Salted With Fire

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Meanwhile the minister remained moody, apparently sunk in contemplation, but in fact mostly brooding, and meditating neither form nor truth. Sometimes he felt indeed as if he were losing altogether his power of thinking--especially when, in the middle of the week, he sat down to find something to say on the Sunday. He had greatly lost interest in the questions that had occupied him while he was yet a student, and imagined himself in preparation for what he called the ministry--never thinking how one was to minister who had not yet learned to obey, and had never sought anything but his own glorification! It was little wonder he should lose interest in a profession, where all was but profession! What pleasure could that man find in holy labour who, not indeed offered his stipend to purchase the Holy Ghost, but offered all he knew of the Holy Ghost to purchase popularity? No wonder he should find himself at length in lack of talk to pay for his one thing needful! He had always been more or less dependent on commentaries for the joint he provided--and even for the cooking of it: was it any wonder that his guests should show less and less appetite for his dinners?

The hungry sheep looked up and were not fed!

To have food to give them, he must think! To think, he must have peace! to have peace, he must forget himself! to forget himself, he must repent, and walk in the truth! to walk in the truth, he must love God and his neighbour!--Even to have interest in the dry bone of criticism, which was all he could find in his larder, he must broil it--and so burn away in the slow fire of his intellect, now dull and damp enough from lack of noble purpose, every scrap of meat left upon it! His last relation to his work, his fondly cherished intellect, was departing from him, to leave him lord of a dustheap! In the unsavoury mound he grubbed and nosed and scraped dog-like, but could not uncover a single fragment that smelt of provender. The morning of Saturday came, and he recognized with a burst of agonizing sweat, that he dared not even imagine his appearance before his congregation: he had not one written word to read to them; and extempore utterance was, from conscious vacancy, impossible to him; he could not even call up one meaningless phrase to articulate! He flung his concordance sprawling upon the floor, snatched up his hat and clerical cane, and, scarce knowing what he did, presently found himself standing at the soutar's door, where he had already knocked, without a notion of what he was come to seek. The old parson, generally in a mood to quarrel with the soutar, had always walked straight into his workshop, and greeted him crouched over his work; but the new parson always waited on the doorstep for Maggie to admit him.

She had opened the door wide ere he knew why he had come, or could think of anything to say. And now he was in greater uneasiness than usual at the thought of the cobbler's deep-set black eyes about to be fixed upon him, as if to probe his very thoughts.

"Do you think your father would have time," he asked humbly, "to measure me for a pair of light boots?"

Mr. Blatherwick was very particular about his foot-gear, and had hitherto always fitted himself at Deemouth; but he had at length learned that nothing he could there buy approached in quality, either of material or workmanship, what the soutar supplied to his poorest customer: he would mend anything worth mending, but would never make anything inferior.

"Ye'll get what ye want at such and such place," he would answer, "and I doobtna it'll be as guid as can be made at the siller; but for my ain pairt, ye maun excuse me!"

"'Deed, sir, he'll be baith glad and prood to mak ye as guid a pair o' beets as he can compass," answered Maggie. "Jist step in here, sir, and lat him ken what ye want. My bairn's greitin, and I maun gang til 'im; it's seldom he cries oot!"

The minister walked in at the open door of the kitchen, and met the eyes of the soutar expectant.

"Ye're welcome, sir!" said MacLear, and returned his eyes to what he had for a moment interrupted.

"I want you to make me a nice pair of boots, if you please," said the parson, as cheerily as he could. "I am rather particular about the fit, I fear!"

"And what for no, sir?" answered the soutar. "I'll do what I can onygait, I promise ye--but wi' mair readiness nor confidence as to the fit; for I canna profess assurance o' fittin' the first time, no haein the necessar instinc' frae the mak' o' the man to the shape o' the fut, sir."

"Of course I should like to have them both neat and comfortable," said the parson.

"In coorse ye wad, sir, and sae would I! For I confess I wad fain hae my customers tak note o' my success in followin the paittern set afore me i' the first oreeginal fut!"

"But you will allow, I suppose, that a foot is seldom as perfect now as when the divine idea of the member was first embodied by its maker?" rejoined the minister.

"Ow, ay; there's been mony an interferin circumstance; but whan His kingdom's come, things 'll tak a turn for the redemption o' the feet as weel as the lave o' the body--as the apostle Paul says i' the twenty-third verse o' the aucht chapter o' his epistle to the Romans;--only I'm weel aveesed, sir, 'at there's no sic a thing as adoption mintit at i' the original Greek. That can hae no pairt i' what fowk ca's the plan o' salvation--as gien the consumin fire o' the Love eternal was to be ca'd a plan! Hech, minister, it scunners me! But for the fut, it's aye perfec' eneuch to be my pattern, for it's the only ane I hae to follow! It's Himsel sets the shape o' the shune this or that man maun weir!"

"That's very true--and the same applies to everything a man cannot help. A man has both the make of his mind and of his circumstances to do the best he can with, and sometimes they don't seem to fit each other--so well as, I hope, your boots will fit my feet."

"Ye're richt there, sir--only that no man's bun' to follow his inclinations or his circumstances, ony mair than he's bun' to alter his fut to the shape o' a ready-made beet!--But hoo wull ye hae them made, sir?--I mean what sort o' butes wad ye hae me mak?"

"Oh, I leave that to you, Mr. MacLear!--a sort of half Wellington, I suppose--a neat pair of short boots."

"I understand, sir."

"And now tell me," said the minister, moved by a sudden impulse, coming he knew not whence, "what you think of this new fad, if it be nothing worse, of the English clergy--I mean about the duty of confessing to the priest.-- I see they have actually prevailed upon that wretched creature we've all been reading about in the papers lately, to confess the murder of her little brother! Do you think they had any right to do that? Remember the jury had acquitted her."

"And has she railly confessed? I am glaid o' that! I only wuss they could get a haud o' Madeline Smith as weel, and persuaud her to confess! Eh, the state o' that puir crater's conscience! It 'maist gars me greit to think o' 't! Gien she wad but confess, houp wad spring to life in her sin-oppressed soul! Eh, but it maun be a gran' lichtenin to that puir thing! I'm richt glaid to hear o' 't."

"I didn't know, Mr. MacLear, that you favoured the power and influence of the priesthood to such an extent! We Presbyterian clergy are not in the way of doing the business of detectives, taking upon us to act as the agents of human justice! There is no one, guilty or not, but is safe with us!"

"As with any confessor, Papist or Protestant," rejoined the soutar. "If I understand your news, sir, it means that they persuaded the poor soul to confess her guilt, and so put herself safe in the hands of God!"

"And is not that to come between God and the sinner?"

"Doubtless, sir--in order to bring them together; to persuade the sinner to the first step toward reconciliation with God, and peace in his own mind."

"That he could take without the intervention of the priest!"

"Yes, but not without his own consenting will! And in this case, she would not, and did not confess without being persuaded to it!"

"They had no right to threaten her!"

"Did they threaten her? If they did, they were wrong.--And yet I don't know! In any case they did for her the very best thing that could be done! For they did get her, you tell me, to confess--and so cast from her the horror of carrying about in her secret heart the knowledge of an unforgiven crime! Christians of all denominations hold, I presume, that, to be forgiven, a sin must be confessed!"

"Yes, to God--that is enough! No mere man has a right to know the sins of his neighbour!"

"Not even the man against whom the sin was committed?"

"Suppose the sin has never come abroad, but remains hidden in the heart, is a man bound to confess it? Is he, for instance, bound to tell his neighbour that he used to hate him, and in his heart wish him evil?"

"The time micht come whan to confess even that would ease a man's hert! but in sic a case, the man's first duty, it seems to me, would be to watch for an opportunity o' doin that neebour a kin'ness. That would be the deid blow to his hatred! But where a man has done an act o' injustice, a wrang to his neebour, he has no ch'ice, it seems to me, but confess it: that neebour is the one from whom first he has to ask and receive forgiveness; and that neebour alone can lift the burden o' 't aff o' him! Besides, the confession may be but fair, to baud the blame frae bein laid at the door o' some innocent man!--And the author o' nae offence can affoord to forget," ended the soutar, "hoo the Lord said, 'There's naething happit-up, but maun come to the licht'!"

It seems to me that nothing could have led the minister so near the presentation of his own false position, except the will of God working in him to set him free. He continued, driven by an impulse he neither understood nor suspected--

"Suppose the thing not known, however, or likely to be known, and that the man's confession, instead of serving any good end, would only destroy his reputation and usefulness, bring bitter grief upon those who loved him, and nothing but shame to the one he had wronged--what would you say then?--You will please to remember, Mr. MacLear, that I am putting an entirely imaginary case, for the sake of argument only!"

"Eh, but I doobt--I doobt yer imaiginary case!" murmured the soutar to himself, hardly daring even to think his thought clearly, lest somehow it might reveal itself.

"In that case," he replied, "it seems to me the offender wad hae to cast aboot him for ane fit to be trustit, and to him reveal the haill affair, that he may get his help to see and do what's richt: it maks an unco differ to luik at a thing throuw anither man's een, i' the supposed licht o' anither man's conscience! The wrang dune may hae caused mair evil, that is, mair injustice, nor the man himsel kens! And what's the reputation ye speak o', or what's the eesefu'ness o' sic a man? Can it be worth onything? Isna his hoose a lee? isna it biggit upo the san'? What kin' o' a usefulness can that be that has hypocrisy for its fundation? Awa wi' 't! Lat him cry oot to a' the warl', 'I'm a heepocrit! I'm a worm, and no man!' Lat him cry oot to his makker, 'I'm a beast afore thee! Mak a man o' me'!"

As the soutar spoke, overcome by sympathy with the sinner, whom he could not help feeling in bodily presence before him, the minister, who had risen when he began to talk about the English clergy and confession, stood hearing with a face pale as death.

"For God's sake, minister," continued the soutar, "gien ye hae ony sic thing upo yer min', hurry and oot wi' 't! I dinna say to me, but to somebody--to onybody! Mak a clean breist o' 't, afore the Adversary has ye again by the thrapple!"

But here started awake in the minister the pride of superiority in station and learning: a shoemaker, from whom he had just ordered a pair of boots, to take such a liberty, who ought naturally to have regarded him as necessarily spotless! He drew himself up to his lanky height, and made reply--

"I am not aware, Mr. MacLear, that I have given you any pretext for addressing me in such terms! I told you, indeed, that I was putting a case, a very possible one, it is true, but not the less a merely imaginary one! You have shown me how unsafe it is to enter into an argument on any supposed case with one of limited education! It is my own fault, however; and I beg your pardon for having thoughtlessly led you into such a pitfall!--Good morning!"

As the door closed behind the parson, he began to felicitate himself on having so happily turned aside the course of a conversation whose dangerous drift he seemed now first to recognize; but he little thought how much he had already conveyed to the wide-eyed observation of one well schooled in the symptoms of human unrest.

"I must set a better watch over my thoughts lest they betray me!" he reflected; thus resolving to conceal himself yet more carefully from the one man in the place who would have cut for him the snare of the fowler.

"I was ower hasty wi' 'im!" concluded the soutar on his part. "But I think the truth has some grup o' 'im. His conscience is waukin up, I fancy, and growlin a bit; and whaur that tyke has ance taen haud, he's no ready to lowsen or lat gang! We maun jist lie quaiet a bit, and see! His hoor 'ill come!"

The minister being one who turned pale when angry, walked home with a face of such corpse-like whiteness, that a woman who met him said to herself, "What can ail the minister, bonny laad! He's luikin as scared as a corp! I doobt that fule body the soutar's been angerin him wi' his havers!"

The first thing he did when he reached the manse, was to turn, nevertheless, to the chapter and verse in the epistle to the Romans, which the soutar had indicated, and which, through all his irritation, had, strangely enough, remained unsmudged in his memory; but the passage suggested nothing, alas! out of which he could fabricate a sermon. Could it have proved otherwise with a heart that was quite content to have God no nearer him than a merely adoptive father? He found at the same time that his late interview with the soutar had rendered the machinery of his thought-factory no fitter than before for weaving a tangled wisp of loose ends, which was all he could command, into the homogeneous web of a sermon; and at last was driven to his old stock of carefully preserved preordination sermons; where he was unfortunate enough to make choice of the one least of all fitted to awake comprehension or interest in his audience.

His selection made, and the rest of the day thus cleared for inaction, he sat down and wrote a letter. Ever since his fall he had been successfully practising the art of throwing a morsel straight into one or other of the throats of the triple-headed Cerberus, his conscience--which was more clever in catching such sops, than they were in choking the said howler; and one of them, the letter mentioned, was the sole wretched result of his talk with the soutar. Addressed to a late divinity-classmate, he asked in it incidentally whether his old friend had ever heard anything of the little girl--he could just remember her name and the pretty face of her-- Isy, general slavey to her aunt's lodgers in the Canongate, of whom he was one: he had often wondered, he said, what had become of her, for he had been almost in love with her for a whole half-year! I cannot but take the inquiry as the merest pretence, with the sole object of deceiving himself into the notion of having at least made one attempt to discover Isy. His friend forgot to answer the question, and James Blatherwick never alluded to his having put it to him.

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