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The McGregors
The Sabbath


Jim met Ian McLeod one morning at the chopping mill. Both were unloading grain in bags to be ground into feed for the stock. Ian finished first and gave Jim a hand. Then he put a hand on the younger man's shoulder.

"Jim, I've been wanting to talk to you. The minister is anxious to see more out to church, and I wondered about you and Janet. I've seen you out only a few times. I understand Janet is Anglican, but she is welcome with us, and we want to see you too, Jamie. Your mother was such a help to us all, and now not well they tell me."

"Yes, Mother does not get out much any more and I've got away from church-going myself, Ian. I'm tired come Sunday by the steady work; it's an endless grind, the clearing. But I will talk to Janet about it."

"Do that, Jamie. It is good to get cleaned up and to think about something different for a while. They tell us these are the things that really matter, though it is hard for us to see it that way. A lot of the things we are told at church I find hard to believe, though I am an elder; but I know that behind it all is something good, something that it is ill to do without." Ian stopped and smiled at Jim as he mounted his wagon. "But here I am preaching, and a sorry one I am to say anything."

But Jim had not been offended and hastened to assure his old friend. "Your words may go deeper than a lot of sermons, Ian. They are well spoken. We will think about it."

Jim and Janet agreed that, if only for the change, they should attend church more often. Accordingly, the following Sunday they harnessed Gamey to Jim's cutter and set off. It was almost an hour's drive to the church, a handsome new frame building, painted white, that stood by itself some distance from the village. There were already some graves in the new cemetery.

The interior was sombre; the plain, pine pews had been beautifully made. But although the small amount of ornament was well done, the general effect was one of puritan simplicity: the pulpit too was plain, and there was no organ. A precentor led in the singing, mostly psalms and a few hymns, although these new sacred songs had not yet been entirely accepted by the congregation. A large, wood-burning stove stood by the entrance. A fire had been lighted by the caretaker very early that morning, but the air remained chilly.

The congregation straggled in, some arriving half an hour before the service started. Many had come seven or eight miles along early spring roads often heavy with new-drifted snow. Most of the driving horses pulling the cutters were of the heavy, plodding type. Families would bring their children, some riding on their parents' knees, others seated on a board in the front of the cutter box. Often a large family or a group of families would come together in a sleigh. Planks would be placed across the sleigh box for seats and everyone would wrap up in lots of rugs and blankets and keep their feet warm in the straw lining the sleigh box. Those in the sleigh spent the time joking and laughing, all in moderation of course, "because it was Sunday", and arrived at the church with red cheeks and smiles. Those, like Jim and Janet, who chose to come in the more fashionable cutters, stepped out stiffly, congealed in body and soul. The men would stamp around the shed after blanketing their horses and clap hands together until circulation was restored, but the women and children went directly into the church, pausing briefly to warm their hands at the stove; it was not good form to linger and chatter, even in hushed tones, as some did. In the bare, cold pews it was permissible for the ladies and children to keep their warm coats on, but the men took off their overcoats and sat stiffly in their Sunday suits. Red necks, newly shaven, rose out of rigid collars, some still showing nicks from the fearsome straight razors.

This was the first Presbyterian church Janet had seen. Jim had told her a bit about it on the way to the service. It was more conservative than some; every fourth Sunday the service was held in Gaelic for the benefit of older people who still clung to the ancient tongue. And the service itself was almost as chilly as the air in the church, for religion was regarded as a serious business here. The lighter, sometimes smiling, approach of their Methodist neighbours was frowned upon. Despite all the discomfort, there was throughout the congregation a feeling of content, of reassurance. The long, narrow windows, the high-ceilinged room, the odour of varnished sanctity, the large group of people all united in worship, gave them a brief respite from the humdrum daily life of the pioneer farms.

The Reverend Hugh McLean entered through a door near the front of the church. A small, spare man, he too looked partly congealed, his nose red and his cold hands clutching a black robe. He had come from Scotland some time ago, leaving a damp, chilly climate for an even harsher one. Only in his thirties, he looked aged, his hair greying, his unsmiling face lined with care. Pale blue eyes looked out with a faint distress on a world he could not quite comprehend.

The first part of the service was carried on in a minor key with the singing of the first psalm and the intoning of the long prayer. As Mr. McLean began his sermon, members of the congregation gradually gave up trying to follow the unfamiliar combination of Elizabethan English and Hebrew mythology and thought about other things. Adults, well trained, sat silently enduring, the luckier ones asleep. Children not yet broken squirmed and hitched about, getting stern glances from their parents that warned of wrath to come. Jim and Janet, more unused than most to the hard pews and the hour-and-a-half service, suffered as much as the children.

To everyone's relief, including perhaps that of Mr. McLean, the sermon finally came to an end; the last psalm was sung with almost embarrassing enthusiasm and the benediction was pronounced.

Sighs of physical and mental relief rose from the congregation as they filed down the aisles. They smiled guardedly at each other and spoke in whispers, mostly about the weather. There was a feeling of a sacrifice made, of a duty well done, and they were willing, even anxious, to put aside spiritual things for at least another week. Out in the open, the chill, fresh air came as a relief. Worldly affairs could be discussed, though with proper restraint, and the women chatted as the men brought horses from the shed. The trip home would be relaxed as the entire family thought of the meal prepared for them by someone left at home, often an elderly grandmother unable to travel to the church.

Jim and Janet drove for a while in silence. Gamey was prancing, eager to pass the slower vehicles, but this could not be allowed on the Sabbath, and it was only for the last mile or so that they were able to swing away from other worshippers in a burst of speed. Janet broke out suddenly,

"I would like to take that man by the ears and chuck him up and down like you do the grain sacks."

"You mean Mr. McLean? Forever why?"

"Maybe you could get more into him, a little joy of life perhaps. The man is lacking somehow." Even as she spoke, Janet's annoyance, the result of the unfamiliar strain of the long service, evaporated. She added quickly, "But he is probably good and kind. And he spoke well too when he got carried away and shook off that terrible tight thing that is binding him."

Jim agreed, but more calmly. "I remember your Mr. Harper who married us. Such a different man. No wonder you think Mr. McLean is dull."

"Oh, Mr. Harper was so fine-looking in his vestments, and his voice was wonderful in the leading, but he was lacking too. I'm sure, Jim," Janet turned to her husband. "he would have been better in real estate or selling insurance. Now that I'm older I think I understand. Being our rector was a job, and he tried to do it as well as he could, but I don't think his heart was in it. He would come Sunday evenings and sit with Grandfather, along with a bottle of port. They smoked pipes and talked a lot, and not always about church matters. There were things that Peter and I weren't supposed to hear, but we did of course. These men are raised a little above us and their faults are in the open for us to see. It isn't fair," Janet ended firmly.


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