THE LAST

“Elsie,” said Mrs. Buchanan in the evening, when they were seated again
together at their work, at the same hour in which they had discussed and
settled on the previous night the necessary economies by which three
hundred pounds were to be scraped together in as many years.

“Elsie, you will think I am going back of my word. But we are now seeing
clearer, papa and I. There will be no need for what we were thinking of.
I will keep on Betty who is a good lass on the whole, if she would get
sweethearts and nonsense out of her head–and my dear there will be no
reason why you should not go to the ball.”

“Mother,” said Elsie, “is it Willie?”

“No, it’s not Willie–it’s just the nature of events–Mr. Morrison he
will not hear a word of it. He says Mr. Anderson, who was a good man,
and a leal friend, and well I know would never have let harm come to
your father, had left full instructions. Mr. Morrison is a fine honest
man, but he is a little rough in his ways. He just insulted papa–and
said he might throw away his siller if he liked, but not to him, for he
would not receive it. And what is to be said after that? I always
thought—-”

“I would rather, far rather it had been paid! What am I caring about
balls or white hands. I would rather have worked them to the bone and
got it paid,” Elsie cried.

“To whom,” replied her mother, with an unconscious copy of the lawyer’s
tone, “to yon silly woman that has nothing to do with it, to throw away
on her feathers and her millinery, and shame the auld man’s settled
plan? Your father was hard to move, but he was convinced at the last.
And what do you think,” she added, quickly, eager to abandon so
dangerous a subject in view of Elsie’s sudden excitement and glowing
eyes, “Frank Mowbray turns out to be a very lucky laddie–and Mr.
Morrison has as good as doubled his estate. What do you think of that?
He will be a rich man.”

“Oh, I am glad to hear it,” cried Elsie with great indifference, “but,
mother, about this money. Oh would you not rather pay it and be done
with it, and wipe it out for ever and ever? What am I caring about
balls? It will be years and years before you need take any thought for
me. I would rather be of some use than go to the Queen’s balls, let
alone the Golf–and nobody that I am heeding would care a pin the less
for me if my hands were as red as Betty’s.” She looked at them with a
toss of her head, as she spoke, stretching them out in their smoothness
and softness. This was the point at which Elsie’s pride was touched. She
did not like to think of these small members becoming as red as Betty’s,
who, for her part, was perfectly pleased with her hands.

“What were you meaning if I might ask about it being years and years
before we need take any thought for you?”

Elsie was much startled by this question. She knew what she meant very
well, but she had not intended to betray to her mother, or any one, what
that hidden meaning was, and the words had come to her lips in the tide
of feeling without thought. She gave one hurried glance at her mother’s
face, herself crimson red from chin to brow.

“I was meaning nothing,” she said.

“That is not the way folk look when they mean nothing,” her mother said.

“But it’s true. I meant just nothing, nothing! I meant I would want no
plenishing like Marion. I meant–that you need not take account of me,
or say, as I’ve heard you saying, ‘I must put this by for’–it used
always to be for Marion. You are not to think of me like that,” Elsie
cried.

“And wherefore no? If I were not to think of you like that, I would be
an ill mother: and why you less than another? You are taking no whimsies
into your head, I hope, Elsie–for that is a thing I could not put up
with at all.”

“I have no whimsies in my head, mother,” cried Elsie bending low over
her work.

“You have something in it, whimsey or no,” said her mother severely,
“that is not known to me.”

And there was a little relapse into silence and sewing for both. Elsie’s
breath came quick over her lengthened seam, the needle stumbled in her
hold and pricked her fingers. She cast about all around her desperately
for something to say. Indeed no–she had not meant anything, not
anything that could be taken hold of and discussed: though it was
equally true that she knew what she meant. How to reconcile these
things! but they were both true.

“Mother,” she said, after five dreadful moments of silence, and assuming
a light tone which was very unlike her feelings. “Do you mind you told
me that if there was any way I could make it up to Frank–but now that
he’s to be so well off there will be no need of that any more.”

“Were you ever disposed to make it up to Frank?” her mother said
quickly, taking the girl by surprise.

“I never thought about it–I–might never have had any
occasion–I–don’t know what I could have–done,” Elsie replied,
faltering.

“Because,” said Mrs. Buchanan in the same rapid tone, “it would just be
better than ever now. He will have a very good estate, and he’s a very
nice callant–kind and true, and not so silly as you might expect from
his upbringing. If that was your thought, Elsie, it would be far wiser
than I ever gave you credit for–and your father and me, we would never
have a word but good and blessing to say—-”

“Oh, mother,” cried Elsie, “you to say the like of that to me–because a
person was to have a good estate!”

“And wherefore no? A good estate is a very good thing: and plenty of
siller, if it is not the salt of life–oh, my dear, many a time it gives
savour to the dish. Wersh, wersh without it is often the household
bread.”

“It is not me,” cried Elsie, flinging high her head, “that would ever
take a man for his siller: I would rather have no bread at all. Just a
mouthful of cake,[A] and my freedom to myself.”

[A] It may here be explained for the benefit of the Souther that cake
in the phraseology of old Scotland meant oat cake, in distinction from
the greater luxury of “loaf-bread:” so that the little princess who
suggested that the poor people who had no bread might eat cake, might
have been a reasonable and wise Scot, instead of the silly little
person we have all taken her to be.

“I said there were whimsies in the lassie’s head,” said Mrs. Buchanan,
“it’s the new-fangled thing I hear that they are setting up themselves
against their natural lot. And what would you do with your freedom if
you had it, I would like to know? Freedom, quotha! and she a lassie, and
little over twenty. If you were not all fools at that age!”

“I was meaning just my freedom–to bide at home, and make no change,”
said Elsie, a little abashed.

“‘Deed there are plenty,” said Mrs. Buchanan, “that get that without
praying for’t. There are your aunties, two of them, Alison and
Kirsteen–the old Miss Buchanans, very respectable, well-living women.
Would you like to be like them? And Lizzie Aitken, she has let pass her
prime, and the Miss Wemysses that are settling down in their father’s
old house, just very respectable. If that is what you would like, Elsie,
you will maybe get it, and that without any force on Providence. They
say there are always more women than men in every country-side.”

Elsie felt herself insulted by these ironical suggestions. She made no
answer, but went on at her work with a flying needle, as if it were a
matter of life and death.

“But if that’s not to your mind,” Mrs. Buchanan added, “I would not take
a scorn at Frank. There is nothing to object to in him. If there was
anything to make up to him for, I would say again–make it up to him,
Elsie: but being just very well off as he is, there is another way of
looking at it. I never saw you object to him dangling after you when
nothing was meant. But in serious earnest he well just be a very good
match, and I would be easy in my mind about your future, if I saw
you—-”

“That you will never see me, mother,” cried Elsie, with hot tears, “for
his siller! I would rather die—-”

“It need not be altogether for his siller,” Mrs. Buchanan said, “and,
oh! if you but knew what a difference that makes. To marry a poor man
is just often like this. Your youth flies away fighting, and you grow
old before your time, with nothing but bills on every hand, bills for
your man, and bills for your bairns, hosen and shoes, meat and meal–and
then to put the lads and lassies out in the world when all’s done. Oh,
Elsie, the like of you! how little you know!”

“You married a poor man yourself, mother,” the girl cried.

“The better I’m fitted to speak,” said Mrs. Buchanan. “But,” she said,
putting down her work, and rising from her chair, “I married your
father, Elsie! and that makes all the difference,” she said with
dignity, as she went away.

What was the difference it made? Elsie asked herself the question,
shaking back her hair from her face, and the tears from her eyes. Her
cheeks were so hot and flushed with this argument, that the drops from
her eyes boiled as they touched them. What made the difference? If ever
she married a man, she said to herself, he should be a man of whom she
would think as her mother did, that being _him_ was what made all the
difference. The image that rose before her mind was not, alas! of a man
like her father, handsome and dignified and suave, a man of whom either
girl or woman might be proud. She was not proud of his appearance, if
truth must be told: there were many things in him that did not please
her. Sometimes she was impatient, even vexed at his inaptitudes, the
unconscious failures of a man who was not by birth or even by early
breeding a gentleman. This thought stung her very sorely. Upon the sands
ploutering, as she said, in the salt water, his bonnet pushed back, his
shirt open at the neck, his coat hanging loosely on his shoulders! Elsie
would have liked to re-dress that apparition, to dust the yellow sand
from him and the little ridges of shattered shells which showed on his
rough clothes as they did on the sea-shore. But no hand could keep that
figure in order, even in a dream. And alas! he would be no placed
minister like her father, or like Marion’s husband, with a pleasant
manse and a kirk in which all men would do him honour. Alas, alas, no!
They did not reverence Johnny. They came plucking at him, crowding about
him, calling to him, the very littlest of them, the very poorest of
them, Elsie said to herself, to let them see the new beast! But at this
thought her heart melted into the infinite softness of that approval,
which is perhaps the most delightful sentiment of humanity, the approval
of those we love–our approval of them more exquisite still than their
approval of us. Elsie did not care the least for the new beast. She was
altogether unscientific. She did not see the good of it, any more than
the most ignorant. But when she thought of his genial countenance
beaming over the small, the poor, the ignorant, her heart swelled, and
she approved of him with all her soul.

Elsie had no easy life during the remaining months of the summer. After
Frank Mowbray’s birthday, when all was settled, and he had begun to trim
up and brighten Mr. Anderson’s old house, which was to be his future
home, she had a great deal to bear from the members of her family, who
one and all supported Frank’s suit, which the young man lost no time in
making. He for himself would take no refusal, but came back and back
with a determination to be successful, which everybody said would
eventually carry the day: and each one in succession took up his cause.
All St. Rule’s indeed, it may be said, were partisans of Frank. What
ailed her at him, her friends said indignantly? who was Elsie Buchanan
that she should look for better than that? A fine fellow, a good income,
a nice house, and so near her mother! Girls who were going to India, or
other outlandish places, asked, with tears in their eyes, what she could
desire more? It was not as if there was any one else to disturb her
mind, they said: for by this time Ralph Beaton and the rest were all
drifting away to India and the Colonies to fulfil their fate: and to
think of Johnny Wemyss as lifting his eyes to the minister’s daughter,
was such a thing as no one could have believed. Marion came in expressly
from the country, with her three babies, to speak powerfully to the
heart of her sister. “You will regret but once, and that will be all
your life,” she said solemnly. And it has already been seen how her
mother addressed her on the subject. Rodie, too, made his wishes
distinctly known.




“Why will you not take him?” he said; “he is as decent a chap as any in
the town. If you scorn him, very likely you will never get another: and
you must mind you will not always have me to take you about everywhere,
and to get your partners at the balls.”

“You to get me partners!” cried Elsie, wildly indignant; “you are a
bonnie one! You just hang for your own partners on me; and as for taking
me to places, where do you ever take me? That was all ended long ago.”

But things became still more serious for Elsie, when her father himself
came to a pause in front of her one day, with a grave face.

“Elsie,” he said, “I hear it is in your power to make a young man’s
life, or to mar it; at least that is what he says to me.”

“You will not put any faith in that, father. Who am I, that I should
either make or mar?”

“I am tempted to think so myself,” he said, with a smile; “but at your
age people are seldom so wise. You are like your mother, my dear, and, I
doubt not, would be a tower of strength to your husband, as I have good
reason to say she has been; but that is not to say that any man has a
right to put the responsibility of his being to another’s charge. No,
no; I would not say that. But there is no harm in the lad, Elsie. He
has good dispositions. I would be at ease in my mind about your future,
if you could find it in your heart to trust it to him.”

“Father,” cried Elsie, very earnestly, “I care no more about him than I
do for old Adam, your old caddie. Just the same, neither more nor less.”

Her father laughed, and said that was not encouraging for Frank.

“But, my dear,” he said, “they say a lassie’s mind is as light as air,
and blows this way and that way, like the turn of the tide.”

“They may say what they like, father,” cried Elsie, with some
indignation. “If you think my mother is like that, then your daughter
can have no reason to complain.”

“Bless me, no,” cried Mr. Buchanan; “your mother! that makes all the
difference.”

These were the same words that Mrs. Buchanan had said. “As if because
she was my mother she was not a woman, and because he was my father he
was not a man,” said Elsie to herself; “and where is the difference?”
But she understood all the same.

“I will not say another word,” said the minister. “If you care for him
no more than for old Adam, there is not another word to say; but I would
have been glad, on my own account, if you could have liked him, Elsie.
It would have been a compensation. No matter, no matter, we’ll say no
more.”

Elsie would have been more touched if her father had not alluded to that
compensation. She had within herself a moment of indignation. “Me, a
compensation,” she cried to herself, “for your weary three hundred
pounds. It is clear to me papa does not think his daughter very muckle
worth, though he makes a difference for his wife!”

While all this was going on in the front of affairs, another little
drama was proceeding underneath, in which Elsie was a far more
interested performer, though she had no acknowledged title to take part
in it at all.

For great and astonishing things followed the discovery of the new
beast. Letters addressed to John Wemyss, Esq., letters franked by great
names, which the people in the post-office wondered over, and which were
the strangest things in the world to be sent to one of the student’s
lodgings, near the West Port, that region of humility–kept coming and
going all the summer through, and when the time approached for the next
College Session, and red gowns began to appear about the streets, Johnny
Wemyss in his best clothes appeared one day in the minister’s study,
whither most people in St. Rule’s found their way one time or other: for
Mr. Buchanan, though, as we have seen, not quite able always to guide
himself, was considered a famous adviser in most of the difficulties of
life. Johnny was shamefaced and diffident, blushing like a girl, and
squeezing his hat so tightly between his hands, that it presented
strange peculiarities of shape when it appeared in the open air once
more. Johnny, too, was by way of asking the minister’s advice–that is
to say, he had come to tell him what he meant to do, with some anxiety
to know what impression the remarks he was about to make might have upon
Elsie’s father, but no thought of changing his resolutions for anything
the minister might say. Johnny told how his discovery had brought him
into communication with great scientific authorities in London, and that
he had been advised to go there, where he would find books and
instruction that might be of great use to him, and where he was told
that his interests would be looked after by some persons of great
influence and power. Mr. Buchanan listened with a smile, much amused to
hear that the discovery of an unknown kind of “jeely fish” could give a
man a claim for promotion: but when he heard that Johnny intended to go
to London, he looked grave and shook his head.

“I am afraid that will very much interfere,” he said, “with what seems
to me far more important, your studies for your profession.”

“Sir,” said Johnny, “I’m afraid I have not made myself very clear. I
never was very much set on the Church. I never thought myself good
enough. And then I have no interest with any patron, and I would have
little hope of a kirk.”

The minister frowned a little, and then he smiled. “That mood of mind,”
he said, “is more promising than any other. I would far rather see a
young lad that thought himself not good enough, than one that was over
sure. And as for interest, an ardent student and a steady character,
especially when he has brains, as you have, will always find interest to
push him on.”

“You are very kind to say so, Mr. Buchanan,” said Johnny; “but,” he
added, “I have just a passion for the beasts.”

“Sir,” said the minister, looking grave, “no earthly passion should come
in the way of the service of God.”

“Unless, as I was thinking,” said Johnny, “that might maybe be for the
service of God too.”

But this the minister was so doubtful of–and perhaps with some reason,
for the discoverers of jelly fishes are not perhaps distinguished as
devout men–that the interview ended in a very cool parting, Mr.
Buchanan even hinting that this was a desertion of his Master’s
standard, and that the love of beasts was an unhallowed passion. And
Johnny disappeared from St. Rule’s shortly after, and was long absent,
and silence closed over his name. In those days perhaps people were less
accustomed to frequent letters than we are, and could live without them,
for the most anxious heart has to acknowledge the claim of the
impossible. Johnny Wemyss, however, wrote to Rodie now and then, and
Elsie had the advantage of many things which Rodie never understood at
all in these epistles. And sometimes a newspaper came containing an
account of some of Mr. Wemyss’s experiments, or of distinctions won by
him, which electrified his old friends. For one thing, he went upon a
great scientific voyage, and came home laden with discoveries, which
were, it appeared, though no one in St. Rule’s could well understand
how, considered of great importance in the scientific world. And from
that time his future was secure. It was just after his return from this
expedition, that one day there came a letter franked by a great man,
whose name on the outside of an envelope was of value as an autograph,
openly and boldly addressed to Miss Elsie Buchanan, The Manse, St.
Rule’s. It was written very small, on a sheet of paper as long as your
arm, and it poured out into Elsie’s heart the confidences of all those
silent years. She showed it to her mother, and Mrs. Buchanan gasped and
could say no word. She took it to her father, and the minister cried
“Johnny Wemyss!” in a voice like a roar of astonishment and fury.

“Do you mean this has been going on all the time,” he cried, “and not a
word said?”

“Nothing has been going on,” said Elsie, pale but firm.

“Oh, it was settled, I suppose, before he went away.”

“Never word was spoken either by him or me,” said Elsie; “but I will not
say but what we knew each other’s meaning, I his, and he mine,” she
added, softly, after a pause.

There was a good deal of trouble about it one way and another, but you
may believe that neither father nor mother, much less Rodie and John,
though the one was a W. S., and the other an advocate, could interfere
long with a wooing like this.