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Chapter 20


It was a lovely morning when they left London. The trains did not then travel so fast as now, and it was late in the afternoon when they reached the station at which they must leave the railway for the road. Before that the weather had changed, or they had changed their weather, for the sky was one mass of cloud, and rain was falling persistently. They had been for some time in the abode of the hills, but those they were passing through, though not without wonder and strange interest, were but an inferior clan, neither lofty nor lovely. Through the rain and the mist they looked lost and drear. They were mostly bare, save of a little grass, and broken with huge brown and yellow gulleys, worn by such little torrents as were now rushing along them straight from the clouded heavens. It was a vague sorrowful region of tears, whence the streams in the valleys below were forever fed.

This part of the journey Saffy had been sound asleep, but Mark had been standing at the window of the railway-carriage, gazing out on an awful world. What would he do, he thought, if he were lost there? Would he be able to sit still all night without being frightened, waiting for God to come and take him? As they rushed along, it was not through the brain alone of the child the panorama flitted, but through his mind and heart as well, and there, like a glacier it scored its passage. Or rather, it left its ghosts behind it, ever shifting forms and shadows, each atmosphered in its own ethereal mood. Hardly thoughts were they, but strange other consciousnesses of life and being. Hills and woods and valleys and plains and rivers and seas, entering by the gates of sight into the live mirror of the human, are transformed to another nature, to a living wonder, a joy, a pain, a breathless marvel as they pass. Nothing can receive another thing, not even a glass can take into its depth a face, without altering it. In the mirror of man, things become thoughts, feelings, life, and send their streams down the cheeks, or their sunshine over the countenance.

Before Mark reached the end of that journey, there was gathered in the bottom of his heart a great mass of fuel, there stored for the future consumption of thinking, and for reproduction in forms of power. He knew nothing of it. He took nothing consciously. The things kept sinking into him. The sole sign of his reception was an occasional sigh--of which he could not have told either the cause or the meaning.

They got into their own carriage at the station. The drive was a long and a tedious one, for the roads were rough and muddy and often steep, and Mr. Raymount repeatedly expressed his dissatisfaction, that they had not put four horses to. For some time they drove along the side of a hill, and could see next to nothing except in one direction; and when at length the road ran into a valley, and along the course of the swollen river, it was getting so dark, and the rain was coming down so fast, that they could see next to nothing at all. Long before they reached their new home, Saffy and Mark were sound asleep, Hester was sunk in her own thoughts, and the father and mother sat in unbroken silence, hand in hand. It was pitch-dark ere they arrived; and save what she learned from the thousand musics of the swollen river along which they had been driving for the last hour, Hester knew nothing of the country for which she had left the man-swarming city. Ah, that city! so full of fellow-creatures! so many of them her friends! and struggling in the toils of so many foes! Many sorrows had entered in at Hester's ears; tongues that had never known how to give trouble shape, had grown eloquent in pouring the tale--of oppression oftener than want, into the bosom of her sympathy. I do not say many tongues--only many sorrows; she knew from the spray that reached her on its borders, how that human sea tossed and raged afar. Reading and interpreting the looks of faces and the meanings of actions around her by what she had heard, she could not doubt she had received but a too true sample of experiences innumerable. One result was, that, young as was Hester, she no longer shrank from the thought of that invisible, intangible solvent in which the generations of man vanish from the eyes of their fellows. She said to herself what a blessed thing was death for countless human myriads--yea doubtless for the whole race! It looked sad enough for an end; but then it was not the end; while but for the thought of the change to some other mode of life, the idea of this world would have been unendurable to her. "Surely they are now receiving their evil things!" she said. Alas, but even now she felt as if the gulf of death separated her from those to whom it had been her painful delight to minister! The weeping wind and the moaning rush of the river, through which they were slowly moving toward their earthly paradise, were an orchestral part as of hautboys in the wailing harmony of her mood.

They turned and went through a gate, then passed through trees and trees that made yet darker pieces of the night. By and by appeared the faint lights of the house, with blotchy pallors thinning the mist and darkness. Presently the carriage stopped.

Both the children continued dead asleep, and were carried off to bed. The father and mother knew the house of old time, and revived for each other old memories. But to Hester all was strange, and what with the long journey, the weariness, the sadness, and the strangeness, it was as if walking in a dream that she entered the old hall. It had a quiet, dull, dignified look, as if it expected nobody; as if it was here itself because it could not help it, and would rather not be here; as if it had seen so many generations come and go that it had ceased to care much about new faces. Every thing in the house looked somber and solemn, as if it had not forgotten its old mistress, who had been so many years in it, and was such a little while gone out of it. They had supper in a long, low room, with furniture almost black, against whose windows heavy roses every now and then softly patted, caught in the fringes of the rain gusts. The dusky room, the perfect stillness within, the low mingled sounds of swaying trees and pattering rain without, the sense of the great darkness folding in its bosom the beauty so near and the moaning city miles upon miles away--all grew together into one possessing mood, which rose and sank, like the water in a sea-cave, in the mind of Hester. But who by words can fix the mood that comes and goes unbidden, like a ghost whose acquaintance is lost with his vanishing, whom we know not when we do not see? A single happy phrase, the sound of a wind, the odor of the mere earth may avail to send us into some lonely, dusky realm of being; but how shall we take our brother with us, or send him thither when we would? I doubt if even the poet ever works just what he means on the mind of his fellow. Sisters, brothers, we cannot meet save in God.

But the nearest mediator of feeling, the most potent, the most delicate, the most general, the least articulate, the farthest from thought, yet perhaps the likest to the breath moving upon the soft face of the waters of chaos, is music. It rose like a soft irrepressible tide in the heart of Hester; it mingled and became one with her mood; together swelling they beat at the gates of silence; for life's sake they must rush, embodied and born in sound, into the outer world where utterance meets utterance! She looked around her for such an instrument as hitherto had been always within her reach--rose and walked around the shadowy room searching. But there was no creature amongst the aged furniture--nothing with a brain to it which her soul might briefly inhabit. She returned and sat again at the table, and the mood vanished in weariness.

But they did not linger there long. Fatigue made the ladies glad to be shown to the rooms prepared for them. The housekeeper, the ancient authority of the place, in every motion and tone expressing herself wronged by their intrusion, conducted them. Every spot they passed was plainly far more hers than theirs; only law was a tyrant, and she dared not assert her rights! But she had allotted their rooms well, and they approved her judgment.

Weary as she was, Hester was charmed with hers, and the more charmed the more she surveyed it. I will not spend time or space in describing it, but remember how wearisome and useless descriptions often are. I will but say it was old-fashioned to her heart's content; that it seemed full of shadowy histories, as if each succeeding occupant had left behind an ethereal phantasmic record, a memorial imprint of presence on walls and furniture--to which she now was to add hers. But the old sleep must have the precedence of all the new things. In weary haste she undressed, and ascending with some difficulty the high four-post bed which stood waiting for her like an altar of sleep for its sacrifice, was presently as still and straight and white as alabaster lady lying upon ancient tomb.

George MacDonald