Prisoners of Conscience by Amelia E. Barr
Book Second. David Borson
VI. Kindred--The Quick and the Dead
Shetland was, then, to be David's home, and he accepted the destiny gladly. He felt near to the people, and he admired the old gray town, with its roving, adventurous population. His first duty was to remove his personal belongings from his boat to Barbara Traill's house, and when this was done it was easy enough to set himself to business; for as soon as he went among the fishers and said, "My name is Borson, and I am the son of your old mate Liot Borson," he found himself in a circle of outstretched hands. And as he had brought his nets and lines with him, he had no difficulty in getting men who were glad to help him with his fishing, and to instruct him in the peculiarities of the coast and the set of its tides and currents.
For the rest, there was no sailor or fisher in Lerwick who was so fearless and so wise in all sea-lore as David Borson. Sink or swim, he was every inch a seaman. He read the sea as a landsman reads a book; he knew all its moods and its deceitfulness, and the more placid it was the more David mistrusted its intentions; he was always watching it. The men of Uig had been wont to say that David Borson would not turn his back on the sea, lest it should get some advantage over him. This intimacy of mistrust was the result of his life's training; it was the practical education of nearly twenty years.
His next move was to see the minister and present to him the letter from the minister of Uig, which authenticated his kirk standing and his moral character. He put on his kirk clothes for this call, and was sorry afterward that he had so hampered himself; for the good man met him with both hands outstretched, and blessed him in the name of the Lord.
"I married your father and mother, David," he said. "I baptized you into the fold of Lerwick kirk, and I buried your sweet mother in its quiet croft. Your father was near to me and dear to me. A good man was Liot Borson--a good man! When that is said, what more is left to say? While my life-days last I shall not forget Liot Borson." And then they talked of David's life in Uig, and when he left the manse he knew that he had found a friend.
It was then Thursday night, and he did not care to go to the fishing until the following Monday. Before he began to serve himself he wished to serve God, and so handsel his six days' work by the blessing of the seventh. This was the minister's advice to him, and he found that every one thought it right and good; so, though he made his boat ready for sea, she was not to try her speed and luck on her new fishing-ground until David had offered up thanksgiving for his safe journey, and supplications for grace and wisdom to guide his new life aright.
"There is no more that I can do now until the early tide on Monday morning," he said to Barbara Traill, "and I will see if I can find any more of my kin-folk. Are any of my mother's family yet living?"
"The Sabistons have all gone south to the Orkneys. They are handy at money-getting, and the rumor goes abroad that they are rich and masterful, and ill to deal with; but they were ever all that, or the old tellings-up do them much wrong."
"Few people are better spoken of than they deserve."
"That is so. Yet no one in Lerwick is so well hated as your great-aunt Matilda Sabiston. She is the last of the family left in Shetland. Go and see her if you wish to; I have nothing to say against it; but I can give you a piece of advice: lean not for anything on Matilda Sabiston."
"All I want of her is a little love for my mother's sake; so I will go and see her. For the sake of the dead she will at least be civil."
"Nothing will come of the visit. It is not to be expected that Matilda will behave well to you, when she behaves ill to every one else."
"For all that, I would like to look upon her. We are blood-kin. I have a right to see her face; I have a right to offer her my service and my duty; whether she will take it or throw it from her is to be seen."
"She will not take it. However, here is your dinner ready, and after you have eaten it go and see your kinswoman. You will easily find her; she lives in the largest house in Lerwick."
The little opposition to his desires confirmed David in his resolve. When he had eaten, and dressed himself in his best clothing, he went to Matilda Sabiston's house. It was a large stone dwelling, and had been famous for the unusual splendor of its furnishing. David was astonished and interested, but not in the least abashed; for the absorbing idea in his mind was that of kindred, and the soft carpets, the velvet-covered chairs and sofas, the pictures and ornaments, were only the accessories of the condition. An old woman, grim and of few words, opened the heavy door, and then tottered slowly along a narrow flagged passage before him until they came to a somberly furnished parlor, where Mistress Sabiston was sitting, apparently asleep.
"Wake up, mistress," said the woman. "Here be some one that wants to see you."
"A beggar, then, either for kirk or town. I have nothing to give."
"Not so; he is a fair, strong lad, who says you are his aunt."
"He lies, whoever he is. Let me see the fool, Anita."
"Here he is, mistress. Let him speak for himself." And Anita stood aside and permitted David to enter the room.
Matilda sat in a large, uncushioned chair of black wood--the chair of her fore-elder Olaf, who had made it in Iceland from some rare drift, and brought it with his other household goods to Shetland ten generations past. It was a great deal too large for her shrunken form, and her old, old face against its blackness looked as if it had been carved out of the yellow ivory of Sudan. Never had David seen a countenance so void of expression; it was like a scroll made unreadable by the wear and dust of years. Life appeared to have retreated entirely to her eyes, which were fierce and darkly glowing. And the weight and coldness of her great age communicated itself; he was chilled by her simple presence.
"What is your business?" she asked.
"I am the son of your niece Karen."
"I have no niece."
"Yea, but you have. Death breaks no kinship. It is souls that are related, not bodies; and souls live forever."
"Babble! In a word, what brought you here?"
"I came only to see you."
"Well, then, I sent not for you."
"Yet I thought you would wish to see me."
"I do not."
"Liot Borson is dead."
"I am glad of it. He was a murderer while he lived, and now I hope that he is a soul in pain forevermore."
"I am his son, and you must not--"
"Then what brought you here? I have hoped you were dead for many a year. If all the Borsons, root and branch, were gone to their father the devil, it would be a pleasure to me. I have ever hated them; to all who knew them they were bringers of bad luck," she muttered angrily, looking into David's face with eyes full of baleful fire.
"Yet is love stronger than hate, and because my mother was of your blood and kin I will not hate you."
"Hear a wonder!" she screamed. "The man will not hate me. Son of a murderer, I want not one kind thought from you."
"There is no cause to call my father what neither God nor man has called him."
"Cause enough! I know that right well."
"Then it is only right you give proof of such assertions. Say what you mean and be done with it."
"Ah! you are getting angry at last. Your father would have been spitting fire before this. But it was not with fire he slew Bele Trenby--no, indeed; it was with water. Did he not tell you so when he stood on the brink of Tophet?"
"God did not suffer his soul to be led near the awful place. When he gave up his ghost he gave it up to the merciful Father of spirits. It is wicked to speak lies of the living; it is abominable and dangerous to speak ill of the dead."
"I fear neither the living nor the dead. I will say to my last breath that Liot Borson murdered Bele Trenby. He was long minded to do the deed; at last he did it."
"How can you alone, of all the men and women in Lerwick, know this?"
"That night I dreamed a dream. I saw the moss and the black water, and Bele's white, handsome face go down into it. And I saw your father there. What for? That he might do the murder in his heart."
"The dream came from your own thoughts."
"It came from Bele's angel. The next day--yes, and many times afterward--I took to the spot the dog that loved Bele, and the creature whined and crouched to his specter. Men are poor, sightless creatures; animals see spirits where we are blind as bats."
"Are these your proofs? Why do people suffer you to say such things?"
"Because in their hearts they believe me. Murders tell tales; secretly, in the night, crossing the moss, when men are not thinking, they breathe suspicion; they speak after being long dumb. Fifty years is not the date of their bond. They haunt the place of their tragedy, and men dream of the deed. So it is. The report sticks to Liot, and more will come of it yet. Oh, that he were in your shoes to-day! I would find the strength to slay him, if I died and went to hell for it."
"Woman, why dost thou damn thyself while yet there is a hope of mercy?"
"Mercy! What have you to do with mercy? One thing rejoices me: it will not be long ere I meet that blessed thrall that cursed all the generations of the Borsons. He and I will strike hands in that quarrel; and it shall go ill with you and your children till the last Borson be cursed off the face of the earth."
"I will flee unto the Omnipotent. He will keep even my shadow from the evil ones that follow after. Now I will go, for I see there is no hope of good-will between us two."
"And it is my advice that you go away from Shetland."
"That I will not do. There are my cousins Nanna and Vala here; and it is freely said that you have done them much ill. I will stay here and do them all the good I can."
"Then you will have Nicol Sinclair to settle with. That is the best of my wish. Nicol Sinclair is my third cousin, and I have given him five hundred pounds because he hates the Borsons and is ready to cross their happiness in all things possible. Pack, now, from my presence! I have no more to say to you. I am no kin to you, and I have taken good care to prevent the law making you kin. My will is made. All that I have not given to Nicol Sinclair goes to make free the slaves in Africa. Freedom! freedom! freedom!" she shrieked. "Nothing is cruel but slavery."
It was the old Norse passion for liberty, strong and vital when every other love was ashes. It was a passion also to which David instantly responded. The slumbering sentiment awoke like a giant in his heart, and he comprehended it by a racial instinct as passionate as her own.
"You have done well," he said. "Hunger and cold, pain and poverty, are nothing if one has freedom. It is a grand thing to set a man or a woman free."
"And yet you catch haddock and herring! Bah! we have nothing to do with each other."
"Then farewell, aunt, and God give you mercy in the day you will need mercy."
She was suddenly and stolidly silent. She fixed her eyes on the dull glow of the burning peats, and relapsed into the torpor that was her habitual mood. Its force was insurmountable. David went slowly out of her presence, and was unable for some time to cast off the depression of her icy influence. Yet the meeting had not been without result. During it he had felt the first conscious throb of that new passion for freedom which had sprung into existence at the impetuous, glowing iteration of the mere word from his aunt's lips. He felt its charm in the unaccustomed liberty of his own actions. He was now entirely without claims but those his love or liking voluntarily assumed. No one older than himself had the right to reprove or direct him. He had at last come to his majority. He was master of himself and his fate.
The first evidence of this new condition was a dignified reticence with Barbara Traill. She was conscious of the change in her lodger. She felt instinctively that he was no longer a child to be questioned, and there was a tone of authority in his refusal to discuss his aunt Sabiston with her which she could not but respect. Indeed, it was no longer possible to speak to him of Mistress Sabiston as Mistress Sabiston deserved to be spoken of. Her first censure was checked by David's air of disapproval and his few words of apology:
"She is, however, my aunt; and when one is ninety years old it is a good excuse for many faults."
Matilda's utter refusal of his kin or kindness threw him more exclusively upon Nanna and her child. And as all his efforts to discover any other family connections were quite futile, he finally came to believe that they three were the last of a family that had once filled the lands of the Norsemen with the fame of their great deeds. Insensibly this thought drew the bond tighter and closer, though an instinct as pure as it was conventional taught him a scrupulous delicacy with regard to this friendship. Fortunately, in Shetland the blood-tie was regarded as a strong enough motive for all David's attentions to a woman and child so desolate and helpless. People said simply, "It is a good thing for Nanna Sinclair that her cousin has come to Shetland." And it did not enter their hearts to imagine an evil motive for kind deeds when there was one so natural and obligatory.
So Shetland became dear and pleasant to David, and he gradually grew into great favor. The minister made much of the young man, for he respected his integrity and earnest piety, and loved him for that tenderness and clearness of conscience which was sensitive to the first approaches of wrong. The fishers and sailors of the town gave him a warm admiration for his seamanship, and the praise David had looked for at the beginning, and felt disappointed in not receiving, was now given him by a kind of acclamation. Old sailors, telling yarns of their ships and the queer, bold things their ships had done, generally in some way climaxed their narratives by an allusion to David Borson. Thus, Peter Redlands, talking to a group of fishers one day, said:
"Where that lad learned the sea, and who taught him all the ways of it, is beyond me; but say as you will, he can make harbor when none of us could look at it. It is my belief David Borson can stick to anything that can float."
"And to see how he humors a boat," continued Jan Wyck, "you would think she was made out of flesh instead of out of three-inch planks. I was out with him near the Old Man's Rocks last week, and he was watching the water; and I said, 'What is it, David?' 'The sea,' he said. 'It will be at its old tricks again in an hour or less.' And the 'less' was right, for in fifteen minutes the word was, 'Reef, and quick about it!' and then you know what--the rip and the roar, and the boat leaping her full length. But David did not worry a jot. He coaxed her beautifully, and kept her well in hand; and she shook herself a little, and then away like a gull before the wind."
He was just as popular among the children and women of Lerwick. The boys made an idol of him, for David was always ready to give them a sail, or lend them his fowling-piece, or help them to rig their toy boats. As for the maidens, the prettiest ones in Lerwick had a shy smile for David Borson, and many wondered that such a beauty as Asta Fae should smile on him in vain; but David had taken Nanna and Vala into his heart, and his care and thought for them were so constant that there was no room for any other interest. Yet Barbara often talked to him about taking a wife; and even the minister, doubtless led to such advice by female gossip and speculation, thought it well to speak a word on the subject to him.
"You know, David," he said, "there are good girls and beautiful girls that look kindly on you, and who wonder that your smiles are so cold and your words so few; and it is my duty to say to you that evil may come of your taking so much thought for your cousin and her child, and the way to help her best is to help her through your own wife."
"I am not in the mind to marry, minister," he answered. "There is no one girl dearer or fairer to me than another. And as for what I do for my cousins, I think that God sent me to do it, and I shall not be feared to make accounting to him for it."
"That is my belief also, David. Yet we are told to avoid the very appearance of evil; and what is more, if it is not your pleasure to marry, it is your duty; and how will you win past that?"
"I have not seen it to be my duty, minister."
"The promise is in the line of the righteous; the blessing is for you and for your children; but if you have no wife or children, then is the promise shortened and the blessing cut off. I think that you should choose some good woman's daughter, and build yourself a home, and then marry a wife."
The young man went out of the manse with this thought in his heart. And not far off he met pretty Asta Fae, and he spoke to her and walked with her as far as she was going; and he saw that she had the sweetest of blue eyes, and that her smile was tender and her ways gentle. And when he left her at her father's door, he held her hand a moment and said, "It has been a pleasant walk to me, Asta." And she looked frankly into his face and answered with rosy blushes, "And to me also, David."
There was a warm glow at his heart as he went across the moor to Nanna's; and he resolved to tell his cousin what the minister had said, and ask her advice about Asta Fae; but when he reached Nanna's cot she was sitting on the hearth with Vala upon her knees, and telling her such a strange story that David would not for anything lose a word of it. And as Nanna's back was to the open door she did not see David enter, but went on with her tale, in the high, monotonous tone of one telling a narrative whose every word is well known and not to be changed.
"You see, Vala," she said, touching the child's fingers and toes, "it was the old brown bull of Norraway, and he had a sore battle with the deil, and he carried off a great princess; and you may know how big he was, for he said to her, 'Eat out of my left ear, and drink out of my right ear, and put by the leavings.' And ay they rode, and on they rode, till they came to a dark and awesome glen, and there the bull stopped and the lady lighted down. And the bull said to her: 'Here you must stay while I go on and fight the deil. And you must sit here on that stone, and move not hand or foot till I come back, or else I'll never find you again. And if everything round about you turns blue, I shall have beaten the deil; but if all things turn red, then the deil will have conquered me.'"
"And so he left her, mammy, to go and fight the deil?"
"Ay, he did, Vala; and she sat still, singing."
"Sing me the lady's song, mammy."
Then Nanna intoned softly the strangest, wildest little tune. It was like a Gregorian chant, and had but three notes, but to these she gave a marvelous variety. David listened spellbound to the entreating voice:
"'Seven long years I served for thee, The glassy hill I clamb for thee, The bloody shirt I wrang for thee, And wilt thou not waken and come to me?'
But I'm thinking he never came back to the lady."
"Oh, yes, he did, mammy," said Vala, confidently. "Helga Storr told me he came back a fine prince with a gold crown on his head, and the deil went away empty and roaring mad."
"What is it you are telling about, Nanna?" said David, his face eager and alight with interest.
She rose up then, with Vala in her arms, her eyes shining with her sweet, motherly story-telling. "It is only an old tale, David," she answered. "I know not who made it up. My mother told it to me, and her mother to her, and so back through years that none can count. Yes, indeed; what little child does not know the story of the big brown bull of Norraway?"
"I never heard of it before," said David.
"To be sure; your mother did not live to talk to you--poor little lad!"
"Now, then, Nanna, tell it to me for my mother's sake." And he sat down on the cricket by her side, and took Vala on his knee; and Nanna laughed, and then, with the little formal importance of the reciter, said: "Well, so it shall be, then. Here beginneth the story of the big brown bull of Norraway and his fight with the deil." And the old tale fell from her lips full of charm, and David listened with all the delight of a child. And when it had been twice told, Nanna began to talk of the burnt Njal and the Icelandic sagas, and the more so as she saw David was full of strange wonder and delight, and that every word was fresh and enthralling to him.
"Yet it is a thing to be wondered at," she said finally, "that you, David, know not these old histories better than I do; for I have often heard that no one in all the islands could tell a story so well as Liot Borson. Yes, and the minister once said, and I heard him, that he would walk ten miles to hear from your father's lips once more the sad happenings of his ancestor, the brave, helpful Gisli."
"This is a great thing to me, Nanna," answered David, in a voice low and quiet, for he was feeling deeply. "And I look to you now for what has never been told me. Who, then, was my ancestor Gisli?"
"If your father held his peace about him, he surely thought it best to do so, and so ask me not to break a good resolve."
"Nay, but I must ask you. My heart burns; I feel that there is a life behind me into which I must look. Help me, Nanna. And, more, the name Gisli went to my head. It is not like other strange names. I love this man whom I have not seen and never heard of until this hour. What has he to do with me?"
"He was one of us. And because he was so good and great the thrall's curse fell the harder on him, and was the more regarded--hard enough it has been on all the Borsons; and perhaps your father thought it was well you heard not of it. Many a time and oft I have wished it had not entered my ears; for when one sorrow called to another sorrow, and one wrong trod on the heels of another wrong, I have been angry at the false, ungrateful man who brought such ill fortune upon his unborn generations."
"Now you make me so anxious and wilful that nothing but the story of the thrall's curse will do for me. I shall not eat or sleep till I hear it."
"'Tis a tale of dishonor and unthankfulness, and not so well known to me as to Jorn Thorkel. He can tell it all, and will gladly do so."
"But for all that, I will hear it from you, Nanna, and you only, for it concerns us only. Tell me what you know, and the rest can wait for Jorn."
"So, then, you will have it; but if ill comes of the knowledge do not blame me. It began in the days of Harold Fairhair, one thousand years ago. There was a Gisli then, and he had a quarrel with a berserker called Bjorn, and they agreed to fight until one was dead. And the woman who loved Gisli told him that her foster-father, Kol, who was a thrall, had a sword that whoever wielded would win in any fight. And Gisli sent for Kol and asked him:
"'Hast thou ever a good sword?'
"And Kol answered: 'Many things are in the thrall's cot, not in the king's grange.'
"'Lend me thy sword for my duel with Bjorn,' said Gisli.
"And Kol said: 'Then this thing will happen: thou wilt never wish to give it up. And yet I tell thee, this sword will bite whatever it falls on, nor can its edge be deadened by spells, for it was forged by the dwarfs, and its name is Graysteel. And make up thy mind,' he said, 'that I will take it very ill indeed if I get not my sword back when I ask for it.'
"So Gisli took the sword and slew Bjorn with it, and got good fame for this feat. And time rolled on, and he gave not back the sword; and one day Kol met him, and Gisli had Graysteel in his hand, and Kol had an ax.
"And Kol asked if the sword had done him good service at his great need, and Gisli was full of its praises.
"'Well, now,' said Kol, 'I should like it back.'
"'Sell it to me,' said Gisli.
"'No,' said Kol.
"'I will give thee thy freedom for it,' said Gisli.
"'I will not sell it,' said Kol.
"'I will also give thee land and sheep and cattle and goods as much as thou wantest,' said Gisli.
"'I will not sell it a whit more for that,' said Kol.
"'Put thy own price on it in money, and I will get thee a fair wife also,' said Gisli.
"'There is no use talking about it,' said Kol. 'I will not sell it, whatsoever thou offerest. It has come to what I said would happen: that thou wouldst not give me back my weapon when thou knewest what virtue was in it.'
"'And I too will say what will happen,' said Gisli. 'Good will befall neither of us; for I will not give up the sword, and it shall never come into any man's hand but mine, if I have my will.'
"Then Kol lifted his ax, and Gisli drew Graysteel, and they smote at each other. Kol's blow fell on Gisli's head, so that it sank into the brain; and Graysteel fell on Kol's head, and his skull was shattered, and Graysteel broke asunder. Then, as Kol gave up the ghost, he said:
"'It had been better that thou hadst given me my sword when I asked for it, for this is only the beginning of the ill fortune I will bring on thy kith and kin forever.'
"And so it has been. For a thousand years the tellings-up of our family are full of troubles that this thrall's curse has brought upon us. Few of our men have grown gray-headed; in the sea and on the battlefield they have found their graves; and the women have had sorrow in marriage and death in child-bearing."
"It was an evil deed," said David.
"It was a great curse for it also; one thousand years it has followed Gisli's children."
"Not so! I believe it not! Neither the dead nor the living can curse those whom God blesses."
"Yet always the Borsons have had the worst of ill fortune. We three only are now left of the great earls who ruled in Surnadale and in Fjardarfolk, and see how poor and sorrowful we are. My life has been woven out of grief and disappointment; Vala will never walk; and as for your own youth, was it not labor and sorrow only?"
"I believe not in any such spaedom. I believe in God the Father Almighty, and in Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost. And as for the cursing of man, dead or alive, I will not fear what it can do to me. Gisli was indeed well served for his mean, ungrateful deed, and it would have been better if the berserker Bjorn had cut his false heart out of him."
"Such talk is not like you, David. I can see now that your father did right to keep these bloody stories from your hearing. There is no help in them."
"Well, I know not that. This night the minister was talking to me about taking a wife. If there be truth or power in Kol's curse, why should any Borson be born, that he or she may bear his spite? No; I will not marry, and--"
"In saying that you mock your own words. Where, then, is your trust in God? And the minister is right; you ought to take a wife. People think wrong of a young man who cannot fix his heart on one good woman. There is Christina Hey. Speak to her. Christina is sweet and wise, and will make a good wife."
"I met Asta Fae as I came here. Very pretty indeed is her face, and she has a way to win any heart."
"For all that, I do not think well of Asta. She is at the dance whenever there is one, and she has more lovers than a girl should have."
"Christina has land and money. I care not for a wife who is richer than myself."
"Her money is nothing against her; it will be a help."
"I know not," he answered, but without interest. "You have given me something to think of that is better than wooing and wedding, Nanna. My heart is quite full. I am more of a man than I have ever been. I can feel this hour that there is life behind me as well as before me. But I will go now, for to-morrow is the Sabbath and we shall meet at the kirk; and I will carry Vala home for you if you say so, Nanna."
"Well, then," she answered, "to-morrow is not here, David; but it will come, by God's leave. I dreamed a dream last night, and I look for a change, cousin. But this or that, my desire is that God would choose for me."
"That also is my desire," said David, solemnly.
"As for me, I have fallen into a great strait; only God can help me."
She was standing on the hearth, looking down at Vala. Tears were in her eyes, and a divine pity and sorrow made tender and gentle her majestic beauty. David looked steadily at her, and something, he knew not what, seemed to pierce his very soul--a sweet, aching pain, never felt before, inexplicable, ineffable, and as innocent as the first holy adoration of a little child. Then he went out into the still, starry night, and tried to think of Christina Hey; but she constantly slipped from his consciousness, like a dream that has no message.