TAKE NOW THY BILL AND WRITE FIFTY

Mr. Buchanan went first to the bank, and drew out the money–the residue
of the loan which had been placed there for Marion’s final equipment. In
those days people did not use cheques, as we do now for every purpose.
When a man paid a debt, it seemed far more sure and satisfactory to pay
it in actual money. To all, except to business men, the other seemed a
doubtful, unsatisfactory way, and those who received a cheque made great
haste to cash it as if in the meantime the bank might break, or the
debtor’s balance turn the wrong way. To pay with a simple bit of paper
did not seem like paying at all. Mr. Buchanan received his fifty pounds
in crisp new notes, pretty notes printed in blue and red. They were like
a little parcel of pictures, all clean and new. He looked at them with a
forlorn admiration: it was seldom he saw such a thing as a ten-pound
note: and here were five of them. Ah, if that had been all! “Sit down
quickly and write fourscore.” This variant troubled his mind a little in
his confusion! But that was measures of wheat, he said to himself, with
a distracted sense that this might somehow make a difference. And then
he walked up the High Street in the morning sunshine to Mr. Morrison’s
office; and sure enough the writer was there and very glad to see him,
so that no chance of escape remained.

“I have come to speak to you,” the minister said, clearing his throat,
and beginning with so much difficulty–he that would read you off an
hour’s sermon without even pausing for a word!–“about business,
Morrison–about a little–monetary transaction there was–between me and
our late–most worthy friend—-”

“Anderson?” said the writer. And then he added with a half laugh,
tempered by the fact that “the death” had been so recent. “Half St.
Rule’s, I’m thinking, have had monetary transactions with our late
friend—-”

“He would not permit any memorandum of it to be made,” said the
minister.

“No: that was just like him: only his estate will be the worse for it;
for we can’t expect everybody to be so frank in acknowledging as you.”

Mr. Buchanan turned the colour of clay, his heart seemed to stop
beating. He said: “I need not tell you–for you have a family of your
own–that now and then there are expenses that arise.”

The lawyer waved his hand with the freemasonry of common experience.
“Well I know that,” he said; “it is no joke nowadays putting the laddies
out in the world. You will find out that with Willie–but what a fine
opening for him! I wish we were all as well off.”

“Yes, it is a good opening”–if it had not been that all the joy and the
pride in it was quenched by this!–“and that is precisely what I mean,
Morrison. It was just Willie–ordinary expenses, of course, my wife and
I calculate upon and do our best for–but an outfit—-”

“My dear Mr. Buchanan,” said the writer, “what need to explain the
matter to me. You don’t imagine I got my own lads all set out, as thank
the Lord they are, without feeling the pinch–ay, and incurring
responsibilities that one would wish to keep clear of in the ordinary
way of life.”

“Yes,” said the minister, “that was how it was; but fortunately the
money was not expended. And I bring you back the fifty pounds–intact.”

Oh, the little, the very little lie it was! If he had said it was not
all expended, if he had kept out that little article _the–the_ fifty
pounds implying there was no more. Anyhow, it was very different from
taking a bill and writing fourscore. But the criminal he felt, with the
cold drops coming out on his forehead, and his hand trembling as he held
out–as if that were all! these fifty pounds.

“Now bide a wee, bide a wee,” said the writer; “wait till I tell
you–Mr. Anderson foresaw something of this kind. Put back your money
into your pocket. He foresaw it, the friendly old body that he was; wait
till I get you the copy of the will that I have here.” Morrison got up
and went to one of the boxes, inscribed with the name of Anderson, that
stood on the shelves behind him, and after some searching drew out a
paper, the heading of which he ran over _sotto voce_, while Mr. Buchanan
sat rigid like an automaton, still holding out in his hand the bundle of
notes.

“Here it is,” said Mr. Morrison, coming back with his finger upon the
place. “You’ll see the case is provided for. ‘And it is hereby provided
that in the case of any persons indebted to me in sums less than a
hundred pounds, which are unpaid at the time of my death, that such
debts are hereby cancelled and wiped out as if they had never existed,
and my executors and administrators are hereby authorised to refuse any
payments tendered of the same, and to desire the aforesaid debtors to
consider these sums as legacies from me, the testator.’

“Well, sir,” said the writer, tilting up his spectacles on his forehead,
“I hope that’s plain enough: I hope you are satisfied with that.”

For a moment the minister sat and gasped, still stretching out the
notes, looking like a man at the point of death. He could not find his
voice, and drops of moisture stood out upon his forehead, which was the
colour of ashes. The lawyer was alarmed; he hurried to a cupboard in the
corner and brought out a bottle and a glass. “Man,” he said, “Buchanan!
this is too much feeling; minister, it is just out of the question to
take a matter of business like this. Take it down! it’s just sherry
wine, it will do you no harm. Bless me, bless me, you must not take it
like this–a mere nothing, a fifty pounds! Not one of us but would have
been glad to accommodate you–you must not take it like that!”

“Sums under a hundred pounds!” Mr. Buchanan said, but he stammered so
with his colourless lips that the worthy Morrison did not make out very
clearly what he said, and, in truth, had no desire to make it out. He
was half vexed, half disturbed, by the minister’s extreme emotion. He
felt it as a tacit indictment against himself.

“One would think we were a set of sticks,” he said, “to let our minister
be troubled in his mind like this over a fifty pound! Why, sir, any one
of your session–barring the two fishers and the farmer—- Take it off,
take it off, to bring back the blood–it’s nothing but sherry wine.”

Mr. Buchanan came to himself a little when he had swallowed the sherry
wine. He had a ringing in his ears, as if he had recovered from a faint,
and the walls were swimming round him, with all the names on the boxes
whirling and rushing like a cloud of witnesses. As soon as he was able
to articulate, however, he renewed his offer of the notes.

“Take this,” he said, “take this; it will always be something,” trying
to thrust them into the writer’s hand.

“Hoot,” said Morrison; “my dear sir, will you not understand? You’re
freely assoilised and leeberated from every responsibility; put back
your notes into your own pouch. You would not refuse the kind body’s
little legacy, and cause him sorrow in his grave, which, you will tell
me, is not possible; but, if it were possible, would vex him sore, and
that we well know. I would not take advantage and vex him because he was
no longer capable of feeling it. No, no; just put them back into your
pouch, Buchanan. They are no use to him, and maybe they will be of use
to you.”

This was how the interview ended. The minister still attempted to
deposit his notes upon Mr. Morrison’s table, but the lawyer put them
back again, doing everything he could to restore his friend and pastor
to the calm of ordinary life. Finally, Morrison declaring that he had
somebody to see “up the town,” and would walk with Mr. Buchanan as far
as their ways lay together, managed to conduct him to his own door. He
noted, with some surprise, that Mrs. Buchanan opened it herself, with a
face which, if not so pale as her husband’s, was agitated too, and full
of anxiety.

“The minister is not just so well as I would like to see him,” he said.
“I would keep him quiet for a day or two, and let him fash himself for
nothing,” he added–“for nothing!” with emphasis.

The good man was much disturbed in his mind by this exhibition of
feeling.

“Oh, why were ‘writers’ made so coarse, and parsons made so fine?” He
would have said these words to himself had he known them, which, perhaps
he did, for Cowper was a very favourite poet in those days. Certainly
that was the sentiment in his mind. To waste all that feeling upon an
affair of fifty pounds! The wife had more sense, Mr. Morrison said to
himself, though she was frightened too, but that was probably for _his_
sake. He went off about his own business, and I will not say that he did
not mention the matter to one or two of his brother elders.

“You or me might be ruined and make less fuss about it,” he said.

“When a man had just a yearly stipend and gets behindhand, it’s wae work
making it up,” said the other.

“We must just try and see if we cannot get him a bit augmentation,” said
Morrison, “or get up a testimonial or something.”

“You see, a testimonial could scarcely take the form of money, and what
comfort would he get out of another silver teapot?” observed the second
elder, prudent though kind.

It was not a much less ordeal for the minister to meet his wife than it
had been to meet the lawyer. She knew nothing about his purpose of
taking his bill and writing fourscore, and he dared not let her suspect
that he had spoken of the “fifty,” as if that fifty were his whole debt,
or that the debts that were forgiven were debts under a hundred pounds.
He said to himself afterwards that it was more Morrison’s fault than
his, that the lawyer would not let him explain that he had said “this
would be something,” meaning that this would be an instalment. All these
things he said to himself as he sat alone for the greater part of the
day, “reading a book,” which was supposed to be an amusing book, and
recovering from that great strain; but he did not venture to tell his
wife of these particulars. What he said to Mrs. Buchanan was that Mr.
Anderson had assoilised his debtors in general, and that each man was to
consider the loan as a legacy, and that Morrison said he was not
entitled to take a penny, and would not. His wife took this news with a
burst of grateful tears and blessings on the name of the good man who
had done this kind thing. “The merciful man is merciful, and lendeth and
asketh not again,” she said. But after this outburst of emotion and
relief, her good sense could not but object.

“It is an awfu’ deliverance for us, Claude; oh, my man! I had it all
planned out, how we were to do it, but it would have been a heavy, heavy
burden. God bless him for the merciful thought! But,” she added, “I am
not clear in my mind that it is just to Frank. To be sure, it was all in
his own hand to do what he liked with his own, and the laddie is but a
far-off heir; but still he has been trained for that, and to expect a
good fortune: and if there are many as we are, Claude—-”

“It is not our affair, Mary; he had full command of his faculties, and
it was his own to do what he liked with it,” her husband said, though
with faltering lips.

“Well, that is true,” she replied, but doubtfully: “I am not denying a
man’s right to do what he likes with his own. And if it had been only
you, his minister, that perhaps he owed much more to, even his own soul,
as Paul says—-”

“No, no; not so much as that.”

“But if there are many,” Mrs. Buchanan went on, shaking her head, “it
might be a sore heritage for Frank. Claude, if ever in the days to come
we can do anything for that lad, mind I would think it was our duty to
prefer him before our very own: for this is a great deliverance, and
wrought, as you may say, at his cost but without his consent—-”

“My dear, a sum like that,” said Mr. Buchanan, with a faint smile and a
heavy heart, “is not a fortune.”

“That is true, but it is a great deliverance to us; and if ever we can
be helpful to him, in siller or in kindness, in health or in
sickness—-”

There came a rush of tenderness to Mrs. Buchanan’s heart, with the tears
that filled her eyes, and she could say no more.

“Yes, yes,” he said a little fretfully, “yes, yes; though he had no
merit in it, and not any such great loss either that I can see.”

She judged it wise to leave the minister to himself after this; for,
though nerves were not much thought of in those days, she saw that
irritability and a tendency to undervalue the great deliverance, which
filled her with such overflowing gratitude, had taken the place of more
amiable feelings in his mind. It was better to leave him quiet, to
recover from his ill mood, and from the consequence of being overdone.
“I have so many things to take off my mind,” she said to herself.
Perhaps she thought the minister’s cares–though most people would have
thought them so much more important–nothing to hers, which were so
many, often so petty, so absorbing, leaving her no time to brood. And
had she not provided him with the new _Waverley_, which most people
thought the best anodyne for care–that is, among the comforts of this
world, not, of course, to count among higher things?

But Mr. Buchanan did not, I fear, find himself capable of having his
mind taken off, even by the new _Waverley_. He was spared, he said to
himself, from actual guilt.–Was he spared from actual guilt? He had not
required to take his bill and write fourscore. But for that one little
word the–_the_ fifty (how small a matter!) he had said nothing: and
that was not saying anything, it was merely an inference, which his next
words might have made an end of; only, that Morrison would not hear my
next words. If there was a fault in the matter, it was Morrison’s fault.
He repeated this to himself fretfully, eagerly, impatient with the man
who had saved him from committing himself. Never, never would he commit
any business to Morrison’s hands! Such a man was not to be trusted; he
cared nothing for his client’s interest. All that he was intent upon was
to relieve the debtor, to joke about the “friendly body,” who was so
kind, even in his grave. “A sore saint for his heir,” Morrison had again
said, as was said of the old king–instead of standing for the heir’s
rights as he ought to have done, and hearing what a man had to say!

And this then was the end of it all–salvation–from all the
consequences, even from the very crime itself which he had planned and
intended, but had not required to carry out. He had saved everything,
his conscience, and his fifty pounds, not to speak of all the rest, the
sum which his wife had planned by so many daily sacrifices to make up.
He had not, after all, been like the unjust steward. He had said
nothing, had not even written the fourscore; he had been saved
altogether, even the fifty he had offered. Was this the Lord’s doing,
and marvellous in our eyes–or what was it? Mr. Buchanan put away the
_Waverley_, which was given him to comfort him, and took up the Bible
with the large print. It opened again at that parable; and then, with a
great start of pain, he recognised his fate, and knew that henceforward
it would open always at that parable, now that the parable was no longer
a suggestion of deliverance to him but a dreadful reminder. A convulsive
movement went through all his limbs at that thought. Mr. Buchanan had
often preached of hell, it was the fashion of his time; but he had
never known what he himself meant. Now he knew: this was hell where
their worm dieth not, and their fire is not quenched. It lay here, not
in a vague, unrealised region of fire and brimstone; but here, within
the leaves of the New Testament, which was his chief occupation,
inspiring all the work of his life. This was hell–to see the book open,
the book of life, always at that one place. He had not to wait for it;
the worm had begun to gnaw and the fire to burn.