The depths of desolation had opened all at once in the mysterious world

It was an event of which the country-side remained incredulous, until the very last moment. The strange pair were ‘cried’ in church, both being present when the banns were proclaimed, in defiance of all superstition: but still no one believed it could be. Ailie sat passive in her seat while her name was read out, not a passing flicker of colour, not an indication of embarrassment being visible about her. And, to the amazement of the parish, no attempt at interference was made. Miss Catherine sat still within her ancestral palace, the homely mansion-house of Lochhead, like an offended queen. She absented herself from church on the Sunday of the banns, and was not seen of human eye until all was completed; but she made no attempt to interfere. Neither did Mr. Diarmid of Clynder on the other side of the hills, Mr. John’s uncle. The opposition which everybody had expected never made itself visible.

Meanwhile Isabel, profoundly moved by her interview with Ailie, and by all that had since occurred, had made up her mind to one final remonstrance ere the sacrifice should be accomplished. When she had said to Jean, ‘I am going to see Ailie,’ the good woman’s consternation had known no bounds. Not only was the condescension unparalleled, but it was not to be expected that Isabel, as a lady born, and entitled to the possession of feelings more delicate than those of ‘common folk,’ should yet be able to pay any visits even among her equals. ‘Ailie!{146}’ she remonstrated energetically; ‘and wha’s Ailie, that you should gang to see her at such a time? She’s no John Diarmid’s wife yet; and if she was——’

‘That is why I must see her,’ said Isabel. ‘She must never marry that man!’

Upon which Jean uttered the usual comment half in scorn and half in indignation. ‘Set her up! I would like to ken what right she has to ony such man.’

‘She does not want him,’ said Isabel. ‘She’ll go and marry him and break her heart. Oh, I must go! If they were cried yesterday there is no time to lose.’

‘They’re to be married the morn,’ said Jean. ‘And if that is what you have set your heart on, wait till I’ve gotten on my Sunday bonnet. I’ll gang with ye myself.’

‘It is not necessary,’ said Isabel.

‘Bell, my bonnie woman,’ said her stepmother, ‘I ken better what is needful than you do. It’s no a moment to have you wandering on the road your lane.’

And thus it was that Jean found herself in the midst of the village group, while Isabel penetrated into Ailie’s cottage. The young prophetess was seated, silent, with a sombre fire in her eye, dejected yet excited, when Isabel was ushered in by her anxious mother. Janet had begun to take alarm about her daughter’s aspect; but such an honour as the visit of the Captain’s Isabel, no doubt paid to the prospective Mrs. Diarmid of Ardnamore, was a foreshadowing of greatness to come which went to her heart.

‘Ailie, my woman!’ she said. ‘Here’s Isabel from the Glebe. It’s most kind of her to come and see you, and I hope you’ll let her see you think it kind.’

‘Isabel!’ said Ailie, dreamily; she was sitting on the side of her bed, pondering over her little Bible. ‘Oh, aye, mother, I’m glad to see her; if she’ll come ben.’

‘Let me speak to her alone,’ Isabel had begged at the door; and the mother, half pleased yet half doubtful, withdrew with wistful looks. If perhaps the mission of the mourner might be to reconcile Ailie with the wonderful match she was making; and yet, again, a fanciful young girl might do her harm.

‘I’ve come to speak to you before it is all over,’ said Isabel. ‘O, Ailie, you mind what you said to me? You are not happy. You are not looking happy; and yet they say you’re to be married——’

‘The morn,’ said Ailie, mechanically.

‘To-morrow!’ repeated Isabel, carefully choosing her words, to be more impressive; ‘and yet you are not happy. Ailie, Ailie, it must not be!’

‘What’s God’s will must be,’ she said; ‘happy is neither here nor there;’ and began again to turn over the leaves of the small Bible she held in her hands.{147}

‘He is going to take you away,’ said Isabel, ‘where none of your friends perhaps will ever see you more; where you will be all alone with none but him, and no love for him in your heart. Oh, Ailie, listen! you will hate him if ye cannot love him. I could not rest; I’ve been in no strange house till now since—but I could not rest. Oh, Ailie, God would not have you to be miserable; that can never be His will. You are wiser than me, but you have ay been thinking of other folk, and not of what was in your own heart.’

‘Little but deceitfulness and wickedness,’ said Ailie, musing, ‘well I know; and a root of bitterness in the best. But, Isabel, there’s no a word to say. It’s no in my own hands. It was settled and ordained before you or me were born.’

‘And nothing will make you change your mind?’

‘It’s no my mind I’m speaking of,’ she said, with a half-despairing smile; ‘if it was me to decide! But whisht! whisht! and say no more; my mother is coming. I’ve had ill thoughts and thankless thoughts, and you’ve seen them, Isabel; but I’m the handmaid o’ the Lord, and it’s no to His glory to betray my weakness—no even to my mother.’

‘I’ll not betray you,’ cried Isabel, with a little natural heat. Ailie turned wearily away, with a sigh of languor and heaviness; and just then her mother came bustling in, carrying a white muslin dress on her extended arms.

‘It’s no to call grand,’ said Janet, ‘but I thought you would like to see it. As for Ailie, she takes nae mair notice than if a wedding was a thing that happened every day.’

‘She’s so full of her own thoughts,’ said Isabel, instinctively attempting an excuse.

‘Thoughts are grand things,’ said Mrs. Macfarlane, ‘and our Ailie, as is weel kent, is a lass far out of the ordinar. But her wedding-gown! A woman made out of stone would take an interest in that! I would be real thankful if you would put some real feeling in her mind.’

‘She has done her best,’ said Ailie, still bending absorbed over her book; ‘but I’m thinking of the Lord’s will, and no of men’s pleasure. My black gown that I wear every day is good enough for me.’

‘Hear to her!’ said the mother; ‘but eh, Isabel, you that’s young yoursel, ye might tell her this earth is nearer than Heaven, and that we maun take some thought for the things of the flesh.’

‘Do you think she’s happy?’ said Isabel, wistfully, feeling the full misery of this indifference, and yet bound by honour not to reveal what she knew of Ailie’s mind.

‘Happy!’ echoed Janet, ‘with Ardnamore waiting to{148} make a lady of her? What would she get better in this world? And I hope you’ll no put nonsense in her head. It would just break my heart.’

‘I’ll put no nonsense in her head,’ said Isabel. And then, surmounting her irritation, she added, ‘But oh, think if she were to be unhappy, and away in the world with nobody to comfort her.’

The mother turned away with a little laugh. ‘Simple thing!’ she said, under her breath, ‘you’re like hersel; ye take it a’ for gospel, every word they say.’

‘Are they not going away?’ asked Isabel in amaze.

‘Oh, aye, they’re going away; but think ye the world’s like Loch Diarmid, Isabel? They’ll soon tire o’ their preaching and their wandering among fremd folk. She’s a’ spirit and little flesh, my poor lamb. And her heart will fail her, and he’ll be sick o’t a’, and syne they’ll come cannily hame. And I’ll see my bairn at kirk and market, with her bairns about her—no a common body like me,’ said Janet, wiping her eyes with her apron, ‘but a leddy of Ardnamore.’

‘But she’ll break her heart,’ said Isabel.

‘I’m no feared for her heart,’ said the mother. ‘She’s a loving thing, though you wouldna think it. Her heart will turn to her husband when she has nane but him.’

This was Janet’s programme of the strange romance. Isabel, though she was not used to contrasts of this description, went down the hill in a maze of reflections, wondering over the difference. Ailie’s tragic purpose of going forth into the world to save it, her first step being upon her own heart, and all its maiden hopes; and her mother’s frightful, sceptical, middle-aged prescience of the effects of weariness and failure—the inevitable disappointment, the sickening of heart, the giving up of hope, the despairing flight homeward to seek peace at least and quietness—stood before her side by side like two pictures. Would the two enthusiasts content themselves with common life and comfort after their high dreams, or was there, after all, nothing in the dreams for which Ailie was making so awful a sacrifice? Isabel was too inexperienced to come to light on the subject; but Janet Macfarlane’s cheerful unbelief struck her with mingled horror and pain. She did not ask herself whether all that was beautiful and wonderful in the hopes and beliefs of beginning life was thus looked upon by the calm eyes of the elders as so much delusion to be dispersed by the winds and storms. But that suggestion of insecurity, unreality—and of the better-informed spectator, who realised and knew the downfall that was coming—appalled and terrified her. The sight of Mr. {149}Lothian, who came out from the Mansegate as she passed, was, perhaps for the first time, a relief to Isabel. She was glad to have him come to her, to hear his sympathetic voice, to feel that there were people in the world who were not sceptical. ‘I have been seeing Ailie,’ she said, accounting half-apologetically for the little shiver of nervous excitement which she could not restrain.

‘And now you’ll come and see Miss Catherine,’ said Mr. Lothian. ‘You cannot help the one, but you can help the other, Isabel.’

‘Me help Miss Catherine? No, Mr. Lothian,’ said Isabel, with a little air of dignity. ‘She is never pleased, whatever I do. She would like me to pretend to be somebody else, and not myself.’

‘And I am so foolish,’ said the minister, with a smile, ‘as to like yourself best of all; and so does she, Isabel, if you saw her heart. You’ll come and see her with me.’

‘To please you,’ said the girl not meaning any coquetry, nor thinking of the tenderness with which words so unusually soft moved this man, who might have been her father. Even as she spoke her eye caught some passing figure in the distance, which was like that of the lover whom she fancied she had abjured; and her heart sprang up and began to beat furiously against her breast. She knew very well it was not Stapylton—but the merest vision that reminded her of him, how different was the feeling it awakened within her! She walked on leisurely by Mr. Lothian’s side, making him soft answers, which, in spite of all his better knowledge, filled him with a sweet intoxication. And all the time her object was to lead him artfully with all the youthful skill of which she was mistress to some allusion to her lover. ‘Are you glad to be alone?’ she said at last, stooping as she did so, to pluck off a thorny branch which had caught her dress. And he did not even perceive what that leading question meant, so wrapt was he in the delusion which—half-intentionally in her unconscious selfishness for her own purposes—she had been weaving round him.

‘I would not be glad to be alone if I could have the company I like best,’ said the deluded man; and so, deceiver and deceived, they went along the quiet rural way.

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