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Colin of the Ninth Concession
Chapter XVI - Nathan Larkins, the "Local Preacher"

WHEN Nathan, the pathmaster, returned from his visit to the gang over the hill, it was not difficult to perceive that he was disturbed in mind. He lost no time in disclosing the nature of the trouble.

"Muckle Peter," he said, "has just threatened me with violence if I dig a drain through the Widow McMannus and let the water into him."

It should be explained that Nathan referred to the land owned by Mrs. McMannus and Muckle Peter, but it was often the habit to refer to a settler’s farm, or that portion of the roadway in front of his farm, as if it were the settler himself. Thus when Lame Sandy, One-eyed Saunders, Peter, or Nathan spoke of digging a drain through Mrs. McMannus, they merely referred to deepening the ditch on the Concession in front of her farm, to allow the water to flow down the road. In the same way I have often heard settlers speak of changing the course of the creek and "sending it through Lame Sandy," or of "running a road through Muckle Peter," or "driving a team through Dougal McTavish."

"It was all I could do to avoid an assault on the Queen’s highway," resumed Nathan, "which would have been a terrible scandal in the country, had the facts ever reached Her Majesty’s ears, so violent was Muckle Peter. He declared that if I did as was proposed, he would have the ‘lah’ on me."

In fact, Muckle Peter had been irreconcilable, and bringing his fist down on the handle of a scraper with such violence that he broke the handle off short, had delivered this ultimatum, "Jest es sure es Heaven, Nathan, if you dig that drain through Mrs. McMannus an’ let the water into me, I’ll 'llow th’ lah tae tak’ its coourse."

This was the strongest threat that Muckle Peter ever used. In fact, he regarded it as the most powerful menace that he could employ. For what could be more terrible than to invoke the law, the majestic law, on his behalf? It was not as if he threatened Nathan to "have the lah on him," that was putting it in the mildest possible form, which, if carried out, might only entail considerable financial loss; but when he threatened to "‘llow th’ lah tae tak’ its coourse," it was different. It meant unutterable and irretrievable ruin to any one upon whom the "coourse" might flow.

With such earnestness and unction did Muckle Peter always give utterance to the threat, that the settlers finally came to regard it as a terrible consummation, to be avoided at all hazards; so it was not to be wondered at that Nathan was visibly disturbed at the threat that had just been made by the fierce Scotsman.

"It’s not so much that I fear Peter himself," Nathan exclaimed; "but I would not like to be the cause of settin’ the entire legal machinery in motion, something which might bring ruin on the community, and lead to us all being turned out of house and home."

And so, after consultation, it was decided, in order to avoid "letting the water into Muckle Peter" and thereby entailing the terrible legal consequences, to put in a culvert, bring the water across the road, and "let it into" Blind Ranald, who could not see what change might result, and who was a mild and retiring man, not likely in any event to offer any resistance. Thus was the crisis avoided, and the road work allowed to proceed without interruption.

It was during the performance of the statute labour that I learned much about old Nathan Larkins, the pathmaster. I was holding the scraper for Jock, the drover, that week, and Jock, who had lived in the neighbourhood for twenty-five years, with the exception of an annual summer excursion into the back townships to buy cattle and horses, and who knew the idiosyncrasies of every settler, entertained me immensely with stories and reminiscences about Nathan.

"It wuz in th’ wet fall uv ‘36," said Jock, "thet Nathan drifted into the settlement. He came in with a wanderin’ band o’ reviv’lists who preached hell-fire so airnestly thet yeh could a’most smell th’ sulphur. Wall, they made no success o’ th’ job here. Th’ campmeetin’s they held wuz a dead failure, an’ often wound up hilariously, fer Malcolm declar’d he niver sold so much beer in th’ history o’ th’ Ninth Concession. Wall, th’ upshot wuz, th’ company got stranded, an’ we hed t’ tak’ up a kleckshin t’ send them off. We could ony git enuff t’ send two, an’ th’ third hed t’ stay. Lots wuz drawed, an’ Nathan wuz elected t’ stay. P’raps he wuz not th’ wust o’ th’ lot. He made a big push t’ keep up th’ meetin’s, declarin’ es he’d been a preacher in th’ ole lan’, an’ know’d ‘xactly how t’ do th’ trick."

"And do you suppose he ever was?" I asked.

"Wall," said Jock, after some reflection, "it’s purty hard t’ tell. He must ‘a’ hed some experience somewhar, fer he kin put up th’ mos’ powerful prayer yeh iver heered. D’ye mean t’ say thet yeh niver heered Nathan pray?"

I had to confess that I had never been accorded that privilege.

"Wall, wall," said Jock, "yeh don’t know w’at ye’ve missed!"

"What are his strong points, Jock?" I asked.

"His strong p’ints!" said Jock, with enthusiasm. "Why, he holds th’ hivy-weight champeenship fer prayers, frum th’ First Concession t’ th’ Thirteenth, an’ frum th’ town-line t’ th’ Snow Road. He usually begins at th’ Garden o’ Eden, passes on down thru Noah an’ Abrim an’ Moses, touchin’ on ony uv th’ leadin’ events in them four er five books o’ Moses, relates th’ rasslin’ match between Jacob an’ th’ angel, refers familiar-like t’ th’ kings an’ other aristocracy. He finishes off the Chronicles in ‘alf a column notis, but spends consid’rable time helpin’ Nehemiah rebuild th’ walls o’ Jerusalem. Then he suffers with Job fer a spell, rejoices with David, an’ quotes extensively frum th’ Psalms uv thet gentleman. An’ after thet he helps kill Goliath o’ Gath, gives Solomon p’inters on how th’ Proverbs should hey been wrote, talks so familiar ‘bout Isaiah thet you’d think him an’ th’ prophet hed been batchin’ together, laments with Jeremiah, describes th’ appearance o’ th’ lions in th’ den, an’ overhauls Shadrack, Meshack, an’ Abednego. Arter that, he draws a long breath an’ plunges into th’ New Test’mint, an’ wades ahead until he finally fetches up at th’ celestial city, an’ th’ scarlet woman on’ th’ hill, an’ th’ beast with seven horns. Then he slashes roun’ agen, coverin’ much o’ th’ ole groun’, unless some one calls out ‘time,’ when Nathan fetches up with a sudden jerk an’ says ‘Amen.’"

After lighting his pipe and taking a few vigorous pulls at it, Jock resumed :

"Yes, I niver met Nathan’s equal t’ pray. I niver encountered ony minister o’ th’ gospel in good standin’ in these parts who could make so all-embracin’ a prayer es Nathan. Indeed, it is th’ verdict fer six townships ‘bout thet he can put up th’ mos’ powerful prayer o’ ony individool who hes iver struck these parts. Ef yeh could only hire a boy t’ wake yeh up es Nathan gets down t’ th’ peroration, yeh would be more’n paid fer ony loss o’ sleep, fer when Nathan hes covered th’ hull groun’, he will throw back his head in rale gran’ style, close his eyes, give a majestic sweep o’ his han’s, an’ cry out, ‘Blow, oh, ye east winds; blow, oh, ye south; blow, oh, ye west winds; blow, oh, ye north.’ I niver could understand w’at Nathan intended, but ‘twas gran’, an’ paid me well fer gettin’ woke up an’ losin’ my sleep."

"He must be a marvel, Jock," I observed.

"Oh, yes," replied Jock, "he’s a hull team, is Nathan, an’ specially so at camp-meetin’s. His voice carries fer more’n a mile an’ penetrates parts o’ th’ bush whar those who air wont to ‘wait on th’ Gospel’ in this manner might be strollin’. One evenin’ wen Nathan wuz doin’ o’ himself proud in one uv his star prayers at th’ meeting-house, he worked himself into quite a state uv excitement. He wuz prayin’ away an’ said he wished t’ raise his voice so thet it would be heered in th’ uttermost parts o’ th’ airth.

"‘Jest raise th’ windy, Muckle Peter,’ I whispered t’ th’ percentor, loud ‘nuff fer th’ con’gation t’ hear. Wall, they all laffed right out.

"I remember one incident touchin’ Nathan rale well," said Jock, chuckling to himself at the recollection. "A scapegrace had been put in th’ lock-up fer a month er two fer committin’ an assault while drunk, an’ Nathan undertook t’ carry th’ Gospel t’ his cell. Many an’ many a night afore th’ man’s time wuz up Nathan used t’ make th’ old rafters o’ the jail ring es, t’ use his own expression, he ‘rassled wi’ th’ Lord’ on behalf o’ th’ errin’ man. Nathan used t’ raise th’ windys o’ th’ jail on th’ nights when he wuz engaged in tryin’ t’ pluck th’ ‘brand frum th’ burnin’,’ es he put it. With nothin’ but th’ bars t’ confine his voice t’ th’ man’s cell, Nathan would pour out his soul an’ call upon th’ Lord so’s yeh could hear him fer miles. Nothing," said Jock, "could hey happened t’ make th’ people feel more sympathetic like fer th’ pris’ner es them air long prayers an’ rasslins o’ Nathan’s. I came mighty near takin’ roun’ a petition t’ th’ guv’ment myself t’ set th’ man free, an’ I certainly will ef setch a thing iver happens agen. Ef th’ pris’ner hed taken a fit an’ killed Nathan some night, ‘twould ‘a’ bin a great relief t’ th’ nabourhood."

"Has Nathan no other accomplishments besides his ability to pray?" I asked.

"Oh, yes!" replied Jock, promptly. "He allus takes ‘special pleasure in officiatin’ at ony religious er semi-religious er doctrinal function, an’ consequently revels in christenin’s. His ingenooity in securin’ th’ administration uv sitch ordinances is reely strikin’. He seldom gits ony pay fer it, but it’s gen’ally good fer several meals an’ a night’s lodgin’. Th’ only man es I’ve iver heered on, es could beat Nathan at th’ table wuz Schmidt, th’ Dutchman, who hes been knowed t’ eat a hull turkey at one settin’ an’ a hull pork ham at anither.

"Yes, yes," Jock went on, as we turned the scraper round, "I hey knowed Nathan t’ travel fer miles in th’ hope uv gittin’ th’ chance t’ preside at a church getherin’ uv ony kind, frum a ordination service t’ a siree (tea meeting). Standin’ up with th’ programme in his han’ Nathan is right at home, an’ arter devotin’ half a’ hour t’ th’ item, ‘Chairman’s remarks,’ he gen’lly proceeds t’ call upon th’ coir (choir) fer a selection. Them is great tea meetin’s presided over by Nathan!" And Jock would chuckle long and heartily to himself at the recollection of some memories connected with them.

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