Prisoners of Conscience by Amelia E. Barr
Book Second. David Borson
VII. So Far and No Farther
David Borson was stirred to the very seat of life by the things Nanna had told him. It did not enter his heart to doubt their truth. The shameful deed of the first Gisli, and the still strong order of its consequences, which neither the guilt of his children hastened, nor their innocence delayed, nor their expiation arrested, was the dominant feeling aroused by her narrative. The whole story, with its terrible Nemesis, fitted admirably into the system of Calvinistic theology, and David had not yet come to the hour in which faith would crush down fatalism. The words of these ancient sagas went singing and swinging through his brain and heart, and life seemed so wonderful and bewildering, its sorrows so great and certain, its needs so urgent and present, and heaven, alas! so far off.
There came to him also, as he slowly trod the lonely moor, the most awful of all conceptions of eternity--the revelation of a repentance that could undo nothing. He was righteously angry at Gisli's base ingratitude; he was sorry for his sin; but others had doubtless felt the same anger and sorrow, and it had been ineffectual. Helpless and passive in the hands of destiny, a nameless dread, an urgent want of help and comfort, forced him to feel out into the abyss for something more than flesh and blood to lean on; and then he found that God is best of all approached in indefinite awe and worship, and that moments of tender, vague mystery, haunted by uncertain presentiments, bring him near.
"Well, then," he said as he came to the door of his house, "the wicked may be a rod, and smite for generations; but the rod is in the hand of God, and I will remind myself that my God is the Everlasting, Almighty, Infinite One; and I will ask him to give sentence with me, and to deliver me from the wicked, whether they be in the body or out of the body." And he walked through the house-place where Barbara was sitting, and saw her not; for he was saying to himself, "'Why art thou so vexed, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? O put thy trust in God: for I will yet give him thanks, which is the help of my countenance, and my God.'"
Nanna sat motionless for long after David left her. She had many causes for anxiety. She was fearful of losing her work, and absolute poverty would then be her lot. It was a fear, however, and not a certainty; and after a little reflection she also threw her care upon the Preserver of men. "Be at peace," she said to her heart. "God feeds the gulls and the ravens, and he will not starve Nanna and Vala."
It was harder to combat her spiritual anxieties. She was sorry she had told David about the thrall's curse. Her first instinct was to ask his father and mother to forgive her; then she suddenly remembered that praying to or for the dead was a sin for a kirk session to meet on. And this thought led her easily to the dream that had troubled her last night's sleep and made her day dark with sorrowful fears. All her life she had possessed something of that sixth sense by which we see and anticipate things invisible. And it is noticeable that many cripples have often a seraphic intelligence, a far-reaching vision, and very sensitive spiritual aptitudes. Vala was of this order. She too had been singularly depressed; she had seen more than she could tell; she was as restless and melancholy as birds just before their migrations, and she looked at her mother with eyes so wistful, so full of inquiry, so "far off," that Nanna trembled under their fearfully prescient intimations. Alas for the dangerous happiness of maternity! How prodigious are its inquietudes! How uncertain its consolations!
She told David that she had dreamed a dream, and that she looked for a change; and she had made this statement as simply and as confidently as if she had said, "The wind is from the north, and I look for a storm." Repeated experiences had taught her, as they teach constantly, that certain signs precede certain events, and that certain dreams are dictated by that delicate antenna of spiritual instinct which feels danger to be near and warns of it.
Nanna had had the dream that ever forecast her misfortunes, and she sat thinking of its vague intimations, and tightening her heart for any sorrow. She had been forewarned that she might be forearmed, and she regarded this warning as a mark of interest and favor from beyond the veil. God had always spoken to his children in dreams and by the oracles that abide in darkness, and Nanna knew that in many ways "dreams are large possessions." She fell asleep pondering what her vision of the preceding night might mean, and awoke next morning, while it was still dark, with a dim sense of fear and sorrow encompassing her.
"But everything frightens one when night, the unknown, takes the light away," she thought. And she rose and lighted a lamp, and looked at Vala. The child was in a deep and healthy slumber, and the sight of its face calmed and satisfied her. Yet she was strangely apprehensive, and there was a weight on her heart that made her faint and trembling. She knew right well that some hitherto unknown sorrow was creeping like a mist over her life, and she had not yet the strength and the pang of conflict.
Have we not too? Yes, we have Answers, and we know not whence; Echoes from beyond the grave, Recognized intelligence.
Yet the secret silence of the night, the vague terror and darkness of that occult world which we all carry with us, created in her, at first, fear, and then a kind of angry, desperate resentment.
"Oh, how helpless I am!" she sighed. "I can think and feel, I can fear and love, and I am not here by my own will; I did not place myself here; I cannot keep myself here. My life is in the grasp of a Power I cannot control. What am I to do? What can I do? Oh, how miserable I am! All my life long I have seen 'Not for you' written on all I wished. Life is very hard," she said with a little sob. And then she made no further complaint, but her heart grew so still, she was sure something must have died there. Alas! was it hope?
"Life is very hard." With these words she lay down again, and between sleeping and waking the hours wore on, and she rose at last from her shivery sleep, even later than usual. Then she hurried breakfast a little, and as the light grew over land and sea she tidied her room and dressed Vala and herself for the kirk. As the sound of the first service bell traveled solemnly over the moor she was ready to leave the house. Her last duty was to put a peat or two upon the fire, and as she was doing this she heard some one lift the sneck and push open the door.
"It is David to carry Vala," she thought. "How good he is!"
But when she turned she saw that it was not David. It was her husband, Nicol Sinclair. He walked straight to the fireside, and sat down without a word. Nanna's heart sank to its lowest depths, and a cold despair made her feet and hands heavy as lead; but she slowly spread the cloth on the table, and bit by bit managed to recollect the cup and saucer, the barley-cake, the smoked goose, and the tea.
There was a terrible account between the man sitting on the hearth and herself, and words of passionate reproach burned at her lips; but she held her peace. Long ago she had left her cause with God; he would plead it thoroughly. Even now, when her enemy was before her, she had no thought of any other advocate.
Her pallor, her slow movements, her absolute dumbness, roused in Sinclair an angry discomfort. And when Vala made a movement he lifted her roughly, and with a brutal laugh said, "A nice plaything you will be on board the Sea Rover!"
Nanna shivered at the words. She comprehended in a moment the torture this man had probably come purposely to inflict upon her. Already his cruel hands had crippled her child; and what neglect, what terrors, what active barbarities, might he not impose on the little one in the hell of his own ship! Who there could prevent him? Little did Nicol Sinclair care for public opinion on land; but out at sea, where Vala's tears and cries could bring her no help, what pitiless inhumanities might he not practise?
"Fly with the child!"
The words were struck upon her heart like blows. But how should she fly? and where to? Far or near, the law would find her out and would give Vala to her father's authority. And she had no friend strong enough to protect her. Only by death could she defy separation. Thus, while she was pouring the boiling water on the tea-leaves, she was revolving questions more agonizing than words have power to picture.
At length the food was on the table, and, save for those few threatening words, the silence was unbroken. Sinclair sat down to his meal with a bravado very near to cursing, and at that moment the kirk bells began to ring again. To Nanna they were like a voice from heaven. Quick as thought she lifted her child and fled from the house.
Oh, what stress of life and death was in her footsteps! Only to reach the kirk! If she could do that, she would cling to the altar and die there rather than surrender Vala to unknown miseries. Love and terror gave her wings. She did not turn her head; she did not feel the frozen earth or the cutting east wind; she saw nothing but Vala's small face on her breast, and she heard nothing but the echo in her heart of those terrible words threatening her with the loss of her child.
When she reached the kirk the service had begun. The minister was praying. She went into the nearest pew, and though all were standing, she laid Vala on the seat, and slipped to her knees beside her. She could not now cry out as she longed to do, and sob her fright and anguish away at God's feet. "Folk would wonder at me. I would disturb the service." These were her thoughts as soon as the pressure of her flight was over. For the solemn voice of the minister praying, the strength of numbers, the holy influence of the time and place, cooled her passionate sense of wrong and danger, and she was even a little troubled at her abandonment of what was usual and Sabbath-like.
The altar now looked a long way off; only Sinclair at touch could have forced her down that guarded aisle to its shelter. Heaven itself was nearer, and God needed no explanations. He knew all. What was the law of man to him? And he feared not their disapproval. Thus in her great strait she overleaped her creed, and cast herself on him who is "a God of the afflicted, an helper of the oppressed, an upholder of the weak, a protector of the forlorn, a savior of them that are without hope."
When the preaching was over David and Barbara came to her; and David knit his brows when he saw her face, for it was the face of a woman who had seen something dreadful. Her eyes were full of fear and anguish, and she was yet white and trembling with the exertion of her hard flight.
"Nanna," he said, "what has happened?"
"My husband has come back."
"I heard last night that his ship was in harbor."
"He has come for Vala. He will take her from me. She will die of neglect and hard usage. He may give her to some stranger who will be cross to her. O David! David!"
"He shall not touch her."
"Put her in my arms now."
"Do you mean this?"
"Can I trust you, David?"
"You may put it to any proof."
"Pass your word to me, cousin."
"As the Lord God Almighty lives, I will put my life between Vala and Nicol Sinclair!"
"I will take her to sea if necessary, for my boat can go where few will dare to follow."
Then he turned to Barbara and said: "Nicol Sinclair has indeed come back. He says he has come for Vala."
"Then the devil has led him here," answered Barbara, flashing into anger. "As for Vala, let her stay with me. She has a good guard at my house. There is Groat and his four sons on one side, and Jeppe Madson and his big brother Har on the other side; and there is David Borson, who is worth a whole ship's crew, to back them in anything for Vala's safety. Stay with me to-day, Nanna, and we will talk this matter out."
But Nanna shook her head in reply. As she understood it, duty was no peradventure; it was an absolute thing from which there was no turning away. And her duty was to be at home when her husband was there. But she put Vala's hand into David's hand, and then looked at the young man with eyes full of anxiety. He answered the look with one strong word:
And she knew he would redeem it with his life, if that should be necessary.
Then she turned homeward, and walked with a direct and rapid energy. She put away thought; she formed no plan, she said no prayer. Her petition had been made in the kirk; she thought there would be a want of faith in repeating a request already promised. She felt even the modesty of a suppliant, and would not continually press into the presence of the Highest; for to the reverent there is ever the veil before the Shechinah.
And this conscious putting aside of all emotion strengthened her. When she saw her home she had no need to slacken her speed or to encourage herself. She walked directly to the door and opened it. There was no one there; the place was empty. The food on the table was untouched. Nothing but a soiled and crumpled handkerchief remained of the dreadful visitor. She lifted it with the tongs and cast it into the fire. Then she cleared away every trace of the rejected meal.
Afterward she made some inquiries in the adjoining huts. One woman only had seen his departure. "I could not go to kirk this morning," she said with an air of apology, "for my bairn is very sick; and I saw Nicol Sinclair go away. It was near the noon hour. Drunk he was, and worse drunk than most men can be. His face was red as a hot peat, and he swayed to and fro like a boat on the Gruting Voe. There was something no' just right about the man."
That was all she could learn, and she was very unhappy, for she could imagine no good reason for his departure. In some way or other he was preparing the blow he meant to deal her; and though it was the Sabbath, there would be no difficulty in finding men whom he could influence. And there was also his cousin Matilda Sabiston, that wicked old woman who had outlived all human passions but hatred. Against this man and the money and ill-will that would back him she could do nothing, but she "trusted in God that he would deliver her."
So she said to herself, "Patience"; and she sat down to wait, shutting her eyes to the outside world, and drawing to a focus all the strength that was in her. The closed Bible lay on the table beside her, and occasionally she touched it with her hand. She had not been able to read it; but there was comfort in seeing the old, homely-looking book, with its everyday aspect and its pages full of kindly blessing, and still more comfort in putting herself in physical contact with its promises. They seemed to be more real. And as she sat hour after hour, psalms learned years before, and read many and many a time without apprehension of their meaning, began to speak to her. She saw the words with her spiritual sight, and they shone with their own glory. And she obtained what she so sorely needed:
A little comforting shadow From the hot sun's fiery glow; A little rest by the fountain Where the waters of comfort flow.
When midnight struck she looked at the clock and thanked God. Surely she was safe for that night; and she turned the key in her door and went to sleep. And her sleep was that which God giveth to his beloved when they are to be strengthened for many days--a deep, dreamless suspense of all thought and feeling.
Yet, heavenly as the sleep had been, the awakening was a shock. And as the day grew toward noon she was as much troubled by the silence of events as her husband had been by the silence of her lips. Human hearts are nests of fear. Her whole soul kept going to the window, and she said, with the impatience of suspended suffering, "Now! now! I have no fortitude for to-morrow, but I can bear anything now." Finally she resolved to go to Barbara's, and see Vala, and hear whatever there was to hear. But as she was putting on her cloak she saw David coming over the moor, and he was carrying Vala in his arms.
"So," she said, "I see that I will not need to run after my fate; it will come to me; and there will be no use striving against it. For what must be is sure to happen."
Then she turned back into the house, and David followed with unusual solemnity, and laid Vala upon her bed. "She is sleeping," he said, "and there is something to tell you, Nanna."
"About my husband?"
"Say it out at once, then."
"Last night he was carried to his own ship." And David's face was grave almost to sternness.
"Carried! Have you then hurt him, David?"
"No; he is a self-hurter. But this is what I know. He went from here to Matilda Sabiston's house. She had gone to kirk with two of her servants, and when she came back she found him delirious on the sofa. Then the doctor was sent for, and when he said the word 'typhus,' Matilda shrieked with passion, and demanded that he should be instantly taken away."
"But no! Surely not!"
"Yes; it was so. Both the minister and the doctor said it was right and best for him to be taken to his own ship. The town--yes, indeed, and the whole islands were in danger. And when they took him on board the Sea Rover, they found that two of the sailors were also very ill with the fever. They had been ill for a week, and Sinclair knew it; yet he came among the boats, and went through the town, speaking to many people. It was a wicked thing for him to do."
"It was just like him. Where is the Sea Rover now lying?"
"She has been taken to the South Voe. The fishing-boats will watch lest the men are landed, and the doctor will go to the ship every day the sea will let him go."
"David, is it my duty--"
"No, it is not; there are five men with Sinclair. Three of them are, I believe, yet well men, and three can care for the sick and the ship. On the deck of the Sea Rover a woman should not put her foot."
"But a ship with typhus on board?"
"Is a hell indeed! In this case, Nanna, it is a hell of their own making. They got the fever in a dance-house at Rotterdam. Sinclair knew of its presence, and laughed it to scorn. It was his mate who told the doctor so. Also, Nanna, there is Vala."
She went swiftly to the side of the sleeping child, and she was sure there was a change in her. David would not acknowledge it, but in forty-eight hours the signs of the fatal scourge were unmistakable. Then Nanna's house was marked and isolated, and she sat down to watch her dying child.