Helen thought nothing to correspond. She considered George a fine manly fellow. What bold and original ideas he had about everything! Her brother was a baby to him! But then Leopold was such a love of a boy! Such eyes and such a smile were not to be seen on this side the world. Helen liked her cousin, was attached to her aunt, but loved her brother Leopold, and loved nobody else. His Hindoo mother, high of caste, had given him her lustrous eyes and pearly smile, which, the first moment she saw him, won his sister's heart. He was then but eight years old, and she but eleven. Since then, he had been brought up by his father's elder brother, who had the family estate in Yorkshire, but he had spent part of all his holidays with her, and they often wrote to each other. Of late indeed his letters had not been many, and a rumour had reached her that he was not doing quite satisfactorily at Cambridge, but she explained it away to the full contentment of her own heart, and went on building such castles as her poor aerolithic skill could command, with Leopold ever and always as the sharer of her self-expansion.
THE CURATE AT HOME.
If we could arrive at the feelings of a fish of the northern ocean around which the waters suddenly rose to tropical temperature, and swarmed with strange forms of life, uncouth and threatening, we should have a fair symbol of the mental condition in which Thomas Wingfold now found himself. The spiritual fluid in which his being floated had become all at once more potent, and he was in consequence uncomfortable. A certain intermittent stinging, as if from the flashes of some moral electricity, had begun to pass in various directions through the crude and chaotic mass he called himself, and he felt strangely restless. It never occurred to him—as how should it?—that he might have commenced undergoing the most marvellous of all changes,—one so marvellous, indeed, that for a man to foreknow its result or understand what he was passing through, would be more strange than that a caterpillar should recognise in the rainbow-winged butterfly hovering over the flower at whose leaf he was gnawing, the perfected idea of his own potential self—I mean the change of being born again. Nor were the symptoms such as would necessarily have suggested, even to a man experienced in the natural history of the infinite, that the process had commenced.
A restless night followed his reflections in the churchyard, and he did not wake at all comfortable. Not that ever he had been in the way of feeling comfortable. To him life had not been a land flowing with milk and honey. He had had few smiles, and not many of those grasps of the hand which let a man know another man is near him in the battle—for had it not been something of a battle, how could he have come to the age of six-and-twenty without being worse than he was? He would not have said: "All these have I kept from my youth up;" but I can say that for several of them he had shown fight, although only One knew anything of it. This morning, then, it was not merely that he did not feel comfortable: he was consciously uncomfortable. Things were getting too hot for him. That infidel fellow had poked several most awkward questions at him—yes, into him, and a good many more had in him—self arisen to meet them. Usually he lay a little while before he came to himself; but this morning he came to himself at once, and not liking the interview, jumped out of bed as if he had hoped to leave himself there behind him.
He had always scorned lying, until one day, when still a boy at school, he suddenly found that he had told a lie, after which he hated it—yet now, if he was to believe—ah! whom? did not the positive fellow and his own conscience say the same thing?—his profession, his very life was a lie! the very bread he ate grew on the rank fields of falsehood!—No, no; it was absurd! it could not be! What had he done to find himself damned to such a depth? Yet the thing must be looked to. He batht himself without remorse and never even shivered, though the water in his tub was bitterly cold, dressed with more haste than precision, hurried over his breakfast, neglected his newspaper, and took down a volume of early church history. But he could not read: the thing was hopeless—utterly. With the wolves of doubt and the jackals of shame howling at his heels, how could he start for a thousand-mile race! For God's sake give him a weapon to turn and face them with! Evidence! all of it that was to be had, was but such as one man received, another man refused; and the popular acceptance was worth no more in respect of Christianity than of Mahometanism, for how many had given the subject at all better consideration than himself? And there was Sunday with its wolves and jackals, and but a hedge between! He did not so much mind reading the prayers: he was not accountable for what was in them, although it was bad enough to stand up and read them. Happy thing he was not a dissenter, for then he would have had to pretend to pray from his own soul, which would have been too horrible! But there was the sermon! That at least was supposed to contain, or to be presented as containing, his own sentiments. Now what were his sentiments? For the life of him he could not tell. Had he ANY sentiments, any opinions, any beliefs, any unbeliefs? He had plenty of sermons—old, yellow, respectable sermons, not lithographed, neither composed by mind nor copied out by hand unknown, but in the neat writing of his old D.D. uncle, so legible that he never felt it necessary to read them over beforehand—just saw that he had the right one. A hundred and fifty-seven such sermons, the odd one for the year that began on a Sunday, of unquestionable orthodoxy, had his kind old uncle left him in his will, with the feeling probably that he was not only setting him up in sermons for life, but giving him a fair start as well in the race of which a stall in some high cathedral was the goal. For his own part he had never made a sermon, at least never one he had judged worth preaching to a congregation. He had rather a high idea, he thought, of preaching, and these sermons of his uncle he considered really excellent. Some of them, however, were altogether doctrinal, some very polemical: of such he must now beware. He would see of what kind was the next in order; he would read it and make sure it contained nothing he was not, in some degree at least, prepared to hold his face to and defend—if he could not absolutely swear he believed it purely true.
He did as resolved. The first he took up was in defence of the Athanasian creed! That would not do. He tried another. That was upon the Inspiration of the Scriptures. He glanced through it—found Moses on a level with St. Paul, and Jonah with St. John, and doubted greatly. There might be a sense—but—! No, he would not meddle with it. He tried a third: that was on the Authority of the Church. It would not do. He had read each of all these sermons, at least once, to a congregation, with perfect composure and following indifference, if not peace of mind, but now he could not come on one with which he was even in sympathy—not to say one of which he was certain that it was more true than false. At last he took up the odd one—that which could come into use but once in a week of years—and this was the sermon Bascombe heard and commented upon. Having read it over, and found nothing to compromise him with his conscience, which was like an irritable man trying to find his way in a windy wood by means of a broken lantern, he laid all the rest aside and felt a little relieved.
Wingfold had never neglected the private duty of a clergyman in regard of morning and evening devotions, but was in the habit of dressing and undressing his soul with the help of certain chosen contents of the prayer-book—a somewhat circuitous mode of communicating with Him who was so near him,—that is, if St. Paul was right in saying that he lived, and moved, and was, IN Him; but that Saturday he knelt by his bedside at noon, and began to pray or try to pray as he had never prayed or tried to pray before. The perplexed man cried out within the clergyman, and pressed for some acknowledgment from God of the being he had made.
But—was it strange to tell? or if strange, was it not the most natural result nevertheless?—almost the same moment he began to pray in this truer fashion, the doubt rushed up in him like a torrent-spring from the fountains of the great deep—Was there—could there be a God at all? a real being who might actually hear his prayer? In this crowd of houses and shops and churches, amidst buying and selling, and ploughing and praising and backbiting, this endless pursuit of ends and of means to ends, while yet even the wind that blew where it listed blew under laws most fixed, and the courses of the stars were known to a hair's-breadth, —was there—could there be a silent invisible God working his own will in it all? Was there a driver to that chariot whose multitudinous horses seemed tearing away from the pole in all directions? and was he indeed, although invisible and inaudible, guiding that chariot, sure as the flight of a comet, straight to its goal? Or was there a soul to that machine whose myriad wheels went grinding on and on, grinding the stars into dust, matter into man, and man into nothingness? Was there—could there be a living heart to the universe that did positively hear him—poor, misplaced, dishonest, ignorant Thomas Wingfold, who had presumed to undertake a work he neither could perform nor had the courage to forsake, when out of the misery of the grimy little cellar of his consciousness he cried aloud for light and something to make a man of him? For now that Thomas had begun to doubt like an honest being, every ugly thing within him began to show itself to his awakened probity.
But honest and of good parentage as the doubts were, no sooner had they shown themselves than the wings of the ascending prayers fluttered feebly and failed. They sank slowly, fell, and lay as dead, while all the wretchedness of his position rushed back upon him with redoubled inroad. Here was a man who could not pray, and yet must go and read prayers and preach in the old attesting church, as if he too were of those who knew something of the secrets of the Almighty, and could bring out from his treasury, if not things new and surprising, then things old and precious! Ought he not to send round the bell-man to cry aloud that there would be no service? But what right had he to lay his troubles, the burden of his dishonesty, upon the shoulders of them who faithfully believed, and who looked to him to break to them their daily bread? And would not any attempt at a statement of the reasons he had for such an outrageous breach of all decorum be taken for a denial of those things concerning which he only desired most earnestly to know that they were true. For he had received from somewhere, he knew not how or whence, a genuine prejudice in favour of Christianity, while of those refractions and distorted reflexes of it which go by its name and rightly disgust many, he had had few of the tenets thrust upon his acceptance.
Thus into the dark pool of his dull submissive life, the bold words of the unbeliever had fallen—a dead stone perhaps, but causing a thousand motions in the living water. Question crowded upon question, and doubt upon doubt, until he could bear it no longer, and starting from the floor on which at last he had sunk prostrate, he rushed in all but involuntary haste from the house, and scarcely knew where he was until, in a sort, he came to himself some little distance from the town, wandering hurriedly in field-paths.
It was a fair morning of All Hallows' summer. The trees were nearly despoiled, but the grass was green, and there was a memory of spring in the low sad sunshine: even the sunshine, the gladdest thing in creation, is sad sometimes. There was no wind, nothing to fight with, nothing to turn his mind from its own miserable perplexities. How endlessly his position as a clergyman, he thought, added to his miseries! Had he been a man unpledged, he could have taken his own time to think out the truths of his relations; as it was, he felt like a man in a coffin: out he must get, but had not room to make a single vigorous effort for freedom! It did not occur to him yet that, uupressed from without, his honesty unstung, he might have taken more time to find out where he was than would have been either honest or healthful.
He came to a stile where his path joined another that ran both ways, and there seated himself, just as the same strange couple I have already described as met by Miss Lingard and Mr. Bascombe approached and went by. After they had gone a good way, he caught sight of something lying in the path, and going to pick it up, found it was a small manuscript volume.
With the pleasurable instinct of service, he hastened after them. They heard him, and turning waited his approach. He took off his hat, and presenting the book to the young woman, asked if she had dropped it. Possibly, had they been ordinary people of the class to which they seemed to belong, he would not have uncovered to them, for he naturally shrunk from what might be looked upon as a display of courtesy, but their deformity rendered it imperative. Her face flushed so at sight of the book, that, in order to spare her uneasiness, Wingfold could not help saying with a smile,
"Do not be alarmed: I have not read one word of it."
She returned his smile with much sweetness, and said—
"I see I need not have been afraid."
Her companion joined in thanks and apologies for having caused him so much trouble. Wingfold assured them it had been but a pleasure. It was far from a scrutinizing look with which he regarded them, but the interview left him with the feeling that their faces were refined and intelligent, and their speech was good. Again he lifted his rather shabby hat, the man responded with equal politeness in removing from a great grey head one rather better, and they turned from each other and went their ways, the sight of their malformation arousing in the curate no such questions as those with which it had agitated the tongue, if not the heart, of George Bascombe, to widen the scope of his perplexities. He had heard the loud breathing of the man, and seen the projecting eyes of the woman, but he never said to himself therefore that they were more hardly dealt with than he. Had such a thought occurred to him, he would have comforted the pain of his sympathy with the reflection that at least neither of them was a curate of the church of England who knew positively nothing of the foundation upon which that church professed to stand.
How he got through the Sunday he never could have told. What times a man may get through—he knows not how! As soon as it was over, it was all a mist—from which gleamed or gloomed large the face of George Bascombe with its keen unbelieving eyes and scornful lips. All the time he was reading the prayers and lessons, all the time he was reading his uncle's sermon, he had not only been aware of those eyes, but aware also of what lay behind them—seeing and reading the reflex of himself in Bascombe's brain; but nothing more whatever could he recall.
Like finger-posts dim seen, on a moorland journey, through the gathering fogs, Sunday after Sunday passed. I will not request my reader to accompany me across the confusions upon which was blowing that wind whose breath was causing a world to pass from chaos to cosmos. One who has ever gone through any experience of the kind himself, will be able to imagine it; to one who has not, my descriptions would be of small service: he would but shrink from the representation as diseased and of no general interest. And he would be so far right, that the interest in such things must be most particular and individual, or none at all.
The weeks passed and seemed to bring him no light, only increased earnestness in the search after it. Some assurance he must find soon, else he would resign his curacy, and look out for a situation as tutor.
Of course all this he ought to have gone through long ago! But how can a man go through anything till his hour be come? Saul of Tarsus was sitting at the feet of Gamaliel when our Lord said to his apostles—"Yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service." Wingfold had all this time been skirting the wall of the kingdom of heaven without even knowing that there was a wall there, not to say seeing a gate in it. The fault lay with those who had brought him up to the church as to the profession of medicine, or the bar, or the drapery business—as if it lay on one level of choice with other human callings. Nor were the honoured of the church who had taught him free from blame, who never warned him to put his shoes from off his feet for the holiness of the ground. But how were they to warn him, if they had sowed and reaped and gathered into barns on that ground, and had never discovered therein treasure more holy than libraries, incomes, and the visits of royalty? As to visions of truth that make a man sigh with joy, and enlarge his heart with more than human tenderness—how many of those men had ever found such treasure in the fields of the church? How many of them knew save by hearsay whether there be any Holy Ghost! How then were they to warn other men from the dangers of following in their footsteps and becoming such as they? Where, in a general ignorance and community of fault, shall we begin to blame? Wingfold had no time to accuse anyone after the first gush of bitterness. He had to awake from the dead and cry for light, and was soon in the bitter agony of the cataleptic struggle between life and death.
He thought afterwards, when the time had passed, that surely in this period of darkness he had been visited and upheld by a power whose presence and even influence escaped his consciousness. He knew not how else he could have got through it. Also he remembered that strange helps had come to him; that the aspects of nature then wonderfully softened towards him, that then first he began to feel sympathy with her ways and shows, and to see in them all the working of a diffused humanity. He remembered how once a hawthorn bud set him weeping; and how once, as he went miserable to church, a child looked up in his face and smiled, and how in the strength of that smile he had walked boldly to the lectern.
He never knew how long he had been in the strange birth agony, in which the soul is as it were at once the mother that bears and the child that is born.
A REPORT OF PROGRESS.
In the meantime George Bascombe came and went; every visit he showed clearer notions as to what he was for, and what he was against; every visit he found Helen more worthy and desirable than theretofore, and flattered himself he made progress in the conveyance of his opinions and judgments over into her mind. His various accomplishments went far in aid of his design. There was hardly anything Helen could do that George could not do as well, and some he could do better, while there were many things George was at home in which were sealed to her. The satisfaction of teaching such a pupil he found great. When at length he began to make love to her, Helen found it rather agreeable than otherwise; and, if there was a little more MAKING in it than some women would have liked, Helen was not sufficiently in love with him to detect its presence. Still the pleasure of his preference was such that it opened her mind with a favourable prejudice towards whatever in the shape of theory or doctrine he would have her receive; and much that a more experienced mind would have rejected because of its evident results in practice, was by her accepted in the ignorance which confined her regard of his propositions to their intellectual relations, and prevented her from following them into their influences upon life, which would have reflected light upon their character. For life in its real sense was to her as yet little more definite and present than a dream that waits for the coming night. Hence, when her cousin at length ventured to attack even those doctrines which all women who have received a Christian education would naturally be expected to revere the most, she was able to listen to him unshocked. But she little thought, or he either, that it was only in virtue of what Christian teaching she had had that she was capable of appreciating what was grand in his doctrine of living for posterity without a hope of good result to self beyond the consciousness that future generations of perishing men and women would be a little more comfortable, and perhaps a little less faulty therefrom. She did not reflect, either, that no one's theory concerning death is of much weight in his youth while life FEELS interminable, or that the gift of comfort during a life of so little value that the giver can part with it without regret, is scarcely one to be looked upon as a mighty benefaction.
"But truth is truth," George would have replied.
What you profess to teach them might be a fact, but could never be a truth, I answer. And the veiy value which you falsely put upon facts you have learned to attribute to them from the supposed existence of something at the root of all facts—namely, TRUTHS, or eternal laws of being. Still, if you believe that men will be happier from learning your discovery that there is no God, preach it, and prosper in proportion to its truth. No; that from my pen would be a curse—no, preach it not, I say, until you have searched all spaces of space, up and down, in greatness and smallness—where I grant indeed, but you cannot know, that you will not find him—and all regions of thought and feeling, all the unknown mental universe of possible discovery—preach it not until you have searched that also, I say, lest what you count a truth should prove to be no fact, and there should after all be somewhere, somehow, a very, living God, a Truth indeed, in whom is the universe. If you say, "But I am convinced there is none," I answer—You may be convinced that there is no God such as this or that in whom men imagine they believe, but you cannot be convinced there is no God.
Meantime George did not forget the present of this life in its future, continued particular about his cigars and his wine, ate his dinners with what some would call a good conscience and I would call a dull one, were I sure it was not a good digestion they really meant, and kept reading hard and to purpose.
Matters as between the two made no rapid advance. George went on loving Helen more than any other woman, and Helen went on liking George next best to her brother Leopold. Whether it came of prudence, of which George possessed not a little, of coldness of temperament, or a pride that would first be sure of acceptance, I do not know, but he made no formal offer yet of handing himself over to Helen, and certainly Helen was in no haste to hear, more than he to utter, the irrevocable.
One Tuesday morning, in the spring, the curate received by the local post the following letter dated from The Park-Gate.
"An obligation on my part which you have no doubt forgotten gives me courage to address you on a matter which seems to me of no small consequence concerning yourself. You do not know me, and the name at the end of my letter will have for you not a single association. The matter itself must be its own excuse.
"I sat in a free seat at the Abbey church last Sunday morning. I had not listened long to the sermon ere I began to fancy I foresaw what was coming, and in a few minutes more I seemed to recognise it as one of Jeremy Taylor's. When I came home, I found that the best portions of one of his sermons had, in the one you read, been wrought up with other material.
"If, sir, I imagined you to be one of such as would willingly have that regarded as their own which was better than they could produce, and would with contentment receive any resulting congratulations, I should feel that I was only doing you a wrong if I gave you a hint which might aid you in avoiding detection; for the sooner the truth concerning such a one was known, and the judgment of society brought to bear upon it, the better for him, whether the result were justification or the contrary. But I have read that in your countenance and demeanour which convinces me that, however custom and the presence of worldly elements in the community to which you belong may have influenced your judgment, you require only to be set thinking of a matter, to follow your conscience with regard to whatever you may find involved in it. I have the honour to be, respected sir,
"Your obedient servant and well-wisher,
Wingfold sat staring at the letter, slightly stunned. The feeling which first grew recognizable in the chaos it had caused, was vexation at having so committed himself; the next, annoyance with his dead old uncle for having led him into such a scrape. There in the good doctor's own handwriting lay the sermon, looking nowise different from the rest! Had he forgotten his marks of quotation? Or to that sermon did he always have a few words of extempore introduction? For himself he was as ignorant of Jeremy Taylor as of Zoroaster. It could not be that that was his uncle's mode of making his sermons? Was it possible they could all be pieces of literary mosaic? It was very annoying. If the fact came to be known, it would certainly be said that he had attempted to pass off Jeremy Taylor's for his own—as if he would have the impudence to make the attempt, and with such a well-known writer! But what difference did it make whether the writer was well or ill known? None, except as to the relative probabilities of escape and discovery! And should the accusation be brought against him, how was he to answer it? By burdening the reputation of his departed uncle with the odium of the fault? Was it worse in his uncle to use Jeremy Taylor than in himself to use his uncle? Or would his remonstrants accept the translocation of blame? Would the church-going or chapel-going inhabitants of Glaston remain mute when it came to be discovered that since his appointment he had not once preached a sermon of his own? How was it that knowing all about it in the background of his mind, he had never come to think of it before? It was true that, admirer of his uncle as he was, he had never imagined himself reaping any laurels from the credit of his sermons; it was equally true however that he had not told a single person of the hidden cistern whence he drew his large discourse. But what could it matter to any man, so long as a good sermon was preached, where it came from? He did not occupy the pulpit in virtue of his personality, but of his office, and it was not a place for the display of originality, but for dispensing the bread of life.—From the stores of other people?—Yes, certainly—if other people's bread was better, and no one the worse for his taking it. "For me, I have none," he said to himself. Why then should that letter have made him uncomfortable? What had he to be ashamed of? Why should he object to being found out? What did he want to conceal? Did not everybody know that very few clergymen really made their own sermons? Was it not absurd, this mute agreement that, although all men knew to the contrary, it must appear to be taken for granted that a man's sermons were of his own mental production? Still more absurd as well as cruel was the way in which they sacrificed to the known falsehood by the contempt they poured upon any fellow the moment they were able to say of productions which never could have been his, that they were by this man or that man, or bought at this shop or that shop in Great Queen Street or Booksellers' Row. After that he was an enduring object for the pointed finger of a mild scorn. It was nothing but the old Spartan game of—steal as you will and enjoy as you can: you are nothing the worse; but woe to you if you are caught in the act! There WAS something contemptible about the whole thing. He was a greater humbug than he had believed himself, for upon this humbug which he now found himself despising he had himself been acting diligently! It dawned upon him that, while there was nothing wrong in preaching his uncle's sermons, there was evil in yielding to cast any veil, even the most transparent, over the fact that the sermons were not his own.
THE PARK GATE.
He had however one considerate, even friendly parishioner, it seemed, whom it became him at least to thank for his openness. He ceased to pace the room, sat down at his writing-table, and acknowledged Mr. Polwarth's letter, expressing his obligation for its contents, and saying that he would do himself the honour of calling upon him that afternoon, in the hope of being allowed to say for himself what little could be said, and of receiving counsel in regard to the difficulty wherein he found himself. He sent the note by his land-lady's boy, and as soon as he had finished his lunch, which meant his dinner, for he could no longer afford to dull his soul in its best time for reading and thinking, he set out to find Park Gate, which he took for some row of dwellings in the suburbs.
Going in the direction pointed out, and finding he had left all the houses behind him, he stopped at the gate of Osterfield Park to make further inquiry. The door of the lodge was opened by one whom he took, for the first half second, to be a child, but recognized the next as the same young woman whose book he had picked up in the fields a few months before. He had never seen her since, but her deformity and her face together had made it easy to remember her.
"We have met before," he said, in answer to her courtesy and smile, "and you must now do me a small favour if you can."
"I shall be most happy, sir. Please come in," she answered.
"I am sorry I cannot at this moment, as I have an engagement. Can you tell me where Mr. Polwarth of the Park Gate lives?"
The girl's smile of sweetness changed to one of amusement as she repeated, in a gentle voice through which ran a thread of suffering,
"Come in, sir, please. My uncle's name is Joseph Polwarth, and this is the gate to Osterfield Park. People know it as the Park-gate."
The house was not one of those trim, modern park-lodges, all angles and peaks, which one sees everywhere now-a-days, but a low cottage, with a very thick, wig-like thatch, into which rose two astonished eyebrows over the stare of two half-awake dormer-windows. On the front of it were young leaves and old hips enough to show that in summer it must be covered with roses.
Wingfold entered at once, and followed her through the kitchen, upon which the door immediately opened, a bright place, with stone floor, and shining things on the walls, to a neat little parlour, cozy and rather dark, with a small window to the garden behind, and a smell of last year's roses.
"My uncle will be here in a few minutes," she said, placing a chair for him. "I would have had a fire here, but my uncle always talks better amongst his books. He expected you, but my lord's steward sent for him up to the new house."
He took the chair she offered him, and sat down to wait. He had not much of the gift of making talk—a questionable accomplishment, —and he never could approach his so-called inferiors but as his equals, the fact being that in their presence he never felt any difference. Notwithstanding his ignorance of the lore of Christianity, Thomas Wingfold was, in regard to some things, gifted with what I am tempted to call a divine stupidity. Many of the distinctions and privileges after which men follow, and of the annoyances and slights over which they fume, were to the curate inappreciable: he did not and could not see them.
"So you are warders of the gate here, Miss Polwarth?" he said, assuming that to be her name, and rightly, when the young woman, who had for a moment left the room, returned.
"Yes," she answered, "we have kept it now for about eight years, sir.—It is no hard task. But I fancy there will be a little more to do when the house is finished."
"It is a long way for you to go to church."
"It would be, sir; but I do not go," she said.
"Your uncle does."
"Not very often, sir."
She left the door open and kept coming and going between the kitchen and the parlour, busy about house affairs. Wingfold sat and watched her as he had opportunity with growing interest.
She had the full-sized head that is so often set on a small body, and it looked yet larger from the quantity of rich brown hair upon it—hair which some ladies would have given their income to possess. Clearly too it gave pleasure to its owner, for it was becomingly as well as carefully and modestly dressed. Her face seemed to Wingfold more interesting every fresh peep he had of it, until at last he pronounced it to himself one of the sweetest he had ever seen. Its prevailing expression was of placidity, and something that was not contentment merely: I would term it satisfaction, were I sure that my reader would call up the very antipode of SELF-satisfaction. And yet there were lines of past and shadows of present suffering upon it. The only sign however that her poor crooked body was not at present totally forgotten, was a slight shy undulation that now and then flickered along the lines of her sensitive mouth, seeming to indicate a shadowy dim-defined thought, or rather feeling, of apology, as if she would disarm prejudice by an expression of sorrow that she could not help the pain and annoyance her unsightliness must occasion. Every feature in her thin face was good, and seemed, individually almost, to speak of a loving spirit, yet he could see ground for suspecting that keen expressions of a quick temper could be no strangers upon those delicately modelled forms. Her hands and feet were both as to size and shape those of a mere child.
He was still studying her like a book which a boy reads by stealth, when with slow step her uncle entered the room.
Wingfold rose and held out his hand.
"You are welcome, sir," said Polwarth, modestly, with the strong grasp of a small firm hand. "Will you walk upstairs with me, where we shall be undisturbed? My niece has, I hope, already made my apologies for not being at home to receive you.—Rachel, my child, will you get us a cup of tea, and by the time it is ready we shall have got through our business, I daresay."
The face of Wingfold's host and new friend in expression a good deal resembled that of his niece, but bore traces of yet greater suffering—bodily, and it might be mental as well. It did not look quite old enough for the whiteness of the plentiful hair that crowned it, and yet there was that in it which might account for the whiteness.
His voice was a little dry and husky, streaked as it were with the asthma whose sounds made that big disproportioned chest seem like the cave of the east wind; but it had a tone of dignity and decision in it, quite in harmony with both matter and style of his letter, and before Wingfold had followed him to the top of the steep narrow straight staircase, all sense of incongruity in him had vanished from his mind.
The little man led the way into a tolerably large room, with down-sloping ceiling on both sides, lighted by a small window in the gable, near the fireplace, and a dormer window as well. The low walls, up to the slope, were filled with books; books lay on the table, on the bed, on chairs, and in corners everywhere.
"Aha!" said Wingfold, as he entered and cast his eyes around, "there is no room for surprise that you should have found me out so easily, Mr. Polwarth! Here you have a legion of detectives for such rascals."
The little man turned, and for a moment looked at him with a doubtful and somewhat pained expression, as if he had not been prepared for such an entrance on a solemn question; but a moment's reading of the curate's honest face, which by this time had a good deal more print upon it than would have been found there six months agone, sufficed; the cloud melted into a smile, and he said cordially,
"It is very kind of you, sir, to take my presumption in such good part. Pray sit down, sir. You will find that chair a comfortable one."
"Presumption!" echoed Wingfold. "The presumption was all on my part, and the kindness on yours. But you must first hear my explanation, such as it is. It makes the matter hardly a jot the better, only a man would not willingly look worse, or better either, than he is, and besides, we must understand each other if we would be friends. However unlikely it may seem to you, Mr. Polwarth, I really do share the common weakness of wanting to be taken exactly for what I am, neither more nor less."
"It is a noble weakness, and far enough from common, I am sorry to think," returned Polwarth.
The curate then told the gate-keeper of his uncle's legacy, and his own ignorance of Jeremy Taylor.
"But," he concluded, "since you set me about it, my judgment has capsized itself, and it now seems to me worse to use my uncle's sermons than to have used the bishop's, which anyone might discover to be what they are."
"I see no harm in either," said Polwarth, "provided only it be above board. I believe some clergymen think the only evil lies in detection. I doubt if they ever escape it, and believe the amount of successful deception in that kind to be very small indeed. Many in a congregation can tell, by a kind of instinct, whether a man be preaching his own sermons or not. But the worse evil appears to me to lie in the tacit understanding that a sermon must SEEM to be a man's own, although all in the congregation know, and the would-be preacher knows that they know, that it is none of his."
"Then you mean, Mr. Polwarth, that I should solemnly acquaint my congregation next Sunday with the fact that the sermon I am about to read to them is one of many left me by my worthy uncle, Jonah Driftwood, D.D., who, on his death-bed, expressed the hope that I should support their teaching by my example, for, having gone over them some ten or fifteen times in the course of his incumbency, and bettered each every time until he could do no more for it, he did not think, save by my example, I could carry further the enforcement of the truths they contained:—shall I tell them all that?"
Polwarth laughed, but with a certain seriousness in his merriment, which however took nothing from its genuineness, indeed seemed rather to add thereto.
"It would hardly be needful to enter so fully into particulars," he said. "It would be enough to let them know that you wished it understood between them and you, that you did not profess to teach them anything of yourself, but merely to bring to bear upon them the teaching of others. It would raise complaints and objections, doubtless; but for that you must be prepared if you would do anything right."
Wingfold was silent, thoughtful, saying to himself—"How straight an honest bow can shoot!—But this involves something awful. To stand up in that pulpit and speak about myself! I who, even if I had any opinions, could never see reason for presenting them to other people! It's my office, is it—not me? Then I wish my Office would write his own sermons. He can read the prayers well enough!"
All his life, a little heave of pent-up humour would now and then shake his burden into a more comfortable position upon his bending shoulders. He gave a forlorn laugh.
"But," resumed the small man, "have you never preached a sermon of your own thinking—I don't mean of your own making—one that came out of the commentaries, which are, I am told, the mines whither some of our most noted preachers go to dig for their first inspirations—but one that came out of your own heart—your delight in something you had found out, or something you felt much?"
"No," answered Wingfold; "I have nothing, never had anything worth giving to another; and it would seem to me very unreasonable to subject a helpless congregation to the blundering attempts of such a fellow to put into the forms of reasonable speech things he really knows nothing about."
"You must know about some things which it might do them good to be reminded of—even if they know them already," said Polwarth. "I cannot imagine that a man who looks things in the face as you do, the moment they confront you, has not lived at all, has never met with anything in his history which has taught him something other people need to be taught. I profess myself a believer in preaching, and consider that in so far as the church of England has ceased to be a preaching church—and I don't call nine-tenths of what goes by the name of it PREACHING—she has forgotten a mighty part of her high calling. Of course a man to whom no message has been personally given, has no right to take the place of a prophet—and cannot, save by more or less of simulation—but there is room for teachers as well as prophets, and the more need of teachers that the prophets are so few; and a man may right honestly be a clergyman who teaches the people, though he may possess none of the gifts of prophecy."
"I do not now see well how you are leading me," said Wingfold, considerably astonished at both the aptness and fluency with which a man in his host's position was able to express himself. "Pray, what do you mean by PROPHECY?"
"I mean what I take to be the sense in which St. Paul uses the word—I mean the highest kind of preaching. But I will come to the point practically: a man, I say, who does not feel in his soul that he has something to tell his people, should straightway turn his energy to the providing of such food for them as he finds feed himself. In other words, if he has nothing new in his own treasure, let him bring something old out of another man's. If his own soul is unfed, he can hardly be expected to find food for other people, and has no business in any pulpit, but ought to betake himself to some other employment—whatever he may have been predestined to—I mean, made fit for."
"Then do you intend that a man SHOULD make up his sermons from the books he reads?"
"Yes, if he cannot do better. But then I would have him read—not with his sermon in his eye, but with his people in his heart. Men in business and professions have so little time for reading or thinking—and idle people have still less—that their means of grace, as the theologians say, are confined to discipline without nourishment, whence their religion, if they have any, is often from mere atrophy but a skeleton; and the office of preaching is, after all, to wake them up lest their sleep turn to death; next, to make them hungry, and lastly, to supply that hunger; and for all these things, the pastor has to take thought. If he feed not the flock of God, then is he an hireling and no shepherd."
At this moment, Rachel entered with a small tea-tray: she could carry only little things, and a few at a time. She cast a glance of almost loving solicitude at the young man who now sat before her uncle with head bowed, and self-abasement on his honest countenance, then a look almost of expostulation at her uncle, as if interceding for a culprit, and begging the master not to be too hard upon him. But the little man smiled—such a sweet smile of re-assurance, that her face returned at once to its prevailing expression of content. She cleared a place on the table, set down her tray, and went to bring cups and saucers.
"I think I understand you now," said Wingfold, after the little pause occasioned by the young woman's entrance. "You would have a man who cannot be original, deal honestly in second-hand goods. Or perhaps rather, he should say to the congregation—'This is not home-made bread I offer you, but something better. I got it from this or that baker's shop. I have eaten of it myself, and it has agreed well with me and done me good. If you chew it well, I don't doubt you also will find it good.'—Is that something like what you would have, Mr. Polwarth?"
"Precisely," answered the gate-keeper. "But," he added, after a moment's delay, "I should be sorry if you stopped there."
"Stopped there!" echoed Wingfold. "The question is whether I can begin there. You have no idea how ignorant I am—how little I have read!"
"I have some idea of both, I fancy. I must have known considerably less than you at your age, for I was never at a university."
"But perhaps even then you had more of the knowledge which, they say, life only can give."
"I have it now at all events. But of that everyone has enough who lives his life. Those who gain no experience are those who shirk the king's highway, for fear of encountering the Duty seated by the roadside."
"You ought to be a clergyman yourself, sir," said Wingfold, humbly. "How is it that such as I——"
Here he checked himself, knowing something of how it was.
"I hope I ought to be just what I am, neither more nor less," replied Polwarth. "As to being a clergyman, Moses had a better idea about such things, at least so far as concerns outsides, than you seem to have, Mr. Wingfold. He would never have let a man who in size and shape is a mere mockery of the human, stand up to minister to the congregation. But if you will let me help you, I shall be most grateful; for of late I have been oppressed with the thought that I serve no one but myself and my niece. I am in mortal fear of growing selfish under the weight of my privileges."
A fit of asthmatic coughing seized him, and grew in severity until he seemed struggling for his life. It was at the worst when his niece entered, but she showed no alarm, only concern, and did nothing but go up to him and lay her hand on his back between his shoulders till the fit was over. The instant the convulsion ceased, its pain dissolved in a smile.
Wingfold uttered some lame expressions of regret that he should suffer so much.
"It is really nothing to distress you, or me either, Mr. Wingfold," said the little man. "Shall we have a cup of tea, and then resume our talk?"
"The fact, I find, Mr. Polwarth," said the curate, giving the result of what had been passing through his mind, and too absorbed in that to reply to the invitation, "is, that I must not, and indeed cannot give you half-confidences. I will tell you all that troubles me, for it is plain that you know something of which I am ignorant, —something which, I have great hopes, will turn out to be the very thing I need to know. May I speak? Will you let me talk about myself?"
"I am entirely at your service, Mr. Wingfold," returned Polwarth, and seeing the curate did not touch his tea, placed his own cup again on the table.
The young woman got down like a child from the chair upon which she had perched herself at the table, and with a kind look at Wingfold, was about to leave the room.
"No, no, Miss Polwarth!" said the curate, rising; "I shall not be able to go on if I feel that I have sent you away—and your tea untouched too! What a selfish and ungrateful fellow I am! I did not even observe that you had given me tea! But you would pardon me if you knew what I have been going through. If you don't mind staying, we can talk and drink our tea at the same time. I am very fond of tea, when it is so good as I see yours is. I only fear I may have to say some things that will shock you."
"I will stay till then," replied Rachel, with a smile, and climbed again upon her chair. "I am not much afraid. My uncle says things sometimes fit to make a Pharisee's hair stand on his head, but somehow they make my heart burn inside me.—May I stop, uncle?—I should like so much!"
"Certainly, my child, if Mr. Wingfold will not feel your presence a restraint."
"Not in the least," said the curate.
Miss Polwarth helped them to bread and butter, and a brief silence followed.
"I was brought up to the church," said Wingfold at length, playing with his teaspoon, and looking down on the table. "It's an awful shame such a thing should have been, but I don't find out that anybody in particular was to blame for it. Things are all wrong that way, in general, I doubt. I pass my examinations with decency, distinguish myself in nothing, go before the bishop, am admitted a deacon, after a year am ordained a priest, and after another year or two of false preaching and of parish work, suddenly find myself curate in charge of a grand old abbey church; but as to what the whole thing means in practical relation with myself as a human being, I am as ignorant as Simon Magus, without his excuse. Do not mistake me. I think I could stand an examination on the doctrines of the church, as contained in the articles, and prayer-book generally. But for all they have done for me, I might as well have never heard of them."
"Don't be quite sure of that, Mr. Wingfold. At least, they have brought you to inquire if there be anything in them."
"Mr. Polwarth," returned Wingfold abruptly, "I cannot even prove there is a God!"
"But the church of England exists for the sake of teaching Christianity, not proving that there is a God."
"What is Christianity, then?"
"God in Christ, and Christ in man."
"What is the use of that if there be no God?"
"Mr. Polwarth, can you prove there is a God?"
"Then if you don't believe there is a God—I don't know what is to become of me," said the curate, in a tone of deep disappointment, and rose to go.
"Mr. Wingfold," said the little man, with a smile and a deep breath as of delight at the thought that was moving in him, "I know him in my heart, and he is all in all to me. You did not ask whether I believed in him, but whether I could prove that there was a God. As well ask a fly, which has not yet crawled about the world, if he can prove that it is round!"
"Pardon me, and have patience with me," said Wingfold, resuming his seat. "I am a fool. But it is life or death to me."
"I would we were all such fools!—But please ask me no more questions; or ask me as many as you will, but expect no answers just yet. I want to know more of your mind first."
"Well, I will ask questions, but press for no answers.—If you cannot prove there is a God, do you know for certain that such a one as Jesus Christ ever lived? Can it be proved with positive certainty? I say nothing of what they call the doctrines of Christianity, or the authority of the church, or the sacraments, or anything of that sort. Such questions are at present of no interest to me. And yet the fact that they do not interest me, were enough to prove me in as false and despicable a position as ever man found himself occupying—as arrant a hypocrite and deceiver as any god-personating priest in the Delphic temple.—I had rather a man despised than excused me, Mr. Polwarth, for I am at issue with myself, and love not my past."
"I shall do neither, Mr. Wingfold. Go on, if you please, sir. I am more deeply interested than I can tell you."
"Some few months ago then, I met a young man who takes for granted the opposite of all that I had up to that time taken for granted, and which now I want to be able to prove. He spoke with contempt of my profession. I could not defend my profession, and of course had to despise myself. I began to think. I began to pray—if you will excuse me for mentioning it. My whole past life appeared like the figures that glide over the field of a camera obscura—not an abiding fact in it all. A cloud gathered about me, and hangs about me still. I call, but no voice answers me out of the darkness, and at times I am in despair. I would, for the love and peace of honesty, give up the profession, but I shrink from forsaking what I may yet possibly find—though I fear, I fear—to be as true as I wish to find it. Something, I know not what, holds me to it—some dim vague affection, possibly mere prejudice, aided by a love for music, and the other sweet sounds of our prayers and responses. Nor would I willingly be supposed to deny what I dare not say—indeed know not how to say I believe, not knowing what it is. I should nevertheless have abandoned everything months ago, had I not felt bound by my agreement to serve my rector for a year. You are the only one of the congregation who has shown me any humanity, and I beg of you to be my friend and help me. What shall I do? After the avowal you have made, I may well ask you again, How am I to know that there is a God?"
"It were a more pertinent question, sir," returned Polwarth,—"If there be a God, how am I to find him?—And, as I hinted before, there is another question—one you have already put—more pertinent to your position as an English clergyman: Was there ever such a man as Jesus Christ?—Those, I think, were your own words: what do you mean by SUCH a man?"
"Such as he is represented in the New Testament."
"From that representation, what description would you give of him now? What is that SUCH? What sort of person, supposing the story true, would you take this Jesus, from that story, to have been?"
Wingfold thought for a while.
"I am a worse humbug than I fancied," he said. "I cannot tell what he was. My thoughts of him are so vague and indistinct that it would take me a long time to render myself able to answer your question."
"Perhaps longer still than you think, sir. It took me a very long time.—"
"Shall I tell you," the gate-keeper went on, "something of my life, in return of the confidence you have honoured me with?"
"Nothing could be more to my mind," answered Wingfold. "And I trust," he added, "it is no unworthy curiosity that makes me anxious to understand how you have come to know so much."
"Indeed it is not that I know much," said the little man. "On the contrary I am the most ignorant person of my acquaintance. You would be astonished to discover what I don't know. But the thing is that I know what is worth knowing. Yet I get not a crumb more than my daily bread by it—I mean the bread by which the inner man lives. The man who gives himself to making money, will seldom fail of becoming a rich man; and it would be hard if a man who gave himself to find wherewithal to still the deepest cravings of his best self, should not be able to find that bread of life. I tried to make a little money by book-selling once: I failed—not to pay my debts, but to make the money; I could not go into it heartily, or give it thought enough, so it was all right I should not succeed; but what I did and do make my object, does not disappoint me.
"My ancestors, as my name indicates, were of and in Cornwall, where they held large property. Forgive the seeming boast—it is but fact, and can reflect little enough on one like me. Scorn and pain mingled with mighty hope is a grand prescription for weaning the heart from the judgments and aspirations of this world. Later ancestors were, not many generations ago, the proprietors of this very property of Osterfield, which the uncle of the present Lord de Barre bought, and to which I, their descendant, am gate-keeper. What with gambling, drinking, and worse, they deserved to lose it. The results of their lawlessness are ours: we are what and where you see us. With the inherited poison, the Father gave the antidote. Rachel, my child, am I not right when I say that you thank God with me for having THUS visited the iniquities of the fathers upon the children?"
"I do, uncle; you know I do—from the bottom of my heart," replied Rachel in a low tender voice.
A great solemnity came upon the spirit of Wingfold, and for a moment he felt as if he sat wrapt in a cloud of sacred marvel, beyond and around which lay a gulf of music too perfect to touch his sense. But presently Polwarth resumed:
"My father was in appearance a remarkably fine man, tall and stately. Of him I have little to say. If he did not do well, my grandfather must be censured first. He had a sister very like Rachel here. Poor Aunt Lottie! She was not so happy as my little one. My brothers were all fine men like himself, yet they all died young except my brother Robert. He too is dead now, thank God, and I trust he is in peace. I had almost begun to fear with himself that he would never die. And yet he was but fifty. He left me my Rachel with her twenty pounds a year. I have thirty of my own, and this cottage we have rent-free for attending to the gate. I shall tell you more about my brother some day. There are none of the family left now but myself and Rachel. God in his mercy is about to let it cease.
"I was sent to one of our smaller public schools—mainly, I believe, because I was an eyesore to my handsome father. There I made, I fancy, about as good a beginning as wretched health, and the miseries of a sensitive nature, ever conscious of exposure, without mother or home to hide its feebleness and deformity, would permit. For then first I felt myself an outcast. I was the butt of all the coarser-minded of my schoolfellows, and the kindness of some could but partially make up for it. On the other hand, I had no haunting and irritating sense of wrong, such as I believe not a few of my fellows in deformity feel—no burning indignation, or fierce impulse to retaliate on those who injured me, or on the society that scorned me. The isolation that belonged to my condition wrought indeed to the intensifying of my individuality, but that again intensified my consciousness of need more than of wrong, until the passion blossomed almost into assurance, and at length I sought even with agony the aid to which my wretchedness seemed to have a right. My longing was mainly for a refuge, for some corner into which I might creep, where I should be concealed and so at rest. The sole triumph I coveted over my persecutors was to know that they could not find me—that I had a friend stronger than they. It is no wonder I should not remember when I began to pray, and hope that God heard me. I used to fancy to myself that I lay in his hand and peeped through his fingers at my foes. That was at night, for my deformity brought me one blessed comfort—that I had no bedfellow. This I felt at first as both a sad deprivation and a painful rejection, but I learned to pray the sooner for the loneliness, and the heartier from the solitude which was as a chamber with closed door.
"I do not know what I might have taken to had I been made like other people, or what plans my mother cherished for me. But it soon became evident, as time passed and I grew no taller but more mis-shapen, that to bring me up to a profession would be but to render my deformity the more painful to myself. I spent, therefore, the first three years after I left school at home, keeping out of my father's way as much as possible, and cleaving fast to my mother. When she died, she left her little property between me and my brother. He had been brought up to my father's profession—that of an engineer. My father could not touch the principal of this money, but neither, while he lived, could we the interest. I hardly know how I lived for the next three or four years—it must have been almost on charity, I think. My father was never at home, and but for the old woman who had been our only attendant all my life, I think very likely I should have starved. I spent my time mostly in reading—whatever I could lay my hands upon—and that not carelessly, but with such reflection as I was capable of. One thing I may mention, as showing how I was still carried in the same direction as before—that, without any natural turn for handicraft, I constructed for myself a secret place of carpenter's work in a corner of the garret, small indeed, but big enough for a couch on which I could lie, and a table as long as the couch. That was all the furniture. The walls were lined from top to bottom with books, mostly gathered from those lying about the house. Cunningly was the entrance to this nest contrived: I doubt if anyone may have found it yet. If some imaginative, dreamy boy has come upon it, what a find it must have been to him! I could envy him the pleasure. There I always went to say my prayers and read my bible. But sometimes The Arabian Nights, or some other book of entrancing human invention, would come between, and make me neglect both, and then I would feel bad and forsaken;—for as yet I knew little of the heart to which I cried for shelter and warmth and defence.
"Somewhere in this time at length, I began to feel dissatisfied, even displeased with myself. At first the feeling was vague, altogether undefined—a mere sense that I did not fit into things, that I was not what I ought to be, what was somehow and by the Authority required of me. This went on, began to gather roots rather than send them out, grew towards something more definite. I began to be aware that, heavy affliction as it was to be made so different from my fellows, my outward deformity was but a picture of my inward condition. There nothing was right. Many things which in theory I condemned, and in others despised, were yet a part of myself, or, at best, part of evil disease cleaving fast unto me. I found myself envious and revengeful and conceited. I discovered that I looked down on people whom I thought less clever than myself. Once I caught myself scorning a young fellow to whose disadvantage I knew nothing, except that God had made him handsome enough for a woman. All at once one day, with a sickening conviction it came upon me—with one of those sudden slackenings of the cord of self-consciousness, in which it doubles back quivering, and seems to break, while the man for an instant beholds his individuality apart from himself, is generally frightened at it, and always disgusted—a strange and indeed awful experience, which if it lasted longer than its allotted moment, might well drive a man mad who had no God to whom to offer back his individuality, in appeal against his double consciousness—it was in one of these cataleptic fits of the spirit, I say, that I first saw plainly what a contemptible little wretch I was, and writhed in the bright agony of conscious worthlessness.
"I now concluded that I had been nothing but a pharisee and a hypocrite, praying with a bad heart, and that God saw me just as detestable as I saw myself, and despised me and was angry with me. I read my bible more diligently than ever for a time, found in it nothing but denunciation and wrath, and soon dropped it in despair. I had already ceased to pray.
"One day a little boy mocked me. I flew into a rage, and, rendered by passion for the moment fleet and strong, pursued and caught him. Whatever may be a man's condition of defence against evil, I have learnt that he cannot keep the good out of him. When the boy found himself in my clutches, he turned on me a look of such terror that it disarmed me at once, and, confounded and distressed to see a human being in such abject fear, a state which in my own experience I knew to be horrible, ashamed also that it should be before such a one as myself, I would have let him go instantly, but that I could not without first having comforted him. But not a word of mine could get into his ears, and I saw at length that he was so PRE-possessed, that every tone of kindness I uttered, sounded to him a threat: nothing would do but let him go. The moment he found himself free, he fled headlong into the pond, got out again, ran home, and told, with perfect truthfulness I believe, though absolute inaccuracy, that I threw him in. After this I tried to govern my temper, but found that the more I tried, the more even that I succeeded outwardly, that is, succeeded in suppressing the signs and deeds of wrath, the less could I keep down the wrath in my soul. I then tried never to think about myself at all, and read and read—not the bible—more and more, in order to forget myself. But ever through all my reading and thinking I was aware of the lack of harmony at the heart of me: I was not that which it was well to be; I was not at peace; I lacked; was distorted; I was sick. Such were my feelings, not my reflections. All that time is as the memory of an unlovely dream—a dream of confusion and pain.
"One evening, in the twilight, I lay alone in my little den, not thinking, but with mind surrendered and passive to what might come into it. It was very hot—indeed sultry. My little skylight was open, but not a breath of air entered. What preceded I do not know, but the face of the terrified boy rose before me, or in me rather, and all at once I found myself eagerly, painfully, at length almost in an agony, persuading him that I would not hurt him, but meant well and friendlily towards him. Again I had just let him go in despair, when the sweetest, gentlest, most refreshing little waft of air came in at the window and just went BEING, hardly moving, over my forehead. Its greeting was more delicate than even my mother's kiss, and yet it cooled my whole body. Now whatever, or whencesoever the link, if any be supposed needful to account for the fact, it kept below in the secret places of the springs, for I saw it not; but the next thought of which I was aware was—What if I misunderstood God the same way the boy had misunderstood me! and the next thing was to take my New Testament from the shelf on which I had laid it aside.
"Another evening of that same summer, I said to myself that I would begin at the beginning and read it through. I had no definite idea in the resolve; it seemed a good thing to do, and I would do it. It would serve towards keeping up my connection in a way with THINGS ABOVE. I began, but did not that night get through the first chapter of St. Matthew. Conscientiously I read every word of the genealogy, but when I came to the twenty-third verse and read: 'Thou shalt call his name Jesus; FOR HE SHALL SAVE HIS PEOPLE FROM THEIR SINS,' I fell on my knees. No system of theology had come between me and a common-sense reading of the book. I did not for a moment imagine that to be saved from my sins meant to be saved from the punishment of them. That would have been no glad tidings to me. My sinfulness was ever before me, and often my sins too, and I loved them not, yet could not free myself of them. They were in me and of me, and how was I to part myself from that which came to me with my consciousness, which asserted itself in me as one with my consciousness? I could not get behind myself so as to reach its root. But here was news of one who came from behind that root itself to deliver me from that in me which made being a bad thing! Ah, Mr. Wingfold! what if, after all the discoveries made, and all the theories set up and pulled down, amid all the commonplaces men call common sense, notwithstanding all the over-powering and excluding self-assertion of things that are seen, ever crying, 'Here we are, and save us there is nothing: the Unseen is the Unreal!'—what if, I say, notwithstanding all this, it should yet be that the strongest weapon a man can wield is prayer to one who made him! What if the man who lifts up his heart to the unknown God even, be entering, amid the mockery of men who worship what they call natural law and science, into the region whence issues every law, and where the very material of science is born!
"To tell you all that followed, if I could recall and narrate it in order, would take hours. Suffice it that from that moment I was a student, a disciple. Soon to me also came then the two questions: HOW DO I KNOW THAT THERE IS A GOD AT ALL? and—HOW AM I TO KNOW THAT SUCH A MAN AS JESUS EVERY LIVED? I could answer neither. But in the meantime I was reading the story—was drawn to the man there presented—and was trying to understand his being, and character, and principles of life and action. And, to sum all in a word, many months had not passed ere I had forgotten to seek an answer to either question: they were in fact questions no longer: I had seen the man Christ Jesus, and in him had known the Father of him and of me. My dear sir, no conviction can be got, or if it could be got, would be of any sufficing value, through that dealer in second-hand goods, the intellect. If by it we could prove there is a God, it would be of small avail indeed: we must see him and know him, to know that he was not a demon. But I know no other way of knowing that there is a God but that which reveals WHAT he is—the only idea that could be God—shows him in his own self-proving existence—and that way is Jesus Christ as he revealed himself on earth, and as he is revealed afresh to every heart that seeks to know the truth concerning him."
A pause followed, a solemn one, and then again Polwarth spoke:
"Either the whole frame of existence," he said, "is a wretched, miserable unfitness, a chaos with dreams of a world, a chaos in which the higher is for ever subject to the lower, or it is an embodied idea growing towards perfection in him who is the one perfect creative Idea, the Father of lights, who suffers himself that he may bring his many sons into the glory which is his own glory."
THE CONCLUSION OF THE WHOLE MATTER.
"But," said Wingfold—"only pray do not think I am opposing you; I am in the straits you have left so far behind: how am I to know that I should not merely have wrought myself up to the believing of that which I should like to be true?"
"Leave that question, my dear sir, until you know what that really is which you want to believe. I do not imagine that you have more than the merest glimmer of the nature of that concerning which you, for the very reason that you know not what it is, most rationally doubt. Is a man to refuse to withdraw his curtains lest some flash in his own eyes should deceive him with a vision of morning while yet it is night? The truth to the soul is as light to the eyes: you may be deceived, and mistake something else for light, but you can never fail to know the light when it really comes."
"What then would you have of me?—what am I to DO?" said Wingfold, who, having found his master, was docile as a child, but had not laid firm enough hold upon what he had last said.
"I repeat," said Polwarth, "that the community whose servant you are was not founded to promulgate or defend the doctrine of the existence of a Deity, but to perpetuate the assertion of a man that he was the son and only revealer of the Father of men, a fact, if it be a fact, which precludes the question of the existence of a God, because it includes the answer to it. Your business, therefore, even as one who finds himself in your unfortunate position as a clergyman, is to make yourself acquainted with that man: he will be to you nobody save in revealing, through knowledge of his inmost heart, the Father to you. Take then your New Testament as if you had never seen it before, and read—to find out. If in him you fail to meet God, then go to your consciousness of the race, your metaphysics, your Plato, your Spinosa. Till then, this point remains: there was a man who said he knew him, and that if you would give heed to him, you too should know him. The record left of him is indeed scanty, yet enough to disclose what manner of man he was—his principles, his ways of looking at things, his thoughts of his Father and his brethren and the relations between them, of man's business in life, his destiny, and his hopes."
"I see plainly," answered the curate, "that what you say, I must do. But how, while on duty as a clergyman, I DO NOT KNOW. How am I, with the sense of the unreality of my position ever growing upon me, and my utter inability to supply the wants of the congregation, save from my uncle's store of dry provender, which it takes me a great part of my time so to modify as, in using it, to avoid direct lying—with all this pressing upon me, and making me restless and irritable and self-contemptuous, how AM I to set myself to such solemn work, wherein a man must surely be clear-eyed and single-hearted, if he would succeed in his quest?—I must resign my curacy."
Mr. Polwarth thought a little.
"It would be well, I think, to retain it for a time at least while you search," he said. "If you do not within a month see prospect of finding him, then resign. In any case, your continuance in the service must depend on your knowledge of the lord of it, and his will concerning you."
"May not a prejudice in favour of my profession blind and deceive me?"
"I think it will rather make YOU doubtful of conclusions that support it."
"I will go and try," said Wingfold, rising; "but I fear I am not the man to make discoveries in such high regions."
"You are the man to find what fits your own need if the thing be there," said Polwarth. "But to ease your mind for the task: I know pretty well some of our best English writers of the more practical and poetic sort in theology—the two qualities go together—and if you will do me the favour to come again to-morrow, I shall be able, I trust, to provide you wherewithal to feed your flock, free of that duplicity which, be it as common as the surplice, and as fully connived as laughed at by that flock, is yet duplicity. There is no law that sermons shall be the preacher's own, but there is an eternal law against all manner of humbug. Pardon the word."
"I will not attempt to thank you," said Wingfold, "but I will do as you tell me. You are the first real friend I have ever had—except my brother, who is dead."
"Perhaps you have had more friends than you are aware of. You owe something to the man, for instance, who, with his outspoken antagonism, roused you first to a sense of what was lacking to you."
"I hope I shall be grateful to God for it some day," returned Wingfold. "I cannot say that I feel much obligation to Mr. Bascombe. And yet when I think of it,—perhaps—I don't know—what ought a man to be more grateful for than honesty?"
After a word of arrangement for next day the curate took his leave, assuredly with a stronger feeling of simple genuine respect than he had ever yet felt for man. Rachel bade him good night with her fine eyes filled with tears, which suited their expression, for they always seemed to be looking through sorrow to something beyond it.
"If this be a type of the way the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children," said the curate to himself, "there must be more in the progression of history than political economy can explain. It would drive us to believe in an economy wherein rather the well-being of the whole was the result of individual treatment, and not the well-being of the individual the result of the management of the whole?"
I will not count the milestones along the road on which Wingfold now began to journey. Some of the stages, however, will appear in the course of my story. When he came to any stiff bit of collar-work, the little man generally appeared with an extra horse. Every day during the rest of that week he saw his new friends.
A STRANGE SERMON.
On the Sunday the curate walked across the churchyard to the morning prayer very much as if the bells, instead of ringing the people to church, had been tolling for his execution. But if he was going to be hanged, he would at least die like a gentleman, confessing his sin. Only he would it were bed-time, and all well. He trembled so when he stood up to read that he could not tell whether or not he was speaking in a voice audible to the congregation. But as his hour drew near, the courage to meet it drew near also, and when at length he ascended the pulpit stairs, he was able to cast a glance across the sea of heads to learn whether the little man was in the poor seats. But he looked for the big head in vain.
When he read his text, it was to a congregation as listless and indifferent as it was wont to be. He had not gone far, however, before that change of mental condition was visible in the faces before him, which a troop of horses would have shown by a general forward swivelling of the ears. Wonderful to tell, they were actually listening. But in truth it was no wonder, for seldom in any, and assuredly never in that church, had there been heard such an exordium to a sermon.
His text was—"Confessing your faults one to another." Having read it with a return of the former trembling, and paused, his brain suddenly seemed for a moment to reel under a wave of extinction that struck it, then to float away upon it, and then to dissolve in it, as it interpenetrated its whole mass, annihilating thought and utterance together. But with a mighty effort of the will, in which he seemed to come as near as man could come to the willing of his own existence, he recovered himself and went on. To do justice to this effort, my reader must remember that he was a shy man, and that he knew his congregation but too well for an unsympathetic one—whether from their fault or his own mattered little for the nonce. It had been hard enough to make up his mind to the attempt when alone in his study, or rather, to tell the truth, in his chamber, but to carry out his resolve in the face of so many faces, and in spite of a cowardly brain, was an effort and a victory indeed. Yet after all, upon second thoughts, I see that the true resolve was the victory, sweeping shyness and every other opposing weakness along with it. But it wanted courage of yet another sort to make of his resolve a fact, and his courage, in that kind as well, had never yet been put to the test or trained by trial. He had not been a fighting boy at school; he had never had the chance of riding to hounds; he had never been in a shipwreck, or a house on fire; had never been waked from a sound sleep with a demand for his watch and money; yet one who had passed creditably through all these trials, might still have carried a doubting conscience to his grave rather than face what Wingfold now confronted.
From the manuscript before him he read thus:
"'Confess your faults one to another.'—This command of the apostle, my hearers, ought to justify me in doing what I fear some of you may consider almost as a breach of morals—talking of myself in the pulpit. But in the pulpit has a wrong been done, and in the pulpit shall it be confessed. From Sunday to Sunday, standing on this spot, I have read to you, without word of explanation, as if they formed the message I had sought and found for you, the thoughts and words of another. Doubtless they were better than any I could have given you from my own mind or experience, and the act had been a righteous one, had I told you the truth concerning them. But that truth I did not tell you.—At last, through words of honest expostulation, the voice of a friend whose wounds are faithful, I have been aroused to a knowledge of the wrong I have been doing. Therefore I now confess it. I am sorry. I will do so no more.
"But, brethren, I have only a little garden on a bare hill-side, and it hath never yet borne me any fruit fit to offer for your acceptance; also, my heart is troubled about many things, and God hath humbled me. I beg of you, therefore, to bear with me for a little while, if, doing what is but lawful and expedient both, I break through the bonds of custom in order to provide you with food convenient for you. Should I fail in this, I shall make room for a better man. But for your bread of this day, I go gleaning openly in other men's fields—fields into which I could not have found my way, in time at least for your necessities, and where I could not have gathered such full ears of wheat, barley, and oats but for the more than assistance of the same friend who warned me of the wrong I was doing both you and myself. Right ancient fields are some of them, where yet the ears lie thick for the gleaner. To continue my metaphor: I will lay each handful before you with the name of the field where I gathered it; and together they will serve to show what some of the wisest and best shepherds of the English flock have believed concerning the duty of confessing our faults." He then proceeded to read the extracts which Mr. Polwarth had helped him to find—and arrange, not chronologically, but after an idea of growth. Each handful, as he called it, he prefaced with one or two words concerning him in whose field he had gleaned it.
His voice steadied and strengthened as he read. Renewed contact with the minds of those vanished teachers gave him a delight which infused itself into the uttered words, and made them also joyful; and if the curate preached to no one else in the congregation, certainly he preached to himself, and before it was done had entered into a thorough enjoyment of the sermon.
A few in the congregation were disappointed because they had looked for a justification and enforcement of the confessional, thinking the change in the curate could only have come from that portion of the ecclesiastical heavens towards which they themselves turned their faces. A few others were scandalized at such an innovation on the part of a young man who was only a curate. Many however declared that it was the most interesting sermon they had ever heard in their lives—which perhaps was not saying much.
Mrs. Ramshorn made a class by herself. Not having yet learned to like Wingfold, and being herself one of the craft, with a knowledge of not a few of the secrets of the clerical—prison-house, shall I call it, or green-room?—she was indignant with the presumptuous young man who degraded the pulpit to a level with the dock. Who cared for him? What was it to a congregation of respectable people, many of them belonging to the first county families, that he, a mere curate, should have committed what he fancied a crime against them! He should have waited until it had been laid to his charge. Couldn't he repent of his sins, whatever they were, without making a boast of them in the pulpit, and exposing them to the eyes of a whole congregation? She had known people make a stock-in-trade of their sins! What was it to them whether the washy stuff he gave them by way of sermons was his own foolishness or some other noodle's! Nobody would have troubled himself to inquire into his honesty, if he had but held his foolish tongue. Better men than he had preached other people's sermons and never thought it worth mentioning. And what worse were the people? The only harm lay in letting them know it; that brought the profession into disgrace, and prevented the good the sermon would otherwise have done, besides giving the enemies of the truth a handle against the church. And then such a thing to call a sermon! As well take a string of blown eggs to market! Thus she expatiated, half the way home, before either of her companions found an opportunity of saying a word.
"I am sorry to differ from you, aunt," said Helen. "I thought the sermon a very interesting one. He read beautifully."
"For my part," said Bascombe, who was now a regular visitor from Saturdays to Mondays, "I used to think the fellow a muff, but, by Jove! I've changed my mind. If ever there was a plucky thing to do, that was one, and there ain't many men, let me tell you, aunt, who would have the pluck for it.—It's my belief, Helen," he went on, turning to her and speaking in a lower tone, "I've had the honour of doing that fellow some good. I gave him my mind about honesty pretty plainly the first time I saw him. And who can tell what may come next when a fellow once starts in the right way! We shall have him with us before long. I must look out for something for him, for of course he'll be in a devil of a fix without his profession."
"I am so glad you think with me, George!" said Helen. "There was always something I was inclined to like about Mr. Wingfold. Indeed I should have liked him quite if he had not been so painfully modest."
"Notwithstanding his sheepishness, though," returned Bascombe, "there was a sort of quiet self-satisfaction about him, and the way he always said Don't you think? as if he were Socrates taking advantage of Mr. Green and softly guiding him into a trap, which I confess made me set him down as conceited; but, as I say, I begin to change my mind. By Jove! he must have worked pretty hard too in the dust-bins to get together all those bits of gay rag and resplendent crockery!"
"You heard him say he had help," said Helen.
"No, I don't remember that."
"It came just after that pretty simile about gleaning in old fields."
"I remember the simile, for I thought it a very absurd one—as if fields would lie gleanable for generations!"
"To be sure—now you point it out!" acquiesced Helen.
"The grain would have sprouted and borne harvests a hundred. If a man will use figures, he should be careful to give them legs. I wonder whom he got to help him—not the rector, I suppose?"
"The rector!" echoed Mrs. Ramshorn, who had been listening to the young people's remarks with a smile of quiet scorn on her lip, thinking what an advantage was experience, even if it could not make up for the loss of youth and beauty—"The last man in the world to lend himself to such a miserable makeshift and pretence! Without brains enough even to fancy himself able to write a sermon of his own, he flies to the dead,—to their very coffins as it were—and I will not say STEALS from them, for he does it openly, not having even shame enough to conceal his shame!"
"I like a man to hold his face to what he does, or thinks either," said Bascombe.
"Ah, George!" returned his aunt, in tones of wisdom, "by the time you have had my experience, you will have learned a little prudence."
Meantime, so far as his aunt was concerned, George did use prudence, for in her presence he did not hold his face to what he thought. He said to himself it would do her no good. She was so prejudiced! and it might interfere with his visits.—She, for her part, never had the slightest doubt of his orthodoxy: was he not the son of a clergyman and canon?—a grandson of the church herself?
Sometimes a thunderbolt, as men call it, will shoot from a clear sky; and sometimes into the midst of a peaceful family, or a yet quieter individuality, without warning of gathered storm above, or lightest tremble of earthquake beneath, will fall a terrible fact, and from the moment everything is changed. That family or that life is no more what it was—probably never more can be what it was. Better it ought to be, worse it may be—which, depends upon itself. But its spiritual weather is altered. The air is thick with cloud, and cannot weep itself clear. There may come a gorgeous sunset though.
It were a truism for one who believes in God to say that such catastrophes, so rending, so frightful, never come but where they are needed. The Power of Life is not content that they who live in and by him should live poorly and contemptibly. If the presence of low thoughts which he repudiates, yet makes a man miserable, how must it be with him if they who live and move and have their being in him are mean and repulsive, or alienated through self-sufficiency and slowness of heart?
I cannot report much progress in Helen during the months of winter and spring. But if one wakes at last, wakes at all, who shall dare cast the stone at him—that he ought to have awaked sooner? What man who is awake will dare to say that he roused himself the first moment it became possible to him? The main and plain and worst, perhaps only condemnation is—that when people do wake they do not get up. At the same time, however, I can hardly doubt that Helen was keeping the law of a progress slow as the growth of an iron-tree.
Nothing had ever yet troubled her. She had never been in love, could hardly be said to be in love now. She went regularly to church, and I believe said her prayers night and morning—yet felt no indignation at the doctrines and theories propounded by George Bascombe. She regarded them as "George's ideas," and never cared to ask whether they were true or not, at the same time that they were becoming to her by degrees as like truth as falsehood can ever be. For to the untruthful mind the false CAN seem the true. Meantime she was not even capable of giving him the credit he deserved, in that, holding the opinions he held, he yet advocated a life spent for the community—without, as I presume, deriving much inspiration thereto from what he himself would represent as the ground of all conscientious action, the consideration, namely, of its reaction upon its originator. Still farther was it from entering the field of her vision that possibly some of the good which distinguished George's unbelief from that of his brother ephemera of the last century, was owing to the deeper working of that leaven which he denounced as the poisonous root whence sprung all the evil diseases that gnawed at the heart of society.