Life in a Country Manse by James Matthew Barrie

From A Holiday in Bed and Other Sketches by J. M. Barrie

Sir James Barrie

Life in a Country Manse

Up here among the heather (or nearly so) we are, in the opinion of tourists, a mere hamlet, though to ourselves we are at least a village. Englishmen call us a “clachan”—though, truth to tell, we are not sure what that is. Just as Gulliver could not see the Liliputians without stooping, these tourists may be looking for the clachan when they are in the middle of it, and knocking at one of its doors to ask how far they have yet to go till they reach it. To be honest, we are only five houses in a row (including the smiddy), with a Free Church Manse and a few farms here and there on the hillsides.

So far as the rest of the world is concerned, we are blotted out with the first fall of snow. I suppose tourists scarcely give us a thought, save when they are here. I have heard them admiring our glen in August, and adding:

“But what a place it must be in winter!”

To this their friends reply, shivering:

“A hard life, indeed!”

And the conversation ends with the comment:

“Don’t call it life; it is merely existence.”

Well, it would be dull, no doubt, for tourists up here in January, say, but I find the winter a pleasant change from summer. I am the minister, and though my heart sank when I was “called,” I rather enjoy the life now. I am the man whom the tourists pity most.

“The others drawl through their lives,” these tourists say, “to the manner born; but think of an educated man who has seen life spending his winters in such a place!”

“He can have no society.”

“Let us hope the poor fellow is married.”

“Oh, he is sure to be. But married or single, I am certain I would go mad if I were in his shoes.”

Their comparison is thrown away. I am strong and hale. I enjoy the biting air, and I seldom carry an umbrella. I should perhaps go mad if I were in the Englishmen’s shoes, glued to a stool all day, and feeling my road home through fog at night. And there is many an educated man who envies me. Did not three times as many probationers apply for a hearing when the church was vacant as could possibly be heard?

But how did I occupy my time? the English gentlemen would say, if they had not forgotten me. What do the people do in winter?

No, I don’t lie long in the mornings and doze on a sofa in the afternoon, and go to bed at 9 o’clock. When I was at college, where there is so much “life,” I breakfasted frequently at ten; but here, where time must (they say) hang heavy on my hands, I am up at seven. Though I am not a married man, no one has said openly that I am insane. Janet, my housekeeper and servant, has my breakfast of porridge and tea and ham ready by half-past seven sharp. You see the mornings are keen, and so, as I have no bed-room fire nor hot water, I dress much more quickly than I dressed at college. Six minutes I give myself, then Janet and I have prayers, and then follows my breakfast. What an appetite I have! I am amazed to recall the student days, when I “could not look at porridge,” and thought a half-penny roll sufficient for two of us.

Dreary pleasure, you say, breakfasting alone in a half-furnished house, with the snow lying some feet deep outside and still monotonously falling. Do I forget the sound of my own voice between Monday and Saturday? I should think not. Nor do I forget Janet’s voice. I have read somewhere that the Scotch are a very taciturn race, but Janet is far more Scotch than the haggis that is passed around at some London dinners, and Janet is not a silent woman. The difficulty with some servants is to get them to answer your summons, but my difficulty with Janet is to get her back to the kitchen. Her favorite position is at the door, which she keeps half open. One of her feet she twists round it, and there she stands, half out of the room and half in it. She has a good deal of gossip to tell me about those five houses that lie low, two hundred yards from the manse, and it must be admitted that I listen. Why not? If one is interested in people he must gossip about them. You, in London, may not care in the least who your next door neighbor is, but you gossip about your brothers and sisters and aunts. Well, my people are as familiar to me as your brothers are to you, and, therefore, I say, “Ah, indeed,” when told that the smith is busy with the wheel of a certain farmer’s cart, and “Dear me, is that so?” when Janet explains that William, the ploughman, has got Meggy, his wife, to cut his hair. Meggy has cut my own hair. She puts a bowl on my head and clips away everything that it does not cover. So I would miss Janet if she were gone, and her tongue is as enlivening as a strong ticking clock. No doubt there are times when, if I were not a minister, I might fling something soft at her. She shows to least advantage when I have visitors, and even in winter I have a man to dinner now and again. Then I realize that Janet does not know her place. While we are dining she hovers in the vicinity. If she is not pretending to put the room to rights, she is in her fortified position at the door; and if she is not at the door she is immediately behind it. Her passion is to help in the conversation. As she brings in the potatoes she answers the last remark my guest addressed to me, and if I am too quick for her she explains away my answer, or modifies it, or signifies her approval of it. Then I try to be dignified and to show Janet her place. If I catch her eye I frown, but such opportunities are rare, for it is the guest on whom she concentrates herself. She even tells him, in my presence, little things about myself which I would prefer to keep to myself. The impression conveyed by her is that I confide everything to her. When my guest remarks that I am becoming a hardened bachelor, and I hint that it is because the ladies do not give me a chance, Janet breaks in with—

“Oh, deed it’s a wonder he wasn’t married long since, but the one he wanted wouldn’t have him, and the ones that want him he won’t take. He’s an ill man to please.”

“Ah, Janet,” the guest may say (for he enjoys her interference more than I do), “you make him so comfortable that you spoil him.”

“Maybe,” says Janet, “but it took me years to learn how to manage him.”

“Does he need to be managed?”

“I never knew a man that didna.”

Then they get Janet to tell them all my little “tantrums” (as she calls them), and she holds forth on my habit of mislaying my hat and then blaming her, or on how I hate rice pudding, or on the way I have worn the carpet by walking up and down the floor when I would be more comfortable in a chair. Now and again I have wound myself up to the point of reproving Janet when the guest had gone, but the result is that she tells her select friends how “quick in the temper” I am. So Janet must remain as she has grown and it is gratifying to me (though don’t let on) to know that she turns up her nose at every other minister who preaches in my church. Janet is always afraid when I go off for a holiday that the congregations in the big towns will “snap me up.” It is pleasant to feel that she has this opinion of me, though I know that the large congregations do not share it.

Who are my winter visitors? The chief of them is the doctor. We have no doctor, of course, up here, and this one has to come twelve miles to us. He is rather melancholy when we send for him; but he wastes no time in coming, though he may not have had his clothes off for twenty-four hours, and is well aware that we cannot pay big fees. Several times he has had to remain with me all night, and once he was snowed up here for a week. At times, too, he drives so far on his way to us and then has to turn back because the gig sticks on the heavy roads. He is only a doctor in a small country town, but I am elated when I see him, for he can tell me whether the Government is still in power. Then I have the school inspector once a year. The school inspector is always threatening to change the date of inspection to summer, but he takes the town from which the doctor comes in early spring, and finds it convenient to come from there to here. Early spring is often winter with us, so that the school inspector comes when there is usually snow on the ground or threatening. The school is a mile away at another “clachan,” but the inspector dines with me, and so does the schoolmaster. On these occasions the schoolmaster is not such good company as at other times, for he is anxious about his passes, and explains (as I think) more than is necessary that regular attendance is out of the question in a place like this. The inspector’s visit is the time of my great annual political debate, for the doctor calls politics “fudge.” The inspector and I are on different sides, however, and we go at each other hammer and tongs, while the schoolmaster signs to me with his foot not to anger the inspector.

Of course, outsiders will look incredulous when I assure them that a good deal of time is passed in preparing my sermons. I have only one Sabbath service, but two sermons, the one beginning as soon as the other is finished. In such a little church, you will say they must be easily pleased; but they are not. Some of them tramp long distances to church in weather that would keep you, reader, in the house, though your church is round the corner and there is pavement all the way to it. I can preach old sermons? Indeed I cannot. Many of my hearers adjourn to one of the five houses when the service is over, and there I am picked pretty clean. They would detect an old sermon at once, and resent it. I do not “talk” to them from the pulpit. I write my sermons in the manse, and though I use “paper,” the less I use it the better they are pleased.

The visits of the doctor are pleasant to me in one sense, but painful in others, for I need not say that when he is called I am required too. To wade through miles of snow is no great hardship to those who are accustomed to it; but the heavy heart comes when one of my people is seriously ill. Up here we have few slight illnesses. The doctor cannot be summoned to attend them, and we usually “fight away” until the malady has a heavy hold. Then the doctor comes, and though we are so scattered, his judgment is soon known all through the glens. When the tourists come back in summer they will not see all the “natives” of the year before.

It is said by those who know nothing of our lives that we have no social events worth speaking of, and no amusements. This is what ignorance brings outsiders to. I had a marriage last week that was probably more exciting than many of your grand affairs in London. And as for amusements, you should see us gathered together in the smiddy, and sometimes in the school-house. But I must break off here for the reason that I have used up all my spare sermon paper—a serious matter. I shall send the editor something about our social gatherings presently, for he says he wants it. Janet, I may add, has discovered that this is not a sermon and is very curious about it.

A Holiday in Bed and Other Sketches