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The Starling, A Scotch Story
Chapter XXVIII. - Mr. Porteous visits the Sergeant

BUT what was the minister thinking about during the Sergeant's illness? Miss Thom- asina had told him what had taken place during her interview with Smellie. Mr. Porteous could not comprehend the sudden revolution in the mind of Lis elder. But his own resolution was as yet unshaken; for there is a glory often experienced by some men when placed in circumstances where they stand alone, that of recognising themselves as being thereby sufferers for conscience' sake—as being above all earthly influences, and firm, consistent, fearless, true to their principles, when others prove weak, cowardly, or compromising. Doubts and difficulties, from whatever source they come, are then looked upon as so many temptations; and the repeated resistance of them, as so many evidences of unswerving loyalty to truth.

"I can never yield one jot of my principles," Mr. Porteous said to Miss Thomasina. The Sergeant ought to acknowledge his sin before the Kirk Session, before I can in consistency be reconciled to him! And yet all this sturdy profession was in no small degree occasioned by the intrusion of better thoughts, which because they rebuked him were unpleasant. His irritation measured on the whole very fairly his disbelief in the thorough soundness of his own position, and made him more willing than he had any idea of to be reconciled to Adam.

We need not report the conversation which immediately after this took place in the Manse between Smellie and Mr. Porteous. The draper was calm, smiling, and circumspect. He repeated all he had said to Miss Thomasina as to the necessity and advantage of leniency, forgiveness, and mercy; dwelling on the Sergeant's sufferings and the sympathy of the parish with him, the noble testimony which the minister had already borne to truth and principle; and urged Mr. Porteous to gratify the Kirk Session by letting the case "tak' end:" but all his pleadings were apparently in vain. The minister was not verily "given to change!" The case, he said, had been settled by the Session, and the Session alone could deal with it. They were at perfect liberty to reconsider the question as put by Mr. Smellie, and he had perfect liberty to bring it before the court. For himself he would act as principle and consistency dictated. And so Smellie returned to his room above the shop, and went to bed, wishing he had left the Sergeant and his bird to their own devices; and Mr. Porteous retired to his room above the study with very much the same feelings.

In the meantime one duty was clear to Mr. Porteous, and that was to visit the Sergeant. He was made aware of the highly contagious character of the fever, but this only quickened his resoiution to minister as far as possible to the sick man and his family. He was not a man to flinch from what he saw to be his duty Cowardice was not among his weaknesses. It would be unjust not to say that he was too real, too decided, too stern for that. Yielding to feelings of any kind, whether from fear of consequences to himself, physically, socially, or ecclesiastically, was not his habit. He did not suspect—nor would he perhaps have beer, pleased with the discovery had he made it—that there was in him a softer portion of his being by which he could be influenced, and which could, in favour able circumstances, dominate over him. There were in him, as in every man, holy instincts, stronger than his strongest logic, though they had not been cu1ti'ated so carefully. He had been disposed rather to attribute any mere sense or feeling of what was right or wrong to his carnal human nature, and to rely on some clearly defined rule either precisely revealed in Scripture, or given in ecclesiastical law, for his guidance. But that door into his being which he had often barred as if against an enemy could nevertheless be forced open by the hand of love, that love itself might enter in and take possession.

Mr. Porteous had many mingled thoughts as one Saturday evening—in spite of his "preparations"—he knocked at the cottage door. As usual, it was opened by Mary. Recognising the minister, she went to summon Mrs. Mercer from the Sergeant's room; while Mr. Porteous entered, and, standing with his back to the kitchen fire, once more gazed at the starling, who again returned his gaze as calmly as on the memorable morning when they were first introduced.

Mrs. Mercer did not appear immediately, as she was disrobing herself of some of her nursing gear—her flannel cap and large shawl—and making herself more tidy. When she emerged from the room, from which no sound came save an occasional heavy sigh, and mutterings from Adam in his distress, her hair was dishevelled, her face pale, her step tottering, and years seemed to have been added to her age. Her eyes had no tear to dim their earnest and half-abstracted gaze. This visit of the minister, which she instinctively interpreted as one of sympathy and good-will—how could it be else?—at once surprised and delighted her. It was like a sudden burst of sunshine, which began to thaw her heart, and also to brighten the future. She sat down beside Mr. Porteous, who had advanced to meet her; and holding his proffered hand with a firm grasp, she gazed into his face with a look of silent but unutterable, sorrow. He turned his face away. "Oh! sir," at last, she said, "God bless you!—God bless you for comin'! I'm lanely, lanely, and my heart is like tae break. It's kind, kind o' ye, this;" and still holding his hand, while she covered her eyes with her apron as she rocked to and fro in the anguish of her spirit, "the loss," she said, "o' my wee pet was sair—ye ken what it was tae us baith," (and she looked at the empty cot opposite,) "when ye used tae sit here, and he was lyin' there—but oh! it was naething tae this, naething tae this misfortun'!"

The minister was not prepared for such a welcome, nor for such indications of unbounded confidence on Katie's part, her words revealing her heart, which poured itself out. He had expected o find her much displeased with him, even proud and sullen, and had prepared in his own mind a quiet pastoral rebuke for her want of meekness and submissiveness to Providence and to himself.

"Be comforted, Mrs. Mercer! It is the Lord! He alone, not man, can aid," said Mr. Porteous kindly, and feelingly returning the pressure of her hand.

Katie gently withdrew her hand from his, as if she felt that she was taking too great a liberty, and as if for a moment the cloud of the last few weeks had returned and shadowed her confidence in his good-will to her. The minister, too, could not at once dismiss a feeling of awkwardness from his mind, though he sincerely wished to do so. He had seldom come into immediate contact, and never in circumstances like the present, with such simple and unfeigned sorrow. Love began to knock at the door!

"Oh, sir," she said, "ye little ken hoo Adam respeckit and Wed ye. He never, never booed his knee at the chair ye're sittin' on wi'oot prayin' for a blessin' on yersel', on yer wark, an' on yer preaching. I'm sure, if ye had only heard him the last time he cam' frae the kirk " - the minister recollected that this was after Adam's deposition by the Session—" hoo he wrastled for the grace o' God tae be wi' ye, it wad hae dune yer heart guid, and greatly encouraged ye. Forgie me, forgie me for sayin' this: but eh! he was, and is, a precious man tae me; tho' he'll no' be lang wi' us noo, I fear!" And Katie, without weeping, again rocked to and fro.

"He is a good man," he replied; "yes, a very good man is Adam; and I pray God his life may be spared."

"O thank ye, thank yel" said Katie. "Ay, pray God his life may be spared—and mine too, for I'll no' survive him; I canna do't! nae mair could wee Mary!"

Mary was all the while eagerly listening at the door, which was not quite closed, and as she heard those words and the low cry from her "mother" beseeching the minister to pray, she ran in, and falling down before him, with muffled sobs hid her face in the folds of his great-coat, and said, "Oh, minister, dinna let faither dee! dinna let him dee!" And she clasped and clapped the knees of him no she thought had mysterious power with God.

The minister lifted up the agonised child, patted her fondly on the head, and then gazed on her thin but sweet face. She was pale from her self-denying labours in the sick room.

"Ye maun excuse the bairn," said Katie, "for she haesna been oot o' the hoose except for an errand sin' Adam grew ill. I canna get her tae sleep or eat as she used to do—she's sae fond o' the guidman. I'm awfu' behadden till her. Come here, my wee wifie." And Katie pressed the child's head and tearful face to her bosom, where Mary's sobs were smothered in a large brown shawl. She's no' strong, but extraordinar' speerity," continued Katie in a low voice and apologetically to Mr. Porteous; "and ye maun just excuse us baith."

"I think," said the minister, in a tremulous voice, "it would be good for us all to engage, in prayer."

They did so.

Just as they rose from their knees, the slight poise which the movement occasioned - for hitherto the conversation had been conducted in whispers—caused the starling to leap up on his perch. Then with clear accents, that rung over the silent house, he said, "I'm Charlie's bairn!"

Katie looked up to the cage, and for the first time in her life felt something akin to downright anger at the bird. His words seemed to her to be a most unseasonable interruption—a text for a dispute—a reminiscence of what she did not wish then to have recalled.

"Whisht, ye impudent cratur!" she exclaimed; adding, as if to correct his rudeness, "ye'll disturb yer maister."

The bird looked down at her with his head askance, and scratched it as if puzzled and asking "What's wrong?"

"Oh," said Katie, turning to the minister as if caught in some delinquency, "it's no' my faut, sir; ye maun forgie the bird; the silly thing doesna ken better."

"Never mind, never mind," said Mr. Portcous kindly, "it's but a trifle, and not worthy of our notice at such a solemn moment; it must not distract our minds from higher things."

I'm muckle obleeged to ye, sir," said Katie, rising and making a curtsey. Feeling, however, that a crisis had come from which she could not eccape if she would, she bid Mary "gang ben and watch, and shut the door." When Mary had obeyed, she turned to Mr. Porteous and said, "Ye maun excuse me, sir, but I canna thole ye to he angry aboot the N. A. It's been a sore affliction, I do assure you, sir."

"Pray say nothing more of that business, I implore you, Mrs. Mercer, just now," said Mr. Porteous, looking uneasy7 but putting his hand kindly on her arm; "there is no need for it."

This did not deter Katie from uttering what was now oppressing her heart more than ever, but rather encouraged her to go on.

"Ye maun let me speak, or I'll brust," she said. "Oh, sir, it has indeed been an awfu' grief this—just awfu' tae us baith. But dinna, dinna think Adam was to blame as muckle as me. I'm in faut, no' him. It wasna frae want o' respec' tae you, sir; na, na, that couldna be; but a' frae love tae our bairn, that was sae uncommon ta'en up wi' verse!'."

"I remember the lovely boy well," said Mr. Porteous, not wishing to open up the question of the Sergeant's conduct.

"Naebody that ever see'd him," continued Katie, "but wad mind him—his bonnie een like blabs o' dew, and his bit mooth that was sae sweet tae kiss. An' ye mind the nicht he dee'd, hoo he clapped yer head when ye were prayin' there at his bedside, and hoo he said his ain wee prayer; and hoo -" Here Katie rose in rather an excited manner, and opened a press, and taking from it several articles, approached the minster and said—"See, there's his shoon, and there's his frock; and this is the clean cap and frills that 'was on his bonnie head when he lay a corp; and that was the whistle he had when he signed tae the bird tae come for a bit o' his piece; and it was the last thing he did, when he couldna eat, to insist on me giein' a wee bit tae his bairn, as he ca'ed' it, ye ken; and he grat when he was sac waik that he couldna whistle till't. O my bairn, my bonnie bairn!" she went on, in low accents of profound sorrow, as she returned to the press these small memorials of a too cherished grief.

"You must not mourn as those who have no hope, my friend," said the minister; "your dear child is with Jesus."

"Thank ye, sir, for that," said Katie; who resolved, however, to press towards the point she had in view. "An' it was me hindered Adam frae killin' my bairn's pet," she continued, resuming her seat beside the minister. "He said he wad throttle it, or cast it into the fire."

The minister shook his head, remarking, "Tut, tut! that would never have done! No human being wished that.'

"That's what I said," continued Katie; "an' whan he rowed up the sleeves o his sark, and took haud o' the bit thing tae thraw its neck, I wadna let him, but daured him to do it, that did I; and I ken't ye wad hae dune the same, for the sake o' wee Charlie, that was sae fond O! you. Oh, forgie me, forgie him, if I was wrang. A mither's feelings are no easy hauden doon!"

Was this account the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Perhaps not. But then, good brother or sister, if you are disposed to blame Katie, we defend not even this weary mourner from thee. Take the first stone and cast it at her! Yet we think, as you do so, we see the Perfect One writing on the ground and if He is writing her condemnation, 'tis in the dust of earth, and the kindly rain or winds of heaven will soon obliterate the record.

'No more about this painful affair, I beseech of you," said the minister, taking a very large and long pinch of snuff; "let us rather try and comfort Adam. This is our present duty."

"God Himsel' bless ye!" said Katie, kissing the back of his hand; "but ye maunna gang near him ; dinna risk yer valuable life: the fivver is awfu' smittal. Dr. Scott wull let naebody in."

And have you no nurse?" inquired Mr, Porteous, not thinking of himself.

This question recalled to her mind what seemed another mysterious stumbling-block. She knew not what to say in reply. Jock Hall was at that mom.nt seated like a statue beside the bed, and what would the minister think when he saw this representative of parish wickedness in an elder's house?

She had no time for lengthened explanations; all she said, therefore, was, "The only nurse Dr. Scott and me could get was nae doot a puir bodie, yet awfu' strang and ft tae haud Adam doon, whaii aside himsel'; and he had nae fear o' his ain life—and was a gratefu' cratut—and had ta'en a great notion o' Adam, and is kin' o reformed—that—that I thocht—weel, I maun jist confess, the nurse is Jock Hall!"

"Jock Hall!" exclaimed the minister, lifting his eyebrows with an expression of astonishment; "is it possible? But I leave to you and. the Doctor the selection of a nurse. It is a secular matter, with which officially I have nothing to do. My business is with spiritual things; let me therefore see the Sergeant. I have 110 fear. I'm in God's hands. All I have to do is my duty. That is my principle."

"Jist let me ben a minute nrst," asked Katie.

She went accordingly to the room and whispered to Jock, "Gang to the laft; the minister is comin' ben.—Aff!"

"Mind what ye're baith aboot!" said Jock, pointing to his patient. "Be canny wi' him---- be canny—nae preachin' e'enoo, mind, or flytin', or ye'll rue't. Losh, I'll no stan'tI"

As the minister entered the room he saw Jock Hall rapidly vanishing like a spectre, as he stole to his den among the straw.

Mr. Porteous stood beside the Sergeant's bed, and Katie said to her husband, bending over him—

"This is the minister, Adam, come tae see you, my bonnie man."

"God bless you and give you His peace!" said Mr. Porteous, in a low voice, drawing near the bed as Katie retired from it.

The Sergeant opened his eyes, and slowly turned his head, breathing hard, and gazing with a vacant stare at his pastor.

"Do you know me, Adam?" asked the minister.

The Sergeant gave the military salute and replied, "We are all ready, Captain! Lead! we follow! and, please God, to victory!"

He was evidently in the "current of the heady fight," and in his delirious dreams fancied that he was once more one of a forlorn hope about to advance to the horrors of the breach of a beleaguered city, or to mount the ladder to scale its walls. Closing his eyes and clasping his hands, he added with a solemn voice, "And now, my God, enable me to do my duty! I put my trust in Thee! If I die, remember my mother. Amen. Advance, men! Up! Steady!"

The minister did not move or speak for a few seconds, and then said, "It is peace, my friend, not war. It is your own minister who is speaking to you."

Suddenly the Sergeant started and looked upward with an open, excited eye, as if he saw something. A smile played over his features. Then in a tone of voice tremulous with emotion, and with his arms stretched upwards as if towards some object, he said, "My boy—my darling! You there! Oh, yes, I'm coming to you. Quick, comrades! Up!" A moment's silence, and then if possible a steadier gaze, with a look of rapture. "Oh, my wee Charlie! I hear ye! Is the starling leevin'? Ay, ay—that it is! I didna kill't! Hoo could ye think that? It was dear to you, my pet, an'—" Then covering his face with his hands he said, "Oh! whatna licht is that? I canna thole't, it's sae bricht ! It's like the Son o' Man!"

He fell back exhausted into what seemed an almost unconscious state.

"He's gane—he's gane!" exclaimed Katie.

"He's no' gane! gie him the brandy!" said Jock, as he slipped rapidly into the room from the kitchen; for Jock was too anxious to be far away. In an instant he had measured out the prescribed quantity of brandy and milk in a spoon, and, lifting the Sergeant's head, he said, "Tak' it, and drink the king's health. The day is oors!" The sergeant obeyed as if he was a child; and then whispering to Katie, Jock said, "The doctor telt ye, wumman, to keep him quaet; tak' care what ye're aboot!" and then he slipped again out of the room. The Sergeant returned to his old state of quiet repose.

Mr. Porteous stood beside the bed in silence, which was broken by his seizing the fevered hand of the Sergeant, saying fervently, "God bless and preserve you, dear friend!" Then turning to Mrs. Mercer, he motioned her to accompany him to the kitchen. But for a few seconds he gazed out of the window bowing his nose. At length, turning round and addressing her, he said, "Be assured that I feel deeply for you. Do not distrust me. Let me only add that if Mary must be taken out of the house for a time to escape infection, as I am disposed to think she should be, I will take her to the Manse, if I cannot find another place for her as good as this —which would be difficult."

"Oh, Mr. Porteous! I maun thank ye for--" "Not a word, not a word of thanks, Mrs. Mercer," interrupted the minister; "it is my duty. But rely on my friendship for you and yours. The Lord has smitten, and it is for us to bear ;" and shaking her hand cordially, he left the house.

"God's ways are not our ways," said Katie to herself, "and He kens hoo to mak' a way o' escape out o' every trial."

Love ceased to knock for an entrance into the minister's heart; for the door was open and love had entered, bringing in its own Iight and peace.

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