Prisoners of Conscience by Amelia E. Barr
Book Second. David Borson
XII. "At Last it is Peace"
A week after this conversation David was near Lerwick. It was very early in the morning, and the sky was gray and the sea was gray, and through the vapory veiling the little town looked gray and silent as a city in a dream. During the voyage he had thought of himself always as hastening at once to Nanna's house, but as soon as his feet touched the quay he hesitated. The town appeared to be asleep; there was only here and there a thin column of peat smoke from the chimneys, and the few people going about their simple business in the misty morning were not known to him. Probably, also, he had some unreasonable expectation, for he looked sadly around, and, sighing, said:
"To be sure, such a thing would never happen, except in a dream."
After all, it seemed best that he should go first to Barbara Traill's. She would give him a cup of tea, and while he drank it he could send one of Glumm's little lads with a message to Nanna. There was nothing of cowardice in this determination; it was rather that access of reverential love which, as it draws nearer, puts its own desire and will at the feet of the beloved one.
Barbara's door stood open, and she was putting fresh fuel under the hanging tea-kettle. The smell of the peat smoke was homely and pleasant to David; he sniffed it eagerly as he called out:
"Well, then, mother, good morning!"
She raised herself quickly, and turned her broad, kind face to him. A strange shadow crossed it when she saw David, but she answered affectionately:
"Well, then, David, here we meet again!"
Then she hastened the morning meal, and as she did so asked question after question about his welfare and adventures, until David said a little impatiently:
"There is enough of this talk, mother. Speak to me now of Nanna Sinclair. Is she well?"
"Your aunt Sabiston is dead. There was a great funeral, I can tell you that. She has left all her money to the kirk and the societies; and a white stone as high as two men has come from Aberdeen for her grave. Well, so it is. And you must know, also, that my son has married himself, and not to my liking, and so he has gone from me; and your room is empty and ready, if you wish it so; and--"
"Yes, yes, Barbara! Keep your room for me, and I will pay the price of it."
"I will do that gladly; and as for the price, we shall have no words about that."
"All this is well enough, but, mother! mother! what is there to hide from me? Speak with a straight tongue. Where is Nanna?"
Then Barbara said plainly, "Nanna is dead."
With a cry of amazed anguish David leaped to his feet, instinctively covering his ears with his hands, for he could not bear such words to enter them. "Dead!" he whispered; and Barbara saw him reeling and swaying like a tottering pillar. She pushed a chair toward him, and was thankful that he had strength left to take its support. But she made no outcry, and called in none of the neighbors. Quietly she stood a little way off, while David, in a death-like silence, fought away the swooning, drowning wave which was making his heart stand still and his limbs fail him. For she knew the nature of the suffering man--knew that when he came to himself there would be none but God could intermeddle in his heart's bitterness and loss.
After a sharp struggle David opened his eyes, and Barbara gave him a drink of cold water; but she offered neither advice nor consolation. Only when David said, "I am sick, mother, and I will go to my room and lie down on my bed," she answered:
"My dear lad, that is the right way. Sleep, if sleep you can."
About sunsetting David asked Barbara for food; and as she prepared it he sat by the open window, silent and stupefied, dominated by the somber inertia of hopeless sorrow. When he began to eat, Barbara took from a china jar two papers, and gave them to him.
"I promised Nanna to put them into your hands," she said.
"When did she die?"
"Last December, the fourteenth day."
"Did you see her on that day?"
"I was there early in the morning, for I saw there was snow to fall. She was dead at the noon hour."
"You saw her go away?"
"No; I was afraid of the storm. I left her at ten o'clock. She could not then speak, but she gave me the papers. We had talked of them before."
"Then did she die alone?"
"She did not. I went into the next cottage and told Christine Yell that it was the last hour with Nanna; and she said, 'I will go to her,' and so she did."
"You should have stayed, mother."
"My lad, the snow was already falling, and I had to hasten across the moor, as there was very good reason to do."
Then David went out, and Barbara watched him take the road that led to Nanna's empty cottage. The door opened readily to the lifted latch, and he entered the forsaken room. The peat fire had long ago burned itself to ashes. The rose-plant, which had been Nanna's delight, had withered away on its little shelf by the window. But the neighbors had swept the floor and put the simple furniture in order. David drew the bolt across the door, and opened the papers which Nanna had left for him. The first was a bequest to him of the cottage and all within it; the second was but a little slip on which the dying woman had written her last sad messages to him:
* * * * *
* * * * *
These pitiful despairs and farewells were written in a large, childish hand, and on a poor sheet of paper. David spread this paper upon Vala's couch, and, kneeling down, covered it with tears and kisses; but anon he lifted it up toward heaven, and prayed as men pray when they feel prayer to be an immediate and veritable thing--when they detain God, and clasp his feet, and cling to his robe, and will not let him go until he bless them.
Christine Yell had seen David enter the cottage, and after an hour had passed she went to the door intending to speak to him; but she heard the solemn, mysterious voice of the man praying, and she went away and called her neighbors, Margaret Jarl and Elga Fae and Thora Thorson. And they talked of David a little, and then Magnus Thorson, the father-in-law of Thora, being a very old man, went alone into Nanna's cottage to see David. And after a while the women were called, and Christine took with her a plate of fish and bread which she had prepared; and David was glad of their sympathy.
They sat down outside the door. The tender touch of the gray gloaming softened the bleak cliffs and the brown moorland, and the heavens were filled with stars. Then softly and solemnly Christine spoke of Nanna's long, hard fight with death, and of the spiritual despair which had intensified her suffering.
"It was in season and out of season that she was at Vala's grave," said Christine, "and kneeling and lying on the cold ground above her; and the end was--what could only be looked for--a cough and a fever, and the slow consumption that wasted her away."
"Was there none of you to comfort her?"
"It is true, David, that the child was never baptized," said Christine; "so, then, what comfort could there be for her? And then she began to think that God had never loved her."
"Thanks to the Best, she knows now how far wrong she was," said David, fervently; "she knows now that his love is from everlasting to everlasting. Her poor heart, wearied with so many sorrows and troubled by so many fears, has tasted one supreme happiness--that God is love."
"She thought for sure that he was continually angry with her. 'If he had cared for my soul,' she said to me, one day, 'he would not have let me marry Nicol Sinclair. He would have kept his hand about me until my cousin David Borson came from the Hebrides. And if he had cared for my poor bairn he would not, by this and that, have prevented the minister coming to baptize her."
"Was she long ill?" asked David.
"At the beginning of last winter she became too ill to go to the ordinances, and too feared to open her Bible, lest she should read her own condemnation in it; and so gradually she seemed to lose all hope, either for this life or the next one. And folk wearied of her complaining, I think."
"The elders and the minister, did they not try to comfort her?"
"At first Elder Peterson and Elder Hoag came to see her; but Nanna put strange questions to them--questions they could not answer; and they said the minister could not answer them, either--no, nor the whole assembly of the kirk of Scotland. And I was hearing that the minister was angered by her words and her doubting, and he told her plainly 'women had no call to speer after the "why" of God's purposes.' And indeed, David, she was very outspoken,--for she was fretful with pain and fever,--and she told him that she was not thankful to go to hell for the glory and honor of God, and that, moreover, she did not want to go to heaven if Vala was not there. And when the minister said, 'Whist, woman!'--for he was frightened at her words,--she would not be still, but went on to wonder how fathers and mothers could be happy, even in the very presence of God, if their sons and daughters were wandering in the awful outer darkness; and, moreover, she said she was not grateful to God for life, and she thought her consent to coming into life on such hard terms ought to have been first asked."
And Christine looked at David, and ceased speaking, for she was afraid that her words would both anger and trouble the young man. But David's eyes were full of happy tears, and there was a tender smile round his mouth. He was thinking of the glad surprises that Nanna must have had--she who belonged to the God of compassions. After all her shuddering questions and lamentable doubts and cruel pain, the everlasting arms under her; Vala and her beloved dead to comfort her; ineffable peace; unclouded joy; the night past; the last tear wiped away! At that moment he felt that it was too late to weep for Nanna; indeed, he smiled like one full of blessed thought. And Christine, a little irritated by the unexpected mood, did not further try to smooth over the hard facts of the lonely woman's death-bed.
"The minister was angry with her, and he said God was angry. And Nanna said, well, then, she knew that he did not care about her perishing; it was all one to him. A little happiness would have saved her, and he refused her the smallest joy; and she did not see how crushing the poor and broken-hearted in the dust increased his glory. The minister told her she was resisting God, and she said, no; that was not possible. God was her master, and he smote her, and perhaps had the right to do so; but she was not his child: no father would treat a child so hardly as he had treated her. She was a slave, and must submit, and weep and die at the corner of the highway. And, to be sure, the minister did not think of her pain and her woman's heart,--what men do?--and he thought it right to speak hard words to her. And then Nanna said she wished they would all leave her alone with her sorrow, and so they did."
Then, suddenly and swiftly as a flash of light, a word came to David. His heart burned, and his tongue was loosened, and then and there he preached to the old man and the three women the unsearchable riches of the cross of Christ. He glorified God because Nanna had learned Christ at the radiant feet of Christ, in the joy and love of the redeemed. He took his Bible from his pocket, and repeated all the blessed words he had marked and learned. Until the midnight moon climbed cold and bright to the zenith he spoke. And old Magnus Thorson stood up, leaning on his staff, full of holy wonder, and the women softly sobbed and prayed at his feet. And when they parted there was in every heart a confident acceptance of David's closing words:
"Whoever rests, however feebly, on the eternal mercy shall live forever."
After this "call" sleep was impossible to David. That insight which changes faith into knowledge had comforted him concerning his dead. He lay down on Vala's couch, and he felt sure that Nanna's smile filled the silence like a spell; for there are still moments when we have the transcendental faculties of the illuminated who, as the apostle says, "have tasted of the powers of the world to come"--still moments when we feel that Jacob's ladder yet stands between heaven and earth, and that we can see the angels ascending and descending upon it. He was so still that he could hear the beating of his own heart, but clear and vivid as light his duty spread out before him. He had found his vocation, and, oh, how rapidly men grow under the rays of that invisible sun!
The next morning he went to see the minister. He was seated, writing his sermon, precisely as David had found him on the occasion of his last visit. So much had happened to David since that morning that he found it difficult to believe nothing had happened to the minister. He looked up at the interruption with the same slight annoyance, but the moment he saw David his manner changed. He rose up quickly and went to meet him, and as he clasped his hand looked with curious intentness into his face.
"You are much changed, David," he said. "What has happened to you?"
"Everything, nearly, minister. The David Borson who left here two years ago is dead and buried. I have been born again."
"That is a great experience. Sit down and tell me about it."
"Yes, minister, but first I must speak of Nanna Sinclair."
"She is dead, David; that is true."
"She has gone home. She has gone to the God who loved her."
"I know it is so. Nanna loved God, and those who love God in life will find no difficulty in going to him after life is over."
"She had a hard life, and it was all in the dark to her."
"But at the death-hour it was light, though the light was not of this world." And David told the minister about the farewell message she had written him, and its final happy words, "At last it is peace--peace!" He could not bear that any eyes should see the paper, or any hand touch it, but his own; but he wished all to know that at the death-hour God had comforted her.
"She suffered a great deal, David."
"What ailed her, minister?"
"What ails the lamp, David, when it goes out? There is no oil, that is all. Nanna used up all her strength in weeping and feeling; the oil of life wastes quickly in that way."
"O minister, I am so sorry that I left her! It was selfish and cruel. I wish now that I could cover her hands with kisses, and ask her pardon on my knees; but I find nothing but a grave."
"Ah, David, it is death that forces us to see the selfishness that comes into our best affections. Self permitted you to give all you had to Nanna, but forbade you to give yourself. There was self even in your self-surrender to God. If you could have seen that long, long disappointed look in Nanna's eyes, and the pale lips that asked so little from you--"
"O minister, spare me! She asked only, 'Stay near me, David'; and I might have stayed and comforted her to the end. Oh, for one hour--one hour only! But neither to-day nor to-morrow, nor through all eternity, shall I have the opportunity to love and soothe which I threw away because it hurt me and made my heart ache." And David bowed his head in his hands and wept bitterly.
Alas! love, irreparably wronged, possesses these eternal memories; and the soul, forced to weep for opportunities gone forever, has these inconsolable refinements of tenderness. "One hour--one hour only!" was the cry of David's soul. And the answer was, "No, never! She has carried away her sorrow. You may, indeed, meet her where all tears are dried and forgotten; but while she did weep you were not there; you had left her alone, and your hour to comfort her has gone forever."
After a short silence the minister went to his desk, and brought from it David's purse, and he laid it, with the will that had been written, before him. "It is useless now," he said. "Nanna has need of nothing you can give her."
"Did it do any good, minister?"
"Yes, a great deal. When Nanna was no longer able to come to the kirk, I went to see her. She was miserably sick and poor, and it made my heart ache to watch her thin, trembling fingers trying to knit. I took her work gently out of her hands, and said, 'You are not able to hold the needles, Nanna, and you have no need to try to do so. There is provision made for all your wants.' And she flared up like whin-bushes set on fire, and said she had asked neither kirk nor town for help, and that she trusted in God to deliver her from this life before she had to starve or take a beggar's portion."
"O minister, if God had not comforted me concerning her, you would break my heart. What did you say to the dear woman?"
"I said, 'It is neither kirk nor town nor almsgivers that have provided for your necessity, Nanna; it is your cousin David Borson.' And when she heard your name she began to cry, 'O David! David!' And after I had let her weep awhile I said, 'You will let your cousin do for you at this hour, Nanna?' And she answered, 'Oh, yes; I will take any favor from David. It was like him to think of me. Oh, that he would come back!' So I sent her every week ten shillings until she died, and then I saw that she was decently laid beside her mother and her little child; and I paid all expenses from the money you left. There is a reckoning of them in the papers. Count it, with the money."
"I will not count after you, minister."
"Well, David, God has counted between us. It is all right to the last bawbee. Now tell where you have been, and what you have seen and suffered; for it is written on your face that you have seen many hard days."
Then David told all about his wanderings and his shipwreck, and the mercy of God to him through his servant John Priestly. But when he tried to speak of the new revelation of the gospel that had come to him, he found his lips closed. The fire that had burned on them the night before, when he spoke under the midnight sky to the old fisherman and the fisherwives, was dead and cold, and he could not kindle it; so he said to himself, "It is not yet the hour." And he went out of the manse without telling one of all the glorious things he had resolved to tell. Neither was he troubled by the omission. He could wait God's time. God, who has made the heart, can always touch the heart, but he felt that just then his words would irritate rather than move; besides, it was not necessary for him to speak unless he got the message. He could not constrain another soul, but there was One who led by invisible cords.
As they stood a moment at the manse door the minister said, "Your aunt Sabiston has gone the way of all flesh."
"I heard tell," answered David. "How did she go?"
"Like herself--grim and steadfast to the last. She would not take to her bed; she met death in her chair. When the doctor told her Death was in the room, she stood up, and welcomed him to her house, and said, 'I have long been waiting for your release.' I tried to talk to her, but she told me to my face that I had nothing to do with her soul. 'If I am lost, I am lost,' she said; 'and if I am chosen, who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect?' She said she believed herself to be the child of God, and that, though she had made some sore stumbles and been fractious and ill to guide, she had done no worse than many of his well-loved bairns, and she expected no worse welcome home. 'I have been long away, minister,' she sighed, 'getting on to a century away, and I'll be glad to win home again.' And those were her last words."
"God be merciful to her! In this world, I think, she was an unjust and cruel woman."
"She was so, then, without moral disquietude. The sin had got into her soul, and she was comfortable with it. God is her judge. He only knew her aright. She left her money wisely and for good ends."
"I heard tell, to the kirk and the societies and the freedom fund. Yet she had kinsfolk in the Orkneys."
"They are all very rich. They went to lawyers about her property, but Mistress Sabiston had made all too fast and sure for any one to alter. She was a woman that would have her way, dead or alive."
"Well, then, this time, it seems, her way is a good way."
After this David settled his life very much on the old lines. He went to live in Nanna's cottage, and returned to the boats and the fishing with Groat's sons. As for his higher duty, that vocation that had come to him on that blessed night when God opened his mouth and he spoke wonderful and gracious things of his law, he was never for a moment recreant to it. But the kingdom of God frequently comes without observation. To preach a sermon, that was a thing far outside David's possibilities. The power of the church, and its close and exclusive privileges, were at that day in Shetland papal in prerogative. David never dreamed of encroaching on them; nor, indeed, would public opinion have permitted him to do so.
As it was, there grew gradually a feeling of unrest about David. Though he was humble and devout in all kirk exercises, it was known that the people gathered round him not only in his own cottage, but at Groat's and Barbara Traill's, and that he spoke to them of the everlasting gospel as never man had spoken before to them. It was known that when the boats lay stilly rocking on the water, waiting for the "take," David, sitting among his mates, reasoned with them on the love of God, until every face of clay flushed with a radiance quite different from mere color--a radiance that was a direct spiritual emanation, a shining of the soul through mere matter. And as these men were all theologians in a measure, with their "creed" and "evidences" at their tongues' end, it was a wonderful joy to watch their doubts, like the needle verging to the pole, tremble and tremble into certainty.
In about three years such opposition as David roused was strong enough to induce the kirk to consider his behavior. The minister sent for him, and in the privacy of his study David's opportunity came at last. For he spoke so eloquently and mightily of the mercy of the Infinite One that the minister covered his face, and when the young man ceased speaking, he looked tenderly at him, and sent him away with his blessing. And afterward he said to the elders:
"There is nothing to call a session anent. David Borson has been to the school of Christ, and he is learned in the Scriptures. We will not silence him, lest haply we be found to be fighting against God."
Thus for many a year David went in and out among his mates and friends, living the gospel in their sight. The memory of Nanna filled his heart; he loved no other woman, but every desolate and sorrowful woman found in him a friend and a helper. And he drew the little children like a magnet. He was the elder brother of every boy and girl who claimed his love; his hands were ever ready to help them, his heart was ever ready to love them. And in such blessed service he grew nobly aged.
He had come to Shetland when the islands were very far off, when the Norse element ruled them, and the Christianized men and women of the sagas dwelt alone in the strong, quaint stone houses they had built. He lived to see the influx of the southern race and influences, the coming of modern travel and civilization; but he never altered his life, for in its simple, pious dignity it befitted any era.
Now, it is noticeable that good men very often have their desire about the manner of their death. And God so favored his servant David Borson. He went out alone one day in his boat, and a sudden storm came up from the northeast. He did not return. Some said there had been no time to take in the boat's sail, and that she must have gone down with her canvas blowing; others thought she had become unmanageable and drifted into some of the dangerous "races" near the coast.
But, this manner or that manner, David went to heaven as he desired, "by the way of the sea," and God found his body a resting-place among its cool, clean graves--a sepulcher that no man knoweth of, nor shall know until the mighty angel sets his right foot upon the sea, and swears that there shall "be time no longer."