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Up in Ardmuirland

The following is from Up in Ardmuirland by Michael Barrett:

Chapter III - Archie

"Thus let me live, unseen, unknown,
  Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
  Tell where I lie."

(Pope--"Ode to Solitude")

He was an unusually wretched semblance of a man. A tattered coat--some one's cast-off overcoat--green, greasy, mud-stained, clung round his shaking knees; trousers which might have been of any hue originally, but were now "sad-collared," flapped about his thin legs and fringed his ankles; shoes, slashed across the front for ease, revealed bare feet beneath; an antique and dirty red woollen muffler swathed his neck almost to the ears. Surmounting these woeful garments appeared a yellow, wrinkled face surrounded by a straggling fringe of grey whisker; grey locks strayed from an old red handkerchief tied round the brows under a dilapidated wide-awake hat. To add to his woe-begone aspect, the poor wretch was streaming with wet, for a Scottish mist had been steadily falling all the morning.

Leaning on his stick, the man slowly shuffled up the central path toward the porch in which I was sitting, striving to get the nearest possible approach to an open-air pipe. Touching his sorry headgear, he looked at me with mild eyes of faded blue, and smiled benignly as he asked:

"Could I see himsel'?"

I had not long come to that part of the country, and I was not thoroughly conversant with the terminology of the people, but it flashed upon me what he meant.

"Did you wish to see the priest?" I rejoined.

"Aye," replied the old vagrant--for so I deemed him. The smile seemed stereotyped, for it never faded. His face, when one regarded it attentively, had a quite attractive pleasantness.

"I'm sorry to say he's out just now," I said. "But you may go round to the back and get something to eat, if you wish."

It struck me as strange that he did not ask for money, but thanked me profusely and politely, as he touched his wretched hat once more and shuffled off toward the kitchen quarters.

He did not reappear for so long a time that I began to think it would be prudent to investigate. Travelling gentry of such a class are not always desirable visitors when the kitchen happens to be unoccupied for the nonce. As I made my way in that direction through the little hall I heard voices through the half-open door beyond.

"It'll be all right, Archie," Penny was saying. "The priest shall have the money as soon as he comes in, and if he can't say the Mass to-morrow, I'll take care to send you word by Willy. Now, mind you get a bit of fire lighted when you get back home. You must be wet through!"

"Thank ye kindly, Mistress Spence," came the slow response in the quavering voice of the old man. "It's yersel' that's aye kind and thochtful!"

I waited till I heard the door close upon the supposed "tramp" before venturing to make the inquiries that rushed to my lips. And even then I paused a while. When needing information from Penny, one has to be circumspect; she has a way of shutting off the supply with ruthless decision, yet with a seeming absence of deliberate purpose, whenever she suspects a "pumping" operation.

"I'm one that won't be drove," I've often heard her say. So we old fellows are often obliged to have recourse to diplomacy in dealing with our old nurse.

Consequently I lounged casually, as it were, into Penny's domain with the remark, "That poor old chap looked awfully wet, Penny."

"Wet enough he was, Mr. Edmund," replied the unsuspecting Penny, "and I have just been giving him a good hot cup of tea; for he never touches wine or spirits."

She was evidently betrayed by my apparent lack of inquisitiveness into a relation of the details I was longing to hear.

"To think," she continued, "of the creature walking down in such weather, and he such a frail old mortal, too, just to make sure of Mass to-morrow for his wife's anniversary. I can't help thinking, Mr. Edmund, that some of us might take an example in many things from poor old Archie McLean!"

"Does he live far away?" I asked--just to encourage the flow of the narrative.

"A good three miles--and his rheumatism something hawful," exclaimed Penny, now thoroughly started on her recital. I had but to lend an ear, and my curiosity would be satisfied.

Archie, it appeared, had been a soldier in his young days, but when he came to settle in Ardmuirland his time of service had expired; that was long ago, for he was now quite an elderly man. He took up his residence in a deserted mill, by the Ardmuir Burn. As he proved to be thoroughly quiet and inoffensive, the neighbours--true to their national character, not speedily attracted by strangers--began in course of time to make his acquaintance, and he eventually became a great favourite with all. When younger, Penny had been told, he had been "a wonderful good gardener," and for trifling payment, or in return for a meal, would always "redd-up" the gardens of the district. Thus he acquired the designation of "Airchie Gairdener," and by that was usually known.

What his neighbours could not comprehend was how Archie spent these small earnings, but more especially to what use he had put his army pension, which every one knew he once received regularly. He had no occasion to buy food, for kindly neighbours would always exchange for meal or eggs the varied produce of his well-cultivated garden. His clothes cost him nothing; for he had worn the same old garments for years past, and though no self-respecting tramp would have accepted them, he never seemed anxious to replace them. If any others were given him, he would use them for a time, out of compliment to the donor, but the ancient attire would always reappear after a short interval.

"As to where his money goes," summed up Penny, "I've a notion that his Reverence knows more than any one else except Archie himself. Poor Archie often asks for the priest, and I've heard his Reverence speaking to him in quite an angry way--for him," she added quickly; "but there's never any change in Archie's way of living. Some of the people here think he's a perfect saint, and I'm not so sure that they're far wrong! However, I think he ought to take ordinary care of his 'ealth; that seems to me a duty even for saints!"

I tried to glean more details from Val, but found him strangely reticent.

"Poor old fellow! A good soul, if ever there was one!" was the only remark I could elicit.

This air of mystery made me more than ever desirous of learning something about Archie's antecedents. It was this curiosity which led me, in the first instance, to visit his tumbledown dwelling. It was a quaint establishment. A moderately large garden surrounded it on three sides, roughly fenced in from the woodland, its fence interwoven with gorse branches to keep out rabbits. The varied supplies of vegetables were evidence of Archie's industry, in spite of his rheumatism. It was by the produce of this garden that the old man obtained in return the oatmeal and milk which formed his staple food; for he could no longer work for others.

The house itself was a picture! Its aged roof seemed to have bent beneath the weight of years; for the ridge had sunk in the middle of its mossy, grass-grown expanse, and threatened to fall upon its occupant to the peril of his life. A small barrel served for a chimney. One window possessed still two small panes of glass; the other openings were filled in with bits of boarding, as was the whole of the other window.

There was something quite uncanny about the silence of the place. The monotonous ripple of the burn below seemed to intensify it. I stood in hesitation for a moment or two before venturing to knock at the door. When at last I had done so, shuffling footsteps sounded within, and Archie opened the door; the same bland smile which I had noticed when I first saw him appeared on his wrinkled face, and the faded blue eyes lighted up.

"Come ben, sir; come ben!" he said hospitably. "Ye're kindly welcome, tho' 'tis but a puir hoosachie for ane o' the gentry."

It was indeed a sorry place to live in. The roof was so unsound that, as I learned later from Bell, it was difficult to find a dry spot for his wretched bed in wet weather. Added to this, as the same informant assured me, the place was a happy hunting-ground for rats.

"The rats is that bould, sir," she said, "that he's fairly to tak' a stick to bed wi' him o' nichts, to keep the beasts off. It's a wonder they rats hasna' yokit on him afore this!"

But on this, my first visit, no rat put in an appearance.

I gave no motive for looking in, nor did Archie seem to be surprised at my call. He was evidently much pleased to see me; but I could not help thinking at the time that his cordial welcome was due in great measure to my relationship to Val.

That first visit was short, but it was succeeded by others. It soon became quite customary to wind up my daily walk with a chat with the "hermit"--as I got into the way of calling him. For beyond the mystery attaching to the man--or perhaps I ought to say intensifying it--was the fact that he was a really attractive personality. He could talk about the various countries he had seen with a degree of intelligence unlooked for in one of his condition; moreover, he could season his remarks with much spice of sound, earnest wisdom, which amused while it edified me. It did not take long to discover that Archie "Gairdener" was a man out of the common.

That Archie was a good Christian was self-evident. No weather, however tempestuous, could keep him from Sunday Mass, and I noticed with some surprise that he received Holy Communion at least once and sometimes more frequently every week, but always on a week-day, when our congregation consisted chiefly of our household and Bell.

"I suppose Archie 'Gairdener' finds it more convenient to come to the Sacraments on a week-day," I remarked one day to Val, "because of the late hour of Mass on Sunday."

"Scarcely that," was his quiet answer. "I happen to know from other sources that he still keeps up the old practice he found in use when he first came here. In those days no one dreamed of breaking fast on a Sunday until the priest himself did. Every one came to Mass fasting, as Archie still does--though I believe he is the only one nowadays."

During the two or three years that followed I saw a good deal of Archie. We became such cronies, indeed, that Val was considerably amused that I should take so much pleasure in the company of one with whom I could have few ideas in common. But there was something that attracted me to the old fellow from the first, which I can not define in words.

A severe winter made it almost impossible for the old man to get to Sunday Mass at all; he would do his best, but it was evident, as I could see more plainly in my visits, that he was growing very feeble. I happened to be seedy myself at that time, and did not manage to get out so frequently as before, owing to the trying weather.

It came with no surprise when Val told me in early spring that Archie was growing worse, and that the doctor gave little hope of his regaining strength; in the circumstances, Val thought it well not to delay the Last Sacraments any longer. I tried to accompany him when he went to the old mill for that purpose, but I had to give it up. It was about a week later that I was able to visit the old man.

Winter seemed to have departed for good on that day in mid-April. A bright sun was shining; deluded little birds were flitting about as though summer had come; even on the hill the air was mild and balmy.

The brooding silence seemed accentuated in the neighbourhood of Archie's hermitage. An unusual sign of life was to be seen at the mill-house itself; smoke was rising from the extemporized chimney; for Bell, as I knew, had installed herself as nurse and was doing her best to render the last days of the old recluse more restful than they could have been during his more active period.

It was Bell who answered to my knock. With a gesture imploring silence she led me in. I was startled at the sight which met my eyes. The old man lay stretched on the bare earthen floor, his head pillowed upon a large stone. His body was covered by blankets, but his arms were crossed on his breast outside of them and embraced his crucifix. His eyes were closed, but he was still breathing fitfully. Bell whispered, in response to my amazed look of inquiry:

"He wouldna' rest till Wully and I lifted him oot o' bed before Wully went for the priest. He'd been keepin' yon big stane for years to serve him at the last."

Val appeared very soon. Archie showed no sign of recognition, even when the well-known voice began the prayers he seemed to have been waiting for before departing.

Bell lighted the blessed candle, which was in readiness, and knelt with Willy on one side of the quiet form, while I knelt on the other near to the priest.

"Go forth, Christian soul, out of this world, in the name of God the Father Almighty, Who created thee: in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who suffered for thee"--thus the quiet voice continued until those prayerful words: "Pity his sighs, pity his tears, trusting in nothing but thy mercy"--when the last long breath, like a sigh of relief, passed from the dying man's lips as his soul departed.

I could not shake off a sense of loss as keen as though some dearly loved friend had been taken from me. Val and I walked home in unbroken silence through the shadow of the wood, newly decked in tender green buds, up to the rising ground beyond. My brother seemed as much touched as I.

It was not until our meal was over, and we sat on either side of the still necessary fire, though we had dined without a lamp, and still preferred the dusk for a quiet talk, that Val spoke of Archie.

"Now that the poor old fellow is at rest," he said, "I will tell you, by his express desire, something about his history. He wanted me to promise to make it public, but that I resolutely refused to do, for many reasons. 'Let Mr. Edmund know, at least,' he said. 'I do not want him to have too good an opinion of me, or he will not pray as much as I should wish for my poor soul. So you have a right to know, Ted."

And with that he unfolded the story of Archie McLean's early years.

Archie had been a wild boy in his youth, with a strong propensity for drink--hereditary, unfortunately--which he was not so well able to satisfy on his father's croft, in Banffshire; so, to gain more liberty, he ran off and enlisted. When scarcely more than twenty he took up with a girl he met in one of the provincial towns in which he happened to be stationed, and eventually married her. He had asked no leave--indeed, at his age it would not have been granted; his wife, therefore, was not "on the strength of the regiment"--in other words, depended entirely upon his pay, and what little she might earn, for the necessaries of life, and even for travelling expenses, in case of removal elsewhere. The girl was a negligent Protestant, and he a non-practising Catholic. They had been married before a Registrar, and neither of them entered a church as long as the woman lived. The one child born to them died a week later, unbaptized.

Such a marriage could not possibly prove happy, but it was more unfortunate in its results than could have been imagined. The man's craving for drink grew with its indulgence. His wife, neglected by him, followed his example and took to that sorry comforter; before long she had acquired habits of drunkenness that disgusted even him. Soon she had fallen so low that her life was a crying scandal for its unrestrained vices.

The man's companions took a savage pleasure in taunting him about his wife's depravity, until the very mention of her name was hateful to him. He acknowledged that he himself was bad enough, but her conduct had reached the extreme of vileness. The result was what might have been foreseen. Quarrels and recriminations were perpetual. The man hated the woman because of her vicious life; he hated himself because, as his conscience reminded him in lucid intervals, he was responsible for her downfall.

The regiment was on the eve of removing to other quarters, and much as he would have liked to leave his wife behind to shift for herself, he dare not face the consequences. Coming to her lodgings, therefore, to arrange about her journey, he found the woman hopelessly incapable. His mad rage against her was inflamed by the drink he had just taken; in his anger he was strongly tempted to rid himself of the burden she had become. Nothing could be easier! No one had seen him enter the house, and there was every chance of his being able to steal away unperceived, in the dusk of the evening. An uncontrollable loathing for the woman urged him on; conscience was disregarded. He seized one of the pillows of the bed. It was merely necessary to press it over her face, hold it there till life was extinct, and creep away, a free man!

It must have been the ever-watching Angel Guardian of that wretched man who touched his heart at that moment of danger, by a sudden grace. He faltered; threw down the pillow, and swiftly ran from the room and from the house--pursued by remorse.

An hour later, when he ventured to return, he was met on the threshold with the tidings that his wife had been found dead of heart failure.

For many a year after that horrible day Archie McLean was tormented by his reproachful conscience. He regarded himself as a murderer in desire, though actually guiltless of his wife's blood. The terrible shock was his salvation. From that day he never more touched strong drink. The formerly inveterate drunkard, a great portion of whose time was spent in the cells, rose by degrees to the position of the smartest soldier in his company. When his long service had to come to an end, he took a situation as gardener for a time; but a desire which had come upon him when his army service had been completed became still more urgent. He longed to be able to devote himself to a penitential life, as a means of making such atonement as was in his power for his past transgressions. Even while in the army his life had been one of rigorous mortification, dating from the day when he once more began to practise his religion; he shunned no duty, however distasteful, and shrank from no danger.

In response to the keen desire which dominated him, Archie threw up his situation, and searching for some part of the country in which he would not be known, yet where he should find life and surroundings not entirely foreign to his experience, settled at length at Ardmuirland. For about forty years his life was characterized by a rigorous austerity. His pension was at once carried to the priest, as soon as he received it, to be devoted to the offering of Masses for the soul of his unhappy wife, and the relief of the poor--scarcely poorer than himself. He never spent a penny upon his own needs; even the scanty earnings of his labour, unless made in kind, went the same way as his pension. The clothing, even, which charitable persons bestowed upon him in pity soon passed into coin for the same end; no scolding of his spiritual Father could prevail upon him to look better after his own well-being. "I've been a great sinner, Father," he would say. "I owe a big debt to the justice of the Almighty!"

As he had lived, so he died, I had noticed that my brother had shown no surprise, as I did, at the sight of the dying figure of the old man stretched on the bare earth with a stone for his pillow; Val had become familiar with the idea.

"My Saviour died on a Cross for me, and shall I, a vile sinner, be content to die in my bed? Thus he would always answer the remonstrances of the priest.

Whenever I read the Gospel narrative of Lazarus--the wretchedly clothed, ill-fed, diseased mendicant--who inspired loathing in the eyes and nostrils of the delicately nurtured, sensual men who flocked past his unlovely form to the banquets of the rich glutton at whose palace gate he lay, my thoughts fly at once to my old friend, Archie the penitent, and my prayers rise to Heaven on his behalf in the Church's touching petition for the departed:

"Cum Lazaro, quondam paupere, eternam habeas requiem!"

"With Lazarus, once poor, now blest
May'st thou enjoy eternal rest!"

Chapter IV--Golden Dreams

Copyright Scotland from the Roadside 2019