AN OLD ENEMY.
One Sunday evening — it must have been just while Malcolm and Blue Peter stood in the Strand listening to a voluntary that filled and overflowed an otherwise empty church — a short, stout, elderly woman was walking lightly along the pavement of a street of small houses not far from a thoroughfare which, crowded like a market the night before, had now two lively borders only — of holiday-makers mingled with church-goers. The bells for evening prayers were ringing. The sun had vanished behind the smoke and steam of London; indeed, he might have set — it was hard to say without consulting the almanac — but it was not dark yet. The lamps in the street were lighted however, and also in the church she passed. She carried a small Bible in her hand, folded in a pocket handkerchief, and looked a decent woman from the country. Her quest was a place where the minister said his prayers, and did not read them out of a book: she had been brought up a Presbyterian, and had prejudices in favor of what she took for the simpler form of worship. Nor had she gone much farther before she came upon a chapel which seemed to promise all she wanted. She entered, and a sad-looking woman showed her to a seat. She sat down square, fixing her eyes at once on the pulpit, rather dimly visible over many pews, as if it were one of the mountains that surrounded her Jerusalem. The place was but scantily lighted, for the community at present could ill afford to burn daylight. When the worship commenced and the congregation rose to sing, she got up with a jerk that showed the duty as unwelcome as unexpected, but seemed by the way she settled herself in her seat for the prayer already thereby reconciled to the differences between Scotch church-customs and English chapel-customs. She went to sleep softly, and woke warily as the prayer came to a close.
While the congregation again sang the minister who had officiated hitherto left the pulpit, and another ascended to preach. When he began to read the text the woman gave a little start, and, leaning forward, peered very hard to gain a satisfactory sight of his face between the candles on each side of it, but without success: she soon gave up her attempted scrutiny, and thenceforward seemed to listen with marked attention. The sermon was a simple, earnest, at times impassioned, appeal to the hearts and consciences of the congregation. There was little attempt in it at the communication of knowledge of any kind, but the most indifferent hearer must have been aware that the speaker was earnestly straining after something. To those who understood it was as if he would force his way through every stockade of prejudice, ditch of habit, rampart of indifference, moat of sin, wall of stupidity and curtain of ignorance until he stood face to face with the conscience of his hearer.
"Rank Arminianism!" murmured the woman. "Whaur's the gospel o' that?" But still she listened with seeming intentness, while something of wonder mingled with the something else that set in motion every live wrinkle in her forehead and made her eyebrows undulate like writhing snakes.
At length the preacher rose to eloquence — an eloquence inspired by the hunger of his soul after truth eternal and the love he bore to his brethren who fed on husks — an eloquence innocent of the tricks of elocution or the art of rhetoric; to have discovered himself using one of them would have sent him home to his knees in shame and fear — an eloquence not devoid of discords, the strings of his instrument being now slack with emotion, now tense with vision, yet even in those discords shrouding the essence of all harmony. When he ceased the silence that followed seemed instinct with thought, with that speech of the spirit which no longer needs the articulating voice.
"It canna be the stickit minister!" said the woman to herself.
The congregation slowly dispersed, but she sat motionless until all were gone and the sad-faced woman was putting out the lights. Then she rose, drew near through the gloom, and asked her the name of the gentleman who had given them such a grand sermon. The woman told her, adding that although he had two or three times spoken to them at the prayer-meeting — such words of comfort, the poor soul added, as she had never in her life heard before — this was the first time he had occupied the pulpit. The woman thanked her and went out into the street. "God bless me!" she said to herself as she walked away: "it is the stickit minister! Weel, won'ers 'ill never cease. The age o' mirracles 'ill be come back, I'm thinkin'." And she laughed an oily, contemptuous laugh in the depths of her profuse person.
What caused her astonishment need cause none to the thoughtful mind. The man was no longer burdened with any anxiety as to his reception by his hearers; he was hampered by no necromantic agony to raise the dead letter of the sermon buried in the tail-pocket of his coat; he had thirty years more of life, and a whole granary filled with such truths as grow for him who is ever breaking up the clods of his being to the spiritual sun and wind and dew; and, above all, he had an absolute yet expanding confidence in his Father in heaven, and a tender love for everything human. The tongue of the dumb had been in training for song. And, first of all, he had learned to be silent while he had naught to reveal. He had been trained to babble about religion, but through God's grace had failed in his babble, and that was in itself a success. He would have made one of the swarm that year after year cast themselves like flies on the burning sacrifice that they may live on its flesh, with evil odors extinguishing the fire that should have gone up in flame; but a burning coal from off the altar had been laid on his lips, and had silenced them in torture. For thirty years he had held his peace, until the word of God had become as a fire in his bones: it was now breaking forth in flashes.
On the Monday, Mrs. Catanach sought the shop of the deacon that was an ironmonger, secured for herself a sitting in the chapel for the next half-year, and prepaid the sitting.
"Wha kens," she said to herself, "what birds may come to gether worms an' golachs (beetles) aboot the boody-craw (scarecrow). Sanny Grame?"
She was one to whom intrigue, founded on the knowledge of private history, was as the very breath of her being: she could not exist in composure without it. Wherever she went, therefore — and her changes of residence had not been few — it was one of her first cares to enter into connection with some religious community; first, that she might have scope for her calling — that of a midwife, which in London would probably be straitened toward that of mere monthly nurse — and next, that thereby she might have good chances for the finding of certain weeds of occult power that spring mostly in walled gardens and are rare on the roadside — poisonous things mostly, called generically secrets.
At this time she had been for some painful months in possession of a most important one — painful I say, because all those months she had discovered no possibility of making use of it. The trial had been hard. Her one passion was to drive the dark horses of society, and here she had been sitting week after week on the coach-box over the finest team she had ever handled, ramping and "foming tarre," unable to give them their heads because the demon-grooms had disappeared and left the looped traces dangling from their collars. She had followed Florimel from Portlossie to Edinburgh, and then to London, but not yet had seen how to approach her with probable advantage. In the meantime she had renewed old relations with a certain herb-doctor in Kentish Town, at whose house she was now accommodated. There she had already begun to entice the confidences of maidservants by use of what evil knowledge she had and pretence to more, giving herself out as a wise-woman. Her faith never failed her that, if she but kept handling the fowls of circumstances, one or other of them must at length drop an egg of opportunity in her lap. When she stumbled upon the schoolmaster preaching in a chapel near her own haunts, she felt something more like a gust of gratitude to the dark power that sat behind and pulled the strings of events — for thus she saw through her own projected phantom the heart of the universe — than she had ever yet experienced. If there were such things as special providences, here, she said, was one: if not, then it was better luck than she had looked for. The main point in it was that the dominie seemed likely, after all, to turn out a popular preacher: then beyond a doubt other Scotch people would gather to him: this or that person might turn up, and any one' might turn out useful. One thread might be knotted to another, until all together made a clew to guide her straight through the labyrinth to the centre, to lay her hand on the collar of the demon of the house of Lossie. It was the biggest game of her life, and had been its game long before the opening of my narrative.