Salted With Fire

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The night had fallen when he reached the farm. The place was silent; its doors were all shut; and when he opened the nearest, seldom used but for the reception of strangers, not a soul was to be seen; no one came to meet him, for no one had even thought of him, and certainly no one, except it were the dead, desired his coming. He went into the parlour, and there, from the dim chamber beyond, whose door stood open, appeared his mother. Her heart big with grief, she clasped him in her arms, and laid her cheek against his bosom: higher she could not reach, and nearer than his breast-bone she could not get to him. No endearment was customary between them: James had never encouraged or missed any; neither did he know how to receive such when offered.

"I am distressed, mother," he began, "to see you so upset; and I cannot help thinking such a display of feeling unnecessary. If I may say so, it seems to me unreasonable. You cannot, in such a brief period as this new maid of yours has spent with you, have developed such an affection for her, as this--" he hesitated for a word, "--as this bouleversement would seem to indicate! The young woman can hardly be a relative, or I should surely have heard of her existence! The suddenness of the occurrence, of which I heard only from my shoemaker, MacLear, must have wrought disastrously upon your nerves! Come, come, dear mother! you must indeed compose yourself! It is quite unworthy of you, to yield to such a paroxysm of unnatural and uncalled-for grief! Surely it is the part of a Christian like you, to meet with calmness, especially in the case of one you have known so little, that inevitable change which neither man nor woman can avoid longer than a few years at most! Of course, the appalling instantaneousness of it in the present case, goes far to explain and excuse your emotion, but now at least, after so many hours have elapsed, it is surely time for reason to resume her sway! Was it not Schiller who said, 'Death cannot be an evil, for it is universal'?--At all events, it is not an unmitigated evil!" he added--with a sigh, as if for his part he was prepared to welcome it.

During this prolonged and foolish speech, the gentle woman, whose mother- heart had loved the poor girl that bore her daughter's name, had been restraining her sobs behind her handkerchief; but now, as she heard her son's cold commonplaces, it was, perhaps, a little wholesome anger that roused her, and made her able to speak.

"Ye didna ken her, laddie," she cried, "or ye wad never mint at layin yer tongue upon her that gait!--'Deed na, ye wadna!--But I doobt gien ever ye could hae come to ken her as she was--sic a bonny, herty sowl as ance dwalt in yon white-faced, patient thing, lyin i' the chaumer there--wi' the stang oot o' her hert at last, and left the sharper i' mine! But me and yer father--eh, weel we lo'ed her! for to hiz she was like oor ain Isy,--ay, mair a dochter nor a servan--wi'a braw lovin kin'ness in her, no to be luikit for frae ony son, and sic as we never had frae ony afore but oor ain Isy.--Jist gang ye intil the closet there, gien ye wull, and ye'll see what'll maybe saften yer hert a bit, and lat ye unerstan' what mak o' a thing's come to the twa auld fowk ye never cared muckle aboot!"

James felt bitterly aggrieved by this personal remark of his mother. How unfair she was! What had he ever done to offend her? Had he not always behaved himself properly--except indeed in that matter of which neither she, nor living soul else, knew anything, or would ever know! What right had she then to say such things to him! Had he not fulfilled the expectations with which his father sent him to college? had he not gained a position whose reflected splendour crowned them the parents of James Blatherwick? She showed him none of the consideration or respect he had so justly earned but never demanded! He rose suddenly, and with never a thought save to leave his mother so as to manifest his displeasure with her, stalked heedlessly into the presence of the more heedless dead.

The night had indeed fallen, but, the little window of the room looking westward, and a bar of golden light yet lying like a resurrection stone over the spot where the sun was buried, a pale sad gleam, softly vanishing, hovered, hardly rested, upon the lovely, still, unlooking face, that lay white on the scarcely whiter pillow. Coming out of the darker room, the sharp, low light blinded him a little, so that he saw without any certainty of perception; yet he seemed to have something before him not altogether unfamiliar, giving him a suggestion as of something he had known once, perhaps ought now to recognize, but had forgotten: the reality of it seemed to be obscured by the strange autumnal light entering almost horizontally. Concluding himself oddly affected by the sight of a room he had regarded with some awe in his childhood, and had not set foot in it for a long time, he drew a little nearer to the bed, to look closer at the face of this paragon of servants, whose loss was causing his mother a sorrow so unreasonably poignant.

The sense of her resemblance to some one grew upon him; but not yet had he begun to recognize the death-changed countenance; he became assured only that he had seen that still face before, and that, would she but open those eyes, he should know at once who she was.

Then the true suspicion flashed upon him: good God! could it be the dead Isy? Of course not! It was the merest illusion! a nonsensical fancy, caused by the irregular mingling of the light and darkness! In the daytime he could not have been so befooled by his imagination! He had always known the clearness, both physical and mental, with which he saw everything! Nevertheless, the folly had power to fix him staring where he stood, with his face leant close to the face of the dead. It was only like, it could not be the same! and yet he could not turn and go from it! Why did he not, by the mere will in whose strength he took pride, force his way out of the room? He stirred not a foot; he stared and stood. And as he stared, the dead face seemed to come nearer him through the darkness, growing more and more like the only girl he had ever, though even then only in fancy, loved. If it was not she, how could the dead look so like the living he had once known? At length what doubt was left, changed suddenly to assurance that it must be she. And--dare I say it?--it brought him a sense of relief! He breathed a sigh of such false, rascally peace as he had not known since his sin, and with that sigh he left the room. Passing his mother, who still wept in the now deeper dusk of the parlour, with the observation that there was no moon, and it would be quite dark before he reached the manse, he bade her good-night, and went out.

When Peter, who unable to sit longer inactive had gone to the stable, re-entered, foiled in the attempt to occupy himself, and sat down by his wife, she began to talk about the funeral preparations, and the persons to be invited. But such sorrow overtook him afresh, that even his wife, herself inconsolable over her loss, was surprised at the depth of his grief for one who was no relative. It seemed to him indelicate, almost heartless of her to talk so soon of burying the dear one but just gone from their sight: it was unnecessary dispatch, and suggested a lack of reverence!

"What for sic a hurry?" he expostulated. "Isna there time eneuch to put oot o' yer sicht what ye ance lo'ed sae weel? Lat me be the nicht; the morn 'ill be here sene eneuch! Lat my sowl rest a moment wi' deith, and haud awa wi yer funeral. 'Sufficient til the day,' ye ken!"

"Eh dear, but I'm no like you, Peter! Whan the sowl's gane, I tak no content i' the presence o' the puir worthless body, luikin what it never mair can be! Na, I wad be rid o' 't, I confess!--But be it as ye wull, my ain man! It's a sair hert ye hae as weel as me i' yer body this nicht; and we maun beir ane anither's burdens! The dauty may lie as we hae laid her, the nicht throuw, and naething said: there's little to be dene for her; she's a bonny clean corp as ever was, and may weel lie a week afore we put her awa'!--There's no need for ony to watch her; tyke nor baudrins 'ill never come near her.--I hae aye won'ert what for fowk wad sit up wi the deid: yet I min' me weel they aye did i' the auld time."

In this she showed, however, and in this alone, that the girl she lamented was not her own daughter; for when the other Isy died, her body was never for a moment left with the eternal spaces, as if she might wake, and be terrified to find herself alone. Then, as if God had forgotten them, they went to bed without saying their usual prayers together: I fancy the visit of her son had been to Marion like the chill of a wandering iceberg.

In the morning the farmer, up first as usual, went into the death-chamber and sat down by the side of the bed, reproaching himself that he had forgotten "worship" the night before.

And as he sat looking at the white face, he became aware of what might be a little tinge of colour--the faintest possible--upon the lips. He knew it must be a fancy, or at best an accident without significance--for he had heard of such a thing! Still, even if his eyes were deceiving him, he must shrink from hiding away such death out of sight! The merest counterfeit of life was too sacred for burial! Just such might the little daughter of Jairus have looked when the Lord took her by the hand ere she arose!

Thus feeling, and thus seeming to see on the lips of the girl a doubtful tinge of the light of life, it was no wonder that Peter could not entertain the thought of her immediate burial. They must at least wait some sign, some unmistakable proof even, of change begun!

Instead, therefore, of going into the yard to set in motion the needful preparations for the harvest at hand, he sat on with the dead: he could not leave her until his wife should come to take his place and keep her company! He brought a bible from the next room, sat down again, and waited beside her. In doubtful, timid, tremulous hope, not worthy of the name of hope--a mere sense of a scarcely possible possibility, he waited what he would not consent to believe he waited for. He would not deceive himself; he would give his wife no hint, but wait to see how she saw! He would put to her no leading question even, but watch for any start or touch of surprise she might betray!

By and by Marion appeared, gazed a moment on the dead, looked pitifully in her husband's face, and went out again.

"She sees naething!" said Peter to himself. "I s' awa' to my wark!--Still I winna hae her laid aside afore I'm a wheen surer o' what she is--leevin sowl or deid clod!"

With a sad sense of vanished self-delusion, he rose and went out. As he passed through the kitchen, his wife followed him to the door. "Ye'll see and sen' a message to the vricht (carpenter) the day?" she whispered.

"I'm no likly to forget!" he answered; "but there's nae hurry, seem there's no life concernt!"

"Na, nane; the mair's the pity!" she answered; and Peter knew, with a glad relief, that his wife was coming to herself from the terrible blow.

She sent the cowboy to the Cormacks' cottage, to tell Eppie to come to her.

The old woman came, heard what details there were to the sad story, shook her head mournfully, and found nothing to say; but together they set about preparing the body for burial. That done, the mind of Mrs. Blatherwick was at ease, and she sat expecting the visit of the carpenter. But the carpenter did not come.

On the Thursday morning the soutar came to inquire after his friends at Stanecross, and the gudewife gave him a message to Willie Wabster, the vricht, to see about the coffin.

But the soutar, catching sight of the farmer in the yard, went and had a talk with him; and the result was that he took no message to the carpenter; and when Peter went in to his dinner, he still said there was no hurry: why should she be so anxious to heap earth over the dead? For still he saw, or fancied he saw, the same possible colour on Isy's cheek--like the faintest sunset-red, or that in the heart of the palest blush-rose, which is either glow or pallor as you choose to think it. So the first week of Isy's death passed, and still she lay in state, ready for the grave, but unburied.

Not a few of the neighbours came to see her, and were admitted where she lay; and some of them warned Marion that, when the change came, it would come suddenly; but still Peter would not hear of her being buried "with that colour on her cheek!" And Marion had come to see, or to imagine with her husband that she saw the colour. So, each in turn, they kept watching her: who could tell but the Lord might be going to work a miracle for them, and was not in the meantime only trying them, to see how long their patience and hope would endure!

The report spread through the neighbourhood, and reached Tiltowie, where it speedily pervaded street and lane:--"The lass at Stanecross, she's lyin deid, and luikin as alive as ever she was!" From street and lane the people went crowding to see the strange sight, and would have overrun the house, but had a reception by no means cordial: the farmer set men at every door, and would admit no one. Angry and ashamed, they all turned and went-- except a few of the more inquisitive, who continued lurking about in the hope of hearing something to carry home and enlarge upon.

As to the minister, he insisted upon disbelieving the whole thing, and yet was made not a little uncomfortable by the rumour. Such a foe to superstition that in his mind he silently questioned the truth of all records of miracles, to whomsoever attributed, he was yet haunted by a fear which he dared not formulate. Of course, whatever might take place, it could be no miracle, but the mere natural effect of natural causes! none the less, however, did he dread what might happen: he feared Isy herself, and what she might disclose! For a time he did not dare again go near the place. The girl might be in a trance! she might revive suddenly, and call out his name! She might even reveal all! She had always been a strange girl! What if, indeed, she were even being now kept alive to tell the truth, and disgrace him before all the world! Horrible as was the thought, might it not be well, in view of the possibility of her revival, that he should be present to hear anything she might say, and take precaution against it? He resolved, therefore, to go to Stonecross, and make inquiry after her, heartily hoping to find her undoubtedly and irrecoverably dead.

In the meantime, Peter had been growing more and more expectant, and had nearly forgotten all about the coffin, when a fresh rumour came to the ears of William Webster, the coffin-maker, that the young woman at Stonecross was indeed and unmistakably gone; whereupon he, having lost patience over the uncertainty that had been crippling his operations, questioned no more what he had so long expected, set himself at once to his supposed task, and finished what he had already begun and indeed half ended. The same night that the minister was on his way to the farm, he passed Webster and his man carrying the coffin home through the darkness: he descried what it was, and his heart gave a throb of satisfaction. The men reaching Stonecross in the pitch-blackness of a gathering storm, they stupidly set up their burden on end by the first door, and went on to the other, where they made a vain effort to convey to the deaf Eppie a knowledge of what they had done. She making them no intelligible reply, there they left the coffin leaning up against the wall; and, eager to get home ere the storm broke upon them, set off at what speed was possible to them on the rough and dark road to Tiltowie, now in their turn meeting and passing the minister on his way.

By the time James arrived at Stonecross, it was too dark for him to see the ghastly sentinel standing at the nearer door. He walked into the parlour; and there met his father coming from the little chamber where his wife was seated.

"Isna this a most amazin thing, and houpfu' as it's amazing?" cried his father. "What can there be to come oot o' 't? Eh, but the w'ys o' the Almichty are truly no to be mizzered by mortal line! The lass maun surely be intendit for marvellous things, to be dealt wi' efter sic an extra- ordnar fashion! Nicht efter nicht has the tane or the tither o' hiz twa been sittin here aside her, lattin the hairst tak its chance, and i' the daytime lea'in 'maist a' to the men, me sleepin and they at their wark; and here the bonny cratur lyin, as quaiet as gien she had never seen tribble, for thirteen days, and no change past upon her, no more than on the three holy bairns i' the fiery furnace! I'm jist in a trimle to think what's to come oot o' 't a'! God only kens! we can but sit still and wait his appearance! What think ye, Jeemie?--Whan the Lord was deid upo' the cross, they waitit but twa nichts, and there he was up afore them! here we hae waitit, close on a haill fortnicht--and naething even to pruv that she's deid! still less ony sign that ever she'll speyk word til's again!--What think ye o' 't, man?"

"Gien ever she returns to life, I greatly doobt she'll ever bring back her senses wi' her!" said the mother, joining them from the inner chamber.

"Hoot, ye min' the tale o' the lady--Lady Fanshawe, I believe they ca'd her? She cam til hersel a' richt i' the en'!" said Peter.

"I don't remember the story," said James. "Such old world tales are little to be heeded."

"I min' naething aboot it but jist that muckle," said his father. "And I can think o' naething but that bonny lassie lyin there afore me naither deid nor alive! I jist won'er, Jeames, that ye're no as concernt, and as fillt wi' doobt and even dreid anent it as I am mysel!"

"We're all in the hands of the God who created life and death," returned James, in a pious tone.

The father held his peace.

"And He'll bring licht oot o' the vera dark o' the grave!" said the mother.

Her faith, or at least her hope, once set agoing, went farther than her husband's, and she had a greater power of waiting than he. James had sorely tried both her patience and her hope, and not even now had she given him up.

"Ye'll bide and share oor watch this ae nicht, Jeames?" said Peter. "It's an elrische kin o' a thing to wauk up i' the mirk mids, wi' a deid corp aside ye!--No 'at even yet I gie her up for deid! but I canna help feelin some eerie like--no to say fleyt! Bide, man, and see the nicht oot wi' 's, and gie yer mither and me some hert o' grace."

James had little inclination to add another to the party, and began to murmur something about his housekeeper. But his mother cut him short with the indignant remark--

"Hoot, what's she?--Naething to you or ony o' 's! Lat her sit up for ye, gien she likes! Lat her sit, I say, and never waste thoucht upo' the queyn!"

James had not a word to answer. Greatly as he shrank from the ordeal, he must encounter it without show of reluctance! He dared not even propose to sit in the kitchen and smoke. With better courage than will, he consented to share their vigil. "And then," he reflected, "if she should come to herself, there would be the advantage he had foreseen and even half desired!"

His mother went to prepare supper for them. His father rose, and saying he would have a look at the night, went toward the door; for even his strange situation could not entirely smother the anxiety of the husbandman. But James glided past him to the door, determined not to be left alone with that thing in the chamber.

But in the meantime the wind had been rising, and the coffin had been tilting and resettling on its narrower end. At last, James opening the door, the gruesome thing fell forward just as he crossed the threshold, knocked him down, and settled on the top of him. His father, close behind him, tumbled over the obstruction, divined, in the light of a lamp in the passage, what the prostrate thing was, and scrambling to his feet with the only oath he had, I fully believe, ever uttered, cried: "Damn that fule, Willie Wabster! Had he naething better to dee nor sen' to the hoose coffins naebody wantit--and syne set them doon like rotten-traps (rat-traps) to whomel puir Jeemie!" He lifted the thing from off the minister, who rose not much hurt, but both amazed and offended at the mishap, and went to his mother in the kitchen.

"Dinna say muckle to yer mither, Jeames laad," said his father as he went; "that is, dinna explain preceesely hoo the ill-faured thing happent. I'll hae amen's (amends, vengeance) upon him!" So saying, he took the offensive vehicle, awkward burden as it was, in his two arms, and carrying it to the back of the cornyard, shoved it over the low wall into the dry ditch at its foot, where he heaped dirty straw from the stable over it.

"It'll be lang," he vowed to himsel, "or Willie Wabster hear the last o' this!--and langer yet or he see the glint o' the siller he thoucht he was yirnin by 't!--It's come and cairry 't hame himsel he sall, the muckle idiot! He may turn 't intil a breid-kist, or what he likes, the gomf!"

"Fain wud I screw the reid heid o' 'im intil that same kist, and hand him there, short o' smorin!" he muttered as he went back to the house.--"Faith, I could 'maist beery him ootricht!" he concluded, with a grim smile.

Ere he re-entered the house, however, he walked a little way up the hill, to cast over the vault above him a farmer's look of inquiry as to the coming night, and then went in, shaking his head at what the clouds boded.

Marion had brought their simple supper into the parlour, and was sitting there with James, waiting for him. When they had ended their meal, and Eppie had removed the remnants, the husband and wife went into the adjoining chamber and sat down by the bedside, where James presently joined them with a book in his hand. Eppie, having rested the fire in the kitchen, came into the parlour, and sat on the edge of a chair just inside the door.

Peter had said nothing about the night, and indeed, in his wrath with the carpenter, had hardly noted how imminent was the storm; but the air had grown very sultry, and the night was black as pitch, for a solid mass of cloud had blotted out the stars: it was plain that, long before morning, a terrible storm must break. But midnight came and went, and all was very still.

Suddenly the storm was upon them, with a forked, vibrating flash of angry light that seemed to sting their eyeballs, and was replaced by a darkness that seemed to crush them like a ponderous weight. Then all at once the weight itself seemed torn and shattered into sound--into heaps of bursting, roaring, tumultuous billows. Another flash, yet another and another followed, each with its crashing uproar of celestial avalanches. At the first flash Peter had risen and gone to the larger window of the parlour, to discover, if possible, in what direction the storm was travelling. Marion, feeling as if suddenly unroofed, followed him, and James was left alone with the dead. He sat, not daring to move; but when the third flash came, it flickered and played so long about the dead face, that it seemed for minutes vividly visible, and his gaze was fixed on it, fascinated. The same moment, without a single preparatory movement, Isy was on her feet, erect on the bed.

A great cry reached the ears of the father and mother. They hurried into the chamber: James lay motionless and senseless on the floor: a man's nerve is not necessarily proportioned to the hardness of his heart! The verity of the thing had overwhelmed him.

Isobel had fallen, and lay gasping and sighing on the bed. She knew nothing of what had happened to her; she did not yet know herself--did not know that her faithless lover lay on the floor by her bedside.

When the mother entered, she saw nothing--only heard Isy's breathing. But when her husband came with a candle, and she saw her son on the floor, she forgot Isy; all her care was for James. She dropped on her knees beside him, raised his head, held it to her bosom, and lamented over him as if he were dead. She even felt annoyed with the poor girl's moaning, as she struggled to get back to life. Why should she whose history was such, be the cause of mishap to her reverend and honoured son? Was she worth one of his little fingers! Let her moan and groan and sigh away there--what did it matter! she could well enough wait a bit! She would see to her presently, when her precious son was better!

Very different was the effect upon Peter when he saw Isy coming to herself. It was a miracle indeed! It could be nothing less! White as was her face, there was in it an unmistakable look of reviving life! When she opened her eyes and saw her master bending over her, she greeted him with a faint smile, closed her eyes again, and lay still. James also soon began to show signs of recovery, and his father turned to him.

With the old sullen look of his boyhood, he glanced up at his mother, still overwhelming him with caresses and tears.

"Let me up," he said querulously, and began to wipe his face. "I feel so strange! What can have made me turn so sick all at once?"

"Isy's come to life again!" said his mother, with modified show of pleasure.

"Oh!" he returned.

"Ye're surely no sorry for that!" rejoined his mother, with a reaction of disappointment at his lack of sympathy, and rose as she said it.

"I'm pleased to hear it--why not?" he answered. "But she gave me a terrible start! You see, I never expected it, as you did!"

"Weel, ye are hertless, Jeernie!" exclaimed his father. "Hae ye nae spark o' fellow-feelin wi' yer ain mither, whan the lass comes to life 'at she's been fourteen days murnin for deid? But losh! she's aff again!--deid or in a dwaum, I kenna!--Is't possible she's gaein to slip frae oor hand yet?"

James turned his head aside, and murmured something inaudibly.

But Isy had only fainted. After some eager ministrations on the part of Peter, she came to herself once more, and lay panting, her forehead wet as with the dew of death.

The farmer ran out to a loft in the yard, and calling the herd-boy, a clever lad, told him to rise and ride for the doctor as fast as the mare could lay feet to the road.

"Tell him," he said, "that Isy has come to life, and he maun munt and ride like the vera mischeef, or she'll be deid again afore he wins til her. Gien ye canna get the tae doctor, awa wi' ye to the tither, and dinna ley him till ye see him i' the saiddle and startit. Syne ye can ease the mere, and come hame at yer leisur; he'll be here lang afore ye!--Tell him I'll pey him ony fee he likes, be't what it may, and never compleen!--Awa' wi' ye like the vera deevil!"

"I didna think ye kenned hoo he rade," answered the boy pawkily, as he shot to the stable. "Weel," he added, "ye maunna gley asklent at the mere whan she comes hame some saipy-like!"

When he returned on the mare's back, the farmer was waiting for him with the whisky-bottle in his hand.

"Na, na!" he said, seeing the lad eye the bottle, "it's no for you! ye want a' the sma' wit ye ever hed: it's no you 'at has to gallop; ye hae but to stick on!--Hae, Susy!"

He poured half a tumblerful into a soup-plate, and held it out to the mare, who, never snuffing at it, licked it up greedily, and immediately started of herself at a good pace.

Peter carried the bottle to the chamber, and got Isy to swallow a little, after which she began to recover again. Nor did Marion forget to administer a share to James, who was not a little in want of it.

When, within an hour, the doctor arrived full of amazed incredulity, he found Isy in a troubled sleep, and James gone to bed.

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