THE STICKIT MINISTER
From The Stickit Minister and other common men (1893) S.R. Crockett
The crows were wheeling behind the plough in scattering clusters, and plumping singly upon the soft, thick grubs which the ploughshare was turning out upon an unkindly world. It was a bask blowy day in the end of March, and there was a hint of storm in the air—a hint emphasised for those skilled in weather lore by the presence of half a dozen sea-gulls, white vagrants among the black coats, blown by the south wind up from the Solway—a snell, Scotch, but not unfriendly day altogether. Robert Fraser bent to the plough handles, and cast a keen and wary eye towards his guide posts on the ridge. His face was colourless, even when a dash of rain came swirling across from the crest of Ben Gairn, whose steep bulk heaved itself a blue haystack above the level horizon of the moorland. He was dressed like any other ploughman of the south uplands— rough homespun much the worse for wear, and leggings the colour of the red soil which he was reversing with the share of his plough. Yet there was that about Robert Fraser which marked him no common man. When he paused at the top of the ascent, and stood with his back against the horns of the plough, the countryman's legacy from Adam of the Mattock, he pushed back his weatherbeaten straw hat with a characteristic gesture, and showed a white forehead with blue veins channelling it—a damp, heavy lock of black hair clinging to it as in Severn's picture of John Keats on his deathbed. Robert Fraser saw a couple of black specks which moved smoothly and evenly along the top of the distant dyke of the highway. He stood still for a moment or two watching them. As they came nearer, they resolved themselves into a smart young man sitting in a well-equipped gig drawn by a showily-actioned horse, and driven by a man in livery. As they passed rapidly along the road the hand of the young man appeared in a careless wave of recognition over the stone dyke, and Robert Fraser lifted his slack reins in staid acknowledgment. It was more than a year since the brothers had looked each other so nearly in the eyes. They were Dr. Henry Fraser, the rising physician of Cairn Edward, and his elder brother Robert, once Student of Divinity at Edinburgh College, whom three parishes knew as 'The Stickit Minister.'
When Robert Fraser stabled his horses that night and went in to his supper, he was not surprised to find his friend, Saunders M'Quhirr of Drumquhat, sitting by the peat fire in the room. Almost the only thing which distinguished the Stickit Minister from the other small farmers of the parish of Dullarg was the fact that he always sat in the evening by himself ben the hoose, and did not use the kitchen in common with his housekeeper and herd boy, save only at meal-times. Robert had taken to Saunders ever since—the back of his ambition broken—he had settled down to the farm, and he welcomed him with shy cordiality.
'You'll take a cup of tea, Saunders?' he asked.
'Thank ye, Robert, I wadna be waur o't,' returned his friend.
I saw your brither the day,' said Saunders M'Quhirr, after the tea-cups had been cleared away, and the silent housekeeper had replaced the books upon the table. Saunders picked a couple of them up, and, having adjusted his glasses, he read the titles— Milton’s Works, and a volume of a translation of Dorner's Person of Christ.
'I saw yer brither the day; he maun be gettin' a big practice!'
'Ay!’ said Robert Fraser, very thoughtfully.
Saunders M'Quhirr glanced up quickly. It was, of course, natural that the unsuccessful elder brother should envy the prosperous younger, but he had thought that Robert Fraser was living on a different plane. It was one of the few things that the friends had never spoken of, though every one knew why Dr. Fraser did not visit his brother's little farm. 'He's gettin' in wi' the big fowk noo, an' thinks maybe that his brither wad do him nae credit.' That was the way the clash of the countryside explained the matter.
‘I never told you how I came to leave the college, Saunders,' said the younger man, resting his brow on a hand that even the horn of the plough could not make other than diaphanous.
'No,' said Saunders quietly, with a tender gleam coming into the humorsome kindly eyes that lurked under their bushy tussocks of grey eyebrow. Saunders's humour lay near the Fountain of Tears.
'No,' continued Robert Fraser, 'I have not spoken of it to so many; but you've been a good frien' to me, Saunders, and I think you should hear it. I have not tried to set myself right with folks in the general, but I would like to let you see clearly before I go my ways to Him who seeeth from the beginning.'
'Hear till him,' said Saunders, 'man, yer hoast is no' near as sair as it was i' the back-end. Ye'll be here lang efter me; but lang or short, weel do ye ken, Robert Fraser, that ye need not to pit yersel' richt wi' me. Hae I no' kenned ye sins ye war the size o' twa scrubbers?'
'I thank you, Saunders,' said Robert, 'but I am well aware that I'm to die this year. No, no, not a word. It is the Lord's will! It's mair than seven year now since I first kenned that my days were to be few. It was the year my faither died, and left Harry and me by our lane.
'He left no siller to speak of, just plenty to lay him decently in the kirkyard among his forebears. I had been a year at the Divinity Hall then, and was going up to put in my discourses for the next session. I had been troubled with my breast for some time, and so called one day at the infirmary to get a word with Sir James. He was very busy when I went in, and never noticed me till the hoast took me. Then on a sudden he looked up from his papers, came quickly over to me, put his own white handkerchief to my mouth, and quietly said, ‘Come into my room, laddie!’
Ay, he was a good man and a faithful, Sir James, if ever there was one. He told me that with care I might live five or six years, but it would need great care. Then a strange prickly coldness came over me, and I seemed to walk light-headed in an atmosphere suddenly rarefied. I think I know now how the mouse feels under the air-pump.'
'What's that?’ queried Saunders.
'A cruel ploy not worth speaking of,' continued the Stickit Minister. 'Well, I found something in my throat when I tried to thank him. But I came my ways home to the Dullarg, and night and day I considered what was to be done, with so much to do and so little time to do it. It was clear that both Harry and me could not gang through the college on the little my faither had left. So late one night I saw my way clear to what I should do. Harry must go, I must stay. I must come home to the farm, and be my own ‘man’, then I could send Harry to the college to be a doctor, for he had no call to the ministry as once I thought I had. More than that, it was laid on me to tell Jessie Loudon that Robert Fraser was no better than a machine set to go five year.
'Now all these things I did, Saunders, but there's no use telling you what they cost in the doing. They were right to do, and they were done. I do not repent any of them. I would do them all over again were they to do, but it's been bitterer than I thought.'
The Stickit Minister took his head off his hand and leaned wearily back in his chair.
'The story went over the country that I had failed in my examinations, and I never said that I had not. But there were some that knew better who might have contradicted the report if they had liked. I settled down to the farm, and I put Harry through the college, sending all but a bare living to him in Edinburgh. I worked the work of the farm, rain and shine, ever since, and have been for these six years the ‘stickit minister’ that all the world kens the day. Whiles Harry did not think that he got enough. He was always writing for more, and not so very pleased when he did not get it. He was aye different to me, ye ken, Saunders, and he canna be judged by the same standard as you and me.'
'I ken,' said Saunders M'Quhirr, a spark of light lying in the quiet of his eyes.
'Well,' continued Robert Fraser, lightened by Saunders's apparent agreement, 'the time came when he was clear from the college, and wanted a practice. He had been ill-advised that he had not got his share of the farm, and he wanted it selled to share and share alike. Now I kenned, and you ken, Saunders, that it's no' worth much in one share let alone two. So I got the place quietly bonded, and bought him old Dr. Aitkin's practice in Cairn Edward with the money...'
'I have tried to do my best for the lad, for it was laid on me to be my brother's keeper. He doesna come here much,' continued Robert, 'but I think he's not so ill against me as he was. Saunders, he waved his hand to me when he was gaun by the day!’
'That was kind of him,' said Saunders M'Quhirr.
'Ay, was it no',' said the Stickit Minister, eagerly, with a soft look in his eyes as he glanced up at his brother's portrait in cap and gown, which hung over the china dogs on the mantelpiece.
'I got my notice this morning that the bond is to be called up in November,' said Robert. 'So I'll be obliged to flit.'
Saunders M'Quhirr started to his feet in a moment. 'Never,' he said, with the spark of fire alive now in his eyes, 'never as lang as there's a beast on Drumquhat, or a poun' in Cairn Edward Bank '—bringing down his clenched fist upon the Milton on the table.
'No, Saunders, no,' said the Stickit Minister, very gently; 'I thank you kindly, but I'll be flitted before that… '
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