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A short story by S. R. Crockett

The Prodigal Daughter

Title:     The Prodigal Daughter
Author: S. R. Crockett [More Titles by Crockett]

Hard is it, O my friends, to gather up
A whole life's goodness into narrow space--
A life made Heaven-meet by patient grace,
And handling oft the sacramental cup

Of sorrow, drinking all the bitter drains.
Her life she kept most sacred from the world;
Though, Martha-wise, much cumber'd and imperill'd
With service, Mary-like she brought her pains

And laid them and herself low at the feet,
The travel-weary, deep-scarr'd feet, of Him
The incarnate Good, who oft in Galilee

Had borne Himself the burden and the heat--
Ah! couldst thou bear, thy tender eyes were dim
With humble tears to think this meant for thee!

A certain man had two daughters. The man was a minister in Galloway--a Cameronian minister in a hill parish in the latest years of last century; consequently he had no living to divide to them. Of the two daughters, one was wise and the other was foolish. So he loved the foolish with all his heart. Also he loved the wise daughter; but her heart was hard because that her sister was preferred before her. The man's name was Eli M'Diarmid, and his daughters' names were Sophia and Elsie. He had been long in the little kirk of Cauldshields. To the manse he had brought his young wife, and from its cheerless four walls he had walked behind her hearse one day nigh twenty years ago. The daughters had been reared here; but, even as enmity had arisen on the tilled slips of garden outside Eden, so there had always been strife between the daughters of the lonely manse--on the one side rebellion and the resentment of restraint, on the other tale-bearing and ferret-eyed spying.

This continued till Elsie M'Diarmid was a well-grown and a comely lass, while her sister Sophia was already sharpening and souring towards the thirties. One day there was a terrible talk in the parish. Elsie, the minister's younger daughter, had run off to Glasgow, and there got married to Alec Saunderson, the dominie's ne'er-do-well son. So to Glasgow the minister went, and came back in three weeks with an extra stoop to his shoulders. But with such a still and patient silence on his face, that no man and (what is more wonderful) no woman durst ask him any further questions. After that, Elsie was no more named in the manse; but the report of her beauty and her waywardness was much in the parish mouth. A year afterwards her sister went from the manse in all the odour of propriety, to be the mistress of one of the large farms of a neighbouring glen. Then the minister gathered himself more than ever close in to his lonely hearth, with only Euphemia Kerr, his wise old housekeeper, once his children's nurse. He went less frequently abroad, and looked more patiently than ever out of his absent grey eyes on the "herds" and small sheep-farmers who made up the bulk of his scanty flock.

The Cameronian kirk of Cauldshields was a survival of the time when the uplands of Galloway were the very home and hive of the "Westlan'" Whigs--of the men who marched to Rullion Green to be slaughtered, sent Claverhouse scurrying to Glasgow from Drumclog, and abjured all earthly monarchs at the cross of Sanquhar.

But now the small farms were already being turned into large, the sheep were dispossessing the plough, and the principle of "led" farms was depopulating the countryside. That is, instead of sonsy farmers' wives and their husbands (the order is not accidental) marshalling their hosts into the family pews on Sabbath, many of the farms were held by wealthy farmers who lived in an entirely different part of the country. These gave up the farmhouse, with its feudality of cothouses, to a taciturn bachelor shepherd or two, who squatted promiscuously in the once voluble kitchen.

The morning of the first Sabbath of February dawned bitterly over the scattered clachan of Cauldshields. It had been snowing since four o'clock on Saturday night, and during those hours no dog had put its nose outside the door. At seven in the morning, had any one been able to see across the street for the driving snow, he would have seen David Grier look out for a moment in his trousers and shirt, take one comprehensive glance, and vanish within. That glance had settled David's church attendance for the day. He was an "Auld Kirk," and a very regular hearer, having been thirty years in the service of the laird; but in the moment that he looked out into the dim white chaos of whirling snow, David had settled it that there would be no carriage down from the "Big House" that day. "The drifts will be sax fit in the howes o' the muir-road," he said, as he settled himself to sleep till midday, with a solid consciousness that he had that day done all that the most exacting could require of him. As his thoughts composed themselves to a continuation of his doze, while remaining deliciously conscious of the wild turmoil outside, David Grier remembered the wayfarer who had got a lift in his cart to Cauldshields the night before. "It was weel for the bit bairn that I fell in wi' her at the Cross Roads," said he, as he stirred his wife in the ribs with his elbow, to tell her it was time to get up and make the fire.

* * * * *

In the manse of Cauldshields the Reverend Eli M'Diarmid's housekeeper was getting him ready for church.

"There'll no' be mony fowk at the kirk the day, gin there be ony ava'; but that's nae raison that ye shouldna gang oot snod," she said, as she brushed him faitly down. "Ye mind hoo Miss Elsie used to say that ye wad gang oot a verra ragman gin she didna look efter ye!" The minister turned his back, and the housekeeper continued, like the wise woman of Tekoa, "Eh, but she was a heartsome bairn, Miss Elsie; an' a bonny--nane like till her in a' the pairish!"

"Oh, woman, can ye not hold your tongue?" said the minister, knocking his hands angrily together.

"Haud my tongue or no haud my tongue, ye're no' gaun withoot yer sermon an' yer plaid, minister," said his helper. So with that she brought the first from the study table and placed it in the leather case which held his bands, and reached the plaid from its nail in the hall. It was not for nothing that she had watched the genesis and growth of that sermon which she placed in the case. Some folk declare that she suggested the text. Nor is this so wholly impossible as it looks, for Cauldshields' housekeeper was a very wise woman indeed.

It was but a step to the kirk door from the manse, but it took the minister nearly twenty minutes to overcome the drifts and get the key turned in the lock--for in these hard times it was no uncommon thing for the minister to be also the doorkeeper of the tabernacle. Then he took hold of the bell-rope, and high above him the notes swung out into the air; for though the storm had now settled, vast drifts remained to tell of the blast of the night. But the gale had engineered well, and as the minister looked over the half mile that separated the kirk from the nearest house of the clachan he knew that not a soul would be able to come to the kirk that day. Yet it never occurred to him to put off the service of the sanctuary. He was quite willing to preach to Euphemia Kerr alone, even so precious a discourse as he carried in his band-case that day.

The minister was his own precentor, as, according to the law and regulation of the kirks of Scotland, he always is in the last resort, however he may choose to delegate his authority. He gave out from his swallow's nest the Twenty-third Psalm, and led it off himself in a powerful and expressive voice, which sounded strangely in the empty church. The tune was taken up from the manse pew, in the dusk under the little gallery, by a quavering, uncertain pipe--as dry and unsympathetic as, contrariwise, the singer was warm-hearted and full of the very sap of human kindness. The minister was so absorbed in his own full-hearted praise that he was scarce conscious that he was almost alone in the chill emptiness of the church. Indeed, a strange feeling stole upon him, that he heard his wife's voice singing the solemn gladness of the last verse along with him, as they had sung it together near forty years ago when she had first come to the hill kirk of Cauldshields.

"Goodness and mercy all my life
Shall surely follow me:
And in God's house for evermore
My dwelling-place shall be."

Then the prayer echoed along the walls, bare like a barn before the harvest. Nevertheless, I doubt not that it went straight to the throne of God as the minister pleaded for the weary and the heavy-laden, the fatherless and the oppressed, for the little children and those on whom the Lord has special pity--"for to Thee, O Lord, more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord." And the minister seemed to hear somewhere a sound of silent weeping, like that which he had hearkened to in the night long ago, when his wife sorrowed by his side and wept in the darkness for the loss of their only man-bairn.

The minister gave out his text. There was silence within, and without the empty church only the whistling sough of the snowdrift. "And when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck and kissed him."

There was a moment's pause, and a strange, unwonted sound came from the manse seat under the dark of the gallery. It was the creak of the housekeeper opening the door of the pew. The minister paused yet a moment in his discourse, his dim eyes vaguely expectant. But what he saw, stilled for ever the unspoken opening of his sermon. A girlish figure came up the aisle, and was almost at the foot of the pulpit-steps before the minister could move. And she carried something tenderly in her arms, as a bairn is carried when it is brought forward for the baptizing.

"My father!" she said.

Nobody knows how the minister got out of the pulpit except Euphemia Kerr, and it is small use asking her; but it is currently reported that it was in such fashion as never minister got out of pulpit before. And, at the door of the manse seat stood Euphemia, the wise woman of Tekoa, her tears falling pat-pat like raindrops on the narrow book-board; but with a smile on her face, as who would say, "Now, Lord, let Thy servant depart in peace," when she saw the minister fall on the neck of his well-beloved daughter and kiss her, having compassion on her.

But this is what Sophia M'Diarmid that was, said when she heard of the home-coming of her sister Elsie.

"It was like her brazen face to come back when she had shut every other door. My father never made ony sic wark wi' me that bade wi' him respectable a' my days; but hear ye to me, Mistress Colville, I will never darken their doorstep till the day of my death." So she would not go in.

[The end]
S. R. Crockett's short story: Prodigal Daughter