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"I swear by my honour I have done her no wrong," said Archie. "I swear by my honour and the redemption of my soul that there shall none be done her. I have heard of this before. I have been foolish, Kirstie, not unkind, and, above all, not base."
"There's my bairn!" said Kirstie, rising. "I'll can trust ye noo, I'll can gang to my bed wi' an easy hairt." And then she saw in a flash how barren had been her triumph. Archie had promised to spare the girl, and he would keep it; but who had promised to spare Archie? What was to be the end of it? Over a maze of difficulties she glanced, and saw, at the end of every pa.s.sage, the flinty countenance of Hermiston. And a kind of horror fell upon her at what she had done. She wore a tragic mask.
"Erchie, the Lord peety you, dear, and peety me! I have buildit on this foundation"-laying her hand heavily on his shoulder-"and buildit hie, and pit my hairt in the buildin' of it. If the hale hypothec were to fa', I think, laddie, I would dee! Excuse a daft wife that loves ye, and that kenned your mither. And for His name's sake keep yersel' frae inordinate desires; haud your heart in baith your hands, carry it canny and laigh; dinna send it up like a hairn's kite into the collieshangic o' the wunds!
Mind, Maister Erchie dear, that this life's a' disappointment, and a mouthfu' o' mools is the appointed end."
"Ay, but Kirstie, my woman, you're asking me ower much at last," said Archie, profoundly moved, and lapsing into the broad Scots. "Ye're asking what nae man can grant ye, what only the Lord of heaven can grant ye if He see fit. Ay! And can even He! I can promise ye what I shall do, and you can depend on that. But how I shall feel-my woman, that is long past thinking of!"
They were both standing by now opposite each other. The face of Archie wore the wretched semblance of a smile; hers was convulsed for a moment.
"Promise me ae thing," she cried in a sharp voice. "Promise me ye'll never do naething without telling me."
"No, Kirstie, I canna promise ye that," he replied. "I have promised enough, G.o.d kens!"
"May the blessing of G.o.d lift and rest upon ye dear!" she said.
"G.o.d bless ye, my old friend," said he.
CHAPTER IX-AT THE WEAVER'S STONE
It was late in the afternoon when Archie drew near by the hill path to the Praying Weaver's stone. The Hags were in shadow. But still, through the gate of the Slap, the sun shot a last arrow, which sped far and straight across the surface of the moss, here and there touching and s.h.i.+ning on a tussock, and lighted at length on the gravestone and the small figure awaiting him there. The emptiness and solitude of the great moors seemed to be concentrated there, and Kirstie pointed out by that figure of suns.h.i.+ne for the only inhabitant. His first sight of her was thus excruciatingly sad, like a glimpse of a world from which all light, comfort, and society were on the point of vanis.h.i.+ng. And the next moment, when she had turned her face to him and the quick smile had enlightened it, the whole face of nature smiled upon him in her smile of welcome. Archie's slow pace was quickened; his legs hasted to her though his heart was hanging back. The girl, upon her side, drew herself together slowly and stood up, expectant; she was all languor, her face was gone white; her arms ached for him, her soul was on tip-toes. But he deceived her, pausing a few steps away, not less white than herself, and holding up his hand with a gesture of denial.
"No, Christina, not to-day," he said. "To-day I have to talk to you seriously. Sit ye down, please, there where you were. Please!" he repeated.
The revulsion of feeling in Christina's heart was violent. To have longed and waited these weary hours for him, rehearsing her endearments-to have seen him at last come-to have been ready there, breathless, wholly pa.s.sive, his to do what he would with-and suddenly to have found herself confronted with a grey-faced, harsh schoolmaster-it was too rude a shock. She could have wept, but pride withheld her. She sat down on the stone, from which she had arisen, part with the instinct of obedience, part as though she had been thrust there. What was this?
Why was she rejected? Had she ceased to please? She stood here offering her wares, and he would none of them! And yet they were all his! His to take and keep, not his to refuse though! In her quick petulant nature, a moment ago on fire with hope, thwarted love and wounded vanity wrought.
The schoolmaster that there is in all men, to the despair of all girls and most women, was now completely in possession of Archie. He had pa.s.sed a night of sermons, a day of reflection; he had come wound up to do his duty; and the set mouth, which in him only betrayed the effort of his will, to her seemed the expression of an averted heart. It was the same with his constrained voice and embarra.s.sed utterance; and if so-if it was all over-the pang of the thought took away from her the power of thinking.
He stood before her some way off. "Kirstie, there's been too much of this. We've seen too much of each other." She looked up quickly and her eyes contracted. "There's no good ever comes of these secret meetings.
They're not frank, not honest truly, and I ought to have seen it. People have begun to talk; and it's not right of me. Do you see?"
"I see somebody will have been talking to ye," she said sullenly.
"They have, more than one of them," replied Archie.
"And whae were they?" she cried. "And what kind o' love do ye ca' that, that's ready to gang round like a whirligig at folk talking? Do ye think they havena talked to me?"
"Have they indeed?" said Archie, with a quick breath. "That is what I feared. Who were they? Who has dared-?"
Archie was on the point of losing his temper.
As a matter of fact, not any one had talked to Christina on the matter; and she strenuously repeated her own first question in a panic of self-defence.
"Ah, well! what does it matter?" he said. "They were good folk that wished well to us, and the great affair is that there are people talking.
My dear girl, we have to be wise. We must not wreck our lives at the outset. They may be long and happy yet, and we must see to it, Kirstie, like G.o.d's rational creatures and not like fool children. There is one thing we must see to before all. You're worth waiting for, Kirstie!
worth waiting for a generation; it would be enough reward."-And here he remembered the schoolmaster again, and very unwisely took to following wisdom. "The first thing that we must see to, is that there shall be no scandal about for my father's sake. That would ruin all; do ye no see that?"
Kirstie was a little pleased, there had been some show of warmth of sentiment in what Archie had said last. But the dull irritation still persisted in her bosom; with the aboriginal instinct, having suffered herself, she wished to make Archie suffer.
And besides, there had come out the word she had always feared to hear from his lips, the name of his father. It is not to be supposed that, during so many days with a love avowed between them, some reference had not been made to their conjoint future. It had in fact been often touched upon, and from the first had been the sore point. Kirstie had wilfully closed the eye of thought; she would not argue even with herself; gallant, desperate little heart, she had accepted the command of that supreme attraction like the call of fate and marched blindfold on her doom. But Archie, with his masculine sense of responsibility, must reason; he must dwell on some future good, when the present good was all in all to Kirstie; he must talk-and talk lamely, as necessity drove him-of what was to be. Again and again he had touched on marriage; again and again been driven back into indistinctness by a memory of Lord Hermiston. And Kirstie had been swift to understand and quick to choke down and smother the understanding; swift to leap up in flame at a mention of that hope, which spoke volumes to her vanity and her love, that she might one day be Mrs. Weir of Hermiston; swift, also, to recognise in his stumbling or throttled utterance the death-knell of these expectations, and constant, poor girl! in her large-minded madness, to go on and to reck nothing of the future. But these unfinished references, these blinks in which his heart spoke, and his memory and reason rose up to silence it before the words were well uttered, gave her unqualifiable agony. She was raised up and dashed down again bleeding.
The recurrence of the subject forced her, for however short a time, to open her eyes on what she did not wish to see; and it had invariably ended in another disappointment. So now again, at the mere wind of its coming, at the mere mention of his father's name-who might seem indeed to have accompanied them in their whole moorland courts.h.i.+p, an awful figure in a wig with an ironical and bitter smile, present to guilty consciousness-she fled from it head down.
"Ye havena told me yet," she said, "who was it spoke?"
"Your aunt for one," said Archie.
"Auntie Kirstie?" she cried. "And what do I care for my Auntie Kirstie?"
"She cares a great deal for her niece," replied Archie, in kind reproof.
"Troth, and it's the first I've heard of it," retorted the girl.
"The question here is not who it is, but what they say, what they have noticed," pursued the lucid schoolmaster. "That is what we have to think of in self-defence."
"Auntie Kirstie, indeed! A bitter, thrawn auld maid that's fomented trouble in the country before I was born, and will be doing it still, I daur say, when I'm deid! It's in her nature; it's as natural for her as it's for a sheep to eat."
"Pardon me, Kirstie, she was not the only one," interposed Archie. "I had two warnings, two sermons, last night, both most kind and considerate. Had you been there, I promise you you would have grat, my dear! And they opened my eyes. I saw we were going a wrong way."
"Who was the other one?" Kirstie demanded.
By this time Archie was in the condition of a hunted beast. He had come, braced and resolute; he was to trace out a line of conduct for the pair of them in a few cold, convincing sentences; he had now been there some time, and he was still staggering round the outworks and undergoing what he felt to be a savage cross-examination.
"Mr. Frank!" she cried. "What nex', I would like to ken?"
"He spoke most kindly and truly."
"What like did he say?"
"I am not going to tell you; you have nothing to do with that," cried Archie, startled to find he had admitted so much.
"O, I have naething to do with it!" she repeated, springing to her feet.
"A'body at Hermiston's free to pa.s.s their opinions upon me, but I have naething to do wi' it! Was this at prayers like? Did ye ca' the grieve into the consultation? Little wonder if a'body's talking, when ye make a'body yer confidants! But as you say, Mr. Weir,-most kindly, most considerately, most truly, I'm sure,-I have naething to do with it. And I think I'll better be going. I'll be wis.h.i.+ng you good evening, Mr.
Weir." And she made him a stately curtsey, shaking as she did so from head to foot, with the barren ecstasy of temper.
Poor Archie stood dumbfounded. She had moved some steps away from him before he recovered the gift of articulate speech.
"Kirstie!" he cried. "O, Kirstie woman!"
There was in his voice a ring of appeal, a clang of mere astonishment that showed the schoolmaster was vanquished.
She turned round on him. "What do ye Kirstie me for?" she retorted.
"What have ye to do wi' me! Gang to your ain freends and deave them!"
He could only repeat the appealing "Kirstie!"