Robert Edward Knowles.

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"Lie wi' yir back to the wife - an' sip the sweetie - an' breathe in to
yersel'."




XVII

"_NOO, The IN-TURN_"


The Apostles' Creed should be revised. One great article of faith it
lacks. "I believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting" - thus peal its
bells of gold. But where is the faithful and observant minister who
would not add, "I believe in the change of the leopard's spots and of
the Ethiopian's skin"? Nowadays, we speak of conversion with pity and
amusement, but it is the greatest word the Christian Church can boast,
and the Scripture miracles were long ago entombed had they not lived
again in their legitimate descendants.

We are prone to think that men believe in modern miracles because of
those of long ago - but the reverse is true: the modern miracles are the
attestation of those early wonders; and I myself believe the Galilean
records because of His credentials in this Western World and in this
present day.

The very morning after the eventful night described above, I was busy at
my desk, travailing in birth with my sermon for the next Sabbath
morning. Strangely enough, it was from the words, "Why should it be
thought a thing incredible?" which is at heart no interrogative at all,
but the eternal affirmative of all religion, the basis of all faith, the
inevitable corollary of God.

I was casting about for a fitting illustration, fumbling in imagery's
twilight chamber and ransacking the halls of history, when lo! God sent
one knocking at the door. I responded to the knock myself, and Geordie
Lorimer stood before me. His face seemed strangely chastened, and the
voice which craved a private interview filled me somehow with subtle
hope and joy. For the voice is the soul's great index; and this of
Geordie's spoke of a soul's secret convalescence. The breath of spring
exuded from his words.

I locked my study door as we passed in together; for a Protestant
confessional is a holy place, excelling far the Catholic, even as a
love-letter excels a bill of lading.

"What is it, Geordie?" I asked, with tender eagerness.

"I dinna ken exactly, but I think it's life," he answered with new-born
passion, "and eternal life at that. I canna tell it an' I canna thole it
till I do tell it. I maunna mak' ower free wi' God; but it's my soul,
minister, it's my soul, an' I'm a new creature. I'm new in the sicht o'
God an' He's new in mine - an' I prayed this mornin', a thing I haena
dune for mair than twenty years - an' the auld burn was sweet an' clear,
like when my laddie's lips sippit there lang syne - I daurna speak His
name ower often, but God is gey guid to the sinfu' an' the weary."

"None but they can know how good," was my response.

My remark seemed to pass unnoticed, for Geordie had more to say.

"Hark ye, an' I'll tell ye hoo God cam' to me. 'Twas near the dawn this
verra mornin' I had a dream, an' wee Jessie cam' to me. An' that was
God, nae ither ane but God. 'Oot o' the mooth o' babes,' is that no' i'
the Buik? For wee Jessie stood beside the bed, an' I luikit at her an' I
said, 'My little dochter.' 'Twas a' I could say, an' she pit her saft
haun' on my heid sae gentle, an' sae blessed cool, for my heid was
burnin' hot. She luikit lang, an' her een was fu' o' love: 'Faither,'
she said, 'did ye no' promise yir lassie to meet her in the Faither's
hoose? Oh, faither, I've come to mind ye o' yir promise an' to set yir
puir feet upon the path ance mair. God loves ye, faither; I hae it frae
Himsel'; an' there's mony a ane wi' Him noo in white wha wandered
farther bye nor you. An' God 'll try, gin ye'll try yirsel', an' yir wee
Jessie 'll no' be far frae ye. Wull ye no' come, faither? for yir ain
lassie, an' mither, an' God, a' want ye.'

"I luikit lang intil her angel face, but I was feart to speak, for I
wasna worthy. The road was bricht eneuch, but I wasna fit to gang.

"'I ken what yir thinkin' o', faither. I ken yir enemy - an' God kens.
It's the drink. But it'll pass yir lips nae mair. I'll kiss them,
faither, an' they'll burn wi' the awfu' thirst nae mair.'

"An' she stoopit doon an' kissed my burnin' lips; an' I waukit up, an'
the fever was a' past an' by. I tell't Betsy, an' she grat wi' joy.
'It's i' the Buik,' she said.

"'What's i' the Buik?' I speirt.

"'A little child shall lead them,' Betsy said."

I talked a little while with Geordie as one talks with a shipwrecked
sailor who has gained the shore. He asked me to pray.

"Mak' it easy," he said, "I'm no' far ben the Mystery yet. I'm but a
bairn; but my lips are pure, an' the fever's by."

We knelt together, and I prayed: "O Friend of sinners, help us both, for
we are both sinners. Keep us, blessed Lord, and let his little daughter
be near us both to help us on the way. We will both try our best, and
Thou wilt too. Amen."

My half-written sermon never has been finished. I was constrained to
take another text, and the next Sabbath morn I saw Betsy Lorimer bow her
head in reverent adoration when I gave it out -

"Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister?"




XVIII

_HOW ELSIE WON The GATE_


The forest's glory is departed when its giant trees lie low. And, stroke
by stroke, my St. Cuthbert's Kirk was thus bereft of its outstanding
glories. For great men are like great trees, the shelter of all others
and the path-finders towards the sky.

My sun is westering now, and the oft-repeated crash as these mighty
stalwarts fall keeps my heart in almost abiding sadness. For the second
growth gives no promise of a stock which shall be worthy successors to
these noble pioneers, the conquering gladiators of Canada's shadowy
forests, the real makers of her great and portentous national life. And
yet, strange to say, I never knew their real greatness while I lived
among them, sharing in the varied chase, but only when they came to die.

This was especially true of those who boasted far-back highland blood,
for their depths of tenderness and heights of faith and scope of
spiritual vision were sternly hidden till the helplessness of death
betrayed them. Then was the key to their secret life surrendered; then
might all men see the face at the pane. But not till then; for every
stolid feature, every stifled word or glance of tenderness, every
muffled note of religious self-revealment, swelled their life's noble
perjury. To their own hurt they swore, changing not. But at their real
best he saw them who saw them die.

In that ingenuous hour they spoke once more their mother tongue of love
and faith with an accuracy which told of lifelong rehearsal within their
secret hearts. When the golden bowl was broken, its holy contents,
flowing free, poured forth the long-imprisoned fragrance.

How many a day, cold and gray, flowers at sunset into rich redemptive
beauty, cheerless avenue leading to its grand Cathedral West! Thus have
I seen these Scottish lives, stern and cold and rayless, break into
flame at evening, in whose light I caught the glory of the very gates of
the City of God.

It was the winter of the strike, whose story I have already told, that
Elsie M'Phatter heard the Voice which calls but once. Long and gentle
had been the slope towards the river, and I held Elsie's hand every step
of the way, myself striving to hold that other Hand which is truly
visible only in the darkness; but the last stage of the journey came
swift and suddenly. About two in the morning I was awakened by the loud
alarm of my door-bell.

The minister knows well that at such an hour his bell is rung only by
eternal winds, and the alarm is an almost certain message that the
rapids are near and that he is wanted at the helm. On Atlantic liners I
have never heard the ominous note that calls the captain from his cabin
to the bridge without thinking of my midnight bell, and that deeper
darkness, and that more awful channel.

It was the doctor's boy who thus summoned me, bidding me hurry to
Elsie's bedside, for the tide was ebbing fast, he said. I was soon on my
way through the frosty night, silently imploring the unseen Pilot that
He would safe into the haven guide. To His great wisdom and His
sheltering love I committed all the case, making oath beneath the silent
stars that I had myself no other hope than this with which I hurried to
yonder dying one. For a man's own heart must swear by the living Lord,
or else he will find no path through the dread wilderness of death for
the unreturning feet.

When the outskirts of the town were but well behind me, I saw in the
distance a solitary light which I knew at once to be the death-chamber
lamp; at sight whereof my heart has never outgrown a strange leap of
trembling fear, like a scout when he catches the first warning gleam of
the enemy's campfire. Yonder, I said to myself, is the battle-field of
a soul, struggling with its last great foe; yonder the central crisis
of all time and all eternity; yonder the heaving breast, the eager,
onward look, the unravelling of mystery, the launching of a soul upon
eternal seas.

No life is ever commonplace when that lamp burns beside it, and no
wealth, or genius, or greatness can palliate its relentless gleam.
There, continued I, stands the dread unseen Antagonist, asking no chair,
demanding no courtesy, craving no welcome, resenting no frowning and
averted face; calmly does he brook the terror and the hatred excited by
his uninvited advent, serene in the confidence that his is the central
figure, that the last word is his, though all pretend to ignore his
presence. Like a sullen creditor he stands, careless that every man's
hand is against him, relentlessly following his prey, willing that all
others should wait his time and theirs, intent only that this night
shall have its own.

And yet, I thought, what a false picture is this that my coward heart
hath drawn! There is Another in that room, I cried half loud, Another
there before me, whose swift feet have outrun my poor trudging through
the snow. For He is there who lit that feeble lamp itself, and it burns
only by His will. Death-lamp though it be, it is still a broken light of
Him, witness, in its own dark way, to the All-kindling Hand. The Lover
of the soul is yonder, and will share His dear-bought victory with my
poor dying one.

Whereat I pressed on eagerly, for I love to witness a reprieve, such as
many a time it hath been mine to see when the Greater Antagonist
prevails.

The death damp was on Elsie's brow when I knelt beside her bed, but her
eyes were kindled from afar, and a great Presence filled the room.
Donald was bowed beside her, his wife's wasted hand clasped passionately
in his own.

I knelt over the dying woman and softly repeated the swelling anthem
which no lips can sing aright till the great Vision quickens them:
"These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed
their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb."

Elsie's voice blended with the great words, and turning her lustrous
eyes full on my face, she murmured -

"It's a' bricht and blythesome whaur I'm walkin' noo - there's no valley
here nor nae glen ava, but the way is fu' o' licht and beauty."

Her eyes sought her husband's face: "Oh, Donal'! To think we canna walk
this way thegither! We've clomb the hill thegither, Donal', mony a time
sair an' weary, but oor hairts were stoot when the brae was stae; but
noo I've reached the bonnie bit ayont the brae, an' ye're a' 'at's
wantin', Donal', to mak' it fair beautiful! But ye'll no' be lang ahint
me, wull ye, Donal'? - an' the Maister 'll come back to guide ye, gin I'm
gone bye the gate. An' we'll aye walk thegither in the yonner-land."

Donald's face was dry, but drawn in its agony. Its ache passed on into
my soul. He bent over her like some bowing oak, and the rustle of love's
foliage was fairly audible to the inward ear, though the oak itself
seemed hard and gnarled as ever. He whispered something, like a mighty
organ lilting low and sweet some mother's lullaby, and no tutor except
Great Death could have taught Donald that gentle language. For I caught
the word "darling," and again "oor Saviour," and once "the hameland,"
and it was like a lark's gentlest note issuing from a mighty mountain's
cleft.

O Death, how unjustly thou hast been maligned! Men have painted thee as
cruel, monstrous, hateful, the enemy of love, the despoiler of the home,
the spirit of harshness, the destroyer of all poesy and romance. And yet
thou hast done more to fill life with softness and with gentle beauty
than all the powers of life and light whose antagonist thou hast been
called. Thou hast heaped coals of fire on thy traducers' heads. For hast
thou not made the heaviest foot fall lightly with love's considerate
tread? Hast thou not made the rough, coarse palm into a sanctuary and
pavilion wherein the dying hand may shelter? Hast thou not taught the
loud and boisterous voice the new song of tenderness and pity,
whispering like a dove? Within thy school the rude and harsh have
learned the nurse's gentle art, and the world's swaggering warriors
serve as acolytes before thy shadowy altar. The peasant's cottage owes
to thee its transformation to cathedral splendour, the censers gently
swinging when thou sayest the soul's great mass, at even, or at
midnight, or at the cock-crowing, or in the morning. Thou hast classed
together the hovel and the palace, glowing with equal solemn grandeur,
so that no man can tell the one from the other when the crape upon the
door betokens that thou tarriest there. Thou hast promoted sodden sleep
to be the most awful metaphor of time. Thou hast stripped wealth and
grandeur, leaving them but a shroud, and hast clothed obscurity and
poverty with their eternally suggestive robe; thou hast affirmed, and
thou preserved, that grim average of life which greatness refuses, which
littleness fears, to realize. Romance and Poetry and Fancy are thy
wards, making as thou dost the most holden eyes to overleap time's poor
horizon, following departed treasure with wistful and unresigning love,
as birds follow their ravaged nests, crying as they go. Oh, sombre
chantress! Thou hast filled the world with song, plaintive and piteous
though it be.

"What is it, mother?" I heard Donald whisper; and the answer evidently
came back to him from the dying lips. For he turned to me, his face full
of tragedy: "She's talkin' aboot Robin," he said hoarsely; "but ye dinna
ken. Robin was oor laddie - an' he's oor laddie yet, though we've had nae
word o' him for mony a year. Him an' me pairted in wrath, an' he went
oot intil the dark nicht. I was ower prood tae ca' him back, but his
mither followed him to the moor, cryin' after him - an' she cam' back
alane."

Donald stopped suddenly, for the mother's struggling voice was heard:
"Come hame, Robin, for it's cauld an' dark, an' ye've been ower lang
awa; but there's a place at the ingle for ye yet, my bairn. I've aye
keepit it for ye, an' I keepit the fire burnin' ever sin' ye left us. I
wadna let it oot. An' ilka nicht I pit the lamp i' the window, for I aye
thocht, 'He'll mebbe come the nicht.'"

"She's wanderin'," Donald said to me, awe mingling with his voice.

"She's found the wanderer," I said; and we both moved nearer, each
signalling the other to be still.

Elsie's gaze passed us by, outgoing far into the darkness.

"Na, na, Robin; yir faither'll no' be angry. I ken fine a' ye say is
true, but he's yir faither for a' that. An' he loves ye maist as weel as
me; but oh, my bonnie, there's nane loves ye like yir mither! His
hairt's fair broken for ye, Robin. I'll tell ye something, but ye maunna
tell yir faither. I heard him pray for ye all alane by himsel'. He
prayed to God to bring ye back - he ca'd ye Robin richt to God. An' I
never heard yir faither greet afore or syne. The Buik, tae, it wad open
o' itsel' at the prodigal, an' it was his daein', an' he didna think I
kent; but I kent it fine, an' I thankit the Heavenly Faither mony a
time."

She stopped, exhausted, her soul flickering in her voice. Donald moved,
his great form coming athwart her eager, kindling eyes. She stirred, her
vision evidently hindered, and Donald stepped quickly from before her,
gazing with passionate intentness, his eyes shaded by his hand like one
who peers into a lane of light.

"As one whom his mother comforteth, so will - " I began.

"Hush!" said Donald sternly, "she's wi' him yet. Hark ye!"

Her strength seemed now returning, for she went on -

"Ay, Robin, I'm tellin' ye the truth. Yir faither's thocht o' ye is the
thocht he had when ye were a bit bairn in his airms."

The anguished father flung himself upon his knees beside the bed, his
hand gently stroking his wife's withered cheek.

"Tell him that again, mither; tell him my thocht o' him was aye the same
as yir ain, when I thocht o' him atween God an' me. Tell him me an' you
baith thocht the same. Bid him hame, Elsie. Oh, mither, I've been the
wanderer masel', an' I'm weary."

My heart melted in me at this, for the eternal fatherly was sobbing
through his voice.

The familiar tones seemed to call Elsie back from her delirium, for she
suddenly looked upon us as if we had not been there before.

"Oh, faither, Robin's comin' hame the nicht. Is the lamp kindled in the
window? We've baith been wae these mony years, but the mirk'll be past
an' by when oor laddie's safe hame wi' us again."

A strange sense of the nearness of the supernatural took possession of
me, for Elsie's voice was not the voice of fevered fancy; the fast
ebbing tide of life seemed to flow back again, her strength visibly
increased, as if she must remain till her Robin had been welcomed home.

In spite of reason, I fell to listening eagerly, wondering if this were
indeed the act of God. Why should it be thought a thing incredible with
us that the Rebuilder of Bethany's desolated house should still ply His
ancient industry?

"Raise me up a little, faither, for I maun watch the gate."

Donald lifted his dying wife with caressing easiness.

"That'll dae; ay, we've baith been wae these mony years, but the mirk is
bye.

"'Long hath the night of sorrow reigned,
The dawn shall bring us light.'

The morn is wi' us, Donal', an' Robin's at the gate."

Far past the flickering lamp she gazed, and her eyes' light rose and
fell in unison with approaching steps.

"He's bye the gate," she cried; and joy held death at bay, for the words
chimed like cathedral bells.

Fearsome to behold was the awestruck face which Donald turned to mine,
and full of questioning dread, I doubt not, were the eyes that met his
own. Was this the doing of the Lord, or was it but the handiwork of
death, that wizard oculist, so often lending mystic vision to pilgrims
setting under darkness out to sea?

Leaving death and Elsie to their unequal conflict, we started with one
impulse to the window; but Donald was there before me, his eyes shaded
by his hands, burning through the dark a pathway to the gate.

"God be mercifu'," he muttered, and then turned swiftly towards the
stairs, for a hand was fumbling at the latch. I waited trembling, and I
heard no word; but the aroma of a soul's second spring stole sweet and
unafraid into the chamber of death.

* * * * *

I met them at the door as Donald said, "Yir mither's deein'," and there
broke from the rugged man beside him a low moaning sound, like to many
waters when some opposing thing hath at length been overswept. It was
quickly checked, and the silence of love and anguish took its place.

I drew Donald gently back and closed the door upon them twain, the
waiting mother and the wandering son, for there was never bridal hour
like to this.

"My mither, oh, my mither!" I heard him say; and Elsie spoke no word,
but the long ache was ended and the great wound was well.

'Twas but a moment again when a trembling voice called, "Faither, she's
wantin' ye."

We entered the love-lit room, and Elsie beckoned him swiftly to her
side.

"I maun be gaun sune," she whispered, and then followed some words too
low for my ears to catch.

Donald turned to me: "She wants to hae the sacrament dispensit till us
a'," and his face was full of dubious entreaty, for the kirk session of
St. Cuthbert's was sternly set against private administration.

The session and its rules were in that moment to me but as the dust.
Beyond their poor custody was a holy hour such as this. The little table
was quickly spread, the snow-white bread and the wine pressed by a
mother's priestly hands. I was about to proceed with the holy ordinance
when Elsie stopped me.

"Bide a meenit. Donal', get ye the token, the ane wee Elsie loved. My
hairt tells me she's no' far awa the noo. She'll e'en show forth the
Lord's deith alang wi' us. The Maister o' the feast is here, and why wad
He no' bring oor Elsie wi' Him? Wha kens but I'll gang hame wi' them
baith?"

Her husband, obedient to the seer's voice, passed quickly to an
adjoining room, and in an instant reappeared, bearing the well-worn
token in his hands, the same his dying child had fondly held; and I
heard again the low refrain which grief had taught him years ago:
"Christ an' oor Elsie - an' her mither." This last was new, learned in
sorrow's latest hour.

He handed it to his wife, who took it, turning her wan face to mine.

"There's only ane, but it'll dae us a' - let Robin haud it. Tak' it,
laddie; it's warm frae yir sister's haun'."

The wanderer's reverent hand received it, and holy memories, long
banished, flowed back into the heart that had not been their home since
the golden days of boyhood. Of his mother and his sister were they all,
and they laved that heart till it was almost clean, for they were in
disguise but memories of God, foreshadowing the Greater Incarnation.

"Noo we're ready, an' we're a' here. Raise the psalm, faither, the
sacrament ane," she said faintly - "tak' St. Paul's," and Donald's
quavering voice essayed -

"I'll of salvation take the cup,
On God's name will I call;
I'll pay my vows now to the Lord
Before His people all.

* * * * *

Dear in God's sight is His saints' death,
Thy servant, Lord" -

but the faltering voice refused.

I broke the bread and poured the wine, handing the sacred emblems first
to the dying one, so soon to take them new in the kingdom of God. Then
Donald partook, and buried his face in his hands. To Robin next I
proffered the holy symbols, but he drew back, stretching forth his hands
towards the bed.

"I daurna - I've wandered ower far," he said. "I hear the russlin' o' the
husks."

"Dinna fear, Robin," whispered his mother's lips. "We're a' but bairns
comin' back to oor Faither's hoose; God loves ye mair than either yir
faither or me, - I'm near the kingdom, an' I ken."

"My son, my laddie," - it was his father's broken voice, - "let us tak'
the feast thegither. I'm a puir prodigal masel' - but the door is open
wide, an' we'll baith come hame to God."

"I'll tak' it frae ma mither's hands," said Robin.

I handed the elements to her, ordained from all eternity to minister to
the son she bore; with trembling hands she dispensed them to him, high
priestess unto God, her dying eyes distilling the very love which shed
its fragrance when the all but dying Saviour first brake the holy bread.

When we were through, Elsie's voice was heard saying to herself "Unto
Him who loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood," which
was followed by a long silence.

"Wull ye no' pronounce the benediction?" Donald said at last, for he was
by nature an ecclesiastic.

"Did you not hear it?" I replied.

The silence deepened, the breathing grew heavier, and we two stood
together looking down upon her face. Robin's was by his mother's.
Suddenly her eyes opened wide, fastening themselves upon her son.

"I'll sune win hame," she murmured gladly, "an' I want ye to say yir bit
prayer to me, Robin, afore I gang, the way ye did when ye were a
bairnie. Kneel doon, Robin, an' say it to me, an' we'll baith say it to
God, for I'm weary tae. 'Noo I lay me,' ye ken."

The strong man bowed beside his mother's bed, and the great anthem
began, the sobbing bass of the broken heart mingling with the feeble
dying voice -

"Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray Thee Lord my soul to keep;
If I should die before I wake,
I pray Thee Lord my soul to take."

Suddenly she pointed with uplifted hand: "Oh, faither, I see oor Elsie's
face - an' the token's in her haun', an' it's a' bricht wi' gowden licht.


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Online LibraryRobert Edward KnowlesSt. Cuthbert's; a novel → online text (page 8 of 17)