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An Evangelist by Ian Maclaren

 

His private business was lard, which he bought for the rise and sold for the fall—being a bull or a bear without prejudice—and with a success so distinguished that his name was mentioned in highly complimentary terms on the American market When the famous lard corner of 1887 had been wound up, and every man had counted his gains (or losses), old man Perkins, of Chicago, did justice to his chief opponent, like the operator of honour that he was.

"No, sir, I ain't a slouch, and the man who says that I don't know lard is a mining expert; but Elijah Higginbotham, of Victoria Street, Liverpool, Great Britain, has come out on top: he's a hustler from way back, is Elijah."

Mr. Perkins' opinion, which was a deduction based on the results of at least six first-class encounters, was generally accepted on both sides of the Atlantic, and it was conceded that what Mr. Elijah Higginbotham did not know about that capricious and volatile instrument of speculation was not knowledge. As a matter of principle he was opposed to gambling, and denounced it with much eloquence and perfect sincerity at conferences of a religious character,—warning his audience, composed mainly of old ladies, against the Derby,—but if this evil and ruinous spirit should happen to enter his market, where it seemed quite at home, Elijah was prepared to overthrow gambling with its own weapons, and on such occasions it was worldly wisdom to bet on Elijah's side. His ideas regarding the date of unfulfilled prophecy might be crude, but his foresight regarding the future of lard was an instinct.

His public business was religion, and especially the work of an evangelist, and to this Elijah gave himself with incredible courage and diligence. When he was not manipulating lard or asleep, he was inquiring into the condition of his neighbour's soul, and none could escape him. It was freely told on 'Change how he had fallen on an alderman, who had responded too generously to the loyal toasts at a municipal banquet, and so impressed him with the shortness of life and the awfulness of the future, that the worthy man was bathed in tears, and promised if spared to join the Plymouth Brethren next day. Bishops of the Church, who are awful beings to ordinary people, and with whom some of us hardly dare to speak about the weather, were to Elijah a chosen prey in railway carriages, so that he would hunt a train to travel with one for a long journey, and he has been known to reduce one pompous prelate to the verge of apoplexy by showing before a (secretly) delighted company of "firsts" that this successor to the Apostles did not really know wherein conversion consisted, and, by not very indirect inference, that the Bishop was himself still unconverted. Unto Elijah belongeth also the doubtful and perilous distinction of having been the unwilling and (as he would himself say) unworthy means of stopping a London express when going at full speed. It was, of course, an old and perhaps over-nervous gentleman who actually pulled the cord and waved to the guard, and it was Elijah who offered immediate and elaborate explanations; but Elijah's fellow-passenger held a strong position when he laid the blame on the evangelist.

"It's well enough for him to say that he was speaking spiritually, but he told me plainly that I was going to Hell, and not to London, and I put it to you, guard,"—by this time there was a large jury of interested passengers,—"when the only other man in the compartment uses language of that kind, and he much younger and stronger, whether I wasn't justified in calling for assistance."

Quiet men, not prone to panics, just breaking upon their luncheon at the Club, rose and fled when Elijah sat down at the same table, knowing well that not only would a forbidding silence be no protection, but that even ingenious and ensnaring allusions to the critical condition of the lard market would be no protection against personal inquiries of the most searching character. He was always provided with portable religious literature of a somewhat startling character, and was in this way able to supply his fellow-passengers in the evening 'bus; and it was stimulating to any one with a sense of humour to see commercial magnates handling one of Elijah's tracts as if it were dynamite, and late-comers taking in the interior at a glance from the step, and hurriedly climbing to the top—willing to risk bronchitis rather than twenty minutes of Elijah. His conscientious opinion was that the limited number of persons who held his particular opinions would go to heaven, and the large number who did not would go elsewhere, and in these circumstances no one could blame him for being urgent No doubt Elijah—for indeed this was almost an official title—was very insistent, and had no tact; but then when you are pulling people out of fires, and handing them out of burning houses—these were his favourite illustrations of the situation—one does not pay much attention to ceremony or even manners. It was often said that he alienated people from religion, and so defeated his own ends; but I suppose that his reply would be that he left them no worse than he found them, and if it was asserted that he influenced no one, he very likely had some cases of success among that class of persons who are never utterly persuaded until they are felled by a blow between the eyes. Very likely he was not concerned about success or failure, approval or disapproval, but simply was determined to do his duty, which was to hold back as many of his neighbours as he could from going to Hell. This duty he discharged with all his might and with undeniable courage, and Elijah had his reward by universal consent in that no one accused him of canting, for he never said anything he did not believe with the marrow of his bones, or of hypocrisy, for he certainly made no gain of godliness.

When Elijah entered my room one morning—his clean-shaven, heavy-jawed face more determined than ever—I was certain that he had not come to talk over the weather, and prepared myself for faithful dealing.

"It is not my custom," he began, "to read fiction, and I believe that the more people read novels the less will they want to read their Bibles; but I was recommended to read a book of yours, called The Days of Auld Lang Syne, by a friend, in whose judgment I have usually placed confidence, and I feel it my duty to call and remonstrate with you about that book."

Was it the literary form that he wished to criticise, or the substance? In either case I hoped he would speak with all frankness, an encouragement which Mr. Higginbotham perhaps hardly needed.

"Well, I don't know anything about literature, for I thank God that my Bible and the Pilgrim's Progress are enough for me; but I did once read Scott—long ago before I knew the value of time—and your book is certainly not up to that sample." This, I assured Elijah, was my own fixed and unalterable opinion, and I ventured to congratulate Elijah on the acuteness of his literary judgment—which compliment was passed over without acknowledgment—and then I pressed for his farther criticism.

"What I have to say is just this, that there are characters in the book who ought not to be introduced to a Christian family, and views which are sure to injure religion."

Now it happened that I had been reading that morning an interesting and very caustic review, in which it was pointed out that no people had ever lived or ever would live so good as the inhabitants of Drumtochty: that I had confused together the (mythical) garden of Eden with a Scots village; that the places were really very different in morals and general environment; that it was a pity that the author did not know the limits of true art; that what was wanted was reality, not sentimental twaddle, and that in short—but this is not how the critic put it—let the writer of fiction stick to the ash-pit in a house, and not attempt the picture gallery. The critic—a young gentleman, I should say—was very severe on my London doctor, who had taken a servant girl to his own house that she might die there in peace, and assured me that such extravagant unrealities showed my hopeless ignorance, and proved my unfitness to be an artist in life. Up to this point I had been much humbled, and had been trying to profit by every word of wisdom; but now I laid down the paper and had a few moments of sinless enjoyment, for this incident had been lifted bodily out of life, with only some change in names, and was the only fact in the book. A poor puling idealist!—yet even in my most foolish flights I had kept some hold on life—but here was Elijah Higginbotham sitting calmly in my study and suggesting that I was a realist of such a pronounced and shameless character that my books were not fit for family reading.

When I pressed him for some evidence of his charge, he cited "Posty," and spoke briefly but strongly about that unfortunate man's taste for alcoholic liquors.

"Could I reconcile it with my conscience to introduce such a man to the Christian public, and was I not aware of the injury which drink was doing in our country?"

"Mr. Higginbotham," I said, "my business was to represent life in a Scots parish, within limits, as I had seen it, and although I say it with deep regret, and hope the matter will never be mentioned outside this room, every Scot is not a rigid and bigoted abstainer—a few, I hope fewer every year, do 'taste.'"

"We are all perfectly aware of that, and more than a few,"—which was not generous on his part,—"but that is not the question. It is whether you, as a respectable—and I would fain believe in spite of what I have read—Christian man, ought deliberately to condone and countenance this conduct."

"Surely, sir, you do not suppose for one moment that I have the slightest sympathy with intemperance, or that I did not deeply regret the habits into which Posty had fallen! Had I known that you or any intelligent person would have imagined such a thing, I would have added footnotes, whenever Posty forgot himself, such as (1) The author deeply regrets Posty's conduct; (2) The author repudiates Posty's language with all his heart."

"It might have saved misunderstanding." Elijah regarded me dubiously. "I would certainly not have judged that you felt so strongly from the book."

"Ah, there you are wrong, for again and again I simply wrestled with Posty to take the blue ribbon; but you know one should not boast, and it would have sounded egotistical to obtrude these efforts, unhappily unsuccessful, in the book.

"It is," I ventured to add with some pathos, "very hard that I should first of all have had to suffer from my association, even in a literary sense, with Posty, and then afterwards to be treated by religious and philanthropic persons as if I had been his boon companion."

"No, no; don't put words in my mouth," broke in Elijah. "I said nothing of the kind; but you have not been careful to convey your own position."

"Mr. Higginbotham, if I might give you a word of advice, do not meddle with fiction, for you never can tell into what company you may come. Why, I may tell you that 'Posty,' before his lamented death, used to haunt this room—in a literary sense, of course—and some evenings I was terrified.

"If he were (comparatively) sober he would confine himself to the news of the district, and the subject of her Majesty's mails; but if he had been tasting he always took to theology, as Scots generally do, and then he grew so profound and eloquent on the doctrine of election that if you had come in my character would have been worth nothing: you would have jumped to the conclusion, not without reason, that he had got his refreshments here."

"You will excuse me," said Elijah, who had lost his customary expression of cocksureness during the last few minutes, "I am out of touch with the market: am I not right in understanding that the Postman was never alive?"

"Well, I'm sorry you have thought so, for it would be rather a severe reflection on his author; but I think he must have had some life, else you would not have done him (and me) the honour of so much attention."

"He was your manufacture or creation, in fact done for the book; put it as you please—you know what I mean"—and my visitor grew impatient. "Then, if that be so, you could make him say and do what you pleased."

"In fact, take the blue ribbon and become an example for temperance speeches."

"Why not?" replied Elijah stoutly; "it might have done good."

"Mr. Higginbotham," I said with much solemnity, "be thankful that in your busy and blameless life you have never meddled with fiction, save, I fancy, in commercial transactions; for you have escaped trials of anxiety and disappointment beyond anything in the markets. You suppose, I notice, that because a story-teller creates certain characters, he can do with them as he pleases, putting words into their mouths and dictating their marriages."

"Well, naturally I do."

"Nothing of the kind, sir. Once these characters are fairly started on their career, and come of age, as it were, they go their own way, and the whole of their author's time is taken up following them, remonstrating with them, and trying, generally in vain, to get them to work out his plan. Now you would say, I fancy, that the poor author could at least settle their marriages."

"I would do so," said Elijah grimly, "if I were writing."

"Unfortunately that is one of the most difficult and delicate parts of a poor novelist's work, and he fails as often as he succeeds. The man marries the wrong woman, and vice versâ, till the author is in despair, and sometimes wishes he had never called such a set of rebels into existence."

Elijah looked incredulous.

"I can assure you, you never know what secret they may have in their past lives, or what love affairs are going on behind your back. I'll give you an illustration, if I may quote from very simple fiction. A lady wrote me, after the publication of the Brier Bush, that she believed Drumsheugh was in love with Marget Howe, and wished to know whether this was the case? I replied that this suspicion had crossed my own mind, and that I was watching events. And as you have done me the honour of reading Auld Lang Syne, you will remember that Drumsheugh had been a faithful, although undeclared lover of Marget since early manhood. Yet it came on me as a surprise; and if any one had said, Why did not you tell this sooner? my answer would have been, I did not know. If I am not wearying you, Mr. Higginbotham—I am on my defence, and I should like to have your good opinion—I may confess that I tried to arrange, in a book, a girl's love affairs, and she married the wrong man, one quite unsuited for her, and the result was—although this is again a secret—they have had many unnecessary trials. No, no, we are helpless creatures, we so-called authors; poor mother hens, beseeching from the edge of the pond and lamenting, while the brood of ducklings swim away in all directions."

"That's all very well; and, as writing is not in my line, you may be right; but I have not come to my most serious ground of complaint, and that is the Postman's—er—judgment and future lot."

"Yes," I said, and waited for the indictment u Here, according to your own description, is a man"—and Elijah checked off the list of my poor gossip's sins on his fingers—"who makes no profession of religion—vital religion, I mean, for theology is a mere matter of the head—who indulged in spirituous liquors to excess, who refused tracts, when they were offered, with contempt, who to all appearance had never known any saving change. He dies suddenly, and bravely, I admit, but with no sign of repentance, and this man, dying in his sin, is sent to Heaven as if he were a saint If that is what happened with the Postman," summed up Elijah with uncompromising decision, "then I do not know the Gospel. 'He that believeth shall be saved, and he that believeth not shall be damned,' is plain enough. He wasn't saved here—no one could say that 'As the tree falleth, so shall it lie.'

He couldn't be saved there. Yes, it may sound severe, but it is the truth, and there is no room for sentiment in religion; your story is grossly misleading, and may do injury to many precious souls."

"By moving people, do you mean, to give their lives for others and to forget themselves?" I dared to ask.

"I don't deny that it was a gallant deed to jump into the river and save the girl's life," replied Elijah hastily. "I appreciate that; but it's not by works that any one can be saved. What right had you to send that man to Heaven?"

"Mr. Higginbotham, you are still making me the scapegoat for other men's acts. I was only the historian. It was Jamie Soutar and Carmichael, the Free Kirk minister, who held a council on the road one day, and decided that it must be well with Posty because he died to save a little child. Jamie has always been a trial to me, and a ground of criticism, especially because he used to cloak his good deeds with falsehood to escape praise instead of proclaiming them at the corners of the streets as the good people used to do. So little sympathy have I with Jamie, that before the proof sheets of the book left this room I sent for Jamie (in a literary sense), and he came (in the same sense), and I placed him just where you are sitting and spoke to him (always in the same sense) very seriously. May I tell you—as it will further vindicate me—what I said?

"Thank you, sir, for your patience. 'James,' I said—for if any one is usually called Jamie and on some occasion you say James, it is very impressive—'if these sheets are printed as they stand, I'm afraid both you and I will suffer at the hands of the good people, and, with your permission, there is one passage at least I would like to amend.'

"'What is it?* said Jamie quickly, but, I felt, unresponsively.

"'It's where you go up to London solely to visit the poor servant lass, and then say you are in charge of Drumsheugh's cattle; where you assure Lily that her mistress had been enquiring for her, when you had just rated her mistress for cruel carelessness; where you give Lily twenty pounds as from her mistress, while it is your own money: all to cheer a poor dying lassie, James, I admit, but not true, not true.'

"'What wud ye hev me to say?' enquired Jamie, but very drily indeed.

"'Well, I have written a sentence or two, James, which I hope you will allow me to insert, and I am sure our critics will be quite satisfied; it's what they would say themselves.'

"'Read on,' said Jamie, looking very hard.

"'Here I am, Lily, a' the way frae Drumtochty, ane's errand to see ye—a matter o' five pounds outlay, I reckon, but what's that 'atween friends? And here's twenty punds o' ma hard-earned savin's a've brocht ye; ye'll pay me back gin ye be spared; an' gin things come to the worst, yir grandmother's honest; interest needna be mentioned unless ye insist, and ye maunna tell onybody what a've done for ye, except a friend or two in the Glen.'

"'Are ye prood o' that passage?' enquired Jamie, and his tone was distinctly disagreeable; 'd'ye think it a credit to you or me?'

"'It's safe, James, and will be acceptable.'

"Mr. Higginbotham, you will have some idea what sort of men I've had to deal with, and will be more merciful to me when I tell you that Jamie walked to the door without a word and then gave me his answer: 'Ye hev ae Pharisee in yer book; an' gin ye want two, a'm no the man.' You can see yourself what a man of Jamie Soutar's peculiar disposition would do, if he had the power, with poor Posty, who gave his life for a little maid."

"More than Jamie Soutar would... in fact, let Posty off"—Elijah spoke with some feeling—"and it's a mercy that such decisions are not in our hands. We must just go by Revelation, and I do not see any way of escape. As regards Jamie, I cannot approve of deliberate falsehood, and I wish to say so distinctly, but I understand and... appreciate his motive."

As Elijah said this, certain stories came suddenly into my mind: how he would have a hot altercation with some man on religion, but afterwards would do him a good turn in business; how a young fellow had insulted him in a 'bus, and in a great strait, had been helped by some unknown person, and he always believed himself that the person was Elijah. It seemed to me as if the evangelist's face had relaxed a little, and that beneath this casing of doctrine a heart might be beating. So I went on with my defence.

"The other judge who took upon him to reward 'Posty' in the next world was the Free Kirk minister, and I always regarded Carmichael as a heady young man, too much inclined to take up with new views, and not sufficiently respectful to the past But young men have generous impulses and I suppose Carmichael's heart got the better of his head as he thought of Posty giving all he had—his life—for the drowning lassie."

"He would have been unworthy the name of a man, let alone a minister," broke in Elijah, "if he had not admired that deed. Do you think I don't... appreciate the devotion of such a man? It was admirable, and Mr. Carmichael is to be excused if he... did go too far."

So Elijah really was the "Produce Broker" who headed the subscription for the widows and orphans of the gallant lifeboats-men. Some had laughed the idea to scorn, saying that he would never give £100 to any object except tracts or missions. They did not know my evangelist. Whatever he compelled himself to think the Almighty would do with men, Posty had been very well off indeed with Elijah as judge.

"Mr. Higginbotham," I said, taking a rapid resolution, "it does not matter what I think, for a humble story-teller is no theologian, and it matters as little what my friends of the book thought: let me tell the story over again in brief, and I shall leave you to pronounce 'Posty's' doom."

"It's far later than I supposed," and Elijah rose hastily, "and I'm afraid I must go: the market is very sensitive at present. Some other day we can talk the matter over. I have no wish to be uncharitable, whatever people may think of me, but we must obey the truth. Well, if you insist—just ten minutes.... It is not by our feelings, however, that such things are to be decided." Elijah sat down again, looking just a shade too stern, as if he were afraid of his own integrity, and not perfectly sure that the Bible would back him.

"It was Mrs. Macfadyen's youngest daughter, you remember, who fell into the Tochty, and Elsie was everybody's favourite. She was a healthy and winsome child, with fair hair and bright laughing eyes...

"Blue?" suddenly enquired Elijah, and then added in some confusion, "I beg your pardon; I was thinking of a child I once knew, and... loved. Go on."

"Yes, blue, about the colour of a forget-me-not...."

"Hers were darker, like the sea, you know, and in her last illness they were as deep... I interrupt you."

"People liked Elsie because she was such a merry soul: coming to meet you on the road, nodding to you over a hedge, or giving you a kiss if you wished."

Elijah nodded as one who understood; yet he was a wifeless, childless man. Some child friendship most likely; and now, even as I glance at him from the corner of my eyes, his friend is putting her arms round his neck. Would they recognise him in the 'bus at this moment?

"Her mother was washing blankets by the edge of the river, which was in flood, and rising, and the lassie was playing beside her with a doll. She was singing at the very time in gladness of hear and thinking of no danger."

"Poor little woman!" It gave one a start, for this was a new voice, unknown in the lard market or the religious meeting. What had become of Elijah Higginbotham?

"When she either stooped too near the flood, or a larger wave had caught her where she sat, and at the sound of a scream her mother looked round, and saw the wee lassie disappear in the black cauldron which whirled round and round within the rocks."

"Ah!" groaned Elijah, visibly moved, who had spoken calmly of the everlasting damnation of the greater portion of the human race times without number.

"Her mother, in her agony, cried to God to save Elsie."

"She could not have done better," cried Elijah; "and He answered her prayer."

"While she prayed, Posty was coming down the footpath behind, and he heard her cry."

"Posty was the instrument," and Elijah rapped the floor with his stick. "He obeyed the Divine command within, and he cannot go without some reward."

"He tore off his coat in an instant, and then—I suppose if you had been there you would have besought him to bethink himself: and to remember that he was a man unfit to die! Is not that so?"

"Sir," said Elijah, "you do me less than justice, and... insult me. What right have you to ask me such a question? I have preached, and I will preach again; but there's a time for preaching, and a time to refrain from preaching. I can swim, and I have saved two lives in my time. I am a fool for boasting, but I would..."

"I believe you would, Mr. Higginbotham"—I saw an able-bodied man without fear—"and I beg your pardon..."

Elijah waved his hand. I was to go on to the end without delay.

"It seemed fifteen minutes, it was only one, while the mother hung over the edge of the black seething whirlpool, and then he came up, bleeding from a wound in the forehead, without Elsie."

"I take you to witness," declared Elijah solemnly, "that I said he was a brave man. Yes, he had the natural virtues, and some who make a profession have none."

"For a few seconds he hung on to the edge to get breath, and Mrs. Macfadyen herself besought him not to risk his life, for he was a husband and father; but he only answered: 'I'll hae Elsie oot'."

"They forgot themselves,—do you mark that?—both of them," cried Elijah. "Whose Spirit was that? Didn't they keep the commandment of Love, which is the chief commandment? and—answer me—can any one keep that commandment without grace?"

It was not with me but with himself the evangelist was arguing, and I went on:

"He came up again, this time with Elsie in one arm, a poor, little limp bundle of clothes, her yellow hair spread over her face, and her eyes closed, I was afraid, for ever."

"But she lived, didn't she?" There was no Elijah Higginbotham anywhere to be found now, only an excited man, concerned about the saving of a little maid. "Excuse me, I didn't read that part about the saving so carefully as I ought I was more concerned about... the judgment."

"Yes, Elsie was all right in a day or two, but Posty had not strength to do more than hand her to her mother, and then, exhausted by the struggle with the water, he fell back, and was dead when he was found."

"What were you doing that you did not lay hold of Posty and pull him out?" thundered Elijah; "you seem to have been there."

"Only in a literary sense," I hastened to explain, for it now seemed likely that the evangelist having come to condemn Posty, was about to take up the cudgels on his behalf.

"I wish to Heaven you had been there in a physical sense; you would have been far more useful!" replied Elijah. "And so he died and Elsie was saved?"

"Yes, Posty died and went to his account; that was how he lived, and that was how he died." And I waited.

Elijah sprang out of his seat and stood on the hearthrug, his face flushed, and his eyes shining.

"It's a pity that he tasted; I wish he hadn't It's a pity he did not think more about his own soul; I wish he had. But Posty was a hero, and played the man that day. Posty will have another chance. Posty loved, and God is Love; if there's such a thing as justice, it's all right with Posty."

We did not look at one another for a full minute—a print of Perugino's Crucifixion over the mantelpiece interested me, and Elijah's eye seemed to be arrested by the Encyclopedia Britannica on the other side of the room—a minute later we shook hands upon the basis of the Divine Love and our common humanity, and nothing more passed between us.

From my window I could see him go along the street He stopped and slapped his leg triumphantly. I seemed to hear the evangelist say again with great joy: "It's all right with Posty!" I said, "And it's all right with Elijah Higginbotham."