Robert Edward Knowles.

St. Cuthbert's; a novel online

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boisterous welcome. For the Atlantic is far travelled and loves to
surprise those Southern shores with the waves of Northern waters.

One by one the passengers retired from the deck, some with slow dignity,
some with solemn haste, and some with volcanic candour.

I remained, sharing the scant survival of the fit, and fell into a
reflective mood, for I love to think to music, none so grand as the
accompaniment of ocean. That mighty throat is attuned to the human; its
cry of deep mysterious passion, its note of conflict, is the epitome of
the universal voice. It accorded well with the mood that possessed me,
for that mood was gray.

The prevailing thought was this - that I was going back to winter. Grim
relapse this, I mused, to go forth from bud and bloom and bird, to
pendant icicle and drifted snow. For the blood soon warms beneath
Southern skies, and a man soon recognizes that a garden was the
ancestral home of him and of all mankind. Even the Eskimo can be traced
to Eden.

Yes, I was going back to winter in very truth, without and within; for
there is a sharper winter than any whose story the thermometer records.
The winter of my discontent, and of another's blighted heart, and of
still another's darkened life, awaited me beyond these turbid waters! My
way was dark, and my path obscure before me. Chart and compass were
blurred and numb. To remain in New Jedboro, and to remove to Charleston,
seemed equally distasteful.

I had given the Southern church no assurance of my purpose, because
purpose I had none. Yet the stern necessity of choice was upon me, this
most sombre enfranchisement of manhood, that we are compelled to choose,
willing or unwilling. Saint and sinner, believer and infidel, are alike
under this compulsion in matters moral - and in all matters. We speak of
the stern pressure which demands that men shall make a living; but its
dread feature is herein, that our living is a succession of pregnant
choices on which our deepest livelihood depends - and these choices melt
into destiny, involving the infinite itself.

My people, I ruminated, could help me to a decision if they only would.
But I knew how non-committal they would be; for they, and all their
kind, are inclined to assume no responsibility of another's soul, and to
surrender no fragment of their own.

New York was reached at last, the waves still tossing heavily. When I
alighted from the train at New Jedboro, the breath of winter greeted me.

One of my parishioners, an Aberdonian born, was on the lookout. He shook
hands, but said nothing of welcome home. Yet his hand was warm, and its
grip had a voice that told me more than even sweet Southern lips could
say. For its voice was bass - which is God's.

"Issie's wantin' ye," he said calmly. "She's far gone an' she's been
askin' for ye."

The dawn as yet had hardly come, and seating myself upon the box, I told
the cabman to drive quickly to Issie's home. As we passed through the
still unstirring town, he said:

"He'll be sittin' up with him," pointing to a dimly-lighted window.

"Who'll be sitting up?" I said.

"Oh, I forgot. You won't have heard. That is Mr. Strachan's room. At
least I think that is the name. I only came here myself to work ten days
ago. A poor homeless woman landed here last week from Ireland. One of
those immigration agent devils over there took her last penny and sent
her over to Canada, to starve for all he cared. She showed smallpox
after she landed here and her little lad was with her. He took it too.
Well, she died - but before she died she told her story. The old story,
you know - had bad luck, you see, and the fellow skipped out and left
her. The woman gets the worst of it every time, don't she?"

"She died!" I exclaimed. "And the little one? Where is the boy you spoke

"That's him; that's what the light's burnin' for. Angus Strachan, so
they say, paid all the funeral expenses, and they wanted to send the kid
away somewheres - some hospital for them catchin' diseases. But Strachan
acted queer about it. He wouldn't let them touch it. And he took it to
his own room and said he would take care of it himself."

"And did they let him?" I asked.

"Let him. I just guess they did. They couldn't help it. You see he'd
been in, monkeyin' round the smallpox already - so they had to. And he
wrapped the kid up in a blanket and took it to his room. They say his
light's never been out at night since."

"He has not taken the disease himself, has he?" I enquired.

"Oh, no; leastwise, I never heard tell of it. But them was queer actions
for a young fellow, wasn't they? No accountin' for tastes, as the
fellow said! Can you understand it yourself, sir?"

"I think I can," was my reply; "let us hurry on," and in a few minutes
we were at Issie's house.

Little Issie had long since snuggled down in her own separate place in
my heart; she was indeed a favourite with all who knew her - but I saw as
I stepped into the room that God loved her best of all. The white thin
hands were tightly held, one in her father's, the other in her mother's,
as though they would detain her; but the angels heeded not and went on
with the preparations for her flight. These were almost complete when I
arrived; Issie alone knew that they were of God's providing, for the
face she turned to me was full of childish sweetness, and her smile was
touched with other light.

"I'm glad you're home," she whispered, as I bent low beside her. "Please
don't go away again" - and as I kissed her she was gone.

Her curls were gold, still gold, though she was gone. As we stood
weeping beside the precious dust the sun arose, still arose, though she
was gone. And his first errand was to the broken heart. Swift to the
window flew his first-flung rays, like eager couriers who hear the cry
of need. And entering in, unbidden, they set God's brighter seal of love
upon the golden tresses. Up and down among the glowing strands, they
wandered, smiling at God's gain, smiling still, though she was gone.
Unafraid, they caressed the unconscious locks, anointing them for their

When I went out, the winter seemed past and gone; I knew then what made
these snowbound hearts so warm.

* * * * *

"Margaret has a new sorrow," said my wife, soon after my arrival home.

"What is it?"

"A young woman and her child from Ireland - "

"Yes," I interrupted, "I heard about it; the driver told me. Does
Margaret seem to fret herself about it?"

"I don't know," answered her mother, "but I am afraid it has made it all
the harder for us: I mean that I fear that she is more devoted to him
now than ever. She read me a letter Angus wrote her just before he shut
himself up with the child."

"What did it say?" I asked, with eagerness.

"I don't remember very clearly: but he said that this woman who died of
smallpox, the child's mother, you know, had opened all her heart to him
before she died. And he says there never was a gentler or purer-hearted
woman - the old story, of love, and trust, and anguish. Then he said he
promised her to care for her boy; and he said something about his
ordination vows, said he would try to be true to them, and that this
would help him to banish revenge and hatred from his heart."

"His ordination vows?" I exclaimed, "what do you suppose he means?
Surely he is not trifling with all that unhappy occurrence?"

"I don't think so. There was no trifling tone about his letter. I asked
Margaret about that very thing, but she wouldn't tell me, only she said
there was no elder in St. Cuthbert's more ordained to God's service than
Angus is."

"Did she say anything about their love affairs?" said I, after a man's
poor bungling fashion.

"Not a word - but she wouldn't let me see the letter," this with a little
womanly sigh: for women, like children, have griefs that appear trifling
to grown men, but are very real to them.

After a pause my wife ventured: "Don't you think that perhaps we are
just a little unrelenting about Margaret and Angus?"

"What?" I said.

"Oh, I don't mean that she should marry him, of course, but it does seem
hard, father - and it really wasn't his fault - and perhaps we will regret
it some day."

"But, my dear, you know it is impossible - think of the humiliation of
it, the shame of it, I might say."

"Yes, I know," she answered, "but I do admire Angus more and more. He
seems to be trying to staunch his sorrow, only he does it by love and
service. Everybody is talking about how useful and unselfish he is, in
the church, and among the poor - and everywhere."

"I know it," admitted I, "I know it, and there is no reason why we
should not always be friends - but the other is an entirely different
matter. It cannot be."

"Well," went on my wife, "I do not think I want to stay here; I don't
suppose the people understand everything, but I feel sure many of them
think we are dealing harshly with Margaret. And yet they would nearly
all do the same. What kind of a manse have they in Charleston?" she
concluded eagerly - for a woman's gift of transition is marvellous.

Whereupon I told her all about my Southern experiences and impressions.

* * * * *

There was no tumult in St. Cuthbert's. A man who knows nothing of the
under-currents in the heart's great ocean would have said that my people
were serenely indifferent as to whether I should stay in New Jedboro or
go to Charleston. There was no open attempt to influence the outcome,
for they believed in the sovereignty of God and would not interfere - at
least not till that very sovereignty so constrained them. Of course,
they held prayer to be a legitimate interference. This is a great
mystery, but it is cherished by the soul as persistently as it is
challenged by the reason. Mysterious though this union must ever be, the
Scottish spirit takes full advantage of it, and enjoys its fruit, let
the root be hidden as it may.

"Ye'll be givin' us yir decision some o' these days," was about as far
as the most emotional would go, some even adding: "Charleston's a graun
city, nae doot, an' I'm hopin' ye'll like it fine if you leave us,"
which last proved to me that such an one secretly prayed for my
remaining. The true Scotchman is like the Hebrew language - to be
understood, he must be read backwards.

"It's a graun chance ye're gettin', to be called to sic a kirk as that,"
said Wattie Gardner one day. "I'm fearin' ye'll rue it if ye bide wi' us

This was far from the language of ardent wooing; yet I noticed that this
same Wattie sought to reform his ways, that they might tend to the
increase of my comfort. He had been an incorrigible sleeper in the kirk,
surrendering to sweet repose with the announcement of the text, and
emerging therefrom only to join the closing paraphrase with
unembarrassed unction. For no man was more ready with a verdict on the
sermon than was Wattie, as he walked down the aisle; he never failed to
demand the "heads and particulars" from his family at the dinner table,
resenting all imputation of somnolence for himself.

His defense was plausible, since he never slept exposed; but always with
his head bowed upon the book-board, esteemed by the uncharitable as the
attitude of slumber, but explained by Wattie as the posture of
undistracted thought and pious meditation.

Shortly after my call to Charleston, however, Wattie abandoned this
pious and reflective posture, sitting bolt upright, beating back his
tendency to thoughtful retirement with the aid of cloves and
peppermints. I knew the meaning of this reform, for I knew Wattie's love
for me, clandestine though it was; he and I had watched death together
once - and after the wave had overswept us, the ground beneath our feet
was firm as rock forever.

By and by St. Cuthbert's began to move. It was known that I purposed
announcing my decision on the approaching Sabbath day, and I was
informed that one or two deputations wished to wait upon me at the
manse. The first was from the women of the church, who had had a meeting
of their own.

To my amazement the spokeswoman was Mrs. Goodall. Now it must be told
that this same Mrs. Goodall, in all sincerity of conscience, had
violently withstood my advent to the pastorate of St. Cuthbert's years
before. The ground of her opposition was that I plied the festive pipe.

Never was there nobler Christian womanhood than hers, never a more
devoted life, never a more loving heart. But no man's character could be
fragrant, so she thought, if it ripened amid the rich aroma of tobacco;
and good old Virginia leaf was to her the poison-ivy of mankind. That
life was indeed beclouded which found shelter in the genial clouds of
the aforesaid leaf. But with all this heroic hostility to our little
weaknesses, there dwelt a sweet strain of innocence in which we had come
to glory.

"Ye needn't tell me," said the good Mrs. Goodall once to a sympathetic
circle, "that they dinna play poker at the taivern - an' in the daytime
too - for I passed by this verra day, an' they were pokin' away, wi'
their coats off, wi' lang sticks in their hands, pokin' at the wee white
balls," and her listeners needed no other proof.

The dear old saint made her plea for those she represented, and it
greatly pleased me, for I loved her well; and I remembered the scores
and hundreds who had felt the power of her godly life. Besides, it
confirmed me in this assurance, that, after all is said and done, if a
man is honestly trying to do his Master's work, even those most sternly
set against the pipe will care but little whether or not he seeks the
comfort it undoubtedly affords. Which very thing had been proved by my
great predecessor, Dr. Grant, half a century agone.

The second, and larger, deputation was composed of ten or more,
appointed to represent the kirk session and the Board. Of this latter
body, the principal spokesman was its chairman, William Collin, an
excerpt from Selkirkshire and one of my chiefest friends. He was long,
very long, almost six feet three, with copious hair that never sank to
rest, and habitually adorned with a cravat that had caught the same
aspiring spirit. This was a rider perpetually attached.

One suit of clothes after another, as the years passed by, bore witness
to the loyalty of his heart; for he would not abandon the pre-historic
tailor who was a sort of heirloom in the Collin family. In consequence,
the rise and fall of William's coat, in its caudal parts, as he walked
down the aisle with the plate on the Sabbath day, had become part of St.
Cuthbert's ritual - and we all thought it beautiful. He was one of the
two, referred to in the opening of our story, who had been sent to spy
out the land, and to report upon the propriety of my conjugal
enterprise. The fluent panegyric in which his report was made is already
recorded and need not be here repeated.

William had a talent for friendship beyond that of any man I ever knew,
and this talent flowered into genius only after the clock struck
midnight. Never yet was there friend who would stay with you to the last
like William Collin, his shortcomings few, his long-stayings many and

For never yet was friend so welcome, never speech more sane and
stimulating; never farewell so sweetly innocent when the clock struck
two. May the God of friendship bless thee, William Collin, for all that
thy friendship hath been to me! And if these lines outlive thee, let
them bear witness to that joy which is not denied to the humblest man,
who hath but a fireplace and a friend and a pipe - and four feet on the
fender, while the storm howls without. For, with alternate zeal, we cast
the blocks upon the blaze - and its flame never faltered till thou wert

William, as chairman, was the first to speak. He presented St.
Cuthbert's case with dignity and force, beginning with the tidings that
the Board wished me henceforth to take two months' holidays instead of
one. This started in my mind a swift reflection upon the native
perversity of the Scotch. To prove that they cannot do without you, they
banish you altogether for an extra month, but William Collin gave the
thing a more graceful turn:

"We love you weel eneuch to do without you - but no' for lang," he said.

Then he concluded, as was his inviolate custom, with a reference to
Burns, in whom he had sat down and risen up for forty years:

"I canna better close what I hae to say," he assured me, "than by the
use o' the plowboy's words, slightly changed for the occasion:

"'Better lo'ed ye canna be
Will ye no' abide at hame?'"

With this he reached behind him (this too, a time-honoured custom),
seized the aforesaid caudal parts of his coat, removed them from the
path of descending danger, and lowered his stalwart form with easy
dignity, his kindly eyes aglow with friendship's light.

David Carrick was the next to speak. Cautious and severe, his chief aim
was to express the hope that I was sincere in my indecision.

"We had a sair shock wi' a former minister long years ago," he said, "he
had a call, like yirsel', but he aye kept puttin' us off, tellin' us he
was aye seekin' licht frae above; but Sandy Rutherford saw an or'nary
licht in the manse ae nicht after twal o'clock. He peekit in the window,
an' he saw the minister wi' his coat off, packin' up the things. The twa
lichts kind o' muddled him, ye ken."

His colleagues may have thought David unnecessarily severe. In any case
several of them began signalling to Geordie Bickell to take the floor.
Geordie responded with much modesty and misgiving, for he was the
saintliest man amongst us; and his own estimate of himself was in direct
antagonism to our own.

"We willna urge ye, sir," he said, with a winsome smile, "but I'm sure
the maist of us hae been pleadin' hard afore a higher court than this.
A' I want to tell ye is this - there hasna been wound or bruise upon yir
relation to yir people. An' there's but ae hairt amongst us, an' we're
giein' ye anither call this day - an' we're hopin' it's the will o' God."

The interview was almost closed, when a voice was heard from the back of
the room, a very eager voice, and charged with the import of its

"It's mebbe no' worth mentionin'," said Archie Blackwood, a fiery Scot
whose father had fought at Balaclava, "but it's gey important for a'
that. Gin ye should gang to Charleston ye'll hae to sing sma' on their
Fourth o' July, for that's their screechin' time, they tell me; an' ye
wudna hae a psalm frae year's end to year's end to wet yir burnin'
lips - an' ye wadna ken when it was the Twenty-fourth o' May. They tell
me they haena kept the Twenty-fourth o' May in Ameriky since 1776."
Archie knew his duty better than his dates.

I assured him of the importance of his warnings, and acknowledged the
various deprivations he had foretold.

"Juist ae word afore we pairt," suddenly interjected a humble little
elder who had never been known to speak before. "It's in my conscience,
an' I want to pit it oot. We a' ken fine we haena been ower regular at
the prayer meetin'; but we'll try to dae better in the time to come.
It's death-bed repentance, I ken, but it's better than nane."

One by one the delegates shook hands with me and withdrew, after I had
promised them as early a pronouncement as my still unsettled mind could
hope to give. After they had gone, I sat long by myself, pondering all
that had been said, looking for light indeed, but striving to quench all
other beams than those whose radiance was from above.

While thus employed, a feeble footfall was heard upon the steps, and a
gentle knocking called me to the door. It was no other than little
Issie's grandfather who stood before me.

"Come in, come in," I said cordially, for he was dear to me, and we had
the bond of a common sorrow. "Have you forgotten something?"

"No," he answered, "but I hae minded something. I didna speak when a'
the ithers spoke; but I want to tell ye something by yirsel'. I think ye
ought to ken. It has to dae wi' yir decision.

"Ye mind wee Issie? Well, the mornin' ye came back frae Charleston, she
was lyin' white an' still on the pillow. She hadna spoke a' through the
nicht, an' we a' thocht she wad speak nae mair - but at six o'clock yir
train blew afore it came into the station. An' wee Issie stirred on the
pillow. Her lips moved an' I pit doon my ear.

"'He'll be on that train,' she whispered low. 'Wha'll be on the train?'
I askit her. 'The minister,' was a' she said.

"I was alane wi' her, an' I said: 'Mebbe so, Issie.' Then she spoke nae
mair for a little, but soon she said: 'God'll bring him back to open the
gate for me before I go. Grandfather,' she said, 'he first told me of
the gate and he said I would find it beautiful when I got close - and so
it is - but I want him to push it farther open, for I am so weak and
tired. I'm sure God will bring him home in time.'"

My eyes were wet, and I could only take the old man's hand in mine, the
silent token that the greatest argument of all had been kept until the

"There's mair of us," he said, as the sobs shook his feeble frame,
"there's mair of us wha's comin' near the gate. I'm no' far frae it
mysel'. An' I want ye to wait my turn; I want ye to bide wi' us till ye
see me through the gate. A stranger wadna be the same. I maun be gaun."

It is long now since Issie's grandfather followed her through the gate.
He too found it beautiful; for I walked with him till even I could see
its glory. It swung wide open, for he was welcome home; and I caught a
glimpse of the splendour just beyond. I heard, too, rapturous snatches
of the song they sing in that better land. It may have been fancy, yet I
am sure I heard the old precentor's voice, and Issie's holy strain was
clearer still; but it was the new song, and these two blended wondrous



Death is kinder than we think. None other knew the way by which the
little foundling's mother had gone forth. But death knew it well, having
often passed over it before; and the orphan's cry was more than he could
bear. So he took him in his kindly arms and bore him on to his mother,
smiling at the cruel names by which he was accustomed to be called.

It is death's way to take the jewel only, for the road is long; and who
will may have the casket. Wherefore the affrighted undertaker bore the
latter by night to its resting-place, for he knew that path and had
often trodden it before. But he was not a deep sea pilot, like the

Angus was left alone. A faithful man, himself a smallpox graduate, was
his only companion. Strict care was kept before the door of the now
deserted house, for panic hath its home in the heart of that dread
disease, though not so dreadful as we think.

Some of the misguided folk of New Jedboro fumigated themselves at every
mention of Angus' name, sleeping meantime side by side with some
consumptive form, knowing not that death slept between them. But the
great science of life is, and hath ever been, the recognition of life's
real enemies.

Angus was alone - and fallen. The foundling's plague was upon him, and
there was none to care for him but the faithful servant, smallpox-proof
as he happily knew himself to be.

The very night of the poor waif's hasty burial, a note was handed in at
our kitchen door. It was from the health officer of New Jedboro:

"Can you find a nurse for Mr. Strachan?" it ran. "He has no one with him
but Foster, who has had the disease, and I need not tell you the
necessity for a woman's care. I have tried the hospital, but no nurse
will volunteer. Whoever goes, of course, will be under quarantine, as
the guard has orders to let no one enter or leave the house. Perhaps you
may know of some poor woman, or some kind of woman, who will undertake
the duty. If you do, I have ordered the guard to let her into the house
on presentation of this note."

My wife and I were sitting in the study when the letter was handed to
me. "I will run down to Mrs. Barrie's," I said, after long thinking.
"She is not so much of a nurse, but she is less of a coward; and I know
she has taken care of diphtheria."

"I will walk down with you," said my wife; "perhaps a woman's influence
won't be amiss on such an errand."

We were soon ready and went out into the winter night.

"Isn't that too bad?" I suddenly exclaimed, as we were turning into Mrs.
Barrie's house. "I have forgotten that letter - and the health officer
says that whoever goes must have it. Shall we go back for it?"

"Not at all, she would have retired before we get back. And in any case
she would not go till the morning, and you can give it to her before

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Online LibraryRobert Edward KnowlesSt. Cuthbert's; a novel → online text (page 13 of 17)