“Atheists!” he repeated with luxurious scorn. “Atheists! I know their sort, master. Atheists! Don’t talk to me about ’un. Atheists!”
The grounds of his disdain seemed a little dark and confused; but they were evidently sufficient. MacIan resumed in some encouragement:
“You think as I do, I hope; you think that a man should be connected with the Church; with the common Christian——”
The old man extended a quivering stick in the direction of a distant hill.
“There’s the church,” he said thickly. “Grassley old church that is. Pulled down it was, in the old squire’s time, and——”
“I mean,” explained MacIan elaborately, “that you think that there should be someone typifying religion, a priest——”
“Priests!” said the old man with sudden passion. “Priests! I know ’un. What they want in England? That’s what I say. What they want in England?”
“They want you,” said MacIan.
“Quite so,” said Turnbull, “and me; but they won’t get us. MacIan, your attempt on the primitive innocence does not seem very successful. Let me try. What you want, my friend, is your rights. You don’t want any priests or churches. A vote, a right to speak is what you——”
“Who says I a’n’t got a right to speak?” said the old man, facing round in an irrational frenzy. “I got a right to speak. I’m a man, I am. I don’t want no votin’ nor priests. I say a man’s a man; that’s what I say. If a man a’n’t a man, what is he? That’s what I say, if a man a’n’t a man, what is he? When I sees a man, I sez ’e’s a man.”
“Quite so,” said Turnbull, “a citizen.”
“I say he’s a man,” said the rustic furiously, stopping and striking his stick on the ground. “Not a city or owt else. He’s a man.”
“You’re perfectly right,” said the sudden voice of MacIan, falling like a sword. “And you have kept close to something the whole world of today tries to forget.”
And the old man went on wildly singing into the night.
“A jolly old creature,” said Turnbull; “he didn’t seem able to get much beyond that fact that a man is a man.”
“Has anybody got beyond it?” asked MacIan.
Turnbull looked at him curiously. “Are you turning an agnostic?” he asked.
“Oh, you do not understand!” cried out MacIan. “We Catholics are all agnostics. We Catholics have only in that sense got as far as realizing that man is a man. But your Ibsens and your Zolas and your Shaws and your Tolstoys have not even got so far.”
Morning broke in bitter silver along the grey and level plain; and almost as it did so Turnbull and MacIan came out of a low, scrubby wood on to the empty and desolate flats. They had walked all night.