The Little Minister

Джеймс Барри
The Little Minister

Chapter Twenty-Four.
THE NEW WORLD, AND THE WOMAN WHO MAY NOT DWELL THEREIN

Up here in the glen school-house after my pupils have straggled home, there comes to me at times, and so sudden that it may be while I am infusing my tea, a hot desire to write great books. Perhaps an hour afterwards I rise, beaten, from my desk, flinging all I have written into the fire (yet rescuing some of it on second thought), and curse myself as an ingle-nook man, for I see that one can only paint what he himself has felt, and in my passion I wish to have all the vices, even to being an impious man, that I may describe them better. For this may I be pardoned. It comes to nothing in the end, save that my tea is brackish.

Yet though my solitary life in the glen is cheating me of many experiences, more helpful to a writer than to a Christian, it has not been so tame but that I can understand why Babbie cried when she went into Nanny’s garden and saw the new world. Let no one who loves be called altogether unhappy. Even love unreturned has its rainbow, and Babbie knew that Gavin loved her. Yet she stood in woe among the stiff berry bushes, as one who stretches forth her hands to Love and sees him looking for her, and knows she must shrink from the arms she would lie in, and only call to him in a voice he cannot hear. This is not a love that is always bitter. It grows sweet with age. But could that dry the tears of the little Egyptian, who had only been a woman for a day?

Much was still dark to her. Of one obstacle that must keep her and Gavin ever apart she knew, and he did not; but had it been removed she would have given herself to him humbly, not in her own longing, but because he wanted her. “Behold what I am,” she could have said to him then, and left the rest to him, believing that her unworthiness would not drag him down, it would lose itself so readily in his strength. That Thrums could rise against such a man if he defied it, she did not believe; but she was to learn the truth presently from a child.

To most of us, I suppose, has come some shock that was to make us different men from that hour, and yet, how many days elapsed before something of the man we had been leapt up in us? Babbie thought she had buried her old impulsiveness, and then remembering that from the top of the field she might see Gavin returning from church, she hastened to the hill to look upon him from a distance. Before she reached the gate where I had met her and him, however, she stopped, distressed at her selfishness, and asked bitterly, “Why am I so different from other women; why should what is so easy to them be so hard to me?”

“Gavin, my beloved!” the Egyptian cried in her agony, and the wind caught her words and flung them in the air, making sport of her.

She wandered westward over the bleak hill, and by-and-by came to a great slab called the Standing Stone, on which children often sit and muse until they see gay ladies riding by on palfreys – a kind of horse – and knights in glittering armour, and goblins, and fiery dragons, and other wonders now extinct, of which bare-legged laddies dream, as well as boys in socks. The Standing Stone is in the dyke that separates the hill from a fir wood, and it is the fairy-book of Thrums. If you would be a knight yourself, you must sit on it and whisper to it your desire.

Babbie came to the Standing Stone, and there was a little boy astride it. His hair stood up through holes in his bonnet, and he was very ragged and miserable.

“Why are you crying, little boy?” Babbie asked him, gently; but he did not look up, and the tongue was strange to him.

“How are you greeting so sair?” she asked.

“I’m no greeting very sair,” he answered, turning his head from her that a woman might not see his tears. “I’m no greeting so sair but what I grat sairer when my mither died.”

“When did she die?” Babbie inquired.

“Lang syne,” he answered, still with averted face.

“What is your name?”

“Micah is my name. Rob Dow’s my father.”

“And have you no brothers nor sisters?” asked Babbie, with a fellow-feeling for him.

“No, juist my father,” he said.

“You should be the better laddie to him then. Did your mither no tell you to be that afore she died?”

“Ay,” he answered, “she telled me ay to hide the bottle frae him when I could get haed o’t. She took me into the bed to make me promise that, and syne she died.”

“Does your father drina?”

“He hauds mair than ony other man in Thrums,” Micah replied, almost proudly.

“And he strikes you?” Babbie asked, compassionately.

“That’s a lie,” retorted the boy, fiercely. “Leastwise, he doesna strike me except when he’s mortal, and syne I can jouk him.”

“What are you doing there?”

“I’m wishing. It’s a wishing stane.”

“You are wishing your father wouldna drink.”

“No, I’m no,” answered Micah. “There was a lang time he didna drink, but the woman has sent him to it again. It’s about her I’m wishing. I’m wishing she was in hell.”

“What woman is it?” asked Babbie, shuddering.

“I dinna ken,” Micah said, “but she’s an ill ane.”

“Did you never see her at your father’s house?”

“Na; if he could get grip o’ her he would break her ower his knee. I hearken to him saying that, when he’s wild. He says she should be burned for a witch.”

“But if he hates her,” asked Babbie, “how can she have sic power ower him?”

“It’s no him that she has haud o’,” replied Micah, still looking away from her.

“Wha is it then?”

“It’s Mr. Dishart.”

Babbie was struck as if by an arrow from the wood. It was so unexpected that she gave a cry, and then for the first time Micah looked at her.

“How should that send your father to the drink?” she asked, with an effort.

“Because my father’s michty fond o’ him,” answered Micah, staring strangely at her; “and when the folk ken about the woman, they’ll stane the minister out o’ Thrums.”

The wood faded for a moment from the Egyptian’s sight. When it came back, the boy had slid off the Standing Stone and was stealing away.

“Why do you run frae me?” Babbie asked, pathetically.

“I’m fleid at you,” he gasped, coming to a standstill at a safe distance: “you’re the woman!”

Babbie cowered before her little judge, and he drew nearer her slowly.

“What makes you think that?” she said.

It was a curious time for Babbie’s beauty to be paid its most princely compliment.

“Because you’re so bonny,” Micah whispered across the dyke. Her tears gave him courage. “You micht gang awa,” he entreated. “If you kent what a differ Mr. Dishart made in my father till you came, you would 215 maybe gang awa. When he’s roaring fou I have to sleep in the wood, and it’s awfu’ cauld. I’m doubting he’ll kill me, woman, if you dinna gang awa.”

Poor Babbie put her hand to her heart, but the innocent lad continued mercilessly —

“If ony shame comes to the minister, his auld mither’ll die. How have you sic an ill will at the minister?”

Babbie held up her hands like a supplicant.

“I’ll gie you my rabbit,” Micah said, “if you’ll gang awa. I’ve juist the ane.” She shook her head, and, misunderstanding her, he cried, with his knuckles in his eye, “I’ll gie you them baith, though I’m michty sweer to part wi’ Spotty.”

Then at last Babbie found her voice.

“Keep your rabbits, laddie,” she said, “and greet no more. I’m gaen awa.”

“And you’ll never come back no more a’ your life?” pleaded Micah.

“Never no more a’ my life,” repeated Babbie.

“And ye’ll leave the minister alane for ever and ever?”

“For ever and ever.”

Micah rubbed his face dry, and said, “Will you let me stand on the Standing Stane and watch you gaen awa for ever and ever?”

At that a sob broke from Babbie’s heart, and looking at her doubtfully Micah said —

“Maybe you’re gey ill for what you’ve done?”

“Ay,” Babbie answered, “I’m gey ill for what I’ve done.”

A minute passed, and in her anguish she did not know that still she was standing at the dyke. Micah’s voice roused her:

“You said you would gang awa, and you’re no gaen.”

Then Babbie went away. The boy watched her across the hill. He climbed the Standing Stone and gazed 216 after her until she was but a coloured ribbon among the broom. When she disappeared into Windyghoul he ran home joyfully, and told his father what a good day’s work he had done. Rob struck him for a fool for taking a gypsy’s word, and warned him against speaking of the woman in Thrums.

But though Dow believed that Gavin continued to meet the Egyptian secretly, he was wrong. A sum of money for Nanny was sent to the minister, but he could guess only from whom it came. In vain did he search for Babbie. Some months passed and he gave up the search, persuaded that he should see her no more. He went about his duties with a drawn face that made many folk uneasy when it was stern, and pained them when it tried to smile. But to Margaret, though the effort was terrible, he was as he had ever been, and so no thought of a woman crossed her loving breast.

Chapter Twenty-Five.
BEGINNING OF THE TWENTY-FOUR HOURS

I can tell still how the whole of the glen was engaged about the hour of noon on the fourth of August month; a day to be among the last forgotten by any of us, though it began as quietly as a roaring March. At the Spittal, between which and Thrums this is a halfway house, were gathered two hundred men in kilts, and many gentry from the neighboring glens, to celebrate the earl’s marriage, which was to take place on the morrow, and thither, too, had gone many of my pupils to gather gossip, at which girls of six are trustier hands than boys of twelve. Those of us, however, who were neither children nor of gentle blood, remained at home, the farmers more taken up with the want of rain, now become a calamity, than with an old man’s wedding, and their womenfolk wringing their hands for rain also, yet finding time to marvel at the marriage’s taking place at the Spittal instead of in England, of which the ignorant spoke vaguely as an estate of the bride’s.

 

For my own part I could talk of the disastrous drought with Waster Lunny as I walked over his parched fields, but I had not such cause as he to brood upon it by day and night; and the ins and outs of the earl’s marriage were for discussing at a tea-table, where there were women to help one to conclusions, rather than for the reflections of a solitary dominie, who had seen neither bride nor bridegroom. So it must be confessed that when I might have been regarding the sky moodily, or at the Spittal, where a free table that day invited all, I 218 was sitting in the school-house, heeling my left boot, on which I have always been a little hard.

I made small speed, not through lack of craft, but because one can no more drive in tackets properly than take cities unless he gives his whole mind to it; and half of mine was at the Auld Licht manse. Since our meeting six months earlier on the hill I had not seen Gavin, but I had heard much of him, and of a kind to trouble me.

“I saw nothing queer about Mr. Dishart,” was Waster Lunny’s frequent story, “till I hearkened to Elspeth speaking about it to the lasses (for I’m the last Elspeth would tell onything to, though I’m her man), and syne I minded I had been noticing it for months. Elspeth says,” he would go on, for he could no more forbear quoting his wife than complaining of her, “that the minister’ll listen to you nowadays wi’ his een glaring at you as if he had a perfectly passionate interest in what you were telling him (though it may be only about a hen wi’ the croup), and then, after all, he hasna heard a sylib. Ay, I listened to Elspeth saying that, when she thocht I was at the byre, and yet, would you believe it, when I says to her after lousing time, ‘I’ve been noticing of late that the minister loses what a body tells him,’ all she answers is ‘Havers.’ Tod, but women’s provoking.”

“I allow,” Birse said, “that on the first Sabbath o’ June month, and again on the third Sabbath, he poured out the Word grandly, but I’ve ta’en note this curran Sabbaths that if he’s no michty magnificent he’s michty poor. There’s something damming up his mind, and when he gets by it he’s a roaring water, but when he doesna he’s a despizable trickle. The folk thinks it’s a woman that’s getting in his way, but dinna tell me that about sic a scholar; I tell you he would gang ower a toon o’ women like a loaded cart ower new-laid stanes.”

Wearyworld hobbled after me up the Roods one day, pelting me with remarks, though I was doing my best to get away from him. “Even Rob Dow sees there’s something come ower the minister,” he bawled, “for Rob’s fou ilka Sabbath now. Ay, but this I will say for Mr. Dishart, that he aye gies me a civil word,” I thought I had left the policeman behind with this, but next minute he roared, “And whatever is the matter wi’ him it has made him kindlier to me than ever.” He must have taken the short cut through Lunan’s close, for at the top of the Roods his voice again made up on me. “Dagone you, for a cruel pack to put your fingers to your lugs ilka time I open my mouth.”

As for Waster Lunny’s daughter Easie, who got her schooling free for redding up the school-house and breaking my furniture, she would never have been off the gossip about the minister, for she was her mother in miniature, with a tongue that ran like a pump after the pans are full, not for use but for the mere pleasure of spilling.

On that awful fourth of August I not only had all this confused talk in my head but reason for jumping my mind between it and the Egyptian (as if to catch them together unawares), and I was like one who, with the mechanism of a watch jumbled in his hand, could set it going if he had the art.

Of the gypsy I knew nothing save what I had seen that night, yet what more was there to learn? I was aware that she loved Gavin and that he loved her. A moment had shown it to me. Now with the Auld Lichts, I have the smith’s acquaintance with his irons, and so I could not believe that they would suffer their minister to marry a vagrant. Had it not been for this knowledge, which made me fearful for Margaret, I would have done nothing to keep these two young people apart. Some to whom I have said this maintain that the Egyptian turned my head at our first meeting. 220 Such an argument is not perhaps worth controverting. I admit that even now I straighten under the fire of a bright eye, as a pensioner may salute when he sees a young officer. In the shooting season, should I chance to be leaning over my dyke while English sportsmen pass (as is usually the case if I have seen them approaching), I remember nought of them save that they call me “she,” and end their greetings with “whatever” (which Waster Lunny takes to be a southron mode of speech), but their ladies dwell pleasantly in my memory, from their engaging faces to the pretty crumpled thing dangling on their arms, that is a hat or a basket, I am seldom sure which. The Egyptian’s beauty, therefore, was a gladsome sight to me, and none the less so that I had come upon it as unexpectedly as some men step into a bog. Had she been alone when I met her I cannot deny that I would have been content to look on her face, without caring what was inside it; but she was with her lover, and that lover was Gavin, and so her face was to me as little for admiring as this glen in a thunderstorm, when I know that some fellow-creature is lost on the hills.

If, however, it was no quick liking for the gypsy that almost tempted me to leave these two lovers to each other, what was it? It was the warning of my own life. Adam Dishart had torn my arm from Margaret’s, and I had not recovered the wrench in eighteen years. Rather than act his part between these two I felt tempted to tell them, “Deplorable as the result may be, if you who are a minister marry this vagabond, it will be still more deplorable if you do not.”

But there was Margaret to consider, and at thought of her I cursed the Egyptian aloud. What could I do to keep Gavin and the woman apart? I could tell him the secret of his mother’s life. Would that be sufficient? It would if he loved Margaret, as I did not doubt. Pity for her would make him undergo any torture rather 221 than she should suffer again. But to divulge our old connection would entail her discovery of me, and I questioned if even the saving of Gavin could destroy the bitterness of that.

I might appeal to the Egyptian. I might tell her even what I shuddered to tell him. She cared for him, I was sure, well enough to have the courage to give him up. But where was I to find her?

Were she and Gavin meeting still? Perhaps the change which had come over the little minister meant that they had parted. Yet what I had heard him say to her on the hill warned me not to trust in any such solution of the trouble.

Boys play at casting a humming-top into the midst of others on the ground, and if well aimed it scatters them prettily. I seemed to be playing such a game with my thoughts, for each new one sent the others here and there, and so what could I do in the end but fling my tops aside, and return to the heeling of my boot?

I was thus engaged when the sudden waking of the glen into life took me to my window. There is seldom silence up here, for if the wind be not sweeping the heather, the Quharity, that I may not have heard for days, seems to have crept nearer to the school-house in the night, and if both wind and water be out of earshot, there is the crack of a gun, or Waster Lunny’s shepherd is on a stone near at hand whistling, or a lamb is scrambling through a fence, and kicking foolishly with its hind legs. These sounds I am unaware of until they stop, when I look up. Such a stillness was broken now by music.

From my window I saw a string of people walking rapidly down the glen, and Waster Lunny crossing his potato-field to meet them. Remembering that, though I was in my stocking soles, the ground was dry, I hastened to join the farmer, for I like to miss nothing. I 222 saw a curious sight. In front of the little procession coming down the glen road, and so much more impressive than his satellites that they may be put of mind as merely ploughman and the like following a show, was a Highlander that I knew to be Lauchlan Campbell, one of the pipers engaged to lend music to the earl’s marriage. He had the name of a thrawn man when sober, but pretty at the pipes at both times, and he came marching down the glen blowing gloriously, as if he had the clan of Campbell at his heels. I know no man who is so capable on occasion of looking like twenty as a Highland piper, and never have I seen a face in such a blaze of passion as was Lauchlan Campbell’s that day. His following were keeping out of his reach, jumping back every time he turned round to shake his fist in the direction of the Spittal. While this magnificent man was yet some yards from us, I saw Waster Lunny, who had been in the middle of the road to ask questions, fall back in fear, and not being a fighting man myself, I jumped the dyke. Lauchlan gave me a look that sent me farther into the field, and strutted past, shrieking defiance through his pipes, until I lost him and his followers in a bend of the road.

“That’s a terrifying spectacle,” I heard Waster Lunny say when the music had become but a distant squeal. “You’re bonny at louping dykes, dominie, when there is a wild bull in front o’ you. Na, I canna tell what has happened, but at the least Lauchlan maun hae dirked the earl. Thae loons cried out to me as they gaed by that he has been blawing awa’ at that tune till he canna halt. What a wind’s in the crittur! I’m thinking there’s a hell in ilka Highlandman.”

“Take care then, Waster Lunny, that you dinna licht it,” said an angry voice that made us jump, though it was only Duncan, the farmer’s shepherd, who spoke.

“I had forgotten you was a Highlandman yoursel’, Duncan,” Waster Lunny said nervously; but Elspeth, 223 who had come to us unnoticed, ordered the shepherd to return to the hillside, which he did haughtily.

“How did you no lay haud on that blast o’ wind, Lauchlan Campbell,” asked Elspeth of her husband, “and speir at him what had happened at the Spittal? A quarrel afore a marriage brings ill luck.”

“I’m thinking,” said the farmer, “that Rintoul’s making his ain ill luck by marrying on a young leddy.”

“A man’s never ower auld to marry,” said Elspeth.

“No, nor a woman,” rejoined Waster Lunny, “when she gets the chance. But, Elspeth, I believe I can guess what has fired that fearsome piper. Depend upon it, somebody has been speaking disrespectful about the crittur’s ancestors.”

“His ancestors!” exclaimed Elspeth, scornfully. “I’m thinking mine could hae bocht them at a crown the dozen.”

“Hoots,” said the farmer, “you’re o’ a weaving stock, and dinna understand about ancestors. Take a stick to a Highland laddie, and it’s no him you hurt, but his ancestors. Likewise it’s his ancestors that stanes you for it. When Duncan stalked awa the now, what think you he saw? He saw a farmer’s wife dauring to order about his ancestors; and if that’s the way wi’ a shepherd, what will it be wi’ a piper that has the kilts on him a’ day to mind him o’ his ancestors ilka time he looks down?”

Elspeth retired to discuss the probable disturbance at the Spittal with her family, giving Waster Lunny the opportunity of saying to me impressively —

“Man, man, has it never crossed you that it’s a queer thing the like o’ you and me having no ancestors? Ay, we had them in a manner o’ speaking, no doubt, but they’re as completely lost sicht o’ as a flagon lid that’s fallen ahint the dresser. Hech, sirs, but they would need a gey rubbing to get the rust off them now. I’ve been thinking that if I was to get my laddies to say 224 their grandfather’s name a curran times ilka day, like the Catechism, and they were to do the same wi’ their bairns, and it was continued in future generations, we micht raise a fell field o’ ancestors in time. Ay, but Elspeth wouldna hear o’t. Nothing angers her mair than to hear me speak o’ planting trees for the benefit o’ them that’s to be farmers here after me; and as for ancestors, she would howk them up as quick as I could plant them. Losh, dominie, is that a boot in your hand?”

To my mortification I saw that I had run out of the school-house with the boot on my hand as if it were a glove, and back I went straightway, blaming myself for a man wanting in dignity. It was but a minor trouble this, however, even at the time; and to recall it later in the day was to look back on happiness, for though I did not know it yet, Lauchlan’s playing raised the curtain on the great act of Gavin’s life, and the twenty-four hours had begun, to which all I have told as yet is no more than the prologue.

 
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