Worse still, she was not a child of God. He did not know that she ever sought the Lord. She went to church once a day and read her prayers, and that was all. She was not one of the chosen, and she might corrupt him, and he might fall away, and so commit the sin against the Holy Ghost "O Lord, O Lord!" he prayed one evening, in rebellion rather than as a suppliant, "what has Thy servant done that Thou shouldst visit him thus?" He almost mutinied, but he was afraid, and his religion came to his rescue, and he broke down into "And yet not my will, the will of the meanest of sinners, but Thine be done." He made up his mind once or twice that he would solemnly remonstrate with his son, but his aspect was such whenever the subject was approached, even from a distance, that he dared not. Hitherto the boy had joyfully submitted to be counselled, and had sought his father's direction, but now, if the conversation turned in a certain direction, a kind of savage reserve was visible, at which Michael was frightened. He was a man of exceedingly slow conception. For days and days he would often debate within himself, and at the end the fog was as thick as ever. He complained once to David Trevenna of this failing, and David gave him a useful piece of practical advice.
"Leave it alone, master. The more you thinks, the more you muddle yourself. Leave it alone, and when it comes into your head, try to get rid of it. In a week or so the thing will do more for itself than you'll do for it. It will settle, like new beer, and come clear enough. That's what my missus has often said to me, and I know she's right."
But, do what he might, Michael could not in this instance leave it alone. He cast about incessantly for some device by which he could break his son loose from the girl. It was all in vain. She might be frivolous, but there was nothing against her character, and he saw evident signs that if he attempted any exercise of authority he would lose Robert altogether in open revolt. For Robert, it must be remembered, had never scattered his strength in loose love. He had grown up to manhood in perfect innocence, and all his stored-up passion spent itself in idealising the object which by chance had provoked it.
Michael one night—it was a Sunday night—he was always worse on Sundays when he had not been at work—was unable to sleep, and rose and read the Book. He turned to the Epistle to the Romans, a favourite epistle with him, and deservedly so, for there we come face to face with the divine apostle, with a reality unobscured by miracle or myth. And such a reality! Christianity becomes no longer a marvel, for a man with that force and depth of experience is sufficient to impose a religion on the whole human race, no matter what the form of the creed may be. Michael read in the ninth chapter, "I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh." What did Paul mean? Accursed from Christ! What could he mean save that he was willing to be damned to save those whom he loved. Why not? Why should not a man be willing to be damned for others? The damnation of a single soul is shut up in itself, and may be the means of saving not only others, but their children and a whole race. Damnation! It is awful, horrible; millions of years, with no relief, with no light from the Most High, and in subjection to His Enemy. "And yet, if it is to save—if it is to save Robert," thought Michael, "God give me strength—I could endure it. Did not the Son Himself venture to risk the wrath of the Father that He might redeem man? What am I? what is my poor self?" And Michael determined that night that neither his life in this world nor in the next, if he could rescue his child, should be of any account.
How sublime a thing is this dust or dirt we call man! We grovel in view of the vast distances of the fixed stars and their magnitudes, but these distances and these dimensions are a delusion. There is nothing grander in Sirius than in a pebble, nor anything more worthy of admiration and astonishment in his remoteness than in the length of Oxford Street. The true sublime is in the self-negation of the martyr, and it became doubly magnificent in the case of Michael, who was willing not merely to give up a finite existence for something other than himself—to be shot and so end, or to be burnt with a hope of following glory—but to submit for ever to separation and torment, if only he might shield his child from God's displeasure. It may be objected that such a resolution is impossible. Doubtless it is now altogether incredible; but it is so because we no longer know what religion means, or what is the effect produced upon the mind by the constant study of one book and a perfectly unconditional belief in it. Furthermore, as before said, Michael never corrected himself or preserved his sanity by constant intercourse with his fellows. He incessantly brooded, and the offspring of a soul like his, begotten on itself, is monstrous and grotesque. He questioned himself and his oracle further. What could Paul mean exactly? God could not curse him if he did no wrong. He could only mean that he was willing to sin and be punished provided Israel might live. It was lawful then to tell a lie or perpetrate any evil deed in order to protect his child. Something suddenly crossed his mind; what it was we shall see later on. And yet the thought was too awful. He could not endure to sin, not only against his Creator, but against his boy. Perhaps God might pardon him after centuries of suffering; and yet He could not. The gates of hell having once closed upon him, there could be no escape. He struggled in agony, until at last he determined that, first of all, he would speak to Robert, although he knew it would be useless. He would conquer the strange dread he had of remonstrance, and then, if that failed, he would—do anything.
On the Sabbath following, as they came out of the meeting-house in the evening, Michael proposed to Robert that they should walk down to the shore. It was a very unusual proposal, for walking on the Sabbath, save to and from the means of grace, was almost a crime, and Robert assented, not without some curiosity and even alarm. The two went together in silence till they came to the deserted shore. The sun had set behind the point on their right, and far away in the distance could he seen the beneficent interrupted ray of the revolving light. Father and son walked side by side.
"Robert," said Michael at last, "I have long wished to speak to you. God knows I would not do it if He did not command me, but I cannot help it. I fear you have engaged yourself with a young woman who is not one of His children."
"Who told you she was not, father?"
"Who told me? Why, Robert, it is notorious. Who told me? Is she not known to belong to the world? does she ever appear before the Lord?"
"Do you think then, father, that because she does not come to our chapel she cannot be saved?"
"No, you know I do not. The Lord has His followers doubtless in other communions besides our own, but the Shiptons are not His."
"You mean, I suppose, that they do not believe exactly what we believe, and that they go to church?"
"No, no; I mean that she has not found Him, and that she is of the world—of the world! O Robert, Robert! think what you are doing—that you will mate yourself with one who is not elect, that you may have children who will he the children of wrath. You don't know what I have gone through for you. I have wrestled and prayed before I could bring myself to do my duty and talk with you, and even now I cannot speak. What is it which chokes me? O Robert, Robert!"
But Robert, usually docile and tender, was hard and obdurate. The image of Susan rose before his eyes with her head on his shoulder, and he thought to himself that it was necessary at once to make matters quite plain and stop all further trespass on his prerogative. So it is, and so it ever has been. For this cause shall a man leave father and mother and cleave to his wife. There comes a time when the father and mother find that they must withdraw; but it is the order of the world, and has to be accepted, like sickness or death.
"Father," said Robert, "I am not a boy, and you must allow me in these matters to judge for myself." As he spoke his spirit rose; the image of the head on his shoulder, defenceless against attack save for him, became clearer and clearer, and words escaped him which he never afterwards forgot, nor did his father forget. "And it is a shame—I say it is a shame to speak against her. You know nothing about her. Worldly! her children children of wrath, just because she is not of your way of thinking, and isn't—and isn't a humbug, as some of them are. From anybody else I wouldn't stand it," and Robert turned sharply away and went home.
Michael leant against a groyne to support himself, and looked over the water, seeing nothing. At first he was angry, and if his son had been there, he could have struck him; but presently his anger gave way to pity, to hatred of the girl who had thus seduced him, and to a fixed determination to save him, whatever it might cost. He pondered again and again over that verse of Paul's. He did not believe that he should be excused if he did evil that good might come. He knew that if he did evil, no matter what the result might be, the penalty to the uttermost farthing would be exacted. If Christ's purpose to save mankind could not prevent the Divine anger being poured out on perfect innocence, how much greater would not that anger have been if it had been necessary for Him to sin in order to make the world's salvation sure! Michael firmly believed, too, in the dreadful doctrine that a single lapse from the strait path is enough to damn a man for ever; that there is no finiteness in a crime which can be counterbalanced by finite expiation, but that sin is infinite. Monstrous, we say; and yet it is difficult to find in the strictest Calvinism anything which is not an obvious dogmatic reflection of a natural fact, a mere transference to theology of what had been pressed upon the mind of the creator of the creed as an everyday law of the world. A crime is infinite in its penalties, and the account is never really balanced, as many of us know too well, the lash being laid on us day after day, even to death, for the failings of fifty years ago.
Michael, with his slow ways, remained many weeks undecided. During these weeks he said nothing more to his son, nor did his son say anything to him upon the one subject. Robert was more than ever deferent, and even more than ever affectionate, but there were no signs of any conversion on his part, and to his deference and affection his father paid no regard. He walked in a world by himself, shut up in it, and incessantly repeated the one question, how could he save his son's soul? He pictured himself as a second Christ. If the Christ, the mighty Saviour, felt His Father's wrath on that one dreadful night, it was only fitting that he, Michael, a man who was of so much less worth, should feel it for ever to accomplish a similar end. He was a little exalted by his resolve, and spiritual pride began to show itself; so utterly impossible is it that the purest self-devotion should be, if we may use the word, chemically pure. It is very doubtful if he ever fully realised what he was doing, just as it is doubtful whether in the time of liveliest conviction there has been a perfect realisation of the world to come. Had he really appreciated the words "torment" and "infinite;" had he really put into "torment" the pangs of a cancer or a death through thirst; had he really put twenty years into "infinity," he would perhaps have recoiled. Nevertheless, the fact remains that this man by some means or other had educated himself into complete self-obliteration for the sake of his child. The present time is disposed to over-rate the intellectual virtues. No matter how unselfish a woman may be, if she cannot discuss the new music or the new metaphysical poetry, she is nothing and nobody cares for her. Centuries ago our standard was different, and it will have to be different again. We shall, it is to be hoped, spend ourselves not in criticism of the record of the saints who sat by the sepulchre, but we shall love as they loved.
Michael comforted himself by a piece of sophistry. He had made up his mind to attempt a stratagem, a wicked lie, if we choose to call it so, for his son's sake, and he was prepared to suffer the penalty for it. If he had thought that in thus sinning he was sinning as an ordinary sinner, he perhaps could not have dared to commit the crime; he could not have faced the Almighty's displeasure. But he thought that, although bound by the Divine justice to mete out to him all the punishment which the sin merited, God would, nevertheless, consider him as a sinner for His glory.
One evening—the summer had not yet departed—father and son walked out to the house on the cliff.
"Robert," said Michael suddenly, and with the strength of a man who gathers himself up to do what for a long time he has been afraid to do, and is even bolder apparently than if he had known no fear, "I have spoken my mind to you as God in heaven bade me about Miss Shipton, and this is the last word I shall say. He knows that I have prayed for you from your childhood up—that I have prayed that, above everything, he would grant that you should have one of His own for your wife, who should bring up your children in the fear of the Lord. He alone knows how I have wrestled for you day and night, ay, in the dark hours of the night; for you are my only son, and I looked that you and she whom God might choose for you should be the delight and support of my old age. But it is not to be. God has, for His own good purposes, not blessed me as He has blessed others, and the home for which I hoped I am not to have. Oh, my son, my son!" He had meant to say more, but at the moment he could not.
"Father, father!" said Robert, much moved—the anger he usually felt at his father's references to Susan Shipton melting into pity—"why not? why not? You don't know Susan; you condemn her just because she don't go to our meeting. She shall love you like your own child."
Another man would, perhaps, have relented, but his system was wrought into his very marrow—a part of himself in a manner incomprehensible. The distinction between the world and the Church is now nothing to us. We are on the best of terms with people who every Sunday are expressly assigned to everlasting fire. But to Michael the distinction was what it was to Ephraim MacBriar. The Spirit descended on him—whose spirit, it is not for us to say.
"Are you sure of Miss Shipton, Robert?"
"Sure of her, father! What do you mean?"
"Do you know what she has been in time past?"
"I don't understand you."
"Do you know why Cadman left the Shiptons?"
Robert stopped suddenly as if struck by a blow, and then his behaviour instantly changed. He completely forgot himself and was furious.
"Father, I say it is a wicked, cruel shame—a wicked, cruel lie. I do not care if I tell you so. I will not listen to it," and he tore himself away.
He believed it was a lie—believed it with the same distinctness as he believed in the existence of the hedge by his side which lacerated his hand as he turned round; and yet the lie struck him like a poisoned barbed arrow, and he could not drag himself loose from it. No man could have loved Desdemona better than Othello, and yet, before there was any evidence, did he not say of Iago—
"This honest creature doubtless Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds."
He went home, and on his way to his room upstairs he passed through the little office in which he and his father made out their bills and kept their accounts. On the desk lay half a sheet of a letter. He looked at it at first mechanically, and then began to read with the most intense interest. It was only half a sheet, and the other half was nowhere to be found. It ran as follows:—
"and I can assure you I cannot afford to marry. Besides, I don't know that she cares anything for me now. It was very wrong; but, sir, when you remember that I am a young man and that Susan was so attractive, I think I may be forgiven. I hope some day to make her amends if she still loves me, but, sir, I must wait.—Yours truly,
"MR. MICHAEL TREVANION."
This was the plot. The Shiptons some short time ago had an assistant in their employ, who was dismissed for improper intimacy with a servant-girl named Susan Coleman, who lived next door. As was the case with most servant-girls in those days, nobody ever heard her surname, and she was known by the name of Susan only. The affair was kept a profound secret, for she was a member of the congregation to which Michael belonged; and Mr. Shipton, for trade reasons, was anxious that it should not be made public. Michael, as one of the deacons, knew all about it, but Robert knew nothing. The girl left her place before the consequences of her crime became public; and Michael had written to the man Cadman, telling him he ought to support the child of which he was the father. When he received the answer, a sudden thought struck him. The last page might be used for a purpose, and so he hatched his monstrous scheme, and left the paper where he knew that, sooner or later, Robert would see it.
When Michael came home, Robert was not there; a bill-head lay near Cadman's note with the brief announcement—
"I have left for ever.—Your affectionate son,
Michael's first emotion, strange to say, was something like joy. He had succeeded, and Robert was removed from the wiles of the tempter. But when the morning came, he looked again, and he saw the words "for ever," and he realised that his son had gone; that he would never see him any more; that perhaps he might have committed self-murder. His human nature got the better of every other nature in him, divine or diabolic, and he was distracted. He could not pray after his wont; he tried, but he had no utterance; he felt himself rebellious, blasphemous, impious, and he rose from his bedside without a word. He went out into the street and down to the shore, trembling lest he should hear from the first man he saw that his son's body had been thrown up on the sand; and then he remembered how Robert could swim, and that he would probably hang a stone round his neck and be at the bottom of some deep pool. He could not go back; people would ask where his son was, and what could he say? He had murdered him. He had thought to save him, and he was dead. He walked and walked till he could walk no more, and a great horror came on him—a horror of great darkness. The Eternal Arms were unclasped, and he felt himself sinking—into what he knew not. He could not describe his terror to himself. It was nameless, shapeless, awful, infinite; and all he could do was to cry out in agony; the words of the Book, even in this his most desperate moment, serving to voice the experience for him—"My God! my God! why hast Thou forsaken me?" It became intolerable, and his brain began to turn. He reflected though, even then, upon the disgrace of suicide. For himself he did not care; for had not God abandoned him? and what worse thing could befall him? But then his good name, and the brand of infamy which would be affixed to Robert should he still live! Could he not die so that it might be set down as an accident? He could swim; and although he had not been often in the water of late years, it would not be thought extraordinary if on a blazing morning he should bathe. He took off his clothes, and in a moment was in the sea, striking out for the river channel and the ebbing tide, which he knew would bear him away to the ocean. He saw nothing, heard nothing, till just as he neared the buoy and the fatal eddy was before him, when there escaped from him a cry—a scream—a prayer of commitment to Him whom he believed he had so loyally served—served with such damnable, such treasonable fidelity—the God who had now turned away from him.
But the buoy was not reached. A hand was on him, firm but soft, grasping him by the hair at the back of his neck, which he wore long in Puritanic fashion, and the hand held him and he knew no more. Susan Shipton, bathing that morning, had seen a human being in the water nearing the point where she herself so nearly lost her life. Without a moment's hesitation she made after him, and was fortunate enough to attract the attention of two men in a punt, who followed her. She came up just in time, and with their help Michael was saved. He was senseless, but after a few hours he recovered, and asked his wife, who was standing by his bedside, who rescued him.
"Why, it was Susan Shipton. She was in the water and came after you, and then, luckily, there was a boat near at hand."
Susan was on the other side of the bed, and he did not see her. She bent over him and kissed him.
He turned round, and thoughts rushed through his brain with a rapidity sufficient to make one short moment a thousand years; but he said nothing, and presently, almost for the first time in his life, he broke down into sobbing. He turned away from her and could not look at her.
"You see, Mr. Trevanion," she said smilingly, "just about that very place I was nearly drowned myself—I don't know whether you ever heard of it—and I hardly ever keep my eyes off it now when I am anywhere near it, although I am not afraid of going pretty near after what Robert told me. When you want a wash again.—I knew you could swim well, by the way, but I didn't know you ever went into the water now—you must give the buoy a wider berth." She stooped down and whispered to him—"I never told a soul before, but it was Robert who saved me. We are quits now. Robert saved me, and I have done something to save you, though not so much as Robert, because he had no boat." Then she kissed his forehead again, delighted at the thought that she could put something into the balance against her lover's heroism. How proud he would be of her! She would be able, moreover, to stand up a little bit against him. It was very pleasant to her to think she owed so much to him, but she liked also to think that she had something of her own.
Michael caught hold of her round the neck, embracing her with a passionate fervour which she supposed to be gratitude, but it was not altogether that.
"Do you know where Robert has gone?" she said. "He was not at home last night."
"He has gone on—on—some business. I must go too."
"You cannot go just yet; not till you have got over the shock."
"I can—I can. Leave me, and I will dress myself. It is important business, and I must see him. But, Susan, here—I want you."
It was the first time he had ever called her Susan. She came back to him. "Listen!" he cried. She bent her head down, but he was silent. At last, with his arms again around her, he said, "My child, my child, my child!"
"Me!" she answered innocently. "Do you mean me? do you really? I couldn't think what you wanted to say, but that's enough. My dearest, dearest father! Oh, how happy Robert will be! and so am I. We thought you didn't care for me; and I know I am a poor, foolish girl, not half good enough for Robert; but I do love him, and I never loved anybody else; and I do love you."
When she had left, Michael rose from his bed. His faith remained unchanged, but it presented itself to him in a different shape. A new and hitherto unnoticed article in his creed forced itself before him. God's hand—for it was God's hand—had plucked him out of the sea and brought him back to life. What did that mean? Ah! what was he?—a worm of the earth! How dare he lift himself up against the Almighty's designs? The Almighty asked him the question eternally repeated to us, which He had asked thousands of years ago, "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. . . . Doth the hawk fly by thy wisdom, and stretch her wings forward to the south?" "The hawk flies not by my wisdom," murmured Michael to himself, "nor doth the eagle at my command make her nest on high. Ah, it is by His wisdom and at His command; how should I dare to interfere? I see it—I see it all now. 'I have uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.'" After his fashion and through his religion he had said to himself the last word which can be uttered by man. He knelt down and prayed, and although he was much given to extempore prayer, he did not, in this his most intense moment, go beyond the prayer of our Lord, which, moreover, expressed what he wanted better than any words of his own. "Thy will," he repeated, "Thy will." His one thought now was his son, but he knew not where to find him. He went out and he saw his man, David Trevenna.
"He was off in a hurry; only just caught the coach," said David.
"Who? What coach?"
"Why, Robert; going to Plymouth."
Michael did not answer, but hurried to his stable where his little pony was kept, and put him in the light cart. He told his wife that he had some business in Plymouth with Robert, packed up a few things, took some money, and in a few minutes was on the Truro road. At Truro he found the mail, and within twelve hours he was at Plymouth. Dismounting, he asked eagerly if they had a young man at the inn who had come from Cornwall the day before.
"What, one as is waiting for the packet?"
"Yes," said Michael at a venture.
"Yes, he's here, but he isn't in just now. Gone out for a walk."
The one point in Plymouth to which everybody naturally turns is the Hoe, and thither Michael went. It was morning in early autumn or late summer, and the whole Sound lay spread out under the sun in perfect peace. The woods of Mount Edgecumbe were almost black in the intense light, and far away in the distance, for the air was clear, a sharp eye might just discern the Eddystone, the merest speck, rising above the water. It was a wonderful scene, but Michael saw nothing of it. When he came out of the street which leads up from the town to the Hoe, he looked round as a man might look for escape if a devouring fire were behind him, and he saw his son a hundred yards in front of him gazing over the sea. With a cry of thanks to his God Michael rushed forward, and just as Robert turned round caught him in his arms, but could not speak.
At last he found a few words.
"It is all a mistake, Robert—it is all wrong. Susan is yours—she is mine. Come back with me."
Robert, as much moved as his father, fell on his neck as if he had been a woman, and then led him gently down the slope, away from curious persons who had watched this remarkable greeting, and took Michael to be some strange person who had accidentally met his child or a relative after long separation.
"Foreigners, most likely; that's their way. It looks odd to English people," remarked a lady to her daughter. It did look odd, and would have looked odd to most of us—to us who belong to a generation which sees in the relationship between father and son nothing more than in that between the most casual acquaintances with the disadvantage of inequality of age, a generation to whom the father is—often excusably—a person to be touched twice a day with the tips of the fingers, a postponement of a full share in the business, a person to be treated with—respect? Good gracious! If it were not bad form, it would be a joke worth playing to slip the chair away from the old man as he is going to sit down, and see him sprawl on the floor. Why, in the name of heaven, does he come up to the City every day? He ought to retire, and leave that expensive place at Clapham, and take a cottage in some cheap part, somewhere in Cambridgeshire or Essex.
"Robert," said Michael, "I have sinned, although it was for the Lord's sake, and He has rebuked me. I thought to take upon myself His direction of His affairs; but He is wiser than I. I believed I was sure of His will, but I was mistaken. He knows that what I did, I did for love of your soul, my child; but I was grievously wrong."
The father humbled himself before the son, but in his humiliation became majestic, and in after years, when he was dead and gone, there was no scene in the long intercourse with him which lived with a brighter and fairer light in the son's memory.
"You know nothing then against Susan?"
"I found a bit of a letter on your desk from Cadman. I could not help reading it. Had that anything to do with her?"
"Father, you seem faint and you tremble; hadn't you better go in doors and take something, and lie down? We cannot get home till to-morrow."
The father went to the inn with difficulty; he had tasted no food for many hours, and had not slept for some time, but he could neither eat nor sleep. Hitherto God's will had appeared to him ascertainable with comparative ease, and he had been as certain of the Divine direction as if he had seen a finger-post or heard the word in his ear. But now he was dazed and, in doubt. He was convinced that his rescue by Susan was an interposition of Providence, and if so, then all his former conclusions were wrong. What was he to do? How was he henceforth to know the mind of his Master? Oh, how he wished he had lived in the days when the oracle was not darkened—in the days of Moses, when God spake from the Mount, when there was the continual burnt-offering at the door of the tabernacle, "where I will meet you, to speak there unto thee." God really did intend that Robert should marry Susan! "If righteousness and judgment," he cried, inverting the Psalm, "are the habitation of His throne, clouds and darkness are round about Him." But he submitted. "Thou art wiser than I," he prayed. It was mere presumption then to have risked the loss of his soul in the blind belief that it was for God's cause. The sin had been committed, the lie had been uttered; would God pardon him? and it was mercifully whispered to him that he was forgiven for His sake. So was he saved from uttermost despair.
In the evening he said he would go out and breathe a little fresh air before bedtime. It was a perfectly unsullied night, with no moon, but with brilliant stars. Father and son sat upon a bench facing the sea, and the lighthouse from the rock sent its bright beam across the water. There is consolation and hope in those vivid rays. They speak of something superior to the darkness or storm—something which has been raised by human intelligence and human effort.
Robert turned round to his father.
"Look at the light, father, fourteen miles away."
But his father did not see any light, or, if he did, it was not the Eddystone light—he was dead!
Robert never revealed his father's secret to a soul—not even to Susan. Nobody but Robert ever knew the reason for the journey to Plymouth. His interpretation of God's designs turned out to be nearer the truth than that of his father; for Susan, the worldling, as Michael thought her to be, became a devoted wife, and made Robert a happy husband to the end of his days.
Printed by Ballantyne, Hanson and Co. Edinburgh and London.