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Chapter XIII. Bruce Understands

BRUCE RYMER had just let the scholars away, and was turning the key in the school door, when he beheld a pony-carriage coming up the Beild, and recognised Miss Dempster as its sole occupant. She did not often drive through the Beild on a week-day, and it just passed through his mind that she might be seeking Mr. Bowman. He stepped across to his own garden, and busied himself among his flowers till she came up, when she stopped her pony with that pleasant smile of hers which made everybody feel at home. Bruce thought as he raised his cap to her that she looked younger than he had ever seen her look, and attributed it to her hat, a brown confection trimmed with yellow, and singularly becoming. Bruce, as was perhaps natural, being a foundling and having had no upbringing to speak of, was ultra-radical in his views, and hated " gentry" with a mortal hatred, Miss Dempster being the only exception. She was real gentry, if to count your forebears 114 centuries back is any claim to that distinction ; but she had the simple manners and the true heart which our Tennyson has told us are worth all the coronets or Norman blood in the world. Bruce had got to know her well too, through having had the bairns two successive years a picnic to Strathairn, and she had never failed to treat him like an equal and a gentleman. There were some of smaller claim and greater pretensions who regarded the Beild schoolmaster as the dirt beneath their feet; and you should have heard Bruce on them. Even Mr. Bowman, though he felt he ought to have reproved Bruce both for mimicry and harsh criticism, never did anything but laugh when he started.

" How do you do, Mr. Rymer ? I haven't seen you, except in church, for ever so long," she said, leaning out of the phaeton with outstretched hand. " But you look well, and I know are always busy. How very pretty your garden is! We can't grow phloxes like that at Strathairn."

"I'm fond of them, Miss Dempster; they're friends to me, and I'm always among them, and they repay me by growing," Bruce answered, and hesitated just a moment, not sure whether he ought to ask for Mrs. Dempster or not. But Miss Dempster solved the difficulty herself.

" I'm very sorry I shall not be able to have the children at Strathairn this year, Mr. Rymer, on account of my mother's health. We are going off to the seaside as soon as she can be moved."

" I am sorry, because the reason is a sad one," replied Bruce, in his sympathetic way, which made him very winning at times. " But the picnic has been talked of already, and we can go to the Den in carts which the farmers will lend, though I know very well the children will not enjoy themselves as they did at Strathairn."

" Oh yes they will. I shall give five pounds to help. Oh, don't say anything ; it is very little indeed," she said quickly. Then, glancing towards the Manse, she put a question. " Is Mr. Bowman at home?"

" No, he isn't," answered Bruce, in considerable surprise that Miss Dempster should not have heard of the minister's absence. " He's been away nearly a fortnight, in London actually; but he's coming home to-night by the seven train, if the London train's in time to catch it."

Miss Dempster certainly looked thunderstruck, and there was a curious red spot on her cheek which Bruce could not help wondering about. It looked an angry sign, but when she spoke he knew there was no anger in her thoughts.

" I had not heard. Was there any sudden call for him ? "

" No, though he went off suddenly enough. He seemed to take it in his head all at once," said Bruce. " It was the very best thing he could do. He needed the change, and I gather from his letters that it has done him a great deal of good."

" I am sure it would. I thought he must be either ill or absent, that he had not come

again to Strathairn to ask for my mother. You will see him to-night, I suppose ? " " Oh yes, I'm going down to meet him." "Are you ? You are close friends, aren't you ? I have heard that."

" He has made a man of me, Miss Dempster. As for him, I think him the only perfect man that lives. He's too good for the place he's in, or for any place indeed. If you knew him as I do, his big, tender, manly heart—oh, I can't speak about it 1"

Bruce was half ashamed of his own emotion, which, in an unguarded moment, had found such passionate utterance, because he was feeling unusually sore for a sight of his friend. It did not displease Miss Dempster, however, though it maybe astonished her. The red spot burned redder on her cheek, and her eyes grew so luminous that she was fain to turn her shapely head in another direction.

" I know he is good," she said very softly. " Will you tell him to-night that, if he is not too tired to-morrow, he might come over to Strathairn, and he will be driven home ? My mother would like to see him." " I won't forget, Miss Dempster." " Good-bye, then. When my mother is better, I hope you will come and see us. I mean what I say," she said, and her handclasp was warm enough to send a thrill to Bruce's heart. He did not guess that it was partly given for his friend's sake. Bruce, like most passionate, high-spirited natures, was secretly very soft-hearted, and amenable to tender influences of every kind. His loneliness was known only to himself; his longing for the companionship, the presence of mother, sister, or wife, was at times intolerable. He was a man to make women intensely happy in all his relations with them, and yet he had not one bound to him by any tie in the whole wide world. For this reason, perhaps, he had poured a more passionate devotion on the minister, who had been so much to him all his days. He walked down to the Kirk-lands, accompanied by Birse, who never liked to miss a ploy, and was in waiting at half-past eight, when the train came in. Directly he saw Mr. Bowman alight, he despatched a boy to the Gallows Inn, as had been arranged, to put a horse in a trap. Then he ran along the platform, welcoming Mr. Bowman with an eagerness and intensity which made sundry smile.

"Man, I thought the day would never come !" he said, his face all aglow. " Plow fine you are looking—as brown as a berry 1"

"I am fine; it has done me a world of good, Bruce. You look well yourself, and I'm glad to see you last. I'll get the news as we go. I suppose we can walk ?"

" No we won't; they're getting a machine at the Gallows Inn. It'll be ready when we get there," replied Bruce. And taking the minister's portmanteau, which had increased in weight since it left the Beild, and felt as if it were stuffed with books, he walked along manfully, his whole face beaming.

" And not a living soul knows where you've been," he said gleefully; " except

Miss Dempster, and I told her myself to-day."

"Was she in the Beild ?" inquired the minister, in rather an odd voice.

"Ay, she drove through, just as the school scaled. I think she was seeking you, and she bade me ask you to come to Strathairn to-morrow, if you were not too tired."

" Have you heard anything about Mrs. Dempster ? "

" Not a cheep; but Miss Dempster says she isn't well, and that they're going to the coast. Well, and how did you like London ? "

" I liked it well, Bruce; I liked it well, and I would not mind having work laid to my hand there. It is a place that lifts you out of yourself with its vastness, and makes you feel that your own troubles are but small. Ay, Bruce, it has done me good, and I think I'm a new man come back to the Beild. I've gotten a sermon ready for Sabbath which will maybe keep them awake for once."

" The old man was good enough for me," said Bruce affectionately. " Well, there isn't much news, except that Marget Broon and Dod are going to be married next Thursday. They were cried in the Airn kirk last Sunday, an' Marget went to hear her ain cries, which is a scandal in the Beild."

The minister laughed, and the two friends, being come to the Gallows Inn, climbed light-heartedly into the waggonette, and talked and laughed like schoolboys as they drove over the steep road to the Beild. It was almost dark when they got there, but sundry were on the outlook, and there was much waving of aprons and bonnets to welcome the minister back again. And as his eye rested on the whitewashed walls of his own manse, embowered among its green, and looked away across the solemn wastes of the moss, a sudden gratitude filled his heart, and he felt glad that he had come back to his home.

Easy, looking as much gratified and excited as befitted a woman of her years and position, was stationed at the gate to receive them, and her greeting of her master as he shook her heartily by the hand was just like her.

" Weel, I houp you're dune stravaigin' for a whilie. Your tea's a' ready, and a Binns chuckie dune to a turn. I suppose the maister'll eat wi' ye."

Easy only suffered Bruce's constant presence in the Manse, and deemed it her duty to occasionally remind him that it was a great privilege to be on terms of such intimacy with the minister, in which he so entirely agreed that he never resented it.

Although he had a great deal of pride, it never extended in the direction of the minister's Easy, at whose plainest and sourest speech he never took offence.

The minister quite affectionately regarded his little sitting-room, and sat down in his armchair with a sigh of content.

"There's no place like home, and kent faces are the best, Bruce," he said softly. "After all, the Lord is good, and His mercy endureth for ever."

The Binns chuckie, a present from the mistress, was here borne in triumphantly by Easy, decorated with crisp slices of home-fed bacon, and smelling so uncommonly good that the minister made haste to draw in his chair, and took the carver, bidding Bruce do the honours of the teapot.

Easy was an excellent cook, but she had taken extra pains that night, and the table was a sight to a hungry man, who had not taken kindly to English cookery in a second-rate hotel. The scones were white and delicate, and, spread thick with Mistress Nicoll's cream butter, melted like honey in the mouth; there were crisp oatcakes too, and buttered toast, and new-laid eggs—all so tempting they hardly knew where to begin.

" We are but puir craturs after all, Bruce," said the minister, after he had eaten silently for some minutes—"sore putten up and down by our creature comforts. A meal like this eaten at a man's own fireside wad gar him mak' peace wi' the vera deil."

It was but seldom the minister spoke so broadly, and Bruce knew that everything homely and Beild-like seemed dear to him at the moment, and smiled a bit smile to himself as he deftly cleaned the chuckie's wing on his plate. They were not much more than half through, and Easy had brought in a fresh supply of hot water and a big gingerbread cake to finish up with, when there came a quick noise of hurrying feet and a loud, impatient knocking at the door.

" I'll say you're no in," said Easy in an aggressive whisper. "Some lees are better than the truth. Rise, if ye daur."

The last sentence was addressed to her master, and she slammed the parlour door and held it with one hand, while with the other she gingerly opened the front door.

" Is Mr. Bowman in ?" queried a shrill, pain-wrung voice, which caused the minister to leap to his feet. " Oh, tell him I must see him at once !"

Easy let go the parlour-door handle and opened wide the other one, and Miss Dempster of Strathairn staggered in; and to the no small amazement of Easy and Bruce, the next sight seen was Miss Dempster, who seemed sore distraught, falling into Mr. Bowman's very arms.

" Oh, Mr. Bowman, come, come with me !" she moaned. " My mother has left us again, and was last seen on the moss at the darkening. We fear—we fear that she has fallen into the Warlock's Well."

Bruce was too much taken up with Mr. Bowman to pay much heed to the import of Miss Dempster's words, and presently he slipped out of the room, signed to Easy, and shut the door.

" Guid sakes!" said Easy; " if that's no a sicht!"

"Wheesht, wheesht, Easy; it's neither your business nor mine," said Bruce, a trifle unsteadily, and passed bare-headed into the open air. The scales had fallen from his eyes, and he called himself a blind fool. His eyes were smarting with tears which had a sting in them, for he felt himself shut out from the inner sanctuary of his friend's heart, and knew that he was supplanted for evermore.

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