Peter Peatrack, minister of the parish of Brinkilly, was a just man. Also an hard. He had argued himself out of friendship with all his neighbours. The very Presbytery of Biteangry had had enough of Peter. They even intimated through their clerk that Peter's attendance at the Presbytery at nine o'clock on the first Monday of every month would not be insisted upon. The brethren recognised that Brinkilly lay so far away, across so many dangerous waters, in such an out-of-the-way situation, that they could not expect to be favoured with the sight of the Reverend Peter Peatrack's countenance more often than, say, twice a year at the outside.
But Peter thought otherwise.
He had not much liked to go there before. He had no mind to jog on his round-barrelled sheltie all these weary miles to the town, and then pay the landlord of the Cross Keys sixpence for stabling, as well as provide a dinner for himself at the town of Biteangry, where the Presbytery dined copiously together after the transaction of business.
But now, since the Presbytery did not want him to go, Peter declared to his meek, inoffensive wife that he would not miss a single Presbytery day, not for all the tiends and tithes of the three Lothians three times augmented.
So Peter went, and his brethren moaned in spirit and were heavily afflicted. For Peter remorselessly lectured them on every subject that occurred to him, making his great brawny ploughman's hands crack together, as if he had resolved to take strength of arm to the Moderator's head in case of the least contradiction.
Peter Peatrack's strong point was consistency— consistency, and the practice of the Church of Scotland.
‘Sir,’ he would say, addressing the Moderator in stentorian tones, ‘I am not aware what you might have meant when you took your ordination vows. But for myself, I resolved to oppose, to the extent of my humble abeelity, all innovations and creeping seditions, a-a-ll seductions of any Popish or Episcopalian sor-rt, by whomsoever promoted!’
And Peter kept his word.
The singing of mere human hymns within the bounds of the Presbytery, even at family worship or privately in families, was a matter to be dealt with rigorously. No man, said Peter, could tell where the like of that would end. They would presently find themselves sitting alongside of the Great Scarlet Woman on the Seven Hills. Only ‘Woman’ was not the word that Peter used.
Organs Peter could not away with. He could not even speak connectedly on that subject, but spluttered and gasped till the assembled brethren feared (and hoped) an apoplectic fit.
Now, the Presbytery of Biteangry was not a particularly large one, though it included one or two large and influential kirks. Specially Peter detested the two town congregations of his neighbouring metropolis of Biteangry, distant from him only about six miles by the moor road.
One of these was a quoad sacra church — that is something of the nature of a chapel-of-ease, built for the accommodation of the rich folk of the upper end of Biteangry, who found the mile of muddy road between them and their parish kirk in the hollow down by the loch to be too much for their wives and children. At least, they put the blame on the wives and children.
This rich church of St. Bride's had recently called to itself a new minister. He was a young man, tall, with fair hair and a winning smile. Peter Peatrack hated him on sight, and when the Reverend Horace Glasgow first stated some of his college-bred opinions on ‘winning the masses’ and ‘attractive services,’ Peter Peatrack had to be held in his seat by two of the most burly of the Presbytery to prevent his destroying the rash young man on the spot.
After that the noise in the Presbytery of Biteangry could generally be heard two streets off, when Peter was on the war-path against ‘innovations.’
‘Those of us who have the honour and the privilege of being ministers o' pairishes, are well aware.’
Peter would begin his harangues, so as to exclude the young minister of St. Bride's from any part or lot in the matter. But one day— it was the first Monday of December—the raw, bony figure of Peter Peatrack could be seen driving the steamy easter haar before him as he flapped his way Presbyterywards with a printed sheet in his hand, his long arms going like old-fashioned steamboat paddles.
The Moderator was closing his prayer when Peter burst in, and hardly was the ‘Amen’ out of his mouth before Peter, standing at his side, clapped the ‘poster’ down on the table beneath his very nose.
‘It has come at last,’ he cried, ‘the abomination of desola-a-tion, the Mark of the Beast— the fingermark of the Woman that sitteth on the Seven Hills and snuffeth up the bluid of the Saunts— there it is before ye. Let the clerk read it, and then will I tak' up my testimony!’
The Moderator mildly suggested that Peter was hardly in order, in so far as it was usual for the clerk first to read the minutes of the previous meeting.
‘Maister Modera-a-tur, is this a time to be yawpin' aboot Puir's Boxes and Life-off-Wark when the foundations o' the faith stand no longer sure, and when there is amongst us a young man, caa'in' himsel' a minister o' the Kirk o' Scotland, that is for denyin' the Confession, and going to and fro on the earth daubing wi' untempered mortar — I speak of the Reverend Horace Glasgow, M.A-A-A.’ (this with fine scorn), ‘of the bit chapel-o'-ease up the hill yonder that they caa' St. Bride's!’
The object of all this sat calm and quiet. He knew that there would be a row presbyterial over his Christmas services, the first in the district, especially over the evening Service of Praise.
‘The church richly decorated’— 'music by a select choir'—'the o-a-a-rginist, Mr. H. A. Gregg, Mus. Bac, will preside at the o-a-a-r-gan!’ quoted Peter Peatrack, at last finding a subject to which he could do justice. ‘Is this a Rood Fair that has come amang us? Is it a play-actin' booth, wi' a hand-organ in the pulpit and a puggy-monkey on the tap to tak' up the silver collection at the door?’
So for half an hour Peter the Objector invoked the shades of John Knox, or the ‘Saunted Martyrs,’ of the ‘great fa-athers of the Kirk,’ and then, suddenly finding himself without support, he snatched up the offending proclamation from the table, ground it under his heel, and took himself off down the street, making the doors of the Presbytery Hall clang after him.
That was Monday, and during the week every parishioner within the bounds received notice that their attendance was requested in the Parish Kirk of Brinkilly on the evening of Thursday the 24th of December (falsely called Christmas Eve) in order to hear a lecture by their minister, the Rev. Peter Peatrack, in which he would prove from Scripture, and from the fathers of the Early Church,—quoting and translating the original tongues,— how utterly impossible it was that the birth of our Saviour could have happened on that day, and also that the celebration of times and seasons was only a mockery and a mummery—a shred of Black Prelacy and a rag of Rome.
Many of these circulars were addressed by Elspeth and Patience Peatrack— and Patience (the younger of the two sisters, and a born mischief) saw to it that one was carefully forwarded to the Rev. Horace Glasgow, St. Bride's Manse, Biteangry. As the young lady was writing to the young gentleman anyway, this is perhaps not so great a wonder as it may seem at first sight. Patience had met him at her aunt's in Edinburgh during the previous winter, but (and this shows the sad laxity of modern principles) she had not thought it worth while to say anything to her father on the subject. It was her mother who received the letters, and trembled all the time she kept them in her side pocket.
As these two estimable young ladies folded up and addressed their father's lecture notices, they smiled one to the other. Such young things they were— so innocent, brought up in a moorland parish in which their father was the chief prop of purity of worship and the self-appointed guardian of the ark presbyterial.
Christmas Eve came. Willie Faddle, the ancient beadle of the Kirk of Brinkilly, grumbling and coughing as usual, went his rounds, lighting the drippy tallow candles which still served to illuminate the Parish Kirk in the last decade of the nineteenth century.
‘What's come to the minister?’ he growled. ‘A lecture on a week nicht! Wha in Brinkilly cares a curse aboot Kirsmas? Had it been the New Year noo, and a roarin' First-footin' ploy wi' a score o' honest whusky bottles to be uncorked at twal' o' the clock— there wad hae been mair sense in that, and it wad hae brocht oot a' Brinkilly as wan man. But I misdoubt me sair that there will be a thin kirk and a thinner collection this nicht.’
At this moment the pretty head of Patience Peatrack, the minister's younger daughter, was thrust in at the door. She was hatted, and hooded, and boa-ed, and muffed against a winter night's worst inclemency.
‘Ay, Willie,’ she said, ‘are you there? Tell my father when he comes that he is not to wait for us—we may be a little late!’
And with that she was gone. Willie went to the door, and cocked a rather deaf ear in the direction of the high road.
‘Deevil tak' my auld deaf lugs,’ he growled, ‘but if that wasna the clatter o' the minister's powny in the licht cart may I never lift elsin to shoe-leather again!’
Then he went back to the methodical trimming and lighting of the candles, ranged in their ‘scoops’ along the walls, shaking his head, and muttering.
‘Weel, it's nane o' your business, Wullie lad, and she is a feat bit lass. But that there's some ploy on, mair than the minister kens o', I'll wager three pair o' guid single-sole shoon.’
After that there was another long wait. It passed the hour of eight, for which the lecture had been announced, but no one entered the kirk. With his long-handled snuffers in his fingers, Willie resolutely took his stand by the door, ready for all emergencies. At last he heard an energetic scuffling of feet, and such a kicking of snow off against the wall that the very lights within quivered on the sconces.
Only Peter Peatrack could have done that, and the beadle hurried out to receive his hierarchical superior.
‘Is there muckle room left?’ demanded the minister, who had spent his day in wondering if he should provide extra seats from the schoolroom. They could easily be placed along the aisles.
‘There's no' a livin' sowl in the kirk!’ quoth Willie, the beadle.
The minister made one bound into the interior, and faced the yawning vault and the guttering candles with a sudden consternation. It was the end of all things.
‘And where are my daughters?’ he cried, with a strange false note in his voice, as if it were about to break.
‘Weel,’ said Willie, ‘Miss Patience lookit in a whilie syne, and bade me tell ye when ye cam' no' to wait for them. They micht very likely be late!’
Peter Peatrack stood a moment stunned. His eyebrows drew together ominously.
‘And was that all?’ he demanded, laying sudden hold of his kirk-officer's garments as if he feared he too would escape.
‘Leave go, minister,’ cried Willie Faddle; ‘ye are rivin' the lapels off my Sunday coat, and though it's time I had anither yin, I am no' likely to get it. There is something mair.’
‘What is it—I charge you—speak?’ said the minister huskily.
‘Weel,’ said Willie, ‘dinna chairge the candle-snuffers doon my throat and I'll tell ye. Ye ken I'm an auld deaf man, minister, but when the wind is in the west, and I get my lug in the richt direction.’
‘Speak plain, or I'll rive the truth oot o' ye, ye dodderin' auld docken leaf!’
‘Aweel,’ said Willie, ‘wha wadna dodder when ye are shakin' them like John Muir's terrier when he grips a rat? But I'll tell ye—oh, I'll tell ye plain, minister. I thocht I heard Donald's feet in the cairt drivin' awa' in the direction o' Biteangry directly after Miss Patience gaed oot o' the kirk. But then I'm a dodderin' auld docken leaf, ye ken, minister, and ye manna mind what I say!’
With one great leap the parish minister of Brinkilly was out of the kirk. He took the graveyard dyke in his stride, and the next moment he was down the road in the direction of St. Bride's.
A score of things which he remembered, but had thought nothing of, now returned to him. His wife was anxious and troubled. Letters had been hidden under aprons at his approach. He had seen books— poetry books—which he certainly had never bought, lying about the house. Why should he? He had been needing a new Turretin for twenty years. Worst of all, there were the strange reticences of his family.
Ah, he had it—they had gone to the Popish festival —to take part in what was little better than a Mass.
Well, they should never enter his house again— NEVER— never — no—never!
But each ‘never’ grew less emphatic, even as it is printed above. After all they were ‘his lassies.’ His heart, hard to all else, narrow and shut in as a toad in a rock crevice, expanded when he heard ‘his lassies’ laugh together. He was proud of them too, proud of their wits and their good looks—though he had never told them so. He would have died first.
But— no, he was resolved. If they had really deserted sound doctrine and gone against his will, on purpose to defy him, to the Christmas Eve celebration at St. Bride's, he would cast them off! Yes, he would—he would!
It was late when he topped the last brae and saw the lighted windows of St. Bride's Kirk, with their illuminated tracery of coloured glass, and heard the solemn tones of the organ playing the people out of the kirk. In spite of the Voluntary, the congregation was already black on the brae when he struck the throng of them. Many knew him. One called him by name. And he heard an indistinct muttering of words that sounded like ‘the minister's daughters— that's their father.’ For the St. Bride's congregation were so respectable and rich that they had to speak English to prove it.
He stumbled into the porch. It was a solid arch of greenery and red berries. Somehow he did not seem to mind this so much now. For there, immediately before him, his two daughters were coming out in the company of a tall young man and a sweet-faced old lady with silver hair.
The young minister of St. Bride's, to whose arm Patience had instinctively attached herself at sight of the white, drawn face of her father, came forward, holding out his hand.
‘This is kind of you, Mr. Peatrack,’ he said. ‘Let me introduce you to my mother. These madcap girls had driven over to see her at our little service; but I am sorry to hear that it was done without your permission. Still more so, because I had made up my mind to come over to the Manse of Brinkilly tomorrow to ask you to give me your daughter— your younger daughter Patience. We love each other, as I daresay you know.’
Here he looked down, while Peter fought first for temper and then for breath.
‘Sir,’ he said, ‘I did not know. Their father— who has loved them all their lives—to his shame, more than he has loved his Maker— is the last person they would think of telling!’
At which the two girls, Elspeth as well as Patience, flew to the old man, and with their arms about his neck hid their faces on his shoulder.
‘We would have told you— we would indeed, father. Only we thought you would be so angry!’
‘So I am—so I am!’ gasped Peter, half choked, and trying to clear himself of the soft arms that clung so tight; ‘your father that carried you on his back when ye were bairns—that has loved ye.’
And here he too had a difficulty with his voice. The girls wept unrestrainedly. The minister of St. Bride's softly shut the outer door of the church, and coming forward, laid his hand on the shoulder of his ancient and presbyterial foe.
‘If there are not many other things we can agree about,’ he said quietly, ‘I think we do agree that they are a pair of naughty girls, and that I do you a good turn in relieving your hands of one of them!’
‘You are taking a sore burden on your shoulders,’ said Peter half relentingly— ‘a lassie that would deceive her ain father— yea, a yoke on your neck shall she be—a rod to afflict you all your days!’
‘She is on your neck at this present moment,’ said the young man, somewhat regretfully, ‘but as for me, I have no objections to bear the yoke— in fact, I am even prepared to kiss the rod.’
The which, the father of Miss Patience smiling a grim approval, he proceeded to do.
And overhead, all suddenly, the Christmas bells rang out.
From The Bloom o' the Heather 1908.