Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part III.--His Manhood
Chapter VIII. My Own Acquaintance.
It was after this that my own acquaintance with Falconer commenced. I had just come out of one of the theatres in the neighbourhood of the Strand, unable to endure any longer the dreary combination of false magnanimity and real meanness, imported from Paris in the shape of a melodrama, for the delectation of the London public. I had turned northwards, and was walking up one of the streets near Covent Garden, when my attention was attracted to a woman who came out of a gin-shop, carrying a baby. She went to the kennel, and bent her head over, ill with the poisonous stuff she had been drinking. And while the woman stood in this degrading posture, the poor, white, wasted baby was looking over her shoulder with the smile of a seraph, perfectly unconscious of the hell around her.
'Children will see things as God sees them,' murmured a voice beside me.
I turned and saw a tall man with whose form I had already become a little familiar, although I knew nothing of him, standing almost at my elbow, with his eyes fixed on the woman and the child, and a strange smile of tenderness about his mouth, as if he were blessing the little creature in his heart.
He too saw the wonder of the show, typical of so much in the world, indeed of the world itself--the seemingly vile upholding and ministering to the life of the pure, the gracious, the fearless. Aware from his tone more than from his pronunciation that he was a fellow-countryman, I ventured to speak to him, and in a home-dialect.
'It's a wonnerfu' sicht. It's the cake o' Ezekiel ower again.'
He looked at me sharply, thought a moment, and said,
'You were going my way when you stopped. I will walk with you, if you will.'
'But what's to be done about it?' I said.
'About what?' he returned.
'About the child there,' I answered.
'Oh! she is its mother,' he replied, walking on.
'What difference does that make?' I said.
'All the difference in the world. If God has given her that child, what right have you or I to interfere?'
'But I verily believe from the look of the child she gives it gin.'
'God saves the world by the new blood, the children. To take her child from her, would be to do what you could to damn her.'
'It doesn't look much like salvation there.'
'You mustn't interfere with God's thousand years any more than his one day.'
'Are you sure she is the mother?' I asked.
'Yes. I would not have left the child with her otherwise.'
'What would you have done with it? Got it into some orphan asylum?--or the Foundling perhaps?'
'Never,' he answered. 'All those societies are wretched inventions for escape from the right way. There ought not to be an orphan asylum in the kingdom.'
'What! Would you put them all down then?'
'God forbid. But I would, if I could, make them all useless,'
'How could you do that?'
'I would merely enlighten the hearts of childless people as to their privileges.'
'To be fathers and mothers to the fatherless and motherless.'
'I have often wondered why more of them did not adopt children. Why don't they?'
'For various reasons which a real love to child nature would blow to the winds--all comprised in this, that such a child would not be their own child. As if ever a child could be their own! That a child is God's is of rather more consequence than whether it is born of this or that couple. Their hearts would surely be glad when they went into heaven to have the angels of the little ones that always behold the face of their Father coming round them, though they were not exactly their father and mother.'
'I don't know what the passage you refer to means.'
'Neither do I. But it must mean something, if He said it. Are you a clergyman?'
'No. I am only a poor teacher of mathematics and poetry, shown up the back stairs into the nurseries of great houses.'
'A grand chance, if I may use the word.'
'I do try to wake a little enthusiasm in the sons and daughters--without much success, I fear.'
'Will you come and see me?' he said.
'With much pleasure. But, as I have given you an answer, you owe me one.'
'Have you adopted a child?'
'Then you have some of your own?'
'Then, excuse me, but why the warmth of your remarks on those who--'
'I think I shall be able to satisfy you on that point, if we draw to each other. Meantime I must leave you. Could you come to-morrow evening?'
We arranged the hour and parted. I saw him walk into a low public-house, and went home.
At the time appointed, I rang the bell, and was led by an elderly woman up the stair, and shown into a large room on the first-floor--poorly furnished, and with many signs of bachelor-carelessness. Mr. Falconer rose from an old hair-covered sofa to meet me as I entered. I will first tell my reader something of his personal appearance.
He was considerably above six feet in height, square-shouldered, remarkably long in the arms, and his hands were uncommonly large and powerful. His head was large, and covered with dark wavy hair, lightly streaked with gray. His broad forehead projected over deep-sunk eyes, that shone like black fire. His features, especially his Roman nose, were large, and finely, though not delicately, modelled. His nostrils were remarkably large and flexile, with a tendency to slight motion: I found on further acquaintance that when he was excited, they expanded in a wild equine manner. The expression of his mouth was of tender power, crossed with humour. He kept his lips a little compressed, which gave a certain sternness to his countenance: but when this sternness dissolved in a smile, it was something enchanting. He was plainly, rather shabbily clothed. No one could have guessed at his profession or social position. He came forward and received me cordially. After a little indifferent talk, he asked me if I had any other engagement for the evening.
'I never have any engagements,' I answered--'at least, of a social kind. I am burd alane. I know next to nobody.'
'Then perhaps you would not mind going out with me for a stroll?'
'I shall be most happy,' I answered.
There was something about the man I found exceedingly attractive; I had very few friends; and there was besides something odd, almost romantic, in this beginning of an intercourse: I would see what would come of it.
'Then we'll have some supper first,' said Mr. Falconer, and rang the bell.
While we ate our chops--
'I dare say you think it strange,' my host said, 'that without the least claim on your acquaintance, I should have asked you to come and see me, Mr.--'
He stopped, smiling.
'My name is Gordon--Archie Gordon,' I said.
'Well, then, Mr. Gordon, I confess I have a design upon you. But you will remember that you addressed me first.'
'You spoke first,' I said.
'I did not say you spoke to me, but you spoke.--I should not have ventured to make the remark I did make, if I had not heard your voice first. What design have you on me?'
'That will appear in due course. Now take a glass of wine, and we'll set out.'
We soon found ourselves in Holborn, and my companion led the way towards the City. The evening was sultry and close.
'Nothing excites me move,' said Mr. Falconer, 'than a walk in the twilight through a crowded street. Do you find it affect you so?'
'I cannot speak as strongly as you do,' I replied. 'But I perfectly understand what you mean. Why is it, do you think?'
'Partly, I fancy, because it is like the primordial chaos, a concentrated tumult of undetermined possibilities. The germs of infinite adventure and result are floating around you like a snow-storm. You do not know what may arise in a moment and colour all your future. Out of this mass may suddenly start something marvellous, or, it may be, something you have been looking for for years.'
The same moment, a fierce flash of lightning, like a blue sword-blade a thousand times shattered, quivered and palpitated about us, leaving a thick darkness on the sense. I heard my companion give a suppressed cry, and saw him run up against a heavy drayman who was on the edge of the path, guiding his horses with his long whip. He begged the man's pardon, put his hand to his head, and murmured, 'I shall know him now.' I was afraid for a moment that the lightning had struck him, but he assured me there was nothing amiss. He looked a little excited and confused, however.
I should have forgotten the incident, had he not told me afterwards--when I had come to know him intimately--that in the moment of that lightning flash, he had had a strange experience: he had seen the form of his father, as he had seen him that Sunday afternoon, in the midst of the surrounding light. He was as certain of the truth of the presentation as if a gradual revival of memory had brought with it the clear conviction of its own accuracy. His explanation of the phenomenon was, that, in some cases, all that prevents a vivid conception from assuming objectivity, is the self-assertion of external objects. The gradual approach of darkness cannot surprise and isolate the phantasm; but the suddenness of the lightning could and did, obliterating everything without, and leaving that over which it had no power standing alone, and therefore visible.
'But,' I ventured to ask, 'whence the minuteness of detail, surpassing, you say, all that your memory could supply?'
'That I think was a quickening of the memory by the realism of the presentation. Excited by the vision, it caught at its own past, as it were, and suddenly recalled that which it had forgotten. In the rapidity of all pure mental action, this at once took its part in the apparent objectivity.'
To return to the narrative of my first evening in Falconer's company.
It was strange how insensible the street population was to the grandeur of the storm. While the thunder was billowing and bellowing over and around us--
'A hundred pins for one ha'penny,' bawled a man from the gutter, with the importance of a Cagliostro.
'Evening Star! Telegrauwff!' roared an ear-splitting urchin in my very face. I gave him a shove off the pavement.
'Ah! don't do that,' said Falconer. 'It only widens the crack between him and his fellows--not much, but a little.'
'You are right,' I said. 'I won't do it again.'
The same moment we heard a tumult in a neighbouring street. A crowd was execrating a policeman, who had taken a woman into custody, and was treating her with unnecessary rudeness. Falconer looked on for a few moments.
'Come, policeman!' he said at length, in a tone of expostulation. 'You're rather rough, are you not? She's a woman, you know.'
'Hold your blasted humbug,' answered the man, an exceptional specimen of the force at that time at all events, and shook the tattered wretch, as if he would shake her out of her rags.
Falconer gently parted the crowd, and stood beside the two.
'I will help you,' he said, 'to take her to the station, if you like, but you must not treat her that way.'
'I don't want your help,' said the policeman; 'I know you, and all the damned lot of you.'
'Then I shall be compelled to give you a lesson,' said Falconer.
The man's only answer was a shake that made the woman cry out.
'I shall get into trouble if you get off,' said Falconer to her. 'Will you promise me, on your word, to go with me to the station, if I rid you of the fellow?'
'I will, I will,' said the woman.
'Then, look out,' said Falconer to the policeman; 'for I'm going to give you that lesson.'
The officer let the woman go, took his baton, and made a blow at Falconer. In another moment--I could hardly see how--he lay in the street.
'Now, my poor woman, come along,' said Falconer.
She obeyed, crying gently. Two other policemen came up.
'Do you want to give that woman in charge, Mr. Falconer?' asked one of them.
'I give that man in charge,' cried his late antagonist, who had just scrambled to his feet. 'Assaulting the police in discharge of their duty.'
'Very well,' said the other. 'But you're in the wrong box, and that you'll find. You had better come along to the station, sir.'
'Keep that fellow from getting hold of the woman--you two, and we'll go together,' said Falconer.
Bewildered with the rapid sequence of events, I was following in the crowd. Falconer looked about till he saw me, and gave me a nod which meant come along. Before we reached Bow Street. however, the offending policeman, who had been walking a little behind in conversation with one of the others, advanced to Falconer, touched his hat, and said something, to which Falconer replied.
'Remember, I have my eye upon you,' was all I heard, however, as he left the crowd and rejoined me. We turned and walked eastward again.
The storm kept on intermittently, but the streets were rather more crowded than usual notwithstanding.
'Look at that man in the woollen jacket,' said Falconer. 'What a beautiful outline of face! There must be something noble in that man.'
'I did not see him,' I answered, 'I was taken up with a woman's face, like that of a beautiful corpse. It's eyes were bright. There was gin in its brain.'
The streets swarmed with human faces gleaming past. It was a night of ghosts.
There stood a man who had lost one arm, earnestly pumping bilge-music out of an accordion with the other, holding it to his body with the stump. There was a woman, pale with hunger and gin, three match-boxes in one extended hand, and the other holding a baby to her breast. As we looked, the poor baby let go its hold, turned its little head, and smiled a wan, shrivelled, old-fashioned smile in our faces.
Another happy baby, you see, Mr. Gordon,' said Falconer. 'A child, fresh from God, finds its heaven where no one else would. The devil could drive woman out of Paradise; but the devil himself cannot drive the Paradise out of a woman.'
'What can be done for them?' I said, and at the moment, my eye fell upon a row of little children, from two to five years of age, seated upon the curb-stone.
They were chattering fast, and apparently carrying on some game, as happy as if they had been in the fields.
'Wouldn't you like to take all those little grubby things, and put them in a great tub and wash them clean?' I said.
'They'd fight like spiders,' rejoined Falconer.
'They're not fighting now.'
'Then don't make them. It would be all useless. The probability is that you would only change the forms of the various evils, and possibly for worse. You would buy all that man's glue-lizards, and that man's three-foot rules, and that man's dog-collars and chains, at three times their value, that they might get more drink than usual, and do nothing at all for their living to-morrow.--What a happy London you would make if you were Sultan Haroun!' he added, laughing. 'You would put an end to poverty altogether, would you not?'
I did not reply at once.
'But I beg your pardon,' he resumed; 'I am very rude.'
'Not at all,' I returned. 'I was only thinking how to answer you. They would be no worse after all than those who inherit property and lead idle lives.'
'True; but they would be no better. Would you be content that your quondam poor should be no better off than the rich? What would be gained thereby? Is there no truth in the words "Blessed are the poor"? A deeper truth than most Christians dare to see.--Did you ever observe that there is not one word about the vices of the poor in the Bible--from beginning to end?'
'But they have their vices.'
'Indubitably. I am only stating a fact. The Bible is full enough of the vices of the rich. I make no comment.'
'But don't you care for their sufferings?'
'They are of secondary importance quite. But if you had been as much amongst them as I, perhaps you would be of my opinion, that the poor are not, cannot possibly feel so wretched as they seem to us. They live in a climate, as it were, which is their own, by natural law comply with it, and find it not altogether unfriendly. The Laplander will prefer his wastes to the rich fields of England, not merely from ignorance, but for the sake of certain blessings amongst which he has been born and brought up. The blessedness of life depends far more on its interest than upon its comfort. The need of exertion and the doubt of success, renders life much more interesting to the poor than it is to those who, unblessed with anxiety for the bread that perisheth, waste their poor hearts about rank and reputation.'
'I thought such anxiety was represented as an evil in the New Testament.'
'Yes. But it is a still greater evil to lose it in any other way than by faith in God. You would remove the anxiety by destroying its cause: God would remove it by lifting them above it, by teaching them to trust in him, and thus making them partakers of the divine nature. Poverty is a blessing when it makes a man look up.'
'But you cannot say it does so always.'
'I cannot determine when, where, and how much; but I am sure it does. And I am confident that to free those hearts from it by any deed of yours would be to do them the greatest injury you could. Probably their want of foresight would prove the natural remedy, speedily reducing them to their former condition--not however without serious loss.'
'But will not this theory prove at last an anęsthetic rather than an anodyne? I mean that, although you may adopt it at first for refuge from the misery the sight of their condition occasions you, there is surely a danger of its rendering you at last indifferent to it.'
'Am I indifferent? But you do not know me yet. Pardon my egotism. There may be such danger. Every truth has its own danger or shadow. Assuredly I would have no less labour spent upon them. But there can be no true labour done, save in as far as we are fellow-labourers with God. We must work with him, not against him. Every one who works without believing that God is doing the best, the absolute good for them, is, must be, more or less, thwarting God. He would take the poor out of God's hands. For others, as for ourselves, we must trust him. If we could thoroughly understand anything, that would be enough to prove it undivine; and that which is but one step beyond our understanding must be in some of its relations as mysterious as if it were a hundred. But through all this darkness about the poor, at least I can see wonderful veins and fields of light, and with the help of this partial vision, I trust for the rest. The only and the greatest thing man is capable of is Trust in God.'
'What then is a man to do for the poor? How is he to work with God?' I asked.
'He must be a man amongst them--a man breathing the air of a higher life, and therefore in all natural ways fulfilling his endless human relations to them. Whatever you do for them, let your own being, that is you in relation to them, be the background, that so you may be a link between them and God, or rather I should say, between them and the knowledge of God.'
While Falconer spoke, his face grew grander and grander, till at last it absolutely shone. I felt that I walked with a man whose faith was his genius.
'Of one thing I am pretty sure,' he resumed, 'that the same recipe Goethe gave for the enjoyment of life, applies equally to all work: "Do the thing that lies next you." That is all our business. Hurried results are worse than none. We must force nothing, but be partakers of the divine patience. How long it took to make the cradle! and we fret that the baby Humanity is not reading Euclid and Plato, even that it is not understanding the Gospel of St. John! If there is one thing evident in the world's history, it is that God hasteneth not. All haste implies weakness. Time is as cheap as space and matter. What they call the church militant is only at drill yet, and a good many of the officers too not out of the awkward squad. I am sure I, for a private, am not. In the drill a man has to conquer himself, and move with the rest by individual attention to his own duty: to what mighty battlefields the recruit may yet be led, he does not know. Meantime he has nearly enough to do with his goose-step, while there is plenty of single combat, skirmish, and light cavalry work generally, to get him ready for whatever is to follow. I beg your pardon: I am preaching.'
'Eloquently,' I answered.
Of some of the places into which Falconer led me that night I will attempt no description--places blazing with lights and mirrors, crowded with dancers, billowing with music, close and hot, and full of the saddest of all sights, the uninteresting faces of commonplace women.
'There is a passion,' I said, as we came out of one of these dreadful places, 'that lingers about the heart like the odour of violets, like a glimmering twilight on the borders of moonrise; and there is a passion that wraps itself in the vapours of patchouli and coffins, and streams from the eyes like gaslight from a tavern. And yet the line is ill to draw between them. It is very dreadful. These are women.'
'They are in God's hands,' answered Falconer. 'He hasn't done with them yet. Shall it take less time to make a woman than to make a world? Is not the woman the greater? She may have her ages of chaos, her centuries of crawling slime, yet rise a woman at last.'
'How much alike all those women were!'
'A family likeness, alas! which always strikes you first.'
'Some of them looked quite modest.'
'There are great differences. I do not know anything more touching than to see how a woman will sometimes wrap around her the last remnants of a soiled and ragged modesty. It has moved me almost to tears to see such a one hanging her head in shame during the singing of a detestable song. That poor thing's shame was precious in the eyes of the Master, surely.'
'Could nothing be done for her?'
'I contrived to let her know where she would find a friend if she wanted to be good: that is all you can do in such cases. If the horrors of their life do not drive them out at such an open door, you can do nothing else, I fear--for the time.'
'Where are you going now, may I ask?'
'Into the city--on business,' he added with a smile.
'There will be nobody there so late.'
'Nobody! One would think you were the beadle of a city church, Mr. Gordon.'
We came into a very narrow, dirty street. I do not know where it is. A slatternly woman advanced from an open door, and said,
He looked at her for a moment.
'Why, Sarah, have you come to this already?' he said.
'Never mind me, sir. It's no more than you told me to expect. You knowed him better than I did. Leastways I'm an honest woman.'
'Stick to that, Sarah; and be good-tempered.'
'I'll have a try anyhow, sir. But there's a poor cretur a dyin' up-stairs; and I'm afeard it'll go hard with her, for she throwed a Bible out o' window this very morning, sir.'
'Would she like to see me? I'm afraid not.'
'She's got Lilywhite, what's a sort of a reader, readin' that same Bible to her now.'
'There can be no great harm in just looking in,' he said, turning to me.
'I shall be happy to follow you--anywhere,' I returned.
'She's awful ill, sir; cholerer or summat,' said Sarah, as she led the way up the creaking stair.
We half entered the room softly. Two or three women sat by the chimney, and another by a low bed, covered with a torn patchwork counterpane, spelling out a chapter in the Bible. We paused for a moment to hear what she was reading. Had the book been opened by chance, or by design? It was the story of David and Bathsheba. Moans came from the bed, but the candle in a bottle, by which the woman was reading, was so placed that we could not see the sufferer.
We stood still and did not interrupt the reading.
'Ha! ha! ha!' laughed a coarse voice from the side of the chimney: 'the saint, you see, was no better than some of the rest of us!'
'I think he was a good deal worse just then,' said Falconer, stepping forward.
'Gracious! there's Mr. Falconer,' said another woman, rising, and speaking in a flattering tone.
'Then,' remarked the former speaker, 'there's a chance for old Moll and me yet. King David was a saint, wasn't he? Ha! ha!'
'Yes, and you might be one too, if you were as sorry for your faults as he was for his.'
'Sorry, indeed! I'll be damned if I be sorry. What have I to be sorry for? Where's the harm in turning an honest penny? I ha' took no man's wife, nor murdered himself neither. There's yer saints! He was a rum 'un. Ha! ha!'
Falconer approached her, bent down and whispered something no one could hear but herself. She gave a smothered cry, and was silent.
'Give me the book,' he said, turning towards the bed. 'I'll read you something better than that. I'll read about some one that never did anything wrong.'
'I don't believe there never was no sich a man,' said the previous reader, as she handed him the book, grudgingly.
'Not Jesus Christ himself?' said Falconer.
'Oh! I didn't know as you meant him.'
'Of course I meant him. There never was another.'
'I have heard tell--p'raps it was yourself, sir--as how he didn't come down upon us over hard after all, bless him!'
Falconer sat down on the side of the bed, and read the story of Simon the Pharisee and the woman that was a sinner. When he ceased, the silence that followed was broken by a sob from somewhere in the room. The sick woman stopped her moaning, and said,
'Turn down the leaf there, please, sir. Lilywhite will read it to me when you're gone.'
The some one sobbed again. It was a young slender girl, with a face disfigured by the small-pox, and, save for the tearful look it wore, poor and expressionless. Falconer said something gentle to her.
'Will he ever come again?' she sobbed.
'Who?' asked Falconer.
'Him--Jesus Christ. I've heard tell, I think, that he was to come again some day.'
'Why do you ask?'
'Because--' she said, with a fresh burst of tears, which rendered the words that followed unintelligible. But she recovered herself in a few moments, and, as if finishing her sentence, put her hand up to her poor, thin, colourless hair, and said,
'My hair ain't long enough to wipe his feet.'
'Do you know what he would say to you, my girl?' Falconer asked.
'No. What would he say to me? He would speak to me, would he?'
'He would say: Thy sins are forgiven thee.'
'Would he, though? Would he?' she cried, starting up. 'Take me to him--take me to him. Oh! I forgot. He's dead. But he will come again, won't he? He was crucified four times, you know, and he must ha' come four times for that. Would they crucify him again, sir?'
'No, they wouldn't crucify him now--in England at least. They would only laugh at him, shake their heads at what he told them, as much as to say it wasn't true, and sneer and mock at him in some of the newspapers.'
'Oh dear! I've been very wicked.'
'But you won't be so any more.'
'No, no, no. I won't, I won't, I won't.'
She talked hurriedly, almost wildly. The coarse old woman tapped her forehead with her finger. Falconer took the girl's hand.
'What is your name?' he said.
'Well, Nelly,' said Falconer.
'How kind of you to call me Nelly!' interrupted the poor girl. 'They always calls me Nell, just.'
'Nelly,' repeated Falconer, 'I will send a lady here to-morrow to take you away with her, if you like, and tell you how you must do to find Jesus.--People always find him that want to find him.'
The elderly woman with the rough voice, who had not spoken since he whispered to her, now interposed with a kind of cowed fierceness.
'Don't go putting humbug into my child's head now, Mr. Falconer--'ticing her away from her home. Everybody knows my Nell's been an idiot since ever she was born. Poor child!'
'I ain't your child,' cried the girl, passionately. 'I ain't nobody's child.'
'You are God's child,' said Falconer, who stood looking on with his eyes shining, but otherwise in a state of absolute composure.
'Am I? Am I? You won't forget to send for me, sir?'
'That I won't,' he answered.
She turned instantly towards the woman, and snapped her fingers in her face.
'I don't care that for you,' she cried. 'You dare to touch me now, and I'll bite you.'
'Come, come, Nelly, you mustn't be rude,' said Falconer.
'No, sir, I won't no more, leastways to nobody but she. It's she makes me do all the wicked things, it is.'
She snapped her fingers in her face again, and then burst out crying.
'She will leave you alone now, I think,' said Falconer. 'She knows it will be quite as well for her not to cross me.'
This he said very significantly, as he turned to the door, where he bade them a general good-night. When we reached the street, I was too bewildered to offer any remark. Falconer was the first to speak.
'It always comes back upon me, as if I had never known it before, that women like some of those were of the first to understand our Lord.'
'Some of them wouldn't have understood him any more than the Pharisee, though.'
'I'm not so sure of that. Of course there are great differences. There are good and bad amongst them as in every class. But one thing is clear to me, that no indulgence of passion destroys the spiritual nature so much as respectable selfishness.'
'I am afraid you will not get society to agree with you,' I said, foolishly.
'I have no wish that society should agree with me; for if it did, it would be sure to do so upon the worst of principles. It is better that society should be cruel, than that it should call the horrible thing a trifle: it would know nothing between.'
Through the city--though it was only when we crossed one of the main thoroughfares that I knew where we were--we came into the region of Bethnal Green. From house to house till it grew very late, Falconer went, and I went with him. I will not linger on this part of our wanderings. Where I saw only dreadful darkness, Falconer always would see some glimmer of light. All the people into whose houses we went knew him. They were all in the depths of poverty. Many of them were respectable. With some of them he had long talks in private, while I waited near. At length he said,
'I think we had better be going home, Mr. Gordon. You must be tired.'
'I am, rather,' I answered. 'But it doesn't matter, for I have nothing to do to-morrow.'
'We shall get a cab, I dare say, before we go far.'
'Not for me. I am not so tired, but that I would rather walk,' I said.
'Very well,' he returned. 'Where do you live?'
I told him.
'I will take you the nearest way.'
'You know London marvellously.'
'Pretty well now,' he answered.
We were somewhere near Leather Lane about one o'clock. Suddenly we came upon two tiny children standing on the pavement, one on each side of the door of a public-house. They could not have been more than two and three. They were sobbing a little--not much. The tiny creatures stood there awfully awake in sleeping London, while even their own playmates were far off in the fairyland of dreams.
'This is the kind of thing,' I said, 'that makes me doubt whether there be a God in heaven.'
'That is only because he is down here,' answered Falconer, 'taking such good care of us all that you can't see him. There is not a gin-palace, or yet lower hell in London, in which a man or woman can be out of God. The whole being love, there is nothing for you to set it against and judge it by. So you are driven to fancies.'
The house was closed, but there was light above the door. We went up to the children, and spoke to them, but all we could make out was that mammie was in there. One of them could not speak at all. Falconer knocked at the door. A good-natured-looking Irishwoman opened it a little way and peeped out.
'Here are two children crying at your door, ma'am,' said Falconer.
'Och, the darlin's! they want their mother.'
'Do you know her, then?'
'True for you, and I do. She's a mighty dacent woman in her way when the drink's out uv her, and very kind to the childher; but oncet she smells the dhrop o' gin, her head's gone intirely. The purty craytures have waked up, an' she not come home, and they've run out to look after her.'
Falconer stood a moment as if thinking what would be best. The shriek of a woman rang through the night.
'There she is!' said the Irishwoman. 'For God's sake don't let her get a hould o' the darlints. She's ravin' mad. I seen her try to kill them oncet.'
The shrieks came nearer and nearer, and after a few moments the woman appeared in the moonlight, tossing her arms over her head, and screaming with a despair for which she yet sought a defiant expression. Her head was uncovered, and her hair flying in tangles; her sleeves were torn, and her gaunt arms looked awful in the moonlight. She stood in the middle of the street, crying again and again, with shrill laughter between, 'Nobody cares for me, and I care for nobody! Ha! ha! ha!'
'Mammie! mammie!' cried the elder of the children, and ran towards her.
The woman heard, and rushed like a fury towards the child. Falconer too ran, and caught up the child. The woman gave a howl and rushed towards the other. I caught up that one. With a last shriek, she dashed her head against the wall of the public-house, dropped on the pavement, and lay still.
Falconer set the child down, lifted the wasted form in his arms, and carried it into the house. The face was blue as that of a strangled corpse. She was dead.
'Was she a married woman?' Falconer asked.
'It's myself can't tell you sir,' the Irishwoman answered. 'I never saw any boy with her.'
'Do you know where she lived?'
'No, sir. Somewhere not far off, though. The children will know.'
But they stood staring at their mother, and we could get nothing out of them. They would not move from the corpse.
'I think we may appropriate this treasure-trove,' said Falconer, turning at last to me; and as he spoke, he took the eldest in his arms. Then, turning to the woman, he gave her a card, saying, 'If any inquiry is made about them, there is my address.--Will you take the other, Mr. Gordon?'
I obeyed. The children cried no more. After traversing a few streets, we found a cab, and drove to a house in Queen Square, Bloomsbury.
Falconer got out at the door of a large house, and rung the bell; then got the children out, and dismissed the cab. There we stood in the middle of the night, in a silent, empty square, each with a child in his arms. In a few minutes we heard the bolts being withdrawn. The door opened, and a tall graceful form wrapped in a dressing-gown, appeared.
'I have brought you two babies, Miss St. John,' said Falconer. 'Can you take them?'
'To be sure I can,' she answered, and turned to lead the way. 'Bring them in.'
We followed her into a little back room. She put down her candle, and went straight to the cupboard, whence she brought a sponge-cake, from which she cut a large piece for each of the children.
'What a mercy they are, Robert,--those little gates in the face! Red Lane leads direct to the heart,' she said, smiling, as if she rejoiced in the idea of taming the little wild angelets. 'Don't you stop. You are tired enough, I am sure. I will wake my maid, and we'll get them washed and put to bed at once.'
She was closing the door, when Falconer turned.
'Oh! Miss St. John,' he said, 'I was forgetting. Could you go down to No. 13 in Soap Lane--you know it, don't you?'
'Yes. Quite well.'
'Ask for a girl called Nell--a plain, pock-marked young girl--and take her away with you.'
'When shall I go?'
'To-morrow morning. But I shall be in. Don't go till you see me. Good-night.'
We took our leave without more ado.
'What a lady-like woman to be the matron of an asylum!' I said.
Falconer gave a little laugh.
'That is no asylum. It is a private house.'
'And the lady?'
'Is a lady of private means,' he answered, 'who prefers Bloomsbury to Belgravia, because it is easier to do noble work in it. Her heaven is on the confines of hell.'
'What will she do with those children?'
'Kiss them and wash them and put them to bed.'
'And after that?'
'Give them bread and milk in the morning.'
'And after that?'
'Oh! there's time enough. We'll see. There's only one thing she won't do.'
'What is that?'
'Turn them out again.'
A pause followed, I cogitating.
'Are you a society, then?' I asked at length.
'No. At least we don't use the word. And certainly no other society would acknowledge us.'
'What are you, then?'
'Why should we be anything, so long as we do our work?'
'Don't you think there is some affectation in refusing a name?'
'Yes, if the name belongs to you? Not otherwise.'
'Do you lay claim to no epithet of any sort?'
'We are a church, if you like. There!'
'Who is your clergyman?'
'Where do you meet?'
'What are your rules, then?'
'We have none.'
'What makes you a church?'
'What do you mean by that?'
'The sort of thing you have seen to-night.'
'What is your creed?'
'But what do you believe about him?'
'What we can. We count any belief in him--the smallest--better than any belief about him--the greatest--or about anything else besides. But we exclude no one.'
'How do you manage without?'
'By admitting no one.'
'I cannot understand you.'
'Well, then: we are an undefined company of people, who have grown into human relations with each other naturally, through one attractive force--love for human beings, regarding them as human beings only in virtue of the divine in them.'
'But you must have some rules,' I insisted.
'None whatever. They would cause us only trouble. We have nothing to take us from our work. Those that are most in earnest, draw most together; those that are on the outskirts have only to do nothing, and they are free of us. But we do sometimes ask people to help us--not with money.'
'But who are the we?'
'Why you, if you will do anything, and I and Miss St. John and twenty others--and a great many more I don't know, for every one is a centre to others. It is our work that binds us together.'
'Then when that stops you drop to pieces.'
'Yes, thank God. We shall then die. There will be no corporate body--which means a bodied body, or an unsouled body, left behind to simulate life, and corrupt, and work no end of disease. We go to ashes at once, and leave no corpse for a ghoul to inhabit and make a vampire of. When our spirit is dead, our body is vanished.'
'Then you won't last long.'
'Then we oughtn't to last long.'
'But the work of the world could not go on so.'
'We are not the life of the world. God is. And when we fail, he can and will send out more and better labourers into his harvest-field. It is a divine accident by which we are thus associated.'
'But surely the church must be otherwise constituted.'
'My dear sir, you forget: I said we were a church, not the church.'
'Do you belong to the Church of England?'
'Yes, some of us. Why should we not? In as much as she has faithfully preserved the holy records and traditions, our obligations to her are infinite. And to leave her would be to quarrel, and start a thousand vermiculate questions, as Lord Bacon calls them, for which life is too serious in my eyes. I have no time for that.'
'Then you count the Church of England the Church?' 'Of England, yes; of the universe, no: that is constituted just like ours, with the living working Lord for the heart of it.'
'Will you take me for a member?'
'Will you not, if--?'
'You may make yourself one if you will. I will not speak a word to gain you. I have shown you work. Do something, and you are of Christ's Church.'
We were almost at the door of my lodging, and I was getting very weary in body, and indeed in mind, though I hope not in heart. Before we separated, I ventured to say,
'Will you tell me why you invited me to come and see you? Forgive my presumption, but you seemed to seek acquaintance with me, although you did make me address you first.'
He laughed gently, and answered in the words of the ancient mariner:--
Without another word, he shook hands with me, and left me. Weary as I was, I stood in the street until I could hear his footsteps no longer.