George MacDonald.

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his soul, and leave him standing clear before the tribunal of his own
honour. Some feeling like this, I say, may have caused him, with a
passing gleam of indignant protest, to lift the fragments from the
earth, and carry them away; even as the friends of a so-called traitor
may bear away his mutilated body from the wheel. But if such was the
case, the vision was soon overwhelmed and forgotten in the succeeding
anguish. He could not see that, in mercy to his doubting spirit, the
question which had agitated his mind almost to madness, and which no
results of the impending conflict could have settled for him, was thus
quietly set aside for the time; nor that, painful as was the dark,
dreadful existence that he was now to pass in self-torment and moaning,
it would go by, and leave his spirit clearer far, than if, in his
apprehension, it had been stained with further blood-guiltiness, instead
of the loss of honour. Years after, when he accidentally learned that on
that very morning the whole of his company, with parts of several more,
had, or ever they began to mount the breach, been blown to pieces by the
explosion of a mine, he cried aloud in bitterness, "Would God that my
fear had not been discovered before I reached that spot!" But surely it
is better to pass into the next region of life having reaped some
assurance, some firmness of character, determination of effort, and
consciousness of the worth of life, in the present world; so approaching
the future steadily and faithfully, and if in much darkness and
ignorance, yet not in the oscillations of moral uncertainty.

"Close upon the catastrophe followed a torpor, which lasted he did not
know how long, and which wrapped in a thick fog all the succeeding
events. For some time he can hardly be said to have had any conscious
history. He awoke to life and torture when half-way across the sea
towards his native country, where was no home any longer for him. To
this point, and no farther, could his thoughts return in after years.
But the misery which he then endured is hardly to be understood, save by
those of like delicate temperament with himself. All day long he sat
silent in his cabin; nor could any effort of the captain, or others on
board, induce him to go on deck till night came on, when, under the
starlight, he ventured into the open air. The sky soothed him then, he
knew not how. For the face of nature is the face of God, and must bear
expressions that can influence, though unconsciously to them, the most
ignorant and hopeless of His children. Often did he watch the clouds in
hope of a storm, his spirit rising and falling as the sky darkened or
cleared; he longed, in the necessary selfishness of such suffering, for
a tumult of waters to swallow the vessel; and only the recollection of
how many lives were involved in its safety besides his own, prevented
him from praying to God for lightning and tempest, borne on which he
might dash into the haven of the other world. One night, following a
sultry calm day, he thought that Mercy had heard his unuttered prayer.
The air and sea were intense darkness, till a light as intense for one
moment annihilated it, and the succeeding darkness seemed shattered with
the sharp reports of the thunder that cracked without reverberation. He
who had shrunk from battle with his fellowmen, rushed to the mainmast,
threw himself on his knees, and stretched forth his arms in speechless
energy of supplication; but the storm passed away overhead, and left him
kneeling still by the uninjured mast. At length the vessel reached her
port. He hurried on shore to bury himself in the most secret place he
could find. _Out of sight_ was his first, his only thought. Return
to his mother he would not, he could not; and, indeed, his friends never
learned his fate, until it had carried him far beyond their reach.

"For several weeks he lurked about like a malefactor, in low
lodging-houses in narrow streets of the seaport to which the vessel had
borne him, heeding no one, and but little shocked at the strange society
and conversation with which, though only in bodily presence, he had to
mingle. These formed the subjects of reflection in after times; and he
came to the conclusion that, though much evil and much misery exist,
sufficient to move prayers and tears in those who love their kind, yet
there is less of both than those looking down from a more elevated
social position upon the weltering heap of humanity, are ready to
imagine; especially if they regard it likewise from the pedestal of
self-congratulation on which a meagre type of religion has elevated
them. But at length his little stock of money was nearly expended, and
there was nothing that he could do, or learn to do, in this seaport. He
felt impelled to seek manual labour, partly because he thought it more
likely he could obtain that sort of employment, without a request for
reference as to his character, which would lead to inquiry about his
previous history; and partly, perhaps, from an instinctive feeling that
hard bodily labour would tend to lessen his inward suffering.

"He left the town, therefore, at nightfall of a July day, carrying a
little bundle of linen, and the remains of his money, somewhat augmented
by the sale of various articles of clothing and convenience, which his
change of life rendered superfluous and unsuitable. He directed his
course northwards, travelling principally by night - so painfully did he
shrink from the gaze even of foot-farers like himself; and sleeping
during the day in some hidden nook of wood or thicket, or under the
shadow of a great tree in a solitary field. So fine was the season,
that for three successive weeks he was able to travel thus without
inconvenience, lying down when the sun grew hot in the forenoon, and
generally waking when the first faint stars were hesitating in the great
darkening heavens that covered and shielded him. For above every cloud,
above every storm, rise up, calm, clear, divine, the deep infinite
skies; they embrace the tempest even as the sunshine; by their
permission it exists within their boundless peace: therefore it cannot
hurt, and must pass away, while there they stand as ever, domed up
eternally, lasting, strong, and pure.

"Several times he attempted to get agricultural employment; but the
whiteness of his hands and the tone of his voice not merely suggested
unfitness for labour, but generated suspicion as to the character of one
who had evidently dropped from a rank so much higher, and was seeking
admittance within the natural masonic boundaries and secrets and
privileges of another. Disheartened somewhat, but hopeful, he journeyed
on. I say hopeful; for the blessed power of life in the universe in
fresh air and sunshine absorbed by active exercise, in winds, yea in
rain, though it fell but seldom, had begun to work its natural healing,
soothing effect, upon his perturbed spirit. And there was room for hope
in his new endeavour. As his bodily strength increased, and his health,
considerably impaired by inward suffering, improved, the trouble of his
soul became more endurable - and in some measure to endure is to conquer
and destroy. In proportion as the mind grows in the strength of
patience, the disturber of its peace sickens and fades away. At length,
one day, a widow lady in a village through which his road led him, gave
him a day's work in her garden. He laboured hard and well,
notwithstanding his soon-blistered hands, received his wages thankfully,
and found a resting-place for the night on the low part of a hay-stack
from which the upper portion had been cut away. Here he ate his supper
of bread and cheese, pleased to have found such comfortable quarters,
and soon fell fast asleep.

"When he awoke, the whole heavens and earth seemed to give a full denial
to sin and sorrow. The sun was just mounting over the horizon, looking
up the clear cloud-mottled sky. From millions of water-drops hanging on
the bending stalks of grass, sparkled his rays in varied refraction,
transformed here to a gorgeous burning ruby, there to an emerald, green
as the grass, and yonder to a flashing, sunny topaz. The chanting
priest-lark had gone up from the low earth, as soon as the heavenly
light had begun to enwrap and illumine the folds of its tabernacle; and
had entered the high heavens with his offering, whence, unseen, he now
dropped on the earth the sprinkled sounds of his overflowing
blessedness. The poor youth rose but to kneel, and cry, from a bursting
heart, "Hast Thou not, O Father, some care for me? Canst Thou not
restore my lost honour? Can anything befall Thy children for which Thou
hast no help? Surely, if the face of Thy world lie not, joy and not
grief is at the heart of the universe. Is there none for me?"

"The highest poetic feeling of which we are now conscious, springs
not from the beholding of perfected beauty, but from the mute sympathy
which the creation with all its children manifests with us in the
groaning and travailing which look for the sonship. Because of our
need and aspiration, the snowdrop gives birth in our hearts to a loftier
spiritual and poetic feeling, than the rose most complete in form,
colour, and odour. The rose is of Paradise - the snowdrop is of the
striving, hoping, longing Earth. Perhaps our highest poetry is the
expression of our aspirations in the sympathetic forms of visible
nature. Nor is this merely a longing for a restored Paradise; for even
in the ordinary history of men, no man or woman that has fallen, can be
restored to the position formerly held. Such must rise to a yet higher
place, whence they can behold their former standing far beneath their
feet. They must be restored by the attainment of something better than
they ever possessed before, or not at all. If the law be a weariness,
we must escape it by taking refuge with the spirit, for not otherwise
can we fulfil the law than by being above the law. To escape the
overhanging rocks of Sinai, we must climb to its secret top.

"'Is thy strait horizon dreary?
Is thy foolish fancy chill?
Change the feet that have grown weary
For the wings that never will.'

"Thus, like one of the wandering knights searching the wide earth for
the Sangreal, did he wander on, searching for his lost honour, or rather
(for that he counted gone for ever) seeking unconsciously for the peace
of mind which had departed from him, and taken with it, not the joy
merely, but almost the possibility, of existence.

"At last, when his little store was all but exhausted, he was employed
by a market gardener, in the neighbourhood of a large country town, to
work in his garden, and sometimes take his vegetables to market. With
him he continued for a few weeks, and wished for no change; until, one
day driving his cart through the town, he saw approaching him an elderly
gentleman, whom he knew at once, by his gait and carriage, to be a
military man. Now he had never seen his uncle the retired officer, but
it struck him that this might be he; and under the tyranny of his
passion for concealment, he fancied that, if it were he, he might
recognise him by some family likeness - not considering the improbability
of his looking at him. This fancy, with the painful effect which the
sight of an officer, even in plain clothes, had upon him, recalling the
torture of that frightful day, so overcame him, that he found himself at
the other end of an alley before he recollected that he had the horse
and cart in charge. This increased his difficulty; for now he dared not
return, lest his inquiries after the vehicle, if the horse had strayed
from the direct line, should attract attention, and cause interrogations
which he would be unable to answer. The fatal want of self-possession
seemed again to ruin him. He forsook the town by the nearest way, struck
across the country to another line of road, and before he was missed,
was miles away, still in a northerly direction.

"But although he thus shunned the face of man, especially of any one
who reminded him of the past, the loss of his reputation in their eyes
was not the cause of his inward grief. That would have been comparatively
powerless to disturb him, had he not lost his own respect. He quailed
before his own thoughts; he was dishonoured in his own eyes. His
perplexity had not yet sufficiently cleared away to allow him to see the
extenuating circumstances of the case; not to say the fact that the
peculiar mental condition in which he was at the time, removed the case
quite out of the class of ordinary instances of cowardice. He condemned
himself more severely than any of his judges would have dared;
remembering that portion of his mental sensations which had savoured of
fear, and forgetting the causes which had produced it. He judged himself
a man stained with the foulest blot that could cleave to a soldier's
name, a blot which nothing but death, not even death, could efface.
But, inwardly condemned and outwardly degraded, his dread of recognition
was intense; and feeling that he was in more danger of being discovered
where the population was sparser, he resolved to hide himself once more
in the midst of poverty; and, with this view, found his way to one of
the largest of the manufacturing towns.

"He reached it during the strike of a great part of the workmen; so
that, though he found some difficulty in procuring employment, as might
be expected from his ignorance of machine-labour, he yet was sooner
successful than he would otherwise have been. Possessed of a natural
aptitude for mechanical operations, he soon became a tolerable workman;
and he found that his previous education assisted to the fitting
execution of those operations even which were most purely mechanical.

"He found also, at first, that the unrelaxing attention requisite for
the mastering of the many niceties of his work, of necessity drew his
mind somewhat from its brooding over his misfortune, hitherto almost
ceaseless. Every now and then, however, a pang would shoot suddenly to
his heart, and turn his face pale, even before his consciousness had
time to inquire what was the matter. So by degrees, as attention became
less necessary, and the nervo-mechanical action of his system increased
with use, his thoughts again returned to their old misery. He would wake
at night in his poor room, with the feeling that a ghostly nightmare sat
on his soul; that a want - a loss - miserable, fearful - was present; that
something of his heart was gone from him; and through the darkness he
would hear the snap of the breaking sword, and lie for a moment
overwhelmed beneath the assurance of the incredible fact. Could it be
true that he was a coward? that _his_ honour was gone, and in its
place a stain? that _he_ was a thing for men - and worse, for
women - to point the finger at, laughing bitter laughter? Never lover or
husband could have mourned with the same desolation over the departure
of the loved; the girl alone, weeping scorching tears over _her_
degradation, could resemble him in his agony, as he lay on his bed, and
wept and moaned.

"His sufferings had returned with the greater weight, that he was no
longer upheld by the "divine air" and the open heavens, whose sunlight
now only reached him late in an afternoon, as he stood at his loom,
through windows so coated with dust that they looked like frosted glass;
showing, as it passed through the air to fall on the dirty floor, how
the breath of life was thick with dust of iron and wood, and films of
cotton; amidst which his senses were now too much dulled by custom to
detect the exhalations from greasy wheels and overtasked human-kind.
Nor could he find comfort in the society of his fellow-labourers.
True, it was a kind of comfort to have those near him who could not
know of his grief; but there was so little in common between them,
that any interchange of thought was impossible. At least, so it seemed
to him. Yet sometimes his longing for human companionship would drive
him out of his dreary room at night, and send him wandering through the
lower part of the town, where he would gaze wistfully on the miserable
faces that passed him, as if looking for some one - some angel, even
there - to speak goodwill to his hungry heart.

"Once he entered one of those gin-palaces, which, like the golden gates
of hell, entice the miserable to worse misery, and seated himself close
to a half-tipsy, good-natured wretch, who made room for him on a bench
by the wall. He was comforted even by this proximity to one who would
not repel him. But soon the paintings of warlike action - of knights, and
horses, and mighty deeds done with battle-axe, and broad-sword, which
adorned the - panels all round, drove him forth even from this heaven of
the damned; yet not before the impious thought had arisen in his heart,
that the brilliantly painted and sculptural roof, with the gilded
vine-leaves and bunches of grapes trained up the windows, all lighted
with the great shining chandeliers, was only a microcosmic repetition of
the bright heavens and the glowing earth, that overhung and surrounded
the misery of man. But the memory of how kindly they had comforted and
elevated him, at one period of his painful history, not only banished
the wicked thought, but brought him more quiet, in the resurrection of
a past blessing, than he had known for some time. The period, however,
was now at hand when a new grief, followed by a new and more elevated
activity, was to do its part towards the closing up of the fountain of

"Amongst his fellow-labourers, he had for a short time taken some
interest in observing a young woman, who had lately joined them. There
was nothing remarkable about her, except what at first sight seemed a
remarkable plainness. A slight scar over one of her rather prominent
eyebrows, increased this impression of plainness. But the first day had
not passed, before he began to see that there was something not
altogether common in those deep eyes; and the plain look vanished before
a closer observation, which also discovered, in the forehead and the
lines of the mouth, traces of sorrow or other suffering. There was an
expression, too, in the whole face, of fixedness of purpose, without any
hardness of determination. Her countenance altogether seemed the index
to an interesting mental history. Signs of mental trouble were always an
attraction to him; in this case so great, that he overcame his shyness,
and spoke to her one evening as they left the works. He often walked
home with her after that; as, indeed, was natural, seeing that she
occupied an attic in the same poor lodging-house in which he lived
himself. The street did not bear the best character; nor, indeed, would
the occupations of all the inmates of the house have stood
investigation; but so retiring and quiet was this girl, and so seldom
did she go abroad after work hours, that he had not discovered till then
that she lived in the same street, not to say the same house with

"He soon learned her history - a very common one as outward events,
but not surely insignificant because common. Her father and mother
were both dead, and hence she had to find her livelihood alone,
and amidst associations which were always disagreeable, and sometimes
painful. Her quick womanly instinct must have discovered that he too
had a history; for though, his mental prostration favouring the
operation of outward influences, he had greatly approximated in
appearance to those amongst whom he laboured, there were yet signs,
besides the educated accent of his speech, which would have
distinguished him to an observer; but she put no questions to him,
nor made any approach towards seeking a return of the confidence she
reposed in him. It was a sensible alleviation to his sufferings to
hear her kind voice, and look in her gentle face, as they walked home
together; and at length the expectation of this pleasure began to
present itself, in the midst of the busy, dreary work-hours, as the
shadow of a heaven to close up the dismal, uninteresting day.

"But one morning he missed her from her place, and a keener pain passed
through him than he had felt of late; for he knew that the Plague was
abroad, feeding in the low stagnant places of human abode; and he had
but too much reason to dread that she might be now struggling in its
grasp. He seized the first opportunity of slipping out and hurrying
home. He sprang upstairs to her room. He found the door locked, but
heard a faint moaning within. To avoid disturbing her, while determined
to gain an entrance, he went down for the key of his own door, with
which he succeeded in unlocking hers, and so crossed her threshold for
the first time. There she lay on her bed, tossing in pain, and beginning
to be delirious. Careless of his own life, and feeling that he could not
die better than in helping the only friend he had; certain, likewise,
of the difficulty of finding a nurse for one in this disease and of her
station in life; and sure, likewise, that there could be no question of
propriety, either in the circumstances with which they were surrounded,
nor in this case of terrible fever almost as hopeless for her as
dangerous to him, he instantly began the duties of a nurse, and returned
no more to his employment. He had a little money in his possession, for
he could not, in the way in which he lived, spend all his wages; so he
proceeded to make her as comfortable as he could, with all the pent-up
tenderness of a loving heart finding an outlet at length. When a boy at
home, he had often taken the place of nurse, and he felt quite capable
of performing its duties. Nor was his boyhood far behind yet, although
the trials he had come through made it appear an age since he had lost
his light heart. So he never left her bedside, except to procure what
was necessary for her. She was too ill to oppose any of his measures,
or to seek to prohibit his presence. Indeed, by the time he had returned
with the first medicine, she was insensible; and she continued so
through the whole of the following week, during which time he was
constantly with her.

"That action produces feeling is as often true as its converse; and it
is not surprising that, while he smoothed the pillow for her head, he
should have made a nest in his heart for the helpless girl. Slowly and
unconsciously he learned to love her. The chasm between his early
associations and the circumstances in which he found her, vanished as
he drew near to the simple, essential womanhood. His heart saw hers and
loved it; and he knew that, the centre once gained, he could, as from
the fountain of life, as from the innermost secret of the holy place,
the hidden germ of power and possibility, transform the outer intellect
and outermost manners as he pleased. With what a thrill of joy, a
feeling for a long time unknown to him, and till now never known in this
form or with this intensity, the thought arose in his heart that here
lay one who some day would love him; that he should have a place of
refuge and rest; one to lie in his bosom and not despise him! "For,"
said he to himself, "I will call forth her soul from where it sleeps,
like an unawakened echo, in an unknown cave; and like a child, of whom
I once dreamed, that was mine, and to my delight turned in fear from all
besides, and clung to me, this soul of hers will run with bewildered,
half-sleeping eyes, and tottering steps, but with a cry of joy on its
lips, to me as the life-giver. She will cling to me and worship me. Then
will I tell her, for she must know all, that I am low and contemptible;
that I am an outcast from the world, and that if she receive me, she
will be to me as God. And I will fall down at her feet and pray her for
comfort, for life, for restoration to myself; and she will throw herself
beside me, and weep and love me, I know. And we will go through life
together, working hard, but for each other; and when we die, she shall
lead me into paradise as the prize her angel-hand found cast on a desert
shore, from the storm of winds and waves which I was too weak to
resist - and raised, and tended, and saved." Often did such thoughts
as these pass through his mind while watching by her bed; alternated,
checked, and sometimes destroyed, by the fears which attended her
precarious condition, but returning with every apparent betterment
or hopeful symptom.

"I will not stop to decide the nice question, how far the intention was
right, of causing her to love him before she knew his story. If in the
whole matter there was too much thought of self, my only apology is
the sequel. One day, the ninth from the commencement of her illness,

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Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldAdela Cathcart, Volume 2 → online text (page 9 of 12)