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Cometh Up as a Flower: an Autobiography, Vol. 2. Broughton, Rhoda, 1840–1920.
page: 142


“A still small voice spake unto me. Thou art so full of misery, Were it not better not to be?”

IS there any one among us, who, at some moments of their lives, has not heard that voice asking them this despairing question? Is there any one who, at some moment or other, has not been tempted to answer “Yes, far, far better!” Is there any one, whoever thinks at all, that has not had black minutes and hours—minutes and hours when he says blankly, hopelessly to himself, “There is no God: there can be no beneficent Deity to love us and take care of us, or he never would let us be so very, very desolately wretched.” Sometimes we feel page: 143 that we must curse God and die; it would be such a relief to us; curse God, as Job's wife is supposed to have urged her much enduring lord to do, as a cure for his boils; that is, if she did not urge him to bless God and die, as the word has either signification: in which case the poor woman's character for piety has been shamefully taken away for the last three or four thousand years.

Sometimes we say to ourselves that surely some malevolent tricksy demon must have the world's government reins in his fiend hands—some demon that delights in thwarting our poor little plans, in inventing new and ingenious diseases to rack our poor patient bodies. Our very wishing anything seems to drive the object wished for farther away; our very dreading anything seems to draw the dreaded object magnetically nearer. In every newspaper we take up, we see “melancholy suicides,” “horrible murders,” “fatal accidents,” “economic funeral companies;” and often we lay it down with a dull numb feeling that the page: 144 world is all out of joint; all discord and jangling dissonance.

But there is a Book, a simple, old‐fashioned eloquent Book, that tells us that “the fashion of this world passeth away,” the fashion—the old, old fashion that we are all so weary of—the fashion of being wicked, and being sick and disappointed and heart sore; and whoso believeth that it is so passing, straight way there is to him harmony and peace and order. Never through all the monotonous self‐repeating centuries, during which this old globe has gone lumbering round the sun, has there been an instance of instinct misleading any of the creatures in which it has been planted; and as surely as some inner voice whispers to the swallows, telling them then it is time for them to come flying over the foamy green seas to the English spring trees and fresh fields, so surely does some higher instinct, proportioned to our higher, nobler nature, bid us plume our wings for a flight, when life's winter is over, to some distant spring land, where great melody and sweet health page: 145 and content are waiting for us; some land where “all crooked things shall be made straight, and all rough places be made smooth.” But great sorrows are in their nature like mountains, closing in the horizon, preventing our catching a glimpse of any of the fields, where “You scarce can see the grass for flowers,” of the summer waves tumbling and joyfully tossing up red sea‐tang on sun‐lit yellow sands, of feathery larch woods, and blue rushing brooks, that there may be, that we know are, beyond them.

I seemed now in my complete life‐hatred and bitterness to be prisoned in some narrow black valley—some deep gulley between great frowning granite peaks. I could not climb up their smooth slant sides, to see the sunrise washing the low morning clouds, and the gray morning billows with his flamy streams. I was groping with hands stretched out before me blindly, among the boulders and the pit‐falls, and the sullen black pools in the valley bottom; and I must stay groping page: 146 there as I felt, till the oil of my life's lamp were burned out, till I sat down and died there amid the darkness and the doleful beasts and the murky stagnant waters.

“If,” thought I, “I had been an old roué of seventy, who had dedicated all my three score and ten years to the debasing of soul and body, I could hardly have incurred more woful penalties than my nineteen summers of insipid innocence had drawn upon my devoted head.” Not even the consciousness of having made a sacrifice that raised me (at least in my own estimation) to a level with the Jewish maiden I have before alluded to; not even the consciousness of having been “high heroical” supported me much. I did not grudge the sacrifice I had made; if it had to be done over again, I should do it over again; but I thought myself entitled to make as many wry faces over it as I felt inclined, and their name was legion.

One day, Dolly entering, cat‐like, in her long, straight serge gown, found me page: 147 grovelling—lying all along on the floor, prone, while tears rushed in rivers from my foolish blue eyes, and laid the dust on the carpet.

“Are you dead, Nell?” she asks quietly, holding the door in her hand; “because if so, I'll send for the coroner.”

“No,” say I, blubbering noisily, and burrowing still farther into the dim blue squares of the old Kidderminster. “Worse luck—I wish to God I was.”

“Are your bowels yearning still over the big wax doll?” she asks, jeeringly. “Have you retired into your chamber to weep there?”

“Yes,” I say, angrily, lifting up my head, and pushing back my wet, fuzzy locks; “and since it is my chamber, and not yours—”

“You'd thank me to ‘absquatulate,’ as the Yankees say,” interrupts she, laughing and showing the sweetest, shortest, whitest little set of teeth that ever set dentist at defiance. “Well, I will in a minute; but ‘I have an errand unto thee, oh, captain.’”

page: 148

“I wish your errand was to tell me that I was going to be hanged, or that you were; I'm sure I don't know which would give me the most gratification,” growl I, squatting still Job‐like in the ashes.

“You're a little fool, my sweet Nell,” says my sister, playfully. “I don't believe you'd relish a bit of whipcord round your little neck any more than I should; but really,” she went on, gravely, “I wonder you have not more spirit than to be boo‐hooing about that scoundrelly longlegs; if any man had served me such a turn,” she said, clenching her right hand into a small white ball, while her sleepy eyes woke up into beautiful fierce life, “I might have killed him, put a pinch of strychnine into his tea, or stabbed him in the back on the sly—indeed, I'm sure I should; but cry over him, put my finger in my mouth and pipe my eye, never, never, never!” (a crescendo scale, ending in fortissimo).

“If you talk of meanness,” I cry, springing to my feet and stamping, “I wonder what can be meaner than selling yourself like a bale of goods or a barrel of beer, as page: 149 I'm doing. Oh, what do I care how mean I am! What sin is there so big that I would not commit it this minute, and commit it most gladly too, if I could but have him back here this minute in this room. Oh, he has not forgotten me! I know it! I know it! There's some mistake, I'm sure, and I shall find it out when it's too late—when I'm in hell!”

I fling myself down again, and cry aloud; my punishment seems greater than I can bear. Dolly walks to the window and looks out.

“Oh, Dick, Dick!” I groan, “where are you? where are you? Oh, my darling, are you dead? Oh, come back to me, for God's sake!”

I forget even Dolly's sneering presence, I forget my father, forget everything but that one man that made earth first heaven—then hell for me!

Dolly goes to the wash‐hand‐stand and pours some cold water into a basin.

“Stop, crying,” she says, harshly; “you have made your bed, and you must lie on it. Sir Hugh is here again—of course he page: 150 has a right to come now; and you'd better try and bathe the swelling and redness out of your eyes, if we are to get any money out of him. You don't look a choice morsel to bribe any man with as you are now.”

Her cold voice calls me back to myself. I rise and pick up my heavy cross, and prepare to stagger along a little farther under it. I sponged and mopped my face, and scrubbed it with a Turkish towel, and then I looked in the glass; and then I mopped and scrubbed again, and tried to persuade myself that I did not look as if I had been crying.

Half an hour after I am sitting on the green settee by the library fire, with the gentleman by whose library fire I am to sit through my life, with what patience I may.

His arm is round my waist, and he is brushing my eyes and cheeks and brow with his somewhat bristly moustache as often as he feels inclined—for am I not his property? Has not he every right to kiss my face off if he chooses, to clasp me and hold me, and drag me about in whatever manner he wills, for has not he bought me? page: 151 For a pair of first‐class blue eyes warranted fast colour, for ditto superfine red lips, for so many pounds of prime white flesh, he has paid down a handsome price on the nail, without any haggling, and now if he may not test the worth of his purchases, poor man, he is hardly used! As for me, I sit tolerably still, and am not yet actually sick, and that is about all that can be said of me. Presently the situation becomes too warm for me.

“May I move a little, please?” I say, edging away out of my owner's arms. “I'm rather—rather hot, please—the fire, I mean.”

“All right,” says he, cheerily; “it is a fire to roast an ox, isn't it? let's move the settee back a bit, and then we shall be all serene—shan't we, love?”

So we move the settee back into the shade, where the fire glow cannot reach us, but my blood does not grow any the cooler, for that accursed, girdling arm is still round me—my buyer's arm—that arm that seems to be burning into my flesh like a brand.

page: 152

“Jolly this, isn't it?” whispers Strephon, chuckling; “and it'll be jollier still when we're married; it'll be always like this then.”

When we're married! Merciful Heavens! If the prologue is so terrible, what will the play be?

“If you please,” I begin again meekly; “I—I think I'd rather sit on a chair by myself; you—you—hurt me rather.”

I remove myself, unopposed, to a distant chair, and breathe freer.

“I thought you promised you'd try and like me, Nell,” says Hugh, rather ruefully, by‐and‐by.

“I will try, I will indeed,” I cry eagerly, clasping my hands, “only—oh do, do give me time!”

“Give you time, indeed,” says Strephon, grimly, glancing at his own weather‐beaten face in the glass; “all very fine, but I have not so much time to give; by the time you have made up your mind whether you like me or not, I shall be a drivelling old fool, past caring for any woman's liking.”

page: 153

I answered him to never a word, I agreed with him so fully as to his great age.

“One would think,” pursues he, stalking up and down in a fume, “to hear you talk, that I had a humpback, or a club foot, or some great natural deformity;” and then he steps before me, and says with a certain rough pathos in his voice, “Won't you tell me, Nell, what there is about me so repugnant to you, that I may try and mend it?”

A terror seizes me; beaked Israelitish faces swarm before my mind's eye; am I recklessly tossing away salvation in the shape of those signed cheques on Coutts' Bank, that are lying in simple beauty on the table.

“Don't talk nonsense,” I cry pettishly, giving my head a little ill‐humoured jerk; “when did I say there was anything about you repugnant to me? Cannot you understand that it is not so easy to get very fond of a person all in a minute, when you have not been thinking of anything of the kind before; I told you I'd try and like you, and I will: what more can I say? Oh page: 154 please, please have patience with me!” I cried, piteously.

“Haven't I been patient already?” he asks, sorrowfully. “I'm not an impatient fellow ever; it isn't my nature. I don't expect to sow and reap the same day, but I don't know how it is, you seem to like me less and less every time I come.”

No answer: a guilty head hangs down low, lower, till it droops on a guilty breast.

“If,” says Hugh, quite gently, though his honest face is working a little, as with some strong smothered emotion, “you feel that you can never have anything but a bare toleration of me, say so at once, child? I'm old enough and strong enough to bear a little disappointment; we can't expect to have everything our own way in this world, and I know I'm not quite the right cut to take a girl's fancy; it would be better you should speak out, while it's time, than that we should make each other miserable for all our lives.”

I gaze long and earnestly into the fire, before I answer; watch the little firescapes crumbling, dissolving, and reform‐ reforming page: 155 ing, while my hot white hands twist and wrench and generally maltreat each other. Shall I take him at his word? Oh God! how delicious it would be; it would be like exchanging the fetid stifling air of an eastern dungeon for the free gales rioting under the blue April heavens.

Shall I get off the altar, where, (àla Jephtha's daughter, I am lying bound; slip the cords off my wrists, and walk lightly away? Shall I still be able to think of that laughing debonair glorious face, without stabs of despair—of those strong arms where I may yet find heaven, without deadly sin? Shall I defy the might of Israel? Shall I let the “hexecootion” have its way? Shall I kill my old dad? Never. For him I have begun this great sacrifice; for him I will complete it; for him I will go to hell. So I speak quite firmly, even though I feel myself paling to the lips—Sir Hugh's lips.

“No, I have said it, and I mean to stick to it; let us try and make the best of one another; it's a very puzzling world, and it's page: 156 very hard to know how to live through it; but I suppose if we try to do our best, it'll all come right in the end.”

So I, in my despair.

Then he says, with some difficulty, and flushing scarlet, despite his nine lustres—

“If you're only marrying me on account of that dirty money—”

I interrupt him, hastily.

“Nonsense,” I cry, “say no more about it; I mean to be your wife, and I suppose we shall manage to scratch on pretty much as other people do.” But to my own heart I say that “I would that I were dead.”