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


Chapter 2.

With the calmness almost of despair, when the closing eve took away his chance of seeing any more stray passengers that day, the poor youth groped his way to his marble slab, and again sat down with a strange vacuity of heart, as if it would refuse further thought of his dismal situation. A new fear came over him, however, when daylight thickened at the grated window of his low room, and the white marbles grew dark around him. And not without creeping horror did he remember that from this very aisle it was that old Johnny Hogg, a former sexton, was said to have seen a strange vile animal issue forth one moonlight night, run to a neighbouring stream, and after lapping a little, hurry back, trotting over the blue graves, and slinking through beneath the table stones, as if afraid of being shut out from its dull, fat haunt. Hurriedly, yet with keen inspection, was young Sinclair fascinated to look around him over the dim floor ; and while the horrid apprehension came over him, that he was just on the point of seeing the two eyes of the gloating beast, white and muddy from its unhallowed surfeits, he drew up his feet on the slab on which he sat, lest it should crawl over them. A thousand tales—true to boyish impressions—crowded on his mind; and by this rapid movement of sympathetic associations, enough of itself, while it lasts, to make the stoutest heart nervous, and from the irritation of his body from other causes, so much was his mind startled from its propriety that he thought he heard the devil ranging through the empty pews of the church; and there seemed to flash before his eyes a thousand hurrying shapes, condemned and fretted ghosts of malignant aspect, that cannot rest in their wormy graves, and milky-curdled babes of untimely birth, that are buried in twilights, never to see the sun.

Soon, however, these silly fears went off, and the tangible evil of his situation again stood forth, and drove him to renew his cries for assistance, and his attacks upon the door, ere he should be quite enfeebled by hunger and disease. Again he had to sit down, after spending his strength in vain.

By degrees, he fell into a stupor of sleep, peopled with strange dreams, in all of which, from natural accordance with his waking conviction that he had that day seen his mother’s burial, her image was the central figure. In danger she was with him—in weariness—-in captivity; and when he seemed to be struggling for life, under delirious fever, then, too, she was with him, with her soft assuaging kiss, which was pressed upon his throbbing brow, till his frenzy was cooled away, and he lay becalmed in body and in spirit beneath her love. Under the last modification of his dream, he stood by confused waters, and saw his mother drowning in the floods. He heard her faintly call upon his name; her arms were outstretched to him for help, as she was borne fast away into the dim and wasteful ocean ; and, unable to resist this appeal, he stripped off his clothes and plunged in to attempt her rescue. So vivid was this last part of his vision, that in actual correspondence with the impulse of his dream, the poor prodigal in the aisle threw off his clothes to the shirt to prepare himself for swimming to her deliverance. One or two cold ropy drops, which at this moment fell from the vaulted roof upon his neck, woke him distinctly, and recalled him to a recollection of his situation as a captive. But being unable to account for his being naked, he thought that he had lost, or was about to lose, his reason, and, weeping aloud like a little child, he threw himself upon his knees, and cried to God to keep fast his heart and mind from that dismal alienation. He was yet prostrate when he heard feet walking on the echoing pavement of the church; and at the same time a light shone round about him, filling the whole aisle, and showing distinctly the black letters on the white tombstones.

His first almost insane thought was that a miraculous answer was given to his prayer, and that, like the two apostles of old, he had won an angel from heaven to release him from his midnight prison. But the footsteps went away again by the door, and ceased entirely; whilst at the same time the light was withdrawn, leaving him to curse his folly, which, under an absurd hope, had lost an opportunity of immediate disenthralment. He was about to call aloud, to provoke a return of the visitation, when, through the grated window of the aisle, he observed a light among the graves, which he set himself to reconnoitre. It was one of those raw, unwholesome nights, choked up with mists to the very throat, which thicken the breath of old men with asthma, and fill graveyards with gross and rotten beings; and, though probably not more than twenty yards distant, Sinclair could not guess what the light was, so tangled and bedimmed was it with the spongy vapours.

At length he heard human voices, and was glad to perceive the light approaching his window. When the men, whom he now saw were two in number, had got within a few yards of him, he called out … “I pray you good people, be not alarmed; I have been locked up in this aisle to-day, and must die of hunger in it if you do not get me out. You can get into the church, and I doubt not you will find the key of this aisle-door in the sexton’s closet. Now, I hope you have enough of manhood not to let me remain in this horrid place from any silly fears on your part."

Instead of answering to this demand, the fellows took instantly to their heels, followed by the vehement reproaches of our hero, whose heart at the same time was smitten by the bitter reflection, that every chance of attracting attention to his captivity was likely to be neutralized by the superstitious fears of such as might hear him from his vault. In a few minutes the light again approached, and after much whispering betwixt themselves, one of the men demanded who and what the prisoner was.

"I can only tell you farther,” replied Sinclair, "that I fell asleep in this place during the sermon,—no very creditable confession, you will observe, and that, when I awoke, I found myself fairly entrapped.”

The men retired round the church, and with joy Richard heard next minute the rattling of the keys as they were taken from the sexton’s closet. In another minute he heard the door of his dungeon tried; it opened readily; and with a start, as if they thought it best at once to rush upon their danger, his two deliverers, whom he recognised to be of his native village, advanced a little into the aisle, the foremost bearing the light, which he held forward and aloft, looking below it into the interior, to be aware for what sort of captive they had opened. No sooner did Sinclair stand disclosed to them, naked as he was to the shirt—for he had not yet got on his clothes—than the sternmost man, with something between a yell and a groan, bended on his knees, whilst his hair bristled in the extremity of his terror, and catching hold of his companion’s limbs, he looked through betwixt them upon the naked spirit of the aisle. The foremost man lowered the light by inches, and cried aloud,——

"Fear-fa’ me! take hand o’ me, Geordie Heart! It’s the yellow dead rising from their grave-s. Eh! there’s the lightning! and is yon no an auld crooked man i’ the corner ? ”

"Will Balmer I Will Balmer I whaur are ye? ” cried the other, from between Will’s very knees, which, knocking upon the prostrate man’s cheeks, made him chatter and quiver in his wild outcry.

"Oh! there’s the lightning again! Gin we could but meet wife and bairns ance mair !” ejaculated the foremost man.

"Lord have mercy on my widow ane sma’ family I " echoed the sternmost.

"Tout! it’s but the laird’s drucken mulatto after a’! " said the former, gathering a little confidence.

"Oh, if it were! or but a man wi’ the jaundice, our days might be lengthened," cried the latter.

Richard advanced to explain ; but at that moment the dull firmament in the east, which had been lightning from time to time (as often happens previously to very rainy weather), opened with another sheeted blaze of white fire, the reflection of which on Richard’s yellow face, as he came forward, seemed to the terrified rustics a peculiar attribute of his nature. With a groan, he in the van tried a backward retreat ; but being straitened in the legs, he tumbled : over his squatted companion. Leaving his neighbour, however, to sit still upon his knees, he that was the foremost man gathered himself up so well, that he crept away .on his hands and feet, till, getting right below the bell-rope at the end of the church, he ventured to rise and begin to jow it, making the bell toll at an unusual rate. The inmates of the manse were immediately alarmed; and first came the minister’s man, who demanded the meaning of such ill-timed ringing.

"Oh! Tam Jaffray! Tam Jaffray ! sic a night’s in this kirkyard ! If sae be it’s ordeened that I may ring an’ live, I’ll haud to the tow. Oh! Tam Jaffrey ! Tam Jaffray! what’s become o’ puir Geordie Heart? If the Wandering Jew o’ Jerusalem, or the Yellow Fever frae Jamaica, is no dancing mother-naked in the aisle, then it behoves to be the dead rising frae their graves. I trust we’ll a’ be found prepared! Rin for a lantern, Tam.—Eh ! look to that lightning l"

A light was soon brought from the manse; and a number of people from the village having joined the original alarmists, a considerable muster advanced to the aisle door just as Sinclair was stepping from it. Taking the light from one of the countrymen, he returned to the relief of the poor villager, who was still upon his knees, and who, with great difficulty, was brought to comprehend an explanation of the whole affair. The crowd made way as Sinclair proceeded to leave the graveyard; but whether it was that they were indignant because the neighbourhood had been so much disturbed, or whether they considered that proper game was afoot for sportive insolence, they began to follow and shout after him—-

"Come back, ye yellow neegur! we’ll no send ye !—stop him! Come back, ye squiff, and we’ll gie ye a dead subject ! —Stop the resurrectionist ! -- After him, gie him a paik, and see if he’s but a batch o’ badger skins dyed yellow—hurrah ! "

Sinclair wishing, for several reasons, to be clear at once of the mob, was in the act of springing over the dyke into the plantation already mentioned, when he was struck by a stick on the head, which brought him back senseless to the ground. The crowd was instantly around the prostrate youth, and in the caprice or better pity of human nature, began to be sorry for his pale condition.

"It was a pity to strike the puir lad that gate," said one. "Some folk shouldna been sae rash the day, I think,” remarked another. " Stand back," cried Tam Jaffray, pushing from right to left ; "stand back, and gie the puir fallow air. Back, Jamieson, wi’ your shauchled shins; it was you that cried first that he was a resurrectionist. ”

The clergyman now advanced and asked what was the matter.

"It’s only a yellow yorlin we’ve catched in the aisle,” cried an insolent clown, who aspired to be the prime wit of the village; "he was a bare gorblin .a few minutes syne, and now he’s full feathered? This provoked a laugh from groundlings of the same stamp, and the fellow, grinning himself was tempted to try another bolt,—" And he’s gayan weel tamed by this time.”

"Peace, fellow,” said the minister, who had now seen what was wrong; "peace, sir, and do not insult the unfortunate. I am ashamed of all this.”

By the directions of the clergyman, the poor prodigal was carried into the manse, where he soon recovered from the immediate stunning effects of the blow he had received.

"How is all this ?” was his first question of surprise, addressed to his host. "May I request to know, sir, why I am here ?”

"In virtue of a rash blow, which we all regret," answered the minister.

"I crave your pardon, sir, ” returned the youth. " I can now guess that I am much indebted to your kindness.”

"May we ask you, young man," said the clergyman, "how it has happened that you have so alarmed our peaceful neighbourhood ? "

The poor prodigal succinctly stated the way of his imprisonment in the aisle; and with this explanation the charitable old clergyman seemed perfectly satisfied. Not so, however, was his ruling elder, who, deeming his presence and authority indispensable in any matter for which the parish bell could be rung, had early rushed to the scene of alarm, and was now in the manse, at the head of a number of the villagers. He, on the contrary, saw it necessary to remark (glancing at his superior for approbation),—

"Sae, mind, young man, in times future, what comes of sleeping in the time of two peeous and yedifying discoorses."

"A good caution, John," said the mild old minister ; " but we must make allowances.”

Was it you that struck me down ?" said Richard eagerly to an old man, who, with evident sorrow working in his hard muscular face, stood watching this scene with intense interest; and who, indeed, was his own father.

Smitten to the heart by this sudden question of the youth, ashamed of his own violent spirit on such a night, and grieved, after the explanation given, for the condition of the poor lad before him, old Sinclair groaned, turned quickly half round, shifted his feet in the agony of avowal,—then seizing his unknown prodigal boy by the hand, he wrung it eagerly, and said,—

"There’s my hand, young man, in the first place ; and now, it was me indeed that struck you down, but I thought —”

"Oh! my prophetic conscience !” interrupted the poor prodigal, whilst he looked his father ruefully in the face, and returned fervently the squeeze of his hand. " Make no apologies to me, thou good old man; thy blow was given under a most just dispensation.”

"I sent two neighbours, ” said the old man, still anxious to explain, " to see that all was right about the grave. I heard the alarm, and came off wi’ my stick in my hand. I heard them crying to stop ye, for ye were a resurrectionist. I saw ye jumping suspiciously into the planting. Ye maun forgie me the rest, young man, for I thought ye had been violating the grave of a beloved wife."

"My own poor mother!” sobbed forth the prodigal. •

Old Sinclair started—his strong chest heaved—the recollection of his rash blow, together with the circumstance that it had been dispensed on such a solemn night, and near the new grave of one whose gentle spirit had been but too much troubled by the harshness and waywardness of both husband and son, came over his heart with the sudden conviction that his boy and himself were justly punished by the same blow, for their mutual disrespect in former years. Yearning pity over that son’s unhappy appearance, and the natural flow of a father’s heart, long subdued on behalf of his poor lost prodigal, were mingled in the old man’s deep emotion; and he sought relief by throwing himself in his boy's arms, and weeping on his neck.

His sturdy nature soon recovered itself a little ; yet the bitter spray was winked from his compressed eyes as he shook his head; and the lower part of his face quivered with unusual affliction, as he said in a hoarse whisper--

"My own Richard ! —my man, has your father lived to strike you to the ground like a brute beast, and you sae ill? —-on the very day, too, o’ your mother’s burial, that loved ye aye sae weel ! But come away wi’ me to your father’s house, for ye are sick as death, and the auld man that used ye ower ill is sair humbled the night, Richard !"

The prodigal’s heart could not stand this confession of a father. His young bosom heaved as if about to be rent to pieces ; the ‘mother’, and ‘hysterica passio’ of old Lear, rose in his straitened throat, overmastering the struggling respiration, and he fell back in a violent fit. His agonized parent ran to the door, as if seeking assistance, he knew not what or where; then checking himself in a moment, and hastening back, yet without looking on his son, he grasped the clergyman strongly by the hand, crying out, " ls he gone?—is my callant dead?"

Ordering the people to withdraw from around the prostrate youth, whose head was now supported by the clergyman’s beautiful and compassionate daughter, the kind old pastor led forward the agonised father, and pointing to his reviving son, told him that all would soon be well again. With head depressed upon his bosom, his hard hands slowly wringing each other, while they were wetted with the tears which rained from his glazed eyes, old Sinclair stood looking down upon the ghastly boy, whose eye was severely swollen, whilst his cheek was stained with the clotted blood which had flowed from the wound above the temples, inflicted by his own father.

After standing a while in this position, the old man drew a white napkin from his pocket, and, as if himself unable for the task, he gave it to one of his neighbours, and pointed to the blood on the face of his prodigal boy, signifying that he wished it wiped away. This was done accordingly; and, in a few moments more, Richard rose, recovered from his fit, and modestly thanking the clergyman and his beautiful daughter for their attentions to him, he signified his resolve to go home immediately with his father. The kind old minister would fain have kept him all night, alleging the danger of exposing himself in such a state to the night air ; but the youth was determined in his purpose ; and old Sinclair cut short the matter by shaking the hand of his pastor, whilst, without saying a word, he looked him kindly in the face to express his thanks, and then by leading his son away by the arm.

The villagers, who had crowded into the manse, judging this one of those levelling occasions when they might intrude into the best parlour, allowed the father and son to depart without attempting immediately to follow—nature teaching them that they had no right to " intermeddle with the sacred communings of the son and father’s repentance and forgiveness, or with the sorrow of their common bereavement. Yet the rude throng glanced at the minister, as if surprised and disappointed that the thing had ended so simply; then slunk out of the room, apprehensive, probably, of some rebuke from him. The ruling elder, however, remained behind, and wherefore not?


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