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Dr. Davidson's Last Christmas by Ian Maclaren

 

Christmas fell on a Sunday the year Dr. Davidson died, and on the preceding Monday a groom drove up to the manse from Muirtown Castle.

"A letter, Doctor, from his lordship"—John found his master sitting before the study fire in a reverie, looking old and sad—"and there's a bit boxie in the kitchen."

"Will you see, John, that the messenger has such food as we can offer him?" and the Doctor roused himself at the sight of the familiar handwriting; "there is that, eh, half-fowl that Rebecca was keeping for my dinner to-day; perhaps she could do it up for him. I... do not feel hungry to-day. And, John, will you just say that I'm sorry that... owing to circumstances, we can't offer him refreshment?" On these occasions the Doctor felt his straitness greatly, having kept a house in his day where man and beast had of the best "What dis for the minister of Drumtochty an' his... hoose 'ill dae for a groom, even though he serve the Earl o' Kilspindie, an' a ken better than say onything tae Becca aboot the chuckie;" this he said to himself on his way to the kitchen, where that able woman had put the messenger from the castle in his own place, and was treating him with conspicuous and calculated condescension. He was a man somewhat given to appetite, and critical about his drink, as became a servant of the Earl; but such was the atmosphere of the manse and the awfulness of the Doctor's household that he made a hearty dinner off ham and eggs, with good spring water, and departed declaring his gratitude aloud.

"My dear Davidson,—

"Will you distribute the enclosed trifle among your old pensioners in the Glen as you may see fit, and let it come from you, who would have given them twice as much had it not been for that confounded bank. The port is for yourself,

Sandeman's '48—the tipple you and I have tasted together for many a year. If you hand it over to the liquidators, as you wanted to do with the few bottles you had in your cellar, I'll have you up before the Sheriff of Muirtown for breach of trust and embezzlement as sure as my name is "Your old friend,

"Kilspindie."

"P.S.—The Countess joins me in Christmas greetings and charges you to fail us on New Year's Day at your peril. We are anxious about Hay, who has been ordered to the front."

The Doctor opened the cheque and stroked it gently; then he read the letter again and snuffed, using his handkerchief vigorously. After which he wrote:—

"Dear Kilspindie,—

"It is, without exception, the prettiest cheque I have ever had in my hands, and it comes from as good a fellow as ever lived. You knew that it would hurt me not to be able to give my little Christmas gifts, and you have done this kindness. Best thanks from the people and myself, and as for the port, the liquidators will not see a drop of it Don't believe any of those stories about the economies at the manse which I suspect you have been hearing from Drumtochty. Deliberate falsehoods; we are living like fighting cocks. I'm a little shaky—hint of gout, I fancy—but hope to be with you on New Year's Day. God bless you both, and preserve Hay in the day of battle.

"Yours affectionately,

"Alexander Davidson."

"Don't like that signature, Augusta," said the Earl to his wife; "'yours affectionately' it's true enough, for no man has a warmer heart, but he never wrote that way before. Davidson's breaking up, and... he 'ill be missed. I must get Manley to run out here and overhaul him when Davidson comes down on New Year's Day. My belief is that he's been starving himself. Peter Robertson, the land steward, says that he has never touched a drop of wine since that bank smashed; now that won't do at our age, but he's an obstinate fellow, Davidson, when he takes a thing into his head."

The Doctor's determination—after the calamity of the bank failure—to reduce himself to the depths of poverty was wonderful, but Drumtochty was cunning and full of tact. He might surrender his invested means and reserve only one hundred pounds a year out of his living, but when he sent for the Kildrummie auctioneer and instructed him to sell every stick of furniture, except a bare minimum for one sitting-room and a bedroom, Jock accepted the commission at once, and proceeded at eleven miles an hour—having just bought a new horse—to take counsel with Drumsheugh. Next Friday, as a result thereof, he dropped into the factor's office—successor to him over whom the Doctor had triumphed gloriously—and amid an immense variety of rural information, mentioned that he was arranging a sale of household effects at Drumtochty Manse. Jock was never known to be so dilatory with an advertisement before, and ere he got it out Lord Kilspindie had come to terms with the liquidator and settled the Doctor's belongings on him for life.

The Doctor's next effort was with his household, and for weeks the minister looked wistfully at John and Rebecca, till at last he called them in and stated the situation.

"You have both been... good and faithful servants to me, indeed I may say... friends for many years, and I had hoped you would have remained in the Manse till... so long as I was spared. And I may mention now that I had made some slight provision that would have... made you comfortable after I was gone."

"It wes kind o' ye, sir, an' mindfu'." Rebecca spoke, not John, and her tone was of one who might have to be firm and must not give herself away by sentiment.

"It is no longer possible for me, through... certain events, to live as I have been accustomed to do, and I am afraid that I must... do without your help. A woman coming in to cook and... such like will be all I can afford." The expression on the housekeeper's face at this point was such that even the Doctor did not dare to look at her again, but turned to John, whose countenance was inscrutable.

"Your future, John, has been giving me much anxious thought, and I hope to be able to do something with Lord Kilspindie next week. There are many quiet places on the estate which might suit..." then the Doctor weakened, "although I know well no place will ever be like Drumtochty, and the old Manse will never be the same... without you. But you see how it is... friends."

"Doctor Davidson," and he knew it was vain to escape her, "wi' yir permission a wud like tae ask ye ane or twa questions, an' ye 'ill forgie the leeberty. Dis ony man in the Pairish o' Drumtochty ken yir wys like John? Wha 'ill tak yir messages, an' prepare the fouk for the veesitation, an' keep the gairden snod, an' see tae a' yir trokes when John's awa? Wull ony man ever cairry the bukes afore ye like John?"

"Never," admitted the Doctor, "never."

"Div ye expect the new wumman 'ill ken hoo mickle stairch tae pit in yir stock, an' hoo mickle butter ye like on yir chicken, an' when ye change yir flannels tae a day, an' when ye like anither blanket on yir bed, an' the wy tae mak the currant drink for yir cold?"

"No, no, Rebecca, nobody will ever be so good to me as you've been"—the Doctor was getting very shaky.

"Then what for wud ye send us awa, and bring in some handless, useless tawpie that cud neither cook ye a decent meal nor keep the Manse wise like? Is't for room? The Manse is as big as ever. Is't for meat? We'ill eat less than she 'ill waste."

"You know better, Rebecca," said the Doctor, attempting to clear his throat; "it's because... because I cannot afford to..."

"A ken very weel, an' John an' me hev settled that For thirty year ye've paid us better than ony minister's man an' manse hoosekeeper in Perthshire, an' ye wantit tae raise oor wages aifter we mairrit. Div ye ken what John an' me hev in the bank for oor laist days?"

The Doctor only shook his head, being cowed for once in his life.

"Atween us, five hundred and twenty-sax pund."

"Eleven an' sevenpence," added John, steadying his voice with arithmetic.

"It's five year sin we askit ye tae py naethin' mair, but juist gie's oor keep, an' noo the time's come, an' welcome. Hev John or me ever disobeyed ye or spoken back a' thae years?"

The Doctor only made a sign with his hand. "We' ill dae't aince, at ony rate, for ye may gie us notice tae leave an' order us oot o' the manse; but here we stop till we're no fit tae serve ye or ye hae nae mair need o' oor service." "A homologate that"—it was a brave word, and one of which John was justly proud, but he did not quite make the most of it that day.

"I thank you from my heart, and... I'll never speak of parting again," and for the first time they saw tears on the Doctor's cheek.

"John," Rebecca turned on her husband—no man would have believed it of the beadle of Drumtochty, but he was also..."what are ye stoiterin' roond the table for? it's time tae set the Doctor's denner; as for that chicken—" and Rebecca retired to the kitchen, having touched her highest point that day.

The insurrection in the manse oozed out, and encouraged a conspiracy of rebellion in which even the meekest people were concerned. Jean Baxter, of Bumbrae, who had grasped greedily at the dairy contract of the manse, when the glebe was let to Netherton, declined to render any account to Rebecca, and the Doctor had to take the matter in hand.

"There's a little business, Mrs. Baxter, I would like to settle with you, as I happen to be here." The Doctor had dropped in on his way back from Whinny Knowe, where Marget and he had been talking of George for two hours. "You know that I have to be, eh... careful now, and I... you will let me pay what we owe for that delicious butter you are good enough to supply."

"Ye 'ill surely tak a 'look roond the fields first, Doctor, an' tell's what ye think o' the crops;" and after that it was necessary for him to take tea. Again and again he was foiled, but he took a firm stand by the hydrangea in the garden, where he had given them Lord Kilspindie's message, and John Baxter stood aside that the affair might be decided in single combat.

"Now, Mrs. Baxter, before leaving I must insist," began the Doctor with authority, and his stick was in his hand; but Jean saw a geographical advantage, and seized it instantly.

"Div ye mind, sir, comin' tae this gairden five year syne this month, and stannin' on that verra spot aside the hydrangy?"

The Doctor scented danger, but he could not retreat.

"Weel, at ony rate, John an' me dinna forget that day, an' never wull, for we were makin' ready tae leave the home o' the Baxters for mony generations wi' a heavy heart, an' it wes you that stoppit us. Ye'ill maybe no mind what ye said tae me."

"We 'ill not talk of that to-day, Mrs. Baxter... that's past and over."

"Aye, it's past, but it's no over, Doctor Davidson; na, na, John an' me wesna made that wy Ye may lauch at a fulish auld wife, but ilka kirnin' (churning) day ye veesit us again. When a'm turnin' the kirn a see ye comin' up the road as ye did that day, an' a gar the handle keep time wi' yir step; when a tak oot the bonnie yellow butter ye're stannin' in the gairden, an' then a stamp ae pund wi' buttercups, an' a say, 'You're not away yet, Bumbrae, you're not away yet'—that wes yir word tae the gude man; and when the ither stamp comes doon on the second pund and leaves the bonnie daisies on't, 'Better late than never, Bumbrae; better late than never, Bumbrae.' Ye said that afore ye left, Doctor." Baxter was amazed at his wife, and the Doctor saw himself defeated.

"Mony a time hes John an' me sat in the summer-hoose an' brocht back that day, an' mony a time hev we wantit tae dae somethin' for him that keepit the auld roof-tree abune oor heads. God forgie me, Doctor, but when a heard ye hed gien up yir glebe ma hert loupit, an' a said tae John, 'The 'ill no want for butter at the manse sae lang as there's a Baxter in Bumbrae.'

"Dinna be angry, sir," but the flush that brought the Doctor's face unto a state of perfection was not anger. "A ken it's a leeberty we're takin* an' maybe a'm presumin' ower far, but gin ye kent hoo sair oor herts were wi' gratitude ye wudna deny us this kindness."

"Ye 'ill lat the Doctor come awa noo, gude wife, tae see the young horse," and Doctor Davidson was grateful to Burnbrae for covering his retreat.

This spirit spread till Hillocks lifted up his horn, outwitting the Doctor with his attentions, and reducing him to submission. When the beadle dropped in upon Hillocks one day, and, after a hasty review of harvest affairs, mentioned that Doctor Davidson was determined to walk in future to and from Kildrummie Station, the worthy man rose without a word, and led the visitor to the shed where his marvellous dog-cart was kept.

"Div ye think that a' cud daur?" studying its general appearance with diffidence.

"There's nae sayin' hoo it micht look wi' a wash," suggested John.

"Sall, it's fell snod noo," after two hours' honest labour, in which John condescended to share, "an* the gude wife 'ill cover the cushions. Dinna lat on, but a'll be at the gate the morn afore the Doctor starts," and Peter Bruce gave it to be understood that when Hillocks convoyed the Doctor to the compartment of the third rigidly and unanimously reserved for him, his manner, both of walk and conversation, was changed, and it is certain that a visit he made to Piggie Walker on the return journey was unnecessary save for the purpose of vain boasting. It was not, however, to be heard of by the Doctor that Hillocks should leave his work at intervals to drive him to Kildrummie, and so there was a war of tactics, in which the one endeavoured to escape past the bridge without detection, while the other swooped down upon him with the dog-cart. On the Wednesday when the Doctor went to Muirtown to buy his last gifts to Drumtochty, he was very cunning, and ran the blockade while Hillocks was in the corn room, but the dog-cart was waiting for him in the evening—Hillocks having been called to Kildrummie by unexpected business, at least so he said—and it was a great satisfaction afterwards to Peter Bruce that he placed fourteen parcels below the seat and fastened eight behind—besides three which the Doctor held in his hands, being fragile, and two, soft goods, on which Hillocks sat for security. For there were twenty-seven humble friends whom the Doctor wished to bless on Christmas Day.

When he bade the minister good-bye at his gate, Hillocks prophesied a storm, and it was of such a kind that on Sunday morning the snow was knee-deep on the path from the manse to the kirk, and had drifted up four feet against the door through which the Doctor was accustomed to enter in procession.

"This is unfortunate, very unfortunate," when John reported the state of affairs to the Doctor, "and we must just do the best we can in the circumstances, eh?"

"What wud be yir wull, sir?" but John's tone did not encourage any concessions.

"Well, it would never do for you to be going down bare-headed on such a day, and it's plain we can't get in at the front door. What do you say to taking in the books by the side door, and I'll just come down in my top-coat, when the people are gathered"; but the Doctor did not show a firm mind, and it was evident that he was thinking less of himself than of John.

"All come for ye at the usual 'oor," was all that functionary deigned to reply, and at a quarter to twelve he brought the gown and bands to the study—he himself being in full black.

"The drift 'ill no tribble ye, an' ye 'ill no need tae gang roond; na, na," and John could not quite conceal his satisfaction, "we 'ill no start on the side door aifter five and thirty years o' the front." So the two old men—John bare-headed, the Doctor in full canonicals and wearing his college cap—came down on a fair pathway between two banks of snow three feet high, which Saunders from Drumsheugh and a dozen plowmen had piled on either side. The kirk had a severe look that day, with hardly any women or children to relieve the blackness of the men, and the drifts reaching to the sills of the windows, while a fringe of snow draped their sides.

The Doctor's subject was the love of God, and it was noticed that he did not read, but spoke as if he had been in his study. He also dwelt so affectingly on the gift of Christ, and made so tender an appeal unto his people, that Drumsheugh blew his nose with vigour, and Hillocks himself was shaken. After they had sung the paraphrase—

"To Him that lov'd the souls of men,
And washed us in His blood,"

the Doctor charged those present to carry his greetings to the folk at home, and tell them they were all in his heart After which he looked at his people as they stood for at least a minute, and then lifting his hands, according to the ancient fashion of the Scottish Kirk, he blessed them. His gifts, with a special message to each person, he sent by faithful messengers, and afterwards he went out through the snow to make two visits. The first was to blind Marjorie, who was Free Kirk, but to whom he had shown much kindness all her life. His talk with her was usually of past days and country affairs, seasoned with wholesome humour to cheer her heart, but to-day he fell into another vein, to her great delight, and they spoke of the dispensations of Providence.

"'Whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth,' Marjorie, is a very instructive Scripture, and I was thinking of it last night You have had a long and hard trial, but you have doubtless been blessed, for if you have not seen outward things, you have seen the things... of the soul." The Doctor hesitated once or twice, as one who had not long travelled this road.

"You and I are about the same age, Marjorie, and we must soon... depart My life was very... prosperous, but lately it has pleased the Almighty to... chasten me. I have now, therefore, some hope also that I may be one of His children."

"He wes aye gude grain, the Doctor," Marjorie said to her friend after he had left, "but he's hed a touch o' the harvest sun, and he's been ripening."

Meanwhile the Doctor had gone on to Tochty Lodge, and was standing in the stone hall, which was stripped and empty of the Camegies for ever. Since he was a laddie in a much-worn kilt and a glengarry bonnet without tails, he had gone in and out the Lodge, and himself had seen four generations—faintly remembering the General's grandfather. Every inch of the house was familiar to him, and associated with kindly incidents. He identified the spaces on the walls where the portraits of the cavaliers and their ladies had hung; he went up to the room where the lairds had died and his friend had hoped to fall on sleep; he visited the desolate gallery where Kate had held court and seemed to begin a better day for the old race; then he returned and stood before the fireplace in which he had sat long ago and looked up to see the stars in the sky. Round that hearth many a company of brave men and fair women had gathered, and now there remained of this ancient stock but two exiles—one eating out his heart in poverty and city life, and a girl who had for weal or woe, God only knew, passed out of the line of her traditions. A heap of snow had gathered on the stone, where the honest wood fire had once burned cheerily, and a gust of wind coming down the vast open chimney powdered his coat with drift It was to him a sign that the past was closed, and that he would never again stand beneath that roof.

He opened the gate of the manse, and then, under a sudden impulse, went on through deep snow to the village and made a third visit—to Archie Moncur, whom he found sitting before the fire reading the Temperance Trumpet. Was there ever a man like Archie?—so gentle and fierce, so timid and fearless, so modest and persevering. He would stoop to lift a vagrant caterpillar from the cart track, and yet had not adjectives to describe the infamy of a publican; he would hardly give an opinion on the weather, but he fought the drinking customs of the Glen like a lion; he would only sit in the lowest seat in any place, but every winter he organised—at great trouble and cost of his slender means—temperance meetings which were the fond jest of the Glen. From year to year he toiled on, without encouragement, without success, hopeful, uncomplaining, resolute, unselfish, with the soul of a saint and the spirit of a hero in his poor, deformed, suffering little body. He humbled himself before the very bairns, and allowed an abject like Milton to browbeat him with Pharisaism, but every man in the Glen knew that Archie would have gone to the stake for the smallest jot or tittle of his faith.

"Archie," said the Doctor, who would not sit down, and whose coming had thrown the good man into speechless confusion, "it's the day of our Lord's birth, and I wish to give you and all my friends of the Free Kirk—as you have no minister just now—hearty Christmas greeting. May peace be in your kirk and homes... and hearts.

"My thoughts have been travelling back of late over those years since I was ordained minister of this parish and the things which have happened, and it seemed to me that no man has done his duty by his neighbour or before God with a more single heart than you, Archie."

"God bless you." Then on the doorstep the Doctor shook hands again and paused for a minute. "You have fought a good fight, Archie—I wish we could all say the same... a good fight."

For an hour Archie was so dazed that he was not able to say a word, and could do nothing but look into the fire, and then he turned to his sisters, with that curious little movement of the hand which seemed to assist his speech.

"The language wes clean redeeklus, but it wes kindly meant... an' it maks up for mony things.... The Doctor wes aye a gentleman, an' noo... ye can see that he's... something mair."

Drumsheugh dined with the Doctor that night, and after dinner John opened for them a bottle of Lord Kilspindie's wine.

"It is the only drink we have in the house, for I have not been using anything of that kind lately, and I think we may have a glass together for the sake of Auld Lang Syne."

They had three toasts, "The Queen," and "The Kirk of Scotland," and "The friends that are far awa," after which—for the last included both the living and the dead—they sat in silence. Then the Doctor began to speak of his ministry, lamenting that he had not done better for his people, and declaring that if he were spared he intended to preach more frequently about the Lord Jesus Christ.

"You and I, Drumsheugh, will have to go a long journey soon, and give an account of our lives in Drumtochty. Perhaps we have done our best as men can, and I think we have tried; but there are many things we might have done otherwise, and some we ought not to have done at all.

"It seems to me now, the less we say in that day of the past the better.... We shall wish for mercy rather than justice, and"—here the Doctor looked earnestly over his glasses at his elder—"we would be none the worse, Drums-heugh, of a friend to... say a good word for us both in the great court."

"A've thocht that masel"—it was an agony for Drumsheugh to speak—"mair than aince. Weelum MacLure wes... ettlin' (feeling) aifter the same thing the nicht he slippit awa, an' gin ony man cud hae stude on his ain feet... yonder, it was... Weelum."

The Doctor read the last chapter of the Revelation of St John at prayers that evening with much solemnity, and thereafter prayed concerning those who had lived together in the Glen that they might meet at last in the City.

"Finally, most merciful Father, we thank Thee for Thy patience with us and the goodness Thou hast bestowed upon us, and for as much as Thy servants have sinned against Thee beyond our knowledge, we beseech Thee to judge us not according to our deserts, but according to the merits and intercession of Jesus Christ our Lord." He also pronounced the benediction—which was not his wont at family worship—and he shook hands with his two retainers; but he went with his guest to the outer door.

"Good-bye, Drumsheugh... you have been... a faithful friend and elder."

When John paid his usual visit to the study before he went to bed, the Doctor did not hear him enter the room. He was holding converse with Skye, who was seated on a chair, looking very wise and much interested.

"Ye're a bonnie beastie, Skye"—like all Scots, the Doctor in his tender moments dropped into dialect—"for a'thing He made is verra gude. Ye've been true and kind to your master, Skye, and ye 'ill miss him if he leaves ye. Some day ye 'ill die also, and they 'ill bury ye, and I doubt that 'ill be the end o' ye, Skye.

"Ye never heard o' God, Skye, or the Saviour, for ye're juist a puir doggie; but your master is minister of Drumtochty, and... a sinner saved... by grace."

The Doctor was so much affected as he said the last words slowly to himself that John went out on tiptoe, and twice during the night listened—fancying he heard Skye whine. In the morning the Doctor was still sitting in his big chair, and Skye was fondly licking a hand that would never again caress him, while a miniature of Daisy—the little maid who had died in her teens, and whom her brother had loved to his old age—lay on the table, and the Bible was again open at the description of the New Jerusalem.