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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThere & Back - Chapter 27. A Sister
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There & Back - Chapter 27. A Sister Post by :Pennejac Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :1725

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There & Back - Chapter 27. A Sister

CHAPTER XXVII. A SISTER

He hurried back over the bare, moon-white road. He had seen Miss Wylder come that morning, and hoped to reach the house, which was not very far off, before she should have gone to bed. Of her alone in that house did he feel he could ask the help he needed. If she had gone home, he would try the gardener's wife! But he wanted a woman with wit as well as will. He would help himself from the larder if he could not do better--but there would be no brandy there!

Many were the thoughts that, as now he walked, now ran, passed swiftly through his mind. It was strange, he said to himself, that this girl, of whom he had seen so little, yet in whom he felt so great an interest, should reappear in such dire necessity! When last he saw her, she hurt herself in frantic escape from him: now she could not escape!

"And this is the world," he went on, "that the priests would have you believe ruled by the providence of an all powerful and all good being! _My heart is sore for the girl--a good girl, if ever there was one, so that I would give--yes, I think I would give my life for her! I certainly would, rather than see her in misery! Of course I would! Any man would, worth calling a man! When it came to the point, I should not think twice about it! And there is _he_, sitting up there in his glory, and looking down unmoved upon her wretchedness! I will _not believe in any such God!"

Of course he was more than right in refusing to believe in such a God! Were such a being possible, he would not be God. If there were such a being, and all powerful, he would be _the one _not to be worshipped. But was Richard, therefore, to believe in no God altogether different? May a God only be such as is not to be believed in? Is it not rather that, to be God, the being must be so good that a man is hardly to be found able--must I say also, or willing--to believe in him? Perhaps, if he had been as anxious to do his duty all over, out and out, as he was where his feelings pointed to it, Richard might have had a "What if" or two to propose to himself. Might he not for instance have said, "What if a certain being should even now be putting in my way the honour and gladness of helping this woman--making me his messenger to her?" What if his soul was too impatient to listen for the next tick of the clock of eternity, and was left therefore to declare there was no such clock going! Ought he not even now to have been capable of thinking that there might be a being with a design for his creatures yet better than _merely to make them happy? What if, that gained, the other must follow! Here was a man judging the eternal, who did not even know his own name!

As he drew near the house, the question arose in his mind: if Miss Wylder was gone to her room, what was he to do to find her? He did not know where her room was! He knew that, when she went up the stair, at the top of it she turned to the right--and he knew no more.

The side-gate at the lodge was yet open; so was the great door of the house. He entered softly, and going along a wide passage, arrived at the foot of the great staircase, which ascended with the wide sweep of half an oval, just in time to see at the top the reflection of a candle disappearing to the right. There were many chances against its being Barbara's, but with an almost despairing recklessness he darted up, and turning, saw again the reflection of the candle from the wall of a passage that crossed the corridor. He followed as swiftly and lightly as he could, and at the corner all but overturned an elderly maid, whose fright gave place to wrath when she saw who had endangered her.

"I want to see Miss Wylder!" said Richard hurriedly.

"You have no call to be in this part of the house," returned the woman.

"I can't stop to explain," answered Richard. "Please tell me which is her room."

"Indeed I will not."

"When she knows my business, she will be glad I came to her."

"You may find it for yourself."

"Will you take a message for me then?"

"I am not Miss Wylder's maid!" she replied. "Neither is it my place to wait on my fellow-servants."

She turned away, tossing her head, and rounded the corner into the corridor.

Richard looked down the passage. A light was burning at the other end of it, and he saw there were not many doors in it. With a sudden resolve to go straight ahead, he called out clear and plain--

"Miss Wylder!" and again, "Miss Wylder!"

A door opened and, to his delight, out peeped Barbara's dainty little head. She saw Richard, gave one glance in the opposite direction, and made him a sign to come to her. He did so. She was in her dressing-gown: it was not her candle he had followed, but its light had led him to her!

"What is it!" she said hurriedly. "Don't speak loud: lady Ann might hear you!"

"There's a girl all but dying--" began Richard.

"Go to the library," she said. "I will come to you there. I shan't be a minute!"

She went in, and her door closed with scarce a sound. Then first a kind of scare fell upon Richard: one of those doors might open, and the pale, cold face of the formidable lady look out Gorgon-like! If it was her candle he had followed, she could hardly have put it down when he called Miss Wylder! He ran gliding through passage and corridor, and down the stair, noiseless and swift as a bat. Arrived in the library, he lighted a candle, and, lest any one should enter, pretended to be looking out books. Within five minutes Barbara was at his side.

"Now!" she said, and stood silent, waiting.

There was a solemn look on her face, and none of the smile with which she usually greeted him. Their last interview had made her miserable for a while, and more solemn for ever. For hours the world was black about her, and she felt as if Richard had struck her. To say there was no God behind the loveliness of things, was to say there was no loveliness--nothing but a pretence of loveliness! The world was a painted thing! a toy for a doll! a phantasm!

He told her where and in what state he had found the girl, and to what a poor place he had been compelled to carry her, saying he feared she would die before he could get anything for her, except Miss Wylder would help him.

"Brandy!" she said, thinking. "Lady Ann has some in her room. The rest I can manage!--Wait here; I will be with you in three minutes."

She went, and Richard waited--without anxiety, for whatever Barbara undertook seemed to those who knew her as good as done.

She reappeared in her red cloak, with a basket beneath it. Richard, wondering, would have taken the basket from her.

"Wait till we are out of the house," she said. "Open that bay window, and mind you don't make a noise. They mustn't find it undone: we have to get in that way again."

Richard obeyed scrupulously. It was a French window, and issue was easy.

"What if they close the shutters?" he ventured to say.

"They don't always. We must take our chance," she replied.

He thought she must mean to go as far as the lodge only.

"You won't forget, miss, to fasten the window again?" he whispered, as he closed it softly behind them.

"We must always risk something!" she answered. "Come along!"

"Please give me the basket," said Richard.

She gave it him; and the next moment he found her leading to the way through the park toward the lodgeless gate.

They had walked a good many minutes, and Barbara had not said a word.

"How good of you, miss, to come!" ventured Richard.

"To come!" she returned. "What else did you expect? Did you not want me to come?"

"I never thought of your coming! I only thought you would get the right things for me--if you could!"

"You don't think I would leave the poor girl to the mercy of a man who would tell her there was nobody anywhere to help her out of her troubles!"

"I don't think I should have told her that; I might have told her there was nobody to bring worse trouble upon her!"

"What comfort would that be, when the trouble was come--and as strong as she could bear!"

Richard was silent a moment, then in pure self-defence answered--

"A man must neither take nor give the comfort of a lie!"

"Tell me honestly then," said Barbara, "--for I do believe you are an honest man--tell me, are you _sure there is no God? Have you gone all through the universe looking for him, and failed to find him? Is there no possible chance that there may be a God!"

"I do not believe there is."

"But are you sure there is not? Do you know it, so that you have a right to say it?"

Richard hesitated.

"I cannot say," he answered, "that I know it as I know a proposition in Euclid, or as I know that I must not do what is wrong."

"Then what right have you to go and make people miserable by saying there is no God--as if you, being an honest man, knew it, and would not say it if you did not know it? You take away the only comfort left the unhappy! Of course you have a right to say you don't believe it--but only that! And I would think twice before I said even that, where all the certainty was that it would make people miserable!"

"I don't know anybody it would make miserable," said Richard.

"It would make me dead miserable," returned Barbara.

"I know many it would redeem from misery," rejoined Richard. "To believe in a cruel being ready to pounce upon them is enough to make the strongest miserable."

"The cruel being that made the world, you mean?"

"Yes--if the world was made."

"If one believes in any God, it must be the same God that made this lovely night--and the gladness it would give me, if you did not take it from me!"

Richard was silent for a moment.

"How can I take it from you?" he said, "if you think what I say is not true?"

"You make me fear lest it should be true; and then farewell to all joy in life--not only for want of some one to love right heartily, but because there is no refuge from the evils that are all about us. I have no quarrel with you if you say these evils are brought upon us by an evil being, who lives to make men miserable; there you leave room to believe also in one fighting against him, to whom we can go for help! The God our parson believes in he calls 'God, our saviour.' To take away the notion of any kind of God, is to make life too dreary to live!"

"Yours is the old doctrine of the Magians," remarked Richard.

"Well?"

"I could accept it easily beside what people believe now."

"What do they believe?"

"They believe in the God of the Bible, who makes pets of a few of his creatures, and sends all the rest into eternal torment. Would you comfort people with the good news of a God like that?"

"Such a God is not to be believed in! Deny him all you can. But because there cannot be an evil God, what right have you to say there cannot be a good one? That is to reason backward! The very notion of a night like this having no meaning in it--no God in it who intends it to look just so, is enough to make _me miserable. But I will _not believe it! I shall hate you if you make me believe it!"

"The Bible says there is an evil being behind it!"

"I don't know much about the Bible, but I don't believe it says that."

"Of course it _calls him good, but it says he does certain things which we know to be bad."

"You make too much of the Bible, if it says such things. Throw it out of the window and have done with it. But how dare you tell me there is nobody greater than me to account for me! You make of me a creature that was not worth being made; a mere ooze from nothing, like the scum on the pond, there because it cannot help it. If I have no God to be my justification, my being becomes loathsome to me. I don't know how I came to be, where I came from, or where I am going to; and you say there _can be nobody that knows; you tell me there is no help; that I must die in the dark I came out of; that there is no love about me knowing what it loves. Even if I found myself alive and awake and happy after I was dead, what comfort would there be if there was no God? How should I ever grow better?--how get rid of the wrong things in myself?--If life has no better thing for this poor woman, be kind and let her die and have done with it. Why keep her in such a hopeless existence as you believe in? You can have but little regard for her surely! I beg of you don't say _that thing to her, for you don't _know it."

Richard was again silent for a while; then he said--

"I had no intention of saying anything of the sort, but I promise because you wish it."

"Thank you! thank you!"

"I promise too," added Richard, "that I will not say anything more of that kind until I have thought a good deal more about it."

"Thank you again heartily!" said Barbara. "I am sure of one thing--that you cannot have ground for not hoping! Is not hope all we have got? He is the very butcher of humanity who kills its hope! It is hope we live by!"

"But if it be a false hope?"

"A false hope cannot do so much harm as a false fear!"

"The false fear is just what I oppose. The Bible tells people--"

"There you are back to the book you don't believe in! And because you don't believe in the book that makes people afraid, you insist there can be no such thing as the gladness my heart cries out for! If you want to make people happy, why don't you preach a good God instead of no God?"

"I will think about what you say," replied Richard.

"Mind," said Barbara, "I don't pretend to know anything! I only say I have a right to hope. And for the Bible, I must have a better look at it! A man who, being a good man, wants to comfort us poor women, whom men knock about so, by taking from us the idea of a living God that cares for us, cannot be so wise but that he may be wrong about a book! Have you read it all through now, Mr. Tuke--so that you are sure it says what you say it says?"

"I have not," answered Richard; "but everybody knows what it says!"

"Well, I don't! Nobody has taken the trouble to tell me, and I haven't read it.--But I'll just give you a little bit of my life to look at. I was with my father and mother for a while in Sydney, and there a terrible lie was told about me, and everybody believed it, and nobody would speak to me. Somehow people are always ready to believe lies--even people who would not tell lies! We had to leave Sydney in consequence, and to this day everybody in Sydney believes me a wicked, ugly girl!--Now I know I am not! See--I can hold my face to the stars! It was trying to help a poor creature that nobody would do anything for, that got the lie said of me. I thought my first business was to take care of my neighbour, and I did it, and that's what came of it!"

"And you believe in a God that would let that come to you for doing what was good?" said Richard, with an indignation that exploded in all directions.

"Stop! stop! the thing's not over yet! The world is not done with yet! What if there be a God who loves me, and cares as little what people say about me, because he knows the truth, as I care about it because _I know the truth!--But that is not what I wanted to say; this is it: if such lies were told, and believed, about an innocent girl trying to do her duty, why may not people have told lies about God, and other people believed them? The same thing may hold with the book. Perhaps it does not speak such lies about God, but stupid or lying people have said that it speaks them, and other people have believed those, and said it again. I hope with all my heart you are saying what is false when you say there is no God; but that is not nearly so bad as saying there is a God who is not good. I can't think anybody believing in a God like that, would have been able to write a book about him that so many good people care to read."

Richard was thoroughly silenced now. I do not mean that he was at all convinced, but how could he find much to say with that appeal of Barbara to her own sore experience echoing in his heart! And they were just at the door of the cottage. He knocked, and receiving no answer, opened the door, and they went in.

There was light enough from the glow of a mere remnant of fire in a corner, to see, on a stool by its side, the good woman of the house fast asleep, with her head against the wall. Her husband was snoring in bed. The children lay still as death on their mattress upon the floor. Alice sat on the one chair, her head fallen back, and her face as white as human face could be; but when they listened, they could hear her breathing. Beside the pale, worn, vanishing girl, Barbara looked the incarnation of concentrated life and energy. Her cheeks were flushed with the rapid walk, and her eyes were still flashing with the thoughts that had been rising in her, and the words that had been going from her. For a moment she stood radiant with the tender glow of an infinite pity, as she looked down on the death-like girl; then, with a sigh in which trembled the very luxury of service, she put her arm under the poor back-fallen head, and lifted it gently up. With the motion, Alice's eyes opened, like those of certain wonderful dolls, but they did not seem to have so much life in them.

"Quick!" said Barbara; "give me a little brandy in the cup."

Richard made haste, and Barbara put the cup to Alice's lips.

"Dear, take a little brandy; it will revive you," she said.

Alice came to her windows and looked, and saw the face of an angel bending over her. She obeyed the heavenly vision, and drank what it offered. It made her cough, and their hostess started to her feet as if dreading censure; but a smile and a greeting from Barbara reassured her. She thanked her for her hospitality as if Alice had been her sister, and slipping money into her hand, coaxingly begged her to make up the fire a little, that she might warm some soup.

Almost at once upon her tasting the soup, a little colour began to come in Alice's cheek. Barbara was feeding her, and a feeble smile flickered over the thin face every time it looked up in Barbara's. Richard stood gazing, and saw that hope in God could not much have lessened one woman's tenderness. He had scarcely seen tenderness in his mother; and certainly he had seen little hope. She was thoroughly kind to him, and he knew she would have died for her husband; but he had seen no sweetness in their intercourse, neither could remember any sweetness to himself. The hot spring of his aunt's love to him was no geyser, and he never knew in this world how hot it was. Hence was it to Richard more than a gracious sight, it was a revelation to him, as he watched the electric play of the love that passed from the strong, tender, child-like girl to the delicate, weary, starved creature to whom she was ministering.

At length Barbara thought it better she should have no more food for the present, when naturally the question arose, what was to be done next. The saviours went out into the night to have a free talk, and a little fresh air--sorely wanted in the cottage.

Richard then told Barbara that, if she did not disapprove, he would take Alice to his grandfather: he was certain he would receive her cordially, and both he and Jessie would do what they could for her. But he did not know of any vehicle he could get to carry her, except his grandfather's pony-cart, and that was four miles away!

"All right!" said Barbara. "I will stay with her, in and out, till you come."

"But how will you get home after?"

"As I came, of course. Don't trouble yourself about me; I can look after myself."

"But if they should have fastened the library-window?"

"Then I will take refuge with mother Night. There will be room enough in the park. Perhaps I may go to roost in that beech-tree. Don't you think about me. I shall come to no harm. Go at once and fetch the pony-cart."

Richard set off running, and came to his grandfather's while it was yet unreviving night; but he had little difficulty in rousing the old man. He told him all he knew about Alice, as well as the plight in which he had found her. Simon looked grave when he heard how his daughter had come between Richard and his friends. He hurried on his clothes, put the pony to, and got into the cart: he would himself fetch the girl! In another moment they were spinning along the gray road.

When they reached the hut, there was Barbara standing sentry near the door. She went and talked to Simon. Richard got down and went in. He found Alice wide awake, staring into the fire, with a look that brought a great rush of pity into his heart afresh. Remembering how the girl had shrunk from him before, he feared himself unfit to help, and knew himself unable to comfort her. For the first time he vaguely felt that there might be troubles needing a hand which neither man nor woman could hold out. Their kind hostess had crept into bed beside her husband, and was snoring as loud as he. Without a word he wrapped Alice in the blanket he had brought, and taking her once more in his arms, carried her to the cart. Leaning down from his perch, the sturdy old man received her in his, placed her comfortably beside him, put his arm round her, and with a nod to Barbara, and never a word to his grandson, drove away. Richard knew his rugged goodness too well to mind how he treated him, and was confident in him for Alice, as one to do not less but more than he promised. He was thus free to walk home with Barbara, glad at heart to know Alice in harbour, but a little anxious until Miss Wylder should be safe shut in her chamber.

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CHAPTER XXVI. RICHARD AND ALICEOne evening Richard went to see his grandfather, and asked if he would allow him to give Miss Wylder a lesson in horseshoeing: she wanted, he said, to be able to shoe Miss Brown--or indeed any horse. Simon laughed heartily at the proposal: it was too great an absurdity to admit of serious objection! "Ah, you don't know Miss Wylder, grandfather!" said Richard. "Of course not! Never an old man knew anything about a girl! It's only the young fellows can fathom a woman! Having girls of his own blinds a man to the nature of them!
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