TO-DAY I can think about only one thing. It is in vain I have tried to busy myself with my sermon for next Sunday. Last week, for another reason, I had recourse to an old sermon; but I dislike to make a practice of so doing, even though I strongly suspect that none of our little Salmon River congregation would know the difference. We are a very simple people, in this outof-the-way Cape Breton parish, called mostly to be fishers, like Our Lord’s apostles, and recking not a whit of the finer points of doctrine. Nevertheless it is an hireling shepherd who is faithless only because the flock do not ask to be fed with the appointed manna; and I shall broach the sermon again, once I have set down the thing that is so heavy on my heart.
For all I can think of just now is that Renny and Suse, out there on Halibut Head, four miles away, are alone; alone for the first time in well-nigh thirty years. The last of the brood has taken wing.
Yet it came to me this morning, as I watched Renny on the wharf saying good-by to the boy, and bidding him wrap the tippet snug about his neck in case the wind would be raw — it came to me that there is a triumph about the nest when it is empty that it could never have earlier. I saw the look of it in Renny’s face,— not defeat, but exultation.
‘And what are you going to do now, Renny?’ I asked him, as the steamer finally slipped out of sight behind the lighthouse rock.
He stared at me a little contemptuously, a manner he has always had.
‘Do, Mr. Biddles?’ says he, with a queer laugh. ‘Why, what would I do, sor? They ain’t no less fish to be catched, is they, off Halibut Head, just becaust I got quit of a son or two? ’
He left me, with a toss of his crisp, tawny-gray curls, jumped into his little two-wheeled cart, and was off. And I thought, ‘Ah, Renny Marks, outside you are still the same wild beast as when I had my first meeting with you, two-and-thirty years ago; but inside — yes, I knew then it must come; and it was not for me to order the how of it.’
So as I took my way homeward, alone, toward the Rectory, I found myself recalling, as if it were yesterday, the first words I had ever exchanged with that tawny giant, just then in his first flush of manhood, and with a face as ruddy and healthy-looking as one of these early New Rose potatoes. Often, to be sure, I had seen him already in church, of a Sunday, sitting defiant and uncomfortable on one of the rear benches, struggling vainly to keep his eyes open; but before the last Amen was fairly out of the people’s mouth, he had always bolted for the door; and I had never come, as you may say, face to face with him until this afternoon when I was footing it back, by the cove road, from a visit to an old sick woman, Nannie Odell. And here comes Renny Marks on his way home from the boat; and over his shoulder was the mainsail and gaff and a mackerel-seine and two great oars; and by one arm he had slung the rudder and tackle and bait-pot; and under the other he lugged a couple of bundles of lath for to mend his traps; and so he was pacing along there as proud and careless as Samson bearing away the gates of Gaza on his back (Judges xvi, 3).
Now I had entertained the belief for some time that it was my duty, should the occasion offer, to have a serious word with Renny about matters not temporal; and this was clearly the moment. Yet even before we had met he gave me one of those proud, distrustful, I have said contemptuous, looks of his; and I seemed suddenly to perceive the figure I must cut in his eyes, pattering along there so trimly in my clerical garb, and with my book of prayers under one arm; and, do you know, I was right tongue-tied; and so we came within hand-reach, and still never a word.
At last, ‘ Good-day to ye, Mister Biddles,’says he with a scant, off-hand nod; and, as if he knew I must be admiring of his strength, ’I can fetch twice this load, sor,’says he, ‘without so mucht as knowing the difference.’
‘It’s a fine thing, Renny Marks,’ said I, gaining my tongue again, at his boast, ‘a fine thing to be the strongest man in three parishes, if that’s what ye be, as they tell me.'
‘It is that, sor,’ says he. ‘I never been cast yet; and I don’t never expect for to be.’
‘But it’s still finer a thing, Renny,’ I went on, ‘to use that strength in the honor of your Maker. Tell me, do you remember to say your prayers every night before you go to bed ? ’
Never shall I forget the horse-laugh the young fellow had at those words.
‘Why, sor,’ he exclaimed, as if I had suggested the most unconscionable thing in the world, ‘saying prayers! that’s for the likes of them as wash their face every day. I say my prayers on Sunday; and that’s enough for the likes of me!’
And with that, not even affording me a chance to reply, he strode off up the beach road; and in every movement of his great limbs I seemed to see the pride and glory of life. Doubtless I was to blame for not pressing home to him more urgently at that moment the claims of religion; but as I stood there, watching him, it came to me that after all he was almost to be pardoned for being proud. For surely there is something to warm the heart in the sight of the young lion’s strength and courage; and even the Creator, I thought, must have taken delight in turning out such a fine piece of mortal handiwork as that Renny Marks.
But with that thought immediately came another: ‘Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth ’ (Hebrews xii, 6). And I went home sadly, for I seemed to see that Renny had bitter things ahead of him before he should learn the great lesson of life.
Well, and this is the way it came to him. At the age of four-and-twenty, he married this Suse Barlow from down the coast a piece, — Green Harbor was the name of the town, —and she was a sweet young thing, gentle and ladylike, though of plainest country stock, and with enough education so they’d let her keep school down there. He built a little house for her, the one they still live in, with his own hands, at Halibut Head; and I never saw anything prettier than the way that young giant treated his wife; — like a princess! It was the first time in his life, I dare say, he had ever given a thought to anything but himself; and in a fashion, I suppose, ’t was still but a satisfaction of his pride, to have her so beautiful, and so well-dressed.
I remember of how often they would come in late to church, — even as late as the Te Deum, — and I could almost suspect him of being behindhand of purpose, for of course every one would look around when he came creaking down the aisle in his big shoes, with a wide smile on his ruddy face that showed all his white teeth through his beard; and none could fail to observe how fresh and pretty Susie was, tripping along there behind him, and looking very demure and modest in her print frock, and oh, so very, very sorry to be late! And during the prayers I had to remark how his face would always be turned straight toward her, as if it were to her he was addressing his supplications; the young heathen!
Now there is one thing I never could seem to understand, though I have often turned it over in my mind, and that is, why it should be that a young Samson like Renny Marks, and a fine, bouncing girl like that Suse of his, should have children who were too weak and frail to stay long on this earth; but such was the case. They saved only three out of six; and the oldest of those three, Michael John, when he got to be thirteen years of age, shipped as cabin boy on a fisherman down to the Grand Banks, and never came back. So that left only Bessie Lou, who was twelve, and little Martin, who was the baby.
If ever children had a good bringing up, it was those two. I never saw either of them in a dirty frock or in bare feet; and that means something, you must allow, when you consider the hardness of the fisherman’s life, and how often he has nothing at all to show for a season’s toil except debts! But work, — I never saw any one work like that Renny; and he made a lovely little farm out there; and Suse was n’t ashamed to raise chickens and sell them in Salmon River; and she dyed wool, and used to hook these rugs, with patterns of her own design, baskets of flowers, or handsome fruit-dishes; and almost always she could get a price for them. But, as you may believe, she could n’t keep her sweet looks with work like that. Before she was thirty she began to look old, as is so often true in a hard country like ours; and not often would she be coming in to church any more, because, she said, of the household duties; but my own belief is that she did not have anything to wear. But Bessie Lou and little Martin, when the boy was well enough, were there every fine Sunday, as pretty as pictures, and able to recite the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer, and the Collects, and the Commandments, quite like the children of gentlefolk.
Well, when Bessie Lou got to be sixteen, she took it into her head that she must go off to Boston, where she would be earning her own living, and see something more of the world than is possible for a girl in Salmon River. Our girls all get that notion nowadays; they are not content to stay at home as girls used to do; but off they go in droves to the States, where wages are big, and there is excitement and variety. So the old people finally said yes, and off goes Bessie Lou, like the others; and in two years we heard she was to be married to a mechanic in Lynn (I think that is the name of the city) somewhere outside of Boston. She has been gone eight years now, and has three children; and she writes occasionally. She is always wishing she could come down and visit the old folks; but it is hard to get away, I presume, and they are plain working people.
So after Bessie Lou’s going, all they had left at home was Martin, who was always ailing more or less. And on my word, I never saw anything like the care they gave that boy. There was n’t anything too good for him. All these most expensive tonics and patent medicines they would be for trying, one after another, and telling themselves every time that at last they had found just the right thing, because he’d seem to be bracing up a bit, and getting more active. And then he would take another of his bad spells, and lose ground again; and they would put by that bottle and try something else. One day when I was out there his ma showed me all of twenty bottles of patent medicine, some of them scarcely touched, that Renny had got for him, one time or another.
You see, Martin could n’t run about outdoors very much because of his asthma; and then, his eyes being bad, that made him unhappy in the house, for he could n’t be reading or studying. His father got him an old fiddle once, he’d picked up at an auction, and the boy took to it something wonderful; but not having any teacher and no music he soon grew tired of it. And whenever old Renny would be in the village, he must always be getting some little thing to take out to Martin: a couple of bananas, say, or a jack-knife, or one of those American magazines with nice pictures, especially pictures of ships and other sailing craft, of which the lad was very fond.
Well, and so last winter came, which was a very bad winter indeed, in these parts; and the poor lamb had a pitiful hard time; and whenever Renny got in to church, it was plain to see that he was eating his heart out with worry. He still had his old way of always snoring during the sermon; but oh, if you could see once the tired, anxious, supplicating look in his face, as soon as his proud eyes shut, you never would have had the heart to wish anything but ‘Sleep on now, and take your rest ’ (Mark xiv, 41), for you knew that perhaps, for a few minutes, he had stopped worrying about that little lad of his.
Spring came on, at last, and Martin was out again for a while every fine day in the sun; and sometimes the old man would be taking him abroad for a drive or for a little sail in the boat, when he was going out to his traps; and it appeared that the strain was over again for the time being. That is why I was greatly surprised and troubled one day, about two months ago, to see Renny come driving up toward the Rectory like mad, all alone in his cart. I had just been doing a turn of work myself at the hay; for it is hard to get help with us when you need it most; and as I came from the barn, in my shirtsleeves, Renny turned in at the gate.
‘Something has happened to the boy,’ was my thought; and I was all but certain of it when I saw the man’s face, sharp set as a flint stone, and all the blood gone from his ruddy skin so that it looked right blue. He jumped out before the mare stopped, and came up to me.
‘Can I have a word with ye?’ said he; and when he saw my look of question, he added, ‘It ain’t nothink, sor. He’s all right.’
I put my hand on his shoulder, and led him into my study, and we sat down there, just as we were, I in my shirt-sleeves, and still unwashed after the hayfield.
‘What is it, Renny, man?’ says I.
It seemed like he could not make his lips open for a moment, and then, suddenly, he began talking very fast and excitedly, pecking little dents in the arms of the chair with his big black fingernails.
‘That Bessie Lou of oors up to Boston,’ said he, as if he were accusing some one of an outrage, ‘we got a letter from ’er last night, we did, and she sayse, says she, why would n’t we be for a-sending o’ the leetle lad up theyr? They’d gladly look oot for him, she sayse; and the winter ain’t severe, she sayse; and he could go to one o’them fine city eye-doctors and ’ave his eyes put right with glasses or somethink; and prob’ly he could be forgoing to school again and a-getting of his learning, which he’s sadly be’indhand in, sor, becaust he’s ben ailing so much.’
His eyes flashed, and the sweat poured down his forehead in streams.
I don’t know why I was so slow to understand; but I read his look wrong, there seemed so much of the old insolence and pride in it, and I replied, I dare say a little reproachfully, —
‘ Well, and why would n’t that be an excellent thing, Renny? I should think you would feel grateful.’
He stared at me for a second, as if I had struck him. Ah, we can forget the words people say to us, even in wrath; but can we ever free ourselves from the memory of such a look? Without knowing why, I had the feeling of being a traitor. And then, all of a sudden, there he had crumpled down in his chair, and put his head in his big hands, and was sobbing.
‘I cain’t—I cain’t let him go,’ he groaned. ‘I woon’t let him go. He’s all what we got left.’
I sat there for a time, helpless, looking at him. You might think that a priest, with the daily acquaintance he has with the bitter things of life, ought to know how to face them calmly; but so far as my own small experience goes, I seem to know nothing more about all that than at the beginning. It always hurts just as much; it’s always just as bewildering, just as terrible, as if you had never seen anything like it before. And when I saw that giant of a Renny Marks just broken over there like some big tree, shattered by lightning, it seemed as if I could not bear to face such suffering. Then I remembered that he had been committed into my care by God, and that I must not be only an hireling shepherd. So I said: —
‘Renny, lad, it is n’t for ourselves we must be thinking. It’s for him.' He lifted up his head, with the shaggy, half-gray hair all rumpled on his wet forehead, and pulled his sleeve across his eyes.
‘Hark ’e, Mister Biddles,’ he commanded harshly. ‘Ain’t we did the best we could for him? Who dares say we ain’t did the best we could for him? You?’
I made no answer, and for a minute we faced each other, while he shook his clenched fists at me, and the creature in him that had never yet been cast challenged all the universe.
‘They’re try in’ to tak my boy away from me,’ he roared, ‘and they cain’t do it, — I tell you they cain’t. He’s all what we got left, now.’
‘And so you mean to keep him for yourself?’ I asked.
‘Av, that I do,’ he cried, jumping out of his chair, and striding up and down the room as if clean out of his wits. ‘I do! I do! Why would n’t I mean to, hey? Ain’t he mine? Who’s got a better right to him?’
Of a sudden he comes to a dead halt in front of me, with his arms crossed. ‘Mister Biddles,’he says, very bitterly, ‘you may well be thankfu’ you never wast a fat her yoursel’. Nobody ain’t for trying to tak nothink away from you.’
‘That’s quite true, Renny,’ said I. ‘But remember,’ I said, not intending any irreverence, but uttering such poor words as were given to me in my extremity, ‘remember, Renny, it’s to a Father you say your prayers in church every Sunday; and you need n’t think as that Father doesn’t know full as well as you what it is to give up an only Son for love’s sake.’
‘Hey? — What’s that, sor?' cries Renny, with a face right like a dead thing.
‘And would He be asking of you for to let yours go, if He did n’t know there was love enough in your heart to stand the test?’
Renny broke out with a terrible groan, like the roar of anguish of a wild beast that has got a mortal wound; and the same instant the savage look died in his eyes, and the bigger love in him had triumphed over the smaller love. I could see it, I knew it, even before he spoke. He caught at my hand, blunderingly, and gave it a twist like a winch.
‘He shall go, sor. He shall go for all of I. And Mr. Biddles, while I’m for telling the old woman and the boy, would ye be so condescending as to say over some of them there prayers, so I could have the feeling, as you might say, that some one was keeping an eye on me? It’ll all be done in less nor a half-hour.’
And with that, off he goes, and jumps into his cart, and whips up the mare, tearing down the road like a whirlwind, just as he had come, without so much as saying good-by. And the next day I heard them saying in the village that Renny Marks’s boy was to go up to the States to be raised with his sister’s family.
Ah, well, that’s only a common sort of a story, I know. The same kind of things happen near us every day. I can’t even quite tell why I wanted to set it down on paper like this, only that, some way, it makes me believe in God more; even when I have to remember, and it seems to me just now like I could never stop remembering it, that Renny and Susan are all alone to-day out there on Halibut Head. Renny is at the fish, of course; andSuse, I daresay, is working in her little potato patch; and Martin is out there on the sea, being borne to a world far away, and from which, I suppose, he will not be very anxious to return; for few of them do come back, nowadays, to the home country.