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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMalcolm - Chapter 59. An Honest Plot
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Malcolm - Chapter 59. An Honest Plot Post by :ORACC Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :1706

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Malcolm - Chapter 59. An Honest Plot

CHAPTER LIX. AN HONEST PLOT

Ever since the visit of condolence with which the narrative of these events opened, there had been a coolness between Mrs Mellis and Miss Horn. Mr Mellis's shop was directly opposite Miss Horn's house, and his wife's parlour was over the shop, looking into the street; hence the two neighbours could not but see each other pretty often; beyond a stiff nod, however, no sign of smouldering friendship had as yet broken out. Miss Horn was consequently a good deal surprised when, having gone into the shop to buy some trifle, Mr Mellis informed her, in all but a whisper, that his wife was very anxious to see her alone for a moment, and begged her to have the goodness to step up to the parlour. His customer gave a small snort, betraying her first impulse to resentment, but her nobler nature, which was never far from the surface, constrained her compliance.

Mrs Mellis rose hurriedly when the plumb line figure of her neighbour appeared, ushered in by her husband, and received her with a somewhat embarrassed empressement, arising from the consciousness of goodwill disturbed by the fear of imputed meddlesomeness. She knew the inward justice of Miss Horn, however, and relied upon that, even while she encouraged herself by waking up the ever present conviction of her own superiority in the petite morale of social intercourse. Her general tendency indeed was to look down upon Miss Horn: is it not usually the less that looks down on the greater? I had almost said it must be, for that the less only can look down but that would not hold absolutely in the kingdoms of this world, while in the kingdom of heaven it is all looking up.

"Sit ye doon, Miss Horn," she said; "it 's a lang time sin we had a news thegither."

Miss Horn seated herself with a begrudged acquiescence.

Had Mrs Mellis been more of a tactician, she would have dug a few approaches ere she opened fire upon the fortress of her companion's fair hearing: but instead of that, she at once discharged the imprudent question--"Was ye at hame last nicht, mem, atween the hoors o' aucht an' nine?"--a shot which instantly awoke in reply the whole battery of Miss Horn's indignation.

"Wha am I, to be speirt sic a queston! Wha but yersel' wad hae daurt it, Mistress Mellis?"

"Huly (softly), huly, Miss Horn!" expostulated her questioner. "I hae nae wuss to pry intill ony secrets o' yours, or--"

"Secrets!" shouted Miss Horn!

But her consciousness of good intent, and all but assurance of final victory, upheld Mrs Mellis.

"--or Jean's aither," she went on, apparently regardless; "but I wad fain be sure ye kent a' aboot yer ain hoose 'at a body micht chance to see frae the croon o' the caus'ay (middle of the street)."

"The parlour blind 's gane up crookit sin' ever that thoomb fingert cratur, Watty Witherspail, made a new roller till 't. Gien 't be that ye mean, Mistress Mellis,--"

"Hoots!" returned the other. "--Hoo far can ye lippen to that Jean o' yours, mem?"

"Nae farer nor the len'th o' my nose, an' the breid o' my twa een," was the scornful answer.

Although, however, she thus manifested her resentment of Mrs Mellis's catechetical attempts in introducing her subject, Miss Horn had no desire to prevent the free outcome of her approaching communication.

"In that case, I may speyk oot," said Mrs Mellis.

"Use yer freedom."

"Weel, I will. Ye was hardly oot o' the hoose last nicht, afore --"

"Ye saw me gang oot?"

"Ay did I."

"What gart ye speir than? What for sud a body come screwin' up a straucht stair--noo the face an' noo the back o' her?"

"Weel, I nott (needed) na hae speirt. But that's naething to the p'int.--Ye hadna been gane, as I was saying', ower a five meenutes, whan in cam a licht intill the bedroom neist the parlour, an' Jean appeart wi' a can'le in her han'. There was nae licht i' this room but the licht o' the fire, an' no muckle o' that, for 'twas maistly peat, sae I saw her weel eneuch-ohn been seen mysel'. She cam straucht to the window, and drew doon the blind, but lost hersel' a bit or she wad never hae set doon her can'le whaur it cuist a shaidow o' hersel' an' her doin's upo' the blind."

"An' what was 't she was efter, the jaud?" cried Miss Horn, without any attempt to conceal her growing interest.

"She made naething o' 't, whatever it was; for doon the street cam the schuilmaister, an' chappit at the door, an gaed in an' waitit till ye came hame."

"Weel!" said Miss Horn.

But Mrs Mellis held her peace.

"Weel!!?" repeated Miss Horn.

"Weel," returned Mrs Mellis, with a curious mixture of deference and conscious sagacity in her tone, "a' 'at I tak upo' me to say is--Think ye twice afore ye lippen to that Jean o' yours."

"I lippen naething till her! I wad as sune lippen to the dottle o' a pipe amo' dry strae. What saw ye, Mistress Mellis?"

"Ye needna speyk like that," returned Mrs Mellis, for Miss Horn's tone was threatening: "I'm no Jean."

"What saw ye?" repeated Miss Horn, more gently, but not less eagerly.

"Whause is that kist o' mahogany drawers i' that bedroom, gien I may preshume ta spier?"

"Whause but mine?"

"They're no Jean's?"

"Jean's!"

"Ye micht hae latten her keep her bit duds i' them, for onything I kent!"

"Jean's duds i' my Grizel's drawers! A lik'ly thing!"

"Hm! They war puir Miss Cam'ell's, war they?"

"They war Grizell Cam'ell's drawers as lang she had use for ony; but what for ye sud say puir till her, I dinna ken, 'cep' it be 'at she's gane whaur they haena muckle 'at needs layin' in drawers. That's neither here nor there.--Div ye tell me 'at Jean was intromittin' wi thae drawers? They're a' lockit, ilk ane o' them --an' they're guid locks."

"No ower guid to hae keyes to them--are they?"

"The keyes are i' my pooch," said Miss Horn, clapping her hand to the skirt of her dress. "They're aye i' my pooch, though I haena had the feelin's to mak use o' them sin' she left me."

"Are ye sure they war there last nicht, mem?"

Miss Horn seemed struck.

"I had on my black silk last nicht." she answered vaguely, and was here silent, pondering doubtfully.

"Weel, mem, jist ye put on yer black silk again the morn's nicht, an' come ower aboot aucht o'clock; an' ye'll be able to jeedge by her ongang whan ye're no i' the hoose, gien there be onything amiss wi' Jean. There canna be muckle ill dune yet--that's a comfort!"

"What ill, by (beyond) meddlin' wi' what doesna concern her, cud the wuman du?" said Miss Horn, with attempted confidence.

"That ye sud ken best yersel', mem. But Jean's an awfu' gossip, an' a lady like yer cousin micht hae left dockiments ahint her 'at she wadna jist like to hear procleemt frae the hoose tap. No 'at she 'll ever hear onything mair, puir thing!"

"What mean ye?" cried Miss Horn, half frightened, half angry.

"Jist what I say--neither mair nor less," returned Mrs Mellis. "Miss Cam'ell may weel hae left letters for enstance, an' hoo wad they fare in Jean's han's?"

"Whan I never had the hert to open her drawers!" exclaimed Miss Horn, enraged at the very notion of the crime. "I hae nae feelin's, thank God for the furnishin' o' me!"

"I doobt Jean has her full share o' a' feelin's belangin' to fallen human natur'," said Mrs Mellis, with a slow horizontal oscillation of the head. "But ye jist come an' see wi' yer ain een, an' syne jeedge for yersel': it 's nae business o' mine."

"I'll come the nicht, Mrs Mellis. Only lat it be atween 's twa."

"I can haud my tongue, mem,--that is, frae a' but ane. Sae lang 's merried fowk sleeps in ae bed, it 's ill to haud onything till a body's sel'."

"Mr Mellis is a douce man, an' I carena what he kens." answered Miss Horn.

She descended to the shop, and having bought bulk enough to account to Jean for her lengthened stay, for she had beyond a doubt been watching the door of the shop, she crossed the street, went up to her parlour, and rang the bell. The same moment Jean's head was popped in at the door: she had her reasons for always answering the bell like a bullet.

"Mem?" said Jean.

"Jean, I'm gaein' oot the nicht. The minister oucht to be spoken till aboot the schuilmaister, honest man. Tak the lantren wi' ye to the manse aboot ten o'clock. That 'll be time eneuch."

"Verra weel, mem. But I'm thinkin' there's a mune the nicht."

"Naething but the doup o' ane, Jean. It 's no to ca' a mune. It's a mercy we hae lantrens, an' sic a sicht o' cairds (gipsies) aboot."

"Ay, lantren lats them see whaur ye are, an' haud oot o' yer gait," said Jean, who happened not to relish going out that night.

"Troth, wuman, ye 're richt there!" returned her mistress, with cheerful assent. "The mair they see o' ye, the less they 'll meddle wi' ye--caird or cadger. Haud ye the licht upo' yer ain face, lass, an' there 's feow 'll hae the hert to luik again."

"Haith, mem, there's twa sic like o' 's!" returned Jean bitterly, and bounced from the room.

"That's true tu," said her mistress--adding after the door was shut, "It's a peety we cudna haud on thegither."

"I'm gaein' noo, Jean," she called into the kitchen as she crossed the threshold at eight o'clock.

She turned towards the head of the street, in the direction of the manse; but, out of the range of Jean's vision, made a circuit, and entered Mr Mellis's house by the garden at the back.

In the parlour she found a supper prepared to celebrate the renewal of old goodwill. The clear crystal on the table; the new loaf so brown without and so white within; the rich, clear complexioned butter, undebased with a particle of salt; the self satisfied hum of the kettle in attendance for the guidman's toddy; the bright fire, the golden glow of the brass fender in its red light, and the dish of boiled potatoes set down before it, under a snowy cloth; the pink eggs, the yellow haddock, and the crimson strawberry jam; all combined their influences--each with its private pleasure wondrously heightened by the zest of a secret watch and the hope of discomfitted mischief--to draw into a friendship what had hitherto been but a somewhat insecure neighbourship. From below came the sound of the shutters which Mr Mellis was putting up a few minutes earlier than usual; and when presently they sat down to the table, and, after prologue judged suitable, proceeded to enjoy the good things before them, an outside observer would have thought they had a pleasant evening, if not Time himself, by the forelock.

But Miss Horn was uneasy. The thought of what Jean might have already discovered had haunted her all day long; for her reluctance to open her cousin's drawers had arisen mainly from the dread of finding justified a certain painful suspicion which had haunted the whole of her intercourse with Grizell Campbell--namely, that the worm of a secret had been lying at the root of her life, the cause of all her illness, and of her death at last. She had fought with, out argued, and banished the suspicion a thousand times while she was with her, but evermore it had returned; and now since her death, when again and again on the point of turning over her things, she had been always deterred by the fear, not so much of finding what would pain herself as of discovering what Grizell would not wish her to know. Never was there a greater contrast between form and reality, between person and being, between manner and nature, than existed in Margaret Horn: the shell was rough, the kernel absolute delicacy. Not for a moment had her suspicion altered her behaviour to the gentle suffering creature towards whom she had adopted the relation of an elder and stronger sister. To herself, when most satisfied of the existence of a secret, she steadily excused her cousin's withholdment of confidence, on the ground of her own lack of feelings: how could she unbosom herself to such as she! And now the thought of eyes like Jean's exploring Grizell's forsaken treasures, made her so indignant and restless that she could hardly even pretend to enjoy her friend's hospitality.

Mrs Mellis had so arranged the table and their places, that she and her guest had only to lift their eyes to see the window of their watch, while she punished her husband for the virile claim to greater freedom from curiosity by seating him with his back to it, which made him every now and then cast a fidgety look over his shoulder --not greatly to the detriment of his supper, however. Their plan was, to extinguish their own the moment Jean's light should appear, and so watch without the risk of counter discovery.

"There she comes!" cried Mrs Mellis; and her husband and Miss Horn made such haste to blow out the candle, that they knocked their heads together, blew in each other's face, and the first time missed it. Jean approached the window with hers in her hand, and pulled down the blind. But, alas, beyond the form of a close bent elbow moving now and then across a corner of the white field, no shadow appeared upon it!

Miss Horn rose.

"Sit doon, mem, sit doon; ye hae naething to gang upo' yet," exclaimed Mr Mellis, who, being a bailie, was an authority.

"I can sit nae langer, Mr Mellis," returned Miss Horn. "I hae eneuch to gang upo' as lang 's I hae my ain flure aneth my feet: the wuman has nae business there. I'll jist slip across an' gang in, as quaiet as a sowl intill a boady; but I s' warran' I s' mak a din afore I come oot again!"

With a grim diagonal nod she left the room.

Although it was now quite dark, she yet deemed it prudent to go by the garden gate into the back lane, and so cross the street lower down. Opening her own door noiselessly, thanks to Jean, who kept the lock well oiled for reasons of Mrs Catanach's, she closed it as silently, and, long boned as she was, crept up the stair like a cat. The light was shining from the room; the door was ajar. She listened at it for a moment, and could distinguish nothing; then fancying she heard the rustle of paper, could bear it no longer, pushed the door open, and entered. There stood Jean, staring at her with fear blanched face, a deep top drawer open before her, and her hands full of things she was in the act of replacing. Her terror culminated, and its spell broke in a shriek, when her mistress sprang upon her like a tigress.

The watchers in the opposite house heard no cry, and only saw a heave of two intermingled black shadows across the blind, after which they neither heard nor saw anything more. The light went on burning until its final struggle with the darkness began, when it died with many a flickering throb. Unable at last to endure the suspense, now growing to fear, any longer, they stole across the street, opened the door, and went in. Over the kitchen fire, like an evil spirit of the squabby order, crouched Mrs Catanach, waiting for Jean; no one else was to be found.

About ten o'clock the same evening, as Mr Graham sat by his peat fire, some one lifted the latch of the outer door and knocked at the inner. His invitation to enter was answered by the appearance of Miss Horn, gaunt and grim as usual, but with more than the wonted fire gleaming from the shadowy cavern of her bonnet. She made no apology for the lateness of her visit, but seated herself at the other side of the deal table, and laid upon it a paper parcel, which she proceeded to open with much deliberation and suppressed plenitude. Having at length untied the string with the long fingers of a hand which, notwithstanding its evident strength, trembled so as almost to defeat the attempt, she took from the parcel a packet of old letters sealed with spangled wax, and pushed it across the table to the schoolmaster, saying--"Hae, Sandy Graham! Naebody but yersel' has a richt to say what's to be dune wi' them."

He put out his hand and took them gently, with a look of sadness but no surprise.

"Dinna think I hae been readin' them, Sandy Graham. Na, na! I wad read nae honest man's letters, be they written to wha they micht."

Mr Graham was silent.

"Ye're a guid man, Sandy Graham," Miss Horn resumed, "gien God ever took the pains to mak ane. Dinna think onything atween you an' her wad hae brocht me at this time o' nicht to disturb ye in yer ain chaumer. Na, na! Whatever was atween you twa had an honest man intill 't, an' I wad hae taen my time to gie ye back yer dockiments. But there 's some o' anither mark here."

As she spoke, she drew from the parcel a small cardboard box, broken at the sides, and tied with a bit of tape. This she undid and, turning the box upside down, tumbled its contents out on the table before him.

"What mak ye o' sic like as thae?" she said.

"Do you want me to--?" asked the schoolmaster with trembling voice.

"I jist div," she answered.

They were a number of little notes--some of them but a word or two, and signed with initials; others longer, and signed in full. Mr Graham took up one of them reluctantly, and unfolded it softly. He had hardly looked at it when he started and exclaimed, "God have mercy! What can be the date of this!"

There was no date to it. He held it in his hand for a minute, his eyes fixed on the fire, and his features almost convulsed with his efforts at composure; then laid it gently on the table, and said but without turning his eyes to Miss Horn,

"I cannot read this. You must not ask me. It refers doubtless to the time when Miss Campbell was governess to Lady Annabel. I see no end to be answered by my reading one of these letters."

"I daursay! Wha ever saw 'at wadna luik?" returned Miss Horn, with a glance keen as an eagle's into the thoughtful eyes of her friend.

"Why not do by the writer of these as you have done by me? Why not take them to him?" suggested Mr Graham.

"That wad be but thoomb fingert wark--to lat gang the en' o' yer hank!" exclaimed Miss Horn.

"I do not understand you, ma'am."

"Weel, I maun gar ye un'erstan' me. There's things whiles, Sandy Graham, 'at 's no easy to speyk aboot--but I hae nae feelin's, an' we 'll a' be deid or lang, an' that's a comfort. Man 'at ye are, ye 're the only human bein' I wad open my moo' till aboot this maitter, an' that's 'cause ye lo'e the memory o' my puir lassie, Grizell Cam'ell."

"It is not her memory, it is herself I love," said the schoolmaster with trembling voice. "Tell me what you please: you may trust me."

"Gien I needit you to tell me that, I wad trust ye as I wad the black dog wi' butter!--Hearken, Sandy Graham."

The result of her communication and their following conference was, that she returned about midnight with a journey before her, the object of which was to place the letters in the safe keeping of a lawyer friend in the neighbouring county town.

Long before she reached home, Mrs Catanach had left--not without communication with her ally, in spite of a certain precaution adopted by her mistress, the first thing the latter did when she entered being to take the key of the cellar stairs from her pocket, and release Jean, who issued crestfallen and miserable, and was sternly dismissed to bed. The next day, however, for reasons of her own, Miss Horn permitted her to resume her duties about the house without remark, as if nothing had happened serious enough to render further measures necessary.

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