Erica could not help smiling, though she saw what he was driving at.
But Charles Osmond felt much too keenly to continue in such a light strain. He was no weak-minded, pleasant conversationalist, but a prophet, who knew how to speak hard truths sometimes.
"Erica," he said, almost sternly, "you talk much about those who quote your father's words unfairly; but have you never misquoted the words of Christ? You deny Him and disbelieve in Him, yet you have never really studied His life. You have read the New Testament through a veil of prejudice. Mind, I am not saying one word in defense of those so-called Christians who treat you unfairly or uncharitably; but I do say that, as far as I can see, you are quite as unfair to Christ as they are to your father. Of course, you may reply that Jesus of Nazareth lived nearly nineteen hundred years ago, and that your father is still living; that you have many difficulties and doubts to combat, while our bigots can verify every fact or quotation with regard to Mr. Raeburn with perfect ease and certainty. That is true enough. But the difficulties, if honestly faced, might be surmounted. You don't honestly face them; you say to yourself, 'I have gone into all these matters carefully, and now I have finally made up my mind; there is an end of the matter!' You are naturally prejudiced against Christ; every day your prejudices will deepen unless you strike out resolutely for yourself as a truth-seeker, as one who insists on always considering all sides of the question. At present you are absolutely unfair, you will not take the trouble to study the life of Christ."
Few people like to be told of their faults. Erica could just endure it from her father, but from no one else. She was, besides, too young yet to have learned even the meaning of the word humility. Had Charles Osmond been a few years younger, she would not even have listened to him. As it was, he was a gray-haired man, whom she loved and revered; he was, moreover, a guest. She was very angry with him, but she restrained her anger.
He had watched her attentively while he spoke. She had at first only been surprised; then her anger had been kindled, and she gave him one swift flash from eyes which looked like live coals. Then she turned her face away from him, so that he could only see one crimson cheek. There was a pause after he had said his say. Presently, with a great effort, Erica faced him once more, and in a manner which would have been dignified had it not been a trifle too frigid, made some casual remark upon a different subject. He saw that to stay longer was mere waste of time.
When the door had closed behind him, Erica's anger blazed up once more. That he should have dared to accuse her of unfairness! That he should have dared actually to rebuke her! If he had given her a good shaking she could not have felt more hurt and ruffled. And then to choose this day of all others, just when life was so hard to her, just when she was condemned to a long imprisonment. It was simply brutal of him! If any one had told her that he would do such a thing she would not have believed them. He had said nothing of the sort to her before, though they had known each other so long; but, now that she was ill and helpless and unable to get away from him, he had seen fit to come and lecture her. Well, he was a parson! She might have known that sooner or later the horrid, tyrannical, priestly side of him would show! And yet she had liked him so much, trusted him so much! It was indescribably bitter to think that he was no longer the hero she had thought him to be. That, after all, he was not a grand, noble, self-denying man, but a fault-finding priest!
She spent the rest of the afternoon in alternate wrath and grief. In the evening Aunt Jean read her a somewhat dry book which required all her attention, and, consequently, her anger cooled for want of thoughts to stimulate it. Her father did not come in till late; but, as he carried her upstairs to bed, she told him of Charles Osmond's interview.
"I told him you like a little opposition," was his reply.
"I don't know about opposition, but I didn't like him, he showed his priestly side."
"I am sorry," replied Raeburn. "For my part I genuinely like the man; he seems to me a grand fellow, and I should have said not in the least spoiled by his Christianity, for he is neither exclusive, nor narrow-minded, nor opposed to progress. Infatuated on one point, of course, but a thorough man in spite of it."
Left once more alone in her little attic room, Erica began to think over things more quietly. So her father had told him that she liked opposition, and he had doled out to her a rebuke which was absolutely unanswerable! But why unanswerable? She had been too angry to reply at the time. It was one of the few maxims her father had given her, "When you are angry be very slow to speak." But she might write an answer, a nice, cold, cutting answer, respectful, of course, but very frigid. She would clearly demonstrate to him that she was perfectly fair, and that he, her accuser, was unfair.
And then quite quietly, she began to turn over the accusations in her mind. Quoting the words of Christ without regard to the context, twisting their meaning. Neglecting real study of Christ's character and life. Seeing all through a veil of prejudice.
She would begin, like her father, with a definition of terms. What did he mean by study? What did she mean by study? Well such searching analysis, for instance, as she had applied to the character of Hamlet, when she had had to get up one of Shakespeare's plays for her examination. She had worked very hard at that, had really taken every one of his speeches and soliloquies, and had tried to gather his true character from them as well as from his actions.
At this point she wandered away from the subject a little and began to wonder when she should hear the result of the examination, and to hope that she might get a first. By and by she came to herself with a sudden and very uncomfortable shock. If the sort of work she had given to Hamlet was study, HAD she ever studied the character of Christ?
She had all her life heard what her father had to say against Him, and what a good many well-meaning, but not very convincing, people had to say for Him. She had heard a few sermons and several lectures on various subjects connected with Christ's religion. She had read many books both for and against Him. She had read the New Testament. But could she quite honestly say that she had STUDIED the character of Christ? Had she not been predisposed to think her father in the right? He would not at all approve of that. Had she been a true Freethinker? Had she not taken a good deal to be truth because he said it? If so, she was not a bit more fair than the majority of Christians who never took the trouble to go into things for themselves, and study things from the point of view of an outsider.
In the silence and darkness of her little room, she began to suspect a good many unpleasant and hitherto unknown facts about herself.
"After all, I do believe that Mr. Osmond was right," she confessed at length. "I am glad to get back my belief in him; but I've come to a horrid bit of lath and plaster in myself where I thought it was all good stone." She fell asleep and dreamed of the heathen Chinee, reading the translation of the translation of her father's words, and disbelieving altogether in "that invented demagogue, Luke Raeburn."
The next day Charles Osmond, sitting at work in his study, and feeling more depressed and hopeless than he would have cared to own even to himself, was roused by the arrival of a little three-cornered note. It was as follow:
"Dear Mr. Osmond, You made me feel very angry yesterday, and sad, too, for of course it was a case of 'Et tu, Brute.' But last night I came to the unpleasant conclusion that you were quite right, and that I was quite wrong. To prove to you that I am no longer angry, I am going to ask you a great favor. Will you teach me Greek? Your parable of the heathen Chinee has set me thinking. Yours very sincerely, Erica Raeburn."
Charles Osmond felt the tears come to his eyes. The straightforward simplicity of the letter, the candid avowal of having been "quite wrong," an avowal not easy for one of Erica's character to make, touched him inexpressibly. Taking a Greek grammar from his book shelves, he set off at once for Guilford Terrace.
He found Erica looking very white and fragile, and with lines of suffering about her mouth; but, though physically weary, her mind seemed as vigorous as ever. She received him with her usual frankness, and with more animation in her look than he had seen for some weeks.
"I did think you perfectly horrid yesterday!" she exclaimed. "And was miserable, besides, at the prospect of losing one of my heroes. You can be very severe."
"The infliction of pain is only justified when the inflictor is certain, or as nearly certain as he can be, that the pain will be productive of good," said Charles Osmond.
"I suppose that is the way you account for the origin of evil," said Erica, thoughtfully.
"Yes," replied Charles Osmond, pleased that she should have thought of the subject, "that to me seems the only possible explanation, otherwise God would be either not perfectly good or not omnipotent. His all-wisdom enables Him to overrule that pain which He has willed to be the necessary outcome of infractions of His order. Pain, you see, is made into a means of helping us to find out where that order has been broken, and so teaching us to obey it in the long run."
"But if there is an all-powerful God, wouldn't it have been much better if He had made it impossible for us to go wrong?"
"It would have saved much trouble, undoubtedly; but do you think that which costs us least trouble is generally the most worth having? I know a noble fellow who has fought his way upward through sins and temptations you would like him, by the way, for he was once an atheist. He is, by virtue of all he has passed through, all he has overcome, one of the fines men I have ever known."
"That is the friend, I suppose, whom your son mentioned to me. But I don't see your argument, for if there was an all-powerful God, He could have caused the man you speak of to be as noble and good without passing through pain and temptation."
"But God does not work arbitrarily, but by laws of progression. Nor does His omnipotence include the working of contradictions. He cannot both cause a thing to be and not to be at the same time. If it is a law that that which has grown by struggle and effort shall be most noble, God will not arbitrarily reverse that law or truth because the creation of sinless beings would involve less trouble."
"It all seems to me so unreal!" exclaimed Erica. "It seems like talking of thin air!"
"I expect it does," said Charles Osmond, trying to realize to himself her position.
There was a silence.
"How did this man of whom you speak come to desert our side?" asked Erica. "I suppose, as you say he was one of the finest men you ever knew, he must, at least, have had a great intellect. How did he begin to think all these unlikely, unreal things true?"
"Donovan began by seeing the grandeur of the character of Christ. He followed his example for many years, calling himself all the time an atheist; at last he realized that in Christ we see the Father."
"I am sorry we lost him if he is such a nice man," was Erica's sole comment. Then, turning her beautiful eyes on Charles Osmond, she said, "I hope my note did not convey to you more than I intended. I asked you if you would teach me Greek, and I mean to try to study the character of Christ; but, quite to speak the truth, I don't really want to do it. I only do it because I see I have not been fair."
"You do it for the sake of being a truth-seeker, the best possible reason."
"I thought you would think I was going to do it because I hoped to get something. I thought one of your strong points was that people must come in a state of need and expecting to be satisfied. I don't expect anything. I am only doing it for the sake of honesty and thoroughness. I don't expect any good at all."
"Is it likely that you can expect when you know so little what is there? What can you bring better than an hones mind to the search? Erica, if I hadn't known that you were absolutely sincere, I should not have dared to give you the pain I gave you yesterday. It was my trust in your perfect sincerity which brought you that strong accusation. Even then it was a sore piece of work."
"Did you mind it a little," exclaimed Erica. But directly she had spoken, she felt that the question was absurd, for she saw a look in Charles Osmond's eyes that made the word "little" a mockery.
"What makes that man so loving?" she thought to herself. "He reminded me almost of father, yet I am no child of his. I am opposed to all that he teaches. I have spoken my mind out to him in a way which must sometimes have pained him. Yet he cares for me so much that it pained him exceedingly to give me pain yesterday."
His character puzzled her. The loving breath, the stern condemnation of whatever was not absolutely true, the disregard of what the world said, the hatred of shams, and most puzzling of all, the often apparent struggle with himself, the unceasing effort to conquer his chief fault. Yet this noble, honest, intellectual man was laboring under a great delusion, a delusion which somehow gave him an extraordinary power of loving! Ah, no! It could not be his Christianity, though, which made him loving, for were not most Christians hard and bitter and narrow-minded?
"I wish," she said, abruptly, "you would tell me what makes you willing to be friends with us. I know well enough that the 'Church Chronicle' has been punishing you for your defense of my father, and that there must be a thousand disagreeables to encounter in your own set just because you visit us. Why do you come?"
"Because I care for you very much."
"But you care, too, perhaps, for other people who will probably cut you for flying in the face of society and visiting social outcasts."
"I don't think I can explain it to you yet," he replied. "You would only tell me, as you told me once before, that I was talking riddles to you. When you have read your Greek Testament and really studied the life of Christ, I think you will understand. In the meantime, St. Paul, I think, answers your question better than I could, but you wouldn't understand even his words, I fancy. There they are in the Greek," he opened a Testament and showed her a passage. "I believe you would think the English almost as great gibberish as this looks to you in its unknown characters."
"Do you advise every one to learn Greek?"
"No, many have neither time nor ability, and those who are not apt at languages would spend their time more usefully over good translations, I think. But you have time and brains, so I am very glad to teach you."
"I am afraid I would much rather it were for any other purpose!" said Erica. "I am somehow weary of the very name of Christianity. I have heard wrangling over the Bible till I am tired to death of it, and discussions about the Atonement and the Incarnation, and the Resurrection, till the very words are hateful to me. I am afraid I shock you, but just put yourself in my place and imagine how you would feel. It is not even as if I had to debate the various questions; I have merely to sit and listen to a never-ending dispute."
"You sadden me; but it is quite natural that you should be weary of such debates. I want you to realize, though, that in the stormy atmosphere of your father's lecture hall, in the din and strife of controversy, it is impossible that you should gain any true idea of Christ's real character. Put aside all thought of the dogmas you have been wearied with, and study the life of the Man."
Then the lesson began. It proved a treat to both teacher and pupil. When Charles Osmond had left, Erica still worked on.
"I should like, at any rate, to spell out his riddle," she thought to herself, turning back to the passage he had shown her. And letter by letter, and word by word, she made out "For the love of Christ—"
The verb baffled her, however, and she lay on the sofa, chafing at her helplessness till, at length, Tom happened to come in, and brought her the English Testament she needed. Ah! There it was! "For the love of Christ constraineth us."
Was THAT what had made him come? Why, that was the alleged reason for half the persecutions they met with! Did the love of Christ constrain Charles Osmond to be their friend, and at the same time constrain the clergy of X_ not many years before to incite the people to stone her father, and offer him every sort of insult? Was it possible that the love of Christ constrained Mr. Osmond to endure contempt and censure on their behalf, and constrained Mr. Randolph to hire a band of roughs to interrupt her father's speeches?
"He is a grand exception to the general rule," she said to herself. "If there were many Christians like him, I should begin to think there must be something more in Christianity than we thought. Well, if only to please him I must try to study the New Testament over again, and as thoroughly as I can. No, not to please him, though, but for the sake of being quite honest. I would much rather be working at that new book of Tyndall's."
CHAPTER XV. An Interval
How can man love but what he yearns to help? R. Browning
During the year of Erica's illness, Brian began to realize his true position toward her better than he had hitherto done.
He saw quite well that any intrusion of his love, even any slight manifestation of it, might do untold harm. She was not ready for it yet why, he could not have told.
The truth was, that his Undine, although in many respects a high-souled woman, was still in some respects a child. She would have been merely embarrassed by his love; she did not want it. She liked him very much as an acquaintance; he was to her Tom's friend, or her doctor, or perhaps Mr. Osmond's son. In this way she liked him, was even fond of him, but as a lover he would have been a perplexing embarrassment.
He knew well enough that her frank liking boded ill for his future success; but in spite of that he could not help being glad to obtain any footing with her. It was something even to be "Tom's friend Brian." He delighted in hearing his name from her lips, although knowing that it was no good augury. He lived on from day to day, thinking very little of the doubtful future as long as he could serve her in the present. A reserved and silent man, devoted to his profession, and to practical science of every kind, few people guessed that he could have any particular story of his own. He was not at all the sort of man who would be expected to fall hopelessly in love at first sight, nor would any one have selected him as a good modern specimen of the chivalrous knight of olden times; he was so completely a nineteenth-century man, so progressive, so scientific. But, though his devotion was of the silent order, it was, perhaps for that reason, all the truer. There was about him a sort of divine patience. As long as he could serve Erica, he was content to wait any number of years in the hope of winning her love. He accepted his position readily. He knew that she had not the slightest love for him. He was quite secondary to his father, even, who was one of Erica's heroes. He liked to make her talk of him; her enthusiastic liking was delightful perhaps all the more so because she was far from agreeing with her prophet. Brian, with the wonderful self-forgetfulness of true love, liked to hear the praises of all those whom she admired; he liked to realize what were her ideals, even when conscious how far he fell short of them.
For it was unfortunately true that his was not the type of character she was most likely to admire. As a friend she might like him much, but he could hardly be her hero. His wonderful patience was quite lost upon her; she hardly counted patience as a virtue at all. His grand humility merely perplexed her; it was at present far beyond her comprehension. While his willingness to serve every one, even in the most trifling and petty concerns of daily life, she often attributed to mere good nature. Grand acts of self-sacrifice she admired enthusiastically, but the more really difficult round of small denials and trifling services she did not in the least appreciate. Absorbed in the contemplation, as it were, of the Hamlets in life, she had no leisure to spare for the Horatios.
She proved a capital patient; her whole mind was set on getting well, and her steady common sense and obedience to rules made her a great favorite with her elder doctor. Really healthy, and only invalided by the hard work and trouble she had undergone, seven or eight months' rest did wonders for her. In the enforced quiet, too, she found plenty of time for study. Charles Osmond had never had a better pupil. They learned to know each other very well during those lessons, and many were the perplexing questions which Erica started. But they were not as before, a mere repetition of the difficulties she had been primed with at her father's lecture hall, nor did she bring them forward with the triumphant conviction that they were unanswerable. They were real, honest questions, desiring and seeking everywhere for the true answer which might be somewhere.
The result of her study of the life of Christ was at first to make her a much better secularist. She found to her surprise that there was much in His teaching that entirely harmonized with secularism; that, in fact, He spoke a great deal about the improvement of this world, and scarcely at all about that place in the clouds of which Christians made so much. By the end of a year she had also reached the conviction that, whatever interpolations there might be in the gospels, no untrue writer, no admiring but dishonest narrator COULD have conceived such a character as that of Christ. For she had dug down to the very root of the matter. She had left for the present the, to her, perplexing and almost irritating catalogue of miracles, and had begun to perceive the strength and indomitable courage, the grand self-devotion, the all-embracing love of the man. Very superficial had been her former view. He had been to her a shadowy, unreal being, soft and gentle, even a little effeminate, speaking sometimes what seemed to her narrow words about only saving the lost sheep of the house of Israel. A character somehow wanting in that Power and Intellect which she worshipped.
But on a really deep study she saw how greatly she had been mistaken. Extraordinarily mistaken, both as to the character and the teaching. Christ was without doubt a grand ideal! To be as broad-hearted as he was, as universally loving it would be no bad aim. And, as in daily life Erica realized how hard was the practice of that love, she realized at the same time the loftiness of the ideal, and the weakness of her own powers.
"But, though I do begin to see why you take this man as your ideal," she said, one day, to Charles Osmond, "I can not, of course, accept a great deal that He is said to have taught. When He speaks of love to men, that is understandable, one can try to obey; but when he speaks about God, then, of course, I can only think that He was deluded. You may admire Joan of Arc, and see the great beauty of her character, yet at the same time believe that she was acting under a delusion; you may admire the character of Gotama without considering Buddhism the true religion; and so with Christ, I may reverence and admire His character, while believing Him to have been mistaken."
Charles Osmond smiled. He knew from many trifling signs, unnoticed by others, that Erica would have given a great deal to see her way to an honest acceptance of that teaching of Christ which spoke of an unseen but everywhere present Father of all, of the everlastingness of love, of a reunion with those who are dead. She hardly allowed to herself that she longed to believe it, she dreaded the least concession to that natural craving; she distrusted her own truthfulness, feared above all things that she might be deluded, might imagine that to be true which was in reality false.
And happily, her prophet was too wise to attempt in any way to quicken the work which was going on within her; he was one of those rare men who can be, even in such a case, content to wait. He would as soon have thought of digging up a seed to see whether he could not quicken its slow development of root and stem as of interfering in any way with Erica. He came and went, taught her Greek, and always, day after day, week after week, month after month, however much pressed by his parish work, however harassed by private troubles, he came to her with the genial sympathy, the broad-hearted readiness to hear calmly all sides of the question, which had struck her so much the very first time she had met him.
The other members of the family liked him almost as well, although they did not know him so intimately as Erica. Aunt Jean, who had at first been a little prejudiced against him, ended by singing his praises more loudly than any one, perhaps conquered in spite of herself by the man's extraordinary power of sympathy, his ready perception of good even in those with whom he disagreed most.
Mrs. Craigie was in many respects very like her brother, and was a very useful worker, though much of her work was little seen. She did not speak in public; all the oratorical powers of the family seemed to have concentrated themselves in Luke Raeburn; but she wrote and worked indefatigably, proving a very useful second to her brother. A hard, wearing life, however, had told a good deal upon her, and trouble had somewhat imbittered her nature. She had not the vein of humor which had stood Raeburn in such good stead. Severely mater-of-fact, and almost despising those who had any poetry in their nature, she did not always agree very well with Erica. The two loved each other sincerely, and were far too loyal both to clan and creed to allow their differences really to separate them; but there was, undoubtedly, something in their natures which jarred. Even Tom found it hard at times to bear the strong infusion of bitter criticism which his mother introduced into the home atmosphere. He was something of a philosopher, however, and knowing that she had been through great trouble, and had had much to try her, he made up his mind that it was natural therefore inevitable therefore to be borne.
The home life was not without its frets and petty trials, but on one point there was perfect accord. All were devoted to the head of the house would have sacrificed anything to bring him a few minutes' peace.
As for Raeburn, when not occupied in actual conflict, he lived in a sort of serene atmosphere of thought and study, far removed from all the small differences and little cares of his household. They invariably smoothed down all such roughnesses in his presence, and probably in any case he would have been unable to see such microscopic grievances; unless, indeed, they left any shade of annoyance on Erica's face, and then his fatherhood detected at once what was wrong.
It would be tedious, however, to follow the course of Erica's life for the next three years, for, though the time was that of her chief mental growth, her days were of the quietest. Not till she was two-and-twenty did she fully recover from the effects of her sudden sorrow and the subsequent overwork. In the meantime, her father's influence steadily deepened and spread throughout the country, and troubles multiplied.
CHAPTER XVI. Hyde Park
Who spouts his message to the wilderness, Lightens his soul and feels one burden less; But to the people preach, and you will find They'll pay you back with thanks ill to your mind. Goethe. Translated by J.S.B.
Hyde Park is a truly national property, and it is amusing and perhaps edifying to note the various uses to which it is often put. In the morning it is the rendezvous of nurses and children; in the afternoon of a fashionable throng; on Sunday evenings it is the resort of hard-working men and women, who have to content themselves with getting a breath of fresh air once a week. But, above all, the park is the meeting place of the people, the place for mass meetings and monster demonstrations.
On a bright day in June, when the trees were still in their freshest green, the crowd of wealth and fashion had beaten an ignominious retreat before a great political demonstration to be held that afternoon.
Every one knew that the meeting would be a very stormy one, for it related to the most burning question of the day, a question which was hourly growing more and more momentous, and which for the time had divided England into two bitterly opposed factions.
These years which Erica had passed so quietly had been eventful years for the country, years of strife and bloodshed, years of reckless expenditure, years which deluded some and enraged others, provoking most bitter animosity between the opposing parties. The question was not a class question, and a certain number of the working classes and a large number of the London roughs warmly espoused the cause of that party which appealed to their love of power and to a selfish patriotism. The Hyde Park meeting would inevitably be a turbulent one. Those who wished to run no risk remained at home; Rotten Row was deserted; the carriage road almost empty; while from the gateways there poured in a never ending stream of people some serious-looking, some eager and excited, some with a dangerously vindictive look, some merely curious. Every now and then the more motley and disorderly crowd was reinforced by a club with its brass band and banners, and gradually the mass of human beings grew from hundreds to a thousand, from one thousand to many thousands, until, indeed, it became almost impossible to form any idea of the actual numbers, so enormous was the gathering.
"We shall have a bad time of it today," remarked Raeburn to Brian, as they forced their way on. "If I'm not very much mistaken, too, we are vastly outnumbered."
He looked round the huge assembly from his vantage ground of six foot four, his cool intrepidity not one whit shaken by the knowledge that, by what he was about to say, he should draw down on his own head all the wrath of the roughest portion of the crowd.
"'Twill be against fearful odds!" said Tom, elbowing vigorously to keep up with his companion.
"We fear nae foe!" said Raeburn, quoting his favorite motto. "And, after all, it were no bad end to die protesting against wicked rapacity, needless bloodshed."
His eye kindled as he thought of the protest he hoped to make; his heart beat high as he looked round upon the throng so largely composed of those hostile to himself. Was there not a demand for his superabundant energy? A demand for the tremendous powers of endurance, of influence, of devotion which were stored up within him? As an athlete joys in trying a difficult feat, as an artist joys in attempting a lofty subject, so Raeburn in his consciousness of power, in his absolute conviction of truth, joyed in the prospect of a most dangerous conflict.
Brian, watching him presently from a little distance, could not wonder at the immense influence he had gained in the country. The mere physique of the man was wonderfully impressive the strong, rugged Scottish face, the latent power conveyed in his whole bearing. He was no demagogue, he never flattered the people; he preached indeed a somewhat severe creed, but, even in his sternest mood, the hold he got over the people, the power he had of raising the most degraded to a higher level was marvelous. It was not likely, however, that his protest of today would lead to anything but a free fight. If he could make himself effectually heard, he cared very little for what followed. It was necessary that a protest should be made, and he was the right man to make it; therefore come ill or well, he would go through with it, and, if he escaped with his life so much the better!
The meeting began. A moderate speaker was heard without interruption, but the instant Raeburn stood up, a chorus of yells arose. For several minutes he made no attempt to speak; but his dignity seemed to grow in proportion with the indignities offered him. He stood there towering above the crowd like a rock of strength, scanning the thousands of faces with the steady gaze of one who, in thinking of the progress of the race, had lost all consciousness of his own personality. He had come there to protest against injustice, to use his vast strength for others, to spend and be spent for millions, to die if need be! Raeburn was made of the stuff of which martyrs are made; standing there face to face with an angry crowd, which might at any moment break loose and trample him to death or tear him to pieces, his heart was nevertheless all aglow with the righteousness of his cause, with the burning desire to make an availing protest against an evil which was desolating thousands of homes.
The majesty of his calmness began to influence the mob; the hisses and groans died away into silence, such comparative silence, that is, as was compatible with the greatness of the assembly. Then Raeburn braced himself up; dignified before, he now seemed even more erect and stately. The knowledge that for the moment he had that huge crowd entirely under control was stimulating in the highest degree. In a minute his stentorian voice was ringing out fearlessly into the vast arena; thousands of hearts were vibrating to his impassioned appeal. To each one it seemed as if he individually were addressed.
"You who call yourselves Englishmen, I come to appeal to you today! You, who call yourselves freemen, I come to tell you that you are acting like slaves."
Then with rare tact, he alluded to the strongest points of the British character, touching with consummate skill the vulnerable parts of his audience. He took for granted that their aims were pure, their standard lofty, and by the very supposition raised for a time the most abject of his hearers, inspired them with his own enthusiasm.
Presently, when he felt secure enough to venture it, when the crowd was hanging on his words with breathless attention, he appealed no longer directly to the people, but drew, in graphic language, the picture of the desolations brought by war. The simplicity of his phrases, his entire absence of showiness or bombast, made his influence indescribably deep and powerful. A mere ranter, a frothy mob orator, would have been silenced long before.
But this man had somehow got hold of the great assembly, had conquered them by sheer force of will; in a battle of one will against thousands the one had conquered, and would hold its own till it had administered the hard home-thrust which would make the thousands wince and retaliate.
Now, under the power of that "sledge-hammer Saxon," that marvelously graphic picture of misery and bereavement, hard-headed, and hitherto hard hearted men were crying like children. Then came the rugged unvarnished statement shouted forth in the speaker's sternest voice.
"All this is being done in your name, men of England! Not only in your name, but at your cost! You are responsible for this bloodshed, this misery! How long is it to go on? How long are you free men going to allow yourselves to be bloody executioners? How long are you to be slavish followers of that grasping ambition which veils its foulness under the fair name of patriotism?"
Loud murmurs began to arise at this, and the orator knew that the ground swell betokened the coming storm. He proceeded with tenfold energy, his words came down like hailstones, with a fiery indignation he delivered his mighty philippic, in a torrent of forceful words he launched out the most tremendous denunciation he had ever uttered.
The string had been gradually worked up to its highest possible tension; at length when the strain was the greatest it suddenly snapped. Raeburn's will had held all those thousands in check; he had kept his bitterest enemies hanging on his words; he had lashed them into fury, and still kept his grip over them; he had worked them up, gaining more and more power over them, till at length, as he shouted forth the last words of a grand peroration, the bitterness and truth of his accusations proved keener than his restraining influence.
He had foreseen that the spell would break, and he knew the instant it was broken. A moment before, and he had been able to sway that huge crowd as he pleased; now he was at their mercy. No will power, no force of language, no strength of earnestness or truth would avail him now. All that he had to trust to was his immense physical strength, and what was that when measured against thousands?
He saw the dangerous surging movement in the sea of heads, and knew only too well what it betokened. With a frightful yell of mingled hatred and execration, the seething human mass bore down upon him! His own followers and friends did what they could for him, but that was very little. His case was desperate. Desperation, however, inspires some people with an almost superhuman energy. Life was sweet, and that day he fought for his life. The very shouting and hooting of the mob, the roar of the angry multitude, which might well have filled even a brave man with panic, stimulated him, strengthened him to resist to the uttermost.
He fought like a lion, forcing his way through the furious crowd, attacked in the most brutal way on every side, yet ever struggling on if only by inches. Never once did his steadfastness waver, never for a single instant did his spirit sink. His unfailing presence of mind enabled him to get through what would have been impossible to most men, his great height and strength stood him in good stead, while the meanness and the injustice of the attack, the immense odds against which he was fighting nerved him for the struggle.
It was more like a hideous nightmare than a piece of actual life, those fierce tiger faces swarming around, that roar of vindictive anger, that frightful crushing, that hail storm of savage blows! But, whether life or nightmare, it must be gone through with. In the thick of the fight a line of Goethe came to his mind, one of his favorite mottoes; "Make good thy standing place and move the world."
And even then he half smiled to himself at the forlornness of the hope that he should ever need a standing place again.
With renewed vigor he fought his way on, and with a sort of glow of triumph and new-born hope had almost seen his way to a place of comparative safety, when a fearful blow hopelessly maimed him. With a vain struggle to save himself he fell to the earth a vision of fierce faces, green leaves, and blue sky flashed before his eyes, an inward vision of Erica, a moment's agony, and then the surging crowd closed over him, and he knew no more.
CHAPTER XVII. At Death's Door
Sorrow and wrong are pangs of a new birth; All we who suffer bleed for one another; No life may live alone, but all in all; We lie within the tomb of our dead selves, Waiting till One command us to arise. Hon. Boden Noel.
Knowing that Erica would have a very anxious afternoon, Charles Osmond gave up his brief midday rest, snatched a hasty lunch at a third-rate restaurant, finished his parish visits sooner than usual, and reached the little house in Guilford Terrace in time to share the worst part of her waiting. He found her hard at work as usual, her table strewn with papers and books of reference. Raeburn had purposely left her some work to do for him which he knew would fully occupy her; but the mere fact that she knew he had done it on purpose to engross her mind with other matters entirely prevented her from giving it her full attention. She had never felt more thankful to see Charles Osmond than at that moment.
"When your whole heart and mind are in Hyde Park, how are you to drag them back to what some vindictive old early Father said about the eternity of punishment?" she exclaimed, with a smile, which very thinly disguised her consuming anxiety.
They sat down near the open window, Erica taking possession of that side which commanded the view of the entrance of the cul-de-sac. Charles Osmond did not speak for a minute or two, but sat watching her, trying to realize to himself what such anxiety as hers must be. She was evidently determined to keep outwardly calm, not to let her fears gain undue power over her; but she could not conceal the nervous trembling which beset her at every sound of wheels in the quiet square, nor did she know that in her brave eyes there lurked the most visible manifestation possible of haggard, anxious waiting. She sat with her watch in her hand, the little watch that Eric Haeberlein had given her when she was almost a child, and which, even in the days of their greatest poverty, her father had never allowed her to part with. What strange hours it had often measured for her. Age-long hours of grief, weary days of illness and pain, times of eager expectation, times of sickening anxiety, times of mental conflict, of baffling questions and perplexities. How the hands seemed to creep on this afternoon, at times almost to stand still.
"Now, I suppose if you were in my case you would pray," said Erica, raising her eyes to Charles Osmond. "It must be a relief, but yet, when you come to analyze it, it is most illogical a fearful waste of time. If there is a God who works by fixed laws, and who sees the whole maze of every one's life before hand, then the particular time and manner of my father's death must be already appointed, and no prayer of mine that he may come safely through this afternoon's danger can be of the least avail. Besides, if a God could be turned round from His original purpose by human wills and much speaking, I hardly think He would be worth believing in."
"You are taking the lowest view of prayer mere petition; but even that, I think, is set on its right footing as soon as we grasp the true conception of the ideal father. Do you mean to say that, because your father's rules were unwavering and his day's work marked out beforehand, he did not like you to come to him when you were a little child, with all your wishes and longings and requests, even though they were sometimes childish and often impossible to gratify? Would he have been better pleased if you had shut up everything in your own heart, and never of your own accord told him anything about your babyish plans and wants?"
"Still, prayer seems to me a waste of time," said Erica.
"What! If it brings you a talk with your Father? If it is a relief to you and a pleasure because a sign of trust and love to Him? But in one way I entirely agree with you, unless it is spontaneous it is not only useless but harmful. Imagine a child forced to talk to its father. And this seems to me the truest defense of prayer; to the 'natural man' it always will seem foolishness, to the 'spiritual man' to one who has recognized the All-Father it is the absolute necessity of life. And I think by degrees one passes from eager petition for personal and physical good things into the truer and more Christlike spirit of prayer. 'These are my fears, these are my wishes, but not my will but Thine be done.' Shakespeare had got hold of a grand truth, it seems to me, when he said:
"'So find we profit by losing of our prayers.'"
"And yet your ideal man distinctly said: 'Ask and ye shall receive'" said Erica. "There are no limitations. For aught we know, some pig-headed fanatic may be at this moment praying that God in His mercy would rid the earth of that most dangerous man, Luke Raeburn; while I might be of course I am not, but it is conceivable that I might be praying for his safety. Both of us might claim the same promise, 'Ask and ye shall receive.'"
"You forget one thing," said Charles Osmond. "You would both pray to the Father, and His answer which you, by the way, might consider no answer would be the answer of a father. Do you not think the fanatic would certainly find profit in having his most unbrotherly request disregarded? And the true loss or gain of prayer would surely be in this: The fanatic would, by his un-Christlike request, put himself further from God; you, by your spontaneous and natural avowal of need and recognition of a Supreme loving will, would draw nearer to God. Nor do we yet at all understand the extraordinary influence exerted on others by any steady, earnest concentration of thought; science is but just awakening to the fact that there is an unknown power which we have hitherto never dreamed of. I have great hope that in this direction, as in all others, science may show us the hidden workings of our Father."
Erica forgot her anxiety for a moment; she was watching Charles Osmond's face with mingled curiosity and perplexity. To speak to one whose belief in the Unseen seemed stronger and more influential than most people's belief in the seen, was always very strange to her, and with her prophet she was almost always conscious of this double life (SHE considered it double a real outer and an imaginary inner.) His strong conviction; the every-day language which he used in speaking of those truths which most people from a mistaken notion of reverence, wrap up in a sort of ecclesiastical phraseology; above all, the carrying out in his life of the idea of universal brotherhood, with so many a mere form of words all served to impress Erica very deeply. She knew him too well and loved him too truly to pause often, as it were, to analyze his character. Every now and then, however, some new phase was borne in upon her, and some chance word, emphasizing the difference between them, forced her from sheer honesty to own how much that was noble seemed in him to be the outcome of faith in Christ.
They went a little more deeply into the prayer question. Then, with the wonder growing on her more and more, Erica suddenly exclaimed: "It is so wonderful to me that you can believe without logical proof believe a thing which affects your whole life so immensely, and yet be unable to demonstrate the very existence of a God."
"Do you believe your father loves you?" asked Charles Osmond.
"My father! Why, of course."
"You can't logically prove that his love has any true existence."
"Why, yes!" exclaimed Erica. "Not a day passes without some word, look, thought, which would prove it to any one. If there is one thing that I am certain of in the whole world, it is that my father loves me. Why, you who know him so well, you must know that! You must have seen that."
"All his care of you may be mere self-interest," said Charles Osmond. "Perhaps he puts on a sort of appearance of affection for you just for the sake of what people would say not a very likely thing for Mr. Raeburn to consider, I own. Still, you can't demonstrate to me that his love is a reality."
"But I KNOW it is!" cried Erica, vehemently.
"Of course you know, my child; you know in your heart, and our hearts can teach us what no power of intellect, no skill in logic can every teach us. You can't logically prove the existence of your father's love, and I can't logically prove the existence of the all-Father; but in our hearts we both of us know. The deepest, most sacred realities are generally those of heart-knowledge, and quite out of the pale of logic."
Erica did not speak, but sat musing. After all, what COULD be proved with absolute certainty? Why, nothing, except such bare facts as that two and two make four. Was even mathematical proof so absolutely certain? Were they not already beginning to talk of a possible fourth dimension of space when even that might no longer be capable of demonstration.
"Well, setting aside actual proof," she resumed, after a silence, "how do you bring it down even to a probability that God is?"
"We must all of us start with a supposition," said Charles Osmond. "There must on the one hand either be everlasting matter or everlasting force, whether these be two real existences, or whether matter be only force conditioned, or, on the other hand, you have the alternative of the everlasting 'He.' You at present base your belief on the first alternative. I base mine on the last, which, I grant you, is at the outset the most difficult of the two. I find, however, that nine times out of ten the most difficult theory is the truest. Granting the everlasting 'He,' you must allow self-consciousness, without which there could be no all powerful, all knowledge-full, and all love-full. We will not quarrel about names; call the Everlasting what you please. 'Father' seems to me at once the highest and simplest name."
"But evil!" broke in Erica, triumphantly. "If He originates all, he must originate evil as well as good."
"Certainly," said Charles Osmond, "He has expressly told us so. 'I form the light and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I, the Lord, do all these things.'"
"I recollect now, we spoke of this two or three years ago," said Erica. "You said that the highest good was attained by passing through struggles and temptations."
"Think of it in this way," said Charles Osmond. "The Father is educating His children; what education was ever brought about without pain? The wise human father does not so much shield his child from small pains, but encourages him to get wisdom from them for the future, tries to teach him endurance and courage. Pain is necessary as an element in education, possibly there is no evolution possible without it. The father may regret it, but, if he is wise, knows that it must be. He suffers twice as much as the child from the infliction of the pain. The All-Father, being at once all-knowing and all-loving, can see the end of the education while we only see it in process, and perhaps exclaim: 'What a frightful state of things,' or like your favorite 'Stephen Blackpool,' 'It's all a muddle.'"
"And the end you consider to be perfection, and eternal union with God. How can you think immortality probable?"
"It is the necessary outcome of belief in such a God, such a Father as we have spoken of. What! Could God have willed that His children whom He really loves should, after a time, fade utterly away? If so, He would be less loving than an average earthly father. If He did indeed love them, and would fain have had them ever with Him, but could not, then He would not be all-powerful."
"I see you a universalist, a great contrast to my Early Father here, who gloats over the delightful prospect of watching from his comfortable heaven the tortures of all unbelievers. But, tell me, what do you think would be our position in your unseen world? I suppose the mere realization of having given one's life in a mistaken cause would be about the most terrible pain conceivable?"
"I think," said Charles Osmond, with one of his grave, quiet smiles, "that death will indeed be your 'gate of life,' that seeing the light you will come to your true self, and exclaim, 'Who'd have thought it?'"
The every day language sounded quaint, it made Erica smile; but Charles Osmond continued, with a brightness in his eyes which she was far from understanding: "And you know there are to be those who shall say: 'Lord when saw we Thee in distress and helped Thee?' They had not recognized Him here, but He recognized them there? They shared in the 'Come ye blessed of my Father.'"
"Well," said Erica, thoughtfully, "if any Christianity be true, it must be your loving belief, not the blood-thirsty scheme of the Calvinists. If THAT could by any possibility be true, I should greatly prefer, like Kingsley's dear old 'Wulf,' to share hell with my own people."
The words had scarcely left her lips when, with a startled cry, she sprung to her feet and hurried to the door. The next moment Charles Osmond saw Tom pass the window; he was unmistakably the bearer of bad news.
His first panting words were reassuring "Brian says you are not to be frightened;" but they were evidently the mere repetition of a message. Tom himself was almost hopeless; his wrath and grief become more apparent every minute as he gave an incoherent account of the afternoon's work.
The brutes, the fiends, had half killed the chieftain, had set on him like so many tigers. Brian and Hazeldine were bringing him home had sent him on to prepare.
Erica had listened so far with a colorless face, and hands tightly clasped, but the word "prepare" seemed to bring new life to her. In an instant she was her strongest self.
"They will never try to take him up that steep narrow staircase. Quick, Tom! Help me to move this couch into the study."
The little Irish servant was pressed into the service, too, and sent upstairs to fetch and carry, and in a very few minutes the preparations were complete, and Erica had at hand all the appliances most likely to be needed. Just as all was done, and she was beginning to feel that a minute's pause would be the "last straw," Tom heard the sound of wheels in the square, and hurried out. Erica stood in the doorway watching, and presently saw a small crowd of helpers bearing a deathly looking burden. Whiteness of death redness of blood. The ground seemed rocking beneath her feet, when a strong hand took hers and drew her into the house.
"Don't be afraid," said a voice, which she knew to be Brian's though a black mist would not let her see him. "He was conscious a minute ago; this is only from the pain of moving. Which room?"
"The study," she replied, recovering herself. "Give me something to do, Brian, quickly."
He saw that in doing lay her safety, and kept her fully employed, so much so, indeed, that from sheer lack of time she was able to stave off the faintness which had threatened to overpower her. After a time her father came to himself, and Erica's face, which had been the last in his mind in full consciousness, was the first which now presented itself to his awakening gaze. He smiled.
"Well, Erica! So, after all, they haven't quite done for me. Nine lives like a cat, as I always told you."
His voice was faint, but with all his wonted energy he raised himself before they could remonstrate. He was far more injured, however, than he knew; with a stifled groan he fell back once more in a swoon, and it was many hours before they were able to restore him.
After that, fever set in, and a shadow as of death fell on the house in Guilford Terrace. Doctors came and went; Brian almost lived with his patient; friends Raeburn had hosts of them came with help of every description. The gloomy little alley admitted every day crowds of inquirers, who came to the door, read the bulletin, glanced up at the windows, and went away looking graver than when they came.
Erica lost count of time altogether. The past seemed blotted out; the weight of the present was so great that she would not admit any thought of the future, though conscious always of a blank dread which she dared not pause to analyze, sufficient indeed for her day was the evil thereof. She struggled on somehow with a sort of despairing strength; only once or twice did she even recollect the outside world.
It happened that on the first Wednesday after the Hyde Park meeting some one mentioned the day of the week in her hearing. She was in the sick-room at the time, but at once remembered that her week's work was untouched, that she had not written a line for the "Idol-Breaker." Every idea seemed to have gone out of her head; for a minute she felt that to save her life she could not write a line. But still she conscientiously struggled to remember what subject had been allotted her, and in the temporary stillness of the first night-watch drew writing materials toward her, and leaned her head on her hands until, almost by an effort of will, she at length recalled the theme for her article.
Of course! It was to be that disgraceful disturbance in the church at Z_. She remembered the whole affair now, it all rose up before her graphically not a bad subject at all! Their party might make a good deal by it. Her article must be bright, descriptive, sarcastic. Yet how was she to write such an article when her heart felt like lead? An involuntary "I can't" rose to her lips, and she glanced at her father's motionless form, her eyes filling with tears. Then one of his sayings came to her mind: "No such word as 'Can't' in the dictionary," and began to write rapidly almost defiantly. No sooner had she begun than her very exhaustion, the lateness of the hour, and the stress of circumstance came to her aid she had never before written so brilliantly.
The humor of the scene struck her; little flashes of mirth at the expense of both priest and people, delicate sarcasms, the more searching from their very refinement, awoke in her brain and were swiftly transcribed. In the middle of one of the most daring sentences Raeburn stirred. Erica's pen was thrown down at once; she was at his side absorbed once more in attending to his wants, forgetful quite of religious controversy, of the "Idol-Breaker," of anything in fact in the whole world but her father. Not till an hour had passed was she free to finish her writing, but by the time her aunt came to relieve guard at two o'clock the article was finished and Erica stole noiselessly into the next room to put it up.
To her surprise she found that Tom had not gone to bed. He was still toiling away at his desk with a towel round his head; she could almost have smiled at the ludicrous mixture of grief and sleepiness on his face, had not her own heart been so loaded with care and sadness. The post brought in what Tom described as "bushels" of letters every day, and he was working away at them now with sleepy heroism.
"How tired you look," said Erica. "See! I have brought in this for the 'Idol.'"
"You've been writing it now! That is good of you. I was afraid we should have to make up with some wretched padding of Blank's."
He took the sheets from her and began to read. Laughter is often only one remove from grief, and Tom, though he was sad-hearted enough, could not keep his countenance through Erica's article. First his shoulders began to shake, then he burst into such a paroxysm of noiseless laughter that Erica, fearing that he could not restrain himself, and would be heard in the sick-room, pulled the towel from his forehead over his mouth; then, conquered herself by the absurdity of his appearance, she was obliged to bury her own face in her hands, laughing more and more whenever the incongruousness of the laughter occurred to her. When they had exhausted themselves the profound depression which had been the real cause of the violent reaction returned with double force. Tom sighed heavily and finished reading the article with the gravest of faces. He was astonished that Erica could have written at such a time an article positively scintillating with mirth.
"How did you manage anything so witty tonight of all nights?" he asked.
"Don't you remember Hans Andersen's clown Punchinello," said Erica. "He never laughed and joked so gayly as the night when his love died and his own heart was broken."
There was a look in her eyes which made Tom reply, quickly: "Don't write any more just now; the professor has promised us something for next week. Don't write any more till till the chieftain is well."
After that she wished him good night rather hastily, crept upstairs to her attic, and threw herself down on her bed. Why had he spoken of the future? Why had his voice hesitated? No, she would not think, she would not.
So the article appeared in that week's "Idol-Breaker", and thousands and thousands of people laughed over it. It even excited displeased comment from "the other side," and in many ways did a great deal of what in Guilford Terrace was considered "good work." For Erica herself, it was long before she had time to give it another thought; it was to her only a desperately hard duty which she had succeeded in doing. Nobody every guessed how much it had cost her.
The weary time dragged on, days and weeks passed by; Raeburn was growing weaker, but clung to life with extraordinary tenacity. And now very bitterly they felt the evils of this voluntarily embraced poverty, for the summer heat was for a few days almost tropical, and the tiny little rooms in the lodging-house were stifling. Brian was very anxious to have the patient moved across to his father's house; but, though Charles Osmond said all he could in favor of the scheme, the other doctors would not consent, thinking the risk of removal too great. And, besides, it would be useless, they maintained the atheist was evidently dying. Brian, who was the youngest, could not carry out his wishes in defiance of the others, but he would not deny himself the hope of even yet saving Erica's father. He devised punkahs, became almost nurse and doctor in one, and utterly refused to lose heart. Erica herself was the only other person who shared his hopefulness, or perhaps her feeling could hardly be described by that word; she was not hopeful, but she had so resolutely set herself to live in the present that she had managed altogether to crowd out the future, and with it the worst fear.
One day, however, it broke upon her suddenly. Some one had left a newspaper in the sick-room; it was weeks since she had seen one, and in a brief interval, while her father slept, or seemed to sleep, she took it up half mechanically. How much it would have interested her a little while ago, how meaningless it all seemed to her now. "Latest Telegrams," "News from the Seat of War," "Parliamentary Intelligence" a speech by Sir Michael Cunningham, one of her heroes, on a question in which she was interested. She could not read it, all the life seemed gone out of it, today the paper was nothing to her but a broad sheet with so many columns of printed matter. But as she was putting it down their own name caught her eye. All at once her benumbed faculties regained their power, her heart began to beat wildly, for there, in clearest print, in short, choppy, unequivocal sentences, was the hideous fear which she had contrived so long to banish.
"Mr. Raeburn is dying. The bulletins have daily been growing less and less hopeful. Yesterday doctor R_, who had been called in, could only confirm the unfavorable opinion of the other doctors. In all probability the days of the great apostle of atheism are numbered. It rests with the Hyde Park rioters, and those who by word and example have incited them, to bear the responsibility of making a martyr of such a man as Mr. Luke Raeburn. Emphatically disclaiming the slightest sympathy with Mr. Raeburn's religious views, we yet—"
But Erica could read no more. Whatever modicum of charity the writer ventured to put forth was lost upon her. The opening sentence danced before her eyes in letters of fire. That morning she met Brian in the passage and drew him into the sitting room. He saw at once how it was with her.
"Look," she said, holding the newspaper toward him, "is that true? Or is it only a sensation trap or written for party purposes?"
Her delicate lips were closed with their hardest expression, her eyes only looked grave and questioning. She watched his face as he read, lost her last hope, and with the look of such anguish as he had never before seen, drew the paper from him, and caught his hand in hers in wild entreaty.
"Oh, Brian, Brian! Is there no hope? Surely you can do something for him. There MUST be hope, he is so strong, so full of life."
He struggled hard for voice and words to answer her, but the imploring pressure of her hands on his had nearly unnerved him. Already the grief that kills lurked in her eyes he knew that if her father died she would not long survive him.
"Don't say what is untrue," she continued. "Don't let me drive you into telling a lie but only tell me if there is indeed no hope no chance."
"It may be," said Brian. "You must not expect, for those far wiser than I say it can not be. But I hope yes, I still hope."
On that crumb of comfort she lived, but it was a weary day, and for the first time she noticed that her father, who was free from fever, followed her everywhere with his eyes. She knew intuitively that he thought himself dying.
Toward evening she was sitting beside him, slowly drawing her fingers through his thick masses of snow-white hair in the way he liked best, when he looked suddenly right into her eyes with his own strangely similar ones, deep, earnest eyes, full now of a sort of dumb yearning.
"Little son Eric," he said, faintly, "you will go on with the work I am leaving."
"Yes, father," she replied firmly, though her heart felt as if it would break.
"A harmful delusion," he murmured, half to himself, "taking up our best men! Swallowing up the money of the people. What's that singing, Erica?"
"It is the children in the hospital," she replied. "I'll shut the window if they disturb you, father."
"No," he said. "One can tolerate the delusion for them if it makes their pain more bearable. Poor bairns! Poor bairns! Pain is an odd mystery."
He drew down her hand and held it in his, seeming to listen to the singing, which floated in clearly through the open window at right angles with the back windows of the hospital. Neither of them knew what the hymn was, but the refrain which came after every verse as if even the tinies were joining in it was quite audible to Luke Raeburn and his daughter.
"Through life's long day, and death's dark night, Oh, gentle Jesus, be our light."
Erica's breath came in gasps. To be reminded then that life was long and that death was dark!
She thought she had never prayed, she had never consciously prayed, but her whole life for the past three years had been an unspoken prayer. Never was there a more true desire entirely unexpressed than the desire which now seemed to possess her whole being. The darkness would soon hide forever the being she most loved. Oh, if she could but honestly think that He who called Himself the Light of the world was indeed still living, still ready to help!
But to allow her distress to gain the mastery over her would certainly disturb and grieve her father. With a great effort she stifled the sobs which would rise in her throat, and waited in rigid stillness. When the last notes of the hymn had died away into silence, she turned to look at her father. He had fallen asleep.
CHAPTER XVIII. Answered or Unanswered?
"Glory to God to God!" he saith, "Knowledge by suffering entereth, And life is perfected by death." E. B. Browning
"Mr. Raeburn is curiously like the celebrated dog of nursery lore, who appertained to the ancient and far-famed Mother Hubbard. All the doctors gave him up, all the secularists prepared mourning garments, the printers were meditating black borders for the 'Idol-Breaker,' the relative merits of burial and cremation were already in discussion, when the dog we beg pardon the leader of atheism, came to life again.
"'She went to the joiners to buy him a coffin, But when she came back the dog was laughing.'
"History," as a great man was fond of remarking, "'repeats itself.'"
Raeburn laughed heartily over the accounts of his recovery in the comic papers. No one better appreciated the very clever representation of himself as a huge bull-dog starting up into life while Britannia in widow's weeds brought in a parish coffin. Erica would hardly look at the thing; she had suffered too much to be able to endure any jokes on the subject, and she felt hurt and angry that what had given her such anguish should be turned into a foolish jest.
At length, after many weeks of weary anxiety, she was able to breathe freely once more, for her father steadily regained his strength. The devotion of her whole time and strength and thought to another had done wonders for her, her character had strangely deepened and mellowed. But no sooner was she free to begin her ordinary life than new perplexities beset her on every side.
During her own long illness she had of course been debarred from attending any lectures or meetings whatever. In the years following, before she had quite regained her strength, she had generally gone to hear her father, but had never become again a regular attendant at the lecture hall. Now that she was quite well, however, there was nothing to prevent her attending as many lectures as she pleased, and naturally, her position as Luke Raeburn's daughter made her presence desirable. So it came to pass one Sunday evening in July that she happened to be present at a lecture given by a Mr. Masterman.
He was a man whom they knew intimately. Erica liked him sufficiently well in private life, and he had been remarkably kind and helpful at the time of her father's illness. It was some years, however, since she had heard him lecture, and this evening, by the virulence of his attack on the character of Christ, he revealed to her how much her ground had shifted since she had last heard him. It was not that he was an opponent of existing Christianity her father was that, she herself was that, and felt bound to be as long as she considered it a lie but Mr. Masterman's attack seemed to her grossly unfair, almost willfully inaccurate, and, in addition, his sarcasm and pleasantries seemed to her odiously vulgar. He was answered by a most miserable representative of Christianity, who made a foolish, weak, blustering speech, and tried to pay the atheist back in his own coin. Erica felt wretched. She longed to get up and speak herself, longing flatly to contradict the champion of her own cause; then grew frightened at the strength of her feelings. Could this be mere love of fair play and justice? Was her feeling merely that of a barrister who would argue as well on one side as the other? And yet her displeasure in itself proved little or nothing. Would not Charles Osmond be displeased and indignant if he heard her father unjustly spoken of? Yes, but then Luke Raeburn was a living man, and Christ was she even sure that he had ever lived? Well, yes, sure of that, but of how much more?
When the assembly broke up, her mind was in a miserable chaos of doubt.
It was one of those delicious summer evenings when even in East London the skies are mellow and the air sweet and cool.
"Oh, Tom, let us walk home!" she exclaimed, longing for change of scene and exercise.
"All right," he replied, "I'll take you a short cut, if you don't mind a few back slums to begin with."
Now Erica was familiar enough with the sight of poverty and squalor; she had not lived at the West End, where you may entirely forget the existence of the poor. The knowledge of evil had come to her of necessity much earlier than to most girls, and tonight, as Tom took her through a succession of narrow streets and dirty courts, misery, and vice, and hopeless degradation met her on every side. Swarms of filthy little children wrangled and fought in the gutters, drunken women shouted foul language at one another everywhere was wickedness everywhere want. Her heart felt as if it would break. What was to reach these poor, miserable fellow creatures of hers? Who was to raise them out of their horrible plight? The coarse distortion and the narrow contraction of Christ's teaching which she had just heard, offered no remedy for this evil. Nor could she think that secularism would reach these. To understand secularism you meed a fair share of intellect what intellect would these poor creatures have? Why, you might talk forever of the "good of humanity," and "the duty of promoting the general good," and they would not so much as grasp the idea of what "good" was they would sink back to their animal-like state. Instinctively her thoughts turned to the Radical Reformer who, eighteen hundred years ago, had lived among people just as wicked, just as wretched. How had He worked? What had He done? All through His words and actions had sounded the one key-note, "Your Father." Always He had led them to look up to a perfect Being who loved them, who was present with them.
Was it possible that if Christians had indeed followed their Leader and not obscured His teaching with hideous secretions of doctrine which He had assuredly never taught was it possible that the Christ-gospel in its original simplicity would indeed be the remedy for all evil?
They were coming into broader thoroughfares now. A wailing child's voice fell on her ear. A small crowd of disreputable idlers was hanging round the closed doors of a public-house, waiting eagerly for the opening which would take place at the close of service-time. The wailing child's voice grew more and more piteous. Erica saw that it came from a poor little half-clad creature of three years old who was clinging to the skirts of a miserable-looking woman with a shawl thrown over her head. Just as she drew near, the woman, with a fearful oath, tried to shake herself free of the child; then, with uplifted arms, was about to deal it a heavy blow when Erica caught her hand as it descended, and held it fast in both her hands.
"Don't hurt him," she said, "please don't hurt him."
She looked into the prematurely wrinkled face, into the half-dim eyes, she held the hand fast with a pressure not of force but of entreaty. Then they passed on, the by-standers shouting out the derisive chorus of "Come to Jesus!" with which London roughs delight in mocking any passenger whom they suspect of religious tendencies. In all her sadness, Erica could not help smiling to herself. That she, an atheist, Luke Raeburn's daughter, should be hooted at as a follower of Jesus!
In the meantime the woman she had spoken to stood still staring after her. If an angel had suddenly appeared to her, she could not have been more startled. A human hand had given her coarse, guilty, trembling hand such a living pressure as it had never before received; a pure, loving face had looked at her; a voice, which was trembling with earnestness and full of the pathos of restrained tears, had pleaded with her for her own child. The woman's dormant motherhood sprung into life. Yes, he was her own child after all. She did not really want to hurt him, but a sort of demon was inside her, the demon of drink and sometimes it made her almost mad. She looked down now with love-cleared eyes at the little crying child who still clung to her ragged skirt. She stooped and picked him up, and wrapped a bit of her shawl round him. Presently after a fearful struggle, she turned away from the public-house and carried the child home to bed.
The jeering chorus was soon checked, for the shutters were taken down, and the doors thrown wide, and light, and cheerfulness, and shelter, and the drink they were all craving for, were temptingly displayed to draw in the waiting idlers.
But the woman had gone home, and one rather surly looking man still leaned against the wall looking up the street where Tom and Erica had disappeared.
"Blowed if that ain't a bit of pluck!" he said to himself, and therewith fell into a reverie.
Tom talked of temperance work, about which he was very eager, all the way to Guilford Terrace. Erica, on reaching home, went at once to her father's room. She found him propped up with pillows in his arm chair; he was still only well enough to attempt the lightest of light literature, and was looking at some old volumes of "Punch" which the Osmonds had sent across.
"You look tired, Eric!" he exclaimed. "Was there a good attendance?"
"Very," she replied, but so much less brightly than usual that Raeburn at once divined that something had annoyed her.
"Was Mr. Masterman dull?"
"Not dull," she replied, hesitatingly. Then, with more than her usual vehemence, "Father, I can't endure him! I wish we didn't have such men on our side! He is so flippant, so vulgar!"
"Of course he never was a model of refinement," said Raeburn, "but he is effective very effective. It is impossible that you should like his style; he is, compared with you, what a theatrical poster is to a delicate tete-de-greuze. How did he specially offend you tonight?"
"It was all hateful from the very beginning," said Erica. "And sprinkled all through with doubtful jests, which of course pleased the people. One despicable one about the Entry into Jerusalem, which I believe he must have got from Strauss. I'm sure Strauss quotes it."
"You see what displeases an educated mind, wins a rough, uncultured one. We may not altogether like it, but we must put up with it. We need our Moodys and Sankeys as well as the Christians."
"But, father, he seems to me so unfair."
Raeburn looked grave.
"My dear," he said, after a minute's thought, "you are not in the least bound to go to hear Mr. Masterman again unless you like. But remember this, Eric, we are only a struggling minority, and let me quote to you one of our Scottish proverbs: 'Hawks shouldna pick out hawks' een.' You are still a hawk, are you not?"
"Of course," she said, earnestly.
"Well, then be leal to your brother hawks."
A cloud of perplexed thought stole over Erica's face. Raeburn noted it and did his best to divert her attention.
"Come," he said, "let us have a chapter of Mark Twain to enliven us."
But even Mark Twain was inadequate to check the thought-struggle which had begun in Erica's brain. Desperate earnestness would not be conquered even by the most delightful of all humorous fiction.
During the next few days this thought-struggle raged. So great was Erica's fear of having biased either one way or the other that she would not even hint at her perplexity either to her father or to Charles Osmond. And now the actual thoroughness of her character seemed a hindrance.
She had imagination, quick perception of the true and beautiful, and an immense amount of steady common sense. At the same time she was almost as keen and quite as slow of conviction as her father. Honestly dreading to allow her poetic faculty due play, she kept her imagination rigidly within the narrowest bounds. She was thus honestly handicapped in the race; the honesty was, however, a little mistaken and one-sided, for not the most vivid imagination could be considered as a set-off to the great, the incalculable counter-influence of her whole education and surroundings. How she got through that black struggle was sometimes a mystery to her. At last, one evening, when the load had grown intolerable, she shut herself into her own room, and, forgetful of all her logical arguments, spoke to the unknown God. Her hopelessness, her desperation, drove her as a last resource to cry to the possibly Existent.
She stood by the open window of her little room, with her arms on the window sill, looking out into the summer night, just as years before she had stood when making up her mind to exile and sacrifice. Then the wintery heavens had been blacker and the stars brighter, now both sky and stars were dimmer because more light. Over the roofs of the Guilford Square houses she could see Charles' Wain and the Pole-star, but only faintly.
"God!" she cried, "I have no reason to think that Thou art except that there is such fearful need of Thee. I can see no single proof in the world that Thou art here. But if what Christ said was true, then Thou must care that I should know Thee, for I must be Thy child. Oh, God, if Thou art oh, Father, if Thou art help us to know Thee! Show us what is true!"
She waited and waited, hoping for some sort of answer, some thought, some conviction. But she found, as many have found before her, that "the heavens were as brass."
"Of course it was no use!" she exclaimed, impatiently, yet with a blankness of disappointment which in itself proved the reality of her expectations.
Just then she heard Tom's voice at the foot of the stairs calling; it seemed like the seal to her impatient "of course." There was no Unseen, no Eternal of course not! But there was a busy every-day life to be lived.
"All right," she returned impatiently, to Tom's repeated calls; "don't make such a noise or else you'll disturb father."
"He is wide awake," said Tom, "and talking to the professor. Just look here, I couldn't help fetching you down did you ever see such a speech in your life? A regular brick he must be!"
He held an evening paper in his hand. Erica remembered that the debate was to be on a question affecting all free-thinkers. During the discussion of this, some one had introduced a reference to the Hyde Park meeting and to Mr. Raeburn, and had been careful not to lose the opportunity of making a spiteful and misleading remark about the apostle of atheism. Tom hurried her through this, however, to the speech that followed it.
"Wait a minute," she said. "Who is Mr. Farrant? I never heard of him before."
"Member for Greyshot, elected last spring, don't you remember? One of the by-elections. Licked the Tories all to fits. This is his maiden speech, and that makes it all the more plucky of him to take up the cudgels in our defense. Here! Let me read it to you."
With the force of one who is fired with a new and hearty admiration, he read the report. The speech was undoubtedly a fine one; it was a grand protest against intolerance, a plea for justice. The speaker had not hesitated for an instant to raise his voice in behalf of a very unpopular cause, and his generous words, even when read through the medium of an indifferent newspaper report, awoke a strange thrill in Erica's heart. The utter disregard of self, the nobility of the whole speech struck her immensely. The man who had dared to stand up for the first time in Parliament and speak thus, must be one in a thousand. Presently came the most daring and disinterested touch of all.
"The honorable member for Rilchester made what I can not but regard as a most misleading and unnecessary remark with reference to the recent occurrence in Hyde Park, and to Mr. Raeburn. I listened to it with pain, for, if there can be degrees in the absolute evil of injustice and lack of charity, it seems to me that the highest degree is reached in that uncharitableness which tries to blacken the character of an opponent. Since the subject has been introduced, the House will, I hope, bear with me if for the sake of justice I for a moment allude to a personal matter. Some years ago I myself was an atheist, and I can only say that, speaking now from the directly opposite standpoint, I can still look back and thank Mr. Raeburn most heartily for the good service he did me. He was the first man who ever showed me, by words and example combined, that life is only noble when lived for the race. The statement made by the honorable member for Rilchester seems to me as incorrect as it was uncalled for. Surely this assembly will best prove its high character not by loud religious protestations, not by supporting a narrow, Pharisaical measure, but by impartiality, by perfect justice, by the manifestation in deed and word of that broad-hearted charity, that universal brotherliness, which alone deserves the name of Christianity."