Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 26


The hot dreamy days rose and sank in Yrndale. Hester would wake in the morning oppressed with the feeling that there was something she ought to have begun long ago, and must positively set about this new day. Then as her inner day cleared, she would afresh recognize her duty as that of those who stand and wait. She had no great work to do--only the common family duties of the day, and her own education for what might be the will of Him who, having made her for something, would see that the possibility of that something should not be wanting. In the heat of the day she would seek a shady spot with a book for her companion--generally some favorite book, for she was not one of those who say of one book as of another--"Oh, I've read that!" It was some time before she came to like any particular spot: so many drew her, and the spirit of exploration in that which was her own was strong in her. Under the shadow of some rock, the tent-roof of some umbrageous beech, or the solemn gloom of some pine-grove, the brooding spirit of the summer would day after day find her when the sun was on the height of his great bridge, and fill her with the sense of that repose in which alone she herself can work. Then would such a quiescence pervade Hester's spirit, such a sweet spiritual sleep creep over her, that nothing seemed required of her but to live; mere existence was conscious well-being. But the feeling never lasted long. All at once would start awake in her the dread that she was forsaking the way, inasmuch as she was more willing to be idle, and rest in inaction. Then would faith rouse herself and say: "But God will take care of you in this thing too. You have not to watch lest He should forget, but to be ready when He gives you the lightest call. You have to keep listening." And the ever returning corrective to such mood came with the evening; for, regularly as she went to bed at night and left it in the morning, she went from the tea-table in the afternoon to her piano, and there, through all the sweet evening movements and atmospheric changes of the brain--for the brain has its morning and evening, its summer and winter as well as the day and the year--would meditate aloud, or brood aloud over the musical meditations of some master in harmony. And oftener than she knew, especially in the twilight, when the days had grown shorter, and his mother feared for him the falling dew, would Mark be somewhere in the dusk listening to her, a lurking cherub, feeding on her music--sometimes ascending on its upward torrent to a solitude where only God could find him.

At such time the thought of Vavasor would come, and for a while remain; but it was chiefly as one who would be a welcome helper in her work. When for the time she had had enough of music, softly as she would have covered a child, she would close her piano, then glide like a bat into the night, and wander hither and thither through the gloom without conscious choice. Then most would she think what it would be to have a man for a friend, one who would strengthen her heart and make her bold to do what was needful and right; and if then the thoughts of the maiden would fall to the natural architecture of maidens, and build one or two of the airy castles into which no man has looked or can look, and if through them went flitting the form of Vavasor, who will wonder! It is not the building of castles in the steepest heights of air that is to be blamed, but the building of such as inspector conscience is not invited to enter. To cherish the ideal of a man with whom to walk on her way through the world, is as right for a woman as it was for God to make them male and female; and to the wise virgin it will ever be a solemn thought, lovelily dwelt upon, and never mockingly, when most playfully handled. For there is a play even with most serious things that has in it no offense. Humor has its share even in religion--but oh, how few seem to understand its laws! I confess to a kind of foreboding shudder when even a clergyman begins to jest upon the borders of sacred things. It is not humor that is irreverent, but the mind that gives it the wrong turn. As we may be angry and not sin, so may we jest and not sin. But there is a poor ambition to be married, which is, I fear, the thought most present with too many young women. They feel as if their worth remained unacknowledged, as if there were for them no place they could call their own in society, until they find a man to take them under his wing. She degrades womanhood who thinks thus of herself. It says ill for the relation of father and mother if the young women of a family recoil from the thought of being married, but it says ill for the relation of parents and children if they are longing to be married.

One evening towards the end of July, when the summer is at its heat, and makes the world feel as if there never had been, and never ought to be anything but summer; and when the wind of its nights comes to us from the land where the sun is not, to tell human souls that, dear as is the sunlight to their eyes, there are sweeter things far with which the sun has little to do--Hester was sitting under a fir-tree on the gathered leaves of numberless years, pine-odors filling the air around her, as if they, too, stole out with the things of the night when the sun was gone. It happened that a man came late in the day to tune her piano, and she had left him at his work, and wandered up the hill in the last of the sunlight. All at once the wind awoke, and began to sing the strange, thin, monotonous Elysian ghost-song of the pine-wood--for she sat in a little grove of pines, and they were all around her. The sweet melancholy of the hour moved her spirit. So close was her heart to that of nature that, when alone with it, she seldom or never longed for her piano; she had the music, and did not need to hear it. When we are very near to God, we do not desire the Bible. When we feel far from him, we may well make haste to it. Most people, I fear, wait till they are inclined to seek him. They do not stir themselves up to lay hold on God; they breathe the dark airs of the tomb till the morning break, instead of rising at once and setting out on their journey to meet it.

As she sat in music-haunted reverie, she heard a slight rustle on the dry carpet around her feet, and the next moment saw dark in the gloom the form of a man. She was startled, but he spoke instantly; it was Vavasor. She was still, and could not answer for a moment.

"I am so sorry I frightened you!" he said.

"It is nothing," she returned. "Why can't one help being silly? I don't see why ladies should ever be frightened more than gentlemen."

"Men are quite as easily startled as ladies," he answered, "though perhaps they come to themselves a little quicker. Nothing is more startling than to find some one near when you thought you were alone."

"Except," said Hester, "finding yourself alone when you thought some one was near. But how did you find me?"

"They told me at the house you were somewhere in this direction. Mark had followed you apparently some distance. So I ventured to come and look for you, and--something led me right. But all the time I seem going to lose myself instead of finding you."

"It might be both," returned Hester; "for I don't at all know my way with certainty, especially in the dusk. We are on the shady side of the hill, you see."

"I cannot have lost myself if I have found you," rejoined Vavasor, but did not venture to carry the speech farther.

"It is time we were moving," said Hester, "seeing we are both so uncertain of the way. Who knows when we may reach the house!"

"Do let us risk it a few minutes longer," said Vavasor. "This is delicious. Just think a moment: this my first burst from the dungeon-land of London for a whole year! This is paradise! I could fancy I was dreaming of fairyland! But it is such an age since you left London, that I fear you must be getting used to it, and will scarcely understand my delight!"

"It is only the false fairyland of mechanical inventors," replied Hester, "that children ever get tired of. And yet I don't know," she added, correcting herself; "it is true the things that delight Saffy are a contempt to Mark; but I am sorry to say the things Mark delights in, Saffy says are so dull; there is hardly a giant in them!"

As they talked Vavasor had seated himself on the fir-spoil beside her. She asked him about his journey and about Cornelius; then told him how she came to be there instead of at her piano,

"The tuner must have finished by this time!" she said; "let us go and try his work!"

So saying she rose, and was on her feet before Vavasor. The way seemed to reveal itself to her as they went, and they were soon at home.

The next fortnight Vavasor spent at Yrndale. In those days Nature had the best chance with him she had yet had since first he came into her dominions. For a man is a man, however he may have been "dragged up," and however much injured he may be by the dragging. Society may have sought to substitute herself for both God and Nature, and may have had a horrible amount of success: the rout of Comus see no beast-faces among them. Yet, I repeat, man is potentially a man, however far he may be from actual manhood. What one man has, every man has, however hidden and unrecognizable. Who knows what may not sometimes be awakened in him! The most heartless scoffer may be suddenly surprised by emotion in a way to him unaccountable; of all its approaches and all the preparation for it he has been profoundly unaware. During that fortnight, Vavasor developed not merely elements of which he had had no previous consciousness, but elements in whose existence he could not be said to have really believed. He believed in them the less in fact that he had affected their existence in himself, and thought he possessed what there was of them to be possessed. The most remarkable event at once of his inner and outer history, and the only one that must have seemed almost incredible to those who knew him best, was, that one morning he got up in time to see, and for the purpose of seeing, the sun rise. I hardly expect to be believed when I tell the fact! I am not so much surprised that he formed the resolution the night before. Something Hester said is enough to account for that. But that a man like him should already have got on so far as, in the sleepiness of the morning, to keep the resolve he had come to in the wakefulness of the preceding night, fills me with astonishment. It was a great stride forward. Nor was this all: he really enjoyed it! I do not merely mean that, as a victorious man, he enjoyed the conquest of himself when the struggle was over, attributing to it more heroism than it could rightly claim; nor yet that, as any young human animal may, he enjoyed the clear invigorating clean air that filled his lungs like a new gift of life and strength. He had poetry enough to feel something of the indwelling greatness that belonged to the vision itself--for a vision and a prophecy it is, as much as when first it rose on the wondering gaze of human spirit, to every soul that through its eyes can see what those eyes cannot see. He felt a power of some kind present to his soul in the sight--though he but set it down to poetic feeling, which he never imagined to have anything to do with fact. It was in the so-called Christian the mere rudiment of that worship of the truth which in the old Guebers was developed into adoration of it in its symbol. It was the drawing of the eternal Nature in him towards the naturing Eternal, whom he was made to understand, but of whom he knew so little.

When the evening came, after almost a surfeit of music, if one dare, un-self-accused, employ such a word concerning a holy thing, they went out to wander a little about the house in the twilight.

"In such a still soft negative of life," he said, "as such an evening gives us, really one could almost doubt whether there was indeed such a constantly recurring phenomenon in nature as I saw this morning!"

"What did you see this morning?" asked Hester, wondering.

"I saw the sun rise," he answered.

"Did you really? I'm so glad! That is a sight rarely seen in London--at least if I may judge by my own experience."

"One goes to bed so late and so tired!" he replied simply.

"True! and even if one be up in time, where could you see it from?"

"I have seen it rise coming home from a dance; but then somehow you don't seem to have anything to do with it. I have, however, often smelt the hay in the streets in the morning."

Hester was checked by this mention of the hay--as if the sun was something that belonged to the country, like the grass he withered; but ere she had time to explain to herself what she felt, the next thing he said got her over it.

"I assure you I felt as if I had never seen the sun before. His way of getting up was a new thing to me altogether. He seemed to mean shining--and somehow I felt that he did. In London he always looks indifferent--just as if he had got it to do, and couldn't help it, like everybody else in the horrible place. Who is it that says--'God made the country, and man made the town'?"

"I think it was Cowper, but I'm not sure," answered Hester. "It can't be quite true though. I suspect man has more to do with the unmaking than the making of either. We have reason to be glad he has not come near enough to us yet to destroy either our river or our atmosphere."

"He is creeping on, though. The quarries are not very far from you even now."

"The quarries do little or no harm. There are a great many things man may do that only make nature show her beauty the more. I have been thinking a good deal about it lately: it is the rubbish that makes all the difficulty--the refuse of the mills and the pits and the iron-works and the potteries that does all the mischief."

"So it is! and worst of all the human rubbish--especially that which gathers in our great cities, and gives so much labor in vain to clergyman and philanthropist!"

Hester smiled--not that she was pleased with the way Vavasor spoke, for she could not but believe he would in his rubbish include many of her dear people, but that she was amused at his sympathetic tone towards the clergy as generally concerned in the matter. For she had had a little experience, and had listened to much testimony from such as knew, and firmly believed that the clergy were very near the root of the evil; and that not with the hoe and weeder, but with the watering pot and artificial manure, helping largely to convert the poor--into beggars, and the lawless into hypocrites, heaping cairn upon cairn on the grave of their poor prostrate buried souls. But thank God, it is by the few, but fast increasing exceptions, that she knew what the rest were doing!

But perhaps he meant only the wicked when he used the word.

"What do you mean by the human rubbish, Mr. Vavasor?" she asked.

He saw he must be careful, and would fence a little.

"Don't you think," he said slowly, and measuring his words, "that in the body politic there is something analogous to the waste in matter?"

"Certainly," she answered, "only we might differ as to the persons who were to be classed in it. I think we should be careful of our judgment as to when that state has been reached. I fancy that is just the one thing the human faculty is least able to cope with. None but God can read in a man what he really is. It can't be a safe thing to call human beings, our own kith and kin, born into the same world with us, and under the same laws of existence, rubbish."

"I see what you mean," said Vavasor to Hester. But to himself said, "Good heavens!"

"You see," Hester went on--they were walking in the dark dusk, she before him in a narrow path among the trees, whence she was able both to think and speak more freely than if they had been looking in each other's face in the broad daylight--"you see, rubbish with life in it is an awkward thing to deal with. Rubbish proper is that out of which the life, so far at least as we can see, is gone; and this loss of life has rendered it useless, so that it cannot even help the growth of life in other things. But suppose, on the one hand, this rubbish, say that which lies about the mouth of a coal-pit, could be by some process made to produce the most lovely flowers, or that, on the other hand, if neglected, it would bring out the most horrible weeds of poison; infecting the air, or say horrible creeping things, then the word rubbish would mean either too much or too little; for it means what can be put to no use, and what is noxious by its mere presence, its ugliness and immediate defilement. You see, Mr. Vavasor, I have been thinking a great deal about all this kind of thing. It is my business in a way."

"But would you not allow that the time comes when nothing can be done with them?"

"I will not allow it of any I have to do with, at least before I can say with confidence I have done all I can. After that another may be able to do more. And who shall say when God can do no more--God who takes no care of himself, and is laboriously working to get his children home."

"I confess," said Vavasor, "the condition of our poor in our large towns is the great question of the day."

"--which every one is waking up to talk about," said Hester, and said no more.

For, as one who tried to do something, she did not like to go on and say that if all who found the question interesting, would instead of talking about it do what they could, not to its solution but to its removal, they would at least make their mark on the rubbish-heap, of which not all the wind of words would in ten thousand years blow away a spadeful. And yet is talk a less evil than the mischief of mere experimenters. It is well there is the talk to keep many from doing positive harm. It is not those who, regarding the horrors around them as a nuisance, are bent upon their destruction, who will work any salvation in the earth, but those who see the wrongs of the poor, and strive to give them their own. Not those who desire a good report among men, nor those who seek an antidote against the tedium of a selfish existence, but those who, loving their own flesh and blood, and willing not merely to spend but to be spent for them, draw nigh them, being to being, will cause the light to rise upon such as now sit in darkness and the shadow of death. Love, and love alone, as from the first it is the source of all life, love alone, wise at once and foolish as a child, can work redemption. It is life drawing nigh to life, person to person, the human to human, that conquers death. This--therefore urges people to combine, seeking the strength of men, not the strength of God. The result is as he would have it--inevitable quarreling. The unfit brought in for strength are weakness and destruction. They want their own poor way, and destroy the work of their hands by the sound of their tongues. Combinations should be for passing necessities, and only between those who can each do good work alone, and will do it with or without combination. Whoever depends on combinations is a weakness to any association, society or church to which he may imagine himself to belong. The more easily any such can be dissolved the better. It is always by single individual communication that the truth has passed in power from soul to soul. Love alone, and the obligation thereto between the members of Christ's body, is the one eternal unbreakable bond. It is only where love is not that law must go. Law is indeed necessary, but woe to the community where love does not cast out--where at least love is not casting out law. Not all the laws in the universe can save a man from poverty, not to say from sin, not to say from conscious misery. Work on, ye who cannot see this. Do your best. You will be rewarded according to your honesty. You will be saved by the fire that will destroy your work, and will one day come to see that Christ's way, and no other whatever, can either redeem your own life, or render the condition of the poorest or the richest wretch such as would justify his creation. If by the passing of this or that more or less wise law, you could, in the person of his descendant of the third or fourth generation, make a well-to-do man of him, he would probably be a good deal farther from the kingdom of heaven than the beggar or the thief over whom you now lament. The criminal classes, to use your phrase, are not made up of quite the same persons in the eyes of the Supreme as in yours.

Vavasor began to think that if ever the day came when he might approach Hester "as a suitor for her hand," he must be very careful over what he called her philanthropic craze. But if ever he should in earnest set about winning her, he had full confidence in the artillery he could bring to the siege: he had not yet made any real effort to gain her affections.

Neither had he a doubt that, having succeeded, all would be easy, and he could do with her much as he pleased. He had no anxiety concerning the philanthropic craze thereafter. His wife, once introduced to such society as would then be her right, would speedily be cured of any such extravagance or enthusiasm as gave it the character of folly.

Under the influence of the lovely place, of the lovely weather, and of his admiration for Hester, the latent poetry of his nature awoke with increasing rapidity; and, this reacting on its partial occasion, he was growing more and more in love with Hester. He was now, to use the phrase with which he confessed the fact to himself, "over head and ears in love with her," and notwithstanding the difficulties in his way, it was a pleasant experience to him: like most who have gone through the same, he was at this time nearer knowing what bliss may be than he had ever been before. Most men have the gates once thus opened to them a little way, that they may have what poor suggestion may be given them, by their closing again, of how far off they are from them. Very hard! Is it? Then why in the name of God, will you not go up to them and enter? You do not like the conditions? But the conditions are the only natural possibilities of entrance. Enter as you are and you would but see the desert you think to leave behind you, not a glimpse of a promised land. The false cannot inherit the true nor the unclean the lovely.

And it began to grow plain to him that now his aunt could no longer look upon the idea of such an alliance, as she must naturally have regarded it before. It was a very different thing to see her in the midst of such grounds and in such a house, with all the old-fashioned comforts and luxuries of an ancient and prosperous family around her, and in that of a toiling litterateur in the dingy region of Bloomsbury, where everything was--of course respectable in a way, but that way a very inferior and--well, snuffy kind of way--where indeed you could not dissociate the idea of smoke and brokers' shops from the newest bonnet on Hester's queenly head! If he could get his aunt to see her in the midst of these surroundings, then her beauty would have a chance of working its natural effect upon her, tuned here to "its right praise and true perfection." She was not a jealous woman, and was ready to admire where she could, but not the less would keep even beauty at arm's length when prudence recommended: here, thought Vavasor, prudence would hold her peace. He would at least himself stand amid no small amount of justification.

By degrees, and without any transition marked of Hester, emboldened mainly by the influences of the soft dusky twilight, he came to speak with more warmth and nearer approach. His heart was tuned above its ordinary pitch, and he was borne a captive slave in the triumph of Nature's hour.

"How strangely this loveliness seems to sink into the soul," he said one evening, when the bats were coming and going like thoughts that refuse to take shape and be shared, and when with intensest listening you could not be sure whether it was a general murmur of nature you heard, low in her sleep, or only the strained nerves of your own being imitating that which was not.

"For the moment," he went on, "you seem to be the soul of that which is around you, yet oppressed with the weight of its vastness, and unable to account for what is going on in it."

"I think I understand you," returned Hester. "It is strange to feel at once so large and so small; but I presume that is how all true feeling seems to itself."

"You are right," responded Vavasor; "for when one loves, how it exalts his whole being, yet in the presence of the woman he worships, how small he feels, and how unworthy!"

In the human being humility and greatness are not only correlative, but are one and the same condition. But this was beyond Vavasor.

For the first time in her life Hester felt, nor knew what it was, a vague pang of jealousy. Whatever certain others may think, there are women who, having had their minds constantly filled with true and earnest things, have come for years to woman's full dignity, without having even speculated on what it may be to be in love. Such therefore are somewhat in the dark when first it begins to show itself within themselves: that it should be within them, they having never invited its presence, adds to their perplexity. She was silent, and Vavasor, whose experience was scarcely so valuable as her ignorance, judged he might venture a little farther. But with all his experience in the manufacture of compliments and in high-flown poetry, he was now at a loss; he had no fine theories of love to talk from! Love was with him, at its best, the something that preceded marriage--after which, whatever boys and girls might think, and although, of course, to a beautiful wife like Hester he could never imagine himself false, it must take its chance. But as he sat beside God's loveliest idea, exposed to the mightiest enchantment of life, little imagining it an essential heavenly decree for the redemption of the souls of men, he saw, for broken moments, and with half-dazed glimpses, into the eternal, and spoke as one in a gracious dream:

"If one might sit forever thus!" he said, almost in a whisper,--"forever and ever, needing nothing, desiring nothing! lost in perfect, in absolute bliss! so peacefully glad that you do not want to know what other joy lies behind! so content, that, if you were told there was no other bliss, you would but say, 'I am the more glad; I want no other! I refuse all else! let the universe hear, and trouble me with none! This and nought else ought ever to be--on and on! to the far-away end. The very soul of me is music, and needs not the softest sound of earth to keep it alive.'"

At that moment came a sigh of the night-wind, and bore to their ears the whispered moan of the stream away in the hollow, as it broke its being into voice over the pebbly troubles of its course. It came with a swell, and a faint sigh through the pines, and they woke and answered it with yet more ethereal voice.

"Still! still!" said Vavasor, apostrophizing the river as if it were a live thing and understood him; "do not speak to me. I cannot attend even to your watery murmur. A sweeter music, born of the motions of my own spirit, fills my whole hearing. Be content with thy flowing, as I am content with my being. Would that God in the mercy of a God would make this moment eternal!"

He ceased, and was silent.

Hester could not help being thrilled by the rhythm, moved by the poetic phrase, and penetrated by the air of poetic thought that pervaded the utterance--which would doubtless indeed have entranced many a smaller woman than herself, yet was not altogether pleased. Never yet had she reached anything like a moment concerning which even in transient mood she could pray, "Let it last forever!" Nor was the present within sight of any reason why she should not wish it to make way for a better behind it. But the show of such feeling in Vavasor, was at least the unveiling of a soul of song in him, of such a nature, such a relation to upper things that he must one day come to feel the highest, and know a bliss beyond all feeble delights of the mere human imagination. She must not be captious and contrary with the poor fellow, she thought--that would be as bad as to throw aside her poor people: he was afflicted with the same poverty that gave all the sting to theirs. To be a true woman she must help all she could help--rich or poor, nor show favor. "Thou shalt not countenance a poor man in his cause."

"I do not quite understand you," she said. "I can scarcely imagine the time should ever come when I should wish it, or even be content that it should last for ever."

"Have you had so little happiness?" he asked sympathetically.

"I do not mean that," she replied. "Indeed I have had a great deal--more than all but a very few, I should imagine. But I do not think much of happiness. Perhaps that is a sign--I daresay it is--that I have not had much of what is not happiness. But no amount of happiness that I have known yet would make me wish the time to stand still. I want to be always growing--and while one is growing Time cannot stand if he would: you drag him on with you! I want, if you would like it better put in that way, to be always becoming more and more capable of happiness. Whether I have it or not, I must be and ought to be capable of it."

"Ah!" returned Vavasor, "you are as usual out of sight beyond me. You must take pity on me and carry me with you, else you will leave me miles behind, and I shall never look on you again; and what eternity would be to me without your face to look at, God only knows. There will be no punishment necessary for me but to know that there is a gulf I cannot pass between us."

"But why should it be so!" answered Hester almost tenderly. "Our fate is in our own hands. It is ours to determine the direction in which we shall go. I don't want to preach to you, dear Mr. Vavasor, but so much surely one friend may say to another! Why should not every one be reasonable enough to seek the one best thing, and then there would be no parting; whereas all the love and friendship in the world would not suffice to keep people together if they were inwardly parted by such difference as you imply."

Vavasor's heart was touched in two ways by this simple speech--first, in the best way in which it was at the moment capable of being touched; for he could not help thinking for a moment what a blessed thing it must be to feel good and have no weight upon you--as this lovely girl plainly did, and live like her in perfect fearlessness of whatever might be going to happen to you. Religion would be better than endurable in the company of such an embodiment of it! He might even qualify for some distinction in it with such a teacher!--Second, in the way of self-satisfaction; for clearly she was not disinclined to be on terms of closer intimacy with him. And as she made the advance why should he not accept, if not the help, yet the offer of the help she had almost made? That would and could bind him to nothing. He understood her well enough to have no slightest suspicion of any coquetry such as a fool like Cornelius would have imagined. He was nevertheless a fool, also, only of another and deeper sort. It needs brains to be a real fool!

From that night he placed himself more than ever in the position of a pupil towards her, hoping in the natural effect of the intimacy. To keep up and deepen the relation, he would go on imagining himself in this and that difficulty, such as he was never really in, or even quite knew that he was not in. He was no conscious hypocrite in the matter--only his intellect alone was concerned where he talked as if his being was. No answer he could have had would have had the smallest effect on the man--Vavasor only determined what he would say next. Hester kept trying to meet him as simply and directly as she could, although to meet these supposed difficulties she was unconsciously compelled to transform them, in order to get a hold of them at all, into something the nearest like them that she understood--still something very different from anything in Vavasor's thoughts. But what she said made no difference to him, so long as she would talk to him. And talk she did, sometimes with an affectionate fervor of whose very possibility he had had no idea. So long as she would talk, he cared not a straw whether she understood what he had said; and with all her misconception, she understood it better than he did himself. Thus her growing desire to wake in him the better life, brought herself into relations with him which had an earthly side, as everything heavenly of necessity has; for this life also is God's, and the hairs of our heads are numbered.

George MacDonald