Up in Ardmuirland
The following is from Up in Ardmuirland by Michael Barrett:
Chapter IV - Golden Dreams
On a day when May was growing old, everything up at Ardmuirland was green and gold except the sky, and that was mostly blue and gold. Gorse and broom were in full blossom, so that on all sides the outlook was glorious!
Looking through my field-glasses to discover the meaning of a column of dense smoke, which seemed to be rising from a hill in the distance, I found myself gazing at a forest in flames! Fire--a very wall of fire--seemed to extend for miles along a dense tract of woodland! So seemingly fierce the blaze that it lighted up with golden gleams the tower of a distant church beyond the wood! Yet, as I looked steadily, it became evident that the flames neither diminished nor increased; presently I discovered that the column of smoke rose from a spot entirely different--more to the foreground. In the end I had to confess with reluctance that my eyes had been deceived; there was no sensational forest fire at all! What I had seen was but the sunshine on an expanse of yellow bloom on some rising ground beyond the belt of woodland, and on the old church tower, while a rare cloud shaded the nearer prospect.
What a silly goat I called myself! Looking nearer home I saw the same red-gold glow, which needed but the sunshine to wake it into flame. The disused quarry, not half a mile away, where the sun was bright, might have been an open gold mine--so brilliant the shining of its wealth of broom bushes! The hedge of gorse which bordered the road on both sides had no speck of green to mar its splendour.
The graceful verse haunted me all that day, repeating spontaneously, again and again, its tuneful refrain. For up at Ardmuirland we have to wait till May for settled springtide.
Later on I strolled across to her cottage to have a chat with "Bell o' the Burn.” I found her busy at her washtub on the threshold of the door, but none the less ready to enter into conversation, as I leaned on the garden fence watching her tireless pink hands, as they worked up the snowy soapsuds.
"You've maybe haird the news, sir?" she began, a note of inquiry in her tone.
I had seen yesterday's Scotsman, but not in those pages did any of our folk look for news. They read--those, at least, who possess that accomplishment--the stories in the People's Friend and the like, if they were young; those who were older scanned the columns of the local newspaper, published in the county town, and believed firmly in the absolute truth of everything that was asserted there. But "news" meant something more intimate--something which affected our own immediate circle by its relation to the daily life and interests of those around us.
So, knowing this, I did not dream about any startling political crisis, recent mining disaster, or railway collision; Bell knew nothing about such events. Experience had taught me to allow her to enlighten me in her own way. So I put a question to that end.
"Have you heard some news?" I said.
Bell's delight at being first in the field was evident.
"Christian Logan's come intil a fortune!" she replied, with no little delight.
"That is good news, indeed!" I cried impulsively. For Christian was, beyond doubt, one of the poorest of our neighbours, and the most deserving.
"But where did the fortune come from, Bell?" I asked.
"Her mon," explained Bell, "had a cousin oot in Ameriky as fowks allays said wes gey rich. But he niver so much as sent a word to Donal' for years, till juist aboot a week afore the puir mon met wi' his accident, ye ken. An' he says in the letter," continued the old woman, warming up with the interest attaching to her subject, "as Donal' wes the only kin left him, an' he'd find himsel' nane the worse o' that. Alexander Gowan, they callit him."
"And so this cousin is dead, I suppose?"
"Na, na, sir," replied Bell. "Gowan's on his wye back frae Ameriky, ye ken, an' Christian's had word to expect him. Maybe he'll be up here in twa, three days after he lands, like."
This was news with a vengeance! An American who was "gey rich" might be a millionaire! All kinds of rosy visions began to float through my brain. Thoughts of the manifold additions and improvements which Val was dying to make in the church; of the shinty club we were so anxious to start, but could not for want of means; of the hall we planned to build some day for concerts and social gatherings in the long winter evenings--all started into new life at the prospect of a wealthy Catholic returning to his native land with gold in his pocket and a ready hand to scatter it liberally for the benefit of his kinsfolk!
"I suppose he's a Catholic," was the remark to which my mental plans gave birth.
"Aye," said Bell, in a reproachful tone, "the Gowans wes all strict Catholics. The mon would nae turn agen his chapel oot there, I'm thinkin'."
(In Ardmuirland, be it known, "chapel" means the Catholic Church, and "church"--or more frequently "Kirk"--denotes exclusively a Protestant place of worship; thus do penal laws leave their trail behind them!)
"Not likely!" I exclaimed boldly. For Bell began to look anxiously at me, as though the staunch Catholicism of this particular Gowan might be open to question. "Our religion is as free out there as any other; that's one good quality in republican America which our government lacks at present."
Still, my own mind misgave me a little. I knew of more than one of my countrymen who had been "strict Catholics" once, but who had lamentably fallen off through knocking about the world. However, we were not justified in classing Gowan with such.
"And will this good man put up at Christian's cottage?" I asked.
"Na, na, Mr. Edmund," said Bell, astonished, "Christian's nae ower weel provided wi' sheets and siclike, ye ken. Na! he's to stay wi' Mistress Dobie at Larrigie Inn. They've redded up the best rooms, and kindled fires and a', to be ready gin he comes soon. The fowks say as Gowan 'll likely have ane o' they motors, like the Squire's at the toon, so as he can drive aboot the countryside and see a' the changes that's come sin' he left."
The world was "turning golden," indeed! My cogitations as I made my way home were touched by the sheen.
Val took it all very calmly (as he is wont, dear boy! whenever I rhapsodize).
"If he happens to be a millionaire, Ted," he remarked--and a twinkle shone through his glasses--"you may give up all hope of getting anything out of him. It is proverbial that such gentry haggle over a six-pence when it comes to gratuities!"
During the week that followed the whole countryside had no more interesting subject of conversation than the coming of the rich cousin to "make a lady" of Christian Logan.
Christian certainly deserved any good fortune that might fall to her. She was the young widow of an under-gamekeeper at Taskerton, an estate in our neighbourhood. Donald Logan had met with an accident, by the discharge of a gun, and had died of lock-jaw, consequent on the wound. He had not been very thrifty, poor fellow, for he was too fond of whiskey; the result was that very little means remained for the support of the family when the bread-winner had been taken. The proprietor of Taskerton was generally an absentee, and the casual tenants of the place had little interest in those employed on the estate. Consequently, Christian had to do her best to support herself and her three young children by her own efforts. Tam and Kirsty, aged respectively twelve and eleven, had to continue at school for a year or two at least; the youngest, Jeemsie, who was only eight, had been deaf and dumb from his birth.
Luckily, the agent of the estate, being a man of kindly feelings, was willing to allow the poor woman to remain for a time in the cottage they had occupied, and Val had approached the proprietor on the subject of a pension. At present, however, beyond a liberal donation for Christian's benefit, nothing definite had been settled. We had all subscribed to buy her a sewing-machine, and as she was a clever seamstress she was able to make ends meet by dressmaking. She had her cow, and her few hens, so altogether, with the sale of eggs and occasionally of milk, she was able to provide for her little ones for the present. She was such a cheery, kindly little body that every one at Ardmuirland was her friend; this accounted in great measure for the unusual interest in her prospects.
I felt that it would be but neighbourly to offer Christian my congratulations upon her approaching good fortune. Her little house stood near a belt of trees on a rising ground, a few feet from the road that led higher up the hill. No other habitation was within a mile of it, and its solitary position was quite enough by itself to suggest to any one that a man who had made money across the "drink"--as I heard an American once irreverently style the Atlantic--would scarcely be likely to stay for any considerable time in such an out-of-the-world spot. To my mind it seemed incredible that he could be content for long with the comparative luxury of Mrs. Dobie's inn.
Christian sat at her machine in her clean little kitchen when I arrived there, and she called to me cheerily through the open doorway to enter, and rose to receive me. She was a plain little woman, about forty years old, probably; she bore the marks of her many anxieties on her brow--too early scored with wrinkles. I could not help thinking, as I saw her, that no fine clothes that her rich relative might buy for her would ever make her anything else than a plain country body; in silks and satins, even, she would still be the same homely Christian.
"I came over to say how glad I am to hear of your good fortune," I said when the usual greetings had passed, and I was seated in the chair of state by the fire--for the hillside was chilly, and fires were seldom wanting up there even in the summer weather.
"Thank you kindly, sir," was her answer. "Father Fleming was in himself yesterday, for the same reason. It is very good of the priest and yourself, sir, as well as our neighbours aboot, to take sic an interest in us. Indeed, I'm very thankful that God has been sae guid to us. It looks as though our troubles are coming to an end, with this guid news!"
"When do you expect your cousin?" I asked.
Christian took a letter from the mantelpiece, where a china dog had been guarding it.
"This is his last letter, sir," she said, with a touch of honest pride, as she handed it to me to read. "You will see what he says. He was to sail on the 14th, and that was about a fortnight ago. Mistress Dobie had a message to say that he would be there about the first of June. He has business in Glasgow, which will keep him there a bit."
"It's a kind, friendly letter," I remarked, as I handed it back. "He speaks very nicely about you all."
"If only for the sake of the bairns, sir, I'm very thankful that we've foond sae guid a friend," she said with much feeling.
Jeemsie peeped in at the door just then. He was quite a handsome little chap, with regular features and a rather intelligent face.
"Jeemsie will be provided for now," I said, beckoning the child to me. He came, shyly smiling, and put his hand in mine.
"Yes, thank God!" was the poor mother's reply. "It's been a trouble to me to know what to do for him, and especially what'll happen to the bairn when I'm taken. But Father Fleming says his cousin can put him to some kind of institution for a year or two, where they can teach him to read and write and coont as well as any bairn wi' all his senses. For he's nae daft!" she exclaimed, with motherly pride. "He's just as sensible as can be aboot most things. He kens as weel as Tam aboot searching for the eggs, and he loves to fetch water from the well in his little pail for me, bless him!"
"Yes, it's a great thing for the child that his cousin is coming to look after you all. Jeemsie will be made a man of. I once knew a postman who was afflicted like Jeemsie, and he did his work better than any of the other men in the same office. The postmaster was quite proud of him. He couldn't talk, poor man, so there was no danger of his wasting time in gossip."
I took my leave after chatting a while, and rejoiced as I pictured to myself on the way home the lightening of so many burdens which had pressed heavily on the shoulders of that brave little woman.
A week later and we heard through Willy that Mr. Gowan had arrived at Larrigie Inn.
"An' a freer mon wi' his money, Mistress Dobie says, ye'd niver wish to see," was his estimate of the newcomer. "He was treatin' the fellows wi' drams a' roond, the nicht he cam'; he wes sae glad to be bock i' the auld place. He wes a loon o' fafteen when him an' his farther went an' to mak' their fortune in Ameriky, ye ken."
"I don't like to hear about that dramming business," was Val's comment to me later. "There's too much of that kind of thing already about here. However, we must make allowance for the man's natural joy at seeing his old haunts once more."
"Including the inn, I suppose! But he was too young when they left to have cultivated a very intimate acquaintance with that one!"
Gowan proved to be but one of our own rough crofters who had acquired so thin a veneer of civilization that it scarcely concealed the reality beneath. With a somewhat boisterous geniality he made instant friends with all of his former class in the neighbourhood. With Val and myself he was not altogether at his ease. An abrupt awkwardness of manner, which we put down to shyness, characterized our intercourse, which was of rare occurrence.
He drove up to Mass on a Sunday, not in a motor, but in the ordinary "machine" belonging to the inn--a kind of small wagonette, drawn by a single horse--in which he always occupied the seat next the driver, good-humouredly conveying any persons from that direction who might be coming up our way, either to Kirk or "chapel."
We heard glowing accounts of his kindness to Christian and the children--of constant excursions to the town; of the purchase of unlimited clothing for all the family, and of many costly presents, such as watches for Christian and Tam, pretty trinkets for little Kirsty, and toys for each of the bairns. He seemed to be never happy out of their company; when they were not driving about the country, visiting neighbours, or picnicking on the hills, they took their more important meals at the inn. The two elder children seemed to have left school for good; we heard later that Gowan had arranged matters with the authorities, stating that he meant to take the family back to America with him, or at any rate to find them a home elsewhere should he make a lengthy stay in Scotland.
Things had gone on thus for three weeks before Val alluded to Gowan, or anything connected with him. But his words showed me as soon as he began to speak that he had been thinking much on the subject.
"I don't like this prolonged carnival of Gowan's," he remarked to me. "It's doing no good. I hear of unlimited drinks at Larrigie day after day for all who choose to ask. Many of our young fellows are getting into the habit of dropping in there of nights and listening to the man's stories of life 't'other side.’ He seems capable of standing a good deal of liquor himself, as he is never really overcome--only more coarse and noisy, the more he takes. I have had complaints from several of the fathers of families about the harm he is doing."
"That's rather bad!" was my answer. "But what about the Logans? I hear that he means to take them off with him, and he doesn't appear to be a desirable guardian for those children, by all accounts."
"It is that I'm most anxious about," said Val.
And thereupon he became communicative. Things were really worse than I had thought. Gowan, it is true, still came to Mass, but he was fond of boasting to his boon companions that they had got beyond "all that nonsense in the States!” He had certainly, on his own showing, ceased to be a practical Catholic for years, and it was probable that his attendance at Mass and contribution of half a sovereign to the offertory every Sunday was merely the result of a desire to stand well in the estimation of the more staid members of the community, and might be classed with the free drinks and other signs of friendliness to the district. The character of the man rendered Val naturally anxious about the future of Christian Logan and her children, if they were to depend upon him for support in a strange land among strangers.
"The one redeeming feature in his character," summed up Val, "is his genuine affection for the children. His wife died about two years ago, it seems, and he is too old to marry again. So he appears to have devoted himself to the idea of practically adopting these three little Logans."
"It seems to me a case of body versus soul for the poor little kids, if they are to trust to that old heathen for a proper bringing up. But the mother is a good woman, and has a will of her own."
"That's where it is so difficult to do anything," said Val sadly. "She does not understand the state of the case properly, though I've tried to make it plain to her. The fellow is an avowed Free Mason. He can not practise his religion, and in a kind of self-defence he rails against it--though not openly to Catholics, I believe. She is deluded enough to imagine that the influence of herself and the children will win him over to the right path again. But it's far more likely that he will win the children over to unbelief, if he is to become their practical parent. Christian acknowledges that his indulgence is spoiling Tam already."
It was almost dramatic that at that moment a knock at the room door should prove to be from Elsie, who announced the presence of Christian Logan in the "priest's room" asking for a few minutes' conversation with his Reverence.
The interview proved to be somewhat long. Val gave me an account of it later in the day. Gowan had proposed that Jeemsie should be placed without delay in an English institution for the deaf and dumb, while the others travelled a little about Scotland before starting for America, as he had now decided to do. He had made his money in horse-dealing, it appeared, and was not satisfied with his present prosperous condition, but longed to make more money; probably, too, he was tired of idling, after a rather strenuous life spent in business.
Christian was willing to part with the little fellow for a time, but only on condition that he should go to a Catholic institution, of which Val had told her previously. The idea infuriated Gowan. What did religion matter? Protestant institutions of the kind were far in advance of Catholic. It was ridiculous to think of sending the boy anywhere except to a place thoroughly up-to-date. Finally he had refused to do anything in the matter unless he had free scope to place the child where he should think best.
The poor woman's eyes were opened at last. She was absolutely determined that Jeemsie should be given up to no authority that was incapable of teaching him all that was necessary for the practice of his religion. She had come to pour out her difficulties to Val, and to ask further advice. He, of course, applauded her decision, and strengthened her in the resolution she had made, even though it might lead to a temporary withdrawal of Gowan's liberality. Val was convinced that the man was too much attached to the children to break altogether with the Logans.
Gowan had expressed his intention of going up to settle definitely with Christian about the matter of Jeemsie, and she was most anxious for Val to be present. To this he had at once consented; for he felt it a foremost duty to protect the faith of the little lad. So next morning the interview would come off.
"It was a stormy conference!" was Val's first remark, when we met for lunch next day. "But we've won the victory for the little chap's faith, though it has cost us Gowan's further patronage!"
The man had refused to be persuaded to allow the priest to choose some institution to which Jeemsie might safely be sent--merely because it was a priest who wished to have a voice in the matter, Val was inclined to think; for the Protestant Home which Gowan favoured was in no way superior. They discussed the question in all its bearings, and eventually Gowan lost his temper and showed his hand. He meant to bring up all the children Protestants! He had learned by experience what a hindrance it was to have to submit in everything to the dictation of priests, and he was determined to have no more of it!
It was at that stage that Christian interposed. Very quietly but firmly she spoke her mind.
"If you expect me to risk the loss of my children's souls as well as my own for the sake of worldly advantages, Cousin Aleck, I may as well speak plainly. I would rather stay here and work myself to death than take your money."
This produced a terrific storm of abuse from Gowan. He called her "priest-ridden" and every kind of fool and idiot. She would soon learn to repent of her folly, for he would go straightway to a lawyer and change his will! Not a penny would she get--now or later--from him, as she would find one day to her cost! Then he dashed away without further discussion.
"The fellow is a brute!" was Val's conclusion. "They are well rid of him! What a blessing he showed himself in his true colours before it was too late!"
Gowan left the neighbourhood that very day. No one knew his destination. Mrs. Dobie replied to all inquiries that Mr. Gowan had paid "like a gentleman," and she was "sorry that some people did'na ken when they were well off!"--alluding, of course, to Christian. But Mrs. Dobie, not being "of the household of the Faith," could not be expected to show sympathy toward a course of action which robbed her of so profitable a guest.
Thus were our golden dreams dispelled! Ardmuirland, indeed, took some little time to recover from the dazzling visions which the coming of "the millionaire"--as Val and I delighted to style him in private--had called up, but in a year or so Gowan's name had become a mere memory to most of us. Christian alone--true to her baptismal name--held that memory in benediction; every night she and her little ones gave a prominent place in their family prayers to the "Cousin Aleck" whom they all regarded as a generous benefactor. It was not difficult to interpret the mother's intention in thus making the man a constant object of prayer; to her the possession of God's grace appeared a good beyond all earthly riches and delights, and I can well believe that she even rejoiced that she had been called upon to give testimony of the faith that was in her. Her sentiments were doubtless those of Tobias of old: "For we are the children of saints, and look for the life which God will give to those that never change their faith from him."