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Old John Jamieson
As I returned to the house I met my father.
"Well, Ranald, what are you about?" he said, in his usual gentle tone.
"Nothing in particular, father," I answered.
"Well, I'm going to see an old man--John Jamieson--I don't think you know him: he has not been able to come to church for a long time. They tell me he is dying. Would you like to go with me?"
"Yes, father. But won't you take Missy?"
"Not if you will walk with me. It's only about three miles."
"Very well, father. I should like to go with you."
My father talked about various things on the way. I remember in particular some remarks he made about reading Virgil, for I had just begun the Æneid. For one thing, he told me I must scan every line until I could make it sound like poetry, else I should neither enjoy it properly, nor be fair to the author. Then he repeated some lines from Milton, saying them first just as if they were prose, and after that the same lines as they ought to be sounded, making me mark the difference. Next he did the same with a few of the opening lines of Virgil's great poem, and made me feel the difference there.
"The sound is the shape of it, you know, Ranald," he said, "for a poem is all for the ear and not for the eye. The eye sees only the sense of it; the ear sees the shape of it. To judge poetry without heeding the sound of it, is nearly as bad as to judge a rose by smelling it with your eyes shut. The sound, besides being a beautiful thing in itself, has a sense in it which helps the other out. A psalm tune, if it's the right one, helps you to see how beautiful the psalm is. Every poem carries its own tune in its own heart, and to read it aloud is the only way to bring out its tune."
I liked Virgil ever so much better after this, and always tried to get at the tune of it, and of every other poem I read.
"The right way of anything," said my father, "may be called the tune of it. We have to find out the tune of our own lives. Some people don't seem ever to find it out, and so their lives are a broken and uncomfortable thing to them--full of ups and downs and disappointments, and never going as it was meant to go."
"But what is the right tune of a body's life, father?"
"The will of God, my boy."
"But how is a person to know that, father?"
"By trying to do what he knows of it already. Everybody has a different kind of tune in his life, and no one can find out another's tune for him, though he may help him to find it for himself."
"But aren't we to read the Bible, father?"
"Yes, if it's in order to obey it. To read the Bible thinking to please God by the mere reading of it, is to think like a heathen."
"And aren't we to say our prayers, father?"
"We are to ask God for what we want. If we don't want a thing, we are only acting like pagans to speak as if we did, and call it prayer, and think we are pleasing him."
I was silent. My father resumed.
"I fancy the old man we are going to see found out the tune of his life long ago."
"Is he a very wise man then, father?"
"That depends on what you mean by wise. I should call him a wise man, for to find out that tune is the truest wisdom. But he's not a learned man at all. I doubt if he ever read a book but the Bible, except perhaps the Pilgrim's Progress. I believe he has always been very fond of that. You like that--don't you, Ranald?"
"I've read it a good many times, father. But I was a little tired of it before I got through it last time."
"But you did read it through--did you--the last time, I mean?"
"Oh yes, father. I never like to leave the loose end of a thing hanging about."
"That's right, my boy; that's right. Well, I think you'd better not open the book again for a long time--say twenty years at least. It's a great deal too good a book to let yourself get tired of. By that time I trust you will be able to understand it a great deal better than you can at present."
I felt a little sorry that I was not to look at the Pilgrim's Progress for twenty years; but I am very glad of it now.
"We must not spoil good books by reading them too much," my father added. "It is often better to think about them than to read them; and it is best never to do either when we are tired of them. We should get tired of the sunlight itself, beautiful as it is, if God did not send it away every night. We're not even fit to have moonlight always. The moon is buried in the darkness every month. And because we can bear nothing for any length of time together, we are sent to sleep every night, that we may begin fresh again in the morning."
"I see, father, I see," I answered.
We talked on until we came in sight of John Jamieson's cottage.
What a poor little place it was to look at--built of clay, which had hardened in the sun till it was just one brick! But it was a better place to live in than it looked, for no wind could come through the walls, although there was plenty of wind about. Three little windows looked eastward to the rising sun, and one to the south: it had no more. It stood on the side of a heathy hill, which rose up steep behind it, and bending round sheltered it from the north. A low wall of loose stones enclosed a small garden, reclaimed from the hill, where grew some greens and cabbages and potatoes, with a flower here and there between. In summer it was pleasant enough, for the warm sun makes any place pleasant. But in winter it must have been a cold dreary place indeed. There was no other house within sight of it. A little brook went cantering down the hill close to the end of the cottage, singing merrily.
"It is a long way to the sea, but by its very nature the water will find it at last," said my father, pointing to the stream as we crossed it by the single stone that was its bridge.
He had to bend his head low to enter the cottage. An old woman, the sick man's wife, rose from the side of the chimney to greet us. My father asked how John was.
"Wearing away," was her answer. "But he'll be glad to see you."
We turned in the direction in which her eyes guided us. The first thing I saw was a small withered-looking head, and the next a withered-looking hand, large and bony. The old man lay in a bed closed in with boards, so that very little light fell upon him; but his hair glistened silvery through the gloom. My father drew a chair beside him. John looked up, and seeing who it was, feebly held out his hand. My father took it and stroked it, and said:
"Well, John, my man, you've had a hard life of it."
"No harder than I could bear," said John.
"It's a grand thing to be able to say that," said my father.
"Oh sir! for that matter, I would go through it all again, if it was his will, and willingly. I have no will but his, sir."
"Well, John, I wish we could all say the same. When a man comes to that, the Lord lets him have what he wants. What do you want now, John?"
"To depart and be with the Lord. It wouldn't be true, sir, to say that I wasn't weary. It seems to me, if it's the Lord's will, I've had enough of this life. Even if death be a long sleep, as some people say, till the judgment, I think I would rather sleep, for I'm very weary. Only there's the old woman there! I don't like leaving her."
"But you can trust God for her too, can't you?"
"It would be a poor thing if I couldn't, sir."
"Were you ever hungry, John--dreadfully hungry, I mean?"
"Never longer than I could bear," he answered. "When you think it's the will of God, hunger doesn't get much hold of you, sir."
"You must excuse me, John, for asking so many questions. You know God better than I do, and I want my young man here to know how strong the will of God makes a man, old or young. He needn't care about anything else, need he?"
"There's nothing else to care about, sir. If only the will of God be done, everything's all right, you know. I do believe, sir, God cares more for me than my old woman herself does, and she's been as good a wife to me as ever was. Young gentleman, you know who says that God numbers the very hairs of our heads? There's not many of mine left to number," he added with a faint smile, "but there's plenty of yours. You mind the will of God, and he'll look after you. That's the way he divides the business of life."
I saw now that my father's talk as we came, had been with a view to prepare me for what John Jamieson would say. I cannot pretend, however, to have understood the old man at the time, but his words have often come back to me since, and helped me through trials pretty severe, although, like the old man, I have never found any of them too hard to bear.
"Have you no child to come and help your wife to wait upon you?" my father asked.
"I have had ten, sir, but only three are left alive. There'll be plenty to welcome me home when I go. One of the three's in Canada, and can't come. Another's in Australia, and he can't come. But Maggie's not far off, and she's got leave from her mistress to come for a week--only we don't want her to come till I'm nearer my end. I should like her to see the last of her old father, for I shall be young again by the next time she sees me, please God, sir. He's all in all--isn't he, sir?"
"True, John. If we have God, we have all things; for all things are his and we are his. But we mustn't weary you too much. Thank you for your good advice."
"I beg your pardon, sir; I had no intention of speaking like that. I never could give advice in all my life. I always found it was as much as I could do to take the good advice that was given to me. I should like to be prayed for in the church next Sunday, sir, if you please."
"But can't you pray for yourself, John?"
"Yes, sir; but I would like to have some spiritual gift because my friends asked it for me. Let them pray for more faith for me. I want more and more of that. The more you have, the more you want. Don't you, sir? And I mightn't ask enough for myself, now I'm so old and so tired. I sleep a great deal, sir."
"Then don't you think God will take care to give you enough, even if you shouldn't ask for enough?" said my father.
"No doubt of that. But you see I am able to think of it now, and so I must put things in a train for the time when I shan't be able to think of it."
Something like this was what John said; and although I could not understand it then, my father spoke to me several times about it afterwards, and I came to see how the old man wanted to provide against the evil time by starting prayers heavenward beforehand, as it were.
My father prayed by his bedside, pulled a parcel or two from his pocket for his wife, and then we walked home together in silence. My father was not the man to heap words upon words and so smother the thought that lay in them. He had taken me for the sake of the lesson I might receive, and he left it to strike root in my mind, which he judged more likely if it remained undisturbed.
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