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Book of Scottish Story
Richard Sinclair; or, the Poor Prodigal by Thomas Aird


Chapter 1.

With many noble qualities—firmness, piety, integrity, and a thorough affection for his family—the father of the poor prodigal, Richard Sinclair, had many of the hard points of the Scottish character ; a want of liberality in his estimate of others, particularly of their religious qualities; a jealousy about his family prerogative, when it was needless to assert it ; and a liking or discipline, or, as he styled it, nurture, without tact to modify its applications. Towards his eldest son—a shy and affectionate youth—his behaviour, indeed, seemed distinctly opposite to what we may characterise as its usual expression—overbearing gravity. Without this son’s advice, he never ventured on any speculation that seemed doubtful. He was softly amenable to the mild wisdom of the lad, and paid it a quiet deference, of which, indeed, he sometimes appeared to be ashamed, as a degree of weakness in himself. But the youth had never disobeyed his parents’ will in any one particular ; he was grave and gentle; and his father, who had been brought up amidst a large and rugged family, and was thus accustomed to rather stormy usages, was now at a loss, in matters of rebuke, how to meet this new species of warfare, which lay in mild and quiet habits, and eventually became afraid of the censure which was felt in the affectionate silence of his eldest son.

This superiority might have offended old Sinclair’s self-love ; but the youth, as already stated, made ample amends, by paying in his turn a scrupulous and entire deference to his parent, whom he thus virtually controlled, as a good wife knows to rule her husband, by not seeming to rule at all. From this subdued tone of his favourite prerogative in the father before us there was a reaction—something like a compensation to the parental authority — which began to press too hard upon his second son Richard, who, being of a bolder character than his brother, was less scrupulously dealt with; besides that the forward temperament of this younger boy frequently offended against what his father honestly deemed propriety and good rule.

He lost no opportunity, when Richard had done anything in the slightest degree wrong, of checking him with disproportioned censure, and of reminding him of what he owed to his parents; and this was repeated, till bearing  blame in the boy became a substitute for gratitude—till the sense of obligation, instead of being a special call to love, was distinctly felt to be an intolerable burden. From all these circumstances there naturally grew up shyness betwixt father and son, which was unintentionally aggravated by Richard’s mother, who, aware of her husband’s severe temper, tried to qualify it by her own soft words and deeds of love. This only brought out the evil more distinctly in its hard outline; and the very circumstance that she constantly tried to explain into good his father’s austerity became her own refutation, and stamped that austerity as a great degree of tyranny.

Home thus became associated with disagreeable feelings to young Richard Sinclair; who, being a boy of a giddy character, and naturally self-willed, could not cling to the good, despite of the admixture of evil. He neglected his books, fell into gross irregularities ; and the admonitions of his father, rendered useless from the above miserable system of discipline, were now, when most needed, thoroughly despised. The death of his elder brother, by which he was left an only son, softened for a while the harsh intercourse which subsisted between Richard and his father, and checked the youth for a little in his bad habits. But vice overcame him anew; and, growing daily worse, he at length completed the character of the prodigal, by running off to sea, hardening his heart against his father’s worth, and heedless of the soft affection of his mother.

The hardships of a sea-faring life, heightened by a series of peculiar misfortunes, still farther aggravated by a long course of bad health, gradually subdued the young prodigal’s heart; and after the lapse of several years we find him on his way returning to his native village, clad in the meanest attire, slow and irregular in his step; his countenance, besides being of a dead yellow hue from late jaundice, thin and worn to the bone; yet improved in his moral nature, caring not har pride, ready to forgive, and anxious to be forgiven; and, above all, yearning to confess his crimes and sorrows to a mother’s unchanging love.

About the noon of an October day, he reached the churchyard of his native parish, his heart impelling him first to visit the burying-ground of his family, under the fear, not the less striking because altogether vague, that he might there see a recent grave; for he had heard nothing of his parents since his first departure to sea. As he entered the graveyard by a small postern, he saw a funeral coming in by the main gate on the opposite side ; and wishing not to be observed, he turned into a small plantation of poplars and silver firs, which hid the place of graves from the view of the clergyman’s manse windows. Onward came the sable group slowly to the middle of the churchyard, where lay, indicating the deep parallel grave beside it, the heap of fat, clammy earth, from which two or three ragged boys were taking handfuls, to see, from its restless crumbling, whether it was the dust of the wicked, which, according to a popular belief, never lies still for a moment. The dark crowd took their places round the grave; a little bustle was heard as the coffin was uncovered ; it was lowered by the creaking cords, and again the heads of the company were all narrowly bent over it for a moment. Not a sound was heard in the air, save the flitting wing of some little bird among the boughs ; the ruffling of another, as, with bill engulfed in its feathers, it picked the insects from its skin; and the melancholy cry of a single chaffinch, which foretold the coming rain.

In natural accordance with the solemnity of the mourners before him, our youth, as he stood in the plantation, raised his hat; and when the crowd drew back to give room to the sexton and his associates to dash in the earth, he leant upon the wall, looking earnestly over it to recognise, if possible, the prime mourner; At the head of the grave, more forward a little than the others, and apart in his sad privilege, stood a man, apparently about sixty years of age, of a strong frame,—in which yet there was trembling,—and a fine open bald forehead ; and, notwithstanding that the face of the mourner was compressed with the lines of unusual affliction, and bowed down over his hat, which with both hands was pressed upon his mouth, Richard saw him and knew him but too well—Oh, God I his own father! And wildly the youth’s eyes rambled around the throng, to penetrate the mystery of his own loss, till on his dim eyeballs reeled the whole group, now scattered and melted to mist, now gathered and compressed into one black, shapeless heap.

But now the thick air began to twinkle, as it still darkened; and the rain, which to the surprise of all had been kept up so long, began to fall out in steep-down streams from the low-hung clouds, driving the black train from the half-finished grave, to mix with a throng of other people, apparently assembling for public worship, who ran along the sides of the church in haste to reach the doors. The bell began to toll, but ceased almost in a minute; the clergyman hurried by in his white bands ; and before Richard could leave the plantation and advance into the churchyard,—perhaps for the purpose of inquiring who was the person just entombed,—every one was in save that bareheaded man—God bless him ! —- who, heedless of the rain, still stood by the sexton, whose spade was now beating round the wet turf of the compacted grave. The young prodigal had not the heart, under a most awful sense of his own errors, which now overcame him, to advance to his afflicted father. On the contrary, to avoid his observation, he slunk away behind the church, and by a door, which likewise admitted to an old staircase leading to a family division of the gallery, he got into a back aisle, thickly peopled with spectral marbles, which, through two or three small panes, admitted a view of the interior of the church. "Have I lived not to know," said he to himself, "when comes God’s most holy Sabbath-day? Assuredly, this loss of reckoning, this confusion of heart, is of very hell itself. But hold—to-day is Monday; then it must be the day after a solemn commemoration, in this place, of Christ’s bleeding sacrifice for men. I shall sit me down on this slab a while, and see if there may be any good thing for me —any gleam of the glorious shield that wards off evil thoughts and the fears of the soul—any strong preparation of faith to take me up by the hand, and lead me through my difficulties. At all events, I shall try to pray with the good for the mourners, that claim from me a thousand prayers: and God rest that dead one !”

Owing to the unusual darkness in the  church, the twenty-third psalm was chosen by the clergyman, as one that could be sung by most of the congregation without referring to the book ; and its beautiful pastoral devotion suited well with the solemn dedication which  yesterday had been made of a little flock to the care of the Great Shepherd, and with their hopes of His needful aid. And the sweet voices of the young, who in early piety had vowed themselves to God, seemed to have caught the assured and thrilling song of the redeemed; and their white robes, as they rose to pray, twinkled like glimpses of angels’ parting wings, bringing home more deeply to the heart of the poor youth in the aisle a sense of his misery as an alien and an outcast from the ordinances of salvation.

Richard made an effort to attend to the instructions of the clergyman ; but his heart was soon borne away from attention ; and so anxious did he become in the new calculation, which of his father’s family it might be whom he had just seen interred, that he could not refrain from going out before the church windows and looking at the new grave. Heedless of being seen, he measured it by stepping, and was convinced, from its length, that either his mother or his sister Mary must be below. "God forbid !” he ejaculated, "that it should be my poor mother’s grave! that she should be gone for ever, ere I have testified my sense of all her love!" It struck him, with a new thought of remorse, that he was wishing the other alternative, that it might be his sister Mary’s. And then he thought upon early days, when she who was his first playmate led him with her little hand abroad in summer days to the green meadows, and taught him to weave the white-fingered rushes, and introduced him, because she was his elder, to new sports and playfellows; whose heart, he knew, would brook to lie beneath the cold flowers of the spring sooner than give up its love for him, prodigal though he was; and how was the alternative much better, if it was she whom he had lost ! As he made these reflections, he was again sauntering into the aisle, where, sitting down in his former seat, the sad apprehension that his mother was dead laid siege to his heart. Her mild image, in sainted white, rose to his mind’s eye ; and she seemed to bend over him, and to say to him, " Come, my care-worn boy, and tell me how it has fared with you in the hard world ?”  This vision soon gave place to severe realities; and in bitter sadness he thought of her who came each night to his bedside when he was a little child, to kiss him, and arrange the clothes around him that his little body might be warm.

With a reeling unsteadiness of mind which, from very earnestness, could not be stayed upon its object, he tried to remember his last interview with her, and the tenor of his last letter to her, to find out what kind expressions he had used, till, painfully conscious that he could muster little to make up an argument of his love, he was again left to guess his mother’s anguish of soul in her last hour over his neglect, and to grapple with the conviction that his own folly had brought her down prematurely to the grave. At length his heart, becoming passive amidst the very multitude and activity of reflections that were tugging at it from all sides, yielded to the weariness which the day’s fatigue, acting upon his frame, worn by late fever, had induced, and he fell into a deep sleep. When he awoke, the voice of the clergyman had ceased, and all was silence in the church ; the interior of which as he looked through the small pane, he saw had been darkened by the shutting of the window-boards. Next moment he glanced at the aisle door and saw it closed upon him. Then looking round all over the place, with that calmness which signifies a desperate fear at hand, " Here I am, then !” he exclaimed ; "if that door be locked upon me, as I dread it is !” Cautiously he went to it, as if afraid of being resolved in his dreadful apprehension ; and, after first feeling with his hand that the bolt was drawn upon him, he tried to open it, and was made distinctly aware of his horrid captivity; Sharply he turned aghast, as if to address some one behind him ; then turning again to the door, he shook it with all his strength, in the hope that some one might yet be lingering in the churchyard, and so might hear him. No one, however, came to his assistance; and now the reflection burst full and black upon him, that here he might remain unheard till he died of hunger. His heart and countenance fell, when he remembered how remote the churchyard was from the village, and from the public way, and how long it was till next Sunday should come round. From boyhood recollection he remembered well this same aisle door; that it was black on the outside, with here and there large white commas to represent tears; and that it was very thick, and yet farther strengthened by being studded with a great number of large iron nails.

"Yet I must try to the very utmost," he said, "either to break it or make myself be heard by the inmates of the manse, which is my best chance of release.” Accordingly he borrowed as much impetus as the breadth of the vault allowed him, and flung himself upon the door in a series of attacks, shouting at the same time with all his might. But the door stood firm as a rock despite of him ; nor could he distinguish, as he listened from time to time, the slightest symptoms of his having been heard by any one. He went to the small grated window which lighted this house of death, and after watching at it for some time, he saw an old woman pass along a footpath beyond the graveyard, with a bundle of sticks upon her head ; but she never seemed to hear him when he called upon her. A little afterwards he saw two boys sauntering near the gate of the burying-ground ; but though they heard him when he cried, it only made them scamper off, to all appearance mightily terrified.

TO BE CONTINUED …..


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