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The Starling, A Scotch Story
Chapter VIII. - The Conference in the Manse

THE manse inhabited by Mr. Porteous, like most of its parochial companions at that time—for much improvement in this as in other buildings has taken place since those days—was not beautiful, either in itself or in its surroundings. Its three upper windows stared day and night on a blank hill, whose stupid outline concealed the setting, and never welcomed the rising sun. The two lower windows looked into a round plot of tawdry shrubs, surrounded by a neglected boxwood border which defended them from the path leading from the small green gate to the door; while twenty yards beyond were a few formal ugly-looking trees that darkened the house, and separated it from the arable land of the glebe. No blame to the minister for his manse or its belongings! On 2001. per annum, he could not keep a gardener, or afford any expensive ornaments. And for the same reason he had never married, although his theory as to "feelings" may have possibly hindered him from taking this humanising step. And who knows what effect the small living and the bachelor life may have had on his "principles!"

His sister lived wi'h him. To many a manse in Scotland the minister's sister has been a very angel in the house, a noble monument of devoted service and of self-sacrificing love—only surpassed by that paragon of excellence, if excellent at all, the minister's wife. But with all charity, Miss Porteous—Thomasina she was called by her father, after his brother in the West Indies, from whom money was expected, but who had left her nothing—was not in any way attractive, and never gave one the impression of self-sacrifice. She evidently felt her position to be a high one. Being next to the Bishop, she evidently considered herself an Archdeacon, Dean, or other responsible ecclesiastical personage. She was not ugly, for no woman is or can be that; but yet she was not beautiful. Being about fifty, as was guessed by the most charitable, her looks were not what they once were, nor did they hold out any hope of being improved, like wine, by age. Her hair was rufous, and the little curls which clustered around her forehead suggested, to those who knew her intimately, the idea of screws for worming their way into characters, family secrets, and similar private matters. She was, unfortunately, the minister's newspaper, his remembrancer, his spiritual detective and confidential informant as to all that belonged to the parish and its passing history.

Miss Thomasina Porteous, in the absence of the servant, who was "on leave" for a day or two, opened the door to the Sergeant. Mr. Porteous was in his study, popularly so called,—a small room, with a book-press at one end, and a table in the centre, with a desk on it, a volume of "Matthew Henry's Commentary," "Cruden's Concordance," an "Edinburgh Almanac," and a few "Reports." Beside the table, and near the fire, was an arm-chair, in which the minister sat reading a volume of sermons. No sooner was the Sergeant announced than Mr. Porteous rose, looked over his spectacles, hesitated, and at last shook hands, as if with an icicle, or in conformity with Act of Parliament. Then, mótioning Mr. Mercer to a seat, he begged to inquire to what he owed this call, accompanying the question with a hint to Thomasina to leave the room. The Sergeant's first feeling was that he had made a great mistake, and he wished he had never left the army.

"Well, Mr. Mercer?" inquired the minister, as he sat opposite to the Sergeant.

"I am sorry to disturb you, sir," replied the Sergeant, "but I wished to say that I think I was too hot and hasty this afternoon in the Session."

"Pray don't apologize to me, Mr. Mercer," said the minister. "Whatever you have to say on that point, had better be said publicly before the Kirk Session. Anything else?"

The Sergeant wavered, as military historians would say, before this threatened opposition, as if suddenly met by a square of bristling bayonets.

"Well, then," he at last said, "I wish to tell you frankly, and in as few words as possible, what no human being kens but my wife. I never blame ignorance, and I'm no gaun to blame yours, Mr. Porteous, but-"

"My ignorance!" exclaimed the minister. "It's come to a pretty pass indeed, if you are to blame it, or remove it! Ignorance of what, pray?"

"Your ignorance, Mr. Porteos," continued the Sergeant, "on a point which I should have made known to you, and for which I alone and not you are in faut."

The minister seemed relieved by this admission.

The Sergeant forthwith told the story of the starling as the playmate of his child, the history of whose sickness and death was already known to Mr. Porteous; and having concluded, he said, "That's the reason, sir, why I couldna kill the bird. I wadna tell this to ony man but to yersel', for it's no' my fashion tae sen' the drum aboot the toon for pity or for sympathy; but I wish you, sir, to ken what's fac, for yer ain guidance and the guidance o' the Session."

"I remember your boy well," remarked Mr. Porteous, handing his snuff-box in a very kindly way to his visitor.

The Sergeant nodded. "Ye did your duty. minister, to us on that occasion, or I wadna have come here the nicht. I kent ye wad like onything Charlie was fond o'."

"I quite understand your feelings, Sergeant, and sympathise with them."

The Sergeant smiled and nodded, and said, "I hope ye do, sir: I was sure ye would. I'm thankfu' I cam', and sae will Katie be." The burden was lifting off his heart.

"But," said Mr. Porteous, after a pause and a long snuff, "I must be faithful with you, Adam: 'First pure, then peaceable,' you know."

"And I hope, sir" said Adam, "'easy to be entreated.'"

"That," replied Mr. Porteous, "depends on circumstances. Let us, therefore, look at the whole aspects of the case. There is to be considered, for example, your original delinquency, mistake, or call it by what name you please; then there is to be taken into account my full explanation, given ministerially in your own house, of the principles which guided my conduct and ought to guide yours; then there is also the matter of the Kirk Session—the fact that they have taken it up, which adds to its difficulty—a difficulty, ho.ver, let me say, Mr. Mercer, which has not been occasioned by me. Now, review all these—especially that with which you have personally most to do—the orzo mali, so to speak—the fact that* a bird endeared to you by very touching associations was, let me admit it, accidentally, and unintentionally,—let this also be granted for the sake of argument,—made by you the occasion of scandal. We are agreed on this point at least?"

"It was on that point," interrupted the Sergeant, "I thought you doubted my honour."

"No!" said Mr. Porteous; "I only declared that 'honour' was a worldly, not a Christian phrase, and unfit therefore for a Church court."

The Sergeant was nonplussed. Thinking his ignorance sinful, he bowed, and said no more.

"I am glad 'ou acquiesce so far," continued Mr. Porteous. But further :—carefully observe," and he leant forward, with finger and thumb describing an argumentative enclosure out of which Adam could not escape—" observe that the visible, because notorious, fact of scandal demands some reparation by a fact equally visible and notorious; you see? What kind of reparation I demanded, I have already told you. I smile at its amount, in spite of all you have said, and said so well, in explaining your difficulties in not at once making it; nay, I sympathise with your kindly, though, permit me to say, your weak feeling. Adam. But, is feeling principle?' Here Mr. Porteous paused with a complacent smile to witness the telling effect of his suggestive question. "Were our Covenanting forefathers," he went on to say, "guided by feeling in giving their testimony for truth by the sacrifice of their very lives? Were the martyrs of the early Church guided by feeling? But 1 will not insult an elder of mine by any such arguments, as if he were either ignorant of them, or insensible to their importance. Let me just add," concluded the minister, in a low, emphatic, and solemn voice, laying one hand on Adam's knee, "what would your dear boy now think—supposing him to be saved—if he knew that his father was willing to lose, or even to weaken his influence for good in the parish—to run the risk of being suspended, as you now do, from the honourable position of an elder— and all for what?" asked the minister, throwing himself back in his chair, and spreading out his hands—"all for what a toy, a plaything, a bird! and because of your feeling—think of it, Adam—your feeling! All must yield but you: neighbours must yield, Session must yield, and I must yield !—no sacrifice or satisfaction will you make, not even of this bird; and all because your feelings, forsooth, would suffer! That's your position, Adam. I say it advisedly. And finally, as I also hinted to you, what would the Dissenters say if we were less pure in our discipline than themselves? Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Askelon—the Philistines would rejoice! Take any view of the case you please, it is bad—very bad." And the minister struck his thigh, turned round in his chair, and looked at the roof of the room.

Adam at that moment felt as if he was the worst man in the parish, and given over to the power of evil.

"I dinna understan't," 'he said, bending down his head, and scratching his whisker.

I thought you did not, Adam-1 thought you did not," said Mr. Porteous, turning towards him again; but I am glad if you are beginning to see it at last. Once you get hold of a principle, all becomes clear."

"It's a sharp principle, minister; it's no' easy seen. It has s fine edge, but cuts deep—desperate deep," remarked Adam, in an undertone.

"That is the casewith most principles, Adam," replied Mr. Porteous. "They have a fine edge, but one which, nevertheless, separates between a lie and truth, light and darkness. But f you have it—hold it fast.

The minister's principles seemed unanswerable-, Adam's sense of right unassailable. Like two opposing armies of apparently equal strength they stood, armed, face to face, and a battle was unavoidable. Could both be right, and capable of reconciliation? Could right principle and right feeling, or logical deductions from sound principles, ever be really opposed to the strongest instincts of the heart, the moral convictions of a true and loving nature? A confused medley of questions in casuistry tortured Adam's simple conscience, until they became like a tangled thread, the more knotted the more he tried to disentangle the meshes.

The Sergeant rose to depart, saying, "I have a small Sabbath class which meets in my house, and I must not be too late for it; besides, there's nae use o' my waiting here langer: I have said my say, and can say nae mair."

"You will ret'irn to your class with more satisfaction," said Mr. Porteous, "after this conversation. But, to prevent all misunderstanding or informality, you will of course be waited upon by your brethren; and when they understand, as I do, that you will cheerfully comply with our request, and when they report the same, no more will be said of the matter, unless Mr. Gordon foolishly brings it up. And if—let me suggest, though I do not insist—if, next Sunday, you 'should hang the cage where it was this morning when it gave rise to such scandal, but without the bird in it, the neighbours would, I am sure, feel gratified, as I myself would, by such an unmistakeable sign of your good-will to all parties."

The Sergeant had once or twice made an effort to "put in a word," but at last thought it best to hear the minister to the end. Then, drawing himself up as if on parade, he said, "I fear you have ta'en me up wrang, Mr. Porteous. My silence wasna consent. Had my auld Colonel—ane o' the best and kindest o' men ordered me to march up to a battery, I wad hae done't, though I should hae been blawn the next moment up to the moon; but if he had ordered me, for example, tae strike a bairn, or even tae kill my bird, I wad hae refused, though I had been shot the next minute for't. There are things I canna do, and winna do, for mortal man, as long as God gies me my heart : and this is ane o' them—I'll never kill 'Charlie's bairn.' That's my last word— and ye can do as you and the Session please."

The minister stood aghast with astonishment. The Sergeant saluted him soldier-fashion, and walked out of the room, followed by Mr. Porteous to the front door. As he passed out, the minister said, "Had you shot fewer birds, sir, in your youth, you might have escaped the consequences of refusing to shoot this one now. 'Be sure your sin will find you out,'" he added, in a louder voice, as he shut the door with extra force, and with a grim smile upon his face.

Smellie had informed him that forenoon of Mercer's poaching days.

"Capital!" exclaimed Miss Thomasina, as she followed him into the study out of a dark corner in the lobby near the door, where she had been ensconced, listening to the whole conversation. "Let his proud spirit take that! I wonder you had such patience with the upsetting, petted fellow. Him and his bird, forsooth, to be disturbing the peace of the parish!"

"Leave him to me," quietly replied Mr. Porteous; "I'll work him."

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