What first struck Margaret in Thrums was the smell of the caddis. The town smells of caddis no longer, but whiffs of it may be got even now as one passes the houses of the old, where the lay still swings at little windows like a great ghost pendulum. To me it is a homely smell, which I draw in with a great breath, but it was as strange to Margaret as the weavers themselves, who, in their colored nightcaps and corduroys streaked with threads, gazed at her and Gavin. The little minister was trying to look severe and old, but twenty-one was in his eye.
“Look, mother, at that white house with the green roof. That is the manse.”
The manse stands high, with a sharp eye on all the town. Every back window in the Tenements has a glint of it, and so the back of the Tenements is always better behaved than the front. It was in the front that Jamie Don, a pitiful bachelor all his life because he thought the women proposed, kept his ferrets, and here, too, Beattie hanged himself, going straight to the clothes-posts for another rope when the first one broke, such was his determination. In the front Sanders Gilruth openly boasted (on Don’s potato-pit) that by having a seat in two churches he could lie in bed on Sabbath and get the credit of being at one or other. (Gavin made short work of him.) To the right-minded the Auld Licht manse was as a family Bible, ever lying open before them, but Beattie spoke for more than himself when he said, “Dagone that manse! I never gie a swear but there it is glowering at me.”
The manse looks down on the town from the north-east, and is reached from the road that leaves Thrums behind it in another moment by a wide, straight path, so rough that to carry a fraught of water to the manse without spilling was to be superlatively good at one thing. Packages in a cart it set leaping like trout in a fishing-creel. Opposite the opening of the garden wall in the manse, where for many years there had been an intention of putting up a gate, were two big stones a yard apart, standing ready for the winter, when the path was often a rush of yellow water, and this the only bridge to the glebe dyke, down which the minister walked to church.
When Margaret entered the manse on Gavin’s arm, it was a whitewashed house of five rooms, with a garret in which the minister could sleep if he had guests, as during the Fast week. It stood with its garden within high walls, and the roof facing southward was carpeted with moss that shone in the sun in a dozen shades of green and yellow. Three firs guarded the house from west winds, but blasts from the north often tore down the steep fields and skirled through the manse, banging all its doors at once. A beech, growing on the east side, leant over the roof as if to gossip with the well in the courtyard. The garden was to the south, and was over full of gooseberry and currant bushes. It contained a summer seat, where strange things were soon to happen.
Margaret would not even take off her bonnet until she had seen through the manse and opened all the presses. The parlour and kitchen were downstairs, and of the three rooms above, the study was so small that Gavin’s predecessor could touch each of its walls without shifting his position. Every room save Margaret’s had long-lidded beds, which close as if with shutters, but hers was coff-fronted, or comparatively open, with carving on the wood like the ornamentation of coffins. Where there were children in a house they liked to slope the boards of the closed-in bed against the dresser, and play at sliding down mountains on them.
But for many years there had been no children in the manse. He in whose ways Gavin was to attempt the heavy task of walking had been a widower three months after his marriage, a man narrow when he came to Thrums, but so large-hearted when he left it that I, who know there is good in all the world because of the lovable souls I have met in this corner of it, yet cannot hope that many are as near to God as he. The most gladsome thing in the world is that few of us fall very low; the saddest that, with such capabilities, we seldom rise high. Of those who stand perceptibly above their fellows I have known very few; only Mr. Carfrae and two or three women.
Gavin only saw a very frail old minister who shook as he walked, as if his feet were striking against stones. He was to depart on the morrow to the place of his birth, but he came to the manse to wish his successor God-speed. Strangers were so formidable to Margaret that she only saw him from her window.
“May you never lose sight of God, Mr. Dishart,” the old man said in the parlour. Then he added, as if he had asked too much, “May you never turn from Him as I often did when I was a lad like you.”
As this aged minister, with the beautiful face that God gives to all who love Him and follow His commandments, spoke of his youth, he looked wistfully around the faded parlour.
“It is like a dream,” he said. “The first time I entered this room the thought passed through me that I would cut down that cherry-tree, because it kept out the light, but, you see, it outlives me. I grew old while looking for the axe. Only yesterday I was the youngminister, Mr. Dishart, and to-morrow you will be the old one, bidding good-bye to your successor.”
His eyes came back to Gavin’s eager face.
“You are very young, Mr. Dishart?”
“Twenty-one! Ah, my dear sir, you do not know how pathetic that sounds to me. Twenty-one! We are children for the second time at twenty-one, and again when we are grey and put all our burden on the Lord. The young talk generously of relieving the old of their burdens, but the anxious heart is to the old when they see a load on the back of the young. Let me tell you, Mr. Dishart, that I would condone many things in one-and-twenty now that I dealt hardly with at middle age. God Himself, I think, is very willing to give one-and-twenty a second chance.”
“I am afraid,” Gavin said anxiously, “that I look even younger.”
“I think,” Mr. Carfrae answered, smiling, “that your heart is as fresh as your face; and that is well. The useless men are those who never change with the years. Many views that I held to in my youth and long afterwards are a pain to me now, and I am carrying away from Thrums memories of errors into which I fell at every stage of my ministry. When you are older you will know that life is a long lesson in humility.”
“I hope,” he said nervously, “that you don’t sing the Paraphrases?”
Mr. Carfrae had not grown out of all his prejudices, you see; indeed, if Gavin had been less bigoted than he on this question they might have parted stiffly. The old minister would rather have remained to die in his pulpit than surrender it to one who read his sermons. Others may blame him for this, but I must say here plainly that I never hear a minister reading without wishing to send him back to college.
“I cannot deny,” Mr. Carfrae said, “that I broke down more than once to-day. This forenoon I was in Tillyloss, for the last time, and it so happens that there is scarcely a house in it in which I have not had a marriage or prayed over a coffin. Ah, sir, these are the scenes that make the minister more than all his sermons. You must join the family, Mr. Dishart, or you are only a minister once a week. And remember this, if your call is from above, it is a call to stay. Many such partings in a lifetime as I have had to-day would be too heartrending.”
“And yet,” Gavin said, hesitatingly, “they told me in Glasgow that I had received a call from the mouth of hell.”
“Those were cruel words, but they only mean that people who are seldom more than a day’s work in advance of want sometimes rise in arms for food. Our weavers are passionately religious, and so independent that they dare any one to help them, but if their wages were lessened they could not live. And so at talk of reduction they catch fire. Change of any kind alarms them, and though they call themselves Whigs, they rose a few years ago over the paving of the streets and stoned the workmen, who were strangers, out of the town.”
“And though you may have thought the place quiet to-day, Mr. Dishart, there was an ugly outbreak only two months ago, when the weavers turned on the manufacturers for reducing the price of the web, made a bonfire of some of their doors, and terrified one of them into leaving Thrums. Under the command of some Chartists, the people next paraded the streets to the music of fife and drum, and six policemen who drove up from Tilliedrum in a light cart were sent back tied to the seats.”
“No one has been punished?”
“Not yet, but nearly two years ago there was a similar riot, and the sheriff took no action for months. Then one night the square suddenly filled with soldiers, and the ringleaders were seized in their beds. Mr. Dishart, the people are determined not to be caught in that way again, and ever since the rising a watch has been kept by night on every road that leads to Thrums. The signal that the soldiers are coming is to be the blowing of a horn. If you ever hear that horn, I implore you to hasten to the square.”
“The weavers would not fight?”
“You do not know how the Chartists have fired this part of the country. One misty day, a week ago, I was on the hill; I thought I had it to myself, when suddenly I heard a voice cry sharply, ‘Shoulder arms.’ I could see no one, and after a moment I put it down to a freak of the wind. Then all at once the mist before me blackened, and a body of men seemed to grow out of it. They were not shadows; they were Thrums weavers drilling, with pikes in their hands.
“They broke up,” Mr. Carfrae continued, after a pause, “at my entreaty, but they have met again since then.”
“And there were Auld Lichts among them?” Gavin asked. “I should have thought they would be frightened at our precentor, Lang Tammas, who seems to watch for backsliding in the congregation as if he had pleasure in discovering it.”
Gavin spoke with feeling, for the precentor had already put him through his catechism, and it was a stiff ordeal.
“The precentor!” said Mr. Carfrae. “Why, he was one of them.”
The old minister, once so brave a figure, tottered as he rose to go, and reeled in a dizziness until he had walked a few paces. Gavin went with him to the foot of the manse road; without his hat, as all Thrums knew before bedtime.
“I begin,” Gavin said, as they were parting, “where you leave off, and my prayer is that I may walk in your ways.”
“Ah, Mr. Dishart,” the white-haired minister said, with a sigh, “the world does not progress so quickly as a man grows old. You only begin where I began.”
He left Gavin, and then, as if the little minister’s last words had hurt him, turned and solemnly pointed his staff upward. Such men are the strong nails that keep the world together.
The twenty-one-years-old minister returned to the manse somewhat sadly, but when he saw his mother at the window of her bedroom, his heart leapt at the thought that she was with him and he had eighty pounds a year. Gaily he waved both his hands to her, and she answered with a smile, and then, in his boyishness, he jumped over a gooseberry bush. Immediately afterwards he reddened and tried to look venerable, for while in the air he had caught sight of two women and a man watching him from the dyke. He walked severely to the door, and, again forgetting himself, was bounding upstairs to Margaret, when Jean, the servant, stood scandalised in his way.
“I don’t think she caught me,” was Gavin’s reflection, and “The Lord preserve’s!” was Jean’s.
Gavin found his mother wondering how one should set about getting a cup of tea in a house that had a servant in it. He boldly rang the bell, and the willing Jean answered it so promptly (in a rush and jump) that Margaret was as much startled as Aladdin the first time he rubbed his lamp.
Manse servants of the most admired kind move softly, as if constant contact with a minister were goloshes to them; but Jean was new and raw, only having got her place because her father might be an elder any day. She had already conceived a romantic affection for her master; but to say “sir” to him — as she thirsted to do — would have been as difficult to her as to swallow oysters. So anxious was she to please that when Gavin rang she fired herself at the bedroom, but bells were novelties to her as well as to Margaret, and she cried, excitedly, “What is ‘t?” thinking the house must be on fire.
“There’s a curran folk at the back door,” Jean announced later, “and their respects to you, and would you gie them some water out o’ the well? It has been a drouth this aucht days, and the pumps is locked. Na,” she said, as Gavin made a too liberal offer, “that would toom the well, and there’s jimply enough for oursels. I should tell you, too, that three o’ them is no Auld Lichts.”
“Let that make no difference,” Gavin said grandly, but Jean changed his message to: “A bowlful apiece to Auld Lichts; all other denominations one cupful.”
“Ay, ay,” said Snecky Hobart, letting down the bucket, “and we’ll include atheists among other denominations.” The conversation came to Gavin and Margaret through the kitchen doorway.
“Dinna class Jo Cruickshanks wi’ me,” said Sam’l Langlands the U. P.
“Na, na,” said Cruickshanks the atheist, “I’m ower independent to be religious. I dinna gang to the kirk to cry, ‘Oh, Lord, gie, gie, gie.’”
“Take tent o’ yoursel’, my man,” said Lang Tammas sternly, “or you’ll soon be whaur you would neifer the warld for a cup o’ that cauld water.”
“Maybe you’ve ower keen an interest in the devil, Tammas,” retorted the atheist; “but, ony way, if it’s heaven for climate, it’s hell for company.”
“Lads,” said Snecky, sitting down on the bucket, “we’ll send Mr. Dishart to Jo. He’ll make another Rob Dow o’ him.”
“Speak mair reverently o’ your minister,” said the precentor. “He has the gift.”
“I hinna naturally your solemn rasping word, Tammas, but in the heart I speak in all reverence. Lads, the minister has a word! I tell you he prays near like one giving orders.”
“At first,” Snecky continued, “I thocht yon lang candidate was the earnestest o’ them a’, and I dinna deny but when I saw him wi’ his head bowed-like in prayer during the singing I says to mysel’, ‘Thou art the man.’ Ay, but Betsy wraxed up her head, and he wasna praying. He was combing his hair wi’ his fingers on the sly.”
“You ken fine, Sneck,” said Cruickshanks, “that you said, ‘Thou art the man’ to ilka ane o’ them, and just voted for Mr. Dishart because he preached hinmost.”
“I didna say it to Mr. Urquhart, the ane that preached second,” Sneck said. “That was the lad that gaed through ither.”
“Ay,” said Susy Tibbits, nicknamed by Haggart “the Timidest Woman” because she once said she was too young to marry, “but I was fell sorry for him, just being over anxious. He began bonny, flinging himself, like ane inspired, at the pulpit door, but after Hendry Munn pointed at it and cried out, ‘Be cautious, the sneck’s loose,’ he a’ gaed to bits. What a coolness Hendry has, though I suppose it was his duty, him being kirk-officer.”
“We didna want a man,” Lang Tammas said, “that could be put out by sic a sma’ thing as that. Mr. Urquhart was in sic a ravel after it that when he gies out the first line o’ the hunder and nineteenth psalm for singing, says he, ‘And so on to the end.’ Ay, that finished his chance.”
“The noblest o’ them to look at,” said Tibbie Birse, “was that ane frae Aberdeen, him that had sic a saft side to Jacob.”
“Ay,” said Snecky, “and I speired at Dr. McQueen if I should vote for him. ‘Looks like a genius, does he?’ says the Doctor. ‘Weel, then,’ says he, ‘dinna vote for him, for my experience is that there’s no folk sic idiots as them that looks like geniuses.’”
“Sal,” Susy said, “it’s a guid thing we’ve settled, for I enjoyed sitting like a judge upon them so muckle that I sair doubt it was a kind o’ sport to me.”
“It was no sport to them, Susy, I’se uphaud, but it is a blessing we’ve settled, and ondoubtedly we’ve got the pick o’ them. The only thing Mr. Dishart did that made me oneasy was his saying the word Cæsar as if it began wi’ a k.”
“He’ll startle you mair afore you’re done wi’ him,” the atheist said maliciously. “I ken the ways o’ thae ministers preaching for kirks. Oh, they’re cunning. You was a’ pleased that Mr. Dishart spoke about looms and webs, but, lathies, it was a trick. Ilka ane o’ thae young ministers has a sermon about looms for weaving congregations, and a second about beating swords into ploughshares for country places, and another on the great catch of fishes for fishing villages. That’s their stock-in-trade; and just you wait and see if you dinna get the ploughshares and the fishes afore the month’s out. A minister preaching for a kirk is one thing, but a minister placed in’t may be a very different berry.”
“Joseph Cruickshanks,” cried the precentor, passionately, “none o’ your d —— d blasphemy!”
They all looked at Whamond, and he dug his teeth into his lips in shame.
“Wha’s swearing now?” said the atheist.
But Whamond was quick.
“Matthew, twelve and thirty-one,” he said.
“Dagont, Tammas,” exclaimed the baffled Cruickshanks, “you’re aye quoting Scripture. How do you no quote Feargus O’Connor?”
“Lads,” said Snecky, “Jo hasna heard Mr. Dishart’s sermons. Ay, we get it scalding when he comes to the sermon. I canna thole a minister that preaches as if heaven was round the corner.”
“If you’re hitting at our minister, Snecky,” said James Cochrane, “let me tell you he’s a better man than yours.”
“A better curler, I dare say.”
“A better prayer.”
“Ay, he can pray for a black frost as if it was ane o’ the Royal Family. I ken his prayers, ‘O Lord, let it haud for anither day, and keep the snaw awa’.’ Will you pretend, Jeames, that Mr. Duthie could make onything o’ Rob Dow?”
“I admit that Rob’s awakening was an extraordinary thing, and sufficient to gie Mr. Dishart a name. But Mr. Carfrae was baffled wi’ Rob too.”
“Jeames, if you had been in our kirk that day Mr. Dishart preached for’t you would be wearying the now for Sabbath, to be back in’t again. As you ken, that wicked man there, Jo Cruickshanks, got Rob Dow, drucken, cursing, poaching Rob Dow, to come to the kirk to annoy the minister. Ay, he hadna been at that work for ten minutes when Mr. Dishart stopped in his first prayer and ga’e Rob a look. I couldna see the look, being in the precentor’s box, but as sure as death I felt it boring through me. Rob is hard wood, though, and soon he was at his tricks again. Weel, the minister stopped a second time in the sermon, and so awful was the silence that a heap o’ the congregation couldna keep their seats. I heard Rob breathing quick and strong. Mr. Dishart had his arm pointed at him a’ this time, and at last he says sternly, ‘Come forward.’ Listen, Joseph Cruickshanks, and tremble. Rob gripped the board to keep himsel’ frae obeying, and again Mr. Dishart says, ‘Come forward,’ and syne Rob rose shaking, and tottered to the pulpit stair like a man suddenly shot into the Day of Judgment. ‘You hulking man of sin,’ cries Mr. Dishart, not a tick fleid, though Rob’s as big as three o’ him, ‘sit down on the stair and attend to me, or I’ll step doun frae the pulpit and run you out of the house of God.’”
“And since that day,” said Hobart, “Rob has worshipped Mr. Dishart as a man that has stepped out o’ the Bible. When the carriage passed this day we was discussing the minister, and Sam’l Dickie wasna sure but what Mr. Dishart wore his hat rather far back on his head. You should have seen Rob. ‘My certie,’ he roars, ‘there’s the shine frae Heaven on that little minister’s face, and them as says there’s no has me to fecht.’”
“Ay, weel,” said the U. P., rising, “we’ll see how Rob wears — and how your minister wears too. I wouldna like to sit in a kirk whaur they daurna sing a paraphrase.”
“The Psalms of David,” retorted Whamond, “mount straight to heaven, but your paraphrases sticks to the ceiling o’ the kirk.”
“You’re a bigoted set, Tammas Whamond, but I tell you this, and it’s my last words to you the nicht, the day’ll come when you’ll hae Mr. Duthie, ay, and even the U. P. minister, preaching in the Auld Licht kirk.”
“And let this be my last words to you,” replied the precentor, furiously; “that rather than see a U. P. preaching in the Auld Licht kirk I would burn in hell fire for ever!”
This gossip increased Gavin’s knowledge of the grim men with whom he had now to deal. But as he sat beside Margaret after she had gone to bed, their talk was pleasant.
“You remember, mother,” Gavin said, “how I almost prayed for the manse that was to give you an egg every morning. I have been telling Jean never to forget the egg.”
“Ah, Gavin, things have come about so much as we wanted that I’m a kind o’ troubled. It’s hardly natural, and I hope nothing terrible is to happen now.”
Gavin arranged her pillows as she liked them, and when he next stole into the room in his stocking soles to look at her, he thought she was asleep. But she was not. I dare say she saw at that moment Gavin in his first frock, and Gavin in knickerbockers, and Gavin as he used to walk into the Glasgow room from college, all still as real to her as the Gavin who had a kirk.
The little minister took away the lamp to his own room, shaking his fist at himself for allowing his mother’s door to creak. He pulled up his blind. The town lay as still as salt. But a steady light showed in the south, and on pressing his face against the window he saw another in the west. Mr. Carfrae’s words about the night-watch came back to him. Perhaps it had been on such a silent night as this that the soldiers marched into Thrums. Would they come again?
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the little minister
First published serially in Good Words 1891