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In one or two of his letters, which were never very long, Alec had just mentioned Kate; and now Mrs Forbes had many inquiries to make about her. Old feelings and thoughts awoke in her mind, and made her wish to see the daughter of her old companion. The absence of Annie, banished once more at the suggestion of worldly prudence, but for whose quiet lunar smile not even Alec's sunny presence could quite make up, contributed no doubt to this longing after the new maiden. She wrote to Mr Fraser, asking him to allow his niece to pay her a visit of a few weeks; but she said nothing about it to Alec. The arrangement happened to be convenient to Mr Fraser, who wished to accept an invitation himself. It was now the end of April; and he proposed that the time should be fixed for the beginning of June.
When this favourable response arrived, Mrs Forbes gave Alec the letter to read, and saw the flush of delight that rose to his face as he gathered the welcome news. Nor was this observation unpleasant to her; for that Alec should at length marry one of her own people was a grateful idea.
Alec sped away into the fields. To think that all these old familiar places would one day be glorified by her presence! that the daisies would bend beneath the foot of the goddess! and the everlasting hills put on a veil of tenderness from the reflex radiance of her regard! A flush of summer mantled over the face of nature, the flush of a deeper summer than that of the year--of the joy that lies at the heart of all summers. For a whole week of hail, sleet, and "watery sunbeams" followed, and yet in the eyes of Alec the face of nature still glowed.
When, after long expectation, the day arrived, Alec could not rest. He wandered about all day, haunting his mother as she prepared his room for Kate, hurrying away with a sudden sense of the propriety of indifference, and hurrying back on some cunning pretext, while his mother smiled to herself at his eagerness and the transparency of his artifice. At length, as the hour drew near, he could restrain himself no longer. He rushed to the stable, saddled his pony, which was in nearly as high spirits as himself, and galloped off to meet the mail. The sun was nearing the west; a slight shower had just fallen; the thanks of the thirsty earth were ascending in odour; and the wind was too gentle to shake the drops from the leaves. To Alec, the wind of his own speed was the river that bore her towards him; the odours were wafted from her approach; and the sunset sleepiness around was the exhaustion of the region that longed for her Cytheraean presence.
At last, as he turned a corner of the road, there was the coach; and he had just time to wheel his pony about before it was up with him. A little gloved hand greeted him; the window was let down; and the face he had been longing for shone out lovelier than ever. There was no inside passenger but herself; and, leaning with one hand on the coach-door, he rode alongside till they drew near the place where the gig was waiting for them, when he dashed on, gave his pony to the man, was ready to help her as soon as the coach stopped, and so drove her home in triumph to his mother.
Where the coach stopped, on the opposite side of the way, a grassy field, which fell like a mantle from the shoulders of a hill crowned with firs, sloped down to the edge of the road. From the coach, the sun was hidden behind a thick clump of trees, but his rays, now red with rich age, flowed in a wide stream over the grass, and shone on an old Scotch fir which stood a yard or two from the highway, making its red bark glow like the pools which the prophet saw in the desert. At the foot of this tree sat Tibbie Dyster; and from her red cloak the level sun-tide was thrown back in gorgeous glory; so that the eyeless woman, who only felt the warmth of the great orb, seemed, in her effulgence of luminous red, to be the light-fountain whence that torrent of rubescence burst. From her it streamed up to the stem and along the branches of the glowing fir; from her it streamed over the radiant grass of the up-sloping field away towards the western sun. But the only one who saw the splendour was a shoemaker, who rubbed his rosiny hands together, and felt happy without knowing why.
Alec would have found it difficult to say whether or not he had seen the red cloak. But from the shadowy side of it there were eyes shining upon him, with a deeper and truer, if with a calmer, or, say, colder devotion, than that with which he regarded Kate. The most powerful rays that fall from the sun are neither those of colour nor those of heat.--Annie sat by Tibbie's side--the side away from the sun. If the East and the West might take human shape--come forth in their Oreads from their hill-tops, and meet half-way between--there they were seated side by side: Tibbie, old, scarred, blind Tibbie, was of the west and the sunset, the centre of a blood-red splendour; cold, gentle Annie, with her dark hair, blue eyes, and the sad wisdom of her pale face, was of the sun-deserted east, between whose gray clouds, faintly smiling back the rosiness of the sun's triumphal death, two or three cold stars were waiting to glimmer.
Tibbie had come out to bask a little, and, in the dark warmth of the material sun, to worship that Sun whose light she saw in the hidden world of her heart, and who is the Sun of all the worlds; to breathe the air, which, through her prison-bars, spoke of freedom; to give herself room to long for the hour when the loving Father would take her out of the husk which infolded her, and say to her: "See, my child." With the rest of the travailing creation, she was groaning in hopeful pain--not in the pain of the mother, but in the pain of the child, soon to be forgotten in the following rest.
If my younger readers want to follow Kate and Alec home, they will take it for a symptom of the chill approach of "unlovely age," that I say to them: 'We will go home with Tibbie and Annie, and hear what they say. I like better to tell you about ugly blind old Tibbie than about beautiful young Kate.--But you shall have your turn. Do not think that we old people do not care for what you care for. We want more than you want--a something without which what you like best cannot last.'
"What did the coch stop for, Annie, lass?" asked Tibbie, as soon as the mail had driven on.
"It's a lady gaein to Mistress Forbes's at Howglen."
"Hoo ken ye that?"
"'Cause Alec Forbes rade oot to meet her, and syne took her hame i' the gig."
"Ay! ay! I thought I heard mair nor the ordinar nummer o' horse-feet as the coch cam' up. He's a braw lad, that Alec Forbes-isna he?"
"Ay is he," answered Annie, sadly; not from jealousy, for her admiration of Alec was from afar; but as looking up from purgatorial exclusion to the paradise of Howglen, where the beautiful lady would have all Mrs Forbes, and Alec too, to herself.
The old woman caught the tone, but misinterpreted it.
"I doobt," she said, "he winna get ony guid at that college."
"What for no?" returned Annie. "I was at the school wi' him, and never saw onything to fin' fau't wi'."
"Ow na, lassie. Ye had naething to do fin'in' fau't wi' him. His father was a douce man, an' maybe a God-fearin' man, though he made but sma' profession. I think we're whiles ower sair upo' some o' them that promises little, and maybe does the mair. Ye min' what ye read to me afore we cam' oot thegither, aboot the lad that said till's father, I go not; but afterwards he repented and gaed?"
"Weel, I think we'll gang hame noo."
They rose, and went, hand in hand, over the bridge, and round the end of its parapet, and down the steep descent to the cottage at its foot, Tibbie's cloak shining all the way, but, now that the sun was down, with a chastened radiance. When she had laid it aside, and was seated on her low wooden chair within reach of her spinning-wheel,
"Noo," said Tibbie, "ye'll jist read a chapter till me, lassie, afore ye gang hame, and syne I s' gang to my bed. Blin'ness is a sair savin' o' can'les."
She forgot that it was summer, when, in those northern regions, the night has no time to gather before the sun is flashing again in the east.
The chapter Annie chose was the ninth of St John's Gospel, about Jesus curing the man blind from his birth. When she had finished, Annie said,
"Michtna he cure you, Tibbie, gin ye spiered at him?"
"Ay micht he, and ay will he," answered Tibbie. "I'm only jist bidin' his time. But I'm thinkin' he'll cure me better yet nor he cured that blin' man. He'll jist tak' the body aff o' me a'thegither, and syne I'll see, no wi' een like yours, but wi' my haill speeritual body. Ye min' that verse i' the prophecees o' Ezakiel: I ken't weel by hert. It says: 'And their whole boady, and their backs, and their han's, and their wings, and the wheels, were full of eyes roon aboot, even the wheels that they four had.' Isna that a gran' text? I wiss Mr Turnbull wad tak' it into his heid to preach frae that text sometime afore it comes, which winna be that lang, I'm thinkin'. The wheels'll be stoppin' at my door or lang."
"What gars ye think that, Tibbie? There's no sign o' deith aboot you, I'm sure," said Annie.
"Weel, ye see, I canna weel say. Blin' fowk somehoo kens mair nor ither fowk aboot things that the sicht o' the een has unco little to do wi'. But never min'. I'm willin' to bide i' the dark as lang as He likes. It's eneuch for ony bairn to ken that its father's stan'in' i' the licht, and seein' a' aboot him, and sae weel able to guide hit, though it kensna whaur to set doon its fit neist. And I wat He's i' the licht. Ye min' that bit aboot the Lord pittin' Moses intil a clift o' the rock, and syne coverin' him wi' his han' till he was by him?"
"Ay, fine that," answered Annie.
"Weel, I canna help thinkin' whiles, that the dark aboot me's jist the how o' the Lord's han'; and I'm like Moses, only wi' this differ, that whan the Lord tak's his han' aff o' me, it'll be to lat me luik i' the face o' him, and no to lat me see only his back pairts, which was a' that he had the sicht o'; for ye see Moses was i' the body, and cudna bide the sicht o' the face o' God. I daursay it wad hae blin' 't him. I hae heard that ower muckle licht'll ca fowk blin' whiles. What think ye, lassie?"
"Ay; the lichtnin' blin's fowk whiles. And gin I luik straucht at the sun, I can see nothing efter't for a whilie."
"I tell ye sae!" exclaimed Tibbie triumphantly. "And do ye min' the veesion that the apostle John saw in Pawtmos? I reckon he micht hae thocht lang there, a' him lane, gin it hadna been for the bonnie things, and the gran' things, and the terrible things 'at the Lord loot him see. They war gran' sichts! It was the veesion o' the Saviour himsel'--Christ himsel'; and he says that his coontenance was as the sun shineth in his strength. What think ye o' that, lass!"
This was not a question, but an exulting exclamation. The vision in Patmos proved that although Moses must not see the face of God because of its brightness, a more favoured prophet might have the vision. And Tibbie, who had a share in the privileges of the new covenant, who was not under the law like Moses, but under grace like John, would one day see the veil of her blindness shrivel away from before her deeper eyes, burnt up by the glory of that face of God, which is a consuming fire.--I suppose that Tibbie was right in the main. But was it not another kind of brightness, a brightness without effulgence, a brightness grander and more glorious, shining in love and patience, and tenderness and forgiveness and excuse, that Moses was unfit to see, because he was not well able to understand it, until, ages after, he descended from heaven upon the Mount of Transfiguration, and the humble son of God went up from the lower earth to meet him there, and talk with him face to face as a man with his friend?
Annie went home to her garret. It was a singular experience the child had in the changes that came to her with the seasons. The winter with its frost and bitter winds brought her a home at Howglen; the summer, whose airs were molten kisses, took it away, and gave her the face of nature instead of the face of a human mother. For the snug little chamber in which she heard with a quiet exultation the fierce rush of the hail-scattering tempest against the window, or the fluffy fall of the snow-flakes, like hands of fairy babies patting the glass, and fancied herself out in the careering storm, hovering on the wings of the wind over the house in which she lay soft and warm--she had now the garret room, in which the curtainless bed, with its bare poles, looked like a vessel in distress at sea, and through the roof of which the winds found easy way. But the winds were warm now, and through the skylight the sunbeams illuminated the floor, showing all the rat-holes and wretchedness of decay.
There was comfort out of doors in the daytime--in the sky and the fields and all the "goings-on of life." And this night, after this talk with Tibbie, Annie did not much mind going back to the garret. Nor did she lie awake to think about the beautiful lady Alec had taken home with him.
And she dreamed again that she saw the Son of Man. There was a veil over his face like the veil that Moses wore, but the face was so bright that it almost melted the veil away, and she saw what made her love that face more than the presence of Alec, more than the kindness of Mrs Forbes or Dowie, more than the memory of her father.
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