Fiction - Short Stories - A Heart Struggle
A Heart Struggle. A Tale in Two Parts
Part I, Temple Bar, IV (December, 1861- p.137-50); Part II (January, 1862 - p.195-215).
(Reprinted in Red and White Heather: North Country tales and ballads (London: Chatto
and Windus, 1894) as ‘Miss Jean’s Love Story’)
A Heart Struggle.
A TALE IN TWO PARTS.
PART THE FIRST.
MY father—Edward Hayman, Esq., at the post-office, but more familiarly called the Squire—lived with my mother and myself at the little Scotch village of Ivihaugh. Our house, with its grounds, lay in the immediate vicinity of the village, and not far from the parish-church. The country for many miles around was low and marshy; but our house, being slightly elevated above the plain, was not unhealthy. It was a lonely house, and had been occupied hundreds of years before by some tilting baron and his proud-faced dame. In summer, the marshes around looked green and monotonous, sunny, and without a tree. In winter, when the snow fell and the wind blew, the old house shook, and the white plains around changed their hues quickly and trancedly, like the face of a dying man.
My father was an English gentleman of liberal means, and liked his dull acres better than brilliant streets; but he laid no claim to the popular and much-misunderstood title of old English gentleman. He ate and drank sparingly; he never swore. Sedentary habits, contracted in early life, made him regard out-of-door exertion as a bore. A listless and tasteful reader, he busied himself chiefly in the recesses of a small and prettily-lined bandbox, which we called his study. He was a literary idler, not a bookworm. My mother (whom a matrimonial creed of submission rendered pious) made him the small god of the household; for, like many other women, she regarded a domesticity which arose from idleness as a delicate compliment to herself. So, like many other lazy domestic men, my father was stubbornly good-natured, and laid down the law absolute to us weak women.
I was an only child. I had been spoilt by my mother before she became a fidget, and by my father before he became domestic. When I attained my eighteenth year, however, I found that neither position nor education could do more for me; and you will be surprised to hear that I was unhappy. Why?
I was “plain.”
Of all innocently miserable human beings, your “plain” girl is, to my thinking, most entitled to pity. She sits unnoticed in her corner, while her handsome sisters waltz and coquet under the chandeliers. If good, she is pitied. If ill-natured, she has no power to conceal her defect by awakening the sentiment of beauty. She suffers in silence, not always patiently,— for neglect is not always productive of pleasant emotions. Alas, for the plain spinster and for the plain wife! If they do marry, plain girls often become unhappy wives. Either they feel for their husbands a gratitude in proportion to their own personal defects, and are consequently deficient in self-dignity; or, having previously been rendered cholical by repeated disappointments, they degenerate into careless slatterns or jealous scolds.
For myself, I became moody and suspicious. I felt in secret the indescribable feminine yearning for a bosom, alien from my own, into which, as into a mould, my young emotions might pour themselves, and form into a purely grateful and happy character. I experienced all the daydreams peculiar to young women. But—I was “plain.” Conscious of this fact, and too proud to unburden my heart through my tongue or eyes, I became moody and suspicious, and was, as a consequence, considered unamiable.
My father was not a sociable man, and we saw few visitors. I had made some few acquaintances at a boarding- school in the south; but the girls, old schoolmates, whom I had occasionally invited to see me, disliked our dull home, and soon hastened to depart from it. Once gone, they seldom returned again. Thus I was gradually left without companions of my own age, and the result was just what any woman wiser than my mother would have anticipated. Mamma thought that I was growing domesticated; but in point of fact I was fast becoming morbid. Habitual isolation from men and things had not rendered my father much sharper-sighted.
Accustomed to study minutely the individuality of the few people I sometimes met, I began to esteem myself a physiognomist. So confident, indeed, was I in the acuteness of my penetration, that I fancied I was able to read the characters of people at a glance. I had Physiognomy to thank for making me fond of the society of the Rev. Mr. Macbraith, the minister of Ivihaugh Church.
For personal appearance, the Rev. Mr. Macbraith was spare, tall, and large of bone; his complexion was olive, and his hair was deep black. His lank and cleanly-shaven face owed its charm to the eyes, which, although deep-set, were bright and piercing, and beamed with mingled sagacity and human kindness. A stranger, passing him in a crowded street, could not have failed to recognise in him a man eccentric and above the common. The tall, sinewy frame, the raven-black and curlless hair, the pensive countenance, formed only a portion of his eccentric figure. For he was accustomed to wear a long, old-fashioned cloak, fastened at the throat by metallic clasps, and a hat such as Guy Fawkes wore, but without the feather. He was younger than either his looks or his dress. He was only thirty-five years old when I first found a friend in him.
As a pastor, Mr. Macbraith was generally liked by his parishioners, however much their canny Scotch heads distrusted his eccentricities. One or two of the gentry, however, opposed him. A hater of cant in any shape, he had been accustomed to express opinions which these gentry pronounced heterodox. But at the houses of the poor he was a constant visitor. He led a quiet, blameless, almost ascetic life; and his enemies, who could find no vulnerable point in his character, covertly attacked his opinions. By my father he was especially disliked. It was well that my father was not a church-going man, as he and the minister avoided each other on all occasions. When they did meet, Mr. Macbraith was not slow to return incivility with scornful coldness. This was not mere natural want of sympathy with one another. I felt persuaded that at the bottom of their antipathy lay causes in their past life, of which I knew nothing. They had met before; and in their previous meeting lay the secret of their present coldness.
Not until I was eighteen years of age did the Rev. Mr. Macbraith obtain the Ivihaugh living. When he came first to fulfil his pastoral duties among us, I had only just left a boarding-school, where I had passed three dull years. His predecessor had gone over to the English Church, been serviceable to the Church party as a pamphleteer, and had just received the reward of charlatanism, in the shape of a fat living and a vague promise of a future bishopric.
“Papa,” I said, as we sat at dinner together, “have you heard the name of the new minister?”
Papa listlessly lifted up his eyes from the leading article of the Times, and replied in the negative.
“The Rev. Mr. Macbraith.”
I was aghast to see my mother turn snowy pale, and tremble as if about to faint. My father’s face grew black with anger or terror, and he dropped the newspaper from his quivering fingers.
“Macbraith! What Macbraith?” he gasped, with an ineffectual effort to appear calm.
“The Rev. Richard Macbraith,” I answered, with some anxiety.
At the answer papa arose, and began pacing hurriedly up and down the room, as if unable to control his emotions. He was fearfully agitated, and his face and lips had turned quite white.
“Edward!” cried poor mamma, in a querulous tone.
He made no answer, but turned to me angrily.
“Jessie, who told you that this new minister was named Richard Macbraith?”
“Why, all the village is talking about it; and he is expected to deliver his first sermon to-morrow.”
My father was tall and handsome; but his rage made him shrink like a crouching dog.
“And after a‘,” murmured mamma, in the Doric, plaintively, “it may not be our Richard Macbraith.”
“Bah! I am not more certain that I live and breathe than that this is—our curse, our enemy. Oh, it’s hard, hard. Why has Fate willed that he and I should again meet face to face, after the long years of ease and safety? Why isn’t he dead?”
“He canna hairm you, dear,” broke in mamma.
Papa gnashed his teeth together, and laughed in hollow mockery as he sneeringly answered: “Cannot harm me? No. That is, he can’t go into a witness-box and swear my life away. He can’t rob me of the money I’ve saved; and he wouldn’t if he could,—curse him, I’ll do him that justice. But I’ll tell you, my woman, what he can do. He can creep about with his infernal tales, libel me, and rob me of my good name. He can make the very shopmen turn their backs upon me. He can—” here his eye fell suddenly upon me, and he recollected himself—“Jessie, leave the room.”
He waved me away angrily, and I obeyed. By and by mamma came out of the room. I had gone to my bedchamber, and there she found me. Her eyes were red with weeping, and her voice was fretful; but it was her frightened and scared manner that most appalled me.
“It’s vera hard indeed, exceedingly hard,” she sobbed, “that your puir faither is to be plagued in this way by the man he hates and fears maist. And, Jessie, ye are to avoid Mr. Macbraith as much as possible; but tak’ care no’ to offend him. Dear me, I kent him when I was no aulder than you, and before I met your puir faither, Richard Macbraith was only a wean then. He is a vera, vera bad man; and I would hae gien the warl’ rather than that your puir faither should hae met him again.”
And mamma went on to say, tearfully, that papa was determined to hear the new minister on the following day, in order to be sure that it was the same person; and that she had tried in vain to persuade him to stop at home. But my father was peremptory, and brooked no advisers. It was arranged that we were all to go to church in company, ostensibly out of the common curiosity to see and hear a new preacher.
Confident of my powers as a physiognomist, I was all curiosity to see the man of whom my father and mother stood in such unwholesome dread. I saw him. He was such as I have already described him; but probably for the reason that my mind had been prejudiced against him beforehand, my first impression of him was not a favourable one. I fancied, somehow, that he had a sinister look; that he was not only unamiable, but sly and secret.
He preached a forcible, but slightly transcendental, sermon, some parts of which were too involved for our simple comprehension. He appeared to wander a good deal in imagination, and to possess a lofty contempt for trifles. Strange to say, my home education considered, I was of an essentially practical turn of mind. I did not dream. I acted always on fixed principles. If I erred, it was because the principles themselves were erroneous.
I must not forget to state that Mr. Macbraith, shortly after entering the pulpit, turned very pale, and seemed violently agitated, on perceiving my father and mother. It was some minutes before he spoke coolly or clearly; but the congregation attributed his agitation to diffidence. Our pew was situated quite close to the pulpit; and I could not help remarking that, throughout the sermon, an inner and irreligious strife was going on in the preacher’s bosom. Once or twice his eye fell upon me—sorrowfully, as I could not help fancying.
Mr. Macbraith called upon most of his parishioners, to introduce himself; but he came not near our house.
“I knew him of old,” I heard my father say. “He is plotting, plotting.”
But we never visited the kirk again. My mother and I walked five miles every Sunday to a neighbouring village, and attended service there. My father grumbled at home, and, in his dislike of one man, libelled the clergy generally. Once or twice he met Mr. Macbraith by accident, and gave him a bow, which was half a scowl. On one of these occasions, I saw the lips of the minister curl scornfully, as a dark cloud crept suddenly across his thoughtful features.
Months passed on. The servants told me strange stories about the minister’s lonely life. He lived alone in the Manse, attended by an old woman, his housekeeper; and performed the duties of his vocation methodically and successfully.
All at once I began to be interested in him; his animosity to my father, and his lonely life, awakened my curiosity; his practical kindness, of which I heard much, awakened my esteem. I found myself arguing his blameless character and his pensive aspect against the angry words of my father. Surely he could not be a bad man. A strict, severe man, perhaps, but not a bad man. Might not my father, who was hot and headstrong, himself be the wrong-doer? Might not their coldness have arisen from a quarrel, of which my father’s hot temper had been the cause? So much for physiognomy. I began to question my own penetration.
It was in one of my rural wanderings that Mr. Macbraith and I first met and exchanged words. It was in summer-time. I was loitering down one of the green country lanes, when I saw him approaching me, with a book in his hand. Before I could avoid him we met face to face. He turned alternately red and pale. Then he took off his hat, and bowed.
“Miss Hayman?” he inquired, with a half-smile of encouragement.
I bowed in the affirmative. He went on quietly—
“I have had the pleasure of seeing you, on one occasion, at church.”
Here it was my turn to blush, for I remembered that we had only paid his church one visit. Embarrassed and vexed, I unconsciously became rude, and tried to push past him. He did not attempt to detain me. I paused unaware.
“I sincerely trust,” he said, “that this is only the beginning of a long and mutually beneficial intercourse. May I hope to have the pleasure of meeting Miss Hayman again?”
“I am sorry,” I stammered, blushing, “that my father”—I paused timidly, and he bit his lips with an appearance of deep chagrin—
“Is unfortunately prejudiced against me. Well, he has his reasons, of which you happily know nothing.” And he added, more impatiently, “Miss Hayman, has your father forbidden you to treat me with less than common civility?”
“I am not aware, sir,” I said coldly, “that my conduct has been uncivil.”
He broke out passionately—“It has not. Nevertheless, Miss Hayman, I conjure you to think better of me than to suppose I am your father’s enemy, or that I deserve his enmity. I do not. Unwillingly, Heaven knows, I have been his opponent; but my opposition has been that of one deeply wronged. I am now more anxious than ever that this breach should be healed.”
He was gone in a moment, with a wave of the hand. Short as that interview was, it awakened a new interest in my bosom. I was certain in my own mind that Mr. Macbraith was to be sympathised with and pitied. If he had sinned, he was evidently desirous of atoning for his sin. But his own words directly contradicted the supposition that he was the blamable party. What could it all mean? I was afraid to speak to my father about the matter. I knew his violent temper would not admit of an allusion to the subject. He evidently feared, as much as he disliked, the Rev. Mr. Macbraith.
“I know him of old,” he would say again and again; “he is plotting against me, plotting.”
In the mean time the antagonism between my father and Mr. Macbraith was talked over and commented on, with original exaggerations, by the gossips, and some particular friend let the Presbytery hear of it. The Presbytery, who had a respect for Mr. Macbraith, wrote to inquire into the affair. I suppose the answer was satisfactory, for they made no more inquiries. But my father was greatly to blame. He abused the minister publicly, on all possible occasions; and thus gave a colour to the tittle-tattle. Of these attacks the minister took no notice.
Fortunately or unfortunately, fate or chance or accident made me meet with Mr. Macbraith again, and again, and again. We met in the broad daylight, with a consciousness (on one side, at least) that we erred in so doing. We became intimate friends. Friends? yes, close and dear friends. The society of the minister had a strange, sad charm for me, and it was even salted and seasoned by fear lest my father should become aware of the intercourse.
We met in the green lanes, always accidentally, out of the reach of prying eyes. We read books together; we compared impressions. Coupled with a subtle imagination, he possessed the shrewd Scotch reasoning faculties ; while he charmed me with his ingenuity, he flattered me by his common sense. Say what you please, there is no individual more calculated to please us wise little women than your educated Scotchman, whom society has robbed of the native unwieldiness of mind, and whose penetration has been polished to good manners by contact with men and women. Good breeding has been described as the “graceful recognition of the rights of others.” If this description be true, Scotland abounds in well-bred gentlemen.
Day by day I found some new trait to admire in Mr. Macbraith. His lofty thought, his kindness to the poor, his deference to myself, and even his eccentricity, all charmed me.
Once or twice I laughed at him for indulging in quaint apparel, and pointed out the absurdity of the great cloak and the Guy-Fawkes hat. But he had a Scotch argument wherewith to defend himself. The age, he put it, was one, not of individuals, but of classes. Individual life had died out with Toryism and the Reform Bill of 1830; and society, since the advent of the fourth estate, had become impersonal. He defended the eccentricity of some modern littérateurs. Eccentricity, he said, was simply the outburst of the impersonal spirit in its unconscious struggles for individualism. On that understanding, he respected the man who wore a cropped pole. The cropped pole distinguished him from the crowd, and induced self-consciousness. And self-consciousness was an essential element in morals as well as in literature.
Arguments like these, discussed in a laughing manner, pleased us both, and gave us a pretext for seeking each other’s society. Now, quite certain that Mr. Macbraith was a man of blameless life, I prayed fervently that he might be reconciled to my father. Why conceal the truth any longer? Let me hasten to the conclusion: I loved Mr. Macbraith. He was seventeen years older than I; but I loved him. With my whole undivided heart, with the fullest spirit of feminine self- sacrifice, I loved him. I would have given away my life to save him a pang. His superior years gave him a strange power over me. I was spell-bound, as it were: struggle as I might, I could not shake off his bewitching influence. I was drawn to him by something beyond myself.
But I was plain. My ill-favour now became a bitter source of annoyance to me. Could it be possible that Mr. Macbraith bestowed any serious affection on one so unattractive? It seemed improbable. His manner towards me was sympathetic, and father-like. He knew nothing of the great chaos of passions struggling within me, and struggling into form of a love which intensified my whole being? I was mistaken. Mr. Macbraith was a man who knew the world. He understood me.
He was the first man who had paid me any attention; how strange that he was the last man to whom, if I obeyed the parental mandate, I should have given my serious affection! But, as I have said, I tried to resist him in vain. His abilities quickened my enthusiasm; his high principles awakened my emulation; his personal attractions—by which I do not mean his mere physical attractions—inflamed my sympathy. I was absorbed out of myself, as it were, and had no individual being. Alone, I felt competent to resist him. In his presence, I was as helpless to resist him as a little child.
One day I ascertained that my intercourse with Mr. Macbraith had not passed wholly unnoticed. I was walking in the garden, when I heard two of the servants talking together—the cook and the housemaid.
“Ye ken the minister, Mistress Agnes?” said Maggie the housemaid.
“Is it Mr. Macbraith ye mean?” said Agnes. “Och! ay, I ken him weel. He’s a braw preacher; but the maister and him hae their wee bit bone to pick thegither; and there’d be the deil to pay if he kent we gangit to his kirk.”
“That’s just it! There’ll be gran’ goings on, you maun be sure, if the maister kens that my young lady, his dochter, and the minister are thick wi’ ane anither. But it’s true, Mistress Agnes. Miss Jessie and Mr. Macbraith hae been seen thegither mair nor ance; and the folk say their company-keepin’ will end in a loup i’ the blanket and a wedding tocher.”
“I canna believe’t, woman,” said Agnes. “The minister’s no’ that daft; he wadna commeet himsel’ with a puir wean like Miss Jessie. He’s aulder than her a heap. Wha tauld ye?”
“Mistress Henderson, o’ the post-office,” answered Maggie.
“And what does Mistress Henderson ken o’ it ? Havers, Maggie.”
“Her sister Jean saw them alane, by Rab Gibson’s Dyke, a week syne gin Saturday.”
I had heard quite enough. I walked away, and left the women to speculate about the matter at their leisure.
Rab Gibson’s Dyke, as it was called, was a straggling square of stones in the midst of the marshes, and just below our house. It formed the wall of an unfinished sheepfold, which (tradition had it) had been left uncompleted by one Robert Gibson, a villager, who had been found on the spot murdered and robbed. It was a lonely, unfrequented spot, and for that reason Mr. Macbraith and I often chose it as our place of meeting. Far around it stretched the marshes, covered in summer-time by a thin silver scarf of cobweb-mist. The effect of a sunset seen from this spot was superb. In the background lay a line of purple hills.
Two days after I had overheard the above conversation I went to Rab Gibson’s Dyke, and near that spot met Mr. Macbraith. It was early evening, and every thing looked sad in the twilight. After some general conversation, the minister said abruptly, “I am in trouble, Jessie.”
He was accustomed now to call me by my Christian name.
“In trouble, Mr. Macbraith!”
“I have a brother, Jessie, whom Heaven has visited with the curse of a weak mind. In stronger words, he is a harmless imbecile; but we have always strongly combated his entrance into an asylum. He has, for the last two years, been staying with some relations, where he has received every attention. The departure of those relations for Australia rendered his return to me inevitable.”
“I am deeply concerned. Indeed I feel for you in your unpleasant position.”
“I have sworn, Jessie, that he shall never run the risk of ill-treatment at an asylum. There was a time, my dear friend, when Alexander—yes, that is his name—was not what he is now; and at that time, he was a good and kind brother to me. He loves me, and clings to me still. I have not the heart to cast him off.”
“Where is he now?” I asked with anxiety.
“At the Manse, here.”
He was very calm and decided. I felt that he had more to say, and looked into his face questioningly.
“Jessie, I have only one real friend in this village,—yourself. Will you do me a favour?”
I answered him with my eyes. Perhaps they said too much; for they seemed to embarrass him.
“I want you to come with me to the Manse, and see my brother Alexander.”
“This evening. I have particular reasons, which I cannot at present explain. Will you come?”
“If you think we shall be unobserved, Mr. Macbraith, I will—I will.”
He thanked me warmly for acceding to his strange wish so easily.
“Come, then,” he said; and we walked on side by side.
The shades of dusk thickened around us as we walked, choosing the least frequented paths. I was silent; for I was arguing in my own mind the folly or wisdom of disobeying so readily my father’s peremptorily expressed wishes.
The Manse was a dark and gloomy old house, and stood, with its garden, about a quarter of a mile from the village- church. You gained the entrance by little shady lanes, that, being full of flowers in summer, presented a sweet contrast to the minister’s abode. I had never visited the Manse before; but often enough I had watched it from the distance, and thought how gloomy it seemed. It was distinctly visible from Rab Gibson’s Dyke.
As we walked through the carelessly-kept garden, I asked myself what possible object the minister could have in inviting me to his lonely home; and, being unable to answer my own question satisfactorily, I felt rather timid.
The door was opened to us by an elderly woman, who looked clean and good-natured, and who appeared to recognise me as we entered. Pushing unceremoniously past this person, Mr. Macbraith led me into a little plainly- furnished apartment on the ground-floor, where he left me for some minutes. Rejoining me, he beckoned me to follow him.
“Come,” he said in a whisper, leading the way up-stairs.
I followed him, with a nervous beating of the heart. We crept up-stairs on tiptoe, and halted at the door of a small room, which was furnished like a study. The door stood half open, so that the interior of the room was quite visible.
Seated at the table, with his profile towards us, was a powerful-looking man, of about forty years of age. His lower limbs were short and sturdy, and his chest was broad and muscular. He was dressed in a complete suit of black, cut after the most genteel fashion, but worn and seedy. At a first glance I saw nothing remarkable in his personal appearance, save its indication of great strength. Another look at the dark shaven face, and into the bright but vacant eyes, convinced me that I was in the presence of an imbecile.
The man did not hear us. He was intent on a strange occupation; he was playing cards with an imaginary opponent, and all his soul seemed centered on the game. We entered the apartment with some noise; still he did not hear us.
“Sandie,” said the deep voice of Mr. Macbraith. The man started up hastily, thrust the greasy pack of cards into his bosom, and stood looking at us in a timid appealing way. “Sandie, this is a lady who has come to pay you a visit. Why don’t you shake hands with her, and say you’re glad to see her?”
Sandie chuckled to himself in a wicked way, and looked keenly into my face. “She’s no’ that bonnie, man,” he muttered, shaking his head. “Hoot, toot! bid her gang awa’.”
“Sandie, be polite. Shake hands with the lady.”
The man placed a hot and heavy hand in mine, with an air of great affectation.
“Sandie here,” said the minister, “is quite a lady’s man.”
Sandie, apparently delighted with this compliment, rubbed his hands together, and laughed. “Ay, ay! Sandie here is a leddy’s man,” said the man. “I hae seen the time when bonnier lasses nor this ane would hae loup’d i’ their shoon to hae Sandie. But na, na, na! I hae shairp een in my head.”
“Well, the lady must leave you, Sandie,” said Mr. Macbraith. “Shake hands again with her.”
But when I placed my hand in his again, he clasped it like a vice, and looked keenly into my face.
“I hae seen that wean’s face langsyne,” he muttered. “I ken the fause een, and the sour lines i’ the lips. But the face I kent was a bonnier ane. It had the een o’ the deil himsel’.”
He released me, and I shrunk away timidly to the lower room, where Mr. Macbraith soon joined me.
“And that man,” I said hastily, “is your unhappy brother?”
“Yes, Jessie. You have now penetrated to the blackest sorrow of my heart. And there is no sorrow in the world without sin. He has been a sinner, and he suffers.”
The manner of the minister was solemnly sad. He went on to explain to me some of the secrets of his brother’s past life.
“Jessie,” he said calmly, “I have my own reasons for proving to you that the unfortunate quarrel between your father and myself is none of my making. Promise to hear me to the end.”
“Years ago, when you were a very little girl, your father and my brother Alexander were thrown into contact with each other in London. Your father was at that time a young man of fortune, and, like many other persons in his position, he was drawn into many of the dissipations of the great city. Greatest of all your father’s follies was one into which he was led by evil associates. He gambled.”
I made an involuntary movement of surprise and protestation.
“Hear me out. He fell among sharpers, who speedily inoculated him with their own greedy thirst for gain. He had principles; but they succumbed to his passions. He gambled, Jessie, and stood before the jaws of ruin. Helpless and hopeless, he joined his base companions in a plot to ruin a poor weak-witted Scot, who had some property, and he succeeded. The victim was my brother Alexander.”
“Hush! I call God to witness that I speak the whole truth. My brother Alexander was not then what he is now; but, if you understand me, he was never strong-minded. He was fond of vain frivolities, gay dresses, and personal ornaments. Moreover, he had no control over his evil passions. Once sucked into the vortex of gambling, he became the merest slave of the game. Night after night he haunted the gambling-hell, and night after night he returned more impoverished. In vain I, who was sent from Scotland to join him, tried to save him. He was ruined by your father and his companions.”
“Have pity, Mr. Macbraith, have pity!”
“Then the poor Scot, mad with his reverses, began to wash them down with brandy. Night after night he gambled, blind with the alcohol. One night, Jessie, chance convinced even his weak mind that he was a miserable dupe, and that he was the victim of unprincipled swindlers.”
The voice of the minister had risen in volume, and his face was now black with rage.
“Well, there is a little more to tell. Alexander taxed the men with their crime. They laughed at him; he made a violent attack upon your father, whom he would have murdered, had not one of the rascals split open my brother’s skull with a champagne-bottle. With the greatest difficulty I got him out of London. It’s an old story, Jessie, but it’s a sad one notwithstanding. He was never himself after that. The injury he had received in the brawl, added to perpetual indulgence in spirits, completed his overthrow, and he is—what you now see him.”
“O Mr. Macbraith, why did you tell me this horrible tale?”
He now continued calmly, without noticing my question—“A peculiar feature of his case is, that, with the change I have spoken of, a strange alteration has passed over his language and ideas. He formerly expressed himself in the common English. When his brain turned, his tongue went back to the vernacular of his Scotch nursery.”
There was a long painful pause, during which I hid my face in my hands, and sobbed violently. At last I rose up hurriedly, and tried to push past him. “Let me go,” I cried; “I cannot remain any longer under this roof. Let me go!”
“Stop!” said the minister, in a tone of mingled entreaty and command.
I stopped unconsciously, and sank back into my chair, trembling violently.
“Jessie Hayman,” continued the minister, in low scorching tones, “I am a priest of God, but, do what I may, I cannot crush the black humanity out of me. Listen! years ago, I swore an oath to avenge my brother’s wrongs on the head of your father, their chief cause. Again and again have I tried to struggle against Satan, but in vain. I have still hoarded up the hope of retribution. But Providence, as if in pity for my wrath, has interposed your young life between my wrath and its object.”
“Let me go; I cannot understand you.”
“I love you.”
He spoke in a cold matter-of-fact way, with a grim smile on his thoughtful face.
“I love you; wretch that I am, I love you; while yonder poor idiot calls upon me to hate you. You have not captivated me in the usual way, but I burn to possess you. It is a madness full of meaning. If you are wise, if you are pitiful, Jessie Hayman, if you love your father and his house, be my wife!”
“Your wife!” I screamed, starting up wildly. “Your wife! O Mr. Macbraith, let me pass.”
“Be my wife!” he said firmly and methodically. “Marry me, Jessie; sit at my board; sleep under my roof; and endeavour, by making the future days of that madman happy, to atone for your father’s crime. I have said that I love you. Heaven forgive me for loving you! I make you the offer in pity. I have black blood in me, which only your influence can calm down. Marry me, and save your father.”
“You are mad!” I cried.
I rushed swiftly to the door; as I reached it, I saw a dark figure creep away up-stairs.
“Stop, woman!” cried the minister. “Stop, and beware!”
But swift as thought I gained the Manse-door, and rushed into the open air. It was still early evening. I ran hastily along the green lanes, and staggered as I ran. When I partly recovered my composure, I walked along, not heeding whither,—afraid to venture home until my agitation had calmed down. Then I fancied that I heard footsteps behind me, and I began to run again. The footsteps came closer and closer, and I was certain that I was being pursued. At last, breathless and tired out, I stood still to listen, at Rab Gibson’s Dyke. I was not mistaken. A dark figure passed from the highway on to the marshes, and came towards the Dyke. I crouched down behind the stone-wall, hoping to pass unseen. The figure came nearer and nearer. I recognised the face and form of the imbecile, Alexander Macbraith. He was bare- headed, and looked white in the moon. He caught sight of me in a moment, and came towards me, chuckling.
“Hoch, my fine leddy! dinna be sae proud and stiltit. You’re no’ sae bonnie, but I maun e’en put up wi’ your company for a wee short hour. Come, sit ye down, Jessie Hayman, the minister’s wife that is ne’er to be, and we’ll hae a look at the deil’s picture-book.”
So saying, he held close to my face his dirty pack of playing-cards. I tried to pass by him; but he gripped my arm firmly, and whispered between his clenched teeth: “If ye dinna sit doun, my leddy, I’ll throttle the life out o’ ye!”
He pressed me down upon the broken wall, and sat down close by me, leaving a small space between us. I was quite numb with fear. He began to shuffle the cards.
“Yonder’s the mune glowerin’ at us. The licht o’ the mune is better nor lamps and siclike. Are ye cauld, woman, that ye sit shiverin’ there? toot, it’s warm, warm.”
“Some other night, Alexander,” I stammered, coaxingly. “Let me go to-night.”
“Sit ye doun!” he growled fiercely; “I haena had any ane to play wi’ for simmers past. Eh, we’ll hae a roaring game this nicht, woman, till cock-craw.”
I heard and saw no more. My agitation overpowered me, and I fainted away. When I recovered, I found myself lying in the arms of Mr. Macbraith. Sandie stood by, chuckling, and shuffling the cards.
“Take me home!” I murmured; “take me home!”
Our house stood close by. I rose to my feet with a great effort, and felt quite strong. The minister did not offer to touch me. He stood by, frowning darkly.
“Yonder lies your home, young lady,” he said sternly. “I am sorry for what has occurred to-night, deeply sorry. But again, to-night, in the presence of my brother, I repeat my former offer. Will you be my wife?”
“No,” I said firmly, and moved away.
The minister folded his arms, and bit his lips.
“Then farewell, Miss Hayman. There was a black devil in me which you might have quelled. Would that I could die to-night. It would be better for all of us. Come, Sandie.”
I passed away without a word. The minister patted the idiot coaxingly on the shoulder, and took his arm. Then, waving his hand to me, he led him away in the opposite direction.
Bewildered and confused by what I had seen and heard, I hurried home. The twilight, like a silver veil, had fallen quickly from the hills; and I saw the tall figures of Sandie and the minister pass like shadows over the misty marshes. As I entered the house, the domestics stared in surprise at my pale, haggard face. My mother, obviously alarmed, led me to my bedchamber. Her kind motherly company overpowered me, and I burst into bitter tears. When I became calm, I determined to tell her all.
“Mother,” I said firmly, “I’ve been taking a walk with the minister.”
She lifted up her hands, and raised her eyes in positive horror.
“And, mother, I love him, and he wanted me to marry him.”
She was silent. I told her all that had occurred. Sinking into a chair, she began to sob and moan.
“O Jessie woman, if your puir faither kent this, he’d gang out o’ his wits wi’ anger. It’s a sair, sair day for this house, lassie; a sair, sair day! He’ll gang daft. The minister, o’ a’ the men i’ the warld! O my wean, my wean, your faither will gang daft.”
She thought only of my father, and took no note of my bitter grief. Poor mother! it was no fault of hers if she could not forget her idol.
PART THE SECOND.
“MY father shall know all,” I said to myself, when the first agony of grief was over.
But when we met at the breakfast-table next morning, courage failed me. I knew my father’s violent disposition far too well to venture further in the course which I had marked out for myself. A storm in a tea-cup, thanks to my mother’s docility and my father’s temper, was a storm indeed. The quiet submission of the lady of the household only served to aggravate the violence of its lord, when his hot blood was aroused. No, the secret that stirred in my heart like a snake must be hidden yet a while. I would take time to think and act.
Disguise it as I might from my own heart, I loved the minister, and I loved him none the less because I pitied his unfortunate brother; I was in a painful dilemma. Apart from the circumstances which made a connexion with Mr. Macbraith unfilial, I could not help feeling that I was staking my happiness on a dangerous hazard. A gloomy morbid cloud, unfavourable to the growth of domestic happiness, and fatal to a woman’s peace, hung about the lives of the two men with whom I had become so suddenly and strangely associated. I feared the minister in his dark moods more than I feared his brother in his wild moods. He was high-principled, but headstrong and passionate; and I fancied that he loved me more than he dared or cared to confess.
With my father, so far as his position in relation to Mr. Macbraith was concerned, I had little sympathy. I never for a moment doubted the truth of the dark story I had heard that night in the Manse.
I did not venture out of doors for some days, for I felt quite worn out with anxiety. My brain was overwrought, my heart ached. The gloomy fretful cloud on the face of my mother, who dared not expose my position, provoked and tortured me; when our eyes met, there was cunning in mine and spleenful reproach in hers.
The first day I ventured out of doors, I wandered involuntarily over the marshes to Rab Gibson’s Dyke. It was a gloomy morning; the sky was dark and cloudy and threatened rain. The marshy ground was covered by a thin yellow mist, in the midst of which one stray sickly sunbeam went and came fitfully. Close by the Dyke, I came suddenly upon the minister. He was pacing up and down, with a book in his hand; but I could see that his thoughts did not follow the printed page. When he glanced up and saw me, the blood on his stern face flushed from red-heat to white-heat. I recoiled, half frightened, with a beating heart. He closed his book quietly and came towards me.
“I have been waiting for you,” he exclaimed quietly.
“Waiting for me, sir,” I murmured, with an appealing look.
“Yes, madam. I knew you must venture out sooner or later, and I was sure that instinct would lead you to this spot. I have consequently made this place my study for the last few mornings.”
I stood still, very pale, with my eyes bent upon the ground, and returned no answer.
“I desire, madam, to apologise for my brother’s violence, and for my own words spoken in the heat of passion.”
He spoke bitterly, not humbly, and there was a sneer on his face as he spoke. I felt roused.
“Your brother,” I said, “is dangerous, and ought not to be suffered to go at large.”
He frowned grimly. He looked very strange in his large eccentric cloak and Guy-Fawkes hat; he seemed like some ghost of a time and a society long before departed.
“Miss Jessie Hayman, my brother is dearer to me than life itself, and I have sworn to do my duty by him. Whilst I am able to protect him, he shall never enter an asylum. Shall I add, that you should be the last woman in the world to make such a proposal.”
“Spare your taunts, Mr. Macbraith. If the account you gave me be true—”
“If it be true!” he cried fiercely. “Do you doubt it? Look into your father’s face, as you tell him what I have told you, and then doubt it. Enough of this. You have been put to unnecessary pain; but we also have suffered. Good morning. I have said all I came to say, and will now leave you.”
He turned on his heel and moved away. My blood rushed up hotly to my face and ears, my head swam. I felt wild and reckless in my passion. I would sacrifice all for this dark, moody man, who towered so far above me by virtue of his stern strength.
“Mr. Macbraith!” I cried unaware.
He turned with a softer look, half pity, half surprise.
“Have you a heart? Have you any pity? Can you perceive the bitterness of my position?”
“I have pity, Miss Jessie; and I pity you. God forgive me!”
The man was a mystery to me. His outer mood changed from storm to calm, as if obeying the motions of an uncontrollable soul. As he spoke, his dark face looked inexpressibly beautiful in its softening charity. Could he, then, be wicked and desperate? The soft look conquered me, and I burst into tears. He did not move.
“We live in a hard world, young lady,” he said gently; “and blessed are those that are able to weep. There is no sorrow without sin; and sin scorches the sweet tears out of us. Farewell!”
“Stop!” I cried hysterically.
He turned with a strange look of wonder, and made a sudden step towards me.
“Oh, have pity! have pity!” I cried. “I love you!”
Joy, like a sunbeam, fell luminously on his face, as he caught me in his arms with a cry.
“I thought so; I hoped so,” he exclaimed, clasping me in his strong arms. “It is enough. God forgive me if I sin, dear girl; but I have not courage to give you up. I am a coward, I say; but for your sake, Jessie, I will sacrifice all.”
I shuddered, in spite of myself, at the confession I had made in my excitement. I was blind with tears as I struggled to escape from his embrace.
“Let me go,” I cried; “ if you love me, let me go. I was mad.”
In an instant he released me. Drawing back a few feet, he stood looking at me calmly and quietly. But I did not move from the spot. Sadly and nervously I returned his gaze. He approached with bent head, and took my hand.
“Do you, then, wish to recall the words spoken to me a few moments ago?”
I made no reply.
“I insist upon an answer,” he cried. “Were you trifling with me?”
“I was not,” I answered firmly, compressing my teeth and lips to keep my courage up.
“Thanks, thanks! I am to believe that you love me, Jessie?”
“Perhaps I err in thanking Heaven that it is so. I do err, if the love I bear you be a sinful one; but let us pray that it is not so. What if Fate were to accomplish her ends by your means, and to accomplish them gently?”
I bowed my head and said nothing. His eyes were fixed on mine with a strange fascinating gaze.
“And you will marry me, Jessie? You will be mine, dear girl, will you not?”
I trembled in spite of myself; for I saw my father’s wrothful face and heard my mother’s chiding voice. Whither did my duty urge me? and would either path lead to peace and happiness?
“You hesitate,” he exclaimed, watching me keenly. “I perceive your doubts, and they are important ones. Yet, be assured, your marriage with me may or may not cause unpleasantness at first; but it will eventually produce much good. Remember, Jessie, that by marrying me you may atone for great and fearful crime!”
“Do not name it!” I cried, with a shudder.
“I will not. You will marry me sooner or later, Jessie ?”
“Sooner or later, yes.”
He caught me in his arms, and, pressing me closely to his bosom, kissed me tenderly. The morning grew darker and darker around us as he took my arm, and we walked slowly side by side by the path over the marshes. There was a storm brewing; but we thought only of the storm within, and heeded not. Side by side we walked under the clouds and through the mists. His face was turned to mine, and it wore a glow that might have been triumph and might have been affection; but in the eyes a deep indescribable tenderness, or such it seemed to be, lingered, lingered like the soft halo round a star when it is fading. Both were silent. Our thoughts were too terribly beautiful for utterance. My pulses throbbed thickly with pain and fear that were almost happiness. I could have died for the love of that man, if need be, then and there. The growing clouds, the floating mists, the silver glamour around the far-distant mountains, the solitude of the marshes, were portions of a strange dream, in which I seemed to lose all consciousness of individual being. Never before had I experienced such profound emotion. Yet never, I believe, was my emotion less apparent. We went into no visible raptures; we made no ostentatious display of our love for one another. Our souls mingled in the dreadful silence of their hope. This silence was at last broken by the minister.
“Jessie,” he said with a sad smile, drawing me close to him, and looking bravely into my eyes,—“Jessie, does it occur to you that ours is a very strange wooing?”
I looked into his face inquiringly.
“For myself,” he continued, “I am unaccustomed to strong demonstrations; but I am seventeen years older than you, dear girl, and that fact may account for my seeming apathy. To you, however, who are young and ignorant of the world, I must seem sadly cold and dull. Tell me, Jessie, are you not a little romantic?”
“Not at all,” was the reply. But he looked incredulous.
“That you are not a novel-reader I am already aware; and I am also aware that you are free from those foolish heroic notions which so often mislead young women. Perhaps you interpreted my question too narrowly. Your romance, if you have any, only assumes a sacrificial form. Perhaps you have exaggerated notions as to the self-sacrifice and resignation necessary to your sex?”
“I think not, Richard.”
He started, colouring slightly. It was the first time that I had ventured to call him by his Christian name. He immediately recovered himself, and gave a light laugh.
“Don’t think me rude,” he observed. “It is the first time since I was a boy that a woman has called me by my Christian name, and the word sounded odd in my ear. You are right, Jessie; you only exert your privilege.”
“Does the freedom offend you?” I asked, with timid coldness.
“No!” he exclaimed, with a burst of joy.
The gleam passed from his face, and he fell into a reverie, from which I, myself full of matter for reflection, did not venture to disturb him. But the clouds increased and darkened, and I at last said, “Let us turn now, or they will miss me at home.”
He turned without a word.
“We shall have a storm soon,” he observed, calmly looking up, after a pause.
As he spoke, there was a far-distant sound of harsh voices above us, and the air seemed to vibrate with the echo. We hurried on. There was a bright broad flash, which almost blinded us; and a minute afterwards the thunder groaned terribly, like one of the fallen Titans in pain. He stopped me suddenly.
“Storm, storm!” he said, in a deep low voice. “That has been my life ever since I can remember; but yonder clouds throw secure darkness over my love for you, and harmonise with the beatings of my heart. Or are they, as I fear, a threat—a warning? Do I sin in loving one who, by virtue of her birth, is part of my brother’s wrong? Do I forfeit my duty to my brother by loving you? Jessie, Jessie, answer,—is it so?”
“Richard!” I exclaimed imploringly.
He pressed his lips close to mine, and kissed me passionately.
“I love you, I love you,” he murmured without his usual sternness.
“If you indeed love me, Richard,—if you love me as you say,—why this dreadful struggle? Is it not written that love is all-sufficient, that it heals all wounds, that it is all in all to each,—holy, holy? Oh, Richard dear, if you love me, think that this love is a sacred trust that Heaven has given you; doubt it not, doubt it not, and all will be well. True, true love is always right; it cannot err, it cannot stain or injure any one of God’s creatures.”
As I finished the sentence a flash of lightning lit up our faces, and both, I felt, were full of truthful love. I was violently agitated. Had I spoken like a selfish woman, or like a heroine? Enough that he was satisfied; for brightness lingered on his face, even when the lightning-flash had died away.
“You are wiser and better than I. Blessings upon your true heart, my darling! Pity me, comfort me. I am a minister of the Gospel; but there is a darkness on me. Be my teacher.”
Again that trembling appealing cry, which sprang out of the yearning of my heart.
“I am only a poor weak girl; but, oh, I love you dearly; and, for better for worse, I will be your true and constant wife.”
The joy of that moment! We forgot the lightning and the thunder, the fierce paraphernalia of the soul, and stood gazing at each other in our great and strange love,—a love that was never, never to die, even when “death did us part.”
“Jessie,” he cried, “it would be glorious to die now!”
The lightning sprang out from heaven like a fiery sword, rebuking him. We now hurried on.
“To die,” I said, “is less noble than to live. If we have loads to bear, Richard, love will give us strength to endure; but let us not yield till we are crushed by a load that it is beyond our power to carry further.”
We were now in the immediate neighbourhood of our house; I trembled, not at the storm.
“Are you afraid, dear girl,” said the minister, tenderly. “Nay, be assured by your own sweet philosophy. Love defies all elements, and is its own talisman against all earthly ills.”
But the clouds now broke, and the rain fell down in torrents, drenching us to the skin in a moment, and putting an abrupt conclusion to the passionate poetical speech. With the gallantry of a younger man, and, in spite of my remonstrances, he took off his great cloak and flang it over my shoulders. I begged him to proceed with me no further; but he was excited, and paid no attention to my remonstrances. We hurried along, side by side, and at last we halted before my father’s gate.
We were concealed from the eyes of any inmates of the house by the thick trees in the garden. He hurriedly pressed his lips to mine, and murmured in my ear, “If possible, be at the Manse this evening. Nay, you can trust me, and I have much to say to you.”
With a passionate farewell, he left me. Quite bewildered, I ran immediately into the house.
Soaked to the skin, I was hurrying up-stairs, when I met my father, who had only just arisen. I hardly noticed him in my agitation, and I was passing him with a quiet morning greeting, when he touched me on the shoulder, and commanded me to stop. I stopped, lifting my eyes timidly to his face. To my surprise, he frowned, turned alternately red and pale, and seemed violently agitated. I trembled for the first time, fearful lest he had discovered my secret.
“Where have you been, child?” he asked impatiently, with a glance of great suspicion.
I told the truth, not the whole truth.
“I was out for a walk, papa, and was caught in the rain.”
He was not satisfied. “Change your clothes,” he said with quiet rage, “and come to me immediately in the study.”
Once in my bed-room, I forgot my bodily plight, and threw myself down upon the bed. Surely, surely, never was there girl more unlucky than I. The course of my true love ran rough as a torrent in a Highland glen; now it wavered to the right, now to the left; but all the time it was unconsciously precipitating itself into irretrievable action. Had my reason convinced me that my love was wrong and unholy, I might have immolated this first affection on the cold altar of my home; but I was far from convinced either that I loved sinfully, or that the man I loved was in error. I had a girlish notion that for him one loves it is our duty to sacrifice even home and its claims; and I held true feminine love to be an even more holy sentiment than filial duty. That my own passion was pure in its essence I felt convinced; I loved with an undivided heart, and had no obvious selfish motive to gratify by being undutiful. What course, then, was it my privilege, my necessity, to adopt? To face my father’s wrath with a pure conscience, and to act in direct opposition to my father’s will; or to yield implicit obedience to the letter of the household law, and so to sacrifice all my hopes of mortal love. The struggle was a hard one, a bitter, bitter “heart-struggle.” Then I recollected the arguments of the minister. Were they admissible, or were they simply the sophisms of a clever mind? Was it possible that, by throwing off parental control, and consenting to the proposed marriage, I might heal the breach made by sin long before, or avert calamity from the head of my father, or save my lover from the horrors of a life unbecoming the duties of a Christian minister? “Proposed marriage!” why, had I not sworn to be the wife of Mr. Macbraith, and had I not encouraged him to believe that he had won my heart? and would it not be incalculably sinful to break the vow I had made, and to deprive him, not only of my love, but of his confidence in my womanly integrity? Heaven, I reflected, would punish me sorely if I showed myself insincere, if I seemed unfaithful. For a plain girl to assume the privilege of a coquette was beyond measure contemptible; and I should despise myself if I laid myself open to the imputation of trifling with a gentleman’s feelings. As I have said, I did not doubt for a moment the truth of the story I had heard in the Manse; for I knew my father’s temper, and had once or twice heard unpleasant rumours concerning his past life.
While I lay, with my head upon a pillow, bathed in tears, the lightning was dying with sudden gleams, and the thunder was growing more distant every moment. The fitful sobbing of the rain on the window-pane rang in my ears, and the room swam round and round me like a chamber of whirling darkness. By and by I felt stronger and better; and by this time I had determined that my next conversation with my father should decide my fate once for all. I arose to my feet. I was now satisfied that my fate hung in the balance, and I could wait for the result with patience.
Almost unconsciously I walked to the looking-glass. I was wondering what Mr. Macbraith could see in such an insignificant face and person as mine. I started back aghast. It was not the pale plain face, with the hard lines about the mouth; the slight figure undeveloped in its frail girlhood; the timid awkward attitude of the limbs, or the fixed imploring look of the eye,—it was none of these things, all of which were sufficiently familiar, which appalled me. Over my wet and dripping shoulders, down to my soaked feet, I still wore the cloak of the minister! In my haste, in my blindness of love, I had forgotten to return the cloak to its owner; and there it lay, when I flung it off, as a witness to my disobedience. I now fully appreciated the meaning of my father’s strange manner. He had perceived the cloak, and had identified it as that worn by the minister, with whose person he was familiar.
Perhaps it was as well that my love no longer assumed the character of an odious secret, and that I should be kept no longer in suspense. The necessity for immediate courage recalled me to myself. I made the necessary changes in my attire, and prepared to go down below. When I was ready, I looked into the glass again. Again the pale plain face, but now it wore a quiet glow of resolution. With trembling heart, I descended the staircase and knocked at the study-door. “Come in,” said my father’s voice, and I entered. Papa was seated at his desk, making a pretence to write; but he was a poor actor, and I saw through him. I waited for some minutes in great suspense, until, looking up, he made a sudden exclamation.
“Jessie Hayman,” he cried, with an angry movement, “this is most cruel, most unnatural!”
“Pooh! don’t attempt to misunderstand me. I’m speaking of your conduct. You are directly opposing my wishes; you have dared to act in opposition to my express desire; you are holding communication with a scoundrel and a blackguard.”
“I’m speaking of that villain Macbraith, who ought to be hung; yes, hung, and who hates me, and is my worst enemy. I’ve suspected you for some time; now I am convinced of your wickedness. That cloak!”
Mean-spirited for the moment, I tried to describe the affair as an accidental meeting, and a simple courtesy.
“Do you take me for an idiot?” exclaimed papa, rising. “Now be candid, and it will be the better for you. You know this man?”
“He has been paying you attentions?”
“And you dare, with that confession on your lips, to sit at my table, and call yourself my daughter. Henceforth undeceive yourself. You’re no daughter of mine, and my house is not for the friends of my enemies. I renounce you. I’ll have nothing more to do with you; go to your lover, sponge no longer on me and mine. You hear me?”
I spoke quite calmly, although a storm raged within. Papa paused, flashing fire, and seemed astounded at my coolness and audacity. They seemed to take his breath away with surprise. He grew darker and uneasier.
“You—ha—don’t mean to say that you’ve any real liking for this fellow?”
I moved to him, and took his hand.
“Hear me, papa. Do not judge me harshly, for you know my affection for you. I love Mr. Macbraith; I have struggled hard against the feeling, but I love him dearly, better even than my own happiness. Do not turn away, but have pity. I do not, cannot believe that he is a bad man; I prefer thinking that you are mistaken in him, and that my love may in time reconcile you to one another. I know all. I believe that I may blot out a portion of the past by disobeying you in this matter.”
He turned pale and seemed frightened, but he recovered himself.
“So!” he murmured between his teeth. “He has been libelling me to my own flesh and blood; inventing lies to throw a stain on my good name, and turning my daughter’s heart against me. I thought so.”
“Not so. I beseech you, do not believe that it is so! Mr. Macbraith is anxious, deeply anxious, that what is done should be set right again, and that he should enable you to meet him on friendly terms. His brother—”
“Ha! what of him?” cried papa, with a scared look.
“His brother has lost that which it is in the power of no man to restore—his reason; but something may yet be done for him by careful love and tenderness. That should be my task.”
“Where is this brother you speak of?”
“Here, at the Manse, a harmless lunatic.”
“What! I must inquire into this. Insane, and suffered to go at large; the nuisance is insufferable, and I shall at once petition the authorities. While he is free, none of our lives are safe.”
I trembled in spite of myself. The minister’s tenderest point was that piteous love for his half-witted brother, and any attack in that quarter might lead to terrible results. I trembled now for my father.
“Surely, papa, you would not have this unfortunate man consigned to an asylum?”
“Wouldn’t I?” he exclaimed, with dark malignity. “Why not? Hundreds of better men than he have to put up with the cell and the strait-waistcoat; and why not him? Who is he that he is to put the whole neighbourhood in jeopardy? Oh, this comes of the minister’s fine teaching. He has been telling you a lot of lying stories about me, and you believe him. Never mind. I’ll be revenged upon him; I’ll show him the end of all his fine plots and counter-plots; he shall smart for it.”
Papa had grown very nervous; and he spoke without his usual air of arbitrary decision. I cannot hardly tell whether I felt pleased or sorrowful, but I was convinced now that I had heard the whole truth from my lover.
“Now, look here, girl. If you want to marry this scamp, my deadly enemy, marry him. I shan’t attempt to prevent you; you may marry both him and his brother, if you like. But don’t expect any help from me or mine when he casts you off. Marry him, I say; try the experiment, and blame yourself if it fails. Go!”
I was moving towards the door, quite at a loss what to say or do, when he cried, “Stop!” Then I flung myself at his feet.
“Oh, papa, dear papa, do not judge hastily in this matter. Give us time, and all will be well. Mr. Macbraith is not the wretch you esteem him. I love him, papa. He is dear to me as life itself; and I know him to be true and noble.”
I was weeping now, but my father only grew sterner on seeing my weakness. He pushed me from him.
“I will wait months, years, any number of years; only say that you will listen to us, when we attempt to reconcile right and wrong in the end. For I love him, papa, I love him so dearly.”
He seemed to perceive an advantage; for his face assumed a cunning look, as he said, with assumed carelessness,
“Pooh! the nonsensical ravings of a girl. Once and for all, I don’t comprehend this stuff; it’s all unintelligible acting. You hear me. Either renounce this man, or—“
“Papa, I cannot”
“Very well,” he cried fiercely. “I am satisfied. Listen, though, for one moment, lest you rush to too hasty a conclusion. In the first place, girl, you’re not a beauty; your face would not recommend you to any man, or number of men. I say this without prejudice, although you are my daughter. Very well, then. It’s obvious enough that Macbraith hasn’t fallen in love with your face; and the most probable conclusion is, that he hasn’t fallen in love with you at all.”
I smiled unaware, a sad smile of utter doubt.
“Oh, you may smile, but don’t be too sure, young lady. If you were a beauty, I might believe he cared for you, for I know his liking for pretty faces. As matters stand, however, I have given my opinion. What then? Macbraith owes me a grudge, and he is the man to gratify it. He sees you, perceives you’re a fool, and hopes to gain his ends by your means. His object therefore is to break your heart, or worse, in the hopes of injuring your father; and as for marrying you, the man knows better than that. He’s mistaken, though, in thinking that he can harm me in that way. You’re a woman, and if you like to go to the devil with your eyes open, I shan’t break my heart. Go; I am busy.”
I rushed from the room. Outside the door I met mamma, who had evidently been eavesdropping. She was going to speak; but, pale and wild, I pushed past her, and went up to my room. I locked the door, and lay down on the bed.
Oh, those cruel words, his last words! They ate into my brain like burning fire, and buried themselves there; they cut into my heart like sharp steel, and blinded me with excess of pain. Do what I could, I could not deprive them of their terrible significance. They seemed so plausible, so horribly probable. My only vulnerable point had been assailed, and I was left without the means of resistance. Could it be true that Macbraith was indeed the villain papa had described, and that he was endeavouring to accomplish his revenge by means of my misery or my dishonour ? Oh, no, no, no! He was far too noble and true for that. Yet how true it was that I was without those attractions which win the hearts of men; and how suddenly had the minister seemed to become my admirer! Then I thought of the man’s dark moods, full of fierce wrath and doubt, of his great wrong, ever present before him in the flesh, and of his threats. Confident as I was of the integrity of my resolutions, I was a young girl, ignorant of the world, easily deceived; and I felt that it would be easy for a man of the world to blind and mislead me on a subject so imminently attractive as that of love. I was now profoundly miserable, and more bewildered than ever. I could not shake off the dark doubt that I was in danger. Again, if Macbraith were indeed a villain, and I were to yield to him, how trebly bitter and sinful would appear my disregard of filial duty and obedience! My father’s wrath would then appear just, albeit a little headstrong. He had warned me, he had exposed the man, and had done all obstinacy can bring itself to do in order to avert the catastrophe. Oh, my bitter, bitter heart struggle!
Are we women generally sharper-sighted than the other sex? or do we take too wide a scope of men and things to see aught clearly? We are blamed for brooding over finical detail. No complaint is more plausible or more unjust; for even in the estimate of each other’s dresses we always generalise. A wise thinker, a chivalric admirer of women, once argued to me that women, from that delicacy of organisation which extends from their noblest sentiment to the remotest fibre of their body, were enabled to grasp and appreciate the very loftiest ideal of the male sex, while they were perfectly unable to sound the depths of vileness and meanness of which a strong man, less delicately organised, is capable. Thus it would follow that women are apt to put the finest construction on the actions of a man, however base. Certain it is that women are seldom capable of a depth of error fully equal to man’s capacity for evil until they have fallen to that stage when the female body has lost all its finer organism, and is reft of that delicate physical harmony which, from time immemorial, has coloured the æsthetics of manners and society.
Did I hold the nobility of Mr. Macbraith at too high a value? Was mine merely a girlish enthusiasm? Was I blinded by the compliment of so superior a man’s esteem? These were the questions I had to answer. I can answer some of them now in three little words. I loved him, really loved him.
By and by mamma brought me up a cup of tea, which I drank carelessly. She was really scared by my pale face and wild manner, and had not courage to lament in her usual weakly way. She kissed me with a few consoling words, and then left me. I was glad to be alone. I lay in a half-stunned state, with a humming in my ears as of distant voices. I seemed to grow quite stupid with my grief. Then I seemed to fall into a swoon, and to forget every thing.
That day passed. I did not go to the Manse in the evening; I was too ill to leave home, and I feared the consequences of another scene. I returned the cloak by one of the servants. At breakfast the next morning papa’s manner towards me was unusually kind. He chatted in a most lively way on all sorts of subjects; but I was too dull to follow him. He evidently thought that I had yielded to his persuasions, and discarded what he simply esteemed my girl’s folly. He was mistaken. I was still far from a decision, and the struggle of my heart was still going on within. Three days expired, and I had not passed the threshold of the house. I could not summon up courage to meet my lover. I would wait for a space, and in the mean time trust to chance.
On the evening of the fourth day I was sewing in the sitting-room, when I heard voices in the direction of papa’s study. They were men’s voices, and one seemed raised in angry altercation. Surprised, I listened attentively. Something in the sound frightened me, and I was soon convinced that I had cause to fear. One of the voices I heard was my father’s, the other was that of the Rev. Mr. Macbraith. I threw down my sewing, and crept noiselessly across the lobby. At the study-door, which was on the latch, I halted.
“Edward Hayman, let bygones be bygones,” said my lover, in low measured accents. “I came here to-night to wipe out the remembrance of all that is past. I have told you that I love your daughter.”
My father laughed.
“I dare say!” he replied. “This is not the first time I have heard the story. Well, sir?”
“I have nothing more to say. For form’s sake I have come here to ask her hand—a hand which she has already promised to give me; and it is for her sake that I have sacrificed my pride in so doing. Consent to our union, and I may take the consent as an equivalent for atonement. I am willing so far to cancel our wrongs.”
“Bah! I know you, Macbraith.”
“Do you, then, refuse me the hand of your daughter?”
“I have nothing to say to you; let that suffice. I believe that you have already heard my opinion on the subject. I’ll have nothing to do with you or yours. I know you of old, my man; so beware!”
“Do you dare to address me thus?” cried the minister.
Papa laughed mockingly and bitterly.
“I’m no coward, Macbraith, and you know it; and your fine scowling and threatening won’t turn my blood cold. You may sneak into my house, man, and libel me; but you shall do so at your peril. Ay, at your peril, although half-a-dozen more mad brothers were prowling about the country, and trying, with your aid, to escape the necessary surveillance of the lunatic asylum.”
“Wretch that you are, take care how you make light of your own villany, or I may forget myself.”
There was a loud derisive laugh, a hurried movement, as I passed into the room. There I saw my father raise his hand and strike Mr. Macbraith, drawing blood from the forehead.
“Father!” I cried, standing between them.
He pushed me aside, crying,
“That, Macbraith, is my answer. I utterly defy you to injure me or mine. For this girl here, she is my daughter, fool though she is; and I shall exert my privilege over her.”
I turned to the minister. He was snowy white with rage. Every fibre of his body was shaking; and he bit his lips till the blood came, in endeavouring to keep calm. He walked over to my father, quiet, stern, dreadful in his anger.
“Edward Hayman,” he hissed between his clenched teeth, “you have done what all who care for you will yet pray on their bended knees, for your sake, to have undone. You have trebled to-night the horrible sin of long years ago; and it is not my fault if you suffer for it. For nothing now shall save you from my just hate, my just vengeance. As for the girl, keep her. I almost hate her now because she is a child of yours.”
“Richard!” I screamed. “Mr. Macbraith.”
But he walked swiftly from the room, and out of the house.
I turned in fierce appeal to my father; but his lips curled in scorn, and he waved me towards the door. The room seemed to swim around me in a sickening heat, as I moved towards him, and, touching him lightly on the shoulder, looked him pleadingly in the face. His excitement was fading away from him now, and he quailed.
“Papa, what have you done?” I cried. “How can you be so wicked and cruel?”
“Leave me, you fool!”
I left him, horrified at my own scorn of him; and mamma immediately entered to comfort him. All hope was lost, then. Mr. Macbraith did not love me; otherwise he could never have resigned me so cruelly and so scornfully. That was my first thought. At the second thought, I remembered that he was not himself, that he was nearly mad with rage; but I also remembered his headstrong passionate nature, and feared for the consequences of my father’s insult and violence. My love and sorrow grew quite torpid now. I was lost to outer life, and lived in that world of mental dream which is too often the symptom or precursor of physical decline. I began to feel that between myself and the minister had come a cloud which neither of us could ever cross with safety. We were like woman and man standing distinctly visible to each other on separate banks of a great rushing river, and stretching out pleading hands in vain. What if, in trying to meet, we were to be swept together on the great river’s bosom to the lap of an eternal ocean, there to float until the trumpet should stir the dead on the waters into life?
I pass over the occurrences of some weeks, during which I spent all my time between the house and the surrounding garden. My father imposed no physical restraint upon me; but I did not care to venture away from the door. I heard nothing of Mr. Macbraith in the interim. Had he renounced me for ever?
Not far from the Manse at Ivihaugh was a small plantation of fir-trees, adjoining a shady lane, where my father would now and then walk in the evening. The whole extent of the lane was distinctly visible from the windows of the Manse. It was thickly wooded with straggling furze-bushes, and, save for its close vicinity to the Manse, its situation was lonely in the extreme.
One evening, little less than a month after that dreadful scene between the two gentlemen, papa, as he was often wont to do, strolled out for a walk. It was a very dark evening, but the stars were out; the wind was high and keen. My father had a habit of taking his exercise in the dark, when there were no eyes to observe him; and as mamma, in her timid way, had begged him to alter the direction of his usual walk, he persisted, in his obstinate way, and out of bravado, in disregarding her advice. I myself, being naturally timid, would have preferred his choosing a path where he would be less likely to come in collision with the minister; and on the particular evening I allude to he stayed out so long that I felt nervous, and determined to follow him.
It was nine o’clock, and papa had been away more than two hours. So I dressed myself and walked out.
The lane and the plantation had been christened by one name,—the Deil’s Heugh; and they had a bad reputation on account of certain crimes said to have been committed in the neighbourhood long years before. Tradition threw a cloud over them.
The wind blew in my face, and plucked at me, and dragged me this way and that; but my state of mind had grown to be such that external sights and sounds had little effect on me. I walked along, in the direction of the Deil’s Heugh, in the teeth of the wind, half enjoying the noise in the air, half saddened by the cold pitiless light of the stars. When I gained the nearer end of the lane, I looked towards the Manse. There were no lights visible in the windows; all were feebly reflecting the sheeny light of heaven. Far down the lane, which was about a quarter of a mile long, I caught sight of a man’s figure, which I immediately concluded to be that of papa. Scarcely knowing which course to adopt, but urged on by some irrepressible instinct, I followed, keeping him still at a distance. He passed round the curve, and I lost sight of him. Walking on, I reached the curve, where the furze-bushes were thickest, and, looking forward, I saw him sitting on the low stone-wall of the plantation. It was papa. A moment afterwards I became conscious of another dark figure, which moved behind among the trees. Before I could draw a breath, the figure had advanced, stolen suddenly behind papa, grasped him round the throat, and dragged him backwards. They fell together, and then arose struggling. I was too frightened to speak. Something glistened and fell; there was a loud cry for help, and the two rolled over and over on the rough rooted ground. There was a horrid pause of a few seconds. Then one of the dark figures rose, looking wildly around as if in fear. It stooped again, as if to look into the fallen man’s face. I could not move from the spot; my voice failed me, my heart seemed to die out. I crouched behind the bushes, peering wildly, in a fascinated horror, through the prickly branches. Again the figure rose, and stepped over the stone-wall into the lane. Here the light of the stars fell full upon it; and in the pale glamour I recognised a dress I knew full well,—the hat and cloak of the minister, my lover. My blood froze to ice, my pulses clenched, as the figure crept off through the darkness in the direction of the Manse. It was the Rev. Mr. Macbraith.
Heaven for a few moments gave me supernatural strength. I followed the figure with my eye. Assurance was rendered doubly sure—it was indeed my lover. The horrible despair of that moment gave me courage. I walked towards the plantation, and stepped over the stone-wall. All was dark. My foot stepped on some soft liquid pool, which I knew by instinct was blood. The next moment I almost tripped over the body. The stars shone in through an opening in the trees, and, stooping down, I recognised my father’s face. Oh, horrible! The throat was cut from ear to ear, and in the struggle several gashes had been inflicted about the body and on the hands. I screamed now, but my voice had lost its power. Then I stooped down, and strove to lift the body, and drag it to the lane. The weight was beyond my strength. Again I screamed, but the wind drowned my voice. I reflected, too, that my cries might bring back the murderer, who would soon make short work of the only witness to his crime. Overcome with the horror of my position, I lost consciousness for an instant. When I recovered, I was still lying on the same spot, and my clothes were wet with blood. I felt as if I were mad, and screamed again wildly. Then I ran shrieking out of the plantation, and—I know not in which direction, up or down the lane. Suddenly I saw a light approaching from the distance. I made for it hastily. It came nearer and nearer —a man with a lantern. I rushed forward wildly; and in a moment afterwards fell shuddering and screaming at the feet of the minister, who was without his cloak, and bareheaded. At sight of him I swooned away once more.
When I recovered, I was lying in his arms, and the light of the lantern was thrown upon his face.
“Jessie! Miss Hayman!” he was exclaiming; “speak! What is the meaning of this? This is blood.”
I glanced wildly up into his pale fierce face, and it seemed lit with a horrible deathly suspicion that I was cognisant of his crime. Should he suspect me, my life would not be worth a straw. I made a great and violent effort, clinging to him, and conquering my loathing for him. With a dreadful cunning, I thought I could persuade him that I was ignorant of what he had done.
“Help! help!” I cried. “Oh, Mr. Macbraith, fly for assistance. My poor father has been murdered.”
“Murdered!” he exclaimed; “and this—” he touched my wet hand.
“Is blood—his blood,” I murmured. “Go.”
No wonder that the wretch shuddered. How poorly he seemed to act his loathsome part!
“Let me go, I beg you,” I whispered; “fly for assistance. I will wait here.”
“How did this happen?”
“Not now, I cannot speak now. You shall hear all at any time. Yet, stay. I was passing along the highway, when I heard screams, and knowing this to be a favourite walk of my father’s, I ran hither. When I reached this spot, all was still; but suddenly a groan fell upon my ear. Following the sound, I passed over among the trees, and found him lying yonder, dead.”
The minister placed me hastily down, and ran swiftly along the lane to the plantation. In a minute he returned. His face was snow-white, he trembled visibly, and his whole manner was full of suspicion and terror.
“This is dreadful,” he said gloomily. “Stay here, Jessie, until I awaken the village. Your father was no friend of mine; but his murderer shall not escape, if I can help it.”
“He shall not,” I said to myself, with a cold icy determination to do my duty at all hazards.
He ran swiftly up the lane and along the highway. I could hear his footsteps die away on the hard road. Suddenly I lost all petty fear, and sat in a blank despair, looking at the blood upon my hands. Then I heard voices in the distance, and knew that help was nigh. The voices grew louder and louder. Soon I saw a dark crowd, with the minister at its head, and armed with pitchforks, sticks, and lanterns, come running down the lane. I was lifted to my feet and supported by two strong peasants. Led by Macbraith, we moved along to the plantation. Cries of horror and fear crept through the crowd as the light fell upon the dead man’s ghastly bloody face and upturned dissevered throat. He was lifted up by shuddering hands, and laid across a bier of sticks placed crosswise. Now was the time to speak. Releasing myself from my supporters, I crept up to Mr. Macbraith, who was directing the rest. I put my arms around his neck and pressed him close to me; my finger-nails seemed to sink into his flesh; my wild eyes burned into his with a fierce and fascinating horror.
“Comfort; have no fear,” he whispered, thinking I was afraid; and (horror of horrors!) he kissed me. With a shudder I crept closer to him, and cried out to the men:
“Seize this man! Help, secure him! He is the murderer of my father!”
He tried to shake me off, but in vain.
“The minister!” they all cried, in doubt and terror.
“Ay, the minister!” I screamed, holding him fast. “ Seize him, all of you! He has murdered my father. I saw the deed with my own eyes. Seize him. He will escape.”
Pale, and quivering in every limb, he struggled to shake me off; for I was choking him. After pausing for a moment, the villagers tore him away from me, and secured him.
“She is mad,” he cried.
I gazed wildly at him for a moment; the air swooned around me, and I was again deaf to sound.
Hours passed before I was again myself. I opened my eyes in a cottage, and I was lying dressed on the bed. I had been carefully washed during my trance, that the stains of blood might not appal me on awakening. With a leaden, deadly weight at my heart, and a seeming calm that arose from utter despair, I looked around me. Then I became conscious that my mother was seated by my bed, with her head on the coverlid, moaning and sobbing. She flung her arms around my neck, and cried out blindly and bitterly,
“Oh, Jessie, Jessie, my wilfu’ bairn, ye hae brought us to this. Didna I ken Richard Macbraith lang syne? and wasna his brither Sandie ane o’ the mony that wanted to be marryit till me? And didna Macbraith vow vengeance ower and ower again on the heid o’ your puir faither? and noo it’s dune, dune. The minister has murderit your faither, and ye the lo’ed ane o’ the minister. I shall dee!—I shall dee!”
I tried to comfort her, but she was inconsolable. Well, her grief was wild and violent, and I knew enough of human nature to feel that such grief soon exhausted itself in tears. Those are the bitterest hearts which grow stone-dry in their sorrow, and beat leadenly, without relief and without demonstration.
“What has been done?” I cried, starting up, and suddenly recollecting all that had passed.
“O my bairn! Jessie, your faither is lyin’ cauld ben the cottage next door, Mistress Stewart’s; and the minister is in the han’s o’ the men. They hae him fast, fast, in our ain house, and are waiting gin the police come doun frae Meiklegude. Tam Howieson has ridden awa’ to fetch them twa hours syne, and they’ll be doun at ance.”
I hid my face in my hands, terrified at my own cruel strength. Well, I had a duty to do, and I would go through with it. I had been trifled with, trampled upon, by a villain,—that was all. Ah, how bitterly did I reproach myself for not having listened to the warning of my poor dear father, of whose death I had been partly the cause. It was now clear to me that he had estimated Macbraith aright, and that I had been blinded wholly by my youth and inexperience. My Heart Struggle was over at last, and it had left a long weary blank of utter despair.
I got up from the bed and walked to the cottage-door. The moon was low, there were faint bright streaks in the east, and the stars were fading. There was a clatter of hoofs, and immediately afterwards two of the county constabulary, with the villager Howieson on horseback, drove up in their dog-cart.
“Stop!” cried Howieson; and they all reined up at the door of the cottage.
They followed me indoors, and questioned me about the murder. After passing into the neighbouring cottage and looking at the body, they rejoined us. My mother was wild in her grief and protestations, and to her the constables soon ceased to pay any attention. Having heard me out, they asked for the prisoner, and we informed them of his whereabouts. My mother stayed at the cottage; but I insisted on accompanying them to our house. Arrived there, we found all in a state of strange commotion. The street-door was open, and a throng of villagers were assembled on the door-steps and in the lobby. The constables elbowed their way into the house, and I followed. At the door of the study we found three stalwart men, and were informed that the prisoner was within that room. The constables entered boldly, and I peered in timidly. The lamp was lit, and my father’s papers and books were scattered on the table and about the room, just as he had left them. Macbraith was seated in my father’s chair, with his head between his hands. He looked up as they entered, and caught a glimpse of me, whereon I entered firmly. Never shall I forget the wild grieved expression of his stern and contorted features. He looked at me more sorrowfully than angrily, and then arose sternly.
“Is this the prisoner?” asked one of the constables.
“That is the man,” I said.
“There must be some mistake here,” quoth the other constable. “I know this gentleman well. He is the minister of the parish.” And he touched his hat respectfully, and nudged his companion.
“There is no mistake,” I cried, interposing. “You will release this prisoner at your peril; for, as I have already stated, I myself was witness to the act.”
“May there not be some mistake?” he asked doubtfully.
“Yes, miss; may there not be a mistake?” said the other. “How do you identify your prisoner?”
“By his attire; but not that which he now wears. He had upon him at the time a cloak and hat which are familiar to every one in the village, and which any one may identify as his property.”
Macbraith lifted up his head with a strange look of meaning.
“I see it all! I see it all!” he said.
“Humph!” said the constable who had first spoken. “That’s a very different story. Stop, though! What has become of the clothes you speak of?”
“Immediately after the murder, the prisoner ran off in the direction of the Manse, whence he soon after returned, as if called forth by my cries. The Manse should at once be searched.”
The minister started at my last words, and looked at me almost vindictively. Then he said between his teeth,
“I have to thank my fair accuser for her praiseworthy desire to get me punished; yet she should reflect a little. There are reasons why a visit to the Manse might be dangerous.”
The policemen looked at each other doubtfully; but I turned to them impatiently.
“Do your duty,” I said; “and do not heed this man’s threats.”
“I was not threatening, young lady,” observed the minister.
The constables were now convinced that there was a strong case against the prisoner. With a muttered apology, they handcuffed him. He did not attempt to make the slightest resistance. He seemed quite stupefied with the suddenness of his arrest, and scarcely realised the profound terrors of his position. For myself, I was calm by this time. I felt that I had a holy task to perform, and I was ready to go through with it; though I persuaded myself in the mean time that, for justice’ sake, I was making a terrible sacrifice. Did I pity the man? Perhaps no; perhaps yes. I only saw the blood of my father on his soul, and was too confused to make an analysis of my emotions towards him. My love for him seemed to die away like a hollow music that has haunted a long night of stars. The morn had arisen, dazzling me; showing me my error in all its nakedness, and stripping the man of all that superiority over myself which first made me love him.
They led him from the house, I keeping by their side; and the hushed crowd followed with their lanterns. On reaching the Manse, we knocked loudly at the hall-door. There was a long pause.
“Wha’s there?” asked a voice, that of a woman.
“Open the door, Elsie,” cried the minister calmly.
The door was opened, and we entered with a rush. The middle-aged woman I had seen on my former visit started back with a cry as we entered, and lifted up her hands in surprise. The crowd drew back.
“Hush, Elsie!” said the minister. “Do not be alarmed. Where is my brother—Alexander?”
“Upstairs in his ain room; and awfu’, awfu’ dementit. But what dae a’ these folks want here the noo?”
One of the constables here stepped forward, and whispered in the woman’s ear. She gave a slight scream of terror, and glanced timidly at her master. He stood in a gloomy attitude, and paid no attention to her.
“I thocht as muckle,” cried the woman. “Eh, Mr. Macbraith, what did I tell ye it wad come tae? I kent there was something wrang the nicht when he slipt awa’ and cam’ back—ye ken how.”
“Not a word, Elsie. I must convince these good people and this young lady, who is my accuser, that there is a mistake somewhere. Not a word, I say! Gentlemen, be good enough to make your search.”
They searched high and low, but found nothing, the minister lending them cold assistance all the while. At the very top of the house we halted at last before the door of a small room. On trying the door, we found that it was locked.
“Have you a key?” asked a constable; “or must we force the door?”
“Elsie, give these gentlemen the key of this apartment.”
The woman did as desired; and we unlocked the door. We were entering the room, with lighted candles in our hands, when Alexander Macbraith walked to the threshold and confronted us. He was dressed in the same suit of dingy black, the wrists of his shirt were bloody; and in his hand he held a large carving-knife, with which he was cutting bread. It was then that the truth flashed upon me for the first time. Alexander was chuckling to himself, but he was very pale. When he saw us, he would have sprung over to attack us, had not the minister interposed and motioned him back. He obeyed; but as we entered, he crept close to his brother.
“I hae dune it, man, I hae dune it!” he whispered. “Dead men tell nae tales, ye ken; and he’s as cauld as my gowd. I hae dune it wi’ this!” He flourished the carving-knife. “ I crept ahint him on tiptae, an’ grippit him by the hair o’ the heid, and pu’d him doun, and then it was owre wi’ him. He was walking yonner amang trees and whins, and I was keeking out, and I saw him, and I crept awa’ frae the house and did it. The deil o’ a woman yonner”—he pointed to the servant, of whom he seemed to stand in awe—“didna see me, and I cam’ ben again; and she was nane the wiser. Is it no’ gran?”
We had entered the room. It was a small square apartment, containing a bed and one or two chairs. There was no fireplace, and the window was closely barred. Several frightened rustics followed in our track, and we all stood gazing at the brothers.
“Drop that knife, Sandie,” said the minister sternly. The imbecile obeyed. The knife was picked up by the servant, who turned him into a corner with a steady mesmeric gaze of both eyes.
“Gentlemen,” said the minister, “permit me to introduce you to Mr. Alexander Macbraith, my brother.”
Alexander bowed grotesquely, placed his hand upon his heart, and seemed highly flattered.
“Ye are welcome, ane an’ a’,” he said simperingly; “and we’ll hae a rousing game the nicht at the cards.”
Here his eye fell suddenly on me, and he seemed kindled into fury. He sprang at me with a scream, and I drew back terrified. The constables and rustics sprang upon him. There was a brief struggle, and at last he was held writhing on the ground. One of the men fetched a rope; and the imbecile was soon firmly bound.
“Well, gentlemen!” said the minister, turning with a fierce and mocking smile to his escort. They said nothing, but made a vigorous search through the apartment. Their search was at last rewarded. Poked hurriedly under the bedclothes, and begrimed with mud and blood, they found the hat and cloak of Mr. Macbraith.
“We’re getting wind of the business at last,” grunted one of the constables with satisfaction.
“And what do you purpose doing, gentlemen, at this juncture?” asked Macbraith with stern calmness.
“Doing!” exclaimed the other constable roughly; “why, doing our duty, to be sure, and bringing both you and the madman here at once before the authorities. In the mean time, we arrest you both on a charge of wilful murder.”
I have little more to add.
It was satisfactorily proved at the trial that Alexander Macbraith had been the assassin, and that the minister was entirely innocent. The tale I had heard in the Manse was true; and Alexander, cunning and revengeful in some things, although harmless in the main, had not forgotten his persecutor. He had watched him again and again by daylight, walking in the lane below the Manse; and on the night in question, having caught glimpses of a dark figure, he seized an opportunity to slip out disguised in his brother’s clothes, and perpetrated the dreadful deed.
The minister was severely reprimanded for having suffered his brother to remain comparatively free, and thus having given him an opportunity to commit the crime. It was proved that he was allowed to roam freely about the house; being perfectly under the control of his brother and of the housekeeper, who had once held office in a lunatic asylum. Macbraith, in defence, asserted that he had believed his brother quite harmless, and that he had no suspicion that he was strong-minded enough to be capable of such memory and such resentment. The affair ended by the committal of Alexander to the lunatic asylum, formerly his brother’s terror.
I was right. My poor mother recovered herself in time, but she never managed to get married again.
That I did not marry the minister, you have already guessed. Indeed, such a marriage was rendered a moral impossibility. Some weeks after the trial, I received the following note in a rugged scrawl:
“Miss JESSIE HAYMAN,—
“I regret the sorrow of you and yours, for I loved you—loved you! I love you; but I am not too blind to see that the gulf between us is impassable. You will always be a strange portion of my dark life, for (I repeat it) I love you. Why, I know not; you did not conquer me in the usual way—But enough; I leave England to-morrow, never to return.
He spake wisely. The gulf between us was never to be passed. But I often think of the minister, now in my old age; and the bitter, bitter heart-struggle, returning again, lasted so long, that I had grown old and weak before I knew that it was too late to love again.
R. W. B.
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