On the east coast of Scotland, hidden, as if in a quarry, at the
foot of cliffs that may one day fall forward, is a village called
Harvie. So has it shrunk since the day when I skulked from it that
I hear of a traveller's asking lately at one of its doors how far
he was from a village; yet Harvie throve once and was celebrated
even in distant Thrums for its fish. Most of our weavers would
have thought it as unnatural not to buy harvies in the square on
the Muckle Friday, as to let Saturday night pass without laying in
a sufficient stock of halfpennies to go round the family twice.
Gavin was born in Harvie, but left it at such an early age that he
could only recall thatched houses with nets drying on the roofs,
and a sandy shore in which coarse grass grew. In the picture he
could not pick out the house of his birth, though he might have
been able to go to it had he ever returned to the village. Soon he
learned that his mother did not care to speak of Harvie, and
perhaps he thought that she had forgotten it too, all save one
scene to which his memory still guided him. When his mind wandered
to Harvie, Gavin saw the door of his home open and a fisherman
enter, who scratched his head and then said, "Your man's drowned,
missis." Gavin seemed to see many women crying, and his mother
staring at them with a face suddenly painted white, and next to
hear a voice that was his own saying, "Never mind, mother; I'll be
a man to you now, and I'll need breeks for the burial." But Adam
required no funeral, for his body lay deep in the sea.
Gavin thought that this was the tragedy of his mother's life, and
the most memorable event of his own childhood. But it was neither.
When Margaret, even after she came to Thrums, thought of Harvie,
it was not at Adam's death she shuddered, but at the recollection
It would ill become me to take a late revenge on Adam Dishart now
by saying what is not true of him. Though he died a fisherman he
was a sailor for a great part of his life, and doubtless his
recklessness was washed into him on the high seas, where in his
time men made a crony of death, and drank merrily over dodging it
for another night. To me his roars of laughter without cause were
as repellent as a boy's drum; yet many faces that were long in my
company brightened at his coming, and women, with whom, despite my
yearning, I was in no wise a favorite, ran to their doors to
listen to him as readily as to the bell-man. Children scurried
from him if his mood was savage, but to him at all other times,
while me they merely disregarded. There was always a smell of the
sea about him. He had a rolling gait, unless he was drunk, when he
walked very straight, and before both sexes he boasted that any
woman would take him for his beard alone. Of this beard he took
prodigious care, though otherwise thinking little of his
appearance, and I now see that he understood women better than I
did, who had nevertheless reflected much about them. It cannot be
said that he was vain, for though he thought he attracted women
strangely, that, I maintain, is a weakness common to all men, and
so no more to be marvelled at than a stake in a fence. Foreign
oaths were the nails with which he held his talk together, yet I
doubt not they were a curiosity gathered at sea, like his chains
of shells, more for his own pleasure than for others' pain. His
friends gave them no weight, and when he wanted to talk
emphatically he kept them back, though they were then as
troublesome to him as eggs to the bird-nesting boy who has to
speak with his spoil in his mouth.
Adam was drowned on Gavin's fourth birthday, a year after I had to
leave Harvie. He was blown off his smack in a storm, and could not
reach the rope his partner flung him. "It's no go, lad," he
shouted; "so long, Jim," and sank.
A month afterwards Margaret sold her share in the smack, which was
all Adam left her, and the furniture of the house was rouped. She
took Gavin to Glasgow, where her only brother needed a
housekeeper, and there mother and son remained until Gavin got his
call to Thrums. During those seventeen years I lost knowledge of
them as completely as Margaret had lost knowledge of me. On
hearing of Adam's death I went back to Harvie to try to trace her,
but she had feared this, and so told no one where she was going.
According to Margaret, Gavin's genius showed itself while he was
still a child. He was born with a brow whose nobility impressed
her from the first. It was a minister's brow, and though Margaret
herself was no scholar, being as slow to read as she was quick at
turning bannocks on the girdle, she decided, when his age was
still counted by months, that the ministry had need of him. In
those days the first question asked of a child was not, "Tell me
your name," but "What are you to be?" and one child in every
family replied, "A minister." He was set apart for the Church as
doggedly as the shilling a week for the rent, and the rule held
good though the family consisted of only one boy. From his
earliest days Gavin thought he had been fashioned for the ministry
as certainly as a spade for digging, and Margaret rejoiced and
marvelled thereat, though she had made her own puzzle. An
enthusiastic mother may bend her son's mind as she chooses if she
begins it once; nay, she may do stranger things. I know a mother
in Thrums who loves "features," and had a child born with no chin
to speak of. The neighbors expected this to bring her to the dust,
but it only showed what a mother can do. In a few months that
child had a chin with the best of them.
Margaret's brother died, but she remained in his single room, and,
ever with a picture of her son in a pulpit to repay her, contrived
to keep Gavin at school. Everything a woman's fingers can do
Margaret's did better than most, and among the wealthy people who
employed her--would that I could have the teaching of the sons of
such as were good to her in those hard days!--her gentle manner
was spoken of. For though Margaret had no schooling, she was a
lady at heart, moving and almost speaking as one even in Harvie,
where they did not perhaps like her the better for it.
At six Gavin hit another boy hard for belonging to the Established
Church, and at seven he could not lose himself in the Shorter
Catechism. His mother expounded the Scriptures to him till he was
eight, when he began to expound them to her. By this time he was
studying the practical work of the pulpit as enthusiastically as
ever medical student cut off a leg. From a front pew in the
gallery Gavin watched the minister's every movement, noting that
the first thing to do on ascending the pulpit is to cover your
face with your hands, as if the exalted position affected you like
a strong light, and the second to move the big Bible slightly, to
show that the kirk officer, not having had a university education,
could not be expected to know the very spot on which it ought to
lie. Gavin saw that the minister joined in the singing more like
one countenancing a seemly thing than because he needed it
himself, and that he only sang a mouthful now and again after the
congregation was in full pursuit of the precentor. It was
noteworthy that the first prayer lasted longer than all the
others, and that to read the intimations about the Bible-class and
the collection elsewhere than immediately before the last Psalm
would have been as sacrilegious as to insert the dedication to
King James at the end of Revelation. Sitting under a minister
justly honoured in his day, the boy was often some words in
advance of him, not vainglorious of his memory, but fervent,
eager, and regarding the preacher as hardly less sacred than the
Book. Gavin was encouraged by his frightened yet admiring mother
to saw the air from their pew as the minister sawed it in the
pulpit, and two benedictions were pronounced twice a Sabbath in
that church, in the same words, the same manner, and
There was a black year when the things of this world, especially
its pastimes, took such a grip of Gavin that he said to Margaret
he would rather be good at the high jump than the author of "The
Pilgrim's Progress." That year passed, and Gavin came to his right
mind. One afternoon Margaret was at home making a glen-garry for
him out of a piece of carpet, and giving it a tartan edging, when
the boy bounded in from school, crying, "Come quick, mother, and
you'll see him." Margaret reached the door in time to see a street
musician flying from Gavin and his friends. "Did you take stock of
him, mother?" the boy asked when he reappeared with the mark of a
muddy stick on his back. "He's a Papist!--a sore sight, mother, a
sore sight. We stoned him for persecuting the noble Martyrs."
"When Gavin was twelve he went to the university, and also got a
place in a shop as errand boy. He used to run through the streets
between his work and his classes. Potatoes and salt fish, which
could then be got at two pence the pound if bought by the half-
hundred weight, were his food. There was not always a good meal
for two, yet when Gavin reached home at night there was generally
something ready for him, and Margaret had supped "hours ago."
Gavin's hunger urged him to fall to, but his love for his mother
made him watchful.
"What did you have yourself, mother?" he would demand
"Oh, I had a fine supper, I assure you."
"What had you?"
"I had potatoes, for one thing."
"You may be sure."
"Mother, you're cheating me. The dripping hasn't been touched
"I dinna--don't--care for dripping--no much."
Then would Gavin stride the room fiercely, a queer little figure.
"Do you think I'll stand this, mother? Will I let myself be
pampered with dripping and every delicacy while you starve?"
"Gavin, I really dinna care for dripping."
"Then I'll give up my classes, and we can have butter."
"I assure you I'm no hungry. It's different wi' a growing laddie."
"I'm not a growing laddie," Gavin would say, bitterly; "but,
mother, I warn you that not another bite passes my throat till I
see you eating too."
So Margaret had to take her seat at the table, and when she said
"I can eat no more," Gavin retorted sternly, "Nor will I, for fine
I see through you."
These two were as one far more than most married people, and, just
as Gavin in his childhood reflected his mother, she now reflected
him. The people for whom she sewed thought it was contact with
them that had rubbed the broad Scotch from her tongue, but she Was
only keeping pace with Gavin. When she was excited the Harvie
words came back to her, as they come back to me. I have taught the
English language all my life, and I try to write it, but
everything I say in this book I first think to myself in the
Doric. This, too, I notice, that in talking to myself I am broader
than when gossiping with the farmers of the glen, who send their
children to me to learn English, and then jeer at them if they say
"old lights" instead of "auld lichts."
To Margaret it was happiness to sit through the long evenings
sewing, and look over her work at Gavin as he read or wrote or
recited to himself the learning of the schools. But she coughed
every time the weather changed, and then Gavin would start.
"You must go to your bed, mother," he would say, tearing himself
from his books; or he would sit beside her and talk of the dream
that was common to both--a dream of a manse where Margaret was
mistress and Gavin was called the minister. Every night Gavin was
at his mother's bedside to wind her shawl round her feet, and
while he did it Margaret smiled.
"Mother, this is the chaff pillow you've taken out of my bed, and
given me your feather one."
"Gavin, you needna change them. I winna have the feather pillow."
"Do you dare to think I'll let you sleep on chaff? Put up your
head. Now, is that soft?"
"It's fine. I dinna deny but what I sleep better on feathers. Do
you mind, Gavin, you bought this pillow for me the moment you got
your bursary money?"
The reserve that is a wall between many of the Scottish poor had
been broken down by these two. When he saw his mother sleeping
happily, Gavin went back to his work. To save the expense of a
lamp, he would put his book almost beneath the dying fire, and,
taking the place of the fender, read till he was shivering with
"Gavin, it is near morning, and you not in your bed yet! What are
you thinking about so hard?"
"Oh, mother, I was wondering if the time would ever come when I
would be a minister, and you would have an egg for your breakfast
So the years passed, and soon Gavin would be a minister. He had
now sermons to prepare, and every one of them was first preached
to Margaret. How solemn was his voice, how his eyes flashed, how
stern were his admonitions.
"Gavin, such a sermon I never heard. The spirit of God is on you.
I'm ashamed you should have me for a mother."
"God grant, mother," Gavin said, little thinking what was soon to
happen, or he would have made this prayer on his knees, "that you
may never be ashamed to have me for a son."
"Ah, mother," he would say wistfully, "it is not a great sermon,
but do you think I'm preaching Christ? That is what I try, but I'm
carried away and forget to watch myself."
"The Lord has you by the hand, Gavin; and mind, I dinna say that
because you're my laddie."
"Yes, you do, mother, and well I know it, and yet it does me good
to hear you."
That it did him good I, who would fain have shared those days with
them, am very sure. The praise that comes of love does not make us
vain, but humble rather. Knowing what we are, the pride that
shines in our mother's eyes as she looks at us is about the most
pathetic thing a man has to face, but he would be a devil
altogether if it did not burn some of the sin out of him.
Not long before Gavin preached for our kirk and got his call, a
great event took place in the little room at Glasgow. The student
appeared for the first time before his mother in his ministerial
clothes. He wore the black silk hat, that was destined to become a
terror to evil-doers in Thrums, and I dare say he was rather
puffed up about himself that day. You would probably have smiled
"It's a pity I'm so little, mother," he said with a sigh.
"You're no what I would call a particularly long man," Margaret
said, "but you're just the height I like."
Then Gavin went out in his grandeur, and Margaret cried for an
hour. She was thinking of me as well as of Gavin, and as it
happens, I know that I was thinking at the same time of her. Gavin
kept a diary in those days, which I have seen, and by comparing it
with mine, I discovered that while he was showing himself to his
mother in his black clothes, I was on my way back from Tilliedrum,
where I had gone to buy a sand-glass for the school. The one I
bought was so like another Margaret had used at Harvie that it set
me thinking of her again all the way home. This is a matter hardly
worth mentioning, and yet it interests me.
Busy days followed the call to Thrums, and Gavin had difficulty in
forcing himself to his sermons when there was always something
more to tell his mother about the weaving town they were going to,
or about the manse or the furniture that had been transferred to
him by the retiring minister. The little room which had become so
familiar that it seemed one of a family party of three had to be
stripped, and many of its contents were sold. Among what were
brought to Thrums was a little exercise book, in which Margaret
had tried, unknown to Gavin, to teach herself writing and grammar,
that she might be less unfit for a manse. He found it accidentally
one day. It was full of "I am, thou art, he is," and the like,
written many times in a shaking hand. Gavin put his arms round his
mother when he saw what she had been doing. The exercise book is
in my desk now, and will be my little maid's when I die.
"Gavin, Gavin," Margaret said many times In those last days at
Glasgow, "to think it has all come true!"
"Let the last word you say in the house be a prayer of
thankfulness," she whispered to him when they were taking a final
glance at the old home.
In the bare room they called the house, the little minister and
his mother went on their knees, but, as it chanced, their last
word there was not addressed to God.
"Gavin," Margaret whispered as he took her arm, "do you think this
bonnet sets me?"
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