'A blind owld dame come to the vire, Zo near as she could get; Zays, "Here's a luck I warn't asleep To lose this blessed hett.
'"They robs us of our turfing rights, Our bits of chips and sticks, Till poor folks now can't warm their hands, Except by varmer's ricks." 'Then, etc.'
And again the boy's delicate voice rung out the ferocious chorus, with something, Lancelot fancied, of fiendish exultation, and every worn face lighted up with a coarse laugh, that indicated no malice— but also no mercy.
Lancelot was sickened, and rose to go.
As he turned, his arm was seized suddenly and firmly. He looked round, and saw a coarse, handsome, showily-dressed girl, looking intently into his face. He shook her angrily off.
'You needn't be so proud, Mr. Smith; I've had my hand on the arm of as good as you. Ah, you needn't start! I know you—I know you, I say, well enough. You used to be with him. Where is he?'
'Whom do you mean?'
'He!' answered the girl, with a fierce, surprised look, as if there could be no one else in the world.
'Colonel Bracebridge,' whispered Tregarva.
'Ay, he it is! And now walk further off, bloodhound! and let me speak to Mr. Smith. He is in Norway,' she ran on eagerly. 'When will he be back? When?'
'Why do you want to know?' asked Lancelot.
'When will he be back?'—she kept on fiercely repeating the question; and then burst out,—'Curse you gentlemen all! Cowards! you are all in a league against us poor girls! You can hunt alone when you betray us, and lie fast enough then? But when we come for justice, you all herd together like a flock of rooks; and turn so delicate and honourable all of a sudden—to each other! When will he be back, I say?'
'In a month,' answered Lancelot, who saw that something really important lay behind the girl's wildness.
'Too late!' she cried, wildly, clapping her hands together; 'too late! Here—tell him you saw me; tell him you saw Mary; tell him where and in what a pretty place, too, for maid, master, or man! What are you doing here?'
'What is that to you, my good girl?'
'True. Tell him you saw me here; and tell him, when next he hears of me, it will be in a very different place.'
She turned and vanished among the crowd. Lancelot almost ran out into the night,—into a triad of fights, two drunken men, two jealous wives, and a brute who struck a poor, thin, worn-out woman, for trying to coax him home. Lancelot rushed up to interfere, but a man seized his uplifted arm.
'He'll only beat her all the more when he getteth home.'
'She has stood that every Saturday night for the last seven years, to my knowledge,' said Tregarva; 'and worse, too, at times.'
'Good God! is there no escape for her from her tyrant?'
'No, sir. It's only you gentlefolks who can afford such luxuries; your poor man may be tied to a harlot, or your poor woman to a ruffian, but once done, done for ever.'
'Well,' thought Lancelot, 'we English have a characteristic way of proving the holiness of the marriage tie. The angel of Justice and Pity cannot sever it, only the stronger demon of Money.'
Their way home lay over Ashy Down, a lofty chalk promontory, round whose foot the river made a sudden bend. As they paced along over the dreary hedgeless stubbles, they both started, as a ghostly 'Ha! ha! ha!' rang through the air over their heads, and was answered by a like cry, faint and distant, across the wolds.
'That's those stone-curlews—at least, so I hope,' said Tregarva. 'He'll be round again in a minute.'
And again, right between them and the clear, cold moon, 'Ha! ha! ha!' resounded over their heads. They gazed up into the cloudless star-bespangled sky, but there was no sign of living thing.
'It's an old sign to me,' quoth Tregarva; 'God grant that I may remember it in this black day of mine.'
'How so!' asked Lancelot; 'I should not have fancied you a superstitious man.'
'Names go for nothing, sir, and what my forefathers believed in I am not going to be conceited enough to disbelieve in a hurry. But if you heard my story you would think I had reason enough to remember that devil's laugh up there.'
'Let me hear it then.'
'Well, sir, it may be a long story to you, but it was a short one to me, for it was the making of me, out of hand, there and then, blessed be God! But if you will have it—'
'And I will have it, friend Tregarva,' quoth Lancelot, lighting his cigar.
'I was about sixteen years old, just after I came home from the Brazils—'
'What! have you been in the Brazils?'
'Indeed and I have, sir, for three years; and one thing I learnt there, at least, that's worth going for.'
'What the Garden of Eden must have been like. But those Brazils, under God, were the cause of my being here; for my father, who was a mine-captain, lost all his money there, by no man's fault but his own, and not his either, the world would say, and when we came back to Cornwall he could not stand the bal work, nor I neither. Out of that burning sun, sir, to come home here, and work in the levels, up to our knees in warm water, with the thermometer at 85 degrees, and then up a thousand feet of ladder to grass, reeking wet with heat, and find the easterly sleet driving across those open furze-crofts— he couldn't stand it, sir—few stand it long, even of those who stay in Cornwall. We miners have a short lease of life; consumption and strains break us down before we're fifty.'
'But how came you here?'
'The doctor told my father, and me too, sir, that we must give up mining, or die of decline: so he came up here, to a sister of his that was married to the squire's gardener, and here he died; and the squire, God bless him and forgive him, took a fancy to me, and made me under-keeper. And I loved the life, for it took me among the woods and the rivers, where I could think of the Brazils, and fancy myself back again. But mustn't talk of that—where God wills is all right. And it is a fine life for reading and thinking, a gamekeeper's, for it's an idle life at best. Now that's over,' he added, with a sigh, 'and the Lord has fulfilled His words to me, that He spoke the first night that ever I heard a stone-plover cry.'
'What on earth can you mean?' asked Lancelot, deeply interested.
'Why, sir, it was a wild, whirling gray night, with the air full of sleet and rain, and my father sent me over to Redruth town to bring home some trade or other. And as I came back I got blinded with the sleet, and I lost my way across the moors. You know those Cornish furze-moors, sir?'
'Well, then, they are burrowed like a rabbit-warren with old mine- shafts. You can't go in some places ten yards without finding great, ghastly black holes, covered in with furze, and weeds, and bits of rotting timber; and when I was a boy I couldn't keep from them. Something seemed to draw me to go and peep down, and drop pebbles in, to hear them rattle against the sides, fathoms below, till they plumped into the ugly black still water at the bottom. And I used to be always after them in my dreams, when I was young, falling down them, down, down, all night long, till I woke screaming; for I fancied they were hell's mouth, every one of them. And it stands to reason, sir; we miners hold that the lake of fire can't be far below. For we find it grow warmer, and warmer, and warmer, the farther we sink a shaft; and the learned gentlemen have proved, sir, that it's not the blasting powder, nor the men's breaths, that heat the mine.'
Lancelot could but listen.
'Well, sir, I got into a great furze-croft, full of deads (those are the earth-heaps they throw out of the shafts), where no man in his senses dare go forward or back in the dark, for fear of the shafts; and the wind and the snow were so sharp, they made me quite stupid and sleepy; and I knew if I stayed there I should be frozen to death, and if I went on, there were the shafts ready to swallow me up: and what with fear and the howling and raging of the wind, I was like a mazed boy, sir. And I knelt down and tried to pray; and then, in one moment, all the evil things I'd ever done, and the bad words and thoughts that ever crossed me, rose up together as clear as one page of a print-book; and I knew that if I died that minute I should go to hell. And then I saw through the ground all the water in the shafts glaring like blood, and all the sides of the shafts fierce red-hot, as if hell was coming up. And I heard the knockers knocking, or thought I heard them, as plain as I hear that grasshopper in the hedge now.'
'What are the knockers?'
'They are the ghosts, the miners hold, of the old Jews, sir, that crucified our Lord, and were sent for slaves by the Roman emperors to work the mines; and we find their old smelting-houses, which we call Jews' houses, and their blocks of tin, at the bottom of the great bogs, which we call Jews' tin; and there's a town among us, too, which we call Market-Jew—but the old name was Marazion; that means the Bitterness of Zion, they tell me. Isn't it so, sir?'
'I believe it is,' said Lancelot, utterly puzzled in this new field of romance.
'And bitter work it was for them, no doubt, poor souls! We used to break into the old shafts and adits which they had made, and find old stags'-horn pickaxes, that crumbled to pieces when we brought them to grass; and they say, that if a man will listen, sir, of a still night, about those old shafts, he may hear the ghosts of them at working, knocking, and picking, as clear as if there was a man at work in the next level. It may be all an old fancy. I suppose it is. But I believed it when I was a boy; and it helped the work in me that night. But I'll go on with my story.'
'Go on with what you like,' said Lancelot.
'Well, sir, I was down on my knees among the furze-bushes, and I tried to pray; but I was too frightened, for I felt the beast I had been, sir; and I expected the ground to open and let me down every moment; and then there came by over my head a rushing, and a cry. "Ha! ha! ha! Paul!" it said; and it seemed as if all the devils and witches were out on the wind, a-laughing at my misery. "Oh, I'll mend—I'll repent," I said, "indeed I will:" and again it came back,—"Ha! ha! ha! Paul!" it said. I knew afterwards that it was a bird; but the Lord sent it to me for a messenger, no less, that night. And I shook like a reed in the water; and then, all at once a thought struck me. "Why should I be a coward? Why should I be afraid of shafts, or devils, or hell, or anything else? If I am a miserable sinner, there's One died for me—I owe him love, not fear at all. I'll not be frightened into doing right—that's a rascally reason for repentance." And so it was, sir, that I rose up like a man, and said to the Lord Jesus, right out into the black, dumb air,—"If you'll be on my side this night, good Lord, that died for me, I'll be on your side for ever, villain as I am, if I'm worth making any use of." And there and then, sir, I saw a light come over the bushes, brighter, and brighter, up to me; and there rose up a voice within me, and spoke to me, quite soft and sweet,—"Fear not, Paul, for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles." And what more happened I can't tell, for when I woke I was safe at home. My father and his folk had been out with lanterns after me; and there they found me, sure enough, in a dead faint on the ground. But this I know, sir, that those words have never left my mind since for a day together; and I know that they will be fulfilled in me this tide, or never.'
Lancelot was silent a few minutes.
'I suppose, Tregarva, that you would call this your conversion?'
'I should call it one, sir, because it was one.'
'Tell me now, honestly, did any real, practical change in your behaviour take place after that night?'
'As much, sir, as if you put a soul into a hog, and told him that he was a gentleman's son; and, if every time he remembered that, he got spirit enough to conquer his hoggishness, and behave like a man, till the hoggishness died out of him, and the manliness grew up and bore fruit in him, more and more each day.'
Lancelot half understood him, and sighed.
A long silence followed, as they paced on past lonely farmyards, from which the rich manure-water was draining across the road in foul black streams, festering and steaming in the chill night air. Lancelot sighed as he saw the fruitful materials of food running to waste, and thought of the 'over-population' cry; and then he looked across to the miles of brown moorland on the opposite side of the valley, that lay idle and dreary under the autumn moon, except where here and there a squatter's cottage and rood of fruitful garden gave the lie to the laziness and ignorance of man, who pretends that it is not worth his while to cultivate the soil which God has given him. 'Good heavens!' he thought, 'had our forefathers had no more enterprise than modern landlords, where should we all have been at this moment? Everywhere waste? Waste of manure, waste of land, waste of muscle, waste of brain, waste of population—and we call ourselves the workshop of the world!'
As they passed through the miserable hamlet-street of Ashy, they saw a light burning in window. At the door below, a haggard woman was looking anxiously down the village.
'What's the matter, Mistress Cooper?' asked Tregarva.
'Here's Mrs. Grane's poor girl lying sick of the fever—the Lord help her! and the boy died of it last week. We sent for the doctor this afternoon, and he's busy with a poor soul that's in her trouble; and now we've sent down to the squire's, and the young ladies, God bless them! sent answer they'd come themselves straightway.'
'No wonder you have typhus here,' said Lancelot, 'with this filthy open drain running right before the door. Why can't you clean it out?'
'Why, what harm does that do?' answered the woman, peevishly. 'Besides, here's my master gets up to his work by five in the morning, and not back till seven at night, and by then he ain't in no humour to clean out gutters. And where's the water to come from to keep a place clean? It costs many a one of us here a shilling a week the summer through to pay fetching water up the hill. We've work enough to fill our kettles. The muck must just lie in the road, smell or none, till the rain carries it away.'
Lancelot sighed again.
'It would be a good thing for Ashy, Tregarva, if the weir-pool did, some fine morning, run up to Ashy Down, as poor Harry Verney said on his deathbed.'
'There won't be much of Ashy left by that time, sir, if the landlords go on pulling down cottages at their present rate; driving the people into the towns, to herd together there like hogs, and walk out to their work four or five miles every morning.'
'Why,' said Lancelot, 'wherever one goes one sees commodious new cottages springing up.'
'Wherever you go, sir; but what of wherever you don't go? Along the roadsides, and round the gentlemen's parks, where the cottages are in sight, it's all very smart; but just go into the outlying hamlets—a whited sepulchre, sir, is many a great estate; outwardly swept and garnished, and inwardly full of all uncleanliness, and dead men's bones.'
At this moment two cloaked and veiled figures came up to the door, followed by a servant. There was no mistaking those delicate footsteps, and the two young men drew back with fluttering hearts, and breathed out silent blessings on the ministering angels, as they entered the crazy and reeking house.
'I'm thinking, sir,' said Tregarva, as they walked slowly and reluctantly away, 'that it is hard of the gentlemen to leave all God's work to the ladies, as nine-tenths of them do.'
'And I am thinking, Tregarva, that both for ladies and gentlemen, prevention is better than cure.'
'There's a great change come over Miss Argemone, sir. She used not to be so ready to start out at midnight to visit dying folk. A blessed change!'
Lancelot thought so too, and he thought that he knew the cause of it.
Argemone's appearance, and their late conversation, had started a new covey of strange fancies. Lancelot followed them over hill and dale, glad to escape a moment from the mournful lessons of that evening; but even over them there was a cloud of sadness. Harry Verney's last words, and Argemone's accidental whisper about 'a curse upon the Lavingtons,' rose to his mind. He longed to ask Tregarva, but he was afraid—not of the man, for there was a delicacy in his truthfulness which encouraged the most utter confidence; but of the subject itself; but curiosity conquered.
'What did Old Harry mean about the Nun-pool?' he said at last. 'Every one seemed to understand him.'
'Ah, sir, he oughtn't to have talked of it! But dying men, at times, see over the dark water into deep things—deeper than they think themselves. Perhaps there's one speaks through them. But I thought every one knew the story.'
'I do not, at least.'
'Perhaps it's so much the better, sir.'
'Why? I must insist on knowing. It is necessary—proper, that is— that I should hear everything that concerns—'
'I understand, sir; so it is; and I'll tell you. The story goes, that in the old Popish times, when the nuns held Whitford Priors, the first Mr. Lavington that ever was came from the king with a warrant to turn them all out, poor souls, and take the lands for his own. And they say the head lady of them—prioress, or abbess, as they called her—withstood him, and cursed him, in the name of the Lord, for a hypocrite who robbed harmless women under the cloak of punishing them for sins they'd never committed (for they say, sir, he went up to court, and slandered the nuns there for drunkards and worse). And she told him, "That the curse of the nuns of Whitford should be on him and his, till they helped the poor in the spirit of the nuns of Whitford, and the Nun-pool ran up to Ashy Down.'"
'That time is not come yet,' said Lancelot.
'But the worst is to come, sir. For he or his, sir, that night, said or did something to the lady, that was more than woman's heart could bear: and the next morning she was found dead and cold, drowned in that weir-pool. And there the gentleman's eldest son was drowned, and more than one Lavington beside. Miss Argemone's only brother, that was the heir, was drowned there too, when he was a little one.'
'I never heard that she had a brother.'
'No, sir, no one talks of it. There are many things happen in the great house that you must go to the little house to hear of. But the country-folk believe, sir, that the nun's curse holds true; and they say, that Whitford folks have been getting poorer and wickeder ever since that time, and will, till the Nun-pool runs up to Ashy, and the Lavingtons' name goes out of Whitford Priors.'
Lancelot said nothing. A presentiment of evil hung over him. He was utterly down-hearted about Tregarva, about Argemone, about the poor. The truth was, he could not shake off the impression of the scene he had left, utterly disappointed and disgusted with the 'revel.' He had expected, as I said before, at least to hear something of pastoral sentiment, and of genial frolicsome humour; to see some innocent, simple enjoyment: but instead, what had he seen but vanity, jealousy, hoggish sensuality, dull vacuity? drudges struggling for one night to forget their drudgery. And yet withal, those songs, and the effect which they produced, showed that in these poor creatures, too, lay the germs of pathos, taste, melody, soft and noble affections. 'What right have we,' thought he, 'to hinder their development? Art, poetry, music, science,—ay, even those athletic and graceful exercises on which we all pride ourselves, which we consider necessary to soften and refine ourselves, what God has given us a monopoly of them?—what is good for the rich man is good for the poor. Over-education? And what of that? What if the poor be raised above "their station"? What right have we to keep them down? How long have they been our born thralls in soul, as well as in body? What right have we to say that they shall know no higher recreation than the hogs, because, forsooth, if we raised them, they might refuse to work—FOR US? Are WE to fix how far their minds may be developed? Has not God fixed it for us, when He gave them the same passions, talents, tastes, as our own?'
Tregarva's meditations must have been running in a very different channel, for he suddenly burst out, after a long silence—
'It's a pity these fairs can't be put down. They do a lot of harm; ruin all the young girls round, the Dissenters' children especially, for they run utterly wild; their parents have no hold on them at all.'
'They tell them that they are children of the devil,' said Lancelot. 'What wonder if the children take them at their word, and act accordingly?'
'The parson here, sir, who is a God-fearing man enough, tried hard to put down this one, but the innkeepers were too strong for him.'
'To take away their only amusement, in short. He had much better have set to work to amuse them himself.'
'His business is to save souls, sir, and not to amuse them. I don't see, sir, what Christian people want with such vanities.'
Lancelot did not argue the point, for he knew the prejudices of Dissenters on the subject; but it did strike him that if Tregarva's brain had been a little less preponderant, he, too, might have found the need of some recreation besides books and thought.
By this time they were at Lancelot's door. He bid the keeper a hearty good-night, made him promise to see him next day, and went to bed and slept till nearly noon.
When he walked into his breakfast-room, he found a note on the table in his uncle's handwriting. The vicar's servant had left it an hour before. He opened it listlessly, rang the bell furiously, ordered out his best horse, and, huddling on his clothes, galloped to the nearest station, caught the train, and arrived at his uncle's bank— it had stopped payment two hours before.
CHAPTER XIV: WHAT'S TO BE DONE?
Yes! the bank had stopped. The ancient firm of Smith, Brown, Jones, Robinson, and Co., which had been for some years past expanding from a solid golden organism into a cobweb-tissue and huge balloon of threadbare paper, had at last worn through and collapsed, dropping its car and human contents miserably into the Thames mud. Why detail the pitiable post-mortem examination resulting? Lancelot sickened over it for many a long day; not, indeed, mourning at his private losses, but at the thorough hollowness of the system which it exposed, about which he spoke his mind pretty freely to his uncle, who bore it good-humouredly enough. Indeed, the discussions to which it gave rise rather comforted the good man, by turning his thought from his own losses to general principles. 'I have ruined you, my poor boy,' he used to say; 'so you may as well take your money's worth out of me in bullying.' Nothing, indeed, could surpass his honest and manly sorrow for having been the cause of Lancelot's beggary; but as for persuading him that his system was wrong, it was quite impossible. Not that Lancelot was hard upon him; on the contrary, he assured him, repeatedly, of his conviction, that the precepts of the Bible had nothing to do with the laws of commerce; that though the Jews were forbidden to take interest of Jews, Christians had a perfect right to be as hard as they liked on 'brother' Christians; that there could not be the least harm in share-jobbing, for though it did, to be sure, add nothing to the wealth of the community—only conjure money out of your neighbour's pocket into your own—yet was not that all fair in trade? If a man did not know the real value of the shares he sold you, you were not bound to tell him. Again, Lancelot quite agreed with his uncle, that though covetousness might be idolatry, yet money-making could not be called covetousness; and that, on the whole, though making haste to be rich was denounced as a dangerous and ruinous temptation in St. Paul's times, that was not the slightest reason why it should be so now. All these concessions were made with a freedom which caused the good banker to suspect at times that his shrewd nephew was laughing at him in his sleeve, but he could not but subscribe to them for the sake of consistency; though as a staunch Protestant, it puzzled him a little at times to find it necessary to justify himself by getting his 'infidel' nephew to explain away so much of the Bible for him. But men are accustomed to do that now-a-days, and so was he.
Once only did Lancelot break out with his real sentiments when the banker was planning how to re-establish his credit; to set to work, in fact, to blow over again the same bubble which had already burst under him.
'If I were a Christian,' said Lancelot, 'like you, I would call this credit system of yours the devil's selfish counterfeit of God's order of mutual love and trust; the child of that miserable dream, which, as Dr. Chalmers well said, expects universal selfishness to do the work of universal love. Look at your credit system, how—not in its abuse, but in its very essence—it carries the seeds of self- destruction. In the first place, a man's credit depends, not upon his real worth and property, but upon his reputation for property; daily and hourly he is tempted, he is forced, to puff himself, to pretend to be richer than he is.'
The banker sighed and shrugged his shoulders. 'We all do it, my dear boy.'
'I know it. You must do it, or be more than human. There is lie the first, and look at lie the second. This credit system is founded on the universal faith and honour of men towards men. But do you think faith and honour can be the children of selfishness? Men must be chivalrous and disinterested to be honourable. And you expect them all to join in universal faith—each for his own selfish interest? You forget that if that is the prime motive, men will be honourable only as long as it suits that same self-interest.'
The banker shrugged his shoulders again.
'Yes, my dear uncle,' said Lancelot, 'you all forget it, though you suffer for it daily and hourly; though the honourable men among you complain of the stain which has fallen on the old chivalrous good faith of English commerce, and say that now, abroad as well as at home, an Englishman's word is no longer worth other men's bonds. You see the evil, and you deplore it in disgust. Ask yourself honestly, how can you battle against it, while you allow in practice, and in theory too, except in church on Sundays, the very falsehood from which it all springs?—that a man is bound to get wealth, not for his country, but for himself; that, in short, not patriotism, but selfishness, is the bond of all society. Selfishness can collect, not unite, a herd of cowardly wild cattle, that they may feed together, breed together, keep off the wolf and bear together. But when one of your wild cattle falls sick, what becomes of the corporate feelings of the herd then? For one man of your class who is nobly helped by his fellows, are not the thousand left behind to perish? Your Bible talks of society, not as a herd, but as a living tree, an organic individual body, a holy brotherhood, and kingdom of God. And here is an idol which you have set up instead of it!'
But the banker was deaf to all arguments. No doubt he had plenty, for he was himself a just and generous—ay, and a God-fearing man in his way, only he regarded Lancelot's young fancies as too visionary to deserve an answer; which they most probably are; else, having been broached as often as they have been, they would surely, ere now, have provoked the complete refutation which can, no doubt, be given to them by hundreds of learned votaries of so-called commerce. And here I beg my readers to recollect that I am in no way answerable for the speculations, either of Lancelot or any of his acquaintances; and that these papers have been, from beginning to end, as in name, so in nature, Yeast—an honest sample of the questions, which, good or bad, are fermenting in the minds of the young of this day, and are rapidly leavening the minds of the rising generation. No doubt they are all as full of fallacies as possible, but as long as the saying of the German sage stands true, that 'the destiny of any nation, at any given moment, depends on the opinions of its young men under five-and-twenty,' so long it must be worth while for those who wish to preserve the present order of society to justify its acknowledged evils somewhat, not only to the few young men who are interested in preserving them, but also to the many who are not.
Though, therefore, I am neither Plymouth Brother nor Communist, and as thoroughly convinced as the newspapers can make me, that to assert the duties of property is only to plot its destruction, and that a community of goods must needs imply a community of wives (as every one knows was the case with the apostolic Christians), I shall take the liberty of narrating Lancelot's fanatical conduct, without execratory comment, certain that he will still receive his just reward of condemnation; and that, if I find facts, a sensible public will find abhorrence for them. His behaviour was, indeed, most singular; he absolutely refused a good commercial situation which his uncle procured him. He did not believe in being 'cured by a hair of the dog that bit him;' and he refused, also, the really generous offers of the creditors, to allow him a sufficient maintenance.
'No,' he said, 'no more pay without work for me. I will earn my bread or starve. It seems God's will to teach me what poverty is—I will see that His intention is not left half fulfilled. I have sinned, and only in the stern delight of a just penance can I gain self-respect.'
'But, my dear madman,' said his uncle, 'you are just the innocent one among us all. You, at least, were only a sleeping partner.'
'And therein lies my sin; I took money which I never earned, and cared as little how it was gained as how I spent it. Henceforth I shall touch no farthing which is the fruit of a system which I cannot approve. I accuse no one. Actions may vary in rightfulness, according to the age and the person. But what may be right for you, because you think it right, is surely wrong for me because I think it wrong.'
So, with grim determination, he sent to the hammer every article he possessed, till he had literally nothing left but the clothes in which he stood. 'He could not rest,' he said, 'till he had pulled out all his borrowed peacock's feathers. When they were gone he should be able to see, at last, whether he was jackdaw or eagle.' And wonder not, reader, at this same strength of will. The very genius, which too often makes its possessor self-indulgent in common matters, from the intense capability of enjoyment which it brings, may also, when once his whole being is stirred into motion by some great object, transform him into a hero.
And he carried a letter, too, in his bosom, night and day, which routed all coward fears and sad forebodings as soon as they arose, and converted the lonely and squalid lodging to which he had retired, into a fairy palace peopled with bright phantoms of future bliss. I need not say from whom it came.
'Beloved!' (it ran) 'Darling! you need not pain yourself to tell me anything. I know all; and I know, too (do not ask me how), your noble determination to drink the wholesome cup of poverty to the very dregs.
'Oh that I were with you! Oh that I could give you my fortune! but that is not yet, alas! in my own power. No! rather would I share that poverty with you, and strengthen you in your purpose. And yet, I cannot bear the thought of you, lonely—perhaps miserable. But, courage! though you have lost all, you have found me; and now you are knitting me to you for ever—justifying my own love to me by your nobleness; and am I not worth all the world to you? I dare say this to you; you will not think me conceited. Can we misunderstand each other's hearts? And all this while you are alone! Oh! I have mourned for you! Since I heard of your misfortune I have not tasted pleasure. The light of heaven has been black to me, and I have lived only upon love. I will not taste comfort while you are wretched. Would that I could be poor like you! Every night upon the bare floor I lie down to sleep, and fancy you in your little chamber, and nestle to you, and cover that dear face with kisses. Strange! that I should dare to speak thus to you, whom a few months ago I had never heard of! Wonderful simplicity of love! How all that is prudish and artificial flees before it! I seem to have begun a new life. If I could play now, it would be only with little children. Farewell! be great—a glorious future is before you and me in you!'
Lancelot's answer must remain untold; perhaps the veil has been already too far lifted which hides the sanctuary of such love. But, alas! to his letter no second had been returned; and he felt—though he dared not confess it to himself—a gloomy presentiment of evil flit across him, as he thought of his fallen fortunes, and the altered light in which his suit would be regarded by Argemone's parents. Once he blamed himself bitterly for not having gone to Mr. Lavington the moment he discovered Argemone's affection, and insuring—as he then might have done—his consent. But again he felt that no sloth had kept him back, but adoring reverence for his God-given treasure, and humble astonishment at his own happiness; and he fled from the thought into renewed examination into the state of the masses, the effect of which was only to deepen his own determination to share their lot.
But at the same time it seemed to him but fair to live, as long as it would last, on that part of his capital which his creditors would have given nothing for—namely, his information; and he set to work to write. But, alas! he had but a 'small literary connection;' and the entree of the initiated ring is not obtained in a day. . . . Besides, he would not write trash.—He was in far too grim a humour for that; and if he wrote on important subjects, able editors always were in the habit of entrusting them to old contributors,—men, in short, in whose judgment they had confidence—not to say anything which would commit the magazine to anything but its own little party-theory. And behold! poor Lancelot found himself of no party whatsoever. He was in a minority of one against the whole world, on all points, right or wrong. He had the unhappiest knack (as all geniuses have) of seeing connections, humorous or awful, between the most seemingly antipodal things; of illustrating every subject from three or four different spheres which it is anathema to mention in the same page. If he wrote a physical-science article, able editors asked him what the deuce a scrap of high-churchism did in the middle of it? If he took the same article to a high-church magazine, the editor could not commit himself to any theory which made the earth more than six thousand years old, and was afraid that the public taste would not approve of the allusions to free-masonry and Soyer's soup. . . . And worse than that, one and all—Jew, Turk, infidel, and heretic, as well as the orthodox—joined in pious horror at his irreverence;—the shocking way he had of jumbling religion and politics—the human and the divine—the theories of the pulpit with the facts of the exchange. . . . The very atheists, who laughed at him for believing in a God, agreed that that, at least, was inconsistent with the dignity of the God—who did not exist. . . . It was Syncretism . . . Pantheism. . . .
'Very well, friends,' quoth Lancelot to himself, in bitter rage, one day, 'if you choose to be without God in the world, and to honour Him by denying Him . . . do so! You shall have your way; and go to the place whither it seems leading you just now, at railroad pace. But I must live. . . . Well, at least, there is some old college nonsense of mine, written three years ago, when I believed, like you, that all heaven and earth was put together out of separate bits, like a child's puzzle, and that each topic ought to have its private little pigeon-hole all to itself in a man's brain, like drugs in a chemist's shop. Perhaps it will suit you, friends; perhaps it will be system-frozen, and narrow, and dogmatic, and cowardly, and godless enough for you.' . . . So he went forth with them to market; and behold! they were bought forthwith. There was verily a demand for such; . . . and in spite of the ten thousand ink-fountains which were daily pouring out similar Stygian liquors, the public thirst remained unslaked. 'Well,' thought Lancelot, 'the negro race is not the only one which is afflicted with manias for eating dirt. . . . By the bye, where is poor Luke?'
Ah! where was poor Luke? Lancelot had received from him one short and hurried note, blotted with tears, which told how he had informed his father; and how his father had refused to see him, and had forbid him the house; and how he had offered him an allowance of fifty pounds a year (it should have been five hundred, he said, if he had possessed it), which Luke's director, sensibly enough, had compelled him to accept. . . . And there the letter ended, abruptly, leaving the writer evidently in lower depths than he had either experienced already, or expected at all.
Lancelot had often pleaded for him with his father; but in vain. Not that the good man was hard-hearted: he would cry like a child about it all to Lancelot when they sat together after dinner. But he was utterly beside himself, what with grief, shame, terror, and astonishment. On the whole, the sorrow was a real comfort to him: it gave him something beside his bankruptcy to think of; and, distracted between the two different griefs, he could brood over neither. But of the two, certainly his son's conversion was the worst in his eyes. The bankruptcy was intelligible—measurable; it was something known and classified—part of the ills which flesh (or, at least, commercial flesh) is heir to. But going to Rome!—
'I can't understand it. I won't believe it. It's so foolish, you see, Lancelot—so foolish—like an ass that eats thistles! . . . There must be some reason;—there must be—something we don't know, sir! Do you think they could have promised to make him a cardinal?'
Lancelot quite agreed that there were reasons for it, that they—or, at least, the banker—did not know. . . .
'Depend upon it, they promised him something—some prince-bishopric, perhaps. Else why on earth could a man go over! It's out of the course of nature!'
Lancelot tried in vain to make him understand that a man might sacrifice everything to conscience, and actually give up all worldly weal for what he thought right. The banker turned on him with angry resignation—
'Very well—I suppose he's done right then! I suppose you'll go next! Take up a false religion, and give up everything for it! Why, then, he must be honest; and if he's honest, he's in the right; and I suppose I'd better go too!'
Lancelot argued: but in vain. The idea of disinterested sacrifice was so utterly foreign to the good man's own creed and practice, that he could but see one pair of alternatives.
'Either he is a good man, or he's a hypocrite. Either he's right, or he's gone over for some vile selfish end; and what can that be but money?'
Lancelot gently hinted that there might be other selfish ends besides pecuniary ones—saving one's soul, for instance.
'Why, if he wants to save his soul, he's right. What ought we all to do, but try to save our souls? I tell you there's some sinister reason. They've told him that they expect to convert England—I should like to see them do it!—and that he'll be made a bishop. Don't argue with me, or you'll drive me mad. I know those Jesuits!'
And as soon as he began upon the Jesuits, Lancelot prudently held his tongue. The good man had worked himself up into a perfect frenzy of terror and suspicion about them. He suspected concealed Jesuits among his footmen and his housemaids; Jesuits in his counting-house, Jesuits in his duns. . . .
'Hang it, sir! how do I know that there ain't a Jesuit listening to us now behind the curtain?'
'I'll go and look,' quoth Lancelot, and suited the action to the word.
'Well, if there ain't there might be. They're everywhere, I tell you. That vicar of Whitford was a Jesuit. I was sure of it all along; but the man seemed so pious; and certainly he did my poor dear boy a deal of good. But he ruined you, you know. And I'm convinced—no, don't contradict me; I tell you, I won't stand it— I'm convinced that this whole mess of mine is a plot of those rascals;—I'm as certain of it as if they'd told me!'
'For what end?'
'How the deuce can I tell? Am I a Jesuit, to understand their sneaking, underhand—pah! I'm sick of life! Nothing but rogues wherever one turns!'
And then Lancelot used to try to persuade him to take poor Luke back again. But vague terror had steeled his heart.
'What! Why, he'd convert us all! He'd convert his sisters! He'd bring his priests in here, or his nuns disguised as ladies' maids, and we should all go over, every one of us, like a set of nine- pins!'
'You seem to think Protestantism a rather shaky cause, if it is so easy to be upset.'
'Sir! Protestantism is the cause of England and Christianity, and civilisation, and freedom, and common sense, sir! and that's the very reason why it's so easy to pervert men from it; and the very reason why it's a lost cause, and popery, and Antichrist, and the gates of hell are coming in like a flood to prevail against it!'
'Well,' thought Lancelot, 'that is the very strangest reason for it's being a lost cause! Perhaps if my poor uncle believed it really to be the cause of God Himself, he would not be in such extreme fear for it, or fancy it required such a hotbed and greenhouse culture. . . . Really, if his sisters were little girls of ten years old, who looked up to him as an oracle, there would be some reason in it. . . . But those tall, ball-going, flirting, self-satisfied cousins of mine—who would have been glad enough, either of them, two months ago, to snap up me, infidelity, bad character, and all, as a charming rich young roue—if they have not learnt enough Protestantism in the last five-and-twenty years to take care of themselves, Protestantism must have very few allurements, or else be very badly carried out in practice by those who talk loudest in favour of it. . . . I heard them praising O'Blareaway's "ministry," by the bye, the other day. So he is up in town at last—at the summit of his ambition. Well, he may suit them. I wonder how many young creatures like Argemone and Luke he would keep from Popery!'
But there was no use arguing with a man in such a state of mind; and gradually Lancelot gave it up, in hopes that time would bring the good man to his sane wits again, and that a father's feelings would prove themselves stronger, because more divine, than a so-called Protestant's fears, though that would have been, in the banker's eyes, and in the Jesuit's also—so do extremes meet—the very reason for expecting them to be the weaker; for it is the rule with all bigots, that the right cause is always a lost cause, and therefore requires—God's weapons of love, truth, and reason being well known to be too weak—to be defended, if it is to be saved, with the devil's weapons of bad logic, spite, and calumny.
At last, in despair of obtaining tidings of his cousin by any other method, Lancelot made up his mind to apply to a certain remarkable man, whose 'conversion' had preceded Luke's about a year, and had, indeed, mainly caused it.
He went, . . . and was not disappointed. With the most winning courtesy and sweetness, his story and his request were patiently listened to.
'The outcome of your speech, then, my dear sir, as I apprehend it, is a request to me to send back the fugitive lamb into the jaws of the well-meaning, but still lupine wolf?'
This was spoken with so sweet and arch a smile, that it was impossible to be angry.
'On my honour, I have no wish to convert him. All I want is to have human speech of him—to hear from his own lips that he is content. Whither should I convert him? Not to my own platform—for I am nowhere. Not to that which he has left, . . . for if he could have found standing ground there, he would not have gone elsewhere for rest.'
'Therefore they went out from you, because they were not of you,' said the 'Father,' half aside.
'Most true, sir. I have felt long that argument was bootless with those whose root-ideas of Deity, man, earth, and heaven, were as utterly different from my own, as if we had been created by two different beings.'
'Do you include in that catalogue those ideas of truth, love, and justice, which are Deity itself? Have you no common ground in them?'
'You are an elder and a better man than I. . . . It would be insolent in me to answer that question, except in one way, . . . and—'
'In that you cannot answer it. Be it so. . . . You shall see your cousin. You may make what efforts you will for his re-conversion. The Catholic Church,' continued he, with one of his arch, deep- meaning smiles, 'is not, like popular Protestantism, driven into shrieking terror at the approach of a foe. She has too much faith in herself, and in Him who gives to her the power of truth, to expect every gay meadow to allure away her lambs from the fold.'
'I assure you that your gallant permission is unnecessary. I am beginning, at least, to believe that there is a Father in Heaven who educates His children; and I have no wish to interfere with His methods. Let my cousin go his way . . . he will learn something which he wanted, I doubt not, on his present path, even as I shall on mine. "Se tu segui la tua stella" is my motto. . . . Let it be his too, wherever the star may guide him. If it be a will-o'-the- wisp, and lead to the morass, he will only learn how to avoid morasses better for the future.'
'Ave Maris stella! It is the star of Bethlehem which he follows . . . the star of Mary, immaculate, all-loving!' . . . And he bowed his head reverently. 'Would that you, too, would submit yourself to that guidance! . . . You, too, would seem to want some loving heart whereon to rest.' . . .
Lancelot sighed. 'I am not a child, but a man; I want not a mother to pet, but a man to rule me.'
Slowly his companion raised his thin hand, and pointed to the crucifix, which stood at the other end of the apartment.
'Behold him!' and he bowed his head once more . . . and Lancelot, he knew not why, did the same . . . and yet in an instant he threw his head up proudly, and answered with George Fox's old reply to the Puritans,—
'I want a live Christ, not a dead one. . . . That is noble . . . beautiful . . . it may be true. . . . But it has no message for me.'
'He died for you.'
'I care for the world, and not myself.'
'He died for the world.'
'And has deserted it, as folks say now, and become—an absentee, performing His work by deputies. . . . Do not start; the blasphemy is not mine, but those who preach it. No wonder that the owners of the soil think it no shame to desert their estates, when preachers tell them that He to whom they say, all power is given in heaven and earth, has deserted His.'
'What would you have, my dear sir?' asked the father.
'What the Jews had. A king of my nation, and of the hearts of my nation, who would teach soldiers, artists, craftsmen, statesmen, poets, priests, if priests there must be. I want a human lord, who understands me and the millions round me, pities us, teaches us, orders our history, civilisation, development for us. I come to you, full of manhood, and you send me to a woman. I go to the Protestants, full of desires to right the world—and they begin to talk of the next life, and give up this as lost!'
A quiet smile lighted up the thin wan face, full of unfathomable thoughts; and he replied, again half to himself,—
'Am I God, to kill or to make alive, that thou sendest to me to recover a man of his leprosy? Farewell. You shall see your cousin here at noon to-morrow. You will not refuse my blessing, or my prayers, even though they be offered to a mother?'
'I will refuse nothing in the form of human love.' And the father blessed him fervently, and he went out. . . .
'What a man!' said he to himself, 'or rather the wreck of what a man! Oh, for such a heart, with the thews and sinews of a truly English brain!'
Next day he met Luke in that room. Their talk was short and sad. Luke was on the point of entering an order devoted especially to the worship of the Blessed Virgin.
'My father has cast me out . . . I must go to her feet. She will have mercy, though man has none.'
'But why enter the order? Why take an irrevocable step?'
'Because it is irrevocable; because I shall enter an utterly new life, in which old things shall pass away, and all things become new, and I shall forget the very names of Parent, Englishman, Citizen,—the very existence of that strange Babel of man's building, whose roar and moan oppress me every time I walk the street. Oh, for solitude, meditation, penance! Oh, to make up by bitter self-punishment my ingratitude to her who has been leading me unseen, for years, home to her bosom!—The all-prevailing mother, daughter of Gabriel, spouse of Deity, flower of the earth, whom I have so long despised! Oh, to follow the example of the blessed Mary of Oignies, who every day inflicted on her most holy person eleven hundred stripes in honour of that all-perfect maiden!'
'Such an honour, I could have thought, would have pleased better Kali, the murder-goddess of the Thugs,' thought Lancelot to himself; but he had not the heart to say it, and he only replied,—
'So torture propitiates the Virgin? That explains the strange story I read lately, of her having appeared in the Cevennes, and informed the peasantry that she had sent the potato disease on account of their neglecting her shrines; that unless they repented, she would next year destroy their cattle; and the third year, themselves.'
'Why not?' asked poor Luke.
'Why not, indeed? If God is to be capricious, proud, revengeful, why not the Son of God? And if the Son of God, why not His mother?'
'You judge spiritual feelings by the carnal test of the understanding; your Protestant horror of asceticism lies at the root of all you say. How can you comprehend the self-satisfaction, the absolute delight, of self-punishment?'
'So far from it, I have always had an infinite respect for asceticism, as a noble and manful thing—the only manful thing to my eyes left in popery; and fast dying out of that under Jesuit influence. You recollect the quarrel between the Tablet and the Jesuits, over Faber's unlucky honesty about St. Rose of Lima? . . . But, really, as long as you honour asceticism as a means of appeasing the angry deities, I shall prefer to St. Dominic's cuirass or St. Hedwiga's chilblains, John Mytton's two hours' crawl on the ice in his shirt, after a flock of wild ducks. They both endured like heroes; but the former for a selfish, if not a blasphemous end; the latter, as a man should, to test and strengthen his own powers of endurance. . . . There, I will say no more. Go your way, in God's name. There must be lessons to be learnt in all strong and self-restraining action. . . . So you will learn something from the scourge and the hair-shirt. We must all take the bitter medicine of suffering, I suppose.'
'And, therefore, I am the wiser, in forcing the draught on myself.'
'Provided it be the right draught, and do not require another and still bitterer one to expel the effects of the poison. I have no faith in people's doctoring themselves, either physically or spiritually.'
'I am not my own physician; I follow the rules of an infallible Church, and the examples of her canonised saints.'
'Well . . . perhaps they may have known what was best for themselves. . . . But as for you and me here, in the year 1849. . . . However, we shall argue on for ever. Forgive me if I have offended you.'
'I am not offended. The Catholic Church has always been a persecuted one.'
'Then walk with me a little way, and I will persecute you no more.'
'Where are you going?'
'To . . . To—' Lancelot had not the heart to say whither.
'To my father's! Ah! what a son I would have been to him now, in his extreme need! . . . And he will not let me! Lancelot, is it impossible to move him? I do not want to go home again . . . to live there . . . I could not face that, though I longed but this moment to do it. I cannot face the self-satisfied, pitying looks . . . the everlasting suspicion that they suspect me to be speaking untruths, or proselytising in secret. . . . Cruel and unjust!'
Lancelot thought of a certain letter of Luke's . . . but who was he, to break the bruised reed?
'No; I will not see him. Better thus; better vanish, and be known only according to the spirit by the spirits of saints and confessors, and their successors upon earth. No! I will die, and give no sign.'
'I must see somewhat more of you, indeed.'
'I will meet you here, then, two hours hence. Near that house—even along the way which leads to it—I cannot go. It would be too painful: too painful to think that you were walking towards it,— the old house where I was born and bred . . . and I shut out,—even though it be for the sake of the kingdom of heaven!'
'Or for the sake of your own share therein, my poor cousin!' thought Lancelot to himself, 'which is a very different matter.'
'Whither, after you have been—?' Luke could not get out the word home.
'To Claude Mellot's.'
'I will walk part of the way thither with you. But he is a very bad companion for you.'
'I can't help that. I cannot live; and I am going to turn painter. It is not the road in which to find a fortune; but still, the very sign-painters live somehow, I suppose. I am going this very afternoon to Claude Mellot, and enlist. I sold the last of my treasured MSS. to a fifth-rate magazine this morning, for what it would fetch. It has been like eating one's own children—but, at least, they have fed me. So now "to fresh fields and pastures new."'
CHAPTER XV: DEUS E MACHINA
When Lancelot reached the banker's a letter was put into his hand; it bore the Whitford postmark, and Mrs. Lavington's handwriting. He tore it open; it contained a letter from Argemone, which, it is needless to say, he read before her mother's:—
'My beloved! my husband!—Yes—though you may fancy me fickle and proud—I will call you so to the last; for were I fickle, I could have saved myself the agony of writing this; and as for pride, oh! how that darling vice has been crushed out of me! I have rolled at my mother's feet with bitter tears, and vain entreaties—and been refused; and yet I have obeyed her after all. We must write to each other no more. This one last letter must explain the forced silence which has been driving me mad with fears that you would suspect me. And now you may call me weak; but it is your love which has made me strong to do this—which has taught me to see with new intensity my duty, not only to you, but to every human being—to my parents. By this self-sacrifice alone can I atone to them for all my past undutifulness. Let me, then, thus be worthy of you. Hope that by this submission we may win even her to change. How calmly I write! but it is only my hand that is calm. As for my heart, read Tennyson's Fatima, and then know how I feel towards you! Yes, I love you—madly, the world would say. I seem to understand now how women have died of love. Ay, that indeed would be blessed; for then my spirit would seek out yours, and hover over it for ever! Farewell, beloved! and let me hear of you through your deeds. A feeling at my heart, which should not be, although it is, a sad one, tells me that we shall meet soon—soon.'
Stupefied and sickened, Lancelot turned carelessly to Mrs. Lavington's cover, whose blameless respectability thus uttered itself:—
'I cannot deceive you or myself by saying I regret that providential circumstances should have been permitted to break off a connection which I always felt to be most unsuitable; and I rejoice that the intercourse my dear child has had with you has not so far undermined her principles as to prevent her yielding the most filial obedience to my wishes on the point of her future correspondence with you. Hoping that all that has occurred will be truly blessed to you, and lead your thoughts to another world, and to a true concern for the safety of your immortal soul,
'I remain, yours truly,
'Another world!' said Lancelot to himself. 'It is most merciful of you, certainly, my dear madame, to put one in mind of the existence of another world, while such as you have their own way in this one!' and thrusting the latter epistle into the fire, he tried to collect his thoughts.
What had he lost? The oftener he asked himself, the less he found to unman him. Argemone's letters were so new a want, that the craving for them was not yet established. His intense imagination, resting on the delicious certainty of her faith, seemed ready to fill the silence with bright hopes and noble purposes. She herself had said that he would see her soon. But yet—but yet—why did that allusion to death strike chilly through him? They were but words,— a melancholy fancy, such as women love at times to play with. He would toss it from him. At least here was another reason for bestirring himself at once to win fame in the noble profession he had chosen.
And yet his brain reeled as he went upstairs to his uncle's private room.
There, however, he found a person closeted with the banker, whose remarkable appearance drove everything else out of his mind. He was a huge, shaggy, toil-worn man, the deep melancholy earnestness of whose rugged features reminded him almost ludicrously of one of Land-seer's bloodhounds. But withal there was a tenderness—a genial, though covert humour playing about his massive features, which awakened in Lancelot at first sight a fantastic longing to open his whole heart to him. He was dressed like a foreigner, but spoke English with perfect fluency. The banker sat listening, quite crestfallen, beneath his intense and melancholy gaze, in which, nevertheless, there twinkled some rays of kindly sympathy.
'It was all those foreign railways,' said Mr. Smith pensively.
'And it serves you quite right,' answered the stranger. 'Did I not warn you of the folly and sin of sinking capital in foreign countries while English land was crying out for tillage, and English poor for employment?'
'My dear friend' (in a deprecatory tone), 'it was the best possible investment I could make.'
'And pray, who told you that you were sent into the world to make investments?'
'But me no buts, or I won't stir a finger towards helping you. What are you going to do with this money if I procure it for you?'
'Work till I can pay back that poor fellow's fortune,' said the banker, earnestly pointing to Lancelot. 'And if I could clear my conscience of that, I would not care if I starved myself, hardly if my own children did.'
'Spoken like a man!' answered the stranger; 'work for that and I'll help you. Be a new man, once and for all, my friend. Don't even make this younker your first object. Say to yourself, not "I will invest this money where it shall pay me most, but I will invest it where it shall give most employment to English hands, and produce most manufactures for English bodies." In short, seek first the kingdom of God and His justice with this money of yours, and see if all other things, profits and suchlike included, are not added unto you.'
'And you are certain you can obtain the money?'
'My good friend the Begum of the Cannibal Islands has more than she knows what to do with; and she owes me a good turn, you know.'
'What are you jesting about now?'
'Did I never tell you? The new king of the Cannibal Islands, just like your European ones, ran away, and would neither govern himself nor let any one else govern; so one morning his ministers, getting impatient, ate him, and then asked my advice. I recommended them to put his mother on the throne, who, being old and tough, would run less danger; and since then everything has gone on smoothly as anywhere else.'
'Are you mad?' thought Lancelot to himself, as he stared at the speaker's matter-of-fact face.
'No, I am not mad, my young friend,' quoth he, facing right round upon him, as if he had divined his thoughts.
'I—I beg your pardon, I did not speak,' stammered Lancelot, abashed at a pair of eyes which could have looked down the boldest mesmerist in three seconds.
'I am perfectly well aware that you did not. I must have some talk with you: I've heard a good deal about you. You wrote those articles in the —- Review about George Sand, did you not?'
'Well, there was a great deal of noble feeling in them, and a great deal of abominable nonsense. You seem to be very anxious to reform society?'
'Don't you think you had better begin by reforming yourself?'
'Really, sir,' answered Lancelot, 'I am too old for that worn-out quibble. The root of all my sins has been selfishness and sloth. Am I to cure them by becoming still more selfish and slothful? What part of myself can I reform except my actions? and the very sin of my actions has been, as I take it, that I've been doing nothing to reform others; never fighting against the world, the flesh, and the devil, as your Prayer-book has it.'
'MY Prayer-book?' answered the stranger, with a quaint smile.
'Upon my word, Lancelot,' interposed the banker, with a frightened look, 'you must not get into an argument: you must be more respectful: you don't know to whom you are speaking.'
'And I don't much care,' answered he. 'Life is really too grim earnest in these days to stand on ceremony. I am sick of blind leaders of the blind, of respectable preachers to the respectable, who drawl out second-hand trivialities, which they neither practise nor wish to see practised. I've had enough all my life of Scribes and Pharisees in white cravats, laying on man heavy burdens, and grievous to be borne, and then not touching them themselves with one of their fingers.'
'Silence, sir!' roared the banker, while the stranger threw himself into a chair, and burst into a storm of laughter.
'Upon my word, friend Mammon, here's another of Hans Andersen's ugly ducks!'
'I really do not mean to be rude,' said Lancelot, recollecting himself, 'but I am nearly desperate. If your heart is in the right place, you will understand me! if not, the less we talk to each other the better.'
'Most true,' answered the stranger; 'and I do understand you; and if, as I hope, we see more of each other henceforth, we will see if we cannot solve one or two of these problems between us.'
At this moment Lancelot was summoned downstairs, and found, to his great pleasure, Tregarva waiting for him. That worthy personage bowed to Lancelot reverently and distantly.
'I am quite ashamed to intrude myself upon you, sir, but I could not rest without coming to ask whether you have had any news.'—He broke down at this point in the sentence, but Lancelot understood him.
'I have no news,' he said. 'But what do you mean by standing off in that way, as if we were not old and fast friends? Remember, I am as poor as you are now; you may look me in the face and call me your equal, if you will, or your inferior; I shall not deny it.'
'Pardon me, sir,' answered Tregarva; 'but I never felt what a real substantial thing rank is, as I have since this sad misfortune of yours.'
'And I have never till now found out its worthlessness.'
'You're wrong, sir, you are wrong; look at the difference between yourself and me. When you've lost all you have, and seven times more, you're still a gentleman. No man can take that from you. You may look the proudest duchess in the land in the face, and claim her as your equal; while I, sir,—I don't mean, though, to talk of myself—but suppose that you had loved a pious and a beautiful lady, and among all your worship of her, and your awe of her, had felt that you were worthy of her, that you could become her comforter, and her pride, and her joy, if it wasn't for that accursed gulf that men had put between you, that you were no gentleman; that you didn't know how to walk, and how to pronounce, and when to speak, and when to be silent, not even how to handle your own knife and fork without disgusting her, or how to keep your own body clean and sweet—Ah, sir, I see it now as I never did before, what a wall all these little defects build up round a poor man; how he longs and struggles to show himself as he is at heart, and cannot, till he feels sometimes as if he was enchanted, pent up, like folks in fairy tales, in the body of some dumb beast. But, sir,' he went on, with a concentrated bitterness which Lancelot had never seen in him before, 'just because this gulf which rank makes is such a deep one, therefore it looks to me all the more devilish; not that I want to pull down any man to my level; I despise my own level too much; I want to rise; I want those like me to rise with me. Let the rich be as rich as they will.—I, and those like me, covet not money, but manners. Why should not the workman be a gentleman, and a workman still? Why are they to be shut out from all that is beautiful, and delicate, and winning, and stately?'
'Now perhaps,' said Lancelot, 'you begin to understand what I was driving at on that night of the revel?'
'It has come home to me lately, sir, bitterly enough. If you knew what had gone on in me this last fortnight, you would know that I had cause to curse the state of things which brings a man up a savage against his will, and cuts him off, as if he were an ape or a monster, from those for whom the same Lord died, and on whom the same Spirit rests. Is that God's will, sir? No, it is the devil's will. "Those whom God hath joined, let no man put asunder."'
Lancelot coloured, for he remembered with how much less reason he had been lately invoking in his own cause those very words. He was at a loss for an answer; but seeing, to his relief, that Tregarva had returned to his usual impassive calm, he forced him to sit down, and began questioning him as to his own prospects and employment.
About them Tregarva seemed hopeful enough. He had found out a Wesleyan minister in town who knew him, and had, by his means, after assisting for a week or two in the London City Mission, got some similar appointment in a large manufacturing town. Of the state of things he spoke more sadly than ever. 'The rich cannot guess, sir, how high ill-feeling is rising in these days. It's not only those who are outwardly poorest who long for change; the middling people, sir, the small town shopkeepers especially, are nearly past all patience. One of the City Mission assured me that he has been watching them these several years past, and that nothing could beat their fortitude and industry, and their determination to stand peaceably by law and order; but yet, this last year or two, things are growing too bad to bear. Do what they will, they cannot get their bread; and when a man cannot get that, sir—'
'But what do you think is the reason of it?'
'How should I tell, sir? But if I had to say, I should say this— just what they say themselves—that there are too many of them. Go where you will, in town or country, you'll find half-a-dozen shops struggling for a custom that would only keep up one, and so they're forced to undersell one another. And when they've got down prices all they can by fair means, they're forced to get them down lower by foul—to sand the sugar, and sloe-leave the tea, and put—Satan only that prompts 'em knows what—into the bread; and then they don't thrive—they can't thrive; God's curse must be on them. They begin by trying to oust each other, and eat each other up; and while they're eating up their neighbours, their neighbours eat up them; and so they all come to ruin together.'
'Why, you talk like Mr. Mill himself, Tregarva; you ought to have been a political economist, and not a City missionary. By the bye, I don't like that profession for you.'
'It's the Lord's work, sir. It's the very sending to the Gentiles that the Lord promised me.'
'I don't doubt it, Paul; but you are meant for other things, if not better. There are plenty of smaller men than you to do that work. Do you think that God would have given you that strength, that brain, to waste on a work which could be done without them? Those limbs would certainly be good capital for you, if you turned a live model at the Academy. Perhaps you'd better be mine; but you can't even be that if you go to Manchester.'
The giant looked hopelessly down at his huge limbs. 'Well! God only knows what use they are of just now. But as for the brains, sir—in much learning is much sorrow. One had much better work than read, I find. If I read much more about what men might be, and are not, and what English soil might be, and is not, I shall go mad. And that puts me in mind of one thing I came here for, though, like a poor rude country fellow as I am, I clean forgot it a thinking of- -Look here, sir; you've given me a sight of books in my time, and God bless you for it. But now I hear that—that you are determined to be a poor man like us; and that you shan't be, while Paul Tregarva has ought of yours. So I've just brought all the books back, and there they lie in the hall; and may God reward you for the loan of them to his poor child! And so, sir, farewell;' and he rose to go.
'No, Paul; the books and you shall never part.'
'And I say, sir, the books and you shall never part.'
'Then we two can never part'—and a sudden impulse flashed over him- -'and we will not part, Paul! The only man whom I utterly love, and trust, and respect on the face of God's earth, is you; and I cannot lose sight of you. If we are to earn our bread, let us earn it together; if we are to endure poverty, and sorrow, and struggle to find out the way of bettering these wretched millions round us, let us learn our lesson together, and help each other to spell it out.'
'Do you mean what you say?' asked Paul slowly.
'Then I say what you say. Where thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge. Come what will, I will be your servant, for good luck or bad, for ever.'
'My equal, Paul, not my servant.'
'I know my place, sir. When I am as learned and as well-bred as you, I shall not refuse to call myself your equal; and the sooner that day comes, the better I shall be pleased. Till then I am your friend and your brother; but I am your scholar too, and I shall not set up myself against my master.'
'I have learnt more of you, Paul, than ever you have learnt of me. But be it as you will; only whatever you may call yourself, we must eat at the same table, live in the same room, and share alike all this world's good things—or we shall have no right to share together this world's bad things. If that is your bargain, there is my hand on it.'
'Amen!' quoth Tregarva; and the two young men joined hands in that sacred bond—now growing rarer and rarer year by year—the utter friendship of two equal manful hearts.
'And now, sir, I have promised—and you would have me keep my promise—to go and work for the City Mission in Manchester—at least, for the next month, till a young man's place who has just left, is filled up. Will you let me go for that time? and then, if you hold your present mind, we will join home and fortunes thenceforth, and go wherever the Lord shall send us. There's work enough of His waiting to be done. I don't doubt but if we are willing and able, He will set us about the thing we're meant for.'
As Lancelot opened the door for him, he lingered on the steps, and grasping his hand, said, in a low, earnest voice: 'The Lord be with you, sir. Be sure that He has mighty things in store for you, or He would not have brought you so low in the days of your youth.'
'And so,' as John Bunyan has it, 'he went on his way;' and Lancelot saw him no more till—but I must not outrun the order of time.
After all, this visit came to Lancelot timely. It had roused him to hope, and turned off his feelings from the startling news he had just heard. He stepped along arm in arm with Luke, cheerful, and fate-defiant, and as he thought of Tregarva's complaints,—
'The beautiful?' he said to himself, 'they shall have it! At least they shall be awakened to feel their need of it, their right to it. What a high destiny, to be the artist of the people! to devote one's powers of painting, not to mimicking obsolete legends, Pagan or Popish, but to representing to the working men of England the triumphs of the Past and the yet greater triumphs of the Future!'
Luke began at once questioning him about his father.
'And is he contrite and humbled? Does he see that he has sinned?'
'It is not for us to judge; but surely it must have been some sin or other of his which has drawn down such a sore judgment on him.'
Lancelot smiled; but Luke went on, not perceiving him.
'Ah! we cannot find out for him. Nor has he, alas! as a Protestant, much likelihood of finding out for himself. In our holy church he would have been compelled to discriminate his faults by methodic self-examination, and lay them one by one before his priest for advice and pardon, and so start a new and free man once more.'
'Do you think,' asked Lancelot with a smile, 'that he who will not confess his faults either to God or to himself, would confess them to man? And would his priest honestly tell him what he really wants to know? which sin of his has called down this so-called judgment? It would be imputed, I suppose, to some vague generality, to inattention to religious duties, to idolatry of the world, and so forth. But a Romish priest would be the last person, I should think, who could tell him fairly, in the present case, the cause of his affliction; and I question whether he would give a patient hearing to any one who told it him.'
'How so? Though, indeed, I have remarked that people are perfectly willing to be told they are miserable sinners, and to confess themselves such, in a general way; but if the preacher once begins to specify, to fix on any particular act or habit, he is accused of personality or uncharitableness; his hearers are ready to confess guilty to any sin but the very one with which he charges them. But, surely, this is just what I am urging against you Protestants—just what the Catholic use of confession obviates.'
'Attempts to do so, you mean!' answered Lancelot. 'But what if your religion preaches formally that which only remains in our religion as a fast-dying superstition?—That those judgments of God, as you call them, are not judgments at all in any fair use of the word, but capricious acts of punishment on the part of Heaven, which have no more reference to the fault which provokes them, than if you cut off a man's finger because he made a bad use of his tongue. That is part, but only a part, of what I meant just now, by saying that people represent God as capricious, proud, revengeful.'
'But do not Protestants themselves confess that our sins provoke God's anger?'
'Your common creed, when it talks rightly of God as one "who has no passions," ought to make you speak more reverently of the possibility of any act of ours disturbing the everlasting equanimity of the absolute Love. Why will men so often impute to God the miseries which they bring upon themselves?'
'Because, I suppose, their pride makes them more willing to confess themselves sinners than fools.'
'Right, my friend; they will not remember that it is of "their pleasant vices that God makes whips to scourge them." Oh, I at least have felt the deep wisdom of that saying of Wilhelm Meister's harper, that it is
"Voices from the depth of NATURE borne Which woe upon the guilty head proclaim."
Of nature—of those eternal laws of hers which we daily break. Yes! it is not because God's temper changes, but because God's universe is unchangeable, that such as I, such as your poor father, having sown the wind, must reap the whirlwind. I have fed my self-esteem with luxuries and not with virtue, and, losing them, have nothing left. He has sold himself to a system which is its own punishment. And yet the last place in which he will look for the cause of his misery is in that very money-mongering to which he now clings as frantically as ever. But so it is throughout the world. Only look down over that bridge-parapet, at that huge black-mouthed sewer, vomiting its pestilential riches across the mud. There it runs, and will run, hurrying to the sea vast stores of wealth, elaborated by Nature's chemistry into the ready materials of food; which proclaim, too, by their own foul smell, God's will that they should be buried out of sight in the fruitful all-regenerating grave of earth: there it runs, turning them all into the seeds of pestilence, filth, and drunkenness.—And then, when it obeys the laws which we despise, and the pestilence is come at last, men will pray against it, and confess it to be "a judgment for their sins;" but if you ask WHAT sin, people will talk about "les voiles d'airain," as Fourier says, and tell you that it is presumptuous to pry into God's secret counsels, unless, perhaps, some fanatic should inform you that the cholera has been drawn down on the poor by the endowment of Maynooth by the rich.'
'It is most fearful, indeed, to think that these diseases should be confined to the poor—that a man should be exposed to cholera, typhus, and a host of attendant diseases, simply because he is born into the world an artisan; while the rich, by the mere fact of money, are exempt from such curses, except when they come in contact with those whom they call on Sunday "their brethren," and on week days the "masses."
'Thank Heaven that you do see that,—that in a country calling itself civilised and Christian, pestilence should be the peculiar heritage of the poor! It is past all comment.'
'And yet are not these pestilences a judgment, even on them, for their dirt and profligacy?'
'And how should they be clean without water? And how can you wonder if their appetites, sickened with filth and self-disgust, crave after the gin-shop for temporary strength, and then for temporary forgetfulness? Every London doctor knows that I speak the truth; would that every London preacher would tell that truth from his pulpit!'
'Then would you too say, that God punishes one class for the sins of another?'
'Some would say,' answered Lancelot, half aside, 'that He may be punishing them for not demanding their RIGHT to live like human beings, to all those social circumstances which shall not make their children's life one long disease. But are not these pestilences a judgment on the rich, too, in the truest sense of the word? Are they not the broad, unmistakable seal to God's opinion of a state of society which confesses its economic relations to be so utterly rotten and confused, that it actually cannot afford to save yearly millions of pounds' worth of the materials of food, not to mention thousands of human lives? Is not every man who allows such things hastening the ruin of the society in which he lives, by helping to foster the indignation and fury of its victims? Look at that group of stunted, haggard artisans, who are passing us. What if one day they should call to account the landlords whose coveteousness and ignorance make their dwellings hells on earth?'
By this time they had reached the artist's house.
Luke refused to enter. . . . 'He had done with this world, and the painters of this world.' . . . And with a tearful last farewell, he turned away up the street, leaving Lancelot to gaze at his slow, painful steps, and abject, earth-fixed mien.
'Ah!' thought Lancelot, 'here is the end of YOUR anthropology! At first, your ideal man is an angel. But your angel is merely an unsexed woman; and so you are forced to go back to the humanity after all—but to a woman, not a man? And this, in the nineteenth century, when men are telling us that the poetic and enthusiastic have become impossible, and that the only possible state of the world henceforward will be a universal good-humoured hive, of the Franklin-Benthamite religion . . . a vast prosaic Cockaigne of steam mills for grinding sausages—for those who can get at them. And all the while, in spite of all Manchester schools, and high and dry orthodox schools, here are the strangest phantasms, new and old, sane and insane, starting up suddenly into live practical power, to give their prosaic theories the lie—Popish conversions, Mormonisms, Mesmerisms, Californias, Continental revolutions, Paris days of June . . . Ye hypocrites! ye can discern the face of the sky, and yet ye cannot discern the signs of this time!'
He was ushered upstairs to the door of his studio, at which he knocked, and was answered by a loud 'Come in.' Lancelot heard a rustle as he entered, and caught sight of a most charming little white foot retreating hastily through the folding doors into the inner room.
The artist, who was seated at his easel, held up his brush as a signal of silence, and did not even raise his eyes till he had finished the touches on which he was engaged.
'And now—what do I see!—the last man I should have expected! I thought you were far down in the country. And what brings you to me with such serious and business-like looks?'
'I am a penniless youth—'
'Ruined to my last shilling, and I want to turn artist.'
'Oh, ye gracious powers! Come to my arms, brother at last with me in the holy order of those who must work or starve. Long have I wept in secret over the pernicious fulness of your purse!'
'Dry your tears, then, now,' said Lancelot, 'for I neither have ten pounds in the world, nor intend to have till I can earn them.'
'Artist!' ran on Mellot; 'ah! you shall be an artist, indeed! You shall stay with me and become the English Michael Angelo; or, if you are fool enough, go to Rome, and utterly eclipse Overbeck, and throw Schadow for ever into the shade.'