Two Little Pilgrims' Progress/"Burdens don't fall off by themselves"

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 AFTERWARDS when they looked back upon that day, they knew that the thing had decided itself then, though neither of them had said so.

"The truth was," Robin used to say, "we had both been thinking the same thing as we always do, but we had been thinking it in the back part of our minds. We were afraid to let it come to the front at first, because it seemed such a big thing. But it went on thinking by itself. That time when you said, 'We shall never see it!' and I said, 'How do you know?' we were both thinking about it in one way. And I know I was thinking about it when I said, 'We are not going to stay here always. That is the first step up the Hill of Difficulty.'"

"And that day when you said you would not let it go by you," Meg would answer, "that was the day we reached the Wicket Gate."

It seemed very like it, for from that day their strange unchildish purpose grew and ripened, and never for an hour was absent from the mind of either. If they had been like other children, living happy lives full of young interests and pleasures, it might have been crowded out by other and nearer things; if they had been of a slighter mental build, and less strong, they might have forgotten it. But they never did. When they had counted the Treasure, and had realised how small it was after all, they had sat and gazed at each other for a while with grave eyes, but they had only been grave and not despairing.

"Fifteen dollars," said Robin. "Well, that's not much after nearly six years; but we saved it, nearly all, by cents, you know, Meg."

"And it takes a hundred cents to make a dollar," said Meg, "and we were poor people's children."

"And we bought the chickens," said Robin.

"And you have always given me a present at Christmas, Robin, even if it was only a little one. That's six Christmases."

"We have nine months to work in," said Robin, calculating. "If you get two dollars a month, and I get two, that will be thirty-six dollars by next June. Fifteen dollars and thirty-six dollars make fifty-one. I believe we could go on that—and come back. I suppose we shall have to come back," with a long breath.

"Oh, dear!' cried Meg; "how can we come back!"

"I don't know," said Robin. "We shall hate it, but we shall have nowhere else to go."

"Perhaps we are going to seek our fortunes, and perhaps we shall find them," said Meg; "or perhaps Aunt Matilda won't let us come back, Rob," with some awe. "Do you think she will be angry?"

"I've thought about that," Robin answered contemplatively. "And I don't think she will. She would be too busy to care much even if we ran away and said nothing. But I shall leave a letter and tell her we have saved our money and gone somewhere for a holiday—and we're all right and she needn't bother."

"She won't bother, even if she is angry," Meg said, with mournful eyes. "She doesn't care about us enough."

"If she loved us," Rob said, "and was too poor to take us herself, we couldn't go at all. We couldn't run away, because it would worry her so. You can't do a thing—however much you want to do it—if it is going to hurt somebody who is good to you, and cares."

"Well, then, we needn't stay here because of Aunt Matilda," said Meg. "That's one sure thing. It wouldn't interfere with her ploughing if we were both to die at once."

"No," said Rob deliberately, "that's just what it would not." And he threw himself back on the straw and clasped his hands under his head, gazing up into the dark roof above him with very reflective eyes.

The truth was that, his elderly ways and practical methods notwithstanding, he was an affectionate little fellow at heart, and Meg was very like him in this as in all other ways. Their father's house had been home, narrow as its resources were and few as had been the privileges costing money they could enjoy. They had not been a very demonstrative family, but in a quiet unfailing way the two had been loved and cared for. They had never felt lonely and had never been really unhappy. What they felt every hour in Aunt Matilda's world was that they counted for nothing with anybody, and were entirely superfluous; and the sense of this filled them with a kind of vague misery they never exactly explained to each other, even when they talked about the differences between their life on the farm and their life in their own home. Their young hearts ached many a day when they were not quite sure why they were aching, or that it was veritable heartache they were troubled by. Being curiously just and given to reasoning by nature, they were never unfair to Aunt Matilda, and used to try to render her what was her due when they talked her over.

"She doesn't beat us or scold us or ill-treat us in any particular way," Meg would say; "she gives me plenty to eat, and buys us respectable clothes. If you notice, Robin, we never wear broken shoes. We were obliged to wear them now and then when we were at home, because there was no money to buy new ones until father was paid, or something like that. Our toes never come out now."

And this particular day, after looking up at the roof, Robin said, "I should like to be a bird, I believe. Wouldn't you, Meg? Then we should have a nest."

But they had reached the Wicket Gate, and from the hour they passed it there was no looking back. That in their utter friendlessness and loneliness they should take their twelve-year-old fates in their own strong little hands was perhaps a pathetic thing; that, once having done so, they moved towards their object as steadily as if they had been of the maturest years, was remarkable; but no one ever knew or even suspected, from the first until the last.

The days went by full of work, which left them little time to lie and talk in the Straw Parlour. They could only see each other in the leisure hours which were so few, and only came when the day was waning.

Finding them faithful and ready, those about them fell into the natural, easy, human unworthiness of imposing by no means infrequently on their inexperienced willingness and youth. So they were hard enough worked, but each felt that every day that passed brought them nearer to the end in view, and there was always something to think of, some detail to be worked out mentally and to be discussed in the valuable moments when they were together.

"It's a great deal better than it used to be," Meg said, "at all events. It's better to feel tired working than to be tired of doing nothing but think, and think dreary things."

As the weather grew colder, it was hard enough to keep warm in their hiding-place. They used to sit and talk huddled close together, bundled in their heaviest clothing, and with the straw heaped close around them and over them. There were so many things to be thought of and talked over. Robin collected facts more sedulously than ever—facts about entrance fees, facts about prices of things to eat, facts about places to sleep.

"Going to the Fair yourself, sonny?" Jones said to him one day. Jones was fond of his joke. "You're right to be inquirin' round. Them hotel-keepers is goin' to tot up bills several storeys higher than their hotels is themselves."

"But I suppose a person needn't go to a hotel," said Robin. "There must be plenty of poor people who can't go to hotels, and they'll have to sleep somewhere."

"Oh, there's plenty of poor people," responded Jones cheerfully—"plenty of 'em. Always is. But they won't go to Chicago while the Fair's on. They'll sleep at home—that's where they'll sleep."

"That's the worst of it," Rob said to Meg afterwards. "You see, we have to sleep somewhere. We could live on bread and milk, or crackers and cheese, or oatmeal, but we have to sleep somewhere."

"It will be warm weather," Meg said reflectively. "Perhaps we could sleep out of doors. Beggars do. We don't mind."

"I don't think the police would let us," Robin answered. "If they would—perhaps we might have to, some night. But we are going to that place, Meg—we are going."

Yes, they believed they were going, and lived on the belief. This being decided, howsoever difficult to attain, it was like them both that they should dwell upon the dream, and revel in it in a way peculiarly their own. It was Meg whose imagination was the stronger, and it is true that it was always she who made pictures in words and told stories. But Robin was always as ready to enter into the spirit of her imaginings as she was to talk about them. There was a word he had once heard his father use which had caught his fancy—in fact, it had attracted them both, and they applied it to this favourite pleasure of theirs of romancing with everyday things. The word was "philander."

"Now we have finished adding up and making plans," he would say, putting his ten cent account-book into his pocket, "let us philander about it."

And then Meg would begin to talk about the City Beautiful—a City Beautiful which was a wonderful and curious mixture of the enchanted one the whole world was pouring its treasures into two hundred miles away, and that City Beautiful of her own, which she had founded upon the one towards which Christian had toiled through the Slough of Despond and up the Hill of Difficulty and past Doubting Castle. Somehow one could scarcely tell where one ended and the others began, they were so much alike, these three cities—Christian's, Meg's, and the fair ephemeral one the ending of the nineteenth century had built upon the blue lake's side.

"They must look alike," said Meg. "I am sure they must. See what it says in the Pilgrim's Progress: 'Now just as the gates were opened to let in the men, I looked in after them, and behold, the city shone like the sun'; and then it says, 'The talk they had with the shining ones was about the glory of the place, who told them that the beauty and glory of it were inexpressible.' I always think of it, Robin, when I read about these places like white palaces and temples and towers that are being built. I am so glad they are white. Think how the city will ‘shine like the sun,’ when it stands under the blue sky and by the blue water on a sunshiny day."

They had never read the dear, old, worn Pilgrim's Progress as they did in those days. They kept it in the straw near the treasure, and always had it at hand to refer to. In it they seemed to find parallels for everything

"Aunt Matilda's world is the City of Destruction," Meg would say; "and our loneliness and poorness are like Christian's 'burden.' We have to carry it like a heavy weight, and it holds us back."

"What was it that Goodwill said to Christian about it?" Robin, asked.

Meg turned over the pages. She knew all the places by heart. It was easy enough to find and read how, "At last there came a grave person to the gate, named Goodwill," and in the end he said—

"As to thy burden, be content to bear it, until thou comest to the place of deliverance; for there it will fall from thy back itself."

"But out of the Pilgrim's Progress" Robin said, with his reflective air, "burdens don't fall off by themselves. If you are content with them they stick on and get bigger. Ours would, I know. You have to do something yourself to get them off. But"—with a little pause for thought—"I like that part, Meg. And I like Goodwill because he told it to him. It encouraged him, you know. You see, it says next, 'Then Christian began to gird up his loins and addressed himself to his journey.'"

"Robin," said Meg suddenly, shutting the book and giving it a little thump on the back, "it's not only Christian's city that is like our city. We are like Christian. We are pilgrims, and our way to that place is our Pilgrims' Progress."