A SUDDEN ALARM

Elsie and Roderick Buchanan were the son and daughter, among a number of
others, of the Rev. George Buchanan, a minister much esteemed in the
city of St. Rule, and occupying a high place among the authorities and
influential personages of that place. They were members of a large
family, and not important members, being the youngest. It is true that
they were not two boys or two girls, but a girl and boy; but being so,
they were as nearly inseparable as a boy and girl could be. They were
called in the family the Twins, though there was quite a year, a year
and a day as in a fairy tale, between them. It was the girl who was the
elder of the two, which, perhaps, accounted for the fact that they were
still the same height as well as so very like each other that in their
infancy it was scarcely possible to know them apart, so that the name
of the Twins was quite appropriate. Elsie was fourteen, and Roderick,
better known as Rodie, according to the Scotch love of diminutives, just
thirteen. Up to this age, their lessons and their amusements had gone on
together,–the girls in St. Rule’s, from the beginning of time, having
been almost as athletic as the boys, and as fond of the links and the
harbour, while the old Scotch fashion of training them together had not
yet given way before the advancing wave of innovation, which has so much
modified education in Scotland. They were in the same class, they read
the same books, they had the same lessons to prepare. Elsie was a little
more diligent, Rodie more strong in his Latin, which was considered
natural for a boy. They helped each other mutually, he being stronger in
the grammar, she more “gleg” at construing. She went all wrong in her
tenses, but jumped at the meaning of a thing in a way that sometimes
astonished her brother. In this way, they were of great assistance to
each other in their school life.

The other side of life, the amusements and games, were not nearly of so
much importance, even with children, then as now. It was the object of
his elders and masters rather to curb Rodie’s enthusiasm for football
than to stimulate it, notwithstanding his high promise as a player; and
the gentlemen who played golf were exceedingly impatient of laddies on
the links; and as for girls presuming to show their faces there, would
have shown their disapprobation very pointedly; so that, except for a
few “holes” surreptitiously manufactured in a corner (even the Ladies’
Links being as yet non-existent), the youngsters found little
opportunity of cultivating that now all-important game. They turned out,
however, sometimes early, very early, of a morning, or late in the
afternoon, and in their hurried performances, Elsie as yet was almost as
good as her brother, and played up to him steadily, understanding his
game, when they two of a summer evening, when all the club was at
dinner, and nobody about to interfere, played together in a single.
Lawn-tennis was still far in the future, and it had not been given to
the children to do more than stand afar off and admire at the
performance of the new game called croquet, which had just been set up
by an exclusive society on the Castle Green. Who were the little
Buchanans to aspire to take part in such an Olympian contest among the
professors and their ladies? They looked on occasionally from a pinnacle
of the ruins, and privately mocked between themselves at the stiffness
of a great man’s learned joints, or the mincing ways of the ladies,
sending confusing peals of laughter over the heads of the players at any
mishap, till the indignant company used the rudest language in respect
to the Buchanan bairns, along, it must be allowed, with the Beaton
bairns and the Seaton bairns, and several more scions of the best
families, and threatened to put them out of the Castle ruins altogether:
though everybody knew this was a vain threat, and impossible to carry
out. It was strictly forbidden that these young people should ever
adventure themselves in a boat, the coast being so dangerous, a
prohibition which Elsie did not resent, having distinguished herself as
a very bad sailor, but against which Rodie kicked with all his might.
The reader will therefore see that they were not encouraged to spend
their strength in athletics, which is so much the custom now.

Perhaps this encouraged in them the delight in books which they had
shown from a very early age. It was always possible to keep the Twins
quiet with a story-book, their elders said, though I confess that Rodie
began to show symptoms of impatience with Elsie’s books, and unless he
got a story “of his own kind,” was no longer so still and absorbed as in
early days. The stories he loved, which were “of his own kind,” were, I
need not say, tales of adventure, which he was capable of reading over
and over again till he knew by heart every one of the Crusoe-like
expedients of his seafaring or land-louping heroes. Elsie had a weakness
for girl’s stories, full of devotion and self-abnegation, and in which
little maidens of her own age set all the world right, which perhaps,
naturally, did not appeal to Rodie. But there was one series which never
failed in its attraction for both. In Mr. Buchanan’s library there was a
set of the _Waverleys_, such as formed part of the best of the
plenishing for a new household in those days when they were but recent
publications, as it still continues we hope to do in every house which
desires to fortify itself against the tedium of the years. The children
were never tired of _Ivanhoe_ and _Quentin Durward_, and the _Fair Maid
of Perth_. Indeed, there was not one of them that had not its lasting
charm, though perhaps the preponderance of a lassie in the _Heart of
Midlothian_, for instance, dulled Rodie’s enthusiasm a little; while
Elsie, more catholic, was as profoundly interested in Harry Bertram’s
Adventures, and followed Rowland Græam through all that happened in the
Castle of Lochleven, with as warm interest as heart could desire. They
thought, if that wildly presumptuous idea could be entertained, that Sir
Walter was perhaps mistaken about bloody Claverhouse, but that, no
doubt, was owing to their natural prejudices and breeding. One of their
most characteristic attitudes was over one of these books (it was the
edition in forty-eight volumes, with the good print and vignettes on the
title-pages), spread out between them (they broke all the backs of his
books, their father complained) their heads both bent over the page,
with faint quarrels arising now and then that Elsie read too fast, and
turned the page before Rodie was ready, or that Rodie read too slow and
kept his sister waiting, which furnished a little mutual grievance that
ran through all the reading, manifested now and then by a sudden stroke
of an elbow, or tug at a page.

The place in which they chiefly pursued their studies was a little
round corner, just big enough to hold them, which adjoined their
father’s study, and which, like that study, was lined with books. It was
really a small turret, the relic of some older building which had been
tacked to the rambling house, old-fashioned enough in its roomy
irregularity, but not nearly so old as the little ashen-coloured tower,
pale as with the paleness of extreme old age, which gave it distinction,
and afforded a very quaint little adjunct to the rooms on that side.
There was scarcely more than room enough in it for these two to sit,
sometimes on an old and faded settle, sometimes on the floor, as the
humour seized them. They were on the floor, as it happened, at the
special moment which I am about to describe. The inconvenience of this
retreat was that it was possible from that retirement to hear whatever
might be said in the study, so that the most intimate concerns of the
family were sometimes discussed by the father and mother in the hearing
of these two little creatures, themselves unseen. There was nothing in
this to blame them for, for it was well known that the turret was their
haunt, and Mr. Buchanan, when reminded of it by some little scuffling or
exchange of affectionate hostilities, would sometimes be moved to turn
them out, as disturbing his quiet when he was busy with his sermon. But
in many other cases their presence was forgotten, and there were not
many secrets in the innocent household. On the other hand, Elsie and
Rodie were usually far too much occupied with their book to pay any
attention to what the rather tedious discussions of father and
mother–usually about money, or about Willie and Marion the two eldest,
who were about to be sent out in the world, or other insignificant and
long-winded questions of that description–might be about.

And I cannot tell for what exquisite reason it was, that on this
particular day their minds were attracted to what was going on in the
study; I think they must have been reading some scene in which the
predominance of lassies (probably the correspondence of Miss Julia
Mannering, what I have always felt disposed to skip) had lessened
Rodie’s interest, but which Elsie, much distracted by the consciousness
of his rebellion, but for pride of her own sex pretending to go
carefully through, yet was only half occupied with, occasioned this
openness of their joint minds to impression. At all events, they both
heard their mother’s sudden entrance, which was hurried indeed, and also
flurried, as appeared a thing not quite common with her. They heard her
come in with a rapid step, and quick panting breath, as if she had run
up-stairs. And “William,” she said, standing by the writing-table, they
felt sure, which was also a usual thing for her to do–“William, have
you heard that old Mr. Anderson is very bad to-day, and not expected to
live?”

“Old Mr. Anderson!” he said, in a surprised and troubled tone.

“So they say. The Lord help us, what shall we do? Willie’s outfit just
paid for, and not a penny to the fore. Oh, my poor man!”

“It’s very serious news,” their father said; “but let us hope that both
for his sake and our own it may not be true.”

“Ill news is aye true,” said Mrs. Buchanan, with a sound of something
like a sob.

Why should mamma be so troubled about old Mr. Anderson, the children
said to themselves, giving each other a look?

“That is just want of faith, my dear,” he replied.

“Oh, I’ve no doubt it’s want of faith! it’s all in God’s hands, and He
can bring light out of darkness, I know; but oh! William, it’s not
always that He thinks fit to do that! You know as well as me. And if
this time it should not be His will?”

“Mary,” he said, “let us not forestall the evil; perhaps it will never
come; perhaps there will be a way out of it–at the worst we must just
bear it, my dear.”

“Oh, I know that, I know that!” she cried, with a sound of tears in her
voice. “You gave your word to pay it if he died, immediately thereafter,
that there might be no talking. Wasn’t that the bargain?”

“That was the bargain,” he said.

“But we never thought it was to come like this, at the worst moment,
just after the siller is gone for Willie’s outfit.”

“Mary, Mary, it is worse for him than for us.”

“Do you think so, do you think so?” she cried, “and you a minister! I do
not think that. He is an old man, and a good man, and if all we believe
is true, it will be a happy change for him. Who has he to leave behind
him? Na, he will be glad to go. But us with our young family! Oh, the
power of that filthy siller; but for that, what happier folk could be,
William, than just you and me?”

“We must be thankful for that, Mary,” said the minister, with a quiver.
“We might have had worse things than the want of money; we might have
had sickness or trouble in our family, and instead of that they’re all
well, and doing well.”

“Thank God for that!” mamma said, fervently, and then there was a pause.

“I will have to go at once to the man of business, and tell him,” father
said; “that was in the bargain. There was no signing of paper, but I was
to go and tell; that was part of the bargain.”

“And a very hard part,” his wife cried, with a long sigh. “It is like
sharpening the sword to cut off your own head. But, maybe,” she said,
with a little revival of courage, “Mr. Morrison is not a hard man; maybe
he will give you time.”

“Maybe our old friend will pull through,” papa said, slowly.

“That would be the best of all,” she said, but not in a hopeful tone.
And presently they heard her shut the door of the study, and go
down-stairs again, with something very different from the flying step
with which she came.

The children did not stir, they did not even turn the leaf; they felt
all at once that it was better that their presence there should not be
known. They had heard such consultations before, and sometimes had been
auditors of things they were not desired to hear; but they had never,
they thought, heard anything so distinctly before, nor anything that was
of so much importance. They were very much awe-stricken to hear of this
thing that troubled father so, and made mother cry, without
understanding very well what it was–old Mr. Anderson’s illness, and
Willie’s outfit, and something about money, were all mixed up in their
minds; but the relations between the one and the other were not
sufficiently clear.

Presently they heard papa get up and begin to walk about the room. He
did this often when he was deep in thought, composing his sermon, and
then he would often say over and over his last sentence by way of
piecing it on, they supposed to the next. So that it did not trouble,
but rather reassured them, to hear him saying something to himself,
which gave them the idea that he had returned to his work, and was no
longer so much disturbed about this new business. When they heard him
say, “no signing of papers, no signing of papers, but to go and tell,”
they were somewhat disturbed, for that did not sound like a sermon. But,
presently, he sat down again and drew a book towards him, and they
could hear him turning over the leaves. It was, there could be no doubt,
the large Bible–large because it was such big print, for father’s eyes
were beginning to go–which always lay on his table. He turned over the
leaves as they had so often heard him doing; no doubt it was some
reference he was looking up for his sermon. He must have found what he
wanted very soon, for there was a little silence, and then they heard
him say, with great emphasis–“Then the Lord commended the unjust
steward.” He said it very slowly, pausing upon almost every word. It was
the way he said over his text when he was pondering over it, thinking
what he was to say. Then he began to read. It was to be a long text this
time; Rodie tried to whisper in his sister’s ear, but Elsie stopped him,
quietly, with emphatic signs and frowns.

“He called every one of his Lord’s debtors and said unto the first, How
much owest thou unto my Lord? And he said an hundred measures of oil.
And he said unto him, Take thy bill and sit down quickly and write
fifty.” Then there was another pause. And again father spoke, so
clearly, with such a distinct and emphatic voice that they thought he
was speaking to them, and looked at each other fearfully. “The Lord
commended the unjust steward.” There was something awful in his tone:
did he mean this for them, to reprove them? But they had done nothing,
and if the Lord commended that man, surely there could be nothing to be
so severe upon.

Elsie and Rodie missed everything that was pleasant that afternoon. It
was thought they were on the hills, or on the sands, and nobody knew
they were shut up there in the turret, now thoroughly alarmed, and
terrified to change their position, or make themselves audible in any
way, or to turn a leaf of their book, or to move a finger. In all their
experience–and it was considerable–father had never been like this
before. After a while, he began again, and read over the whole parable:
and this he repeated two or three times, always ending in that terrible
tone, which sounded to the children like some awful sentence, “The Lord
commended the unjust steward”–then they would hear him get up again,
and pace about the room, saying over and over those last words; finally,
to their unspeakable relief, he opened the door, and went slowly
down-stairs, so slowly that they sat still, breathless, for two minutes
more, until his footsteps had died away.

Then the two children sprang up from their imprisonment, and stretched
their limbs, which were stiff with sitting on the floor. They rushed out
of the room as quickly as possible, and got out into the garden, from
whence there was an exit toward the sea. The one thing which, without
any consultation, they were both agreed upon, was to keep out of sight
of father and mother, so that nobody might divine in what way they had
been spending the afternoon. They did not, however, say much to each
other about it. When they had got quite clear, indeed, of all possible
inspection, and were out upon the east sands, which were always their
resort when in disgrace or trouble, Rodie ventured to hazard an opinion
on the situation.

“Papa’s text is an awfu’ kittle one to-day,” he said. “I wonder if he’ll
ding it out.”

“Oh, whisht!” said Elsie, “yon’s not his text; he was never like that
before.”

“Then what is it?” said Rodie; but this was a question to which she
would give no reply.

As they returned home, towards the twilight, they passed old Mr.
Anderson’s house, a large, old-fashioned mansion in the High Street, and
gazed wistfully at the lights which already appeared in the upper
windows, though it was not dark, and which looked strange and alarming
to them as if many people were about, and much going on in this usually
silent house.

“Does he need so many candles to die by?” said Rodie to his sister.

“Oh, perhaps he is better, and it’s for joy,” said Elsie, taking a more
hopeful view.

Their father came out from the door, as they gazed, awe-stricken, from
the other side of the street. His head was sunk upon his breast; they
had never seen him so cast down before. His aspect, and the fact that he
passed them without seeing them, had a great effect upon the children.
They went home very quietly, and stole into the house without making any
of the familiar noises that usually announced their arrival. However,
it cheered them a little to find that their mother was very busy about
Willie’s outfit, and that their eldest sister Marion was marking all his
new shirts in her fine writing, with the small bottle of marking ink,
and the crow quill. The interest of this process and the pleasure of
getting possession of the hot iron, which stamped that fine writing into
a vivid black, gave a salutary diversion to Elsie’s thoughts. As for
Rodie, he was very hungry for his supper, which had an equally salutary
effect.