Prisoners of Conscience by Amelia E. Barr
Book Second. David Borson
XI. The Lowest Hell
After this the thought of Nanna became an irresistible longing. He could not be happy until she sat in the sunshine of God's love with him. He went into the garden and tested his strength, and as soon as he was in the open air he was smitten with a homesickness not to be controlled. He wanted the sea; he wanted the great North Sea; he longed to feel the cradling of its salt waves under him; and the idea of a schooner reefed down closely, and charging along over the stormy waters, took possession of him. Then he remembered the fishermen he used to know--the fishermen who peopled the desolate places of the Shetland seas.
"I must go home!" he said with a soft, eager passion. "I must go home to Shetland." And there was in his voice and accent that pride and tenderness with which one's home should be mentioned in a strange land.
When he saw John next he told him so, and they began to talk of his life there. John had never asked him of his past. He knew him to be a child of God, however far away from his Father, and he had accepted his spiritual brotherhood with trustfulness. He understood that it was David's modesty that had made him reticent. But when David was ready to leave he also felt that John had a right to know what manner of man he had befriended. So, as they sat together that night, David began his history.
"I was in the boats at six years old," he said; "for there was always something I could do. During the night-fishing, unless I went with father, I was alone; and I had hours of such awful terrors that I am sad only to remember them; it was better to freeze out on the sea, if father would let me go with him. I was often hungry and often weary; I had toothaches and earaches that I never spoke of; I was frequently so sleepy that I fell down in the boat. And I had no mother to kiss me or pity me, and the neighbors were shy and far off. Father was not cross or unkind; he just did not understand. Even in those days I wondered why God made little lads to be so miserable and to suffer so much."
He spoke then in a very guarded way about that revelation in the boat, for he felt rebuked for his want of faith in it; and he said sorrowfully, as he left the subject, "Why, then, should God send angels to men? They are feared of them while they are present, and they doubt them when they are gone away. He sent one to comfort me, and I denied it to my own heart; yes, even though I sorely needed the comfort."
Then he took John to Shetland with him. He showed him, in strong, simple words, the old Norse town, with its gray skies and its gray seas, and its fishing-smacks hanging to the rushing sides of foaming mountains. He described the hoary cliffs and their world of sea-birds, the glorious auroras, the heavenly summers, and the deadly chillness of the winter fogs as one drift after another passed in dim and desolate majesty over the sea and land.
Slowly and with some hesitation he got to Nanna in her little stone hut, braiding her straw and nursing her crippled baby. The tears came into his eyes, he clasped his knees with his hands as if to steady himself, while he spoke rapidly of her marriage with Nicol Sinclair, the drowning of her father and brothers, the cruelty of her husband, his desertion, his return, Nanna's terror of losing Vala, the fatal typhus, her desolation, and her spiritual anguish about Vala's condition. All these things he told John with that powerful eloquence which is born of living, intense feeling.
John was greatly moved by the whole simple, tragic story, but he spoke only on the last topic, for it seemed to him to dwarf all other sorrow. It roused his indignation, and he said it was a just and holy anger. He wondered how men, and especially mothers, could worship a God who was supposed to damn little children before they were born. He vowed that neither Moloch nor Baal, nor any pagan deity, had been so brutal. He was amazed that ministers believing such a doctrine dared to marry. What special right had they to believe their children would all be elect? And if there was a shadow of doubt on this subject, how awful was their responsibility! Nanna's scruples, he said, were the only possible outcome of a conscientious, unselfish soul believing the devilish doctrine. And he cried out with enthusiasm:
"Nanna is to be honored! Oh, for a conscience as tender and void of offense toward God! I will go to Shetland and kiss the hem of her garment! She is a woman in ten thousand!"
"Well, then," said David, softly, "I shall take comfort to her."
"To think," said John, who was still moved by a holy anger, "to think that God should have created this beautiful world as a nursery for hell! that he should have made such a woman as Nanna to suckle devils! No, no, David!" he said, suddenly calming himself; "thee could never believe such things of thy God."
"I was taught them early and late. I can say the Confession of Faith backward, I am sure."
"Let no man-made creed impose itself on thee, David--enter into thee, and possess thee, and take the place of thy soul. The voice that spoke from Sinai and from Bethlehem is still speaking. And man's own soul is an oracle, if he will only listen to it--the inward, instant sense of a present God, and of his honorable, true, and only Son Christ Jesus."
"I will listen, if God will speak."
"Never thee mind catechisms and creeds and confessions. The Word of God was before them, and the Word will be the Word when catechisms and confessions are cast into the dusty museums of ancient things, with all the other shackles of the world in bondage. David, there is in every good man a spiritual center, answering to a higher spiritual center in the universe. All controversies come back to this."
"I wish, John Priestly, that you could see Nanna, and speak comfort to her heart."
"That must be thy message, David. And be sure that thee knows well the children's portion in the Scriptures. Thee must show Nanna that theirs is the kingdom. What we win through great tribulation they inherit through the love of the Father. Theirs is the kingdom; and there is no distinction of elect or non-elect, as I read the title."
"I count the hours now until I am able to travel. I long for the sea that stretches nor'ard to the ice, and the summer days, when the sunset brightens the midnight. No need to egg me on. I am all the time thinking of the old town growing out of the mist, and I know how I shall feel when I stand on the pier again among the fishers, when I hurry through the clean, quiet streets, while the kind people nod and smile, and call to each other, 'Here is David Borson come back again.'"
"She is the heart of my longing."
"And thee is taking her glad tidings of great joy."
"I am that. So there is great hurry in my heart, for I like not to sit in the sunshine and know that Nanna is weeping in the dark."
"Thee must not be discouraged if she be at first unable to believe thy report."
"The hour will come. Nanna was ever a seeker after God. She will listen joyfully. She will take the cup of salvation, and drink it with thanksgiving. We shall stand together in the light, loving God and fearing God, but not afraid of him. Faith in Christ will set her free."
"But lean hard upon God's Word, David. There is light enough and help enough for every strait of life in it. Let thy creed lie at rest. There are many doors to scientific divinity, but there is only one door to heaven. And I will tell thee this thing, David: if men had to be good theologians before they were good Christians, the blessed heaven would be empty."
"Yet, John, my theology was part of my very life. Nothing to me was once more certain than that men and women were in God's hand as clay in the potter's. And as some vessels are made to honor, and some to dishonor, so some men were made for salvation and honor, and others for rejection and dishonor."
"Clay in the potter's hand! And some for honor, and some for dishonor! We will even grant that much; but tell me, David, does the potter ever make his vessels for the express purpose of breaking them? No, no, David! He is not willing that any should perish. Christ is not going to lose what he has bought with his blood. The righteous are planted as trees by the watercourses, but God does not plant any tree for fuel."
"He is a good God, and his name is Love."
"So, then, thee is going back to Shetland with glad tidings for many a soul. What will thy hands find to do for thy daily bread?"
"I shall go back to the boats and the nets and lines."
"Would thee like to have a less dangerous way of earning thy bread? My father has a great business in the city, and thee could drive one of the big drays that go to the docks."
"I could not. I can carry a ship through any sea a ship can live in; I could not drive a Shetland shelty down an empty street. I am only a simple sea-dog. I love the sea. Men say for sure it is in my heart and my blood. I must live on the sea. When my hour comes to die, I hope the sea will keep my body in one of her clean, cool graves. If God gives me Nanna, and we have sons and daughters, they shall have a happy childhood and a good schooling. Then I will put all the boys in the boats, and the girls shall learn to grow like their mother, and, if it please God, they shall marry good men and good fishers."
"It seems to me that the life of a fisher is a very hard one, and withal that it hath but small returns."
"Fishers have their good and their bad seasons. They take their food direct from the hand of God; so, then, good or bad, it is all right. Fishers have their loves and joys and sorrows; birth and marriage and death come to them as to others. They have the same share of God's love, the same Bible, the same hope of eternal life, that the richest men and women have. It is enough."
"And hard lives have their compensations, David. Doubtless the fisherman's life has its peculiar blessings?"
"It has. The fisher's life is as free from temptation as a life can be. He has to trust God a great deal; if he did not he would very seldom go into the boats at all."
"Yet he holds the ocean 'in the hollow of his hand.'"
"That is true. I never feel so surely held in the hollow of his hand as when the waves are as high as my masthead, and my boat smashes into the black pit below. There is none but God then. Thank you, Friend John, but I shall live and die a fisherman."
"Would thee care to change Shetland for some warmer and less stormy climate?"
"Would a man care to change his own father and mother for any other father and mother? Stern and hard was my poor father, and he knew not how to love; but his memory is dear to me, and I would not break the tie between us--no, not to be the son of a king! My native land is a poor land, but I have thought of her green and purple moors among gardens full of roses. Shetland is my home, and home is sweet and fair and dear."
"Traveling Zionward, David, we have often to walk in the wilderness. Thee hast dwelt in Skye and in Shetland; what other lands hast thee seen?"
"I have been east as far as Smyrna. I sat there and read the message of 'the First and the Last' to its church. And I went to Athens, and stood where St. Paul had once stood. And I have seen Rome and Naples and Genoa and Marseilles, and many of the Spanish and French ports. I have pulled oranges from the trees, and great purple grapes from the vines, and even while I was eating them longed for the oat-cakes and fresh fish of Shetland."
"Rome and Naples and Athens! Then, David, thee hast seen the fairest cities on the earth."
"And yet, Friend John, what hells I saw in them! I was taken through great buildings where men and women die of dreadful pain. I saw other buildings where men and women could eat and sleep, and could not think or love or know. I saw drinking-hells and gambling-hells. I saw men in dark and awful prisons, men living in poverty and filth and blasphemy, without hope for this world or the next. I saw men die on the scaffold. And, John, I have often wondered if this world were hell. Are we put here in low, or lower, or lowest hell to work out our salvation, and so at last, through great tribulation, win our weary way back to heaven?"
John Priestly was silent a few moments ere he answered: "If that were even so, there is still comfort, David. For if we make our bed in any of such hells,--mind, we make it,--even there we are not beyond the love and the pity of the Infinite One. For when the sorrows of hell compassed David of old, he cried unto God, and he delivered him from his strong enemy, and brought him forth into a large place. So, then, David, though good men may get into hell, they do not need to stay there."
"I know that by experience, John. Have I not been in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps, in that lowest hell of the soul where I had no God to pray to? For how could I pray to a God so cruel that I did not dare to become a father, lest he should elect my children to damnation? a God so unjust that he loved without foresight of faith or good works, and hated because it was his pleasure to hate, and to ordain the hated to dishonor and wrath?"
"And yet, David?"
"In my distress my soul cried out, 'God pity me! God pity me!' And even while I so wronged him he sent from above--he sent you, John; he took me, he drew me out of many waters,--for great was his mercy toward me,--and he delivered my soul from the lowest hell."