Salted With Fire

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As time went on, the terror of discovery grew rather than abated in the mind of the minister. He could not tell whence or why it should be so, for no news of Isy reached him, and he felt, in his quieter moments, almost certain that she could not have passed so completely out of his horizon, if she were still in the world. When most persuaded of this, he felt ablest to live and forget the past, of which he was unable to recall any portion with satisfaction. The darkness and silence left over it by his unrepented offence, gave it, in his retrospect, a threatening aspect--out of which at any moment might burst the hidden enemy, the thing that might be known, and must not be known! He derived, however, a feeble and right cowardly comfort from the reflection that he had done nothing to hide the miserable fact, and could not now. He even persuaded himself that if he could he would not do anything now to keep it secret; he would leave all to that Providence which seemed hitherto to have wrought on his behalf: he would but keep a silence which no gentleman must break!--And why should that come abroad which Providence itself concealed? Who had any claim to know a mere passing fault, which the partner in it must least of all desire exposed, seeing it would fall heavier upon her than upon him? Where was any call for that confession, about which the soutar had maundered so foolishly? If, on the other hand, his secret should threaten to creep out, he would not, he flattered himself, move a finger to keep it hidden! he would that moment disappear in some trackless solitude, rejoicing that he had nothing left to wish undisclosed! As to the charge of hypocrisy that was sure to follow, he was innocent: he had never said anything he did not believe! he had made no professions beyond such as were involved in his position! he had never once posed as a man of Christian experience--like the soutar for instance! Simply and only he had been overtaken in a fault, which he had never repeated, never would repeat, and which he was willing to atone for in any way he could!

On the following Saturday, the soutar was hard at work all day long on the new boots the minister had ordered of him, which indeed he had almost forgotten in anxiety about the man for whom he had to make them. For MacLear was now thoroughly convinced that the young man had "some sick offence within his mind," and was the more anxious to finish his boots and carry them home the same night, that he knew his words had increased the sickness of that offence, which sickness might be the first symptom of returning health. For nothing attracted the soutar more than an opportunity of doing anything to lift from a human soul, were it but a single fold of the darkness that compassed it, and so let the light nearer to the troubled heart. As to what it might be that was harassing the minister's soul, he sternly repressed in himself all curiosity. The thought of Maggie's precious little foundling did indeed once more occur to him, but he tried all he could to shut it out. He did also desire that the minister should confess, but he had no wish that he should unbosom himself to him: from such a possibility, indeed, he shrank; while he did hope to persuade him to seek counsel of some one capable of giving him true advice. He also hoped that, his displeasure gradually passing, he would resume his friendly intercourse with himself; for somehow there was that in the gloomy parson which powerfully attracted the cheery and hopeful soutar, who hoped his troubled abstraction might yet prove to be heart-hunger after a spiritual good which he had not begun to find: he might not yet have understood, he thought, the good news about God--that he was just what Jesus seemed to those that saw the glory of God in his face. The minister could not, the soutar thought, have learned much of the truth concerning God; for it seemed to wake in him no gladness, no power of life, no strength to be. For him Christ had not risen, but lay wrapt in his winding sheet! So far as James's feeling was concerned, the larks and the angels must all be mistaken in singing as they did!

At an hour that caused the soutar anxiety as to whether the housekeeper might not have retired for the night, he rang the bell of the manse-door; which in truth did bring the minister himself from his study, to confront MacLear on the other side of the threshold, with the new boots in his hand.

But the minister had come to see that his behaviour in his last visit to the soutar must have laid him open to suspicion from him; and he was now bent on removing what he counted the unfortunate impression his words might have made. Wishing therefore to appear to cherish no offence over his parishioner's last words to him ere they parted, and so obliterate any suggestion of needed confession lurking behind his own words with which he had left him, he now addressed him with an abandon which, gloomy in spirit as he habitually was, he could yet assume in a moment when the masking instinct was aroused in him--

"Oh, Mr. MacLear," he said jocularly, "I am glad you have just managed to escape breaking the Sabbath! You have had a close shave! It wants ten minutes, hardly more, to the awful midnight hour!"

"I doobt, sir, it would hae broken the Sawbath waur, to fail o' my word for the sake o' a steik or twa that maittered naething to God or man!" returned the soutar.

"Ah, well, we won't argue about it! but if we were inclined to be strict, the Sabbath began some "--here he looked at his watch--"some five hours and three-quarters ago; that is, at six of the clock, on the evening of Saturday!"

"Hoot, minister, ye ken ye're wrang there! for, Jew-wise, it began at sax o' the Friday nicht! But ye hae made it plain frae the poopit that ye hae nae supperstition aboot the first day o' the week, the whilk alane has aucht to dee wi' hiz Christians!--We're no a' Jews, though there's a heap o' them upo' this side the Tweed! I, for my pairt, confess nae obligation but to drap workin, and sit doon wi' clean han's, or as clean as I can weel mak them, to the speeritooal table o' my Lord, whaur I aye try as weel to weir a clean and a cheerfu' face--that is, sae far as the sermon will permit--and there's aye a pyke o' mate somewhaur intil 't! For isna it the bonny day whan the Lord wad hae us sit doon and ait wi himsel, wha made the h'avens and the yirth, and the waters under the yirth that haud it up! And wilna he, upo this day, at the last gran' merridge-feast, poor oot the bonny reid wine, and say, 'Sit ye doon, bairns, and tak o' my best'!"

"Ay, ay, Mr. MacLear; that's a fine way to think of the Sabbath!" rejoined the minister, "and the very way I am in the habit of thinking of it myself!--I'm greatly obliged to you for bringing home my boots; but indeed I could have managed very well without them!"

"Ay, sir, maybe; I dinna doobt ye hae pairs and pairs o' beets; but ye see I couldna dee wi'oot them, for I had promised."

The word struck the minister to the heart. "He means something!" he said to himself. "--But I never promised the girl anything! I could not have done it! I never thought of such a thing! I never said anything to bind me!"

He never saw that, whether he had promised or not, his deed had bound him more absolutely than any words.

All this time he was letting the soutar stand on the doorstep, with the new boots in his hand.

"Come in," he said at last, "and put them there in the window. It's about time we were all going to bed, I think--especially myself, to-morrow being sermon-day!"

The soutar betook himself to his home and to bed, sorry that he had said nothing, yet having said more than he knew.

The next evening he listened to the best sermon he had yet heard from that pulpit--a summary of the facts bearing on the resurrection of our Lord;-- with which sermon, however, a large part of the congregation was anything but pleased; for the minister had admitted the impossibility of reconciling, in every particular, the differing accounts of the doings and seeings of those who bore witness to it.

"--As gien," said the soutar, "the Lord wasna to shaw himsel till a' that had seen he was up war agreed as to their recollection o' what fouk had reportit!"

He went home edified and uplifted by his fresh contemplation of the story of his Master's victory: thank God! he thought; his pains were over at last! and through death he was lord for ever over death and evil, over pain and loss and fear, who was already through his father lord of creation and life, and of all things visible and invisible! He was Lord also of all thinking and feeling and judgment, able to give repentance and restoration, and to set right all that selfwill had set wrong! So greatly did the heart of his humble disciple rejoice in him, that he scandalized the reposing sabbath-street, by breaking out, as he went home, into a somewhat unmelodious song, "They are all gone down to hell with the weapons of their war!" to a tune nobody knew but himself, and which he could never have sung again. "O Faithful and True," he broke out once more as he reached his own house; but checked himself abruptly, saying, "Tut, tut, the fowk'll think I hae been drinkin'!--Eh," he continued to himself as he went in, "gien I micht but ance hear the name that no man kens but Himsel!"

The next day he was very tired, and could get through but little work; so, on the Tuesday he felt it would be right to take a holiday. Therefore he put a large piece of oatcake in his pocket, and telling Maggie he was going to the hills, "to do nae thing and a'thing, baith at ance, a' day," disappeared with a backward look and lingering smile.

He went brimful of expectation, and was not disappointed in those he met by the way.

After walking some distance in quiescent peace, and having since noontide met no one--to use his own fashion of speech--by which he meant that no special thought had arisen uncalled-for in his mind, always regarding such a thought as a word direct from the First Thought, he turned his steps toward Stonecross. He had known Peter Blatherwick for many years, and honoured him as one in whom there was no guile; and now the desire to see him came upon him: he wanted to share with him the pleasure and benefit he had gathered from Sunday's sermon, and show the better quality of the food their pastor had that day laid before his sheep. He knocked at the door, thinking to see the mistress, and hear from her where her husband was likely to be found; but to his surprise, the farmer came himself to the door, where he stood in silence, with a look that seemed to say, "I know you; but what can you be wanting with me?" His face was troubled, and looked not only sorrowful, but scared as well. Usually ruddy with health, and calm with content, it was now blotted with pallid shades, and seemed, as he held the door-handle without a word of welcome, that of one aware of something unseen behind him.

"What ails ye, Mr. Bletherwick?" asked the soutar, in a voice that faltered with sympathetic anxiety. "Surely--I houp there's naething come ower the mistress!"

"Na, I thank ye; she's vera weel. But a dreid thing has befa'en her and me. It's little mair nor an hoor sin syne 'at oor Isy--ye maun hae h'ard tell o' Isy, 'at we baith had sic a fawvour for--a' at ance she jist drappit doon deid as gien shotten wi' a gun! In fac I thoucht for a meenut, though I h'ard nae shot, that sic had been the case. The ae moment she steed newsin wi' her mistress i' the kitchie, and the neist she was in a heap upo' the fleer o' 't!--But come in, come in."

"Eh, the bonnie lassie!" cried the shoemaker, without moving to enter; "I min' upo' her weel, though I believe I never saw her but ance!--a fine, delicat pictur o' a lassie, that luikit up at ye as gien she made ye kin'ly welcome to onything she could gie or get for ye!"

"Aweel, as I'm tellin ye," said the farmer, "she's awa'; and we'll see her no more till the earth gies up her deid! The wife's in there wi' what's left o' her, greitin as gien she wad greit her een oot. Eh, but she lo'ed her weel:--Doon she drappit, and no even a moment to say her prayers!"

"That maitters na muckle--no a hair, in fac!" returned the soutar. "It was the Father o' her, nane ither, that took her. He wantit her hame; and he's no are to dee onything ill, or at the wrang moment! Gien a meenut mair had been ony guid til her, thinkna ye she wud hae had that meenut!"

"Willna ye come in and see her? Some fowk canna bide to luik upo the deid, but ye're no are o' sic!"

"Na; it's trowth I daurna be nane o' sic. I s' richt wullinly gang wi' ye to luik upo the face o' ane 'at's won throuw!"

"Come awa' than; and maybe the Lord 'ill gie ye a word o' comfort for the mistress, for she taks on terrible aboot her. It braks my hert to see her!"

"The hert o' baith king and cobbler's i' the ae han' o' the Lord," answered the soutar solemnly; "and gien my hert indite onything, my tongue 'ill be ready to speyk the same."

He followed the farmer--who trode softly, as if he feared disturbing the sleeper--upon whom even the sudden silences of the world would break no more.

Mr. Blatherwick led the way to the parlour, and through it to a closet behind, used as the guest-chamber. There, on a little white bed with dimity curtains, lay the form of Isobel. The eyes of the soutar, in whom had lingered yet a hope, at once revealed that he saw she was indeed gone to return no more. Her lovely little face, although its beautiful eyes were closed, was even lovelier than before; but her arms and hands lay straight by her sides; their work was gone from them; no voice would call her any more! she might sleep on, and take her rest!

"I had but to lay them straucht," sobbed her mistress; "her een she had closed hersel as she drappit! Eh, but she was a bonny lassie--and a guid!--hardly less nor ain bairn to me!"

"And to me as weel!" supplemented Peter, with a choked sob.

"And no ance had I paid her a penny wage!" cried Marion, with sudden remorseful reminiscence.

"She'll never think o' wages noo!" said her husband. "We'll sen' them to the hospital, and that'll ease yer min', Mirran!"

"Eh, she was a dacent, mensefu, richt lo'able cratur!" cried Marion. "She never said naething to jeedge by, but I hae a glimmer o' houp 'at she may ha' been ane o' the Lord's ain."

"Is that a' ye can say, mem?" interposed the soutar. "Surely ye wadna daur imaigine her drappit oot o' his han's!"

"Na," returned Marion; "but I wad richt fain ken her fair intil them! Wha is there to assure 's o' her faith i' the atonement?"

"Deed, I kenna, and I carena, mem! I houp she had faith i' naething, thing nor thoucht, but the Lord himsel! Alive or deid, we're in his han's wha dee'd for us, revealin his Father til 's," said the soutar; "--and gien she didna ken Him afore, she wull noo! The holy All-in-all be wi' her i' the dark, or whatever comes!--O God, hand up her heid, and latna the watters gang ower her!"

So-called Theology rose, dull, rampant, and indignant; but the solemn face of the dead interdicted dispute, and Love was ready to hope, if not quite to believe. Nevertheless to those guileless souls, the words of the soutar sounded like blasphemy: was not her fate settled, and for ever? Had not death in a moment turned her into an immortal angel, or an equally immortal devil? Only how, at such a moment, with the peaceful face before them, were they to argue the possibility that she, the loving, the gentle, whose fault they knew but by her own voluntary confession, was now as utterly indifferent to the heart of the living God, as if He had never created her --nay even had become hateful to him! No one spoke; and the soutar, after gazing on the dead for a while, prayer overflowing his heart, but never reaching his lips, turned slowly, and departed without a word.

As he reached his own door, he met the minister, and told him of the sorrow that had befallen his parents, adding that it was plain they were in sore need of his sympathy. James, although marvelling at their being so much troubled by the death of merely a servant, was roused by the tale to the duty of his profession; and although his heart had never yet drawn him either to the house of mourning or the house of mirth, he judged it becoming to pay another visit to Stonecross, thinking it, however, rather hard that he should have to go again so soon. It pleased the soutar to see him face about at once, however, and start for the farm with a quicker stride than, since his return to Tiltowie as its minister, he had seen him put forth.

James had not the slightest foreboding of whom he was about to see in the arms of Death. But even had he had some feeling of what was awaiting him, I dare not even conjecture the mood in which he would have approached the house--whether one of compunction, or of relief. But utterly unconscious of the discovery toward which he was rushing, he hurried on, with a faint pleasure at the thought of having to expostulate with his mother upon the waste of such an unnecessary expenditure of feeling. Toward his father, he was aware of a more active feeling of disapproval, if not indeed one of repugnance. James Blatherwick was of such whose sluggish natures require, for the melting of their stubbornness, and their remoulding into forms of strength and beauty, such a concentration of the love of God that it becomes a consuming fire.

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