Salted With Fire

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The next morning James was in the field with the rest long before the sun was up. Day by day he grew stronger in mind and in body, until at length he was not only quite equal to the harvest-work, but capable of anything required of a farm servant.

His deliverance from the slavery of Sunday prayers and sermons, and his consequent sense of freedom and its delight, greatly favoured his growth in health and strength. Before the winter came, however, he had begun to find his heart turning toward the pulpit with a waking desire after utterance. For, almost as soon as his day's work ceased to exhaust him, he had begun to take up the study of the sayings and doings of the Lord of men, full of eagerness to verify the relation in which he stood toward him, and, through him, toward that eternal atmosphere in which he lived and moved and had his being, God himself.

One day, with a sudden questioning hunger, he rose in haste from his knees, and turned almost trembling to his Greek Testament, to find whether the words of the Master, "If any man will do the will of the Father," meant "If any man is willing to do the will of the Father;" and finding that just what they did mean, he was thenceforward so far at rest as to go on asking and hoping; nor was it then long before he began to feel he had something worth telling, and must tell it to any that would hear. And heartily he betook himself to pray for that spirit of truth which the Lord had promised to them that asked it of their Father in heaven.

He talked with his wife about what he had found; he talked with his father about it; he went to the soutar, and talked with him about it.

Now the soutar had for many years made a certain use of his Sundays, by which he now saw he might be of service to James: he went four miles into the country to a farm on the other side of Stonecross, to hold there a Sunday-school. It was the last farm for a long way in that direction: beyond it lay an unproductive region, consisting mostly of peat-mosses, and lone barren hills--where the waters above the firmament were but imperfectly divided from the waters below the firmament. For there roots of the hills coming rather close together, the waters gathered and made marshy places, with here and there a patch of ground on which crops could be raised. There were, however, many more houses, such as they were, than could have been expected from the appearance of the district. In one spot, indeed, not far from the farm I have mentioned, there was a small, thin hamlet. A long way from church or parish-school, and without any, nearer than several miles, to minister to the spiritual wants of the people, it was a rather rough and ignorant place, with a good many superstitions-- none of them in their nature specially mischievous, except indeed as they blurred the idea of divine care and government--just the country for bogill-baes and brownie-baes, boodies and water-kelpies to linger and disport themselves, long after they had elsewhere disappeared!

When, therefore, the late minister came seeking his counsel, the soutar proposed, without giving any special reason for it, that he should accompany him the next Sunday afternoon, to his school at Bogiescratt; and James consenting, the soutar undertook to call for him at Stonecross on his way.

"Mr. MacLear," said James, as they walked along the rough parish road together, "I have but just arrived at a point I ought to have reached before even entertaining a thought of opening my mouth upon anything belonging to religion. Perhaps I knew some little things about religion; certainly I knew nothing of religion; least of all had I made any discovery for myself in religion; and before that, how can a man understand or know anything whatever concerning it? Even now I may be presuming, but now at last, if I may dare to say so, I do seem to have begun to recognize something of the relation between a man and the God who made him; and with the sense of that, as I ventured to hint when I saw you last Friday, there has risen in my mind a desire to communicate to my fellow-men something of what I have seen and learned. One thing I dare to hope--that, at the first temptation to show-off, I shall be made aware of my danger, and have the grace given me to pull up. And one thing I have resolved upon--that, if ever I preach again, I will never again write a sermon. I know I shall make many blunders, and do the thing very badly; but failure itself will help to save me from conceit--will keep me, I hope, from thinking of myself at all, enabling me to leave myself in God's hands, willing to fail if he please. Don't you think, Mr. MacLear, we may even now look to God for what we ought to say, as confidently as if, like the early Christians, we stood accused before the magistrates?" "I div that, Maister Jeames!" answered the soutar. "Hide yersel in God, sir, and oot o' that secret place, secret and safe, speyk--and fear naething. And never ye mint at speykin doon to your congregation. Luik them straucht i' the een, and say what at the moment ye think and feel; and dinna hesitate to gie them the best ye hae."

"Thank you, thank you, sir! I think I understand," replied James.--"If ever I speak again, I should like to begin in your school!"

"Ye sall--this vera nicht, gien ye like," rejoined the soutar. "I think ye hae something e'en noo upo yer min' 'at ye would like to say to them--but we'll see hoo ye feel aboot it efter I hae said a word to them first!"

"When you have said what you want to say, Mr. MacLear, give me a look; and if I have anything to say, I will respond to your sign. Then you can introduce me, saying what you will. Only dinna spare me; use me after your judgment."

The soutar held out his hand to his disciple, and they finished their journey in silence.

When they reached the farm-house, the small gathering was nearly complete. It was mostly of farm-labourers; but a few of the congregation worked in a quarry, where serpentine lay under the peat. In this serpentine occurred veins of soapstone, occasionally of such a thickness as to be itself the object of the quarrier: it was used in the making of porcelain; and small quantities were in request for other purposes.

When the soutar began, James was a little shocked at first to hear him use his mother-tongue as in his ordinary conversation; but any sense of its unsuitableness vanished presently, and James soon began to feel that the vernacular gave his friend additional power of expression, and therewith of persuasion.

"My frien's, I was jist thinkin, as I cam ower the hill," he began, "hoo we war a' made wi' differin pooers--some o' 's able to dee ae thing best, and some anither; and that led me to remark, that it was the same wi' the warl we live in--some pairts o' 't fit for growin aits, and some bere, and some wheat, or pitatas; and hoo ilk varyin rig had to be turnt til its ain best eese. We a' ken what a lot o' eeses the bonny green-and-reid-mottlet marble can be put til; but it wadna do weel for biggin hooses, specially gien there war mony streaks o' saipstane intil 't. Still it's no 'at the saipstane itsel's o' nae eese, for ye ken there's a heap o' eeses it can be put til. For ae thing, the tailor taks a bit o' 't to mark whaur he's to sen' the shears alang the claith, when he's cuttin oot a pair o' breeks; and again they mix't up wi the clay they tak for the finer kin's o' crockery. But upo' the ither han' there's ae thing it's eesed for by some, 'at canna be considert a richt eese to mak o' 't: there's ae wull tribe in America they tell me o', 'at ait a hantle o' 't--and that's a thing I can_not_ un'erstan'; for it diz them, they say, no guid at a', 'cep, maybe, it be jist to fill-in the toom places i' their stammacks, puir reid craturs, and haud their ribs ohn stucken thegither--and maybe that's jist what they ait it for! Eh, but they maun be sair hungert afore they tak til the vera dirt! But they're only savage fowk, I'm thinkin, 'at hae hardly begun to be men ava!

"Noo ye see what I'm drivin' at? It's this--that things hae aye to be put to their richt eeses! But there are guid eeses and better eeses, and things canna aye be putten to their best eeses; only, whaur they can, it's a shame to put them to ony ither but their best! Noo, what's the best eese o' a man?--what's a man made for? The carritchis (catechism) says, To glorifee God. And hoo is he to dee that? Jist by deein the wull o' God. For the ae perfec' man said he was born intil the warl for that ae special purpose, to dee the wull o' him that sent him. A man's for a heap o' eeses, but that ae eese covers them a'. Whan he's deein' the wull o' God, he's deein jist a'thing.

"Still there are vahrious wy's in which a man can be deein the wull o' his Father in h'aven, and the great thing for ilk ane is to fin' oot the best w'y he can set aboot deein that wull.

"Noo here's a man sittin aside me that I maun help set to the best eese he's fit for--and that is, tellin ither fowk what he kens aboot the God that made him and them, and stirrin o' them up to dee what He would hae them dee. The fac is, that the man was ance a minister o' the Kirk o' Scotlan'; but whan he was a yoong man, he fell intil a great faut:--a yoong man's faut--I'm no gaein to excuse 't--dinna think it!--Only I chairge ye, be ceevil til him i' yer vera thouchts, rememberin hoo mony things ye hae dene yersels 'at ye hae to be ashamit o', though some o' them may never hae come to the licht; for, be sure o' this, he has repentit richt sair. Like the prodigal, he grew that ashamit o' what he had dene, that he gied up his kirk, and gaed hame to the day's darg upon his father's ferm. And that's what he's at the noo, thof he be a scholar, and that a ripe ane! And by his repentance he's learnt a heap that he didna ken afore, and that he couldna hae learnt ony ither w'y than by turnin wi' shame frae the path o' the transgressor. I hae broucht him wi' me this day, sirs, to tell ye something--he hasna said to me what--that the Lord in his mercy has tellt him. I'll say nae mair: Mr. Bletherwick, wull ye please tell's what the Lord has putten it intil yer min' to say?"

The soutar sat down; and James got up, white and trembling. For a moment or two he was unable to speak, but overcoming his emotion, and falling at once into the old Scots tongue, he said--

"My frien's, I hae little richt to stan' up afore ye and say onything; for, as some o' ye ken, if no afore, at least noo, frae what my frien' the soutar has jist been tellin ye, I was ance a minister o' the kirk, but upon a time I behavet mysel that ill, that, whan I cam to my senses, I saw it my duty to withdraw, and mak room for anither to tak up my disgracet bishopric, as was said o' Judas the traitor. But noo I seem to hae gotten some mair licht, and to ken some things I didna ken afore; sae, turnin my back upo' my past sin, and believin God has forgien me, and is willin I sud set my han' to his pleuch ance mair, I hae thoucht to mak a new beginnin here in a quaiet heumble fashion, tellin ye something o' what I hae begoud, i' the mercy o' God, to un'erstan' a wee for mysel. Sae noo, gien yell turn, them o' ye that has broucht yer buiks wi' ye, to the saeventh chapter o' John's gospel, and the saeventeenth verse, ye'll read wi me what the Lord says there to the fowk o Jerus'lem: Gien ony man be wullin to dee His wull, he'll ken whether what I tell him comes frae God, or whether I say 't only oot o' my ain heid. Luik at it for yersels, for that's what it says i' the Greek, the whilk is plainer than the English to them that un'erstan' the auld Greek tongue: Gien onybody be wullin to dee the wull o' God, he'll ken whether my teachin comes frae God, or I say 't o' mysel."

From that he went on to tell them that, if they kept trusting in God, and doing what Jesus told them, any mistake they made would but help them the better to understand what God and his son would have them do. The Lord gave them no promise, he said, of knowing what this or that man ought to do; but only of knowing what the man himself ought to do. And he illustrated this by the rebuke the Lord gave Peter when, leaving inquiry into the will of God that he might do it, he made inquiry into the decree of God concerning his friend that he might know it; seeking wherewithal, not to prophesy, but to foretell. Then he showed them the difference between the meaning of the Greek word, and that of the modern English word prophesy.

The little congregation seemed to hang upon his words, and as they were going away, thanked him heartily for thus talking to them.

That same night as James and the soutar were going home together, they were overtaken by an early snowstorm, and losing their way, were in the danger, not a small one, of having to pass the night on the moor. But happily, the farmer's wife, in whose house was their customary assembly, had, as they were taking their leave, made the soutar a present of some onion bulbs, of a sort for which her garden was famous: exhausted in conflict with the freezing blast, they had lain down, apparently to die before the morning, when the soutar bethought himself of the onions; and obeying their nearer necessity, they ate instead of keeping them to plant; with the result that they were so refreshed, and so heartened for battle with the wind and snow, that at last, in the small hours of the morning, they reached home, weary and nigh frozen.

All through the winter, James accompanied the soutar to his Sunday-school, sometimes on his father's old gig-horse, but oftener on foot. His father would occasionally go also; and then the men of Stonecross began to go, with the cottar and his wife; so that the little company of them gradually increased to about thirty men and women, and about half as many children. In general, the soutar gave a short opening address; but he always made "the minister" speak; and thus James Blatherwick, while encountering many hidden experiences, went through his apprenticeship to extempore preaching; and, hardly knowing how, grew capable at length of following out a train of thought in his own mind even while he spoke, and that all the surer from the fact that, as it rose, it found immediate utterance; and at the same time it was rendered the more living and potent by the sight of the eager faces of his humble friends fixed upon him, as they drank in, sometimes even anticipated, the things he was saying. He seemed to himself at times almost to see their thoughts taking reality and form to accompany him whither he led them; while the stream of his thought, as it disappeared from his consciousness and memory, seemed to settle in the minds of those who heard him, like seed cast on open soil--some of it, at least, to grow up in resolves, and bring forth fruit. And all the road as the friends returned, now in moonlight, now in darkness and rain, sometimes in wind and snow, they had such things to think of and talk about, that the way never seemed long. Thus dwindled by degrees Blatherwick's self-reflection and self-seeking, and, growing divinely conscious, he grew at the same time divinely self-oblivious. Once, upon such a home-coming, as his wife was helping him off with his wet boots, he looked up in her face and said--

"To think, Isy, that here am I, a dull, selfish creature, so long desiring only for myself knowledge and influence, now at last grown able to feel in my heart all the way home, that I took every step, one after the other, only by the strength of God in me, caring for me as my own making father! --Ken ye what I'm trying to say, Isy, my dear?"

"I canna be a'thegither certain I un'erstan'," answered his wife; "but I'll keep thinkin aboot it, and maybe I'll come til't!"

"I can desire no more," answered James, "for until the Lord lat ye see a thing, hoo can you or I or onybody see the thing that he maun see first! And what is there for us to desire, but to see things as God sees them, and would hae us see them? I used to think the soutar a puir fule body whan he was sayin the vera things I'm tryin to say noo! I saw nae mair what he was efter than that puir collie there at my feet--maybe no half sae muckle, for wha can tell what he mayna be thinkin, wi' that far awa luik o' his!"

"Div ye think, Jeames, that ever we'll be able to see inside thae doggies, and ken what they're thinkin?"

"I wouldna won'er what we mayna come til; for ye ken Paul says, 'A' things are yours, and ye are Christ's, and Christ is God's!' Wha can tell but the vera herts o' the doggies may ae day lie bare and open to oor herts, as to the hert o' Him wi' whom they and we hae to do! Eh, but the thouchts o' a doggie maun be a won'erfu' sicht! And syne to think o' the thouchts o' Christ aboot that doggie! We'll ken them, I daurna weel doobt, some day! I'm surer aboot that nor aboot kennin the thouchts o' the doggie himsel!"

Another Sunday night, having come home through a terrible storm of thunder and lightning, he said to Isy--

"I hae been feelin, a' the w'y hame, as gien, afore lang, I micht hae to gie a wider testimony. The apostles and the first Christians, ye see, had to beir testimony to the fac' that the man that was hangt and dee'd upo the cross, the same was up again oot o' the grave, and gangin aboot the warl; noo I canna beir testimony to that, for I wasna at that time awaur o' onything; but I might weel be called upon to beir testimony to the fac' that, whaur ance he lay deid and beeried, there he's come alive at last-- that is, i' the sepulchre o' my hert! For I hae seen him noo, and ken him noo--the houp o' glory in my hert and my life! Whatever he said ance, that I believe for ever."

The talks James Blatherwick and the soutar had together, were now, according to Mr. Robertson, even wonderful. But it was chiefly the soutar that spoke, while James sat and listened in silence. On one occasion, however, James had spoken out freely, and indeed eloquently; and Mr. Robertson, whom the soutar accompanied to his inn that night, had said to him ere they parted--

"Do you see any good and cogent reason, Mr. MacLear, why this man should not resume his pastoral office?"

"One thing at least I am sure of," answered the soutar, "--that he is far fitter for it than ever he was in his life before."

Mr. Robertson repeated this to James the next day, adding--

And I am certain every one who knows you will vote the restoration of your licence!"

"I must speak to Isy about it," answered James with simplicity.

"That is quite right, of course," rejoined Mr. Robertson: "you know I tell my wife everything that I am at liberty to tell."

"Will not some public recognition of my reinstatement be necessary?" suggested James.

"I will have a talk about it with some of the leaders of the synod, and let you know what they say," answered Mr. Robertson.

"Of course I am ready," returned Blatherwick, "to make any public confession judged necessary or desirable; but that would involve my wife; and although I know perfectly that she will be ready for anything required of her, it remains not the less my part to do my best to shield her!"

"Of one thing I think you may be sure--that, with our present moderator, your case will be handled with more than delicacy--with tenderness!"

"I must not doubt it; but for myself I would deprecate indulgence. I must have a talk with my wife about it! She is sure to know what will be best!"

"My advice is to leave it all in the hands of the moderator. We have no right to choose, appoint, or apportion our own penalties!"

James went home and laid the whole matter before his wife.

Instead of looking frightened, or even anxious, Isy laid little Peter softly in his crib, threw her arms round James's neck, and cried--

"Thank God, my husband, that you have come to this! Don't think to leave me out, I beg of you. I am more than ready to accept my shame. I have always said I was to blame, and not you! It was me that should have known better!"

"You trusted me, and I proved quite unworthy of your confidence!--But had ever man a wife to be so proud of as I of you!"

Mr. Robertson brought the matter carefully before the synod; but neither James nor Isy ever heard anything more of it--except the announcement of the cordial renewal of James's licence. This was soon followed by the offer of a church in the poorest and most populous parish north of the Tweed.

"See the loving power at the heart of things, Isy!" said James to his wife: "out of evil He has brought good, the best good, and nothing but good!--a good ripened through my sin and selfishness and ambition, bringing upon you as well as me disgrace and suffering! The evil in me had to come out and show itself, before it could be cleared away! Some people nothing but an earthquake will rouse from their dead sleep: I was one of such. God in His mercy brought on the earthquake: it woke me and saved me from death. Ignorant creatures go about asking why God permits evil: we know why! It may be He could with a word cause evil to cease--but would that be to create good? The word might make us good like oxen or harmless sheep, but would that be a goodness worthy of him who was made in the image of God? If a man ceased to be capable of evil, he must cease to be a man! What would the goodness be that could not help being good--that had no choice in the matter, but must be such because it was so made? God chooses to be good, else he would not be God: man must choose to be good, else he cannot be the son of God! Herein we see the grand love of the Father of men--that he gives them a share, and that share as necessary as his own, in the making of themselves! Thus, and thus only, that is, by willing the good, can they become 'partakers of the divine nature!' Satan said, 'Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil!' God says, 'Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil, and choosing the good.' For the sake of this, that we may come to choose the good, all the discipline of the world exists. God is teaching us to know good and evil in some real degree as they are, and not as they seem to the incomplete; so shall we learn to choose the good and refuse the evil. He would make his children see the two things, good and evil, in some measure as they are, and then say whether they will be good children or not. If they fail, and choose the evil, he will take yet harder measures with them. If at last it should prove possible for a created being to see good and evil as they are, and choose the evil, then, and only then, there would, I presume, be nothing left for God but to set his foot upon him and crush him, as we crush a noxious insect. But God is deeper in us than our own life; yea, God's life is the very centre and creative cause of that life which we call ours; therefore is the Life in us stronger than the Death, in as much as the creating Good is stronger than the created Evil."

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