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A short story by Amelia Edith Barr

"Only This Once"

Title:     "Only This Once"
Author: Amelia Edith Barr [More Titles by Barr]

Over the solemn mountains and the misty moorlands the chill spring night was falling. David Scott, master shepherd for MacAllister, of Allister, thought of his ewes and lambs, pulled his Scotch bonnet over his brows, and taking his staff in his hand, turned his face to the hills.

David Scott was a mystic in his own way; the mountains were to him "temples not made with hands," and in them he had seen and heard wonderful things. Years of silent communion with nature had made him love her in all her moods, and he passionately believed in God.

The fold was far up the mountains, but the sheep knew the shepherd's voice, and the peculiar bark of his dog; they answered them gladly, and were soon safely and warmly housed. Then David and Keeper slowly took their way homeward, for the steep, rocky hills were not easy walking for an old man in the late gloaming.

Passing a wild cairn of immense stones, Keeper suddenly began to bark furiously, and a tall, slight figure leaped from their shelter, raised a stick, and would have struck the dog if David had not called out, "Never strie a sheep-dog, mon! The bestie willna harm ye."

The stranger then came forward; asked David if there was any cottage near where he could rest all night, said that he had come out for a day's fishing, had got separated from his companions, lost his way and was hungry and worn out.

David looked him steadily in the face and read aright the nervous manner and assumed indifference. However, hospitality is a sacred tradition among Scotch mountaineers, whoever, or whatever the young man was, David acknowledged his weariness and hunger as sufficient claim upon his oaten cake and his embers.

It was evident in a few moments that Mr. Semple was not used to the hills. David's long, firm walk was beyond the young man's efforts; he stumbled frequently in the descent, the springy step necessary when they came to the heather distressed him; he was almost afraid of the gullies David took without a thought. These things the old man noted, and they weighed far more with him than all the boastful tongue could say.

The cottage was soon reached--a very humble one--only "a but and a ben," with small windows, and a thatched roof; but Scotland has reared great men in such cottages, and no one could say that it was not clean and cheerful. The fire burnt brightly upon the white hearthstone, and a little round deal table stood before it. Upon this table were oaten cakes and Ayreshire cheese and new milk, and by its side sat a young man reading.

"Archie, here is a strange gentleman I found up at Donald's cairn."

The two youths exchanged looks and disliked each other. Yet Archie Scott rose, laid aside his book, and courteously offered his seat by the fire. The stranger took it, eat heartily of the simple meal, joined decently in their solemn worship, and was soon fast asleep in Archie's bed. Then the old man and his son sat down and curtly exchanged their opinions.

"I don't like yon lad, fayther, and I more than distrust his being aught o' a gentleman."

David smoked steadily a few minutes ere he replied:

"He's eat and drank and knelt wi' us, Archie, and it's nane o' our duty to judge him."

When Archie spoke again it was of other matters.

"Fayther, I'm sore troubled wi' MacAllister's accounts; what wi' the sheep bills and the timber and the kelp, things look in a mess like. There is a right way and a wrong way to keep tally of them and I can't find it out."

"The right way is to keep the facts all correct and honest to a straw's worth--then the figures are bound to come right, I should say."

It was an old trouble that Archie complained about. He was MacAllister's steward, appointed by virtue of his sterling character and known worth; but struggling constantly with ignorance of the methods by which even the most honest business can alone satisfactorily prove its honest condition.

When Mr. Semple awoke next morning, Archie had disappeared, and David was standing in the door, smoking. David liked his guest less in the morning than he had done at night.

"Ye dinna seem to relish your parritch, sir," said David rather grimly.

Mr. Semple said he really had never been accustomed to anything but strong tea and hot rolls, with a little kippered salmon or marmalade; he had never tasted porridge before.

"More's the pity, my lad. Maybe if you had been brought up on decent oatmeal you would hae thankit God for your food;" for Mr. Semple's omission of grace, either before or after his meat, greatly displeased the old man.

The youth yawned, sauntered to the door, and looked out. There was a fresh wind, bringing with it flying showers and damp, chilling mists--wet heather under foot, and no sunshine above. David saw something in the anxious, wretched face that aroused keen suspicion. He looked steadily into Mr. Semple's pale, blue eyes, and said:

"Wha are you rinnin awa from, my lad?"


There was a moment's angry silence. Suddenly David raised his hand, shaded his eyes and peered keenly down the hills. Mr. Semple followed this movement with great interest.

"What are you looking at, Mr. Scott? Oh! I see. Two men coming up this way. Do you know who they are?"

"They may be gangers or they may be strangers, or they may be policemen--I dinna ken them mysel'."

"Mr. Scott! For God's sake, Mr. Scott! Don't give me up, and I will tell you the whole truth."

"I thought so!" said David, sternly. "Well, come up the hills wi' me; yon men will be here in ten minutes, whoever they are."

There were numerous places of partial shelter known to the shepherd, and he soon led the way to a kind of cave, pretty well concealed by overhanging rocks and trailing, briery stems.

The two sat down on a rude granite bowlder, and the elder having waited until his companion had regained his breath, said:

"You'll fare best wi' me, lad, if you tell the truth in as few words as may be; I dinna like fine speeches."

"Mr. Scott, I am Duncan Nevin's bookkeeper and cashier. He's a tea dealer in the Gallowgate of Glasgow. I'm short in my cash, and he's a hard man, so I run away."

"Sortie, lad! Your cash dinna gang wrang o' itself. If you werna ashamed to steal it, ye needna be ashamed to confess it. Begin at the beginning."

The young man told his shameful story. He had got into gay, dissipated ways, and to meet a sudden demand had taken three pounds from his employer for just once. But the three pounds had swollen into sixteen, and finding it impossible to replace it, he had taken ten more and fled, hoping to hide in the hills till he could get rowed off to some passing ship and escape to America. He had no friends, and neither father nor mother. At mention of this fact, David's face relaxed.

"Puir lad!" he muttered. "Nae father, and nae mother, 'specially; that's a awfu' drawback."

"You may give me up if you like, Mr. Scott. I don't care much; I've been a wretched fellow for many a week; I am most broken-hearted to-day."

"It's not David Scott that will make himself hard to a broken heart, when God in heaven has promised to listen to it. I'll tell you what I will do. You shall gie me all the money you have, every shilling; it's nane o' yours, ye ken that weel; and I'll take it to your master, and get him to pass by the ither till you can earn it. I've got a son, a decent, hard-working lad, who's daft to learn your trade--bookkeeping. Ye sail stay wi' me till he kens a' the ins and outs o' it, then I'll gie ye twenty pounds. I ken weel this is a big sum, and it will make a big hole in my little book at the Ayr Bank, but it will set Archie up.

"Then when ye have earned it, ye can pay back all you have stolen, forbye having four pounds left for a nest-egg to start again wi'. I dinna often treat mysel' to such a bit o' charity as this, and, 'deed, if I get na mair thanks fra heaven, than I seem like to get fra you, there 'ud be meikle use in it," for Alexander Semple had heard the proposal with a dour and thankless face, far from encouraging to the good man who made it. It did not suit that youth to work all summer in order to pay back what he had come to regard as "off his mind;" to denude himself of every shilling, and be entirely dependent on the sternly just man before him. Yet what could he do? He was fully in David's power; so he signified his assent, and sullenly enough gave up the L9 14s. 2d. in his possession.

"I'm a good bookkeeper, Mr. Scott," he said; "the bargain is fair enough for you."

"I ken Donald Nevin; he's a Campletown man, and I ken you wouldna hae keepit his books if you hadna had your business at your finger-ends."

The next day David went to Glasgow, and saw Mr. Semple's master. The L9 odd was lost money found, and predisposed him to the arrangement proposed. David got little encouragement from Mr. Nevin, however; he acknowledged the clerk's skill in accounts, but he was conceited of his appearance, ambitious of being a fashionable man, had weak principles and was intensely selfish. David almost repented him of his kindness, and counted grudgingly the shillings that the journey and the carriage of Mr. Semple's trunks cost him.

Indeed it was a week or two before things settled pleasantly in the hill cottage; the plain living, pious habits and early hours of the shepherd and his son did not at all suit the city youth. But Archie, though ignorant of the reasons which kept such a dandy in their humble home, soon perceived clearly the benefit he could derive from him. And once Archie got an inkling of the meaning of "double entry" he was never weary of applying it to his own particular business; so that in a few weeks Alexander Semple was perfectly familiar with MacAllister's affairs.

Still, Archie cordially disliked his teacher, and about the middle of summer it became evident that a very serious cause of quarrel was complicating the offence. Coming up from MacAllister's one lovely summer gloaming Archie met Semple with Katie Morrison, the little girl whom he had loved and courted since ever he carried her dinner and slate to school for her. How they had come to know each other he could not tell; he had exercised all his tact and prudence to prevent it, evidently without avail. He passed the couple with ill-concealed anger; Katie looked down, Semple nodded in what Archie believed to be an insolent manner.

That night David Scott heard from his son such an outburst of anger as the lad had never before exhibited. In a few days Mr. Semple went to Greenock for a day or two. Soon it was discovered that Katie had been in Greenock two days at her married sister's. Then they heard that the couple had married and were to sail for America. They then discovered that Archie's desk had been opened and L46 in notes and gold taken. Neither of the men had any doubt as to the thief; and therefore Archie was angry and astonished to find his father doubt and waver and seem averse to pursue him. At last he acknowledged all, told Archie that if he made known his loss, he also must confess that he had knowingly harbored an acknowledged thief, and tacitly given him the opportunity of wronging his employer. He doubted very much whether anyone would give him credit for the better feelings which had led him to this course of conduct.

Archie's anger cooled at once; he saw the dilemma; to these simple people a good name was better than gold. It took nearly half the savings of a long life, but the old man went to Ayr and drew sufficient to replace the stolen money. He needed to make no inquiries about Semple. On Tuesday it was known by everyone in the village that Katie Morrison and Alexander Semple had been married the previous Friday, and sailed for America the next day. After this certainty father and son never named the subject but once more. It was on one calm, spring evening, some ten years after, and David lay within an hour of the grave.

"Archie!" he said, suddenly, "I don't regret to-night what I did ten years ago. Virtuous actions sometimes fail, but virtuous lives--never! Perhaps I had a thought o' self in my good intent, and that spoiled all. If thou hast ever a chance, do better than I did."

"I will, father."

During these ten years there had been occasional news from the exiles. Mrs. Morrison stopped Archie at intervals, as he passed her door, and said there had been a letter from Katie. At first they came frequently, and were tinged with brightest hopes. Alexander had a fine place, and their baby was the most beautiful in the world. The next news was that Alexander was in business for himself and making money rapidly. Handsome presents, that were the wonder of the village, then came occasionally, and also remittances of money that made the poor mother hold her head proudly about "our Katie" and her "splendid house and carriage."

But suddenly all letters stopped, and the mother thought for long they must be coming to see her, but this hope and many another faded, and the fair morning of Katie's marriage was shrouded in impenetrable gloom and mystery.

Archie got bravely over his trouble, and a while after his father's death married a good little woman, not quite without "the bit of siller." Soon after he took his savings to Edinburgh and joined his wife's brother in business there. Things prospered with him, slowly but surely, and he became known for a steady, prosperous merchant, and a douce pious householder, the father of a fine lot of sons and daughters.

One night, twenty years after the beginning of my story, he was passing through the old town of Edinburgh, when a wild cry of "Fire! Fire! Fire!" arose on every side of him.

"Where?" he asked of the shrieking women pouring from all the filthy, narrow wynds around.

"In Gordon's Wynd."

He was there almost the first of any efficient aid, striving to make his way up the smoke-filled stairs, but this was impossible. The house was one of those ancient ones, piled story upon story; so old that it was almost tinder. But those on the opposite side were so close that not unfrequently a plank or two flung across from opposite windows made a bridge for the benefit of those seeking to elude justice.

By means of such a bridge all the inhabitants of the burning house were removed, and no one was more energetic in carrying the women and children across the dangerous planks than Archie Scott; for his mountain training had made such a feat one of no extraordinary danger to him. Satisfied at length that all life was out of risk, he was turning to go home, when a white, terrible face looked out of the top-most floor, showing itself amid the gusts of smoke like the dream of a corpse, and screaming for help in agonizing tones. Archie knew that face only too well. But he remembered, in the same instant, what his father had said in dying, and, swift as a mountain deer, he was quickly on the top floor of the opposite house again.

In a few moments the planks bridged the distance between death and safety; but no entreaties could make the man risk the dangerous passage. Setting tight his lips, Archie went for the shrieking coward, and carried him into the opposite house. Then the saved man recognized his preserver.

"Oh, Mr. Scott!" he said, "for God's sake, my wife and my child! The last of seven!"

"You scoundrel! Do you mean to say you saved yourself before Katie and your child!"

Archie did not wait for the answer; again he was at the window of the burning room. Too late! The flames were already devouring what the smoke had smothered; their wretched pallet was a funeral pyre. He had hardly time to save his own life.

"They are dead, Semple!"

Then the poor creature burst into a paroxysm of grief, moaned and cried, and begged a few shillings, and vowed he was the most miserable creature on earth.

After this Archie Scott strove for two years to do without taint of selfishness what his father had begun twenty years before. But there was not much now left to work upon--health, honor, self-respect were all gone. Poor Semple was content to eat the bread of dependence, and then make boastful speeches of his former wealth and position. To tell of his wonderful schemes, and to abuse his luck and his false friends, and everything and everybody, but the real cause of his misfortune.

Archie gave him some trifling post, with a salary sufficient for every decent want, and never heeded, though he knew Semple constantly spoke ill of him behind his back.

However the trial of Archie's patience and promise did not last very long. It was a cold, snowy night in mid-winter that Archie was called upon to exercise for the last time his charity and forbearance toward him; and the parting scene paid for all. For, in the shadow of the grave, the poor, struggling soul dropped all pretences, acknowledged all its shortcomings, thanked the forbearance and charity which had been extended so many years, and humbly repented of its lost and wasted opportunities.

"Draw close to me, Archie Scott," he said, "and tell your four brave boys what my dying words to them were: Never to yield to temptation for only this once. To be quite sure that all the gear and gold that comes with sin will go with sorrow. And never to doubt that to every evil doer will certainly come his evil day."

[The end]
Amelia Edith Barr's short story: "Only This Once"