It was with a mingling of strange emotions, that Hugh approached the scene of those not very old, and yet, to his feeling, quite early memories. The dusk was beginning to gather. The hoar-frost lay thick on the ground. The pine-trees stood up in the cold, looking, in their garment of spikes, as if the frost had made them. The rime on the gate was unfriendly, and chilled his hand. He turned into the footpath. He saw the room David had built for him. Its thatch was one mass of mosses, whose colours were hidden now in the cuckoo-fruit of the frost. Alas! how Death had cast his deeper frost over all; for the man was gone from the hearth! But neither old Winter nor skeleton Death can withhold the feet of the little child Spring. She is stronger than both. Love shall conquer hate; and God will overcome sin.
He drew nigh to the door, trembling. It seemed strange to him that his nerves only, and not his mind, should feel. -- In moments of unusual excitement, it sometimes happens that the only consciousness a strong man has of emotion, lies in an unwonted physical vibration, the mind itself refusing to be disturbed. It is, however, but a seeming: the emotion is so deep, that consciousness can lay hold of its physical result only. -- The cottage looked the same as ever, only the peat-stack outside was smaller. In the shadowiness of the firs, the glimmer of a fire was just discernible on the kitchen window. He trembled so much that he could not enter. He would go into the fir-wood first, and see Margaret's tree, as he always called it in his thoughts and dreams.
Very poor and stunted and meagre looked the fir-trees of Turriepuffit, after the beeches and elms of Arnstead. The evening wind whistled keen and cold through their dry needles, and made them moan, as if because they were fettered, and must endure the winter in helpless patience. Here and there amongst them, rose the Titans of the little forest -- the huge, old, contorted, wizard-like, yet benevolent beings -- the Scotch firs. Towards one of these he bent his way. It was the one under which he had seen Margaret, when he met her first in the wood, with her whole soul lost in the waving of its wind-swung, sun-lighted top, floating about in the sea of air like a golden nest for some silvery bird of heaven. To think that the young girl to whom he had given the primrose he had just found, the then first-born of the Spring, should now be the queen of his heart! Her childish dream of the angel haunting the wood had been true, only she was the angel herself. He drew near the place. How well he knew it! He seated himself, cold as it was in the February of Scotland, at the foot of the blessed tree. He did not know that it was cold.
While he sat with his eyes fixed on the ground, a light rustle in the fallen leaves made him raise them suddenly. It was all winter and fallen leaves about him; but he lifted his eyes, and in his soul it was summer: Margaret stood before him. He was not in the least surprised. For how can one wonder to see before his eyes, the form of which his soul is full? -- there is no shock. She stood a little way off, looking -- as if she wanted to be sure before she moved a step. She was dressed in a grey winsey gown, close to her throat and wrists. She had neither shawl nor bonnet. Her fine health kept her warm, even in a winter wood at sun-down. She looked just the same; -- at home everywhere; most at home in Nature's secret chamber. Like the genius of the place, she made the winter-wood look homely. What were the oaks and beeches of Arnstead now? Homeliness and glory are Heaven.
She came nearer.
"Margaret!" he murmured, and would have risen.
"No, no; sit still," she rejoined, in a pleading tone. "I thought it was the angel in the picture. Now I know it. Sit still, dear Mr. Sutherland, one moment more."
Humbled by his sense of unworthiness, and a little distressed that she could so quietly reveal the depth of her feeling towards him, he said:
"Ah, Margaret! I wish you would not praise one so little deserving it."
"Praise?" she repeated, with an accent of wonder. "I praise you! No, Mr. Sutherland; that I am not guilty of. Next to my father, you made me know and feel. And as I walked here, I was thinking of the old times, and older times still; and all at once I saw the very picture out of the old Bible."
She came close to him now. He rose, trembling, but held out no hand, uttered no greeting.
"Margaret, dare I love you?" he faltered.
She looked at him with wide-open eyes.
"Me?" she said; and her eyes did not move from his. A slight rose-flush bloomed out on her motionless face.
"Will you be my wife?" he said, trembling yet more.
She made no answer, but looked at him still, with parted lips, motionless.
"I am very poor, Margaret. I could not marry now."
It was a stupid speech, but he made it.
"I don't care," she answered, with a voice like thinking, "if you never marry me."
He misunderstood her, and turned cold to the very heart. He misunderstood her stillness. Her heart lay so deep, that it took a long time for its feelings to reach and agitate the surface. He said no more, but turned away with a sigh.
"Come home to my mother," she said.
He obeyed mechanically, and walked in silence by her side. They reached the cottage and entered. Margaret said: "Here he is, mother;" and disappeared.
Janet was seated -- in her widow's mutch, with the plain black ribbon down both sides, and round the back -- in the arm-chair by the fire, pondering on the past, or gently dreaming of him that was gone. She turned her head. Sorrow had baptized her face with a new gentleness. The tender expression which had been but occasional while her husband lived, was almost constant now. She did not recognize Hugh. He saw it, and it added weight to his despair. He was left outside.
"Mother!" he said, involuntarily.
She started to her feet, cried: "My bairn! my bairn!" threw her arms around him, and laid her head on his bosom. Hugh sobbed as if his heart would break. Janet wept, but her weeping was quiet as a summer rain. He led her to her chair, knelt by her side, and hiding his face in her lap like a child, faltered out, interrupted by convulsive sobs:
"Forgive me; forgive me. I don't deserve it, but forgive me."
"Hoot awa! my bairn! my bonny man! Dinna greet that gait. The Lord preserve's! what are ye greetin' for? Are na ye come hame to yer ain? Didna Dawvid aye say -- 'Gie the lad time, woman. It's unco chaip, for the Lord's aye makin't. The best things is aye the maist plentifu'. Gie the lad time, my bonny woman!' -- didna he say that? Ay, he ca'd me his bonny woman, ill as I deserved it at his han'. An' it's no for me to say ae word agen you, Maister Sutherlan', gin ye had been a hantle waur nor a young thochtless lad cudna weel help bein'. An' noo ye're come hame, an' nothing cud glaidden my heart mair, 'cep', maybe, the Maister himsel' was to say to my man: 'Dawvid! come furth.'"
Hugh could make no reply. He got hold of Margaret's creepie, which stood in its usual place, and sat down upon it, at the old woman's feet. She gazed in his face for a while, and then, putting her arm round his neck, drew his head to her bosom, and fondled him as if he had been her own first-born.
"But eh! yer bonnie face is sharp an' sma' to what it used to be, Maister Sutherlan'. I doot ye hae come through a heap o' trouble."
"I'll tell you all about it," said Hugh.
"Na, na; bide still a wee. I ken a' aboot it frae Maggy. An' guid preserve's! ye're clean perished wi' cauld. Lat me up, my bairn."
Janet rose, and made up the fire, which soon cast a joyful glow throughout the room. The peat-fire in the little cottage was a good symbol of the heart of its mistress: it gave far more heat than light. And for my part, dear as light is, I like heat better. She then put on the kettle, -- or the boiler I think she called it -- saying:
"I'm jist gaein' to mak' ye a cup o' tay, Mr. Sutherlan'. It's the handiest thing, ye ken. An' I doot ye're muckle in want o' something. Wad ye no tak' a drappy oot o' the bottle, i' the mane time?"
"No, thank you," said Hugh, who longed to be alone, for his heart was cold as ice; "I would rather wait for the tea; but I should be glad to have a good wash, after my journey."
"Come yer wa's, than, ben the hoose. I'll jist gang an' get a drappy o' het water in a decanter. Bide ye still by the fire."
Hugh stood, and gazed into the peat-fire. But he saw nothing in it. A light step passed him several times, but he did not heed it. The loveliest eyes looked earnestly towards him as they passed, but his were not lifted to meet their gaze.
"Noo, Maister Sutherlan', come this way."
Hugh was left alone at length, in the room where David had slept, where David had used to pray. He fell on his knees, and rose comforted by the will of God. A few things of Margaret's were about the room. The dress he had seen her in at Mrs. Elton's, was hanging by the bed. He kissed the folds of the garment, and said: "God's will be done." He had just finished a hasty ablution when Janet called him.
"Come awa', Maister Sutherlan'; come ben to yer ain chaumer," said she, leading the way to the room she still called the study. Margaret was there. The room was just as he had left it. A bright fire was on the hearth. Tea was on the table, with eggs, and oatcakes, and flour-scones in abundance; for Janet had the best she could get for Margaret, who was only her guest for a little while. But Hugh could not eat. Janet looked distressed, and Margaret glanced at him uneasily.
"Do eat something, Mr. Sutherland," said Margaret.
Hugh looked at her involuntarily. She did not understand his look, and it alarmed her. His countenance was changed.
"What is the matter, dear -- Hugh?" she said, rising, and laying her hand on his shoulder.
"Hoots! lassie," broke in her mother; "are ye makin' love till a man, a gentleman, afore my verra een?"
"He did it first, mother," answered Margaret, with a smile.
A pang of hope shot through Hugh's heart.
"Ow! that's the gait o't, is't? The bairn's gane dementit! Ye're no efter merryin' a gentleman, Maggy? Na, na, lass!"
So saying, the old lady, rather crossly, and very imprudently, left the room to fill the teapot in the kitchen.
"Do you remember this?" said Margaret, -- who felt that Hugh must have misunderstood something or other, -- taking from her pocket a little book, and from the book a withered flower.
Hugh saw that it was like a primrose, and hoped against hope that it was the one which he had given to her, on the spring morning in the fir-wood. Still, a feeling very different from his might have made her preserve it. He must know all about it.
"Why did you keep that?" he said.
"Because I loved you."
"Yes. Didn't you know?"
"Why did you say, then, that you didn't care if -- if -- ?"
"Because love is enough, Hugh. -- That was why."