Halliday Sutherland

"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.

In Search of Truth 2

This is the second part of Dr. Sutherland’s religious journey, as told in A Time to Keep (1934) (Click here to read Part One).

My friend, John M’Neil, a blacksmith in the Lowlands of Scotland, had a curious experience. At the age of fifty he was taken ill on a Monday, and on the following Friday Saint Peter came to fetch him, a most unusual happening. When St. Peter said that they that he had come to guide him along the shiny path that leads to the city of God, John M’Neill said nothing, but listened a full minute to hear if his black minorca cock in the backyard was going to crow. There was no crowing, and John M’Neil said that he wished to stay on earth for another three years.

At this ingratitude, St. Peter became as angry as a Saint can be, and that is to be very, very angry, because an angry Saint is a holy terror; a well-known fact which inspired the writer of that Ancient and Modern hymn:

To dwell with the Saints in Heaven

Is infinite bliss and glory,

But to live with a Saint on earth

Is a very different story.

St. Peter had every right to be angry. The happy chattering of the angels in heaven is like the twittering of birds at dawn, and on the previous Sunday this celestial music had been drowned by some commotion in the ether. Some of the angels complained of deafness, and St. Paul, who makes it his business to see that everything is done decently and in order, told one of them, a seraph, to trace the infernal noise to its source. The noise was traced to Earth, to Scotland, to the County of Dumfries, to the parish of Traquair, to the village of Thrums, to the United Presbyterian Church, to the choir, and finally to John M’Neil, who in a rich Baritone was singing at the top of his voice: “O Paradise! O Paradise! ‘Tis weary waiting here.”

Believe it or not, that hymn is most popular with convicts. For that statement I have the word of a chaplain to a prison. John M’Neil had no such excuse.

When these facts had been reported to St. Peter, he decided that on his first day off duty at the Gate he would go to the earth, which is a very considerable distance from heaven, and collect John McNeil. And now the ungrateful man did not want to go. Once St. Peter’s ire had cooled, he told John M’Neil that his wish to have three years longer on earth was granted, and since this extension of time left his final destiny undecided, he might ask for three other wishes, which would be also granted. “So think long John M’Neil, and wish wisely.”

“I wish that no one sitting in that chair, where you’re now sitting, can get out of it without my permission.”

St Peter rose hurriedly. “A foolish wish, but it’s granted.”

“I wish that no one who climbs the pear tree in front of this cottage can get down without my permission.”

“A daft wish,” said the Saint, “but it’s granted.”

“I wish that nothing which enters my purse can get out of it without my permission.”

“A most mercenary wish, but it’s granted, and in return for all these favours I hope that in future you will modulate your voice in the choir. There are certain wavelengths which the stratosphere cannot stop.”

John M’Neil did not know what the stratosphere was but before he could ask, St. Peter had gone.

The three years passed so quickly that John M’Neil lost count of time, until one day he saw the devil coming along the road. As John’s conscience was not so clear as it was on the day when he had spoken St. Peter, he ran into his cottage.

The devil followed him, and said abruptly: “Come on, I’ve waited three years.”

“Well, Deil, as you’ve waited so long ye can wait a wee bit longer till I pack ma things. Meanwhile, will you no’ sit down.”

The devil sat down and suddenly shouted: “What’s this devilry, I’m stuck to this chair!”

“Ay, and ye’ll stay there for eternity unless you give me another three years.”

“Granted,” said the devil, pleased to get away so easily.

On his next visit the devil rapped on the window-pane and shouted: “Come along out, I’m waiting.”

“Will ye no’ come in deil?” asked John.

“No damn fear.”

Please yourself, but I’ll be a few minutes packing. There’s some juicy pears on yon tree, and maybe yer tongue is over dry. You’re welcome, Deil.”

Up the tree went the devil, and he shouted: “I can’t get down. What the hell does this mean?”

“It means another three years for me, Deil.”

“Granted, but I’ll get you next time,” said the devil.

And he did. Next time the devil stood in the middle of the road, where John M’Neil joined him, and together they went along a cindery path in high sandhills, on which toadstools were growing, until they came to a wood which smelt of rotting vegetation, and above the bare branches of leafless trees the sky had a coppery hue.

“You’re clever, Deil,” said John in a foolish attempt to curry favour.

“I’m all that,” said the devil.

“Ay, and you’ll be able to disguise yersel any way you like?”

“I can,” admitted to the devil.

“I’ll bet you couldn’t make yersel smaller,” said John.

“You’ve nothing left to bet, not even your soul, but I don’t mind showing you how small I can make myself. It will scare you.”

“Could you make yourself so small that you could get into my purse?”

“I can and I will,” said the devil.

In the twinkling of an eye the devil was in the purse. John M’Neil closed it, and began to retrace his steps. So faint were the squeaks from inside the purse that John had to hold it up to his right ear before he knew that the devil was saying: “Let me out, let me out.”

“On one condition Deil, that you leave me alone for eternity.”

“Granted, granted,” said the devil, in a voice that made less noise than a grasshopper. So John let him out, and in high dudgeon the devil returned to hell, while John made his way back to the village of Thrums. Yet even in Thrums the cream sometimes goes sour, and at long last John M’Neil died once and for all time.

His soul swung like the weight of a pendulum between the gates of heaven and hell, until it came to rest at a neutral point between the two. There John M’Neil came to himself and built another smithy, and when you ride past that place, as one day you will, your horse will cost a shoe. Then John M’Neil will reshoe -your horse, and before you depart will say to you, “Think long and wish wisely.”

From “A Time To Keep” by Halliday Sutherland (1934).

Photo by Jonas Togo from Pexels

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This entry was posted on 1 May 2021 by in A Time to Keep, Scotland.

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