George MacDonald.

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The autumn was creeping up on the earth, with winter holding by its skirts
behind; but before I loose my hold of the garments of summer, I must write
a chapter about a walk and a talk I had one night with my wife. It had
rained a good deal during the day, but as the sun went down the air began
to clear, and when the moon shone out, near the full, she walked the
heavens, not "like one that hath been led astray," but as "queen and
huntress, chaste and fair."

"What a lovely night it is!" said Ethelwyn, who had come into my
study - where I always sat with unblinded windows, that the night and her
creatures might look in upon me - and had stood gazing out for a moment.

"Shall we go for a little turn?" I said.

"I should like it very much," she answered. "I will go and put on my bonnet
at once."

In a minute or two she looked in again, all ready. I rose, laid aside my
Plato, and went with her. We turned our steps along the edge of the down,
and descended upon the breakwater, where we seated ourselves upon the same
spot where in the darkness I had heard the voices of Joe and Agnes. What a
different night it was from that! The sea lay as quiet as if it could not
move for the moonlight that lay upon it. The glory over it was so mighty in
its peacefulness, that the wild element beneath was afraid to toss itself
even with the motions of its natural unrest. The moon was like the face of
a saint before which the stormy people has grown dumb. The rocks stood up
solid and dark in the universal aether, and the pulse of the ocean throbbed
against them with a lapping gush, soft as the voice of a passionate child
soothed into shame of its vanished petulance. But the sky was the glory.
Although no breath moved below, there was a gentle wind abroad in the upper
regions. The air was full of masses of cloud, the vanishing fragments of
the one great vapour which had been pouring down in rain the most of the
day. These masses were all setting with one steady motion eastward into the
abysses of space; now obscuring the fair moon, now solemnly sweeping away
from before her. As they departed, out shone her marvellous radiance, as
calm as ever. It was plain that she knew nothing of what we called her
covering, her obscuration, the dimming of her glory. She had been busy all
the time weaving her lovely opaline damask on the other side of the mass in
which we said she was swallowed up.

"Have you ever noticed, wifie," I said, "how the eyes of our minds - almost
our bodily eyes - are opened sometimes to the cubicalness of nature, as it

"I don't know, Harry, for I don't understand your question," she answered.

"Well, it was a stupid way of expressing what I meant. No human being could
have understood it from that. I will make you understand in a moment,
though. Sometimes - perhaps generally - we see the sky as a flat dome,
spangled with star-points, and painted blue. _Now_ I see it as an awful
depth of blue air, depth within depth; and the clouds before me are not
passing away to the left, but sinking away from the front of me into the
marvellous unknown regions, which, let philosophers say what they will
about time and space, - and I daresay they are right, - are yet very awful
to me. Thank God, my dear," I said, catching hold of her arm, as the terror
of mere space grew upon me, "for himself. He is deeper than space, deeper
than time; he is the heart of all the cube of history."

"I understand you now, husband," said my wife.

"I knew you would," I answered.

"But," she said again, "is it not something the same with the things inside
us? I can't put it in words as you do. Do you understand me now?"

"I am not sure that I do. You must try again."

"You understand me well enough, only you like to make me blunder where
you can talk," said my wife, putting her hand in mine. "But I will try.
Sometimes, after thinking about something for a long time, you come to a
conclusion about it, and you think you have settled it plain and clear to
yourself, for ever and a day. You hang it upon your wall, like a picture,
and are satisfied for a fortnight. But some day, when you happen to cast a
look at it, you find that instead of hanging flat on the wall, your picture
has gone through it - opens out into some region you don't know where - shows
you far-receding distances of air and sea - in short, where you thought one
question was settled for ever, a hundred are opened up for the present

"Bravo, wife!" I cried in true delight. "I do indeed understand you now.
You have said it better than I could ever have done. That's the plague of
you women! You have been taught for centuries and centuries that there is
little or nothing to be expected of you, and so you won't try. Therefore we
men know no more than you do whether it is in you or not. And when you do
try, instead of trying to think, you want to be in Parliament all at once."

"Do you apply that remark to me, sir?" demanded Ethelwyn.

"You must submit to bear the sins of your kind upon occasion," I answered.

"I am content to do that, so long as yours will help mine," she replied.

"Then I may go on?" I said, with interrogation.

"Till sunrise if you like. We were talking of the cubicalness - I believe
you called it - of nature."

"And you capped it with the cubicalness of thought. And quite right
too. There are people, as a dear friend of mine used to say, who are so
accustomed to regard everything in the _flat_, as dogma cut and - not
_always_ dried my moral olfactories aver - that if you prove to them the
very thing they believe, but after another mode than that they have been
accustomed to, they are offended, and count you a heretic. There is no help
for it. Even St. Paul's chief opposition came from the Judaizing Christians
of his time, who did not believe that God _could_ love the Gentiles, and
therefore regarded him as a teacher of falsehood. We must not be fierce
with them. Who knows what wickedness of their ancestors goes to account for
their stupidity? For that there are stupid people, and that they are, in
very consequence of their stupidity, conceited, who can deny? The worst of
it is, that no man who is conceited can be convinced of the fact."

"Don't say that, Harry. That is to deny conversion."

"You are right, Ethelwyn. The moment a man is convinced of his folly, he
ceases to be a fool. The moment a man is convinced of his conceit, he
ceases to be conceited. But there _must_ be a final judgment, and the true
man will welcome it, even if he is to appear a convicted fool. A man's
business is to see first that he is not acting the part of a fool, and
next, to help any honest people who care about the matter to take heed
likewise that they be not offering to pull the mote out of their brother's
eye. But there are even societies established and supported by good
people for the express purpose of pulling out motes. - 'The Mote-Pulling
Society!' - That ought to take with a certain part of the public."

"Come, come, Harry. You are absurd. Such people don't come near you."

"They can't touch me. No. But they come near good people whom I know,
brandishing the long pins with which they pull the motes out, and
threatening them with judgment before their time. They are but pins, to be
sure - not daggers."

"But you have wandered, Harry, into the narrowest underground, musty ways,
and have forgotten all about 'the cubicalness of nature.'"

"You are right, my love, as you generally are," I answered, laughing. "Look
at that great antlered elk, or moose - fit quarry for Diana of the silver
bow. Look how it glides solemnly away into the unpastured depths of the
aerial deserts. Look again at that reclining giant, half raised upon his
arm, with his face turned towards the wilderness. What eyes they must be
under those huge brows! On what message to the nations is he borne as by
the slow sweep of ages, on towards his mysterious goal?"

"Stop, stop, Harry," said my wife. "It makes me unhappy to hear grand words
clothing only cloudy fancies. Such words ought to be used about the truth,
and the truth only."

"If I could carry it no further, my dear, then it would indeed be a
degrading of words. But there never was a vagary that uplifted the soul,
or made the grand words flow from the gates of speech, that had not its
counterpart in truth itself. Man can imagine nothing, even in the clouds of
the air, that God has not done, or is not doing. Even as that cloudy giant
yields, and is 'shepherded by the slow unwilling wind,' so is each of us
borne onward to an unseen destiny - a glorious one if we will but yield to
the Spirit of God that bloweth where it listeth - with a grand
listing - coming whence we know not, and going whither we know not. The
very clouds of the air are hung up as dim pictures of the thoughts and
history of man."

"I do not mind how long you talk like that, husband, even if you take the
clouds for your text. But it did make me miserable to think that what you
were saying had no more basis than the fantastic forms which the clouds
assume. I see I was wrong, though."

"The clouds themselves, in such a solemn stately march as this, used to
make me sad for the very same reason. I used to think, What is it all for?
They are but vapours blown by the wind. They come nowhence, and they go
nowhither. But now I see them and all things as ever moving symbols of the
motions of man's spirit and destiny."

A pause followed, during which we sat and watched the marvellous depth
of the heavens, deep as I do not think I ever saw them before or since,
covered with a stately procession of ever-appearing and ever-vanishing
forms - great sculpturesque blocks of a shattered storm - the icebergs of the
upper sea. These were not far off against a blue background, but floating
near us in the heart of a blue-black space, gloriously lighted by a golden
rather than silvery moon. At length my wife spoke.

"I hope Mr. Percivale is out to-night," she said. "How he must be enjoying
it if he is!"

"I wonder the young man is not returning to his professional labours," I
said. "Few artists can afford such long holidays as he is taking."

"He is laying in stock, though, I suppose," answered my wife.

"I doubt that, my dear. He said not, on one occasion, you may remember."

"Yes, I remember. But still he must paint better the more familiar he gets
with the things God cares to fashion."

"Doubtless. But I am afraid the work of God he is chiefly studying at
present is our Wynnie."

"Well, is she not a worthy object of his study?" returned Ethelwyn, looking
up in my face with an arch expression.

"Doubtless again, Ethel; but I hope she is not studying him quite so much
in her turn. I have seen her eyes following him about."

My wife made no answer for a moment. Then she said,

"Don't you like him, Harry?"

"Yes. I like him very much."

"Then why should you not like Wynnie to like him?"

"I should like to be surer of his principles, for one thing."

"I should like to be surer of Wynnie's."

I was silent. Ethelwyn resumed.

"Don't you think they might do each other good?"

Still I could not reply.

"They both love the truth, I am sure; only they don't perhaps know what it
is yet. I think if they were to fall in love with each other, it would very
likely make them both more desirous of finding it still."

"Perhaps," I said at last. "But you are talking about awfully serious
things, Ethelwyn."

"Yes, as serious as life," she answered.

"You make me very anxious," I said. "The young man has not, I fear, any
means of gaining a livelihood for more than himself."

"Why should he before he wanted it? I like to see a man who can be content
with an art and a living by it."

"I hope I have not been to blame in allowing them to see so much of each
other," I said, hardly heeding my wife's words.

"It came about quite naturally," she rejoined. "If you had opposed
their meeting, you would have been interfering just as if you had been
Providence. And you would have only made them think more about each other."

"He hasn't said anything - has he?" I asked in positive alarm.

"O dear no. It may be all my fancy. I am only looking a little ahead. I
confess I should like him for a son-in-law. I approve of him," she added,
with a sweet laugh.

"Well," I said, "I suppose sons-in-law are possible, however disagreeable,
results of having daughters."

I tried to laugh, but hardly succeeded.

"Harry," said my wife, "I don't like you in such a mood. It is not like you
at all. It is unworthy of you."

"How can I help being anxious when you speak of such dreadful things as the
possibility of having to give away my daughter, my precious wonder that
came to me through you, out of the infinite - the tender little darling!"

"'Out of the heart of God,' you used to say, Henry. Yes, and with a destiny
he had ordained. It is strange to me how you forget your best and noblest
teaching sometimes. You are always telling us to trust in God. Surely it is
a poor creed that will only allow us to trust in God for ourselves - a very
selfish creed. There must be something wrong there. I should say that the
man who can only trust God for himself is not half a Christian. Either he
is so selfish that that satisfies him, or he has such a poor notion of God
that he cannot trust him with what most concerns him. The former is not
your case, Harry: is the latter, then? - You see I must take my turn at the
preaching sometimes. Mayn't I, dearest?"

She took my hand in both of hers. The truth arose in my heart. I never
loved my wife more than at that moment. And now I could not speak for other
reasons. I saw that I had been faithless to my God, and the moment I could
command my speech, I hastened to confess it.

"You are right, my dear," I said, "quite right. I have been wicked, for I
have been denying my God. I have been putting my providence in the place
of his - trying, like an anxious fool, to count the hairs on Wynnie's head,
instead of being content that the grand loving Father should count them. My
love, let us pray for Wynnie; for what is prayer but giving her to God and
his holy, blessed will?"

We sat hand in hand. Neither spoke aloud for some minutes, but we spoke in
our hearts to God, talking to him about Wynnie. Then we rose together, and
walked homeward, still in silence. But my heart and hand clung to my wife
as to the angel whom God had sent to deliver me out of the prison of my
faithlessness. And as we went, lo! the sky was glorious again. It had faded
from my sight, had grown flat as a dogma, uninteresting as "a foul and
pestilent congregation of vapours;" the moon had been but a round thing
with the sun shining upon it, and the stars were only minding their own
business. But now the solemn march towards an unseen, unimagined goal had
again begun. Wynnie's life was hid with Christ in God. Away strode the
cloudy pageant with its banners blowing in the wind, which blew where it
grandly listed, marching as to a solemn triumphal music that drew them from
afar towards the gates of pearl by which the morning walks out of the New
Jerusalem to gladden the nations of the earth. Solitary stars, with all
their sparkles drawn in, shone, quiet as human eyes, in the deep solemn
clefts of dark blue air. They looked restrained and still, as if they
knew all about it - all about the secret of this midnight march. For the
moon - she saw the sun, and therefore made the earth glad.

"You have been a moon to me this night, my wife," I said. "You were looking
full at the truth, while I was dark. I saw its light in your face, and
believed, and turned my soul to the sun. And now I am both ashamed and
glad. God keep me from sinning so again."

"My dear husband, it was only a mood - a passing mood," said Ethelwyn,
seeking to comfort me.

"It was a mood, and thank God it is now past; but it was a wicked one. It
was a mood in which the Lord might have called me a devil, as he did St.
Peter. Such moods have to be grappled with and fought the moment they
appear. They must not have their way for a single thought even."

"But we can't help it always, can we, husband?"

"We can't help it out and out, because our wills are not yet free with the
freedom God is giving us as fast as we will let him. When we are able to
will thoroughly, then we shall do what we will. At least, I think we shall.
But there is a mystery in it God only understands. All we know is, that we
can struggle and pray. But a mood is an awful oppression sometimes when you
least believe in it and most wish to get rid of it. It is like a headache
in the soul."

"What do the people do that don't believe in God?" said Ethelwyn.

The same moment Wynnie, who had seen us pass the window, opened the door of
the bark-house for us, and we passed into Connie's chamber and found her
lying in the moonlight, gazing at the same heavens as her father and mother
had been revelling in.



The next day was very lovely. I think it is the last of the kind of which
I shall have occasion to write in my narrative of the Seaboard Parish. I
wonder if my readers are tired of so much about the common things of
Nature. I reason about it something in this way: We are so easily affected
by the smallest things that are of the unpleasant kind, that we ought to
train ourselves to the influence of those that are of an opposite nature.
The unpleasant ones are like the thorns which make themselves felt as we
scramble - for we often do scramble in a very undignified manner - through
the thickets of life; and, feeling the thorns, we grumble, and are blind
to all but the thorns. The flowers, and the lovely leaves, and the red
berries, and the clusters of filberts, and the birds'-nests do not force
themselves upon our attention as the thorns do, and the thorns make us
forget to look for them. But a scratch would be forgotten - and that in
mental hurts is often equivalent to a cure, for a forgotten scratch on the
mind or heart will never fester - if we but allowed our being a moment's
repose upon any of the quiet, waiting, unobtrusive beauties that lie
around the half-trodden way, offering their gentle healing. And when I
think how, not unfrequently, otherwise noble characters are anything but
admirable when under the influence of trifling irritations, the very
paltriness of which seems what the mind, which would at once rouse itself
to a noble endurance of any mighty evil, is unable to endure, I would
gladly help so with sweet antidotes to defeat the fly in the ointment of
the apothecary that the whole pot shall send forth a pure savour. We ought
for this to cultivate the friendships of little things. Beauty is one of
the surest antidotes to vexation. Often when life looked dreary about me,
from some real or fancied injustice or indignity, has a thought of truth
been flashed into my mind from a flower, a shape of frost, or even a
lingering shadow - not to mention such glories as angel-winged clouds,
rainbows, stars, and sunrises. Therefore I hope that in my loving delay
over such aspects of Nature as impressed themselves upon me in this most
memorable part of my history I shall not prove wearisome to my reader, for
therein I should utterly contravene my hope and intent in the recording of

This day there was to be an unusually low tide, and we had reckoned on
enlarging our acquaintance with the bed of the ocean - of knowing a few
yards more of the millions of miles lapt in the mystery of waters. It was
to be low water about two o'clock, and we resolved to dine upon the sands.
But all the morning the children were out playing on the threshold of old
Neptune's palace; for in his quieter mood he will, like a fierce
mastiff, let children do with him what they will. I gave myself a whole
holiday - sometimes the most precious part of my life both for myself and
those for whom I labour - and wandered about on the shore, now passing the
children, and assailed with a volley of cries and entreaties to look at
this one's castle and that one's ditch, now leaving them behind, with what
in its ungraduated flatness might well enough personate an endless
desert of sand between, over the expanse of which I could imagine them
disappearing on a far horizon, whence however a faint occasional cry of
excitement and pleasure would reach my ears. The sea was so calm, and the
shore so gently sloping, that you could hardly tell where the sand ceased
and the sea began - the water sloped to such a thin pellicle, thinner
than any knife-edge, upon the shining brown sand, and you saw the sand
underneath the water to such a distance out. Yet this depth, which would
not drown a red spider, was the ocean. In my mind I followed that bed of
shining sand, bared of its hiding waters, out and out, till I was lost in
an awful wilderness of chasms, precipices, and mountain-peaks, in whose
caverns the sea-serpent may dwell, with his breath of pestilence; the
kraken, with "his skaly rind," may there be sleeping

"His ancient dreamless, uninvaded sleep,"


"faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides,"

as he lies

"Battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep."

There may lie all the horrors that Schiller's diver encountered - the
frightful Molch, and that worst of all, to which he gives no name, which
came creeping with a hundred knots at once; but here are only the gracious
rainbow-woven shells, an evanescent jelly or two, and the queer baby-crabs
that crawl out from the holes of the bordering rocks. What awful gradations
of gentleness lead from such as these down to those cabins where wallow
the inventions of Nature's infancy, when, like a child of untutored
imagination, she drew on the slate of her fancy creations in which flitting
shadows of beauty serve only to heighten the shuddering, gruesome horror.
The sweet sun and air, the hand of man, and the growth of the ages, have
all but swept such from the upper plains of the earth. What hunter's bow
has twanged, what adventurer's rifle has cracked in those leagues of
mountain-waste, vaster than all the upper world can show, where the beasts
of the ocean "graze the sea-weed, their pasture"! Diana of the silver bow
herself, when she descends into the interlunar caves of hell, sends no such
monsters fleeing from her spells. Yet if such there be, such horrors too
must lie in the undiscovered caves of man's nature, of which all this outer
world is but a typical analysis. By equally slow gradations may the inner
eye descend from the truth of a Cordelia to the falsehood of an Iago. As
these golden sands slope from the sunlight into the wallowing abyss of
darkness, even so from the love of the child to his holy mother slopes the
inclined plane of humanity to the hell of the sensualist. "But with one
difference in the moral world," I said aloud, as I paced up and down on the
shimmering margin, "that everywhere in the scale the eye of the all-seeing
Father can detect the first quiver of the eyelid that would raise itself
heavenward, responsive to his waking spirit." I lifted my eyes in the
relief of the thought, and saw how the sun of the autumn hung above the
waters oppressed with a mist of his own glory; far away to the left a man
who had been clambering on a low rock, inaccessible save in such a tide,
gathering mussels, threw himself into the sea and swam ashore; above his
head the storm-tower stood in the stormless air; the sea glittered and
shone, and the long-winged birds knew not which to choose, the balmy air or
the cool deep, now flitting like arrow-heads through the one, now alighting
eagerly upon the other, to forsake it anew for the thinner element. I
thanked God for his glory.

"O, papa, it's so jolly - so jolly!" shouted the children as I passed them

"What is it that's so jolly, Charlie?" I asked.

"My castle," screeched Harry in reply; "only it's tumbled down. The water
_would_ keep coming in underneath."

"I tried to stop it with a newspaper," cried Charlie, "but it wouldn't. So
we were forced to let it be, and down it went into the ditch."

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Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldThe Seaboard Parish Volume 3 → online text (page 1 of 12)