Such were some of the curate's thoughts as he walked home, and they drove him to prayer, in which came more thoughts. When he reached his room he sat down at his table, and wove and knotted and pieced together the following verses, venturing that easy yet perilous thing, a sonnet. I give here its final shape, not its first or second:
Methought I floated sightless, nor did know That I had ears until I heard the cry As of a mighty man in agony: "How long, Lord, shall I lie thus foul and slow? The arrows of thy lightning through me go, And sting and torture me—yet here I lie A shapeless mass that scarce can mould a sigh." The darkness thinned; I saw a thing below, Like sheeted corpse, a knot at head and feet. Slow clomb the sun the mountains of the dead, And looked upon the world: the silence broke! A blinding struggle! then the thunderous beat Of great exulting pinions stroke on stroke! And from that world a mighty angel fled.
But upon the heels of the sonnet came, as was natural, according to the law of reaction, a fresh and more appalling, because more self-assertive and verisimilous invasion of the commonplace. What a foolish, unreal thing he had written! He caught up his hat and stick and hurried out, thinking to combat the demon better in the open air.
It was evening, and the air was still warm. Pine Street was almost empty, save of the red sun, which blinded him so that wherever he looked he could only see great sunblots. All but a few of the shops were closed, but amongst the few he was surprised to find that of his friend the linendraper, who had always been a strong advocate of early closing. The shutters were up, however, though the door stood wide open. He peeped in. To his sun-blinded eyes the shop looked very dark, but he thought he saw Mr. Drew talking to some one, and entered. He was right; it was the draper himself, and a poor woman with a child on one arm, and a print dress she had just bought on the other. The curate leaned against the counter, and waited until business should be over to address his friend.
"Is Mr. Drew an embryonic angel?" he half felt, half thought within himself. "Is this shop the chrysalis of a great psyche? Will the draper, with his round good-humoured face and puckering smile, ever spread thunderous wings and cleave the air up to the throne of God?"
"I cannot tell you how it goes against me to take that woman's money," said the voice of the draper.
The curate woke up in the presence of the unwinged, and saw that the woman had left the shop.
"I did let her have the print at cost-price," Mr. Drew went on, laughing merrily. "That was all I could venture on."
"Where was the danger?"
"Ah, you don't know so well as I do the good of having some difficulty in getting what you need! To ease the struggles of the poor, unless it be in sickness or absolute want, I have repeatedly proved to be a cruel kindness."
"Then you don't sell to the poor women at cost-price always?"
"No—only to the soldiers' wives. They have a very hard life of it, poor things!"
"That is your custom, then?"
"For the last ten years, but I don't let them know it."
"Is it for the soldiers' wives you keep your shop open so late? I thought you were the great supporter of early closing in Glaston," said the curate.
"I will tell you how it happened to-night," answered the draper, and as he spoke he turned round, not his long left ear upon the pivot of his skull, but his whole person upon the pivot of the counter—to misuse the word pivot with Wordsworth—and bolted the shop-door.
"After the young men had put up the shutters and were gone," he said, returning to the counter, "leaving me as usual to bolt the door, I fell a-thinking. Outside, the street was full of sunlight, but only enough came in to show how gloomy the place was without more of it, and the back of the shop was nearly dark. It was very still too—so still that the silence seemed to have taken the shape of gloom. Pardon me for talking in this unbusiness-like way: a man can't be a draper always; he must be foolish sometimes. Thirty years ago I used to read Tennyson. I believe I was amongst the earliest of his admirers."
"Foolish!" echoed Wingfold, thoughtfully.
"You see," the draper went on, "there IS something solemn in the quiet after business is over. Sometimes it's more so, sometimes less; but this night it came upon me that the shop felt like a chapel—had the very air of one somehow, and so I fell a thinking, and forgot to shut the door. How it began I don't know, but my past life came up to me, and I remembered how, when I was a young man, I used to despise my father's business, to which he was bringing me up, and feed my fancy with things belonging to higher walks in life. Then I saw that must have been partly how I fell into the mistake of marrying Mrs. Drew. She was the daughter of a doctor in our town, a widower. He was in poor health, and unable to make much of his practice, so that when he died she was left destitute, and for that reason alone, I do believe, accepted me. What followed you know: she went away with a man who used to travel for a large Manchester house. I have never heard of her since.
"After she left me, a sort of something which I think I may call the disease of self-preservation, laid hold upon me. I must acknowledge that the loss of my wife was not altogether a misery. She despised my trade, which drove me to defend it—and the more bitterly that I also despised it. There was therefore a good deal of strife between us. I did not make allowance enough for the descent she had made from a professional father to a trade-husband. I forgot that, if she was to blame for marrying me for bread, I was to blame for marrying her to enlarge myself with her superiority. After she was gone, I was aware of a not unwelcome calm in the house, and in the emptiness of that calm came the demon of selfishness sevenfold into my heart, and took up his abode with me. From that time I busied myself only about two things—the safety of my soul, and a good provision for my body. I joined the church I had occasion to mention to you before, sir, grew a little harder in my business dealings, and began to lay by money. And so, ever since, have I been going on till I heard your sermon the other day, which I hope has waked me up to something better.—All this long story is but to let you understand how I was feeling when that woman came into the shop. I told you how, in the dusk and the silence, it was as if I were in the chapel. I found myself half-listening for the organ. Then the verse of a hymn came into my mind—I can't tell where or when I had met with it, but it had stuck to me:
Let me stand ever at the door, And keep it from the entering sin, That so thy temple, walls and floor, Be pure for thee to enter in.
"Now that, you see, is said of the temple of the heart; but somehow things went rather cross-cut that evening—they got muddled in my head. It seemed as if I was the door-keeper of my shop, and at the same time as if my shop, spreading out and dimly vanishing in the sacred gloom, was the temple of the Holy Ghost, out of which I had to keep the sin. And with the thought, a great awe fell upon me: could it be—might it not be that God was actually in the place?—that in the silence he was thinking—in the gloom he was knowing? I laid myself over the counter, with my face in my hands, and went on half thinking, half praying. All at once the desire arose burning in my heart: Would to God my house were in truth a holy place, haunted by his presence! 'And wherefore not?' rejoined something within me—heart or brain or something deeper than either. 'Is thy work unholy? Are thy deeds base? Is thy buying or selling dishonest? Is it all for thyself and nothing for thy fellows? Is it not a lawful calling? Is it, or is it not, of God? If it be of God, and yet he be not present, then surely thy lawful calling thou followest unlawfully." So there I was—brought back to the old story. And I said to myself, 'God knows I want to follow it lawfully. Am I not even now seeking how to do so? But this, though true, did not satisfy me. To follow it lawfully—even in his sight—no longer seemed enough.—Was there then no possibility of raising it to dignity? Did the business of Zacchaeus remain, after the visit of Jesus, a contemptible one still? Could not mine be made Christian? Was there no corner in the temple where a man might buy and sell and not be driven out by the whip of small cords?—I heard a step in the shop, and lifting my head, saw a poor woman with a child in her arms. Annoyed at being found in that posture, like one drunk or in despair; annoyed also with myself for not having shut the door, with my usual first tendency to injustice a harsh word was trembling on my very lips, when suddenly something made me look round in a kind of maze on the dusky back shop. A moment more and I understood: God was waiting to see what truth was in my words. That is just how I felt it, and I hope I am not irreverent in saying so. Then I saw that the poor woman looked frightened—I suppose at my looks and gestures—perhaps she thought me out of my mind. I made haste and received her, and listened to her errand as if she had been a duchess—say rather an angel of God, for such I felt her in my heart to be. She wanted a bit of dark print with a particular kind of spot in it, which she had seen in the shop some months before, but had not been able to buy. I turned over everything we had, and was nearly in despair. At last, however, I found the very piece which had ever since haunted her fancy—just enough of it left for a dress! But all the time I sought it, I felt as if I were doing God service—or at least doing something he wanted me to do. It sounds almost ludicrous now, but—"
"God forbid!" said Wingfold.
"I'm glad you don't think so, sir. I was afraid you would."
"Had the thing been a trifle, I should still have said the same," returned the curate. "But who with any heart would call it—a trifle to please the fancy of a poor woman, one who is probably far oftener vexed than pleased? She had been brooding over this dress—you took trouble to content her with her desire. Who knows what it may do for the growth of the woman? I know what you've done for me by the story of it."
"She did walk out pleased-like," said the draper, "—and left me more pleased than she,—and so grateful to her for coming—you can't think!"
"I begin to suspect," said the curate, after a pause, "that the common transactions of life are the most sacred channels for the spread of the heavenly leaven. There was ten times more of the divine in selling her that gown as you did, in the name of God, than in taking her into your pew and singing out of the same hymn-book with her."
"I should be glad to do that next though, if I had the chance," said Mr. Drew. "You must not think, because he has done me so little good, that our minister is not a faithful preacher; and, owing you more than heart can tell, sir, I like chapel better than church, and consider it nearer the right way. I don't mean to be a turncoat, and leave Drake for you, sir; I must give up my deaconship, but I won't my pew or my subscription."
"Quite right, Mr. Drew," said Wingfold; "that could do nothing but harm. I have just been reading what our Lord says about proselytizing. Good night."
The curate had entered the draper's shop in the full blaze of sunset, but the demon of unbelief sat on his shoulders; he could get no nearer his heart, but that was enough to make of the "majestical roof fretted with golden fire .... a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours." When he left the shop, the sun was far below the horizon, and the glory had faded out of the west; but the demon had fled, and the brown feathers of the twilight were beautiful as the wings of the silver dove, sprung heavenwards from among the pots. And as he went he reasoned with himself—
"Either there is a God, and that God the perfect heart of truth and loveliness, or all poetry and art is but an unsown, unplanted, rootless flower, crowning a somewhat symmetrical heap of stones. The man who sees no beauty in its petals, finds no perfume in its breath, may well accord it the parentage of the stones; the man whose heart swells beholding it will be ready to think it has roots that reach below them."
The curate's search, it will be remarked, had already widened greatly the sphere of his doubts; but, the larger the field, the greater the chance of finding a marl-pit; and, if there be such a thing as truth, every fresh doubt is yet another finger-post pointing towards its dwelling.—So talked the curate to himself, and, full in the face, rounding the corner of a street, met George Bascombe.
The young barrister held out his large hospitable hand at the full length of his arm, and spread abroad his wide chest to greet him, and they went through the ceremony of shaking hands,—which, even in their case, I cannot judge so degrading and hypocritical as the Latin nations seem to consider it. Then Wingfold had the first word.
"I have not yet had an opportunity of thanking you for the great service you have done me," he said.
"I am glad to know I have such an honour; but—"
"I mean, in opening my eyes to my true position."
"Ah, my dear fellow! I was sure you only required to have your attention turned in the right direction. When—?—ah!—I—I was on the verge of committing the solecism of asking you when you thought of resigning. Ha! ha!"
"Not yet," replied Wingfold to the question thus at once withdrawn and put. "The more I look into the matter, the more reason I find for hoping it may be possible for me to—to—keep the appointment."
"The further I inquire, the more am I convinced that, if not in a certain portion of what the church teaches, then nowhere else, and assuredly not in what you teach, shall I find anything by which life can either account for or justify itself."
"But if what you find is not true!" cried George, with a burst of semi-grand indignation.
"But if what I find should be true, even though you should never be able to see it!" returned the curate. And as if disjected by an explosion between them, the two men were ten paces asunder, each hurrying his own way.
"If I can't prove there is a God," said Wingfold to himself, "as little surely can he prove there is none."
But then came the thought—"The fellow will say that, there being no sign of a God, the burden of proof lies with me." And therewith he saw how useless it would be to discuss the question with any one who, not seeing him, had no desire to see him.
"No," he said, "my business is not to prove to any other man that there is a God, but to find him for myself. If I should find him, then will be time enough to think of showing him." And with that his thoughts turned from Bascombe, and went back to the draper.
When he reached home, he took out his sonnet, but, after working at it for a little while, he found that he must ease his heart by writing another. Here it is:
Methought that in a solemn church I stood. Its marble acres, worn with knees and feet, Lay spread from, door to door, from street to street. Midway the form hung high upon the rood Of him who gave his life to be our good; Beyond, priests flitted, bowed, and murmured meet Among the candles shining still and sweet. Men came and went, and worshipped as they could, And still their dust a woman with her broom, Bowed to her work, kept sweeping to the door. Then saw I, slow through all the pillared gloom, Across the church a silent figure come; "Daughter," it said, "thou sweepest well my floor!" It is the Lord! I cried; and saw no more.
I suppose, if one could so stop the throat of the blossom-buried nightingale, that, though he might breathe at will, he could no longer sing, he would drop from his bough, and die of suppressed song. Perhaps some men so die—I do not know; it were better than to live, and to bore their friends with the insuppressible. But, however this may be, the man who can utter himself to his own joy in any of the forms of human expression—let him give thanks to God; and, if he give not his verses to the printer, he will probably have cause to give thanks again. To the man's self, the utterance is not the less invaluable. And so Wingfold found it.
He went out again, and into the churchyard, where he sat down on a stone.
"How strange," he said to himself, "that out of faith should have sprung that stone church! A poor little poem now and then is all that stands for mine—all that shows, that is! But my heart does sometimes burn, within me. If only I could be sure they were HIS words that set it burning!"
"Mr. Wingfold," said Polwarth one evening, the usual salutations over, taking what he commonly left to his friend—the initiative,—"I want to tell you something I don't wish even Rachel to hear."
He led the way to his room, and the curate followed. Seated there, in the shadowy old attic, through the very walls of which the ivy grew, and into which, by the open window in the gable, from the infinite west, blew the evening air, carrying with it the precious scent of honeysuckle, to mingle with that of old books, Polwarth recounted and Wingfold listened to a strange adventure. The trees hid the sky, and the little human nest was dark around them.
"I am going to make a confidant of you, Mr. Wingfold," said the dwarf, with troubled face, and almost whispered word. "You will know how much I have already learned to trust you when I say that what I am about to confide to you plainly involves the secret of another."
His large face grew paler as he spoke, and something almost like fear grew in his eyes, but they looked straight into those of the curate, and his voice did not tremble.
"One night, some weeks ago—I can, if necessary, make myself certain of the date,—I was—no uncommon thing with me—unable to sleep. Sometimes, when such is my case, I lie as still and happy as any bird under the wing of its mother; at other times I must get up and go out, for I take longings for air almost as a drunkard for wine, and that night nothing would serve my poor prisoned soul but more air through the bars of its lungs. I rose, dressed, and went out.
"It was a still, warm night, no moon, but plenty of star-light, the wind blowing as now, gentle and sweet and cool—just the wind my lungs sighed for. I got into the open park, avoiding the trees, and wandered on and on, without thinking where I was going. The turf was soft under my feet, the dusk soft to my eyes, and the wind to my soul; I had breath and room and leisure and silence and loneliness, and everything to make me more than usually happy; and so I wandered on and on, neither caring nor looking whither I went: so long as the stars remained unclouded, I could find my way back when I pleased.
"I had been out perhaps an hour, when through the soft air came a cry, apparently from far off. There was something in the tone that seemed to me unusually frightful. The bare sound made me shudder before I had time to say to myself it was a cry. I turned my face in the direction of it, so far as I could judge, and went on. I cannot run, for, if I attempt it, I am in a moment unable even to walk—from palpitation and choking.
"I had not gone very far before I found myself approaching the hollow where stands the old house of Glaston, uninhabited for twenty years. Was it possible, I thought, that the cry came from the house, and had therefore sounded farther off than it was? I stood and listened for a moment, but all seemed still as the grave. I must go in, and see whether anyone was there in want of help. You may well smile at the idea of my helping anyone, for what could I do if it came to a struggle?"
"On the contrary," interrupted Wingfold, "I was smiling with admiration of your pluck."
"At least," resumed Polwarth, "I have this advantage over some, that I cannot be fooled with the fancy that this poor miserable body of mine is worth thinking of beside the smallest suspicion of duty. What is it but a cracked jug? So down the slope I went, got into the garden, and made my way through the tangled bushes to the house. I knew the place perfectly, for I had often wandered all over it, sometimes spending hours there.
"Before I reached the door, however, I heard some one behind me in the garden, and instantly stepped into a thicket of gooseberry and currant bushes. It is sometimes an advantage to be little—the moment I stepped aside I was hidden. That same moment the night seemed rent in twain by a most hideous cry from the house. Ere I could breathe again after it, the tall figure of a woman rushed past me, tearing its way through the bushes towards the door. I followed instantly, saw her run up the steps, and heard her open and shut the door. I opened it as quietly as I could, but just as I stepped into the dark hall, came a third fearful cry, through the echoes of which in the empty house I heard the rush of hurried feet and trailing garments on the stair. As I say I knew the house quite well, but my perturbation had so muddled the idea of it in my brain, that for a few seconds I had to consider how it lay. The moment I recalled its plan, I made what haste I could, reached the top of the stair, and was hesitating which way to turn, when once more came the fearful cry, and set me trembling from head to foot. I cannot describe the horror of it. It was as the cry of a soul in torture—unlike any sound of the human voice I had ever before heard. I shudder now at the recollection of it as it echoed through the house, clinging to the walls and driven along. I was hurrying I knew not whither, for I had again lost all notion of the house, when I caught a glimpse of a light shining from under a door. I approached it softly, and finding that door inside a small closet, knew at once where I was. As I was in office on the ground, and it could hardly be any thing righteous that led to such an outcry in the house, which, although deserted, was still my master's, I felt justified in searching further into the matter. Laying my ear therefore against the door, I heard what was plainly a lady's voice. Right sweet and womanly it was, though full of pain—even agony, I thought, but heroically suppressed. She soothed, she expostulated, she condoled, she coaxed. Mingled with hers was the voice of a youth, as it seemed. It was wild, yet so low as sometimes to be all but inaudible, and not a word from either could I distinguish. Hardly the less plain was it, however, that the youth spoke either in delirium or with something terrible on his mind, for his tones were those of one in despair. I stood for a time bewildered, fascinated, terrified. At length I grew convinced somehow that I had no right to be there. Doubtless the man was in hiding, and where a man hides there must he reason, but was it any business of mine? I crept out of the house, and up to the higher ground. There I drew deep breaths of the sweet night air—so pure that it seemed to be washing the world clean for another day's uses. But I had no longer any pleasure in the world. I went straight home, and to bed again—but had brought little repose with me: I must do something—but what? The only result certain to follow, was more trouble to the troubled already. Might there not be innocent reasons for the questionable situation?—Might not the man have been taken ill, and so suddenly that he could reach no other shelter? And the lady might be his wife, who had gone as soon as she could leave him to find help, but had failed. There MUST be some simple explanation of the matter, however strange it showed! I might, in the morning, be of service to them. And partly comforted by the temporary conclusion, I got a little troubled sleep.
"As soon as I had had a cup of tea, I set out for the old house. I heard the sounds of the workmen's hammers on the new one as I went. All else was silence. The day looked so honest and so clear of conscience that it was difficult to believe the night had shrouded such an awful meeting. Yet, in the broad light of the forenoon, a cold shudder seized me when first I looked down on the slack ridges and broken roofs of the old house. When I got into the garden I began to sing and knock the bushes about, then opened the door noisily, and clattered about in the hall and the lower rooms before going up the stair. Along every passage and into every room I went, to give good warning ere I approached that in which I had heard the voices. At length I stood at the door of it and knocked. There was no answer. I knocked again. Still no answer. I opened it and peeped in. There was no one there! An old bedstead was all I saw. I searched every corner, but not one trace could I discover of human being having been there, except this behind the bed—and it may have lain there as long as the mattress, which I remember since the first time I ever went into the house."
As he spoke Polwarth handed to the curate a small leather sheath, which, from its shape, could not have belonged to a pair of scissors, although neither of the men knew any sort of knife it would have fitted.
"Would you mind taking care of it, Mr. Wingfold?" the gate-keeper continued as the curate examined it; "I don't like having it. I can't even bear to think of it even in the house, and yet I don't quite care to destroy it."
"I don't in the least mind taking charge of it," answered Wingfold.
Why was it that, as he said so, the face of Helen Lingard rose before his mind's eye as he had now seen it twice in the congregation at the Abbey—pale with an inward trouble as it seemed, large-eyed and worn—so changed, yet so ennobled? Even then he had felt the deadening effect of its listlessness, and had had to turn away lest it should compel him to feel that he was but talking to the winds, or into a desert where dwelt no voice of human response. Why should he think of her now? Was it that her troubled pallid face had touched him—had set something near his heart a trembling, whether with merely human sympathy or with the tenderness of man for suffering woman? Certainly he had never till then thought of her with the slightest interest, and why should she come up to him now? Could it be that—? Good heavens! There was her brother ill! And had not Faber said there seemed something unusual about the character of his illness?—What could it mean?—It was impossible of course—but yet—and yet—
"Do you think," he said, "we are in any way bound to inquire further into the affair?"
"If I had thought so, I should not have left it unmentioned till now," answered Polwarth. "But without being busybodies, we might be prepared in case the thing should unfold itself, and put it in our power to be useful. Meantime I have the relief of the confessional."
As Wingfold walked back to his lodgings, he found a new element mingling with the varied matter of his previous inquiry. Human suffering laid hold upon him—neither as his own nor as that of humanity, but as that of men and women—known or unknown, it mattered nothing: there were hearts in the world from whose agony broke terrible cries, hearts of which sad faces like that of Miss Lingard were the exponents. Such hearts might be groaning and writhing in any of the houses he passed, and, even if he knew the hearts, and what the vampire that sucked their blood, he could do nothing for their relief.
Little indeed could he have imagined the life of such a comfort-guarded lady as Miss Lingard, exposed to the intrusion of any terror-waking monster, from the old ocean of chaos, into the quiet flow of its meadow-banked river! And what multitudes must there not be in the world—what multitudes in our island—how many even in Glaston, whose hearts, lacerated by no remorse, overwhelmed by no crushing sense of guilt, yet knew their own bitterness, and had no friend radiant enough to make a sunshine in their shady places! He fell into mournful mood over the troubles of his race. Always a kind-hearted fellow, he had not been used to think about such things; he had had troubles of his own, and had got through at least some of them; people must have troubles, else would they grow unendurable for pride and insolence. But now that he had begun to hope he saw a glimmer somewhere afar at the end of the darksome cave in which he had all at once discovered that he was buried alive, he began also to feel how wretched those must be who were groping on without even a hope in their dark eyes.
If he had never committed any crime, he had yet done wrong enough to understand the misery of shame and dishonour, and should he not find a loving human heart the heart of the world, would rejoice—with what rejoicing might then be possible—to accept George Bascombe's theory, and drop into the jaws of darkness and cease. How much more miserable then must those be who had committed some terrible crime, or dearly loved one who had! What relief, what hope, what lightening for them! What a breeding nest of vermiculate cares and pains was this human heart of ours! Oh, surely it needed some refuge! If no saviour had yet come, the tortured world of human hearts cried aloud for one with unutterable groaning! What would Bascombe do if he had committed a murder? Or what could he do for one who had? If fable it were, it was at least a need—invented one—that of a Saviour to whom anyone might go, at any moment, without a journey, without letters or commendations or credentials! And yet no: if it had been invented, it could hardly be by any one in the need, for such even now could hardly be brought to believe it. Ill bested were the world indeed if there were no one beyond whose pardon crime could not go! Ah! but where was the good of pardon if still the conscious crime kept stinging? and who would wish one he loved to grow callous to the crime he had committed? Could one rejoice that his guilty friend had learned to laugh again, able at length to banish the memory of the foul thing? Would reviving self-content render him pleasant to the eyes, and his company precious in the wisdom that springs from the knowledge of evil? Would not that be the moment when he who had most assiduously sought to comfort him in his remorse, would first be tempted to withdraw his foot from his threshold? But if there was a God—such a God as, according to the Christian story, had sent his own son into the world—had given him to appear among us, clothed in the garb of humanity, the armour that can be pierced, to take all the consequences of being the god of obedience amongst the children of disobedience, engulfing their wrongs in his infinite forbearance, and winning them back, by slow and unpromising and tedious renewal, to the heart of his father, surely such a God would not have created them, knowing that some of them would sin sins from the horror of which in themselves all his devotion could not redeem them!—And as he thought thus, the words arose in his mind—"COME UNTO ME ALL YE THAT LABOUR AND ARE HEAVY LADEN, AND I WILL GIVE YOU REST." His heart filled. He pondered over them. When he got home he sought and found them in the book.—Did a man ever really utter them? If a man did, either he was the most presumptuous of mortals, or HE COULD DO WHAT HE SAID. If he could, then to have seen and distrusted that man, Wingfold felt, would have been to destroy in himself the believing faculty and become incapable of trusting for ever after. And such a man must, in virtue of his very innocence, know that the worst weariness and the worst load is evil and crime, and must know himself able, in full righteousness, with no jugglery of oblivion or self-esteem, to take off the heavy load and give rest.
"And yet," thought the curate, not without self-reproach, "for one who will go to him to get the rest, a thousand will ask—HOW CAN HE THEN DO IT?—As if they should be fit to know!"
A SERMON TO HELEN.
All the rest of the week his mind was full of thoughts like these, amid which ever arose the suffering face of Helen Lingard, bringing with it the still strengthening suspicion that behind it must lie some oppressive, perhaps terrible secret. But he made no slightest movement towards the discovery of it, put not a single question in any direction for its confirmation or dissolution. He would not look in at her windows, but what seeds of comfort he could find, he would scatter wide, and hope that some of them might fall into her garden.
When he raised his head on the Sunday from kneeling, with heart honest, devout, and neighbourly, in the pulpit before the sermon, and cast his eyes round his congregation, they rested first, for one moment and no more, upon the same pallid and troubled countenance whose reflection had so often of late looked out from the magic mirror of his memory; the next, they flitted across the satisfied, healthy, handsome, clever face of her cousin, behind which plainly sat a conscience well-to-do, in an easy chair; the third, they saw and fled the peevish autumnal visage of Mrs. Ramshorn; the next, they roved a little, then rested on the draper's good-humoured disc, on the white forehead of which brooded a cloud of thoughtfulness. Last of all they sought the free seats, and found the faces of both the dwarfs. It was the first time he had seen Rachel's there, and it struck him that it expressed greater suffering than he had read in it before. She ought rather to be in bed than in church, he thought. But the same seemed the case with her uncle's countenance also; and with that came the conclusion that the pulpit was a wonderful watch-tower whence to study human nature; that people lay bare more of their real nature and condition to the man in the pulpit than they know—even before the sermon. Their faces have fallen into the shape of their minds, for the church has an isolating as well as congregating power, and no passing emotion moulds them to an evanescent show. When Polwarth spoke to a friend, the suffering melted in issuing radiance; when he sat thus quiescent, patient endurance was the first thing to be read on his countenance. This flashed through the curate's mind in the moments ere he began to speak, and with it came afresh the feeling—one that is, yet ought not to be sad—that no one of all these hearts could give summer-weather to another. The tears rose in his eyes as he gazed, and his heart swelled towards his own flesh and blood, as if his spirit would break forth in a torrent of ministering tenderness and comfort. Then he made haste to speak lest he should become unable. As usual his voice trembled at first, but rose into strength as his earnestness found way. This is a good deal like what he said:
"The marvellous man who is reported to have appeared in Palestine, teaching and preaching, seems to have suffered far more from sympathy with the inward sorrows of his race than from pity for their bodily pains. These last, could he not have swept from the earth with a word? and yet it seems to have been mostly, if not indeed always, only in answer to prayer that he healed them, and that for the sake of some deeper, some spiritual healing that should go with the bodily cure. It could not be for the dead man whom he was about to call from the tomb, that his tears flowed. What source could they have but compassion and pitiful sympathy for the sorrows of the dead man's sisters and friends who had not the inward joy that sustained himself, and the thought of all the pains and heartaches of those that looked in the face of death—the meanings of love—torn generations, the blackness of bereavement that had stormed through the ever changing world of human hearts since first man had been made in the image of his Father? Yet are there far more terrible troubles than this death—which I trust can only part, not keep apart. There is the weight of conscious wrong being and wrong doing—that is the gravestone that needs to be rolled away ere a man can rise to life. Call to mind how Jesus used to forgive men's sins, thus lifting from their hearts the crushing load that paralyzed all their efforts. Recall the tenderness with which he received those from whom the religious of his day turned aside—the repentant women who wept sore-hearted from very love, the publicans who knew they were despised because they were despicable. With him they sought and found shelter. He was their saviour from the storm of human judgment and the biting frost of public opinion, even when that opinion and that judgment were re-echoed by the justice of their own hearts. He received them, and the life within them rose up, and the light shone—the conscious light of light, despite even of shame and self-reproach. If God be for us who can be against us? In his name they rose from the hell of their own hearts' condemnation, and went forth to do the truth in strength and hope. They heard and believed and obeyed his words. And of all words that ever were spoken, were ever words gentler, tenderer, humbler, lovelier—if true, or more arrogant, man-degrading, God-defying—if false, than these, concerning which, as his, I now desire to speak to you: 'Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light'?
"Surely these words, could they but be heartily believed, are such as every human heart might gladly hear! What man is there who has not had, has not now, or will not have to class himself amongst the weary and heavy-laden? Ye who call yourselves Christians profess to believe such rest is to be had, yet how many of you go bowed to the very earth, and take no single step towards him who says Come, lift not an eye to see whether a face of mercy may not be looking down upon you! Is it that, after all, you do not believe there ever was such a man as they call Jesus? That can hardly be. There are few so ignorant, or so wilfully illogical as to be able to disbelieve in the existence of the man, or that he spoke words to this effect. Is it then that you are doubtful concerning the whole import of his appearance? In that case, were it but as a doubtful medicine, would it not be well to make some trial of the offer made? If the man said the words, he must have at least believed that he could fulfil them. Who that knows anything of him at all can for a moment hold that this man spoke what he did not believe? The best of the Jews who yet do not believe in him, say of him that he was a good though mistaken man. Will a man lie for the privilege of being despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief? What but the confidence of truth could have sustained him when he knew that even those who loved him would have left him had they believed what he told them of his coming fate?—But then: believing what he said, might he not have been mistaken?—A man can hardly be mistaken as to whether he is at peace or not—whether he has rest in his soul or not. Neither I think can a man well be mistaken as to whence comes the peace he possesses,—as to the well whence he draws his comfort. The miser knows his comfort is his gold. Was Jesus likely to be mistaken when he supposed himself to know that his comfort came from his God? Anyhow he believed that his peace came from his obedience—from his oneness with the will of his Father. Friends, if I had such peace as was plainly his, should I not know well whence it came?—But I think I hear some one say: 'Doubtless the good man derived comfort from the thought of his Father, but might he not be mistaken in supposing there was any Father?' Hear me, my friends: I dare not say I know there is a Father. I dare not even say I think, I can only say with my whole heart I hope we have indeed a Father in heaven; but this man says HE KNOWS. Am I to say he does not know? Can I, who know so much I would gladly have otherwise in myself, imagine him less honest than I am? If he tells me he knows, I am dumb and listen. One I KNOW: THERE IS—outweighs a whole creation of voices crying each I KNOW NOT, THEREFORE THERE IS NOT. And observe it is his own, his own best he wants to give them—no bribe to obedience to his will, but the assurance of bliss if they will do as he does. He wants them to have peace—HIS peace—peace from the same source whence he has it. For what does he mean by TAKE MY YOKE UPON YOU, AND LEARN OF ME? He does not mean WEAR THE YOKE I LAY UPON YOU, AND OBEY MY WORDS. I do not say he might not have said so, or that he does not say what comes to the same thing at other times, but that is not what he says here—that is not the truth he would convey in these words. He means TAKE UPON YOU THE YOKE I WEAR; LEARN TO DO AS I DO, WHO SUBMIT EVERYTHING AND REFER EVERYTHING TO THE WILL OF MY FATHER, YEA HAVE MY WILL ONLY IN THE CARRYING OUT OF HIS: BE MEEK AND LOWLY IN HEART, AND YE SHALL FIND REST UNTO YOUR SOULS. With all the grief of humanity in his heart, in the face of the death that awaited him, he yet says, FOR MY YOKE, THE YOKE I WEAR, IS EASY, THE BURDEN I BEAR IS LIGHT. What made that yoke easy,—that burden light? That it was the will of the Father. If a man answer: 'Any good man who believed in a God, might say as much, and I do not see how it can help me;' my reply is, that this man says, COME UNTO ME, AND I WILL GIVE YOU REST—asserting the power to give perfect help to him that comes.—Does all this look far away, my friends, and very unlike the things about us? The things about you do not give you peace; from something different you may hope to gain it. And do not our souls themselves fall out with their surroundings, and cry for a nobler, better, more beautiful life?
"But some one will perhaps say: 'It is well; but were I meek and lowly in heart as he of whom you speak, it could not touch MY trouble: that springs not from myself, but from one I love.' I answer, if the peace be the peace of the Son of man, it must reach to every cause of unrest. And if thou hadst it, would it not then be next door to thy friend? How shall he whom thou lovest receive it the most readily—but through thee who lovest him? What if thy faith should be the next step to his? Anyhow, if this peace be not an all-reaching as well as a heart-filling peace; if it be not a righteous and a lovely peace, and that in despite of all surrounding and opposing troubles, then it is not the peace of God, for that passeth all understanding:—so at least say they who profess to know, and I desire to take them at their word. If thy trouble be a trouble thy God cannot set right, then either thy God is not the true God, or there is no true God, and the man who professed to reveal him led the one perfect life in virtue of his faith in a falsehood. Alas for poor men and women and their aching hearts!—If it offend any of you that I speak of Jesus as THE MAN who professed to reveal God, I answer, that the man I see, and he draws me as with the strength of the adorable Truth; but if in him I should certainly find the God for the lack of whose peace I and my brethren and sisters pine, then were heaven itself too narrow to hold my exultation, for in God himself alone could my joy find room.
"Come then, sore heart, and see whether his heart cannot heal thine. He knows what sighs and tears are, and if he knew no sin in himself, the more pitiful must it have been to him to behold the sighs and tears that guilt wrung from the tortured hearts of his brethren and sisters. Brothers, sisters, we MUST get rid of this misery of ours. It is slaying us. It is turning the fair earth into a hell, and our hearts into its fuel. There stands the man, who says he knows: take him at his word. Go to him who says in the might of his eternal tenderness and his human pity—COME UNTO ME, ALL YE THAT LABOUR AND ARE HEAVY-LADEN, AND I WILL GIVE YOU REST. TAKE MY YOKE UPON YOU, AND LEARN OF ME; FOR I AM MEEK AND LOWLY IN HEART: AND YE SHALL FIND REST UNTO YOUR SOULS. FOR MY YOKE IS EASY AND MY BURDEN IS LIGHT."
A SERMON TO HIMSELF.
Long ere he thus came to a close, Wingfold was blind to all and every individuality before him—felt only the general suffering of the human soul, and the new-born hope for it that lay in the story of the ideal man, the human God. He did not see that Helen's head was down on the book-board. She was sobbing convulsively. In some way the word had touched her, and had unsealed the fountain of tears, if not of faith. Neither did he see the curl on the lip of Bascombe, or the glance of annoyance which, every now and then, he cast upon the bent head beside him. "What on earth are you crying about? It is all in the way of his business, you know," said Bascombe's eyes, but Helen did not hear them. One or two more in the congregation were weeping, and here and there shone a face in which the light seemed to prevent the tears. Polwarth shone and Rachel wept. For the rest, the congregation listened only with varying degrees of attention and indifference. The larger portion looked as if neither Wingfold nor any other body ever meant anything—at least in the pulpit.
The moment Wingfold reached the vestry, he hurried off the garments of his profession, sped from the Abbey, and all but ran across the church-yard to his lodging. There he shut himself up in his chamber, fearful lest he should have said more than he had yet a right to say, and lest ebbing emotion should uncover the fact that he had been but "fired by the running of his own wheels," and not inspired by the guide of "the fiery-wheeled throne, the cherub Contemplation." There, from the congregation, from the church, from the sermon, from the past altogether, he turned aside his face and would forget them quite.
What had he to do with the thing that was done,—done with, and gone, either into the treasury or the lumber-room, of creation? Towards the hills of help he turned his face—to the summits over whose tops he looked for the dayspring from on high to break forth. If only Christ would come to him!—Do what he might, however, his thoughts WOULD wander back to the great gothic gulf into which he had been pouring out his soul, and the greater human gulfs that opened into the ancient pile, whose mouths were the faces that hid the floor beneath them—until at length he was altogether vexed with himself for being interested in what he had done, instead of absorbed in what he had yet to do. He left therefore his chamber, and placed himself at a side-table in his sitting-room, while his landlady prepared the other for his dinner. She too had been at church that morning, whence it came that she moved about and set the things on the table with unusual softness, causing him no interruption while he wrote down a line here and there of what afterwards grew into the following verses—born in the effort to forget the things that were behind, and reach forth after the things that lay before him.
Yes, Master, when thou comest thou shalt find A little faith on earth, if I am here! Thou know'st how oft I turn to thee my mind, How sad I wait until thy face appear!
Hast thou not ploughed my thorny ground full sore, And from it gathered many stones and sherds? Plough, plough and harrow till it needs no more— Then sow thy mustard-seed, and send thy birds.
I love thee, Lord; and if I yield to fears, Nor trust with triumph that pale doubt defies, Remember, Lord, 'tis nigh two thousand years, And I have never seen thee with mine eyes.
And when I lift them from the wondrous tale, See, all about me has so strange a show! Is that thy river running down the vale? Is that thy wind that through the pines doth blow?
Couldst thou right verily appear again, The same who walked the paths of Palestine, And here in England teach thy trusting men, In church and field and house, with word and sign?
Here are but lilies, sparrows, and the rest!— My hands on some dear proof would light and stay! But my heart sees John leaning on thy breast, And sends them forth to do what thou dost say.
"Extraordinary young man!" exclaimed Mrs. Ramshorn as they left the church, with a sigh that expressed despair. "Is he an infidel or a fanatic? a Jesuit or a Socinian?"
"If he would pay a little more attention to his composition," said Bascombe indifferently, "he might in time make of himself a good speaker. I am not at all sure there are not the elements of an orator in him, if he would only reflect a little on the fine relations between speech and passion, and learn of the best models how to play upon the feelings of a congregation. I declare I don't know, but he might make a great man of himself. As long as he don't finish his sentences however, jumbles his figures, and begins and ends abruptly without either exordium or peroration, he needn't look to make anything of a preacher—and that seems his object."
"If that be his object, he had better join the Methodists at once. He would be a treasure to them," said Mrs. Ramshorn.
"That is not his object, George. How can you say so?" remarked Helen quietly, but with some latent indignation.
George smiled a rather unpleasant smile and held his peace.
Little more was said on the way home. Helen went to take off her bonnet, but did not re-appear until she was called to their early Sunday dinner.
Now George had counted upon a turn in the garden with her before dinner, and was annoyed—more, it is true, because of the emotion which he rightly judged the cause of her not joining him, than the necessity laid on him of eating his dinner without having first unburdened his mind; but the latter fact also had its share in vexing him.
When she came into the drawing-room it was plain she had been weeping; but, although they were alone, and would probably have to wait yet a few minutes before their aunt joined them, he resolved in his good nature to be considerate, and say nothing till after dinner, lest he should spoil her appetite. When they rose from the table, she would have again escaped, but when George left his wine and followed her, she consented, at his urgent, almost expostulatory request, to walk once round the garden with him.
As soon as they were out of sight of the windows, he began—in the tone of one whose love it is that prompts rebuke.
"How COULD you, my dear Helen, have so little care of your health, already so much shaken with nursing your brother, as to yield your mind to the maundering of that silly ecclesiastic, and allow his false eloquence to untune your nerves! Remember your health is the first thing—positively the FIRST and foremost thing to be considered, both for your own sake and that of your friends. Without health, what is anything worth?"
Helen made no answer, but she thought with herself there were two or three things for the sake of which she would willingly part with a considerable portion of her health. Her cousin imagined her conscience-stricken, and resumed with yet greater confidence.
"If you MUST go to church, you ought to prepare yourself beforehand by firmly impressing on your mind the fact that the whole thing is but part of a system—part of a false system; that the preacher has been brought up to the trade of religion, that it is his business, and that he must lay himself out to persuade people—himself first of all if he can, but anyhow his congregation, of the truth of everything contained in that farrago of priestly absurdities— called the Bible, forsooth! as if there were no other book worthy to be mentioned beside it. Think for a moment how soon, were it not for their churches and prayers and music and their tomfoolery of preaching, the whole precious edifice would topple about their ears, and the livelihood, the means of contentment and influence, would be gone from so many restless paltering spirits! So what is left them but to play upon the hopes and fears and diseased consciences of men as they best can! The idiot! To tell a man when he is hipped to COME UNTO ME! Bah! Does the fool really expect any grown man or woman to believe in his or her brain that the man who spoke those words, if ever there was a man who spoke them, can at this moment anni domini"—George liked to be correct—"1870, hear whatever silly words the Rev. Mr. Wingfold, or any other human biped, may think proper to address to him with his face buried in his blankets by his bedside or in his surplice over the pulpit-bible?—not to mention that they would have you believe, or be damned to all eternity, that every thought vibrated in the convolutions of your brain is known to him as well as to yourself! The thing is really too absurd! Ha! ha! ha! The man died—the death of a malefactor, they say; and his body was stolen from his grave by his followers, that they might impose thousands of years of absurdity upon generations to come after them. And now, when a fellow feels miserable, he is to cry to that dead man, who said of himself that he was meek and lowly in heart, and straightway the poor beggar shall find rest to his soul! All I can say is that, if he find rest so, it will be the rest of an idiot! Believe me, Helen, a good Havannah and a bottle of claret would be considerably more to the purpose;—for ladies, perhaps rather a cup of tea and a little Beethoven!" Here he laughed, for the rush of his eloquence had swept away his bad humour. "But really," he went on, "the whole is TOO absurd to talk about. To go whining after an old Jew fable in these days of progress! Why, what do you think is the last discovery about light?"
"You will allow this much in excuse for their being so misled," returned Helen, with some bitterness, "that the old fable pretends at least to provide help for sore hearts; and except it be vivisection, I——"
"Do be serious, Helen," interrupted George. "I don't object to joking, you know, but you are not joking in a right spirit. This matter has to do with the well-being of the race; and we MUST think of others, however your Jew-gospel, in the genuine spirit of the Hebrew of all time, would set everybody to the saving of his own wind-bubble of a soul. Believe me, to live for others is the true way to lose sight of our own fancied sorrows."
Helen gave a deep sigh. Fancied sorrows!—Yes, gladly indeed would she live for ONE other at least! Nay more—she would die for him. But alas! what would that do for one whose very being was consumed with grief ineffable!—She must speak, else he would read her heart.
"There are real sorrows," she said. "They are not all fancied."
"There are very few sorrows," returned George, "in which fancy does not bear a stronger proportion than even a woman of sense, while the fancy is upon her, will be prepared to admit. I can remember bursts of grief when I was a boy, in which it seemed impossible anything should ever console me; but in one minute all would be gone, and my heart, or my spleen, or my diaphragm, as merry as ever. Believe that all is well, and you will find all will be well—very tolerably well, that is, considering."
"Considering that the well-being has to be divided and apportioned and accommodated to the various parts of such a huge whole, and that there is no God to look after the business!" said Helen, who, according to the state of the tide in the sea of her trouble, resented or accepted her cousin's teaching.
Few women are willing to believe in death. Most of them love life, and are faithful to hope; and I much doubt whether, if Helen had but had a taste of trouble to rouse the woman within her before her cousin conceived the wish of making her a proselyte, she would have turned even a tolerably patient ear to his instructions. Yet it is strange to see how even noble women, with the divine gift of imagination, may be argued into unbelief in their best instincts by some small man, as common-place as clever, who beside them is as limestone to marble. The knowing craft comes creeping up into the shadow of the rich galleon, and lo, with all her bountiful sails gleaming in the sun, the ship of God glides off in the wake of the felucca to the sweltering hollows betwixt the winds!
"You perplex me, my dear cousin," said Bascombe. "It is plain your nursing has been too much for you. You see everything with a jaundiced eye."
"Thank you, Cousin George," said Helen. "You are even more courteous than usual."
She turned from him and went into the house. Bascombe walked to the bottom of the garden and lighted his cigar, confessing to himself that for once he could not understand Helen.—Was it then only that he was ignorant of the awful fact that lay burrowing in her heart, or was he not ignorant also of the nature of that heart in which such a fact must so burrow? Was there anything in his system to wipe off that burning, torturing red? "Such things must be: men who wrong society must suffer for the sake of that society." But the red lay burning on the conscience of Helen too, and she had not murdered! And for him who had, he gave society never a thought, but shrieked aloud in his dreams, and moaned and wept when he waked over the memory of the woman who had wronged him, and whom he had, if Bascombe was right, swept out of being like an aphis from a rose-leaf.
A VANISHING GLIMMER.
Helen ran upstairs, dropped on her knees by her brother's bedside, and fell into a fit of sobbing, which no tears came to relieve.
"Helen! Helen! if you give way I shall go mad," said a voice of misery from the pillow.
She jumped up, wiping her dry eyes.
"What a wicked, selfish, bad sister, bad nurse, bad everything, I am, Poldie!" she said, her tone ascending the steps of vocal indignation as she spoke. "But shall I tell you"—here she looked all about the chamber and into the dressing-room ere she proceeded—"shall I tell you, Poldie, what it is that makes me so— I don't know what?—It is all the fault of the sermon I heard this morning. It is the first sermon I ever really listened to in my life—certainly the first I ever thought about again after I was out of the church. Somehow or other of late Mr. Wingfold has been preaching so strangely! but this is the first time I have cared to listen. Do you know he preaches as if he actually believed the things he was saying, and not only that, but as if he expected to persuade you of them too! I USED to think all clergymen believed them, but I doubt it now more than ever, for Mr. Wingfold speaks so differently and looks so different. I never saw any clergyman look like that; and I never saw such a change on a man as there is on him. There must be something to account for it. Could it be that he has himself really gone to—as he says—and found rest—or something he hadn't got before? But you won't know what I mean unless I tell you first what he was preaching about. His text was: Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden;—a common enough text, you know? Poldie! but somehow it seemed fresh to him, and he made it look fresh to me, for I felt as if it hadn't been intended for preaching about at all, but for going straight into people's hearts its own self, without any sermon. I think the way he did it was this: he first made us feel the sort of person that said the words, and then made us feel that he did say them, and so made us want to see what they could really mean. But of course what made them so different to me, was"—here Helen did burst into tears, but she fought with her sobs, and went on—"was—was—that my heart is breaking for you, Poldie—for I shall never see you smile again, my darling!"
She buried her face on his pillow, and Leopold uttered "a great and exceeding bitter cry." Her hand was on his mouth instantly, and her sobs ceased, while the tears kept flowing down her white face.
"Just think, Poldie," she said, in a voice which she seemed to have borrowed in her need from some one else, "—just think a moment! What if there should be some help in the great wide universe—somewhere, for as wide as it is—a heart that feels for us both, as my heart feels for you, Poldie! Oh! oh! wouldn't it be grand? Wouldn't it be lovely to be at peace again, Poldie? If there should be somebody somewhere who could take this gnawing serpent from my heart!"—She pulled wildly at her dress.—"'Come unto me,' he said, 'all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.' That's what he said:—oh! if it could be true!"
"Surely it is—for you, best of sisters," cried Leopold; "but what has it to do with me? Nothing. She is DEAD—I killed her. Even if God were to raise her to life again, HE could not make it that I didn't drive the knife into her heart! Give ME rest!—why there's the hand that did it! O my God! my God!" cried the poor youth, and stared at his thin wasted hand, through which the light shone red, as at a conscious evil thing that had done the deed, and was still stained with its signs.
"God CAN'T be very angry with you, Poldie," sobbed Helen, feeling about blindly in the dark forest of her thoughts for some herb of comfort, and offering any leaf upon which her hand fell first.
"Then he ain't fit to be God!" cried Leopold fiercely. "I wouldn't have a word to say to a God that didn't cut a man in pieces for such a deed! Oh Helen, she was so lovely!—and what is she now?"
"Surely if there were a God, he would do something to set it right somehow! I know if I was God, Poldie, I should find some way of setting you up again, my darling. You ain't half as bad as you make yourself out."
"You had better tell that to the jury, Helen, and see how they will take it," said Leopold contemptuously.
"The jury!" Helen almost screamed. "What do you mean, Poldie?"
"Well!" returned Leopold, in a tone of justification, but made no further answer to her question. "All God can do to set it right," he resumed, after a pause, "is to damn me for ever and ever, as one of the blackest creatures in creation."
"THAT I don't believe, anyhow!" returned Helen with equal vehemence and indefiniteness.
And for the first time, George Bascombe's teachings were a comfort to her. It was all nonsense about a God. As to her brother's misery, it had no source but that to which Shakespeare attributed the misery of Macbeth—and who should know better than Shakespeare?—the fear, namely, of people doing the like to himself! But straightway thereupon—horrible thought!—she found herself—yes! it was in her—call it thought, or call it feeling, it was hers!—she found herself despising her poor crushed brother! disgusted with him! turning from him, not even in scorn of his weakness, but in anger at what he had brought upon her! It was but a flash of the lightning of hell: one glance of his great, troubled, appealing, yet hopeless eyes, vague with the fogs that steamed up from the Phlegethon within him, was enough to turn her anger at him into hate of herself who had stabbed his angel in her heart. Then in herself she knew that all murderers are not of Macbeth's order, and that all remorse is not for oneself.
But where was the God to be found who could and MIGHT help in the wretched case? How were they to approach him? Or what could he do for them? Were such a being to assure Leopold that no hurt should come to him—even that he thought little of the wrong that he had done—would that make his crushed heart begin to swell again with fresh life? would that bring back Emmeline from the dark grave and the worms to the sunny earth and the speech of men? And whither, yet farther, he might have sent her, she dared not think. And Leopold was not merely at strife with himself, but condemned to dwell with a self that was loathsome to him. She no longer saw any glimmer of hope but such as lay in George's doctrine of death. If there was no helper who could clean hearts and revive the light of life, then welcome gaunt death! let the grim-mouthed skeleton be crowned at every feast!
LET US PRAY!
That was the sole chink in the prison where these two sat immured alone from their kind—unless, indeed, the curate might know of another.
One thing Helen had ground for being certain of—that the curate would tell them no more than he knew. Even George Bascombe, who did not believe one thing he said, counted him an honest man! Might she venture to consult him, putting the case as of a person who had done very wrong—say stolen money or committed forgery or something? Might she not thus gather a little honey of comfort and bring it home to Leopold?
Thinking thus and thus she sat silent; and all the time the suffering eyes were fixed upon her face, looking for no comfort, but finding there all they ever had of rest.
"Are you thinking about the sermon, Helen?" he asked. "What was it you were telling me about it just now? Who preached it?"
"Mr. Wingfold," she answered listlessly.
"Who is Mr. Wingfold?"
"Our curate at the Abbey."
"What sort of man is he?"
"Oh, a man somewhere about thirty—a straightforward, ordinary kind of man."
"Ah!" said Leopld—then added after a moment—"I was hoping he might be an old man, with a grey head, like the brahmin who used to teach me Sanscrit.—I wish I had treated him better, poor old fellow! and learned a little more."
"What does it matter about Sanscrit? Why should you make troubles of trifles?" said Helen, whose trials had at last begun to undermine her temper.
"It was not of the Sanscrit, but the moonshee I was thinking," answered Leopold mildly.
"You darling!" cried Helen, already repentant. But with the revulsion she felt that this state of things could not long continue—she must either lose her senses, or turn into something hateful to herself: the strain was more than she could bear. She MUST speak to somebody, and she would try whether she could not approach the subject with Mr. Wingfold.
But how was she to see him? It would be awkward to call upon him at his lodgings, and she must see him absolutely alone to dare a whisper of what was on her mind.
As she thus reflected, the thought of what people would say, were it remarked that she contrived to meet the curate, brought a shadow of scorn upon her face. Leopold saw the expression, and, sensitive as an ailing woman, said,
"Helen, what HAVE I done to make you look like that?"
"How did I look, my Poldie?" she asked, turning on him eyes like brimming wells of love and tenderness.
"Let me see," answered Leopold; and after a moment's thought replied, "As Milton's Satan might have looked if Mammon had counselled him to make off with the crown-jewels instead of declaring war."
"Ah, Poldie!" cried Helen, delighted at the stray glance of sunshine, and kissing him as she spoke, "you must really be better! I'll tell you what!" she exclaimed joyfully, as a new thought struck her: "As soon as you are able, we will set out for New York—to pay Uncle Tom a visit of course! but we shall never be seen or heard of again. At New York we will change our names, cross to San Francisco, and from there sail for the Sandwich Islands. Perhaps we may be able to find a little one to buy, just big enough for us two; and you shall marry a nice native——"
Her forced gaiety gave way. She burst out weeping afresh, and throwing her arms round him, sobbed—
"Poldie, Poldie! you can pray: cry to God to help us somehow or other; and if there be no God to hear us, then let us die together. There are easy ways of it, Poldie."
"Thank you! thank you, sister dear!" he answered, pressing her to his bosom: "that is the first word of real comfort you have spoken to me. I shall not be afraid if you go with me."
It was indeed a comfort to both of them to remember that there was this alternative equally to the gallows and a long life of gnawing fear and remorse. But it was only to be a last refuge of course. Helen withdrew to the dressing-room, laid herself on her bed, and began to compass how to meet and circumvent the curate, so as by an innocent cunning to wile from him on false pretences what spiritual balm she might so gain for the torn heart and conscience of her brother. There was no doubt it would be genuine, and the best to be had, seeing George Bascombe, who was honesty itself, judged the curate an honest man. But how was it to be done? She could see only one way. With some inconsistency, she resolved to cast herself on his generosity, and yet would not trust him entirely.
She did not go downstairs again, but had her tea with her brother. In the evening her aunt went out to visit some of her pensioners, for it was one of Mrs. Ramshorn's clerical duties to be kind to the poor—a good deal at their expense, I am afraid—and presently George came to the door of the sick-room to beg her to go down and sing to him. Of course, in the house of a dean's relict, no music except sacred must be heard on a Sunday; but to have Helen sing it, George would condescend even to a hymn tune; and there was Handel, for whom he professed a great admiration! What mattered his subjects? He could but compose the sort of thing the court wanted of him, and in order to that, had to fuddle his brains first, poor fellow! So said George at least.
That Leopold might not hear them talking outside his door, a thing which no invalid likes, Helen went downstairs with her cousin; but although she had often sung from Handel for his pleasure, content to reproduce the bare sounds, and caring nothing about the feelings both they and the words represented, she positively refused this evening to gratify him. She must go back to Leopold. She would sing from The Creation if he liked, but nothing out of The Messiah would she or could she sing.
Perhaps she could herself hardly have told why, but George perceived the lingering influence of the morning's sermon, and more vexed than he had ever yet been with her, for he could not endure her to cherish the least prejudice in favour of what he despised, he said he would overtake his aunt, and left the house. The moment he was gone, she went to the piano, and began to sing, "Comfort ye." When she came to "Come unto me," she broke down. But with sudden resolution she rose, and, having opened every door between it and her brother, raised the top of the piano, and then sang, "Come unto me," as she had never sung in her life. Nor did she stop there. At the distance of six of the wide-standing houses, her aunt and cousin heard her singing "Thou didst not leave," with the tone and expression of a prophetess—of a Maenad, George said. She was still singing when he opened the door, but when they reached the drawing-room she was gone. She was kneeling beside her brother.
The next morning, as Wingfold ate his breakfast by an open window looking across the churchyard, he received a letter by the local post. It was as follows:—
"Dear Mr. Wingfold, I am about to take an unheard-of liberty, but my reasons are such as make me bold. The day may come when I shall be able to tell you them all. Meantime I hope you can help me. I want very much to ask your counsel upon a certain matter, and I cannot beg you to call, for my aunt knows nothing of it. Could you contrive a suitable way of meeting? You may imagine my necessity is grievous when I thus expose myself to the possible bitterness of my own after judgment. But I must have confidence in the man who spoke as you did yesterday morning. I am, dear Mr. Wingfold, sincerely yours, Helen Lingard.
"P.S.—I shall be walking along Pine Street from our end, at eleven o'clock to-morrow."
The curate was not taken with a great surprise. But something like fear overshadowed him at finding his sermons come back upon him thus. Was he, an unbelieving labourer, to go reaping with his blunt and broken sickle where the corn was ripest! But he had no time to think about that now. It was nearly ten o'clock, and she would be looking for her answer at eleven. He had not to think long, however, before he saw what seemed a suitable plan to suggest; whereupon he wrote as follows:
"Dear Miss Lingard, I need not say that I am entirely at your service. But I am doubtful if the only way that occurs to me will commend itself to you. I know what I am about to propose is safe, but you may not have sufficient confidence in my judgment to accept it as such.
"Doubtless you have seen the two deformed persons, an uncle and niece, named Polwarth, who keep the gate of Osterfield Park. I know them well, and, strange as it may seem, I must tell you, in order that you may partake of my confidence, that whatever change you may have observed in my public work is owing to the influence of those two, who have more faith in God than I have ever met with before. It may not be amiss to mention also that, although poor and distorted, they are of gentle blood as well as noble nature. With this preamble, I venture to propose that you should meet me at their cottage. To them it would not appear at all strange that one of my congregation should wish to see me alone, and I know you may trust their discretion. But while I write thus, with all confidence in you and in them, I must tell you that I have none in myself. I feel both ashamed and perplexed that you should imagine any help in me. Of all I know, I am the poorest creature to give counsel. All I can say for myself is that I think I see a glimmer of light, and light is light, through whatever cranny, and into whatever poverty-stricken chamber, it may fall. Whatever I see I will say. If I can see nothing to help you, I will be silent. And yet I may be able to direct you where to find what I cannot give you. If you accept my plan, and will appoint day and hour, I shall acquaint the Polwarths with the service we desire of them. Should you object to it, I shall try to think of another. I am, dear Miss Lingard, yours very truly, Thomas Wingfold."
He placed the letter between the pages of a pamphlet, took his hat and stick, and was walking down Pine Street as the Abbey clock struck eleven. Midway he met Helen, shook hands with her, and, after an indifferent word or two, gave her the pamphlet, and bade her good morning.
Helen hurried home. It had required all her self-command to look him in the face, and her heart beat almost painfully as she opened the letter.
She could not but be pleased—even more than pleased with it. If the secret had been her own, she thought she could have trusted him entirely; but she must not expose poor Leopold.
By the next post the curate received a grateful answer, appointing the time, and expressing perfect readiness to trust those whom he had tried.
She was received at the cottage door by Rachel, who asked her to walk into the garden, where Mr. Wingfold was expecting her. The curate led her to a seat overgrown with honeysuckle.
ADVICE IN THE DARK.
It was some moments before either of them spoke, and it did not help Wingfold that she sat clouded by a dark-coloured veil. At length he said,
"You must not fear to trust me because I doubt my ability to help you. I can at least assure you of my sympathy. The trouble I have myself had enables me to promise you that."
"Can you tell me," she said, from behind more veils than that of lace, "how to get rid of a haunting idea?"
"That depends on the nature of the idea, I should imagine," answered the curate. "Such things sometimes arise merely from the state of the health, and there the doctor is the best help."
Helen shook her head, and smiled behind her veil a grievous smile. The curate paused, but, receiving no assistance, ventured on again.
"If it be a thought of something past and gone, for which nothing can be done, I think activity in one's daily work must be the best aid to endurance."
"Oh dear! oh dear!" sighed Helen—"when one has no heart to endure, and hates the very sunlight!—You wouldn't talk about work to a man dying of hunger, would you?"
"I'm not sure about that."
"He wouldn't heed you."
"What would you do then?"
"Give him some food, and try him again, I think."
"Then give me some food—some hope, I mean, and try me again. Without that, I don't care about duty or life or anything."
"Tell me, then, what is the matter; I MAY be able to hint at some hope," said Wingfold, very gently. "Do you call yourself a Christian?"
The question would to most people have sounded strange, abrupt, inquisitorial; but to Helen it sounded not one of them all.
"No," she answered.
"Ah!" said the curate a little sadly, and went on. "Because then I could have said, you know where to go for comfort.—Might it not be well however to try if there is any to be had from him that said 'COME UNTO ME, AND I WILL GIVE YOU REST?'"
"I can do nothing with that. I have tried and tried to pray, but it is of no use. There is such a weight on my heart that no power of mine can lift it up. I suppose it is because I cannot believe there is anyone hearing a word I say. Yesterday, when I got alone in the park, I prayed aloud: I thought that perhaps, even if he might not be able to read what was in my heart, he might be able to hear my voice. I was even foolish enough to wish I knew Greek, because perhaps he would understand me better if I were to pray in Greek. My brain seems turning. It is of no use! There is no help anywhere!"
She tried hard, but could not prevent a sob. And then came a burst of tears.
"Will you not tell me something about it?" said the curate, yet more gently. Oh, how gladly would he relieve her heart if he might! "Perhaps Jesus has begun to give you help, though you do not know it yet," he said, "His help may be on the way to you, or even with you, only you do not recognize it for what it is. I have known that kind of thing. Tell me some fact or some feeling I can lay hold of. Possibly there is something you ought to do and are not doing, and that is why you cannot rest. I think Jesus would give no rest except in the way of learning of him."
Helen's sobs ceased, but what appeared to the curate a long silence followed. At length she said, with faltering voice:
"Suppose it were a great wrong that had been done, and that was the unendurable thought? SUPPOSE, I say, that was what made me miserable!"
"Then you must of course make all possible reparation," answered Wingfold at once.
"But if none were possible—what then?"
Here the answer was not so plain, and the curate had to think.
"At least," he said at length, "you could confess the wrong, and ask forgiveness."
"But if that also were impossible," said Helen, shuddering inwardly to find how near she drew to the edge of the awful fact.
Again the curate took time to reply.
"I am endeavouring to answer your questions as well as I can," he said; "but it is hard to deal with generalities. You see how useless, for that very reason, my answers have as yet been! Still I have something more to say, and hesitate only because it may imply more confidence than I dare profess, and of all things I dread untruth. But I am honest in this much at least, that I desire with true heart to find a God who will acknowledge me as his creature and make me his child, and if there be any God I am nearly certain he will do so; for surely there cannot be any other kind of God than the Father of Jesus Christ! In the strength of this much of conscious truth I venture to say—that no crime can be committed against a creature without being committed also against the creator of that creature; therefore surely the first step for anyone who has committed such a crime must be to humble himself before God, confess the sin, and ask forgiveness and cleansing. If there is anything in religion at all it must rest upon an actual individual communication between God and the creature he has made; and if God heard the man's prayer and forgave him, then the man would certainly know it in his heart and be consoled—perhaps by the gift of humility."
"Then you think confession to God is all that is required?"
"If there be no one else wronged to whom confession can be made. If the case were mine—and sometimes I much fear that in taking holy orders I have grievously sinned—I should then do just as I have done with regard to that—cry to the living power which I think originated me, to set the matter right for me."
"But if it could not be set right?"
"Then to forgive and console me."
"Alas! alas! that he will not hear of. He would rather be punished than consoled. I fear for his brain. But indeed that might be well."
She had gone much farther than she had intended; but the more doubtful help became, the more she was driven by the agony of a perishing hope to search the heart of Wingfold.
Again the curate pondered.
"Are you sure," he said at length, "that the person of whom you speak is not neglecting something he ought to do—something he knows perhaps?"
He had come back to the same with which he started.
Through her veil he saw her turn deadly white. Ever since Leopold said the word JURY, a ghastly fear had haunted Helen. She pressed her hand on her heart and made no answer.
"I speak from experience," the curate went on—"from what else could I speak? I know that so long as we hang back from doing what conscience urges, there is no peace for us. I will not say our prayers are not heard, for Mr. Polwarth has taught me that the most precious answer prayer can have, lies in the growing strength of the impulse towards the dreaded duty, and in the ever sharper stings of the conscience. I think I asked already whether there were no relatives to whom reparation could be made?"
"Yes, yes," gasped Helen;" and I told you reparation was impossible."
Her voice had sunk almost to a groan.
"But at least confession—" said Wingfold—-and started from his seat.
A stifled cry had interrupted him. Helen was pressing her handkerchief to her mouth. She rose and ran from him. Wingfold stood alarmed and irresolute. She had not gone many steps, however, when her pace slackened, her knees gave way, and she dropped senseless on the grass. Wingfold ran to the house for water. Rachel hastened to her assistance, and Polwarth followed. It was some time before they succeeded in reviving her.
When at length the colour began to return a little to her cheek, Polwarth dropped on his knees at her feet. Wingfold in his ministrations was already kneeling on one side of her, and Rachel now kneeled on the other. Then Polwarth said, in his low and husky, yet not altogether unmelodious voice,
"Life eternal, this lady of thine hath a sore heart and we cannot help her. Thou art Help, O mighty Love. They who know thee best rejoice in thee most. As thy sun that shines over our heads, as thy air that flows into our bodies, thou art above, around, and in us; thou art in her heart: Oh speak to her there; let her know thy will, and give her strength to do it, O Father of Jesus Christ! Amen."
When Helen opened her eyes, she saw only the dark leaves of an arbutus over her, and knew nothing beyond a sense of utter misery and weakness, with an impulse to rise and run. With an effort she moved her head a little, and then she saw the three kneeling forms, the clergyman with bowed head, and the two dwarfs with shining upturned faces: she thought she was dead and they were kneeling about her corpse. Her head dropped with a weary sigh of relief, she lay passive, and heard the dwarf's prayer. Then she knew that she was not dead, and the disappointment was bitter. But she thought of Leopold, and was consoled. After a few minutes of quiet, they helped her into the house, and laid her on a sofa in the parlour.
"Don't be frightened, dear lady," said the little woman; "nobody shall come near you. We will watch you as if you were the queen. I am going to get some tea for you."
But the moment she left the room, Helen got up. She could not endure a moment longer in the place. There was a demon at her brother's ear, whispering to him to confess, to rid himself of his torture by the aid of the law: she must rush home and drive him away. She took her hat in her hand, opened the door softly, and ere Rachel could say a word, had flitted through the kitchen, and was amongst the trees on the opposite side of the road. Rachel ran to the garden to her uncle and Wingfold. They looked at each other for a moment in silence.
"I will follow her," said Wingfold. "She may faint again. If she does I shall whistle."
He followed, and kept her in sight until she was safe in her aunt's garden.
"What IS to be done?" he said, returning in great trouble. "I do not think I made any blunder, but there she is gone in tenfold misery! I wish I could tell you what passed, but that of course I cannot."
"Of course not," returned Polwarth. "But the fact of her leaving yon so is no sign that you said the wrong thing,—rather the contrary. When people seek advice, it is too often in the hope of finding the adviser side with their second familiar self, instead of their awful first self, of which they know so little. Do not be anxious. You have done your best. Wait for what will come next."
Helen tottered to a little summer-house in the garden, which had been her best retreat since she had given her room to her brother, and there seated herself to regain breath and composure ere she went to him. She had sought the door of Paradise, and the door of hell had been opened to her! If the frightful idea which, she did not doubt, had already suggested itself to Leopold, should now be encouraged, there was nothing but black madness before her! Her Poldie on the scaffold! God in heaven! Infinitely rather would she poison herself and him! Then she remembered how pleased and consoled he had been when she said something about their dying together, and that reassured her a little: no, she was certain Leopold would never yield himself to public shame! But she must take care that foolish, extravagant curate should not come near him. There was no knowing to what he might persuade him! Poor Poldie was so easily led by any show of nobility—anything that looked grand or self-sacrificing!
Helen's only knowledge of guilt came from the pale image of it lifted above her horizon by the refraction of her sympathy. She did not know, perhaps never would understand the ghastly horror of conscious guilt, besides which there is no evil else. Agonies of injury a man may endure, and, so far from being overwhelmed, rise above them tenfold a man, who, were he to awake to the self-knowledge of a crime, would sink into a heap of ruin. Then indeed, if there be no God, or one that has not an infinite power of setting right that which has gone wrong with his work, then indeed welcome the faith, for faith it may then be called, of such as say there is no hereafter! Helen did not know to what gulfs of personal shame, nay, to what summits of public execration, a man may be glad to flee for refuge from the fangs of home-born guilt—if so be there is any refuge to be found in either. And some kind of refuge there does seem to be. Strange it is and true that in publicity itself lies some relief from the gnawing of the worm—as if even a cursing humanity were a barrier of protection between the torn soul and its crime. It flees to its kind for shelter from itself. Hence, I imagine, in part, may the coolness of some criminals be accounted for. Their quietness is the relief brought by confession—even confession but to their fellows. Is it that the crime seems then lifted a little from their shoulders, and its weight shared by the ace?
Helen had hoped that the man who had spoken in public so tenderly, and at the same time so powerfully, of the saving heart of the universe, that would have no divisions of pride, no scatterings of hate, but of many would make one, would in private have spoken yet sweeter words of hope and consolation, which she might have carried home in gladness to her sick-souled brother, to comfort and strengthen him—words of might to allay the burning of the poison within him, and make him feel that after all there was yet a place for him in the universe, and that he was no outcast of Gehenna. But instead of such words of gentle might, like those of the man of whom he was so fond of talking, he had only spoken drearily of duty, hinting at a horror that would plunge the whole ancient family into a hell of dishonour and contempt! It did indeed show what mere heartless windbags of effete theology those priests were! Skeletons they were, and no human beings at all!—Her father!—the thought of him was distraction! Her mother! Oh, if Leopold had had her mother for his too, instead of the dark-skinned woman with the flashing eyes, he would never have brought this upon them! It was all his mother's fault—the fault of her race—and of the horrible drug her people had taught him to take! And was he to go and confess it, and be tried for it, and be—? Great God!—And here was the priest actually counselling what was worse than any suicide!
Suddenly, however, it occurred to her that the curate had had no knowledge of the facts of the case, and had therefore been compelled to talk at random. It was impossible he should suspect the crime of which her brother had been guilty, and therefore could not know the frightful consequences of such a confession as he had counselled. Had she not better then tell him all, and so gather from him some right and reasonable advice for the soothing of the agonies of her poor broken-winged angel? But alas! what security had she that a man capable of such priestly sevei'ity and heartlessness—her terrors made her thus inconsequent—would not himself betray the all but innocent sufferer to the vengeance of justice so called? No; she would venture no farther. Sooner would she go to George Bascombe—from whom she not only could look for no spiritual comfort, but whose theories were so cruel against culprits of all sorts! Alas, alas! she was alone! absolutely alone in the great waste, death-eyed universe!—But for a man to talk so of the tenderness of Jesus Christ, and then serve her as the curate had done—it was indeed shameless! HE would never have treated a poor wretched woman like that!—And as she said thus to herself, again the words sounded in the ear of her heart: 'COME UNTO ME, ALL YE THAT LABOUR AND ARE HEAVY LADEN, AND I WILL GIVE YOU REST.' Whence came the voice? From her memory, or from that inner chamber of the spirit which the one spirit-bearing spirit keeps for his own in every house that he builds—alas so long in most human houses shut away from the rest of the rooms and forgotten, or recollected with uneasiness as a lumber-closet in which lie too many things that had better not be looked into? But what matter where the voice that had said them, so long as the words were true, and she might believe them!—Whatever is true CAN be believed of the true heart.
Ere she knew, Helen was on her knees, with her head on the chair, yet once more crying to the hearer of cries—possible or impossible being she knew not in the least, but words reported of him had given birth to the cry—to help her in her dire need.
Instead of any word, or thought even, coming to her that might be fancied an answer, she was scared from her knees by an approaching step—-that of the house-keeper come to look for her with the message from her aunt that Leopold was more restless than usual, not at all like himself, and she could do nothing with him.
A HAUNTED SOUL.
Helen rose and hastened to her brother, with a heart of lead in her body.
She started when she saw him: some change had passed on him since the morning! Was that eager look in his eyes a fresh access of the fever? That glimmer on his countenance, doubtful as the first of the morning, when the traveller knows not whether the light be in the sky or only in his brain, did look more like a dawn of his old healthful radiance than any fresh fire of madness; but at the same time he appeared more wasted and pinched and death-like than she had yet seen him. Or was it only in her eyes—was she but reading in his face the agony she had herself gone through that day?
"Helen, Helen!" he cried as she entered the room, "come here, close to me."
She hastened to him, sat down on the bedside, took his hand, and looked as cheerfully as she could, yet it was but the more woefully, in his face.