow, and therefore full of talk about all the things that were deep secrets when its bosom was full. Along great portions of its channel, the dry stones lay like a sea-beach. They had been swept from the hills in the torrents of its autumnal fury. The fish did not rise, for the heat made them languid. No trees sheltered them from the rays of the sun. Both above and below, the banks were rugged, and the torrent strong; but at this part the stream flowed through level fields. Here and there a large piece had cracked off and fallen from the bank, to be swept away in the next flood; but meantime the grass was growing on it, greener than anywhere else. The corn would come close to the water's edge and again sweep away to make room for cattle and sheep; and here and there a field of red clover lay wavering between shadow and shine. She went up a long way, and then crossing some fields, came to the churchyard. She did not know her father's grave, for no stone marked the spot where he sank in this broken earthy sea. There was no church: its memory even had vanished. It seemed as if the churchyard had swallowed the church as the heavenly light shall one day swallow the sun and the moon; and the lake of divine fire shall swallow death and hell. She lingered a little, and then set out on her slow return, often sitting down on the pebbles, sea-worn ages before the young river had begun to play with them.
Resting thus about half way home, she sang a song which she had found in her father's old song-book. She had said it once to Alec and Curly, but they did not care much for it, and she had not thought of it again till now.
"Ane by ane they gang awa'. The gatherer gathers great an' sma'. Ane by ane maks ane an' a'.
Aye whan ane is ta'en frae ane, Ane on earth is left alane, Twa in heaven are knit again.
Whan God's hairst is in or lang, Golden-heidit, ripe, and thrang, Syne begins a better sang."
She looked up, and Curly was walking through the broad river to where she sat.
"I kent ye a mile aff, Annie," he said.
"I'm glaid to see ye, Curly."
"I wonner gin ye'll be as glaid to see me the neist time, Annie."
Then Annie perceived that Curly looked earnest and anxious.
"What do ye say, Curly?" she returned.
"I hardly ken what I say, Annie, though I ken what I mean. And I dinna ken what I'm gaun to say neist, but they say the trowth will oot. I wiss it wad, ohn a body said it."
"What can be the maitter, Curly?"—Annie was getting frightened.—"It maun be ill news, or ye wadna luik like that."
"I doobt it'll be warst news to them that it's nae news till."
"Ye speyk in riddles, Curly."
He tried to laugh but succeeded badly, and stood before her, with downcast eyes, poking his thorn-stick into the mass of pebbles. Annie waited in silence, and that brought it out at last.
"Annie, when we war at the schule thegither, I wad hae gien ye onything. Noo I hae gien ye a' thing, and my hert to the beet (boot) o' the bargain."
"Curly!" said Annie, and said no more, for she felt as if her heart would break.
"I likit ye at the schule, Annie; but noo there's naething i' the warl but you."
Annie rose gently, came close to him, and laying a hand on his arm, said,
"I'm richt sorry for ye, Curly."
He half turned his back, was silent for a moment, and then said coldly, but in a trembling voice,
"Dinna distress yersel'. We canna help it."
"But what'll ye do, Curly?" asked Annie in a tone full of compassionate loving-kindness, and with her hand still on his arm. "It's sair to bide."
"Gude kens that.—I maun jist warstle throu' 't like mony anither. I'll awa' back to the pig-skin saiddle I was workin' at," said Curly, with a smile at the bitterness of his fate.
"It's no that I dinna like ye, Curly. Ye ken that. I wad do anything for ye that I cud do. Ye hae been a gude frien' to me."
And here Annie burst out crying.
"Dinna greit. The Lord preserve's! dinna greit. I winna say anither word aboot it. What's Curly that sic a ane as you sud greit for him? Faith! it's nearhan' as guid as gin ye lo'ed me. I'm as prood's a turkey-cock," averred Curly in a voice ready to break with emotion of a very different sort from pride.
"It's a sair thing that things winna gang richt!" said Annie at last, after many vain attempts to stop the fountain by drying the stream of her tears.—I believe they were the first words of complaint upon things in general that she ever uttered.
"Is't my wyte, Curly?" she added.
"Deil a bit o' 't!" cried Curly. "And I beg yer pardon for sweirin'. Your wyte! I was aye a fule. But maybe," he added, brightening a little, "I micht hae a chance—some day—some day far awa', ye ken, Annie?"
"Na, na, Curly. Dinna think o' 't. There's no chance for ye, dear Curly."
His face flushed red as a peony.
"That lick-the-dirt 's no gaun to gar ye marry the colliginer?"
"Dinna ye be feared that I'll marry onybody I dinna like, Curly."
"Ye dinna like him. I houp to God!"
"I canna bide him."
"Weel, maybe—Wha kens? I daurna despair."
"Curly, Curly, I maun be honest wi' you, as ye hae been wi' me. Whan ance a body's seen ane, they canna see anither, ye ken. Wha cud hae been at the schule as I was sae lang, and syne taen oot o' the water, ye ken, and syne—?"
"Gin ye mean Alec Forbes—" said Curly, and stopped too. But presently he went on again—"Gin I war to come atween Alec Forbes and you, hangin' wad be ower gude for me. But has Alec—"
"Na, nae a word. But haud yer tongue. Curly. Ance is a' wi' me.—It's nae mony lasses wad hae tell't ye sic a thing. But I ken it's richt. Ye're the only ane that has my secret. Keep it, Curly."
"Like Deith himsel'," said Curly. "Ye are a braw lass."
"Ye maunna think ill o' me, Curly. I hae tell't ye the trowth."
"Jist lat me kiss yer bonnie han' and I'll gang content."
Wisely done or not, it was truth and tenderness that made her offer her lips instead. He turned in silence, comforted for the time, though the comfort would evaporate long before the trouble would sink.
"Curly!" cried Annie, and he came back.
"I think that's young Robert Bruce been to Clippenstrae to speir efter me. Dinna lat him come farther. He's an unceevil fallow."
"Gin he wins by me, he maun hae mair feathers nor I hae," said Curly, and walked on.
Annie followed slowly. When she saw the men meet she sat down.
Curly spoke first, as he came up.
"A fine day, Robbie," he said.
Bruce made no reply, for relations had altered since school-days. It was an evil moment however in which to carry a high chin to Willie Macwha, who was out of temper with the whole world except Annie Anderson. He strode up to the colliginer.
"I said it was a fine day," he repeated.
"Well, I said nothing to the contrary," answered Bruce, putting on his English.
"It's the custom i' this country to mak what answer a man has the sense to mak whan he's spoken till ceevily."
"I considered you uncivil."
"That's jist what a bonnie lassie sittin' yonner said aboot you whan she prayed me no to lat you gang a step nearer till her."
Curly found it at the moment particularly agreeable to quarrel. Moreover he had always disliked Bruce, and now hated him because Annie had complained of him.
"I have as much right to walk here as you or any one else," said Bruce.
"Maybe; but even colliginers doesna aye get their richts. Ae richt whiles rides upo' the tap o' anither. And Annie Anderson has a richt no to be disturbit, whan her uncle, honest man, 's jist lyin' waitin' for's coffin i' the hoose yonner."
"I'm her cousin."
"It's sma' comfort ony o' yer breed ever brocht her. Cousin or no, ye sanna gang near her."
"I'll go where I please," said Bruce, moving to pass.
Curly moved right in front of him.
"By me ye shanna gang. I hae lickit ye afore for bein' ill till her; and I will again gin ye gang a step nearer till her. She doesna want ye. Faith I will! But I wad raither no fecht afore her. Sae jist come back to the toon wi' me, and we'll say nae mair aboot it."
"I'll see you damned!" said Bruce.
"Maybe ye may, bein' likly to arrive at the spot first. But i' the mean time, gin ye dinna want her to see ye lickit, come doon into yon how, and we'll jist sattle aff han' wha's the best man o' the twa."
"I won't move a step to please you or any one else," returned Bruce. He saw that his safety consisted in keeping within sight of Annie.
Curly saw on his part that, a few steps nearer to where Annie sat, the path led behind a stunted ash-tree. So he stepped aside with the proverb,
"He that will to Coupar, maun to Coupar."
Without deigning a word, Bruce walked on, full of pride, concluding that Curly's heart had failed him. But the moment he was behind the tree, Curly met him from the other side of it. Then Bruce's anger, if not his courage, rose, and with an oath, he pushed against him to pass. But the sensation he instantly felt in his nose astonished him; and the blood beginning to flow cowed him at once. He put his handkerchief to his face, turned, and walked back to Glamerton. Curly followed him at a few yards' distance, regretting that he had showed the white feather so soon, as, otherwise, he would have had the pleasure of thrashing him properly. He saw him safe in at the back-door, and then went to his own father's shop.
After a short greeting, very short on Curly's part,
"Hoot! Willie," said his father, "what's come ower ye? Ye luik as gin some lass had said na to ye."
"Some lasses' no 's better not ither lasses' ay, father."
"Deed mnybe, laddie," said George; adding to himself, "That maun hae been Annie Anderson—nae ither."
He was particularly attentive and yielding to Willie during his short visit, and Willie understood it.
Had Annie been compelled, by any evil chance, to return to the garret over Robert Bruce's shop, she would not indeed have found the holes in the floor and the roof reopened; but she would have found that the carpet and the curtains were gone.
The report went through Glamerton that she and Willie Macwha were coortin'.
Thomas Crann's conversation with Mr Cupples deepened both his annoyance and his grief at the membership of Robert Bruce. What was the use of a church if such men as he got into it, and, having got in, could not be got out? Had he been guilty of any open fault, such as getting drunk, for one solitary and accidental instance of which they had excluded one of their best and purest-minded men, they could have got rid of him with comparative ease; but who so free of fault as Bruce? True, he was guilty of the crime of over-reaching whenever he had a chance, and of cheating when there was no risk of being found out—at least so everybody believed—but he had no faults. The duty, therefore, that lay upon every member, next to the cleanness of his own garments—that of keeping the church pure and unspotted—was hard to fulfil, and no one was ready to undertake it but Thomas Crann. For what a spot was here! And Thomas knew his Lord's will.