Had Sutherland been in love with Margaret, those would have been happy days; and that a yet more happy night, when, under the mystery of a low moonlight and a gathering storm, the crop was cast in haste into the carts, and hurried home to be built up in safety; when a strange low wind crept sighing across the stubble, as if it came wandering out of the past and the land of dreams, lying far off and withered in the green west; and when Margaret and he came and went in the moonlight like creatures in a dream--for the vapours of sleep were floating in Hugh's brain, although he was awake and working.
"Margaret," he said, as they stood waiting a moment for the cart that was coming up to be filled with sheaves, "what does that wind put you in mind of?"
"Ossian's Poems," replied Margaret, without a moment's hesitation.
Hugh was struck by her answer. He had meant something quite different. But it harmonized with his feeling about Ossian; for the genuineness of whose poetry, Highlander as he was, he had no better argument to give than the fact, that they produced in himself an altogether peculiar mental condition; that the spiritual sensations he had in reading them were quite different from those produced by anything else, prose or verse; in fact, that they created moods of their own in his mind. He was unwilling to believe, apart from national prejudices (which have not prevented the opinions on this question from being as strong on the one side as on the other), that this individuality of influence could belong to mere affectations of a style which had never sprung from the sources of real feeling. "Could they," he thought, "possess the power to move us like remembered dreams of our childhood, if all that they possessed of reality was a pretended imitation of what never existed, and all that they inherited from the past was the halo of its strangeness?"
But Hugh was not in love with Margaret, though he could not help feeling the pleasure of her presence. Any youth must have been the better for having her near him; but there was nothing about her quiet, self-contained being, free from manifestation of any sort, to rouse the feelings commonly called love, in the mind of an inexperienced youth like Hugh Sutherland.--I say commonly called, because I believe that within the whole sphere of intelligence there are no two loves the same.--Not that he was less easily influenced than other youths. A designing girl might have caught him at once, if she had had no other beauty than sparkling eyes; but the womanhood of the beautiful Margaret kept so still in its pearly cave, that it rarely met the glance of neighbouring eyes. How Margaret regarded him I do not know; but I think it was with a love almost entirely one with reverence and gratitude. Cause for gratitude she certainly had, though less than she supposed; and very little cause indeed for reverence. But how could she fail to revere one to whom even her father looked up? Of course David's feeling of respect for Hugh must have sprung chiefly from intellectual grounds; and he could hardly help seeing, if he thought at all on the subject, which is doubtful, that Hugh was as far behind Margaret in the higher gifts and graces, as he was before her in intellectual acquirement. But whether David perceived this or not, certainly Margaret did not even think in that direction. She was pure of self-judgment--conscious of no comparing of herself with others, least of all with those next her.
At length the harvest was finished; or, as the phrase of the district was, clyack was gotten--a phrase with the derivation, or even the exact meaning of which, I am unacquainted; knowing only that it implies something in close association with the feast of harvest-home, called the kirn in other parts of Scotland. Thereafter, the fields lay bare to the frosts of morning and evening, and to the wind that grew cooler and cooler with the breath of Winter, who lay behind the northern hills, and waited for his hour. But many lovely days remained, of quiet and slow decay, of yellow and red leaves, of warm noons and lovely sunsets, followed by skies--green from the west horizon to the zenith, and walked by a moon that seemed to draw up to her all the white mists from pond and river and pool, to settle again in hoar-frost, during the colder hours that precede the dawn. At length every leafless tree sparkled in the morning sun, incrusted with fading gems; and the ground was hard under foot; and the hedges were filled with frosted spider-webs; and winter had laid the tips of his fingers on the land, soon to cover it deep with the flickering snow-flakes, shaken from the folds of his outspread mantle. But long ere this, David and Margaret had returned with renewed diligence, and powers strengthened by repose, or at least by intermission, to their mental labours, and Hugh was as constant a visitor at the cottage as before. The time, however, drew nigh when he must return to his studies at Aberdeen; and David and Margaret were looking forward with sorrow to the loss of their friend. Janet, too, "cudna bide to think o't."
"He'll tak' the daylicht wi' him, I doot, my lass," she said, as she made the porridge for breakfast one morning, and looked down anxiously at her daughter, seated on the creepie by the ingle-neuk.
"Na, na, mither," replied Margaret, looking up from her book; "he'll lea' sic gifts ahin' him as'll mak' daylicht i' the dark;" and then she bent her head and went on with her reading, as if she had not spoken.
The mother looked away with a sigh and a slight, sad shake of the head.
But matters were to turn out quite different from all anticipations. Before the day arrived on which Hugh must leave for the university, a letter from home informed him that his father was dangerously ill. He hastened to him, but only to comfort his last hours by all that a son could do, and to support his mother by his presence during the first hours of her loneliness. But anxious thoughts for the future, which so often force themselves on the attention of those who would gladly prolong their brooding over the past, compelled them to adopt an alteration of their plans for the present.
The half-pay of Major Sutherland was gone, of course; and all that remained for Mrs. Sutherland was a small annuity, secured by her husband's payments to a certain fund for the use of officers' widows. From this she could spare but a mere trifle for the completion of Hugh's university-education; while the salary he had received at Turriepuffit, almost the whole of which he had saved, was so small as to be quite inadequate for the very moderate outlay necessary. He therefore came to the resolution to write to the laird, and offer, if they were not yet provided with another tutor, to resume his relation to the young gentlemen for the winter. It was next to impossible to spend money there; and he judged that before the following winter, he should be quite able to meet the expenses of his residence at Aberdeen, during the last session of his course. He would have preferred trying to find another situation, had it not been that David and Janet and Margaret had made there a home for him.
Whether Mrs. Glasford was altogether pleased at the proposal, I cannot tell; but the laird wrote a very gentlemanlike epistle, condoling with him and his mother upon their loss, and urging the usual common-places of consolation. The letter ended with a hearty acceptance of Hugh's offer, and, strange to tell, the unsolicited promise of an increase of salary to the amount of five pounds. This is another to be added to the many proofs that verisimilitude is not in the least an essential element of verity.
He left his mother as soon as circumstances would permit, and returned to Turriepuffit; an abode for the winter very different indeed from that in which he had expected to spend it.
He reached the place early in the afternoon; received from Mrs. Glasford a cold "I hope you're well, Mr. Sutherland;" found his pupils actually reading, and had from them a welcome rather boisterously evidenced; told them to get their books; and sat down with them at once to commence their winter labours. He spent two hours thus; had a hearty shake of the hand from the laird, when he came home; and, after a substantial tea, walked down to David's cottage, where a welcome awaited him worth returning for.
"Come yer wa's butt," said Janet, who met him as he opened the door without any prefatory knock, and caught him with both hands; "I'm blithe to see yer bonny face ance mair. We're a' jist at ane mair wi' expeckin' o' ye."
David stood in the middle of the floor, waiting for him.
"Come awa', my bonny lad," was all his greeting, as he held out a great fatherly hand to the youth, and, grasping his in the one, clapped him on the shoulder with the other, the water standing in his blue eyes the while. Hugh thought of his own father, and could not restrain his tears. Margaret gave him a still look full in the face, and, seeing his emotion, did not even approach to offer him any welcome. She hastened, instead, to place a chair for him as she had done when first he entered the cottage, and when he had taken it sat down at his feet on her creepie. With true delicacy, no one took any notice of him for some time. David said at last,
"An' hoo's yer puir mother, Mr. Sutherlan'?"
"She's pretty well," was all Hugh could answer.
"It's a sair stroke to bide," said David; "but it's a gran' thing whan a man's won weel throw't. Whan my father deit, I min' weel, I was sae prood to see him lyin' there, in the cauld grandeur o' deith, an' no man 'at daured say he ever did or spak the thing 'at didna become him, 'at I jist gloried i' the mids o' my greetin'. He was but a puir auld shepherd, Mr. Sutherlan', wi' hair as white as the sheep 'at followed him; an' I wat as they followed him, he followed the great Shepherd; an' followed an' followed, till he jist followed Him hame, whaur we're a' boun', an' some o' us far on the road, thanks to Him!"
And with that David rose, and got down the Bible, and, opening it reverently, read with a solemn, slightly tremulous voice, the fourteenth chapter of St. John's Gospel. When he had finished, they all rose, as by one accord, and knelt down, and David prayed:
"O Thou in whase sicht oor deeth is precious, an' no licht maitter; wha through darkness leads to licht, an' through deith to the greater life!--we canna believe that thou wouldst gie us ony guid thing, to tak' the same again; for that would be but bairns' play. We believe that thou taks, that thou may gie again the same thing better nor afore--mair o't and better nor we could ha' received it itherwise; jist as the Lord took himsel' frae the sicht o' them 'at lo'ed him weel, that instead o' bein' veesible afore their een, he micht hide himsel' in their verra herts. Come thou, an' abide in us, an' tak' us to bide in thee; an' syne gin we be a' in thee, we canna be that far frae ane anither, though some sud be in haven, an' some upo' earth. Lord help us to do oor wark like thy men an' maidens doon the stair, remin'in' oursel's, 'at them 'at we miss hae only gane up the stair, as gin 'twar to haud things to thy han' i' thy ain presence-chamber, whaur we houp to be called or lang, an' to see thee an' thy Son, wham we lo'e aboon a'; an' in his name we say, Amen!"
Hugh rose from his knees with a sense of solemnity and reality that he had never felt before. Little was said that evening; supper was eaten, if not in silence, yet with nothing that could be called conversation. And, almost in silence, David walked home with Hugh. The spirit of his father seemed to walk beside him. He felt as if he had been buried with him; and had found that the sepulchre was clothed with green things and roofed with stars--was in truth the heavens and the earth in which his soul walked abroad.
If Hugh looked a little more into his Bible, and tried a little more to understand it, after his father's death, it is not to be wondered at. It is but another instance of the fact that, whether from education or from the leading of some higher instinct, we are ready, in every more profound trouble, to feel as if a solution or a refuge lay somewhere--lay in sounds of wisdom, perhaps, to be sought and found in the best of books, the deepest of all the mysterious treasuries of words. But David never sought to influence Hugh to this end. He read the Bible in his family, but he never urged the reading of it on others. Sometimes he seemed rather to avoid the subject of religion altogether; and yet it was upon those very occasions that, if he once began to speak, he would pour out, before he ceased, some of his most impassioned utterances.