Robert Edward Knowles.

St. Cuthbert's; a novel online

. (page 14 of 17)
Online LibraryRobert Edward KnowlesSt. Cuthbert's; a novel → online text (page 14 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


that," said my long tried adviser.

"Very well, let us go in."

We had left Margaret at home. She was often absent from our study fire,
not in peevishness, or gloom, for they were foreign to her nature; but
still she bore evidence of her great renunciation.

As I have said, she was much alone, deeming it, I doubt not, due to her
lover that she should share his solitude, even if separately borne. She
sought to fill up that which was behind of the sufferings of the man she
loved. This I make no doubt was her secret delight; for only a woman
knows the process of that joy which is exhaled when sorrow and love flow
mingled down.

Margaret had not been beside our study fire that winter night. But on
our departure she came down from her half widowed room to sit beside
it. It was the same hearth she had kindled in other days "in expectation
of a guest." As she entered the room, her eye fell upon the note which I
had left lying in my chair. A glance at it revealed to her Angus' name.
It was soon perused and it needed to be read but once. Swift action
followed, for there is no such thinker as the heart; and if women were
on the Bench to-morrow, "Judgment reserved" would vanish from our
judicial records.

Margaret's decision was taken before she laid the letter down, and a
flush of eager joy glowed on her face. In a moment she was back in her
room, quickly moving here and there, gathering this and that together,
bending over a small travelling-bag that lay upon the bed. Her ruling
thought was one of gladness, even joy - and the traveller's joy at that.
Who does not know the sudden thrill of rapture when there comes to us a
sudden summons to a long and unexpected journey?

And Margaret was starting on a long journey, how long, only God could
tell. She thought of this as she glanced about the pretty room that had
shared her secret thoughts since childhood, that had seen the awaking of
her love, and had oftentimes kept with her the vigil of unsleeping joy.
More than once the poor little room had feared it was soon to be
outgrown, and left far behind; but still at night Margaret would return
to its pure protection, and still it knew the fragrance of a virgin's
trembling love.

She was almost through the door when she turned once again and bade it a
long farewell, the same as a maiden on her bridal morn. For she too was
on her way to an altar; and the vows for sickness or health, for life or
death, seemed to be upon her now.

She had got as far as the garden gate when she stopped suddenly.

"I have forgotten the letter," she said to herself. Laying her
travelling-bag upon the ground, she ran swiftly back, but the door had
locked behind her, and her latch-key was in her room.

"What shall I do? What shall I do?" she cried to herself. "I cannot get
in without the letter, and they will soon be back."

She flew along the veranda to a window and pressed it upward. It
yielded, and her joy flowed like a river. Up she flung it, far up, and
with a bound the active form was upon the sill and disappeared into the
room. The letter lay where she had left it, and in a moment the precious
passport was in its hiding-place. A moment later, the gate swung shut
behind her. Her bosom throbbed with a new courage as it felt the touch
of the letter that was entrusted to its keeping; for this was her
warrant, her pledge of passage on that long journey towards which she
pressed so eagerly. Oh, woman! who countest pestilence thy friend when
it is in league with love!

On she pressed, on through the frosty night. The snow made music beneath
her hurrying feet, the bridge by which she crossed the river cracked and
echoed with the frost, and the Northern lights flashed the signals of
their heavenly masonry - for what knew they of plague and love and
sorrow, and of the story of this poor tracing-board of time?

But Margaret never thought of this, for she, too, had her own secret
symbols, and her heart its own mighty language, voiced, like the
other's, in alternate floods of light and gloom.

She never paused till she was challenged by the guard before the
plague-struck house. Then she laid down her travelling-bag, for it had
grown heavy; but her eyes never turned from the dim light that shone
from the window. Love and danger were there, and the fascination of both
was upon her.

"Where might you be goin', miss?" said the guard. His voice was thick,
and his breath bore a perfume which proved he had been hospitably
entreated by some sympathetic friend. Doubtless it was the good
Samaritan's wine that had failed of its destination.

"I am going into that house, if you please," replied Margaret. "I am
going to take care of Mr. Strachan. The health officer has asked for a
nurse."

"Oh, no, my lady," said the guard, "no pretty face like yours is going
to be marked by the smallpox." His chivalry was of the moist kind, and
his emotion made him hiccough several times.

Margaret winced: "I am entitled to go in," she said boldly, "and I will
thank you to let me pass," with which she picked up her valise.

"Not by no means," the guard rejoined. "I've got orders not to let no
one in without a letter from the officer."

"I have the letter," said Margaret, for in her excitement she had
forgotten it. She produced it and handed it to the man. He walked over
to a gas lamp across the street. Feeling the need of exercise, he
proceeded thereto by several different routes. Having reached it, he was
seized with a great fear lest the iron post should fall, and lent
himself to its support. Then he read the letter over aloud; three or
four times he read it, punctuating it throughout with the aforesaid
tokens of emotion. He returned to where she stood, selecting several new
paths with fine originality.

"I guess that's all right, an' you're the party," he remarked, "but it
ain't signed."

"What do you mean?" said Margaret in alarm. "It certainly bears the
health officer's name. I saw it myself."

"Oh, yes, that's all right, but that ain't enough - business is business,
you see," he added, with maudlin solemnity. "You've got to sign it
yourself, kind of receipt the bill, you see."

He fumbled in his pocket for a pencil, produced the rump thereof, spread
the letter upon his knee, and began writing on the back of it. It was
like an internal surgical operation, for his tongue protruded as he
wrote, marking his progress by a series of serpentine writhings that
suggested inward pain.

"There, that'll do," he said, when he emerged. "You sign that."

Margaret took the paper and tried to read what he had written. But,
unfamiliar with hieroglyphics, his handiwork was lost upon her.

"I cannot read it," she said presently; "the light is very bad."

"That's so - besides it's too infernal cold to read - I'm awful cold. I
wisht that cove in there'd get a move on him, an' get better. He's got a
snap. Some one sent him a bottle of milk to-day, too," he concluded,
with a solemn wink, the tongue again appearing on the scene to bear
internal witness - "but I forgot - I'll read them words to you myself,"
which he proceeded to do, swaying gently, for the spirit of rhetoric
was within him.

"This is it," he began, "'I'm the party what's meant to nurse the man
what's got the smallpox, an' I got in because I wanted to' - that's all
right, ain't it? Now you sign that, an' if you die, that'll protect me
after you're dead. And I'll sign it too, and if I die, it'll protect you
after I'm dead, see? And if we both die, it'll protect the officer after
we're both dead, see? And if he dies, then we'll all be protected,
because we'll all be dead, see? You keep the paper, and I'll keep the
pencil, and we'll both keep our job, see? Gee whittaker! Ain't it cold!
I wisht they'd send some more milk."

Impatient for a release, Margaret signed the document. After its author
had made another picturesque pilgrimage to the gas lamp and back again,
the signature was fervently commended, with signs of increasing emotion;
he returned the letter to her - and she passed on into the house at which
none but love or death would have asked for bed and board.

There are a thousand streams that flow from Calvary. But the deepest of
these is joy. Wherefore as Margaret walked into the darkened house, her
heart thrilled with a sudden rapture it had never known before. For he
was there - and she would be beside him in a moment - and they would be
together - and none could break in upon them, for grim death himself
would guard the door. He was helpless too, dependent on weak arms that
love would gird with might - and this makes a woman's happiness complete;
when love and service wed, joy is their first-born child.

She was now standing at the door of his room, her eyes fixed upon the
face of the man she loved, radiant with victory.

He had heard her footfall from the threshold, and his heart clutched
each one as it fell. Yes, it was she, and the music of her rustling
garments had the sweet sound of rain - for his was the thirsty heart. It
was surely she, and not another, - and the whole meaning of life seemed
clear to him. He knew not how or why, but he had been alone so long, and
his hungry heart had wondered, and life seemed such a wounded thing.

But now he actually saw those silken strands, gently waving from her
haste, and the parted lips that poured forth her soul's deep loyalty,
and the dear form of ardent love - a maiden's form. All these came upon
him like the dawn, and the citadel of life's frowning mystery was
stormed at last. How voluptuous, after all, in its holiest sense, is
God's purpose for the pure in heart!

She stood, her eyes now suffused with tears, but smiling still; the
panic in her father's house, the comment of cruel tongues, the fight
with death, the pestilence that walks in darkness - these were all
forgotten in the transport of her soul. She had chosen her Gethsemane
long ago, and this was its harvest time.

Angus' eyes drank deeply from the spring.

"Margaret," he said at last, "how beautiful God is!" - and Margaret
understood.

She advanced towards the bed, her hands outstretched - he sought to bid
her back.

"Margaret, you know not what you do; your life - - " But it was in vain.

"My life is my love," she cried with defiant passion. "Oh, Angus, how
beautiful God is!" and, stooping down, she overpowered him, spurning
death while love should claim its own.

As she stood above him again, her lips were moist with love's anointing
and she knew that nothing could prevail against them now. Hers the
promised power that could take up serpents, and drink deadly things, and
be unharmed. Hers the commission to lay hands on the sick that they
might recover. Her sombre foes seemed many; shame clouded the name she
fain would bear, opposition frowned from the faces of those who bore
her, and now plague had joined the conspiracy - but in all these things
she was more than conqueror.

* * * * *

The winter had retreated before the conquering spring, and the
vanquished pestilence had also fled when they came forth again, these
prisoners of love. Nearly four long luscious weeks had flown, and their
souls' bridal time was past. They had baffled death together; and they
came forth, each with the great experience - each with the unstained
heart.

Angus bore a scar, only one, as the legacy of pestilence - but it could
be clearly seen, and it was on his brow.

"My life seems doomed to these single scars," he had said, not bitterly,
during one of the sweet convalescent days.

"But not through any fault of yours, dear one," Margaret had answered.
"I have the same wounds, mark for mark, but they are in my heart," and
she kissed his brow, ordained to another burden.

"Where shall we go?" said Margaret. He had heard the words before, and
rich memories came back. The freedom of the world was theirs; for they
had been absolved from the stigma of disease, and the sentinel had
ceased from his labours.

"I must go home now," she continued, "for it will soon be dark."

"I had forgotten about darkness," said Angus. "Come with me. I want to
do something for my mother's sake."

"'Your mother's sake!'" she repeated, "did your mother ever know the
poor woman who died of the disease? or her little child? Did you care
for them for her sake?"

"I cared for them for her sake," Angus answered, "but my mother never
knew her; they lived in different countries - but their sorrows were
related. Let us turn here."

They turned off into a quiet street, and presently entered the old
stone-cutter's shop. Angus spoke to him apart for a time; finally the
old man said:

"Perhaps you'd better write it down."

"Very well, I will," replied Angus.

The old stone-cutter adjusted his glasses: "Nothin' on the big stone
about her age?"

"No, nothing," answered Angus.

"Nor nothin' about her folks?"

"No, nothing," said Angus again.

"And nothin' on the little stone only this?"

"Nothing more," said the other.

"All right, sir, I understand then. The big stone is just to have 'Luke.
7:47: For she loved much,' and the little one: 'My brother.' All right,
I'll set 'em up to-morrow, only I kind o' thought it didn't give a
terrible lot of information. But I suppose you know the meanin' of it."

"Yes, I know," said the man with the mark upon his brow.




XXVII

_The HIDDEN CRUCIFIX_


We had only one incurable sorrow in St. Cuthbert's manse. That of course
had to do with Margaret and her love - for whoso would heal sorrow must
find a cure for love. We could not find it in our hearts to give her up
to a union so wounding to our pride as her marriage to Angus would have
been. The righteous will have cried out long ago against this unseemly
spirit on the part of a gospel minister. But my only care is to set down
things, myself among them, as they really were.

Besides, it is easy to prescribe sacrifices for another, or even for
one's self, provided always that they be made before the necessity
arises. All parents are models in their treatment of each other's
offspring, rivalling, in this regard, even those proverbial patterns who
never took the initial step to parentage.

Our relations with Margaret were happy enough, marked by love and
tenderness as of yore. We were deliberately cheerful, and at times even
resolutely gay. But our house had its skeleton closet, and each of us
kept a key. Apart from this, all our home was bright. Other wounds had
healed. Margaret was home again, and she had been kept from the
scourge's awful breath. I had accepted St. Cuthbert's second call, and I
felt as though my pastorate had begun anew; for young and old gathered
about me, and the chariot wheels rolled gladly.

Yet one dear and long honoured face was absent; and one seat in St.
Cuthbert's, long occupied by a familiar form, was vacant now. For
Michael Blake had gone.

Silently, without telling us why or where, he had departed, although the
heart of all New Jedboro seemed warm to him, and although St. Cuthbert's
had given him its pledge of continued confidence. But he had steadfastly
refused to resume the duties of his office.

This was almost a sorer wound to us than the other; for we somehow could
not but construe it as the collapse of shame. He shirks the discipline
of God, we said, or thought; and some even voiced the darksome fear that
he had cast off the restraints of his office, done with religion when he
could no longer wear its mask. He would be a saint, said some, or
nothing. The r√іle of the publican has no charm for him, said others,
because he never really knew its luxuries. And some were secretly angry
that he had escaped, as they chose to term it, for they loved to see the
scarlet letter on another's breast.

* * * * *

It was one of the first genial days of early spring, and an ocean
steamer was swiftly making for the Mersey. The green fields of the
initial isle had been declared the greenest of God's green earth, and
they received the panegyric with national complacency, knowing not that
they had three thousand miles of grassless ocean to thank for it every
bit. The fragrance of the land was sweet to the weary voyagers, and the
most taciturn was disposed to unwonted mirth. The Captain,
question-driven, had taken wing and soared aloft, looking down in safety
from the bridge.

But neither mirth nor gladness was upon the face of one traveller,
though no face was turned more intently towards the shore. Sadness of
heart and seriousness of purpose were there instead, not unmixed with
light; for memory and hope, these old-world combatants, had joined
battle in his soul.

His gaze was fixed on the still distant land, and varying emotions
played upon his face. This very shore enclosed all whose memory filled
his life with shame and sorrow - within it, therefore, by God's
unchanging law, must be found their relief and cure. For the serpent's
bite, the healing is the serpent still, but lifted high.

This man, so silent and self-contained, had been the centre of much
curious wonder among his fellow passengers. Much apart he had been,
unmingled with the ship's social life, despite all allurement. The
children called him blessed, for he had entered with their own relish
into all their games, and when these palled, he had brought forth things
new and old out of the treasure of his mind. The aged and ailing were
his almost worshippers, for he had made their wants his daily care.

"I am sorry to part, Mr. Blake, although we have seen so little of you
on the voyage. One has to be quite young, or quite sick, or quite old,
to see much of you aboard ship."

"You have neither of the last two qualifications," answered the man
addressed, with a pleasant smile.

The voice which had broken in upon his reverie was that of a lady past
middle life, richly and fashionably dressed; for you never know the real
plumage of fair travellers till they are about to leave you. She was
beautifully enamelled, powdered, massaged, and otherwise put in the best
possible repair. Sparkling diamonds adorned her hands. A gold cross hung
upon her bosom.

"Nor the first one either, I fear," she rejoined; "however, I am trying
to keep as young as I can. I do wish we were at Liverpool. There is to
be a bridge party at one of my friends this afternoon and a military
ball to-night, and I had counted on getting in for both. I accepted from
New York! I am not thinking so much about the ball, but I shall die if I
miss the bridge."

"Indeed," replied her companion, glancing at the cross.

"Yes, it will be too cruel. I have picked up some awfully good points on
bridge - got them in New York. I got them from my friend's clergyman, the
Rev. Dyson Bartlett, rector of the Holy Archangels. He is a lovely man.
You'd never think to hear him preach that there was so much in him. Do
you know of him?"

"No," answered Mr. Blake, "I don't think I ever heard of him before."

"Probably not; he lives a very quiet life - very restful sort of nature,
he has; he never gets up till eleven; but of course he is always up very
late at night. Can't burn the candle at both ends, can you? Clergymen
are only human, and must get their rest. But on Sunday mornings he gets
up at half-past six for early mass, and of course he plays on Saturday
nights too, so sometimes he must get very little sleep. Clergymen don't
have such an easy life after all. Are you an Episcopalian, Mr. Blake?"

"No, I don't belong to that church."

"Isn't that too bad? But I don't know why I should say that. I think
lots of people go to heaven who belong to other churches. But then, of
course, I am very broad in my views. I can't bear narrow people - I just
can't stand narrow people; and besides, I met a lovely man once in
Tarrytown, and he was a Presbyterian. I hope I will meet him in heaven."

"I hope you will," said Mr. Blake.

"Yes," she resumed, "that is what I liked about Mr. Bartlett - he was so
broad in his views. I remember I asked him once if he thought dissenters
would go to heaven, and I shall never forget how beautifully he spoke.
We were having a little game at the time - only a dollar stake - and it
was his turn to play. But when I asked him that about the dissenters, he
laid down his cards on the table, and his hands unconsciously took hold
of the cross he always carried on his coat, and he said: 'God is very
merciful, Mrs. Drake' - then he dropped the cross, and took up the cards
again, and gave a little sigh before he played, and there was a
beautiful smile on his face - a kind of sad, sweet smile."

"Did you attend his church when in New York?" said her listener, not
knowing what else to say.

"Yes, sometimes, but you wouldn't think he had such deep thoughts, just
from hearing him preach. He was very deep. One night we were all
discussing whether it was a sin to play for stakes. It was after the
game was over, and Mr. Bartlett had won the whole thing. He put the
money away quietly in his pocket - he gives it to the poor people in the
Holy Archangels, he said, for some of the Holy Archangels are quite
poor - he put it quietly in his pocket, and he took hold of his cross,
and he was silent for a little while. Then he said: 'Stakes are
everywhere in life - faith itself stakes the soul,' and that sad, sweet,
smile came back again. Wasn't that deep?"

"Yes, very deep," answered Mr. Blake, thinking of the pocket.

"Another time, I remember, he said it had often occurred to him that it
was the great Creator who had caused bridge to be discovered; he said
God gave us bridge so that good Christians could give up playing poker.
Wasn't that deep?"

Mr. Blake ventured some reply such as courtesy and conscience could
agree upon. "I really never gave the matter much thought," he concluded.

"Oh, dear! There we are at half speed again! I know I'll be too late.
Yes, even some of his sermons were very deep. He had a beautiful poetic
mind; and he gave everything such a lovely turn. I shall never forget
his last sermon. It was beautiful; he was preaching on the text: 'Wash
me whiter than snow' - the church was so hot, but you could just see the
snow. And his divisions were beautiful. I can tell them yet. His first
point was that we should all be pure and white like the snow. Then the
second one, he said, grew out of the first, that if we were pure and
clean like the snow, we would not be impure or unclean. And the last
point was a very solemn one. He said that if we were not pure and white
like the snow, by and by we would go down where there was no more snow.
That was a beautiful thought, wasn't it? I thought it was such a lovely
ending."

"I never heard a sermon just like that," remarked Mr. Blake, his mind
reverting to St. Cuthbert's.

"Neither did I," went on the worshipper, "and I told him so the next
night when we met at Mrs. Bronson's for a little farewell game. He took
hold of his cross again and he said: 'We must deal faithfully, Mrs.
Drake' - and he was just starting to deal as he spoke. But he never
smiled, except that sad, sweet smile that he always wore - except when he
lost. And he told us that after that service he found the curate
weeping in the vestry. But the curate fairly worships Mr. Bartlett. It
was Mr. Bartlett who first taught him bridge, I think. Do you play
bridge, Mr. Blake?"

"No, I never learned the game."

"Oh, I forgot; you're a Presbyterian, you said. It's pretty much a
church game, I fancy. Excuse my rudeness, but why don't you wear a
cross, Mr. Blake?"

"What?" said Mr. Blake abruptly, "why don't I what?"

"Isn't that dreadful? The engines are scarcely moving; I know we won't
get in till five, and the bridge begins at three. There is nothing but
disappointments in this world. Oh, yes, why don't you wear a cross? Not
so much for the ornament, of course. I got this one at Tiffany's and it
cost me ten pounds. But, as Mr. Bartlett said, the cross stands for
sacrifice, so I don't begrudge it. I think, in this world of sin and
sorrow every one should wear a cross. We're going a little faster now,
don't you think?"

"Yes, madam, I think we are - and I do wear a cross - if you have not
forgotten your question."

"Oh, you do. I am so glad. Where? I suppose you've changed your clothes.
But I never noticed it before."

"No, I don't think you have seen it."

"Oh, I see, lots of men carry them under their vests. But I think we
should let the world see it. Do you carry yours next your heart?"

"No, madam, deeper still," said Mr. Blake.




XXVIII

_The HEATHERY HILLS_


The anchor had been cast, and the good ship, panting, lay at rest. The
bugle note had followed the departing tender with wistful strains of


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 14 16 17

Online LibraryRobert Edward KnowlesSt. Cuthbert's; a novel → online text (page 14 of 17)