Penelope's Progress/Chapter 10
Even at this time of Assemblies, when the atmosphere is almost exclusively clerical and ecclesiastical, the two great church armies represented here certainly conceal from the casual observer all rivalries and jealousies, if indeed they cherish any. As for the two dissenting bodies, the Church of the Disruption and the Church of the Secession have been keeping company, so to speak, for some years, with a distant eye to an eventual union. In the light of all this pleasant toleration, it seems difficult to realize that earlier Edinburgh, where, we learned from old parochial records of 1605, Margaret Sinclair was cited by the Session of the Kirk for being at the Burne for water on the Sabbath; that Janet Merling was ordered to make public repentance for concealing a bairn unbaptized in her house for the space of twenty weeks and calling said bairn Janet; that Pat Richardson had to crave mercy for being found in his boat in time of afternoon service; and that Janet Walker, accused of having visitors in her house in sermon-time, had to confess her offense and on her knees crave mercy of God and the Kirk Session (which no doubt was much worse) under penalty of a hundred pounds Scots. Possibly there are people yet who would prefer to pay a hundred pounds rather than hear a sermon, but they are few.
It was in the early seventeen hundred and thirties when Allan Ramsay, "in fear and trembling of legal and clerical censure," lent out the plays of Congreve and Farquhar from his famous High Street library. In 1756 it was that the Presbytery of Edinburgh suspended all clergymen who had witnessed the representation of "Douglas," that virtuous tragedy written, to the dismay of all Scotland, by a minister of the Kirk. That the world, even the theological world, moves with tolerable rapidity when once set in motion, is evinced by the fact that on Mrs. Siddons' second engagement in Edinburgh, in the summer of 1785, vast crowds gathered about the doors of the theatre, not at night alone, but in the day, to secure places. It became necessary to admit them first at three in the afternoon, and then at noon, and eventually "the General Assembly of the Church then in session was compelled to arrange its meetings with reference to the appearance of the great actress." How one would have enjoyed hearing that Scotsman say, after one of her most splendid flights of tragic passion, "That's no bad!" We have read of her dismay at this ludicrous parsimony of praise, but her self-respect must have been restored when the Edinburgh ladies fainted by dozens during her impersonation of Isabella in "The Fatal Marriage."
Since Scottish hospitality is well-nigh inexhaustible, it is not strange that from the moment Edinburgh streets began to be crowded with ministers, our drawing-room table began to bear shoals of engraved invitations of every conceivable sort, all equally unfamiliar to our American eyes.
"The Purse-Bearer is commanded by the Lord High Commissioner and the Marchioness of Heatherdale to invite Miss Hamilton to a Garden Party at the Palace of Holyrood House, on the 27th of May. Weather permitting."
"The General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland admits Miss Hamilton to any gallery on any day."
"The Marchioness of Heatherdale is At Home on the 26th of May from a quarter past nine in the evening. Palace of Holyrood House."
"The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland is At Home in the Library of the New College on Saturday, the 22d May, from eight to ten in the evening."
"The Moderator asks the pleasure of Miss Hamilton's presence at a Breakfast to be given on the morning of the 25th of May at Dunedin Hotel."
We determined to go to all these functions impartially, tracking thus the Presbyterian lion to his very lair, and observing his home as well as his company manners. In everything that related to the distinctively religious side of the proceedings we sought advice from Mrs. M'Collop, while we went to Lady Baird for definite information on secular matters. We also found an unexpected ally in the person of our own ex-Moderator's niece, Miss Jean Dalziel (Deeyell). She has been educated in Paris, but she must always have been a delightfully breezy person, quite too irrepressible to be affected by Scottish haar or theology. "Go to the Assemblies, by all means," she said, "and be sure and get places for the heresy case. These are no longer what they once were,—we are getting lamentably weak and gelatinous in our beliefs,—but there is an unusually nice one this year; the heretic is very young and handsome, and quite wicked, as ministers go. Don't fail to be presented at the Marchioness's court at Holyrood, for it is a capital preparation for the ordeal of Her Majesty and Buckingham Palace. 'Nothing fit to wear'? You have never seen the people who go, or you wouldn't say that! I even advise you to attend one of the breakfasts; it can't do you any serious or permanent injury so long as you eat something before you go. Oh no, it doesn't matter,—whichever one you choose, you will cheerfully omit the other; for I avow as a Scottish spinster, and the niece of an ex-Moderator, that to a stranger and a foreigner the breakfasts are worse than Arctic explorations. If you do not chance to be at the table of honor"—
"The gifted Miss Hamilton is always at the table of honor; unless she is placed there she refuses to eat, and then the universe rocks to its centre," interpolated Francesca impertinently.
"It is true," continued Miss Dalziel, "you will often sit beside a minister or a minister's wife, who will make you scorn the sordid appetites of flesh, but if you do not, then eat as little as may be, and flee up the Mound to whichever Assembly is the Mecca of your soul!"
"My niece's tongue is an unruly member," said the ex-Moderator, who was present at this diatribe, "and the principal mistake she makes in her judgment of these clerical feasts is that she criticises them as conventional repasts, whereas they are intended to be informal meetings together of people who wish to be better acquainted."
"Hot bacon and eggs would be no bar to friendship," answered Miss Dalziel, with an affectionate moue.
"Cold bacon and eggs is better than cold piety," said the ex-Moderator, "and it may be a good discipline for fastidious young ladies who have been spoiled by Parisian breakfasts."
It is to Mrs. M'Collop that we owe our chief insight into technical church matters, although we seldom agree with her "opeenions" after we gain our own experience. She never misses hearing one sermon on a Sabbath, and oftener she listens to two or three. Neither does she confine herself to the ministrations of a single preacher, but roves from one sanctuary to another, seeking the bread of life, often, however, according to her own account, getting a particularly indigestible "stane."
She is thus a complete guide to the Edinburgh pulpit, and when she is making a bed in the morning she dispenses criticism in so large and impartial a manner that it would make the flesh of the "meenistry" creep were it overheard. I used to think Ian Maclaren's sermon-taster a possible exaggeration of an existent type, but I now see that she is truth itself.
"Ye'll be tryin' anither kirk the morn?" suggests Mrs. M'Collop, spreading the clean Sunday sheet over the mattress. "Wha did ye hear the Sawbath that's bye? Dr. A? Ay, I ken him ower weel; he's been there for fifteen years an' mair. Ay, he's a gifted mon—off an' on!" with an emphasis showing clearly that, in her estimation, the times when he is "off" outnumber those when he is "on." … "Ye have na heard auld Dr. B yet?" (Here she tucks in the upper sheet tidily at the foot.) "He's a graund strachtforrit mon, is Dr. B, forbye he's growin' maist awfu' dreich in his sermons, though when he's that wearisome a body canna heed him wi'oot takin' peppermints to the kirk, he's nane the less, at seeventy-sax, a better mon than the new asseestant. Div ye ken the new asseestant? He's a wee-bit, finger-fed mannie, too sma' maist to wear a goon! I canna thole him, wi' his lang-nebbit words, explainin' an' expoundin' the gude Book as if it had jist come oot! The auld doctor's nae kirk-filler, but he gies us fu' meesure, pressed doun an' rinnin' over, nae bit-pickin's like the haverin' asseestant; it's my opeenion he's no soond, wi' his parleyvoos an' his clish-maclavers! … Mr. C?" (Now comes the shaking and straightening and smoothing of the first blanket.) "Ay, he's weel eneuch! I mind ance he prayed for our Free Assembly, an' then he turned roun' an' prayed for the Estaiblished, maist in the same breath,—he's a broad, leeberal mon is Mr. C! … Mr. D? Ay, I ken him fine; he micht be waur, though he's ower fond o' the kittle pairts o' the Old Testament; but he reads his sermon from the paper, an' it's an auld sayin', 'If a meenister canna mind [remember] his ain discoorse, nae mair can the congregation be expectit to mind it.' … Mr. E? He's my ain meenister." (She has a pillow in her mouth now, but though she is shaking it as a terrier would a rat, and drawing on the linen slip at the same time, she is still intelligible between the jerks.) "Susanna says his sermon is like claith made o' soond 'oo [wool] wi' a gude twined thread, an' wairpit an' weftit wi' doctrine. Susanna kens her Bible weel, but she's never gaed forrit." (To "gang forrit" is to take the communion.) "Dr. F? I ca' him the greetin' doctor! He's aye dingin' the dust oot o' the poopit cushions, an' greetin' ower the sins o' the human race, an' eespecially of his ain congregation. He's waur syne his last wife sickened an' slippit awa.' 'T was a chastenin' he'd put up wi' twice afore, but he grat nane the less. She was a bonnie bit body, was the thurd Mistress F! E'nbro could 'a' better spared the greetin' doctor than her, I'm thinkin'."
"The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, according to his good will and pleasure," I ventured piously, as Mrs. M'Collop beat the bolster and laid it in place.
"Ou ay," responded that good woman, as she spread the counterpane over the pillows in the way I particularly dislike—"ou ay, but whiles I think it's a peety he couldna be guidit!"