Chapter twenty seven
THE OPINIONS OF SAUNDERS MOWDIEWORT UPON BESOMSHANKS.
Ralph Peden kept his promise just twenty-four hours, which under the circumstances was an excellent performance. That evening, on his return to the manse, Manse Bell handed him, with a fine affectation of unconcern, a letter with the Edinburgh post-mark, which had been brought with tenpence to pay, from Cairn Edward. Manse Bell was a smallish, sharp-tongued woman of forty, with her eyes very close together. She was renowned throughout the country for her cooking and her temper, the approved excellence of the one being supposed to make up for the difficult nature of the other.
The letter was from his father. It began with many inquiries as to his progress in the special studies to which he had been devoting himself. Then came many counsels as to avoiding all entanglements with the erroneous views of Socinians, Erastians, and Pelagians. In conclusion, a day was suggested on which it would be convenient for the presbytery of the Marrow kirk to meet in Edinburgh in order to put Ralph through his trials for license. Then it was that Ralph Peden felt a tingling sense of shame. Not only had he to a great extent forgotten to prepare himself for his examinations, which would be no great difficulty to a college scholar of his standing, but unconsciously to himself his mind had slackened its interest in his licensing. The Marrow kirk had receded from him as the land falls back from a ship which puts out to sea, swiftly and silently. He was conscious that he had paid far more attention to his growing volume of poems than he had done to his discourses for license; though indeed of late he had given little attention to either.
He went upstairs and looked vaguely at his books. He found that it was only by an effort that he could at all think himself into the old Ralph, who had shaken his head at Calvin under the broom- bush by the Grannoch Water. Sharp penitence rode hard upon Ralph's conscience. He sat down among his neglected books. From these he did not rise till the morning fully broke. At last he lay down on the bed, after looking long at the ridge of pines which stood sharp up against the morning sky, behind which Craig Ronald lay. Then the underlying pang, which he had been crushing down by the night's work among the Hebrew roots, came triumphantly to the surface. He must leave the manse of Dullarg, and with it that solitary white farmhouse on the braeface, the orchard at the back of it, and the rose-clambered gable from which a dear window looked down the valley of the Grannoch, and up to the heathery brow of the Crae Hill.
So, unrefreshed, yet unconscious of the need of any refreshment, Ralph Peden rose and took his place at the manse table.
‘I saw your candle late yestreen,’ said the minister, pausing to look at the young man over the wooden platter of porridge which formed the frugal and sufficient breakfast of the two.
Porridge for breakfast and porridge for supper are the cure-alls of the true Galloway man. It is not every Scot who stands through all temptation so square in the right way as morning and night to confine himself to these; but he who does so shall have his reward in a rare sanity of judgment and lightness of spirit, and a capacity for work unknown to countrymen of less Spartan habit.
So Ralph answered, looking over his own ‘cogfu' o' brose’ as Manse Bell called them, ‘I was reading the book of Joel for the second time.’
‘Then you have,’ said the minister, ‘finished your studies in the Scripture character of the truly good woman of the Proverbs, with which you were engaged on your first coming here?’
‘I have not quite finished,’ said Ralph, looking a little strangely at the minister.
‘You ought always to finish one subject before you begin another,’ said Mr. Welsh, with a certain slow sententiousness.
By-and-bye Ralph got away from the table, and in the silence of his own room gave himself to a repentant and self-accusing day of study. Remorsefully sad, with many searchings of heart, he questioned whether indeed he were fit for the high office of minister in the kirk of the Marrow; whether he could now accept that narrow creed, and take up alone the burden of these manifold protestings. It was for this that he had been educated; it was for this that he had been given his place at his father's desk since ever he could remember.
Here he had studied in the far-off days of his boyhood strange deep books, the flavour of which only he retained. He had learned his letters out of the Bible—the Old Testament. He had gone through the Psalms from beginning to end before he was six. He remembered that the paraphrases were torn out of all the Bibles in the manse. Indeed, they existed only in a rudimentary form even in the great Bible in the kirk (in which by some oversight a heathen binder had bound them), but Allan Welsh had rectified this by pasting them up, so that no preacher in a moment of demoniac possession might give one out. What would have happened if this had occurred in the Marrow kirk it is perhaps better only guessing. At twelve Ralph was already far on in Latin and Greek, and at thirteen he could read plain narrative Hebrew, and had a Hebrew Bible of his own in which he followed his father, to the admiration of all the congregation.
Prigs of very pure water have sometimes been manufactured by just such means as this.
Sometimes his father would lean over and say, ‘My son, what is the expression for that in the original?’ whereupon Ralph would read the passage. It was between Gilbert Peden and his Maker that sometimes he did this for pride, and not for information; but Ralph was his only son, and was he not training him, as all knew, in order that he might be a missionary apostle of the great truths of the protesting kirk of the Marrow, left to testify lonely and forgotten among the scanty thousands of Scotland, yet carrying indubitably the only pure doctrine as it had been delivered to the saints?
But, in spite of all, the lad's bent was really towards literature. The books of verses which he kept under lock and key were the only things that he had ever concealed from his father. Again, since he had come to man's estate, the articles he had covertly sent to the Edinburgh Magazine were manifest tokens of the bent of his mind. All the more was he conscious of this, that he had truly lived his life before the jealous face of his father's God, though his heart leaned to the milder divinity and the kindlier gospel of One who was the Bearer of Burdens.
Ralph lay long on his bed, on which he had lain down at full length to think out his plans, as his custom was. It did not mean to leave Winsome, this call to Edinburgh. His father would not utterly refuse his consent, though he might urge long delays. And, in any case, Edinburgh was but two days' journey from the Dullarg; two days on the road by the burnsides and over the heather hills was nothing to him. But, for all that, the aching would not be stilled. Hearts are strange, illogical things; they will not be argued with.
Finally, he rose with the heart of him full of the intention of telling Winsome at once. He would write to her and tell her that he must see her immediately. It was necessary for him to acquaint her with what had occurred. So, without further question as to his motive in writing, Ralph rose and wrote a letter to give to Saunders Mowdiewort. The minister's man was always ready to take a letter to Craig Ronald after his day's work was over. His inclinations jumped cheerfully along with the shilling which Ralph—who had not many such—gave him for his trouble. Within a drawer, the only one in his room that would lock, on the top of Ralph's poems lay the white moss-rose and the forget-me-nots which, as a precious and pregnant emblem from his love, Saunders had brought back with him.
As Ralph sat at the window writing his letter to Winsome, he saw over the hedge beneath his window the bent form of Allan Welsh— his great, pallid brow over-dominating his face—walking slowly to and fro along the well-accustomed walk, at one end of which was the little wooden summer house in which was his private oratory. Even now Ralph could see his lips moving in the instancy of his unuttered supplication. His inward communing was so intense that the agony of prayer seemed to shake his frail body. Ralph could see him knit his hands behind his back in a strong tension of nerves. Yet it seemed a right and natural thing for Ralph to be immersed in his own concerns, and to turn away with the light tribute of a sigh to finish his love-letter—for, after all (say they), love is only a refined form of selfishness.
‘Beloved,’ wrote Ralph, ‘among my many promises to you yester even, I did not promise to refrain from writing to you; or if I did, I ask you to put off your displeasure until you have read my letter. I am not, you said, to come to see you. Then will you come to meet me? You know that I would not ask you unless the matter were important. I am at a crossroads, and I cannot tell which way to go. But I am sure that you can tell me, for your word shall be to me as the whisper of a kind angel. Meet me tonight, I beseech you, for ere long I must go very far away, and I have much to say to thee, my beloved! Saunders will bring any message of time or place safely. Believing that you will grant me this request—for it is the first time and may be the last—and with all my heart going out to thee, I am the man who truly loves thee.—RALPH PEDEN.’
It was when Saunders came over from his house by the kirkyard that Ralph left his books and went down to find him. Saunders was in the stable, occupying himself with the mysteries of Birsie's straps and buckles, about which he was as particular as though he were driving a pair of bays every day.
‘An' this is the letter, an' I'm to gie it to the same lass as I gied the last yin till? I'll do that, an' thank ye kindly,’ said Saunders, putting the letter into one pocket and Ralph's shilling into the other; ‘no that I need onything but white silver kind o' buckles friendship. It's worth your while, an' its worth my while —that's the way I look at it.’
Ralph paused a moment. He would have liked to ask what Meg said, and how Winsome looked, and many other things about Saunders's last visit; but the fear of appearing ridiculous even to Saunders withheld him.
The grave-digger went on: ‘It's a strange thing—love—it levels a'. Noo there's me, that has had a wife an' burriet her; I'm juist as keen aboot gettin' anither as if I had never gotten the besom i' the sma' o' my back. Ye wad never get a besom in the sma' o' yer back?’ he said inquiringly.
‘No,’ said Ralph, smiling in spite of himself.
‘Na, of course no; ye havna been mairrit. But bide a wee; she's a fell active bit lass, that o' yours, an' I should say’—here Saunders spoke with the air of a connoisseur—‘I wad say that she micht be verra handy wi' the besom.’
‘You must not speak in that way,’ began Ralph, thinking of Winsome. But, looking at the queer, puckered face of Saunders, he came to the conclusion that it was useless to endeavour to impress any of his own reverence upon him. It was not worth the pains, especially as he was assuredly speaking after his kind.
‘Na, of course no,’ replied Saunders, with a kind of sympathy for youth and inexperience in his tone; ‘when yer young an' gaun coortin' ye dinna think o' thae things. But bide a wee till ye gann on the same errand the second time, and aiblins the third time—I've seen the like, sir—an' a' thae things comes intil yer reckoning, so so speak.’
‘Really,’ said Ralph, ‘I have not looked so far forward.’
Saunders breathed on his buckle and polished it with the tail of his coat, after which he rubbed it on his knee. Then he held it up critically in a better light. Still it did not please him, so he breathed on it once more.
‘'Deed, an' wha could expect it? It's no in youth to think o' thae things—no till it's ower late. Noo, sir, I'll tell ye, whan I was coortin' my first, afore I gat her, I could hae etten her, an' the first week efter Maister Teends mairrit us, I juist danced I was that fond o' her. But in anither month, faith, I thocht that she wad hae etten me, an' afore the year was oot I wussed she had. Aye, aye, sir, it's waur nor a lottery, mairriage—it's a great mystery.’
‘But how is it, then, that you are so anxious to get married again?’ asked Ralph, to whom these conversations with the Cuif were a means of lightening his mind of his own cares.
‘Weel, ye see, Maister Ralph,’ pursued the grave-digger, ‘I'm by inclination a social man, an' the nature o' my avocation, so to speak, is a wee unsocial. Fowk are that curious. Noo, when I gang into the square o' a forenicht, the lads 'll cry oot, 'Dinna be lookin' my gate, Saunders, an' wonnerin' whether I'll need a seven-fit hole, or whether a six-fit yin will pass!' Or maybe the bairns'll cry oot, 'Hae ye a skull i' yer pooch?' The like o' that tells on a man in time, sir.’
‘Without doubt,’ said Ralph; ‘but how does matrimony, for either the first or the second time, cure that?’
‘Weel, sir, ye see, mairriage mak's a man kind o' independent like. Say, for instance, ye hae been a' day at jobs up i' the yaird, an' it's no been what ye micht ca' pleesant crunchin' through green wud an' waur whiles. Noo, we'll say that juist as a precaution, ye ken, ye hae run ower to the Black Bull for a gless or twa at noo's an' nan's’ [now and then].
‘I have run over, Saunders?’ queried Ralph.
‘Oh, it's juist a mainner o' speakin', sir; I was takin' a personal example. Weel, ye gang hame to the wife aboot the gloamin', an' ye open the door, an' ye says, says you, pleesant like, bein' warm aboot the wame,' Guid e'en to ye, guidwife, my dawtie, an' hoos a' thing been gaim wi' ye the day?' D'ye think she needs to luik roon' to ken a' aboot the Black Bull? Na, na, she kens withoot even turnin' her heid. She kenned by yer verra fit as ye cam' up the yaird. She's maybe stirrin' something i' the pat. She turns roon' wi the pat-stick i' her haund. 'I'll dawtie ye, my man!' she says, an' whang, afore ye ken whaur ye are, the pat-stick is acquant wi' the side o' yer heid. 'I'll dawtie ye, rinnin' rakin' to the public-hoose wi' yer hard-earned shillin's. Dawtie!' quo' she; 'faith, the Black Bull's yer dawtie!'‘
‘But how does she know?’ asked Ralph, in the interests of truth and scientific inquiry.
Saunders thought that he was speaking with an eye on the future. He lifted up his finger solemnly: ‘Dinna ye ever think that ye can gang intil a public hoose withoot yer wife kennin'. Na, it's no the smell, as an unmarrit man micht think; and peppermints is a vain thing, also ceenimons. It's juist their faculty—aye, that's what it is—it's a faculty they hae; an' they're a' alike. They ken as weel wi' the back o' their heids till ye, an' their noses fair stuffit wi' the cauld, whether ye hae been makin' a ca' or twa on the road hame on pay-nicht. I ken it's astonishin' to a single man, but ye had better tak' my word for't, it's the case. 'Whaur's that auchteenpence?' Betty used to ask; 'only twal an' sixpence, an' your wages is fourteen shillings—forbye your chance frae mourners for happen the corp up quick'—then ye hummer an' ha', an' try to think on the lee ye made up on the road doon; but it's a gye queery thing that ye canna mind o't. It's an odd thing hoo jooky a lee is whan ye want it in time o' need!’
Ralph looked so interested that Saunders quite felt for him.
‘And what then?’ said he.
‘Then,’ said Saunders, nodding his head, so that it made the assertion of itself without any connection with his body—‘then, say ye, then is juist whaur the besom comes in’—he paused a moment in deep thought—’i' the sma' o' yer back!’ he added, in a low and musing tone, as of one who chews the cud of old and pleasant memories. ‘An' ye may thank a kind Providence gin there's plenty o' heather on the end o't. Keep aye plenty o' heather on the end o' the besom,’ said Saunders; ‘a prudent man aye sees to that. What is't to buy a new besom or twa frae a tinkler body, whan ye see the auld yin gettin' bare? Nocht ava, ye can tak' the auld yin oot to the stable, or lose it some dark nicht on the moor! O aye, a prudent man aye sees to his wife's besom.’ Saunders paused, musing. ‘Ye'll maybe no believe me, but often what mak's a' the hale differ atween a freendly turn up wi' the wife, that kind o' cheers a man up, an' what ye micht ca' an onpleesantness— is juist nae mair nor nae less than whether there's plenty o' heather on his wife's besom.’
Saunders had now finished all his buckles to his satisfaction. He summed up thus the conclusion of his great argument: ‘A besom i' the sma' o' yer back is interestin' an' enleevinin', whan it's new an' bushy; but it's the verra mischief an' a' whan ye get the bare shank on the back o' yer heid—an' mind ye that.’
‘I am very much indebted to you for the advice, Saunders.’
‘Aye, sir,’ said Saunders, ‘it's sound! it's sound! I can vouch for that.’
Ralph went towards the door and looked out. The minister was still walking with his hands behind his back. He did not in the least hear what Saunders had said. He turned again to him. ‘And what do you want another wife for, then, Saunders?’
‘'Deed, Maister Ralph, to tell ye the Guid's truth, it's awfu' deevin' leevin' wi' yin's mither. She's a awfu' woman to talk, though a rale guid mither to me. Forbye, she canna tak' the besom to ye like yer ain wife—the wife o' yer bosom, so to speak—when ye hae been to the Black Bull. It's i' the natur' o' things that a man maun gang there by whiles; but on the ither haund it's richt that he should get a stap ta'en oot o' his bicker when he comes hame, an' some way or ither the best o' mithers haena gotten the richt way o't like a man's ain wife.’
‘And you think that Meg would do it well?’ said Ralph, smiling.
‘Aye, sir, she wad that, though I'm thinkin' that she wad be kindlier wi' the besom-shank than Jess; no that I wad for a moment expect that there wad be ony call for siclike,’ he said, with a look of apology at Ralph, which was entirely lost on that young man, ‘but in case, sir—in case—’
Ralph looked in bewilderment at Saunders, who was indulging in mystic winks and nods.
‘You see, the way o't is this, sir: yin's mither—(an' mind, I'm far frae sayin' a word agin my ain mither—she's a guid yin, for a' her tongue, whilk, ye ken, sir, she canna help ony mair than bein' a woman;) but ye ken, that when ye come hame frae the Black Bull, gin a man has only his mither, she begins to flyte on him, an' cast up to him what his faither, that's i' the grave, wad hae said, an' maybe on the back o' that she begins the greetin'. Noo, that's no comfortable, ava. A man that gangs to the Black Bull disna care a flee's hin' leg what his faither wad hae said. He disna want to be grutten ower; na, what he wants is a guid-gaun tongue, a wullin' airm, an' a heather besom no ower sair worn.’
Ralph nodded in his turn in appreciative comment.
‘Then, on the morrow's morn, when ye rub yer elbow, an' fin' forbye that there's something on yer left shoother-blade that's no on the ither, ye tak' a resolve that ye'll come straught hame the nicht. Then, at e'en, when ye come near the Black Bull, an' see the crony that ye had a glass wi' the nicht afore, ye naturally tak' a bit race by juist to get on the safe side o' yer hame. I'm hearin' aboot new-fangled folk that they ca' 'temperance advocates,' Maister Ralph, but for my pairt gie me a lang-shankit besom, an' a guid-wife's wullin airm!’
These are all the opinions of Saunders Mowdiewort about besom- shanks.
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the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.