He looked at her, waiting an answer.
"Not much," replied Helen. "I like the quiet and the music. That's all."
He seemed disappointed, and lay still for a few moments.
"In old times," he said at last, "the churches used to be a refuge: I suppose that is why one can't help feeling as if some safety were to be got from them yet.—Was your cousin George there this morning?"
"Yes, he went with us," answered Helen.
"I should like to see him. I want somebody to talk to."
Helen was silent. She was more occupied however in answering to herself the question why she shrank so decidedly from bringing Bascombe into the sick-room, than in thinking what she should say to Leopold. The truth was the truth, and why should she object to Leopold's knowing, or at least being told as well as herself, that he need fear no punishment in the next world, whatever he might have to encounter in this; that there was no frightful God who hated wrong-doing to be terrified at; that even the badness of his own action need not distress him, for he and it would pass away as the blood he had shed had already vanished from the earth? Ought it not to encourage the poor fellow?—But to what? To live on and endure his misery, or to put an end to it and himself at once? Or perhaps to plunge into vice that he might escape the consciousness of guilt and the dread of the law?
I will not say that exactly such a train of thought as this passed through her mind, but of whatever sort it was, it brought her no nearer to a desire for the light of George Bascombe's presence by the bedside of her guilty brother. At the same time her partiality for her cousin made her justify his exclusion thus: "George is so good himself, he is only fit for the company of good people. He would not in the least understand my poor Poldie, and would be too hard upon him."
Since her brother's appearance, in fact, she had seen very little of her cousin, and this not merely because her presence was so much required in the sick-chamber, but because she was herself unwilling to meet him. She had felt, almost without knowing it, that his character was unsympathetic, and that his loud, cold good-nature could never recognise or justify such love as she bore to her brother! Nor was this all; for, remembering how he had upon one occasion expressed himself with regard to criminals, she feared even to look in his face, lest his keen, questioning, unsparing eye should read in her soul that she was the sister of a murderer.
Before this time however a hint of light had appeared in the clouds that enwrapped her and Leopold: she had begun to doubt whether he had really committed the crime of which he accused himself. There had been no inquiry after him, except from his uncle, concerning his absence from Cambridge, for which his sudden attack of brain fever served as more than sufficient excuse. That there had been such a murder, the newspapers left her no room to question—but might not the relation in which he stood to the victim—the horror of her death, the insidious approaches of the fever, and the influences of that hateful drug, have combined to call up an hallucination of blood-guiltiness? And what at length all but satisfied her of the truth of her conjecture was that, when he began to recover, Leopold seemed himself in doubt at times whether his sense of guilt had not its origin in some one or other of the many dreams which had haunted him throughout his illness, knowing only too well that it was long since dreams had become to him more real than the greater part of what was going on around him. To this blurring and confusing of consciousness it probably contributed, that, in the first stages of the fever, he was under the influence of the same drug which had been working upon his brain up to the very moment when he committed the crime.
During the week the hope had almost settled into conviction; and one consequence was that, although she was not a whit more inclined to introduce George Bascombe to the sick-chamber, she found herself not only equal, but no longer averse to meeting him; and on the following Saturday, when he presented himself as usual, come to spend the Sunday, she listened to her aunt, and consented to go out with him for a ride—in the evening, however, when Mrs. Rainshorn herself, who had shown Leopold great and genuine kindness, would be able to sit with him. They therefore had dinner early, and Helen went again to her brother's room, unwilling to leave him a moment until she gave up her charge to her aunt.
They had tea together, and Leopold was very quiet. It is wonderful with what success the mind will accommodate itself, in its effort after peace, to the presence of the most torturing thought. But Helen took this quietness for a sign of innocence, not knowing that the state of the feelings is neither test nor gauge of guilt. The nearer perfection a character is, the louder is the cry of conscience at the appearance of fault; and, on the other hand, the worst criminals have had the easiest minds.
Helen also was quiet, and fell into a dreamy mood, watching her brother, who every now and then turned on her a look of love and gratitude which moved her heart to its very depths. Not until she heard the horses coming round from the stable, did she rise to go and change her dress.
"I shall not be long away from you, Poldie," she said.
"Do not forget me, Helen," he returned. "If you forget me, an enemy will think of me."
His love comforted her, and yet further strengthened her faith in his innocence; and it was with a kind of half-repose, timid, wavering, and glad, upon her countenance—how different from the old, dull, wooden quiescence!—that she joined her cousin in the hall. A moment, and he had lifted her to the saddle, and was mounted by her side.
A soft west wind, issuing as from the heart of a golden vase filled with roses, met them the instant they turned out of the street, walking their horses towards the park-gate.
Something—was it in the evening, or was it in his own soul?—had prevailed to the momentary silencing of George Bascombe:—it may have been but the influence of the cigar which Helen had begged him to finish. Helen too was silent: she felt as if the low red sun, straight into which they seemed to be riding, blotted out her being in the level torrent of his usurping radiance. Neither of them spoke a word until they had passed through the gate into the park.
It was a perfect English summer evening—warm, but not sultry. As they walked their horses up the carriage way, the sun went down, and as if he had fallen like a live coal into some celestial magazine of colour and glow, straightway blazed up a slow explosion of crimson and green in a golden triumph—pure fire, the smoke and fuel gone, and the radiance alone left. And now Helen received the second lesson of her initiation into the life of nature: she became aware that the whole evening was thinking around her, and as the dusk grew deeper and the night grew closer, the world seemed to have grown dark with its thinking. Of late Helen had been driven herself to think—if not deeply, yet intensely—and so knew what it was like, and felt at home with the twilight.
They turned from the drive on to the turf. Their horses tossed up their heads, and set off, unchecked, at a good pelting gallop, across the open park. On Helen's cheek the wind blew cooling, strong, and kind. As if flowing from some fountain above, in an unseen unbanked river, down through the stiller ocean of the air, it seemed to bring to her a vague promise, almost a precognition, of peace—which, however, only set her longing after something—she knew not what—something of which she only knew that it would fill the longing the wind had brought her. The longing grew and extended—went stretching on and on into an infinite of rest. And as they still galloped, and the light-maddened colours sank into smoky peach, and yellow green, and blue gray, the something swelled and swelled in her soul, and pulled and pulled at her heart, until the tears were running down her face: for fear Bascombe should see them, she gave her horse the rein, and fled from him into the friendly dusk that seemed to grade time into eternity.
Suddenly she found herself close to a clump of trees, which overhung the deserted house. She had made a great circuit without knowing it. A pang shot to her heart, and her tears ceased to flow. The night, silent with thought, held THAT also in its bosom! She drew rein, turned, and waited for Bascombe.
"What a chase you've given me, Helen!" he cried, while yet pounding away some score of yards off.
"A wild-goose one you mean, cousin?"
"It would have been if I had thought to catch you on this ancient cocktail."
"Don't abuse the old horse, George: he has seen better days. I would gladly have mounted you more to your mind, but you know I could not—except indeed I had given you my Fanny, and taken the old horse myself. I have ridden him."
"The lady ought always to be the better mounted," returned George coolly. "For my part, I much prefer it, because then I need not be anxious about whether I am boring her or not: if I am, she can run away."
"You cannot suppose I thought you a bore to-night. A more sweetly silent gentleman none could wish for squire."
"Then it was my silence bored you.—Shall I tell you what I was thinking about?"
"If you like. I was thinking how pleasant it would be to ride on and on into eternity," said Helen.
"That feeling of continuity," returned George, "is a proof of the painlessness of departure. No one can ever know when he ceases to be, because then he is not; and that is how some men come to fancy they feel as if they were going to live for ever. But the worst of it is that they no sooner fancy it, than it seems to them a probable as well as delightful thing to go on and on and never cease. This comes of the man's having no consciousness of ceasing, and when one is comfortable, it always seems good to go on. A child is never willing to turn from the dish of which he is eating to another. It is more he wants, not another."
"That is if he likes it," said Helen.
"Everybody likes it," said George, "—more or less."
"I am not so sure of EVERYbody," replied Helen. "Do you imagine that twisted little dwarf-woman that opened the gate for us is content with her lot?"
"No, that is impossible—while she sees you and remains what she is. But I said nothing of contentment. I was but thinking of the fools who, whether content or not, yet want to live for ever, and so, very conveniently, take their longing for immortality, which they call an idea innate in the human heart, for a proof that immortality is their rightful inheritance."
"How then do you account for the existence and universality of the idea?" asked Helen, who had happened lately to come upon some arguments on the other side.
But while she spoke thus indifferently she felt in her heart like one who wakes from a delicious swim in the fairest of rivers, to find that the clothes have slipped from the bed to the floor:—that was all his river and all his swim!
"I account for its existence as I have just said; and for its universality by denying it. It is NOT universal, for I haven't it."
"At least you will not deny that men, even when miserable, shrink from dying?"
"Anything, everything is unpleasant out of its due time. I will allow, for the sake of argument, that the thought of dying is always unpleasant. But wherefore so? Because, in the very act of thinking it, the idea must always be taken from the time that suits with it—namely, its own time, when it will at length, and ought at length to come—and placed in the midst of the lively present, with which assuredly it does not suit. To life, death must be always hateful. In the rush and turmoil of effort, how distasteful even the cave of the hermit—let ever such a splendid view spread abroad before its mouth! But when it comes it will be pleasant enough, for then its time will have come also—the man will be prepared for it by decay and cessation. If one were to tell me that he had that endless longing for immortality, of which hitherto I have only heard at second hand, I would explain it to him thus:—Your life, I would say, not being yet complete, still growing, feels in itself the onward impulse of growth, and, unable to think of itself as other than complete, interprets that onward impulse as belonging to the time around it instead of the nature within it. Or rather let me say, the man feels in himself the elements of more, and not being able to grasp the notion of his own completeness, which is so far from him, transposes the feeling of growth and sets it beyond himself, translating it at the same time into an instinct of duration, a longing after what he calls eternal life. But when the man is complete, then comes decay and brings its own contentment with it—as will also death, when it arrives in its own proper season of fulness and ripeness."
Helen said nothing in reply. She thought her cousin very clever, but could not enjoy what he said—not in the face of that sky, and in the yet lingering reflection of the feelings it had waked in her. He might be right, but now at least she wanted no more of it. She even felt as if she would rather cherish a sweet deception for the comfort of the moment in which the weaver's shuttle flew, than take to her bosom a cold killing fact.
Such were indeed an unworthy feeling to follow! Of all things let us have the truth—even of fact! But to deny what we cannot prove, not even casts into our ice-house a spadeful of snow. What if the warm hope denied should be the truth after all? What if it was the truth in it that drew the soul towards it by its indwelling reality, and its relations with her being, even while she took blame for suffering herself to be enticed by a sweet deception? Alas indeed for men if the life and the truth are not one, but fight against each other! Surely it says something for the divine nature of him that denies the divine, when he yet cleaves to what he thinks the truth, although it denies the life, and blots the way to the better from every chart!
"And what were you thinking of, George?" said Helen, willing to change the subject.
"I was thinking," he answered, "let me see!—oh! yes—I was thinking of that very singular case of murder. You must have seen it in the newspapers. I have long had a doubt whether I were better fitted for a barrister or a detective. I can't keep my mind off a puzzling case.—You must have heard of this one—the girl they found lying in her ball-dress in the middle of a wood—stabbed to the heart?"
"I do remember something of it," answered Helen, gathering a little courage to put into her voice from the fact that her cousin could hardly see her face. "Then the murderer has not been discovered?"
"That is the point of interest. Not a trace of him! Not a soul suspected even!"
Helen drew a deep breath.
"Had it been in Rome, now," George went on. "But in a quiet country place in England! The thing seems incredible! So artistically done!—no struggle!—just one blow right to the heart, and the assassin gone as if by magic!—no weapon dropped!—nothing to give a clue! The whole thing suggests a practised hand.—But why such a one for the victim? Had it been some false member of a secret society thus immolated, one could understand it. But a merry girl at a ball!—it IS strange! I SHOULD like to try the unravelling of it."
"Has nothing then been done?" said Helen with a gasp, to hide which she moved in her saddle, as if readjusting her habit.
"Oh, everything—of course. There was instant pursuit on the discovery of the body, but they seem to have got on the track of the wrong man—or, indeed, for anything certain, of no man at all. A coast-guardsman says that, on the night or rather morning in question, he was approaching a little cove on the shore, not above a mile from the scene of the tragedy, with an eye upon what seemed to be two fishermen preparing to launch their boat, when he saw a third man come running down the steep slope from the pastures above, and jump into the stern of it. Ere he could reach the spot, they were off, and had hoisted two lugsails. The moon was in the first of her last quarter, and gave light enough for what he reported. But, when inquiries founded on this evidence were made, nothing whatever could be discovered concerning boat or men. The next morning no fishing-boat was lacking, and no fisherman would confess to having gone from that cove. The marks of the boat's keel, and of the men's feet, on the sand, if ever there were any, had been washed out by the tide. It was concluded that the thing had been pre-arranged and provided for, and that the murderer had escaped, probably to Holland. Thereupon telegrams were shot in all directions, but no news could be gathered of any suspicious landing on the opposite coast. There the matter rests, or at least has rested for many weeks. Neither parents, relatives, nor friends appear to have a suspicion of anyone."
"Are there no conjectures as to motives?" asked Helen, feeling with joy her power of dissimulation gather strength.
"No end of them. She was a beautiful creature, they say, sweet-tempered as a dove, and of course fond of admiration—whence the conjectures all turn on jealousy. The most likely thing seems, that she had some squire of low degree, of whom neither parents nor friends knew anything. That they themselves suspect this, appears likely from their more than apathy with regard to the discovery of the villain. I am strongly inclined to take the matter in hand myself."
"We must get him out of the country as soon as possible," thought Helen.
"I should hardly have thought it worthy of your gifts, George," she said, "to turn police-man. For my part, I should not relish hunting down any poor wretch."
"The sacrifice of individual choice is a claim society has upon each of its members," returned Bascombe. "Every murderer hanged, or better, imprisoned for life, is a gain to the community."
Helen said no more, and presently turned homewards, on the plea that she must not be longer absent from her invalid.
END OF THE FIRST VOLUME.
THOMAS WINGFOLD, CURATE.
RACHEL AND HER UNCLE.
It was nearly dark when they arrived again at the lodge. Rachel opened the gate for them. Without even a THANK YOU, they rode out. She stood for a moment gazing after them through the dusk, then turned with a sigh, and went into the kitchen, where her uncle sat by the fire with a book in his hand.
"How I should like to be as well made as Miss Lingard!" she said, seating herself by the lamp that stood on the deal-table. "It MUST be a fine thing to be strong and tall, and able to look this way and that without turning all your body along with your head, like the old man that gathers the leeches in Wordsworth's poem. And what it must be to sit on a horse as she does! You should have seen her go flying like the very wind across the park! You would have thought she and her horse were cut out of the same piece. I'm dreadfully envious, uncle."
"No, my child; I know you better than you do yourself. There is a great difference between I WISH I WAS and I SHOULD LIKE TO BE—as much as between a grumble and a prayer. To be content is not to be satisfied. No one ought to be satisfied with the imperfect. It is God's will that we should bear, and contentedly—because in hope, looking for the redemption of the body. And we know he has a ready servant who will one day set us free."
"Yes, uncle; I understand. You know I enjoy life: how could I help it and you with me? But I don't think I ever go through the churchyard without feeling a sort of triumph. 'There's for you!' I say sometimes to the little crooked shadow that creeps along by my side across the graves. 'You'll soon be caught and put inside!'—But how am I to tell I mayn't be crooked in the next world as well as this? That's what troubles me at times. There might be some necessity for it, you know."
"Then will there be patience to bear it there also; that you may be sure of. But I do not fear. It were more likely that those who have not thanked God, but prided themselves that they were beautiful in this world, should be crooked in the next. It would be like Dives and Lazarus, you know. But God does what is best for them as well as for us. We shall find one day that beauty and riches were the best thing for those to whom they were given, as deformity and poverty were the best for us."
"I wonder what sort of person I should have been if I had had a straight spine!" said Rachel laughing.
"Hardly one so dear to your deformed uncle," said her companion in ugliness.
"Then I'm glad I am as I am," rejoined Rachel.
"This conscious individuality of ours," said Polwarth, after a thoughtful silence, "is to me an awful thing—the one thing that seems in humanity like the onliness of God. Mine terrifies me sometimes—looking a stranger to me—a limiting of myself—a breaking in upon my existence—like a volcanic outburst into the blue Sicilian air. When it thus manifests itself, I find no refuge but the offering of it back to him who thought it worth making. I say to him: 'Lord, it is thine, not mine;—see to it, Lord. Thou and thy eternity are mine, Father of Jesus Christ.'"
He covered his eyes with his hands, and his lips grew white, and trembled. Thought had turned into prayer, and both were silent for a space. Rachel was the first to speak.
"I think I understand, uncle," she said. "I don't mind being God's dwarf. But I would rather be made after his own image; this can't be it. I should like to be made over again."
"And if the hope we are saved by be no mockery, if St. Paul was not the fool of his own radiant imaginings, you will be, my child.—But now let us forget our miserable bodies. Come up to my room, and I will read you a few lines that came to me this morning in the park."
"Won't you wait for Mr. Wingfold, uncle? He will be here yet, I think. It can't be ten o'clock. He always looks in on Saturdays as he goes home from his walk. I should like you to read them to him too. They will do him good, I know."
"I would, my dear, willingly, if I thought he would care for them. But I don't think he would. They are not good enough verses. He has been brought up on Horace, and, I fear, counts the best poetry the neatest."
"I think you must be mistaken there, uncle; I have heard him talk delightfully about poetry."
"You must excuse me if I am shy of reading my poor work to any but yourself, Rachel. My heart was wo much in it, and the subject is so sacred—"
"I am sorry you should think your pearls too good to cast before Mr. Wingfold, uncle," said Rachel, with a touch of disappointed temper.
"Nay, nay, child," returned Polwarth, "that was not a good thing to say. What gives me concern is, that there is so much of the rough dirty shell sticking about them, that to show them would be to wrong the truth in them."
Rachel seldom took long to repent. She came slowly to her uncle, where he stood with the lamp in his hand, looking in his face with a heavenly contrition, and saying nothing. When she reached him, she dropped on her knees, and kissed the hand that hung by his side. Her temper was poor Rachel's one sore-felt trouble.
Polwarth stooped and kissed her on the forehead, raised her, and leading her to the stair, stood aside to let her go first. But when she had been naughty Rachel would never go before her uncle, and she drew back. With a smile of intelligence he yielded and led the way. But ere they had climbed to the top, Rachel heard Mr. Wingfold's step, and went down again to receive him.
Invited to ascend, Wingfold followed Rachel to her uncle's room, and there, whether guided by her or not, the conversation presently took such a turn that at length, of his own motion, Polwarth offered to read his verses. From the drawer of his table he took a scratched and scored halfsheet, and—not in the most melodious of voices, yet in one whose harshness and weakness could not cover a certain refinement of spiritual tenderness—read as follows:
Lord, hear my discontent: All blank I stand, A mirror polished by thy hand; Thy sun's beams flash and flame from me— I cannot help it: here I stand, there he; To one of them I cannot say— Go, and on yonder water play. Nor one poor ragged daisy can I fashion— I do not make the words of this my limping passion. If I should say: Now I will think a thought, Lo! I must wait, unknowing, What thought in me is growing, Until the thing to birth is brought; Nor know I then what next will come From out the gulf of silence dumb. I am the door the thing did find To pass into the general mind; I cannot say I think— I only stand upon the thought-well's brink; From darkness to the sun the water bubbles up— I lift it in my cup. Thou only thinkest—I am thought; Me and my thought thou thinkest. Nought Am I but as a fountain spout From which thy water welleth out. Thou art the only One, the All in all. —Yet when my soul on thee doth call And thou dost answer out of everywhere, I in thy allness have my perfect share.
While he read Rachel crept to his knee, knelt down, and laid her head upon it.
If we are but the creatures of a day, yet surely were the shadow-joys of this miserable pair not merely nobler in their essence, but finer to the soul's palate than the shadow-joys of young Hercules Bascombe—Helen and horses and all! Poor Helen I cannot use for comparison, for she had no joy, save indeed the very divine, though at present unblossoming one of sisterly love. Still, and notwithstanding, if the facts of life are those of George Bascombe's endorsing—AND HE CAN PROVE IT—let us by all means learn and accept them, be they the worst possible. Meantime there are truths that ought to be facts, and until he has proved that there is no God, some of us will go feeling after him if haply we may find him, and in him the truths we long to find true. Some of us perhaps think we have seen him from afar, but we only know the better that in the mood wherein such as Bascombe are, they will never find him—which would no doubt be to them a comfort were it not for a laughter. And if he be such as their idea of what we think him, they ARE better without him. If, on the contrary, he be what some of us really think him, their not seeking him will not perhaps prevent him from finding them.
From likeness of nature, community of feeling, constant intercourse, and perfect confidence, Rachel understood her uncle's verses with sufficient ease to enjoy them at once in part, and, for the rest, to go on thinking in the direction in which they would carry her; but Wingfold, in whom honesty of disposition had blossomed at last into honesty of action, after fitting pause, during which no word was spoken, said:—
"Mr. Polwarth, where verse is concerned, I am simply stupid: when read I cannot follow it. I did not understand the half of that poem. I never have been a student of English verse, and indeed that part of my nature which has to do with poetry, has been a good deal neglected. Will you let me take those verses home with me?"
"I cannot do that, for they are not legible; but I will copy them out for you."
"Will you give me them to-morrow? Shall you be at church?"
"That shall be just as you please: would you rather have me there or not?"
"A thousand times rather," answered the curate. "To have one man there who knows what I mean better than I can say it, is to have a double soul and double courage.—But I came to-night mainly to tell you that I have been much puzzled this last week to know how I ought to regard the Bible—I mean as to its inspiration. What am I to say about it?"
"Those are two distinct things. Why think of saying about it, before you have anything to say? For yourself, however, let me ask if you have not already found in the book the highest means of spiritual education and development you have yet met with? If so, may not that suffice for the present? It is the man Christ Jesus we have to know, and the Bible we have to use to that end—not for theory or dogma.—I will tell you a strange dream I had once, not long ago."
Rachel's face brightened. She rose, got a little stool, and setting it down close by the chair on which her uncle was perched, seated herself at his feet, with her eyes on the ground, to listen.
"About two years ago," said Polwarth, "a friend sent me Tauchnitz's edition of the English New Testament, which has the different readings of the three oldest known manuscripts translated at the foot of the page. The edition was prepared chiefly for the sake of showing the results of the collation of the Sinaitic manuscript, the oldest of all, so named because it was found—a few years ago, by Tischendorf—in a monastery on Mount Sinai—nowhere else than there! I received it with such exultation as brought on an attack of asthma, and I could scarce open it for a week, but lay with it under my pillow. When I did come to look at it, my main wonder was to find the differences from the common version so few and small. Still there were some such as gave rise to a feeling far above mere interest—one in particular, the absence of a word that had troubled me, not seeming like a word of our Lord, or consonant with his teaching. I am unaware whether the passage has ever given rise to controversy."
"May I ask what word it was?" interrupted Wingfold, eagerly.
"I will not say," returned Polwarth. "Not having troubled you, you would probably only wonder why it should have troubled me. For my purpose in mentioning the matter, it is enough to say that I had turned with eagerness to the passage wherein it occurs, as given in two of the gospels in our version. Judge my delight in discovering that in the one gospel the whole passage was omitted by the two oldest manuscripts, and in the other just the one word that had troubled me, by the same two. I would not have you suppose me foolish enough to imagine that the oldest manuscript must be the most correct; but you will at once understand the sense of room and air which the discovery gave me notwithstanding, and I mention it because it goes both to account for the dream that followed and to enforce its truth. Pray do not however imagine me a believer in dreams more than in any other source of mental impressions. If a dream reveal a principle, that principle is a revelation, and the dream is neither more NOR LESS valuable than a waking thought that does the same. The truth conveyed is the revelation. I do not deny that facts have been learned in dreams, but I would never call the communication of a mere fact a revelation. Truth alone, beheld as such by the soul, is worthy of the name. Facts, however, may themselves be the instruments of such revelation.
"The dream I am now going to tell you was clearly enough led up to by my waking thoughts. For I had been saying to myself ere I fell asleep: 'On the very Mount Sinai, that once burned with heavenly fire, and resounded with the thunder of a visible Presence, now old and cold, and swathed in the mists of legend and doubt, was discovered the most reverend, because most ancient record of the new dispensation which dethroned that mountain, and silenced the thunders of the pedagogue law! Is it not possible that yet, in some ancient convent, insignificant to the eye of the traveller as modern Nazareth would be but for its ancient story, some one of the original gospel-manuscripts may lie, truthful and unblotted from the hand of the very evangelist?—Oh lovely parchment!' I thought—'if eye of man might but see thee! if lips of man might kiss thee!' and my heart swelled like the heart of a lover at the thought of such a boon.—Now, as you know, I live in a sort of live coffin here," continued the little man, striking his pigeon-breast, "with a barrel-organ of discords in it, constantly out of order in one way or another; and hence it comes that my sleep is so imperfect, and my dreams run more than is usual, as I believe, on in the direction of my last waking thoughts. Well, that night, I dreamed thus: I was in a desert. It was neither day nor night to me. I saw neither sun, moon, nor stars. A heavy, yet half-luminous cloud hung over the visible earth. My heart was beating fast and high, for I was journeying towards a certain Armenian convent, where I had good ground for hoping I should find the original manuscript of the fourth gospel, the very handwriting of the apostle John. That the old man did not write it himself, I never thought of that in my dream.
"After I had walked on for a long, anything but weary time, I saw the level horizon line before me broken by a rock, as it seemed, rising from the plain of the desert. I knew it was the monastery. It was many miles away, and as I journeyed on it grew and grew, until it swelled huge as a hill against the sky. At length I came up to the door, iron-clamped, deep-set in a low thick wall. It stood wide open. I entered, crossed a court, reached the door of the monastery itself, and again entered. Every door to which I came stood open, but priest nor guide came to meet me, and I saw no man, and at length looked for none, but used my best judgment to get deeper and deeper into the building, for I scarce doubted that in its inmost penetralia I should find the treasure I sought. At last I stood before a door hung with a curtain of rich workmanship, torn in the middle from top to bottom. Through the rent I passed into a stone cell. In the cell stood a table. On the table was a closed book. Oh how my heart beat! Never but then have I known the feeling of utter preciousness in a thing possessed. What doubts and fears would not this one lovely, oh unutterably beloved volume, lay at rest for ever! How my eyes would dwell upon every stroke of every letter the hand of the dearest disciple had formed! Nearly eighteen hundred years—and there it lay!—and there WAS a man who DID hear the Master say the words, and did set them down! I stood motionless, and my soul seemed to wind itself among the leaves, while my body stood like a pillar of salt, lost in its own gaze. At last, with sudden daring, I made a step towards the table, and, bending with awe, stretched out my hand to lay it upon the book. But ere my hand reached it, another hand, from the opposite side of the table, appeared upon it—an old, blue-veined, but powerful hand. I looked up. There stood the beloved disciple! His countenance was as a mirror which shone back the face of the Master. Slowly he lifted the book, and turned away. Then first I saw behind him as it were an altar whereon a fire of wood was burning, and a pang of dismay shot to my heart, for I knew what he was about to do. He laid the book on the burning wood, and regarded it with a smile as it shrunk and shrivelled and smouldered to ashes. Then he turned to me and said, while a perfect heaven of peace shone in his eyes: 'Son of man, the Word of God liveth and abideth for ever, not in the volume of the book, but in the heart of the man that in love obeyeth him. And therewith I awoke weeping, but with the lesson of my dream."
A deep silence fell on the little company. Then said Wingfold,
"I trust I have the lesson too."
He rose, shook hands with them, and, without another word, went home.
It often seems to those in earnest about the right as if all things conspired to prevent their progress. This of course is but an appearance, arising in part from this, that the pilgrim must be headed back from the side paths into which he is constantly wandering. To Wingfold, however, it seemed that all things fell in to further his quest, which will not be so surprising if we remember that his was no intermittent repentant seeking, but the struggle of his whole energy. And there are those who, in their very first seeking of it, are nearer to the kingdom of heaven than many who have for years believed themselves of it.
In the former there is more of the mind of Jesus, and when he calls them they recognize him at once and go after him; while the others examine him from head to foot, and, finding him not sufficiently like the Jesus of their conception, turn their backs, and go to church, or chapel, or chamber, to kneel before a vague form mingled of tradition and fancy. But the first shall be last, and the last first; and there are from whom, be it penny or be it pound, what they have must be taken away because with them it lies useless.
For Wingfold, he soon found that his nature was being stirred to depths unsuspected before. Hitherto nothing had ever roused him to genuine activity: his history not very happy; his life not very interesting, his work not congenial, and paying itself in no satisfaction, his pleasures of a cold and common intellectual sort,—he had dragged along, sustained, without the sense of its sustentation, by the germ within him of a slowly developing honesty. But now that Conscience had got up into the guard's seat, and Will had taken the reins, he found all his intellectual faculties in full play, keeping well together, heads up and traces tight, while the outrider Imagination, with his spotted dog Fancy, was always far ahead, but never beyond the sound of the guard's horn; and ever as they went, object after object hitherto beyond the radius of his interest, rose on the horizon of question, and began to glimmer in the dawn of human relation.
His first sermon is enough to show that he had begun to have thoughts of his own—a very different thing from the entertaining of the thoughts of others, however well we may feed and lodge them—thoughts which came to him not as things which sought an entrance, but as things that sought an exit—cried for forms of embodiment that they might pass out of the infinite, and by incarnation become communicable.
The news of that strange first sermon had of course spread through the town, and the people came to church the next Sunday in crowds— twice as many as the usual assembly—some who went seldom, some who went nowhere, some who belonged to other congregations and communities—mostly bent on witnessing whatever eccentricity the very peculiar young man might be guilty of next, but having a few among them who were sympathetically interested in seeing how far his call, if call it was, would lead him.
His second sermon was to the same purport as the first. Preposing no text, he spoke to the following effect, and indeed the following are of the very words he uttered:
"The church wherein you now listen, my hearers, the pulpit wherein I now speak, stand here from of old in the name of Christianity. What is Christianity? I know but one definition, the analysis of which, if the thing in question be a truth, must be the joyous labour of every devout heart to all eternity. For Christianity does not mean what you think or what I think concerning Christ, but what IS OF Christ. My Christianity, if ever I come to have any, will be what of Christ is in me; your Christianity now is what of Christ is in you. Last Sunday I showed you our Lord's very words—that he, and no other, was his disciple who did what he told him,—and said therefore that I dared not call myself a disciple. I say the same thing in saying now that I dare not call myself a Christian, lest I should offend him with my 'Lord, Lord!' Still it is, and I cannot now help it, in the name of Christianity that I here stand. I have, alas, with blameful and appalling thoughtlessness I subscribed my name, as a believer, to the Articles of the Church of England, with no better reason than that I was unaware of any dissent therefrom, and have been ordained one of her ministers. The relations into which this has brought me I do not feel justified in severing at once, lest I should therein seem to deny that which its own illumination may yet show me to be true, and I desire therefore a little respite and room for thought and resolve. But meantime it remains my business, as an honest man in the employment of the church, to do my best towards the setting forth of'the claims of him upon whom that church is founded, and in whose name she exists. As one standing on the outskirts of a listening Galilean crowd, a word comes now and then to my hungry ears and hungrier heart: I turn and tell it again to you—not that ye have not heard it also, but that I may stir you up to ask yourselves: 'Do I then obey this word? Have I ever, have I once sought to obey it? Am I a pupil of Jesus? Am I a Christian?' Hear then of his words. For me, they fill my heart with doubt and dismay.
"The Lord says: Love your enemies. Sayest thou, It is impossible? Then dost thou mock the word of him who said, I am the Truth, and has no part in him. Sayest thou, Alas, I cannot? Thou sayest true, I doubt not. But hast thou tried whether he who made will not increase the strength put forth to obey him?
"The Lord says: Be ye perfect. Dost thou then aim after perfection, or dost thou excuse thy wilful short-comings, and say, To err is human—nor hopest that it may also be found human to grow divine? Then ask thyself, for thou hast good cause, whether thou hast any part in him.
"The Lord said, Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth. My part is not now to preach against the love of money, but to ask you: Are you laying up for yourselves treasures on earth? As to what the command means, the honest heart and the dishonest must each settle in his own way; but if your heart condemn you, what I have to say is, Call not yourselves Christians, but consider whether you ought not to become disciples indeed. No doubt you can instance this, that, and the other man who does as you do, and of whom yet no man dreams of questioning the Christianity: it matters not a hair; all that goes but to say that you are pagans together. Do not mistake me: I judge you not. I but ask you, as mouthpiece most unworthy of that Christianity in the name of which this building stands and we are met therein, to judge your own selves by the words of its founder.
"The Lord said: Take no thought for your life. Take no thought for the morrow. Explain it as you may or can—but ask yourselves—Do I take no thought for my life? Do I take no thought for the morrow? and answer to yourselves whether or no ye are Christians.
"The Lord says: Judge not. Didst thou judge thy neighbour yesterday? Wilt thou judge him again to-morrow? Art thon judging him now in the very heart that within thy bosom sits hearing the words Judge not? Or wilt thou ask yet again—Who is my neighbour? How then canst thou look to be of those that shall enter through the gates into the city? I tell thee not, for I profess not yet to know anything, but doth not thy own profession of Christianity counsel thee to fall upon thy face, and cry to him whom thou mockest, 'I am a sinful man, O Lord'?
"The Lord said: All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them. Ye that buy and sell, do you obey this law? Examine yourselves and see. Ye would that men should deal fairly by you; do you deal fairly by them as ye would count fairness in them to you?—If conscience makes you hang the head inwardly, however you sit with it erect in the pew, dare you add to your crime against the law and the prophets the insult to Christ of calling yourselves his disciples?
"Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. He will none but those who with him do the will of the Father."
I have of course given but the spine and ribs, as it were, of the sermon. There is no place for more. It is enough however to show that he came to the point—and what can be better in preaching? Certainly he was making the best of the blunder that had led him up into that pulpit! And on the other hand, whatever might be the various judgments and opinions of his hearers in respect of the sermon—a thing about which the less any preacher allows himself to think the better—many of them did actually feel that he had been preaching to them, which is saying much. Even Mrs. Ramshorn was more silent than usual as they went home, and although—not having acquainted herself, amongst others, with the sermons of Latimer—she was profoundly convinced that such preaching was altogether contrary to the tradition, usage, and tone of the English Church, of which her departed dean remained to her the unimpeachable embodiment and type, the sole remark she made was, that Mr. Wingfold took quite too much pains to prove himself a pagan. Mr. Bascombe was in the same mind as before.
"I like the fellow," he said. "He says what he means, fair and full, and no shilly-shallying. It's all great rubbish, of course!"
And the widow of the dean of blessed memory had not a word to say in defence of the sermon, but, for her, let it go as the great rubbish he called it. Indeed, not knowing the real mind of her nephew, she was nothing less than gratified to hear from him an opinion so comfortably hostile to that of this most uncomfortable of curates, whom you never could tell where to have, and whom never since he had confessed to wrong in the reading of his uncle's sermons, and thus unwittingly cast a reproach upon the memory of him who had departed from the harassed company of deans militant to the blessed company of deans triumphant, had she invited to share at her table of the good things left behind.
"Why don't you ask him home to dinner, aunt?" said Bascombe, after a pause unbroken by Mrs. Ramshorn.
"Why should I, George?" returned his aunt. "Has he not been abusing us all at a most ignorant and furious rate?"
"Oh! I didn't know," said the nephew, and held his peace. Nor did the aunt perceive the sarcasm for the sake of pointing which he was silent. But it was not lost, and George was paid in full by the flicker of a faint smile across Helen's face.
As for Helen, the sermon had indeed laid a sort of feebly electrical hold upon her, the mere nervous influence of honesty and earnestness. But she could not accuse herself of having ever made a prominent profession of Christianity, confirmation and communion notwithstanding; and besides, had she not now all but abjured the whole thing in her heart? so that, if every word of what he said was true, not a word of it could be applied to her! And what time had she to think about such far-away things as had happened eighteen centuries ago, when there was her one darling pining away with a black weight on his heart!
For, although Leopold was gradually recovering, a supreme dejection, for which his weakness was insufficient to account, prostrated his spirit, and at length drove Mr. Faber to ask Helen whether she knew of any disappointment or other source of mental suffering that could explain it. She told him of the habit he had formed, and asked whether his being deprived of the narcotic might not be the cause. He accepted the suggestion, and set himself, not without some success, to repair the injury the abuse had occasioned. Still, although his physical condition plainly improved, the dejection continued, and Mr. Faber was thrown back upon his former conjecture. Learning nothing, however, and yet finding that, as he advanced towards health, his dejection plainly deepened, he began at length to fear softening of the brain, but could discover no other symptom of such disease.
The earnestness of the doctor's quest after a cause for what anyone might observe, added greatly to Helen's uneasiness; and besides, the fact itself began to undermine the hope of his innocence which had again sprung up and almost grown to assurance in the absence of any fresh contradiction from without. Also, as his health returned, his sleep became more troubled; he dreamed more, and showed by his increased agitation in his dreams that they were more painful. In this respect his condition was at the worst always between two and three o'clock in the morning; and having perceived this fact, Helen would never allow anyone except herself to sit up with him the first part of the night.
Increased anxiety and continued watching soon told upon her health yet more severely, and she lost appetite and complexion. Still she slept well during the latter part of the morning, and it was in vain that aunt and doctor and nurse all expostulated with her upon the excess of her ministration: nothing should make her yield the post until her brother was himself again. Nor was she without her reward, and that a sufficing one—in the love and gratitude with which Leopold clung to her.
During the day also she spent every moment, except such as she passed in the open air, and at table with her aunt, by his bedside, reading and talking to him; but as yet not a single allusion had been made to the frightful secret.
At length he was so much better that there was no longer need for anyone to sit up with him; but then Helen had her bed put in the dressing-room, that at one o'clock she might be by his side, to sit there until three should be well over and gone.
Thus she gave up her whole life to him, and doubtless thereby gained much fresh interest in it for herself. But the weight of the secret, and the dread of the law, were too much for her, and were gradually undermining that strength of dissimulation in which she had trusted, and which, in respect of cheerfulness, she had to exercise towards her brother as well as her aunt. She struggled hard, for if those weak despairing eyes of his were to encounter weakness and despair in hers, madness itself would be at the door for both. She had come nearly to the point of discovering that the soul is not capable of generating its own requirements, that it needs to be supplied from a well whose springs lie deeper than its own soil, in the infinite All, namely, upon which that soil rests. Happy they who have found that those springs have an outlet in their hearts—on the hill of prayer.
It was very difficult to lay her hands on reading that suited him. Gifted with a glowing yet delicate eastern imagination, pampered and all but ruined, he was impatient of narratives of common life, whose current bore him to a reservoir and no sea; while, on the other hand, some tales that seemed to Helen poverty-stricken flats of nonsense, or jumbles of false invention, would in her brother wake an interest she could not understand, appearing to afford him outlooks into regions to her unknown. But from the moral element in any story he shrunk visibly. She tried the German tales collected by the brothers Grimm, so popular with children of all ages; but on the very first attempt she blundered into an awful one of murder and vengeance, in which, if the drawing was untrue, the colour was strong, and had to blunder clumsily out of it again, with a hot face and a cold heart. At length she betook herself to the Thousand and One Nights, which she had never read, and found very dull, but which with Leopold served for what book could do.
In the rest of the house things went on much the same. Old friends and their daughters called on Mrs. Ramshorn, and inquired after the invalid, and George Bascombe came almost every Saturday, and stayed till Monday. But the moment the tide of her trouble began again to rise, Helen found herself less desirous of meeting one from whom she could hope neither help nor cheer. It might be that future generations of the death-doomed might pass their poor life a little more comfortably that she had not been a bad woman, and she might be privileged to pass away from the world, as George taught her, without earning the curses of those that came after her; but there was her precious brother lying before her with a horrible worm gnawing at his heart, and what to her were a thousand generations unborn! Rather with Macbeth she might well "wish the estate o' the world were now undone"—most of all when, in the silent watches of the night, as she sat by the bedside of her beloved and he slept, his voice would come murmuring out of a dream, sounding so far away that it seemed as if his spirit only and not his lips had spoken the words, "Oh Helen, darling, give me my knife. Why will you not let me die?"
GLASTON AND THE CURATE.
Outside, the sun rose and set, never a crimson thread the less in the garment of his glory that the spirit of one of the children of the earth was stained with blood-guiltiness; the moon came up and knew nothing of the matter; the stars minded their own business; and the people of Glaston were talking about their curate's sermons. Alas, it was about his sermons, and not the subject of them, that men talked, their interest mainly roused by their PECULIARITY, and what some called the oddity of the preacher.
What had come to him? He was not in the least like that for months after his appointment, and the change came all at once! Yes—it began with those extravagant notions about honesty in writing his own sermons! It might have been a sunstroke, but it took him far too early in the year for that! Softening of the brain it might be, poor fellow! Was not excessive vanity sometimes a symptom?—Poor fellow!
So said some. But others said he was a clever fellow, and long-headed enough to know that that sort of thing attracted attention, and might open the way to a benefice, or at least an engagement in London, where eloquence was of more account than in a dead-and-alive country place like Glaston, from which the tide of grace had ebbed, leaving that great ship of the church, the Abbey, high and dry on the shore.
Others again judged him a fanatic—a dangerous man. Such did not all venture to assert that he had erred from the way, but what man was more dangerous than he who went too far? Possibly these forgot that the narrow way can hardly be one to sit down in comfortably, or indeed to be entered at all save by him who tries the gate with the intent of going all the way—even should it lead up to the perfection of the Father in heaven. "But," they would in effect have argued, "is not a fanatic dangerous? and is not an enthusiast always in peril of becoming a fanatic?—Be his enthusiasm for what it may—for Jesus Christ, for God himself, such a man is dangerous— most dangerous! There are so many things, comfortably settled like Presumption's tubs upon their own bottoms, which such men would, if they could, at once upset and empty!"
Others suspected a Romanizing drift in the whole affair. "Wait until he gathers influence," they said, "and a handful of followers, and then you'll see! They'll be all back to Rome together in a month!"
As the wind took by the tail St. Peter's cock on the church spire and whirled it about, so did the wind of words in Glaston rudely seize and flack hither and thither the spiritual reputation of Thomas Wingfold, curate. And all the time, the young man was wrestling, his life in his hand, with his own unbelief; while upon his horizon ever and anon rose the glimmer of a great aurora, or the glimpse of a boundless main—if only he could have been sure they were no mirage of his own parched heart and hungry eye—that they were thoughts in the mind of the Eternal, and THRERFORE had appeared in his, even as the Word was said to have become flesh and dwelt with men! The next moment he would be gasping in that malarious exhalation from the marshes of his neglected heart—the counter-fear, namely, that the word under whose potent radiance the world seemed on the verge of budding forth and blossoming as the rose, was TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE.
"Yes, much too good, if there be no living, self-willing Good," said Polwarth one evening, in answer to the phrase just dropped from his lips. "But if there be such a God as alone could be God, can anything be too good to be true?—too good for such a God as contented Jesus Christ?"
At one moment he was ready to believe everything, even to that strangest, yet to me right credible miracle of the fish and the piece of money, and the next to doubt whether man had ever dared utter the words, "I and the Father are one." Tossed he was and tormented in spirit, calling even aloud sometimes to know if there was a God anywhere hearing his prayer, sure only of this, that whatever else any being might be, if he heard not prayer, he could not be the God for whom his soul cried and fainted. Sometimes there came to him, it is true, what he would gladly have taken for an answer, but it was nothing more than the sudden descent of a kind of calmness on his spirit, which, for aught he could tell, might be but the calm of exhaustion. His knees were sore with kneeling, his face white with thinking, his eyes dim with trouble; for when once a man has set out to find God, he must find him or die. This was the inside reality whose outcome set the public of Glaston babbling. It was from this that George Bascombe magisterially pronounced him a hypochondriac, worrying his brain about things that had no existence—as George himself could with confidence testify, not once having seen the sight of them, heard the sound of them, or imagined in his heart that they ought to be, or even that they might possibly be. He pronounced indeed their existence inconsistent with his own. The thought had never rippled the grey mass of his self-satisfied brain that perhaps there was more of himself than what he counted he himself yet knew, and that possibly these matters had a consistent relation with parts unknown. Poor, poverty-stricken Wingfold! —actually craving for things beneath Bascombe's notice! actually crying for something higher and brighter than the moon! How independent was George compared with Thomas!—content to live what he called his life, be a benefactor to men, chiefly in ridding their fancies of the goblins of aspiration, then die his death, and have done with the business; while poor misguided, weak-brained, hypochondriacal Thomas could be contented with nothing less than the fulfilment of the promise of a certain man who perhaps never existed: "The Father and I will come to him and make our abode with him."
Yet Thomas too had his weakness for the testimony of the senses. If he did not, like George, refuse to believe without it, he yet could not help desiring signs and wonders that he might believe. Of this the following poem was a result, and I give it the more willingly because it will show how the intellectual nature of the man had advanced, borne on the waves that burst from the fountains of the great deep below it.
O Lord, if on the wind, at cool of day, I heard one whispered word of mighty grace; If through the darkness, as in bed I lay, But once had come a hand upon my face;
If but one sign that might not be mistook, Had ever been, since first thy face I sought, I should not now be doubting o'er a book, But serving thee with burning heart and thought.
So dreams that heart. But to my heart I say, Turning my face to front the dark and wind: Such signs had only barred anew His way Into thee, longing heart, thee, wildered mind.
They asked the very Way, where lies the way; The very Son, where is the Father's face; How he could show himself, if not in clay, Who was the lord of spirit, form, and space.
My being, Lord, will nevermore be whole Until thou come behind mine ears and eyes, Enter and fill the temple of my soul With perfect contact—such a sweet surprise—
Such presence as, before it met the view, The prophet-fancy could not once foresee, Though every corner of the temple knew By very emptiness its need of thee.
When I keep ALL thy words, no favoured some— Heedless of worldly winds or judgment's tide, Then, Jesus, thou wilt with thy Father come— O ended prayers!—and in my soul abide.
Ah long delay!—ah cunning, creeping sin! I shall but fail and cease at length to try: O Jesus, though thou wilt not yet come in, Knock at my window as thou passest by.
But there was yet another class amongst those who on that second day heard the curate testify what honestly he might, and no more, concerning Jesus of Nazareth. So far as he learned, however, that class consisted of one individual.
On the following Tuesday morning he went into the shop of the chief linen-draper of Glaston, for he was going to a funeral, and wanted a new pair of gloves that he might decline those which would be offered him. A young woman waited on him, but Mr. Drew, seeing him from the other end of the shop, came and took her place. When he was fitted, had paid for his purchase, and was turning to take his leave, the draper, with what appeared a resolution suddenly forced from hesitation, leaned over the counter and said:
"Would you mind walking up stairs for a few minutes, sir? I ask it as a great favour. I want very much to speak to you."
"I shall be most happy," answered Wingfold—conventionally, it must be allowed, for in reality he anticipated expostulation, and having in his public ministrations to do his duty against his own grain, he had no fancy for encountering other people's grain as well in private. Mr. Drew opened certain straits in the counter, and the curate followed him through them, then through a door, up a stair, and into a comfortable dining-room, which smelt strongly of tobacco. There Mr. Drew placed for him a chair, and seated himself in front of him.
The linen-draper was a middle-aged, middle-sized, stoutish man, with plump rosy cheeks, keen black eyes, and features of the not uncommon pug-type, ennobled and harmonized by a genuine expression of kindly good-humour, and an excellent forehead. His dark hair was a little streaked with gray. His manner, which, in the shop, had been of the shop, that is, more deferential and would-be pleasing than Wingfold liked, settled as he took his seat into one more resembling that of a country gentleman. It was courteous and friendly, but clouded with a little anxiety.
An uncomfortable pause following, Wingfold stumbled in with the question, "I hope Mrs. Drew is well," without reflecting whether he had really ever heard of a Mrs. Drew.
The draper's face flushed.
"It is twenty years since I lost her, sir," he returned. In his tone and manner there was something peculiar.
"I beg your pardon," said Wingfold, with self-accusing sincerity.
"I will be open with you sir," continued his host: "she left me—with another—nearly twenty years ago."
"I am ashamed of my inadvertence," rejoined Wingfold. "I have been such a short time here, and—"
"Do not mention it, sir. How could you help it? Besides, it was not here the thing took place, but a hundred miles away. I hope I should before long have referred to the fact myself. But now I desire, if you will allow me, to speak of something different."
"I am at your service," answered Wingfold.
"Thank you, sir.—I was in your church last Sunday," resumed the draper after a pause. "I am not one of your regular hearers, sir; but your sermon that day set me thinking, and instead of thinking less when Monday came, I have been thinking more and more ever since; and when I saw you in the shop, I could not resist the sudden desire to speak to you. If you have time, sir, I hope you will allow me to come to the point my own way?"
Wingfold assured him that his time was at his own disposal, and could not be better occupied. Mr. Drew thanked him and went on.
"Your sermon, I must confess, sir, made me uncomfortable—no fault of yours, sir—all my own—though how much the fault is, I hardly know: use and custom are hard upon a man, sir, and you would have a man go by other laws than those of the world he lives in. The earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof—you will doubtless say. That is over the Royal Exchange in London, I think; but it is not the laws of the Lord that are specially followed inside for all that. However, it is not with other people we have to do, but with ourselves—as you will say. Well then it is for myself I am troubled now. Mr. Wingfold, sir, I am not altogether at ease in my own mind as to the way I have made my money—what little money I have—no great sum, but enough to retire upon when I please. I would not have you think me worse than I am, but I am sincerely desirous of knowing what you would have me do."
"My dear sir," returned Wingfold, "I am the very last to look to for enlightenment. I am as ignorant of business as any child. I am not aware that I ever bought anything except books and clothes, or ever sold anything except a knife to a schoolfellow. I had bought it the day before for half-a-crown, but there was a spot of rust on one of the blades, and therefore I parted with it for twopence. The only thing I can say is: if you have been in the way of doing anything you are no longer satisfied with, don't do it any more."
"But just there comes my need of help. You must do something with your business, and DON'T DO IT, don't tell me what to do. Mind I do not confess to having done anything the trade would count inadmissible, or which is not done in the largest establishments. What I now make a question of I learned in one of the most respectable of London houses."
"You imply that a man in your line who would not do certain things the doing of which has contributed to the making of your fortune, would by the ordinary dealer be regarded as Quixotic?"
"He would; but that there may be such men I am bound to allow, for here am I wishing with all my heart that I had never done them. Right gladly would I give up the money I have made by them to be rid of them. I am unhappy about it. But I should never have dared to confess it to you, sir, or, I believe, to anyone, but for the confession you made in the pulpit some time ago. I was not there, but I heard of it. I foolishly judged you unwise to accuse yourself before an unsympathizing public—but here am I in consequence accusing myself to you!"
"To no unsympathising hearer, though," said the curate.
"It made me want to go and hear you preach," pursued the draper; "for no one could say but it was plucky—and we all like pluck, sir," he added, with a laugh that puckered his face, showed the whitest of teeth, and swept every sign of trouble from the half-globe of his radiant countenance.
"Then you know sum and substance of what I can do for you, Mr. Drew: I can sympathize with you;—not a whit more or less am I capable of. I am the merest beginner and dabbler in doing right myself, and have more need to ask you to teach me than to set up for teaching you."
"That's the beauty of you!—excuse me, sir," cried the draper triumphantly. "You don't pretend to teach us anything, but you make us so uncomfortable that we go about ever after asking ourselves what we ought to do. Till last Sunday, I had always looked upon myself as an honest man: let me see: it would be more correct to say I looked on myself as a man QUITE HONEST ENOUGH. That I do not feel so now, is your doing, sir. You said in your sermon last Sunday, and specially to business men: 'Do you do to your neighbour as you would have your neighbour do to you? If not, how can you suppose that the lord of Christians will acknowledge you as a disciple of his, that is, as a Christian?' Now I was even surer of being a Christian than of being an honest man. You will hardly believe it, and what to think of it myself I now hardly know, but I had satisfied myself, more or less, that I had gone through all the necessary stages of being born again, and it is now many years since I was received into a Christian church—dissenting of course, I mean; for what I count the most important difference after all between church and dissent is that the one, right or wrong, requires for communion a personal profession of faith, and credible proof of conversion—which I believed I gave them, and have been for years, I shame to say it, one of the deacons of that community. But it shall not be for long. To return to my story, however: I was indignant at being called upon from a church-pulpit to raise in myself the question whether or not I was a Christian;—for had I not put my faith in the—? But I will avoid theology, for I have paid more regard to that than has proved good for me. Suffice it to say that I was now driven from the tests of the theologians to try myself by the words of the Master: he must be the best theologian after all, mustn't he, sir?—and so there and then I tried the test of doing to your neighbour AS. But I could NOT get it to work; I could not see how to use it, and while I was trying how to make it apply, you were gone, and I lost all the rest of the sermon.
"Now whether it was anything you had said coming back to me, I cannot tell, but next day, that was yesterday, all at once, in the shop here, as I was serving Mrs. Ramshorn, the thought came to me: How would Jesus Christ have done if he had been a draper instead of a carpenter? When she was gone, I went up to my room to think about it. And there it seemed—that first I must know how he did as a carpenter. But that we are told nothing about. I could get no light upon that. And so my thoughts turned again to the original question. —How would he have done had he been a draper? And, strange to say, I seemed to know far more about that than the other, and to have something to go upon. In fact I had a sharp and decisive answer concerning several things of which I had dared to make a question."
"The vision of the ideal woke the ideal in yourself," said Wingfold thoughtfully.
"I don't know that I quite understand that," returned Mr. Drew; "but the more I thought the more dissatisfied I became. And, in a word, it has come to this, that I must set things right, or give up business."
"That would be no victory," remarked the curate.
"I know it, and shall not yield without a struggle, I promise you. That same afternoon, taking the opportunity of having overheard one of them endeavouring to persuade an old farmer's wife to her disadvantage, I called all my people, and told them that if ever I heard one of them do such a thing, I would turn him or her away at once. But when I came to look at it, I saw how difficult it would be to convict of the breach of such a vague law; and unfortunately too I had some time ago introduced the system of a small percentage to the sellers, making it their interest to force sales. That however is easily rectified, and I shall see to it at once. But I do wish I had a more definite law to follow than that of doing AS!"
"Would not more light inside do as well as clearer law outside?" suggested Wingfold.
"How can I tell till I have had a chance of trying?" returned the draper with a smile, which speedily vanished as he went on: "Then again, there's about profits! How much ought I to take? Am I to do as others do, and always be ruled by the market? Am I bound to give my customers the advantage of any special bargain I may have made? And then again—for I do a large wholesale business with the little country shops—if I learn that one of my customers is going down hill, have I, or have I not, a right to pounce upon him, and make him pay me, to the detriment of his other creditors? There's no end of questions, you see, sir."
"I am the worst possible man to ask," returned Wingfold again. "I might, from very ignorance, judge that wrong which is really right, or that right which is really wrong. But one thing I begin to see, that before a man can do right by his neighbour, he must love him as himself. Only I am such a poor scholar in these high things that, as you have just said, I cannot pretend to teach anybody. That sermon was but an appeal to men's own consciences whether they kept the words of the Lord by whose name they called themselves. Except in your case, Mr. Drew, I am not aware that one of the congregation has taken it to heart."
"I am not sure of that," returned the draper. "Some talk amongst my own people has made me fancy that, perhaps, though talk be but froth, the froth may rise from some hot work down below. Never man could tell from the quiet way I am talking to you, how much I have felt these few days past."
Wingfold looked him in the face: the earnestness of the man was plain in his eyes, and his resolve stamped on every feature. The curate thought of Zacchaeus; thought of Matthew at the receipt of custom; thought with some shame of certain judgments concerning trade, and shopkeepers especially, that seemed somehow to have bred in him like creeping things—for whence they had come he could not tell.
Now it was clear as day that—always provided the man Christ Jesus can be and is with his disciples always to the end of the world—a tradesman might just as soon have Jesus behind the counter with him, teaching him to buy and sell IN HIS NAME, that is, as he would have done it, as an earl riding over his lands might have him with him, teaching him how to treat his farmers and cottagers—all depending on how the one did his trading and the other his earling. A mere truism, is it? Yes, it is, and more is the pity; for what is a truism, as most men count truisms? What is it but a truth that ought to have been buried long ago in the lives of men—to send up for ever the corn of true deeds and the wine of loving kindness,—but instead of being buried in friendly soil, is allowed to lie about, kicked hither and thither in the dry and empty garret of their brains, till they are sick of the sight and sound of it, and to be rid of the thought of it, declare it to be no living truth but only a lifeless truism! Yet in their brain that truism must rattle until they shift it to its rightful quarters in their heart, where it will rattle no longer but take root and be a strength and loveliness. Is a truth to cease to be uttered because no better form than that of some divine truism—say of St. John Boanerges—can be found for it? To the critic the truism is a sea-worn, foot-trodden pebble; to the obedient scholar, a radiant topaz, which, as he polishes it with the dust of its use, may turn into a diamond.
"Jesus buying and selling!" said Wingfold to himself. "And why not? Did Jesus make chairs and tables, or boats perhaps, which the people of Nazareth wanted, without any admixture of trade in the matter? Was there no transaction? No passing of money between hands? Did they not pay his father for them? Was his Father's way of keeping things going in the world, too vile for the hands of him whose being was delight in the will of that Father? No; there must be a way of handling money that is noble as the handling of the sword in the hands of the patriot. Neither the mean man who loves it, nor the faithless man who despises it, knows how to handle it. The former is one who allows his dog to become a nuisance, the latter one who kicks him from his sight. The noble man is he who so truly does the work given him to do that the inherent nobility of that work is manifest. And the trader who trades nobly is nobler surely than the high-born who, if he carried the principles of his daily life into trade, would be as pitiful a sneak as any he that bows and scrapes falsely behind that altar of lies, his counter."—All flat truisms I know, but no longer such to Wingfold to whom they now for the first time showed themselves truths.
He had taken a kindly leave of the draper, promising to call again soon, and had reached the room-door on his way out, when he turned suddenly and said,
"Did you think to try praying, Mr. Drew? Men, whose minds, if I may venture to judge, seem to me, from their writings, of the very highest order, have really and positively believed that the loftiest activity of a man's being lay in prayer to the unknown Father of that being, and that light in the inward parts was the certain consequence—that, in very truth, not only did the prayer of the man find the ear of God, but the man himself found God Himself. I have no right to an opinion, but I have a splendid hope that I shall one day find it true. The Lord said a man must go on praying and not lose heart."
With the words he walked out, and the deacon thought of his many prayers at prayer-meetings and family-worships. The words of a young man who seemed to have only just discovered that there was such a thing as prayer, who could not pretend to be sure about it, but hoped splendidly, made him ashamed of them all.
Wingfold went straight to his friend Polwarth, and asked him if he would allow him to bring Mr. Drew some evening to tea.
"You mean the linen-draper?" asked Polwarth. "Certainly, if you wish it."
"Some troubles are catching," said the curate. "Drew has caught my disease."
"I am delighted to hear it. It would be hard to catch a better, and it's one a rich man, as they say he is, seldom does catch. But I always liked his round, good-humoured, honest face. If I remember rightly, he had a sore trial in his wife. It is generally understood that she ran away with some fellow or other. But that was before he came to live in Glaston.—Would you mind looking in upon Rachel for a few minutes, sir? She is not so well to-day, and has not been out of her own room."
"With all my heart," answered Wingfold. "I am sorry to hear she is suffering."
"She is always suffering more or less," said the little man. "But she enjoys life notwithstanding, as you may clearly see. It is to her only a mitigated good, and that, I trust, for the sake of an unmitigated one.—Come this way, sir."
He led the curate to the room next his own. It was a humble little garret, but dainty with whiteness. One who did not thoroughly know her, might have said it was like her life, colourless, but bright with innocence and peace. The walls were white; the boards of the uncarpeted floor were as white as scrubbing could make old deal; the curtains of windows and bed were whiteness itself; the coverlet was white; so was the face that looked smiling over the top of it from the one low white pillow. But although Wingfold knew that face so well, he almost started at the sight of it now: in the patience of its suffering it was positively lovely. All that was painful to see was hidden; the crooked little body lay at rest in the grave of the bed-clothes; the soul rose from it, and looked, gracious with womanhood, in the eyes of the curate.
"I cannot give you my hand," she said smiling, as he went softly towards her, feeling like Moses when he put off his shoes, "for I have such a pain in my arm, I cannot well raise it."
The curate bowed reverentially, seated himself in a chair by her bedside, and, like a true comforter, said nothing.
"Don't be sorry for me, Mr. Wingfold," said her sweet voice at length. "The poor dwarfie, as the children call me, is not a creature to be pitied. You don't know how happy I am as I lie here, knowing my uncle is in the next room, and will come the moment I call him—and that there is one nearer still," she added in a lower voice, almost in a whisper, "whom I haven't even to call. I am his, and he shall do with me just as he likes. I fancy sometimes, when I have to lie still, that I am a little sheep, tied hands and feet—I should have said all four feet, if I am a sheep"—and here she gave a little merry laugh—"lying on an altar—the bed here—burning away, in the flame of life, that consumes the deathful body—burning, heart and soul and sense, up to the great Father.—Forgive me, Mr. Wingfold, for talking about myself, but you looked so miserable! and I knew it was your kind heart feeling for me. But I need not, for that, have gone on at such a rate. I am ashamed of myself!"
"On the contrary, I am exceedingly obliged to you for honouring me by talking so freely," said Wingfold. "It is a great satisfaction to find that suffering is not necessarily unhappiness. I could be well content to suffer also, Miss Polwarth, if with the suffering I might have the same peace."
"Sometimes I am troubled," she answered; "but generally I am in peace, and sometimes too happy to dare speak about it.—Would the persons you and my uncle were talking about the other day—would they say all my pleasant as well as my painful thoughts came from the same cause—vibrations in my brain?"
"No doubt. They would say, I presume, that the pleasant thoughts come from regular, and the unpleasant from irregular motions of its particles. They must give the same origin to both. Would you be willing to acknowledge that only your pleasant thoughts had a higher origin, and that your painful ones came from physical sources?"
Because of a headache and depression of spirits, Wingfold had been turning over similar questions in his own mind the night before.
"I see," said the dwarfie—"I see. No. There are sad thoughts sometimes which in their season I would not lose, for I would have their influences with me always. In their season they are better than a host of happy ones, and there is joy at the root of all. But if they did come from physical causes, would it follow that they did not come from God? Is he not the God of the dying as well as the God of the living?"
"If there be a God, Miss Polwarth," returned Wingfold eagerly, "then is he God everywhere, and not a maggot can die any more than a Shakespeare be born without him. He is either enough, that is, all in all, or he is not at all."
"That is what I think—because it is best:—I can give no better reason."
"If there be a God, there can be no better reason," said Wingfold.
This IF of Wingfold's was, I need hardly now say, an IF of bare honesty, and came of no desire to shake an unthinking confidence. Neither, had it been of the other sort, could it have shaken Rachel's, for her confidence was full of thinking. As little could it shock her, for she hardly missed a sentence that passed between her uncle and his new friend. She made no reply, never imagining it her business to combat the doubts of a man whom she knew to be eager after the truth, and being guiltless of any tendency, because she believed, to condemn doubt as wicked.
A short silence followed.
"How delightful it must be to feel well and strong!" said Rachel at length. "I can't help often thinking of Miss Lingard. It's always Miss Lingard comes up to me when I think of such things. Oh! ain't she beautiful and strong, Mr. Wingfold?—and sits on her horse as straight as a rush! It does one good to see her. Just fancy me on a great tall horse! What a bag of potatoes I should look!"
She burst into a merry laugh, and then came a few tears, which were not all of the merriment of which she let them pass as the consequence, remarking, as she wiped them away,
"But no one can tell, Mr. Wingfold,—and I'm sure Miss Lingard would be astonished to hear—what pleasure I have while lying unable to move. I suppose I benefit by what people call the law of compensation! How I hate the word! As if THAT was the way the Father of Jesus Christ did, and not his very best to get his children, elder brothers and prodigal sons, home to his heart! You heard what my uncle said about dreams the other day?" she resumed after a little pause.
"Yes. I thought it very sensible," replied the curate.
"It all depends on the sort, don't it?" said Rachel. "Some of mine I would not give for a library. They make me grow, telling me things I should never learn otherwise. I don't mean any rubbish about future events, and such like. Of all useless things a knowledge of the future seems to me the most useless, for what are you to do with a thing before it exists? Such a knowledge could only bewilder you as to the right way to take—would make you see double instead of single. That's not the sort I mean at all.—You won't laugh at me, Mr. Wingfold?"
"I can scarcely imagine anything less likely."
"Then I don't mind opening my toy-box to you.—In my dreams, for instance, I am sometimes visited by such a sense of freedom as fills me with a pure bliss unknown to my waking thoughts except as a rosy cloud on the horizon. As if they were some heavenly corporation, my dreams present me, not with the freedom of some poor little city like London, but with the freedom of all space."
The curate sat and listened with wonder—but with no sense of unfitness; such speech and such thought suited well with the face that looked up from the low pillow with its lovely eyes—for lovely they were, with a light that had both flash and force.
"I don't believe," she went on, "that even Miss Lingard has more of the blessed sense of freedom and strength and motion when she is on horseback than I have when I am asleep. The very winds of my dreams will make me so unspeakabably happy that I wake weeping. Do not tell me it is gone then, for I continue so happy that I can hardly get to sleep again to hunt for more joy. Don't say it is an unreality—for where does freedom lie? In the body or in the mind? What does it matter whether my body be lying still or moving from one spot of space to another? What is the good of motion but to produce the feeling of freedom? The feeling is everything, and if I have it, that is all that I want. Bodily motion would indeed disturb it for me—lay fetters on my spirit.—Sometimes, again, I dream of a new flower—one never before beheld by mortal eye—with some strange, wonderful quality in it, perhaps, that makes it a treasure, like that flower of Milton's invention—haemony—in Comus, you know. But one curious thing is that that strange quality will never be recalled in waking hours; so that what it was I can never tell—as if it belonged to other regions than the life of this world: I retain only the vaguest memory of its power, and marvel, and preciousness.—Sometimes it is a little poem or a song I dream of, or some strange musical instrument, perhaps like one of those I have seen angels with in a photograph from an old picture. And somehow with the instrument always comes the knowledge of how to play upon it. So you see, sir, as it has pleased God to send me into the world as crooked as a crab, and nearly as lame as a seal, it has pleased him also to give me the health and riches of the night to strengthen me for the pains and poverties of the day.—You rejoice in a beautiful thought when it comes to you, Mr. Wingfold—do you not?"
"When it comes to me," answered Wingfold significantly—almost petulantly. Could it be that he envied the dwarf-girl?
"Then is the thought any worse because it comes in a shape?—or is the feeling less of a feeling that it is born in a dream?"
"I need no convincing, I admit all you say," returned Wingfold.
"Why are you so silent, then? You make me think you are objecting inside to everything I am saying," rejoined Rachel with a smile.
"Partly because I fear you are exciting yourself too much and will suffer in consequence," answered the curate, who had noted the rosy flush on her face.
The same moment her uncle re-entered the room.
"I have been trying to convince Mr. Wingfold that there MAY be some good in dreaming, uncle," she said.
"Successfully?" asked Polwarth.
"Unnecessarily," interjected Wingfold. "I required for conviction only the facts. Why should I suppose that, if there be a God, he is driven out of us by sleep?"
"It is an awful thing," said Polwarth, "to think—that this feeble individuality of ours, the offspring of God's individuality, should have some power, and even more will than power, to close its door against him, and keep house without him!"
"But what sort of a house?" murmured Wingfold.
"Yes, uncle," said Rachel; "but think how he keeps about us, haunting the doors and windows like the very wind, watching to get in! And sometimes he makes of himself a tempest, that both doors and windows fly open, and he enters in fear and dismay."
The prophetic in the uncle was the poetic in the niece.
"For you and me, uncle," she went on, "he made the doors and windows so rickety that they COULD not keep him out."
"Ye are the temples of the Holy Ghost," said the curate, almost unconsciously.
"Some of us a little ruinous!" rejoined the girl.
So full was her soul of a lively devotion that she took the liberties of a child of the house with sacred things.
"But, Mr. Wingfold," she continued. "I must tell you one more curious thing about my dreams: I NEVER dream of being crooked and dwarfish. I don't dream that I am straight either; I suppose I feel all right, and therefore never think about it. That makes me fancy my soul must be straight.—Don't you think so, sir?"
"Indeed I do," said Wingfold warmly.
"I'm afraid I shall be telling you some of my dreams some day."
"We are rather given to that weakness," said Polwarth,—"so much so as to make me fear for our brains sometimes. But a crooked rose-tree may yet bear a good rose."
"Ah! you are thinking of my poor father, uncle, I know," said Rachel. "His was a straight stem and a fine rose, only overblown, perhaps.—I don't think I need be much afraid of that, for if I were to go out of my mind, I should not have strength to live—unless indeed I knew God through all the madness. I think my father did in a way."
"It was quite plain he did," answered her uncle, "and that in no feeble way either.—Some day I must tell you,"—here he turned to Wingfold—"about that brother of mine, Rachel's father. I should even like to show you a manuscript he left behind him—surely one of the strangest ever written! It would be well worth printing if that would ensure its falling into the hands of those who could read through the madness.—But we have talked quite long enough for your head, child; I will take Mr. Wingfold into the next room."
As Wingfold walked home that afternoon, he thought much of what he had heard and seen. "If there be a God," he said to himself, "then all is well, for certainly he would not give being to such a woman, and then throw her aside as a failure, and forget her. It is strange to see, though, how he permits his work to be thwarted. To be the perfect God notwithstanding, he must be able to turn the very thwarting to higher furtherance. Don't we see something of the sort in life—the vigorous nursed by the arduous? Is it presumptuous to imagine God saying to Rachel: 'Trust me, and bear, and I will do better for thee than thou canst think?' Certainly the one who most needs the comfort of such a faith, in this case HAS it. I wish I could be as sure of him as Rachel Polwarth!—But then," he added, smiling to himself, "she has had her crooked spine to help her! It seems as if nothing less than the spiritual beholding of the Eternal will produce at least absolute belief. And till then what better or indeed other proof can the less receive of the presence of the greater than the expansion of its own being under the influences of that greater? But my plague now is that the ideas of religion are so grand, and the things all around it in life so common-place, that they give the lie to each other from morning to night—in my mind, I mean. Which is the true? a loving, caring father, or the grinding of cruel poverty and the naked exposure to heedless chance? How is it that, while the former seems the only right, reasonable, and all-sufficing thing, it should yet come more naturally to believe in the latter? And yet, when I think of it, I never did come closer to believing in the latter than is indicated by terror of its possible truth—so many things looked like it.—Then, what has nature in common with the Bible and its metaphysics?—There I am wrong—she has a thousand things. The very wind on my face seems to rouse me to fresh effort after a pure healthy life! Then there is the sunrise! There is the snowdrop in the snow! There is the butterfly! There is the rain of summer, and the clearing of the sky after a storm! There is the hen gathering her chickens under her wing!—I begin to doubt whether there be the common-place anywhere except in our own mistrusting nature, that will cast no care upon the Unseen. It is with me, in regard to my better life, as it was with the disciples in regard to their bodily life, when they were for the time rendered incapable of understanding the words of our Lord by having forgotten to take bread in the boat: they were so afraid of being hungry that they could think of nothing but bread."