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Chapter VIII. Sunday Afternoon

ONLY Bruce noted the undertone of sadness in Mr. Bowman's sermon next day. He preached from Job, and the words were singularly appropriate : " He shall deliver thee in six troubles : yea, in seven there shall no evil touch thee."

Bruce sat in the precentor's desk, where he led the singing, and he observed that there were fewer nodding heads and a less drowsy atmosphere than usual in the little kirk. Dod Aitken was absent, but Marget Broon sat in her own pew behind her sister, wearing a new summer bonnet with big yellow strings and a perfect flower garden of yellow roses on top, also a new shape of garment never before seen in the Beild, and which greatly exercised the female portion of the congregation. It was the first specimen of the dolman, not long introduced by fashion.

Mr. Bowman could not refrain from a slight smile as he beheld this startling vision, and he wondered whether Marget had donned her bridal clothes beforehand. Bruce always dined at the Manse on Sunday, and as a rule they spent the day together, taking a long walk in the evening sometimes to an outlying clachan, where Mr. Bowman would hold a cottage meeting, at which Bruce led the singing. It was a simple life, full of usefulness, and there were few things these two did not discuss. Mr. Bowman, a man of large culture himself, had carefully guided the taste of his young friend, and now had in him a congenial companion as widely read as himself, and possessed of a brilliant and daring imagination, which gave a peculiar zest to his conversation. There were few better classical scholars in the Howe of Drum indeed than the minister and the schoolmaster of the Beild.

After their simple dinner that afternoon, they were sitting on the bench in the Manse garden enjoying a lazy pipe, when Easy came to the back door.

"There's a laddie frae Strathairn, Mr. Booman. Ye're to gang ower, he says, as shune as ye can."

" What for, Easy ? Did he say what's the matter?"

" No him; it's Eck Doogal frae the Airn smiddy, an' he's gotten a new dug wi' him on a string—steelt it, I believe; but he says the Miss sent 'im for ye."

" Is he away ? "

" Oo ay; an' I jist stappit oot to see what he was up till, an' it was as I thocht; nae shuner was he by the skule than he let the brute bang amang Jess Lockhart's hens. My certy, if Jess catches him Eck'll wish he had tried some other ploy for Sunday efter-nune."

Having thus delivered herself, Easy withdrew, and the minister took out his pouch for another fill.

" It's a long walk on a warm afternoon, Bruce. I wonder what can be up ? "

" Surely Mrs. Dempster has been better lately—at least, there's been no news of her in the Beild," Bruce answered carelessly, not feeling any special interest in the two ladies who abode alone in the old house of Strathairn.

" She has been much better lately," said the minister. " Miss Dempster hoped it might be the last attack. I hope it is not another, but I confess I was anxious when I saw their pew empty this morning."

" I didn't notice they were absent; but you see everybody. Shall I walk with you ? "

" I'll be glad of your company across the moss, if you don't mind coming back alone."

" I don't, though I might go up to the Airn schoolhouse and wait for you there, if you like."

" I think not. I may be detained a while," replied the minister, and gave no other reason, though the true one was that after a visit to Strathairn he was not likely to be good company for anybody.

" All right," Bruce replied. " I'll cross the moss. Just let me go for Birse," Birse being the schoolmaster's dog, a poor specimen of a Scotch terrier, but as wise as most human beings in the Beild—a

good deal wiser, Bruce always said, than some of them. Between Birse and Raef, the Manse collie, there was a kind of armed neutrality, which caused their behaviour to each other to be marked by a great deal of dignity.

Raef was a powerful animal, who could very nearly have felled Birse with his paw; but what the terrier lacked in size and strength he made up by his impudence, which was colossal. He adored his master, however, and obeyed his every glance.

They walked leisurely across the green . and brown stretches of the moss under a sky almost Italian in its blue softness, and somehow they had less to say than usual. The dogs ran on ahead, Birse setting up his yelp at the seamews which swooped gracefully overhead, their motions somewhat resembling those of the swallow. At the far side of the moss they parted, the minister continuing his way round the base of the East Corbie, while Bruce took a book from his pocket, and, throwing himself on the soft, dry, heathery bank, gave himself up to an hour's real lazy enjoyment.

Raef followed the minister; and Birse, after sundry investigations of rabbit holes, lay down too, with his white feet curled up under him and his eyes blinking, half open and half shut.

The minister had two miles farther to walk till he came to the Airn village— a mere handful of houses, much more picturesquely scattered than the Beild. The view from the Airn was really magnificent,

commanding the entire prospect of the fertile Howe of Drum, with its rich farm lands, bonnie woods, and limpid streams. Mr. Bowman did not go through the village, but taking a detour by the back of the smiddy, the home of the impish Eck, entered a little wood, which had a short cut through to the grounds of Strathairn. Strathairn was an old family house, which had belonged for generations to the Dempsters—lairds in the Howe since the early days of Scotch history, though the turmoil of the Covenanting times had considerably reduced their patrimony. The house, however, though it had once been in possession of Claverhouse's lawless dragoons, hunting for Dempster of Strathairn and Hackstoun of Rathillet, supposed to be in hiding in the neighbourhood, had not suffered at all, and was a picture of dignity and beauty and repose. It had a wide lawn before its curious old doorway, and its little diamond-paned latticed windows were wreathed in ivy of many centuries' growth. The place was well kept and looked an ideal home, in which happy and blameless lives might dritt to a peaceful close. It was very familiar to the Beild minister, he being a frequent visitor to the ladies, who, though not his parishioners, preferred his ministrations to the slumbrous discourses of their own parish priest.

A douce man-servant dozing in an armchair in the hall woke up when he heard the minister's foot on the gravel, and came forward trying to hide his yawn.

" Well, Meldrum, how are you to-day ? " said the minister kindly. " I hope your mistress is not ill again ?"

" 'Deed is she, sir," replied Meldrum sadly, for he had grown grey in the service of the house, and its sorrows were his own. " A hantle waur than she's been for a twelmonth, an' Miss Dempster's sair putten aboot."

" How did she get it, Meldrum ? " asked the minister as he hung up his hat. " It's long since Miss Dempster told me Strathairn cellars were empty."

" So they are; there hasna been as muckle in them as wet a dry whustle sin' last Mair-temas," replied Meldrum ruefully. Get it! Maister Booman, them that's set on't can get it, Guid kens whaur. I whiles say to Elspet that they maun be like Moses wi' the water in the wulderness—chap on the rock an' oot it flees. Stap in, an' I'll tell the Miss ye are here."

Meldrum held open the door of the library, and the minister stepped in. It was a large, low-ceiled, pleasant room, walls panelled in carved oak, and the furniture such as would have sent a lover of the antique into raptures over the grace of the spindle-legged chairs and the wonderful carving of the spoonbacks—to say nothing of the many-legged table in the middle of the room, and the cabinet, a gem of the Sheraton period, standing against the wall.

The minister was left some time to his meditations, which were of a character strangely mixed. He was glad of the little interval to recover himself from the heat and fatigue of his long walk, and was still sitting with his arms folded and his eyes closed when the door was gently opened and a lady came in. Then he hastily rose, and there appeared on his face a curious expression, an indescribable mingling of yearning and stern restraint which almost amounted to pain. It had something of a reflex in the lady's face, though she was entirely self-possessed, and greeted him with the quiet courtesy habitual to her. She was no longer in her first youth, but looked her eight-and-thirty years to the full. She had a tall, slender, and spare figure, robed in a simple black gown; a grave, somewhat large-featured, but attractive face, the eyes large, grey, and expressive, indicating both soul and individuality ; her brown hair, which had a natural wave in it, was dressed becomingly, and was worthy of admiration. Euphame Dempster looked what she was—a gentlewoman, natural in appearance and manners, and who owed nothing whatever to the charm of art.

"I am afraid you have had a very long, weary walk, Mr. Bowman," she said, and her voice was singularly sweet. " I hope you will forgive me having sent so unceremoniously for you ; but I felt that I could no longer bear it alone."

The minister deprecatingly waved his hand.

" Miss Dempster, say no more. It is a great deal to me that you should have thought of me in your trouble," he said, a trifle formally, to hide the real emotion which surged within his breast. " When did this unhappy outbreak take place ? "

She did not immediately answer, but walked slowly to and fro the room, and he observed that her hands were extremely nervous in their movements, and that her strong mouth trembled more than once. Watching her, at once so womanly in her pain, and yet so brave to endure what had been a lifelong humiliation and sorrow to her, the minister's expression changed to one of tenderness, so marked and unmistakable that, had she but glanced at him, the secret of his inmost being must have been laid bare to her at once and for ever.

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