Salted With Fire

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It must be remembered that Blatherwick knew nothing of the existence of his child: such knowledge might have modified the half-conscious satisfaction with which, on his way home, he now and then saw a providence in the fact that he had been preserved from marrying a woman who had now proved herself capable of disgracing him in the very streets. But during his slow journey of forty miles, most of which he made on foot, hounded on from within to bodily motion, he had again, as in the night, to pass through many an alternation of thought and feeling and purpose. To and fro in him, up and down, this way and that, went the changing currents of self-judgment, of self-consolement, and of fresh-gathering dread. Never for one persistent minute was his mind clear, his purpose determined, his line set straight for honesty. He must live up--not to the law of righteousness, but to the show of what a minister ought to be! he must appear unto men! In a word, he must keep up the deception he had begun in childhood, and had, until of late years, practised unknowingly! Now he knew it, and went on, not knowing how to get rid of it; or rather, shrinking in utter cowardice from the confession which alone could have set him free. Now he sought only how to conceal his deception and falseness. He had no pleasure in them, but was consciously miserable in knowing himself not what he seemed--in being compelled, as he fancied himself in excuse, to look like one that had not sinned. In his heart he grumbled that God should have forsaken him so far as to allow him to disgrace himself before his conscience. He did not yet see that his foulness was ingrained; that the Ethiopian could change his skin, or the leopard his spots, as soon as he; that he had never yet looked purity in the face; that the fall which disgraced him in his own eyes was but the necessary outcome of his character--that it was no accident but an unavoidable result; that his true nature had but disclosed itself, and appeared--as everything hid must be known, everything covered must be revealed. Even to begin the purification without which his moral and spiritual being must perish eternally, he must dare to look on himself as he was: he would not recognize himself, and thought he lay and would lie hid from all. Dante describes certain of the redeemed as lying each concealed in his or her own cocoon of emitted light: James lay hidden like a certain insect in its own gowk-spittle. It is strange, but so it is, that many a man will never yield to see himself until he become aware of the eyes of other men fixed upon him; they seeing him, and he knowing that they see him, then first, even to himself, will he be driven to confess what he has long all but known. Blatherwick's hour was on its way, slow-coming, but no longer to be shunned. His soul was ripening to self-declaration. The ugly self must blossom, must show itself the flower, the perfection of that evil thing he counted himself! What a hold has not God upon us in this inevitable ripening of the unseen into the visible and present! The flower is there, and must appear!

In the meantime he suffered, and went on in silence, walking like a servant of the Ancient of Days, and knowing himself a whited sepulchre. Within him he felt the dead body that could not rest until it was laid bare to the sun; but all the time he comforted himself that he had not fallen a second time, and that the once would not be remembered against him: did not the fact that it was forgotten, most likely was never known, indicate the forgiveness of God? And so, unrepentant, he remained unforgiven, and continued a hypocrite and the slave of sin.

But the hideous thing was not altogether concealed; something showed under the covering whiteness! His mother saw that something shapeless haunted him, and often asked herself what it could be, but always shrank even from conjecturing. His father felt that he had gone from him utterly, and that his son's feeding of the flock had done nothing to bring him and his parents nearer to each other! What could be hidden, he thought, beneath the mask of that unsmiling face?

But there was a humble observer who saw deeper than the parents--John MacLear, the soutar.

One day, after about a fortnight, the minister walked into the workshop of the soutar, and found him there as usual. His hands were working away diligently, but his thoughts had for some time been brooding over the blessed fact, that God is not the God of the perfect only, but of the growing as well; not the God of the righteous only, but of such as hunger and thirst after righteousness.

"God blaw on the smoking flax, and tie up the bruised reed!" he was saying to himself aloud, when in walked the minister.

Now, as in some other mystical natures, a certain something had been developed in the soutar not unlike a spirit of prophecy--an insight which, seemingly without exercise of the will, sometimes laid bare to him in a measure the thoughts and intents of hearts in which he was more than usually interested; or perhaps it was rather a faculty, working unconsciously, of putting signs together, and drawing from them instantaneous conclusion of the fact at which they pointed. After their greeting, he suddenly looked up at his visitor with a certain fixed attention: the mere glance had shown him that he looked ill, and he now saw that something in the man's heart was eating at it like a canker. Therewith at once arose in his brain the question: could he be the father of the little one crowing in the next room? But he shut it into the darkest closet of his mind, shrinking from the secret of another soul, as from the veil of the Holy of Holies! The next moment, however, came the thought: what if the man stood in need of the offices of a friend? It was one thing to pry into a man's secret; another, to help him escape from it! As out of this thought the soutar sat looking at him for a moment, the minister felt the hot blood rush to his cheeks.

"Ye dinna luik that weel, minister," said the soutar: "is there onything the maitter wi' ye, sir?"

"Nothing worth mentioning," answered the parson. "I have sometimes a touch of headache in the early morning, especially when I have sat later than usual over my books the night before; but it always goes off during the day."

"Ow weel, sir, that's no, as ye say, a vera sairious thing! I couldna help fancyin ye had something on yer min' by ord'nar!"

"Naething, naething," answered James with a feeble laugh. "--But," he went on--and something seemed to send the words to his lips without giving him time to think--"it is curious you should say that, for I was just thinking what was the real intent of the apostle in his injunction to confess our faults one to another."

The moment he uttered the words he felt as if he had proclaimed his secret on the housetop; and he would have begun the sentence afresh, with some notion of correcting it; but again he knew the hot blood shoot to his face.--"I must go on with something!" he felt rather than said to himself, "or those sharp eyes will see through and through me!"

"It came into my mind," he went on, "that I should like to know what you thought about the passage: it cannot surely give the least ground for auricular confession! I understand perfectly how a man may want to consult a friend in any difficulty--and that friend naturally the minister; but--"

This was by no means a thing he had meant to say, but he seemed carried on to say he knew not what. It was as if, without his will, the will of God was driving the man to the brink of a pure confession--to the cleansing of his stuffed bosom "of that perilous stuff which weighs upon the heart."

"Do you think, for instance," he continued, thus driven, "that a man is bound to tell everything--even to the friend he loves best?"

"I think," answered the soutar after a moment's thought, "that we must answer the what, before we enter upon the how much. And I think, first of all we must ask--to whom are we bound to confess?--and there surely the answer is, to him to whom we have done the wrong. If we have been grumbling in our hearts, it is to God we must confess: who else has to do with the matter? To Him we maun flee the moment oor eyes are opent to what we've been aboot! But, gien we hae wranged ane o' oor fallow-craturs, wha are we to gang til wi' oor confession but that same fallow-cratur? It seems to me we maun gang to that man first--even afore we gang to God himsel. Not one moment must we indulge procrastination on the plea o' prayin! From our vera knees we maun rise in haste, and say to brother or sister, 'I've done ye this or that wrang: forgie me.' God can wait for your prayer better nor you, or him ye've wranged, can wait for your confession! Efter that, ye maun at ance fa' to your best endeevour to mak up for the wrang. 'Confess your sins,' I think it means, 'each o' ye to the ither again whom ye hae dene the offence.'--Divna ye think that's the cowmonsense o' the maitter?"

"Indeed, I think you must be right!" replied the minister, who sat revolving only how best, alas, to cover his retreat! "I will go home at once and think it all over. Indeed, I am even now all but convinced that what you say must be what the Apostle intended!"

With a great sigh, of which he was not aware, Blatherwick rose and walked from the kitchen, hoping he looked--not guilty, but sunk in thought. In truth he was unable to think. Oppressed and heavy-laden with the sense of a duty too unpleasant for performance, he went home to his cheerless manse, where his housekeeper was the only person he had to speak to, a woman incapable of comforting anybody. There he went straight to his study, but, kneeling, found he could not pray the simplest prayer; not a word would come, and he could not pray without words! He was dead, and in hell--so far perished that he felt nothing. He rose, and sought the open air; it brought him no restoration. He had not heeded his friend's advice, had not entertained the thought of the one thing possible to him--had not moved, even in spirit, toward Isy! The only comfort he could now find for his guilty soul was the thought that he could do nothing, for he did not know where Isy was to be found. When he remembered the next moment that his friend Robertson must be able to find her, he soothed his conscience with the reflection that there was no coach till the next morning, and in the meantime he could write: a letter would reach him almost as soon as he could himself!

But what then would Robertson think? He might give his wife the letter to read! She might even read it of herself, for they concealed nothing from each other! So he only walked the faster, tired himself, and earned an appetite as the result of his day's work! He ate a good dinner, although with little enjoyment, and fell fast asleep in his chair. No letter was written to Robertson that day. No letter of such sort was ever written. The spirit was not willing, and the flesh was weakness itself.

In the evening he took up a learned commentary on the Book of Job; but he never even approached the discovery of what Job wanted, received, and was satisfied withal. He never saw that what he himself needed, but did not desire, was the same thing--even a sight of God! He never discovered that, when God came to Job, Job forgot all he had intended to say to him--did not ask him a single question--knew that all was well. The student of Scripture remained blind to the fact that the very presence of the Living One, of the Father of men, proved sufficient in itself to answer every question, to still every doubt! But then James's heart was not pure like Job's, and therefore he could never have seen God; he did not even desire to see him, and so could see nothing as it was. He read with the blindness of the devil in his heart.

In Marlowe's Faust, the student asks Mephistopheles--

How comes it then that thou art out of hell?

And the demon answers him--

Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it;

and again--

Where we are is hell; And where hell is there must we ever be: ... when all the world dissolves, And every creature shall be purified, All places shall be hell that are not heaven;

and yet again--

I tell thee I am damned, and now in hell;

and it was thus James fared; and thus he went to bed.

And while he lay there sleepless, or walked in his death to and fro in the room, his father and mother, some three miles away, were talking about him.

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