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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThere & Back - Chapter 21. The Parson's Parable
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There & Back - Chapter 21. The Parson's Parable Post by :stillgreen Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :1636

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There & Back - Chapter 21. The Parson's Parable

CHAPTER XXI. THE PARSON'S PARABLE

Mr. Wingfold went as he had come, thoughtful even to trouble. What was to be done for the woman? What was his part, as parson of the parish, with regard to her behaviour in church? Was it or was it not his part to take public notice of what she intended, if not as a defiance to God, at least as an open expression of her bitter resentment of his dealing with her? The creator's discipline did not suit his creature's taste, and she would let him know it: whether it suited her necessities, she did not ask or care; she knew nothing of her necessities--only of her desires. Had she had a suspicion that she was an eternal creature, poor as well as miserable, blind and naked as well as bereaved and angry, she might have allowed some room for God to show himself right. But she was ignorant of herself as any savage. Was Wingfold to take her insolence in church as a thing done to himself, which he must endure with patience? or, putting himself out of the question, and regarding her conduct only as a protest against the ways of God with her, must he leave reproof as well as vengeance to the Lord? Was it his business, or was it not, to rebuke her, and make his rebuke as open as her offence? It troubled him almost beyond bearing to think that some of his flock might imagine that the great lady of the parish was allowed to behave herself unseemly, where another would be exposed to shame. But how abhorrent to him was a public contention in the church, and on the Lord's day! Mrs. Wylder was just the woman to challenge forcible expulsion, and make the circumstances of it as flagrant as possible! She might even use both pistol and whip! What better opportunity could she find for giving point to her appeal against God! A man might, in the rage of disappointment, cry out that there could be no God where baffle met the holiest instinct--that blundering chance must rule; he might, illogical with grief, declare that as God could treat him so, he would believe in him no longer; or he might assert that an evil being, not a good, was at the heart of life--a devil and not a God, for he was one who created and forgot, or who remembered and did not care--who quickened exposure but gave no shield! called from the void a being filled with doorless avenues to pain, and abandoned him to incarnate cruelty, that he might make him sport with the wildness of his dismay! but here was a woman who did not say that God was not, or that he was not good, but with passionate self-party-spirit cried out, "He is against me! he sides with my husband! He is not my friend, but his: I will let him know how I resent his unfairness!" Whether God was good or bad she did not care--that was not a point she was concerned in; all she heeded was how he behaved to her--whether he took part with her husband or herself. He had torn from her the desire of her heart and left her desolate: she would worship him no longer! She had been brought up to believe there was a God, and had never doubted his existence: with her whole will and passion she opposed that which she called God. She had never learned to yield when wrong, and now she was sure she was right. Though hopeless she resisted. She cried out against God, but believed him by his own act helpless to deliver her, for what could he do against the grave? Powerless for her as unfriendly toward her, why should she worship him? Why should she pay court to one who neither would nor could give her what she wanted? What was he God for? Was _she to go to his house, and carry herself courteously, as if he were her friend! She would not! And that there might be no mistake as to how she regarded him, she would sit in her pew and read her novel, while the friends of God said their prayers to him! If she annoyed them, so much the better, for the surer she might hope that _he was annoyed!

It may seem to some incredibly terrible that one should believe in God and defy him! But do none of us, who say also we believe in God, and who are far from defying him, ever behave like Mrs. Wylder? It is one thing to believe in a God; it is quite another to believe in God! Every time we grumble at our fate, every time we are displeased, hurt, resentful at this or that which comes to us, every time we do not receive the suffering sent us, "with both hands," as William Law says, we are of the same spirit with this half-crazy woman. In some fashion, and that a real one, she must have believed in the God against whom she urged her complaint; and it is rather to her praise that, like Job, she did it openly, and not with mere base grumblings in her heart at her fireside. It is mean to believe half-way, to believe in words, and in action deny. One of four gates stands open to us: to deny the existence of God, and say we can do without him; to acknowledge his existence, but say he is not good, and act as true men resisting a tyrant; to say, "I would there were a God," and be miserable because there is none; or to say there must be a God, and he must be perfect in goodness or he could not be, and give ourselves up to him heart and soul and hands and history.

But what was parson Wingfold to do in the matter? Was he to allow the simple sheep of his flock to think him afraid of the squire's lady? or was he to venture an uproar in the church on a Sunday morning? His wife and he had often talked the thing over, but had arrived at no conclusion. He went to her now, and told her all that had passed.

"Isn't it time to do something?" she said.

"Indeed I think so--but what?" he answered. "I wish you would show me what I ought to do! Let me see it, and I will do it." She was silent for a moment.

"Couldn't you preach at her?" she said, with a laugh in which was an odd mingling of doubt and merriment.

"I have always thought that a mean thing, and have never done it--except by dwelling on broadest principles. That an evil principle has an advocate present, is no reason for sparing it: what am I there for? But to preach that the many may turn on the one--that I never could do!"

"This case is different from any other. The wrong is done continuously, in the very eyes of the congregation, and for the sake of its being seen," Mrs. Wingfold answered. "Neither would you be the assailant; you would but accept, not give the challenge. For I don't know how many Sundays, she has been pitting her position in the pew against yours in the pulpit! Believing it out of your power to do anything, she flaunts her French novel in your face; and those that can't see her, see her yellow novel in your eyes, and think about her and you, instead of the things you are saying to them! For the sake of the work given you, for the sake of your influence with the people, you must do something!"

"It is God she defies, not me."

"I think she defies you to say an honest word on his behalf. Your silence must seem to her an acknowledgment that she is right."

"That cannot be, after what I have said to her more than once in her own house."

"Then at least she must think that either you have no authority to drive from the little temple one of the cows of Bashan, or are afraid of her horns."

"Quite right, Nelly!" cried the rector; "you are quite right. Only you don't give me a hint what to do!"

"Am I not saying as plain as I can that you must preach at her?"

"H'm! I didn't expect that of you!"

"No; for if you could have expected it of me, you would have thought of it yourself! But just think! A public scandal requires public treatment. You will not be dragging her before the people; she has put herself there! She is brazen, and must be treated as brazen--set in the full glare of opinion. And I think, if I were a clergyman, I should know how to do it!"

Wingfold was silent. She must be right! Something glimmered before him--something possible--he could not see plainly what.

"It is all very well to make such a clamour about her boy," continued his wife, "but every one knows that she quarrelled with him dreadfully--that for days at a time they would be cat and dog with each other. Her animal instinct lasted it out, and she did not come to hate him; but I can't help thinking it must have been in a great measure because her husband favoured the other that she took up this one with such passion. I have been told she would abuse him in language not fit to repeat, the little wretch answering her back, and choking with rage that he could not tear her."

"Who told you?" asked the parson.

"I would rather not say."

"Are you sure it is not mere gossip?"

"Quite sure. To be gossip, a thing must go through two mouths at least, and I had it first-mouth. I tell it you because I think it worth your knowing."

The next Sunday morning, there lay the lady as usual, only her novel was a red one. When the parson went into the pulpit, he cast one glance on the gallery to his right, then spoke thus:--

"My friends, I will follow the example of our Lord, and speak to you to-day in a parable. The Lord said there are things better spoken in parables, because of the eyes that will not see, and the ears that will not hear.

"There was once a mother left alone with her little boy--the only creature in the world or out of it that she cared for. She was a good mother to him, as good a mother as you can think, never overbearing or unkind. She never thought of herself, but always of the desire of her heart, the apple of her eye, her son born of her own body. It was not because of any return he could make her that she loved him. It was not to make him feel how good she was, that she did everything for him. It was not to give him reasons for loving _her_, but because she loved _him_, and because he needed her. He was a delicate child, requiring every care she could lavish upon him, and she did lavish it. Oh, how she loved him! She would sit with the child on her lap from morning till night, gazing on him; she always went to sleep with him in her bosom--as close to her as ever he could lie. When she woke in the dark night, her first movement was to strain him closer, her next to listen if he was breathing--for he might have died and been lost! When he looked up at her with eyes of satisfaction, she felt all her care repaid.

"The years went on, and the child grew, and the mother loved him more and more. But he did not love her as she loved him. He soon began to care for the things she gave him, but he did not learn to love the mother who gave them. Now the whole good of things is to be the messengers of love--to carry love from the one heart to the other heart; and when these messengers are fetched instead of sent, grasped at, that is, by a greedy, ungiving hand, they never reach the heart, but block up the path of love, and divide heart from heart; so that the greedy heart forgets the love of the giving heart more and more, and all by the things it gives. That is the way generosity fares with the ungenerous. The boy would be very pleasant to his mother so long as he thought to get something from her; but when he had got what he wanted, he would forget her until he wanted something more.

"There came at last a day when she said to him, 'Dear boy, I want you to go and fetch me some medicine, for I feel very poorly, and am afraid I am going to be ill!' He mounted his pony, and rode away to get the medicine. Now his mother had told him to be very careful, because the medicine was dangerous, and he must not open the bottle that held it. But when he had it, he said to himself, 'I dare say it is something very nice, and mother does not want me to have any of it!' So he opened the bottle and tasted what was in it, and it burned him terribly. Then he was furious with his mother, and said she had told him not to open the bottle just to make him do it, and vowed he would not go back to her! He threw the bottle from him, and turned, and rode another way, until he found himself alone in a wild forest, where was nothing to eat, and nothing to shelter him from the cold night, and the wind that blew through the trees, and made strange noises. He dismounted, afraid to ride in the dark, and before he knew, his pony was gone. Then he began to be miserably frightened, and to wish he had not run away. But still he blamed his mother, who might have known, he said, that he would open the bottle.

"The mother got very uneasy about her boy, and went out to look for him. The neighbours too, though he was not a nice boy, and none but his mother liked him, went out also, for they would gladly find him and take him home to her; and they came at last to the wood, with their torches and lanterns.

"The boy was lying under a tree, and saw the lights, and heard the voices, and knew it was his mother come. Then the old wickedness rose up fresh in his heart, and he said to himself: 'She shall have trouble yet before she finds me! Am I to come and go as she pleases!' He lay very still; and when he saw them coming near, crept farther, and again lay still. Thus he went on doing, and so avoided his saviours. He heard one say there were wolves in the wood, for that was the sound of them; but he was just the kind of boy that will not believe, but thinks every one has a purpose of his own in saying this or that. So he slipped and slipped away until at length all despaired of finding him, and left the wood.

"Suddenly he knew that he was again alone. He gave a great shriek, but no one heard it. He stood quaking and listening. Presently his pony came rushing past him, with two or three wolves behind him. He started to his feet and began to run, wild to get out of the wood. But he could not find the way, and ran about this way and that until utter despair came down upon him, and all he could do was to lie still as a mouse lest the wolves should hear him.

"And as he lay he began at last to think that he was a wicked child; that his mother had done everything to make him good, and he would not be good; and now he was lost, and the wolves alone would find him! He sank at last into a stupor, and lay motionless, with death and the wolves after him.

"He came to himself in the arms of a strange woman, who had taken him up, and was carrying him home.

"The name of the woman was Sorrow--a wandering woman, a kind of gypsy, always going about the world, and picking up lost things. Nobody likes her, hardly anybody is civil to her; but when she has set anybody down and is gone, there is often a look of affection and wonder and gratitude sent after her. For all that, however, very few are glad to be found by her again.

"Sorrow carried him weeping home to his mother. His mother came out, and took him in her arms. Sorrow made her courtesy, and went away. The boy clung to his mother's neck, and said he was sorry. In the midst of her joy his mother wept bitterly, for he had nearly broken her heart. She could not get the wolves out of her mind.

"But, alas! the boy forgot all, and was worse than ever. He grew more and more cruel to his mother, and mocked at every word she said to him; so that--"

There came a cry from the gallery. The congregation started in sudden terror to their feet. The rector stopped, and turning to the right, stood gazing. In the front of the squire's pew stood Mrs. Wylder, white, and speechless with rage. For a moment she stood shaking her fist at the preacher. Then, in a hoarse broken voice, came the words--

"It's a lie. My boy was never cruel to me. It's a wicked lie."

She could say no more, but stood and glared, hate in her fierce eyes, and torture in her colourless face.

"Madam, you have betrayed yourself," said the rector solemnly. "If your son behaved well to you, it makes it the worse in you to behave ill to your Father. From Sunday to Sunday you insult him with rude behaviour. I tell you so in the face of this congregation, which knows it as well as I. Hitherto I have held my tongue--from no fear of the rich, from no desire to spare them deserved disgrace in the eyes of the poor, but because I shrank from making the house of God a place of contention. Madam, you have behaved shamefully, and I do my duty in rebuking you."

The whole congregation were on their feet, staring at her. A moment she stood, and would have brazened out the stare. But she felt the eyes of the motionless hundreds blazing upon her, and the culprit soul grew naked in the presence of judging souls. Her nerve gave way; she turned her back, left the pew, and fled from the church by the squire's door, into the grounds of Wylder Hall.

Happily Barbara was not in the church that morning.

The next Sunday the squire's pew was empty. The red volume lay open on its face upon the floor of it.

Wingfold's dear plot had palled. He had rough-hewed his end, but the divinity had shaped it. When the squire came to know what had taken place, he made his first call on the rector. He said nothing about his wife, but plainly wished it understood that he bore him no ill will for what he had done.

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