This letter, as I have said, came to me on Monday, when I was exhausted by a more than usually desolate Sunday. I became at once aware that my affection for her, if it ever really existed, had departed. I saw before me the long days of wedded life with no sympathy, and I shuddered when I thought what I should do with such a wife. How could I take her to Mardon? How could I ask him to come to me? Strange to say, my pride suffered most. I could have endured, I believe, even discord at home, if only I could have had a woman whom I could present to my friends, and whom they would admire. I was never unselfish in the way in which women are, and yet I have always been more anxious that people should respect my wife than respect me, and at any time would withdraw myself into the shade if only she might be brought into the light. This is nothing noble. It is an obscure form of egotism probably, but anyhow, such always was my case.
It took but a very few hours to excite me to distraction. I had gone on for years without realising what I saw now, and although in the situation itself the change had been only gradual, it instantaneously became intolerable. Yet I never was more incapable of acting. What could I do? After such a long betrothal, to break loose from her would be cruel and shameful. I could never hold up my head again, and in the narrow circle of Independency, the whole affair would be known and my prospects ruined.
Then other and subtler reasons presented themselves. No men can expect ideal attachments. We must be satisfied with ordinary humanity. Doubtless my friend with a lofty imagination would be better matched with some Antigone who exists somewhere and whom he does not know. But he wisely does not spend his life in vain search after her, but settles down with the first decently sensible woman he finds in his own street, and makes the best of his bargain. Besides, there was the power of use and wont to be considered. Ellen had no vice of temper, no meanness, and it was not improbable that she would be just as good a helpmeet for me in time as I had a right to ask. Living together, we should mould one another, and at last like one another. Marrying her, I should be relieved from the insufferable solitude which was depressing me to death, and should have a home.
So it has always been with me. When there has been the sternest need of promptitude, I have seen such multitudes of arguments for and against every course that I have despaired. I have at my command any number of maxims, all of them good, but I am powerless to select the one which ought to be applied.
A general principle, a fine saying, is nothing but a tool, and the wit of man is shown not in possession of a well-furnished tool-chest, but in the ability to pick out the proper instrument and use it.
I remained in this miserable condition for days, not venturing to answer Ellen's letter, until at last I turned out for a walk. I have often found that motion and change will bring light and resolution when thinking will not. I started off in the morning down by the river, and towards the sea, my favourite stroll. I went on and on under a leaden sky, through the level, solitary, marshy meadows, where the river began to lose itself in the ocean, and I wandered about there, struggling for guidance. In my distress I actually knelt down and prayed, but the heavens remained impassive as before, and I was half ashamed of what I had done, as if it were a piece of hypocrisy.
At last, wearied out, I turned homeward, and diverging from the direct road, I was led past the house where the Misses Arbour lived. I was faint, and some beneficent inspiration prompted me to call. I went in, and found that the younger of the two sisters was out. A sudden tendency to hysterics overcame me, and I asked for a glass of water. Miss Arbour, having given it to me, sat down by the side of the fireplace opposite to the one at which I was sitting, and for a few moments there was silence. I made some commonplace observation, but instead of answering me she said quietly, "Mr. Rutherford, you have been upset; I hope you have met with no accident."
How it came about I do not know, but my whole story rushed to my lips, and I told her all of it with quivering voice. I cannot imagine what possessed me to make her my confidante. Shy, reserved, and proud, I would have died rather than have breathed a syllable of my secret if I had been in my ordinary humour, but her soft, sweet face altogether overpowered me.
As I proceeded with my tale, the change that came over her was most remarkable. When I began she was leaning back placidly in her large chair, with her handkerchief upon her lap; but gradually her face kindled, she sat upright, and she was transformed with a completeness and suddenness which I could not have conceived possible. At last, when I had finished, she put both her hands to her forehead, and almost shrieked out, "Shall I tell him?—O my God, shall I tell him?—may God have mercy on him!" I was amazed beyond measure at the altogether unsuspected depth of passion which was revealed in her whom I had never before seen disturbed by more than a ripple of emotion. She drew her chair nearer to mine, put both her hands on my knees, looked right into my eyes, and said, "Listen." She then moved back a little, and spoke as follows:
"It is forty-five years ago this month since I was married. You are surprised; you have always known me under my maiden name, and you thought I had always been single. It is forty-six years ago this month since the man who afterwards became my husband first saw me. He was a partner in a cloth firm. At that time it was the duty of one member of a firm to travel, and he came to our town, where my father was a well- to-do carriage-builder. My father was an old customer of his house, and the relationship between the customer and the wholesale merchant was then very different from what it is now. Consequently, Mr. Hexton- -for that was my husband's name—was continually asked to stay with us so long as he remained in the town. He was what might be called a singularly handsome man—that is to say, he was upright, well-made, with a straight nose, black hair, dark eyes, and a good complexion. He dressed with perfect neatness and good taste, and had the reputation of being a most temperate and most moral man, much respected—amongst the sect to which both of us belonged.
"When he first came our way I was about nineteen and he about three- and-twenty. My father and his had long been acquainted, and he was of course received even with cordiality. I was excitable, a lover of poetry, a reader of all sorts of books, and much given to enthusiasm. Ah! you do not think so, you do not see how that can have been, but you do not know how unaccountable is the development of the soul, and what is the meaning of any given form of character which presents itself to you. You see nothing but the peaceful, long since settled result, but how it came there, what its history has been, you cannot tell. It may always have been there, or have gradually grown so, in gradual progress from seed to flower, or it may be the final repose of tremendous forces.
"I will show you what I was like at nineteen," and she got up and turned to a desk, from which she took a little ivory miniature. "That," she said, "was given to Mr. Hexton when we were engaged. I thought he would have locked it up, but he used to leave it about, and one day I found it in the dressing-table drawer, with some brushes and combs, and two or three letters of mine. I withdrew it, and burnt the letters. He never asked for it, and here it is."
The head was small and set upon the neck like a flower, but not bending pensively. It was rather thrown back with a kind of firmness, and with a peculiarly open air, as if it had nothing to conceal and wished the world to conceal nothing. The body was shown down to the waist, and was slim and graceful. But what was most noteworthy about the picture was its solemn seriousness, a seriousness capable of infinite affection, and of infinite abandonment, not sensuous abandonment— everything was too severe, too much controlled by the arch of the top of the head for that—but of an abandonment to spiritual aims."
Miss Arbour continued: "Mr. Hexton after a while gave me to understand that he was my admirer, and before six months of acquaintanceship had passed my mother told me that he had requested formally that he might be considered as my suitor. She put no pressure upon me, nor did my father, excepting that they said that if I would accept Mr. Hexton they would be content, as they knew him to be a very well-conducted young man, a member of the church, and prosperous in his business. My first, and for a time my sovereign, impulse was to reject him, because I thought him mean, and because I felt he lacked sympathy with me.
"Unhappily I did not trust that impulse. I looked for something more authoritative, but I was mistaken, for the voice of God, to me at least, hardly ever comes in thunder, but I have to listen with perfect stillness to make it out. It spoke to me, told me what to do, but I argued with it and was lost. I was guiltless of any base motive, but I found the wrong name for what displeased me in Mr. Hexton, and so I deluded myself. I reasoned that his meanness was justifiable economy, and that his dissimilarity from me was perhaps the very thing which ought to induce me to marry him, because he would correct my failings. I knew I was too inconsiderate, too rash, too flighty, and I said to myself that his soberness would be a good thing for me.
"Oh, if I had but the power to write a book which should go to the ends of the world, and warn young men and women not to be led away by any sophistry when choosing their partners for life! It may be asked, How are we to distinguish heavenly instigation from hellish temptation? I say, that neither you nor I, sitting here, can tell how to do it. We can lay down no law by which infallibly to recognise the messenger from God. But what I do say is, that when the moment comes, it is perfectly easy for us to recognise him. Whether we listen to his message or not is another matter. If we do not—if we stop to dispute with him, we are undone, for we shall very soon learn to discredit him.
"So I was married, and I went to live in a dark manufacturing town, away from all my friends. I awoke to my misery by degrees, but still rapidly. I had my books sent down to me. I unpacked them in Mr. Hexton's presence, and I kindled at the thought of ranging my old favourites in my sitting-room. He saw my delight as I put them on some empty shelves, but the next day he said that he wanted a stuffed dog there, and that he thought my books, especially as they were shabby, had better go upstairs.
"We had to give some entertainments soon afterwards. The minister and his wife, with some other friends, came to tea, and the conversation turned on parties and the dullness of winter evenings if no amusements were provided. I maintained that rational human beings ought not to be dependent upon childish games, but ought to be able to occupy themselves and interest themselves with talk. Talk, I said—not gossip, but talk—pleases me better than chess or forfeits; and the lines of Cowper occurred to me -
'When one, that holds communion with the skies, Has filled his urn where these pure waters rise, And once more mingles with us meaner things, 'Tis even as if an angel shook his wings; Immortal fragrance fills the circuit wide, That tells us whence his treasures are supplied.'
I ventured to repeat this verse, and when I had finished, there was a pause for a moment, which was broken by my husband's saying to the minister's wife who sat next to him, 'Oh, Mrs. Cook, I quite forgot to express my sympathy with you; I heard that you had lost your cat.' The blow was deliberately administered, and I felt it as an insult. I was wrong, I know. I was ignorant of the ways of the world, and I ought to have been aware of the folly of placing myself above the level of my guests, and of the extreme unwisdom of revealing myself in that unguarded way to strangers. Two or three more experiences of that kind taught me to close myself carefully to all the world, and to beware how I uttered anything more than commonplace. But I was young, and ought to have been pardoned. I felt the sting of self-humiliation far into the night, as I lay and silently cried, while Mr. Hexton slept beside me.
"I soon found that he was entirely insensible to everything for which I most cared. Before our marriage he had affected a sort of interest in my pursuits, but in reality he was indifferent to them. He was cold, hard, and impenetrable. His habits were precise and methodical, beyond what is natural for a man of his years. I remember one evening— strange that these small events should so burn themselves into me—that some friends were at our house at tea. A tradesman in the town was mentioned, a member of our congregation, who had become bankrupt, and everybody began to abuse him. It was said that he had been extravagant; that he had chosen to send his children to the grammar- school, where the children of gentlefolk went; and finally, that only last year he had let his wife go to the seaside.
"I knew what the real state of affairs was. He had perhaps been living a little beyond his means, but as to the school, he had rather refined tastes, and he longed to teach his children something more than the ciphering, as it was called, and bookkeeping which they would have learned at the academy at which men in his position usually educated their boys; and as to the seaside, his wife was ill, and he could not bear to see her suffering in the smoky street, when he knew that a little fresh air and change of scene would restore her.
"So I said that I was sorry to hear the poor man attacked; that he had done wrong, no doubt, but so had the woman who was brought before Jesus; and that with me, charity or a large heart covered a multitude of sins. I added that there was something dreadful in the way in which everybody always seemed to agree in deserting the unfortunate. I was a little moved, and unluckily upset a teacup. No harm was done; and if my husband, who sat next to me, had chosen to take no notice, there need have been no disturbance whatever. But he made a great fuss, crying, 'Oh, my dear, pray mind! Ring the bell instantly, or it will all be through the tablecloth.' In getting up hastily to obey him, I happened to drag the cloth, as it lay on my lap; a plate fell down and was broken; everything was in confusion; I was ashamed and degraded.
"I do not believe there was a single point in Mr. Hexton's character in which he touched the universal; not a single chink, however narrow, through which his soul looked out of itself upon the great world around. If he had kept bees, or collected butterflies or beetles, I could have found some avenue of approach.—But he had no taste for anything of the kind. He had his breakfast at eight regularly every morning, and read his letters at breakfast. He came home to dinner at two, looked at the newspaper for a little while after dinner, and then went to sleep. At six he had his tea, and in half-an-hour went back to his counting-house, which he did not leave till eight. Supper at nine, and bed at ten, closed the day.
"It was a habit of mine to read a little after supper, and occasionally I read aloud to him passages which struck me, but I soon gave it up, for once or twice he said to me, 'Now you've got to the bottom of that page, I think you had better go to bed,' although perhaps the page did not end a sentence. But why weary you with all this? I pass over all the rest of the hateful details which made life insupportable to me. Suffice to say, that one wet Sunday evening, when we could not go to chapel and were in the dining-room alone, the climax was reached. My husband had a religious magazine before him, and I sat still, doing nothing. At last, after an hour had passed without a word, I could bear it no longer, and I broke out -
"'James, I am wretched beyond description!"
"He slowly shut the magazine, tearing a piece of paper from a letter and putting it in as a mark, and then said -
"'What is the matter?'
"'You must know. You must know that ever since we have been married you have never cared for one single thing I have done or said; that is to say, you have never cared for me. It is NOT being married.'
"It was an explosive outburst, sudden and almost incoherent, and I cried as if my heart would break.
"'What is the meaning of all this? You must be unwell. Will you not have a glass of wine?'
"I could not regain myself for some minutes, during which he sat perfectly still, without speaking, and without touching me. His coldness nerved me again, congealing all my emotion into a set resolve, and I said -
"'I want no wine. I am not unwell. I do not wish to have a scene. I will not, by useless words, embitter myself against you, or you against me. You know you do not love me. I know I do not love you. It is all a bitter, cursed mistake, and the sooner we say so and rectify it the better.'
"The colour left his face; his lips quivered, and he looked as if he would have killed me.
"'What monstrous thing is this? What do you mean by your tomfooleries?'
"I did not speak.
"'Speak!' he roared. 'What am I to understand by rectifying your mistake? By the living God, you shall not make me the laughing-stock and gossip of the town! I'll crush you first.'
"I was astonished to see such rage develop itself so suddenly in him, and yet afterwards, when I came to reflect, I saw there was no reason for surprise. Self, self was his god, and the thought of the damage which would be done to him and his reputation was what roused him. I was still silent, and he went on -
"'I suppose you intend to leave me, and you think you'll disgrace me. You'll disgrace yourself. Everybody knows me here, and knows you've had every comfort and everything to make you happy. Everybody will say what everybody will have the right to say about you. Out with it and confess the truth, that one of your snivelling poets has fallen in love with you and you with him.'
"I still held my peace, but I rose and went into the best bedchamber, and sat there in the dark till bedtime. I heard James come upstairs at ten o'clock as usual, go to his own room, and lock himself in. I never hesitated a moment. I could not go home to become the centre of all the chatter of the little provincial town in which I was born. My old nurse, who took care of me as a child, had got a place in London as housekeeper in a large shop in the Strand. She was always very fond of me, and to her instantly I determined to go. I came down, wrote a brief note to James, stating that after his base and lying sneer he could not expect to find me in the morning still with him, and telling him I had left him for ever. I put on my cloak, took some money which was my own out of my cashbox, and at half-past twelve heard the mail- coach approaching. I opened the front door softly—it shut with an oiled spring bolt; I went out, stopped the coach, and was presently rolling over the road to the great city.
"Oh, that night! I was the sole passenger inside, and for some hours I remained stunned, hardly knowing what had become of me. Soon the morning began to break, with such calm and such slow-changing splendour that it drew me out of myself to look at it, and it seemed to me a prophecy of the future. No words can tell the bound of my heart at emancipation. I did not know what was before me, but I knew from what I had escaped; I did not believe I should be pursued, and no sailor returning from shipwreck and years of absence ever entered the port where wife and children were with more rapture than I felt journeying through the rain into which the clouds of the sunrise dissolved, as we rode over the dim flats of Huntingdonshire southwards.
"There is no need for me to weary you any longer, nor to tell you what happened after I got to London, or how I came here. I had a little property of my own and no child. To avoid questions I resumed my maiden name. But one thing you must know, because it will directly tend to enforce what I am going to beseech of you. Years afterwards, I might have married a man who was devoted to me. But I told him I was married already, and not a word of love must he speak to me. He went abroad in despair, and I have never seen anything more of him.
"You can guess now what I am going to pray of you to do. Without hesitation, write to this girl and tell her the exact truth. Anything, any obloquy, anything friends or enemies may say of you must be faced even joyfully rather than what I had to endure. Better die the death of the Saviour on the cross than live such a life as mine."
I said: "Miss Arbour, you are doubtless right, but think what it means. It means nothing less than infamy. It will be said, I broke the poor thing's heart, and marred her prospects for ever. What will become of me, as a minister, when all this is known?"
She caught my hand in hers, and cried with indescribable feeling -
"My good sir, you are parleying with the great Enemy of Souls. Oh! if you did but know, if you COULD but know, you would be as decisive in your recoil from him, as you would from hell suddenly opened at your feet. Never mind the future. The one thing you have to do is the thing that lies next to you, divinely ordained for you. What does the 119th Psalm say?—'Thy word is a lamp unto my feet.' We have no light promised us to show us our road a hundred miles away, but we have a light for the next footstep, and if we take that, we shall have a light for the one which is to follow. The inspiration of the Almighty could not make clearer to me the message I deliver to you. Forgive me—you are a minister, I know, and perhaps I ought not to speak so to you, but I am an old woman. Never would you have heard my history from me, if I had not thought it would help to save you from something worse than death."
At this moment there came a knock at the door, and Miss Arbour's sister came in. After a few words of greeting I took my leave and walked home. I was confounded. Who could have dreamed that such tragic depths lay behind that serene face, and that her orderly precision was like the grass and flowers upon volcanic soil with Vesuvian fires slumbering below? I had been altogether at fault, and I was taught, what I have since been taught, over and over again, that unknown abysses, into which the sun never shines, lie covered with commonplace in men and women, and are revealed only by the rarest opportunity.
But my thoughts turned almost immediately to myself, and I could bring myself to no resolve. I was weak and tired, and the more I thought the less capable was I of coming to any decision. In the morning, after a restless night, I was in still greater straits, and being perfectly unable to do anything, I fled to my usual refuge, the sea. The whole day I swayed to and fro, without the smallest power to arbitrate between the contradictory impulses which drew me in opposite directions.
I knew what I ought to do, but Ellen's image was ever before me, mutely appealing against her wrongs, and I pictured her deserted and with her life spoiled. I said to myself that instinct is all very well, but for what purpose is reason given to us if not to reason with it; and reasoning in the main is a correction of what is called instinct, and of hasty first impressions. I knew many cases in which men and women loved one another without similarity of opinions, and, after all, similarity of opinions upon theological criticism is a poor bond of union. But then, no sooner was this pleaded than the other side of the question was propounded with all its distinctness, as Miss Arbour had presented it.
I came home thoroughly beaten with fatigue, and went to bed. Fortunately I sank at once to rest, and with the morning was born the clear discernment that whatever I ought to do, it was more manly of me to go than to write to Ellen. Accordingly, I made arrangements for getting somebody to supply my place in the pulpit for a couple of Sundays, and went home.
CHAPTER VI—ELLEN AND MARY
I now found myself in the strangest position. What was I to do? Was I to go to Ellen at once and say plainly, "I have ceased to care for you"? I did what all weak people do.
I wished that destiny would take the matter out of my hands. I would have given the world if I could have heard that Ellen was fonder of somebody else than me, although the moment the thought came to me I saw its baseness. But destiny was determined to try me to the uttermost, and make the task as difficult for me as it could be made.
It was Thursday when I arrived, and somehow or other—how I do not know—I found myself on Thursday afternoon at her house. She was very pleased to see me, for many reasons. My last letters had been doubtful and the time for our marriage, as she at least thought, was at hand. I, on my part, could not but return the usual embrace, but after the first few words were over there was a silence, and she noticed that I did not look well. Anxiously she asked me what was the matter. I said that something had been upon my mind for a long time, which I thought it my duty to tell her. I then went on to say that I felt she ought to know what had happened. When we were first engaged we both professed the same faith. From that faith I had gradually departed, and it seemed to me that it would be wicked if she were not made acquainted before she took a step which was irrevocable. This was true, but it was not quite all the truth, and with a woman's keenness she saw at once everything that was in me. She broke out instantly with a sob -
"Oh, Rough!"—a nickname she had given me—"I know what it all means— you want to get rid of me."
God help me, if I ever endure greater anguish than I did then. I could not speak, much less could I weep, and I sat and watched her for some minutes in silence. My first impulse was to retract, to put my arms round her neck, and swear that whatever I might be, Deist or Atheist, nothing should separate me from her. Old associations, the thought of the cruel injustice put upon her, the display of an emotion which I had never seen in her before, almost overmastered me, and why I did not yield I do not know. Again and again have I failed to make out what it is which, in moments of extreme peril, has restrained me from making some deadly mistake, when I have not been aware of the conscious exercise of any authority of my own. At last I said -
"Ellen, what else was I to do? I cannot help my conversion to another creed. Supposing you had found out that you had married a Unitarian and I had never told you!"
"Oh, Rough! you are not a Unitarian, you don't love me," and she sobbed afresh.
I could not plead against hysterics. I was afraid she would get ill. I thought nobody was in the house, and I rushed across the passage to get her some stimulants. When I came back her father was in the room. He was my aversion—a fussy, conceited man, who always prated about "my daughter" to me in a tone which was very repulsive—just as if she were his property, and he were her natural protector against me.
"Mr. Rutherford," he cried, "what is the matter with my daughter? What have you said to her?"
"I don't think, sir, I am bound to tell you. It is a matter between Ellen and myself."
"Mr. Rutherford, I demand an explanation. Ellen is mine. I am her father."
"Excuse me, sir, if I desire not to have a scene here just now. Ellen is unwell. When she recovers she will tell you. I had better leave," and I walked straight out of the house.
Next morning I had a letter from her father to say, that whether I was a Unitarian or not, my behaviour to Ellen showed I was bad enough to be one. Anyhow, he had forbidden her all further intercourse with me. When I had once more settled down in my solitude, and came to think over what had happened, I felt the self-condemnation of a criminal without being able to accuse myself of a crime. I believe with Miss Arbour that it is madness for a young man who finds out he has made a blunder, not to set it right; no matter what the wrench may be. But that Ellen was a victim I do not deny. If any sin, however, was committed against her, it was committed long before our separation. It was nine-tenths mistake and one-tenth something more heinous; and the worst of it is, that while there is nothing which a man does which is of greater consequence than the choice of a woman with whom he is to live, there is nothing he does in which he is more liable to self- deception.
On my return I heard that Mardon was ill, and that probably he would die. During my absence a contested election for the county had taken place, and our town was one of the polling-places. The lower classes were violently Tory. During the excitement of the contest the mob had set upon Mardon as he was going to his work, and had reviled him as a Republican and an Atheist. By way of proving their theism they had cursed him with many oaths, and had so sorely beaten him that the shock was almost fatal. I went to see him instantly, and found him in much pain, believing that he would not get better, but perfectly peaceful.
I knew that he had no faith in immortality, and I was curious beyond measure to see how he would encounter death without such a faith; for the problem of death, and of life after death, was still absorbing me even to the point of monomania. I had been struggling as best I could to protect myself against it, but with little success. I had long since seen the absurdity and impossibility of the ordinary theories of hell and heaven. I could not give up my hope in a continuance of life beyond the grave, but the moment I came to ask myself how, I was involved in contradictions. Immortality is not really immortality of the person unless the memory abides and there be a connection of the self of the next world with the self here, and it was incredible to me that there should be any memories or any such connection after the dissolution of the body; moreover, the soul, whatever it may be, is so intimately one with the body, and is affected so seriously by the weaknesses, passions, and prejudices of the body, that without it my soul would not be myself, and the fable of the resurrection of the body, of this same brain and heart, was more than I could ever swallow in my most orthodox days.
But the greatest difficulty was the inability to believe that the Almighty intended to preserve all the mass of human beings, all the countless millions of barbaric, half-bestial forms which, since the appearance of man, had wandered upon the earth, savage or civilised. Is it like Nature's way to be so careful about individuals, and is it to be supposed that, having produced, millions of years ago, a creature scarcely nobler than the animals he tore with his fingers, she should take pains to maintain him in existence for evermore? The law of the universe everywhere is rather the perpetual rise from the lower to the higher; an immortality of aspiration after more perfect types; a suppression and happy forgetfulness of its comparative failures.
There was nevertheless an obstacle to the acceptance of this negation in a faintness of heart which I could not overcome. Why this ceaseless struggle, if in a few short years I was to be asleep for ever? The position of mortal man seemed to me infinitely tragic. He is born into the world, beholds its grandeur and beauty, is filled with unquenchable longings, and knows that in a few inevitable revolutions of the earth he will cease. More painful still; he loves somebody, man or woman, with a surpassing devotion; he is so lost in his love that he cannot endure a moment without it; and when he sees it pass away in death, he is told that it is extinguished—that that heart and mind absolutely are NOT.
It was always a weakness with me that certain thoughts preyed on me. I was always singularly feeble in laying hold of an idea, and in the ability to compel myself to dwell upon a thing for any lengthened period in continuous exhaustive reflection. But, nevertheless, ideas would frequently lay hold of me with such relentless tenacity that I was passive in their grasp. So it was about this time with death and immortality, and I watched eagerly Mardon's behaviour when the end had to be faced. As I have said, he was altogether calm. I did not like to question him while he was so unwell, because I knew that a discussion would arise which I could not control, and it might disturb him, but I would have given anything to understand what was passing in his mind.
During his sickness I was much impressed by Mary's manner of nursing him. She was always entirely wrapped up in her father, so much so, that I had often doubted if she could survive him; but she never revealed any trace of agitation. Under the pressure of the calamity which had befallen her, she showed rather increased steadiness, and even a cheerfulness which surprised me. Nothing went wrong in the house. Everything was perfectly ordered, perfectly quiet, and she rose to a height of which I had never suspected her capable, while her father's stronger nature was allowed to predominate. She was absolutely dependent on him. If he did not get well she would be penniless, and I could not help thinking that with the like chance before me, to say nothing of my love for him and anxiety lest he should die, I should be distracted, and lose my head; more especially if I had to sit by his bed, and spend sleepless nights such as fell to her lot. But she belonged to that class of natures which, although delicate and fragile, rejoice in difficulty. Her grief for her father was exquisite, but it was controlled by a sense of her responsibility. The greater the peril, the more complete was her self-command.
To the surprise of everybody Mardon got better. His temperate habits befriended him in a manner which amazed his more indulgent neighbours, who were accustomed to hot suppers, and whisky-and-water after them. Meanwhile I fell into greater difficulties than ever in my ministry. I wonder now that I was not stopped earlier. I was entirely unorthodox, through mere powerlessness to believe, and the catalogue of the articles of faith to which I might be said really to subscribe was very brief. I could no longer preach any of the dogmas which had always been preached in the chapel, and I strove to avoid a direct conflict by taking Scripture characters, amplifying them from the hints in the Bible, and neglecting what was supernatural. That I was allowed to go on for so long was mainly due to the isolation of the town and the ignorance of my hearers. Mardon and his daughter came frequently to hear me, and this, I believe, finally roused suspicion more than any doctrine expounded from the pulpit. One Saturday morning there appeared the following letter in the Sentinel:
"Sin,—Last Sunday evening I happened to stray into a chapel not a hundred miles from Water Lane. Sir, it was a lovely evening, and
'The glorious stars on high, Set like jewels in the sky,'
were circling their courses, and, with the moon, irresistibly reminded me of that blood which was shed for the remission of sins. Sir, with my mind attuned in that direction I entered the chapel. I hoped to hear something of that Rock of Ages in which, as the poet sings, we shall wish to hide ourselves in years to come. But, sir, a young man, evidently a young man, occupied the pulpit, and great was my grief to find that the tainted flood of human philosophy had rolled through the town and was withering the truth as it is in Christ Jesus. Years ago that pulpit sent forth no uncertain sound, and the glorious gospel was proclaimed there—not a GERMAN GOSPEL, sir—of our depravity and our salvation through Christ Jesus. Sir, I should like to know what the dear departed who endowed that chapel, and are asleep in the Lord in that burying-ground, would say if they were to rise from their graves and sit in those pews again and hear what I heard—a sermon which might have been a week-day lecture. Sir, as I was passing through the town, I could not feel that I had done my duty without announcing to you the fact as above stated, and had not raised a humble warning from -
Sir, Yours truly,
"A CHRISTIAN TRAVELLER."
Notwithstanding the transparent artifice of the last paragraph, there was no doubt that the author of this precious production was Mr. Snale, and I at once determined to tax him with it. On the Monday morning I called on him, and found him in his shop.
"Mr. Snale," I said, "I have a word or two to say to you."
"Certainly, sir. What a lovely day it is! I hope you are very well, sir. Will you come upstairs?"
But I declined to go upstairs, as it was probable I might meet Mrs. Snale there. So I said that we had better go into the counting-house, a little place boxed off at the end of the shop, but with no door to it. As soon as we got in I began.
"Mr. Snale, I have been much troubled by a letter which has appeared in last week's Sentinel. Although disguised, it evidently refers to me, and to be perfectly candid with you, I cannot help thinking you wrote it."
"Dear me, sir, may I ask WHY you think so?"
"The internal evidence, Mr. Snale, is overwhelming; but if you did not write it, perhaps you will be good enough to say so."
Now Mr. Snale was a coward, but with a peculiarity which I have marked in animals of the rat tribe. He would double and evade as long as possible, but if he found there was no escape, he would turn and tear and fight to the last extremity.
"Mr. Rutherford, that is rather—ground of an, of an—what shall I say?—of an assumptive nature on which to make such an accusation, and I am not obliged to deny every charge which you may be pleased to make against me."
"Pardon me, Mr. Snale, do you then consider what I have said is an accusation and charge? Do you think that it was wrong to write such a letter?"
"Well, sir, I cannot exactly say that it was; but I must say, sir, that I do think it peculiar of you, peculiar of you, sir, to come here and attack one of your friends, who, I am sure, has always showed you so much kindness—to attack him, sir, with no proof."
Now Mr. Snale had not openly denied his authorship. But the use of the word "friend" was essentially a lie—just one of those lies which, by avoiding the form of a lie, have such a charm for a mind like his. I was roused to indignation.
"Mr. Snale, I will give you the proof which you want, and then you shall judge for yourself. The letter contains two lines of a hymn which you have misquoted. You made precisely that blunder in talking to the Sunday-school children on the Sunday before the letter appeared. You will remember that in accordance with my custom to visit the Sunday-school occasionally, I was there on that Sunday afternoon."
"Well, sir, I've not denied I did write it."
"Denied you did write it!" I exclaimed, with gathering passion; "what do you mean by the subterfuge about your passing through the town and by your calling me your friend a minute ago? What would you have thought if anybody had written anonymously to the Sentinel, and had accused you of selling short measure? You would have said it was a libel, and you would also have said that a charge of that kind ought to be made publicly and not anonymously. You seem to think, nevertheless, that it is no sin to ruin me anonymously."
"Mr. Rutherford, I AM sure I am your friend. I wish you well, sir, both here"—and Mr. Snale tried to be very solemn—"and in the world to come. With regard to the letter, I don't see it as you do, sir. But, sir, if you are going to talk in this tone, I would advise you to be careful. We have heard, sir"—and here Mr. Snale began to simper and grin with an indescribably loathsome grimace—"that some of your acquaintances in your native town are of opinion that you have not behaved quite so well as you should have done to a certain young lady of your acquaintance; and what is more, we have marked with pain here, sir, your familiarity with an atheist and his daughter, and we have noticed their coming to chapel, and we have also noticed a change in your doctrine since these parties attended there."
At the word "daughter" Mr. Snale grinned again, apparently to somebody behind me, and I found that one of his shopwomen had entered the counting-house, unobserved by me, while this conversation was going on, and that she was smirking in reply to Mr. Snale's signals. In a moment the blood rushed to my brain. I was as little able to control myself as if I had been shot suddenly down a precipice.
"Mr. Snale, you are a contemptible scoundrel and a liar."
The effort on him was comical. He cried:
"What, sir!—what do you mean, sir?—a minister of the gospel—if you were not, I would—a liar"—and he swung round hastily on the stool on which he was sitting, to get off and grasp a yard-measure which stood against the fireplace. But the stool slipped, and he came down ignominiously. I waited till he got up, but as he rose a carriage stopped at the door, and he recognised one of his best customers. Brushing the dust off his trousers, and smoothing his hair, he rushed out without his hat, and in a moment was standing obsequiously on the pavement, bowing to his patron. I passed him in going out, but the oily film of subserviency on his face was not broken for an instant.
When I got home I bitterly regretted what had happened. I never regret anything more than the loss of self-mastery. I had been betrayed, and yet I could not for the life of me see how the betrayal could have been prevented. It was upon me so suddenly, that before a moment had been given me for reflection, the words were out of my mouth. I was distinctly conscious that the I had not said those words. They had been spoken by some other power working in me which was beyond my reach. Nor could I foresee how to prevent such a fall for the future. The only advice, even now, which I can give to those who comprehend the bitter pangs of such self-degradation as passion brings, is to watch the first risings of the storm, and to say "Beware; be watchful," at the least indication of a tempest. Yet, after every precaution, we are at the mercy of the elements, and in an instant the sudden doubling of a cape may expose us, under a serene sky, to a blast which, taking us with all sails spread, may overset us and wreck us irretrievably.
My connection with the chapel was now obviously at an end. I had no mind to be dragged before a church meeting, and I determined to resign. After a little delay I wrote a letter to the deacons, explaining that I had felt a growing divergence from the theology taught heretofore in Water Lane, and I wished consequently to give up my connection with them. I received an answer stating that my resignation had been accepted; I preached a farewell sermon; and I found myself one Monday morning with a quarter's salary in my pocket, a few bills to pay, and a blank outlook.
What was to be done? My first thought was towards Unitarianism, but when I came to cast up the sum-total of what I was assured, it seemed so ridiculously small that I was afraid. The occupation of a merely miscellaneous lecturer had always seemed to me very poor. I could not get up Sunday after Sunday and retail to people little scraps suggested by what I might have been studying during the week; and with regard to the great subjects—for the exposition of which the Christian minister specially exists—how much did I know about them? The position of a minister who has a gospel to proclaim; who can go out and tell men what they are to do to be saved, was intelligible; but not so the position of a man who had no such gospel.
What reason for continuance as a preacher could I claim? Why should people hear me rather than read books? I was alarmed to find, on making my reckoning, that the older I got the less I appeared to believe. Nakeder and nakeder had I become with the passage of every year, and I trembled to anticipate the complete emptiness to which before long I should be reduced.
What the dogma of immortality was to me I have already described, and with regard to God I was no better. God was obviously not a person in the clouds, and what more was really firm under my feet than this—that the universe is governed by immutable laws? These laws were not what is commonly understood as God. Nor could I discern any ultimate tendency in them. Everything was full of contradiction. On the one hand was infinite misery; on the other there were exquisite adaptations producing the highest pleasure; on the one hand the mystery of life- long disease, and on the other the equal mystery of the unspeakable glory of the sunrise on a summer's morning over a quiet summer sea.
I happened to hear once an atheist discoursing on the follies of theism. If he had made the world, he would have made it much better. He would not have racked innocent souls with years of torture, that tyrants might live in splendour. He would not have permitted the earthquake to swallow up thousands of harmless mortals, and so forth. But, putting aside all dependence upon the theory of a coming rectification of such wrongs as these, the atheist's argument was shallow enough.
It would have been easy to show that a world such as he imagines is unthinkable directly we are serious with our conception of it. On whatever lines the world may be framed, there must be distinction, difference, a higher and a lower; and the lower, relatively to the higher, must always be an evil. The scale upon which the higher and lower both are makes no difference. The supremest bliss would not be bliss if it were not definable bliss—that is to say, in the sense that it has limits, marking it out from something else not so supreme. Perfectly uninterrupted, infinite light, without shadow, is a physical absurdity. I see a thing because it is lighted, but also because of the differences of light, or, in other words, because of shade, and without shade the universe would be objectless, and in fact invisible. The atheist was dreaming of shadowless light, a contradiction in terms. Mankind may be improved, and the improvement may be infinite, and yet good and evil must exist. So with death and life. Life without death is not life, and death without life is equally impossible.
But though all this came to me, and was not only a great comfort to me, but prevented any shallow prating like that to which I listened from this lecturer, it could not be said that it was a gospel from which to derive apostolic authority. There remained morals. I could become an instructor of morality. I could warn tradesmen not to cheat, children to honour their parents, and people generally not to lie. The mission was noble, but I could not feel much enthusiasm for it, and more than this, it was a fact that reformations in morals have never been achieved by mere directions to be good, but have always been the result of an enthusiasm for some City of God, or some supereminent person. Besides, the people whom it was most necessary to reach would not be the people who would, unsolicited, visit a Unitarian meeting-house. As for a message of negations, emancipating a number of persons from the dogma of the Trinity or future punishment, and spending my strength in merely demonstrating the nonsense of orthodoxy, my soul sickened at the very thought of it. Wherein would men be helped, and wherein should I be helped?
There were only two persons in the town who had ever been of any service to me. One was Miss Arbour, and the other was Mardon. But I shrank from Miss Arbour, because I knew that my troubles had never been hers. She belonged to a past generation, and as to Mardon, I never saw him without being aware of the difficulty of accepting any advice from him. He was perfectly clear, perfectly secular, and was so definitely shaped and settled, that his line of conduct might always be predicted beforehand with certainty. I knew very well what he thought about preaching, and what he would tell me to do, or rather, what he would tell me not to do.
Nevertheless, after all, I was a victim to that weakness which impels us to seek the assistance of others when we know that what they offer will be of no avail. Accordingly, I called on him. Both he and Mary were at home, and I was received with more than usual cordiality. He knew already that I had resigned, for the news was all over the town. I said I was in great perplexity.
"The perplexities of most persons arise," said Mardon, "as yours probably arise, from not understanding exactly what you want to do. For one person who stumbles and falls with a perfectly distinct object to be attained, I have known a score whose disasters are to be attributed to their not having made themselves certain what their aim is. You do not know what you believe; consequently you do not know how to act."
"What would you do if you were in my case?"
"Leave the whole business and prefer the meanest handicraft. You have no right to be preaching anything doubtful. You are aware what my creed is. I profess no belief in God, and no belief in what hangs upon it. Try and name now, any earnest conviction you possess, and see whether you have a single one which I have not got."
"I DO believe in God."
"There is nothing in that statement. What do you believe about Him?— that is the point. You will find that you believe nothing, in truth, which I do not also believe of the laws which govern the universe and man."
"I believe in an intellect of which these laws are the expression."
"Now what kind of an intellect can that be? You can assign to it no character in accordance with its acts. It is an intellect, if it be an intellect at all, which will swallow up a city, and will create the music of Mozart for me when I am weary; an intellect which brings to birth His Majesty King George IV., and the love of an affectionate mother for her child; an intellect which, in the person of a tender girl, shows an exquisite conscience, and in the person of one or two religious creatures whom I have known, shows a conscience almost inverted. I have always striven to prove to my theological friends that their mere affirmation of God is of no consequence. They may be affirming anything or nothing. The question, the all-important question is, WHAT can be affirmed about Him?"
"Your side of the argument naturally admits of a more precise statement than mine. I cannot encompass God with a well-marked definition, but for all that, I believe in Him. I know all that may be urged against the belief, but I cannot help thinking that the man who looks upon the stars, or the articulation of a leaf, is irresistibly impelled, unless he has been corrupted by philosophy, to say, There is intellect there. It is the instinct of the child and of the man."
"I don't think so; but grant it, and again I ask, WHAT intellect is it?"
"Again I say, I do not know."
"Then why dispute? Why make such a fuss about it?"
"It really seems to me of immense importance whether you see this intellect or not, although you say it is of no importance. It appears to be of less importance than it really is, because I do not think that even you ever empty the universe of intellect. I believe that mind never worships anything but mind, and that you worship it when you admire the level bars of cloud over the setting sun. You think you eject mind, but you do not. I can only half imagine a belief which looks upon the world as a mindless blank, and if I could imagine it, it would be depressing in the last degree to me. I know that I have mind, and to live in a universe in which my mind is answered by no other would be unbearable. Better any sort of intelligence than none at all. But, as I have just said, your case admits of plainer statement than mine. You and I have talked this matter over before, and I have never gained a logical victory over you. Often I have felt thoroughly prostrated by you, and yet, when I have left you, the old superstition has arisen unsubdued. I do not know how it is, but I always feel that upon this, as upon many other subjects, I never can really speak myself. An unshapen thought presents itself to me, I look at it, and I do all in my power to give it body and expression, but I cannot. I am certain that there is something truer and deeper to be said about the existence of God than anything I have said, and what is more, I am certain of the presence of this something in me, but I cannot lift it to the light."
"Ah, you are now getting into the region of sentiment, and I am unable to accompany you. When my friends go into the clouds, I never try to follow them."
All this time Mary had been sitting in the arm-chair against the fireplace in her usual attitude, resting her head on her hand and with her feet crossed one over the other on the fender. She had been listening silently and motionless. She now closed her eyes and said -
"Father, father, it is not true."
"What is not true?"
"I do not mean that what you have said about theology is not true, but you make Mr. Rutherford believe you are what you are not. Mr. Rutherford, father sometimes tells us he has no sentiment, but you must take no notice of him when he talks in that way. I always think of our visit to the seaside two years ago. The railway-station was in a disagreeable part of the town, and when we came out we walked along a dismal row of very plain-looking houses. There were cards in the window with 'Lodgings' written on them, and father wanted to go in to ask the terms. I said that I did not wish to stay in such a dull street, but father could not afford to pay for a sea view, and so we went in to inquire. We then found that what we thought were the fronts of the houses were the backs, and that the fronts faced the bay. They had pretty gardens on the other side, and a glorious sunny prospect over the ocean."
Mardon laughed and said -
"Ah, Mary, there is no sea front here, and no garden."
I took up my hat and said I must go. Both pressed me to stop, but I declined. Mardon urged me again, and at last said -
"I believe you've never once heard Mary sing."
Mary protested, and pleaded that as they had no piano, Mr. Rutherford would not care for her poor voice without any accompaniment. But I, too, protested that I should, and she got out the "Messiah." Her father took a tuning-fork out of his pocket, and having struck it, Mary rose and began, "He was despised." Her voice was not powerful, but it was pure and clear, and she sang with that perfect taste which is begotten solely of a desire to honour the Master. The song always had a profound charm for me. Partly this was due to association. The words and tones, which have been used to embody their emotions by those whom we have loved, are doubly expressive when we use them to embody our own. The song is potent too, because with utmost musical tenderness and strength it reveals the secret of the influence of the story of Jesus. Nobody would be bold enough to cry, THAT TOO IS MY CASE, and yet the poorest and the humblest soul has a right to the consolation that Jesus was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
For some reason or the other, or for many reasons, Mary's voice wound itself into the very centre of my existence. I seemed to be listening to the tragedy of all human worth and genius. The ball rose in my throat, the tears mounted to my eyes, and I had to suppress myself rigidly.
Presently she ceased. There was silence for a moment. I looked round, and saw that Mardon's face was on the table, buried in his hands. I felt that I had better go, for the presence of a stranger, when the heart is deeply stirred, is an intrusion. I noiselessly left the room, and Mary followed. When we got to the door she said: "I forgot that mother used to sing that song. I ought to have known better." Her own eyes were full; I thought the pressure of her hand as she bade me good- bye was a little firmer than usual, and as we parted an over-mastering impulse seized me. I lifted her hand to my lips; without giving her time to withdraw it, I gave it one burning kiss, and passed out into the street. It was pouring with rain, and I had neither overcoat nor umbrella, but I heeded not the heavens, and not till I got home to my own fireless, dark, solitary lodgings, did I become aware of any contrast between the sphere into which I had been exalted and the earthly commonplace world by which I was surrounded.
The old Presbyterian chapels throughout the country have many of them become Unitarian, and occasionally, even in an agricultural village, a respectable red-brick building may be seen, dating from the time of Queen Anne, in which a few descendants of the eighteenth century heretics still testify against three Gods in one and the deity of Jesus Christ. Generally speaking, the attendance in these chapels is very meagre, but they are often endowed, and so they are kept open.
There was one in the large, straggling half-village, half-town of D-, within about ten miles of me, and the pulpit was then vacant. The income was about 100 pounds a year. The principal man there was a small general dealer, who kept a shop in the middle of the village street, and I had come to know him slightly, because I had undertaken to give his boy a few lessons to prepare him for admission to a boarding-school. The money in my pocket was coming to an end, and as I did not suppose that any dishonesty would be imposed on me, and although the prospect were not cheering, I expressed my willingness to be considered as a candidate.
In the course of a week or two I was therefore invited to preach. I was so reduced that I was obliged to walk the whole distance on the Sunday morning, and as I was asked to no house, I went straight to the chapel, and loitered about in the graveyard till a woman came and opened a door at the back. I explained who I was, and sat down in a Windsor chair against a small kitchen table in the vestry. It was cold, but there was no fire, nor were any preparations made for one. On the mantel-shelf were a bottle of water and a glass, but as the water had evidently been there for some time, it was not very tempting.
I waited in silence for about twenty minutes, and my friend the dealer then came in, and having shaken hands, and remarked that it was chilly, asked me for the hymns. These I gave him, and went into the pulpit. I found myself in a plain-looking building designed to hold about two hundred people. There was a gallery opposite me, and the floor was occupied with high, dark, brown pews, one or two immediately on my right and left being surrounded with faded green curtains. I counted my hearers, and discovered that there were exactly seventeen, including two very old labourers, who sat on a form near the door. The gallery was quite empty, except a little organ, or seraphine, I think it was called, which was played by a young woman. The dealer gave out the hymns, and accompanied the seraphine in a bass voice, singing the air. A weak whisper might be perceived from the rest of the congregation, but nothing more.
I was somewhat taken aback at finding in the Bible a discourse which had been left by one of my predecessors. It was a funeral-sermon, neatly written, and had evidently done duty on several occasions, although the allusions in it might be considered personal. The piety and good works of the departed were praised with emphasis, but the masculine pronouns originally used were altered above the lines all throughout to feminine pronouns, and the word "brother" to "sister," so that no difficulty might arise in reading it for either sex. I was faint, benumbed, and with no heart for anything. I talked for about half-an-hour about what I considered to be the real meaning of the death of Christ, thinking that this was a subject which might prove as attractive as any other.
After the service the assembly of seventeen departed, save one thin elderly gentleman, who came into the vestry, and having made a slight bow, said: "Mr. Rutherford, will you come with me, if you please?" I accordingly followed him, almost in silence, through the village till we reached his house, where his wife, who had gone on before, received us. They had formerly kept the shop which the dealer now had, but had retired. They might both be about sixty-five, and were of about the same temperament, pale, thin, and ineffectual, as if they had been fed on gruel.
We had dinner in a large room with an old-fashioned grate in it, in which was stuck a basket stove. I remember perfectly well what we had for dinner. There was a neck of mutton (cold), potatoes, cabbage, a suet pudding, and some of the strangest-looking ale I ever saw—about the colour of lemon juice, but what it was really like I do not know, as I did not drink beer. I was somewhat surprised at being asked whether I would take potatoes OR cabbage, but thinking it was the custom of the country not to indulge in both at once, and remembering that I was on probation, I said "cabbage."
Very little was spoken during dinner-time by anybody, and scarcely a word by my hostess. After dinner she cleared the things away, and did not again appear. My host drew near the basket stove, and having remarked that it was beginning to rain, fell into a slumber. At twenty minutes to two we sallied out for the afternoon service, and found the seventeen again in their places, excepting the two labourers, who were probably prevented by the wet from attending.
The service was a repetition of that in the morning, and when I came down my host again came forward and presented me with nineteen shillings. The fee was a guinea, but from that two shillings were abated for my entertainment. He informed me at the same time that a farmer, who had been hearing me and who lived five miles on my road, would give me a lift. He was a very large, stout man, with a rosy countenance, which was somewhat of a relief after the gruel face of my former friend. We went round to a stable-yard, and I got into a four- wheeled chaise. His wife sat with him in front, and a biggish boy sat with me behind.
When we came to a guide-post which pointed down his lane, I got out, and was dismissed in the dark with the observation—uttered good- naturedly and jovially, but not very helpfully—that he was "afraid I should have a wettish walk." The walk certainly was wettish, and as I had had nothing to eat or drink since my midday meal, I was miserable and desponding. But just before I reached home the clouds rolled off with the south-west wind into detached, fleecy masses, separated by liquid blue gulfs, in which were sowed the stars, and the effect upon me was what that sight, thank God, always has been—a sense of the infinite, extinguishing all mean cares.
I expected to hear no more from my Unitarian acquaintances, and was therefore greatly surprised when, a week after my visit, I received an invitation to "settle" amongst them. The usual month's trial was thought unnecessary, as I was not altogether a stranger to some of them. I hardly knew what to do, I could not feel any enthusiasm at the prospect of the engagement, but, on the other hand, there was nothing else before me. There is no more helpless person in this world than a minister who is thrown out of work. At any rate, I should be doing no harm if I went.
I pondered over the matter a good deal, and then reflected that in a case where every opening is barred save one, it is our duty not to plunge at an impassable barrier, but to take that one opening, however unpromising it may be. Accordingly I accepted. My income was to be a hundred a year, and it was proposed that I should lodge with my friend the retired dealer, who had the only two rooms in the village which were available.
I went to bid Mardon and Mary good-bye. I had not seen either of them since the night of the song. To my surprise I found them both away. The blinds were down and the door locked. A neighbour, who heard me knocking, came out and told me the news. Mardon had had a dispute with his employer, and had gone to London to look for work. Mary had gone to see a relative at some distance, and would remain there until her father had determined what was to be done.
I obtained the addresses of both of them, and wrote to Mardon, telling him what my destiny for the present was to be. To Mary I wrote also, and to her I offered my heart. Looking backward, I have sometimes wondered that I felt so little hesitation; not that I have ever doubted since, that what I did then was the one perfectly right thing which I have done in my life, but because it was my habit so to confuse myself with meditative indecision. I had doubted before. I remember once being so near engaging myself to a girl that the desk was open and the paper under my hand. But I held back, could not make up my mind, and happily was stayed. Had I not been restrained, I should for ever have been miserable. The remembrance of this escape, and the certain knowledge that of all beings whom I knew I was most likely to be mistaken in an emergency, always produced in me a torturing tendency to inaction. There was no such tendency now. I thought I chose Mary, but there was no choice. The feeblest steel filing which is drawn to a magnet, would think, if it had consciousness, that it went to the magnet of its own free will. My soul rushed to hers as if dragged by the force of a loadstone.
But she was not to be mine. I had a note from her, a sweet note, thanking me with much tenderness for my affectionate regard for her, but saying that her mind had long since been made up. She was an only child of a mother whom her father had loved above everything in life, and she could never leave him nor suffer any affection to interfere with that which she felt for him and which he felt for her. I might well misinterpret him, and think it strange that he should be so much bound up in her. Few people knew him as she did.
The shock to me at first was overpowering, and I fell under the influence of that horrible monomania from which I had been free for so long. For weeks I was prostrate, with no power of resistance; the evil being intensified by my solitude. Of all the dreadful trials which human nature has the capacity to bear unshattered, the worst—as, indeed, I have already said—is the fang of some monomaniacal idea which cannot be wrenched out. A main part of the misery, as I have also said, lies in the belief that suffering of this kind is peculiar to ourselves. We are afraid to speak of it, and not knowing, therefore, how common it is, we are distracted with the fear that it is our own special disease.
I managed to get through my duties, but how I cannot tell. Fortunately our calamities are not what they appear to be when they lie in perspective behind us or before us, for they actually consist of distinct moments, each of which is overcome by itself. I was helped by remembering my recovery before, and I was able now, as a reward of long-continued abstinence from wine, to lie much stiller, and wait with more patience till the cloud should lift.
Mardon having gone to London, I was more alone than ever, but my love for Mary increased in intensity, and had a good deal to do with my restoration to health. It was a hopeless love, but to be in love hopelessly is more akin to sanity than careless, melancholy indifference to the world. I was relieved from myself by the anchorage of all my thoughts elsewhere. The pain of loss was great, but the main curse of my existence has not been pain or loss, but gloom; blind wandering in a world of black fog, haunted by apparitions. I am not going to expand upon the history of my silent relationship to Mary during that time. How can I? All that I felt has been described better by others; and if it had not been, I have no mind to attempt a description myself, which would answer no purpose.
I continued to correspond with Mardon, but with Mary I interchanged no word. After her denial of me I should have dreaded the charge of selfishness if I had opened my lips again. I could not place myself in her affection before her father.
My work at the chapel was of the most lifeless kind. My people really consisted of five families—those of the retired dealer, the farmer who took me home the first day I preached, and a man who kept a shop in the village for the sale of all descriptions of goods, including ready-made clothing and provisions. He had a wife and one child.
Then there was a super-annuated brass-founder, who had a large house near, and who nominally was a Unitarian, having professed himself a Unitarian in the town in which he was formerly in business, where Unitarianism was flourishing. He had come down here to cultivate, for amusement, a few acres of ground, and play the squire at a cheap rate. Released from active employment, he had given himself over to eating and drinking, particularly the drinking of port wine. His wife was dead, his sons were in business for themselves, and his daughters all went to church. His connection with the chapel was merely nominal, and I was very glad it was so. I was hardly ever brought into contact with him, except as trustee, and once I was asked to his house to dinner; but the attempt to make me feel my inferiority was so painful, and the rudeness of his children was so marked, that I never went again.
There was also a schoolmaster, who kept a low-priced boarding-school with a Unitarian connection. He lived, however, at such a distance that his visits were very unfrequent. Sometimes on a fine summer's Sunday morning the boys would walk over—about twenty of them altogether, but this only happened perhaps half-a-dozen times in a year.
Although my congregation had a freethought lineage, I do not think that I ever had anything to do with a more petrified set. With one exception, they were meagre in the extreme. They were perfectly orthodox, except that they denied a few orthodox doctrines. Their method was as strict as that of the most rigid Calvinist. They plumed themselves, however, greatly on their intellectual superiority over the Wesleyans and Baptists round them; and so far as I could make out, the only topics they delighted in were demonstrations of the unity of God from texts in the Bible, and polemics against tri-theism. Sympathy with the great problems then beginning to agitate men they had none. Socially they were cold, and the entertainment at their houses was pale and penurious. They never considered themselves bound to contribute a shilling to my support. There was an endowment of a hundred a year, and they were relieved from all further anxiety. They had no enthusiasm for their chapel, and came or stayed away on the Sunday just as it suited them, and without caring to assign any reason.
The one exception was the wife of the shopkeeper. She was a contrast to her husband and all the rest. I do not think she was a Unitarian born and bred. She talked but little about theology, but she was devoted to her Bible, and had a fine sense for all the passages in it which had an experience in them. She was generous, spiritual, and possessed of an unswerving instinct for what was right. Oftentimes her prompt decisions were a scandal to her more sedate friends, who did not believe in any way of arriving at the truth except by rationalising, but she hardly ever failed to hit the mark. It was in questions of relationship between persons, of behaviour, and of morals, that her guidance was the surest. In such cases her force seemed to keep her straight, while the weakness of those around made it impossible for them not to wander, first on one side and then on the other. She was unflinching in her expressions, and at any sacrifice did her duty. It was her severity in obeying her conscience which not only gave authority to her admonitions, but was the source of her inspirations.
She was not much of a reader, but she read strange things. She had some old volumes of a magazine—a "Repository" of some kind; I have forgotten what—and she picked out from them some translations of German verses which she greatly admired. She was not a well educated woman in the school sense of the word, and of several of our greatest names in literature had heard nothing. I do not think she knew anything about Shakespeare, and she never entered into the meaning of dramatic poetry. At all points her path was her own, intersecting at every conceivable angle the paths of her acquaintances, and never straying along them except just so far as they might happen to be hers.
While I was in the village an event happened which caused much commotion. Her son was serving in the shop, and there was in the house at the time a nice-looking, clean servant-girl. Mrs. Lane, for that was my friend's name, had meditated discharging her, for, with her usual quickness, she thought she saw something in the behaviour of her son to the girl which was peculiar. One morning, however, both her son and the girl were absent, and there was a letter upon the table announcing that they were in a town about twenty miles off and were married.
The shock was great, and a tumult of voices arose, confusing counsel. Mrs. Lane said but little, but never wavered an instant. Leaving her husband to "consider what was best to be done," she got out the gig, drove herself over to her son's lodging, and presented herself to her amazed daughter-in-law, who fell upon her knees and prayed for pity. "My dear," said Mrs. Lane, "get up this instant; you are my daughter. Not another word. I've come to see what you want." And she kissed her tenderly. The girl was at heart a good girl. She was so bound to her late mistress and her new mother by this behaviour, that the very depth in her opened, and she loved Mrs. Lane ever afterwards with almost religious fervour. She was taught a little up to her son's level, and a happier marriage I never knew. Mrs. Lane told me what she had done, but she had no theory about it. She merely said she knew it to be the right thing to do.
She was very fond of getting up early in the morning and going out, and in such a village this was an eccentricity bordering almost on lunacy. At five o'clock she was often wandering about her garden. She was a great lover of order in the house, and kept it well under control, but I do not think I ever surprised her when she was so busy that she would not easily, and without any apparent sacrifice, leave what she was doing to come and talk with me.
As I have said, the world of books in which I lived was almost altogether shut to her, but yet she was the only person in the village whose conversation was lifted out of the petty and personal into the region of the universal. I have been thus particular in describing her—I fear without raising any image of her—because she was of incalculable service to me. I languished from lack of life, and her mere presence, so exuberant in its full vivacity, was like mountain air. Furthermore, she was not troubled much with my philosophical difficulties. They had not come in her path. Her world was the world of men and women—more particularly of those she knew—and it was a world in which it did me good to dwell. She was all the more important to me, because outside our own little circle there was no society whatever. The Church and the other Dissenting bodies considered us non-Christian.
I often wondered that Mr. Lane retained his business, and, indeed, he would have lost it if he had not established a reputation for honesty, which drew customers to him, who, notwithstanding the denunciations of the parson, preferred tea with some taste in it from a Unitarian to the insipid wood-flavoured stuff which was sold by the grocer who believed in the Trinity.
CHAPTER VIII—PROGRESS IN EMANCIPATION
I was with my Unitarian congregation for about a twelvemonth. My life during that time, save so far as my intercourse with Mrs. Lane, and one other friend presently to be mentioned, was concerned, was as sunless and joyless as it had ever been. Imagine me living by myself, roaming about the fields, and absorbed mostly upon insoluble problems with which I never made any progress, and which tended to draw me away from what enjoyment of life there was which I might have had.
One day I was walking along under the south side of a hill, which was a great place for butterflies, and I saw a man, apparently about fifty years old, coming along with a butterfly-net. He did not see me, for he looked about for a convenient piece of turf, and presently sat down, taking out a sandwich-box, from which he produced his lunch. His occupation did not particularly attract me, but in those days, if I encountered a new person who was not repulsive, I was always as eager to make his acquaintance as if he perchance might solve a secret for me, the answer to which I burned to know. I have been disappointed so many times, and have found that nobody has much more to tell me, that my curiosity has somewhat abated, but even now, the news that anybody who has the reputation for intelligence has come near me, makes me restless to see him. I accordingly saluted the butterfly-catcher, who returned the salutation kindly, and we began to talk.
He told me that he had come seven miles that morning to that spot because he knew that it was haunted by one particular species of butterfly which he wished to get; and as it was a still, bright day, he hoped to find a specimen. He had been unsuccessful for some years. Presupposing that I knew all about his science, he began to discourse upon it with great freedom, and he ended by saying that he would be happy to show me his collection, which was one of the finest in the country.
"But I forget," said he, "as I always forget in such cases, perhaps you don't care for butterflies."
"I take much interest in them. I admire exceedingly the beauty of their colours."
"Ah, yes, but you don't care for them scientifically, or for collecting them."
"No, not particularly. I cannot say I ever saw much pleasure in the mere classification of insects."
"Perhaps you are devoted to some other science?"
"No, I am not."
"Well, I daresay it looks absurd for a man at my years to be running after a moth. I used to think it was absurd, but I am wiser now. However, I cannot stop to talk; I shall lose the sunshine. The first time you are anywhere near me, come and have a look. You will alter your opinion."
Some weeks afterwards I happened to be in the neighbourhood of the butterfly-catcher's house, and I called. He was at home, and welcomed me cordially. The first thing he did was to show me his little museum. It was really a wonderful exhibition, and as I saw the creatures in lines, and noted the amazing variations of the single type, I was filled with astonishment. Seeing the butterflies systematically arranged was a totally different thing from seeing a butterfly here and there, and gave rise to altogether new thoughts. My friend knew his subject from end to end, and I envied him his mastery of it. I had often craved the mastery of some one particular province, be it ever so minute. I half or a quarter knew a multitude of things, but no one thing thoroughly, and was never sure, just when I most wanted to be sure. We got into conversation, and I was urged to stay to dinner. I consented, and found that my friend's household consisted of himself alone. After dinner, as we became a little more communicative, I asked him when and how he took to this pursuit.
"It will be twenty-six years ago next Christmas," said he, "since I suffered a great calamity. You will forgive my saying anything about it, as I have no assurance that the wound which looks healed may not break out again. Suffice to say, that for some ten years or more my thoughts were almost entirely occupied with death and our future state. There is a strange fascination about these topics to many people, because they are topics which permit a great deal of dreaming, but very little thinking: in fact, true thinking, in the proper sense of the word, is impossible in dealing with them. There is no rigorous advance from one position to another, which is really all that makes thinking worth the name. Every man can imagine or say cloudy things about death and the future, and feel himself here, at least, on a level with the ablest brain which he knows.
"I went on gazing gloomily into dark emptiness, till all life became nothing for me. I did not care to live, because there was no assurance of existence beyond. By the strangest of processes, I neglected the world, because I had so short a time to be in it. It is with absolute horror now that I look back upon those days, when I lay as if alive in a coffin of lead. All passions and pursuits were nullified by the ever-abiding sense of mortality. For years this mood endured, and I was near being brought down to the very dust.
"At last, by the greatest piece of good fortune, I was obliged to go abroad. The change, and the obligation to occupy myself about many affairs, was an incalculable blessing to me. While travelling I was struck with the remarkable and tropical beauty of the insects, and especially of the butterflies. I captured a few, and brought them home. On showing them to a friend, learned in such matters, I discovered that they were rare, and I had a little cabinet made for them. I looked into the books, found what it was which I had got, and what I had not got.
"Next year it was my duty to go abroad again, and I went with some feeling akin to pleasure, for I wished to add to my store. I increased it considerably, and by the time I returned I had as fine a show as any private person might wish to possess. A good deal of my satisfaction, perhaps, was unaccountable, and no rational explanation can be given of it. But men should not be too curious in analysing and condemning any means which Nature devises to save them from themselves, whether it be coins, old books, curiosities, butterflies, or fossils. And yet my newly-acquired passion was not altogether inexplicable. I was the owner of something which other persons did not own, and in a little while, in my own limited domain, I was supreme. No man either can study any particular science thoroughly without transcending it; and it is an utter mistake to suppose that, because a student sticks to any one branch, he necessarily becomes contracted.
"However, I am not going to philosophise; I do not like it. All I can say is, that I shun all those metaphysical speculations of former years as I would a path which leads to madness. Other people may be able to occupy themselves with them and be happy; I cannot. I find quite enough in my butterflies to exercise my wonder, and yet, on the other hand, my study is not a mere vacant, profitless stare. When you saw me that morning, I was trying to obtain an example which I have long wanted to fill up a gap. I have looked for it for years, but have missed it. But I know it has been seen lately where we met, and I shall triumph at last."
A good deal of all this was to me incomprehensible. It seemed mere solemn trifling compared with the investigation of those great questions with which I had been occupied, but I could not resist the contagion of my friend's enthusiasm when he took me to his little library and identified his treasures with pride, pointing out at the same time those in which he was deficient. He was specially exultant over one minute creature which he had caught himself, which he had not as yet seen figured, and he proposed going to the British Museum almost on purpose to see if he could find it there.
When I got home I made inquiries into the history of my entomologist. I found that years ago he had married a delicate girl, of whom he was devotedly fond. She died in childbirth, leaving him completely broken. Her offspring, a boy, survived, but he was a cripple, and grew up deformed. As he neared manhood he developed a satyr-like lustfulness, which was almost uncontrollable, and made it difficult to keep him at home without constraint. He seemed to have no natural affection for his father, nor for anybody else, but was cunning with the base, beastly cunning of the ape. The father's horror was infinite. This thing was his only child, and the child of the woman whom he worshipped. He was excluded from all intercourse with friends; for, as the boy could not be said to be mad, he could not be shut up. After years of inconceivable misery, however, lust did deepen into absolute lunacy, and the crooked, misshapen monster was carried off to an asylum, where he died, and the father well-nigh went there too.
Before I had been six months amongst the Unitarians, I found life even more intolerable with them than it had been with the Independents. The difference of a little less belief was nothing. The question of Unitarianism was altogether dead to me; and although there was a phase of the doctrine of God's unity which would now and then give me an opportunity for a few words which I felt, it was not a phase for which my hearers in the least cared or which they understood.
Here, as amongst the Independents, there was the same lack of personal affection, or even of a capability of it—excepting always Mrs. Lane— and, in fact, it was more distressing amongst the Unitarians than amongst the orthodox. The desire for something like sympathy and love absolutely devoured me. I dwelt on all the instances in poetry and history in which one human being had been bound to another human being, and I reflected that my existence was of no earthly importance to anybody. I could not altogether lay the blame on myself. God knows that I would have stood against a wall and have been shot for any man or woman whom I loved, as cheerfully as I would have gone to bed, but nobody seemed to wish for such a love, or to know what to do with it.
Oh, the humiliations under which this weakness has bent me! Often and often I have thought that I have discovered somebody who could really comprehend the value of a passion which could tell everything and venture everything. I have overstepped all bounds of etiquette in obtruding myself on him, and have opened my heart even to shame. I have then found that it was all on my side. For every dozen times I went to his house, he came to mine once, and only when pressed: I have languished in sickness for a month without his finding it out; and if I were to drop into the grave, he would perhaps never give me another thought. If I had been born a hundred years earlier, I should have transferred this burning longing to the unseen God and have become a devotee. But I was a hundred years too late, and I felt that it was mere cheating of myself and a mockery to think about love for the only God whom I knew—the forces which maintained the universe.
I am now getting old, and have altered in many things. The hunger and thirst of those years have abated, or rather, the fire has had ashes heaped on it, so that it is well-nigh extinguished. I have been repulsed into self-reliance and reserve, having learned wisdom by experience; but still I know that the desire has not died, as so many other desires have died, by the natural evolution of age. It has been forcibly suppressed, and that is all. If anybody who reads these words of mine should be offered by any young dreamer such a devotion as I once had to offer, and had to take back again refused so often, let him in the name of all that is sacred accept it. It is simply the most precious thing in existence. Had I found anybody who would have thought so, my life would have been redeemed into something which I have often imagined, but now shall never know.
I determined to leave, but what to do I could not tell. I was fit for nothing, and yet I could not make up my mind to accept a life which was simply living. It must be a life, through which some benefit was conferred upon my fellow-creatures. This was mainly delusion. I had not then learned to correct this natural instinct to be of some service to mankind by the thought of the boundlessness of infinity and of Nature's profuseness. I had not come to reflect that, taking into account her eternities, and absolute exhaustlessness, it was folly in me to fret and fume, and I therefore clung to the hope that I might employ myself in some way which, however feebly, would help mankind a little to the realisation of an ideal. But I was not the man for such a mission. I lacked altogether that concentration which binds up the scattered powers into one resistless energy, and I lacked faith. All I could do was to play the vagrant in literature, picking up here and there an idea which attracted me, and presenting it to my flock on the Sunday; the net result being next to nothing.
However, existence like that which I had been leading was intolerable, and change it I must. I accordingly resigned, and with ten pounds in my pocket, which was all that remained after paying my bills, I came to London, thinking that until I could settle what to do, I would try and teach in a school. I called on an agent somewhere near the Strand, and after a little negotiation, was engaged by a gentleman who kept a private establishment at Stoke Newington.
Thither I accordingly went one Monday afternoon in January, about two days before the term commenced. When I got there, I was shown into a long schoolroom, which had been built out from the main building. It was dark, save for one candle, and was warmed by a stove. The walls were partly covered with maps, and at one end of the room hung a diagram representing a globe, on which an immense amount of wasted ingenuity had been spent to produce the illusion of solidity. The master, I was told, was out, and in this room with one candle I remained till nine o'clock. At that time a servant brought me some bread and cheese on a small tray, with half-a-pint of beer. I asked for water, which was given me, and she then retired. The tray was set down on the master's raised desk, and sitting there I ate my supper in silence, looking down upon the dimly-lighted forms, and forward into the almost absolute gloom.
At ten o'clock a man, who seemed as if he were the knife and boot- cleaner, came and said he would show me where I was to sleep. We passed through the schoolroom into a kind of court, where there was a ladder standing against a trap-door. He told me that my bedroom was up there, and that when I got up I could leave the ladder down, or pull it up after me, just as I pleased.
I ascended and found a little chamber, duly furnished with a chest of drawers, bed, and washhand-stand. It was tolerably clean and decent; but who shall describe what I felt! I went to the window and looked out. There were scattered lights here and there, marking roads, but as they crossed one another, and now and then stopped where building had ceased, the effect they produced was that of bewilderment with no clue to it. Further off was the great light of London, like some unnatural dawn, or the illumination from a fire which could not itself be seen. I was overcome with the most dreadful sense of loneliness. I suppose it is the very essence of passion, using the word in its literal sense, that no account can be given of it by the reason.