Prisoners of Conscience by Amelia E. Barr
Book Second. David Borson
X. In the Fourth Watch
Holding despair at bay, David quickly made his preparations for an extended absence. He hired his boat and lines to Groat's sons, and on the morning of the second day, after bidding Nanna farewell, he went to Minister Campbell's to complete his arrangements. The minister was writing his sermon, and he was not pleased at the interruption; but when he saw David's face, the shadow of annoyance on his own passed away like a thought. He dropped his pen, and turned in his chair so as to see the young man fairly, and then he asked:
"What is wrong, David?"
"I am all at sea, minister, drifting--drifting--"
"Where's your anchor, David? Can't you steady yourself on God? Can't you make harbor someway?"
David shook his head sadly.
"Then up sail and out to sea, and face the storm. What quarter is it from?"
"It comes from a woman."
"Ah, David, that is bad to buffet. I have been through it. It was that storm which brought me here. I know all about it."
"Please, minister, I think not. It is Nanna Sinclair."
"I thought so. You love her, David?"
"Better than my life."
"And she does not love you?"
"She loves me as I love her."
"Then what is there to make you miserable? In a few months, David, you will marry her and be happy."
"Nanna will not marry me in a few months--she will not marry me at all."
"Nanna ought not to trouble a good man with such threats. Of course she will marry. Why not?"
Then David told the minister "why not." He listened at first with incredulity, and then with anger. "Nanna Sinclair is guilty of great presumption," he answered. "Why should she sift God's ordination and call in question results she is not able to understand? Marriage is in the direct command of God, and good men and women innumerable have obeyed the command without disputing. It is Nanna's place to take gratefully the love God has sent her--to obey, and not to argue. Obedience is the first round of the ascending ladder, David; and when any one casts it off, he makes even the commencement of spiritual life impossible."
He spoke rapidly, and more as if he was trying to convince himself than to console David. His words, in any case, made no impression. David listened in his shy, sensitive, uncomplaining way, but the minister was quite aware he had touched only the outermost edge of feeling. David's eyes, usually mild and large, had now his soul at their window. It was not always there, but when present it infected and went through those upon whom it looked. The minister could not bear the glance. He rose, and gently pushed David into a chair, and laid his hands on his shoulders, and looked steadily at him. He could see that a gap had been made in his life, and that the bright, strong man had emerged from it withered and stricken. He sat down by his side and said:
"Talk, David. Tell me all."
And David told him all, and the two men wept together. Yet, though much that David said went like a two-edged sword through the minister's convictions, he resented the thrust, and held on to his stern plan of sin and retribution like grim death, all the more so because he felt it to be unconsciously attacked. And when David said: "It is the Shorter Catechism, minister; it is a hard book for women and bairns, and I wonder why they don't teach them from the Scriptures, which are easy and full of grace," the answer came with a passionate fervor that was the protest for much besides the catechism.
"David! David! You must say nothing against the Shorter Catechism. It is the Magna Charta of Calvinism, and woe worth the day for dear old Scotland when its silver trumpet shall no longer be heard and listened to. Its rules and bonds and externals are all very necessary. Believe me, David, few men would remain religious without rules and bonds and externals."
"I am, as I said, minister, all at sea. I find nothing within my soul, nothing within my life-experience, to give me any hope, and I am going away a miserable man."
"David, your hope is not to be grounded on anything within yourself or your life-experience. When you wish to steady your boat, do you fix your anchor on anything within it, or do you cast your anchor outside?"
"I cast it out."
"So the soul must cast out its anchor, and lay hold, not on anything within itself, but on the hope set before it. The anchor of your boat often drags, David, and you drift in spite of it, for there is no sure bottom; but the soul that anchors on the truth of God, the immutability of his counsels, the faithfulness of his promises, is surely steadfast. For I will tell you a great thing, David: God has given us this double guaranty--he has not only said, but sworn it."
Thus the two men talked the morning away. Then David remembered that he had come specially to ask the minister to write out his will and take charge of the money he would leave behind and the rents accruing from the hire of his boat and lines. There was nothing unusual in this request. Minister Campbell had already learned how averse Shetlanders are to having dealings with a lawyer, and he was quite willing to take the charge David desired to impose upon him.
"I may not come back to Shetland," David said. "My father went away and never returned. I am bound for foreign seas, and I may go down any day or night. All I have is Nanna's. If she is sick or in trouble, you will see to her relief, minister. And if I come not back in five years, sell the boat and lines and make over all to Nanna Sinclair."
Then a writing was drawn up to this effect; and David brushed the tears from his eyes with his right hand, and put it, wet with them, into the minister's. He had nothing more to say with his lips, but oh, how eloquent were his great, sad, imploring eyes! They went together to the manse door, and then the minister followed him to the gate of the small croft. And as they stood, one on either side of it, David murmured:
"Good-by, David, and see that you don't think hardly of either your God or your creed. Your God will be your guide, even unto death; and as for your creed, whatever faults men may find in it, this thing is sure: Calvinism is the highest form ever yet assumed by the moral life of the world."
The next morning, in the cold white light of the early dawn, David left Lerwick. The blue moon was low in the west, the mystery and majesty of earth all around him. At this hour the sea was dark and quiet, the birds being still asleep upon their rocky perches, and the only noise was the flapping of the sails, and the water purring softly with little treble sounds among the clincher chains and against the sides of the boat. David was a passenger on the mail-boat. He had often seen her at a distance, but now, being on board, he looked her over with great interest. She seemed to be nearly as broad as she was long, very bluff at the bows, and so strongly built that he involuntarily asked the man at the wheel: "What kind of seas at all is this boat built for?"
"She's built for the Pentland Firth seas, my lad, weather permitting. And there's no place on God's land or water where them two words mean so much; for I can tell you, weather not permitting, even this boat couldn't live in them."
Gradually David made his way to Glasgow, and from Glasgow to London. Queen Victoria had then just been crowned, and one day David saw her out driving. The royal carriage, with its milk-white horses, its splendid outriders and appointments, and its military escort, made a great impression on him, but the fair, girlish face of the young, radiant queen he never forgot. Hitherto kings and queens had been only a part of his Bible history; he had not realized their relation to his own life. Shetland was so far from London that newspapers seldom reached Lerwick. Politics were no factor in its social or religious life. The civil lords came to try criminal cases, but the minister was the abiding power. Until David saw the young queen he had not heard of her accession to the throne, but with the first knowledge of her "right" there sprang up in his heart the loyalty she claimed. Had any one asked him in that hour to enter her service, he would have stepped on board her war-ships with the utmost enthusiasm.
But nobody did ask him, and he found more commonplace employment on the Elizabeth, a trig, well-built schooner, trading to the Mediterranean for fruits and other products of the Orient. The position was the very one his father had so earnestly desired. Touching first at one historic city and then at another, living in the sunshine, and seeing the most picturesque side of civilization, David added continually to the store of those impressions which go to make up the best part of life.
The captain of the Elizabeth owned the vessel and was very fond of her; consequently he was not long in finding out the splendid sea qualities of the young Shetlander. On the fourth voyage he made David his mate, and together they managed the Elizabeth so cleverly that she became famous for her speed and good fortune. It was indeed wonderful to see what consciousness and sympathy they endowed her with.
"Elizabeth is behaving well," the captain said one morning, as he watched her swelling canvas and noted her speed.
"There isn't much sea on," answered David; "hardly more than what we used to call in Shetland 'a northerly lipper.' But yet I don't like the look to the east'ard and the nor'ard."
"Nor I. You had better tell Elizabeth. Talk to her, David; coax her to hurry and get out of the bay. Promise her a new coat of paint; say that I think of having her figurehead gilded."
David was used to hearing Elizabeth treated as if she were a living, reasonable creature, but he always smiled kindly at the imputation; it touched something kindred in his own heart, and he replied:
"She'll do her best if she's well handled. It's her life as well as ours, you know."
"It is; anybody knows that. If you ever went into shipping and insurance offices, David, you would hear even landsmen say so. They make all their calculations on the average life of a ship. My lad, men build her of wood and iron, but there is something more in a good ship than wood and iron."
"Look to the east, captain."
Then there was the boatswain's whistle, and the shout of sailormen, and the taking in of sails, and that hurrying and scurrying to make a ship trig which precedes the certain coming of a great storm. And the Bay of Biscay is bad quarters in any weather, but in a storm it defies adequate description. When the wind has an iron ring and calls like a banshee, and the waves rise to its order as high as the masthead, then God help the men and ships on the Bay of Biscay!
Five days after the breaking of this storm the Elizabeth was sorely in need of such potential help. Her masts were gone, the waves were doubling over her, and her plunges were like the dive of a whale. At the wheel there was a man lashed,--for the hull was seldom above water,--and this man was David Borson. He was the only sailor left strong enough for the work, and he was at the last point of endurance. The icy gusts roared past him; the spray was like flying whiplashes; and it was pitiful to see David, with his bleeding hands on the wheel, stolidly shaking his head as the spray cut him.
He had been on deck for forty hours, buffeted by the huge waves, and he was covered with salt-water boils. His feet were flayed and frozen, and his hands so gashed that he dared not close or rest them, lest the agony of unclasping or moving them again should make him lose his consciousness. He feared, also, that his feet were so badly frozen that he would never be able to walk on them any more. These miseries others were sharing with him; but David had been struck by a falling spar at the beginning of the storm, and there was now an abscess forming on his lung that tortured him beyond his usual speechless patience. "God pity me!" he moaned. "God pity me!"
When the storm ceased the Elizabeth was as bare as a newly launched hull, and wallowing like a soaked log. David had fallen forward on his face, and was asleep or insensible. He did not hear the handspike thumped upon the deck, and the cry, "On deck! on deck! Lord help us! she is going down!" But some one lifted him on to a raft which had been hastily lashed together, and the misery that followed was only a part of some awful hours when physical pain from head to feet drove him to the verge of madness. He never knew how long it was before they were met by the Alert, a large passenger packet going into the port of London, and taken on board. Four of the men were then dead from exhaustion, and the physician on the Alert looked doubtfully at David's feet.
"But he is dying," he said, "and why give him further pain?"
Then a young man stepped forward and looked at David. There was both pity and liking in his face, and he stooped, and said something in the dying man's ear. A faint smile answered the words; and the youth spoke to the doctor, and both of them went to work with a will. The effort, even then so desperate, was ere long complicated by fever and delirium, and when David came to himself it was almost like a new birth. He was weaker than an infant--too weak, indeed, to wonder or speculate, or even remember.
He only knew that he was in a large room and that two men were with him. One was at his bedside, quiet and drowsy; the other was reading in a Bible, sitting close by the shaded candle. David knew it was a Bible. Who does not know a Bible, even afar off? No matter how it may be bound, the book has a homely and familiar look that no other book has. David shut his eyes again after seeing it; he felt as safe and happy as if a dear friend had spoken to him. And in a few days the man with the Bible began to come near him, and to read softly the most tender and gracious words he could find in that tenderest of all books.
This was the beginning of an interval of delicious rest to David. It was as if some strong angel swung and hushed and wrapped him in a drowsy, blissful torpor. He felt no pain, not even in his tortured feet, and his hands lay at rest upon the white coverlet, healed of all their smarting and aching. For once in his hard life they were not tired or sore. He knew that he was fed and turned, that his pillows were made soft and cool, and that there was the vague sense of kind presence about him; that sometimes he heard, like a heavenly echo, words of comfort that he seemed to have heard long ago; that he slept and wakened, and slept again, with a conscious pleasure in the transitions.
And he asked no questions. He was content to let life lie in blissful quiescence, to be still, and keep his eyes closed to the world, and his ears deaf to its cries. Gradually these sensations increased in strength. One day he heard his nurse say that it would be well to remove him into an entirely fresh room. And he knew that he was lifted in strong arms, and anon breathed a clearer atmosphere, and slept a life-giving sleep. When he awoke he had new strength. He voluntarily opened his eyes, and saw a tree waving branches covered with fresh, crinkly leaves before his window. It was like a glimpse of heaven. And that afternoon his preserver came to his side and said:
"Thee is much better. Can thee listen to me now?"
Then David looked at the young man and smiled; and their eyes met, and their hands met, and the well man stooped to the sick man and kissed his cheek.
"I am Friend John Priestly," he said. "What is thy name?"
"David, thee is going to live. That is good news, is it not?"
"No; life is hard--cruel hard."
"Yes, but thee can say, 'The Lord is mine helper.' Thee can pray now?"
"I have no strength."
"If thee cannot speak, lift up thy hand. He will see it and answer thee."
And David's face shadowed, and he did not lift up his hand; also, if the whisper in his heart had been audible, John Priestly would have heard him say, "What is the use of prayer? The Lord has cast me off."
But John did not try the strength of his patient further at that time. He sat by his side, and laid his hand upon David's hand, and began to repeat in a slow, assuring voice the One Hundred and Third Psalm. Its familiar words went into David's ears like music, and he fell sweetly asleep to its promises. For, though men in their weakness and haste are apt to say, "The Lord hath forgotten to be gracious," they who have but once felt his love, though dimly and far off, cannot choose but trust in it, even to the grave.
And souls fraternize in their common exile. John Priestly loved the young man whom he had saved, and David felt his love. As he came fully back to life the past came clearly back to memory. He remembered Nanna as those who love white jasmine remember it when its starry flowers are gone--with a sweet, aching longing for their beauty and perfume. He remembered those terrible days when physical pain had been acute in every limb and every nerve, when he had fainted with agony, but never complained. He remembered his lonely journey to the grave's mouth, and the dim human phantoms who had stood, as it were, afar off, and helped and cheered him as best they could. And he understood that he had really been born again: a new lease of life had been granted him, and he had come back to earth, as so many wish to come back, with all his old loves and experiences to help him in the future.
If only God would love him! If only God would give him ever so small a portion of his favor! If he would only let him live humbly before him, with such comfort of home and friends as a poor fisherman might have! He wondered, as he lay still, what he or his fathers had done that he should be so sorely punished. Perhaps he had shown too great partiality to his father's memory in the matter of Bele Trenby. Well, then, he must bear the consequences; for even at this hour he could not make up his mind to blame his father more than his father had blamed himself.
And as he lay watching the waving of the green trees, and inhaling the scent of the lilies and violets from the garden below him, he began to think of Shetland with a great longing. The bare, brown, treeless land called him with a hundred voices, and thoughts of Nanna came like a small bird winging the still, blue air. For sorrow can endear a place as well as joy; and the little hut on the bare moor, in which he could see Nanna working at her braiding or her knitting, was the spot on all the earth that drew his soul with an irresistible desire.
Oh, how he wanted to see Nanna! Oh, how he wanted to see her! Just to hold her hand, and kiss her face, and sit by her side for an hour or two! He did not wish either her conscience or his own less tender, but he thought that now, perhaps, they might be cousins and friends, and so comfort and help each other in the daily trials of their hard, lonely lives.
One day, when he was much stronger, as he sat by the open window thinking of these things, John Priestly came to read to him. John had a faculty of choosing the sweetest and most comfortable portions of the Book in his hand. This selection was not without purpose. He had learned from David's delirious complainings the intense piety of the youth, and the spiritual despair which had intensified his sufferings. And he hoped God, through him, would say a word of comfort to the sorrowful heart. So he chose, with the sweet determination of love, the most glorious and the most abounding words of the divine Father.
David listened with a reserved acceptance. It was in a measure a new Scripture to him. It appeared partial. When John read, with a kind of triumph, that the Lord "is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance," David made a slight movement of dissent; and John asked:
"Is not that a noble love? Thee believes in it, David?"
The word was softly but positively uttered.
"What then, David?"
"'Some men and angels are predestined unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death; and their number is so certain and definite that it cannot be either increased or diminished.'" And David quoted these words from the Confession of Faith with such confidence and despair that John trembled at them.
"David! David!" he cried. "Jesus Christ came to seek and to save the lost."
"It is impossible for the lost to be saved," answered David, with a somber confidence; "only the elect, predestined to salvation."
"And the rest of mankind, David? what of them?"
"God has been pleased to ordain them to wrath, that his justice may be satisfied and glorified."
"David, who made thee such a God as this? Where did thee learn about him? How can thee love him?"
"It is in the Confession of Faith. And, oh, John Priestly, I do love him! Yes, I love him, though he has hid his face from me and, I fear, cast me off forever."
"Dear heart," said John, "thee is wronging thy best Friend."
"If I could think so! Oh, if I could think so!"
"Well, then, as we are inquiring after God, and nothing less, is it not fair to take him at his own word?"
David looked inquiringly at John, but made no answer.
"I mean, will it not be more just to believe what God says of himself than to believe what men,--priests,--long ago dead, have said about him?"
"I think that."
Then, one after another, the golden verses, full of God's love, dropped from John's lips in a gracious shower. And David was amazed, and withal a little troubled. John was breaking up all his foundations for time and for eternity. He was using the Scriptures to grind to powder the whole visible church as David understood it. It was a kind of spiritual shipwreck. His slow nature took fire gradually, and then burned fiercely. Weak as he was, he could not sit still. John Priestly was either a voice in the wilderness crying "Peace!" and "Blessing!" to him, or he was the voice of a false prophet crying "Peace!" where there was no peace. He looked into the face of this new preacher, frank and glowing as it was, with inquiry not unmixed with suspicion.
"Well, then," he cried, "if these things be so, let God speak to me. Bring me a Bible with large letters. I want to see these words with my eyes, and touch them with my fingers."
The conversation thus begun was constantly continued, and David searched the Scriptures from morning to night. Often, as the spring grew fairer and warmer, the two young men sat in the garden with the Bible between them; and while the sunshine fell brightly on its pages they reasoned together of fate and free will, and of that divine mercy which is from everlasting to everlasting. For where young men have leisure spiritual things employ them much more frequently than is supposed. Indeed, it is the young who are most earnestly troubled about the next life; the middle-aged are too busy with this one, and the aged do not speculate, because they will soon know.
Thus, daily, little by little, through inlets and broader ways known only to God and himself, the light grew and grew unto perfect day, and flooded not only the great hills and promontories of his soul, but also shone into all its secret caves and gloomy valleys and lonely places. Then David knew how blind and ignorant he had been; then he was penetrated with loving amazement, and humbled to the dust with a sense of the wrong he had done the Father of his spirit; and he locked himself in his room, and fell down on his face before his God. But into that awful communion, in which so much was confessed and so much forgiven, it is not lawful to inquire.