James Brunton Stephens

(17 June 1835 – 29 June 1902 / Borrowstounness, on the Firth of Forth, Scotland;)

Drought and Doctrine


Come, take the tenner, doctor . . . yes, I know the bill says “five,”
But it ain't as if you'd merely kep' our little 'un alive;
Man, you saved the mother's reason when you saved that babby's life,
An' it's thanks to you I ha'n't a ravin' idiot for a wife.

Let me tell you all the story, an' if then you think it strange
That I'd like to fee ye extry—why, I'll take the bloomin' change.
If yer bill had said a hundred . . . I'm a poor man, doc, an' yet
I'd 'a' slaved till I had squared it; ay, an' still been in yer debt.

Well, you see the wife's got notions on a heap o' things that ain't
To be handled by a man as don't pretend to be a saint;
So I minds “the cultivation,” smokes my pipe, an' makes no stir,
An' religion an' such p'ints I lays entirely on to her.

Now, she's got it fixed within her that, if children die afore
They've been sprinkled by the parson, they've no show for evermore;
An' though they're spared the pitchforks, an' the brim-stun', an' the smoke,
They ain't allowed to mix up there with other little folk.

So when our last began to pine, an' lost his pretty smile,
An' not a parson to be had within a hunder mile—
(For though there is a chapel down at Bluegrass Creek, you know,
The clargy's there on dooty only thrice a year or so)—

Well, when our yet unchristen'd mite grew limp an' thin an' pale,
It would 'a' cut you to the heart to hear the mother wail
About her “unregenerate babe,” an' how, if it should go,
'Twould have no chance with them as had their registers to show.

Then awful quiet she grew, an' hadn't spoken for a week,
When in came brother Bill one day with news from Bluegrass Creek.
“I seen,” says he, “a notice on the chapel railin' tied;
They'll have service there this evenin'—can the youngster stand the ride?

“For we can't have parson here, if it be true, as I've heard say,
There's a dyin' man as wants him more'n twenty mile away;
So —He hadn't time to finish ere the child was out of bed
With a shawl about its body an' a hood upon its head.
“Saddle up,” the missus said. I did her biddin' like a bird.
Perhaps I thought it foolish, but I never said a word;
For though I have a vote in what the kids eat, drink, or wear,
Their sperritual requirements are entirely her affair.

We started on our two hours' ride beneath a burnin' sun,
With Aunt Sal and Bill for sureties to renounce the Evil One;

An' a bottle in Sal's basket that was labelled “Fine Old Tom”
Held the water that regeneration was to follow from.

For Bluegrass Creek was dry, as Bill that very day had found,
An' not a sup o' water to be had for miles around;
So, to make salvation sartin for the babby's little soul,
We had filled a dead marine, sir, at the fam'ly waterhole.

Which every forty rods or so Sal raised it to her head,
An' took a snifter, “just enough to wet her lips,” she said;
Whereby it came to pass that when we reached the chapel door
There was only what would serve the job, an' deuce a dribble more.

The service had begun—we didn't like to carry in
A vessel with so evident a carritur for gin;
So we left it in the porch, an,' havin' done our level best,
Went an' owned to bein' “mis'rable offenders” with the rest.

An' nigh upon the finish, when the parson had been told
That a lamb was waitin' there to be admitted to the fold,
Rememberin' the needful, I gets up an' quietly slips
To the porch to see—a swagsman—with our bottle at his lips!

Such a faintness came all over me, you might have then an' there
Knocked me down, sir, with a feather, or tied me with a hair.
Doc, I couldn't speak nor move; an' though I caught the beggar's eye,
With a wink he turned the bottle bottom up an' drank it dry.

An' then he flung it from him, bein' suddintly aware
That the label on't was merely a deloosion an' a snare;
An' the crash cut short the people in the middle of “A-men,”
An' all the congregation heard him holler “Sold again!”

So that christ'nin' was a failure; every water-flask was drained;
Ev'n the monkey in the vestry not a blessed drop contained;
An' the parson in a hurry cantered off upon his mare,
Leaving baby unregenerate, an' missus in despair.

That night the child grew worse, but all my care was for the wife;
I feared more for her reason than for that wee spark o' life. . . .
But you know the rest—how Providence contrived that very night
That a doctor should come cadgin' at our shanty for a light. . . .

Baby? Oh, he's chirpy, thank ye—been baptized—his name is Bill.
It's weeks an' weeks since parson came an' put him through the mill;
An' his mother's mighty vain upon the subjick of his weight,
An' reg'lar cook-a-hoop about his sperritual state

So now you'll take the tenner. Oh, confound the bloomin' change!
Lord, had Billy died!—but, doctor, don't you think it summut strange
That them as keeps the Gate would have refused to let him in

Because a fool mistook a drop of Adam's ale for gin?

Submitted: Wednesday, March 03, 2010

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