George MacDonald.

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their explanation.

"That, however, which most attracted her to the old man, was his
persecution by the children. They were to him what the bull-dog was to
her - the constant source of irritation and annoyance. They could
hardly hurt him, nor did he appear to dread other injury from them
than insult, to which, fool though he was, he was keenly alive. Human
gad-flies that they were! they sometimes stung him beyond endurance,
and he would curse them in the impotence of his anger. Once or twice
Elsie had been so far carried beyond her constitutional timidity, by
sympathy for the distress of her friend, that she had gone out and
talked to the boys, - even scolded them, so that they slunk away
ashamed, and began to stand as much in dread of her as of the clutches
of their prey. So she, gentle and timid to excess, acquired among them
the reputation of a termagant. Popular opinion among children, as
among men, is often just, but as often very unjust; for the same
manifestations may proceed from opposite principles; and, therefore,
as indices to character, any mislead as often as enlighten.

"Next door to the house in which Elsie resided, dwelt a tradesman and
his wife, who kept an indefinite sort of shop, in which various kinds
of goods were exposed to sale. Their youngest son was about the same
age as Elsie; and while they were rather more than children, and less
than young people, he spent many of his evenings with her, somewhat to
the loss of position in his classes at the parish school. They were,
indeed, much attached to each other; and, peculiarly constituted as
Elsie was, one may imagine what kind of heavenly messenger a companion
stronger than herself must have been to her. In fact, if she could
have framed the undefinable need of her child-like nature into an
articulate prayer, it would have been - 'Give me some one to love me
stronger than I.' Any love was helpful, yes, in its degree, saving to
her poor troubled soul; but the hope, as they grew older together,
that the powerful, yet tender-hearted youth, really loved her, and
would one day make her his wife, was like the opening of heavenly eyes
of life and love in the hitherto blank and death-like face of her
existence. But nothing had been said of love, although they met and
parted like lovers.

"Doubtless if the circles of their thought and feeling had continued
as now to intersect each other, there would have been no interruption
to their affection; but the time at length arrived when the old couple
seeing the rest of their family comfortably settled in life, resolved
to make a gentleman of the youngest; and so sent him from school to
college. The facilities existing in Scotland for providing a
professional training, enabled them to educate him as a surgeon. He
parted from Elsie with some regret; but, far less dependent on her
than she was on him, and full of the prospects of the future, he felt
none of that sinking at the heart which seemed to lay her whole nature
open to a fresh inroad of all the terrors and sorrows of her peculiar
existence. No correspondence took place between them. New pursuits and
relations, and the development of his tastes and judgments, entirely
altered the position of poor Elsie in his memory. Having been, during
their intercourse, far less of a man than she of a woman, he had no
definite idea of the place he had occupied in her regard; and in his
mind she receded into the background of the past, without his having
any idea that she would suffer thereby, or that he was unjust towards
her; while, in her thoughts, his image stood in the highest and
clearest relief. It was the centre-point from which and towards which
all lines radiated and converged; and although she could not but be
doubtful about the future, yet there was much hope mingled with her

"But when, at the close of two years, he visited his native village,
and she saw before her, instead of the homely youth who had left her
that winter evening, one who, to her inexperienced eyes, appeared a
finished gentleman, her heart sank within her, as if she had found
Nature herself false in her ripening processes, destroying the
beautiful promise of a former year by changing instead of developing
her creations. He spoke kindly to her, but not cordially. To her ear
the voice seemed to come from a great distance out of the past; and
while she looked upon him, that optical change passed over her vision,
which all have experienced after gazing abstractedly on any object for
a time: his form grew very small, and receded to an immeasurable
distance; till, her imagination mingling with the twilight haze of her
senses, she seemed to see him standing far off on a hill, with the
bright horizon of sunset for a back-ground to his clearly defined

"She knew no more till she found herself in bed in the dark; and the
first message that reached her from the outer world, was the infernal
growl of the bull-dog from the room below. Next day she saw her lover
walking with two ladies, who would have thought it some degree of
condescension to speak to her; and he passed the house without once
looking towards it.

"One who is sufficiently possessed by the demon of nervousness to be
glad of the magnetic influences of a friend's company in a public
promenade, or of a horse beneath him in passing through a churchyard,
will have some faint idea of how utterly exposed and defenceless poor
Elsie now felt on the crowded thoroughfare of life. And the
insensibility which had overtaken her, was not the ordinary swoon with
which Nature relieves the over-strained nerves, but the return of the
epileptic fits of her early childhood; and if the condition of the
poor girl had been pitiable before, it was tenfold more so now. Yet
she did not complain, but bore all in silence, though it was evident
that her health was giving way. But now, help came to her from a
strange quarter; though many might not be willing to accord the name
of help to that which rather hastened than retarded the progress of
her decline.

"She had gone to spend a few of the summer days with a relative in the
country, some miles from her home, if home it could be called. One
evening, towards sunset, she went out for a solitary walk. Passing
from the little garden gate, she went along a bare country road for
some distance, and then, turning aside by a footpath through a thicket
of low trees, she came out in a lonely little churchyard on the
hill-side. Hardly knowing whether or not she had intended to go there,
she seated herself on a mound covered with long grass, one of
many. Before her stood the ruins of an old church which was taking
centuries to crumble. Little remained but the gable-wall, immensely
thick, and covered with ancient ivy. The rays of the setting sun fell
on a mound at its foot, not green like the rest, but of a rich,
red-brown in the rosy sunset, and evidently but newly heaped up. Her
eyes, too, rested upon it. Slowly the sun sank below the near horizon.

"As the last brilliant point disappeared, the ivy darkened, and a wind
arose and shook all its leaves, making them look cold and troubled;
and to Elsie's ear came a low faint sound, as from a far-off bell. But
close beside her - and she started and shivered at the sound - rose a
deep, monotonous, almost sepulchral voice: '_Come hame, come hame! The
wow, the wow!_'

"At once she understood the whole. She sat in the churchyard of the
ancient parish church of Ruthven; and when she lifted up her eyes,
there she saw, in the half-ruined belfry, the old bell, all but hidden
with ivy, which the passing wind had roused to utter one sleepy tone;
and there, beside her, stood the fool with the bell on his arm; and to
him and to her the _wow o' Rivven_ said, '_Come hame, come hame!_' Ah,
what did she want in the whole universe of God but a home? And though
the ground beneath was hard, and the sky overhead far and boundless,
and the hill-side lonely and companionless, yet somewhere within the
visible, and beyond these the outer surfaces of creation, there might
be a home for her; as round the wintry house the snows lie heaped up
cold and white and dreary all the long _forenight_, while within,
beyond the closed shutters, and giving no glimmer through the thick
stone walls, the fires are blazing joyously, and the voices and
laughter of young unfrozen children are heard, and nothing belongs to
winter but the grey hairs on the heads of the parents, within whose
warm hearts child-like voices are heard, and child-like thoughts move
to and fro. The kernel of winter itself is spring, or a sleeping

"It was no wonder that the fool, cast out of the earth on a far more
desolate spot than this, should seek to return within her bosom at
this place of open doors, and should call it _home_. For surely the
surface of the earth had no home for him. The mound at the foot of the
gable contained the body of one who had shown him kindness. He had
followed the funeral that afternoon from the town, and had remained
behind with the bell. Indeed, it was his custom, though Elsie had not
known it, to follow every funeral going to this, his favourite
churchyard of Ruthven; and, possibly in imitation of its booming, for
it was still tolled at the funerals, he had given the old bell the
name of the _wow_, and had translated its monotonous clangour into the
articulate sounds - _come home, come home_. What precise meaning he
attached to the words, it is impossible to say; but it was evident
that the place possessed a strange attraction for him, drawing him
towards it by the cords of some spiritual magnetism. It is possible
that in the mind of the idiot there may have been some feeling about
this churchyard and bell, which, in the mind of another, would have
become a grand poetic thought; a feeling as if the ghostly old bell
hung at the church-door of the invisible world, and ever and anon rung
out joyous notes (though they sounded sad in the ears of the living),
calling to the children of the unseen to _come home, come home_. - She
sat for some time in silence; for the bell did not ring again, and the
fool spoke no more; till the dews began to fall, when she rose and
went home, followed by her companion, who passed the night in the

"From that hour Elsie was furnished with a visual image of the rest
she sought; an image which, mingling with deeper and holier thoughts,
became, like the bow set in the cloud, the earthly pledge and sign of
the fulfilment of heavenly hopes. Often when the wintry fog of cold
discomfort and homelessness filled her soul, all at once the picture
of the little churchyard - with the old gable and belfry, and the
slanting sunlight steeping down to the very roots the long grass on
the graves - arose in the darkened chamber (_camera obscura_) of her
soul; and again she heard the faint AEolian sound of the bell, and the
voice of the prophet-fool who interpreted the oracle; and the inward
weariness was soothed by the promise of a long sleep. Who can tell how
many have been counted fools simply because they were prophets; or how
much of the madness in the world may be the utterance of thoughts true
and just, but belonging to a region differing from ours in its nature
and scenery!

"But to Elsie looking out of her window came the mocking tones of the
idle boys who had chosen as the vehicle of their scorn the very words
which showed the relation of the fool to the eternal, and revealed in
him an element higher far than any yet developed in them. They turned
his glory into shame, like the enemies of David when they mocked the
would-be king. And the best in a man is often that which is most
condemned by those who have not attained to his goodness. The words,
however, even as repeated by the boys, had not solely awakened
indignation at the persecution of the old man: they had likewise
comforted her with the thought of the refuge that awaited both him and

"But the same evening a worse trial befell her. Again she sat near the
window, oppressed by the consciousness that her brother had come
in. He had gone up-stairs, and his dog had remained at the door,
exchanging surly compliments with some of his own kind; when the fool
came strolling past, and, I do not know from what cause, the dog flew
at him. Elsie heard his cry and looked up. Her fear of the brute
vanished in a moment before her sympathy for her friend. She darted
from the house, and rushed towards the dog to drag him off the
defenceless idiot, calling him by his name in a tone of anger and
dislike. He left the fool, and, springing at Elsie, seized her by the
arm above the elbow with such a gripe that, in the midst of her agony,
she fancied she heard the bone crack. But she uttered no cry, for the
most apprehensive are sometimes the most courageous. Just then,
however, her former lover was coming along the street, and, catching a
glimpse of what had happened, was on the spot in an instant, took the
dog by the throat with a gripe not inferior to his own, and having
thus compelled him to give up his hold, dashed him on the ground with
a force that almost stunned him, and then with a superadded kick sent
him away limping and howling; whereupon the fool, attacking him
furiously with a stick, would certainly have finished him, had not his
master descried his plight and come to his rescue.

"Meantime the young surgeon had carried Elsie into the house; for, as
soon as she was rescued from the dog, she had fallen down in one of
her fits, which were becoming more and more frequent of themselves,
and little needed such a shock as this to increase their violence. He
was dressing her arm when she began to recover; and when she opened
her eyes, in a state of half-consciousness, the first object she
beheld, was his face bending over her. Re-calling nothing of what had
occurred, it seemed to her, in the dreamy condition in which the fit
had left her, the same face, unchanged, which had once shone in upon
her tardy spring-time, and promised to ripen it into summer. She
forgot that it had departed and left her in the wintry cold. And so
she uttered wild words of love and trust; and the youth, while stung
with remorse at his own neglect, was astonished to perceive the poetic
forms of beauty in which the soul of the uneducated maiden burst into
flower. But as her senses recovered themselves, the face gradually
changed to her, as if the slow alteration of two years had been
phantasmagorically compressed into a few moments; and the glow
departed from the maiden's thoughts and words, and her soul found
itself at the narrow window of the present, from which she could
behold but a dreary country. - From the street came the iambic cry of
the fool, 'Come hame, come hame."

"Tycho Brahe, I think, is said to have kept a fool, who frequently sat
at his feet in his study, and to whose mutterings he used to listen in
the pauses of his own thought. The shining soul of the astronomer drew
forth the rainbow of harmony from the misty spray of words ascending
ever from the dark gulf into which the thoughts of the idiot were ever
falling. He beheld curious concurrences of words therein, and could
read strange meanings from them - sometimes even received wondrous
hints for the direction of celestial inquiry, from what, to any other,
and it may be to the fool himself, was but a ceaseless and aimless
babble. Such power lieth in words. It is not then to be wondered at,
that the sounds I have mentioned should fall on the ears of Elsie, at
such a moment, as a message from God himself. This then - all this
dreariness - was but a passing show like the rest, and there lay
somewhere for her a reality - a home. The tears burst up from her
oppressed heart. She received the message, and prepared to go home.
From that time her strength gradually sank, but her spirits as
steadily rose.

"The strength of the fool, too, began to fail, for he was old. He bore
all the signs of age, even to the grey hairs, which betokened no
wisdom. But one cannot say what wisdom might be in him, or how far he
had not fought his own battle, and been victorious. Whether any notion
of a continuance of life and thought dwelt in his brain, it is
impossible to tell; but he seemed to have the idea that this was not
his home; and those who saw him gradually approaching his end, might
well anticipate for him a higher life in the world to come. He had
passed through this world without ever awakening to such a
consciousness of being, as is common to mankind. He had spent his
years like a weary dream through a long night - a strange, dismal,
unkindly dream; and now the morning was at hand. Often in his dream
had he listened with sleepy senses to the ringing of the bell, but
that bell would awake him at last. He was like a seed buried too deep
in the soil, to which, therefore, has never forced its way upwards to
the open air, never experienced the resurrection of the dead. But
seeds will grow ages after they have fallen into the earth; and,
indeed, with many kinds, and within some limits, the older the seed
before it germinates, the more plentiful is the fruit. And may it not
be believed of many human beings, that, the great Husbandman having
sown them like seeds in the soil of human affairs, there they lie
buried a life long; and only after the upturning of the soil by death,
reach a position in which the awakening of their aspiration and the
consequent growth become possible. Surely he has made nothing in vain.

"A violent cold and cough brought him at last near to his end, and,
hearing that he was ill, Elsie ventured one bright spring day to go to
see him. When she entered the miserable room where he lay, he held out
his hand to her with something like a smile, and muttered feebly and
painfully, 'I'm gaein' to the wow, nae to come back again.' Elsie
could not restrain her tears; while the old man, looking fixedly at
her, though with meaningless eyes, muttered, for the last time, '_Come
hame! come hame!_' and sank into a lethargy, from which nothing could
rouse him, till, next morning, he was waked by friendly death from the
long sleep of this world's night. They bore him to his favourite
church-yard, and buried him within the site of the old church, below
his loved bell, which had ever been to him as the cuckoo-note of a
coming spring. Thus he at length obeyed its summons, and went home.

"Elsie lingered till the first summer days lay warm on the land.
Several kind hearts in the village, hearing of her illness, visited
her and ministered to her. Wondering at her sweetness and patience,
they regretted they had not known her before. How much consolation
might not their kindness have imparted, and how much might not their
sympathy have strengthened her on her painful road! But they could not
long have delayed her going home. Nor, mentally constituted as she
was, would this have been at all to be desired. Indeed it was chiefly
the expectation of departure that quieted and soothed her tremulous
nature. It is true that a deep spring of hope and faith kept singing
on in her heart, but this alone, without the anticipation of speedy
release, could only have kept her mind at peace. It could not have
reached, at least for a long time, the border land between body and
mind, in which her disease lay.

"One still night of summer, the nurse who watched by her bedside heard
her murmur through her sleep, 'I hear it: _come hame - come hame_. I'm
comin', I'm comin' - I'm gaein' hame to the wow, nae to come back.' She
awoke at the sound of her own words, and begged the nurse to convey to
her brother her last request, that she might be buried by the side of
the fool, within the old church of Ruthven. Then she turned her face
to the wall, and in the morning was found quiet and cold. She must
have died within a few minutes after her last words. She was buried
according to her request; and thus she, too, went home.

"Side by side rest the aged fool and the young maiden; for the bell
called them, and they obeyed; and surely they found the fire burning
bright, and heard friendly voices, and felt sweet lips on theirs, in
the home to which they went. Surely both intellect and love were
waiting them there.

"Still the old bell hangs in the old gable; and whenever another is
borne to the old churchyard, it keeps calling to those who are left
behind, with the same sad, but friendly and unchanging voice - _'Come
hame! come hame! come hame!'_"

For a full minute, there was silence in the little company. I myself
dared not look up, but the movement of indistinct and cloudy white
over my undirected eyes, let me know that two or three, amongst them
Adela, were lifting their handkerchiefs to their faces. At length a
voice broke the silence.

"How much of your affecting tale is true, Mr. Armstrong?"

The voice belonged to Mrs. Cathcart.

"I object to the question," said I. "I don't want to know. Suppose,
Mrs. Cathcart, I were to put this story-club, members, stories, and
all, into a book, how would any one like to have her real existence
questioned? It would at least imply that I had made a very bad
portrait of that one."

The lady cast rather a frightened look at me, which I confess I was
not sorry to see. But the curate interposed.

"What frightful sophistry, Mr. Smith!" Then turning to Mrs. Cathcart,
he continued:

"I have not the slightest objection to answer your question, Mrs.
Cathcart; and if our friend Mr. Smith does not want to hear the
answer, I will wait till he stops his ears."

He glanced to me, his black eyes twinkling with fun. I saw that it was
all he could do to keep from winking; but he did.

"Oh no," I answered; "I will share what is going."

"Well, then, the fool is a real character, in every point. But I
learned after I had written the sketch, that I had made one mistake.
He was in reality about seventeen, when he was found on the hill. The
bell is a real character too. Elsie is a creature of my own. So of
course are the brother and the dog."

"I don't know whether to be glad or sorry that there was no Elsie,"
said his wife. "But did you know the fool yourself?"

"Perfectly well, and had a great respect for him. When a little boy, I
was quite proud of the way he behaved to me. He occasionally visited
the general persecution of the boys, upon any boy he chanced to meet
on the road; but as often as I met him, he walked quietly past me,
muttering '_Auntie's folk_!' or returning my greeting of _'A fine day,
Colonel!'_ with a grunted _'Ay!'_"

"What did he mean by 'Auntie's folk?'" asked Mrs. Armstrong.

"My grandmother was kind to him, and he always called her _Auntie_. I
cannot tell how the fancy originated; but certainly he knew all her
descendants somehow - a degree of intelligence not to have been
expected of him - and invariably murmured 'Auntie's folk,' as often as
he passed any of them on the road, as if to remind himself that these
were friends, or relations. Possibly he had lived with an aunt before
he was exposed on the moor."

"Is _wow_ a word at all?" I asked.

"If you look into Jamieson's Dictionary," said Armstrong, "as I have
done for the express purpose, you will find that the word is used
differently in different quarters of the country - chiefly, however, as
a verb. It means _to bark, to howl;_ likewise _to wave or beckon;_
also _to woo, or make love to_. Any of these might be given as an
explanation of his word. But I do not think it had anything to do with
these meanings; nor was the word used, in that district, in either of
the last two senses, in my time at least. It was used, however, in the
meaning of _alas_ - a form of _woe_ in fact; as _wow's me!_ But I
believe it was, in the fool's use, an attempt to reproduce the sound
which the bell made. If you repeat the word several times, resting on
the final _w_, and pausing between each repetition - _wow! wow!
wow!_ - you will find that the sound is not at all unlike the tolling
of a funeral bell; and therefore the word is most probably an
onomatopoetic invention of the fool's own."

Adela offered no remark upon the story, and I knew from her
countenance that she was too much affected to be inclined to speak.
Her eyes had that fixed, forward look, which, combined with haziness,
indicates deep emotion, while the curves of her mouth were nearly
straightened out by the compression of her lips. I had thought, while
the reader went on, that she could hardly fail to find in the story of
Elsie, some correspondence to her own condition and necessities: I now
believe that she had found that correspondence. More talk was not
desirable; and I was glad when, after a few attempts at ordinary

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Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldAdela Cathcart, Volume 1 → online text (page 10 of 12)