Prisoners of Conscience by Amelia E. Barr
Book First. Liot Borson
I. The Weaving of Doom
In the early part of this century there lived at Lerwick, in the Shetland Islands, a man called Liot Borson. He was no ignoble man; through sea-fishers and sea-fighters he counted his forefathers in an unbroken line back to the great Norwegian Bor, while his own life was full of perilous labor and he was off to sea every day that a boat could swim. Liot was the outcome of the most vivid and masterful form of paganism and the most vital and uncompromising form of Christianity. For nearly eight hundred years the Borsons had been christened, but who can deliver a man from his ancestors? Bor still spoke to his son through the stirring stories of the sagas, and Liot knew the lives of Thord and Odd, of Gisli and the banded men, and the tremendous drama of Nial and his sons, just as well as he knew the histories of the prophets and heroes of his Old Testament. It is true that he held the former with a kind of reservation, and that he gave to the latter a devout and passionate faith, but this faith was not always potential. There were hours in Liot's life when he was still a pagan, when he approved the swift, personal vengeance which Odin enjoined and Christ forbade--hours in which he felt himself to be the son of the man who had carried his gods and his home to uninhabited Iceland rather than take cross-marking for the meek and lowly Jesus.
In his youth--before his great sorrow came to him--he had but little trouble from this subcharacter. Of all the men in Lerwick, he knew best the king stories and the tellings-up of the ancients; and when the boats with bare spars rocked idly on the summer seas waiting for the shoal, or the men and women were gathered together to pass the long winter nights, Liot was eagerly sought after. Then, as the women knit and the men sat with their hands clasped upon their heads, Liot stood in their midst and told of the wayfarings and doings of the Borsons, who had been in the Varangian Guard, and sometimes of the sad doom of his fore-elder Gisli, who had been cursed even before he was born.
He did not often speak of Gisli; for the man ruled him across the gulf of centuries, and he was always unhappy when he gave way to the temptation to do so; for he could not get rid of the sense of kinship with him, nor of the memory of that withering spaedom with which the first Gisli had been cursed by the wronged thrall who slew him--"This is but the beginning of the ill luck which I will bring on thy kith and kin after thee."
Never had he felt the brooding gloom of this wretched heirship so vividly as on the night when he first met Karen Sabiston. Karen lived with her aunt Matilda Sabiston, the richest woman in Lerwick and the chief pillar of the kirk and its societies. On that night the best knitters in Lerwick were gathered at her house, knitting the fine, lace-like shawls which were to be sold at the next foy for some good cause which the minister should approve. They were weary of their own talk, and longing for Liot to come and tell them a story. And some of the young girls whispered to Karen, "When Liot Borson opens the door, then you will see the handsomest man in the islands."
"I have seen fine men in Yell and Unst," answered Karen; "I think I shall see no handsomer ones in Lerwick. Is he fair or dark?"
"He is a straight-faced, bright-faced man, tall and strong, who can tell a story so that you will be carried off your feet and away wherever he chooses to take you."
"I have done always as Karen Sabiston was minded to do; and now I will not be moved this way or that way as some one else minds."
"As to that we shall see." And as Thora Glumm spoke Liot came into the room.
"The wind is blowing dead on shore, and the sea is like a man gone out of his wits," he said.
And Matilda answered, "Well, then, Liot, come to the fire." And as they went toward the fire she stopped before a lovely girl and said, "Look, now, this is my niece Karen; she has just come from Yell, and she can tell a story also; so it will be, which can better the other."
Then Liot looked at Karen, and the girl looked up at him; in that instant their souls remembered each other. They put their hands together like old lovers, and if Liot had drawn her to his heart and kissed her Karen would not have been much astonished. This sweet reciprocity was, however, so personal that onlookers did not see it, and so swift that Liot appeared to answer promptly enough:
"It would be a good thing for us all if we should hear a new story. As for me, the game is up. I can think of nothing to-night but my poor kinsman Gisli, and he was not a lucky man, nor is it lucky to speak of him."
"Is it Gisli you are talking about?" asked Wolf Skegg. "Let us bring the man among us; I like him best of all."
"He had much sorrow," said Andrew Grimm.
"He had a good wife," answered Gust Havard; "and not many men are so lucky."
"'Twas his fate," stammered a very old man, crouching over the fire, "and in everything fate rules."
"Well, then, Snorro, fate is justice," said Matilda; "and as well begin, Liot, for it will be the tale of Gisli and no other--I see that."
Then Liot stood up, and Karen, busy with her knitting, watched him. She saw that he had brown hair and gray eyes and the fearless carriage of one who is at home on the North Sea. His voice at first was frank and full of brave inflections, as he told of the noble, faithful, helpful Gisli, pursued by evil fortune even in his dreams. Gradually its tones became sad as the complaining of the sea, and a brooding melancholy touched every heart as Gisli, doing all he might do to ward off misfortune, found it of no avail. "For what must be must be; there is no help for it," sighed Liot. "So, then, love of wife and friends, and all that good-will dared, could not help Gisli, for the man was doomed even before his birth."
Then he paused, and there was a dead silence and an unmistakable sense of expectation; and Liot's face changed, and he looked as Gisli might have looked when he knew that he had come to his last fight for life. Also for a moment his eyes rested on old Snorro, who was no longer crouching over the hearth, but straight up and full of fire and interest; and Snorro answered the look with a nod, that meant something which all approved and understood; after which Liot continued in a voice full of a somber passion:
"It was the very last night of the summer, and neither Gisli nor his true wife, Auda, could sleep. Gisli had bad dreams full of fate if he shut his eyes, and he knew that his life-days were nearly over. So they left their house and went to a hiding-place among the crags, and no sooner were they there than they heard the voice of their enemy Eyjolf, and there were fourteen men with him. 'Come on like men,' shouted Gisli, 'for I am not going to fare farther away.'"
Then old Snorro raised himself and answered Liot in the very words of Eyjolf:
"'Lay down the good arms thou bearest, and give up also Auda, thy wife.'"
"'Come and take them like a man, for neither the arms I bear nor the wife I love are fit for any one else!'" cried Liot, in reply. And this challenge and valiant answer, though fully expected, charged the crowded room with enthusiasm. The women let their knitting fall and sat with parted lips and shining eyes, and the men looked at Liot as men look whose hands are on their weapons.
"So," continued Liot, "the men made for the crags; but Gisli fought like a hero, and in that bout four men were slain. And when they were least aware Gisli leaped on a crag, that stands alone there and is called Oneman's Crag, and there he turned at bay and called out to Eyjolf, 'I wish to make those three hundred in silver, which thou hast taken as the price of my head, as dear bought as I can; and before we part thou wouldst give other three hundred in silver that we had never met; for thou wilt only take disgrace for loss of life.' Then their onslaught was harder and hotter, and they gave Gisli many spear-thrusts; but he fought on wondrously, and there was not one of them without a wound who came nigh him. At last, full of great hurts, Gisli bade them wait awhile and they should have the end they wanted; for he would have time to sing this last song to his faithful Auda:
'Wife, so fair, so never-failing, So truly loved, so sorely cross'd, Thou wilt often miss me, wailing; Thou wilt weep thy hero lost. But my heart is stout as ever; Swords may bite, I feel no smart; Father! better heirloom never Owned thy son than fearless heart.'
And with these words he rushed down from the crag and clove Thord--who was Eyjolf's kinsman--to the very belt. There Gisli lost his life with many great and sore wounds. He never turned his heel, and none of them saw that his strokes were lighter, the last than the first. They buried him by the sea, and at his grave the sixth man breathed his last; and on the same night the seventh man breathed his last; and an eighth lay bedridden for twelve months and died. And though the rest were healed, they got nothing but shame for their pains. Thus Gisli came to his grave; and it has always been said, by one and all, that there never was a more famous defense made by one man in any time, of which the truth is known; but he was not lucky in anything."
"I will doubt that," said Gust Havard. "He had Auda to wife, and never was there a woman more beautiful and loving and faithful. He had love-luck, if he had no other luck. God give us all such wives as Auda!"
"Well, then," answered Matilda, "a man's fate is his wife, and she is of his own choosing; and, what is more, a good husband makes a good wife." Then, suddenly stopping, she listened a moment and added: "The minister is come, and we shall hear from him still better words. But sit down, Liot; you have passed the hour well, as you always do."
The minister came in with a smile, and he was placed in the best chair and made many times welcome. It was evident in a moment that he had brought a different spirit with him; the old world vanished away, and the men and women that a few minutes before had been so close to it suffered a transformation. As the minister entered the room they became in a moment members of the straitest Christian kirk--quiet, hard-working fishers, and douce, home-keeping women. He said the night was bad and black, and spoke of the boats and the fishers in them. And the men talked solemnly about the "takes" and the kirk meetings, while some of the women knitted and listened, and others helped Matilda and Karen to set the table with goose and fish, and barley and oaten cakes, and the hot, sweet tea which is the Shetlander's favorite drink.
Many meals in a lifetime people eat, and few are remembered; but when they are "eventful," how sweet or bitter is that bread-breaking! This night Liot's cake and fish and cup of tea were as angels' food. Karen broke her cake with him, and she sweetened his cup, and smiled at him and talked to him as he ate and drank with her. And when at last they stood up for the song and thanksgiving he held her hand in his, and their voices blended in the noble sea psalm, so dear to every seafarer's heart:
"The floods, O Lord, have lifted up, They lifted up their voice! The floods have lifted up their waves And made a mighty noise.
"But yet the Lord, that is on high, Is more of might by far Than noise of many waters is, Or great sea-billows are."
Soft and loud the singing swelled, and the short thanksgiving followed it. To bend his head and hold Karen's hand while the blessing fell on his ears was heaven on earth to Liot; such happiness he had never known before--never even dreamed of. He walked home through the buffeting wind and the drenching rain, and felt neither; for he was saying over and over to himself, "I have found my wife! I have found my wife!"
Karen had the same prepossession. As she unbound her long, fair hair she thought of Liot. Slowly unplaiting strand from strand, she murmured to her heart as she did so:
"Such a man as Liot Borson I have never met before. It was easy to see that he loved me as soon as he looked at me; well, then, Liot Borson shall be my husband--Liot, and only Liot, will I marry."
It was at the beginning of winter that this took place, and it was a kind of new birth to Liot. Hitherto he had been a silent man about his work; he now began to talk and to sing, and even to whistle; and, as every one knows, whistling is the most cheerful sound that comes from human lips. People wondered a little and said, "It is Karen Sabiston, and it is a good thing." Also, the doubts and fears that usually trouble the beginnings of love were absent in this case. Wherever Liot and Karen had learned each other, the lesson had been perfected. At their third meeting he asked her to be his wife, and she answered with simple honesty, "That is my desire."
This betrothal was, however, far from satisfactory to Karen's aunt; she could bring up nothing against Liot, but she was ill pleased with Karen. "You have some beauty," she said, "and you have one hundred pounds of your own; and it was to be expected that you would look to better yourself a little."
"Have I not done so? Liot is the best of men."
"And the best of men are but men at best. It is not of Liot I think, but of Liot's money; he is but poor, and you know little of him. Those before us have said wisely, 'Ere you run in double harness, look well to the other horse.'"
"My heart tells me that I have done right, aunt."
"Your heart cannot foretell, but you might have sense enough to forethink; and it is sure that I little dreamed of this when I brought you here from the naked gloom of Yell."
"It is true your word brought me here, but I think it was Liot who called me by you."
"It was not. When my tongue speaks for any Borson, I wish that it may speak no more! I like none of them. Liot is good at need on a winter's night; but even so, all his stories are of dool and wrong-doing and bloody vengeance. From his own words it is seen that the Borsons have ever been well-hated men. Now, I have forty years more of this life than you have, and I tell you plainly I think little of your choice; whatever sorrow comes of it, mind this: I didn't give you leave to make it."
"Nor did I ask your leave, aunt; each heart knows its own; but you have a way to throw cold water upon every hope."
"There are hopes I wish at the bottom of the sea. To be sure, when ill is fated some one must speak the words that bring it about; but I wish it had been any other but myself who wrote, 'Come to Lerwick'; for I little thought I was writing, 'Come to Liot Borson.' As every one knows, he is the son of unlucky folk; from father to son nothing goes well with them."
"I will put my luck to his, and you will learn to think better of Liot for my sake, aunt."
"Not while my life-days last! That is a naked say, and there's no more to it."
Matilda's dislike, however, did not seriously interfere with Liot's and Karen's happiness. It was more passive than active; it was more virulent when he was absent than when he was present; and all winter she suffered him to visit at her house. These visits had various fortunes, but, good or bad, the season wore away with them; and as soon as April came Liot began to build his house. Matilda scoffed at his hurry. "Does he think," she cried, "that he can marry Karen Sabiston when he lists to? Till you are twenty-one you are in my charge, and I will take care to prevent such folly as long as I can."
"Well, then, aunt, I shall be of age and my own mistress next Christmas, and on Uphellya night I will be married to Liot."
"After that we shall have nothing to say to each other."
"It will not be my fault."
"It will be my will. However, if you are in love with ill luck and fated for Liot Borson, you must dree your destiny; and Liot does well to build his home, for he shall not wive himself out of my walls."
"It will be more shame to you than to me, aunt, if I am not married from your house; also, people will speak evil of you."
"That is to be expected; but I will not be so ill to myself as to make a feast for a man I hate. However, there are eight months before Uphellya, and many chances and changes may come in eight months."
The words were a prophecy. As Matilda uttered them Thora Fay entered the room, all aglow with excitement. "There is a new ship in the harbor!" she cried. "She is called the Frigate Bird, and she has silk and linen and gold ornaments for sale, besides tea and coffee and the finest of spirits. As for the captain, he is as handsome as can be, and my brother thinks him a man of some account."
"You bring good news, Thora," said Matilda. "I would gladly see the best of whatever is for sale, and I wish your brother to let so much come to the man's ears."
"I will look to that," answered Thora. "Every one knows there is to be a wedding in your house very soon." And with these words she nodded at Karen, and went smiling away with her message.
A few hours afterward Captain Bele Trenby of the Frigate Bird stepped across Matilda Sabiston's threshold. It was the first step toward his death-place, though he knew it not; he took it with a laugh and a saucy compliment to the pretty servant who opened the door for him, and with the air of one accustomed to being welcome went into Matilda Sabiston's presence. He delighted the proud, wilful old woman as soon as she saw him; his black eyes and curling black hair, the dare-devil look on his face, and the fearless dash of his manner reminded her of Paul Sabiston, the husband of her youth. She opened her heart and her purse to the bold free-trader; she made him eat and drink, and with a singular imprudence told him of secret ways in and out of the voes, and of hiding-places in the coast caverns that had been known to her husband. And as she talked she grew handsome; so much so that Karen let her knitting fall to watch her aunt's face as she described Paul Sabiston's swift cutter--"a mass of snowy canvas, stealing in and out of the harbor like a cloud."
The coming of this man was the beginning of sorrow. In a few days he understood the situation, and he resolved to marry Karen Sabiston. Her fair, stately beauty charmed him, and he had no doubt she would inherit her aunt's wealth; that she was cold and shy only stimulated his love, and as for Liot, he held his pretensions in contempt. All summer he sailed between Holland and Shetland, and the Lerwick people gave him good trade and good welcome. With Matilda Sabiston he had his own way; she did whatever he wished her to do. Only at Karen her power stopped short; neither promises nor threats would induce the girl to accept Bele as her lover; and Matilda, accustomed to drive her will through the teeth of every one, was angry morning, noon, and night with her disobedient niece.
As the months wore on Liot's position became more and more painful and humiliating, and he had hard work to keep his hands off Bele when they met on the pier or in the narrow streets of the town. His smile, his voice, his face, his showy dress and hectoring manner, all fed in Liot's heart that bitter hatred which springs from a sense of being personally held in contempt; he felt, also, that even among his fellow-townsmen he was belittled and injured by this plausible, handsome stranger. For Bele said very much what it pleased him to say, covering his insolences with a laugh and with a jovial, jocular air, that made resentment seem ridiculous. Bele was also a gift-giver, and for every woman, old or young, he had a compliment or a ribbon.
If Liot had been less human, if he had come from a more mixed race, if his feelings had been educated down and toned to the level of modern culture, he could possibly have looked forward to Uphellya night, and found in the joy and triumph that Karen would then give him a sufficient set-off to all Bele's injuries and impertinences. But he was not made thus; his very blood came to him through the hearts of vikings and berserkers, and as long as one drop of this fierce stream remained in his veins, moments were sure to come in the which it would render all the tide of life insurgent.
It is true Liot was a Christian and a good man; but it must be noted, in order to do him full justice, that the form of Christianity which was finally and passionately accepted by his race was that of ultra-Calvinism; it spoke to their inherited tendencies as no other creed could have done. This uncompromising theology, with its God of vengeance and inflexible justice, was understood by men who considered a blood-feud of centuries a duty never to be neglected; and as for the doctrine of a special election, with all its tremendous possibilities of damnation, they were not disposed to object to it. Indeed, they were such good haters that Tophet and everlasting enmity were the bane and doom they would have unhesitatingly chosen for their enemies. This grim theology Liot sucked in with his mother's milk, and both by inheritance and by a strong personal faith he was a child of God after the order of John Calvin.
Therefore he constantly brought his enemy to the ultimate and immutable tribunal of his faith, and just as constantly condemned him there. Nothing was surer in Liot's mind than that Bele Trenby was the child of the Evil One and an inheritor of the kingdom of wrath; for Bele did the works of his father every day, and every hour of the day, and Liot told himself that it was impossible there should be any fellowship between them. To Bele he said nothing of this spiritual superiority, and yet it was obvious in his constant air of disapproval and dissent, in his lofty silence, his way of not being conscious of Bele's presence or of totally ignoring his remarks.
"Liot Borson mocks the very heart of me," said Bele to Matilda one day, as he gloomily flung himself into the big chair she pushed toward him.
"What said he, Bele?"
"Not a word with his tongue, or I had struck him in the face; but as I was telling about my last cargo and the run for it, his eyes called me 'Liar! liar! liar!' like blow on blow. And when he turned and walked off the pier some were quiet, and some followed him; and I could have slain every man's son of them, one on the heels of the other."
"That is vain babble, Bele; and I would leave Liot alone. He has more shapes than one, and he is ill to anger in any of them."
Bele was not averse to be so counseled. In spite of his bravado and risky ventures, he was no more a brave man than a dishonorable or dishonest man ever is. He knew that if it came to fighting he would be like a child in Liot's big hands, and he had already seen Liot's scornful silence strip his boasting naked. So he contented himself with the revenge of the coward--the shrug and the innuendo, the straight up-and-down lie, when Liot was absent; the sulky nod or bantering remark, according to his humor, when Liot was present.
However, as the weeks went on Liot became accustomed to the struggle, and more able to take possession of such aids to mastery of himself as were his own. First, there was Karen; her loyalty never wavered. If Liot knew anything surely, it was that at Christmas she would become his wife. She met him whenever she could, she sent him constantly tokens of her love, and she begged him at every opportunity for her sake to let Bele Trenby alone. Every day, also, his cousin Paul Borson spoke to him and praised him for his forbearance; and every Sabbath the minister asked, "How goes it, Liot? Is His grace yet sufficient?" And at these questions Liot's countenance would glow as he answered gladly, "So far He has helped me."
From this catechism, and the clasp and look that gave it living sympathy, Liot always turned homeward full of such strength that he longed to meet his enemy on the road, just that he might show him that "noble not caring," which was gall and wormwood to Bele's touchy self-conceit. It was a great spiritual weakness, and one which Liot was not likely to combat; for prayer was so vital a thing to him that it became imbued with all his personal characteristics. He made petition that God would keep him from hurting Bele Trenby, and yet in his heart he was afraid that God would hear and grant his prayer. The pagan in Liot was not dead; and the same fight between the old man and the new man that made Paul's life a constant warfare found a fresh battle-ground in Liot's soul.
He began his devotions in the spirit of Christ, but they ended always in a passionate arraignment of Bele Trenby through the psalms of David. These wondrously human measures got Liot's heart in their grip; he wept them and prayed them and lived them until their words blended with all his thoughts and speech; through them he grew "familiar" with God, as Job and David and Jonah were familiar--a reverent familiarity. Liot ventured to tell Him all that he had to suffer from Bele--the lies that he could not refute, the insolences he could not return, his restricted intercourse with Karen, and the loss of that frank fellowship with such of his townsmen as had business reasons for not quarreling with Bele.
So matters went on, and the feeling grew no better, but worse, between the men. When the devil could not find a man to irritate Bele and Liot, then he found Matilda Sabiston always ready to speak for him. She twitted Bele with his prudences, and if she met Liot on the street she complimented him on his patience, and prophesied for Karen a "lowly mannered husband, whom she could put under her feet."
One day in October affairs all round were at their utmost strain. The summer was over, and Bele was not likely to make the Shetland coast often till after March. His talk was of the French and Dutch ports and their many attractions. And Matilda was cross at the prospect of losing her favorite's society, and unjustly inclined to blame Bele for his want of success with her niece.
"Talk if you want to, Bele," she said snappishly, "of the pretty women in France and Holland. You are, after all, a great dreamer, and you don't dream true; the fisherman Liot can win where you lose."
Then Bele said some words about Liot, and Matilda laughed. Bele thought the laugh full of scorn; so he got up and left the house in a passion, and Matilda immediately turned on Karen.
"Ill luck came with you, girl," she cried, "and I wish that Christmas was here and that you were out of my house."
"No need to wait till Christmas, aunt; I will go away now and never come back."
"I shall be glad of that."
"Paul Borson will give me shelter until I move into my own house."
"Then we shall be far apart. I shall not be sorry, for our chimneys may smoke the better for it."
"That is an unkind thing to say."
"It is as you take it."
"I wonder what people will think of you, aunt?"
"I wonder that, too--but I care nothing."
"I see that talk will come to little, and that we had better part."
"If you will marry Bele we need not part; then I will be good to you."
"I will not marry Bele--no, not for the round world."
"Then, what I have to say is this, and I say it out: go to the Borsons as soon as you can; there is doubtless soul-kin between you and them, and I want no Borson near me, in the body or out of the body."
So that afternoon Karen went to live with Paul Borson, and there was great talk about it. No sooner had Liot put his foot ashore than he heard the story, and at once he set it bitterly down against Bele; for his sake Karen had been driven from her home. There were those that said it was Bele's plan, since she would not marry him, to separate her from her aunt; he was at least determined not to lose what money and property Matilda Sabiston had to leave. These accusations were not without effect. Liot believed his rival capable of any meanness. But it was not the question of money that at this hour angered him; it was Karen's tears; it was Karen's sense of shame in being sent from the home of her only relative, and the certain knowledge that the story would be in every one's mouth. These things roused in Liot's soul hatred implacable and unmerciful and thirsty for the stream of life.
Yet he kept himself well in hand, saying little to Karen but those things usually whispered to beloved women who are weeping, and at the end of them this entreaty:
"Listen, dear heart of mine! I will see the minister, and he will call our names in the kirk next Sunday, and the next day we shall be married, and then there will be an end to this trouble. I say nothing of Matilda Sabiston, but Bele Trenby stirs up bickerings all day long; he is a low, quarrelsome fellow, a very son of Satan, walking about the world tempting good men to sin."
And Karen answered: "Life is full of waesomeness. I have always heard that when the heart learns to love it learns to sorrow; yet for all this, and more too, I will be your wife, Liot, on the day you wish, for then if sorrow comes we two together can well bear it."