Prisoners of Conscience by Amelia E. Barr
Book Second. David Borson
V. A New Life
Between David and the misty Hebrides there was now many a league of the separating, changeful, dangerous, tragic sea, but the journey over this great waterway had been a singularly fortunate one. David, indeed, had frequently likened himself to the young Tobias on a similar errand; for his father had particularly pointed out this history, and had read aloud to him with an emphasis not to be forgotten the old Hebrew father's parting charge: "Go! and God, which dwelleth in heaven, prosper your journey, and the angel of God keep you company."
To David this angelic companionship was no impossible hope and reliance. As the south winds drove him north and the west winds sent him east just at the proper times, he believed that some wise and powerful pilot stood at the wheel unseen; and he went about his boat with the cheerful confidence of a child who is sure his father can take care of him. Sometimes he kept so close to the shore that he rippled the shadows of the great cliffs, and sometimes he ran into little coves and replenished his water-casks, or bought in the seaward clachans a supply of fresh cakes or fish. He met no very bad weather. The unutterable desolation of the misty miles of sullen water did give him times of such weariness as makes the soul sink back upon itself and retire from all hope and affection. But such hours were evanescent; they were usually ended by a brisk wind, bringing peril to the little bark, and then David's first instinct was heavenward. He knew if the winds and waves rose mightily, as it was their wont in that locality, there was no human help, and his trust was instantly in the miraculous. Such hours were, however, rare. As a general thing the days and the nights followed each other with a stillness and beauty full of the presence of God. And in the sweetness of this presence he threw himself unperplexed upon infinite love and power, and seeking God with all his heart found him.
Also, he was not forgetful of the human interest of his journey. His father had always felt himself to be a stranger and an exile in Skye, and in his later years the "homing" instinct for the Shetlands had been a passionate longing, which had communicated itself to David. He had been glad to leave Uig, for he had not a single happy memory of the little hut in which they two had dwelt and suffered together. As for the bleak kirkyard, over which the great winds blew the sea-foam, it made his heart ache to remember it. He felt an unspeakable pity when he thought of one of its solitary graves, and he promised himself to sail back to Uig some day, and bring home the dust of his father, and lay it among his kindred.
Indeed, it was thoughts of home and kindred which made this long, lonely voyage happy and hopeful to David. He believed himself to be going home. Though his father at the last had not spoken much of his cousin Paul Borson, and though David had not found the letter which was to be his introduction to him, yet he had not a doubt of his welcome. Time might wither friendship and slay love, but his kindred were always his kindred; they were bound to him by the ineffaceable and imperishable ties of blood and race.
David approached Lerwick in that divine twilight which in the Shetland summer links day unto day; and in its glory the ancient homes of gray and white sandstone appeared splendid habitations. The town was very quiet; even the houses seemed to be asleep. He saw no living thing but a solitary sea-gull skimming the surface of the sea; he heard nothing but a drunken sailor fitfully singing a stave of "The Skaalds of Foula." The clear air, the serene seas, the tranquil grandeur of the caverned rocks which guard the lonely isles, charmed him. And when the sun rose and he saw their mural fronts of porphyry, carved by storms into ten thousand castles in the air, and cloud-like palaces still more fantastic, he felt his heart glow for the land of his birth and the home of his forefathers.
To the tumult of almost impossible hopes, he brought in his little craft. He had felt certain that his appearance would awaken at once interest and speculation; that Paul Borson would hear of his arrival and come running to meet him; that his father's old friends, catching the news, would stop him on the quay and the street, and ask him questions and give him welcome. He had also told himself that it was likely his father's cousin would have sons and daughters, and if so, that they would certainly be glad to see him; besides which there was his mother's family--the old Icelandic Sabistons. He was resolved to seek them all out, rich or poor, far or near; in his heart there was love enough and to spare, however distant the kinship might be.
For David's conceptions of the family and racial tie were not only founded upon the wide Hebraic ideals, but his singularly lonely youth and affectionate nature had disposed him to make an exaggerated estimate of the obligations of kindred. And again, this personal leaning was greatly strengthened by the inherited tendency of Norse families to "stand by each other in all haps." Therefore he felt sure of his welcome; for, though Paul was but his far-off cousin, they were both Borsons, sprung from the same Norse root, children of the same great ancestor, the wise and brave Norwegian Bor.
Lying in the Bay of Lerwick, the sense of security and of nearness to friends gave him what he had long missed--a night of deep, dreamless sleep. When he awoke it was late in the morning, and he had his breakfast to prepare and every spar and sail and rope to put in perfect order; then he dressed himself with care, and sailed into harbor, managing his boat with a deftness and skill he expected a town of fishermen and sailors to take notice of. Alas, it is so difficult to find a fortunate hour! David's necessary delay had brought the morning nearly to the noon, and he could hardly have fallen on a more depressing time; for the trade of the early morning was over, and the men were in their houses taking that sleep which those who work by night must secure in the daytime. The fishing-boats, all emptied of their last night's "take" and cleaned, were idly rocking on the water. The utmost quiet reigned in the sunny streets, and the little pier was deserted. No one took any notice of David.
Greatly disappointed, and even wounded, by this very natural neglect, David made fast his boat and stepped on shore. He put his feet down firmly, as if he was taking possession of his own, and stood still and looked around. He saw a man with his hands in his pockets loitering down the street, and he went toward him; but as he came within speaking distance the man turned into a house and shut the door. Pained and curious, he continued his aimless walk. As he passed Fae's store he heard the confused sound of a number of men talking, then silence, then the tingling notes of a fiddle very cleverly played. For a moment he was bewitched by the music; then he was sure that nothing but the little sinful fiddle of carnal dance and song could make sounds so full of temptation. And as Odysseus, passing the dwelling-place of the sirens, "closed his ears and went swiftly by, singing the praises of the gods," so David, remembering his father's counsels, closed his ears to the enchanting strains and hastened beyond their power to charm him.
A little farther on a lovely girl, with her water-pitcher on her head and her knitting in her hands, met him. She looked with a shy smile at David, and the glance from her eyes made him thrill with pleasure; but before he had a word ready she had passed, and he could only turn and look at her tall form and the heavy braids of pale-brown hair below the water-pitcher. He felt as if he were in a dream as he went onward again down the narrow street of gray and white houses--houses so tall, and so fantastic, and so much larger than he had ever seen, that they impressed him with a sense of grandeur in which he had neither right nor place; for, though he saw women moving about within them and children sitting on the door-steps, no one spoke to him, no one seemed interested in his presence; and yet he had come to them with a heart so full of love! Never for a moment did he reflect that his anticipations had rested only on his own desires and imaginations.
His disappointment made him sorrowful, but in no degree resentful. "It was not to be," he decided. Then he resolved to return to a public house he had noticed by the pier. There he could get his dinner and make some inquiries about his kindred. As he turned he met face to face a middle-aged woman with a basket of turf on her back.
"Take care, my lad," she said cheerfully; and her smile inspired David with confidence.
"Mother," he said, doffing his cap with instinctive politeness, "mother, I am a stranger, and I want to find my father's people--the Borsons. Where do they live?"
"My lad, the sea has them. It is Paul Borson you are asking for?"
"He went out in his boat with his four sons one night. The boat came back empty. It is two years since."
"I am Liot Borson's son."
"Yes. Have I any kin left?"
"There is your far-cousin Nanna. She was Paul's one daughter, and he saw the sun shine through her eyes. She is but sadly off now. Come into my house, and I will give you a cup of tea and a mouthful of bread and fish. Thank God, there is enough for you and for me!"
"I will come," said David, simply; and he took the basket from the woman, and flung it lightly over his own shoulder. Then they went together to a house in one of the numerous "closes" running from the main street to the ocean. It was a very small house, but it was clean, and was built upon a rock, the foundations of which were deep down in the sea. When the tide was full David could have sailed his boat under its small seaward window. It contained a few pieces of handsome furniture, and some old Delft earthenware which had been brought from Holland by seafaring kindred long ago; all else savored of narrow means.
But the woman set before David a pot of tea and some oat-cake, and she fried him a fresh herring, and he ate with the delayed hunger of healthy youth, heartily and with pleasure. And as he did so she talked to him of his father Liot, whom she had known in her girlhood; and David told her of Liot's long, hard fight with death, and she said with a kind of sad pride:
"Yes; that way Liot was sure to fare to his long home. He would set his teeth and fight for his life. Was it always well between him and you?"
"He was hard and silent, but I could always lean on him as much as I liked."
"That is a good deal to say."
"So I think."
Then they drew the past from the eternity into which it had fallen, that they two, brought so strangely together, might look at it between them. They talked of Liot's hard life and hard death for an hour, and then the woman said:
"Paul Borson was of the same kind--silent, but full of deeds; and his daughter Nanna, she also has a great heart."
"Show me now where she lives, and I will go and see her. Also, tell me your name."
"I am Barbara Traill. When you have seen Nanna come back here, and I will give you a place to sleep and a little meat; and as soon as it is well with you it will be easy to pay my charges."
"If there is no room for me in my cousin's house I will come back to you."
So Barbara walked with him to the end of the street, and pointed out a little group of huts on the distant moor.
"Go into the first one," she said; "it is Nanna Sinclair's. And be sure and keep to the trodden path, for outside of it there are bogs that no man knows the bottom of."
Then David went forward alone, and his heart fell, and a somber look crept like a cloud over his face. This was not the home-coming he had anticipated--this poor meal at a stranger's fireside. He had been led to think that his cousin Paul had a large house and the touch of money-getting. "He and his will be well off," Liot had affirmed more than once. And one day, while he yet could stand in the door of his hut, he had looked longingly northward and said, "Oh, if I could win home again! Paul would make a fourteen days' feast to welcome me."
The very vagueness of these remarks had given strength to David's imagination. He had hoped for things larger than his knowledge, and he had quite forgotten to take into his calculations the fact that as the years wear on they wear out love and life, and leave little but graves behind them. At this hour he felt his destiny to be hard and unlovely, and the text learned as one of the pillars of his faith, "Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated," forced itself upon his reflection. A deadly fear came into his heart that the Borsons were among these hated ones. Why else did God pursue them with such sufferings and fatalities? And what could he do to propitiate this unfriendly Deity?
His road was upon the top of the cliff, over a moor covered with peat-bogs and withered heather. The sea was below him, and a long, narrow lake lay silent and motionless among the dangerous moss--a lake so old and dead-looking that it might have been the shadow of a lake that once was. Nothing green was near it, and no birds were tempted by its sullen waters; yet untold myriads of sea-birds floated and wheeled between sea and sky, and their hungry, melancholy cries and the desolate landscape stimulated and colored David's sad musings, though he was quite unaware of their influence.
When he came to the group of huts, he paused a moment. They were the abodes of poverty; there was none better than the rest. But Barbara had said that Nanna's was the first one, and he went slowly toward it. No one appeared, though the door stood wide open; but when he reached the threshold he could see Nanna sitting within. She was busily braiding the fine Tuscan straw for which Shetland was then famous, and her eyes were so intently following her rapid fingers that it was unlikely she had seen him coming. Indeed, she did not raise them at once, for it was necessary to leave her work at a certain point; and in that moment's delay David looked with a breathless wonder at the woman before him.
She was sitting, and yet even sitting she was majestic. Her face was large, but perfectly oval, and fair as a lily; her bright-brown hair was parted, passed smoothly behind the ears, and beautifully braided. Serenity and an unalterable calm gave to the young face something of the fixity of marble; but as David spoke she let her eyes fall upon a little child at her feet, and then lifted them to him with a smile as radiant and life-giving as sunshine.
"Who are you?" she asked, as she took her babe in her arms and went toward David.
"I am your far-cousin David Borson."
"The son of my father's cousin Liot?"
"Yes. Liot Borson is dead, and here am I."
"You are welcome, for you were to come. My father talked often of his cousin Liot. They are both gone away from this world."
"I think they have found each other again. Who can tell?"
"Among the great multitude that no man can number, it might not be easy."
"If God willed it so?"
"That would be sufficient. This is your little cousin Vala; she is nearly two years old. Is she not very pretty?"
"I know not what to say. She is too pretty for words."
"Sit down, cousin, and tell me all."
And as they talked her eyes enthralled him. They were deep blue, and had a solar brilliancy as if they imbibed light--holy eyes, with the slow-moving pupils that indicate a religious, perhaps a mystical, soul. David sat with her until sunset, and she gave him a simple meal of bread and tea, and talked confidentially to him of Liot and of her own father and brothers. But of herself she said nothing at all; neither could David find courage to ask her a single question.
He watched her sing her child to sleep, and he sat down with her on the door-step, and they talked softly together of death and of judgment to come. And the women from the other huts gradually joined them, and the soft Shetland night glorified the somber land and the mysterious sea, until at last David rose and said he must go back to Lerwick, for the day was over.
A strange day it had been to him; but he was too primitive to attempt any reasoning about its events. When he left Nanna's he was under that strong excitement which makes a man walk as if he were treading upon the void, and there was a hot confusion in his thoughts and feelings. He stepped rapidly, and the stillness of the lovely night did not soothe or reason with him. As he approached the town he saw the fishing-boats leaving the harbor, and in the fairy light they looked like living things with outspread wings. Two fishers were standing at a house door with a woman, who was filling a glass. She held it aloft a moment, and then gave it to one with the words: "Death to the heads that wear no hair!"
"The herring and the halibut, the haddock and the sole," answered the man; and he drank a little, and passed it to his comrade. Then up the street they hurried like belated men; and David felt the urging of accustomed work, and a sense of delinquency in his purposeless hands.
He found Barbara waiting. She knew that he would not stay at Nanna Sinclair's, and she had prepared the room of her absent son for him. "If he can pay one shilling a day, it will be a godsend to me," she thought; and when she told David so he answered, "That is a little matter, and no doubt there will be good between us."
He saw then that the window was open, and the sea-water lippering nearly to the sill of it; and he took off his bonnet, and sat down, and let the cool breeze blow upon his hot brow. It was near midnight, but what then? David had never been more awake in all his life--yes, awake to his finger-tips. Yet for half an hour he sat by the window and never opened his mouth; and Barbara sat on the hearth, and raked the smoldering peats together, and kept a like silence. She was well used to talk with her own thoughts, and to utter words was no necessity to Barbara Traill; but she knew what David was thinking of, and she was quite prepared for the first word which parted his set lips.
"Is my cousin Nanna a widow?"
"Where, then, is her husband?"
"Who can tell? He is gone away from Shetland, and no one is sorry for that."
"One thing is sure--Nanna is poor, and she is in trouble. How comes that? Who is to blame in the matter?"
"Nicol Sinclair--he, and he only. Sorrow and suffering and ill luck of all kinds he has brought her, and there is no help for it."
"No help for it! I shall see about that."
"You had best let Nicol Sinclair alone. He is one of the worst of men, a son of the devil--no, the very devil himself. And he has your kinswoman Matilda Sabiston at his back. All the ill he does to Nanna he does to please her. To be sure, the guessing is not all that way, but yet most people think Matilda is much to blame."
"How came Nanna Borson to marry such a man? Was not her father alive? Had she no brothers to stand between her and this son of the Evil One?"
"When Nanna Borson took hold of Nicol Sinclair for a husband she thought she had taken hold of heaven; and he was not unkind to her until after the drowning of her kin. Then he took her money and traded with it to Holland, and lost it all there, and came back bare and empty-handed. And when he entered his home there was the baby girl, and Nanna out of her mind with fever and like to die, and not able to say a word this way or that. And Nicol wanted money, and he went to Matilda Sabiston and he got what he wanted; but what was then said no one knows, for ever since he has hated the Borsons, root and branch, and his own wife and child have borne the weight of it. That is not all."
"Tell me all, then; but make no more of it than it is worth."
"There is little need to do that. Before Nanna was strong again he sold the house which Paul Borson had given to her as a marriage present. He sold also all the plenishing, and whatever else he could lay his hands on. Then he set sail; but there was little space between two bad deeds, for no sooner was he home again than he took the money Paul Borson had put in the bank for his daughter, and when no one saw him--in the night-time--he slipped away with a sound skin, the devil knows where he went to."
"Were there no men in Lerwick at that time?"
"Many men were in Lerwick--men, too, who never get to their feet for nothing; and no man was so well hated as Nicol Sinclair. But Nanna said: 'I have had sorrow enough. If you touch him you touch me ten-fold. He has threatened me and the child with measureless evil if I say this or that against anything he does.' And as every one knows, when Nicol is angry the earth itself turns inside out before him."
"I do not fear him a jot--not I!"
"If you had ever seen him swaggering and rolling from one day into another, if you had ever seen him stroking his bare arms and peering round with wicked eyes for some one to ease him of his temper, you would not say such words."
"I will not call my words back for much more than that, and I will follow up this quarrel."
"If you are foolish, you may do so; if you are wise, you will be neither for nor against Nicol Sinclair. There is a wide and a safe way between these two. Let me tell you, Nanna's life lies in it. I have not yet told you all."
"Speak the last word, then."
"Think what cruel things a bad man can always do to a good woman; all of them Nicol Sinclair has done to your cousin Nanna. Yes, it is so. When she was too weak to hold her baby in her arms he bade her 'die, and make way for a better woman.' And one night he lured her to the cliff-top, and then and there he quarreled with her; and men think--yes, and women think so too--that he threw the child into the water, and that Nanna leaped after it. That was the story in every one's mouth."
"Was it true? Tell me that."
"There was more than guesswork to go on. Magnus Crawford took them out of the sea, and the child was much hurt, for it has never walked, nor yet spoken a word, and there are those who say it never will."
"And what said my cousin Nanna?"
"She held her peace both to men and women; but what she said to God on the matter he knows. It is none of thy business. She has grown stronger and quieter with every sorrow; and it is out of a mother's strength, I tell thee, and not her weakness, that good can come."
Then David rose to his feet and began to walk furiously about the small room. His face was white as death, and he spoke with a still intensity, dropping each word as if it were a separate oath.
"I wish that Sinclair were here--in this room! I would lay his neck across my knee, and break it like a dog's. I would that!"
"It would be a joy to see thee do it. I would say, 'Well done, David Borson!'"
"I am glad that God has made Tophet for such men!" cried David, passionately. "Often I have trembled at the dreadful justice of the Holy One; I see now how good it is. To be sure, when God puts his hook into the nose of the wicked, and he is made to go a way he does not want to go, then he has to cease from troubling. But I wish not that he may cease from being troubled. No, indeed; I wish that he may have weeping and wailing! I will stay here. Some day Sinclair will come back; then he shall pay all he owes."
Suddenly David remembered his father's sad confession, and he was silent. The drowning of Bele Trenby and all that followed it flashed like a fiery thought through his heart, and he went into his room, and shut the door, and flung himself face downward upon the floor. Would God count his anger as very murder? Would he enter into judgment with him for it? Oh, how should a sinful man order all his way and words aright! And in a little while Barbara heard him weeping, and she said to herself:
"He is a good man. God loves those who remember him when they are alone and weep. The minister said that."
This day had indeed been to David a kind of second birth. He had entered into a new life and taken possession of himself. He knew that he was a different being from the youth who had sailed for weeks alone with God upon the great waters; but still he was a riddle to himself, and it was this feeling of utter confusion and weakness and ignorance that had sent him, weeping and speechless, to the very feet of the divine Father.
But if the mind is left quite passive we are often instructed in our sleep. David awakened with a plan of life clearly in his mind. He resolved to remain with Barbara Traill, and follow his occupation of fishing, and do all that he could to make his cousin Nanna happy. The intense strength of his family affection led him to this resolve. He had not fallen in love with Nanna. As a wife she was sacred in his eyes, and it never entered his mind that any amount of ill treatment could lessen Sinclair's claim upon her. But though far off, she was his cousin; the blood of the Borsons flowed alike through both their hearts; and David, who could feel for all humanity, could feel most of all for Nanna and Vala.
Nanna herself had acknowledged this claim. He remembered how gladly she had welcomed him; he could feel yet the warm clasp of her hand, and the shining of her eyes was like nothing he had ever before seen. Even little Vala had been pleased to lie in his strong arms. She had put up her small mouth for him to kiss, and had slept an hour upon his breast. As he thought of that kiss he felt it on his lips, warm and sweet. Yes, indeed; there was love in that poor little hut that David Borson could not bear to lose.
So he said to Barbara in the morning: "I will stay with you while it pleases us both."
And Barbara answered: "A great help and comfort thou wilt be to me, and doubtless God sent thee."