Chapter 4




HESTER ALONE.


When the family separated for the night and Hester reached her room, she sat down and fell a thinking, not more earnestly but more continuously.

She was one of those women--not few in number, I have good reason to think, though doubtless few comparatively, who from the first dawn of consciousness have all their lives endeavored, with varying success, with frequent failure of strength, and occasional brief collapse of effort, to do the right thing. Therein she had but followed in the footsteps of her mother, who, though not so cultivated as she, walked no less steady in the true path of humanity. But the very earnestness of Hester's endeavor along with the small reason she found for considering it successful; the frequent irritation with herself because of failure; and the impossibility of satisfying the hard master Self, who, while he flatters some, requires of others more than they can give--all tended to make her less evenly sympathetic with those about her than her heart's theory demanded. Willing to lay down her life for them, a matchless nurse in sickness, and in trouble revealing a tenderness perfectly lovely, she was yet not the one to whom first either of the children was ready to flee with hurt or sorrow: she was not yet all human, because she was not yet at home with the divine.

Thousands that are capable of great sacrifices are yet not capable of the little ones which are all that are required of them. God seems to take pleasure in working by degrees; the progress of the truth is as the permeation of leaven, or the growth of a seed: a multitude of successive small sacrifices may work more good in the world than many a large one. What would even our Lord's death on the cross have been, except as the crown of a life in which he died daily, giving himself, soul, body and spirit, to his men and women? It is the Being that is the precious thing. Being is the mother to all little Doings as well as the grown-up Deeds and the mighty heroic Sacrifice; and these little Doings, like the good children of the house, make the bliss of it. Hester had not had time, neither had she prayed enough to be quite yet, though she was growing well towards it. She was a good way up the hill, and the Lord was coming down to meet her, but they had not quite met yet, so as to go up the rest of the way together.

In religious politics, Hester was what is called a good churchwoman, which in truth means a good deal of a sectarian. She not merely recoiled from such as venerated the more primitive modes of church-government rather than those of later expediency, and preferred far inferior extempore prayers to the best possible prayers in print, going therefore to some chapel instead of the church, but she looked down upon them as from a superior social standing--that is, with the judgment of this world, and not that of Christ the carpenter's son. In short, she had a repugnance to the whole race of dissenters, and would not have soiled her dress with the dust of one of their school-rooms even. She regarded her own conscience as her Lord, but had not therefore any respect for that of another man where it differed from her in the direction of what she counted vulgarity. So she was scarcely in the kingdom of heaven yet, any more than thousands who regard themselves as choice Christians. I do not say these feelings were very active in her, for little occurred to call them out; but she did not love her dissenting neighbor, and felt good and condescending when, brought into contact with one, she behaved kindly to him.

I well know that some of my readers will heartily approve of her in this very thing, and that not a few good dissenters on the other hand, who are equally and in precisely the same way sectarians, that is bad Christians, will scorn her for it; but for my part I would rather cut off my right hand than be so cased and stayed in a narrow garment of pride and satisfaction, condemned to keep company with myself instead of the Master as he goes everywhere--into the poorest companies of them that love each other, and so invite his presence.

The Lord of truth and beauty has died for us: shall we who, by haunting what we call his courts, have had our sense of beauty, our joy in grace tenfold exalted, gather around us, in the presence of those we count less refined than ourselves, skirts trimmed with the phylacteries of the world's law, turning up the Pharisaical nose, and forgetting both what painful facts self-criticism has revealed to ourselves, and the eyes upon us of the yet more delicate refinement and the yet gentle breeding of the high countries? May these not see in us some malgrace which it needs the gentleness of Christ to get over and forget, some savagery of which we are not aware, some gaucherie that repels though it cannot estrange them? Casting from us our own faults first, let us cast from us and from him our neighbor's also. O gentle man, the common man is yet thy brother, and thy gentleness should make him great, infecting him with thy humility, not rousing in him the echo of a vile unheavenly scorn. Wilt thou, with thy lofty condescension, more intrinsically vulgar than even his ugly self-assertion, give him cause too good to hate thy refinement? It is not thy refinement makes thee despise him; it is thy own vulgarity; and if we dare not search ourselves close enough to discover the low breeding, the bad blood in us, it will one day come out plain as the smitten brand of the forcat.

That Hester had a tendency to high church had little or nothing to do with the matter. Such exclusiveness is simply a form of that pride, justify or explain it as you will, which found its fullest embodiment in the Jewish Pharisee--the evil thing that Christ came to burn up with his lovely fire, and which yet so many of us who call ourselves by his name keep hugging to our bosoms--I mean the pride that says, "I am better than thou." If these or those be in any true sense below us, it is of Satan to despise--of Christ to stoop and lay hold of and lift the sister soul up nearer to the heart of the divine tenderness.

But this tenderness, which has its roots in every human heart, had larger roots in the heart of Hester than in most. Whatever her failings, whatever ugly weeds grew in the neglected corners of her nature, the moment she came in contact with any of her kind in whatever condition of sadness or need, the pent-up love of God--I mean the love that came of God and was divine in her--would burst its barriers and rush forth, sometimes almost overwhelming herself in its torrent. She would then be ready to die, nothing less, to help the poor and miserable. She was not yet far enough advanced to pity vulgarity in itself--perhaps none but Christ is able to do that--but she could and did pity greatly its associated want and misery, nor was repelled from them by their accompanying degradation.

The tide of action, in these later years flowing more swiftly in the hearts of women--whence has resulted so much that is noble, so much that is paltry, according to the nature of the heart in which it swells--had been rising in that of Hester also. She must not waste her life! She must do something! What should it be? Her deep sense of the misery around her had of course suggested that it must be something in the way of help. But what form was the help to take? "I have no money!" she said to herself--for this the last and feeblest of means for the doing of good is always the first to suggest itself to one who has not perceived the mind of God in the matter. To me it seems that the first thing in regard to money is to prevent it from doing harm. The man who sets out to do good with his fortune is like one who would drive a team of tigers through the streets of a city, or hunt the fox with cheetahs. I would think of money as Christ thought of it, not otherwise; for no other way is true, however it may recommend itself to good men; and neither Christ nor his apostles did anything by means of money; nay, he who would join them in their labors had to abandon his fortune.

This evening, then, the thought of the vulgar, miserable, ruinous old man, with his wretched magic lantern, kept haunting Hester, and made her very pitiful; and naturally, starting from him, her thoughts went wandering abroad over the universe of misery. For was not the world full of men and women who groaned, not merely under poverty and cruelty, weakness and sickness, but under dullness and stupidity, hugged in the paralyzing arms of that devil-fish, The Commonplace, or held fast to the rocks by the crab Custom, while the tide of moral indifference was fast rising to choke them? Was there no prophet, no redemption, no mediator for such as these? Were there not thousands of women, born with a trembling impulse towards the true and lovely, in whom it was withering for lack of nurture, and they themselves continuously massing into common clay, a summer-fall of human flowers off the branches of hope and aspiration? How many young wives, especially linked to the husbands of their choice, and by this very means disenchanted, as they themselves would call it, were doomed to look no more upon life as the antechamber of the infinite, but as the counting-house of the king of the nursery-ballad, where you may, if you can, eat bread and honey, but where you must count your money! At the windows of the husband-house no more looks out the lover but the man of business, who takes his life to consist in the abundance of the things he possesses! He must make money for his children!--and would make money if he had nor chick nor child. Could she do nothing for such wives at least? The man who by honest means made people laugh, sent a fire-headed arrow into the ranks of the beleaguering enemy of his race; he who beguiled from another a genuine tear, made heavenly wind visit his heart with a cool odor of paradise! What was there for her to do?

But possibly Hester might neither have begun nor gone on thinking thus, had it not been for a sense of power within her springing from, or at least associated with, a certain special gift which she had all her life, under the faithful care of her mother, been cultivating. Endowed with a passion for music--what is a true passion but a heavenly hunger?--which she indulged; relieved, strengthened, nor ever sated, by a continuous study of both theoretical and practical music, she approached both piano and organ with eager yet withholding foot, each as a great and effectual door ready to open into regions of delight. But she was gifted also with a fine contralto voice, of exceptional scope and flexibility, whose capacity of being educated into an organ of expression was not thrown away upon one who had a world inside her to express--doubtless as yet not a little chaotic, but in process of assuming form that might demand utterance; and this angelic instrument had for some years been under careful training. And now this night came to Hester, if not for the first time, yet more clearly than ever before, the thought whether she might not in some way make use of this her one gift for the service she desired--for the comfort, that was, and the uplifting of humanity, especially such humanity as had sunk below even its individual level. Thus instinctively she sought relief from sympathetic pain in the alleviation and removal of its cause.

But pity and instinctive recoil from pain were by no means all the elements of the impulse moving Hester in this direction. An honest and active mind such as hers could not have carried her so often to church and for so long a time, whatever might be the nature of the direct teaching she there received, without gaining some glimpses of the mightiest truth of our being, that we belong to God in actual fact of spiritual property and profoundest relationship. She had much to learn in this direction yet--as who has not who is ages in advance of life?--but this night came back to her, as it had often already returned, the memory of a sermon she had heard some twelve months before on the text, "Glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's." It was a dull enough sermon, yet not so dull but it enabled her to supply in some degree its own lack; and when she went out of the dark church into the sunshine,--and heard the birds singing as if they knew without any St. Francis to tell them that their bodies and their spirits were God's, a sense awoke in her such as she had not had before, that the grand voice lying like an unborn angel in the chest and throat of her, belonged not to herself but to God, and must be used in some way for the working of his will in the world which as well as the voice he had made. She had no real notion yet of what is meant by the glory of God. She had not quite learned that simplest of high truths that the glory of God is the beauty of Christ's face. She had a lingering idea--a hideously frightful one, though its vagueness kept it in great measure from injuring her--that the One only good, the One only unselfish thought a great deal of himself, and looked strictly after his rights in the way of homage. Hence she thought first of devoting the splendor and richness of her voice to swell the song of some church-choir. With her notion of God and of her relation to him, how could she yet have escaped the poor pagan fancy--good for a pagan, but beggarly for a Christian, that church and its goings-on are a serving of God? She had not begun to ask how these were to do God any good--or if my reader objects to the phrase, I will use a common one saying the same thing--how these were to do anything for God. She had not begun to see that God is the one great servant of all, and that the only way to serve him is to be a fellow-servant with him--to be, say, a nurse in his nursery, and tend this or that lonely, this or that rickety child of his. She had not yet come to see that it is as absurd to call song and prayer a serving of God, as it would be to say the thief on the cross did something for Christ in consenting to go with him to paradise. But now some dim perception of this truth began to wake in her. Vaguely she began to feel that perhaps God had given her this voice and this marriage of delight and power in music and song for some reason like that for which he had made the birds the poets of the animal world: what if her part also should be to drive dull care away? what if she too were intended to be a door-keeper in the house of God, and open or keep open windows in heaven that the air of the high places might reach the low swampy ground? If while she sang, her soul mounted on the wings of her song till it fluttered against the latticed doors of heaven as a bird flutters against the wires of its cage; if also God has made of one blood all nations of men--why, then, surely her song was capable of more than carrying merely herself up into the regions of delight! Nay more, might there not from her throat go forth a trumpet-cry of truth among such as could hear and respond to the cry? Then, when the humblest servant should receive the reward of his well-doing, she would not be left outside, but enter into the joy of her Lord. How specially such work might be done by her she did not yet see, but the truth had drawn nigh her that, to serve God in any true sense, we must serve him where he needs service--among his children lying in the heart of lack, in sin and pain and sorrow; and she saw that, if she was to serve at all, it must be with her best, with her special equipment.

I need not follow the gradations, unmarked of herself, by which she at length came to a sort of conclusion: the immediate practical result was, that she gave herself more than ever to the cultivation of her gift, seeing in the distance the possibility of her becoming, in one mode or another, or in all modes perhaps together, a songstress to her generation.




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