Fergus and the black box

IN our village the retired schoolmaster, Fergus, never ceased to lament the passing of former days and surveyed the younger generation with misgivings and mistrust: Who would carry on the old traditions now? We met him daily in our country lanes or saw him in his garden, a stooped figure in a Harris tweed coat and Balmoral bonnet, whistling to his tame birds and shadowed by an old sheep dog. For him, as for the aged Ulysses, it was intolerable to ''rust unburnished, not to shine in use.''

He kept invoking a vanished age of gold, calling up echoes of sounds that had died away, the clip-clip of horses' hoofs, the rumbling of the haywain, the humming of the sawmill, the cry of the corncrake among the wheat and barley. The air had been fragrant with burning peat, heather, clover, and dog roses, the hedges hand-clipped by craftsmen, not haggled by machines. ''Machines!'' Fergus would mutter. The veillees, sessions of rich talk by fire and lamplight till midnight, were swept aside now by the scourge of the century - television.

Then his pupils had risen to become statesmen, poets, and pastors - but now! He would shake his head. ''Now they are hooligans.''

At first Fergus was heard with respect, even with awe, but gradually we lost patience with his visions of a fabled past. His former pupils sniggered at his reminiscences, imitating his shambling gait and slow Highland voice. Their ringleader was redheaded Tim, Fergus's most diabolical pupil, for years a thorn in his flesh. Tim had felt the full force of the dominie's irony and now had his revenge. ''What does he know!'' he would say to his comrades. ''He came out of the Ark.''

Under its new headmaster the village school became a place of overflowing activity, with the children more and more involved in various projects. ''Projects!'' Fergus exclaimed. ''We got on very well without them in my day.'' Fresh sounds invaded the village, tinklings and flutings. They had taken up the recorder, the trumpet, the pipes, and had plans to start a youth orchestra. Exhilarated by the ideas of space travel, they dreamed of being cosmonauts or of living in kingdoms under the sea or in far-distant stars. They would walk on the moon and Mars, explore Venus and Sirius.

They studied the geology of the region, kept log books of the wild life found on the river bank and around the loch. They went abroad on a trip with the school and returned, dazzled with foreign travel, amazed that even the children over there spoke fluent French.

Among all this activity Fergus was more than ever a king in exile, moving about in a world he no longer understood. The confrontations between him and the younger generation became increasingly acrimonious.

Then, one day, we witnessed an encounter between Tim and his former master. Tim, swaggering more than ever since the tour to France, had begun to ask Fergus when he had last left the village when all at once he stopped short. Perhaps in the moment when he met the old man's bitter eye he had a sudden intuitive flash of compassion, realizing that if Fergus was querulous and disgruntled it was because he was lonely. He had nothing but birds and dogs as companions, along with the past. Perhaps, too, certain words of the dominie came back to him, words that had inspired him once, setting him off on the most wonderful of quests, to follow knowledge . . . beyond the utmost bound of human thought. . . .

After that Tim wasn't to be seen with his usual crowd of followers. We caught glimpses of him in the spinney at the foot of Fergus's garden, but he had a funny, secretive look about him and wasn't telling anyone what he was up to.

One day after school he knocked at Fergus's door. ''So it's you. And what are you after?''

''I want you to hear something. Just hark to this!''

''What's yon?'' Fergus asked sharply, eyeing Tim's tape recorder with his usual suspicion of any machine. He was turning away when Tim switched on.

There came the cello-like note of the blackbird, with Fergus talking and whistling back to it. ''Aye, there's my blackie. And it's my own self, too,'' he added, intrigued, but trying to hide his interest in what on any other occasion he would have dismissed as a gadget.

When, some days later, the headmaster came to ask if he would be willing to plant a tree in the playground of the new primary school, it was most probably Tim's tape that made Fergus accept. ''I might as well, if you've got no one younger,'' he said grudgingly, making it plain to his successor that his coming was a concession to a crowd of hooligans.

The day of the ceremony was in early April, with all the countryside a shimmering green, the air perfumed with sweetbriar and apple blossom. Fergus laid the hornbeam sapling carefully in the upturned reddish-brown soil, with gentle fingers settling the roots, finally trampling them down firmly. Then he stood back and for a moment we thought he was going to make a speech. Instead he remained silent, as if listening intently to some message whispered by the rustling leaves. For all of us it took on meaning, becoming more than merely an old man and a young tree.

As Fergus walked slowly away there came a shout. ''Wait a minute!'' It was Tim. ''We've thought up a new project, sir.''

''So you've another of those things on the go, have you?''

''We're going to compile a village history and want to tape your reminiscences of the old days. No one remembers them like you. If you don't agree it will all be lost.''

''You're wanting me to speak into that machine of yours?'' Tim nodded his carrot-colored head. ''I'll consider it,'' Fergus said loftily. ''I've a few notes laid aside somewhere that I've scribbled down over these last years.''

Once, half sententiously, half humorously, he would have come out with a quotation: ''Something ere the end, some work of noble note, may yet be done. . . .'' Instead he gave a wonderful smile and broke into a great chuckle. ''Fancy in days to come people listening to my voice coming out of yon wee black box!'' he said.

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