CONFESSION

“Then it is just debt and nothing worse,” Mrs. Buchanan said. There was
a slight air of disappointment in her face; not that she wished the
woman to be more guilty, but that this was scarcely an adequate cause
for all the dramatic excitement which had been caused in her own mind by
Mrs. Mowbray’s visits and the trouble in her face.

“Nothing worse! what is there that is worse?” cried the minister,
turning round upon her. He had been walking up and down the study, that
study which had been made a purgatory to him by the money of which she
spoke so lightly. It was this that was uppermost in his mind now, and
not the poor woman who had thrown herself on his mercy. To tell the
truth, he had but little toleration for her. She had thrown away her
son’s substance in vanity, and to please herself: but what pleasure had
he, the minister, had out of that three hundred pounds? Nothing! It
would have been better for him a thousand times to have toiled for it in
the sweat of his brow, to have lived on bread and water, and cleared it
off honestly. But he had not been allowed to do this; he had been forced
into the position he now held, a defaulter as she had said–an unjust
steward according to the formula more familiar to his mind.

“Oh, yes, Claude, there are worse things–at least to a woman. She might
have misbe—- We’ll not speak of that. Poor thing, she is bad enough,
and sore shaken. We will leave her quiet till the laddies come home to
their lunch; as likely as not Rodie will bring Frank home with him, as I
hear they are playing together: and then he must just be told she had a
faint. There are some women that are always fainting; it is just the
sort of thing that the like of her would do. If I were you, I would see
Mr. Morrison and try what could be done to keep it all quiet. I am not
fond of exposing a silly woman to her own son.”

“Better to her son than to strangers, surely–and to the whole world.”

“I am not so sure of that,” Mrs. Buchanan said, thoughtfully: but she
did not pursue the argument. She sat very still in the chair which so
short a time before had been occupied by poor Mrs. Mowbray in her
passion and despair: while her husband walked about the room with his
hands thrust into his pockets, and his shoulders up to his ears, full of
restless and unquiet thoughts.

“There’s one thing,” he said, pausing in front of her, but not looking
at her, “that money, Mary: we must get it somehow. I cannot reconcile it
with my conscience, I can’t endure the feeling of it: if it should ruin
us, we must pay it back.”

“Nothing will ruin us, Claude,” she said, steadily, “so long as it is
all honest and above board. Let it be paid back; I know well it has been
on your mind this many a day.”

“It has been a thorn in my flesh; it has been poison in my blood!”

“Lord bless us,” cried Mrs. Buchanan, with a little fretfulness, “what
for? and what is the use of exaggeration? It is not an impossibility
that you should rave about it like that. Besides,” she added, “I said
the same at first–though I was always in favour of paying, at whatever
cost–yet I am not sure that I would disappoint an old friend in his
grave, for the sake of satisfying a fantastic woman like yon.”

“I must get it clear, I must get it off my mind! Not for her sake, but
for my own.”

“Aweel, aweel,” said Mrs. Buchanan, soothingly; and she added, “we must
all set our shoulders to the wheel, and they must give us time.”

“But it is just time that cannot be given us,” cried her husband, almost
hysterically. “The fifth of next month! and this is the twenty-fourth.”

“You will have to speak to Morrison.”

“Morrison, Morrison!” cried the minister. “You seem to have no idea but
Morrison! and it is just to him that I cannot speak.”

His wife gazed at him with surprise, and some impatience.

“Claude! you are just as foolish as that woman. Will ranting and
raving, and ‘I will not do that,’ and ‘I will not do this,’ pay back the
siller? It is not so easy to do always what you wish. In this world we
must just do what we can.”

“In another world, at least, there will be neither begging nor
borrowing,” he cried.

“There will maybe be some equivalent,” said Mrs. Buchanan, shaking her
head. “I would not lippen to anything. It would have been paid long ago
if you had but stuck to the point with Morrison, and we would be free.”

“Morrison, Morrison!” he cried again, “nothing but Morrison. I wish he
and all his books, and his bonds, and his money, were at the bottom of
the sea!”

“Claude, Claude! and you a minister!” cried Mrs. Buchanan, horrified.
But she saw that the discussion had gone far enough, and that her
husband could bear no more.

As for the unfortunate man himself, he continued, mechanically, to pace
about the room, after she left him, muttering “Morrison, Morrison!”
between his teeth. He could not himself have explained the rage he felt
at the name of Morrison. He could see in his mind’s eye the sleek figure
of the man of business coming towards him, rubbing his hands, stopping
his confession, “Not another word, sir, not another word; our late
esteemed friend gave me my instructions.” And then he could hear himself
pretending to insist, putting forward “the fifty:” “_The_ fifty,” with
the lie beneath, as if that were all: and again the lawyer’s refusal to
hear. Morrison had done him a good office: he had stopped the lie upon
his lips, so that, formally speaking, he had never uttered it; he ought
to have been grateful to Morrison: yet he was not, but hated him (for
the moment) to the bottom of his heart.

Frank Mowbray came to luncheon (which was dinner) with Rodie, as Mrs.
Buchanan had foreseen, and when he had got through a large meal, was
taken up-stairs to see his mother, who was still lying exhausted in
Elsie’s bed, very hysterical, laughing and crying in a manner which was
by no means unusual in those days, though we may be thankful it has
practically disappeared from our experiences now–unfortunately not
without leaving a deeper and more injurious deposit of the hysterical.
She hid her face when he came in, with a passion of tears and outcries,
and then held out her arms to him, contradictory actions which Frank
took with wonderful composure, being not unaccustomed to them.

“Speak to Mr. Buchanan,” she said, “oh, speak to Mr. Buchanan!”
whispering these words into his ear as he bent over her, and flinging
them at him as he went away. Frank was very reluctant to lose his
afternoon’s game, and he was aware, too, of the threatening looks of
Elsie, who said, “My father’s morning has been spoiled; he has had no
peace all the day. You must see him another time.” “Speak to Mr.
Buchanan, oh, speak to Mr. Buchanan,” cried his mother. Frank did not
know what to do. Perhaps Mrs. Mowbray in her confused mind expected that
the minister would soften the story of her own misdemeanours to Frank.
But Frank thought of nothing but the previous disclosure she had made to
him. And he would probably have been subdued by Elsie’s threatening
looks, as she stood without the door defending the passage to the study,
had not Mr. Buchanan himself appeared coming slowly up-stairs. The two
young people stood silent before him. Even Elsie, though she held Frank
back fiercely with her eyes, could say nothing: and the minister waved
his hand, as if inviting him to follow. The youth went after him a
little overawed, giving Elsie an apologetic look as he passed. It was
not his fault: without that tacit invitation he would certainly not have
gone. He felt the situation very alarming. He was a simple young soul,
going to struggle with one of the superior classes, in deadly combat,
and with nobody to stand by him. Certainly he had lost his afternoon’s
game–almost as certainly he had lost, altogether lost, Elsie’s favour.
The smiles of the morning had inspired him to various strokes, which
even Raaf Beaton could not despise. But that was over, and now he had to
go on unaided to his fate.

“Your mother has been ill, Frank.”

“I am very sorry, sir: and she has distressed and disturbed you, I fear.
She sometimes has those sort of attacks: they don’t mean much, I think,”
Frank said.

“They mean a great deal,” replied Mr. Buchanan. “They mean that her mind
is troubled about you and your future, Frank.”

“Without any reason, I think,” said Frank. “I am not very clear about
money; I have always left it in my mother’s hands. She thought it would
be time enough to look after my affairs when I attained my Scotch
majority. But I don’t think I need trouble myself, for there must be
plenty to go on upon. She says the Scotch estate is far less than was
thought, and indeed she wanted me to come to you about some debts. She
thinks half St. Rule’s was owing money to old Uncle Anderson. And he
kept no books, or something of that sort. I don’t understand it very
well; but she said you understood everything.”

“There was no question of books,” said Mr. Buchanan. “Mr. Anderson was
kind, and helped many people, not letting his right hand know what his
left hand did. Some he helped to stock a shop: some of the small farmers
to buy the cattle they wanted: some of the fishers to get boats of their
own. The money was a loan nominally to save their pride, but in reality
it was a gift, and nobody knew how much he gave in this way. It was
entered in no book, except perhaps,” said the minister, with a look
which struck awe into Frank, and a faint upward movement of his hand “in
One above.” After a minute he resumed: “I am sure, from what I know of
you, you would not disturb these poor folk, who most of them are now
enjoying the advantage of the charity that helped them rather to labour
than to profit at first.”

“No, sir, no,” cried Frank, eagerly. “I am not like that, I am not a
beast; and I am very glad to hear Uncle Anderson was such a good man.
But,” he added after a pause, with a little natural pertinacity, “there
were others different from that, or else my mother had wrong
information–which might well be,” he continued with a little
reluctance. He was open to a generous impulse, but yet he wished to
reserve what might be owing to him on a less sentimental ground.

“Yes, there are others different from that. There are a few people of a
different class in St. Rule’s, who are just as good as anybody, as
people say; you will understand I am speaking the language of the world,
and not referring to any moral condition, in which, as we have the best
authority for saying, none of us are good, but God alone. As good as
anybody, as people say–as good blood so far as that counts, as good
education or better, as good manners: but all this held in check, or
indeed made into pain sometimes, by the fact that they are poor. Do you
follow what I mean?”

“Yes, sir, I follow,” said Frank: though without the effusiveness which
he had shown when the minister’s talk was of the actual poor.

“A little money to such people as these is sometimes almost a greater
charity than to the shopkeepers and the fishermen. They are far poorer
with their pride, and the appearance they have to keep up, than the
lowest. Mind I am not defending pride nor the keeping up of appearances.
I am speaking just the common language of the world. Well, there were
several of these, I believe, who had loans of money from Mr. Anderson.”

“I think,” said Frank, respectfully, yet firmly too, “that they ought to
pay, Mr. Buchanan. They have enjoyed the use of it for years, and people
like that can always find means of raising a little money. If it lies
much longer in their hands, it will be lost, I am told, by some Statute
of–of Limitation I think it is. Well then, nobody could force them in
that case; but I think, Mr. Buchanan, as between man and man, that they
ought to pay.”

“I think,” said the minister, in a voice which trembled a little, “that
you are right, Frank: they ought to pay.”

“That is certainly my opinion,” said Frank. “It would not ruin them,
they could find the money: and though it might harass them for the
moment, it would be better for them in the end to pay off a debt which
they would go on thinking must be claimed some time. And especially if
the estate is not going to turn out so good as was thought, I do think,
Mr. Buchanan, that they should pay.”

“I think you are right, Frank.” The minister rose and began to walk up
and down the room as was his habit. There was an air of agitation about
him which the young man did not understand. “It is no case of an unjust
steward,” he said to himself; “if there’s an unjust steward, it is–and
to take the bill and write fourscore would never be the way with–Well,
we have both come to the same decision, Frank, and we are both
interested parties; I am, I believe, the largest of all Mr. Anderson’s
debtors. I owe him—-”

“Mr. Buchanan!” cried Frank, springing to his feet. “Mr. Buchanan, I
never thought of this. You! for goodness’ sake don’t say any more!”

“I owe him,” the minister repeated slowly, “three hundred pounds. If you
were writing that, you know,” he said, with a curious sort of smile,
“you would repeat it, once in figures and once in letters, £300–and
three hundred pounds. You are quite right; it will be much better to pay
it off, at whatever sacrifice, than to feel that it may be demanded from
one at any time, as you have demanded it from me!”

“Mr. Buchanan,” cried Frank, eagerly (for what would Elsie say? never,
never would she look at him again!), “you may be sure I had never a
notion, not an idea of this, not a thought! You were my uncle’s best
friend; I can’t think why he didn’t leave you a legacy, or something,
far more than this. I remember it was thought surprising there were no
legacies, to you or to others. Of course I don’t know who the others may
be,” he added with a changed inflection in his voice (for why should he
throw any money, that was justly his, to perhaps persons of no
importance, unconnected with Elsie?) “but you, sir, you! It is out of
the question,” Frank cried.

Mr. Buchanan smiled a little. I fear it did not please him to feel that
Frank’s compassion was roused, or that he might be excused the payment
of his debt by Frank. Indeed that view of the case changed his feelings
altogether. “We need not discuss the question,” he said rather coldly.
“I have told you of the only money owing to your uncle’s estate which I
know of. I might have stated it to your mother some time since, but did
not on account of something that passed between Morrison and myself,
which was neither here nor there.”

“What was it, Mr. Buchanan? I cannot believe that my uncle—-”

“You know very little about your uncle,” said the minister, testily.
“Now, I think I shall keep you no longer to-day: but before your
birthday I will see Morrison, and put everything right.”

“It is right as it is,” cried Frank; “why should we have recourse to
Morrison? surely you and I are enough to settle it. Mr. Buchanan, you
know this never was what was meant. You! to bring you to book! I would
rather have bitten out my tongue–I would rather—-”

“Come, this is all exaggerated, as my wife says,” said the minister with
a laugh. “It is too late to go back upon it. Bring a carriage for your
mother, Frank, she will be better at home. You can tell her this if you
please: and then let us hear no more of it, my boy. I will see Morrison,
and settle with him, and there is no need that any one should think of
it more.”

“Only that it is impossible not to think of it,” cried Frank. “Mr.
Buchanan—-”

“Not another word,” the minister said. He came back to his table and sat
down, and took his pen into his fingers. “Your foursome will be broken
up for want of you,” he said with a chilly smile. The poor young fellow
tried to say something more, but he was stopped remorselessly. “Really,
you must let me get to my work,” said the minister. “Everything I think
has been said between us that there is to say.”

And it was Elsie’s father whom he had thus offended! Frank’s heart sank
to his boots, as he went down-stairs. He did not go near his mother, but
left her to be watched over and taken home by her maid, who had now
appeared. He felt as if he could never forgive her for having forced him
to this encounter with the minister. Oh! if he had but known! He would
rather have bitten out his tongue, he repeated to himself. The
drawing-room was empty, neither Elsie nor her mother being visible, and
there was no Rodie kicking his heels down-stairs. A maid came out of the
kitchen, while he loitered in the hall to give him that worthy’s
message. “Mr. Rodie said he couldna wait, and you were just to follow
after him: but you were not to be surprised if they started without
waiting for you, for it would never do to keep all the gentlemen
waiting for their game.” Poor Frank strolled forth with a countenance
dark as night; sweetheart and game, and self-respect and everything–he
had lost them all.