This etext was produced from the 1913 Hodder and Stoughton edition by David Price, email firstname.lastname@example.org
THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARK RUTHERFORD EDITED BY HIS FRIEND REUBEN SHAPCOTT
PREFACE TO THE SECOND EDITION
The present edition is a reprint of the first, with corrections of several mistakes which had been overlooked.
There is one observation which I may perhaps be permitted to make on re-reading after some years this autobiography. Rutherford, at any rate in his earlier life, was an example of the danger and the folly of cultivating thoughts and reading books to which he was not equal, and which tend to make a man lonely.
It is all very well that remarkable persons should occupy themselves with exalted subjects, which are out of the ordinary road which ordinary humanity treads; but we who are not remarkable make a very great mistake if we have anything to do with them. If we wish to be happy, and have to live with average men and women, as most of us have to live, we must learn to take an interest in the topics which concern average men and women. We think too much of ourselves. We ought not to sacrifice a single moment's pleasure in our attempt to do something which is too big for us, and as a rule, men and women are always attempting what is too big for them. To ninety-nine young men out of a hundred, or perhaps ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine out of a hundred thousand, the wholesome healthy doctrine is, "Don't bother yourselves with what is beyond you; try to lead a sweet, clean, wholesome life, keep yourselves in health above everything, stick to your work, and when your day is done amuse and refresh yourselves."
It is not only a duty to ourselves, but it is a duty to others to take this course. Great men do the world much good, but not without some harm, and we have no business to be troubling ourselves with their dreams if we have duties which lie nearer home amongst persons to whom these dreams are incomprehensible. Many a man goes into his study, shuts himself up with his poetry or his psychology, comes out, half understanding what he has read, is miserable because he cannot find anybody with whom he can talk about it, and misses altogether the far more genuine joy which he could have obtained from a game with his children or listening to what his wife had to tell him about her neighbours.
"Lor, miss, you haven't looked at your new bonnet to-day," said a servant girl to her young mistress.
"No, why should I? I did not want to go out."
"Oh, how can you? why, I get mine out and look at it every night."
She was happy for a whole fortnight with a happiness cheap at a very high price.
That same young mistress was very caustic upon the women who block the pavement outside drapers' shops, but surely she was unjust. They always seem unconscious, to be enjoying themselves intensely and most innocently, more so probably than an audience at a Wagner concert. Many persons with refined minds are apt to depreciate happiness, especially if it is of "a low type." Broadly speaking, it is the one thing worth having, and low or high, if it does no mischief, is better than the most spiritual misery.
Metaphysics and theology, including all speculations on the why and the wherefore, optimism, pessimism, freedom, necessity, causality, and so forth, are not only for the most part loss of time, but frequently ruinous. It is no answer to say that these things force themselves upon us, and that to every question we are bound to give or try to give an answer. It is true, although strange, that there are multitudes of burning questions which we must do our best to ignore, to forget their existence; and it is not more strange, after all, than many other facts in this wonderfully mysterious and defective existence of ours. One fourth of life is intelligible, the other three-fourths is unintelligible darkness; and our earliest duty is to cultivate the habit of not looking round the corner.
"Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God hath already accepted thy works. Let thy garments be always white, and let not thy head lack ointment. Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which He hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in life."
This is the night when I must die, And great Orion walketh high In silent glory overhead: He'll set just after I am dead.
A week this night, I'm in my grave: Orion walketh o'er the wave: Down in the dark damp earth I lie, While he doth march in majesty.
A few weeks hence and spring will come; The earth will bright array put on Of daisy and of primrose bright, And everything which loves the light.
And some one to my child will say, "You'll soon forget that you could play Beethoven; let us hear a strain From that slow movement once again."
And so she'll play that melody, While I among the worms do lie; Dead to them all, for ever dead; The churchyard clay dense overhead.
I once did think there might be mine One friendship perfect and divine; Alas! that dream dissolved in tears Before I'd counted twenty years.
For I was ever commonplace; Of genius never had a trace; My thoughts the world have never fed, Mere echoes of the book last read.
Those whom I knew I cannot blame: If they are cold, I am the same: How could they ever show to me More than a common courtesy?
There is no deed which I have done; There is no love which I have won, To make them for a moment grieve That I this night their earth must leave.
Thus, moaning at the break of day, A man upon his deathbed lay; A moment more and all was still; The Morning Star came o'er the hill.
But when the dawn lay on his face, It kindled an immortal grace; As if in death that Life were shown Which lives not in the great alone.
Orion sank down in the west Just as he sank into his rest; I closed in solitude his eyes, And watched him till the sun's uprise.
Now that I have completed my autobiography up to the present year, I sometimes doubt whether it is right to publish it. Of what use is it, many persons will say, to present to the world what is mainly a record of weaknesses and failures? If I had any triumphs to tell; if I could show how I had risen superior to poverty and suffering; if, in short, I were a hero of any kind whatever, I might perhaps be justified in communicating my success to mankind, and stimulating them to do as I have done. But mine is the tale of a commonplace life, perplexed by many problems I have never solved; disturbed by many difficulties I have never surmounted; and blotted by ignoble concessions which are a constant regret.
I have decided, however, to let the manuscript remain. I will not destroy it, although I will not take the responsibility of printing it. Somebody may think it worth preserving; and there are two reasons why they may think so, if there are no others. In the first place it has some little historic value, for I feel increasingly that the race to which I belonged is fast passing away, and that the Dissenting minister of the present day is a different being altogether from the Dissenting minister of forty years ago.
In the next place, I have observed that the mere knowing that other people have been tried as we have been tried is a consolation to us, and that we are relieved by the assurance that our sufferings are not special and peculiar, but common to us with many others. Death has always been a terror to me, and at times, nay generally, religion and philosophy have been altogether unavailing to mitigate the terror in any way. But it has been a comfort to me to reflect that whatever death may be, it is the inheritance of the whole human race; that I am not singled out, but shall merely have to pass through what the weakest have had to pass through before me. In the worst of maladies, worst at least to me, those which are hypochondriacal, the healing effect which is produced by the visit of a friend who can simply say, "I have endured all that," is most marked. So it is not impossible that some few whose experience has been like mine may, by my example, be freed from that sense of solitude which they find so depressing.
I was born, just before the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was opened, in a small country town in one of the Midland shires. It is now semi-manufacturing, at the junction of three or four lines of railway, with hardly a trace left of what it was fifty years ago. It then consisted of one long main street, with a few other streets branching from it at right-angles. Through this street the mail-coach rattled at night, and the huge waggon rolled through it, drawn by four horses, which twice a week travelled to and from London and brought us what we wanted from the great and unknown city.
My father and mother belonged to the ordinary English middle class of well-to-do shop-keepers. My mother's family came from a little distance, but my father's had lived in those parts for centuries. I remember perfectly well how business used to be carried on in those days. There was absolutely no competition, and although nobody in the town who was in trade got rich, except the banker and the brewer, nearly everybody was tolerably well off, and certainly not pressed with care as their successors are now. The draper, who lived a little way above us, was a deacon in our chapel, and every morning, soon after breakfast, he would start off for his walk of about four miles, stopping by the way to talk to his neighbours about the events of the day. At eleven o'clock or thereabouts he would return and would begin work. Everybody took an hour for dinner—between one and two—and at that time, especially on a hot July afternoon, the High Street was empty from end to end, and the profoundest peace reigned.
My life as a child falls into two portions, sharply divided—week-day and Sunday. During the week-day I went to the public school, where I learned little or nothing that did me much good. The discipline of the school was admirable, and the headmaster was penetrated with a most lofty sense of duty, but the methods of teaching were very imperfect. In Latin we had to learn the Eton Latin Grammar till we knew every word of it by heart, but we did scarcely any retranslation from English into Latin. Much of our time was wasted on the merest trifles, such as learning to write, for example, like copperplate, and, still more extraordinary, in copying the letters of the alphabet as they are used in printing.
But we had two half-holidays in the week, which seem to me now to have been the happiest part of my life. A river ran through the town, and on summer Wednesdays and Saturdays we wandered along its banks for miles, alternately fishing and bathing. I remember whole afternoons in June, July, and August, passed half-naked or altogether naked in the solitary meadows and in the water; I remember the tumbling weir with the deep pool at the bottom in which we dived; I remember, too, the place where we used to swim across the river with our clothes on our heads, because there was no bridge near, and the frequent disaster of a slip of the braces in the middle of the water, so that shirt, jacket, and trousers were soaked, and we had to lie on the grass in the broiling sun without a rag on us till everything was dry again.
In winter our joys were of a different kind but none the less delightful. If it was a frost, we had skating; not like skating on a London pond, but over long reaches, and if the locks had not intervened, we might have gone a day's journey on the ice without a stoppage. If there was no ice, we had football, and what was still better, we could get up a steeplechase—on foot straight across hedge and ditch.
In after-years, when I lived in London, I came to know children who went to school in Gower Street, and travelled backwards and forwards by omnibus—children who had no other recreation than an occasional visit to the Zoological Gardens, or a somewhat sombre walk up to Hampstead to see their aunt; and I have often regretted that they never had any experience of those perfect poetic pleasures which the boy enjoys whose childhood is spent in the country, and whose home is there. A country boarding-school is something altogether different.
On the Sundays, however, the compensation came. It was a season of unmixed gloom. My father and mother were rigid Calvinistic Independents, and on that day no newspaper nor any book more secular than the Evangelical Magazine was tolerated. Every preparation for the Sabbath had been made on the Saturday, to avoid as much as possible any work. The meat was cooked beforehand, so that we never had a hot dinner even in the coldest weather; the only thing hot which was permitted was a boiled suet pudding, which cooked itself while we were at chapel, and some potatoes which were prepared after we came home. Not a letter was opened unless it was clearly evident that it was not on business, and for opening these an apology was always offered that it was possible they might contain some announcement of sickness. If on cursory inspection they appeared to be ordinary letters, although they might be from relations or friends, they were put away.
After family prayer and breakfast the business of the day began with the Sunday-school at nine o'clock. We were taught our Catechism and Bible there till a quarter past ten. We were then marched across the road into the chapel, a large old-fashioned building dating from the time of Charles II. The floor was covered with high pews. The roof was supported by three or four tall wooden pillars which ran from the ground to the ceiling, and the galleries by shorter pillars. There was a large oak pulpit on one side against the wall, and down below, immediately under the minister, was the "singing pew," where the singers and musicians sat, the musicians being performers on the clarionet, flute, violin, and violoncello. Right in front was a long enclosure, called the communion pew, which was usually occupied by a number of the poorer members of the congregation.
There were three services every Sunday, besides intermitting prayer- meetings, but these I did not as yet attend. Each service consisted of a hymn, reading the Bible, another hymn, a prayer, the sermon, a third hymn, and a short final prayer. The reading of the Bible was unaccompanied with any observations or explanations, and I do not remember that I ever once heard a mistranslation corrected.
The first, or long prayer, as it was called, was a horrible hypocrisy, and it was a sore tax on the preacher to get through it. Anything more totally unlike the model recommended to us in the New Testament cannot well be imagined. It generally began with a confession that we were all sinners, but no individual sins were ever confessed, and then ensued a kind of dialogue with God, very much resembling the speeches which in later years I have heard in the House of Commons from the movers and seconders of addresses to the Crown at the opening of Parliament.
In all the religion of that day nothing was falser than the long prayer. Direct appeal to God can only be justified when it is passionate. To come maundering into His presence when we have nothing particular to say is an insult, upon which we should never presume if we had a petition to offer to any earthly personage. We should not venture to take up His time with commonplaces or platitudes; but our minister seemed to consider that the Almighty, who had the universe to govern, had more leisure at His command that the idlest lounger at a club. Nobody ever listened to this performance. I was a good child on the whole, but I am sure I did not; and if the chapel were now in existence, there might be traced on the flap of the pew in which we sat many curious designs due to these dreary performances.
The sermon was not much better. It generally consisted of a text, which was a mere peg for a discourse, that was pretty much the same from January to December. The minister invariably began with the fall of man; propounded the scheme of redemption, and ended by depicting in the morning the blessedness of the saints, and in the evening the doom of the lost. There was a tradition that in the morning there should be "experience"—that is to say, comfort for the elect, and that the evening should be appropriated to their less fortunate brethren.
The evening service was the most trying to me of all these. I never could keep awake, and knew that to sleep under the Gospel was a sin. The chapel was lighted in winter by immense chandeliers with tiers of candles all round. These required perpetual snuffing, and I can see the old man going round the chandeliers in the middle of the service with a mighty pair of snuffers which opened and shut with a loud click. How I envied him because he had semi-secular occupation which prevented that terrible drowsiness! How I envied the pew-opener, who was allowed to stand at the vestry door, and could slip into the vestry every now and then, or even into the burial-ground if he heard irreverent boys playing there! The atmosphere of the chapel on hot nights was most foul, and this added to my discomfort. Oftentimes in winter, when no doors or windows were open, I have seen the glass panes streaming with wet inside, and women carried out fainting.
On rare occasions I was allowed to go with my father when he went into the villages to preach. As a deacon he was also a lay-preacher, and I had the ride in the gig out and home, and tea at a farm-house.
Perhaps I shall not have a better opportunity to say that, with all these drawbacks, my religious education did confer upon me some positive advantages. The first was a rigid regard for truthfulness. My parents never would endure a lie or the least equivocation. The second was purity of life, and I look upon this as a simply incalculable gain. Impurity was not an excusable weakness in the society in which I lived; it was a sin for which dreadful punishment was reserved. The reason for my virtue may have been a wrong reason, but, anyhow, I was saved, and being saved, much more was saved than health and peace of mind.
To this day I do not know where to find a weapon strong enough to subdue the tendency to impurity in young men; and although I cannot tell them what I do not believe, I hanker sometimes after the old prohibitions and penalties. Physiological penalties are too remote, and the subtler penalties—the degradation, the growth of callousness to finer pleasures, the loss of sensitiveness to all that is most nobly attractive in woman—are too feeble to withstand temptation when it lies in ambush like a garrotter, and has the reason stunned in a moment.
The only thing that can be done is to make the conscience of a boy generally tender, so that he shrinks instinctively from the monstrous injustice of contributing for the sake of his own pleasure to the ruin of another. As soon as manhood dawns, he must also have his attention absorbed on some object which will divert his thoughts intellectually or ideally; and by slight yet constant pressure, exercised not by fits and starts, but day after day, directly and indirectly, his father must form an antipathy in him to brutish, selfish sensuality. Above all, there must be no toying with passion, and no books permitted, without condemnation and warning, which are not of a heroic turn. When the boy becomes a man he may read Byron without danger. To a youth he is fatal.
Before leaving this subject I may observe, that parents greatly err by not telling their children a good many things which they ought to know. Had I been taught when I was young a few facts about myself, which I only learned accidentally long afterwards, a good deal of misery might have been spared me.
Nothing particular happened to me till I was about fourteen, when I was told it was time I became converted. Conversion, amongst the Independents and other Puritan sects, is supposed to be a kind of miracle wrought in the heart by the influence of the Holy Spirit, by which the man becomes something altogether different to what he was previously. It affects, or should affect, his character; that is to say, he ought after conversion to be better in every way than he was before; but this is not considered as its main consequence. In its essence it is a change in the emotions and increased vividness of belief. It is now altogether untrue. Yet it is an undoubted fact that in earlier days, and, indeed, in rare cases, as late as the time of my childhood, it was occasionally a reality.
It is possible to imagine that under the preaching of Paul sudden conviction of a life misspent may have been produced with sudden personal attachment to the Galilean who, until then, had been despised. There may have been prompt release of unsuspected powers, and as prompt an imprisonment for ever of meaner weaknesses and tendencies; the result being literally a putting off of the old, and a putting on of the new man. Love has always been potent to produce such a transformation, and the exact counterpart of conversion, as it was understood by the apostles, may be seen whenever a man is redeemed from vice by attachment to some woman whom he worships, or when a girl is reclaimed from idleness and vanity by becoming a mother.
But conversion, as it was understood by me and as it is now understood, is altogether unmeaning. I knew that I had to be "a child of God," and after a time professed myself to be one, but I cannot call to mind that I was anything else than I always had been, save that I was perhaps a little more hypocritical; not in the sense that I professed to others what I knew I did not believe, but in the sense that I professed it to myself. I was obliged to declare myself convinced of sin; convinced of the efficacy of the atonement; convinced that I was forgiven; convinced that the Holy Ghost was shed abroad in my heart; and convinced of a great many other things which were the merest phrases.
However, the end of it was, that I was proposed for acceptance, and two deacons were deputed, in accordance with the usual custom, to wait upon me and ascertain my fitness for membership. What they said and what I said has now altogether vanished; but I remember with perfect distinctness the day on which I was admitted. It was the custom to demand of each candidate a statement of his or her experience. I had no experience to give; and I was excused on the grounds that I had been the child of pious parents, and consequently had not undergone that convulsion which those, not favoured like myself, necessarily underwent when they were called.
I was now expected to attend all those extra services which were specially for the church. I stayed to the late prayer-meeting on Sunday; I went to the prayer-meeting on week-days, and also to private prayer-meetings. These services were not interesting to me for their own sake. I thought they were, but what I really liked was clanship and the satisfaction of belonging to a society marked off from the great world.
It must also be added that the evening meetings afforded us many opportunities for walking home with certain young women, who, I am sorry to say, were a more powerful attraction, not to me only, but to others, than the prospect of hearing brother Holderness, the travelling draper, confess crimes which, to say the truth, although they were many according to his own account, were never given in that detail which would have made his confession of some value. He never prayed without telling all of us that there was no health in him, and that his soul was a mass of putrefying sores; but everybody thought the better of him for his self-humiliation. One actual indiscretion, however, brought home to him would have been visited by suspension or expulsion.
It was necessary that an occupation should be found for me, and after much deliberation it was settled that I should "go into the ministry." I had joined the church, I had "engaged in prayer" publicly, and although I had not set up for being extraordinarily pious, I was thought to be as good as most of the young men who professed to have a mission to regenerate mankind.
Accordingly, after some months of preparation, I was taken to a Dissenting College not very far from where we lived. It was a large old-fashioned house with a newer building annexed, and was surrounded with a garden and with meadows. Each student had a separate room, and all had their meals together in a common hall. Altogether there were about forty of us. The establishment consisted of a President, an elderly gentleman who had an American degree of doctor of divinity, and who taught the various branches of theology. He was assisted by three professors, who imparted to us as much Greek, Latin, and mathematics as it was considered that we ought to know. Behold me, then, beginning a course of training which was to prepare me to meet the doubts of the nineteenth century; to be the guide of men; to advise them in their perplexities; to suppress their tempestuous lusts; to lift them above their petty cares, and to lead them heavenward!
About the Greek and Latin and the secular part of the college discipline I will say nothing, except that it was generally inefficient. The theological and Biblical teaching was a sham. We had come to the college in the first place to learn the Bible. Our whole existence was in future to be based upon that book; our lives were to be passed in preaching it. I will venture to say that there was no book less understood either by students or professors. The President had a course of lectures, delivered year after year to successive generations of his pupils, upon its authenticity and inspiration. They were altogether remote from the subject; and afterwards, when I came to know what the difficulties of belief really were, I found that these essays, which were supposed to be a triumphant confutation of the sceptic, were a mere sword of lath. They never touched the question, and if any doubts suggested themselves to the audience, nobody dared to give them tongue, lest the expression of them should beget a suspicion of heresy.
I remember also some lectures on the proof of the existence of God and on the argument from design; all of which, when my mind was once awakened, were as irrelevant as the chattering of sparrows. When I did not even know who or what this God was, and could not bring my lips to use the word with any mental honesty, of what service was the "watch argument" to me? Very lightly did the President pass over all these initial difficulties of his religion. I see him now, a gentleman with lightish hair, with a most mellifluous voice and a most pastoral manner, reading his prim little tracts to us directed against the "shallow infidel" who seemed to deny conclusions so obvious that we were certain he could not be sincere, and those of us who had never seen an infidel might well be pardoned for supposing that he must always be wickedly blind.
About a dozen of these tracts settled the infidel and the whole mass of unbelief from the time of Celsus downwards. The President's task was all the easier because he knew nothing of German literature; and, indeed, the word "German" was a term of reproach signifying something very awful, although nobody knew exactly what it was.
Systematic theology was the next science to which the President directed us. We used a sort of Calvinistic manual which began by setting forth that mankind was absolutely in God's power. He was our maker, and we had no legal claim whatever to any consideration from Him. The author then mechanically built up the Calvinistic creed, step by step, like a house of cards. Systematic theology was the great business of our academical life. We had to read sermons to the President in class, and no sermon was considered complete and proper unless it unfolded what was called the scheme of redemption from beginning to end.
So it came to pass that about the Bible, as I have already said, we were in darkness. It was a magazine of texts, and those portions of it which contributed nothing in the shape of texts, or formed no part of the scheme, were neglected. Worse still, not a word was ever spoken to us telling us in what manner to strengthen the reason, to subdue the senses, or in what way to deal with all the varied diseases of that soul of man which we were to set ourselves to save. All its failings, infinitely more complicated than those of the body, were grouped as "sin," and for these there was one quack remedy. If the patient did not like the remedy, or got no good from it, the fault was his.
It is remarkable that the scheme was never of the slightest service to me in repressing one solitary evil inclination; at no point did it come into contact with me. At the time it seemed right and proper that I should learn it, and I had no doubt of its efficacy; but when the stress of temptation was upon me, it never occurred to me, nor when I became a minister did I find it sufficiently powerful to mend the most trifling fault. In after years, but not till I had strayed far away from the President and his creed, the Bible was really opened to me, and became to me, what it now is, the most precious of books.
There were several small chapels scattered in the villages near the college, and these chapels were "supplied," as the phrase is, by the students. Those who were near the end of their course were also employed as substitutes for regular ministers when they were temporarily absent. Sometimes a senior was even sent up to London to take the place, on a sudden emergency, of a great London minister, and when he came back he was an object almost of adoration. The congregation, on the other hand, consisting in some part of country people spending a Sunday in town and anxious to hear a celebrated preacher, were not at all disposed to adore, when, instead of the great man, they saw "only a student."
By the time I was nineteen I took my turn in "supplying" the villages, and set forth with the utmost confidence what appeared to me to be the indubitable gospel. No shadow of a suspicion of its truth ever crossed my mind, and yet I had not spent an hour in comprehending, much less in answering, one objection to it. The objections, in fact, had never met me; they were over my horizon altogether. It is wonderful to think how I could take so much for granted; and not merely take it to myself and for myself, but proclaim it as a message to other people. It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that theological youths are the only class who are guilty of such presumption. Our gregarious instinct is so strong that it is the most difficult thing for us to be satisfied with suspended judgment. Men must join a party, and have a cry, and they generally take up their party and their cry from the most indifferent motives.
For my own part I cannot be enthusiastic about politics, except on rare occasions when the issue is a very narrow one. There is so much that requires profound examination, and it disgusts me to get upon a platform and dispute with ardent Radicals or Conservatives who know nothing about even the rudiments of history, political economy, or political philosophy, without which it is as absurd to have an opinion upon what are called politics as it would be to have an opinion upon an astronomical problem without having learned Euclid.
The more incapable we are of thorough investigations, the wider and deeper are the subjects upon which we busy ourselves, and still more strange, the more bigoted do we become in our conclusions about them; and yet it is not strange, for he who by painful processes has found yes and no alternate for so long that he is not sure which is final, is the last man in the world, if he for the present is resting in yes, to crucify another who can get no further than no. The bigot is he to whom no such painful processes have ever been permitted.
The society amongst the students was very poor. Not a single friendship formed then has remained with me. They were mostly young men of no education, who had been taken from the counter, and their spiritual life was not very deep. In many of them it did not even exist, and their whole attention was absorbed upon their chances of getting wealthy congregations or of making desirable matches. It was a time in which the world outside was seething with the ferment which had been cast into it by Germany and by those in England whom Germany had influenced, but not a fragment of it had dropped within our walls. I cannot call to mind a single conversation upon any but the most trivial topics, nor did our talk ever turn even upon our religion, so far as it was a thing affecting the soul, but upon it as something subsidiary to chapels, "causes," deacons, and the like.
The emptiness of some of my colleagues, and their worldliness, too, were almost incredible. There was one who was particularly silly. He was a blond youth with greyish eyes, a mouth not quite shut, and an eternal simper upon his face. He never had an idea in his head, and never read anything except the denominational newspapers and a few well-known aids to sermonising. He was a great man at all tea- meetings, anniversaries, and parties. He was facile in public speaking, and he dwelt much upon the joys of heaven and upon such topics as the possibility of our recognising one another there. I have known him describe for twenty minutes, in a kind of watery rhetoric, the passage of the soul to bliss through death, and its meeting in the next world with those who had gone before.
With all his weakness he was close and mean in money matters, and when he left college, the first thing he did was to marry a widow with a fortune. Before long he became one of the most popular of ministers in a town much visited by sick persons, with whom he was an especial favourite. I disliked him—and specially disliked his unpleasant behaviour to women. If I had been a woman, I should have spurned him for his perpetual insult of inane compliments. He was always dawdling after "the sex," which was one of his sweet phrases, and yet he was not passionate. Passion does not dawdle and compliment, nor is it nasty, as this fellow was. Passion may burn like a devouring flame; and in a few moments, like flame, may bring down a temple to dust and ashes, but it is earnest as flame, and essentially pure.
During the first two years at college my life was entirely external. My heart was altogether untouched by anything I heard, read, or did, although I myself supposed that I took an interest in them. But one day in my third year, a day I remember as well as Paul must have remembered afterwards the day on which he went to Damascus, I happened to find amongst a parcel of books a volume of poems in paper boards. It was called Lyrical Ballads, and I read first one and then the whole book. It conveyed to me no new doctrine, and yet the change it wrought in me could only be compared with that which is said to have been wrought on Paul himself by the Divine apparition.
Looking over the Lyrical Ballads again, as I have looked over it a dozen times since then, I can hardly see what it was which stirred me so powerfully, nor do I believe that it communicated much to me which could be put in words. But it excited a movement and a growth which went on till, by degrees, all the systems which enveloped me like a body gradually decayed from me and fell away into nothing. Of more importance, too, than the decay of systems was the birth of a habit of inner reference and a dislike to occupy myself with anything which did not in some way or other touch the soul, or was not the illustration or embodiment of some spiritual law.
There is, of course, a definite explanation to be given of one effect produced by the Lyrical Ballads. God is nowhere formally deposed, and Wordsworth would have been the last man to say that he had lost his faith in the God of his fathers. But his real God is not the God of the Church, but the God of the hills, the abstraction Nature, and to this my reverence was transferred. Instead of an object of worship which was altogether artificial, remote, never coming into genuine contact with me, I had now one which I thought to be real, one in which literally I could live and move and have my being, an actual fact present before my eyes. God was brought from that heaven of the books, and dwelt on the downs in the far-away distances, and in every cloud- shadow which wandered across the valley. Wordsworth unconsciously did for me what every religious reformer has done—he re-created my Supreme Divinity; substituting a new and living spirit for the old deity, once alive, but gradually hardened into an idol.
What days were those of the next few years before increasing age had presented preciser problems and demanded preciser answers; before all joy was darkened by the shadow of on-coming death, and when life seemed infinite! Those were the days when through the whole long summer's morning I wanted no companion but myself, provided only I was in the country, and when books were read with tears in the eyes. Those were the days when mere life, apart from anything which it brings, was exquisite.
In my own college I found no sympathy, but we were in the habit of meeting occasionally the students from other colleges, and amongst them I met with one or two, especially one who had undergone experiences similar to my own. The friendships formed with these young men have lasted till now, and have been the most permanent of all the relationships of my existence. I wish not to judge others, but the persons who to me have proved themselves most attractive, have been those who have passed through such a process as that through which I myself passed; those who have had in some form or other an enthusiastic stage in their history, when the story of Genesis and of the Gospels has been rewritten, when God has visibly walked in the garden, and the Son of God has drawn men away from their daily occupations into the divinest of dreams.
I have known men—most interesting men with far greater powers than any which I have possessed, men who have never been trammelled by a false creed, who have devoted themselves to science and acquired a great reputation, who have somehow never laid hold upon me like the man I have just mentioned. He failed altogether as a minister, and went back to his shop, but the old glow of his youth burns, and will burn, for ever. When I am with him our conversation naturally turns on matters which are of profoundest importance: with others it may be instructive, but I leave them unmoved, and I trace the difference distinctly to that visitation, for it was nothing else, which came to him in his youth.
The effect which was produced upon my preaching and daily conversation by this change was immediate. It became gradually impossible for me to talk about subjects which had not some genuine connection with me, or to desire to hear others talk about them. The artificial, the merely miraculous, the event which had no inner meaning, no matter how large externally it might be, I did not care for. A little Greek mythological story was of more importance to me than a war which filled the newspapers. What, then, could I do with my theological treatises?
It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that I immediately became formally heretical. Nearly every doctrine in the college creed had once had a natural origin in the necessities of human nature, and might therefore be so interpreted as to become a necessity again. To reach through to that original necessity; to explain the atonement as I believed it appeared to Paul, and the sinfulness of man as it appeared to the prophets, was my object. But it was precisely this reaching after a meaning which constituted heresy. The distinctive essence of our orthodoxy was not this or that dogma, but the acceptance of dogmas as communications from without, and not as born from within.
Heresy began, and in fact was altogether present, when I said to myself that a mere statement of the atonement as taught in class was impossible for me, and that I must go back to Paul and his century, place myself in his position, and connect the atonement through him with something which I felt. I thus continued to use all the terms which I had hitherto used; but an uneasy feeling began to develop itself about me in the minds of the professors, because I did not rest in the "simplicity" of the gospel. To me this meant its unintelligibility.
I remember, for example, discoursing about the death of Christ. There was not a single word which was ordinarily used in the pulpit which I did not use—satisfaction for sin, penalty, redeeming blood, they were all there—but I began by saying that in this world there was no redemption for man but by blood; furthermore, the innocent had everywhere and in all time to suffer for the guilty. It had been objected that it was contrary to our notion of an all-loving Being that He should demand such a sacrifice; but, contrary or not, in this world it was true, quite apart from Jesus, that virtue was martyred every day, unknown and unconsoled, in order that the wicked might somehow be saved. This was part of the scheme of the world, and we might dislike it or not, we could not get rid of it. The consequences of my sin, moreover, are rendered less terrible by virtues not my own. I am literally saved from penalties because another pays the penalty for me. The atonement, and what it accomplished for man, were therefore a sublime summing up as it were of what sublime men have to do for their race; an exemplification, rather than a contradiction, of Nature herself, as we know her in our own experience.
Now, all this was really intended as a defence of the atonement; but the President heard me that Sunday, and on the Monday he called me into his room. He said that my sermon was marked by considerable ability, but he should have been better satisfied if I had confined myself to setting forth as plainly as I could the "way of salvation" as revealed in Christ Jesus. What I had urged might perhaps have possessed some interest for cultivated people; in fact, he had himself urged pretty much the same thing many years ago, when he was a young man, in a sermon he had preached at the Union meeting; but I must recollect that in all probability my sphere of usefulness would lie amongst humble hearers, perhaps in an agricultural village or a small town, and that he did not think people of this sort would understand me if I talked over their heads as I had done the day before. What they wanted on a Sunday, after all the cares of the week, was not anything to perplex and disturb them; not anything which demanded any exercise of thought; but a repetition of the "old story of which, Mr. Rutherford, you know, we never ought to get weary; an exhibition of our exceeding sinfulness; of our safety in the Rock of Ages, and there only; of the joys of the saints and the sufferings of those who do not believe."
His words fell on me like the hand of a corpse, and I went away much depressed. My sermon had excited me, and the man who of all men ought to have welcomed me, had not a word of warmth or encouragement for me, nothing but the coldest indifference, and even repulse.
It occurs to me here to offer an explanation of a failing of which I have been accused in later years, and that is secrecy and reserve. The real truth is, that nobody more than myself could desire self- revelation; but owing to peculiar tendencies in me, and peculiarity of education, I was always prone to say things in conversation which I found produced blank silence in the majority of those who listened to me, and immediate opportunity was taken by my hearers to turn to something trivial. Hence it came to pass that only when tempted by unmistakable sympathy could I be induced to express my real self on any topic of importance.
It is a curious instance of the difficulty of diagnosing (to use a doctor's word) any spiritual disease, if disease this shyness may be called. People would ordinarily set it down to self-reliance, with no healthy need of intercourse. It was nothing of the kind. It was an excess of communicativeness, an eagerness to show what was most at my heart, and to ascertain what was at the heart of those to whom I talked, which made me incapable of mere fencing and trifling, and so often caused me to retreat into myself when I found absolute absense of response.
I am also reminded here of a dream which I had in these years of a perfect friendship. I always felt that, talk with whom I would, I left something unsaid which was precisely what I most wished to say. I wanted a friend who would sacrifice himself to me utterly, and to whom I might offer a similar sacrifice. I found companions for whom I cared, and who professed to care for me; but I was thirsting for deeper draughts of love than any which they had to offer; and I said to myself that if I were to die, not one of them would remember me for more than a week. This was not selfishness, for I longed to prove my devotion as well as to receive that of another. How this ideal haunted me! It made me restless and anxious at the sight of every new face, wondering whether at last I had found that for which I searched as if for the kingdom of heaven.
It is superfluous to say that a friend of the kind I wanted never appeared, and disappointment after disappointment at last produced in me a cynicism which repelled people from me, and brought upon me a good deal of suffering. I tried men by my standard, and if they did not come up to it I rejected them; thus I prodigally wasted a good deal of the affection which the world would have given me. Only when I got much older did I discern the duty of accepting life as God has made it, and thankfully receiving any scrap of love offered to me, however imperfect it might be.
I don't know any mistake which I have made which has cost me more than this; but at the same time I must record that it was a mistake for which, considering everything, I cannot much blame myself. I hope it is amended now. Now when it is getting late I recognise a higher obligation, brought home to me by a closer study of the New Testament. Sympathy or no sympathy, a man's love should no more fail towards his fellows than that love which spent itself on disciples who altogether misunderstood it, like the rain which falls on just and unjust alike.
CHAPTER III—WATER LANE
I had now reached the end of my fourth year at college, and it was time for me to leave. I was sent down into the eastern counties to a congregation which had lost its minister, and was there "on probation" for a month. I was naturally a good speaker, and as the "cause" had got very low, the attendance at the chapel increased during the month I was there. The deacons thought they had a prospect of returning prosperity, and in the end I received a nearly unanimous invitation, which, after some hesitation, I accepted. One of the deacons, a Mr. Snale, was against me; he thought I was not "quite sound"; but he was overruled. We shall hear more of him presently. After a short holiday I entered on my new duties.
The town was one of those which are not uncommon in that part of the world. It had a population of about seven or eight thousand, and was a sort of condensation of the agricultural country round. There was one main street, consisting principally of very decent, respectable shops. Generally speaking, there were two shops of each trade; one which was patronised by the Church and Tories, and another by the Dissenters and Whigs. The inhabitants were divided into two distinct camps—of the Church and Tory camp the other camp knew nothing. On the other hand, the knowledge which each member of the Dissenting camp had of every other member was most intimate.
The Dissenters were further split up into two or three different sects, but the main sect was that of the Independents. They, in fact, dominated every other. There was a small Baptist community, and the Wesleyans had a new red-brick chapel in the outskirts; but for some reason or other the Independents were really the Dissenters, and until the "cause" had dwindled, as before observed, all the Dissenters of any note were to be found on Sunday in their meeting-house in Water Lane.
My predecessor had died in harness at the age of seventy-five. I never knew him, but from all I could hear he must have been a man of some power. As he got older, however, he became feeble; and after a course of three sermons on a Sunday for fifty years, what he had to say was so entirely anticipated by his congregation, that although they all maintained that the gospel, or, in other words, the doctrine of the fall, the atonement, and so forth, should continually be presented, and their minister also believed and acted implicitly upon the same theory, they fell away—some to the Baptists, some to the neighbouring Independents about two miles off, and some to the Church, while a few "went nowhere."
When I came I found that the deacons still remained true. They were the skeleton; but the flesh was so woefully emaciated, that on my first Sunday there were not above fifty persons in a building which would hold seven hundred. These deacons were four in number. One was an old farmer who lived in a village three miles distant. Ever since he was a boy he had driven over to Water Lane on Sunday. He and his family brought their dinner with them, and ate it in the vestry; but they never stopped till the evening, because of the difficulty of getting home on dark nights, and because they all went to bed in winter-time at eight o'clock.
Morning and afternoon Mr. Catfield—for that was his name—gave out the hymns. He was a plain, honest man, very kind, very ignorant, never reading any book except the Bible, and barely a newspaper save Bell's Weekly Messenger. Even about the Bible he knew little or nothing beyond a few favourite chapters; and I am bound to say that, so far as my experience goes, the character so frequently drawn in romances of intense Bible students in Dissenting congregations is very rare. At the same time Mr. Catfield believed himself to be very orthodox, and in his way was very pious. I could never call him a hypocrite. He was as sincere as he could be, and yet no religious expression of his was ever so sincere as the most ordinary expression of the most trifling pleasure or pain.
The second deacon, Mr. Weeley, was, as he described himself, a builder and undertaker; more properly an undertaker and carpenter. He was a thin, tall man, with a tenor voice, and he set the tunes. He was entirely without energy of any kind, and always seemed oppressed by a world which was too much for him. He had depended a good deal for custom upon his chapel connection; and when the attendance at the chapel fell off, his trade fell off likewise, so that he had to compound with his creditors. He was a mere shadow, a man of whom nothing could be said either good or evil.
The third deacon was Mr. Snale, the draper. When I first knew him he was about thirty-five. He was slim, small, and small-faced, closely shaven, excepting a pair of little curly whiskers, and he was extremely neat. He had a little voice too, rather squeaky, and the marked peculiarity that he hardly ever said anything, no matter how disagreeable it might be, without stretching as if in a smile his thin little lips. He kept the principal draper's shop in the town, and even Church people spent their money with him, because he was so very genteel compared with the other draper, who was a great red man, and hung things outside his window. Mr. Snale was married, had children, and was strictly proper. But his way of talking to women and about them was more odious than the way of a debauchee. He invariably called them "the ladies," or more exactly, "the leedies"; and he hardly ever spoke to a "leedy" without a smirk and some faint attempt at a joke.
One of the customs of the chapel was what were called Dorcas meetings. Once a month the wives and daughters drank tea with each other; the evening being ostensibly devoted to making clothes for the poor. The husband of the lady who gave the entertainment for the month had to wait upon the company, and the minister was expected to read to them while they worked.
It was my lot to be Mr. Snale's guest two or three times when Mrs. Snale was the Dorcas hostess. We met in the drawing-room, which was over the shop, and looked out into the town market-place. There was a round table in the middle of the room, at which Mrs. Snale sat and made the tea. Abundance of hot buttered toast and muffins were provided, which Mr. Snale and a maid handed round to the party.
Four pictures decorated the walls. One hung over the mantelpiece. It was a portrait in oils of Mr. Snale, and opposite to it, on the other side, was a portrait of Mrs. Snale. Both were daubs, but curiously faithful in depicting what was most offensive in the character of both the originals, Mr. Snale's simper being preserved; together with the peculiarly hard, heavy sensuality of the eye in Mrs. Snale, who was large and full-faced, correct like Mr. Snale, a member of the church, a woman whom I never saw moved to any generosity, and cruel not with the ferocity of the tiger, but with the dull insensibility of a cartwheel, which will roll over a man's neck as easily as over a flint. The third picture represented the descent of the Holy Ghost; a number of persons sitting in a chamber, and each one with the flame of a candle on his head. The fourth represented the last day. The Son of God was in a chair surrounded by clouds, and beside Him was a flying figure blowing a long mail-coach horn. The dead were coming up out of their graves; some were half out of the earth, others three-parts out—the whole of the bottom part of the picture being filled with bodies emerging from the ground, a few looking happy, but most of them very wretched; all of them being naked.
The first time I went to Mrs. Snale's Dorcas gathering Mr. Snale was reader, on the ground that I was a novice; and I was very glad to resign the task to him. As the business in hand was week-day and secular, it was not considered necessary that the selected subjects should be religious; but as it was distinctly connected with the chapel, it was also considered that they should have a religious flavour. Consequently the Bible was excluded, and so were books on topics altogether worldly. Dorcas meetings were generally, therefore, shut up to the denominational journal and to magazines. Towards the end of the evening Mr. Snale read the births, deaths, and marriages in this journal. It would not have been thought right to read them from any other newspaper, but it was agreed, with a fineness of tact which was very remarkable, that it was quite right to read them in one which was "serious." During the whole time that the reading was going on conversation was not arrested, but was conducted in a kind of half whisper; and this was another reason why I exceedingly disliked to read, for I could never endure to speak if people did not listen.
At half-past eight the work was put away, and Mrs. Snale went to the piano and played a hymn tune, the minister having first of all selected the hymn. Singing over, he offered a short prayer, and the company separated. Supper was not served, as it was found to be too great an expense. The husbands of the ladies generally came to escort them home, but did not come upstairs. Some of the gentlemen waited below in the dining-room, but most of them preferred the shop, for, although it was shut, the gas was burning to enable the assistants to put away the goods which had been got out during the day.
When it first became my turn to read I proposed the Vicar of Wakefield; but although no objection was raised at the time, Mr. Snale took an opportunity of telling me, after I had got through a chapter or two, that he thought it would be better if it were discontinued. "Because, you know, Mr. Rutherford," he said, with his smirk, "the company is mixed; there are young leedies present, and perhaps, Mr. Rutherford, a book with a more requisite tone might be more suitable on such an occasion." What he meant I did not know, and how to find a book with a more requisite tone I did not know.
However, the next time, in my folly, I tried a selection from George Fox's Journal. Mr. Snale objected to this too. It was "hardly of a character adapted for social intercourse," he thought; and furthermore, "although Mr. Fox might be a very good man, and was a converted character, yet he did not, you know, Mr. Rutherford, belong to us." So I was reduced to that class of literature which of all others I most abominated, and which always seemed to me the most profane—religious and sectarian gossip, religious novels designed to make religion attractive, and other slip-slop of this kind. I could not endure it, and was frequently unwell on Dorcas evenings.
The rest of the small congregation was of no particular note. As I have said before, it had greatly fallen away, and all who remained clung to the chapel rather by force of habit than from any other reason. The only exception was an old maiden lady and her sister, who lived in a little cottage about a mile out of the town. They were pious in the purest sense of the word, suffering much from ill-health, but perfectly resigned, and with a kind of tempered cheerfulness always apparent on their faces, like the cheerfulness of a white sky with a sun veiled by light and lofty clouds. They were the daughters of a carriage-builder, who had left them a small annuity.
Their house was one of the sweetest which I ever entered. The moment I found myself inside it, I became conscious of perfect repose. Everything was at rest; books, pictures, furniture, all breathed the same peace. Nothing in the house was new, but everything had been preserved with such care that nothing looked old. Yet the owners were not what is called old-maidish; that is to say, they were not superstitious worshippers of order and neatness.
I remember Mrs. Snale's children coming in one afternoon when I was there. They were rough and ill-mannered, and left traces of dirty footmarks all over the carpet, which the two ladies noticed at once. But it made no difference to the treatment of the children, who had some cake and currant wine given to them, and were sent away rejoicing. Directly they had gone, the elder of my friends asked me if I would excuse her; she would gather up the dirt before it was trodden about. So she brought a dust-pan and brush (the little servant was out) and patiently swept the floor. That was the way with them. Did any mischief befall them or those whom they knew, without blaming anybody, they immediately and noiselessly set about repairing it with that silent promptitude of nature which rebels not against a wound, but the very next instant begins her work of protection and recovery.
The Misses Arbour (for that was their name) mixed but little in the society of the town. They explained to me that their health would not permit it. They read books—a few—but they were not books about which I knew very much, and they belonged altogether to an age preceding mine. Of the names which had moved me, and of all the thoughts stirring in the time, they had heard nothing. They greatly admired Cowper, a poet who then did not much attract me.
The country near me was rather level, but towards the west it rose into soft swelling hills, between which were pleasant lanes. At about ten miles distant eastward was the sea. A small river ran across the High Street under a stone bridge; for about two miles below us it was locked up for the sake of the mills, but at the end of the two miles it became tidal and flowed between deep and muddy banks through marshes to the ocean. Almost all my walks were by the river-bank down to these marshes, and as far on as possible till the open water was visible. Not that I did not like inland scenery: nobody could like it more, but the sea was a corrective to the littleness all round me. With the ships on it sailing to the other end of the earth it seemed to connect me with the great world outside the parochialism of the society in which I lived.
Such was the town of C-, and such the company amidst which I found myself. After my probation it was arranged that I should begin my new duties at once, and accordingly I took lodgings—two rooms over the shop of a tailor who acted as chapel-keeper, pew-opener, and sexton. There was a small endowment on the chapel of fifty pounds a year, and the rest of my income was derived from the pew-rents, which at the time I took charge did not exceed another seventy.
The first Sunday on which I preached after being accepted was a dull day in November, but there was no dullness in me. The congregation had increased a good deal during the past four weeks, and I was stimulated by the prospect of the new life before me. It seemed to be a fit opportunity to say something generally about Christianity and its special peculiarities. I began by pointing out that each philosophy and religion which had arisen in the world was the answer to a question earnestly asked at the time; it was a remedy proposed to meet some extreme pressure. Religions and philosophies were not created by idle people who sat down and said, "Let us build up a system of beliefs upon the universe; what shall we say about immortality, about sin?" and so on. Unless there had been antecedent necessity there could have been no religion; and no problem of life or death could be solved except under the weight of that necessity. The stoical morality arose out of the condition of Rome when the scholar and the pious man could do nothing but simply strengthen his knees and back to bear an inevitable burden. He was forced to find some counterpoise for the misery of poverty and persecution, and he found it in the denial of their power to touch him. So with Christianity.
Jesus was a poor solitary thinker, confronted by two enormous and overpowering organisations—the Jewish hierarchy and the Roman State. He taught the doctrine of the kingdom of heaven; He trained Himself to have faith in the absolute monarchy of the soul, the absolute monarchy of His own; He tells us that each man should learn to find peace in his own thoughts, his own visions. It is a most difficult thing to do; most difficult to believe that my highest happiness consists in my perception of whatever is beautiful. If I by myself watch the sun rise, or the stars come out in the evening, or feel the love of man or woman,—I ought to say to myself, "There is nothing beyond this." But people will not rest there; they are not content, and they are for ever chasing a shadow which flies before them, a something external which never brings what it promises.
I said that Christianity was essentially the religion of the unknown and of the lonely; of those who are not a success. It was the religion of the man who goes through life thinking much, but who makes few friends and sees nothing come of his thoughts. I said a good deal more upon the same theme which I have forgotten.
After the service was over I went down into the vestry. Nobody came near me but my landlord, the chapel-keeper, who said it was raining, and immediately went away to put out the lights and shut up the building. I had no umbrella, and there was nothing to be done but to walk out in the wet. When I got home I found that my supper, consisting of bread and cheese with a pint of beer, was on the table, but apparently it had been thought unnecessary to light the fire again at that time of night. I was overwrought, and paced about for hours in hysterics. All that I had been preaching seemed the merest vanity when I was brought face to face with the fact itself; and I reproached myself bitterly that my own creed would not stand the stress of an hour's actual trial.
Towards morning I got into bed, but not to sleep; and when the dull daylight of Monday came, all support had vanished, and I seemed to be sinking into a bottomless abyss. I became gradually worse week by week, and my melancholy took a fixed form. I got a notion into my head that my brain was failing, and this was my first acquaintance with that most awful malady hypochondria. I did not know then what I know now, although I only half believe it practically, that this fixity of form is a frequent symptom of the disease, and that the general weakness manifests itself in a determinate horror, which gradually fades with returning health.
For months—many months—this dreadful conviction of coming idiocy or insanity lay upon me like some poisonous reptile with its fangs driven into my very marrow, so that I could not shake it off. It went with me wherever I went, it got up with me in the morning, walked about with me all day, and lay down with me at night. I managed, somehow or other, to do my work, but I prayed incessantly for death; and to such a state was I reduced that I could not even make the commonest appointment for a day beforehand. The mere knowledge that something had to be done agitated me and prevented my doing it.
In June next year my holiday came, and I went away home to my father's house. Father and mother were going, for the first time in their lives, to spend a few days by the seaside together, and I went with them to Ilfracombe. I had been there about a week, when on one memorable morning, on the top of one of those Devonshire hills, I became aware of a kind of flush in the brain and a momentary relief such as I had not known since that November night. I seemed, far away on the horizon, to see just a rim of olive light low down under the edge of the leaden cloud that hung over my head, a prophecy of the restoration of the sun, or at least a witness that somewhere it shone. It was not permanent, and perhaps the gloom was never more profound, nor the agony more intense, than it was for long after my Ilfracombe visit. But the light broadened, and gradually the darkness was mitigated. I have never been thoroughly restored. Often, with no warning, I am plunged in the Valley of the Shadow, and no outlet seems possible; but I contrive to traverse it, or to wait in calmness for access of strength.
When I was at my worst I went to see a doctor. He recommended me stimulants. I had always been rather abstemious, and he thought I was suffering from physical weakness. At first wine gave me relief, and such marked relief that whenever I felt my misery insupportable I turned to the bottle. At no time in my life was I ever the worse for liquor, but I soon found the craving for it was getting the better of me. I resolved never to touch it except at night, and kept my vow; but the consequence was, that I looked forward to the night, and waited for it with such eagerness that the day seemed to exist only for the sake of the evening, when I might hope at least for rest. For the wine as wine I cared nothing; anything that would have dulled my senses would have done just as well.
But now a new terror developed itself. I began to be afraid that I was becoming a slave to alcohol; that the passion for it would grow upon me, and that I should disgrace myself, and die the most contemptible of all deaths. To a certain extent my fears were just. The dose which was necessary to procure temporary forgetfulness of my trouble had to be increased, and might have increased dangerously.
But one day, feeling more than usual the tyranny of my master, I received strength to make a sudden resolution to cast him off utterly. Whatever be the consequence, I said, I will not be the victim of this shame. If I am to go down to the grave, it shall be as a man, and I will bear what I have to bear honestly and without resort to the base evasion of stupefaction. So that night I went to bed having drunk nothing but water. The struggle was not felt just then. It came later, when the first enthusiasm of a new purpose had faded away, and I had to fall back on mere force of will. I don't think anybody but those who have gone through such a crisis can comprehend what it is. I never understood the maniacal craving which is begotten by ardent spirits, but I understood enough to be convinced that the man who has once rescued himself from the domination even of half a bottle, or three-parts of a bottle of claret daily, may assure himself that there is nothing more in life to be done which he need dread.
Two or three remarks begotten of experience in this matter deserve record. One is, that the most powerful inducement to abstinence, in my case, was the interference of wine with liberty, and above all things its interference with what I really loved best, and the transference of desire from what was most desirable to what was sensual and base. The morning, instead of being spent in quiet contemplation and quiet pleasures, was spent in degrading anticipations. What enabled me to conquer, was not so much heroism as a susceptibility to nobler joys, and the difficulty which a man must encounter who is not susceptible to them must be enormous and almost insuperable. Pity, profound pity, is his due, and especially if he happen to possess a nervous, emotional organisation. If we want to make men water-drinkers, we must first of all awaken in them a capacity for being tempted by delights which water-drinking intensifies. The mere preaching of self-denial will do little or no good.
Another observation is, that there is no danger in stopping at once, and suddenly, the habit of drinking. The prisons and asylums furnish ample evidence upon that point, but there will be many an hour of exhaustion in which this danger will be simulated and wine will appear the proper remedy. No man, or at least very few men, would ever feel any desire for it soon after sleep. This shows the power of repose, and I would advise anybody who may be in earnest in this matter to be specially on guard during moments of physical fatigue, and to try the effect of eating and rest. Do not persist in a blind, obstinate wrestle. Simply take food, drink water, go to bed, and so conquer not by brute strength, but by strategy.
Going back to hypochondria and its countless forms of agony, let it be borne in mind that the first thing to be aimed at is patience—not to get excited with fears, not to dread the evil which most probably will never arrive, but to sit down quietly and WAIT. The simpler and less stimulating the diet, the more likely it is that the sufferer will be able to watch through the wakeful hours without delirium, and the less likely is it that the general health will be impaired. Upon this point of health too much stress cannot be laid. It is difficult for the victim to believe that his digestion has anything to do with a disease which seems so purely spiritual, but frequently the misery will break up and yield, if it do not altogether disappear, by a little attention to physiology and by a change of air. As time wears on, too, mere duration will be a relief; for it familiarises with what at first was strange and insupportable, it shows the groundlessness of fears, and it enables us to say with each new paroxysm, that we have surmounted one like it before, and probably a worse.
CHAPTER IV—EDWARD GIBBON MARDON
I had now been "settled," to use a Dissenting phrase, for nearly eighteen months. While I was ill I had no heart in my work, and the sermons I preached were very poor and excited no particular suspicion. But with gradually returning energy my love of reading revived, and questions which had slumbered again presented themselves. I continued for some time to deal with them as I had dealt with the atonement at college. I said that Jesus was the true Paschal Lamb, for that by His death men were saved from their sins, and from the consequences of them; I said that belief in Christ, that is to say, a love for Him, was more powerful to redeem men than the works of the law. All this may have been true, but truth lies in relation. It was not true when I, understanding what I understood by it, taught it to men who professed to believe in the Westminster Confession. The preacher who preaches it uses a vocabulary which has a certain definite meaning, and has had this meaning for centuries. He cannot stay to put his own interpretation upon it whenever it is upon his lips, and so his hearers are in a false position, and imagine him to be much more orthodox than he really is.
For some time I fell into this snare, until one day I happened to be reading the story of Balaam. Balaam, though most desirous to prophesy smooth things for Balak, had nevertheless a word put into his mouth by God. When he came to Balak he was unable to curse, and could do nothing but bless. Balak, much dissatisfied, thought that a change of position might alter Balaam's temper, and he brought him away from the high places of Baal to the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah. But Balaam could do nothing better even on Pisgah. Not even a compromise was possible, and the second blessing was more emphatic than the first. "God," cried the prophet, pressed sorely by his message, "is not a man, that He should lie; neither the son of man, that He should repent: hath He said, and shall He not do it? or hath He spoken, and shall He not make it good? Behold, I have received commandment to bless: and He hath blessed; and I cannot reverse it."
This was very unsatisfactory, and Balaam was asked, if he could not curse, at least to refrain from benediction. The answer was still the same. "Told not I thee, saying, All that the Lord speaketh, that I must do?" A third shift was tried, and Balaam went to the top of Peor. This was worse than ever. The Spirit of the Lord came upon him, and he broke out into triumphal anticipation of the future glories of Israel. Balak remonstrated in wrath, but Balaam was altogether inaccessible. "If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the commandment of the Lord, to do either good or bad of mine own mind; but what the Lord saith, that will I speak."
This story greatly impressed me, and I date from it a distinct disinclination to tamper with myself, or to deliver what I had to deliver in phrases which, though they might be conciliatory, were misleading.
About this time there was a movement in the town to obtain a better supply of water. The soil was gravelly and full of cesspools, side by side with which were sunk the wells. A public meeting was held, and I attended and spoke on behalf of the scheme. There was much opposition, mainly on the score that the rates would be increased, and on the Saturday after the meeting the following letter appeared in the Sentinel, the local paper:
"Sir,—It is not my desire to enter into the controversy now raging about the water-supply of this town, but I must say I was much surprised that a minister of religion should interfere in politics. Sir, I cannot help thinking that if the said minister would devote himself to the Water of Life -
'that gentle fount Progressing from Immanuel's mount,' -
it would be much more harmonious with his function as a follower of him who knew nothing save Christ crucified. Sir, I have no wish to introduce controversial topics upon a subject like religion into your columns, which are allotted to a different line, but I must be permitted to observe that I fail to see how a minister's usefulness can be stimulated if he sets class against class. Like the widows in affliction of old, he should keep himself pure and unspotted from the world. How can many of us accept the glorious gospel on the Sabbath from a man who will incur spots during the week by arguing about cesspools like any other man? Sir, I will say nothing, moreover, about a minister of the gospel assisting to bind burdens—that is to say, rates and taxation—upon the shoulders of men grievous to be borne. Surely, sir, a minister of the Lamb of God, who was shed for the remission of sins, should be AGAINST burdens.—I am sir, your obedient servant,
"A CHRISTIAN TRADESMAN."
I had not the least doubt as to the authorship of this precious epistle. Mr. Snale's hand was apparent in every word. He was fond of making religious verses, and once we were compelled to hear the Sunday- school children sing a hymn which he had composed. The two lines of poetry were undoubtedly his. Furthermore, although he had been a chapel-goer all his life, he muddled, invariably, passages from the Bible. They had no definite meaning for him, and there was nothing, consequently, to prevent his tacking the end of one verse to the beginning of another. Mr. Snale, too, continually "failed to see." Where he got the phrase I do not know, but he liked it, and was always repeating it. However, I had no external evidence that it was he who was my enemy, and I held my peace. I was supported at the public meeting by a speaker from the body of the hall whom I had never seen before. He spoke remarkably well, was evidently educated, and I was rather curious about him.
It was my custom on Saturdays to go out for the whole of the day by the river, seawards, to prepare for the Sunday. I was coming home rather tired, when I met this same man against a stile. He bade me good- evening, and then proceeded to thank me for my speech, saying many complimentary things about it. I asked who it was to whom I had the honour of talking, and he told me he was Edward Gibbon Mardon. "It was Edward Gibson Mardon once, sir," he said, smilingly. "Gibson was the name of a rich old aunt who was expected to do something for me, but I disliked her, and never went near her. I did not see why I should be ticketed with her label, and as Edward Gibson was very much like Edward Gibbon, the immortal author of the Decline and Fall, I dropped the 's' and stuck in a 'b.' I am nothing but a compositor on the Sentinel, and Saturday afternoon, after the paper is out, is a holiday for me, unless there is any reporting to do, for I have to turn my attention to that occasionally."
Mr. Edward Gibbon Mardon, I observed, was slightly built, rather short, and had scanty whiskers which developed into a little thicker tuft on his chin. His eyes were pure blue, like the blue of the speedwell. They were not piercing, but perfectly transparent, indicative of a character which, if it possessed no particular creative power, would not permit self-deception. They were not the eyes of a prophet, but of a man who would not be satisfied with letting a half-known thing alone and saying he believed it. His lips were thin, but not compressed into bitterness; and above everything there was in his face a perfectly legible frankness, contrasting pleasantly with the doubtfulness of most of the faces I knew. I expressed my gratitude to him for his kind opinion, and as we loitered he said:
"Sorry to see that attack upon you in the Sentinel. I suppose you are aware it was Snale's. Everybody could tell that who knows the man."
"If it is Mr. Snale's, I am very sorry."
"It is Snale's. He is a contemptible cur and yet it is not his fault. He has heard sermons about all sorts of supernatural subjects for thirty years, and he has never once been warned against meanness, so of course he supposes that supernatural subjects are everything and meanness is nothing. But I will not detain you any longer now, for you are busy. Good-night, sir."
This was rather abrupt and disappointing. However, I was much absorbed in the morrow, and passed on.
Although I despised Snale, his letter was the beginning of a great trouble to me. I had now been preaching for many months, and had met with no response whatever. Occasionally a stranger or two visited the chapel, and with what eager eyes did I not watch for them on the next Sunday, but none of them came twice. It was amazing to me that I could pour out myself as I did—poor although I knew that self to be—and yet make so little impression. Not one man or woman seemed any different because of anything I had said or done, and not a soul kindled at any word of mine, no matter with what earnestness it might be charged. How I groaned over my incapacity to stir in my people any participation in my thoughts or care for them!
Looking at the history of those days now from a distance of years, everything assumes its proper proportion. I was at work, it is true, amongst those who were exceptionally hard and worldly, but I was seeking amongst men (to put it in orthodox language) what I ought to have sought with God alone. In other, and perhaps plainer phrase, I was expecting from men a sympathy which proceeds from the Invisible only. Sometimes, indeed, it manifests itself in the long-postponed justice of time, but more frequently it is nothing more and nothing less than a consciousness of approval by the Unseen, a peace unspeakable, which is bestowed on us when self is suppressed.
I did not know then how little one man can change another, and what immense and persistent efforts are necessary—efforts which seldom succeed except in childhood—to accomplish anything but the most superficial alteration of character. Stories are told of sudden conversions, and of course if a poor simple creature can be brought to believe that hell-fire awaits him as the certain penalty of his misdeeds, he will cease to do them; but this is no real conversion, for essentially he remains pretty much the same kind of being that he was before.
I remember while this mood was on me, that I was much struck with the absolute loneliness of Jesus, and with His horror of that death upon the cross. He was young and full of enthusiastic hope, but when He died He had found hardly anything but misunderstanding. He had written nothing, so that He could not expect that His life would live after Him. Nevertheless His confidence in His own errand had risen so high, that He had not hesitated to proclaim Himself the Messiah: not the Messiah the Jews were expecting, but still the Messiah. I dreamed over His walks by the lake, over the deeper solitude of His last visit to Jerusalem, and over the gloom of that awful Friday afternoon.
The hold which He has upon us is easily explained, apart from the dignity of His recorded sayings and the purity of His life. There is no Saviour for us like the hero who has passed triumphantly through the distress which troubles US. Salvation is the spectacle of a victory by another over foes like our own. The story of Jesus is the story of the poor and forgotten. He is not the Saviour for the rich and prosperous, for they want no Saviour. The healthy, active, and well-to-do need Him not, and require nothing more than is given by their own health and prosperity. But every one who has walked in sadness because his destiny has not fitted his aspirations; every one who, having no opportunity to lift himself out of his little narrow town or village circle of acquaintances, has thirsted for something beyond what they could give him; everybody who, with nothing but a dull, daily round of mechanical routine before him, would welcome death, if it were martyrdom for a cause; every humblest creature, in the obscurity of great cities or remote hamlets, who silently does his or her duty without recognition—all these turn to Jesus, and find themselves in Him. He died, faithful to the end, with infinitely higher hopes, purposes, and capacity than mine, and with almost no promise of anything to come of them.
Something of this kind I preached one Sunday, more as a relief to myself than for any other reason. Mardon was there, and with him a girl whom I had not seen before. My sight is rather short, and I could not very well tell what she was like. After the service was over he waited for me, and said he had done so to ask me if I would pay him a visit on Monday evening. I promised to do so, and accordingly went.
I found him living in a small brick-built cottage near the outskirts of the town, the rental of which I should suppose would be about seven or eight pounds a year. There was a patch of ground in front and a little garden behind—a kind of narrow strip about fifty feet long, separated from the other little strips by iron hurdles. Mardon had tried to keep his garden in order, and had succeeded, but his neighbour was disorderly, and had allowed weeds to grow, blacking bottles and old tin cans to accumulate, so that whatever pleasure Mardon's labours might have afforded was somewhat spoiled.
He himself came to the door when I knocked, and I was shown into a kind of sitting-room with a round table in the middle and furnished with Windsor chairs, two arm-chairs of the same kind standing on either side the fireplace. Against the window was a smaller table with a green baize tablecloth, and about half-a-dozen plants stood on the window- sill, serving as a screen. In the recess on one side of the fireplace was a cupboard, upon the top of which stood a tea-caddy, a workbox, some tumblers, and a decanter full of water; the other side being filled with a bookcase and books. There were two or three pictures on the walls; one was a portrait of Voltaire, another of Lord Bacon, and a third was Albert Durer's St. Jerome. This latter was an heirloom, and greatly prized I could perceive, as it was hung in the place of honour over the mantelpiece.
After some little introductory talk, the same girl whom I had noticed with Mardon at the chapel came in, and I was introduced to her as his only daughter Mary. She began to busy herself at once in getting the tea. She was under the average height for a woman, and delicately built. Her head was small, but the neck was long. Her hair was brown, of a peculiarly lustrous tint, partly due to nature, but also to a looseness of arrangement and a most diligent use of the brush, so that the light fell not upon a dead compact mass, but upon myriads of individual hairs, each of which reflected the light. Her eyes, so far as I could make out, were a kind of greenish grey, but the eyelashes were long, so that it was difficult exactly to discover what was underneath them. The hands were small, and the whole figure exquisitely graceful; the plain black dress, which she wore fastened right up to the throat, suiting her to perfection. Her face, as I first thought, did not seem indicative of strength. The lips were thin, but not straight, the upper lip showing a remarkable curve in it. Nor was it a handsome face. The complexion was not sufficiently transparent, nor were the features regular.
During tea she spoke very little, but I noticed one peculiarity about her manner of talking, and that was its perfect simplicity. There was no sort of effort or strain in anything she said, no attempt by emphasis of words to make up for the weakness of thought, and no compliance with that vulgar and most disagreeable habit of using intense language to describe what is not intense in itself. Her yea was yea, and her no, no. I observed also that she spoke without disguise, although she was not rude. The manners of the cultivated classes are sometimes very charming, and more particularly their courtesy, which puts the guest so much at his ease, and constrains him to believe that an almost personal interest is taken in his affairs, but after a time it becomes wearisome. It is felt to be nothing but courtesy, the result of a rule of conduct uniform for all, and verging very closely upon hypocrisy. We long rather for plainness of speech, for some intimation of the person with whom we are talking, and that the mask and gloves may be laid aside.
Tea being over, Miss Mardon cleared away the tea-things, and presently came back again. She took one of the arm-chairs by the side of the fireplace, which her father had reserved for her, and while he and I were talking, she sat with her head leaning a little sideways on the back of the chair. I could just discern that her feet, which rested on the stool, were very diminutive, like her hands.
The talk with Mardon turned upon the chapel. I had begun it by saying that I had noticed him there on the Sunday just mentioned. He then explained why he never went to any place of worship. A purely orthodox preacher it was, of course, impossible for him to hear, but he doubted also the efficacy of preaching. What could be the use of it, supposing the preacher no longer to be a believer in the common creeds? If he turns himself into a mere lecturer on all sorts of topics, he does nothing more than books do, and they do it much better. He must base himself upon the Bible, and above all upon Christ, and how can he base himself upon a myth? We do not know that Christ ever lived, or that if He lived His life was anything like what is attributed to Him. A mere juxtaposition of the Gospels shows how the accounts of His words and deeds differ according to the tradition followed by each of His biographers.
I interrupted Mardon at this point by saying that it did not matter whether Christ actually existed or not. What the four evangelists recorded was eternally true, and the Christ-idea was true whether it was ever incarnated or not in a being bearing His name.
"Pardon me," said Mardon, "but it does very much matter. It is all the matter whether we are dealing with a dream or with reality. I can dream about a man's dying on the cross in homage to what he believed, but I would not perhaps die there myself; and when I suffer from hesitation whether I ought to sacrifice myself for the truth, it is of immense assistance to me to know that a greater sacrifice has been made before me—that a greater sacrifice is possible. To know that somebody has poetically imagined that it is possible, and has very likely been altogether incapable of its achievement, is no help. Moreover, the commonplaces which even the most freethinking of Unitarians seem to consider as axiomatic, are to me far from certain, and even unthinkable. For example, they are always talking about the omnipotence of God. But power even of the supremest kind necessarily implies an object—that is to say, resistance. Without an object which resists it, it would be a blank, and what, then, is the meaning of omnipotence? It is not that it is merely inconceivable; it is nonsense, and so are all these abstract, illimitable, self-annihilative attributes of which God is made up."
This negative criticism, in which Mardon greatly excelled, was all new to me, and I had no reply to make. He had a sledge-hammer way of expressing himself, while I, on the contrary, always required time to bring into shape what I saw. Just then I saw nothing; I was stunned, bewildered, out of the sphere of my own thoughts, and pained at the roughness with which he treated what I had cherished.
I was presently relieved, however, of further reflection by Mardon's asking his daughter whether her face was better. It turned out that all the afternoon and evening she had suffered greatly from neuralgia. She had said nothing about it while I was there, but had behaved with cheerfulness and freedom. Mentally I had accused her of slightness, and inability to talk upon the subjects which interested Mardon and myself; but when I knew she had been in torture all the time, my opinion was altered. I thought how rash I had been in judging her as I continually judged other people, without being aware of everything they had to pass through; and I thought, too, that if I had a fit of neuralgia, everybody near me would know it, and be almost as much annoyed by me as I myself should be by the pain.
It is curious, also, that when thus proclaiming my troubles I often considered. my eloquence meritorious, or, at least, a kind of talent for which I ought to praise God, contemning rather my silent friends as something nearer than myself to the expressionless animals. To parade my toothache, describing it with unusual adjectives, making it felt by all the company in which I might happen to be, was to me an assertion of my superior nature. But, looking at Mary, and thinking about her as I walked home, I perceived that her ability to be quiet, to subdue herself, to resist the temptation for a whole evening of drawing attention to herself by telling us what she was enduring, was heroism, and that my contrary tendency was pitiful vanity. I perceived that such virtues as patience and self-denial—which, clad in russet dress, I had often passed by unnoticed when I had found them amongst the poor or the humble—were more precious and more ennobling to their possessor than poetic yearnings, or the power to propound rhetorically to the world my grievances or agonies.
Miss Mardon's face was getting worse, and as by this time it was late, I stayed but a little while longer.
CHAPTER V—MISS ARBOUR
For some months I continued without much change in my monotonous existence. I did not see Mardon often, for I rather dreaded him. I could not resist him, and I shrank from what I saw to be inevitably true when I talked to him. I can hardly say it was cowardice. Those may call it cowardice to whom all associations are nothing, and to whom beliefs are no more than matters of indifferent research; but as for me, Mardon's talk darkened my days and nights. I never could understand the light manner in which people will discuss the gravest questions, such as God and the immortality of the soul. They gossip about them over their tea, write and read review articles about them, and seem to consider affirmation or negation of no more practical importance than the conformation of a beetle. With me the struggle to retain as much as I could of my creed was tremendous. The dissolution of Jesus into mythologic vapour was nothing less than the death of a friend dearer to me then than any other friend whom I knew.
But the worst stroke of all was that which fell upon the doctrine of a life beyond the grave. In theory I had long despised the notion that we should govern our conduct here by hope of reward or fear of punishment hereafter. But under Mardon's remorseless criticism, when he insisted on asking for the where and how, and pointed out that all attempts to say where and how ended in nonsense, my hope began to fail, and I was surprised to find myself incapable of living with proper serenity if there was nothing but blank darkness before me at the end of a few years.
As I got older I became aware of the folly of this perpetual reaching after the future, and of drawing from to-morrow, and from to-morrow only, a reason for the joyfulness of to-day. I learned, when, alas! it was almost too late, to live in each moment as it passed over my head, believing that the sun as it is now rising is as good as it will ever be, and blinding myself as much as possible to what may follow. But when I was young I was the victim of that illusion, implanted for some purpose or other in us by Nature, which causes us, on the brightest morning in June, to think immediately of a brighter morning which is to come in July. I say nothing, now, for or against the doctrine of immortality. All I say is, that men have been happy without it, even under the pressure of disaster, and that to make immortality a sole spring of action here is an exaggeration of the folly which deludes us all through life with endless expectation, and leaves us at death without the thorough enjoyment of a single hour.
So I shrank from Mardon, but none the less did the process of excavation go on. It often happens that a man loses faith without knowing it. Silently the foundation is sapped while the building stands fronting the sun, as solid to all appearance as when it was first turned out of the builder's hands, but at last it falls suddenly with a crash. It was so at this time with a personal relationship of mine, about which I have hitherto said nothing.
Years ago, before I went to college, and when I was a teacher in the Sunday-school, I had fallen in love with one of my fellow-teachers, and we became engaged. She was the daughter of one of the deacons. She had a smiling, pretty, vivacious face; was always somehow foremost in school treats, picnics, and chapel-work, and she had a kind of piquant manner, which to many men is more ensnaring than beauty. She never read anything; she was too restless and fond of outward activity for that, and no questions about orthodoxy or heresy ever troubled her head. We continued our correspondence regularly after my appointment as minister, and her friends, I knew, were looking to me to fix a day for marriage. But although we had been writing to one another as affectionately as usual, a revolution had taken place. I was quite unconscious of it, for we had been betrothed for so long that I never once considered the possibility of any rupture.
One Monday morning, however, I had a letter from her. It was not often that she wrote on Sunday, as she had a religious prejudice against writing letters on that day. However, this was urgent, for it was to tell me that an aunt of hers who was staying at her father's was just dead, and that her uncle wanted her to go and live with him for some time, to look after the little children who were left behind. She said that her dear aunt died a beautiful death, trusting in the merits of the Redeemer. She also added, in a very delicate way, that she would have agreed to go to her uncle's at once, but she had understood that we were to be married soon, and she did not like to leave home for long. She was evidently anxious for me to tell her what to do.