Allison Bain, by Margaret Murray Robertson.
For many people this will be a very difficult book to read. In the first place most of the cast speak with a strong Scottish dialect, which you could find very difficult to get used to. In the second place there is a strong brand of Scottish Protestantism colouring practically every conversation. And in the third place the book could probably be placed fairly in the genre of "psychological novel," in which people talk a lot but don't do much else.
You can certainly make an audiobook of it, but you will need your strongest concentration to follow what is happening. Don't listen to it while driving your car—it is far too demanding for that!
ALLISON BAIN, BY MARGARET MURRAY ROBERTSON.
"Was she wrong? Is it wrong in the bird to escape from the snare of the fowler? Is it wrong in the hunted deer to flee to the screening thicket?"
Mr Hadden was standing at the open door of the manse, waiting patiently, while his housekeeper adjusted his grey plaid on his shoulders in preparation for a long ride over the hills. His faithful Barbara was doing her part protesting, but she was doing it carefully and well.
"Such a day as it is!" said she. "Such a time of rain! Indeed, sir, I canna think it right for you to go so far. Mightna ye just bide still at home till they come to the kirkyard?"
But the minister shook his head. "I will need to go, Barbara. Think of poor Allison Bain on this sorrowful day."
"Ay, poor Allie! I'm wae for her this sorrowful day, as ye say. Greatly she'll need a good word spoken to her. But in a' the rain—and at your age—"
"Ay! I am a good ten years older than the man we are to lay in the grave. I might, as ye say, meet them at the kirkyard, but I must see that desolate bairn. And I think it may be fair."
It was June, but it looked more like November, so low lay the clouds, and so close hung the mist over all the valley. For a week the sun had hidden his face, and either in downpour or in drizzle, the rain had fallen unceasingly, till the burn which ran down between the hills had overflowed its banks and spread itself in shallow pools over the level fields below. The roads would be "soft and deep," as Barbara said, and the way was long. But even as she spoke there was an opening in the clouds and the wind was "wearing round to the right airt," for the promise of a fair day, and it was early yet.
"And rain or shine, I must go, Barbara, as ye see yourself. The powney is sure-footed. And my son Alexander is going with me, so there is nothing to fear."
And so the two men set out together. "My son Alexander," whose name the minister spoke with such loving pride, was the youngest and best beloved of the many sons and daughters who had been born and bred in the manse, of whom some were "scattered far and wide" and some were resting beside their mother in the kirkyard close at hand. In his youth, Alexander had given "some cause for anxiety to his father and mother," as outside folk put it delicately, and he had gone away to America at last, to begin again—to make a man of himself, or to perish out of sight of their loving and longing eyes. That was more than fifteen years before this time, and he had not perished out of sight, as so many wanderers from loving homes have done. He had lived and struggled with varying fortunes for a time, but he had never failed once to write his half-yearly letter to his father and mother at home. The folk of the olden time did not write nor expect so many letters as are written and sent nowadays, and the father and mother lived hopefully on one letter till another came. And for a while the lad wrote that he was making a living, and that was all, and then he wrote that he was doing well, and just when he was almost ready to tell them that he was coming home to show them his young wife, there came word to him that his mother was dead. Then he had no heart to go home. For what would the manse be without his mother to welcome them there?
So he sent home to his father a gift of money for the poor of the parish, and stayed where he was, and did well still, with fair prospects of some time being a rich man, and then—after more years—God touched him, not in anger, but in love, though He took from him his only son and best beloved child. For then he remembered his father who had loved him, and borne with him, and forgiven him through his troubled youth, and had sent him away with his blessing at last, and a great longing came upon him to see his father's face once more. And so he had made haste to come, fearing all the way lest he might find the manse empty and his father gone. It was a homecoming both sad and glad, and the week of rain had been well filled with a history of all things joyful and sorrowful which had come to them and theirs, in the years that were gone. And to-day father and son were taking their way over the hills, so familiar to both, yet so strange to one of them, on a sorrowful errand.
They kept the high-road for a while, and then turned into a broken path over the higher ground, the nearest way to the farm of Grassie, where the "goodman" who had ploughed and sowed and gathered the harvests for fifty years and more lay dead of a broken heart.
Slowly and carefully they moved over the uneven ground which gradually ascended and grew less wet as they went on, the son keeping by his father's side where the roughness of the way permitted, in silence, or only exchanging a word now and then. The clouds parted as they reached the hilltop, and they turned to look back on the wide stretch of low land behind them, which "looked in the sunshine," the minister said, "like a new-made world." They lingered for a while.
"We need not be in haste. It takes the folk long to gather at such a time, for they will come from far, and it is weary waiting. But I must have time for a word with Allison, poor lassie, before they carry her father away," added he with a sigh.
"But the sun may shine for Allison yet, though this is a dark day for her and a most sad occasion. Though her father's hearthstone be cold, let us hope that she may yet see good days in the home of her husband."
But the minister shook his head.
"She must see them there if she is ever to see good days again, but my fears are stronger than my hopes, Oh! man Alex! I'm wae for bonny Allie Bain."
"Is her husband such a wretch, then?"
"A wretch? By no means. I hope not. But he is a dour man of nearly twice her years. An honest man? Well, I have never heard him accused of dishonesty. A hard man he has been called, but he suits our thriftless laird all the better for that. He has kept his place as factor at Blackhills for fifteen years and more, and has grown rich, they say—as riches are counted among folk who for the most part are poor. And he is respected—in a way."
"Well, if I had been asked about it, I would have said that it was a rise in the world for Allie Bain to be made the mistress of the factor's fine house over yonder. I suppose he might have looked for a wife in almost any of the better families of the countryside, without much chance of being refused."
"Yes, but he is said to have set his heart on Allison Bain years ago when she was only a child—a strange-like thing for such a man to do. He went to work warily, and got her father and even her mother on his side—or so it is said. But Allie herself would have naught to say to him. She laughed at first, and then she scoffed at his advances, and Willie, her only brother, upheld her in her scorning—for a while. But Willie went wrong—and from bad to worse; but now he is in the tollbooth at Aberdeen, as you have heard. But I believe that even now the poor lassie would have a fairer chance of a peaceful life if they were to get away to begin again together, when his time is over, than ever she can hope for in the house of her husband. And the lad would be stronger, and have a better chance with his sister's help. I fear—though I would say it to none but you—I fear that Allison's consent was won at last by no fair means."
"I mind Willie, a nice little lad, merry and frank and well-doing. I should never have thought of such a fate for him."
"Yes, frank he was, and a fine lad in many ways; but he was not of a strong will, and was easily led away. Allison was far the stronger of the two, even when they were children. It breaks my heart to think what a woman she might have become in favourable circumstances, and now, I fear, she has much suffering before her. Her mother's helplessness—she was bedridden for years before she died—laid too much on Allison, and she has grown changed, they say, and hard. She was ay more like her father than her mother, except for her sweet looks."
"And how came the marriage about at last? And where was her brother?"
"He had fallen into trouble by that time. He had got in with ill folk that made use of him for their own purposes. There had been much meddling with the game on the Blackhills estate, and one night one of the gamekeepers got a sore hurt in a fight with some of those who had been long suspected. His life was despaired of for a time, and it was on Willie Bain that the blame was laid. At any rate he kept out of the way. It was said afterward that Brownrig had wrought on his fears through some of his companions, and in the meantime to save her brother, as she thought, Allison's consent was won."
"It will be an ill day for Brownrig when Allison shall hear of that."
"I doubt she has heard of it already. All I know is soon told. Brownrig came to me one night, saying that Allison Bain had promised to marry him, and that the marriage must be in haste for this reason and for that, and chiefly because the mother was near her end, and would die happier knowing that her dear daughter was in good keeping. This was for me, it seemed—for I was told afterward that the mother was in no state for days before that to know what was going on about her.
"As for me, I had many doubts. But I had no opportunity to speak to her or her father till after their names had been cried in the kirk, and I thought it was too late to speak then. But oh, man! I wish I had. For when he brought her down to the manse with only two friends to witness the marriage, and I saw her face, my heart misgave me, and I had to say a word to her whatever might happen. So, when Brownrig's back was turned for a minute, I took her by the hand, and we went into my study together; and I asked her, was she a willing bride? Then there came a look on her face like the shadow of death; but before she had power to utter a word, the door opened, and Brownrig came in. An angry man was he, and for a minute he looked as if he would strike me down, as I stood holding her hands in mine.
"'Allison,' I said, 'you must speak to me. Remember this thing which you are to do will be forever. When once the words are spoken there can be no escape. May God help you.'
"She wrung her hands from mine, and cried out:—
"'There is no escape now. And God has forgotten us.' And then she looked round about her like a caged creature seeking for a way out of it all. When Brownrig would have put his hand on her, though he did it gently, she shrank from him as if she feared a blow. The man's eyes were like coals of fire; but he was a strong man, and he put great constraint upon himself, and said calmly:—
"'I am at a loss to understand what you would be at, sir. You heard the banns published. Was there any in the kirk that day who had a word to say against it? I think you can hardly refuse to do your part.'
"I said, 'Allie, where is your brother? What does he say to all this? What says he to his sister's marriage to a man old enough to be her father?'
"Brownrig's face was an ill thing to see, but he said quietly enough, 'Yes, Allie, my woman, tell him where your brother is,—if ye ken, and where he is like to be soon if he gets his deserts. Speak, lassie. Tell the minister if you are going to draw back from your word now.'
"A great wave of colour came over her face, and it was not till this had passed, leaving it as white as death, that she said hoarsely that it had to be, and there was no use to struggle against it more.
"'He has promised one thing,' said she, 'and he shall promise it now in your presence. I am to go straight home to my father's house, and he is not to trouble me nor come near me till my mother is safe in her grave.'
"And then she turned to him: 'You hear? Now you are to repeat the promise in the minister's hearing, before we go out of this room.'
"He would fain have refused, and said one thing and another, and hummed and hawed, and would have taken her hand to lead her away; but she put her hands behind her and said he must speak before she would go.
"'And is not a promise to yourself enough? And will you draw back if I refuse?' But he did not persist in his refusal to speak, for she looked like one who was fast losing hold of herself, and he must have been afraid of what might happen next. For he said gently, always keeping a great restraint upon himself, 'Yes, I have promised. You shall stay in your father's house while your mother needs you. I promise—though I think you might have trusted to what I said before.'
"Alex, my lad, I would give all I have in the world if I had but held out another hour. For the words that made them man and wife, were hardly spoken, when that happened which might have saved to them both a lifetime of misery. They had only passed through the gate on their way home, when down the hillside, like a madman, came Willie Bain. And far and hard he must have run, for he was spent and gasping for breath when he came and put his hand upon his sister. 'Allie!' he said, 'Allie!' and he could say no more. But oh! the face of his sister! May I never see the like look on face of man or woman again.
"'Willie,' she said, 'have you made what I have done vain? Why are you here?'
"'What have you done, Allie? And why shouldna I be here? Stone is well again, even if it had been me that struck the blow—which it was not— though I might have had some risk of no' being just able to prove it. Allie, what have you done?'
"But she only laid her white face on his breast without a word.
"'Allie,' gasped her brother, as he caught sight of Brownrig, 'you havena given yourself to yon man—yon deevil, I should better say? They told me over yonder that it was to be, but I said you scorned him, and would stand fast.'
"'Oh! Willie! Willie!' she cried, 'I scorned him, but for your sake I couldna stand fast.'
"Then Brownrig took up the word. 'Young man, if you ken what is good for your ain safety, you'll disappear again, and keep out o' harm's way. But that may be as pleases you. Only mind, you'll have nothing to say to my wife.'
"'Your wife! You black-hearted liar and villain!' and many a worse word besides did the angry lad give him, and when Brownrig lifted his whip and made as if he meant to strike him, Willie turned from his sister and flew at him like a madman, and—though I maybe shouldna say it—Brownrig got his deserts for once, and he will carry the marks the lad left on him that day, to his grave. He was sore hurt. They put him into the gig in which he had brought Allison down to the manse, and carried him home, and the brother and sister walked together to their father's house.
"Their mother was nearer her end than had been supposed, for she died that night, and before she was laid in her grave there came an officer with a warrant to arrest poor Willie on a charge of having done bodily harm to one of Blackwell's keepers months before. Two of his cousins stood surety for him till after his mother's burial. No evidence could be got against him in the matter and he was allowed to go free. And then like a daft man, Brownrig had him taken up again on a charge of assault with intent to kill. It was a mad thing for him to do, if he ever hoped to win the good-will of Allison, but it was said to me by one who knew him well, that he was afraid of the lad, and that he had good reason to fear, also, that as long as Allison was under the influence of her brother, she would never come home to him as his wife. But he might have waited to try other plans first.
"Poor John Bain, Allison's father, you ken, had had much to bear what with one trouble and another, for many a day, and the last one fell heavier than them all. On the day when his son was condemned to an imprisonment for eighteen months, he had a stroke and he never looked up again, though he lingered a while, and Allison refused to leave him. Brownrig is a man who cares little what may be his neighbours' opinion with regard to him, but he could hardly venture to insist on his wife's coming home while her father needed her, for there was no one else to care for the poor old man.
"He came to the house while Mr Bain lived, but one told me who saw him there often, that since the day of their marriage Allison has neither given him good word nor bad, nor touched his hand, nor lifted her eyes to his face. Doubtless the man must have his misgivings about her and about what is to happen now. It is a sad story thus far, with no possible good ending as far as can be seen."
"Ay! a most sad story. Poor Allie! There seems little hope for her, whatever may happen. As to her brother, I should like to see him, and I assuredly shall if it be possible. I should like to take him home with me when I go, and give him another chance."
"Ah! that is a good word of yours, my son. It would be well done indeed to help the poor lad who is not bad at heart. I never will believe that. But I fear he will do no good here, even if he can keep the land, which is doubtful now, for things have gone ill with them this while, and Brownrig, even for Allie's sake, would never forgive her brother."
"And it is as likely that her brother would never forgive him. Allison may in time forgive her husband, and may end in loving him after all. Time and change work wonders."
But the minister could not agree with his son.
"Another woman might forgive and love him, but never Allison Bain. She can never honour him, unless he should greatly change, and then I doubt it might be too late for love."
They were drawing near the house by this time, where many neighbours had already gathered to do honour to the dead. They stood about in groups of two or three, speaking to one another gravely about their old friend, and the troubles which had fallen so heavily on him and on his of late. And doubtless, also, of other matters, that had to do with themselves and their own affairs, and the times in which they lived; but it was all said and done with a decent and even solemn gravity suitable to the occasion, and it ceased as the minister drew near.
Another gleam of sunshine broke out between the clouds as the pony stopped of his own accord. The minister took off his hat and said solemnly:
"As a cloud is consumed and slowly vanishes away, so he that goeth down to the grave shall come up no more.
"He shall return no more to his house, neither shall his place know him any more."
At the first sound of his voice every "blue bonnet" was lifted and every head was bowed, and then, pausing for no greetings, the minister and his son passed into the house.
But the younger man saw there no "kenned face," so he did not linger within, but came out again to stand with the rest.
The house was a long, low-roofed cottage, with a wide door and narrow windows. The door opened on the side which faced the barns and outbuildings, and the first glimpse of the place was dreary and sad. For the rain had left little pools here and there on the ground, and had made black mud of the rest of it, not pleasant to look upon. After a glance to ascertain whether there were any of his old friends among the waiting people, Mr Hadden turned toward the garden, which lay on the other side of the house.
There was a hawthorn hedge on two sides of it, and a beech-tree, and many berry-bushes, and tall rose-trees covered with "drooket" roses, and the ground beneath was strewn with their scattered petals. The garden had a dreary look also, but he was not left to it long. For though he had recognised no one about the door, many a one had recognised him, and in a little time one man slowly followed another to the garden-gate, where he leaned, and hands "with a strong grip in them" were held out and grasped, and not one but said how glad they were to see him home again for his father's sake. And by and by as they waited, one after another had something to say and a question to ask.
There was time enough. The minister had to rest awhile and refresh himself, and the burial-bread had to be passed round, and that which usually accompanied it as well. Besides, there was no haste, for they had given the day to do honour to the occasion; and if they got safely home before it was very late, it was all that they expected or desired.
The questions were asked with lowered voices and in softened tones, but they were asked eagerly and anxiously, and with a purpose. For one had a Jock, and another had a Tam, and a third had a Jock and a Tam and a Sandy as well, who were all pushing up fast, and who had their own bread to win. And it was "whiles no' just that easy to get work the laddies were fit for, or which was fit for them."
"And you've done weel out there yourself, sir."
"And was it land ye were on?"
"Oh, man! it's the land I would like."
"And is the cold as bad as folk have whiles said: and the heat in summer?"
"And would there be a chance for the laddies out there? Would they be made welcome if they were to pack their kists and go?"
Mr Hadden answered all questions kindly and fully, making no such rosy picture of life in America as some wandering lecturers on the subject had been doing of late through all the countryside. Yes, there was good land, and there was plenty of it, and in some places it was cheap. A man could get good land and time to pay it in, and when it was paid for it belonged to him and his forever. Yes, of course they would have taxes to pay and roads to keep up, and all that. And they would have to work, hard at first, and they would always have to work if they were to succeed. They would be welcome there, no fear of that. No well-doing lad from Auld Scotland but would find work and friends, and a home of his own after a while, in that free country. Would they like it? Scotch folk mostly liked it. One that would do well at home would be able to do far better for himself out there. And some who had failed to do anything at home, had succeeded there. It was not a country where gold grew on the trees, as some would like; but no man need be afraid to go there if he had a will to work—and so on for a long time; and so close grew the crowd and so eager the questioning, there was some danger that the solemnity of the occasion might be forgotten in the growing interest, for more people were coming in by twos and threes, and not one of them all but was glad of a word with the minister's son.
In the meantime the minister was standing beside the dead master of the house, with his hand resting on the bowed head of poor Allison Bain. She had lifted her face once, when the first sound of his kind voice had reached her ear—a face weary and worn, and utterly woebegone. But kind as voice and words were, they had no power to reach her in the darkness and solitariness of that hour. Her face was laid down again upon the coffin-lid, and she took no heed of all that was going on around her.
Now and then a friend or neighbour came and stood a while looking at the closed coffin and the motionless figure of the desolate girl, but not a word was spoken in the room, till the minister rose and said:
"The time is come."
Then there was a movement in the house, and those who were without came toward the door. Two or three kinsmen of the dead man drew near and stood ready "to lift the body." At the head, where the son of the house should have been, Allison still sat mute and motionless, with her face hidden on her arms, which rested upon the coffin. There was a minute's silence, so deep that the ticking of the clock seemed to smite with pain upon the ear. The minister prayed, and then he touched the bowed head and said gently:
"Allison Bain, the time has come."
The girl rose and, still leaning on the coffin-lid, turned herself to the waiting people. There was a dazed look in her eyes, and her face was so white and drawn—so little like the face of "bonny Allie Bain"— that a sudden stir of wonder, and pain, and sympathy went through the throng. Her lips quivered a little as she met their sorrowful looks, and the minister hoped that the tears, which had been so long kept back, might come now to ease her heavy heart, and he laid his hand on hers to lead her away. Then a voice said:
"This is my place," and Brownrig's hand was laid upon the coffin where Allison's head had lain.
At the sound of his voice a change passed over the girl's face. It grew hard and stern; but she did not, by the slightest movement of eye or lip, acknowledge the men's presence or his intent.
"Now," said she, with a glance at those who were waiting. And with her face bowed down, but with a firm step, she "carried her father's head" out of the house which was "to know him no more." In breathless silence the friends and neighbours fell into their places, and she stood white and tearless gazing after them till the last of the long train had disappeared around the hill. Then she went slowly back toward the house. At the door she stopped and turned as if she were going away again. But she did not. When her aunt—her mother's sister—put her hand on her shoulder, saying softly, "Allie, my woman," she paused and put her arms round the old woman's neck and burst into bitter weeping. But only for a little while. Her aunt would fain have spoken to her words which she knew must be said soon; but when she tried to do so, Allie held up her hand in entreaty.
"Wait, auntie. Wait a wee while—for oh! I am so spent and weary."
"Yes, my dearie; yes, I ken weel, and you shall rest—but not there!— surely not there!"
For Allie had opened the door of the room where her father died and where his coffin had stood, where her mother had also suffered and died. She would not turn back. "She was tired and must rest a while and there was nowhere else." And already, before she had ceased speaking, her head was on the pillow, and she had turned her face to the wall.
In the early morning of the next day the minister's son, the returned wanderer, stood leaning over the wall which separated the manse garden from the kirkyard. He was looking at the spot where the grass waved green over the graves of his mother and his two brothers who slept beside her. As he stood, a hand touched his, and Allison Bain's sorrowful eyes looked down upon him. Looked down, because the many generations of the dead had filled up the place, and the wall which was high on the side of the garden was low on the side of the kirkyard.
"The minister is not up yet?" she asked without a pause. "Was he over-wearied? I had something to say to him, but I might say it to you, if you will hear me?"
"My father will be up soon, and he will see you almost immediately if you will come into the manse and wait a little while."
"Yes, I could wait. But he is an old man and it might spare him trouble—afterwards—not to know that I passed this way. Are ye Mr Alex who once took our Willie out of the hole in the moss?"
"Yes; I mind poor Willie well. Poor laddie."
"Poor laddie ye may well say," said Allison, and the colour came to her pale face, and her eyes shone as she added eagerly: "You will be in Aberdeen—will you go to see Willie? I canna go to see him because— one might think o' looking for me there. You are a good man, I have always heard, and he needs some one to speak a kind word to him, and I sore misdoubt that he's in ill company yonder."
"I am going to see him soon. My father was speaking about him yesterday. I shall certainly go."
"And you'll be kind to him, I'm sure," said Allison, wistfully. "He is not bad, though that has been said. He is only foolish and not wicked, as they tried to make him out. And ye'll surely go?"
"That I will. Even if you hadn't asked me, I would have gone. And, afterwards, if he has a mind to cross the sea, he shall have a fair chance to begin a new life over there. I will be his friend. He shall be like a young brother to me."
Allison uttered a glad cry and covered her face with her hands.
"I mauna greet. But oh! you have lightened my heavy heart."
"I only wish you could come with him," said Mr Hadden sadly. "It would be well for you both."
"But I cannot—for a while—because I am going to lose myself, and if I were with Willie I would be found again. But you will tell him that I will ay have him in my heart—and sometime I will come to him, maybe. I'll ay have that hope before me."
"But, Allison—where are you going?—I hope—"
"I must tell no one where I am going. Somebody might ask you about me, and it is better that you should not ken even if I could tell you. Even Willie mustna ken—for a while."
There was time for no more words. A little bowed old woman with a great mutch on her head, and a faded plaid upon her shoulders, came creeping through among the graves.
"Allie, my woman," she whispered, "ye'll need to lose no time. I hae seen the factor riding round the hill by the ither road. He lookit unco angry-like, and his big dog was wi' him. Lie laich for a whilie till he's weel by, and then tak aff ye're hose and shoon and step into the burn and gae doon beyont the steppin'-stanes till ye get in to the hallow and ye'll bide safe in my bit hoosie till the first sough be past."
Allison took a bundle of papers from beneath her shawl.
"They are for the minister. It is about the keepin' o' the place till Willie comes home," said she.
But the little old woman interposed:
"You maun gie them to me. The minister maun hae nae questions to answer about them, but just to say that auld Janet Mair gie'd them to him, and he can send the factor to me."
She took the papers and put them in her pocket and went her way. Allison looked after her for a moment, then drew nearer to the wall.
"Sir," said she in a whisper, "I have something to give your father. He will ken best what to do with it. I had something to say to him, but maybe it is as well to say nothing. And what could I say? Tell him not to think ill of me for what I must do."
"Allison," said Mr Hadden gravely, "my father loves you dearly. It would break his heart to think of harm coming to you. I am afraid for you, Allison."
"Can anything worse come to me than has come already? Tell him I will ay try to be good. And he will tell my mother, if he goes first where she has gone—" Her voice failed her.
"Have you friends anywhere to whom you can go?"
"I'll go to Willie some time, if you take him home with you. Only it must be a long, long time first, for he will keep his eye on Willie, and he would find me. And Willie himself mustna ken where I am, for if he came to me he might be followed. I must just lose myself for a while, for if he—that man—were to find me—"
Her colour had come back, and her eyes shone with feverish brightness. What could he say to her? He tore a leaf from his note-book, and wrote his name and his American address upon it.
"Come to me and you shall have a safe home with my wife and children. Come now, or when you feel that you can come safely, though it be ten years hence. You shall have a welcome and a home."
She gave him her hand, and thanked him, and prayed God to bless him, and then she turned to do as Janet Mair had bidden her. But first she knelt down beside the new-made grave, and, at the sight, Alexander Hadden bared and bowed his head. When he raised it again she was gone.
When the minister opened the parcel which Allison Bain had sent him, he found folded within it her marriage lines and a plain gold ring.
"Martinmas dowie did wind up the year."
The little town of Nethermuir stands in the shire of "bonnie Aberdeen," though not in the part of it which has been celebrated in song and story for beauty or for grandeur. But in summertime the "gowany braes" which lie nearest to it, and the "heather braes" into which they gradually change as they rise higher in the distance, have a certain beauty of their own. So have the clear brown burns which water its narrow fields, and the belts of wood which are planted here and there on the hillsides.
In summertime, even the little town itself, as it was fifty years ago and more, might be called a pretty place, at least the lanes about it were pretty. There were many lanes about it, some of them shaded by tall firs or spreading beeches, others shut in by grassy dikes which inclosed the long, narrow "kail-yards" running back from the clusters of dwellings which fronted the narrow streets. There were tall laburnums here and there, and larch and rowan trees, and hedges of hawthorn or elder, everywhere, some of them shutting in gardens full of such fruits and flowers as flourish in the north.
Yes, in summer the place might have been called a pretty place; but under low, leaden skies, when the reaches of sodden grass-land and rain-bleached stubble had to relieve their grey dreariness only a newly ploughed brown ridge, or the long turnip fields, green still under the rain and sleet of the last November days, even the hills were not beautiful, and the place itself had a look of unspeakable dreariness.
On such a day the Reverend Robert Hume was leading his horse down the slope which looks on the town from the south, and though his eyes had the faculty of seeing something cheerful even in dismal things, he acknowledged that, to eyes looking on it for the first time, the place might seem a little dreary.
It did not look dreary to him, as he came into one of the two long streets which, crossing each other at right angles, made the town. Though he bowed his high head to meet the bitter wind, and plashed through the muddy pools which the rain had left in the hollows here and there, he was glad at heart to see the place, and to be at home; and he smiled to himself as he came in sight of the corner, beyond which lay the house which held his treasures.
All the town seemed like home to him. As he went slowly on, he had a thought to give to many dwellers on the street. Was "auld Maggie's" thatch holding out the wet? And surely there was danger that the water of that pool might find its way in beneath "Cripple Sandy's" door. There were friendly faces regarding him from some of the narrow windows, and "welcome hame," came to him from more than one open door. The town pump was by no means a beautiful object in itself, but his eye rested with great satisfaction upon it. It stood on the square where the houses fell back a little, at the place where the two streets crossed, and it could be seen from the furthest end of either of them. It had not long stood there, and as it caught his eye, the pleasant thought came freshly to him, how the comfort and cleanliness of the homes might be helped, and how much the labour of busy housewives must be lightened by it.
But it was no Nethermuir woman who so deftly plied the heavy handle, and lifted her full buckets as if they had been empty, and who walked before him down the street with a step which made him think of the heather hills and the days of his youth. There was no woman of that height in Nethermuir, nor one who carried herself so freely and so lightly. It was no one he had ever seen before. But some one crossed the way to speak to him, and he lost sight of her, and a few steps brought him to his own door. His house was close upon the street. It was of grey stone, and only looked high because of the low thatched cottages near it, on both sides of the way. On the left, a little back from the street, stood the kirk, hardly higher than the house. It had no special features, and was not unlike in appearance to the low outbuildings of the manse, which extended behind it.
Its insignificance alone saved it from positive ugliness, but the minister gave it as he passed, a fond admiring glance. He knew every grey stone in its walls, and every pane of glass in its narrow windows. He had not built it with his own hands but his heart had been in the laying of every stone and the driving of every nail in it. And that was true of the house as well. He had only time for a glance. For through the close there came a shout, and his boys were upon him.
"Steady, lads. Is all well? Where is your mother, and how is your sister? Robert, you'll take good care of Bendie and rub her well down. She's quite done out, poor beast; and John, you'll help your brother. She must go to the smithy on Monday. There is something wrong with one of her shoes. I've been leading her for the last miles."
And so on. Not a spoken word of tenderness, but Davie leaned against his father in utter content, and little Norman clasped his arms round his knee. Jack eagerly helped to unsaddle the tired mare, not caring to speak, though as a general thing he had plenty to say. And Robert had enough to do with the lump that rose in his throat when he met his father's eye. The father ended as he began:
"Where is your mother?"
The mother was standing at the kitchen-door with a child in her arms.
"Well, dearie?" said the one to the other—their eyes said the rest. It was the child that the minister stooped to kiss, but the touch of his hand on his wife's shoulder was better to her than a caress. Fond words were rare between these two, who were indeed one—and fond words were not needed between them.
Mrs Hume set down the child and helped her husband off with his wet coat, and if he would have permitted it, she would have helped him off with his boots also, since the wet and the chill had made him helpless. But it was not needed this time. For a woman with a step like a princess crossed the floor and bent down to the work.
"Thank you, my lassie. You have both strength and skill, and you have a good will to use them, though I may have no right to demand it at your hands. It is perhaps your way of doing the Lord's bidding. 'If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet!' Do you not mind?"
The smile which rose to Mrs Hume's face had a little surprise in it. For it was not the minister's way to meet strangers with a text like that.
"It is Allison Bain," said she.
"Oh! it is Allison Bain, is it? So you are come already. I have seen your friend Dr Fleming, since you left."
"Dr Fleming was kind to me when I sore needed kindness."
Her eyes searched wistfully the minister's face, and it came into his mind that she was wondering how much of her story had been told to him.
"Dr Fleming said many kind things about you, and I trust it may prove for the good of us all, that we have been brought together," said he.
In his esteem it was no small thing that this poor soul who had suffered and perhaps sinned—though looking in her face he could not think it— should have been given into their care. But nothing more could be said. A soft, shrill voice came from a room on the other side of the house.
"Are you coming, father? I am here, waiting for you."
"Ah, yes! Ay waiting, my bonny dooie (little dove)."
When his wife entered the room, he was sitting in silence with the pale cheek of his only daughter resting against his. A fair, fragile little creature she was, whose long, loose garments falling around her, showed that she could not run and play like other children, whatever might be the cause. It was a smile of perfect content which met her mother's look.
"Well, mother," said she softly.
"Well, my dear, you are happy now. But you are not surely going to keep your father in his damp clothes? And tea will soon be ready."
"Ah, no! I winna keep him. And he is only going up the stair this time," said the child, raising herself up and fondly stroking the grave face which was looking down upon her with love unutterable. He laid her upon the little couch by the fireside and went away without a word.
"Come soon, father," said the child.
It was not long before he came. The lamp was lighted by that time, and the fire was burning brightly. The boys had come in, and the mother went to and fro, busy about the tea-table. The father's eyes were bright with thankful love as he looked in upon them.
It was not a large room, and might have seemed crowded and uncomfortable to unaccustomed eyes. For all the six sons were there—the youngest in the cradle, and the little daughter's couch took up the corner between the window and the fire. The tea-table was spread with both the leaves up, and there was not much room certainly between it and the other table, on which many books and papers were piled, or the corner where the minister's arm-chair stood.
The chair was brought forward in a twinkling, and he was seated in it with his little white dove again on his knee. This was the usual arrangement for this hour evidently. To-night the brothers stood before them in a half circle looking on.
"Well, and how has my Marjorie been all this long time?"
"Oh! I have been fine and well, father, and the time has not been so very long. Do you ken what Mrs Esselmont has sent me? A doll. A fine doll with joints in her knees, and she can sit down. And her clothes come off and on, just like anybody's. Jack has made a stool for her, and he said he would make me a table and a chair if you brought a knife to him when you came home. Did you bring Jack a knife, father?"
"Well—I'm not just sure yet. I will need to hear how Jack has been behaving before we say anything about a knife," said her father; but his smile was reassuring, though his words were grave.
"I think Jack has been good, father. And mother was here, ye ken, and she would settle it all, and not leave anything over till you come home, unless it were something serious," added the child gravely.
Jack hung his head.
"So I am to let bygones be bygones?" said his father.
"And, father," said the child again, her sweet, shrill voice breaking through the suppressed noise of her brothers—"Allie has come!" And even the introduction of the wonderful doll had brought no brighter look to the little pale face. "Allie has come, and I like Allie."
"Do you, love? That is well."
"Yes, father. Eh! but she's bonny and strong! When she carried me up the stair to my bed, I shut my een, and I thought it might be father himself, Robin is strong, too, and so is Jack, but I'm not ay just so sure of them," said Marjorie, looking deprecatingly at her brothers, "and I ay feel as if I must help mother when she carries me, because she's whiles weary. But it is almost as good as having you, father, when Allie takes me in her arms."
Marjorie was "whiles weary" also, it seemed. She had talked more than all the rest of them put together, which was not her way in general; so she laid her head down on her father's shoulder, and said no more till tea was brought in. It was the new maid who brought in the bright tea-kettle at last, and set it on the side of the grate. Marjorie raised her head and put out a hand to detain her.
"Father, this is Allison Bain. And, Allie, ye must tell father about the lady. Father, Allie kenned a lady once, who was like me when she was little, and hardly set her foot to the ground for many a year and day. I think she must have been even worse than me, for once they had her grave-clothes made," said the child in an awed voice, "and when she didna die, they were hardly glad, for what was her life worth to her, they said. But she was patient and good, and there came a wise woman to see her and whether it was the wise woman that helped her or just the Lord himself, folk couldna agree, but by and by she grew strong and well and went about on her own feet like other folk and grew up to be a woman, and was the mother of sons before she died."
Jack and his brothers laughed at the climax, but the child took no notice of their mirth.
"It might happen to me too, father, if a wise woman were to come, or if the Lord himself were to take me in hand."
"Ay, my lammie," said her father softly.
"The mother of sons before she died," repeated the child. "But she did die at last, father. It ay comes to that."
"Ay, dear, soon or late, it ay comes to that."
"But, father, I wouldna like it to be soon with me. And if only a wise woman would come here—But never mind, father," added she, laying her soft little hand on his as his kind eyes grew grave; "I can wait. I'm only little yet, and there's plenty of time, and now Allie has come, and she is strong and kind. I like Allie," she added, caressing the hand which she had been holding fast all the time. "Allie says that maybe the best thing that could happen to me would be to die, but I would like to live and go about like other folk a whilie first."
"I am sure Allie will be good to you," said her father.
"Ay, that will I," said Allie, looking gravely down upon the child.
"Come, now, tea is ready," said the mother's cheerful voice. And rather quietly, considering their number, the boys took their places at the table.
There were five of them; the sixth was asleep in the cradle. Robert, the eldest, just fifteen, was a "good scholar," and dux in the parish school. He was ready for the university, and was going there when the way should be made clear for him. As a general thing, he had a book in his hand while he munched the oaten bannocks, which formed the chief part of the boys' evening meal. But to-night he listened and put in his word with the rest. And there were words in plenty, for their father had been away ten whole days, and he had much to hear.
The others were handsome, hardy boys, with dark eyes and sun-browned faces, and the fair hair of so many Scottish laddies, darkening a little already in the elder ones. They were seen at their best to-night, for their father had been expected, and clean hands and faces had been a matter of choice, and not, as was sometimes the case, of compulsion, and "the lint white locks," longer and more abundant than we usually see them on boyish heads nowadays, were in reasonable order.
If a hundredth part of the pride and delight which filled their father's heart, as he looked round on them, had been allowed to appear on his face, it would have astonished them all not a little. His eyes met those of their mother with a look in which was thankfulness as well as pride, but to the boys themselves he said quietly enough:
"I am glad to hear from your mother that you have been reasonably good boys while I have been away. If there is anything that any of you think I ought to hear of, you'll tell me yourselves."
A look was exchanged among the older lads.
"The nicht, father?" said one of them.
"Well, to-morrow may do, unless it be something more than usual. Is it Jack?"
Of course it was Jack. He looked at his mother and hung his head, but said nothing.
"Hoot, man! get it over the nicht," whispered Robin.
And so he did. But poor Jack's mischief need not be told. It was not really very serious, though his father listened seriously, and kept his smiles till he was alone with the boy's mother. Mischief is a generic term in the Scottish tongue, including some things bad enough, but also some things in which fun is one of the chief elements, and Jack's mischief was mostly of this kind. Sometimes his father laughed in private, even when he found it necessary to show displeasure to the culprit.
But he was reasonable in his punishments, which was not invariably the case with even good men and good fathers, in that land, in those days. There were whispers among some of the frequenters of the little kirk, to the effect that the minister's laddies needed sharper discipline than they were like to have at home, and there were prophecies that they would be likely to get their share of discipline of one kind or another when they should be out of their father's hands.
Jack got easily off, whatever his fault had been, and had his knife besides. They all grew a little noisy over their father's gifts. As it was Saturday night, his first thought had been that they should not be distributed till Monday. But their mother said they might, perhaps, think all the more about them if they had not seen them. So each got his gift, and their delight in them, seeing there was so little to rejoice over, was in the eyes of the father and mother both amusing and pathetic.
But little and great are comparative terms when applied to money's worth as to other things, and considering the amount which must be made to stand for all that was needed in the home, the presents were not so trifling. Still, the minister was a rich man in the opinion of many about him, and it cannot be said that he was a poor man in his own opinion. At any rate, between them, his wife and he had made their comparative poverty answer a good many of the purposes of wealth, not to their children only, but to many a "puir bodie" besides, since they came to Nethermuir.
"And now, my lads, we'll to worship and then you'll to your beds, for I have my morrow's sermon to look at yet, and I see your mother's work is not done."
So "the Books" were brought out and Allison Bain was called in from the kitchen. The minister asked God's blessing on the reading of the Word and then he chose a Psalm instead of the chapter in Numbers which came in course. It was the thirty-fourth:
"I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth," and so on to the end.
"The Lord redeemeth the soul of His servants, and none of them that trust in Him shall be desolate."
"He believes it all," said Allison Bain to herself, lifting once again her sad eyes to his face. And then they sang:
"Oh! God of Bethel, by whose hand Thy people still are fed—"
which was their family song of thanksgiving, as it was of many another family in those days, on all special occasions for rejoicing. It was the mother who led the singing with a voice which, in after years, when her sons were scattered in many lands, they remembered as "the sweetest ever heard." The father sang too, but among the many good gifts which God had given to him, music had been denied. He did not know one tune from another, except as it might be associated with some particular Psalm or Hymn, and his voice, both powerful and flexible in speaking, had in singing only two unvarying tones. But he was never silent when the time came "to sing praises," and truly his voice did not spoil the music to those who loved him. The boys had their mother's gift and they all sang with good will to-night. Allie's voice was mute, but her lips trembled a little, and her head drooped low as they sang—
"God of our fathers be the God Of their succeeding race."
She was not forgotten in the prayer which followed. It was not as "the stranger within our gates" that she was remembered, but as one of the household, and it was reverently asked that the casting in of her lot with theirs might be for good to her and to them for all time and beyond it. But there was no brightening of her face when she rose and passed out from among them.
The minister's sermon was not his first thought when he returned to the parlour, after carrying his little daughter up-stairs. By and by his wife sat down with her stocking-basket by her side. They had many things to speak about, after a ten days' separation, which had not occurred more than twice before in all their married life, and soon they came round to their new servant.
"Well, what do you think of her?" said the minister.
"I cannot say. I cannot quite make her out," said Mrs Hume gravely.
"You have not had much time yet."
"No; I mean that I do not think she intends that I should make her out."
"She says little?"
"She says nothing. She has passed through some sore trouble, I am quite sure. She looks, at times, as if she had lost all that she cared for, and had not the heart to begin again."
"I think you have made her out fairly well," said the minister smiling.
"Why was Dr Fleming so anxious to send her here? Had he known her long? And how did he come to know her?"
"He had not known her very long. This is the way he came to know her: She was brought to the infirmary, ill of fever. She had gone into a cottage on the outskirts of the town 'to rest herself,' she said. But she was too ill to leave the place, and then she was sent to the infirmary. She had a struggle for life, which none but a strong woman could have won through, and when she began to grow better, she made herself useful among the other patients, and was so helpful, that when one of the nurses went away, they kept her on in her place. But evidently she had not been used with town life, or even indoor life, and she grew dowie first, and then despairing, and he was glad at the thought of getting her away, for fear of what might happen. It was change which she needed, and work such as she had been used with."
"But it was a great risk to send her here."
"Yes, in one way. And I hardly think he would have ventured to do so, but that, quite by accident, he had heard about her from an old college friend. It seems that this gentleman came to see Dr Fleming at the infirmary, and getting a glimpse of the young woman's face, he betrayed by his manner that it was not for the first time. He was bound, he said, for her sake, not to seem to know her, nor would he say anything about her home or her station in life. But he said that he knew well about her, that she was an orphan who had suffered much, that she was a good woman, one to be trusted and honoured, and he begged his friend to ask her no questions, but to get her out of the town into some quiet country place where she might outlive the bitterness of the past. And his last words were, 'Fortunate will they be who can have her as a helper in the house.'"
"It is a pity for her sake that she should refuse to trust us."
"Yes. There is one thing which you ought to know, though Dr Fleming rather betrayed it than expressed it openly. I think, from what he said, and also from what he did not say, that there had been some fear that her mind might give way under the strain of her trouble, whatever it is. She seemed to have lost the power of turning her thoughts away from it, and yet she had never uttered a word with regard to it. She was sometimes, he said, like one walking in her sleep, deaf and blind to all that was going on about her. She had a dazed look, painful to see."
"I ken the look well."
"She had been used with country life, he thought, for in the town she was like a creature caged and wild to get out. Her best chance was, he said, an entire change of scene and of work, and he thought it providential that we were to lose our Kirstin at this time. Our house, he thought, would be a good place for her. She will have plenty to do, and will have every allowance made for her, and she will be kindly and firmly dealt with. And then, there are the bairns, and our bonny Maysie. I confess the glimpse I have gotten of her has already greatly interested me."
"I acknowledge I have felt the same. But others will be interested in her also. Does she really think that she can keep a secret in a place like this? What she will not tell, others will guess. Or worse, they will imagine a story for her."
"We must do what we can to guard her from ill or idle tongues."
"Yes, and if she were just a commonplace servant-lass, like our Kirstin, it might be easy to do so. But with a face and eyes like hers, to say nothing of her way of carrying herself, every eye will be upon her."
"She is a stately woman truly. But her dark, colourless face will hardly take the fancy of common folk. They will miss the lilies and roses. She has wonderful een," added the minister.
"Yes, like those of a dumb creature in pain. Whiles I feel, looking at her, that I must put my arms about her and let her greet (weep) her heart out on my breast. But she has hardly given me a chance to say a kind word to her yet. That may come in time, however."
"It will be sure to come," said the minister heartily. "What sorrowful soul ever withstood you long? And you have reason to trust her? She has done well thus far?"
"I have had no cause to distrust her. Yes, she has done wonderfully well. Though I doubt whether she has ever occupied a servant's place before. And she gets on well with the lads. Jack has once felt the weight of her hand, I believe. I do not think he will be in a hurry again to vex her with his nonsense."
"I must have a word with Jack, and with them all."
"As for our Marjorie, her heart is taken captive quite."
"My precious darling! She may do Allison good. And we must all try to help the poor soul as we may, for I fear she is in an evil case."
"For the highest and the humblest work had been given them to do."
Yes, Allison Bain was in an evil case, but if an entire change of scene and manner of life, and hard work and plenty of it, were likely to have a beneficial effect upon her, she had come to the right place to find them. And she had come also to the right place to get faithful, patient, and kindly oversight, which she needed as much as change.
When she had been longing to get away—anywhere—out of the great town, which was like a prison to her, Dr Fleming had spoken to her about taking service at the manse of Nethermuir, and she had said that she would go gladly, and at once.
The only manse which she knew much about was in her mind when she made the promise,—a house apart, in a sheltered, sunny spot, having a high walled fruit garden behind it, and before, a broad, sloping lawn, with a brown burn running at the foot. Yes, she would like to go. She would get away from the din and closeness of the town. In a place like that in which the old minister lived alone among his books, with only his children or his grandchildren coming home to see him now and then, she would be at peace. She would be away from the curious eyes that were ay striving, she thought, to read her sorrowful secret in her face. Yes, she would be glad to go.
But it was a very different place in which she found herself when she reached Nethermuir. Anything more unlike the ideal Scottish manse than the house to which she had come could not well be imagined. There was no walled garden or lawn, or "wimplin burn" to see. If it had even a right to be called "The Manse," might be doubted.
For it was only the house of the "Missioner Minister," a humble abode, indeed, in comparison with the parish manse. It was a narrow, two-storied house, with but the causey (pavement) between it and the street. Across the close, which separated it from a still humbler dwelling, came the "clack, clack" of a hand-loom, and the same sound, though the night was falling, came from other houses near.
"A poor place, indeed," was Allison Bain's first thought, as she stood regarding it from the darkening street, with a conscious, dull sinking of the heart, which had already fallen so low. Not that the place mattered much, she added, as she stood looking at the lights moving here and there in the house. She was too weary to care for anything very much that night. The morning stars had lighted her way the first two hours of her journey, and there had been little time for rest during the short November day. Footsore and exhausted after her thirty miles of travel, she went slowly and heavily in. She could only listen in silence to the kindly welcome of her new mistress, and then go silently to the rest and quiet of her bed.
Morning came. Rest and quiet! These were not here, it seemed. The sound of many voices was filling the house when Allie, having long overslept herself, awoke at last and lifted her heavy head from the pillow. There were shrill, boyish voices, laughing, shouting, wrangling, without pause. There was racket on the stairs, and wrestling in the passage, and half-stifled cries of expostulation or triumph everywhere, till a door opened, and closed again, and shut it all out.
And so Allison's new life began. She had not come to seek an easy time. And as for quiet, if she had but known it, the noise and bustle and boyish clamour, the pleasant confusion of coming and going about the homely little manse, and the many claims upon her attention and patience and care, were just what she needed to help her. Whether she knew it or not, she set herself to her work with a will, and grew as content with it, after a while, as she could have been anywhere at this time of her life.
Mr Hume belonged to the little band of remarkable men, to whom, on their first coming North, was given the name of "Missioners." Some people say the name was given because these men were among the first to advocate the scheme of sending missionaries to the heathen. Others say they were so named because they themselves came, or were sent, to preach the Gospel of Christ to those who were becoming content to hear what the new-comers believed and declared to be "another Gospel." In course of time the name given to the leaders fell also to those who followed—an honourable name surely, but in those days it was spoken contemptuously enough sometimes, by both the wise and the foolish, and Mr Hume, during the first years of his ministry in Nethermuir, had his share of contumely to meet or to ignore as well as the rest.
But all that had been long past before Allison Bain came with her spoiled life, and her heavy heart, to seek shelter under his roof. By that time, to no minister—to no man in all the countryside—was a truer respect, a fuller confidence given, by those whose good word was of any value.
He had not been over-eager to win the good word of any one. The courage and hopefulness of youth and an enthusiastic devotion to the work to which he had been set apart, carried him happily through the first troubled years, and when youthful courage and hopefulness had abated somewhat, then natural patience, and strength daily renewed, stood him in good stead. He loved his work not less, but more as time went on, and it prospered in his hands. His flock was only "a little flock" still; but the gathering in of these wanderers to the fold had given him, as one by one they came, a taste of such perfect satisfaction, as few of the great ones of the world—be they heroes or sages—have claimed to be theirs, even in the moment of their highest triumphs.
This kind of success and his satisfaction in it might not be appreciated by those who looked on from the outside of his circle of influence; but there was another kind, both of success and of satisfaction in it, which they could appreciate, and at which they might well wonder.
By means of the pennies and sixpences and shillings slowly gathered among themselves, though few among them had many pennies to spare, and with the help of occasional pounds, which by one hand and another found their way into the treasury from abroad, first the kirk had been built and then the manse. They were humble structures enough, but sufficient for their purpose, and indeed admirable in all respects in the eyes of those who had a part in them.
Then out of a low stretch of barren clay, which was a slimy pool, with a green, unhealthy margin for some months of the year, the minister had made such a garden as few in the town could boast. The hawthorn hedge around it, as well as every tree and bush in it, was planted by the minister's own hand, or under his own eye. It might not have seemed a very fine garden to some people. There were only common flowers and fruits in it, and still more common vegetables; but the courage, the skill, the patience which had made it out of nothing, must have been appreciated anywhere. To the moderately intelligent and immoderately critical community of Nethermuir, the visible facts of kirk and manse, of glebe and garden, appealed more clearly and directly than did the building up of "lively stones into a spiritual house," which was his true work, or the flourishing of "trees of righteousness" in their midst, which was his true joy.
And, perhaps, this was not so much to be wondered at, considering all things. For some of the "trees" looked to be little other than "crooked sticks" to their eyes; and of some of the "stones" it might well be said, that they "caused many to stumble." And since it was halting, and shortcoming, and inconsistency that some of their critical neighbours were looking for among "folk that set themselves up to be better than their neebors," it is not surprising that it was these that they should most readily see.
Even the minister himself saw these things only too often. But then, he saw more. He saw the frequent struggle and resistance, as well as the rare yielding to temptation, and he saw also, sometimes, the soul's humiliation, the repentance, the return.
And even the "crooked sticks" were now and then acknowledged to be not altogether without life. Saunners Crombie might be sour and dour and crabbed whiles, readier with reproof and rebuke than with consolation or the mantle of charity. But even Saunners, judged by deeds rather than by words, did not altogether fall short of fruit-bearing, as many a poor soul, to whose wants, both temporal and spiritual, he ministered in secret, could gladly testify.
And on many of the folk who had "ta'en up wi' the little kirk," a change had passed, a change which might be questioned and cavilled at, but which could not be denied. In more than one household, where strife and discontent had once ruled, the fear of God and peace and good-will had come to dwell. To another, long wretched with the poverty which comes of ill-doing, and the neglect which follows hopeless struggle, had come comfort, and at most times plenty, or contentment with little when plenty failed.
There were lads and lassies among them, of whom in former days, evil things had been prophesied, who were now growing into men and women, earnest, patient, aspiring—into such men and women as have made the name of Scotland known and honoured in all lands. They were not spared a sneer now and then. They were laughed at, or railed at, as "unco gude," or as "prood, upsettin' creatures, with their meetings, and classes, and library books," and the names which in the Scotch of that time and place stood for "prig" and "prude," were freely bestowed upon them. But, all the same, it could not be denied that they were not "living to themselves," that they were doing their duty in all the relations of life, and of some of them it was said that "they might be heard o' yet" in wider spheres than their native town afforded.
Neither could it be denied that some who had set out with them in life, with far fairer promise than they, had "gaen the wrang gait," with an ever-lessening chance of turning back again. And what made the difference?
Was it just the minister's personal influence teaching, guiding, restraining, encouraging? Or was it that a change had really passed upon them—the change in which, at least, the minister believed, and which he preached—which, according to him, must pass on each man for himself, before true safety or happiness, either in this world or the next, could be assured—the change which can be wrought by the Power of God alone?
Converted! The word had long been a scoff on the lips of some in Nethermuir, but even the scoffers had to confess that, to some of the missioners at least, something had happened.
There was Peter Gilchrist. If an entire change of heart, and mind, and manner of life meant conversion, then Peter was converted. And that not through the slow process of reading the Bible on the Sabbath-day, or by learning the catechism, or by a decent attendance upon appointed ordinances—not even "under the rod"—the chastising hand of Him who smites the sinner for his good—which would have been reasonable enough. It had happened to others.
But Peter had been converted by one sermon, it was said, a sermon preached at the house-end of Langbarns in the next parish. No great sermon, either. At least many a one had heard it without heeding it. But it had "done" for Peter.
The very last thing that Peter had been thinking about was listening to the sermon. He, with some of his chosen friends, had gone to the meeting—held out of doors, because there was no other place in which to hold it—for the help and encouragement of the constable, who, it was said, had a warrant to seize and carry before a magistrate "the missioner minister" for a breach of the law, in holding a preaching meeting at Langbarns without the consent of the parish minister. The presumption was that the sight of the constable, and the announcement of his errand, would be enough to silence the minister and disperse the meeting. But that did not follow. If he were to be meddled with, "it should not be for nothing," the minister declared to a rather timid friend and adviser. And his courage stood him in good stead. He gave the folk assembled such a sermon as probably few of them had ever heard before. The constable had not, he acknowledged, nor Peter; and the worst of it—or the best of it—for Peter was, that having heard it, he could not forget it.
When the meeting was over, Mr Hume went silently and swiftly away with the departing crowd, and he never would have been quite sure that anything serious had been intended if he had not afterward had Peter's word for it.
Returning home from a similar meeting, held in another direction, a week or two afterward, he was waylaid by that unhappy man, and in a rather unexpected manner called to account for his sermon, and for the misery it had caused. They went home to the manse together, and spent a good part of the night in the minister's study, and more nights than one before Peter "came to himself" and "went to his Father," and so was made ready to begin a new life indeed.
It was a new life. There was no gainsaying that. He had been a reckless character, a drunkard, a swearer, an ill husband and a worse father, in the sight of all men. But from the day when at last he came out of the minister's study with a face which shone, though there were tears upon it, all that was over.
For days and months his wife watched him and wondered, and rejoiced with trembling, never sure how it all might end. His children, with something of the dogged indifference with which in former days they had come to bear the effects of his drunken anger, took the good of his changed ways "while they lasted," they said to one another, hardly daring to hope that they would last "for ay."
But though he had had a stumble or two since then he had, on the whole, during thirteen years walked warily and wisely, even in the unwilling judgment of those who had watched for his halting. Even they were compelled to allow that "to be converted" meant something to the purpose, at least in the case of Peter Gilchrist.
There were many besides him whose lives illustrated the power of the Gospel as held forth by Mr Hume, and there were but a few in the place who went beyond a grumble of dissent or disapproval of him and his doings now. Even the most inveterate of the grumblers, or the most captious of the fault-finders, could not withstand the persistent friendliness which never resented an injury nor forgot a favour, and which was as ready, it seemed, with a good turn for those who wished him ill as for those who wished him well.
According to some folk, the minister ought to have been "sour, and dour, and ill-conditioned," considering the belief he held and the doctrines he preached. These were the folk who never went to hear him. But even they acknowledged that he was friendly and kindly, cheerful and forbearing, even when vexation or indignation on his part might have been excusable. And they also acknowledged that "he wasna a man who keepit a calm sough, and slippet oot o' things just to save himself trouble." He could be angry—and show it, too—where cruelty, or dishonesty, or treachery came under his eye, or where blasphemous words were uttered in his hearing. And there were two or three of the evildoers of the place who had been made to feel the weight of his words, and the weight of his hand also on occasion, and who were in the way now of slipping down the lanes, rather than meet the minister in the light of day.
And he was "a weel learnt man," and fair in an argument, and willing to look at all the sides of a subject. This was Weaver Sim's opinion of the minister, and he was an oracle in a small way among his neighbours.
"He has his ain notions and opinions, as is to be expectet o' the like o' him. But he's a weel learnt man, and on the whole fair and liberal. And whiles he has a twinkle in his e'e that tells that he sees some things that ither folk canna see, and that he enjoys them."
All this had been conceded during the early years of the minister's life in Nethermuir. He had made his own place among the town's folk since then, and so had his wife. It was a good place, and they were worthy of it. And it is possible that, in all Scotland, poor Allison Bain could have found no safer refuge than she was likely to find with them.
She filled her place well—was indeed invaluable in it. But when weeks and months had passed, her master and mistress knew nothing more of her heart or her history than on the day when she first came among them. But they had patience with her, and watched her with constant and kindly oversight, and they trusted her entirely at last.
"Her trust in us will come in time," said her mistress; "and in the meanwhile I can only be thankful that she has been sent to us, both for her sake and ours."
It was indeed "a great relief and comfort" for Mrs Hume to know that a wise head and capable hands were between her and many of her household cares. For what with her husband, and her six sons, and her frail little daughter, and the making, and mending, and thinking for them all, her days were sometimes over-full.
To the minister his wife was hands, and eyes, and sometimes head. She had to keep her heart light and her face bright, and now and then she had to "set it as a flint" for his sake. She had to entertain many a wearisome visitor, and to listen to many a tale of care or trouble or complaint, that the quiet of his study need not be broken in upon. She stood between him and some vexations which he might have taken seriously, and from which he might have suffered, but which yielded under the influence of her smiles and soft words, or disappeared in the presence of her indifference or her anger, as the case might be.
She had slow, dull natures to stir up, and natures hard and crabbed to soften and soothe, and in numberless other ways to hold up her husband's hands, and maintain his honour in the little community to which he stood as God's overseer.
There were "puir bodies" in every street, into whose dim little rooms the face of the minister's wife came like sunshine. She was a kind of Providence to some of them, having made herself responsible to them for cups of tea, or basins of soup, or jugs of milk in their time of need. And for better help still. To the suffering and sorrowful she came with words of comfort and consolation, and with words of chiding or of cheer to the "thraward" and the erring, who had helped to make their own trouble. She was mindful of all and kind to all as they had need and she had power.
She had other uses for her time also, duties and pleasures which she could not neglect. A new book found its way to the manse sometimes, and she had the Evangelical Magazine to read—it would be thought dry reading nowadays—and the weekly paper as well, for great interest was taken in public affairs at that time. These books and papers were to be thought over, and considered, and then discussed with her husband, and sometimes with the two or three hard-handed farmers or artisans of their flock, who had, under their teaching, learned to care for books, and even for "poyms," and for all that the great world in the distance was trying to say and to do.
It was well for her that she had learned to do two things at once, or even three,—that she could enjoy her book quite as well with her knitting-needles glancing busily in her skilful fingers, and her foot on her boy's cradle, and withal never forget to meet and answer the smile of her patient little daughter, or by glance or word or touch to keep her restless lads in order.
Her brown eyes seldom looked troubled or weary, and her voice, though at times imperative enough, never grew sharp or fretful. Her steps went lightly up and down the stair, and through the streets of the town, and her smile was like sunshine at home and abroad.
And the help that Allison's willing and efficient service was to her mistress cannot be told. It would have helped her more if the girl had been happier in the giving of it.
"But," said her hopeful mistress, "that will come in time."
"She crept a' day about the house Slow fitted and heart-sair."
Truly there was enough to do in the house. Allison's day began long before the dawn of the winter morning, and ended when there was nothing more to do, and night had come by that time. All was done deftly and thoroughly, as even the faithful Kirstin had not always done it, but silently and mechanically. She took no satisfaction, that her mistress could see, in a difficult or tiresome piece of work well ended—in a great washing or ironing got through in good time, or in a kitchen made perfect in neatness. When the lads came home from school to put it all in disorder, with bats and balls, and sticks and stones, she made no remonstrance, but set to work to put it in order again. It made no difference, her downcast face seemed to say.
With the lads themselves—tiresome and vexatious often—she was, for the most part, patient and forbearing, but it was not a loving patience, or a considerate forbearance, as old Kirstin's had been. Kirstin had been vexed often, and had sometimes complained of their thoughtlessness and foolishness. But nothing seemed to make much difference to the silent ruler of the kitchen. Everything but the work of the moment was allowed to pass unheeded.
The lads, cautioned by their father, and kept in mind by their mother, did not often go beyond the bounds of reasonable liberty in the use they made of her domain. When they did so, a sharp word, like a sudden shot, brought them to their proper place again and set matters right between them. The lads bore no malice. They never complained to their mother at such times, and if they had, she would have paid little attention to such complaints. That "laddies must be kept in order," she very well knew.
And thus the early weeks of winter passed, doing for Allison some of the good which work well done is sure to do for the heavy-hearted. But the good which the busy days wrought, the nights, for a time, seemed to destroy.
In the long evenings, when Marjorie and the younger brothers were asleep, and the elder lads were at their books, there came a time of quiet to all the house, when Allison had the kitchen to herself and she could sit in silence, undisturbed, but not at rest. Then her trouble came back upon her, and night after night she sat gazing into the fire till it fell into red embers, and then into grey ashes, thinking of the painful days of the year now drawing to a close. And, poor soul! the anguish of pain and shame which, months ago, had touched her and hers, was as sharp and "ill to bide" as when the blow had fallen. Nay, in a sense it was worse. For in the first amazement of a sudden shock, the coming anguish seems impossible, and the natural resistance of the soul against it gives a sort of courage for the time.
But with Allison, the fear had changed to certainty. Trouble had fallen on her and hers, and had darkened for her all the past and all the future, she believed, for as yet time had not lightened the darkness.
It was not that she was thinking about all this. She was living it all over. She saw again the home she had left forever—the low house, with the sunshine on it, or the dull mist and the rain. A vision of a beautiful, beloved face, drawn with terror, or fierce with anger, was ever before her. Or a grey head moving restlessly on its last pillow—a face with the shadow of death upon it, and of an anguish worse than death. In her ears was a voice uttering last words, with long, sobbing sighs between.
"O! Willie, Willie!" the broken voice says. "Where are ye, Willie? Mind, Allison, ye hae promised—to watch for his soul as ane that maun gie account. And the Lord deal—wi' you, as—ye shall deal wi' Him."
And in her heart she answers:
"Father, be at peace about him. I'll be more mindfu' o' him than the Lord himself has been."
She sees the anguish in the dying eyes give place to darkness, and sitting there by the grey ashes on the hearth, cries out in her despair. Thus it has been with her since her father was laid in the grave, and the prison-doors shut upon her only brother. Their faces are ever before her, their voices in her ears.
She cares for nothing in the wide world at such times. She does not even care for herself, or her own life, though a shadow dark and dread lies on it. If her life could come to an end, that Would be best, she thinks. But it must not come to an end yet. Oh! if she and Willie could die together, or get away anywhere and be forgotten. If they could only pass out of all men's minds, as though they had never been! But all such thoughts are foolish, she tells herself. Nothing in their lives can be changed, nor mended, nor forgotten.
And having got thus far, it all begins again, and she lives over the happy days when, bairns together, they played among the heather, or followed the sheep on the hills; when their father was like God to them, ay loving them, and being kind to them; but not ay seeming just so mindful of them as their mother was. Their mother was ill whiles, and took less heed of things, and needed much done for her, but they loved their mother best. At least they never feared her, as they sometimes feared their father, who yet loved them both—Willie best, as did all who ever saw his face.
And thus on through all the weary way, her thoughts would travel through days of still content, through doubt, and fear, and anguish, to the end, only to begin again.
If Dr Fleming had known what good reason there was for the fears which he had unconsciously betrayed to the minister, he would hardly have ventured to send Allison Bain to the house of his friend. But he could have done nothing better for her. A change was what she needed— something to take her out of herself, to make her forget, even for a little while, now and then, what the last year had brought her. With new scenes and faces around her, new duties and interests to fill up her time and thoughts, she had the best chance of recovering from the strokes which had fallen upon her, and of "coming to herself" again.
For nothing had happened to her that is not happening to some one every day of the year. Sin and sorrow and terrible suffering had touched her and hers. One had sinned, all had suffered, and she was left alone to bear the burden of her changed life, and she must bear it for her brother's sake. And she had no refuge.
For her faith in God had been no stronger than her faith in her brother, and her brother had failed her. And God had not put out a hand to help him—to save him from his sin and its consequences, and nothing could be changed now.
Yet the first months of winter did something for her, though her mistress hardly discovered it, and though she did not know it herself. Her day's work tired her in a natural, healthy way, so that after a time her sleep at night was unbroken, and she had less time for the indulgence of unhappy thoughts. But she did not, for a good while after three months were over, take much conscious pleasure in anything that was happening around her.
She had much to do. The short days of winter were made long to her. For hours before the slow coming dawn she was going softly about the kitchen in the darkness, which the oil-lamp that hung high above the hearth hardly dispelled. When she had done what could be done at that hour within the house, there was something to do outside. For cripple Sandy, whose duty it was to care for the creatures, did not hurry himself in the winter mornings; and Allison, who knew their wants and their ways, and who all her life had had to do with the gentle creatures at home, would not let them suffer from neglect. By the dim light of the lantern hung from the roof, she milked the cows and fed them, and let in the welcome light upon the cocks and hens; and went to all corners of the place, seeing at a glance where a touch of her hand was needed. And she was conscious of a certain pleasure in it after a time.
Then there was the house "to redd up," and the porridge to make, for the elder lads had to set out early to their school, and their breakfast must be over when their father came down to have worship before they went away. Then came the parlour breakfast, and then the things were to be put away, and dinner-time was at hand, and so on till the day was over. Truly there was enough to do, washing and ironing, cleaning and cooking, coming and going—the constant woman's work which is never done.
As for the cooking, there was no time for the making of dainty dishes in the manse, even if there had been no better reason for dispensing with them. Oatmeal was the staple of the house, of course—the food which has made bone and muscle for so many who stand in high places on both sides of the sea. There was the invariable porridge in the morning, supplemented by the equally invariable cakes. Not the sweet morsels which the name may suggest to some folk—but, broad discs of meal and water, cut into quarters for the sake of convenience, and baked on a griddle—solid but wholesome.
There was a variety of them. There were soft cakes, and crisp cakes, and thick bannocks, and sometimes there were "scones" of barley-meal. The "loaf-bread" came from the baker's; so did the rare buns and baps, and the rarer short-bread for great and special occasions. Beef and mutton were not for everyday use. They had fowls and they had fish of the best, for in those days the London market did not devour all that the sea produced, and the fishwives tramped inland many miles, with their creels on their backs, glad to sell their fish to the country folk. They had soup often, and always potatoes and some other vegetables; but milk and oatmeal, prepared in various ways, was the principal food for the bairns of the manse, and for all other bairns as well.
Were they to be commiserated, the lads and lassies, who in manse and farmhouse and cottage had to content themselves with such simple, unvarying fare? They did not think so, for except in books, they knew nothing of any other way of life. I do not think so, because I have seen other ways and their results. Besides, luxury is a comparative term, like wealth, or a competence; and the occasional slice of loaf-bread, with jelly or even treacle on it, probably gave greater satisfaction to the children of that country, and that time, than the unlimited indulgence in cakes and pastry, or creams and ices can give to the experienced young people of the present day, in some other countries, who, taking the usual comprehensive survey of the luxuries prepared for the frequenters of city hotels or watering-places, are sometimes obliged to confess themselves "disappointed in the fare!"
One thing is sure, plain food made strong men and women of most of them; and no lingering dyspepsia of childhood spoiled the pleasure of those of them who won their way to the right to live as they pleased in after-life.