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Chapter IV. Marget Broon's News

AND that was seven-and-twenty years ago. Just think what it was for a young, blithe, happy woman, to whom the joy of living was very great, and whose simple duties were daily so carefully and gladly performed, to be thus laid aside, set apart for a fierce baptism of pain and a course of renunciation from which a stronger heart might have shrunk. She was old in suffering before I saw her and learned the many lessons she could teach, and once, marvelling greatly at the Lord's dealing with one so simple-hearted and so truly good, I ventured to question His goodness after the hot way of youth. She reproved me gently, yet with a sweetness which made her words memorable: "When it is the Lord's wull, it is sweet even to lie still."

Some little time after Nanse's seizure a great lady in the neighbourhood, the Lady Christian Muir, was similarly afflicted, though not so helplessly at first; and as long as she was able to be driven in a carriage she came from time to time to see Nanse, and to com-30 pare experiences. Melancholy picture, with a touch of indescribable pathos, to see the great lady sitting by the bed of her humbler sister, while they talked of the sad journey which could have no ending but the grave ! And as the years went by, and the disease progressed in both, they calculated that Nanse would probably be taken first. But it was not so. After Lady Christian was also confined to her room, she still communicated with Nanse by means of a deputy, until at last she was taken away by a sudden sharp inflammation, after seventeen years of invalid life.

At first when Nanse was laid aside it seemed imperative that somebody must be got to look after the house and the comfort of Andra—who had been so well ministered unto by the willing hands of his dear wife, that he most acutely felt the change. But Andra, though listening respectfully to every suggestion, followed none. His mind was made up, had been made up from the first, that if Nanse needed somebody to wait on her, he and he alone should do it.

And he did for seven-and-twenty long years; and what a source of rich gratification it was to both that he was able ! For they could thus shut the door on the " fremd " as they called it, and be alone with their awful sorrow. Andra had always been a good man and a kind husband; his nature, though deep and quiet, had unprobed depths of kindliness in it; but now he developed a wealth of tenderness which made his ministrations marvellous in the eyes of Nanse.

He did everything for her—made her bed, prepared her meals, swept in the hearth, and even at nights after the door was locked washed the clothes; and he would be up betimes and have them out on the lines before a neighbour was astir, and it was all done with a patience so unassailable and so abounding that it made folks wonder and keep silence. His task at first with Nanse was no easy one. It is not to be thought that a young woman should all at once give up everything and allow no murmur to cross her lips. She has since told me, with tears of shame in her meek, sweet eyes, that for weeks, ay, and months at first, she cried night and day, reproaching the Lord for His hardness to her and hers, the wherefore of which she could not understand. I found it difficult, looking upon her present serenity, to believe it, and yet it was true. But that all passed as the weary years went by; rebellion was followed by silent acquiescence, out of which grew at length a quiet and gracious waiting upon the Lord.

All his spare time Andra worked assiduously at his loom; and, oh, who shall say what glory of self-sacrifice, what wonder of silent heroism, was woven into those webs during these many lonely hours ! Nanse, lying in her bed or sitting in her big chair by the little window, listened to the rattling of the loom, thinking it heavenly music, and praying, praying always for a blessing on her Andra, who was such a king among men. One day in the month Andra had to leave her, to carry his finished web to

Cairndrum and bring back material for another one.

On these days Marget Broon always came from the east end of the town to abide by Nanse, and though Nanse enjoyed the change for a little, she was always glad when night and Andra came. Nanse had been a by-ordinary fastidious and particular housewife, and it was not to tie expected that Andra could keep things in a similar state of perfection. He would not have had the time, even had he known how. And when Marget Broon came, with her bustling ways and loud cheery voice announcing her intention of giving the place a good "redd up," Nanse became painfully conscious of the unsatisfactory state of her abode, and was generally that day either morose and silent, or fretful and complaining.

She was genuinely attached to Marget, however they being a kind of far-off cousins, as almost all the Beild folks were sib to each other.

This closeness of relationship makes it awkward for the stranger, and I have myself more than once been in a tight place through too much candour of speech about one to another. A stranger in the Beild is wise to hold his peace till he understands all the connections, and I doubt life would be too short for such an accomplishment.

Marget and Leezbeth Broon had been early left orphans, with a good deal of gear in addition to the croft and the house. Soon after their father's death Leezbeth married Big Sandy Morison, which was not a change for the better; but Marget continued in single blessedness through all the years of young womanhood, and declared her intention of so remaining aye.

To be sure, she was not very well faured, being big and uncouth to a degree, and having a greenish-grey eye with a decided squint, which gave her in her angry moments a very evil look. But she had siller and gear, and several had made an unsuccessful bid for such a comfortable " doon sittin'."

At fifty-one she still abode in single blessedness, but finally took the plunge in a most unexpected way. Nanse was sitting in her big chair one evening, her eyes alternately fixed on the pages of the Bible which had been one of Lady Christian's many gifts to her, and on the little back window across which the red glow of the sunset lay bonnily, making a bright bit of colour in a melancholy place.

Nanse was now a sad spectacle to behold, especially to eyes not used to the sight. Her poor frame was all swollen and twisted and distorted, and her frail white hands with thin knotted fingers were only able to support the lightest burden. She was not able to knit or sew now—a great deprivation ; but all the deprivations had come gradually, and she had been able to give things up one by one with scarcely a pang.

" I'm a useless block noo—quate useless," she would say, with her sweet, melancholy smile. " The Lord'll sune be dune wi' me. He'll no let me be ower lang a cumberer of the ground." Then I would say to her that that could never be so long as she had me, and such as me, to teach lessons in humility and patience, and cheerful waiting on the will of God.

Andra was at the loom as usual, their tea being over, the hearth tidily swept in, and the little table set close by Nanse's chair, with her books and her clean handker chief folded above them, and a broker!, tumbler with a red rose and a sprig of mignonette making a sweet scent all over the little place. Presently, when Nanse's hand had grown a little weary with holding the Book, there fell athwart the front window the big shadow of Marget Broon; and Nanse saw it with surprise, for it was neither Sunday night nor Wednesday night, which were her kinswoman's regular periods of visitation.

And it seemed to her that Marget lifted the sneck of the door with a somewhat hasty hand, and shut it too with more than her usual vigour.

" Marget," she said, looking round in mild surprise, " what is't, my 'ooman ? I hope ye're no noweel."

Marget bounced down in Andra's chair; her face was very red, and she flung back her bonnet strings, and exhibited other signs of perturbation, but never spoke a word.

" Where's Andra ? " she asked finally.

" At the loom. Did ye no hear it as ye cam' by ? He's gettin' on fell fast wi' the new wab."

Ay, a' richt. He canna hear, can he ? '

inquired Marget, leaning somewhat forward in her chair, and fixing her eyes on Nanse's face.

" Hear what ? " asked Nanse in some bewilderment, for she could not understand this manner of Marget's, who, though boisterous as a rule, was always entirely self-possessed.

" Hear us—what we say, I mean ? "

Nanse smiled.

" Fine ye ken he canna, Mag ; even if he were as gleg in the hearin' as he was, the loom mak's ower muckle din. But what way d'ye speir ? "

" Oh, I've something awfu' to tell ye, Nanse. What d'ye think ? "

" Sandy hasna left Leezbeth, I houp ? " said Nanse with a great start, that being a scandal occasionally threatened in the family, and greatly dreaded by the more peaceable members of it.

" Hoots! no; Sandy'll never dae that, Nanse; it's a cry an' nae 'oo wi' him, an' he kens when he's weel aff," said Marget indifferently. " It's me that's in't this time, Nanse. I'm gaun to tak' a man 1"

" Marget!"

Nanse gave a sudden lurch forward in her surprise, which caused a sharper pain than usual to shoot through her, blanching her very lips.

Marget nodded primly, and fanned her hot face with her mauve bonnet strings, and her look was comical to see.

" Havers, Marget Broon 1 I dinna believed-"

" It's true; ye'll say waur when ye ken what it is, but it's my business an* it's me that has to live wi' the cratur," said Marget a trifle aggressively, thus betraying a secret shame of her choice.

" No Jeem Tamson ? " queried Nanse, almost wistfully, for she had often thought, conning in her solitude the loneliness and sorrows of others, that if Marget and Jeems, both so good-hearted though so differently disposed, could see their way to forgather, what a fine thing it would be for both.

Marget shook her head, and sat up with the boldest look of defiance on her face.

" Ye'll never guess—so I'll tell ye, as I cam' to dae't. It's Dod Aitken."

" Eh ? Guid sakes ! "

It was the nearest approach to irreverent language Nanse had ever uttered, but she was so genuinely appalled that she could not help it.

"That cratur! It's no true, Mag. If it is, ye're no wise."

Now Marget had expected surprise, but this seemed rather strong, and she immediately resented it.

" An' what for am I no wise ? What's the maitter wi' the man ? He's a God-forsaken cratur that's true, but that's no his wyte. He has naebody to look after him, or to care whether he minds hissel' or no."

" That's a' true, Marget, but—but-"

She could really say no more. Dod Aitken was the butt and byword of the Beild, a creature whom some few pitied and all despised, and to hear Marget Broon, her own kinswoman, a person of substance and standing in the place, calmly announce her intention of marrying him, was beyond everything.

" That's a' true, wummin," she repeated helplessly. " But ye're no wise.

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