WHEN Nathan, the pathmaster,
returned from his visit to the gang over the hill, it was not difficult to
perceive that he was disturbed in mind. He lost no time in disclosing the
nature of the trouble.
"Muckle Peter," he said, "has just
threatened me with violence if I dig a drain through the Widow McMannus
and let the water into him."
It should be explained that Nathan
referred to the land owned by Mrs. McMannus and Muckle Peter, but it was
often the habit to refer to a settler’s farm, or that portion of the
roadway in front of his farm, as if it were the settler himself. Thus when
Lame Sandy, One-eyed Saunders, Peter, or Nathan spoke of digging a drain
through Mrs. McMannus, they merely referred to deepening the ditch on the
Concession in front of her farm, to allow the water to flow down
the road. In the same way I have often heard settlers speak of changing
the course of the creek and "sending it through Lame Sandy," or of
"running a road through Muckle Peter," or "driving a team through Dougal
"It was all I could do to avoid an
assault on the Queen’s highway," resumed Nathan, "which would have been a
terrible scandal in the country, had the facts ever reached Her Majesty’s
ears, so violent was Muckle Peter. He declared that if I did as was
proposed, he would have the ‘lah’ on me."
In fact, Muckle Peter had been
irreconcilable, and bringing his fist down on the handle of a scraper with
such violence that he broke the handle off short, had delivered this
ultimatum, "Jest es sure es Heaven, Nathan, if you dig that drain through
Mrs. McMannus an’ let the water into me, I’ll 'llow th’ lah tae tak’ its
This was the strongest threat that
Muckle Peter ever used. In fact, he regarded it as the most powerful
menace that he could employ. For what could be more terrible than to
invoke the law, the majestic law, on his behalf? It was not as if he
threatened Nathan to "have the lah on him," that was putting it in the
mildest possible form, which, if carried out, might only entail
considerable financial loss; but when he threatened to "‘llow th’ lah tae
tak’ its coourse," it was different. It meant unutterable and
irretrievable ruin to any one upon whom the "coourse" might flow.
With such earnestness and unction
did Muckle Peter always give utterance to the threat, that the settlers
finally came to regard it as a terrible consummation, to be avoided at all
hazards; so it was not to be wondered at that Nathan was visibly disturbed
at the threat that had just been made by the fierce Scotsman.
"It’s not so much that I fear Peter
himself," Nathan exclaimed; "but I would not like to be the cause of
settin’ the entire legal machinery in motion,
something which might bring ruin on the community, and lead to us all
being turned out of house and home."
And so, after consultation, it was
decided, in order to avoid "letting the water into Muckle Peter" and
thereby entailing the terrible legal consequences, to put in a culvert,
bring the water across the road, and "let it into" Blind Ranald, who could
not see what change might result, and who was a mild and retiring man, not
likely in any event to offer any resistance. Thus was the crisis avoided,
and the road work allowed to proceed without interruption.
It was during the performance of the
statute labour that I learned much about old Nathan Larkins, the
pathmaster. I was holding the scraper for Jock, the drover, that week, and
Jock, who had lived in the neighbourhood for twenty-five years, with the
exception of an annual summer excursion into the back townships to buy
cattle and horses, and who knew the idiosyncrasies of every settler,
entertained me immensely with stories and reminiscences about Nathan.
"It wuz in
th’ wet fall uv ‘36," said Jock, "thet Nathan
drifted into the settlement. He came in with a wanderin’ band o’
reviv’lists who preached hell-fire so airnestly thet yeh could a’most
smell th’ sulphur. Wall, they made no success o’ th’ job here. Th’
campmeetin’s they held wuz a dead failure, an’ often wound up hilariously,
fer Malcolm declar’d he niver sold so much beer in th’ history o’ th’
Ninth Concession. Wall, th’ upshot wuz, th’ company got stranded, an’ we
hed t’ tak’ up a kleckshin t’ send them off. We could ony git enuff t’
send two, an’ th’ third hed t’ stay. Lots wuz drawed, an’ Nathan wuz
elected t’ stay. P’raps he wuz
not th’ wust o’ th’ lot. He made a big push t’ keep up th’ meetin’s,
declarin’ es he’d been a preacher in th’ ole lan’, an’ know’d ‘xactly how
t’ do th’ trick."
"And do you suppose he ever was?" I
"Wall," said Jock, after some
reflection, "it’s purty hard t’ tell. He must ‘a’ hed some experience
somewhar, fer he kin put up th’ mos’ powerful prayer yeh iver heered. D’ye
mean t’ say thet yeh niver heered Nathan pray?"
I had to confess that I had never
been accorded that privilege.
"Wall, wall," said Jock, "yeh don’t
know w’at ye’ve missed!"
"What are his strong points, Jock?"
p’ints!" said Jock, with enthusiasm. "Why, he
holds th’ hivy-weight champeenship fer prayers, frum th’ First Concession
t’ th’ Thirteenth, an’ frum th’ town-line t’ th’ Snow Road. He usually
begins at th’ Garden o’ Eden, passes on down thru Noah an’ Abrim an’
Moses, touchin’ on ony uv th’ leadin’ events in them four er five books o’
Moses, relates th’ rasslin’ match between Jacob an’ th’ angel, refers
familiar-like t’ th’ kings an’ other aristocracy. He finishes off the
Chronicles in ‘alf a column notis, but spends consid’rable time helpin’
Nehemiah rebuild th’ walls o’ Jerusalem. Then he suffers with Job fer a
spell, rejoices with David, an’ quotes extensively frum th’ Psalms uv thet
gentleman. An’ after thet he helps kill Goliath o’ Gath, gives Solomon
p’inters on how th’ Proverbs should hey been wrote, talks so familiar
‘bout Isaiah thet you’d think him an’ th’ prophet hed been batchin’
together, laments with Jeremiah, describes th’ appearance o’ th’ lions in
th’ den, an’ overhauls Shadrack, Meshack, an’ Abednego. Arter that, he
draws a long breath an’ plunges into th’ New Test’mint, an’ wades ahead
until he finally fetches up at th’
celestial city, an’ th’ scarlet woman on’ th’ hill, an’ th’ beast with
seven horns. Then he slashes roun’ agen, coverin’ much o’ th’ ole groun’,
unless some one calls out ‘time,’ when Nathan fetches up with a sudden
jerk an’ says ‘Amen.’"
After lighting his pipe and taking a few vigorous
pulls at it, Jock resumed : —
"Yes, I niver met Nathan’s
equal t’ pray. I niver encountered ony minister o’ th’ gospel in good
standin’ in these parts who could make so all-embracin’ a prayer es
Nathan. Indeed, it is th’ verdict fer six townships ‘bout thet he can put
up th’ mos’ powerful prayer o’ ony individool who hes iver struck these
parts. Ef yeh could only hire a boy t’
wake yeh up es Nathan gets down t’ th’ peroration, yeh
would be more’n paid fer ony loss o’ sleep, fer when Nathan hes covered th’
hull groun’, he will throw back his head in rale gran’ style, close his
eyes, give a majestic sweep o’ his han’s, an’ cry out, ‘Blow, oh, ye east
winds; blow, oh, ye south; blow, oh, ye west winds; blow, oh, ye north.’ I
niver could understand w’at Nathan intended, but ‘twas gran’, an’ paid me
well fer gettin’ woke up an’ losin’ my sleep."
"He must be a marvel, Jock," I
"Oh, yes," replied Jock, "he’s a
hull team, is Nathan, an’ specially so at camp-meetin’s. His voice carries
fer more’n a mile an’ penetrates parts o’ th’ bush whar those who air wont
to ‘wait on th’ Gospel’ in this manner might be strollin’. One evenin’ wen
Nathan wuz doin’ o’ himself proud in one uv his star prayers at th’
meeting-house, he worked himself into quite a state uv excitement. He wuz
prayin’ away an’ said he wished
t’ raise his voice so thet it
would be heered in th’ uttermost parts o’ th’ airth.
"‘Jest raise th’ windy, Muckle
Peter,’ I whispered t’ th’
percentor, loud ‘nuff fer th’ con’gation t’
hear. Wall, they all laffed right out.
"I remember one incident touchin’
Nathan rale well," said Jock, chuckling to himself at the recollection. "A
scapegrace had been put in th’ lock-up fer a month er two fer committin’
an assault while drunk, an’ Nathan undertook
t’ carry th’ Gospel t’ his cell. Many an’ many
a night afore th’ man’s time wuz up Nathan used t’ make th’ old rafters o’
the jail ring es, t’ use his own expression, he ‘rassled wi’ th’ Lord’ on
behalf o’ th’ errin’ man. Nathan used t’ raise th’ windys o’ th’ jail on
th’ nights when he wuz engaged in tryin’ t’ pluck th’ ‘brand frum th’
burnin’,’ es he put it. With nothin’ but th’ bars t’ confine his voice t’
th’ man’s cell, Nathan would pour out his soul an’ call upon th’ Lord so’s
yeh could hear him fer miles. Nothing," said Jock, "could hey happened t’
make th’ people feel more sympathetic like fer th’ pris’ner es them air
long prayers an’ rasslins o’ Nathan’s. I came mighty near takin’ roun’ a
petition t’ th’ guv’ment myself t’ set th’ man free, an’ I certainly will
ef setch a thing iver happens agen. Ef th’ pris’ner hed taken a fit an’
killed Nathan some night, ‘twould ‘a’ bin a great relief t’
"Has Nathan no other accomplishments
besides his ability to pray?" I asked.
"Oh, yes!" replied Jock, promptly.
"He allus takes ‘special pleasure in officiatin’ at ony religious er
semi-religious er doctrinal function, an’ consequently revels in
christenin’s. His ingenooity in securin’ th’ administration uv sitch
ordinances is reely strikin’. He seldom gits ony pay fer it, but it’s
gen’ally good fer several meals an’ a night’s lodgin’. Th’ only man es
I’ve iver heered on, es could beat Nathan at th’ table wuz Schmidt, th’
Dutchman, who hes been knowed t’
eat a hull turkey at one settin’
an’ a hull pork ham at anither.
"Yes, yes," Jock went on, as we
turned the scraper round, "I hey knowed Nathan t’ travel fer miles in th’
hope uv gittin’ th’ chance t’ preside at a church getherin’ uv ony kind,
frum a ordination service t’ a siree (tea meeting). Standin’ up with th’
programme in his han’ Nathan is right at home, an’ arter devotin’ half a’
hour t’ th’ item, ‘Chairman’s remarks,’ he gen’lly proceeds
call upon th’ coir (choir) fer a selection. Them is great tea meetin’s
presided over by Nathan!" And Jock would chuckle long and heartily to
himself at the recollection of some memories connected with them.