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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWeighed And Wanting - Chapter 3. The Magic Lantern
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Weighed And Wanting - Chapter 3. The Magic Lantern Post by :KeisEnt Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :1043

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Weighed And Wanting - Chapter 3. The Magic Lantern


Cornelius, leaving his mother, took refuge with his anger in his own room. Although he had occupied it but a fortnight the top of its chest of drawers was covered with yellow novels--the sole kind of literature for which Cornelius cared. Of this he read largely, if indeed his mode of swallowing could be called reading; his father would have got more pleasure out of the poorest of them than Cornelius could from a dozen. And now in this day's dreariness, he had not one left unread, and was too lazy or effeminate or prudent to encounter the wind and rain that beset the path betwixt him and the nearest bookshop. None of his father's books had any attraction for him. Neither science, philosophy, history, nor poetry held for him any interest. A drearier soul in a drearier setting could hardly be imagined than the soul of this youth in that day's weather at Burcliff.

Does a reader remark, "Well, wherein was the poor fellow to blame? No man can make himself like this or like that! The thing that is a passion to one is a bore to another! Some with both ear and voice have no love for music. Most exquisite of sonatas would not to them make up for a game of billiards! They cannot help it: they are made so"?--I answer, It is true no one can by an effort of the will care for this or that; but where a man cares for nothing that is worth caring for, the fault must lie, not in the nature God made, but in the character the man himself has made and is making. There is a moral reason why he does not and cannot care. If Cornelius had begun at any time, without other compulsion than the urging within him, to do something he knew he ought to do, he would not now have been the poor slave of circumstances he was--at the call and beck of the weather--such, in fact, as the weather willed. When men face a duty, not merely will that duty become at once less unpleasant to them, but life itself will _immediately begin to gather interest; for in duty, and in duty only, does the individual begin to come into real contact with life; therein only can he see what life is, and grow fit for it.

He threw himself on his bed--for he dared not smoke where his father was--and dozed away the hours till lunch, then returned and dozed again, with more success, till tea time. This was his only resource against the unpleasantness of the day. The others were nowise particularly weighed down by it, and the less that Cornelius was so little in the room, haunting the window with his hands in his pockets.

When tea was over, he rose and sauntered once more to the window, the only outlook he ever frequented.

"Hullo!" he cried, turning from it quickly. "I say, Hester! here's a lark! the sun's shining as if his grandmother had but just taught him how! The rain's over, I declare--at least for a quarter of an hour! Come, let's have a walk. We'll go and hear the band in the castle-gardens. I don't think there's any thing going on at the theatre, else I would take you there."

The sight of the sun revives both men and midges.

"I would rather walk," said Hester. "It is seldom one sees good acting in the provinces. At best there is but one star. I prefer a jewel to a gem, and a decent play to a fine part."

"Hester," said Cornelius with reproof, "I believe you think it a fine thing to be hard to please! I know a fellow that calls it a kind of suicide. To allow a spot to spoil your pleasure in a beauty is to be too fond of perfection."

"No, Corney," answered his sister, "that is hardly my position. What I would say is rather, that one point of excellence is not enough to make a whole beautiful--a face, or a play--or a character."

Hester had a rather severe mode of speaking, especially to this brother, which, if it had an end, failed of it. She was the only person in the house who could ever have done any thing with him, and she lost her advantage--let me use a figure--by shouting to him from a distance, instead of coming close up to him and speaking in a whisper. But for that she did not love him enough, neither was she yet calm enough in herself to be able for it. I doubt much, however, if he would have been in any degree permanently the better for the best she could have done for him. He was too self-satisfied for any redemption. He was afraid of his father, resented the interference of his mother, was as cross as he pleased with his sister, and cared little whether she was vexed with him or not. And he regarded the opinion of any girl, just because she was a girl, too little to imagine any reflection on himself in the remark she had just made.

While they talked he had been watching the clouds.

"Do go, Hester," he said. "I give you my word it will be a fine evening."

She went to put on her hat and cloak, and presently they were in the street.

It was one of those misty clearings in which sometimes the day seems to gather up his careless skirts, that have been sweeping the patient, half-drowned world, as he draws nigh the threshold of the waiting night. There was a great lump of orange color half melted up in the watery clouds of the west, but all was dreary and scarce consolable, up to the clear spaces above, stung with the steely stars that began to peep out of the blue hope of heaven. Thither Hester kept casting up her eyes as they walked, or rather somehow her eyes kept travelling thitherward of themselves, as if indeed they had to do with things up there. And the child that cries for the moon is wiser than the man who looks upon the heavens as a mere accident of the earth, with which none but _unpractical men concern themselves.

But as she walked gazing at "an azure disc, shield of tranquility," over her head, she set her foot down unevenly, and gave her ankle a wrench. She could not help uttering a little cry.

"There now, Hester!" said Cornelius, pulling her up like a horse that stumbled, "that's what you get by your star-gazing! You are always coming to grief by looking higher than your head!"

"Oh, please, stop a minute, Corney," returned Hester, for the fellow would have walked on as if nothing had happened. "My ankle hurts so!"

"I didn't know it was so bad as that!" he answered stopping. "There! take my arm."

"Now I can go on again," she said, after a few moments of silent endurance. "How stupid of me!--on a plain asphalt pavement!"

He might have excused her with the remark that just on such was an accidental inequality the more dangerous.

"What bright, particular star were you worshipping now?" he asked scoffingly.

"What do you mean by that?" she rejoined in a tone affected by her suffering, which thence, from his lack of sympathy, he took for one of crossness.

"You know quite well," he answered roughly, "that you are always worshipping some paragon or other--for a while, till you get tired of her, and then throw her away for another!"

Hester was hurt and made no answer.

There was some apparent ground for the accusation. She was ready to think extravagantly of any new acquaintances that pleased her. Frank and true and generous, it was but natural she should read others by herself; just as those in whom is meanness or guile cannot help attributing the same to the simplest. Nor was the result unnatural either, namely, that, when a brief intercourse had sufficed to reveal a nature on the common level, it sufficed also to chill the feeling that had rushed to the surface to welcome a friend, and send the new-found floating far away on the swift ebb of disappointment. Any whom she treats thus, called her, of course, fitful and changeable, whereas it was in truth the unchangeableness of her ideal and her faithfulness to it that exposed her to blame. She was so true, so much in earnest, and, although gentle, had so little softness to drape the sterner outlines of her character that she was looked upon with dislike by not a few of her acquaintance.

"That again comes of looking too high, and judging with precipitation," resumed Cornelius, urged from within to be unpleasant--and the rather that she did not reply.

He was always ready to criticise, and it was so much the easier for him that he had not the least bent towards self-criticism. For the latter supposes some degree of truth in the inward parts, and that is obstructive to the indulgence of the former tendency. As to himself, he would be hand and glove at a moment's notice with any man who looked a gentleman, and made himself agreeable; nor whatever he might find him to be, was he, so long as the man was not looked down upon by others, the least inclined to avoid his company because of moral shadiness. "A man can take care of himself!" he would say.

Hester stopped again.

"Corney," she said, "my ankle feels so weak! I am walking in terror of twisting it again. You must let me stand a bit. I shall be all right in a minute."

"I'm very sorry," rejoined her brother disagreeably. "We must take the first fly we meet, and go home again. It's just my luck! I thought we were going to have some fun!"

They stood silent, she looking nowhere, and he staring now in this direction, now in that. "Hullo! what's this?" he cried, his gaze fixing on a large building opposite. "The Pilgrim's Progress! The Rake's Progress! Ha! ha! As edifying as amusing, no doubt! I suppose the Pilgrim and the Rake are contrasted with each other. But how, I wonder! Is it a lecture or a magic lantern? Both, I dare say! Let's go in and see! I can't read any more of the bill. We may at least sit there till your ankle is better. 'Admission--front seats sixpence.' Come along. We may get a good laugh, who knows?--a thing cheap at any price--for our sixpence!"

"I don't mind," said Hester, and they crossed the road.

It was a large, dingy, dirty, water-stained and somewhat dilapidated hall to which the stone stair, ascending immediately from the door, led them; and it would have looked considerably worse but for the obscurity belonging to the nature of the entertainment, through which it took some pains to discover the twenty-five or thirty people that formed the company present. It was indeed a dim, but not therefore, a very religious light that pervaded rather than overcame the gloom, issuing chiefly from the crude and discordant colors of a luminous picture on a great screen at the farther end of the hall. There an ill-proportioned figure, presenting, although his burden was of course gone some time, a still very humpy Christian, was shown extended on the ground, with his sword a yard beyond his reach, and Apollyon straddling across the whole breadth of the way, and taking him in the stride. But that huge stride was the fiend's sole expression of vigor; for, although he held a flaming dart ready to strike the poor man dead, his own dragon countenance was so feebly demoniacal that it seemed unlikely he would have the heart to drive it home. The lantern from which proceeded the picture, was managed by a hidden operator, evidently from his voice, occasionally overheard, a mere boy; and an old man, like a broken-down clergyman, whose dirty white neckcloth seemed adjusted on a secret understanding of moral obliquity, its knot suggesting a gradual approach to the last position a knot on the neck can assume, kept walking up and down the parti-colored gloom, flaunting a pretense of lecture on the scenes presented. Whether he was a little drunk or greatly in his dotage, it was impossible to determine without a nearer acquaintance. If I venture to give a specimen of his mode of lecturing, it will be seen that a few lingering rags of scholastic acquirement, yet fluttered about the poor fellow.

"Here you behold the terrible battle between Christian--or was it Faithful?--I used to know, but trouble has played old Hookey with my memory. It's all here, you know"--and he tapped the bald table-land of his head--"but somehow it ain't handy as it used! In the morning it flourisheth and groweth up: in the evening it is cut down and withereth. Man that is in honor and abideth not, is like the beast that perisheth--but there's Christian and Apollyon, right afore you, and better him than me. When I was a young one, and that wasn't yesterday, I used to think, but that was before I could read, that Apollyon was one and the same with Bonaparty--Nappoleon, you know. And I wasn't just so far wrong neither, as I shall readily prove to those of my distinguished audience who have been to college like myself, and learned to read Greek like their mother tongue. For what is the very name Apollyon, but an occult prophecy concerning the great conqueror of Europe! nothing can be plainer! Of course the first letter, N, stands for nothing--a mere veil to cover the prophecy till the time of revealing. In all languages it is the sign of negation--_no_, and _none_, and _never_, and _nothing_; therefore cast it away as the nothing it is. Then what have you left but _apoleon_! Throw away another letter, and what have you but _poleon_! Throw away letter after letter, and what do you get but words--_Napoleon, apoleon, poleon, oleon, leon, eon_, or, if you like, _on_! Now these are all Greek words--and what, pray, do they mean? I will give you a literal translation, and I challenge any Greek scholar who may be here present to set me right, that is, to show me wrong: Napoleon the destroyer of cities, being a destroying lion! Now I should like to know a more sure word of prophecy than that! Would any one in the company oblige me? I take that now for an incontrovertible"--he stammered over this word--"proof of the truth of the Bible. But I am wandering from my subject, which error, I pray you, ladies and gentlemen, to excuse, for I am no longer what I was in the prime of youth's rosy morn--come, I must get on! Change the slide, boy; I'm sick of it. I'm sick of it all. I want to get home and go to bed."

He maundered on in this way, uttering even worse nonsense than I have set down, and mingling with it soiled and dusty commonplaces of religion, every now and then dwelling for a moment or two upon his own mental and physical declension from the admirable being he once was. He reached the height of his absurdity in describing the resistance of the two pilgrims to the manifold temptations of Vanity Fair, which he so set forth as to take from Christian and Faithful the smallest possible appearance of merit in turning their backs upon them.

Cornelius was in fits of laughter, which he scarcely tried to choke. When the dreary old soul drew near where he sat, smelling abominably of strong drink, the only thing that kept his merriment within bounds was the dread that the man might address him personally, and so draw upon him the attention of the audience.

Very different was the mood of Hester. To the astonishment of Cornelius, when at last they rose to go, there were tears in her eyes. The misery of the whole thing was too dreadful to her! The lantern itself must, she thought, have been made when the invention was in its infancy, and its pictured slides seemed the remnants of various outworn series. Those of the Rake's Progress were something too hideous and lamentable to be dwelt upon. And the ruinous, wretched old man did not merely seem to have taken to this as a last effort, but to have in his dotage turned back upon his life course, and resumed a half-forgotten trade--or perhaps only an accomplishment of which he had made use for the benefit of his people when he was a clergyman--to find that the faculty for it he once had, and on which he had reckoned to carry him through, had abandoned him. Worst of all to the heart of Hester was the fact that so few people were present, many of them children at half-price, some of whom seemed far from satisfied with the amusement offered them. When the hall and the gas--but that would not be much--and the advertising were paid for, what would the poor old scrag-end of humanity, with his yellow-white neckcloth knotted hard under his left ear, have over for his supper? Was there any woman to look after him? and would she give him anything fit to eat? Hester was all but crying to think she could do nothing for him--that he was so far from her and beyond her help, when she remembered the fat woman with curls hanging down her cheeks, who had taken their money at the door. Apparently she was his wife--and seemed to thrive upon it! But alas for the misery of the whole thing!

When they came out and breathed again the blue, clean, rain-washed air instead of the musty smells of the hall, involuntarily Hester's eyes rose to the vault whose only keystone is the will of the Father, whose endless space alone is large enough to picture the heart of God: how was that old man to get up into the high regions and grow clean and wise? For all the look, he must belong there as well as she! And were there not thousands equally and more miserable in the world--people wrapped in no tenderness, to whom none ministered, left if not driven--so it seemed at the moment to Hester--to fold themselves in their own selfishness? And was there nothing she, a favored one of the family, could do to help, to comfort, to lift up one such of her own flesh and blood?--to rescue a heart from the misery of hopelessness?--to make this one or that feel there was a heart of love and refuge at the centre of things? Hester had a large, though not hitherto entirely active aspiration in her; and now, the moment she began to flutter her weak wings, she found the whole human family hanging upon her, and that she could not rise except in raising them along with her. For the necessities of our deepest nature are such as not to admit of a mere private individual satisfaction. I well remember feeling as a child that I did not care for God to love me if he did not love everybody: the kind of love I needed was love essential to my nature--the love of me, a man, not of me a person--the love therefore that all men needed, the love that belonged to their nature as the children of the Father, a love he could not give me except he gave it to all men.

But this was not the beginning of Hester's enthusiasm for her kind--only a crystallizing shock it received.

Nor was it likely to be the less powerful in the end that now at the age of three and twenty she had but little to show for it. She was one of the strong ones that grow slowly; and she had now for some years been cherishing an idea, and working for its realization, which every sight and sound of misery tended to quicken and strengthen.

"There you are again," said Cornelius--"star-gazing as usual! You'll be spraining your other ankle presently!"

"I had forgotten all about my ankle, Corney dear," returned Hester, softened by her sorrowful sympathy; "but I will be careful."

"You had better. Well, I think between us we had the worth of our shilling! Did you ever see such a ridiculous old bloke!"

"I wish you would not use that word, Corney," said Hester, letting her displeasure fall on the word, where she knew the feeling was entrenched beyond assault.

"What's the matter with the word? It is the most respectable old Anglo-Saxon."

Hester said no more, but heaved an inward sigh. Of what consequence were the words her brother used, so long as he recognized no dignity in life, never set himself _to be! Why should any one be taught to behave like a gentleman, so long as he is no gentleman?

Cornelius burst out laughing.

"To think of those muffs going through the river--sliding along the bottom, and spreading out their feelers above the water, like two rearing lobsters! And the angels waiting for them on the bank like laundresses with their clean shirts! Ha! ha! ha!"

"They seemed to me," answered Hester, "very much like the men, and angels too, in that old edition of the Pilgrim papa thinks so much of. I couldn't for my part, absurd as they were, help feeling a certain pathos in the figures and faces."

"That came of the fine interpretation the old--hm!--codger gave of their actions and movements!"

"It may have come of the pitiful feeling the whole affair gave me--I cannot tell," said Hester. "That old man made me very sad."

"Now you do strand me, Hester!" replied her brother. "How you could see anything pathetic, or pitiful as you call it, in that disreputable old humbug, I can't even imagine. A more ludicrous specimen of tumble-down humanity it would be impossible to find! A drunken old thief--I'll lay you any thing! Catch me leaving a sov where he could spy the shine of it!"

"And don't you count that pitiful, Cornelius? Can you see one of your own kind, with heart and head and hands like your own, so self-abandoned, so low, so hopeless, and feel no pity for him? Didn't you hear him say to himself as he passed you, 'Come, let's get on! I'm sick of it. I don't know what I'm talking about.' He seemed actually to despise himself!"

"What better or more just could he do? But never you mind: _he's all right! Don't you trouble your head about _him_. You should see him when he gets home! He'll have his hot supper and his hot tumbler, don't you fear! Swear he will too, and fluently, if it's not waiting him!"

"Now that seems to me the most pitiful of all," returned Hester, and was on the point of adding, "That is just the kind of pity I feel for you, Corney," but checked herself. "Is it not most pitiful to see a human being, made in the image of God, sunk so low?" she said.

"It's his own doing," returned Cornelius.

"And is not that yet the lowest and worst of it all? If he could not help it, and therefore was not to blame, it would be sad enough; but to be such, and be to blame for being such, seems to me misery upon misery unbearable."

"There I don't agree with you--not at all! So long as a fellow has fair play, and nothing happens to him but what he brings upon himself, I don't see what he has to complain of."

"But that is not the question," interrupted Hester. "It is not whether he has anything to complain of, but whether he has anything to be pitied for. I don't know what I wouldn't do to make that old man clean and comfortable!"

Cornelius again burst into a great laugh. No man was anything to him merely because he was a man.

"A highly interesting protege you would have!" he said; "and no doubt your friends would congratulate you when you presented him! But for my part I don't see the least occasion to trouble your head about such riffraff. Every manufacture has its waste, and he's human waste. There's misery enough in the world without looking out for it, and taking other people's upon our shoulders. You remember what one of the fellows in the magic lantern said: 'Every tub must stand on its own bottom'!"

Hester held her peace. That her own brother's one mode of relieving the suffering in the world should be to avoid as much as possible adding to his own, was to her sisterly heart humiliating.

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