There was one great alleviation to the various discomforts of Sutherland's tutor-life. It was, that, except during school-hours, he was expected to take no charge whatever of his pupils. They ran wild all other times; which was far better, in every way, both for them and for him. Consequently, he was entirely his own master beyond the fixed margin of scholastic duties; and he soon found that his absence, even from the table, was a matter of no interest to the family. To be sure, it involved his own fasting till the next meal-time came round--for the lady was quite a household martinet; but that was his own concern.
That very evening, he made his way to David's cottage, about the country supper-time, when he thought he should most likely find him at home. It was a clear, still, moonlit night, with just an air of frost. There was light enough for him to see that the cottage was very neat and tidy, looking, in the midst of its little forest, more like an English than a Scotch habitation. He had had the advantage of a few months' residence in a leafy region on the other side of the Tweed, and so was able to make the comparison. But what a different leafage that was from this! That was soft, floating, billowy; this hard, stiff, and straight-lined, interfering so little with the skeleton form, that it needed not to be put off in the wintry season of death, to make the trees in harmony with the landscape. A light was burning in the cottage, visible through the inner curtain of muslin, and the outer one of frost. As he approached the door, he heard the sound of a voice; and from the even pitch of the tone, he concluded at once that its owner was reading aloud. The measured cadence soon convinced him that it was verse that was being read; and the voice was evidently that of David, and not of Margaret. He knocked at the door. The voice ceased, chairs were pushed back, and a heavy step approached. David opened the door himself.
"Eh! Maister Sutherlan'," said he, "I thocht it micht aiblins be yersel. Ye're welcome, sir. Come butt the hoose. Our place is but sma', but ye'll no min' sitttin' doon wi' our ain sels. Janet, ooman, this is Maister Sutherlan'. Maggy, my doo, he's a frien' o' yours, o' a day auld, already. Ye're kindly welcome, Maister Sutherlan'. I'm sure it's verra kin' o' you to come an' see the like o' huz."
As Hugh entered, he saw his own bright volume lying on the table, evidently that from which David had just been reading.
Margaret had already placed for him a cushioned arm-chair, the only comfortable one in the house; and presently, the table being drawn back, they were all seated round the peat-fire on the hearth, the best sort for keeping feet warm at least. On the crook, or hooked iron-chain suspended within the chimney, hung a three-footed pot, in which potatoes were boiling away merrily for supper. By the side of the wide chimney, or more properly lum, hung an iron lamp, of an old classical form common to the country, from the beak of which projected, almost horizontally, the lighted wick--the pith of a rush. The light perched upon it was small but clear, and by it David had been reading. Margaret sat right under it, upon a creepie, or small three-legged wooden stool. Sitting thus, with the light falling on her from above, Hugh could not help thinking she looked very pretty. Almost the only object in the distance from which the feeble light was reflected, was the patch-work counterpane of a little bed filling a recess in the wall, fitted with doors which stood open. It was probably Margaret's refuge for the night.
"Well," said the tutor, after they had been seated a few minutes, and had had some talk about the weather--surely no despicable subject after such a morning--the first of Spring--"well, how do you like the English poet, Mr. Elginbrod?"
"Spier that at me this day week, Maister Sutherlan', an' I'll aiblins answer ye; but no the nicht, no the nicht."
"What for no?" said Hugh, taking up the dialect.
"For ae thing, we're nae clean through wi' the auld sailor's story yet; an' gin I hae learnt ae thing aboon anither, its no to pass jeedgment upo' halves. I hae seen ill weather half the simmer, an' a thrang corn-yard after an' a', an' that o' the best. No that I'm ill pleased wi' the bonny ballant aither."
"Weel, will ye jist lat me read the lave o't till ye?"
"Wi' muckle pleesur, sir, an' mony thanks."
He showed Hugh how far they had got in the reading of the "Ancient Mariner"; whereupon he took up the tale, and carried it on to the end. He had some facility in reading with expression, and his few affectations--for it must be confessed he was not free of such faults--were not of a nature to strike uncritical hearers. When he had finished, he looked up, and his eye chancing to light upon Margaret first, he saw that her cheek was quite pale, and her eyes overspread with the film, not of coming tears, but of emotion notwithstanding.
"Well," said Hugh, again, willing to break the silence, and turning towards David, "what do you think of it now you have heard it all?"
Whether Janet interrupted her husband or not, I cannot tell; but she certainly spoke first:
"Tshâvah!"--equivalent to pshaw--"it's a' lees. What for are ye knittin' yer broos ower a leein' ballant--a' havers as weel as lees?"
"I'm no jist prepared to say sae muckle, Janet," replied David; "there's mony a thing 'at's lees, as ye ca't, 'at's no lees a' through. Ye see, Maister Sutherlan', I'm no gleg at the uptak, an' it jist taks me twise as lang as ither fowk to see to the ootside o' a thing. Whiles a sentence 'ill leuk to me clean nonsense a'thegither; an' maybe a haill ook efter, it'll come upo' me a' at ance; an' fegs! it's the best thing in a' the beuk."
Margaret's eyes were fixed on her father with a look which I can only call faithfulness, as if every word he spoke was truth, whether she could understand it or not.
"But perhaps we may look too far for meanings sometimes," suggested Sutherland.
"Maybe, maybe; but when a body has a suspeecion o' a trowth, he sud never lat sit till he's gotten eyther hit, or an assurance that there's nothing there. But there's jist ae thing, in the poem 'at I can pit my finger upo', an' say 'at it's no richt clear to me whether it's a' straucht-foret or no?"
"What's that, Mr. Elginbrod?"
"It's jist this--what for a' thae sailor-men fell doon deid, an' the chield 'at shot the bonnie burdie, an' did a' the mischeef, cam' to little hurt i' the 'en--comparateevely."
"Well," said Hugh, "I confess I'm not prepared to answer the question. If you get any light on the subject"--
"Ow, I daursay I may. A heap o' things comes to me as I'm takin' a daunder by mysel' i' the gloamin'. I'll no say a thing's wrang till I hae tried it ower an' ower; for maybe I haena a richt grip o' the thing ava."
"What can ye expec, Dawvid, o' a leevin' corp, an' a' that?--ay, twa hunner corps--fower times fifty's twa hunner--an' angels turnin' sailors, an' sangs gaein fleein' aboot like laverocks, and tummelin' doon again, tired like?--Gude preserve's a'!"
"Janet, do ye believe 'at ever a serpent spak?"
"Hoot! Dawvid, the deil was in him, ye ken."
"The deil a word o' that's i' the word itsel, though," rejoined David with a smile.
"Dawvid," said Janet, solemnly, and with some consternation, "ye're no gaein' to tell me, sittin' there, at ye dinna believe ilka word 'at's prentit atween the twa brods o' the Bible? What will Maister Sutherlan' think o' ye?"
"Janet, my bonnie lass--" and here David's eyes beamed upon his wife--"I believe as mony o' them as ye do, an' maybe a wheen mair, my dawtie. Keep yer min' easy aboot that. But ye jist see 'at fowk warna a'thegither saitisfeed aboot a sairpent speikin', an' sae they leukit aboot and aboot till at last they fand the deil in him. Gude kens whether he was there or no. Noo, ye see hoo, gin we was to leuk weel aboot thae corps, an' thae angels, an' a' that queer stuff--but oh! it's bonny stuff tee!--we micht fa' in wi' something we didna awthegither expec, though we was leukin' for't a' the time. Sae I maun jist think aboot it, Mr. Sutherlan'; an' I wad fain read it ower again, afore I lippen on giein' my opingan on the maitter. Ye cud lave the bit beukie, sir? We'se tak' guid care o't."
"Ye're verra welcome to that or ony ither beuk I hae," replied Hugh, who began to feel already as if he were in the hands of a superior.
"Mony thanks; but ye see, sir, we hae eneuch to chow upo' for an aucht days or so."
By this time the potatoes wore considered to be cooked, and were accordingly lifted off the fire. The water was then poured away, the lid put aside, and the pot hung once more upon the crook, hooked a few rings further up in the chimney, in order that the potatoes might be thoroughly dry before they were served. Margaret was now very busy spreading the cloth and laying spoon and plates on the table. Hugh rose to go.
"Will ye no bide," said Janet, in a most hospitable tone, "an' tak' a het pitawta wi' us?"
"I'm afraid of being troublesome," answered he.
"Nae fear o' that, gin ye can jist pit up wi' oor hamely meat."
"Mak nae apologies, Janet, my woman," said David. "A het pitawta's aye guid fare, for gentle or semple. Sit ye doun again, Maister Sutherlan'. Maggy, my doo, whaur's the milk?"
"I thocht Hawkie wad hae a drappy o' het milk by this time," said Margaret, "and sae I jist loot it be to the last; but I'll hae't drawn in twa minutes." And away she went with a jug, commonly called a decanter in that part of the north, in her hand.
"That's hardly fair play to Hawkie," said David to Janet with a smile.
"Hoot! Dawvid, ye see we haena a stranger ilka nicht."
"But really," said Hugh, "I hope this is the last time you will consider me a stranger, for I shall be here a great many times--that is, if you don't get tired of me."
"Gie us the chance at least, Maister Sutherlan'. It's no sma' preevilege to fowk like us to hae a frien' wi' sae muckle buik learnin' as ye hae, sir."
"I am afraid it looks more to you than it really is."
"Weel, ye see, we maun a' leuk at the starns frae the hicht o' oor ain een. An' ye seem nigher to them by a lang growth than the lave o's. My man, ye ought to be thankfu'."
With the true humility that comes of worshipping the Truth, David had not the smallest idea that he was immeasurably nearer to the stars than Hugh Sutherland.
Maggie having returned with her jug full of frothy milk, and the potatoes being already heaped up in a wooden bowl or bossie in the middle of the table, sending the smoke of their hospitality to the rafters, Janet placed a smaller wooden bowl, called a caup, filled with deliciously yellow milk of Hawkie's latest gathering, for each individual of the company, with an attendant horn-spoon by its side. They all drew their chairs to the table, and David, asking no blessing, as it was called, but nevertheless giving thanks for the blessing already bestowed, namely, the perfect gift of food, invited Hugh to make a supper. Each, in primitive but not ungraceful fashion, took a potatoe from the dish with the fingers, and ate it, "bite and sup," with the help of the horn-spoon for the milk. Hugh thought he had never supped more pleasantly, and could not help observing how far real good-breeding is independent of the forms and refinements of what has assumed to itself the name of society.
Soon after supper was over, it was time for him to go; so, after kind hand-shakings and good nights, David accompanied him to the road, where he left him to find his way home by the star-light. As he went, he could not help pondering a little over the fact that a labouring man had discovered a difficulty, perhaps a fault, in one of his favourite poems, which had never suggested itself to him. He soon satisfied himself, however, by coming to the conclusion that the poet had not cared about the matter at all, having had no further intention in the poem than Hugh himself had found in it, namely, witchery and loveliness. But it seemed to the young student a wonderful fact, that the intercourse which was denied him in the laird's family, simply from their utter incapacity of yielding it, should be afforded him in the family of a man who had followed the plough himself once, perhaps did so still, having risen only to be the overseer and superior assistant of labourers. He certainly felt, on his way home, much more reconciled to the prospect of his sojourn at Turriepuffit, than he would have thought it possible he ever should.
David lingered a few moments, looking up at the stars, before he re-entered his cottage. When he rejoined his wife and child, he found the Bible already open on the table for their evening devotions. I will close this chapter, as I began the first, with something like his prayer. David's prayers were characteristic of the whole man; but they also partook, in far more than ordinary, of the mood of the moment. His last occupation had been star-gazing:
"O thou, wha keeps the stars alicht, an' our souls burnin' wi' a licht aboon that o' the stars, grant that they may shine afore thee as the stars for ever and ever. An' as thou hauds the stars burnin' a' the nicht, whan there's no man to see, so haud thou the licht burnin' in our souls, whan we see neither thee nor it, but are buried in the grave o' sleep an' forgetfu'ness. Be thou by us, even as a mother sits by the bedside o' her ailin' wean a' the lang nicht; only be thou nearer to us, even in our verra souls, an' watch ower the warl' o' dreams that they mak' for themsels. Grant that more an' more thochts o' thy thinkin' may come into our herts day by day, till there shall be at last an open road atween thee an' us, an' thy angels may ascend and descend upon us, so that we may be in thy heaven, e'en while we are upo' thy earth: Amen."