THE UNJUST STEWARD ONCE MORE

Rodie Buchanan plunged into the partial darkness of his father’s house,
with a heart still more hot and flaming than that of Frank. He could not
have told anyone why he took this so much to heart. It was not that he
was unusually tender of his neighbours, or charitable beyond the
ordinary rule of kindness, which was current in St. Rule’s. He was one
of those who would never have refused a penny to a beggar, or a bawbee
to a weeping child, provided he had either the penny or the bawbee in
his ill-furnished pockets, which sometimes was not the case; but, having
done that by habit and natural impulse, there was no necessity in
Rodie’s mind to do more, or to make himself the champion of the poor, so
that he really was not aware what the reason was which made him turn so
hotly against Frank, in his equally natural determination to get back
what was his own. The hall and staircase of Mr. Buchanan’s house lay
almost completely in the dark. There was one candle burning on a little
table at the foot of the stair, which made the darkness visible, but
above there was no light at all. Gas was not general in those days, nor
were there lamps in common use, such as those which illuminate every
part of our dwellings now. The dark passages and dreadful black corners
of stair or corridor, which are so familiar in the stories of the
period, those dreadful passages, through which the children flew with
their hearts beating, not knowing what hand might grip them in the dark,
or terrible thing come after them, must perplex the children of to-day,
who know nothing about them, and never have any dark passages to go
through. But, in those days, to get from the nursery to the drawing-room
by night, unless you were preceded by the nursery-maid with a candle,
was more alarming than anything a child’s imagination could grasp
nowadays. You thought of it for a minute or two before you undertook it;
and then, with a rush, you dared the perils of the darkness, flinging
yourself against the door to which you were bound, all breathless and
trembling, like one escaped from nameless dangers. Rodie, nearly twenty,
big and strong, and fearing nothing, had got over all those tremors. He
strode up the dark stairs, three at a time, and flung open the
drawing-room door, groping for it in the wall. He knew what, at that
hour, he would be likely to find there. It was the hour when Mrs.
Buchanan invariably went to the study “to see what papa was doing,” to
make sure that his fire was mended, if he meant to sit up over his
sermon, or that things were comfortable for him in other ways when fires
were not necessary. The summer was not far advanced, and fires were
still thought necessary in the evenings at St. Rule’s. Between the fire
and the table was seated Elsie, with a large piece of “whiteseam,” that
is, plain sewing, on her knee, and two candles burning beside her.
Another pair of candlesticks was on the mantelpiece, repeated in the low
mirror which hung over it, but these candles were not lighted, neither
were those on the writing-table at the other end of the room. When there
was company, or, indeed, any visitor, in the evening they were lighted.
The pair on the mantelpiece only when the visitor was unimportant, but
the whole six when anybody of consequence was there, and then, you may
suppose, how bright the room was, lighted _al giorus_, so to speak. But
the household, and Elsie’s little friends, when they came rushing in
with some commission from their mothers, were very well contented with
the two on the table. They wanted snuffing often, but still they gave,
what was then supposed to be, a very good light.

Elsie looked up, pleased to see her brother, and let her work fall on
her knee. Her needlework was one of the chief occupations of her life,
and she considered the long hours she spent over it to be entirely a
matter of course; but, by this hour of the night, she had naturally
become a little tired of it, and was pleased to let it drop on her knee,
and have a talk with Rodie over the fire. It was considered rather
ill-bred to go on working, with your head bent over your sewing, when
anyone came in. To be sure, it was only her brother, but Elsie was so
glad to see him a little earlier than usual, that, though the task she
had given herself for the evening was not quite completed, she was glad
to let her seam drop upon her knees. “Oh, Rodie, is that you?” she said.

“Of course it’s me,” said Rodie. “I suppose you were not looking for
anybody else at this hour?”

“I am glad you are in so soon,” said Elsie. “And who was that that came
with you to the door? Not Johnny Wemyss. I could tell by his foot.”

“What have you to do with men’s feet?” said Rodie, glad to find
something to spend a little of his wrath upon. “Lassies must have
tremendously little to think of. I am sure I would never think if it was
one person’s foot, or another, if I were sitting at home like you.”

“Well,” said Elsie, “you never do sit at home, so you cannot tell. I
just notice them because I cannot help it. One foot is so different from
another, almost as much as their voices. But what is the matter with
you, Rodie? Have you been quarrelling with somebody? You look as if you
were in a very ill key.”

“I wonder who wouldn’t be in an ill key? There is that feckless gomeril,
Frank Mowbray—-” (“Oh, it was Frank Mowbray?” Elsie interjected in an
undertone)–“going on about debts and nonsense, and folk in the town
that owe him money, and that he’s coming to my father to ask him who
they are; as if my father would go and split upon poor bodies that
borrowed from old Anderson. I had it in my heart,” cried Rodie, striking
with his heel a piece of coal that was smouldering in the grate, and
breaking it up into a hundred blazing fragments–“I had it in my heart
to take him by the two shoulders, and fling him out like potato peelings
into the road.”

“Oh, Rodie, my mother’s gathering coal!” cried Elsie, hastening to
extinguish the fiery sparks that had fallen upon the large fur rug
before the fire. “Well,” she said, serenely, in a tone which would have
disposed summarily, had he heard it, of poor Frank’s hopes, “you are big
enough to have done it: but I would not lift my hands, if I were you, on
one that was not as big as myself. And what has Frank done? for he never
was, that I could see, a quarrelling boy.”

“Oh, not that you could see!” said Rodie, with a snort. “He’s sure to
keep a good face before the lassies, and especially you that he’s
courting, or trying to court, if he knew the way.”

“He’s not courting me,” cried Elsie, with a blush and a laugh, giving
Rodie a sisterly push, “and I wonder you will say such things to me.”

“It’s only because he doesna know the way then,” said Rodie, picking up
the pieces of blazing coal from the white hearth. “Will you let me
alone, when you see I have the tongs in my hand?”

“Was it for that you quarrelled with Frank?” said Elsie, letting a
little careless scorn appear in her tone, as who should say, you might
quarrel with many besides Frank if that was the cause. The girls in St.
Rule’s, in those days, were not so disproportionate in number as they
seem to be now, and she was unpopular, indeed, who had not one or two,
at least, competing for her smiles.

“It was not for that!” cried Rodie, expressing, on his side, a scornful
conviction that anything so unimportant was not worth quarrelling about.
And then he added, “Do ye mind, Elsie, yon day in the turret-room?”

“Oh, I mind it very well,” cried Elsie, with a little start; “I have
always minded it. I think of it sometimes in the middle of the night
when I wake up and cannot get to sleep.”

“I cannot see what good it can do thinking of it then,” said Rodie,
always contemptuous of the ways of lassies. “But you mind how my father
went on about the unjust steward. It was awfully funny the way he went
on.”

“It was for his sermon,” said Elsie, with a little trouble in her eyes.

“It was not for his sermon. I heard him preach that sermon after, and I
just listened, minding yon afternoon. But there was not a word in it
about taking your bill, and writing fourscore.”

“Oh, Rodie, you couldn’t remember it as well as all that!”

“Why shouldn’t I remember? I was a big laddie. I remember heaps of
things. I mind going to Kinghorn, and crossing in the smack to Leith,
years and years before.”

“That was different from hearing a sermon,” said Elsie, with the
superiority to sermons which a minister’s daughter naturally possessed.

“I did mind it, however,” said Rodie, “and I knew it was not in the
sermon–then where was it? and what was it for? I mind, as if it were
yesterday, about taking the bill, and writing fourscore. Now, the
question is,” said the young man, laying down the tongs, and gazing
unwinking into the glowing abyss of the fire, “what did my father mean
by yon? He did not mean just nothing at all. You would not say that.”

“I do not suppose,” said Elsie, with a woman’s quick and barely
justified partisanship, “that my father ever said anything that meant
just nothing at all.”

“Oh yes, he does, whiles,” said the more impartial boy; “but this was
different. What did he mean by it? I will tell you what I have been
thinking. Yon gomeril of a Frank has got it into his thick head that
everybody in St. Rule’s is in his debt. It is his mother that has put it
into his head. Now, just supposing, for the sake of the argument, that
it was true—-”

“I think,” said Elsie, thoughtfully, “that maybe it was true.”

“Well, then,” said Rodie, “we’ll suppose that papa” (into this babyish
title they all fell by moments, though protesting against it) “knew all
about it. He generally does know about most things; people put a great
deal of trust in him. They tell him things. Now, my opinion is, that old
Mr. Anderson told him all about this, and who the folk were, and how
they were to pay.”

“Maybe,” said Elsie, doubtfully.

“Maybe? I have no doubt about it; and my conviction is, this is what he
was meaning yon afternoon. The old man was dead or dying, and nobody
knew but papa–I mean my father. He knew what they had borrowed, and who
they were. And most likely he knew that they were far from able to pay.
There’s a proverb about borrowed siller,” said Rodie; “I cannot mind, at
this moment, what it is–but it means this, that it never does you any
good, and that I certainly believe.” Here he made a pause. He had once
borrowed a pound, and Rodie had no such harassing recollection in all
his experience. He was still owing eighteenpence of that sum, and it had
eaten into a whole year of his life.

Elsie said nothing; this sudden revival of the subject awakened many
thoughts in her breast, but she sat with her eyes cast down, gazing, as
he was, into the dazzling glow of the fire. Rodie was now kneeling on
the hearth-rug in front of it, his face illuminated by the ruddy flame.

“I don’t think,” he said, in a steady voice, like that of a man making a
statement in which was involved death or life, “that papa was right—-”

“Rodie!”




“No,” he repeated, solemnly, “I can’t think it was right. I know you
have no business to judge your own father. But I think,” said the lad,
slowly, “I would almost rather he had done a wrong thing like that, than
one of the good things. Mind, Elsie, he had a struggle with himself. He
said it over and over and over, and rampaged about the room, as you do,
when you cannot make up your mind. But he knew they could not pay, the
poor bodies. He knew it would be worse for them than if they had never
got the money. It was an awful temptation. Then, do you mind, he said:
‘the Lord commended the unjust steward.’ In his sermon he explained all
that, but I cannot think he was explaining it the same way yon
afternoon.”

“Rodie,” said Elsie, with a little awe, “have you been thinking and
thinking all this time, or when did you make out all that?”

“Not I,” said the lad; “it just flashed out upon me when Frank was going
on about his debtors, and about consulting my father. That’s what made
me angry as much as anything. I don’t want papa to be disturbed in his
mind, and made to think of that again. It was bad enough then. To be
sure he will maybe refuse to speak at all, and that would be the best
thing to do; and, considering what a long time has passed, he would be
justified, in my opinion,” said Rodie, with great gravity; “but to sit
down and write fourscore when it was a hundred–I would stand up for him
to the last, and I would understand him,” cried the young man: “but I
would rather my father did not do that.”

“And of whom do you think he would be tempted to say that, Rodie?” said
his sister, under her breath–Elsie had another thought very heavy at
her heart.

“Oh, of the Horsburghs, and the Aitkens, and so forth, and I am not sure
but Johnny Wemyss’s folk would be in it,” said Rodie; “and they are all
dead, and it would fall upon Johnny, and break his heart. I hope my
father will refuse to speak at all.”

Then there was a long silence, and they sat and gazed into the fire.
Elsie’s idea was different. She knew some things which her brother did
not know. But of these she would not breathe a word to him. They sat for
some time quite silent, and there was a little stir over their heads, as
if Mrs. Buchanan had risen from her chair, and was about to come down.

“Rodie, you’ll have to be a W. S.,” cried Elsie, “and let Jack go to
India; nobody but a lawyer could have put it all out as clear as that.”

Rodie sprang to his feet, and struck out a powerful arm.

“If you were not a lassie,” he cried furiously, “I would just knock you
down.”

When Mrs. Buchanan came into the room, this was what she saw against
that wavering glow in the chimney; her son’s spring against an invisible
foe, and Elsie demurely looking at him, with her work in her hands, from
the other side of the fire.

“Eh, laddie,” cried Mrs. Buchanan, “you terrify me with your boxing and
your fighting. What ails you at him, and who is the enemy now? And
you’ve broken up my gathering coal that would have lasted the whole
night through.”

“It’s me he is fechting, mother,” said Elsie, “and he says if I had not
been a lassie, he would have knocked me down.”

“You’re never at peace, you two,” said the mother, with much composure;
“and we all know that Rodie had aye a great contempt for lassies. Let us
just see, Elsie, if some day or other he may not meet a lassie that will
give him a good setting down.”

“What do I care about lassies,” cried Rodie, indignant; “you’re thinking
of Frank Mowbray and Raaf Beaton. If ever two fellows made fools of
themselves! looking as glum as the day of judgment, if Elsie turns her
head the other way.”

“Hold your tongue, laddie,” cried Mrs. Buchanan, but with a smothered
laugh. She was “weel pleased to see her bairn respected like the lave,”
but she was a sensible mother, and would have no such nonsense made a
talk of. “Your father is not coming down-stairs again,” she said; “he is
busy with his sermon, so you can go to your bed when you like, Rodie.
Bless me, the laddie has made the room insupportable with that great
fire, and dangerous, too, to leave it burning. Elsie, my dear, I wish
you were always as diligent; but you must fold up your seam now for the
night.”

After a little while Rodie retired to find the supper which had been
waiting for him in the dining-room; for his evening hours were a little
irregular, and his appetite large.

“He says Frank Mowbray is very much taken up about people that owe him
debts,” said Elsie, to her mother; “and that he is coming to consult my
father.”

“Oh, these weariful debts,” said Mrs. Buchanan; “I have always said how
much better it would have been to clear them off, and be done with them.
It would have been all paid back before this time, and our minds at
rest. But Mr. Morrison, he would not hear of it, and your father has
never got it off his mind to this very day.”

“Will it disturb him, mother, very much if Frank comes to talk to him?”
said Elsie.

“I cannot tell why it should disturb him. The laddie has nothing to do
with it, and Mr. Morrison had the old man’s orders. But it will for all
that. I think I will speak to Frank myself,” Mrs. Buchanan said.

“Oh, no, mother,” said Elsie.

“And wherefore, oh, no, mother? Many a man have I seen, and many a
thing have I done to save your father. But it would be giving too much
importance to this laddie. It will be his mother that sets him on. Put
away your seam, Elsie, it is time that you were in your bed.”

“I could not sleep a wink,” said Elsie, “if I thought papa was to be
troubled about this old thing.”

“You had better think nothing about it,” her mother replied; “for,
whatever happens, you can do nothing: and what is the use of making
yourself unhappy about a thing you cannot mend?”

Elsie was not so sure that she could do nothing. She thought it highly
probable, indeed, that she could do much. But how was she to do it, how
signify to Frank that if he disturbed her father, he had nothing to hope
from her? Besides, had he anything to hope from her in any
circumstances? This was very uncertain to Elsie. She was willing to
believe in her own power, and that she could, if she pleased, keep him
from rousing up this question; but how to do it, to condescend to allow
that her father would be affected by it one way or another? And even in
case Frank yielded, as she held it certain he would, to an expression of
her will on the subject, was she sure that she was ready to recompense
him in the only way which he would desire? While she was thinking, Mrs.
Buchanan, who was moving about the room putting by her work, and
arranging everything for the night, suddenly sent forth an
unintentional dart, which broke down all Elsie’s resolutions.

“At the same time,” Mrs. Buchanan said, pursuing the tenor of the
argument, as she had been, no doubt, carrying it on within herself, “I
have always felt that I would like to do young Frank a good turn. Elsie,
if it’s true they tell me, be you kind to poor Frank. That will make up
to him for anything the rest of your family may have done against him.
Fain, fain, would I pay him back his siller; but be you kind to him,
Elsie, if the other is not to be.”