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The Starling, A Scotch Story
Chapter XVII. - The Keeper's Home

WHILE the preparations for supper were going on within doors, Jock went out to have a "dauner," or saunter, but, in truth, from a modest wish to appear as if not expecting to be asked to partake of supper with the family.

The table was spread with a white home-made linen cloth, and deep plates were put down, each with a horn spoon beside it. A large pot, containing potatoes which had been pared before they were placed on the fire, was now put on the floor, and fresh butter with some salt having been added to its contents, the whole was beat and mashed with a heavy wooden beetle worked by Hugh and his son—for the work required no small patience and labour—into a soft mass, forming an excellent dish of "champed potatoes," which, when served up with rich milk, is "a dainty dish to set before a king," even without the four-and-twenty blackbirds. Then followed a second course, of "barley scones" and thick crisp oatmeal cakes, with fresh butter, cheese, and milk.

Before supper was served Jock Hall was missed, and Johnnie sent in search of him. After repeated shouts he found him wandering about the woods, but had the greatest difficulty in persuading him to join the family. Jock said, "It wasna for him tae gang ben,"—"he had had eneuch tae eat in the afternoon,"—"he wad hae a bite efter-hin," &c. But being at last persuaded to accept the pressing invitation, he entered, and without speaking a word seated himself in the place allotted to him.

Tak' in yer chair, Maister Hall,"—Jock could riardly believe his ears !-" and mak' what supper ye can," said Mrs. Hugh. "We're plain kintra folk hereawa',"—an apology to Jock for their having nothing extra at supper to mark their respect for a friend of the Sergeant's! What were his thoughts? The character of an impostor seemed forced upon him when he most desired to be an honest man.

Then the old man reverently took off his "Kumarnock cool," a coloured worsted night-cap, and said grace, thanking God for all His mercies, "of the least of which," he added, "we are unworthy." After supper Mrs. Hugh gave a long account of the labours of the day, and of the big washing, and told how she had met Lady Mary, and Lady Caroline, and Lord Bennock, and how they had been talking to the children, and "speering for faither and grandfaither."

A happy family was that assembled under the keeper's roof. The youngest child, a boy, was ever welcome on old John's knee, who never seemed able to exhaust the pleasure he derived from his grandson's prattle. His large watch, which approached in size to a house clock, with its large pewter seal, was an endless source of amusement to the child; so also was the splendid rabbit shadowed on the wall, with moving ears and moving mouth, created by John's hands; and his imitation of dogs, cats, and all other domestic animals, in which he was an adept;—nay, his very crutches were turned to account to please the boy, and much more to please himself. The elder daughters clung round their mother in a group, frankly talking to her in mutual confidence and love. The boys enjoyed the same liberty with their father, and indulged unchecked in expressions of affection. All was freedom without rudeness, play without riot, because genuine heartfelt affection united all.

Jock did not join in the conversation, except when he was asked questions by Mrs. Hugh about Drumsylie, its shops and its people. On the whole he was shy and reserved. Any one who could have watched his eye and seen his heart would have discovered both busy in contemplating a picture of ordinary family life such as the poor outcast had never before beheld. But Jock still felt as if he was not in his right place—as if he would have been cast out into the darkness had his real character been known. His impressions of a kind of life he never dreamt of were still more deepened when, before going to bed, the large Bible was placed on the table, and Hugh, amidst the silence of the family, said, "We'll hae worship." The chapter for the evening happened to be the fifteenth of St. Luke. It was as if written expressly for Jock. Are such adaptations to human wants to be traced to mere chance? Surely He who can feed the wild beasts of the desert, or the sparrow amidst the waste of wintry snows, can give food to the hungry soul of a Prodigal Son, as yet ignorant of the food he needs, and of the Father who alone can supply it.

They did not ask Jock if he would remain for evening worship. "The stranger within the gate" was assumed to be, for the time, a member of the household. It was for him to renounce his recognised right, not for the family to question it. But Jock never even argued the point with himself. He listened with head bent down as if ashamed to hold it up, and following the example set to him by the family, knelt down— for the first time in his life—in prayer. Did he pray? Was it all a mere form? Was it by constraint, and not willingly? What his thoughts were on such an occasion, or whether they were gathered up in prayer to the living God, who can tell! But if the one thought even, for the first time, possessed him, that maybe there was a Person beyond the seen and temporal, to whom the world and man belonged, whose Name he could now associate with no evil but with all good, who possibly knew him and wished him to be good like Himself;—if there was even a glimmer in his soul, as he knelt down, that he might say as well as others, and along with them, "Our Father which art in heaven," then was there cast into his heart, though he knew it not, the germ of a new life which might yet grow into a faith and love which would be life eternal.

The prayer of Hugh the keeper was simple, earnest, and direct, a real utterance from one person to another—yet as from a man to God, couched in his own homely dialect to Him whom the people of every language and tongue can worship. The prayer was naturally suggested by the chapter which was read. He acknowledged that all were as lost sheep; as money lost in the dust of earth; as miserable prodigals lost to their Father and to themselves, and who were poor and needy, feeding on husks, having no satisfaction, and finding no man to give unto them. He prayed God to bring them all into the fold of the Good Shepherd, who had given His life for the sheep, and to keep them in it; to gather them as the lost coins into the treasury of I-nm who was rich, yet who for our sakes became poor; he prayed God to help them all to sa "I will arise, and go to my Father," in the assured hope that their Father would meet them afar off; and receive them with joy. Alter remembering the afflicted in body and mind, the orphan and widow, the outcast and stranger, he asked that God, who had mercy an themselves who deserved nothing, would make them also merciful to others; and lie concluded with the Lord's Prayer.

Had any one seen poor Hall that night as he lay in the hay-loft, a clean blanket under him and more than uric over him, they might have discovered in his open eyes, and heard in his half-muttered expressions, and noticed even from his wakeful tossings to and fro, a something stirring in his soul the nature or value of which he himself could not comprehend or fully estimate.

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