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All the prophetic rumours of a bad harvest had proved themselves false. Never a better harvest had been gathered in the strath, nor had one ever been carried home in superior condition. But the passion for prophecy had not abated in Glamerton. It was a spiritual epidemic over the whole district.
Now a certain wily pedler had turned the matter over and resolved to make something of it.
One day there appeared in the streets of Glamerton a man carrying in his hand a bundle of papers as a sample of what he had in the pack upon his shoulders. He bore a burden of wrath. They were all hymns and ballads of a minacious description, now one and now another of which he kept repeating in lugubrious recitative. Amongst them some of Watts's, quite unknown to Glamerton worshippers, carried the palm of horror. But there were others which equalled them in absurdity, although their most ludicrous portions affected the populace only as a powerful realization of the vague and awful. One of these had the following stanzas:
"The dragon's tail shall be the whip Of scorpions foretold, With which to lash them thigh and hip That wander from the fold. And when their wool is burnt away-- Their garments gay, I mean-- Then this same whip they'll feel, I say, Upon their naked skin."
The probability seems to be that, besides collecting from all sources known to him, the pedler had hired an able artist for the production of original poems of commination. His scheme succeeded; for great was the sale of these hymns and ballads at a halfpenny a piece in the streets of Glamerton. Even those who bought to laugh, could not help feeling an occasional anticipatory sting of which, being sermon-seared, they were never conscious under pulpit denunciation.
The pedler having emptied his wallet--not like that of Chaucer's Pardoner,
"Bretful of pardon brought from Rome all hot,"
but crammed with damnation brought all hot from a different place--vanished; and another wonder appeared in the streets of Glamerton--a man who cried with a loud voice, borrowing the cry of the ill-tempered prophet: "Yet forty days, and Glamerton shall be destroyed."
This cry he repeated at awful intervals of about a minute, walking slowly through every street, lane, and close of the town. The children followed him in staring silence; the women gazed from their doors in awe as he passed. The insanity which gleamed in his eyes, and his pale long-drawn countenance, heightened the effect of the terrible prediction. His belief took theirs by storm.
The men smiled to each other, but could not keep it up in the presence of their wives and sisters. They said truly that he was only a madman. But as prophets have always been taken for madmen, so madmen often pass for prophets; and even Stumpin' Steenie, the town-constable, had too much respect either to his prophetic claims, or his lunacy, perhaps both, to take him into custody. So through the streets of Glamerton he went on his bare feet, with tattered garments, proclaiming aloud the coming destruction, He walked in the middle of the street, and turned aside for nothing. The coachman of the Royal Mail had to pull up his four greys on their haunches to keep them off the defiant prophet, and leave him to pursue the straight line of his mission. The ministers warned the people on the following Sunday against false prophets, but did not say that man was a false prophet, while with their own denunciations they went on all the same. The chief effects of it all were excitement and fear. There was little sign of repentance. But the spiritual physicians did not therefore doubt their exhibition. They only increased the dose. The prophet appeared one day. He had vanished the next.
But within a few days, a still more awful prediction rose, cloud-like, on the spiritual sky. A placard was found affixed to the doors of every place of worship in the town, setting forth in large letters that, according to certain irrefragable calculations from "the number of a man" and other such of the more definite utterances of Daniel and St John, the day of judgment must without fail fall upon the next Sunday week. Whence this announcement came no one knew. But the truth is, every one was willing it should remain shrouded in the mystery congenial to such things. On the door of the parish-church, it found an especially suitable place; for that, not having been painted for many years, still retained the mourning into which it had been put on occasion of the death of the great man of the neighbourhood, the owner of all Glamerton, and miles around it--this mourning consisting of a ground of dingy black, over which at small regular distances had been painted a multitude of white spots with tails, rather more like commas than tadpoles, intended to represent the falling tears of lamenting tenants and humble servants generally. Curly's grandfather had been the artist of the occasion. In the middle of this door stood the awful prophecy, surrounded on every side by the fall of the faded tears; and for anything anybody knew, it might have been a supernatural exudation from the damp old church, full of decay for many a dreary winter. Dreadful places, those churches, hollow and echoing all the week! I wonder if the souls of idle parsons are condemned to haunt them, and that is what gives them that musty odour and that exhausting air.
Glamerton was variously affected by this condensation of the vapour of prophecy into a definite prediction.
"What think ye o' 't, Thomas Crann?" said Andrew Constable. "The calcleation seems to be a' correck. Yet somehoo I canna believe in't."
"Dinna fash yer heid aboot it, Anerew. There's a heep o' judgments atween this an' the hinner en'. The Lord'll come whan naebody's luikin' for him. And sae we maun be aye ready. Ilka year's an anno dominy. But I dinna think the man that made that calcleation as ye ca' 't 's jist a'thegeether infallible. An' for ae thing, he's forgotten to mak' allooance for the laip years."
"The day's by, than!" exclaimed Andrew, in a tone contrasting pretty strongly with his previous expressions of unbelief.
"Or else it's nae comin' sae sune as the prophet thocht. I'm no clear at this moment aboot that. But it's a sma' maitter that."
Andrew's face fell, and he looked thoughtful.
"Hoo mak' ye that oot?" said he.
"Hoots man!" answered Thomas; "dinna ye see 'at gin the man was cawpable o' makin' sic a mistak's that, i' the mids o' his perfec confidence in his ain knowledge an' jeedgment, he cud hardly hae been intendit by Providence for an interpreter o' dark sayings of old?"
Andrew burst into a laugh.
"Wha cud hae thocht, Thomas, 'at ye cud hae pickit sic gumption oot o' stanes!"
And so they parted, Andrew laughing, and Thomas with a curious smile.
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