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Chapter XI. Erskine Nicoll's Trials

ON Tuesday morning Jess Lockhart, cleaning the windows of the school-house, beheld the Binns gig with the piebald pony drive down to the Manse gate, and there stand in waiting for somebody. She instantly suspended operations to go and interview Peter Christie, the Binns halflin, who was in charge thereof, wearing his Sabbath jacket over his moleskin waistcoat.

" Whaur are ye for, Pate ? " she inquired anxiously. " Is the minister gaun frae hame?"

"Ay, I've to tak' him till the twal train at Kirklands, an' it'll be ane or I get hame to my denner." __

" Is he for Pithorn, d'ye think ? " inquired Jess, wiping the point of her nose with her duster, which being saturated with whiting wrought a change in her complexion.

" I dinna ken, Jess. Ye can bide or he comes oot an' speir," said Peter, who had no manners to speak of, and never made any unnecessary display.

"The minister's Easy gey close, Pate.

I saw her at the well no an hoor ago, an' she never said Minister. It's no neeborly."

" Some folks waur for clashes than ithers, Jess," said Pate suggestively, and at that moment Easy appeared carrying a by-ordinary large portmanteau, whereat Jess positively glowered. Being offended with Easy, however, she stepped back to the schoolhouse dyke, against which she leaned with her arms folded across her ample bosom, ready to take an inventory of the entire proceedings.

It was not to be thought that so rare an occurrence as a hurried jaunt of Mr. Bowman should be allowed to pass unnoticed, and presently the schoolhouse dyke had its row of interested watchers speculating on the affair after the manner of their kind. Easy, with a lofty look of unconcern, pushed the portmanteau in at the back of the gig, and then brought out a plaid strapped up together with a stick and an umbrella.

"An' there's his lum hat-box," said Jess excitedly. " It's a flittin'; mebbe he's g'wa to be mairret 1"

All his goods and chattels being stowed away, the minister came out last, said a few words to his housekeeper, with whom he shook hands, putting something into her palm as he did so, and jumped into the gig, just as the children swarmed out of the schoolroom door for their " leave." Bruce, observing the gig, had let them out ten minutes earlier than usual, to say good-bye to Mr. Bowman, and he strode across the playground and over the road to do so.

It did not occupy long, and though the ladies ranged along the dyke strained their ears they could not hear their talk, and presently Pate Christie said " Gee up!" to the piebald, and the little gig rumbled off, the minister waving his soft hat amiably to his interested neighbours.

As Bruce expected, he was waylaid by Jess and her friends.

"The minister's for jauntin' the day, surely. Whaur's he aff till ? an' wull he be hame for Sawbath Day ? "

"No, he won't," replied Bruce. "He's away to France."

And with a laugh he escaped into the schoolhouse. Before one o'clock it was through the Beild that the minister was away to France, and it was the unanimous opinion that he had no business to take such a serious step without due announcement and provision. It was astonishing the sudden concern for their spiritual welfare which sprang up in the Beild now that they were without a spiritual adviser, and Tam Pitbladdo, the postman, who was the ruling elder, threw out sundry dark hints about the bar of the Assembly, which were only partially understood by the most of those who heard them, and were therefore received with awe. The only person who knew where Mr. Bowman had really gone was Bruce, and he was not likely to let on; it gave him a kind of inward satisfaction to see the Beild dashers nonplussed for once.

As the week wore on the unjustifiable absence of the minister was somewhat lost sight of in the middle of another tremendous excitement which sprang up about Friday, that Erskine Nicoll was to preach in the Beild kirk on the Sabbath Day. This, in the eyes of Tam Pitbladdo at least, was the crown to the week's wrong, and it was as good as a ploy to hear him in his own shop on Saturday night, as he weighed out his butter and cheese and tea, never too absorbed to let the scales balance a hair's breadth too much —Tam being notorious for his jimp weight, but having a monopoly of trade in the place could laugh at complaints.

"If Erskine Nicoll thinks I'm gaun to tak* up the Buik till him, an' staun or he swaggers up into the poopit, he's mista'en," he said firmly. " I'll bide in my bed wi' a sair heid first; but I'll no dae't."

"Oh, there's plenty'll be betherell on Sawbath, Tam, jist for the fun o' the thing," said Big Sandy Morison, who, attracted by the crowd in Tarn's shop, looked in, though he was on his way to Bawbie's. He was standing at the very outside of the door, but, being so tall, could look right over and down on the bald head of Tam, as he stood in his grimy, dirty apron and sleeves behind the counter. Tam was a bachelor man likewise, and abode with his mother, who was too old to redd things up, so that the shop was an eyesore to sundry housewives, and they would have removed their custom had there been anywhere else to take it.

"Ye'd look weel yoursel', Sandy," cried somebody. " Wull ye tak' Tarn's place if he dinna turn up ? "

" Oo ay. I'm no a kirk-ganger, but I'm gaun to hear Erskine. I'm thinkin', Tam, ye'll need to bring ower the skule furms ; there'll be sic a crood."

"Dad the fear o' that, man," said Tam sourly. " Wha's gaun to listen till an im-pident gowk like Erskine Nicoll ? Wha's he, I shuld like to ken, that he shuld preach till his betters ? "

All the same, Big Sandy was right. There never had been such a crush in the Beild kirk even on the induction Sunday, and though the school forms were not requisitioned, every pew was crammed to its utmost capacity. In spite of his protestations, Tam was present in his Sunday broadcloth, now growing a trifle green, with the kist creases in the breeks and across the back of the coat as usual. Every Beild cratur that could walk or hirple, except Binns himself, was in the kirk that bonnie summer morning. No, stay; somebody else was absent; and the first thing Bruce noticed when he sat down in the precentor's box was that Jeanie Morison was not in her accustomed place. In the second back seat on the right-hand side, just before the minister's Easy, sat Mrs. Nicoll, with a stiff black silk gown on, a yellow straw bonnet with magenta velvet ties, and lavender kid gloves, which was considered a most indecent exhibition on a Sabbath Day. While Binns at home was smoking unlimited pipes of black tobacco, and expectorating through nervousness to such an extent that the fire nearly went out with the deluge, his wife, serene and ineffable in her conscious pride and belief in her son, sat bolt upright in her seat, except when she gave her gown a bit rustle for the benefit of those near at hand, and flourished her scented hanky above her magenta strings—the proudest mother and happiest woman in all the Beild kirk. She felt when she looked round on the crowded kirk that it was worth all she had suffered at the hands of the unsympathetic Binns, and that she had nothing else left to wish for in this world.

The jingling bell rang in, and though it was customary for Tam Pitbladdo to bring up the Book before the last twang, the vestry door never opened, and a visible excitement trembled over the entire congregation.

The reason of the delay was a war of words between Tam and the young probationer, because Tam had laid out the minister's old pulpit gown instead of the new one, and Erskine had flatly declined to wear it. It ended in victory for Erskine, and presently, three minutes behind time, and looking very hot and excited, Tam opened the vestry door and marched out with the Book, which he laid down on the cushion with a bang which made the dust rise quite distinctly, and caused sundry nudgings, while Big Sandy audibly requested Leeb to observe how Tam's birse was up. I fear there was but small reverence abroad in the congregation, to whom the sight of Erskine Nicoll in the Beild pulpit was more of a ploy than a religious exercise. Had Mr. Bowman realised the feeling of the place regarding

Erskine, it is certain he would not have allowed him to fill his pulpit.

Tam came down the stairs slowly, and stood back in the passage, which was most unusual. It was evident he did not intend to shut the pulpit door on Erskine; as he remarked afterwards, " he had to draw the line some gait." But Erskine was quite equal to shutting the door on himself, or doing anything else, and he emerged out of the vestry door, looking well, even his enemies were obliged to admit, in the flowing robes which were so becoming to their own minister. Erskine was big and well made, and had a ruddy, open countenance, an abundance of yellow hair, and a light blue eye which gave him a particularly innocent and childish look. Standing directly above Bruce Rymer, the contrast between them was distinctly marked, and there could be no doubt where the intellect lay, if outward appearances are to be trusted. But Erskine was beyond doubt " a bonnie man," as they said in the Beild; his skin was like milk and roses, and he had a fine, loud, ringing voice, which filled the kirk.

Mrs. Nicoll, wee, wizened body that she was, not given to exhibitions of emotion, felt her eyes growing wet as he stood up to give out the psalm, and felt angry with herself, for it was no occasion for tears, and she feared the neighbours would see them. Although the circumstances were admittedly trying, Erskine did not betray the smallest nervousness, either in voice or look. He gave out the psalm and read it calmly, in a straight, even voice, in which Bruce listened in vain for some sympathetic modulation— and so throughout the service. Everything was done decently and in order, and with the sermon nobody could find fault. It was well expressed and well delivered, none of the heads or points forgotten ; but it did not contain a single original thought, or a word which could thrill or touch the heart. He delivered it in the same high, clear, even tone from start to finish, and long before " thirdly " half the heads were down on the board and the familiar smell of Tam Pit-bladdo's extra-strong peppermints pervaded the drowsy air. After all, the show had been a trifle disappointing. Erskine did nothing exciting, did not even advance a single doctrinal point on which Tam and the Session could meet to discuss.

Mrs. Nicoll was a trifle disappointed at the extreme haste with which the congregation dispersed, as she had pictured herself holding a kind of congratulatory levee at the kirk door. It was a grievance of Mr. Bowman's that the congregation dispersed with too much haste. It was a common sight to see the lads, with one leg outside the seat, standing with hat in hand while the Benediction was being said, and before Amen they were out the door. Long before Erskine had got into his long black coat, which he thought became him mightily, the entire congregation had dispersed, and only his mother waited for him, though some looked back as they went down the road, and Jess

Lockhart had her nose glued on to her kitchen window. Bruce, who had a kindly, generous vein in him, went up to Mrs. Nicoll as she stood at the door, and said to her pleasantly,—

"You'll be a proud woman to-day, Mrs. Nicoll. Erskine did well, and he wasna nervous. Had I been in his shoes, I couldn't have been so calm."

"Them 'at can dae needna be nervish, Bruce," she said with dignity. " Yes, Erskine did well, an' I wish his gowk o' a faither had but heard him. Ye'll tell him what a fine discoorse we had, Bruce, for he winna believe me ? "

" Oh, I'll tell him ; an' so will many more, I make no doubt."

And just then Erskine came round from the side door, followed at a dour distance by Tam, with his nose in the air.

Bruce smiled, and offered his hand to his old friend, determined not to let any spirit of rivalry make him act dog in the manger.

"Well, Erskine, you've got your trial over, and finely too. Man, how did you feel ? I was a bit nervous myself, till I heard you speak."

" What was there to make anybody nervous ?" queried Erskine loftily, as he shook hands but limply. " I didn't do justice to my subject. You see, in a place like this, one always has the feeling of preaching over the people's heads."

It was just the sort of speech to make Bruce put up his back, which he immediately did.

"There was a wheen o' them sleepin', onyway," he said, in his broadest Scotch. " I gied a bit nod mysel' when I lost the thread o' your discourse. I never fand it again, though I tried hard ; but that was maybe my faut, as I'm a Beild body like the lave."

Erskine did not like sarcasm, and never knew how to reply to it.

" Come, mother, and let's home," he said imperiously, and turned his back on Bruce, which did not put him much about, as he went laughing in at the schoolhouse gate.

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