What's Mine's Mind - vol.1

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My readers may remember that Ian was on the point of acquainting his mother with an important event in his spiritual history, when they were interrupted by the involuntary call of the girls from the New House. The mother, as will readily be believed, remained desirous of listening to her son's story, though dreading it would not be of a kind to give her much satisfaction; but partly from preventions--favoured, it must be confessed by Ian, and yet more from direct avoidance on his part, the days passed without her hearing anything more of it. Ian had in truth almost repented his offer of the narrative: a certain vague assurance that it would not be satisfactory to her, had grown upon him until he felt it unkind to lay before her an experience whose narration would seem to ask a sympathy she could not give. But the mother was unable to let the thing rest. More than by interest she was urged by anxiety. In spite of her ungodlike theories of God, it was impossible she could be in despair about her noble Ian; still, her hope was at best founded on the uncovenanted mercies of God, not on the security of his bond! She did not believe that God was doing and would do his best for every man; therefore she had no assurance that he would bring down the pride of Ian, and compel his acceptance of terms worthy of an old Roman father, half law-circumventing lawyer, half heartless tyrant. But her longing to hear what her son had proposed telling her, was chiefly inspired by the hope of getting nearer to him, of closer sympathy becoming possible between them through her learning more clearly what his views were. She constantly felt as if walking along the side of a thick hedge, with occasional thinnesses through which now and then she gained a ghostly glimpse of her heart's treasure gliding along the other side--close to her, yet so far that, when they spoke, they seemed calling across a gulf of dividing darkness. Therefore, the night after that spent by her sons on the hill, all having retired some two hours before, the mother, finding herself unable to sleep, rose as she had often done ere now, and stole to the door of the little room under the thatch where Ian lay. Listening, and judging him awake, she went softly in, and sat down by his bedside.

There had been such occasions on which, though son as well as mother was wide awake, neither spoke a word; but this time the mother could not be silent.

"You never told me, Ian, the story you began about something that made you pray!"

Ian saw he could not now draw back without causing, her more trouble than would the narration.

"Are you sure you will not take cold mother dear?" he said.

"I am warmly clad, my son; and my heart, more than I can tell you, is longing to hear all about it."

"I am afraid you will not find my story so interesting as you expect, mother!"

"What concerns you is more interesting to me than anything else in the whole world, Ian."

"Not more than God, mother?" said Ian.

The mother was silent. She was as honest as her sons. The question, dim-lucent, showed her, if but in shadow, something of the truth concerning herself--not so that she could grasp it, for she saw it as in a glimmer, a fluctuating, vanishing flash--namely, that she cared more about salvation than about God--that, if she could but keep her boy out of hell, she would be content to live on without any nearer approach to him in whom she had her being! God was to her an awe, not a ceaseless, growing delight!

There are centuries of paganism yet in many lovely Christian souls--paganism so deep, therefore so little recognized, that their earnest endeavour is to plant that paganism ineradicably in the hearts of those dearest to them.

As she did not answer, Ian was afraid she was hurt, and thought it better to begin his story at once.

"It was one night in the middle of winter--last winter, near Moscow," he began, "and the frost was very bitter--the worst night for cold I have ever known. I had gone with a companion into the depth of a great pine forest. On our way, the cold grew so intense, that we took refuge at a little public-house, frequented by peasants and persons of the lowest ranks. On entering I saw a scene which surpassed all for interest I had ever before witnessed. The little lonely house was crammed with Russian soldiers, fierce-looking fellows, and I daresay their number formed our protection from violence. Many of them were among the finest looking fellows I have ever seen. They were half drunk, and were dancing and singing with the wildest gesticulations and grimaces; but such singing for strange wildness and harmony combined I had never before listened to. One would keep up a solo for some minutes, when the whole company would join in a sort of chorus, dancing frantically about, but with the most perfect regularity of movement. One of them came up to me and with a low bow begged me in the name of the rest to give them some money. I accordingly gave them a silver ruble, upon which the whole party set up a shout, surrounded me, and in a moment a score of brawny fellows had lifted me in the air, where I was borne along in triumph. I took off my cap and gave three hip-hip-hurrahs as loud as my lungs could bawl, whereupon, with the profoundest expressions of gratitude, I was lowered from my elevation. One of them then who seemed to be the spokesman of the rest, seized me in his arms and gave me a hearty kiss on the cheek, on which I took my departure amid universal acclamation.--But all that's not worth telling you about; it was not for that I began--only the scene came up so clear before me that it drew me aside."

"I don't need to tell you, Ian," said his mother, with shining eyes, "that if it were only what you had to eat on the most ordinary day of your life, it would be interesting to me!"

"Thank you, mother dear; I seem to know that without being told; but I could never talk to you about anything that was not interesting to myself."

Here he paused. He would rather have stopped.

"Go on, go on, Ian. I am longing to hear."

"Well--where was I?--We left at the inn our carriage and horses, and went with our guns far into the forest--all of straight, tall pines, up and up; and the Little island-like tops of them, which, if there be a breath of wind, are sure to be swaying about like the motion of a dream, were as still as the big frosty stars in the deep blue overhead."

"What did you want in such a lonely place at that time of the night?" asked the mother.

She sat with firm-closed lips, and wide, night-filled eyes looking at her son, the fear of love in her beautiful face--a face more beautiful than any other that son had yet seen, fit window for a heart so full of refuge to look out of; and he knew how she looked though the darkness was between them.

"Wolves, mother," he answered.

She shuddered. She was a great reader in the long winter nights, and had read terrible stories of wolves--the last of which in Scotland had been killed not far from where they sat.

"What did you want with the wolves, Ian?" she faltered.

"To kill them, mother. I never liked killing animals any more than Alister; but even he destroys the hooded crow; and wolves are yet fairer game. They are the out-of-door devils of that country, and I fancy devils do go into them sometimes, as they did once into the poor swine: they are the terror of all who live near the forests.

"There was no moon--only star-light; but whenever we came to any opener space, there was light enough from the snow to see all about; there was light indeed from the snow all through the forest, but the trees were thick and dark. Far away, somewhere in the mystery of the black wood, we could now and then hear a faint howling: it came from the red throats of the wolves."

"You are frightening me, Ian!" said the mother, as if they had been two children telling each other tales.

"Indeed, mother, they are very horrible when they hunt in droves, ravenous with hunger. To kill one of them, if it be but one, is to do something for your kind. And just at that time I was oppressed with the feeling that I had done and was doing nothing for my people--my own humans; and not knowing anything else I could at the moment attempt, I resolved to go and kill a wolf or two: they had killed a poor woman only two nights before.

"As soon as we could after hearing the noise of them, we got up into two trees. It took us some time to discover two that were fit for our purpose, and we did not get them so near each other as we should have liked. It was rather anxious work too until we found them, for if we encountered on foot a pack of those demons, we could be but a moment or two alive: killing one, ten would be upon us, and a hundred more on the backs of those. But we hoped they would smell us up in the trees, and search for us, when we should be able to give account of a few of them at least: we had double-barrelled guns, and plenty of powder and ball."

"But how could you endure the cold--at night--and without food?"

"No, mother; we did not try that! We had plenty to eat in our pockets. My companion had a bottle of vodki, and--"

"What is that?" asked the mother with suspicion.

"A sort of raw spirit--horrible stuff--more like spirits of wine. They say it does not hurt in such cold."

"But, Ian!" cried the mother, and seemed unable to say more.

"Don't be frightened, mother!" said Ian, with a merry laugh. "Surely you do not imagine I would drink such stuff! True, I had my bottle, but it was full of tea. The Russians drink enormous quantities of tea--though not so strong as you make it."

"Go on, then, Ian; go on."

"We sat a long time, and there was no sign of the wolves coming near us. It was very cold, but our furs kept in our warmth. By and by I fell asleep--which was not dangerous so long as I kept warm, and I thought the cold must wake me before it began to numb me. And as 'I slept I dreamed; but my dream did not change the place; the forest, the tree I was in, all my surroundings were the same. I even dreamed that I came awake, and saw everything about me just as it was. I seemed to open my eyes, and look about me on the dazzling snow from my perch: I was in a small tree on the border of a little clearing.

"Suddenly, out of the wood to my left, issued something, running fast, but with soundless feet, over the snow. I doubted in my dream whether the object were a live thing or only a shadow. It came nearer, and I saw it was a child, a little girl, running as if for her life. She came straight to the tree I sat in, and when close to it, but without a moment's halt, looked up, and I saw a sweet little face, white with terror--which somehow seemed, however, not for herself, but for me. I called out after her to stop, and I would take her into the tree beside me, where the wolves could not reach her; but she only shook her head, and ran on over the clearing into the forest. Among the holes I watched the fleeting shape appear and disappear and appear again, until I saw it no more. Then first I heard another kind of howl from the wolves--that of pursuit. It strengthened and swelled, growing nearer and nearer, till at last, through the stillness of the night and the moveless forest and the dead snow, came to my ear a kind of soft rushing sound. I don't know how to describe it. The rustle of dry leaves is too sharp; it was like a very soft heavy rain on a window--a small dull padding padding: it was the feet of the wolves. They came nearer and grew louder and louder, but the noise was still muffled and soft. Their howling, however, was now loud and horrid. I suppose they cannot help howling; if they could, they would have too much power over poor creatures, coming upon them altogether at unawares; but as it is, they tell, whether they will or no, that they are upon the way. At length, dark as a torrent of pitch, out of the forest flowed a multitude of obscure things, and streamed away, black over the snow, in the direction the child had taken. They passed close to the foot of my tree, but did not even look up, flitting by like a shadow whose substance was unseen. Where the child had vanished they also disappeared: plainly they were after her!

"It was only a dream, mother! don't be so frightened," interrupted lan, for here his mother gave a little cry, almost forgetting what the narration was.

"Then first," he went on, "I seemed to recover my self-possession. I saw that, though I must certainly be devoured by the wolves, and the child could not escape, I had no choice but go down and follow, do what I could, and die with her. Down I was the same instant, running as I had never run before even in a dream, along the track of the wolves. As I ran, I heard their howling, but it seemed so far off that I could not hope to be in time to kill one of them ere they were upon her. Still, by their howling, it did not appear they had reached her, and I ran on. Their noise grew louder and louder, but I seemed to run miles and miles, wondering what spell was upon me that I could not come up with them. All at once the clamour grew hideous, and I saw them. They were gathered round a tree, in a clearing just like that I had left, and were madly leaping against it, but ever falling back baffled. I looked up: in the top of the tree sat the little girl, her white face looking down upon them with a smile. All the terror had vanished from it. It was still white as the snow, but like the snow was radiating a white light through the dark foliage of the fir. I see it often, mother, so clear that I could paint it. I was enchanted at the sight. But she was not in safety yet, and I rushed into the heap of wolves, striking and stabbing with my hunting-knife. I got to the tree, and was by her in a moment. But as I took the child in my arms I woke, and knew that it was a dream. I sat in my own tree, and up against the stem of it broke a howling, surging black wave of wolves. They leaped at the tree-bole as a rock-checked billow would leap. My gun was to my shoulder in a moment, and blazed among them. Howls of death arose. Their companions fell upon the wounded, and ate them up. The tearing and yelling at the foot of the tree was like the tumult of devils full of hate and malice and greed. Then for the first time I thought whether such creatures might not be the open haunts of demons. I do not imagine that, when those our Lord drove out of the man asked permission to go into the swine, they desired anything unheard of before in the demon-world. I think they were not in the way of going into tame animals; but, as they must go out of the man, as they greatly dreaded the abyss of the disembodied, and as no ferocious animals fit to harbour them were near, they begged leave to go into such as were accessible, though unsuitable; whereupon the natural consequence followed: their presence made the poor swine miserable even to madness, and with the instinct of so many maniacs that in death alone lies their deliverance, they rushed straight into the loch."

"It may be so, Ian! But I want to hear how you got away from the wolves."

"I fired and fired; and still they kept rushing on the tree-hole, heaping themselves against it, those behind struggling up on the backs of those next it, in a storm of rage and hunger and jealousy. Not a few who had just helped to eat some of their fellows, were themselves eaten in turn, and not a scrap of them left; but it was a large pack, and it would have taken a long time to kill enough to satisfy those that remained. I killed and killed until my ammunition was gone, and then there was nothing for it but await the light. When the morning began to dawn, they answered its light with silence, and turning away swept like a shadow back into the wood. Strange to tell, I heard afterwards that a child had been killed by them in the earlier part of that same night. But even now sometimes, as I lie awake, I grow almost doubtful whether the whole was not a hideous dream.

"Not the less for that was what I went through between the time my powder came to an end and the dawn of the morning, a real spiritual fact.

"In the midst of the howling I grew so sleepy that the horrible noise itself seemed to lull me while it kept me awake, and I fell into a kind of reverie with which my dream came back and mingled. I seemed to be sitting in the tree with the little shining girl, and she was my own soul; and all the wrong things I had in me, and all the wrong things I had done, with all the weaknesses and evil tendencies of my nature, whether mine by fault or by inheritance, had taken shape, and, in the persons of the howling wolves below, were besieging me, to get at me, and devour me. Suddenly my soul was gone. Above were the still, bright stars, shining unmoved; beneath was the white, betraying snow, and the howling wolves; away through the forest was fleeting, ever fleeting, my poor soul, in the likeness of a white-faced child! All at once came a great stillness, as of a desert place, where breathed nor life of man nor life of beast. I was alone, frightfully alone--alone as I had never been before. The creatures at the foot of the tree were still howling, but their cry sounded far away and small; they were in some story I had been reading, not anywhere in my life! I was left and lost--left by whom?--lost by whom?--in the waste of my own being, without stay or comfort. I looked up to the sky; it was infinite--yet only a part of myself, and much too near to afford me any refuge from the desert of my lost self. It came down nearer; the limitless space came down, and clasped me, and held me. It came close to me--as if I had been a shape off which all nature was taking a mould. I was at once everything and nothing. I cannot tell you how frightful it was! In agony I cried to God, with a cry of utter despair. I cannot say whether I may believe that he answered me; I know this, that a great quiet fell upon me--but a quiet as of utter defeat and helplessness. Then again, I cannot tell how, the quiet and the helplessness melted away into a sense of God--a feeling as if great space all about me was God and not emptiness. Wolf nor sin could touch me! I was a wide peace--my very being peace! And in my mind--whether an echo from the Bible, I do not know--were the words:--'I, even I, am he that comforteth thee. I am God, thy saviour!' Whereas I had seemed all alone, I was with God, the only withness man can really share! I lifted my eyes; morning was in the east, and the wolves were slinking away over the snow."

How to receive the strange experience the mother did not know. She ought to say something, for she sorely questioned it! Not a word had he spoken belonging to the religion in which she had brought him up, except two--SIN and GOD! There was nothing in it about the atonement! She did not see that it was a dream, say rather a vision, of the atonement itself. To Ian her interpretation of the atonement seemed an everlasting and hopeless severance. The patience of God must surely be far more tried by those who would interpret him, than by those who deny him: the latter speak lies against him, the former speak lies for him! Yet all the time the mother felt as in the presence of some creature of a higher world--one above the ordinary race of men--whom the powers of evil had indeed misled, but perhaps not finally snared. She little thought how near she was to imagining that good may come out of evil--that there is good which is not of God! She did not yet understand that salvation lies in being one with Christ, even as the branch is one with the vine;--that any salvation short of knowing God is no salvation at all. What moment a man feels that he belongs to God utterly, the atonement is there, the son of God is reaping his harvest.

The good mother was not, however, one of those conceited, stiff-necked, power-loving souls who have been the curse and ruin of the church in all ages; she was but one of those in whom reverence for its passing form dulls the perception of unchangeable truth. They shut up God's precious light in the horn lantern of human theory, and the lantern casts such shadows on the path to the kingdom as seem to dim eyes insurmountable obstructions. For the sake of what they count revealed, they refuse all further revelation, and what satisfies them is merest famine to the next generation of the children of the kingdom. Instead of God's truth they offer man's theory, and accuse of rebellion against God such as cannot live on the husks they call food. But ah, home-hungry soul! thy God is not the elder brother of the parable, but the father with the best robe and the ring--a God high above all thy longing, even as the heavens are high above the earth.

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