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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWeighed And Wanting - Chapter 6. The Aquarium
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Weighed And Wanting - Chapter 6. The Aquarium Post by :KeisEnt Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :2384

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Weighed And Wanting - Chapter 6. The Aquarium

CHAPTER VI. THE AQUARIUM

"Let's go and see the people at the aquarium," said Cornelius.

"Do you mean the fishes?" asked his father.

"No, I don't care about them; I said the people," answered Cornelius stupidly.

"The people of an aquarium must surely be fishes, eh, Saffy?" said the father to the bright child, walking hand in hand with him. It was Josephine. Her eyes were so blue that but for the association he would have called her Sapphira. Between the two he contented himself with the pet name of _Saffy_.

"Ah but, papa," said Hester, "Corney didn't say the people _of the aquarium, but the people _at the aquarium!"

"Two of you are too many for me!" returned the father playfully. "Well, then, Saffy, let us go and see the people _of and the people _at the aquarium.--Which do you want to see, Hester?"

"Oh, the fishes of course, papa!"

"Why of course?"

"Because they're so much more interesting than the people," said Hester rebuked in herself as she said it--before she knew why.

"Fishes more interesting than people!" exclaimed her father.

"They're so like people, papa!"

"Oh, then surely the people must be the more interesting after all, if it is the likeness of the fishes to people that makes them interesting! Which of all the people you love do you see likest a fish now?"

"Oh, papa!"

"What! is it only people you hate that you see like fishes?"

"I don't hate anybody, papa."

"There's a way of not caring about people, though--looking down on them and seeing them like fishes, that's precious like hating them," said Cornelius, who enjoyed a crowd, and putting his sister in the wrong still better: to that end he could easily say a sensible thing.

"If you mean me, Corney, I think you do me injustice," said Hester. "The worst I do is to look at them the wrong way of the telescope."

"But why do you never see anyone you love like a fish?" persisted her father.

"Perhaps because I could not love anybody that was like a fish."

"Certainly there is something not beautiful about them!" said Mr. Raymount.

"They're beastly ugly," said Cornelius.

"Let us look into it a little," continued his father. "What is it about them that is ugly? Their colors are sometimes very beautiful--and their shapes, too."

"Their heads and faces," said Hester, "are the only parts of them in which they can be like human beings, and those are very ugly."

"I'm not sure that you are right, Hester," said the mother, who had not spoken till now. "There must surely be something human in their bodies as well, for now and then I see their ways and motions so like those of men and women, that I felt for a moment almost as if I understood how they were feeling, and were just going to know what they were thinking."

"I suspect," said Mr. Raymount, "your mother's too much of a poet to be trusted alone in an aquarium. It would have driven Shelley crazy--to judge from his Sensitive Plant."

They had now reached the middle of the descent to the mysteries of the place, when Cornelius, who, with an interest Hester could not understand in him, and which was partly owing to a mere love of transition, had been staring at the ascending faces, uttered a cry of recognition, and darted down to the next landing. With a degree of respect he seldom manifested they saw him there accost a gentleman leaning over the balustrade, and shake hands with him. He was several years older than Cornelius, not a few inches taller, and much better-looking--one indeed who could hardly fail to attract notice even in a crowd. Corney's weakest point, next to his heart, was his legs, which perhaps accounted for his worship of Mr. Vavasor's calves, in themselves nothing remarkable. He was already glancing stolen looks at these objects of his jealous admiration when the rest reached the landing, and Mr. Raymount, willing to know his son's friend, desired Corney to introduce him.

Cornelius had been now eighteen months in the bank, and had never even mentioned the name of a fellow clerk. He was one of those youths who take the only possible way for emptiness to make itself of consequence--that of concealment and affected mystery. Not even now but for his father's request, would he have presented his bank friend to him or any of the family.

The manners and approach of Mr. Vavasor were such as at once to recommend him to the friendly reception of all, from Mr. Raymount to little Saffy, who had the rare charm of being shy without being rude. If not genial, his manners were yet friendly, and his carriage if not graceful was easy; both were apt to be abrupt where he was familiar. It was a kind of company bearing he had, but dashed with indifference, except where he desired to commend himself. He shook hands with little Saffy as respectfully as with her mother, but with neither altogether respectfully; and immediately the pale-faced, cold, loving boy, Mark, unwillingly, therefore almost unconsciously, disliked him. He was beyond question handsome, with a Grecian nose nearly perfect, which had its large part in the aristocratic look he bore. This was favored also by the simplicity of his dress. He turned with them, and re-descended the stairs.

"Why didn't you tell me you were coming, Mr. Vavasor? I could have met you," said Cornelius, with just a little stretch of the degree of familiarity in use between them.

"I didn't know myself till the last minute," answered Vavasor. "It was a sudden resolve of my aunt's. Neither had I the remotest idea you were here."

"Have you been seeing the fishes?" asked Hester, at whose side their new acquaintance was walking now they had reached the subterranean level.

"I have just passed along their cages," he answered. "They are not well kept; the glass is dirty, and the water, too. I fancied they looked unhappy, and came away. I can't bear to see creatures pining. It would be a good deed to poison them all."

"Wouldn't it be better to give them some fresh water?" said little Saffy, "that would make them glad."

To this wisdom there was no response.

When they came to the door of the concert-room, Cornelius turned into it, leaving his "friend" with his "people" to go and look at the fishes. Mr. Vavasor kept his place by the side of Hester.

"We were just talking, when we had the pleasure of meeting you, about people and fishes--comparing them in a way," said Hester. "I can't make it clear to myself why I like seeing the fishes better than the people."

"I fancy it must be because you call them fishes and not fish," replied Vavasor. "If the fishes were a shoal of herrings or mackerel, I doubt if you would--at least for many times. If, on the other hand, the men and women in the concert-room were as oddly distinguished one from another as these different fishes, you would prefer going with your brother."

"I'm sure I shouldn't" said Saffy to Mark.

"Phizzes is best on fishes," answered Mark sententiously. "I like faces best; only you don't _always want to look at what you like best!--I wonder why."

"And yet I suspect," said Mrs. Raymount to Vavasor, "many of the people are as much distinguished from each other in character as the fishes are in form."

"Possibly," interjected her husband, "they are as different in their faces also, only we are too much of their kind to be able to read the differences so clearly."

"Surely you do not mean," said Vavasor respectfully, "that any two persons in the concert-room can be as much unlike each other as that flounder shuddering along the sandy bottom, and that yard of eel sliding through the water like an embodied wickedness?"

Hester was greatly struck with the poetic tone of the remark.

"I think you may find people as different," replied her father, "if you take into the account the more delicate as well as the more striking differences--the deeper as well as the surface diversities. Now you make me think of it, I begin to doubt whether all these live grotesques may not have been made to the pattern of different developments of humanity."

"Look at that dog-fish," said Vavasor, pointing to the largest in the tank. "What a brute! Don't you hate him, Miss Raymount?"

"I am not willing to hate any live thing," answered Hester with a smile, "--from selfish motives, perhaps; I feel as if it would be to my own loss, causing me some kind of irreparable hurt."

"But you would kill such a creature as that--would you not?" he rejoined.

"In possible circumstances," she answered; "but killing and hating have nothing necessarily to do with each other. He that hates his brother is always a murderer, not always he that kills him."

"This is another sort of girl from any I've met yet!" said Vavasor to himself. "I wonder what she's really like!"

He did not know that what she was really like was just what he, with all his fancied knowledge of women both in life and literature, was incapable of seeing--so different was she in kind from poor-gentleman Vavasor.

"But just look at the head, eyes and mouth of the fiend!" he persisted.

Hester, forcing herself a little, did regard the animal for two or three minutes. Then a slight shudder passed through her, and she turned away her eyes.

"I see you've caught the look of him!" said Vavasor. "Is he not a horror?"

"He is. But that was not what made me turn away: I found if I looked a moment longer I should hate him in spite of myself."

"And why shouldn't you hate him? You would be doing the wretch no wrong. Even if he knew it, it would be only what he deserved."

"That you cannot tell except you knew all about his nature, and every point of his history from the beginning of the creation till now. I dare not judge even a dog-fish. And whatever his deserts, I don't choose to hate him, because I don't choose to hate."

She turned away, and Vavasor saw she wanted no more of the dog-fish.

"Oh!" cried Saffy, with a face of terror, "look, look, mamma! It's staring at me!"

The child hid her face in her mother's gown, yet turned immediately to look again.

Mr. Raymount looked also, following her gaze, and was fascinated by the sight that met his eyes. Through the glass, high above his head, and not far from the surface, he saw a huge thornback, bending toward them and seeming to look down on them, as it flew slowly through the water--the action of the two sides of its body fringed with fins, and its consequent motion, were much more like the act of flying than that of swimming. Behind him floated his long tail, making him yet more resemble the hideously imagined kite which he at once suggested. But the terrible thing about him was the death's-head look of the upper part of him. His white belly was of course toward them, and his eyes were on the other side, but there were nostrils that looked exactly like the empty sockets of eyes, and below them was a hideous mouth. These made the face that seemed to Saffy to be hovering over and watching them.

"Like an infernal angel of death!" thought Mr. Raymount, but would not rouse yet more the imagination of the little one by saying it. Hester gazed with steadfast mien at the floating spectre.

"You seem in no danger from that one," said Vavasor.

"I don't think I understand you," said Hester. "What danger can there be from any of them?"

"I mean of hating him."

"You are right; I do not feel the smallest inclination to hate him."

"Yet the ray is even uglier than the dog-fish."

"That may be--I think not--but who hates for ugliness? I never should. Ugliness only moves my pity."

"Then what do you hate for?" asked Vavasor. "--But I beg your pardon: you never hate! Let me ask then, what is it that makes you feel as if you might hate?"

"If you will look again at the dog-fish, and tell me the expression of its mouth, I may be able to answer you," she returned.

"I will," said Vavasor; and, betaking himself to a farther portion of the tank, he stood there watching a little shoal of those sharks of the northern seas. While he was gone Cornelius rejoined them.

"I wish I knew why God made such ugly creatures," said Saffy to Mark.

The boy gave a curious half-sad smile, without turning his eyes from the thornback, and said nothing.

"Do you know why God made any creatures, pet?" said Hester.

"No, I don't. Why did he, Hessy?"

"I am almost afraid to guess. But if you don't know why he made any, why should you wonder that he made those?"

"Because they are so ugly.--Do tell me why he made them?" she added coaxingly.

"You had better ask mamma."

"But, Hessy, I don't like to ask mamma."

"Why don't you like to ask mamma, you little goose?"

"Because," said Saffy, who was all the time holding her mother's hand, and knew she was hearing her, "mamma mightn't know what to say."

Hester thought with herself, "I am sometimes afraid to pray lest I should have no answer!"

The mother's face turned down toward her little one.

"And what if I shouldn't know what to say, darling?" she asked.

"I feel so awkward when Miss Merton asks me a question I can't answer," said the child.

"And you are afraid of making mamma feel awkward? You pet!" said Hester.

Cornelius burst into a great laugh, and Saffy into silent tears, for she thought she had made a fool of herself. She was not a priggish child, and did not deserve the mockery with which her barbarian brother invaded her little temple. She was such a true child that her mother was her neighbor, and present to all her being--not her eyes only or her brain, but her heart and spirit as well.

The mother led her aside to a seat, saying,

"Come, darling; we must look into this, and try to understand it. Let me see--what is it we have got to understand? I think it is this--why you should be ashamed when you cannot answer the questions of one who knows so much more than you, and I should not be ashamed when I cannot answer the questions of my own little girl who knows so much less that I do. Is that it?"

"I don't know," sobbed Saffy.

"You shouldn't laugh at her, Corney: it hurts her!" said Hester.

"The little fool! How could that hurt her? It's nothing but temper!" said Cornelius with vexation. He was not vexed that he had made her cry, but vexed that she cried.

"You should have a little more sympathy with childhood, Cornelius," said his father. "You used to be angry enough when you were laughed at."

"I was a fool then myself!" answered Cornelius sulkily.

He said no more, and his father put the best interpretation upon his speech.

"Do you remember, Hester," he said, "how you were always ready to cry when I told you I did not know something you had asked me?"

"Quite well, papa," replied Hester; "and I think I could explain it now. I did not know then why I cried. I think now it was because it seemed to bring you down nearer to my level. My heaven of wisdom sank and grew less."

"I hope that is not what Saffy is feeling now; your mother must be telling her she doesn't know why God made the animals. But no! She is looking up in her face with hers radiant!"

And yet her mother had told her she did not know why God made the animals! She had at the same time, however, made her own confessed ignorance a step on which to set the child nearer to the knowledge of God; for she told her it did not matter that she did not know, so long as God knew. The child could see that her mother's ignorance did not trouble her; and also that she who confessed ignorance was yet in close communication with him who knew all about everything, and delighted in making his children understand.

And now came Vavasor from his study of the dog-fish. His nature was a poetic one, though much choked with the weeds of the conventional and commonplace, and he had seen and felt something of what Hester intended. But he was not alive enough to understand hate. He was able to hate and laugh. He could not feel the danger of hate as Hester, for hate is death, and it needs life to know death.

"He is cruel, and the very incarnation of selfishness," he said. "I should like to set my heel on him."

"If I were to allow myself to hate him," returned Hester, "I should hate him too much to kill him. I should let him live on in his ugliness, and hold back my hate lest it should wither him in the cool water. To let him live would be my revenge, the worst I should know. I must not look at him, for it makes me feel as wicked as he looks."

She glanced at Vavasor. His eyes were fixed on her. She turned away uncomfortable: could it be that he was like the dog-fish?

"I declare." said Cornelius, coming between them, "there's no knowing you girls! Would you believe it, Mr. Vavasor--that young woman was crying her eyes out last night over the meanest humbug of a Chadband I ever set mine on! There ain't one of those fishes comes within sight of him for ugliness. And she would have it he was to be pitied--sorrowed over--loved, I suppose!"

The last words of his speech he whined out in a lackadaisical tone.

Hester flushed, but said nothing. She was not going to defend herself before a stranger. She would rather remain misrepresented--even be misunderstood. But Vavasor had no such opinion of the brother as to take any notion of the sister from his mirror. When she turned from Cornelius next, in which movement lay all the expression she chose to give to her indignation, he passed behind him to the other side of Hester, and there stood apparently absorbed in the contemplation of a huge crustacean. Had Cornelius been sensitive, he must have felt he was omitted.

"Why, can it be?" she said--to herself, but audibly--after a moment of silence, during which she also had been apparently absorbed in the contemplation of some inhabitant of the watery cage. But she had in truth been thinking of nothing immediately before her eyes, though they had rested first upon a huge crayfish, balancing himself on stilts innumerable, then turned to one descending a rocky incline--just as a Swiss horse descends a stair in a mountain-path.

"Yes, the fellow bristles with _whys_," said Vavasor, whose gaze was still fixed on one of them. "Every leg seems to ask 'Why am I a leg?'"

"I should have thought it was asking rather, 'What am I? Am I a leg or a failure?'" rejoined Hester. "But I was not thinking of the crayfish. He is odd, but there is no harm in him. He looks, indeed, highly respectable. See with what a dignity he fans himself!"

"And for the same reason," remarked her father, who had come up and stood behind them, "as the finest lady at the ball: he wants more air. I wonder whether the poor fellow knows he is in a cage?"

"I think he does," said Saffy, "else he would run away from us."

"Are you thinking of the dog-fish still?" asked Vavasor.

The strangeness, as it seemed to him, of the handsome girl's absorption, for such it veritably appeared, in questions of no interest in themselves--so he judged them--attracted him even more than her beauty, for he did not like to feel himself unpossessed of the entree to such a house. Also he was a writer of society verses--not so good as they might have been, but in their way not altogether despicable--and had already begun to turn it over in his mind whether something might not be made of--what shall I call it?--the situation?

"I _was thinking of him," Hester answered, but only as a type of the great difficulty--why there should be evil or ugliness in the world. There must be an answer to it! Is it possible it should be one we would not like?"

"I don't believe there is any answer," said Vavasor. "The ugly things are ugly just because they are ugly. It is a child's answer, but not therefore unphilosophical. We must take things as we find them. We are ourselves just what we are, and cannot help it. We do this or that because it is in us. We are made so."

"You do not believe in free will, then, Mr. Vavasor?" said Hester coldly.

"I see no ground for believing in it. We are but forces--bottled up forces--charged Leyden jars. Every one does just what is in him--acts as he is capable."

He was not given to metaphysics, and, indeed, had few or no opinions in that department of inquiry; but the odd girl interested him, and he was ready to meet her on any ground. He had uttered his own practical unbelief, however, with considerable accuracy. Hester's eyes flashed angrily.

"I say _no_. Every one is capable of acting better than he does," she replied; and her face flushed.

"Why does he not then?" asked Vavasor.

"Ah, why?" she responded.

"How can he be made for it if he does not do it?" insisted Vavasor.

"How indeed? That is the puzzle," she answered. "If he were not capable there would be none."

"I should do better, I am sure, if I could," said Vavasor. Had he known himself, he ought to have added, "without trouble."

"Then you think we are all just like the dog-fish--except that destiny has made none of us quite so ugly," rejoined Hester.

"Or so selfish," implemented Vavasor.

"That I can't see," returned Hester. "If we are merely borne helpless hither and thither on the tide of impulse, we can be neither more nor less selfish than the dog-fish. We are, in fact, neither selfish nor unselfish. We are pure nothings, concerning which speculation is not worth the trouble. But the very word _selfish implies a contrary judgment on the part of humanity itself."

"Then you believe we can make ourselves different from what we are made?"

"Yes; we are made with the power to change. We are meant to take a share in our own making. We are made so and so, it is true, but not made so and so only; we are made with a power in ourselves beside--a power that can lay hold on the original power that made us. We are not made to remain as we are. We are bound to grow."

She spoke rapidly, with glowing eyes, the fire of her utterance consuming every shadow of the didactic.

"You are too much of a philosopher for me, Miss Raymount," said Vavasor with a smile. "But just answer me one question. What if a man is too weak to change?"

"He must change," said Hester.

Then first Vavasor began to feel the conversation getting quite too serious.

"Ah, well!" he said. "But don't you think this is rather--ah--rather--don't you know?--for an aquarium?"

Hester did not reply. Nothing was too serious for her in any place. She was indeed a peculiar girl--the more the pity for the many that made her so!

"Let us go and see the octopus," said Vavasor.

They went, and Mr. Raymount slowly followed them. He had not heard the last turn of their conversation.

"You two have set me thinking," he said, when he joined them; "and brought to my mind an observation I had made--how seldom you find art succeed in representing the hatefully ugly! The painter can accumulate ugliness, but I do not remember a demon worth the name. The picture I can best recall with demons in it is one of Raphael's--a St. Michael slaying the dragon--from the Purgatorio, I think, but I am not sure; not one of the demons in that picture is half so ugly as your dog-fish.--What if it be necessary that we should have lessons in ugliness?"

"But why?" said Hester. "Is not the ugly better let alone? You have always taught that ugliness is the natural embodiment of evil!"

"Because we have chosen what is bad, and do not know how ugly it is--that is why," answered her father.

"Isn't that rather hard on the fish, though?" said Vavasor. "How can innocent creatures be an embodiment of evil?"

"But what do you mean by _innocent_?" returned Mr. Raymount. "The nature of an animal may be low and even hateful, and its looks correspondent, while no conscience accuses it of evil. I have known half a dozen cows, in a shed large enough for a score, and abundantly provisioned, unite to keep the rest of the herd out of it. Many a man is a far lower and worse creature in his nature that his conscience tells him. It is the conscience educated by strife and failure and success that is severe upon the man, demanding of him the all but unattainable."

Talk worse and worse for an aquarium! But happily they had now reached the tank of the octopods.

Alas, there had been some mismanagement of the pipes, and the poor devil-fishes had been boiled, or at least heated to death! One small, wretched, skinny thing, hardly distinguishable from a discolored clout, was all that was left of a dozen. Cornelius laughed heartily when informed of the mischance.

"It's a pity it wasn't the devil himself instead of his fish!" he said. "Wouldn't it be a jolly lark, Mr. Vavasor, if some of the rascals down below were to heat that furnace too hot, and rid us of the whole potful at one fell swoop!"

"What is that you are saying, Corney?" said his mother, who had but just rejoined them.

"I was only uttering the pious wish that the devil was dead," answered Cornelius; "--boiled like an octopus! ha! ha! ha!"

"What good would that do?" said his father. "The human devils would be no better, and the place would soon be re-occupied. The population of the pit must be kept up by immigration. There may be babies born in heaven, for any thing I know, but certain I am there can be none in the other place. This world of ours is the nursery of devils as well as of saints."

"And what becomes of those that are neither?" asked Vavasor.

"It were hard to say," replied Mr. Raymount with some seriousness.

"A confoundedly peculiar family!" said Vavasor to himself. "There's a bee in every bonnet of them! An odd, irreverent way the old fellow has with him--for an old fellow pretending to believe what he says!"

Vavasor was not one of the _advanced of the age; he did not deny there was a God: he thought that the worse form that it was common in the bank; the fellows he associated with never took the trouble to deny him; they took their own way, and asked no questions. When a man has not the slightest intention that the answer shall influence his conduct, why should he inquire whether there be a God or not? Vavasor cared more about the top of his cane than the God whose being he did not take the trouble to deny. He believed a little less than the maiden aunt with whom he lived; she believed less than her mother, and her mother had believed less than hers; so that for generations the faith, so called, of the family had been dying down, simply because all that time it had sent out no fresh root of obedience. It had in truth been no faith at all, only assent. Miss Vavasor went to church because it was the right thing to do: God was one of the heads of society, and his drawing-rooms had to be attended. Certain objections not altogether unreasonable might be urged against doing so: several fictions were more or less countenanced in them--such as equality, love of your neighbor, and forgiveness of your enemy, but then nobody really heeded them: religion had worked its way up to a respectable position, and no longer required the support of the unwashed--that is, those outside the circle whose center is May-fair. As to her personal religion, why, God had heard her prayers, and might again: he did show favor occasionally. That she should come out of it all as well as other people when this life of family and incomes and match-making was over, she saw no reason to doubt. Ranters and canters might talk as they pleased, but God knew better than make the existence of thoroughly respectable people quite unendurable! She was kind-hearted, and treated her maid like an equal up to the moment of offense--then like a dog of the east up to that of atonement. She had the power of keeping her temper even in family differences, and hence was regarded as a very model of wisdom, prudence and _tact_, the last far the first in the consideration of her judges. The young of her acquaintance fled to her for help in need, and she gave them no hard words, but generally more counsel than comfort--always, however, the best she had, which was of Polonius' kind, an essence of wise selfishness, so far as selfishness can be wise, with a strong dash of self-respect, nowise the more sparing that it was independent of desert. The good man would find it rather difficult to respect himself were he to try; his gaze is upward to the one good; but had it been possible for such a distinction to enter Miss Vavasor's house, it would have been only to be straightway dismissed. She was devoted to her nephew, as she counted devotion, but would see that he made a correspondent return.

When Vavasor reached their encampment in the Imperial Hotel, he went to his own room, got out his Russia-leather despatch-box, half-filled with songs and occasional verses, which he never travelled without, and set himself to see what he could do with the dog-fish--in what kind of poetic jelly, that is, he could enclose his shark-like mouth and evil look. But prejudiced as he always was in favor of whatever issued from his own brain--as yet nothing had come from his heart--he was anything but satisfied with the result of his endeavor. It was, in fact, an utter failure so far as the dog-fish was concerned, for he was there unnamed, a mere indistinguishable presence among many monsters. But notwithstanding the gravity of this defect, and the distance between his idea and its outcome, he yet concluded the homage to Hester which it embodied of a value to justify the presentation of the verses. And poor as they were they were nearly as good as anything he had done hitherto. Here they are:


To H.R.

Lo, Beauty climbs the watery steep,
Sets foot on many a slimy stair;
Treads on the monsters of the deep,
And rising seeks the earth and air.

On every form she sets her foot,
She lifts it straight and passes on;
With flowers and trees she takes no root,
This, that caresses, and is gone.

Imperfect, poorly lovely things
On all sides round she sighing sees;
She flies, nor for her flying wings
Finds any refuge, rest, or ease!

At last, at last, on Burcliff's shore,
She spies a thoughtful wanderer;
She speeds--she lights for evermore,
Incorporated, one with her!

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