One Wrong Step.
Chapter II.
 

Just after this interview a little lad put a note in John's hand from Margaret Fae. It only asked him to be on Brogar Bridge at eight o'clock that night. Now Brogar Bridge was not a spot that any Orcadian cared to visit at such an hour. In the pagan temple whose remains stood there it was said pale ghosts of white-robed priests still offered up shadowy human sacrifices, and though John's faith was firm and sure, superstitions are beyond reasoning with, and he recalled the eerie, weird aspect of the grim stones with an unavoidable apprehension. What could Margaret want with him in such a place and at an hour so near that at which Peter usually went home from his shop? He had never seen Margaret's writing, and he half suspected Sandy Beg had more to do with the appointment than she had; but he was too anxious to justify himself in Margaret's eyes to let any fears or doubts prevent him from keeping the tryst.

He had scarcely reached the Stones of Stennis when he saw her leaning against one of them. The strange western light was over her thoughtful face. She seemed to have become a part of the still and solemn landscape. John had always loved her with a species of reverence; to-night he felt almost afraid of her beauty and the power she had over him. She was a true Scandinavian, with the tall, slender, and rather haughty form which marks Orcadian and Zetland women. Her hair was perhaps a little too fair and cold, and yet it made a noble setting to the large, finely-featured, tranquil face.

She put out her hand as John approached, and said, "Was it well that thou shouldst quarrel with my father? I thought that thou didst love me."

Then John poured out his whole heart--his love for her, his mother's demand of him, his quarrel with Ragon and Peter and Sandy Beg. "It has been an ill time, Margaret," he said, "and thou hast been long in comforting me."

Well, Margaret had plenty of reasons for her delay and plenty of comfort for her lover. Naturally slow of pulse and speech, she had been long coming to a conclusion; but, having satisfied herself of its justice, she was likely to be immovable in it. She gave John her hand frankly and lovingly, and promised, in poverty or wealth, in weal or woe, to stand truly by his side. It was not a very hopeful troth-plighting, but they were both sure of the foundations of their love, and both regarded the promise as solemnly binding.

Then Margaret told John that she had heard that evening that the captain of the Wick steamer wanted a mate, and the rough Pentland Frith being well known to John, she hoped, if he made immediate application, he would be accepted. If he was, John declared his intention of at once seeing Peter and asking his consent to their engagement. In the meantime the Bridge of Brogar was to be their tryst, when tryst was possible. Peter's summer dwelling lay not far from it, and it was Margaret's habit to watch for his boat and walk up from the beach to the house with him. She would always walk over first to Brogar, and if John could meet her there that would be well; if not, she would understand that it was out of the way of duty, and be content.

John fortunately secured the mate's place. Before he could tell Margaret this she heard her father speak well of him to the captain. "There is nae better sailor, nor better lad, for that matter," said Peter. "I like none that he wad hang roun' my bonnie Marg'et; but then, a cat may look at a king without it being high treason, I wot."

A week afterwards Peter thought differently. When John told him honestly how matters stood between him and Margaret he was more angry than when Sandy Beg swore away his whole Dutch cargo. He would listen to neither love nor reason, and positively forbid him to hold any further intercourse with his daughter. John had expected this, and was not greatly discouraged. He had Margaret's promise. Youth is hopeful, and they could wait; for it never entered their minds absolutely to disobey the old man.

In the meantime there was a kind of peacemaking between Ragon and John. The good Dominie Sinclair had met them both one day on the beach, and insisted on their forgiving and shaking hands. Neither of them were sorry to do so. Men who have shared the dangers of the deep-sea fishing and the stormy Northern Ocean together cannot look upon each other as mere parts of a bargain. There was, too, a wild valor and a wonderful power in emergencies belonging to Ragon that had always dazzled John's more cautious nature. In some respects, he thought Ragon Torr the greatest sailor that left Stromness harbor, and Ragon was willing enough to admit that John "was a fine fellow," and to give his hand at the dominie's direction.

Alas! the good man's peacemaking was of short duration. As soon as Peter told the young Norse sailor of John's offer for Margaret's hand, Ragon's passive good-will turned to active dislike and bitter jealousy. For, though he had taken little trouble to please Margaret, he had come to look upon her as his future wife. He knew that Peter wished it so, and he now imagined that it was also the only thing on earth he cared for.

Thus, though John was getting good wages, he was not happy. It was rarely he got a word with Margaret, and Peter and Ragon were only too ready to speak. It became daily more and more difficult to avoid an open quarrel with them, and, indeed, on several occasions sharp, cruel words, that hurt like wounds, had passed between them on the public streets and quays.

Thus Stromness, that used to be so pleasant to him, was changing fast. He knew not how it was that people so readily believed him in the wrong. In Wick, too, he had been troubled with Sandy Beg, and a kind of nameless dread possessed him about the man; he could not get rid of it, even after he had heard that Sandy had sailed in a whaling ship for the Arctic seas.

Thus things went on until the end of July. John was engaged now until the steamer stopped running in September, and the little sum of ready money necessary for the winter's comfort was assured. Christine sat singing and knitting, or singing and braiding straw, and Dame Alison went up and down her cottage with a glad heart. They knew little of John's anxieties. Christine had listened sympathizingly to his trouble about Margaret, and said, "Thou wait an' trust; John dear, an' at the end a' things will be well." Even Ragon's ill-will and Peter's ill words had not greatly frightened them--"The wrath o' man shall praise Him," read old Alison, with just a touch of spiritual satisfaction, "an' the rest o' the wrath he will restrain."