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Chapter IX. Across the Rubicon

I BLAME myself entirely," she said at length. " She has been well so many months that I was thrown quite off my guard. Last Tuesday I went to Wester Cairn to inquire after Lady Leslie, who has been so ill, and when I returned I found that my mother had ordered the carriage. Meldrum said she had gone to make a call at Fordoun. That I thought quite unlikely, it being nearly two years since we had any friendly intercourse there. My mother never forgave the Colonel, you know, for having told her bluntly one day that she should be regarded as an irresponsible person and placed under restraint. As the evening wore on I got frightfully anxious, as you may know, and sent Meldrum to Fordoun. As I expected, she had never been there. You can imagine my state of mind, as I did not know what direction to go in search of her. Between ten and eleven o'clock at night the carriage returned ; they had never been farther than the Blackwater Inn, Mr. Bowman, at the west side of the Corbie. The rest you can guess."

Her colour painfully rose. Long experience of a bitter curse had not lessened its sting. Euphame Dempster was a proud woman, and this was a genuine martyrdom to her.

"And what explanation did the groom give ? Could he not have come home sooner ? "

" He couldn't; he is quite young, and of course when his mistress ordered could only* obey. If Meldrum had been at home the carriage would not have been taken out, but he was at the Airn making some garden arrangements with Dougall; and of course after my mother got a certain amount she lost her self-control, and nobody dared touch her till she fell asleep. Then they lifted her in of course, and drove home. I feel very bitter at the landlord of the Black-water. Our sorrow has been the gossip of the country-side too long for him to plead ignorance. It is a shameful affair altogether, and I sometimes feel that I cannot bear it much longer, Mr. Bowman. I have not the patience I should like to have with my mother, and I wished to ask you whether you think I ought to take the advice so many friends have given, and place her under restraint."

The minister perceived that her long patience and tenderness, at which many had marvelled, had been more sorely tried than usual, and he was hard put to it to keep his sympathy within due bounds.

" What is her condition now ? " he asked, evading her question at the moment.

" Prostrate. Doctor Cumming was here this morning, and he says she is very ill indeed. Although it grieves me to see her apparently so spent, anything is preferable to the scenes we have witnessed this week. You have seen her in delirium before, Mr. Bowman, but she has never been so bad. Both the doctor and I were convinced that she must be getting secret supplies, and we at last found out that the new kitchen-maid —an Airn girl too, Mr. Bowman—had been fetching it to her. Of course she left the house the moment we discovered it. Oh, what a curse it is! It has changed my mother's very nature. You cannot remember her as I do, when I was a young girl, before my father died. No one who did would recognise her now."

She appeared to find relief in talking ; the shadow on her brow grew less dark, the stern strain of the mouth less marked.

" Would you like to come up ? I wish you would. It is a part of my grief that my mother can scarcely suffer me in the room ; she regards me as her enemy. Of course I know it is but the frenzy of a disordered brain, but it is at times hard to bear."

She took a step to the door and opened it, the minister following her silently. His lips were sealed; words of commonplace sympathy seemed out of place—anything else he dared not utter. Never had he felt the hardness of his position so keenly; and he told himself bitterly, as he followed her upstairs, her soft skirts brushing him at every step, that it would have been better to have disregarded the summons or sent an excuse. He could not offer the ordinary pastoral comfort, or even the sympathy of a friend, when his heart was full to overflowing of something else, which threatened to sweep him before it like a great flood.

These thoughts were interrupted by their entrance into Mrs. Dempster's bedroom, which, directly above the library, corresponded with it in size. The bed, a large four-poster, stood out towards the middle of the room, and propped high among her pillows reclined the old lady, looking worn and spent indeed, though her black eyes were more restless in their movements than those of a weasel. A scowl of indescribable dislike contracted her brows when her daughter entered the room, but when she saw the minister behind it passed, and a silly simper, like the bridling of a bashful school-girl, took its place. She had always been a vain woman, coquettish by nature, and in her unlovely age had not outlived her weakness.

" Dear me, Mr. Bowman," she said shrilly, " that I should have to receive you here is far from what I should like, but that is how I am treated in my own house by the limmer I have borne. She shows gentlemen in upon me without ceremony, without so much as asking whether I want a clean bedgown or mutch."

This was embarrassing. Euphame shut the door, and went into the adjoining dressing-room. Mr. Bowman approached the bedside and sat down. Thinking her daughter out of hearing, Mrs. Dempster raised herself on her elbow and became extraordinarily confidential in her manner.

" It's a wonder she let you up. She's an awful woman, Euphame Dempster—a perfect deil in petticoats. She keeps a blue deil there in the wardrobe to torment me, and lets him oot in the night-time to bite me an' nip me. I'm a puir auld woman no long for this world, an' she'll gie me no peace. Could you no gie her a word, Mr. Bowman ? She's fell fond o' the men. She might keep the blue deil shut up if you telt her."

Mr. Bowman heard at this moment the quick shutting of a door, and felt relieved to think that Miss Dempster had gone out of hearing. He sat a minute in awkward silence, feeling how vain it was for him to say anything rational to a creature evidently so distraught.

" Your daughter is your best friend, Mrs. Dempster," he did say at length. "When you are well again you'll be the first to say it."

"She has gotten roond you too wi' her witch ways," she said fretfully. " Naebody'll believe how she ill-treats me. She's put away Janet Bogie, a kind-hearted Airn lassie, the only cratur in the hoose that wad do a hand's turn for me. I say, Mr. Bowman, would ye do something to save an immortal soul, an' keep a puir decent body frae the blue deevils ? Jist bring me a moothfu'—a teaspoonfu' would do. My very inside's torn for want o't. Oh, dear Mr. Bowman, bonnie Mr. Bowman, jist a drap to save my life—an' half the revenues o' Strathairn will be yours. I can mak' anither will an' leave it a' past Euphame, an' if she dinna treat me better I will."

The minister was again at a loss what to say, and felt how useless was his presence, almost worse than useless, since it gave Mrs. Dempster an opportunity to rail against the daughter who had given up her life to watch and tend her. When the old woman saw that nothing was to be got from the minister she relapsed into sulky silence, relieving the monotony by making grimaces and tearing the trimming of her nightdress to shreds. Though her mind was painfully active her body was evidently far spent, her face being absolutely colourless and her lips blue and pinched-looking. The minister, who had sat by many death-beds, thought her end could not be far off. She made no response to his kind words of farewell, and he went down the stairs sadly, scarcely knowing what words of comfort he could take to the riven heart of the woman below. She awaited him in the library, where Meldrum had carried the tea-tray, and placed it on the table in the window.

"Well," said Miss Dempster, regarding him with a mournful, steadfast look as he entered. " You have seen a pitiful change in my poor mother, Mr. Bowman ? "

" I have ; she appears to me like a person mortally stricken. Yours is a sore grief,

Miss Dempster. I can only commend you to consolation higher than any to be found on earth."

It was a speech common to his cloth, but it fell with deeper meaning from his lips, which were singularly free from such set phrases. It was a case, however, beyond human help, and he spoke from the sincerity of his heart. One tear rolled down Euphame Dempster's cheek, and her strong hands trembled as they busied themselves about the tea-tray.

"Life is very hard, Mr. Bowman," she said. " I—I am afraid I have lost my hold of the consolation you speak of—at least, it seems to be too far off and shadowy to be of any use to me in my trouble."

These were sad words, yet were they re-echoed by the heart of the man who heard them. How often had he, even while striving to administer the consolations of religion to those in trouble, felt that his own extremity was almost beyond them! That very morning, in his own pulpit, had he not preached a strength and courage in which his own soul lacked sadly, and for which even yet his conscience smote him ?

" I can re-echo your words, Miss Dempster, being in sore trouble of my own," he said, wondering if it would comfort her to know how fully he could enter into her deep depression of soul. She turned round slightly, pausing in her womanly occupation, and said with a gentle interest,—

" Sore trouble, Mr. Bowman ? I am sad to hear that. I should have thought that you in the Beild Manse lived the quietest and least troubled of lives; is it not so ?"

Then all at once, without let or hindrance, and with a deal of quiet passion which carried them both like a flood, he poured out his troubles to her, beginning at the very beginning, from the old college days when money had been so scarce, and his father grudged him every penny for his clothing and his keep. It was a moving tale to which Euphame Dempster listened, her woman's heart melting within her for very pity of this noble soul, upon which the load of human circumstance had pressed so heavily and long, until it was well-nigh crushed.

"I have forgotten myself sadly, I fear, Miss Dempster," he said, catching himself up at last with a faint melancholy smile. " I ask your pardon. Seeing your heroic bearing of a great sorrow made me mindful of my own, and I was fain to unburden my mind. Pray forget it."

" Why should I forget it ?" she asked, with a curious thrill in her voice. " It has helped me already; 'it will help me, and make me ashamed of my own fretful lack of patience. Now I understand many things, Mr. Bowman, and I honour you as I have never honoured you yet."

High rose the red flush to the minister's brow, and his eyes grew luminous with the light of the passion in his soul. Suddenly he rose to his feet, for he felt that if he remained a moment longer in the presence of this dear woman, he must destroy his own peace of mind, and perhaps hers, for ever.

" Why such haste ?" she asked in mild surprise, and, lifting her head, looked him full in the face, he returning that look as fully. Then he turned about quite silently, and went his way without a word of goodbye ; nor did she seek to detain him. Only when he had clean gone away out of the house she laid her head, so tired with long vigils and much weary thought, down upon the table, and her tears fell. Why she wept she knew not, since in her heart there was also a secret joy.

For in that long look the man's heart had not been hid from her. What the issue might be she knew not; but to Euphame Dempster, from that golden Sabbath evening, the world became a new place, whose dark shadows were illumined by a light which Death itself cannot quench, even the light of Love.

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