IN THE STUDY

The hour was heavier to the parents up-stairs, where the minister was so
despondent and depressed that his wife had hard ado to cheer him. The
window which down-stairs they had heard him throw open, stood wide to
the night, admitting a breeze which blew about the flame of the candles,
threatening every moment to extinguish them; for the air, though soft
and warm, blew in almost violently fresh from the sea. Mrs. Buchanan put
down the window, and drew the blind, restoring the continuity and
protecting enclosure of the walls; for there are times and moods when an
opening upon infinite air and space is too much for the soul travailing
among the elements of earth. She went to his side and stood by him, with
her hand on his shoulder.

“Dinna be so down-hearted, Claude, my man,” she said, with her soft
voice. Her touch, her tone, the contact of her warm, soft person, the
caressing of her hand came on him like dew.

“Mary,” he said, leaning his head back upon her, “you don’t know what I
have done. I did it in meaning, if not in fact. The thought of you kept
me back, my dear, more than the thought of my Maker. I am a miserable
and blood-guilty man.”

“Whisht, whisht,” she said, trembling all over, but putting now a
quivering arm round him; “you are not thinking what you say.”

“Well am I thinking, well am I knowing it. Me, His body-servant, His
man–not merely because He is my Saviour, as of all men, but my Master
to serve hand and foot, night and day. For the sake of a little pain, a
little miserable money, I had well-nigh deserted His service, Mary. Oh,
speak not to me, for I am a lost soul—-”

“Whisht, Claude! You are a fevered bairn. Do you think He is less
understanding, oh, my man, than me? What have you done?”

He looked up at her with large, wild eyes. Then she suddenly perceived
his hand clenched upon something, and darting at it with a cry forced it
open, showing a small bottle clasped in the hollow of his palm. She
gripped his shoulder violently, with a low shriek of horror.

“Claude, Claude! you have not–you did not—-”

“I poured it out before the Lord,” he said, putting the phial on the
table; “but the sin is no less, for I did it in meaning, if not in deed.
How can I ever lift my head or my hand before His presence again?”

“Oh, my laddie! my man!” cried his wife, who was the mother of every
soul in trouble, “oh, my Claude! Are you so little a father, you with
your many bairns, that you do not know in your heart how He is looking
at you? ‘Such pity as a father hath unto His children dear.’ You are
just fevered and sick with trouble. You shut out your wife from you, and
now you would shut out your Lord from you.”

“No,” he said, grasping her hand, “never again, Mary, never again. I am
weak as water, I cannot stand alone. I have judged others for less, far
less, than I myself have done.”

“Well, let it be so,” said his wife, “you will know better another time.
Claude, you are just my bairn to-night. You will say your prayers and go
to your bed, and the Lord in heaven and me at your bedside, like a dream
it will all pass away.”

He dropped down heavily upon his knees, and bent his head upon the
table.

“Mary, I feel as if I could say nought but this: Depart from me, for I
am a sinful man, oh Lord.”

“You know well,” she said, “the hasty man that Peter was, if ever he had
been taken at his word. And do you mind what was the answer? It was just
‘Follow me.’”

“Father, forgive me. Master, forgive me,” he breathed through the hands
that covered his face, and then his voice broke out in the words of an
older faith, words which she understood but dimly, and which frightened
her with the mystery of an appeal into the unknown. _Kyrie Eleison_,
_Christ Eleison_, the man said, humbled to the very depths.

The woman stood trembling over him not knowing how to follow. His voice
rolled forth low and intense, like the sound of an organ into the
silent room; hers faltered after in sobs inarticulate, terrified,
exalted, understanding nothing, comprehending all.

This scene was scarcely ended when Elsie burst out singing over her
work, forgetting that there was any trouble in the world: to each its
time, and love through all.

Mr. Buchanan was very much shaken with physical illness and weakness
next morning, than where there is nothing more healing for a spirit that
has been put to the question, as in the old days of the Inquisition, but
by rack and thumbscrew still more potent than these. His head ached, his
pulses fluttered. He felt as if he had been beaten, he said, not a nerve
in him but tingled; he could scarcely stand on his feet. His wife had
her way with him, which was sweet to her. She kept him sheltered and
protected in his study under her large and soft maternal wing. It was to
her as when one of her children was ill, but not too ill–rather
convalescent–in her hands to be soothed and caressed into recovery.
This was an immense and characteristic happiness to herself even in the
midst of her pain. In the afternoon after she had fed him with
nourishing meats, appropriate to his weakness, a visitor was announced
who startled them both. Mr. Morrison, the writer, sent up his name and a
request to have speech of Mr. Buchanan, if the minister were well enough
to receive him. There was a rapid consultation between the husband and
wife.

“Are you fit for it, Claude?”

“Yes, yes, let us get it over: but stay with me,” he said.

Mrs. Buchanan went down to meet the man of business, and warn him of her
husband’s invalid condition.

“He is a little low,” she said. “You will give no particular importance,
Mr. Morrison, to any despondent thing he may say.”

“Not I, not I,” cried the cheerful man of business. “The minister has
his ill turns like the rest of us: but with less occasion than most of
us, I’m well aware.”

Mrs. Buchanan stayed only long enough in the room to see that her
husband had drawn himself together, and was equal to the interview. She
had a fine sense of the proprieties, and perception, though she was so
little of a sensitive, of what was befitting. Morrison perceived with a
little surprise the minister’s alarmed glance after his wife, but for
his part was exceedingly glad to get rid of the feminine auditor.

“I am glad,” he said, “to see you alone, if you are equal to business,
Mr. Buchanan, for I’ve something which is really not business to talk to
you about: that is to say, it’s a very bad business, just the mishap of
a silly woman if you’ll permit me to say so. She tells me she has
confided them to you already.”

“Mrs. Mowbray?” said the minister.

“Just Mrs. Mowbray. The day of Frank’s majority is coming on when all
must come to light, and in desperation, poor body, she sent for me.
Yon’s a silly business if you like–a foolish laddie without an idea in
his head–and a lightheaded woman with nothing but vanity and folly in
hers.”

“Stop a little,” said Mr. Buchanan, in the voice which his _rôle_ of
invalid had made, half artificially, wavering, and weak; “we must not
judge so harshly. Frank, if he is not clever, is full of good feeling,
and as for his mother–it is easy for the wisest of us to deceive
ourselves about things we like and wish for–she thought, poor woman, it
was for the benefit of her boy.”

“You are just too charitable,” said Morrison, with a laugh. “But let us
say it was that. It makes no difference to the result. A good many
thousands to the bad, that is all about it, and nothing but poverty
before them, if it were not for what she calls the Scotch property. The
Scotch property was to bear the brunt of everything: and now some idiot
or other has told her that the Scotch property is little to lippen to:
and that half St. Rule’s was in old Anderson’s debt—-”

“I have heard all that–I told her that at the utmost there were but a
few hundreds—-”

“Not a penny–not a penny,” said Morrison. “I had my full instructions:
and now here is the situation. She has been more foolish than it’s
allowable even for a lightheaded woman to be.”

“You have no warrant for calling her lightheaded; so far as I know she
is an irreproachable woman as free of speck or stain—-”

“Bless us,” said the man of business, “you are awfully particular
to-day, Buchanan. I am not saying a word against her character: but
lightheaded, that is thoughtless and reckless, and fond of her pleasure,
the woman undoubtedly is: nothing but a parcel of vanities, and
ostentations, and show. Well, well! how it comes about is one thing, how
to mend it is another. We cannot let the poor creature be overwhelmed if
we can help it. She spent all her own money first, which, though the
height of folly, was still a sign of grace. And now she has been
spending Frank’s, and, according to all that appears, his English money
is very nearly gone, and there is nothing but the Scotch remaining.”

“And the Scotch but little to lippen to, as you say, and everybody
says.”

“That’s as it may be,” said Morrison, with a twinkle in his eye. “It’s
better than the English, anyway. She deserves to be punished for her
folly, but I have not the heart to leave her in the lurch. She’s sorry
enough now, though whether that is because she’s feared for exposure or
really penitent, I would not like to say. Anyway, when a woman trusts in
you to pull her out of the ditch, it’s hard just to steel your heart and
refuse: though maybe, in a moral point of view, the last would be well
justified and really the right thing to do. But I thought you and I
might lay our heads together and see which was best.”

“There is that money of mine, Morrison.”

“Hoots!” said the man of business, “what nonsense is that ye have got in
your head? There is no money of yours.”

“Forgive me, but you must not put me down so,” said the minister. “I
have done wrong in not insisting before. The arrangement was that it
should be repaid, and I ought not to have allowed myself to be persuaded
out of it, I owed Mr. Anderson—-”

“Not a penny, not a penny. All cancelled by his special instructions at
his death.”

“Morrison, this has been upon my mind for years. I must be quit of it
now.” He raised his voice with a shrill weakness in it. “My wife knows.
Where is my wife? I wish my wife to be present when we settle this
account finally. Open the door and call her. I must have Mary here.”

“Well, she is a very sensible woman,” said Mr. Morrison, shrugging his
shoulders. He disapproved on principle, he said always, of the
introduction of women to matters they had nothing to do with, which was
the conviction of his period. But he reflected that Buchanan in his
present state was little better than a woman, and that the presence of
his wife might be a correction. He opened the door accordingly, and she
came out of her room in a moment, ready evidently for any call.

“Mary, I wish you to be here while I tell Morrison, once for all, that I
must pay this money. I perhaps gave you a false idea when we talked of
it before. I made you believe it was a smaller sum than it was. I–I was
like the unjust steward–I took my bill and wrote fourscore.”

“What is he meaning now, I wonder?” said Morrison to Mrs. Buchanan, with
a half-comic glance aside. “He is just a wee off his head with diseased
conscientiousness. I’ve met with the malady before, but it’s rare, I
must say, very rare. Well, come, out with it, Buchanan. What is this
about fourscore?”

“You misunderstand me,” he cried. “I must demand seriousness and your
attention.”

“Bless us, man, we’re not at the kirk,” Morrison said.

The minister was very impatient. He dealt the table a weak blow, as he
sometimes did to the cushion of his pulpit.

“Perhaps I did it on purpose,” he said, “perhaps it was
half-unconscious, I cannot tell; but I gave you to believe that my debt
was smaller than it really was. Morrison, I owed Mr. Anderson three
hundred pounds.”

The tone of solemnity with which he spoke could scarcely have been more
impressive had he been reasoning, like St. Paul, of mercy, temperance,
and judgment to come. And he felt as if he were doing so: it was the
most solemn of truths he was telling against himself; the statement as
of a dying man. His wife felt it so, too, in a sympathy that disturbed
her reason, standing with her hand upon the back of his chair. Morrison
stood for a moment, overcome by the intensity of the atmosphere, opening
his mouth in an amazed gasp.

“Three hundred pounds!” the minister repeated, deliberately, with a
weight of meaning calculated to strike awe into every heart.

But the impression made upon his audience unfortunately did not last.
The writer stared and gasped, and then he burst into a loud guffaw. It
was irresistible. The intense gravity of the speaker, the exaltation of
his tone, the sympathy of his wife’s restrained excitement, and then the
words that came out of it all, so commonplace, so little conformable to
that intense and tragic sentiment–overwhelmed the man of common sense.
Morrison laughed till the tremulous gravity of the two discomposed him,
and made him ashamed of himself, though their look of strained and
painful seriousness almost brought back the fit when it was over. He
stopped all of a sudden, silenced by this, and holding his hand to his
side.

“I beg your pardon, Mrs. Buchanan. It was just beyond me. Lord’s sake,
man, dinna look so awesome. I was prepared to hear it was thirty
thousand at the least.”

“Thirty thousand,” said the minister, “to some people is probably less
than three hundred to me: but we cannot expect you to feel with us in
respect to that. Morrison, you must help us somehow to pay this money,
for we cannot raise it in a moment; but with time every penny shall be
paid.”

“To whom?” said Morrison, quietly.

“To whom? Are not you the man of business? To the estate, of course–to
the heir.”

“Not to me, certainly,” said the lawyer. “I would be worthy to lose my
trust if I acted in contradiction to my client’s wishes in any such way.
I will not take your money, Buchanan. No! man, though you are the
minister, you are not a Pope, and we’re not priest-ridden in this
country. I’ll be hanged if you shall ride rough shod over my head. I
have my instructions, and if you were to preach at me till doomsday,
you’ll not change my clear duty. Pay away, if it’s any pleasure to you.
Yon wild woman, I dare to say, would snatch it up, or any siller you
would put within reach of her; but deil a receipt or acquittance or any
lawful document will you get from auld John Anderson’s estate, to which
you owe not a penny. Bless me, Mrs. Buchanan, you’re a sensible woman.
Can you not make him see this? You cannot want him to make ducks and
drakes of your bairns’ revenue. John Anderson was his leal friend, do
you think it likely he would leave him to be harried at a lawyer’s
mercy? Do you not see, with the instincts of my race, I would have put
you all to the horn years ago if it had been in my power?” he cried,
jumping suddenly up. “Bless me, I never made so long a speech in my
life. For goodsake, Buchanan, draw yourself together and give up this
nonsense, like a man.”

“It is nonsense,” said the minister, who, during all this long speech,
had gone through an entire drama of emotions, “that has taken all the
pleasure for five long years and more out of my life.”

“Oh, but, Claude, my man! you will mind I always said—-”

“Ye hear her? That’s a woman’s consolation,” said the minister, with a
short laugh, in which it need not be said he was extremely unjust.

“It’s sound sense, anyway,” said Mr. Morrison, “so far as this fable of
yours is concerned. Are you satisfied now? Well, now that we’ve got
clear of that, I’ll tell you my news. The Scotch property–as they call
it, those two–has come out fine from all its troubles. What with good
investments and feus, and a variety of favourable circumstances, for
which credit to whom credit is due–I am not the person to speak–John
Anderson’s estate has nearly doubled itself since the good man was taken
away. He was just a simpleton in his neglect of all his chances, saying,
as he did–you must have heard him many a day–‘there will aye be enough
to serve my time.’ I am not saying it was wonderful–seeing the laddie
was all but a stranger–but he thought very, very little of his heir.
But you see it has been my business to see to the advantage of his
heir.”

“Your behaviour to-day is not very like it, Morrison.”

“Hoots!” said the man of business, “that’s nothing but your nonsense. I
can give myself the credit for never having neglected a real honest
opening. To rob or to fleece a neighbour was not in that line. I am
telling you I’ve neglected no real opening, and I will not say but that
the result is worth the trouble, and Frank Mowbray is a lucky lad. And
what has brought me here to-day–for I knew nothing of all this nonsense
of yours that has taken up our time–was just to ask your advice if
certain expedients were lawful for covering up this daft mother’s
shortcomings–certain expedients which I have been turning over in my
head.”

“What is lawful I am little judge of,” said the minister, mournfully. “I
have shown you how very little I am to be trusted even for what is
right.”

“Toots!” was the impatient reply. “I am not meaning the law of Scotland.
If I do not know that, the more shame to me.” It is another law I am
thinking of. When I’m in with the King in the house of Rimmon, and him
leaning on my shoulder, and the King bows down in the house of Rimmon,
and me to be neighbourlike I bow with him, is this permitted to thy
servant? You mind the text? That’s what I’ve come to ask. There may be
an intent to deceive that has no ill motive, and there may be things
that the rigid would call lies. I’ve no respect for her to speak of,
but she’s a woman: and if a man could shield a creature like that—-”

“I’m thinking,” said Mrs. Buchanan, “now that your own business is over,
Claude, and Mr. Morrison with his business to talk to you about, you
will want me no longer. Are you really as sure as you say, Mr. Morrison,
about the siller? You would not deceive him and me? It is not a lee as
you say, with the best of motives? for that I could not bide any more
than the minister. Give me your word before I go away.”

“It is God’s truth,” said the lawyer, taking her hand. “As sure as
death, which is a solemn word, though it’s in every callant’s mouth.”

“Then I take it as such,” she said, grasping his hand. “And, Claude, ye
have no more need of me.”

But what the further discussion was between the two men, which Mrs.
Buchanan was so high-minded as not to wait to hear, I can tell no more
than she did. They had a long consultation; and when the lawyer took his
leave, Mr. Buchanan, with a strong step as if nothing had ever ailed
him, not only conducted him to the door but went out with him, walking
briskly up the street with a head as high as any man’s; which perhaps
was the consequence of his release, by Morrison’s energetic refusal,
from the burden which he had bound on his shoulders and hugged to his
bosom for so long; and certainly was the happy result of having his
thoughts directed towards another’s troubles, and thus finally diverted
from his own.