BEFORE THE REFORMER'S CHAIR
‘The Lord save us, Maister Ralph, what's this?’ said John Bairdieson, opening the door of the stair in James's Court. It was a narrow hall that it gave access to, more like a passage than a hall. ‘Hoo hae ye come? An' what for didna Maister Welsh or you write to say ye war comin'? An' whaur's a' the buiks an' the gear?’ continued John Bairdieson.
‘I have walked all the way, John,’ said Ralph. ‘I quarrelled with the minister, and he turned me to the door.’
‘Dear sirce!’ said John anxiously, ‘was't ill-doing or unsound doctrine?’
‘Mr. Welsh said that he could not company with unbelievers.’
‘Then it's doctrine—wae's me, wae's me! I wuss it had been the lasses. What wull his faither say? Gin it had been ill-doin', he micht hae pitten it doon to the sins o' yer youth; but ill- doctrine he canna forgie. O Maister Ralph, gin ye canna tell a lee yersel', wull ye no haud yer tongue—I can lee, for I'm but an elder—an' I'll tell him that at a kirn [harvest festival] ye war persuaded to drink the health o' the laird, an' you no bein' acquant wi' the strength o' Glenlivat—’
‘John, John, indeed I cannot allow it. Besides, you're a sailor- man, an' even in Galloway they do not have kirns till the corn's ripe,’ replied Ralph with a smile.
‘Aweel, can ye no say, or let me say for ye, gin ye be particular, that ye war a wee late oot at nicht seein' a bit lassie—or ocht but the doctrine? It wasna anything concernin' the fundamentals o' the Marrow, Maister Ralph, though, surely,’ continued John Bairdieson, whose elect position did not prevent him from doing his best for the interests of his masters, young and old. Indeed, to start with the acknowledged fact of personal election sometimes gives a man like John Bairdieson an unmistakable advantage. Ralph went to his own room, leaving John Bairdieson listening, as he prayed to be allowed to do, at the door of his father's room.
In a minute or two John Bairdieson came up, with a scared face.
‘Ye're to gang doon, Maister Ralph, an' see yer faither. But, O sir, see that ye speak lown to him. He hasna gotten sleep for twa nichts, an' he's fair pitten by himsel' wi' thae ill-set Conformists—weary fa' them! that he's been in the gall o' bitterness wi'.’
Ralph went down to his father's study. Knocking softly, he entered. His father sat in his desk chair, closed in on every side. It had once been the pulpit of a great Reformer, and each time that Gilbert Peden shut himself into it, he felt that he was without father or mother save and except the only true and proper Covenant-keeping doctrine in broad Scotland, and the honour and well-being of the sorely dwindled Kirk of the Marrow.
Gilbert Peden was a noble make of a man, larger in body though hardly taller than his son. He wore a dark-blue cloth coat with wide flaps, and the immense white neckerchief on which John Bairdieson weekly expended all his sailor laundry craft. His face was like his son's, as clear-cut and statuesque, though larger and broader in frame and mould. There was, however, a coldness about the eye and a downward compression of the lips, which speaks the man of narrow though fervid enthusiasms.
Ralph went forward to his father. As he came, his father stayed him with the palm of his hand, the finger-tips turned upward.
‘Abide, my son, till I know for what cause you have left or been expelled from the house of the man to whom I committed you during your trials for license. Answer me, why have you come away from the house of Allan Welsh like a thief in the night?’
‘Father,’ said Ralph, ‘I cannot tell you everything at present, because the story is not mine to tell. Can you not trust me?’
‘I could trust you with my life and all that I possess,’ said his father; ‘they are yours, and welcome; but this is a matter that affects your standing as a probationer on trials in the kirk of the Marrow, which is of divine institution. The cause is not mine, my son. Tell me that the cause of your quarrel had nothing to do with the Marrow kirk and your future standing in it, and I will ask you no more till you choose to tell me of your own will concerning the matter.’
The Marrow minister looked at his son with a gleam of tenderness forcing its way through the sternness of his words.
But Ralph was silent.
‘It was indeed in my duty to the Marrow kirk that Mr. Welsh considered that I lacked. It was for this cause that he refused to company further with me.’
Then there came a hardness as of grey hill stone upon the minister's face. It was not a pleasant thing to see in a father's face.
‘Then,’ he said slowly, ‘Ralph Peden, this also is a manse of the Marrow kirk, and, though ye are my own son, I cannot receive ye here till your innocence is proven in the presbytery. Ye must stand yer trials.’
Ralph bowed his head. He had not been unprepared for something like this, but the pain he might have felt at another time was made easier by a subtle anodyne. He hardly seemed to feel the smart as a week before he might have done. In some strange way Winsome was helping him to bear it—or her prayers for him were being answered.
John Bairdieson broke into the study, his grey hair standing on end, and the shape of the keyhole cover imprinted on his brow above his left eye. John could see best with his left eye, and hear best with his right ear, which he had some reason to look upon as a special equalization of the gifts of Providence, though not well adapted for being of the greatest service at keyholes.
‘Save us, minister!’ he burst out; ‘the laddie's but a laddie, an' na doot his pranks hae upset guid Maister Welsh a wee. Lads will be lads, ye ken. But Maister Ralph's soond on the fundamentals—I learned him the Shorter Questions mysel', sae I should ken—forbye the hunner an' nineteenth Psalm that he learned on my knee, and how to mak' a Fifer's knot, an' the double reef, an' a heap o' usefu' knowledge forbye; an' noo to tak' it into your heid that yer ain son's no soond in the faith, a' because he has fa'en oot wi' a donnert auld carle—’
‘John,’ said the minister sternly, ‘leave the room! You have no right to speak thus of an honoured servant of the kirk of the Marrow.’
Ralph could see through the window the light fading off the Fife Lomonds, and the long line of the shore darkening under the night into a more ethereal blue.
There came to him in this glimpse of woods and dewy pastures overseas a remembrance of a dearer shore. The steading over the Grannoch Loch stood up clear before him, the blue smoke going straight up, Winsome's lattice standing open with the roses peeping in, and the night airs breathing lovingly through them, airing it out as a bed-chamber for the beloved.
The thought made his heart tender. To his father he said:
‘Father, will you not take my word that there is nothing wicked or disgraceful in what I have done? If it were my own secret, I would gladly tell you at once; but as it is, I must wait until in his own time Mr. Welsh communicates with you.’
The minister, sitting in the Reformer's seat, pulling at his stern upper lip, winced; and perhaps had it not been for the pulpit the human in him might have triumphed. But he only said:
‘I am quite prepared to support you until such time as at a meeting of the presbytery the matter be tried, but I cannot have in a Marrow Manse one living under the fama of expulsion from the house of a brother minister in good standing.’
‘Thank you, father,’ said his son, ‘for your kind offer, but I do not think I shall need to trouble you.’
And so with these words the young man turned and went out proudly from the father's sight, as he had gone from the manse of the other minister of the Marrow kirk.
As he came to the outside of the door, leaving his father sitting stately and stern in the Reformer's pulpit, he said, in the deeps of his heart:
‘God do so to me, and more also, if I ever seek again to enter the Marrow kirk, if so be that, like my father, I must forget my humanity in order worthily to serve it!’
After he had gone out, the Reverend Gilbert Peden took his Bible and read the parable of the prodigal son. He closed the great book, which ever lay open before him, and said, as one who both accuses and excuses himself:
‘But the prodigal son was not under trials for license in the kirk of the Marrow!’
At the door, John Bairdieson, his hair more than ever on end, met Ralph. He held up his hands.
‘It's an awfu'—like thing to be obleegit to tell the hale truth! O man, couldna ye hae tell't a wee bit lee? It wad hae saved an awfu' deal o' fash! But it's ower late now; ye can juist bide i' the spare room up the stair, an' come an' gang by door on the Castle Bank, an' no yin forbye mysel' 'ill be a hair the wiser. I, John Bairdieson, 'll juist fetch up yer meals the same as ordinar'. Ye'll be like a laddie at the mastheid up there; it'll be braw an' quate for the studyin'!’
‘John, I am much obliged to you for your kind thought,’ said Ralph, ‘but I cannot remain in his house against my father's expressed wish, and without his knowledge.’
‘Hear till him! Whaur else should he bide but in the hoose that he was born in, an' his faither afore him? That would be a bonny like story. Na, na, ye'll juist bide, Maister Ralph, an'—’
‘I must go this very night,’ said Ralph. ‘You mean well, John, but it cannot be. I am going down to see my uncle, Professor Thriepneuk.’
‘Leave yer faither's hoose to gang to that o' a weezened auld—’
‘John!’ said Ralph, warningly.
‘He's nae uncle o' yours, onygate, though he married your mother's sister. An' a sair life o't she had wi' him, though I doot na but thae dochters o' his sort him to richts noo.’
So, in spite of John Bairdieson's utmost endeavours, and waiting only to put his clothes together, Ralph took his way over to the Sciennes, where his uncle, the professor, lived in a new house with his three daughters, Jemima, Kezia, and Keren-happuch. The professor had always been very kind to Ralph. He was not a Marrow man, and therefore, according to the faith of his father, an outcast from the commonwealth. But he was a man of the world of affairs, keen for the welfare of his class at the University College—a man crabbed and gnarled on the surface, but within him a strong vein of tenderness of the sort that always seems ashamed of catching its possessor in a kind action.
To him Ralph knew that he could tell the whole story. The Sciennes was on the very edge of the green fields. The corn-fields stretched away from the dyke of the Professor's garden to the south towards the red-roofed village of Echo Bank and the long ridge of Liberton, crowned by the square tower on which a stone dining-room table had been turned up, its four futile legs waving in the air like a beetle overset on its back.
the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.