The New Arcadia/Chapter 14

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"Man he loved
As man, and to the mean and the obscure,
And all the homely in their homely works,
Transferred a courtesy which had no air
Of condescension."Wordsworth.

Frank Brown was one of an army the nineteenth century has enrolled, crusaders who, at home, spend their days fighting "for Christ and Holy Land"—their England; knights who walk abroad, in crowded narrow streets, "redressing human wrong"; "Hearts of Oak," upon whose homely deeds of love no earthly lustre shines; work-day philanthropists seeking, in the sphere of their own life, to work out the social problems others in words dilate upon.

On the river and cricket-field, on platform, in pulpit, Frank Brown had distinguished himself. The fire, however, that inflamed his breast and flashed in his eye, kindled by concern for sinning and sorrowing outcasts of Church and nation, whose unequal lot he grieved over, impelled him to a life far removed from the conventional one in which he had sought to expend his ardour.

The ordinary pastoral work of hunting up parishioners, to augment congregations, and swell collections; the weekly preaching, to order, a discourse to interest or gratify, for the moment, a small circle of self-centred patrons; the preferment-seeking, brother-grudging, heresy-hunting proclivities of a prevalent type of Churchmanship, he "could not away with." Lack of sympathy in his brethren drove him back upon himself and his ideals. Upon One especially. There was a Life that had been, had given impulse to his. He would live it again. He would get back to the childhood of Christianity, drink of its fountain-springs, and fired by its enthusiasm for humanity, its broad brotherhood, its spirit of unselfishness and simplicity, he would seek in his own sphere to live the life rather than prate the parrot-cry.

He was young, and he was wrong. Beneath all the unattractive, repellent exterior of much modern Church life and charitable endeavour, their lies avast substratum of renewing, regenerating influence. With the impetuosity of youth he stayed not to probe beneath the surface. The men who led the multitude, who talked of manhood's rights and human wrongs, who brought forth each their special panacea for relief of the social disorder they magnified—legislator, socialist, philosophical-radical—all seemed to lack earnestness and sincerity. What did they care? Whom did they love? In what did they believe? For himself he would seek a new scene where perchance facility might be afforded for working out his ideal.

The venture of his friend the doctor offered this opportunity. Wedding himself once more to the Church, vowing before the altar abstinence for others' sake, perpetual celibacy that his heart might be single, Frank relinquished his portion of prominence and promise, and cast in his lot with the villagers of the vale.

A "prophet's chamber" at the White House was offered, with provision for a stipend that should not leave him a loser.

None of this he would have. His lot should be with his people. With them he wrought, with his own hands, to put up the little Hermitage beside the church. Himself, with aid that was pressed upon him, he fenced and sowed and planted the comely little God's-acre that smiled around the Hermitage and village sanctuary. In all things he would share with others. His rations he would draw from the store. For worldly means he would be dependent upon his own cultivation and live stock. As he worked with or moved amongst his flock, he preached unspoken sermons. His unselfishness silently rebuked the spirit of envy and greed that, born of a vicious system of competition, evidenced itself at every turn in the words and bearings of his people.

In his suburban parish the young vicar had taken interest in a simple couple. Old Alec and his wife, like many other humble folk, almost worshipped the ground on which the "young parson" walked.

Alec was a tall, well-set old soldier, for years trusted servant of the colonel whose memory he revered. The old man was honest, strictly religious, good-natured to a fault; without an enemy in all the world, save himself. The Company of whose drill-room he was caretaker spoiled him. The gay, thoughtless militiamen pressed whisky upon the genial attendant, then laughed at his queer muddled talk.

His wife Jinnie, some five feet high, was one of those over-careful, highly-respectable little people who, in excess of zeal for probity, impel so often to recklessness. Jinnie scolded, starved, locked up her six-foot lord, when he returned "the worse for liquor" to the little picture of a garden and model of a home that Jinnie's frugality and Alec's industry had established. Alec smiled when assailed, submitted patiently to "correction," but persevered in his evil course.

"He went on Sunday to the church, and sat among the boys," and, on Monday, to the drill-room, to forget his heart-felt contrition, and to accept, to his ruin, the "oft proffered" whisky. He went from bad to worse. The choice plants nurtured with such care were sold to pay the rent. The prize fowls followed, leaving the backyard and ingeniously constructed outhouses, once so animated, desolate and silent as the grave. The old clock that had stood "ninety years" and more, in humble homes on the Border, vanished; dark, curious-wrought furniture, once so oiled and cared for, followed suit.

Friends who loved the old couple exerted their utmost to save them. Well-meaning people dragged the old man to temperance meetings, and compelled him, when he knew not what he did, to "sign the pledge"; others secured his "conversion" in similar mood, and with like result. Alec thanked his friends, went out—and had "a liquor up."

Frank Brown spent many an hour in seeking to make Alec soberer of habit, and Jinnie sweeter in temper.

One sweltering afternoon the young clergyman dropped in as he passed, regarding with sorrow the desolation that reigned around. Jinnie sat repairing a pair of the old soldier's pants.

"Never too late to mend," remarked the visitor brightly, as he observed that already the garments consisted more of patch than of pristine propriety.

"It is 'too late' at least for my old man to mend," replied Jinnie with a deep sigh. "Look at him there—the beast!"

Stretched on the sofa, last remaining joy of the once good stock of furniture, the warrior lay. Only a shirt covered his still muscular frame. He had found the "inner chamber" unduly close, and had crept forth to complete his "sleeping it off" in a cooler quarter.

"Get up there, you drunken loafer!" cried Jinnie. Seizing a broom the indignant little woman, as if to give vent to her feelings, rushed to the couch of the sleeping, giant, and began to belabour his almost nude nether limbs. Slowly Alec opened his eyes, and smiled as was his wont. Putting forth his arm, he sought languidly to parry the furious blows of his irate spouse.

"Not so hard, lassie—not so hard!" he protested: that was all.

Frank Brown seized the opportunity of making a last appeal before he left the parish. He reasoned with, scolded, implored the erring weakling. He pointed out the ruin to which the home had been reduced, the wreck Jinnie was becoming. The old man, sobered now, hid his face in his hands, and sobbed like a child. For the first time in his life the soldier faltered—and yielded.

"You give me a chance, sir," he asked at length, with streaming eyes, "and I'll never touch a drop again. The old place is ruined, I can never mend here; but let me go with you, sir. I can plough and sow, and plant and farm, with the best of them. Take me out of this, and God will take me out of myself, and my sin."

Jinnie, quieter now, shook her head and rocked herself Hopelessly.

"It's been coming oN him forty year," she moaned. "He'll never give it up now."

"'Never too late to mend,' we were saying of the pants," the cleric suggested.

The old soldier seized the young man's hands.

"Did I ever tell a lie, sir, though I often made a beast o' mysel'?" He looked unflinchingly to his wife, to his priest. Even Jinnie could not lay untruthfulness to his charge. "Have I ever, with all my foolishness, blasphemed my God?" Again a pause and a look of challenge. "Now, sir, you take us two. Jinnie'll care for you, and I'll be no hindrance. Take me and I'll swear—I, Alec McDowl, who never broke his word to man or God, when he know'd what he was doing, as I do now—I'll swear never to touch a drop again till my dying day."

And he never did!

The Book was fetched: the vow taken. Even Jinnie was impressed and hopeful for once. The curly grey head of the veteran was bowed on the table, as the young clergyman sealed the oath with a prayer.

Till, again, he prayed, and himself wept, long years after, beside the lifeless form of his faithful servant, old Alec kept his vow.

Another lie given to that libel oft aimed against our human nature and God's goodness, to the effect that the inveterate drunkard cannot, midst new and helpful surroundings, by exerting his will, and drawing on another source of strength, overcome his deadly habit, shake off his fetters, and walk forth fearless and free.

The spirit of homeliness and comfort that had vanished from Alec's abode, was transferred to the Hermitage at Mimosa Vale. There Jinnie held gentle sway. She cared for the creature comforts of "the young master" with more effect than a host of hirelings would have done. The parson's home was a model for his people, of cleanliness and grace, and his garden, under Alec's care, of order and beauty—as his life, of quietude and strength. Alec got his potatoes in earlier, his crops off sooner, than any one else; his vines the right depth; the tender root of young fruit-trees he trailed gently over the central mound of mould closing in the earth around, as though he were burying living treasures. As indeed he was. He generally contrived to make his plants grow and flowers bloom when neighbours lamented over failure. Years of soldiering had not impaired that mystic intimacy with Nature and her ways that the Northern farmer displays. Far and wide across the settlement old Alec's advice and aid were sought when there was a suspicion of vine or rose-cuttings being planted up-side down, when cows were contumacious, chickens caught the measles, or swine the mumps.

Nothing the old couple enjoyed more than, when supper, which they ate with their master, was cleared away, to stroll to the village green and "listen to the music."

Bantering youths and maidens sat about in groups, parents talking between the pieces of the day's doings in field and home, while children scampered in an outer circle of their own, or lay wearied at their parents' feet. The doctor, with pipe and smoking-cap, sauntering familiarly amongst the company, chatting here with a "boss" concerning some new fixing for the mill; there with head-gardener, or chief farm-hand, about the new Reaper-and-binder, or price of the early crop of tomatoes.

Alec and Jinnie seated themselves, one balmy evening, on a bench, beside Jim and his wife. The two "old hands," deeming themselves superior to the tyros at country work, looked curiously and critically upon the achievements of the villagers.

"How's the 'Jummies' looking, Jim?" asked Alec.

"All the world like the pictur' in the drawin'-room afore which t'old master died. They'll shear fine; but atween you and me and the post, that's a playthin' bit of a fence they've put up t'other side the lake. The lambs is allus in the corn; the postes be all rammed at t' top of t' hole, 'stead of bottom." The old stockman chuckled merrily as though echoing the last notes of the jackass in the tree above.

"You didn't learn it all in a day, Jim," remonstrated his wife. "It seems to me, you and Mr. McDowl thinks you knows everythink. What do you say to that toon now? You couldn't play the likes of that if you was paid."

"They plays all right, but they won't make their fortunes fiddlin'."

"Who said they would?" sharply demanded Jinnie.

The two cronies spake more low, since their wives seemed not in sympathy with the drift of their conversation.

"It'll be a mighty busy time soon," continued Jim, "harvesting and shearing at same time—and we've got to do it all oursel's. There'll be some tar wantin', I'm thinkin'."

"Lots of the young fellows says they can shear."

"I know their style. 'Rouseabouts' and 'Pickers-up'—and bad at that. They'll find it hot work this season."

"They've done wonders all the same," claimed Alec.

"It's all along of the management. That's what's pulled it through."

"There's one thing I'm afeared on."

"What's that?" asked Jim.

"It's the discipline. They don't like it. Leastways some don't. They ben't used to it. It's 'go as you please,' mostly, in town."

"Most on them means well and works well. But they're easy led. They ben't soldiers ready to stand by their guns and swear by their officers, and put up with a bit of bullying sometimes."

"I'm afeared they're feather-bed soldiers, a lot of them."

"They'd oughter pull it out," remarked Jim. "They've got a mighty good start."

"Their mill and machines work stunnin'; they're good at that. Them houses is fit for squatters."

"Eh, and mark you, it's a fine thing to be able to take it all away by canal and river to the sea. They do say the Store in town's well-nigh finished; that'll open people's eyes! And two ships they've bought. Going to work everythink theyselves, and pocket all the profits."

"Couldna be no better idee," replied Alec. "It's bound to come." And the old man sang—

"'For a' that, an' a' that,
It's comin' yet for a' that,
When man to man, the warld o'er,
Shall brithers be for a' that."

"T' only thing is," continued Alec, "will these high-cock-a-doodle coves playing like children go through with the campaign? They won't mutiny, will they?"

"That's the danger," nodded Jim, significantly.

"See that fellow there they calls Malduke? He means no good."

"I don't think as he do."

"See him gassin' with them simpletons who fancies theysel's. They're goin' to have a meetin' to-night 'to consider matters.'"

"That was a rummy business, that burstin' of the dam t'other night. There's somethin' behind that."

"See Mr. Travers talking and laughing with Elms's daughter. There'll be trouble over that. What do they want to bring love-affairs into a concern like this for? Love and foolishness is at the bottom of all smashes-up and breaks-down."

"Well, I do like that!" exclaimed Jinnie, who had caught the concluding sentence. Digging her elbow into her patient husband's side, she ejaculated—

"You was young once, and cared for some one too. For shame to talk like that, you hard-hearted old wretch!"