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Chapter X. More Sore Hearts

TOWARDS seven o'clock, sweeping the moss with his field-glass from his own back door, Bruce Rymer beheld Mr. Bowman flying across it like a man pursued, his long legs taking gigantic strides, his coat-tails flapping behind him, and his eyes persistently bent on the ground. Somewhat amused though not greatly surprised at the sight, which was not indeed unusual, Bruce locked up his house, called the alert Birse, and went out to meet him. But by the time he got round to the moss road the minister had cut across in a slanting direction, and was making for the WHins. A trifle disappointed, Bruce whistled to his dog, and sauntered east the Beild without any definite object in view. Presently his heart began to beat more quickly and the colour to press to his cheek as he saw in the distance, coming towards him, the figure of Jeanie Morison. She wore a summer gown of some soft pink material, and a white hat with roses wreathed about it—a fitting garb for one so young and bonnie, and one 8 which enhanced all her winsome beauty. Birse ran barking to her joyfully, and she stooped down to pat his rough head, and to speak a kindly word to him, as she was wont to do to all who came near her.

She had one of those sweet natures that shed a natural sunshine about them as they go ; and in all the Beild, with its lying and its much evil speech, there had never been an ill word or a harsh one spoken of Jeanie Morison. It would not have been suffered in the place. She met Bruce frankly, and with a warm sisterly clasp of hand. She loved him dearly, as the playmate of her youth, and was very proud of him too, believing him capable of great achievements.

" Isn't it a fine nicht, Bruce ? I'm gaun west to the Whins to see Nanse Wricht. Where's the minister ? "

It was a natural question, it being known in the Beild that their Sundays were usually spent together.

" He had to go to Strathairn," replied Bruce, and he took his eyes discontentedly from Jeanie's sweet face, which was more dear to him than she knew, and it was an intolerable thought to him that she had bestowed her love unworthily on Erskine Nicoll, who appeared, if all stories were true, to prize it but lightly.

" Oh, I hope Mrs. Dempster isna bad again," said Jeanie. " I missed them frae the kirk this mornin'. I say, Bruce, wasn't Mr. Bowman grand this mornin', but he vera near made me greet. We are weel aff in the Beild to hae sic a minister."

It is impossible to set down here the sweet quaintness with which the Scotch, her mother tongue, fell from Jeanie's lips. There are such as call our dear Scotch vulgar, and truly in some mouths it might sound so, but not from the lips of Jeanie Morison.

" Can I walk west wi' ye, Jeanie ? " asked Bruce. " I think the minister's in Nanse's."

" Oh, if ye like," replied Jeanie, with her bright smile; and they turned together, a fine, well-matched pair, as more than one remarked, watching them saunter up the road.

" When's the inspection, Bruce ? " asked Jeanie, with her usual friendly interest in his concerns. " Is the day fixed ? "

" Yes, the twenty-eighth, and the holidays will be in July this year, as the harvest's earlier. There'll be a new teacher in the Beild next winter, Jeanie."

" A new teacher !"

She turned her pink cheek to him, and lifted her sweet eyes to his in wonder.

" Where are you gaun, Bruce ? "

" To the college in Edinburgh."

" To be a minister, Bruce ? " she asked ; and something of the brightness passed from her face, as if a sadder thought were suggested by the words.

" No me. I wadna be a minister for no man, Jeanie. I'll tell you what I think— there's few fit. Just look round on a' the parishes in the neighbourhood, Jeanie— Strathairn, Drum, Pitandrew, Cairndrum— an' is there one fit to hold a candle to our Mr. Bowman ? Not one. I think a man should be better than the lave or he stands up to tell his fellows how to live. What do you think ? "

"Same as you, Bruce. Ay, there's few like Mr. Bowman."

" It's just to get a genteel living with the most of them," said Bruce savagely, having Erskine in his mind. " And the young ones are the worstJ'

" Then what are you gaun to be, Bruce ? " inquired Jeanie gently; for the theme of ministers was not one on which she desired to enlarge, her heart having its secret sorrow concerning them.

"A doctor. I've dreamed on nothing else since I was a bairn, Jeanie; but I owe everything to Mr. Bowman," he said, with a full eye and a tender voice, for which Jeanie loved him. Ingratitude seemed in her eyes aye one of the blackest of sins.

" But I thought it took an awfu' money, Bruce—mair even than being a minister," she said doubtfully.

" So it does, but I'll attend the university in winter and work in summer," said Bruce, finding it sweet to tell Jeanie all the secret ambitions of his soul.

" Will you, Bruce ? At teaching, I suppose ? "

" Anything I can get to do. I'll take the harvest in the Beild afore I'm beat, an' there's plenty wad. gie me a job for old times' sake. I thought on waiting till I had a bit more saved, but Mr. Bowmaru jWon't let me. He says it's time I was at it, for it's a hard study, and the older one is the stiffer is it to give the mind to new things.

It'll maybe take me a lot o' years, Jeanie, but I'll win in the end."

" Richt sure am I of that, Bruce," said Jeanie, with a pleased, proud smile. " My, how proud the Beild folks will be of Doctor Bruce Rymer 1"

Bruce smiled a trifle bitterly, not daring to say that for one smile of hers he would barter the good opinion of the Beild from one end to the other.

They were coming close by the school now, and suddenly Bruce put a plain, blunt question to her, though he often wondered after where he got the courage.

" I say, Jeanie, will you tell me what is there between you and Erskine Nicoll? Are you to be man and wife ? "

The sweet colour faded out of the girl's face, and her eyes became heavy with a mist of tears.

" Oh, Bruce, speir me onything but that 1 I dinna ken 1 I dinna ken 1" she said dis-tressedly.

" But he did ask ye, Jeanie ?" pursued Bruce mercilessly, for at the bottom of this matter he must be.

"Yes; but that's long ago, an' I wadna haud him to it, Bruce, if he wanted to be free. I'm but a plain Beild lassie, an' he's very clever, and maybe could wale where he likes. Besides," she added, with a little upward movement of the head which showed another side of her character, " I'm no like some, that would keep a man to an unwillin' troth."

"Oh, the hound!" said Bruce, under his breath. " If I but had him in my grip, I'd shake the cowardly conceit out of him."

" Wheesht, Bruce; it is a thing with which you hae but little to do," she said, with a great, quiet dignity which secretly amazed him. "An' you hae forced me to say what I ought not, which is neither kind nor friendly, an' I dinna ken what ye mean by it."

"Ye might ken then, Jeanie, that I wad gie ten years o' my life to hae ye plight your troth to me," cried poor Bruce, unable any longer to conceal his secret. "An' if I live I'll be even wi' Erskine Nicoll yet, an' I'll win you, Jeanie Morison, if man can do it."

Jeanie smiled, but sadly, and her tears now fell upon her delicate pink gown, making it wet as with the drops of a summer shower.

"Oh, Bruce, Bruce Rymer, ye cudna hae vexed me waur than ye hae, an' I'm glad ye're gaun to Edinburgh, where ye'll soon forget me, just as Erskine has done; but for that I wad hae been wae to lose ye frae the Beild. Ye'd better leave me now, Bruce, because I canna speak ony mair. I'll just tak' a turn across the moss afore I gang in to Nanse, an' guid-enin' to you."

She sped away from him; and much as he longed to follow her, he did not dare. So the second love story was revealed that Sunday night.

Bruce looked in at Nanse's; but finding Marget Broon alone there, only remained for a neighbourly word with Nanse, and then crossed to the Binns, where they said the minister had gone. Bruce was welcome in most Beild houses, and he had no hesitation in walking into the Binns kitchen, which was quite empty, Beaton's Annie being at the byre, and Jock Christie, the foreman, who was her lad, waiting at the byre door till she would be through, and ready to go for a stravaig with him over the moss. The sound of voices guided Bruce to the parlour, where he beheld Binns and the mistress with the minister in close conversation.

"Oh, guid-e'en, Bruce; come in," said Mrs. Nicoll; while Binns, a small shilpit body, not much to look at, but very ill to live with, gave him a friendly nod. Though thus neighbourly enough welcomed, Bruce felt that he had interrupted a conversation which was not resumed. After a short space, however, Mistress Nicoll recurred to the subject.

"We're speakin' aboot Erskine, Bruce," said she, with that peculiar shrill uplifting of her voice characteristic of her when she alluded to her idol. " He'll be hame neist week, an' Mr. Booman's for him till preach in the Beild."

A kind of dry smile crossed Bruce's face, and he glanced a trifle sharply at the minister, wondering at what he heard. And it struck him that he looked very tired.

" I suppose he'll have to preach his trials somewhere, Mistress Nicoll ?" Bruce observed, seeing something was expected of him. " But were I Erskine, I'd not be in a hurry to preach afore Beild folk. You ken them as weel as I."

" That's what I say ! " said Binns himself, bringing down his fist with its striped wristband on the table. " Lat him mak' a fule o' himsel' some ither gate afore he comes here."

" I wonder to hear you, Dauvit Nicoll; an' I wad like to ken what for Erskine wad make a fule o' himsel'—he hasna dune't yet."

" Has he no ? He's made a fule o' you, my 'ooman, mony a day syne; an' if he comes to the Beild a stickit minister, ye'll be cheap o'd."

A speech which showed that Binns had no ambition for his offspring, such as his wife had, anyhow—indeed, it was a real grievance to him that Erskine did not drive a pair at the Binns; but Shoosan being stronger-willed, and as persistent as the deil, had got her own way with the boy, which she was yet to rue. Matrimonial bickerings of this acid sort were as common in the Beild as bachelor men; therefore neither the minister nor Bruce were in the least put about by this passage between Mr. and Mrs. Nicoll.

" I want to go away for a few days, Brucq," said the minister presently; " and as Erskine will be here next Sunday, I thought he might as well take duty for me. I'll write to him then to-night. I suppose you are willing, Mistress Nicoll ? "

" 'Deed am I, an' never heed Binns; when he canna thraw, there'll be something mair the maitter wi' him nor a sair wame."

She spoke cheerfully, and with an amount of quiet satisfaction which indicated that the vision of Erskine in the Beild pulpit was a pleasant one. Her pride in her boy after all was something good to see; and the minister, thinking on the lad's silly talk when he had met him in the street in Edinburgh, hoped he would yet win sense and do credit to his mother, the apple of whose eye he undoubtedly was.

" I hear the examination's fixed, Bruce," said the mistress presently, regarding Bruce with an air of condescension which hugely diverted him. " Are the bairns weel forrit, think ye ? an' do they read wi less sing-sang? Erskine noticed it vera muckle when he was last here, an' said it was a peety ye couldna improve their accent."

Bruce faintly reddened. He was by no means even-tempered, and could hardly hold his tongue. Mistress Nicoll did not know that one day at the Fast holidays, when Erskine had gone into the school and begun to meddle with Bruce and his methods of work, the schoolmaster had shoved him out by the door, in front of all the bairns. The minister perceived that the mistress was getting on a bad tack for peace' sake, and so got up to his feet.

" All right, Mistress Nicoll, I'll write Erskine to-morrow morning. Don't look so glum, Laird," he added to Binns. " Think on the honour and glory of hearing your own son preach an eloquent discourse in the Beild pulpit 1"

" Fegs 1 I'll no hear him, I'll sweer," said Binns, pulling his black forelock. " His mither'll be swelled eneuch wi' pride to need her ain seat an' mine too."

It was impossible to help laughing at this, but the mistress only regarded her plain spouse with mild pity, as one who would not open his eyes to his mercies.

" We'd better be going, Bruce. I suppose you came seeking me, didn't you ?" said the minister.

Bruce nodded. They bade their neighbours good-night, and went away.

"When did you take it in your head to go away, Mr. Bowman ?" asked Bruce, directly they were without the gates. " You are going to Pithorn, I suppose ? "

" No, I'm not—at least, I may go down first. I suppose I must go sooner or later. I must get clean away from the Beild for a bit, Bruce. I can't stand it any longer."

Bruce, though secretly amazed, forbore to ask any questions, nor did it occur to him to connect this hasty decision with the afternoon visit to Strathairn.

" I'm not going to ask you in to-night, Bruce," said the minister, after they had walked in silence the little distance between the Binns and the Manse. " I'm not fit company for anybody ; but you'll excuse me, won't you ? "

" Can't I be of any use, or do anything for you ? " asked Bruce, his soul yearning over his loved friend.

" Nothing, lad, but leave me alone. Stay, you can pray for me if you like, for I'm in that mind that I can't pray for myself."

"Don't let it weigh you down like that, sir," said Bruce pleadingly, thinking only on the trouble at Pithorn. "They're not worth it—not a soul of them."

" It isn't that. I'll maybe tell you some day, Bruce, but not yet. Good-night, my lad, good-night."

He wrung his hand fervently, and walked through the Manse gate without looking back. Bruce, sorely troubled in his mind, went into his own house, broke up his peat fire, and set on his porridge-pot abstractedly. In a while he went out again, down to the foot of the garden, and looked over the low boundary wall, from which he could quite well see the front windows of the Manse. There was a white blind in the study window, and when Bruce saw the shadow on it his heart leaped to his mouth. For he saw plainly that Mr. Bowman sat at the table, with his arms folded and his head bent low on them. It was almost more than he could bear; but having been dismissed, he dared not intrude. But that night Bruce Rymer never closed an eye.

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