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Book of Scottish Story
The Minister's Beat

Chapter III

"I don't know, Mr Francis, if you remember a bonny orphan lassie, called Helen Ormiston, whom my wife took some years back into the family to assist her in the care of the bairns. Helen was come of no ungentle kin; but poverty had sat down heavily on her father and mother, and sank them into an early grave; and it was a god-send to poor Helen to get service in a house where poverty would be held no reproach to her. If ye ever saw the creature, ye wadna easily forget her. Many bonnier, blither lassies are to be seen daily; but such a look of settled serenity and downcast modesty ye might go far to find. It quite won my wife’s heart and mine, and more hearts than ours, as I shall tell you presently. As for the bairns, they just doated on Helen, and she on them; and my poor youngest, that is now with God, during all her long, long decline, was little if ever off her knee. No wonder, then, that Helen grew pale and thin, ate little, and slept less. I first set it down to anxiety, and, when the innocent bairn was released, to grief; and from these, no doubt, it partly arose. But when all was over, and when weeks had passed away, when even my poor wife dried her mother’s tears, and I could say, ‘God’s will be done,’ still Helen grew paler and thinner, and refused to be comforted; so I saw there was more in it than appeared, and I bade her open her heart to me; and open it she did, with a flood of tears that would have melted a stone.

"‘Sir,’ said she, ‘I maun go away. I think it will kill me to leave you and Mrs Monteith, and the dear bairns in the nursery, and wee Jeanie’s grave in the kirkyard; but stay I canna, and I will tell you why. It is months, ay, amaist years, since Willie Meldrum, auld Blinkbonnie’s son, fell in fancy wi’ me, and a sair sair heart, I may say, I have had ever sin syne. His auld hard father, they tell me, swears (wi’ sic oaths as wad gar ye grue to hear them) that he will cut him off wi’ a shilling if ever he thinks o’ me; and oh! it wad be a puir return for the lad’s kindness to do him sie an ill turn ! so I maun awa out of the country till the auld man dies, or Willie taks a wife to his mind, for I’ve seen ower muckle o’ poverty, Mr Monteith, to be the cause o’t to ony man, though I whiles think it wad be naething to me, that’s sae weel used till’t myself

"‘Helen,’ said I, ‘when did Willie Meldrum find opportunities to gain your heart? I never saw him in the house in my life.’

"‘Oh, sir!’ said she, ‘gin I could hae bidden in the house, he wad never hae seen me either; but I was forced to walk out wi’ the bairns, and there was nae place sae quiet and out o’ the gate, but Willie was sure to find me out. If I gaed down the burn, Willie was aye fishing; if I gaed up the loan, there was aye something to be dune about the kye. At the kirk door, Willie was aye at hand to spier for your honour, and gie the bairns posies ; and after our sair distress, when I was little out for mony a day, I couldna slip out ae moonlight night, to sit a moment upon Jeanie’s grave, but Willie was there like a ghaist aside me, and made my very heart loup to my mouth!’

"‘And do you return his good-will, Helen?’ said I, gravely.

"‘Oh, sir,’ said the poor thing, trembling, ‘I darena tell you a lie. I tried to be as proud and as shy as a lassie should be to ane abune her degree, and that might do sae muckle better, puir fallow! I tried to look anither gate when I saw him, and mak mysel deaf when he spoke o’ his love ; but oh I his words were sae true and kindly, that I doubt mine werena aye sae short and saucy as they sud hae been. It’s hard for a tocherless, fatherless lassie to be cauldrife to the lad that wad tak her to his heart and hame ; but oh! it wad be harder still, if she was to requite him wi’ a father’s curse ! It’s ill eneuch to hae nae parents o’ my ain, without makin’ mischief wi’ ither folk’s. The auld man gets dourer and dourer ilka day, and the young ane dafter and dafter—sae ye maun just send me aff the country to some decent service, till Willie’s a free man, or a bridegroom.’

"‘My dear Helen,’ said I, ‘you are a good upright girl, and I will forward your honest intentions. If it be God’s will that Willie and you come together, the hearts of men are in His hand. If otherwise, yours will never at least reproach you with bringing ruin on your lover’s head.’

"So I sent Helen, Mr Francis, to my brother’s in the south country, where she proved as great a blessing and as chief a favourite as she had been with us. I saw her some months afterwards; and though her bloom had not returned, she was tranquil and contented, as one who has cast her lot into the lap of Heaven.

"Well, to make a long story short, Willie, though he was unreasonable enough, good, worthy lad as he is, to take in dudgeon Helen’s going away (though he might have guessed it was all for his good), was too proud, or too constant, to say he would give her up, or bind himself never to marry her, as his father insisted. So the old man, one day, after a violent altercation, made his will, and left all his hard-won siller to a rich brother in Liverpool, who neither wanted nor deserved it. Willie, upon this quarrel, had left home very unhappy, and stayed away some time, and during his absence old Blinkbonnie was taken extremely ill. When he thought himself dying, he sent for me (I had twice called in vain before), and you may be sure I did my best not to let him depart in so unchristian a frame towards his only child. I did not deny his right to advise his son in the choice of a wife ; but I told him he might search the world before he found one more desirable than Helen, whose beauty and sense would secure his son’s steadiness, and her frugality and sobriety double his substance. I told him how she had turned a deaf ear to all his son’s proposals of a clandestine marriage and made herself the sacrifice to his own unjust and groundless prejudices. Dying men are generally open to conviction; and I got a fresh will made in favour of his son, with a full consent to his marriage honourably inserted among its provisions. This he deposited with me, feeling no great confidence in the lawyer who I had made his previous settlement,and desired me to produce it when he was gone.

"It so happened that I was called to a distance before his decease, and did not return till some days after the funeral. Willie had flown home on hearing of his father’s danger, and had the comfort to find him completely softened, and to receive from his nearly speechless parent many a silent demonstration of returned affection. It was, therefore, a doubly severe shock to him, on opening the first will (the only one forthcoming in my absence), to find himself cut off from everything, except the joint lease of the farm, and instead of five thousand pounds, not worth a shilling in the world. His first exclamation, I was told, was, ‘It’s hard to get baith scorn and skaith—to lose baith poor Helen and the gear. If I had lost it for her, they might hae ta’en it that likit !’

"About a week after, I came home and found on my table a letter from Helen. She had heard of Willie’s misfortune, and in a way the most modest and engaging, expressed herself ready, if I thought it would still be acceptable, to share his poverty and toil with him through life. ‘ I am weel used to work,’ said she, ‘and, but for you, wad hae been weel used to want. If Willie will let me bear a share o’ his burden, I trust in God we may warsle through thegither ; and, to tell you the truth,’ added she, with her usual honesty, ‘ I wad rather things were ordered as they are, than that `Willie’s wealth should shame my poverty

"I put this letter in one pocket, and his father’s will in the other, and walked over to Blinkbonnie. Willie was working with the manly resolution of one who has no other resource. I told him I was glad to see him so little cast down.

"‘Sir,’ said he, ‘I’ll no say but I am vexed that my father gaed to his grave wi’ a grudge against me, the mair sae, as when he squeezed my hand on his death-bed I thought a’ was forgotten. But siller is but warld’s gear, and I could thole the want o’t, an’ it had nae been for Helen Ormiston, that I hoped to hae gotten to share it wi’ me. She may sune do better now, wi’ that bonnie face and kind heart o’ hers !'

"‘It is indeed a kind heart, Willie,’ answered I: ‘if ever I doubted it, this would have put me to shame !’—So saying, I reached him the letter, and oh, that Helen could have seen the flush of grateful surprise that crossed his manly brow as he read it! It passed away, though, quickly, and he said, with a sigh, ‘Very kind, Mr Monteith, and very like hersel ; but I canna take advantage o’ an auld gude will, now that I canna reward it as it deserves ! ’”

"‘And what if ye could, Willie?’ said I, ‘as far, at least, as worldly wealth can requite true affection? There is your father’s will, made when it pleased God to touch his heart, and you are as rich a man as you were when Helen Ormiston first refused to make you a beggar.’

"Willie was not insensible to this happy change in his prospects; but his kind heart was chiefly soothed by his father’s altered feelings, and at the honourable mention of Helen’s name he fairly began to greet.

"The sequel is easily told; but I think the jaunt I made to Tweeddale with Willie, to bring back Helen Ormiston in triumph, was the proudest journey of my life.

"A year ago I married them at the manse, amid much joy, but abundance of tears in the nursery. To-day, when, according to an old promise, I am to christen my name-son Charlie, I expect to be fairly deaved with the clamorous rejoicings of my young fry, who, I verily believe, have not slept this week for thinking of it. But " (pulling out his watch), "it is near four o’clock : sad quality hour for Blinkbonnie! The hotch-potch will be turned into porridge, and the how-towdies burnt to sticks, if we don’t make haste !"

I wish, my dear reader, you could see the farm of Blinkbonnie, lying as it does on a gently sloping bank, sheltered from the north by a wooded crag or knoll, flanked upon the east by a group of venerable ashes, enlivened and perfumed on the west by a gay luxuriant garden, and open on the south to such a sea-view, as none but dwellers on the Firth of Forth have any idea of. Last Saturday, it was the very ‘beau ideal’ of rural comfort and serenity. The old trees were reposing, after a course of somewhat boisterous weather, in all the dignity and silence of years. The crows, their usual inhabitants, having gone on their Highland excursion, those fantastic interlopers, Helen’s peacocks (a present from the children at the manse), were already preparing for their " siesta ” on the topmost boughs. Beneath the spreading branches the cows were dreaming delightfully, in sweet oblivion of the heats of noon. In an adjoining paddock, graceful foals, and awkward calves, indulged in their rival gambols; while shrieks of joy from behind the garden hedge, told these were not the only happy young things in creation.

We deposited our horses in a stable, to whose comforts they bore testimony by an approving neigh, and made our way by a narrow path, bordered with sweet-brier and woodbine, to the front of the house. Its tall, good-looking young master came hastily to meet us, and I would not have given his blushing welcome, and the bashful scrape that accompanied it, for all the most elaborate courtesies of Chesterfield.

No sooner were our footsteps heard approaching, than out poured the minister’s whole family from the little honey-suckled porch, with glowing faces and tangled hair, and frocks, probably white some hours before, but which now claimed affinity with every bush in the garden.

Mrs Monteith gently joined in the chorus of reproaches to papa for being so late; but the look with which she was answered seemed to satisfy her, as it usually did, that he could not be in fault. We were then ushered into the parlour, whose substantial comforts, and exquisite consistency, spoke volumes in favour of its mistress. Opulence might be traced in the excellent quality of the homely furniture in the liberal display of antique china (particularly the choice and curious christening-bowl) — but there was nothing incongruous, nothing out of keeping, nothing to make you for a moment mistake this first-rate farm-house parlour for a clumsy, ill-fancied drawing-room. A few pots of roses, a few shelves of books, bore testimony to Helen’s taste and education; but there were neither exotics nor romances in the collection; and the piece of furniture evidently dearest in her eyes was the cradle, in which reposed, amid all the din of this joyous occasion, the yet un-christened hero of the day. It is time to speak of Helen herself and she was just what, from her story, I knew she must be. The actors, in some striking drama of human life, often disappoint us by their utter dissimilitude to the pictures of our mind’s eye, but Helen was precisely the perfection of a gentle, modest, self-possessed Scottish lassie, —the mind, in short, of Jeanie Deans, with the personal advantages of poor Effie. Her dress was as suitable as anything else. Her gown, white as snow, and her cap of the nicest materials, were neither of them on the pattern of my lady’s; but they had a rnatronly grace of their own, worth a thousand second-hand fashions; and when Helen, having awakened her first-born, delivered him, with sweet maternal solicitude, into the outstretched arms of the rninister’s proud and favoured youngest girl, I thought I never saw a picture worthier the pencil of Correggio. It was completed, when, bending in all the graceful awkwardness of a novice over the group, Willie received his boy into his arms, and vowed before his pastor and his God to discharge a parent’s duty, while a parent’s transport sparkled in his eyes.

I have sat, as Shakspeare says, "at good rnen’s feasts ere now”—have ate turtle at the lord mayor’s and venison at peers’ tables, and ‘soufflés’ at diplomatic dinners—have ate sturgeon at St Petersburg, and mullet at Naples;. mutton in Wales, and grouse in the Highlands ; roast-beef" with John Bull, and ‘voleauvents’ at Beauvilliers’; but I have no hesitation in saying that the hotch-potch and how-towdies of Blinkbonnie excelled them all. How far the happy human faces of all ages round the table contributed to enhance the gusto, I do not pretend to decide; but I can tell Mr Véry that, among all his ‘consommes’, there is nothing like a judicious mixture of youth and beauty, with manliness, integrity, and virtue.
—Blackwood’s Magazine.

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