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By George MacDonald




In the dusk of the old-fashioned best room of a farm-house, in the faint
glow of the buried sun through the sods of his July grave, sat two
elderly persons, dimly visible, breathing the odor which roses unseen
sent through the twilight and open window. One of the two was scarcely
conscious of the odor, for she did not believe in roses; she believed
mainly in mahogany, linen, and hams; to the other it brought too much
sadness to be welcomed, for it seemed, like the sunlight, to issue from
the grave of his vanished youth. He was not by nature a sad man; he was
only one that had found the past more delightful than the present, and
had not left his first loves.

The twilight of his years had crept upon him and was deepening; and he
felt his youth slowly withering under their fallen leaves. With more
education, and perhaps more receptivity than most farmers, he had
married a woman he fervently loved, whose rarely truthful nature, to
which she had striven to keep true, had developed the delicate flower of
moral and social refinement; and her influence upon him had been of the
eternal sort. While many of their neighbors were vying with each other
in the effort to dress, and dwell, and live up to their notion of
_gentility_, Richard Colman and his wife had never troubled themselves
about fashion, but had sought to please each the taste of the other, and
cultivate their own. Perhaps now as he sat thus silent in the _dimmits_,
he was holding closer converse than he knew, or any of us can know, with
one who seemed to have vanished from all this side of things, except the
heart of her husband. That clung to what people would call _her memory_;
I prefer to call it _her_.

The rose-scented hush was torn by the strident, cicala-like shrilling of
a self-confident, self-satisfied female voice -

"Richard, that son of yours will come to no good! You may take my word
for it!"

Mr. Colman made no answer; the dusky, sweet-smelling waves of the
silence closed over its laceration.

"I am well aware my opinion is of no value in your eyes, Richard; but
that does not absolve me from the duty of stating it: if you allow him
to go on as he is doing now, Walter will never eat bread of his own

"There are many who do, and yet don't come to much!" half thought, but
nowise said the father.

"What do you mean to make of him?" persisted Miss Hancock, the
half-sister of his wife, the _a_ in whose name Walter said ought to have
been an _e_.

"Whatever he is able to make himself. He must have the main hand in it,
whatever it be," answered Mr. Colman.

"It is time twice over he had set about something! You let him go on
dawdling and dawdling without even making up his mind whether or not he
ought to do anything! Take my word for it, Richard, you'll have him on
your hands till the day of your death!"

The father did not reply that he could wish nothing better, that the
threat was more than he could hope for. He did not want to provoke his
sister-in-law, and he knew there was a shadow of reason in what she
said, though even perfect reason could not have sweetened the mode in
which she said it. Nothing could make up for the total absence of
sympathy in her utterance of any modicum of truth she was capable of
uttering. She was a very dusty woman, and never more dusty than when she
fought against dust as in a warfare worthy of all a woman's
energies - one who, because she had not a spark of Mary in her, imagined
herself a Martha. She was true as steel to the interests of those in
whose life hers was involved, but only their dusty interests, not those
which make man worth God's trouble. She was a vessel of clay in an
outhouse of the temple, and took on her the airs - not of gold, for gold
has no airs - but the airs of clay imagining itself gold, and all the
golden vessels nothing but clay.

"I put it to you, Richard Colman," she went on, "whether good ever came
of reading poetry, and falling asleep under hay-stacks! He actually
writes poetry! - and we all know what that leads to!"

"Do we?" ventured her brother-in-law. "King David wrote poetry!"

"Richard, don't garble! I will not have you garble! You know what I mean
as well as I do myself! And you know as well as I do what comes of
writing poetry! That friend of Walter's who borrowed ten pounds of
you - did he ever pay you?"

"He did, Ann."

"You didn't tell _me_!"

"I did not want to disappoint you!" replied Richard, with a sarcasm she
did not feel.

"It was worth telling!" she returned.

"I did not think so. Everybody does not stick to a bank-note like a
snail to the wall! I returned him the money."

"Returned him the money!"


"Made him a present of _ten pounds_!"

"Why not?"

"Why then?"

"I had more reasons than one."

"And no call to explain them! It was just like you to throw away your
hard earnings upon a fellow that would never earn anything for himself!
As if one such wasn't enough to take all you'd got!"

"How could he send back the money if that had been the case! He proved
himself what I believed him, ready and willing to work! The money went
for a fellow's bread and cheese, and what better money's worth would you

"You may some day want the bread and cheese for yourself!"

"One stomach is as good as another!"

"It never was and never will be any use talking to some people!"
concluded sister Ann, in the same tone she began with, for she seldom
lost her temper - though no one would have much minded her losing it, it
was so little worth keeping. Rarely angry, she was always disagreeable.
The good that was in her had no flower, but bore its fruits, in the
shape of good food, clean linen, mended socks, and such like, without
any blossom of sweet intercourse to make life pleasant.

Aunt Ann would have been quite justified in looking on poetry with
contempt had it been what she imagined it. Like many others, she had
decided opinions concerning things of which her idea nowise corresponded
with the things themselves.



While the elders thus conversed in the dusky drawing-room, where the
smell of the old roses almost overpowered that of the new, another
couple sat in a little homely bower in the garden. It was Walter and his
rather distant cousin, Molly Wentworth, who for fifteen years had been
as brother and sister. Their fathers had been great friends, and when
Molly's died in India, and her mother speedily followed him, Richard
Colman took the little orphan, who was at the time with a nurse in
England, home to his house, much to the joy of his wife, who had often
longed for a daughter to perfect the family idea. The more motherly a
woman is, the nearer will the child of another satisfy the necessities
of her motherhood. Mrs. Colman could not have said which child she loved

Over the still summer garden rested a weight of peace. It was a night to
the very mind of the fastidious, twilight-loving bat, flitting about,
coming and going, like a thought we can not help. Most of Walter's
thoughts came and went thus. He had not yet learned to think; he was
hardly more than a medium in which thought came and went. Yet when a
thought seemed worth anything, he always gave himself the credit of
it! - as if a man were author of his own thoughts any more than of his
own existence! A man can but live so with the life given him, that this
or that kind of thoughts shall call on him, and to this or that kind he
shall not be at home. Walter was only at that early stage of development
where a man is in love with what he calls his own thoughts.

Even in the dark of the summer-house one might have seen that he was
pale, and might have suspected him handsome. In the daylight his gray
eyes might almost seem the source of his paleness. His features were
well marked though delicate, and had a notable look of distinction. He
was above the middle height, and slenderly built; had a wide forehead,
and a small, pale mustache on an otherwise smooth face. His mouth was
the least interesting feature; it had great mobility, but when at rest,
little shape and no attraction. For this, however, his smile made
considerable amends.

The girl was dark, almost swarthy, with the clear, pure complexion, and
fine-grained skin, which more commonly accompany the hue. If at first
she gave the impression of delicacy, it soon changed into one of
compressed life, of latent power. Through the night, where she now sat,
her eyes were too dark to appear; they sank into it, and were as the
unseen soul of the dark; while her mouth, rather large and exquisitely
shaped, with the curve of a strong bow, seemed as often as she smiled to
make a pale window in the blackness. Her hair came rather low down the
steep of her forehead, and, with the strength of her chin, made her face
look rounder than seemed fitting.

They sat for a time as silent as the night that infolded them. They were
not lovers, though they loved each other, perhaps, more than either
knew. They were watching to see the moon rise at the head of the valley
on one of whose high sloping sides they sat.

The moon kept her tryst, and revealed a loveliness beyond what the day
had to show. She looked upon a wide valley, that gleamed with the
windings of a river. She brightened the river, and dimmed in the houses
and cottages the lights with which the opposite hill sparkled like a
celestial map. Lovelily she did her work in the heavens, her poor
mirror-work - all she was fit for now, affording fit room, atmosphere,
and medium to young imaginations, unable yet to spread their wings in
the sunlight, and believe what lies hid in the light of the workaday
world. Nor was what she showed the less true for what lay unshown in
shrouded antagonism. The vulgar cry for the real would bury in deepest
grave every eternal fact. It is the cry, "Not this man, but Barabbas!"
The day would reveal a river stained with loathsome refuse, and rich
gardens on hill-sides mantled in sooty smoke and evil-smelling vapors,
sent up from a valley where men, like gnomes, toiled and caused to toil
too eagerly. What would one think of a housekeeper so intent upon saving
that she could waste no time on beauty or cleanliness? How many who
would storm if they came home to an untidy house, feel no shadow of
uneasiness that they have all day been defiling the house of the Father,
nor at night lifted hand to cleanse it! Such men regard him as a fool,
whose joy a foul river can poison; yet, as soon as they have by
pollution gathered and saved their god, they make haste to depart from
the spot they have ruined! Oh, for an invasion of indignant ghosts, to
drive from the old places the generation that dishonors the ancient
Earth! The sun shows all their disfiguring, but the friendly night comes
at length to hide her disgrace; and that well hidden, slowly descends
the brooding moon to unveil her beauty.

For there was a _thriving_ town full of awful chimneys in the valley,
and the clouds that rose from it ascended above the Colmans' farm to the
great moor which stretched miles and miles beyond it. In the autumn sun
its low forest of heather burned purple; in the pale winter it lay white
under snow and frost; but through all the year winds would blow across
it the dull smell of the smoke from below. Had such a fume risen to the
earthly paradise, Dante would have imagined his purgatory sinking into
hell. On all this inferno the night had sunk like a foretaste of
cleansing death. The fires lay smoldering like poor, hopeless devils,
fain to sleep. The world was merged in a tidal wave from the ocean of
hope, and seemed to heave a restful sigh under its cooling renovation.



"A penny for your thought, Walter!" said the girl, after a long silence,
in which the night seemed at length to clasp her too close.

"Your penny, then! I was thinking how wild and sweet the dark wind would
be blowing up there among the ringing bells of the heather."

"You shall have the penny. I will pay you with your own coin. I keep all
the pennies I win of you. What do you do with those you win of me?"

"Oh, I don't know! I take them because you insist on paying your bets,
but - "

"Debts, you mean, Walter! You know I never bet, even in fun! I hate
taking things for nothing! I wouldn't do it!"

"Then what are you making me do now?"

"Take a penny for the thought I bought of you for a penny. That's fair
trade, not gambling. And your thought to-night is well worth a penny. I
felt the very wind on the moor for a moment!"

"I'm afraid I sha'n't get a penny a thought in London!"

"Then you are going to London, Walter?"

"Yes, indeed! What else! What is a man to do here?"

"What is a man to do there?"

"Make his way in the world."

"But, Walter, please let me understand! indeed I don't want to be
disagreeable! What do you wish to make your way to?"

"To such a position as - "

Here he stopped unsure.

"You mean to fame, and honor, and riches, don't you, Walter?" ventured

"No - not riches. Did you ever hear of a poet and riches in the same

"Oh, yes, I have! - though somehow they don't seem to go together
comfortably. If a poet is rich, he ought to show he couldn't help it."

"Suppose he was made a lord, where would he then be without money?"

"If to be a lord one must be rich, he ought never to wish to be a lord.
But you do not want to be either lord or millionaire, Walter, do you?"

"I hope I know better!"

"Where does the way you speak of lead then, Walter? To fame?"

"If it did, what would you have to say against it? Even Milton calls it
'That last infirmity of noble mind!'"

"But he calls it an infirmity, and such a bad infirmity, apparently,
that it is the hardest of all to get rid of!"

The fact was that Walter wanted to be - thought he was a poet, but was
far from certain - feared indeed it might not be so, therefore desired
greatly the verdict of men in his favor, if but for his own
satisfaction. Fame was precious to him as determining, he thought, his
position in the world of letters - his kingdom of heaven. Well read, he
had not used his reading practically enough to perceive that the praise
of one generation may be the contempt of another, perhaps of the very
next, so that the repute of his time could assure him of nothing. He did
not know the worthlessness of the opinion that either grants or
withholds fame.

He looked through the dark at his cousin, thinking, "What sets her
talking of such things? How can a girl understand a man with his career
before him!"

She read him through the night and his silence.

"I know what you are thinking, Walter!" she said. "You are thinking
women can't think. But I should be ashamed not to have common sense, and
I can not see the sense of doing anything for a praise that can help
nothing and settle nothing."

"Why then should all men have the desire for it?"

"That they may get rid of it Why have all men vanity? Where would the
world be on the way to now, if Jesus Christ had sought the praise of

"But He has it!"

"Not much of it yet, I suspect. He does not care for the praise that
comes before obedience! - that's what I have heard your father say."

"I never heard him!"

"I have heard him say it often. What could Jesus care for the praise of
one whose object in life was the praise of men!"

Walter had not lived so as to destroy the reverence of his childhood. He
believed himself to have high ideals. He felt that a man must be
upright, or lose his life. So strongly did he feel it, that he imagined
himself therefore upright, incapable of a dishonest or mean thing. He
had never done, never could, he thought, do anything unfair. But to what
Molly said, he had no answer. What he half thought in his silence, was
something like this: that Jesus Christ was not the type of manhood, but
a man by himself, who came to do a certain work; that it was both absurd
and irreverent to talk as if other men had to do as He did, to think and
feel like Him; that He was so high above the world He could not care for
its fame, while to mere man its praises must be dear. Nor did Walter
make any right distinction between the approbation of understanding men,
who know the thing they praise, and the empty voice of the unwise many.

In a word, Walter thought, without knowing he did, that Jesus Christ was
not a man.

"I think, Molly," he said, "we had better avoid the danger of

For the sake of his poor reverence he would frustrate the mission of the
Son of God; by its wretched mockery justify himself in refusing the
judgment of Jesus!

"I know you think kindly of me, Molly," he went on, "and I should be
sorry to have you misunderstand me; but surely a man should not require
religion to make him honest! I scorn the notion. A man must be just and
true because he is a man! Surely a man may keep clear of the thing he
loathes! For my own honor," he added, with a curl of his lip, "I shall
at least do nothing disgraceful, however I may fall short of the

"I doubt," murmured Molly, "whether a man is a man until he knows God."

But Walter, if he heard the words, neither heeded nor answered them. He
was far from understanding the absurdity of doing right from love of

He was no hypocrite. He did turn from what seemed to him degrading. But
there were things degrading which he did not see to be such, things on
which some men to whom he did not yet look up, would have looked down.
Also there was that in his effort to sustain his self-respect which was
far from pure: he despised such as had failed; and to despise the human
because it has fallen, is to fall from the human. He had done many
little things he ought to be, and one day must be, but as yet felt no
occasion to be - ashamed of. So long as they did not trouble him they
seemed nowhere. Many a youth starts in life like him, possessed with the
idea, not exactly formulated, that he is a most precious specimen of
pure and honorable humanity. It comes of self-ignorance, and a low ideal
taken for a high one. Such are mainly among the well-behaved, and never
doubt themselves a prize for any woman. They color their notion of
themselves with their ideal, and then mistake the one for the other. The
mass of weaknesses and conceits that compose their being they compress
into their ideal mold of man, and then regard the shape as their own.
What composes it they do not heed.

No man, however, could look in the refined face of Walter Colman and
imagine him cherishing sordid views of life. Asked what of all things he
most admired, he might truly answer, "The imaginative intellect." He was
a fledgling poet. He worshiped what he called thoughts, would rave about
a thought in the abstract, apostrophize an uncaught idea. When a
concrete thinkable one fell to him, he was jubilant over the isolate
thing, and with his joy value had nothing to do. He would stand wrapped
in the delight of what he counted its beauty, and yet more in the
delight that his was the mind that had generated such a meteor! To be
able to think pretty things was to him a gigantic distinction! A thought
that could never be soul to any action, would be more valuable to him
than the perception of some vitality of relation demanding the activity
of the whole being. He would call thoughts the stars that glorify the
firmament of humanity, but the stars of his firmament were merely
atmospheric - pretty fancies, external likenesses. That the grandest
thing in the world is to be an accepted poet, is the despotic craze of a
vast number of the weak-minded and half-made of both sexes. It feeds
poetic fountains of plentiful yield, but insipid and enfeebling flow,
the mere sweat of weakness under the stimulus of self-admiration.



Walter was the very antipode of the Molly he counted commonplace, one
outside the region of poetry; she had a passion for turning a _think_
into a thing. She had a strong instinctive feeling that she was in the
world to do something, and she saw that if nobody tried to keep things
right, they would go terribly wrong: what then could she be there for
but to set or keep things right! and if she could do nothing with the
big things, she must be the busier with the little things! Besides, who
could tell how much the little might have to do with the big things! The
whole machine depended on every tiny wheel! She could not order the
clouds, but she could keep some weeds from growing, and then when the
rain came, they would not take away the good of it!

The world might be divided into those who let things go, and those who
do not; into the forces and facts, the slaves and fancies; those who are
always doing something on God's creative lines, and those that are
always grumbling and striving against them.

"Another penny for your thought, Walter!" said Molly.

"I am not going to deal with you. This time you would not think it worth
a penny! Why are you so inquisitive about my thoughts?"

"I want to know what you meant when you said the other day that thoughts
were better than things."

Walter hesitated. The question was an inclined plane leading to unknown
depths of argument!

"See, Walter," said Molly, "here is a _narcissus_ - a pheasant's eye:
tell me the thought that is better than this thing!"

How troublesome girls were when they asked questions!

"Well," he said, not very logically, "that narcissus has nothing but air
around it; my thought of the narcissus has mind around it."

"Then a thought is better than a thing because it has thought round
about it?"

"Well, yes."

"Did the thing come there of itself, or did it come of God's thinking?"

"Of God's thinking."

"And God is always the same?"


"Then God's thought is about the narcissus still - and the narcissus is
better than your thought of it!"

Walter was silent.

"I should so like to understand!" said Molly. "If you have a thought
more beautiful than the narcissus, Walter, I should like to see it! Only
if I could see it, it would be a thing, would it not? A thing must be a
think before it be a thing. A thing is a ripe think, and must be better
than a think - except it lose something in ripening - which may very well
be with man's thoughts, but hardly with God's! I will keep in front of
the things, and look through them to the thoughts behind them. I want to
understand! If a thing were not a thought first, it would not be worth
anything! And everything has to be thought about, else we don't see what
it is! I haven't got it quite!"

Instead of replying, Walter rose, and they walked to the house side by
side in silence.

"Could a thought be worth anything that God had never cared to think?"
said Molly to herself as they went.



Mr. Colman and his adopted daughter were fast friends - so fast and so
near that they could talk together about Walter, though but the adoptive
brother of the one, and the real son of the other. Richard had
inherited, apparently, his wife's love to Molly, and added to it his
own; but their union had its root in the perfect truthfulness of the
two. Real approximation, real union must ever be in proportion to mutual
truthfulness. It was quite after the usual fashion, therefore, between
them, when Molly began, to tell her father about the conversation she
had had with Walter.

"What first made you think, Molly, of such a difference between thoughts
and things?" asked Mr. Colman.

"I know quite well," answered Molly. "You remember our visit to your old
school-friend, Mr. Dobson?"

"Of course; perfectly."

Mr. Dobson was a worthy clergyman, doing his weary best in a rural

"And you remember Mrs. Evermore?"


"You thought her name a funny one; but you said it ought to have been
_'Nevermore,'_ because she seemed never to get any further!"

"Come, come, Molly! that won't do! It was you, not I, that said such a
spiteful thing!" "It was true any way!" answered Molly; "and you agreed
with me; so if I said it first, you said it last! Well, I had to study
this Mrs. Evermore. From morning to night she was evermore on the hunt
after new fancies. She watched for them, stalked them, followed them
like a boy with a butterfly-net She caught them too, of the sort she
wanted, plentifully. But none ever came to anything, so far as I could
see. She never did anything with one of them. Whatever she caught had a

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