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Book of Scottish Story
The Lover's Last Visit

The window of the lonely cottage of Hilltop was beaming far above the highest birchwood, seeming to travellers at a distance in the long valley below, who knew it not, to be a star in the sky. A bright fire was in the kitchen of that small tenement; the floor was washed, swept and sanded, and not a footstep had marked its perfect neatness; a small table was covered, near the ingle, with a snow-white cloth, on which was placed a frugal evening meal; and in happy but pensive mood sat there all alone the woodcutter's only daughter, a comely and gentle creature, if not beautiful—such a one as diffuses pleasure round her hay-field, and serenity over the seat in which she sits attentively on the Sabbath, listening to the word of God, or joining with mellow voice in His praise and worship. On this night she expected a visit from her lover, that they might fix their marriage-day; and her parents, satisfied and happy that their child was about to be wedded to a respectable shepherd, had gone to pay a visit to their nearest neighbour in the glen.

A feeble and hesitating knock was at the door, not like the glad and joyful touch of a lover's hand ; and cautiously opening it, Mary Robinson beheld a female figure wrapped up in a cloak, with her face concealed in a black bonnet. The stranger, whoever she might be, seemed wearied and worn out, and her feet bore witness to a long day's travel across the marshy mountains. Although she could scarcely help considering her an unwelcome visitor at such an hour, yet Mary had too much disposition—too much humanity,—not to request her to step forward into the hut; for it seemed as if the wearied woman had lost her way, and had come towards the shining window to be put right upon her journey to the low country.

The stranger took off her bonnet on reaching the fire; and Mary Robinson beheld the face of one whom, in youth, she had tenderly loved; although for some years past, the distance at which they lived from each other had kept them from meeting, and only a letter or two, written in their simple way, had given them a few notices of each other's existence. And now Mary had opportunity, in the first speechless gaze of recognition, to mark the altered face of her friend,—and her heart was touched with an ignorant compassion. "For mercy's sake! sit down Sarah, and tell me what evil has befallen you; for you are as white as a ghost. Fear not to confide anything to my bosom: we have herded sheep together on the lonesome braes; —we have stripped the bark together in the more lonesome woods; — we have played, laughed, sung, danced together; —we have talked merrily and gaily, but innocently enough surely, of sweethearts together; and, Sarah, graver thoughts, too, have we shared, for when your poor brother died away like a frosted flower, I wept as if I had been his sister ; nor can I ever be so happy in this world as to forget him. Tell me, my friend, why are you here ? and why is your sweet face so ghastly?"

The heart of this unexpected visitor died within her at these kind and affectionate inquiries; for she had come on an errand that was likely to dash the joy from that happy countenance. Her heart upbraided her with the meanness of the purpose for which she had paid this visit; but that was only a passing thought; for was she, innocent and free from sin, to submit, not only to desertion, but to disgrace, and not trust herself and her wrongs, and her hopes of redress, to her whom she loved as a sister, and whose generous nature, she well knew, not even love, the changer of so many things, could change utterly. though, indeed, it might render it colder than of old to the anguish of a female friend?

"Oh! Mary, I must speak—yet must my words make you grieve, far less for me than for yourself. Wretch that I am, I bring evil tidings into the dwelling of my dearest friend ! These ribbons, they are worn for his sake— they become well, as he thinks, the auburn of your bonny hair;—that blue gown is worn to-night because he likes it;—but, Mary, will you curse me to my face, when I declare before the God that made us, that that man is pledged unto me by all that is sacred between mortal creatures ; and that I have here in my bosom written promises and oaths of love from him, who, I was this morning told, is in a few days to be thy husband? Turn me out of the hut now, if you choose, and let me, if you choose, die of hunger and fatigue in the woods where we have so often walked together; for such death would be mercy to me, in comparison with your marriage with him who is mine for ever, if there be a God who heeds the oaths of the creatures He has made."

Mary Robinson had led a happy life, but a life of quiet thoughts, tranquil hopes, and meek desires. Tenderly and truly did she love the man to whom she was now betrothed ; but it was because she had thought him gentle, manly, upright, sincere, and one that feared God. His character was unimpeached —to her his behaviour had always been fond, affectionate, and respectful; that he was a fine-looking man, and could show himself among the best of the country round at church, and market, and fair-day, she saw and felt with pleasure and with pride. But in the heart of this poor, humble, contented, and pious girl, love was not a violent passion, but an affection sweet and profound. She looked forward to her marriage with a joyful sedateness, knowing that she would have to toil for her family, if blest with children; but happy in the thought of keeping her husband's house clean, of preparing his frugal meals, and welcoming him when wearied at night to her faithful, and affectionate, and grateful bosom.

At first, perhaps, a slight flush of anger towards Sarah tinged her cheek; then followed in quick succession, or all blended together in one sickening pang, fear, disappointment, the sense of wrong, and the cruel pain of discs teeming and despising one on whom her heart had rested with all its best and purest affections. But though there was a keen struggle between many feelings in her heart, her resolution was formed during that very conflict, and she said within herself, "If it be even so, neither will I be so unjust as to deprive poor Sarah of the man who ought to marry her, nor will I be so mean and low-spirited, poor as I am, and dear as he has been unto me, as to become his wife."

While these thoughts were calmly passing in the soul of this magnanimous girl, all her former affection for Sarah revived; and, as she sighed for herself, she wept aloud for her friend. "Be quiet, be quiet, Sarah, and sob not so as if your heart were breaking. It need not be thus with you. Oh, sob not so sair! You surely have not walked in this one day from the heart of the parish of Montrath?"—"I have indeed done so, and I am as weak as the wreathed gnaw. God knows, little matter if I should die away; for, after all, I fear he will never dunk of me for his wife, and you, Mary, will lose a husband with whom you would have been happy. I feel, after all, that I must appear a mean wretch in your eyes."

There was silence between them; and Mary Robinson, looking at the clock, saw that it wanted only about a quarter of an hour from the time of tryst "Give me the oaths and promises you mentioned, out of your bosom, Sarah, that I may show them to Gabriel when he comes. And once more I promise, by all the sunny and all the snowy days we have sat together in the same plaid on the hillside, or in the lonesome charcoal plots and nests o' green in the woods, that if my Gabriel—did I say my Gabriel?—has forsaken you and deceived me thus, never shall his lips touch mine again—never shall he put ring on my finger—never shall this head lie in his bosom—no, never, never; notwithstanding all the happy, too happy, hours and days I have been with him, near or at a distance—on the corn-rig—among the meadow hay, in the singing-school—at harvest-home—in this room, and in God's own house. So help me God, but I will keep this vow!"

Poor Sarah told, in a few hurried words, the story of her love and desertion—how Gabriel, whose business as a shepherd often took him into Montrath parish, had wooed her, and fixed everything about their marriage, nearly a year ago. But that he had become causelessly jealous of a young man whom she scarcely knew ; hud accused her of want of virtue, and for many months had never once come to see her. "This morning, for the first time, I heard for a certainty, from one who knew Gabriel well and all his concerns, that the banns had been proclaimed in the church between him and you; and that in a day or two you were to be married. And though I felt drowning, I determined to make a struggle for my life—for oh! Mary, Mary, my heart is not like your heart; it wants your wisdom, your meekness, your piety; and if I am to lose Gabriel, will I destroy my miserable life, and face the wrath of God sitting in judgment upon sinners."

At this burst of passion Sarah hid her face with her hands, as if sensible that she had committed blasphemy. Mary, seeing her wearied, hungry, thirsty, and feverish, spoke to her in the most soothing manner, led her into the little parlour called the spence, then removed into it the table, with the oaten cakes, butter, and milk; and telling her to take some refreshment, and then lie down in the bed, but on no account to leave the room till called for, gave her a sisterly kiss, and left her. In a few minutes the outer door opened, and Gabriel entered.

The lover said, "How is my sweet Mary?" with a beaming countenance; and gently drawing her to his bosom, he kissed her cheek. Mary did not— could not—wished not—at once to release herself from his enfolding arms. Gabriel had always treated her as the woman who was to be his wife; and though, at this time, her heart knew its own bitterness, yet she repelled not endearments that were so lately delightful, and suffered him to take her almost in his arms to their accustomed scat. He held her hand in his, and began to speak in his usual kind and affectionate language. Kind and affectionate it was, for though he ought not to have done so, he loved her, as he thought, better than his life. Her heart could not, in one small short hour, forget a whole year of bliss. She could not yet fling away with her own hand what, only a few minutes ago, seemed to her the hope of paradise. Her soul sickened within her, and she wished that she were dead, or never had been born.

"O Gabriel! Gabriel! well indeed have I loved you ; nor will I say, after all that has passed between us, that you are not deserving, after all, of a better love than mine. Vain were it to deny my love, either to you or to my own soul. But look me in the face—be not wrathful— think not to hide the truth either from yourself or me, for that now is impossible—but tell me solemnly, as you shall answer to God at the judgment-day, if you know any reason why I must not be your wedded wife." She kept her mild moist eyes fixed upon him; but he hung down his head and uttered not a word, for he was guilty before her, before his own soul, and before God.

"Gabriel, never could we have been happy; for you often, often told me, that all the secrets of your heart were known unto me, yet never did you tell me this. How could you desert the poor innocent creature that loved you ; and how could you use me so, who loved you perhaps as well as she, but whose heart God will teach, not to forget you, for that may I never do, but to think on you with that friendship and affection which innocently I can bestow upon you, when you are Sarah's husband. For, Gabriel, I have this night sworn, not in anger or passion—no, no—but in sorrow and pity for another's wrongs—in sorrow also, deny it will I not, for my own— to look on you from this hour, as on one whose life is to be led apart from my life, and whose love must never more meet with my love. Speak not unto me—look not on me with beseeching eyes. Duty and religion forbid us ever to be man and wife. But you know there is one, besides me, whom you loved before you loved me, and, therefore, it may be better too; and that she loves you, and is faithful, as if God had made you one, I say without fear—I who have known her since she was a child, although, fatally for the peace of us both, we have long lived apart. Sarah is in the house; I will bring her unto you in tears, but not tears of penitence, for she is as innocent of that sin as I am, who now speak."

Mary went into the little parlour, and led Sarah forward in her hand. Despairing as she had been, yet when she had heard from poor Mary's voice speaking so fervently, that Gabriel had come, and that her friend was interceding in her behalf, the poor girl had arranged her hair in a small looking-glass—tied it up with a ribbon which Gabriel had given her, and put into the breast of her gown a little gilt brooch, that contained locks of their blended hair. Pale but beautiful—for Sarah Pringle was the fairest girl in all the country—she advanced with a flush on that paleness of reviving hope, injured pride, and love that was ready to forgive all and forget all, so that once again she could be restored to the place in his heart that she had lost. "What have I ever done, Gabriel, that you should fling me from you? May my soul never live by the atonement of my Saviour, if I am not innocent of that sin, yea, of all distant thought of that sin, with which you, even you, have in your hard-heartedness charged me. Look me in the face, Gabriel, and think of all I have been unto you, and if you say that before God, and in your own soul, you believe me guilty, then will I go away out into the dark night, and, long before morning, my troubles will be at an end."

Truth was not only in her fervent and simple words, but in the tone of her voice, the colour of her face, and the light of her eyes. Gabriel had long shut up his heart against her. At first, he had doubted her virtue, and that doubt gradually weakened his affection. At last he tried to believe her guilty, or to forget her altogether, when his heart turned to Mary Robinson, and he thought of making her his wife. His injustice—his wickedness—his baseness —which he had so long concealed, in some measure, from himself, by a dim feeling of wrong done him, and afterwards by the pleasure of a new love, now appeared to him as they were, and without disguise. Mary took Sarah's hand and placed it within that of her contrite lover; for had the tumult of conflicting passions allowed him to know his own soul, such at that moment he surely was, saying with a voice as composed as the eyes with which she looked upon them, "I restore you to each other; and I already feel the comfort of being able to do my duty. I will be brides-maid. And I now implore the blessing of God upon your marriage. Gabriel, your betrothed will sleep this night in my bosom. We will think of you, better, perhaps, than you deserve. It is not for me to tell you what you have to repent of. Let us all three pray for each other this night, and evermore, when we are on our knees before our Maker. The old people will soon be at home. Goodnight, Gabriel." He kissed Sarah; and, giving Mary a look of shame, humility, and reverence, he went home to meditation and repentance.

It was now midsummer; and before the harvest had been gathered in throughout the higher valleys, or the sheep brought from the mountain-fold, Gabriel and Sarah were man and wife. Time passed on, and a blooming family cheered their board and fireside. Nor did Mary Robinson, the Flower of the Forest (for so the woodcutter's daughter was often called), pass her life in single blessedness. She, too, became a wife and mother; and the two families, who lived at last on adjacent farms, were remarkable for mutual affection throughout all the parish, and more than one intermarriage took place between them. at a time when the worthy parents had almost forgotten the trying incident of their youth.

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