Among those in the home-straths of Argyll who are now grey, and in the quiet places of whose hearts old memories live green and sweet, there must be some who recall that day when a stranger came into Strath Nair, and spoke of the life eternal.
This man, who was a minister of God, was called James Campbell. He was what is called a good man, by those who measure the soul by inches and extol its vision by the tests of the purblind. He had rectitude of a kind, the cold and bitter thing that is not the sunlit integrity of the spirit. And he had the sternness that is the winter of a frozen life. In his heart, God was made in the image of John Calvin.
With this man the love of love was not even a dream. A poor strong man he was, this granite-clasped soul; and the sunlight faded out of many hearts, and hopes fell away to dust before the blight of the east wind of his spirit.
On the day after his coming to Strath Nair, the new minister went from cottage to cottage. He went to all, even to the hill-bothy of Peter Macnamara the shepherd; to all save one. He did not go to the cottage of Mary Gilchrist, for the woman lived, there alone, with the child that had been born to her. In the eyes of James Campbell she was evil. His ears heard, but not his heart, that no man or woman spoke harshly of her, for she had been betrayed.
On the morning of the Bell, as some of the old folk still call the morrow of the Sabbath, the glory of sunlight came down the Strath. For many days rain had fallen, hours upon hours at a time; or heavy, dropping masses of vapour had hung low upon the mountains, making the peaty uplands sodden, and turning the grey rocks into a wet blackness. By day and by night the wind had moaned among the corries along the high moors. There was one sound more lamentable still: the incessant mèhing of the desolate, soaked sheep. The wind in the corries, on the moors, among the pines and larches; the plaintive cruel sorrow of the wandering ewes; never was any other sound to be heard, save the distant wailing of curlews. Only, below all, as inland near the coast one hears continuously the murmur of the sea, so by night and day the Gorromalt Water made throughout the whole reach of Strath Nair an undertone as of a weary sighing.
But before nightfall on Saturday the rain ceased, and the wet wind of the south suddenly revolved upon itself beyond the spurs of Ben Maiseach. Long before the gloaming had oozed an earth-darkness to meet the falling dark, the mists had lifted. One by one, moist stars revealed hollows of voilet, which, when the moon yellowed the fir-tops, disclosed a vast untravelled waste of blue, wherein slow silent waves of darkness continuously lapsed. The air grew full of loosened fragrances; most poignantly, of the bog-myrtle, the bracken, and the resinous sprays of pine and larch.
Where the road turns at the Linn o’ Gorromalt there is an ancient disarray of granite boulders above the brown rushing water. Masses of wild rose grow in that place. On this June gloaming the multitudinous blooms were like pale wings, as though the fabled birds that live in rainbows, or the frail creatures of the falling dew, had alit there, tremulous, uncertain.
There that evening, the woman, Mary Gilchrist, sat, happy in the silences of the dusk. While she inhaled the fragrance of the wild roses, as it floated above the persistent green odour of the bent and the wet fern, and listened to the noise of Gorromalt Water foaming and surging out of the linn, she heard steps close by her. Glancing sidelong, she saw “the new minister,” a tall, gaunt man, with lank, irongrey hair above his white, stern, angular face.
He looked at her, not knowing who she was.
Mary Gilchrist did not speak. Her face, comely before, had become beautiful of late. “It’s the sorrow,” said the Strath folk simply, believing what they said.
Perhaps the dark eyes under the shadowy hair deepened. The minister, of course, could not see this, could not have noted so small a thing.
“God be with you,” he said at last in Gaelic, and speaking slow and searchingly; “God be with you. This is a fine evening, at last.”
“God be with you, too, Mr. Campbell.”
“So; you know who I am?”
“For sure, sir, one cannot live alone here among the hills and not know who comes and who goes. What word is there, sir, of the old minister? Is he better?”
“No. He will never be better. He is old.”
When he spoke these words, James Campbell uttered them as one drover answers another when asked about a steer or a horse. Mary Gilchrist noticed this, and with a barely audible sigh shrank a little among the granite boulders and wild roses.
The minister hesitated; then spoke again.
“You will be at the hill-preaching to-morrow? If fine, the Word will be preached on the slope of Monanair. You will be there?”
He looked at her, leaning forward a little. Her answer perturbed him. The Rev. James Campbell thought no one should hesitate before the free offering of the bitter tribulation of his religion. Possibly she was one of that outcast race who held by Popish abominations. He frowned darkly.
“Are you of the true faith!”
“God alone knows that.”
“Why do you answer me like that, woman? There is but one true faith.”
“Mr. Campbell, will you be for telling me this? Do you preach the love of God?”
“I preach the love and hate of God, woman! His great love to the elect, his burning wrath against the children of Belial.”
For a minute or more there was silence between them. The noise of the torrent filled the night. Beyond, all was stillness. The stars, innumerous now, flickered in pale uncertain fires.
At last Mary Gilchrist spoke, whispered rather:
“Mr. Campbell, I am only a poor woman. It is not for me to be telling you this or that. But for myself, I know, ay, for sure, I know well, that everything God has to say to man is to be said in three words—and these were said long, long ago, an’ before ever the Word came to this land at all. An’ these three words are, ‘God is love.'”
The speech angered the minister. It was for him to say what was and what was not God’s message to man, for him to say what was or was not the true faith. He frowned blackly awhile. Then, muttering that he would talk publicly of this on the morrow was about to pass on his way. Suddenly he turned.
“What will your name be? If you will tell me your name and where you live, my good woman, I will come to you and show you what fearful sinfulness you invite by speaking of God’s providence as you do.”
“I am Mary Gilchrist. I live up at the small croft called Annet-bhan.”
Without a word, Mr. Campbell turned on his heel, and moved whitheraway he was bound. He was glad when he was round the bend of the road, and going up the glen. God’s curse was heavy on those who had made iniquity their portion. So this was the woman Gilchrist, whom already that day he had publicly avoided, A snare of the Evil One, for sure, that wayside meeting had been.
It had angered the new minister to find that neither man nor woman in Strath Nair looked upon Mary Gilchrist as accursed. A few blamed; all were sorrowful; none held her an outcast. To one woman, who replied that Mary was the sinned against, not the sinner, that black misfortune had been hers, Mr. Campbell answered harshly that the Allwise God took no store by misfortune—that at the last day no shivering human soul could trust to that plea. Even when John Macallum, the hill-grieve, urged that, whether Mr. Campbell were right or wrong, it was clear nothing could be done, and would it not be wisest for one and all to let bygones be bygones, each man and woman remembering that in his or her heart evil dwelled somewhere—even then the minister was wrought to resentment, and declared that the woman, because of her sin, ought to be driven out of the Strath.
In the less than two days he had been in Strath Nair this man had brought upon that remote place a gloom worse than any that came out of the dark congregation of the clouds. In many a little croft the bright leaping flame of the pine-log or the comfortable glow of the peats had become lurid. For the eye sees what the heart fears.
Thus it was that when the Sabbath came in a glory of light, and the Strath, and the shadowy mountains, and the vast sun-swept gulfs of blue overhead took on a loveliness as though on that very morrow God had recreated the earth and the universe itself, thus it was the people of the Strath were downcast. Poor folk, poor folk, that suffer so because of the blind shepherds.
But before that glory of a new day was come, and while he was still striding with bitter thoughts from the place where he had left the woman Gilchrist, Mr. Campbell had again cause for thought, for perplexed anger.
As he walked, he brooded sullenly. That this woman, this lost one, had ventured to bandy words with him! What was she, a fallen woman, she with an unhallowed child up there at her croft of Annet-bhan, that she should speak to him, James Campbell, of what God’s message was!
It was then that he descried a man sitting on a fallen tree by the side of the burn which runs out of the glen of the Willows. He could not discern him clearly, but saw that he was not one of the Strath-folk with whom he had talked as yet. The man seemed young, but weary; yes, for sure, weary, and poor too. When he rose to his feet in courteous greeting, Mr. Campbell could see that he was tall. His long fair hair, and a mien and dress foreign to the straths, made him appear in the minister’s eyes as a wayfarer from the Lowlands.
“God be with you. Good evening,” Mr. Campbell exclaimed abruptly, in the English tongue.
The man answered gravely, and in a low, sweet voice: “God be with you.”
“Will you be for going my way?” the minister asked again, but now in the Gaelic, for he knew this would be a test as to whether the man was or was not of the Strath.
“No. I do not go your way. Peradventure you will yet come my way, James Campbell.”
With a start of anger the minister took a step closer. What could the man mean, he wondered. Still, the words were so gently said that hardly could he put offence into them.
“I do not understand you, my good man,” he answered after a little; “but I see you know who I am. Will you be at the preaching of the Word at Monanair to-morrow; or, if wet, at the house of God close by the Mill o’ Gorromalt?”
“What Word will you preach, James Campbell?”
“Look you, my man, you are no kinsman of mine to be naming me in that way. I am Mr. Campbell, the minister from Strathdree.”
“What word will you preach, then, Mr. Campbell?”
“What word? There is but one Word. I will say unto you, as unto all men who hearken unto me on the morrow, that the Lord God is a terrible God against all who transgress His holy law, and that the day of repentance is wellnigh gone. Even now it may be too late. Our God is a jealous God, who doth not brook delay. Woe unto those who in their hearts cry out, ‘To-morrow! To-morrow!'”
For a brief while the man by the wayside was still. When he spoke, his voice was gentle and low.
“Rather do I believe the Word to be that which the woman Mary Gilchrist said to you yonder by the linn: that God is love.”
And having said this, he moved quietly into the dusk of the gloaming, and was lost to sight.
James Campbell walked slowly on his way, pondering perplexedly. Twice that evening he had been told what the whole message of God was—an evil, blasphemous, fair-seeming doctrine, he muttered, more fit for the accursed courts of her who sitteth upon seven hills than for those who are within the sound of the Truth. And how had the false wisdom come? He smiled grimly at the thought of the wanton and the vagrant.
Before he slept that night he looked out upon the vast and solemn congregation of the stars. Star beyond star, planet beyond planet, strange worlds all, immutably controlled, unrelinquished day or night, age or aeon, shepherded among the infinite deeps, moving orderly from a dawn a million years far off to a quiet fold a million years away, sheep shepherded beyond all change or chance, or no more than the dust of a great wind blowing behind the travelling feet of Eternity—what did it all mean? Shepherded starry worlds, or but the dust of Time? A Shepherd, or Silence? But he who had the wisdom of God, and was bearer of His message, turned to his bed and slept, muttering only that man in his wretchedness and sin was unworthy of those lamps suspended there to fill his darkness for sure, for God is merciful, but also to strike terror and awe and deep despair into the hearts of that innumerable multitude who go down daily into a starless night.
And when he had thought thus, he slept: till the fading bitterness of his thought was lost too in the noise of Gorromalt Water.
A great stillness of blue prevailed on the morrow. When sunrise poured over the shoulder of Ben Maiseach, and swept in golden foam among the pines of Strath Nair, it was as though a sweet, unknown, yet anciently familiar pastoral voice was uplifted—a voice full of solemn music, austerely glad, rejoicing with the deep rejoicing of peace.
The Strath was as one of the valleys of Eden. The rain-washed oaks and birches wore again their virginal green ; the mountainash had her June apparel; the arches were like the delicate green showers that fall out of the rainbow upon opal-hued clouds at sunsetting; even the dusky umbrage of the pines filled slowly with light, as tidal sands at the flow.
The Gorromalt Water swept a blue arm round the western bend of the Strath; brown, foam-flecked, it emerged from the linn, tumultuous, whirling this way and that, leaping, surging.
In the wet loneroid, in the bracken, in the thyme-set grass, the yellow-hammers and stonechats remembered, perhaps for the last time in this summer-end, their nesting songs, their nestling notes.
From every green patch upon the hills the loud, confused, incessant bleating of the ewes and four-month lambs made a myriad single crying—a hill-music sweet to hear.
From the Mill o’ Gorromalt, too, where little Sine Macrae danced in the sunlight, to the turfed cottage of Mary Gilchrist high on the furthest spur of Maiseach, where her child stretched out his hands to catch the sun-rays, resounded the laughter of children. The blue smoke from the crofts rose like the breath of stones.
A spirit of joy moved down the Strath. Even thus of old, men knew the wayfaring Breath of God.
It was then the new minister, the Interpreter, brought to the remembrance of every man and woman in the Strath that the Lord God moveth in shadow, and is a jealous God.
The water-bell of the Mill, that did duty on the preaching Sabbaths, began its monotonous call. Of yore, most who heard it had gone gladly to its summons. When John Campbell had preached the Word, all who heard him returned with something of peace, with something of hope. But now none went save unwillingly; some even with new suspicions the one against the other, some with bitter searchings, some with latent dark vanities that could not bloom in the light.
And so the man delivered the Gospel. He “preached the Word,” there, on the glowing hillside, where the sun shone with imperious beauty. Was it that while he preached, the sky darkened, that the hillside darkened, the sunglow darkened, the sun itself darkened? That the heart of each man and woman darkened, that the mind of each darkened, that every soul there darkened, yea, that even the white innocence of the little children grew dusked with shadow? And yet the sun shone as it had shone before the tolling of the bell. No cloud was in the sky. Beauty lay upon the hillside; the Gorromalt Water leaped and danced in the sunlight. Nothing darkened from without. The darkening was from within.
The Rev. James Campbell spoke for an hour with sombre eloquence. Out of the deep darkness of his heart he spoke. In that hour he slew many hopes, chilled many aspirations, dulled many lives. The old, hearing him, grew weary of the burden of years, and yet feared release as a more dreadful evil still. The young lost heart, relinquished hope.
There was one interruption. An old man, Macnamara by name, a shepherd, rose and walked slowly away from where the congregation sat in groups on the hillside. He was followed by his two collie dogs, who had sat patiently on their haunches while the minister preached his word of doom.
“Where will you be going, Peter Macnamara?” called Mr. Campbell, his voice dark with the same shadow that was in the affront on his face.
“I am going up into the hills,” the old man answered quietly, “for I am too old to lose sight of God.”
Then, amid the breathless pause around him, he added: “And here, James Campbell, I have heard no word of Him.”
“Go,” thundered the minister, with outstretched arm and pointed finger. “Go, and when thine hour cometh thou shalt lament in vain that thou didst affront the most High God!”
The people sat awed. A spell was upon them. None moved. The eyes of all were upon the minister.
And he, now, knew his power, and that he had triumphed. He spoke to or of now one, now another poor sinner, whose evildoing was but a weakness, a waywardness to guide, not a cancer inassuageable. Suddenly he remembered the woman, Mary Gilchrist.
Of her he spoke, till all there shuddered at her sin, and shuddered more at the chastisement of that sin. She was impure; she dwelt in the iniquity of that sin; she sought neither to repent nor to hide her shame. In that great flame of hell, which she would surely know, years hence—a hundred years hence— a thousand, ten thousand, immeasurably remote in eternity—she would know then, when too late, that God was, indeed, a jealous God —in unending torture, in ceaseless——
But at that moment a low hush grew into a rising crest of warning. The wave of sound spilled at the minister’s feet. He stared, frowning.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Hush!” some one answered. “There’s the poor woman herself coming this way.”
And so it was. Over the slope beyond Monanair Mary Gilchrist appeared. She was walking slowly, and as though intent upon the words of her companion, who was the wayfarer with whom Mr. Campbell had spoken at the Glen of the Willows.
“Let her come,” said the minister sullenly. Then, suddenly, being strangely uplifted by the cold night-wind in his heart, he resumed his bitter sayings, and spoke of the woman and her sin, and of all akin to her, from Mary Magdalene down to this Mary Gilchrist.
“Ay!” he cried, as the newcomers approached to within a few yards of where he stood, “and it was only by the exceeding overwhelming grace of God that the woman, Mary Magdalene, was saved at all. And often, ay, again and again, has the thought come to me that the mercy was hers only in this life.”
A shudder went through the Strath-folk, but none stirred. A sudden weariness had come upon the minister, who had, indeed, spoken for a long hour and more. With a hurried blessing that sounded like a knell, for the last words were, “Beware the wrath of God,” Mr. Campbell sat back in the chair which had been carried there for him.
Then, before any moved away, the stranger who was with Mary Gilchrist arose. None knew him. His worn face, with its large sorrowful eyes, his long, fair hair, his white hands, were all unlike those of a man of the hills; but when he spoke it was in the sweet homely Gaelic that only those spoke who had it from the mother’s lips.
“Will you listen to me, men and women of Strath Nair?” he asked. He was obviously a poor man, and a wanderer; yet none there who did not realise he was one to whom all would eagerly listen. And so the man preached the Word. He, too, spoke of God and man, of the two worlds, of life and death, of time and eternity. As he spoke, it was as though he used, not the symbols of august and immortal things, but, in a still whiteness of simplicity, revealed these eternal truths themselves.
Was it that as he preached, the sky, the hillside, the sunglow, the sun itself lightened; that the heart of each man and woman lightened, that the mind of each lightened, that even the white innocence of the little children grew more fair to see?
The stranger, with the eyes of deep love and tenderness—so deep and tender that tears were in women’s eyes, and the hearts of men were strained—spoke for long. Simple words he spoke, but none had ever been so moved. Out of the white beauty of his soul he spoke. In that hour he brought near to them many fair immortal things, clothed in mortal beauty; stilled shaken hearts; uplifted hopes grown dim or listless. The old, hearing him, smiled to think that age was but the lamp-lit haven, reached at last, with, beyond the dim strait, the shining windows of home. The young grew brave and strong; in the obscure trouble of each heart, new stars had arisen.
There was but one interruption. When the wayfarer said that they who could not read need not feel outcast from the Word of God, for all the Scriptures could be interpreted in one phrase—simply, “God is love”—the minister, James Campbell, rose and passed slowly through the groups upon the hillside.
“Listen,” said the wayfarer, “while I tell you the story of Mary Magdalene.”
Then he told the story again as any may read it in the Book, but with so loving words, and with so deep a knowledge of the pitifulness of life, that it was a revelation to all there. Tears were in the heart as well as in the eyes of each man and woman.
Then slowly he made out of the beauty, of all their listening souls a wonderful thing.
Mary Gilchrist had kneeled by his side, and held his left hand in hers, weeping gently the while. A light was about her as of one glorified. It was, mayhap, the light from Him whose living words wrought a miracle there that day.
For as he spoke, all there came to know and to understand and to love. Each other they understood and loved, with a new love, a new understanding. And not one there but felt how sacred and beautiful in their eyes was the redemption of the woman Mary Gilchrist, who was now to them as Mary Magdalene herself.
The wayfarer spoke to one and all by name, or so to each it seemed; and to each he spoke of the sobbing woman by his side, and of the greatness and beauty of love, and of the pitifulness of the sorrow of love, and of the two flames in the shame of love, the white flame and the red. The little green world, he said, this little whirling star, is held to all the stars that be, and these are held to every universe, and all universes surmised and yet undreamed of are held to God Himself, simply by a little beam of light—a little beam of Love. It is Love that is the following Thought of God. And it is love that is of sole worth in human life. This he said again and again, in familiar words become new and wonderful. Thus it was that out of the pain and sorrow, out of the passion and grief and despair of the heart of the woman Mary, and out of the heart of every man, woman, and child in that place, he wrought a vision of the Woman Mary, of Mary the Mother, of Mary whose name is Love, whose soul is Love, whose Breath is Love, who is wherever Love is, sees all and knows all and understands all; who has no weariness, and who solves all impurities and evils, and turns them into pure gold of love; who is the Pulse of Life, the Breath of Eternity, the Soul of God.
And when he had ceased speaking there was not one there—no, not one—who could see the glory of the beauty of his face because of the mist of tears that were in all eyes.
None saw him go. Quietly he moved down the path leading to the green birches at the hither end of the Glen of the Willows.
There he turned, and for a brief while gazed silent, with longing blue eyes full of dream, and pale face stilled by the ecstasy of prayer.
All stood beholding him. Slowly he raised his arms. Doves of peace flew out of his heart. In every heart there a white dove of peace nested. Mayhap he who stood under the green birches heard what none whom he had left on the hill-slope could hear—the whispering, the welling, the uplifted voice of spirits redeemed from their mortal to their immortal part.
For suddenly he smiled. Then he bowed his head, and was lost in the green gloom, and was seen no more.
But in the gloaming, in the dewy gloaming of that day, Mary Gilchrist walked alone, with her child in her arms, in the Glen of the Willows. And once she heard a step behind her, and a hand touched her shoulder.
“Mary!” said the low, sweet voice she knew so well, “Mary! Mary!”
Whereupon she sank upon her knees.
“Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God!” broke from her lips in faint, stammering speech.
For long she kneeled trembling. When she rose, none was there. White stars hung among the branches of the dusky green pyramids of the Glen of the Willows. On the hillside beyond, where her home was, the moonlight lay, quiet waters of peace. She bowed her head, and moved out of the shadow into the light.
— Fiona MacLeod (William Sharp), The Collected Works of Fiona MacLeod (Uniform Edition), Vol. V, London, 1920.