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Chapter VII. A Noble Soul

THE Manse was but a stone's throw from the schoolhouse, standing in a roomy garden which had a back door to the moss. The schoolhouse bounded its east side, the Whins the west. The kirk itself was a most unpretentious building, more resembling a barn than a place of worship. It had been built for a mission hall, to accommodate the needs of a scattered population, removed three miles from any parish church, and had at length been converted into a quoad sacra parish, of which the Reverend Hugh Bowman had been the first and only minister. He also was a bachelor. The Beild was a byword indeed for bachelor men, and it was a common saying in other parishes that the Beild was the only safe place for men who did not want to marry. The Reverend Hugh Bowman, however, had his reasons, the best of their kind, for his celibacy, which was to him a matter of simple duty. He was the eldest of a large family of sons, and his mother was a widow. He was licensed when his father, the manager of a shipyard down at the coast, died suddenly; and there being nothing left, the chief burden of his young brothers' education had fallen on him.

That was twenty years ago, and though comparatively speaking still a young man, the minister was as far from marrying as ever, seeing he had still to contribute largely to the support of his mother, and furthermore assist certain ne'er-do-weels among his brothers, who sponged oif him as mercilessly as leeches. He was a man of good parts, though by no means brilliant; he had been "hauden doon a' his days," as Beild folk said, and a man constantly under the heel of sordid care of the most grinding sort finds it difficult to soar to ideal heights. He had the mind and the tastes of a scholar, but none of the gifts of the popular preacher, and he had therefore never succeeded in getting a better charge than the Beild, though for the sake of his family he had sometimes tried. In his own soul he was fairly content with his lot. If the people were simple and many of them ignorant, they were unexacting and very kind to him after a fashion of their own, which he now understood, though his first twelve months in the Beild had been a crucial experience upon which he could now look back with amusement, though it had been a very genuine discipline at the time. He had a Beild woman, also an old maid, for a housekeeper—a decent body devoted to his interests and a great deal more saving of his substance than he was himself. This person's name was Isabel Blyth ; everybody called her " the minister's Easy."

The minister's Easy knew the schoolmaster's rap, and just opened the door about six inches when he knocked that night.

" Ye canna come in the nicht, Bruce Rymer," she said, with extraordinary sharpness. " It's the back o' nine, an' he's no at 'thirdly' yet. His supper's set, but he winna stir to eat it. Ye'd better wait or the morn's nicht."

" All right, don't snap off my head, Easy," said Bruce good-humouredly, but at that moment the study door opened and the minister came out.

" Hulloa, Bruce, come in. Fetch ben the coffee, Easy, and a cup for Mr. Rymer."

" Easy says you're not at ' thirdly' yet, Mr. Bowman," said the schoolmaster, with a merry twinkle in his eye, as he glanced after the retreating form of Easy. " It's only a joke I came to tell you, but it'll keep."

" It'll do me good, and make the coffee more stimulating. Come in, Bruce."

Bruce hung up his hat and followed the minister to the parlour door, which they entered together; and it was then you might have seen what a big, powerful frame the minister had, for though Bruce was by no means a small-man, he looked so beside his friend. Hugh Bowman was forty-seven, and looked his years to the full. His hair was grey, as were the slight whiskers which somewhat softened the long strong outline of his face. To live in such a healthy place as the Beild he looked sallow and out of health; he suffered indeed perpetually from biliousness, which perhaps made him look more melancholy than he felt.

Between these two a strong friendship existed, born of interest on the one hand and fervent gratitude on the other. Rymer often said that to Mr. Bowman he owed all he was or could ever hope to become. As for the minister, the companionship of such a young, bright, ardent soul, which knew not the meaning of impossible or unattainable, had made his lonely existence in that remote parish a more tolerable thing, and there was nothing of which he did not believe his friend and protege capable.

"There's going to be a marriage in the Beild, Mr. Bowman; and if you guess the contracting parties I'll make you a present of my quarter's salary, though it's half mortgaged already for books."

"A marriage!" said the minister, as he stretched his long legs on the hard horsehair sofa. " Faith, that's news. Guessing is always a disastrous business for the unimaginative. Who's going to be married —not Erskine Nicoll, surely, and Jeanie Morison?"

Rymer's face reddened.

" No; I haven't heard that yet—have you ? "

"No; and I don't expect to. What a fool the laddie is! I saw him in Edinburgh on Wednesday, and he minded me on nothing but that bantam cock that jumps about Jess

Lockhart's door. But he'll come to his bit. Well, who is it?"

" Marget Broon for one. Now who do you think she'd wale in the Beild ? " " Marget Broon 1"

The minister positively started, not crediting what he heard.

" Marget Broon! and who in the world is she going to marry ? "

" Can't you think of anybody ? " " James Thompson ? " Curiously enough the same thought occurred to him as had often dwelt with Nanse Wricht.

" No. You'll never guess, so I'll tell you— Dod Aitken."

" Oh, Bruce, you never turned over a bigger Beild lee than that," said the minister.

" It's no a lee. Dod came to me in distress about half an hour ago," said Bruce, and rapidly told the tale, finishing up with Dod's threat to " gang ower to the Frees."

" So you think you've sent him to make it up ? " said the minister, when the laugh was over. " Certes, ye've taken a responsibility on yourself which would make me nervous. What a stir there'll be in the place if such a thing should be! Man, women are queer creatures. Fancy a well-conditioned, independent woman like Marget deigning to look at such a creature as Dod Aitken. It's past finding out. I've gotten very ill news from Pithorn to-night, Bruce."

As the minister said these words, drawing at the same time a letter from his pocket, an extraordinary change passed over his face, making it the face of an old and careworn man.

" From my mother, anent my brother Willie, the youngest at home. What do you think has happened there ? "

Bruce shook his head. So many domestic worries had happened to the minister, and so much ill news came from Pithorn, that it seemed impossible to think of anything new.

" Well, he's married, Bruce, secretly married, been for eight months and more, to a bit servant lassie that was with my mother last summer; and he'll be a father or he is twenty, and earning seventeen shillings a week. Is that not enough to turn anybody's hair grey, Bruce Rymer, and put marriage out of the fashion ? "

" Indeed it is," said Bruce; but though he spoke so quietly his eye showed his sympathy, which was not without its touch of comfort for the minister.

"It's awful," said Bruce again—"awful. Your mother will be in a terrible way over it."

" She is—and coming so soon after Bob's affair. Oh ! Bruce, the mother of fatherless boys is to be pitied; her sorrows ' come not single spies, but in battalions."'

" But she has aye you, Mr. Bowman, and that makes up for a lot."

" I've tried to be a good son to her, but I'm whiles weary of it all, Bruce; the poor woman has become fretful and complaining, her head half turned, I believe, with her troubles. And Willie wants to bring his wife home to the cottage, and my mother can't bide the thought, as is natural. I'll just have to set them up with the few pounds I had laid by for something else."

Bruce got up and took a stride across the floor. He was young and somewhat impatient, after the manner of youth.

" It's enough to make a man use bad language, Mr. Bowman, and were I you I'd leave Willie to fight his own battle. You've done a sight too much for him already, if you'll excuse me saying so, and I'd leave them all, except your mother of course, to find their own level. I've heard you say yourself there isn't a bit of gratitude in them."

"Well, there isn't much," saidMr. Bowman, with a slow, uncertain smile hovering about his sad mouth. " Look at John, for instance; he has three hundred a year up in Bradford, and married a wife with a thousand pounds, and all he sends to my mother is a pound at New Year."

" Don't tell me any more, Mr. Bowman, or I will ' sweer,' as wee Jock Howie said in the school one day. Upon my word, it's shameful, and I don't know where the justice of Heaven is, for there isn't any on earth."

The minister did not hear what his young friend was saying, for his heart was wrung all in a moment by a painful vision of what, in happier circumstances, might have been. He had given Bruce a very full confidence, but there was one thing he had not told him, and would not yet.

" I'll not be in a hurry to answer this letter," he said. " My mother wants me to go down to Pithorn on Monday, but I don't feel that I can. I might say something to Willie that might better be left unsaid; all the talking in the world won't make it any better now."

" Perhaps not, but all the same I'd pitch into him, if I were you, just to do yourself good," said Bruce, but laughed as he said it at the idea of Mr. Bowman pitching into anybody.

" He has married her, Bruce; there's always something to be thankful for," he said. " But, lad, I've no business to sadden you with my vexations. I daresay you have your own to bear."

Bruce, with one of his characteristic gestures, gripped him by the shoulder with one hand, and with the other dashed something suspicious from his own eyes.

" Don't, Mr. Bowman. Who made all my troubles light ? who's done everything for me? who made me? I wish I had a hundred thousand pounds or were the Prime Minister, that I could give you what you deserve."

"That's worth something, Bruce," said the minister, as he gripped him fervently by the hand. " Whatever I've done for you, and that's but little, you've repaid me a thousandfold. Now let's talk of something brighter. So Dod's going over to the Frees, is he ? What next ? "

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