An Evangelist by Ian Maclaren
His private business was lard, which he bought for the rise and sold for
the fall—being a bull or a bear without prejudice—and with a
success so distinguished that his name was mentioned in highly
complimentary terms on the American market When the famous lard corner of
1887 had been wound up, and every man had counted his gains (or losses),
old man Perkins, of Chicago, did justice to his chief opponent, like the
operator of honour that he was.
"No, sir, I ain't a slouch, and the man who says that I don't know lard is
a mining expert; but Elijah Higginbotham, of Victoria Street, Liverpool,
Great Britain, has come out on top: he's a hustler from way back, is
Mr. Perkins' opinion, which was a deduction based on the results of at
least six first-class encounters, was generally accepted on both sides of
the Atlantic, and it was conceded that what Mr. Elijah Higginbotham did
not know about that capricious and volatile instrument of speculation was
not knowledge. As a matter of principle he was opposed to gambling, and
denounced it with much eloquence and perfect sincerity at conferences of a
religious character,—warning his audience, composed mainly of old
ladies, against the Derby,—but if this evil and ruinous spirit
should happen to enter his market, where it seemed quite at home, Elijah
was prepared to overthrow gambling with its own weapons, and on such
occasions it was worldly wisdom to bet on Elijah's side. His ideas
regarding the date of unfulfilled prophecy might be crude, but his
foresight regarding the future of lard was an instinct.
His public business was religion, and especially the work of an
evangelist, and to this Elijah gave himself with incredible courage and
diligence. When he was not manipulating lard or asleep, he was inquiring
into the condition of his neighbour's soul, and none could escape him. It
was freely told on 'Change how he had fallen on an alderman, who had
responded too generously to the loyal toasts at a municipal banquet, and
so impressed him with the shortness of life and the awfulness of the
future, that the worthy man was bathed in tears, and promised if spared to
join the Plymouth Brethren next day. Bishops of the Church, who are awful
beings to ordinary people, and with whom some of us hardly dare to speak
about the weather, were to Elijah a chosen prey in railway carriages, so
that he would hunt a train to travel with one for a long journey, and he
has been known to reduce one pompous prelate to the verge of apoplexy by
showing before a (secretly) delighted company of "firsts" that this
successor to the Apostles did not really know wherein conversion
consisted, and, by not very indirect inference, that the Bishop was
himself still unconverted. Unto Elijah belongeth also the doubtful and
perilous distinction of having been the unwilling and (as he would himself
say) unworthy means of stopping a London express when going at full speed.
It was, of course, an old and perhaps over-nervous gentleman who actually
pulled the cord and waved to the guard, and it was Elijah who offered
immediate and elaborate explanations; but Elijah's fellow-passenger held a
strong position when he laid the blame on the evangelist.
"It's well enough for him to say that he was speaking spiritually, but he
told me plainly that I was going to Hell, and not to London, and I put it
to you, guard,"—by this time there was a large jury of interested
passengers,—"when the only other man in the compartment uses
language of that kind, and he much younger and stronger, whether I wasn't
justified in calling for assistance."
Quiet men, not prone to panics, just breaking upon their luncheon at the
Club, rose and fled when Elijah sat down at the same table, knowing well
that not only would a forbidding silence be no protection, but that even
ingenious and ensnaring allusions to the critical condition of the lard
market would be no protection against personal inquiries of the most
searching character. He was always provided with portable religious
literature of a somewhat startling character, and was in this way able to
supply his fellow-passengers in the evening 'bus; and it was stimulating
to any one with a sense of humour to see commercial magnates handling one
of Elijah's tracts as if it were dynamite, and late-comers taking in the
interior at a glance from the step, and hurriedly climbing to the top—willing
to risk bronchitis rather than twenty minutes of Elijah. His conscientious
opinion was that the limited number of persons who held his particular
opinions would go to heaven, and the large number who did not would go
elsewhere, and in these circumstances no one could blame him for being
urgent No doubt Elijah—for indeed this was almost an official title—was
very insistent, and had no tact; but then when you are pulling people out
of fires, and handing them out of burning houses—these were his
favourite illustrations of the situation—one does not pay much
attention to ceremony or even manners. It was often said that he alienated
people from religion, and so defeated his own ends; but I suppose that his
reply would be that he left them no worse than he found them, and if it
was asserted that he influenced no one, he very likely had some cases of
success among that class of persons who are never utterly persuaded until
they are felled by a blow between the eyes. Very likely he was not
concerned about success or failure, approval or disapproval, but simply
was determined to do his duty, which was to hold back as many of his
neighbours as he could from going to Hell. This duty he discharged with
all his might and with undeniable courage, and Elijah had his reward by
universal consent in that no one accused him of canting, for he never said
anything he did not believe with the marrow of his bones, or of hypocrisy,
for he certainly made no gain of godliness.
When Elijah entered my room one morning—his clean-shaven,
heavy-jawed face more determined than ever—I was certain that he had
not come to talk over the weather, and prepared myself for faithful
"It is not my custom," he began, "to read fiction, and I believe that the
more people read novels the less will they want to read their Bibles; but
I was recommended to read a book of yours, called The Days of Auld Lang
Syne, by a friend, in whose judgment I have usually placed confidence,
and I feel it my duty to call and remonstrate with you about that book."
Was it the literary form that he wished to criticise, or the substance? In
either case I hoped he would speak with all frankness, an encouragement
which Mr. Higginbotham perhaps hardly needed.
"Well, I don't know anything about literature, for I thank God that my
Bible and the Pilgrim's Progress are enough for me; but I did once
read Scott—long ago before I knew the value of time—and your
book is certainly not up to that sample." This, I assured Elijah, was my
own fixed and unalterable opinion, and I ventured to congratulate Elijah
on the acuteness of his literary judgment—which compliment was
passed over without acknowledgment—and then I pressed for his
"What I have to say is just this, that there are characters in the book
who ought not to be introduced to a Christian family, and views which are
sure to injure religion."
Now it happened that I had been reading that morning an interesting and
very caustic review, in which it was pointed out that no people had ever
lived or ever would live so good as the inhabitants of Drumtochty: that I
had confused together the (mythical) garden of Eden with a Scots village;
that the places were really very different in morals and general
environment; that it was a pity that the author did not know the limits of
true art; that what was wanted was reality, not sentimental twaddle, and
that in short—but this is not how the critic put it—let the
writer of fiction stick to the ash-pit in a house, and not attempt the
picture gallery. The critic—a young gentleman, I should say—was
very severe on my London doctor, who had taken a servant girl to his own
house that she might die there in peace, and assured me that such
extravagant unrealities showed my hopeless ignorance, and proved my
unfitness to be an artist in life. Up to this point I had been much
humbled, and had been trying to profit by every word of wisdom; but now I
laid down the paper and had a few moments of sinless enjoyment, for this
incident had been lifted bodily out of life, with only some change in
names, and was the only fact in the book. A poor puling idealist!—yet
even in my most foolish flights I had kept some hold on life—but
here was Elijah Higginbotham sitting calmly in my study and suggesting
that I was a realist of such a pronounced and shameless character that my
books were not fit for family reading.
When I pressed him for some evidence of his charge, he cited "Posty," and
spoke briefly but strongly about that unfortunate man's taste for
"Could I reconcile it with my conscience to introduce such a man to the
Christian public, and was I not aware of the injury which drink was doing
in our country?"
"Mr. Higginbotham," I said, "my business was to represent life in a Scots
parish, within limits, as I had seen it, and although I say it with deep
regret, and hope the matter will never be mentioned outside this room,
every Scot is not a rigid and bigoted abstainer—a few, I hope fewer
every year, do 'taste.'"
"We are all perfectly aware of that, and more than a few,"—which was
not generous on his part,—"but that is not the question. It is
whether you, as a respectable—and I would fain believe in spite of
what I have read—Christian man, ought deliberately to condone and
countenance this conduct."
"Surely, sir, you do not suppose for one moment that I have the slightest
sympathy with intemperance, or that I did not deeply regret the habits
into which Posty had fallen! Had I known that you or any intelligent
person would have imagined such a thing, I would have added footnotes,
whenever Posty forgot himself, such as (1) The author deeply regrets
Posty's conduct; (2) The author repudiates Posty's language with all his
"It might have saved misunderstanding." Elijah regarded me dubiously. "I
would certainly not have judged that you felt so strongly from the book."
"Ah, there you are wrong, for again and again I simply wrestled with Posty
to take the blue ribbon; but you know one should not boast, and it would
have sounded egotistical to obtrude these efforts, unhappily unsuccessful,
in the book.
"It is," I ventured to add with some pathos, "very hard that I should
first of all have had to suffer from my association, even in a literary
sense, with Posty, and then afterwards to be treated by religious and
philanthropic persons as if I had been his boon companion."
"No, no; don't put words in my mouth," broke in Elijah. "I said nothing of
the kind; but you have not been careful to convey your own position."
"Mr. Higginbotham, if I might give you a word of advice, do not meddle
with fiction, for you never can tell into what company you may come. Why,
I may tell you that 'Posty,' before his lamented death, used to haunt this
room—in a literary sense, of course—and some evenings I was
"If he were (comparatively) sober he would confine himself to the news of
the district, and the subject of her Majesty's mails; but if he had been
tasting he always took to theology, as Scots generally do, and then he
grew so profound and eloquent on the doctrine of election that if you had
come in my character would have been worth nothing: you would have jumped
to the conclusion, not without reason, that he had got his refreshments
"You will excuse me," said Elijah, who had lost his customary expression
of cocksureness during the last few minutes, "I am out of touch with the
market: am I not right in understanding that the Postman was never alive?"
"Well, I'm sorry you have thought so, for it would be rather a severe
reflection on his author; but I think he must have had some life, else you
would not have done him (and me) the honour of so much attention."
"He was your manufacture or creation, in fact done for the book; put it as
you please—you know what I mean"—and my visitor grew
impatient. "Then, if that be so, you could make him say and do what you
"In fact, take the blue ribbon and become an example for temperance
"Why not?" replied Elijah stoutly; "it might have done good."
"Mr. Higginbotham," I said with much solemnity, "be thankful that in your
busy and blameless life you have never meddled with fiction, save, I
fancy, in commercial transactions; for you have escaped trials of anxiety
and disappointment beyond anything in the markets. You suppose, I notice,
that because a story-teller creates certain characters, he can do with
them as he pleases, putting words into their mouths and dictating their
"Well, naturally I do."
"Nothing of the kind, sir. Once these characters are fairly started on
their career, and come of age, as it were, they go their own way, and the
whole of their author's time is taken up following them, remonstrating
with them, and trying, generally in vain, to get them to work out his
plan. Now you would say, I fancy, that the poor author could at least
settle their marriages."
"I would do so," said Elijah grimly, "if I were writing."
"Unfortunately that is one of the most difficult and delicate parts of a
poor novelist's work, and he fails as often as he succeeds. The man
marries the wrong woman, and vice versâ, till the author is in
despair, and sometimes wishes he had never called such a set of rebels
Elijah looked incredulous.
"I can assure you, you never know what secret they may have in their past
lives, or what love affairs are going on behind your back. I'll give you
an illustration, if I may quote from very simple fiction. A lady wrote me,
after the publication of the Brier Bush, that she believed
Drumsheugh was in love with Marget Howe, and wished to know whether this
was the case? I replied that this suspicion had crossed my own mind, and
that I was watching events. And as you have done me the honour of reading
Auld Lang Syne, you will remember that Drumsheugh had been a
faithful, although undeclared lover of Marget since early manhood. Yet it
came on me as a surprise; and if any one had said, Why did not you tell
this sooner? my answer would have been, I did not know. If I am not
wearying you, Mr. Higginbotham—I am on my defence, and I should like
to have your good opinion—I may confess that I tried to arrange, in
a book, a girl's love affairs, and she married the wrong man, one quite
unsuited for her, and the result was—although this is again a secret—they
have had many unnecessary trials. No, no, we are helpless creatures, we
so-called authors; poor mother hens, beseeching from the edge of the pond
and lamenting, while the brood of ducklings swim away in all directions."
"That's all very well; and, as writing is not in my line, you may be
right; but I have not come to my most serious ground of complaint, and
that is the Postman's—er—judgment and future lot."
"Yes," I said, and waited for the indictment u Here, according to your own
description, is a man"—and Elijah checked off the list of my poor
gossip's sins on his fingers—"who makes no profession of religion—vital
religion, I mean, for theology is a mere matter of the head—who
indulged in spirituous liquors to excess, who refused tracts, when they
were offered, with contempt, who to all appearance had never known any
saving change. He dies suddenly, and bravely, I admit, but with no sign of
repentance, and this man, dying in his sin, is sent to Heaven as if he
were a saint If that is what happened with the Postman," summed up Elijah
with uncompromising decision, "then I do not know the Gospel. 'He that
believeth shall be saved, and he that believeth not shall be damned,' is
plain enough. He wasn't saved here—no one could say that 'As the
tree falleth, so shall it lie.'
He couldn't be saved there. Yes, it may sound severe, but it is the truth,
and there is no room for sentiment in religion; your story is grossly
misleading, and may do injury to many precious souls."
"By moving people, do you mean, to give their lives for others and to
forget themselves?" I dared to ask.
"I don't deny that it was a gallant deed to jump into the river and save
the girl's life," replied Elijah hastily. "I appreciate that; but it's not
by works that any one can be saved. What right had you to send that man to
"Mr. Higginbotham, you are still making me the scapegoat for other men's
acts. I was only the historian. It was Jamie Soutar and Carmichael, the
Free Kirk minister, who held a council on the road one day, and decided
that it must be well with Posty because he died to save a little child.
Jamie has always been a trial to me, and a ground of criticism, especially
because he used to cloak his good deeds with falsehood to escape praise
instead of proclaiming them at the corners of the streets as the good
people used to do. So little sympathy have I with Jamie, that before the
proof sheets of the book left this room I sent for Jamie (in a literary
sense), and he came (in the same sense), and I placed him just where you
are sitting and spoke to him (always in the same sense) very seriously.
May I tell you—as it will further vindicate me—what I said?
"Thank you, sir, for your patience. 'James,' I said—for if any one
is usually called Jamie and on some occasion you say James, it is very
impressive—'if these sheets are printed as they stand, I'm afraid
both you and I will suffer at the hands of the good people, and, with your
permission, there is one passage at least I would like to amend.'
"'What is it?* said Jamie quickly, but, I felt, unresponsively.
"'It's where you go up to London solely to visit the poor servant lass,
and then say you are in charge of Drumsheugh's cattle; where you assure
Lily that her mistress had been enquiring for her, when you had just rated
her mistress for cruel carelessness; where you give Lily twenty pounds as
from her mistress, while it is your own money: all to cheer a poor dying
lassie, James, I admit, but not true, not true.'
"'What wud ye hev me to say?' enquired Jamie, but very drily indeed.
"'Well, I have written a sentence or two, James, which I hope you will
allow me to insert, and I am sure our critics will be quite satisfied;
it's what they would say themselves.'
"'Read on,' said Jamie, looking very hard.
"'Here I am, Lily, a' the way frae Drumtochty, ane's errand to see ye—a
matter o' five pounds outlay, I reckon, but what's that 'atween friends?
And here's twenty punds o' ma hard-earned savin's a've brocht ye; ye'll
pay me back gin ye be spared; an' gin things come to the worst, yir
grandmother's honest; interest needna be mentioned unless ye insist, and
ye maunna tell onybody what a've done for ye, except a friend or two in
"'Are ye prood o' that passage?' enquired Jamie, and his tone was
distinctly disagreeable; 'd'ye think it a credit to you or me?'
"'It's safe, James, and will be acceptable.'
"Mr. Higginbotham, you will have some idea what sort of men I've had to
deal with, and will be more merciful to me when I tell you that Jamie
walked to the door without a word and then gave me his answer: 'Ye hev ae
Pharisee in yer book; an' gin ye want two, a'm no the man.' You can see
yourself what a man of Jamie Soutar's peculiar disposition would do, if he
had the power, with poor Posty, who gave his life for a little maid."
"More than Jamie Soutar would... in fact, let Posty off"—Elijah
spoke with some feeling—"and it's a mercy that such decisions are
not in our hands. We must just go by Revelation, and I do not see any way
of escape. As regards Jamie, I cannot approve of deliberate falsehood, and
I wish to say so distinctly, but I understand and... appreciate his
As Elijah said this, certain stories came suddenly into my mind: how he
would have a hot altercation with some man on religion, but afterwards
would do him a good turn in business; how a young fellow had insulted him
in a 'bus, and in a great strait, had been helped by some unknown person,
and he always believed himself that the person was Elijah. It seemed to me
as if the evangelist's face had relaxed a little, and that beneath this
casing of doctrine a heart might be beating. So I went on with my defence.
"The other judge who took upon him to reward 'Posty' in the next world was
the Free Kirk minister, and I always regarded Carmichael as a heady young
man, too much inclined to take up with new views, and not sufficiently
respectful to the past But young men have generous impulses and I suppose
Carmichael's heart got the better of his head as he thought of Posty
giving all he had—his life—for the drowning lassie."
"He would have been unworthy the name of a man, let alone a minister,"
broke in Elijah, "if he had not admired that deed. Do you think I don't...
appreciate the devotion of such a man? It was admirable, and Mr.
Carmichael is to be excused if he... did go too far."
So Elijah really was the "Produce Broker" who headed the subscription for
the widows and orphans of the gallant lifeboats-men. Some had laughed the
idea to scorn, saying that he would never give £100 to any object except
tracts or missions. They did not know my evangelist. Whatever he compelled
himself to think the Almighty would do with men, Posty had been very well
off indeed with Elijah as judge.
"Mr. Higginbotham," I said, taking a rapid resolution, "it does not matter
what I think, for a humble story-teller is no theologian, and it matters
as little what my friends of the book thought: let me tell the story over
again in brief, and I shall leave you to pronounce 'Posty's' doom."
"It's far later than I supposed," and Elijah rose hastily, "and I'm afraid
I must go: the market is very sensitive at present. Some other day we can
talk the matter over. I have no wish to be uncharitable, whatever people
may think of me, but we must obey the truth. Well, if you insist—just
ten minutes.... It is not by our feelings, however, that such things are
to be decided." Elijah sat down again, looking just a shade too stern, as
if he were afraid of his own integrity, and not perfectly sure that the
Bible would back him.
"It was Mrs. Macfadyen's youngest daughter, you remember, who fell into
the Tochty, and Elsie was everybody's favourite. She was a healthy and
winsome child, with fair hair and bright laughing eyes...
"Blue?" suddenly enquired Elijah, and then added in some confusion, "I beg
your pardon; I was thinking of a child I once knew, and... loved. Go on."
"Yes, blue, about the colour of a forget-me-not...."
"Hers were darker, like the sea, you know, and in her last illness they
were as deep... I interrupt you."
"People liked Elsie because she was such a merry soul: coming to meet you
on the road, nodding to you over a hedge, or giving you a kiss if you
Elijah nodded as one who understood; yet he was a wifeless, childless man.
Some child friendship most likely; and now, even as I glance at him from
the corner of my eyes, his friend is putting her arms round his neck.
Would they recognise him in the 'bus at this moment?
"Her mother was washing blankets by the edge of the river, which was in
flood, and rising, and the lassie was playing beside her with a doll. She
was singing at the very time in gladness of hear and thinking of no
"Poor little woman!" It gave one a start, for this was a new voice,
unknown in the lard market or the religious meeting. What had become of
"When she either stooped too near the flood, or a larger wave had caught
her where she sat, and at the sound of a scream her mother looked round,
and saw the wee lassie disappear in the black cauldron which whirled round
and round within the rocks."
"Ah!" groaned Elijah, visibly moved, who had spoken calmly of the
everlasting damnation of the greater portion of the human race times
"Her mother, in her agony, cried to God to save Elsie."
"She could not have done better," cried Elijah; "and He answered her
"While she prayed, Posty was coming down the footpath behind, and he heard
"Posty was the instrument," and Elijah rapped the floor with his stick.
"He obeyed the Divine command within, and he cannot go without some
"He tore off his coat in an instant, and then—I suppose if you had
been there you would have besought him to bethink himself: and to remember
that he was a man unfit to die! Is not that so?"
"Sir," said Elijah, "you do me less than justice, and... insult me. What
right have you to ask me such a question? I have preached, and I will
preach again; but there's a time for preaching, and a time to refrain from
preaching. I can swim, and I have saved two lives in my time. I am a fool
for boasting, but I would..."
"I believe you would, Mr. Higginbotham"—I saw an able-bodied man
without fear—"and I beg your pardon..."
Elijah waved his hand. I was to go on to the end without delay.
"It seemed fifteen minutes, it was only one, while the mother hung over
the edge of the black seething whirlpool, and then he came up, bleeding
from a wound in the forehead, without Elsie."
"I take you to witness," declared Elijah solemnly, "that I said he was a
brave man. Yes, he had the natural virtues, and some who make a profession
"For a few seconds he hung on to the edge to get breath, and Mrs.
Macfadyen herself besought him not to risk his life, for he was a husband
and father; but he only answered: 'I'll hae Elsie oot'."
"They forgot themselves,—do you mark that?—both of them,"
cried Elijah. "Whose Spirit was that? Didn't they keep the commandment of
Love, which is the chief commandment? and—answer me—can any
one keep that commandment without grace?"
It was not with me but with himself the evangelist was arguing, and I went
"He came up again, this time with Elsie in one arm, a poor, little limp
bundle of clothes, her yellow hair spread over her face, and her eyes
closed, I was afraid, for ever."
"But she lived, didn't she?" There was no Elijah Higginbotham anywhere to
be found now, only an excited man, concerned about the saving of a little
maid. "Excuse me, I didn't read that part about the saving so carefully as
I ought I was more concerned about... the judgment."
"Yes, Elsie was all right in a day or two, but Posty had not strength to
do more than hand her to her mother, and then, exhausted by the struggle
with the water, he fell back, and was dead when he was found."
"What were you doing that you did not lay hold of Posty and pull him out?"
thundered Elijah; "you seem to have been there."
"Only in a literary sense," I hastened to explain, for it now seemed
likely that the evangelist having come to condemn Posty, was about to take
up the cudgels on his behalf.
"I wish to Heaven you had been there in a physical sense; you would have
been far more useful!" replied Elijah. "And so he died and Elsie was
"Yes, Posty died and went to his account; that was how he lived, and that
was how he died." And I waited.
Elijah sprang out of his seat and stood on the hearthrug, his face
flushed, and his eyes shining.
"It's a pity that he tasted; I wish he hadn't It's a pity he did not think
more about his own soul; I wish he had. But Posty was a hero, and played
the man that day. Posty will have another chance. Posty loved, and God is
Love; if there's such a thing as justice, it's all right with Posty."
We did not look at one another for a full minute—a print of
Perugino's Crucifixion over the mantelpiece interested me, and Elijah's
eye seemed to be arrested by the Encyclopedia Britannica on the
other side of the room—a minute later we shook hands upon the basis
of the Divine Love and our common humanity, and nothing more passed
From my window I could see him go along the street He stopped and slapped
his leg triumphantly. I seemed to hear the evangelist say again with great
joy: "It's all right with Posty!" I said, "And it's all right with Elijah