Salted With Fire

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It would be too much to say that the hearts of his parents took no pleasure in the advancement of their son, such as it was. I suspect the mother was glad to be proud where she could find no happiness--proud with the love that lay incorruptible in her being. But the love that is all on one side, though it may be stronger than death, can hardly be so strong as life! A poor, maimed, one-winged thing, such love cannot soar into any region of conscious bliss. Even when it soars into the region where God himself dwells, it is but to partake there of the divine sorrow which his heartless children cause him. My reader may well believe that father nor mother dwelt much upon what their neighbours called James's success--or cared in the least to talk about it: that they would have felt to be mere hypocrisy, while hearty and genuine relations were so far from perfect between them. Never to human being, save the one to the other, and that now but very seldom, did they allude to the bitterness which their own hearts knew; for to speak of it would have seemed almost equivalent to disowning their son. And alas the daughter was gone to whom the mother had at one time been able to bemoan herself, knowing she understood and shared in their misery! For Isobel would gladly have laid down her life to kindle in James's heart such a love to their parents as her own.

We may now understand a little, into what sort of man the lad James Blatherwick had grown. When he left Stonecross for the University, it was with scarce a backward look; nothing was in his heart but eagerness for the coming conflict. Having gained there one of its highest bursaries, he never spent a thought, as he donned his red gown, on the son of the poor widow who had competed with him, and who, failing, had to leave ambition behind him and take a place in a shop--where, however, he soon became able to keep, and did keep, his mother in what was to her nothing less than happy luxury; while the successful James--well, so far my reader already knows about him.

As often as James returned home for the vacations, things, as between him and his parents, showed themselves unaltered; and by his third return, the heart of his sister had ceased to beat any faster at the thought of his arrival: she knew that he would but shake hands limply, let hers drop, and the same moment be set down to read. Before the time for taking his degree arrived, Isobel was gone to the great Father. James never missed her, and neither wished nor was asked to go home to her funeral. To his mother he was never anything more or less than quite civil; she never asked him to do anything for her. He came and went as he pleased, cared for nothing done on the farm or about the house, and seemed, in his own thoughts and studies, to have more than enough to occupy him. He had grown a powerful as well as handsome youth, and had dropped almost every sign of his country breeding. He hardly ever deigned a word in his mother-dialect, but spoke good English with a Scotch accent. Neither had he developed any of the abominable affectations by which not a few such as he have imagined to repudiate their origin.

His father had not then first to discover that his son was far too fine a gentleman to show any interest in agriculture, or put out his hand to the least share in that oldest and most dignified of callings. His mother continued to look forward, although with fading interest, to the time when he should be--the messenger of a gospel which he nowise understood; but his father did not at all share her anticipation; and she came to know ere long that to hear him preach would but renew and intensify a misery to which she had become a little accustomed in their ordinary intercourse. The father felt that his boy had either left him a long way off, or had never at any time come near him. He seemed to stand afar upon some mountain-top of conscious or imagined superiority.

James, as one having no choice, lived at home, so called by custom and use, but lived as one come of another breed than his parents, having with theirs but few appreciable points of contact. Most conventional of youths, he yet wrote verses in secret, and in his treasure-closet worshipped Byron. What he wrote he seldom showed, and then only to one or two of his fellow- students. Possibly he wrote only to prove to himself that he could do that also, for he never doubted his faculty in any direction. When he went to Edinburgh--to learn theology, forsooth!--he was already an accomplished mathematician, and a yet better classic, with some predilections for science, and a very small knowledge of the same: his books showed for the theology, and for the science, an occasional attempt to set his father right on some point of chemistry. His first aspiration was to show himself a gentleman in the eyes of the bubblehead calling itself Society--of which in fact he knew nothing; and the next, to have his eloquence, at present existent only in an ambitious imagination, recognized by the public. Such were the two devils, or rather the two forms of the one devil Vanity, that possessed him. He looked down on his parents, and the whole circumstance of their ordered existence, as unworthy of him, because old-fashioned and bucolic, occupied only with God's earth and God's animals, and having nothing to do with the shows of life. And yet to the simply honourable, to such of gentle breeding as despised mere show, the ways of life in their house would have seemed altogether admirable: the homely, yet not unfastidious modes and conditions of the unassuming homestead, would have appeared to them not a little attractive. But James took no interest in any of them, and, if possible, yet less in the ways of the tradesmen and craftsmen of the neighbouring village. He never felt the common humanity that made him one with them, did not in his thoughts associate himself at all with them. Had he turned his feeling into thoughts and words, he would have said, "I cannot help being the son of a farmer, but at least my mother's father was a doctor; and had I been consulted, my father should have been at least an officer in one of his majesty's services, not a treader of dung or artificial manure!" The root of his folly lay in the groundless self-esteem of the fellow; fostered, I think, by a certain literature which fed the notion, if indeed it did not plainly inculcate the duty of rising in the world. To such as he, the praise of men may well seem the patent of their nobility; but the man whom we call The Saviour, and who knew the secret of Life, warned his followers that they must not seek that sort of distinction if they would be the children of the Father who claimed them.

I have said enough, perhaps too much, of this most uninteresting of men! How he came to be born such, is not for my speculation: had he remained such, his story would not have been for my telling. How he became something better, it remains my task to try to set forth.

I now complete the talk that followed the return of the simple couple to bed. "I was jist thinkin, Peter," said Marion, after they had again lain silent for a while, "o' the last time we spak thegither aboot the laddie-- it maun be nigh sax year sin syne, I'm thinkin!"

"'Deed I canna say! ye may be richt, Mirran," replied her spouse. "It's no sic a cheery subjec' 'at we sud hae muckle to say to ane anither anent it! He's a man noo, and weel luikit upo'; but it maks unco little differ to his parents! He's jist as dour as ever, and as far as man could weel be frae them he cam o'!--never a word to the ane or the ither o' 's! Gien we war twa dowgs, he couldna hae less to say til's, and micht weel hae mair! I s' warran' Frostie says mair in ae half-hoor to his tyke, nor Jeemie has said to you or me sin' first he gaed to the college!"

"Bairns is whiles a queer kin' o' a blessin!" remarked the mother. "But, eh, Peter! it's what may lie ahint the silence that frichts me!"

"Lass, ye're frichtin me noo! What div ye mean?"

"Ow naething!" returned Marion, bursting into tears. "But a' at ance it was borne in upo me, that there maun be something to accoont for the thing. At the same time I daurna speir at God himsel what that thing can be. For there's something waur noo, and has been for some time, than ever was there afore! He has sic a luik, as gien he saw nor heard onything but ae thing, the whilk ae thing keeps on inside him, and winna wheesht. It's an awfu' thing to say o' a mither's ain laddie; and to hae said it only to my ain man, and the father o' the laddie, maks my hert like to brak!--it's as gien I had been fause to my ain flesh and blude but to think it o' 'im!-- Eh, Peter, what can it be?"

"Ow jist maybe naething ava'! Maybe he's in love, and the lass winna hear til 'im!"

"Na, Peter; love gars a man luik up, no doon at his ain feet! It gars him fling his heid back, and set his een richt afore him--no turn them in upo his ain inside! It maks a man straucht i' the back, strong i' the airm, and bauld i' the hert.--Didna it you, Peter?"

"Maybe it did; I dinna min' vera weel.--But I see love can hardly be the thing that's amiss wi' the lad. Still, even his parents maun tak tent o' jeedgin--specially ane o' the Lord's ministers--maybe ane o' the Lord's ain elec'!"

"It's awfu' to think--I daurna say 't--I daurna maist think the words o' 't, Peter, but it wull cry oot i' my vera hert!--Steik the door, Peter-- and ticht, that no a stray stirk may hear me!--Was a minister o' the gospel ever a heepocreete, Peter?--like ane o' the auld scribes and Pharisees, Peter?--Wadna it be ower terrible, Peter, to be permittit?--Gien our ain only son was--"

But here she broke down; she could not finish the frightful sentence. The farmer again left his bed, and dropt upon a chair by the side of it. The next moment he sank on his knees, and hiding his face in his hands, groaned, as from a thicket of torture--

"God in haven, hae mercy upon the haill lot o' 's."

Then, apparently unconscious of what he did, he went wandering from the room, down to the kitchen, and out to the barn on his bare feet, closing the door of the house behind him. In the barn he threw himself, face downward, on a heap of loose straw, and there lay motionless. His wife wept alone in her bed, and hardly missed him: it required of her no reflection to understand whither he had gone, or what he was doing. He was crying, like King Lear from the bitterness of an outraged father's heart, to the Father of fathers:

"God, ye're a father yersel," he groaned; "and sae ye ken hoo it's rivin at my hert!--Na, Lord, ye dinna ken; for ye never had a doobt aboot your son!--Na, I'm no blamin Jeemie, Lord; I'm no cryin oot upo him; for ye ken weel hoo little I ken aboot him: he never opened the buik o' his hert to me! Oh God, grant that he hae naething to hide; but gien he has, Lord, pluck it oot o' 'im, and him oot o' the glaur! latna him stick there. I kenna hoo to shape my petition, for I'm a' i' the dark; but deliver him some gait, Lord, I pray thee, for his mither's sake!--ye ken what she is!--I dinna coont for onything, but ye ken her!--Lord, deliver the hert o' her frae the awfu'est o' a' her fears.--Lord, a hypocreet! a Judas-man!"

More of what he said, I cannot tell; somehow this much has reached my ears. He remained there upon the straw while hour after hour passed, pleading with the great Father for his son; his soul now lost in dull fatigue, now uttering itself in groans for lack of words, until at length the dawn looked in on the night-weary earth, and into the two sorrow-laden hearts, bringing with it a comfort they did not seek to understand.

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