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Homespun
Chapter XIV. Sorrow in Strathairn


THAT night a strange scene was witnessed on the Beild moss. News that Mrs. Dempster was lost there, in what condition was easily guessed, quickly spread, and half the place turned out with lanterns, it being a very dark night, clear and dry, but starless. The Warlock's Well, which Miss Dempster had mentioned in her incoherent speech, was a great, deep pool made by a peat cutting, now full of dark water, of depths unknown. It was a fearsome place to drown in, and had been fenced in, though but frailly, after a little Beild bairn had wandered there, and his body found floating face upwards, his little hand still full of the wild flowers that had tempted him to the brink. That picture was still fresh in the minds of those who carried the lanterns, and there fell a deep silence on them as they cast their light on the well. Mr. Bowman had entreated Miss Dempster to remain in the Manse, promising that the search should be thoroughly organised; but she could not rest, and she was among the first, her face white and drawn with misery, to bend over the edge of the eerie Warlock's Well. But nothing was to be seen; the waters lay dark and still, preserving their secret, if they had it, well. They were not content with mere looking, but dragged the depths of the pool with grappling irons—all to no purpose.

" She is not there, Miss Dempster," said the minister, turning to her with relief in his face. " Come back, dear lady ; I assure you everything has been done."

But the black depths of the Warlock's Well seemed to have a strange fascination for Euphame Dempster, and she could scarcely take her eyes from it. They began to spread themselves in little groups over the moss, for there were many other pools and treacherous bits of bog, where a woman, not mistress of herself, might come to sad grief.

Bruce was as active as it was his nature to be, keeping at a distance, out of an odd delicacy, from the minister and Miss Dempster, who remained together. And as it happened, he was with the little party among whom were Laird Nicoll and Sandy Morison, who found what they had come to seek. They were far over, near the Corbie side of the moss, though about a quarter of a mile from the Airn footpath, when they saw a black object on the ground, lying partially in a shallow ditch, in which there were about ten inches of water.

" Here she is," said Bruce, and there was a tremor in his voice, for even a strong man may be moved at the sight of death in such a form.

One of the boys held aloft the big stabli lantern Binns had brought with him, and he and Bruce, stooping down, turned the poor lady over, in the faint hope that the spark of life might yet remain. But the body was quite lifeless, and the manner of her death was not difficult to guess. She had missed her footing, and fallen on her face. Being unable to rise, she had simply been suffocated in a handful of water which would scarcely have drowned a mouse.

" I'd raither 'a' loupit in the Warlock's Well when a's dune," said Sandy Morison gruffly. " Puir body, to be chockit in a saucerfu' o' water like that; it micht be a wairnin' till's a'. Wha's to tell the Miss ? "

They looked, as was somehow natural, to Bruce, who immediately took the lead.

" Let's carry her up the brae a bit, an' here's a clean handkerchief we can spread over her face," he said very gently. " An', neebors, maybe we need not say anything about how she was lying. It might be easier on Miss Dempster if she thought she had died naturally, or at least only from exposure."

"A guid idea," said Binns approvingly. " It's a kindly lee. I'm ready."

They arranged the poor old lady's soiled garments about her, put her bonnet straight on her poor white head, and Bruce with his own hand spread the clean linen on her face.

Then, while the others bore their burden up the brae to the shelter of the dry stone dyke skirting the Corbie, he strode back the way he had come. The minister saw him some distance off, and gathering from his walk and demeanour that he had something to tell, went a few steps to meet him.

" We've found her near the Corbie," he said, with a nod. " No, not alive—quite dead."

The minister went back in silence to the stricken woman, and took her on his arm.

" They have found her, my dear," he said, with a great tenderness, which made Bruce's heart melt. " It is God's will, and she is better where she is."

Miss Dempster gave a little gasp, and then, with one look at the minister's face, straightened herself and said in a calm voice,—

" Take me to her. I am glad she is found."

When they came to those who were keeping vigil by the prostrate silent form, Miss Dempster bent down, and, lifting the white linen cloth, looked at her mother's face, and though she trembled greatly, spoke calmly to the men, who, listening to her and looking at her face, would have gone to the world's end to serve her.

" My kind neighbours, who have helped me in my extremity, will you help me to take her home?"

" Ay wull we," said Binns. " The puir leddy's but a licht wecht; a buirdly chiel micht carry her hissel'. If you'll help,

Sandy, we can tak' her hame to Strathairn atween's."

And so it was. The boy was sent back to acquaint the others with the result of the search, and the little company, bearing their sad burden, moved forward to the Airn path —poor Meldrum, who had come upon them, sobbing bitterly, for he remembered his mistress in her day of beauty and pride, and the shame of Strathairn was sore upon him. Miss Dempster herself wept none. She was very calm, very collected, seeming to think of everything; and when at midnight they bore the dead mistress of Strathairn to her own chamber, the first thing she did was to give directions for refreshments to be given those who had come.

" I shall remain here to-night, Miss Dempster," said the minister, before she passed up to do the last sad office in the upper room.

She assented gratefully.

" Yes, and ask Mr. Rymer to remain also. I particularly desire it."

So it came to pass that the minister and Bruce found themselves in the grey small hours of that July morning sitting together where they had never expected so to sit— in the library of Strathairn.

It was about two o'clock when she came down to them, looking like a ghost.

" All is done, and you must need your rest," she said gently. " Your room is ready. I thought you would wish to be together. We shall talk in the morning."

" I hope you will take rest yourself," said

Mr. Bowman, and Bruce wondered whether he should go out of the room or not, but finally remained, for which they were both grateful.

" Oh yes. I may not sleep. The sun will be up soon, and it will cheer me," she said with a faint smile, and bade them goodnight.

It was not to be expected that any slept much in the house of Strathairn that night. Neither the minister nor Bruce closed an eye.

Miss Dempster did not breakfast with them next morning, but saw them afterwards as they walked together in the garden. It being Saturday, there was no hurry for Bruce going back to the Beild. In the course of the day some callers came to offer their condolences; and towards afternoon a cousin and his wife arrived from their farm-place on the farther edge of Magus Muir. This man, whom Mr. Bowman had seen before at Strathairn, did not favourably impress him, and he liked not his manner towards Miss Dempster. She was coldly civil to them, nothing more; and when they announced their intention of remaining till Monday, the funeral day, she did not even say she would make them welcome. When they arrived, Mr. Bowman and Bruce went away ; the cousin, Gavin Dempster, showing them plainly he wondered at their presence and considered it an intrusion. He was, however, fairly civil to them before Miss Dempster, being secretly afraid of her. The wife was a vulgar person, with a great idea of her own importance—a woman whom Euphame Dempster had always regarded as insufferable. Miss Dempster accompanied the two friends across the park to the wicket gate out of the Airn woods, and there bade them good-bye.

" I may come to the kirk to-morrow," she said, a trifle sadly. " It may be I shall be glad to escape the company of my kinsfolk, though it seems ungrateful of me to say it, and in the Beild kirk I know I shall be among friends."

She spoke with a pathos both felt, so much that they could say nothing in reply. But a hand-clasp and a long look can express much, and these were not lacking.

" Poor lady, poor lady," said Bruce, turning to look back at her tall figure as she moved away through the trees with her head bent towards the ground. " She is terrible forlorn, and I don't like those folk that have come from Magus Muir—do you ? "

" Indeed I don't, nor do I know what they want at Strathairn at such a time," said the minister, quite hotly for him.

" They look as if they had some right to the place. Nothing could be put past Miss Dempster—could it ? "

" Strathairn can't, if you mean that. The entail cannot be broken ; it has been tried before now. The money might, and the old woman was not herself; but God forbid."

Bruce had his serious doubts, on which however he did not insist, knowing that Monday would settle everything. He felt sorry it was impossible for him to attend the funeral, his school inspection being next day, and time too valuable to spare. He sent his regrets by Mr. Bowman, who went over immediately after his early dinner. There was a considerable gathering of folk —come to pay their respect though to the living rather than the dead, Mrs. Dempster having long alienated such from herself in her life-time. Miss Dempster's face lightened somewhat of its gloom when she saw the minister, and his heart leaped to see it, though it caused him much mournfulness also; for what, even though love existed, could Miss Dempster of Strathairn ever be to the poor minister of the Beild kirk—a man without purse or pedigree ? The burying did not occupy long, the distance to the Airn kirk being but short, and thereafter the will was to be read in the library.

Mr. Bowman was not present at this formality, having stopped to inquire for a bedridden man, formerly a parishioner of his own, in the Airn village. About an hour after, as he came towards the front gates of Strathairn, he beheld the figure of Sir Ludovic Leslie of Wester Cairn driving his dog-cart furiously up the avenue. His face, always ruddy and well-favoured, was now angrily red, and when he saw the minister he pulled up his horse with a jerk which made him rear on his hind legs.

"Don't go up to that dishonoured house, Mr. Bowman, or you'll maybe be tempted, like me, to put your fist in the face of as damned a scoundrel as ever walked the earth."

"What do you mean, Sir Ludo?" inquired the minister, using the name by which the popular laird of Wester Cairn was known in the country-side.

" It's that Gavin Dempster I'm meaning— devil take him !" cried Sir Ludo, shaking his long whip, as if it itched to be about some one's ears. " The old lady's left him every copper, every acre of land not in the entail, and poor Euphame's gotten nothing but the bare standing walls of Strathairn. But I'll fight him for it, if there's law in the land, for honour's sake. I'll wrest it from him, if it should take a year's revenue from West Cairn to do it."

" God forbid that such injustice should have been done."

" It is done, sir," said Sir Ludo grimly. " I'm not a swearing man, Mr. Bowman, but there's times when it's the only language fit; so I just damned the villain before them all, and came away."

Mr. Bowman's usually gentle eyes flashed fire, his great right hand involuntarily clenched, and his mouth lost its expression of sweetness and became wholly stern.

" If there's justice, as you say, Sir Ludo, it can yet be done," he said.

" There's the rest of them coming. Are you going up ? Tell the poor girl Lady Leslie will come over this evening. Oh, if I but had the blackguard in my grips, and that vulgar hizzie of his, as common as thistle-down ! Good-day to you ; preach a sermon on them, my man, and don't spare them."

Sir Ludo, still shaking his fist, rode on, and Mr. Bowman, wishing to avoid the mourners coming up the avenue, struck off into the path among the trees, and returned to the house by the back way.


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