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Colin of the Ninth Concession
Chapter XXXI - Around the Home Hearthstone

WILLIE’S return to the home of his childhood created not a little stir in the settlement, especially in view of the announcement that he was "going to the war."

A regular stage service had by this time been established between Brockville and Hornersville, a point beyond the Scotch Settlement, and Willie reached home by that means. The stage-driver deposited him and his little red box at the cross-roads, about half a mile from the homestead. Willie left the box by the fence, to be brought later on in a wheelbarrow or stone-boat, and he walked briskly down the old Ninth Concession line. His heart was filled with emotion as the scenes of his childhood passed before him.

There was the old log schoolhouse, now closed, with two or three of the shutters hanging by one hinge. How old and battered it looked, with the names of the children, carved in all sorts of characters, on the pine door and on the logs! Yes, sure enough, there was his own name, and immediately underneath, the name of Kearstie, which some waggish scholar had coupled with his. Alas, poor Kearstie! And there was the big stone where the boys used to crack butternuts and sharpen their knives. Yes, and there were the charred logs on the corner where young Pepper set fire to the building because he had been hammered unmercifully by Simon. And "the poplars," the scene of many a desperate encounter, there they stood, tranquil and all unconscious of the many struggles they had witnessed.

The old school, the old playground, and the scenes and memories associated with them, are sacred to the boy (yes, and to the man of well-ordered mind), and it was no wonder that Willie lingered about the place, and that for the time he was lost with the recollections which crowded upon him. Even the cruelties and brutalities practised by Simon, while they marred the picture for him, did not destroy its sacred beauties. He was recalled to himself by hearing Muckle Peter shout : —

"See here, ye young vagabone, what’ll ye be daun aboot th’ skule th’ day?"

Willie made no answer to Muckle Peter, but springing nimbly over the fence, ran up to the great Scotsman and said, extending his hand : —

"Why, Muckle Peter, have you forgotten me? Don’t you know who I am?"

Muckle Peter scratched his head a moment, looked scrutinisingly into Willie’s face, and then a smile overspread his great rough countenance, just as a sunburst through a rift in the clouds on a rainy day strikes a particular spot on the earth and causes it to sparkle.

"Know ye! know ye! Wullie, maun, why I’d know yer hide in a tan pit!" and Peter shook the lad’s hand until the pain almost made him cry out. But he would have allowed Muckle Peter to wring it off rather than hurt his feelings by suggesting a cessation of enthusiasm.

"An’ how you’ve growed!" said Peter, standing and taking an extra good look at Willie. "An’ it’s a prood woman yer mither’ll be th’ day tae see ye back safe an’ soun’, an’ lukin’ sae well. Ach, maun, but it dis a lad guid, an’ it’s a braw thing intil th’ bargain, tae get oot intil th’ warld an’ see what’s gaun on. Ah only wush Ah’d gaed oot masel’ fufty year ago. It’s no’ precentin’ Ah’d be th’ day in a luttle twal be fourteen kirk. Ah’ll no’ be sayin’ that Ah despise th’ sarvice o’ th’ Loard in a humble way, sic’as we hae here, but it gies a maun na chance tae spread himsel’. Dinna ye no’ think, Wullie, confideentially, thet Ah cud raise th’ tunes in th’ great kirks o’ New York es weel es they big buddies they hae thar?"

Willie made this non-committal statement, which pleased Muckle Peter immensely: "In all my experience in the big city, Muckle Peter, I must confess that I never heard a more powerful singer than yourself, and I am quite sure, that if you undertook to lead the Psalmody in any of the great churches, you would create a sensation."

If Peter had a liking for Willie in the lad’s boyhood days, he positively loved him from this time forth, and it was pleasant to hear the great Scotsman, Sabbath after Sabbath, as, with the recollection of Willie’s doubtful compliment ringing in his ears, he would strain his all too powerful lungs to their utmost, and would "drowned out" (Goarden’s expression) the entire congregation with his stupendous notes, in "Old Hundred," "Coronation," "Balerma," or "Dundee."

Jock, the drover, declared that he heard the ceiling crack, and unless some precautionary measures were taken there was danger of the roof being lifted.

It was also amusing to listen to Muckle Peter’s covert threats about "resinin’ an’ gaun whar talent is appreciat’ wich it isna in thus Goad-forsaken wulderness." But Peter did not resign, for he continued to "raise the tunes" at the auld kirk until the universal enemy laid hands upon him and his strong voice was silenced.

Muckle Peter walked with Willie to the gate, and when the young man turned in, the Scotsman said:

"Wullie, my boy, ye hae a guid mither, an’ lad, dinna ye ever forget her, fer she desearves weel o’ ye all. It’s a prood woman she’ll be th’ day tae see ye."

The dog —Willie’s dog — barked loudly as the young man walked down the lane. Mrs. McNabb, with her beautiful white hair, calm face, and trim figure attired with scrupulous cleanliness, and wearing an apron, appeared at the door to see what Coaley was barking at.

As Willie approached, the widow looked keenly at him through her spectacles. Then she uttered a cry of joy: "Willie!"

"Mother!" And the two were locked fondly in each other’s arms.

Let us draw the curtain, such scenes are too sacred for our gaze.

Before supper that evening, Willie strolled off to the barnyard, and down the lane of the farm, to see his old friends, the animals, and it cheered and warmed his heart to find how many of them remembered and greeted him in their own dumb way.

Passing on to the bush, he wound his way in and out along the paths ("pads" Willie called them in childhood) made by the cattle, until he reached the old spring. The ground about it had been tramped by the animals, but the water bubbled up in the centre just as pure and cool as ever. Willie found a green plot of grass where he could lie on his breast, reach down, and drink until he was satisfied. No water on earth ever tasted so fine to Willie as that from the old bush spring.

He spent a long time by the spring, listening, —now to the sound of the distant cow-bell, which came floating across the swamp through the trees; now to the sharp, excited alarms sounded by the squirrels, who would peep at him from the branches, and then scamper away to warn their companions of the presence of a supposed enemy; now to the sound of the industrious woodpeckers, as they pounded away at some dead, hollow trees; and now to the croaking of the frogs in the pools created by the overflowing spring. These sounds were all sweet music to him.

Tradition used to ascribe to the frogs in the Scotch Settlement the practice of chanting in their frog language a reference to a celebrated Dutch swindler, named Whaum, whose notorious operations among the pioneer settlers is remembered to this day. And as Willie listened to the old familiar sound coming from the ponds: "W-h-a-u-m-s-a-r-o-g-u-e! W-h-a-u-m-s-ar-o-g-u-e!" he smiled to himself. Then when the traditional answer, pitched in a higher frog-key, came back from the colony of frogs in the deeper ponds in the swamp close by: "S-a-n-d-y-t-o-o! S-a-n-d-y-t-o-o!" (Sandy was a brother of Whaum, also of notorious memory), Willie fairly laughed aloud.

But it was growing dusk, and with Coaley bounding at his heels, he retraced his way along the bush paths, pausing at the old beech tree to see that the bark had not grown over his name, which had been cut there years ago; and then, springing over the bars, he hurried up the lane to the house, where a steaming supper, his happy brothers and sisters, and his radiant mother awaited him.

Night after night Willie was the central figure in the domestic group. The widow sat busily knitting or mending, preparing the wardrobes of her three boys for their early departure, ever and anon pausing to listen to some specially exciting point mentioned by her son, as he told of life and scenes in the great city of New York.

The brothers and sisters, and Colin and I, all sat around the hearthstone, drinking in the stories which Willie told, while the great logs in the big fireplace burned briskly, the sparks mounting the chimney, and the blaze of light shooting out into the room and suddenly illuminating it, as Wallace stirred the logs or re-arranged the coals.

Now and again would come the admonition of the widow, as she discovered some defective point in the conversation. How kindly she administered the rebuke! Indeed, the way it was put and the manner of putting it removed any suspicion that Mrs. McNabb’s interruptions were intended as either rebukes or corrections. Before the hour for retiring came (and it seemed the universal desire to prolong those evenings), the widow would look at the great old wooden clock, shake her head in kindly protest, and reaching for the big family Bible would say: "Here, Willie, your eyes are young, and mine are tired. Read a chapter, and we’ll all to bed."

"What shall I read, mother?" Willie would often say.

"Well, if you don’t mind to-night," was the widow’s frequent answer, "I would like to hear the fourteenth chapter of John again. It seems as if I would never tire of that."

And as Willie would read about "My Father’s house" and the "many mansions" it contained, and farther on, of our Lord going to prepare a place for His own, the widow’s eyes would glisten, and we could see that her mind was far away. She never seemed to follow the words of the chapter beyond a certain point — from that point she appeared to be lost in the Celestial City, her mind entirely purged of earthly considerations and her face radiant with pure joy.

When the reading of the chapter was completed, she would give a sudden start, and with a subdued exclamation of, "Oh! are you finished?" she would, in a simple, earnest prayer, spoken in the sweetest tones and most loving words, commend all to Divine care.

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