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South Australia 5005
“Where is God?” said the black girl to the missionary who had converted her.
“He has said ‘Seek and ye shall find me’” said the missionary.
The missionary was a small white woman, not yet thirty: An odd little body who had found no satisfaction for her soul with her very respectable and fairly well-to-do family in her native England, and had settled down in the African forest to teach little African children to love Christ and adore the Cross. She was a born apostle of love. At school she had adored one or other of her teachers with an idolatry that was proof against all snubbing, but had never cared much for girls of her own age and standing. At eighteen she began falling in love with earnest clergymen, and actually became engaged to six of them in succession. But when it came to the point she always broke it off; for these love affairs, full at first of ecstatic happiness and hope, somehow became unreal and eluded her in the end. The clergymen thus suddenly and unaccountably disengaged did not always conceal their sense of relief and escape, as if they too had discovered that the dream was only a dream, or a sort of metaphor by which they had striven to express the real thing, but not itself the real thing.
One of the jilted, however, committed suicide; and this tragedy gave her an extraordinary joy. It seemed to take her from a fool’s paradise of false happiness into a real region in which intense suffering became transcendent rapture.
But it put an end to her queer marriage engagements. Not that it was the last of them. But a worldly cousin of whose wit she was a little afraid, and who roundly called her a coquette and a jilt, one day accused her of playing in her later engagements for another suicide, and told her that many a woman had been hanged for less. And though she knew in a way that this was not true, and that the cousin, being a woman of this world, did not understand; yet she knew also that in the worldly way it was true enough, and that she must give up this strange game of seducing men into engagements which she now knew she would never keep. So she jilted the sixth clergyman and went to plant the cross in darkest Africa; and the last stirring in her of what she repudiated as sin was a flash of rage when he married the cousin, through whose wit and worldly wisdom he at last became a bishop in spite of himself.
The black girl, a fine creature, whose satin skin and shining muscles made the white missionary folk seem like ashen ghosts by contrast, was an interesting but unsatisfactory convert; for instead of taking Christianity with sweet docility exactly as it was administered to her she met it with unexpected interrogative reactions which forced her teacher to improvize doctrinal replies and invent evidence on the spur of the moment to such an extent that at last she could not conceal from herself that the life of Christ, as she narrated it, had accreted so many circumstantial details and such a body of homemade doctrine that the Evangelists would have been amazed and confounded if they had been alive to hear it all put forward on their authority. Indeed the missionary’s choice of a specially remote station, which had been at first an act of devotion, very soon became a necessity, as the appearance of a rival missionary would have led to the discovery that though some of the finest plums in the gospel pudding concocted by her had been picked out of the Bible, and the scenery and dramatis personae borrowed from it, yet the resultant religion was, in spite of this element of compilation, really a product of the missionary’s own direct inspiration. Only as a solitary pioneer missionary could she be her own Church and determine its canon without fear of being excommunicated as a heretic.
But she was perhaps rash when, having taught the black girl to read, she gave her a bible on her birthday. For when the black girl, receiving her teacher’s reply very literally, took her knobkerry and strode off into the African forest in search of God, she took the bible with her as her guidebook.
The first thing she met was a mamba snake, one of the few poisonous snakes that will attack mankind if crossed. Now the missionary, who was fond of making pets of animals because they were affectionate and never asked questions, had taught the black girl never to kill anything if she could help it, and never to be afraid of anything. So she grasped her knobkerry a little tighter and said to the mamba “I wonder who made you, and why he gave you the will to kill me and the venom to do it with.”
The mamba immediately beckoned her by a twist of its head to follow it, and led her to a pile of rocks on which sat enthroned a welt-built aristocratic looking white man with handsome regular features, an imposing beard and luxuriant wavy hair, both as white as isinglass, and a ruthlessly severe expression. He had in his hand a staff which seemed a combination of sceptre, big stick, and great assegai; and with this he immediately killed the mamba, who was approaching him humbly and adoringly.
The black girl, having been taught to fear nothing, felt her heart harden against him, partly because she thought strong men ought to be black, and only missionary ladies white, partly because he had killed her friend the snake, and partly because he wore a ridiculous white nightshirt and thereby rubbed her up on the one point on which her teacher had never been able to convert her, which was the duty of being ashamed of her person and wearing petticoats. There was as a certain contempt in her voice as she addressed him.
“I am seeking God” she said. “Can you direct me?”
“You have found him” he replied. “Kneel down and worship me this very instant, you presumptuous creature or dread my wrath. I am the Lord of Hosts: I made the heavens and the earth and all that in them is. I made the poison of the snake and the milk in your mother’s breast In my hand are death and all the diseases, the thunder and lightning, the storm and the pestilence, and all the other proofs of my greatness and majesty. On your knees girl; and when you next come before me, bring me your favorite child and slay it here before me as a sacrifice; for I love the smell of newly spilled blood ”
“I have no child” said the black girl. “I am a virgin.”
“Then fetch your father and let him slay you” said the Lord of Hosts “And see that your relatives bring me plenty of rams and goats and sheep to roast before me as offerings to propitiate me, or I shall certainly smite them with the most horrible plagues so that they may know that I am God.”
“I am not a piccaninny, nor even a grown up ninny, to believe such wicked nonsense” said the black girl; “and in the name of the true God whom I seek I will scotch you as you scotched that poor mamba.” And she bounded up the rocks at him, brandishing her knobkerry.
But when she reached the top there was nothing there. This so bewildered her that she sat down and took out her bible for guidance. But whether the ants had got at it, or, being a very old book, it had perished by natural decay, all the early pages had crumbled to dust which blew away when she opened it.
So she sighed and got up and resumed her search. Presently she disturbed a sort of cobra called a ringhals which spat at her and was gliding away when she said “You no dare spit at me. I want to know who made you and why you are so unlike me. The mamba’s God was no use. he wasnt real when I tried him with my knobkerry. Lead me to yours.”
On that, the ringhals came back and beckoned her to follow him, which she did.
He led her to a pleasant glade in which an oldish gentleman with a soft silvery beard and hair, also in a white nightshirt, was sitting at a table covered with a white cloth and strewn with manuscript poems and pens made of angels’ quills. He looked kindly enough; but his turned up moustaches and eyebrows expressed a self-satisfied cunning which the black girl thought silly.
“Good little Spitty-spitty” he said to the snake. “You have brought somebody to argue with me.” And he gave the snake an egg, which it carried away joyfully into the forest.
“Do not be afraid of me” he said to the black girl. “I am not a cruel god: I am a reasonable one. I do nothing worse than argue. I am a Nailer at arguing. Dont worship me. Reproach me. Find fault with me. Dont spare my feelings. Throw something in my teeth; so that I can argue about it.”