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A Probationer by Ian Maclaren


One winter I forsook the cottage at Drumtochty, in spite of the pure white snow and the snell, bracing wind from Ben Urtach, and took rooms in Edinburgh. It was a poor exchange, for the talk of professors and advocates, although good enough in its way, was not to be compared with the wisdom of James Soutar; but there were more books in Edinburgh than in the Glen, and it was there that I met my probationer. From time to time we passed upon the stair, when he would shrink into a landing and apologise for his obstruction, and if in sheer forgetfulness I said "Fine day," with the rain beating on the windows, he nervously agreed. With his suspicion of clerical attire, and his deferential manner, he suggested some helot of the ecclesiastical world, whose chiefs live in purple and fine linen, and whose subordinates share with tramway men and sempstresses the honour of working harder and receiving less pay than any other body in the commonwealth. By his step I had identified him as the tenant of a single room above my sitting-room, and one wondered how any man could move so little and so gently. If he shifted a chair, it was by stealth, and if in poking his fire a coal dropped on the hearth, he abandoned the audacious attempt.

One grew so accustomed to these mouse-like movements that it came as a shock when my neighbour burst into activity. It was on a Friday afternoon that he seemed to be rearranging his furniture so as to leave a clear passage from end to end of the room, and then, after he had adjusted the chairs and table to his satisfaction, he began a wonderful exercise. Sometimes he would pace swiftly backwards and forwards with a murmuring sound as one repeating passages by rote, with occasional sudden pauses, when he refreshed his memory from some quarter. Sometimes he stood before the table and spoke aloud, rising to a pitch, when one could catch a word or two, and then he would strike a book, quite fiercely for him, and once or twice he stamped his foot almost as hard as a child could. After this outbreak he would rest a while, and then begin again on the lower key, and one knew when he reached the height by the refrain, "Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus." It was an amazing development, and stimulated thought.

"No," explained our excellent landlady, "he's no daft, though ye micht think sae. He's a minister without a kirk, an' he's juist learnin' his sermon; but, Losh keep us, he's by ordinar' the day.

"He's my cousin's son, ye see"—and Mrs. Macfarlane settled to historical detail—"an' his mother's a weedow. She focht to get him through St. Andrew's, an' hoo she managed passes me. Noo he's what is called a probationer, an', eh, but he earns his livin' hard.

"His business," continued Mrs. Macfarlane, "is to tak' the pulpit when a minister is awa' at a Sacrament or on his holiday, and any Sabbath he micht be at Peterhead and the next at Wigtown. He gets his orders on Friday, an' he sets aff wi' his bit bag on Saturday, an' a weary body he is on Monday nicht An' it's little he maks for a' he does, bare twenty shillin' a week clear; but naebody can stand this colie-shangie, (disturbance)." For above the landlady's exposition rose the probationer's voice: "Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus."

What she said to her cousin once removed I know not, but it was not in vain, for in the evening this was brought by the servant:—

"Dear Sir,—

"It affords me sincere regret to learn that you have been disturbed in the midst of your literary avocations by sounds and movements emanating from my room. They are unfortunately and unavoidably connected with a new method of professional work which I have been advised to adopt by experienced friends. It would, however, be unrighteous that one man should hinder another in his daily labour, and I would be greatly obliged if you could indicate any time of absence during which I might be free to speak aloud and move with energy in my chamber without offence. Apologising for my unwitting annoyance,

"I am,

"Yours respectfully,

"Hiram Clunas."

It was written on poor paper and a single sheet, but the handwriting was that of a scholar, a man accustomed to form Hebrew and Greek characters, and the very flavour of pedantry was attractive, so that one wanted to know the writer, and I seized the excuse of a personal answer.

He was quite unprepared for my coming, and upset a Hebrew lexicon and four German books on the Prophets before he could get a chair in his single room below the slates; nor had he any small talk to offer, but he was ready enough to speak about his own work, and seemed anxious to explain his recent departure. It also occurred to me that he wanted my judgment.

"My work, let me explain," he said, hesitatingly, "is not pastoral or... devoted to a particular sphere, since my gifts have not yet... commended themselves to a congregation after such a fashion that they were inclined to... in short, wished to have me as their minister. Mine is a vagum ministerium. I am what is called a probationer, that is, I have been duly educated in profane and sacred learning for the holy ministry, and have passed certain examinations... without discredit."

"Of that I am sure," I interpolated with sincerity, whereat the probationer ought to have bowed and replied, "It is very good of you to say so," but as it was he only blushed and looked as if he had been caught boasting.

"And then?" I suggested.

"It remains to discover whether I am... fit for the practical work of my calling—if it be, indeed, I am called at all.. And here the little man came to a halt.

"You are examined again," I inquired, tentatively, "or placed under a chief for a little?"

"Well, no, although the latter would be an excellent way—but it is not for me to criticise the rules of my Church; if any congregation has lost its minister, then such as I, that is, persons in a state of probation, are sent each Sabbath to... preach, and then the people choose the one who... And again Mr. Clunas came to a stand for want of fitting words.

"Who comes out first in the preaching competition," I added, and in an instant was sorry.

"It would ill become me to put the matter... in such a form, and if I have done so it has been an inadvertence, and indeed I did not mean to complain, but rather to explain the reason of... the noise."

"Please tell me whatever you please, but it was not noise, for I heard some words...

"The rivers of Damascus? I feared so, sir; that was the climax or point of repetition—but I will relate the matter in order, with your permission.

"It has been my habit, after I have duly examined a passage in the original language and the light of competent scholars, and verified its lessons by my own reason and conscience—collected the raw material, if I may so say—to commit the same to writing according to my ability, using language that can be understood of the people, and yet conforming as far as may be to the Elizabethan standard."

In my opinion, I indicated, he had done well. "I judged that I would have your approval so far, but hereafter comes in a grave question of expediency, on which I should like your mind as a neutral person and one given to literary pursuits. My habit is further to read to the people what I have written in a clear voice, and with such animation as is natural to me, in the faith that whatsoever may have been given me by the Spirit of Truth may be witnessed to the hearers by the same Spirit."

This appeared to me a very reasonable method and a just hope.

"Others, however, acting according to their nature, commit their message to memory, and deliver it to the people with many lively and engaging gestures, which pleases the people and wins their hearts."

"And so the groundlings prefer the windbags," I interrupted, "and elect them to be their minister."

"It is not so that I wished you to infer," and the probationer's voice was full of reproof, "for I trust my desire is not to obtain a church, but the confirmation of my calling through the voice of the people; yet who knoweth his heart?" And the probationer was much distressed.

It was only my foolish thought, I hastened to explain, and besought him to continue.

"A friend of... much shrewdness and, I am sure, of good intention, has spoken to me at length on my... want of favour with the people, and has pointed out that the Word must be placed before them after a winsome fashion."

"And so?"

"He urged me to choose texts which could be frequently repeated with effect, and so lodge their idea in the mind of the people, and that I should not use any manuscript, but should employ certain arts of oratory, such as beginning low and raising the voice up to a climax where it would be good to repeat the text with emphasis.

"As an example and... inducement he dwelt upon the case of one probationer who had taken for his text, 'And there shall be no more sea,' whereon he composed a single sermon, to which he devoted much pains. This he delivered daily for some hours in his chamber, and at the end of each paragraph said in a loud voice, 'And there shall be no more sea.' He was elected to three churches within a short space," concluded Mr. Clunas.

"You have therefore thought it desirable to amend your habit."

"Well, so far," and the probationer was much embarrassed, "it was impossible for me to handle what my adviser called 'repeaters,' such as that I have mentioned, for my mind does not incline to them; but as I had been labouring the tendency to prefer meretricious and sensational religion to that which is austere and pure from the text, 'Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? * it seemed to me that I might for once... make trial... that is, use the words Abana and Pharpar as a symbol to... fix the truth, as it were. It is very laborious and... not grateful to me. Do you think that... I am doing right?" and my probationer fixed me with an anxious eye.

"Quite so, sir, I understand perfectly," as I was making a blundering effort to suggest that Providence hardly intended that my probationer should go round the country like a showman with "repeaters."

"You have confirmed my own idea and... delivered my feet from falling, for I had come nearly to unreality in a holy thing, besides ridding me from an irksome task," and he regarded the sheets—the "rivers" standing out in half text—with strong dislike.

"There is another matter," he continued, "on which I would fain have your mind, since you have shown so much sympathy. It is now, I regret to say, the custom for a person in my position, that is, on probation, to print a number of certificates from influential persons and send them to... the authorities in a vacant church. This I have refused to do; but there is a special reason why I strongly desire to be settled... not quite unworthy, I hope," and a faint flush came to the probationer's face.

"I understand"—for it was natural to suppose that he was engaged, as many in his circumstances are, which grows into a pathetic tragedy as a girl waits for long years till her betrothed is approved in his work and can offer her a home—"and you have got your certificates."

"A few, and it may be that I could secure more; here is one which... I value deeply... count above gold. It's from Prof. Carphin; you know what he has done, of course.

"Hebrew scholar"—the probationer rose from his chair and paced the floor—"that is inadequate, quite inadequate; there are many Hebrew scholars, thank God, but Prof. Carphin has gone deeper. Why, sir, he has made a race of scholars, and changed the face of theological thought in Scotland; he is the modern Erasmus of our land," and the probationer was very warm.

"This is what he has written of me, and it is superfluous to say that from such a man this testimony is the highest praise; I ought hardly to show such words, but you will not misjudge me."

"I beg to certify that Mr. Hiram Clunas, Master of Arts and Bachelor of Divinity, late Fellow of this College, is in my judgment fully competent to expound the Hebrew Scriptures after an accurate and spiritual fashion to any body of intelligent people.

"Zechariah Carphin,

"D.D., LL.D.

"Calvin College, Edinburgh."

"Pardon me, it is my foolishness, but you notice 'fully'; this extremity of language is, I need not say, undeserved, but that Dr. Carphin should have written it is... a compensation for many little disappointments," and the probationer's voice trembled.

"No, it will not be of material service in the way of gaining me a hearing, for it is a... moral disgrace to my Church that the word of this eminent man carries little weight with... committees and such like, and that many people in this University city do not know his face when he walks along Princes Street.

"This is from another kind of man, who is very... acceptable as a preacher, and has much influence... in vacancies; it was an indiscretion, I fear, to have asked him for... a certificate, as he has only seen me once; but when one is pressed he is not always wise."

"I have had the pleasure of knowing the Rev. Hiram Clunas for a considerable time, and have much satisfaction in recommending him to the favourable consideration of selection committees of vacant congregations, He is a ripe scholar, a profound divine, an eloquent preacher, a faithful pastor, an experienced Christian, with an attractive and popular manner, and general knowledge of a varied and rich character. Any congregation securing Mr. Clunas is certain to increase both in number and finance, and I anticipate for this talented young minister a future of remarkable and rapid success.

"MacDuff MacLeear, D.D."

"Yes, it is a curious name, and I believe was, so to say, adopted. Originally he was James MacLeear—MacLeear is his own—and some years ago he inserted MacDuff, I am credibly informed, and now he has dropped his Christian name.

"The reason for the change, it is understood, is for purposes of advertisement in the public prints, where, I am informed, ordinary names such as James or John are less... striking, so that preachers who desire to appeal to the people use two surnames, as it were; it seems to me doubtful in ethics, but one must not be ready to judge his neighbour in such straits.

"No, his degree is not from a Scots University, but from a seat of learning in a Western State of America—Auroraville, I think it is called, but I am not sure. Yes, he wrote a little book on the Maidens of the Bible of a popular cast.

"You agree with me that no one could use such a testimony with... self-respect, and I have resolved to print no certificates or make any personal appeal; but I do not regret the effort I made, for it has gained me the Professor's letter," and the probationer folded up the letter carefully and placed it in his desk.

"I fear that you must think me charged with vain ambition, but... it is not for my own sake."

From time to time we spent an hour together, and he told me of his journeys, many and toilsome.

"Of course I am not sent to supply in cities, for they require men of greater... experience; my allotment is always in the country, and I like that better.

"When my station comes near I begin to look out of the window and see whether the district is level or hilly—for though climbing tries one a little, one has a fair view to refresh the soul, and I like woods because of the mystery and the rustling of the leaves.

"Sometimes a farmer will meet me with a dogcart—and there are no men so kind as farmers—but mostly I walk, and that is nothing unless the distance be far and it be raining heavily. No, it may be a weakness of the flesh, but I do not like a night walk, and yet to see the squares of light in the cottage windows, flashing across a glen or breaking out of a wood, is very pleasing."

One snowy morning in February he came into my room in evident excitement, with a letter in his hand.

"You have taken such an interest in my affairs that I thought you would like to know... I have received a letter informing me that I am on the short leet for Tilliegask... just two, and I am one... and I am to preach next Sabbath... and the farmer with whom I stayed has sent a very encouraging letter."

During the week the probationer was much tried on a question of conscience, whether he ought to act on a suggestion of his friend at Tilliegask.

"It happens," he explained to me, "that the people at Tilliegask are very conservative in their views of the Bible, while, as you are aware, I have been led to accept certain modern conclusions regarding the history of the books, and my good friend desires that I should... make no allusion to them in my discourse.

"Now," went on the probationer, "it was not my intention to do so, but after this advice am I not bound in conscience to indicate, simply to indicate, my position, that they may not be deceived, and that I may not obtain a church by guile?" And he read to me the sentence, which I make no doubt no one understood, but which was to Mr. Clunas a great relief. He came home from Tilliegask in high spirits, and speculated every evening on his chances as against the other man who was to preach on Sabbath.

"No, he was not what you would call a scholar," and then the probationer laughed aloud—a rare occurrence; "well, it was a translation in the Latin class; he rendered adhuc juvenis as 'a still youth,' which was much tasted, and others, too, as remarkable; but it is not generous to remember such... failings."

The good man was indeed so distressed by this disparaging allusion to his rival that he searched his heart for the sins of pride and jealousy, which with envy and worldliness, he confessed to me, constantly beset him. He also impressed upon me that although Mr. Tosh might not be a scholar in the academic sense, yet he had such gifts of speech that he would be an excellent minister for Tilliegask if the choice of that secluded place should fall on Tosh. But the probationer waited anxiously for the first post on Tuesday, which would give the result, and I was only less anxious.

When he did not come down with tidings, and only the faintest sound came from his room as of a chair occasionally shifted before the fire, I went up, and found my friend very low and two open letters on the table.

"It has not been... God's will," and he signed that I should read the letters. One was from the ecclesiastical functionary who presides over elections and church courts, and who is called by the suggestive name of "moderator"; that the vote had been fifty-two for Mr. Clunas and ninety-three for Mr. Tosh; that Mr. Tosh had been elected; that on his, the moderator's appeal, the minority had "fallen in"; that he, the moderator, was sure that Mr. Clunas would be pleased to know that his supporters had shown so good a spirit, and that there was no doubt that the Great Head of the Church had something in store for His servant; and that in the event of Mr. Clunas applying in another vacancy he, the moderator, would be willing to give him a strong certificate as to the impression he, Mr. Clunas, had produced on the congregation of Tilliegask. The second letter was from Wester Tilliegask, my friend's host, who was full of genuine regret that Mr. Clunas had not won the poll, who explained that up to Sabbath his chance was excellent, but that Mr. Tosh had carried all before him by a sermon on "A Rainbow round about the Throne," with very fetching illustrations and quotations—Mr. Tosh had also won several votes by shaking hands with the people at the door, and ingeniously giving it to be understood that his idea of pastoral duty was to visit his congregation four times a year; that, notwithstanding all these Tosh attractions, he, Wester Tilliegask, would have preferred Mr. Clunas; and that as there was a rumour that the minister of Ballengeich would soon need a colleague, he would arrange through his, Wester Tilliegask's, wife's brother that Mr. Clunas should have a hearing. He added that a certificate from MacDuff MacLeear, placing Mr. Tosh a little lower than St Paul, had told.

The probationer was very brave and generous, blaming no one, and acknowledging that Tosh would be a more suitable man for Tilliegask, but it was evident he was hardly hit.

"It was not to escape the unrest of this life," he said, "nor for the position, nor even for the sanction of my work; it was for the sake of one who... has waited long to see me an ordained minister. She may not... be spared much longer; my mother is now nearly seventy." So it was no sweetheart, but his mother of whom he thought.

"If I had been elected, I had purposed to start this forenoon and carry the news myself, and I imagined the scene. I never could reach the cottage unseen, for there is a window in the gable which commands the road, so that mother is ever waiting at the garden gate for me.

"Do not count me foolish, but I was to pretend that I had just come to visit her for a day, and then ask her how she would like to leave the cottage and live in a manse.

"By this time she would jalouse something—'tis her word—but I would tell nothing, only expatiate on the manse and her room in it, and... and... she would suddenly throw her arms round my neck.... Excuse me, sir; I will come down in the evening, if you please."

Before evening he was hurrying down to the cottage, for after all he had to go to his mother, and when he came back next Monday she was dead and buried.

"Your sympathy is very grateful," as we sat together, "and it helps me, but I think my heart is... broken; although I had to live in Edinburgh in order to accomplish my railway journeys, and we only saw one another at intervals, we were all in all to one another....

"There were things passed between us I cannot tell, for it seems to me that a mother's death-bed is a holy place; but she knew that I had lost Tilliegask, and... she was not cast down, as I was for her sake.

"'Dinna lose heart, Hiram,' she said, her hand in mine, 'for my faith will be justified; when I gave ye to the Lord the day your father died I was sure, a' through the fecht o' education I was sure, an' when you got your honours I was sure, an' when you got no kirk I was still as sure, and now my eyes are clear, an' I see that God has savit you for a work that hath not entered into my heart,' and she blessed me...."

From that day he began to fail, and although he struggled to fulfil preaching engagements, he had at last to give up public work. But he toiled harder than ever at the Semitic languages.

"It is not that I am deceiving myself with vain hopes," he explained to me one day, "for I know full well that I am dying, but it seemeth good that whatsoever talent I have should be cultivated to the end.

"The future life is veiled, and speculation is vain, but language must be used, and they who have mastered the ancient roots will be of some service; it is all I can offer, and I must give of my best."

The morning he died I looked over his few affairs and balanced his accounts, which were kept in a small pass-book, his poor fees on one side and his slender expenses on the other to a halfpenny.

"The expenditure may seem heavy the last few journeys, but my strength failed by the way, and I was unable to walk to my destination, but there may still be enough at the end of the week for what has to be done.

"There will be £9 15s. 6d. when all is paid.

"With the sale of my books it will suffice, for I have carefully enquired, to buy a grave and defray the cost of burial. It is not possible to be buried beside my mother, for our ground is full, so let me lie where the sun is shining on the Grange Cemetery."

Soon after his mind wandered, and I gathered he was in the vestry of Tilliegask Kirk.

"Lord, be merciful to me and remember my infirmities... deliver Thy servant from the fear of man and all doubleness of heart... give me grace to declare Thy truth and to set Thee before me... bless my mother and hear her prayers...."

After a little while he began to preach, but we could make nothing of the words till he suddenly stopped and raised himself in the bed.

"Thou, Lord," he cried, with great astonishment, "hearing me... Forgive... I am not worthy to declare Thy Gospel...." What was said by the Master none of us heard, but the astonishment passed into joy, and the light thereof still touched and made beautiful his face as the probationer fell on sleep.

It was a spring day when we laid his body to rest, and any one who cares can find his grave because a weeping willow hangs over it, and this is the inscription on the stone:

Hiram Clunas,


"It is a very small thing that I should be judged of man's judgment."