ANNALS OF A QUIET NEIGHBOURHOOD.
BY GEORGE MACDONALD, LL.D.
DESPONDENCY AND CONSOLATION.
Before I begin to tell you some of the things I have seen and heard, in both of which I have had to take a share, now from the compulsion of my office, now from the leading of my own heart, and now from that destiny which, including both, so often throws the man who supposed himself a mere on-looker, into the very vortex of events—that destiny which took form to the old pagans as a gray mist high beyond the heads of their gods, but to us is known as an infinite love, revealed in the mystery of man—I say before I begin, it is fitting that, in the absence of a common friend to do that office for me, I should introduce myself to your acquaintance, and I hope coming friendship. Nor can there be any impropriety in my telling you about myself, seeing I remain concealed behind my own words. You can never look me in the eyes, though you may look me in the soul. You may find me out, find my faults, my vanities, my sins, but you will not SEE me, at least in this world. To you I am but a voice of revealing, not a form of vision; therefore I am bold behind the mask, to speak to you heart to heart; bold, I say, just so much the more that I do not speak to you face to face. And when we meet in heaven—well, there I know there is no hiding; there, there is no reason for hiding anything; there, the whole desire will be alternate revelation and vision.
I am now getting old—faster and faster. I cannot help my gray hairs, nor the wrinkles that gather so slowly yet ruthlessly; no, nor the quaver that will come in my voice, not the sense of being feeble in the knees, even when I walk only across the floor of my study. But I have not got used to age yet. I do not FEEL one atom older than I did at three-and-twenty. Nay, to tell all the truth, I feel a good deal younger.—For then I only felt that a man had to take up his cross; whereas now I feel that a man has to follow Him; and that makes an unspeakable difference.—When my voice quavers, I feel that it is mine and not mine; that it just belongs to me like my watch, which does not go well-now, though it went well thirty years ago—not more than a minute out in a month. And when I feel my knees shake, I think of them with a kind of pity, as I used to think of an old mare of my father's of which I was very fond when I was a lad, and which bore me across many a field and over many a fence, but which at last came to have the same weakness in her knees that I have in mine; and she knew it too, and took care of them, and so of herself, in a wise equine fashion. These things are not me—or I, if the grammarians like it better, (I always feel a strife between doing as the scholar does and doing as other people do;) they are not me, I say; I HAVE them—and, please God, shall soon have better. For it is not a pleasant thing for a young man, or a young woman either, I venture to say, to have an old voice, and a wrinkled face, and weak knees, and gray hair, or no hair at all. And if any moral Philistine, as our queer German brothers over the Northern fish-pond would call him, say that this is all rubbish, for that we ARE old, I would answer: "Of all children how can the children of God be old?"
So little do I give in to calling this outside of me, ME, that I should not mind presenting a minute description of my own person such as would at once clear me from any suspicion of vanity in so introducing myself. Not that my honesty would result in the least from indifference to the external—but from comparative indifference to the transitional; not to the transitional in itself, which is of eternal significance and result, but to the particular form of imperfection which it may have reached at any individual moment of its infinite progression towards the complete. For no sooner have I spoken the word NOW, than that NOW is dead and another is dying; nay, in such a regard, there is no NOW—only a past of which we know a little, and a future of which we know far less and far more. But I will not speak at all of this body of my earthly tabernacle, for it is on the whole more pleasant to forget all about it. And besides, I do not want to set any of my readers to whom I would have the pleasure of speaking far more openly and cordially than if they were seated on the other side of my writing-table—I do not want to set them wondering whether the vicar be this vicar or that vicar; or indeed to run the risk of giving the offence I might give, if I were anything else than "a wandering voice."
I did not feel as I feel now when first I came to this parish. For, as I have said, I am now getting old very fast. True, I was thirty when I was made a vicar, an age at which a man might be expected to be beginning to grow wise; but even then I had much yet to learn.
I well remember the first evening on which I wandered out from the vicarage to take a look about me—to find out, in short, where I was, and what aspect the sky and earth here presented. Strangely enough, I had never been here before; for the presentation had been made me while I was abroad.—I was depressed. It was depressing weather. Grave doubts as to whether I was in my place in the church, would keep rising and floating about, like rain-clouds within me. Not that I doubted about the church; I only doubted about myself. "Were my motives pure?" "What were my motives?" And, to tell the truth, I did not know what my motives were, and therefore I could not answer about the purity of them. Perhaps seeing we are in this world in order to become pure, it would be expecting too much of any young man that he should be absolutely certain that he was pure in anything. But the question followed very naturally: "Had I then any right to be in the Church—to be eating her bread and drinking her wine without knowing whether I was fit to do her work?" To which the only answer I could find was, "The Church is part of God's world. He makes men to work; and work of some sort must be done by every honest man. Somehow or other, I hardly know how, I find myself in the Church. I do not know that I am fitter for any other work. I see no other work to do. There is work here which I can do after some fashion. With God's help I will try to do it well."
This resolution brought me some relief, but still I was depressed. It was depressing weather.—I may as well say that I was not married then, and that I firmly believed I never should be married—not from any ambition taking the form of self-denial; nor yet from any notion that God takes pleasure in being a hard master; but there was a lady—Well, I WILL be honest, as I would be.—I had been refused a few months before, which I think was the best thing ever happened to me except one. That one, of course, was when I was accepted. But this is not much to the purpose now. Only it was depressing weather.
For is it not depressing when the rain is falling, and the steam of it is rising? when the river is crawling along muddily, and the horses stand stock-still in the meadows with their spines in a straight line from the ears to where they fail utterly in the tails? I should only put on goloshes now, and think of the days when I despised damp. Ah! it was mental waterproof that I needed then; for let me despise damp as much as I would, I could neither keep it out of my mind, nor help suffering the spiritual rheumatism which it occasioned. Now, the damp never gets farther than my goloshes and my Macintosh. And for that worst kind of rheumatism—I never feel it now.
But I had begun to tell you about that first evening.—I had arrived at the vicarage the night before, and it had rained all day, and was still raining, though not so much. I took my umbrella and went out.
For as I wanted to do my work well (everything taking far more the shape of work to me, then, and duty, than it does now—though, even now, I must confess things have occasionally to be done by the clergyman because there is no one else to do them, and hardly from other motive than a sense of duty,—a man not being able to shirk work because it may happen to be dirty)—I say, as I wanted to do my work well, or rather, perhaps, because I dreaded drudgery as much as any poor fellow who comes to the treadmill in consequence—I wanted to interest myself in it; and therefore I would go and fall in love, first of all, if I could, with the country round about. And my first step beyond my own gate was up to the ankles, in mud.
Therewith, curiously enough, arose the distracting thought how I could possibly preach TWO good sermons a Sunday to the same people, when one of the sermons was in the afternoon instead of the evening, to which latter I had been accustomed in the large town in which I had formerly officiated as curate in a proprietary chapel. I, who had declaimed indignantly against excitement from without, who had been inclined to exalt the intellect at the expense even of the heart, began to fear that there must be something in the darkness, and the gas-lights, and the crowd of faces, to account for a man's being able to preach a better sermon, and for servant girls preferring to go out in the evening. Alas! I had now to preach, as I might judge with all probability beforehand, to a company of rustics, of thought yet slower than of speech, unaccustomed in fact to THINK at all, and that in the sleepiest, deadest part of the day, when I could hardly think myself, and when, if the weather should be at all warm, I could not expect many of them to be awake. And what good might I look for as the result of my labour? How could I hope in these men and women to kindle that fire which, in the old days of the outpouring of the Spirit, made men live with the sense of the kingdom of heaven about them, and the expectation of something glorious at hand just outside that invisible door which lay between the worlds?
I have learned since, that perhaps I overrated the spirituality of those times, and underrated, not being myself spiritual enough to see all about me, the spirituality of these times. I think I have learned since, that the parson of a parish must be content to keep the upper windows of his mind open to the holy winds and the pure lights of heaven; and the side windows of tone, of speech, of behaviour open to the earth, to let forth upon his fellow-men the tenderness and truth which those upper influences bring forth in any region exposed to their operation. Believing in his Master, such a servant shall not make haste; shall feel no feverous desire to behold the work of his hands; shall be content to be as his Master, who waiteth long for the fruits of His earth.
But surely I am getting older than I thought; for I keep wandering away from my subject, which is this, my first walk in my new cure. My excuse is, that I want my reader to understand something of the state of my mind, and the depression under which I was labouring. He will perceive that I desired to do some work worth calling by the name of work, and that I did not see how to get hold of a beginning.
I had not gone far from my own gate before the rain ceased, though it was still gloomy enough for any amount to follow. I drew down my umbrella, and began to look about me. The stream on my left was so swollen that I could see its brown in patches through the green of the meadows along its banks. A little in front of me, the road, rising quickly, took a sharp turn to pass along an old stone bridge that spanned the water with a single fine arch, somewhat pointed; and through the arch I could see the river stretching away up through the meadows, its banks bordered with pollards. Now, pollards always made me miserable. In the first place, they look ill-used; in the next place, they look tame; in the third place, they look very ugly. I had not learned then to honour them on the ground that they yield not a jot to the adversity of their circumstances; that, if they must be pollards, they still will be trees; and what they may not do with grace, they will yet do with bounty; that, in short, their life bursts forth, despite of all that is done to repress and destroy their individuality. When you have once learned to honour anything, love is not very far off; at least that has always been my experience. But, as I have said, I had not yet learned to honour pollards, and therefore they made me more miserable than I was already.
When, having followed the road, I stood at last on the bridge, and, looking up and down the river through the misty air, saw two long rows of these pollards diminishing till they vanished in both directions, the sight of them took from me all power of enjoying the water beneath me, the green fields around me, or even the old-world beauty of the little bridge upon which I stood, although all sorts of bridges have been from very infancy a delight to me. For I am one of those who never get rid of their infantile predilections, and to have once enjoyed making a mud bridge, was to enjoy all bridges for ever.
I saw a man in a white smock-frock coming along the road beyond, but I turned my back to the road, leaned my arms on the parapet of the bridge, and stood gazing where I saw no visions, namely, at those very poplars. I heard the man's footsteps coming up the crown of the arch, but I would not turn to greet him. I was in a selfish humour if ever I was; for surely if ever one man ought to greet another, it was upon such a comfortless afternoon. The footsteps stopped behind me, and I heard a voice:—
"I beg yer pardon, sir; but be you the new vicar?"
I turned instantly and answered, "I am. Do you want me?"
"I wanted to see yer face, sir, that was all, if ye'll not take it amiss."
Before me stood a tall old man with his hat in his hand, clothed as I have said, in a white smock-frock. He smoothed his short gray hair with his curved palm down over his forehead as he stood. His face was of a red brown, from much exposure to the weather. There was a certain look of roughness, without hardness, in it, which spoke of endurance rather than resistance, although he could evidently set his face as a flint. His features were large and a little coarse, but the smile that parted his lips when he spoke, shone in his gray eyes as well, and lighted up a countenance in which a man might trust.
"I wanted to see yer face, sir, if you'll not take it amiss."
"Certainly not," I answered, pleased with the man's address, as he stood square before me, looking as modest as fearless. "The sight of a man's face is what everybody has a right to; but, for all that, I should like to know why you want to see my face."
"Why, sir, you be the new vicar. You kindly told me so when I axed you."
"Well, then, you'll see my face on Sunday in church—that is, if you happen to be there."
For, although some might think it the more dignified way, I could not take it as a matter of course that he would be at church. A man might have better reasons for staying away from church than I had for going, even though I was the parson, and it was my business. Some clergymen separate between themselves and their office to a degree which I cannot understand. To assert the dignities of my office seems to me very like exalting myself; and when I have had a twinge of conscience about it, as has happened more than once, I have then found comfort in these two texts: "The Son of man came not to be ministered unto but to minister;" and "It is enough that the servant should be as his master." Neither have I ever been able to see the very great difference between right and wrong in a clergyman, and right and wrong in another man. All that I can pretend to have yet discovered comes to this: that what is right in another man is right in a clergyman; and what is wrong in another man is much worse in a clergyman. Here, however, is one more proof of approaching age. I do not mean the opinion, but the digression.
"Well, then," I said, "you'll see my face in church on Sunday, if you happen to be there."
"Yes, sir; but you see, sir, on the bridge here, the parson is the parson like, and I'm Old Rogers; and I looks in his face, and he looks in mine, and I says to myself, 'This is my parson.' But o' Sundays he's nobody's parson; he's got his work to do, and it mun be done, and there's an end on't."
That there was a real idea in the old man's mind was considerably clearer than the logic by which he tried to bring it out.
"Did you know parson that's gone, sir?" he went on.
"No," I answered.
"Oh, sir! he wur a good parson. Many's the time he come and sit at my son's bedside—him that's dead and gone, sir—for a long hour, on a Saturday night, too. And then when I see him up in the desk the next mornin', I'd say to myself, 'Old Rogers, that's the same man as sat by your son's bedside last night. Think o' that, Old Rogers!' But, somehow, I never did feel right sure o' that same. He didn't seem to have the same cut, somehow; and he didn't talk a bit the same. And when he spoke to me after sermon, in the church-yard, I was always of a mind to go into the church again and look up to the pulpit to see if he war really out ov it; for this warn't the same man, you see. But you'll know all about it better than I can tell you, sir. Only I always liked parson better out o' the pulpit, and that's how I come to want to make you look at me, sir, instead o' the water down there, afore I see you in the church to-morrow mornin'."
The old man laughed a kindly laugh; but he had set me thinking, and I did not know what to say to him all at once. So after a short pause, he resumed—
"You'll be thinking me a queer kind of a man, sir, to speak to my betters before my betters speaks to me. But mayhap you don't know what a parson is to us poor folk that has ne'er a friend more larned than theirselves but the parson. And besides, sir, I'm an old salt,—an old man-o'-war's man,—and I've been all round the world, sir; and I ha' been in all sorts o' company, pirates and all, sir; and I aint a bit frightened of a parson. No; I love a parson, sir. And I'll tell you for why, sir. He's got a good telescope, and he gits to the masthead, and he looks out. And he sings out, 'Land ahead!' or 'Breakers ahead!' and gives directions accordin'. Only I can't always make out what he says. But when he shuts up his spyglass, and comes down the riggin', and talks to us like one man to another, then I don't know what I should do without the parson. Good evenin' to you, sir, and welcome to Marshmallows."
The pollards did not look half so dreary. The river began to glimmer a little; and the old bridge had become an interesting old bridge. The country altogether was rather nice than otherwise. I had found a friend already!—that is, a man to whom I might possibly be of some use; and that was the most precious friend I could think of in my present situation and mood. I had learned something from him too; and I resolved to try all I could to be the same man in the pulpit that I was out of it. Some may be inclined to say that I had better have formed the resolution to be the same man out of the pulpit that I was in it. But the one will go quite right with the other. Out of the pulpit I would be the same man I was in it—seeing and feeling the realities of the unseen; and in the pulpit I would be the same man I was out of it—taking facts as they are, and dealing with things as they show themselves in the world.
One other occurrence before I went home that evening, and I shall close the chapter. I hope I shall not write another so dull as this. I dare not promise, though; for this is a new kind of work to me.
Before I left the bridge,—while, in fact, I was contemplating the pollards with an eye, if not of favour, yet of diminished dismay,—the sun, which, for anything I knew of his whereabouts, either from knowledge of the country, aspect of the evening, or state of my own feelings, might have been down for an hour or two, burst his cloudy bands, and blazed out as if he had just risen from the dead, instead of being just about to sink into the grave. Do not tell me that my figure is untrue, for that the sun never sinks into the grave, else I will retort that it is just as true of the sun as of a man; for that no man sinks into the grave. He only disappears. Life IS a constant sunrise, which death cannot interrupt, any more than the night can swallow up the sun. "God is not the God of the dead, but of the living; for all live unto him."
Well, the sun shone out gloriously. The whole sweep of the gloomy river answered him in gladness; the wet leaves of the pollards quivered and glanced; the meadows offered up their perfect green, fresh and clear out of the trouble of the rain; and away in the distance, upon a rising ground covered with trees, glittered a weathercock. What if I found afterwards that it was only on the roof of a stable? It shone, and that was enough. And when the sun had gone below the horizon, and the fields and the river were dusky once more, there it glittered still over the darkening earth, a symbol of that faith which is "the evidence of things not seen," and it made my heart swell as at a chant from the prophet Isaiah. What matter then whether it hung over a stable-roof or a church-tower?
I stood up and wandered a little farther—off the bridge, and along the road. I had not gone far before I passed a house, out of which came a young woman leading a little boy. They came after me, the boy gazing at the red and gold and green of the sunset sky. As they passed me, the child said—
"Auntie, I think I should like to be a painter."
"Why?" returned his companion.
"Because, then," answered the child, "I could help God to paint the sky."
What his aunt replied I do not know; for they were presently beyond my hearing. But I went on answering him myself all the way home. Did God care to paint the sky of an evening, that a few of His children might see it, and get just a hope, just an aspiration, out of its passing green, and gold, and purple, and red? and should I think my day's labour lost, if it wrought no visible salvation in the earth?
But was the child's aspiration in vain? Could I tell him God did not want his help to paint the sky? True, he could mount no scaffold against the infinite of the glowing west. But might he not with his little palette and brush, when the time came, show his brothers and sisters what he had seen there, and make them see it too? Might he not thus come, after long trying, to help God to paint this glory of vapour and light inside the minds of His children? Ah! if any man's work is not WITH God, its results shall be burned, ruthlessly burned, because poor and bad.
"So, for my part," I said to myself, as I walked home, "if I can put one touch of a rosy sunset into the life of any man or woman of my cure, I shall feel that I have worked with God. He is in no haste; and if I do what I may in earnest, I need not mourn if I work no great work on the earth. Let God make His sunsets: I will mottle my little fading cloud. To help the growth of a thought that struggles towards the light; to brush with gentle hand the earth-stain from the white of one snowdrop—such be my ambition! So shall I scale the rocks in front, not leave my name carved upon those behind me."
People talk about special providences. I believe in the providences, but not in the specialty. I do not believe that God lets the thread of my affairs go for six days, and on the seventh evening takes it up for a moment. The so-called special providences are no exception to the rule—they are common to all men at all moments. But it is a fact that God's care is more evident in some instances of it than in others to the dim and often bewildered vision of humanity. Upon such instances men seize and call them providences. It is well that they can; but it would be gloriously better if they could believe that the whole matter is one grand providence.
I was one of such men at the time, and could not fail to see what I called a special providence in this, that on my first attempt to find where I stood in the scheme of Providence, and while I was discouraged with regard to the work before me, I should fall in with these two—an old man whom I could help, and a child who could help me; the one opening an outlet for my labour and my love, and the other reminding me of the highest source of the most humbling comfort,—that in all my work I might be a fellow-worker with God.
MY FIRST SUNDAY AT MARSHMALLOWS.
These events fell on the Saturday night. On the Sunday morning, I read prayers and preached. Never before had I enjoyed so much the petitions of the Church, which Hooker calls "the sending of angels upward," or the reading of the lessons, which he calls "the receiving of angels descended from above." And whether from the newness of the parson, or the love of the service, certainly a congregation more intent, or more responsive, a clergyman will hardly find. But, as I had feared, it was different in the afternoon. The people had dined, and the usual somnolence had followed; nor could I find in my heart to blame men and women who worked hard all the week, for being drowsy on the day of rest. So I curtailed my sermon as much as I could, omitting page after page of my manuscript; and when I came to a close, was rewarded by perceiving an agreeable surprise upon many of the faces round me. I resolved that, in the afternoons at least, my sermons should be as short as heart could wish.
But that afternoon there was at least one man of the congregation who was neither drowsy nor inattentive. Repeatedly my eyes left the page off which I was reading and glanced towards him. Not once did I find his eyes turned away from me.
There was a small loft in the west end of the church, in which stood a little organ, whose voice, weakened by years of praising, and possibly of neglect, had yet, among a good many tones that were rough, wooden, and reedy, a few remaining that were as mellow as ever praiseful heart could wish to praise withal. And these came in amongst the rest like trusting thoughts amidst "eating cares;" like the faces of children borne in the arms of a crowd of anxious mothers; like hopes that are young prophecies amidst the downward sweep of events. For, though I do not understand music, I have a keen ear for the perfection of the single tone, or the completeness of the harmony. But of this organ more by and by.
Now this little gallery was something larger than was just necessary for the organ and its ministrants, and a few of the parishioners had chosen to sit in its fore-front. Upon this occasion there was no one there but the man to whom I have referred.
The space below this gallery was not included in the part of the church used for the service. It was claimed by the gardener of the place, that is the sexton, to hold his gardening tools. There were a few ancient carvings in wood lying in it, very brown in the dusky light that came through a small lancet window, opening, not to the outside, but into the tower, itself dusky with an enduring twilight. And there were some broken old headstones, and the kindly spade and pickaxe—but I have really nothing to do with these now, for I am, as it were, in the pulpit, whence one ought to look beyond such things as these.
Rising against the screen which separated this mouldy portion of the church from the rest, stood an old monument of carved wood, once brilliantly painted in the portions that bore the arms of the family over whose vault it stood, but now all bare and worn, itself gently flowing away into the dust it commemorated. It lifted its gablet, carved to look like a canopy, till its apex was on a level with the book-board on the front of the organ-loft; and over—in fact upon this apex appeared the face of the man whom I have mentioned. It was a very remarkable countenance—pale, and very thin, without any hair, except that of thick eyebrows that far over-hung keen, questioning eyes. Short bushy hair, gray, not white, covered a well formed head with a high narrow forehead. As I have said, those keen eyes kept looking at me from under their gray eyebrows all the time of the sermon—intelligently without doubt, but whether sympathetically or otherwise I could not determine. And indeed I hardly know yet. My vestry door opened upon a little group of graves, simple and green, without headstone or slab; poor graves, the memory of whose occupants no one had cared to preserve. Good men must have preceded me here, else the poor would not have lain so near the chancel and the vestry-door. All about and beyond were stones, with here and there a monument; for mine was a large parish, and there were old and rich families in it, more of which buried their dead here than assembled their living. But close by the vestry-door, there was this little billowy lake of grass. And at the end of the narrow path leading from the door, was the churchyard wall, with a few steps on each side of it, that the parson might pass at once from the churchyard into his own shrubbery, here tangled, almost matted, from luxuriance of growth. But I would not creep out the back way from among my people. That way might do very well to come in by; but to go out, I would use the door of the people. So I went along the church, a fine old place, such as I had never hoped to be presented to, and went out by the door in the north side into the middle of the churchyard. The door on the other side was chiefly used by the few gentry of the neighbourhood; and the Lych-gate, with its covered way, (for the main road had once passed on that side,) was shared between the coffins and the carriages, the dead who had no rank but one, that of the dead, and the living who had more money than their neighbours. For, let the old gentry disclaim it as they may, mere wealth, derived from whatever source, will sooner reach their level than poor antiquity, or the rarest refinement of personal worth; although, to be sure, the oldest of them will sooner give to the rich their sons or their daughters to wed, to love if they can, to have children by, than they will yield a jot of their ancestral preeminence, or acknowledge any equality in their sons or daughters-in-law. The carpenter's son is to them an old myth, not an everlasting fact. To Mammon alone will they yield a little of their rank—none of it to Christ. Let me glorify God that Jesus took not on. Him the nature of nobles, but the seed of Adam; for what could I do without my poor brothers and sisters?
I passed along the church to the northern door, and went out. The churchyard lay in bright sunshine. All the rain and gloom were gone. "If one could only bring this glory of sun and grass into one's hope for the future!" thought I; and looking down I saw the little boy who aspired to paint the sky, looking up in my face with mingled confidence and awe.
"Do you trust me, my little man?" thought I. "You shall trust me then. But I won't be a priest to you, I'll be a big brother."
For the priesthood passes away, the brotherhood endures. The priesthood passes away, swallowed up in the brotherhood. It is because men cannot learn simple things, cannot believe in the brotherhood, that they need a priesthood. But as Dr Arnold said of the Sunday, "They DO need it." And I, for one, am sure that the priesthood needs the people much more than the people needs the priesthood.
So I stooped and lifted the child and held him in my arms. And the little fellow looked at me one moment longer, and then put his arms gently round my neck. And so we were friends. When I had set him down, which I did presently, for I shuddered at the idea of the people thinking that I was showing off the CLERGYMAN, I looked at the boy. In his face was great sweetness mingled with great rusticity, and I could not tell whether he was the child of gentlefolk or of peasants. He did not say a word, but walked away to join his aunt, who was waiting for him at the gate of the churchyard. He kept his head turned towards me, however, as he went, so that, not seeing where he was going, he stumbled over the grave of a child, and fell in the hollow on the other side. I ran to pick him up. His aunt reached him at the same moment.
"Oh, thank you, sir!" she said, as I gave him to her, with an earnestness which seemed to me disproportionate to the deed, and carried him away with a deep blush over all her countenance.
At the churchyard-gate, the old man-of-war's man was waiting to have another look at me. His hat was in his hand, and he gave a pull to the short hair over his forehead, as if he would gladly take that off too, to show his respect for the new parson. I held out my hand gratefully. It could not close around the hard, unyielding mass of fingers which met it. He did not know how to shake hands, and left it all to me. But pleasure sparkled in his eyes.
"My old woman would like to shake hands with you, sir," he said.
Beside him stood his old woman, in a portentous bonnet, beneath whose gay yellow ribbons appeared a dusky old face, wrinkled like a ship's timbers, out of which looked a pair of keen black eyes, where the best beauty, that of loving-kindness, had not merely lingered, but triumphed.
"I shall be in to see you soon," I said, as I shook hands with her. "I shall find out where you live."
"Down by the mill," she said; "close by it, sir. There's one bed in our garden that always thrives, in the hottest summer, by the plash from the mill, sir."
"Ask for Old Rogers, sir," said the man. "Everybody knows Old Rogers. But if your reverence minds what my wife says, you won't go wrong. When you find the river, it takes you to the mill; and when you find the mill, you find the wheel; and when you find the wheel, you haven't far to look for the cottage, sir. It's a poor place, but you'll be welcome, sir."
MY FIRST MONDAY AT MARSHMALLOWS.
The next day I might expect some visitors. It is a fortunate thing that English society now regards the parson as a gentleman, else he would have little chance of being useful to the UPPER CLASSES. But I wanted to get a good start of them, and see some of my poor before my rich came to see me. So after breakfast, on as lovely a Monday in the beginning of autumn as ever came to comfort a clergyman in the reaction of his efforts to feed his flock on the Sunday, I walked out, and took my way to the village. I strove to dismiss from my mind every feeling of DOING DUTY, of PERFORMING MY PART, and all that. I had a horror of becoming a moral policeman as much as of "doing church." I would simply enjoy the privilege, more open to me in virtue of my office, of ministering. But as no servant has a right to force his service, so I would be the NEIGHBOUR only, until such time as the opportunity of being the servant should show itself.
The village was as irregular as a village should be, partly consisting of those white houses with intersecting parallelograms of black which still abound in some regions of our island. Just in the centre, however, grouping about an old house of red brick, which had once been a manorial residence, but was now subdivided in all modes that analytic ingenuity could devise, rose a portion of it which, from one point of view, might seem part of an old town. But you had only to pass round any one of three visible corners to see stacks of wheat and a farm-yard; while in another direction the houses went straggling away into a wood that looked very like the beginning of a forest, of which some of the village orchards appeared to form part. From the street the slow-winding, poplar-bordered stream was here and there just visible.
I did not quite like to have it between me and my village. I could not help preferring that homely relation in which the houses are built up like swallow-nests on to the very walls of the cathedrals themselves, to the arrangement here, where the river flowed, with what flow there was in it, between the church and the people.
A little way beyond the farther end of the village appeared an iron gate, of considerable size, dividing a lofty stone wall. And upon the top of that one of the stone pillars supporting the gate which I could see, stood a creature of stone, whether natant, volant, passant, couchant, or rampant, I could not tell, only it looked like something terrible enough for a quite antediluvian heraldry.
As I passed along the street, wondering with myself what relations between me and these houses were hidden in the future, my eye was caught by the window of a little shop, in which strings of beads and elephants of gingerbread formed the chief samples of the goods within. It was a window much broader than it was high, divided into lozenge-shaped panes. Wondering what kind of old woman presided over the treasures in this cave of Aladdin, I thought to make a first of my visits by going in and buying something. But I hesitated, because I could not think of anything I was in want of—at least that the old woman was likely to have. To be sure I wanted a copy of Bengel's "Gnomon;" but she was not likely to have that. I wanted the fourth plate in the third volume of Law's "Behmen;" she was not likely to have that either. I did not care for gingerbread; and I had no little girl to take home beads to.
But why should I not go in without an ostensible errand? For this reason: there are dissenters everywhere, and I could not tell but I might be going into the shop of a dissenter. Now, though, I confess, nothing would have pleased me better than that all the dissenters should return to their old home in the Church, I could not endure the suspicion of laying myself out to entice them back by canvassing or using any personal influence. Whether they returned or not, however, (and I did not expect many would,) I hoped still, some day, to stand towards every one of them in the relation of the parson of the parish, that is, one of whom each might feel certain that he was ready to serve him or her at any hour when he might be wanted to render a service. In the meantime, I could not help hesitating.
I had almost made up my mind to ask if she had a small pocket compass, for I had seen such things in little country shops—I am afraid only in France, though—when the door opened, and out came the little boy whom I had already seen twice, and who was therefore one of my oldest friends in the place. He came across the road to me, took me by the hand, and said—
"Come and see mother."
"Where, my dear?" I asked.
"In the shop there," he answered.
"Is it your mother's shop?"
I said no more, but accompanied him. Of course my expectation of seeing an old woman behind the counter had vanished, but I was not in the least prepared for the kind of woman I did see.
The place was half a shop and half a kitchen. A yard or so of counter stretched inwards from the door, just as a hint to those who might be intrusively inclined. Beyond this, by the chimney-corner, sat the mother, who rose as we entered. She was certainly one—I do not say of the most beautiful, but, until I have time to explain further—of the most remarkable women I had ever seen. Her face was absolutely white—no, pale cream-colour—except her lips and a spot upon each cheek, which glowed with a deep carmine. You would have said she had been painting, and painting very inartistically, so little was the red shaded into the surrounding white. Now this was certainly not beautiful. Indeed, it occasioned a strange feeling, almost of terror, at first, for she reminded one of the spectre woman in the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." But when I got used to her complexion, I saw that the form of her features was quite beautiful. She might indeed have been LOVELY but for a certain hardness which showed through the beauty. This might have been the result of ill health, ill-endured; but I doubted it. For there was a certain modelling of the cheeks and lips which showed that the teeth within were firmly closed; and, taken with the look of the eyes and forehead, seemed the expression of a constant and bitter self-command. But there were indubitable marks of ill health upon her, notwithstanding; for not to mention her complexion, her large dark eye was burning as if the lamp of life had broken and the oil was blazing; and there was a slight expansion of the nostrils, which indicated physical unrest. But her manner was perfectly, almost dreadfully, quiet; her voice soft, low, and chiefly expressive of indifference. She spoke without looking me in the face, but did not seem either shy or ashamed. Her figure was remarkably graceful, though too worn to be beautiful.—Here was a strange parishioner for me!—in a country toy-shop, too!
As soon as the little fellow had brought me in, he shrunk away through a half-open door that revealed a stair behind.
"What can I do for you, sir?" said the mother, coldly, and with a kind of book-propriety of speech, as she stood on the other side of the little counter, prepared to open box or drawer at command.
"To tell the truth, I hardly know," I said. "I am the new vicar; but I do not think that I should have come in to see you just to-day, if it had not been that your little boy there—where is he gone to? He asked me to come in and see his mother."
"He is too ready to make advances to strangers, sir."
She said this in an incisive tone.
"Oh, but," I answered, "I am not a stranger to him. I have met him twice before. He is a little darling. I assure you he has quite gained my heart."
No reply for a moment. Then just "Indeed!" and nothing more.
I could not understand it.
But a jar on a shelf, marked TOBACCO, rescued me from the most pressing portion of the perplexity, namely, what to say next.
"Will you give me a quarter of a pound of tobacco?" I said.
The woman turned, took down the jar, arranged the scales, weighed out the quantity, wrapped it up, took the money,—and all without one other word than, "Thank you, sir;" which was all I could return, with the addition of, "Good morning."
For nothing was left me but to walk away with my parcel in my pocket.
The little boy did not show himself again. I had hoped to find him outside.
Pondering, speculating, I now set out for the mill, which, I had already learned, was on the village side of the river. Coming to a lane leading down to the river, I followed it, and then walked up a path outside the row of pollards, through a lovely meadow, where brown and white cows were eating and shining all over the thick deep grass. Beyond the meadow, a wood on the side of a rising ground went parallel with the river a long way. The river flowed on my right. That is, I knew that it was flowing, but I could not have told how I knew, it was so slow. Still swollen, it was of a clear brown, in which you could see the browner trouts darting to and fro with such a slippery gliding, that the motion seemed the result of will, without any such intermediate and complicate arrangement as brain and nerves and muscles. The water-beetles went spinning about over the surface; and one glorious dragon-fly made a mist about him with his long wings. And over all, the sun hung in the sky, pouring down life; shining on the roots of the willows at the bottom of the stream; lighting up the black head of the water-rat as he hurried across to the opposite bank; glorifying the rich green lake of the grass; and giving to the whole an utterance of love and hope and joy, which was, to him who could read it, a more certain and full revelation of God than any display of power in thunder, in avalanche, in stormy sea. Those with whom the feeling of religion is only occasional, have it most when the awful or grand breaks out of the common; the meek who inherit the earth, find the God of the whole earth more evidently present—I do not say more present, for there is no measuring of His presence—more evidently present in the commonest things. That which is best He gives most plentifully, as is reason with Him. Hence the quiet fulness of ordinary nature; hence the Spirit to them that ask it.
I soon came within sound of the mill; and presently, crossing the stream that flowed back to the river after having done its work on the corn, I came in front of the building, and looked over the half-door into the mill. The floor was clean and dusty. A few full sacks, tied tight at the mouth—they always look to me as if Joseph's silver cup were just inside—stood about. In the farther corner, the flour was trickling down out of two wooden spouts into a wooden receptacle below. The whole place was full of its own faint but pleasant odour. No man was visible. The spouts went on pouring the slow torrent of flour, as if everything could go on with perfect propriety of itself. I could not even see how a man could get at the stones that I heard grinding away above, except he went up the rope that hung from the ceiling. So I walked round the corner of the place, and found myself in the company of the water-wheel, mossy and green with ancient waterdrops, looking so furred and overgrown and lumpy, that one might have thought the wood of it had taken to growing again in its old days, and so the wheel was losing by slow degrees the shape of a wheel, to become some new awful monster of a pollard. As yet, however, it was going round; slowly, indeed, and with the gravity of age, but doing its work, and casting its loose drops in the alms-giving of a gentle rain upon a little plot of Master Rogers's garden, which was therefore full of moisture-loving flowers. This plot was divided from the mill-wheel by a small stream which carried away the surplus water, and was now full and running rapidly.
Beyond the stream, beside the flower bed, stood a dusty young man, talking to a young woman with a rosy face and clear honest eyes. The moment they saw me they parted. The young man came across the stream at a step, and the young woman went up the garden towards the cottage.
"That must be Old Rogers's cottage?" I said to the miller.
"Yes, sir," he answered, looking a little sheepish.
"Was that his daughter—that nice-looking young woman you were talking to?"
"Yes, sir, it was."
And he stole a shy pleased look at me out of the corners of his eyes.
"It's a good thing," I said, "to have an honest experienced old mill like yours, that can manage to go on of itself for a little while now and then."
This gave a great help to his budding confidence. He laughed.
"Well, sir, it's not very often it's left to itself. Jane isn't at her father's above once or twice a week at most."
"She doesn't live with them, then?"
"No, sir. You see they're both hearty, and they ain't over well to do, and Jane lives up at the Hall, sir. She's upper housemaid, and waits on one of the young ladies.—Old Rogers has seen a great deal of the world, sir."
"So I imagine. I am just going to see him. Good morning."
I jumped across the stream, and went up a little gravel-walk, which led me in a few yards to the cottage-door. It was a sweet place to live in, with honeysuckle growing over the house, and the sounds of the softly-labouring mill-wheel ever in its little porch and about its windows.
The door was open, and Dame Rogers came from within to meet me. She welcomed me, and led the way into her little kitchen. As I entered, Jane went out at the back-door. But it was only to call her father, who presently came in.
"I'm glad to see ye, sir. This pleasure comes of having no work to-day. After harvest there comes slack times for the likes of me. People don't care about a bag of old bones when they can get hold of young men. Well, well, never mind, old woman. The Lord'll take us through somehow. When the wind blows, the ship goes; when the wind drops, the ship stops; but the sea is His all the same, for He made it; and the wind is His all the same too."
He spoke in the most matter-of-fact tone, unaware of anything poetic in what he said. To him it was just common sense, and common sense only.
"I am sorry you are out of work," I said. "But my garden is sadly out of order, and I must have something done to it. You don't dislike gardening, do you?"
"Well, I beant a right good hand at garden-work," answered the old man, with some embarrassment, scratching his gray head with a troubled scratch.
There was more in this than met the ear; but what, I could not conjecture. I would press the point a little. So I took him at his own word.
"I won't ask you to do any of the more ornamental part," I said,—"only plain digging and hoeing."
"I would rather be excused, sir."
"I am afraid I made you think"—
"I thought nothing, sir. I thank you kindly, sir."
"I assure you I want the work done, and I must employ some one else if you don't undertake it."
"Well, sir, my back's bad now—no, sir, I won't tell a story about it. I would just rather not, sir."
"Now," his wife broke in, "now, Old Rogers, why won't 'ee tell the parson the truth, like a man, downright? If ye won't, I'll do it for 'ee. The fact is, sir," she went on, turning to me, with a plate in her hand, which she was wiping, "the fact is, that the old parson's man for that kind o' work was Simmons, t'other end of the village; and my man is so afeard o' hurtin' e'er another, that he'll turn the bread away from his own mouth and let it fall in the dirt."
"Now, now, old 'oman, don't 'ee belie me. I'm not so bad as that. You see, sir, I never was good at knowin' right from wrong like. I never was good, that is, at tellin' exactly what I ought to do. So when anything comes up, I just says to myself, 'Now, Old Rogers, what do you think the Lord would best like you to do?' And as soon as I ax myself that, I know directly what I've got to do; and then my old woman can't turn me no more than a bull. And she don't like my obstinate fits. But, you see, I daren't sir, once I axed myself that."
"Stick to that, Rogers," I said.
"Besides, sir," he went on, "Simmons wants it more than I do. He's got a sick wife; and my old woman, thank God, is hale and hearty. And there is another thing besides, sir: he might take it hard of you, sir, and think it was turning away an old servant like; and then, sir, he wouldn't be ready to hear what you had to tell him, and might, mayhap, lose a deal o' comfort. And that I would take worst of all, sir."
"Well, well, Rogers, Simmons shall have the job."
"Thank ye, sir," said the old man.
His wife, who could not see the thing quite from her husband's point of view, was too honest to say anything; but she was none the less cordial to me. The daughter stood looking from one to the other with attentive face, which took everything, but revealed nothing.
I rose to go. As I reached the door, I remembered the tobacco in my pocket. I had not bought it for myself. I never could smoke. Nor do I conceive that smoking is essential to a clergyman in the country; though I have occasionally envied one of my brethren in London, who will sit down by the fire, and, lighting his pipe, at the same time please his host and subdue the bad smells of the place. And I never could hit his way of talking to his parishioners either. He could put them at their ease in a moment. I think he must have got the trick out of his pipe. But in reality, I seldom think about how I ought to talk to anybody I am with.
That I didn't smoke myself was no reason why I should not help Old Rogers to smoke. So I pulled out the tobacco.
"You smoke, don't you, Rogers?" I said.
"Well, sir, I can't deny it. It's not much I spend on baccay, anyhow. Is it, dame?
"No, that it bean't," answered his wife.
"You don't think there's any harm in smoking a pipe, sir?"
"Not the least," I answered, with emphasis.
"You see, sir," he went on, not giving me time to prove how far I was from thinking there was any harm in it; "You see, sir, sailors learns many ways they might be better without. I used to take my pan o' grog with the rest of them; but I give that up quite, 'cause as how I don't want it now."
"'Cause as how," interrupted his wife, "you spend the money on tea for me, instead. You wicked old man to tell stories!"
"Well, I takes my share of the tea, old woman, and I'm sure it's a deal better for me. But, to tell the truth, sir, I was a little troubled in my mind about the baccay, not knowing whether I ought to have it or not. For you see, the parson that's gone didn't more than half like it, as I could tell by the turn of his hawse-holes when he came in at the door and me a-smokin'. Not as he said anything; for, ye see, I was an old man, and I daresay that kep him quiet. But I did hear him blow up a young chap i' the village he come upon promiscus with a pipe in his mouth. He did give him a thunderin' broadside, to be sure! So I was in two minds whether I ought to go on with my pipe or not."
"And how did you settle the question, Rogers?"
"Why, I followed my own old chart, sir."
"Quite right. One mustn't mind too much what other people think."
"That's not exactly what I mean, sir."
"What do you mean then? I should like to know."
"Well, sir, I mean that I said to myself, 'Now, Old Rogers, what do you think the Lord would say about this here baccay business?"'
"And what did you think He would say?"
"Why, sir, I thought He would say, 'Old Rogers, have yer baccay; only mind ye don't grumble when you 'aint got none.'"
Something in this—I could not at the time have told what—touched me more than I can express. No doubt it was the simple reality of the relation in which the old man stood to his Father in heaven that made me feel as if the tears would come in spite of me.
"And this is the man," I said to myself, "whom I thought I should be able to teach! Well, the wisest learn most, and I may be useful to him after all."
As I said nothing, the old man resumed—
"For you see, sir, it is not always a body feels he has a right to spend his ha'pence on baccay; and sometimes, too, he 'aint got none to spend."
"In the meantime," I said, "here is some that I bought for you as I came along. I hope you will find it good. I am no judge."
The old sailor's eyes glistened with gratitude. "Well, who'd ha' thought it. You didn't think I was beggin' for it, sir, surely?"
"You see I had it for you in my pocket."
"Well, that IS good o' you, sir!"
"Why, Rogers, that'll last you a month!" exclaimed his wife, looking nearly as pleased as himself.
"Six weeks at least, wife," he answered. "And ye don't smoke yourself, sir, and yet ye bring baccay to me! Well, it's just like yer Master, sir."
I went away, resolved that Old Rogers should have no chance of "grumbling" for want of tobacco, if I could help it.
On the way back, my thoughts were still occupied with the woman I had seen in the little shop. The old man-of-war's man was probably the nobler being of the two; and if I had had to choose between them, I should no doubt have chosen him. But I had not to choose between them; I had only to think about them; and I thought a great deal more about the one I could not understand than the one I could understand. For Old Rogers wanted little help from me; whereas the other was evidently a soul in pain, and therefore belonged to me in peculiar right of my office; while the readiest way in which I could justify to myself the possession of that office was to make it a shepherding of the sheep. So I resolved to find out what I could about her, as one having a right to know, that I might see whether I could not help her. From herself it was evident that her secret, if she had one, was not to be easily gained; but even the common reports of the village would be some enlightenment to the darkness I was in about her.
As I went again through the village, I observed a narrow lane striking off to the left, and resolved to explore in that direction. It led up to one side of the large house of which I have already spoken. As I came near, I smelt what has been to me always a delightful smell—that of fresh deals under the hands of the carpenter. In the scent of those boards of pine is enclosed all the idea the tree could gather of the world of forest where it was reared. It speaks of many wild and bright but chiefly clean and rather cold things. If I were idling, it would draw me to it across many fields.—Turning a corner, I heard the sound of a saw. And this sound drew me yet more. For a carpenter's shop was the delight of my boyhood; and after I began to read the history of our Lord with something of that sense of reality with which we read other histories, and which, I am sorry to think, so much of the well-meant instruction we receive in our youth tends to destroy, my feeling about such a workshop grew stronger and stronger, till at last I never could go near enough to see the shavings lying on the floor of one, without a spiritual sensation such as I have in entering an old church; which sensation, ever since having been admitted on the usual conditions to a Mohammedan mosque, urges me to pull off, not only my hat, but my shoes likewise. And the feeling has grown upon me, till now it seems at times as if the only cure in the world for social pride would be to go for five silent minutes into a carpenter's shop. How one can think of himself as above his neighbours, within sight, sound, or smell of one, I fear I am getting almost unable to imagine, and one ought not to get out of sympathy with the wrong. Only as I am growing old now, it does not matter so much, for I daresay my time will not be very long.
So I drew near to the shop, feeling as if the Lord might be at work there at one of the benches. And when I reached the door, there was my pale-faced hearer of the Sunday afternoon, sawing a board for a coffin-lid.
As my shadow fell across and darkened his work, he lifted his head and saw me.
I could not altogether understand the expression of his countenance as he stood upright from his labour and touched his old hat with rather a proud than a courteous gesture. And I could not believe that he was glad to see me, although he laid down his saw and advanced to the door. It was the gentleman in him, not the man, that sought to make me welcome, hardly caring whether I saw through the ceremony or not. True, there was a smile on his lips, but the smile of a man who cherishes a secret grudge; of one who does not altogether dislike you, but who has a claim upon you—say, for an apology, of which claim he doubts whether you know the existence. So the smile seemed tightened, and stopped just when it got half-way to its width, and was about to become hearty and begin to shine.
"May I come in?" I said.
"Come in, sir," he answered.
"I am glad I have happened to come upon you by accident," I said.
He smiled as if he did not quite believe in the accident, and considered it a part of the play between us that I should pretend it. I hastened to add—
"I was wandering about the place, making some acquaintance with it, and with my friends in it, when I came upon you quite unexpectedly. You know I saw you in church on Sunday afternoon."
"I know you saw me, sir," he answered, with a motion as if to return to his work; "but, to tell the truth, I don't go to church very often."
I did not quite know whether to take this as proceeding from an honest fear of being misunderstood, or from a sense of being in general superior to all that sort of thing. But I felt that it would be of no good to pursue the inquiry directly. I looked therefore for something to say.
"Ah! your work is not always a pleasant one," I said, associating the feelings of which I have already spoken with the facts before me, and looking at the coffin, the lower part of which stood nearly finished upon trestles on the floor.
"Well, there are unpleasant things in all trades," he answered. "But it does not matter," he added, with an increase of bitterness in his smile.
"I didn't mean," I said, "that the work was unpleasant—only sad. It must always be painful to make a coffin."
"A joiner gets used to it, sir, as you do to the funeral service. But, for my part, I don't see why it should be considered so unhappy for a man to be buried. This isn't such a good job, after all, this world, sir, you must allow."
"Neither is that coffin," said I, as if by a sudden inspiration.
The man seemed taken aback, as Old Rogers might have said. He looked at the coffin and then looked at me.
"Well, sir," he said, after a short pause, which no doubt seemed longer both to him and to me than it would have seemed to any third person, "I don't see anything amiss with the coffin. I don't say it'll last till doomsday, as the gravedigger says to Hamlet, because I don't know so much about doomsday as some people pretend to; but you see, sir, it's not finished yet."
"Thank you," I said; "that's just what I meant. You thought I was hasty in my judgment of your coffin; whereas I only said of it knowingly what you said of the world thoughtlessly. How do you know that the world is finished anymore than your coffin? And how dare you then say that it is a bad job?"
The same respectfully scornful smile passed over his face, as much as to say, "Ah! it's your trade to talk that way, so I must not be too hard upon you."
"At any rate, sir," he said, "whoever made it has taken long enough about it, a person would think, to finish anything he ever meant to finish."
"One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day," I said.
"That's supposing," he answered, "that the Lord did make the world. For my part, I am half of a mind that the Lord didn't make it at all."
"I am very glad to hear you say so," I answered.
Hereupon I found that we had changed places a little. He looked up at me. The smile of superiority was no longer there, and a puzzled questioning, which might indicate either "Who would have expected that from you?" or, "What can he mean?" or both at once, had taken its place. I, for my part, knew that on the scale of the man's judgment I had risen nearer to his own level. As he said nothing, however, and I was in danger of being misunderstood, I proceeded at once.
"Of course it seems to me better that you should not believe God had done a thing, than that you should believe He had not done it well!"
"Ah! I see, sir. Then you will allow there is some room for doubting whether He made the world at all?"
"Yes; for I do not think an honest man, as you seem to me to be, would be able to doubt without any room whatever. That would be only for a fool. But it is just possible, as we are not perfectly good ourselves—you'll allow that, won't you?"
"That I will, sir; God knows."
"Well, I say—as we're not quite good ourselves, it's just possible that things may be too good for us to do them the justice of believing in them."
"But there are things, you must allow, so plainly wrong!"
"So much so, both in the world and in myself, that it would be to me torturing despair to believe that God did not make the world; for then, how would it ever be put right? Therefore I prefer the theory that He has not done making it yet."
"But wouldn't you say, sir, that God might have managed it without so many slips in the making as your way would suppose? I should think myself a bad workman if I worked after that fashion."
"I do not believe that there are any slips. You know you are making a coffin; but are you sure you know what God is making of the world?"
"That I can't tell, of course, nor anybody else."
"Then you can't say that what looks like a slip is really a slip, either in the design or in the workmanship. You do not know what end He has in view; and you may find some day that those slips were just the straight road to that very end."
"Ah! maybe. But you can't be sure of it, you see."
"Perhaps not, in the way you mean; but sure enough, for all that, to try it upon life—to order my way by it, and so find that it works well. And I find that it explains everything that comes near it. You know that no engineer would be satisfied with his engine on paper, nor with any proof whatever except seeing how it will go."
He made no reply.
It is a principle of mine never to push anything over the edge. When I am successful, in any argument, my one dread is of humiliating my opponent. Indeed I cannot bear it. It humiliates me. And if you want him to think about anything, you must leave him room, and not give him such associations with the question that the very idea of it will be painful and irritating to him. Let him have a hand in the convincing of himself. I have been surprised sometimes to see my own arguments come up fresh and green, when I thought the fowls of the air had devoured them up. When a man reasons for victory and not for the truth in the other soul, he is sure of just one ally, the same that Faust had in fighting Gretchen's brother—that is, the Devil. But God and good men are against him. So I never follow up a victory of that kind, for, as I said, the defeat of the intellect is not the object in fighting with the sword of the Spirit, but the acceptance of the heart. In this case, therefore, I drew back.
"May I ask for whom you are making that coffin?"
"For a sister of my own, sir."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"There's no occasion. I can't say I'm sorry, though she was one of the best women I ever knew."
"Why are you not sorry, then? Life's a good thing in the main, you will allow."
"Yes, when it's endurable at all. But to have a brute of a husband coming home at any hour of the night or morning, drunk upon the money she had earned by hard work, was enough to take more of the shine out of things than church-going on Sundays could put in again, regular as she was, poor woman! I'm as glad as her brute of a husband, that she's out of his way at last."
"How do you know he's glad of it?"
"He's been drunk every night since she died."
"Then he's the worse for losing her?"
"He may well be. Crying like a hypocrite, too, over his own work!"
"A fool he must be. A hypocrite, perhaps not. A hypocrite is a terrible name to give. Perhaps her death will do him good."
"He doesn't deserve to be done any good to. I would have made this coffin for him with a world of pleasure."
"I never found that I deserved anything, not even a coffin. The only claim that I could ever lay to anything was that I was very much in want of it."
The old smile returned—as much as to say, "That's your little game in the church." But I resolved to try nothing more with him at present; and indeed was sorry that I had started the new question at all, partly because thus I had again given him occasion to feel that he knew better than I did, which was not good either for him or for me in our relation to each other.
"This has been a fine old room once," I said, looking round the workshop.
"You can see it wasn't a workshop always, sir. Many a grand dinner-party has sat down in this room when it was in its glory. Look at the chimney-piece there."
"I have been looking at it," I said, going nearer.
"It represents the four quarters of the world, you see."
I saw strange figures of men and women, one on a kneeling camel, one on a crawling crocodile, and others differently mounted; with various besides of Nature's bizarre productions creeping and flying in stone-carving over the huge fire-place, in which, in place of a fire, stood several new and therefore brilliantly red cart-wheels. The sun shone through the upper part of a high window, of which many of the panes were broken, right in upon the cart-wheels, which, glowing thus in the chimney under the sombre chimney-piece, added to the grotesque look of the whole assemblage of contrasts. The coffin and the carpenter stood in the twilight occasioned by the sharp division of light made by a lofty wing of the house that rose flanking the other window. The room was still wainscotted in panels, which, I presume, for the sake of the more light required for handicraft, had been washed all over with white. At the level of labour they were broken in many places. Somehow or other, the whole reminded me of Albert Durer's "Melencholia."
Seeing I was interested in looking about his shop, my new friend—for I could not help feeling that we should be friends before all was over, and so began to count him one already—resumed the conversation. He had never taken up the dropped thread of it before.
"Yes, sir," he said; "the owners of the place little thought it would come to this—the deals growing into a coffin there on the spot where the grand dinner was laid for them and their guests! But there is another thing about it that is odder still; my son is the last male"—
Here he stopped suddenly, and his face grew very red. As suddenly he resumed—
"I'm not a gentleman, sir; but I will tell the truth. Curse it!—I beg your pardon, sir,"—and here the old smile—"I don't think I got that from THEIR side of the house.—My son's NOT the last male descendant."
Here followed another pause.
As to the imprecation, I knew better than to take any notice of a mere expression of excitement under a sense of some injury with which I was not yet acquainted. If I could get his feelings right in regard to other and more important things, a reform in that matter would soon follow; whereas to make a mountain of a molehill would be to put that very mountain between him and me. Nor would I ask him any questions, lest I should just happen to ask him the wrong one; for this parishioner of mine evidently wanted careful handling, if I would do him any good. And it will not do any man good to fling even the Bible in his face. Nay, a roll of bank-notes, which would be more evidently a good to most men, would carry insult with it if presented in that manner. You cannot expect people to accept before they have had a chance of seeing what the offered gift really is.
After a pause, therefore, the carpenter had once more to recommence, or let the conversation lie. I stood in a waiting attitude. And while I looked at him, I was reminded of some one else whom I knew—with whom, too, I had pleasant associations—though I could not in the least determine who that one might be.
"It's very foolish of me to talk so to a stranger," he resumed.
"It is very kind and friendly of you," I said, still careful to make no advances. "And you yourself belong to the old family that once lived in this old house?"
"It would be no boast to tell the truth, sir, even if it were a credit to me, which it is not. That family has been nothing but a curse to ours."
I noted that he spoke of that family as different from his, and yet implied that he belonged to it. The explanation would come in time. But the man was again silent, planing away at half the lid of his sister's coffin. And I could not help thinking that the closed mouth meant to utter nothing more on this occasion.
"I am sure there must be many a story to tell about this old place, if only there were any one to tell them," I said at last, looking round the room once more.—"I think I see the remains of paintings on the ceiling."
"You are sharp-eyed, sir. My father says they were plain enough in his young days."
"Is your father alive, then?"
"That he is, sir, and hearty too, though he seldom goes out of doors now. Will you go up stairs and see him? He's past ninety, sir. He has plenty of stories to tell about the old place—before it began to fall to pieces like."
"I won't go to-day," I said, partly because I wanted to be at home to receive any one who might call, and partly to secure an excuse for calling again upon the carpenter sooner than I should otherwise have liked to do. "I expect visitors myself, and it is time I were at home. Good morning."
"Good morning, sir."
And away home I went with a new wonder in my brain. The man did not seem unknown to me. I mean, the state of his mind woke no feeling of perplexity in me. I was certain of understanding it thoroughly when I had learned something of his history; for that such a man must have a history of his own was rendered only the more probable from the fact that he knew something of the history of his forefathers, though, indeed, there are some men who seem to have no other. It was strange, however, to think of that man working away at a trade in the very house in which such ancestors had eaten and drunk, and married and given in marriage. The house and family had declined together—in outward appearance at least; for it was quite possible both might have risen in the moral and spiritual scale in proportion as they sank in the social one. And if any of my readers are at first inclined to think that this could hardly be, seeing that the man was little, if anything, better than an infidel, I would just like to hold one minute's conversation with them on that subject. A man may be on the way to the truth, just in virtue of his doubting. I will tell you what Lord Bacon says, and of all writers of English I delight in him: "So it is in contemplation: if a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties." Now I could not tell the kind or character of this man's doubt; but it was evidently real and not affected doubt; and that was much in his favour. And I couid see that he was a thinking man; just one of the sort I thought I should get on with in time, because he was honest— notwithstanding that unpleasant smile of his, which did irritate me a little, and partly piqued me into the determination to get the better of the man, if I possibly could, by making friends with him. At all events, here was another strange parishioner. And who could it be that he was like?
VISITORS FROM THE HALL.
When I came near my own gate, I saw that it was open; and when I came in sight of my own door, I found a carriage standing before it, and a footman ringing the bell. It was an old-fashioned carriage, with two white horses in it, yet whiter by age than by nature. They looked as if no coachman could get more than three miles an hour out of them, they were so fat and knuckle-kneed. But my attention could not rest long on the horses, and I reached the door just as my housekeeper was pronouncing me absent. There were two ladies in the carriage, one old and one young.
"Ah, here is Mr. Walton!" said the old lady, in a serene voice, with a clear hardness in its tone; and I held out my hand to aid her descent. She had pulled off her glove to get a card out of her card-case, and so put the tips of two old fingers, worn very smooth, as if polished with feeling what things were like, upon the palm of my hand. I then offered my hand to her companion, a girl apparently about fourteen, who took a hearty hold of it, and jumped down beside her with a smile. As I followed them into the house, I took their card from the housekeeper's hand, and read, Mrs Oldcastle and Miss Gladwyn.
I confess here to my reader, that these are not really the names I read on the card. I made these up this minute. But the names of the persons of humble position in my story are their real names. And my reason for making the difference will be plain enough. You can never find out my friend Old Rogers; you might find out the people who called on me in their carriage with the ancient white horses.
When they were seated in the drawing-room, I said to the old lady—
"I remember seeing you in church on Sunday morning. It is very kind of you to call so soon."
"You will always see me in church," she returned, with a stiff bow, and an expansion of deadness on her face, which I interpreted into an assertion of dignity, resulting from the implied possibility that I might have passed her over in my congregation, or might have forgotten her after not passing her over.
"Except when you have a headache, grannie," said Miss Gladwyn, with an arch look first at her grandmother, and then at me. "Grannie has bad headaches sometimes."
The deadness melted a little from Mrs Oldcastle's face, as she turned with half a smile to her grandchild, and said—
"Yes, Pet. But you know that cannot be an interesting fact to Mr. Walton."
"I beg your pardon, Mrs. Oldcastle," I said. "A clergyman ought to know something, and the more the better, of the troubles of his flock. Sympathy is one of the first demands he ought to be able to meet—I know what a headache is."
The former expression, or rather non-expression, returned; this time unaccompanied by a bow.
"I trust, Mr. Walton, I TRUST I am above any morbid necessity for sympathy. But, as you say, amongst the poor of your flock,—it IS very desirable that a clergyman should be able to sympathise."
"It's quite true what grannie says, Mr. Walton, though you mightn't think it. When she has a headache, she shuts herself up in her own room, and doesn't even let me come near her—nobody but Sarah; and how she can prefer her to me, I'm sure I don't know."
And here the girl pretended to pout, but with a sparkle in her bright gray eye.
"The subject is not interesting to me, Pet. Pray, Mr. Walton, is it a point of conscience with you to wear the surplice when you preach?"
"Not in the least," I answered. "I think I like it rather better on the whole. But that's not why I wear it."
"Never mind grannie, Mr. Walton. I think the surplice is lovely. I'm sure it's much liker the way we shall be dressed in heaven, though I don't think I shall ever get there, if I must read the good books grannie reads."
"I don't know that it is necessary to read any good books but the good book," I said.
"There, grannie!" exclaimed Miss Gladwyn, triumphantly. "I'm so glad I've got Mr Walton on my side!"
"Mr Walton is not so old as I am, my dear, and has much to learn yet."
I could not help feeling a little annoyed, (which was very foolish, I know,) and saying to myself, "If it's to make me like you, I had rather not learn any more;" but I said nothing aloud, of course.
"Have you got a headache to-day, grannie?"
"No, Pet. Be quiet. I wish to ask Mr Walton WHY he wears the surplice."
"Simply," I replied, "because I was told the people had been accustomed to it under my predecessor."
"But that can be no good reason for doing what is not right—that people have been accustomed to it."
"But I don't allow that it's not right. I think it is a matter of no consequence whatever. If I find that the people don't like it, I will give it up with pleasure."
"You ought to have principles of your own, Mr Walton."
"I hope I have. And one of them is, not to make mountains of molehills; for a molehill is not a mountain. A man ought to have too much to do in obeying his conscience and keeping his soul's garments clean, to mind whether he wears black or white when telling his flock that God loves them, and that they will never be happy till they believe it."
"They may believe that too soon."
"I don't think any one can believe the truth too soon."
A pause followed, during which it became evident to me that Miss Gladwyn saw fun in the whole affair, and was enjoying it thoroughly. Mrs Oldcastle's face, on the contrary, was illegible. She resumed in a measured still voice, which she meant to be meek, I daresay, but which was really authoritative—
"I am sorry, Mr Walton, that your principles are so loose and unsettled. You will see my honesty in saying so when you find that, objecting to the surplice, as I do, on Protestant grounds, I yet warn you against making any change because you may discover that your parishioners are against it. You have no idea, Mr Walton, what inroads Radicalism, as they call it, has been making in this neighbourhood. It is quite dreadful. Everybody, down to the poorest, claiming a right to think for himself, and set his betters right! There's one worse than any of the rest—but he's no better than an atheist—a carpenter of the name of Weir, always talking to his neighbours against the proprietors and the magistrates, and the clergy too, Mr Walton, and the game-laws; and what not? And if you once show them that you are afraid of them by going a step out of your way for THEIR opinion about anything, there will be no end to it; for, the beginning of strife is like the letting out of water, as you know. I should know nothing about it, but that, my daughter's maid—I came to hear of it through her—a decent girl of the name of Rogers, and born of decent parents, but unfortunately attached to the son of one of your churchwardens, who has put him into that mill on the river you can almost see from here."
"Who put him in the mill?"
"His own father, to whom it belongs."
"Well, it seems to me a very good match for her."
"Yes, indeed, and for him too. But his foolish father thinks the match below him, as if there was any difference between the positions of people in that rank of life! Every one seems striving to tread on the heels of every one else, instead of being content with the station to which God has called them. I am content with mine. I had nothing to do with putting myself there. Why should they not be content with theirs? They need to be taught Christian humility and respect for their superiors. That's the virtue most wanted at present. The poor have to look up to the rich"—
"That's right, grannie! And the rich have to look down on the poor."
"No, my dear. I did not say that. The rich have to be KIND to the poor."
"But, grannie, why did you marry Mr Oldcastle?"
"What does the child mean?"
"Uncle Stoddart says you refused ever so many offers when you were a girl."
"Uncle Stoddart has no business to be talking about such things to a chit like you," returned the grandmother. smiling, however, at the charge, which so far certainly contained no reproach.
"And grandpapa was the ugliest and the richest of them all—wasn't he, grannie? and Colonel Markham the handsomest and the poorest?"
A flush of anger crimsoned the old lady's pale face. It looked dead no longer.
"Hold your tongue," she said. "You are rude."
And Miss Gladwyn did hold her tongue, but nothing else, for she was laughing all over.
The relation between these two was evidently a very odd one. It was clear that Miss Gladwyn was a spoiled child, though I could not help thinking her very nicely spoiled, as far as I saw; and that the old lady persisted in regarding her as a cub, although her claws had grown quite long enough to be dangerous. Certainly, if things went on thus, it was pretty clear which of them would soon have the upper hand, for grannie was vulnerable, and Pet was not.
It really began to look as if there were none but characters in my parish. I began to think it must be the strangest parish in England, and to wonder that I had never heard of it before. "Surely it must be in some story-book at least!" I said to myself.
But her grand-daughter's tiger-cat-play drove the old lady nearer to me. She rose and held out her hand, saying, with some kindness—