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Chapter XII. Young Ambition

ERSKINE NICOLL had been at home a week and had not been east the Beild—in other words, he and Jeanie Morison had never met. The Professor with whom he was on such good terms had a house at the coast about three miles from Pithorn, and in a week he had been there three times. When Saturday night came a minister from Edinburgh arrived at the Manse, which meant that Mr. Bowman would not be at home for another week at least.

Just after milking time on the Saturday night, Mrs. Nicoll was electrified to behold Leeb Morison, Big Sandy's wife, coming up the front garden at Binns. She went to open the front door to her, feeling inwardly somewhat perturbed, though she was too diplomatic to show it. Leezbeth was dressed in her best, and, so far as the mistress could judge by her face, did not seem to be in an ill key, which she quite expected, believing she had come to interview Erskine concern-103 ing Jeanie. But Leeb had had too much to occupy her that week to think as much about Jeanie as she might otherwise have done. Leezbeth was the same figure of a woman as her sister Marget, only better-looking, and could look you straight in the face, which Marget couldn't, on account of the cast in her eye.

" Guid-e'en, Shoosan; I houp you're a' weel," she said, in neighbourly enough fashion, which relieved the mistress so much that her manner became quite effusive.

"We're a' fine, thank guidness; hoo's a' wi' yoursel's, Leezbeth ? " she said affably.

' Come in to the ben end ; the kitchen's aye ower thrang at this time."

" I cam' roon' expeckin' to find ye in the byre, Shoosan ; but Beaton's Annie tells me ye dinna milk noo. D'ye lippen her an' her mither to measure and strain the milk an' a' ? "

" Ay, I've had my day o' the byre, Leeb, an' I'm takin' my idle-set noo, which Erskine says I've airnt."

" Maybe, though some o's that's airnt it disna get it taen," said Leeb drily. " Losh 1 Shoosan, whaur's the bed ? I never heard ye'd potten't awa'. Whaur do you an' Dauvit sleep noo ? "

" Up the stair," replied Mrs. Nicoll, looking round with great pride on the space formerly occupied by the box bed, and which now contained a mahogany cheffonier with a glass back.

" My certy, you're braw," said Leezbeth rather drily, yet not with that extreme acerbity which Marget must have exhibited at such a sight.

" When did ye get this michty fine business ? The news is no east the Beild yet."

" It only cam' the day. Erskine bocht it in the Kirklands. He said it wasna fittin' that we shouldna hae a room in the hoose withoot a bed in't."

" Um! how does Binns like to see a muckle-lookin' gless whaur his bed was ? " inquired Leezbeth interestedly. " There's no the like o' this nearer than Strathairn, I could wager ; the very minister hasna a gless back till his sidebrod. Eh, Shoosan, ye're an unco 'ooman, an' if ye heard a' they say i' the Beild ye'd be mad, but I never meddles wi' business that's no mine. I'm aye tellin' Mag that; but, certes, she's gotten her hands fou noo. Ye've heerd the news, I suppose ? "

" No ; whatten news ? "

" That Mag's gaun to be mairret. That's what I'm here for the nicht—to bid ye, you an' Binns an' Erskine, on Thursday aicht days at aicht o'clock."

" Bid's till what ? " inquired Mrs. Nicoll, in a dumfounded voice, by no means comprehending her neighbour's meaning.

" To Mag's waddin'. Her an' Dod Aitken's gaun to mak' a match o't, an' it's to be in oor hoose Thursday aicht days—that is if the minister's hame, no onless."

" Od save's a', Leeb; it's lees you're tellin'."

" Is't lees? I wush it was," said Leezbeth, with some bitterness. " I said till her she has lookit lang an' liftit little. I wadna pick the cratur up wi' the taings; but Mag's set on him, an' mairret they're gaun to be."

Mistress Nicoll was not that taken up with her own affairs that she could not feel a lively interest in this exciting piece of news, which had been so well kept by the parties concerned that Leezbeth's bidding was the first inkling anybody had of it. And Mrs. Nicoll was the first to hear it, Leeb having come direct to her out of compliment to Dauvit's standing in the place. There is a good deal of etiquette of a kind in the Beild, especially regarding such family events as death, birth, or marriage, and any breach of the same is immediately resented, and not quickly forgiven. I could tell you some queer tales anent that, but must get on with my story.

" Jeanie's to be the best maid, and Mirren Tosh's makin' her a book-muslin frock wi' a pink sash. Naething'll ser' Mag but a new drab silk made in the Kirklands. But the titbit o'd a's aboot Dod. Ye'll no guess it, Shoosan, so ye needna try."

" Tell me it then, if I canna guess. I hinna muckle to say, Leezbeth, for I'm fair dumfoondered. Marget and Dod Aitken ! Certy, I never heard the like o'd."

"Ye may say'd. Aweel, last Sawbath nicht, the same nicht Erskine preached— an' fell weel he did it, Shoosan, I'll say that for him, though there's a heap o' lees gaun through the Beild aboot his sermon— weel, that nicht, after darkenin', Dod slips ower to Mag. It was a' settled atween the twa some afore this of coorse, an' he has his stockin'-fit wi' him—you've heard that among the clashes afore noo, Shoosan —an' in the stockin'-fit hoo muckle, think ye?"

" Eh ? I dinna ken ! " cried the mistress, leaning forward panting in her eagerness.

" A hunder an' thirty-twa pounds, seeven-teen shillin's, an' aichtpence !" said Leezbeth with exultation, for this fact, which she now announced for the first time, by her sister's permission, redeemed the bridegroom from the reproach of being a complete wastrel, and had been the sole means of reconciling Leezbeth herself to the wedding.

" An' Mag says she wadna wunner but there's mair. Wad ye 'a' thocht it, Shoosan ? "

" 'Deed I wad not. Ye wadna gie tippence for Dod as he stands, even in his Sawbath claes. Weel, weel, this is news, an' nae mistak'! Surely no mony folk ken, or Beaton's Annie wad hae heard it in the milk-hoose or aboot the doors ? "

" I tell ye naebody kens. Ye're the first I've telt an' the first I've speirt. I'm gaun doon to Andra Wricht's noo. Eh, wummin, I wish Nanse could 'a' gane, puir body 1 D'ye mind hoo blithely she danced when you an' Binns were mairret ? No that'll it'll be news till them, for Mag telt Nanse afore me."

" Ay, ay; sit a wee, wummin; it's no often ye gie's a look in," said the mistress pressingly. " I'll bring the cheese an' the scones, an' a bit o' Erskine's Edinburgh shortbread. He's no a bad laddie; he aye minds his mither."

" An' weel he micht," said Leezbeth fervently. " I wadna mind a nip o' the short-breid an' a drink o' milk. No, thank ye, I'm no for whusky. I've ower mony hooses to gang till. I say, Shoosan, d'ye think that I maun bid the minister's Easy?"

" 'Deed I dinna, for if Mr. Booman bides till his tea or supper, or whatever it is you're goin' to hae, it's no to be expeckit he shuld like to eat wi' Easy; she's but a servant when a's dune, Leezbeth."

" I'll hae to think ower't. But you an' Binns an' Erskine'll come, I houp?"

"Oh, Dauvit an' me'll come," said the mistress, as she opened a drawer and carefully unrolled the shortbread from one of Dauvit's red-and-white handkerchiefs. " But I dinna ken aboot Erskine; he's awfu' thrang wi' the Morgans—Professor Morgan, ye ken, o' the university; he's there the day."

" What aboot that ? I'm faur frae believin' what they say aboot Erskine—that he's chock fu' o' pride, an' looks doon on the Beild. Jeanie wadna think it a ploy at a' withoot Erskine."

A speech which showed that Leezbeth still believed absolutely in Erskine, and thought he and Jeanie as chief as ever. It was a kind of painful moment for the mistress, and she was some glad to go to the milk-house for a jug of milk for her neighbour, and when she returned they began to talk of something else.

Having drunk a good tumbler of milk, and praised the shortbread as much as was necessary, she departed over to Andra's, leaving Mistress Nicoll in a mixed frame of mind.

Though she had never spoken Jeanie's name to Erskine, she saw quite well that he was very lukewarm concerning her, never having noticed even her absence from the kirk. And as Shoosan Nicoll was a woman who could not brook any uncertainty of mind, she determined to get his views that very night when he should return. Leezbeth's urbanity did not in the least deceive her, and she feared to think of what might happen when the angry mother should be compelled to see the slight offered to her bairn.

To rid herself of these uncomfortable thoughts, she went out to seek Binns, who, as usual, being a very strict master, was superintending the suppering of the horses; and having found him, electrified him with the invitation she had just received.

Binns was a man of few words at all times, unless when roused, when he could command a choice of language quite startling. His only comment was a slow grin, which overspread his unshaven face and gave it a very comical look. Binns, like most other Beild men, the minister and Bruce excepted, regarded shaving as a duty incumbent only on Sabbath Days. By Saturday night he presented a very shaggy appearance, and was not an object beautiful to behold.

Knowing very well there would not be much opportunity for private talk after Binns and all the men and Beaton's Annie should be indoors, the mistress put a little shawl over her head and went a bit over the fields to see if she could meet Erskine coming from the Kirklands. She had to go a good way before she saw through the gloaming his long black figure striding up the end riggs of Greig Watson's potato-field. It being Saturday night and midsummer, the last train from east the coast was of course a good few minutes late. Erskine walked swinging his arms, his soft, round, clerical hat drawn over his brows, and his eyes fixed on the ground, as if in deep meditation. He never saw his mother until she was quite close to him, at the slap in the hedge through which he had to crawl into the road.

" Hulloa, mother, did you think I was lost, or is anything up ? The train was twenty-five minutes late at Pithorn station. It'll be near midnight before it gets to Edinburgh."

" It's Saturday nicht. No, I didna think ye were lost; but I want to speak to ye, Erskine. Leeb Morison was ower the nicht, biddin' us to Mag's mairrage; an' wha d'ye think she's gan to mairry but that wastrel Dod Aitken ? At her time o' life too 1 She micht think shame. It's on Thursday aicht days at Leeb Morison's, an' she wants us a' to come."

Erskine did not at once reply, and an expression of faint contempt crossed his face. By contrast with the home he had left, how vulgar and coarse seemed everything belonging to the Beild, even his mother, though she was dressed as best she knew how to imitate a lady, because he desired it.

Poor Erskine 1 he did not know that that feeling of contempt for what was genuine and simple marked him off from the roll of gentlemen for evermore. He was but a silly laddie, without experience of life, and unable to distinguish between the false and the true gentlehood.

" It should be stopped by Act of Parliament," he said crossly. " Surely you won't go?"

" No gang ! What for no ? I wadna missed for onything; it'll be the grandest ploy. There's something I want to ask you, Erskine. Are ye off or on wi' Jeanie Morison ? "

Erskine reddened, and flung up his head with a slightly defiant air. " What do you mean, mother ? "

" Eh ? fine ye ken what I mean," she replied, more sharply than she had spoken to him for a long time. "Ye were thrang aince. Did ye ever say mairrage till Jeanie ? That's what I want to be at."

" If I did, it was but in fun, and when I was too young to know my own mind," said Erskine gloomily. " A man ought not to be held to such silly speech before he has had any experience of life."

" Then you've changed your mind aboot Jeanie, an' dinna think she's the wife for ye noo ? " said his mother shrewdly, wishing to come directly to the point.

" Do you think yourself, mother, that she'd be a suitable wife for me ? Of course she's a very nice girl. I have no fault to find with Jeanie, but the Beild's the place for her."

" I'll no say ye're wrang, Erskine. But, megstie me 1 if ye pit a slicht on Jeanie Morison, there'll be nae livin' in the Beild. But I say, Erskine, I'll stick to ye through it if ye'll tell me the truth. Are ye thinkin' on ony o' the Miss Morgans ? "

Mistress Nicoll said this in rather an awe-stricken voice, regarding the Professor and his daughters much the same as she regarded the Queen on the throne.

Erskine hesitated a moment, looked sheepish, and finally told a big lee. " Yes, I am ; I believe I've but to ask Lily Morgan an' she'd say aye. Would I not be worse than a fool to let such a chance slip by me ? Why, if she were my wife, my fortune would be made, and I'd soon be in a professor's chair myself."

" It wad be fair fleein' in the face o' Providence," she assented eagerly. " But, mercy me! ye ken what the Morisons are ; as weel hae a regiment o' savages on yer tap as them."

" I wish you'd find out how Jeanie is disposed, mother; perhaps she won't really care."

" Vera weel, my man; I'll dae that. Meantime, were I you, I wad be some friendly at the east end, an' no jist gie them a fricht a' at aince. Leave the rest wi' me."

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