Salted With Fire

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Never dawned Sunday upon soul more wretched. He had not indeed to climb into his watchman's tower without the pretence of a proclamation, but on that very morning his father had put the mare between the shafts of the gig to drive his wife to Tiltowie and their son's church, instead of the nearer and more accessible one in the next parish, whither they oftener went. Arrived there, it was not wonderful they should find themselves so dissatisfied with the spiritual food set before them, as to wish heartily they had remained at home, or driven to the nearer church. The moment the service was over, Mr. Blatherwick felt much inclined to return at once, without waiting an interview with his son; for he had no remark to make on the sermon that would be pleasant either for his son or his wife to hear; but Marion combated the impulse with entreaties that grew almost angry, and Peter was compelled to yield, although sullenly. They waited in the churchyard for the minister's appearance.

"Weel, Jeemie," said his father, shaking hands with him limply, "yon was some steeve parritch ye gied us this mornin!--and the meal itsel was baith auld and soor!"

The mother gave her son a pitiful smile, as if in deprecation of her husband's severity, but said not a word; and James, haunted by the taste of failure the sermon had left in his own mouth, and possibly troubled by sub-conscious motions of self-recognition, could hardly look his father in the face, and felt as if he had been rebuked by him before all the congregation.

"Father," he replied in a tone of some injury, "you do not know how difficult it is to preach a fresh sermon every Sunday!"

"Ca' ye yon fresh, Jeemie? To me it was like the fuistit husks o' the half-faimisht swine! Man, I wuss sic provender would drive yersel whaur there's better and to spare! Yon was lumps o' brose in a pig-wash o' stourum! The tane was eneuch to choke, and the tither to droon ye!"

James made a wry face, and the sight of his annoyance broke the ice gathering over the well-spring in his mother's heart; tears rose in her eyes, and for one brief moment she saw the minister again her bairn. But he gave her no filial response; ambition, and greed of the praise of men, had blocked in him the movements of the divine, and corrupted his wholesomest feelings, so that now he welcomed freely as a conviction the suggestion that his parents had never cherished any sympathy with him or his preaching; which reacted in a sudden flow of resentment, and a thickening of the ice on his heart. Some fundamental shock must dislodge that rooted, overmastering ice, if ever his wintered heart was to feel the power of a reviving Spring!

The threesum family stood in helpless silence for a few moments; then the father said to the mother--

"I doobt we maun be settin oot for hame, Mirran!"

"Will you not come into the manse, and have something before you go?" said James, not without anxiety lest his housekeeper should be taken at unawares, and their acceptance should annoy her: he lived in constant dread of offending his housekeeper!

"Na, I thank ye," returned his father: "it wad taste o' stew!" (blown dust).

It was a rude remark; but Peter was not in a kind mood; and when love itself is unkind, it is apt to be burning and bitter and merciless.

Marion burst into tears. James turned away, and walked home with a gait of wounded dignity. Peter went in haste toward the churchyard gate, to interrupt with the bit his mare's feed of oats. Marion saw his hands tremble pitifully as he put the headstall over the creature's ears, and reproached herself that she had given him such a cold-hearted son. She climbed in a helpless way into the gig, and sat waiting for her husband.

"I'm that dry 'at I could drink cauld watter!" he said, as he took his place beside her.

They drove from the place of tombs, but they carried death with them, and left the sunlight behind them.

Neither spoke a word all the way. Not until she was dismounting at their own door, did the mother venture her sole remark, "Eh, sirs!" It meant a world of unexpressed and inexpressible misery. She went straight up to the little garret where she kept her Sunday bonnet, and where she said her prayers when in especial misery. Thence she descended after a while to her bedroom, there washed her face, and sadly prepared for a hungerless encounter with the dinner Isy had been getting ready for them--hoping to hear something about the sermon, perhaps even some little word about the minister himself. But Isy too must share in the disappointment of that vainly shining Sunday morning! Not a word passed between her master and mistress. Their son was called the pastor of the flock, but he was rather the porter of the sheepfold than the shepherd of the sheep. He was very careful that the church should be properly swept and sometimes even garnished; but about the temple of the Holy Ghost, the hearts of his sheep, he knew nothing, and cared as little. The gloom of his parents, their sense of failure and loss, grew and deepened all the dull hot afternoon, until it seemed almost to pass their endurance. At last, however, it abated, as does every pain, for life is at its root: thereto ordained, it slew itself by exhaustion. "But," thought the mother, "there's Monday coming, and what am I to do then?" With the new day would return the old trouble, the gnawing, sickening pain that she was childless: her daughter was gone, and no son was left her! Yet the new day when it came, brought with it its new possibility of living one day more!

But the minister was far more to be pitied than those whose misery he was. All night long he slept with a sense of ill-usage sublying his consciousness, and dominating his dreams; but with the sun came a doubt whether he had not acted in unseemly fashion, when he turned and left his father and mother in the churchyard. Of course they had not treated him well; but what would his congregation, some of whom might have been lingering in the churchyard, have thought, to see him leave them as he did? His only thought, however, was to take precautions against their natural judgment of his behaviour.

After his breakfast, he set out, his custom of a Monday morning, for what he called a quiet stroll; but his thoughts kept returning, ever with fresh resentment, to the soutar's insinuation--for such he counted it--on the Saturday. Suddenly, uninvited, and displacing the phantasm of her father, arose before him the face of Maggie; and with it the sudden question, What then was the real history of the baby on whom she spent such an irrational amount of devotion. The soutar's tale of her finding him was too apocryphal! Might not Maggie have made a slip? Or why should the pretensions of the soutar be absolutely trusted? Surely he had, some time or other, heard a rumour! A certain satisfaction arose with the suggestion that this man, so ready to believe evil of his neighbour, had not kept his own reputation, or that of his house, perhaps, undefiled. He tried to rebuke himself the next moment, it is true, for having harboured a moment's satisfaction in the wrong-doing of another: it was unbefitting the pastor of a Christian flock! But the thought came and came again, and he took no continuous trouble to cast it out. When he went home, he put a question or two to his housekeeper about the little one, but she only smiled paukily, and gave him no answer.

After his two-o'clock dinner, he thought it would be Christian-like to forgive his parents: he would therefore call at Stonecross--which would tend to wipe out any undesirable offence on the minds of his parents, and also to prevent any gossip that might injure him in his sacred profession! He had not been to see them for a long time; his visits to them gave him no satisfaction; but he never dreamed of attributing that to his own want of cordiality. He judged it well, however, to avoid any appearance of evil, and therefore thought it might be his duty to pay them in future a hurried call about once a month. For the past, he excused himself because of the distance, and his not being a good walker! Even now that he had made up his mind he was in no haste to set out, but had a long snooze in his armchair first: it was evening when he climbed the hill and came in sight of the low gable behind which he was born.

Isy was in the garden gathering up the linen she had spread to dry on the bushes, when his head came in sight at the top of the brae. She knew him at once, and stooping behind the gooseberries, fled to the back of the house, and so away to the moor. James saw the white flutter of a sheet, but nothing of the hands that took it. He had heard that his mother had a nice young woman to help her in the house, but cherished so little interest in home-affairs that the news waked in him no curiosity.

Ever since she came to Stonecross, Isy had been on the outlook lest James should unexpectedly surprise her, and so be himself surprised into an involuntary disclosure of his relation to her; and not even by the long deferring of her hope to see him yet again, had she come to pretermit her vigilance. She did not intend to avoid him altogether, only to take heed not to startle him into any recognition of her in the presence of his mother. But when she saw him approaching the house, her courage failed her, and she fled to avoid the danger of betraying both, herself and him. She was in truth ashamed of meeting him, in her imagination feeling guiltily exposed to his just reproaches. All the time he remained that evening with his mother, she kept watching the house, not once showing herself until he was gone, when she reappeared as if just returned from the moor, where Mrs. Blatherwick imagined her still indulging the hope of finding her baby, concerning whom her mistress more than doubted the very existence, taking the supposed fancy for nothing but a half-crazy survival from the time of her insanity before the Robertsons found her.

The minister made a comforting peace with his mother, telling her a part of the truth, namely, that he had been much out of sorts during the week, and quite unable to write a new sermon; and that so he had been driven at the very last to take an old one, and that so hurriedly that he had failed to recall correctly the subject and nature of it; that he had actually begun to read it before finding that it was altogether unsuitable--at which very moment, fatally for his equanimity, he discovered his parents in the congregation, and was so dismayed that he could not recover his self- possession, whence had ensued his apparent lack of cordiality! It was a lame, yet somewhat plausible excuse, and served to silence for the moment, although it was necessarily so far from satisfying his mother's heart. His father was out of doors, and him James did not see.

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