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Chapter XV. Miss Dempster's Extremity

AS he came round the end of the house through the shrubbery he beheld Gavin Dempster walking on the lawn with the lawyer, Mr. Patullo of the Kirklands, and another man he did not know. He passed them by quite close, but they took no notice of him, and he walked straight into the hall, meeting Mrs. Gavin Dempster there, looking handsome enough in her rich mourning, and wearing on her pert face a look of defiant assurance.

" As there is no servant to take my message, madam," said Mr. Bowman, as he laid his hat on the table, " could I trouble you to tell Miss Dempster I would speak with her for a few minutes ? "

" Your business, may I inquire ? " she said arrogantly.

" Miss Dempster will not inquire what my business is, madam. I am an old friend of the family; if you will but convey my request, I shall be much obliged."

" You can sit down there then ; there are lawyers in the library, and the drawing-room is not fit for visitors," she said as insolently as she dared; for there was something in the minister's grave, stern face which awed her, lacking in all proper respect though she was.

He did not take the seat so rudely offered, but was still standing when Miss Dempster came downstairs, her long black gown trailing behind her, the muslin band at her throat not whiter than her face.

" Will you come up ? " she said, without smile or greeting of any kind. "I have a little sitting-room upstairs where my kinsfolk have not yet intruded."

He followed her without a word; and when they had both entered the sunny little room which bore so many indications of the tastes and occupations of a true gentlewoman, she shut the door, turned the key in the lock, then sat down before the escritoire in the quaint corner window, and turned to him with a faint, wavering, dreary smile.

" There are things harder to bear than death, Mr. Bowman, and those we love can treat us cruelly. Has anybody told you about my mother's will ? "

"I met Sir Ludovic," he answered, and could say no more, his throat being parched and his tongue tied, though in his heart surged a sea of tumultuous thought.

"There is nothing left to me but the standing stones of Strathairn, and such things as are heirlooms and come under the entail. Everything that can be converted into money she has left to my cousin, whom God forgive, for I cannot; and I am a middle-aged woman, with nothing at my fingers whereby

I can earn an honest penny. Did you think God could be so hard upon a single woman, who has wronged none, and has tried to do the duty as she saw it lying to her hand ? You are a minister; perhaps you can make plain to me the Lord's dealing with me, for I am all at sea, and have no faith in God or man."

She spoke quietly, but the white, beautiful hands, which for nearly forty years had been so strong, as she said, to do the duty that lay nearest, and that had known no ministry but that of patient love, seemed to have become frail and weak, the bit of paper she had nervously grasped fluttering in them like a leaf in the blast. It was more than man could stand; so, forgetful of all save of his great love, Hugh Bowman got up to his feet, and, kneeling down before her, put his two strong arms round her waist.

" I must speak now, Euphame. I can no longer be silent. The love of my heart has already been revealed to you. If there is even a faint response to it in your heart, let it comfort you in this bitter hour. I am but a poor man, God knows, nor have I hid it from you—unworthy of you in a thousand ways; but what I offer is at least sincere. One of the barriers between us is swept away, and though I may regret it for your sake, I cannot for my own, since it has given me courage to speak."

He never looked nobler than at that moment, though upon his knees; and again the light seemed to shine in a dark place for the woman who listened to him. But she put up one of her trembling hands depreca-tingly, and with the other covered her face.

" Oh, Mr. Bowman, at this time! Is it not more of pity than anything else ? I am a middle-aged woman, as I said, past my prime—penniless too, and I fear useless."

" Hush 1" he said sternly, even in his tenderness; " not that, and the only woman in the world for me. I wonder at my own courage; I have so little to offer, while you are above me in station as in worth. The plain home and honest heart of a man whose endeavour, God helping him, will be to make you happy—that is all."

" It is enough," she answered him very low. " It is enough for me."

So that middle-aged pair, both or whom had known sorrow of the sharpest sort, opened their hearts to the one romance of their lives, and, though late, found it passing sweet.

An hour later Mr. Bowman left Strathairn, and, saying nothing even to Miss Dempster, walked across the fields to Wester Cairn. He saw the carriage leave the gates as he approached, and guessed that it was Lady Leslie bound upon her errand of mercy. It was now five o'clock, and Sir Ludovic was engaged with his steward in his business room on a rent question when the minister's name was brought to him.

"Oh, excuse me, Bailie," he said, jumping up at once, his mind more full of Euphame Dempster's affairs than his own. " Come up after dinner; I'll be at leisure then. I must see this gentleman at once."

"Very well, Sir Ludo," said the man, and took himself off. Sir Ludovic had changed his morning dress for his riding garb, in which he looked a handsomer man.

" Well, Mr. Bowman," he said, rubbing his hands together, " did you stick your fist in Guy Dempster's face, or what ? "

" No, Sir Ludovic; I was glad enough to be spared coming in contact with him," replied the minister. " Can I speak to you on a private matter for a few minutes ? "

" Yes, certainly; sit down," said the good-natured baronet affably, for he had a sincere liking and respect for the manly minister of the Beild. " Didn't you meet the carriage ? Lady Leslie has just gone over to Strath-airn, and she'll fetch back the poor girl, if she'll come."

" Are you Miss Dempster's guardian, Sir Ludovic ? "

" Why no, not exactly, though my friend Dempster—as fine a fellow as ever breathed, and but poorly mated with her that's away— asked me to keep an eye on the place, and on his little girl. If I'd had a son of my own, Bowman, I'd have married the two; but, you see, it never came to pass. No, I'm no legal guardian of Miss Dempster's, though I have her interest at heart. But why do you ask ? "

" I have come to you, because I believe you to be the most disinterested friend she has, to tell you that I have asked her in marriage, and she has accepted me."

"To-day ? " said Sir Ludo, jumping to his feet and growing rather red.

" Yes, this afternoon."

The two men regarded each other steadily for a few seconds, and there was just a shade of suspicion in Sir .Ludo's face.

" It's very sudden, and I don't understand it. Pardon me, Mr. Bowman, because I am an old friend of the family; but I hope you did not take advantage of her deep grief. Ah, ah—that is, excuse me, of course I ought not to have said that, but it's so damned sudden I couldn't help it."

" Miss Dempster has been aware for some time of my affection for her, though I never cared to dream of such a thing as marriage. But seeing her to-day, I found it impossible to keep silence; and I defy you, Sir Ludovic, or any other man, in like circumstances, to have held his tongue."

Sir Ludo smiled drily, and took a turn across the room with his hands behind his back.

" Does she—does she care about you then in that way ?" he asked flatly, and the minister reddened like a school-girl.

" If she did not, Sir Ludo, I should not be here to-day."

"That being the case then," said the baronet, drawing in a chair with a great deal of noise, "we'd better sit down and talk it over, and take a sensible view of the situation. Firstly, then, Mr. Bowman, you may take it that I have no personal objection to you, for I have heard you are a scholar and I know you are a gentleman. But you and Euphame can't live on that. What's your stipend in the Beild ?"

"Two hundred pounds and the Manse," said Mr. Bowman.

" Well, supposing that we lost the lawsuit, and that she had nothing but Strathairn, it would bring a hundred a year let furnished, and there's the farm Airncroach lets for another hundred—that's four. I daresay you could live, but not on the fat of the land. Ye maun get another kirk, my man, and that with speed; but I'm in hopes we'll gain the day. I'm for Edinburgh to-morrow to the Haldanes, my men of business, and we'll see what they say."

" If Miss Dempster is content with a plain way of living, which I think she would be, it might be better to leave things as they are."

Sir Ludo brought down his clenched fist on the table with a bang.

"Would it? and let that ill loon and his hizzie of a wife spend Euphame's money ? If you fancy that gate, Mr. Bowman, I warn you, you and I'll no 'gree, and I'll feel it my duty to warn Euphame against you."

But the twinkle in his eye belied his words, and Mr. Bowman rose, feeling that he had a staunch friend in the bluff, plain-spoken, but truly good-hearted baronet.

"Won't you stay and dine? Her ladyship will be back by-and-by, and if she brings Miss Dempster with her so much the better. Did you hear whether Guy Dempster would leave to-day ? "

" They were leaving, Sir Ludo, just as I did. No, thank you; I shall not stay tonight. It is time I was back at my own Manse."

" All right. Well, well, what changes folk live to see, Mr. Bowman 1 Man, I would like to see the villain ousted in open court. It's a clear case of undue influence, but I can't for the life of me imagine how or when the thing was done."

" They have always come a lot about Strathairn, Sir Ludo; and Mrs. Dempster paid them a long visit, don't you remember, in spring?"

"Ay, I do. It's a piece of black work, anyhow, and I for one will do my best to overthrow it."

He put on his hat, and walked with the minister to show him a short cut across to the moss, and his whole talk as they walked was of Guy Dempster's villainy and his determination to baulk him yet.

The evening was well spent when the minister entered his own garden gate. He could not help looking at the house with different eyes, as the possible home of the only woman he had ever loved. It was an unpretending house, but it had the look of a home, and was not without its picturesque aspect, embowered as it was among sheltering trees, and covered with roses which bloomed all the summer through, defying even the north winds which at times blew snelly across the moss. Easy, who came to inquire what he desired to eat, fancied he looked tired and sad, but attributed it to the sombre duties in which he had that day been engaged.

" Marget Broon was here, sir, an' I ken her errand, though she didna tell me. It's till speir ye to the waddin'. I'm bid mysel'. It's an unco business, d'ye no think ? "

" When is it, Easy ? "

" Thursday nicht at aicht o'clock in Leez-beth's—a fell grand ploy tae, frae a' I can hear. Jess Lockhart says Weelum Birrel i' the Kirklands is gotten the order for the bride cake—thirty shillin's, or maybe twa pound."

The minister smiled.

" Jess is busy, as usual, I see. Well, while you are getting me a plate of porridge, Easy, I'll slip over to the schoolhouse. You can come for me when you're ready."

" Bruce's vera busy wi' the skeddles for the morn," said Easy suggestively, feeling that she had had a long day alone, and yearning to unburden her soul regarding Thursday's ceremonial. The minister did not take the hint, however, but went across to the schoolhouse at once.

Bruce was very busy among his school-registers, but jumped up, glad to see his friend, who seemed to have been long absent. As he looked at him, he thought that there was something different in his face, though he could not have put it into words.

" You're late, Mr. Bowman ; have you just got back ? "

" Only this moment. I have had an exciting and eventful day, Bruce."

" Have you ?" inquired Bruce eagerly; " and what about the folk from Magus Muir ? "

" You were right about them, Bruce. Mrs. Dempster has willed everything she could to them, except the stannin' stanes o' Strathairn."

" Past her own daughter ? "

" Ay, it's some hard, Bruce; but I can't altogether regret it, since it has given me something I might not otherwise have had. Miss Dempster has promised to be my wife, Bruce."

"I am not surprised ; I saw how it was on Friday night," said Bruce, as he gripped him by the hand. " I don't know her very well, but I know you, and she is a lucky woman, as I've aye said any woman would be that got our minister."

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