Read CHAPTER XVIII of Nancy Stair A Novel , free online book, by Elinor Macartney Lane, on ReadCentral.com.

I GO DOWN TO MAUCHLINE

Of all this rhyming gaiety, it will be remembered, I had no knowledge at the time, being still at Alton, chafing under the business in hand, and awaiting each post, as the days went by, with a beating heart and the expectancy of some unworded trouble.

The twelfth day passing without news, I cut the end of my business off altogether, and started for Stair, it being my thought that Nancy’s visiting would be ended and that I should find her there awaiting my return. The home-coming was a dreary one, the house darkened and unsociably redd up, and I sat alone to a dinner, served me by Huey, in a depth of gloom and melancholy which he had never reached before, debating whether to write to Mauchline or to go down myself the following morning.

While turning the matter over in my mind, Mr. Francis Hastings’s name was brought in to me, and the humor of the situation struck me with some force, for here was a girl partially engaged to two men, off visiting a third, with a fourth clamoring at the door to be her husband.

“Come in,” I cried heartily to the large-faced young man when he appeared at the doorway. “I’m glad to see ye, Mr. Hastings. Will ye have a glass with me?” and I pushed the decanter toward him.

“You doubtless know my errand, Lord Stair,” he said, refusing the brandy by a shake of the head. “You had my letter?”

“Some time since, but I put off answering it, thinking ” I hesitated; the truth being that the matter had passed clean from my mind after reading the epistle “thinking a talk would be better.”

“Have you any objections to me?” he asked, coming straight to the point.

I had a great many, but it was scarce possible to name them under the circumstances, and I shuffled a bit.

“To be frank,” said I, “there are obstacles.”

“What are they?” he asked, and the conceit in his tone conveyed the thought that for the honor of an alliance with him obstacles should be overcome.

“Well,” said I, “there’s Mr. Danvers Carmichael, who is perhaps the chief one; and his Grace of Borthwicke, another; and Duncan of Monteith, and McMurtree of Ainswere and others whose names I could set before you.”

“And does she love any of these?” he asked.

“She has not taken me into her confidence,” I answered; “but my honest advice to you is to forget all about her.”

“I think,” he said, testily, “with your permission, I shall ask her myself.”

“Yes, yes! Do!” And as I thought of all that would probably come to him for his audacity I urged it still further: “Do, by all means!” I cried.

He had scarce gone from the house, and I was still laughing a bit over the affair, when Huey, with a changed face and an excited voice, came back to me from the kitchen.

“There’s a man, hard ridden, in the doorway with a letter which he will give to none but your lordship,” said he, adding the thing which told the reason for his pale face and hurried voice: “He’s from Mauchline.”

A premonition of evil came over me, and as the fellow handed me the billet a sudden chill and shaking seized my body, so that I was forced to put the letter upon the table to keep the writing steady enough for me to see. It was from Janet McGillavorich, short to exasperation, and, with no set beginning, read as follows:

“Nancy is taken ill and lies delirious at the King’s Arms in Mauchline. We have a doctor here, but I have become alarmed, for it is now the fourth day that she has been unconscious. I think it better to let you know just how matters stand, and to ask that ye come down yourself immediately upon receipt of this and bring Dr. McMurtrie with you.

“In haste,

“JANET MCGILLAVORICH.”

If it be recalled that I had at this time no knowledge of the accident to Janet’s old house, could surmise no reason for Nancy’s lying at a public inn, and was in an agony of fear for her life, the wretched state of my mind can well be understood; but I was still capable of quick action, and within an hour Dr. McMurtrie, the end of his dinner carried in a bag, and myself were upon the Mauchline road.

The crawling of the coach through the darkness, the insane waits for horses, the many necessary but time-consuming details told upon my distraught mind to such an extent that when I descended at the door of the inn I felt an old and broken man. The memory of another ride which I had taken was heavy upon me, my teeth chattered, the horror showing in my face so plainly that Dame Dickenson read my thought on the instant, and coming forward, plucked me by the sleeve.

“She’s better,” she said, and at the sound of the words I put my head on the table and wept like a child.

Our presence being made known to Mrs. McGillavorich, she came down immediately, with a white face and tired, sleepless eyes.

“She’s having the first sleep in three days,” she said, “and the old doctor thinks the worst is by. But ye’d best not disturb her. Let her bide quiet now.”

Dr. McMurtrie and I took turns by the bedside that day and night, but she knew neither of us, lying, in her waking moments, with scarlet cheeks and wide, delirious eyes, singing snatches of songs, weaving meaningless words together, and crying over and over again, “It’s of no use no use no use,” in a kind of eldritch sing-song which wrung my heart.

“She’s had some kind of a shock,” Dr. McMurtrie said, “one that she’ll be some time getting over, I fear.”

As to the cause of the trouble the whole house was as mystified as myself.

“I know as little of the reason of her illness as you do yourselves.” Janet said, after she had narrated the doings at the inn. “On Tuesday, a little after noon, she came to me saying that she’d been in such an excited state, she was off alone to collect herself by a walk, and while she was out she passed a girl who was putting some linen on the bleach-green; Nancy spoke to her concerning some lace with which the garments were trimmed, and as they talked Rab Burns passed them, with four or five of his cronies, and the girl broke into a passion at sight of him, shaking her fist after him and calling him foul names as he went down the lane.

“At this, another girl, who was soon to be a mother, came weeping from the house, and Nancy emptied her purse to them before they parted.

“When she came in,” Janet went on, “her face was white and set, her eyes seeing nothing, and when Rab Burns sent up his name to her that night she said to the maid, ’Tell Mr. Burns that Miss Stair will not see him!’ and sat by the window, staring into the starlight, where I found her at five the next morning with the fever upon her and her wits gone gyte.”

I have had much sorrow in my time, but the agony of suspense and suspicion with which the next few days were filled pales every grief of my life that went before this time. Was it possible, I asked God, that my wee bit, wonderful lassie, my Little Flower, had bloomed to be trodden under foot by a plowman of Ayr?

McMurtrie drove me from the house at times for rest of mind as well as exercise, and one night, at the week’s end, having walked farther than usual, I entered an ale-house in the Cowgate for something to quench my thirst. There was a man standing by the window, and at sight of him, for it was Robert Burns, and the time was not yet come for me to say to him what might have to be said, I drew back, thinking myself unseen, and closed the door. I had gone but a few steps in the darkness when I felt a hand clapped on my shoulder, and turning, found Burns himself beside me.

“Come back,” he cried, “come back; I want a word with ye, Lord Stair. You’ve come down,” he cried, “to take your daughter from the company of those unfit for her to know. And you’re right in it. But the thought that ye showed toward me when you went out to avoid my company is wrong; wrong, as I must face my Maker in the great last day! I’ve had my way with women; but in this one case I’ve taken such care of her as ye might hae done yourself!

“She’s found the truth of me, and our friendship is by with forever! I know that well.

“But tell her from me, will ye not, that such righting of a wrong as can be done I am determined to do, and that the lassie she kens of is to be my wife as soon as she chooses. Tell her,” and here the tears stood big in his eyes, “that I am sorrier than I can ever say that her mind has been assoiled by my wicked affairs ” and here he broke forth into a sudden heat “God Almighty!” he cried, “if a woman like that had loved me, Shakespeare would have had to look to his laurels. Aye! and Fergusson, too. The Lord himself made me a poet, but she might have made me a man!"

“D’ye see Sam McClellan’s spout over the gate there? Weel, it was just whaur Rab and Jean first foregathered. Her and me had gaen there for a gang o’ water, an’ I had fill’t my cans first an’ come ower here juist whaur you an’ me’s stan’in. When Jean was fillin’ her stoups, Rab Burns cam’ up an’ began some nonsense or ither wi’ her, an’ they talked an’ leuch sae lang that it juist made me mad; to think, tae, that she should ha’e a word to say wi’ sic a lowse character as Rab Burns. When she at last cam’ ower, I gied her a guid hecklin. ‘Trowth,’ said I, ’Jean, ye ocht to think black-burnin’ shame o’ yersel. Before bein’ seen daffin’ wi’ Rab Burns, woman, I would far raither been seen speakin’ to a sodger.’ That was the beginnin’ o’ the unfortunate acquaintance.”

The marriage between the two was acknowledged to the world in
1787. EDITOR.