MAN AND WIFE

“What did that woman want with you, Claude?” said Mrs. Buchanan, coming
in with panting breath, and depositing herself in the chair from which
Mrs. Mowbray had risen but a little while before.

The minister sat with his head in his hands, his face covered, his
aspect that of a man utterly broken down. He did not answer for some
time, and then:

“I think she wants my life-blood,” he said.

“Your life-blood! Claude, my man, are you taking leave of your
senses–or what is it you mean?”

Once more there was a long pause. His wife was not perhaps so frightened
as she might have been in other circumstances. She was very tired. The
satisfaction of having got rid of all her guests was strong in her mind.
She had only just recovered her breath, after toiling upstairs. Lastly,
it was so absurd that any one should want the minister’s life-blood;
last of all, the smiling and flattering Mrs. Mowbray, that she was more
inclined to laugh than to be alarmed.

“You may laugh,” said Mr. Buchanan, looking up at her from below the
shadow of his clasped hands, with hollow eyes, “but it is death to me.
She wants me to give her a list of all old Anderson’s debtors, Mary. I
told her I only knew one.”

“Goodness, Claude! did you say it was yourself?”

“Not yet,” he said, with a deep sigh.

“Not yet! do you mean that after the great deliverance we got, and the
blessed kindness of that old man, you are going to put your head under
the yoke again? What has she to do with it? He thought nothing of her.
He let the boy get it because there was nobody else, but he never took
any interest even in the boy. He never would have permitted–Claude!
those scruples of yours, they are ridiculous; they are quite ridiculous.
What, oh! what do you mean? To ruin your own for the sake of that little
puppy of a boy? God forgive me; it is probably not the laddie’s fault.
He is just the creation of his silly mother. And they are well off
already. If old Anderson had left them nothing at all, they were well
off already. Claude, if she has come here to play upon your weakness, to
get back what the real owner had made you a present of—-”

“Mary, I have never been able to get it out of my mind that it was the
smaller debtors he wanted to release, but not me.”

“Had you any reason to mistrust the old man, Claude?”

He gave her a look, still from under his clasped hands, but made no
reply.

“Which of them were more to him than you,” said Mrs. Buchanan,
vehemently; “the smaller debtors? Joseph Sym, the gardener, that he set
up in business, or the Horsburghs, or Peter Wemyss? Were they more to
him than you?–was this woman, with her ringlets, and her puffed sleeves
more to him than you? Or her silly laddie, no better than a bairn,
though he may be near a man in years? I have reminded you before what
St. Paul says: ‘Albeit, I do not say to thee how thou owest me thine own
self besides.’ He was not slow to say that, the old man, when you would
let him. And you think he was more taken up with that clan-jamfry than
with you?”

“No–no; I don’t say that, Mary. I know he was very favourable to me,
too favourable; but I have never felt at rest about this. Morrison would
not let me speak; perhaps he thought I had got less than I really had.
This has always been in my head.” The minister got up suddenly and began
to walk about the room. “Take now thy bill, and sit down quickly, and
write fourscore,” he said, under his breath.

“What is that you are saying, Claude? That is what Elsie heard you
saying the day of Mr. Anderson’s death. She said, quite innocent, it
gave you a great deal of trouble, your sermon, that you were always
going over and over—-”

“What?” said Mr. Buchanan, stopping short in his walk, with a scared
face.

“Dear me, Claude! no harm, no harm, only _that_, that you are saying
now–about writing fourscore. Oh, Claude, my dear, you give it far more
thought than it deserves. We could have almost paid it off by this time,
if it had been exacted from us. And when that good, kind, auld man
said–more than saying–when he wrote down in his will–that it was to
be a legacy, God bless him! when I heard that, with thanksgiving to the
Lord, I just put it out of my mind–not to forget it, for it was a great
deliverance–but surely not to be burdened by it, or to mistrust the
good man in his grave!”

The eyes of the minister’s wife filled with tears. It was she who was
the preacher now, and her address was full of natural eloquence. But,
like so many other eloquent addresses, her audience paid but little
attention to it. Mr. Buchanan stopped short in his walk; he came back to
his table and sat down facing her. When she ceased, overcome with her
feelings, he began, without any pretence of sharing them, to question
her hastily.

“Where was Elsie, that she should hear what I said? and what did she
hear? and how much does she know?” This new subject seemed to occupy his
mind to the exclusion of the old.

“Elsie? oh, she knows nothing. But she was in the turret there, where
you encouraged them to go, Claude, though I always thought it a
dangerous thing; for the parents’ discussions are not always for a
bairn’s ears, and you never thought whether they were there or not. I
have thought upon it many a day.”

“And she knows nothing?” said Mr. Buchanan. “Well, I suppose there is no
harm done; but I dislike anyone to hear what I am saying. It is
inconvenient; it is disagreeable. You should keep a growing girl by your
own side, Mary, and not let her stray idle round about the house.”

He had not heard her complain against himself as encouraging the
children to occupy the turret. His wife was well enough accustomed with
his modes of thought. He ignored this altogether, as if he had no
responsibility. And the thought of Elsie thus suggested put away the
other and larger thought.

“I should like exactly to know how much she heard, and whether she drew
any conclusions. You can send her to me when you go down down-stairs.”

“Claude, if you will be guided by me, no–do not put things into the
bairn’s head. She will think more and more if her thoughts are driven
back upon it. She will be fancying things in her mind. She will be—-”

“What things can she fancy in her mind? What thoughts can she have more
and more, as you say? What are you attributing to me, Mary? You seem to
think I have been meditating–or have done–something–I know not
what–too dark for day.”

He looked at her severely, and she looked at him with deprecating
anxiety.

“Claude,” she said, “my dear, I cannot think what has come over you. Am
I a person to make out reproaches against you? I said it was a pity to
get the bairns into a habit of sitting there, where they could hear
everything. That was no great thing, as if I was getting up a censure
upon you, or hinting at dark things you have done. I would far easier
believe,” she said, with a smile, laying her hand upon his arm, “that I
had done dark deeds myself.”

“Well, well,” he said, “I suppose I am cranky and out of sorts. It has
been a wearying day.”

“That it has,” cried Mrs. Buchanan, with warm agreement. “I am not a
woman for my bed in the daytime; but, for once in a way, I was going to
lie down, just to get a rest, for I am clean worn out.”

“My poor Mary,” he said, with a kind smile. When she felt her weakness,
then was the time when he should be strong to support her. “Go and lie
down, and nobody shall disturb you, and dismiss all this from your mind,
my dear; for, as far as I can see, there is nothing urgent, not a thing
for the moment to trouble your head about.”

“It is not so easy to dismiss things from your mind,” she said, smiling
too, “unless I was sure that you were doing it, Claude; for when you are
steady and cheery in your spirits, I think there is nothing I cannot put
up with, and you may be sure I will not make a fuss, whatever you may
think it a duty to do. And it is not for me to preach to you; but mind,
there are many things that look like duty, and are not duty at all, but
just infatuation, or, maybe, pride.”

“You have not much confidence in the clearness of my perceptions, Mary.”

“Oh, but I have perfect confidence.” She pronounced this word “perfitt,”
and said it with that emphasis which belongs to the tongue of the North.
“But who could ken so well as me that your spirit’s a quick spirit, and
that pride has its part in you–the pride of aye doing the right thing,
and honouring your word, and keeping your independence. I agree with it
all, but in reason, in reason. And I would not fly in that auld man’s
face, and him in his grave, Claude Buchanan, not for all the women’s
tongues in existence, or their fleeching words!”

He had been standing by the table, from which she had risen too, with an
indulgent smile on his face; but at this his countenance changed, and,
as Mrs. Buchanan left the room, he sat down again hastily, with his head
in his hands.

Was she right? or was his intuition right? That strong sense, that
having meant wrong he had done wrong, whether formally or not. Many and
many a day had he thought over it, and he had come to a moral conviction
that his old friend had intended him to have the money, that he was the
last person in the world from whom Anderson would have exacted the last
farthing. Putting one thing to another he had come to that conviction.
Of all the old man’s debtors, there was none so completely his friend.
It was inconceivable that all the other people should be freed from the
bonds, and only he kept under it. He had quite convinced himself rather
that it was for his sake the others had been unloosed, than that it was
he alone who was exempt from relief. But it only required Mrs. Mowbray’s
words to overset this carefully calculated conclusion. His conscience
jumped up with renewed force, and, as his wife had divined, his pride
was up in arms. That this foolish woman and trifling boy had a right to
anything that had been consumed and alienated by him, was intolerable to
think of. Mary was right. It was an offence to his pride which he could
not endure. His honest impulses might be subdued by reason, but his
pride of integrity–no, that was not to be subdued.

The thought became intolerable to him as he pondered seriously, always
with his head between his hands. He began once more to pace up and down
the room heavily, but hastily–with a heavy foot, but not the deliberate
quietness of legitimate thought. Such reflections as these tire a man
and hurry him; there is no peace in them. Passing the door of the
turret-room, he looked in, and a sudden gust of anger rose. A stool was
standing in the middle of the room, a book lying open on the floor. I do
not know how they had got there, for Elsie very seldom now came near the
place of so many joint readings and enjoyments. The minister went in,
and kicked the stool violently away. It should never, at least, stand
there again to remind him that he had betrayed himself; and then it
returned to his mind that he desired to see Elsie, and discover how much
she knew or suspected. Her mother had said no, but he was not always
going to yield to her mother in everything. This was certainly his
affair. He went down-stairs immediately to find Elsie, walking very
softly on the landing not to disturb his wife, who had, indeed, a good
right to be tired, and ought to get a good rest now that everybody was
gone; which was quite true. He never even suggested to himself that her
door was open; that she might hear him, and get up and interrupt him.
There was nobody to be found down-stairs. The rooms lay very deserted,
nothing yet cleared from the tables, the flowers drooping that had
decorated the dishes (which was the fashion in those days); the great
white bride-cake, standing with a great gash in it, and roses all round
it. There was nothing, really, to be unhappy about in what had taken
place to-day. Marion was well, and happily provided for. That was a
thing a poor man should always be deeply thankful for, but the sight of
“the banquet-hall deserted” gave him a pang as if it had been death,
instead of the most living of all moments, that had just passed over his
house. He went out to the garden, where he could see that some of the
younger guests were still lingering; but it was only Rodie and the boys
who were his boon companions that were to be seen. Elsie was not there.

He found her late in the afternoon, when he was returning from a long
walk. Walks were things that neither he himself nor his many critics
and observers would have thought a proper indulgence for a minister. He
ought to be going to see somebody, probably “a sick person,” when he
indulged in such a relaxation; and there were plenty of outlying
invalids who might have afforded him the excuse he wanted, with duty at
the end. But he was not capable of duty to-day, and the sick persons
remained unvisited. He turned his face towards home, after treading many
miles of the roughest country. And it was then, just as he came through
the West Port, that he saw Elsie before him, in her white dress, and
fortunately alone. The minister’s thoughts had softened during his walk.
He no longer felt disposed to take her by the shoulders, to ask angrily
what she had said to her mother, and why she had played the spy upon
him; but something of his former excitement sprang up in him at the
sight of her. He quickened his pace a little, and was soon beside her,
laying his hand upon her shoulder. Elsie looked up, not frightened at
all, glad to be joined by him.

“Oh, father, are you going home?” she said, “and so am I.”

“We will walk together, then; which will be a good thing, as I have
something to say to you,” he said.

Elsie had no possible objection. She looked up at him very pleasantly
with her soft brown eyes, and he discovered for the first time that his
younger daughter had grown into a bonnie creature, prettier than
Marion. To be angry with her was impossible, and how did he know that
there was anything to be angry about?

“Elsie,” he said, “your mother has been telling me of something you
heard me say in my study a long time ago, something that you overheard,
which you ought not to have overheard, when you were in the turret, and
I did not know you were there.”

Elsie grew a little pale at this unexpected address.

“Oh, father,” she said, “you knew we were always there.”

“Indeed, I knew nothing of the kind. I never supposed for a moment that
you would remain to listen to what was said.”

“We never did. Oh, never, never!” cried Elsie, now growing as suddenly
red.

“It is evident you did on this occasion. You heard me talking to myself,
and now you have remembered and reported what I said.”

“Oh, father!” cried Elsie, with a hasty look of remonstrance, “how can
you say I did that?”

“What was it, then, you said?”

He noticed that she had no need to pause, to ask herself what it was.
She answered at once.

“It was about the parable. They said you had preached a sermon on it,
and I said I thought your mind had been very full of it; because, when
Rodie and me were in the turret, we heard you.”

“Oh, there were two of you,” said Mr. Buchanan, with a pucker in his
forehead.

“There were always, always two of us then,” said Elsie, with a sudden
cloud on hers; “and what you said was that verse about taking your bill
and writing fourscore. I did not quite understand it at the time.”

“And do you understand it now?”

“No, father, for it was a wrong thing,” said Elsie, sinking her voice.
“It was cheating: and to praise a man for doing it, is what I cannot
understand.”

“Oh, I’ll tell you about that; I will show you what it means,” he said,
with the instinct of the expositor, “but not at this moment,” he added,
“not just now. Was that all that you thought of, when you heard me say
those words to myself?”

Elsie looked up at him, and then she looked all round; a sudden dramatic
conflict took place in her. She had thought of that, and yet she had
thought of something more than that, but she did not know what the
something more was. It had haunted her, but yet she did not know what it
was. She looked up and down the street, unconsciously, to find an answer
and explanation, but none came. Then she said, faltering a little:–

“Yes, father, but I was not content; for I did not understand: and I am
just the same now.”

“I will take an opportunity,” he said, “of explaining it all to you” and
then he added, in a different tone, “it was wrong to be there when I did
not know you were there, and wrong to listen to what I said to myself,
thinking nobody was near; but what would be most wrong of all, would be
to mention to any living creature a thing you had no right to overhear.
And if you ever do it again, I will think you are a little traitor,
Elsie, and no true child of mine. It would set you better to take care
not to do wrong yourself, than to find fault with the parable.”

He looked at her with glowing, angry eyes, that shone through the
twilight, while Elsie gazed at him with consternation. What did he mean?
Then and now, what did he mean?