Salted With Fire

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The next day, Isy, although very weak, was greatly better. She was, however, too ill to get up; and Marion seemed now in her element, with two invalids, both dear to her, to look after. She hardly knew for which to be more grateful--her son, given helpless into her hands, unable to repel the love she lavished upon him; or the girl whom God had taken from the very throat of the swallowing grave. But her heart, at first bubbling over with gladness, soon grew calmer, when she came to perceive how very ill James was. And before long she began to fear she must part with her child, whose lack of love hitherto made the threatened separation the more frightful to her. She turned even from the thought of Isy's restoration, as if that were itself an added wrong. From the occasional involuntary association of the two in her thought, she would turn away with a sort of meek loathing. To hold her James for one moment in the same thought with any girl less spotless than he, was to disgrace herself!

James was indeed not only very ill, but growing slowly worse; for he lay struggling at last in the Backbite of Conscience, who had him in her unrelaxing jaws, and was worrying him well. Whence the holy dog came we know, but how he got a hold of him to begin his saving torment, who shall understand but the maker of men and of their secret, inexorable friend! Every beginning is infinitesimal, and wrapt in the mystery of creation.

Its results only, not its modes of operation or their stages, I may venture attempting to convey. It was the wind blowing where it listed, doing everything and explaining nothing. That wind from the timeless and spaceless and formless region of God's feeling and God's thought, blew open the eyes of this man's mind so that he saw, and became aware that he saw. It blew away the long-gathered vapours of his self-satisfaction and conceit; it blew wide the windows of his soul, that the sweet odour of his father's and mother's thoughts concerning him might enter; and when it entered, he knew it for what it was; it blew back to him his own judgments of them and their doings, and he saw those judgments side by side with his new insights into their real thoughts and feelings; it blew away the desert sands of his own moral dulness, indifference, and selfishness, that had so long hidden beneath them the watersprings of his own heart, existent by and for love and its gladness; it cleared all his conscious being, made him understand that he had never hitherto loved his mother or his father, or any neighbour; that he had never loved God one genuine atom, never loved the Lord Christ, his Master, or cared in the least that he had died for him; had never at any moment loved Isy--least of all when to himself he pleaded in his own excuse that he had loved her. That blowing wind, which he could not see, neither knew whence it came, and yet less whither it was going, began to blow together his soul and those of his parents; the love in his father and in his mother drew him; the memories of his childhood drew him; for the heart of God himself was drawing him, as it had been from the first, only now first he began to feel its drawing; and as he yielded to that drawing and went nearer, God drew ever more and more strongly; until at last--I know not, I say, how God did it, or whereby he made the soul of James Blatherwick different from what it had been--but at last it grew capable of loving, and did love: first, he yielded to love because he could not help it; then he willed to love because he could love; then, become conscious of the power, he loved the more, and so went on to love more and more. And thus did James become what he had to become --or perish.

But for this liberty, he had to pass through wild regions of torment and horror; he had to become all but mad, and know it; his body, and his soul as well, had to be parched with fever, thirst, and fear; he had to sleep and dream lovely dreams of coolness and peace and courage; then wake and know that all his life he had been dead, and now first was alive; that love, new-born, was driving out the gibbering phantoms; that now indeed it was good to be, and know others alive about him; that now life was possible, because life was to love, and love was to live. What love was, or how it was, he could not tell; he knew only that it was the will and the joy of the Father and the Son.

Long ere he arrived at this, however, the falsehood and utter meanness of his behaviour to Isy had become plain to him, bringing with it such an overpowering self-contempt and self-loathing, that he was tempted even to self-destruction to escape the knowledge that he was himself the very man who had been such, and had done such things. "To know my deed, 'twere best not know myself!" he might have said with Macbeth. But he must live on, for how otherwise could he make any atonement? And with the thought of reparation, and possible forgiveness and reconcilement, his old love for Isy rushed in like a flood, grown infinitely nobler, and was uplifted at last into a genuine self-abandoning devotion. But until this final change arrived, his occasional paroxysms of remorse touched almost on madness, and for some time it seemed doubtful whether his mind must not retain a permanent tinge of insanity. He conceived a huge disgust of his office and all its requirements; and sometimes bitterly blamed his parents for not interfering with his choice of a profession that was certain to be his ruin.

One day, having had no delirium for some hours, he suddenly called out as they stood by his bed--

"Oh, mother! oh, father! why did you tempt me to such hypocrisy? Why did you not bring me up to walk at the plough-tail? Then I should never have had to encounter the damnable snares of the pulpit! It was that which ruined me--the notion that I must take the minister for my pattern, and live up to my idea of him, before even I had begun to cherish anything real in me! It was the road royal to hypocrisy! Without that rootless, worthless, devilish fancy, I might have been no worse than other people! Now I am lost! Now I shall never get back to bare honesty, not to say innocence! They are both gone for ever!"

The poor mother could only imagine it his humility that made him accuse himself of hypocrisy, and that because he had not fulfilled to the uttermost the smallest duty of his great office.

"Jamie, dear," she cried, laying her cheek to his, "ye maun cast yer care upo' Him that careth for ye! He kens ye hae dene yer best--or if no yer vera best--for wha daur say that?--ye hae at least dene what ye could!"

"Na, na!" he answered, resuming the speech of his boyhood--a far better sign of him than his mother understood, "I ken ower muckle, and that muckle ower weel, to lay sic a flattering unction to my sowl! It's jist as black as the fell mirk! 'Ah, limed soul, that, struggling to be free, art more engaged!'"

"Hoots, ye're dreamin, laddie! Ye never was engaged to onybody--at least that ever I h'ard tell o'! But, ony gait, fash na ye aboot that! Gien it be onything o' sic a natur that's troublin ye, yer father and me we s' get ye clear o' 't!"

"Ay, there ye're at it again! It was you 'at laid the bird-lime! Ye aye tuik pairt, mither, wi' the muckle deil that wad na rist till he had my sowl in his deepest pit!"

"The Lord kens his ain: he'll see that they come throuw unscaumit!"

"The Lord disna mak ony hypocreet o' purpose doobtless; but gien a man sin efter he has ance come to the knowledge o' the trowth, there remaineth for him--ye ken the lave o' 't as weel as I dee mysel, mother! My only houp lies in a doobt--a doobt, that is, whether I had ever come til a knowledge o' the trowth--or hae yet!--Maybe no!"

"Laddie, ye're no i' yer richt min'. It's fearsome to hearken til ye!"

"It'll be waur to hear me roarin wi' the rich man i' the lowes o' hell!"

"Peter! Peter!" cried Marion, driven almost to distraction, "here's yer ain son, puir fallow, blasphemin like ane o' the condemned! He jist gars me creep!"

Receiving no answer, for her husband was nowhere near at the moment, she called aloud in her desperation--

"Isy! Isy! come and see gien ye can dee onything to quaiet this ill bairn."

Isy heard, and sprang from her bed.

"Comin, mistress!" she answered; "comin this moment."

They had not met since her resurrection, as Peter always called it.

"Isy! Isy!" cried James, the moment he heard her approaching, "come and hand the deil aff o' me!"

He had risen to his elbow, and was looking eagerly toward the door.

She entered. James threw wide his arms, and with glowing eyes clasped her to his bosom. She made no resistance: his mother would lay it all to the fever! He broke into wild words of love, repentance, and devotion.

"Never heed him a hair, mem; he's clean aff o' his heid!" she said in a low voice, making no attempt to free herself from his embrace, but treating him like a delirious child. "There maun be something aboot me, mem, that quaiets him a bit! It's the brain, ye ken, mem! it's the het brain! We maunna contre him! he maun hae his ain w'y for a wee!"

But such was James's behaviour to Isy that it was impossible for the mother not to perceive that, incredible as it might seem, this must be far from the first time they had met; and presently she fell to examining her memory whether she herself might not have seen Isy before ever she came to Stonecross; but she could find no answer to her inquiry, press the question as she might. By and by, her husband came in to have his dinner, and finding herself compelled, much against her will, to leave the two together, she sent up Eppie to take Isy's place, with the message that she was to go down at once. Isy obeyed, and went to the kitchen; but, perturbed and trembling, dropped on the first chair she came to. The farmer, already seated at the table, looked up, and anxiously regarding her, said--

"Bairn, ye're no fit to be aboot! Ye maun caw canny, or ye'll be ower the burn yet or ever ye're safe upo' this side o' 't! Preserve's a'! ir we to lowse ye twise in ae month?"

"Jist answer me ae queston, Isy, and I'll speir nae mair," said Marion.

"Na, na, never a queston!" interposed Peter;--"no ane afore even the shaidow o' deith has left the hoose!--Draw ye up to the table, my bonny bairn: this isna a time for ceremony, and there's sma' room for that ony day!"

Finding, however, that she sat motionless, and looked far more death-like than while in her trance, he got up, and insisted on her swallowing a little whisky; when she revived, and glad to put herself under his nearer protection, took the chair he had placed for her beside him, and made a futile attempt at eating. "It's sma' won'er the puir thing hasna muckle eppiteet," remarked Mrs. Blatherwick, "considerin the w'y yon ravin laddie up the stair has been cairryin on til her!"

"What! Hoo's that?" questioned her husband with a start.

"But ye're no to mak onything o' that, Isy!" added her mistress.

"Never a particle, mem!" returned Isy. "I ken weel it stan's for naething but the heat o' the burnin brain! I'm richt glaid though, that the sicht o' me did seem to comfort him a wee!"

"Weel, I'm no sae sure!" answered Marion. "But we'll say nae mair anent that the noo! The guidman says no; and his word's law i' this hoose."

Isy resumed her pretence of breakfast. Presently Eppie came down, and going to her master, said--

"Here's An'ra, sir, come to speir efter the yoong minister and Isy: am I to gar him come in?"

"Ay, and gie him his brakfast," shouted the farmer.

The old woman set a chair for her son by the door, and proceeded to attend to him. James was left alone.

Silence again fell, and the appearance of eating was resumed, Peter being the only one that made a reality of it. Marion was occupied with many thinkings, specially a growing doubt and soreness about Isy. The hussy had a secret! She had known something all the time, and had been taking advantage of her unsuspiciousness! It would be a fine thing for her, indeed, to get hold of the minister! but she would see him dead first! It was too bad of the Robertsons, whom she had known so long and trusted so much! They knew what they were doing when they passed their trash upon her! She began to distrust ministers! What right had they to pluck brands from the burning at the expense o' dacent fowk! It was to do evil that good might come! She would say that to their faces! Thus she sat thinking and glooming.

A cry of misery came from the room above. Isy started to her feet. But Marion was up before her.

"Sit doon this minute," she commanded.

Isy hesitated.

"Sit doon this moment, I tell ye!" repeated Marion imperiously. "Ye hae no business there! I'm gaein til 'im mysel!" And with the word she left the room.

Peter laid down his spoon, then half rose, staring bewildered, and followed his wife from the room.

"Oh my baby! my baby!" cried Isy, finding herself alone. "If only I had you to take my part! It was God gave you to me, or how could I love you so? And the mistress winna believe that even I had a bairnie! Noo she'll be sayin I killt my bonny wee man! And yet, even for his sake, I never ance wisht ye hadna been born! And noo, whan the father o' 'im's ill, and cryin oot for me, they winna lat me near 'im!"

The last words left her lips in a wailing shriek.

Then first she saw that her master had reentered. Wiping her eyes hurriedly, she turned to him with a pitiful, apologetic smile.

"Dinna be sair vext wi' me, sir: I canna help bein glaid that I had him, and to tyne him has gien me an unco sair hert!"

She stopped, terrified: how much had he heard? she could not tell what she might not have said! But the farmer had resumed his breakfast, and went on eating as if she had not spoken. He had heard nearly all she said, and now sat brooding on her words.

Isy was silent, saying in her heart--"If only he loved me, I should be content, and desire no more! I would never even want him to say it! I would be so good to him, and so silent, that he could not help loving me a little!"

I wonder whether she would have been as hopeful had she known how his mother had loved him, and how vainly she had looked for any love in return! And when Isy vowed in her heart never to let James know that she had borne him a son, she did not perceive that thus she would withhold the most potent of influences for his repentance and restoration to God and his parents. She did not see James again that night; and before she fell asleep at last in the small hours of the morning, she had made up her mind that, ere the same morning grew clear upon the moor, she would, as the only thing left her to do for him, be far away from Stonecross. She would go back to Deemouth, and again seek work at the paper-mills!

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