Skirting the Abyss
"The first thing for us all is to see and feel
the great need, and to create a sentiment among
Christian people on this subject. One of the
characteristics of this great system is its
secrecy -- its subtlety. So few know of the evils
of child-marriage, it is so hidden away in the
secluded lives and prison homes of the people. And
those of us who enter beyond these veils, and go
down into these homes, are so apt to feel that it
is a case of the inevitable, and nothing can be
Mrs. Lee, India.

I HAVE been to the Great Lake Village to-day trying again to find out something about our little girl. I went to the Hindu school near the temple. The schoolmaster is a friend of ours, one of the honourable men of the village from which they took that flower. He was drilling the little Brahman boys as they stood in a row chanting the poem they were learning off by heart; but he made them stop when he saw us coming, and called us in.

I asked him about the child. It was true. She was in the temple, "married to the stone." Yes, it was true they had taken her there that day.

I asked if the family were poor; but he said, "Do not for a moment think that poverty was the cause. Certainly not. Our village is not poor!" And he looked quite offended at the thought. I knew the village was rich enough, but had thought perhaps that particular family might be poor, and so tempted to sell the little one; but he exclaimed with great warmth, Certainly not. The child was a relative of his own; there was no question of poverty!

We had left the school, and were talking out in the street facing the temple house. I looked at it, he looked at it. "From hence a passage broad, smooth, easy, inoffensive, down to hell"; he knew it well. "Yes, she is a relative of my own," he continued, and explained minutely the degree of relationship. "Her grandmother, whom you doubtless remember, is not like the ignorant women of these parts. She has learning." And again he repeated, as if desirous of thoroughly convincing me as to the satisfactory nature of the transaction, "Certainly she was not sold. She is a relative of my own."

A relative of his own! And he could teach his school outside those walls, and know what was going on inside, and never raise a finger to stop it, educated Hindu though he is. I could not understand it.

He seemed quite concerned at my concern, but explained that for generations one of that particular household had always been devoted to the gods. The practice could not be defended; it was the custom. That was all. "Our custom."

A stone's-throw from his door is another child who is living a strangely unnatural life, which strikes no one as unnatural because it is "our custom." She is quite a little girl, and as playful as a kitten. Her soft round arms and little dimpled hands looked fit for no harder work than play, but she was pounding rice when I saw her, and looked tired, and as if she wanted her mother.

While I was with her a very old man hobbled in. He was crippled, and leaned full weight with both hands on his stick. He seemed asthmatic too, and coughed and panted woefully. A withered, decrepit old ghoul. The child stood up when he came in and touched her neck where the marriage symbol lay. Then I knew he was her husband.

No blush at the avowal -- you dared to buy
A girl of age beseems your grand-daughter, like ox or ass? Are flesh and blood ware? are heart and soul a chattel?"

Yes! like chattels they are sold to the highest bidder. In that auction Caste comes first, then wealth and position. And the chattel is bought, the bit of breathing flesh and blood is converted into property; and the living, throbbing heart of the child may be trampled and stamped down under foot in the mire and the mud of that market-place, for all anyone cares.

It is not long since a young wife came for refuge to our house. Three times she had tried to kill herself; at last she fled to us. Her husband came. "Get up, slave," he said, as she crouched on the floor. She would not stir or speak. Then he got her own people to come, and then it was as if a pent-up torrent was bursting out of an over full heart. "You gave me to him. You gave me to him." The words came over and over again; she reminded them in a passion of reproach how, knowing what his character was, they had handed her over to him. But we could hardly follow her, the words poured forth with such fierce emotion, as with streaming eyes, and hands that showed everything in gestures, she besought them not to force her back. They promised, and believing them, she returned with them. The other day when I passed the house someone said, "Beautiful is there. He keeps her locked up in the back room now." So they had broken their word to her, and given her back, body and soul, to the power of a man whose cruelty is so well known that even the heathen call him a "demon." What must he be to his wife?

And if that poor wife, nerved by the misery of her life, dared all, and appealed to the Government, the law would do as her people did -- force her back again to him, to fulfil a contract she never made. Is it not a shame? Oh, when will the day come when this merchandise in children's souls shall cease? We know that many husbands are kind, and many wives perfectly content, but sometimes we see those who are not, and there is no redress.

Another of our children sold by auction in the Village of the Lake is one who used to be such a pretty little thing, with a tangle of curls, and mischievous, merry brown eyes. But that was five years ago. Then a fiend in a man's shape saw her, and offered inducements to her parents which ended in his marrying her. She was nine years old.

One year afterwards she was sent to her husband's home. His motives in marrying her were wholly evil, but the child knew something of right and wrong, and she resisted him. Then he dragged her into an inner room, and he held her down, and smothered her shrieks, and pressed a plantain into her mouth. It was poisoned. She knew it, and did not swallow it all. But what she was forced to take made her ill, and she lay for days so dizzy and sick that when her husband kicked her as she lay she did not care. At last she escaped, and ran to her mother's house. But the law was on her owner's side; what could she prove of all this, poor child? And she had to go back to him. After that he succeeded in his devil's work, and to-day that child is dead to all sense of sin.

Oh, there are worse things far than seeing a little child die! It is worse to see it change. To see the innocence pass from the eyes, and the childishness grow into wickedness, and to know, without being able to stop it, just what is going on.

I am thinking of one such now. She was four years old when I first began to visit in her grandmother's house. She is six now -- only six -- but her demoralisation is almost complete. It is as if you saw a hand pull a rosebud on its stem, crumple and crush it, rub the pink loveliness into pulp, drop it then -- and you pick it up. But it is not a rosebud now. Oh, these things, the knowledge of them, is as a fire shut up in one's bones! shut up, for one cannot let it all out -- it must stay in and burn.

. . . . . . .

Those who know nothing of the facts will be sure to criticise. "It is not an unknown thing for persons to act as critics, even though supremely ignorant of the subject criticised." But those who know the truth of these things well know that we have understated it, carefully toned it down perforce, because it cannot be written in full. It could neither be published nor read.

It cannot be written or published or read, but oh, it has to be lived! And what you may not even hear, must be endured by little girls. There are child-wives in India to-day, of twelve, ten, nine, and even eight years old. "Oh, you mean betrothed! Another instance of missionary exaggeration!" We mean married.

"But of course the law interferes!" Perhaps you have heard of the law which makes wifehood illegal under twelve. With reference to this law the Hon. Manomoham Ghose of the High Court of Calcutta writes: -- "If the Government thinks that the country is not yet prepared for such legislation" (by which he means drastic legislation) "as I suggest, I can only express my regret that by introducing the present Bill it has indefinitely postponed the introduction of a substantial measure of reform, which is urgently called for."

There are men and women in India to whom many a day is a nightmare, and this fair land an Inferno, because of what they know of the wrong that is going on. For that is the dreadful part of it. It is not like the burning alive of the widows, it is not a horror passed. It is going on steadily day and night. Sunlight, moonlight, and darkness pass, the one changing into the other; but all the time they are passing, this Wrong holds the hours with firm and strong hands, and uses them for its purpose -- the murder of little girls. Meanwhile, what can be done by you and by me to hasten the day of its ending? Those who know can tell what they know, or so much as will bear the telling; and those who do not know can believe it is true, and if they have influence anywhere, use it; and all can care and pray! Praying alone is not enough, but oh for more real praying! We are playing at praying, and caring, and coming; playing at doing -- if doing costs -- playing at everything but play. We are earnest enough about that. God open our eyes and convict us of our insincerity! burn out the superficial in us, make us intensely in earnest! And may God quicken our sympathy, and touch our heart, and nerve our arm for what will prove a desperate fight against "leagued fiends" in bad men's shapes, who do the devil's work to-day, branding on little innocent souls the very brand of hell.

I have told of one -- that little child who is now as evil-minded as a little child can be; she is only one of so many. Let a medical missionary speak.

"A few days ago we had a little child-wife here as a patient. She was ten or eleven, I think, just a scrap of a creature, playing with a doll, and yet degraded unmentionably in mind. . . . But oh, to think of the hundreds of little girls! . . . It makes me feel literally sick. We do what we can. . . . But what can we do? What a drop in the ocean it is!"

Where the dotted lines come, there was written what cannot be printed. But it had to be lived through, every bit of it, by a "scrap of a creature of ten or eleven."

Another -- these are from a friend who, even in writing a private letter, cannot say one-tenth of the thing she really means.

"A few days ago the little mother (a child of thirteen) was crying bitterly in the ward. 'Why are you crying?' 'Because he says I am too old for him now; he will get another wife, he says.' 'He' was her husband, 'quite a lad,' who had come to the hospital to see her."

The end of that story which cannot be told is being lived through this very day by that little wife of thirteen. And remember that thirteen in India means barely eleven at home.

"She was fourteen years old," they said, "but such a tiny thing, she looked about nine years old in size and development. . . . The little mother was so hurt, she can never be well again all her life. The husband then married again . . . as the child was ruined in health. . . ." And, as before, the dots must cover all the long-drawn-out misery of that little child who "looked about nine."

"There is an old, old man living near here, with a little wife of ten or eleven. . . . Our present cook's little girl, nine years old, has lately been married to a man who already has had two wives." In each of these cases, as in each I have mentioned, marriage means marriage, not just betrothal, as so many fondly imagine. Only to-day I heard of one who died in what the nurse who attended her described as "simple agony." She had been married a week before. She was barely twelve years old.

We do not say this is universal. There are many exceptions; but we do say the workings of this custom should be exposed and not suppressed. Question our facts; we can prove them. To-day as I write it, to-day as you read it, hundreds and thousands of little wives are going through what we have described. But "described" is not the word to use -- indicated, I should say, with the faintest wash of sepia where the thing meant is pitch black.

Think of it, then -- do not try to escape from the thought -- English women know too little, care too little -- too little by far. Think of it. Stop and think of it. If it is "trying" to think of it, and you would prefer to turn the page over, and get to something nicer to read, what must it be to live through it? What must it be to those little girls, so little, so pitifully little, and unequal to it all? What must it be to these childish things to live on through it day by day, with, in some cases, nothing to hope for till kindly death comes and opens the door, the one dread door of escape they know, and the tortured little body dies? And someone says, "The girl is dead, take the corpse out to the burning-ground." Then they take it up, gently perhaps. But oh, the relief of remembering it! It does not matter now. Nothing matters any more. Little dead wives cannot feel.

. . . . . . .

I wonder whether it touches you? I know I cannot tell it well. But oh, one lives through it all with them! -- I have stopped writing again and again, and felt I could not go on.

Mother, happy mother! When you tuck up your little girl in her cot, and feel her arms cling round your neck and her kisses on your cheek, will you think of these other little girls? Will you try to conceive what you would feel if your little girl were here?

Oh, you clasp her tight, so tight in your arms! The thought is a scorpion's sting in your soul. You would kill her, smother her dead in your arms, before you would give her to -- that.

Turn the light down, and come away. Thank God she is safe in her little cot, she will wake up to-morrow safe. Now think for a moment steadily of those who are somebody's little girls, just as dear to them and sweet, needing as much the tenderest care as this your own little girl.

Think of them. Try to think of them as if they were your very own. They are just like your own, in so many ways -- only their future is different.

Oh, dear mothers, do you care? Do you care very much, I ask?

. . . . . . .

We passed the temple on our way home from the Village of the Lake. The great gate was open, and the Brahmans and their friends were lounging in and out, or sitting in the porch talking and laughing together. They were talking about us as we passed. They were quite aware of our object in coming, and were pleased that we had failed.

Government officials, English-speaking graduates, educated Hindus like our old friend the schoolmaster, all would admit in private that to take a child to the temple and "marry her" there was wrong. But very few have much desire to right the shameful wrong.

There are thousands of recognised Slaves of the gods in this Presidency. Under other names they exist all over India. There are thousands of little child-wives; fewer here than elsewhere, we know, but many everywhere. I do not for a moment suggest that all child-wives are cruelly handled, any more than I would have it thought that all little girls are available for the service of the gods. Nor would I have it supposed that we see down this hell-crack every day. We may live for years in the country and know very little about it. The medical workers -- God help them! -- are those who are most frequently forced to look down, and I, not being a medical, know infinitely less of its depths than they. But this I do know, and do mean, and I mean it with an intensity I know not how to express, that this custom of infant marriage and child marriage, whether to gods or men, is an infamous custom; that it holds possibilities of wrong, such unutterable wrong, that descriptive words concerning it can only "skirt the abyss," and that in the name of all that is just and all that is merciful it should be swept out of the land without a day's delay.

We look to our Indian brothers. India is so immense that a voice crying in the North is hardly heard in the South. Thank God for the one or two voices crying in the wilderness. But many voices are needed, not only one or two. Let the many voices cry! Every man with a heart and a voice to cry, should cry. Then all the cries crying over the land will force the deaf ears to hear, and force the dull brains to think and the hands of the law to act, and something at last will be done.

But "crying" is not nearly enough. We look to you, brothers of India, to =do=. Get convictions upon this subject which will compel you to =do=. Many can talk and many can write, and more will do both, as the years pass, but the crux is contained in the =doing=.

God alone can strengthen you for it. He who set His face as a flint, can make you steadfast and brave enough to set your faces as flints, till the bands of wickedness are loosed, and the heavy burdens are undone, and every yoke is broken, and the oppressed go free.

It will cost. It is bound to cost. Every battle of the warrior is with confused noise and garments rolled in blood. It is only sham battles that cost something less than blood. Everything worth anything costs blood. "Reproach hath broken My heart." A broken heart bleeds. Is it the reproach of the battle you fear? This fear will conquer you until you hear the voice of your God saying, "Fear ye not the reproach of men, neither be afraid of their revilings. . . . Who art thou that thou shouldest be afraid of a man that shall die, and the son of man that shall be made as grass, and forgettest the Lord thy Maker?"

This book is meant for our comrades at home, but it may come back to India, and so we have spoken straight from our hearts to our Indian brothers here. Oh, brothers, rise, and in God's Name fight; in His power fight till you win, for these, your own land's little girls, who never can fight for themselves!

And now we look to you at home. Will all who pity the little wives pray for the men of India? Pray for those who are honestly striving to rid the land of this shameful curse. Pray that they may be nerved for the fight by the power of God's right arm. Pray for all the irresolute. "A sound of battle is in the land, . . . the Lord hath opened His armoury." "Cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood." Pray for resolution and the courage of conviction. It is needed.

And to this end pray that the Spirit of Life may come upon our Mission Colleges, and mightily energise the Missionary Educational Movement, that Hindu students may be won to out-and-out allegiance to Christ while they are students, before they become entangled in the social mesh of Hinduism. And pray, we earnestly plead with you, that the Christian students may meet God at college, and come out strong to fight this fiend which trades in "slaves and souls of men" -- and in the souls of little girls.

chapter xxiv married to the
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