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The Altar Steps
by Compton MacKenzie
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"You seem to have as much trouble with your bishops as we do with ours in the Anglican Church," said Mark.

"We shouldn't, if we made the right men bishops," said Monseigneur. "But so long as they think at Westminster that we're going to convert England with a tagrag and bobtail mob of Irish priests, we never shall make the right men. You were looking round my church just now. Didn't it remind you of an English church?"

Mark agreed that it did very much.

"That's my secret: that's why I've been the most successful mission priest in this diocese. I realize as an Englishman that it is no use to give the English Irish Catholicism. When I was in Rome the other day I was disgusted, I really was. I was disgusted. I thoroughly sympathize with Protestants who go there and are disgusted. You cannot expect a decent English family to confess to an Irish peasant. It's not reasonable. We want to create an English tradition."

"What between the Roman party in the Anglican Church and the Anglican party in the Roman Church," said Mark, "It seems a pity that some kind of reunion cannot be effected."

"So it could," Monseigneur declared. "So it could, if it wasn't for the Irish. Look at the way we treat our English converts. The clergy, I mean. Why? Because the Irish do not want England to be converted."

Mark did not raise with Monseigneur Cripps the question of his doubts. Indeed, before the plaice had been taken away he had decided that they no longer existed. It became clear to him that the English Church was England; and although he knew in his heart that Monseigneur Cripps was suffering from a sense of grievance and that his criticism of Roman policy was too obviously biased, it pleased him to believe that it was a fair criticism.

Mark thanked Monseigneur Cripps for his hospitality and took a friendly leave of him. An hour later he was walking back through the pleasant vale of Wield toward the Cotswolds. As he went his way among the green orchards, he thought over his late impulse to change allegiance, marvelling at it now and considering it irrational, like one astonished at his own behaviour in a dream. There came into his mind a story of George Fox who drawing near to the city of Lichfield took off his shoes in a meadow and cried three times in a loud voice "Woe unto the bloody city of Lichfield," after which he put on his shoes again and proceeded into the town. Mark looked back in amazement at his lunch with Monseigneur Cripps and his own meditated apostasy. To his present mood that intention to forsake his own Church appeared as remote from actuality as the malediction of George Fox upon the city of Lichfield.

Here among these green orchards in the heart of England Roman Catholicism presented itself to Mark's imagination as an exotic. The two words "Roman Catholicism" uttered aloud in the quiet June sunlight gave him the sensation of an allamanda or of a gardenia blossoming in an apple-tree. People who talked about bringing the English Church into line with the trend of Western Christianity lacked a sense of history. Apart from the question whether the English Church before the Reformation had accepted the pretensions of the Papacy, it was absurd to suppose that contemporary Romanism had anything in common with English Catholicism of the early sixteenth century. English Catholicism long before the Reformation had been a Protestant Catholicism, always in revolt against Roman claims, always preserving its insularity. It was idle to question the Catholic intentions of a priesthood that could produce within a century of the Reformation such prelates as Andrews and Ken. It was ridiculous at the prompting of the party in the ascendancy at Westminster to procure a Papal decision against English Orders when two hundred and fifty years ago there was a cardinal's hat waiting for Laud if he would leave the Church of England. And what about Paul IV and Elizabeth? Was he not willing to recognize English Orders if she would recognize his headship of Christendom?

But these were controversial arguments, and as Mark walked along through the pleasant vale of Wield with the Cotswold hills rising taller before him at every mile he apprehended that his adhesion to the English Church had been secured by the natural scene rather than by argument. Nevertheless, it was interesting to speculate why Romanism had not made more progress in England, why even now with a hierarchy and with such a distinguished line of converts beginning with Newman it remained so completely out of touch with the national life of the country. While the Romans converted one soul to Catholicism, the inheritors of the Oxford Movement were converting twenty. Catholicism must be accounted a disposition of mind, an attitude toward life that did not necessarily imply all that was implied by Roman Catholicism. What was the secret of the Roman failure? Everywhere else in the world Roman Catholicism had known how to adapt itself to national needs; only in England did it remain exotic. It was like an Anglo-Indian magnate who returns to find himself of no importance in his native land, and who but for the flavour of his curries and perhaps a black servant or two would be utterly inconspicuous. He tries to fit in with the new conditions of his readopted country, but he remains an exotic and is regarded by his neighbours as one to whom the lesson must be taught that he is no longer of importance. What had been the cause of this breach in the Roman Catholic tradition, this curious incompetency, this Anglo-Indian conservatism and pretentiousness? Perhaps it had begun when in the seventeenth century the propagation of Roman Catholicism in England was handed over to the Jesuits, who mismanaged the country hopelessly. By the time Rome had perceived that the conversion of England could not be left to the Jesuits the harm was done, so that when with greater toleration the time was ripe to expand her organization it was necessary to recruit her priests in Ireland. What the Jesuits had begun the Irish completed. It had been amusing to listen to the lamentations of Monseigneur Cripps; but Monseigneur Cripps had expressed, however ludicrous his egoism, the failure of his Church in England.

Mark's statement of the Anglican position with nobody to answer his arguments except the trees and the hedgerows seemed flawless. The level road, the gentle breeze in the orchards on either side, the scent of the grass, and the busy chirping of the birds coincided with the main point of his argument that England was most inexpressibly Anglican and that Roman Catholicism was most unmistakably not. His arguments were really hasty foot-notes to his convictions; if each one had separately been proved wrong, that would have had no influence on the point of view he had reached. He forgot that this very landscape that was seeming incomparable England herself had yesterday appeared complacent and monotonous. In fact he was as bad as George Fox, who after taking off his shoes to curse the bloody city of Lichfield should only have put them on again to walk away from it.

The grey road was by now beginning to climb the foothills of the Cotswolds; a yellow-hammer, keeping always a few paces ahead, twittered from quickset boughs nine encouraging notes that drowned the echoes of ancient controversies. In such a countryside no claims papal or episcopal possessed the least importance; and Mark dismissed the subject from his mind, abandoning himself to the pleasure of the slow ascent. Looking back after a while he could see the town of Wield riding like a ship in a sea of verdure, and when he surveyed thus England asleep in the sunlight, the old ambition to become a preaching friar was kindled again in his heart. He would re-establish the extinct and absolutely English Order of St. Gilbert so that there should be no question of Roman pretensions. Doubtless, St. Francis himself would understand a revival of his Order without reference to existing Franciscans; but nobody else would understand, and it would be foolish to insist upon being a Franciscan if the rest of the Order disowned him and his followers. If anybody had asked Mark at that moment why he wanted to restore the preaching friars, he might have found it difficult to answer. He was by no means imbued with the missionary spirit just then; his experience at Chatsea had made him pessimistic about missionary effort in the Church of England. If a man like Father Rowley had failed to win the support of his ecclesiastical superiors, Mark, who possessed more humility than is usual at twenty-one, did not fancy that he should be successful. The ambition to become a friar was revived by an incomprehensible, or if not incomprehensible, certainly by an inexplicable impulse to put himself in tune with the landscape, to proclaim as it were on behalf of that dumb heart of England beating down there in the flowery Vale of Wield: God rest you merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay! There was revealed to him with the assurance of absolute faith that all the sorrows, all the ugliness, all the soullessness (no other word could be found) of England in the first year of the twentieth century was due to the Reformation; the desire to become a preaching friar was the dramatic expression of this inspired conviction. Before his journey through the Vale of Wield Mark in any discussion would have been ready to argue the mistake of the Reformation: but now there was no longer room for argument. What formerly he thought now he knew. The song of the yellow-hammer was louder in the quickset hedge; the trees burned with a sharper green; the road urged his feet.

"If only everybody in England could move as I am moving now," he thought. "If only I could be granted the power to show a few people, so that they could show others, and those others show all the world. How confidently that yellow-hammer repeats his song! How well he knows that his song is right! How little he envies the linnet and how little the linnet envies him! The fools that talk of nature's cruelty, the blind fatuous sentimental coxcombs!"

Thus apostrophizing, Mark came to a wayside inn; discovering that he was hungry, he took his seat at a rustic table outside and called for bread and cheese and beer. While he was eating, a vehicle approached from the direction in which he would soon be travelling. He took it at first for a caravan of gipsies, but when it grew near he saw that it was painted over with minatory texts and was evidently the vehicle of itinerant gospellers. Two young men alighted from the caravan when it pulled up before the door of the inn. They were long-nosed sallow creatures with that expression of complacency which organized morality too often produces, and in this quiet countryside they gave an effect of being overgrown Sunday-school scholars upon their annual outing. Having cast a censorious glance in the direction of Mark's jug of ale, they sat down at the farther end of the bench and ordered food.

"The preaching friars of to-day," Mark thought gloomily.

"Excuse me," said one of the gospellers. "I notice you've been looking very hard at our van. Excuse me, but are you saved?"

"No, are you?" Mark countered with an angry blush.

"We are," the gospeller proclaimed. "Or I and Mr. Smillie here," he indicated his companion, "wouldn't be travelling round trying to save others. Here, read this tract, my friend. Don't hurry over it. We can wait all day and all night to bring one wandering soul to Jesus."

Mark looked at the young men curiously; perceiving that they were sincere, he accepted the tract and out of courtesy perused it. The tale therein enfolded reminded him of a narrative testifying to the efficacy of a patent medicine. The process of conversation followed a stereotyped formula.

For three and a half years I was unable to keep down any sins for more than five minutes after I had committed the last one. I had a dizzy feeling in the heart and a sharp pain in the small of the soul. A friend of mine recommended me to try the good minister in the slum. . . . After the first text I was able to keep down my sins for six minutes . . . after twenty-two bottles I am as good as I ever was. . . . I ascribe my salvation entirely to. . . . Mark handed back the tract with a smile.

"Do you convert many people with this literature?" he asked.

"We don't often convert a soul right off," said Mr. Smillie. "But we sow the good seed, if you follow my meaning; and we leave the rest to Jesus. Mr. Bullock and I have handed over seven hundred tracts in three weeks, and we know that they won't all fall on stony ground or be choked by tares and thistles."

"Do you mind my asking you a question?" Mark said.

The gospel bearers craned their necks like hungry fowls in their eagerness to peck at any problems Mark felt inclined to scatter before them. A ludicrous fancy passed through his mind that much of the good seed was pecked up by the scatterers.

"What are you trying to convert people to?" Mark solemnly inquired.

"What are we trying to convert people to?" echoed Mr. Bullock and Mr. Smillie in unison. Then the former became eloquent. "We're trying to wash ignorant people in the blood of the Lamb. We're converting them from the outer darkness, where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, to be rocked safe for ever in the arms of Jesus. If you'd have read that tract I handed you a bit more slowly and a bit more carefully, you wouldn't have had any call to ask a question like that."

"Perhaps I framed my question rather badly," Mark admitted. "I understand that you want to bring people to believe in Our Lord; but when by a tract or by a personal exhortation or by an emotional appeal you've induced them to suppose that they are converted, or as you put it saved, what more do you give them?"

"What more do we give them?" Mr. Smillie shrilled. "What more can we give them after we've given them Christ Jesus? We're sitting here offering you Christ Jesus at this moment. You're sitting there mocking at us. But Mr. Bullock and me don't mind how much you mock. We're ready to stay here for hours if we can bring you safe to the bosom of Emmanuel."

"Yes, but suppose I told you that I believe in Our Lord Jesus Christ without any persuasion from you?" Mark inquired.

"Well, then you're saved," said Mr. Bullock decidedly. "And you can ask the landlord for our bill, Mr. Smillie."

"But is nothing more necessary?" Mark persisted.

"By faith are ye justified," Mr. Bullock and Mr. Smillie shouted simultaneously.

Mark paused for a moment to consider whether argument was worth while, and then he returned to the attack.

"I'm afraid I think that people like you do a great deal of damage to Christianity. You only flatter human conceit. You get hold of some emotional creature and work upon his feelings until in an access of self-absorption he feels that the universe is standing still while the necessary measures are taken to secure his personal salvation. You flatter this poor soul, and then you go away and leave him to work out his own salvation."

"If you're dwelling in Christ Jesus and Christ Jesus is dwelling in you, you haven't got to work out your own salvation. He worked out your salvation on the Cross," said Mr. Bullock contemptuously.

"And you think that nothing more is necessary from a man? It seems to me that the religion you preach is fatal to human character. I'm not trying to be offensive when I tell you that it's the religion of a tapeworm. It's a religion for parasites. It's a religion which ignores the Holy Ghost."

"Perhaps you'll explain your assertion a little more fully?" Mr. Bullock invited with a scowl.

"What I mean is that, if Our Lord's Atonement removed all responsibility from human nature, there doesn't seem much for the Holy Ghost to do, does there?"

"Well, as it happens," said Mr. Bullock sarcastically, "Mr. Smillie and I here do most of our work with the help of the Holy Ghost, so you've hit on a bad example to work off your sneers on."

"I'm not trying to sneer," Mark protested. "But strangely enough just before you came along I was thinking to myself how much I should like to travel over England preaching about Our Lord, because I think that England has need of Him. But I also think, now you've answered my question, that you are doing more harm than good by your interpretation of the Holy Ghost."

"Mr. Smillie," interrupted Mr. Bullock in an elaborately off-hand voice, "if you've counted the change and it's all correct, we'd better get a move on. Let's gird up our loins, Mr. Smillie, and not sit wrestling here with infidels."

"No, really, you must allow me," Mark persisted. "You've had it so much your own way with your tracts and your talks this last few weeks that by now you must be in need of a sermon yourselves. The gospel you preach is only going to add to the complacency of England, and England is too complacent already. All Northern nations are, which is why they are Protestant. They demand a religion which will truckle to them, a religion which will allow them to devote six days of the week to what is called business and on the seventh day to rest and praise God that they are not as other men."

"Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's," said Mr. Smillie, putting the change in his pocket and untying the nosebag from the horse.

"Ye cannot serve God and mammon," Mark retorted. "And I wish you'd let me finish my argument."

"Mr. Smillie and I aren't touring the Midlands trying to find grapes on thorns and figs on thistles," said Mr. Bullock scathingly. "We'd have given you a chance, if you'd have shown any fruits of the Spirit."

"You've just said you weren't looking for grapes or figs," Mark laughed. "I'm sorry I've made you so cross. But you began the argument by asking me if I was saved. Think how annoyed you would have been if I had begun a conversation by asking you if you were washed."

"My last words to you is," said Mr. Bullock solemnly, looking out of the caravan window, "my last words to you are," he corrected himself, "is to avoid beer. You can touch up the horse, Mr. Smillie."

"I'll come and touch you up, you big-mouthed Bible thumpers," a rich voice shouted from the inn door. "Yes, you sit outside my public-house and swill minerals when you're so full of gas already you could light a corporation gasworks. Avoid beer, you walking bellows? Step down out of that travelling menagerie, and I'll give you 'avoid beer.' You'll avoid more than beer before I've finished with you."

But the gospel bearers without paying any attention to the tirade went on their way; and Mark who did not wait to listen to the innkeeper's abuse of all religion and all religious people went on his way in the opposite direction.

Swinging homeward over the Cotswolds Mark flattered himself on a victory over heretics, and he imagined his adversaries entering Wield that afternoon, the prey of doubt and mortification. At the highest point of the road he even ventured to suppose that they might find themselves at Evensong outside St. Andrew's Church and led within by the grace of the Holy Spirit that they might renounce their errors before the altar. Indeed, it was not until he was back in the Rectory that the futility of his own bearing overwhelmed him with shame. Anxious to atone for his self-conceit, Mark gave the Rector an account of the incident.

"It seems to me that I behaved very feebly, don't you think?"

"That kind of fellow is a hard nut to crack," the Rector said consolingly. "And you can't expect just by quoting text against text to effect an instant conversion. Don't forget that your friends are in their way as great enthusiasts probably as yourself."

"Yes, but it's humiliating to be imagining oneself leading a revival of the preaching friars and then to behave like that. What strikes me now, when it's too late, is that I ought to have waited and taken the opportunity to tackle the innkeeper. He was just the ordinary man who supposes that religion is his natural enemy. You must admit that I missed a chance there."

"I don't want to check your missionary zeal," said the Rector. "But I really don't think you need worry yourself about an omission of that kind so long before you are ordained. If I didn't know you as well as I do, I might even be inclined to consider such a passion for souls at your age a little morbid. I wish with all my heart you'd gone to Oxford," he added with a sigh.

"Well, really, do you know," said Mark, "I don't regret that. Whatever may be the advantages of a public school and university, the education hampers one. One becomes identified with a class; and when one has finished with that education, the next two or three years have to be spent in discovering that public school and university men form a very small proportion of the world's population. Sometimes I almost regret that my mother did not let me acquire that Cockney accent. You can say a lot of things in a Cockney accent which said without any accent sound priggish. You must admit, Rector, that your inner comment on my tale of the gospellers and the innkeeper is 'Dear me! I am afraid Mark's turning into a prig.'"

"No, no. I laid particular stress on the point that if I didn't know you as well as I do I might perhaps have thought that," the Rector protested.

"I don't think I am a prig," Mark went on slowly. "I don't think I have enough confidence in myself to be a prig. I think the way I argued with Mr. Bullock and Mr. Smillie was a bit priggish, because at the back of my head all the time I was talking I felt in addition to the arrogance of faith a kind of confounded snobbishness; and this sense of superiority came not from my being a member of the Church, but from feeling myself more civilized than they were. Looking back now at the conversation, I can remember that actually at the very moment I was talking of the Holy Ghost I was noticing how Mr. Bullock's dicky would keep escaping from his waistcoat. I wonder if the great missionary saints of the middle ages had to contend with this accumulation of social conventions with which we are faced nowadays. It seems to me that in everything—in art, in religion, in mere ordinary everyday life and living—man is adding daily to the wall that separates him from God."

"H'm, yes," said the Rector, "all this only means that you are growing up. The child is nearer to God than the man. Wordsworth said it better than I can say it. Similarly, the human race must grow away from God as it takes upon itself the burden of knowledge. That surely is inherent in the fall of man. No philosopher has yet improved upon the first chapter of Genesis as a symbolical explanation of humanity's plight. When man was created—or if you like to put it evolved—there must have been an exact moment at which he had the chance of remaining where he was—in other words, in the Garden of Eden—or of developing further along his own lines with free will. Satan fell from pride. It is natural to assume that man, being tempted by Satan, would fall from the same sin, though the occasion, of his fall might be the less heroic sin of curiosity. Yes, I think that first chapter of Genesis, as an attempt to sum up the history of millions of years, is astoundingly complete. Have you ever thought how far by now the world would have grown away from God without the Incarnation?"

"Yes," said Mark, "and after nineteen hundred years how little nearer it has grown."

"My dear boy," said the Rector, "if man has not even yet got rid of rudimentary gills or useless paps he is not going to grow very visibly nearer to God in nineteen hundred years after growing away from God for ninety million. Yet such is the mercy of our Father in Heaven that, infinitely remote as we have grown from Him, we are still made in His image, and in childhood we are allowed a few years of blessed innocency. To some children—and you were one of them—God reveals Himself more directly. But don't, my dear fellow, grow up imagining that these visions you were accorded as a boy will be accorded to you all through your life. You may succeed in remaining pure in act, but you will find it hard to remain pure in heart. To me the most frightening beatitude is Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. What your present state of mind really amounts to is lack of hope, for as soon as you find yourself unable to be as miraculously eloquent as St. Anthony of Padua you become the prey of despair."

"I am not so foolish as that," Mark replied. "But surely, Rector, it behoves me during these years before my ordination to criticize myself severely."

"As severely as you like," the Rector agreed, "provided that you only criticize yourself, and don't criticize Almighty God."

"But surely," Mark went on, "I ought to be asking myself now that I am twenty-one how I shall best occupy the next three years?"

"Certainly," the Rector assented. "Think it over, and be sure that, when you have thought it over and have made your decision with the help of prayer, I shall be the first to support that decision in every way possible. Even if you decide to be a preaching friar," he added with a smile. "And now I have some news for you. Esther arrives here tomorrow to stay with us for a fortnight before she is professed."



CHAPTER XXII

SISTER ESTHER MAGDALENE

Esther's novitiate in the community of St. Mary Magdalene, Shoreditch, had lasted six months longer than was usual, because the Mother Superior while never doubting her vocation for the religious life had feared for her ability to stand the strain of that work among penitents to which the community was dedicated. In the end, her perseverance had been rewarded, and the day of her profession was at hand.

During the whole of her nearly four years' novitiate Esther had not been home once; although Mark and she had corresponded at long intervals, their letters had been nothing more than formal records of minor events, and on St. John's eve he drove with the dogcart to meet her, wondering all the way how much she would have changed. The first thing that struck him when he saw her alight from the train on Shipcot platform was her neatness. In old days with windblown hair and clothes flung on anyhow she had belonged so unmistakably to the open air. Now in her grey habit and white veil of the novice she was as tranquil as Miriam, and for the first time Mark perceived a resemblance between the sisters. Her complexion, which formerly was flushed and much freckled by the open air, was now like alabaster; and although her auburn hair was hidden beneath the veil Mark was aware of it like a hidden fire. He had in the very moment of welcoming her a swift vision of that auburn hair lying on the steps of the altar a fortnight hence, and he was filled with a wild desire to be present at her profession and gathering up the shorn locks to let them run through his fingers like flames. He had no time to be astonished at himself before they were shaking hands.

"Why, Esther," he laughed, "you're carrying an umbrella."

"It was raining in London," she said gravely.

He was on the point of exclaiming at such prudence in Esther when he blushed in the remembrance that she was a nun. During the drive back they talked shyly about the characters of the village and the Rectory animals.

"I feel as if you'd just come back from school for the holidays," he said.

"Yes, I feel as if I'd been at school," she agreed. "How sweet the country smells."

"Don't you miss the country sometimes in Shoreditch?" he asked.

She shook her head and looked at him with puzzled eyes.

"Why should I miss anything in Shoreditch?"

Mark was abashed and silent for the rest of the drive, because he fancied that Esther might have supposed that he was referring to the past, rather than give which impression he would have cut out his tongue. When they reached the Rectory, Mark was moved almost to tears by the greetings.

"Dear little sister," Miriam murmured. "How happy we are to have you with us again."

"Dear child," said Mrs. Ogilvie. "And really she does look like a nun."

"My dearest girl, we have missed you every moment of these four years," said the Rector, bending to kiss her. "How cold your cheek is."

"It was quite chilly driving," said Mark quickly, for there had come upon him a sudden dismay lest they should think she was a ghost. He was relieved when Miriam announced tea half an hour earlier than usual in honour of Esther's arrival; it seemed to prove that to her family she was still alive.

"After tea I'm going to Wych Maries to pick St. John's wort for the church. Would you like to walk as far?" Mark suggested, and then stood speechless, horrified at his want of tact. He had the presence of mind not to excuse himself, and he was grateful to Esther when she replied in a calm voice that she should like a walk after tea.

When the opportunity presented itself, Mark apologized for his suggestion.

"By why apologize?" she asked. "I assure you I'm not at all tired and I really should like to walk to Wych Maries."

He was amazed at her self-possession, and they walked along with unhastening conventual steps to where the St. John's wort grew amid a tangle of ground ivy in the open spaces of a cypress grove, appearing most vividly and richly golden like sunlight breaking from black clouds in the western sky.

"Gather some sprays quickly, Sister Esther Magdalene," Mark advised. "And you will be safe against the demons of this night when evil has such power."

"Are we ever safe against the demons of the night?" she asked solemnly. "And has not evil great power always?"

"Always," he assented in a voice that trembled to a sigh, like the uncertain wind that comes hesitating at dusk in the woods. "Always," he repeated.

As he spoke Mark fell upon his knees among the holy flowers, for there had come upon him temptation; and the sombre trees standing round watched him like fiends with folded wings.

"Go to the chapel," he cried in an agony.

"Mark, what is the matter?"

"Go to the chapel. For God's sake, Esther, don't wait."

In another moment he felt that he should tear the white veil from her forehead and set loose her auburn hair.

"Mark, are you ill?"

"Oh, do what I ask," he begged. "Once I prayed for you here. Pray for me now."

At that moment she understood, and putting her hands to her eyes she stumbled blindly toward the ruined church of the two Maries, heavily too, because she was encumbered by her holy garb. When she was gone and the last rustle of her footsteps had died away upon the mid-summer silence, Mark buried his body in the golden flowers.

"How can I ever look any of them in the face again?" he cried aloud. "Small wonder that yesterday I was so futile. Small wonder indeed! And of all women, to think that I should fall in love with Esther. If I had fallen in love with her four years ago . . . but now when she is going to be professed . . . suddenly without any warning . . . without any warning . . . yet perhaps I did love her in those days . . . and was jealous. . . ."

And even while Mark poured forth his horror of himself he held her image to his heart.

"I thought she was a ghost because she was dead to me, not because she was dead to them. She is not a ghost to them. And is she to me?"

He leapt to his feet, listening.

"Should she come back," he thought with beating heart. "Should she come back . . . I love her . . . she hasn't taken her final vows . . . might she not love me? No," he shouted at the top of his voice. "I will not do as my father did . . . I will not . . . I will not. . . ."

Mark felt sure of himself again: he felt as he used to feel as a little boy when his mother entered on a shaft of light to console his childish terrors. When he came to the ruined chapel and saw Esther standing with uplifted palms before the image of St. Mary Magdalene long since put back upon the pedestal from which it had been flung by the squire of Rushbrooke Grange, Mark was himself again.

"My dear," Esther cried, impulsively taking his hand. "You frightened me. What was the matter?"

He did not answer for a moment or two, because he wanted her to hold his hand a little while longer, so much time was to come when she would never hold it.

"Whenever I dip my hand in cold water," he said at last, "I shall think of you. Why did you say that about the demons of the night?"

She dropped his hand in comprehension.

"You're disgusted with me," he murmured. "I'm not surprised."

"No, no, you mustn't think of me like that. I'm still a very human Esther, so human that the Reverend Mother has made me wait an extra year to be professed. But, Mark dear, can't you understand, you who know what I endured in this place, that I am sometimes tempted by memories of him, that I sometimes sin by regrets for giving him up, my dead lover so near to me in this place. My dead love," she sighed to herself, "to whose memory in my pride of piety I thought I should be utterly indifferent."

A spasm of jealousy had shaken Mark while Esther was speaking, but by the time she had finished he had fought it down.

"I think I must have loved you all this time," he told her.

"Mark dear, I'm ten years older than you. I'm going to be a nun for what of my life remains. And I can never love anybody else. Don't make this visit of mine a misery to me. I've had to conquer so much and I need your prayers."

"I wish you needed my kisses."

"Mark!"

"What did I say? Oh, Esther, I'm a brute. Tell me one thing."

"I've already told you more than I've told anyone except my confessor."

"Have you found happiness in the religious life?"

"I have found myself. The Reverend Mother wanted me to leave the community and enter a contemplative order. She did not think I should be able to help poor girls."

"Esther, what a stupid woman! Why surely you would be wonderful with them?"

"I think she is a wise woman," said Esther. "I think since we came picking St. John's wort I understand how wise she is."

"Esther, dear dear Esther, you make me feel more than ever ashamed of myself. I entreat you not to believe what the Reverend Mother says."

"You have only a fortnight to convince me," said Esther.

"And I will convince you."

"Mark, do you remember when you made me pray for his soul telling me that in that brief second he had time to repent?"

Mark nodded grimly.

"You still do think that, don't you?"

"Of course I do. He must have repented."

She thanked him with her eyes; and Mark looking into their depths of hope unfathomable put away from him the thought that the damned soul of Will Starling was abroad to-night with power of evil. Yes, he put this thought behind him; but carrying an armful of St. John's wort to hang in sprays above the doors of the church he could not rid himself of the fancy that his arms were filled with Esther's auburn hair.



CHAPTER XXIII

MALFORD ABBEY

Mark left Wych-on-the-Wold next day; although he did not announce that he should be absent from home so long, he intended not to return until Esther had gone back to Shoreditch. He hoped that he was not being cowardly in thus running away; but after having assured Esther that she could count on his behaving normally for the rest of her visit, he found his sleep that night so profoundly disturbed by feverish visions that when morning came he dreaded his inability to behave as both he would wish himself and she would wish him to behave. Flight seemed the only way to find peace. He was shocked not so much by being in love with Esther, but by the suddenness with which his desires had overwhelmed him, desires which had never been roused since he was born. If in an instant he could be turned upside down like that, could he be sure that upon the next occasion, supposing that he fell in love with somebody more suitable, he should be able to escape so easily? His father must have married his mother out of some such violent impulse as had seized himself yesterday afternoon, and resentiment about his weakness had spoilt his whole life. And those dreams! How significant now were the words of the Compline hymn, and how much it behoved a Christian soul to vanquish these ill dreams against beholding which the defence of the Creator was invoked. He had vowed celibacy; yet already, three months after his twenty-first birthday, after never once being troubled with the slightest hint that the vow he had taken might be hard to keep, his security had been threatened. How right the Rector had been about that frightening beatitude.

Mark had taken the direction of Wychford, and when he reached the bridge at the bottom of the road from Wych-on-the-Wold he thought he would turn aside and visit the Greys whom he had not seen for a long time. He was conscious of a curiosity to know if the feelings aroused by Esther could be aroused by Monica or Margaret or Pauline. He found the dear family unchanged and himself, so far as they were concerned, equally unchanged and as much at his ease as he had ever been.

"And what are you going to do now?" one of them asked.

"You mean immediately?"

Mark could not bring himself to say that he did not know, because such a reply would have seemed to link him with the state of mind in which he had been thrown yesterday afternoon.

"Well, really, I was thinking of going into a monastery," he announced.

Pauline clapped her hands.

"Now I think that is just what you ought to do," she said.

Then followed questions about which Order he proposed to join; and Mark ashamed to go back on what he had said lest they should think him flippant answered that he thought of joining the Order of St. George.

"You know—Father Burrowes, who works among soldiers."

When Mark was standing by the cross-roads above Wychford and was wondering which to take, he decided that really the best thing he could do at this moment was to try to enter the Order of St. George. He might succeed in being ordained without going to a theological college, or if the Bishop insisted upon a theological course and he found that he had a vocation for the religious life, he could go to Glastonbury and rejoin the Order when he was a priest. It was true that Father Rowley disapproved of Father Burrowes; but he had never expressed more than a general disapproval, and Mark was inclined to attribute his attitude to the prejudice of a man of strong personality and definite methods against another man of strong personality and definite methods working on similar lines among similar people. Mark remembered now that there had been a question at one time of Father Burrowes' opening a priory in the next parish to St. Agnes'. Probably that was the reason why Father Rowley disapproved of him. Mark had heard the monk preach on one occasion and had liked him. Outside the pulpit, however, he knew nothing more of him than what he had heard from soldiers staying in the Keppel Street Mission House, who from Aldershot had visited Malford Abbey, the mother house of the Order. The alternative to Malford was Clere Abbey on the Berkshire downs where Dom Cuthbert Manners ruled over a small community of strict Benedictines. Had Mark really been convinced that he was likely to remain a monk for the rest of his life, he would have chosen the Benedictines; but he did not feel justified in presenting himself for admission to Clere on what would seem impulse. He hoped that if he was accepted by the Order of St. George he should be given an opportunity to work at one of the priories in Aldershot or Sandgate, and that the experience he might expect to gain would help him later as a parish priest. He could not confide in the Rector his reason for wanting to subject himself to monastic discipline, and he expected a good deal of opposition. It might be better to write from whatever village he stayed in to-night and make the announcement without going back at all. And this is what in the end he decided to do.

The Sun Inn,

Ladingford.

June 24.

My dear Rector,

I expect you gathered from our talk the day before yesterday that I was feeling dissatisfied with myself, and you must know that the problem of occupying my time wisely before I am ordained has lately been on my mind. I don't feel that I could honestly take up a profession to which I had no intention of sticking, and though Father Rowley recommended me to stay at home and work with the village people I don't feel capable of doing that yet. If it was a question of helping you by taking off your shoulders work that I could do it would be another matter. But you've often said to me that you had more time on your hands than you cared for since you gave up coaching me for an Oxford scholarship, and so I don't think I'm wrong in supposing that you would find it hard to discover for me any parochial routine work. I'm not old enough yet to fish for souls, and I have no confidence in my ability to hook them. Besides, I think it would bore you if I started "missionizing" in Wych-on-the-Wold.

I've settled therefore to try to get into the Order of St. George. I don't think you know Father Burrowes personally, but I've always heard that he does a splendid work among soldiers, and I'm hoping that he will accept me as a novice.

Latterly, in fact since I left Chatsea, I've been feeling the need of a regular existence, and, though I cannot pretend that I have a vocation for the monastic life in the highest sense, I do feel that I have a vocation for the Order of St. George. You will wonder why I have not mentioned this to you, but the fact is—and I hope you'll appreciate my frankness—I did not think of the O.S.G. till this morning. Of course they may refuse to have me. But I shall present myself without a preliminary letter, and I hope to persuade Father Burrowes to have me on probation. If he once does that, I'm sure that I shall satisfy him. This sounds like the letter of a conceited clerk. It must be the fault of this horrible inn pen, which is like writing with a tooth-pick dipped in a puddle! I thought it was best not to stay at the Rectory, with Esther on the verge of her profession. It wouldn't be fair to her at a time like this to make my immediate future a matter of prime importance. So do forgive my going off in this fashion. I suppose it's just possible that some bishop will accept me for ordination from Malford, though no doubt it's improbable. This will be a matter to discuss with Father Burrowes later.

Do forgive what looks like a most erratic course of procedure. But I really should hate a long discussion, and if I make a mistake I shall have had a lesson. It really is essential for me to be tremendously occupied. I cannot say more than this, but I do beg you to believe that I'm not taking this apparently unpremeditated step without a very strong reason. It's a kind of compromise with my ambition to re-establish in the English Church an order of preaching friars. I haven't yet given up that idea, but I'm sure that I ought not to think about it seriously until I'm a priest.

I'm staying here to-night after a glorious day's tramp, and to-morrow morning I shall take the train and go by Reading and Basingstoke to Malford. I'll write to you as soon as I know if I'm accepted. My best love to everybody, and please tell Esther that I shall think about her on St. Mary Magdalene's Day.

Yours always affectionately,

Mark.

To Esther he wrote by the same post:

My dear Sister Esther Magdalene,

Do not be angry with me for running away, and do not despise me for trying to enter a monastery in such a mood. I'm as much the prey of religion as you are. And I am really horrified by the revelation of what I am capable of. I saw in your eyes yesterday the passion of your soul for Divine things. The memory of them awes me. Pray for me, dear sister, that all my passion may be turned to the service of God. Defend me to your brother, who will not understand my behaviour.

Mark.

Three days later Mark wrote again to the Rector:

The Abbey,

Malford,

Surrey.

June 27th.

My dear Rector,

I do hope that you're not so much annoyed with me that you don't want to hear anything about my monastic adventures. However, if you are you can send back this long letter unopened. I believe that is the proper way to show one's disapproval by correspondence.

I reached Malford yesterday afternoon, and after a jolly walk between high hazel hedges for about two miles I reached the Abbey. It doesn't quite fulfil one's preconceived ideas of what an abbey should look like, but I suppose it is the most practicable building that could be erected with the amount of money that the Order had to spare for what in a way is a luxury for a working order like this. What it most resembles is three tin tabernacles put together to form three sides of a square, the fourth and empty side of which is by far the most beautiful, because it consists of a glorious view over a foreground of woods, a middle-distance of park land, and on the horizon the Hampshire downs.

I am an authority on this view, because I had to gaze at it for about a quarter of an hour while I was waiting for somebody to open the Abbey door. At last the porter, Brother Lawrence, after taking a good look at me through the grill, demanded what I wanted. When I said that I wanted to be a monk, he looked very alarmed and hurried away, leaving me to gaze at that view for another ten minutes. He came back at last and let me in, informing me in a somewhat adenoidish voice that the Reverend Brother was busy in the garden and asking me to wait until he came in. Brother Lawrence has a large, pock-marked face, and while he is talking to anybody he stands with his right hand in his left sleeve and his left hand in his right sleeve like a Chinese mandarin or an old washer-woman with her arms folded under her apron. You must make the most of my descriptions in this letter, because if I am accepted as a probationer I shan't be able to indulge in any more personalities about my brethren.

The guest-room like everything else in the monastery is match-boarded; and while I was waiting in it the noise was terrific, because some corrugated iron was being nailed on the roof of a building just outside. I began to regret that Brother Lawrence had opened the door at all and that he had not left me in the cloisters, as by the way I discovered that the space enclosed by the three tin tabernacles is called! There was nothing to read in the guest-room except one sheet of a six months' old newspaper which had been spread on the table presumably for a guest to mend something with glue. At last the Reverend Brother, looking most beautiful in a white habit with a zucchetto of mauve velvet, came in and welcomed me with much friendliness. I was surprised to find somebody so young as Brother Dunstan in charge of a monastery, especially as he said he was only a novice as yet. It appears that all the bigwigs—or should I say big-cowls?—are away at the moment on business of the Order and that various changes are in the offing, the most important being the giving up of their branch in Malta and the consequent arrival of Brother George, of whom Brother Dunstan spoke in a hushed voice. Father Burrowes, or the Reverend Father as he is called, is preaching in the north of England at the moment, and Brother Dunstan tells me it is quite impossible for him to say anything, still less to do anything, about my admission. However, he urged me to stay on for the present as a guest, an invitation which I accepted without hesitation. He had only just time to show me my cell and the card of rules for guests when a bell rang and, drawing his cowl over his head, he hurried off.

After perusing the rules, I discovered that this was the bell which rings a quarter of an hour before Vespers for solemn silence. I hadn't the slightest idea where the chapel was, and when I asked Brother Lawrence he glared at me and put his finger to his mouth. I was not to be discouraged, however, and in the end he showed me into the ante-chapel which is curtained off from the quire. There was only one other person in the ante-chapel, a florid, well-dressed man with a rather mincing and fussy way of worshipping. The monks led by Brother Lawrence (who is not even a novice yet, but a postulant and wears a black habit, without a hood, tied round the waist with a rope) passed from the refectory through the ante-chapel into the quire, and Vespers began. They used an arrangement called "The Day Hours of the English Church," but beyond a few extra antiphons there was very little difference from ordinary Evening Prayer. After Vespers I had a simple and solemn meal by myself, and I was wondering how I should get hold of a book to pass away the evening, when Brother Dunstan came in and asked me if I'd like to sit with the brethren in the library until the bell rang for simple silence a quarter of an hour before Compline at 9.15, after which everybody—guests and monks—are expected to go to bed in solemn silence. The difference between simple silence and solemn silence is that you may ask necessary questions and get necessary replies during simple silence; but as far as I can make out, during solemn silence you wouldn't be allowed to tell anybody that you were dying, or if you did tell anybody, he wouldn't be able to do anything about it until solemn silence was over.

The other monks are Brother Jerome, the senior novice after Brother Dunstan, a pious but rather dull young man with fair hair and a squashed face, and Brother Raymond, attractive and bird-like, and considered a great Romanizer by the others. There is also Brother Walter, who is only a probationer and is not even allowed wide sleeves and a habit like Brother Lawrence, but has to wear a very moth-eaten cassock with a black band tied round it. Brother Walter had been marketing in High Thorpe (I wonder what the Bishop of Silchester thought if he saw him in the neighbourhood of the episcopal castle!) and having lost himself on the way home he had arrived back late for Vespers and was tremendously teased by the others in consequence. Brother Walter is a tall excitable awkward creature with black hair that sticks up on end and wide-open frightened eyes. His cassock is much too short for him both in the arms and in the legs; and as he has very large hands and very large feet, his hands and feet look still larger in consequence. They didn't talk about much that was interesting during recreation. Brother Dunstan and Brother Raymond were full of monkish jokes, at all of which Brother Walter laughed in a very high voice—so loudly once that Brother Jerome asked him if he would mind making less noise, as he was reading Montalembert's Monks of the West, at which Brother Walter fell into an abashed gloom.

I asked who the visitor in the ante-chapel was and was told that he was a Sir Charles Horner who owns the whole of Malford and who has presented the Order with the thirty acres on which the Abbey is built. Sir Charles is evidently an ecclesiastically-minded person and, I should imagine, rather pleased to be able to be the patron of a monastic order.

I will write you again when I have seen Father Burrowes. For the moment I'm inclined to think that Malford is rather playing at being monks; but as I said, the bigwigs are all away. Brother Dunstan is a delightful fellow, yet I shouldn't imagine that he would make a successful abbot for long.

I enjoyed Compline most of all my experiences during the day, after which I retired to my cell and slept without turning till the bell rang for Lauds and Prime, both said as one office at six o'clock, after which I should have liked a conventual Mass. But alas, there is no priest here and I have been spending the time till breakfast by writing you this endless letter.

Yours ever affectionately,

Mark.

P.S. They don't say Mattins, which I'm inclined to think rather slack. But I suppose I oughtn't to criticize so soon.

To those two letters of Mark's, the Rector replied as follows:

The Rectory,

Wych-on-the-Wold,

Oxon.

June 29th.

My dear Mark,

I cannot say frankly that I approve of your monastic scheme. I should have liked an opportunity to talk it over with you first of all, and I cannot congratulate you on your good manners in going off like that without any word. Although you are technically independent now, I think it would be a great mistake to sink your small capital of L500 in the Order of St. George, and you can't very well make use of them to pass the next two or three years without contributing anything.

The other objection to your scheme is that you may not get taken at Glastonbury. In any case the Glastonbury people will give the preference to Varsity men, and I'm not sure that they would be very keen on having an ex-monk. However, as I said, you are independent now and can choose yourself what you do. Meanwhile, I suppose it is possible that Burrowes may decide you have no vocation, in which case I hope you'll give up your monastic ambitions and come back here.

Yours affectionately,

Stephen Ogilvie.

Mark who had been growing bored in the guest-room of Malford Abbey nearly said farewell to it for ever when he received the Rector's letter. His old friend and guardian was evidently wounded by his behaviour, and Mark considering what he owed him felt that he ought to abandon his monastic ambitions if by doing so he could repay the Rector some of his kindness. His hand was on the bell that should summon the guest-brother (when the bell was working and the guest-brother was not) in order to tell him that he had been called away urgently and to ask if he might have the Abbey cart to take him to the station; but at that moment Sir Charles Horner came in and began to chat affably to Mark.

"I've been intending to come up and see you for the last three days. But I've been so confoundedly busy. They wonder what we country gentlemen do with ourselves. By gad, they ought to try our life for a change."

Mark supposed that the third person plural referred to the whole body of Radical critics.

"You're the son of Lidderdale, I hear," Sir Charles went on without giving Mark time to comment on the hardship of his existence. "I visited Lima Street twenty-five years ago, before you were born that was. Your father was a great pioneer. We owe him a lot. And you've been with Rowley lately? That confounded bishop. He's our bishop, you know. But he finds it difficult to get at Burrowes except by starving him for priests. The fellow's a time-server, a pusher . . ."

Mark began to like Sir Charles; he would have liked anybody who would abuse the Bishop of Silchester.

"So you're thinking of joining my Order," Sir Charles went on without giving Mark time to say a word. "I call it my Order because I set them up here with thirty acres of uncleared copse. It gives the Tommies something to do when they come over here on furlough from Aldershot. You've never met Burrowes, I hear."

Mark thought that Sir Charles for a busy man had managed to learn a great deal about an unimportant person like himself.

"Will Father Burrowes be here soon?" Mark inquired.

"'Pon my word, I don't know. Nobody knows when he'll be anywhere. He's preaching all over the place. He begs the deuce of a lot of money, you know. Aren't you a friend of Dorward's? You were asking Brother Dunstan about him. His parish isn't far from here. About fifteen miles, that's all. He's an amusing fellow, isn't he? Has tremendous rows with his squire, Philip Iredale. A pompous ass whose wife ran away from him a little time ago. Served him right, Dorward told me in confidence. You must come and have lunch with me. There's only Lady Landells. I can't afford to live in the big place. Huge affair with Doric portico and all that, don't you know. It's let to Lord Middlesborough, the shipping man. I live at Malford Lodge. Quite a jolly little place I've made of it. Suits me better than that great gaunt Georgian pile. You'd better walk down with me this morning and stop to lunch."

Mark, who was by now growing tired of his own company in the guest-room, accepted Sir Charles' invitation with alacrity; and they walked down from the Abbey to the village of Malford, which was situated at the confluence of the Mall and the Nodder, two diminutive tributaries of the Wey, which itself is not a mighty stream.

"A rather charming village, don't you think?" said Sir Charles, pointing with his tasselled cane to a particularly attractive rose-hung cottage. "It was lucky that the railway missed us by a couple of miles; we should have been festering with tin bungalows by now on any available land, which means on any land that doesn't belong to me. I don't offer to show you the church, because I never enter it."

Mark had paused as a matter of course by the lychgate, supposing that with a squire like Sir Charles the inside should be of unusual interest.

"My uncle most outrageously sold the advowson to the Simeon Trustees, it being the only part of my inheritance he could alienate from me, whom he loathed. He knew nothing would enrage me more than that, and the result is that I've got a fellow as vicar who preaches in a black gown and has evening communion twice a month. That is why I took such pleasure in planting a monastery in the parish; and if only that old time-server the Bishop of Silchester would licence a chaplain to the community, I should get my Sunday Mass in my own parish despite my uncle's simeony, as I call it. As it is with Burrowes away all the time raising funds, I don't get a Mass at the Abbey and I have to go to the next parish, which is four miles away and appears highly undignified for the squire."

"And you can't get him out?" said Mark.

"If I did get him out, I should be afflicted with another one just as bad. The Simeon Trustees only appoint people of the stamp of Mr. Choules, my present enemy. He's a horrid little man with a gaunt wife six feet high who beats her children and, if village gossip be true, her husband as well. Now you can see Malford Place, which is let to Middlesborough, as I told you."

Mark looked at the great Georgian house with its lawns and cedars and gateposts surmounted by stone wyverns. He had seen many of these great houses in the course of his tramping; but he had never thought of them before except as natural features in the landscape; the idea that people could consider a gigantic building like that as much a home as the small houses in which Mark had spent his life came over him now with a sense of novelty.

"Ghastly affair, isn't it?" said the owner contemptuously. "I'd let it stand empty rather than live in it myself. It reeks of my uncle's medicine and echoes with his gouty groans. Besides what is there in it that's really mine?"

Mark who had been thinking what an easy affair life must be for Sir Charles was struck by his tone of disillusionment. Perhaps all people who inherited old names and old estates were affected by their awareness of transitory possession. Sir Charles could not alienate even a piece of furniture. A middle-aged bachelor and a cosmopolitan, he would have moved about the corridors and halls of that huge house with less permanency than Lord Middlesborough who paid him so well to walk about in it in his stead, and who was no more restricted by the terms of his lease than was his landlord by the conditions of the entail. Mark began to feel sorry for him; but without cause, for when Sir Charles came in sight of Malford Lodge where he lived, he was full of enthusiasm. It was indeed a pretty little house of red brick, dating from the first quarter of the nineteenth century and like so many houses of that period built close to the road, surrounded too on three sides by a verandah of iron and copper in the pagoda style, thoroughly ugly, but by reason of the mellow peacock hues time had given its roof, full of personality and charm. They entered by a green door in the brick wall and crossed a lawn sloping down to the little river to reach the shade of a tulip tree in full bloom, where seated in one of those tall wicker garden chairs shaped like an alcove was an elderly lady as ugly as Priapus.

"There's Lady Landells, who's a poetess, you know," said Sir Charles gravely.

Mark accepted the information with equal gravity. He was still unsophisticated enough to be impressed at hearing a woman called a poetess.

"Mr. Lidderdale is going to have lunch with us, Lady Landells," Sir Charles announced.

"Oh, is he?" Lady Landells replied in a cracked murmur of complete indifference.

"He's a great admirer of your poems," added Sir Charles, hearing which Lady Landells looked at Mark with her cod's eyes and by way of greeting offered him two fingers of her left hand.

"I can't read him any of my poems to-day, Charles, so pray don't ask me to do so," the poetess groaned.

"I'm going to show Mr. Lidderdale some of our pictures before lunch," said Sir Charles.

Lady Landells paid no attention; Mark, supposing her to be on the verge of a poetic frenzy, was glad to leave her in that wicker alcove under the tulip tree and to follow Sir Charles into the house.

It was an astonishing house inside, with Gothic carving everywhere and with ancient leaded casements built inside the sashed windows of the exterior.

"I took an immense amount of trouble to get this place arranged to my taste," said Sir Charles; and Mark wondered why he had bothered to retain the outer shell, since that was all that was left of the original. In every room there were copies, excellently done of pictures by Botticelli and Mantegna and other pre-Raphaelite painters; the walls were rich with antique brocades and tapestries; the ceilings were gilded or elaborately moulded with fan traceries and groining; great candlesticks stood in every corner; the doors were all old with floriated hinges and huge locks—it was the sort of house in which Victor Hugo might have put on his slippers and said, "I am at home."

"I admit nothing after 1520," said Sir Charles proudly.

Mark wondered why so fastidious a medievalist allowed the Order of St. George to erect those three tin tabernacles and to matchboard the interior of the Abbey. But perhaps that was only another outer shell which would gradually be filled.

Lunch was a disappointment, because when Sir Charles began to talk about the monastery, which was what Mark had been wanting to talk about all the morning, Lady Landells broke in:

"I am sorry, Charles, but I'm afraid that I must beg for complete silence at lunch, as I'm in the middle of a sonnet."

The poetess sighed, took a large mouthful of food, and sighed again.

After lunch Sir Charles took Mark to see his library, which reminded him of a Rossetti interior and lacked only a beautiful long-necked creature, full-lipped and auburn-haired, to sit by the casement languishing over a cithern or gazing out through bottle-glass lights at a forlorn and foreshortened landscape of faerie land.

"Poor Lady Landells was a little tiresome at lunch," said Sir Charles half to himself. "She gets moods. Women seem never to grow out of getting moods. But she has always been most kind to me, and she insists on giving me anything I want for my house. Last year she was good enough to buy it from me as it stands, so it's really her house, although she has left it back to me in her will. She took rather a fancy to you by the way."

Mark, who had supposed that Lady Landells had regarded him with aversion and scorn, stared at this.

"Didn't she give you her hand when you said good-bye?" asked Sir Charles.

"Her left hand," said Mark.

"Oh, she never gives her right hand to anybody. She has some fad about spoiling the magnetic current of Apollo or something. Now, what about a walk?"

Mark said he should like to go for a walk very much, but wasn't Sir Charles too busy?

"Oh, no, I've nothing to do at all."

Yet only that morning he had held forth to Mark at great length on the amount of work demanded for the management of an estate.

"Now, why do you want to join Burrowes?" Sir Charles inquired presently.

"Well, I hope to be a priest, and I think I should like to spend the next two years out of the world."

"Yes, that is all very well," said Sir Charles, "but I don't know that I altogether recommend the O.S.G. I'm not satisfied with the way things are being run. However, they tell me that this fellow Brother George has a good deal of common-sense. He has been running their house in Malta, where he's done some good work. I gave them the land to build a mother house so that they could train people for active service, as it were; but Burrowes keeps chopping and changing and sending untrained novices to take charge of an important branch like Sandgate, and now since Rowley left he talks of opening a priory in Chatsea. That's all very well, and it's quite right of him to bear in mind that the main object of the Order is to work among soldiers; but at the same time he leaves this place to run itself, and whenever he does come down here he plans some hideous addition, to pay for which he has to go off preaching for another three months, so that the Abbey gets looked after by a young novice of twenty-five. It's ridiculous, you know. I was grumbling at the Bishop; but really I can understand his disinclination to countenance Burrowes. I have hopes of Brother George, and I shall take an early opportunity of talking to him."

Mark was discouraged by Sir Charles' criticism of the Order; and that it could be criticized like this through the conduct of its founder accentuated for him the gulf that lay between the English Church and the rest of Catholic Christendom.

It was not much solace to remember that every Benedictine community was an independent congregation. One could not imagine the most independent community's being placed in charge of a novice of twenty-five. It made Mark's proposed monastic life appear amateurish; and when he was back in the matchboarded guest-room the impulse to abandon his project was revised. Yet he felt it would be wrong to return to Wych-on-the-Wold. The impulse to come here, though sudden, had been very strong, and to give it up without trial might mean the loss of an experience that one day he should regret. The opinion of Sir Charles Horner might or might not be well founded; but it was bound to be a prejudiced opinion, because by constituting himself to the extent he had a patron of the Order he must involuntarily expect that it should be conducted according to his views. Sir Charles himself, seen in perspective, was a tolerably ridiculous figure, too much occupied with the paraphernalia of worship, too well pleased with himself, a man of rank and wealth who judged by severe standards was an old maid, and like all old maids critical, but not creative.



CHAPTER XXIV

THE ORDER OF ST. GEORGE

The Order of St. George was started by the Reverend Edward Burrowes six years before Sir Charles Horner's gift of land for a Mother House led him to suppose that he had made his foundation a permanent factor in the religious life of England.

Edward Burrowes was the only son of a band-master in the Royal Artillery who at an impressionable moment in the life of his son was stationed at Malta. The religious atmosphere of Malta combined with the romantic associations of chivalry and the influence of his mother determined the boy's future. The band-master was puzzled and irritated by his son's ecclesiastical bias. He thought that so much church-going argued an unhealthy preoccupation, and as for Edward's rhapsodies about the Auberge of Castile, which sheltered the Messes of the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers, they made him sick, to use his own expression.

"You make me sick, Ted," he used to declare. "The sooner I get quit of Malta and quartered at Woolwich again, the better I shall be pleased."

When at last the band-master was moved to Woolwich, he hoped that the effect of such prosaic surroundings would put an end to Ted's mooning, and that he would settle down to a career more likely to reward him in this world rather than in that ambiguous world beyond to which his dreams aspired. Edward, who was by this time seventeen and who had so far submitted to his father's wishes as to be working in a solicitor's office, found that the effect of being banished from Malta was to stimulate him into a practical attempt to express his dreams of religious devotion. He hired a small room over a stable in a back street and started a club for the sons of soldiers. The band-master would not have minded this so much, especially when he was congratulated on his son's enterprise by the wife of the Colonel. Unfortunately this was not enough for Edward, who having got the right side of an unscrupulously romantic curate persuaded him to receive his vows of a Benedictine oblate. The band-master, proud and fond though he might be of his own uniform, objected to his son's arriving home from business and walking about the house in a cassock. He objected equally to finding that his own musical gifts had with his son degenerated into a passion for playing Gregorian chants on a vile harmonium. It was only consideration for his delicate wife that kept the band-master from pitching both cassock and harmonium into the street. The amateur oblate regretted his father's hostility; but he persevered with the manner of life he had marked out for himself, finding much comfort and encouragement in reading the lives of the saintly founders of religious orders.

At last, after a long struggle against the difficulties that friends and father put in his way, Edward Burrowes managed at the age of twenty-seven to get ordained in Canada, whither, in despair of escaping otherwise from the solicitor's office, he had gone to seek his own fortune. He took with him the oblate's cassock; but he left behind the harmonium, which his father kicked to pieces in rage at not being able to kick his son. Burrowes worked as a curate in a dismal lakeside town in Ontario, consoling himself with dreams of monasticism and chivalry, and gaining a reputation as a preacher. His chief friend was a young farmer, called George Harvey, whom he succeeded in firing with his own enthusiasm and whom he managed to persuade—which shows that Burrowes must have had great powers of persuasion—to wear the habit of a Benedictine novice, when he came to spend Saturday night to Monday morning with his friend. By this time Burrowes had passed beyond the oblate stage, for having found a Canadian bishop willing to dispense him from that portion of the Benedictine rule which was incompatible with his work as a curate in Jonesville, Ontario, he got himself clothed as a novice. About this period a third man joined Burrowes and Harvey in their spare-time monasticism. This was John Holcombe, who had emigrated from Dorsetshire after an unfortunate love affair and who had been taken on by George Harvey as a carter. Holcombe was the son of a yeoman farmer that owned several hundred acres of land. He had been educated at Sherborne, and soon by his capacity and attractive personality he made himself so indispensable to his employer that George Harvey's farm was turned into a joint concern. No doubt Harvey's example was the immediate cause of Holcombe's associating himself with the little community: but it still says much for Burrowes' powers of persuasion that he should have been able to impress this young Dorset farmer with the serious possibility of leading the monastic life in Ontario.

When another year had passed, an opportunity arose of acquiring a better farm in Alberta. It was the Bishop of Alberta who had been so sympathetic with Burrowes' monastic aspirations; and, when Harvey and Holcombe decided to move to Moose Rib, Burrowes gave up his curacy to lead a regular monastic life, so far as one could lead a regular monastic life on a farm in the North-west.

Two more years had gone by when a letter arrived from England to tell George Harvey that he was the heir to L12,000. Burrowes had kept all his influence over the young farmer, and he was actually able to persuade Harvey to devote this fortune to founding the Order of St. George for mission work among soldiers. There was some debate whether Father Burrowes, Brother George, and Brother Birinus should take their final vows immediately; but in the end Father Burrowes had his way, and they were all three professed by the sympathetic Bishop of Alberta, who granted them a constitution subject to the ratification of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Father Burrowes was elected Father Superior, Brother George was made Assistant Superior, and Brother Birinus had to concentrate in his person various monastic offices just as on the Moose Rib Farm he had combined in his person the duties of the various hands.

The immediate objective of the new community was Malta, where it was proposed to open their first house and where, in despite of the outraged dignity of innumerable real monks already there, they made a successful beginning. A second house was opened at Gibraltar and put in charge of Brother Birinus. Neither Malta nor Gibraltar provided much of a field for reinforcing the Order, which, if it was to endure, required additional members. Father Burrowes proposed that he should go to England and open a house at Aldershot, and that, if he could obtain a hearing as a preacher, he should try to raise enough funds for a house at Sandgate as well. Brother George and Brother Birinus in a solemn chapter of three accepted the proposal; the house at Gibraltar was given up; the Father Superior went to seek the fortunes of the Order in England, while the other two remained at their work in Malta. Father Burrowes was even more successful as a preacher than he hoped; ascribing the steady flow of offertories to Divine favour, he instituted during the next four years, priories at Aldershot and Sandgate. He began to feel the need of a Mother House, having now more than enough candidates for the Order of Saint George, where the novices could be suitably trained to meet the stress of active mission work. One of his moving appeals for this object was heard by Sir Charles Horner who, for reasons he had already explained to Mark and because underneath all his ecclesiasticism there did exist a genuine desire for the glory of God, had presented the land at Malford to the Order. Father Burrowes preached harder than ever, addressed drawing-room meetings, and started a monthly magazine called The Dragon to raise the necessary money to build a mighty abbey. Meanwhile, he had to be contented with those three tin tabernacles. Brother George, who had remained all these years in Malta, suggested that it was time for somebody else to take his place out there, and the Father Superior, although somewhat unwillingly, had agreed to his coming to Malford. Not having heard of anybody whom at the moment he considered suitable to take charge of what was now a distant outpost of the Order, he told Brother George to close the house. It was at this stage in the history of the Order that Mark presented himself as a candidate for admission.

Father Burrowes arrived unexpectedly two days after the lunch at Malford Lodge; and presently Brother Dunstan came to tell Mark that the Reverend Father would see him in the Abbott's Parlour immediately after Nones. Mark thought that Sir Charles might have given a mediaeval lining to this room at least, which with its roll-top desk looked like the office of the clerk of the works.

"So you want to be a monk?" said Father Burrowes contemptuously. "Want to dress up in a beautiful white habit, eh?"

"I really don't mind what I wear," said Mark, trying not to appear ruffled by the imputation of wrong motives. "But I do want to be a monk, yes."

"You can't come here to play at it," said the Superior, looking keenly at Mark from his bright blue eyes and lighting up a large pipe.

"Curiously enough," said Mark, who had forgotten the Benedictine injunction to discourage newcomers that seek to enter a community, "I wrote to my guardian a few days ago that my impression of Malford Abbey was rather that it was playing at being monks."

The Superior flushed to a vivid red. He was a burly man of fair complexion, inclined to plumpness, and with a large mobile mouth eloquent and sensual. His hands were definitely fat, the backs of them covered with golden hairs and freckles.

"So you're a critical young gentleman, are you? I suppose we're not Catholic enough for you. Well," he snapped, "I'm afraid you won't suit us. We don't want you. Sorry."

"I'm sorry too," said Mark. "But I thought you would prefer frankness. If you will spare me a few minutes, I'll explain why I want to join the Order of St. George. If when you've heard what I have to say you still think that I'm not suitable, I shall recognize your right to be of that opinion from your experience of many young men like myself who have been tried and found wanting."

"Did you learn that speech by heart?" the Superior inquired, raising his eyebrows mockingly.

"I see you're determined to find fault," Mark laughed. "But, Reverend Father, surely you will listen to my reasons before deciding against them or me?"

"My instinct tells me you'll be no good to us. But if you insist on wasting my time, fire ahead. Only please remember that, though I may be a monk, I'm a very busy man."

Mark gave a full account of himself until the present and wound up by saying:

"I don't think I have any sentimental reasons for wanting to enter a monastery. I like working among soldiers and sailors. I am ready to put down L200 and I hope to be of use. I wish to be a priest, and if you find or I find that when the time comes for me to be ordained I shall make a better secular priest, at any rate, I shall have had the advantage of a life of discipline and you, I promise, will have had a novice who will have regarded himself as such, but yet will have learnt somehow to have justified your confidence."

The Superior looked down at his desk pondering. Presently he opened a letter and threw a quick suspicious glance at Mark.

"Why didn't you tell me that you had an introduction from Sir Charles Horner?"

"I didn't know that I had," Mark answered in some astonishment. "I only met him here a few days ago for the first time. He invited me to lunch, and he was very pleasant; but I never asked him to write to you, nor did he suggest doing so."

"Have you any vices?" Father Burrowes asked abruptly.

"I don't think—what do you mean exactly?" Mark inquired.

"Drink?"

"No, certainly not."

"Women?"

Mark flushed.

"No." He wondered if he should speak of the episode of St. John's eve such a short time ago; but he could not bring himself to do so, and he repeated the denial.

"You seem doubtful," the Superior insisted.

"As a matter of fact," said Mark, "since you press this point I ought to tell you that I took a vow of celibacy when I was sixteen."

Father Burrowes looked at him sharply.

"Did you indeed? That sounds very morbid. Don't you like women?"

"I don't think a priest ought to marry. I was told by Sir Charles that you vowed yourself to the monastic life when you were not much more than seventeen. Was that morbid?"

The Superior laughed boisterously, and Mark glad to have put him in a good humour laughed with him. It was only after the interview was over that the echo of that laugh sounded unpleasantly in the caves of memory, that it rang false somehow like a denial of himself.

"Well, I suppose we must try you as a probationer at any rate," said the Superior. And suddenly his whole manner changed. He became affectionate and sentimental as he put his hand on Mark's shoulder.

"I hope, dear lad, that you will find a vocation to serve our dear Lord in the religious life. God bless you and give you endurance in the path you have chosen."

Mark reproached himself for his inclination to dislike the Reverend Father to whom he now owed filial affection, piety, and respect, apart from what he owed him as a Christian of Christian charity. He should gain but small spiritual benefit from his self-chosen experiment if this was the mood in which he was beginning his monastic life; and when Brother Jerome, who was acting novice-master, began to instruct him in his monastic duty, he made up his mind to drive out that demon of criticism or rather to tame it to his own service by criticizing himself. He wrote on markers for his favourite devotional books:

Observe at every moment of the day the good in others, the evil in thyself; and when thou liest awake in the night remember only what good thou hast found in others, what evil in thyself.

This was Mark's addition to Thomas a Kempis, to Mother Juliana of Norwich, to Jeremy Taylor and William Law; this was Mark's sprout of holy wisdom among the Little Flowers of Saint Francis.

The Rule of Malford was not a very austere adaptation of the Rule of Saint Benedict; and, with the Reverend Father departing after Mark had been admitted as a probationer and leaving the administration of the Abbey to the priority of Brother Dunstan, a good deal of what austerity had been retained was now relaxed.

The Night Office was not said at Malford, where the liturgical worship of the day began with Lauds and Prime at six. On Mark devolved the duty of waking the brethren in the morning, which was done by striking the door of each cell with a hammer and saying: The Lord be with you, whereupon the sleeping brother must rise from his couch and open the door of his cell to make the customary response. After Lauds and Prime, which lasted about half an hour, the brethren retired to their cells to put them in order for the day and to meditate until seven o'clock, unless they had been given tasks out of doors. At seven o'clock, if there was a priest in the monastery, Mass was said; otherwise meditation and study was prolonged until eight o'clock, when breakfast was eaten. Those who had work in the fields or about the house departed after breakfast to their tasks. At nine Terce was said, which was not attended by the brethren working out of doors; at twelve Sext was said attended by all the brethren, and at twelve-fifteen dinner was eaten. After dinner, the brethren retired to their cells and meditated until one o'clock, when their various duties were resumed, interrupted only in the case of those working indoors by the office of None at three o'clock. At a quarter to five the bell rang for tea. Simple silence was relaxed, and the brethren enjoyed their recreation until six-fifteen when the bell rang for a quarter of an hour's solemn silence before Vespers. Supper was eaten after Vespers, and after supper, which was finished about eight o'clock, there was reading and recreation until the bell rang for Compline at nine-fifteen. This office said, solemn silence was not broken until the response to the dominus vobiscum in the morning. The rule of simple silence was not kept very strictly at this period. Two brethren working in the garden in these hot July days found that permitted conversation about the immediate matter in hand, say the whereabouts of a trowel or a hoe, was easily extended into observations about the whereabouts of Brother So-and-So during Terce or the way Brother Somebody-else was late with the antiphon. From the little incidents of the Abbey's daily round the conversation was easily extended into a discussion of the policy of the Order in general. Speculations where the Reverend Father was preaching that evening or that morning and whether his offertories would be as large during the summer as they had been during the spring were easily amplified from discussions about the general policy of the Order into discussions about the general policy of Christendom, the pros and cons of the Roman position, the disgraceful latitudinarianism of bishops and deans; and still more widely amplified from remarks upon the general policy of Christendom into arguments about the universe and the great philosophies of humanity. Thus Mark, who was an ardent Platonist, would find himself at odds with Brother Jerome who was an equally ardent Aristotelian, while the weeds, taking advantage of the philosophic contest, grew faster than ever.

Whatever may have been Brother Dunstan's faults of indulgence, they sprang from a debonair and kindly personality which shone like a sun upon the little family and made everybody good-humoured, even Brother Lawrence, who was apt to be cross because he had been kept a postulant longer than he expected. But perhaps the happiest of all was Brother Walter, who though still a probationer was now the senior probationer, a status which afforded him the most profound satisfaction and gave him a kindly feeling toward Mark who was the cause of promotion.

"And the Reverend Father has promised me that I shall be clothed as a postulant on August 10th when Brother Lawrence is to be clothed as a novice. The thought makes me so excited that I hardly know what to do sometimes, and I still don't know what saint's name I'm going to take. You see, there was some mystery about my birth, and I was called Walter because I was found by a policeman in Walter Street, and as ill-luck would have it there's no St. Walter. Of course, I know I have a very wide choice of names, but that is what makes it so difficult. I had rather a fancy to be Peter, but he's such a very conspicuous saint that it struck me as being a little presumptuous. Of course, I have no doubt whatever that St. Peter would take me under his protection, for if you remember he was a modest saint, a very modest saint indeed who asked to be crucified upside down, not liking to show the least sign of competition with our dear Lord. I should very much like to call myself Brother Paul, because at the school I was at we were taken twice a year to see St. Paul's Cathedral and had toffee when we came home. I look back to those days as some of the happiest of my life. There again it does seem to be putting yourself up rather to take the name of a great saint like St. Paul. Then I thought of taking William after the little St. William of Norwich who was murdered by the Jews. That seems going to the other extreme, doesn't it, for though I know that out of the mouths of babes and sucklings shall come forth praise, one would like to feel one had for a patron saint somebody a little more conspicuous than a baby. I wish you'd give me a word of advice. I think about this problem until sometimes my head's in a regular whirl, and I lose my place in the Office. Only yesterday at Sext, I found myself saying the antiphon proper to St. Peter a fortnight after St. Peter's day had passed and gone, which seems to show that my mind is really set upon being Brother Peter, doesn't it? And yet I don't know. He is so very conspicuous all through the Gospels, isn't he?"

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