Prisoners of Conscience by Amelia E. Barr
Book First. Liot Borson
IV. The Door Wide Open
Resignation is not always contentment, and though Liot accepted God's will in place of his own will, he took it rather with a dour patience than with a cheerful satisfaction. Yet in a certain way life gets made independent of our efforts. A higher power than our own brings events about, finds a way across the hills of difficulty, smooths out the rough places, and makes straight what our folly has made crooked. When it became certain that Liot would make his life-home near Uig the men on that coast began to treat him with more friendliness, and the women pitied and cared a little for his motherless boy. And by and by there came a new minister, who found in Liot a man after his own heart. The two men became familiars, and the friendship made life more supportable to both.
It was a hard existence, however, for the child. Liot loved his son, but he was not a demonstrative father, and he thought more of doing his duty to David than of showing him affection or providing him with pleasure. For when all hopes of making him a minister were over David lost something in Liot's estimation. He was, then, just a common lad, in whose heart, as a matter of course, folly and disobedience were bound up. It was his place to exorcise everything like joy, and with the phantoms of a gloomy creed to darken and terrify his childhood.
Before David had shed his baby teeth, hell and the devil were tremendous realities to him. An immaculate, pitiless God, who delighted in taking vengeance on his enemies, haunted all his boyhood's dreams; and the "scheme of salvation," by which perchance this implacable Deity might be conciliated, was the beginning and the end of his education. With an amazing distinctness in question and answer, this "scheme" was laid before him, and by the word and the rod of admonition he was made familiar with the letter of its awful law.
Here, then, was a child whom a sad destiny had led far away from happiness. His nature was singularly affectionate, yet he had no memory of a mother's kiss, or, indeed, of any tender human kindness. No one petted or loved him; no one heeded his childish sorrows and sufferings. He had toothaches and earaches, about which he felt it useless to speak. He went into the boats with his father as soon as he could bait a line, and was forced to endure all that men endured from salt-water boils, chilblains, frost-bites, and the lashing of spray-laden winds. Cold and hunger, heat and thirst, and the frequent intolerable sleepiness of overtaxed strength made up the sad drama of his childhood; and he played his part in it with a patient submission that sometimes won from his father astonishment and a few words of praise or admiration.
Such words made glorious epochs in the boy's life; he could remember every one of them. Once, when Liot could get no one to launch a boat and go with him to the help of four men drowning before their eyes, the ten-year-old lad came radiantly forward and said, "Take me, father; I will go with you." And the two went on the desperate errand together, and brought back safely the men ready to perish. Then, when all was well over and the child stood trembling with exhaustion, Liot drew him close to his side, and pushed his wet hair from his brow, and said with proud tenderness, "You are a good, brave boy. God bless you, David!" And the happy upward look of the child had his mother's smile in it, and before Liot knew what he was doing he had stooped and kissed him. The event was a wonderful one, and it made a tie between the father and the son that it was beyond the power of time to loosen.
Liot's own boyhood had been filled with the dreams and stories of the elder world. He had been conscious all his life of this influence streaming up from the centuries behind him, and coloring, and even moving, his present existence. The fierce hatred he felt for Bele Trenby came from unchristened ancestors, and the dumb murder, which had darkened his life and sent him to Uig, from the same source. He told David none of these stirring sagas. He was resolved that the knowledge of the thrall's curse should not call sorrow to him. He never named the heroic Gisli in his hearing. And once, when he found an old fisherman reciting "Ossian" to David, he fell into such anger as terrified every one. Indeed, he said words at that hour which would have made much trouble and ill-will if the minister had not justified them and called Liot's anger a "righteous one."
And in those days there was absolutely no literature for the people. Books were dear and scarce; ten years might pass without a new one drifting into a hamlet; and newspapers were few and for the rich alone. David, then, had but one book--the Holy Scriptures. He read them, and read them again, and found everything in them. Fortunately, the wonderful wisdom and stories of the Apocrypha had not then been discarded; the book had its place between the Old and the New Testament. And David was wise with Solomon, and saw beautiful visions with Esdras, and lived and glowed and fought with the heroic Maccabees.
And we who have far more books than we can read can hardly understand how David loved the Bible. It was his poetry, his philosophy, his history; it was, above all, the speech of God to man. Through it he breathed the air of the old, old East, and grew up under the shadows of Judea's palms and olives; so that the rainy gloom of the coast of Skye was but an accident of his existence. Abraham and Joseph, Moses and Joshua, were far more real personages to David Borson than the Duke of Wellington or Napoleon and his twelve marshals. Through the stormy days when it was impossible to go to sea, and in the long winter nights, when he stretched himself before the red peats with a little oil-cruse, he and the Bible were friends and companions. It kept him in direct relation with God and heaven; it fed him on faith; it made him subject to duty; it gave him a character at once courageous and gentle, calm and ideal--such a character as is very rare in our days, and which, where it does exist, will not be transmitted.
So that, with all his hard work and many deprivations, David had his happy hours. And the years went by, and he grew up to a fair and stately manhood, not rebelling against his fate, but taking it as a part of the inscrutable mystery of life and death constantly before his eyes. Others around him suffered in like manner, and at the end one thing happened to all. No; it was not the tyranny of nature nor of his material life that troubled David as he approached manhood; it was the spiritual tyranny under which he lived and prayed which darkened his days and filled his nights with thoughts which he dared not follow to their proper conclusion and was equally afraid to dismiss.
This was his dilemma. He had been taught by a father whom he trusted implicitly that life was only a short and precarious opportunity for working out his salvation with fear and trembling; peradventure he might be counted among the remnant whom God would elect to save from eternal misery. And in a measure the constant east winds and cloudy heavens, the cold and stormy seas, and the gloom and poverty of all his surroundings were so many confirmations of this unhappy conviction. Yet it was very hard for him to believe that the God of the Bible, "like a father pitying his children," was the God of his Shorter and Longer Catechisms. As his twentieth year approached these doubts and questions would not be put away, and yet he dared not speak of them either to the minister or to his father.
Then, one night, as he was watching his lines and hooks, something happened which broke the adamantine seal upon his soul. He was quite alone in his boat, and she was drifting slowly under the full moon; there was not a sound upon the ocean but the wash of the water against her sides. He was sitting motionless, thinking of the sadness and weariness of life, and wishing that God would love him, though ever so little, and, above all, that he would give him some word or sign of his care for him. His hands were clasped upon his knees, his eyes fixed on the far horizon; between him and the God whom he so ignorantly feared and desired there was apparently infinite space and infinite silence.
All at once some one seemed to come into the boat beside him. An ineffable peace and tenderness, a sweetness not to be described, encompassed the lonely youth. He was sensible of a glory he could not see; he was comforted by words that were inaudible to his natural ears. During this transitory experience he scarcely breathed, but as it slowly passed away he rose reverently to his feet. "An angel has been with me," he thought.
After this event the whole fabric of his creed vanished at times before the inexplicable revelation. Yet the terrible power of early impressions is not easily eradicated, even by the supernatural; and whenever he reasoned about the circumstance he came to the conclusion that it might have been a snare and a delusion of the Evil One. For why should an angel be sent with a word to him? or why should he dare to hope that his longing after God's love had touched the heart of the Eternal? Yet, though the glory was dissolved by the doubting, nothing could quite rob him of his blessing; in the midst of the sternest realities of his rough daily toil he found himself musing on those wonderful days when angels went and came among men as they threshed their wheat or worked at their handicrafts, when prayer was visibly answered and the fire dropped from heaven on the accepted sacrifice.
He thought the more on this subject because his father was visibly dying from some internal disease, which was dissolving with rapid, inexorable suffering the house of clay in which the soul of Liot Borson dwelt. Liot was aware of it, and had borne with silent courage the enemy's advances toward the citadel of life. Very reluctantly he had given up his duties one by one, until the day came when nothing remained for him to do but to wait and to suffer; then he spoke plainly to David. It happened to be the lad's twenty-sixth birthday, and Liot had his own memories of the first one. Almost inadvertently the name of Karen passed his lips, and then he talked long of her goodness, her love, and her beauty; and David listened with an interest that tempted more confidence than Liot had ever thought to give.
"If you had such a wife as Karen Sabiston was to me," he said, "then, David, you would be happy even in this place. But you will not stay here. When I am gone away to the land very far off, then you will go back to Shetland--to your own land and your own people."
"I will do as you wish, father."
"You will marry; that is to be looked for. I have seen that girl of Talisker's watching you, and luring you with her sly smiles and glances. Give her no notice. I like not these Celtic women, with their round black eyes and their red color and black hair. In Shetland you will see women that you may safely love--good and beautiful girls of your own race; there must be no strange women among the Borsons. Your Bible tells you what sorrow comes from marrying daughters of Heth and their like. Go to Shetland for your wife."
"I will, father."
"You will find friends and kindred there--my good cousin Paul, and his sons and daughters, and your mother's family in Yell, and Matilda Sabiston. I would say something of her, but she is doubtless in the grave by this time, and gone to the mercy of the Merciful."
"Was she of our kindred, then?"
"Of your mother's kin. They were ill friends here, but yonder all may--all will be different."
During this conversation Liot made his son understand that the messenger of release might come at any hour; but in the morning he felt so free from pain that David thought he could safely go to the early fishing. When he reached the pier, however, the boat had sailed without him, and he walked into Uig and told the minister how near the end it was. And the minister answered:
"We have had our farewell, David. We shall meet no more till we meet in the city of God." He spoke with a subdued enthusiasm, and his grave face was luminous with an interior transfiguration. Suddenly the sun came from behind a cloud, and the flying shower was crowned with a glorious rainbow. He drew David to the window, and said in a rapture of adoration:
"The token of His covenant! It compasseth the heavens about with a glorious circle, and the hands of the Most High have bended it. Could any words be more vitally realistic, David? Tell your father what you have seen--the token of His covenant! The token of His covenant!"
And David went away, awed and silent; for there was in the minister's eyes that singular brilliance which presages a vision of things invisible. They looked straight into the sunshine. Did they see beyond it to where the "innumerable company of angels" were singing, "Holy, holy, holy"?
Indeed, he was so much impressed that he took the longest way home. He wanted to think over what his father and the minister had said, and he wanted that solitude of nature which had so often been to him the voice of God. The road itself was only a foot-path across a melancholy moor, covered with heather and boulders, and encompassed by cyclopean wrecks of mountains, the vapory outlines of which suggested nothing but endless ruin. Although the season was midsummer, there had been sharp, surly whiffs of rain all day long, and the dreary levels were full of little lochs of black moss water. So David kept to the seaward side, where the land was higher, and where he could see the roll of a spent gale swinging round Vatternish toward the red, rent bastions of Skye, and hear its thunder amid the purple caves of the basalt and the whitened tiers of the o÷lite, silencing all meaner sounds.
After a trailing, thoughtful walk of a mile, he came to a spot where a circle of druidical monoliths stood huge and pale in the misty air. He went straight into the haunted place with the manner of one familiar with it, cast his nets on the low central stone which had once been the sacrificial altar of the dead creed, and then leaned wearily against one of the sheltering pillars.
His person was at this time remarkably handsome and in wonderful harmony with its surroundings. He was large and strong--a man not made for the narrow doorways of the town, but for the wide, stormy spaces of the unstreeted ocean. The sea was in his eyes, which were blue and outlooking; his broad breast was bared to the wind and rain; his legs were planted apart, as if he was hauling up an anchor or standing on a reeling deck. An air of somber gravity, a face sad and mystical, distinguished his solitary figure. He was the unconscious incarnation of the lonely land and the stormy sea.
Leaning against the pagan pillar, he revolved in his mind those great questions that survive every change of race and dynasty: Whence come we? Where go we? How can a man be justified with God? Though the rain smote him east and west, he was in the sunshine of the Holy Land; he was drawing nets with Simon Peter on the Sea of Galilee; he was listening to Him who spake as never man spake. Suddenly the sharp whistle of a passing steamer roused him. He turned his eyes seaward, and saw the Polly Ann hastening to the railway port with her load of fish for the Glasgow market. The sight set him again in the nineteenth century. Then he felt the rain, and he drew his bonnet over his brows, and lifted his nets, and began to walk toward the little black hut on the horizon. It was of large stones roughly mortared together, and it had a low chimney, and a door fastened with a leather strap; but the small window wanted the screen of white muslin usual in Highland cots, and was dim with dust and cobwebs.
It was David's home, and he knew his father waited there for his coming; so he hastened his steps; but the radiant, dreamy look which had made him handsome was gone, and he approached the door with the air of a man who is weary of to-day and without hope for the morrow. At the threshold he threw off this aspect, and entered with a smile. His father, sitting wearily in a wooden arm-chair, turned his face to meet him. It was the face of a man walking with death. Human agony grimly borne without complaint furrowed it; gray as ashes were the cheeks, and the eyes alone retained the "spark of heavenly flame" which we call life.
"There has been a change, David," he said, "and it is well you are come; for I know I must soon be going, and there is this and that to say--as there always is at the parting."
"I see that you are worse, father. Let me go for the doctor now."
"I will have no man meddle with the hour of my death; no one shall either hurry or delay it."
"The doctor might give you some ease from your sore pain."
"I will bear His will to the uttermost. But come near to me, David; I have some last words to say, and there is One at my side hasting me forward."
"Tell me your wish now, father. I will do all that you desire."
"When you have put me in my grave, go to Shetland for me. I thought to do my own errand--to get there just in time to do it, and die; but it is hard counting with Death--he comes sooner than you expect. David, I have brought you up in the way of life. Think no wrong of me when I am gone away forever. Indeed, you'll not dare to," he said with a sudden flash of natural pride in himself; "for though I may have had a sore downfall, I could not get away from His love and favor."
"None living shall say wrong of you in my hearing, father."
"But, David, there are those of the unregenerate who would make much of my little slip. I might die, lad, and say nothing to any man about it. Put a few peats on the fire; death is cold, and my feet are in the grave already; so I may tell the truth now, for at this hour no man can make me afraid. And there is no sin, I hope, in letting Matilda Sabiston know, if she is still alive, that I owe Bele Trenby nothing for the wrong he did me. St. Paul left the Almighty to pay the ill-will he owed Alexander the coppersmith; but I could not ask that much favor, being only Liot Borson; and no doubt the Lord suffered me to pay my own debt--time and place being put so unexpected into my hand."
Then he was awfully silent. The mortal agony was dealing its last sharp blows, and every instinct impelled him to cry out against the torment. But Liot Borson had put his mortality beneath his feet; nothing could have forced a cry from him. His face changed as a green leaf might change if a hot iron was passed over it; but he sat grasping the rude arms of his wooden chair, disdaining the torture while it lasted, and smiling triumphantly as it partly passed away.
"A few more such pangs and the fight will be over, David. So I will swither and scruple no longer; I will tell the whole truth about the drowning of Bele Trenby. Bele and I were never friends; but I hated him when he began to meddle between me and Karen Sabiston. He had no shadow of right to do so, for I had set my heart on her and she had given me her promise; and I said then, and I say it now with death at my elbow, that he had no right to step between me and Karen. Yet he tried to do that thing, and if it had not been for the minister I had stabbed him to his false heart. But the minister bade me do no wrong, because I was of the household of faith, and a born and baptized child of God, having come--mind this, David--of generations of his saints. He said if Bele had done me wrong, wrong would come to Bele, and I would live to see it."
"'Vengeance is Mine; I will repay'," quoted David, in a low voice. But Liot answered sharply:
"The Lord sends by whom he will send. And it so happened that one night, as Bele and I were walking together, I knew the hour had come."
"You took not the matter in your own hands surely, father?"
"There was none there but me. I laid no finger on him; he fell into his own snare. I had said a thousand times--and the Lord had heard me say it--that if one word of mine would save Bele Trenby from death, I would not say that one word. Could I break my oath for a child of the Evil One? Had Bele been of the elect I would have borne that in mind; but Bele came of bad stock; pirates and smugglers were his forebears, and the women not to name with the God-fearing--light and vain women. So I hated Bele, and I had a right to hate him; and one night, as I walked from Quarf to Lerwick, Bele came to my side and said, 'Good evening, Liot.' And I said, 'It is dark,' and spoke no more. And by and by we came to a stream swollen with rain and snow-water, and Bele said, 'Here is the crossing.' And I answered him not, for I knew it was not the crossing. So as I delayed a little--for my shoe-string was loose--Bele said again, 'Here is the crossing.' And I told him neither yes nor no. And he said to me, 'It seemeth, Liot, thou art in a devil's temper, and I will stay no longer with thee.' And with the ill words on his lips he strode into the stream, and then overhead into the moss he went, and so to his own place."
"Father, I am feared for a thing like that. There would be sin in it."
"I lifted no finger against him; my lips lied not. It was the working out of his own sin that slew him."
"I would have warned him--yes, I would. Let me go for the minister; he will not be feared to say, 'Liot, you did wrong,' if so he thinks."
"I have had my plea out with my Maker. If I did sin, I have paid the price of the sin. Your mother was given to me, and in two years the Lord took her away. I thought to fill my eyes with a sight of the whole world, and I was sent to this desolate place for a life-sentence, to bide its storm and gloom and gust and poverty, and in this bit cabin to dree a long, fierce wrestle with Death, knowing all the time he would get the mastery over me in the end." Then, suddenly pausing, his gray face glowed with passionate rapture, and lifting up his right hand he cried out: "No, no, David; I am the conqueror! There are two ways of dying, my lad--victory and defeat. Thank God, I have the victory through Jesus Christ, my Lord and Saviour!"
"Who is the propitiation for all sin, father."
"Sin!" cried the dying man, "sin! I have nothing to do with sin. 'Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect?' for, 'Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin--he cannot sin, for he is born of God.' I did indeed make a sore stumble; so also did David, and natheless he was a man after God's own heart. What has man to do with my fault? He has entered into judgment with me, and I have gladly borne the hand of the smiter."
"Ay, David, gladly. For had I not been his son, he would have 'let me alone,' as he does those joined to their idols; but because he loved me he chastised me; and I have found that his rod as well as his staff can comfort in affliction. Some of his bairns deserve and get the rod of iron. Be good, David, and he will stretch out to you only his golden scepter."
"And also you have the Intercessor."
"If I had not I would plead my own cause, as Job did. I would rise up and answer him like a man, for he is a just God. Mercy may have times and seasons, but justice is the same yesterday, to-day, and forever. 'Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?'"
"Would you say that, father, if justice sent you to the place of torment?"
"Ay, would I! 'Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.' But I am not fearing the place of torment, David. And as for this world, it is at my feet like a cast-off shoe, and all its gold and gear is as the wrack of the sea. But you will find a few sovereigns in my chest, and a letter for your cousin Paul Borson; and the ship and the house you may do your will with."
"It is your will in all things that I care to do, father. And now, if you would but let me away for the minister, maybe you could say a word to him you are not caring to say to me--a word of sorrow or remorse--"
"Remorse! remorse! No, no, David! Remorse is for feeble souls; remorse is the virtue of hell; remorse would sin again if it could. I have repented, David, and repentance ends all. See to your Larger Catechism, David--Question 76."
Throughout this conversation speech had been becoming more and more painful to him. The last words were uttered in gasps of unconquerable agony, and a mortal spasm gave a terrible emphasis to this spiritual conviction. When it had passed he whispered faintly, "The pains of hell get hold on me--on my body, David; they cannot touch my soul. Lay me down now--at His feet--I can sit in my chair no longer."
So David laid him in his bunk. "Shall I say the words now--the words you marked, father?" he asked.
"Ay; the hour has come."
Then David knelt down and put his young, fresh face very close to the face of the dying man, and said solemnly and clearly in his very ear the chosen words of trust:
* * * * *
Here David ceased. It was evident that the mighty words were no longer necessary. A smile, such as is never seen on mortal face until the light of eternity falls upon it, illumined the gaunt, stern features, and the outlooking eyes flashed a moment in its radiance. A solemn calm, a certain pomp of conscious grandeur in his victory over death and the grave, encompassed the dying man, and gave to the prone figure a majestic significance. As far as this world was concerned, Liot Borson was a dead man. For two days he lingered on life's outermost shoal, but at sunrise the third morning he went silently away. It was full tide; the waves broke softly on the shingle, and the sea-birds on the lonely rocks were crying for their meat from God. Suddenly the sunshine filled the cabin, and David was aware of something more than the morning breeze coming through the wide-open door. A sense of lofty presence filled the place. "It is the flitting," he said with a great awe; and he stood up with bowed head until a feeling of indescribable loneliness testified that the soul which had hitherto dwelt with him was gone away forever.
He went then to the body. Death had given it dignity and grandeur. It was evident that in Liot's case the great change had meant victory and not defeat. Almost for the first time in his life David kissed his father. Then he went into Uig and told the minister, and said simply to his mates, "My father is dead." And they answered:
"It is a happy change for him, David. Is it to-morrow afternoon you would like us to come?"
And David said: "Yes; at three o'clock the minister will be there."
He declined all companionship; he could wake alone with the dead. For the most part he sat on the door-step and watched the rising and setting of the constellations, or walked to and fro before the open door, ever awfully aware of that outstretched form, the house of clay in which his father and companion had dwelt so many years at his side. Sometimes he slept a little with his head against the post of the door, and then the sudden waking in the starlight made him tremble.
He had thought this night would be a session of solemnity never to be forgotten; but he found himself dozing and his thoughts drifting, and it was only by an effort that he could compel anything like the attitude he desired. For we cannot kindle when we will the sacred fire of the soul. And David was disappointed in his spiritual experience, and shocked at what he called his coldness and indifference, which, after all, were not coldness and indifference, but the apathy of exhausted feeling and physical weariness.
The next afternoon there was a quiet gathering in the cabin that had been Liot's, and a little prayer and admonition; then, in the beauteous stillness of the summer day, the fishers made a bier of their crossed oars, and David laid his father upon it. There was no coffin; the long, majestic figure of humanity was only folded close in a winding-sheet and his own blue blanket. So, by the sea-shore, as the tide murmured and the sun glinted brightly through swirling banks of gray clouds, they carried him to his long home. No one spoke as he entered it. The minister dropped his kerchief upon the upturned face, and David cast the first earth. Then the dead man's friends, each taking the spade in his turn, filled in the empty place, and laid over it the sod, and went silently away in twos and threes, each to his own home.
When all had disappeared, David followed. He had now an irresistible impulse to escape from his old surroundings. He did not feel as if he cared to see again any one who had been a part of his past. He went back to the cabin, ate some bread and fish, and then with a little reluctance opened his father's chest. There was small wealth in it--only some letters, and Liot's kirk clothes, and a leather purse containing sixteen sovereigns. David saw at a glance that the letters were written by his mother. He wondered a moment if his father had yet found her again, and then he kissed the bits of faded script and laid them upon the glowing peats. The money he put in his pocket, and the chest and clothing he resolved to take to Shetland with him. As for the cabin, he decided to give it to Bella Campbell. "She was sore put to it last winter to shelter her five fatherless bairns; and if my father liked any one more than others, it was Angus Campbell," he thought.
Then he went out and looked at the boat. "It is small," he said, "but it will carry me to Shetland. I can keep in the shadows of the shore. And though it is a far sail round Cape Wrath and Dunnet Head, it is summer weather, and I'll win my way if it so pleases God."
And thus it happened that on the first day of August this lonely wayfarer on cheerless seas caught sight of the gray cliffs of the Shetlands, lying like dusky spots in the sapphire and crimson splendors of the setting sun.