By Edna Lyall
CHAPTER I. Brian Falls in Love
Still humanity grows dearer, Being learned the more. Jean Ingelow.
There are three things in this world which deserve no quarter—Hypocrisy, Pharisaism, and Tyranny. F. Robertson
People who have been brought up in the country, or in small places where every neighbor is known by sight, are apt to think that life in a large town must lack many of the interests which they have learned to find in their more limited communities. In a somewhat bewildered way, they gaze at the shifting crowd of strange faces, and wonder whether it would be possible to feel completely at home where all the surroundings of life seem ever changing and unfamiliar.
But those who have lived long in one quarter of London, or of any other large town, know that there are in reality almost as many links between the actors of the town life-drama as between those of the country life-drama.
Silent recognitions pass between passengers who meet day after day in the same morning or evening train, on the way to or from work; the faces of omnibus conductors grow familiar; we learn to know perfectly well on what day of the week and at what hour the well-known organ-grinder will make his appearance, and in what street we shall meet the city clerk or the care-worn little daily governess on their way to office or school. It so happened that Brian Osmond, a young doctor who had not been very long settled in the Bloomsbury regions, had an engagement which took him every afternoon down Gower Street, and here many faces had grown familiar to him. He invariably met the same sallow-faced postman, the same nasal-voiced milkman, the same pompous-looking man with the bushy whiskers and the shiny black bag, on his way home from the city. But the only passenger in whom he took any interest was a certain bright-faced little girl whom he generally met just before the Montague Place crossing. He always called her his "little girl," though she was by no means little in the ordinary acceptation of the word, being at least sixteen, and rather tall for her years. But there was a sort of freshness and naivete and youthfulness about her which made him use that adjective. She usually carried a pile of books in a strap, so he conjectured that she must be coming from school, and, ever since he had first seen her, she had worn the same rough blue serge dress, and the same quaint little fur hat. In other details, however, he could never tell in the least how he should find her. She seemed to have a mood for every day. Sometimes she would be in a great hurry and would almost run past him; sometimes she would saunter along in the most unconventional way, glancing from time to time at a book or a paper; sometimes her eager face would look absolutely bewitching in its brightness; sometimes scarcely less bewitching in a consuming anxiety which seemed unnatural in one so young.
One rainy afternoon in November, Brian was as usual making his way down Gower Street, his umbrella held low to shelter him from the driving rain which seemed to come in all directions. The milkman's shrill voice was still far in the distance, the man of letters was still at work upon knockers some way off, it was not yet time for his little girl to make her appearance, and he was not even thinking of her, when suddenly his umbrella was nearly knocked out of his hand by coming violently into collision with another umbrella. Brought thus to a sudden stand, he looked to see who it was who had charged him with such violence, and found himself face to face with his unknown friend. He had never been quite so close to her before. Her quaint face had always fascinated him, but on nearer view he thought it the loveliest face he had ever seen—it took his heart by storm.
It was framed in soft, silky masses of dusky auburn hair which hung over the broad, white forehead, but at the back was scarcely longer than a boy's. The features, though not regular, were delicate and piquant; the usual faint rose-flush on the cheeks deepened now to carnation, perhaps because of the slight contretemps, perhaps because of some deeper emotion—Brian fancied the latter, for the clear, golden-brown eyes that were lifted to his seemed bright either with indignation or with unshed tears. Today it was clear that the mood was not a happy one.
"I am very sorry," she said, looking up at him, and speaking in a low, musical voice, but with the unembarrassed frankness of a child. "I really wasn't thinking or looking; it was very careless of me."
Brian of course took all the blame to himself, and apologized profusely; but though he would have given much to detain her, if only a moment, she gave him no opportunity, but with a slight inclination passed rapidly on. He stood quite still, watching her till she was out of sight, aware of a sudden change in his life. He was a busy hard-working man, not at all given to dreams, and it was no dream that he was in now. He knew perfectly well that he had met his ideal, had spoken to her and she to him; that somehow in a single moment a new world had opened out to him. He had fallen in love.
The trifling occurrence had made no great impression on the "little girl" herself. She was rather vexed with herself for the carelessness, but a much deeper trouble was filling her heart. She soon forgot the passing interruption and the brown-bearded man with the pleasant gray eyes who had apologized for what was quite her fault. Something had gone wrong that day, as Brian had surmised; the eyes grew brighter, the carnation flush deepened as she hurried along, the delicate lips closed with a curiously hard expression, the hands were clasped with unnecessary tightness round the umbrella.
She passed up Guilford Square, but did not turn into any of the old decayed houses; her home was far less imposing. At the corner of the square there is a narrow opening which leads into a sort of blind alley paved with grim flagstones. Here, facing a high blank wall, are four or five very dreary houses. She entered one of these, put down her wet umbrella in the shabby little hall, and opened the door of a barely furnished room, the walls of which were, however, lined with books. Beside the fire was the one really comfortable piece of furniture in the room, an Ikeley couch, and upon it lay a very wan-looking invalid, who glanced up with a smile of welcome. "Why, Erica, you are home early today. How is that?"
"Oh, I don't know," said Erica, tossing down her books in a way which showed her mother that she was troubled about something. "I suppose I tore along at a good rate, and there was no temptation to stay at the High School."
"Come and tell me about it," said the mother, gently, "what has gone wrong, little one?"
"Everything!" exclaimed Erica, vehemently. "Everything always does go wrong with us and always will, I suppose. I wish you had never sent me to school, mother; I wish I need never see the place again!"
"But till today you enjoyed it so much."
"Yes, the classes and the being with Gertrude. But that will never be the same again. It's just this, mother, I'm never to speak to Gertrude again—to have noting more to do with her."
"Who said so? And Why?"
"Why? Because I'm myself," said Erica, with a bitter little laugh. "How I can help it, nobody seems to think. But Gertrude's father has come back from Africa, and was horrified to learn that we were friends, made her promise never to speak to me again, and made her write this note about it. Look!" and she took a crumpled envelope from her pocket.
The mother read the note in silence, and an expression of pain came over her face. Erica, who was very impetuous, snatched it away from her when she saw that look of sadness.
"Don't read the horrid thing!" she exclaimed, crushing it up in her hand. "There, we will burn it!" and she threw it into the fire with a vehemence which somehow relieved her.
"You shouldn't have done that," said her mother. "Your father will be sure to want to see it."
"No, no, no," cried Erica, passionately. "He must not know; you must not tell him, mother."
"Dear child, have you not learned that it is impossible to keep anything from him? He will find out directly that something is wrong."
"It will grieve him so; he must not hear it," said Erica. "He cares so much for what hurts us. Oh! Why are people so hard and cruel? Why do they treat us like lepers? It isn't all because of losing Gertrude; I could bear that if there were some real reason—if she went away or died. But there's no reason! It's all prejudice and bigotry and injustice; it's that which makes it sting so."
Erica was not at all given to tears, but there was now a sort of choking in her throat, and a sort of dimness in her eyes which made her rather hurriedly settle down on the floor in her own particular nook beside her mother's couch, where her face could not be seen. There was a silence. Presently the mother spoke, stroking back the wavy, auburn hair with her thin white hand.
"For a long time I have dreaded this for you, Erica. I was afraid you didn't realize the sort of position the world will give you. Till lately you have seen scarcely any but our own people, but it can hardly be, darling, that you can go on much longer without coming into contact with others; and then, more and more, you must realize that you are cut off from much that other girls may enjoy."
"Why?" questioned Erica. "Why can't they be friendly? Why must they cut us off from everything?"
"It does seem unjust; but you must remember that we belong to an unpopular minority."
"But if I belonged to the larger party, I would at least be just to the smaller," said Erica. "How can they expect us to think their system beautiful when the very first thing they show us is hatred and meanness. Oh! If I belonged to the other side I would show them how different it might be."
"I believe you would," said the mother, smiling a little at the idea, and at the vehemence of the speaker. "But, as it is, Erica, I am afraid you must school yourself to endure. After all, I fancy you will be glad to share so soon in your father's vexations."
"Yes," said Erica, pushing back the hair from her forehead, and giving herself a kind of mental shaking. "I am glad of that. After all, they can't spoil the best part of our lives! I shall go into the garden to get rid of my bad temper; it doesn't rain now."
She struggled to her feet, picked up the little fur hat which had fallen off, kissed her mother, and went out of the room.
The "garden" was Erica's favorite resort, her own particular property. It was about fifteen feet square, and no one but a Londoner would have bestowed on it so dignified a name. But Erica, who was of an inventive turn, had contrived to make the most of the little patch of ground, had induced ivy to grow on the ugly brick walls, and with infinite care and satisfaction had nursed a few flowers and shrubs into tolerably healthy though smutty life. In one of the corners, Tom Craigie, her favorite cousin, had put up a rough wooden bench for her, and here she read and dreamed as contentedly as if her "garden ground" had been fairy-land. Here, too, she invariably came when anything had gone wrong, when the endless troubles about money which had weighed upon her all her life became a little less bearable than usual, or when some act of discourtesy or harshness to her father had roused in her a tingling, burning sense of indignation.
Erica was not one of those people who take life easily; things went very deeply with her. In spite of her brightness and vivacity, in spite of her readiness to see the ludicrous in everything, and her singularly quick perceptions, she was also very keenly alive to other and graver impressions.
Her anger had passed, but still, as she paced round and round her small domain, her heart was very heavy. Life seemed perplexing to her; but her mother had somehow struck the right key-note when she had spoken of the vexations which might be shared. There was something inspiriting in that thought, certainly, for Erica worshipped her father. By degrees the trouble and indignation died away, and a very sweet look stole over the grave little face.
A smutty sparrow came and peered down at her from the ivy-colored wall, and chirped and twittered in quite a friendly way, perhaps recognizing the scatter of its daily bread.
"After all," though Erica, "with ourselves and the animals, we might let the rest of the world treat us as they please. I am glad they can't turn the animals and birds against us! That would be worse than anything."
Then, suddenly turning from the abstract to the practical, she took out of her pocket a shabby little sealskin purse.
"Still sixpence of my prize money over," she remarked to herself; "I'll go and buy some scones for tea. Father likes them."
Erica's father was a Scotchman, and, though so-called scones were to be had at most shops, there was only one place where she could buy scones which she considered worthy the name, and that was at the Scotch baker's in Southampton Row. She hurried along the wet pavements, glad that the rain was over, for as soon as her purchase was completed she made up her mind to indulge for a few minutes in what had lately become a very frequent treat, namely a pause before a certain tempting store of second-hand books. She had never had money enough to buy anything except the necessary school books, and, being a great lover of poetry, she always seized with avidity on anything that was to be found outside the book shop. Sometimes she would carry away a verse of Swinburne, which would ring in her ears for days and days; sometimes she would read as much as two or three pages of Shelley. No one had every interrupted her, and a certain sense of impropriety and daring was rather stimulating than otherwise. It always brought to her mind a saying in the proverbs of Solomon, "Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant."
For three successive days she had found to her great delight Longfellow's "Hiawatha." The strange meter, the musical Indian names, the delightfully described animals, all served to make the poem wonderfully fascinating to her. She thought a page or two of "Hiawatha" would greatly sweeten her somewhat bitter world this afternoon, and with her bag of scones in one hand and the book in the other she read on happily, quite unconscious that three pair of eyes were watching her from within the shop.
The wrinkled old man who was the presiding genius of the place had two customers, a tall, gray-bearded clergyman with bright, kindly eyes, and his son, the same Brian Osmond whom Erica had charged with her umbrella in Gower Street.
"An outside customer for you," remarked Charles Osmond, the clergyman, glancing at the shop keeper. Then to his son, "What a picture she makes!"
Brian looked up hastily from some medical books which he had been turning over.
"Why that's my little Gower Street friend," he exclaimed, the words being somehow surprised out of him, though he would fain have recalled them the next minute.
"I don't interrupt her," said the shop owner. "Her father has done a great deal of business with me, and the little lady has a fancy for poetry, and don't get much of it in her life, I'll be bound."
"Why, who is she?" asked Charles Osmond, who was on very friendly terms with the old book collector.
"She's the daughter of Luke Raeburn," was the reply, "and whatever folks may say, I know that Mr. Raeburn leads a hard enough life."
Brian turned away from the speakers, a sickening sense of dismay at his heart. His ideal was the daughter of Luke Raeburn! And Luke Raeburn was an atheist leader!
For a few minutes he lost consciousness of time and place, though always seeing in a sort of dark mist Erica's lovely face bending over her book. The shop keeper's casual remark had been a fearful blow to him; yet, as he came to himself again, his heart went out more and more to the beautiful girl who had been brought up in what seemed to him so barren a creed. His dream of love, which had been bright enough only an hour before, was suddenly shadowed by an unthought of pain, but presently began to shine with a new and altogether different luster. He began to hear again what was passing between his father and the shop keeper.
"There's a sight more good in him than folks think. However wrong his views, he believes them right, and is ready to suffer for 'em, too. Bless me, that's odd, to be sure! There is Mr. Raeburn, on the other side of the Row! Fine-looking man, isn't he?"
Brian, looking up eagerly, fancied he must be mistaken for the only passenger in sight was a very tall man of remarkably benign aspect, middle-aged, yet venerable—or perhaps better described by the word "devotional-looking," pervaded too by a certain majesty of calmness which seemed scarcely suited to his character of public agitator. The clean-shaven and somewhat rugged face was unmistakably that of a Scotchman, the thick waves of tawny hair overshadowing the wide brow, and the clear golden-brown eyes showed Brian at once that this could be no other than the father of his ideal.
In the meantime, Raeburn, having caught sight of his daughter, slowly crossed the road, and coming noiselessly up to her, suddenly took hold of the book she was reading, and with laughter in his eyes, said, in a peremptory voice:
"Five shillings to pay, if you please, miss!"
Erica, who had been absorbed in the poem, looked up in dismay; then seeing who had spoken, she began to laugh.
"What a horrible fright you gave me, father! But do look at this, it's the loveliest thing in the world. I've just got to the 'very strong man Kwasind.' I think he's a little like you!"
Raeburn, though no very great lover of poetry, took the book and read a few lines.
"Long they lived in peace together, Spake with naked hearts together, Pondering much and much contriving How the tribes of men might prosper."
"Good! That will do very well for you and me, little one. I'm ready to be your Kwasind. What's the price of the thing? Four and sixpence! Too much for a luxury. It must wait till our ship comes in."
He put down the book, and they moved on together, but had not gone many paces before they were stopped by a most miserable-looking beggar child. Brian standing now outside the shop, saw and heard all that passed.
Raeburn was evidently investigating the case, Erica, a little impatient of the interruption, was remonstrating.
"I thought you never gave to beggars, and I am sure that harrowing story is made up."
"Very likely," replied the father, "but the hunger is real, and I know well enough what hunger is. What have you here?" he added, indicating the paper bag which Erica held.
"Scones," she said, unwillingly.
"That will do," he said, taking them from her and giving them to the child. "He is too young to be anything but the victim of another's laziness. There! Sit down and eat them while you can."
The child sat down on the doorstep with the bag of scones clasped in both hands, but he continued to gaze after his benefactor till he had passed out of sight, and there was a strange look of surprise and gratification in his eyes. That was a man who knew! Many people had, after hard begging, thrown him pence, many had warned him off harshly, but this man had looked straight into his eyes, and had at once stopped and questioned him, had singled out the one true statement from a mass of lies, and had given him—not a stale loaf with the top cut off, a suspicious sort of charity which always angered the waif—but his own food, bought for his own consumption. Most wonderful of all, too, this man knew what it was to be hungry, and had even the insight and shrewdness to be aware that the waif's best chance of eating the scones at all was to eat them then and there. For the first time a feeling of reverence and admiration was kindled in the child's heart; he would have done a great deal for his unknown friend.
Raeburn and Erica had meanwhile walked on in the direction of Guilford Square.
"I had bought them for you," said Erica, reproachfully.
"And I ruthlessly gave them away," said Raeburn, smiling. "That was hard lines; I though they were only household stock. But after all it comes to the same thing in the end, or better. You have given them to me by giving them to the child. Never mind, 'Little son Eric!'"
This was his pet name for her, and it meant a great deal to them. She was his only child, and it had at first been a great disappointment to every one that she was not a boy. But Raeburn had long ago ceased to regret this, and the nickname referred more to Erica's capability of being both son and daughter to him, able to help him in his work and at the same time to brighten his home. Erica was very proud of her name, for she had been called after her father's greatest friend, Eric Haeberlein, a celebrated republican, who once during a long exile had taken refuge in London. His views were in some respects more extreme than Raeburn's, but in private life he was the gentlest and most fascinating of men, and had quite won the heart of his little namesake.
As Mrs. Raeburn had surmised, Erica's father had at once seen that something had gone wrong that day. The all-observing eyes, which had noticed the hungry look in the beggar child's face, noticed at once that his own child had been troubled.
"Something has vexed you," he said. "What is the matter, Erica?"
"I had rather not tell you, father, it isn't anything much," said Erica, casting down her eyes as if all at once the paving stones had become absorbingly interesting.
"I fancy I know already," said Raeburn. "It is about your friend at the High School, is it not. I thought so. This afternoon I had a letter from her father."
"What does he say? May I see it?" asked Erica.
"I tore it up," said Raeburn, "I thought you would ask to see it, and the thing was really so abominably insolent that I didn't want you to. How did you hear about it?"
"Gertrude wrote me a note," said Erica.
"At her father's dictation, no doubt," said Raeburn; "I should know his style directly, let me see it."
"I thought it was a pity to vex you, so I burned it," said Erica.
Then, unable to help being amused at their efforts to save each other, they both laughed, though the subject was rather a sore one.
"It is the old story," said Raeburn. "Life only, as Pope Innocent III benevolently remarked, 'is to be left to the children of misbelievers, and that only as an act of mercy.' You must make up your mind to bear the social stigma, child. Do you see the moral of this?"
"No," said Erica, with something between a smile and a sigh.
"The moral of it is that you must be content with your own people," said Raeburn. "There is this one good point about persecution—it does draw us all nearer together, really strengthens us in a hundred ways. So, little one, you must forswear school friends, and be content with your 'very strong man Kwasind,' and we will
"'Live in peace together Speak with naked hearts together.'
By the bye, it is rather doubtful if Tom will be able to come to the lecture tonight; do you think you can take notes for me instead?"
This was in reality the most delicate piece of tact and consideration, for it was, of course, Erica's delight and pride to help her father.
CHAPTER II. From Effect to Cause
Only the acrid spirit of the times, Corroded this true steel. Longfellow.
Not Thine the bigot's partial plea, Not Thine the zealot's ban; Thou well canst spare a love of Thee Which ends in hate of man. Whittier.
Luke Raeburn was the son of a Scotch clergyman of the Episcopal Church. His history, though familiar to his own followers and to them more powerfully convincing than many arguments against modern Christianity, was not generally known. The orthodox were apt to content themselves with shuddering at the mention of his name; very few troubled themselves to think or inquire how this man had been driven into atheism. Had they done so they might, perhaps, have treated him more considerately, at any rate they must have learned that the much-disliked prophet of atheism was the most disinterested of men, one who had the courage of his opinions, a man of fearless honesty.
Raeburn had lost his mother very early; his father, a well-to-do man, had held for many years a small living in the west of Scotland. He was rather a clever man, but one-sided and bigoted; cold-hearted, too, and caring very little for his children. Of Luke, however, he was, in his peculiar fashion, very proud, for at an early age the boy showed signs of genius. The father was no great worker; though shrewd and clever, he had no ambition, and was quietly content to live out his life in the retired little parsonage where, with no parish to trouble him, and a small and unexacting congregation on Sundays, he could do pretty much as he pleased. But for his son he was ambitious. Ever since his sixteenth year—when, at a public meeting the boy had, to the astonishment of every one, suddenly sprung to his feet and contradicted a false statement made by a great landowner as to the condition of the cottages on his estate—the father had foreseen future triumphs for his son. For the speech, though unpremeditated, was marvelously clever, and there was a power in it not to be accounted for by a certain ring of indignation; it was the speech of a future orator.
Then, too, Luke had by this time shown signs of religious zeal, a zeal which his father, though far from attempting to copy, could not but admire. His Sunday services over, he relapsed into the comfortable, easy-going life of a country gentleman for the rest of the week; but his son was indefatigable, and, though little more than a boy himself, gathered round him the roughest lads of the village, and by his eloquence, and a certain peculiar personal fascination which he retained all his life, absolutely forced them to listen to him. The father augured great things for him, and invariably prophesied that he would "live to see him a bishop yet."
It was a settled thing that he should take Holy Orders, and for some time Raeburn was only too happy to carry out his father's plans. In his very first term at Cambridge, however, he began to feel doubts, and, becoming convinced that he could never again accept the doctrines in which he had been educated, he told his father that he must give up all thought of taking Orders.
Now, unfortunately, Mr. Raeburn was the very last man to understand or sympathize with any phase of life through which he had not himself passed. He had never been troubled with religious doubts; skepticism seemed to him monstrous and unnatural. He met the confession, which his son had made in pain and diffidence, with a most deplorable want of tact. In answer to the perplexing questions which were put to him, he merely replied testily that Luke had been overworking himself, and that he had no business to trouble his head with matters which were beyond him, and would fain have dismissed the whole affair at once.
"But," urged the son, "how is it possible for me to turn my back on these matters when I am preparing to teach them?"
"Nonsense," replied the father, angrily. "Have not I taught all my life, preached twice a Sunday these thirty years without perplexing myself with your questionings? Be off to your shooting, and your golf, and let me have no more of this morbid fuss."
No more was said; but Luke Raeburn, with his doubts and questions shut thus into himself, drifted rapidly from skepticism to the most positive form of unbelief. When he next came home for the long vacation, his father was at length awakened to the fact that the son, upon whom all his ambition was set, was hopelessly lost to the Church; and with this consciousness a most bitter sense of disappointment rose in his heart. His pride, the only side of fatherhood which he possessed, was deeply wounded, and his dreams of honorable distinction were laid low. His wrath was great. Luke found the home made almost unbearable to him. His college career was of course at an end, for his father would not hear of providing him with the necessary funds now that he had actually confessed his atheism. He was hardly allowed to speak to his sisters, every request for money to start him in some profession met with a sharp refusal, and matters were becoming so desperate that he would probably have left the place of his own accord before long, had not Mr. Raeburn himself put an end to a state of things which had grown insufferable.
With some lurking hope, perhaps, of convincing his son, he resolved upon trying a course of argument. To do him justice he really tried to prepare himself for it, dragged down volumes of dusty divines, and got up with much pains Paley's "watch" argument. There was some honesty, even perhaps a very little love, in his mistaken endeavors; but he did not recognize that while he himself was unforgiving, unloving, harsh, and self-indulgent, all his arguments for Christianity were of necessity null and void. He argued for the existence of a perfectly loving, good God, all the while treating his son with injustice and tyranny. Of course there could be only one result from a debate between the two. Luke Raeburn with his honesty, his great abilities, his gift of reasoning, above all his thorough earnestness, had the best of it.
To be beaten in argument was naturally the one thing which such a man as Mr. Raeburn could not forgive. He might in time have learned to tolerate a difference of opinion, he would beyond a doubt have forgiven almost any of the failings that he could understand, would have paid his son's college debts without a murmur, would have overlooked anything connected with what he considered the necessary process of "sowing his wild oats." But that the fellow should presume to think out the greatest problems in the world, should set up his judgment against Paley's, and worst of all should actually and palpably beat HIM in argument—this was an unpardonable offense.
A stormy scene ensued. The father, in ungovernable fury, heaped upon the son every abusive epithet he could think of. Luke Raeburn spoke not a word; he was strong and self-controlled; moreover, he knew that he had had the best of the argument. He was human, however, and his heart was wrung by his father's bitterness. Standing there on that summer day, in the study of the Scotch parsonage, the man's future was sealed. He suffered there the loss of all things, but at the very time there sprung up in him an enthusiasm for the cause of free thought, a passionate, burning zeal for the opinions for which he suffered, which never left him, but served as the great moving impulse of his whole subsequent life.
"I tell you, you are not fit to be in a gentleman's house," thundered the father. "A rank atheist, a lying infidel! It is against nature that you should call a parsonage your home."
"It is not particularly home-like," said the son, bitterly. "I can leave it when you please."
"Can!" exclaimed the father, in a fury, "you WILL leave it, sir, and this very day too! I disown you from this time. I'll have no atheist for my son! Change your views or leave the house at once."
Perhaps he expected his son to make some compromise; if so he showed what a very slight knowledge he had of his character. Luke Raeburn had certainly not been prepared for such extreme harshness, but with the pain and grief and indignation there rose in his heart a mighty resoluteness. With a face as hard and rugged as the granite rocks without, he wished his father goodbye, and obeyed his orders.
Then had followed such a struggle with the world as few men would have gone through with. Cut off from all friends and relations by his avowal of atheism, and baffled again and again in seeking to earn his living, he had more than once been on the very brink of starvation. By sheer force of will he had won his way, had risen above adverse circumstances, had fought down obstacles, and conquered opposing powers. Before long he had made fresh friends and gained many followers, for there was an extraordinary magnetism about the man which almost compelled those who were brought into contact with him to reverence him.
It was a curious history. First there had been that time of grievous doubt; then he had been thrown upon the world friendless and penniless, with the beliefs and hopes hitherto most sacred to him dead, and in their place an aching blank. He had suffered much. Treated on all sides with harshness and injustice, it was indeed wonderful that he had not developed into a mere hater, a passionate down-puller. But there was in his character a nobility which would not allow him to rest at this low level. The bitter hostility and injustice which he encountered did indeed warp his mind, and every year of controversy made it more impossible for him to take an unprejudiced view of Christ's teaching; but nevertheless he could not remain a mere destroyer.
In that time of blankness, when he had lost all faith in God, when he had been robbed of friendship and family love, he had seized desperately on the one thing left him—the love of humanity. To him atheism meant not only the assertion—"The word God is a word without meaning, it conveys nothing to my understanding." He added to this barren confession of an intellectual state a singularly high code of duty. Such a code as could only have emanated from one about whom there lingered what Carlyle has termed a great after-shine of Christianity. He held that the only happiness worth having was that which came to a man while engaged in promoting the general good. That the whole duty of man was to devote himself to the service of others. And he lived his creed.
Like other people, he had his faults, but he was always ready to spend and he spent for what he considered the good of others, while every act of injustice called forth his unsparing rebuke, and every oppressed person or cause was sure to meet with his support at whatever cost to himself. His zeal for what he regarded as the "gospel" of atheism grew and strengthened year by year. He was the untiring advocate of what he considered the truth. Neither illness nor small results, nor loss, could quench his ardor, while opposition invariably stimulated him to fresh efforts. After long years of toil, he had at length attained an influential position in the country, and though crippled by debts incurred in the struggle for freedom of speech, and living in absolute penury, he was one of the most powerful men of the day.
The old bookseller had very truly observed that there was more good in him than people thought, he was in fact a noble character twisted the wrong way by clumsy and mistaken handling.
Brian Osmond was by no means bigoted; he had moreover, known those who were intimate with Raeburn, and consequently had heard enough of the truth about him to disbelieve the gross libels which were constantly being circulated by the unscrupulous among his opponents. Still, as on that November afternoon he watched Raeburn and his daughter down Southampton Row, he was conscious that for the first time he fully regarded the atheist as a fellow-man. The fact was that Raeburn had for long years been the champion of a hated cause; he had braved the full flood of opposition; and like an isolated rock had been the mark for so much of the rage and fury of the elements that people who knew him only by name had really learned to regard him more as a target than as a man. It was he who could hit hardest, who could most effectually baffle and ruin him; while the quieter spirits contented themselves with rarely mentioning his obnoxious name, and endeavoring as far as possible, to ignore his existence. Brian felt that till now he had followed with the multitude to do evil. He had, as far as possible, ignored his existence; had even been rather annoyed when his father had once publicly urged that Raeburn should be treated with as much justice and courtesy and consideration as if he had been a Christian. He had been vexed that his father should suffer on behalf of such a man, had been half inclined to put down the scorn and contempt and anger of the narrow-minded to the atheist's account. The feeling had perhaps been natural, but all was changed now; he only revered his father all the more for having suffered in an unpopular cause. With some eagerness, he went back into the shop to see if he could gather any more particulars from the old bookseller. Charles Osmond had, however, finished his purchases and his conversation, and was ready to go.
"The second house in Guilford Terrace, you say?" he observed, turning at the door. "Thank you. I shall be sure to find it. Good day." Then turning to his son, he added, "I had no idea we were such near neighbors! Did you hear what he told me? Mr. Raeburn lives in Guilford Terrace."
"What, that miserable blind alley, do you mean at the other side of the square?"
"Yes, and I am just going round there now, for our friend the 'book-worm' tells me he has heard it rumored that some unscrupulous person who is going to answer Mr. Raeburn this evening, has hired a band of roughs to make a disturbance at the meeting. Fancy how indignant Donovan would be! I only wish he were here to take a word to Mr. Raeburn."
"Will he not most likely have heard from some other source?" said Brian.
"Possibly, but I shall go round and see. Such abominations ought to be put down, and if by our own side all the better."
Brian was only too glad that his father should go, and indeed he would probably have wished to take the message himself had not his mind been set upon getting the best edition of Longfellow to be found in all London for his ideal. So at the turning into Guilford Square, the father and son parted.
The bookseller's information had roused in Charles Osmond a keen sense of indignation; he walked on rapidly as soon as he had left his son, and in a very few minutes had reached the gloomy entrance to Guilford Terrace. It was currently reported that Raeburn made fabulous sums by his work, and lived in great luxury; but the real fact was that, whatever his income, few men led so self-denying a life, or voluntarily endured such privations. Charles Osmond could not help wishing that he could bring some of the intolerant with him down that gloomy little alley, to the door of that comfortless lodging house. He rang, and was admitted into the narrow passage, then shown into the private study of the great man. The floor was uncarpeted, the window uncurtained, the room was almost dark; but a red-glow of fire light served to show a large writing table strewn with papers, and walls literally lined with books; also on the hearth-rug a little figure curled up in the most unconventionally comfortable attitude, dividing her attention between making toast and fondling a loud-purring cat.
CHAPTER III. Life From Another Point of View
Toleration an attack on Christianity? What, then, are we to come to this pass, to suppose that nothing can support Christianity but the principles of persecution?... I am persuaded that toleration, so far from being an attack on Christianity, becomes the best and surest support that can possibly be given to it.... Toleration is good for all, or it is good for none... God forbid. I may be mistaken, but I take toleration to be a part of religion. Burke
Erica was, apparently, well used to receiving strangers. She put down the toasting fork, but kept the cat in her arms, as she rose to greet Charles Osmond, and her frank and rather child-like manner fascinated him almost as much as it had fascinated Brian.
"My father will be home in a few minutes," she said; "I almost wonder you didn't meet him in the square; he has only just gone to send off a telegram. Can you wait? Or will you leave a message?"
"I will wait, if I may," said Charles Osmond. "Oh, don't trouble about a light. I like this dimness very well, and, please, don't let me interrupt you."
Erica relinquished a vain search for candle lighters, and took up her former position on the hearth rug with her toasting fork.
"I like the gloaming, too," she said. "It's almost the only nice thing which is economical! Everything else that one likes specially costs too much! I wonder whether people with money do enjoy all the great treats."
"Very soon grow blase, I expect," said Charles Osmond. "The essence of a treat is rarity, you see."
"I suppose it is. But I think I could enjoy ever so many things for years and years without growing blase," said Erica.
"Sometimes I like just to fancy what life might be if there were no tiresome Christians, and bigots, and lawsuits."
Charles Osmond laughed to himself in the dim light; the remark was made with such perfect sincerity, and it evidently had not dawned on the speaker that she could be addressing any but one of her father's followers. Yet the words saddened Him too. He just caught a glimpse through them of life viewed from a directly opposite point.
"Your father has a lawsuit going on now, has he not?" he observed, after a little pause.
"Oh, yes, there is almost always one either looming in the distance or actually going on. I don't think I can ever remember the time when we were quite free. It must feel very funny to have no worries of that kind. I think, if there wasn't always this great load of debt tied round our necks, like a millstone, I should feel almost light enough to fly. And then it IS hard to read in some of those horrid religious papers that father lives an easy-going life. Did you see a dreadful paragraph last week in the 'Church Chronicle?'"
"Yes, I did," said Charles Osmond, sadly.
"It always has been the same," said Erica. "Father has a delightful story about an old gentleman who at one of his lectures accused him of being rich and self-indulgent—it was a great many years ago, when I was a baby, and father was nearly killing himself with overwork—and he just got up and gave the people the whole history of his day, and it turned out that he had had nothing to eat. Mustn't the old gentleman have felt delightfully done? I always wonder how he looked when he heard about it, and whether after that he believed that atheists are not necessarily everything that's bad."
"I hope such days as those are over for Mr. Raeburn," said Charles Osmond, touched both by the anecdote and by the loving admiration of the speaker.
"I don't know," said Erica, sadly. "It has been getting steadily worse for the last few years; we have had to give up thing after thing. Before long I shouldn't wonder if these rooms in what father calls 'Persecution alley' grew too expensive for us. But, after all, it is this sort of thing which makes our own people love him so much, don't you think?"
"I have no doubt it is," said Charles Osmond, thoughtfully.
And then for a minute or two there was silence. Erica, having finished her toasting, stirred the fire into a blaze, and Charles Osmond sat watching the fair, childish face which looked lovelier than ever in the soft glow of the fire light. What would her future be, he wondered. She seemed too delicate and sensitive for the stormy atmosphere in which she lived. Would the hard life embitter her, or would she sink under it? But there was a certain curve of resoluteness about her well-formed chin which was sufficient answer to the second question, while he could not but think that the best safeguard against the danger of bitterness lay in her very evident love and loyalty to her father.
Erica in the meantime sat stroking her cat Friskarina, and wondering a little who her visitor could be. She liked him very much, and could not help responding to the bright kindly eyes which seemed to plead for confidence; though he was such an entire stranger she found herself quite naturally opening out her heart to him.
"I am to take notes at my father's meeting tonight," she said, breaking the silence, "and perhaps write the account of it afterward, too, and there's such a delightfully funny man coming to speak on the other side."
"Mr. Randolph, is it not?"
"Yes, a sort of male Mrs. Malaprop. Oh, such fun!" and at the remembrance of some past encounter, Erica's eyes positively danced with laughter. But the next minute she was very grave.
"I came to speak to Mr. Raeburn about this evening," said Charles Osmond. "Do you know if he has heard of a rumor that this Mr. Randolph has hired a band of roughs to interrupt the meeting?"
Erica made an indignant exclamation.
"Perhaps that was what the telegram was about," she continued, after a moment's thought. "We found it here when we came in. Father said nothing, but went out very quickly to answer it. Oh! Now we shall have a dreadful time of it, I suppose, and perhaps he'll get hurt again. I did hope they had given up that sort of thing."
She looked so troubled that Charles Osmond regretted he had said anything, and hastened to assure her that what he had heard was the merest rumor, and very possibly not true.
"I am afraid," she said, "it is too bad not to be true."
It struck Charles Osmond that that was about the saddest little sentence he had ever heard.
Partly wishing to change the subject, party from real interest, he made some remark about a lovely little picture, the only one in the room; its frame was lighted up by the flickering blaze, and even in the imperfect light he could see that the subject was treated in no ordinary way. It was a little bit of the Thames far away from London, with a bank of many-tinted trees on one side, and out beyond a range of low hills, purple in the evening light. In the sky was a rosy sunset glow, melted above into saffron color, and this was reflected in the water, gilding and mellowing the foreground of sedge and water lilies. But what made the picture specially charming was that the artist had really caught the peculiar solemn stillness of evening; merely to look at that quiet, peaceful river brought a feeling of hush and calmness. It seemed a strange picture to find as the sole ornament in the study of a man who had all his life been fighting the world.
Erica brightened up again, and seemed to forget her anxiety when he questioned her as to the artist.
"There is such a nice story about that picture," she said, "I always like to look at it. It was about two years ago, one very cold winter's day, and a woman came with some oil paintings which she was trying to sell for her husband, who was ill; he was rather a good artist, but had been in bad health for a long time, till at last she had really come to hawking about his pictures in this way, because they were in such dreadful distress. Father was very much worried just then, there was a horrid libel case going on, and that morning he was very busy, and he sent the woman away rather sharply, and said he had no time to listen to her. Then presently he was vexed with himself because she really had looked in great trouble, and he thought he had been harsh, and, though he was dreadfully pressed for time, he would go out into the square to see if he couldn't find her again. I went with him, and we had walked all round and had almost given her up, when we caught sight of her coming out of a house on the opposite side. And then it was so nice, father spoke so kindly to her, and found out more about her history, and said that he was too poor to buy her pictures; but she looked dreadfully tired and cold, so he asked her to come in and rest, and she came and sat by the fire, and stayed to dinner with us, and we looked at her pictures, because she seemed so proud of them and liked us to. One of them was that little river scene, which father took a great fancy to, and praised a great deal. She left us her address, and later on, when the libel case was ended, and father had got damages, and so had a little spare money, he sent some to this poor artist, and they were so grateful; though, do you know, I think the dinner pleased them more than the money, and they would insist on sending this picture to father. I'll light the gas, and then you'll see it better."
She twisted a piece of paper into a spill, and put an end to the gloaming. Charles Osmond stood up to get a nearer view of the painting, and Erica, too, drew nearer, and looked at it for a minute in silence.
"Father took me up the Thames once," she said, by and by. "It was so lovely. Some day, when all these persecutions are over, we are going to have a beautiful tour, and see all sorts of places. But I don't know when they will be over. As soon as one bigot—" she broke off suddenly, with a stifled exclamation of dismay.
Charles Osmond, in the dim light, with his long gray beard, had not betrayed his clerical dress; but, glancing round at him now, she saw at once that the stranger to whom she had spoken so unreservedly was by no means one of her father's followers.
"Well!" he said, smiling, half understanding her confusion.
"You are a clergyman!" she almost gasped.
"Yes, why not?"
"I beg your pardon, I never thought—you seemed so much too—"
"Too what?" urged Charles Osmond. Then, as she still hesitated, "Now, you must really let me hear the end of that sentence, or I shall imagine everything dreadful."
"Too nice," murmured Erica, wishing that she could sink through the floor.
But the confession so tickled Charles Osmond that he laughed aloud, and his laughter was so infectious that Erica, in spite of her confusion, could not help joining in it. She had a very keen sense of the ludicrous, and the position was undoubtedly a laughable one; still there were certain appalling recollections of the past conversation which soon made her serious again. She had talked of persecutions to one who was, at any rate, on the side of persecutors; had alluded to bigots, and, worst of all, had spoken in no measured terms of "tiresome Christians."
She turned, rather shyly, and yet with a touch of dignity, to her visitor, and said:
"It was very careless of me not to notice more, but it was dark, and I am not used to seeing any but our own people here. I am afraid I said things which must have hurt you; I wish you had stopped me."
The beautiful color had spread and deepened in her cheeks, and there was something indescribably sweet and considerate in her tone of apology. Charles Osmond was touched by it.
"It is I who should apologize," he said. "I am not at all sure that I was justified in sitting there quietly, knowing that you were under a delusion; but it is always very delightful to me in this artificial world to meet any one who talks quite naturally, and the interest of hearing your view of the question kept me silent. You must forgive me, and as you know I am too nice to be a clergyman—"
"Oh, I beg your pardon. How rude I have been," cried Erica, blushing anew; "but you did make me say it."
"Of course, and I take it as a high compliment from you," said Charles Osmond, laughing again at the recollection. "Come, may we not seal our friendship? We have been sufficiently frank with each other to be something more than acquaintances for the future."
Erica held out her hand and found it taken in a strong, firm clasp, which somehow conveyed much more than an ordinary handshake.
"And, after all, you ARE too nice for a clergyman!" she thought to herself. Then, as a fresh idea crossed her mind, she suddenly exclaimed: "But you came to tell us about Mr. Randolph's roughs, did you not? How came you to care that we should know beforehand?"
"Why, naturally I hoped that a disturbance might be stopped."
"Is it natural?" questioned Erica. "I should have thought it more natural for you to think with your own party."
"But peace and justice and freedom of speech must all stand before party questions."
"Yet you think that we are wrong, and that Christianity is right?"
"Yes, but to my mind perfect justice is part of Christianity."
"Oh," said Erica, in a tone which meant unutterable things.
"You think that Christians do not show perfect justice to you?" said Charles Osmond, reading her thoughts.
"I can't say I think they do," she replied. Then, suddenly firing up at the recollection of her afternoon's experiences, she said: "They are not just to us, though they preach justice; they are not loving, though they talk about love. If they want us to think their religion true, I wonder they don't practice it a little more and preach it less. What is the use of talking of 'brotherly kindness and charity,' when they hardly treat us like human beings, when they make up wicked lies about us, and will hardly let us sit in the same room with them!"
"Come, now, we really are sitting in the same room," said Charles Osmond, smiling.
"Oh, dear, what am I to do!" exclaimed Erica. "I can't remember that you are one of them! You are so very unlike most."
"I think," said Charles Osmond, "you have come across some very bad specimens."
Erica, in her heart, considered her visitor as the exception which proved the rule; but not wishing to be caught tripping again, she resolved to say no more upon the subject.
"Let us talk of something else," she said.
"Something nicer?" said Charles Osmond, with a little mischievous twinkle in his eyes.
"Safer," said Erica, laughing. "But stop, I hear my father."
She went out into the passage to meet him. Charles Osmond heard her explaining his visit and the news he had brought, heard Raeburn's brief responses; then, in a few moments, the two entered the room, a picturesque looking couple, the clergyman thought; the tall, stately man, with his broad forehead and overshadowing masses of auburn hair; the little eager-faced, impetuous girl, so winsome in her unconventional frankness.
The conversation became a trifle more ceremonious, though with Erica perched on the arm of her father's chair, ready to squeeze his hand at every word which pleased her, it could hardly become stiff. Raeburn had just heard the report of Mr. Randolph's scheme, and had already taken precautionary measures; but he was surprised and gratified that Charles Osmond should have troubled to bring him word about it. The two men talked on with the most perfect friendliness; and by and by, to Erica's great delight, Charles Osmond expressed a wish to be present at the meeting that night, and made inquiries as to the time and place.
"Oh, couldn't you stay to tea and go with us?" she exclaimed, forgetting for the third time that he was a clergyman, and offering the ready hospitality she would have offered to any one else.
"I should be delighted," he said, smiling, "if you can really put up with one of the cloth."
Raeburn, amused at his daughter's spontaneous hospitality, and pleased with the friendly acceptance it had met with, was quite ready to second the invitation. Erica was delighted; she carried off the cat and the toast into the next room, eager to tell her mother all about the visitor.
"The most delightful man, mother, not a bit like a clergyman. I didn't find out for ever so long what he was, and said all sorts of dreadful things; but he didn't mind, and was not the least offended."
"When will you learn to be cautious, I wonder," said Mrs. Raeburn, smiling. "You are a shocking little chatter-box."
And as Erica flitted busily about, arranging the tea table, her mother watched her half musedly, half anxiously. She had always been remarkably frank and outspoken, and there was something so transparently sincere about her, that she seldom gave offense. But the mother could not help wondering how it would be as she grew older and mixed with a greater variety of people. In fact, in every way she was anxious about the child's future, for Erica's was a somewhat perplexing character, and seemed very ill fitted for her position.
Eric Haeberlein had once compared her to a violin, and there was a good deal of truth in his idea. She was very sensitive, responding at once to the merest touch, and easily moved to admiration and devoted love, or to strong indignation. Naturally high-spirited, she was subject, too, to fits of depression, and was always either in the heights or the depths. Yet with all these characteristics was blended her father's indomitable courage and tenacity. Though feeling the thorns of life far more keenly than most people, she was one of those who will never yield; though pricked and wounded by outward events, she would never be conquered by circumstances. At present her capabilities for adoration, which were very great, were lavished in two directions; in the abstract she worshipped intellect, in the concrete she worshipped her father.
From the grief and indignation of the afternoon she had passed with extraordinary rapidity to a state of merriment, which would have been incomprehensible to one who did not understand her peculiarly complex character. Mrs. Raeburn listened with a good deal of amusement to her racy description of Charles Osmond.
"Strange that this should have happened so soon after our talk this afternoon," she said, musingly. "Perhaps it is as well that you should have a glimpse of the other side, against which you were inveighing, or you might be growing narrow."
"He is much too good to belong to them!" said Erica enthusiastically.
As she spoke Raeburn entered, bringing the visitor with him, and they all sat down to their meal, Erica pouring out tea and attending to every one's wants, fondling her cat, and listening to the conversation, with all the time a curious perception that to sit down to table with one of her father's opponents was a very novel experience. She could not help speculating as to the thoughts and impressions of her companions. Her mother was, she thought, pleased and interested for about her worn face there was the look of contentment which invariably came when for a time the bitterness of the struggle of life was broken by any sign of friendliness. Her father was—as he generally was in his own house—quiet, gentle in manner, ready to be both an attentive and an interested listener. This gift he had almost as markedly as the gift of speech; he at once perceived that his guest was no ordinary man, and by a sort of instinct he had discovered on what subjects he was best calculated to speak, and wherein they could gain most from him. Charles Osmond's thoughts she could only speculate about; but that he was ready to take them all as friends, and did not regard them as a different order of being, was plain.
The conversation had drifted into regions of abstruse science, when Erica, who had been listening attentively, was altogether diverted by the entrance of the servant, who brought her a brown-paper parcel. Eagerly opening it, she was almost bewildered by the delightful surprise of finding a complete edition of Longfellow's poems, bound in dark blue morocco. Inside was written: "From another admirer of 'Hiawatha.'"
She started up with a rapturous exclamation, and the two men paused in their talk, each unable to help watching the beautiful little face all aglow with happiness. Erica almost danced round the room with her new treasure.
"What HEAVENLY person can have sent me this?" she cried. "Look, father! Did you ever see such a beauty?"
Science went to the winds, and Raeburn gave all his sympathy to Erica and Longfellow. "The very thing you were wishing for. Who could have sent it?"
"I can't think. It can't be Tom, because I know he's spent all his money, and auntie would never call herself an admirer of 'Hiawatha,' nor Herr Haeberlein, nor Monsieur Noirol, nor any one I can think of."
"Dealings with the fairies," said Raeburn, smiling. "Your beggar-child with the scones suddenly transformed into a beneficent rewarder."
"Not from you, father?"
"A pretty substantial fairy for you. No, no, I had no hand in it. I can't give you presents while I am in debt, my bairn."
"Oh, isn't it jolly to get what one wants!" said Erica, with a fervor which made the three grown-up people laugh.
"Very jolly," said Raeburn, giving her a little mute caress.
"But now, Erica, please to go back and eat something, or I shall have my reporter fainting in the middle of a speech."
She obeyed, carrying away the book with her, and enlivening them with extracts from it; once delightedly discovering a most appropriate passage.
"Why, of course," she exclaimed, "you and Mr. Osmond, father, are smoking the Peace Pipe." And with much force and animation she read them bits from the first canto.
Raeburn left the room before long to get ready for his meeting, but Erica still lingered over her new treasure, putting it down at length with great reluctance to prepare her notebook and sharpen her pencil. "Isn't that a delightful bit where Hiawatha was angry," she said; "it has been running in my head all day—
"'For his heart was hot within him, Like a living coal his heart was.'
That's what I shall feel like tonight when Mr. Randolph attacks father."
She ran upstairs to dress, and, as the door closed upon her, Mrs. Raeburn turned to Charles Osmond with a sort of apology.
"She finds it very hard not to speak out her thoughts; it will often get her into trouble, I am afraid."
"It is too fresh and delightful to be checked, though," said Charles Osmond; "I assure you she has taught me many a lesson tonight."
The mother talked on almost unreservedly about the subject that was evidently nearest her heart—the difficulties of Erica's education, the harshness they so often met with, the harm it so evidently did the child—till the subject of the conversation came down again much too excited and happy to care just then for any unkind treatment. Had she not got a Longfellow of her very own, and did not that unexpected pleasure make up for a thousand privations and discomforts?
Yet, with all her childishness and impetuosity, Erica was womanly, too, as Charles Osmond saw by the way she waited on her mother, thinking of everything which the invalid could possibly want while they were gone, brightening the whole place with her sunshiny presence. Whatever else was lacking, there was no lack of love in this house. The tender considerateness which softened Erica's impetuosity in her mother's presence, the loving comprehension, between parent and child, was very beautiful to see.
CHAPTER IV. "Supposing it is true!"
A man who strives earnestly and perseveringly to convince others, at least convinces us that he is convinced himself. Guesses at Truth.
The rainy afternoon had given place to a fine and starlit night. Erica, apparently in high spirits, walked between her father and Charles Osmond.
"Mother won't be anxious about us," she said. "She has not heard a word about Mr. Randolph's plans. I was so afraid some one would speak about it at tea time, and then she would have been in a fright all the evening, and would not have liked my going."
"Mr. Randolph is both energetic and unscrupulous," said Raeburn. "But I doubt if even he would set his roughs upon you, little one, unless he has become as blood thirsty as a certain old Scotch psalm we used to sing."
"What was that?" questioned Erica.
"I forget the beginning, but the last verse always had a sort of horrible fascination for us—
"'How happy should that trooper be Who, riding on a naggie, Should take thy little children up, And dash them 'gin the craggie!'"
Charles Osmond and Erica laughed heartily.
"They will only dash you against metaphorical rocks in the nineteenth century," continued Raeburn. "I remember wondering why the old clerk in my father's church always sung that verse lustily; but you see we have exactly the same spirit now, only in a more civilized form, barbarity changed to polite cruelty, as for instance the way you were treated this afternoon."
"Oh, don't talk about that," said Erica, quickly, "I am going to enjoy my Longfellow and forget the rest."
In truth, Charles Osmond was struck with this both in the father and daughter; each had a way of putting back their bitter thoughts, of dwelling whenever it was possible on the brighter side of life. He knew that Raeburn was involved in most harassing litigation, was burdened with debt, was confronted everywhere with bitter and often violent opposition, yet he seemed to live above it all, for there was a wonderful repose about him, an extraordinary serenity in his aspect, which would have seemed better fitted to a hermit than to one who has spent his life in fighting against desperate odds. One thing was quite clear, the man was absolutely convinced that he was suffering for the truth, and was ready to endure anything in what he considered the service of his fellow men. He did not seem particularly anxious as to the evening's proceedings. On the whole, they were rather a merry party as they walked along Gower Street to the station.
But when they got out again at their destination, and walked through the busy streets to the hall where the lecture was to be given, a sort of seriousness fell upon all three. They were each going to work in their different ways for what they considered the good of humanity, and instinctively a silence grew and deepened.
Erica was the first to break it as they came in sight of the hall.
"What a crowd there is!" she exclaimed. "Are these Mr. Randolph's roughs?"
"We can put up with them outside," said Raeburn; but Charles Osmond noticed that as he spoke he drew the child nearer to him, with a momentary look of trouble in his face, as though he shrunk from taking her through the rabble. Erica, on the other hand, looked interested and perfectly fearless. With great difficulty they forced their way on, hooted and yelled at by the mob, who, however, made no attempt at violence. At length, reaching the shelter of the entrance lobby, Raeburn left them for a moment, pausing to give directions to the door keepers. Just then, to his great surprise, Charles Osmond caught sight of his son standing only a few paces from them. His exclamation of astonishment made Erica look up. Brian came forward eagerly to meet them.
"You here!" exclaimed his father, with a latent suspicion confirmed into a certainty. "This is my son, Miss Raeburn."
Brian had not dreamed of meeting her, he had waited about curious to see how Raeburn would get on with the mob; it was with a strange pang of rapture and dismay that he had seen his fair little ideal. That she should be in the midst of that hooting mob made his heart throb with indignation, yet there was something so sweet in her grave, steadfast face that he was, nevertheless, glad to have witnessed the scene. Her color was rather heightened, her eyes bright but very quiet, yet as Charles Osmond spoke, and she looked at Brian, her face all at once lighted up, and with an irresistible smile she exclaimed, in the most childlike of voices:
"Why, it's my umbrella man!" The informality of the exclamation seemed to make them at once something more than ordinary acquaintances. They told Charles Osmond of their encounter in the afternoon, and in a very few minutes Brian, hardly knowing whether he was not in some strange dream, found himself sitting with his father and Erica in a crowded lecture hall, realizing with an intensity of joy and an intensity of pain how near he was to the queen of his heart and yet how far from her.
The meeting was quite orderly. Though Raeburn was addressing many who disagreed with him, he had evidently got the whole and undivided attention of his audience; and indeed his gifts both as rhetorician and orator were so great that they must have been either willfully deaf or obtuse who, when under the spell of his extraordinary earnestness and eloquence, could resist listening. Not a word was lost on Brian; every sentence which emphasized the great difference of belief between himself and his love seemed to engrave itself on his heart; no minutest detail of that evening escaped him.
He saw the tall, commanding figure of the orator, the vast sea of upturned faces below, the eager attention imprinted on all, sometimes a wave of sympathy and approval sweeping over them, resulting in a storm of applause, at times a more divided disapproval, or a shout of "No, no," which invariably roused the speaker to a more vigorous, clear, and emphatic repetition of the questioned statement. And, through all, he was ever conscious of the young girl at his side, who, with her head bent over her notebook, was absorbed in her work. While the most vital questions of life were being discussed, he was yet always aware of that hand traveling rapidly to and fro, of the pages hurriedly turned, of the quick yet weary-looking change of posture.
Though not without a strong vein of sarcasm, Raeburn's speech was, on the whole, temperate; it certainly should have been met with consideration. But, unfortunately, Mr. Randolph was incapable of seeing any good in his opponent; his combative instincts were far stronger than his Christianity, and Brian, who had winced many times while listening to the champion of atheism, was even more keenly wounded by the champion of his own cause. Abusive epithets abounded in his retort; at last he left the subject under discussion altogether, and launched into personalities of the most objectionable kind. Raeburn sat with folded arms, listening with a sort of cold dignity. He looked very different now from the genial-mannered, quiet man whom Charles Osmond had seen in his own home but an hour or two ago. There was a peculiar look in his tawny eyes hardly to be described in words, a look which was hard, and cold, and steady. It told of an originally sensitive nature inured to ill treatment; of a strong will which had long ago steeled itself to endure; of a character which, though absolutely refusing to yield to opposition, had grown slightly bitter, even slightly vindictive in the process.
Brian could only watch in silent pain the little figure beside him. Once at some violent term of abuse she looked up, and glanced for a moment at the speaker; he just caught a swift, indignant flash from her bright eyes, then her head was bent lower than before over her notebook, and the carnation deepened in her cheek, while her pencil sped over the paper fast and furiously. Presently came a sharp retort from Raeburn, ending with the perfectly warrantable accusation that Mr. Randolph was wandering from the subject of the evening merely to indulge his personal spite. The audience was beginning to be roused by the unfairness, and a storm might have ensued had not Mr. Randolph unintentionally turned the whole proceedings from tragedy to farce.
Indignant at Raeburn's accusation, he sprung to his feet and began a vigorous protest.
"Mr. Chairman, I denounce my opponent as a liar. His accusation is utterly false. I deny the allegation, and I scorn the alligator—"
He was interrupted by a shout of laughter, the whole assembly was convulsed, even Erica's anger changed to mirth.
"Fit for 'Punch,'" she whispered to Brian, her face all beaming with merriment.
Raeburn, whose grave face had also relaxed into a smile, suddenly stood up, and, with a sort of dry Scotch humor, remarked:
"My enemies have compared me to many obnoxious things, but never till tonight have I been called a crocodile. Possibly Mr. Randolph has been reading of the crocodiles recently dissected at Paris. It has been discovered that they are almost brainless, and, being without reason, are probably animated by a violent instinct of destruction. I believe, however, that the power of their 'jaw' is unsurpassed."
Then, amid shouts of laughter and applause, he sat down again, leaving the field to the much discomfited Mr. Randolph.
Much harm had been done that evening to the cause of Christianity. The sympathies of the audience could not be with the weak and unmannerly Mr. Randolph; they were Englishmen, and were, of course, inclined to side with the man who had been unjustly dealt with, who, moreover, had really spoken to them—had touched their very hearts.
The field was practically lost when, to the surprise of all, another speaker came forward. Erica, who knew that their side had had the best of it, felt a thrill of admiration when she saw Charles Osmond move slowly to the front of the platform. She was very tired, but out of a sort of gratitude for his friendliness, a readiness to do him honor, she strained her energies to take down his speech verbatim. It was not a long one, it was hardly, perhaps, to be called a speech at all, it was rather as if the man had thrown his very self into the breach made by the unhappy wrangle of the evening.
He spoke of the universal brotherhood and of the wrong done to it by bitterness and strife; he stood there as the very incarnation of brotherliness, and the people, whether they agreed with him or not, loved him. In the place where the religion of Christ had been reviled as well by the Christians as by the atheist, he spoke of the revealer of the Father, and a hush fell on the listening men; he spoke of the Founder of the great brotherhood, and by the very reality, by the fervor of his convictions, touched a new chord in many a heart. It was no time for argument, the meeting was almost over; he scarcely attempted to answer to many of the difficulties and objections raised by Raeburn earlier in the evening. But there was in his ten minutes' speech the whole essence of Christianity, the spirit of loving sacrifice to self, the strength of an absolute certainty which no argument, however logical, can shake, the extraordinary power which breathes in the assertion: "I KNOW Him whom I have believed."
To more than one of Raeburn's followers there came just the slightest agitation of doubt, the questioning whether these things might not be. For the first time in her life the question began to stir in Erica's heart. She had heard many advocates of Christianity, and had regarded them much as we might regard Buddhist missionaries speaking of a religion that had had its day and was now only fit to be discarded, or perhaps studied as an interesting relic of the past, about which in its later years many corruptions had gathered.
Raeburn, being above all things a just man, had been determined to give her mind no bias in favor of his own views, and as a child he had left her perfectly free. But there was a certain Scotch proverb which he did not call to mind, that "As the auld cock crows the young cock learns." When the time came at which he considered her old enough really to study the Bible for herself, she had already learned from bitter experience that Christianity—at any rate, what called itself Christianity—was the religion whose votaries were constantly slandering and ill-treating her father, and that all the privations and troubles of their life were directly or indirectly due to it. She, of course, identified the conduct of the most unfriendly and persecuting with the religion itself; it could hardly be otherwise.
But tonight as she toiled away, bravely acting up to her lights, taking down the opponent's speech to the best of her abilities, though predisposed to think it all a meaningless rhapsody, the faintest attempt at a question began to take shape in her mind. It did not form itself exactly into words, but just lurked there like a cloud-shadow—"supposing Christianity were true?"
All doubt is pain. Even this faint beginning of doubt in her creed made Erica dreadfully uncomfortable. Yet she could not regret that Charles Osmond had spoken, even though she imagined him to be greatly mistaken, and feared that that uncomfortable question might have been suggested to others among the audience. She could not wish that the speech had not been made, for it had revealed the nobility of the man, his broad-hearted love, and she instinctively reverenced all the really great and good, however widely different their creeds.
Brian tried in vain to read her thoughts, but as soon as the meeting was over her temporary seriousness vanished, and she was once more almost a child again, ready to be amused by anything. She stood for a few minutes talking to the two Osmonds; then, catching sight of an acquaintance a little way off, she bade them a hasty good night, much to Brian's chagrin, and hurried forward with a warmth of greeting which he could only hope was appreciated by the thickset, honest-looking mechanic who was the happy recipient. When they left the hall she was still deep in conversation with him.
The fates were kind, however, to Brian that day; they were just too late for a train, and before the next one arrived, Raeburn and Erica were seen slowly coming down the steps, and in another minute had joined them on the platform. Charles Osmond and Raeburn fell into an amicable discussion, and Brian, to his great satisfaction, was left to an uninterrupted tete-a-tete with Erica. There had been no further demonstration by the crowd, and Erica, now that the anxiety was over, was ready to make fun of Mr. Randolph and his band, checking herself every now and then for fear of hurting her companion, but breaking forth again and again into irresistible merriment as she recalled the "alligator" incident and other grotesque utterances. All too soon they reached their destination. There was still, however, a ten minutes' walk before them, a walk which Brian never forgot. The wind was high, and it seemed to excite Erica; he could always remember exactly how she looked, her eyes bright and shining, her short, auburn hair, all blown about by the wind, one stray wave lying across the quaint little sealskin hat. He remembered, too, how, in the middle of his argument, Raeburn had stepped forward and had wrapped a white woolen scarf more closely round the child, securing the fluttering ends. Brian would have liked to do it himself had he dared, and yet it pleased him, too, to see the father's thoughtfulness; perhaps in that "touch of nature," he, for the first time, fully recognized his kinship with the atheist.
Erica talked to him in the meantime with a delicious, childlike frankness, gave him an enthusiastic account of her friend, Hazeldine, the working man whom he had seen her speaking to, and unconsciously reveled in her free conversation a great deal of the life she led, a busy, earnest, self-denying life Brian could see. When they reached the place of their afternoon's encounter, she alluded merrily to what she called the "charge of umbrellas."
"Who would have thought, now, that in a few hours' time we should have learned to know each other!" she exclaimed. "It has been altogether the very oddest day, a sort of sandwich of good and bad, two bits of the dry bread of persecution, put in between, you and Mr. Osmond and my beautiful new Longfellow."
Brian could not help laughing at the simile, and was not a little pleased to hear the reference to his book; but his amusement was soon dispelled by a grim little incident. Just at that minute they happened to pass an undertaker's cart which was standing at the door of one of the houses; a coffin was born across the pavement in front of them. Erica, with a quick exclamation, put her hand on his arm and shrank back to make room for the bearers to pass. Looking down at her, he saw that she was quite pale. The coffin was carried into the house and they passed on.
"How I do hate seeing anything like that!" she exclaimed. Then looking back and up to the windows of the house: "Poor people! I wonder whether they are very sad. It seems to make all the world dark when one comes across such things. Father thinks it is good to be reminded of the end, that it makes one more eager to work, but he doesn't even wish for anything after death, nor do any of the best people I know. It is silly of me, but I never can bear to think of quite coming to an end, I suppose because I am not so unselfish as the others."
"Or may it not be a natural instinct, which is implanted in all, which perhaps you have not yet crushed by argument."
Erica shook her head.
"More likely to be a little bit of one of my covenanting ancestors coming out in me. Still, I own that the hope of the hereafter is the one point in which you have the better of it. Life must seem very easy if you believe that all will be made up to you and all wrong set right after you are dead. You see we have rather hard measure here, and don't expect anything at all by and by. But all the same, I am always rather ashamed of this instinct, or selfishness, or Scottish inheritance, whichever it is!"
"Ashamed! Why should you be?"
"It is a sort of weakness, I think, which strong characters like my father are without. You see he cares so much for every one, and thinks so much of making the world a little less miserable in this generation, but most of my love is for him and for my mother; and so when I think of death—of their death—" she broke off abruptly.
"Yet do not call it selfishness," said Brian, with a slightly choked feeling, for there had been a depth of pain in Erica's tone. "My father, who has just that love of humanity of which you speak, has still the most absolute belief in—yes, and longing for—immortality. It is no selfishness in him."
"I am sure it is not," said Erica, warmly, "I shouldn't think he could be selfish in any way. I am glad he spoke tonight; it does one good to hear a speech like that, even if one doesn't agree with it. I wish there were a few more clergymen like him, then perhaps the tolerance and brotherliness he spoke of might become possible. But it must be a long way off, or it would not seem such an unheard-of thing that I should be talking like this to you. Why, it is the first time in my whole life that I have spoken to a Christian except on the most every-day subjects."
"Then I hope you won't let it be the last," said Brian.
"I should like to know Mr. Osmond better," said Erica, "for you know it seems very extraordinary to me that a clever scientific man can speak as he spoke tonight. I should like to know how you reconcile all the contradictions, how you can believe what seems to me so unlikely, how even if you do believe in a God you can think Him good while the world is what it is. If there is a good God why doesn't He make us all know Him, and end all the evil and cruelty?"
Brian did not reply for a moment. The familiar gas-lit street, the usual number of passengers, the usual care-worn or vice-worn faces passing by, damp pavements, muddy roads, fresh winter wind, all seemed so natural, but to talk of the deepest things in heaven and earth was so unnatural. He was a very reserved man, but looking down at the eager, questioning face beside him his reserve all at once melted. He spoke very quietly, but in a voice which showed Erica that he was, at least, as she expressed it "honestly deluded." Evidently he did from his very heart believe what he said.
"But how are we to judge what is best?" he replied. "My belief is that God is slowly and gradually educating the world, not forcing it on unnaturally, but drawing it on step by step, making it work out its own lessons as the best teachers do with their pupils. To me the idea of a steady progression, in which man himself may be a co-worker with God, is far more beautiful than the conception of a Being who does not work by natural laws at all, but arbitrarily causes this and that to be or not to be."
"But then if your God is educating the world, He is educating many of us in ignorance of Himself, in atheism. How can that be good or right? Surely you, for instance, must be rather puzzled when you come across atheists, if you believe in a perfect God, and think atheism the most fearful mistake possible?"
"If I could not believe that God can, and does, educate some of us through atheism, I should indeed be miserable," said Brian, with a thrill of pain in his voice which startled Erica. "But I do believe that even atheism, even blank ignorance of Him, may be a stage through which alone some of us can be brought onward. The noblest man I ever knew passed through that state, and I can't think he would have been half the man he is if he had not passed through it."
"I have only known two or three people who from atheists became theists, and they were horrid," said Erica, emphatically. "People always are spiteful to the side they have left."
"You could not say that of my friend," said Brian, musingly, "I wish you could meet him."
They had reached the entrance to Guilford Terrace, Raeburn and Charles Osmond overtook them, and the conversation ended abruptly. Perhaps because Erica had made no answer to the last remark, and was conscious of a touch of malice in her former speech, she put a little additional warmth into her farewell. At any rate, there was that which touched Brian's very heart in the frank innocence of her hand clasp, in the sweet yet questioning eyes that were raised to his.
He turned away, happier and yet sadder than he had ever been in his life. Not a word passed between him and his father as they crossed the square, but when they reached home they instinctively drew together over the study fire. There was a long silence even then, broken at last by Charles Osmond.
"Well, my son?" he said.
"I cannot see how I can be of the least use to her," said Brian, abruptly, as if his father had been following the whole of his train of thought, which, indeed, to a certain extent, he had.
"Was this afternoon your first meeting?"
"Our first speaking. I have seen her many times, but only today realized what she is."
"Well, your little Undine is very bewitching, and much more than bewitching, true to the core and loyal and loving. If only the hardness of her life does not embitter her, I think she will make a grand woman."
"Tell me what you did this afternoon," said Brian; "you must have been some time with them."
Charles Osmond told him all that had passed; then continued:
"She is, as I said, a fascinating, bright little Undine, inclined to be willful, I should fancy, and with a sort of warmth and quickness about her whole character, in many ways still a child, and yet in others strangely old for her years; on the whole I should say as fair a specimen of the purely natural being as you would often meet with. The spiritual part of her is, I fancy, asleep."
"No, I fancy tonight has made it stir for the first time," said Brian, and he told his father a little of what had passed between himself and Erica.
"And the Longfellow was, I suppose, from you," said Charles Osmond. "I wish you could have seen her delight over it. Words absolutely failed her. I don't think any one else noticed it, but, her own vocabulary coming to an end, she turned to ours, it was 'What HEAVENLY person can have sent me this?'"
Brian smiled, but sighed too.
"One talks of the spiritual side remaining untouched," he said, "yet how is it ever to be otherwise than chained and fettered, while such men as that Randolph are recognized as the champions of our cause, while injustice and unkindness meet her at every turn, while it is something rare and extraordinary for a Christian to speak a kind word to her. If today she has first realized that Christians need not necessarily behave as brutes, I have realized a little what life is from her point of view."
"Then, realizing that perhaps you may help her, perhaps another chapter of the old legend may come true, and you may be the means of waking the spirit in your Undine."
"I? Oh, no! How can you think of it! You or Donovan, perhaps, but even that idea seems to me wildly improbable."
There was something in his humility and sadness which touched his father inexpressibly.
"Well," he said, after a pause, "if you are really prepared for all the suffering this love must bring you, if you mean to take it, and cherish it, and live for it, even though it brings you no gain, but apparent pain and loss, then I think it can only raise both you and your Undine."
Brian knew that not one man in a thousand would have spoken in such a way; his father's unworldliness was borne in upon him as it had never been before. Greatly as he had always reverenced and loved him, tonight his love and reverence deepened unspeakably—the two were drawn nearer to each other than ever.
It was not the habit in this house to make the most sacred ties of life the butt for ill-timed and ill-judged joking. No knight of old thought or spoke more reverently or with greater reserve of his lady love than did Brian of Erica. He regarded himself now as one bound to do her service, consecrated from that day forward as her loyal knight.
CHAPTER V. Erica's Resolve
Men are tattooed with their special beliefs like so many South Sea Islanders; but a real human heart, with Divine love in it, beats with the same glow under all the patterns of all earth's thousand tribes. O. Wendell Holmes.
For the next fortnight Brian and Erica continued to pass each other every afternoon in Gower Street, as they had done for so long, the only difference was that now they greeted each other, that occasionally Brian would be rendered happy for the rest of the day by some brief passing remark from his Undine, or by one of her peculiarly bright smiles. One day, however, she actually stopped; her face was radiant.