Robert Edward Knowles.

St. Cuthbert's; a novel online

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soul like mine: - 'Feed My sheep.' Penitence, and not remorse, I thought,
was well pleasing unto God.

"And you will bear me witness that I have tried to warn all, especially
the young men, against the first approach of sin. I fell long years ago
because I cherished sinful images in my heart till even love went down
before them. Since then, God is my witness, I have made it my lifework
to drive them forth and to make every thought captive to the Redeeming
Christ. My lifework has not been in my foundry, nor in my town, nor in
my church - but in my heart, this guilty heart of mine. I have striven to
drive out evil thoughts - out, in the blessed name of Jesus. For long, I
could not recall my sin without sinning anew. But I had a hope of final
victory, and having this, I purified myself even as He is pure.

"It was my daily prayer that God would make me useful, poor and all but
sunken wreck as I was, that he would yet make me a danger signal to the
young about me - which I am this day. For a wrecked ship does not tell of
danger - it swears to the peril that itself has known. And to every young
man before me I swear to two things this hour. The first is that your
sin will find you out. Be sure of this. All our phrases about lanes that
have no turning and the mills of the gods and justice that smites with
iron hand, and chickens that come home to roost - all these are only
names for God's unsleeping vigilance, all varied statements of the
relentlessness of sin.

"The other truth to which I swear is this, that dark and bitter memories
of evil may be a blessing to the soul, if we but count that sin our
deadly enemy and rest not till we take vengeance of it. It may yet be
God's messenger to us, if we lead humble chastened lives, seeking to
redeem the past and watching unto prayer. There is no discipline so
bitter and so blessed as the discipline of an almost ruined soul. For
old sins do not decay and die; they must be nailed upon the cross. It is
an awful truth that he who was once filthy is filthy still, but it is
still more true, thank God, that there is One whose blood cleanseth
from all sin."

He stopped suddenly, and in a moment he was gone. Down that same aisle
by which his child had passed, he swiftly walked, his head bowed, his
face quivering in pain like one who was being scourged out of the
temple. For there are corded whips, knotted by unseen hands.

After the door had closed behind him the Session Clerk arose:

"I move, Moderator," he said, "that Mr. Blake's resignation be laid on
the table."

Before his motion was seconded Roger Lockie, one of the stalwarts, stood
in the middle of the congregation.

"It's no becomin' in me to interfere," he began, "but we're a' assembled
here as a worshippin' people, an' I move that the Kirk Session be
requested no' to accept the resignation. Oor brother fell, nae doot, but
it was lang syne, and he has walked worthy o' the Lord unto a' pleasin'
since, an' borne a guid witness to his Maister. We a' ken fine what the
great King an' Heid o' the Kirk wad dae wi' his resignation. Wi' my way
o' thinkin', a sinfu' man wha has been saved by grace is juist the ane
to commend the Maister's love. I move the Session be asked to keep him
as oor elder."

"I second that," said William Watson, a man of fifty years. "He brocht
me to Christ and that's ae soul he saved. He broke the alabaster box
upon his Saviour's head this day and we a' felt the fragrance o't. If
God Himsel' canna despise the contrite hairt, nae mair can we."

I was about to put the motion when the senior elder arose: - "I hae but a
word," he said, "an' it's nae word o' mine. The spirit o' the cross is
wi' us and I will read a bit frae the Buik: - 'If a man be overtaken in a
fault ye which are spiritual restore such an one in the spirit of
meekness, considering thyself lest thou also be tempted.'"

"Are you ready for the question?" I asked.

"Aye, we're a' fine an' ready noo," said one of the worshippers.

The vote was taken and there was no dissenting voice. Michael Blake's
long penance had done its work on earth and its eternal outcome was in
other hands than ours.




XXIV

_The SWEET SUNNY SOUTH_


I was strongly inclined to accept the call. Not that I liked changes,
for heart vines bleed freely when uptorn, and friendship's stocks cannot
be bought on margin. But my heart was heavy, and St. Cuthbert's had been
sorely wounded. Therefore, when the South Carolina church opened
correspondence with me regarding their vacant pulpit, I lent an
attentive ear.

All who have known sorrow in their work know how sweet sounds the voice,
even the siren voice, which calls to distant scenes of toil. The world's
weary heart will some day learn that no far-leading path, no journey by
land or sea can separate us from the sorrow we seek to flee; because no
path hath been discovered, no route devised, which shall lead us forth
from our own hearts, where sorrow hath her lair.

Nevertheless, I was strongly minded to go forth from the work which had
become my very life. It is nature's favourite paradox that what we love
the most, the most hath power to give us pain. Could we withhold our
love, no hand could wound us sorely, for it takes a friend to make an
enemy worth the name. And since I loved St. Cuthbert's with that love
which only sacrifice can know, I was oppressed with a corresponding fear
that her frown would quench whatever glimmer of gladness still flickered
in my heart. For I had almost forgotten that ever I was glad. And is it
to be wondered at?

My daughter's love was fixed upon a man whom I deemed impossible, though
by no fault of his. She had renounced all purpose of their immediate
union in deference to her father's protest, but her love was fixed upon
him still, and her father felt like one who was beating back the spring.
Her mother was torn with the torment of an armed neutrality. Further, my
beautiful church had been scarred by the explosive riot of that
ordination day, stricken with a soul's lightning; and the whole tragedy
of our home life had been laid bare to every eye.

Margaret, and her love, and her lover, and her lover's genealogy, and
her father's forbiddal of their marriage, all these were daily herbs to
those who loved us, daily bread to native gossip-mongers, and daily
luxury to all who wished us ill. My attitude towards Margaret's lover,
and whether that attitude was right or wrong, was the especial subject
of debate and all New Jedboro abandoned itself to a carnival of
judgment. Even the most pious and indulgent could not forego the solemn
luxury, and those who denied themselves all of scandal's toothsome
tidbits could not renounce this great repast.

I entertained no actual misgivings as to St. Cuthbert's permanent
loyalty to me; but our self-consciousness had become raw and sore, our
manse had turned suddenly to a house of glass, and the whole situation
was so fraught with embarrassment that no mere man since the fall could
have been free from an instinctive longing to escape.

St. Andrew's, Charleston, an ancient church of that ancient city, had
offered me its pulpit. The Southerners have a taste for British blood,
and they stand alone as connoisseurs of that commodity. Wherefore, the
St. Andrew's folk had cast about for a British minister, preferring the
second growth, hopeful that its advantage of American shade might have
made its excellence complete.

Their committee ranged all Canada, finally dismounting beneath the
stately steeple of St. Cuthbert's, their lasso loosed for action. Or, to
change the metaphor, they informed their church at home that their eyes
were fastened on their game at last; for the duty of such a committee is
to tree their bird, then hold him transfixed by various well-known
sounds till the congregation shall bring him down by well directed aim,
bag him, and bear him off.

The Charleston Committee was composed of four, who attended St.
Cuthbert's both morning and evening, when they came one Sabbath day to
spy out the land.

The proprietor of the Imperial Hotel, himself an extinct Presbyterian,
told me afterwards that they arrived late at night, begged to be excused
from registering and went immediately to their rooms. But he knew in the
morning that they were not to the manner born - for they asked for
"oatmeal" for breakfast, which is called porridge by all who boast even
a tincture of that blood it hath so long enriched.

Then they ate it with outward signs of enjoyment, which also flies in
the face of all Scottish principle. Besides all this, they gave the maid
a quarter, which was the most conclusive evidence of all.

They walked to St. Cuthbert's in four different detachments and sat in
separate sections of the church. But they were not unnoticed; every
Scotch section marked its man, for in New Jedboro strangers were events.
I myself remarked three of them; devout they seemed and yet vigilant - as
was natural, for they had come to both watch and pray.

The psalms were too much for them; they seemed to enter heartily into
the other portions of the service - but the psalms in metre are a great
Shibboleth. My beadle, who always sat where he could command the
congregation, has often assured me that when a psalm was announced he
could soon tell the sheep from the goats.

The service passed without special incident; for, although I suspected
their errand, all thought of it vanished when I came to preach. God's
jealous care will hold to undivided loyalty the heart that seeks to
serve Him.

Monday morning brought the deputation to close range. They interviewed
me in my study, and the house was redolent of Southern courtesy and
grace. Their accent had a foreign tang but their hearts' tone was that
of universal love. This latter word is not too strong to use, for the
Southerner has a rare genius for laying claim to your very heart by the
surrender of his own. Affection blooms fast in the Southern soul, but
our Northern bud needs time. Especially tardy is its ripening in
Scottish hearts, but the fruit is to Eternity.

The conversation was one of great interest and pleasure to myself, and
while I could give no definite promise I made no secret of the
attractiveness of their proposal.

"You will be so good as to present our regards to the mistress of the
manse," said one of them, as they rose to go.

"Thank you, it will give me great pleasure," I responded; "my wife is a
Southerner. Her father, who is not living now, fought at Gettysburg. My
wife's standing instruction is to say that he was not killed in battle,
for that was many years ago, and she has the Southern instinct for
youth."

"And the Southern talent for it too, I reckon," the courtly
gentleman replied. "We are mighty glad to hear that she belongs to
us. Surely we will have a friend at Court. Let her be considered our
plenipotentiary-extraordinary. Does her heart still turn towards her
Southern home?"

"I am sure it does," I made reply, "but it has been long garrisoned
within these rock-bound walls, and I know she has come to love them. I
have often heard her say that there is no trellis for Southern vines
like these mountainous hearts, true and faithful as the eternal hills
themselves."

"I don't wonder at it," another of the deputation interposed. "From what
I have seen and learned of these folk, I think they are our nearest kin.
The Scotch and the Southern nature are alike, the same intensity of
feeling, but with them it glows and burns, while with us it flames and
sparkles."

"The same stream," suggested the first, "but ours breaks easier into
flood."

"Well, I hope the flood will bear her back to her native shore," said
the youngest member of the committee, who was a colonel, having been
born during the Civil War.

We all laughed pleasantly at our racial distinctions and the gentlemen
withdrew.

"We will not tell you good-bye, for we hope to see you soon again," was
the last word I heard, the Southern idiom and the Southern cordiality
both in evidence.

Definite action on the part of the Charleston church soon followed the
return of their representatives. And I knew not what to do.

In the hope of relieving my perplexity, I accepted an invitation to
spend a Sabbath with the St. Andrew's people and occupy their proffered
pulpit.

My heart had sore misgivings when I said good-bye to Issie Hogg; her
years were but thirteen; and every year had bound her closer and closer
to my heart till I knew she was more dear to me than any other child
save one. The sands of life were nearly run and I feared greatly lest
they might be spent before I should return.

New Jedboro was winter-wrapped when I left it, and, taking steamer from
New York, I disembarked at Charleston into almost intoxicating
sweetness. Their dear South land was aflame with early summer, and my
idea of Paradise was revised. How could these Southern hearts be
otherwise than warm and fragrant! All the land about seemed like
nature's temple breathing forth its silent anthem and celebrating its
perpetual mass.

Yet all its vernal beauty seemed but as a portal to the inner shrine,
the sanctuary of Southern hospitality. Which hospitality is a separate
brand and hath no rival this side the Gates of Pearl. Let all who would
feel the surprise of heaven's welcome forego the luxury of a visit to a
Southern home; for they have stolen that celestial fire to kindle their
waiting hearths.

I was committed to the care of one of the families of St. Andrew's whose
household numbered five; and every heart had many doors all open wide.
That is, open wide till you had entered, for then they seemed tight
closed, locked with a golden key. Ancient pride seemed to be their
family possession, never flaunted, but suppressed rather - and you knew
it only because your own heart acknowledged that this must be its
rightful dwelling place.

I noted again the pleasing custom of Southern ladies, who shake hands on
introduction, and forever after. The candid graciousness that marks the
act is in happy contrast to the self-conscious agitation of the
underbred and the torpid panic of their stifled bow.

My host and hostess were persons of rare interest. Some of England's
best blood was in their veins; it had come to them by way of Virginia,
in their eyes the last medium of refinement. The final touch of
sanguinary indigo is given only at Virginia's hands, the Virginian
aristocracy being a blessed union of the English chivalric and the
American intrinsic, the heraldic of the old world blended with the
romantic of the new - which might make the Duke of Devonshire proud to
receive reordination at their hands.

English aristocracy ambles on in an inevitable path, high banked by
centuries - but the Virginian hath leaped the hurdle of the ocean and
still retained its coronet; which proves that it was fashioned in
eternity after the express pattern of their patrician heads.

As I describe the lofty source of this gracious Southern household, I
bethink myself that to this day I cannot tell how I came to know that
theirs was an ancient family. No reference to it from their own lips can
I recall; certainly no boast, except the tranquil boast of proud
serenity and noble bearing, and the noblesse oblige of loving hearts.

Grave courtesy and sweet simplicity and mirthful dignity seemed to be
the heirlooms which they shared as common heritors; and, chiefest of
credentials, when they stood in the library amid the shades of ancestors
preserved in oils, I felt no sense of humour in the situation.

This is a great tribute; for the plebeian may boast his ancestors but he
dare not paint them; and many a pioneer aristocrat hath compassed his
undoing because he thus tried to put new wine into old bottles. Wishing
to found a family, he proceeds to find one, and both are covered with
shame as with a garment.

Many of our new world nobility, finding in sudden wealth the necessity
for sudden pedigree, have resurrected their ancestors and tried in vain
to touch them into gentleness, committing to an artist the secret task
of God. Even those who have made fortune in oils, consistently restoring
their innocent forefathers by the same, have only advertised their
weakness with their wares.

It is true that the Vardell family coat-of-arms was not concealed - but
it was not brandished or expounded. In quiet but vigilant emblazonry, it
seemed to stand apart, like some far back member of the family in whose
pride it shared.

Which reminded me, by contrast, of a call I had once made upon a certain
Northern family, conspicuously rich and conspicuously new. While waiting
in the drawing-room, I observed four different crests, or coats-of-arms,
framed and hanging in a separate place, smirking to one another in token
of their youthful fortune; for the lines had fallen unto them in
pleasant places.

Soon the mistress of the mansion swept into the room, her locomotion
accompanied by a wealthy sound, silk skirts calling unto silk skirts as
deep calleth unto deep. A little pleasant conversation ensued, which,
among other things informed me that the Turkish rug beneath me had cost
six hundred dollars; whereupon I anxiously lifted my unworthy feet, my
emotion rising with them. After both had subsided, I sought to stir the
sacred pool of memory, pointing reverently to one of the aforesaid
emblems of heraldry.

"That is your family coat-of-arms, Mrs. Brown, is it not?" I asked,
throwing wide the door for the return of the noble dead.

"Yes," she answered proudly, "that is my one, and that one there is Mr.
Brown's, and those other two are the children's; the yellow one is
Victoria's and the red one is Louisa Alexandra's. Mr. Brown bought them
in New York, and we thought when we were getting them we might just as
well get one apiece for the children too."

How rich and reckless, I reflected, is the spendthrift generosity of our
new world rich!

I could not but recall how those mean old English families make one such
emblem do for centuries, and the children have to be content with its
rusty symbols. But this lavish enterprise cheered me by its refreshing
contrast; for every one was new, and each child had one for its very
own.

There is no need to dwell on the succeeding Sabbath. St. Andrew's church
bore everywhere the evidences of wealth and refinement. Large and
sympathetic congregations were before me, evidently hospitable to the
truth; for Huguenot and Scotch-Irish blood does not lose its ruling
passion, and South Carolina has its generous portion of them both.

I sorely missed the psalms, without which, to those who have acquired
the stern relish, a service lacks its greatest tonic. But my poor
efforts seemed well received and the flood of Southern fervour burst
forth later on, as we sat around the Vardells' dinner table.

I was being initiated into the mystic sweets of "syllabub," a Southern
concoction of which my sober Scotch folks had never heard. Whoso takes
it may not look upon the wine when it is red, for its glow is muffled by
various other moral things; but the wine, waiting patiently at the
bottom, cometh at last unto its own; and the glow which was absent from
the cup may be soon detected upon the face of him who took it, beguiled
by the innocent foliage amidst which the historic serpent lurks.

Webster defines it as a dish of cream, flavoured with wine, and beaten
to a froth. But Webster was from Massachusetts and his advantages were
few. The cultured Southerner, more versed in luxury than language,
knoweth well that it is a dish of wine, flavoured with cream, and not
beaten at all since the foundation of the world.

Southerners incline to eulogy; and syllabubs insist upon it. Wherefore,
after the third syllabub had run the same course that its fathers had
run, Miss Sadie turned to me and said:

"That was a perfectly lovely sermon you preached to us this morning."

"You are very frank," quoth I, for I was unaccustomed to compliments,
one every six or seven years, and an extra thrown in at death, being the
limit of Scotch enthusiasm.

"Well," replied Miss Sadie, "I hope I am. I think it is sweet and lovely
to tell people if you like them. What's the use of waiting till they're
dead, before you say nice things about your friends? If folks love me,
or think me nice, I want them to tell me so while I'm alive."

"I love you and I think you are sweet and beautiful," said I, obedient.

Then came a dainty Southern cry - not the bold squeal of other girls, nor
the loud honking of those who mourn for girlhood gone - but the
woman-note which only the Southern girl commands in its perfection.

"Father! Do you hear what that preacher said to me just now?" she cried
archly. "Isn't it perfectly dreadful for him to say things like that to
a simple maiden like me? You awful man!"

"Our guest is only flesh and blood, Sadie," answered the courtly father
when his laughing ceased, "so I presume, like the rest of us, he thinks
you lovely. As for his telling you so, he was only carrying out your own
instructions."

"I don't see how you could have done anything else," laughed Mrs.
Vardell. "You shut him up to it, you know, Sadie. After your precept, to
have said nothing nice would have meant that there was nothing nice to
say."

"But seriously," resumed Miss Sadie, turning again to me, "that was
really a lovely sermon this morning. It is beautiful to be able to help
a whole congregation like that."

"Yes," chimed in Miss Vardell, Sadie's sweet senior, "it was perfectly
fascinating. I shall never forget it as long as I live."

"I really think you will have to let us speak our mind," added their
mother. "Your Geneva gown was so becoming; I do so wish our Southern
ministers would adopt it. And the sermon was perfect. I especially
admired the way it seemed to grow out of the text; they seemed to grow
together like a vine twining around a tree."

I endured this tender pelting with the best grace I could command,
though this was the first time I had ever been the centre of such a
hosannah thunder-storm. The tribute to the kinship of text and sermon,
however, was really very pleasing to me. Just at this juncture, when a
new batch of compliments was about to be produced, smoking hot, an aged
aunt, the prisoner of years, ventured an enquiry.

"I wish I could have been there - but I am far past that," she said.
"What was the text, Sadie?"

Sadie flew into the chamber of her memory to catch it before it should
escape. But the sudden invasion had evidently alarmed it, for it had
gone. She silently pursued it into space, but returned empty-handed.

"That's strange," she faltered; "it was a lovely text," she added, by
way of consolation. "But it's gone; I was so taken up with the sermon
that I must have failed to remember the text," she concluded, false to
her first love, but faithful to her guest.

"Well, Josie," said the still unenlightened aunt, "I will have to look
to you. You will tell me what it was."

Josie joined in the chase, but their prey had had a noble start and was
now far beyond them.

"It was in the New Testament, I think," said Josie, pleased with this
pledge of accuracy, and satisfied that she had outrun her sister - "and
it was tolerably long." This was said with the air of one who had almost
identified it and might justly leave the rest to the imagination. "I
reckon I could find it if I had a Bible," she added hopefully.

No Bible was produced, for that would have been taking an unfair
advantage of the fugitive; but the eulogists began their mental search
in unison, quoting various fragments of my morning prayer at family
worship, which they carefully retained as witnesses. After they had
ransacked every mental corridor in vain they acknowledged the
fruitlessness of the quest, and I myself told their aged relative the
text.

"Of course," they cried together, each repeating portions of it again
and again in the spirit of atonement.

"I suppose," said Mrs. Vardell, "that the mind undergoes a kind of
relaxation after a delicious tension such as we experienced to-day."

I marvelled greatly at this relentless sweetness.

"I knew it was in the New Testament," said Josie triumphantly - and we
silently accorded her the praise that was her due.

But I inwardly bethought myself of those silent granite lips in the
frozen North, unthawed by tender speeches, yet each one the reservoir of
my texts and sermons, as unforgotten as they were unsung.




XXV

_ST. CUTHBERT'S SECOND CALL_


My reluctant farewells had been said, my gracious entertainers had grown
dim upon the wharf; and the Atlantic was greeting our ship with


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Online LibraryRobert Edward KnowlesSt. Cuthbert's; a novel → online text (page 12 of 17)