Robert Edward Knowles.

St. Cuthbert's; a novel online

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tide.

* * * * *

The ordination Sabbath was aglow with holy light. God surely loves
Presbyterian high days, for they are nearly always beautiful. St.
Cuthbert's was filled long before eleven with a reverent and expectant
congregation. Five new elders had been elected, three of them their
father's successors, for this was a common custom in New Jedboro, and
apostolic succession in disguise was in high favour amongst us. Another
was a man of seventy or more, for every ordination must recognize the
stalwarts whose days of activity were past but whose time for honour was
at hand. The remaining elder-elect was Angus Strachan. His choice by the
congregation had been unanimous and cordial. His examination by the
Session had resulted in hearty confirmation. Our manse tragedy was
unknown to any of the elders except Mr. Blake, who preserved complete
silence throughout the interview. The ordeal was painful beyond words to
me - but it was over, and Angus sat in the front pew with the other four,
awaiting ordination to their sacred office.

We had sung the psalm which from time immemorial Presbyterian ministers
have announced on all ecclesiastical occasions, the hundred and second
psalm, the second version, from the thirteenth verse, reading over
again, as their habit is, the first two lines:

"Thou shalt arise and mercy yet
Thou to Mount Zion shalt extend;"

the venerable Dr. Inglis of Moffat had preached the sermon from the
text: - "Feed the flock of God which is among you," and the elders elect
took their places before the pulpit.

I addressed them in what I considered fitting terms, recalling the great
traditions of the church they were called to serve and the noble labours
of the godly men whose mantles had now fallen upon themselves. I
referred to our precious legacy, bequeathed to us from the hands of
Covenanters, and a reverent hush throughout the whole congregation
applauded the names of Renwick and Peden and Cameron, as they fell from
my lips.

Then all the elders took their places beside me, for the act of
ordination was about to be performed. This consisted of prayer and the
laying on of hands - not of the minister's hands alone, for we in St.
Cuthbert's adhered to the ancient Scottish mode of ordination by the
laying on of the hands of the entire Session.

The candidates kneeled before us, Angus on my right, having changed his
place for some unapparent reason, soon to be abundantly revealed. The
hands first outstretched towards his bended head were those of Mr.
Blake. Whereupon an awful thing befell us; for the solemn stillness of
the kirk was broken by the ringing of a voice aflame with
passion: - "Take back your hand - touch not a hair of my head. Go cleanse
your hand. Go purify your heart - they are both polluted. Whited
sepulchre, give up your dead - let the rotting memories walk forth. Go
wash another's blood from your guilty soul before you dare to serve at
God's altar!"

The trembling object of this outburst shrank back from before it. The
kneeling candidates bowed lower. I myself stood as one in a fearful
dream, while the horror-stricken people half rose within their pews,
bending forward as they gazed at the sacrilegious scene.

Angus turned and looked unflinchingly into their faces. I feared he was
about to speak again and I raised my hand to signify forbiddal - but he
saw it not, and my inward protest yielded to his fiery purpose.

"Aye, you may well look," he cried to the awestruck worshippers. "God
knows I had not meant to do this thing or to speak these words. I came
here with the honest purpose to assume the vows that should forever bind
me to His service. My heart was honest before God; but when I felt the
approach of those guilty hands it was beyond my power to endure their
touch. Nor should I feel shame for what I have done. You remember the
scourge of knotted cords and the holy temple. Is it wrong that I too
should now seek to drive forth this unworthy man? He stands unmasked
before you. You know not who he is! He is my father and we share our
shame together! Another shares it with her God where the Ettrick water
hears her prayer. And this is the man whose hands would convey the grace
of God!"

He stopped; and the blanched faces before him gave back a voice, half
cry, half sob, anguish rending every heart. They were a proud folk in
St. Cuthbert's; besides no man of all the elders was so dear to them as
Mr. Blake, his piety and philanthropy so long tried and proved. Although
we know it not, there is no asset held more dear than the solvency of a
man in whom we vest the precious savings of our confidence.

Every eye and heart seemed turned towards the man so fiercely accused,
silently entreating him to relieve the cruel tension.

None doubted that his swift denial would confirm the confidence of our
loyal hearts. But the silence drew itself out, moment after moment, each
bequeathing its legacy of pain to its successor. Mr. Blake's eyes were
raptly fixed on his accuser - his traducer, as we secretly defined him.
Their light was not the glow of wrath, nor of resentment, but of a
strange wistful curiosity, mixed with eager yearning. Fear and love
seemed to look out together.

In the pause that followed, Angus swiftly handed to me a small picture,
encased after an ancient fashion.

"Look at that, sir," he said, "that will tell its tale - that is my
father's face."

I looked with eager intentness, and it required but a glance to show
that the pictured face before me, and the pallid face beside me, were
the same. The picture was evidently taken long years before, and the
stamp of youth and hope and ardent faith was upon the face. Locks raven
black, and an unwrinkled brow, had been exchanged for those that bore
the scar of time and care; but no careful eye could fail to see that the
youthful face of the picture and the ashen face of the elder were one
and the same.

But, - more striking and fatal far - the photograph's evidence was not
required. No man who saw, as I saw, the faces of Michael Blake and Angus
Strachan side by side need wait for other evidence. Often had I seen
them thus before - but never in the nakedness of passion.

Passion has the artist's magic hand and her master sketch is ever of her
home. As Titian's immortal hills were but the reproduction of his
far-off dwelling-place, genius plighting its troth to childhood, so doth
passion illumine first the environs of her long time home, how humble so
ever it may be. Passion paints the eternal childlike that is in us all.
The face is the window through which the vista of a soul's inner life
is flashed by her mystic hand, and in that moment the window glows with
the unfeigned light of childhood, its simple radiance still unquenched,
though long draped by artificial years.

Thus transfigured were the faces of Angus Strachan and Michael
Blake - the one with mingled love and fear, the other with unmingled
scorn. With that swift intensity of passion came the reversal to their
common type, and the great betrayal was complete. The blood they shared
together, speaking a kindred language, had turned King's evidence at
last, and its unanswerable testimony leaped from face and eye.

For God hath His silent witnesses, like John the Baptist, by us shut up
in prison and by us beheaded - but He calleth them to the witness-stand
as pleaseth Him; and they live forever in dreadful gospels of love and
doom, the latter sharing the power of the former's endless life. Their
voice is heard above Herodias' strains of revelry and even sceptred
Sadducees tremble at the sound.

Vast is life's mighty forest, but the wronger and the wronged meet
somewhere amid its shadowy glades. Surely life's wooded maze might
afford a hiding place to those who fly from armed memories - but God's
rangers tread its every glen with stealthy step and the foliage of every
thicket gleams with the armour of His detective host. A chance meeting,
a foundling acquaintance, a stray newspaper, an undestroyed letter, a
resurgent memory, a neglected photograph, or, as here, a tell-tale tide
of blood - all these have accepted God's retainer and bear the invisible
badge that denotes His world-spread Force. All life's apparent discord
is harmony itself when He determines the departments and allots to every
thing, and to every man, his work!

"You speak of Ettrick! What know you of Ettrick? What is her name that
lives there?" I heard Mr. Blake ask in a faltering whisper, unheard by
the rigid worshippers.

"She bears no name save that which you defiled - it shall not be spoken
here, though I honour it with my deepest heart - but look on this," and
Angus held out before him what he had drawn from his bosom as he spoke.

Michael Blake's gaze was fixed upon it, no word or sound coming from his
lips. His eyes clung to it with tranquil eagerness, unconscious of all
about, still clinging when Angus withdrew it, wrapped it in the paper
which had enclosed it, and restored it to its hiding-place.

I know not why, but I held out my hand to him eagerly:

"Let me see it, Angus; my own mother is with God."

He hesitated but a moment, then drew it forth and handed it to me.

"All the world may see it," he said quietly, "it is my mother - you may
read the letter if you will."

The portrait was of a woman still rich with girlhood's charm. Of about
nineteen years, I should say, tall and graceful and sweet of
countenance, with a great wealth of hair, with eyes that no flame but
love's could have kindled, her lips, even in a picture, instinct with
pure passion, and her whole being evidently fragrant and luscious as
Scottish girlhood alone can be. For the sweetest flowers are nourished
at the breast of the most rugged hills.

I was still reading the story of love and innocence and hope, all of
which were written in the lovely face before me, when Angus said very
gently:

"Read the letter, sir."

The writing on the paper which enclosed the picture had escaped my
notice. It was a letter from Angus' mother, sent with the
daguerreotypes. Its closing words ran thus:

"I send ye this picture o' masel' and the ane o' the man I loved
sae weel. No ither picture have I had taken, nor ither shall there
be. It was taken for yir faither before the gloamin' settled doon
on you and me, ma laddie. It was taken for him, as was every breath
I drew, for I loved him wi' every ane.

"Ye maunna think ower hard o' him, laddie, for yir mother canna
drive him forth, so ye maun bide thegither in this broken hairt o'
mine. And laddie, I am askin' God to keep me pure, for my love will
hae its bloom some day far ayont us, like the bonny heather when
the winter's bye. And I want to be worthy when it comes. I'm sair
soiled, I ken, but love can weave its robe o' white for the very
hairt it stained. And I maun be true till the gloamin's gone. So
think o' yir mother as aye true to yir faither, and it'll mebbe
help yir sorrow to ken there's aye this bond between yir faither
and her wha bore ye. And Angus, dinna let him ken, gin ye should
ever meet. Yir mother's bearin' her sorrow all alane in Ettrick and
her laddie'll bear it ayont the ocean. We're a' in God's guid
hands. Your loving mother,

JANET STRACHAN."

I returned the well worn letter to the unhappy hand from which I had
received it. He tenderly wrapped it about his mother's picture and
thrust the parcel back beside the loyal heart which shared, as it was
bidden, the great sorrow and disgrace.

I then cast about in my mind for the next step which should be taken.
Ordination I knew there could now be none. The pestilence of anger and
shame and sin was upon us all. Dark horror sat upon the faces of the
waiting congregation, their eyes still fixed on these two actors of this
so sudden tragedy. It may have been that the proof of kinship, as
demonstrated by these confronting faces, was finding its way into their
hearts. These faces were still fastened the one upon the other, the
younger with glowing scorn, the older with mingled love and tenderness,
blended with infinite self-reproach.

I could see no course open to me except the dismissal of the
congregation, and so announced my purpose.

"The Kirk Session is adjourned sine die," I said, for this is an ancient
phrase and the proper forms must be observed. Even when our dearest lies
in her coffin, there are certain phrases which announce in cold and
heartless print that the heart's life-blood is flowing from its wound,
and, however sacred that silent form, the undertaker's hands must have
their will with it.

"Moderator." It was Thomas Laidlaw's voice. "Moderator, we hae heard but
ae side. There's aye twa sides. Will ye no' let the accused speak for
himsel'? Fair play is bonny play."

A moment's thought was enough to assure me as to what was right.

"By all means," I answered, sadly enough, for I had but little hope that
any defense could be offered. "Mr. Blake may certainly speak if he
wishes - it is but fair. Have you anything to say, Mr. Blake?"

As I turned towards the older man the younger withdrew his eyes from the
face on which they had so long been fixed, and slowly rising, Angus
walked down the aisle towards the door, conscious that he himself had
proclaimed his bitter shame; but his mother's name seemed written on his
forehead, redeemed by the sacrifice of his own. He had gone but a
quarter of the way or so, when a trembling voice was heard.

"Angus, wait," it said; the voice was faint and tremulous like a
birdling's note - but Angus heard it and stood still. He turned towards
the pew whence it came, and a face met his own, a woman's face, blanched
and pale, except for two burning spots upon her cheeks where the heart
had unfurled its banners. It was a woman's voice, I say, and the eyes
that looked out from it sought his own with a great caress of loyalty
and love. The glowing eyes, and the parted lips, and the quick flowing
breath, all spoke the bridal passion; for the bride's glory is in
surrender, the bodily sacrifice but the pledge of her blended and
surrendered life, lost in another's mastering love.

"Angus, wait," she murmured again, her dainty gloved hand upon the
book-board as she essayed to rise. Her mother sought to restrain her,
but her touch was powerless; for the outgoing tide was at its full.

"He shall not walk down that aisle alone," she faltered to her mother,
the words unheard by others. "We shall go down together."




XXIII

_A MAIDEN PRIESTESS_


Perhaps her mother's woman-heart realized in that moment that the one
path irresistible to a woman's love is the path of sacrifice. In any
case she ceased from her protest and the gentle form arose; moving out
to where he stood, she slipped her dear hand into Angus's, and together
they walked slowly down the aisle of the crowded church. No sideward
glance they cast nor backward did Margaret ever look. Sweet courage was
shining from her face, even joy, as they passed out together - the long
stride of the stalwart man and the gentle step of the dainty maiden, but
ever hand in hand, hidden from the strife of tongues, in love's pavilion
hidden.

They had wandered, knowing not where or whither, some distance from the
church, when Angus stopped, and fixing his reverent look on Margaret's
strangely happy face, he said:

"You don't know what you have done; you have tarnished your name - oh,
Margaret, why did you do it? From henceforth you will share the shame
that belongs to me."

Margaret's face was upturned to his own.

"Is not the sunshine sweet, Angus? And so pure! Surely God loves us
well!"

"It shines upon no man so sad as I," he replied bitterly.

"Angus! After what I did - and the church so full!"

"Nor so happy - and so proud!" concluded Angus. "Where shall we go?"

"Anywhere," answered Margaret; "we shall walk the long walk together."

"No, dear one, not together, that cannot be - but not apart," said Angus,
his voice trembling.

"Do you know, Angus," said Margaret after a pause, "I had often read
about how engagements should be announced. And no one, almost no one
knew that you loved me. And after that first time when you told me you
loved me - and before you told me that other - I so often used to lie
awake and think about how ours should be announced. For I think that is
the sweetest thing in a girl's life, the announcement I mean - no I don't
mean that - the sweetest thing is what has to be told. And now it is all
told - and just to think it was done in a church and before all those
people. And now they all know - and I am so glad! No girl ever had it
done like this before."

"Glad?" said Angus.

"Yes, glad - and proud - aren't you?"

But there was no response, save the old, old silent eloquence of love,
when lip speaks to lip its tender tale, scorning the aid of words.

"Let us go this way," said Margaret at length.

"Where does it lead to?"

"You shall see," she answered; "come away" - and together, still hand in
hand, they walked on.

"Let us rest here, Angus." He threw himself on the grass at her feet.

"Do you not know the place?" she said.

"No," said Angus, "were we ever here before?"

"Oh, Angus, how could you forget? Look again."

He looked again and sacred twilight memories began to pour back upon
him.

"That was in the gloaming, Angus, you remember. And the darkness has
often brooded over it since then - but it is all past now and it never
was so bright before."

"The darkness will come again," said Angus.

"But it will never be able to forget the light - and it will wait - -
There is never any real brightness till the waiting's past."

The Sabbath stillness was about them and its peace was in their hearts.
They scarce knew why, and the world would have said that Shadow was
their portion; but, then and ever, true peace passeth all
understanding.

"Kneel down, Angus, kneel here beside me," she suddenly exclaimed.

"Kneel, Margaret! Why shall I kneel?"

"Never mind why - you shall see. Kneel down, Angus."

He knelt, wondering still; she removed his hat with her now ungloved
hands and threw it on the grass.

"Darling, I love you," she said, "and I know you are good and true. And
I was so proud this morning when you were to be ordained to God's holy
service - and it must not be broken off like this. Oh, Angus, when I saw
your face this morning, I feared so that your whole soul would turn to
bitterness and give itself up to hatred of that man. But it must not
be."

"Margaret, stop! Surely you must know - - "

"Be still, Angus - it must not be. All this anguish must break in
blessing. Sorrow such as yours will be either a curse or a blessing - and
it must not be a curse. God's love can turn it into blessing - and so can
mine. We shall take up our cross together and shall see it blossom yet.
Oh, Angus, if I can forgive him, you can, for you are dearer to me than
to anybody else." Her hands were now upon his head: - "Angus Strachan, I
ordain you to suffer and to wait. I ordain you to God's service in the
name of love and sorrow and God - and they're all the same name - and I
love you so - and you are an elder now. Oh, dear Lord, take care of our
love and make us true - and patient. And bless our sorrow and make it
sweet and keep us near the Man of Sorrows. Amen."

The white dimpled hands rested long upon the auburn locks of the still
bended head, and her compassion flowed through them to the more than
orphaned heart. It was the same head, she thought, and the same heart,
as had once been blessed by a mother's anguished hand, doomed, as that
mother knew, to the world's unreasoning scorn.

Her own peace seemed to pass into his troubled soul; the anointed head
bowed lower and the yoke was laid upon him, never to be withdrawn. But
its bitterness was gone, purged from it by those white dimpled hands,
and the fragrance of a soul's sweeter life was there instead. For there
had come to him that great moment when secret rebellion turns to secret
prayer, craving blessing from the very hand that had smitten him with
lameness; and Angus was making his ordination vows to God.

Upon that grassy knoll, under heaven's tender sky, with unmoving lips
and broken heart he made the great surrender. Patience he promised God;
and in return he begged the forgiving heart, the strength to bear his
lifelong load, and the aid which might enable him to attain that miracle
of grace when he yet should pray for the man whose sin had foreclothed
his life in shame.

"Let us go back," said Margaret, at length, for the sun was westering.

"Yes, we will go back," said he, for in the gentle words he heard the
bugle call; "we will go back." But first he kissed the ordaining hands,
anointed as they had been to cast out evil from the heart and to bind up
its brokenness.

Homeward they turned their steps, and the noises of the uncaring world
soon fell upon their ears, but their hearts were holden of another song,
and they heard them not.

Backward they bent their way to the world and its cruel pity - but ever
hand in hand.

* * * * *

As the reader already knows, Margaret and Angus went forth from St.
Cuthbert's Church just as Michael Blake was invited to speak in his own
defense and to answer, if he might, the dread charge of his accuser.

"Have you anything to say, Mr. Blake?" were the words I had just uttered
when Margaret and her lover left the church, with all the sequel which
hath been just recorded.

In answer, he watched the retreating forms till they had departed, then
buried his face in his hands. He sat thus so long that I concluded he
had no heart to speak, and again arose, my hand outstretched to give the
blessing, if blessing there might be in such an hour. The congregation
arose to receive the proffered benediction, but before my lips had
opened, a faint hand plucked my gown.

"I will speak, sir," and pale and trembling the unhappy man rose and
stood beside me. I resumed my seat and the people dumbly did the same,
gazing towards their elder with eyes that pleaded for the assurance of
his innocence. Twice or thrice he strove for utterance before the words
would come. At length he spoke.

"Moderator and brethren," he began, "if such as I may call you brethren.
I am a sinful man. My hour has come. God's clock has struck, and it is
the stroke of doom for my unworthy soul. Not that I despair of final
mercy, for mine is a scarlet sin, and for such there is a special
promise. But God's rod hath fallen upon me. The Almighty hath scourged
me through my own son; for he who has just gone forth is none other than
mine own child. My heart went out to him since first I saw his face,
though I knew not till to-day that he is my flesh and blood. The
picture you saw him hold out before me is none other than the picture of
his mother's face.

"I speak it not for my defense - but I thought his mother was dead. I was
told from the old country that she was gone, and more than one letter
was returned to me with the statement that she could not be found. It
was my heart's purpose to make a worthy home for her here in Canada, and
to bring her out to it and to atone if I might for the cruel wrong. The
first is long since done, but the second was beyond my power - at least
so I was led to think.

"And now, Moderator, I place in your hands the resignation of the office
on which I have brought such deep disgrace. It was my pride to be an
elder in St. Cuthbert's, for it was here I first tasted of the Saviour's
forgiving grace; it was here I first learned the luxury of penitence,
and here was born my heart's deep purpose to retrieve the past - it was
my pride, I say to be an elder here, but it is now my shame."

He was about to stop when Saunders McTavish interrupted:

"Moderator, there'll be no need to proceed by libel, for the accused
party has confessed his guilt. But he hasna said anything to the Court
about his soul, about his soul and his sin, and his relation to his God.
At least, not all he might like to say and we might like to hear. Mebbe
he'll have had repentance unto life?"

I waited. Mr. Blake's response came with humble brokenness.

"Please God I have," he said, "and, unworthy though I be, I have a great
word for my fellow men this day - a word the unfallen angels could not
speak. Oh, my brethren, believe me, I have not been leading a double
life. I took the eldership at your hands, I know, saying nothing of the
dark blot that soiled the past. My humble hope was that in service I
might seek to redeem my life and I remembered One who said to a guilty


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