A FRIEND IN NEED

Mr. Buchanan, the minister of St. Leonard’s Church, was a member of a
poor, but well-connected family in the West of Scotland, to which
district, as everybody knows, that name belongs; and it is not to be
supposed that he came to such advancement as a church in a university
town all at once. He had married early the daughter of another minister
in Fife, and it was partly by the interest procured by her family, and
partly by the great reputation he had attained as a preacher, that he
had been promoted to his present charge, which was much more important
and influential than a mere country parish. But a succession of
flittings from manse to manse, even though each new transfer was a
little more important than the previous one, is hard upon a poor
clergyman’s purse, though it may be soothing to his self-esteem; and St.
Leonard’s, though St. Rule was an important port, had not a very large
stipend attached to it. Everybody dwelt upon the fact that it was a most
important post, being almost indeed attached to the university, and with
so large a sphere of influence over the students. But influence is a
privilege and payment in itself, or is supposed to be, and cannot be
made into coin of the realm, or even pound notes, which are its
equivalent. Mr. Buchanan himself was gratified, and he was solemnised,
and felt his responsibility as a power for good over all those young men
very deeply, but his wife may be forgiven, if she sighed occasionally
for a few more tangible signs of the importance of his post. On the
contrary, it led them into expenses to which a country minister is not
tempted. They had to take their share in the hospitalities of the place,
to entertain strangers, to give as seldom as possible, but still
periodically, modest dinner-parties, a necessary return of courtesy to
the people who invited them. Indeed, Mrs. Buchanan was like most women
in her position, the soul of hospitality. It cost her a pang not to
invite any lonely person, any young man of whom she could think that he
missed his home, or might be led into temptation for want of a cheerful
house to come to, or motherly influence over him. She, too, had her
sphere of influence; it hurt her not to exercise it freely. Indeed, she
did exercise it, and was quite unable often to resist the temptation of
crowding the boys up at dinner or supper, in order to have a corner for
some _protégé_. “It was a privilege,” she said, but unfortunately it was
an expensive one, plain though these repasts were. “Oh, the siller!”
this good woman would say, “if there was only a little more of that, how
smoothly the wheels would run.”

The consequence of all this, however, of the frequent removals, of the
lapses into hospitality, the appearances that had to be kept up, and,
finally, the number of the family, had made various hitches in the
family progress. Settling in St. Rule’s, where there was no manse, and
where a house had to be taken, and new carpets and curtains to be got,
not to speak of different furniture than that which had done so very
well in the country, had been a great expense; and all those changes
which attend the setting out of young people in the world had begun. For
Marion, engaged to another young minister, and to be married as soon as
he got a living, there was the plenishing to think of, something more
than the modern trousseau, a provision which included all the household
linen of the new house; and, in short, as much as the parents could do
to set the bride forth in a becoming and liberal manner. And Willie, as
has been told, had his outfit for India to procure. These were the days
before examinations, when friends–it was a kindly habit superseded now
by the changed customs of life–put themselves to great trouble to
further the setting out in life of a clergyman’s sons. And William
Buchanan had got a writership, which is equivalent, I believe, to an
appointment in the Civil Service, by the exertions of one of his
father’s friends. The result of these two desirable family events, the
provision for life of two of its members, though the very best things
that could have happened, and much rejoiced over in the family, brought
with them an appalling prospect for the father and mother when they met
in private conclave, to consider how the preliminaries were to be
accomplished. Where were Willie’s outfit and Marion’s plenishing to come
from? Certainly not out of the straightened stipend of the Kirk of St.
Leonard, in the city of St. Rule. Many anxious consultations had ended
in this, that money must be borrowed in order to make the good fortune
of the children available–that is to say, that the parents must put
themselves under a heavy yoke for the greater part of their remaining
life, in order that the son and the daughter might make a fair and equal
start with their compeers. It is, let us thank heaven, as common as the
day that such sacrifices should be made, so common that there is no
merit in them, nor do the performers in the majority of cases think of
them at all except as simple necessities, the most everyday duties of
life. It was thus that they appeared to the Buchanans. They had both
that fear and horror of debt which is, or was, the accompaniment of a
limited and unelastic income with most reasonable people. They dreaded
it and hated it with a true instinct; it gave them a sense of shame,
however private it was, and that it should be betrayed to the world that
they were _in debt_ was a thing horrible to them. Nevertheless, nothing
remained for them but to incur this dreadful reproof. They would have to
pay it off slowly year by year; perhaps the whole of their remaining
lives would be overshadowed by this, and all their little indulgences,
so few, so innocent, would have to be given up or curtailed. The
prospect was as dreadful to them–nay, more dreadful–than ruin and
bankruptcy are to many nowadays. The fashion in these respects has very
much changed. It is perhaps the result of the many misfortunes in the
landed classes, the collapse of agriculture, the fall of rents; but
certainly in our days the confession of poverty is no longer a shame; it
is rather the fashion; and debts sit lightly on many shoulders. The
reluctance to incur them, the idea of discredit involved in them is
almost a thing extinguished and gone.

When Mr. Buchanan set out one black morning on the dreadful enterprise
of borrowing money, his heart was very sore, and his countenance
clouded. He was a man of a smiling countenance on ordinary occasions. He
looked now as if disgrace had overtaken him, and nothing but despair was
before him. It was not that he had an evil opinion of human nature. He
had, perhaps, notwithstanding what it is now the fashion to call his
Calvinistic creed, almost too good an opinion of human nature. It has
pleased the literary class in all times, to stigmatise the Calvinistic
creed as the origin of all evil. I, for one, am bound to say that I have
not found it to be so, perhaps because dogmatical tenets hold, after
all, but a small place in human hearts, and that the milk of human
kindness flows independent of all the formal rules of theology. Mr.
Buchanan was no doubt a Calvinist, and set his hand unhesitatingly to
all the standards. But he was a man who was for ever finding out the
image of God in his fellow men, and cursing was neither on his lips nor
in his heart. He did not religiously doubt his fellow creature or
condemn him. The tremour, the almost despair, the confusion of face with
which he set out to borrow money was not because of any dark judgment on
other men. It was the growth of that true sense of honour, exaggerated
till it became almost a defect, which his Scotch traditions and his
narrow means combined to foster in him. An honourable rich man may
borrow without scruple, for there is no reason in his mind why he should
not pay. But to an honourable poor man it is the thing most dreadful in
the world, for he knows all the difficulties, the almost impossibility
of paying, the chance of being exposed to the world in his inmost
concerns, the horror of ruin and a roup, the chance of injuring another
man, and dying under the shame of indebtedness, all these miseries were
in Mr. Buchanan’s mind when he went out on his terrible mission. He
would rather have marched through a shower of bullets, or risked his
life in any other way.

He went to old Mr. Anderson, who had been the head of the bank, and who
was still believed to be the highest authority in any kind of financial
matter. He had retired from the bank, and from all active business
several years before. He was an elder of the church; and from the
beginning of Mr. Buchanan’s incumbency had been one of his greatest
admirers and friends. He was, besides all this, a wealthy old man, and
had no children nor any near relative to come after him. It was not,
however, with any thought of the latter circumstance, or indeed
expectation of actual help from himself that the minister sought this
old gentleman. He thought of the bank, which, according to Scottish
methods, gives advantages to struggling people, and intended only to ask
Mr. Anderson’s advice as to what should be done, perhaps if emboldened
by his manner to ask him to be his surety, though the thought of making
such a request to any man bathed the minister in a cold dew of mental
anguish. Had he been asked by any other poor man what reception such an
application would have received from Mr. Anderson, he would have bidden
that other take courage.

“He is the kindest man in the world,” he would have said. But when it
came to be his own case the minister’s heart sank within him. He could
not have been more miserable had his old friend, instead of being the
kindest, been the most cold-hearted man in the world.

There is, perhaps, no more wonderful sensation in life, than that
complete and extraordinary relief which seems to fill the heart with a
sudden flood of undreamed of ease and lightness, when a hand is held out
to us all at once in our trouble, and the help which we have not
believed possible, comes. Mr. Buchanan could not believe his ears when
the old banker’s first words fell upon him.

“Possible! oh, yes, more than possible; how could you doubt it?” he
said. The poor man felt himself float off those poor feet that had
plodded along the street so heavily, into an atmosphere of ease, of
peace, of consolation unspeakable. The thing could be done. Instead of
bringing a cold shade over his friend’s face, it brought a light of
kindness, even of pleasure. Yes, of pleasure, pleasure in being trusted,
in being the first to whom recourse was made, in being able to give at
once relief. It was so great a gleam of that sunshine which sometimes
comes out of a human face, brighter than the very sun in the firmament,
that poor Buchanan was dazzled, and for the moment made to think better
even of himself as calling forth such friendship and kindness. A glow
came into his heart, not only of gratitude but of approval. To see a man
do what in one circumstance is the highest and noblest thing to do, to
feel him exceed all our expectations, and play the part almost of a
beneficent God to misfortune, what more delightful spectacle is there,
even if it had nothing to do with ourselves. Mr. Buchanan poured forth
all his soul to his old friend, who understood everything at half a
word, and only hesitated to think which would be the best way of
fulfilling his wishes. It was by old Anderson’s advice at last that the
idea of the bank was abandoned. He decided that it would be better to
lend the money to the minister himself.

“We will have no fixed times or seasons,” he said. “You shall pay me
just as you can, as you are able to put by a little, and we’ll have no
signing of papers. You and me can trust each other; if I die before you,
as naturally I will, you’ll make it up to my heirs. If you, which God
forbid, should die before me, there will be no use of paper to trouble
your wife. It’s just between you and me, nobody has any business to make
or mell in the matter. I have no fine laddie to put out in the world,
the more’s the pity; and you have, and a bonnie lassie too, I wish you
joy of them both. We’ll just say nothing about it, my dear sir, just a
shake of the hand, and that’s all there’s needed between you and me.”

“But, Mr. Anderson, how can I accept this? You must let me give you an
acknowledgment. And then the interest—-”

“Toots,” said the old man, “interest! what’s fifteen pounds to me? I
hope I can live and enjoy myself without your fifteen pounds. Nonsense,
minister! are you too proud to accept a kindly service, most kindly
offered and from the heart, from an old man, that you have done both
good and pleasure to many a day?”

“Oh, proud, no, not proud,” cried Buchanan, “unless it were proud of
you, old friend, that have the heart to do such a blessed thing.”

“Hoot,” said the old man, “it’s nothing but filthy siller, as your good
wife says.”

This had been the bargain, and it was a bargain which probably gave
more pleasure to the lender than to the borrower. It redoubled the old
gentleman’s interest in the family, and indeed made him take a personal
share in their concerns, which pricked the parents a little, as if he
felt a certain right to know all about Willie’s outfit and Marion’s
plenishing. He gave his advice about the boy’s boxes, and his gun, and
kindly criticised his clothes, and warned them not to pay too much for
boots and shoes, and other outside articles, pressing certain makers
upon them with almost too warm a recommendation. And he liked to see
Marion’s sheets and her napery, and thought the damask tablecloths
almost too fine for a country manse, where, except on a presbytery
meeting or the Monday’s dinner after a sacramental occasion, there would
be no means of showing them. But all this was very harmless, though it
sometimes fretted the recipients of his bounty, who could not explain to
their children the sudden access of interest on the part of old Anderson
in all their concerns.

And now to think, while the first year had not more than passed, when
William’s outfit had just been paid off to the utmost farthing, and
Marion’s bill for her napery and her stock of personal linen, that the
old man should die! I judge from Mr. Anderson’s reference to fifteen
pounds (five per cent. being the usual interest in those days, though I
am told it is much less now), that the sum that Mr. Buchanan had
borrowed was three hundred pounds, for I presume he had certain urgent
bills to provide for as well as Willie and May. Fifty pounds was still
in the bank, which was a reserve fund for Marion’s gowns and her wedding
expenses, etc. And to think that just at that moment, when as yet there
had not been time to lay up a penny towards the repayment of the loan,
that this whole house of cards, and their comfort and content in the
smoothing away of their difficulties should, in a moment, topple about
their ears! There seemed even some reason for the tone of exasperation
which came into Mrs. Buchanan’s voice in spite of herself. Had he done
it on purpose it could scarcely have been worse. And indeed it looked as
if it had been done on purpose to drop them into deeper and deeper mire.

Mr. Buchanan fought a battle with himself, of which no one had the
faintest idea, when his wife left him that afternoon. She indeed never
had the faintest idea of it, nor would any one have known had it not
been for the chance that shut up those two children in the turret-room.
They did not understand what they had heard, but neither did they forget
it. Sometimes, the one would say to the other:

“Do you remember that afternoon when we were shut up in the turret and
nobody knew?” When such a thing had happened before, they had laughed;
but at this they never laughed, though they could not, till many years
had passed, have told why. The boy might have forgotten, for he had a
great many things to think of as the toils of education gathered round
him and bound him faster and faster; but the girl, perhaps because she
had not so much to do, there being no such strain of education in those
days for female creatures, never forgot. She accompanied her father
unconsciously in his future, during many a weary day, and pitied him
when there was no one else to pity.

In the meantime, as the children saw, Mr. Buchanan went out; he went to
old Mr. Anderson’s house to inquire for him before he did any of his
usual afternoon duties. And after he had completed all these duties, he
went back again, with a restlessness of anxiety which touched all the
people assembled round the dying man, his brother who had been summoned
from Glasgow, and his doctors, one of whom had come from Edinburgh,
while the other was the chief practitioner of St. Rule’s, and his
nurses, of whom there were two, for he had no one of his own, no woman
to take care of him. They thought the minister must be anxious about the
old gentleman’s soul that he should come back a second time in the
course of the afternoon, and Dr. Seaton himself went down-stairs to
reply to his inquiries.

“I am afraid I cannot ask you to come up-stairs, for he is past all
that,” he said, in the half scornful tone which doctors sometimes assume
to a clerical visitor.

“Is he so bad as that?” said the minister.

“I do not say,” said Dr. Seaton, “that our patient may not regain
consciousness. But certainly, for the present, he is quite unable to
join in any religious exercises.”

“I was not thinking of that,” said Mr. Buchanan, almost humbly, “but
only to take the last news home. Mr. Anderson has been a good friend to
me.”

“So he has been to many,” said Dr. Seaton. “Let us hope that will do
more for him where he is going than prayer.”

“Prayer can never be out of place, Dr. Seaton,” said the minister. He
went away from the door angry, but still more cast down, with his head
sunk on his breast as the children had seen him. He had no good news to
take home. He had no comfort to carry with him up to his study, whither
he went without pausing, as he generally did, to say a word to his wife.
He had no word for anybody that evening. All night long he was repeating
to himself the words of the parable, “Sit down quickly, and take thy
bill, and write fifty.” Could God lead men astray?