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Murdoch Malison, the schoolmaster, was appointed to preach in the parish church the following Sunday. He had never preached there, for he had been no favourite with Mr Cowie. Now, however, that the good man was out of the way, they gave him a chance, and he caught at it, though not without some misgivings. In the school-desk, "he was like a maister or a pope;" but the pulpit--how would he fill that? Two resolutions he came to; the first that he would not read his sermon, but commit it and deliver it as like the extempore utterance of which he was incapable as might be--a piece of falsehood entirely understood, and justified by Scotch custom; the second, to take rather more than a hint from the fashion of preaching now so much in favour amongst the seceders and missionars: he would be a Jupiter tonans, wielding the forked lightnings of the law against the sins of Glamerton.
So, on the appointed day, having put on a new suit of black, and the gown over it, he ascended the pulpit stairs, and, conscious of a strange timidity, gave out the psalm. He cast one furtive glance around, as he took his seat for the singing, and saw a number of former as well as present pupils gathered to hear him, amongst whom were the two Truffeys, with their grandfather seated between them. He got through the prayer very well, for he was accustomed to that kind of thing in the school. But when he came to the sermon, he found that to hear boys repeat their lessons and punish them for failure, did not necessarily stimulate the master's own memory.
He gave out his text: The Book of the Prophet Joel, first chapter, fourth verse. Joel, first and fourth. "That which the palmer-worm hath left, hath the locust eaten; and that which the locust hath left, hath the canker-worm eaten; and that which the canker-worm hath left, hath the caterpillar eaten."
Now if he could have read his sermon, it would have shown itself a most creditable invention. It had a general introduction upon the temporal punishment of sin; one head entitled, "The completeness of the infliction;" and another, "The punishment of which this is the type;" the latter showing that those little creeping things were not to be compared to the great creeping thing, namely, the worm that never dies. These two heads had a number of horns called particulars; and a tail called an application, in which the sins of his hearers were duly chastised, with vague and awful threats of some vengeance not confined to the life to come, but ready to take present form in such a judgment as that described in the text.
But he had resolved not to read his sermon. So he began to repeat it, with sweeps of the hands, pointings of the fingers, and other such tricks of second-rate actors, to aid the self-delusion of his hearers that it was a genuine present outburst from the soul of Murdoch Malison. For they all knew as well as he did, that his sermon was only "cauld kail het again." But some family dishes--Irish stew, for example, or Scotch broth--may be better the second day than the first; and where was the harm? All concerned would have been perfectly content, if he had only gone on as he began. But, as he approached the second head, the fear suddenly flashed through his own that he would not be able to recall it; and that moment all the future of his sermon was a blank. He stammered, stared, did nothing, thought nothing--only felt himself in hell. Roused by the sight of the faces of his hearers growing suddenly expectant at the very moment when he had nothing more to give them, he gathered his seven fragmentary wits, and as a last resort, to which he had had a vague regard in putting his manuscript in his pocket, resolved to read the remainder. But in order to give the change of mode an appearance of the natural and suitable, he managed with a struggle to bring out the words:
"But, my brethren, let us betake ourselves to the written testimony."
Every one concluded he was going to quote from Scripture; but instead of turning over the leaves of the Bible, he plunged his hand into the abysses of his coat. Horror of horrors for the poor autocrat!--the pocket was as empty as his own memory; in fact it was a mere typical pocket, typical of the brains of its owner. The cold dew of agony broke over him; he turned deadly pale; his knees smote one another; but he made yet, for he was a man of strong will, a final frantic effort to bring his discourse down the inclined plane of a conclusion.
"In fine," he stammered "my beloved brethren, if you do not repent and be converted and return to the Lord, you will--you will--you will have a very bad harvest."
Having uttered this solemn prediction, of the import of which he, like some other prophets, knew nothing before he uttered it, Murdoch Malison sat down, a stickit minister. His brain was a vacuum; and the thought of standing up again to pray was intolerable. No more could he sit there; for if he sat, the people would sit too. Something must be done, and there was nobody to do anything. He must get out and then the people would go home. But how could he escape? He durst not go down that pulpit stair in the sight of the congregation.--He cared no more for his vanished reputation. His only thought was how to get out.
Meantime the congregation was variously affected. Some held down their heads and laughed immoderately. These were mostly of Mr Malison's scholars, the fine edge of whose nature, if it ever had any, had vanished under the rasp of his tortures. Even Alec, who, with others of the assembly, held down his head from sympathetic shame, could not help remembering how the master had made Annie Anderson stand upon the form, and believing for the time in a general retribution in kind.
Andrew Truffey was crying bitterly. His sobs were heard through the church, and some took them for the sobs of Murdoch Malison, who had shrunk into the pulpit like a snail into its shell, so that not an atom of his form was to be seen except from the side-galleries. The maiden daughter of the late schoolmaster gave a shriek, and went into a small fit; after which an awful, quite sepulchral silence reigned for a few moments, broken only by those quivering sobs from Truffey, whom his grandfather was feebly and ineffectually shaking.
At length the precentor, George Macwha, who had for some time been turning over the leaves of his psalm-book, came to the rescue. He rose in the lectern and gave out The hundred and fifty-first psalm. The congregation could only find a hundred and fifty, and took the last of the psalms for the one meant. But George, either from old spite against the tormentor of boys and girls, or from mere coincidence--he never revealed which--had chosen in reality a part of the fifty-first psalm.
"The hunner an' fifty-first psalm," repeated George, "from the fifteent verse. An' syne we'll gang hame.
My closed lips, O Lord, by thee, Let them be opened."
As soon as the singing was over, George left the desk, and the congregation following his example, went straggling out of the church, and home, to wait with doubtful patience for the broth which as yet could taste only of onions and the stone that scoured the pot.
As soon as the sounds of retiring footsteps were heard no more in the great echoing church, uprose, like one of Dante's damned out of a torture-tomb, the form of Murdoch Malison, above the edge of the pulpit. With face livid as that of a corpse, he gave a scared look around, and not seeing little Truffey concealed behind one of the pillars, concluded the place empty, and half crawled, half tumbled down the stair to the vestry, where the sexton was waiting him. It did not restore his lost composure to discover, in searching for his handkerchief, that the encumbrance of the gown had made him put his hand ten times into the same pocket, instead of five times into each, and that in the other his manuscript lay as safe as it had been useless.
But he took his gown off very quietly, put on his coat and forgot the bands, bade the old sexton a gentle good day, and stole away home through the streets. He had wanted to get out, and now he wanted to get in; for he felt very much as Lady Godiva would have felt if her hair or her heroism had proved unworthy of confidence.
Poor Murdoch had no mother and no wife; he could not go home and be comforted. Nor was he a youth, to whom a first failure might be of small consequence. He was five and forty, and his head was sprinkled with grey; he was schoolmaster, and everybody knew him; he had boys under him. As he walked along the deserted streets, he felt that he was running the gauntlet of scorn; but every one who saw him coming along with his head sunk on his bosom, drew back from the window till he had gone by. Returning to the window to look after him, they saw, about twenty yards behind him, a solitary little figure, with the tears running down its face, stumping slowly step by step, and keeping the same distance, after the dejected master.
When Mr Malison went into the vestry, Truffey had gone into the porch, and there staid till he passed on his way home. Then with stealthily set crutch, putting it down as the wild beast sets down his miching paw, out sprang Truffey and after the master. But however silently Truffey might use his third leg, the master heard the stump stump behind him, and felt that he was followed home every foot of the way by the boy whom he had crippled. He felt, too, in some dim degree which yet had practical results, that the boy was taking divine vengeance upon him, heaping on his head the coals of that consuming fire which is love, which is our God. And when the first shame was over, the thought of Truffey came back with healing on his lonely heart.
When he reached his own door, he darted in and closed it behind, as if to shut out the whole world through which he had passed with that burden of contempt upon his degraded shoulders. He was more ashamed of his failure than he had been sorry for laming Truffey. But the shame would pass; the sorrow would endure.
Meantime two of his congregation, sisters, poor old mutched wifies, were going home together. They were distantly related to the schoolmaster, whom they regarded as the honour of the family, as their bond of relation with the world above them in general and with the priesthood in particular. So when Elspeth addressed Meg with reference to the sermon in a manner which showed her determination to acknowledge no failure, Meg took her cue directly.
"Eh! woman; it's a sair ootluik for puir fowk like us, gin things be gaein that gait!"
"And 'deed it's that, lass! Gin the hairst be gaein to the moles and the bats, it's time we war awa hame; for it'll be a cauld winter."
"Ay, that it will! The minister was sair owercome at the prospec', honest man. It was a' he cud do, to win at the en' o' his discoorse ohn grutten ootricht."
"He sees into the will o' the Almichty. He's far ben wi' Him--that's verra clear."
"Ay, lass, ay."
And hence, by slow degrees, in the middle of the vague prophecies of vengeance gathered a more definite kernel of prediction, believed by some, disbelieved, yet feared, by others--that the harvest would be so eaten of worms and blasted with smut, that bread would be up to famine prices, and the poor would die of starvation.
But still the flowers came out and looked men in the face and went in again; and still the sun shone on the evil and on the good, and still the rain fell on the just and on the unjust.
And still the denunciations from the pulpits went on; but the human souls thus exposed to the fires seemed only to harden under their influences.
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