Starling, A Scotch Story Chapter XXV. - Mr.
MR. SMELLIE was not only a draper, but
was the greatest in that line in the parish of Drumsylie. His shop had the
largest display of goods in the village. Handkerchiefs, cravats, Paisley
shawls, printed calicoes, &c. streamed in every variety of colour from
strings stretched across the large window, dotted with hats and bonnets
for male and female customers. He was looked upon as a well-to-do,
religious man, who carefully made the most of both worlds. He was a
bachelor, and lived in a very small house, above his shop, which was
reached by a screw stair. A small charity boy, with a singularly sedate
countenancehe may for aught I know be now a rich merchant on the London
Exchangekept the shop. I mention his name, Eben or Ebenezer Peat, to
preserve for some possible biographer the important part which the as yet
great unknown played in his early life. The only domestic was old Peggy;
of whom, beyond her name, I know nothing. She may have been great, and no
doubt was, if she did her duty with zeal and love to Peter Smellie. Peggy
inhabited the kitchen, and her master the parlour, attached to which was a
small bed-closet. The parlour was cold and stiff, like a cell for a
condemned Pharisee. There was little furniture in it save an old sofa
whose hard bony skeleton was covered by a cracked skin of black haircloth,
with a small round cushion of the same character, roughened by rather
bristly hairs, which lay in a recess at the end of it. A few stuffed
mahogany chairs were ranged along the wall; while a very uncomfortable
arm-chair beside the small fire, and a round table with a dark wax-cloth
cover, completed the furniture of the apartment. There were, besides, a
few old books of theology which guaranteed Mr. Smellie's orthodoxy, if
not his reading; a copy of "Buchan's Domestic Medicine;" and a sampler
which hung on the wall, sewed by his only sister, long dead, on which was
worked a rude symbol of Castle Bennock with three swans floating under it,
nearly as large as the castle, and beneath what was intended to represent
flowers were the symbols, "For P. S. by M. S."
Mr. Smellie, near a small fire, that
twinkled like a yellow cairngorm amidst basalt, sat reading his newspaper,
when a letter was laid upon his table by Peggy without any remark except
"From whom, Peggy?" asked Smellie.
"Dinna ken; was left on the coonter."
Mr. Smellie opened it. No sooner did he
recognise the signature, than he laid aside the paperthe Edinburgh
Courant, even then best known and long established.
He read the letter over and over again,
very possibly a hundred times, if one might judge from the time it
remained in his hands. At last he put it down quietly, as if afraid it
would make a noise, and stared at the small embryo fire. He then paced
across the room ; lay down on the sofa; resumed his seat at the fire; took
up the letter, again perused it, and again slowly laid it down. He alone
could decipher his own thoughts while doing all this. For a time he was
confused and bewildered, as if endeavouring to comprehend his altered
position. It was to him as if some one whom he had hanged or murdered had
come to life again. What was he to do now with reference to the Sergeant?
This was what puzzled himwhat could be done to save himself? He had felt
safe in the hands of an honourable manat a distance. He had in tact,
during many years of comparative ease as to worldly things, almost
forgotten his old attempt at cheating. He had long ago repented, as he
thought, of his crime; but that which was past had now risen from the
dead, and God seemed to require it at his hands!
Had not his own continued sinfulness
thus restored the dead past to life?
It was a great shock for him to learn
for the first time that his enemy, as he looked upon Adam, knew it all,
and had him in his power. And then to learn also that the Sergeant had
never divulged the secret! What could Smellie now do? Would he provoke
Adam to blast his character, to triumph over him, to expose him to the
Kirk Session and the parish? nay, toto banish him? Or would he repent
truly of all that false, hollow past which was now being dimly revealed to
him; confess his evil-doing to the Sergeant, and ask his forgiveness, as
well as that of God; trust his mercy, bless him for his generosity,
acknowledge that he was the better man, and seek by a new and true life to
imitate him? O Mr. Smellie! this is indeed one of those moments in thy
life in which a single step to the right or left may lead thee to light or
to darkness, to heaven or to hell. Thy soul, of immeasurable littleness
estimated by the world, but of infinite greatness estimated by eternal
truth and righteousness, is now engaged in a battle in which its eternal
destiny is likely to be determined ! Confront then the good and evil
masters, God and Mammon, who are contending for the mastery; serve the one
and despise the other, and even thou mayest yet be great because good. But
if not! then in a few minutes mayest thou be irrecoverably on the road to
thine own place; and though this will be nothing to Drumsylie, it will be
everything to thee!
The battle went hard against Saul, and
the Philistines of vanity, pride, and a wicked consistency were pressing
hard upon him! One thing only, the easiest for the time, he determined to
do, and that was to get out of the scrapeas his bad angel soothingly
suggested as speedily and as easily as possible. He must not keep up the
quarrel longer with the Sergeant; this at least seemed clear: for such a
course was dangerous. He must also immediately assure John Spence of
obedience to his commands. So, without delay, he wrote to the keeper,
imploring him, as he himself expected mercy from God, to be silent
regarding the old crime; assuring him that he had mistaken the part which
he had taken as an elder in this most painful case, as he called it, and
promising him to do all he could to deliver the Sergeant out of trouble,
which would be at once his duty and his pleasure. This letter, when
written and despatched, was a great relief to his mind: it delivered him,
as he hoped, from immediate danger at least, and enabled him to
concentrate his acute faculties on the carrying out of his plans for
securing his own safety.
His thoughts were for the moment broken
by Eben announcing, as he was wont to do, a superior customer whom it was
expedient for the master himself to serve. The customer on the present
occasion was Miss Thornasina Porteous, who had come to purchase some
article for herself, and a cheap shawl, out of the Session Charity Fund,
for their poor, persecuted, common friend, as she called Mrs. Craigie.
Mr. Smellie was unusually silent: he
did not respond to the order for Mrs. Craigie with his accustomed smile.
After a little, Miss Thomasina blandly remarked:-"Sergeant Mercer is very
ill, and I have no doubt from a bad conscience there's no peace, you
know, Mr. Smellie, to the wicked."
"I am aware!" said Mr. Smellie, drily.
"This cheap shawl," he added, selecting and spreading out one before her,
"is good enough, I suppose, for a pauper?"
"Considering all she has suffered from
that man, I think she should get a better one, or something in addition,
Mr. Sinellie," said the lady.
"Eben!" said Smellie, "go up-stairs. I
wish to speak to Miss Porteous alone."
The boy disappeared.
"As a friend, Miss Porteous," whispered
Smellie, "permit me to say, in strictest confidence you understand?"
"Quite!" replied Miss Thomasina, with a
look of intense curiosity.
"That I have, learned some things about
Mrs. Craigie," continued Mr. Smellie, "which should make us extremely
cautious in helping or trusting her."
"Indeed!" said Miss Thomasina.
"And as regards the Sergeant," said Mr.
Smellie, "there isrightly or wrongly is not the questiona strong
sympathy felt for him in the parish. It is human nature to feel, you know,
for the weak side, even if it is the worst side; and from my profound
respect for our excellent minister, over whom you exercise such great and
useful influence, I would advise"
"That he should yield, Mr. Smellie?"
interrupted Miss Thomasina, with an expression of wonder.
"No, no, Miss Porteous," replied the
worthy Peter, "that may be impossible; but that we should allow Providence
to deal with Adam. He is ill. The Doctor, I heard to-day, thinks it may
come to typhus fever. He is threatened, at least."
"And may die?" said the lady,
interpreting the elder's thoughts. "But I hope not, poor man, for his own
sake. It would be a solemn judgment!"
"I did not say die," continued Smellie;
"but many things may occursuch as repentance a new mind, &c. Anyhow," he
added with a smile, "he should, in my very humble opinion, be dealt wi'
charitablynay, I would say kindly.
Our justice should be tempered wi'
mercy, so that no enemy could rejoice over us, and that we should feel a
good consciencethe best o' blessings," he said with a sigh,'as knowing
that we had exhausted every means o' bringing him to a right mind ; for,
between us baith, and knowing your Christian principles, I do really houp
that at heart he is a good man. Forgie me for hinting it, as I would not
willingly pain you, but I really believe it. Now, if he dees, we'll have
no blame. So I say, or rather suggest, that, wi' your leave, we should in
the meantime let things alone, and say no more about this sad business. I
leave you to propose this to our worthy minister."
I think our kindness and charity, Mr.
Smellie," replied Miss Porteous, "are not required at present. On my word,
no! My poor brother requires both, not Mercer. See how he is petted! Those
upstart Gordons have been sending him, I hear, all sorts of good things:
wine and grapesgrapes, that even I have only tasted once in my life, when
my mother died! And Mrs. Gordon called on him yesterday in her carriage!
It's absolutely ridiculous! I would even, say an insult! though I'm sure I
don't wish the man any illnot I; but only that we must not spoil him, and
make a fool of my brother and the Session, as if Mercer was innocent. I
assure you my brother feeL this sort of mawkish sympathy very much - very
much. It's mean and cowardly!"
"It is quite natural that he should
feel annoyed," replied Mr. Sniellie; "and so do I. But, nevertheless, I
again say we must be merciful; for mercy rejoiceth over judgment. So I
humbly advise to let things alone for the present, and to withdraw our
hand when Providence begins to work;in the meantime, in the meantime."
Miss Thomasina was not prepared for
these new views on the part of the high-principled, firm, and consistent
elder. They crossed her purpose. She had no idea of giving up the battle
in this easy way. What had she to do with Providence? To stand firm and
fast to her principles was, she had ever been taught, the one thing
needful; and until the Sergeant confessed his fault, it seemed to her, as
she said, that "he should be treated as a heathen and a publican!"
Mr. Smellie very properly put in the
saving clause, "But no waurno waur, Miss Porteous." He also oiled his
argument by presenting his customer with a new pair of gloves out of a
parcel just received from Edinburgh, as evidence of his admiration for her
The lady smiled and left the shop, and
said she- would communicate the substance of their conversation to her
"Kindly, kindly, as becomes your warm
heart," said Mr. Smellie, expressing the hope at the same time that the
gloves would fit her fingers as well as he wished his arguments would fit
the mind of Mr. Porteous.
Another diplomatic stroke of Mr.
Smellie in his extremity was to obtain the aid of his easy brother-elder,
Mr. Menzies, to adjust matters with the Sergeant, so as to enable Mr.
Porteous, with some show of consistency, to back out of the ecclesiastical
mess in which the Session had become involved: for "consistency" was a
great idol in the Porteous Pantheon.
It hae been thinking, my good freen',"
said Smellie to Menzies, as both were seated beside the twinkling gem of a
fire in the sanctum over the draper's shop, "that possiblypossiblywe
micht men' matters atween the Session and Sergeant Mercer. He is verra
ill, an' the thocht is neither pleasant nor satisfactory to us that he
should deea providential event which mic1iz happenan' wi' this scandal
ower his head. I am willin', for ane, to do whatever is reasonable in the
case, and I'm sure sae are ye; for ye ken, Mr. Menzies, there's nae man
perfec'nane! The fac' is, I'm no' perfec' mysel'!" confessed Mr. Smellie,
with a look intended to express a humility of which he was profoundly
Mr. Menzies, though not at all prepared
for this sudden outburst of charity, welcomed it very sincerely. "I'm
glad," said he, "to hear a man o' your influence in the Session say sae."
Menzies had himself personally experienced to a large degree the dour
influence of the draper over him; and, though his better nature had often
wished to rebel against it, yet the logical meshes of his more astute and
strong-willed brother had hitherto entangled him. But now, with the
liberty of speech granted in so genial a manner by Smellie, Mr. Menzies
said; "I wull admit that Mr. Mercer was, until this unfortunate business
happened, a maist respectable manI mean he was apparently, and I wad fain
houp sincerelya quiet neebour, and a douce elder. I never had cause to
doot him till the day ye telt me in confidence that he had been ance a
poacher. But we mauna be ower hard, Mr. Smellie, on the sins o' youth, or
even o' riper years. Ye mind the paraphrase
'For while the lamp holds on to burns The greatest
sinner may return.'
I wad do onything that was consistent
to get him oot o' this job wi' the minister an' the Session. But hoo can
it be managed, Mr. Smellie?"
"I think," said Smellie, meditatively,
"that if we could only get the minister pleased, things wad richt
"Between oorsel's, as his freen's,"
said Menzies, with a laugh, "he's no' easy to please when he tak's a thraw!
But maybe we're as muckle to blame as him."
"That bird," remarked Snicilie, as he
poked up his almost extinguished fire, "has played a' the mischief! Could
we no' get it decently oot o' the way yet, Mr. Menzies?"
"Weel, I'll tell ye," replied the
draper. "The Sergeant and me, ye ken, cast oot; but you and him, as well
as the wife, are freendly. Noo, what do ye say to seeing them in a
freendly way? and as the Sergeant is in bed--"
"They say it's fivver," interrupted
Menzies, it may come to be verra dangerous."
"Weel a-weel," said Smellie, "in that
case what I propose micht be easier dune: the wife inicht gie you the
bird, for peace' sake for conscience' sakefor her guidman's sake and ye
micht do awa' wi't, and the Sergeant ken naething about it; for, ye see,
being an auld sodger, he's prood as prood can be; and Mr. Porteous wad be
satisfied, and maybe, for peace' sake, wad never speer boo it was dune,
and we wad hae a guid excuse for sayin' nae mair about it in the Session.
If the Sergeant dce'd, nae hairm would be done; if he got weel, he wad be
thankfu' that the stramash was' a' ower, and himsel' restored, wi'eot
being pit aboot for his bird. Eh?"
"I wadna like to meddle xvi' the cratur,"
said Menzies, shaking his head.
"But, man, do ye no' see," argued
Smellie, 'thatit wad stultify yersel' tae refuse doing what is easier for
you than for him? Hoo can ye, as a member o' Session, blame him for no'
killing a pet o' his dead bairn, if ye wadna kill it as a strange bird?"
"Can ye no' kill't then?" asked Menzies.
"I wad hae nae difficulty in doing
thatnane," said Smellie, "but they wadna trust me, and wadna lippen to me;
but they wad trust yo*. It's surely your duty, Mr. Menzies, to do this,
and mair, for peace."
"Maybe," said Menzies. "Yet it's a
cruel job. I'm sweir tae meddle wi't. I'll think aboot it."
"Ay," said Smellie, putting his hand on
his shoulder; "an' ye'll do't, too, when ye get the opportunityI dinna
bid ye kill't, that needna be ; but jist tae let it flee awa'that's the
plan! Try't. I'm awfu' keen to get this job by, an' this stane o' offence
oot o' the road. But mind, ye'll never, never, let on I bade ye, or it
will blaw up the mercifu' plan. Will ye keep a quiet sough aboot me,
whatever ye do? And, moreover, never breathe a word about the auld
poaching business; I hae reasons for this, Mr. Menziesreasons."
Such was Smellie's "game," as it may be
called. For his own ends he was really anxious that Mr. Porteous should
feel kindly towards the Sergeant, so far at least as to retrace the steps
he had taken in his case. He was actuated by fear lest Adam, if crushed,
should be induced to turn against himself, and, in revenge, expose his
former dishonest conduct He did not possess necessarily any gratitude for
the generous part which Adam had played towards him;for nothing is more
hateful to a proud man, than to be under an obligation to one whom he has
injured. It was also very doubtful how far Mr. Porteous, from the strong
and public position he had taken in the case, would, or could yield,
unless there was opened up to him some such back-door of escape as Smellie
was contriving, to save his consistency. If this could be accomplished
without himself being implicated, Smellie saw some hope of ultimate
reconciliation, and the consequent removal on the Sergeant's part of the
temptation to "peach."
VM. Menzies, however, was ill at ease.
The work Smellie had assigned to him was not agreeable, and he was only
induced to attempt its performance in the hope that the escape of the
starling would lead ultimately to the quashing of all proceedings against
With these feelings he went off to call
upon Mrs Mercer.
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