Mark Rutherford.

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his, begotten on itself, is monstrous and grotesque. He questioned
himself and his oracle further. What could Paul mean exactly? God could
not curse him if he did no wrong. He could only mean that he was willing
to sin and be punished provided Israel might live. It was lawful then to
tell a lie or perpetrate any evil deed in order to protect his child.
Something suddenly crossed his mind; what it was we shall see later on.
And yet the thought was too awful. He could not endure to sin, not only
against his Creator, but against his boy. Perhaps God might pardon him
after centuries of suffering; and yet He could not. The gates of hell
having once closed upon him, there could be no escape. He struggled in
agony, until at last he determined that, first of all, he would speak to
Robert, although he knew it would be useless. He would conquer the
strange dread he had of remonstrance, and then, if that failed, he
would - do anything.

On the Sabbath following, as they came out of the meeting-house in the
evening, Michael proposed to Robert that they should walk down to the
shore. It was a very unusual proposal, for walking on the Sabbath, save
to and from the means of grace, was almost a crime, and Robert assented,
not without some curiosity and even alarm. The two went together in
silence till they came to the deserted shore. The sun had set behind
the point on their right, and far away in the distance could he seen the
beneficent interrupted ray of the revolving light. Father and son walked
side by side.

"Robert," said Michael at last, "I have long wished to speak to you. God
knows I would not do it if He did not command me, but I cannot help it.
I fear you have engaged yourself with a young woman who is not one of His
children."

"Who told you she was not, father?"

"Who told me? Why, Robert, it is notorious. Who told me? Is she not
known to belong to the world? does she ever appear before the Lord?"

"Do you think then, father, that because she does not come to our chapel
she cannot be saved?"

"No, you know I do not. The Lord has His followers doubtless in other
communions besides our own, but the Shiptons are not His."

"You mean, I suppose, that they do not believe exactly what we believe,
and that they go to church?"

"No, no; I mean that she has not found Him, and that she is of the
world - of the world! O Robert, Robert! think what you are doing - that
you will mate yourself with one who is not elect, that you may have
children who will he the children of wrath. You don't know what I have
gone through for you. I have wrestled and prayed before I could bring
myself to do my duty and talk with you, and even now I cannot speak.
What is it which chokes me? O Robert, Robert!"

But Robert, usually docile and tender, was hard and obdurate. The image
of Susan rose before his eyes with her head on his shoulder, and he
thought to himself that it was necessary at once to make matters quite
plain and stop all further trespass on his prerogative. So it is, and so
it ever has been. For this cause shall a man leave father and mother and
cleave to his wife. There comes a time when the father and mother find
that they must withdraw; but it is the order of the world, and has to be
accepted, like sickness or death.

"Father," said Robert, "I am not a boy, and you must allow me in these
matters to judge for myself." As he spoke his spirit rose; the image of
the head on his shoulder, defenceless against attack save for him, became
clearer and clearer, and words escaped him which he never afterwards
forgot, nor did his father forget. "And it is a shame - I say it is a
shame to speak against her. You know nothing about her. Worldly! her
children children of wrath, just because she is not of your way of
thinking, and isn't - and isn't a humbug, as some of them are. From
anybody else I wouldn't stand it," and Robert turned sharply away and
went home.

Michael leant against a groyne to support himself, and looked over the
water, seeing nothing. At first he was angry, and if his son had been
there, he could have struck him; but presently his anger gave way to
pity, to hatred of the girl who had thus seduced him, and to a fixed
determination to save him, whatever it might cost. He pondered again and
again over that verse of Paul's. He did not believe that he should be
excused if he did evil that good might come. He knew that if he did
evil, no matter what the result might be, the penalty to the uttermost
farthing would be exacted. If Christ's purpose to save mankind could not
prevent the Divine anger being poured out on perfect innocence, how much
greater would not that anger have been if it had been necessary for Him
to sin in order to make the world's salvation sure! Michael firmly
believed, too, in the dreadful doctrine that a single lapse from the
strait path is enough to damn a man for ever; that there is no finiteness
in a crime which can be counterbalanced by finite expiation, but that sin
is infinite. Monstrous, we say; and yet it is difficult to find in the
strictest Calvinism anything which is not an obvious dogmatic reflection
of a natural fact, a mere transference to theology of what had been
pressed upon the mind of the creator of the creed as an everyday law of
the world. A crime is infinite in its penalties, and the account is
never really balanced, as many of us know too well, the lash being laid
on us day after day, even to death, for the failings of fifty years ago.

Michael, with his slow ways, remained many weeks undecided. During these
weeks he said nothing more to his son, nor did his son say anything to
him upon the one subject. Robert was more than ever deferent, and even
more than ever affectionate, but there were no signs of any conversion on
his part, and to his deference and affection his father paid no regard.
He walked in a world by himself, shut up in it, and incessantly repeated
the one question, how could he save his son's soul? He pictured himself
as a second Christ. If the Christ, the mighty Saviour, felt His Father's
wrath on that one dreadful night, it was only fitting that he, Michael, a
man who was of so much less worth, should feel it for ever to accomplish
a similar end. He was a little exalted by his resolve, and spiritual
pride began to show itself; so utterly impossible is it that the purest
self-devotion should be, if we may use the word, chemically pure. It is
very doubtful if he ever fully realised what he was doing, just as it is
doubtful whether in the time of liveliest conviction there has been a
perfect realisation of the world to come. Had he really appreciated the
words "torment" and "infinite;" had he really put into "torment" the
pangs of a cancer or a death through thirst; had he really put twenty
years into "infinity," he would perhaps have recoiled. Nevertheless, the
fact remains that this man by some means or other had educated himself
into complete self-obliteration for the sake of his child. The present
time is disposed to over-rate the intellectual virtues. No matter how
unselfish a woman may be, if she cannot discuss the new music or the new
metaphysical poetry, she is nothing and nobody cares for her. Centuries
ago our standard was different, and it will have to be different again.
We shall, it is to be hoped, spend ourselves not in criticism of the
record of the saints who sat by the sepulchre, but we shall love as they
loved.

Michael comforted himself by a piece of sophistry. He had made up his
mind to attempt a stratagem, a wicked lie, if we choose to call it so,
for his son's sake, and he was prepared to suffer the penalty for it. If
he had thought that in thus sinning he was sinning as an ordinary sinner,
he perhaps could not have dared to commit the crime; he could not have
faced the Almighty's displeasure. But he thought that, although bound by
the Divine justice to mete out to him all the punishment which the sin
merited, God would, nevertheless, consider him as a sinner for His glory.

One evening - the summer had not yet departed - father and son walked out
to the house on the cliff.

"Robert," said Michael suddenly, and with the strength of a man who
gathers himself up to do what for a long time he has been afraid to do,
and is even bolder apparently than if he had known no fear, "I have
spoken my mind to you as God in heaven bade me about Miss Shipton, and
this is the last word I shall say. He knows that I have prayed for you
from your childhood up - that I have prayed that, above everything, he
would grant that you should have one of His own for your wife, who should
bring up your children in the fear of the Lord. He alone knows how I
have wrestled for you day and night, ay, in the dark hours of the night;
for you are my only son, and I looked that you and she whom God might
choose for you should be the delight and support of my old age. But it
is not to be. God has, for His own good purposes, not blessed me as He
has blessed others, and the home for which I hoped I am not to have. Oh,
my son, my son!" He had meant to say more, but at the moment he could
not.

"Father, father!" said Robert, much moved - the anger he usually felt at
his father's references to Susan Shipton melting into pity - "why not?
why not? You don't know Susan; you condemn her just because she don't go
to our meeting. She shall love you like your own child."

Another man would, perhaps, have relented, but his system was wrought
into his very marrow - a part of himself in a manner incomprehensible.
The distinction between the world and the Church is now nothing to us.
We are on the best of terms with people who every Sunday are expressly
assigned to everlasting fire. But to Michael the distinction was what it
was to Ephraim MacBriar. The Spirit descended on him - whose spirit, it
is not for us to say.

"Are you sure of Miss Shipton, Robert?"

"Sure of her, father! What do you mean?"

"Do you know what she has been in time past?"

"I don't understand you."

"Do you know why Cadman left the Shiptons?"

Robert stopped suddenly as if struck by a blow, and then his behaviour
instantly changed. He completely forgot himself and was furious.

"Father, I say it is a wicked, cruel shame - a wicked, cruel lie. I do
not care if I tell you so. I will not listen to it," and he tore himself
away.

He believed it was a lie - believed it with the same distinctness as he
believed in the existence of the hedge by his side which lacerated his
hand as he turned round; and yet the lie struck him like a poisoned
barbed arrow, and he could not drag himself loose from it. No man could
have loved Desdemona better than Othello, and yet, before there was any
evidence, did he not say of Iago -

"This honest creature doubtless
Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds."

He went home, and on his way to his room upstairs he passed through the
little office in which he and his father made out their bills and kept
their accounts. On the desk lay half a sheet of a letter. He looked at
it at first mechanically, and then began to read with the most intense
interest. It was only half a sheet, and the other half was nowhere to be
found. It ran as follows: -


"and I can assure you I cannot afford to marry. Besides, I don't know
that she cares anything for me now. It was very wrong; but, sir, when
you remember that I am a young man and that Susan was so attractive, I
think I may be forgiven. I hope some day to make her amends if she still
loves me, but, sir, I must wait. - Yours truly,

"WALTER CADMAN.

"MR. MICHAEL TREVANION."


This was the plot. The Shiptons some short time ago had an assistant in
their employ, who was dismissed for improper intimacy with a servant-girl
named Susan Coleman, who lived next door. As was the case with most
servant-girls in those days, nobody ever heard her surname, and she was
known by the name of Susan only. The affair was kept a profound secret,
for she was a member of the congregation to which Michael belonged; and
Mr. Shipton, for trade reasons, was anxious that it should not be made
public. Michael, as one of the deacons, knew all about it, but Robert
knew nothing. The girl left her place before the consequences of her
crime became public; and Michael had written to the man Cadman, telling
him he ought to support the child of which he was the father. When he
received the answer, a sudden thought struck him. The last page might be
used for a purpose, and so he hatched his monstrous scheme, and left the
paper where he knew that, sooner or later, Robert would see it.

When Michael came home, Robert was not there; a bill-head lay near
Cadman's note with the brief announcement -


"I have left for ever. - Your affectionate son,

"ROBERT."


Michael's first emotion, strange to say, was something like joy. He had
succeeded, and Robert was removed from the wiles of the tempter. But
when the morning came, he looked again, and he saw the words "for ever,"
and he realised that his son had gone; that he would never see him any
more; that perhaps he might have committed self-murder. His human nature
got the better of every other nature in him, divine or diabolic, and he
was distracted. He could not pray after his wont; he tried, but he had
no utterance; he felt himself rebellious, blasphemous, impious, and he
rose from his bedside without a word. He went out into the street and
down to the shore, trembling lest he should hear from the first man he
saw that his son's body had been thrown up on the sand; and then he
remembered how Robert could swim, and that he would probably hang a stone
round his neck and be at the bottom of some deep pool. He could not go
back; people would ask where his son was, and what could he say? He had
murdered him. He had thought to save him, and he was dead. He walked
and walked till he could walk no more, and a great horror came on him - a
horror of great darkness. The Eternal Arms were unclasped, and he felt
himself sinking - into what he knew not. He could not describe his terror
to himself. It was nameless, shapeless, awful, infinite; and all he
could do was to cry out in agony; the words of the Book, even in this his
most desperate moment, serving to voice the experience for him - "My God!
my God! why hast Thou forsaken me?" It became intolerable, and his brain
began to turn. He reflected though, even then, upon the disgrace of
suicide. For himself he did not care; for had not God abandoned him? and
what worse thing could befall him? But then his good name, and the brand
of infamy which would be affixed to Robert should he still live! Could
he not die so that it might be set down as an accident? He could swim;
and although he had not been often in the water of late years, it would
not be thought extraordinary if on a blazing morning he should bathe. He
took off his clothes, and in a moment was in the sea, striking out for
the river channel and the ebbing tide, which he knew would bear him away
to the ocean. He saw nothing, heard nothing, till just as he neared the
buoy and the fatal eddy was before him, when there escaped from him a
cry - a scream - a prayer of commitment to Him whom he believed he had so
loyally served - served with such damnable, such treasonable fidelity - the
God who had now turned away from him.

But the buoy was not reached. A hand was on him, firm but soft, grasping
him by the hair at the back of his neck, which he wore long in Puritanic
fashion, and the hand held him and he knew no more. Susan Shipton,
bathing that morning, had seen a human being in the water nearing the
point where she herself so nearly lost her life. Without a moment's
hesitation she made after him, and was fortunate enough to attract the
attention of two men in a punt, who followed her. She came up just in
time, and with their help Michael was saved. He was senseless, but after
a few hours he recovered, and asked his wife, who was standing by his
bedside, who rescued him.

"Why, it was Susan Shipton. She was in the water and came after you, and
then, luckily, there was a boat near at hand."

Susan was on the other side of the bed, and he did not see her. She bent
over him and kissed him.

He turned round, and thoughts rushed through his brain with a rapidity
sufficient to make one short moment a thousand years; but he said
nothing, and presently, almost for the first time in his life, he broke
down into sobbing. He turned away from her and could not look at her.

"You see, Mr. Trevanion," she said smilingly, "just about that very place
I was nearly drowned myself - I don't know whether you ever heard of
it - and I hardly ever keep my eyes off it now when I am anywhere near it,
although I am not afraid of going pretty near after what Robert told me.
When you want a wash again. - I knew you could swim well, by the way, but
I didn't know you ever went into the water now - you must give the buoy a
wider berth." She stooped down and whispered to him - "I never told a
soul before, but it was Robert who saved me. We are quits now. Robert
saved me, and I have done something to save you, though not so much as
Robert, because he had no boat." Then she kissed his forehead again,
delighted at the thought that she could put something into the balance
against her lover's heroism. How proud he would be of her! She would be
able, moreover, to stand up a little bit against him. It was very
pleasant to her to think she owed so much to him, but she liked also to
think that she had something of her own.

Michael caught hold of her round the neck, embracing her with a
passionate fervour which she supposed to be gratitude, but it was not
altogether that.

"Do you know where Robert has gone?" she said. "He was not at home last
night."

"He has gone on - on - some business. I must go too."

"You cannot go just yet; not till you have got over the shock."

"I can - I can. Leave me, and I will dress myself. It is important
business, and I must see him. But, Susan, here - I want you."

It was the first time he had ever called her Susan. She came back to
him. "Listen!" he cried. She bent her head down, but he was silent. At
last, with his arms again around her, he said, "My child, my child, my
child!"

"Me!" she answered innocently. "Do you mean me? do you really? I
couldn't think what you wanted to say, but that's enough. My dearest,
dearest father! Oh, how happy Robert will be! and so am I. We thought
you didn't care for me; and I know I am a poor, foolish girl, not half
good enough for Robert; but I _do_ love him, and I never loved anybody
else; and I _do_ love you."

When she had left, Michael rose from his bed. His faith remained
unchanged, but it presented itself to him in a different shape. A new
and hitherto unnoticed article in his creed forced itself before him.
God's hand - for it _was_ God's hand - had plucked him out of the sea and
brought him back to life. What did that mean? Ah! what was he? - a worm
of the earth! How dare he lift himself up against the Almighty's
designs? The Almighty asked him the question eternally repeated to us,
which He had asked thousands of years ago, "Where wast thou when I laid
the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. . . .
Doth the hawk fly by thy wisdom, and stretch her wings forward to the
south?" "The hawk flies not by my wisdom," murmured Michael to himself,
"nor doth the eagle at my command make her nest on high. Ah, it is by
His wisdom and at His command; how should I dare to interfere? I see
it - I see it all now. 'I have uttered that I understood not; things too
wonderful for me, which I knew not.'" After his fashion and through his
religion he had said to himself the last word which can be uttered by
man. He knelt down and prayed, and although he was much given to
extempore prayer, he did not, in this his most intense moment, go beyond
the prayer of our Lord, which, moreover, expressed what he wanted better
than any words of his own. "_Thy will_," he repeated, "_Thy_ will." His
one thought now was his son, but he knew not where to find him. He went
out and he saw his man, David Trevenna.

"He was off in a hurry; only just caught the coach," said David.

"Who? What coach?"

"Why, Robert; going to Plymouth."

Michael did not answer, but hurried to his stable where his little pony
was kept, and put him in the light cart. He told his wife that he had
some business in Plymouth with Robert, packed up a few things, took some
money, and in a few minutes was on the Truro road. At Truro he found the
mail, and within twelve hours he was at Plymouth. Dismounting, he asked
eagerly if they had a young man at the inn who had come from Cornwall the
day before.

"What, one as is waiting for the packet?"

"Yes," said Michael at a venture.

"Yes, he's here, but he isn't in just now. Gone out for a walk."

The one point in Plymouth to which everybody naturally turns is the Hoe,
and thither Michael went. It was morning in early autumn or late summer,
and the whole Sound lay spread out under the sun in perfect peace. The
woods of Mount Edgecumbe were almost black in the intense light, and far
away in the distance, for the air was clear, a sharp eye might just
discern the Eddystone, the merest speck, rising above the water. It was
a wonderful scene, but Michael saw nothing of it. When he came out of
the street which leads up from the town to the Hoe, he looked round as a
man might look for escape if a devouring fire were behind him, and he saw
his son a hundred yards in front of him gazing over the sea. With a cry
of thanks to his God Michael rushed forward, and just as Robert turned
round caught him in his arms, but could not speak.

At last he found a few words.

"It is all a mistake, Robert - it is all wrong. Susan is yours - she is
mine. Come back with me."

Robert, as much moved as his father, fell on his neck as if he had been a
woman, and then led him gently down the slope, away from curious persons
who had watched this remarkable greeting, and took Michael to be some
strange person who had accidentally met his child or a relative after
long separation.

"Foreigners, most likely; that's their way. It looks odd to English
people," remarked a lady to her daughter. It did look odd, and would
have looked odd to most of us - to us who belong to a generation which
sees in the relationship between father and son nothing more than in that
between the most casual acquaintances with the disadvantage of inequality
of age, a generation to whom the father is - often excusably - a person to
be touched twice a day with the tips of the fingers, a postponement of a
full share in the business, a person to be treated with - respect? Good
gracious! If it were not bad form, it would be a joke worth playing to
slip the chair away from the old man as he is going to sit down, and see
him sprawl on the floor. Why, in the name of heaven, does he come up to
the City every day? He ought to retire, and leave that expensive place
at Clapham, and take a cottage in some cheap part, somewhere in
Cambridgeshire or Essex.

"Robert," said Michael, "I have sinned, although it was for the Lord's
sake, and He has rebuked me. I thought to take upon myself His direction
of His affairs; but He is wiser than I. I believed I was sure of His
will, but I was mistaken. He knows that what I did, I did for love of
your soul, my child; but I was grievously wrong."

The father humbled himself before the son, but in his humiliation became
majestic, and in after years, when he was dead and gone, there was no
scene in the long intercourse with him which lived with a brighter and
fairer light in the son's memory.

"You know nothing then against Susan?"

"Nothing!"

"I found a bit of a letter on your desk from Cadman. I could not help
reading it. Had that anything to do with her?"

"Nothing!"

"Father, you seem faint and you tremble; hadn't you better go in doors
and take something, and lie down? We cannot get home till to-morrow."

The father went to the inn with difficulty; he had tasted no food for
many hours, and had not slept for some time, but he could neither eat nor
sleep. Hitherto God's will had appeared to him ascertainable with
comparative ease, and he had been as certain of the Divine direction as
if he had seen a finger-post or heard the word in his ear. But now he
was dazed and, in doubt. He was convinced that his rescue by Susan was
an interposition of Providence, and if so, then all his former


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Online LibraryMark RutherfordMiriam's Schooling and Other Papers → online text (page 12 of 13)