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Title: Betty Grier
Author: Waugh, Joseph Laing
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Betty Grier" ***

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                             BETTY GRIER

                        BY JOSEPH LAING WAUGH

         Author of 'Robbie Doo,' 'Cracks wi' Robbie Doo,' &c.


    WITH FRONTISPIECE BY
    Henry W. Kerr, R.S.A.

    LONDON: 38 Soho Square, W.
    W. & R. CHAMBERS, LIMITED
    EDINBURGH: 339 High Street

    Edinburgh:
    Printed by W. & R. Chambers, Limited.

    First printed, Nov. 1915.
    Reprinted, Dec. 1915.


[Illustration]



BETTY GRIER.



CHAPTER I.


When I look round my little bedroom and note the various familiar items
that make up its furnishings, when my eye lights on much that I
associate with the days o' Auld Langsyne, I am conscious of a feeling of
homeliness, a sense of chumship with my surroundings, and I can scarcely
realise that fourteen years have come and gone since last I laid my head
on the pillow of this small truckle-bed.

So far as I can recall the arrangement of its old-fashioned,
ordinary-looking plenishings, everything remains exactly as I left it.
My trout and salmon rods, all tied together--each cased in its own
particular-coloured canvas--stand there in the corner beside an old
out-of-date gaff and a capacious landing-net which that king of fishers,
Clogger Eskdale, gifted to me when the 'rheumatics' prevented his ever
again participating in his favourite sport. My worn leather school-bag,
filled with the last batch of books I used, is still suspended from a
four-inch nail driven into a 'dook' at the cheek of the mantelpiece. It
is a long time ago, but it seems only yesterday since I stood in the
middle of this room, unstrapping that bag from my shoulders for the last
time. My schooldays were over; with eager, anxious feet I was standing
on the threshold of a new life, and to satchel and lesson-book I was
bidding farewell.

I well remember Deacon Webster, at my mother's request, inserting that
dook and driving home that nail; and he laughed unfeelingly when she
explained to him the purpose it was to serve. The deacon could not
understand the sentiment which prompted her to assign the bag a place
upon the wall; and when, after the nail was secure, he made to hang my
'boy's burden' upon it in much the same callous spirit in which he would
screw the last nail in a coffin-lid, my mother stepped forward.

'One moment, Webster,' she said. 'Allow me.' With her own hands she
placed the bag where it hangs now. My old nurse, Betty Grier,
straightened it and wiped it with her duster; and the deacon took a
pinch of snuff, blew his nose in a big spotted handkerchief, and
muttered _sotto voce_, as his nostrils quivered, 'Well, I'm d----!'

Against the back wall, in the centre, between the door and the corner,
stands the old black oak chest of drawers which for sixteen years held
the whole outfit of my boyhood's days; while the mahogany looking-glass,
with the grooved square standards and the swivel mirror, monopolises
still, as it always has done, the whole top shelf thereof.

To the left is a framed photograph of my father and mother, and to the
right a rosewood-framed sampler, worked long ago by my grandmother, on
which, in faded green, against a dull drab background, are still
decipherable the words of Our Lord's Prayer. And there, between the
fireplace and the window, is my book-rack, and from its shelves old
friends look down upon me. The gilt titles are tarnished and worn, but I
know each book by the place it occupies, and I feel that, even after the
long, long years that have separated us, _Tom Brown_, _Robinson Crusoe_,
and _David Copperfield_ will speak to me again, laugh with me, cry with
me, as they did in days of yore.

Often has Betty, I know, swept and tidied this little room. Every
article has been lifted, dusted, and carefully returned to its place. I
know with what feelings of reverence the dear old soul has fingered
every ornament. I am conscious of the loving care she has exercised on
all my old belongings, and somehow I feel consoled and comforted, my
physical weakness depresses me less, my mother's presence seems nearer
me, and unbidden tears of thankfulness come to my eyes and trickle from
my cheek to my pillow.

This has been to me a day of great events. I have travelled by rail from
Edinburgh to Elvanfoot, thence by horse-carriage to Thornhill--during
the last stage driven by Charlie Walker, the 'bus Jehu I envied in my
schoolboy years, and tended by my fail-me-never Betty. To her also this
has been a memorable day, for when we were driving down the Dalveen Pass
she told me that never before had she seen a Caledonian train, and that
her last memory of Traloss dated back to a Sabbath-school trip about the
year 1868. Such a long ride in a well-sprung, well-upholstered carriage
was also a novelty to her, a new experience which only with great
difficulty I could persuade her to enjoy to the full. She insisted on
sitting forward on the extreme edge of the seat, and it was only after I
had told her that her uncomfortable-looking position made me uneasy and
unhappy that she sat well back, till her shoulders rested on the
cushion behind.

Contrary to my expectations, I am suffering neither pain nor
inconvenience from my long journey; and as I lie here in my little bed,
looking through the curtained window to the long, low range of the
Lowther Hills, and listening to the familiar sounds in the village
street below, a blissful peace which I cannot express in words possesses
me, my physical and my mental organisation seem to have undergone a
change, my experience of city life is blotted out and forgotten, and,
strangely enough, I feel myself, as of old, a unit of the village
community. Queerer still, this placid acceptance of altered
circumstances, this dovetailing into a different condition of life and
living, seems to me so natural as to be hardly worth noting; and without
a pang of regret I leave behind me urban pleasures and duties, and
contemplate with equanimity retirement to this rural retreat, a
twelvemonth's sojourn midst scenes to me for ever dear.

Nor does the fact that this rustication is compulsory distress or annoy
me. My physical weakness has reduced me to a state of indifference
towards former pursuits. A long illness, following a deplorable
accident, has impaired my appetite for social joys; so much so, indeed,
that when my doctors--rather apologetically, I thought--informed me that
if ever I wished to be well again I must give up my profession and town
residence for twelve months at least, and live quietly somewhere in the
country, I hailed their verdict with delight, and my yearning heart at
once went out to my native village and the home of my old nurse, Betty
Grier.

Dear old Betty! To whom else could I turn? She is all--of the human
element at least--I have left to me of my home life of long ago. My
memories of my father are vague and hazy. I was only five when he died;
and, through the misty veil of long-gone years, two pictures only of him
are impressed upon my mind. In one I see him standing in the narrow
whitewashed pantry, his head 'screeving' the ceiling, and his broad
shoulders almost excluding the waning western light that glimmered
through the small four-paned window. Betty, white-capped and
white-aproned, is there also, with a large ashet in her hands, on which
lies a long, thick silver fish--a salmon, as I afterwards learned--one
of the many he lured from the depths of Mattha's Pool. My mother's arm
is lovingly linked in his, and there is a pleased and happy expression
on her face, which somehow is transmitted to me, because, with her, I
feel proud of the great big man I call my daddy, who has battled so
successfully with the strong-looking monster now lying so quiet, with
gaping mouth, on Betty's ashet.

Then there is a long, dark blank before the next picture appears, and I
see him sitting in a big arm-chair at the dining-room fire. His back is
cushioned, and a shepherd-tartan plaid is round his shoulders, the ends
folded across his knees. My mother is writing letters to his dictation
on a small bureau, which has been placed near his chair. I am playing
with a Noah's Ark, marshalling the animals in pairs on the rug; and when
my mother goes out of the room to the little office adjoining, I leave
my toys and stand at his knee, looking up to a face which to me seems
very white and pinched. A long, thin hand is placed on my curly head,
and with difficulty he bends down and kisses me. I wonder who has been
unkind to him, for I see a tear trickling down his cheek, and it falls
unheeded on his plaid.

I cannot focus him in my mind's eye in any subsequent event, though I
remember perfectly the old doctor with the foxskin cap and the
clattering clogs, and the smell of 'Kendal brown' he always left behind.
Then a day came when the window-blinds were pulled down and all the
rooms were darkened; when Betty's voice was, even to my childish ears,
low and husky; when my mother cuddled me in a tight embrace, and a wet,
wet cheek was laid against mine. Oh, how she trembled and sobbed! I felt
bewildered and unhappy, and I remember putting my wee, helpless arms
round her neck and asking her why she was crying. She told me that daddy
had gone away--away to heaven; and when I asked if he wouldn't come back
to us again, she said, 'No, no,' and her embrace tightened, and she wept
afresh. In a short time the door was hesitatingly opened, and Betty came
noiselessly in with a book in her hand which I had often seen her read.
She stood behind my mother's chair with her tear-stained face turned
away, and her red hand on my mother's shoulder; but she didn't speak.
Then she came round, and, 'hunkering' down beside us, opened her book
and in a low voice began to read.

I often think it is strange how indelibly imprinted on some childish
minds are little incidents of long ago--little glimpses of landscape,
snatches of songs, details here and there of passing events. Not that I
consider the foregoing a little incident. To me it was at the time of
outstanding moment, and even yet in my retrospect of life it looms
large and prominent; but, though I have often endeavoured to recall
Betty's ministrations on this occasion, all I can remember is that when
she came to the verse, 'I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to
you,' she spoke the words without referring to her Bible, and she
repeated them, the while looking with big, hopeful eyes up to my
mother's face. And my mother smiled through her tears; and, stroking
Betty's strong brown hair, she called her 'Betty the Comforter.'

A time came in the short after years when she was, by the same dear
lips, again called 'Betty the Comforter.' It was when my saintly mother
was passing into the spiritland, and, without fear or trepidation, lay
calmly awaiting her call. But of this I cannot speak; it is a subject
sacred to Betty and to me.

To-night, when I had undressed and was settling myself down for the
night, Betty came upstairs, carrying that self-same Bible in her hand.
She stood on the threshold for a minute, wiping its covers with the
corners of her apron, though well she knew that from frequent use the
Book required no dusting.

'Maister Weelum,' she began, 'eh!--I'----

'"William," Betty, please, without the "Mister,"' I said smilingly.

'Yes! yes! so be it--imphm! Eh, this type is clear and big; and I was
thinking that maybe ye micht want to read a verse or twae. I'll lay it
doon here;' and she reverently placed the precious volume on the top of
the chest of drawers.

'Are ye a' richt noo? Ye said ye wanted to speak to me when ye got
settled doon. Is there ocht else I can do for ye?'

'I'm feeling fine, Betty,' I said cheerily, 'and not a bit the worse for
my long journey, not too tired to have a quiet chat with you. So sit
down, please, in the basket chair there, and give me ten minutes of your
valuable time.'

'Ten meenits! Certie, hear him noo! Ten meenits, an' the soo's no
suppered yet, an' I've the morn's broth to prepare, an' wi' me bein' oot
o' the hoose a' day there's a hunner an' ten things starin' me in the
face to be dune. But what want ye to speak aboot? I daur say the soo,
puir thing, will ha'e to wait, noo that you're here. Daylight, too, is
haudin' lang, an' I'll sune mak' up the ten meenits. What want ye noo?'
And she sat down, with a query in her eye, into the basket chair.

'Well, Betty,' I began, 'you and I have gone over all the old times
pretty thoroughly since we met to-day, and we've taken a peep into the
future as well; but there's one subject We haven't touched upon, and
before I go to sleep to-night I wish to come to some understanding with
you regarding my board and lodgings.'

'Board an' lodgings?' Betty queried. 'Board an'----What d'ye mean,
Maister Weelum?' and her lip trembled.

'Well, Betty, by board and lodgings I mean the price of my food and the
rent of my room here, and whatever sum you'----

'Weelum, stop at once noo; I'll no' ha'e that mentioned;' and she rose
excitedly to her feet. 'I'll no' hear o't! The very idea o' speakin' to
me--to me, abune a' fouk--o' board an' lodgings! A bonny-like subject
that to discuss atween us! Dod, man, yin wad think that ye were a
Moniaive mason workin' journeyman in Thornhill. Megstie me! Lovanenty!
heard ye ever the like?--imphm! Mair than that, whae's the owner o' this
hoose? Whae has refused rent for it a' these years, eh?'

'Betty, Betty,' I feebly protested, 'that's not fair, and you know it.
Did you and I not settle that matter long, long ago, and agree that it
would never be referred to again?'

Betty had suddenly assumed both the defensive and the aggressive. She
had pulled her black-beaded muffettees up over her wrists, and flung
her mutch-strings over her shoulders. I knew of old what these actions
meant. She came up to my bedside, and in the fading light I saw a tear
coursing down her cheek. 'Maister Weelum,' she said earnestly, 'I'm safe
in sayin' that ye canna look back on a single phase o' your early life
in which I didna tak' a pairt. Lang before this world was ony reality to
ye, I nursed ye, fed ye, an' dressed ye. In thae early days the greatest
pleasure to me on earth was to cuddle an' care for ye. But I needna tell
ye o' that, ye ken yoursel'. Ye mind hoo much my presence meant to you;
that I'm sure o'. As for your mother--weel, I never had ony ither
mistress. She took me, a young lass, oot o' a most unhappy hame. It was
a pleasure--ay, a privilege--to serve her. Weel, on that day that she
was ta'en frae you an' me, she said in your hearin' an' mine, "Betty,
this has been the only home you ever knew--never leave it. Promise me
you'll accept it.--Willie, my son, you agree?" An' we baith knelt doon
at her bedside, an' she went hame happy, kennin' I was provided for. I
didna forget that on the nicht o' the funeral day you an' me talked it
ower, that I promised to stay here, that it was arranged between us that
rent wad never be spoken o', an' that my occupancy wad never be referred
to. An', Maister Weelum, it wadna ha'e been noo, had you yoursel' no'
talked to me aboot board an' lodgings. My he'rt will break, that will
it, if ye persist'----

For a time we were both silent, both busy with many sacred thoughts and
memories. Then Betty, without looking into my face, 'stapped' the sheets
round my shoulders and well round my sides. 'There noo,' she said at
length, 'you're weel happit an' comfortable-lookin', an' sairly, I'm
thinkin', in need o' the sleep an' rest which I trust this nicht will be
yours. Guid-nicht noo;' and she patted me on the shoulder, as she used
to do in the old days when she had put me to bed and was taking my
candle away.

'One moment, Betty,' I said promptly. 'Sit down here on the bed beside
me, like the good soul you are, and listen to me.--Yes, you may raise my
pillow a little. There now, that's better. Are you listening now?'

She nodded and reseated herself, as I had requested.

'I admit all you say, Betty, about your tenancy of the house, and I am
sorry if what I have said has reopened a question which was settled so
long ago to our mutual satisfaction. When this rest-cure was
prescribed--when I was told that it was absolutely necessary I should
take up my abode in the country--it was to you and to this room that my
thoughts were at once directed. I wrote you I was coming--didn't even
say by your leave--and planted myself, as it were, down on you, without
inquiring whether or not it was agreeable and convenient to you. Now,
believe me, Betty, I acted thus without a thought of your free tenancy
of this my old home.'

'I ken that fine, Weelum,' she quickly said, and she looked thoughtfully
towards me.

'Well, you see, Betty, if you won't allow me to contribute to my living
here, you give me reason to assume that you consider you are in your own
way working off an obligation; else why should I live on your--forgive
the word, Betty--on your charity?'

'But then, Maister Weelum, you forget that I'm sittin' here rent free.'

'Now, Betty, there you go again. Was not that my mother's request?'

'Yes.'

'Well, she imposed no obligation on you?'

'No.'

'Then, Betty, none exists between us; and, in that case, if I remain
here I must be allowed to contribute to the family expenses. Besides,
Betty, it is not as if I were a poor man. Thank goodness! I can well
afford it; for, between you and me and that bedpost against which you
are leaning, I've made over a thousand pounds a year for these last four
years.'

'Lovanenty, Weelum, a--a thoosan' pounds!' and she held up her hands in
astonishment. 'Bless my life, is that possible? I hope ye made it
honestly, my boy?'

'I certainly did,' I said glibly. 'I assure you, Betty, I made it
honestly.'

'Imphm, an' you a lawyer!' said she dryly. She smiled, and after some
reflection began to laugh heartily.

'Oh, come now, Betty, don't round on an old friend like that.' But Betty
heard me not, for she was holding her sides and hotching with convulsive
laughter.

'Oh, Weelum! oh, my boy!' she said, between her kinks, 'it's no'
you--it's no' you I'm lauchin' at. It's something that happened at the
weekly prayer-meetin' in Mrs Shankland's last Wednesday nicht. D' ye
mind o' Dauvid Tamson the draper?'

I nodded in the affirmative.

'Weel, as ye dootless ken, Dauvid has been a' his days a conceited,
fussy, arguin' man, aye desperate honest and well-meanin', but terr'ble
unreasonable and heidstrong, and he's never dune takin' to the law or
consultin' his agent, as he ca's it. Weel, he was at the prayer-meetin'
last Wednesday nicht, and, as it happened, it was his turn to officiate.
After we had sung a psalm and engaged in a word o' prayer, he began to
read the last pairt o' the fifth chapter o' Mattha, and when he cam' to
the fortieth verse: "And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take
away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also," Dauvid hovered a blink.
Then he re-read it very slowly, and says he, "Freens, I've aye prided
mysel' in my knowledge o' the Bible; but I'm forced to admit that this
is the first time I ever noticed that there was evidence in Scripture o'
oor Saviour havin' been ployin' wi' litigations and in the lawyers'
hauns. I dinna ken hoo far He carrit His case, but if my experience was
His, He need not have said _let_ him have thy cloak, for the hungry
deevils wad ha'e ta'en it whether or no'."'

I wonder, did Betty imagine that the recital of that story would divert
my mind from the subject of our conversation and the purpose I had in
view? Somehow I think, as an inspiration, the means to this end had
suddenly occurred to her; but, if such was her aim, the hastily
conceived plot failed.

By a good deal of argument and a modicum of cajolery, I gained my point.
What the terms are which we have arranged is Betty's concern and mine
only. All I may say here is that the weekly amount has to be paid to
Nathan, of whom more anon, and that the subject of pounds, shillings,
and pence has never to be broached in her hearing again.

She said 'Good-night' to me an hour ago. The impatient sounds of
remonstrance from the soo-cruive at the head of the garden subsided
shortly after she left me, from which I argued that the inner wants of
the occupant had been attended to. The chop-chopping of vegetables on
the kitchen table below ceased half-an-hour ago, and I know that a
little at least of to-morrow's dinner has ceased to trouble Betty's
anxious mind.

The shades of night are gathering round me. A soft breeze stirs the
branches of the lime-trees, and through my open window it fans my face
where I lie. Somewhere away Rashbrigward, I hear the quivering yammer of
a startled whaup, and the crooning lullaby of the whispering Nith falls
like music on my ear. In the ryegrass field at the top of the
Gallowsflat a wandering landrail, elusive and challenging, craiks his
homeward way; while from Cample Strath or Closeburn Heights is fitfully
wafted to me the warning bark of a farmer's dog. The clamp-clamp of a
cadger's tired-out horse and the rattle of an empty cart sound loud and
long in the deserted street. Hurrying footsteps echo and re-echo, and
gradually die away into silence. Then evening's wings are folded o'er
me, a blissful peace and a quiet contentment fill my heart, and under
the glamour and spell of nature's benediction I turn my head on my
grateful pillow.



CHAPTER II.


Nathan Hebron is Betty Grier's husband; or, rather, I should say, Betty
Grier is Nathan Hebron's wife. This may possibly be considered a
distinction without a difference; but when you have been introduced into
the inner courts of these two worthies' acquaintance, you will somehow
feel that the latter assertion is the more correct and appropriate.

Nathan is a tall, loosely built man, with a fresh, healthy complexion,
mild blue eyes, and a slightly hanging under-lip. For some considerable
time he has been employed on what is locally known as 'the Duke's wark,'
but in what particular capacity I cannot very well say. When first I
knew him he was one of Archie Maxwell's employés in the nursery, and
when our garden required professional attention it was always Nathan who
was sent to do the necessary digging and titivating.

Three or maybe four times a year he spent a few days at a stretch among
our vegetables and fruit-trees; and I remember with what eager interest
I used to anticipate his visits, for, though he was a man of few words,
and from a story-telling standpoint had little to commend him to a boy,
he carried a quiet, companionable atmosphere with him, and, as a more
dominating recommendation, he was the possessor of one of the sharpest
and most formidable-looking 'gullies' I had ever seen.

How I envied him at pruning-time, when, with his easy, indifferent gait,
he moved about among our rose-bushes with his keen hooked blade, and
with one deft cut lopped off twigs and branches as if they were
potato-suckers. Sometimes at my request he would lay his long gleaming
weapon in the palm of my little hand, but he usually retained possession
of it by a slight finger-and-thumb grip; and I always heaved a sigh of
satisfaction, not unmixed with relief, when he lifted it, closed the
blade with a click, and returned it to his sleeved-vest pocket.

When Nathan was thus employed in our garden he always had dinner with
Betty in the kitchen. Betty's forte in the culinary department was
broth-making, and my mother used to say, with a smile, that when Nathan
was her guest Betty always put her best foot foremost. Betty, with a
blushing cheek, mildly repudiated the charge; and once, when in my
presence my mother told Nathan of this, he blushed too, and to hide his
confusion bent his head and tightened the trousers-straps under his
knees.

Broth, with boiled beef and potatoes to follow, as a rule constituted
Betty's menu on these occasions, and there was always a 'word' between
them when the beef was served, as Nathan insisted on retaining his
soup-plate from which to eat it, and to this Betty strenuously objected.
She declared 'it wasna the thing;' but he retorted that 'that was
possible, but it was aye ae plate less to wash, and he liked the broth
brae wi' the barley piles in it, as it moistened the tatties.'

Immediately after his repast he retired to the stick-house; and there,
seated on the chopping-log, he smoked his pipe in silence and meditation
till the Auld Kirk clock chimed the hour of one.

Betty was no vocalist; but on those days when Nathan worked in our
garden she indulged much in what, out of gallantry towards her, I may
call sweet sounds. She had only one song--it is her sole musical
possession still--and during the years I spent far from the friends and
scenes of my boyhood, as often as I heard the familiar strains of 'The
Farmer's Boy,' Betty's timmer rendering came homely-like to my ear, and
I saw a print-gowned, pensive-faced young woman subjecting newly washed
delf to a vigorous rubbing, and watching through the kitchen window a
big eident gardener turning over with gleaming spade the rich loamy
garden soil.

My mind harks back on these little scraps of memory as I sit here in my
bedroom listening to Betty's ceaseless prattle and Nathan's monosyllabic
responses. He is the same gaunt, silent Nathan, only much grayer, and
his short beard, fringe-like, now covers a chin which once was
clean-shaven and ruddy. He still wears leather straps on his workaday
trousers; and, though I haven't seen it, I am confident the keen-bladed
gully is somewhere about the recesses of his ample pockets. And he is
Betty's 'man,' and Betty is his busy, careful wife, and as such they sit
together in that kitchen taking their meals off that self-same table,
and looking out on that same garden which long ago was the scene of his
periodical labours.

Sometimes of a morning I waken about five o'clock, and even thus early I
hear Betty downstairs making preparations for Nathan's breakfast. I know
full well from the different sounds how she is employed; and, in
rotation, I note the 'ripein' oot' of the previous evening's fire, the
filling of the kettle from the kitchen tap, the opening and closing of
the corner cupboard door, and the clatter of cups, plates, and cutlery.
Then the merry song of the boiling kettle, the clink of the frying-pan
on the crooks, the sizzling of frying ham, the splutter of gravy-steeped
eggs, and the drawing forward of white, well-scrubbed kitchen chairs.

I know, too, when Nathan has finished his meal, as he always puts his
empty cup and saucer with a 'clank' into his bread-plate, gives a hard
throat 'hoast,' backs his chair away from the table, and says 'Imphm!
juist so!' very contentedly and cheerily. Soon the appetising aroma of
fried ham and eggs, which has been all the time in my nostrils, gives
place to the more pungent smell of strong brown twist smoked through a
clean clay pipe. This, however, is merely a whiff in passing, because
Nathan 'stands not upon the order of his going,' and in clean-smelling
corduroys and a cloud of fragrant pipe-reek he goes out into the early
morning sunshine, closing the door with a lingering, hesitating turn of
the handle, which, though gentle, seems loud and grating in the hush of
the dawning day.

How I wish I could walk with him these beautiful fresh sunny mornings
along the Carronbrig road! I follow him, alas! in imagination only; and
as he leaves the empty echoing street and passes under the leafy canopy
of the Cundy Wood I feel the pure caller air on my brow, I listen to the
hum of the bees in the limes, the sportive chatter of the sparrows in
the bushes, the rich, full-throated melody of the blackbird and mavis
from the wooded recesses of the Gillfoot--each feathered minstrel piping
his own song in his own way, and all in unison singing their pæans of
praise in their leafy, sun-kissed bowers. Gossamer-webs, silvered with
countless pearls of dew, stretch their glistening threads from leaf to
leaf, and cover the shady side of the hawthorn hedgerows as with a
gray-meshed silken veil. From rank, dewy grass humble blue-bells raise
their heads, and nod good-morning to white and blue-red stately
foxgloves standing sentinel o'er scarred red-earth banks and tangled
bramble thickets. Lowing cows, knee-deep in meadow grass and buttercups,
with swishing tails and pawing forelegs, impatiently await the opening
gate. And over all, on field and wood and hill and dale, lie the
glorious rays of God's own sunshine, diffusing warmth and gladness, and
filling nature anew with pulsing life.

The road lies broad and white before me, and I see Nathan's tall, gaunt
figure passing Longmire Mains, and I know the smell of the sweet
American gean is in his nostrils, and his gardener's eye is on the
fronded hart's-tongue ferns which here and there peep from the crevices
of the lichen-covered dike; by Meadow Bank, where the purple bloom still
crowns the spiked leaf branch of the rhododendron; on between the
hollies and silver birches at Dabton; through the sleepy village of
Carronbrig, where he is joined by moleskin-clad fellow-workers.

Staff in hand and pipe in mouth, at that regulation pace which is well
known as 'the Duke's step,' each wends his way through the green turf
holm, across the Nith by the stepping-stones, under the shadow of the
ruin-crowned Tibbers mound. As they near the scene of their daily darg,
tobacco 'dottles' are paper-padded and made secure, pipes are deposited
in sleeved-vest pockets, and where the white iron wicket clicks and
admits them to the low-lying stretch of fairy garden plots and
multi-coloured perfumed bowers I take my leave of them. God grant I may
soon be able to see with the living eye, and feel with the nature-loving
heart, the beauties and joys which now in imagination only are mine!

By degrees, and at rare intervals, Betty has relieved her mind to me
regarding Nathan. When I say 'relieved her mind,' I do not imply that
there is anything in Nathan's conduct or any remissness in his mode of
living which burdens Betty's thoughts. Far from it. Nathan is the best
of husbands--appreciative, kind, steady, and considerate. His wages--to
the uttermost farthing--are regularly given up to Betty's safe keeping.
All his spare hours are devoted to the large garden, whose produce from
January till December makes Betty's daily dinner of the bienest. Her
slightest wish is a command which he obeys with cheerfulness and
alacrity, and the quiet and composure of his presence is, I know, her
secret pride and mainstay. Yet she seems to be ever apologising for his
being about, and in speaking of him to me she invariably refers to him
as 'Nathan, puir falla,' with just the slightest suggestion of
commiseration in her tone.

I wonder why this should be, and it is beginning to dawn upon me that
Betty somehow imagines--wrongly, needless to say--that I look upon him
as an intruder, something foreign to the element of our home-life of
long ago; and, stranger still, I am conscious of that feeling in Nathan
also. Though I have been resident here for over two weeks, and though he
has cried upstairs to me every evening, he has only been twice in my
room; and on both occasions he stood awkwardly at the door, holding on
by the handle, and answering my questions with his head turned toward
the landing. During the past week I have managed to limp my way
downstairs, and on passing through the kitchen have stayed my steps to
ca' the crack with him. But 'Yes, sir,' 'No, sir,' 'Ay, ay; imphm!' have
so far been the sum-total of his contribution to the conversation. Some
day, however, I know Nathan will thaw; some day soon they will both know
the high esteem in which I hold him. In due season he will rid himself
of his backwardness and shyness, and I shall be glad, for his honest
blue eye and his pleasing serenity appeal to me, and I feel I want a
friend like Nathan Hebron.

To-night, after she had cleared away the remains of my homely supper,
Betty sat down with her knitting at my little attic window. I have two
pots of flowering musk and a lovely pelargonium in full bloom on my
sill, and under pretence of procuring Nathan's advice as to their
culture and well-being I inquired of Betty if she would ask him to come
upstairs.

'Most certainly, Maister Weelum,' said she, with a pleasant nod; and she
went out, returning a minute later with Nathan in her wake. I know he
had been sitting in his easy-chair smoking in silence, with his
stem-bonnet on and his shirt-sleeves rolled up, inactive, yet alert and
ready to fulfil any of Betty's little behests; but at Betty's summons he
had hastily donned a coat, and his head was bare.

After leisurely examining my plants and drawling out a few disjointed
directions, he turned to go downstairs; but I motioned him to a seat,
and, rather reluctantly, I thought, he sat down. I urged him to join me
in a smoke, and offered him a fill of my Edinburgh mixture; but he
declined my pouch; and, taking out a deerskin spleuchan, he nipped a
full inch of brown twist, teased it, rolled it in the palm of his rough,
horny hand, and meditatively filled the bowl of his clay cutty.

Betty noticed my little act of civility; but she plied her needles in
silence till Nathan had struck a light and begun smoking.

'Ay, Maister Weelum,' she said, as Nathan fitted the glowing bowl of his
pipe with a perforated metal cover, 'thae fancy ready-cut tobaccos are
no' much in the line o' oor Nathan, puir falla.'

'Is that so? Well, every man to his own taste; but, Betty, excuse my
asking so personal a question, why do you always refer to your goodman
here as "Nathan, puir falla"?'

Nathan looked surprisedly from me to Betty, and, after fumbling with his
match-box, struck another light when there was no necessity to do so;
while Betty laid her knitting on the table and thoughtfully pressed it
out lengthwise with the palm of her open hand.

'When ye mention it, noo, I daur say I div say "puir falla,"' she
answered; 'but, though I say that, I dinna mean it in ony temporal
sense, Maister Weelum. So far as this world is concerned, I've got the
very best man that ever lived; but'----and she looked at Nathan as if in
doubt how to proceed.

Nathan blew pipe-reek most vigorously; then he turned round to me with a
faint smile on his sober face, and he actually winked. 'She's--she's
sterted again, Maister Weelum,' he said with a side-nod toward Betty.

'Started what, Nathan?'

'Oh, the auld subject--imphm!'

'Ay,'--chimed in Betty, now sure of her opening, 'it's an auld subject,
but it's ever a new yin, a' the same. "'Tis old, yet ever new," as the
hymn-book has it. Ay, an' that _is_ true. As I said before, Maister
Weelum, I've nae concern regairdin' Nathan's welfare in this world.
We're promised only bread an' water, an' look hoo often he gets tea an'
chops, an' on what we ha'e saved there's every chance o' that diet bein'
continued as lang as he has teeth to chew wi'. But what o' the next
world? As Tammas Fraser aince said when he was takin' the Book, "Ah,
that's where the rub comes in!"' and she shook her head dolefully, as
much as to say, 'Nathan, you're a gone corbie!'

I looked from husband to wife in blank astonishment, not knowing what to
say. I had always looked upon Betty as a deeply religious woman, a true
disciple of the Great Master, but partaking more of the loving John than
the assertive Peter; and, often as I had heard her say a word in season,
I could not remember having listened to her expressing so pointedly her
fears and convictions.

She interpreted my thoughts aright; and after Nathan had, without
necessity, sparked another match, and almost succeeded in turning toward
us the full length and breadth of his long tankard back, she resumed.

'Your mother was a guid woman, Maister Weelum, an' I ken that often,
often, you were the burden o' her prayers. I never talked much on this
subject to you, kennin' that you were her ain particular chairge, an'
that her prayers, withoot my interference, wad be answered. But it's
different in the case o' Nathan here. He belangs to me, an' me to him.
My calling an' election 's sure, an' I juist canna bide the thocht o' us
bein' separated at the lang hinner-en'. It's no' that he 's a bad
man--far from it. Or it 's no' that he 's careless. I gi'e him credit
for bein' concerned in his ain wey; but he juist saunters on through
life, trustin' that things will somewey work oot a' richt, an' lettin'
the want, if there 's ony, come in at the wab's end. Ay, an' for a man
like him, that 's sae fond o' flo'ers an' dogs an' ither folks' weans,
it simply passes my comprehension hoo it is that he 's sae indifferent
to the greatest o' a' love an' the things that so closely concern his
immortal soul's salvation. Nae wonder I say, "Nathan, puir falla."'

Notwithstanding the gravity of the charge she had laid at Nathan's door,
I felt relieved to know that my surmises regarding the cause of his
attitude toward me were unfounded; and, with a note of encouragement in
my voice, I hinted to Betty that, after all, it was possible she was
unnecessarily worrying herself, as with two advocates like her and my
mother it would surely be well with both Nathan and me.

'Ah, Maister Weelum,' she said impressively, 'I ken fine that the
prayers o' the just availeth much; but aye bear in mind--Nathan, are ye
listenin'?--Ay--weel, bear in mind that every herrin' maun hing by its
ain heid. Mind that, the twae o' ye noo.'

This direct personal appeal rather discomposed me, and I didn't know
what to say. As for Nathan, he rose slowly from his chair, and, turning
round, he solemnly winked to me again. That wink somehow sealed a
compact between us. It placed us on a common platform, and established a
feeling of camaraderie which it would be hard for me to define.

'Ay, Betty,' he said, as he raised himself to his full height, 'you're a
wonderfu' woman--a wonderfu' woman!' and he yawned audibly; 'an' when it
comes to gab wark on sic a subject as ye 've ta'en in haun', John Clerk
the colporteur canna haud a cannel to ye. When ye stert on me like this
I aye gi'e ye plenty o' rope, an' I never gi'e it a tug; but ye 've
gi'en me a gey tatterin' afore Maister Weelum here, an' I wad just like
to put in my yelp noo.'

Betty gave him a surprised look, and I nodded and smiled encouragingly
toward him.

'I don't misdoot,' he continued, after he had loosened his cravat at his
throat, 'that there 's some truth in a few o' your remarks; but, dod,
lass, dinna forget that I'm tryin' my best.'

'In what wey, Nathan?' she promptly asked.

'Weel, let me consider noo. Ay, I don't think I ha'e missed a day at the
kirk since we were mairret. That's ae thing, onywey. Then we tak' the
Beuk regularly; an' forby that, Betty,' he said impressively, 'I was
five times at the prayer-meetin's wi' ye last year, and'----

'Prayer-meetin's!' said Betty; 'prayer-meetin's!' and she raised her
voice. 'Nathan Hebron, I'm astonished ye ha'e the audacity to mention
prayer-meetin's to me!'

'Hoo that, Betty?' he gravely asked.

'Hoo that? As if ye didna ken! My word, but that 's yin an' a half!--Do
you know this Maister Weelum; I had to stop takin' him to to the
prayer-meetin's, for he aye fell asleep. The last yin I took him to was
at Mrs Kennedy's. Not only did he sleep, but he snored wi' his heid
lyin' back an' his face to the ceilin'; an' when he waukened, it was in
the middle o' a silent prayer, an' he glimmered an' blinked at the
gaslicht, an' said he, wi' his een half-shut, "Betty, that 's rank
wastery burnin' the gas when we 're in oor sleepin' bed." Ashamed? I was
black affronted, Maister Weelum, an' among sae mony earnest folk, too.'

Goodness knows, I hold no brief for Nathan, but I ventured to say on his
behalf that, as he had been working in the open all day, and the room
was quiet and warm, he was, in a way, to be excused if he unconsciously
dovered.

'Ay, that's a' very weel; but I notice he never dovers, as ye ca' it, at
an Oddfellows' soiree.'

Nathan had quietly slipped downstairs before she reached the end of her
story, and in his absence she became confidential and communicative.

'I somewey think he means weel, but the road to hell is paved wi' guid
intentions. He's maybe the best specimen of the natural man that I ken
o'; but wae's me, that's no' sufficient. The seeds o' carelessness were
sown lang before I kenned him; an' tho' I maun alloo he has improved in
my haun', I see wee bit touches noo an' than o' the he'rt at enmity
which sometimes mak' me despair. For instance, the ither Sabbath-day nae
faurer gane, he sat doon efter his denner wi' a book, an' he looked
neither to left nor richt, but read on and on. "Nathan," says I, "what's
the book you're sae intent on?" "Oh, Betty," says he glibly, weel
kennin' that I didna gi'e in wi' orra readin' on the Lord's Day, "I've
faun in wi' a splendid book the day. It's ca'ed Baxter's--eh--_Saunts'
Everlastin' Rest_, an' it's the kind o' readin' I like." "Ay," says I,
weel pleased wi' the soond o' the title, "read on at that, Nathan.
Baxter's fu' o' rich refreshin' truths. Read slow noo, Nathan, an' tak'
it a' in." Weel, he never put it oot o' his haun till bedtime, except
when he was at his tea, an' then he slipped it into his coat-pocket; an'
the next day, when he was away at his wark, I cam' on it stappit doon
behin' the cushion o' his easy-chair; an' what think ye it was, Maister
Weelum? Guess noo what it was.'

'Baxter's _Saints' Everlasting Rest_, of course,' I said.

'Weel,' said Betty, 'that was printed on the loose covers that had aince
been the boards o' the holy volume o' that name; but the paper-covered
book that was inside was _The Experiences o' an Edinburgh Detective_, by
James MacGovan; an' d'ye ken this, Maister Weelum, I juist sat doon in
the middle o' my wark an' grat my he'rt-fill.'

Poor, dear Betty, she wept anew at the remembrance of Nathan's lapse,
then rolled her knitting into her apron, and went downstairs into the
kitchen. Ten minutes later, when I was having my last pipe for the
night, I heard her voice raised in the Beuk, and she was reading, with a
point and emphasis which I am sure Nathan could not misunderstand, the
story from the Acts of Ananias and his wife Sapphira.



CHAPTER III.


I am as yet only on the threshold of my stay in Thornhill, and I am
beginning my long vacation as I intend to end it. Dr Balfour's orders
were short and to the point; and, in bidding a temporary farewell to
professional work and preparing for a long holiday, I know I am
following his instructions and furthering my own interests and future
well-being. Time was when this enforced inaction would have been irksome
indeed. I have always been alert mentally and physically; but since my
accident I have been incapable of any prolonged mental effort, and I
have welcomed the languor of this quiet retreat, which has possessed me
and claimed me as its own. Betty's ministrations I feel I stand in need
of; and Nathan's company, unresponsive and grudging though it be, is all
I desire. Betty has no patience with useless, idling folks, for she is
herself a bustler, and she talks contemptuously of the hangers-on who
daily and nightly support our village corners. Once she told me they
were troubled with a complaint called the 'guyfaul.' I had never heard
the queer word before, and asked its meaning. 'An inclination for meat,
but nane for wark,' she promptly replied; and as I lie abed these
beautiful sunny forenoons I wonder if Betty considers that I also am
afflicted with the 'guyfaul.'

Correspondence of an official character is tabooed; but a day or two ago
I received a long newsy letter from my partner, Murray Monteith, not one
line of which had any reference to business. This morning I had a
further communication, almost equally free from 'shop;' but in a
footnote he remarks as follows: 'We had a call yesterday from our client
the Hon. Mrs Stuart, and in course of conversation she informed me that
she had leased a house in the vicinity of Thornhill, and that her niece,
the late General Stuart's daughter, was staying with her over the
autumn. I was strongly tempted to tell her you were at present resident
in that village, but refrained, knowing it would be unwise of you in the
present circumstances to occupy yourself with her affairs. Our inability
to find a will or to trace the record of the General's marriage troubles
her very much.'

This postscript set me a-thinking, and I lay long pondering obscure
points in a case which had worried and perplexed every one concerned.
Not only was the good name of the Stuart family involved; but, in the
absence of proof, the General's daughter must be--well, nameless, and
the estate must pass to another branch of the family.

So absorbed was I in my train of reflection that I failed to note
Betty's entrance with my breakfast-tray. A short cough and the clatter
of china recalled my wandering thoughts, and I began a rather disjointed
apology. Holding up my firm's letter with the familiar light-blue
envelope, I laughingly said, 'Blame this, Betty, and forgive my
inattention.'

'Hoots, ay,' said Betty, 'it's a' richt; but ye maunna pucker your broo
an' worry your brain. Deil tak' thae lang blue letters, onywey! Nane o'
them that ever I got spelt weel to me; an' when Milligan the postman
handed this yin in this mornin', an' when I thocht o' taxes an' sic
fash, I was sairly tempted to back the fire wi' it. Imphm! that's so,
noo. Eh! by the by, the doctor's Mary looked in on the bygaun, an' she
tells me Dr Grierson will likely be doon to see ye the day. He has had a
letter frae a Dr Balfour o' Edinbro, tellin' him a' aboot ye, an' askin'
him to keep his eye on ye. Imphm! Ay, an', Maister Weelum, ye didna tell
me that ye lay a week in the infirmary insensible.'

'No, Betty,' I said, 'I dare say I didn't; but--well, the fact is I
didn't wish to worry you with details or'----

'Ay, an' naether did ye tell me it was to save your wee dog's life ye
gaed back into the burnin' hoose,' she said in the same inquisitive
tone. I stirred my coffee vigorously, but said nothing. 'An' is it the
case that the stair fell in when ye were on the middle o't, an' that the
wee dog was foun' deid in your airms?'

'That is so, Betty,' I said sadly.

Betty was silent for a minute, and she fumbled aimlessly with the corner
of her apron. 'Lovan,' she said at length, 'it has been a mair terrible
affair than I had ony thocht o'. The heid an' the spine are kittle to
get hurt, but it's a guid's blessin' ye werena burnt beyond recognition.
Efter siccan an experience it's a wonder ye didna relieve your mind to
me regairdin' it lang ere noo. Naebody in this world wad ha'e been mair
interested or sympathetic. What wey did ye no'?'

Her concern and loving interest were unmistakable; but from the tone of
her questionings I opined she was smarting under the sense of a slight,
real or imagined, and I hastened to reassure her. 'My dear Betty,' I
said, 'believe me I had no motive in withholding such news other than
that of saving your feelings. At one time I was minded to tell you all
about it; but when you met me at Elvanfoot I noted at a glance the
pained, surprised look on your face, and I at once decided not to say
more than was absolutely necessary. Besides, Betty, everything happened
so quickly that I can scarcely remember the details.' In a few words I
described what had taken place. 'And now, Betty,' I concluded, 'let us
change the subject. Even now the recollection of my experience is like a
nightmare, and I would rather not speak of it.'

'Imphm!' said Betty abstractedly; 'that I daur say is no' to be wondered
at. I'm sorry if my curiosity has been the means o' bringin' it a' back
again; but, oh man, Maister Weelum, it gaed sair against the grain to
hear o' a' this frae fremit lips. The doctor's Mary has a' the
particulars at her tongue-tap, an' she gaed through it this mornin' like
A B C. I could see she was under the impression that I kenned a' aboot
it, an' I didna seek to disabuse her mind on that, but juist said,
"Imphm! that is so, Mary--what ye say is true;" and she left my doorstep
thinkin' I was farer ben in your confidences than I am. But that's a'
richt, Maister Weelum. I respect your motives, an' I understaun exactly
hoo ye were placed. But, oh, my boy! in ocht that may in the future
distress ye dinna leave Betty oot, an' dinna forget that her he'rt is
big eneuch to haud your sorrows as weel as her ain. Wheesht! Is that the
ooter door openin'? It is; an', dod, that's Dr Grierson's cheepin' buits
on the lobby flaer, an' me no' snodit yet. He's an awfu' dingle-doozie
in the mornin', is the doctor.'

Moistening the tips of her fingers on her lip and keeking into my little
oval looking-glass, she deftly arranged a stray lock of gray-black hair
under the neatly goffered border of her white morning-mutch.' Juist a
word wi' ye, Maister Weelum, before I gang doon. Are ye quite agreeable
that Dr Grierson should veesit ye? He's an auld freen o' your Edinbro
doctor, an' that's hoo he cam' to be written to, so the doctor's Mary
tells me.'

'Oh, I'm quite agreeable, Betty--delighted, indeed,' I replied.

'Eh--ay--imphm! An' ye've nae feelin' on that point?'

'Most assuredly not,' I said. 'But why do you ask?'

She tiptoed across the floor and half-closed the door.

'That's him rappin' wi' his stick on the kitchen flaer,' she said in a
whisper. 'An' tell me this; did the mistress--your mother, I mean--ever
say ocht to ye aboot the doctor an'--an' ony o' her ain folks?'

'Not that I remember of'

'Ay, aweel, that's a' richt. When he comes up, dinna refer to my
speirin' ye this;' and she hurriedly left me and went downstairs.

Thornhill has never been without its Gideon Gray. Had Dr John Brown been
acquainted with its record in this particular respect he could have
added to that remarkable chapter of his _Horoe Subsecivoe_ the names
of not a few medical benefactors, the memory of whose services is yet
fragrant in our midst. Scattered here and there in many a quiet country
kirkyard are the graves of heroes of science who in their day
ungrudgingly gave of their very best, faithfully ministering to the
wants of the poor and needy without thought of fee or reward; men of
ability, intellect, tact, and courage of heart, whose life-work lay in
the sequestered bypaths, and whose names were unknown outside the glen
they called their home. Of such was Dr Grierson; and as he stood by my
bedside the thought momentarily flashed through my mind, would that he
had been limned by Scott or by the creator of Rab and Ailie!

A little over medium height; wiry, spare, and alert; broad shoulders
slightly stooped; long dark hair streaked with gray, without a parting,
brushed straight back from his forehead and hanging in clustering locks
above his stock; his face serious almost, yet not void of humour, and
lit up by kindly, blue, thoughtful eyes; a presence cheering and
reassuring, and a bearing which bespoke the scholar and the gentleman.
His clothes were of rough gray homespun, badly fitted and carelessly
worn. A thin shepherd-tartan plaid, arranged herdwise, hung from his
shoulder, and he held in his hand a round soft hat, gray-green from
exposure to summer sun and winter rains. Such was the man who stood by
my bedside--a Gideon Gray indeed--strong of purpose, keenly observant;
shy, yet not suspicious; revelling in his power of doing good; inured to
cold and privation; buoyant and hopeful in the face of difficulties;
daily in close and loving communion with all nature around him; and girt
about with truthfulness and integrity as with a cloak. Though I had
never before been in his presence, I hailed him within my heart as a
true and honoured friend.

He shook hands without saying good-morning, and seated himself on a
chair at the foot of my bed. Betty, who had preceded him upstairs, and
announced him, walked across the room, took up a position at the gable
window, and feigned an interest in our grocer neighbour's back-yard. He
looked at me pointedly and earnestly, the while stroking his long
straggling beard, and then, half-turning his head toward Betty, he said
with a low, little laugh, and with a pronounced yet euphonious 'burr,'
'Our young friend, Betty, is more of a Kennedy than a Russell.'

'Ay, doctor, that he is,' said Betty, without taking her eyes from the
window. 'He aye took efter his mither's folk. When he was a bairn o'
three he was the very spit o' his aunt Marget. Not that I ha'e ony
recollection o' her, but that's what I mind the mistress used to say.'

'He's like her yet,' the doctor promptly added.--'And in saying so I can
pay no higher compliment to you, my young man.'

'I've heard it said, doctor, that ye kenned the Kennedys aince on a
time,' said Betty, and she changed the position of a pot of musk on the
window-sill.

He looked quickly and questioningly at Betty; but she was busying
herself with the flowers, the while humming, timmer-tuned as usual, the
opening lines of 'The Farmer's Boy.'

Then he looked from her to me, slowly and deliberately crossed his legs,
and, putting his long, thin hands lengthwise on his knee, he said, more
to himself than to Betty, 'Yes, yes, I, as you say, once knew them
well.'

'Ye wad ken Miss Marget, then?' asked Betty after a pause.

To me Betty's questioning was an enigma; but I wasn't slow to notice it
was distinctly disconcerting to the doctor, who quickly changed his
position and sat with his back to the light.

'Miss Marget and I were very, very dear friends,' he said, 'very dear
friends, a long, long time ago;' and he abstractedly traced with the tip
of his finger an irregular circle round the brim of his old soft hat.

Betty with a flick of her apron removed imaginary dust from the
window-sill, and then, coming up to the doctor, she laid her hand on the
back of his chair. 'In that case, then, doctor,' she earnestly said,
'for her sake, for Miss Marget's sake, ye'll do your best for her
nephew, for it breaks my he'rt to see him lyin' there amaist as helpless
as a bairn.' And she hurriedly left the room, and I don't know for
certain, but I think she was crying.

The doctor rose, quietly closed the door, and resumed his seat.

'Betty has undoubtedly your welfare at heart, Mr Russell,' he said.
'Unconsciously, or maybe consciously, she has awakened many memories of
the long ago--memories of times and people that are with me now only in
dreams. Ay, ay;' and he passed his hand slowly adown his face. 'But this
is not getting on with my work,' he said, after a pause.

Putting his hand in his coat pocket, he brought out, not a handkerchief,
as he had intended or as I expected, but a rather sickly-looking
hart's-tongue fern, the root of which was carefully wrapped in a piece
of newspaper and tied with a bootlace.

'Well, well!' he said reproachfully, turning it over in his hand, 'that
is indeed stupid of me. I ought to have planted this immediately on my
arrival this morning; but fortunately I was careful to take sufficient
soil with it, and maybe it is not yet too late.'

'Have you been from home, doctor?' I asked.

'Oh, only for twelve hours,' he said, returning the plant to his pocket.
'I was on the point of going to bed last night, when the Benthead
shepherd called me out to attend his wife. He was driving an old nag I
knew well, a Mitchelslacks pensioner--willing enough, you may be sure,
or he wouldn't have been owned by a Harkness, but long past his best;
so, in order to be as soon as possible beside my patient, I quickly
saddled my own mare, and was trotting down the Gashouse Brae when the
kirk clock was striking eleven. I passed the old nag near Laught; but
unfortunately at Camplemill Daisy cast a shoe; so, rather than trouble
the smith at such an untimely hour, I put her into his stable, the door
of which was unlocked, waited the upcoming of the shepherd, and drove
the rest of the journey with him in his spring-cart. After sitting for
an hour or two at a smoky peat fire, reading by the aid of a guttering
tallow-candle a back-number of the _Agricultural Gazette_, I was called
to work, and very soon added another arrow--the tenth--to the shepherd's
quiver. When everything was "a' bye," as we say locally, Benthead kindly
offered to drive me down to the mill; but, as the early morning was so
delightfully fine, and nature outside so pleading and inviting, I took
to the moor on "Shanks' naigie." Ah, the delight of that moorland walk!
the exhilarating air of the uplands! Why, man, it was like quaffing
wine, and the cobwebs--warp and woof of the sleepless hours--were
charmed away as if by magic. The sun was just peeping over the crest of
Bellybucht, and his rays were lying lovingly athwart the budding
heather and the silver mist-wreathed bents. Bracken and juniper,
blaeberry and crowberry; dewdrops here, dewdrops there, sparkling and
shimmering; tiny springs of crystal water oozing out from whinstone
chinks, gurgling and trickling down pebbled ruts, seen awhile, then
unseen, lost in spongy moss and tangled seggs. Overhead the morning song
of the gladsome lark; to my right the _wheep_ of the snipe and the quack
of a startled duck; to my left the _yittering_ of the curlew and the
_chirrup_ of the flitting, restless cheeper; and over all the spirit of
the wild which isolates and draws within her mantle-folds all those who
cuddle close to Nature's breast. Ah, what a morning! what a scene! Hat
in hand I walked, with my head bared to the throbbing air and the
glorious sunshine. "Surely, surely," I said to myself, "it is good for
me to be here;" and with a sense of thankfulness in my heart, and
turning my face to the shadowy Lowthers, I sang with the Psalmist, "I to
the hills will lift mine eyes."

'I struck the Crichope about six o'clock; wandered leisurely down the
linn; pulled this hart's-tongue fern, and a few more which I must have
lost; picked up this fossil--part of a frog, I think--which will make a
welcome addition to my collection.' He hesitated for a moment, with
half-closed eyes and his chin resting on his folded stock. Then he
suddenly looked toward me and asked, 'Have you ever walked down Crichope
alone?'

'No, not alone,' I replied.

'Then Crichope has never spoken to you. You have never heard its
message. To me, this morning, it was the mouthpiece of the Creator--the
great Architect; _for I was alone_. With those who love and admire His
handiwork He is ever in communion, and He speaks in the rustle of the
leaf, the tinkle of the stream, the whisper of the grass, and the echo
of the linn. But you must be alone, humble, reverent, stripped to the
pelt, as it were, of everything sordid, boastful, and vainglorious; and
then that old ravine will be a sanctuary where in its solitude you will
find solace, comfort in its caverns, food for reflection in its story
and traditions.'

Again he paused, and I lay with eager eyes fixed on his animated face.
Betty's cat, with arched back and long tail, brushed slowly past his
knee. With an ingratiating 'Pussy, puss,' he stroked her fur.

'About half-past seven,' he continued, 'I reached the smithy, had a cup
of tea with Smith Martin and his wife, got Daisy's shoe made siccar,
and was mounting for home, when news was brought from Dresserland that a
farm-worker had fallen from his cart and broken his leg. Off Daisy and I
trotted up the brae. But, tut! tut! why should I waste my precious time,
and weary and fatigue you to boot, by detailing all my morning round?'

'Oh, doctor, don't stop!' I pleaded. 'I know and love that whole
countryside, and a talk with you is like a walk in the open. Indeed, my
limbs twitched as you strode along, and I felt as if I were keeping step
with you.'

'Ay, your limbs twitched, did they? That's a good sign.'

'A sign of my appreciation of your love of nature and poetry of
language, doctor?' I asked.

'No, no; something far more important than appreciation. But this is not
business. I know you will be anxious to learn in how far Dr Balfour and
I agree, so let me have a look at that damaged spine of yours.'

Betty tells me that she's 'feart the doctor's a careless, godless man,
for he never enters a kirk door.' I could have told her that he had
attended church that morning, and that he had had communion with God and
a glimpse of heaven which would have been an unknown experience and an
unfamiliar sight to many who occupy a church pew every Sunday; but Betty
wouldn't have understood--nay, wouldn't have believed me--and I was
silent.

His visit has cheered and encouraged me, and his conversation has made
me proud of his acquaintance. He is to call on me again in a few days;
and meanwhile I have to take more exercise; so with the aid of a
friendly hazel I shall have a daily 'daunder' and an opportunity of
renewing my acquaintance with Douglas the barber in his wee back-room,
John Sterling the shoemaker at his souter's stool, and Deacon Webster at
his tool-laden bench.



CHAPTER IV.


Tom Jardine the grocer--Betty's next-door neighbour--will be thirty-four
years old on the 23rd of January next. He is to a day exactly four years
my senior. I remember it was when his mother and Betty were putting out
clothes together in the back-green that I, a boy of five, heard for the
first time that we had a birthday in common.

To me the fact vested Tom with a special interest. I looked upon him in
more than a mere neighbourly spirit. Though we were rarely associated in
our boys' games, we often casually met about the doors or had disjointed
conversations through the garden hedge; and on these occasions the
desire was always strong within me to talk of our birthday, and to ask
if he wasn't wearying for the 23rd to come round. And when that
auspicious date was ushered in, and my birthday-cake, in all its
white-iced glory, was ceremoniously placed before me at table, I used to
wonder if Tom had one also, and if he, like me, had the honour of
cutting and distributing it.

On looking back, I cannot remember when the Jardines were not our
neighbours. Long ago Robert Jardine, Tom's father, was a tenant of ours,
and twice a year, at the Martinmas and Whitsunday terms, he called upon
us; and when the rent had been paid and sundry repairs and alterations
agreed upon, he and my father drank a glass of wine together. It had,
however, long been the height of Robert's ambition to be the owner of
his own roof-tree. Times then being good, he soon saved the amount
necessary to effect a purchase; and after many calls and conferences,
terms were ultimately arranged to the satisfaction of both vender and
buyer.

Tom was the youngest of a large family, the other members of which had
all emigrated; and when Robert Jardine died--his wife had predeceased
him by a few years--there was no one else to look after affairs. Tom at
once gave up a responsible position in a wholesale grocery establishment
in Glasgow, came south with a wife and three young children, and took
over what I now understand every Thornhill villager believed to be a
dying, if not an altogether dead, concern.

All these changes had taken place in my absence during these past
fourteen years; but it was nevertheless pleasing to me to know from
Betty, shortly after my return, that as neighbours the family was still
represented, the more so as the representative in question was none
other than my old friend Tom.

In describing my attic room I omitted to say that it has a little,
round, gable window through which, from my fireside chair, I can look
down upon the Jardines' back-yard. Long ago I used to sit here and watch
old Robert grooming his horse, cleaning his harness, and packing his
long-bodied spring-cart with bags of flour or meal, and grocery parcels
of tea and sugar, for distribution on his long cadger rounds.

During the past few weeks my interest has often been centred on his son
similarly employed. Tom sings and whistles cheery tunes as he works, and
his iron-shod clogs make a merry clatter on the stone-paved court. His
wife and the two eldest children--blue-eyed, curly-haired bairns they
are--give him willing help, and, standing in his cart or on a chair
placed beside the wheel, he cheerily receives and checks off in a
weather-beaten note-book the various articles for his country clients.

Like Nathan, Tom is no lie-abed in the morning. Of necessity he must be
up betimes, for his journeys are often long and his days are always too
short. When Betty is preparing the early breakfast I hear Tom's ringing
footstep outside, the taming of the key in the stable-door lock, and the
anticipating whinny of the gray mare. Then a horse-pail is filled from
the tap at the stable-door; a minute later it is returned empty and
deposited outside; the lid of the corn-bin, which has been poised on its
creaky hinges, descends with a bang, and I know that his faithful
dappled friend has her nose buried in countless piles of sweet-smelling
corn.

Betty is not an inquisitive woman, nor does she interest herself in a
meddling way in her neighbours' concerns; yet her big, kindly heart and
her never-failing sympathetic nature invite many confidences, and she is
therefore more fully versed in what I might call the inward life of
those around her than many of a more zealously prying and newsvending
disposition.

We were talking one day about the Jardines of a past generation, and our
conversation naturally turned to Tom. I commended him for his industry,
for his sobriety, and for the undivided attention he gave to his
business, and finished up by asking if he was a successful man. Betty
made no reply; but she shook her head doubtfully, from which I argued
that it was not all sunshine and whistling and singing with our young
grocer neighbour; and as she showed no desire to continue the
conversation, I allowed the matter to drop.

After tea, however, she reverted to the subject, and reopened our chat
by asking if it was usual in business for a son to take over his dead
father's debts.

In my short professional career I remembered one such case, in which I
was interested, but only one, and I told her of it. I didn't go into
details, but gave her the bald outstanding points; and after I had
finished she said, 'Ay, and that's the only case ye ever heard o'?'

'Yes, that is so, Betty,' I replied.

She was standing at the round gable window, vacantly looking down into
our neighbour's back-yard. Then I saw her eyebrows begin to pucker, and
I knew there was something on her mind.

'Maister Weelum,' she said at length, 'I've nae concern in the ongauns
o' the folks aboot me, an' I never talk aboot them. But ye asked me
regairdin' Tom Jardine, an' I'm no' betrayin' ony confidences when I
tell ye that young Tom took ower his dead faither's debts, so that will
be twae cases ye ken o'.'

'Tom Jardine!' I said with surprise. 'Surely Robert Jardine wasn't in
debt when he died?'

'That he was, Maister Weelum--the mair's the pity. Ye see, for a lang
time--I micht say for at least five years afore he died--he wasna able
to gang his roons; in fact, he was barely able to stand ahint the
coonter. Younger an' mair active competitors took up the same gr'und;
an' what wi' failin' trade, increasin' competition, an' cuttin' prices,
there wasna a livin' in it. Then his wife had a lang, lingerin' illness,
an' when she slippit away he kind o' lost he'rt. I was often wae for
him, puir man, an' I did a' I could for him in my ain sma' wey. Except
to yin or twae he keepit a smilin' face, though, aye wrote cheerily to
Tom, an' gaed to kirk an' market as lang as he was able wi' his heid in
the air; but, losh me! when his time cam' it was nae surprise to me an'
yin or twae mair that the whole affair--shop, hoose, an' business--didna
show much mair than ten shillin's in the pound. Tom--him that's doon
there noo--was in a guid wey o' doin' in Glesca, an' nothing wad ser'
him but he bood come hame an' tak' things in haun. He was strongly
advised to have nothing to do wi' it, an' to let the creditors handle
what was left as best it was likely to pay them. But Tom said, "No." All
he asked frae the creditors was time an' secrecy as far as was possible
as to how things stood, an' frae the Almighty health an' strength, an',
given these, he promised to clear his dead faither's name an' see every
yin get his ain. That's three years ago past the May term, an', honour
an' praise to the puir laddie, he's nearly succeeded. But it has been a
terrible struggle for him; an' had it no' been for his determination,
his sobriety, his pride in his faither's guid name, an' abune a' the
help o' a lovin' wife wha's a perfect mother in Israel, he wad ha'e
gi'en it up lang or noo as an impossible, thankless job. Nathan and me
lent his faither sixty pounds. We had nae writin' to speak o', only his
signed name. I showed the paper to Tom shortly efter he had settled doon
here, an' instead o' questionin' it he thanked us for our kindness an
promised to pay it back in the same proportion as the ithers. Up to noo
we've got back thirty pounds. I was in his shop the ither day, an' he
said he thocht he wad be able to gi'e's anither ten pounds at the
November term. What think ye o' that noo, Maister Weelum?'

'I think your neighbour is a splendid fellow, Betty, and I would like to
shake hands with him. Have you the paper beside you on which his
father's name appears for sixty pounds?'

'Ay, that I have,' said Betty. She went downstairs, and returned a
minute later with a sheet of notepaper.

I glanced at the unstamped promise, and smiled. 'Betty,' I said
seriously, 'are you aware this is not worth the paper it is written on?'

'Ay, perfectly,' she said with unconcern.

'How did you find that out?' I inquired.

'Oh, when I showed it to Tom Jardine he used exactly the same words as
you did; but, said he, "My faither signed that. I have every confidence
in you an' Nathan. My faither an' mither thought the world o' ye, an'
wi' my assurance that ye'll be paid back, I tender you my best thanks
for your kindness in time o' need."'

Betty folded up her worthless document and put it in the breast of her
gown. 'An honest man like Tom Jardine makes up for a lot o' worthless
yins, Maister Weelum,' she said as she lifted her tea-tray; and I looked
through the wee round window to Tom's back-yard with an increased
appreciation of the coatless and hatless grocer, who was sitting down on
an empty soap-box with a long needle and a roset-end, mending his old
gray mare's collar.

It has rained continuously for three days, and according to Nathan
something has gone very far wrong, as St Swithin's Day from early morn
to dewy eve was cloudless and fair, and accordingly we had every right
to anticipate forty days of dry, fine weather.

Harvest is early with us this year. The corn, which was waving green
when Betty and I drove south from Elvanfoot, is already studding the
fields in regular rows of yellow stooks, and but for this break in the
weather it would even now be on its way to the stackyard in groaning,
creaking carts. The Newton pippins on the apple-tree at the foot of the
garden are showing a bright red cheek, and the phloxes and gladioli in
the plot at the kitchen window are crowned with a mass of bloom so rich
and luxuriant that every one of Betty's cooking utensils reflects their
colourings and appears to be blushing rosy-red. During these past three
days I have missed Tom's cheery song, and I am beginning to wonder if
the gloomy weather has chilled his lightsome heart and silenced the
chords of his tuneful throat.

Time was when I loved to be abroad on a rainy day, whether as an
unprotected boy fishing away up Capel Linn and Cample Cleugh, with the
rain dribbling down the neckband of my shirt and oozing through the
lace-holes of my boots, or as a man with waterproof and hazel staff,
breasting the scarred side of Caerketton or the grassy slopes of
Allermuir, with the pelting, pitiless raindrops blinding my eyes and
stinging my cheek, and the vivid fire of heaven lighting up Halkerside
and momentarily showing the short zigzag course of that 'nameless
trickle' whose rippling music the Wizard of Swanston loved.

How I enjoyed these Pentland rambles, alone in the rain and the soughing
winds! Underfoot, the dank, sodden grass and the broken fern; overhead,
the sombre sky, the scurrying clouds, and the drifting mist; on every
side the grassy mounds of the Dunty Knowes, with their shivering birks
tossing to windward, and a rain-soaked hogg beneath every sheltering
crag. Alone, yet not alone; for a Presence was with me, guiding me on,
showing me through the gathering gloom the sun-bathed crown of
Allermuir, bringing to my ear from out the rage of the storm the wail of
the curlew, and summoning to my side the plaided shepherd 'Honest John'
and his gray, rough-coated collie Swag.

Ah, these are memories only! memories only! for Cample Cleugh and Capel
Linn are lost to me with my boyhood. No more am I the strong,
able-bodied lover of the open, moving with firm, sure step among scenes
which a master's touch has made immortal; but a poor, crippled,
pain-racked invalid, as parochial in feeling as in outlook, sitting in
an easy-chair by an attic fire, watching through a rain-washed
window-pane a scene which fills me with forebodings and touches my heart
to the very quick.

Down there in the courtyard, where the water in the imperfect pavement
is lying in muddy pools, Tom Jardine, hatless, coatless, and regardless
of the splashing rain, is walking to and fro like a lion in his cage.
His face is set and white, his finger-tips clenched in the palm of his
hand, and there is an anxious, troubled expression in his eye which
recalls memories of unfortunate, harassed clients. For a moment he
stands with feet apart and eyes dolefully fixed on the wet, sloppy
flagstones. A door quietly opens, a tiny, smiling-faced figure darts
through the rain, and in an instant two round, bare, chubby arms are
encircling his knee, and a fair, curly head is nestling against his
thigh. But there is no fatherly response to the loving embrace, no reply
to the childish prattle. With a jerky wrench Tom frees himself from the
wee, cuddling arms, and two wide-opened, surprised blue eyes follow him
as again, in thoughtful measured tread, he walks up and down and up and
down. Then red dimpled knuckles are pressed into these blue eyes, a sob
breaks from a wounded little heart, and Tom comes to a sudden halt. In
an instant his clouded face is wreathed in smiles and beams with loving
solicitude. Bending down, he lifts the sobbing morsel; and as he
disappears through the kitchen doorway with the precious burden in his
strong arms and his hungry lips pressed against a soft red cheek, I say
to myself, with a heavy, welling heart, 'Tom, you surely have your
troubles, but as surely you have the antidote.'



CHAPTER V.


Of late I have noticed that Betty, in the course of our frequent cracks,
has with considerable tact and adroitness turned the topic of our
conversation into channels matrimonial and domestic. I know full well
that my state of celibacy is to her a subject of wonderment and
speculation; but, though other cases similar to my own have been
commented upon--threshed to chaff, I may say--she has never, until
to-day, come to close quarters, and vested the matter with any direct
personal application. How she manoeuvred and worked her way round was
distinctly characteristic, but not worth detailing; and I shall not
readily forget the surprise, and, I might say, incredulity, with which
she received my assertion that I had never married for the very simple
reason that I had never been in love.

With her head thoughtfully to one side, she plied her needles
assiduously. 'Ye're--let me see noo, ye'll be'----

'Thirty next birthday, Betty,' I promptly answered.

'Ay, imphm! Ye're quite richt; ye're juist exactly that, an' nae mair.
Lovan me, imphm!' and she laughed and looked toward me. 'And, eh! d'ye
mean to tell me--seriously noo--that ye're here at this time o' day
withoot havin' met ony young leddy ye could mak' your wife?'

She was probing very near the quick, and I puffed vigorously at my pipe.
'Seriously and truthfully, Betty, I haven't yet met the woman I could
marry.'

'Gosh me! that _is_ maist extraordinar', Maister Weelum, an' you within
a cat's jump o' thirty. It's almost inconceivable! It strikes me ye
havena been lookin' aboot ye very eidently, for it's no' as if there was
a scarcity o' womenfolk. There's aye routh to pick an' choose frae; at
least, if there's no' in Edinbro, there's plenty in Thornhill. It may
happen, though, that ye're ower parteecular, or it may be ye're lookin'
oot for yin wi' a towsy tocher. Ministers an' lawyers, they tell me,
ha'e a wonderfu' penetration in sniffin' oot siller, an' the faculty o'
placin' their he'rt where the handy lies.'

'That may be, Betty; but I must be an exception to this rule among
lawyers, for I can assure you monetary considerations would never
influence me. More than that, Betty, I don't consider my case
altogether hopeless, although I am nearly thirty. There's luck in
leisure, and you mustn't forget that you can't command love. It has to
come of its own free-will--unasked, as it were; and when it comes, rest
assured it won't be a case of pounds, shillings, and pence with me. The
fact is, Betty, I'm waiting.'

'Faith, ye're richt there; an' let me tell ye this, Maister Weelum, if
ye wait much langer ye'll be gray-heided.'

'Yes, yes, Betty; but I mean I'm waiting for a particular young lady.'

'Oh, I see! Then ye ken o' yin?'

'Well, yes'----

'An' ye're waitin' on her growin' up, watchin' her as ye wad watch a
Newton pippin ripenin'?'

'No, no! Betty, you misunderstand me. I know of a young lady; but--well,
the truth is, I haven't met her yet--at least not in the flesh. Now,
now, Betty, don't laugh at me till I explain.'

'Oh, Maister Weelum! I'll no' laugh. It strikes me it's mair a matter o'
greetin'. But never mind; ca' your gird.'

'Well, Betty, to make a long story short, a few years ago I had a dream,
and in that dream I saw a face and heard a voice--a woman's face and a
woman's voice. I was very much impressed at the time, and that face has
haunted me ever since. Among my friends I am not considered, in the
generally accepted sense of the term, a woman's man. Strenuous work,
facing hard matter-of-fact events, glimpses into the matrimonial
tragedies of not a few lives, and the toll in time and thought which a
growing business exacts have to an extent blighted the growth of the
sentimentality which usually creeps into a man's heart between twenty
and thirty. Somehow I have allowed matters to drift--to shape their own
ends, or, as you would say, to work out their own salvation--in the full
assurance, however, and with the hope strong within me, that some day
the lady of my dream will come into my life, that I will again see that
face and hear that voice. So far I have waited in vain; but I am not
discouraged, for I feel my fate lies in my dream, and, as I say, I am
waiting still.'

Betty resumed her knitting, for her needles had been idle while I was
speaking.

'Imphm!' she said at length; 'an' that's hoo the land lies! Fancy that
noo, a great, big, wiselike man like you hankerin' after the face o' a
woman ye had seen when ye were sleepin', an' a' the time withoot a doot
lettin' chances slip by ye o' catchin' what ye micht ha'e gruppit.
Hoots! hoots! Maister Weelum, that's surely a senseless ploy. Mair than
that, I've nae brew o' dreams, although I confess that there's much in
Scripture hinges on them. They were the makin' o' Joseph, a
loupin'-on-stane to Daniel, an' a godsend to the prophets on mair than
ae occasion. There's nae gettin' away frae it; but for a' that, as I
say, I've nae brew o' them. I mind aince o' dreamin' that I was sittin'
doon to my tea, an' that I was eatin' the best bit o' boiled ham that
ever I tasted in a' my life; an' the next mornin'--the very next
mornin', Maister Weelum--my soo dee'd. Anither time--it was on a
Setterday nicht, I mind--I dreamed that the kitchen lum was on fire; an'
on the Sunday mornin', when I keekit up to see that it was a' richt, a
young doo tummelt doon an' nearly frichtened the life oot o' me. An'
there was Peggy Rae--Mrs Wallace, ye ken--a real nice, God-fearin' woman
she is, an' a regular attender o' the prayer meetin's--weel, three times
in ae nicht she dreamed that an auld auntie o' hers had come hame frae
Ameriky an' gi'en her the present o' three hunner pounds; an' what think
ye, Maister Weelum, she wasna weel through wi' her breakfast when her
mither-in-law--an auld, Godless, totterin' heathen she was--was brocht
to her door in a cairt, took to her bed in Peggy's wee back-room, an'
was the plague o' her life for weel on for a dizzen years. Na, na,
Maister Weelum; dreams are queer, contrary, unchancy things to sweer by.
Tak' my advice, forget a' aboot your dream-leddy, as ye ca' her; cast
your e'e aboot on what ye can see an' grup, an', losh me! a
faceable-lookin' man like you needna grapple lang. But I'm daft, sittin'
clatterin' here an' the tatties at the sypein'. Tak' tent o' what I say,
though, Maister Weelum, for ye're nearin' that time o' life when an
unmarried man stammers into a rut that he's no' easy got oot o'.'

Betty's warning gave me food for reflection for long after she left
me--so much so, indeed, that as I quietly strolled along the Cundy road
an hour or two afterwards, in the early afternoon, every chaffinch sang
not _to_ me but _at_ me, and the burden of his song seemed to be, 'Tak'
tent, tak' tent, and mind, do mind, the rut, rut, rut.'

In the sunshine too, amid nature in all its reality and activity, dreams
and visions seemed strangely far away and unimportant. In my little
room, with all its haunting associations, the story of my dream-lady had
a becoming setting and an uncommonly substantial foundation. But here,
with the breeze playing among the shimmering leaves of the gnarled
poplars, the merry song of the birds in the plantation, and the sunshine
lying on the white parallel-tracked road, it seemed more of an illusion,
something very unreal and fanciful, and I actually blushed that I, a
solid, stolid man of thirty, should have narrated such a story with so
much gravity, and pinned to it a significance so personal and material.

Absorbed in thought, I ambled along, heedless alike of time or distance,
until at length, with surprise at my strength and staying-power, I noted
that I had walked almost to the Nithbank Wood. I felt neither tired nor
inconvenienced; and when I considered that I had been only a month or
two under Dr Grierson's care, I felt I had accomplished a very wonderful
feat indeed. True, I had rested all the forenoon, and even now I was
heavily supporting myself on two stout hazel staffs; yet never since my
accident had I walked so far without fatigue, and I felt relieved and
elated beyond words.

I halted for a little in the grateful shade of a spreading lime,
feasting my eyes on scenery dear and familiar to me since boyhood--the
little round wood at the Cundy foot, every tree in which I had climbed
in quest of young squirrels; the clump of geans at Holmhill, whose wild
purple-brown fruit was sweeter far than any coddled garden cherries; the
sweep of the Nith at the Ellers, where I had so often 'dooked' and
fished; and the mossy, wild-thyme carpeted 'howmes'--our playground of
long ago. The murmuring Nith recalled to me the Auld Gillfit, with its
gray-blue pebbled beach and its banks of upstanding raspberry-bushes and
twisting, prickly brambles, and with extraordinary intensity the desire
sprang up within me to view its charms once more.

Buoyed up by pleasurable anticipations, forgetful of my weakness and the
uneven, rutted slope, I opened the little wicket, and, without
misgiving, entered the wood.

Through the green, quivering foliage I caught glimpses here and there of
rippling, dancing wavelets, nodding brown-headed segg grasses, and
patches of shimmering, sunlit sands. With eyes strained to catch each
well-known feature, I stumblingly descended the rugged bank, and very
soon, more by luck than careful guidance, I reached my goal. A hedge of
waving willows screened from me the Cundy stream; but its joyous
rhythmic ripple, as it washed its sandy, pebbled bed, sounded in my ear
like the crooning song my mother used to sing when I lay on her knee as
a child.

This was the dear old spot, the bank where we lay after our 'dook,'
baking our naked bodies in the sun's warm rays; here the little sandy
isle where we played at pirates and castaways, cooking a guddled yellow
trout over a 'smeeky' green-wood fire, and washing it down with lukewarm
water from the stream; there, through the arches' span, the Doctor's
Tarn, where the grayling used to lie; and, away beyond, the quiet grassy
uplands of the Keir and the gray-green hills of Glencairn fading into
the horizon.

Seating myself on the sun-browned turf, I lit my pipe. How long I sat I
cannot say, for I was lost in reverie, and, truth to tell, just a little
fatigued by my unusual exertions. Suddenly, however, it came to me that
I wasn't alone. This fact was first proclaimed by a curling wreath of
smoke on the other side of the willows. Then the aroma of a
well-seasoned havana greeted my nostrils, and I rose to my feet to
reconnoitre.

Walking a little upstream, I came to an opening in the willow-hedge, and
there, on a sand-knoll at the foot of the bank, sat a man--a clergyman,
judging by his dress; while a little in front of him, and almost on the
water's edge, was a tall young lady standing before an easel. I saw the
man in profile--elderly and gray-bearded he was; but the lady's back
was turned to me, and she was much engrossed with her canvas.

I must have walked very noiselessly, as neither of them seemed aware of
my presence; and this I counted strange, since I had made no attempt at
stealthiness, and they were so near me that I could almost have touched
them. I stood for a minute silent and undecided whether or not to make
my presence known.

Before I could make up my mind, the artist ceased work, and, stepping a
few feet to her right, studied the effect from the altered standpoint.
This gave me the much-desired opportunity of seeing the picture, and I
noted with peculiar pleasure that it was part of the view in which I had
just been revelling. And the subject, difficult and ideal though it was,
had been touched by no unworthy, amateurish hand. The old red-sandstone
bridge, mellowed in a soft western light, was a centre round which much
broad, skilful, loving work was evidenced. Oil was her medium--rather an
unusual one, I thought, for a lady; and in the brief glance I got I
noticed she had imparted to her canvas the true atmosphere, and that it
contained in colour, drawing, and composition the essentials of really
good work.

Her clergyman companion closed his book, relit his cigar, and consulted
his watch. 'Much as I expect of this picture as a big draw at my bazaar,
and anxious as I am to take it back with me to-morrow to Laurieston, I'm
afraid I must call you to a halt. It's almost five o'clock.'

'Just one wee, wee minute,' the artist pleaded in a singularly sweet
voice, which seemed to me far away, yet strangely familiar.

A few deft, bold touches, the while her small head critically swayed
from one side to the other.

'Finis! finis!' she called at length; 'and I'm sorry to part with it, as
I love this subject.'

With a face flushed with success, she turned to her companion. Then her
eyes met mine, and I stood breathless and transfixed, for I had heard
the voice, and was looking into the face, of my dream-lady!

The fact that I was in the presence of one who had mysteriously
influenced me for the last ten years, one whom I had seen in my dreams
but never met, thrilled me through and through, and I felt bewildered
and benumbed. Had I been in normal health, doubtless I should have
boldly faced a situation so psychologically strange and alluring; but in
my present enfeebled condition I had no craving for the occult and
romantic, and when I was freed from the spell of my dream-lady's eyes my
first impulse was to retrace my steps and immediately regain the
highroad.

I turned at once, in my haste struck my heel against one of my staffs,
and fell heavily on the sloping pathway. My tweed hat fell from my head
and rolled away down the bank, but I made no effort to recover it. With
extreme difficulty I rose to my feet, and, gripping my two staffs in a
strong grasp, started again to reach the crest of the wooded brow.

One of the peculiar effects of my accident is that I cannot raise my
body on my toes. When going upstairs I have to turn sideways, and in an
awkward, laboured fashion lift one foot over the other; and in
negotiating this ascent, in which the same muscles were called into
action, I had to take a zigzag course which demanded great caution and
care, as there was no pathway, and the surface was treacherous and
uneven.

I stood for a moment before I entered on my arduous undertaking,
irresolute and hesitating, swayed by two conflicting impulses. Here was
the fulfilment of my dream. Down there, a little beyond the hedge of
willows, stood one the memory of whose sweet, pensive face had haunted
me for years; whose living presence I had prayed for, yearned for; and
whose influence, unconsciously exerted, had dominated my being and kept
me unscathed in the midst of many temptations. It was the culmination of
ten years' expectancy and waiting. A series of remarkable coincidences
and strange providential workings had matured, and here was I spurning a
friendly interposition of the Fates, and fleeing away as if I were a
cowardly, shamefaced culprit. Why should I act so? Why should I not face
the situation and await this flow in the tide of my affairs?

Then in thought I traversed the long, dreary road which during the past
years I had walked alone. Hastily I reviewed the picture I had often
conjured up of what our meeting would be, the contemplation of which had
yielded me so much sacred, secret pleasure. Strange, I had always
painted her as I had seen her a minute ago, even to the detail of pose
and attitude. She--well, she was just my dream-lady, faithful in every
respect to my imaginings; and in this picture, in response to her
inviting smile of recognition, I was by her side, strong in body,
resolute of will, sure of having at last met my affinity.

Strong in body! Resolute of will! Was I? Ah, the humiliation of the
truth! Why, as I stood there, I was tottering on my feet like an
octogenarian, convulsively clutching two hazel staffs for support, and
so irresolute that I could scarce form an idea of what my next move
would be. What a metamorphosis! what a pitiful spectacle!--an object
surely for sympathy, but not likely to inspire love or admiration. No,
no, she must not see me thus; and, quickly disposing of all other
considerations, I turned my back upon fate and commenced the ascent.

Painfully I dragged myself along. Never once did I look backward, for I
soon found that I had essayed a task requiring all my concentrated
attention. Urged on by a consuming desire to get away, I at first made
wonderful progress. But as the minutes passed, and the ascent became
steeper, I felt my will-power diminishing, my strength gradually growing
less, and my knack of happily negotiating ruts and obstacles deserting
me at every step. Once I lost my balance and slipped down the slope; but
I clutched the dried tufted grass with a frenzied hand, and crawled up
on my knees to where my hazel had dropped. Again I started, and again I
fell, this time losing grip of both my staffs and also any confidence in
myself that was left. Flushed and breathless, I rose to my knees, and
with feverish energy began to crawl uphill.

But my haste was my undoing, for with it my caution disappeared. Twice
the wisps of grass by which I hauled myself broke in my hand, and I
slipped down, each time losing any little headway I had made. Again I
slipped. Then despair took hold of me, and, with limbs exhausted and
relaxed, and eyes moistened by thoughts of weakness and acknowledged
defeat, I sank to the ground.

For a few minutes I lay oblivious to everything around me. Then the
sound of approaching footsteps and snatches of faintly audible
conversation recalled me; and wearily and painfully I raised myself to a
half-reclining, half-sitting position, with my back turned to the
direction whence the sounds proceeded.

'Yes, it's a very decent hat,' said a voice which I recognised as that
of the clergyman; 'a very decent, serviceable hat indeed; and I dare say
it may as well be restored to its owner, though the drunken scamp
deserves little consideration.'

'Oh, surely he's not drunk, Mr Edmondstone?'

'Most assuredly he is,' replied the cleric. 'While you were busy on your
canvas he was doubtless lying somewhere hereabouts, sleeping off the
effects. Believe me, no man would stagger about a braeface as he did
unless he were under the influence of drink.'

'Dearie me, Mr Edmondstone! dearie me! are you not forgetting? Faith,
Hope, Charity; and the greatest of these is Charity. Charity of judgment
is beautiful, Mr Edmondstone. You are--or at least you should
be--preaching that every Sunday. But in this case, whatever _you_
presume, I, at all events, will maintain it was no drunken look he gave
me. I admit his movements were suspicious; but--well, we'll soon find
out. Please hand me his hat.'

'What! You surely don't mean to tell me you are going to speak to him?'

'Certainly. Why shouldn't I? Either you or I shall have to give him his
hat; and----Sh! sh! I'm afraid he's hearing all we are saying.'

My dream-lady was quite right. I hadn't missed a single word that had
passed; and--passive, but with the hot blood mounting my neck and
cheek--I had without protest allowed the charge of drunkenness to be
made against me. I felt too weak and humiliated to make any defence.
What mattered it to me, after all, what they thought, so long as they
kept at a distance from me and left me to my own resources? They might
have passed me, and I would have made no sign that I was aware of their
presence; but when I heard my dream-lady's decision to be the bearer of
my old tweed hat I started violently and looked keenly toward her. With
my chin resting on my tired, lacerated hands, I watched her carefully
picking her steps along the tangled incline. The fact that there was no
escaping an interview was borne home to me so forcibly that it led to
speedy resignation, which not only relieved my pent-up feelings, but
also enabled me to observe her dispassionately, and study, without bias,
her face and form. What my estimate was I cannot tell, or, rather, I
will not tell; but when she reached me, with a flushed face, a
half-frightened, half-defiant look in her eye, and my old tweed hat in
her hand, I felt she had been aware of my critical scrutiny and resented
it, although my opinion, favourable or otherwise, was to her of no
consequence whatever.

'Thank you very much for bringing my hat to me,' I said awkwardly; 'and
thank you still more for your belief in my sobriety.'

She looked at me for a minute, the while all evidence of fear or
distrust vanished from her face. Then she smiled--smiled a true smile,
with parted lips that disclosed two rows of pearly teeth, and soft
fringed eyes that showed in their depths trust in humanity and joy of
life.

'Oh, please don't thank me for either,' she said, in a low, sweet-toned
voice. 'Your hat is too good to lose. It is no trouble to return it; and
as for the other--eh--matter--well'--and she looked round about her on
the russet woods, the peaceful fields, and away to the west where the
faint sunset glow was suffused along the Glencairn hills--'I could not
bring my mind to associate such glories as these with any state so mean
and degrading; and I'm glad--yes, I'm glad--that I was right.'

I bowed in silent gratitude.

'I don't want to appear inquisitive,' she continued; 'but would you mind
telling me why you acted so peculiarly in zigzagging up this incline
instead of taking the path by the boundary beech-hedge? And, oh dear,
dear! your hands are bleeding! Have you no handkerchief? See, here is
one;' and she pleadingly held out a dainty piece of lace cambric which I
could easily have put inside my watch-case.

Refusing her kind offer with thanks, I produced a sonsy specimen of
Betty's laundry-work, which I rolled round my right-hand thumb. 'It is
more than kind of you to interest yourself in a stranger,' I said
without looking up. 'The fact is, I haven't been feeling very fit
lately. The effects of a nasty accident have kept me too much indoors;
but to-day, feeling a little stronger than usual, I extended my walk,
and very foolishly determined to visit a particular spot here which,
through boyish associations, is very dear to me. As it happened, I found
you occupying it; and not wishing to disturb you in your work, and eager
to regain the highway, I over-exerted myself, lost my footing, my
patience, courage, and my two sticks, and--and here I am! But I've got
my second wind now. I'll rest here just a little longer, and everything
will be all right.'

'Dearie me,' she said, and she caught a straying tress of dark hair and
tucked it securely underneath her tam-o'-shanter, 'how very easily one
may be deceived by appearances! Mr Edmondstone thought you were--well,
you know; and I thought you had seen a ghost. I'm very sorry to know of
your illness, and it is lucky, after all, that we were about. If you
feel sufficiently rested, my friend and I will assist you up to the
wicket.'

She offered her good services with such an ingratiating, confident air,
anticipating neither denial nor protest, that I was downright sorry to
say her nay.

'No, no,' I said nervously, and I am afraid ungraciously; 'I shall
manage all right by myself. Thank you all the same. But there is one
kind action you might do on my behalf. Down there, below that little
knoll, and somewhere in the long grass, are my two hazels. I--I lost
grip of them somehow. They rolled down, and I couldn't very well reach
them again. Once I have them in my hands I'll feel myself again. Would
you mind getting them for me?'

'Certainly,' she said with alacrity; and, slip-sliding down the few
yards of irregular turf, she soon returned with my hazels. 'Are you
quite sure now that I can be of no further service to you?' she asked,
as she handed them to me.

God knows there was much she could do for me, and I yearned to tell her
so; but I felt her presence beginning to dominate me; and as I was
strangely out of humour with myself, and utterly incapable of acting the
part I had in my day-dreams anticipated, I made haste to call up what
remnant of will-power I had left.

'You have been exceedingly kind to me, a stranger,' I stammered.
'Believe me, I appreciate what you have done, and--good-afternoon.' And
in confusion I raised my hat.

She looked inquiringly at me for a moment, and I saw speech trembling on
her lip; but with a little effort she checked it. Then, with a smile and
a slight inclination of her head, she walked slowly, and I imagined
thoughtfully, toward her companion. I heard the wicket opening on its
creaking hinges, and clicking as it closed in its iron fastening. Voices
in animated conversation became fainter and fainter, rhythmic sounds of
footsteps died away into silence, and I lay back on the bank among the
brown wispy grass and the red autumn leaves with a joy and thankfulness
in my heart I had never experienced before. And my joy was not born of
the knowledge that my dream lady was a reality. Somehow, I had never
doubted that. Rather was it that I had convinced myself that she
possessed all the virtues and qualities with which I had vested her; and
that, short as our interview had been, and commonplace as our
conversation had proved, there was pervading it all the feeling,
peculiar and indefinable, that what had taken place was merely a prelude
to something more satisfying, a foretaste of greater happiness in store.
What mattered it that I didn't know her name or where she had gone?
Sufficient to me to know I was being guided aright, that the Fates were
with me, and that by degrees the curtain would be drawn aside and my
way made clear.

The birds trilled sweetly the last lingering notes of their lullaby, the
Cundy stream crooned lovingly a song I had never heard before, and the
glamour of the gloaming took possession of my soul.



CHAPTER VI.


For the past three days I have been confined to my bedroom, indeed I may
say to my bed; for, with the exception of a short half-hour to-day--when
Betty exchanged blankets for sheets--I have been reluctantly compelled
to restrict my range of vision to the interior of my room, with my head
on my pillow. The doctor has been to see me morning and night, and Betty
has been in and out and out and in, and her anxiety regarding me has
been too evident to be ignored.

This morning, when she had accompanied the doctor downstairs, I heard
her ask what he thought of me. I didn't hear what he said in reply,
because his voice is very low-pitched and his articulation not distinct;
but Betty's rejoinder was, 'Imphm! I juist expected something o' the
kind. Dod, doctor, was it no' a stupid ploy--sic thochtless
stravaigin'--five oors oot o' the hoose in snell weather like this, an'
him as shaky on his legs as a footrule? A wean o' ten years auld wad
ha'e haen mair sense.'

No reproaches have been made to my face, however, and of this I am
glad, as I am sure I should be sorely exercised in mind to find a
suitable excuse for my truancy.

I am not very clear about the details of my journey homeward from the
Nithbank Wood. Betty and Nathan were both out when I returned, doubtless
making search for me; and as I was too fatigued to walk upstairs, I sat
down in Nathan's easy-chair in the kitchen and fell asleep. I have no
recollection of what followed; and, considering the state of Betty's
pent-up feelings, it would, I feel, be rather imprudent of me to ask.

I have been feeling rather low in spirits these last two days. I cannot
blame the weather, for the October sun, though waning in strength, is
showing his face for long-continued spells, the air is brisk and
invigorating, and the sparrows are chirping and sporting in the eaves
above my little window as if it were the merry month of May. I am loath
to attribute this depression to physical weakness; yet were I to make
such acknowledgment to Dr Grierson, I know he would frankly and at once
confirm it. That I have received a set-back is evident, and when I call
to mind my exertions in the plantation I need not be surprised. Still,
everything considered, if I had that afternoon to live over again I
should do just exactly as I did then. I am truly sorry if what Betty
calls my 'thochtless stravaigin'' has undone the doctor's work, sorry if
Betty's loving care has been lavished in vain. But Time, with healing in
his wings, will surely make everything right again. And then I must not
forget that but for this 'thochtless stravaigin'' I should not have met
my dream-lady face to face. Ah! this is the one consoling fact, a rich
reward, though the penalty I pay may be great. It is the only bright
spot in a drab, dreary outlook, and I shall nurse this secret joy in my
heart, and count myself favoured indeed.

Betty, who has a jealous eye where I am concerned, has noticed my
depression. Yesterday and to-day she has given me much of her company,
and in our cracks she has done her utmost to divert my mind into
agreeable channels. She talked much of a younger brother of
Nathan's--Joe, a member of the Hebron family I had not heard of before.
Joe, it turns out, is an old soldier, and on a slender pension, eked out
by the proceeds of odd jobbing, he keeps up a modest one-roomed
establishment somewhere in the purlieus of the Cuddy Lane. On the expiry
of his army service he came to Thornhill--accompanied by a Cockney wife
of whom Betty and Nathan had no previous knowledge--with a view to
settling down among the scenes of his boyhood, which had haunted his
dreams in far-away lands. But the quiet village life had no charms for
Mrs Joseph, and after a month of protesting in which rural life was
damned, and pleading in which London's charms were extravagantly
extolled, she went away south on a holiday, from which she never
returned. Thanks to his army training, which had perfected him in the
art of looking after number one, Joe took to housekeeping on his own as
a duck takes to water, and settled down to a state of grass-widowerhood
with astonishing equanimity. Regularly, however, during July, August,
September, and part of October, he disappears from the village; and
Betty thinks, but is not quite sure--as Joe, like Nathan, is very
reticent--that Mrs Joe runs a small boarding-house down south somewhere,
and that Joe goes to give her a hand during the busy months. Betty is
expecting his return any day now, and I shall be glad to meet him, as
his history has interested me. With such gossipy news, interspersed with
naïve by-remarks, Betty has done her level best to drive dull care away.

This afternoon, when she left me to make ready Nathan's supper, she
promised to come back again with her knitting after the meal was over;
but, finding her duties didn't permit of her immediately fulfilling her
promise, she deputed Nathan to act the cheery host.

By very slow degrees Nathan is ridding himself of his reticence. When we
meet he has more to say than formerly, and his long-drawn sighs instead
of words are less frequent; but he has not yet ventured upstairs of his
own free-will or without a message or excuse.

'There noo, Nathan,' I heard Betty say, after he had 'hoasted'
satisfaction with his meal and scrieved his chair away from the
table--'there noo, Nathan, gang away up like a man. Juist walk strecht
into the room as if the hoose was your ain, an' for ony sake dinna gant
an' sit quiet. The laddie's dull an' wearyin', so keep the crack
cheery.'

Nathan's appearance is not calculated to inspire gaiety. He is too long
and 'boss-looking,' his whiskers are too straight and wispy, and his
blue eyes too vacant and far-away. But, as I have admitted, there is a
'composure' about him which is satisfying; and as he pushed my door ajar
and came in, as it were bit by bit, I gladly laid aside my book and
turned down my lamp.

I presumed he would be dying for his after-supper smoke, so I persuaded
him to sit down in the basket chair at the foot of my bed, and 'fire
his pipe,' as he terms it.

For a time he smoked in silence; then, suddenly remembering Betty's
injunction, and looking through the uncurtained window and taking a long
survey of the scudding clouds, he said, 'Imphm! the wind's changin',
Maister Weelum, to the nor'-east. That means a bla' doon your lum, I'm
thinkin', an' it's a maist by-ordinar' dirty, choky thing, is back
reek.' Then breaking away at a tangent, and fixing his blue eyes on me,
he said, 'Ay, man, an' ye're no' lookin' sae weel the nicht as I've seen
ye.'

'Maybe not, Nathan,' I said. 'I haven't been up to the mark yesterday
and to-day.'

'So Betty was tellin' me; but--eh--ye're lookin' waur than I expectit.'

'I'm sorry, Nathan,' and I laughed uneasily; 'but, you know, I cannot
help my appearance.'

'No, Maister Weelum, that's true--that _is_ true;' and he deliberately,
and with unerring aim, spat in the fire. 'Nae man can--phew!--eh, losh,
d'ye see that?' he hastily ejaculated, as a cloud of smoke spued from
the fireplace, swirled up the wall, and spread along the ceiling. 'I
telt ye the wind was shiftin' its airt, an' that ye wad ha'e a bla'
doon. If there's onything in this world I hate, it's back smoke. Man,
it seeps doon through your thrapple into your lungs, an' there's nae
hoastin' o' it up. Phew!--dash it! I wonder when that lum was last
soopit. Talkin' o' lums, did ye ken that auld Brushie the sweep was
buried the day?'

Not having had the pleasure of Brushie's acquaintance, I replied in the
negative with unconcern.

'Ay,' continued Nathan, determined to obey Betty and keep the crack
going--'ay, there's a lot o' folk slippin' away the noo; changeable
weather gethers them in. It's a kittle time o' the year for them that
are no' very strong--imphm!'

I was, unfortunately, in a more than usually susceptible state of mind,
and the morbid strain of Nathan's conversation was affecting me in spite
of myself. 'Yes, Nathan,' I said, expecting to bring a smile to his
long, serious face, 'people are dying just now who never died before.'

'True, Maister Weelum; ye're richt there. Imphm! ye're perfectly richt,'
he solemnly said without relaxing a muscle. He crossed his long legs
very deliberately and stroked his beard as he looked round my little
room. 'Man, Maister Weelum, dootless ye think ye're as snug up here as a
flea in a blanket, but wad ye no' be better doon the stairs in the big
bedroom to the sooth, an'--an'----

'And what, Nathan?'

'Oh, weel, it's no' for the likes o' me to dictate to you. Ye ken your
ain ken best, but wad ye no' be mair comfortable-like sleepin' in the
sooth room an' sittin' your odd time in the dinin'-room? Betty or me
never put a foot in it except to air or fire it, an' it wad save ye the
trouble an' inconvenience o' comin' up an' doon the stairs.'

I thought for a moment before replying to this unexpected and most
sensible suggestion.

'Is this idea off your own bat, Nathan?' I asked.

'Off my ain what, Maister Weelum?'

'I mean, did you think out this arrangement yourself, or is it Betty's
idea and yours?'

'Oh, I see. Weel--imphm-m!--we were talkin' it ower atween us last
nicht, an' Betty thinks ye wad be better doon the stairs; but she doesna
like to say that to ye for fear ye micht think that ye were a bother to
her, or that she considered hersel' ill hauden takin' your meat up to
ye, an'--an' things like that--ye see.'

'I understand,' I said thoughtfully; 'and do you know, Nathan, the idea
is worth considering, and'----

'No' to interrupt ye, Maister Weelum,' he interposed, 'ye ken as weel as
I do ye're far frae bein' strong--at least, as strong as ye should be.
Ye're nocht the better o' that lang walk ye had the ither day, an' the
doctor's no' sae pleased wi' ye as he was.'

'Oh, indeed, Nathan! I'm sorry to know that; but, with care and a few
days' rest, I trust to be all right very soon.'

'Oh, dod, sir, we a' hope that--imphm!--but, a' the same, if I were you
I wad shift my quarters. Ye'll ha'e mair convenience, a sooth exposure,
langer sunshine, nae back smoke, an' then, man, ye'll be nearer Betty
should ye need her service. I've aye considered this a wee, poky place
onyway; an' as for the stair up to 't, it's the warst-planned yin I ever
saw. It's far ower narra, the turn's ower sherp, an' it wad be a perfect
deevil o' a job to get a kist doon there.'

'A what, Nathan?' I asked.

'A kist--a coffin, I mean.'

'But, goodness me, my good man, who wants to take a coffin down there?'

'Oh Lord! naebody that I ken o', Maister Weelum--no, no, naebody I ken
o'. But yin's never sure. As Betty often says, "oor days are as
gress"--imphm! We drap awa' like the leaves in the back-end, Maister
Weelum--ay, juist like leaves nippit wi' the frost. An', speakin' o'
leaves, I was workin' amang leaf-mould the day; an', dod, sir, it's a
queer thing, but, d'ye ken, whenever I handle that stuff I begin to
think aboot kirkyairds. Isn't that a queer thing noo, Maister Weelum?'
and he puffed at his pipe without drawing smoke.

My lamp was burning low. Rain was pattering on the darkened
window-panes, and the soughing wind at irregular intervals drove clouds
of smoke down my chimney. Shadows from the lime-tree danced on the
whitewashed walls, taking to themselves grotesque fantastic shapes; and
Nathan--gaunt, wispy-bearded, spectral Nathan--puffed, and sighed, and
spat in the semi-darkness. From the kitchen downstairs came to me at
times sounds of a conversation carried on in a dull monotone, and
interspersed with half-suppressed distressing sobs. A queer, creepy
sensation began to take hold of me. I drew my blankets tighter round me
and settled my pillow a little higher.



CHAPTER VII.


Nathan noted my movements. 'Can I help ye, Maister Weelum, or is there
ocht I can do to mak' ye comfortable? Betty'll no' be lang till she's
wi' ye. She's busy the noo, an' she sent me up to keep ye cheery till
her wark was dune.'

I looked at him and saw he was quite serious, so I concluded that,
decent, well-meaning man though he was, he was no humorist.

'Ay, Nathan,' I said, after I had thought over the situation, 'I have no
doubt your intentions are all right. Invalids ought to be kept cheery,
as you call it; but'----

'Ye admit, then, that ye _are_ an invalid, Maister Weelum?'

'Well, Nathan, I'm afraid I must admit that.'

'Ay, man--imphm! so far, so guid. Ye ken, sir, there _are_ some fouk
that'll no' gi'e in when ocht ails them. There was Cairneyheid, for
instance. Did ye ken him? No--imphm! it doesna maitter. Weel, Cairnie,
as we ca'd him for short, had farmed on the Alton rig a' his days. The
rig lies high, an there's aye plenty o' guid fresh air up yonder, and
Cairnie never in his life had had even a sair heid. But, dod, sir, ae
day, after his denner, he quately slippit to the flaer, an' couldna get
up again. Weel, he sat there till aboot hauf six withoot sayin' a single
damn, an' if ye kenned Cairnie an' his weys ye could understaun that
that gied his women-fouk a glauff. Weel, suddenly he lookit up an' asked
for a gless o' whisky, an' they thocht frae that that he was better. He
did kind o' revive after his dram, an' wi' nae sma' trauchle they got
him to his bed. Next mornin' he was dreich o' risin', an' when he got to
his breakfast he couldna eat, an' still he didna sweer, so they sent
awa' doon for the doctor. Weel, whenever the doctor cam' an' saw him he
ordered him at aince to be put in his bed. "Bed!" said Cairnie. "Bed in
the guid daylicht! I think I see mysel'! I never in a' my life gaed to
my bed except at nicht an' to sleep, an' I'm no' gaun the noo;" an' he
got up oot o' his chair in spite o' them. "I'm awa' up to the high field
to see hoo they're gettin' on wi' the turnip-shawin'," he said; an'
withoot dug or stick he oot o' the hoose. Hooever he got the length o'
the field guidness only kens, but there he got. "Hurry on, men," he
said; "dinna be feart to bend your backs in guid shawin' weather like
this. The pits'll a' be ready afore ye're ready for them;" an' he
lifted a knife to gi'e them a haun. He pu'd a turnip, an' was juist gaun
to whang off the shaw, when doon he drappit in the middle o' the drill
as deid as Abel.'

Nathan relit his pipe, which had gone out during the narrative. 'Ay,' he
continued, as he puffed audibly, 'it was a very big funeral, was
Cairnie's. He was buried in Dalgarnock--a damp, douth place to lie in,
in my estimation. No' that it maitters muckle, I daur say; but
still'----

'Whae's this ye're on, Nathan?' said Betty, who had entered the room
unobserved.

'Oh, naebody parteeklar, Betty. I'm juist ca'in' the crack as ye telt
me, an' keepin' Maister Weelum here cheery till ye come up;' and he
rose, with a sigh of relief, from his chair, sidled toward the door, and
went cautiously downstairs.

When I heard him safely round the 'sherp' turn on the staircase I looked
at the sonsie, kindly face of my old nurse. 'Oh my dear Betty, I am glad
to see you!' I said with fervour.

'Hoo's that, noo, Maister Weelum?' and she gave a wee bit pleased laugh.
'Ha'e ye been missin' me? Has Nathan no' been ca'in' the crack?'

'Yes, Betty, I have been missing you, and Nathan _has_ been ca'in' the
crack; but, Betty'--and I lowered my voice--'he's been in kirk-yards all
the time.'

'Ah, is that so?' she sympathetically asked. 'I'm sorry, noo, to ken
that. He must ha'e been workin' among leaf-mould the day.'

'He was, Betty; he told me so.'

'That accoonts for it, Maister Weelum. Nathan's awfu' queer that wey;
but, puir falla, he canna help it; an' then ye ken he means sae terribly
weel. I'm awfu' sorry, though, if his crack has depressed ye. Ye're
juist a wee bittie doon i' the mooth the noo, an' ye'll be easily putten
aboot; but keep your pecker up, like a guid laddie, an' ye'll soon be
better in health an' better in spirits. Efter a', an' when a''s
considered, ye've a lot to be thankfu' for. Mony a yin wad gladly change
places wi' ye. It's a gey hard, step-motherly kind o' world this for
some folk; but you--weel, I wad say ye've your fu' share o' blessin's.'

I looked keenly toward her while she was speaking. 'You are perfectly
right, my dear Betty,' I said. 'I have my full share of blessings, and
every reason to be thankful and grateful. Why, Betty, when I think of
it, it is a downright sin in me to allow myself to become depressed. It
would be much more to the purpose were I to bestir myself and do all I
can to help others, whose share of the good things is less, and whose
burdens are greater. By the way, Betty, were you crying downstairs about
half-an-hour ago?'

'No, Maister Weelum, I was not cryin'.'

'Strange,' I said; 'I was sure I heard some one sobbing.'

Betty stooped down and poked the smoking coals into glowing flame. Then
she pulled down my window-blind and drew the curtains together. 'Oh,
you're quite richt; you dootless did hear greetin', but it wasna me;'
and she sat down again and unrolled her knitting, but she didn't ply her
needles.

'D'ye mind,' she continued after a long pause,' you an' me speakin'
aboot Tom Jardine the grocer, oor next-door neebor, ye ken?'

'Perfectly, Betty,' I replied; and at mention of his name I saw in my
mind's eye a rain-swept courtyard, a haggard, worried face, and a
golden-haired bairn. Intuitively I saw more--troubles, big mental
troubles which crush the heart and soul out of a man. Oh! I hadn't
forgotten.

'Weel,' she continued, a tremor in her voice, 'it was Tom Jardine's wife
that was greetin' in the kitchen, an' I'm juist dyin' to speak to you,
for what she has telt me is lyin' at my he'rt like a stane. Are ye weel
enough, think ye, to be bothered listenin'?'

'My dear Betty, where two old friends like you and Tom Jardine are
concerned, nothing is, or can be, a bother; so proceed, if you please.'

She began to knit, then stopped and counted her stitches, while I filled
and lit my pipe.

'Little mair than a week bygane,' she began, 'I was in Tom's shop for
some odds and ends, and when he was servin' me, says he, "Mrs Hebron, I
fully expected to be able to clear off ten pounds of that auld balance
this back-end term; but I'm beginning to be feart that'll no' be
possible." The balance he referred to, Maister Weelum, was thirty
pounds--half o' the sixty Nathan an' me loaned his faither. Ye mind I
telt ye aboot that?'

I nodded.

'"Weel, Tom," says I,' she continued, '"that's a' richt. Don't fash your
mind aboot that." "But, Mrs Hebron," says he, "I canna help worryin'
aboot it. I'm very sorry indeed, an' I trust my no' payin' ye the noo
will no' put ye aboot?" "Not in the slichtest, Tom," says I; "mak' your
time my time. I ken what ye've set your face to do, an' I couldna wish
ye better luck in your endeavour if ye were my ain bairn." His he'rt
filled, puir laddie, an' he thanked me, an' he began to tell me what a
bother he had in gettin' in his money. He showed me twae accoonts, yin
for fifty pounds an' anither for sixty-five, that have been lyin' oot
for mair than a year. It seems that when he was in that big warehoose in
Glesca he had some experience in the seed line, an', havin' a guid
connection wi' groceries among the farmers roond aboot here, it struck
him he could, wi' little mair expense, work the twae very profitably
thegither. Weel, he started to do this, an' in the last twal'months he
has selled an awfu' lot. But it appears that seed rins to money quickly,
an' the twae accoonts ootlyin', an' aboot which he was so anxious, are,
as it were, in this department. The want o' this money has keepit him
very ticht, an' he's been aff baith his meat an' his sleep ower the heid
o't. Weel, to mak' a lang story short, the farmers ha'e baith failed.
Tom got word yesterday, an', as it's thocht they're gey bad failures,
an' very little ootcome expected, he's nearly demented. He has gane ower
his books, an' he sees he can pey twenty shillin's in the pound; but, to
do that, it means handin' ower his stock, furniture, an' hoose, an'
he'll come oot o't wi' nocht but the claes on his back. His wife, puir
lassie, was in the nicht tellin' me a' aboot it. It was her ye heard
greetin'. She has keepit a stoot he'rt an' a smilin' face to Tom; but
whenever I put my haun kindly an' mitherly-like on her shooder she broke
doon an' grat as if her he'rt was breakin', so I juist took the wee
bundle o' spunk an' dejection in my airms, an' she had it a' oot there.
Tom's gaun up to the lawyer the morn to hand everything ower to him, an'
Mrs Jardine and the bairns are leavin' Thornhill on Friday to stay wi'
her mither till Tom gets wark somewhere. Noo, Maister Weelum, I want
your advice, an' if ye chairge me sax an' eightpence for it I'll--I'll
juist no' pey't;' and a tear-drop broke from her eye as she smiled. She
rose from her chair, laid aside her knitting, and coming over to my
bedside, she put her hand on my arm. 'I've still got the hunder pounds
in the bank which your mother left to me, Maister Weelum,' she said.
'Nathan an' me ha'e saved fifty mair. I never had a bairn o' my ain, an'
thae three wee curly-heided angels o' Tom's ha'e worked their wey into
my he'rt, an' I juist canna let them away. D'ye think the mistress--your
mother, I mean--wad ha'e me gi'in' the money in this way?'

I thought for a moment, and Betty watched me keenly. 'Am I to
understand, Betty, that you are willing to step into the breach and
give Tom Jardine one hundred and fifty pounds--your all?'

'Yes--if ye think it wad be your mother's will.'

'Betty, if Nathan won't object, will you please put your arms round my
neck and give me a kiss?' I said, and I raised my head from my pillow.

       *       *       *       *       *

The wind has died down, and through the lown midnight air I heard the
Auld Kirk clock strike the hour of twelve. Tom Jardine has just left my
room. He has been with me for almost three hours, and we have had a long
smoke together and a grand talk over the times and folks of auld
langsyne. Betty, as an interested party, favoured us with her company
part of the time, for Nathan was sleeping the sleep of the just and the
tired, and the kitchen fire had long gone out. She was surprised to know
that Tom's difficulties could be overcome and his affairs straightened
out without her little legacy and her hard-earned savings being
requisitioned. Only Tom and I know how this was arranged, and as it is a
little matter of personal interest to us, and us alone, the details of
the transaction will remain untold.

I am having a run of strange coincidences just now. When Betty was
locking the door after Tom's departure I lifted my book to mark the page
where I had left off on Nathan's coming into my room, and the paragraph
opposite my thumb is as follows: 'I will pass through this world but
once. If, therefore, there be any good thing I can do, or any kindness I
can show, let me do it now. Let me not neglect it or defer it, for I
shall never pass this way again.'

I shall read this to Betty to-morrow morning, and tell her that, though
she may not have the faculty of thus beautifully and poetically
expressing a sentiment, she lives it to the letter every day of her
life.



CHAPTER VIII.


To-day, when Betty was tidying my room, I took the opportunity of
referring to Nathan's conversation of the previous evening, particularly
that portion of it in which he advised me to take up my quarters
downstairs. From the insinuating way in which he had introduced the
subject, and the allusions he had made to my 'no weel' look, I naturally
concluded that his advice might be interpreted as a hint to me that I
was not so well as I fondly imagined; and that, for my own good, and for
the convenience of my faithful old nurse--not to speak of obviating the
necessity of taking a six-foot coffin down a narrow staircase with a
sharp turn--I ought to agree to his proposal at once and without demur.

Betty now assures me, however, that if I am contented and comfortable in
my own little room, she is quite satisfied. I am not for a moment to
imagine that she advocates the change for the sake of saving her any
trouble in attending on me. 'There's nae trouble where ye are concerned,
Maister Weelum,' she said. 'I look on ye amaist as my very ain bairn,
an' I coont it a privilege to get waitin' hand an' foot on ye. It's a
nice, easy stair to climb, it's handy for the kitchen, an' mair an'
forby, it's no' as if ye'll aye be lyin' here. In a day or twae, or a
week at maist, ye'll be up an' aboot again. A' the same, Maister Weelum,
believe me when I say that ever sin' ye cam' to bide here I've thocht it
a pity that ye didna use the dinin'-room. I understaun your likin' for
this wee room. It was aye your very ain, an' mebbe a' richt to sleep in,
though the sooth bedroom is bigger an' airier; but it's juist no'--it's
juist no' like a room that ye should ha'e your meat in, ye ken. When
you're up an' aboot again ye'll mebbe think it ower.'

'Is the dining-room in good order, Betty?' I asked.

'It's juist as the mistress left it, Maister Weelum,' she said, with a
catch in her voice. 'I've things covered to keep oot the dust, an' I've
lifted an' cleaned, but juist aye replaced again. Nathan an' me are
never in it, except to lift the winda on guid days to air it, or to pit
a fire on noo an' again when the weather's damp. The kitchen an' oor
back-room are guid enough for us, and we've juist, as it were, keepit
the rest o' the hoose on trust. The picters in your mother's wee
drawin'-room are a' juist as they were, the piano-lid has never been
lifted since she shut it, an' her auld china and other knick-knacks are
as clean an' weel cared for as they were when she handled them hersel'.
I've often gane up the stairs, ta'en a bit look in, an' come doon again
a prood, prood woman that she considered me worthy to live amang it a',
an' to tak' care o't.'

Betty and I have a community of interests in the long ago, a joint
possession of memories which will ever be our dearest treasure. The
links which bind us together were forged away back in the misty past;
but time corrodes them not, and they are stronger to-day than ever they
were before. To do her will was my sure pleasure, and so I began
gracefully to waive, one by one, objections I had entertained, and to
acquiesce with her and back up her arguments by referring to the coming
wintry months, the comforts of the dining-room, its large, roomy
fireplace, and the cheery, heartsome outlook the window commanded of the
Cross and the Dry Gill.

'But, Betty,' I said, 'we'll have to do something to give it a more
modern look. If I remember aright, the ceiling and cornice are very
dark, and the wall-paper is a dismal green, patched with a gold
fleur-de-lis, and it has been on too long to be healthy.'

'Ay, weel, mebbe ye're richt; an' ye mentionin' wall-paper reminds me
that the damp frae the gable has discoloured the end wa'. But the
whitewashin' and paperin' o' ae room will no' be a big job, an' aince we
gi'e the painter the order we'll no' ha'e lang to wait for him. His
back-en' slackness is on noo. I saw him paintin' his ain doors and
windas; an', as there's little chance o' him gettin' fat on that wark,
he'll no' swither aboot gi'in' it up for what is likely to pey better.
Imphm! Mebbe I should ha'e seen to this afore noo. The fact is, Maister
Weelum, except for a few shillin's for paintin' the outside woodwark,
I've spent no' a penny on paint or paper for the hoose since Nathan an'
me were marrit. I should ha' had things in better order for ye; but,
believe me, it was juist want o' thocht.'

'Nonsense, Betty; the whole house is in apple-pie order. There was no
call for you to spend money on painting and papering, and I won't allow
you to do that now. This is my little affair, Betty, and all I ask you
to do is to see the painter and arrange for the work to be done as soon
as possible.'

'Do you mean, Maister Weelum, that ye're to pey the whole thing?'

'Most certainly. So, my dear Betty, please say no more on that point, as
my mind is made up and unalterable.'

'Weel, weel, sae be it. "Them that will to Cupar maun to Cupar." What
kind o' a paper wad ye think o' puttin' on?'

Within my own mind I had decided on a nice warm buff canvas, but I
refrained from giving my opinion. 'What do you think would be nice,
Betty?'

Of old I remembered the garish colouring of the paper on her bedroom
walls. Her taste in this was always a law unto the paper-hanger, and my
mother used to shiver when she peeped in, and wondered how Betty could
sleep peacefully in such a profusion of colour.

Betty pondered over my question for a moment. 'Mrs Black, the clogger's
wife, got her parlour done up last spring, an' it looks juist beautifu'.
The paper has a kind o' mauve gr'und wi' a gold stripe runnin' up, an'
roon the stripe there's a winkle-wankle o' nice big blue roses, an' a
wee bit o' forget-me-not tied wi' a pink ribbon keeks oot here and
there, juist as if it was hangin' in the air.'

'Blue roses are not natural, Betty.'

'No, so Nathan says; but they're most by-ordinar' bonny, an' they're
hangin' roon this gold stripe for a' the world as if they were newly
blawn; an'--an' the leaves are a brisk green, an' the buds standin' oot
abune the bloom as like as life, an' a' this beautifu' colourin' for a
shillin' a piece! It was John Boyes the painter that put it on, an' he
telt Mrs Black that there was only anither room like hers, an' it was in
the Crystal Palace at London.'

'A shilling a piece, Betty!' I said, in astonishment, just for something
to say. 'Oh, but I would give more than that!'

'Oh, then, ye'll juist get a' the mair gold an' roses for the extra
money, Maister Weelum.'

'I am just wondering, Betty,' I said meditatively, 'if a wall-paper with
roses--blue or otherwise--is the correct decoration for a dining-room.'

'Oh, there's nae rule, Maister Weelum--at least, no' in Thornhill. No,
no; as lang as ye pey for the job, ye can put ony kind ye like on.' And
she added, 'Wad ye no' leave the paper to the womenfolk, Maister Weelum?
If ye do ye'll no' gang far wrang.'

'Yes, Betty, that's all right; but I don't know that I could eat my
meals comfortably in a room among blue roses. How would a nice,
warm-coloured imitation of canvas look, without any pattern at all?'

'A warm-coloured imitation o' canvas? Imphm! I--I juist canna tak' that
in; but if it's what I think it is, wad that no' look awfu' mealie-bag
lookin'?'

'I'm sure it won't, Betty, and--and--well, I know it is the correct
thing. Besides'----

'Ye will hark on "the correct thing," Maister Weelum. I've telt ye that
whatever ye want, and pey for, is the correct thing in Thornhill. I've
great faith in Mrs Black's taste. I aye tak' my cue, as it were, frae
her, though I dinna tell her that; an', where colour is concerned,
whether in papers or bonnets, I never think she's far wrang. She comes
honestly by it. She aince telt me that it was bred in the bane, for her
faither was a colourin'-man in a waxcloth factory aboot Kirkcaldy.'

Mrs Black's hereditary claim did not appeal to me, and in a most
agreeable and ingratiating way I was advocating my own scheme, when the
outer door opened.

'That'll be the doctor, I'm thinkin',' said Betty, and she hurried off
downstairs to receive him.

As my acquaintance with Dr Grierson ripens my admiration for him
increases, and my regret becomes all the keener that I had no knowledge
of him in my boyhood. An early impression of any one, the outcome of
youthful intimacy, is ever a sure basis on which to found true
friendship, and I somehow imagine that, to a thoughtful, observant boy,
such as Betty assures me I was, he would have been not only a willing,
sympathetic preceptor, but also a great power for good in many ways. I
have known him now for only a few months; but during these quiet,
uneventful days of convalescence I have had opportunities of studying
him well, and have noted with peculiar pleasure his love of nature in
all its phases, his reverence for everything uplifting and elevating,
and his sympathy, deep and profound, for all in suffering and distress.

Yesterday, when I was in the dumps, seeing everything as through a glass
darkly, and feeling isolated and bereft of sympathetic, intelligent
companionship, those lovable traits of his stood out vividly, and the
thought came to me that I should tell him of the lady of my dream, and
of our strange meeting in the Nithbank Wood. Betty, I know, ought to be
my confidante; but I have the feeling that her experience is too limited
and her outlook on life generally too parochial to admit of a
well-reasoned, dispassionate view of my case; and, though yesterday and
to-day I have had ample opportunities of opening my heart to her, I
have felt restrained and dissuaded. Some day I shall tell her
everything, and I know she will rejoice with me. But the time is not
yet.



CHAPTER IX.


When Dr Grierson sat down at my bedside this morning and took my wrist
between his sensitive finger and thumb, I felt magnetically drawn to
him, and the desire to confide in him became irresistible. I had been
wondering in my mind for hours how best I could introduce the subject;
and, not hitting readily on a fitting opening, I had left it to chance
and circumstance. Strangely enough, it was he who paved the way for me.
After we had talked briefly on general subjects, he referred to my
'temporary breakdown,' as he termed it, and told me he was quite sure I
had undergone a sudden mental strain which had adversely affected me
physically; but that, once my mind and body were sufficiently rested, I
should be quite all right again.

'You're quite right, doctor, in your diagnosis of my case,' I said. 'I
have had rather a queer experience lately, and, if you care to hear
about it I shall gladly tell you. Would you share a little secret with
me, doctor?'

'Most gladly,' he said.

'Well, will you please light your pipe? Take that easy-chair by the
fire, and you may sit with your back to me, and I sha'n't feel
slighted.'

He laughed softly, and, extracting a short clay pipe from his waistcoat
pocket, took the chair I indicated. Seated thus, and smoking steadily,
he listened in silence till my story was finished. I gave him the whole
history, kept nothing back; and in telling all the details I never
hesitated, for the incidents were fresh in my mind, and I had everything
well thought out.

'Ay, Mr Russell,' he said, after a long pause, 'you tell a story very
well, and what you have told is most interesting and wonderful. I have
read of such occurrences, but I haven't till now come across one at
first hand, as it were. Shakespeare says there are more things in heaven
and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, and your experience
certainly goes to prove it. It is usual, especially during a man's
romantic years, to dream of a fair lady's face--very usual indeed; but I
consider it most remarkable that everything came to a head so shortly
after you had told Betty of your dream, and also when, for the first
time, you had entertained doubts as to your vision being realised. I
suppose you are very much in love with this lady?' and he looked over
his shoulder at me.

'Well, yes, doctor, I am.'

'What is your age, again, Mr Russell?'

'Thirty in January.'

'And--and, you've never been in love before?'

'I think I've been in love ever since I dreamed my dream, now nearly ten
years ago; but since that interview in Nithbank Wood I'm more hopelessly
in love than ever;' and, somehow, I began to blush, and I was glad his
back was turned toward me.

'Imphm! Ay, the old story is ever new,' he said, more to himself than to
me; and he rose slowly from his chair, knocked the ashes out of his pipe
on the top rib of the grate, and came over to my bedside. 'Have you told
Betty of this strange meeting?'

'No.'

'Why?'

'Well, doctor, I can hardly explain why I haven't told her, as the dear
old soul is "nearer" to me than any one else in the world; but I felt,
somehow, that I wanted to confide in you first.'

'Thank you, Mr Russell; and it will be a joyful day when you and I and
Betty can talk it all over among us. Meanwhile we'll keep it to
ourselves, you and I, and I don't think you should allow this--this
_affaire de coeur_ to monopolise your mind too much. To worry and
distract your thoughts over it would be as harmful as it would be
futile. So far, the stars have fought in their courses for you, and,
without much exertion on your part, your fondest dreams seem in a fair
way to be fulfilled. William--no "Mr Russell" after a crack like
this!--I am more than double your age, and for many years I have lived a
queer, prosaic, loveless life--a full life if hard work and gain and
recognition be reckoned everything, but empty--oh God, how empty!--if
love counts for all. I am old, but not so old that I cannot understand
you and sympathise with you, for I well remember days which were
brightened to me by the sunshine of a woman's loving smile; times when
all this earth was heaven to me, the singing of the birds an angel song,
all its people upright and just; sermons I read in stones, and good I
saw in everything. But that was long ago. When love was taken away from
me the whole world seemed changed. My life since then has been selfish
and self-centred. I have long ceased to take any interest in the social
doings of others; and were it not for my work, my books, and my daily
communings with nature, I should be a lonely, miserable old man. I don't
mind telling you, however, that you have touched a chord in my heart
and awakened memories which have slumbered long. I am very much
interested in you, partly on account of your own personality, but mainly
because it was a very near relative of yours who brought to me the only
true joy and gladness that my heart has ever known.'

He sat down on the basket chair at the foot of my bed, facing me, and
with his back to the light.

'You will doubtless remember,' he continued, 'that, during my first
visit to you here, Betty in course of conversation, casually or
otherwise, mentioned the name of your aunt Margaret.'

'Yes, doctor, I remember that distinctly, and also that you were visibly
affected; but'----

'I must confess I was, William,' he quickly interposed. 'Well,
confidence for confidence. You have told me your love experience, so far
as it has gone, and it may be that, by doing so, you have relieved your
mind and hastened your recovery; and perhaps, if I recount mine to one
who can understand, it will bring a balm and a solace to my old heart,
of which, in these my years of sear and yellow leaves, I often stand
sorely in need. You--you don't mind my smoking?'

'Certainly not, doctor; and, to be sociable, I'll join you in a pipe.'

'That's right--that's right! Nothing like tobacco for promoting
good-fellowship.'

We filled our pipes in silence. Though it was only late noon, the light
seemed to be darkening in my little room. I looked toward the window,
and down from a dull leaden sky the first of winter's snowflakes were
quietly falling--falling, as it appeared to me, into the eager
upstretched arms of the leafless lime. The doctor's gaze followed mine;
and slowly, with his pipe filled but not lit, he rose from his chair and
looked long and thoughtfully toward the quiet, obscured Dry Gill.

'I have always loved to see snow falling,' he said, after a pause. 'It
has a strange fascination for me; and to see it in its fleecy flakes,
whirling and dancing and drifting and playing, is a sight which always
soothes and inspires me. I pray God that my eyesight may long be spared
to me, because it is an avenue through which many of His richly stored
treasures are conveyed. I have no ear for music--instrumental music I
mean particularly; but, strangely enough, a wimplin' burn can speak to
me in its flow, a mavis can call me from my study into my garden, and
the eerie yammer of the whaup in the moorland solitude is always to me,
as it is to Robert Wanlock, "a wanderin' word frae hame." The human
voice raised in song conveys nothing to me, but the crooning lullaby of
a loving mother over her suffering child tirls the strings of my heart
and makes me humble. To be unable to _feel_ the pleading of the violin,
the rich soprano, and the resonant bass is something I deplore. But
Providence has ordained that if one sense is minus one, another sense
will be plus one. Well, my sense of sight is plus one, both in strength
and appreciation; and in the midst of these beautiful surroundings in
which, for the last forty years, my lines have been cast, I have
revelled, William--positively revelled. The opportunity has always been
mine of noting the changing of the seasons--the virgin green and promise
of spring, the glory and fullness of summer, the russet and gold of
autumn, the sleep and decay of winter--and each, to him who can see
aright, has a beauty and significance of its own. Ay, and this is
winter--winter heralded by a shimmering veil of pirling snowflakes,
through whose dancing meshes I can trace phantom forms I saw in youth,
and whose madcap antics still, thank God! bring me solace as of yore.
Oh, how grateful and thankful I ought to be!'

He lit his pipe with a paper spill, and stood for a minute blowing
clouds of smoke round the old china dog on my mantelpiece. Then he
resumed his seat at the foot of my bed; and, inclining his head sideways
toward the window, he said, 'The last good-bye I said to your aunt
Margaret was spoken amidst falling snow, and it is strange that I should
be speaking of her to you for the first time with these flimsy flakes
dimming your window-pane. There's not much to tell you, William; and, to
be candid with you, when I was standing smoking at your fireplace there
the thought came to me that, as your mother had never deemed it
expedient or necessary to mention my name to you, it would be more in
agreement with her will that I should be silent. However, as I have
started, I may as well proceed; but I shall be brief, as I haven't the
heart to go into what must ever be sacred details. I first met your aunt
Margaret in Edinburgh, when I was at the University. Her father--your
grandfather, Colonel Kennedy--had returned from India, where he had
served with distinction, and had, with his wife and two daughters, taken
up residence in the suburb of Murrayfield. Being of a Dumfriesshire
family, and well known to my father, who was a merchant in Dumfries and
Provost of that town, Colonel Kennedy, on the strength of my father's
letter of introduction, gave me a hearty welcome to his domestic circle,
a welcome of which I may say I took ample advantage. Your father and
mother got married shortly after I became acquainted with the family;
and as your aunt Margaret was thus deprived of a sister and companion to
whom she was ardently attached, I gladly embraced every opportunity of
showing her little kindly attentions, acting the part of a thoughtful
brother, and generally doing my utmost to minimise the loss which I was
sure she had sustained. Well, William, this ended in the usual way.
Sympathy begets love, and I fell hopelessly in love with Margaret
Kennedy. How I found out that my love was returned is a secret which is
a joy to me, too holy to share even with you, William. Ah me! the
happiness of those halcyon days--the quiet afternoons in that old
drawing-room facing southward to the distant Pentlands, the evening
walks on Corstorphine Hill when the sunset rays still lingered above Ben
Lomond, the talks we had of the future we had planned! Tennyson says
that "sorrow's crown of sorrow is remembering happier things." That may
be poetic, but I don't think it is true, for it is a crown of joy to me
to call these times to mind, and I feel that to have had this
experience, and to have garnered such memories, I have surely not lived
in vain. Our love, as is the case with all young people, was
unreasoning. We gave no thought to ways and means, and position or
status we never for a moment considered. But your grandfather brought us
to earth and faced us with realities. In response to a written request,
I waited on him one evening, and in a very few words he gave me to
understand that I must on no account pay further attention to his
daughter, and that my visits to his house must cease. He reproached me
with lack of honour in taking advantage of his hospitality to further my
own interests and clandestinely win the affection of your aunt Margaret.
I repudiated this charge, perhaps somewhat warmly, informed him that if
I had broken any of the accepted social laws in the matter, I had done
so in ignorance, and assured him I loved his daughter, and that nothing
short of her renunciation would deter me from some day making her my
wife. He lost his temper, and bluntly asked me if, for a moment, I, a
prospectless student and son of a provincial merchant, considered myself
worthy of a Kennedy of Knockshaw; whereupon I told him that there were
Griersons in Lag, as wardens of the Border Marches, when the Kennedys
were sitting in farmyard barns making spoons out of ram-horns. The old
reiver blood coursed warmly through my veins, and I faced him without
fear. This was the last straw. He raised his cane to strike me; but,
noting my air of defiance, he immediately lowered it, and pointed to the
door. I bowed in silence, then walked slowly out, and I never entered
the house again.

'The days which followed that interview were perhaps the most miserable
I ever spent. I had had no opportunity of seeing your aunt; and though I
knew she loved me, and that no mercenary considerations would sway her,
still there was the uncertainty of it all, under altered circumstances,
and the possibility of her being dominated by her father's masterful
will. At last, after weary weeks of waiting, of alternate spells of hope
and despair, I received a letter from her, written from a lonely island
in the Pentland Firth, and letting me know that she had been sent
thither by her father on a visit to her uncle, who at that time was
proprietor of the island of Stroma. She assured me of her unfaltering
love, told me that nothing on earth would shake her resolve, and that,
notwithstanding her father's threats, she would join me sooner or later
in a haven of rest. She would take my love for granted, and asked me not
to write, as my letters would be intercepted. With this ray of hope I
had to be content. She wrote to me at intervals; but, as letter followed
letter, each became more despondent and despairing, and at last she
informed me that it was evident she would not be allowed to return until
she promised not to see or correspond with me again. Then came a little,
short note pleading for an interview. "It is a long journey, I know,"
she wrote; "but I dearly--oh, so dearly!--wish to see you again. Your
presence will cheer me and strengthen me to bear whatever the future may
hold. On Wednesday next my uncle goes to Kirkwall, and on that afternoon
I will walk down to a little sheltered creek called Corravoe. It is the
nearest point to the mainland, and only a mile or two from Huna. Matthew
Howat has a good boat. When you reach Huna ask for Matthew. He knows
everything, and will help us...." Never a day passes but that weird,
solitary scene comes before my eyes--no trees, no hills, no signs of
human habitation; only a short, gray-green stretch of low-lying, patchy
landscape, bordered by a narrow strip of rocky beach, lapped by the
crested tide of the Pentland Flow. One short hour we spent together, for
the tide was turning, but the smile of hope shone in her wan face ere we
said good-bye. I was the bearer of joyful news, comforting words, and
assurance of release. I told her I was specialising in Edinburgh; that
an unexpected legacy of three thousand pounds had paved the way to our
happiness; and that, when I had arranged with my mother for her
reception, she would sail across to Huna, and find me waiting her
there.... The roar of the far-off skerries is in my ear, the echoing
homeward cry of the seabird, the humming and hissing of the waves among
the shells on the shingle! The shortening day is drawing to a close,
mist is clinging to the scarred face of Dunnet Head, from the darkening
sky the snow is falling, and through the whirling flakes she fades from
my sight.

'A day came when again I was in Huna, looking across the angry,
wind-tossed Pentland Firth, waiting for a boat which, alas! never
reached its haven. What happened no one ever knew. The sullen waters
guard their secrets well; but a broken oar bearing Matthew Howat's
initials, picked up in Scrabster Bay, told a story which robbed my life
of the only light which ever shone in my soul.'

The doctor sat for a minute, after he had finished his story, with his
eyes closed and his chin resting on the knot of his stock. Then he
wearily rose from his chair and went quietly downstairs without saying
good-bye. He has a keen sense of the fitness of things, and I feel he
knew that no word of mine, no pressure of my hand, was needed to prove
to him that my heart was with him.



CHAPTER X.


The painters have come and gone, and on the dining-room walls and
woodwork they have left evidence of tasty, careful workmanship. John
Boyes, to whom the question of wall-paper was referred, was of the
opinion that the decorative scheme adopted by Mrs Black for her parlour
was not exactly applicable or advisable in our case; so Betty at once
deferred to his better judgment, but warned us, all the same, that if
the work didn't turn out a success we were not to blame her. There was,
however, no occasion for what she calls 'castin' up,' as the room looks
exceedingly well, and we--that is, Betty and I--have complimented John
Boyes, who likewise looks exceedingly well, not so much perhaps by
reason of our commendation, but because his account was asked for and
paid the day after the work was completed. I understand the general rule
in the locality is to pay tradesmen's accounts once a year, and when I
offered such prompt payment John was both surprised and perplexed.

'I thocht, Mr Russell,' he said, 'that you were satisfied wi' the job;'
and he placed his hat on Betty's kitchen dresser, fastened a button in
his coat, and stood on the defensive.

'And I _am_ pleased with the job, Boyes,' I replied. 'You and your men
have worked well, and--and whistled well,' I added, with a laugh; 'and
in attending to this work just now you have suited my convenience.'

'Well--but--does it no' look as if ye werena pleased when ye're payin'
me so soon?'

'No, no, Boyes, you mustn't think that. I happen just now to have the
money beside me, and now that the work is completed it is yours, not
mine.'

'Oh, that puts a different complexion on the face o't, as the monkey
said when he pented the cat green;' and he gave a cough of relief, and
surreptitiously bit off a chew of brown twist. 'It's no' often that
money's put doon on my pastin'-table, as it were, an' it's braw an'
welcome, I assure you. I'll no' forget ye wi' leebral discoont, let me
tell ye.' When he came back to receipt the account he borrowed a penny
stamp from Betty, and with great deliberation and no little ceremony
drew his pen several times through the pence column, completely
obliterating the 8-1/2d. 'Ye see, sir, when a gentleman treats me weel,
I'm no' feart. We'll let the eichtpence ha'penny go to the deevil, an'
that'll be five pounds six shillin's--nate, as it were.' He stowed the
notes away down in his trousers-pocket, unbuttoned and rebuttoned his
coat, and jocosely informed me that the price of liquid drier was on the
rise, and he would now lay in a stock before the market was too high. An
hour afterwards I saw him emerge from the side-door of the inn, wiping
his mouth with the back of his hand, and the term 'liquid drier' was to
me stripped of any technical vagueness it had previously possessed.

I have rearranged all the old dining-room pictures so that, without
discarding any of them, I shall have sufficient space for the painting
of Nith Bridge which the Laurieston minister looked upon as a valuable
asset to his bazaar. One day, when I was confined to bed upstairs, I
pencilled a note to my confidential clerk in Edinburgh, asking him to
find out in which of the five Lauriestons, noted in the Post-Office
Directory, a bazaar was to be held, and to make sure of purchasing
thereat a certain oil-painting of which I gave full particulars.
Ormskirk is a cute, long-headed chap; and, knowing the man well, I was
really not surprised when, yesterday morning, I received a letter from
him advising me that, without any difficulty, he had 'struck' the right
Laurieston, and that through our corresponding agent in Falkirk the
picture in question had been secured. Following out my instructions, he
is getting it suitably framed; so I trust shortly to see the space
filled which I am reserving for it.

Poor Betty has put herself to no end of trouble over the modernising of
this room. She has planned and worked unceasingly; and as she couldn't
be in two places or do two things at once, Nathan and I these last few
days have been in a manner neglected. I was sorry to know of her toiling
on late and early, and I told her to get a woman in to help her; but all
she said, and that with a sniff, too, was, 'It may happen;' and for the
first time I saw Betty's nose in the air. And now that everything is
done that she recommended, she is regretting all the expense I have been
put to, and bewailing the fact that 'efter a' it was hardly worth
while.' 'It's a braw, braw room, Maister Weelum,' she said, as she
surveyed it for the twentieth time from the doorway--'a braw room
indeed, and I trust ye'll lang be spared to enjoy it. Ay, I do that;'
and she sighed.

I looked keenly and quickly at her.

'No, no, Maister Weelum, I dinna mean that. I'm no' a dabbler amang
leaf-mould;' and she laughed cheerily. 'A' the same, an' jokin' apairt,
I trust ye'll live to get the guid o' a' your ootlay. At ony rate, ye'll
be gey bien here ower the winter. An' when ye're weel again, an' away
back to yer wark in Embro', ye'll no' forget that ye have sic a place
here. Somewey, I think ye'll get marrit sune--hoo I think sae I canna
tell, but the look's comin' to your e'e--an' whaever the lucky leddy may
be, ye needna be feart to bring her here, for it's a room fit for a
duchess.'

The early fall of snow, which I shall ever associate with the doctor's
love-story, was, after all, very slight, and except in the uplands,
where it lies in the crevices gleaming white in the wintry sun, it has
almost entirely disappeared. I have been allowed outside again, and, but
for a little stiffness, due, the doctor says, to inaction, I am feeling
wonderfully strong and even vigorous.

John Kellock the butcher is the nominal owner of an old bobtailed collie
which rejoices in the name of Bang. Bang carries with him into old age
many mementos of his pugilistic days, not the least obvious of which are
a tattered and limp ear and a short, deformed foreleg. He is long past
active service, and only barks now from the shop-door when sheep pass
along the village street; but he dearly loves a quiet saunter down the
pavement and along the country road with any one who has a mind to chum
with him and can keep step with his. John Sterling the shoemaker is also
the nominal owner of a dog, a Dandie Dinmont named Jip, which was long a
doughty antagonist of Bang, but he is now on the pension list too, and
glad of congenial company of limited locomotive capabilities. So the
three of us--all more or less 'crocks,' and mutually sympathetic--take a
constitutional together almost every day. I have mentioned Jip last, but
really it was he who made friends with me first. His master made no
demur to Jip's frequent strolls with me, as the shoemaker himself leads
a sedentary life, and no man knows better than he that a dog should get
exercise; but since Jip has on more than one occasion taken French leave
and remained overnight with me, I am afraid jealousy is springing up in
the shoemaker's breast. Bang noted the ripening acquaintanceship, and
girned disapproval as we passed the butcher's shop; but I never
neglected an opportunity of scratching his shaggy underjaw and talking
coaxingly in a 'doggie' way to him, and so it came to pass that after
following us bit by bit, day by day, he agreed with Jip to bury the
hatchet, and we are now a happy trio and the very best of friends.

As companions in a country walk I prefer Bang and Jip to any man I know.
I can be silent and meditative, and they don't feel neglected or out of
it; and when I am minded to talk, they, in the wag of the tail and the
intelligent look of the eye, respond and approve. But they never
trespass upon my attention or disturb my vein of thought.

At first, after our walk, when I reached Betty's door, I asked them to
come inside, but they stood with a dubious look in their eyes and with
heads turned sideways. Then Jip evidently remembered that John Sterling
had paid his license, and that he was in duty bound to make some show of
recognition, so he walked sedately and with fixed purpose across the
street; while Bang, with recurrent memories of truant acts associated
with ash-plants, limped his way to Kellock's door. Now, however, they
have both flung discretion and fears to the winds, and accompany me to
my fireside with an 'at home' sort of air, and just as if Betty's abode
were their own.

Betty has a cat, a very nice, comfortable-looking cat, with a glossy,
well-cared-for fur, and a strong masculine face; and she often wonders
why I take no notice of Jessie, as she, in her simplicity, misnames
him. The truth is, God's creatures, great and small, interest and appeal
to me, but I cannot love cats. I admire their graceful movements, their
agility, their cleanliness so far as their fur is concerned; but their
eyes cannot draw me lovingly to them as a dog's can, and I have the
feeling that they are capable of loving only those who minister to their
wants, and that they are putting up with domesticity because it assures
them of food and shelter without putting them to the trouble and
inconvenience of seeking it for themselves. I am sorry I cannot love
Jessie, but it can't be helped. Jessie, I know, never loved me; and
since Bang and Jip have got entry to the house I know 'she' positively
hates me.

This afternoon Bang and Jip accompanied me as usual in my stroll, and
after I had leisurely surveyed all the countryside around, and the two
dogs had to their hearts' content explored every rat-run in the roots of
the bordering hedgerows, we turned for home. For a little while I halted
at Hastie's gate, and watched with interest the northward rush of the
afternoon express. I remembered how, when a boy, I used to stand at this
coign of vantage, with my eyes riveted on the speeding trains, following
them in imagination and desire through distant fields and woods, past
towns I knew of only through my geography, on and away to the busy,
bustling terminus on the Clyde, with its big houses, its long streets,
and attractive shops. How I envied the driver on the footplate, and how
I longed to be a passenger with him _en route_ to the city which was
then to me unknown and unexplored! _Experientia docet_; the express in
its flight was as interesting to me as it was then, but the desire and
longing to be in it were lacking. 'No, no,' I said to myself; 'no
bustling city for me at present. Here around me is life without veneer;
here is the peace I crave; here, I feel, is the goal.' The sound of
approaching footsteps cut short my reverie. I turned my head, and for
the second time I looked into the eyes of my dream-lady.

Had I had time to gather my wits and consider the situation, I should
probably have recognised her presence by merely raising my hat, but this
was denied me; and, acting on a sudden impulse, I went forward to meet
her with my hand outstretched. With a look of surprise and, I imagined,
annoyance, she stopped and regarded me earnestly for a moment. In a
flash it came to me that we had never been introduced, and I blushed
awkwardly and retreated a step, muttering an incoherent apology. Then
ensued a long pause, an awkward silence. It was Bang who came to the
rescue, and saved the situation. Wagging his scraggy apology for a tail,
he sidled up to her, and in an ingratiating, wheedling way which only a
dog possesses, he claimed her attention. She spoke to him, and stroked
his shaggy head. Then Jip ventured forward, demanding his share of her
favours, and she bent down and asked him his name. I remained
tongue-tied and ill at ease, and was wishing myself a hundred miles
away, when she suddenly looked toward me and smiled.

'I consider a collie and a Dandie Dinmont ideal companions,' she said.
'They are evidently very much attached to you, and old friends are the
best friends.'

'Friends, yes; but they don't belong to me,' I replied. 'Bang here is an
old pensioner of the village butcher, and wee Jip is the apple of our
local shoemaker's eye. We've been good chums since I came down here, and
I seldom go for a walk without them.'

'They weren't with you that day in Nithbank Wood?'

'No.'

'By the way,' she hastily interposed, as if glad of an opening, 'I am
pleased to have met you again, and to see you are none the worse of
your indiscretion in venturing so far when you weren't feeling fit. You
have only one walking-stick now, instead of two; so I argue you are
making good progress. Do you know,' she continued, and she gave me a
look which set my heart thumping, 'I have, time and again, reproached
myself for leaving you as I did. You acknowledged you had attempted too
much, and you looked so helpless, so--so'----and she hesitated. 'What
_is_ that very expressive Scots word, now? So'----

'Forfaughten,' I hazarded.

'That's it--forfaughten; and you must have felt forfaughten, otherwise
the word wouldn't have appealed to you as suitable.'

'Well, I admit now, I was, but at the time I didn't wish you, a lady and
a stranger, to know it. Besides, you had already done a good deal for
me, which, allow me to repeat, I shall not readily forget.'

I was gradually regaining the confidence I had lost, and felt inclined
to say more, and to tell her of my dream and what her presence meant to
me; but I restrained myself; and, pointing to the paint-box she carried,
I changed the subject by asking her if she was finding much inspiration
in our beautiful surroundings.

'Yes--oh yes!' she replied; 'it is a beautiful countryside, and the
longer I live in it the more I see in it to admire. A wooded locality,
such as this, looks at its best--at least from an artist's
standpoint--in the late autumn, when sufficient foliage is shed to allow
the gray-purple of the branches to mingle with the yellow and russet of
the leaves. I am fortunate in being here at this particular time, and I
have made quite a number of sketches, which I may work up later. But I
am not really an artist. I am only a humble amateur, though I may to an
extent have the eye of an artist--to appreciate all the beautiful
sights, you know, and that, after all, is something. But I must be
going. Good-afternoon; and I'm glad that you are getting on so
nicely.--Good-bye, Bang.--Good-bye, Jip;' and she gave them a parting
pat, and with a smile on her face which I long remembered, she walked
slowly away.

It is a very slender hair to make a tether with, but somehow the fact of
her remembering the dogs by name is a consoling thought, and a source of
peculiar satisfaction to me.



CHAPTER XI.


When I got home, and was comfortably seated in my arm-chair by the fire,
Betty came in to set my tea, and I wasn't long in noticing that, from
her abstracted air and the listless way she was moving about, she had
something on her mind. She looked for a moment or two at Bang and Jip
lying comfortably curled up on the hearthrug. 'Thae dugs are braw an'
snug lyin' there,' she said; 'an' my puir Jessie's sittin' in the cauld
stick-hoose in the huff. No' that I grudge them their warm bed, for I'm
gled--he'rt gled--to see them peaceable at last wi' yin anither. It's
nae time since they were girnin' an' fechtin' an' tumblin' ower each
ither frae the Cross to the Gill, an' noo, haith, they canna get ower
cheek-for-chowie. Ye maun ha'e a wonderfu' wey wi' dugs, Maister Weelum.
It's a peety ye couldna exert it in ither weys.'

I know Betty too well to venture assistance, and I had the feeling that
she would soon work her way round to her subject without my aiding and
abetting.

'The kettle will soon be through the boil, an' ye'll get your tea in a
jiffy,' she said. 'Imphm! it's a gey comfortable-lookin' chair, that yin
opposite ye, Maister Weelum; an', d'ye ken, I met a leddy the day that I
wad like to see sittin' in it.'

'Indeed, Betty!'

'Ay. I dinna ken when I was sae much impressed wi' onybody at first
sicht as I was this day; an' when I was sittin' lookin' at her, an'
listenin' to her voice, something whispered in my ear, "That's the wife
for my boy."'

'My goodness, Betty, you're forcing the pace!' I laughingly said. 'First
you wish to see this lady sitting in my chair, and in your next breath
you say you wish to see her my wife! Where did you meet this paragon?'

'Weel, this efternoon, when you an' the dugs were away yer walk, I
slippit in next door juist for a meenit to see hoo they were a' gettin'
on, an', as I usually do, I opened the door withoot knockin' an' walked
strecht ben to the kitchen, an' there, Maister Weelum, sittin' on the
wee laich nursin'-chair at the fireside, was the leddy I speak o'. I
gaed to gang back into the lobby; but Mrs Jardine wadna hear o't, an'
she made me step in, an' she introduced me, quite the thing, mind you.
Ye see, Tom's wife was toon bred, an' she kens a' the weys o't, an' she
mentioned me by name an' the leddy by name; an' if she had been
staunin' in a drawin'-room on a Turkey carpet, an' cled in brocade, she
couldna ha'e dune it better. I juist didna catch the leddy's name, for,
what wi' the suddenness, her bonny face, an' ae thing an' anither, I was
sairly flabbergasted an' putten aboot. It seems, hooever, that she's in
the picter-pentin' line, an' she's ta'en a great fancy to wee Isobel,
an' she's makin' a portrait o' her. A week or twae bygane she saw the
wee lass staunin' at the door as she was passin', an' she was so struck
wi' her bonny wee face an' her lang fair hair that she spoke to her an'
asked to see her mither. Weel, the upshot o' this was that, as I've
said, she is pentin' her, an' a capital picter she's makin'. It's hardly
finished yet. I ken fules an' bairns should never see hauf-dune wark,
an' I'm no' a judge, into the bargain; but I'll say this, photographin'
micht be quicker an' mair o' a deid likeness, but it's no' in it wi' yon
for naturalness and bonny life-like colour. But that's by the wey, as it
were. Her work is guid, withoot a doot, but she hersel's a perfect
picter.'

I felt my heart beginning to thump and throb, and my breath getting
catchy. 'Pity you missed her name, Betty,' I said with forced unconcern.

'Ay, as I telt ye, I was putten aboot, an' missed it; but I'll speir at
Mrs Jardine again, 'at will I.'

'And--and what is the lady like?' I asked, with as much indifference as
I could command.

'Weel, Maister Weelum, I juist canna exactly tell ye. She's yin o' the
few folks ye meet in a lifetime that ye canna judge o' or scrutinise bit
by bit. It's impossible to do that wi' her; you've to tak' her in a' at
aince, as it were; ye ken what I mean--eh?'

I did, and I didn't; but I nodded as if I understood.

'What struck me mair than ocht else,' she continued, 'was her couthie,
affable mainner. To look at her ye wad think that she's a' drawn
thegether--prood-like, ye ken, wi' an almichty set apairt kind o' an
air; but whenever she speaks an' looks at ye, ye've the feelin' that
she's a' roon aboot ye, an' that there's only her an' you in the whole
world. An' she was so composed an' calm, so weel-bred withoot bein'
uppish! Oh, I tell ye she juist talked away to Mrs Jardine an' me as if
we were o' her ain kind. An' when she rose up to gang away, an' was
staunin' her full heicht lookin' doon on us, do you know, Maister
Weelum, she seemed to me to be kind o' glorified, an' the kitchen an' a'
its plenishin's faded frae my sicht, an' a' I was conscious o' was the
kindly glent o' twae big dark een an' the feelin' that I was in the
presence o' some yin by-ordinar'--imphm! An' efter she had gane I
couldna carry on a wiselike conversation wi' Mrs Jardine for listenin'
to the whispered words in my ear, "That's the yin! That's the wife for
Maister Weelum."'

       *       *       *       *       *

Since the forenights began to lengthen the doctor has got into the way
of dropping in and smoking a quiet, meditative pipe with me over the
chess-board. When he called to-night I drew out the little table with
the squared top, and we settled down to our game. But my mind was not
concerned with bishops, pawns, and knights, and my thoughts kept
careering between Hastie's gate and Mrs Jardine's kitchen. I made an
effort to centre my interest, and to look the part of the keen, zealous
player; but, unfortunately, I cannot dissemble. I lost two pawns very
stupidly, and the doctor looked keenly at me, but said nothing. I
blundered on, and at last I made a move which caused the doctor to
smile. He got up, relit his pipe, and sank into an easy-chair. 'Ah,
William,' he said, 'Love is a tyrant! Heart claimed, thoughts claimed,
all dancing attendance on the enslaver.'

I blushed, and made a show of riping my pipe into the coal-scuttle to
hide my confusion. Then I told him of the meeting on the Carronbrig
road, and of Betty's experience in Mrs Jardine's kitchen.

'The plot thickens, William,' he said as he rose to go; 'and if I were
you I would tell her of your dream next time you meet her. It will
interest her in you; and, you know, once interest is aroused--well, love
will follow. Good-night.'

My picture has arrived, and I have got it hung in a favourable light, in
a place of honour above the mantelpiece. I became quite excited when it
was delivered, and, like a child with a new toy, was impatient to see
it, and to gloat over it. But the lid of the wooden case was tightly
screwed down; and, as a hammer and a saw were the only joinery tools
which Betty possessed, I had to call in Deacon Webster's aid, and Betty,
poor body, got no peace till he arrived with his screwdriver. When at
length the picture was taken out of its packing I noticed there was no
signature in the corner, and this at the time was a keen disappointment
to me; but it has ceased to trouble me now, because I have the feeling
that it will shortly bear the artist's name, and till that time comes,
when I am not admiring her handiwork, I shall just entertain myself
filling the corner space with names which appeal to my mind as fitting
and appropriate.

When I asked Nathan's opinion of my purchase, he looked several times
very deliberately from me to the picture; then, after a pause, informed
me he had 'never till noo seen purple gress.' I explained to him that
this was the purple sunset glow; but he shook his head sceptically, spat
in my fire, and walked slowly ben into the kitchen. Betty, who spent her
early girlhood in the Keir, is delighted that a picture in which her
native parish hills are depicted should be hanging on her walls, and she
was very anxious to know who the painter was, and how it came into my
possession. I just said I was very much interested in the artist, and
that the picture had been sent from Edinburgh. She pointed out to me,
what I hadn't noticed before, that the bright richness of the gold frame
made the others shabby and tarnished-looking, and she warmly advocated
the application of a liquid gold paint which John Boyes retails at
sixpence a bottle, and which, she assures me, 'is liker pure gold than a
sovereign.' Betty dearly loves to dabble in paint. It was Nathan who
acquainted me with this predilection, and he instanced a case of her
blue-enamelling the long hazel crook, the representative staff of the
Ancient Order of Shepherds, which on gala-days he carries in the
procession; and another, when she varnished, with a strange concoction,
a workbox which she has never been able to open since. Knowing this, I
purposely belittled Boyes's liquid, and assured her that in a week or
two our eyes would become so accustomed to the conditions that we
shouldn't distinguish any difference between the frames. It grieves me
very much to thwart Betty; though, truth to tell, I seldom have occasion
to do so, as our opinions on the big things of life, the essentials, are
rarely in conflict, and the smaller we think not worth wrangling over;
so I talked her into a gracious, amenable humour, and ultimately took
leave of the subject in what I considered mutual agreement.

This morning, however, when she brought up my ante-breakfast cup of tea,
she reverted to the subject without any preliminaries. 'Man, Maister
Weelum,' she began, 'I've juist been takin' anither look roon' the
dinin'-room. Noo, since we've got it done up it's the first thing I do
in the mornin' an' the last at nicht; an', do ye know, I feel quite
prood an' important when I'm puttin' a nice white cover on the big
table, an' the silver candelabra in the centre o't. But, oh man, since
yesterday I'm positively he'rt-sorry for thae auld frames. In a mainner
it's my pleesure spoiled; to me it's a case o' deid flies in the
ointment, ye understaun? Imphm! an' I'm gettin' fair angry at the new
yin hangin' oot so prominently an' skinklin' as if to chaw the ithers.
Dod, I imagine it's laughin' an' jeerin' at them. Noo, Maister Weelum,
twae sixpenny bottles o' John Boyes's gold spread oot thin would amaist
do the whole lot, an'--an' I'll put it on mysel'. I'm rale knacky wi' a
brush. It'll no' come to much--imphm! the cost'll be very little. What
think ye?'

'I don't know, Betty, I'm sure. I'm sorry to know the old frames annoy
your eye. Personally I like the old ones better than the new one; but
I'll tell you what, Betty,' I said gleefully, as a happy thought struck
me; 'we'll get the new frame coated over with some sort of stuff to dull
it down a bit. They'll be all alike then. How would that do?'

'It'll no' do at a', Maister Weelum,' she said emphatically. 'That
picter maunna be touched. No! no! It has some history, or I'm cheated.
Time will prove'----

A sudden loud knocking echoed through the house and cut short her
sentence. 'Mercy me, what a bang!' she said. 'That's Milligan the
postman, an' as sure as my name's Betty Grier he'll bash through that
door some day;' and, to my relief--for she was stumbling into 'kittle'
ground--she hurried downstairs.

Since I came here my correspondence has become almost a negligible
quantity. I rarely write to any one, and the few letters I receive are
of a more or less private business character. I had two this
morning--one from the treasurer of my club reminding me my subscription
is due at the end of this month, and the other from my partner, Murray
Monteith, who, after alluding to minor matters, writes as follows:

'Now for the real reason of my troubling you at this time. The Hon. Mrs
Stuart wrote to me yesterday from Nithbank House, near Thornhill, saying
she was desirous of consulting me on a very important subject; but owing
to indisposition she couldn't travel to Edinburgh, and she would be much
obliged if I could make it convenient to call on her at that address any
day next week. I wrote to her by return saying I would travel south on
Wednesday first, and would be with her during the early afternoon of
that day. As you know, I am a stranger to your native county; but I
presume Nithbank House is within driving distance of Thornhill, and as I
am due at the station of that name at 11.30 A.M., I shall thus have
ample time to call on you prior to my visit, and talk over matters with
you.

'The important subject she refers to is, without doubt, in connection
with the affairs of her brother-in-law, the late General Stuart, which,
I regret to say, are still in a most unsatisfactory state, owing to our
inability to unearth a will or to procure any information regarding his
marriage. We have made exhaustive inquiry in every conceivable
direction, but without result; and his daughter, Miss Stuart, must now
be acquainted with the facts as they at present stand. She called here
on the 17th ult., and asked to see you. Ormskirk informed her that you
were at present invalided in the country, and showed her into my room.
We talked over matters in a general way, and I think I managed to
satisfy her on the main points, without giving her any reason to suspect
we were faced with such serious difficulties. But, as I have said, she
must be told now, and I approach this part of the business with
misgivings, as it is a very delicate matter indeed; and, from the little
I have seen of her, I argue she will take it very keenly to heart. For
us to inform her, in our cold, unfeeling legal phraseology, that she is,
in the eyes of the law, illegitimate would be nothing short of brutal,
and I trust we may prevail on her aunt to discharge this unenviable
obligation. I assure you I have no desire to trouble you unnecessarily
at this time with business concerns; but, as you are in the immediate
locality, and are not only acquainted with the parties, but conversant
with all the details of this case, I hope you will see your way to
accompany me to Nithbank. Miss Stuart informed me that she had
transacted business by correspondence only, and that she had not yet met
you. Would this not be a good opportunity for us all to meet and decide
what ought to be done?'

Needless to say, I shall be delighted to receive Murray Monteith here.
We must arrange to have him remain overnight with us, and I shall take
peculiar pleasure in introducing him to Betty and Nathan and Dr
Grierson, types, I feel sure, which he has never met before, but which I
am equally sure he will appreciate. I shall certainly accompany him to
Nithbank House; and I must be prepared to have the vials of the Hon. Mrs
Stuart's wrath poured out upon me when she learns that for almost six
months I have resided within two miles of her, and have not considered
it my duty and privilege to call on her. I am very, very sorry to learn
from Monteith that things have turned out so unfortunately; but somehow
I have dreaded such an outcome all along. And my heart goes out to that
poor girl who is likely to lose her patrimony under the inexorable law
of succession. But, wait now, let me think. Yes, these four thousand
Banku oil shares which her father transferred to her, on her coming of
age, are hers, and cannot be contested; so that, after all, if our worst
fears regarding the property are realised, she will not be penniless. I
wonder if she is a level-headed business girl, and if she knows to what
extent she will benefit from this. Banku oils are worth looking after.
This will be one cheering subject, at least, which we may broach to her.
But, after all, the stigma of illegitimacy remains, and money cannot
make up for that. Poor girl!



CHAPTER XII.


Pondering these thoughts, I slowly dressed and went downstairs to
breakfast; but so wrapped up was I in reflection, and engrossed in legal
procedure and probable eventualities, that when Betty appeared with my
bacon and egg I could scarcely reconcile myself to my surroundings or at
once realise my whereabouts. Fortunately she didn't notice my
preoccupied air, otherwise my firm's long, blue, tax-looking letter
would again have been blamed and execrated; nor did she make any attempt
to pick up the thread-ends of our conversation regarding the regilding
of the old frames. I wondered at this, as the conditions were
propitious; and Betty, as a rule, follows up the trail of a crack as
surely and consistently as a weasel follows a hare.

'Joe's in the back-kitchen brushin' your boots,' she said, as she handed
me the morning papers; and I sighed with relief in the knowledge that
Boyes's liquid was likely, for the time being at least, to remain on his
shop shelf. 'Puir sowl, he's quite pleased when I ask him to do ocht for
you,' she continued. 'Yesterday, withoot bein' bid, he got oot yin o'
your suits o' claes an' pressed it wi' my big smoothin' ern on the
kitchen table, an' he's made sic a job o't as wud be a credit to ony
whip-the-cat. He has learned mair than drillin' in the airmy, I tell
ye.'

'I believe that, Betty,' I said. 'The service is often a capital
schoolmaster. But it was very good of him to look to my clothes. I'll
not forget him for that.'

'Oh, mercy me, Maister Weelum, dinna you gi'e him ocht! He wad be black
affronted an' terribly displeased if ye offered him money. No, no, it's
neither wisdom nor charity to gi'e to Joe, for he's made mair siller
lately than he kens hoo to tak' care o'. I can tell ye he cam' hame this
time wi' a weel-filled pouch, an' for the first week o' six workin' days
he did mak' it spin!'

'Spin, Betty? How in the world did he contrive to make money spin in
Thornhill?' I asked.

'Haith, if ye had only seen him ye wadna need to ask. Ahem, spin! Ay,
Joe can not only mak' the money spin, but he spins himsel', an' he mak's
every yin spin that'll sit wi' him. But mebbe I'm gaun ower quick. Did
ye no' ken that Joe tak's a dram?'

'No, Betty, I did not; and, as he's a brother of Nathan's, I'm
surprised to know it.'

'Oh, weel, but it's juist possible that I'm wrangin' Joe noo. He's what
I wad ca' a regular drammer--tak's his gless o' beer every day--ye ken;
but aince a year, an' for a while efter he comes back, he gangs fairly
ower the soore baith wi' drinkin' himsel' an' treatin' ithers. Ye ken he
then has siller galore among his fingers, an' wi' Joe, as wi' the rest
o' folk, "the fu' cup's no' easy carried." Last year he had a gey time
o't; spent a lot, an' grudged it terribly when it was a' gane. Nathan
canna be bothered wi' 'im in his thochtlessness. A' he says is "Benjy's
a fule." He ca's him Benjy because he's the youngest o' the family. Ay,
that's a' he says. But somewey I'm sorry for Joe, an' I'm aye ceevil an'
nice to him. An', what think ye, Maister Weelum? He has signed the
pledge to please me, 'at has he, an' he hasna touched a drap for nearly
three weeks. It's wonderfu' what a bit word will do, if it's spoken in
season.'

'Yes, Betty, that is so,' I said meditatively; 'that is so. It is very
good of you to interest yourself in Joe. I'm sure he'll bless your name
every day.'

'Imphm! I've nae doot he does; in fact, I'm sure he does;' and a queer
smile broke over Betty's face. 'Ay, he blesses my name, sure enough;
he's a Hebron, ye ken. The Hebrons never say much, but they look a
tremendous lot, an' Joe's been lookin' at me lately as if he was
blessin' me. The fact is, he's sairly off his usual. He has a queer
cowed look I never saw before. Oh, the man's no' weel, an' I'm sure he
blames me for it. This mornin', when he cam' doon, he was lookin' fair
meeserable, an' I asked him, in a kindly, sympathetic wey, how he was
feelin', an' said he, "Middlin', Betty; very middlin'. It's a very stiff
job this I've tackled. I've been teetotal for twenty days, an' I've
saved as much as'll buy me an oak coffin; an', Betty, if I'm teetotal
for other twenty days, by the Lord Harry I'll need it!" An', d'ye ken,
Maister Weelum, he was sae fa'en-away-lookin' that, though I kenned it
was plantin' wi' ae haun an' pu'in up wi' the ither, I gaed away an'
poured him oot a wee drap, juist a jimp gless, an' then I gi'ed him your
buits to brush, an' he started to whussle like a mavis.'

Betty's face was quite serious when she was telling me this, and when I
looked into her kindly, concerned eyes, and thought of Joe's patient
misery, I began to laugh, and I laughed till the breakfast crockery
rattled. She looked at me in wonderment, and, lifting the teapot, she
made for the door.

'Excuse me, Betty, and pardon my levity,' I said; 'but just one
moment'----

'Oh, I'll excuse ye,' she said, as she halted. 'There's nocht I like
better mysel' than a guid laugh, but it maun be at something funny; an'
if it's Joe you're laughin' at, he was far frae funny this mornin', I
tell ye.'

'I can well understand that, Betty; but I was going to say'----

'Maister Weelum, excuse me interruptin' ye, but do ye believe in
ghosts?'

'Do I believe in ghosts? Certainly not. Why do ye ask?'

'Weel, I'm gled to hear ye dinna believe in them. I say wi' you; but
Joe's juist been tellin' me that he met a leddy this mornin' on the
public street that he could sweer died twenty-fower years bygane. So
what mak' ye o' that?'

'Oh Betty, Joe's most surely talking nonsense. Where did you say he met
the lady?'

'Haith, Joe'll no' alloo it's nonsense. He's very positive aboot it. His
story to me was that he cam' suddenly on her gaun roon Harper's corner,
an' he was so frichtened an' surprised that a' gumption left him, an' he
couldna look efter her either to mak' sure o' her or to see where she
was gaun. He was as white as a sheet when he cam' in to me, an' between
the fricht an' the lang want o' his dram, he was in sic a state that I'm
sure the Lord will coont me justified in gi'en him a mouthfu'. What I
telt ye before was only half the truth, an' noo ye ken a'.'

I don't know Joe very well. Since he came home I have had few
opportunities of meeting him and analysing him; but when Betty was
talking he was very vividly flung on the screen, so to speak, and a
possible trait in his character occurred to me.

'Betty,' I said, 'don't you think that Joe has just worked up his ghost
story and feigned excitement and agitation, knowing you had spirits in
the house, and that in the peculiar circumstances you would produce the
bottle?'

'No, no, I dinna think that. Joe's a Hebron, as I've said, an' the
Hebrons ha'e neither the cleverness to think a thing like that oot nor
the guile to carry it through. No, no, Maister Weelum; Joe met the
leddy, whaever she may be, richt enough. I'm quite sure aboot that pairt
o't; but of coorse he's wrang aboot the burial. It's been some yin very
like her, an' Joe's juist mistaken. Had this happened when he was as I
ha'e seen him I wad never ha'e gi'en it a thocht; but this
mornin'--weel, the man was--was ower sober to be healthy.'

'As you say, he's just made a mistake, Betty. At best, Joe's a
mysterious individual; these annual disappearances are remarkable. Have
you yet learned exactly where he goes?'

Her alert ear detected a cessation of brushing and whistling, and she
walked quietly to the door, keeked past it, and then gently turned the
handle. 'He has finished your buits,' she said, 'an' he's gettin'
Nathan's Sabbath-day yins doon frae the shelf to gi'e them a rub. Do I
ken where he gangs? Ay, I do. For a lang time I jaloused; but last nicht
he telt me a' aboot it, an', as it turns oot, I havena been very far
frae the mark. His wife has a wee temperance hotel--a temperance
yin--she kens Joe!--in a toon ca'd Brighton. She can manage a' richt
hersel' in the dull pairt o' the year, but she's forced to get Joe in
the busy time to gi'e her a haun wi' the fires an' the luggage an'
siclike. She was only aince here, an' we didna see much o' her; but frae
the little I did see I wad tak' her to be a fell purposefu' woman, mair
cut oot for fechtin' in a toon than settlin' doon to the quiet, humdrum
life o' Thornhill. Joe in the airmy wad dootless be a' richt, but oot
o't an' hangin' aboot here wi' a decent pension he wad juist be an
impossibility. I was kind o' sorry for her when she was here. She had
never been in this pairt before, an' she didna tak' very kindly to it.
She couldna understaun what we said, an' we were in the same fix when
she spoke. The first nicht she was in this hoose Nathan, for Joe's sake,
tried to ca' the crack wi' her; but it gied him a sair heid, so he juist
smiled an' noddit to her efter that. She put twae months in here, an'
then she went away on her ain. First she kept lodgers; then she took
this wee hotel, an' by a' accoonts she's doin' weel. But it's a queer,
queer life for baith o' them. Never a letter passes between them, an'
Joe seldom mentions her name. When he cam' back this time I asked him if
his wife wasna vexed to pairt wi' him when the time cam' for him to
leave, an' he said he didna ken, for he didna see her. "Ye didna see
her!" said I. "Hoo was that?" "Oh," said he, "she was busy at her wark
up the stairs, so I cried to her that I was away, an' she cried back,
'Right you are, Joe; so long till next July,' and that was a'." Imphm!
isn't that a queer state o' maitters, Maister Weelum? Mind you, I dinna
a'thegither blame her. I ken the Hebrons. They're a queer, quate family.
Ye never can tell what they're thinkin'. I've the best o' them--ay, the
best--an' I often shut my een an' thank God for Nathan; but if he had
marrit ony ither woman--I mean a woman wha didna ken him as I do, or
mak' allowances as I can, an' though she had been an angel frae
heaven--she wad ha'e been as meeserable as I am happy. Ay, it was lang,
lang before I understood Nathan, an' the kennin' o' him was a dreich
job, but it was worth it a'. Ye see, the Hebrons havena got the faculty
o' expressin' their feelin's. They may be pleased or angry--it's a'
yin--they never let on in their speech, but they show it in their
actions; at least my Nathan does, an' my impression is that Joe's
wife--Sally her name is--doesna ken Joe yet. He'll no' ha'e met her
half-road, as it were, an' gi'en her a chance o' gettin' to the bedrock,
an' she tak's his quateness for indifference; an' the upshot is, as ye
see, that for the best pairt o' a year she's as happy in Brighton as he
is in Thornhill, an' for the rest they put up wi' yin anither for the
sake o' the siller their united efforts bring in. Ay, it's a queer world
for some folk. But I'm deavin' ye. Joe'll be oot o' a job, too, an' to
keep him richt I maun keep him workin' the day;' and she bustled off to
encourage Joe in well-doing.

Later I consulted with Betty about Murray Monteith's visit, and we
arranged to get the south bedroom prepared for his reception. So I
wrote him to-day at some length, extending Betty's invitation, and
expressing my willingness to accompany him to Nithbank House. After I
had finished my letter I perambulated the dining-room round and round,
for the day was wet and boisterous, and I could not go out of doors.
Bang and Jip, evidently conscious of the fact that a walk was out of the
question, were making themselves at home on the hearthrug, and I was
just finishing half a mile of carpet-walking when the street door
opened, and Nathan's step sounded in the lobby. Betty had gone out on an
errand, so I went in to the kitchen.

'Hallo, Nathan!' I said; 'have you got a holiday to-day?'

Nathan looked up at me as he sat down in his arm-chair near the fire.
'I've ta'en yin, Maister Weelum,' he said. 'I've ta'en yin--very much
against the grain, though. I'm--I'm no' feelin' very weel, so I thocht I
wad juist come hame.'

'You did well to come home, Nathan, and I'm sorry to know you are not up
to the mark. You're cold-looking. Do you feel cold?'

'Weel, shivery weys, Maister Weelum; shivery weys. Imphm!--Where's
Betty?'

I told him she had gone out on an errand, but would be back presently;
and, going into the dining-room, I poured out a glass of brandy and
brought it to him. 'Here, Nathan. I know your mind on the liquor
question; but put aside your objections and drink this. It will do you
good.'

He smiled feebly. 'What would Betty say? Will ye tak' the blame?' he
asked.

'Certainly I'll take the blame, or, rather, I should say the credit.
Drink it up now, Nathan.'

Joe, who had been splitting firewood in the stick-house, had recognised
his brother's voice, and came into the kitchen. 'It is you, Nathan!' he
said, in surprise. 'It's no' often we see you wi' a dram-gless in your
hand, an' at this time o' day, too. My word, but you're lucky!'

'Ay, Benjy, it is me, an' I am lucky. I daur say ye wad like to chum wi'
me the noo. Are--are ye still keepin' the teetotal?'

For a moment Joe looked shamefacedly at Nathan; then truth and
honour--outstanding traits of the Hebrons--shone in his eye. 'No,' he
said; 'I broke it this mornin'.'

'Ay--imphm! And hoo did you come to do that?' asked Nathan, without
looking round.

'Betty tempted me, and I fell.'

'Oh, imphm! Betty gied ye a dram, did she? Weel, Benjy, whatever Betty
did was richt. She didna tempt ye, man; she treated ye, that's what she
did. Ye'll no' gang far wrang if ye're guided by Betty.--Eh, Maister
Weelum?'

He was sitting very near the fire, with his long gnarled fingers spread
out for warmth, and he looked up sideways to me when he said this with a
look in his blue eyes which told me, more pointedly than words, of his
absolute confidence in her good judgment, and the pride he had in the
possession of her love.



CHAPTER XIII.


One of my city friends who is interested in the study of phrenology once
told me that my bump of adaptability is very strongly developed. He told
me more, of which I was sceptical; but the natural ease with which I
have taken to and conformed with my present surroundings is proof to me
that his interpretation of this particular bump was fairly correct.
Words fail me to express adequately the pleasure I have derived from my
reintroduction to Nature's home and mine. Everything seems fresh from
the hand of the Creator; there is no veneer, no make-believe, and over
all there is solace and repose. Happy hours in the domestic atmosphere
of the old house, mellowed and sweetened by the presence of Betty and
Nathan; the quiet interval spent in the barber's back sanctum, with its
window facing the gray-blue Lowthers; the afternoon visit to John
Sterling's shop, with its homely smell of roset and bend-leather, and
our usual discussion on the Dandie breed and the beauties of Scott's
_Marmion_, Aird's _Devil's Dream_, and Hogg's _Kilmeny_; a stroll with
Bang and Jip round the Gillfoot or down the 'Coo Road;' and solitary
meditation on the doctor's 'mound,' surrounded by a medley of
vegetation, planted indiscriminately and flourishing under what the dear
old man calls his natural style of gardening--such is my daily
programme. A homely life this amidst homely folks: the barber in his
reminiscent moods; John Sterling with his love of dogs, his
charitableness and honesty, and his enthusiasm for what I may call the
true poetry of life; Dr Grierson, walking alone, hugging to his heart a
sweet secret memory, dreein' his weird, doing good in his own quiet way,
and keeping from his left hand what his right hand is doing; Nathan,
silent, serious, and preoccupied, deferring ever to Betty, and proud and
content to shelter in her shadow; and Betty, my dear, kind, thoughtful
Betty, who always carves with the blunt knife and the big heart, whose
Bible is her bolster, and whose solicitude extends to all God's
creatures great and small--homely folks of a surety; yes, commonplace,
if you will, but dear to my heart. It may be--in fact, I may take it for
granted--that characters like these would make no appeal to my city
acquaintances; to them association with such would be boredom, and my
mode of living the essence of dreariness; and yet to me, and I say it
with all reverence, it comes as near as anything on earth can come to
that peace which passeth all understanding.

Mention of Betty and her Bible in the same breath reminds me that lately
she has talked to me almost solely on secular matters. This is not as it
used to be. When first I came to her, by a process of manoeuvring and
meandering peculiar to herself she always managed to steer her
conversation into religious channels, and the direct way she had of
pointing the moral was always original and characteristic. It is not
because I have discouraged her or shown any indifference that she has
lapsed in this matter; and it would appear that, as our intimacy has
ripened, and as our topics of conversation have become more personal,
she has meantime allowed the mundane to prevail, with a view to taking
up the more serious and essential at a more convenient season.

I wasn't surprised, therefore, when, to-day, after Dr Grierson had
visited Nathan in the back-room, she asked him in an off-hand,
matter-of-fact way what he thought of yesterday's sermon.

The doctor was fumbling in his pocket for his old clay, and in an
absent, abstracted tone of voice he informed her that, as he hadn't
been to church, he wasn't in a position to pass any judgment.

'Ay, ye werena at the kirk? I micht ha'e kenned that,' she said. 'Imphm!
I'm no' a deid auld woman, doctor,' she continued; 'but I mind o' your
faither efter he left Dumfries an' cam' to bide wi' ye here, an' he was
a regular attender at the kirk. It's a great pity when folks break off
kin'. Ay, that it is! Imphm! An', doctor, you'll excuse me, it's mebbe
nae business o' mine; but I canna help tellin' ye that I often think
aboot ye, an' that ye lie heavy on my mind. We've seen a great deal o'
ye lately, mair than we ever saw before, and I've proved to mysel' what
ithers said o' ye, an' what I had aye ta'en for granted. It's a' in your
favour, an' what ye've dune for the puir God will no' forget when ye're
bein' weighed in the balance.'

'Thank you, Betty,' the doctor said, as he struck a light.

'Ay, but haud on; I havena dune wi' ye. I havena come to the point. As
I've said, ye've come a great deal in an' oot among us lately, an' in a
temporal sense ye've been a great comfort and help to Maister Weelum
here. Oh that ye had been able to influence him spiritually, for since
he cam' he's never darkened a kirk door. I've held my tongue, as sae
far there's been an excuse for him; but noo that he's gettin' better an'
able to gang aboot, I juist think that oot o' respect for you, if ye had
been kirk-minded, he could easily ha'e been guided Zionward.'

I had the feeling that Betty was rushing in where angels fear to tread;
and, not knowing how the doctor was likely to take this, I became very
uncomfortable. He puffed spasmodically at his pipe and moved uneasily in
his chair. 'It is very kind of you, Betty, to think of me,' he
said--'very kind indeed; and you must not count it none of your business
to bring such matters before me. In a way we are all each other's
keepers, and it would be churlish of me to resent such interest as you
show. For my own part, I live my life according to my light, such as it
is. It may be a poor, flickering light to other eyes, but it is
sufficient to show me the road. As for William here, he has long ago
reached man's estate, and he can judge of these matters for himself. If
I mistake not, he has a standard of his own, and I feel sure my
influence, even though I were kirk-minded, as you call it, would not
direct his steps in the direction you indicate.'

'Oh doctor, dinna say that! We can a' be made humble instruments.
Example is a great thing, though ye dinna follow your faither's, an' I
ken what a power for guid ye wad be if the grace o' God was in ye. Oh
doctor, I've been he'rt sorry for ye mony a time, for I ken the grief
ye've carried, an' I've wondered hoo ye could thole it sae lang a' by
yoursel', an' that ye never accepted the consolation which He alone can
gi'e ye. But ye've spurned it, doctor. I don't think that ye're a joined
member o' the kirk or that ye gang to the Communion--you that's sic a
man i' the toon--everybody's body as you are, an' born wi' a sma'er dose
o' original sin than ony yin I ken o'. I juist canna understan' it.'

The doctor laughed good-humouredly. 'I've my work to attend to, you
know, Betty. My patients cannot be neglected for the sake of'----

'If your work permitted, wad ye gang to the kirk, doctor?'

'I--I question if I would.'

'That's an honest admission, an' it wadna come frae Dr Grierson if it
wasna. An' what's your objection, doctor?'

'Oh, well, Betty, your question opens up a big, debatable subject on
which I have great reluctance to enter. I have neither the time nor the
inclination, Betty; but this much I will say, we are all heirs to a
heritage of different distresses in this life, and as we are not all
constituted alike we require different treatment. Now there is one great
panacea, one great balm, for all our wounds. Some find that panacea in
their church, though many go to church who are not aware they require a
panacea. Others, of whom I am one, find a balm for their afflictions in
communing with the nature of God's creation we see around us. With such
it isn't necessary to go to church in order to feel God's presence or to
experience His beneficent power. If it were, we could only commune with
Him once a week, when the churches are open. As it is, I can praise Him
at all times, and glorify His name under the canopy of His heavens, and
among the trees and flowers and fields and woods, which evidence His
fostering care and proclaim His loving-kindness.'

'Then, doctor, ye do believe in God?'

A pained look crept into the doctor's eyes. 'Betty,' he said, 'you
surely have never doubted that?'

'Weel, wi' you no' gaun to the kirk, an''----

'Ah, Betty, it is possible for a man to go to church and remain in
doubt; but no one can stand, as I often do, under the starry firmament,
alone in the midst of slumbering nature, or facing the glowing east
when the shafts of the sun's morning beams are piercing the shadowy sky,
and not feel within himself that God reigneth, and the earth in
consequence rejoices.'

'Grand! Man, doctor, I'm glad to hear ye say that! I'm--I'm rale glad.'

There was a wee bit catch in Betty's voice, and a tear trickled down her
cheek, which she tried to wipe away unnoticed with a corner of her
apron. But the doctor saw, and his face twitched and softened.

'Then, doctor,' she continued, 'of course ye'll believe in the Bible?'

'Yes--with reservations.'

'Which means, doctor?'

'Well, Betty, it means that----Wait now, I want to make it easy for you
to understand; but unfortunately, by doing so, it makes it all the more
difficult for me to explain. Well, in a word, Betty, it means there are
parts of it I believe, and there are others I cannot.'

'Ay, pairts ye believe an' pairts ye canna believe. I notice ye say ye
_canna_ believe; ye don't say ye _will not_ believe. There's a
difference, doctor, ye ken. Why do ye say ye canna?'

'Because I have thought out things very carefully, very anxiously, and I
cannot entertain what does not appeal to my reason. I must discard what
I think is wrong.'

'But, doctor, man, ye maunna exercise your ain judgment. It's human;
consequently it's weak. What ye want is faith--the faith which can
remove mountains, the faith which sustains. Doctor, ye must put aside
your ain vain imaginin's an' thochts, an' become as a little child. Ay,
juist as a little child.'

'Yes, Betty, I thought you would say that. But you know I am not a
little child. I am a man, a responsible, thinking being, endowed by God
with a reasoning faculty which is calculated to guide me, and which,
Betty, I am expected to exercise. I cannot accept anything temporal
which is diametrically opposed or contrary to my judgment, nor would I
in the discharge of my professional duties follow a course or accept a
condition which my intellect and discernment told me was wrong. Why,
then, should I, in this the greatest of all questions, be expected to
lay reason aside and acquiesce in blind belief? No, Betty, I cannot do
that. If I did I shouldn't be true to myself.'

'But, doctor, wi' due respect, let me tell ye that cleverer men than you
have thocht these things oot for themselves an' have been satisfied wi'
the Word as it is delivered. Think o' the Reformers an' a' oor
professors, men who have studied theology a' their days, an''----

'And after all their study, what do they know, what have they gleaned
from all their books? I cannot be guided even by professors. They know
as much or as little of God's workings as the man who sweeps our village
street. Now, Betty, further than this I cannot and will not go with you.
As I have said, it is a big, debatable subject, and we might talk till
doomsday and not agree even then. Besides, it is a very dangerous thing
to tamper with any one's belief, especially if that belief affords a
solace in trials and constitutes an anchor in the storm. You have got
something within you which calms your fears, and gives you a peace which
nothing else can. Stick to it, Betty, and guard it against assault. And
I--well, Betty, I also have something within me which gives me peace,
such peace as would remain with me even if to-night I was called upon to
turn my face to the wall. Ah, Betty, each and every one has a faith. The
world has never been without one, and it will have one to the end. But
my conviction is we haven't often enough taken stock of our faith, and
the consequence is it has become detached from and out of sympathy with
our workaday lives. What a different world it would be if we were living
our religion instead of professing it! Some say this is impossible.
Well, it ought to be made possible, and the best way of going about it
would be to strip religion of all that binds it to impossible,
out-of-date dogmas, clear it of all that confounds and mystifies, and
nail as a motto to its mast-head these glorious words of the great
Master, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." Betty, the time is
at hand when the Church will be forced to consider this text--ay, and to
act upon it; and when that day dawns it will herald the Millennium.'

A strange hush had fallen upon the room while the doctor was speaking,
and when he ceased it lingered with us like a benediction. Then Betty
walked quietly over to the window. 'Doctor,' she said, after a pause,
'd'ye think, at the last, everybody will be--eh--a' richt?'

'Well, Betty, the question often occurs to me. When the boundlessness of
God's love comes home to me I think it is possible. There is a verse,
the thirteenth of the twenty-first chapter of the Revelation, which'----

At that moment a knock came to the door, and Betty slipped out. In her
absence the doctor smoked in silence, and I watched the fire glowing in
the grate.

'Doctor,' she said, as she re-entered, 'that's the grocer's boy.
Somebody telt him ye were here, and he wants to ken if the bottle o'
port wine ye ordered is for Mrs Lawson o' Gillhead or auld Widow
Lawson?'

'Oh, it is for Widow Lawson,' he replied, and the semblance of a blush
spread over his face. He rose hurriedly, adjusted his plaid, and picked
up his hat.

I put my hand on his arm as he passed me. 'Doctor,' I said, 'your good
deeds are finding you out;' and he shook his head, and smiled as if he
didn't understand me, but he made no reply.

Betty came into my room later with her Bible in her hand. 'I've been
lookin' up that verse in the Revelation,' she said, 'an' it reads: "On
the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three
gates, and on the west three gates." Ay--imphm! I never saw the maitter
in that licht before.--Weel, I trust there may be a gate for me, Maister
Weelum; an'--an' somewey I'm sure noo there's yin for the doctor.'



CHAPTER XIV.


In accordance with the doctor's orders, Nathan has not been to work
these past few days; and though, beyond admitting a 'wakeness aboot the
knees' and a proneness to 'shiverin',' he makes no specific complaint, I
have noticed that daily he becomes more beholden to Betty, and that he
very willingly goes off to bed a good two hours earlier than his usual
retiring-time.

There are some who, by their very backwardness and reticence, attract
attention and excite curiosity. I have met many such, both
professionally and socially, and the breaking down of their reserve has
always been interesting; but, than the case of Nathan Hebron, none has
more substantially repaid the time and trouble which the process of
thawing involved. To outsiders I presume Nathan is an enigma. Not so to
us who live with him. I needn't attempt to explain the feeling of
confidence which he inspires, or the peculiar power which he
unconsciously exerts in our little household circle. Words cannot convey
it--it must be experienced to be understood; and though Betty is always
to the fore, always taking the initiative, I know she feels that
somewhere in the background, almost without her immediate knowledge, but
ever in her reckoning, is the force, the power, the quiet, unobtrusive,
dependable Nathan. And yet, strange to say, could I probe to the quick
of his feelings, I know I should find that, in his 'stablished
estimation, Betty, and Betty alone, stands for everything that the term
'bulwark and tower of strength' conveys.

Of late I have been wondering how best I can advance Nathan's worldly
interests and lighten his burden without taking him away altogether from
the calling of his choice. Somehow I don't think he would be happy
without a spade in his hand and denied access to leaf-mould. He is too
old to fit into a new groove, and I must remember that were I, even with
the best intentions, carefully to uproot an old tree from amongst the
shadows and replant it in the sunshine it would surely die. Still, I
should like to do something to make his gloaming life easier. I have
often felt sorry for him, leaving his comfortable house on inclement
mornings, working his day's darg, and returning when darkness had long
settled down. Outdoor work under favourable weather conditions is
agreeable enough; but when it is carried on under a cold, leaden sky,
amidst frost and snow, and in biting winds, it is stripped of much of
its pleasure and poetry. Thinking in this strain, the idea came to me
that I might erect glass-houses in our garden here, and encourage Nathan
to devote the whole of his time to the cultivation of tomatoes. I have
already mentioned my scheme to the doctor, and he approves of it; but I
have said nothing to Betty or Nathan. I must see to it one of these
days.

I had a long, pleasant ramble this afternoon. The air was clear and
invigorating; I was feeling braced up and buoyant; and as for Jip and
Bang, I never saw them in a more sportive, energetic mood. We walked
through Rashbrigs Moss, past Dabton Loch, and round by Longmire, where I
called and spent an hour with Farmer Russell. Bang killed a rat in the
steading just before we left, and he wagged his stumpy tail and tried to
raise his tattered ear all the way home. The dogs preceded me into the
house, and I stumbled after them through the darkened lobby and into the
darker dining-room.

'Hallo, Betty,' I said as I entered; 'not lit up yet?'

Betty was over at the window in the act of pulling down the blind,
which, strangely enough, she always does before she lights the gas.

'Oh, it's you, Maister Weelum,' she said. 'It's that dark I can scarcely
see ye;' but she continued standing inactive, looking round at me with
the window-blind cord hanging loose in her hand. The firelight was low,
and the light which came through the window from the village lamp across
the street made the darkness only more visible. I could make Betty out,
silhouetted as she was against the window; but, though all around was in
black shadow which my eyes could not penetrate, I had the feeling that
some one else was present. As I peered around, a tall visionary figure
moved to my right, and Betty came toward me from the window.

'This is Miss Stuart,' she said, 'the lady that's pentin' wee Isobel
Jardine's picter. She's been workin' at it a' efternoon. I was tellin'
her aboot your new yin, an' I asked her in to see it.--An', Miss Stuart,
this is my boy--my wean I used to ca' him--Maister Weelum, or raither,
as I should say, Maister Russell. Mrs Jardine an' me were tellin' ye
aboot him. Imphm!' And as Betty breathlessly finished her introduction,
and, without further ado, turned to break the fire into a glow, Miss
Stuart and I gravely bowed.

I couldn't see our visitor's face, but her figure was strangely familiar
to me, and my pulse quickened.

'Miss Stuart,' said Betty, 'will ye please sit here till I licht the
gas?' and she wheeled the easy-chair, which usually stands opposite
mine, within the radius of the glow from the fire.

'Oh, thank you very much, Mrs Hebron,' said a voice I knew well; 'but
I'm afraid I must be going. I'll--I'll not sit down, thank you. Mr
Russell will be'----

'Delighted to see you seated, Miss Stuart,' I interposed. 'I have very
few lady visitors these days, and I do assure you you are welcome.'

'Eh! that's weel said, Maister Weelum,' Betty chimed in; 'and it's true
too.--Ye canna but sit doon, if it's only to please him, no' to speak o'
me;' and, as Miss Stuart graciously complied, she bustled out to the
kitchen for a match.

In her absence I struck a light and lit the gas, and as Miss Stuart's
eyes met mine we both smiled. Nathan on one occasion winked to me, and
in doing so he established a paction between us. In the same way, but
more emphatically, this smile awakened a feeling of camaraderie, a
consciousness that the Fates were playing with us, and that we
recognised the success of their manipulations.

'Betty has been talking to me a good deal about you lately, Miss
Stuart,' I said as I drew in my chair. 'Somehow, from the first I
associated you, the subject of her talk and the painter of Isobel's
portrait, with my good Samaritan of Nithbank Wood; and I am not
surprised to find that I was right.'

'Indeed, Mr Russell!' she said, and again she smiled. 'Well, I have been
hearing about you also of late from both Mrs Hebron and Mrs Jardine;
and, like you, I am'----But before she could finish her sentence Betty
re-entered with a lighted taper, and in its warm yellow glow her face
shone like a radiant moon.

'Ah, Maister Weelum,' she said, 'for aince ye've managed that
"perverted" licht. Thae newfangled things are fashious, an' it's a
cauld-lookin' licht; but there's economy in it, Miss Stuart--imphm! An',
my me! excuse me, miss, but it does my he'rt guid to see ye sittin' in
that chair.' And in a flash my mind went back to our crack, and I
remembered her words, 'It's a gey comfortable-lookin' chair, that yin
opposite ye, Maister Weelum; an', d'ye ken, I met a leddy the day that I
wad like to see sittin' in it.'

'Betty,' I said, 'Miss Stuart and I are not altogether strangers; we
have met once or twice in an informal way; but, now that we have been
brought together to-night, under your auspices, don't you think--just to
signalise the event--you might offer her a cup of tea?'

'Eh, Maister Weelum! you read me like a book. I was juist gaun to
suggest that. The kettle's at the boil, an' it'll no' tak' me a meenit.
Will--will I bring doon the tea-set frae the drawin'-room--your
mother's, ye ken?'

'Yes, yes, Betty, if you please; and Miss Stuart will honour us in
handseling it. It hasn't been used since I came here;' and before my
guest could say 'Yea' or 'Nay,' Betty had disappeared.

I drew the chair nearer the fire, and, pipe in hand, was about to ask my
_vis-à-vis_ if I might smoke, when I saw her gaze wander round the walls
of my room and ultimately rest on my picture.

'Oh, Mr Russell,' she exclaimed, as she rose to her feet--'why, that is
surely the picture I painted?'

'It is, Miss Stuart,' I quietly said. 'It's the picture you had just
finished the first time I saw you in the flesh, and I assure you I am
very proud to be the possessor of it.'

She stood looking up at it, beating a tattoo with her fingers on the
table, and I saw the warm blood mounting her neck and cheek.

'I hope you don't mind my having it?' I asked.

'Oh no; but--well, you must have put yourself to some trouble to get
it--more than it's worth, I'm afraid, for it was presented to a bazaar
many miles away; and, you'll pardon me, but I cannot understand your
putting so much value on it. It is really not a good bit of work, though
the subject appealed to me so much.'

'Now, Miss Stuart, please do not belittle my purchase--your labour of
love, I may call it. I know a little about art; in fact, though I don't
paint now, it has always been, and still is, my hobby, and in my
judgment you have no reason to be ashamed of this example of your
handiwork. As to my motive in buying it--well, I am a native of this
village, as Betty has perhaps already told you, and to me it and its
environs will ever be my earthly paradise. I know every step of the
countryside around. As a boy I hunted in its fields, explored its woods,
and fished its streams. During the years I have been settled in
Edinburgh, never a day has passed but my thoughts have strayed homeward,
and the identical spot on which you sketched this picture is the one,
above all others, around which my most hallowed memories are centred.
Whenever I thought of my quiet village home my mind meandered down the
Gillfoot road, and the view which inspired you to this effort has always
been with me, for it is, as it were, photographed on my brain.'

'Oh, I quite understand you,' she said slowly--'quite. But how did you
find out where it was for sale?'

'Well, I had very little difficulty in that,' I laughingly replied.
'Talking of sales, though--pardon my introducing the commercial element
into our conversation, Miss Stuart--but I would like very much to have a
companion picture to this one, something local of course. I'll leave the
price to yourself. There's no hurry, you know; only I should be sorry to
miss the opportunity of procuring another, treated with the same loving
skill.'

'How much did you pay for this one?' she asked, with a twinkle in her
eye.

'Well--I--I really cannot tell you exactly. You see, I didn't buy it
myself. I happened to hear your clerical friend say something about the
Laurieston bazaar; so I wrote to Ormskirk, my confidential clerk, giving
him the few particulars I possessed, and he managed everything to my
satisfaction. The price he paid for it will be noted down: he stated it
in his letter, but as it was of minor importance I don't remember the
exact figure.'

I had risen from my chair when she stood up to examine the picture; and,
thinking she might be tired standing, I asked her to sit down. She made
no response, however; and, lost in thought, looked long into the glowing
fire.

'Ormskirk! Mr Ormskirk, your confidential clerk!' she repeated slowly.
'The name seems familiar to me. Oh yes, now I remember;' and she laughed
cheerily, and gave me a blithe look. 'It is a coincidence, Mr Russell;
but I was received once by a Mr Ormskirk of an Edinburgh legal firm. The
name struck me as being unusual.'

'Well, Miss Stuart, so far as I know there is only one Ormskirk in our
profession in Edinburgh, and he is with us--my firm, I mean--Monteith &
Russell.'

'Monteith & Russell!' she repeated. 'And you are'----

'Well, I'm Mr Monteith's partner.'

She looked at me with surprise in her big dark eyes, and then slowly
every vestige of colour left her face. 'You--you are Mr Russell! Oh, I
am so glad to meet you! I have corresponded with you, and my father very
often spoke of you. I am Désirée Stuart. My affairs are in your firm's
hands. I am the daughter of General Stuart of Abereran. This is very
bewildering!' and she smiled feebly through moist, lustrous eyes.

I was too astonished to speak. No suitable words could I utter in
acknowledgment of this unexpected information. Never for a moment had I
associated Miss Stuart the artist with Miss Stuart of Abereran. Somehow,
I cannot say exactly what followed; but I have a dim recollection of
hearing her apologising for sobbing, on the plea that I was the first
person she had met since her father's death of whom, in his last
illness, he had spoken with kindliness and affectionate regard. And I
welcomed this with avidity as another link which bound me to her.

'Your father and I didn't meet often, Miss Stuart,' I said, after a
pause, during which we had both been busy in thought; 'but we
corresponded very frequently. I am glad to know he spoke of me with
appreciation. Unfortunately I was confined to bed at the time of his
death, otherwise I should have been with you; but my partner, Mr Murray
Monteith, attended to everything, and has been giving your affairs every
consideration.'

'Yes, Mr Monteith has been very attentive. I called at your office and
asked to see you. It was on this occasion I met your Mr Ormskirk. Well,
Mr Monteith received me, and reassured me on one or two points about
which I was anxious. After all, I didn't tell him the real reason of my
visit.'

'Indeed! And--and why didn't you?'

'Well, I somehow didn't like. I know it was very silly; but I just
couldn't speak of it--at least to him.'

'Oh, I'm sorry to know that!' I said. 'Mr Monteith would have been only
too pleased to help you with his advice. Is the matter you wished to
bring before me still of consequence?'

'Yes. But it can wait. You know this is neither the time nor the place
to talk business. Besides, I oughtn't to bother you about my affairs
just now. You are still on the sick list, though I must say you look
less the invalid to-day than you did the first time I saw you.'

'Thank you, Miss Stuart. I am glad to know I look better; certainly I
feel much stronger, and I trust to be back to business soon. But do tell
me now what you wanted to consult me about in Edinburgh.'

For a time she remained silent, and I watched with interest the run and
play of her thoughts, as expressed in her mobile face.

'Don't you think,' she said at length, 'that all this is very queer--I
mean our previous accidental meetings, the personal and business
connection between us, and the fact of our sitting together in this room
in this quiet little village? I feel we are known to each other, yet we
are not acquainted. Oh, it does seem so strange and unusual!'

'Yes. The whole circumstances are rather remarkable, and I could tell
you something--a little story in which you and I figure, which is even
more mystifying; but we are wandering from the subject we had on hand.
You haven't yet told me what I wish to know.'

'I cannot mention it to-night, Mr Russell,' she said. 'More than ever I
feel I ought not to have broached it. Later I trust we shall have an
opportunity of discussing everything. You don't mind my deferring it?'

'Just as you wish; but before we dismiss business, may I ask you a
question?'

'Certainly.'

'Well, I had a letter from Mr Monteith the other day in which he
referred to your affairs. By the same token, he is coming down to see
your aunt, so we'll all meet and go into everything thoroughly. Well,
what he mentioned in his letter with reference to you set me a-thinking,
and I have been wondering since if you are aware of the fact that you
hold four thousand Banku oil shares. Have you received any dividends
lately?'

'I know,' she answered thoughtfully, 'that father, some time ago--when I
came of age it was--transferred some shares to me, and from time to time
he gave me what must have been dividends. I didn't trouble him for
particulars; he always hated business chats, but more so after his last
visit to India. I am sure he got a touch of sun, although the doctor
would never admit it, and I purposely refrained from referring to
business affairs, as it only annoyed and irritated him. Since he died I
have received no money at all. As a matter of fact'--and she blushed
painfully--'that's what I wanted to see you about. Aunt is awfully
decent, and grudges me nothing; but surely I ought to have received
something. It isn't very nice to be depending on her for every shilling,
and--you understand, Mr Russell?--I'm perhaps too independent, and'----

'Oh, Miss Stuart, I am so sorry! This is a most unfortunate oversight. I
must rectify it at once, and see that money is sent to you to-morrow.
You have quite a large sum to your credit with us.'

'I am glad to know that;' and she smiled. 'But please don't put yourself
to any immediate trouble on my account. I--I am all right for money at
present. Unknown to my aunt, I sent two of my pictures to Glasgow last
week. Yesterday I received--what do you think?--four guineas each for
them;' and again the blood mounted to her cheek.

'Miss Stuart,' I said, in consternation, 'have you through our
thoughtlessness been obliged to'----I didn't finish my sentence, for at
that moment the door opened, and Betty entered with the tea-tray. Maybe
it was a fortunate, certain I am it was a timely, interruption, as I was
strongly tempted to act unprofessionally, and take a client to my arms.

We had tea brewed in my mother's old Worcester teapot and served in
dainty cups of the same ware. The modern gas was extinguished, and the
candles in the candelabra were lit. Nobody in Thornhill, or out of it,
can bake soda-scones to compare with Betty's; no one can approach her in
the lightness and pan-flavour of her toothsome pancakes, the 'gou' of
her butter, and the aroma of her home-blended tea. As for her homely,
kindly presence--well, only one other possessed its match, and she was
sitting at Betty's right hand, admiring my mother's old china, praising
Betty's scones, filling my heart with a gladness it had never known
before. Ah, Betty Grier--my dear old Betty--I owe much to you! Before
life was a reality to me, you cared for me and ministered to my wants.
When I was cast adrift from moorings of my own making you took me in,
nursed me, and tended me. For all this I thank you; but for bringing
this little tea-party about I'll bless your name for ever and ever.
Amen.

So far I have not been out of doors after nightfall. The village streets
are not too well lit; the pavements are too uneven for my uncertain
steps; but Miss Stuart couldn't go home unattended. Betty was very
emphatic on this point, and of course I heartily concurred. Bang and Jip
certainly came into the house with me after our walk; but they must have
recognised in Miss Stuart a counter-attraction, and slipped away to
their respective homes unobserved. Standing in the lobby with my coat
and hat on, and thinking they might be keeping Nathan company in his
back-room, I called to them several times, but all in vain; so Miss
Stuart and I went out alone.

It was a clear, quiet, moonlight night, with that sharp touch of frost
in the air which makes walking a pleasure. No winter night winds sighed
in the bare, leafless limes as we passed down the street; no discordant
sounds broke the stillness of the Gillfoot as we wended our way by its
shadowy wood.

I had, of course, perforce to walk slowly, and in some unaccountable way
my thoughts and speech seemed to keep in rhythm with my steps. This at
first disturbed and annoyed me, as I was anxious to be vivacious and
animated; but I soon found out that in certain circumstances
conversation is not essential to good-fellowship.

When we reached the top of the Gillfoot Brae, and were almost opposite
the little wicket to Nithbank Wood, we halted for a minute, and in
silence looked down upon the scene, the natural features of which my
companion had with such loving skill transferred to her canvas.

There are times when Nature asserts herself--thrusts herself, as it
were, upon us, and emphatically proclaims her glory and power. It is
good for us to come under her dominance then, for if we have within us a
soul worthy of the name we cannot but feel our true position and
standing in the great Creator's plan.

As I stood, with the woman I loved beside me, on that glamour-haunted
spot, amidst scenes grand in their solemnity and hallowed by
associations, myriads of twinkling worlds above us, at our feet peaceful
howmes all bathed in moonlight, a fuller realisation of the true import
of life was borne in upon me. And there, in a consciously chastened
spirit, with Nature's sermon in my heart and her inspirations all around
me, I turned to my companion, and falteringly told the story of my
dream.

In silence and with wonderment in her eyes, she listened to all my heart
bade me say, and when I had finished she slightly turned away from me,
and her head was bowed. Then in a flash my mind reverted to her recent
bereavement; and when I thought of her loneliness and isolation, the
uncertainty of her prospects, and the shame and mental trials she would
in all probability be called upon to bear, reproach came to me, and I
felt selfish and mean in adding to her burden of mind.

'Miss Stuart,' I said, 'please pardon me if I have said anything amiss,
or if what I have spoken is unwelcome or ill-timed, and a cause of
unhappiness to you. If it is so, I am deeply sorry, but I cannot take
back anything I have told you. God knows it is true, and my whole life
will be devoted to prove to you that it is so. But for the
present--well, doubtless you have plenty to think about, so please
dismiss from your mind what I have said. If I may, I shall some day
speak to you again. Meanwhile let me be your friend. Somehow, I think
you need one.'

She looked gratefully at me with moistened eyes. 'Thank you very much.
What you have told me is all so strange, so unexpected, and--and I feel
it is all true. You are very kind. I do need a friend, and I can trust
you.'

       *       *       *       *       *

I am lying in my old truckle-bed. It is far into the morning, and sleep
has not yet closed my eyes. Nathan has not been so well to-night, and
his restlessness has kept Betty astir, but it hasn't disturbed me. And,
somehow, I am not lonely. 'I do need a friend, and I can trust you;'
these words, during the quiet hours, are often being whispered in my
ear, and I would rather remain awake and hear them than slip into
slumberland and lose them.



CHAPTER XV.


For the first time since I was a boy, Betty had to waken me this
morning. As a rule I lie for half-an-hour before getting up, allowing my
mind to simmer over the events of the previous day, and planning how
best I may spend the coming forenoon and afternoon. I had no need to
make out any programme for to-day, however, as I had that all arranged
last night.

I dressed hurriedly, and after spending a few minutes with Nathan, who,
poor man, is abed, I sent off a telegram to Murray Monteith, requesting
him to wire on receipt one hundred pounds on Miss Stuart's account to
the local bank. When I had breakfasted I wrote him a long letter, and
asked him to send me particulars regarding her interests in the Banku
Oil Company. Then I went up and arranged with Mr Crichton the banker as
to her account.

Walking along to the bank, I met Joe on his way down to Betty's. Joe's
jacket is always closely buttoned, and he wears his tweed cap tilted on
his head at the same angle as he would his glengarry when on parade.
His hair is cropped short, the forelock brushed firmly and obliquely
across his left temple, and showing prominently under the stem of his
civilian cap. His trousers are always carefully pressed; consequently
they never show a bagginess at the knees. He is not so tall as Nathan,
nor has he the 'boss' appearance; but I fancied that to-day he had more
than usual of the same serious Hebron expression; and when he gave me
the salute, as he always does in true soldierly style, it wasn't
accompanied by the customary cheery smile. He passed me at the
regulation step, and from the fact that he was carrying a brown-paper
bag bearing the name of John Nelson, Fruiterer, I surmised that Betty
was contemplating an apple-dumpling for dinner.

My business with Mr Crichton was soon disposed of; but it took me some
considerable time to dispose of Mr Crichton. He has a jocose, affable
way with him, a pawky knack of leaving one subject and starting another;
and when he is in a reminiscent mood, as he was this morning, he can be
very dreich and very entertaining at one and the same time. Long ago, of
an evening, he used to play chess with my father. He took snuff in those
days--he takes snuff still, and treats others unstintingly, as Betty
will know when my handkerchief goes to the wash--and when my father had
lured him into an awkward position on the board his little silver box
was seldom out of his hand. My recollection of him at that period is
very hazy, and it is so closely associated with this box that it may be
if he hadn't snuffed I shouldn't have remembered him at all. I notice he
applies the stimulant always to his right nostril, never to the left,
and he has a dainty and a stealthy way of conveying the pinch which
contrasts strongly with that of Deacon Webster, whose recklessness where
snuff is concerned is such that more is distributed on his shirt-front
and waistcoat than is sniffed into the nasal receptacle. On the other
hand, so cleanly and dapper is Mr Crichton that, were it not for the
aroma of Kendal brown which ever lingers about him, you wouldn't know he
used snuff at all.

After a couthie crack, which, in spite of my preoccupation, I enjoyed, I
said good-bye and walked out of the bank, only to fall a ready prey to
the blandishments of Douglas the barber, who inveigled me into his
back-yard to see a cavie of Wyandotte chickens of which, as
prize-winners, he had great expectations. Then, in his draughty lobby, I
had to listen to an account of his first and only interview with Thomas
Carlyle at Holmhill, of his photographing the Chelsea seer and
'snoddin'' his hair; also to a résumé of a lecture on the Ruthwell Cross
he had heard delivered by our fellow-villager, Dr Hewison, which pleased
him, as he said, 'doon to the nines.' On reaching home I found, to my
great disappointment, that Dr Grierson had called and had gone away. I
wanted particularly to see the doctor, as I felt he should know that I
had taken his advice and unburdened my mind to the lady of my dream.

When Betty came in to lay the table for my homely midday meal I noticed
she was not quite herself, and that there was something unusual
disquieting her mind. As I have said, I always allow her to unburden
herself to me in her own way and at her own sweet will; but somehow I
intuitively felt that in the present circumstances my rule should not
apply.

As she moved silently out and in I watched her closely, and when she had
finished and drawn out my chair from the table I put my hand on her
shoulder. 'Betty,' I said, 'there is a sadness in your eyes to-day I
have never noticed before. Is there anything worrying you?'

She looked up at me for a moment; then, putting her arms round my neck,
she began to cry, quietly but emotionally. 'Oh, it's Nathan, puir falla,
an' I'm sairly putten aboot,' she said between her sobs. 'It strikes me
he's no' in a very guid wey; an', oh Weelum! if--if ocht tak's Nathan I
dinna want to live.'

It was the first time for years she had, unasked, called me 'Weelum'
without the prefix, and the old familiar way she pronounced it touched a
chord in my heart.

I let her have her cry out, and then I did my best to allay her fears.
She sat down on my chair, and I drew in another and sat down beside her.
'Nathan's not very well, Betty,' I said; 'but he's always been a healthy
enough man, not given to complaining and lying about, and you know
you're so accustomed to see him strong and robust that you are apt to
exaggerate anything which prostrates him and keeps him in bed. The
doctor's not concerned about him to-day, is he?'

'I--I dinna ken for certain. He didna say so to me, but I imagined he
looked that wey,' she said. 'Mebbe I read his face wrang. I'm trustin' I
did, but--but I see for mysel' that Nathan's far frae weel.'

'Yes, Betty, we all know that; but I'm sure there's nothing serious.
He's got a bad cold, a very bad chill, the doctor tells me; but with a
good rest in bed and careful nursing he'll soon be up and about again.'

'I'm dootin' it's mair than a chill, Maister Weelum,' and she shook her
head; 'an' it strikes me that Nathan kens it's something mair serious.
He's tryin' no' to let on to me; but the mair he tries the clearer I see
it. Ay, him an' me have come to that time o' life when we depend a guid
deal on yin anither, an' lately I've noticed that he's been anxious to
do mair for me than he's able. We lippen on yin anither in a quiet kind
o' a wey, ye ken--never askin' or demandin', but aye expectin', an' aye
gettin'. Ay, Maister Weelum, aye gettin' an' aye gi'in', an' it's
through this wee peep-hole that Nathan an' me, an' ithers happily
married like us, get a wee bit glisk o' a heaven on earth.'

I pondered over these words for a moment. 'Betty,' I said, 'that's a
beautiful way of putting it.'

'Ay, it may be beautiful--it may be, I say, Maister Weelum. I'm no' a
judge o' that; but it's true--_an' I feel it's true_; an' the best wish
I can wish ye is that some day my experience in this will be yours.' And
she wiped her cheek with her apron, and smoothed imaginary creases out
of the tablecover with the back of her hand.

'And--and, Betty, you must love Nathan very much?'

'Yes,' she said promptly, 'I love Nathan; but no' so much as I have
reason to, an' no' mair than he deserves.'

'And was Nathan the only sweetheart you ever had, Betty?' I suddenly
asked.

She rose from her chair and turned her face to the window. 'Dear me,
Maister Weelum, that's a queer question to ask! What put that into your
heid?'

'Oh, I don't know, Betty. I've often wondered.'

'Ye've often wondered that, have ye? Imphm!' And she sat down again.
'Weel, as the wean I nursed an' the man I'm prood o', ye'll no' be
denied an answer. No, Nathan's no' the only sweethe'rt I ever had. I
loved anither man before I loved Nathan. I was aboot nineteen year auld
at the time, an' if onybody had telt me then that Robert Frizzel wad
never be mine I wad ha'e gane demented. Nineteen's a careless, haveral
kind o' an age; but the he'rt can be awfu' glad an' joyous then, an' I
must confess I had spurts o' happiness which carried me aff my feet in a
wey I couldna understand later. The sun was aye shinin'; the birds were
aye whusslin'. I gaed to my bed singin', an' I wakened singin'. Oh, I
mind it a' weel. The mistress--your mother--somewey was against it; but
I thocht I kenned best, an' mony a sweet bit stolen oor I had up at that
same gate at the heid o' the gairden there. He was a nice-lookin' man,
was Robert, a bonny singer, an' a great toss amang the lassies, an' to
be singled oot frae amang them a' was in my estimation something to be
prood o'. Weel, I heard something aboot him no' to his credit--something
mean an' dishonourable. Nathan was comin' aboot the gairden even then;
an', though he had never said ocht to me, I could see, an'--an' I
jaloused, an' it struck me that he wadna ha'e dune the same. Weel, the
first chance I got I asked Robert aboot it, an' he juist laughed an'
made licht o't. I telt him I never wanted to speak to him again,
an'--an' I gaed to my bed that nicht an' grat the sairest greet I ever
had in my life. Ay, I juist put him oot o' my he'rt an' steekit the
door. An' then Nathan somewey opened it again, an'----Michty me, Maister
Weelum, your broth's stane-cauld!' And, without another word, she lifted
the soup-tureen and went ben to the kitchen.

I never for a moment suspected Betty of having had a calf-love affair,
and her characteristic recital of the episode was as unexpected as it
was interesting. I asked the question which led up to it almost without
premeditation, and not so much out of curiosity as from a desire to wean
her pessimistic mind away from Nathan's indisposition. Poor body, she
was always prone to meet her troubles halfway, and I feel so sure that
her fears regarding Nathan are groundless that I do not reproach myself
for interrupting her brooding thoughts.

After dinner I went through to Nathan's bedroom and had a short chat
with him. He was assiduously reading _The Christian Herald_ when I
looked past the curtain of his bed, but on recognising me he at once
stopped and took off his spectacles. 'Oh, it's you, Maister Weelum,' he
said, as he laid aside his paper. 'I--I thocht it micht be Betty.'

At the back of the bed, and only partly hidden, was a copy of _The
Gardening World_. I looked first at one paper, then at the other, and
remembering his predilection for secular literature, I smiled. Nathan
smiled also. I made no remark; neither did Nathan; but somehow I am
surer now than ever that Betty is wrong in thinking that he considers
his condition serious.

With Nathan in normal health and at his own fireside it is a difficult
matter to keep the crack going; but with Nathan indisposed and abed it
is well-nigh impossible. True, he answers any questions I put to him,
but he never introduces a subject of conversation, and at his bedside,
talking to him, I have always the strange feeling that he wants to put
his head underneath the bedclothes.

When I had exhausted my news, and was wondering what next to say, Joe
came in, and he had still the serious expression in his eyes I had
noticed on meeting him on my way to the bank.

Joe is of great assistance to Betty at present, and his knowledge of
housework, combined with his readiness to help, places him on a pedestal
and makes him indispensable. I took the opportunity of thanking him for
what he had done, and commended him strongly for his kindly services;
and when I was going out, as an inducement to further exertions, I
quietly slipped something into his hand that brought him to the salute
with a most pronounced jerk.

Nathan was eyeing the stiff-as-starch Joe in surprise, as I gave him a
good-afternoon nod. 'What's wrang wi' ye, Benjy?' I heard him say.
'Maister Weelum's no' an offisher; he's a gentleman.'

'That's exactly why I saluted him, Nathan,' said Joe very patly; and I
was laughing quietly to myself as I re-entered my room.

Betty was what she calls 'bankin'' my fire; and, on looking round and
catching the smile on my face, she wiped her fingers on her dust-cloth
and smiled too.

'Nathan's a wee bit cheerier noo than he was in the foreday,' she said;
and, after a pause, as a second thought, she added, 'at least he's as
cheery as a Hebron could be in the circumstances.'

'Oh yes, Betty,' I said, 'he seems to be in a happy enough mood; but I
think I have heard you say the Hebrons are not what one would call a
hilarious family.'

'No, 'aith no, except Joe, an' him only sometimes--when he shouldna be.
Imphm! Ye never met ony o' Nathan's sisters, Maister Weelum, did ye?'

'No, Betty. I didn't know he had any sisters.'

'Oh, weel, in a wey neither he has, for yin o' them lives in Auchensell
an' the ither twae away in the back o' beyond, somewhere in Glencairn.
They come to Thornhill only aince a year, at the Martinmas fair, an' of
coorse Nathan stays at hame frae his wark, an' we've them doon here for
their denner. Peasoup's a weakness o' the Hebrons, an' they're awfu'
keen on pork ribs, so I mak' my bill o' fare to suit them. An' then, the
time I'm cleanin' up, they a' sit roon the fire, an' Nathan smokes an'
spits, an' his sisters sit strecht up in their chairs, lookin' frae the
fire to the window, an' whisperin' to each ither. Ye see, Nathan brocht
them up. They look on him in a wey as their faither, an' they defer to
him even yet, an' aye wait on him speakin' first, so ye can understaun
their tongues dinna gang juist like hand-bells; no, 'aith no, they do
not. Nathan's fair, but they are dark an' swarthy, an' they a' wear
black dolmans, 'lastic-sided boots, an' white stockin's, an' they aye
come wi' umbrellas in their haun even though the weather's as dry as
tinder. Thomasina frae Auchensell is the auldest, an' she's the only yin
that has a family; an' when Nathan does say ocht it's aye her he speaks
to, an' the ither twae juist sit an' mutter to yin anither, lookin'
quite pleased an' satisfied. I'm used wi' them noo; but the first time I
had them here I was at my wits' end. No' a word could I get oot o' them,
an' Nathan--weel, I didna ken him very weel then either--_he_ could
hardly be seen for pipe-reek, an' it was only because I couldna do the
deaf an' dumb alphabet that I didna try it on them. An' mair than that,
Maister Weelum, here's anither very queer thing. Do you know that their
men--their marrit men, I mean--have never been inside this door. I've
never met them, no' even seen them; an' Nathan--weel, I dare say he wad
be at their waddin's, but I question if he wad stop an' speak to them if
he met them on the king's highway. Oh, I tell ye, they're queer! Ye
micht marry a Hebron, but ye never get into the family.'

'And what about Joe?' I asked. 'Does he join these annual reunions?'

'Catch Joe sittin' in the hoose on a Thornhill fair-day. No, no, Joe's
ower keen on the pea-guns, an' the Aunt Sally booth, an' siclike to ha'e
ony time to help Nathan to entertain his sisters. He's a queer, queer
mixture is Joe; but his he'rt's in the richt place for a' that. Ha'e ye
seen him the day?'

'Yes; I met him on the street, looking rather melancholy, I thought.
You--you haven't put him under the pledge again, Betty?'

'Ye thocht he looked melancholy, did ye? Weel, he's under nae pledge to
me. It's no' that that's putten him aboot. Puir Joe! puir Joe!'

'What is it, then, Betty?'

She hesitated for a minute, and I at once apologised, thinking I was
unconsciously prying into family affairs.

'Oh, it's no' that I'm hankerin' for, Maister Weelum. The fact is, it's
in a wey concerned wi' a friend o' yours, an' I don't know very weel hoo
to begin; but ye mind me tellin' ye aboot Joe gettin' the awfu' fricht
meetin' a lady he thocht was deid an' buried? You an' me made licht o't;
but Joe wadna be convinced, an' last nicht he saw the lady again,
an'--noo, Maister Weelum, this is the queer bit o' the story--the lady
was Miss Stuart.'

'How did he know that, Betty?'

'Weel, he was in the kitchen last nicht when I brocht her through frae
Mrs Jardine's to see your picter, an' he was so putten aboot that he
gaed strecht away hame to the Cuddy Lane withoot sayin' a word to
onybody. This mornin' he spoke to me aboot it, an' asked her name, an'
when I said it was Miss Stuart he nearly fainted. "Same name," he said,
"and the same locket," an' that's a' I could get oot o' him; an' he was
so dazed an' bamboozled that he couldna mind my messages, an' I had to
write them doon on a bit paper. Noo, Maister Weelum, what mak' ye o'
that?'

'Same name and the same locket!' I repeated slowly. 'Whatever could he
mean by that?'

'I dinna ken. I asked him, but his lips shut wi' a snap like a handbag.
If I hadna asked he wad ha'e telt me; the Hebron cam' oot there again,
Maister Weelum.'

'Oh, Betty, it must be a foolish fancy. The chance of Joe having met
Miss Stuart before has, of course, to be considered; but the lady he
knew died twenty-four years ago. Miss Stuart must have been a baby
then.'

'Mebbe it was her mother, Maister Weelum.'

In a flash the possibility occurred to me. I looked quickly and keenly
at Betty, but her eye challenged my gaze clearly and without flinching.

'Ye're thinkin' I'm speakin' in riddles, an' keepin' something back; if
ye do, ye're wrang, Maister Weelum. It was the locket that made me think
o' her mother; it wad be a very likely keepsake for her to ha'e.'

'Betty, my dear, I don't doubt you. I am sure you are telling me all you
know; you have no motive for keeping anything back. I--I am very much
interested in Miss Stuart, more so than in any woman I know. There is
some uncertainty connected with her affairs which, unless it is cleared
up, will be to her disadvantage. I may be thinking too quickly, and the
wish may be father to the thought; but it strikes me that a chat with
Joe would clear the air. He is in Nathan's bedroom. Do you think he
would come in and have a talk with me alone?'

'Oh, I'm sure he'll do that wi' pleesure. But, Maister Weelum, if it's
ocht ye want to ken, ye maunna ask him questions. I ken Joe; he's a
Hebron, an'--weel, ye understaun?'

I quite understood; and when, later, Joe came into my room I was busy
examining a pair of old holster pistols which had belonged to my
grandfather. 'Oh, it's you, Joe! I said. 'You're the very man I want. I
know you understand more about these things than I do, and I should be
obliged to you if you would kindly help me to clean them up a bit.'

'Certainly, sir,' he said with alacrity. 'I'll soon polish them up. But
it's a dirty job; don't you bother with them. I'll see to them in the
back-kitchen.'

In conversation with Betty or Nathan, Joe employs the Doric as they do;
but, thanks to his service in the south and abroad, he is equally
familiar with English as it is read, and in speaking to me he doesn't
even betray the semblance of the Scots accent.

I hadn't bargained for his taking the pistols off to the back-kitchen,
however. This wouldn't suit my plan. Joint operations were necessary for
a crack such as I wanted. Accordingly I suggested we should cover the
better-lit end of the table with a newspaper, and exercise care; and so
it came to pass that in a few minutes Joe and I were up to the wrists in
emery and oil, and our tongues going like Betty's hand-bells.



CHAPTER XVI.


At length, by finesse and a good deal of circumlocution, I got the
conversation worked round from accidental shooting to accidental
meetings, related one or two coincidences which made him pause in his
work, and then casually mentioned that Betty had told me of his meeting
Miss Stuart, and the shock he had received.

'Yes, Mr Russell,' he said, 'I don't know what to say about that. I
couldn't get to sleep last night for thinking of it.'

'Well, Joe, it seems plain enough to me. The lady you knew died
twenty-four years ago. Miss Stuart is not more than twenty-five, so it
couldn't possibly be she whom you knew.'

'That is so, sir; I admit that,' and he stopped polishing; 'and it's a
far cry from Thornhill to Toledo; but the Miss Stuart I saw last night
was wearing a locket which I am sure belonged to a Mrs Stuart who died
in Toledo twenty-four years ago. If I'm wrong, then, sir, my name is not
Joseph Hebron.'

I was positively tingling with excitement, and strangely conscious I
was on the eve of a great discovery. A thousand thoughts flashed through
my mind; I felt quite overcome and bewildered. Here, 'far from the
madding crowd,' in this sleepy little village with its easy-going,
unpretentious ways, I had met the woman God made for me; and there,
polishing the barrel of my grandsire's old pistol, stood one of the
least important of its villagers, who of a surety held the key to all
the mysteries that had baffled our unveiling. It seemed unreal,
incredible, impossible, yet it was absolutely true, for clutched to my
heart I held the sacred memory of our moonlight talk, I felt the touch
of her hand, and her parting words were ever ringing in my ears; and
Joe's earnestness and assurance were as a presage to me that the mists
would soon be rolled away. Betty's words came to me, 'If it's ocht ye
want to ken, ye maunna ask him questions;' but I felt I must put her
advice aside. Questions must be asked, and answers must be given
willingly, not dragged out; and if I was to obtain these answers Joe
must be to some extent taken into my confidence.

'Joe,' I said, 'you speak with a positiveness which carries conviction
with it, and encourages me to great expectations. Now I'll be honest and
candid with you, and you must be frank with me and answer fully and
truly one or two questions I wish to put to you. You admit that the
remarkable likeness you see in Miss Stuart to a Mrs Stuart you knew long
ago has disturbed your mind, and you are quite convinced that the locket
Miss Stuart wears belonged to that lady. There is a probable connection
here which, if it can be established, will mean much to Miss Stuart. Her
affairs are in my hands, and naturally I am very much interested in
this. Now, Joe, you don't know me. Betty does. Will you take her word as
surety for my honourableness, and tell me frankly all I may ask?'

Joe looked very intently at me while I was speaking. Then he laid down
the pistol and emery-cloth with a suddenness and determination which
plainly told me that his yea would be yea, and his nay, nay. 'Mr
Russell,' he said earnestly, 'I have always sworn by Nathan's Betty; she
swears by you in everything. If any information I can give will be of
service to Miss Stuart you're welcome to it, and I'll answer truthfully
whatever you ask.'

'Thank you, Joe. I know you will. Well, first of all, who was Mrs
Stuart?'

'She was the wife of Major Stuart of my old regiment, the 25th.'

'Do you remember his full name?'

'Yes, sir. It was Major Sommerville Stuart of Abereran, Perthshire.'

'Where did they live together as husband and wife?'

'Well, sir, it was like this. You see--eh--well, perhaps I had better
tell you what I know in my own way--some pointed questions are not
easily answered.'

I nodded. 'All right, Joe; just as you wish,' I replied.

'Well, we were stationed at Gibraltar when the Major was married. I was
his orderly at the time, and he took me with him to a town called
Toledo, where the marriage took place. I saw the lady--a French lady she
was--only once before she was Mrs Stuart; she and the Major were on
horseback, and a fine-looking pair they were; and I saw her twice after
they came back to Toledo from their honeymoon. She was then wearing the
locket I saw last night. It was one of the marriage presents he gave
her, and I remember seeing it on his dressing-room table in the hotel,
and thinking he was lucky to be able to buy such a nice gift. I was
courting at that time--not Sally; another girl who died--and I--well, I
would have given a whole year's pay to be able to buy my girl one like
it. That's how I remember it so well. The Major stayed in Toledo for
about a week after his honeymoon trip, and then he went to
headquarters, taking me with him of course; but Mrs Stuart remained at
Toledo. She never came down to Gib. that I know of, but the Major went
back once or twice. Then about a year after their marriage she died. The
Major got the sad news at mess, and left that night, and I followed next
day with his luggage. We returned the day after the funeral, and--and
that's all I know, I think.' Then he picked up his emery-cloth and
resumed his polishing, as if the story he had told was of ordinary
import.

'Joe,' I said after a pause, 'what you have told me is most valuable
information, and I thank you very much indeed. Were you present at the
marriage ceremony?'

'Yes, sir, as a spectator, of course. I had nothing particular to do,
and was in a strange town, and I was anxious to see what a foreign
marriage was like.'

'Naturally! Then the marriage was in a church in Toledo?'

'Yes, sir; but I don't remember the name of the church.'

'Ah, Joe, that's a pity, now. Could you describe it to me? I know
Toledo, and might be able to refresh your memory.'

'Well, sir, it was a very old-looking place, built of brick, and one
part was newer-looking than the other. There's a big bridge at the
entrance to the town----'

'Yes, Joe, the Bridge of Alcantara.'

'That's the name, sir. Well, I think I could go from the bridge right up
to the church even yet. If I had a piece of paper and a pencil I could
show you.'

I readily supplied him with pencil and paper, and after a little
cogitation and a good deal of muttering, 'Forward, right turn, left
wheel, steady now, forward,' he handed me the diagram of what he judged
was the route. As it wasn't drawn to a scale, and no streets were noted,
it was quite unintelligible to me; but it proved Joe had it in his
mind's eye, and so far this was quite satisfactory. 'Thank you, Joe,' I
said. 'May I keep this?'

He nodded, and I put it in my pocket. 'Now, just two questions more. Was
Mrs Stuart buried in Toledo?'

'No, sir. She lies in a cemetery a few miles out of Toledo.'

'You don't remember the name of the place?'

'Well, sir, I do--sometimes. It reminded me, when I heard it first, of
the old home-name of Dalgonnar, but it wasn't that--very near it,
though.'

'Dalgonnar--Dal----Ah, Joe, was it not Algodor?'

'That's the name, sir--Algodor. I see you've been there. Well, sir, Mrs
Stuart's buried at Algodor.'

Unknown to Joe, I had taken shorthand notes of the gist of his
information, and when he was again busy with his emery I went over them
carefully. 'By the way, Joe,' I asked, 'did you ever hear anything about
the birth of a child?'

'Yes, sir. Mrs Stuart died in childbed, but the child lived. I don't
remember hearing whether it was a boy or a girl. Mr Trent, our chaplain,
could tell you about that. He went up with the Major and baptised it.'

'And where and how can Mr Trent be found now?'

'Well, sir--strange--last time I came up from Brighton I had an hour to
wait at Carlisle, and I met him in the street when I was taking a stroll
between trains. He's not changed much, and I knew him at once and
saluted. He stopped me, and asked me my name and regiment, said he was
in a hurry, but that he lived at Stanwix, and if at any time I was in
the locality to be sure and call on him.'

'Joe,' I said, 'you're a brick, a most invaluable friend to me just now,
and I cannot tell you how much all this means to Miss Stuart and to me.
There is much yet of which we shall require proof; but it is a fact,
Joe, that Major Sommerville Stuart of Abereran, your Major, was her
father. It may be necessary, in fact it will be imperative, that we
should send some one out to Toledo. I know it is asking a good deal, but
would you accompany any one we may depute to go? Your presence is very
essential, and your good service will be amply remunerated.'

'Well, Mr Russell, I'm not of much use here, and I'll not be wanted
elsewhere till July. If I can be any good to you, I--I don't mind going.
In a way, I'll be in the Major's service again.'

I never drink whisky during the day; but somehow I felt that a compact
such as Joe and I had made was sufficient excuse for breaking any rule.
We drank success to our undertaking, and when Joe had left me I sat
down, and, after thinking things over, I came to the conclusion that
Providence, in a most wonderful way, was making the crooked path
straight; and that, with the exception of Nathan, Joe had the most
extraordinary by-nature of any man I ever knew.

       *       *       *       *       *

I stayed Betty's hand when she came in to light up for the night. I knew
she was just dying to know how I had got on with Joe; and, as his story
would be meaningless without the prologue, I told her everything. The
flickering firelight fell on her dear old face, and the glint in her eye
quickened as I unfolded my love-story. And when I had finished she came
over, and, bending down, kissed me.

'The Lord's your shepherd. He's leadin' ye by the still waters,' she
whispered. 'An', oh, Maister Weelum, Joseph Hebron's a prood, prood man
this nicht.'



CHAPTER XVII.


Of late it has truly been a time of startling events with me. One
surprise has followed hard on the heels of another, and possibilities
new to my horizon are looming before me, bidding fair to alter--and may
I trust perfect?--my whole line of life. And yet I am not unduly excited
or exercised in mind. I wonder is this because my drama is being acted
on staging of God's own making, and amidst scenery painted by His own
hand? I know how strongly we are all influenced by environment. A
thunderstorm over the busy city, raging around crowded haunts and
lighting up with its pointed fire all of man's handiwork, is to me
appalling and menacing; in the country, among the echoing hills and
sombre woods, it is grand and inspiring. When I think of it, it is not
unlikely that a closer acquaintance with Nature and an insight into the
marvellous laws which govern her have brought to me a keener sense of
the true proportion of things. The pulsing sap in a February sprig of
hawthorn is wonderful and mysterious, more wonderful far than Joe's
acquaintance with Toledo or my meeting Désirée Stuart in Nithbank Wood.

       *       *       *       *       *

Accompanied by Bang and Jip, I walked out to the station yesterday to
meet Murray Monteith, and when I saw him step from the train to the
platform I felt what Betty calls a 'ruggin'' at my heart, for very
emphatically he appeared as a link binding me to a life which I know I
must soon re-enter, and which I have lately ignored and well-nigh
forgotten.

Monteith is one of the aristocrats of our profession, a gentleman by
breeding and nature from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot.
Quiet, reserved, well knit and well groomed, he fills the eye and takes
the heart wherever he goes, and as I shook hands with him I felt a
secret pride in the knowledge that he is my partner.

I welcomed him warmly to the strath of his forefathers, and assured him
that if his knife and fork happened to be reversed at dinner, or if any
one offered a left-hand shake, he must just count it an accident, as we
had long ago ceased to remember the disreputable part his namesake
played in pre-Bannockburn days.

We had a twelve o'clock dinner: broth--not the kind everybody or anybody
makes, but Betty's broth--boiled beef, with potatoes in their skins,
followed by a jam-roll, of which Monteith had two liberal helpings. I
told him that long ago it was usual to finish up a dinner with another
plateful of broth, and he assured me that had he not partaken of the
jam-roll he would gladly have revived the custom. I didn't forget to
tell Betty of the appreciation, and I know it pleased her, for when we
drew in our chairs for a smoke I heard her voice from the back-kitchen
raised, as timmer as of old, in the lilting strains of 'The Farmer's
Boy.'

Then through tobacco-reek we talked business--at least Monteith did, and
I listened. He had much to tell me, and he talks well. After disposing
of some private matters, we broached the all-important object of our
visit to Mrs Stuart, and it was only when we came to the unpleasant part
of Miss Stuart's affairs that I told him of my wonderful discovery and
the astonishing part that Joe had played in it.

Dressed in his Sunday best, Joe was awaiting his call in the kitchen,
and on being brought in he was closely questioned by Monteith. Not only
did Joe confirm all he had told me before, but he added to our knowledge
by giving us the exact date of the baptism of the Major's baby. It
synchronised with the date of a black day in Joe's life, when a girl
died of whom he was very fond. When I was thinking sentimentally of his
tragedy, and making allowances for much remissness that Betty deplores,
Monteith, with arched eyebrow, was staring at him through a monocle,
thanking Providence for having so opportunely sent him our way, and
counting him a means to a successful end.

Long after Joe had left the room, Murray Monteith sat lost in thought.
Monteith cannot leave a fire alone when he is thinking anything out. His
room in our premises in Charlotte Square adjoins mine, and if I hear
through the wall a vigorous poking and smashing going on I know he is
tackling a ticklish problem. Yesterday, in five minutes, he 'bashed'
Betty's fire out of recognition; and when for the tenth time he had
lifted and dropped the poker he turned to me suddenly and said, 'By
Jove, Russell, this will be a bitter pill for our friends Smart &
Scobie!' I told him I didn't care a rap for that; what gratified me
beyond measure was the fact that a sweet, sensitive girl had been spared
humiliation, and that, instead of being a nameless lassie, she was Miss
Stuart of Abereran.

I spoke very feelingly, and Monteith wasn't slow to notice it. He
focussed me slowly through his monocle. 'I share that sentiment with
you, Russell,' he said. 'I am not unmindful of her, though I give voice
to my feeling of exultation in scoring a point. I trust Miss Stuart has
no inkling of what has been standing in our way to prevent a settlement
in her affairs. You--you haven't met her yet?'

'Oh yes; we are a small community here, and I have spoken to her once or
twice.'

'Then you've been visiting at Nithbank House?'

'Not since I went under my mother's care twenty years ago, when the
Ewarts lived there.'

'Oh!' and again he fixed me through his monocle. But he saw I was
disinclined to go into details, and his good breeding made further
questioning impossible. 'Well,' he said, after a pause, 'Mrs Stuart will
be delighted to know all this. Her stepson, Maurice Stuart, has been at
the root of all this trouble. I understand he wanted to marry Miss
Stuart; but she would have nothing to do with him, and in retaliation he
has done his level best to turn the mystery of his uncle's marriage to
his own account. He it was who instructed Smart and Scobie. He's an
awful waster, I believe, and his stepmother long ago cut him adrift.'

This was news to me, but I feigned indifference, and as adroitly as I
possibly could turned the subject of our conversation to Joe and the
part he had yet to play. 'I think, Monteith,' I said, 'we ought to take
him with us to-day to Nithbank House. Mrs Stuart will be interested in
him, and wishful, no doubt, to see and talk with him.'

'Oh, certainly,' said Monteith, as he snipped the end off another cigar;
'and, if he's still about, you had better call him at once. The carriage
is at the door, I see.'

Mrs Stuart had very kindly sent her brougham for us; and so it came to
pass that when we left the door Joe was sitting on the dicky beside the
coachman, arms folded and eyes front--conscious, however, I felt sure,
that Nathan's Betty was approvingly watching him from behind the
dining-room curtains.

We were received very graciously by Mrs Stuart in the library. I
introduced Monteith to her, and she at once apologised for having put
him to the trouble and inconvenience of travelling so far. Then she
inquired in a very kindly way after my health, and told me that when
first her niece had informed her of my residence in the village she felt
annoyed that the firm had not advised her; but that, after all, it was
perhaps wisely kept from her, as she would only have worried me about
business and made herself a nuisance.

I laughingly said something in reply about doctors being autocrats, and
thanked her for her inquiries and consideration, and, to my great
relief, the subject was gradually and agreeably changed to something
else.

The Hon. Mrs Stuart is tall and angular, and she dresses in stern black,
as becometh a sorrowing widow. She has, for a woman, a very square,
assertive chin and a somewhat determined mouth; but the effect of the
hard, firm chiselling of the lower part of the face is discounted by the
kindly expression of her mellow, blue-gray eyes. Her hair is streaked
with gray, and she has arrived at that time of life when, for
preference, she sits and talks to visitors with her back to the light.

As Monteith had surmised, the important business she had referred to in
her letter had to do with Miss Stuart's affairs, and as this was causing
her great anxiety we went into the matter at once.

She explained to us, as she had done privately to me before, that she
really didn't know, or, rather, that she had never had opportunities of
knowing, her late brother-in-law, General Stuart. 'He was queer,' she
said, 'very queer; lived in a bleak part of Cornwall most of his time,
preferring it to Abereran in Perthshire; for years kept his marriage a
secret, and made no mention of a daughter; and then, when we were
looking forward with reasonable certainty to some day seeing Maurice
laird of Abereran, a handsome girl of eighteen, an undoubted Stuart, was
brought home from a Continental school, and, as his daughter, Désirée
Stuart, installed mistress of his house. Personally, I had not a doubt
of Miss Stuart's status or right of birth; but Maurice--well'----and she
shrugged her shoulders and looked thoughtfully away down the avenue.

I asked my partner to tell her what we had learned from Joe, and he did
so in that easy, off-hand, taken-for-granted style which we men of law
sometimes affect, and which is intended to impress our clients with our
astuteness and perspicacity. At first Mrs Stuart looked indifferent; but
as the story was unfolded, and Joe's part established, she sat forward
in her chair in utter amazement. 'Remarkable! remarkable!' she
exclaimed. 'I never heard of such a wonderful coincidence.'

After we had discussed it in all its bearings, and settled on a definite
plan of action, Joe was brought in. As my presence and advice were no
longer necessary, I asked that I might be permitted to see Miss Stuart
with reference to her Banku shares, and to this Mrs Stuart readily
agreed. When we were passing through the hall to the drawing-room she
asked if it was my intention to acquaint her niece with the news we had
learned. I replied that as Miss Stuart had not been made aware of the
nature of the difficulty which had so long confronted us, it wouldn't be
advisable to tell her all we knew; but, with her permission, I would
take the opportunity of informing her that certain knowledge we had
acquired lately was likely to hasten a settlement. She agreed with me in
this, and it was with a beating heart I entered the drawing-room.



CHAPTER XVIII.


Miss Stuart was sitting before an easel in the large oriel, and as her
aunt briefly announced me and withdrew in her eagerness to talk to the
wonderful Joe, she rose and greeted me warmly. 'Oh, Mr Russell,' she
said, 'I _am_ glad to see you. Somehow I can't paint to-day; the
inspiration is wanting;' and she put her brushes in the jar and laid
aside her palette.

It was a large room lit by two windows, one facing the south, the other
to the west over-looking the wooded banks of the winding Nith. The flush
of the sunset was tingeing the sky and flooding the room with a subdued
light which mellowed and softened the deep black of the Indian furniture
against the pale-gray walls and the deeper-gray carpet. A large fire,
crowned with a halo of short blue flame, glowed in the grate, and a
'megilpy' odour, mingling with the faint, indescribable perfume which
ladies carry with them, lingered around, and reminded me of a reception
afternoon in a Queen Street studio of long ago.

I was conscious of these details in my surroundings, although my eyes
had never wandered for a moment from the sweet face of my dream-lady,
and followed her greedily as she walked forward to the firelight.

I explained to her that my partner, Mr Monteith, was engaged with Mrs
Stuart on business, and that I had taken the opportunity of having a
word with her on a similar subject.

She smiled, wearily I thought, and seated herself. 'I don't like
business talks, Mr Russell,' she said. 'Neither did father. It must be a
family trait. Still, I dare say they are incumbent on us sometimes. I
trust it is pleasant business you wish to talk over.'

'Oh yes, it is pleasant enough,' I said, and her face brightened.
'Sitting here,' I continued, after a pause, 'and seeing you in such a
perfect setting, I am strongly tempted to talk to you on a subject
nearer my heart; but--well, I have already promised you to put my
feelings into the background for the time being, and, hard though it may
be, I will be true to my word. You remember I talked to you about your
interest in the Banku Oil Company? Well, the last dividend was paid to
us, one hundred pounds of which has been lodged in the local bank, and I
have here a cheque-book which you can use from time to time as you may
require.'

'You are very thoughtful for me, Mr Russell,' she said softly, 'and I
thank you very, very much. One hundred pounds is surely a lot of money.
I could do with less, you know, if'----

'Not at all, Miss Stuart. The money is yours; use it as you like, and
just let me know when you need more. You--you don't mind asking me?'

'No,' she said promptly, and as she trustfully looked me in the eyes her
mouth retained the form of that little word long after it had passed her
lips. She was sitting in profile against the firelit background, leaning
slightly forward in her chair, her elbow on her knee and her chin
resting lightly on the tips of her fingers. Her pose was so easy and
graceful, and her dear face, in its beauty of feature and earnestness of
expression, so bewitching, that I could not conceal my longing and
admiration. I would have given the world to be allowed to kneel down
beside her, and there, in the mystic glamour of the firelight, worship
silently and reverently at her shrine. My steady gaze disconcerted her,
and I cursed my temerity when I saw a blush spreading over her
half-averted face.

'Socrates has many disciples still, Mr Russell,' she said, without any
sign of displeasure in her tone; and her eyes again sought mine.

'Yes. How so, Miss Stuart?'

'He sought the truth in doing good; so do you. Since father's death, and
until--well, very lately, I haven't known what it is to have a joyous
mind. I seem to have been walking among shadows, and a dread has always
been knocking at my heart. You, by your kindly attention and your
sympathy, have lightened my burden and brought a ray of hope to me; and,
do you know, Mrs Jardine's little children every evening of their sweet
young lives ask God to bless you for being kind to their dear daddy.'

Our line of business conversation had got a twist somehow, and I didn't
very well know what to say in reply, or how best, without breaking away
at a tangent, I could get back to the subject I had in my mind. 'I am
sorry to hear you have had your troubles, Miss Stuart,' I said after
reflection; 'but I am glad to know that even to a small degree I have
made your burdens lighter. I have promised to be your friend; you'll not
find me wanting, I assure you. Doubtless your affairs have worried you,
but daylight is showing through now, and in a few weeks I trust
everything will be settled to your satisfaction. Do you know, we have
with us to-day some one who knew your father, and who was present at his
marriage ceremony.'

'Some one who knew my father, and who was present at his marriage
ceremony!' she repeated slowly, as if she couldn't at once realise what
it meant.

'Yes!' and, as I noted the colour gradually leaving her cheek, it came
to me in a flash that I had erred in mentioning the fact in conjunction
with a satisfactory settlement of her affairs. Even to an obtuse mind
the inference was obvious, and I felt I had blundered grievously. Her
agitation was unmistakable, and to relieve the situation I was about to
make a remark, when she interrupted me.

'One moment, please;' and she turned her face away from me. 'This man,
you say, was present when my father and mother were married, and you
mention it as if it had a special significance. Does this affect me--I
mean, would it make any difference to my name or prospects--my name
particularly?'

'Oh yes, it would, Miss Stuart,' I said feelingly.

'Can you rely on what this man says?'

'Most emphatically, and we shall at once take steps to prove it.'

'When did you hear about this?'

'Quite lately.'

'Was it before you spoke to me, and--and promised to be my friend?'

'I didn't know about it then. It was only the day before yesterday it
came to my knowledge.'

There was silence between us for a time, and the ormolu clock on the
marble mantelpiece ticked loudly.

Then she rose to her feet and looked toward me, smiling through
tear-dimmed eyes. 'You have made me very happy, Mr Russell. I don't want
to know anything further. I leave myself confidently in your hands.
You'll find cigarettes on the table behind you; you may smoke here;' and
she crossed the room and sat down at the piano. She struck a few chords,
deep as her own feelings; then she rose and came toward me. 'Mr Russell,
do you know I have never known the joy of a mother's caress or the
blessing of a mother's good-night kiss. Such memories of childhood are
not mine, and my past is empty--empty. My father, for reasons of which I
know nothing, never mentioned my mother's name to me. I was brought up
among strangers, kindly enough, but still strangers. I never came in
contact with other children. In a way, I was isolated from everything
heartfelt and human; it is only since I got to know your neighbours
that I have had a glimpse of what is surely the truest, sweetest, and
happiest side of life. I like your nurse, your Betty. She once put her
hand on my arm, and it had such a motherly touch that I wanted to kiss
her. Perhaps you are thinking that this has no connection with anything
that has passed between us. Well, you may be right in thinking so; but
it is on my mind and in my heart, and I just wanted to tell you now, as
I feel my future is hanging by a thread--a very slender thread--and I
may not have another opportunity of saying it.'

I understood her mood, and made no reply; but I took her hand, raised it
to my lips, and kissed it.

We were standing together in the oriel, watching the sunset splendour
through the leafless trees, when Mrs Stuart and Murray Monteith joined
us. Once or twice I caught my partner admiringly following Miss Stuart's
movements, and he looked several times at me with a mark of
interrogation in his eye. I had a feeling that he 'jaloused,' as Betty
would put it, and it set me a-thinking; only for a moment, however, and
I soon dismissed him and his monocle from my mind.

We had afternoon tea and a pleasant chat on current topics, and then our
carriage was called. Just before we started, when we were standing in
the hall, Miss Stuart asked me, in an undertone, if she could see, just
for a minute, the man who had known her father. I called Joe inside, and
Miss Stuart took him into the drawing-room. When he joined us again
there was a glad look in his eye, and I knew his heart was proud within
him, for he had shaken hands with his old Major's daughter.

I sat quiet and preoccupied in the corner of the brougham when driving
home.

Just as the first twinkling light shone out ahead from the Gillfoot
turn, Monteith turned to me. 'Russell,' he said, 'pardon my interrupting
the flow of your pleasant meditations. You're a queer fellow in many
ways; you--you don't say much till it suits you; but I can see as far
through a brick wall as any one, and it may be--I say it _may_
be--agreeable to you to know that Blackford Hall in Morningside will
shortly be in the market. I've heard you say that if you ever settled
down to married life you would like to live there.'

'Thank you, Monteith, for your information,' I said. 'It _is_ agreeable
to me to know this.'

Nothing further was said on the subject till we were seated at my cosy
fireside. Then Murray Monteith, blowing clouds of fragrant smoke above
him, and glancing round my clean, well-furnished walls, said, 'By Jove,
Russell! you're a lucky fellow; an old doting nurse there,' inclining
his head toward the kitchen, 'who loves you almost with a mother's
affection, and who wouldn't allow the wind to blow on you if she could
prevent it, and the love of a girl like--like'----and he hesitated and
looked at me.

'Go on, Monteith; you're doing all right.'

'Go on! Hang it, man, _you_ go on! Can't you speak, you--you dungeon,
and give me a tag on which to hang my congratulations?'

'You don't require a tag, Monteith. A gag would be more suitable in the
circumstances.'

'Now, look here, Russell,' he said, as he flung his cigar-stump into the
fire and fixed me through his monocle, 'you're not honest with me when
you say that, and you know you are not. You and I are not strangers to
each other, and there's no occasion for secrecy. If you have no
matrimonial news, I have. I thought, perhaps, if you had taken me into
your confidence, it would have been a good opportunity for me to
acquaint you, in a gradual, chatty way, with my plans. As you
haven't--well, all I shall say now is that I am engaged.'

'My dear Monteith, I'm delighted to hear you say so, and I heartily
congratulate you. You're the very best fellow I know, and you're
marrying a lady in every way worthy of you. Miss Playfair is a'----

'Miss Playfair!' he exclaimed, in astonishment. 'How do you know?'

'Oh, well, the last time I visited you, before leaving Edinburgh, I,
like you, was confronted with a brick wall, and I saw a little way
through it. But that's neither here nor there. What we have to do now is
to signalise the event;' and for the second time within two days I
tasted a liquid element at an unusual hour.

'And when does the great event come off, Monteith?' I asked.

'Well, Russell,' he said, 'that is a matter which in a way depends on
you. You see, I shall need to wait till you are quite recovered and back
to business again. A honeymoon would naturally follow the ceremony,' he
laughingly said, 'and it wouldn't do for both the principals of Monteith
& Russell to be away at the same time.'

       *       *       *       *       *

Dr Grierson and Mr Crichton joined us later at supper. Monteith is a
keen devotee of the chess-board; and while he was trying conclusions
with the banker, Dr Grierson and I went upstairs into my own little
room. I told him all that had taken place--of my meetings with Miss
Stuart, and the turn in the tide of her affairs--and he congratulated me
and gave me much encouragement. Then I asked him when he thought I
should be sufficiently well to resume business.

'Well, William,' he said, 'you have to see Dr Balfour and get his
permission before you can go back to town. Personally, I cannot give you
even an approximate date. You are making splendid progress, and unless
there are very urgent reasons for your return, I should advise you to
keep free from worry on that score. Leave yourself in my hands, and
before long, with Dr Balfour's concurrence, I shall be able to say when
you may with safety receive marching orders.'

Murray Monteith had to leave me without being able to arrange a
particular date for his marriage. I am very sorry; but, after all, his
great day may dawn sooner than he expects.



CHAPTER XIX.


March came in like a lion, and, true to its proverbial reputation, it is
going out like a lamb. Nature is waking from her long winter sleep, and
is beginning to clothe herself anew. The hawthorn hedgerows, which only
three weeks ago were hidden in piled-up wreaths of drifted snow, are
covered now with a blush of green, and already in their bielded clefts
the sparrows and yellow-yoits are preparing to build for themselves 'an
house wherein to dwell.' There is a kindly warmth in the sun's rays as
they lie on the upturned brown fields, and a soft genial breath is
stealing through the woods and lingering lovingly round the ash and the
chestnut, those early risers in the first dawn of spring. What a
boldness and assertiveness there is in the big black bud of the ash, and
how promising is the bulging pink-brown bud of the chestnut! To those
who have eyes to see and ears to hear, how wonderful is the story they
tell! If I were a preacher of God's gospel, I question if I could
confine the selection of my texts to the literal words from His holy
book. Of late I have been lying much in Nature's lap; I have listened
with greedy, receptive ears to her song and story; I have felt the
throbbing of her great mother heart, and learned in her workings many of
the wonderful ways of her great Controller. And I am leaving her knee,
creeping out of God's own sanctuary, humbled and chastened, yet
gladdened and relieved withal, to think that into the city life, which I
must soon re-enter, I am carrying with me that heaven-sent faculty of
finding 'tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in
stones, and good in everything.'

And these lanes and solitary bypaths which have been my schoolroom are
becoming daily more interesting, more insistent in their appeal. They
are now providing something fresh and pleasing every day. I must walk
slowly and quietly, so that I may see and hear every titbit of their
store. A country walk at the rate of four miles an hour is very
invigorating, to those in good health very pleasurable; but such is not
possible on my byway at this season of the year, except to the
Philistines. Even Bang and Jip do not exceed the half-mile limit; and as
for myself--well, Dr Grierson has oftener than once accompanied me down
the Gillfoot road, and I know he doesn't gauge the progress of my
recovery by my rate of locomotion. No; if I must see and hear aright I
have to walk slowly, and when the mavis is singing at close o' day I
must halt altogether if I would listen as I ought.

For many mornings past a blackbird from the top of the apple-tree in our
garden has been challenging Tom Jardine to a trial of song; and, much as
I love to lie and listen to my neighbour's pure tenor voice in 'The Lea
Rig' or 'Flow gently, sweet Afton,' I have not been sorry when, as if
acknowledging defeat, he has stopped to hearken to his feathered rival
in the old apple-tree.

Now that Tom has got over all his worries, and the sun is rising
earlier, his heart is becoming attuned, and the familiar old Scots airs
are accompanying the different items of his morning duties just as they
used to do when first I came to stay with Betty. I hear the gray mare's
whinny, the turning of the key in the stable door, the lid of the
corn-bin creaking on its rusty hinges--these are all as they used to be.
But, alas! all is quiet in Betty's kitchen now, and I miss the cheery
sounds of the early breakfast preparations, for Nathan is lying
prostrate in the back-room, and poor Betty's rest is too much disturbed
to permit of her rising with the dawn.

Every Friday evening since I came here I have given Nathan an envelope
enclosing my weekly contribution toward the household expenses--that is,
of course, in accordance with the arrangement I made with Betty; and at
first I often used to wonder if she had fully explained the matter to
him, because he always took the packet from me in a hesitating, doubtful
way, very much as a debtor would accept a summons. Later he just smiled,
and without a word put it in his trousers-pocket, looking sideways at me
and inclining his head toward Betty wherever she happened to be at the
time.

Last Friday night, when I was at his bedside, I handed him the envelope
as usual. He didn't hold out his hand for it; so I laid it down on the
coverlet, and nothing was said for a time. Then, nodding toward a wooden
box in the corner of the room, he said, 'Maister Weelum, will ye open
the lid o' that kist, if ye please, an' bring me the wee tin box that's
lyin' at the left-haun side?'

I did as he requested. It was an old, battered, black japanned
receptacle without a lock, and only secured against accidental opening
by a wooden peg inserted through the catch. Withdrawing the peg and
placing it between his teeth, he took off the lid, and there--some
clean, others crumpled and dirty--was every envelope I had given him,
and all of them unopened, as I had put them into his hand.

'Maister Weelum,' he said, after a pause, 'I mak' nae great shape at
speakin' or explainin'; but I've been thinkin', as ye've been idle an'
aff yer wark sae lang, ye'll mebbe no' ha'e muckle comin' in the noo,
an'--an'----Auch! I was gaun to say something mair, an' I've forgot it;
but ye can tak' it a' back if it's ony use to ye.'

'Nathan,' I said, in astonishment, 'I--I don't quite understand. Why
should you offer me these?'

He gave a wee bit quiet laugh. 'I dinna ken what kind o' a job ye ha'e,
Maister Weelum. Betty never telt me, an' I never asked; but wi' us yins
doon here it's nae wark, nae pey. Ye've been idle a lang time, as I've
said, an' I thocht mebbe it micht come in handy. Of coorse, if ye dinna
need it--weel, there's nae hairm dune.'

I didn't know very well what to say, but I thanked him, and assured him
that I didn't require money, explaining that it came to me whether I was
working or not. This last bit of information roused Nathan's interest.

'Comes in to ye whether ye're workin' or no'! Imphm! Ye maun be
connec'it wi' meenisters somewey, then,' he said.

'No, Nathan; I'm connected with law.'

'Oh, imphm!'

'I'm astonished that Betty never told you I was a lawyer, Nathan.'

'Mebbe she wadna like, man. Betty's very discreet.' Then he added by way
of sympathetic encouragement, 'Dinna think ocht aboot it; there maun be
fouk for a' kinds o' jobs, ye ken, Maister Weelum.'

Nathan is capable of unconsciously starting many different emotions. I
was touched by his kindness and unselfishness, and amused at his
reflection on my profession. But I couldn't find words to thank him for
the former, and I dared not laugh at his serious remarks on the latter.
Then I bethought me of my plan to relieve him of his long, weary walks,
and to find something to take up his attention nearer home. I asked him
if he wouldn't give up his present work and take to the cultivation of
tomatoes, and I outlined my little scheme as clearly as I could.
Somehow, I didn't succeed in making it plain to him, for after I had
finished, and when I asked him what he thought of it, all he said was,
'It has nae attraction for me, Maister Weelum, for I never could eat a
tomato a' my life.'

'But, Nathan,' I said, 'you needn't eat them unless you like. You've to
grow them, and then you sell them. There might be money in it for you,
and for your goodness of heart in offering me all these envelopes I want
to pay for the putting up of the glass-houses and stoves and piping;
that will be a small return for all your kindness to me. You know all
about the growing of tomatoes?'

'Ay, brawly.'

'And what do you think about it, then, Nathan?'

'What would Betty say, think ye?'

'I don't know,' I said, 'but we'll soon hear.'

Betty was baking soda-scones, and when she was free to leave her girdle
she came in, and I told her all I had told Nathan. She looked from me to
Nathan, and then, answering a sign, she went up and leaned over his
bedside. I heard a throttled sob and a whispered word or two. Thinking
they wished to talk it over by themselves, I slipped into the kitchen.

In a minute Betty was with me. 'Maister Weelum,' she said, and her lip
trembled, 'Nathan, puir falla, broke doon there. He didna want you to
see. He says he's obleeged to ye, but--but--but--it's no' worth while.'

I laid my hand on her shoulder in silent sympathy. Without a word she
turned to her bakeboard, and I went into my room and quietly closed the
door.

       *       *       *       *       *

Last night, just after I had lit the gas and settled myself down for an
hour's perusal of M'Crie's _Vindication_, Betty opened my door and came
quietly in. 'Maister Weelum,' she said with a trembling lip, 'Nathan's a
wee mair relieved. Him an' me ha'e had a closer he'rt-to-he'rt crack
than ever we had in a' oor lives. I'm gled, in a wey; but--but I canna
help thinkin' it'll be oor last.' She wiped her cheek with her apron.
'Hoots! hoots!' she said as the tears continued to flow; 'it's--it's no'
like me to be a' begrutten like this; I'm gettin' awfu' soft-he'rted;
but, oh, Maister Weelum, I'm awfu', awfu' sair-he'rted!'

I was at her side in a moment. 'There noo,' she said, 'I've dune;' and
she choked down a sob. 'What I wanted to tell ye was that Nathan's very
anxious to see ye; he wants to speak to ye aboot something. It's the
first time he's speirt for onybody, an' I'm gled it's you. I ha'ena to
gang in wi' ye, for he wants to see ye your lane.'

I pulled in my big chair nearer to the fire, put my mother's kirk
hassock in front of it, and after I had seated Betty comfortably I went
ben to Nathan's back-room.

A week or two ago, at his request, we had turned the bed round so that
from where he lay he could see into the garden. I was present when Joe
and Deacon Webster made the alteration; and when Nathan and I were alone
and he had looked his 'e'efill' on the scene of his lifelong labour of
love, he said, 'I'll no' weary noo, Maister Weelum. The flo'ers and the
yirth ha'e aye a hamely look to me.'

And to-night, when I approached his bed, his eyes were fixed on the
darkened shadowy plots outside. I didn't speak for a minute, and neither
did he. Then, thinking he was unaware of my presence, I said, 'Nathan, I
am here, beside you.'

'Ay, I ken.'

'Shall I bring in your lamp? It's getting dark now.'

'No, no, if ye please, dinna licht the lamp. I want to see--to see oot
as lang as I can.'

I sat down beside him, and together we watched in silence the shadow of
the night's wing creeping around bush and tree. And when everything was
shrouded, and nothing was visible through the blue-black window-panes,
Nathan's head turned on the pillow toward me. 'Man, Maister Weelum,' he
said, 'it's quiet, quiet wark that. I'll never see it again--no, never
again. Ye dinna mind sittin' in the dark?'

'No, Nathan.'

'Ay, the licht hurts my een; an'--an' I've never said muckle a' my life,
but I've often thocht oot lang screeds in the darkness, an' mebbe it'll
help me oot wi' what I've to say to ye the noo. Ay, the Hebrons dinna
speak muckle, Maister Weelum; but this is a forby time wi' me, an' I've
something to ask o' ye. I hardly expec'it the ca' at this time o' the
year. The back-en's the time o' liftin'. I aye thocht, somewey, that
when my time cam' it wad be when the growth was a' by, the aipples pu'd,
and the tatties pitted; and it seems awfu' queer that I should ha'e to
gang when the buds are burstin', an'--an' the gairden delvin'
on--imphm!--but it's His wull. "The young may, the auld
must."--Imphm!--Ay, are ye listenin', Maister Weelum?'

I rose from my chair, and I stroked the gray hair back from his
forehead. 'Yes, Nathan, I'm listening; but you must not give up hope;
you're really not an old man, and'----

'No' an auld man! Imphm! I've--I've been an auld man a' my days. I canna
mind o' ever bein' young. I was ten--only ten--when my faither was ta'en
awa', an' I had to mak' the handle o' his spade fit my wee bit haun.
Ay, I had to, for the weans had to be brocht up, an'--an', thank God, I
managed it! But it killed the youth that was in me. Ay, an', as I was
gaun to say, I'm seein' things differently lyin' here. Coontin' the
times ye've been at the kirk'll no' quieten your fears. Thinkin' o' the
guid ye've dune or tried to do micht, an' my crap o' that's a very sma'
yin. Still, I maun ha'e pleased the Almichty in some wey, or He wadna
ha'e been sae kind to me; He wadna ha'e gi'en me Betty. Oh, man, Maister
Weelum, I wish I could tell ye a' that Betty's been to me! I'm vexed I
canna. I'm a Hebron, an' I needna try; but ye ken yoursel' in a sma'
wey. She nursed ye--ay, an'--an' noo this is what I want to ask ye--when
I'm away, Maister Weelum, will ye see that my--that Betty's a'
richt--eh? Is that askin' an awfu' lot?'

'Oh, Nathan,' I said, and I knelt down at his bedside and took his
softened hand in mine, 'Betty is to me a sacred trust, and if it be
God's will that you must leave her, I will be with her till she goes out
to meet you again.'

He pressed my hand. 'Thank ye, Maister Weelum. I--I thocht ye would; but
I juist wanted to mak' sure. That's a', I think--a' at least as far as
this world's concerned. There's a lot--an awfu' lot I should do, but I
canna. I doot I've been careless. I've left the want to come at the
wab's en', an' I ha'e nae time to mak' it guid noo. I maun juist leave
it to Him. Guid-nicht, Maister Weelum, an' ye'll tell her--ye ken whae I
mean--that I was gled a Hebron was o' service to her. Guid-nicht. God
bless ye, man! Guid-bye.'

       *       *       *       *       *

'Guid-nicht--God bless ye!--Guid-bye.' These words kept ringing in my
ears as I sat by my fire, and during the quiet hours my sorrowing
thoughts strayed again and again into that wee back-room where Betty sat
watching, and where Nathan lay dying.

Long after the village folks had gone to bed I heard the street door
open quietly, and the doctor's shuffling footsteps in the lobby. He went
through the kitchen into Nathan's room; then he came in and sat down in
the big chair opposite me. 'I told Betty I would be here if I were
needed, William,' he said, and he took out his old clay pipe and smoked
in silence.

Just when the night was on the turn he opened the door and went quietly
across to his patient. I followed him into the kitchen, and there, by a
cheerless fire, sat Mrs Jardine in Betty's chair, and, poor,
hard-working soul, she was asleep, with her head resting on Tom's
encircling arm. I put my hand on his shoulder and thanked him for his
presence. Then I went back into my room, and, sitting down in my chair,
closed my eyes, for their lids felt heavy and weary.

       *       *       *       *       *

'William, Betty wants you.' The voice seemed far away. I rose hurriedly
and rubbed my eyes. The sparrows were twittering in the lime-tree, and
the gray light of a March morning was lying cold in the room. The doctor
was standing with his hand on the handle of the half-open door. 'Betty
wants you, William,' he said in a whisper; and I passed him without a
word, and with a heavy, apprehensive heart.

On the little round table was an open Bible which I knew well, and a
pair of spectacles lay across the flattened-out leaves. Betty was
standing at the bedside, her dimmed eyes fixed on Nathan's long, wan
face. She didn't turn her head when I came in, but she held out her hand
to me, and together we watched. Suddenly he raised his head from the
pillow and his sunken, sightless eyes turned toward the window. 'Ay,
imphm!--weel, Betty lass, it's aboot time I was daunerin'. It--it's a
nice mornin' for the road; the birds'll be whusslin' bonny in the
Gillfit wood, an'--an' the sunshine will be on the hawthorn. No, I'll
no' mak' a noise. I'll open the door canny, and I'll no' wauken Maister
Weelum. I'll--I'll juist slip oot quietly. Ay'----

And Betty and I watched Nathan slipping out quietly--oh, how
quietly!--into the sunshine of God's own everlasting morning.



CHAPTER XX.


Harvest-time in Midlothian. Golden corn in golden stooks dotting the
stubble-fields, yellow leaves on the ash and russet nuts on the beech, a
beautiful panorama of multi-coloured landscape stretching hazily away
southward and cuddling tranquilly between the Moorfoots and the
Pentlands; bird song in the woods and laughter in the fields, mingling
with the jolting of iron wheels and the cheery rhythmic _craik_ of the
levelling reaper. Little wonder Old Sol lingers long this afternoon
above Castlelaw. Gladly, I ween, would he stay; but his times of rising
and going down are set, and slowly but surely the shadows deepen at the
base of Caerketton, and steal upward to its sheltered crown behind
Allermuir.

My wife and I drove round by Roslin to-day, called at The Moat, and
after having tea with my old friend Mrs Pendriegh, whose soda-scones are
almost as good as Betty's, we returned 'in the hush of the corn' to
Blackford Hall, _viâ_ Woodfield and Fairmilehead.

This is all strange, unfamiliar country to Désirée. To-day she saw it
for the first time and under the most favourable auspices, and already
I know, from her looks and words of appreciation, that it has made its
appeal. She thinks, with me, that it very much resembles my own homeland
scenery, from its undulating fields and bosky woods to its velvety
grass-grown hills, so sleek and rounded, she said, that she wanted to
clap them. As we drove homeward, quiet thoughts of Thornhill came to us,
and we wondered what Betty would be doing, and how she was getting on.
For a month she had been with us, our first guest, and the most honoured
and most welcome we shall ever have under our roof. Two days ago she
returned to what she calls her 'ain auld hoose,' and when Désirée and I
saw her off at the station she told us in a shaky voice that 'mebbe she
wad be back in the spring, when she had the hoose seen to an' the
gairden delved.'

We miss her cheery, motherly presence in the house; and, though it was
looking far ahead, we planned a future for Betty as we drove along.

When we reached Blackford Hall I found more than a kenspeckle
countryside to remind me of homeland. In the hall was a carpet-bag which
I recognised as a Hebron heirloom I had often seen in Nathan's
back-room. Two large pictures, indifferently packed and tied round with
rope-line, were placed against the hat-rack. One, from the corner of the
frame which was uncovered, I knew to be the oil-painting of my father
and mother; and the other, from the new brilliancy of the gold, I
recognised as Désirée's painting of Nith Bridge. Nathan's old hazel
walking-stick, which daily he carried to his work, was lying along the
top of the carpet-bag, tied securely to the leather handles.

'Désirée, my dear,' I said, with a happy flutter in my heart, 'I do
believe Betty's come back.'

She looked at me with a wondering smile on her face, as much as to say,
'Too good to be true;' and, acting on a common impulse, we rushed
upstairs like expectant bairns.

There, in the little room facing southward, which we already called
Betty's room, on a low chair before an empty fireplace, sat the dear old
soul with her chin on her breast and fast asleep. Her bonnet-strings
were loosened and lay over her shoulder, and her hands were tucked
underneath a Paisley shawl, which was folded across her knees.

We tiptoed in and stood quietly beside her, Désirée on her right and I
on her left. Slowly she opened two wondering eyes, and with a
bewildered gaze she looked around her. It was Désirée's hand she
grasped. 'Oh, weans,' she said, 'I'm awfu' sorry to bother ye; but I'm
back! I juist couldna stey away, an' ye maunna be angry wi' me for'----

My wife had knelt down beside her. Betty's face nestled into her cheek,
and the rest of the sentence was lost to me in smothered sobbing. And I
waited beside them in silence till the solace from one kindly heart had
crept into the other. Then I left them, and quietly closed the door.

Betty, my own Betty Grier, as long, long ago you prepared a place for me
within your big, warm, loving heart, so have you sanctified to yourself
a place in mine; as you sheltered and cared for me in my spring of life,
so will I shelter and care for you when your winter comes, when the cold
wind tirls the leaf and it falls.

THE END.





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