This day of all days she insisted disrespectfully, with rustic fury, that Mrs. Weir should stay at home. But, "No, no," she said, "it's my lord's orders," and set forth as usual. Archie was visible in the acre bog, engaged upon some childish enterprise, the instrument of which was mire; and she stood and looked at him a while like one about to call; then thought otherwise, sighed, and shook her head, and proceeded on her rounds alone. The house lasses were at the burnside washing, and saw her pass with her loose, weary, dowdy gait.
"She's a terrible feckless wife, the mistress!" said the one.
"Tut," said the other, "the wumman's seeck."
"Weel, I canna see nae differ in her," returned the first. "A fushionless quean, a feckless carline."
The poor creature thus discussed rambled a while in the grounds without a purpose. Tides in her mind ebbed and flowed, and carried her to and fro like seaweed. She tried a path, paused, returned, and tried another; questing, forgetting her quest; the spirit of choice extinct in her bosom, or devoid of sequency. On a sudden, it appeared as though she had remembered, or had formed a resolution, wheeled about, returned with hurried steps, and appeared in the dining-room, where Kirstie was at the cleaning, like one charged with an important errand.
"Kirstie!" she began, and paused; and then with conviction, "Mr. Weir isna speeritually minded, but he has been a good man to me."
It was perhaps the first time since her husband's elevation that she had forgotten the handle to his name, of which the tender, inconsistent woman was not a little proud. And when Kirstie looked up at the speaker's face, she was aware of a change.
"Godsake, what's the maitter wi' ye, mem?" cried the housekeeper, starting from the rug.
"I do not ken," answered her mistress, shaking her head. "But he is not speeritually minded, my dear."
"Here, sit down with ye! Godsake, what ails the wife?" cried Kirstie, and helped and forced her into my lord's own chair by the cheek of the hearth.
"Keep me, what's this?" she gasped. "Kirstie, what's this? I'm frich'ened."
They were her last words.
It was the lowering nightfall when my lord returned. He had the sunset in his back, all clouds and glory; and before him, by the wayside, spied Kirstie Elliott waiting. She was dissolved in tears, and addressed him in the high, false note of barbarous mourning, such as still lingers modified among Scots heather.
"The Lord peety ye, Hermiston! the Lord prepare ye!" she keened out. "Weary upon me, that I should have to tell it!"
He reined in his horse and looked upon her with the hanging face.
"Has the French landit?" cried he.
"Man, man," she said, "is that a' ye can think of? The Lord prepare ye: the Lord comfort and support ye!"
"Is onybody deid?" said his lordship. "It's no Erchie?"
"Bethankit, no!" exclaimed the woman, startled into a more natural tone. "Na, na, it's no sae bad as that. It's the mistress, my lord; she just fair flittit before my e'en. She just gi'ed a sab and was by wi' it. Eh, my bonny Miss Jeannie, that I mind sae weel!" And forth again upon that pouring tide of lamentation in which women of her class excel and over-abound.
Lord Hermiston sat in the saddle beholding her. Then he seemed to recover command upon himself.
"Well, it's something of the suddenest," said he. "But she was a dwaibly body from the first."
And he rode home at a precipitate amble with Kirstie at his horse's heels.
Dressed as she was for her last walk, they had laid the dead lady on her bed. She was never interesting in life; in death she was not impressive; and as her husband stood before her, with his hands crossed behind his powerful back, that which he looked upon was the very image of the insignificant.
"Her and me were never cut out for one another," he remarked at last. "It was a daft-like marriage." And then, with a most unusual gentleness of tone, "Puir bitch," said he, "puir bitch!" Then suddenly: "Where's Erchie?"
Kirstie had decoyed him to her room and given him "a jeely-piece."
"Ye have some kind of gumption, too," observed the judge, and considered his housekeeper grimly.