Robert Edward Knowles.

St. Cuthbert's; a novel online

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"Auld Lang Syne," and the emancipated passengers were pouring out upon
old England's hospitable soil. The happy crowd, catching already the
contagion of English jollity, swayed about the landing stage, then
flowed in separate streams into the Customs pen; for this is the first
tug of the tether, just when all who have escaped the sea think they are
safe at last. Out through the fingers of the stern inspectors flowed the
crowd in still thinner streams, till all this community of the deep is
scattered to the winds.

Swift-hurrying, they go their separate ways, and the happy little bubble
has burst and vanished, as its successors, now forming on the bosom of
the deep, will burst and vanish too. What friendships, what ardent
loves, what molten vows, ocean born, have begun to languish on the wharf
at Liverpool, like sunfish separated from their native wave!

Michael Blake hailed a hansom and drove to the North-Western. As he
passed through the turbid streets, dense loneliness settled about him
like a fog. This was old England, this the land which exiles across the
sea in their fondness call the "old country."

But he could not free himself from the thought that, when he left it,
youth's sun was burning bright; and now more than the early afternoon
was gone.

"The evening too will pass, as the afternoon has passed," he said to
himself, "only more quickly." And he glanced at the descending sun,
God's metaphor of warning, the recurring epitome of life. His lips moved
to speak a text, the native instinct strong therefor. They had meant to
say "the night cometh"; but some one interfered and he said to himself:
"The night is far spent - the day is at hand," for, after all, the
setting sun has morning in its heart.

He dismissed the cab, and entering the hotel, made some enquiry about
the trains for the North. He could not start North before midnight. The
evening was fine, and he walked out. St. George's Hall arrested him with
its elaborate grandeur. What beauty, what chastity, what becoming signs
of civic wealth! When he came to its massive steps he cast his eyes upon
them, and behold, they were dripping with poverty! The victims of want
in mid-career were there, and drooping age, unequally yoked with
poverty, and frowzy women with ribald face; and chief among them all,
little children, some blear-eyed, some pallid with want, some with the
legacy of sores - for they had been shapen in iniquity.

But all alike - and herein was the anguish of it - all alike were bent on
play, and persisted pitifully in the cruel farce. The little bare feet
pattered up and down the steps - but the steps were stone.

Michael Blake thought of his adopted home across the sea and its green
fields and tree-graced meadows. Then he thought of the far Western
plains, vast beyond human fancy, waiting and calling for the tired feet
of all who spend weary lives in the old land, playing on stone steps,
while wealth and grandeur smile above them. In a few minutes he turned
away, for the folk of his country are not accustomed to the sight of
hungry children; and a woman under drink is something that many of their
eldest have never seen at all.

The sound of martial music, and the voice of cheering thousands, fell
upon his ear. He moved towards it. Soon the surging procession broke
upon him. "Who are these?" he asked, "these fellows in Khaki?" They had
their rifles in their hands, and some were slightly lame, and some had
the signs of wounds - and all had the rich stain of battle on them. "Art
thou only a stranger?" he is asked in turn, "and knowest not the things
that are come to pass? These are they who have come out of Paardeburg,
homeward bound by way of the ancestral home, and the tide of British
love and gratitude wafts them on their course."

He is soon caught in the swelling throng, his own head bare, his own
voice blending in the Imperial hosannah. He catches a familiar face
among the soldiers; he hears the strain of the "Maple Leaf" mingling
with the mighty bass of the Mother Anthem. He beholds the Union Jack,
enriched with the Canadian emblem. Gazing on the battered few, he sees
the survivors of the battle, and he knows that the unreturning feet rest
in the soil they have won to freedom; Canadian lads were these who have
insisted with dying lips that Britains never shall be slaves. His
adopted land has given of its choicest blood to swell the sacred tide
that for centuries hath laved the shores of liberty.

All this surges in upon him, and the savage joy of empire fills his
heart. His loneliness has fled, and he feels that beyond the ocean he is
at home, the old home, with its ever open gate for its far-flung
children. The mighty roar becomes the gentle whisper of Britain's lips,
bidding him draw closer to the imperial fireside and warm himself at
its imperishable flame.

He follows them for a time, then turns and slowly wends his way back to
the hotel. As he walks on, the shouting and the tumult die, the banners
gleam no more, and he is left alone with the empire of his heart, and
with other worlds to conquer. We need no swift-flying transport to bear
us to life's greatest battle-fields.

A little waif, a boy of ten, pinched and ragged, was gazing in a window
as Mr. Blake passed along. A question from the man, a quick and pathetic
answer from the boy - and they went in together. Then the man came out
alone, and the fervent joy of an hour ago was gone, but a deeper
gladness had taken the room it left behind. It is still there - a
life-tenant - for its lease cannot be broken till memory dies.

When he re-entered the hotel, the clerk recognized him and said:

"Your train goes in an hour, sir. You are going up to Scotland, I think
you said."

Scotland! The word inflamed him; and he hurried to his room to prepare
for departure.

The guard's sharp whistle sounded, and the train, with British
promptness, flew out of the Lime Street station, one heart at least
strangely thrilled, one face steadfastly set towards Scotland's waiting
hills.

He was alone in the compartment, and the long night seemed only like a
watch thereof. He was alone, yet not alone - for Memory sat beside him,
and Conscience, and Hope. No, he was not alone; for there wrestled a Man
with him till the breaking of the day. And still the train flew on, as
though it knew; on it flew, as though the unseen Wrestler himself had
his hand upon the engine's throat.

The sun was rising when he left the train. The train flew on, uncaring,
for trains know not that they are carriers unto destiny.

Michael Blake looked long at the rising sun - it was the same. Then his
eyes caressed the surrounding hills, playfellows of bygone years - they
had not changed. The flowers still were there, the grass had never
withered; the heather, too, in unfading purity.

And the trees, the old mighty elms, these were still the same - the
foliage of a larger life they had, but the selfsame branches held out
their kindly hands as in the long ago. Still upturned were their
reverent heads, still seeking God - and the baptism of the morning was
upon them, attested by the morning light.

He turned towards one of the familiar hills and began the old boyhood
climb.

Midway, he came to a spring, and a great thirst clutched his heart. It
was life's long, quenchless thirst, crying out again for the children's
portion. His face is close to its crystal water, his lips burning with
desire. Another's face moves upward to greet his own - but it is not the
same - and memory swiftly paints another till he actually sees it, the
ardent face of youth. And beside it is a maiden's face - for they had
often stooped together - a maiden's face, laughing for very love. But
they vanish and he sees again his own, worn and wrinkle-signed - and
alone.

Yet the spring still is there, unwrinkled and unworn, and his fevered
lips drink deeply. How sweet, how delicious, and how wondrous cool! It
is still the same as when rosy lips of love sipped from its surface long
ago. He rises and turns from the hallowed spot; but the flood-gates of
memory are unloosed, and his heart melts within him. The tears are
flowing fast and the old luxury, because the old innocence, of
childhood, seems to bathe his broken heart.

"Oh, God," he cries aloud, "hast Thou no fountain for the soul, no
living springs farther up the hill?" and as he cried, he glanced again
into the limpid spring. And lo! that gentle face was there again, love's
laughter still upon its lips, and a great hope looking out from grave
and tender eyes.

Then farther up the hill he climbed, the quick step of boyhood coming
back - and soon he stood upon its brow. He threw himself upon the grass
and cast his eyes over all the unforgotten valley. It was slumbering
still, for the sun is over early in Scottish latitudes, and he quickly
searched the hillside that confronted him. Behind a sheltering bush he
lay, peering far beyond.

All the valley is forgotten now - for, across the ravine beneath him, he
sees a cottage. The same, the very same it is, save that the thatch has
been renewed! A humble shepherd's cottage, only a but and a ben, built
long ago by thrifty hands - but he first learned to worship there.

Yet is it still the same? He knows not - but he knows the risk of passing
years. Unchanged the cottage stands, and the same gate hangs half open
as in the far back yesterday. Yet it is the spirit alone that giveth
life, and of this he may not know. He looks at his watch - it is near six
o'clock, and he had seen a man walk sleepily to the byre from a distant
house. He waits and watches, while a strange fever burns his heart,
unknown to youthful passion. His lips are parched, though the water from
the spring is scarce dry upon them yet.

Still gazing, he sees no sign of life about the house. He thinks, yet
knows not why, of Mary and the empty tomb. Hope is sinking fast, when of
a sudden a timid wreath of smoke flows slowly from the chimney, and
Michael Blake's hand reaches swiftly towards his heart. "Be still, be
still," he murmurs, "who knows that it is for thee?" but his eyes follow
it greedily, for it is to him a soul-signal from afar, God's altar
smoke, and he knows now that the house is not a sepulchre.

"Now I shall go and knock," he said to himself; but a new thought
possessed him, and he bowed again behind the slender furze, his eyes
still fixed upon the house.

They were but minutes that he waited, but they came disguised as
hours - for God can compel us to rehearse eternity. He must have felt it
coming, for his eyes have forsaken all else, and are fixed upon the
cottage door. Yes, it moved, it surely moved; and the strong man's eyes
are numb. They rally and renew the vigil. Yes, it moves, wider
still - and the flutter of a dress is seen. His heart leaps wildly, and
his eyes fly at the face that follows. It is too far to see clearly - but
he soon must know!

A comely form emerges from the door, and the face looks up at the
morning sun. The woman walks out and on, lithe grace in every movement.
Then the valley swims before him - for it is, it is, the woman he had
loved. He knows the dainty step, the erect carriage, the shapely frame.
Nearer still she comes, skirting the base of the hill he had climbed,
still often looking towards the sun, pausing now and then to pluck a
flower by the way. Where can she be going?

No bonnet binds her waving hair, and now he can catch the light of the
morning sun upon it. Streaks of gray, here and there, can be seen, but
they are few; the breeze rallies the loose-flowing strands and they make
merry and are glad together. He can see the pure bosom, lightly robed,
that swells with buoyant life. She is nearer to him now, and the face
swims in upon him across the chasm of long silent years, the same pure
face, still bright with tender love. She is now beside the spring - for
thither was she bent - and the overflowing pail is laid down beside her.

She too glances into the bosom of the water and he wonders if memory
guides the wistful gaze. Does she too see another face preserved against
the years in the pure keeping of the spring? He knows not - but he
thinks, yes, he is sure he saw the movement of the lips, and her face is
again upturned - but its thought is far beyond the sun. He uncovers his
head and joins the holy quest.

She has returned to the cottage and the door is closed; but Michael
Blake has never moved. Now he steps out from behind his shelter and
starts towards the house. Then he stops, turns back and begins to
descend the hill by the same course as had led him up. Yet once more he
turns and gazes long at the dwelling-place, starts towards it, stops
again.

"Not now," he said to himself, "I cannot - it is too light."

And he walked back to the hamlet; he was waiting for the tender dark.




XXIX

"_AND ALL BUT HE DEPARTED_"


The little inn seemed to have no guests except the traveller from beyond
the sea. But no such tavern is ever long deserted, for the Scotch
nature, while it may be dry, is ever loyal. Michael Blake had read but a
line or two of the _Edinburgh Scotsman_, ten days of age, when a man
walked solemnly in and sat down beside him. His face, his breath, and
especially his nose, bore eloquent testimony to the aforesaid loyalty of
his nature. He bade Mr. Blake a cheerful good-morning, glancing at the
same time towards the counter beneath which the liquid necessities were
stored.

"It's a fine mornin'," he began.

"A beautiful day," assented Mr. Blake.

"Ye'll no' live aboot these pairts?" inquired the other.

"No, I live far from here."

"Ye'll mebbe be frae Ameriky?" ventured his interrogator, closing in
upon him.

"Yes, I live in Canada," was the response.

"Canady," said the man. "We're gey prood o' Canady the noo. I ken't a
man once wha went to Canady. I had a drink wi' him afore he went," he
continued, his eye lighting with the dewy memory, "ye'll likely ken him?
Oliver was his name, Wattie Oliver, a bow-leggit wee body."

"I cannot say I ever met with him," replied Mr. Blake. "Canada is larger
than you think over here."

"Mebbe so," said the friendly stranger, "mair nor likely he's deid noo;
one o' thae red Indians micht hae killed him, like eneuch."

"Yes, or perhaps a bear," Mr. Blake replied gravely.

There was a pause. A bell was ringing, its notes floating in clear and
sweet upon them.

"What bell is that?" inquired Mr. Blake.

"That's oor bell i' the parish kirk; there's no ither ane."

"What is it ringing for? To-day is Thursday," asked Mr. Blake.

"Aye," responded the other, "this is the fast day. Sabbath's the
sacrament, ye ken, and they're maist awfu' strict aboot the fast day.
They wadna work that day, nae mair than on the Sabbath. They willna even
whustle. Ae mornin' I met Davie Drewry, an' 'twas the fast day. Noo, of
course, it was juist an or'nary day in Dr. Cameron's parish across the
burn - the burn divides the twa, ye ken. Weel, Davie was a lad for
whustlin' - he cudna leeve withoot whustlin' - but he was gey religious
too. Weel, I met Davie that mornin', walkin' awfu' fast, maist
rinnin' - an' his face was red.

"'Whaur micht ye be gaun, Davie?' says I, 'naebody ailin'?'

"'Na, na,' says Davie, 'but it's the fast day, an' I canna stand it ony
longer. I'm gaun ower the burn to hae a whustle.' Wasna that fair
redeek'lus!"

"Quite ingenious," answered Mr. Blake. "You go to that church, I
suppose?"

"Na, I dinna. I quit it when they brocht the kist o' whustles intill't.
I wadna stand it. There's nae real Presbyterians there, forbye me an'
Jock Campbell - an' I'm sair feart aboot Jock. I doot he's weakenin'.
They tell me he speaks to the minister on the street, an' if that's
true, there's no' muckle o' the auld religion aboot Jock, I'm fearin'."

"Do you not speak to the minister?"

"Na, I dinna. There's naething o' the hypocrite aboot me, I'm tellin'
ye. I settled the minister fine the last word I spoke to him. He came to
see me; an' he thocht he could wheedle me aboot the organ i' the hoose
o' God.

"'Div ye no' ken,' he says to me, 'aboot Dauvit, the sweet singer o'
Israel - how he played a' kinds o' instruments i' the Lord's hoose?' He
thocht he had me. But I gied him as guid as he brocht. What think ye I
answered him?"

"I really have no idea," said Mr. Blake. "What was it?"

"'Div ye think,' says I, lookin' fair at him, 'div ye think I tak Dauvit
for a paittern?' - and it did for him. 'I'll hae to be gaein',' says he,
'I hae a funeral.' 'Aye,' says I, 'ye'd better hae a funeral' - an' we
haena spoken to ane anither since."

"That's a pity," said Mr. Blake, "it seems too bad that the soul's
interests should suffer because of a matter of that kind. Of course," he
continued, "I don't say that a man may not be religious because he
doesn't go to church. Men may scorn the bridge and still get across the
river, but they would have got along better by the bridge."

"I dinna ken aboot the brig," said the other, "that isna to the
point," - for he was not of a metaphorical turn of mind - "but I've nae
doot aboot bein' religious. A man in my walk o' life, in my business, ye
ken, canna weel help bein' religious. He's the same as the Apostle
Paul."

"What?" said Mr. Blake, "are you a tent-maker?"

"Na, na, certainly not; there's nane o' them nowadays. A man in my
callin' doesna _do_ the same as Paul, but he can _say_ the same, ye see.
I can say wi' Paul: 'Death to me is great gain' - I'm an undertaker, ye
ken."

"An undertaker," exclaimed his listener, unconsciously pushing back his
chair, shocked at the gruesome humour. Besides, the man was looking at
him with something like a professional eye, as if making an estimate of
time, and space.

"Aye," responded he of the apostolic claim, "I'm an undertaker - but
times is dull. I was an undertaker ten year in Lockerby, but I left
there lang syne. I had ae fine customer, the bailie; he had eleven o' a
family. But I lost his trade. The bailie was sick - an' my laddie, wee
Sandy, was aye plaguin' me for a sled. I tell't him I'd get him ane when
I had mair siller. Weel, wee Sandy was aye rinnin' ower to the hoose an'
askin' aboot the bailie. 'Twas nat'ral eneuch; the laddie meant nae
harm, but he wanted his sled afore the snaw was gone. Ony way, they tuk
offense."

"Did he get his sled?" asked Mr. Blake mechanically, staring at the man.

"Na, poor wee Sandy never got his sled. I had juist ae ither customer ye
micht ca' guid. He was deein' o' consumption, an' I took guid care o'
Sandy's sympathy. There was no askin' aboot him, mind ye. But there was
a mean man i' the business, wha was never meant to be an undertaker. His
name was Creighton, Tom Creighton, an' what dae ye think Tom did, to get
his trade?"

"I don't know," said Mr. Blake, rising to depart.

"Weel, I'll tell ye. Twa days afore he died, Tom Creighton tuk him oot
for a drive - he was awfu' fair to his face an' he got around him; tell't
him at the gate that he hoped to gie him anither drive later on. Of
course, he got his trade - he had to gie him his trade after that. But I
wadna stoop to sic like tricks for nae man's trade. So I left Lockerby
an' came here - I'm the only yin here."

Mr. Blake was glad to escape his garrulous acquaintance, and had heard
enough of his sombre annals. He walked out, and wandered far - o'er moor
and fen, o'er hill and valley, by many an unforgotten path, he
wandered - past his boyhood's school, where he heard again the laughing
shout that seemed scarcely to have died away from lips now silent long.

He loitered again by the babbling stream which had been the
fishing-ground of boyhood, and lay once more on mossy beds, and bathed
his face in the same friendly tide. He gazed far up into the leafy trees
and saw the very nooks where boyhood's form had rested; again he saw the
sun gleam on the happy heads of those who gambolled far beneath.

He drank his fill of the long yesterday, thirsty still. No familiar
face, no voice of long ago, had he seen or heard; and he tasted that
unreasoning pain which comes to the man who knows, and is wounded by
the truth, that his native heath is reconciled to his exile, careless
of his loneliness, indifferent to bid it cease.

When he returned to the hospitable inn, he was as one seeking rest, and
finding none. He sat, reflective, while memory bathed the soul of love
with tears. Presently the sound of voices floated out from an adjoining
room. He listened eagerly, for one was evidently the voice of a returned
wanderer like himself. The other was that of a man who had never
wandered from his native spot. The home-keeper's tongue had still its
mother-Scotch, but his companion had been cured.

"I know I shouldn't do it, Gavin," he heard the latter say, "I'm really
a teetotaler in Australia. Used to take a drop or two before I
emigrated; but I'm an elder now, and I haven't tasted for years. However
this is a special occasion."

Mr. Blake moved his chair to where he could catch a glimpse of the men.
They were advanced in years, both about sixty-five, and their heads were
gray. Their dress betokened plainness of nature, though that of the
Australian might indicate prosperity. Both would seem uncultured, except
in heart.

"A speecial occasion!" cried the one addressed as Gavin, "a speecial
occasion! I should say it is - verra speecial! It's twa an' forty years
sin we claspit ane anither's hand - man, Andra, friendship's sweet, an'
God's guid! It wad be fair sinfu' no' ta tak a drop at sic a time as
this. The minister himsel' wad taste, gin an auld schulemate came back
after forty year. Sae wad the Apostle Paul - the stomach's sake was
naethin' compared wi' this. What'll ye hae, Andra?"

"Let this be mine, Gavin," answered Andrew, reaching for his pocketbook.
When it appeared, it was fat and full, and Gavin stole a wistful glance;
for, in Scotland, colonial pocketbooks are proverbially plump. "What
shall it be?" he added.

"Whatever ye say, Andra," answered Gavin. He glanced again at the
disappearing purse and heaved a little sigh. Patriotism is not good for
pocketbooks, thought Gavin.

"Well," said his old schoolmate, holding a sovereign between his thumb
and finger as fondly as though he had lived in Scotland all his life;
"well," said he, "I say champagne - here, waiter!"

But Gavin interrupted: "Na, na, Andra, dinna get champagne. I took it
ance when the young Duke came o' age, an' I cudna hae tell't I had
onything, half an hour later. I dinna care for ony o' thae _aeryated_
waters. Forbye, it's awfu' dear, an' we can hae far mair o' the ither,"
he concluded, smiling tenderly at Andrew.

"The other" was produced; and it justified the trust reposed in it. Well
it knew its duty, and well it played its part; for it burnished memory
bright, stirred emotion from its hiding place, and even led tears out by
long deserted paths.

The lonely man in the outer room watched, and envied, and secretly
absolved his brother elder - the latter was giving abundant proof of his
freedom from all narrow bigotry. Like himself, his old prowess had come
back. He was confidential now:

"She wouldn't have me, Gavin. I told her I was rich, and that I loved
her ever since I left. But she wouldn't listen to me. Then I told her I
owned ten thousand sheep, and that I dreamed about her every night. But
it never moved her. I told her I had twenty thousand pounds in the bank,
and her picture next my heart besides - but she wouldn't. She said she
was promised to another. Did you ever hear of Janet Strachan caring for
any one else?"

"Na," said Gavin, absently, "she'll no' hae nocht to dae wi' onybody in
the way o' love - hae anither, Andra. Dinna droon the miller. Wad we no'
hae been fules to tak champagne? It wad hae been a' dune by noo."

Then Gavin stood erect, motioning to Andrew to do the same. Andrew rose;
one on each side of the little table they stood, a glass in the left
hand of each, for they were about to enact one of Scotland's great
scenes. Far scattered are her sons, but they have the homing heart, and
unforgetting cronies wait to welcome them.

Gavin's hand is outstretched and Andrew's goes forth to meet it. They
clasp, the same hands as fought and played together in the golden
boyhood days.

"Andra," said Gavin, "I'll repeat to you the twa best lines o' rhyme i'
the language: An' div ye ken hoo true they are?

"'We twa hae paidl't i' the burn
Frae mornin' sun till dine'

- mind ye that, we twa hae paidl't i' the burn - an' it's flowin' yet,
an' God's gey guid - here's to ye, Andra," and the men drank together,
the elder and the unordained, but the past was sacred to them both - and


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Online LibraryRobert Edward KnowlesSt. Cuthbert's; a novel → online text (page 15 of 17)