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John Lang

The Wraith of Patrick Kerr

This is a tale they tell at the darkening, and you who are Rulewater folk probably know it well. But however well you may know it, you have to own that it is an eerie thing to listen to when the fire is dying down, and there are queer-shaped shadows playing on the walls, and outside in the wood the owls are beginning to hoot, or, from the far moor, there comes a curlew's cry.

Not long after Prince Charlie's day there lived at Abbotrule, in Rulewater, a laird named Patrick Kerr. Patrick Kerr was a Writer to His Majesty's Signet, a dour man, with a mischancy temper. The kirk and kirkyard of Abbotrule, as still may be seen, lay near the laird's house—too near for the pleasure of one who had no love for the kirk and who could not thole ministers. Most unfortunately, too, the laird took a scunner at the minister of the parish of Abbotrule. It may be that he and the minister saw too much of each other, and only saw each other's faults, but of that no one now can tell. But, about the year 1770, Patrick Kerr set about to put an end to Abbotrule Parish and Abbotrule Kirk, that had seen many an open-air Sacrament on summer Sabbaths long ago. For four years the laird laboured to attain his end, and a blithe man was he when, in 1774, he got Eliott of Stobs and Douglas of Douglas to side with him and wipe out for evermore the kirk and parish of Abbotrule. The parish was joined to the parishes of Hobkirk and Southdean, and the glebe—twenty-five acres of good land—which should have been shared between the Southdean and Hobkirk ministers, was taken by Patrick Kerr for his own use. Fifty acres of poor soil lying between Doorpool and Chesters he certainly gave them in its stead, and must have had pleasure in his bargain, for he had gained a rich glebe and had for ever freed himself from his clerical neighbours. Speedily he pulled down the manse and unroofed the kirk. He would willingly have ploughed up the kirkyard, but this could not be. For a hundred years after he was gone, the Rulewater folk still buried there.

Now, in Patrick Kerr's day, a Sacrament Sabbath was not quite what it is now. They were solemn enough about the fencing of the tables, serious and longfaced enough were ministers and elders as the bread and wine were handed round, but the minister's wife, poor body, found it took her all her time to preserve an earnest spirituality and to search her soul as the roasts and pies and puddings spread out on the manse dining-table haunted her anxious mind. Harder still, too, it was for a tired minister and elders to abstain from all appearance of casuality as the hospitality of the manse went on far into the afternoon, and the whisky toddy had more than once gone the round of the table.

Seventeen years after the doing away with Abbotrule Parish there took place at the manse of Southdean, after the Sacrament had been dispensed, one of these gatherings of sanctified conviviality. It was dusk before the party broke up, and it was probably due to the kindly forethought of the minister that he and his guests strolled in little companies of two's and three's out into the caller air before their final parting. Their gait was solemn—if a trifle uncertain—as they slowly daundered up the road between the trees. It was a still Sabbath evening, when one can hear the very whispers of the fir branches, the murmur of a burn far away—when suddenly the stillness was broken by the thud of a horse's hoofs. Beat—beat—beat—on the turf by the side of the road they came, and each man of the party cocked his ears and strained his eyes into the darkness to see who might be the horseman who profaned the Sabbath by riding in such hot haste. There was an elder there who, had the party been held at any time but on the Sacrament Sabbath and anywhere but in the manse dining-room, might have been said to have a trifle exceeded. So when, cantering on the turf between the two fir woods, they saw a white horse appear, he looked byordinar grave.

"I mind," said he, "a passage in the Revelations, 'Behold a pale horse; and his name that sat on him was Death.'" With that the horse was upon them, and one and all looked up at the rider's face. Fearsome and gash was the countenance they looked upon. Hatred and scorn was in the burning eyes—anger, and the hatred that does not die. And there was not one man of them but ran like hunted sheep back into the manse, and there, in the light, faced each other, forfeuchen and well-nigh greeting like terrified bairns, that did not know the face for that of Patrick Kerr, the laird of Abbotrule.

Next day they all had the news that Patrick Kerr, who hated the kirk and all ministers, and had done away with the parish of Abbotrule, had died in the darkening of that Sabbath evening and gone to his last account.