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The Starling, A Scotch Story
Chapter II. - The Elder and his Starling


WHEN Adam Mercer returned from the war more than half a century ago, he settled in the village of Drumsylie, situated in a county bordering on the Highlands, and about twenty miles from the scene of his poaching habits, of which he had long ago repented. His hot young blood had been cooled down by hard service, and his vehement temperament subdued by military discipline; but there remained an admirable mixture in him of deepest feeling, regulated by habitual self-restraint, and expressed in a manner outwardly calm but not cold, undemonstrative but not unkind. His whole bearing was that of a man accustomed at once to command and to obey. Corporal Dick had not formed a wrong estimate of his Christianity The lessons taught by his mother, whom he fondly loved, and whom he had in her widowhood supported to the utmost of his means from pay and prize-money, and her example of a simple, cheerful, and true life, had sunk deeper than he knew into his heart, and, taking root, had sprung up amidst the stormy scenes of war, bringing forth the fruits of stern self-denial and moral courage tempered by strong social affections.

Adam had resumed his old trade of shoe. maker. He occupied a small cottage, which, with the aid of a poor old woman in the neighbourhood, who for an hour morning and evening did the work of a servant, he kept with singular neatness. His little parlour was ornamented with several memorials of the war—a sword or two picked up on memorable battle-fields; a French cuirass from Waterloo, with a gaudy print of Wellington, and one also of the meeting with Blucher at La Belle Alliance.

The Sergeant attended the parish church as regularly as he used to do parade. Any one could have set his watch by the regularity of his movements on Sunday mornings. At the same minute on each succeeding day of holy rest and worship, the tall, erect figure, with well- braced shoulders, might be seen stepping out of the cottage door—where he stood erect for a moment to survey the weather—dressed in the same suit of black trousers, brown surtout, buff waistcoat, black stock, white cotton gloves, with a yellow cane under his arm—everything so neat and clean, from the polished boots to the polished hat, from the well-brushed grey whiskers to the well-arranged locks that met in a peak over his high forehead and soldier-like face. And once within the church there was no more sedate or attentive listener.

There were few week-days and no Sunday evenings on which the Sergeant did not pay a visit to some neighbour confined to bed from sickness, or suffering from distress of some kind. He manifested rare tact—made up of commonsense and genuine benevolence—on such occasions. His strong sympathies put him instantly en rapport with those whom he visited, enabling him at once to meet them on some common ground. Yet in whatever way the Sergeant began his intercourse, whether by listening patiently—and what a comfort such listening silence is!—to the history of the sickness or the sorrow which had induced him to enter the house, or by telling some of his own adventures, or by reading aloud the newspaper—he in the end managed with perfect naturalness to convey truths of weightiest import, and fraught with enduring good and comfort—all backed up by a humanity, an unselfishness, and a gentleman-like respect for others, which made him a most welcome guest. The humble were made glad, and the proud were subdued—they knew not how, nor probably did the Sergeant himself, for he but felt aright and acted as he felt, rather than endeavoured to devise a plan as to how he should speak or act in order to produce a definite result. He numbered many true friends; but if was not possible for him to avoid being secretly disliked by those with whoir from their character, he would not associate, or whom he tacitly rebuked by his own orderly life and good manners.

Two events, in no way connected, but both of some consequence to the Sergeant, turned the current of his life after he had resided a few years in Drumsylie. One was, that by the unanimous choice of the congregation, to whom the power was committed by the minister and his Kirk Session, Mercer was elected to the office of elder in the parish. [Every congregation in the Church of Scotland is governed by a court, recognised by civil law, composed of the minister, who acts as "Moderator," and has only a casting vote, and elders ordained to the office, which is (or life. This court determines, subject to appeal to higher courts, who are to receive the Sacrament, and all cases of Church discipline. No lawyer is allowed to plead in it. Its freedom from civil consequences is secured by law. In many cases it also takes charge of the poor. The eldership has been an unspeakable blessing to Scotland.] This was a most unexpected compliment, and one which the Sergeant for a time declined ; indeed, he accepted it only after many arguments addressed to his sense of duty, and enforced by pressing personal reasons brought to bear on his kind heart by his minister, Mr. Porteous.

The other event, of equal—may we not safely say of greater importance to him?—was his marriage! We need not tell the reader how this came about; or unfold all the subtle magic ways by which a woman worthy to be loved loosed the cords that had hitherto tied up the Sergeant's heart; or how she tapped the deep well of his affections into which the purest drops had for years been falling, until it gushed out with a freshness, fulness, and strength, which are, perhaps, oftenest to be found in an old heart, when it is touched by one whom it dares to love, as that old heart of Adam Mercer's must do if it loved at all.

Katie Mitchell was out of her teens when Adam, in a happy moment of his life, met her in the house of her widowed mother, who had been confined to a bed of feebleness and pain for years, and whom she had tended with a patience, cheerfulness, and unwearied goodness which makes many a humble and unknown home a very Eden of beauty and peace. Her father had been a leading member of a very strict Presbyterian body, called the "Old Light," in which he shone with a brightness which no Church on earth could of itself either kindle or extinguish, and which, when it passed out of the earthly dwelling, left a subdued glory behind it which never passed away. "Faither" was always an authority with Katie and her mother, his ways a constant teaching, and his words were to them as echoes from the Rock of Ages.

The marriage took place after the death of Katie's mather, and soon after Adam had been ordained to the eldership.

A boy was born to the worthy couple, and named Charles, after the Sergeant's father.

It was a sight to banish bachelorship from the world, to watch the joy of the Sergeant with Charlie from the day he experienced the new and indescribable feelings of being a father, until the flaxen-haired blue-eyed boy was able to toddle to his waiting arms, and then be mounted on his shoulders, while he stepped round the room to the tune of the old familiar regimental march, performed by him with half-whistle half- trumpet tones, which vainly expressed the roll of the band that crashed harmoniously in memory's ear. Katie "didna let on" her motherly pride and delight at the spectacle, which never became stale or commonplace.

Adam had a weakness for pets. Dare we call such tastes a weakness, and not rather a minor part of his religion, which included within its wide embrace a love of domestic animals, in which he saw, in their willing dependence on himself, a reflection of more than they could know, or himself even fully understand? At the time we write, a starling was his special friend. It had been caught and tamed for his boy Charlie. Adam had taught the creature with greatest care to speak with precision. Its first, and most important lesson, was, "I'm Charlie's bairn." And one can picture the delight with which the child heard this innocent confession, as the bird put his head askance, looked at him with his round full eye, and in clear accents acknowledged his parentage: "I'm Charlie's bairn!" The boy fully appreciated his feathered confidant, and soon began to look upon him as essential to his daily enjoyment. The Sergeant had also taught the starling to repeat the words, "A man's a man for a' that," and to whistle a bar or two of the ditty, "Wha'll be king but Charlie!"

Katie had more than once confessed that she "wasna unco' fond o' this kind o' diversion." She pronounced it to be "neither natural nor canny," and had often remonstrated with the Sergeant for what she called his "idle, foolish, and even profane" painstaking in teaching the bird. But one night, when the Sergeant announced that the education of the starling was complete, she became more vehement than usual on this assumed perversion of the will of Providence.

"Nothing," said the Sergeant, "can be more beautiful than his 'A man's a man for a' that.'"

"The mair's the pity, Adam !" said Katie. "It's wrang—clean wrang—I tell ye; and ye'll live tae rue't. What right has he to speak? cock him up xvi' his impudence! There's mony a bairn aulder than him canna speak sae weel. It's no' a safe business, I can tell you, Adam."

"Gi' ower, gi' ower, woman," said the Sergeant the cratur' has its ain gifts, as we hae ours, and I'm thankfu' for them. It does me mair gude than ye ken whan I tak' the boy on my lap, and see hoo his e'e blinks, and his bit feet gang, and hoo he laughs when he hears the bird say, 'I'm Charlie's bairn.' And when I'm cuttin', and stitchin', and hammerin', at the window, and dreamin' o' auld langsyne, and fechtin' my battles ower again, and when I think o' that awfu' time that I hae seen wi' brave comrades noo lying in some neuk in Spain ; and when I hear the roar o' the big guns, and the spluttein' crackle o' the wee anes, and see the crood o' red coats, and the flashin' o' bagnets, and the awfu' hell—excuse me—o' the fecht, I tell you it's like a sermon to me when the cratur' says 'A man's a man for a' that!'" The Sergeant would say this, standing up, and erect, with one foot forward as if at the first step of the scaling ladder. "Mind ye, Katie, that it's no' every man that's 'a man for a' that;' but mair than ye wad believe are a set o' fushionless, water-gruel, useless cloots, cauld sooans, when it comes to the real bit—the- grip atween life and death o ye wad wunner, woman, hoo mony men when on parade, or when singin' sangs aboot the war, are gran' hands, but wha lie flat as scones on the grass when they see the cauld iron! Gie me the man that does his duty, whether he meets man or deevil—that's the man for me in war or peace; and that's the reason I teached the bird thae words. It's a testimony for auld freends that I focht xvi', and that I'll never forget—no, never! Dinna be sair, gudewife, on the puir bird."-"Eh Katie he added, one night, when the bird had retired to roost, "just look at the cratur'! Is'na he beautifu'? There he sits on his bawk as roon' as a clew, wi' his bit head under his wing, dreamin' aboot the wuds maybe—or aboot wee Charlie—o aiblins aboot naething. But he is God's ain bird, wonderfu' and fearfully made."

Still Katie, feeling that "a principle "—as she, a la mode, called her opinion—was involved in the bird's linguistic habits, would still maintain her cause with the same arguments, put in a variety of forms. "Na, na, Adam!" she would persistingly affirm, "I will say that for a sensible man an' an elder o' the kirk, ye're ower muckle ta'en up wi' that cratur'. I'll stick to't, that it's no' fair, no' richt, but a mockery o' man. I'm sure faither wadna hae pitten up wit!"

"Dinna be flyting on the wee thing wi' its speckled breast and bonnie e'e. Charlie's bairn, ye ken—mind that!"

"I'm no flyting on him, for it's you, no' him, that's wrang. Mony a time when I speak to you mysel', ye're as deaf as a door nail to me, and can hear naething in the house but that wee neb o' his fechting awa' \Vi' its lesson. Na, ye needna glower at me, and look sac astonished, for I'm perfect serious."

"Ye're speaking perfect nonsense, gudewife let me assure you; and I am astonished at ye," replied Adam, resuming his work on the bench.

"I'm no sic' a thing, Adam, as spakin' nonsense," retorted his wife, sitting down with her seam beside him.. "I ken mair aboot they jabbering birds maybe than yersel'. For I'll never forget an awfu' job wi' 'ane o' them that made a stramash atween Mr. Carruthers, our Auld Licht minister, and Willy Jamieson the Customer 'Weaver. The minister happened to. be veesitin' in Willy's house, and exhortin' him and some neebours that had gaithered to hear. Weel, what hae ye o't, but ane o' they parrots, or Kickcuckkoo birds--or whatever ye Ca' them —had been brocht hame by Willy's brither's son—him that was in the Indies—and didna this cratur' cry oot 'Stap yer blethers !' just ahint the minister, wha gied sic a loup, and thocht it a cunning device o' Satan!"

"Gudewife, gudewife!" struck in the Sergeant, as he turned to her with a laugh, "O dinna blether yoursel', for ye never did it afore. They micht hae hung the birdcage oot while the minister was i', But what had the puir bird to do wi' Satan or religion? Wae's me for the religion that could be hurt by a bird's cracks! The cratur' didna ken what it was saying."

"Didna ken what it was saying!" exclaimed Katie, with evident amazement. "I tell ye, I've see'd it mony a time, and heard it, too; and it was a hantle sensibler than maist bairns

ten times its size. I was watchin' it that day when it disturbed Mr. Carruthers, and I see'd it lookin' roon', and winkin' its een, and scartin' its head lang afore it spak'; and it tried its tongue and black it was, as ye micht expek, and dry as ben leather—three or four times afore it got a soond out; and tho' a' the forenoon it had never spak' a word, yet when the minister began, its tongue was lowsed, and it yoked on him wi' its gowk's sang, 'Stap yer blethers, stap yer blethers!' It was maist awfu' tae heart ! I maun alloo, hooever, that it cam' frae a heathen land, and wasna therefore sae muckle to be blamed. But I couldna mak' the same excuse for your bird, Adam!"

A loud laugh from Adam proved at once to Katie that she had neither offended nor convinced him by her arguments.

But all real or imaginary differences between the Sergeant and his wife about the starling, ended with the death of their boy. What that was to them both, parents only who have lost a child—an only child—can tell. It "cut up," as they say, the Sergeant terribly. Katie seemed suddenly to become old. She kept all her boy's clothes in a press, and it was her wont for a time to open it as if for worship, every night, and to "get her greet out." The Sergeant never looked into it. Once, when his wife awoke at night and found him weeping bitterly, he told his first and only fib; for he said that he had an excruciating headache. A headache! He would no more have wept for a headache of his own than he would for one endured by his old foe, Napoleon.

This great bereavement made the starling a painful but almost a holy remembrancer of the child. "I'm Charlie's bairn!" was a death-knell in the house.. When repeated, no comment was made. It was generally heard in silence; but one day, Adam and his wife were sitting at the fireside taking their meal in a sad mood, and the starling, perhaps under the influence of hunger, or—who knows?—from an uneasy instinctive sense of the absence of the child, began to repeat rapidly the sentence, "I'm Charlie's bairn!" The Sergeant rose and went to its cage with some food, and said, with as much earnestness as if the bird had understood him, "Ay, ye're jist his bairn, and ye'll be my bairn tae as lang as ye live!"

"A man's a man for a' that!" quoth the bird. "Sometimes no'," murmured the Sergeant.


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