HOW TO SET IT RIGHT

“What is the matter, mother?” Elsie said, drawing close to her mother’s
side. The minister had come to dinner, looking ill and pale. He had
scarcely spoken all through the meal. He had said to his wife that he
was not to be disturbed that evening, for there was a great deal to
settle and to think of. Mrs. Buchanan, too, bore an anxious countenance.
She went up to the drawing-room without a word, with her basket of
things to mend in her arms. She had always things to mend, and her
patches were a pleasure to behold. She lighted the two candles on the
mantelpiece, but said with a sigh that it was a great extravagance, and
that she had no right to do it: only the night was dark, and her eyes
were beginning to fail. Now the night was no darker than usual, and Mrs.
Buchanan had made a brag only the other evening, that with her new
glasses she could see to do the finest work, as well as when she was a
girl.

“What is the matter, mother?” Elsie said. She came very close to her
mother, putting a timid arm round her waist. They were, as belonged to
their country, shy of caresses, and Elsie was half afraid of being
thrown off with an injunction not to be silly; but this evening Mrs.
Buchanan seemed to be pleased with the warm clasp of the young arm.

“Nothing that was not yesterday, and for years before that. You and me,
Elsie, will have to put our shoulders to the wheel.”

“What is it, mother?” The idea of putting her shoulder to the wheel was
comforting and invigorating, far better than the vague something wrong
that clouded the parents’ faces. Mrs. Buchanan permitted herself to give
her child a kiss, and then she drew her chair to the table and put on
her spectacles for her evening’s work.

“Women are such fools,” she said. “I am not sure that your father’s
saying that he was not to be disturbed to-night, you heard him?–which
means that I am not to go up to him as I always do–has cast me down
more than the real trouble. For why should he shut himself up from me?
He might know by this time that it is not brooding by himself that will
pay off that three hundred pounds.”

“Three hundred pounds!”

“It is an old story, it is nothing new,” said the minister’s wife. “It
is a grand rule, Elsie, not to let your right hand know what your left
doeth in the way of charity; but when it’s such a modern thing as a loan
of money, oh, I’m afraid the worldly way is maybe the best way. If Mr.
Anderson had written it down in his books, The Rev. Claude Buchanan,
Dr.–as they do, you know, in the tradesmen’s bills–to loan
£300–well, then, it might have been disagreeable, but we should have
known the worst of it, and it would have been paid off by this time. But
the good old man kept no books; and when he died, it was just left on
our consciences to pay it or not. Oh, Elsie, siller is a terrible burden
on your conscience when you have not got it to pay! God forgive us! what
with excuses and explanations, and trying to make out that it was just
an accident and so forth, I am not sure that I have always been quite
truthful myself.”

“You never told lies, mother,” said Elsie.

“Maybe not, if you put it like that; but there’s many a lee that is not
a lee, in the way of excuses for not paying a bill. You’ll say, perhaps,
‘Dear me, I am very sorry; I have just paid away the last I set aside
for bills, till next term comes round;’ when, in fact, you had nothing
set aside, but just paid what you had, and as little as you could, to
keep things going! It’s not a lee, so to speak, and yet it is a lee,
Elsie! A poor woman, with a limited income, has just many, many things
like that on her mind. We’ve never wronged any man of a penny.”

“No, mother, I’m sure of that.”

“But they have waited long for their siller, and maybe as much in want
of it as we were,” Mrs. Buchanan said, shaking her head. “Anyway, if
it’s clear put down in black and white, there is an end of it. You know
you have to pay, and you just make up your mind to it. But, when it is
just left to your conscience, and you to be the one to tell that you are
owing–oh, Elsie! Lead us not into temptation. I hope you never forget
that prayer, morning nor evening. If you marry a man that is not rich,
you will have muckle need of it day by day.”

Elsie seemed to see, as you will sometimes see by a gleam of summer
lightning, a momentary glimpse of a whole country-side–a panorama of
many past years. The scene was the study up-stairs, where her father was
sitting, often pausing in his work, laying down his pen, giving himself
up to sombre thoughts. “Take now thy bill, and sit down quickly, and
write fourscore,” she said to herself, under her breath.

“What are you saying, Elsie? Fourscore? Oh, much more than fourscore. It
is three hundred pounds,” said Mrs. Buchanan. “Three hundred pounds,”
she repeated deliberately, as if the enormity of the sum gave her, under
the pain, a certain pleasure. “I have told you about it before. It was
for Willie’s outfit, and Marion’s plenishing, and a few other things
that were pressing upon us. Old Mr. Anderson was a very kind old man. He
said: ‘Take enough–take enough while you are about it: put yourself at
your ease while you are about it!’ And so we did, Elsie. I will never
forget the feeling I had when I paid off Aitken and the rest who had
just been very patient waiting. I felt like Christian in the _Pilgrim’s
Progress_, when the burden rolled off his back. Oh, my dear! a poor
woman with a family to provide, thinks more of her bills than her sins,
I am sore afraid!”

“Well, mother, those that have to judge know best all about it,” said
Elsie, with tears in her voice.

“My bonnie dear! You’ll have to give up the ball, Elsie, and your new
frock.”

“What about that, mother?” cried Elsie, tossing her young head.

“Oh, there’s a great deal about it! You think it is nothing now: but
when you hear the coaches all driving past, and not a word said among
all the young lassies but who was there and what they wore, and who they
danced with: and, maybe, even you may hear a sough of music on the air,
if the wind’s from the south: it will not be easy then, though your
mind’s exalted, and you think it matters little now.”

“It will be, maybe–a little–hard,” Elsie assented, nodding her head;
“but, if that’s all, mother?”

“It will not be all,” said Mrs. Buchanan, once more shaking her head.
“It will be day by day, and hour by hour. We will have to do without
everything, you and me. Your father, he must not be disturbed, more than
we can help; or how is he to do his work? which is work far more
important than yours or mine. And Rodie is a growing laddie, wanting
much meat, and nothing must interfere with his learning either, or how
could we put him out creditably in the world? I tell you it is you and
me that will have to put our sheulders to the wheel. Janet is a good,
sensible woman, I will take her into my confidence, and she’ll not mind
a little more work; but, Betty–oh, my dear, I think we’ll have to give
up Betty: and you know what that means.”

“It means just the right thing to mean!” cried Elsie, with her
countenance glowing. “I am nearly as old as Betty, and I have never done
a hand’s turn in my life. It would be strange if I couldn’t do as much
for love, as Betty does for wages.”

“Ten pounds a year and her keep, which will count, maybe, for fifteen
more. Oh Elsie, my dear, to think that I should make a drudge of my own
bairn for no more saving than that.”

“It is a pity it is not a hundred pounds,” cried Elsie, half-laughing,
half-crying; “but in four years, mother, it would make up a hundred
pounds. Fancy me making up a hundred pounds! There will be no living
with me for pride.”

Mrs. Buchanan shook her head, and put her handkerchief to her eyes, but
joined in, too, with a tremulous laugh to this wonderful thought.

“And there’s your father all his lane up the stair,” she said,
regretfully, “with nobody to speak to! when you and me are here together
taking comfort, and making a laugh at it. There’s many things, after
all, in which we are better off than men, Elsie. But why he should debar
himself from just the only comfort there is, talking it over with
me–what’s that?”

It was a noise up-stairs, in the direction of Mr. Buchanan’s study, and
they both sprang to their feet: though, after all, it was not a very
dreadful noise, only the hasty opening of a window, and the fall of a
chair, as if knocked down by some sudden movement. They stood for a
moment, looking into each other’s suddenly blanched faces, an awful
suggestion leaping from eye to eye. Had it been too much for his brain?
Had he fallen? Had something dreadful happened? Elsie moved to open the
door, while her mother still stood holding by the table; but the
momentary horror was quieted by the sound of his steps overhead. They
heard him come out of his room to the head of the stairs, and held their
breath. Then there was a cry, “Mary! Mary!” Mrs. Buchanan turned upon
her daughter, with a sparkle in her eye.

“You see he couldna do without me after all,” she said.




When Elsie sat down alone she did not take her work again all at once,
but sat thinking, thoughts that, perhaps, were not so sweet as they had
been in the first enthusiasm of self-sacrifice. Her mother had left her
for a still more intimate conference and sharing of the burden, which,
when two people looked at it together, holding by each other, seemed so
much lighter than when one was left to look at it alone. There swept
across Elsie’s mind for a moment, in the chill of this desertion, the
thought that it was all very well for mamma. She had outgrown the love
of balls and other such enjoyments; and, though she liked to be well
dressed, she had the sustaining conviction that she was always well
dressed in her black silk; which, one year with another, if it was the
most enduring, was also one of the most becoming garments in St. Rule’s.
And she had her partner by her side always, no need to be wondering and
fancying what might happen, or whom she might see at the ball, perhaps
at the next street corner. But at nineteen it is very different; and, it
must be owned, that the prospect of the four years which it would take
for Elsie, by all manner of labours and endurances, to make up the
hundred pounds, which, after all, was only a third part of what was
wanted–was not so exhilarating when looked at alone, as it was when the
proud consciousness of such power to help had first thrilled her bosom.
Elsie looked at her own nice little hands, which were smooth, soft, and
reasonably white–not uselessly white like those of the people who never
did a hand’s turn–but white enough to proclaim them a lady’s hands,
though with scars of needlework on the fingers. She looked at her hands,
and wondered what they would look like at the end of these four years?
And she thought of the four balls, the yearly golf balls, at not one of
which was she likely to appear, and at all the other things which she
would have to give up. “What about that?” she said to herself, with
indignation, meaning, what did it matter, of what consequence was it?
But it did matter after all, it was of consequence. Whatever amount of
generous sophistry there may be in a girl’s mind, it does not go so far
as to convince her that four years out of her life, spent in being
housemaid, in working with her hands for her family, does not matter. It
did matter, and a tear or two dropped over her work. It would be hard,
but Elsie knew, all the same, that she had it in her to go through with
it. Oh, to go through with it! however hard it might be.

She was drying away her tears indignantly, angry with herself and
ashamed, and resolute that no such weakness should ever occur again,
when she became aware of several small crackling sounds that came from
the direction of the turret, the lower story of which formed an
appendage to the drawing-room, as the higher did to the study. Elsie was
not alarmed by these sounds. It was, no doubt, some friend either of
Rodie’s or her own, who was desirous of making a private communication
without disturbing the minister’s house by an untimely visit, and
calling attention by flinging gravel at the window. She could not think
who it was, but any incident was good to break the current of her
thoughts. There was a little pale moonlight, of that misty, milky kind,
which is more like a lingering of fantastic day than a fine white night
with black shadows, and there was a figure standing underneath, which
she did not recognise till she had opened the window. Then she saw it
was Johnny Wemyss. He had a packet in his hand.

“I thought,” he said, “that I would just come and tell you before I sent
it off by the night-coach. Elsie! I am sure–that is to say, I am near
sure, as sure as you dare to think you are, when it’s only you—-”

“What?” she cried, leaning out of the window.

“That yon _is_ a new beast,” said the young man. His voice was a little
tremulous. “I never lifted my head till I had it all out with it,” he
said, with a nervous laugh; “and I’m just as near sure–oh, well, some
other idiot may have found it out yesterday! but, barring that–I’m
sure–I mean as near sure—-”

“Oh, you and your beasts!” cried Elsie. Her heart had given a jump in
her breast, and she had become gay and saucy in a moment; “and you never
were more than _near_ sure all your life. _I_ knew it was, all the
time.”

They laughed together under the gray wall, the girl lightly triumphant,
the boy thrilling in every nerve with the certainty which he dared not
acknowledge even to himself.

“I have called it ‘Princess Elsie,’” he said, “in Latin, you know: that
is, if it is really a new beast.”

“There is nine striking,” said she; “you will have to run if you are to
catch the night-coach.”

“I will–but I had to come and tell you,” he cried over his shoulder.

“As if there was any need! when I knew it all the time.”

This was enough, I am glad to say, to turn entirely the tide of Elsie’s
thoughts. She stood listening to the sound of his heavy shoes, as he
dashed along the rough cobbles of the pavement, towards the centre of
the town from which the coach started. And then she came in with a
delightful, soft illumination on her face, laughing to herself, and sat
down at the table and took up her seam. Four years! four strokes of the
clock, four stitches with the needle! That was about all it would come
to in the long stretching, far panorama of endless and joyous life.