|I shivered as if standing in the neighbourhood of
hell.|Henry Martyn, India.
I HAVE come home from vainly trying to help another child. She had heard of the children's Saviour, and I think she would have come to Him, but they suffered her not. She was, when I first saw her, sweet and innocent, with eyes full of light, great glancing, dancing eyes, which grew wistful for a moment sometimes, and then filled with a laugh again. She told me her mother lived very near, and asked me to come and see her; so I went.
The mother startled me. Such a face, or such a want of a face. One was looking at what had once been a face, but was now a strange spoiled thing, with strange hard eyes, so unlike the child's. There was no other feature fully shaped; it was one dreadful blank. She listened that day, with almost eagerness. She understood so quickly, too, one felt she must have heard before. But she told us nothing about herself, and we only knew that there was something very wrong. Her surroundings told us that.
Before we went again we heard who she was; a relative of one of our most honoured pastors, himself a convert years ago. Then a great longing possessed us to try to save her from a life for which she had not been trained, and especially we longed to save her little girl, and we went to try. This time the mother welcomed us, and told us how our words had brought back things she had heard when she was young. |But now it is all different, for I am different,| and she told us her story. . . . |So I took poison, but it acted not as I intended. It only destroyed my face,| and she touched the poor remnant with her hand, and went on with her terrible tale. There were people listening outside, and she spoke in a hoarse whisper. We could hardly believe she meant what she said, as she told of the fate proposed for her child. And oh, how we besought her then and there to give up the life, and let us help her, and that dear little one. She seemed moved. Something awoke within her and strove. Tears filled those hard eyes and rolled down her cheeks as we pleaded with her, in the name of all that was motherly, not to doom her little innocent girl, not to push her with her own hands down to hell. At last she yielded, promised that if in one week's time we would come again she would give her up to us, and as for herself, she would think of it, and perhaps she also would give up the life; she hated it, she said.
There was another girl there, a fair, quiet girl of fifteen. She was ill and very suffering, and we tried for her too; but there seemed no hope. |Take the little one; you are not too late for her,| the mother said, and we went with the promise, |One more week and she is yours.|
The week passed, and every day we prayed for that little one. Then when the time came, we went. Hope and fear alternated within us. One felt sick with dread lest anything had happened to break the mother's word, and yet one hoped. The house door was open. The people in the street smiled as we stopped our bandy, got out, and went in. I remembered their smiles afterwards, and understood. The mother was there: in a corner, crouching in pain, was the girl; on the floor asleep, drugged, lay the child with her little arms stretched out. The mother's eyes were hard.
It was no use. Outside in the street the people sat on their verandahs and laughed. |Offer twenty thousand rupees, and see if her mother will give her to you!| shouted one. Inside we sat beside that mother, not knowing what to say.
The child stirred in her sleep, and turned. |Will you go?| said the mother very roughly in her ear. She opened listless, senseless eyes. She had no wish to go. |She wanted to come last week,| we said. The mother hardened, and pushed the child, and rolled her over with her foot. |She will not go now,| she said.
Oh, it did seem pitiful! One of those pitiful, pitiful things which never grow less pitiful because they are common everywhere. That little girl, and this!
We took the mother's hands in ours, and pleaded once again. And then words failed us. They sometimes do. There are things that stifle words.
At last they asked us to go. The girl in the corner would not speak -- could not, perhaps she only moaned; we passed her and went out. The mother followed us, half sorry for us, -- there is something of the woman left in her, -- half sullen, with a lowering sullenness. |You will never see her again,| she said, and she named the town, one of the Sodoms of this Province, to which the child was soon to be sent; and then, just a little ashamed of her broken promise, she added, |I would have let her go, but he would not, no, never; and she does not belong to me now, so what could I do?| We did not ask her who |he| was. We knew. Nor did we ask the price he had paid. We knew; fifty rupees, about three pounds, was the price paid down for a younger child bought for the same purpose not long ago. This one's price might be a little higher. That is all.
We stood by the bullock cart ready to get in. The people were watching. The mother had gone back into the house. Then a great wave of longing for that child swept over us again. We turned and looked at the little form as it lay on the floor, dead, as it seemed, to all outward things. Oh that it had been dead! And we pleaded once more with all our heart, and once more failed.
We drove away. We could see them crowding to look after us, and we shut our eyes to shut out the sight of their smiles. The bullock bells jingled too gladly, it seemed, and we shut our ears to shut out the sound. And then we shut ourselves in with God, who knew all about it, and cared. How long, O God, how long?
And now we have heard that she has gone, and we know, from watching what happened before, just what will happen now. How day by day they will sear that child's soul with red-hot irons, till it does not feel or care any more. And a child's seared soul is an awful thing.
Forgive us for words which may hurt and shock; we are telling the day's life-story. Hurt or not, shocked or not, should you not know the truth? How can you pray as you ought if you only know fragments of truth? Truth is a loaf; you may cut it up nicely, like thin bread and butter, with all the crusts carefully trimmed. No one objects to it then. Or you can cut it as it comes, crust and all.
Think of that child to-night as you gather your children about you, and look in their innocent faces and their clear, frank eyes. Our very last news of her was that she had been in some way influenced to spread a lie about the place, first sign of the searing begun. I think of her as I saw her that first day, bright as a bird; and then of her as I saw her last, drugged on the floor; I think of her as she must be now, bright again, but with a different brightness -- not the little girl I knew -- never to be quite that little girl again.
Oh, comrades, do you wonder that we care? Do you wonder that we plead with you to care? Do you wonder that we have no words sometimes, and fall back into silence, or break out into words wrung from one more gifted with expression, who knew what it was to feel!
With such words, then, we close; looking back once more at that child on the floor, with the hands stretched out and the heavy eyes shut -- and we know what it was they saw when they opened from that sleep --
|My God! can such things be?
Hast Thou not said that whatsoe'er is done
Unto Thy weakest and Thy humblest one,
Is even done to Thee?
. . . . . . .
Hoarse, horrible; and strong,
Rises to heaven that agonising cry,
Filling the arches of the hollow sky,
HOW LONG, O GOD, HOW LONG?|