Chapter 23




DOWN THE HILL.


When Franks, the acrobat, and his family left Mrs. Baldwin's garret to go to another yet poorer lodging, it was with heavy hearts: they crept silent away, to go down yet a step of the world's stair. I have read somewhere in Jean Paul of a curiously contrived stair, on which while you thought you were going down you were really ascending: I think it was so with the Frankses and the stair they were upon. But to many the world is but a treadmill, on which while they seem to be going up and up, they are only serving to keep things going round and round.

I think God has more to do with the fortunes of the poor a thousand fold than with those of the rich. In the fortunes of the poor there are many more changes, and they are of greater import as coming closer to the heart of their condition. To careless and purblind eyes these fortunes appear on an almost dead level of toil and privation; but they have more variations of weather, more chequers of sunshine and shade, more storms and calms, than lives passed on airier slopes. Who could think of God as a God like Christ--and other than such he were not Godand imagine he would not care as much for the family of John Franks as for the family of Gerald Raymount? It is impossible to believe that he loves such as Cornelius or Vavasor as he loves a Christopher. There must be a difference! The God of truth cannot love the unlovely in the same way as he loves the lovely. The one he loves for what he is and what he has begun to be; the other he loves because he sorely needs love--as sorely as the other, and must begin to grow lovely one day. Nor dare we forget that the celestial human thing is in itself lovely as made by God, and pitiably lovely as spoiled by man. That is the Christ-thing which is the root of every man, created in his image--that which, when he enters the men, he possesses. The true earthly father must always love those children more who are obedient and loving--but he will not neglect one bad one for twenty good ones. "The Father himself loveth you because ye have loved me;" but "There is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth than over ninety and nine that need no repentance." The great joy is the first rush of love in the new-opened channel for its issue and entrance.

The Frankses were on the down-going side of the hill Difficulty, and down they must go, unable to help themselves. They had found a cheaper lodging, but entered it with misgiving; their gains had been very moderate since their arrival in London, and their expenses greater than in the country. Also Franks was beginning to feel or to fancy his strength and elasticity not quite what they had been. The first suspicion of the approach of old age and the beginning of that weakness whose end is sure, may well be a startling one. The man has begun to be a nobody in the world's race--is henceforth himself but the course of the race between age and death--a race in which the victor is known ere the start. Life with its self-discipline withdraws itself thenceforth more to the inside, and goes on with greater vigor. The man has now to trust and yield constantly. He is coming to know the fact that he was never his own strength, had never the smallest power in himself at his strongest. But he is learning also that he is as safe as ever in the time when he gloried in his might--yea, as safe as then he imagined himself on his false foundation. He lays hold of the true strength, makes it his by laying hold of it. He trusts in the unchangeable thing at the root of all his strength, which gave it all the truth it had--a truth far deeper than he knew, a reality unfathomable, though not of the nature he then fancied. Strength has ever to be made perfect in weakness, and old age is one of the weaknesses in which it is perfected.

Poor Franks had not got so far yet as to see this, and the feeling of the approach of old age helped to relax the springs of his hopefulness. Also his wife had not yet got over her last confinement. The baby, too, was sickly. And there was not much popular receptivity for acrobatics in the streets; coppers came in slowly; the outlay was heavy; and the outlook altogether was of the gray without the gold. But his wife's words were always cheerful, though the tone of them had not a little of the mournful. Their tone came of temperament, the words themselves of love and its courage. The daughter of a gamekeeper, the neighbors regarded her as throwing herself away when she married Franks; but she had got an honest and brave husband, and never when life was hardest repented giving herself to him.

For a few weeks they did pretty well in their new lodging. They managed to pay their way, and had food enough--though not quite so good as husband and wife wished each for the other, and both for their children. The boys had a good enough time of it. They had not yet in London exhausted their own wonder. The constant changes around made of their lives a continuous novel--nay, a romance, and being happy they could eat anything and thrive on it.

The lives of the father and mother over-vault the lives of the children, shutting out all care if not all sorrow, and every change is welcomed as a new delight. Their parents, where positive cruelty has not installed fear and cast out love, are the divinities of even the most neglected. They feel towards them much the same, I fancy, as the children of ordinary parents in the middle class--love them more than children given over to nurses and governesses love theirs. Nor do I feel certain that the position of the children of the poor, in all its oppression, is not more favorable to the development of the higher qualities of the human mind, such as make the least show, than many of those more pleasant places for which some religious moralists would have us give the thanks of the specially favored. I suspect, for instance, that imagination, fancy, perception, insight into character, the faculty of fitting means to ends, the sense of adventure, and many other powers and feelings are more likely to be active in the children of the poor, to the greater joy of their existence, than in others. These Frankses, too, had a strict rule over them, and that increases much the capacity for enjoyment. The father, according to his lights, was, as we have seen, a careful and conscientious parent, and his boys were strongly attached to him, never thought of shirking their work, and endured a good deal of hardness and fatigue without grumbling: their mother had opened their eyes to the fact that their father took his full share in all he required of them, and did his best for them. They were greatly proud of their father one and all believing him not only the first man in his profession, but the best man that ever was in the world; and to believe so of one's parent is a stronger aid to righteousness than all things else whatever, until the day-star of the knowledge of the great Father goes up in the heart, to know whom, in like but better fashion, as the best more than man and the perfect Father of men, is the only thing to redeem us from misery and wrong, and lift us into the glorious liberty of the sons and daughters of God.

They were now reduced to one room, and the boys slept on the floor. This was no hardship, now that summer was nigh, only the parents found it interfered a little with their freedom of speech. Nor did it mend the matter to send them early to bed, for the earlier they went the longer were they in going to sleep. At the same time they had few things to talk of which they minded their hearing, and to the mother at least it was a pleasure to have all her chickens in the nest with her.

One evening after the boys were in bed, the father and mother sat talking. They had a pint of beer on the table between them, of which the woman tasted now and then that the man might imagine himself sharing it with her. Silence had lasted for some time. The mother was busy rough-patching a garment of Moxy's. The man's work for the day was over, but not the woman's!

"Well, I dunnow!" he said at last, and there ceased.

"What don ye know, John?" asked his wife, in a tone she would have tried to make cheerful had she but suspected it half as mournful as it was.

"There's that Mr. Christopher as was such a friend!" he said: "--you don't disremember what he used to say about the Almighty and that? You remember as how he used to say a man could no more get out o' the sight o' them eyes o' hisn than a child could get out o' sight o' the eyes on his mother as was a watchin' of him!"

"Yes, John, I do remember all that very well, and a great comfort it was to me at the time to hear him say so, an' has been many's the time since, when I had no other--leastways none but you an' the children. I often think over what he said to you an' me then when I was down, an' not able to hold my head up, nor feelin' as if I should ever lift it no more!"

"Well, I dunnow!" said Franks, and paused again.

But this time he resumed, "What troubles me is this:--if that there mother as was a lookin' arter her child, was to see him doin' no better 'n you an' me, an' day by day gettin' furder on the wrong way, I should say she wan't much of a mother to let us go on in that 'ere way as I speak on."

"She might ha' got her reasons for it, John," returned his wife, in some fear lest the hope she cherished was going to give way in her husband. "P'r'aps she might see, you know, that the child might go a little farther and fare none the worse. When the children want their dinner very bad, I ha' heerd you say to them sometimes, 'Now kids, ha' patience. Patience is a fine thing. What if ye do be hungry, you ain't a dyin' o' hunger. You'll wear a bit longer yet!' Ain't I heerd you say that John--more'n once, or twice, or thrice?"

"There ain't no need to put me to my oath like that, old woman! I ain't a goin' for to deny it! You needn't go to put it to me as if I was the pris'ner at the bar, or a witness as wanted to speak up for him!--But you must allow this is a drivin' of it jest a leetle too far! Here we be come up to Lon'on a thinkin' to better ourselves--not wantin' no great things--sich we don't look for to get--but jest thinkin' as how it wur time'--as th' parson is allus a tellin' his prishioners, to lay by a shillin' or two to keep us out o' th' workus, when 't come on to rain, an' let us die i' the open like, where a poor body can breathe!--that's all as we was after! an' here, sin' ever we come, fust one shillin' goes, an' then another shillin' goes as we brought with us, till we 'ain't got one, as I may almost say, left! An' there ain't no luck! I'stead o' gitting more we git less, an' that wi' harder work, as is a wearin' out me an' the b'ys; an'--"

Here he was interrupted by a cry from the bed. It was the voice of little Moxy, the Sarpint o' the Prairies.

"I ain't wore out, father! I'm good for another go."

"I ain't neither, gov'nor. I got a lot more work in me!"

"No, nor me," cried the third. "I likes London. I can stand on my head twice as long as Tommy Blake, an he's a year older 'n I am."

"Hold your tongues, you rascals, an' go to sleep," growled the father, pretending to be angry with them. "What right have you to be awake at this time o' the night--an' i' Lon'on too? It's not like the country, as you very well know. I' the country you can do much as you like, but not in the town! There's police, an' them's there for boys to mind what they're about. You've no call to be awake when your father an' mother want to be by theirselves--a listenin' to what they've got to say to one another! Us two was man an' wife afore you was born!"

"We wasn't a listenin', father. We was only hearin' 'cause we wasn't asleep. An' you didn't speak down as if it was secrets!"

"Well, you know, b'ys, there's things as fathers and mothers can understand an' talk about, as no b'y's fit to see to the end on, an' so they better go to sleep, an' wait till their turn comes to be fathers an' mothers theirselves.--Go to sleep direc'ly, or I'll break every bone in your bodies!"

"Yes, father, yes!" they answered together, nowise terrified by the awful threat--which was not a little weakened by the fact that they had heard it every day of their lives, and not yet known it carried into execution.

But having been thus advised that his children were awake, the father, without the least hypocrisy, conscious or unconscious, changed his tone: in the presence of his children he preferred looking at the other side of the argument. After a few moments' silence he began again thus:--

"Yes, as you was sayin', wife, an' I knows as you're always in the right, if the right be anyhows to be got at--as you was sayin', I say, there's no sayin' when that same as we was a speakin' of--the Almighty is the man I mean--no sayin', I say, when he may come to see as we have, as I may say, had enough on it, an' turn an' let us have a taste o' luck again! Luck's sweet; an' some likes, an' it may be as he likes to give his childer a taste o' sweets now an' again, just as you and me, that is when we can afford it, an' that's not often, likes to give ourn a bull's-eye or a suck of toffy. I don't doubt he likes to see us enj'yin' of ourselves just as well as we like to see our little uns enj'yin' o' theirselves!--It stands to reason, wife--don't it?"

"So it do seem to me, John!" answered the mother.

"Well," said Franks, apparently, now that he had taken up the defence of the ways of the Supreme with men, warming to his subject, "I dessay he do the best he can, an' give us as much luck as is good for us. Leastways that's how the rest of us do, wife! We can't allus do as well as we would like for to do for our little uns, but we always, in general, does the best we can. It may take time--it may take time even with all the infl'ence he has, to get the better o' things as stands in his way! We'll suppose yet a while, anyhow, as how he's a lookin' arter us. It can't be for nothink as he counts the hairs on our heads--as the sayin' is!--though for my part I never could see what good there was in it. But if it ain't for somethink, why it's no more good than the census, which is a countin' o' the heads theirselves."

There are, or there used to be when I was a boy, who, in their reverence for the name of the Most High, would have shown horror at the idea that he could not do anything or everything in a moment as it pleased him, but would not have been shocked at all at the idea that he might not please to give this or that man any help. In their eyes power was a grander thing than love, though it is nowhere said in the Book that God is omnipotence. Such, because they are told that he is omnipotent, call him Omnipotence; when told that he is Love, do not care to argue that he must then be loving? But as to doing what he wills with a word--see what it cost him to redeem the world! He did not find that easy, or to be done in a moment without pain or toil. Yea, awfully omnipotent is God. For he wills, effects and perfects the thing which, because of the bad in us, he has to carry out in suffering and sorrow, his own and his Son's Evil is a hard thing for God himself to overcome. Yet thoroughly and altogether and triumphantly will he overcome it; and that not by crushing it underfoot--any god of man's idea could do that!--but by conquest of heart over heart, of life in life, of life over death. Nothing shall be too hard for the God that fears not pain, but will deliver and make true and blessed at his own severest cost.

For a time, then, the Frankses went on, with food to eat and money to pay their way, but going slowly down the hill, and finding it harder and harder to keep their footing. By and by the baby grew worse, pining visibly. They sought help at the hospital, but saw no Mr. Christopher, and the baby did not improve. Still they kept on, and every day the husband brought home a little money. Several times they seemed on the point of an engagement, but as often something came between, until at length Franks almost ceased to hope, and grew more and more silent, until at last he might well have appeared morose. The wonder to me is that any such as do not hope in a Power loving to perfection, should escape moroseness. Under the poisonous influences of anxiety, a loving man may become unkind, even cruel to the very persons for whose sake he is anxious. In good sooth what we too often count righteous care, but our Lord calls the care of the world, consumes the life of the heart as surely as the love of money. At the root they are the same. Yet evil thing as anxiety is, it were a more evil thing to be delivered from it by anything but the faith of the Son of God--that is faith in his Father and our Father; it would be but another and worse, because more comfortable form of the same slavery.

Poor Franks, however, with but a little philosophy, had much affection, which is indeed the present God in a man--and so did not go far in the evil direction. The worse sign of his degenerating temper was the more frequently muttered oath of impatience with his boys--never with his wife; and not one of them was a moment uneasy in consequence--only when the gov'nor wasn't jolly, neither were they.

The mind of Franks, so it appears to me, was mainly a slow sullen stream of subthought, a something neither thought nor feeling but partaking of the character of both, a something more than either, namely, the substance of which both are formed--the undeveloped elemental life, risen a little way, and but a little way, towards consciousness. The swifter flow of this stream is passion, the gleams of it where it ripples into the light, are thoughts. This sort of nature can endure much without being unhappy. What would crush a swift-thinking man is upborne by the denser tide. Its conditions are gloomier, and it consorts more easily with gloom. But light and motion and a grand future are waiting for such as he. All their sluggish half-slumberous being will be roused and wrought into conscious life--nor the unconscious whence it arises be therein exhausted, for that will be ever supplied and upheld by the indwelling Deity. In his own way Franks was in conflict with the problems of life; neither was he very able to encounter them; but on the other hand he was one to whom wonders might safely be shown, for he would use them not speculatively but practically. "Nothing almost sees miracles but misery," perhaps because to misery alone, save it be to the great unselfish joy, is it safe to show miracles. Those who must see ere they will believe, may have to be brought to the verge of the infinite grave that a condition fit for seeing may be effected in them. "Blessed are they who have not seen and yet have believed."




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