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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThere & Back - Chapter 42. Yet A Lower Deep
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There & Back - Chapter 42. Yet A Lower Deep Post by :Merry_V Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :1331

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There & Back - Chapter 42. Yet A Lower Deep


But while thus Richard suffered, scarce knew, and cared nothing, how the days went and came, he did his best to conceal his suffering from his father and mother, and succeeded wonderfully. As if in reward for this unselfishness, it flashed into his mind what a selfish fellow he was: his trouble had made him forget Alice and Arthur! he must find them!

He knew the street where the firm employing Arthur used to have its offices; but it had removed to other quarters. He went to the old address, and learned the new one. The next day he told his father he would like to have a holiday. His father making no objection, he walked into the city. There he found the place, but not Arthur. He had not been there for a week, they said. No one seemed to know where he lived; but Richard, regardless of rebuffs, went on inquiring, until at length he found a carman who lived in the same street. He set out for it at once.

After a long walk he came to it, a wretched street enough, in Pentonville, with its numbers here obliterated, there repeated, and altogether so confused, that for some time he could not discover the house. Coming at length to one of the dingiest, whose number was illegible, but whose door stood open, he walked in, and up to the second floor, where he knocked at the first door on the landing. The feeble sound of what was hardly a voice answered. He went in. There sat Arthur, muffled in an old rug, before a wretched fire, in the dirtiest, rustiest grate he had ever seen. He held out a pallid hand, and greeted him with a sunless smile, but did not speak.

"My poor, dear fellow!" said Richard; "what is the matter with you? Why didn't you let me know?"

The tears came in Arthur's eyes, and he struggled to answer him, but his voice was gone. To Richard he seemed horribly ill--probably dying. He took a piece of paper from his pocket, and a pencil-conversation followed.

"What is the matter with you?"

"Only a bad cold."

"Where is Alice?"

"At the shop. She will be back at eight o'clock."

"Where is your mother?"

"I do not know; she is out."

"Tell me anything I can do for you."

"What does it matter! I do not know anything. It will soon be over."

"And this," reflected Richard, "is the fate of one who believes in a God!" But the thought followed close, "I wish I were going too!" And then came the suggestion, "What if some one cares for him, and is taking him away because he cares for him! What if there be a good time waiting him! What if death be the way to something better! What if God be going to surprise us with something splendid! What if there come a glorious evening after the sad morning and fog-sodden night! What if Arthur's dying be in reality a waking up to a better sunshine than ours! We see only one side of the thing: he may see the other! What if God could not manage to ripen our life without suffering! If only there were a God that tried to do his best for us, finding great difficulties, but encountering them for the sake of his children!"--"How dearly I should love such a God!" thought Richard. He would hold by him to the last! He would do his best to help him! He would fight for him! He would die for him!

His hour was not yet come to know that there is indeed such a God, doing his best for us in great difficulties, with enemies almost too much for him--the falsehood, namely, the unfilialness of his children, so many of whom will not be true, priding themselves on the good he has created in them, while they refuse to make it their own by obeying it when they are disinclined.

If even he might but hope that with his last sigh Arthur would awake to a consciousness justifying his existence, let him be the creation of a living power or the helpless product of a senseless, formless Ens-non-ens, he would be content! For then they might one day meet again--somewhere--somewhen, somehow; together encounter afresh the troubles and dissatisfactions of life, and perhaps work out for themselves a world more endurable!

But with that came the thought of Barbara.

"No!" he said to himself, "let us all die--die utterly! Why should we grumble at our poor life when it means nothing, is so short, and gives such a sure and certain hope of nothing more! Who would prolong it in such a world, with which every soul confesses itself disappointed, of which every heart cries that it cannot have been made for us! When they grow old, men always say they have found life a delusion, and would not live it again. From the first, things have been moving toward the worse; life has been growing more dreary; men are more miserable now than when they were savage: how can we tell that the world was not started at its best, to go down hill for ever and ever, with a God to urge its evil pace, for surely there is none to stop it! What if the world be the hate-contrivance of a being whose delight it is to watch its shuddering descent into the gulf of extinction, its agonized slide into the red foam of the lake of fire!"

But he must do something for the friend by whose side he had sat speechless for minutes!

"I will come and see you again soon, Arthur," he said; "I must go now. Would you mind the loan of a few shillings? It is all I happen to have about me!"

Arthur shook his head, and wrote,

"Money is of no use--not the least."

"Don't you fancy anything that might do you good?"

"I can't get out to get anything."

"Your mother would get it for you!"

He shook his head.

"But there's Alice!"

Arthur gave a great sigh, and said nothing. Richard laid the shillings on the chimneypiece, and proceeded to make up the fire before he went. He could see no sort of coal-scuttle, no fuel of any kind. With a heavy heart he left him, and went down into the street, wondering what he could do.

As he drew near the public-house that chiefly poisoned the neighbourhood, it opened its hell-jaws, and cast out a woman in frowzy black, wiping her mouth under her veil with a dirty pocket-handkerchief. She had a swollen red face, betokening the presence of much drink, walked erect, and went perfectly straight, but looked as if, were she to relax the least of her state, she would stagger. As she passed Richard, he recognized her. It was Mrs. Manson. Without a thought he stopped to speak to her. The same moment he saw that, although not dead drunk, she could by no tropical contortion be said to be sober.

She started, and gave a snort of indignation.

"You here!" she cried. "What the big devil do you want--coming here to insult your betters! You the son of the bookbinder! You're no more John Tuke's son than I am. You're the son of that precious rascal, my husband! Go to sir Wilton; don't come to me! You're a base-born wretch,--Oh yes, run to your mother! Tell her what I say! Tell her she was lucky to get hold of her tradesman."

She had told her son and daughter that Richard was the missing heir; and in what she now said she may have meant only to reflect on the humble birth of his mother and abuse his aunt, but it does not matter much what a drunkard means. At the same time the poison of asps may come from the lips of a drunkard as from those of a sober liar. As the woman staggered away, Richard gave a stagger too, and seemed to himself to go reeling along the street. He sat down on a doorstep to recover himself, but for a long way after resuming his walk went like one half stunned. His brain, nevertheless, seemed to go on working of itself. The wretched woman's statement glowed in him with a lurid light. It seemed to explain so much! He had often felt that his father, though always just, did not greatly care for him. Then there was his mother's strangeness--the hardness of her religion, the gloom that at times took possession of her whole being, her bursts of tenderness, and her occasional irritability! His mother! That his mother should--should have made him an outcast! The thought was sickening! It was horrible! Perhaps the woman lied! But no; something questionable in the background of his life had been unrecognizably showing from the first of his memory! All was clear now! His mother's cruel breach with Alice, and her determination that there should be no intercourse between the families, was explained: had Alice and he fallen in love with each other, she would have had to tell the truth to part them! He _must know the truth! He would ask his mother straight out, the moment he got home! But how _could he ask her! How could any son go to his mother with such a question! Whatever the answer to it, he dared not! There was but one alternative left him--either to kill himself, or to smother his suffering, and let the miserable world go on! Why should he add to its misery by making his own mother more miserable? Such a question from her son would go through her heart like the claws of a lynx! How could she answer it! How could he look upon her shame! Had she not had trouble enough already, poor mother! It would be hard if her God assailed her on all sides--beset her behind and before! Poor mother indeed, if her son was no better than her God! He must be a better son to her than he had been! The child of her hurt must heal her! Must he as well as his father be cruel to her! But alas, what help was in him! What comfort could a heart of pain yield! what soothing stream flow from a well of sorrow! Truly his mother needed a new God!

But even this horror held its germ of comfort: he had his brother Arthur, his sister Alice, to care and provide for! They should not die! He had now the right to compel them to accept his aid!

He thought and thought, and saw that, in order to help them, to do his duty by them, he must make a change in his business relations with Mr. Tuke: he must have the command of his earnings! He could do nothing for his brother and sister as things were! To ask for money would wake inquiry, and he dared not let his mother know that he went to see them! If he did, she would be compelled to speak out, and that was a torture he would rather see her die than suffer. He must have money concerning which no questions would be asked!

Poor, poor creatures! Oh, that terrible mother! It was good to know that his mother was not like _her_!

The first thing then was, to ask his father to take him as a journeyman, and give him journeyman's wages. His work, he knew, was worth much more, but that would be enough; his father was welcome to the rest. Out of his wages he would pay his share of the housekeeping, and do as he pleased with what was left. Buying no more books, he would have a nice little weekly sum free for Alice and Arthur. To see his brother and sister half starved was unendurable! he would himself starve first! But how was his money to reach them in the shape of food? That greedy, drunken mother of them swallowed everything! Like old Saturn she devoured her children; she ate and drank them to death! Sport of a low consuming passion, thought Richard, what matter whether she came of God or devil or nothing at all! Redemption, salvation from an evil self, had as yet no greater part in Richard's theories than in Mrs. Manson's thoughts. The sole good, the sole satisfaction in life the woman knew, was to eat and drink, if not what she pleased, at least what she liked. If there were an eternity in front, thought Richard, and she had her way in it, she would go on for ever eating and drinking, craving and filling, to all the ages unsatisfied: he would _not have his hard-earned money go to fill her insatiable maw! It was not his part in life to make her drunk and comfortable! Wherever he came from, he could not be in the world for that! So what was he to do?

He seemed now to understand why Barbara had not written. She had known him as the son of honest tradespeople, and had no pride to make her despise him; but learning from Alice that he was base-born, she might well wish to drop him! It might not be altogether fair of Barbara--for how was he to blame? Almost as little was she to blame, brought up to count such as he disgraced from their birth! Doubtless her religion should have raised her above the cruel and false prejudice, for she said it taught her to be fair, insisted that she should be just! But with all the world against him, how could one girl stand up for him! True he needed fair play just so much the more; but that was the way things went in this best of possible worlds! No two things in it, meant to go together, fitted! He fought hard for Barbara, strained his strength with himself to be content beforehand with whatever she might do, or think, or say. One thing only he could not bear--to think less of Barbara! That would kill him, paralyze his very soul!--of a man make him a machine, a beast outright at best! In all the world, Barbara was likest the God she believed in: if she--the idea of her, that was, were taken from him, he must despair! He could stand losing herself, he said, but not the thought of her! Let him keep that! Let him keep that! He would revel in that, and defy all the evil gods in the great universe!

With his heart like a stone in his bosom, he reached the house, a home to him no more! and by effort supreme--in which, to be honest, for Richard was not yet a hero, he was aided by the consciousness of doing a thing of praise--managed to demean himself rather better than of late. The surges of the sea of troubles rose to overwhelm him; his courage rose to brave them: let them do their worst! he would be a man still! True, his courage had a cry at the heart of it; but there was not a little of the stoic in Richard, and if it was not the stoicism of Epictetus or of Marcus Aurelius, there was yet some timely, transient help in it. He was doing the best he could without God; and sure the Father was pleased to see the effort of his child! To suffer in patience was a step toward himself. No doubt self was potent in the patience, and not the best self, for that forgets itself--yet the better self, the self that chooses what good it knows.

The same night he laid his request for fixed wages before his father, who agreed to it at once. He believed it no small matter in education that a youth should have money at his disposal; and his wife agreed, with a pang, to what he counted a reasonable sum for Richard's board. But she would not hear of his paying for his lodging; that was more than the mother heart could bear: it would be like yielding that he was not her very own child!

The trouble remained, that a long week must elapse before he could touch any wages, and he dared not borrow for fear of questions: there was no help!

At night, the moment his head was on the pillow, the strain of his stoicism gave way. Then first he felt alone, utterly alone; and the loneliness went into his soul, and settled there, a fearful entity. The strong stoic, the righteous unbeliever burst into a passion of tears. Sure they were the gift of the God he did not know!--say rather, of the God he knew a little, without knowing that he knew him--and they somewhat cooled his burning heart. But the fog of a fresh despair streamed up from the rain, and its clouds closed down upon him. What was left him to live for! what to keep his heart beating! what to make life a living thing! Sunned and showered too much, it was faded and colourless! Why must he live on, as in a poor dream, without even the interest of danger!--for where life is worth nothing, danger is gone, and danger is the last interest of life! All was gray! Nothing was, but the damp and chill of the grave! No cloak of insanest belief, of dullest mistake, would henceforth hide any more the dreary nakedness of the skeleton, life! The world lay in clearest, barest, coldest light, its hopeless deceit and its misery all revealed! It was well that a grumous fog pervaded the air, each atom a spike in a vesicle of darkness! it was well that no summer noon was blazing about the world! At least there was no mockery now! the world was not pretending to be happy! was not helping the demon of laughter to jeer at the misery of men! Oh, the hellish thing, life! Oh this devilish thing, existence!--a mask with no face behind it! a look with no soul that looked!--a bubble blown out of lies with the breath of a liar! Words! words! words! Lies! lies! lies!

All of a sudden he was crying, as if with a loud voice from the bottom of his heart, though never a sound rose through his throat, "Oh thou who didst make me, if thou art anywhere, if there be such a one as I cry to, unmake me again; undo that which thou hast done; tear asunder and scatter that which thou hast put together! Be merciful for once, and kill me. Let me cease to exist--rather, let me cease to die. Will not plenty of my kind remain to satisfy thy soul with torment!"

Up towered a surge of shame at his poltroonery; he prayed for his own solitary release, and abandoned his fellows to the maker of their misery!

"No!" he cried aloud, "I will not! I will not pray for that! I will not fare better than my fellows!--Oh God, pity--if thou hast any pity, or if pity can be born of any prayer--pity thy creatures! If thou art anywhere, speak to me, and let me hear thee. If thou art God, if thou livest, and carest that I suffer, and wouldst help me if thou couldst, then I will live, and bear, and wait; only let me know that thou art, and art good, and not cruel. If I had but a friend that would stand by me, and talk to me a little, and help me! I have no one, no one, God, to speak to! and if thou wilt not hear, then there is nothing! Oh, be! be! God, I pray thee, exist! Thou knowest my desolation--for surely thou art desolate, with no honest heart to love thee!"

He thought of Barbara, and ceased: _she loved God!

A silence came down upon his soul. Ere it passed he was asleep, and knew no more till the morning waked him--to sorrow indeed, but from a dream of hope.

On a few-keyed finger-board, yet with multitudinous change, life struck every interval betwixt keen sorrow, lethargic gloom, and grayest hope, and the days passed and passed.

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