'You see the whole question turns on your Protestant deification of the intellect. . . . If you really believed, as you all say you do, that the nature of man, and therefore his intellect among the rest, was utterly corrupt, you would not be so superstitiously careful to tell the truth . . . as you call it; because you would know that man's heart, if not his head, would needs turn the truth into a lie by its own corruption. . . . The proper use of reasoning is to produce opinion,—and if the subject in which you wish to produce the opinion is diseased, you must adapt the medicine accordingly.'
To all which Lancelot, with several strong curses, scrawled the following answer:—
'And this is my Cousin Luke!—Well, I shall believe henceforward that there is, after all, a thousand times greater moral gulf fixed between Popery and Tractarianism, than between Tractarianism and the extremest Protestantism. My dear fellow,—I won't bother you, by cutting up your charming ambiguous middle terms, which make reason and reasoning identical, or your theory that the office of reasoning is to induce opinions—(the devil take opinions, right or wrong—I want facts, faith in real facts!)—or about deifying the intellect— as if all sound intellect was not in itself divine light—a revelation to man of absolute laws independent of him, as the very heathens hold. But this I will do—thank you most sincerely for the compliment you pay us Cismontane heretics. We do retain some dim belief in a God—even I am beginning to believe in believing in Him. And therefore, as I begin to suppose, it is, that we reverence facts, as the work of God, His acted words and will, which we dare not falsify; which we believe will tell their own story better than we can tell it for them. If our eyes are dimmed, we think it safer to clear them, which do belong to us, than to bedevil, by the light of those very ALREADY DIMMED eyes, the objects round, which do not belong to us. Whether we are consistent or not about the corruptness of man, we are about the incorruptness of God; and therefore about that of the facts by which God teaches men: and believe, and will continue to believe, that the blackest of all sins, the deepest of all Atheisms, that which, above all things, proves no faith in God's government of the universe, no sense of His presence, no understanding of His character, is—a lie.
'One word more—Unless you tell your father within twenty-four hours after receiving this letter, I will. And I, being a Protestant (if cursing Popery means Protestantism), mean what I say.'
As Lancelot walked up to the Priory that morning, the Reverend Panurgus O'Blareaway dashed out of a cottage by the roadside, and seized him unceremoniously by the shoulders. He was a specimen of humanity which Lancelot could not help at once liking and despising; a quaint mixture of conceit and earnestness, uniting the shrewdness of a stockjobber with the frolic of a schoolboy broke loose. He was rector of a place in the west of Ireland, containing some ten Protestants and some thousand Papists. Being, unfortunately for himself, a red-hot Orangeman, he had thought fit to quarrel with the priest, in consequence of which he found himself deprived both of tithes and congregation; and after receiving three or four Rockite letters, and a charge of slugs through his hat (of which he always talked as if being shot at was the most pleasant and amusing feature of Irish life), he repaired to England, and there, after trying to set up as popular preacher in London, declaiming at Exeter Hall, and writing for all the third-rate magazines, found himself incumbent of Lower Whitford. He worked there, as he said himself, 'like a horse;' spent his mornings in the schools, his afternoons in the cottages; preached four or five extempore sermons every week to overflowing congregations; took the lead, by virtue of the 'gift of the gab,' at all 'religious' meetings for ten miles round; and really did a great deal of good in his way. He had an unblushing candour about his own worldly ambition, with a tremendous brogue; and prided himself on exaggerating deliberately both of these excellences.
'The top of the morning to ye, Mr. Smith. Ye haven't such a thing as a cegar about ye? I've been preaching to school-children till me throat's as dry as the slave of a lime-burner's coat.'
'I am very sorry; but, really, I have left my case at home.'
'Oh! ah! faix and I forgot. Ye mustn't be smokin' the nasty things going up to the castle. Och, Mr. Smith, but you're the lucky man!'
'I am much obliged to you for the compliment,' said Lancelot, gruffly; 'but really I don't see how I deserve it.'
'Desarve it! Sure luck's all, and that's your luck, and not your deserts at all. To have the handsomest girl in the county dying for love of ye'—(Panurgus had a happy knack of blurting out truths— when they were pleasant ones). 'And she just the beautifulest creature that ever spilte shoe-leather, barring Lady Philandria Mountflunkey, of Castle Mountflunkey, Quane's County, that shall be nameless.'
'Upon my word, O'Blareaway, you seem to be better acquainted with my matters than I am. Don't you think, on the whole, it might be better to mind your own business?'
'Me own business! Poker o' Moses! and ain't it me own business? Haven't ye spilte my tenderest hopes? And good luck to ye in that same, for ye're as pretty a rider as ever kicked coping-stones out of a wall; and poor Paddy loves a sportsman by nature. Och! but ye've got a hand of trumps this time. Didn't I mate the vicar the other day, and spake my mind to him?'
'What do you mean?' asked Lancelot, with a strong expletive.
'Faix, I told him he might as well Faugh a ballagh—make a rid road, and get out of that, with his bowings and his crossings, and his Popery made asy for small minds, for there was a gun a-field that would wipe his eye,—maning yourself, ye Prathestant.'
'All I can say is, that you had really better mind your own business, and I'll mind my own.'
'Och,' said the good-natured Irishman, 'and it's you must mind my business, and I'll mind yours; and that's all fair and aqual. Ye've cut me out intirely at the Priory, ye Tory, and so ye're bound to give me a lift somehow. Couldn't ye look me out a fine fat widow, with an illigant little fortune? For what's England made for except to find poor Paddy a wife and money? Ah, ye may laugh, but I'd buy me a chapel at the West-end: me talents are thrown away here intirely, wasting me swateness on the desert air, as Tom Moore says' (Panurgus used to attribute all quotations whatsoever to Irish geniuses); 'and I flatter meself I'm the boy to shute the Gospel to the aristocracy.'
Lancelot burst into a roar of laughter, and escaped over the next gate: but the Irishman's coarse hints stuck by him as they were intended to do. 'Dying for the love of me!' He knew it was an impudent exaggeration, but, somehow, it gave him confidence; 'there is no smoke,' he thought, 'without fire.' And his heart beat high with new hopes, for which he laughed at himself all the while. It was just the cordial which he needed. That conversation determined the history of his life.
He met Argemone that morning in the library, as usual; but he soon found that she was not thinking of Homer. She was moody and abstracted; and he could not help at last saying,—
'I am afraid I and my classics are de trop this morning, Miss Lavington.'
'Oh, no, no. Never that.' She turned away her head. He fancied that it was to hide a tear.
Suddenly she rose, and turned to him with a clear, calm, gentle gaze.
'Listen to me, Mr. Smith. We must part to-day, and for ever. This intimacy has gone on—too long, I am afraid, for your happiness. And now, like all pleasant things in this miserable world, it must cease. I cannot tell you why; but you will trust me. I thank you for it—I thank God for it. I have learnt things from it which I shall never forget. I have learnt, at least from it, to esteem and honour you. You have vast powers. Nothing, nothing, I believe, is too high for you to attempt and succeed. But we must part; and now, God be with you. Oh, that you would but believe that these glorious talents are His loan! That you would but be a true and loyal knight to him who said—"Learn of me, for I am meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls!"—Ay,' she went on, more and more passionately, for she felt that not she, but One mightier than herself was speaking through her, 'then you might be great indeed. Then I might watch your name from afar, rising higher and higher daily in the ranks of God's own heroes. I see it—and you have taught me to see it—that you are meant for a faith nobler and deeper than all doctrines and systems can give. You must become the philosopher, who can discover new truths—the artist who can embody them in new forms, while poor I—And that is another reason why we should part.—Hush! hear me out. I must not be a clog, to drag you down in your course. Take this, and farewell; and remember that you once had a friend called Argemone.'
She put into his hands a little Bible. He took it, and laid it down on the table.
For a minute he stood silent and rooted to the spot. Disappointment, shame, rage, hatred, all boiled up madly within him. The bitterest insults rose to his lips—'Flirt, cold-hearted pedant, fanatic!' but they sank again unspoken, as he looked into the celestial azure of those eyes, calm and pure as a soft evening sky. A mighty struggle between good and evil shook his heart to the roots; and, for the first time in his life, his soul breathed out one real prayer, that God would help him now or never to play the man. And in a moment the darkness passed; a new spirit called out all the latent strength within him; and gently and proudly he answered her,—
'Yes, I will go. I have had mad dreams, conceited and insolent, and have met with my deserts. Brute and fool as I am, I have aspired even to you! And I have gained, in the sunshine of your condescension, strength and purity.—Is not that enough for me? And now I will show you that I love you—by obeying you. You tell me to depart—I go for ever.'
He turned away. Why did she almost spring after him?
'Lancelot! one word! Do not misunderstand me, as I know you will. You will think me so cold, heartless, fickle.—Oh, you do not know— you never can know—how much I, too, have felt!'
He stopped, spell-bound. In an instant his conversation with the Irishman flashed up before him with new force and meaning. A thousand petty incidents, which he had driven contemptuously from his mind, returned as triumphant evidences; and, with an impetuous determination, he cried out,—
'I see—I see it all, Argemone! We love each other! You are mine, never to be parted!'
What was her womanhood, that it could stand against the energy of his manly will! The almost coarse simplicity of his words silenced her with a delicious violence. She could only bury her face in her hands and sob out,—
'Oh, Lancelot, Lancelot, whither are you forcing me?'
'I am forcing you no whither. God, the Father of spirits, is leading you! You, who believe in Him, how dare you fight against Him?'
'Lancelot, I cannot—I cannot listen to you—read that!' And she handed him the vicar's letter. He read it, tossed it on the carpet, and crushed it with his heel.
'Wretched pedant! Can your intellect be deluded by such barefaced sophistries? "God's will," forsooth! And if your mother's opposition is not a sign that God's will—if it mean anything except your own will, or that—that man's—is against this mad project, and not for it, what sign would you have? So "celibacy is the highest state!" And why? Because "it is the safest and the easiest road to heaven?" A pretty reason, vicar! I should have thought that that was a sign of a lower state and not a higher. Noble spirits show their nobleness by daring the most difficult paths. And even if marriage was but one weed-field of temptations, as these miserable pedants say, who have either never tried it, or misused it to their own shame, it would be a greater deed to conquer its temptations than to flee from them in cowardly longings after ease and safety!'
She did not answer him, but kept her face buried in her hands.
'Again, I say, Argemone, will you fight against Fate—Providence— God—call it what you will? Who made us meet at the chapel? Who made me, by my accident, a guest in your father's house! Who put it into your heart to care for my poor soul? Who gave us this strange attraction towards each other, in spite of our unlikeness? Wonderful that the very chain of circumstances which you seem to fancy the offspring of chance or the devil, should have first taught me to believe that there is a God who guides us! Argemone! speak, tell me, if you will, to go for ever; but tell me first the truth— You love me!'
A strong shudder ran through her frame—the ice of artificial years cracked, and the clear stream of her woman's nature welled up to the light, as pure as when she first lay on her mother's bosom: she lifted up her eyes, and with one long look of passionate tenderness she faltered out,—
'I love you!'
He did not stir, but watched her with clasped hands, like one who in dreams finds himself in some fairy palace, and fears that a movement may break the spell.
'Now, go,' she said; 'go, and let me collect my thoughts. All this has been too much for me. Do not look sad—you may come again to- morrow.'
She smiled and held out her hand. He caught it, covered it with kisses, and pressed it to his heart. She half drew it back, frightened. The sensation was new to her. Again the delicious feeling of being utterly in his power came over her, and she left her hand upon his heart, and blushed as she felt its passionate throbbings.
He turned to go—not as before. She followed with greedy eyes her new-found treasure; and as the door closed behind him, she felt as if Lancelot was the whole world, and there was nothing beside him, and wondered how a moment had made him all in all to her; and then she sank upon her knees, and folded her hands upon her bosom, and her prayers for him were like the prayers of a little child.
CHAPTER XI: THUNDERSTORM THE FIRST
But what had become of the 'bit of writing' which Harry Verney, by the instigation of his evil genius, had put into the squire's fly- book? Tregarva had waited in terrible suspense for many weeks, expecting the explosion which he knew must follow its discovery. He had confided to Lancelot the contents of the paper, and Lancelot had tried many stratagems to get possession of it, but all in vain. Tregarva took this as calmly as he did everything else. Only once, on the morning of the eclaircissement between Lancelot and Argemone, he talked to Lancelot of leaving his place, and going out to seek his fortune; but some spell, which he did not explain, seemed to chain him to the Priory. Lancelot thought it was the want of money, and offered to lend him ten pounds whenever he liked; but Tregarva shook his head.
'You have treated me, sir, as no one else has done—like a man and a friend; but I am not going to make a market of your generosity. I will owe no man anything, save to love one another.'
'But how do you intend to live?' asked Lancelot, as they stood together in the cloisters.
'There's enough of me, sir, to make a good navigator if all trades fail.'
'Nonsense! you must not throw yourself away so.'
'Oh, sir, there's good to be done, believe me, among those poor fellows. They wander up and down the land like hogs and heathens, and no one tells them that they have a soul to be saved. Not one parson in a thousand gives a thought to them. They can manage old folks and little children, sir, but, somehow, they never can get hold of the young men—just those who want them most. There's a talk about ragged schools, now. Why don't they try ragged churches, sir, and a ragged service?'
'What do you mean?'
'Why, sir, the parsons are ready enough to save souls, but it must be only according to rule and regulation. Before the Gospel can be preached there must be three thousand pounds got together for a church, and a thousand for an endowment, not to mention the thousand pounds that the clergyman's education costs: I don't think of his own keep, sir; that's little enough, often; and those that work hardest get least pay, it seems to me. But after all that expense, when they've built the church, it's the tradesmen, and the gentry, and the old folk that fill it, and the working men never come near it from one year's end to another.'
'What's the cause, do you think?' asked Lancelot, who had himself remarked the same thing more than once.
'Half of the reason, sir, I do believe, is that same Prayer-book. Not that the Prayer-book ain't a fine book enough, and a true one; but, don't you see, sir, to understand the virtue of it, the poor fellows ought to be already just what you want to make them.'
'You mean that they ought to be thorough Christians already, to appreciate the spirituality of the liturgy.'
'You've hit it, sir. And see what comes of the present plan; how a navvy drops into a church by accident, and there he has to sit like a fish out of water, through that hour's service, staring or sleeping, before he can hear a word that he understands; and, sir, when the sermon does come at last, it's not many of them can make much out of those fine book-words and long sentences. Why don't they have a short simple service, now and then, that might catch the ears of the roughs and the blowens, without tiring out the poor thoughtless creatures' patience, as they do now?'
'Because,' said Lancelot,—'because—I really don't know why.—But I think there is a simpler plan than even a ragged service.'
'What, then, sir?'
'Field-preaching. If the mountain won't come to Mahomet, let Mahomet go to the mountain.'
'Right, sir; right you are. "Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in." And why are they to speak to them only one by one? Why not by the dozen and the hundred? We Wesleyans know, sir,—for the matter of that, every soldier knows,—what virtue there is in getting a lot of men together; how good and evil spread like wildfire through a crowd; and one man, if you can stir him up, will become leaven to leaven the whole lump. Oh why, sir, are they so afraid of field-preaching? Was not their Master and mine the prince of all field-preachers? Think, if the Apostles had waited to collect subscriptions for a church before they spoke to the poor heathens, where should we have been now?'
Lancelot could not but agree. But at that moment a footman came up, and, with a face half laughing, half terrified, said,—
'Tregarva, master wants you in the study. And please, sir, I think you had better go in too; master knows you're here, and you might speak a word for good, for he's raging like a mad bull.'
'I knew it would come at last,' said Tregarva, quietly, as he followed Lancelot into the house.
It had come at last. The squire was sitting in his study, purple with rage, while his daughters were trying vainly to pacify him. All the men-servants, grooms, and helpers, were drawn up in line along the wall, and greeted Tregarva, whom they all heartily liked, with sly and sorrowful looks of warning,
'Here, you sir; you—, look at this! Is this the way you repay me? I, who have kept you out of the workhouse, treated you like my own child? And then to go and write filthy, rascally, Radical ballads on me and mine! This comes of your Methodism, you canting, sneaking hypocrite!—you viper—you adder—you snake—you—!' And the squire, whose vocabulary was not large, at a loss for another synonym, rounded off his oration by a torrent of oaths; at which Argemone, taking Honoria's hand, walked proudly out of the room, with one glance at Lancelot of mingled shame and love. 'This is your handwriting, you villain! you know it' (and the squire tossed the fatal paper across the table); 'though I suppose you'll lie about it. How can you depend on fellows who speak evil of their betters? But all the servants are ready to swear it's your handwriting.'
'Beg your pardon, sir,' interposed the old butler, 'we didn't quite say that; but we'll all swear it isn't ours.'
'The paper is mine,' said Tregarva.
'Confound your coolness! He's no more ashamed of it than—Read it out, Smith, read it out every word; and let them all hear how this pauper, this ballad-singing vagabond, whom I have bred up to insult me, dares to abuse his own master.'
'I have not abused you, sir,' answered Tregarva. 'I will be heard, sir!' he went on in a voice which made the old man start from his seat and clench his fist but he sat down again. 'Not a word in it is meant for you. You have been a kind and a good master to me. Ask where you will if I was ever heard to say a word against you. I would have cut off my right hand sooner than write about you or yours. But what I had to say about others lies there, and I am not ashamed of it.'
'Not against me? Read it out, Smith, and see if every word of it don't hit at me, and at my daughters, too, by—, worst of all! Read it out, I say!'
Lancelot hesitated; but the squire, who was utterly beside himself, began to swear at him also, as masters of hounds are privileged to do; and Lancelot, to whom the whole scene was becoming every moment more and more intensely ludicrous, thought it best to take up the paper and begin:—
'A ROUGH RHYME ON A ROUGH MATTER.
'The merry brown hares came leaping Over the crest of the hill, Where the clover and corn lay sleeping Under the moonlight still.
'Leaping late and early, Till under their bite and their tread The swedes, and the wheat, and the barley, Lay cankered, and trampled, and dead.
'A poacher's widow sat sighing On the side of the white chalk bank, Where under the gloomy fir-woods One spot in the ley throve rank.
'She watched a long tuft of clover, Where rabbit or hare never ran; For its black sour haulm covered over The blood of a murdered man.
'She thought of the dark plantation, And the hares and her husband's blood, And the voice of her indignation Rose up to the throne of God.
'"I am long past wailing and whining— I have wept too much in my life: I've had twenty years of pining As an English labourer's wife.
'"A labourer in Christian England, Where they cant of a Saviour's name, And yet waste men's lives like the vermin's For a few more brace of game.
'"There's blood on your new foreign shrubs, squire; There's blood on your pointer's feet; There's blood on the game you sell, squire, And there's blood on the game you eat!"'
'You villain!' interposed the squire, 'when did I ever sell a head of game?'
'"You have sold the labouring man, squire, Body and soul to shame, To pay for your seat in the House, squire, And to pay for the feed of your game.
"'You made him a poacher yourself, squire, When you'd give neither work nor meat; And your barley-fed hares robbed the garden At our starving children's feet;
'"When packed in one reeking chamber, Man, maid, mother, and little ones lay; While the rain pattered in on the rotting bride-bed, And the walls let in the day;
'"When we lay in the burning fever On the mud of the cold clay floor, Till you parted us all for three months, squire, At the cursed workhouse door.
"'We quarrelled like brutes, and who wonders? What self-respect could we keep, Worse housed than your hacks and your pointers, Worse fed than your hogs and your sheep?"'
'And yet he has the impudence to say he don't mean me!' grumbled the old man. Tregarva winced a good deal—as if he knew what was coming next; and then looked up relieved when he found Lancelot had omitted a stanza—which I shall not omit.
'"Our daughters with base-born babies Have wandered away in their shame; If your misses had slept, squire, where they did, Your misses might do the same.
"'Can your lady patch hearts that are breaking With handfuls of coals and rice, Or by dealing out flannel and sheeting A little below cost price?
"'You may tire of the gaol and the workhouse, And take to allotments and schools, But you've run up a debt that will never Be repaid us by penny-club rules.
'"In the season of shame and sadness, In the dark and dreary day When scrofula, gout, and madness, Are eating your race away;
"'When to kennels and liveried varlets You have cast your daughters' bread; And worn out with liquor and harlots, Your heir at your feet lies dead;
"'When your youngest, the mealy-mouthed rector, Lets your soul rot asleep to the grave, You will find in your God the protector Of the freeman you fancied your slave."
'She looked at the tuft of clover, And wept till her heart grew light; And at last, when her passion was over, Went wandering into the night.
'But the merry brown hares came leaping Over the uplands still, Where the clover and corn lay sleeping On the side of the white chalk hill.'
'Surely, sir,' said Lancelot, 'you cannot suppose that this latter part applies to you. or your family?'
'If it don't, it applies to half the gentlemen in the vale, and that's just as bad. What right has the fellow to speak evil of dignities?' continued he, quoting the only text in the Bible which he was inclined to make a 'rule absolute.' 'What does such an insolent dog deserve? What don't he deserve, I say?'
'I think,' quoth Lancelot, ambiguously, 'that a man who can write such ballads is not fit to be your gamekeeper, and I think he feels so himself;' and Lancelot stole an encouraging look at Tregarva.
'And I say, sir,' the keeper answered, with an effort, 'that I leave Mr. Lavington's service here on the spot, once and for all.'
'And that you may do, my fine fellow!' roared the squire. 'Pay the rascal his wages, steward, and then duck him soundly in the weir- pool. He had better have stayed there when he fell in last.'
'So I had, indeed, I think. But I'll take none of your money. The day Harry Verney was buried I vowed that I'd touch no more of the wages of blood. I'm going, sir; I never harmed you, or meant a hard word of all this for you, or dreamt that you or any living soul would ever see it. But what I've seen myself, in spite of myself, I've set down here, and am not ashamed of it. And woe,' he went on with an almost prophetic solemnity in his tone and gesture—'woe to those who do these things! and woe to those also who, though they dare not do them themselves, yet excuse and defend them who dare, just because the world calls them gentlemen, and not tyrants and oppressors.'
He turned to go. The squire, bursting with passion, sprang up with a terrible oath, turned deadly pale, staggered, and dropped senseless on the floor.
They all rushed to lift him up. Tregarva was the first to take him in his arms and place him tenderly in his chair, where he lay back with glassy eyes, snoring heavily in a fit of apoplexy.
'Go; for God's sake, go,' whispered Lancelot to the keeper, 'and wait for me at Lower Whitford. I must see you before you stir.'
The keeper slipped away sadly. The ladies rushed in—a groom galloped off for the doctor—met him luckily in the village, and, in a few minutes, the squire was bled and put to bed, and showed hopeful signs of returning consciousness. And as Argemone and Lancelot leant together over his pillow, her hair touched her lover's, and her fragrant breath was warm upon his cheek; and her bright eyes met his and drank light from them, like glittering planets gazing at their sun.
The obnoxious ballad produced the most opposite effects on Argemone and on Honoria. Argemone, whose reverence for the formalities and the respectabilities of society, never very great, had, of late, utterly vanished before Lancelot's bad counsel, could think of it only as a work of art, and conceived the most romantic longing to raise Tregarva into some station where his talents might have free play. To Honoria, on the other hand, it appeared only as a very fierce, coarse, and impertinent satire, which had nearly killed her father. True, there was not a thought in it which had not at some time or other crossed her own mind; but that made her dislike all the more to see those thoughts put into plain English. That very intense tenderness and excitability which made her toil herself among the poor, and had called out both her admiration of Tregarva and her extravagant passion at his danger, made her also shrink with disgust from anything which thrust on her a painful reality, which she could not remedy. She was a staunch believer, too, in that peculiar creed which allows every one to feel for the poor, except themselves, and considers that to plead the cause of working-men is, in a gentleman, the perfection of virtue, but in a working-man himself, sheer high treason. And so beside her father's sick-bed she thought of the keeper only as a scorpion whom she had helped to warm into life; and sighing assent to her mother, when she said, 'That wretch, and he seemed so pious and so obliging! who would have dreamt that he was such a horrid Radical?' she let him vanish from her mind and out of Whitford Priors, little knowing the sore weight of manly love he bore with him.
As soon as Lancelot could leave the Priory, he hastened home to find Tregarva. The keeper had packed up all his small possessions and brought them down to Lower Whitford, through which the London coach passed. He was determined to go to London and seek his fortune. He talked of turning coal-heaver, Methodist preacher, anything that came to hand, provided that he could but keep independence and a clear conscience. And all the while the man seemed to be struggling with some great purpose,—to feel that he had a work to do, though what it was, and how it was to be done, he did not see.
'I am a tall man,' he said, 'like Saul the son of Kish; and I am going forth, like him, sir, to find my father's asses. I doubt I shan't have to look far for some of them.'
'And perhaps,' said Lancelot, laughing, 'to find a kingdom.'
'May be so, sir. I have found one already, by God's grace, and I'm much mistaken if I don't begin to see my way towards another.'
'And what is that?'
'The kingdom of God on earth, sir, as well as in heaven. Come it must, sir, and come it will some day.'
Lancelot shook his head.
Tregarva lifted up his eyes and said,—
'Are we not taught to pray for the coming of His kingdom, sir? And do you fancy that He who gave the lesson would have set all mankind to pray for what He never meant should come to pass?'
Lancelot was silent. The words gained a new and blessed meaning in his eyes.
'Well,' he said, 'the time, at least, of their fulfilment is far enough off. Union-workhouses and child-murder don't look much like it. Talking of that, Tregarva, what is to become of your promise to take me to a village wake, and show me what the poor are like?'
'I can keep it this night, sir. There is a revel at Bone-sake, about five miles up the river. Will you go with a discharged gamekeeper?'
'I will go with Paul Tregarva, whom I honour and esteem as one of God's own noblemen; who has taught me what a man can be, and what I am not,'—and Lancelot grasped the keeper's hand warmly. Tregarva brushed his hand across his eyes, and answered,—
'"I said in my haste, All men are liars;" and God has just given me the lie back in my own teeth. Well, sir, we will go to-night. You are not ashamed of putting on a smock-frock? For if you go as a gentleman, you will hear no more of them than a hawk does of a covey of partridges.'
So the expedition was agreed on, and Lancelot and the keeper parted until the evening.
But why had the vicar been rambling on all that morning through pouring rain, on the top of the London coach? And why was he so anxious in his inquiries as to the certainty of catching the up- train? Because he had had considerable experience in that wisdom of the serpent, whose combination with the innocence of the dove, in somewhat ultramontane proportions, is recommended by certain late leaders of his school. He had made up his mind, after his conversation with the Irishman, that he must either oust Lancelot at once, or submit to be ousted by him, and he was now on his way to Lancelot's uncle and trustee, the London banker.
He knew that the banker had some influence with his nephew, whose whole property was invested in the bank, and who had besides a deep respect for the kindly and upright practical mind of the veteran Mammonite. And the vicar knew, too, that he himself had some influence with the banker, whose son Luke had been his pupil at college. And when the young man lay sick of a dangerous illness, brought on by debauchery, into which weakness rather than vice had tempted him, the vicar had watched and prayed by his bed, nursed him as tenderly as a mother, and so won over his better heart that he became completely reclaimed, and took holy orders with the most earnest intention to play the man therein, as repentant rakes will often do, half from a mere revulsion to asceticism, half from real gratitude for their deliverance. This good deed had placed the banker in the vicar's debt, and he loved and reverenced him in spite of his dread of 'Popish novelties.' And now the good priest was going to open to him just as much of his heart as should seem fit; and by saying a great deal about Lancelot's evil doings, opinions, and companions, and nothing at all about the heiress of Whitford, persuade the banker to use all his influence in drawing Lancelot up to London, and leaving a clear stage for his plans on Argemone. He caught the up-train, he arrived safe and sound in town, but what he did there must be told in another chapter.
CHAPTER XII: THUNDERSTORM THE SECOND
Weary with many thoughts, the vicar came to the door of the bank. There were several carriages there, and a crowd of people swarming in and out, like bees round a hive-door, entering with anxious faces, and returning with cheerful ones, to stop and talk earnestly in groups round the door. Every moment the mass thickened—there was a run on the bank. An old friend accosted him on the steps,—
'What! have you, too, money here, then?'
'Neither here nor anywhere else, thank Heaven!' said the vicar. 'But is anything wrong?'
'Have not you heard? The house has sustained a frightful blow this week—railway speculations, so they say—and is hardly expected to survive the day. So we are all getting our money out as fast as possible.'
'By way of binding up the bruised reed, eh?'
'Oh! every man for himself. A man is under no obligation to his banker, that I know of.' And the good man bustled off with his pockets full of gold.
The vicar entered. All was hurry and anxiety. The clerks seemed trying to brazen out their own terror, and shovelled the rapidly lessening gold and notes across the counter with an air of indignant nonchalance. The vicar asked to see the principal.
'If you want your money, sir—' answered the official, with a disdainful look.
'I want no money. I must see Mr. Smith on private business, and instantly.'
'He is particularly engaged.'
'I know it, and, therefore, I must see him. Take in my card, and he will not refuse me.' A new vista had opened itself before him.
He was ushered into a private room: and, as he waited for the banker, he breathed a prayer. For what? That his own will might be done—a very common style of petition.
Mr. Smith entered, hurried and troubled. He caught the vicar eagerly by the hand, as if glad to see a face which did not glare on him with the cold selfish stamp of 'business,' and then drew back again, afraid to commit himself by any sign of emotion.
The vicar had settled his plan of attack, and determined boldly to show his knowledge of the banker's distress.
'I am very sorry to trouble you at such an unfortunate moment, sir, and I will be brief; but, as your nephew's spiritual pastor—' (He knew the banker was a stout Churchman.)
'What of my nephew, sir! No fresh misfortunes, I hope?'
'Not so much misfortune, sir, as misconduct—I might say frailty— but frailty which may become ruinous.'
'How? how? Some mesalliance?' interrupted Mr. Smith, in a peevish, excited tone. 'I thought there was some heiress on the tapis—at least, so I heard from my unfortunate son, who has just gone over to Rome. There's another misfortune.—Nothing but misfortunes; and your teaching, sir, by the bye, I am afraid, has helped me to that one.'
'Gone over to Rome?' asked the vicar, slowly.
'Yes, sir, gone to Rome—to the pope, sir! to the devil, sir! I should have thought you likely to know of it before I did!'
The vicar stared fixedly at him a moment, and burst into honest tears. The banker was moved.
''Pon my honour, sir, I beg your pardon. I did not mean to be rude, but—but—To be plain with a clergyman, sir, so many things coming together have quite unmanned me. Pooh, pooh,' and he shook himself as if to throw off a weight; and, with a face once more quiet and business-like, asked, 'And now, my dear sir, what of my nephew?'
'As for that young lady, sir, of whom you spoke, I can assure you, once for all, as her clergyman, and therefore more or less her confidant, that your nephew has not the slightest chance or hope in that quarter.'
'How, sir? You will not throw obstacles in the way?'
'Heaven, sir, I think, has interposed far more insuperable obstacles—in the young lady's own heart—than I could ever have done. Your nephew's character and opinions, I am sorry to say, are not such as are likely to command the respect and affection of a pure and pious Churchwoman.'
'Opinions, sir? What, is he turning Papist, too?'
'I am afraid, sir, and more than afraid, for he makes no secret of it himself, that his views tend rather in the opposite direction; to an infidelity so subversive of the commonest principles of morality, that I expect, weekly, to hear of some unblushing and disgraceful outrage against decency, committed by him under its fancied sanction. And you know, as well as myself, the double danger of some profligate outbreak, which always attends the miseries of a disappointed earthly passion.'
'True, very true. We must get the boy out of the way, sir. I must have him under my eye.'
'Exactly so, sir,' said the subtle vicar, who had been driving at this very point. 'How much better for him to be here, using his great talents to the advantage of his family in an honourable profession, than to remain where he is, debauching body and mind by hopeless dreams, godless studies, and frivolous excesses.'
'When do you return, sir?'
'An hour hence, if I can be of service to you.'
The banker paused a moment.
'You are a gentleman' (with emphasis on the word), 'and as such I can trust you.'
'Say, rather, as a clergyman.'
'Pardon me, but I have found your cloth give little additional cause for confidence. I have been as much bitten by clergymen—I have seen as sharp practice among them, in money matters as well as in religious squabbles, as I have in any class. Whether it is that their book education leaves them very often ignorant of the plain rules of honour which bind men of the world, or whether their zeal makes them think that the end justifies the means, I cannot tell; but—'
'But,' said the vicar, half smiling, half severely, 'you must not disparage the priesthood before a priest.'
'I know it, I know it; and I beg your pardon: but if you knew the cause I have to complain. The slipperiness, sir, of one staggering parson, has set rolling this very avalanche, which gathers size every moment, and threatens to overwhelm me now, unless that idle dog Lancelot will condescend to bestir himself, and help me.'
The vicar heard, but said nothing.
'Me, at least, you can trust,' he answered proudly; and honestly, too—for he was a gentleman by birth and breeding, unselfish and chivalrous to a fault—and yet, when he heard the banker's words, it was as if the inner voice had whispered to him, 'Thou art the man!'
'When do you go down?' again asked Mr. Smith. 'To tell you the truth, I was writing to Lancelot when you were announced! but the post will not reach him till to-morrow at noon, and we are all so busy here, that I have no one whom I can trust to carry down an express.'
The vicar saw what was coming. Was it his good angel which prompted him to interpose?
'Why not send a parcel by rail?'
'I can trust the rail as far as D—; but I cannot trust those coaches. If you could do me so great a kindness—'
'I will. I can start by the one o'clock train, and by ten o'clock to-night I shall be in Whitford.'
'Are you certain?'
'If God shall please, I am certain.'
'And you will take charge of a letter? Perhaps, too, you could see him yourself; and tell him—you see I trust you with everything— that my fortune, his own fortune, depends on his being here to- morrow morning. He must start to-night, sir—to-night, tell him, if there were twenty Miss Lavingtons in Whitford—or he is a ruined man!'
The letter was written, and put into the vicar's hands, with a hundred entreaties from the terrified banker. A cab was called, and the clergyman rattled off to the railway terminus.
'Well,' said he to himself, 'God has indeed blessed my errand; giving, as always, "exceeding abundantly more than we are able to ask or think!" For some weeks, at least, this poor lamb is safe from the destroyer's clutches. I must improve to the utmost those few precious days in strengthening her in her holy purpose. But, after all, he will return, daring and cunning as ever; and then will not the fascination recommence?'
And, as he mused, a little fiend passed by, and whispered, 'Unless he comes up to-night, he is a ruined man.'
It was Friday, and the vicar had thought it a fit preparation for so important an errand to taste no food that day. Weakness and hunger, joined to the roar and bustle of London, had made him excited, nervous, unable to control his thoughts, or fight against a stupifying headache; and his self-weakened will punished him, by yielding him up an easy prey to his own fancies.
'Ay,' he thought, 'if he were ruined, after all, it would be well for God's cause. The Lavingtons, at least, would find no temptation in his wealth: and Argemone—she is too proud, too luxurious, to marry a beggar. She might embrace a holy poverty for the sake of her own soul; but for the gratification of an earthly passion, never! Base and carnal delights would never tempt her so far.'
Alas, poor pedant! Among all that thy books taught thee, they did not open to thee much of the depths of that human heart which thy dogmas taught thee to despise as diabolic.
Again the little fiend whispered,—
'Unless he comes up to-night, he is a ruined man.'
'And what if he is?' thought the vicar. 'Riches are a curse; and poverty a blessing. Is it not his wealth which is ruining his soul? Idleness and fulness of bread have made him what he is—a luxurious and self-willed dreamer, battening on his own fancies. Were it not rather a boon to him to take from him the root of all evil?'
Most true, vicar. And yet the devil was at that moment transforming himself into an angel of light for thee.
But the vicar was yet honest. If he had thought that by cutting off his right hand he could have saved Lancelot's soul (by canonical methods, of course; for who would wish to save souls in any other?), he would have done it without hesitation.
Again the little fiend whispered,—
'Unless he comes up to-night he is a ruined man.'
A terrible sensation seized him.—Why should he give the letter to- night?
'You promised,' whispered the inner voice.
'No, I did not promise exactly, in so many words; that is, I only said I would be at home to-night, if God pleased. And what if God should not please?—I promised for his good. What if, on second thoughts, it should be better for him not to keep my promise?' A moment afterwards, he tossed the temptation from him indignantly: but back it came. At every gaudy shop, at every smoke-grimed manufactory, at the face of every anxious victim of Mammon, of every sturdy, cheerful artisan, the fiend winked and pointed, crying, 'And what if he be ruined? Look at the thousands who have, and are miserable—at the millions who have not, and are no sadder than their own tyrants.'
Again and again he thrust the thought from him, but more and more weakly. His whole frame shook; the perspiration stood on his forehead. As he took his railway ticket, his look was so haggard and painful that the clerk asked him whether he were ill. The train was just starting; he threw himself into a carriage—he would have locked himself in if he could; and felt an inexpressible relief when he found himself rushing past houses and market-gardens, whirled onward, whether he would or not, in the right path—homeward.
But was it the right path? for again the temptation flitted past him. He threw himself back, and tried to ask counsel of One above; but there was no answer, nor any that regarded. His heart was silent, and dark as midnight fog. Why should there have been an answer? He had not listened to the voice within. Did he wish for a miracle to show him his duty?
'Not that I care for detection,' he said to himself. 'What is shame to me? Is it not a glory to be evil-spoken of in the cause of God? How can the world appreciate the motives of those who are not of the world?—the divine wisdom of the serpent—at once the saint's peculiar weapon, and a part of his peculiar cross, when men call him a deceiver, because they confound, forsooth, his spiritual subtlety with their earthly cunning. Have I not been called "liar," "hypocrite," "Jesuit," often enough already, to harden me towards bearing that name once again?'
That led him into sad thoughts of his last few years' career,—of the friends and pupils whose secession to Rome had been attributed to his hypocrisy, his 'disguised Romanism;' and then the remembrance of poor Luke Smith flashed across him for the first time since he left the bank.
'I must see him,' he said to himself; 'I must argue with him face to face. Who knows but that it may be given even to my unworthiness to snatch him from this accursed slough?'
And then he remembered that his way home lay through the city in which the new convert's parish was—that the coach stopped there to change horses; and again the temptation leapt up again, stronger than ever, under the garb of an imperative call of duty.
He made no determination for or against it. He was too weak in body and mind to resist; and in a half sleep, broken with an aching, terrified sense of something wanting which he could not find, he was swept down the line, got on the coach, and mechanically, almost without knowing it, found himself set down at the city of A—, and the coach rattling away down the street.
He sprang from his stupor, and called madly after it—ran a few steps—
'You might as well try to catch the clouds, sir,' said the ostler. 'Gemmen should make up their minds afore they gets down.'
Alas! so thought the vicar. But it was too late; and, with a heavy heart, he asked the way to the late curate's house.
Thither he went. Mr. Luke Smith was just at dinner, but the vicar was, nevertheless, shown into the bachelor's little dining-room. But what was his disgust and disappointment at finding his late pupil tete-a-tete over a comfortable fish-dinner, opposite a burly, vulgar, cunning-eyed man, with a narrow rim of muslin turned down over his stiff cravat, of whose profession there could be no doubt.
'My dearest sir,' said the new convert, springing up with an air of extreme empressement, 'what an unexpected pleasure! Allow me to introduce you to my excellent friend, Padre Bugiardo!'
The padre rose, bowed obsequiously, 'was overwhelmed with delight at being at last introduced to one of whom he had heard so much,' sat down again, and poured himself out a bumper of sherry; while the vicar commenced making the best of a bad matter by joining in the now necessary business of eating.
He had not a word to say for himself. Poor Luke was particularly jovial and flippant, and startlingly unlike his former self. The padre went on staring out of the window, and talking in a loud forced tone about the astonishing miracles of the 'Ecstatica' and 'Addolorata;' and the poor vicar, finding the purpose for which he had sacrificed his own word of honour utterly frustrated by the priest's presence, sat silent and crestfallen the whole evening.
The priest had no intention of stirring. The late father-confessor tried to outstay his new rival, but in vain; the padre deliberately announced his intention of taking a bed, and the vicar, with a heavy heart, rose to go to his inn.
As he went out at the door, he caught an opportunity of saying one word to the convert.
'My poor Luke! and are you happy? Tell me honestly, in God's sight tell me!'
'Happier than ever I was in my life! No more self-torture, physical or mental, now. These good priests thoroughly understand poor human nature, I can assure you.'
The vicar sighed, for the speech was evidently meant as a gentle rebuke to himself. But the young man ran on, half laughing,—
'You know how you and the rest used to tell us what a sad thing it was that we were all cursed with consciences,—what a fearful miserable burden moral responsibility was; but that we must submit to it as an inevitable evil. Now that burden is gone, thank God. We of the True Church have some one to keep our consciences for us. The padre settles all about what is right or wrong, and we slip on as easily as—'
'A hog or a butterfly!' said the vicar, bitterly.
'Exactly,' answered Luke. 'And, on your own showing, are clean gainers of a happy life here, not to mention heaven hereafter. God bless you! We shall soon see you one of us.'
'Never, so help me God!' said the vicar; all the more fiercely because he was almost at that moment of the young man's opinion.
The vicar stepped out into the night. The rain, which had given place during the afternoon to a bright sun and clear chilly evening, had returned with double fury. The wind was sweeping and howling down the lonely streets, and lashed the rain into his face, while gray clouds were rushing past the moon like terrified ghosts across the awful void of the black heaven. Above him gaunt poplars groaned and bent, like giants cowering from the wrath of Heaven, yet rooted by grim necessity to their place of torture. The roar and tumult without him harmonised strangely with the discord within. He staggered and strode along the plashy pavement, muttering to himself at intervals,—
'Rest for the soul? peace of mind? I have been promising them all my life to others—have I found them myself? And here is this poor boy saying that he has gained them—in the very barbarian superstition which I have been anathematising to him! What is true, at this rate? What is false? Is anything right or wrong? except in as far as men feel it to be right or wrong. Else whence does this poor fellow's peace come, or the peace of many a convert more? They have all, one by one, told me the same story. And is not a religion to be known by its fruits? Are they not right in going where they can get peace of mind?'
Certainly, vicar. If peace of mind be the summum bonum, and religion is merely the science of self-satisfaction, they are right; and your wisest plan will be to follow them at once, or failing that, to apply to the next best substitute that can be discovered— alcohol and opium.
As he went on, talking wildly to himself, he passed the Union Workhouse. Opposite the gate, under the lee of a wall, some twenty men, women, and children, were huddled together on the bare ground. They had been refused lodging in the workhouse, and were going to pass the night in that situation. As he came up to them, coarse jests, and snatches of low drinking-songs, ghastly as the laughter of lost spirits in the pit, mingled with the feeble wailings of some child of shame. The vicar recollected how he had seen the same sight at the door of Kensington Workhouse, walking home one night in company with Luke Smith; and how, too, he had commented to him on that fearful sign of the times, and had somewhat unfairly drawn a contrast between the niggard cruelty of 'popular Protestantism,' and the fancied 'liberality of the middle age.' What wonder if his pupil had taken him at his word?
Delighted to escape from his own thoughts by anything like action, he pulled out his purse to give an alms. There was no silver in it, but only some fifteen or twenty sovereigns, which he that day received as payment for some bitter reviews in a leading religious periodical. Everything that night seemed to shame and confound him more. As he touched the money, there sprang up in his mind in an instant the thought of the articles which had procured it; by one of those terrible, searching inspirations, in which the light which lighteth every man awakes as a lightning-flash of judgment, he saw them, and his own heart, for one moment, as they were;—their blind prejudice; their reckless imputations of motives; their wilful concealment of any palliating clauses; their party nicknames, given without a shudder at the terrible accusations which they conveyed. And then the indignation, the shame, the reciprocal bitterness which those articles would excite, tearing still wider the bleeding wounds of that Church which they professed to defend! And then, in this case, too, the thought rushed across him, 'What if I should have been wrong and my adversary right? What if I have made the heart of the righteous sad whom God has not made sad? I! to have been dealing out Heaven's thunders, as if I were infallible! I! who am certain at this moment of no fact in heaven or earth, except my own untruth! God! who am I that I should judge another?' And the coins seemed to him like the price of blood—he fancied that he felt them red-hot to his hand, and, in his eagerness to get rid of the accursed thing, he dealt it away fiercely to the astonished group, amid whining and flattery, wrangling and ribaldry; and then, not daring to wait and see the use to which his money would be put, hurried off to the inn, and tried in uneasy slumbers to forget the time, until the mail passed through at daybreak on its way to Whitford.
CHAPTER XIII: THE VILLAGE REVEL
At dusk that same evening the two had started for the village fair. A velveteen shooting-jacket, a pair of corduroy trousers, and a waistcoat, furnished by Tregarva, covered with flowers of every imaginable hue, tolerably disguised Lancelot, who was recommended by his conductor to keep his hands in his pockets as much as possible, lest their delicacy, which was, as it happened, not very remarkable, might betray him. As they walked together along the plashy turnpike road, overtaking, now and then, groups of two or three who were out on the same errand as themselves, Lancelot could not help remarking to the keeper how superior was the look of comfort in the boys and young men, with their ruddy cheeks and smart dresses, to the worn and haggard appearance of the elder men.
'Let them alone, poor fellows,' said Tregarva; 'it won't last long. When they've got two or three children at their heels, they'll look as thin and shabby as their own fathers.'
'They must spend a great deal of money on their clothes.'
'And on their stomachs, too, sir. They never lay by a farthing; and I don't see how they can, when their club-money's paid, and their insides are well filled.'
'Do you mean to say that they actually have not as much to eat after they marry?'
'Indeed and I do, sir. They get no more wages afterwards round here, and have four or five to clothe and feed off the same money that used to keep one; and that sum won't take long to work out, I think.'
'But do they not in some places pay the married men higher wages than the unmarried?'
'That's a worse trick still, sir; for it tempts the poor thoughtless boys to go and marry the first girl they can get hold of; and it don't want much persuasion to make them do that at any time.'
'But why don't the clergymen teach them to put into the savings banks?'
'One here and there, sir, says what he can, though it's of very little use. Besides, every one is afraid of savings banks now; not a year but one reads of some breaking and the lawyers going off with the earnings of the poor. And if they didn't, youth's a foolish time at best; and the carnal man will be hankering after amusement, sir—amusement.'
'And no wonder,' said Lancelot; 'at all events, I should not think they got much of it. But it does seem strange that no other amusement can be found for them than the beer-shop. Can't they read? Can't they practise light and interesting handicrafts at home, as the German peasantry do?'
'Who'll teach 'em, sir? From the plough-tail to the reaping-hook, and back again, is all they know. Besides, sir, they are not like us Cornish; they are a stupid pigheaded generation at the best, these south countrymen. They're grown-up babies who want the parson and the squire to be leading them, and preaching to them, and spurring them on, and coaxing them up, every moment. And as for scholarship, sir, a boy leaves school at nine or ten to follow the horses; and between that time and his wedding-day he forgets every word he ever learnt, and becomes, for the most part, as thorough a heathen savage at heart as those wild Indians in the Brazils used to be.'
'And then we call them civilised Englishmen!' said Lancelot. 'We can see that your Indian is a savage, because he wears skins and feathers; but your Irish cottar or your English labourer, because he happens to wear a coat and trousers, is to be considered a civilised man.'
'It's the way of the world, sir,' said Tregarva, 'judging carnal judgment, according to the sight of its own eyes; always looking at the outsides of things and men, sir, and never much deeper. But as for reading, sir, it's all very well for me, who have been a keeper and dawdled about like a gentleman with a gun over my arm; but did you ever do a good day's farm-work in your life? If you had, man or boy, you wouldn't have been game for much reading when you got home; you'd do just what these poor fellows do,—tumble into bed at eight o'clock, hardly waiting to take your clothes off, knowing that you must turn up again at five o'clock the next morning to get a breakfast of bread, and, perhaps, a dab of the squire's dripping, and then back to work again; and so on, day after day, sir, week after week, year after year, without a hope or a chance of being anything but what you are, and only too thankful if you can get work to break your back, and catch the rheumatism over.'
'But do you mean to say that their labour is so severe and incessant?'
'It's only God's blessing if it is incessant, sir, for if it stops, they starve, or go to the house to be worse fed than the thieves in gaol. And as for its being severe, there's many a boy, as their mothers will tell you, comes home night after night, too tired to eat their suppers, and tumble, fasting, to bed in the same foul shirt which they've been working in all the day, never changing their rag of calico from week's end to week's end, or washing the skin that's under it once in seven years.'
'No wonder,' said Lancelot, 'that such a life of drudgery makes them brutal and reckless.'
'No wonder, indeed, sir: they've no time to think; they're born to be machines, and machines they must be; and I think, sir,' he added bitterly, 'it's God's mercy that they daren't think. It's God's mercy that they don't feel. Men that write books and talk at elections call this a free country, and say that the poorest and meanest has a free opening to rise and become prime minister, if he can. But you see, sir, the misfortune is, that in practice he can't; for one who gets into a gentleman's family, or into a little shop, and so saves a few pounds, fifty know that they've no chance before them, but day-labourer born, day-labourer live, from hand to mouth, scraping and pinching to get not meat and beer even, but bread and potatoes; and then, at the end of it all, for a worthy reward, half-a-crown a-week of parish pay—or the workhouse. That's a lively hopeful prospect for a Christian man!'
'But,' said Lancelot, 'I thought this New Poor-law was to stir them up to independence?'
'Oh, sir, the old law has bit too deep: it made them slaves and beggars at heart. It taught them not to be ashamed of parish pay— to demand it as a right.'
'And so it is their right,' said Lancelot. 'In God's name, if a country is so ill-constituted that it cannot find its own citizens in work, it is bound to find them in food.'
'Maybe, sir, maybe. God knows I don't grudge it them. It's a poor pittance at best, when they have got it. But don't you see, sir, how all poor-laws, old or new either, suck the independent spirit out of a man; how they make the poor wretch reckless; how they tempt him to spend every extra farthing in amusement?'
'Why, he is always tempted to say to himself, "Whatever happens to me, the parish must keep me. If I am sick it must doctor me; if I am worn out it must feed me; if I die it must bury me; if I leave my children paupers the parish must look after them, and they'll be as well off with the parish as they were with me. Now they've only got just enough to keep body and soul together, and the parish can't give them less than that. What's the use of cutting myself off from sixpenny-worth of pleasure here, and sixpenny-worth there. I'm not saving money for my children, I'm only saving the farmers' rates." There it is, sir,' said Tregarva; 'that's the bottom of it, sir,— "I'm only saving the farmers' rates. Let us eat and drink, for to- morrow we die!"'
'I don't see my way out of it,' said Lancelot.
'So says everybody, sir. But I should have thought those members of parliament, and statesmen, and university scholars have been set up in the high places, out of the wood where we are all struggling and scrambling, just that they might see their way out of it; and if they don't, sir, and that soon, as sure as God is in heaven, these poor fellows will cut their way out of it.'
'And blindfolded and ignorant as they are,' said Lancelot, 'they will be certain to cut their way out just in the wrong direction.'
'I'm not so sure of that, sir,' said Tregarva, lowering his voice. 'What is written'? That there is One who hears the desire of the poor. "Lord, Thou preparest their hearts and Thine ear hearkeneth thereto, to help the fatherless and poor unto their right, that the man of the earth be no more exalted against them."'
'Why, you are talking like any Chartist, Tregarva!'
'Am I, sir? I haven't heard much Scripture quoted among them myself, poor fellows; but to tell you the truth, sir, I don't know what I am becoming. I'm getting half mad with all I see going on and not going on; and you will agree, sir, that what's happened this day can't have done much to cool my temper or brighten my hopes; though, God's my witness, there's no spite in me for my own sake. But what makes me maddest of all, sir, is to see that everybody sees these evils, except just the men who can cure them—the squires and the clergy.'
'Why surely, Tregarva, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of clergymen and landlords working heart and soul at this moment, to better the condition of the labouring classes!'
'Ay, sir, they see the evils, and yet they don't see them. They do not see what is the matter with the poor man; and the proof of it is, sir, that the poor have no confidence in them. They'll take their alms, but they'll hardly take their schooling, and their advice they won't take at all. And why is it, sir? Because the poor have got in their heads in these days a strange confused fancy, maybe, but still a deep and a fierce one, that they haven't got what they call their rights. If you were to raise the wages of every man in this country from nine to twelve shillings a-week to-morrow, you wouldn't satisfy them; at least, the only ones whom you would satisfy would be the mere hogs among them, who, as long as they can get a full stomach, care for nothing else.'
'What, in Heaven's name, do they want?' asked Lancelot.
'They hardly know yet, sir; but they know well what they don't want. The question with them, sir, believe me, is not so much, How shall we get better fed and better housed, but whom shall we depend upon for our food and for our house? Why should we depend on the will and fancy of any man for our rights? They are asking ugly questions among themselves, sir, about what those two words, rent and taxes, mean, and about what that same strange word, freedom, means. Eight or wrong, they've got the thought into their heads, and it's growing there, and they will find an answer for it. Depend upon it, sir, I tell you a truth, and they expect a change. You will hear them talk of it to-night, sir, if you've luck.'
'We all expect a change, for that matter,' said Lancelot. 'That feeling is common to all classes and parties just now.'
Tregarva took off his hat.
'"For the word of the Lord hath spoken it." Do you know, sir, I long at times that I did agree with those Chartists? If I did, I'd turn lecturer to-morrow. How a man could speak out then! If he saw any door of hope, any way of salvation for these poor fellows, even if it was nothing better than salvation by Act of Parliament!'
'But why don't you trust the truly worthy among the clergy and the gentry to leaven their own ranks and bring all right in time?'
'Because, sir, they seem to be going the way only to make things worse. The people have been so dependent on them heretofore, that they have become thorough beggars. You can have no knowledge, sir, of the whining, canting, deceit, and lies which those poor miserable labourers' wives palm on charitable ladies. If they weren't angels, some of them, they'd lock up their purses and never give away another farthing. And, sir, these free-schools, and these penny- clubs, and clothing clubs, and these heaps of money which are given away, all make the matter worse and worse. They make the labourer fancy that he is not to depend upon God and his own right hand, but on what his wife can worm out of the good nature of the rich. Why, sir, they growl as insolently now at the parson or the squire's wife if they don't get as much money as their neighbours, as they used to at the parish vestrymen under the old law. Look at that Lord Vieuxbois, sir, as sweet a gentleman as ever God made. It used to do me good to walk behind him when he came over here shooting, just to hear the gentle kind-hearted way in which he used to speak to every old soul he met. He spends his whole life and time about the poor, I hear. But, sir, as sure as you live he's making his people slaves and humbugs. He doesn't see, sir, that they want to be raised bodily out of this miserable hand-to-mouth state, to be brought nearer up to him, and set on a footing where they can shift for themselves. Without meaning it, sir, all his boundless charities are keeping the people down, and telling them they must stay down, and not help themselves, but wait for what he gives them. He fats prize-labourers, sir, just as Lord Minchampstead fats prize- oxen and pigs.'
Lancelot could not help thinking of that amusingly inconsistent, however well-meant, scene in Coningsby, in which Mr. Lyle is represented as trying to restore 'the independent order of peasantry,' by making them the receivers of public alms at his own gate, as if they had been middle-age serfs or vagabonds, and not citizens of modern England.
'It may suit the Mr. Lyles of this age,' thought Lancelot, 'to make the people constantly and visibly comprehend that property is their protector and their friend, but I question whether it will suit the people themselves, unless they can make property understand that it owes them something more definite than protection.'
Saddened by this conversation, which had helped to give another shake to the easy-going complacency with which Lancelot had been used to contemplate the world below him, and look on its evils as necessaries, ancient and fixed as the universe, he entered the village fair, and was a little disappointed at his first glimpse of the village-green. Certainly his expectations had not been very exalted; but there had run through them a hope of something melodramatic, dreams of May-pole dancing and athletic games, somewhat of village-belle rivalry, of the Corin and Sylvia school; or, failing that, a few Touchstones and Audreys, some genial earnest buffo humour here and there. But there did not seem much likelihood of it. Two or three apple and gingerbread stalls, from which draggled children were turning slowly and wistfully away to go home; a booth full of trumpery fairings, in front of which tawdry girls were coaxing maudlin youths, with faded southernwood in their button-holes; another long low booth, from every crevice of which reeked odours of stale beer and smoke, by courtesy denominated tobacco, to the treble accompaniment of a jigging fiddle and a tambourine, and the bass one of grumbled oaths and curses within— these were the means of relaxation which the piety, freedom, and civilisation of fourteen centuries, from Hengist to Queen Victoria, had devised and made possible for the English peasant!
'There seems very little here to see,' said Lancelot, half peevishly.
'I think, sir,' quoth Tregarva, 'that very thing is what's most worth seeing.'
Lancelot could not help, even at the risk of detection, investing capital enough in sugar-plums and gingerbread, to furnish the urchins around with the material for a whole carnival of stomach- aches; and he felt a great inclination to clear the fairing-stall in a like manner, on behalf of the poor bedizened sickly-looking girls round, but he was afraid of the jealousy of some beer-bemuddled swain. The ill-looks of the young girls surprised him much. Here and there smiled a plump rosy face enough; but the majority seemed under-sized, under-fed, utterly wanting in grace, vigour, and what the penny-a-liners call 'rude health.' He remarked it to Tregarva. The keeper smiled mournfully.
'You see those little creatures dragging home babies in arms nearly as big as themselves, sir. That and bad food, want of milk especially, accounts for their growing up no bigger than they do; and as for their sad countenances, sir, most of them must carry a lighter conscience before they carry a brighter face.'
'What do you mean?' asked Lancelot.
'The clergyman who enters the weddings and the baptisms knows well enough what I mean, sir. But we'll go into that booth, if you want to see the thick of it, sir; that's to say, if you're not ashamed.'
'I hope we need neither of us do anything to be ashamed of there; and as for seeing, I begin to agree with you, that what makes the whole thing most curious is its intense dulness.'
'What upon earth is that?'
'I say, look out there!'
'Well, you look out yourself!'
This was caused by a violent blow across the shins with a thick stick, the deed of certain drunken wiseacres who were persisting in playing in the dark the never very lucrative game of three sticks a penny, conducted by a couple of gipsies. Poor fellows! there was one excuse for them. It was the only thing there to play at, except a set of skittles; and on those they had lost their money every Saturday night for the last seven years each at his own village beer-shop.
So into the booth they turned; and as soon as Lancelot's eyes were accustomed to the reeking atmosphere, he saw seated at two long temporary tables of board, fifty or sixty of 'My Brethren,' as clergymen call them in their sermons, wrangling, stupid, beery, with sodden eyes and drooping lips—interspersed with more girls and brazen-faced women, with dirty flowers in their caps, whose whole business seemed to be to cast jealous looks at each other, and defend themselves from the coarse overtures of their swains.
Lancelot had been already perfectly astonished at the foulness of language which prevailed; and the utter absence of anything like chivalrous respect, almost of common decency, towards women. But lo! the language of the elder women was quite as disgusting as that of the men, if not worse. He whispered a remark on the point to Tregarva, who shook his head.
'It's the field-work, sir—the field-work, that does it all. They get accustomed there from their childhood to hear words whose very meanings they shouldn't know; and the older teach the younger ones, and the married ones are worst of all. It wears them out in body, sir, that field-work, and makes them brutes in soul and in manners.'
'Why don't they give it up? Why don't the respectable ones set their faces against it?'
'They can't afford it, sir. They must go a-field, or go hungered, most of them. And they get to like the gossip and scandal, and coarse fun of it, while their children are left at home to play in the roads, or fall into the fire, as plenty do every year.'
'Why not at school?'
'The big ones are kept at home, sir, to play at nursing those little ones who are too young to go. Oh, sir,' he added, in a tone of deep feeling, 'it is very little of a father's care, or a mother's love, that a labourer's child knows in these days!'
Lancelot looked round the booth with a hopeless feeling. There was awkward dancing going on at the upper end. He was too much sickened to go and look at it. He began examining the faces and foreheads of the company, and was astonished at the first glance by the lofty and ample development of brain in at least one half. There were intellects there—or rather capacities of intellect, capable, surely, of anything, had not the promise of the brow been almost always belied by the loose and sensual lower features. They were evidently rather a degraded than an undeveloped race. 'The low forehead of the Kabyle and Koord,' thought Lancelot, 'is compensated by the grim sharp lip, and glittering eye, which prove that all the small capabilities of the man have been called out into clear and vigorous action: but here the very features themselves, both by what they have and what they want, testify against that society which carelessly wastes her most precious wealth, the manhood of her masses! Tregarva! you have observed a good many things—did you ever observe whether the men with the large foreheads were better than the men with the small ones?'
'Ay, sir, I know what you are driving at. I've heard of that new- fangled notion of scholars, which, if you'll forgive my plain speaking, expects man's brains to do the work of God's grace.'
'But what have you remarked?'
'All I ever saw was, that the stupid-looking ones were the greatest blackguards, and the clever-looking ones the greatest rogues.'
Lancelot was rebuked, but not surprised. He had been for some time past suspecting, from the bitter experience of his own heart, the favourite modern theory which revives the Neo-Platonism of Alexandria, by making intellect synonymous with virtue, and then jumbling, like poor bewildered Proclus, the 'physical understanding' of the brain with the pure 'intellect' of the spirit.
'You'll see something, if you look round, sir, a great deal easier to explain—and, I should have thought, a great deal easier to cure- -than want of wits.'
'And what is that?'
'How different-looking the young ones are from their fathers, and still more from their grandfathers! Look at those three or four old grammers talking together there. For all their being shrunk with age and weather, you won't see such fine-grown men anywhere else in this booth.'
It was too true. Lancelot recollected now having remarked it before when at church; and having wondered why almost all the youths were so much smaller, clumsier, lower-brained, and weaker-jawed than their elders.
'Why is it, Tregarva?'
'Worse food, worse lodging, worse nursing—and, I'm sore afraid, worse blood. There was too much filthiness and drunkenness went on in the old war-times, not to leave a taint behind it, for many a generation. The prosperity of fools shall destroy them!'
'Oh!' thought Lancelot, 'for some young sturdy Lancashire or Lothian blood, to put new life into the old frozen South Saxon veins! Even a drop of the warm enthusiastic Celtic would be better than none. Perhaps this Irish immigration may do some good, after all.'
Perhaps it may, Lancelot. Let us hope so, since it is pretty nearly inevitable.
Sadder and sadder, Lancelot tried to listen to the conversation of the men round him. To his astonishment he hardly understood a word of it. It was half articulate, nasal, guttural, made up almost entirely of vowels, like the speech of savages. He had never before been struck with the significant contrast between the sharp, clearly-defined articulation, the vivid and varied tones of the gentleman, or even of the London street-boy when compared with the coarse, half-formed growls, as of a company of seals, which he heard round him. That single fact struck him, perhaps, more deeply than any; it connected itself with many of his physiological fancies; it was the parent of many thoughts and plans of his after-life. Here and there he could distinguish a half sentence. An old shrunken man opposite him was drawing figures in the spilt beer with his pipe- stem, and discoursing of the glorious times before the great war, 'when there was more food than there were mouths, and more work than there were hands.' 'Poor human nature!' thought Lancelot, as he tried to follow one of those unintelligible discussions about the relative prices of the loaf and the bushel of flour, which ended, as usual, in more swearing, and more quarrelling, and more beer to make it up—'Poor human nature! always looking back, as the German sage says, to some fancied golden age, never looking forward to the real one which is coming!'
'But I say, vather,' drawled out some one, 'they say there's a sight more money in England now, than there was afore the war-time.'
'Eees, booy,' said the old man; 'but ITS GOT INTO TOO FEW HANDS.'
'Well,' thought Lancelot, 'there's a glimpse of practical sense, at least.' And a pedlar who sat next him, a bold, black-whiskered bully, from the Potteries, hazarded a joke,—
'It's all along of this new sky-and-tough-it farming. They used to spread the money broadcast, but now they drills it all in one place, like bone-dust under their fancy plants, and we poor self-sown chaps gets none.'
This garland of fancies was received with great applause; whereat the pedlar, emboldened, proceeded to observe, mysteriously, that 'donkeys took a beating, but horses kicked at it; and that they'd found out that in Staffordshire long ago. You want a good Chartist lecturer down here, my covies, to show you donkeys of labouring men that you have got iron on your heels, if you only know'd how to use it.'
'And what's the use of rioting?' asked some one, querulously.
'Why, if you don't riot, the farmers will starve you.'
'And if we do, they'd turn sodgers—yeomanry, as they call it, though there ain't a yeoman among them in these parts; and then they takes sword and kills us. So, riot or none, they has it all their own way.'
Lancelot heard many more scraps of this sort. He was very much struck with their dread of violence. It did not seem cowardice. It was not loyalty—the English labourer has fallen below the capability of so spiritual a feeling; Lancelot had found out that already. It could not be apathy, for he heard nothing but complaint upon complaint bandied from mouth to mouth the whole evening. They seemed rather sunk too low in body and mind,—too stupefied and spiritless, to follow the example of the manufacturing districts; above all, they were too ill-informed. It is not mere starvation which goads the Leicester weaver to madness. It is starvation with education,—an empty stomach and a cultivated, even though miscultivated, mind.
At that instant, a huge hulking farm-boy rolled into the booth, roaring, dolefully, the end of a song, with a punctuation of his own invention—
'He'll maak me a lady. Zo . Vine to be zyure. And, vaithfully; love me. Although; I; be-e; poor-r-r-r.'
Lancelot would have laughed heartily at him anywhere else; but the whole scene was past a jest; and a gleam of pathos and tenderness seemed to shine even from that doggerel,—a vista, as it were, of true genial nature, in the far distance. But as he looked round again, 'What hope,' he thought, 'of its realisation? Arcadian dreams of pastoral innocence and graceful industry, I suppose, are to be henceforth monopolised by the stage or the boudoir? Never, so help me, God!'
The ursine howls of the new-comer seemed to have awakened the spirit of music in the party.
'Coom, Blackburd, gi' us zong, Blackburd, bo'!' cried a dozen voices to an impish, dark-eyed gipsy boy, of some thirteen years old.
'Put 'n on taable. Now, then, pipe up!'
'What will 'ee ha'?'
'Mary; gi' us Mary.'
'I shall make a' girls cry,' quoth Blackbird, with a grin.
'Do'n good, too; they likes it: zing away.'
And the boy began, in a broad country twang, which could not overpower the sad melody of the air, or the rich sweetness of his flute-like voice,—
'Young Mary walked sadly down through the green clover, And sighed as she looked at the babe at her breast; "My roses are faded, my false love a rover, The green graves they call me, 'Come home to your rest.'"
'Then by rode a soldier in gorgeous arraying, And "Where is your bride-ring, my fair maid?" he cried; "I ne'er had a bride-ring, by false man's betraying, Nor token of love but this babe at my side.
'"Tho' gold could not buy me, sweet words could deceive me; So faithful and lonely till death I must roam." "Oh, Mary, sweet Mary, look up and forgive me, With wealth and with glory your true love comes home;
'"So give me my own babe, those soft arms adorning, I'll wed you and cherish you, never to stray; For it's many a dark and a wild cloudy morning, Turns out by the noon-time a sunshiny day."'
'A bad moral that, sir,' whispered Tregarva.
'Better than none,' answered Lancelot.
'It's well if you are right, sir, for you'll hear no other.'
The keeper spoke truly; in a dozen different songs, more or less coarsely, but, in general, with a dash of pathetic sentiment, the same case of lawless love was embodied. It seemed to be their only notion of the romantic. Now and then there was a poaching song; then one of the lowest flash London school—filth and all—was roared in chorus in presence of the women.
'I am afraid that you do not thank me for having brought you to any place so unfit for a gentleman,' said Tregarva, seeing Lancelot's sad face.
'Because it is so unfit for a gentleman, therefore I do thank you. It is right to know what one's own flesh and blood are doing.'
'Hark to that song, sir! that's an old one. I didn't think they'd get on to singing that.'
The Blackbird was again on the table, but seemed this time disinclined to exhibit.
'Out wi' un, boy; it wain't burn thy mouth!'
'I be afeard.'
He pointed to Tregarva; there was a fierce growl round the room.
'I am no keeper,' shouted Tregarva, starting up. 'I was turned off this morning for speaking my mind about the squires, and now I'm one of you, to live and die.'
This answer was received with a murmur of applause; and a fellow in a scarlet merino neckerchief, three waistcoats, and a fancy shooting-jacket, who had been eyeing Lancelot for some time, sidled up behind them, and whispered in Tregarva's ear,—
'Perhaps you'd like an engagement in our line, young man, and your friend there, he seems a sporting gent too.—We could show him very pretty shooting.'
Tregarva answered by the first and last oath Lancelot ever heard from him, and turning to him, as the rascal sneaked off,—
'That's a poaching crimp from London, sir; tempting these poor boys to sin, and deceit, and drunkenness, and theft, and the hulks.'
'I fancy I saw him somewhere the night of our row—you understand?'
'So do I, sir, but there's no use talking of it.'
Blackbird was by this time prevailed on to sing, and burst out as melodious as ever, while all heads were cocked on one side in delighted attention.
'I zeed a vire o' Monday night, A vire both great and high; But I wool not tell you where, my boys, Nor wool not tell you why. The varmer he comes screeching out, To zave 'uns new brood mare; Zays I, "You and your stock may roast, Vor aught us poor chaps care."
'Coorus, boys, coorus!'
And the chorus burst out,—
'Then here's a curse on varmers all As rob and grind the poor; To re'p the fruit of all their works In **** for evermoor-r-r-r.