THE POSITION OF ELSIE

Mrs. Buchanan was a woman of great sense, yet perhaps she never made use
of a more effective argument than that with which she concluded the
conversation of that evening. Elsie went up to her room full of thought.
It had always been impressed upon her from her earliest consciousness
that her father’s peace and comfort, his preservation from all
unnecessary cares, from all noises and disturbing influence of every
kind was one of the chiefest and most important duties of the family. It
had been made the rule of her own childish conduct from the very
beginning. “Oh, Miss Elsie, whatever you do, dinna make a noise, and
disturb your papaw,” had been the entreaty of the nursery-maid as long
as she could remember. And when she was old enough to understand a
reason, her mother had explained to her how papa was occupied all day
long in the service of God, and for the instruction of common folk not
so learned or so wise as himself. “And I think it a great privilege to
mind the house and mind the doors, so that none of these small things
may trouble him,” her mother had said, “and you should be a proud lassie
to think that you can be helpful in it, and do your part to keep
everything quiet for the minister, that he may study the word of the
Lord in peace.” In our days, it is possible that Elsie might have been
inspired by the spirit of revolt, and considered her own comfort of as
much importance as her father’s; but such a notion never entered her
mind, and the preservation of perfect peace in that mysterious, yet so
beloved and familiar study had always appeared to her the most necessary
thing in the world. In their latter days, her mind had strayed away
instinctively from her first early conception of papa. There had been
awe to her in all his surroundings when she was a child, awe, tempered
by much affection and perfect confidence, but still partaking much of
that vague tremor of respect and veneration with which, but in a higher
degree, she was taught to look up to God. But there is no criticism so
intense, though often so unconscious, as that with which the children
watch, without knowing they are watching, the development of the parent,
who gradually comes out of those mists of devotion, and becomes clear
and real, a being like themselves to their eyes. Elsie had soon learned
in the midst of her semi-worship to be sorry for papa–poor papa who was
so easily disturbed, liable to be impeded in his work, and have his
composure destroyed by incidents which did not affect her mother in the
least, and would not have gained herself an excuse for an imperfectly
learned lesson. Why, if she was expected to learn her verbs all the
same, whether there was a noise or not, should papa be unable to carry
on his studies except in the most carefully preserved silence? She did
not give vent to the sentiment, but it added to her reverence and
devotion a strong feeling of pity for papa. Evidently he was of finer
material than other people, and felt everything more keenly. Pity may be
destructive of the highest reverence, but it adds to the solicitude of
affection. But that scene, so well remembered in every detail, which had
betrayed to her a struggle in him, had greatly heightened this effect.
Poor papa! he had to be taken care of more than ever. To preserve his
peace no effort was too much.

There had been a long pause in these reflections, as she herself began
to be less subject to the delight of making a noise, and even Rodie
expended his high spirits out of doors, and learned to respect the
decorums of home. But as thought grew in Elsie’s mind, a comprehension
of the meaning of life grew with it, a comprehension, much aided by the
philosophical remarks of Marion, and by those general views which Mrs.
Buchanan was not aware were philosophy, the woman’s philosophy which
recognises many mysteries, and accepts many necessities in a manner
quite different from the man’s. The subject of her father was one of
those upon which she had received much enlightenment. She had learned
that the highest regard and the deepest love were quite consistent with
a consciousness of certain incurable weaknesses, and a toleration that
in other circumstances would have been something like contempt. Probably
nobody but a woman can ever understand this extraordinary mingling of
sentiment. A man is naturally indignant and angry to think that his
sublime self should ever be the object of this unimpassioned
consciousness of defect, though no doubt his sentiment towards his
womankind is of the same mingled character: but in the woman’s mind it
takes away nothing from the attraction, and little from the respect with
which she regards her man. Perhaps it even adds to his attraction, as
making the intercourse more interesting, and bringing all the varieties
of her being into play.

This gave to Elsie an almost tragic sense of the necessity of preserving
her father’s peace of mind at all hazards. When she came to think the
whole matter over, and to realise what Rodie’s view of the subject was,
her mind took a new opening. She took up the Bible which was on her
table, and read over the parable of the unjust steward, with this new
light upon it. She had not, by some chance, heard her father’s sermon on
the subject, and she was not very clear as to how it was that the man
was commended for his falsehood, nor did she enter upon that view of the
question. Was there something good in it, as Rodie seemed to think,
diminishing the burdens of the poor, trying to save those who were
struggling, and could not answer for themselves? Elsie, in the silence,
shook her young head with its curls over that idea. She had no
pretension of knowing better than her teachers and elders. She did not
think, because she did not understand, that therefore the Lord who
commended the unjust steward must be wrong. She took the matter plainly,
without penetrating its other meaning. Was it good, or right, or
excusable, a sin that one could forgive to one’s father that he should
do this? Rodie seemed to think so. He said he would rather his father
had done a wrong thing like that than many right things. Elsie began to
cry, dropping hot tears on her Bible, all alone, not understanding, in
the midst of the silence and the night. No, no, not that. It would not
be so bad, perhaps, as if he had done it for himself. To save the
Horsburghs and the Aitkens from ruin, even at the expense of a lie, of
teaching them to lie—- Oh no, no, Elsie cried, the tears pouring over
her Bible. It might not be so bad in one way, but it was worse in
another. It was dictating a lie to others as well as uttering it
himself. Was papa guilty of that? Was that what it meant, that struggle
long ago, the questioning and the self-conflict? Oh no, no, she cried to
herself, oh no, no! Neither for himself, neither for others could he
have done that. And yet what did it mean?

There is a point beyond which such a question cannot go. She had no way
of settling it. The doubt burned her like fire, it penetrated her heart
like a knife: but at last she was obliged, baffled, exhausted, and
heart-broken, to leave it alone. Perhaps she never would know what the
real meaning was, either of the parable in the book or the still more
urgent parable of human conduct here half revealed to her. But there was
at least something that she could understand, the old lesson of the
house, the teaching of her childhood, to guard her father from all
assault, from anything that could disturb his mind or his life. It was
not the simple formula now of not making a noise lest it should disturb
papa. It was something a great deal more important, not so easily
understood, not so easy to perform, but still more absolute and binding.
Not to disturb papa, not to allow him to be disturbed, to defend his
door, if need were, with her life. To put her arm into the hoops of the
bolt like Katherine Douglas in the history–that rash maiden whom every
Scots girl holds high, and would emulate if she could. Elsie was faintly
aware that this statement of the cause was a little nonsensical, that
she would not be called upon to sacrifice her life or to break her arm
in defence of her father; but she was very young, and full of passionate
feeling, and her thoughts formed into the language of generous
extravagance, in spite of herself. What was it really, after the
outburst of that fond resolution, that she had to do?

It did not sound so great a matter after all to keep back Frank Mowbray,
that was all: to prevent him from penetrating to her father’s room,
recalling her father’s painful memories, and his struggle with himself.
Her arm within the hoops! it was not so exaggerated an idea after all,
it was more than breaking an arm, it might be perhaps breaking a heart:
still it was a piece of actual exertion that was required of her on her
father’s behalf. Elsie had not given very much serious consideration to
Frank Mowbray, but she knew vaguely as much as she had chosen to know,
the meaning and scope of his attentions, and the possibility there was,
if she did not sharply discourage him, that he would shortly demand a
decision from her one way or other. Elsie had not sharply discouraged
him; she had been friendly, unwilling to give pain, unwilling to act as
if she believed that it could matter to him one way or another: but she
had not shown him particular favour. In no way was her conscience guilty
of having “led him on.” Her pride sprang up in flames of indignation at
the thought of having led any one on. There was Raaf Beaton too: they
had both been the same to her, boys she had known, more or less, all her
life, whom she liked very well to dance with, even to talk to for an
idle moment, whom she would not vex for the world. Oh no, she would not
vex them for the world, neither of them! nevertheless, to select one of
them, to bind herself to either, to pretend to take either as the first
of men? Elsie almost laughed, though her eyes were still hot with tears,
at that ridiculous thought.

Yet this was the easiest way of stopping Frank from disturbing her
father, oh! the easiest way! She had only to receive him a little more
warmly than usual, to listen to what he said, to let him walk with her
when they went out of doors, and talk to her when they were within. It
is very likely that on both sides this influence also was exaggerated.
There was nothing that Frank would not have done for Elsie and her
smiles; but after a time no doubt his mind would have returned to his
former resolutions, and he would not have felt it necessary to abandon a
previously-formed and serious intention on her account. But a girl
rarely understands that, nor does the man think of it, in the excitement
of such a crisis. Elsie had no doubt that she had the fullest power to
turn aside Frank from any attempt on her father’s peace. And then came
her mother’s recommendation to be kind to him, to make up to him for
something that was past. It was a recommendation that made her blood
boil, that she should pay him for some injustice past. Be kind to him,
as her mother said, to make up, make as it were money of herself to be a
compensation to him! This idea was odious to the girl: but yet it was
only another version of the same necessity that she should keep him from
disturbing papa.




Naturally, it was not long before the opportunity came. Elsie was
walking towards the East Sands with Rodie on the next day, when Frank
was seen coming back from that spot, a little wet about the boots, and
sandy about the trousers, which was a sign, already beginning to be
understood in St. Rule’s, that the wearer of these garments had been
among the rocks with Johnny Wemyss, of whom, as a “character,” the town
had become, from its height of reprobation, half proud. Frank had been
fascinated by him, as everybody else was, though he was vexed to be seen
in this plight, after an hour with the naturalist, especially as Rodie,
at the sight of him, had the bad breeding to show embarrassment, and
even repugnance to meet his former friend.

“I’ll away west,” Rodie said, as soon as he was visible. “There’s
Mowbray. I’m not going to stay here, and see him fawning upon you. It is
disgusting,” Rodie said, severely. He had not yet himself begun to
“fawn” upon any one, and was still intolerant of everything of this
kind.

“You are not going away, just after he has seen that we saw him,” cried
Elsie, gripping her brother’s arm, in the intensity of her feeling,
“letting him see how ill you take it, and that you cannot forget! Man,
Rodie, will you run away?”

“I am not running away,” cried Rodie, red with wrath and shame.

“You shall not,” cried Elsie, holding him with a vigorous young grip,
almost as strong as his own, out of which he was still attempting to
wriggle, when Frank came up, all smiling and beaming.

“Johnny Wemyss has found a new beast,” he reported with a little
excitement. “It is not in all the books, there has been none discovered
like it. You should see his eyes just jumping out of his head.”

Elsie’s eyes gave a jump too; a warm flush ran over her face.
Unconsciously, she held her head high.

“Oh,” she said, softly, “I am not surprised! I am not surprised!”

At this Frank looked at her half alarmed, half suspicious, not quite
easy in his mind, why she should take so much interest in Johnny. But
after all, he was only Johnny, a fellow wrapped up in “beasts,” and no
competitor for anybody’s favour.

Meanwhile, Rodie had twisted his elbow out of Elsie’s hold, who had too
much respect for appearances to continue the struggle before strangers.

“I’m away to see it,” cried Rodie. “You’ll come when you are ready,” and
off he rushed like a wild deer, with a sulky nod at Frank.

“It appears I have offended Rodie without meaning it,” said Frank,
taking the wise way of forestalling any reproach. “I hope he has not
prejudiced you against me, Miss Elsie; for all I said that vexed him,
was only that I was coming to ask your father’s advice, and I have
always heard that everybody asks the minister’s advice. May I walk with
you, and tell you about it? I don’t know what he thought I meant.”

“So far as I understood,” said Elsie, “he thought you wanted to make my
father betray some poor bodies that trusted in him.” Elsie, too, thought
it was wiser to forestall any other statement. But she put forth this
bold statement with a high colour and a quaking heart.

“Betray!” cried Frank, growing red, too, “oh, I assure you, I had no
such thought.”

“You wanted my father to tell upon the poor folk that had borrowed
money, and were not able to pay.” Elsie averted her head for the reason
that, sorely troubled by her own guesses and doubts, she could not look
Frank in the face: but he interpreted this action in quite another way.
He took it for a gesture of disdain, and it roused a spirit even in the
bosom of Elsie’s slave.

“Justice is justice,” he said, “Miss Elsie, whether one is poor or rich.
To hunt the poor is what I would never do; but if they are right who
told me, there are others passing themselves off under the shield of the
poor, that are quite well able to pay their debts–more able than we are
to do without the money: and that is just what I want to ask Mr.
Buchanan, who is sure to know.”

It seemed to Elsie that the sands, and the rocks, and the cliffs beyond
were all turning round and round, and that the solid earth sank under
her feet. “Mr. Buchanan, who is sure to know,” she said to herself under
her breath. Oh yes, he was sure to know. He would look into the face of
this careless boy, who understood nothing about it, and he would
say–what would he say? It made Elsie sick and faint to think of her
father–her father, the minister, the example to all men–brought face
to face with this temptation, against which she had heard him
struggling, which she had heard him adopting, without knowing what it
meant, six years ago. No, he had not been struggling against it. He had
been struggling with it, trying to convince himself that it was just and
right. This came upon her like a flash of lightning, as she took a few
devious steps forward. Then Frank’s outcry, “You are ill, Miss Elsie!”
brought her back to herself.

“No, I am not ill,” she said, standing still by the rocks, and taking
hold of a glistening pinnacle covered with seaweed, to support herself
for a moment, till everything settled down. “I am not ill: I am just
thinking,” she kept her head turned away, and looked out upon the level
of the sea, very blue and rippled over with wavelets in its softest
summer guise, with a faint rim of white showing in the distance against
the red sand and faint green banks of the Forfar coast. Of all things in
this world to make the heart sick, there is nothing like facing a moral
crisis, which some one you love is about to go through, without any
feeling of certainty that he will meet it in the one only right way.
“Oh, if it was only me!” Elsie sighed, from the bottom of her heart.

You will think it was the deepest presumption on her part, to think she
could meet the emergency better than her father would. And so it was,
and yet not so at all. It was only that there were no doubts in her
mind, and there were doubts, she knew, inconceivable doubts, shadows,
self-deceptions, on his. A great many thoughts went through her mind, as
she stood thus looking across the level of the calm sea–although it was
scarcely for a minute altogether, that she underwent this faintness and
sickening, which was both physical and mental. The cold touch of the wet
rock, the slipping tangles of dark green leathery dulse which made her
grasp slip, brought her to herself, and brought her colour rushing back.
She turned round to Frank with a smile, which made the young man’s heart
beat.

“But I am awfully anxious not to have papa disturbed,” she said. “You
know he is not just like other folk; and when he is interrupted at his
writing it breaks the–the thread of his thoughts, and sometimes he
cannot get back the particular thing he was meditating upon (it seemed
to Elsie that the right words were coming to her lips, though she did
not know how, like a sort of inspiration which overawed, and yet
uplifted her). And then perhaps it will be his sermon that will suffer,
and he always suffers himself when that is so.”

“He has very little occasion to suffer in that way,” cried Frank, “for
every one says–and I think so myself, but I am no judge–that there is
no one that preaches like him, either in the town or through all Fife. I
should say more than that–for I never in London heard any sermons that
I listened to as I do to his.”

Elsie beamed upon her lover like the morning sun. It was strictly true
to the letter, but, whether there might be anything in the fact, that
none of these discredited preachers in London were father to Elsie, need
not be inquired. It gave the minister’s daughter a keen pang of pleasure
to hear this flattering judgment. It affected her more than her mother’s
recommendation, or any of her own serious thoughts. She felt for a
moment as if she could even love Frank Mowbray, and get to think him the
first of men.

“Come and let me see the new beast,” she said, with what was to Frank
the most enchanting smile.