Robert Edward Knowles.

St. Cuthbert's; a novel online

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"Ye mauna," retorted the clerk, "ye maun tak' yir seat," and Saunders
dropped where he stood, while his fellow-elders looked into each other's
faces as if to say that this thing might have befallen any one of them.




VI

_The FIRST PARISH ROUND_


I soon began, of course, the visitation of my flock. Although my title
to youth was at that time undisputed, and although the unreflective
would have labelled me "new school," the importance of faithful visiting
was ever before my mind.

The curate's place (unhappiest of men) had more than once been offered
me at the hands of portly ministers, prepared to deny themselves all the
visiting, they to take all the preaching and nearly all the salary,
while their untitled slave was to deny himself the high joy of the
pulpit, to starve on the salary's dregs, and to indulge himself royally
in a very carnival of unceasing visitation. These overtures I had had
little hesitation in declining, for observation had taught me that the
slave's place soon makes the slave's spirit, unless that slavery be an
indenture unto God, which is but the sterner name for liberty.

Moreover, curates (especially Presbyterian, which implieth the greater
perversion) seemed to lack the breath of the uplands which the pulpit
breathes, and too often degenerate into society favourites, whose
flapping tails of black may be seen as these curates ring at fashionable
doors, where "five-o'clocks" within await the kid-gloved ministers of
men who are supposed to be the stewards of eternal life. I had once
overheard an enamelled queen of fashion declare, with much emotion, that
their curate was indispensable to a high-class "at home," and even
panegyrize his graceful transportation of cups of tea, however full.

Whereupon I forever swore that I would frizzle upon no such heathen
altar; I vowed to be either a minister or a butler - one thing or the
other - but never a Right Reverend Butler, which is a monster and a
tongue-cheeked comedy to both God and man.

As the minister of a vast congregation like St. Cuthbert's, I might on
the other hand have requested an assistant who should relieve me of the
visiting, leaving me only the duties of the pulpit, oceanic enough for
any man. Indeed, one of the stalwarts had suggested this to me, averring
that I needed more time for my sermons, whereat I looked at him sharply;
but his face was placid as a sea of milk, which is the way of Scotsmen
when they mean to score. But this dual ministry was ever the object of
my disfavour, for he preaches best who visits best, and the weekly
garner makes the richest grist for the Sunday mill. True and tender
visiting is the sermon's fuse, and what God hath put together no man
can safely put asunder.

One of my first visits was to the farmhouse of Donald M'Phatter, a
belated member of the fold, for he and his wife Elsie had not beshadowed
St. Cuthbert's door for many a year. This parochial policy had been
suggested to me by the beadle:

"Ye maun luik to the driftwood first - pit oot the laggin' log frae the
shore, ye ken," he said to me, following this up with an exhaustive
narrative of the raftsman's life which had once been his.

I found Donald dour but deferential, full-armed against every appeal for
his reform.

"I willna gang," he exclaimed, "till ony kirk that pits oot the token[1]
at the sacrament, and taks up wi' they bit cairds they're usin' the noo.
Cairds at the sacrament! it's fair insultin' to the Almichty."

[Footnote 1: A small piece of metal with the words "This do in
remembrance of Me," given in Scottish churches, before the Sacrament of
The Supper, to those entitled to participate.]

I parried the blow as best I could, and was on the verge of winning in
the argument when he suddenly took another tack.

"Forbye, I hae dune ma duty. Didna I gang steady when the Doctor was oor
meenister? Ilka Sabbath day I gaed an' hearkened till the graun' sermons
twa oors at a time, an' God grippit me thae days, an' He hasna loosened
His haud o' me yet. Ance saved, aye saved. That's ma doctrine. Wha can
slip awa frae grace, forbye it be thae Methody buddies an' ither
Armenian fowk, an' there was na ane o' them in the parish in the
doctor's day. The fields was fine an' fu' o' wheat thae days, but
there's muckle mustard noo, I tell ye that."

"But you will surely admit, Mr. M'Phatter, that the nourishment of years
ago will not suffice for to-day. Yesterday's dinner will not forestall
the necessity of the day that follows," I urged, inwardly ashamed of the
threadbare argument.

He saw its threadbareness too, for he retorted -

"That's a verra auld argyment; in fac', it's clean stale, if it's no'
rotten. Doctor Grant wud hae sniffit at it. And what's mair, it's no' an
argyment ava', for I hae mony a dinner o' the sermons that I gathered in
thae far back days. I aye eat and sup off that when ye an' yir fowk's
fummlin' wi' yir cairds at the kirk. Bide a meenit."

He hurried into an adjoining room, and soon returned with a sheaf of
rusty notes, clearing his throat awhile with the sound of a trumpeter
calling to the fray.

"I wasna ane o' the sleepin' kind; I aye paid attention in the hoose o'
God. I only sleepit ance an' I cudna help it, for oor Jeanie was born
that mornin' - an' that was a work o' needcessity. An' what's mair, I
aye took notes o' the discoorse, an' I hae them yet.

"They's ma dinners noo, tae use yir word, minister - they's ma dinners,
an' they hunger nae mair wha tak's them - saxteen or seventeen coorses,
ilka ane o' them; nane o' yir bit lunches wi' napkins an' flowers and
finger bowls like ye hae the noo, no' worth the bit grace ye say ower
them - they's nane o' yir teas, tastin' an' sniffin', wi' sweeties an'
sic like - they's meat, sir, strong meat for strong men, an' the bane's
in the baith o' them like."

He stopped, as a cannon stops after it has fired, the aroma of battle
still pouring from its lips.

"What are these papers in your hand?" I asked, not for information, but
for breath. (You have seen a caged canary leap from its perch to its
swing, and back again, when sorely pressed.) He speedily closed that
door.

"They, sir? Div ye no' ken what's they? They's Doctor Grant's heids and
pertikklers. Doctor Grant's heids and pertikklers, I'm tellin' ye. A' o'
them but ane is the heids an' pertikklers o' sermons that made St.
Cuthbert's ring like the wood on an August nicht when the thunder roams
it. That ither ane he preach't in a graun city kirk wha soucht to get
him, and they cudna - an' it was croodit like the barn mou' when
harvest's dune, an' I was there masel', an' he kent me - an' I'm the man
that held his cane in ma haun the time he preach't, I'm tellin' ye." And
Donald's withered face was now aglow with such a tenderness as only
bygone years can loan to age; his eyes were ashine with tears, each one
the home of sheeted days that had come back from the dead, and his
parted lips were drinking deep of the mystic tides of memory.

* * * * *

A rich mosaic was the visitation of this sterling race. The lovely
valleys and the picturesque hills of their ancestral sires I have often
roamed since then, but never have I seen the Scottish character in its
homely beauty as it appeared to me in their happy Canadian life among
the cozy farmhouses of this fruitful countryside. The traditions of
their native land were tenderly cherished by them all, and many were the
stories they related of the old days in Scotland and of the day whereon
they looked their last upon the unforgotten heather.

One of my first visits was to Mrs. Gavin Toshack, whom I found in a
reminiscent mood.

"Ay," she said, "we're a' Scotch aboot thae pairts; an' God keep us sae.
There's been scarce a fly in the ointment, forbye Sandy Trother's wife,
who gied him, an' gied us a', a heap o' tribble; but she was Irish, ye
ken. An' oor ministers hae a' been frae Scotland; but we had ane for
mebbe twa month or mair - nae oor ain minister, but only a kin' o'
evangelist buddy. He was an Irish buddy tae, but there were severals
converted. That was nae Irish wark whatever, but the grace o' God. We
were na lang oot frae the auld country when he cam'; I mind fine. It was
in the year '37. We sailed frae Annan Water Foot in July, an' eight
weeks or mair it took us afore we landit in Quebec. Then by canal and
wagon till we reach't New Jedboro; 'twas a sair, weary ride. But the
breath o' freedom an' o' promise was in the air - an' we hae oor ain hame
noo an' twa hunner acres o' the finest land in a' the country. An' we're
independent noo, wi' eneuch for a bite an' a sup till we hunger nae mair
nor thirst ony mair. An' oor bairnies is a' daein' fine: Jamie's a
doctor i' Chicago; an' oor Jeanie's mairrit on Allan Sutherland, him as
will be the new Reeve o' the coonty; an' Chairlie has a ranch i' Alberta
like the Duke o' Roxburgh's estate; an' Willie'll hae oor ain land here,
when we sleep aneath it.

"I aften sit an' think we micht hae been aye herdin' sheep on the
Dumfries hills, wi' scarce eneuch to eat, wi' this man 'my Laird' an'
yon man 'yir Grace' an' oor ain bairns little mair nor slaves. The duke
we knelt doon afore in Scotland aften paid mair for a racin' filly nor
we paid for a' this bonnie land we ca' oor ain the day. Canada's nae
sae guid for earls an' lairds, but it's graun' for puir honest fowk. An'
what's mair," continued Mrs. Gavin, "we didna hae the preachin' i' the
auld country we hae in Canada - leastwise, no' as graun' as we used to
hae i' the time o' Doctor Grant. Div ye ken, sir, the grandest thing I
ever heard come oot o' his mooth? No? Weel, it was this. He aye preach't
fearfu' lang, as ye've nae doot heard, an' at times the men fowk wad
weary an' gang oot, some to tak' a reek wi' their pipes an' mair to gang
ower the way an' hae a drap juist to liven the concludin' heids o' the
discoorse (for they aye steppit back); but the Doctor didna seem to
understaun'. Weel, ae day some o' them was stampin' doon the aisle, an'
the Doctor, he juist stoppit an' sat doon, an' then he says, 'Ma freens,
we'll bide a wee till the chaff blaws awa'.' Losh, hoo they drappit
whaur they stood! There was nae mair gaun oot that day, I tell ye, nor
mony a day. But mind ye, 'twas fearsome the time atween when he sat doon
in the pulpit an' when he speakit oot like I telt ye; it was clean
fearsome."




VII

"_The CHILD of The REGIMENT_"


My labours in St. Cuthbert's had covered but a few fleeting years (oh,
relentless ticking of the clock! at once the harbinger and the echo of
eternity), when there came into our lives life's greatest earthly joy.
Serene and peaceful our lives had been, every hour garlanded with love
and every year festooned by the Hand Unseen.

Trials and difficulties there had been indeed, but they were as billows
which carried in their secret bosom the greeting of the harbour and the
shore. Even the roots of sorrow had been moistened by the far-off wells
of joy. To many a guest of God, disguised in the habiliments of gloom,
we had turned a frowning face and had bidden such begone. But such
guests heeded not, pressing relentlessly in upon our trembling hearth,
when lo! the passing days revealed their mission; we saw the face hidden
beneath the sombre hood, and prayed the new-discovered guest to abide
with us unto the end. For God loveth the masquerade, and doth use it
everywhere.

The way to hell appeareth glorious oftentimes, but the pathway unto life
is robed in shadows and its sign-post is the cross - which things are a
masquerade and to be witnessed every day; for in one single day all
God's great drama is rehearsed in miniature.

Our manse was a pleasant place, and its site had been selected by some
one with the nursery-heart. Spacious and genial was the old homely
house, with its impartial square. Rooms there were, and halls, waiting
to echo back some voice uncoarsened by the clang of time and uncorroded
by the salt of tears. Rich terraces flowed in velvet waves down to the
waiting river, murmuring its trysting joy; a full-robed choir of oak and
elm and maple kept their eternal places in a grander loft than man could
build them, while pine and spruce and cedar, disrobing never, but
snatching their bridal garments from the winter storm, swelled the
sylvan harmony.

Here came the crocuses and the snowdrops, trembling like the waifs of
winter, and hither came the violet and the dandelion to reassure these
daring pioneers; later on, the pansy and the rose utterly convinced them
that they had not lost their way, but had been guided by the pilgrims'
Friend.

But no child's voice had waked these sombre echoes, no child's gentle
feet had pressed this velvet sward; no radiant shadow such as childhood
alone can cast had flitted here and there beneath these lonely trees,
nor had these flowers felt their life's great and only thrill in the
touch of a baby's dimpled hand. But that golden door at last swung
gently open. That hour of ecstasy and anguish brought us life's crown
and joy, and the hills of time, erstwhile green and beautiful, were now
radiant with a light kindled from afar.

St. Cuthbert's rejoiced exceedingly when our little Margaret was given
unto us, but we knew it not at first, for Scotch joy is a deep and
silent thing, a fermentation at the centre rather than an effervescence
at the surface. For our Margaret was as one born out of due time, the
first child whose infant cry had awakened the echoes of their ancient
manse, though seventy long years had flown since their first minister
had come among them. Thus she became the child of the regiment and they
silently exulted. Jubilant, one hour after this new star had swung into
the firmament, I hoisted the Union Jack to the topmost notch of our
towering flag-pole, and never has it flaunted its triumph more
jubilantly since.

The beadle reported to me afterwards that the other churches were
mightily jealous of our late autumn bloom, and one of their devotees, an
Episcopalian, had asked him sneeringly -

"What's that flag doing there?"

"It's blawin' i' the wind," retorted my diplomatic beadle.

"It's nothing to be so joyful over," urged the Episcopalian brother.

"It's mair nor ever happened in yon kirk o' yours; an' it's mair nor
could happen to the Pope o' Rome, wha's a true freen o' yours, I'm
jalousin'," snorted my beadle back triumphantly; for William was
uncharitable, and despaired of all ritualists, the iron of covenanting
protest running hot within his blood.

Nor were these the only swords that flashed above our Margaret's cradle;
for a Methodist mother in Israel, hopeful of a sympathetic response from
Elsie M'Phatter (the non-churchgoing one), ventured the comment that
similar events in her own brilliant maternal record had provoked no
unseemly joy; to which Elsie responded tartly -

"I ken that fine, and it's very nat'ral, for ye've had mair nor maist;
but gin ye hadna had ane for a maitter o' seventy year or mair, like us,
wad ye no' hae been clean daft aboot it?" and the field thereafter was
Elsie's own.

* * * * *

The Sabbath morning after Margaret's dawn St. Cuthbert's was full to
overflowing, as seemed to be every heart, especially every aged heart,
finding its morning anew in the life of a little child. For the morning
and the evening are wondrously alike. In summer especially, the
sun-bathed mountains, the pendant dewdrop, the melodious silences - all
these belong so much to both alike that I find it hard to distinguish
the matins and the vespers of God's cathedral days.

My voice trembled just a little as I gave out the psalm -

"Such pity as a father hath
Unto his children dear,"

but we sang it to the tune of "Dunfermline," and soon I was borne out to
sea upon its far-flung billows; for of a truth these old Scottish tunes
have the swing of eternity in them, and seem to grandly overlap the
bourne of time and space. And when we prayed the only liturgy which
Presbyterians will own, I could not forbear to say "Our Father" twice,
and lo! a strange thing happened unto me. For a great light seemed to
shine upon the words, and that little helpless life at home within the
manse, and its thrice-blessed cry, and its yearning look of wonder, and
its hand whose only prowess was to lie in some stronger hand of
love - all these became a commentary, illustrating God, and in their
cordial light I beheld Him as mother, or professor, or minister had
never shown Him to me before, bending over the souls of men, otherwise
orphaned evermore. That vision has tarried with me ever since, and my
people have been the better of it; for he alone can caress his people's
souls who has felt the caress of His father's love. God's tenderness is
the great contagion for the healing of life's long disease.




VIII

"_A NEW FOOT on The FLOOR_"


When our daughter (are there any two other words so well-wed as these?
What music their union makes!) was only about ten years old, her mother,
which is my wife writ large and heavenly, and I were taking tea at
Inglewood, which my long-suffering readers will remember as the home
which first welcomed me to New Jedboro and the residence of Mr. Michael
Blake. When our meal was over, Mr. Blake and I were enjoying a quiet
game of billiards, which was a game I loved. But I may have more to say
about this later on, for so had some of my pious people, though I am
inclined to think that they objected not so much because they thought
the game was wrong as because they feared I was enjoying it. For, to
some truly good Scotch folk the measure of enjoyableness is the measure
of sin, and a thing needeth no greater fault than to be guilty of
deliciousness. But the converse of this they also hold as true, namely,
that what maketh miserable is of God, and to be wretched is to be pious
at the heart. For which reason, I have observed oftentimes, they deem
that to be a truly well-spent Sabbath day which had banished all
possible happiness from their children's lives, bringing them to its
close limp and cramped and sore, but catechism-full and with a good mark
in the book of life for every weary hour.

Was it Johnson who ventured the opinion that the Puritans put
bear-baiting under the ban, not because it was painful to the bears but
because it was pleasant to the people? Whether it was or no, I shall not
discuss it. Neither shall I discuss the ethics of billiards, unless it
be to say this much, that if there be games in heaven, I do not doubt it
will have an honoured place, for it is an ivory game and truthful,
abhorring vagrant luck and scoring only by eternal laws which Euclid
made his own. And I make no doubt that many a hand hath plied the
billiard cue which long ere this hath touched with its finger-tips the
ivory gates and golden.

But to return. We were in the very midst of our game, of which I
remember very little, often and often though I have tried to recall
every feature of that eventful night. But I do recall that we spoke
about our Margaret, and there was a deep strain of wistful envy in Mr.
Blake's voice. I remember well his saying that God's richest earthly
gift was that of wife and child and hearth.

"Though I speak," he added almost bitterly, "as I might speak of distant
stars, for I have no one of the three," and his lips closed tightly
while he drove his ball with a savage hand.

"You have not wife or child," I said, "but no man who has been sheltered
by your friendship can agree with you about your hearth. It has warmed
my heart too many times when that heart was cold."

"There is no hearth where there is neither wife nor child," he answered
almost passionately. "Hearths are not built with hands. Do you not know,
sir, that if a man would have a fireside he must begin to kindle it when
youth is still throbbing in his heart? From boyhood up he is preparing
it, or else he is quenching it in darkness. Do you know, sir, if I were
a preacher I would burn that into young men's hearts till they would
feel that heaven or hell were all bound up with how they reverence or
despise their future fireside. I would tell them that no man can lay his
hearth in ashes in the hot days of youth, and then build it up again in
the rainy days of age.

"I would tell every wastrel, and every man who is rehearsing hell with
his youthful follies, that he cannot eat his cake and have it. For
hearth and wife and child are not for him. I would tell him that he
cannot breed a cancer in his heart while he is young and cure it with
some pious perfume brewed by the hand of age. I would tell them that
till my lips blistered, and then they should hear of the grace of God
till those same lips were rosy with its healing."

Amazed, I stood and gazed at him, for there was a fearful fascination in
his face. The face of a saint it was, with that warlike peace which only
a battling and victorious life can give, but it had for the time the
half-hunted look of one who trembles at the sound of footsteps he had
hoped were forever still, of one whose soul was overstormed by surging
waves of memory. There is sometimes a dread ghastliness in the thought
that out of the abundance of a man's heart his mouth is speaking, though
he declares it not. It is like the procession of a naked soul; or, to
change the figure, it is like beholding a man unearth some very corpse
he had long sought to hide.

It was his turn to play - ah me! the grim variety of life - and his ball
failed but narrowly of a delicate ambition.

"If I could but have it back and play it over," I heard him rather sigh
than say, whereat I bethought myself of the high allegory of a game.

Musing still, I stood apart, gazing as one gazes at a fire, which in
very truth I was.

"It is your shot, sir," he said, in a voice as passionless as when I
first heard it years before.

My ball had but left my cue when the door opened and a servant said -

"There's a young man doon the stair, sir, and he says he wants to speak
wi' the minister."

I descended, hearing as I went a rattling fusilade of ivory, which I
knew was the echo of a soul's thunder-storm.

* * * * *

How often do we meet new faces, little recking their relation to coming
years! Yet many an unfading light and many an incurable eclipse has come
with a transient meeting such as this! How many a woman of Samaria goes
to draw water from the well, and sees - the Lord! For I met only a boy,
or better, a laddie - boyhood-breathing word! - about sixteen years of
age, openly poor but pathetically decent. His clothes were coarse and
cheap and even darned, bearing here and there the signatures of poverty
and motherhood.

I advanced and took his hand; for that is an easy masonry, and its
exercise need never be regretted even if it never be repeated. My wife
once spent a plaintive day because she had wasted a hand-shake upon a
caller whom she took to be an applicant for matrimony, whose emoluments
were hers, but who turned out to be an agent for Smith's Dictionary of
the Bible, whose emoluments were his own. Nevertheless I have always
held that no true hand-shake is unrecorded in the book of life.

"And what can I do for you, my lad?" I said.

"I dinna ken, sir," he answered, in a voice that suggested a sea voyage,
for it was redolent of what lies only beyond the sea.

"What is your name?"

"Angus Strachan, sir, and I come frae Ettrick, and I hae my lines frae
the minister o' the Free Kirk."

"And when did you land, Mr. Strachan?"

"Ca' me Angus, sir, if ye please. Naebody has ca'd me by that name sin'
my mither pairted wi' me at the stage coach road, and she was fair
chokit wi' cryin', and when I cudna see her mair for the bush aboon the
burn, I could aye hear her bleatin' like a lamb - an' it was the
gloamin'. An' I can fair hear her yet. Will ye no' ca' me Angus?"

Accursed be the heart which has no opening door for the immigrant's
weary feet, and thrice accursed be the heart which remembers
strangerhood against some mother's homeless boy. Such malediction, thank
God, my soul has never won, for if there be one sight which more than
another fills me with hopeful pity, it is the spectacle of some peasant
lad making the great venture of an untried shore, pressing in to those
who were also foreigners one far-back cheerless day, and asking if this
Western land may harbour still another exile from the poverty he seeks
to flee. Especially is this true of Scottish laddies; for upon their
faces seems to be written: "I ask for but a chance such as thou hadst
thyself," which was the plea of Tom Carlyle when he first knocked at


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