HotFreeBooks.com
St. Cuthbert's
by Robert E. Knowles
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

"I luikit lang intil her angel face, but I was feart to speak, for I wasna worthy. The road was bricht eneuch, but I wasna fit to gang.

"'I ken what yir thinkin' o', faither. I ken yir enemy—an' God kens. It's the drink. But it'll pass yir lips nae mair. I'll kiss them, faither, an' they'll burn wi' the awfu' thirst nae mair.'

"An' she stoopit doon an' kissed my burnin' lips; an' I waukit up, an' the fever was a' past an' by. I tell't Betsy, an' she grat wi' joy. 'It's i' the Buik,' she said.

"'What's i' the Buik?' I speirt.

"'A little child shall lead them,' Betsy said."

I talked a little while with Geordie as one talks with a shipwrecked sailor who has gained the shore. He asked me to pray.

"Mak' it easy," he said, "I'm no' far ben the Mystery yet. I'm but a bairn; but my lips are pure, an' the fever's by."

We knelt together, and I prayed: "O Friend of sinners, help us both, for we are both sinners. Keep us, blessed Lord, and let his little daughter be near us both to help us on the way. We will both try our best, and Thou wilt too. Amen."

My half-written sermon never has been finished. I was constrained to take another text, and the next Sabbath morn I saw Betsy Lorimer bow her head in reverent adoration when I gave it out—

"Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister?"



XVIII

HOW ELSIE WON The GATE

The forest's glory is departed when its giant trees lie low. And, stroke by stroke, my St. Cuthbert's Kirk was thus bereft of its outstanding glories. For great men are like great trees, the shelter of all others and the path-finders towards the sky.

My sun is westering now, and the oft-repeated crash as these mighty stalwarts fall keeps my heart in almost abiding sadness. For the second growth gives no promise of a stock which shall be worthy successors to these noble pioneers, the conquering gladiators of Canada's shadowy forests, the real makers of her great and portentous national life. And yet, strange to say, I never knew their real greatness while I lived among them, sharing in the varied chase, but only when they came to die.

This was especially true of those who boasted far-back highland blood, for their depths of tenderness and heights of faith and scope of spiritual vision were sternly hidden till the helplessness of death betrayed them. Then was the key to their secret life surrendered; then might all men see the face at the pane. But not till then; for every stolid feature, every stifled word or glance of tenderness, every muffled note of religious self-revealment, swelled their life's noble perjury. To their own hurt they swore, changing not. But at their real best he saw them who saw them die.

In that ingenuous hour they spoke once more their mother tongue of love and faith with an accuracy which told of lifelong rehearsal within their secret hearts. When the golden bowl was broken, its holy contents, flowing free, poured forth the long-imprisoned fragrance.

How many a day, cold and gray, flowers at sunset into rich redemptive beauty, cheerless avenue leading to its grand Cathedral West! Thus have I seen these Scottish lives, stern and cold and rayless, break into flame at evening, in whose light I caught the glory of the very gates of the City of God.

It was the winter of the strike, whose story I have already told, that Elsie M'Phatter heard the Voice which calls but once. Long and gentle had been the slope towards the river, and I held Elsie's hand every step of the way, myself striving to hold that other Hand which is truly visible only in the darkness; but the last stage of the journey came swift and suddenly. About two in the morning I was awakened by the loud alarm of my door-bell.

The minister knows well that at such an hour his bell is rung only by eternal winds, and the alarm is an almost certain message that the rapids are near and that he is wanted at the helm. On Atlantic liners I have never heard the ominous note that calls the captain from his cabin to the bridge without thinking of my midnight bell, and that deeper darkness, and that more awful channel.

It was the doctor's boy who thus summoned me, bidding me hurry to Elsie's bedside, for the tide was ebbing fast, he said. I was soon on my way through the frosty night, silently imploring the unseen Pilot that He would safe into the haven guide. To His great wisdom and His sheltering love I committed all the case, making oath beneath the silent stars that I had myself no other hope than this with which I hurried to yonder dying one. For a man's own heart must swear by the living Lord, or else he will find no path through the dread wilderness of death for the unreturning feet.

When the outskirts of the town were but well behind me, I saw in the distance a solitary light which I knew at once to be the death-chamber lamp; at sight whereof my heart has never outgrown a strange leap of trembling fear, like a scout when he catches the first warning gleam of the enemy's campfire. Yonder, I said to myself, is the battle-field of a soul, struggling with its last great foe; yonder the central crisis of all time and all eternity; yonder the heaving breast, the eager, onward look, the unravelling of mystery, the launching of a soul upon eternal seas.

No life is ever commonplace when that lamp burns beside it, and no wealth, or genius, or greatness can palliate its relentless gleam. There, continued I, stands the dread unseen Antagonist, asking no chair, demanding no courtesy, craving no welcome, resenting no frowning and averted face; calmly does he brook the terror and the hatred excited by his uninvited advent, serene in the confidence that his is the central figure, that the last word is his, though all pretend to ignore his presence. Like a sullen creditor he stands, careless that every man's hand is against him, relentlessly following his prey, willing that all others should wait his time and theirs, intent only that this night shall have its own.

And yet, I thought, what a false picture is this that my coward heart hath drawn! There is Another in that room, I cried half loud, Another there before me, whose swift feet have outrun my poor trudging through the snow. For He is there who lit that feeble lamp itself, and it burns only by His will. Death-lamp though it be, it is still a broken light of Him, witness, in its own dark way, to the All-kindling Hand. The Lover of the soul is yonder, and will share His dear-bought victory with my poor dying one.

Whereat I pressed on eagerly, for I love to witness a reprieve, such as many a time it hath been mine to see when the Greater Antagonist prevails.

The death damp was on Elsie's brow when I knelt beside her bed, but her eyes were kindled from afar, and a great Presence filled the room. Donald was bowed beside her, his wife's wasted hand clasped passionately in his own.

I knelt over the dying woman and softly repeated the swelling anthem which no lips can sing aright till the great Vision quickens them: "These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb."

Elsie's voice blended with the great words, and turning her lustrous eyes full on my face, she murmured—

"It's a' bricht and blythesome whaur I'm walkin' noo—there's no valley here nor nae glen ava, but the way is fu' o' licht and beauty."

Her eyes sought her husband's face: "Oh, Donal'! To think we canna walk this way thegither! We've clomb the hill thegither, Donal', mony a time sair an' weary, but oor hairts were stoot when the brae was stae; but noo I've reached the bonnie bit ayont the brae, an' ye're a' 'at's wantin', Donal', to mak' it fair beautiful! But ye'll no' be lang ahint me, wull ye, Donal'?—an' the Maister 'll come back to guide ye, gin I'm gone bye the gate. An' we'll aye walk thegither in the yonner-land."

Donald's face was dry, but drawn in its agony. Its ache passed on into my soul. He bent over her like some bowing oak, and the rustle of love's foliage was fairly audible to the inward ear, though the oak itself seemed hard and gnarled as ever. He whispered something, like a mighty organ lilting low and sweet some mother's lullaby, and no tutor except Great Death could have taught Donald that gentle language. For I caught the word "darling," and again "oor Saviour," and once "the hameland," and it was like a lark's gentlest note issuing from a mighty mountain's cleft.

O Death, how unjustly thou hast been maligned! Men have painted thee as cruel, monstrous, hateful, the enemy of love, the despoiler of the home, the spirit of harshness, the destroyer of all poesy and romance. And yet thou hast done more to fill life with softness and with gentle beauty than all the powers of life and light whose antagonist thou hast been called. Thou hast heaped coals of fire on thy traducers' heads. For hast thou not made the heaviest foot fall lightly with love's considerate tread? Hast thou not made the rough, coarse palm into a sanctuary and pavilion wherein the dying hand may shelter? Hast thou not taught the loud and boisterous voice the new song of tenderness and pity, whispering like a dove? Within thy school the rude and harsh have learned the nurse's gentle art, and the world's swaggering warriors serve as acolytes before thy shadowy altar. The peasant's cottage owes to thee its transformation to cathedral splendour, the censers gently swinging when thou sayest the soul's great mass, at even, or at midnight, or at the cock-crowing, or in the morning. Thou hast classed together the hovel and the palace, glowing with equal solemn grandeur, so that no man can tell the one from the other when the crape upon the door betokens that thou tarriest there. Thou hast promoted sodden sleep to be the most awful metaphor of time. Thou hast stripped wealth and grandeur, leaving them but a shroud, and hast clothed obscurity and poverty with their eternally suggestive robe; thou hast affirmed, and thou preserved, that grim average of life which greatness refuses, which littleness fears, to realize. Romance and Poetry and Fancy are thy wards, making as thou dost the most holden eyes to overleap time's poor horizon, following departed treasure with wistful and unresigning love, as birds follow their ravaged nests, crying as they go. Oh, sombre chantress! Thou hast filled the world with song, plaintive and piteous though it be.

"What is it, mother?" I heard Donald whisper; and the answer evidently came back to him from the dying lips. For he turned to me, his face full of tragedy: "She's talkin' aboot Robin," he said hoarsely; "but ye dinna ken. Robin was oor laddie—an' he's oor laddie yet, though we've had nae word o' him for mony a year. Him an' me pairted in wrath, an' he went oot intil the dark nicht. I was ower prood tae ca' him back, but his mither followed him to the moor, cryin' after him—an' she cam' back alane."

Donald stopped suddenly, for the mother's struggling voice was heard: "Come hame, Robin, for it's cauld an' dark, an' ye've been ower lang awa; but there's a place at the ingle for ye yet, my bairn. I've aye keepit it for ye, an' I keepit the fire burnin' ever sin' ye left us. I wadna let it oot. An' ilka nicht I pit the lamp i' the window, for I aye thocht, 'He'll mebbe come the nicht.'"

"She's wanderin'," Donald said to me, awe mingling with his voice.

"She's found the wanderer," I said; and we both moved nearer, each signalling the other to be still.

Elsie's gaze passed us by, outgoing far into the darkness.

"Na, na, Robin; yir faither'll no' be angry. I ken fine a' ye say is true, but he's yir faither for a' that. An' he loves ye maist as weel as me; but oh, my bonnie, there's nane loves ye like yir mither! His hairt's fair broken for ye, Robin. I'll tell ye something, but ye maunna tell yir faither. I heard him pray for ye all alane by himsel'. He prayed to God to bring ye back—he ca'd ye Robin richt to God. An' I never heard yir faither greet afore or syne. The Buik, tae, it wad open o' itsel' at the prodigal, an' it was his daein', an' he didna think I kent; but I kent it fine, an' I thankit the Heavenly Faither mony a time."

She stopped, exhausted, her soul flickering in her voice. Donald moved, his great form coming athwart her eager, kindling eyes. She stirred, her vision evidently hindered, and Donald stepped quickly from before her, gazing with passionate intentness, his eyes shaded by his hand like one who peers into a lane of light.

"As one whom his mother comforteth, so will—" I began.

"Hush!" said Donald sternly, "she's wi' him yet. Hark ye!"

Her strength seemed now returning, for she went on—

"Ay, Robin, I'm tellin' ye the truth. Yir faither's thocht o' ye is the thocht he had when ye were a bit bairn in his airms."

The anguished father flung himself upon his knees beside the bed, his hand gently stroking his wife's withered cheek.

"Tell him that again, mither; tell him my thocht o' him was aye the same as yir ain, when I thocht o' him atween God an' me. Tell him me an' you baith thocht the same. Bid him hame, Elsie. Oh, mither, I've been the wanderer masel', an' I'm weary."

My heart melted in me at this, for the eternal fatherly was sobbing through his voice.

The familiar tones seemed to call Elsie back from her delirium, for she suddenly looked upon us as if we had not been there before.

"Oh, faither, Robin's comin' hame the nicht. Is the lamp kindled in the window? We've baith been wae these mony years, but the mirk'll be past an' by when oor laddie's safe hame wi' us again."

A strange sense of the nearness of the supernatural took possession of me, for Elsie's voice was not the voice of fevered fancy; the fast ebbing tide of life seemed to flow back again, her strength visibly increased, as if she must remain till her Robin had been welcomed home.

In spite of reason, I fell to listening eagerly, wondering if this were indeed the act of God. Why should it be thought a thing incredible with us that the Rebuilder of Bethany's desolated house should still ply His ancient industry?

"Raise me up a little, faither, for I maun watch the gate."

Donald lifted his dying wife with caressing easiness.

"That'll dae; ay, we've baith been wae these mony years, but the mirk is bye.

"'Long hath the night of sorrow reigned, The dawn shall bring us light.'

The morn is wi' us, Donal', an' Robin's at the gate."

Far past the flickering lamp she gazed, and her eyes' light rose and fell in unison with approaching steps.

"He's bye the gate," she cried; and joy held death at bay, for the words chimed like cathedral bells.

Fearsome to behold was the awestruck face which Donald turned to mine, and full of questioning dread, I doubt not, were the eyes that met his own. Was this the doing of the Lord, or was it but the handiwork of death, that wizard oculist, so often lending mystic vision to pilgrims setting under darkness out to sea?

Leaving death and Elsie to their unequal conflict, we started with one impulse to the window; but Donald was there before me, his eyes shaded by his hands, burning through the dark a pathway to the gate.

"God be mercifu'," he muttered, and then turned swiftly towards the stairs, for a hand was fumbling at the latch. I waited trembling, and I heard no word; but the aroma of a soul's second spring stole sweet and unafraid into the chamber of death.

* * * * *

I met them at the door as Donald said, "Yir mither's deein'," and there broke from the rugged man beside him a low moaning sound, like to many waters when some opposing thing hath at length been overswept. It was quickly checked, and the silence of love and anguish took its place.

I drew Donald gently back and closed the door upon them twain, the waiting mother and the wandering son, for there was never bridal hour like to this.

"My mither, oh, my mither!" I heard him say; and Elsie spoke no word, but the long ache was ended and the great wound was well.

'Twas but a moment again when a trembling voice called, "Faither, she's wantin' ye."

We entered the love-lit room, and Elsie beckoned him swiftly to her side.

"I maun be gaun sune," she whispered, and then followed some words too low for my ears to catch.

Donald turned to me: "She wants to hae the sacrament dispensit till us a'," and his face was full of dubious entreaty, for the kirk session of St. Cuthbert's was sternly set against private administration.

The session and its rules were in that moment to me but as the dust. Beyond their poor custody was a holy hour such as this. The little table was quickly spread, the snow-white bread and the wine pressed by a mother's priestly hands. I was about to proceed with the holy ordinance when Elsie stopped me.

"Bide a meenit. Donal', get ye the token, the ane wee Elsie loved. My hairt tells me she's no' far awa the noo. She'll e'en show forth the Lord's deith alang wi' us. The Maister o' the feast is here, and why wad He no' bring oor Elsie wi' Him? Wha kens but I'll gang hame wi' them baith?"

Her husband, obedient to the seer's voice, passed quickly to an adjoining room, and in an instant reappeared, bearing the well-worn token in his hands, the same his dying child had fondly held; and I heard again the low refrain which grief had taught him years ago: "Christ an' oor Elsie—an' her mither." This last was new, learned in sorrow's latest hour.

He handed it to his wife, who took it, turning her wan face to mine.

"There's only ane, but it'll dae us a'—let Robin haud it. Tak' it, laddie; it's warm frae yir sister's haun'."

The wanderer's reverent hand received it, and holy memories, long banished, flowed back into the heart that had not been their home since the golden days of boyhood. Of his mother and his sister were they all, and they laved that heart till it was almost clean, for they were in disguise but memories of God, foreshadowing the Greater Incarnation.

"Noo we're ready, an' we're a' here. Raise the psalm, faither, the sacrament ane," she said faintly—"tak' St. Paul's," and Donald's quavering voice essayed—

"I'll of salvation take the cup, On God's name will I call; I'll pay my vows now to the Lord Before His people all.

* * * * *

Dear in God's sight is His saints' death, Thy servant, Lord"—

but the faltering voice refused.

I broke the bread and poured the wine, handing the sacred emblems first to the dying one, so soon to take them new in the kingdom of God. Then Donald partook, and buried his face in his hands. To Robin next I proffered the holy symbols, but he drew back, stretching forth his hands towards the bed.

"I daurna—I've wandered ower far," he said. "I hear the russlin' o' the husks."

"Dinna fear, Robin," whispered his mother's lips. "We're a' but bairns comin' back to oor Faither's hoose; God loves ye mair than either yir faither or me,—I'm near the kingdom, an' I ken."

"My son, my laddie,"—it was his father's broken voice,—"let us tak' the feast thegither. I'm a puir prodigal masel'—but the door is open wide, an' we'll baith come hame to God."

"I'll tak' it frae ma mither's hands," said Robin.

I handed the elements to her, ordained from all eternity to minister to the son she bore; with trembling hands she dispensed them to him, high priestess unto God, her dying eyes distilling the very love which shed its fragrance when the all but dying Saviour first brake the holy bread.

When we were through, Elsie's voice was heard saying to herself "Unto Him who loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood," which was followed by a long silence.

"Wull ye no' pronounce the benediction?" Donald said at last, for he was by nature an ecclesiastic.

"Did you not hear it?" I replied.

The silence deepened, the breathing grew heavier, and we two stood together looking down upon her face. Robin's was by his mother's. Suddenly her eyes opened wide, fastening themselves upon her son.

"I'll sune win hame," she murmured gladly, "an' I want ye to say yir bit prayer to me, Robin, afore I gang, the way ye did when ye were a bairnie. Kneel doon, Robin, an' say it to me, an' we'll baith say it to God, for I'm weary tae. 'Noo I lay me,' ye ken."

The strong man bowed beside his mother's bed, and the great anthem began, the sobbing bass of the broken heart mingling with the feeble dying voice—

"Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray Thee Lord my soul to keep; If I should die before I wake, I pray Thee Lord my soul to take."

Suddenly she pointed with uplifted hand: "Oh, faither, I see oor Elsie's face—an' the token's in her haun', an' it's a' bricht wi' gowden licht. She's biddin' us a' hame—me, an' faither, an' Robin——" and she passed into the homeland bearing the prodigal's name with her up to God.

I gently closed her eyes. Donald stood long beside the bed; then, taking his son into his arms, he said—

"Yir mither's bye the gate."



XIX

A MAIDEN'S LOVE

What self-contradicting things we are! The very joys we crave bring sorrow when they come; for they crowd out some only lesser joy, which, rejected, turns to bitterness and takes its long revenge. It is one of the blessed laws of life that no heart, however hospitable, can entertain more than one sorrow at one time, how many so ever be waiting at the door. Each must wait its turn.

But alas! Joy has its corresponding law; every heart's pleasure is an alternative, and if much we would enjoy, much also we must renounce. Joy usually comes as twins, and the great perplexity is to discern which the first-born is, that our homage may not return unto us void.

Of many of our deepest longings may it not be said that their fulfillment would be our keenest disappointment? For instance, the wife of our family physician is forever lamenting that no spouse in all New Jedboro sees as little of her husband as does she, forever longing that he might be released to the enjoyment of his own fireside. Yet should a fickle or convalescent public suddenly so release him, our doctor's wife would be of all women most miserable.

Even as I write, I am disturbed by a lad of twenty who starts to-day on his long journey to Athabasca and the waiting prairies of our great Canadian West.

Full of pathetic joy is his youthful face; but his mother is bowed beside the bed whereon she gave him birth—her cup, she thinks, would be full to overflowing if her first-born son were suddenly to dispack his box and take up the old nestling life again. The sun would have turned back to its undimmed meridian, she weens; and yet she knows full well that this very longing, were it gratified, would poison her overflowing cup and tarnish her mother's pride. If she were asked to choose between these two, womanlike, she would elect to have them both—but God forbids.

The youth's father says: "Let the lad go forth"—and God is a Father, though He takes counsel of a mother-heart.

All this reflective vein flows from this poor heart of mine, the truth whereof that heart hath sorrowfully proved.

For my daughter Margaret holds within it a place of solitary tenderness, more exclusively her own as the years go by. And I too was forced to the great alternative, the same which hath wrung uncounted parents' hearts before I saw the light, the same as will rend thousands more when that poor light has filtered through darkness into Day.

What father is there who can contemplate without dismay the prospect of his only daughter surrendered to another's care, though that other press the cruel claim of a mate's more passionate love? Where is the father that does not long to shelter his child's sweet innocence forever within the pavilion of his heart's loving tenderness? And yet, where is the father who would be free from torture, were he assured that his soul's yearning would be satisfied, and that no high claim of unrelated love would ever rival or dispute his own?

It was my own fault that Margaret's attachment to Angus Strachan came to me as a bolt from the blue. I had never dreamed of it—I was so sure of everybody loving Margaret that I never thought of anybody loving her. Of course it was easily seen that their friendship was mutually cherished; but friendship, although a mother's hope, is a father's reassurance. Margaret's mother had more than once spoken of their friendship in that portentous tone which all women hope to assume before they die; and her words exuded the far-off fragrance of orange blossoms. She began with the assurance that the friendship between Angus and our Margaret had no particular meaning—to which I agreed. A little later on she ventured the remark that she did not think Angus cared for Margaret except as a friend—to which also I cheerfully agreed. Later still, she resorted to the interrogative, and asked me if I thought Margaret would ever marry, to which I answered: "I hope so, but she shall not with my consent."

"I was married when I was Margaret's age," added my wife. (What woman is there who does not love to say the same?) "Margaret will soon be twenty."

"Yes, my dear, but few women have the chance that came to you and no man ever had provocation like to mine." This was followed by a passage at arms, during which, of course, the fair debater's lips were sealed.

By degrees my wife's attack upon the subject grew bolder and more frontal.

"Do you think Margaret cares anything for Angus?" she asked, the hour being that post-retiring one sacred in every age to conjugal conference.

"I don't think so—certainly not; why should she? We have a triangular family altogether—two to each of us, and why should she want any more? She has you and me, just as I have you and her, and you have her and me."

"But that is foolish; you don't understand."

"I don't want to understand," I answered drowsily. "Margaret's only a child—and I want to go to sleep; if I don't sleep over my sermon to-night, the people will to-morrow." For it was Saturday night.

But "the child" was not asleep. The love affairs of other hearts are by others easily borne, even though those others be the next nearest and dearest of all. But how different with the maiden's heart that loves, and tremblingly hopes that it loves not in vain! Then doth the pillow burn with holy passion, and considerate sleep, like an indulgent nurse, turns her steps aside, fearing to break in upon the soul's solemn revelry. Even when she ventures nigh, gently withdrawing the still unwearied heart from its virgin joy, do the half open lips still sip from the new found cisterns of sweet and tender bliss.

O holy love! Who shall separate the joy thou bringest from the heart that opens wide to welcome it, even as the flower bares its bosom to the sun?

Darkness and tears and sorrow may follow fast; fears and misgivings and dread discoveries may come close upon thy train; broken-heartedness and bleak perpetual maidenhood may be thine only relics; or, flowering with the years, the thorns of grief and poverty and widowhood may grow where youthful fancy looked for radiant flowers; the heart which echoed with thy bridal song may yet peal forth the Rachel cry—but thou belongest to the heart forever, and none of these can dispossess the soul of its unforgotten transport. Nor fire, nor flood, nor fraud can prevail against thee! Thy treasures moth and rust doth not corrupt nor thieves break through and steal!

As a burning building lends its heat to all beside it, so was my own soul kindled, half with rapture and half with anger, by the story of Margaret's passion. Father's and daughter's hearts were never pressed closer to each other than were mine and my only child's.

It was the succeeding Sunday night that Margaret, in her father's arms, breathed out the tender tale; I was enjoying my evening smoke (a post-sermonic anodyne), but long before Margaret had finished, my cigar was in ashes and my heart in flame.

"Father," she began, her face hidden on my shoulder, "I am either very happy or very wretched, and I cannot decide which till I know which you will be."

"The old problem, daughter, is it not?" I answered. "Still longing to enter a hospital? And you want to wheedle your old father into giving you up?" for Margaret, like every other modern girl, had been craving entrance to that noble calling. The high-born and the love-lorn, those weary of life, or of love, or both, find a refuge there.

"No, father, I was not thinking of that at all. I don't want to be a nurse any more."

"What is it then? You have never had any secrets from your father and you will not have any now, will you, dear one?"

"Oh, father, I will tell you all I can—but I cannot tell you all."

I started in my chair, for the child note was absent from her words, and the passion of womanhood was in its stead. Awesome to a father's heart is that moment wherein a daughter's voice unconsciously asserts the suffrage of her soul.

"Go on, my daughter—tell me what you may," I said, for I knew now that the realm was one wherein parental authority was of no avail.

Only silence followed; her lips spoke no word, but the heaving bosom had a rhetoric all its own and told me that a new life, begotten not of mine, was throbbing there. An alien life it seemed to me, a soul's expansion beyond the province of my own, an infinitude which denied the sway of even a father's love. At length she spoke:

"Oh, father, I will tell you all—that is, all I can. But I am so lonely. You cannot follow me, father. I have gone away in—with another—in where you cannot go."

"What mean you, Margaret? In where? Where can I not come?" I asked, perplexed.

"Father, let me tell you. I am speaking in a figure, I know—but it is the only way—and you will understand. Love is a far country, and prodigals take their journey there—but they seek it two by two. Oh, father, another one and I went off together to that far, far land and those who go leave father and mother far behind. But there is no hunger and no famine there."

Rich the endowment love bestows! While we had all thought Margaret anything but dull, yet this new speech of metaphor and music fell upon my ears as a great surprise. That live coal from off God's altar had touched her lips when first another's burning lips of love anointed them with flame. When this new sun arises, the humblest of God's meadow creatures know that the soul has wings and spread them in that holy light.

Closer to my breast I pressed the heart whose tumult, as it struggled with its muffled witnesses, started the same passionate riot in my own.

"There are many voices in your heart, daughter mine; let them speak every one and tell me all their story. Where is it that your father cannot come?"

"Father," she answered, with sweet calmness but with averted face, "I never loved you more than now. But love's joy is in its loneliness, its sweet bridal loneliness. It was a long weary way that another one and I—you know his name, and I cannot speak it yet—walked together, but not alone together; for others walked besides us—and friendship is a cruel thing. But oh, father dear, one day—no, it was in the gloaming, we saw an avenue far beyond; and we both knew it was for us and for us alone. I saw it first, but I did not let Angus know. But he saw it in a moment and he started quickly on. Then my feet fell back, though my heart pressed on with his. But Angus would not let me stop. He hurried me on; and it was sweet to be overborne, for love makes a man so strong and a woman so weak.

"When we came close up to where you enter in, I saw that the way within was sweet, and shadowy, so shadowy, but I saw that it was long, so long. And I turned away, though my heart never turned. But Angus's eyes never moved from the avenue, and he whispered that it was meant for us two—just for us two—and for none on earth beside; he said no one could go in alone, because it would vanish if they did—and he held me close—and we went in together—and we shall come out no more forever. That is where you cannot come, father—nor mother, nor dearest friend can. You could not if you would, for it is God who keeps the gate."

Her trembling voice was still, but throbbing heart and swelling bosom still poured forth their passionate utterance.

Soon her lips opened again, yielding before the inner tide.

"And father," her hot cheek pressed to mine foretold the ardent story, "it was at evening, as I said, and Angus and I had wandered far—farther than we thought. We were resting on a grassy knoll. Angus had been speaking of his mother, and he said that the beauty of nature always made his heart ache. Surely, father, there is nothing so lonesome as beauty when the heart's lonesome! Angus and I were still a long time—till it was growing dusk; and then at last he said, 'How lonely all this is if no one loves you!' And I started at his tone, and when my eyes met his I went down before them, for they caressed me so. Father dear, I need not tell you all. I could not if I would—no girl could. I know, I remember, oh, I remember what he said, and no one else knows but me, and my soul trusted him and he took me into the sheltering place where nobody but God could see my soul's surrender."

"My daughter, my little daughter," was all I said.

"Wait, father," her face now was hidden deep and she was whispering into my very heart, "there is another thing I want to tell you—no, two things, for they were both together.

"Father, he kissed me—on the lips—and I did not believe it; for just a moment before we had been listening to the crickets and looking at the sun. But he kissed me on the lips and my whole soul surged hot, and my eyes were closed—for I felt him coming and I could not speak or move.

"And I don't know why, but I thought of the sacrament and the holy wine, and everything was holy—not like music, but like a bell, a great cathedral bell with its unstained voice. And father (I shall feel purer when I tell you this), father, that very moment I felt a strange new life in my breast and the old girlish life was gone—and there came before my closed eyes a vision of another just like Angus, white and soft and helpless—and I heard its cry—and my heart melted in me with the great compassion. And I knew that what I called love was really life, just life. And I felt no shame at all, but a great pride that it was all so holy—for it is holy, father, and no one prompted it but God. Father, do you love me?"

I bent to kiss the glowing lips, but I remembered, and kissed her brow instead, beautiful and pure before my misty eyes. She drew herself gently from my arms and in a moment the sweet presence had departed. But the fragrance of love and innocence was left behind and my faltering answer came at last, though she heard it not:

"Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God."



XX

A FATHER'S CRUCIFIXION

It is from joy alone that real sorrow can be brewed. Were joy to perish from the earth human lips would soon forget the bitter taste of anguish. The only intolerable clouds are those which follow swift upon some rosy morn, frowning its every sunbeam into darkness, pursuing its fugitive smiles as the hound pursues the deer. The soul's great sickness is in joy's relapse.

Into the tide of our daughter's virgin gladness her mother and I were soon gladly swept. Love and joy are incendiary things and we soon succumbed to the sweet contagion. Apart altogether from our daughter's choice, he might well have been our own; for Angus Strachan was strong of body and vigorous of mind, and pure of soul. He had made swift strides in his chosen calling, and was now a partner in one of the manufacturing firms which were New Jedboro's pride. At the door of industry he had knocked with patient hand, and wealth had answered to that knock herself. He was a man of influence, ever increasing, in New Jedboro. In St. Cuthbert's, he was held in high esteem by all, and the next election, we knew, would call him to the elder's honoured place. Prepossessing in appearance, manly in bearing, musical in speech, fragrant in character, Angus might well wake the echoes of even our Margaret's noble heart.

Wherefore there was joy in St. Cuthbert's manse, and in its three devoted hearts, beating high with a common hope. Our morning sun shone radiantly.

But the eclipse came suddenly. It was again the Sabbath evening, and Margaret again was nestling close, her face bearing more and more the beauty which love's tuition gives.

"Father," she suddenly began, "I want to ask you something."

"What is it, child?" I said.

"You know that verse in the Bible that says:—'Who did sin, this man or his parents?' You know the verse. Well father, who did sin? Was it the man, or was it his parents?"

"What a strange question, child! What on earth has that to do with you?"

"Never mind, father—let us stick to the text," she answered. "You are a minister and I want you to stick to the text. Tell me who did sin?"

"Well, if the man's blindness was because of sin, since he was born blind and since he couldn't sin before he was born, I suppose it must have been his parents," I answered slowly. "What difference does it make to you?" For I was curious to know.

"And don't you think," she went on unheedingly, "that it was cruel for anybody to hold that poor man responsible for his parents' sin?"

"I suppose so, but why are you catechizing me like this, burrowing among old questions of two thousand years ago?"

"Oh, father, there are no old questions," and there was a strange cry in her voice, "because there are no old lives. They are all new every day—they all live again, father. Sin is new and sorrow is new—and the Cross is new, father—so new and so cruel," she cried, the tears now flowing fast, "and that question isn't old—it is asked every day. And it is asked of me—and I have to answer it, and answer it as you have done, and as the compassionate Saviour would have done," she concluded, her voice trembling with its passion.

"What on earth do you mean, Margaret? Sin, sorrow, the Cross, what have these to do with you?" I asked eagerly.

"It was only last night that Angus told me. Poor fellow, his face was white when he came and his look was full of agony. Of course I asked him to tell me what was the matter. We were in the library, for I always took him there because it has a fireplace, and we both love to watch the fire. I had laid the wood myself last night before Angus came, and there was never task so dear—it was the gloaming when I laid it, but I knew it would soon be bright.

"But about his answer to my question. Surely no maiden yet had so strange an answer. For, without a word, he went to the desk and took the Bible in his hands. When he had found the place he stood before me and read me this:

"'Then cometh Jesus with them unto the place called Gethsemane.... My soul is exceeding sorrowful unto death.... My Father if this cup may not pass away from Me except I drink it, Thy will be done.'

"His voice was strange to me, and I was trembling for I didn't know what he meant. But I knew it was my Judgment Day.

"'Angus,' I said faintly, 'what do you mean? What has that to do with us? That is a story of two thousand years ago.'

"'Margaret,' he answered, 'the story of Gethsemane is never old. Its willows cast the same shadows yet as those into which our Saviour crept. And that cup is never empty, though human lips are ever draining it to its dregs. It is close to my lips to-night—and to your sweet lips too, my darling—and we must drink it together.'

"'Together, Angus,' I said, 'thank God for that.' The word was sweet. Oh, father, head-winds are precious unto love if only love's hands together hold the sail.

"After a long silence Angus spoke again and my poor heart had to listen.

"'Margaret,' he began, 'no man ever renounced what I renounce to-night, for no man ever loved as I love you, though I reckon many a man would swear the same, knowing not his perjury—for none can know my love. And joy, and pride, and home—and all with which our pure thought had enriched our home—all these must I surrender now. I must give up everything but love—and that is mine forever. Oh, Margaret, I won you, did I not? I, a poor Scottish laddie, a herd among the heather. I came to Canada lang syne, and by and by I won you, did I not, Margaret?

"'But I must give you up—and I will tell you why.

"'It was not hard for me to find that story of Gethsemane. When I was but a laddie among the Scottish hills my mother's Bible aye opened at that very place; and laddie though I was, I noticed it, for the page was marked and worn and soiled with tears.

"'I asked my mother many a time why the Book aye opened there and what soiled and marked it so. She told me not for long, saying only that it was marked and soiled before her laddie had been born.

"'But the night before I sailed from Annan Foot, she put her arms about me and she told me of the anguish of her soul and all about the tear-stained place—for she told me of her own Gethsemane and of the bitter cup, and said that her laddie's lips could pass it by no more than hers.

"'And ever since that night ma ain buik aye opens at Gethsemane. Oh, Margaret, you understand, do you not?' he cried, 'I am not worthy of you and of your love.

"'The far-off strain of sin starting from another heart than mine (another than my mother's, by the living God) has stained my name. Mine is an unhallowed name. Mine is a shadowed birth. Mine is the perpetual Gethsemane and mine the unemptied cup!

"'Forgive me, Margaret, for the wrong I did you. I should never have spoken love to you at all, or if I did, I should have told you of the blight upon it; but the sky and the trees and the hill were clothed that night in the beauty that wrapt my soul and I thought that God had forgotten and had shrived me in the same sacred light. But He does not forget. That light itself cannot drive the shadow from Gethsemane and the cup has never since been absent from my lips.'

"Angus stopped—and God watched over me; for He pitied me.

"I thought of you and mother first, but God still kept my will in His. I wanted God to lead me and I asked Him to help me—and I waited.

"'Angus,' I said at last, 'your mother loved him, did she not?'

"'Loved!' he answered, 'her pure heart knew no other passion. My own is but an echo. Behold! I was shapen in love.'

"'Then,' said I, 'let her that is without love cast the first stone at her. If any sinning woman love, she has an advocate with the Father. Oh, Angus! Come to me!' I cried, for I was fainting."

* * * * *

Her story was finished now and my daughter added not a word. But she arose and stood before me, her eyes searching my pallid face for a verdict, if haply it might be like her own. I noticed the woman's tactics in her move, for woman's genius makes its home within her soul; she had left my arms that I might, if I would, hold them out to her again and take her back forever. But the arms have their hinges in the heart and mine was tight locked like a vise.

"Margaret," I said at last, and my voice was like the voice of age, "you do not mean that you suffered this man's caresses after he told you what you have just told me?"

Sorrow looked from Margaret's eyes.

"Suffered!" she replied, "suffered! I have learned what suffering is, God knows, but He knows it was not there I learned it. 'This man.' Oh, father, I love him—am I all alone?"

How strong is the weakness of love! There is no panoply like that which love provides, and she who bears it has the whole armour of God.

"Margaret," I pleaded, "you surely will not ruin your life and break your mother's heart and mine by any madness such as this."

"'Ruin my life,' father! what ruin can there be to the life that loves and is loved? I have no life at all apart from him. It seems so simple. I can't take back my heart!"

"Perhaps so, my daughter," I replied, "perhaps so. I know your love is no fickle thing. But Margaret, you do not propose to link your life with his, shadowed as you yourself declare it to have been from his birth?"

"Father, it is already linked. It was not I who linked our lives, nor was it he; nor was it both together—it was God. Surely He wouldn't have let me love and trust, if it was wrong. I want you to help me; I am all alone."

"But you do not mean," I cried with growing warmth, "that I, the minister of St. Cuthbert's Kirk, New Jedboro, am to be called upon to take into my family and to acknowledge as my son, a man who cannot speak his father's name, who cannot," for I was maddening fast, "speak it even to himself, forsooth, because he knows not what it is?"

"Oh, father, do not press me so; I love you—and I love him too, and——"

"But about our family?" I asked hotly.

"I forgot about families," she sobbed. "Oh, father, teach this poor heart of mine to love no more and I will obey your every wish—but it is hard for love to serve two masters."

My heart was wrung by her plaintive voice; but love dwells hard by cruelty, and my self-control was going fast. Let those defend me who have known my agony.

"You know, I suppose, the result that will issue from your madness? You know what it will mean to your future relations here?" I asked hoarsely, explaining my threat by a glance about the room.

"Don't call it madness, father," she replied, pleadingly. "There is no madness in love. I cannot help it, father. Why should I? Surely Angus is the same as he was when first I loved him. I haven't learned anything new about the soul of him, father."

"But his origin?" I interrupted.

"But he is good, father,—and kind—and true—and he loves me."

It was but a moment till I was past the bounds of reason. Disappointment, pride, shame, anger—all these had their cruel way with me. I am covered with confusion as with a garment while I try to record what followed, though I could not tell it all, even if I would. There is no cruelty like the cruelty of love. For the anguished soul pours out the vials of its remorse and self-reproach upon the well loved head, and fury waxes with its shame.

"I want none of your preaching," and my voice was coarse with anger; "you are a willful and disobedient child and you may as well learn first as last who is the master of this house. Do you hear?"

"Yes, I hear,—and my heart is broken. You want me to go away and not to see me any more. And I don't know where to go."

She was kneeling now and the tears were dropping hot upon my hand, which she had taken in both of hers. "Oh, father, when birdlings leave the nest, surely God wants them to go, because He gives them wings. Father, dear, oh, do not push me out in this cruel way. I want to keep you and Angus both—and mother. Am I really wrong?

"Father, you are a preacher of the Everlasting Gospel, and doesn't that say we were all born wrong and need to be born again? You said only last Sunday that if we're once on the Rock, God forgets all about the pit and the miry clay. And you said God makes the past new—all new, and that all the redeemed ones are just the same in His sight—all good, and with the past away behind them. I thought it was beautiful, because I thought about Angus—and it seemed just like the Saviour's way."

My heart was wrung with a great desire to take the bended form unto myself. I half moved forward to kiss the lips of this kneeling priestess unto love. But as I did so the memory of other lips that had been pressed to them rolled in upon me and swept away the better impulse. I faltered into compromise.

"Margaret, you are still my daughter and I am touched by what you say. Let us find common ground. Promise me that you will suspend judgment in this matter for a year, your promise meantime to be revoked and at the end of that time, we will take it up afresh. This will give time for sober judgment."

But her blanched face turned to mine, and the white lips spoke again. "Oh, spare me, father, for I cannot—you know I cannot—oh, father, pity me!"

My soul flamed with ungovernable anger. I did pity her and this it was that stirred my cruelty. For my soul relapsed to barbarous coarseness and I said: "Then choose between us—you can have your ——," and I called him an awful word, the foulest of all words, whose very sound speaks the shame it means to tell, the curse of humanity hissed in its nauseous syllables.

And more—but how can I write it down! I did not strike her—but I thrust her from me; I laid my coward hand upon her shoulder—not in violence nor heavily, but eternal menace was in it. For I pushed her from me, crying brutally: "Quote me another Scripture. Have you not chosen the better part? There is the door which his shadow first accursed—you see the door?" and I hurled the poisoned word at her again.

She looked at me but once—as one, suddenly awakening, looks at her assassin. Then she went out, a lover as white as snow.



XXI

The OLD PRECENTOR'S NEW SONG

As a stream emerges from its forest tunnel, eluding the embrace of tangled shadows, swiftly gliding from sombre swamps and hurrying towards the sunlit plain, its phantom weeds of widowhood exchanged for its bridal robe of light; so doth this tale of mine glide forth from the sable shadows which garrison the chapter it has left behind.

No man loves to linger by his scaffold, though it be cheated of its last adornment, and though no eye behold its grinning outline but its own. For there are shadowy scaffolds, and invisible executioners, sitting at our own boards and eating of our own bread, discernible only in a glass. Our own Sheriffs and Executioners are we all.

Swift in the wake of sorrow came the unromantic form of toil. Thank God! Work is sorrow's cure, its hands like the hands of an enemy, but its voice the voice of an Eternal friend. For duty is God's midwife, sent to deliver the soul that travails in its anguish.

It was but the day after Margaret had passed from out my door, girding it as she went with crape, invisible to other eyes, that I was called to Archie McCormack's house. The day was bright and clear, but I knew it not—for in this doth sorrow make us like to God, that then the darkness and the light are both alike.

For some months past, my old precentor had been failing fast. The doctor said it was his heart, but none of us believed it; for his heart had grown larger, stronger, happier with every passing year. Its outer life might perish if it would, but its inner life was renewed day by day. Indeed, his soul's second harvest seemed to take the form of cheerfulness, the scantiest crop of all in the stern seasons of his earlier life. Even merriment sought to bloom before the frost should come.

The very day before Margaret and I began our life's Lenten season, I had been to see him, little thinking that my next visit was to be the last. My own heart was full of that joy whose overflow Margaret had entrusted to its care—which is a great gift to a minister, this gift of gladness, seeking as he does to irrigate the thirsty plains of life about him.

"How is my precentor to-day?" I asked as I sat down at the blazing hearth. He was lying on the couch, the fourth gradation—the field, the veranda, the room, the couch, the bed, the grave—thus the promotion runs!

"I'm by or'nar glad to see ye," he replied, evasively. "The auld freens are the best."

"That's good, Archie, the old friends are glad to hear it. They hear it seldom from Scottish lips, however hopefully they suspect it."

"We're nae muckle given to compliments—I'll grant ye that. But whiles we think; an' whiles we speak—an' whiles we wunna. But I'm no backward in tellin' a man gin I care for him. Noo, I was sayin' to the wife this verra day that yon man ye brocht frae Montreal last simmer was like eneuch a graun preacher—I'm no disputin' that, mind ye. But I was sayin' to the wife as hoo I likit yirsel' fully mair nor him."

I smiled with pleasure, for the process was an interesting one. Bouquets look strange in these rough Scottish hands—but their fragrance is the sweeter for all that.

"I understand, Archie. You do not often pay a compliment, but I know its sincerity when it comes and I appreciate it all the same."

He had not finished, for he felt he had gone too far.

"Aye, that's what I was sayin' to the wife. I likit yirsel' fully better nor him—it's different ye see; I'm gettin' kind o' used to ye, ye ken!"

This made his tribute morally complete. Oh, thou Scotchman! Thou canst not withhold a tincture of lemon from the sweetest cup!

"But how is my precentor to-day?" I renewed, fearful of additional repairs to his eulogy.

"Weel, I'm no' complainin'—an' I'm no' boastin'; but there's mony a yin waur. I'm no' sufferin' pain to speak o'. I can sleep at nicht, an' I tak my parritch, an' I hae ma faculties—an' I'm in God's hauns," he said, the climax coming with unconscious power.

"There's no better bulletin than that," I responded. "I see you still take your smoke, Archie," I added cheerfully, nodding towards an ancient trusty pipe which enjoyed its brief respite on a chair, long his familiar friend, and noticeably breathing out its loyalty where it lay.

"Ou, aye, I dinna lack for ony o' the needcessities o' life, thank God," he replied gratefully, and with utter seriousness.

"What a blessing that you are free from pain," I hurriedly remarked; for the mouth, like a capricious steed, is more easily controlled when it is in motion.

"Aye, that's a great blessin'. I've been uncommon free frae pain. A fortnight syne, I had a verra worritsome feelin' in ma innerts—a kind o' colic, I'm jalousin'. Sandy Grant said as how whusky wi' a little sulphur was gey guid. I tell 't him I never had nowt to dae wi' sulphur i' ma life, an' I wudna begin to bother wi't noo;" and Archie lifted his eyebrows, adjusted his night-cap, and turned upon me a very solemn smile.

He doubtless saw by my face that I approved his caution, for I secretly believed that he was right. Thus confirmed, he lay meditating for a time, but it was soon made evident that his thoughts had not wandered far from the matter in hand.

"Aye, sulphur's nae improvement to whusky," he slowly averred at length, "forbye, I was richt. I was richt frae a medeecinal standpoint, ye ken. The verra next day ma doctor ordered me to tak a little whusky for the pain I tell't ye o'. An' I did; I took it afore he tell't me."

"And it did you good, Archie?" I asked indulgently.

"Guid?" replied Archie, in a tone of much reproach. Then he said no more, scorning to demonstrate an axiom. But he was not through with the subject. The moral had still to be pointed.

"Is't no won'erfu', minister, the law o' compensation that oor Creator gies us, to reach a' through oor lives?

"Pain has its ither side, ye ken. An' when we say as hoo it's an ill wind that blaws naebody guid, we're acknowledgin' the love o' the Almichty. Ilka cloud has aye its siller linin'. Noo, for instance, it was a fearfu' pain I took—but the ither that I took to cure it—it was Scotch," and Archie drew a gentle sigh, half of piety and half of reminiscence.

* * * * *

When next I turned my steps towards Archie's door, though only two short days had fled, all life had changed to me and darkness hung about me like a pall. Upon which change I was bitterly reflecting when I was interrupted by a message that Archie was taken somewhat worse and not expected to live longer than through the night. And I could not but be glad of this summons from my own life's tragedy, that I might share another's. It is God's blessed way. The balm for secret sorrow is in the bosom of another burden, unselfishly assumed; and the Cyrenian of every age hath this for his hire, that, while he bends beneath another's cross, he is disburdened of his own.

I found my old precentor weak, and failing fast, but "verra composed," as we say in New Jedboro.

He welcomed me with a gentle smile.

"Ye'll pray wi' me," he said gravely, "but it'll no' be the closin' prayer. I'm wearin' awa fast, but I'll no' leave ye till the morn, I'm dootin'. Pit up a bit prayer noo—but there's ae thing—dinna mind the Maister o' His promise to come again an' receive me till Himsel'—no' that it isna a gowden word; but I want it keepit till the last an' it's the last word I want to hear. Speak it to me when I hear the surge. That'll gie Him time eneuch, for He'll no' be far awa. An' I want to hear it aboon the billows. Noo pit up yir prayer."

Short and simple were our petitions; for the prayer of little children is best for those who are about to enter into the kingdom of God.

After we had finished, my eyes, unknown to him, were long fixed on Archie's face. For a strange interest centres about those whose loins are girded for long journeys; and I have never outgrown the boyish awe with which I witnessed the loosening of the ropes that held aerial travellers to the earth. I have seen some scores of persons die,

"By many a death-bed I have been And many a sinner's parting seen,"

but the awful tragedy is ever new and familiarity breeds increasing reverence. Death is a hero to his valet.

"You are not afraid, Archie?" I said at length—the old question that springs, not to the dying, but to the living lips.

"Afeart!" said Archie, "what wad I be afeart for?"

"You are not afraid to meet your Lord?" I answered, inwardly reproaching myself for the words.

"Afeart!" repeated the dying man, "afeart to meet ma Lord. Why should I be feart to meet a Man that died for me?"

I inwardly blessed him for the great reply and engaged its unanswerable argument for my next Sabbath's sermon. No man dieth unto himself.

"Wull ye dae something for me?" said Archie, suddenly. "Wull ye write to a man I kent lang syne?"

"Certainly," said I. "Who is the man, Archie?"

"I'll tell ye, gin ma hairt hauds guid a meenit. It's Andra Mathieson—an' he lives in San Francisco. Him an' me gaed to the schule thegither in the Auld Country, an' I hadna seen him for nigh fifty year till last Can'lemas a twalmonth, when I gaed to San Francisco for ma health. He's awfu' rich. He lives in a graun hoose an' he has a coachman wi' yin o' thae coats wi' buttons. But I gaed to see him an' I needna hae been sae feart, for he minded on me, an' he wadna hear o' me bidin' at the taivern, an' he took me to his graun hoose, an' he was ower guid to a plain cratur like me.

"Weel, ae mornin', we was sittin', haein' oor crack aboot the auld days, an' the schule, an' the sheep we herded thegither on the Ettrick hills. But oor crack aye harkit back to the kirk an' the minister an' the catechism, an' a' thae deeper things o' auld lang syne. He said as hoo he had gane far bye thae things, livin' amang the stour o' a' his siller—but he remarkit that he aften thocht o' the auld ways, an' the auld tunes, an' the minister wi' his goon an' bands; an' he said he was fair starvin' for a psalm—or a paraphrase. They dinna sing them in Ameriky. An' I lilted yin till him—we was lookin' far oot at the Gowden Gate, an' it lookit like the crystal water ma een'll sune see."

Archie stopped, though apparently but little exhausted. His eyes seemed flooded with tender memories of that momentous hour on the far distant Pacific Coast.

"What psalm did you sing him?" I ventured, presently.

"It was a paraphrase," he answered, the smile still upon his face. "It was the twenty-sixth:

"'Ho ye that thirst approach the spring Where living waters flow,'

an' Andra grat like a bairn:

"'I haena heard it sin I ran barefit aboot the hills,' he said, an' he wad hae me sing the lines ower again:

"'How long to streams of false delight Will ye in crowds repair?'

an' I'm no' worthy, I ken, but I pit up a bit prayer wi' him—ye mauna think I'm boastin', sir, but I brocht him to Christ, an' when I think on't noo, it's lichtsome, an' I'm minded o' that simmer sun on the Gowden Gate. Ye'll write to him an' tell him we'll sing a psalm thegither yet."

My promise given and Andrew Mathieson's address taken, Archie lay silent for a little time. Swift glances at myself, swiftly withdrawn, denoted his desire to say something more. It came at length and with unmistakable directness.

"I'm dootin' I've been wrang; mebbe I was 'righteous over-much.'"

"What is it, Archie?" I said soothingly. "Some sin? Or some mistake in the days that are gone?"

"I'm no' sayin' it was the yin or the ither," replied the old precentor, a familiar frosty flavour in his voice, "an' if it was, I'll no' confess it to ony yin but God—but I'm misdootin' I was ower hard on the hymes."

"What hymns, Archie?" I asked, seeking only to make easier his acknowledgment of error, ever difficult to Scottish lips. For, if the truth were told, Scotchmen secretly divide sins into three classes, those of omission, of commission, and of admission.

"Ye ken fine," he made reply, "div ye no' mind hoo Margaret an' Angus Strachan compeared afore the Kirk Session wi' their prayer for man-made hymes i' the kirk?"

"Yes, Archie, I remember—the Session denied their request."

Ah me, I thought, how much has befallen Margaret and Margaret's father since that night!

"Ay, I ken that; an' I'm no' regrettin'—but I'm dootin' I was ower hard on the hymes. My speerit was aye ower fiery for an elder. But King Dauvit himsel' was mair fearsome than me wi' blasphemers—no' to ca' Margaret yin; but I'm mindin' that the Maister aye took anither way, a better yin, I'm dootin'. An' I'm feart I was mair like Dauvit, for a' I'd raither be like the Maister."

"You have the right of it, Archie; He showed us the more excellent way."

"Forbye," Archie went on, pursuing his line of thought, "I've my misgivin's aboot wha wrote thae hymes. It wasna the deevil, an' it wasna Watts, an' it wasna yon great Methody body; they set them doon, nae doot—but wha started them? I'm sair dootin' they had their rise amang the hills, the same whaur Dauvit saw the glory o' God."

"Above the hills of time," I added softly.

"An' what's mair, it kind o' came to me that a hyme micht be a prayer, ye ken. Noo, your prayer in the kirk is no' inspired. That is, no' like Dauvit's psalms—but it's upliftin' for a' that. An' I'm thinkin' that mebbe it's nae waur to lilt a prayer than to speak yin, an' mebbe the great Methody was prayin' when he said:

"'Let me to Thy bosom fly,'

an' I'm dootin' we micht dae waur than jine wi' him."

"There is no more fitting prayer for such an hour as this," I responded, thinking it meet to incline his thoughts towards the encircling glow with which the last great morning was already illumining his face.

But Archie still pursued his line of thought. No such great concession as this was to be left undefined; this codicil to his whole life's will and testament must be explained.

"I ken the hymes never had what I micht ca' a fair chance wi' me. My faither cudna thole them, an' he cudna bide ony ither body to thole them. He aye said the heather wasna dry yet wi' the Covenanters' bluid. Ma ain girlie, wee Kirsty,—she likit them fine, but I forbade her. This was the way it cam aboot—div ye mind the year o' the Exposeetion in Paris? Weel, me an' Kirsty's mither took a jaunt an' gaed till't. We was ower three weeks amang thae foreign fowk, wi' nae parritch an' nae psalm. We gaed frae Paris to the auld hame in Ettrick, an' 'twas like gae'n to Abraham's bosom frae the ither place. Weel, the first Sabbath day, we gaed to the auld Scotch kirk, and we were starvin' for the bread o' life.

"Naethin' had we had but the bit sweeties o' the English kirk near by, wi' their confections—an' ance we gaed to the Catholic, but it was a holiday. Weel, as I was sayin', we gaed to the Ettrick kirk an' the minister came into the pulpit wi' his goon an' bands—fair graun it was.

"'Let us worship God,' he said, an' 'twas like the click o' the gate at hame. Then he gied oot a psalm:

"'So they from strength unwearied go Still forward unto strength.'

"The precentor was naethin' graun. I have heard better in St. Cuthbert's. He was oot mebbe a quarter o' a beat in his time, but the auld words had their power; 'twas like as if I heard my mither's voice again, an' I cudna sing for greetin', but my hairt aye keepit time, an' I resolved then no' to let Kirsty sing the hymes ony mair—but I'm misdootin' I've been wrang."

Backward rolled the night and onward rolled the day as we kept our vigil by the dying bed. Ever solemn hour, rehearsal of a darker yet to be! For that same mystery shall wrap every watcher's heart, and others then shall stand by the fallen sentinels.

Archie slumbered and waked by turns. We were just beginning to feel the approach of the magnetic dawn when he awoke from an hour's sleep.

"The nicht's near gane," he said, "an' I'll sleep nae mair; for I aye likit to greet the mornin' licht."

We gathered closer, the old childish instinct which drove us to the wharf's very edge when the sails were being hoisted and the anchor weighed.

He beckoned me closer and I bent to catch his words.

"Ye micht gie thae thochts o' mine to the Session gin the maitter comes up again—aboot the hymes, ye ken, aboot hoo they micht be made intil a prayer."

I silently gave the promise.

"An' mair—I dinna forbid ye to sing a bit hyme at the funeral. Let Wullie Allison lift the tune, for he aye keeps the time. Yon Methody's hyme wad dae:

"'Hide me, oh, my Saviour hide Till the storm of life is past,'

for the wind'll be doon then, I'm hopin'.

"The fowk'll think it strange, for they a' ken my convictions, sae ye'd better close wi' a paraphrase:

"'Then will He own His servant's name Before His father's face.'

That wad dae fine, for it's a' o' grace thegither."

Archie lay silent for a time, breathing heavily, the tumult of the last great conflict blending every moment with the peace of the last great surrender. An instant later, the dying face seemed lightened, like one who descries the lights of home.

"I canna juist mind the words; is it the outgoin' o' the mornin' He makes to rejoice?"

"And the evening," I said quickly, "the evening too, Archie."

"Aye," he answered peacefully, "I thocht He wadna forget the gloamin'. Aye, mair the evenin' than the mornin', I'm thinkin'."

His face was radiant now, for the morning light had passed us watchers by, its glory resting on the face that loved to greet it.

"Haud ma haun, guid-wife," his voice upborne by the buoyancy of death. "I'm slippin' fast into the licht. I see what they ca' the gates o' deith. The licht has found them oot. They've been sair maligned, I'm thinkin'. The pulpit has misca'd them, but the believer's deein' lips can ca' them fair. They're the gates o' deith, nae doot, but the Maister hauds the keys."

We stood as close to the old precentor as we might, but we were in the shadow still. For death seldom shares his surprises with the alien and is selfish with his secret luxuries.

"Hark ye!" the dying man suddenly cried. "Div ye no' hear the sang? It's graun ayont the thocht o' man. They're a' in white, an' it's 'Martyrdom' is the tune. Wha's leadin' them? I see Him fine; it's Him wha made the sang itsel'. It's Him wha's leadin' them. Div ye no' ken what they're singin'? It's the new sang, the sang o' Moses an' the Lamb. An' hark ye! it's the same as the psalm my mither taught me. I canna tell the yin frae the ither."

And the old precentor hurried on to join the choir invisible.



XXII

"The MILLS of The GODS"

Margaret was home again. She had been gone from us two immeasurable days. It was Mr. Blake who rang the bell, for it was his house had sheltered her when my cruel anger drove her from my own. Need and sorrow never turned to him in vain.

When the door was opened, Margaret stood before it alone. Her mother it was who opened unto her, for this is woman's oldest and holiest avocation, door-keeper unto wandering feet. In all His delicate missions woman is God's deputy.

Through all my narrative of this sad affair I have said but little of Margaret's mother, but I know my readers have discerned her presence amid it all, as one discerns a brooding mountain through the mist. The great background of every tragedy is a woman's stately sorrow.

I had been visiting the sick, far more for my sake than for theirs, and was not home when Margaret returned. But a nameless fragrance greeted me at the door, and in my study I found Margaret in her mother's arms. The latter quietly withdrew and the compact between father and daughter was soon complete. It was of mutual surrender, wherein is mutual peace. Margaret's only word was that she could not give her father up—nor Angus—that I must say nothing more about her love and that we must wait—together. Which was all sweet enough to me, for she was mine again, and our manse light had been rekindled.

For the rest, I was willing to wait, on which after all hangs the reality of all joy or sorrow. Every grief hath that opportunity of cure; every joy that peril of vicissitude. Till time hath ceased from her travail, no man can tell her offspring's sex, whether it be rugged care, or sweet and tender joy.

Meantime, Margaret nestled again within the old tender place and we both struggled to nourish our phantom joy. Counterfeit though we both discerned it, yet it passed unchallenged between us and at least kept our souls' commerce from decay. Counterfeit I have called it, for the tenure of another's love was upon her; and her stay with us was like that of a sailor lad who is for a time ashore, waiting for the tardy tide.

* * * * *

The ordination Sabbath was aglow with holy light. God surely loves Presbyterian high days, for they are nearly always beautiful. St. Cuthbert's was filled long before eleven with a reverent and expectant congregation. Five new elders had been elected, three of them their father's successors, for this was a common custom in New Jedboro, and apostolic succession in disguise was in high favour amongst us. Another was a man of seventy or more, for every ordination must recognize the stalwarts whose days of activity were past but whose time for honour was at hand. The remaining elder-elect was Angus Strachan. His choice by the congregation had been unanimous and cordial. His examination by the Session had resulted in hearty confirmation. Our manse tragedy was unknown to any of the elders except Mr. Blake, who preserved complete silence throughout the interview. The ordeal was painful beyond words to me—but it was over, and Angus sat in the front pew with the other four, awaiting ordination to their sacred office.

We had sung the psalm which from time immemorial Presbyterian ministers have announced on all ecclesiastical occasions, the hundred and second psalm, the second version, from the thirteenth verse, reading over again, as their habit is, the first two lines:

"Thou shalt arise and mercy yet Thou to Mount Zion shalt extend;"

the venerable Dr. Inglis of Moffat had preached the sermon from the text:—"Feed the flock of God which is among you," and the elders elect took their places before the pulpit.

I addressed them in what I considered fitting terms, recalling the great traditions of the church they were called to serve and the noble labours of the godly men whose mantles had now fallen upon themselves. I referred to our precious legacy, bequeathed to us from the hands of Covenanters, and a reverent hush throughout the whole congregation applauded the names of Renwick and Peden and Cameron, as they fell from my lips.

Then all the elders took their places beside me, for the act of ordination was about to be performed. This consisted of prayer and the laying on of hands—not of the minister's hands alone, for we in St. Cuthbert's adhered to the ancient Scottish mode of ordination by the laying on of the hands of the entire Session.

The candidates kneeled before us, Angus on my right, having changed his place for some unapparent reason, soon to be abundantly revealed. The hands first outstretched towards his bended head were those of Mr. Blake. Whereupon an awful thing befell us; for the solemn stillness of the kirk was broken by the ringing of a voice aflame with passion:—"Take back your hand—touch not a hair of my head. Go cleanse your hand. Go purify your heart—they are both polluted. Whited sepulchre, give up your dead—let the rotting memories walk forth. Go wash another's blood from your guilty soul before you dare to serve at God's altar!"

The trembling object of this outburst shrank back from before it. The kneeling candidates bowed lower. I myself stood as one in a fearful dream, while the horror-stricken people half rose within their pews, bending forward as they gazed at the sacrilegious scene.

Angus turned and looked unflinchingly into their faces. I feared he was about to speak again and I raised my hand to signify forbiddal—but he saw it not, and my inward protest yielded to his fiery purpose.

"Aye, you may well look," he cried to the awestruck worshippers. "God knows I had not meant to do this thing or to speak these words. I came here with the honest purpose to assume the vows that should forever bind me to His service. My heart was honest before God; but when I felt the approach of those guilty hands it was beyond my power to endure their touch. Nor should I feel shame for what I have done. You remember the scourge of knotted cords and the holy temple. Is it wrong that I too should now seek to drive forth this unworthy man? He stands unmasked before you. You know not who he is! He is my father and we share our shame together! Another shares it with her God where the Ettrick water hears her prayer. And this is the man whose hands would convey the grace of God!"

He stopped; and the blanched faces before him gave back a voice, half cry, half sob, anguish rending every heart. They were a proud folk in St. Cuthbert's; besides no man of all the elders was so dear to them as Mr. Blake, his piety and philanthropy so long tried and proved. Although we know it not, there is no asset held more dear than the solvency of a man in whom we vest the precious savings of our confidence.

Every eye and heart seemed turned towards the man so fiercely accused, silently entreating him to relieve the cruel tension.

None doubted that his swift denial would confirm the confidence of our loyal hearts. But the silence drew itself out, moment after moment, each bequeathing its legacy of pain to its successor. Mr. Blake's eyes were raptly fixed on his accuser—his traducer, as we secretly defined him. Their light was not the glow of wrath, nor of resentment, but of a strange wistful curiosity, mixed with eager yearning. Fear and love seemed to look out together.

In the pause that followed, Angus swiftly handed to me a small picture, encased after an ancient fashion.

"Look at that, sir," he said, "that will tell its tale—that is my father's face."

I looked with eager intentness, and it required but a glance to show that the pictured face before me, and the pallid face beside me, were the same. The picture was evidently taken long years before, and the stamp of youth and hope and ardent faith was upon the face. Locks raven black, and an unwrinkled brow, had been exchanged for those that bore the scar of time and care; but no careful eye could fail to see that the youthful face of the picture and the ashen face of the elder were one and the same.

But,—more striking and fatal far—the photograph's evidence was not required. No man who saw, as I saw, the faces of Michael Blake and Angus Strachan side by side need wait for other evidence. Often had I seen them thus before—but never in the nakedness of passion.

Passion has the artist's magic hand and her master sketch is ever of her home. As Titian's immortal hills were but the reproduction of his far-off dwelling-place, genius plighting its troth to childhood, so doth passion illumine first the environs of her long time home, how humble so ever it may be. Passion paints the eternal childlike that is in us all. The face is the window through which the vista of a soul's inner life is flashed by her mystic hand, and in that moment the window glows with the unfeigned light of childhood, its simple radiance still unquenched, though long draped by artificial years.

Thus transfigured were the faces of Angus Strachan and Michael Blake—the one with mingled love and fear, the other with unmingled scorn. With that swift intensity of passion came the reversal to their common type, and the great betrayal was complete. The blood they shared together, speaking a kindred language, had turned King's evidence at last, and its unanswerable testimony leaped from face and eye.

For God hath His silent witnesses, like John the Baptist, by us shut up in prison and by us beheaded—but He calleth them to the witness-stand as pleaseth Him; and they live forever in dreadful gospels of love and doom, the latter sharing the power of the former's endless life. Their voice is heard above Herodias' strains of revelry and even sceptred Sadducees tremble at the sound.

Vast is life's mighty forest, but the wronger and the wronged meet somewhere amid its shadowy glades. Surely life's wooded maze might afford a hiding place to those who fly from armed memories—but God's rangers tread its every glen with stealthy step and the foliage of every thicket gleams with the armour of His detective host. A chance meeting, a foundling acquaintance, a stray newspaper, an undestroyed letter, a resurgent memory, a neglected photograph, or, as here, a tell-tale tide of blood—all these have accepted God's retainer and bear the invisible badge that denotes His world-spread Force. All life's apparent discord is harmony itself when He determines the departments and allots to every thing, and to every man, his work!

"You speak of Ettrick! What know you of Ettrick? What is her name that lives there?" I heard Mr. Blake ask in a faltering whisper, unheard by the rigid worshippers.

"She bears no name save that which you defiled—it shall not be spoken here, though I honour it with my deepest heart—but look on this," and Angus held out before him what he had drawn from his bosom as he spoke.

Michael Blake's gaze was fixed upon it, no word or sound coming from his lips. His eyes clung to it with tranquil eagerness, unconscious of all about, still clinging when Angus withdrew it, wrapped it in the paper which had enclosed it, and restored it to its hiding-place.

I know not why, but I held out my hand to him eagerly:

"Let me see it, Angus; my own mother is with God."

He hesitated but a moment, then drew it forth and handed it to me.

"All the world may see it," he said quietly, "it is my mother—you may read the letter if you will."

The portrait was of a woman still rich with girlhood's charm. Of about nineteen years, I should say, tall and graceful and sweet of countenance, with a great wealth of hair, with eyes that no flame but love's could have kindled, her lips, even in a picture, instinct with pure passion, and her whole being evidently fragrant and luscious as Scottish girlhood alone can be. For the sweetest flowers are nourished at the breast of the most rugged hills.

I was still reading the story of love and innocence and hope, all of which were written in the lovely face before me, when Angus said very gently:

"Read the letter, sir."

The writing on the paper which enclosed the picture had escaped my notice. It was a letter from Angus' mother, sent with the daguerreotypes. Its closing words ran thus:

"I send ye this picture o' masel' and the ane o' the man I loved sae weel. No ither picture have I had taken, nor ither shall there be. It was taken for yir faither before the gloamin' settled doon on you and me, ma laddie. It was taken for him, as was every breath I drew, for I loved him wi' every ane.

"Ye maunna think ower hard o' him, laddie, for yir mother canna drive him forth, so ye maun bide thegither in this broken hairt o' mine. And laddie, I am askin' God to keep me pure, for my love will hae its bloom some day far ayont us, like the bonny heather when the winter's bye. And I want to be worthy when it comes. I'm sair soiled, I ken, but love can weave its robe o' white for the very hairt it stained. And I maun be true till the gloamin's gone. So think o' yir mother as aye true to yir faither, and it'll mebbe help yir sorrow to ken there's aye this bond between yir faither and her wha bore ye. And Angus, dinna let him ken, gin ye should ever meet. Yir mother's bearin' her sorrow all alane in Ettrick and her laddie'll bear it ayont the ocean. We're a' in God's guid hands. Your loving mother,

JANET STRACHAN."

I returned the well worn letter to the unhappy hand from which I had received it. He tenderly wrapped it about his mother's picture and thrust the parcel back beside the loyal heart which shared, as it was bidden, the great sorrow and disgrace.

I then cast about in my mind for the next step which should be taken. Ordination I knew there could now be none. The pestilence of anger and shame and sin was upon us all. Dark horror sat upon the faces of the waiting congregation, their eyes still fixed on these two actors of this so sudden tragedy. It may have been that the proof of kinship, as demonstrated by these confronting faces, was finding its way into their hearts. These faces were still fastened the one upon the other, the younger with glowing scorn, the older with mingled love and tenderness, blended with infinite self-reproach.

I could see no course open to me except the dismissal of the congregation, and so announced my purpose.

"The Kirk Session is adjourned sine die," I said, for this is an ancient phrase and the proper forms must be observed. Even when our dearest lies in her coffin, there are certain phrases which announce in cold and heartless print that the heart's life-blood is flowing from its wound, and, however sacred that silent form, the undertaker's hands must have their will with it.

"Moderator." It was Thomas Laidlaw's voice. "Moderator, we hae heard but ae side. There's aye twa sides. Will ye no' let the accused speak for himsel'? Fair play is bonny play."

A moment's thought was enough to assure me as to what was right.

"By all means," I answered, sadly enough, for I had but little hope that any defense could be offered. "Mr. Blake may certainly speak if he wishes—it is but fair. Have you anything to say, Mr. Blake?"

As I turned towards the older man the younger withdrew his eyes from the face on which they had so long been fixed, and slowly rising, Angus walked down the aisle towards the door, conscious that he himself had proclaimed his bitter shame; but his mother's name seemed written on his forehead, redeemed by the sacrifice of his own. He had gone but a quarter of the way or so, when a trembling voice was heard.

"Angus, wait," it said; the voice was faint and tremulous like a birdling's note—but Angus heard it and stood still. He turned towards the pew whence it came, and a face met his own, a woman's face, blanched and pale, except for two burning spots upon her cheeks where the heart had unfurled its banners. It was a woman's voice, I say, and the eyes that looked out from it sought his own with a great caress of loyalty and love. The glowing eyes, and the parted lips, and the quick flowing breath, all spoke the bridal passion; for the bride's glory is in surrender, the bodily sacrifice but the pledge of her blended and surrendered life, lost in another's mastering love.

"Angus, wait," she murmured again, her dainty gloved hand upon the book-board as she essayed to rise. Her mother sought to restrain her, but her touch was powerless; for the outgoing tide was at its full.

"He shall not walk down that aisle alone," she faltered to her mother, the words unheard by others. "We shall go down together."



XXIII

A MAIDEN PRIESTESS

Perhaps her mother's woman-heart realized in that moment that the one path irresistible to a woman's love is the path of sacrifice. In any case she ceased from her protest and the gentle form arose; moving out to where he stood, she slipped her dear hand into Angus's, and together they walked slowly down the aisle of the crowded church. No sideward glance they cast nor backward did Margaret ever look. Sweet courage was shining from her face, even joy, as they passed out together—the long stride of the stalwart man and the gentle step of the dainty maiden, but ever hand in hand, hidden from the strife of tongues, in love's pavilion hidden.

They had wandered, knowing not where or whither, some distance from the church, when Angus stopped, and fixing his reverent look on Margaret's strangely happy face, he said:

"You don't know what you have done; you have tarnished your name—oh, Margaret, why did you do it? From henceforth you will share the shame that belongs to me."

Margaret's face was upturned to his own.

"Is not the sunshine sweet, Angus? And so pure! Surely God loves us well!"

"It shines upon no man so sad as I," he replied bitterly.

"Angus! After what I did—and the church so full!"

"Nor so happy—and so proud!" concluded Angus. "Where shall we go?"

"Anywhere," answered Margaret; "we shall walk the long walk together."

"No, dear one, not together, that cannot be—but not apart," said Angus, his voice trembling.

"Do you know, Angus," said Margaret after a pause, "I had often read about how engagements should be announced. And no one, almost no one knew that you loved me. And after that first time when you told me you loved me—and before you told me that other—I so often used to lie awake and think about how ours should be announced. For I think that is the sweetest thing in a girl's life, the announcement I mean—no I don't mean that—the sweetest thing is what has to be told. And now it is all told—and just to think it was done in a church and before all those people. And now they all know—and I am so glad! No girl ever had it done like this before."

"Glad?" said Angus.

"Yes, glad—and proud—aren't you?"

But there was no response, save the old, old silent eloquence of love, when lip speaks to lip its tender tale, scorning the aid of words.

"Let us go this way," said Margaret at length.

"Where does it lead to?"

"You shall see," she answered; "come away"—and together, still hand in hand, they walked on.

"Let us rest here, Angus." He threw himself on the grass at her feet.

"Do you not know the place?" she said.

"No," said Angus, "were we ever here before?"

"Oh, Angus, how could you forget? Look again."

He looked again and sacred twilight memories began to pour back upon him.

"That was in the gloaming, Angus, you remember. And the darkness has often brooded over it since then—but it is all past now and it never was so bright before."

"The darkness will come again," said Angus.

"But it will never be able to forget the light—and it will wait—— There is never any real brightness till the waiting's past."

The Sabbath stillness was about them and its peace was in their hearts. They scarce knew why, and the world would have said that Shadow was their portion; but, then and ever, true peace passeth all understanding.

"Kneel down, Angus, kneel here beside me," she suddenly exclaimed.

"Kneel, Margaret! Why shall I kneel?"

"Never mind why—you shall see. Kneel down, Angus."

He knelt, wondering still; she removed his hat with her now ungloved hands and threw it on the grass.

"Darling, I love you," she said, "and I know you are good and true. And I was so proud this morning when you were to be ordained to God's holy service—and it must not be broken off like this. Oh, Angus, when I saw your face this morning, I feared so that your whole soul would turn to bitterness and give itself up to hatred of that man. But it must not be."

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse