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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThere & Back - Chapter 47. The Doors Of Harmony And Death
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There & Back - Chapter 47. The Doors Of Harmony And Death Post by :Merry_V Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :1123

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There & Back - Chapter 47. The Doors Of Harmony And Death


That night Richard could not rest. His brain wrought unceasingly.

He had caught cold and was feverish. After his hot haste to reach his brother and sister, he had stood on the stair till his temperature sank low. When at length he slept, he kept starting awake from troublous dreams, and this went on through the night. In the morning he felt better, and rose and set to his work, shivering occasionally. All the week he was unwell, and coughed, but thought the attack an ordinary cold. When Sunday came, he kept his bed, in the hope of getting rid of it; but the next day he was worse. He insisted on getting up, however: he must not seem to be ill, for he was determined, if he could stand, to go to the concert! What with weariness and shortness of breath and sleepiness, however, it was all he could do to stick to his work. But he held on till the evening, when, watching his opportunity, he slipped from the house and made his way, with the help of an omnibus, to the hall.

It was dire work waiting till the door to the orchestra was opened. The air was cold, his lungs heavily oppressed, and his languor almost overpowering. But Paradise was within that closed door, and he was passing through the pains of death to enter into bliss! When at length it seemed to yield to his prayers, he almost fell in the rush, but the good-humoured crowd itself succoured the pale youth, and helped him in: to look at him was to see that he was ill!

The moment the music began, he forgot every discomfort. For, with the first chord of the violins, as if ushered in and companied by the angels themselves of the sweet sounds, Barbara came flitting down the centre of the wide space toward her usual seat. The rows of faces that filled the area were but the waves on which floated the presence of Barbara; the music was the natural element of her being; it flowed from her as from its fountain, radiated from her like odour. It fashioned around her a nimbus of sound, like that made by the light issuing from the blessed ones, as beheld by Dante, which revealed their presence but hid them in its radiance, as the moth is hid in the silk of its cocoon. Richard felt entirely well. The warmth entered into him, and met the warmth generated in him. All was peace and hope and bliss, quaintest mingling of expectation and fruition. Even Arthur Lestrange beside Barbara could not blast his joy. He saw him occasionally offer some small attention; he saw her carelessly accept or refuse it. Barbara gazed at him anxiously, he thought; but he did not know he looked ill; he had forgotten himself.

When the concert was over, he hastened from the orchestra. The moment he issued, the cold wind seized and threatened to strangle him, but he conquered in the struggle, and reached the human torrent debouching in Regent-street. Against it he made gradual way, until he stood near the inner door of the hall. In a minute or two he saw her come, slowly with the crowd, her hand on Arthur's arm, her eyes anxiously searching for Richard. The moment they found him, her course took a drift toward him, and her face grew white as his, for she saw more plainly that he was ill. They edged nearer and nearer; their hands met through the crowd; their letters were exchanged, and without a word they parted. As Barbara reached the door, she turned one moment to look for him, and he saw a depth of care angelic in her eyes. Arthur turned too and saw him, but Richard was so changed he did not recognize him, and thought the suffering look of a stranger had roused the sympathy of his companion.

How he got home, Richard could not have told. Ere he reached the house, he was too ill to know anything except that he had something precious in his possession. He managed to get to bed--not to leave it for weeks. A severe attack of pneumonia had prostrated him, and he knew nothing of his condition or surroundings. He had not even opened his letter. He remembered at intervals that he had a precious thing somewhere, but could not recall what it was.

When he came to himself after many days, it was with a wonderful delight of possession, though whether the object possessed was a thing, or a thought, or a feeling, or a person, he could not distinguish.

"Where is it?" he said, nor knew that he spoke till he heard his own voice.

"Under your pillow," answered his mother.

He turned his eyes, and saw her face as he had never seen it before--pale, and full of yearning love and anxious joy. There was a gentleness and depth in its expression that was new to him. The divine motherhood had come nearer the surface in her boy's illness.

Partly from her anxiety about what she had done and what she had yet to do, the show of her love had, as the boy grew up, gradually retired; her love burned more, and shone less. If Jane Tuke had been able to let her love appear in such forms as suited its strength, I doubt whether the teaching of his father would have had much power upon Richard; certainly he would have been otherwise impressed by the faith of his mother. He would have been prejudiced in favour of the God she believed in, and would have sought hard to account for the ways attributed to him. None the less would it have been through much denial and much suffering that he arrived at anything worth calling faith; while the danger would have been great of his drifting about in such indifference as does not care that God should be righteous, and is ready to call anything just which men in office declare God does, without concern whether it be right or wrong, or whether he really does it or not--without concern indeed about anything at all that is God's. He would have had phantoms innumerable against him. He would have supposed the Bible said things about God which it does not say, things which, if it did say them, ought to be enough to make any honest man reject the notion of its authority as an indivisible whole. He would have had to encounter all the wrong notions of God, dropped on the highway of the universe, by the nations that went before in the march of humanity. He would have found it much harder to work out his salvation, to force his freedom from the false forms given to truth by interpreters of little faith, for they would have seemed born in him because loved into him.

"What did you say, mother dear?" he returned, all astray, seeming to have once known several things, but now to know nothing at all.

"It is under your pillow, Richard," she said again, very tenderly.

"What is it, mother? Something seems strange. I don't know what to ask you. Tell me what it means."

"You have been very ill, my boy; that is what it means."

"Have I been out of my mind?"

"You have been wandering with the fever, nothing more."

"I have been thinking so many things, and they all seemed real!--And you have been nursing me all the long time?"

"Who should have been nursing you, Richard? Do you think I would let any one else nurse my own child? Didn't I nurse the--"

She stopped; she had been on the point of saying--"the mother that bore you?" Her love of her dead sister was one with her love of that sister's living child.

He lay silent for a time, thinking, or rather trying to think, for he felt like one vainly endeavouring to get the focus of a stereoscopic picture. His mind kept going away from him. He knew himself able to think, yet he could not think. It was a revelation to him of our helplessness with our own being, of our absolute ignorance of the modes in which our nature works--of what it is, and what we can and cannot do with it.

"Shall I get it for you, dear?" said his mother.

The morning after the concert, he had taken Barbara's letter from under his pillow, and would not let it out of his hand. His mother, fearing he would wear it to pieces, once and again tried to remove it; but the moment she touched it, he would cry out and strike; and when in his restless turning he dropped it, he showed himself so miserable that she could not but put it in his hand again, when he would lie perfectly quiet for a while. Dreaming of Barbara however, I fancy, he at length forgot her letter, and his mother again put it under his pillow. With the Lord, we shall forget even the gospel of John.

She drew out the crumpled, frayed envelope, and gave it him. The moment he touched it, everything came back to him.

"Now I remember, mother!" he cried. "Thank you, mother! I will try to be a better boy to you. I am sorry I ever vexed you."

"You never vexed me, Richard!" said the mother-heart; "--or if ever you did, I've forgotten it. And now that God has given you back to us, we must see whether we can't do something better for you!"

Richard was so weary that he did not care to ask what she meant, and in a moment was asleep, with the letter in his hand.

When at length he was able to read it, it caused him not a little pleasure, and some dismay. He read that her father was determined she should marry Mr. Lestrange; but her mother was against it; and there was as much dissension at home as ever. She believed lady Ann had talked her father into it, for he had not always favoured the idea. There was indeed greater reason now why both lady Ann and her father should desire it, for there was every likelihood of her being left sole heir to the property, as her brother could not, the doctors said, live many months. She was sure her mother was trying to do right, and she herself did all she could to please her father, but nothing less than her consent to his plans for what he called her settlement in life, would satisfy him, and that she could not give.

She hoped Richard was not forgetting the things they had such talks about in the old days. If it were not for those things, she could not now bear life, or rightly take her part in it. She was almost never alone, and now in constant danger of interruption, so that he must not wonder if her letter broke off abruptly, for she might be wanted any moment. She was leading, or rather being led, a busy life of nothing at all--a life not worth living. Her father, set on, she had no doubt, by lady Ann, had brought her up to town while yet her mother was unable to accompany them, so that she had had to go where, and do what lady Ann pleased. But her mother had at last, exerting herself even beyond her strength, come up to stand by her girl, as she said: she would have no lady Ann interfering with her! She had herself married a man she had not learned to respect, and she was determined her girl should make her own choice--or keep as she was, if she pleased! She was not going to hold her child down for them to bury in money!--And with this the letter broke off.

Barbara's openness about her parents was in harmony with her simplicity and straightforwardness. She was proud of her mother and the way she put things, therefore told all to Richard.

He had a bad night, with delirious dreams, and for some days made little progress. His anxiety to be well, that he might see Barbara, and learn how things were going with her; also that he might again see Alice and Arthur, for whom he feared much, retarded his recovery.

"If the woman is drinking herself to death," he said to himself, "I wish she would be quick about it! In this world she is doing no good to herself, and much harm to others!" But it would be the ruin, he said to himself, of all hope in the care and love of God, to believe that she could be allowed to live a moment longer than it was well she should live. Then he thought how wise must be a God who, to work out his intent, would take all the conduct, good and bad, all the endeavours of all his children, in all their contrarieties, and out of them bring the right thing. If he knew such a God, one to trust in absolutely, he would lie still without one movement of fear, he would go to sleep without one throb of anxiety about any he loved! The perfect Love would not fail because one of his children was sick! He would try to be quiet, if only in the hope that there was a perfect heart of hearts, thinking love to and into and about all its creatures. If there was such a splendour, he would either make him well, and send him out again to do for Alice and Arthur what he could, or he would let him die and go where all he loved would come after him--where he might perhaps help to prepare a place for them!

If matter be all, then must all illness be blinding; if spirit be the deeper and be the causer, then some sicknesses may well be openers of windows into the unseen. It is true that in one mood we are ready to doubt the conclusions of another mood; but there is a power of judging between the moods themselves, with a perception of their character and nature, and the comparative clarity of insight in each; and he who is able to judge the moods, may well judge the judgments of the moods.

One of the benefits of illness is, that either from general weakness, or from the brain's being cast into quiescence, habits are broken for a time, and more simple, childlike, and natural modes of thought and feeling, modes more approximate to primary and original modes, come into action, whereby the right thing has a better chance. A man's self-stereotyped thinking is unfavourable to revelation, whether through his fellows, or direct from the divine. If there be a divine quarter, those must be opener to its influences who are not frozen in their own dullness, cased in their own habits, bound by their own pride to foregone conclusions, or shut up in the completeness of human error, theorizing beyond their knowledge and power.

Having thus in a measure given himself up, Richard began to grow better. It is a joy to think that a man may, while anything but sure about God, yet come into correlation with him! How else should we be saved at all? For God alone is our salvation; to know him is salvation. He is in us all the time, else we could never move to seek him. It is true that only by perfect faith in him can we be saved, for nothing but perfect faith in him is salvation; there is no good but him, and not to be one with that good by perfect obedience, is to be unsaved; but one better thought concerning him, the poorest desire to draw near him, is an approach to him. Very unsure of him we may be: how should we be sure of what we do not yet know? but the unsureness does not nullify the approach. A man may not be sure that the sun is risen, may not be sure that the sun will ever rise, yet has he the good of what light there is. Richard was fed from the heart of God without knowing that he was indeed partaking of the spirit of God. He had been partaking of the body of God all his life. The world had been feeding him with its beauty and essential truth, with the sweetness of its air, and the vastness of its vault of freedom. But now he had begun, in the words of St. Peter, to be a partaker of the divine nature.

It was a long time before he was strong again--in fact he never would be so strong again in this world. His mother took him to the seaside, where, in a warm secluded bay on the south coast, he was wrapt closer, shall I not say, in the garments of the creating and reviving God. He was again a child, and drew nearer to the heart of his mother than he had ever drawn before. Believing he knew her sad secret, he set himself to meet her every wish--which was always some form of anxiety about himself. He spoke so gently to her, that she felt she had never until now had him her very child. How little men think, alas, of the duty that lies in _tone_! But Richard was started on a voyage of self-discovery. He had begun to learn that regions he had thought wholesome, productive portions of his world, were a _terra incognita of swamps and sandy hills, haunted with creeping and stinging things. When a man finds he is not what he thought, that be has been talking line things, and but imagining he belonged to their world, he is on the way to discover that he is not up to his duty in the smallest thing. When, for very despair, it seems impossible to go on, then he begins to know that he needs more than himself; that there is none good but God; that, if he can gain no help from the perfect source of his being, that being ought not to have been given him; and that, if he does not cry for help to the father of his spirit, the more pleasant existence is, the less he deserves it should continue. Richard was beginning to feel in his deepest nature, where alone it can be felt, his need of God, not merely to comfort him in his sorrows, and so render life possible and worth living, but to make him such that he could bear to regard himself; to make him such that he could righteously consent to be. The only thing that can reassure a man in respect of the mere fact of his existence, is to know himself started on the way to grow better, with the hope of help from the source of his being: how should he by himself better that which he was powerless to create? All betterment must be radical: of the roots of his being he knows nothing. His existence is God's; his betterment must be God's too!--God's through honest exercise by man of that which is highest in man--his own will, God's best handiwork. By actively willing the will of God, and doing what of it lies to his doing, the man takes the share offered him in his own making, in his own becoming. In willing actively and operatively to be that which he was made in order to be, he becomes creative--so far as a man may. In this kind also he becomes like his Father in heaven.

If a reader say Richard was too young to think thus, it only proves that _he could not think so at Richard's age, and goes for little. I may be interpreting, and rendering more definite the thoughts and feelings that passed through him: it does not follow that I misrepresent. Many thoughts must be made more definite in expression, else they could not be expressed at all; many feelings are as hazy as real, and some of them must be left to music.

He grew in graciousness and in favour with God and his mother. Often did she meditate whether the hour was not come for the telling of her secret, but now one thing, now another deterred her. One time she feared the excitement in the present state of his health; another, she judged it unfair to the husband who had behaved with such generosity, to yield him no part in the pleasure of the communication.

Once, to comfort him when he seemed depressed, she ventured to say--

"Would you like better to go to Oxford or to Cambridge, Richard?"

He looked up with a smile.

"What makes you ask that, mammy?" he rejoined.

"Perhaps it could be managed!" she answered--leaving him to suppose his father might send him.

"Is it because you think I shall never be able to work again?--Look at that!" he returned, extending an arm on which the muscle had begun to put in an appearance.

"It's not for your strength," she answered. "For that, you could do well enough! But think of the dust! It's so irritating to the lungs! And then there's the stooping all day long!"

"Never mind, mother; I'm quite able for it, dust and all--or at least shall soon be. We mustn't be anxious about others any more than about ourselves. Doesn't the God you believe in tell you so?"

"Don't you believe in him then, Richard?" said his mother sadly.

"I think I do--a little--in a sort of a way--believe in God--but I hope to believe in him ten thousand times more!"

His mother gave a sigh.

"What more would you have, mother dear?" said Richard. "A man cannot be a saint all at once!"

"No, indeed, nor a woman either!" she answered. "I've been a believer all these years, and I'm no nearer a saint than ever."

"But you're trying to be one, ain't you, mammy?"

She made him no reply, and presently reverted to their former topic--perhaps took refuge in it.

"I think it might be managed--some day!" she said. "You could go on with your trade after, if you liked. Why shouldn't a college-man be a tradesman? Why shouldn't a tradesman know as much as a gentleman?"

"Why, indeed, mother! If I thought it wouldn't be too much for father and you, there are not many things I should like better than going to Oxford. You are good to me like God himself!"

"Richard!" said his mother, shocked. She thought she served God by going to church, not by being like him in every word and look of love she gave her boy.

The mere idea of going to college, and thus taking a step nearer to Barbara, began immediately to better his health. It gave him many a happy thought, many a cottage and castle in the air, with more of a foundation than he knew. But his mother did not revert to it; and one day suddenly the thought came to Richard that perhaps she meant to apply to sir Wilton for the means of sending him. Castle and cottage fell in silent ruin. His soul recoiled from the idea with loathing--as much for his mother's sake as his own. Having married his reputed father, she must have no more relation, for good any more than for bad, with sir Wilton--least of all for his sake! To her he was dead; and ought to be as dead as disregard could make him! So, at least, thought Richard. He was sorry he had confessed he should like to go to Oxford. If his mother again alluded to the thing, he would tell her he had changed his mind, and would not interrupt the exercise of his profession as surgeon to old books.

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