Prisoners of Conscience by Amelia E. Barr
Book First. Liot Borson
II. Jealousy Cruel as the Grave
After this event all Lerwick knew that Karen Sabiston was to be married to Liot Borson in less than three weeks. For the minister was unwilling to shorten the usual time for the kirk calling, and Karen, on reflection, had also come to the conclusion that it was best not to hurry too much. "Everything ought to bide its time, Liot," she said, "and the minister wishes the three askings to be honored; also, as the days go by, my aunt may think better and do better than she is now minded to."
"If I had my way, Karen--"
"But just now, Liot, it is my way."
"Yours and the minister's."
"Then it is like to be good."
"Well, let it stand at three weeks; but I wish that the time had not been put off; ill luck comes to a changed wedding-day."
"Why do you forespeak misfortune, Liot? It is a bad thing to do. Far better if you went to the house-builder and told him to hire more help and get the roof-tree on; then we need not ask shelter either from kin or kind."
It was a prudent thought, and Liot acknowledged its wisdom and said he would "there and then go about it." The day was nearly spent, but the moon was at its full, and the way across the moor was as well known to him as the space of his own boat. He kissed Karen fondly, and promised to return in two or three hours at the most; and she watched his tall form swing into the shadows and become part and parcel of the gray indistinctness which shut in the horizon.
There was really no road to the little hamlet where the builder lived. The people used the sea road, and thought it good enough; but the rising moon showed a foot-path, like a pale, narrow ribbon, winding through the peat-cuttings and skirting the still, black moss waters. But in this locality Liot had cut many a load of peat, and he knew the bottomless streams of the heath as well as he knew the "races" of the coast; so he strode rapidly forward on his pleasant errand.
The builder, who was also a fisherman, had just come from the sea; and as he ate his evening meal he talked with Liot about the new house, and promised him to get help enough to finish it within a month. This business occupied about an hour, and as soon as it was over Liot lit his pipe and took the way homeward. He had scarcely left the sea-shore when he saw a man before him, walking very slowly and irresolutely; and Liot said to himself, "He steps like one who is not sure of his way." With the thought he called out, "Take care!" and hastened forward; and the man stood still and waited for him.
In a few minutes Liot also wished to stand still; for the moon came from behind a cloud and showed him plainly that the wayfarer was Bele Trenby. The recognition was mutual, but for once Bele was disposed to be conciliating. He was afraid to turn back and equally afraid to go forward; twice already the moonlight had deceived him, and he had nearly stepped into the water; so he thought it worth his while to say:
"Good evening, Liot; I am glad you came this road; it is a bad one--a devilish bad one! I wish I had taken a boat. I shall miss the tide, and I was looking to sail with it. It is an hour since I passed Skegg's Point--a full hour, for it has been a step at a time. Now you will let me step after you; I see you know the way."
He spoke with a nervous rapidity, and Liot only answered:
"Step as you wish to."
Bele fell a couple of feet behind, but continued to talk. "I have been round Skegg's Point," he said with a chuckling laugh. "I wanted to see Auda Brent before I went away for the winter. Lovely woman! Brent is a lucky fellow--"
"Brent is my friend," answered Liot, angrily. But Bele did not notice the tone, and he continued:
"I would rather have Auda for a friend." And then, in his usual insinuating, boastful way, he praised the woman's beauty and graciousness in words which had an indefinable offense, and yet one quite capable of that laughing denial which commonly shielded Bele's impertinence. "Brent gave me a piece of Saxony cloth and a gold brooch for her--Brent is in Amsterdam. I have taken the cloth four times; there were also other gifts--but I will say nothing of them."
"You are inventing lies, Bele Trenby. Touch your tongue, and your fingers will come out of your lips black as the pit. Say to Brent what you have said to me. You dare not, you infernal coward!"
"You have a pretty list of bad words, Liot, and I won't try to change mine with them."
Liot did not answer. He turned and looked at the man behind him, and the devil entered into his heart and whispered, "There is the venn before you." The words were audible to him; they set his heart on fire and made his blood rush into his face, and beat on his ear-drums like thunder. He could scarcely stand. A fierce joy ran through his veins, and the fiery radiations of his life colored the air around him; he saw everything red. The venn, a narrow morass with only one safe crossing, was before them; in a few moments they were on its margin. Liot suddenly stopped; the leather strings of his rivlins had come unfastened, and he dropped the stick he carried in order to retie them. At this point there was a slight elevation on the morass, and Bele looked at Liot as he put his foot upon it, asking sharply:
"Is this the crossing?"
Liot fumbled at his shoe-strings and said not a word; for he knew it was not the crossing.
"Is this the crossing, Liot?" Bele again asked. And again Liot answered neither yes nor no. Then Bele flew into a passion and cried out with an oath:
"You are a cursed fellow, Liot Borson, and in the devil's own temper; I will stay no longer with you."
He stepped forward as he spoke, and instantly a cry, shrill with mortal terror, rang across the moor from sea to sea. Liot quickly raised himself, but he had barely time to distinguish the white horror of his enemy's face and the despair of his upthrown arms. The next moment the moss had swallowed the man, and the thick, peaty water hardly stirred over his engulfing.
For a little while Liot fixed his eyes on the spot; then he lifted his stick and went forward, telling his soul in triumphant undertones: "He has gone down quick into hell; the Lord has brought him down into the pit of destruction; the bloody and deceitful man shall not live out half his days; he has gone to his own place."
Over and over he reiterated these assurances, stepping securely himself to the ring of their doom. It was not until he saw the light in Paul Borson's house that the chill of doubt and the sickness of fear assailed him. How could he smile into Karen's face or clasp her to his breast again? A candle was glimmering in the window of a fisherman's cottage; he stepped into its light and looked at his hands. There was no stain of blood on them, but he was angry at the involuntary act; he felt it to be an accusation.
Just yet he could not meet Karen. He walked to the pier, and talked to his conscience as he did so. "I never touched the man," he urged. "I said nothing to lead him wrong. He was full of evil; his last words were such as slay a woman's honor. I did right not to answer him. A hundred times I have vowed I would not turn a finger to save his life, and God heard and knew my vow. He delivered him into my hand; he let me see the end of the wicked. I am not to blame! I am not to blame!" Then said an interior voice, that he had not silenced, "Go and tell the sheriff what has happened."
Liot turned home at this advice. Why should he speak now? Bele was dead and buried; let his memory perish with him. He summoned from every nook of his being all the strength of the past, the present, and the future, and with a resolute hand lifted the latch of the door. Karen threw down her knitting and ran to meet him; and when he had kissed her once he felt that the worst was over. Paul asked him about the house, and talked over his plans and probabilities, and after an interval he said:
"I saw Bele Trenby's ship was ready for sea at the noon hour; she will be miles away by this time. It is a good thing, for Mistress Sabiston may now come to reason."
"It will make no odds to us; we shall not be the better for Bele's absence."
"I think differently. He is one of the worst of men, and he makes everything grow in Matilda's eyes as he wishes to. Lerwick can well spare him; a bad man, as every one knows."
"A man that joys the devil. Let us not speak of him."
"But he speaks of you."
"His words will not slay me. Kinsman, let us go to sleep now; I am promised to the fishing with the early tide."
But Liot could not sleep. In vain he closed his eyes; they saw more than he could tell. There were invisible feet in his room; the air was heavy with presence, and full of vague, miserable visions; for "Wickedness, condemned by her own witness, is very timorous, and, being pressed with Conscience, always forecasteth grievous things."
When Bele stepped into his grave there had been a bright moonlight blending with the green, opalish light of the aurora charging to the zenith; and in this mysterious mingled glow Liot had seen for a moment the white, upturned face that the next moment went down with open eyes into the bottomless water. Now, though the night had become dark and stormy, he could not dismiss the sight, and anon the Awful One who dwelleth in the thick darkness drew near, and for the first time in his life Liot Borson was afraid. Then it was that his deep and real religious life came to his help. He rose, and stood with clasped hands in the middle of the room, and began to plead his cause, even as Job did in the night of his terror. In his strong, simple speech he told everything to God--told him the wrongs that had been done him, the provocations he had endured. His solemnly low implorations were drenched with agonizing tears, and they only ceased when the dayspring came and drove the somber terrors of the night before it.
Then he took his boat and went off to sea, though the waves were black and the wind whistling loud and shrill. He wanted the loneliness that only the sea could give him. He felt that he must "cry aloud" for deliverance from the great strait into which he had fallen. No man could help him, no human sympathy come between him and his God. Into such communions not even the angels enter.
At sundown he came home, his boat loaded with fish, and his soul quiet as the sea was quiet after the storm had spent itself. Karen said he "looked as if he had seen Death"; and Paul answered: "No wonder at that; a man in an open boat in such weather came near to him." Others spoke of his pallor and his weariness; but no one saw on his face that mystical self-signature of submission which comes only through the pang of soul-travail.
He had scarcely changed his clothing and sat down to his tea before Paul said: "A strange thing has happened. Trenby's ship is still in harbor. He cannot be found; no one has seen him since he left the ship yesterday. He bade Matilda Sabiston good-by in the morning, and in the afternoon he told his men to be ready to lift anchor when the tide turned. The tide turned, but he came not; and they wondered at it, but were not anxious; now, however, there is a great fear about him."
"What fear is there?" asked Liot.
"Men know not; but it is uppermost in all minds that in some way his life-days are ended."
"Well, then, long or short, it is God who numbers our days."
"What do you think of the matter?" asked Paul.
"As you know, kinsman," answered Liot, "I have ever hated Bele, and that with reason. Often I have said it were well if he were hurt, and better if he were dead; but at this time I will say no word, good or bad. If the man lives, I have nothing good to say of him; if he is dead, I have nothing bad to say."
"That is wise. Our fathers believed in and feared the fetches of dead men; they thought them to be not far away from the living, and able to be either good friends or bitter enemies to them."
"I have heard that often. No saying is older than 'Bare is a man's back without the kin behind him.'"
"Then you are well clad, Liot, for behind you are generations of brave and good men."
"The Lord is at my right hand; I shall not be moved," said Liot, solemnly. "He is sufficient. I am as one of the covenanted, for the promise is 'to you and your children.'"
Paul nodded gravely. He was a Calvinistic pagan, learned in the Scriptures, inflexible in faith, yet by no means forgetful of the potent influences of his heroic dead. Truly he trusted in the Lord, but he was never unwilling to remember that Bor and Bor's mighty sons stood at his back. Even though they were in the "valley of shadows," they were near enough in a strait to divine his trouble and be ready to help him.
The tenor of this conversation suited both men. They pursued it in a fitful manner and with long, thoughtful pauses until the night was far spent; then they said, "Good sleep," with a look into each other's eyes which held not only promise of present good-will, but a positive "looking forward" neither cared to speak more definitely of.
The next day there was an organized search for Bele Trenby through the island hamlets and along the coast; but the man was not found far or near; he had disappeared as absolutely as a stone dropped into mid-ocean. Not until the fourth day was there any probable clue found; then a fishing-smack came in, bringing a little rowboat usually tied to Howard Hallgrim's rock. Hallgrim was a very old man and had not been out of his house for a week, so that it was only when the boat was found at sea that it was missed from its place. It was then plain to every one that Bele had taken the boat for some visit and met with an accident.
So far the inference was correct. Bele's own boat being shipped ready for the voyage, he took Hallgrim's boat when he went to see Auda Brent; but he either tied it carelessly or he did not know the power of the tide at that point, for when he wished to return the boat was not there. For a few minutes he hesitated; he was well aware that the foot-path across the moor was a dangerous one, but he was anxious to leave Lerwick with that tide, and he risked it.
These facts flashed across Liot's mind with the force of truth, and he never doubted them. All, then, hung upon Auda Brent's reticence; if she admitted that Bele had called on her that afternoon, some one would divine the loss of the boat and the subsequent tragedy. For several wretched days he waited to hear the words that would point suspicion to him. They were not spoken. Auda came to Lerwick, as usual, with her basket of eggs for sale; she talked with Paul Borson about Bele's disappearance; and though Liot watched her closely, he noticed neither tremor nor hesitation in her face or voice. He thought, indeed, that she showed very little feeling of any kind in the matter. It took him some time to reach the conclusion that Auda was playing a part--one she thought best for her honor and peace.
In the mean time the preparations for his marriage with Karen Sabiston went rapidly forward. He strove to keep his mind and heart in tune with them, but it was often hard work. Sometimes Karen questioned him concerning his obvious depression; sometimes she herself caught the infection of his sadness; and there were little shadows upon their love that she could not understand. On the day before her marriage she went to visit her aunt Matilda Sabiston. Matilda did not deny herself, but afterward Karen wished she had done so. Almost her first words were of Bele Trenby, for whom she was mourning with the love of a mother for an only son.
"What brings you into my sight?" she asked the girl. "Bele is dead and gone, and you are living! and Liot Borson knows all about it!"
"How dare you say such a thing, aunt?"
"I can dare the truth, though the devil listened to it. As for 'aunt,' I am no aunt of yours."
"I am content to be denied by you; and I will see that Liot makes you pay dearly for the words that you have said."
"No fear! he will not dare to challenge them! I know that."
"You have called him a murderer!"
"He did the deed, or he has knowledge of it. One who never yet deceived me tells me so much. Oh, if I could only bring that one into the court I would hang Liot higher than his masthead! I wish to die only that I may follow Liot, and give him misery on misery every one of his life-days. I would also poison his sleep and make his dreams torture him. If there is yet one kinsman behind my back, I will force him to dog Liot into the grave."
"Liot is in the shelter of God's hand; he need not fear what you can do to him. He can prove you liar far easier than you can prove him murderer. On the last day of Bele's life Liot was at sea all day, and there were three men with him. He spent the evening with John Twatt and myself, and then sat until the midnight with Paul Borson."
"For all that, he was with Bele Trenby! I know it! My heart tells me so."
"Your heart has often lied to you before this. I see, however, that our talk had better come to an end once for all. I will never come here again."
"I shall be the happier for that. Why did you come at this time?"
"I thought that you were in trouble about Bele. I was sorry for you. I wished to be friends with every one before I married."
"I want no pity; I want vengeance; and from here or there I will compass it. While my head is above the mold there is no friendship possible between us--no, nor after it. Do you think that Bele is out of your way because he is out of the body? He is now nearer to you than your hands or feet. And let Liot Borson look to himself. The old thrall's curse was evil enough, but Bele Trenby will make it measureless."
"Such words are like the rest of your lying; I will not fear them, since God is himself, and he shall rule the life Liot and I will lead together. When a girl is near her bridal every one but you will give her a blessing. I think you have no heart; surely you never loved any one."
"I have loved--yes!" Then she stood up and cried passionately: "Begone! I will speak no more to you--only this: ask Liot Borson what was the ending of Bele Trenby."
She was the incarnation of rage and accusation, and Karen almost fled from her presence. Her first impulse was to go to Liot with the story of the interview, but her second was a positive withdrawal of it. It was the eve of her bridal day, and the house was already full of strangers. Paul Borson was spending his money freely for the wedding-feast. In the morning she was to become Liot's wife. How could she bring contention where there should be only peace and good-will?
Besides, Liot had told her it was useless to visit Matilda; he had even urged her not to do so, for all Lerwick knew how bitterly she was lamenting the loss of her adopted son Bele; and Liot had said plainly to Karen: "As for her good-will, there is more hope of the dead; let her alone." As she remembered these words a cold fear invaded Karen's heart; it turned her sick even to dismiss it. What if Liot did know the ending of Bele! She recalled with a reluctant shiver his altered behavior, his long silences, his gloomy restlessness, the frequent breath of some icy separation between them. If Matilda was right in any measure--if Liot knew! Merciful God, if Liot had had any share in the matter! She could not face him with such a thought in her heart. She ran down to the sea-shore, and hid herself in a rocky shelter, and tried to think the position down to the bottom.
It was all a chaos of miserable suspicion, and at last she concluded that her fear and doubt came entirely from Matilda's wicked assertions. She would not admit that they had found in her heart a condition ready to receive them. She said: "I will not again think of the evil words; it is a wrong to Liot. I will not tell them to him; he would go to Matilda, and there would be more trouble, and the why and the wherefore spread abroad; and God knows how the wicked thought grows."
Then she stooped and bathed her eyes and face in the cold salt water, and afterward walked slowly back to Paul Borson's. The house was full of company and merry-making, and she was forced to fall into the mood expected from her. Women do such things by supreme efforts beyond the power of men. And Karen's smiles showed nothing of the shadow behind them, even when Liot questioned her about her visit.
"She is a bad woman, Liot," answered Karen, "and she said many temper-trying words."
"That is what I looked for, Karen. It is her way about all things to scold and storm her utmost. Does she trouble you, dear one?"
"I will not be word-sick for her. There is, as you said, no love lost between us, and I shall not care a rap for her anger. Thanks to the Best, we can live without her." And in this great trust she laid her hand in Liot's, and all shadows fled away.
It was then a lovely night, bright with rosy auroras; but before morning there was a storm. The bridal march to the kirk had to be given up, and, hooded and cloaked, the company went to the ceremony as they best could. There was no note of music to step to; it was hard enough to breast the gusty, rattling showers, and the whole landscape was a little tragedy of wind and rain, of black, tossing seas and black, driving clouds. Many who were not at the bridal shook their heads at the storm-drenched wedding-guests, and predicted an unhappy marriage; and a few ventured to assert that Matilda Sabiston had been seen going to the spaewife Asta. "And what for," they asked, "but to buy charms for evil weather?"
All such dark predictions, however, appeared to be negatived by actual facts. No man in Lerwick was so happy as Liot Borson. The home he had built Karen made a marvel of neatness and even beauty; it was always spotless and tidy, and full of bits of bright color--gay patchwork and crockery, and a snow-white hearth with its glow of fiery peat. Always she was ready to welcome him home with a loving kiss and all the material comforts his toil required. And they loved each other! When that has been said, what remains unsaid? It covers the whole ground of earthly happiness.
How the first shadow crossed the threshold of this happy home neither Liot nor Karen could tell; it came without observation. It was in the air, and entered as subtly and as silently. Liot noticed it first. It began with the return of Brent. When he gave Bele the piece of cloth and the gold brooch for his wife, he was on the point of leaving Amsterdam for Java. Fever and various other things delayed his return, but in the end he came back to Lerwick and began to talk about Bele. For Auda, reticent until her husband's return, then told him of Bele's visit; and one speculation grew on the top of another until something like the truth was in all men's minds, even though it was not spoken. Liot saw the thought forming in eyes that looked at him; he felt it in little reluctances of his mates, and heard it, or thought he heard it, in their voices. He took home with him the unhappy hesitation or misgiving, and watched to see if it would touch the consciousness of Karen. The loving wife, just approaching the perilous happiness of maternity, kept asking herself, "What is it? What is it?" And the answer was ever the same--the accusing words that Matilda Sabiston had said, and the quick, sick terror of heart they had awakened.
On Christmas day Karen had a son, a child of extraordinary beauty, that brought his soul into the world with him. The women said that his eyes instantly followed the light, and that his birth-cry passed into a smile. Liot was solemnly and silently happy. He sat for hours holding his wife's hand and watching the little lad sleeping so sweetly after his first hard travail; for the birth of this child meant to Liot far more than any mortal comprehended. He knew himself to be of religiously royal ancestry, and the covenant of God to such ran distinctly, "To you and your children." So, then, if God had refused him children, he would certainly have believed that for his sin in regard to Bele Trenby the covenant between God and the Borsons was broken. This fair babe was a renewal of it. He took him in his arms with a prayer of inexpressible thanksgiving. He kissed the child, and called him David with the kiss, and said to his soul, "The Lord hath accepted my contrition."
For some weeks this still and perfect happiness continued. The days were dark and stormy, and the nights long; but in Liot's home there was the sunlight of a woman's face and the music of a baby's voice. The early spring brought the first anxiety, for it brought with it no renewal of Karen's health and strength. She had the look of a leaf that is just beginning to droop upon its stem, and Liot watched her from day to day with a sick anxiety. He made her go to sea with him, and laughed with joy when the keen winds brought back the bright color to her cheeks. But it was only a momentary flush, bought at far too great a price of vitality. In a few weeks she could not pay the price, and the heat of the summer prostrated her. She had drooped in the spring; in the autumn she faded away. When Christmas came again there was no longer any hope left in Liot's broken heart; he knew she was dying. Night and day he was at her side, there was so much to say to each other; for only God knew how long they were to be parted, or in what place of his great universe they should meet again.
At the end of February it had come to this acknowledgment between them. Sometimes Liot sat with dry eyes, listening to Karen's sweet hopes of their reunion; sometimes he laid his head upon her pillow and wept such tears as leave life ever afterward dry at its source. And the root of this bitterness was Bele Trenby. If it had not been for this man Liot could have shared his wife's hopes and said farewell to her with the thought of heaven in his heart; but the very memory of Bele sank him below the tide of hope. God was even then "entering into judgment with him," and what if he should not be able to endure unto the end, and so win, though hardly, a painful acceptance? In every phase and form such thoughts haunted the wretched man continually. And surely Karen divined it, for all her sweet efforts were to fill his heart with a loving "looking forward" to their meeting, and a confident trust in God's everlasting mercy.
One stormy night in March she woke from a deep slumber and called Liot. Her voice had that penetrating intelligence of the dying which never deceives, and Liot knew instantly that the hour for parting had come. He took her hands and murmured in tones of anguish, "O Karen, Karen! wife of my soul!"
She drew him closer, and said with the eagerness of one in great haste, "Oh, my dear one, I shall soon be nearer to God than you. At his feet I will pray. Tell me--tell me quick, what shall I ask for you? Liot, dear one, tell me!"
"Ask that I may be forgiven all my sins."
"Is there one great sin, dear one? Oh, tell me now--one about Bele Trenby? Speak quickly, Liot. Did you see him die?"
"I did, but I hurt him not."
"He went into the moss?"
"You could have saved him and did not?"
"If I had spoken in time; there was but a single moment--I know not what prevented me. O Karen, I have suffered! I have suffered a thousand deaths!"
"My dear one, I have known it. Now we will pray together--I in heaven, thou on earth. Fear not, dear, dear Liot; he spareth all; they are his. The Lord is the lover of souls."
These were her last words. With clasped hands and wide-open eyes she lay still, watching and listening, ready to follow when beckoned, and looking with fixed vision, as if seeing things invisible, into the darkness she was about to penetrate. Steeped to his lips in anguish, Liot stood motionless until a dying breath fluttered through the room; and he knew by his sudden sense of loss and loneliness that she was gone, and that for this life he was alone forevermore.