John by S R Crockett

Story type: Literature

Shall we, then, make our harvest of the sea

And garner memories, which we surely deem

May light these hearts of ours on darksome days,

When loneliness hath power, and no kind beam

Lightens about our feet the perilous ways?

For of Eternity

This present hour is all we call our own,

And Memory’s edge is dull’d, even as it brings

The sunny swathes of unforgotten springs,

And sweeps them to our feet like grass long mown.

Fergus Morrison was in his old town for a few days. He was staying with the aunt who had brought him up, schooled him, marshalled him to the Burgher Kirk like a decent Renfrewshire callant, and finally had sent him off to Glasgow to get colleged. Colleged he was in due course, and had long been placed in an influential church in the city. On the afternoon of the Saturday he was dreamily soliloquising after the plain midday meal to which his aunt adhered.

Old things had been passing before him during these last days, and the coming of the smart church-officer for the psalms and hymns for the morrow awoke in the Reverend Fergus Morrison a desire to know about “John,” the wonderful beadle of old times, to whose enlarged duties his late spruce visitor had succeeded. He smiled fitfully as he brooded over old things and old times; and when his aunt came in from washing up the dinner dishes, he asked concerning “John.” He was surprised to find that, though frail, bent double with rheumatism, and nearly blind, he was still alive; and living, too, as of yore, in the same old cottage with its gable-end to the street. The Glasgow minister took his staff and went out to visit him. As he passed down the street he noted every change with a start, marvelling chiefly at the lowness of the houses and the shrunken dimensions of the Town Hall, once to him the noblest building on earth.

When he got to John’s cottage the bairns were playing at ball against the end of it, just as they had done thirty years ago. One little urchin was making a squeaking noise with a wet finger on the window-pane, inside which were displayed a few crossed pipes and fly-blown sweatmeats. As the city minister stood looking about him, a bent yet awe-inspiring form came hirpling to the door, leaning heavily on a staff. Making out by the noise the whereabouts of the small boy, the old man turned suddenly to him with a great roar like a bull, before the blast of which the boy disappeared, blown away as chaff is blown before the tempest. The minister’s first impulse was likewise to turn and flee. Thirty added years had not changed the old instinct, for when John roared at any of the town boys, conscious innocence did not keep any of them still. They ran first, and inquired from a distance whom he was after. For John’s justice was not evenhanded. His voice was ever for open war, and everything that wore tattered trousers and a bonnet was his natural enemy.

So the minister nearly turned and ran, as many a time he had done in the years that were past. However, instead he went indoors with the old man, and, having recalled himself to John’s clear ecclesiastical memory, the interview proceeded somewhat as follows, the calm flow of the minister’s accustomed speech gradually kindling as he went, into the rush of the old Doric of his boyhood.

“Ay, John, I’m glad you remember me; but I have better cause to remember you, for you once nearly knocked out my brains with a rake when I was crawling through the manse beech-hedge to get at the minister’s rasps. Oh, yes, you did, John! You hated small boys, you know. And specially, John, you hated me. Nor can I help thinking that, after all, taking a conjunct and dispassionate view of your circumstances, as we say in the Presbytery, your warmth of feeling was entirely unwarranted. ‘Thae loons–they’re the plague o’ my life!’ you were wont to remark, after you had vainly engaged in the pleasure of the chase, having surprised us in some specially outrageous ploy.

“Once only, John, did you bring your stout ash ‘rung’ into close proximity to the squirming body that now sits by your fireside. You have forgotten it, I doubt not, John, among the hosts of other similar applications. But the circumstance dwells longer in the mind of your junior, by reason of the fact that for many days he took an interest in the place where he sat down. He even thought of writing to the parochial authorities to ask why they did not cushion the benches of the parish school.

“You have no manner of doot, you say, John, that I was richly deserving of it? There you are right, and in the expression I trace some of the old John who used to keep us so strictly in our places. You’re still in the old house, I rejoice to see, John, and you are likely to be. What! the laird has given it to you for your life, and ten pound a year? And the minister gives you free firing, and with the bit you’ve laid by you’ll juik the puirhoose yet? Why, man, that’s good hearing! You are a rich man in these bad times! Na, na, John, us Halmyre lads wad never see you gang there, had your ‘rung’ been twice as heavy.

“Do ye mind o’ that day ye telled the maister on us? There was Joe Craig, that was lost somewhere in the China seas; Sandy Young, that’s something in Glasgow; Tam Simpson, that died in the horrors o’ drink; and me–and ye got us a’ a big licking. It was a frosty morning, and ye waylaid the maister on his way to the school, and the tawse were nippier than ordinar’ that mornin’. No, John, it wasna me that was the ringleader. It was Joe Craig, for ye had clooted his lugs the night before for knockin’ on your window wi’ a pane o’ glass, and then letting it jingle in a thousand pieces on the causeway. Ye chased him doon the street and through the lang vennel, and got him in Payne’s field. Ye brocht him back by the cuff o’ the neck, an’ got a polisman to come to see the damage. An’ when ye got to the window there wasna a hole in’t, nor a bit o’ gless to be seen, for Sandy Young had sooped it a’ up when ye were awa’ after Joe Craig.

“Then the polisman said, ‘If I war you, John, I wadna gang sae muckle to the Cross Keys–yer heid’s no as strong as it was, an’ the minister’s sure to hear o’t!’ This was mair than mortal could stan’, so ye telled the polisman yer opinion o’ him and his forebears, and attended to Joe Craig’s lugs, baith at the same time.

“Ye dinna mind, do ye, John, what we did that nicht? No? Weel, then, we fetched ye the water that ye were aye compleenin’ that ye had naebody to carry for ye. Twa cans fu’ we carried–an’ we proppit them baith against your door wi’ a bit brick ahint them. Ay, just that very door there. Then we gied a great ‘rammer’ on the panels, an’ ye cam’ geyan fast to catch us. But as ye opened the door, baith the cans fell into the hoose, an’ ye could hae catched bairdies an’ young puddocks on the hearthstane. Weel, ye got me in the coachbuilder’s entry, an’ I’ve no’ forgotten the bit circumstance, gin ye have.

“Ill-wull? Na, John, the verra best of guid-wull, for ye made better boys o’ us for the verra fear o’ yer stick. As ye say, the ministers are no’ what they used to be when you and me were sae pack. A minister was a graun’ man then, wi’ a presence, an’ a necktie that took a guid half-yard o’ seeventeen-hunner linen. I’m a minister mysel’, ye ken, John, but I’m weel aware I’m an unco declension. Ye wad like to hear me preach? Noo, that’s rale kind o’ ye, John. But ye’ll be snuggest at your ain fireside, an’ I’ll come in, an’ we’ll e’en hae a draw o’ the pipe atween sermons. Na, I dinna wunner that ye canna thole to think on the new kirk-officer, mairchin’ in afore the minister, an ‘s gouns an’ a’ sic capers. They wadna hae gotten you to do the like.

“Ye mind, John, hoo ye heartened me up when I was feared to speak for the first time in the auld pulpit? ‘Keep yer heid up,’ ye said, ‘an’ speak to the gallery. Never heed the folk on the floor. Dinna be feared; in a time or twa ye’ll be nae mair nervish than mysel’. Weel do I mind when I first took up the buiks, I could hardly open the door for shakin’, but noo I’m naewise discomposed wi’ the hale service.’

“Ay, it is queer to come back to the auld place efter sae mony year in Glesca. You’ve never been in Glesca, John? No; I’ll uphaud that there’s no’ yer match amang a’ the beadles o’ that toun–no’ in yer best days, when ye handed up yer snuff-box to Maister M’Sneesh o’ Balmawhapple in the collectin’ ladle, when ye saw that he was sore pitten til’t for a snuff. Or when ye said to Jamieson o’ Penpoint, wee crowl o’ a body–

“‘I hae pitten in the fitstool an’ drappit the bookboard, to gie ye every advantage. So see an’ mak’ the best o’t.’

“Ay, John, ye war a man! Ye never said that last, ye say, John? They lee’d on ye, did they? Weel, I dootna that there was mony a thing pitten doon to ye that was behadden to the makkar. But they never could mak’ ye onything but oor ain kindly, thrawn, obstinate auld John, wi’ a hand like a bacon ham and a heart like a bairn’s. Guid-day to ye, John. There’s something on the mantelpiece to pit in the tea-caddy. I’ll look in the morn, an’ we’ll hae oor smoke.”

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