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Meantime, Annie was passing through a strange experience. It gave her a dreadful shock to know that such things were reported of her hero, her champion. They could not be true, else Chaos was come again. But when no exultant denial of them arrived from the pen of his mother, although she wrote as she had promised, then she understood by degrees that the youth had erred from the path, and had denied the Lord that bought him. She brooded and fancied and recoiled till the thought of him became so painful that she turned from it, rather than from him, with discomfort amounting almost to disgust. He had been to her the centre of all that was noble and true. And he revelled in company of which she knew nothing except from far-off hints of unapproachable pollution! Her idol all of silver hue was blackened with the breath of sulphur, and the world was overspread with the darkness which radiated from it.
In this mood she went to the week-evening service at Mr Turnbull's chapel. There she sat listless, looking for no help, and caring for none of the hymns or prayers. At length Mr Turnbull began to read the story of the Prodigal Son. And during the reading her distress vanished like snow in the sunshine. For she took for her own the character of the elder brother, prayed for forgiveness, and came away loving Alec Forbes more than ever she had loved him before. If God could love the Prodigal, might she not, ought she not to love him too?--The deepest source of her misery, though she did not know that it was, had been the fading of her love to him.
And as she walked home through the dark, the story grew into other comfort. A prodigal might see the face of God, then! He was no grand monarch, but a homely father. He would receive her one day, and let her look in his face.
Nor did the trouble return any more. From that one moment, no feeling of repugnance ever mingled with her thought of Alec. For such a one as he could not help repenting, she said. He would be sure to rise and go back to his Father. She would not have found it hard to believe even, that, come early, or linger late, no swine-keeping son of the Father will be able to help repenting at last; that no God-born soul will be able to go on trying to satisfy himself with the husks that the swine eat, or to refrain from thinking of his Father's house, and wishing himself within its walls even in the meanest place; or that such a wish is prelude to the best robe and the ring and the fatted calf, when the Father would spend himself in joyous obliteration of his son's past and its misery--having got him back his very own, and better than when he went, because more humble and more loving.
When Mrs Forbes came home, she entered into no detail, and was disinclined to talk about the matter at all, probably as much from dissatisfaction with herself as with her son, But Annie's heart blossomed into a quiet delight when she learned that the facts were not so bad as the reports, and that there was no doubt he would yet live them all down.
The evil time was drawing nigh, ushered by gentler gales and snowdrops, when she must be turned out for the spring and summer. She would feel it more than ever, but less than if her aunt had not explained to her that she had a right to the shelter afforded her by the Bruces.
Meantime arrived a letter from Mr Cupples.
"Dear Madam,--After all the efforts of Mr Alec, aided by my best endeavours, but counteracted by the grief of knowing that his cousin, Miss Fraser, entertained a devoted regard for a worthless class-fellow of his--after all our united efforts, Mr Alec has not been able to pass more than two of his examinations. I am certain he would have done better but for the unhappiness to which I have referred, combined with the illness of Miss Fraser. In the course of a day or two, he will return to you, when, if you can succeed, as none but mothers can, in restoring him to some composure of mind, he will be perfectly able during the vacation to make up for lost time.
"I am, dear madam, your obedient servant,
Angry with Kate, annoyed with her son, vexed with herself, and indignant at the mediation of "that dirty vulgar little man," Mrs Forbes forgot her usual restraint, and throwing the letter across the table with the words "Bad news, Annie," left the room. But the effect produced upon Annie by the contents of the letter was very different.
Hitherto she had looked up to Alec as a great strong creature. Her faith in him had been unquestioning and unbounded. Even his wrong-doings had not impressed her with any sense of his weakness. But now, rejected and disgraced, his mother dissatisfied, his friend disappointed, and himself foiled in the battle of life, he had fallen upon evil days, and all the woman in Annie rose for his defence. In a moment they had changed places in the world of her moral imagination. The strong youth was weak and defenceless: the gentle girl opened the heart almost of motherhood, to receive and shelter the worn outraged man. A new tenderness, a new pity took possession of her. Indignant with Kate, angry with the professors, ready to kiss the hands of Mr Cupples, all the tenderness of her tender nature gathered about her fallen hero, and she was more like his wife defending him from her mother. Now she could be something if not to him yet for him. He had been a "bright particular star" "beyond her sphere," but now the star lay in the grass, shorn of its beams, and she took it to her bosom.
Two days passed. On the third evening in walked Alec, pale and trembling, evidently ill, too ill to be questioned. His breathing was short and checked by pain.
"If I hadn't come at once, mother," he said, "I should have been laid up there. It's pleurisy, Mr Cupples says."
"My poor boy!"
"Oh! I don't care."
"You've been working too hard, dear."
Alec laughed bitterly.
"I did work, mother; but it doesn't matter. She's dead."
"Who's dead?" exclaimed his mother.
"Kate's dead. And I couldn't help it. I tried hard. And it's all my fault too. Cupples says she's better dead. But I might have saved her."
He started from the sofa, and went pacing about the room, his face flushed and his breath coming faster and shorter. His mother got him to lie down again, and asked no more questions. The doctor came and bled him at the arm, and sent him to bed.
When Annie saw him worn and ill, her heart swelled till she could hardly bear the aching of it. She would have been his slave, and she could do nothing. She must leave him instead. She went to her room, put on her bonnet and cloak, and was leaving the house when Mrs Forbes caught sight of her.
"Annie! what do you mean, child? You're not going to leave me?"
"I thought you wouldn't want me any more, ma'am."
"You silly child!"
Annie ran back to her room, thus compromising with a strong inclination to dance back to it.
When Mr Cupples and Alec had begun to place confidence in each other's self-denial, they cared less to dog each other.--Alec finding at the Natural Philosophy examination that he had no chance, gathered his papers, and leaving the room, wandered away to his former refuge when miserable, that long desolate stretch of barren sand between the mouths of the two rivers. Here he wandered till long after the dusk had deepened into night.--A sound as of one singing came across the links, and drew nearer and nearer. He turned in the direction of it, for something in the tones reminded him of Kate; and he almost believed the song was her nurse's ghostly ballad. But it ceased; and after walking some distance inland, he turned again towards the sea. The song rose once more, but now between him and the sea. He ran towards it, falling repeatedly on the broken ground. By the time he reached the shore, the singing had again ceased, but presently a wild cry came from seawards, where the waves far out were still ebbing from the shore. He dashed along the glimmering sands, thinking he caught glimpses of something white, but there was no moon to give any certainty. As he advanced he became surer, but the sea was between. He rushed in. Deeper and deeper grew the water. He swam. But before he could reach the spot, for he had taken to the water too soon, with another cry the figure vanished, probably in one of those deep pits which abound along that shore. Still he held on, diving many times, but in vain. His vigour was not now what it had once been, and at length he was so exhausted, that when he came to himself, lying on his back in the dry sands, he had quite forgotten how he came there. He would have rushed again into the water, but he could scarcely move his limbs. He actually crawled part of the way across the links to the college. There he inquired if Miss Fraser was in the house. The maid assured him that she was in her own room, whereupon he went home. But he had scarcely gone before they discovered that her room was deserted, and she nowhere to be found. The shock of this news rendered it impossible for him to throw off the effects of his exposure. But he lingered on till Mr Cupples compelled him to go home. Not even then, however, had her body been recovered. Alec was convinced that she had got into one of the quicksands; but it was cast ashore a few days after his departure, and it was well that he did not see it. He did not learn the fact till many years after.
It soon transpired that she had been out of her mind for some time. Indeed rumours of the sort had been afloat before. The proximate cause of her insanity was not certainly known. Some suspicion of the worthlessness of her lover, some enlightenment as to his perfidy, or his unaccountable disappearance alone, may have occasioned its manifestation. But there is great reason to believe that she had a natural predisposition to it. And having never been taught to provide for her own mental sustenance, and so nourish a necessary independence, she had been too ready to squander the wealth of a rich and lovely nature upon an unworthy person, and the reaction had been madness and death. But anything was better than marrying Beauchamp.
One strange fact in the case was her inexplicable aversion to water--either a crude prevision of her coming fate, or, in the mysterious operations of delirious reasoning, the actual cause of it. The sea, visible from her window over the dreary flat of the links, may have fascinated her, and drawn her to her death. Such cases are not unknown.
During the worst period of Alec's illness, he was ever wandering along that shore, or swimming in those deadly waters. Sometimes he had laid hold of the drowning girl and was struggling with her to the surface. Sometimes he was drawing her in an agony from the swallowing gullet of a quicksand, which held her fast, and swallowed at her all the time that he fought to rescue her from its jawless throat.
Annie took her turn in the sick chamber, watching beside the half-unconscious lad, and listening anxiously to the murmurs that broke through the veil of his dreams. The feeling with which she had received the prodigal home into her heart, spread its roots deeper and wider, and bore at length a flower of a pale-rosy flush--Annie's love revealed to herself--strong although pale, delicate although strong. It seemed to the girl she had loved him so always, only she had not thought about it. He had fought for her and endured for her at school; he had saved her life from the greedy waters of the Glamour at the risk of his own: she would be the most ungrateful of girls if she did not love him.--And she did love him with a quiet intensity peculiar to her nature.
Never had she happier hours than those in which it seemed that only the stars and the angels were awake besides herself. And if while watching him thus at night she grew sleepy, she would kneel down and pray God to keep her awake, lest any harm should befall Alec. Then she would wonder if even the angels could do without sleep always, and fancy them lying about the warm fields of heaven between their own shadowy wings. She would wonder next if it would be safe for God to close his eyes for one minute--safe for the world, she meant; and hope that, if ever he did close his eyes, that might not be the one moment when she should see his face. Then she would nod, and wake up with a start, flutter silently to her feet, and go and peep at the slumberer. Never was woman happier than Annie was during those blessed midnights and cold grey dawns. Sometimes, in those terrible hours after midnight that belong neither to the night nor the day, but almost to the primeval darkness, the terrors of the darkness would seize upon her, and she would sit "inhabiting trembling." But the lightest movement of the sleeper would rouse her, and a glance at the place where he lay would dispel her fears.
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