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Salted With Fire
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CHAPTER IX

Out of this quiescence, however, a pang from the past one morning suddenly waked him, and almost without consciousness of a volition, he found himself at the soutar's door. Maggie opened it with the baby in her arms, with whom she had just been having a game. Her face was in a glow, her hair tossed about, and her dark eyes flashing with excitement. To Blatherwick, without any great natural interest in life, and in the net of a haunting trouble which caused him no immediate apprehension, the young girl, of so little account in the world, and so far below him as he thought, affected him as beautiful; and, indeed, she was far more beautiful than he was able to appreciate. It must be remembered too, that it was not long since he had been refused by another; and at such a time a man is readier to fall in love afresh. Trouble then, lack of interest, and late repulse, had laid James's heart, such as it was, open to assault from a new quarter whence he foresaw no danger.

"That's a very fine baby you have!" he said. "Whose is he?"

"Mine, sir," answered Maggie, with some triumph, for she thought every one must know the story of her treasure.

"Oh, indeed; I did not know!" answered the parson, bewildered.

"At least," Maggie resumed a little hurriedly, "I have the best right to him!" and there stopped.

"She cannot possibly be his mother!" thought the minister, and resolved to question his housekeeper about the child.

"Is your father in the house?" he asked, and without waiting for an answer, went in. "Such a big boy is too heavy for you to carry!" he added, as he laid his hand on the latch of the kitchen door.

"No ae bit!" rejoined Maggie, with a little contempt at his disparagement of her strength. "And wha's to cairry him but me?"

Huddling the boy to her bosom, she went on talking to him in childish guise, as she lifted the latch for the minister:—

"Wad he hae my pet gang traivellin the warl' upo thae twa bonny wee legs o' his ain, wantin the wings he left ahint him? Na, na! they maun grow a heap stronger first. His ain mammie wad cairry him gien he war twice the size! Noo, we s' gang but the hoose and see daddy."

She bore him after the minister, and sat down with him on her own stool, beside her father, who looked up, with his hands and knees in skilful consort of labour.

"Weel, minister, hoo are ye the day? Is the yerd ony lichter upo' the tap o' ye?" he said, with a smile that was almost pauky.

"I do not understand you, Mr. MacLear!" answered James with dignity.

"Na, ye canna! Gien ye could, ye wouldna be sae comfortable as ye seem!"

"I cannot think, Mr. MacLear, why you should be rude to me!"

"Gien ye saw the hoose on fire aboot a man deid asleep, maybe ye micht be in ower great a hurry to be polite til 'im!" remarked the soutar.

"Dare you suggest, sir, that I have been drinking?" cried the parson.

"Not for a single moment, sir; and I beg yer pardon for causin ye so to mistak me: I do not believe, sir, ye war ever ance owertaen wi' drink in a' yer life! I fear I'm jist ower ready to speyk in parables, for it's no a'body that can or wull un'erstan' them! But the last time ye left me upo' this same stule, it was wi' that cry o' the Apostle o' the Gentiles i' my lug—'Wauk up, thoo that sleepest!' For even the deid wauk whan the trumpet blatters i' their lug!"

"It seems to me that there the Apostle makes allusion to the condition of the Gentile nations, asleep in their sins! But it may apply, doubtless, to the conversion of any unbelieving man from the error of his ways."

"Weel," said the soutar, turning half round, and looking the minister full in the face, "are ye convertit, sir? Or are ye but turnin frae side to side i' yer coffin—seekin a sleepin assurance that ye're waukin?"

"You are plain-spoken anyway!" said the minister, rising.

"Maybe I am at last, sir! And maybe I hae been ower lang in comin to that same plainness! Maybe I was ower feart for yer coontin me ill-fashiont— what ye ca' rude!"

The parson was half-way to the door, for he was angry, which was not surprising. But with the latch in his hand he turned, and, lo, there in the middle of the floor, with the child in her arms, stood the beautiful Maggie, as if in act to follow him: both were staring after him.

"Dinna anger him, father," said Maggie; "he disna ken better!"

"Weel ken I, my dautie, that he disna ken better; but I canna help thinkin he's maybe no that far frae the waukin. God grant I be richt aboot that! Eh, gien he wud but wauk up, what a man he would mak! He kens a heap—only what's that whaur a man has no licht?"

"I certainly do not see things as you would have me believe you see them; and you are hardly capable of persuading me that you do, I fear!" said Blatherwick, with the angry flush again on his face, which had for a moment been dispelled by pallor.

But here the baby seeming to recognize the unsympathetic tone of the conversation, pulled down his lovely little mouth, and sent from it a dread and potent cry. Clasping him to her bosom, Maggie ran from the room with him, jostling James in the doorway as he let her pass.

"I am afraid I frightened the little man!" he said.

"'Deed, sir, it may ha' been you, or it may ha' been me 'at frichtit him," rejoined the soutar. "It's a thing I'm sair to blame in—that, whan I'm in richt earnest, I'm aye ready to speyk as gien I was angert. Sir, I humbly beg yer pardon."

"As humbly I beg yours," returned the parson; "I was in the wrong."

The heart of the old man was drawn afresh to the youth. He laid aside his shoe, and turning on his stool, took James's hand in both of his, and said solemnly and lovingly—

"This moment I wad wullin'ly die, sir, that the licht o' that uprisin o' which we spak micht brak throuw upon ye!"

"I believe you, sir," answered James; "but," he went on, with an attempt at humour, "it wouldn't be so much for you to do after all, seeing you would straightway find yourself in a much better place!"

"Maybe whaur the penitent thief sat, some auchteen hunner year ago, waitin to be called up higher!" rejoined the soutar with a watery smile.

The parson opened the door, and went home—where his knees at once found their way to the carpet.

From that night Blatherwick began to go often to the soutar's, and soon went almost every other day, for at least a few minutes; and on such occasions had generally a short interview with Maggie and the baby, in both of whom, having heard from the soutar the story of the child, he took a growing interest.

"You seem to love him as if he were your own, Maggie!" he said one morning to the girl.

"And isna he my ain? Didna God himsel gie me the bairn intil my vera airms —or a' but?" she rejoined.

"Suppose he were to die!" suggested the minister. "Such children often do!"

"I needna think aboot that," she answered. "I would just hae to say, as mony ane has had to say afore me: 'The Lord gave,'—ye ken the rest, sir!"

But day by day Maggie grew more beautiful in the minister's eyes, until at last he was not only ready to say that he loved her, but for her sake to disregard worldly and ambitious considerations.

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