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The Starling, A Scotch Story
Chapter XXV. - Mr. Smellie's Diplomacy

MR. SMELLIE was not only a draper, but was the greatest in that line in the parish of Drumsylie. His shop had the largest display of goods in the village. Handkerchiefs, cravats, Paisley shawls, printed calicoes, &c. streamed in every variety of colour from strings stretched across the large window, dotted with hats and bonnets for male and female customers. He was looked upon as a well-to-do, religious man, who carefully made the most of both worlds. He was a bachelor, and lived in a very small house, above his shop, which was reached by a screw stair. A small charity boy, with a singularly sedate countenance—he may for aught I know be now a rich merchant on the London Exchange—kept the shop. I mention his name, Eben or Ebenezer Peat, to preserve for some possible biographer the important part which the as yet great unknown played in his early life. The only domestic was old Peggy; of whom, beyond her name, I know nothing. She may have been great, and no doubt was, if she did her duty with zeal and love to Peter Smellie. Peggy inhabited the kitchen, and her master the parlour, attached to which was a small bed-closet. The parlour was cold and stiff, like a cell for a condemned Pharisee. There was little furniture in it save an old sofa whose hard bony skeleton was covered by a cracked skin of black haircloth, with a small round cushion of the same character, roughened by rather bristly hairs, which lay in a recess at the end of it. A few stuffed mahogany chairs were ranged along the wall; while a very uncomfortable arm-chair beside the small fire, and a round table with a dark wax-cloth cover, completed the furniture of the apartment. There were, besides, a few old books of theology— which guaranteed Mr. Smellie's orthodoxy, if not his reading; a copy of "Buchan's Domestic Medicine;" and a sampler which hung on the wall, sewed by his only sister, long dead, on which was worked a rude symbol of Castle Bennock with three swans floating under it, nearly as large as the castle, and beneath what was intended to represent flowers were the symbols, "For P. S. by M. S."

Mr. Smellie, near a small fire, that twinkled like a yellow cairngorm amidst basalt, sat reading his newspaper, when a letter was laid upon his table by Peggy without any remark except "A letter."

"From whom, Peggy?" asked Smellie.

"Dinna ken; was left on the coonter."

Mr. Smellie opened it. No sooner did he recognise the signature, than he laid aside the paper—the Edinburgh Courant, even then best known and long established.

He read the letter over and over again, very possibly a hundred times, if one might judge from the time it remained in his hands. At last he put it down quietly, as if afraid it would make a noise, and stared at the small embryo fire. He then paced across the room ; lay down on the sofa; resumed his seat at the fire; took up the letter, again perused it, and again slowly laid it down. He alone could decipher his own thoughts while doing all this. For a time he was confused and bewildered, as if endeavouring to comprehend his altered position. It was to him as if some one whom he had hanged or murdered had come to life again. What was he to do now with reference to the Sergeant? This was what puzzled him—what could be done to save himself? He had felt safe in the hands of an honourable man—at a distance. He had in tact, during many years of comparative ease as to worldly things, almost forgotten his old attempt at cheating. He had long ago repented, as he thought, of his crime; but that which was past had now risen from the dead, and God seemed to require it at his hands!

Had not his own continued sinfulness thus restored the dead past to life?

It was a great shock for him to learn for the first time that his enemy, as he looked upon Adam, knew it all, and had him in his power. And then to learn also that the Sergeant had never divulged the secret! What could Smellie now do? Would he provoke Adam to blast his character, to triumph over him, to expose him to the Kirk Session and the parish? nay, to—to banish him? Or would he repent truly of all that false, hollow past which was now being dimly revealed to him; confess his evil-doing to the Sergeant, and ask his forgiveness, as well as that of God; trust his mercy, bless him for his generosity, acknowledge that he was the better man, and seek by a new and true life to imitate him? O Mr. Smellie! this is indeed one of those moments in thy life in which a single step to the right or left may lead thee to light or to darkness, to heaven or to hell. Thy soul, of immeasurable littleness estimated by the world, but of infinite greatness estimated by eternal truth and righteousness, is now engaged in a battle in which its eternal destiny is likely to be determined ! Confront then the good and evil masters, God and Mammon, who are contending for the mastery; serve the one and despise the other, and even thou mayest yet be great because good. But if not! —then in a few minutes mayest thou be irrecoverably on the road to thine own place; and though this will be nothing to Drumsylie, it will be everything to thee!

The battle went hard against Saul, and the Philistines of vanity, pride, and a wicked consistency were pressing hard upon him! One thing only, the easiest for the time, he determined to do, and that was to get out of the scrape—as his bad angel soothingly suggested —as speedily and as easily as possible. He must not keep up the quarrel longer with the Sergeant; this at least seemed clear: for such a course was dangerous. He must also immediately assure John Spence of obedience to his commands. So, without delay, he wrote to the keeper, imploring him, as he himself expected mercy from God, to be silent regarding the old crime; assuring him that he had mistaken the part which he had taken as an elder in this most painful case, as he called it, and promising him to do all he could to deliver the Sergeant out of trouble, which would be at once his duty and his pleasure. This letter, when written and despatched, was a great relief to his mind: it delivered him, as he hoped, from immediate danger at least, and enabled him to concentrate his acute faculties on the carrying out of his plans for securing his own safety.

His thoughts were for the moment broken by Eben announcing, as he was wont to do, a superior customer whom it was expedient for the master himself to serve. The customer on the present occasion was Miss Thornasina Porteous, who had come to purchase some article for herself, and a cheap shawl, out of the Session Charity Fund, for their poor, persecuted, common friend, as she called Mrs. Craigie.

Mr. Smellie was unusually silent: he did not respond to the order for Mrs. Craigie with his accustomed smile. After a little, Miss Thomasina blandly remarked:-"Sergeant Mercer is very ill, and I have no doubt from a bad conscience —there's no peace, you know, Mr. Smellie, to the wicked."

"I am aware!" said Mr. Smellie, drily. "This cheap shawl," he added, selecting and spreading out one before her, "is good enough, I suppose, for a pauper?"

"Considering all she has suffered from that man, I think she should get a better one, or something in addition, Mr. Sinellie," said the lady.

"Eben!" said Smellie, "go up-stairs. I wish to speak to Miss Porteous alone."

The boy disappeared.

"As a friend, Miss Porteous," whispered Smellie, "permit me to say, in strictest confidence —you understand?"

"Quite!" replied Miss Thomasina, with a look of intense curiosity.

"That I have, learned some things about Mrs. Craigie," continued Mr. Smellie, "which should make us extremely cautious in helping or trusting her."

"Indeed!" said Miss Thomasina.

"And as regards the Sergeant," said Mr. Smellie, "there is—rightly or wrongly is not the question—a strong sympathy felt for him in the parish. It is human nature to feel, you know, for the weak side, even if it is the worst side; and from my profound respect for our excellent minister, over whom you exercise such great and useful influence, I would advise—"

"That he should yield, Mr. Smellie?" interrupted Miss Thomasina, with an expression of wonder.

"No, no, Miss Porteous," replied the worthy Peter, "that may be impossible; but that we should allow Providence to deal with Adam. He is ill. The Doctor, I heard to-day, thinks it may come to typhus fever. He is threatened, at least."

"And may die?" said the lady, interpreting the elder's thoughts. "But I hope not, poor man, for his own sake. It would be a solemn judgment!"

"I did not say die," continued Smellie; "but many things may occur—such as repentance— a new mind, &c. Anyhow," he added with a smile, "he should, in my very humble opinion, be dealt wi' charitably—nay, I would say kindly.

Our justice should be tempered wi' mercy, so that no enemy could rejoice over us, and that we should feel a good conscience—the best o' blessings," he said with a sigh—,'as knowing that we had exhausted every means o' bringing him to a right mind ; for, between us baith, and knowing your Christian principles, I do really houp that at heart he is a good man. Forgie me for hinting it, as I would not willingly pain you, but I really believe it. Now, if he dees, we'll have no blame. So I say, or rather suggest, that, wi' your leave, we should in the meantime let things alone, and say no more about this sad business. I leave you to propose this to our worthy minister."

I think our kindness and charity, Mr. Smellie," replied Miss Porteous, "are not required at present. On my word, no! My poor brother requires both, not Mercer. See how he is petted! Those upstart Gordons have been sending him, I hear, all sorts of good things: wine and grapes—grapes, that even I have only tasted once in my life, when my mother died! And Mrs. Gordon called on him yesterday in her carriage! It's absolutely ridiculous! I would even, say an insult! though I'm sure I don't wish the man any ill—not I; but only that we must not spoil him, and make a fool of my brother and the Session, as if Mercer was innocent. I assure you my brother feeL this sort of mawkish sympathy very much - very much. It's mean and cowardly!"

"It is quite natural that he should feel annoyed," replied Mr. Sniellie; "and so do I. But, nevertheless, I again say we must be merciful; for mercy rejoiceth over judgment. So I humbly advise to let things alone for the present, and to withdraw our hand when Providence begins to work;—in the meantime, in the meantime."

Miss Thomasina was not prepared for these new views on the part of the high-principled, firm, and consistent elder. They crossed her purpose. She had no idea of giving up the battle in this easy way. What had she to do with Providence? To stand firm and fast to her principles was, she had ever been taught, the one thing needful; and until the Sergeant confessed his fault, it seemed to her, as she said, that "he should be treated as a heathen and a publican!"

Mr. Smellie very properly put in the saving clause, "But no waur—no waur, Miss Porteous." He also oiled his argument by presenting his customer with a new pair of gloves out of a parcel just received from Edinburgh, as evidence of his admiration for her high character.

The lady smiled and left the shop, and said she- would communicate the substance of their conversation to her brother.

"Kindly, kindly, as becomes your warm heart," said Mr. Smellie, expressing the hope at the same time that the gloves would fit her fingers as well as he wished his arguments would fit the mind of Mr. Porteous.

Another diplomatic stroke of Mr. Smellie in his extremity was to obtain the aid of his easy brother-elder, Mr. Menzies, to adjust matters with the Sergeant, so as to enable Mr. Porteous, with some show of consistency, to back out of the ecclesiastical mess in which the Session had become involved: for "consistency" was a great idol in the Porteous Pantheon.

It hae been thinking, my good freen'," said Smellie to Menzies, as both were seated beside the twinkling gem of a fire in the sanctum over the draper's shop, "that possibly—possibly—we micht men' matters atween the Session and Sergeant Mercer. He is verra ill, an' the thocht is neither pleasant nor satisfactory to us that he should dee—a providential event which mic1iz happen—an' wi' this scandal ower his head. I am willin', for ane, to do whatever is reasonable in the case, and I'm sure sae are ye; for ye ken, Mr. Menzies, there's nae man perfec'—nane! The fac' is, I'm no' perfec' mysel'!" confessed Mr. Smellie, with a look intended to express a humility of which he was profoundly unconscious.

Mr. Menzies, though not at all prepared for this sudden outburst of charity, welcomed it very sincerely. "I'm glad," said he, "to hear a man o' your influence in the Session say sae." Menzies had himself personally experienced to a large degree the dour influence of the draper over him; and, though his better nature had often wished to rebel against it, yet the logical meshes of his more astute and strong-willed brother had hitherto entangled him. But now, with the liberty of speech granted in so genial a manner by Smellie, Mr. Menzies said; "I wull admit that Mr. Mercer was, until this unfortunate business happened, a maist respectable man—I mean he was apparently, and I wad fain houp sincerely—a quiet neebour, and a douce elder. I never had cause to doot him till the day ye telt me in confidence that he had been ance a poacher. But we mauna be ower hard, Mr. Smellie, on the sins o' youth, or even o' riper years. Ye mind the paraphrase—

'For while the lamp holds on to burns
The greatest sinner may return.'

I wad do onything that was consistent to get him oot o' this job wi' the minister an' the Session. But hoo can it be managed, Mr. Smellie?"

"I think," said Smellie, meditatively, "that if we could only get the minister pleased, things wad richt themsel's."

"Between oorsel's, as his freen's," said Menzies, with a laugh, "he's no' easy to please when he tak's a thraw! But maybe we're as muckle to blame as him."

"That bird," remarked Snicilie, as he poked up his almost extinguished fire, "has played a' the mischief! Could we no' get it decently oot o' the way yet, Mr. Menzies?"

"What dye mean, neebour?" asked Menzies, looking puzzled.

"Weel, I'll tell ye," replied the draper. "The Sergeant and me, ye ken, cast oot; but you and him, as well as the wife, are freendly. Noo, what do ye say to seeing them in a freendly way? and as the Sergeant is in bed--"

"They say it's fivver," interrupted Menzies, it may come to be verra dangerous."

"Weel a-weel," said Smellie, "in that case what I propose micht be easier dune: the wife inicht gie you the bird, for peace' sake— for conscience' sake—for her guidman's sake —and ye micht do awa' wi't, and the Sergeant ken naething about it; for, ye see, being an auld sodger, he's prood as prood can be; and Mr. Porteous wad be satisfied, and maybe, for peace' sake, wad never speer boo it was dune, and we wad hae a guid excuse for sayin' nae mair about it in the Session. If the Sergeant dce'd, nae hairm would be done; if he got weel, he wad be thankfu' that the stramash was' a' ower, and himsel' restored, wi'eot being pit aboot for his bird. Eh?"

"I wadna like to meddle xvi' the cratur," said Menzies, shaking his head.

"But, man, do ye no' see," argued Smellie, 'thatit wad stultify yersel' tae refuse doing what is easier for you than for him? Hoo can ye, as a member o' Session, blame him for no' killing a pet o' his dead bairn, if ye wadna kill it as a strange bird?"

"Can ye no' kill't then?" asked Menzies.

"I wad hae nae difficulty in doing thatnane," said Smellie, "but they wadna trust me, and wadna lippen to me; but they wad trust yo*. It's surely your duty, Mr. Menzies, to do this, and mair, for peace."

"Maybe," said Menzies. "Yet it's a cruel job. I'm sweir tae meddle wi't. I'll think aboot it."

"Ay," said Smellie, putting his hand on his shoulder; "an' ye'll do't, too, when ye get the opportunity—I dinna bid ye kill't, that needna be ; but jist tae let it flee awa'—that's the plan! Try't. I'm awfu' keen to get this job by, an' this stane o' offence oot o' the road. But mind, ye'll never, never, let on I bade ye, or it will blaw up the mercifu' plan. Will ye keep a quiet sough aboot me, whatever ye do? And, moreover, never breathe a word about the auld poaching business; I hae reasons for this, Mr. Menzies—reasons."

Such was Smellie's "game," as it may be called. For his own ends he was really anxious that Mr. Porteous should feel kindly towards the Sergeant, so far at least as to retrace the steps he had taken in his case. He was actuated by fear lest Adam, if crushed, should be induced to turn against himself, and, in revenge, expose his former dishonest conduct He did not possess necessarily any gratitude for the generous part which Adam had played towards him;—for nothing is more hateful to a proud man, than to be under an obligation to one whom he has injured. It was also very doubtful how far Mr. Porteous, from the strong and public position he had taken in the case, would, or could yield, unless there was opened up to him some such back-door of escape as Smellie was contriving, to save his consistency. If this could be accomplished without himself being implicated, Smellie saw some hope of ultimate reconciliation, and the consequent removal on the Sergeant's part of the temptation to "peach."

VM. Menzies, however, was ill at ease. The work Smellie had assigned to him was not agreeable, and he was only induced to attempt its performance in the hope that the escape of the starling would lead ultimately to the quashing of all proceedings against Adam.

With these feelings he went off to call upon Mrs Mercer.

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