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The Starling, A Scotch Story
Chapter V. - The Sergeant and his Starling in Trouble


THE Sergeant and his wife, after having joined, as was their wont, in private morning worship, had retired, to prepare for church, to their bedroom in the back part of the cottage, and the door was shut. Not until a loud knock was twice repeated on the kitchen-table, did the Sergeant emerge in his shirt-sleeves to reply to the unexpected summons. His surprise was great as he exclaimed, "Mr. Porteous! can it be you? Beg pardon, sir, if I have kept you waiting; please be seated. No bad news, I hope?"

Mr. Porteous, with a cold nod, and remaining where he stood, pointed with his umbrella to the cage hanging outside the window, and asked the Sergeant if that was his bird.

"It is, sir," replied the Sergeant, more puzzled than ever; "it is a favourite starling of mine, and I hung it out this morning to enjoy the air, because---"

"You need not proceed, Mr. Mercer," interrupted the minister; "it is enough for me to know from yourself that you acknowledge that bird as yours, and that you hung it there."

"There is no doubt about that, sir; and what then? I really am puzzled to know why you ask," said the Sergeant.

"I won't leave you long in doubt upon that point," continued the minister, more stern and calm if possible than before, "nor on some others which it involves."

Katie, at this crisis of the conversation, joined them in her black silk gown. She entered the kitchen with a familiar smile and respectful curtsey, and approached the minister, who, barely noticing her, resumed his subject. Katie, somewhat bewildered, sat down in the large chair beside the fire, watching the scene with curious perplexity.

"Are you aware, Mr. Mercer, of what has just happened?" inquired the minister.

"I do not take you up, sir," replied the Sergeant.

"Well, then, as I approached your house a crowd of children were gathered round that cage, laughing and singing, with evident enjoyment, and disturbing the neighbourhood by their riotous proceedings, thus giving pain and grief to their parents, who have complained loudly to me of the injury done to the most sacred feelings and associations by you—please, please, don't interrupt me, Mr. Mercer; I have a duty to perform, and shall finish presently."

The Sergeant bowed, folded his arms, and stood erect. Katie covered her face with her hands, and exclaimed,—"Tuts, tuts, I'm real sorry—tuts."

"I went up to the cage," said Mr. Porteous, continuing his narrative, "and narrowly inspected the bird. To my—what shall I call it? astonish- went? or shame and confusion?—I heard it utter such distinct and articulate sounds as convinced me beyond all possibility of doubt.—.yet you smile sir, at my statement!--that—"

"Tuts, Adam, it's dreadfu'!" ejaculated Katie.

"That the bird," continued the minister, "must have been either taught by you, or with your approval: and having so instructed this creature, you hang it out on this, the Sabbath morning, to whistle and to speak, in order to insult—yes, sir, I use the word advisedly—"

"Never, sir!" said the Sergeant, with a calm and firm voice; "never, sir, did I intentionally insult mortal man."

"I have nothing to do with your intentions, but with facts; and the fact is, you did insult, sir, every feeling the most sacred, besides injuring the religious habits of the young. You did this, an elder—my elder, this day, to the great scandal of religion."

The Sergeant never moved, but stood before his mini4er as he would have done before his general, calm, in the habit of respectful obedience to those having authority. Poor Katie acted as a sort of chorus at the fireside.

"I never thocht it would come to this," she exclaimed, twisting her fingers. "Oh! it's a pity! Sirs a day! Waes me! Sic a day as I have lived to see! Speak, Adam!" at length she said, as if to relieve her misery.

The silence of Adam so far helped the minister as to give him time to breathe, and to think. Ile believed that he had made an impression on the Sergeant, and that it was possible things might not be so bad as they had looked. He hoped and wished to put them right, and desired to avoid any serious quarrel with Mercer, whom he really respected as one of his best elders, and as one who had never given him any trouble or uneasiness, far less opposition. Adam on the other hand, had been so suddenly and unexpectedly attacked, that he hardly knew for a moment what to say or do. Once or twice the old ardent temperament made him feel something at his throat, such as used to be there when the order to charge was given, or the command to form square and prepare to receive cavalry. But the habits of "drill" and the power of passive endurance came to his aid, along with a higher principle. He remained silent.

When the steam had roared off, and the ecclesiastical boiler of Mr. Porteous was relieved from extreme pressure, he began to simmer, and to be more quiet about the safety valve. Sitting down, and so giving evidence of his being at once fatigued and mollified, he resumed his discourse. "Sergeant "—he had hitherto addressed him as Mr. Mercer—"Sergeant, you know my respect for you. I will say that a better man, a more attentive hearer, a more decider, and consistent Churchman, and a more faithful cRier, I have not in my parish—"

Adam bowed.

"Be also seated," said the minister.

"Thank you, sir," said Adam, "I would rather stand."

I will after all give you credit for not intending to do this evil which I complain of; I withdraw the appearance even of making any such charge," said Mr. Porteous, as if asking a question.

After a brief silence, the Sergeant said, "You have given me great pain, Mr. Porteous."

"How so, Adam?"—still more softened.

"It is great pain, sir, to have one's character doubted," replied Adam.

"But have I not cause?" inquired the minister.

"You are of course the best judge, Mr. Porteous; but I frankly own to you that the possibility of there being any harm in teaching a bird never occurred to me."

"Oh, Adam!" exclaimed Katie, "I ken it was aye your mind that, but it wasna mine, although at last—"

"Let me alone, Katie, just now," quietly remarked Adam.

"What of the scandal? what of the scandal?" struck in the minister. "I have no time to discuss details this morning; the bells have commenced."

"Well, then," said the Sergeant, "I was not aware of the disturbance in the street which you have described; I never, certainly, could have intended that. I was, at the time, in the bedroom, and never knew of it. Believe me when I say't, that no man lives who would feel mair pain than I would in being the occasion of ever leading any one to break the Lord's day by word or deed, more especially the young; and the young aboot our doors are amang the warst. And as to my showing disrespt to you, sir!—that never could be my intention."

"I believe you, Adam, I believe you but—"

"Ay, weel ye may," chimed in Katie, now weeping as she saw some hope of peace; "for he's awfu' taen up wi' guid, is Adam. Though I say't—"

"Oh, Katie! dinna, woman, fash yersel' Wi' me," interpolated Adam.

"Though I say't that shouldna say't," continued Katie, " I'm sure lie has the greatest respek for You, sir. He'll do onything to please you that's possible, and to mak' amends for this great mis fortun'."

"Of that I have no doubt—no doubt whatever, Mrs. Mercer," said Mr. Porteous, kindly; "and I wished, in order that he should do so, to be faithful to him, as he well knows I never will sacrifice my principles to any man, be he who he may—never!

"There is no difficulty, I am happy to say," the minister resumed, after a moment's pause, "in settling the whole of this most unpleasant business. Indeed I promised to the neighbours, who were very naturally offended, that it should never occur again; and as you acted, Adam, from ignorance— and we must not blame an old soldier too much," the minister added with a patronising smile,—" all parties will be satisfled by a very small sacrifice indeed—almost too small, considering the scandal. Just let the bird be forthwith destroyed - that is all."

Adam started.

"In any case," the minister went on to say, without noticing the Sergeant's look, "this should be done, because being an cider, and, as such, a man with grave and solemn responsibilities, you will, I am sure, see the propriety of at once acquiescing in my proposal, so as to avoid the temptation of your being occupied by trifles and frivolities—contemptible trifles, not to give a harsher name to all that the bird's habits indicate. But when, in addition to this consideration, these habits, Adam, have, as a fact, occasioned serious scandal no doubt can remain in any well constituted mind as to the necessity of the course I have suggested."

"Destroy Charlie—I mean, the starling!" inquired the Sergeant, stroking his chin, and looking down at the minister with a smile in which there was more of sorrow and doubt than of any other emotion. "Do you mean, Mr. Porteous, that I should kill him?"

"I don't mean that, necessarily, you should do it, though you ought to do it as the offender. But I certainly mean that it should be destroyed in any way, or by any person you please, as, if not the best possible, yet the easiest amends which can be made for what has caused such injury to morals and religion, and for what has annoyed myself more than I can tell. Remember, also, that the credit of the eldership is involved with my own."

"Are you serious, Mr. Porteous?" asked the Sergeant.

"Serious! serious!—Your minister!—on Sabbath morning!—in a grave matter of this kind !—to ask if I am serious! Mr. Mercer, you are forgetting yourself."

"I ask pardon," replied the Sergeant, "if I have said anything disrespectful; but I really did not take in how the killing of my pet starling could mend matters, for which I say again, that I am really vexed, and ax yer pardon. What has happened has been quite unintentional on my part, I do assure you. sir."

"The death of the bird," said the minister, "I admit, in one sense, is a mere trifle—a trifle to you: but it is not so to me, who am the guardian Of religion in the parish, and as such have pledged my 'word to your neighbours that this, which I have called a great scandal, shall never happen again. The least that you can do, therefore, I humbly think, as a proof of your regret at having been even the innocent cause of acknowledged evil; as a satisfaction to your neighbours, and a security against a like evil occurring again; and as that which is due to yourself as an office-bearer, to the parish, and, I must acid, to me as your pastor, and my sense of what is right; and, finally, in order to avoid a triumph to Dissent on the one hand, and to infidelity on the other,—it is, I say, beyond all question your clear duty to remove the cause of the offence, by your destroying that paltry insignificant bird. I must say, Mr. Mercer, that I feel not a little surprised that your own sense of what is right does not compel you at once to acquiesce in my very moderate demand—so moderate, indeed, that I am almost ashamed to make it."

No response from the Sergeant.

"Many men, let me tell you," continued Mr. Porteous, "would have summoned you to the Kirk Session, and rebuked you for your whole conduct, actual and implied, in this case, and, if you had been contumacious, would then have libelled and deposed you!" The minister was warming as he proceeded. "I have no time," he added, rising, "to say more on this painful matter. But I ask you now, after all I have stated, and before we part, to promise inc this favour—no, I won't put it on the ground of a personal favour, but on principle—promise me to do this—not to-day of course, but on a week-day, say to-morrow—to destroy the bird,—and I shall say no more about it. Excuse my warmth, Adam, as I may be doing you the injustice of assuming that you do not see the gravity of your own position or of mine." And Mr. Porteous stretched out his hand to the Sergeant.

"I have no doubt, sir," said the Sergeant, calmly, "that you mean to do what seems to you to be right, and what you believe to be your duty. But—" and there was a pause, "but I will not deceive you, nor promise to do what I feel I can never perform. I must also do my duty, and I daurna do what seems to me to be wrang, cruel, and unnccessary. I canna' kill the bird. It is simply impossible! Do pardon me, sir. Dinna think me disrespectful or prood. At this moment I am neither, but vcrra vexed to have had ony disturbance wi' my minister. Yet-----"

"Yet what, Mr. Mercer?"

"Weel, Mr. Porteous, I dinna wish to detain you; but as far as I can see my duty, or understand my feelings—"

"Feelings! forsooth!" exclaimed Mr. Porteous.

"Or understand my feelings," continued Adam, "I canna—come what may, let me oot with it— I will not kill the bird!"

Mr. Porteous rose and said, in a cold, dry voice, "If such is your deliverance, so be it. I have done m duty. On you, and you only, the responsibility must now rest of what appears to me to be contumacious conduct—an offence, if possible, worse than the original one. You sin with light and knowledge—and it is, therefore. heinous by reason of several aggravations. I must wish you good-morning. This matter cannot rest here. But whatever consequences may follow, you, and you alone, I repeat, are to blame—my conscience is free. You will hear more of this most unfortunate business, Sergeant Mercer." And Mr. Porleous, with a stiff bow, walked out of the house.

Adam made a movement towards the door, as if to speak once more to Mr. Porteous, muttering to himself, "He canna be in earnest!—The thing's impossible!—It canna be!" But the minister was gone.


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