Chapter thirty eight
THRUMS DURING THE TWENTY-FOUR HOURS — DEFENCE OF THE MANSE.
Hardly had I crossed the threshold of the mudhouse when such a sickness came over me that I could not have looked up, though Nanny’s voice had suddenly changed to Margaret’s. Vaguely I knew that Nanny had put the kettle on the fire — a woman’s first thought when there is illness in the house — and as I sat with my hands over my face I heard the water dripping from my clothes to the floor.
“Why is that bell ringing?” I asked at last, ignoring all questions and speaking through my fingers. An artist, I suppose, could paint all expression out of a human face. The sickness was having that effect on my voice.
“It’s the Auld Licht bell,” Sanders said; “and it’s almost as fearsome to listen to as last nicht’s rain. I wish I kent what they’re ringing it for.”
“Wish no sic things,” said Nanny nervously. “There’s things it’s best to put off kenning as lang as we can.”
“It’s that ill-cleakit witch, Effie McBean, that makes Nanny speak so doleful,” Sanders told me. “There was to be a prayer-meeting last nicht, but Mr. Dishart never came to ‘t, though they rang till they wraxed their arms; and now Effie says it’ll ring on by itsel’ till he’s brocht hame a corp. The hellicat says the rain’s a dispensation to drown him in for neglect o’ duty. Sal, I would think little o’ the Lord if He needed to create a new sea to drown one man in. Nanny, yon cuttie, that’s no swearing; I defy you to find a single lonely oath in what I’ve said.”
“Never mind Effie McBean,” I interposed. “What are the congregation saying about the minister’s absence?”
“We ken little except what Effie telled us,” Nanny answered. “I was at Tilliedrum yestreen, meeting Sanders as he got out o’ the gaol, and that awfu onding began when we was on the Bellies Braes. We focht our way through it, but not a soul did we meet; and wha would gang out the day that can bide at hame? Ay, but Effie says it’s kent in Thrums that Mr. Dishart has run off wi’ — wi’ an Egyptian.”
“You’re waur than her, Nanny,” Sanders said roughly, “for you hae twa reasons for kenning better. In the first place, has Mr. Dishart no keeped you in siller a’ the time I was awa? and for another, have I no been at the manse?”
My head rose now.
“He gaed to the manse,” Nanny explained, “to thank Mr. Dishart for being so good to me. Ay, but Jean wouldna let him in. I’m thinking that looks gey gray.”
“Whatever was her reason,” Sanders admitted, “Jean wouldna open the door; but I keeked in at the parlor window, and saw Mrs. Dishart in’t looking very cosy-like and lauching; and do you think I would hae seen that if ill had come ower the minister?”
“Not if Margaret knew of it,” I said to myself, and wondered at Whamond’s forbearance.
“She had a skein o’ worsted stretched out on her hands,” Sanders continued, “and a young leddy was winding it. I didna see her richt, but she wasna a Thrums leddy.”
“Effie McBean says she’s his intended, come to call him to account,” Nanny said; but I hardly listened, for I saw that I must hurry to Tammas Whamond’s. Nanny followed me to the gate with her gown pulled over her head, and said excitedly:
“Oh, dominie, I warrant it’s true. It’ll be Babbie. Sanders doesna suspect, because I’ve telled him nothing about her. Oh, what’s to be done? They were baith so good to me.”
I could only tell her to keep what she knew to herself.
“Has Rob Dow come back?” I called out after I had started.
“Whaur frae?” she replied; and then I remembered that all these things had happened while Nanny was at Tilliedrum. In this life some of the seven ages are spread over two decades, and others pass as quickly as a stage play. Though a fifth of a season’s rain had fallen in a night and a day, it had scarcely kept pace with Gavin.
I hurried to the town by the Roods. That brae was as deserted as the country roads, except where children had escaped from their mothers to wade in it. Here and there dams were keeping the water away from one door to send it with greater volume to another, and at points the ground had fallen in. But this I noticed without interest. I did not even realize that I was holding my head painfully to the side where it had been blown by the wind and glued by the rain. I have never held my head straight since that journey.
Only a few looms were going, their pedals in water. I was addressed from several doors and windows, once by Charles Yuill.
“Dinna pretend,” he said, “that you’ve walked in frae the school-house alane. The rain chased me into this house yestreen, and here it has keeped me, though I bide no further awa than Tillyloss.”
“Charles,” I said in a low voice, “why is the Auld Licht bell ringing?”
“Hae you no heard about Mr. Dishart?” he asked. “Oh, man! that’s Lang Tammas in the kirk by himsel’, 318 tearing at the bell to bring the folk thegither to depose the minister.”
Instead of going to Whamond’s house in the school wynd I hastened down the Banker’s close to the kirk, and had almost to turn back, so choked was the close with floating refuse. I could see the bell swaying, but the kirk was locked, and I battered on the door to no purpose. Then, remembering that Hendry Munn lived in Coutt’s trance, I set off for his house. He saw me crossing the square, but would not open his door until I was close to it.
“When I open,” he cried, “squeeze through quick”; but though I did his bidding, a rush of water darted in before me. Hendry reclosed the door by flinging himself against it.
“When I saw you crossing the square,” he said, “it was surprise enough to cure the hiccup.”
“Hendry,” I replied instantly, “why is the Auld Licht bell ringing?”
He put his finger to his lip. “I see,” he said imperturbably, “you’ve met our folk in the glen and heard frae them about the minister.”
“Mair than half the congregation,” he replied, “I started for Glen Quharity twa hours syne to help the farmers. You didna see them?”
“No; they must have been on the other side of the river.” Again that question forced my lips, “Why is the bell ringing?”
“Canny, dominie,” he said, “till we’re up the stair. Mysy Moncur’s lug’s at her keyhole listening to you.”
“You lie, Hendry Munn,” cried an invisible woman. The voice became more plaintive: “I ken a heap, Hendry, so you may as well tell me a’.”
“Lick away at the bone you hae,” the shoemaker replied heartlessly, and conducted me to his room up one of the few inside stairs then in Thrums. Hendry’s oddest furniture was five boxes, fixed to the wall at such a height that children could climb into them from a high stool. In these his bairns slept, and so space was economized. I could never laugh at the arrangement, as I knew that Betty had planned it on her deathbed for her man’s sake. Five little heads bobbed up in their beds as I entered, but more vexing to me was Wearyworld on a stool.
“In by, dominie,” he said sociably. “Sal, you needna fear burning wi’ a’ that water on you. You’re in mair danger o’ coming a-boil.”
“I want to speak to you alone, Hendry,” I said bluntly.
“You winna put me out, Hendry?” the alarmed policeman entreated. “Mind, you said in sic weather you would be friendly to a brute beast. Ay, ay, dominie, what’s your news? It’s welcome, be it good or bad. You would meet the townsfolk in the glen, and they would tell you about Mr. Dishart. What, you hinna heard? Oh, sirs, he’s a lost man. There would hae been a meeting the day to depose him if so many hadna gaen to the glen. But the morn’ll do as weel. The very women is cursing him, and the laddies has begun to gather stanes. He’s married on an Egyp — —”
“Hendry!” I cried, like one giving an order.
“Wearyworld, step!” said Hendry sternly, and then added soft-heartedly: “Here’s a bit news that’ll open Mysy Moncur’s door to you. You can tell her frae me that the bell’s ringing just because I forgot to tie it up last nicht, and the wind’s shaking it, and I winna gang out in the rain to stop it.”
“Ay,” the policeman said, looking at me sulkily, “she may open her door for that, but it’ll no let me in. Tell me mair. Tell me wha the leddy at the manse is.”
“Out you go,” answered Hendry. “Once she opens the door, you can shove your foot in, and syne she’s in your power.” He pushed Wearyworld out, and came back to me, saying, “It was best to tell him the truth, to keep him frae making up lies.”
“But is it the truth? I was told Lang Tammas — —”
“Ay, I ken that story; but Tammas has other work on hand.”
“Then tie up the bell at once, Hendry,” I urged.
“I canna,” he answered gravely. “Tammas took the keys o’ the kirk fram me yestreen, and winna gie them up. He says the bell’s being rung by the hand o’ God.”
“Has he been at the manse? Does Mrs. Dishart know —— ?”
“He’s been at the manse twa or three times, but Jean barred him out. She’ll let nobody in till the minister comes back, and so the mistress kens nothing. But what’s the use o’ keeping it frae her ony langer?”
“Every use,” I said.
“None,” answered Hendry sadly. “Dominie, the minister was married to the Egyptian on the hill last nicht, and Tammas was witness. Not only were they married, but they’ve run aff thegither.”
“You are wrong, Hendry,” I assured him, telling as much as I dared. “I left Mr. Dishart in my house.”
“What! But if that is so, how did he no come back wi’ you?”
“Because he was nearly drowned in the flood.”
“She’ll be wi’ him?”
“He was alone.”
Hendry’s face lit up dimly with joy, and then he shook his head. “Tammas was witness,” he said. “Can you deny the marriage?”
“All I ask of you,” I answered guardedly, “is to suspend judgment until the minister returns.”
“There can be nothing done, at ony rate,” he said, “till the folk themsel’s come back frae the glen; and I needna tell you how glad we would a’ be to be as fond o’ him as ever. But Tammas was witness.”
“Have pity on his mother, man.”
“We’ve done the best for her we could,” he replied. “We prigged wi’ Tammas no to gang to the manse till we was sure the minister was living. ‘For if he has been drowned,’ we said, ‘his mother need never ken what we were thinking o’ doing.’ Ay, and we’re sorry for the young leddy, too.”
“What young lady is this you all talk of?” I asked.
“She’s his intended. Ay, you needna start. She has come a’ the road frae Glasgow to challenge him about the gypsy. The pitiful thing is that Mrs. Dishart lauched awa her fears, and now they’re baith waiting for his return, as happy as ignorance can make them.”
“There is no such lady,” I said.
“But there is,” he answered doggedly, “for she came in a machine late last nicht, and I was ane o’ a dozen that baith heard and saw it through my window. It stopped at the manse near half an hour. What’s mair, the lady hersel’ was at Sam’l Farquharson’s in the Tenements the day for twa hours.”
I listened in bewilderment and fear.
“Sam’l’s bairn’s down wi’ scarlet fever and like to die, and him being a widow-man he has gone useless. You mauna blame the wives in the Tenements for hauding back. They’re fleid to smit their ain litlins; and as it happens, Sam’l’s friends is a’ aff to the glen. Weel, he ran greeting to the manse for Mr. Dishart, and the lady heard him crying to Jean through the door, and what does she do but gang straucht to the Tenements wi’ Sam’l. Her goodness has naturally put the folk on her side against the minister.”
“This does not prove her his intended,” I broke in.
“She was heard saying to Sam’l,” answered the kirk officer, “that the minister being awa, it was her duty to take his place. Yes, and though she little kent it, he was already married.”
“Hendry,” I said, rising, “I must see this lady at once. Is she still at Farquharson’s house?”
“She may be back again by this time. Tammas set off for Sam’l’s as soon as he heard she was there, but he just missed her. I left him there an hour syne. He was waiting for her, determined to tell her all.”
I set off for the Tenements at once, declining Hendry’s company. The wind had fallen, so that the bell no longer rang, but the rain was falling doggedly. The streets were still deserted. I pushed open the precentor’s door in the school wynd, but there was no one in the house. Tibbie Birse saw me, and shouted from her door:
“Hae you heard o’ Mr. Dishart? He’ll never daur show face in Thrums again.”
Without giving her a word I hastened to the Tenements.
“The leddy’s no here,” Sam’l Farquharson told me, “and Tammas is back at the manse again, trying to force his way in.”
From Sam’l, too, I turned, with no more than a groan; but he cried after me, “Perdition on the man that has played that leddy false.”
Had Margaret been at her window she must have seen me, so recklessly did I hurry up the minister’s road, with nothing in me but a passion to take Whamond by the throat. He was not in the garden. The kitchen door was open. Jean was standing at it with her apron to her eyes.
“Tammas Whamond?” I demanded, and my face completed the question.
“You’re ower late,” she wailed. “He’s wi’ her. Oh, dominie, whaur’s the minister?”
“You base woman!” I cried, “why did you unbar the door?”
“It was the mistress,” she answered. “She heard him shaking it, and I had to tell her wha it was. Dominie, it’s a’ my wite! He tried to get in last nicht, and roared threats through the door, and after he had gone awa she speired wha I had been speaking to. I had to tell her, but I said he had come to let her ken that the minister was taking shelter frae the rain in a farmhouse. Ay, I said he was to bide there till the flood gaed down, and that’s how she has been easy a’ day. I acted for the best, but I’m sair punished now; for when she heard Tammas at the door twa or three minutes syne, she ordered me to let him in, so that she could thank him for bringing the news last nicht, despite the rain. They’re in the parlor. Oh, dominie, gang in and stop his mouth.”
This was hard. I dared not go to the parlor. Margaret might have died at sight of me. I turned my face from Jean.
“Jean,” said some one, opening the inner kitchen door, “why did you —— ?”
She stopped, and that was what turned me round. As she spoke I thought it was the young lady; when I looked I saw it was Babbie, though no longer in a gypsy’s dress. Then I knew that the young lady and Babbie were one.
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the little minister
First published serially in Good Words 1891