Read CHAPTER I - THE COVENANT of Duncan Polite The Watchman of Glenoro , free online book, by Marian Keith, on ReadCentral.com.

The morning sun was growing stronger as it rose higher.  Collie, returning from driving his master’s cow to the cool shade of the back pasture, felt its rays penetrate his shaggy coat.  His tongue hung out as he padded swiftly up the garden path where already the dew was almost dried from the rows of marigolds and sweet William.  He dropped with a sigh in the shadow of the old water-barrel that stood against the house.  He felt too warm even to chase his enemy, the cat, into her accustomed shelter of the adjacent pine tree, though she was curled up with impudent complacence upon the top of the barrel.  Instead, he lay in the shade, his eyes glancing furtively through the open door.  He could see inside the old log shanty, where a figure was moving about the bare, spotless kitchen; his tail began to thump a welcome upon the ground, as the figure came slowly forward and stood in the doorway.  It was an old man, tall and stooped, with a finely built frame which suggested a less rugged constitution than is the possession of the average pioneer.  His face was handsome, with regular, clearly cut features and a pair of wonderful eyes, dark and deep set, with a wealth of kindness in their brown depths and a mysterious pathos which spoke of a poetic soul beneath.

Duncan Polite, the people of the neighbourhood called him, partly because the name was descriptive of his gentle, courteous nature, and partly because, among the many McDonalds of these Canadian Highlands, to which clan he belonged, names were so often repeated that the only appellation of any use to a man was the special and distinguishing one, complimentary or otherwise, bestowed upon him by his neighbours.  Indeed, such was the dearth of original names that it is on record that old Ian McAllister, the first schoolmaster in the McDonald settlement, was often compelled as he flung his tawse across the room at some focussed point of mischief behind the stove, to pause even at the boiling-point of his wrath, to deliver himself of some such explanation of the case as: 

“Fiddlin’ Archie’s Archie, an’ Squintin’ Archie’s Duncan, an’ you, Black Sandy More, come up here or Ah’ll smash every curse o’ a McDonald in the school!”

But among all the McDonalds there was only one whose character demanded such a title as belonged to Duncan Polite.  He stood for a moment this morning, in his doorway, gazing over the sun-bathed fields, all green and gold in their early summer dress, then went back into the room, returning the next moment carrying an old leather-bound Bible.  He spread his big red handkerchief upon the doorstep to protect his Sabbath clothes from possible contact with dust, and seated himself upon it, the open Book on his knee.

Everything in his little bachelor domain was in perfect order; the path to the gate, with its bright border of flowers, was swept as clean as the spotless floor within the log shanty; the old stove in the centre of the kitchen, the big, high cupboard with its rows of shining dishes, the old clock ticking in a solemn muffled tone from its place on the dresser, and the bare pine table were all in a condition of beautiful dazzling cleanliness.  A condition befitting the day, Duncan felt, for it was Sabbath morning, and now he sat awaiting the coming of his old friend, with whom it had been his custom, for more than thirty years, to walk down the valley to church, rain or shine, snow storm or blazing heat.

Collie looked up with eyes of dumb devotion as the man seated himself.  He wagged his tail expectantly, but, seeing the open Bible, dropped his nose between his paws again and dozed.

But Duncan Polite did not read.  His eyes wandered away over the landscape.  It was a scene worth contemplating-an expansive tract of rich farm lands, stretching from the blue line of Lake Simcoe on the south, to another blue line on the northern horizon, where Lake Oro peeped through the sharp tops of the firs.  But to Duncan Polite, the best of all was the little valley that sloped abruptly from his very doorstep to the sparkling river.

His eyes followed the white road that passed his farm and wound down into the shady depths.  He could see it twisting in and out among the elms, and on through the village where the tall smoke-stack of the saw-mill, the church spire and the chimneys of the houses rose out of the green orchards.  It crossed the blue line of the river where the old church stood, and then went winding up the opposite hill to disappear among the pines.

The beauty of it all went to Duncan Polite’s poetic heart.  The music of the river, mingling with the chorus of the orioles that flashed golden in the pines at his gate, found an echo in his soul, and he crooned to its accompaniment his favourite Gaelic psalm,

  “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,
  He leadeth me beside the still waters.”

His glen, Duncan Polite had always called this place beneath him, though he owned not a foot of land within its green walls; but his glen it really was in a higher sense.  More than fifty years before, old Donald McDonald, his father, had cut down the first tree on the Oro banks, and there, in that time of incredible hardships, he had knelt one day by an old mossy stone on the edge of the valley and, Jacob-like, made a covenant with the Lord, that if He would be with him and give him a home for his children in the wilderness, they would pledge themselves to make it a place of righteousness, as pure and lovely as they had received it from Nature’s hand.

Duncan had been a mere child then, but he had realised something of the solemnity of the pledge.  As he grew older the feeling became stronger, until it developed into the conviction that he had been chosen for this special work, namely, that of keeping the little glen at his feet a centre of all good influences.  He had set himself as a sort of spiritual watchman to the place; everything that brought discredit upon it gave him deepest pain; everything that tended to raise its moral tone was, to him, a personal favour and joy.

Sometimes his task had seemed impossible; sometimes he doubted his ability to be of any use; but on this bright Sabbath morning a new accession of hope had made him unusually happy.  His eyes rested upon the sun-bathed hilltops with a deep peace.  Those enduring hills had always been of great comfort to the watchman.  As he saw the dense forests change into fields of grain, they seemed the one immutable feature in his surroundings and served as a familiar landmark to a puzzled traveller.

“I will lift up mine eyes into the hills, from whence cometh mine aid,” he quoted softly.

A brisk step sounded upon the stony road above; the old man did not hear, his lips were still moving, his eyes still fixed in a happy reverie upon the far-off horizon.

Collie arose slowly as a figure approached the gate.  He was too well versed in canine etiquette to bark at his master’s oldest friend, but he felt he should mark his approach in some way.  He went forward with waving tail and respectfully lowered head, uttering a gruff ejaculation which could scarcely be called a bark and yet served as a form of greeting.

The newcomer paused at the gate.  “Aye, Duncan, ye’re waitin’,” he said.

Duncan Polite’s friend was as unlike him as a Lowland Scot can be unlike a Highlander, which is granting a very wide difference indeed.  He was short and thick-set, with energy and force speaking from every limb of his well-knit frame.  In spite of his near approach to three-score-and-ten, he was erect and brisk, and, although he always carried a stick, it was more for the purpose of emphasising his forcible arguments than as a support for advancing age.

A stern, upright man was Andrew Johnstone, a terror to evil-doers and so prone to carry out all the law and the prophets by physical force that he had earned, among the irreverent youth of the community, the name of “Splinterin’ Andra.”

The deep friendship between him and the gentle, poetic Duncan McDonald was as strange as it was lasting; for, though they seemed not to possess one characteristic in common, not once in all their long years of comradeship had their allegiance waned.

At the sight of him, Duncan Polite started up in a bewildered fashion.

“Oh, and it will be you, Andra,” he said, “Oh yes, yes, it will be time to be going, indeed.”

Collie came sadly and limply to the gate and watched them depart.  He was a wise dog, and knew that when his master wore a black suit and carried two books, dogs were not wanted.  The thought never entered his sagacious canine head to attempt upsetting the established order of things, but he could not resist a longing whine as he stood looking through the bars of the gate, his eyes eager, his head on one side, his whole body a quivering protest against being left at home in the company of a mere cat.

Duncan turned and said a comforting word in Gaelic, and Collie, though a Canadian, understood the language of his Highland ancestors, and trotted meekly back to his despised companion on the water-barrel.

The two old men stepped out leisurely, one on either side of the road, as was their custom, Duncan with his head bent forward, his eyes fixed on the far-off horizon, and Andrew with his head thrown back and chest expanded, his hands clasped behind him, his big stick waving up and down beneath his coat-tails, except when he whirled it to the front, to bring it crashing upon the stones in emphasis of some truth.

These walks to the church were their greatest enjoyment.  They started at least an hour earlier than was necessary and had plenty of time to move along at the gentle lingering pace conducive to friendly talk.  They discussed everything of interest that was in keeping with the day.  Generally their conversation was of the good old times and the great transformations they had witnessed; and sometimes Duncan Polite hinted at his ambition for the village, knowing he was sure of his friend’s sympathy.

They passed the first turn in the winding road and came out from behind a fairy curtain of drooping elm boughs into full view of the river and the orchards, before either spoke.

Andrew Johnstone showed what his thoughts had been when he broke the silence.

“Yon Collie o’ yours is jist like the young folk o’ to-day, Duncan,” he said.  “They’re aye wantin’ away when they should bide at hame.”

The old man’s chief cross in life was the rising generation, of which he considered his own son the most exasperating type.

“Aye,” he repeated ruminatingly, “he’s jist like the young folk, but Ah misdoot he’s got mair sense than some o’ them.”

But Duncan Polite had unbounded faith in Young Canada.  “Oh, indeed they will be jist lads and lasses, Andra,” he said indulgently.  “And they will be good at heart.  The Lord will guide them aright, never fear.”

“Ah hope so, Duncan, Ah hope so, but there’s oor Andra noo, he’s got nae mair sense than when he was on his mither’s knee.  Him an’ yon nephews o’ yours are jist as prone to evil as the sparks to fly upwards.  They spend half o’ their time in the glen wi’ yon’ gigglin’ licht-heided lasses o’ John Hamilton’s, and the ither half, fleein’ ower the country.  Ah see Sandy’s gotten the bag-pipes noo, an’ ma lad’s jist gone fair daft wi’ the goin’s on up at Betsey’s.”

Duncan was somewhat abashed.  He remembered with a pang of conscience that he had admired his nephew’s bag-pipes, and had laughed with his sister, as the piper strode up and down the kitchen, playing McDonald’s reel, to the stirring and uproarious accompaniment of the six flying feet of his brothers.

“Oh well, well,” he said apologetically, “they would not be meaning any harm, and Donal’ will be at home for his holidays, and the lads will be jist a wee bit noisy.  And, indeed, Sandy would be playing a fine strathspey the other night.”  He checked himself hurriedly, feeling that such a subject was incongruous on the Sabbath.

Andrew Johnstone seemed to share his opinion, for he made no answer, but walked along whacking the wayside weeds with vicious strokes of his big stick.  This was always a bad sign, and Duncan was silent for a time.  He had a great piece of good news regarding one of those same nephews, but the turn the conversation had taken rendered it rather difficult to tell his friend.

“I would be thinking this morning of the great power of prayer, Andra,” he said, by way of introduction.  “All the good that would be coming to Glenoro in these years the good Lord would be sending it in answer to prayer.”

Andrew Johnstone put his stick behind him; his face cleared.  “Aye, aye, Duncan, yon’s a fact.  Man, d’ye mind how your faither an’ mine, an’ old Donald Fraser would meet when we were lads an’ pray for the means o’ grace an’ the ordinances o’ God’s hoose?”

“Yes, yes, Andra, yes indeed, and He would be sending Mr. McAlpine to awaken the people, and then the church came, and Mr. Cameron.”

“Man, yon were wild days, before Mr. McAlpine cam’,” replied his friend, giving himself up to the joys of retrospect.  “Yer faither used to say the Glen was jist like the Garden o’ Eden until the serpent cam’, an’ it wes the tavern.  Ah mind when yon Eerish crew from the Flats cam’ up here to Pete Nash’s tavern, an’ the lads from the Oa cam’ doon, a’ McDonalds to a man, an’ ye could hear the fechtin’ ower on the Tenth.  Man, yon Murphys were a bad lot!”

Duncan’s eyes shone.  He was leading up skilfully to his happy disclosure.  “Yes, the times would be bad, but Mr. McAlpine came, and the revival came.  He would be the man of God indeed, and it would be jist prayer that brought him, and it would be prayer that brought the church and Mr. Cameron among us.”

“Aye, aye, Duncan; when we remember all the way He has led us, we shouldna’ lose faith.”

There was a pause and Duncan began again with an effort.  It was always difficult for him to open his heart, even to the comrade of his youth.  “I would be praying all these years for something, Andra, and it would seem almost too great, but the Father would be answering me.  Oh, yes, He would be kinder than we can ever know.”

His friend turned and looked at him sharply, and noticed for the first time the unusual radiance of his face.  “Aye?” he inquired.  “It would be aboot Betsey’s lads.”

Duncan nodded, his face aglow.  “Donal’.”

“An’ what aboot him?”

“He would be studying so hard when I sent him to the school that now I will be sending him to college next fall, an’ I will be praying that -” He faltered, almost fearing to put his great hope into words.

Andrew Johnstone paused in his walk and stared.  He knew Duncan had been long nursing a great ambition for his eldest nephew and had been educating him at his own expense towards that end, but he could not believe it was to be fulfilled.

“He’ll no be thinkin’ o’ bein’ a meenister?” he inquired, failing to keep his utter astonishment out of his tone.

Duncan nodded, his eyes shining.  “He would not be jist promising me yet, for Donal’ says he will not be worthy, and the lad is right, for it will be a high calling.  But he would not be refusing me when I asked him, and he will be going to Toronto in the fall, and surely the Lord will touch the lad’s heart -” He was off in a happy day-dream again, a dream wherein his nephew stood in Glenoro pulpit when their aged minister laid down the work.

Andrew Johnstone did not answer for some minutes.  He hesitated to disturb his friend’s airy castles, but in his estimation there was no material in any of the youth of Glenoro for the making of a minister, much less in Duncan’s eldest nephew.  For one thing, the young man was far too intimate with his own son.

Ah houp it’ll be so, Duncan,” he said at last, as they turned in at the church gate.  “Maister Cameron’s an’ auld man noo an’ he’ll soon be wantin’ to retire, an’ mebby -” He paused as though the sequel were impossible, adding at last the rather ambiguous encouragement, “With God, all things are possible, ye ken.”