Prisoners of Conscience by Amelia E. Barr
Book First. Liot Borson
III. A Sentence for Life
All Lerwick had been anticipating the death of Karen, but when it came there was a shock. She was so young and so well loved, besides which her affectionate heart hid a great spirit; and there was a general hope that for her husband's and child's sake she would hold on to life. For, in spite of all reasoning, there remains deep in the heart of man a sense of mastery over his own destiny--a conviction that we do not die until we are willing to die. We "resign" our spirits; we "commit" them to our Creator; we "give up the ghost"; and it did not seem possible to the wives and mothers of Lerwick that Karen would "give up" living. Her mortality was so finely blended with her immortality, it was hard to believe in such early dissolution. Alas! the finer the nature, the more readily it is fretted to decay by underlying wrong or doubt. When Matilda Sabiston drove Karen down to the sea-shore on the day before her bridal she really gave her the death-blow.
For Karen needed more than the bread and love of mortal life to sustain her. She belonged to that high order of human beings who require a sure approval of conscience even for their physical health, and whose house of life, wanting this fine cement, easily falls to dissolution. Did she, then, doubt her husband? Did she believe Matilda's accusations to be true? Karen asked herself these questions very often, and always answered them with strong assurances of Liot's innocence; but nevertheless they became part of her existence. No mental decisions, nor even actual words, could drive them from the citadel they had entered. Though she never mentioned the subject to Liot, though she watched herself continually lest any such doubts should darken her smiles or chill her love, yet they insensibly impregnated the house in which they dwelt with her. Liot could not say he felt them here or there, but they were all-pervading.
Karen withered in their presence, and Liot's denser soul would eventually have become sick with the same influence. It was, therefore, no calamity that spared their love such a tragic trial, and if Liot had been a man of clearer perceptions he would have understood that it was not in anger, but in mercy to both of them, that Karen had been removed to paradise. Her last words, however, had partially opened his spiritual vision. He saw what poison had defiled the springs of her life, and he knew instinctively that Matilda Sabiston was the enemy that had done the deed.
It was, therefore, little wonder that he sent her no notice of her niece's death. And, indeed, Matilda heard of it first through the bellman calling the funeral hour through the town. The day was of the stormiest, and many remembered how steadily storm and gust had attended all the great events of Karen's short life. She had been born in the tempest which sent her father to the bottom of the sea, and she herself, in coming from Yell to Lerwick, had barely escaped shipwreck. Her bridal garments had been drenched with rain, and on the day set for her baby's christening there was one of the worst of snow-storms. Indeed, many said that it was the wetting she received on that occasion which had developed the "wasting" that killed her. The same turmoil of the elements marked her burial day. A cold northeast wind drove through the wet streets, and the dreary monotony of the outside world was unspeakable.
But Matilda Sabiston looked through her dim windows without any sense of the weather's depressing influence--the storm of anger in her heart was so much more imperative. She waited impatiently for the hour appointed for the funeral, and then threw over her head and shoulders a large hood and cloak of blue flannel. She did not realize that the wind blew them backward, that her gray hairs were dripping and disarranged, and her clothing storm-draggled and unsuitable for the occasion; her one thought was to reach Liot's house about the time when the funeral guests were all assembled. She lifted the latch and entered the crowded room like a bad fate. Every one ceased whispering and looked at her.
She stepped swiftly to the side of the coffin, which was resting on two chairs in the middle of the room. Liot leaned on the one at the head; the minister stood by the one at the foot, and he was just opening the book in his hands. He looked steadily at Matilda, and there was a warning in the look, which the angry woman totally disdained. Liot never lifted his eyes; they were fixed on Karen's dead face; but his hands held mechanically a Bible, open at its proper place. But though he did not see Matilda, he knew when she entered; he felt the horror of her approach, and when she laid her hand on his arm he shook it violently off and forced himself to look into her evilly gleaming eyes.
She laughed outright. "So the curse begins," she said, "and this is but the first of it."
"This is no hour to talk of curses, Mistress Sabiston," said the minister, sternly. "If you cannot bring pity and pardon to the dead, then fear to come into their presence."
"I have nothing to fear from the dead. It is Liot Borson who is 'followed,' not me; I did not murder Bele Trenby."
"Now, then," answered the minister, "it is time there was a stop put to this talk. Speak here, before the living and the dead, the evil words you have said in the ears of so many. What have you to say against Liot Borson?"
"Look at him!" she cried. "He dares to hold in his hands the Holy Word, and I vow those hands of his are red with the blood of the man he murdered--I mean of Bele Trenby."
Liot kept his eyes fixed on her until she ceased speaking; then he turned them on the minister and said, "Speak for me."
"Speak for thyself once and for all, Liot. Speak here before God and thy dead wife and thy mates and thy townsmen. Did thy hands slay Bele Trenby? Are they indeed red with his blood?"
"I never lifted one finger against Bele Trenby. My hands are clear and clean from all blood-guiltiness." And he dropped the Word upon Karen's breast, and held up his hands in the sight of heaven and men.
"You lie!" screamed Matilda.
"God is my judge, not you," answered Liot.
"It is the word of Liot Borson. Who believes it?" asked the minister. "Let those who do so take the hands he declares guiltless of blood." And the minister clasped Liot's hands as he spoke the words, and then stepped aside to allow others to follow him. And there was not one man or woman present who did not thus openly testify to their belief in Liot's innocence. Matilda mocked them as they did so with output tongue and scornful laughs; but no one interfered until the minister said:
"Mistress Sabiston, you must now hold your peace forever."
"I will not. I will--"
"It is your word against Liot's, and your word is not believed."
Then the angry woman fell into a great rage, and railed on every one so passionately that for a few moments she carried all before her. Some of the company stood up round the coffin, as if to defend the dead; and the minister looked at Grimm and Twatt, two big fishermen, and said, "Mistress Sabiston is beside herself; take her civilly to her home." And they drew her arms within their own, and so led her storming out into the storm.
Liot had the better of his enemy, but he felt no sense of victory. He did not even see the manner of her noisy exit, for he stood in angry despair, looking down at the calm face of his dead wife. Then the door shut out the turmoil, and the solemn voice of the minister called peace into the disquieted, woeful room. Liot was insensible to the change. His whole soul was insurgent; he was ready to accuse heaven and earth of unutterable cruelty to him. Strong as his physical nature was, at this hour it was almost impotent. His feet felt too heavy to move; he saw, and he saw not; and the words that were spoken were only a chaos of sounds.
Andrew Vedder and Hal Skager took his right arm and his left, and led him to his place in the funeral procession. It was only a small one. Those not closely connected with the Borsons went to their homes after the service; for, besides the storm, the hour was late and the night closing in. It seemed as if nature showed her antagonism to poor Karen even to the last scene of her mortal drama; for the tide flowed late, and a Shetlander can only be buried with the flowing tide. The failing light, however, was but a part of the great tragedy of Liot's soul; it seemed the proper environment.
He bared his head as he took his place, and when urged to put on his hat flung it from him. The storm beat on Karen's coffin; why not on his head also? People looked at him pitifully as he passed, and an old woman, as she came out of her cottage to cast the customary three clods of earth behind the coffin, called out as she did so, "The comforts of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost be with you, Liot." It was Margaret Borson, and she was a century old. She tottered into the storm, and a little child handed her the turf clods, which she cast with the prayer. It came from kindred lips, and so entered Liot's ears. He lifted his eyes a moment, looked at the eldrich, shadowy woman trembling in the gray light, and bowing his head said softly, "Thank you, mother."
There was not a word spoken at the open grave. Liot stood in a breathing stupor until all was over, and then got back somehow to his desolate home. Paul Borson's wife had taken the child away with her, and other women had tidied the room and left a pot of tea on the hob and a little bread and meat on the table. He was alone at last. He slipped the wooden bolt across the door, and then sat down to think and to suffer.
But the mercy of God found him out, and he fell into a deep sleep; and in that sleep he dreamed a dream, and was a little comforted. "I have sinned," he said when he awoke; "but I am His child, and I cannot slip beyond His mercy. My life shall be atonement, and I will not fear to fall into His hands."
And, thank God, no grief lasts forever. As the days and weeks wore away Liot's sorrow for his wife grew more reasonable; then the spring came and the fishing was to attend to; and anon little David began to interest his heart and make him plan for the future. He resolved to save money and send the lad to St. Andrew's, and give him to the service of the Lord. All that he longed for David should have; all that he had failed to accomplish David should do. He would give his own life freely if by this sacrifice he could make David's life worthy to be an offering at His altar.
The dream, though it never came true, comforted and strengthened him; it was something to live for. He was sure that, wherever in God's universe Karen now dwelt, she would be glad of such a destiny for her boy. He worked cheerfully night and day for his purpose, and the work in itself rewarded him. The little home in which he had been so happy and so miserable was sold, and the money put in the bank for "David's education." All Liot's life now turned upon this one object, and, happily, it was sufficient to restore to him that hope--that something to look forward to--which is the salt of life.
Matilda gave him no further trouble. She sent him a bill for Karen's board, and he paid it without a word; and this was the last stone she could throw; besides which, she found herself compelled by public opinion to make some atonement for her outrageous behavior, since in those days it would have been as easy to live in St. Petersburg and quarrel with the czar as to live in Shetland and not have the minister's approval. So Mistress Sabiston had a special interview with the Rev. Magnus Ridlon, and she also sent a sum of money to the kirk as a "mortification," and eventually was restored to all sacred privileges, except the great one of the holy table. This depended inexorably on her public exoneration of Liot and her cultivation of good-will toward him. She utterly refused Liot, and preferred to want the sacred bread and wine rather than eat and drink them with Liot Borson. And though Liot declared his willingness to forgive Matilda fully, in his heart he was not sorry to be spared the spiritual obligation.
So the seasons wore away, and summer and winter brought work and rest, until David was nearly six years old. By this time the women of Lerwick thought Liot should look for another wife. "There is Halla Odd," said Jean Borson; "she is a widow of thine own age and she is full-handed. It is proper for thee now to make a home for thyself and David. When a wife has been dead four years there has been mourning enough."
Impatient of such talk at first, Liot finally took it into some consideration; but it always ended in one way: he cast his eyes to that lonely croft where Karen slept, and remembered words she had once spoken:
"In a little while I shall go away, Liot, and people will say, 'She is in her grave'; but I shall not be there."
That was exactly Liot's feeling--Karen was not there. She had loved God and believed in heaven, and he was sure that she had gone to heaven. And from every spot on the open sea or the streeted town or the solitary moors he had only to look up to the place where his beloved dwelt. He did, however, as Jean Borson desired: he thought about Halla Odd; he watched her ways, and speculated about her money and her house skill and the likelihood of her making a good stepmother to David.
Probably, if events had taken their usual course, he would have married Halla; but at the beginning of the summer this thing happened: a fine private yacht was brought into harbor with her sails torn to rags and her mainmast injured. Coming down from the north, she had been followed and caught by a storm, and was in considerable distress when she was found by some Lerwick fisher-smacks. Then, as Liot Borson was the best sailmaker in the town, he was hired to put the yacht's canvas in good condition; and while doing so the captain of the yacht, who was also her owner, talked often with him about the different countries he had visited. He showed him paintings of famous places and many illustrated volumes of travel, and so fired Liot's heart that his imagination, like a bird, flew off in all directions.
In a short time the damaged wayfarer, with all her new sails set, went southward, and people generally forgot her visit. But Liot was no more the same man after it. He lived between the leaves of a splendid book of voyages which had been left with him. Halla went out of his thoughts and plans, and all his desires were set to one distinct purpose--to see the world, and the whole world. David was the one obstacle. He did not wish to leave him in Shetland, for his intention was to bid farewell forever to the island. It had suddenly become a prison to him; he longed to escape from it. So, then, David must be taken away or the boy would draw him back; but the question was, where should he carry the child?
He thought instantly of his sister, who was married to a man in comfortable circumstances living at Stornoway, in the Outer Hebrides, and he resolved to take David to her. He could now afford to pay well for his board and schooling, and he was such a firm believer in the tie of blood-kinship that the possibility of the child not being kindly treated never entered his mind. And as he was thinking over the matter a man came from Stornoway to the Shetland fishing, and spoke well of his sister Lizzie and her husband. He said also that their only child was in the Greenland whaling-fleet, and that David would be a godsend of love to their solitary hearts.
This report satisfied Liot, and the rest was easily managed. Paul Borson urged him to stay until the summer fishing was over; but Liot was possessed by the sole idea of getting away, and he would listen to nothing that interfered with this determination. He owned half the boat in which he fished, and as it was just at the beginning of the season he was obliged to buy the other half at an exorbitant price. But the usually prudent man would make no delays; he paid the price asked, and then quickly prepared the boat for the voyage he contemplated.
One night after David was asleep he carried him on board of her; and Paul divined his purpose, though it was unspoken. He walked with him to the boat, and they smoked their last pipe together in the moonlight on her deck, and were both very silent. Paul had told himself that he had a great deal to say to his cousin, yet when it came to the last hour they found themselves unable to talk. At midnight both men stood up.
"The tide serves," said Liot, softly, holding out his hand.
And Paul clasped it and answered: "God be with thee, Liot."
"We shall meet no more in this life, Paul."
"Then I tryst thee for the next life; that will be a good meeting. Fare thee well. God keep thee!"
"And thee also."
"Then we shall be well kept, both of us."
That was the last of Shetland for Liot Borson. He watched his kinsman out of sight, and then lifted his anchor, and in the silence and moonlight went out to sea. When the Lerwick people awoke in the morning Liot was miles and miles away. He was soon forgotten. It was understood that he would never come back, and there was no more interest in him than there is in the dead. Like them, he had had his time of sojourn, and his place knew him no more.
As for Liot, he was happy. He set his sails, and covered David more warmly, and then lay down under the midnight stars. The wind was at his back, and the lonely land of his birth passed from his eyes as a dream passes. In the morning the islands were not to be seen; they were hidden by belts of phantom foam, wreathed and vexed with spray and spindrift. There was, fortunately, no wrath in the morning tide, only a steady, irresistible set to the westward; and this was just what Liot desired. For many days these favorable circumstances continued, and Liot and David were very happy together; but as they neared the vexed seas which lash Cape Wrath and pour down into the North Minch, Liot had enough to do to keep his boat afloat.
He was driven against his will and way almost to the Butt of Lewis; and as his meal and water were very low, he looked for death in more ways than one. Then the north wind came, and he hoped to reach the broad Bay of Stornoway with it; but it was soon so strong and savage that nothing could be done but make all snug as possible for the gale and then run before it. It proved to be worse than Liot anticipated, and, hungry and thirsty and utterly worn out, the helpless boat and her two dying occupants were picked up by some Celtic coasters from Uig, and taken to the little hamlet to which they were going.
There Liot stayed all summer, fishing with the men of the place; but he was not happy, for, though they were Calvinists as to faith, they were very different from the fair, generous, romantic men of his own islands. For the fishers of Uig were heavy-faced Celts, with the impatient look of men selfish and greedy of gain. They made Liot pay well for such privileges as they gave him; and he looked forward to the close of the fishing season, for then he was determined to go to Stornoway and get David a more comfortable and civilized home, after which he would sell his boat and nets. And then? Then he would take the first passage he could get to Glasgow, for at Glasgow there were ships bound for every port in the world.
It was on the 5th of September that he again set sail for Stornoway, and on the 11th he was once more brought back to Uig. A great storm had stripped him of everything he possessed but his disabled boat. David was in a helpless, senseless condition, and Liot had a broken arm, and fainted from suffering and exhaustion while he was being carried on shore. In some way he lost his purse, and it contained all his money. He looked at the sea and he looked at the men, and he knew not which had it. So there was nothing possible for another winter but poverty and hard toil, and perchance a little hope, now and then, of a better voyage in the spring.
With endless labor and patience he prepared for this third attempt, and one lovely day in early June set sail for the Butt of Lewis. He had good weather and fair winds for two days; then the norther came and drove him round Vatternish, and into the dangerous whirlpools and vexed waterways of that locality. His boat began to leak, and he was forced to abandon her, and for thirty hours to thole the blustering winds and waves that tossed the little cockle-shell, in which they took a last refuge, like a straw upon the billows. Again the men of Uig brought them to shore; and this time they were sulky, and expressed no sympathy for Liot's disappointment, loss, and suffering. They had become superstitious about him, and they speculated and wondered at the ill luck that always drove him back to Skye. Roy Hunish, a very old man, spoke for the rest when he said, "It seems to me, Liot Borson, that the Lord has not sent you to Stornoway; he is against the journey." And Liot answered sadly: "He is against all I desire."
When they had been warmed and fed and rested in one of the nearest cottages, Liot took David in his arms and went back to his old hut. He put the sleeping child in the bunk, and then sat down on the cold, dark hearthstone. What Hunish expressed so plainly was the underlying thought in his own heart. He could not escape from a conclusion so tragically manifested. In sorrow too great for tears, he compelled himself to resign all his hopes and dreams--a renunciation as bitter as wormwood, but not as cruelly bitter as the one it included; for his rejection was also the rejection of his son. God had not forgiven him, nor had he accepted David's dedication to his service, for he had stripped him of all means to accomplish it. He might have permitted him to reach Stornoway and leave the boy among his kindred; he had chosen rather to include David in the sin of his father. This was the thought that wounded his heart like a sword. He went to the sleeping boy and kissed his face, weeping most of all for the sorrow he had brought on the innocent one.
If this earth be a penal world, Liot that night went down to one of its lowest hells. Sorrow of many kinds brutally assailed him. He hid nothing from his consciousness. He compelled himself to see over again the drowning of Bele--that irreparable wrong which had ruined all his happiness; he compelled himself to stand once more by Karen's coffin, and listen to his own voice calling God to witness his innocence; he compelled himself to admit that he had thought God had forgotten his sin of seven years ago. And when these things had been thought out to the end, his heart was so full that he quite unconsciously gave utterance to his thoughts in audible speech. The tones of his voice in the darkness were like those of a man praying, and the hopeless words filled the sorrowful room with a sense of suffering:
"So, then, it is for a life-sentence that I am sent here. There is to be no pardon till I have dreed out the years appointed me in the gust and poverty of this dreadful place, among its hard, unfriendly men. My God! I am but thirty-three years old. How long wilt thou be angry with me? And the little lad! Pass me by, but oh, be merciful to him!"
A great silence followed this imploration. The man was waiting. For hours he sat motionless; but just before dawn he must have heard a word of strength or comfort, for he rose to his feet and bowed his head. He was weeping bitterly, and his voice was like a sob; but from that hut on the wild Skye coast there arose with a heartbroken cry the sublimest of mortal prayers--"Thy will be done."