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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWeighed And Wanting - Chapter 13. A Private Exhibition
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Weighed And Wanting - Chapter 13. A Private Exhibition Post by :voltaire11 Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :1363

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Weighed And Wanting - Chapter 13. A Private Exhibition

CHAPTER XIII. A PRIVATE EXHIBITION

Hester had not been near them for two or three days. It was getting dusk, but she would just run across the square and down the street, and look in upon them for a moment. She had not been brought up to fear putting her foot out of doors unaccompanied. It was but a few steps, and she knew almost every house she had to pass. To-morrow was Sunday, and she felt as if she could not go to church without having once more seen the little flock committed in a measure to her humble charge. Not that she imagined anything sole in her relation towards them; for she had already begun to see that we have to take care of _parts of each other, those parts, namely, which we can best help. From the ambition both of men and women to lord it over individuals have arisen worse evils perhaps than from a wider love of empery. When a man desires personal influence or power over any one, he is of the thieves and robbers who enter not in by the door. But the right and privilege of ministering belongs to every one who has the grace to claim it and be a fellow-worker with God.

Hester found Mrs. Baldwin busy in the shop, and with a nod passed her, and went up the stair. But when she opened the door, she stood for a moment hesitating whether to enter, or close it again with an apology and return, for it seemed as if preparations for a party had been made. The bed was pushed to the back of the room, and the floor was empty, except for a cushion or two, like those of an easy chair, lying in the middle of it. The father and the three boys were standing together near the fire, like gentlemen on the hearth-rug expecting visitors. She glanced round in search of the mother. Some one was bending over the bed in the farther corner; the place was lighted with but a single candle, and she thought it was she, stooping over her baby; but a moment's gaze made it plain that the back was that of a man: could it be the doctor again? Was the poor woman worse? She entered and approached the father, who then first seeing who it was that had knocked and looked in, pulled off the cap he invariably wore, and came forward with a bashful yet eager courtesy.

"I hope your wife is not worse," said Hester.

"No', miss, I hope not. She's took a bit bad. We can't always avoid it in our profession, miss."

"I don't understand you," she answered, feeling a little uneasy.--Were there horrors to be revealed of which she had surmised nothing?

"If you will do us the honor to take a seat, miss, we shall be only too happy to show you as much as you may please to look upon with favor."

Hester shuddered involuntarily, but mastered herself. The man saw her hesitate, and resumed.

"You see, miss, this is how it was. Dr. Christopher--that's the gentleman there, a lookin' after mother--he's been that kind to her an' me an' all on us in our trouble, an' never a crown-piece to offer him--which I'm sure no lady in the land could ha' been better attended to than she've been--twixt him an' you, miss--so we thought as how we'd do our best for him, an' try an' see whether amongst us we couldn't give him a pleasant evenin' as it were, just to show as we was grateful. So we axed him to tea, an' he come, like the gen'leman he be, an' so we shoved the bed aside an' was showin' him a bit on our craft, just a trick or two, miss--me an' the boys here--stan' forward, Robert an' the rest of you an' make your bows to the distinguished company as honors you with their presence to cast an eye on you an' see what you can show yourselves capable of."

Here Mr. Christopher--Hester had not now heard his name for the first time, though she had never seen him before--turned, and approached them.

"She'll be all right in a minute or two, Franks," he said.

"You told her, doctor, the boy ain't got the smallest hurt? It 'ud break my heart nigh as soon as hers to see the Sarpint come to grief."

"She knows that well enough; only, you see, we can't always help letting the looks of things get a hold of us in spite of the facts. That's how so many people come to go out of their wits. But I think for the present it will be better to drop it."

Franks turned to Hester to explain.

"One of the boys, miss--that's him--not much of him--the young Sarpint of the Prairie, we call him in the trade--he don't seem to ha' much amiss with him, do he now, miss?--he had a bit of a fall--only on them pads--a few minutes ago, the more shame to the Sarpint, the rascal!" Here he pretended to hit the Sarpint, who never moved a coil in consequence, only smiled. "But he ain't the worse, never a hair--or a scale I should rather say, to be kensistent. Bless you, we all knows how to fall equally as well's how to get up again! Only it's the most remarkable thing, an' you would hardly believe it of any woman, miss, though she's been married fourteen years come next Candlemas, an' use they say's a second natur', it's never proved no second nor no third natur' with her, for she's got no more used to seein' the children, if it's nothin' but standin' on their heads, than if it was the first time she'd ever heard o' sich a thing. An' for standin' on my head--I don't mean me standin' on my own head, that she don't mind no more'n if it was a pin standin' on its head, which it's less the natur' of a pin to do, as that's the way she first made acquaintance with me, seein' me for the first time in her life upside down, which I think sometimes it would be the better way for women to choose their husbands in general, miss, for it's a bad lot we are! But as to seein' of her own flesh an' blood, that's them boys, all on 'em, miss, a standin' on my head, or it might be one on my head an' the other two on my shoulders, that she never come to look at fair. She can't abide it, miss. By some strange okylar delusion she takes me somehow for somewheres about the height of St. Paul's, which if you was to fall off the ball, or even the dome of the same, you _might break your neck an' a few bones besides, miss. But bless you, there ain't no danger, an' she knows too, there ain't, only, as the doctor says, she can't abide the look o' the thing. You see, miss, we're all too much taken wi' the appearance o' things--the doctor's right there!--an' if it warn't for that, there's never a juggler could get on with his tricks, for it's when you're so taken up with what he wants you to see, that he does the thing he wants you not to see. But as the doctor thinks it better to drop it, it's drop it we will, an' wait till a more convenient time--that is, when mother'll be a bit stronger. For I hope neither you, miss, nor the doctor, won't give us up quite, seem' as how we have a kind of a claim upon you--an' no offense, miss, to you, or Mr. Christopher, sir!"

Hester, from whose presence the man had hitherto always hastened to disappear, was astonished at this outpouring; but Franks was emboldened by the presence of the doctor. The moment, however, that his wife heard him give up thus their little private exhibition in honor of the doctor, she raised herself on her elbow.

"Now, you'll do no such a thing, John Franks!" she said with effort." It's ill it would become me, for my whims, as I can't help, no more nor the child there, to prewent you from showin' sich a small attention to the gentleman as helped me through my trouble--God bless him, for it can't be no pleasure! So I'm not agoin' to put on no airs as if I was a fine lady. I've got to get used to't--that's the short an' the long of it!--Only I'm slow at it!" she added with a sigh, "Up you go, Moxy!"

Franks looked at the doctor. The doctor nodded his head as much as to say, "You had better do as she wishes;" but Hester saw that the eyes of the young man were all the time more watchful of the woman than of the performance.

Immediately Franks, with a stage-bow, offered Hester a chair. She hesitated a moment, for she felt shy of Mr. Christopher: but as she had more fear of not behaving as she ought to the people she was visiting, she sat down, and became for the first time in her life a spectator of the feats of a family of acrobats.

There might have seemed little remarkable in the display to one in the occasional habit of seeing such things, and no doubt to Mr. Christopher it had not much that was new; but to Hester what each and all of them were capable of was astonishing--more astonishing than pleasant, for she was haunted for some time after with a vague idea of prevailing distortion and dislocation. It was satisfactory nevertheless to know that much labor of a very thorough and persevering sort must have been expended upon their training before they could have come within sight of the proficiency they had gained. She believed this proficiency bore strong witness to some kind of moral excellence in them, and that theirs might well be a nobler way of life than many in which money is made more rapidly, and which are regarded as more respectable. There were but two things in the performance she found really painful: one, that the youngest seemed hardly equal to the physical effort required in those tricks, especially which he had as yet mastered but imperfectly: and it was very plain this was the chief source of trial to the nerves of the mother. He was a sweet-looking boy, with a pale interesting face, bent on learning his part, but finding it difficult. The other thing that pained Hester, was, that the moment they began to perform, the manner of the father toward his children changed; his appearance also, and the very quality of his voice changed, so that he seemed hardly the same man. Just as some men alter their tone and speak roughly when they address a horse, so the moment Franks assumed the teacher, he assumed the tyrant, and spoke in a voice between the bark of a dog and the growl of a brown bear. But the roughness had in it nothing cruel, coming in part of his having had to teach other boys than his own, whom he found this mode of utterance assist him in compelling to give heed to his commands; in part from his idea of the natural embodiment of authority. He ordered his boys about with sternness, sometimes even fiercely, swore at them indeed occasionally, and made Hester feel very uncomfortable.

"Come, come, Franks!" said Mr. Christopher, on one of these outbreaks.

The man stood silent for a moment "like one forbid," then turning to Miss Raymount first, and next to his wife, said, taking of his cap,

"I humbly beg your pardon, ladies. I forgot what company I was in. But bless you, I mean nothing by it! It's only my way. Ain't it now, mates--you as knows the old man?"

"Yes, father; 'tain't nothin' more'n a way you've got," responded the boys all, the little one loudest.

"You don't mind it, do you--knowin' as it's only to make you mind what you're about?"

"No, father, _we don't mind it. Go ahead, father," said the eldest.

"But," said Franks, and here interjected an imprecation, vulgarly called an oath, "if ever I hear one o' you a usin' of sich improper words, I'll break every bone in his carcase."

"Yes, father," answered the boys with one accord,

"It's all very well for fathers," he went on; "an' when you're fathers yourselves, an' able to thrash me--not as I think you'd want to, kids--I sha'nt ha' no call to meddle with you. So here goes!"

Casting a timid glance at Hester, in the assurance that he had set himself thoroughly right with her, showing himself as regardful of his boys' manners as could justly be expected of any parent, he proceeded with his lesson from the point where he had left off.

As to breaking the boys' bones, there hardly seemed any bones in them to break; gelatine at best seemed to be what was inside their muscles, so wonderful were their feats, and their pranks so strange. But their evident anxiety to please, their glances full of question as to their success in making their offering acceptable, their unconscious efforts to supply the lacking excitement of the public gaze, and, more than all, the occasional appearance amidst the marvels of their performance, in which their bodies seemed mere india-rubber in response to their wills, of a strangely mingled touch of pathos, prevailed chiefly to interest Hester in their endeavor. This last would appear in the occasional suffering it caused Moxy, the youngest, to do as his father required, but oftener in the incongruity between the lovely expression of the boy's face, and the oddity of it when it became the field of certain comicalities required of him--especially when, stuck through between his feet, it had to grin like a demon carved on the folding seat of a choir-stall. Its sweet innocence, and the veil of suffering cast over its best grin, suggesting one of Raphael's cherubs attempting to play the imp, Hester found almost discordantly pathetic. She could have caught the child to her bosom, but alas! she had no right. She was already beginning to become aware of the difficulty of the question as to when or how much you may interfere with the outward conditions of men, or help them save through the channels of the circumstance in which you find them. The gentle suffering face seemed far from its own sphere, that of a stray boy-angel come to give her a lesson in the heavenly patience. His mother, whose yellow hair and clear gray eyes were just like his, covered her eyes with her hand, though she could not well see him from where she lay, every time he had to do anything by himself.

All at once the master of the ceremonies drew 'himself up, and wiping his forehead, gave a deep sigh, as much as to say, "I have done my best, and if I have not pleased you, the more is my loss, for I have tried hard," and the performance was over.

The doctor rose, and in a manly voice, whose tones were more pleasing to Hester than the look of the man, which she did not find attractive, proceeded to point out to Franks one or two precautions which his knowledge of anatomy enabled him to suggest, with regard to the training especially of the little Moxy. At the same time he expressed himself greatly pleased with what his host had been so kind as to show him, remarking that the power to do such things implied labor more continuous and severe than would have sufficed to the learning of two or three trades. In reply, Franks, mistaking the drift of the remark, and supposing it a gentle remonstrance with what the doctor counted a waste of labor, said, in a tone that sounded sad in the ears of Hester,

"What's a fellow to do, sir, when he 'ain't got no dinner? He must take to the work as takes to him. There was no other trade handy for me. My father he was a poor laborer, an' died early, o' hard work an' many mouths. My mother lived but a year after him an' I had to do for the kids whatever came first to hand. There was two on 'em dead 'atwixt me an' the next alive, so I was a long way ahead o' the rest, an' I couldn't ha' seen them goin' to the dogs for want o' bread while I was learnin' a trade, even if I had had one in my mind more than another, which I never had. I always was a lively lad, an' for want of anything better to do, for my father wouldn't have us go to work till we was strong enough, he said--an' for that matter it turned out well when the hard time came--I used to amuse myself an' the rest by standin' on my head an' twistin' of my body into all sorts o' shapes--more'n it could well ha' been meant for to take. An' when the circus come round, I would make friends wi' the men, helpin' of 'em to look after their horses, an' they would sometimes, jest to amuse theirselves, teach me tricks I was glad enough to learn; an' they did say for a clod-hopper I got on very well. But that, you see, sir, set my monkey up, an' I took a hoath to myself I would do what none o' them could do afore I died--an' some thinks, sir," he added modestly, "as how I've done it--but that's neither here nor there. The p'int is, that, when my mother followed my father, an' the rest come upon my hands, I was able at once, goin' about an' showin' off, to gather a few coppers for 'em. But I soon found it was precious little I could get, no matter what I could do so long as my clothes warn't the right thing. So long as I didn't look my trade, they regarded my best as nothing but a clumsy imitation of my betters, an' laughed at what circus Joe said he couldn't do no better hisself. So I plucks up heart an' goes to Longstreet, as was the next market-town, an' into a draper's shop, an' tells 'em what I wanted, an' what it was for, promisin' to pay part out o' the first money I got, an' the rest as soon after as I could. The chaps in the shop, all but one on em', larfed at me; there's always one, or two p'raps, leastways sech as has been my expearence, sir an' miss, as is better'n most o' the rest, though it's a good thing everybody's not so soft-hearted as my wife there, or the world would soon be turned topsy turvey, an' the rogues have all the money out o' the good folk's pockets, an' them turned beggars in their turn, an' then the rogues wouldn't give them nothink, an' so the good ones would die out, an' the world be full o' nothing but damned rascals--I beg your pard'n, miss. But as I was sayin', though I fared no better at the next shop nor the next, there was one good woman I come to in a little shop in a back street, an' she was a resemblin' of yourself, miss, an' she took an' set me up in my trade, a givin' of me a few remnants o' colored calico, God bless her! I set to with my needle, an' I dressed myself as like a proper clown as I could, an' painted my face beautiful, an' from that time till they was able to do some'at for theirselves, I managed to keep the kids in life. It wasn't much more, you see, but life's life though it bean't tip-top style. An' if they're none o' them doin' jest so well as they might, there's none o' them been in pris'n yet, an' that's a comfort as long as it lasts. An' when folk tells me I'm a doin' o' nothink o' no good, an' my trade's o' no use to nobody, I says to them, says I, 'Beggin' your pardon, sir, or ma'am, but do you call it nothink to fill--leastways to _nigh fill four hungry little bellies at home afore I wur fifteen?' An' after that, they ain't in general said nothink; an' one gen'leman he give me 'alf-a-crown."

"The best possible answer you could have given, Franks," rejoined Mr. Christopher. "But I think perhaps you hardly understood what such objectors meant to say. They might have gone on to explain, only they hadn't the heart after what you told them, that most trades did something on both sides--not only fed the little ones at home, but did good to the persons for whom the work was done; that the man, for instance, who cobbled shoes, gave a pair of dry feet to some old man at the same time that he filled his own child's hungry little stomach."

Franks was silent for a moment, thinking.

"I understand you, sir," he said. "But I think I knows trades as makes a deal o' money, an' them they makes it out on's the worse an' not the better. It's better to stand on a fellow's own head than to sell gin; an' I 'most think it's as good as the fire-work trade."

"You are quite right: there's not a doubt of it," answered Mr. Christopher. "But mind you," he went on, "I don't for a moment agree with those who tell you your trade is of no use. I was only explaining to you what they meant; for it's always best to know what people mean, even where they are wrong."

"Surely, sir, and I thank you kindly. Everybody's not so fair."

Here he broke into a quiet laugh, so pleased was he to have the doctor take his part.

"I think," Mr. Christopher went on, "to amuse people innocently is often the only good you can do them. When done lovingly and honestly, it is a Christian service."

This rather shocked Hester:--acrobatics a Christian service. With her grand dawning idea mingled yet some foolish notional remnants. She still felt as if going to church and there fixing your thoughts on the prayers and the lessons and the hymns and the sermon was the _serving of God. She turned rather sharply towards the doctor, with a feeling that honesty called on her to speak; but not a word came to her lips, for the best of reasons--that not a thought had arisen in answer to his bold assertion. She was one of the few who know when they have nothing to say. But Christopher had observed the movement of dissent.

"Suppose," he went on, but without addressing her more than before, still turning himself almost exclusively to Franks--"Suppose somebody walking along Oxford Street, brooding over an injury, and thinking how to serve the man out that had done it to him. All the numberless persons and things pass him on both sides and he sees none of them--takes no notice of anything. But he spies a man in Berners Street, in the middle of a small crowd, showing them some tricks--we won't say so good as yours, Mr. Franks, but he stops, and stares, and forgets for a moment or two that there is one brother-man he hates and would kill if he could."

Here Hester found words, and said, though all but inaudibly,

"He would only go away as soon as he had had enough of it, and hate him all the same!"

"I know very well," answered Christopher, turning now to her, "it would not make a good man of him: but, except the ways of the world, its best ways and all, are to go for nothing in God's plans, it must be something to have the bad mood in a man stopped for a moment, just as it is something to a life to check a fever. It gives the godlike in the man, feeble, perhaps nearly exhausted, a fresh opportunity of revival. For the moment at least, the man is open to influences from another source than his hate. If the devil may catch a man at unawares when he is in an evil or unthinking mood, why should not the good Power take his opportunity when the evil spirit is asleep through the harping of a David or the feats of a Franks? I sometimes find, as I come from a theatre where I have been occupied with the interests of a stirring play, that, with a sudden rush of intelligence, I understand the things best worth understanding better than before."

The illustration would have pleased Hester much had he said "coming out of a concert-room," for she was not able to think of God being in a theatre: perhaps that had some relation to her inability to tell Saffy why God made the animals: she could have found her a reason why he made the dogs, but not why he made the monkeys. We are surrounded with things difficult to understand, and the way most people take is not to look at them lest they should find out they have to understand them. Hester suspected scepticism under the remarks of the doctor: most doctors, she believed, had more than a leaning in that direction. But she had herself begun to have a true notion of serving _man at least; therefore there was no fear of her not coming to see by and by what serving God meant. She did serve him, therefore she could not fail of finding out the word that belonged to the act: no one who does not serve him ever can find out what serving him means. Some people are constantly rubbing at their skylights, but if they do not keep their other windows clean also, there will not be much light in the house: God, like his body, the light, is all about us, and prefers to shine in upon us sideways: we could not endure the power of his vertical glory; no mortal man can see God and live; and he who loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, shall not love his God whom he hath not seen. He will come to us in the morning through the eyes of a child, when we have been gazing all night at the stars in vain.

Hester rose. She was a little frightened at the very peculiar man and his talk. She had made several attempts in the dull light, but without much success, to see him as he watched the contortions of the acrobats, which apparently he enjoyed more than to her seemed reasonable. But, as with herself, it was the boy Moxy that chiefly attracted him, though the show of physical prowess was far from uninteresting to him; and although what she saw through the smoky illumination of the dip was not attractive to her, the question remains whether it was really the man himself she saw, or only an appearance made up of candle gleam and gloom, complemented by her imagination. I will write what she saw, or thought she saw.

A rather thick-set man about thirty, in a rough shooting-coat of a brownish gray with many pockets, a striped shirt, and a black necktie--if tie it could be called that had so little tie in it; a big head, with rather thick and long straggling hair; a large forehead, and large gray eyes; the remaining features well-formed--but rather fat, like the rest of his not elegant person; and a complexion rather pale. She thought he had quite a careless, if not a slightly rakish look; but I believe a man, even in that light, would have seen in him something manly and far from unattractive. He had a rather gruff but not unmusical voice, with what some might have thought a thread of pathos in it. He always reminded certain of his friends of the portrait of Jean Paul in the Paris edition of his works. He was hardly above the middle height, and, I am sorry to say, wore his hat on the back of his head, which would have given Solon or Socrates himself a foolish look. Hester, however, as she declined his offer to see her home, did not then become aware of this peculiarity, which, to say the least, would have made her like him no better.

The next time she went to see the Frankses, which was not for four or five days, she found they were gone. They had told Mrs. Baldwin that they were sorry to leave, but they must look for a cheaper lodging--a better they could not hope to find; and as the Baldwins had just had an application for the rooms, they felt they must let them go.

Hester was disappointed not to have seen them once more, and made them a little present as she had intended; and in after times the memory of them was naturally the more interesting that on Mrs. Franks she had first made experiment in the hope of her calling, and in virtue of her special gift had not once nor twice given sleep and rest to her and her babe. And if it is a fine thing to thrill with delight the audience of a concert-room--well-dined, well-dressed people, surely it was not a little thing to hand God's gift of sleep to a poor woman weary with the lot of women, and having so little, as Hester thought, to make life a pleasure to her!

Mrs. Franks would doubtless have differed from Hester in this judgment of her worldly condition, on the ground that she had a good husband, and good children. Some are always thinking others better off than themselves: others feel as if the lot of many about them must be absolutely unbearable, because they themselves could never bear it, they think. But things are unbearable just until we have them to bear; their possibility comes with them. For we are not the roots of our own being.

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