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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThere & Back - Chapter 26. Richard And Alice
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There & Back - Chapter 26. Richard And Alice Post by :Pennejac Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :3076

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There & Back - Chapter 26. Richard And Alice

CHAPTER XXVI. RICHARD AND ALICE

One evening Richard went to see his grandfather, and asked if he would allow him to give Miss Wylder a lesson in horseshoeing: she wanted, he said, to be able to shoe Miss Brown--or indeed any horse. Simon laughed heartily at the proposal: it was too great an absurdity to admit of serious objection!

"Ah, you don't know Miss Wylder, grandfather!" said Richard.

"Of course not! Never an old man knew anything about a girl! It's only the young fellows can fathom a woman! Having girls of his own blinds a man to the nature of them! There's going to be a law passed against growing old! It's an unfortunate habit the world's got into somehow, and the young fellows are going to put a stop to it for fear of losing their wisdom!"

As the blacksmith spoke, he went on rasping and filing at a house-door key, fast in a vice on his bench; and his words seemed to Richard to fall from his mouth like the raspings from his rasp.

"Well, grandfather," said Richard, "if Miss Wylder don't astonish you, she'll astonish me!"

"Have you ever seen her drive a nail, boy?"

"Not once; but I am just as sure she will do it--and better than any beginner you've seen yet!"

"Well, well, lad! we'll see! we'll see! She's welcome anyhow to come and have her try! What day shall it be?"

"That I can't tell yet."

"It makes me grin to think o' them doll's hands with a great hoof in them!"

"They _are little hands--she's little herself--but they ain't doll's hands, grandfather. You should have seen her box Miss Vixen's ears for making a face at me! Her ears didn't take them for doll's hands, I'll be bound! The room rang again!"

"Bring her when you like, lad," said Simon.

It was moonlight, and when Richard arrived at the lodgeless gate, he saw inside it, a few yards away, seated on a stone, the form of a woman. He thought the first moment, as was natural, of Barbara, but the next, he knew that this was something strange. She sat in helpless, hopeless attitude, with her head in her hands. A strange dismay came upon him at the sight of her; his heart fluttered in a cage of fear. He did not believe in ghosts. If he saw one, it would but show that sometimes when a person died there was a shadow left that was like him! There might be millions of ghosts, and no God the more! What are we all but spectres of the unknown? What was death but a vanishing of the unknown? What are the dead but vanishments! Yet he shuddered at the thought that he had actually come upon one of the dead that are still alive, of whom, once or twice in a long century, one is met wandering vaguely about the world, unable to find what used to make it home. He peered through the iron bars as into a charnel-house: one such wanderer was enough to make the whole vault of night a gaping tomb.

Putting his key in the lock made a sharp little noise. The figure started up, her face gleaming white in the moon, but dropped again on her stone, unable to stand. Richard could not take his eyes off her. While closing the gate he dared not turn his back to her. She sat motionless as before, her head in her hands, her elbows on her knees. He stood for a moment staring and trembling, then, with an effort of the will that approached agony, went toward her. As he drew nearer, he began to feel as if he had once known her. He must have seen her in London somewhere, he thought. But why was her shadow sitting there, the lonely hostless guest of the night's caravansary?

He went nearer. The form remained motionless. Something reminded him of Alice Manson.

He laid his hand on the figure. It was a woman to the touch as well as to the eye. But not yet did she move an inch. He would have raised her face. Then she resisted. All at once he was sure she was Alice.

"Alice!" he cried. "Good God!--sitting in the cold night!"

She made him no answer, sat stone-still.

"What shall I do for you?" he said.

"Nothing," she answered, in a voice that might well have been that of a spectre. "Leave me," she added, as if with the last entreaty of despair.

"You are in trouble, Alice!" he persisted. "Why are you so far from home? Where's Arthur?"

"What right have _you to question me?" she returned, almost fiercely.

"None but that I am your brother's friend."

"Friend!" she echoed, in a faint far-away voice.

"You forget, Alice, that I did all I could to be your friend, and you would not let me!"

She neither spoke nor moved. Her stillness seemed to say, "Neither will I now."

"Where are you going?" he asked, after a hopeless pause.

"Nowhere."

"Why did you leave London?"

"Why should I tell you?"

"I think you will tell me!"

"I will not."

"You know I would do anything for you!"

"I daresay!"

"You know I would!"

"I don't."

"Try me."

"I will not."

Her voice grew more and more faint and forced. Her words and it were very unlike.

"Don't go on like that, Alice. You're not being reasonable," pleaded Richard.

"Oh, do leave me alone!"

"I won't leave you."

"As you please! It's nothing to me."

"Alice, why do you speak to me like that? Tell me what's wrong."

"Everything is wrong. Everybody is wrong. The whole world is wrong."

Her voice was a little stronger. She raised herself, and looked him in the face.

"I hope not."

"I hope it is!"

"Why should you?"

"To think things were right would be too terrible! I say everything's wrong."

"What's to be done, then?" sighed Richard.

"I must get out of it all"

"But how?"

"There is only one way."

"What is that?"

"Everybody knows."

"Alice," cried Richard, nearly in despair like herself, "are you out of your mind?"

"Pretty nearly.--Why shouldn't I be? There are plenty of us!"

"Alice, if you won't tell me what is the matter with you, if you won't let me help you, I will sit down by you till the morning."

"What if I drop?"

"Then I will carry you away. The sooner you drop the better." Her resolution seemed to break.

"I 'ain't eaten a mouthful to-day," she said.

"My poor girl! Promise me to wait till I come back. Here, put on my coat."

She was past resisting more, and allowed him to button his coat about her.

But he was in great perplexity: where was he to get anything for her? And how was she to live till he brought it! It was terrible to think of! Alice with nothing to eat, and no refuge but a stone in the moonlight! This was what her religion had done for Alice!

"Miss Wylder's God!" he said to himself with contempt.

"He's well enough for the wind and the stars and the moonlight! but for human beings--for Alice--for creatures dying of hunger, what a mockery! If he were there, it would be a sickness to talk of him! Beauty is beauty, but for anything behind it--pooh!"

He stood a moment hesitating. Alice swayed on her seat, and would have fallen. He caught her--and in the act remembered a little cottage, a hut rather, down a lane a short way off. He took her in his arms and started for it.

She was dreadfully thin, but a strong man cannot walk very fast carrying a woman, however light she be, and she had half come to herself before he reached the cottage.

"Richard, dear Richard!" she murmured at his ear, "where are you carrying me? Are you going to kill me, or are you taking me home with you? Do set me down. Where's Arthur? I will let you be good to me! I will! I can't hold out for ever!"

She seemed to be dreaming--apparently about their meeting in Regent-street; or perhaps she was delirious from want of food. He walked on without attempting to answer her. Some great wrong had been done her, and his heart sank within him; for he believed in no judgment, no final setting right of wrongs. He knew of nothing better than that the wronged and the wronger would cease together. Certainly, if his creed represented fact, the best thing in existence is that it has no essential life in it, that it cannot continue, that it must cease: the good of living is that we must die. The hope of death is the inspiration of Buddhism! His heart ached with pity for the girl. His help, his tenderness expanded, and folded her in the wings of a shelter that was not empty because his creed was false.

"She belongs to me!" he said to himself. "The world has thrown her off: 'be it lawful I take up what's cast away!' Here is the one treasure, a human being! the best thing in the world! I will cherish it. Poor girl! she shall at least know one man a refuge!"

The cottage was a wretched place, but a labourer and his family lived in it. He knocked many times. A sleepy voice answered at last, and presently a sleepy-eyed man half opened the door.

"What's the deuce of a row?" he grunted.

"Here's a young woman half dead with hunger and cold!" said Richard. "You must take her in or she'll die!"

"Can't you take her somewhere else?"

"There's nowhere else near enough.--Come, come, let us in! You wouldn't have her die on your doorstep!"

"I don'ow as I see the sense o' bringin' her here!" answered the man sleepily. "We ain't out o' the hunger-wood ourselves yet!--Wife! here's a chap as says he's picked up a young 'oman a dyin' o' 'unger!--'tain't likely, be it, i' this land o' liberty?"

"Likely enough, Giles, where the liberty's mainly to starve!" replied a feminine voice. "Let un bring the poor thing in. There ain't nowhere to put her, an' there ain't nothin' to give her, but she can't lie out in the wide world!"

"'Ain't you got a drop o' milk?" asked Richard.

"Milk!" echoed the woman; "it's weeks an' weeks the childer 'ain't tasted of it! The wonder to me is that the cows let a poor man milk 'em!"

Richard set Alice on her feet, but she could not stand alone; had he taken his arm from round her, she would have fallen in a heap. But the woman while she spoke had been getting a light, and now came to the door with a candle-end. Her husband kept prudently in her shadow.

"Poor thing! poor thing! she be far gone!" she said, when she saw her. "Bring her in, sir. There's a chair she can sit upon. I'll get her a drop o' tea--that'll be better'n milk! There's next to no work, and the squire he be mad wi' Giles acause o' some rabbit or other they says he snared--which they did say it was a hare--I don'ow: take the skin off, an' who's to tell t'one from t'other! I do know I was right glad on't for the childer! An' if the parson tell me my man 'ill be damned for hare or rabbit, an' the childer starvin', I'll give him a bit o' my mind.--'No, sir!' says I; 'God ain't none o' your sort!' says I. 'An' p'r'aps the day may be at hand when the rich an' the poor 'ill have a turn o' a change together! Leastways there's somethin' like it somewheres i' the Bible,' says I. 'An' if it be i' the Bible,' says I, 'it's likely to be true, for the Bible do take the part o' the rich--mostly!'"

She was a woman who liked to hear herself talk, and so spoke as one listening to herself. Like most people, whether they talk or not, she got her ideas second-hand; but Richard was nowise inclined to differ with what she said about the Bible, for he knew little more and no better about it than she. Had parson Wingfold, who did know the Bible as few parsons know it, heard her, he would have told her that, by search express and minute, he had satisfied himself that there was not a word in the Bible against the poor, although a multitude of words against the rich. The sins of the poor are not once mentioned in the Bible, the sins of the rich very often. The rich may think this hard, but I state the fact, and do not much care what they think. When they come to judge themselves and others fairly, they will understand that God is no respecter of persons, not favouring even the poor in his cause.

Richard set Alice on the one chair, by the poor little fire the woman was coaxing to heat the water she had put on it in a saucepan. Alice stared at the fire, but hardly seemed to see it. The woman tried to comfort her. Richard looked round the place: the man was in the bed that filled one corner; a mattress in another was crowded with children; there was no spot where she could lie down.

"I shall be back as soon's ever I can," he said, and left the cottage.

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