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A short story by James Runciman

The Village Preacher

Title:     The Village Preacher
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

The Methodists got a very strong hold in seaside places at the end of the last century, but during the long pressure of the great War the claims of religion were somewhat forgotten. Smuggling went on to an extraordinary extent and the consequent demoralisation was very apparent. The strict morality which the stern Methodists of the old school taught had been broken, and some of the villages were little better than nests of pirates. The decent people who lived inland were continually molested by marauding ruffians who came from seaside places, and to call a man a "fisher," was to label him with a term of reproach.

On Saturday nights every Fisher Row was a scene of drunken turmoil, and on Sunday the men lounged about drinking, the women scolding, while the old-fashioned simplicity of life seemed to be forgotten altogether.

Grave countrymen shook their heads over the terrible change. Our village had become notorious for bad behaviour, and the old man who tried to keep up the traditions of religion was much distressed in his mind.

This local preacher was coming over the moor one fine summer night when the moon shone so as to make the sands and the trees round the village look splendid. The peacefulness of the night seemed to have impressed him, and he was occupied with his own grave thoughts.

As he passed the tavern the front door opened, and a waft of rank tobacco came out. Then came a little mob of fishermen, many of whom were cursing and swearing. Two of them began to fight, and the local preacher heard the thud of heavy blows. He stepped in amongst the crowd and tried to separate the fighters, but he only got jeered at for his pains. He was usually very civilly treated, but the men were in drink and could not discriminate.

The next day was Sunday, and as the evening dropped down there was a stir in the village, and a score or two of the villagers came out on the green. Three or four men took to playing pitch and toss, and the women got up little quarrels on their own account. A few big fellows walked towards the shore, and got ready the boats to go out fishing, for there was no respect shown to the Sabbath.

At seven o'clock the local preacher took his stand in the middle of the green, and remained there bare-headed until he had attracted attention. He began to pray aloud, and the villagers stood grinning round him until he had finished. He then asked the people to join him in a hymn, but this proposal was too comic, and the men and women laughed loudly.

The preacher, however, was not a man to be stopped by a little laughter. He actually did sing a hymn in a beautiful tenor, and, before he had finished, some of the men seemed rather ashamed of having laughed at all.

One of the leaders said--"Let us hear what this born fool has to say. If he makes very much noise we'll take and put him in one of the rain-water barrels." A poacher proposed that the dogs should be set on him; but, although this idea was received as a humorous contribution to the discussion, it was not put into practice.

The preacher began a kind of rude address. He picked his words with a certain precision, and managed to express himself in the dialect of the people to whom he was speaking. His enthusiasm grew, and at the end of a quarter of an hour he had obtained such complete mastery over the crowd, that individuals amongst the audience unconsciously imitated the changes of his face.

The man was really a kind of poet, and the villagers felt his power without exactly knowing why. When the preaching was over, the orator strode away home without speaking to anybody.

On the next Sunday he appeared in the same place at the same hour. Only some half a dozen men and lads were on the green and these were gambling as usual; but when they saw the preacher, two or three of them ran along the Row and brought out the people. The men who had intended to go fishing stayed out of curiosity; and not a single boat was run off the sands that night. The next week the best part of the village population was waiting when the preacher came. Some of the very old men were accommodated with logs of wood which had been brought out for seats, and the very roughest of the young men remained respectfully silent.

Some heavy clouds came over the hills and discharged a sprinkle of water upon the group. A big man stepped out and spoke to the preacher. He was one of the most powerful fellows on the coast, and had been a great ruffian in his time. It was said that he once killed a man with a single blow. He offered the preacher the use of his house, and presently all the villagers were packed in the great sanded kitchen, and a rude service was carried on under cover.

The work thus begun went on for years. Sometimes a little spasmodic emotion was shown in the meetings by women who were hysterically inclined, but in general the services were free from excitement and vulgarity. The little tavern had to be shut up, for the men stopped drinking.

The fishermen saw the preacher roughly dressed during the week and doing work as hard as their own, yet the influence he gained over them was so strong that it came to be regarded as a very discreditable thing for any man or woman to stay away from the evening services.

By-and-by the fisherman who had been the worst ruffian in the village used to take a turn at the preaching. His remarks would have been very laughable to outsiders, but as he was a man of strong character and genuine feeling, his hearers took him quite seriously.

As the preacher grew old he was regarded with extreme reverence, especially by the women, whose lives had often been very hard before the Revival.

One night the big man, who had first offered the preacher shelter, was sitting in the kitchen when a neighbour came in. The new-comer seemed flurried, and said--"I am going to hit you very hard. The old man's dying. He says he wants to see you; so come you away with me." The giant didn't put his hat on, and did not even take off his sea-boots. He ran out at once, and strode heavily over the moor. The old man was waiting for him, but the end was very near.

The preacher made a pathetic little joke. He said, "You once gave me shelter. Maybe I'll have to get one of the many mansions ready for you." Soon after that the ebb tide began to run out, and the preacher died in the big fisherman's arms.

When the day of the funeral came, the men would not allow the corpse to be put in the hearse; they took turns to carry the coffin over the moor, and the women and children followed in lines.

There was a little jealousy as to who should have the old man's dog, but there was very little need for that, because the collie went from house to house in the Row, arranging his visits with a view to meal-times.

After a while a good Church of England clergyman took up the work that the Primitive had begun. The fishers did not like the university man, with his dainty accent, quite so well as their rough friend, but they always behaved well to him, and are still a very decent and sober set of people.

[The end]
James Runciman's short story: Village Preacher