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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThere & Back - Chapter 23. A Human Gadfly
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There & Back - Chapter 23. A Human Gadfly Post by :Pennejac Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :2317

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There & Back - Chapter 23. A Human Gadfly


From so early an age had Richard been accustomed to despise a certain form he called God, which stood in the gallery of his imagination, carved at by the hands of successive generations of sculptors, some hard, some feeble, some clever, some stupid, all conventional and devoid of prophetic imagination, that his antagonism had long taken the shape of an angry hostility to the notion of any God whatever. Richard could see a thing to be false, that is, he could deny, but he was not yet capable either of discovering or receiving what was true, because he had not yet set himself to know the truth. To oppose, to refuse, to deny, is not _to know the truth_, is not _to be true any more than it is to be false. Whatever good may lie in the destroying of the false, the best hammer of the iconoclast will not serve withal to carve the celestial form of the Real; and when the iconoclast becomes the bigot of negation, and declares the non-existence of any form worthy of worship, because he has destroyed so many unworthy, he passes into a fool. That he has never conceived a deity such as he could worship, is a poor ground to any but the man himself for saying such cannot exist; and to him it is but a ground lightly vaulted over the vacuity self-importance. Such a divine form may yet stand in the adytum of this or that man whom he and the world count an idiot.

Into the workshop of Richard's mind was now introduced, by this one disclosure of the mind of Barbara, a new idea of divinity, vague indeed as new, but one with which he found himself compelled to have some dealing. One of the best services true man can do a neighbour, is to persuade him--I speak in a parable--to house his children for a while, that he may know what they are: the children of another may be the saving of his children and his whole house. Alas for the man the children of whose brain are the curse of the household into which they are received! But from Barbara's house Richard had taken into his a vital protoplasmic idea that must work, and would never cease to work until the house itself was all divine--the idea, namely, of a being to call God, who was a delight to think of, a being concerning whom the great negation was that of everything Richard had hitherto associated with the word God. The one door to admit this formal notion was hard to open; and when admitted, the figure was not easy to set up so that it could be looked at. The human niche where the idea of a God must stand, was in Richard's house occupied by the most hideous falsity. On the pedestal crouched the goblin of a Japanese teapot.

It was not pleasant to Richard to imagine any one with rights over him. It may be that some persist in calling up the false idea of such a one hitherto presented to them, in order to avoid feeling obligation to believe in him. For the notion of a God is one from which naturally a thoughtful man must feel more or less recoil while as yet he knows nothing of the being himself, or of the nature of his creative rights, the rights of perfect, self-refusing, devoted fatherhood. It is one thing to seem to know with the brain, quite another to know with the heart. But even in the hope-lighted countenance of Barbara, even in the tones in which she suggested the presence of a soul that meant and was all that the beautiful world hinted and seemed, Richard could not fail to meet something of the true idea of a God.

Naturally also, his notion of the God in whom he felt that Barbara was at least ready to believe, assumed something of the look of Barbara who was being drawn toward him; so that now the graces of the world, all its lovely impacts upon his senses, began to be mixed up in his mind with Barbara and her God. Barbara was beginning to infect him with--shall I call it the superstition of a God? Whatever it may be called, it was very far from being religion yet. The fact was only this--that the idea of a God worth believing in, was coming a little nearer to him, was becoming to him a little more thinkable.

He began to feel his heart drawn at times, in some strange, tenderer fashion, hitherto unknown to him, to the blue of the sky, especially in the first sweetness of a summer morning. His soul would now and then seem to go out of him, in a passion of embrace, to the simplest flower: the flower would be, for a moment, just its self to him. He would spread out his arms to the wind, now when it met him in its strength, now when it but kissed his face. He never consented with himself that it was one force in all the forms that drew him--that perhaps it was the very God, the All in all about him. Neither did he question much with himself as to how the development, rather than change, had begun. Whether God did this, or was this, or it was only the possessing Barbara that cast her light out of his eyes on the things he saw and felt, he scarcely asked; but fully he recognised the fact that Nature was more alive than she ever had been to him who had always loved her.

The thought of Barbara went on growing dear to him. He never pondered anything but the girl herself, cherished no dreams of her becoming more to him, of her ever being nearer than away there; just to know her was now, and henceforward ever would be the gladness of his life. If that life was but for a season; if the very core of life was decay; if life was because nobody could help its being; if it died because no one could keep it from dying; yet were there two facts fit almost to embalm the body of this living death: Barbara, and the world which was the body of Barbara! So life carried the day, if but the day, and the heart of Richard rejoiced in the midst of perishings. Only, the night was coming in which no man can rejoice.

Was he then presuming to be in love with Barbara? I do not care to meet the question. If I knew what the mysterious word, _love_, meant, I might be able to answer it, but what should I thus gain or give? I know he loved her. I know that a divine power of truth and beauty had laid hold upon him, and was working in him as the powers of God alone can work in man, for they are the same by which he lives and moves and has his being, and to life are more than meat and drink, than sun and air.

Instead of blaming as a matter of course the person who does not believe in a God, we should think first whether his notional God is a God that ought, or a God that ought not to be believed in. Perhaps he only is to be blamed who, by inattention to duty, has become less able to believe in a God than he was once: because he did not obey the true voice, whencesoever it came, God may have to let him taste what it would be to have no God. For aught I know, a man may have been born of so many generations of unbelief, that now, at this moment, he cannot believe; that now, at this moment, he has no notion of a God at all, and cannot care whether there be a God or not; but he can mind what he knows he ought to mind. That will, that alone can clear the moral atmosphere, and make it possible for the true idea of a God to be born into it.

For some time Richard saw little of Barbara.

The heads of the house did not interfere with him. Lady Ann would now and then sail through the room like an iceberg; sir Wilton would come in, give a glance at the shelves and a grin, and walk out again with a more or less gouty gait; so much was about all their contact. Arthur was a little ashamed of having spoken to him as he did, and had again become in a manner friendly. He had seen several decaying masses, among the rest the Golding of their difference, become books in his hands, and again he had grown sufficiently interested in the workman to feel in him something more than the workman. He was on the way to perceive that, in certain insignificant things, such as imagination, reading, insight, and general faculty, not to mention conscience, generosity, and goodness of heart, Richard was out of sight before the ruck of gentlemen. He saw already that in some things, thought a good deal of at his college, Richard was more capable than himself. He found in him too what seemed to him a rare notion of art. In truth Richard's advance in this region was as yet but small, for he was guided only by his limited efforts in verse; none the less, however, was he far ahead of Arthur, who saw only what was shown him. In literature Arthur had already learned something from Richard, and knew it. He had, indeed, without knowing it, begun to look up to him.

Richard also had discovered good in Arthur--among other things a careful regard to his word, and to his father's tenantry. There was of course, in a scanty nature like his, a good deal of the lord bountiful mingled with his behaviour to his social inferiors on the property: he posed to himself as a condescending landlord.

The only one in the house who gave Richard trouble, was the child Victoria. The way she always took to show her liking, was to annoy its object. Never was name less fitting than hers: there was no victory in her. She could but fly about like veriest mosquito. Richard let her come and go unheeded, except when her proximity to his work made him anxious. But the little vixen would not consent to be naught any smallest while. She would rather be abused than remain unnoticed. When she found that her standing and staring procured no attention from the bookbinder, she would begin to handle his tools, and ask what this and that was for, giving, like a woman of fashion, no heed to any answer he accorded her. Learning thus, that is, by experiment, how to annoy him, she did not let opportunity lack. When school was over in the morning, and she could go where she pleased, she went often to the library; and as no one willingly asked where she was, the chief pleasure of her acquaintance lying in the assurance that she was nowhere at hand, Richard had to endure many things from her; and things that do not seem worth enduring, are not unfrequently the hardest to endure.

The behaviour of the child grew worse and worse. She would more than touch everything, and that thing the most persistently which Richard was most anxious to have let alone, causing him no little trouble at times to set right what she had injured. Worst of all was her persecution when she found him using gold-leaf. She would come behind him and blow the film away just as he had got it flat on his cushion, or laid on the spot where his tool was about to fix a portion of it. Her mischief was not even irradiated by childish laughter; there was never any sign of frolic on her monkey face, except the steely glitter of her sharp, black bead-eyes, might be supposed to contain some sprinkle of fun in its malice. Expostulation was not of the slightest use, and sometimes it was all Richard could do to keep his hands off her. Now she would look as stolid as if she did not understand a word he said; now pucker up her face into a most unpleasant grin of derision and contemptuous defiance.

One day when he happened to be using the polishing-iron, Vixen, as her brothers called her, came in, and began to play with the paste. Richard turned with the iron in his hand, which he had just taken from the brasier. He was rubbing it bright and clean, and she noted this, but had not seen him take it from the fire: she caught at it, to spoil it with her pasty fingers. As quickly she let it go, but did not cry, though her eyes filled. Richard saw, and his heart gave way. He caught the little hand so swift to do evil, and would have soothed its pain. She pulled it from him, crying, "You nasty man! How dare you!" and ran to the door, where she turned and made a hideous face at him. The same moment, by a neighbouring door that opened from another passage, in came Barbara, and before Vixen was well aware of her presence, had dealt her such a box on the ear that she burst into a storm of wrathful weeping.

"You're a brute, Bab," she cried. "I'll tell mamma!"

"Do, you little wretch!" returned Barbara, whose flushed face looked lovely childlike in its indignation beside the furious phiz of the tormenting imp.

The monkey-creature left the room, sobbing; and Barbara turned and was gone before Richard could thank her.

He heard no more of the matter, and for some time had no farther trouble with Victoria.

Barbara had the kindest of hearts, but there was nothing _soft about her She held it a sin to spoil any animal, not to say a child. For she had a strong feeling, initiated possibly by her black nurse, that the animals went on living after death, whence she counted it a shame not to teach them; and held that, if a sharp cut would make child or dog behave properly, the woman was no lover of either who would spare it.

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