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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMalcolm - Chapter 60. The Sacrament
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Malcolm - Chapter 60. The Sacrament Post by :ORACC Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :2775

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Malcolm - Chapter 60. The Sacrament

CHAPTER LX. THE SACRAMENT

Abandoning all her remaining effects to Jean's curiosity, if indeed it were no worse demon that possessed her, Miss Horn, carrying a large reticule, betook herself to the Lossie Arms, to await the arrival of the mail coach from the west, on which she was pretty sure of a vacant seat.

It was a still, frosty, finger pinching dawn, and the rime lay thick wherever it could lie; but Miss Horn's red nose was carried in front of her in a manner that suggested nothing but defiance to the fiercest attacks of cold. Declining the offered shelter of the landlady's parlour, she planted herself on the steps of the inn, and there stood until the sound of the guard's horn came crackling through the frosty air, heralding the apparition of a flaming chariot, fit for the sun god himself, who was now lifting his red radiance above the horizon. Having none inside, the guard gallantly offered his one lady passenger a place in the heart of his vehicle, but she declined the attention--to him, on the ground of preferring the outside,--for herself, on the ground of uncertainty whether he had a right to bestow the privilege. But there was such a fire in her heart that no frost could chill her; such a bright bow in her west, that the sun now rising in the world's east was but a reflex of its splendour. True, the cloud against which it glowed was very dark with bygone wrong and suffering, but so much the more brilliant seemed the hope now arching the entrance of the future. Still, although she never felt the cold, and the journey was but of a few miles, it seemed long and wearisome to her active spirit, which would gladly have sent her tall person striding along, to relieve both by the discharge of the excessive generation of muscle working electricity.

At length the coach drove into the town, and stopped at the Duff Arms. Miss Horn descended, straightened her long back with some difficulty, shook her feet, loosened her knees, and after a douceur to the guard more liberal than was customary, in acknowledgment of the kindness she had been unable to accept, marched off with the stride of a grenadier to find her lawyer.

Their interview did not relieve her of much of the time, which now hung upon her like a cloak of lead, and the earliness of the hour would not have deterred her from at once commencing a round of visits to the friends she had in the place; but the gates of the lovely environs of Fife House stood open, and although there were no flowers now, and the trees were leafless, waiting in poverty and patience for their coming riches, they drew her with the offer of a plentiful loneliness and room. She accepted it, entered, and for two hours wandered about their woods and walks.

Entering with her the well known domain, the thought meets me: what would be the effect on us men of such a periodical alternation between nothing and abundance as these woods undergo? Perhaps in the endless variety of worlds there may be one in which that is among the means whereby its dwellers are saved from self and lifted into life; a world in which during the one half of the year they walk in state, in splendour, in bounty, and during the other are plunged in penury and labour.

Such speculations were not in Miss Horn's way; but she was better than the loftiest of speculations, and we will follow her. By and by she came out of the woods, and found herself on the banks of the Wan Water, a broad, fine river, here talking in wide rippled innocence from bank to bank, there lying silent and motionless and gloomy, as if all the secrets of the drowned since the creation of the world lay dim floating in its shadowy bosom. In great sweeps it sought the ocean, and the trees stood back from its borders, leaving a broad margin of grass between, as if the better to see it go. Just outside the grounds and before reaching the sea, it passed under a long bridge of many arches--then, trees and grass and flowers and all greenery left behind, rushed through a waste of storm heaped pebbles into the world water. Miss Horn followed it out of the grounds and on to the beach.

Here its channel was constantly changing. Even while she stood gazing at its rapid rush, its bank of pebbles and sand fell almost from under her feet. But her thoughts were so busy that she scarcely observed even what she saw, and hence it was not strange that she should be unaware of having been followed and watched all the way. Now from behind a tree, now from a corner of the mausoleum, now from behind a rock, now over the parapet of the bridge, the mad laird had watched her. From a heap of shingle on the opposite side of the Wan Water, he was watching her now. Again and again he had made a sudden movement as if to run and accost her, but had always drawn back again and concealed himself more carefully than before.

At length she turned in the direction of the town. It was a quaint old place--a royal burgh for five centuries, with streets irregular and houses of much individuality. Most of the latter were humble in appearance, bare and hard in form, and gray in hue; but there were curious corners, low archways, uncompromising gables, some with corbel steps--now and then an outside stair, a delicious little dormer window, or a gothic doorway, sometimes with a bit of carving over it.

With the bent head of the climber, Miss Horn was walking up a certain street, called from its precipitousness the Strait, that is difficult, Path--an absolute Hill of Difficulty, when she was accosted by an elderly man, who stood in the doorway of one of the houses.

"Ken ye wha 's yon watchin' ye frae the tap o' the brae, mem?" he said.

Miss Horn looked up: there was no one there.

"That 's it! he's awa' again! That's the w'y he 's been duin' this last hoor, at least, to my knowledge. I saw him watchin' ilka mov' ye made, mem, a' the time ye was doon upo' the shore--an there he is noo, or was a meenute ago, at the heid o' the brae, glowerin' the een oot o' 's heid at ye, mem!"

"Div ye ken him?" asked Miss Horn.

"No, mem--'cep' by sicht o' ee; he hasna been lang aboot the toon. Some fowk sae he's dementit; but he's unco quaiet, speyks to nobody, an' gien onybody speyk to him, jist rims. Cud he be kennin' you, no? Ye 're a stranger here, mem."

"No sic a stranger, John!" returned Miss Horn, calling the man by his name, for she recognized him as the beadle of the parish church. "What 's the body like?"

"A puir, wee, hump backit cratur, wi' the face o' a gentleman."

"I ken him weel," said Miss Horn. "He is a gentleman--gien ever God made ane. But he 's sair afflickit. Whaur does he lie at nicht --can ye tell me?"

"I ken naething aboot him, mem, by what comes o' seein' him sic like 's the day, an' ance teetin (peering) in at the door o' the kirk. I wad hae weised him till a seat, but the moment II luikit at him, awa' he ran. He 's unco cheenged though, sin' the first time I saw him."

Since he lost Phemy, fear had been slaying him. No one knew where he slept; but in the daytime he haunted the streets, judging them safer than the fields or woods. The moment any one accosted him, however, he fled like the wind. He had "no art to find the mind's construction in the face;" and not knowing whom to trust, he distrusted all. Humanity was good in his eyes, but there was no man. The vision of Miss Horn was like the dayspring from on high to him; with her near, the hosts of the Lord seemed to encamp around him; but the one word he had heard her utter about his back, had caused in him an invincible repugnance to appearing before her, and hence it was that at a distance he had haunted her steps without nearer approach.

There was indeed a change upon him! His clothes hung about him-- not from their own ragged condition only, but also from the state of skin and bone to which he was reduced, his hump showing like a great peg over which they had been carelessly cast. Half the round of his eyes stood out from his face, whose pallor betokened the ever recurring rush of the faintly sallying troops back to the citadel of the heart. He had always been ready to run, but now he looked as if nothing but weakness and weariness kept him from running always. Miss Horn had presently an opportunity of marking the sad alteration.

For ere she reached the head of the Strait Path, she heard sounds as of boys at play, and coming out on the level of the High Street, saw a crowd, mostly of little boys, in the angle made by a garden wall with a house whose gable stood halfway across the pavement. It being Saturday, they had just left school in all the exuberance of spirits to which a half holiday gives occasion. In most of them the animal nature was, for the time at least, far wider awake than the human, and their proclivity towards the sport of the persecutor was strong. To them any living thing that looked at once odd and helpless was an outlaw--a creature to be tormented, or at best hunted beyond the visible world. A meagre cat, an overfed pet spaniel, a ditchless frog, a horse whose days hung over the verge of the knacker's yard--each was theirs in virtue of the amusement latent in it, which it was their business to draw out; but of all such property an idiot would yield the most, and a hunchback idiot, such as was the laird in their eyes, was absolutely invaluable-- beyond comparison the best game in the known universe. When he left Portlossie, the laird knew pretty well what risks he ran, although he preferred even them to the dangers he hoped by his flight to avoid. It was he whom the crowd in question surrounded.

They had begun by rough teasing, to which he had responded with smiles--a result which did not at all gratify them, their chief object being to enrage him. They had therefore proceeded to small torments, and were ready to go on to worse, their object being with the laird hard to compass. Unhappily, there were amongst them two or three bigger boys.

The moment Miss Horn descried what they were about, she rushed into the midst of them, like a long bolt from a catapult, and scattering them right and left from their victim, turned and stood in front of him, regarding his persecutors with defiance in her flaming eye, and vengeance in her indignant nose. But there was about Miss Horn herself enough of the peculiar to mark her also, to the superficial observer, as the natural prey of boys; and the moment the first billow of consternation had passed and sunk, beginning to regard her as she stood, the vain imagination awoke in these young lords of misrule. They commenced their attack upon her by resuming it upon her protege. She spread out her skirts, far from voluminous, to protect him as he cowered behind them, and so long as she was successful in shielding him, her wrath smouldered--but powerfully. At length one of the bigger boys, creeping slyly up behind the front row of smaller ones, succeeded in poking a piece of iron rod past her, and drawing a cry from the laird. Out blazed the lurking flame. The boy had risen, and was now attempting to prosecute like an ape, what he had commenced like a snake. Inspired by the God of armies--the Lord of hosts, she rushed upon him, and struck him into the gutter. He fell in the very spot where he had found his weapon, and there he lay. The Christian Amazon turned to the laird; overflowing with compassion she stooped and kissed his forehead, then took him by the hand to lead him away. But most of the enemy had gathered around their fallen comrade, and seized with some anxiety as to his condition, Miss Horn approached the group: the instant she turned towards it, the laird snatched his hand from hers, darted away like a hunting spider, and shot down the Strait Path to the low street: by the time his protectress had looked over the heads of the group, seen that the young miscreant was not seriously injured, and requested him to take that for meddling with a helpless innocent, the object of her solicitude, whom she supposed standing behind her, was nowhere to be seen. Twenty voices, now obsequious, were lifted to acquaint her with the direction in which he had gone; but it was vain to attempt following him, and she pursued her way, somewhat sore at his want of faith in her, to the house of a certain relative, a dressmaker, whom she visited as often as she went to Duff Harbour.

Now Miss Forsyth was one of a small sect of worshippers which had, not many years before, built a chapel in the town--a quiet, sober, devout company, differing from their neighbours in nothing deeply touching the welfare of humanity. Their chief fault was, that, attributing to comparative trifles a hugely disproportionate value, they would tear the garment in pieces rather than yield their notion of the right way of wrapping it together.

It so happened that, the next morning, a minister famous in the community was to preach to them, on which ground Miss Forsyth persuaded her relative to stop over the Sunday, and go with her to their chapel. Bethinking herself next that her minister had no sermon to prepare, she took Miss Horn to call upon him.

Mr Bigg was one of those men whose faculty is always underestimated by their acquaintances and overestimated by their friends; to overvalue him was impossible. He was not merely of the salt of the earth, but of the leaven of the kingdom, contributing more to the true life of the world than many a thousand far more widely known and honoured. Such as this man are the chief springs of thought, feeling, inquiry, action, in their neighbourhood; they radiate help and breathe comfort; they reprove, they counsel, they sympathize; in a word, they are doorkeepers of the house of God. Constantly upon its threshold, and every moment pushing the door to peep in, they let out radiance enough to keep the hearts of men believing in the light. They make an atmosphere about them in which spiritual things can thrive, and out of their school often come men who do greater things, better they cannot do, than they.

Although a separatist as to externals, he was in heart a most catholic man--would have found himself far too catholic for the community over which he presided, had its members been capable of understanding him. Indeed, he had with many, although such was the force of his character that no one dared a word to that effect in his hearing, the reputation of being lax in his ideas of what constituted a saving faith; and most of the sect being very narrow minded, if not small hearted, in their limitations of the company fitly partaking of the last supper of our Lord--requiring proof of intellectual accord with themselves as to the how and why of many things, especially in regard of what they called the plan of salvation, he was generally judged to be misled by the deceitful kindliness of the depraved human heart in requiring as the ground of communion only such an uplook to Jesus as, when on earth, Jesus himself had responded to with healing. He was larger hearted, and therefore larger minded, than his people.

In the course of their conversation, Miss Forsyth recounted, with some humour, her visitor's prowess on behalf of the laird--much to honest Mr Bigg's delight.

"What ither cud I du?" said Miss Horn apologetically. "But I doobt I strack ower sair. Maybe ye wadna objec', sir, to gang and speir efter the laddie, an' gie him some guid advice?"

"I'll do that," returned Mr Bigg.--"Are we to have the pleasure of your company in our conventicle tomorrow?" he added, after a little pause. "Dr Blare is going to preach."

"Will ye hae me, Mr Bigg?"

"Most willingly, ma'am; and we 'll be still better pleased if you 'll sit down with us to the Lord's table afterwards."

"I gang to the perris kirk, ye ken," said Miss Horn, supposing the good man unaware of the fact.

"Oh! I know that, ma'am. But don't you think, as we shall, I trust, sit down together to his heavenly supper it would be a good preparation to sit down together, once at least, to his earthly supper first?"

"I didna ken 'at ye wad hae ony but yer ain fowk! I hae aften thoucht mysel', it was jist the ae thing ony Christian sud be ready to du wi' ony ither. Is 't a new thing wi' ye to haud open hoose this gait, sir,--gien I may tak the leeberty to speir?"

"We don't exactly keep open house. We wouldn't like to have any one with us who would count it poor fare. But still less would we like to exclude one of the Lord's friends. If that is a new thing, it ought to be an old one.--You believe in Jesus Christ--don't you, ma'am?"

"I dinna ken whether I believe in him as ye wad ca' believin' or no--there's sic a heap o' things broucht to the fore nooadays 'at I canna richtly say I un'erstan'. But as he dee'd for me, I wad dee for him. Raither nor say I didna ken him, I wad hing aside him. Peter an' a', I canna say less."

Mr Bigg's eyes began to smart, and he turned away his head.

"Gien that 'll du wi' ye," Miss Horn went on, "an' ye mean nae desertion o' the kirk o' my father an' his fathers afore him, I wad willin'ly partak wi' ye."

"You'll be welcome, Miss Horn--as welcome, as any of my own flock."

"Weel, noo, that I ca' Christian," said Miss Horn, rising. "An' 'deed I cud wuss," she added, "'at in oor ain kirk we had mair opportunity, for ance i' the twalmonth 's no verra aften to tak up the thouchts 'at belang to the holy ordnance."

The next day, after a powerful sermon from a man who, although in high esteem, was not for moral worth or heavenly insight to be compared with him whose place he took, they proceeded to the celebration of the Lord's supper, after the fashion of that portion of the church universal.

The communicants sat in several long pews facing the communion table, which was at the foot of the pulpit. After the reading of St Paul's account of the institution of the Lord's Supper, accompanied by prayers and addresses, the deacons carried the bread to the people, handing a slice to the first in each pew; each person in turn broke off a portion, and handed what remained to the next: thus they divided it among themselves.

It so happened that, in moving up to the communion seats, Miss Forsyth and Miss Horn were the last to enter one of them, and Miss Horn, very needlessly insisting on her custom of having her more capable ear towards her friend, occupied the place next the passage.

The service had hardly commenced, when she caught sight of the face of the mad laird peeping in at the door, which was in the side of the building, near where she sat. Their eyes met. With a half repentant, half apologetic look, he crept in, and, apparently to get as near his protectress as he could, sat down in the entrance of an empty pew, just opposite the one in which she was seated, on the other side of the narrow passage. His presence attracted little notice, for it was quite usual for individuals of the congregation who were not members of the church to linger on the outskirts of the company as spectators.

By the time the piece of bread reached Miss Horn from the other end, it was but a fragment. She broke it in two, and, reserving one part for herself in place of handing the remnant to the deacon who stood ready to take it, stretched her arm across the passage, and gave it to Mr Stewart, who had been watching the proceedings intently. He received it from her hand, bent his head over it devoutly, and ate it, unconscious of the scandalized looks of the deacon, who knew nothing of the miserable object thus accepting rather than claiming a share in the common hope of men.

When the cup followed, the deacon was on the alert, ready to take it at once from the hands of Miss Horn. But as it left her lips she rose, grasping it in both hands, and with the dignity of a messenger of the Most High, before which the deacon drew back, bore it to the laird, and having made him drink the little that was left, yielded it to the conservator of holy privileges, with the words:

"Hoots, man! the puir body never had a taste o' the balm o' Gilead in a' 's persecutit life afore!"

The liberality of Mr Bigg had not been lost upon her: freely she had received--freely she gave. What was good must, because it was good, be divided with her neighbour. It was a lawless act.

As soon as the benediction was spoken, the laird slipped away, but as he left the seat, Miss Horn heard him murmur--"Eh, the bonny man! the bonny man!" He could hardly have meant the deacon. He might have meant Mr Bigg, who had concluded the observance with a simple and loving exhortation.

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