Cecilia de Noel
MACMILLAN & CO., LIMITED ST. MARTINS ST., LONDON 1910
CECILIA DE NOEL
"There is no revelation but that of science," said Atherley.
It was after dinner in the drawing-room. From the cold of the early spring night, closed shutters and drawn curtains carefully protected us; shaded lamps and a wood fire diffused an exquisite twilight; we breathed a mild and even balmy atmosphere scented with hothouse flowers.
"And this revelation completely satisfies all reasonable desires," he continued, surveying his small audience from the hearthrug where he stood; "mind, I say all reasonable desires. If you have a healthy appetite for bread, you will get it and plenty of it, but if you have a sickly craving for manna, why then you will come badly off, that is all. This is the gospel of fact, not of fancy: of things as they actually are, you know, instead of as A dreamt they were, or B decided they ought to be, or C would like to have them. So this gospel is apt to look a little dull beside the highly coloured romances the churches have accustomed us to—as a modern plate-glass window might, compared with a stained-glass oriel in a mediaeval cathedral. There is no doubt which is the prettier of the two. The question is, do you want pretty colour or do you want clear daylight?" He paused, but neither of his listeners spoke. Lady Atherley was counting the stitches of her knitting; I was too tired; so he resumed: "For my part, I prefer the daylight and the glass, without any daubing. What does science discover in the universe? Precision, accuracy, reliability—any amount of it; but as to pity, mercy, love! The fact is, that famous simile of the angel playing at chess was a mistake. Very smart, I grant you, but altogether misleading. Why! the orthodox quote it as much as the others—always a bad sign. It tickles these anthropomorphic fancies, which are at the bottom of all their creeds. Imagine yourself playing at chess, not with an angel, but with an automaton, an admirably constructed automaton whose mechanism can outwit your brains any day: calm and strong, if you like, but no more playing for love than the clock behind me is ticking for love; there you have a much clearer notion of existence. A much clearer notion, and a much more satisfactory notion too, I say. Fair play and no favour! What more can you ask, if you are fit to live?"
His kindling glance sought the farther end of the long drawing-room; had it fallen upon me instead, perhaps that last challenge might have been less assured; and yet how bravely it became the speaker, whose wide-browed head a no less admirable frame supported. Even the stiff evening uniform of his class could not conceal the grace of form which health and activity had moulded, working through highly favoured generations. There was latent force implied in every line of it, and, in the steady poise of look and mien, that perfect nervous balance which is the crown of strength.
"And with our creed, of course, we shift our moral code as well. The ten commandments, or at least the second table, we retain for obvious reasons, but the theological virtues must be got rid of as quickly as possible. Charity, for instance, is a mischievous quality—it is too indulgent to weakness, which is not to be indulged or encouraged, but stamped out. Hope is another pernicious quality leading to all kinds of preposterous expectations which never are, or can be, fulfilled; and as to faith, it is simply a vice. So far from taking anything on trust, you must refuse to accept any statement whatsoever till it is proved so plainly you can't help believing it whether you like it or not; just as a theorem in—"
"George," said Lady Atherley, "what is that noise?"
The question, timed as Lady Atherley's remarks so often were, came with something of a shock. Her husband, thus checked in full flight, seemed to reel for a moment, but quickly recovering himself, asked resignedly: "What noise?"
"Such a strange noise, like the howling of a dog."
"Probably it is the howling of a dog."
"No, for it came from inside the house, and Tip sleeps outside now, in the saddle-room, I believe. It sounded in the servants' wing. Did you hear it, Mr. Lyndsay?"
I confessed that I had not.
"Well, as I can offer no explanation," said Atherley, "perhaps I may be allowed to go on with what I was saying. Doubt, obstinate and almost invincible doubt, is the virtue we must now cultivate, just as—"
"Why, there it is again," cried Lady Atherley.
Atherley instantly rang the bell near him, and while Lady Atherley continued to repeat that it was very strange, and that she could not imagine what it could be, he waited silently till his summons was answered by a footman.
"Charles, what is the meaning of that crying or howling which seems to come from your end of the house?"
"I think, Sir George," said Charles, with the coldly impassive manner of a highly-trained servant—"I think, Sir George, it must be Ann, the kitchen-maid, that you hear."
"Indeed! and may I ask what Ann, the kitchen-maid, is supposed to be doing?"
"If you please, Sir George, she is in hysterics."
"Oh! why?" exclaimed Lady Atherley plaintively.
"Because, my lady, Mrs. Mallet has seen the ghost!"
"Because Mrs. Mallet has seen the ghost!" repeated Atherley. "Pray, what is Mrs. Mallet herself doing under the circumstances?"
"She is having some brandy-and-water, Sir George."
"Mrs. Mallet is a sensible woman," said Atherley heartily; "Ann, the kitchen-maid, had better follow her example."
"You may go, Charles," said Lady Atherley; and, as the door closed behind him, exclaimed, "I wish that horrid woman had never entered the house!"
"What horrid woman? Your too sympathetic kitchen-maid?"
"No, that—that Mrs. Mallet."
"Why are you angry with her? Because she has seen the ghost?"
"Yes, for I told her most particularly the very day I engaged her, after Mrs. Webb left us in that sudden way—I told her I never allowed the ghost to be mentioned."
"And why, my dear, did you break your own excellent rule by mentioning it to her?"
"Because she had the impertinence to tell me, almost directly she came into the morning-room, that she knew all about the ghost; but I stopped her at once, and said that if ever she spoke of such a thing especially to the other servants, I should be very much displeased; and now she goes and behaves in this way."
"Where did you pick up this viper?"
"She comes from Quarley Beacon. There was no one in this stupid village who could cook at all, and Cecilia de Noel, who recommended her—"
"Cecilia de Noel!" repeated Atherley, with that long-drawn emphasis which suggests so much. "My dear Jane, I must say that in taking a servant on Cissy's recommendation you did not display your usual sound common sense. I should as soon have thought of asking her to buy me a gun, knowing that she would carefully pick out the one least likely to shoot anything. Cissy is accustomed to look upon a servant as something to be waited on and taken care of. Her own household, as we all know, is composed chiefly of chronic invalids."
"But I explained to Cecilia that I wanted somebody who was strong as well as a good cook; and I am sure there is nothing the matter with Mrs. Mallet. She is as fat as possible, and as red! Besides, she has never been one of Cecilia's servants; she only goes there to help sometimes; and she says she is perfectly respectable."
"Mrs. Mallet says that Cissy is perfectly respectable?"
"No, George; it is not likely that I should allow a person in Mrs. Mallet's position to speak disrespectfully to me about Cecilia. Cecilia said Mrs. Mallet was perfectly respectable."
"I should not think dear old Ciss exactly knew the meaning of the word."
"Cecilia may be peculiar in many ways, but she is too much of a lady to send me any one who was not quite nice. I don't believe there is anything against Mrs. Mallet's character. She cooks very well, you must allow that; you said only two days ago you never had tasted an omelette so nicely made in England."
"Did she cook that omelette? Then I am sure she is perfectly respectable; and pray let her see as many ghosts as she cares to, especially if it leads to nothing worse than her taking a moderate quantity of brandy. Time to smoke, Lindy. I am off."
I dragged myself up after my usual fashion, and was preparing to follow him, when Lady Atherley, directly he was gone, began:
"It is such a pity that clever people can never see things as others do. George always goes on in this way as if the ghost were of no consequence, but I always knew how it would be. Of course it is nice that George should come in for the place, as he might not have done if his uncle had married, and people said it would be delightful to live in such an old house, but there are a good many drawbacks, I can assure you. Sir Marmaduke lived abroad for years before he died, and everything has got into such a state. We have had to nearly refurnish the house; the bedrooms are not done yet. The servants' accommodation is very bad too, and there was no proper cooking-range in the kitchen. But the worst of all is the ghost. Directly I heard of it I knew we should have trouble with the servants; and we had not been here a month when our cook, who had lived with us for years, gave warning because the place was damp. At first she said it was the ghost, but when I told her not to talk such nonsense she said it was the damp. And then it is so awkward about visitors. What are we to do when the fishing season begins? I cannot get George to understand that some people have a great objection to anything of the kind, and are quite angry if you put them into a haunted room. And it is much worse than having only one haunted room, because we could make that into a bachelor's bedroom—I don't think they mind; or a linen cupboard, as they do at Wimbourne Castle; but this ghost seems to appear in all the rooms, and even in the halls and passages, so I cannot think what we are to do."
I said it was extraordinary, and I meant it. That a ghost should venture into Atherley's neighbourhood was less amazing than that it should continue to exist in his wife's presence, so much more fatal than his eloquence to all but the tangible and the solid. Her orthodoxy is above suspicion, but after some hours of her society I am unable to contemplate any aspects of life save the comfortable and the uncomfortable: while the Universe itself appears to me only a gigantic apparatus especially designed to provide Lady Atherley and her class with cans of hot water at stated intervals, costly repasts elaborately served, and all other requisites of irreproachable civilisation.
But before I had time to say more, Atherley in his smoking-coat looked in to see if I was coming or not.
"Don't keep Mr. Lyndsay up late, George," said my kind hostess; "he looks so tired."
"You look dead beat," he said later on, in his own particular and untidy den, as he carefully stuffed the bowl of his pipe. "I think it would go better with you, old chap, if you did not hold yourself in quite so tight. I don't want you to rave or commit suicide in some untidy fashion, as the hero of a French novel does; but you are as well-behaved as a woman, without a woman's grand resources of hysterics and general unreasonableness all round. You always were a little too good for human nature's daily food. Your notions on some points are quite unwholesomely superfine. It would be a comfort to see you let out in some way. I wish you would have a real good fling for once."
"I should have to pay too dear for it afterwards. My superfine habits are not a matter of choice only, you must remember."
"Oh!—the women! Not the best of them is worth bothering about, let alone a shameless jilt."
"You were always hard upon her, George. She jilted a cripple for a very fine specimen of the race. Some of your favourite physiologists would say she was quite right."
"You never understood her, Lindy. It was not a case of jilting a cripple at all. She jilted three thousand a year and a small place for ten thousand a year and a big one."
After all, it did hurt a little, which Atherley must have divined, for crossing the room on some pretext or another he let his strong hand rest, just for an instant, gently upon my shoulder, thus, after the manner of his race, mutely and concisely expressing affection and sympathy that might have swelled a canto.
"I shall be sorry," he said presently, lying rather than sitting in the deep chair beside the fire, "very sorry, if the ghost is going to make itself a nuisance."
"What is the story of the ghost?"
"Story! God bless you, it has none to tell, sir; at least it never has told it, and no one else rightly knows it. It—I mean the ghost—is older than the family. We found it here when we came into the place about two hundred years ago, and it refused to be dislodged. It is rather uncertain in its habits. Sometimes it is not heard of for years; then all at once it reappears, generally, I may observe, when some imaginative female in the house is in love, or out of spirits, or bored in any other way. She sees it, and then, of course—the complaint being highly infectious—so do a lot more. One of the family started the theory it was the ghost of the portrait, or rather the unknown individual whose portrait hangs high up over the sideboard in the dining-room."
"You don't mean the lady in green velvet with the snuff-box?"
"Certainly not; that is my own great-grand-aunt. I mean a square of black canvas with one round yellow spot in the middle and a dirty white smudge under the spot. There are members of this family—Aunt Eleanour, for instance—who tell me the yellow spot is a man's face and the dirty white smudge is an Elizabethan ruff. Then there is a picture of a man in armour in the oak room, which I don't believe is a portrait at all; but Aunt Henrietta swears it is, and of the ghost, too—as he was before he died, of course. And very interesting details both my aunts are ready to furnish concerning the two originals. It is extraordinary what an amount of information is always forthcoming about things of which nobody can know anything—as about the next world, for instance. The, last time I went to church the preacher gave as minute an account of what our post-mortem experiences were to be as if he had gone through it all himself several times."
"Well, does the ghost usually appear in a ruff or in armour?"
"It depends entirely upon who sees it—a ghost always does. Last night, for instance, I lay you odds it wore neither ruff nor armour, because Mrs. Mallet is not likely to have heard of either the one or the other. Not that she saw the ghost—not she. What she saw was a bogie, not a ghost."
"Why, what is the difference?"
"Immense! As big as that which separates the objective from the subjective. Any one can see a bogie. It is a real thing belonging to the external world. It may be a bright light, a white sheet, or a black shadow—always at night, you know, or at least in the dusk, when you are apt to be a little mixed in your observations. The best example of a bogie was Sir Walter Scott's. It looked—in the twilight remember—exactly like Lord Byron, who had not long departed this life at the time Sir Walter saw it. Nine men out of ten would have gone off and sworn they had seen a ghost; why, religions have been founded on just such stuff: but Sir Walter, as sane a man as ever lived—though he did write poetry—kept his head clear and went up closer to his ghost, which proved on examination to be a waterproof."
"Or a railway rug—I forget which: the moral is the same."
"Well, what is a ghost?"
"A ghost is nothing—an airy nothing manufactured by your own disordered senses of your own over-excited brain."
"I beg to observe that I never saw a ghost in my life."
"I am glad to hear it. It does you credit. If ever any one had an excuse for seeing a ghost it would be a man whose spine was jarred. But I meant nothing personal by the pronoun—only to give greater force to my remarks. The first person singular will do instead. The ghost belongs to the same lot, as the faces that make mouths at me when I have brain-fever, the reptiles that crawl about when I have an attack of the D.T., or—to take a more familiar example—the spots I see floating before my eyes when my liver is out of order. You will allow there is nothing supernatural in all that?"
"Certainly. Though, did not that pretty niece of Mrs. Molyneux's say she used to see those spots floating before her eyes when a misfortune was impending?"
"I fancy she did, and true enough too, as such spots would very likely precede a bilious attack, which is misfortune enough while it lasts. But still, even Mrs. Molyneux's niece, even Mrs. Molyneux herself, would not say the fever faces, or the reptiles, or the spots, were supernatural. And in fact the ghost is, so far, more—more recherche, let us say, than the other things. It takes more than a bilious attack or a fever, or even D.T., to produce a ghost. It takes nothing less than a pretty high degree of nervous sensibility and excitable imagination. Now these two disorders have not been much developed yet by the masses, in spite of the school-boards: ergo, any apparition which leads to hysterics or brandy-and-water in the servants' hall is a bogie, not a ghost."
He knocked the ashes out of his pipe, and added:
"And now, Lindy, as we don't want another ghost haunting the house. I will conduct you to by-by."
It was a strange house, Weald Manor, designed, one might suppose, by some inveterate enemy of light. It lay at the foot of a steep hill which screened it from the morning sun, and the few windows which looked towards the rising day were so shaped as to admit but little of its brightness. At night it was even worse, at least in the halls and passages, for there, owing probably to the dark oak which lined both walls and floor, a generous supply of lamps did little more than illumine the surface of the darkness, leaving unfathomed and unexplained mysterious shadows that brooded in distant corners, or, towering giant-wise to the ceiling, loomed ominously overhead. Will-o'-the-wisp-like reflections from our lighted candles danced in the polished surface of panel and balustrade, as from the hall we went upstairs, I helping myself from step to step by Atherley's arm, as instinctively, as unconsciously almost, as he offered it. We stopped on the first landing. Before us rose the stairs leading to the gallery where Atherley's bedroom was: to our left ran "the bachelor's passage," where I was lodged.
"Night, night," were Atherley's parting words. "Don't dream of flirts or ghosts, but sleep sound."
Sleep sound! the kind words sounded like mockery. Sleep to me, always chary of her presence, was at best but a fair-weather friend, instantly deserting me when pain or exhaustion made me crave the more for rest and forgetfulness; but I had something to do in the interim—a little auto-da-fe to perform, by which, with that faith in ceremonial, so deep laid in human nature, I meant once for all to lay the ghost that haunted me—the ghost of a delightful but irrevocable past, with which I had dallied too long.
Sitting before the wood-fire I slowly unfolded them: the three faintly-perfumed sheets with the gilt monogram above the pointed writing:
"Dear Mr. Lyndsay," ran the first, "why did you not come over to-day? I was expecting you to appear all the afternoon.—Yours sincerely, G.E.L."
The second was dated four weeks later—
"You silly boy! I forbid you ever to write or talk of yourself in such a way again. You are not a cripple; and if you had ever had a mother or a sister, you would know how little women think of such things. How many more assurances do you expect from me? Do you wish me to propose to you again? No, if you won't have me, go.—Yours, in spite of yourself, GLADYS."
The third—the third is too long to quote entire; besides, the substance is contained in this last sentence—
"So I think, my dear Mr. Lyndsay, for your sake more than my own, our engagement had better be broken off."
In this letter, dated six weeks ago, she had charged me to burn all that she had written to me, and as yet I had not done so, shrinking from the sharp unreasonable pain with which we bury the beloved dead. But the time of my mourning was accomplished. I tore the paper into fragments and dropped them into the flames.
It must have been the pang with which I watched them darken and shrivel that brought back the memory of another sharp stab. It was that day ten years ago, when I walked for the first time after my accident. Supported by a stick on one side, and by Atherley on the other, I crawled down the long gallery at home and halted before a high wide-open window to see the sunlit view of park and woods and distant downland. Then all at once, ridden by my groom, Charming went past with feet that verily danced upon the greensward, and quivering nostrils that rapturously inhaled the breath of spring and of morning. I said: "George, I want you to have Charming." And it made me smile, even in that bitter moment, to remember how indistinctly, how churlishly almost, Atherley accepted the gift, in his eager haste to get me out of sight and thought of it.
It was long before the last fluttering rags had vanished, transmuted into fiery dust. The clock on the landing had many times chanted its dirge since I had heard below the footsteps of the servants carrying away the lamps from the sitting-rooms and the hall. Later still came the far-off sound of Atherley's door closing behind him, like the final good-night of the waking day. Over all the unconscious household had stolen that silence which is more than silence, that hush which seems to wait for something, that stillness of the night-watch which is kept alone. It was familiar enough to me, but to-night it had a new meaning; like the sunlight that shines when we are happy, or the rain that falls when we are weeping, it seemed, as if in sympathy, to be repeating and accenting what I could not so vividly have told in words. In my life, and for the second time, there was the same desolate pause, as if the dreary tale were finished and only the drearier epilogue remained to live through—the same sense of sad separation from the happy and the healthful.
I made a great effort to read, holding the book before me and compelling myself to follow the sentences, but that power of abstraction which can conquer pain does not belong to temperaments like mine. If only I could have slept, as men have been able to do even upon the rack; but every hour that passed left me more awake, more alive, more supersensitive to suffering.
Early in the morning, long before the dawn, I must have been feverish, I think. My head and hands burned, the air of the room stifled me, I was losing my self-control.
I opened the window and leant out. The cool air revived me bodily, but to the fever of the spirit it brought no relief. To my heart, if not to my lips, sprang the old old cry for help which anguish has wrung from generation after generation. The agony of mine, I felt wildly, must pierce through sense, time, space, everything—even to the Living Heart of all, and bring thence some token of pity! For one instant my passion seemed to beat against the silent heavens, then to fall back bruised and bleeding.
Out of the darkness came not so much as a wind whisper or the twinkle of a star.
Was Atherley right after all?
THE STRANGER'S GOSPEL
From the short unsatisfying slumber which sometimes follows a night of insomnia I was awakened by the laughter and shouts of children. When I looked out I saw brooding above the hollow a still gray day, in whose light the woodlands of the park were all in sombre brown, and the trout stream between its sedgy banks glided dark and lustreless.
On the lawn, still wet with dew, and crossed by the shadows of the bare elms, Atherley's little sons, Harold and Denis, were playing with a very unlovely but much-beloved mongrel called Tip. They had bought him with their own pocket-money from a tinker who was ill-using him, and then claimed for him the hospitality of their parents; so, though Atherley often spoke of the dog as a disgrace to the household, he remained a member thereof, and received, from a family incapable of being uncivil, far less unkind, to an animal, as much attention as if he had been high-bred and beautiful—which indeed he plainly supposed himself to be.
When, about an hour later, after their daily custom, this almost inseparable trio fell into the breakfast-room as if the door had suddenly given way before them, the boys were able to revenge themselves for the rebuke this entrance provoked by the tidings they brought with them.
"I say, old Mallet is going," cried Harold cheerfully, as he wriggled himself on to his chair. "Denis, mind I want some of that egg-stuff."
"Take your arms off the table, Harold," said Lady Atherley. "Pray, how do you know Mrs. Mallet is going?"
"She said so herself. She said," he went on, screwing up his nose and speaking in a falsetto to express the intensity of his scorn—"she said she was afraid of the ghost."
"I told you I did not allow that word to be mentioned."
"I did not; it was old Mallet."
"But, pray, what were you doing in old Mallet's domain?" asked Atherley.
"Cooking cabbage for Tip."
"Hum! What with ghosts by night and boys by day, our cook seems to have a pleasant time of it; I shall be glad when Miss Jones's holidays are over. Castleman, is it true that Mrs. Mallet talks of leaving us because of the ghost?"
"I am sure I don't know, Sir George," answered the old butler. "She was going on about it very foolish this morning."
"And how is the kitchen-maid?"
"Has not come down yet, Sir George; says her nerve is shook," said Castleman, retiring with a plate to the sideboard; then added, with the freedom of an old servant, "Bile, I should say."
"Probably. We had better send for Doctor What's-his-name."
"The usual doctor is away," said Lady Atherley. "There is a London doctor in his place. He is clever, Lady Sylvia said, but he gives himself airs."
"Never mind what he gives himself if he gives his patients the right thing."
"And after all we can manage very well without Ann, but what are we to do about Mrs. Mallet? I always told you how it would be."
"But, my dear, it is not my fault. You look as reproachfully at me as if it were my ghost which was causing all this disturbance instead of the ghost of a remote ancestor—predecessor, in fact."
"No, but you will always talk just as if it was of no consequence."
"I don't talk of the cook's going as being of no consequence. Far from it. But you must not let her go, that is all."
"How can I prevent her going? I think you had better talk to her yourself."
"I should like to meet her very much; would not you, Lindy? I should like to hear her story; it must be a blood-curdling one, to judge from its effect upon Ann. The only person I have yet met who pretended to have seen the ghost was Aunt Eleanour."
"And what was it like, daddy?" asked Denis, much interested.
"She did not say, Den. She would never tell me anything about it."
"Would she tell me?"
"I am afraid not. I don't think she would tell any one, except perhaps Mr. Lyndsay. He has a way of worming things out of people."
"Mr. Lyndsay, how do you worm things out of people?"
"I don't know, Denis; you must ask your father."
"First, by never asking any questions," said Atherley promptly; "and then by a curious way he has of looking as if he was listening attentively to what was said to him, instead of thinking, as most people do, what he shall say himself when he gets a chance of putting a word in."
"But how could Aunt Eleanour see the ghost when there is not any such thing?" cried Harold.
"How indeed!" said his father, rising; "that is just the puzzle. It will take you years to find it out. Lindy, look into the morning-room in about half an hour, and you will hear a tale whose lightest word will harrow up thy soul, etc., etc."
As Lady Atherley kindly seconded this invitation I accepted it, though not with the consequences predicted. Anything less suggestive of the supernatural, or in every way less like the typical ghost-seer, was surely never produced than the round and rubicund little person I found in conversation with the Atherleys. Mrs. Mallet was a brunette who might once have considered herself a beauty, to judge by the self-conscious and self-satisfied simper which the ghastliest recollections were unable to banish. As I entered I caught only the last words of Atherley's speech—
"—— treating you well, Mrs. Mallet?"
"Oh no, Sir George," answered Mrs. Mallet, standing very straight and stiff, with two plump red hands folded demurely before her; "which I have not a word to say against any one, but have met, ever since I come here, with the greatest of kindness and respect. But the noises, sir, the noises of a night is more than I can abear."
"Oh, they are only rats, Mrs. Mallet."
"No rats in this world ever made sech a noise, Sir George; which the very first night as I slep here, there come the most mysterioustest sounds as ever I hear, which I says to Hann, 'Whatever are you a-doing?' which she woke up all of a suddent, as young people will, and said she never hear nor yet see nothing."
"What was the noise like, Mrs. Mallet?"
"Well, Sir George, I can only compare it to the dragging of heavy furniture, which I really thought at first it was her ladyship a-coming upstairs to waken me, took bad with burglars or a fire."
"But, Mrs. Mallet, I am sure you are too brave a woman to mind a little noise."
"It is not only noises, Sir George. Last night—"
Mrs. Mallet drew a long breath and closed her eyes.
"Yes, Mrs. Mallet, pray go on; I am very curious to hear what did happen last night."
"It makes the cold chills run over me to think of it. We was all gone to bed—leastways the maids and me, and Hann and me was but just got to my room when says she to me, 'Oh la! whatever do you think?' says she; 'I promised Ellen when she went out this afternoon as I would shut the windows in the pink bedroom at four o'clock, and never come to think of it till this minute,' she says. 'Oh dear,' I says, 'and them new chintzes will be entirely ruined with the damp. Why, what a good-for-nothing girl you are!' I says, 'and what you thinks on half your time is more than I can tell.' 'Whatever shall I do?' she says, 'for go along there at this time of night all by myself I dare not,' says she. 'Well,' I says, 'rather than you should go alone, I'll go along with you,' I says, 'for stay here by myself I would not,' I says, 'not if any one was to pay me hundreds.' So we went down our stairs and along our passage to the door which you go into the gallery, Hann a-clutching hold of me and starting, which when we come into the gallery I was all of a tremble, and she shook so I said, 'La! Hann, for goodness' sake do carry that candle straight, or you will grease the carpet shameful;' and come to the pink room I says, 'Open the door.' 'La!' says she, 'what if we was to see the ghost?' 'Hold your silly nonsense this minute,' I says, 'and open the door,' which she do, but stand right back for to let me go first, when, true as ever I am standing here, my lady, I see something white go by like a flash, and struck me cold in the face, and blew the candle out, and then come the fearfullest noise, which thunderclaps is nothing to it. Hann began a-screaming, and we ran as fast as ever we could till we come to the pantry, where Mr. Castleman and the footman was. I thought I should ha' died: died I thought I should. My face was as white as that antimacassar."
"How could you see your face, Mrs. Mallet?" somewhat peevishly objected Lady Atherley.
But Mrs. Mallet with great dignity retorted—
"Which I looked down my nose, and it were like a corpse's."
"Very alarming," said Atherley, "but easily explained. Directly you opened the door there was, of course, a draught from the open window. That draught blew the candle out and knocked something over, probably a screen."
"La' bless you, Sir George, it was more like paving-stones than screens a-falling."
And indeed Mrs. Mallet was so far right, that when, to settle the weighty question once for all, we adjourned in a body to the pink bedroom, we discovered that nothing less than the ceiling, or at least a portion of it, had fallen, and was lying in a heap of broken plaster upon the floor. However, the moral, as Atherley hastened to observe, was the same.
"You see, Mrs. Mallet, this was what made the noise."
Mrs. Mallet made no reply, but it was evident she neither saw nor intended to see anything of the kind; and Atherley wisely substituted bribery for reasoning. But even with this he made little way till accidentally he mentioned the name of Mrs. de Noel, when, as if it had been a name to conjure by, Mrs. Mallet showed signs of softening.
"Yes, think of Mrs. de Noel, Mrs. Mallet; what will she say if you leave her cousin to starve?"
"I should not wish such a thing to happen for a moment," said Mrs. Mallet, as if this had been no figure of speech but the actual alternative, "not to any relation of Mrs. de Noel."
And shortly after the debate ended with a cheerful "Well, Mrs. Mallet, you will give us another trial," from Atherley.
"There," he exclaimed, as we all three returned to the morning-room—"there is as splendid an example of the manufacture of a bogie as you are ever likely to meet with. All the spiritual phenomena are produced much in the same way. Work yourself up into a great state of terror and excitement, in the first place; in the next, procure one companion, if not more, as credulous and excitable as yourself; go at a late hour and with a dim light to a place where you have been told you will see something supernatural; steadfastly and determinedly look out for it, and—you will have your reward. These are precisely the lines on which a spiritual seance is conducted, only instead of plaster, which is not always so obliging as to fall in the nick of time, you have a paid medium who supplies the material for your fancy to work upon. Mrs. Mallet, you see, has discovered all this for herself—that woman is a born genius. Just think what she might have been and seen if she had lived in a sphere where neither cooking nor any other rational occupation interfered with her pursuit of the supernatural. Mrs. Molyneux would be nowhere beside her."
"I suppose she really does intend to stay," said Lady Atherley.
"Of course she does. I always told you my powers of persuasion were irresistible."
"But how annoying about the ceiling," said Lady Atherley. "Over the new carpet, too! What can make the plaster fall in this way?"
"It is the quality of the climate," said Atherley. "It is horribly destructive. If you would read the batch of letters now on my writing-table from tenant-farmers you would see what I mean: barns, roofs, gates, everything is falling to pieces and must immediately be repaired—at the landlord's expense, of course."
"We must send for a plasterer," said Lady Atherley, "and then the doctor. Perhaps you would have time to go round his way, George."
"No, I have no time to go anywhere but to Northside farm. Hunt has been waiting nearly half an hour for me, as it is. Lindy, would you like to come with me?"
"No, thank you, George; I too am a landowner, and I mean to look over my audit accounts to-day."
"Don't compare yourself to a poor overworked underpaid landowner like me. You are one of the landlords they spout about in London parks on Sundays. You have nothing to do but sign receipts for your rents, paid in full and up to date."
"Mr. Lyndsay is an excellent landlord," said Lady Atherley; "and they tell me the new church and the schools he has built are charming."
"Very mischievous things both," said Atherley. "Ta-ta."
That afternoon, Atherley being still absent, and Lady Atherley having gone forth to pay a round of calls, the little boys undertook my entertainment. They were in rather a sober mood for them, having just forfeited four weeks' pocket-money towards expenses incurred by Tip in the dairy, where they had foolishly allowed him to enter; so they accepted very good-humouredly my objections to wading in the river or climbing trees, and took me instead for a walk to Beggar's Stile. We climbed up the steep carriage-drive to the lodge, passed through the big iron gates, turned sharply to the left, and went down the road which the park palings border and the elms behind them shade, past the little copse beyond the park, till we came to a tumble-down gate with a stile beside it in the hedgerow; and this was Beggar's Stile. It was just on the brow of the little hill which sloped gradually downward to the village beneath, and commanded a wide view of the broad shallow valley and of the rising ground beyond.
I was glad to sit down on the step of the stile.
"Are you tired already, Mr. Lyndsay?" inquired Harold incredulously.
"Yes, a little."
"I s'pose you are tired because you always have to pull your leg after you," said Denis, turning upon me two large topaz-coloured eyes. "Does it hurt you, Mr. Lyndsay?"
"Mother told you not to talk about Mr. Lyndsay's leg," observed Harold sharply.
"No, she didn't; she said I was not to talk about the funny way he walked. She said—"
"Well, never mind, little man," I interrupted. "Is that Weald down there?"
"Yes," cried Denis, maintaining his balance on the topmost bar but one of the gate with enviable ease. "All these cottages and houses belong to Weald, and it is all daddy's on this side of the river down to where you see the white railings a long way down near the poplars, and that is the road we go to tea with Aunt Eleanour; and do you see a little blue speck on the hill over there? You could see if you had a telescope. Daddy showed me once; but you must shut your eye. That is Quarley Beacon, where Aunt Cissy lives."
"No, she does not, stupid," cried Harold, now suspended, head downwards, by one foot, from the topmost rail of the gate. "No one lives there. She lives in Quarley Manor, just behind."
Denis replied indirectly to the discourteous tone of this speech by trying with the point of his own foot to dislodge that by which Harold maintained his remarkable position, and a scuffle ensued, wherein, though a non-combatant, I seemed likely to get the worst, when their attention was fortunately diverted by the sight of Tip sneaking off, and evidently with the vilest motives, towards the covert.
My memory was haunted that day by certain words spoken seven months ago by Atherley, and by me at the time very ungraciously received:
"Remember, if you do come a cropper, it will go hard with you, old man; you can't shoot or hunt or fish off the blues, like other men."
No, nor could I work them off, as some might have done. I possessed no distinct talents, no marked vocation. If there was nothing behind and beyond all this, what an empty freak of destiny my life would have been—full, not even of sound and fury, but of dull common-place suffering: a tale told by an idiot with a spice of malice in him.
Then the view before me made itself felt, as a gentle persistent sound might have done: a flat, almost featureless scene—a little village church with cottages and gardens clustering about it, straggling away from it, by copses and meadows in which winter had left only the tenderest shades of the saddest colours. The winding river brightened the dull picture with broken glints of silver, and the tawny hues of the foreground faded through soft gradations of violet and azure into a far distance of pearly grey. It is not the scenery men cross continents and oceans to admire, and yet it has a message of its own. I felt it that day when I was heart-weary, and was glad that in one corner of this restless world the little hills preach peace.
Meantime Tip had been recaptured, and when he, or rather the ground close beside him, had been beaten severely with sticks, and he himself upbraided in terms which left the censors hoarse, we went down again into the hollow. Then Lady Atherley returned and gave me tea; and afterwards, in the library, I worked at accounts till it was nearly too dark to write. No doubt on the high ground the sky was aflame with brilliant colour, of which only a dim reflection tinged the dreary view of sward and leafless trees, to which, for some mysterious reason, a gig crawling down the carriage-drive gave the last touch of desolation.
Just as I laid my pen aside the door opened, and Castleman introduced a stranger.
"If you will wait here, sir, I will find her ladyship."
The new-comer was young and slight, with an erect carriage and a firm step. He had the finely-cut features and dull colouring which I associate with the high-pressure life of a busy town, so that I guessed who he was before his first words told me.
"No, thank you, I will not sit down; I expect to be called to my patient immediately."
The thought of this said patient made me smile, and in explanation I told him from what she was supposed to be suffering.
"Well; it is less common than other forms of feverishness, but will probably yield to the same remedies," was his only comment.
"You do not believe in ghosts?"
"Pardon me, I do, just as I believe in all symptoms. When my patient tells me he hears bells ringing in his ear, or feels the ground swaying under his feet, I believe him implicitly, though I know nothing of the kind is actually taking place. The ghost, so far, belongs to the same class as the other experiences, that it is a symptom—it may be of a very trifling, it may be of a very serious, disorder."
The voice, the keen flash of the eye, impressed me. I recognised one of those alert intelligences, beside whose vivid flame the mental life of most men seems to smoulder. I wished to hear him speak again.
"Is this your view of all supernatural manifestations?"
"Of all so-called supernatural manifestations; I don't understand the word or the distinction. No event which has actually taken place can be supernatural. Since it belongs to the actual it must be governed by, it must be the outcome of, laws which everywhere govern the actual—everywhere and at all times. In fact, it must be natural, whatever we may think of it."
"Then if a miracle could be proven, it would be no miracle to you?"
"And it could convince you of nothing?"
"Neither me nor any one else who has outgrown his childhood, I should think. I have never been able to understand the outcry of the orthodox over their lost miracles. It makes their position neither better nor worse. The miracles could never prove their creeds. How am I to recognise a divine messenger? He makes the furniture float about the room; he changes that coal into gold; he projects himself or his image here when he is a thousand miles away. Why, an emissary from the devil might do as much! It only proves—always supposing he really does these things instead of merely appearing to do so—it proves that he is better acquainted with natural laws than I am. What if he could kill me by an effort of the will? What if he could bring me to life again? It is always the same; he might still be morally my inferior; he might be a false prophet after all."
He took out his watch and looked at it, by this simple action illustrating and reminding me of the difference between us—he talking to pass away the time, I thinking aloud the gnawing question at my heart.
"And you have no hope for anything beyond this?"
Something in my voice must have struck his ear, trained like every other organ of observation to quick and fine perception, for he looked at me more attentively, and it was in a gentler tone that he said—
"Surely, you do not mean for a life beyond this? One's best hope must be that the whole miserable business ends with death."
"Have you found life so wretched?"
"I am not speaking from my own particular point of view. I am singularly, exceptionally, fortunate, I am healthy; I have tastes which I can gratify, work which I keenly enjoy. Whether the tastes are worth gratifying or the work worth doing I cannot say. At least they act as an anodyne to self-consciousness; they help me to forget the farce in which I play my part. Like Solomon, and all who have had the best of life, I call it vanity. What do you suppose it is to those—by far the largest number, remember—who have had the worst of it? To them it is not vanity, it is misery."
"But they suffer under the invariable laws you speak of—laws working towards deliverance and happiness in the future."
"The future? Yes, I know that form of consolation which seems to satisfy so many. To me it seems a hollow one. I have never yet been able to understand how any amount of ecstasy enjoyed by B a million years hence can make up for the torture A is suffering to-day. I suppose, dealing so much with individuals as I do, I am inclined to individualise like a woman. I think of units rather than of the mass. At this moment I have before me a patient now left suffering pain as acute as any the rack ever inflicted. How does it affect his case that centuries later such pain may be unknown?"
"Of course, the individual's one and only hope is a future existence. Then it may be all made up to him."
"I see no reason to hope so. Either there is no God, and we shall still be at the mercy of the blind destiny we suffer under here; or there is a God, the God who looks on at this world and makes no sign! The sooner we escape from Him by annihilation the better."
"Christians would tell you He had given a sign."
"Yes; so they do in words and deny it in deeds. Nothing is sadder in the whole tragedy, or comedy, than these pitiable efforts to hide the truth, to gloss it over with fables which nobody in his heart of hearts believes—at least in these days. Why not face the worst like men? If we can't help being unhappy we can help being dishonest and cowardly. Existence is a misfortune. Let us frankly confess that it is, and make the best of it."
He was not looking at his watch now; he was pacing the room. At last, he was in earnest, and had forgotten all accidents of time and place before the same enigma which perplexed myself.
"The best of it!" I re-echoed. "Surely, under these circumstances, the best thing would be to commit suicide?"
"No," he cried, stopping and turning sharply upon me. "The worst, because the most cowardly; so long as you have strength, brains, money—anything with which you can do good."
He looked past me through the window into the outer air, no longer faintly tinged, but dyed deep red by the light of the unseen but resplendent sunset, and added slowly, dejectedly, as if speaking to himself as much as to me—
"Yes, there is one thing worth living for—to help to make it all a little more bearable for the others."
And then all at once, his face, so virile yet so delicate, so young and yet so sad, reminded me of one I had seen in an old picture—the face of an angel watching beside the dead Christ; and I cried—
"But are you certain He has made no sign; not hundreds of years ago, but in your own lifetime? not to saint or apostle, but to you, yourself? Has nothing which has happened to you, nothing you have ever seen or read or heard, tempted you to hope in something better?"
"Yes," he said deliberately; "I have had my weak moments. My conviction has wavered, not before religious teaching of any kind, however, nor before Nature, in which some people seem to find such promise; but I have met one or two women, and one man—all of them unknown, unremarkable people—whom the world never heard of, nor is likely to hear of, living uneventful obscure lives in out-of-the-way corners. For instance, there is a lady in this very neighbourhood, a relation of Sir George Atherley, I believe, Mrs. de No—"
"Her ladyship would like to see you in the drawing-room, sir," said Castleman, suddenly coming in.
The doctor bowed to me and immediately left the room.
MRS. MOSTYN'S GOSPEL
"No, they have not seen any more ghosts, sir," replied Castleman scornfully next day, "and never need have seen any. It is all along of this tea-drinking. We did not have this bother when the women took their beer regular. These teetotallers have done a lot of harm. They ought to be put down by Act of Parliament."
And the kitchen-maid was better. Mrs. Mallet, indeed, assured Lady Atherley that Hann was not long for this world, having turned just the same colour as the late Mr. Mallet did on the eve of his death; but fortunately the patient herself, as well as the doctor, took a more hopeful view of the case.
"I can see Mrs. Mallet is a horrible old croaker," said Lady Atherley.
"Let her croak," said Atherley, "so long as she cooks as she did last night. That curry would have got her absolution for anything if your uncle had been here."
"That reminds me, George, the ceiling of the spare room is not mended yet."
"Why, I thought you sent to Whitford for a plasterer yesterday?"
"Yes, and he came; but Mrs. Mallet has some extraordinary story about his falling into his bucket and spoiling his Sunday coat, and going home at once to change it. I can't make it out, but nothing is done to the ceiling."
"I make it out," said Atherley; "I make out that he was a little the worse for drink. Have we not a plasterer in the village?"
"I think there is one. I fancy the Jacksons did not wish us to employ him, because he is a dissenter; but after all, giving him work is not the same as giving him presents."
"No, indeed; nor do I see why, because he is a dissenter, I, who am only an infidel, am to put up with a hole in my ceiling."
"Only, I don't know what his name is."
"His name is Smart. Everybody in our village is called Smart—most inappropriately too."
"No, George, the man the doctor told us about who is so dangerously ill is called Monk."
"I am glad to hear it; but he doesn't belong to our parish, though he lives so close. He is actually in Rood Warren. His cottage is at the other side of the Common."
"Then we can leave the wine and things as we go. And, George, while the boys are having tea with Aunt Eleanour, I think I shall drive on to Quarley Beacon and try and persuade Cecilia to come back and spend the night with us. I think we could manage to put her up in the little blue dressing-room. She is so good-natured; she won't mind its being so small."
"Yes, do; I want Lyndsay to see her. And give my best love to Aunt Eleanour, and say that if she is going to send me any more tracts against Popery, I should be extremely obliged if she would prepay the postage sufficiently."
"Oh no, George, I could not. It was only threepence."
"Well, then, tell her it is no good sending any at all, because I have made up my mind to go over to Rome next July."
"No, George; she might not like it, and I don't believe you are going to do anything of the kind. Oh, are you off already? I thought you would settle something about the plasterer."
"No, no; I can't think of plasterers and repairs to-day. Even the galley-slave has his holiday—this is mine. I am going to see the hounds throw off at Rood Acre, and forget for one day that I have an inch of landed property in the world."
"But, George, if the pink-room ceiling is not put right by Saturday, where shall we put Uncle Augustus?"
"Into the room just opposite to Lindy's."
"What! that little room? In the bachelor's passage? A man of his age, and of his position!"
"I am sure it is large enough for any one under a bishop. Besides, I don't think he is fussy about anything except his dinner."
"It is not the way he is accustomed to be treated when he is on a visit, I can assure you. He is a person who is generally considered a great deal."
"Well, I consider him a great deal. I consider him one of the finest old heathen I ever knew."
Fortunately for their domestic peace, Lady Atherley usually misses the points of her husband's speeches, but there are some which jar upon her sense of the becoming, and this was one of them.
"I don't think," she observed to me, the offender himself having escaped, "that even if Uncle Augustus were not my uncle, a heathen is a proper name to call a clergyman, especially a canon—and one who is so looked up to in the Church. Have you ever heard him preach? But you must have heard about him, and about his sermons? I thought so. They are beautiful. When he preaches the church is crammed, and with the best people—in the season, when they are in town. And he has written a great many religious books too—sermons and hymns and manuals. There is a little book in red morocco you may have seen in my sitting-room—I know it was there a week ago—which he gave me, The Life of Prayer, with a short meditation and a hymn for every hour of the day—all composed by him. We don't see so much of him as I could wish. He is so grieved about George's views. He gave him some of his own sermons, but of course George would not look at them; and—so annoying—the last time he came I put the sermons, two beautiful large volumes of them, on the drawing-room table, and when we were all there after dinner George asked me quite loud what these smart books were, and where they came from. So altogether he has not come to see us for a long time; but as he happened to be staying with the Mountshires, I begged him to come over for a night or two; so you will hear him preach on Sunday."
At lunch that day Lady Atherley proposed that I should accompany them to Woodcote. "Do come, Mr. Lyndsay," said Denis. "We shall have cakes for tea, and jam-sandwiches as well."
"And there is an awfully jolly banister for sliding down," added Harold, "without any turns or landing, you know."
I professed myself unable to resist such inducements. Indeed, I was almost glad to go. The recollection of Mrs. Mostyn's cheerful face was as alluring to me that day as the thought of a glowing hearth might be to the beggar on the door-step. Here, at least, was one to whom life was a blessing; who partook of all it could bestow with an appetite as healthfully keen as her nephew's, but without his disinclination or disregard for anything besides.
The mild March day felt milder, the rooks cawed more cheerfully, and the spring flowers shone out more fearlessly around us when we had passed through the white gates of Woodcote—a favoured spot gently declining to the sunniest quarter, and sheltered from the north and north-east by barricades of elm-woods. The tiny domain was exquisitely ordered, as I love to see everything which appertains to women; and within the low white house, furnished after the simple and stiff fashion of a past generation, reigned the same dainty neatness, the same sunny cheerfulness, the native atmosphere of its chatelaine Mrs. Mostyn—a white-haired old lady long past seventy, with the bloom of youth on her cheek, its vivacity in her step, and its sparkle in her eyes.
Hardly were the first greetings exchanged when the children opened the ball of conversation by inquiring eagerly when tea would be ready.
"How can you be so greedy?" said their mother. "Why, you have only just finished your dinner."
"We dined at half-past one, and it is nearly half-past three."
"Poor darlings!" cried Mrs. Mostyn, regarding them with the enraptured gaze of the true child-lover; "their drive has made them hungry; and we cannot have tea very well before half-past four, because some old women from the village have come up to have tea, and the servants are busy attending to them. But I can tell you what you could do, dears. You know the way to the dairy; one of the maids is sure to be there; tell her to give you some cream. You will like that, won't you? Yes, you can go out by this door."
"And remember to—"
Lady Atherley's exhortation remained unfinished, her sons having darted through the door-window like arrows from the bow.
"Since Miss Jones has been gone for her holiday the children are quite unmanageable," she observed.
"Oh, it is such a good sign!" cried Mrs. Mostyn heartily; "it shows they are so thoroughly well. Mr. Lyndsay, why have you chosen that uncomfortable chair? Come and sit over beside me, if you are not afraid of the fire. And now, Jane, my love, tell me how you are getting on at Weald."
Then followed a long catalogue of accidents and disappointments, of faithlessness and incapacity, to which Mrs. Mostyn supplied a running commentary of interjections sympathetic and consoling. There were, moreover, many changes for the worse since Sir Marmaduke had resided there: the shooting and the fishing had been alike neglected; the farmers were impoverished; the old places had changed hands.
"And a good many quite new people have come to live in small houses round Weald," said Lady Atherley. "They have left cards on us. Do you know what they are like?"
"Quite ladies and gentlemen, I believe, and nice enough as long as you don't get to know them too intimately; but they are always quarrelling."
"About everything; but especially about church matters—decorations and anthems and other rubbish. What they want is less of the church and more of the Bible."
"I believe Mr. Jackson has a Bible-class every week."
"But is it a Bible-class, or is it only called so? There is Mr. Austin at Rood Warren, a Romanist in disguise if ever there was one: he is by way of having a Bible-class, and one of our farmers' daughters attended it. 'And what part of the Bible are you studying now?' I asked her. 'We are studying early church history.' 'I don't know any such chapter in the Bible as that,' I said, and yet I know my Bible pretty well. She explained it was a continuation of the Acts of the Apostles. I said: 'My dear child, don't you be misled by any jugglery of that kind; there is no continuation of the Bible; and as to what people call the early church, its doings and sayings are of no consequence at all. The one question we have to ask ourselves is this: '"What does the Book say?"' What is in the Book is God's word: what is not in the Book is only man's."
The effect of this exposition on Lady Atherley was to make her ask eagerly whether the curate in charge at Rood Warren was one of the Austyns of Temple Leigh.
"I believe he is a nephew," Mrs. Mostyn admitted, quite gloomily for her. "It is painful to see people of good standing going astray in this manner."
"I was thinking it would be so convenient to get a young man over to dinner sometimes; and Rood Warren cannot be very far from us, for one of Mr. Austyn's parishioners lives just at the end of Weald."
"If you take my advice, my dearest Jane, you will not have anything to do with him. He is certain to be attractive—men of that sort always are; and there is no saying what he might do: perhaps gain an influence over George himself."
"I don't think there need be any fear of that, for at dinner, you know, we need not have any religious discussions; I never will have them; they are almost as bad as politics, they make people so cross."
Then she rose and explained her visit to Mrs. de Noel.
"But, Mr. Lyndsay," said Mrs. Mostyn, "are you going to desert the old woman for the young one, or are you going to stay and see my gardens and have tea? That is right. Good-bye, my dearest Jane. Give my dear love to Cissy, and tell her to come over and see me—but I shall have a glimpse of her on your way back."
"I hope Mrs. de Noel may be persuaded to come back," I said, as the carriage drove off, and we walked along a gravel path by lawns of velvet smoothness; "I would so much like to meet her."
"Have you never met her? Dear Cecilia! She is a sweet creature—the sweetest, I think, I ever met, though perhaps I ought not to say so of my own niece. She wants but one thing—the grace of God."
We passed into a little wood, tapestried with ivy, carpeted with clustering primroses, and she continued—
"It is most mysterious. Both Cecilia and George, being left orphans so early, were brought up by my dear sister Henrietta. She was a believing Christian, and no children ever had greater religious advantages than these two. As soon as they could speak they learnt hymns or texts of Scripture, and before they could read they knew whole chapters of the Bible by heart. George even now, I will say that for him, knows his Bible better than a good many clergymen. And the Sabbath, too. They were taught to reverence the Lord's day in a way children never are nowadays. All games and picture-books put away on Saturday night; regularly to church morning and afternoon, and in the evening Henrietta would talk to them and question them about the sermon. And after all, here is George who says he believes in nothing; and as to Cecilia, I never can make out what she does or does not believe. However, I am quite happy in my mind about them. I feel they are of the elect. I am as certain of their salvation as I am of my own."
A sudden scampering of feet upon the gravel was followed by the appearance of the boys, rosy with exercise and excitement.
"Well, my darling boys, have you had your cream?"
"Oh yes, Aunt Eleanour," cried Harold, "and we have been into the farm-yard and seen the little pigs. Such jolly little beasts, Mr. Lyndsay, and squeak so funnily when you pull their tails."
"Oh, but I can't have my pigs unkindly treated."
"Not unkindly, auntie," cried Denis, swinging affectionately upon my arm; "we only just tried to make their tails go straight, you know. And, Mr. Lyndsay, there is such a dear little baby calf."
"But I want to give apples to the horses," cried Harold.
So we went to the fruit-house for apples, which Mrs. Mostyn herself selected from an upper shelf, mounting a ladder with equal agility and grace; then to the stables, where these dainties were crunched by two very fat carriage-horses; then to the miniature farm-yard, and the tiny ivy-covered dairy beyond; and just as I was beginning to feel the first qualms of my besetting humiliation, fatigue, Mrs. Mostyn led us round to the garden—a garden with high red walls, and a dial in the meeting-place of the flower-bordered paths; and we sat down in a rustic seat cosily fitted into one sunny corner, just behind a great bed of hyacinths in flower.
The children had but one regret: Tip had been left behind.
"But mamma would not let us bring him," cried Harold in an aggrieved tone, "because he will roll in the flower-beds."
"Do you think it is nearly half-past four, Aunt Eleanour?" asked Denis.
"Very nearly, I should think. Suppose you were to go and see if they have brought the tea-kettle in; and if they have, call to me from the drawing-room window, and I will come."
The tempered sunlight fell full upon the delicate hyacinth clusters—coral, snow-white, and faintest lilac—exhaling their exquisite odour, and the warm sweet air seemed to enwrap us tenderly. My spirits, heavy as lead, began to rise—strangely, irrationally. Sunlight has always for me a supersensuous beauty, while the colour and perfume of flowers move me as sound vibrations move the musician. Just then it was to me as if through Nature, from that which is behind Nature, there reached me a pitying, a comforting caress.
And in the same key were Mrs. Mostyn's words when she next spoke.
"Mr. Lyndsay, I am an old woman and you are very young, and my heart goes out to all young creatures in sorrow, especially to one who has no mother of his own, no, nor father even, to comfort him. I know what trouble you have had. Would you be offended if I said how deeply I felt for you?"
"Offended, Mrs. Mostyn!"
"No. I see you understand me; you will not think me obtrusive when I say that I pray this great trial may be for your lasting good; may lead you to seek and to find salvation. The truth is brought home to us in many different ways, by many different instruments. My own eyes were opened by very extraordinary means."
She was silent for a few instants, and then went on—
"When I was young, Mr. Lyndsay, I lived for the world only. I went to church, of course, like other people, and said my prayers and called myself a Christian, but I did not know what the word meant. My sister Henrietta would often talk seriously to me, but it had no effect, and she was quite grieved over my hardened state; but my dear mother, a true saint, used to tell her to have no fear, that some day I should be sharply awakened to my soul's danger. But it was not till years after she was in heaven that her words came true."
I looked at her and waited.
"We were still living at Weald Manor with my brother Marmaduke, and we had young people staying with us. They were all going—all but myself—to a ball at Carchester. I stayed at home because I had a slight cold, which made me feel tired and feverish, and disinclined to be dancing till early next morning. I went to bed early, and when I had sent away my maid I sat beside the fire for a little, thinking. You know the long gallery?"
"My room was there; so I was quite alone, for the servants slept, just as they do now, in the opposite end of the house. But I had my dog with me, such a dear little thing, a black-and-tan terrier. He was lying asleep on the rug beside me. Well, all at once he got up and put his head on one side as if he heard something, and he began barking. I only said 'Nonsense, Totty, lie down,' and paid no more attention to him, till some moments afterwards he made a strange kind of noise as if he were trying to bark and was choked in some way. This made me look at him, and then I observed that he was trembling from head to foot, and staring in the strangest way at something behind me. I will honestly tell you he made me feel so uncomfortable I was afraid to look round; and still it was almost as bad to sit there and not look round, so at last I summoned up courage and turned my head. Then I saw it."
"What was it like?"
"It was like a shadow, only darker, and not lying against the wall as a shadow would do, but standing out from it in the air. It stood a little way from me in a corner of the room. It was in the shape of a man, with a ruff round his neck, and sleeves puffed out at the shoulders, as you often see in old pictures; but I don't remember much about that, for at the time I could think of nothing but the face."
"That was simply dreadful. I can't tell you what it was like. I could not have imagined it, if I had not seen it. It was the look—the look in its eyes. After all these years it makes me tremble when I think of it. But what I felt was not the same nervous feeling which made me afraid to turn round. It went much deeper—indeed it went deeper than anything in my life had ever gone before; it went right down to my soul, in fact, and made me feel I had a soul."
She had turned quite pale.
"Yes, Mr. Lyndsay, strange as it sounds, the mere sight of that face made me realise in an instant what I had read and heard thousands of times, and what my mother and Henrietta had told me over and over again about the utter nothingness of earthly aims and comforts—of what in an ordinary way is called life. I had heard very fine sermons preached about the same thing: 'What is our life, it is even a vapour,' and the 'vain shadow' in which we walk. Have you ever thought how we can go on hearing and even repeating true and wise words without getting at their real sense, and, what is worse, without suspecting our own ignorance?"
"I know it well."
"When Henrietta used to say that the whirl of worldly occupations and interests and amusements in which I was so engrossed did not deserve to be called life, and could never satisfy the eternal soul within me, it used to seem to me an exaggerated way of saying that the next world would be better than this one; but I saw the meaning of her words, I saw the truth of them, as I see these flowers before me, and feel the gravel under my feet: it came to me in a moment, the night these terrible eyes looked into mine. The feeling did not last, but I have never forgotten it, and never shall. It was as if a veil were lifted for an instant, and I was standing outside of my life and looking back at it; and it seemed so poor and worthless and unreal—I can't explain myself properly."
"And did the figure remain for any time?"
"I do not know. I think I must have fainted. They found me lying in a half-unconscious state in my chair when they came home. I was ill in bed for weeks with what the doctors call low fever. But neither the fever nor anything else could remove the impression that had been made. That terrible thing was a blessed messenger to me. My real conversion was not till years later, but the way was prepared by the great shock I then received, and which roused me to a sense of my danger."
"What do you think the thing you saw Was, Mrs. Mostyn?"
Slowly, thoughtfully, she answered me—
"I am certain it was a lost soul: nothing else could have worn that dreadful look."
She paused for a few moments and then continued—
"Perhaps you are one of those who do not believe in the punishment of sin?"
"Who can disbelieve it, Mrs. Mostyn? Call it what we like, it is a fact. It confronts us on every side. We might as well refuse to believe in death."
"It is not that I meant! I was talking of punishment in the next world, Mr. Lyndsay."
"Well, there, too, no doubt it must continue, until the uttermost farthing is paid. I believe—at least I hope—that."
She shook her head with a troubled expression.
"There is no paying that debt in the next world. It can only be paid here. Here, a free pardon is offered to us, and if we do not accept it, then—— It is the fashion, even among believers, nowadays to avoid this awful subject. Preachers of the Gospel do not speak of it in the pulpit as they once did. It is considered too shocking for our modern notions. I have no patience with such weakness, such folly—worse than folly. It seems to me even more wrong to try and hide this terrible danger from ourselves and from others than to deny it altogether, as some poor deluded souls do. Mr. Lyndsay, have you ever realised what the place of torment will be like?"
"Yes; once, Mrs. Mostyn."
"You were in pain?"
"I suppose it was pain," I said.
For always, when anything revives this recollection, seared into my memory, the question rises: was it merely pain, physical pain, of which we all speak so easily and lightly? It lasted only ten minutes; ten minutes by the clock, that is. For me time was annihilated. There was no past or future, but only an intolerable present, in which mind and soul were blotted out, and all of sentient existence that remained was the animal consciousness of agony. I cannot share men's stoical contempt for a Gehenna, which is nothing worse.
"Mr. Lyndsay, imagine pain, worse than any ever endured on earth going on and on, for ever!"
A bird, not a thrush, but one of the minor singers, lighting on a bough near us, trilled one simple but ecstatic phrase.
"Do you really and truly believe, Mrs. Mostyn, that this will be the fate of any single being?"
"Of any single being? Do we not know that it is what will happen to the greatest number? For what does the Book say? 'Many are called but few are chosen.'"
Through the still, mild air, across the sun-steeped gardens, came the voices of the children—
"Aunt Eleanour! Aunt Eleanour!"
"Many are called," she repeated, "but few are chosen; and those who are not chosen shall be cast into everlasting fire."
There was a pause. She turned to look at me, and, as if struck by something in my face, said gently, soothingly:
"Yes, it is a terrible thought, but only for the unregenerate. It has no terror for me. I trust it need have no terror for you. After all, how simple, how easy is the way of escape! You have only to believe."
"And then you are safe, safe for evermore. Think of that. The foolish people who wish to explain away eternal punishment, forget that at the same time they explain away eternal happiness! You will be safe now, and after death you will be in heaven for evermore."
"I shall be in heaven for evermore, and always there will be hell."
"Where the others will be?"
"What others? Only the wicked!"
"Aunt Eleanour! Aunt Eleanour!" called the children once more.
"I must go to them! But, Mr. Lyndsay, think over what I have said."
And I remained and obeyed her, and beheld, entire, distinct, the spectre that drives men to madness or despair—illimitable omnipotent Malice. In its shadow the colour of the flowers was quenched, and the music of the birds rang false. Yet it wore the consecration of time and authority! What if it were true?
"Mr. Lyndsay," said Denis at my elbow, "Aunt Eleanour has sent me to fetch you to tea. Mr. Lyndsay, do you hear? Why do you look so strange?"
He caught my hand anxiously as he spoke, and by that little human touch the spell was broken. The phantom vanished; and, looking into the child's eyes, I felt it was a lie.
CANON VERNADE'S GOSPEL
There was no Mrs. de Noel in the carriage when it returned; she had gone to London to stay with Mrs. Donnithorne, whom Atherley spoke of as Aunt Henrietta, and was not expected home till Wednesday.
"I am sorry," Lady Atherley observed, as we drove home through the dusk; "I should like to have had her here when Uncle Augustus was with us. I would have asked Mrs. Mostyn to dine with us, but I am not sure she and Uncle Augustus would get on. When her sister, Mrs. Donnithorne, met Uncle Augustus and his wife at lunch at our house once, she said she thought no minister of the Gospel ought to allow his child to take part in worldly amusements or ceremonials. It was very awkward, because Uncle Augustus's eldest girl had been presented only the day before. And Aunt Clara, Uncle Augustus's wife, you know, who is rather quick, said it depended whether the minister of the Gospel was a gentleman or a shoe-black, because Mrs. Donnithorne was attending a dissenting chapel then where the preacher was quite a common uneducated sort of person. And after that they would not talk to each other, and, altogether, I remember, it was very unpleasant. I do think it is such a pity," cried Lady Atherley with real feeling, "when people will take up these extreme religious views, as all the Atherleys do. I am sure it is quite a comfort to have someone like you in the house, Mr. Lyndsay, who is not particular about religion."
* * * * *
"If this is the best Aunt Eleanour has to show in the way of a ghost, she does well to keep so quiet about it," was Atherley's comment on that part of the story which, by special permission, I repeated to him next day. "I never heard a weaker ghost story. She explains the whole thing away as she tells it. She was, as she candidly admits, ill and feverish—sickening for a fever, in fact, when the most rational person's senses are apt to play them strange tricks. She is alone at the dead of night in a house she believes to be haunted; and then her dog—an odious little beast, I remember him well, always barking at something or nothing;—the dog suggests there is somebody near. She looks round into a dark part of the room, and naturally, inevitably—all things considered—sees a ghost. Did you say it wore a ruff and puffed sleeves?"
"So Mrs. Mostyn said."
"Of course, because, as I told you, Aunt Eleanour believed in the Elizabethan portrait theory. If it had been Aunt Henrietta, the ghost would have been in armour. Ghosts and all visitors from the other world obligingly correspond with the preconceived notions of the visionary. When a white robe and a halo were considered the proper celestial outfit, saints and angels always appeared with white robes and halos. In the same way, the African savage, who believes in a god with a crooked leg, always sees him in dreams, waking or asleep, with a crooked leg; and—"
Here we were interrupted by a great stir in the hall outside, and Lady Atherley looked in to explain that the carriage with Uncle Augustus was just coming down the drive.
Her manner reminded me of the full importance of this arrival, as well as of the unfortunate circumstance that, owing to the ill-timed absence of the dissenting plasterer, the Canon must be lodged in the little room opposite to my own.
However, when I went into the drawing-room, I found him accepting his niece's apologies and explanations with great good-humour. To me also he was especially gracious.
"I had the pleasure of dining at Lindesford, Mr. Lyndsay, when you must have been in long clothes. I remember we had some of the finest trout I ever tasted. Are they still as good in your river?"
His voice, like himself, was massive and impressive; his bearing and manner inspired me with wistful admiration: what must life be to a man so self-confident, and so rightly self-confident?
"Is not Uncle Augustus a fine-looking man?" asked Lady Atherley, when he had left the room with Atherley. "I cannot think why they do not make him a bishop; he would look so well in the robes. He ought to have had something when the last ministry was in, for Aunt Clara and Lord Lingford are cousins; but, unfortunately, the families were on bad terms because of a lawsuit."
The morning after was bright and fair, so that sunlight mingled with the drowsy calm—Sunday in the country as we remember it, looking lovingly back from lands that are not English to the tenderer side of the Puritan Sabbath. But I missed my little aubade from the lawn, and not till breakfast-time did I behold my small friends, who then came into the breakfast-room, one on either side of their mother—two miniature sailors, exquisitely neat but visibly dejected. Behind walked Tip, demurely recognising the change in the atmosphere, but, undisturbed thereby, he at once, with his usual air of self-satisfied dignity, assumed his place in the largest arm-chair.
"The landau could take us all to church except you, George," said Lady Atherley, looking thoughtfully into the fire as we waited for breakfast and the Canon. "But I suppose you would prefer to walk?"
"Why should you suppose I am going to church, either walking or driving?"
"Well, I certainly hoped you would have gone to-day; as Uncle Augustus is going to preach it seems only polite to do so."
"Well, I don't mind; I daresay it will do me no harm; and if it is understood I attend only out of consideration for my wife's uncle, then—"
He was interrupted by the entrance of the person in question.
Many times during breakfast Denis looked thoughtfully at his great-uncle, and at last inquired—
"Do you preach very long sermons, Uncle Augustus?"
"They are not generally considered so," replied the Canon with some dignity.
"Denis, I have often told you not to ask questions," said Lady Atherley.
"When I am grown up," remarked Harold, "I will be an atheist."
"Do you know what an atheist is?" inquired his father.
"Yes, it is people who never go to church."
"But they go to lecture-rooms, which you would find worse."
"But they don't have sermons."
"Don't they? Hours long, especially when they bury each other."
"Oh!" said Harold, evidently taken aback, and somewhat reconciled to the church.
"When I am grown up," said Denis, "I mean to be the same church as Aunt Cissy."
"And what may that be?" inquired the Canon.
Denis was silent and looked perplexed; but some time afterwards, when we were talking of other things, he called out, with the joy of one who has captured that elusive thing, a definition:
"In Aunt Cissy's church they climb trees and make toffee on Sundays."
After which Lady Atherley seemed glad to take them both away with her.
It was perhaps this remark that led the Canon to ask, on the way to church—
"Is it true that Mrs. de Noel attends a dissenting chapel?"
"No," said Lady Atherley. "But I know why people say so. She lent a field last year to the Methodists to have their camp-meeting in."
"Oh! but that is a pity," said the Canon. "A very great pity—a person in her position encouraging dissent, especially when there is no real occasion for it. Clara's nephew, young Littlemore, did something of the kind last year, but then he was standing for the county; and though that hardly justifies, it excuses, a little pandering to the multitude."
"Cissy only let them have it once," said Lady Atherley, as if making the best of it. "And, indeed, I believe it rained so hard that day they were not able to have the meeting after all."
Then the carriage stopped before the lych-gate, through which the fresh-faced school children were trooping; and while the bell clanged its last monotonous summons, we walked up between the village graves to the old church porch that older yews overshadow, where the village lads were loitering, as Sunday after Sunday their sleeping forefathers had loitered before them.
We worshipped that morning in a magnificent pew to one side of the chancel, and quite as large, from which we enjoyed a full view of clergy and congregation. The former consisted of the Canon, Mr. Jackson, clergyman of the parish, and a young man I had not seen before. Not a large number had mustered to hear the Canon; the front seats were well filled by men and women in goodly apparel, but in the pews behind and in the side aisles there was a mere sprinkling of worshippers in the Sunday dress of country labourers. Our supplicaitions were offered with as little ritualistic pageantry as Mrs. Mostyn herself could have desired, though the choir probably sang oftener and better than she would have approved. In spite of their efforts it was as uninspiring a service as I have ever taken part in. This was not due, as might be suspected, to Atherley's presence, for his demeanour was irreproachable. His little sons, delighted at having him with them, carefully found his places for him in prayer and hymnbook, and kept watch that he did not lose them afterwards, so that he perforce assumed a really edifying degree of attention. Nor, indeed, did the rest of the congregation err in the direction of restlessness or wandering looks, but rather in the opposite extreme, insomuch that during the litany, when we were no longer supported by music, and had, most of us, assumed attitudes favourable to repose, we appeared one and all to succumb to it, especially towards the close, when, from the body of the church at least, only the aged clerk was heard to cry for mercy. But with the third service, there came a change, which reminded me of how once in a foreign cathedral, when the procession filed by—the singing-men nudging each other, the standard-bearers giggling, and the English tourists craning to see the sight—the face of one white-haired old bishop beneath his canopy transformed for me a foolish piece of mummery into a prayer in action. So it was again, when the young stranger turned to us his pale clear-cut face, solemn with an awe as rapt as if he verily stood before the throne of Him he called upon, and felt Its glory beating on his face; then, by that one earnest and believing presence, all was transformed and redeemed; the old emblems recovered their first significance, the time-worn phrases glowed with life again, and we ourselves were altered—our very heaviness was pathetic: it was the lethargy of death itself, and our poor sleepy prayers the strain of manacled captives striving to be free.
The Canon's sermon did not maintain this high-strung mood, though why not it would be difficult to say. Like all his, it was eloquent, brilliant even, declaimed by a fine voice of wide compass, whose varying tones he used with the skill of a practised orator. The text was "Our conversation is in Heaven," its theme the contrast between the man of this world, with his heart fixed upon its pomps, its vanities, its honours, and the believer indifferent to all these, esteeming them as dross merely compared to the heavenly treasure, the one thing needful. Certainly the utter worthlessness of the prizes for which men labour and so late take rest, barter their happiness, their peace, their honour, was never more scathingly depicted. I remember the organ-like bass of his note in passages which denounced the grovelling worship of earthly pre-eminence and riches, the clarion-like cry with which he concluded a stirring eulogy of the Christian's nobler service of things unseen.
"Brethren, as His kingdom is not of this world, so too our kingdom is not of this world."
"I think you will admit, George," said Lady Atherley, as we left the church, "that you have had a good sermon to-day."
"Yes, indeed," heartily assented Atherley. "It was excellent. Your uncle certainly knows his business, which is more than can be said of most preachers. It was a really splendid performance. But who on earth was he talking about—those wonderful people who don't care for money or success, or the best of everything generally? I never met any like them."
"My dear George! How extraordinary you are! Any one could see, I should have thought, that he meant Christians."
Atherley and the children walked home while we waited for the Canon, who stayed behind to exchange a few words in the vestry with his old schoolfellow, Mr. Jackson.
As we drove home he made, aloud, some reflections, probably suggested by the difference between their positions.
"It really grieves me to see Jackson where he is at his age. He deserves a better living. He is an excellent fellow, and not without ability, but wanting, unfortunately, in tact and savoir-faire. He always had an unhappy knack of blurting out the truth in season and out of season. I did my best to get him a good living once—a first-rate living—in Sir John Marsh's gift; and I warned him before he went to lunch with Sir John to be careful what he said. 'Sir John,' I said, 'is one of the old school; he thinks the Squire is pope of the parish, and you will have to humour him a little. He will talk a great deal of nonsense in this strain, and be careful not to contradict him, for he can't bear it.' But Jackson did contradict him—flatly; he told me so himself, and, of course, Sir John would have nothing to say to him. 'But he made such extravagant statements,' said Jackson. 'If I had kept quiet he would have thought I agreed with him.'—'What did that matter?' I said. 'Once you were vicar you could have shown him you didn't.'—'The truth is,' said Jackson, 'I cannot sit by and hear black called white without protesting.' That is Jackson all over! A man of that kind will never get on. And then, such an imprudent marriage—a woman without a penny!"
"I have never seen any one who wore such extraordinary bonnets," said Lady Atherley.
"Who was that young man who bowed to the altar and crossed himself?" asked the Canon.
"I suppose that must be Mr. Austyn, curate in charge at Rood Warren. He comes over to help Mr. Jackson sometimes, I believe. George has met him; I have not. I want to get him over to dinner. He is a nephew of Mr. Austyn of Temple Leigh."
"Oh, that family!" said the Canon. "I am sorry he has taken up such an extreme line. It is a great mistake. In the Church, preferment in these days always goes to the moderate men."
"Rood Warren is not far from here," said Lady Atherley, "and he has a parishioner—Oh, that reminds me. Mr. Lyndsay, would you be so kind as to look out and tell the coachman to drive round by Monk's? I want to leave some soup."
"Monk, I presume, is a sick labourer?" said the Canon. "I hope you are not as indiscriminate in your charities as most Ladies Bountiful."
"Mr. Jackson says this is a really deserving case. He knows all about him, though he really is in Mr. Austyn's parish. Monk has never had anything from the parish, and been working hard all his life, and he is past seventy. He was breaking stones on the road a few weeks ago; but he caught a chill or something one very cold day, and has been laid up ever since. This is the house. Oh, Mr. Lyndsay, you should not trouble to get out. As you are so kind, will you carry this in?"
The interior of the tiny thatched cottage was scrupulously clean and neat, as they nearly all are in the valley, but barer and more scantily furnished than most of them. No photographs or pictures decorated the white-washed walls, no scraps of carpet or matting hid the red-brick floor. The Monks were evidently of the poorest. An old piece of faded curtain had been hung from a rope between the chimney-piece and the door to shield the patient from the draught. He sat in a stiff wooden arm-chair near the fire, drawing his breath laboriously. "He was better now," said his wife, a nurse as old and as frail-looking as himself. "Nights was the worst." His shoulders were bent, his hair white with age, his withered features almost as coarse and as unshapely as the poor clothes he wore. The mask had been rough-hewn, to begin with; time and exposure had further defaced it. No gleam of intellectual life transpierced and illumined all. It was the face of an animal—ugly, ignorant, honest, patient. As I looked at it there came over me a rush of the pity I have so often felt for this suffering of age in poverty—so unpicturesque, so unwinning, to shallow sight so unpathetic—and I put out my hand and let it rest for a moment on his own, knotted with rheumatism, stained and seamed with toil. Then he looked up at me from under his shaggy brows with haggard, wistful eyes, and gasped: "It's hard work, sir; it's hard work." And I went out into the sunshine, feeling that I had heard the epitome of his life.
That night Mrs. Mallet surpassed herself by her rendering of a menu, especially composed by Atherley for the delectation of their guest. Their pains were not wasted. The Canon's commendation of each course—and we talked of little else, I remember, from soup to dessert—was as discriminating as it was warm.
"I am glad you approve of our cook, Uncle," said Lady Atherley in the drawing-room afterwards, "for she is only a stop-gap. Our own cook left us quite suddenly the other day, and we had such difficulty in finding this one to take her place. No one can imagine how inconvenient it is to have a haunted house."
"My dear Jane, you don't mean to tell me you are afraid of ghosts?"
"Oh no, Uncle."
"And I am sure your husband is not?"
"No; but unfortunately cooks are."
Then Lady Atherley willingly repeated the story of her troubles.
"Preposterous! perfectly preposterous!" cried the Canon. "The Education Act in operation for all these years, and our lower orders still believe in bogies and hobgoblins! And yet it is hardly to be wondered at; their social superiors are not much wiser. The nonsense which is talked in society at present is perfectly incredible. Persons who are supposed to be in their right mind gravely relate to me such incidents that I could imagine myself transported to the Middle Ages. I hear of miraculous cures, of spirits summoned from the dead, of men and women floating in the air; and as to diabolic possession, it seems to have become as common as colds in the head."
He had risen, and now addressed us from the hearthrug.
"Then Mrs. Molyneux and others come and tell me about personal friends of their own who can foretell everything that is going to happen; who can read your inmost thoughts; who can compel others to do this and to do that, whether they like it or no; who, being themselves in one quarter of the globe, constantly appear to their acquaintances in another. 'What!' I say. 'They can be in two places at once, then! Certainly no conjurer can equal that!'"
"And what do they say to that?" asked Atherley.
"Oh, they assure me the extraordinary beings who perform these marvels are not impostors, but very superior and religious characters. 'If they are not impostors,' I say, 'then their right place is the lunatic asylum.' 'Oh but, Canon Vernade, you don't understand; it is only our Western ignorance which makes such things seem astonishing! Far more marvellous things are going on, and have been going on for centuries, in the East; for instance, in the Brotherhoods of—I forget—some unpronounceable name.' 'And how do you know they have?' I ask. 'Oh, by their traditions, which have been handed on for generations.' 'That is very reliable information indeed,' I say. 'Pray, have you ever played a game of Russian scandal?' 'Well; but, then, there are the sacred books. There can be no mistake about them, for they have been translated by learned European professors, who say the religious sentiments are perfectly beautiful.' 'Very possibly,' I say. 'But it does not follow that the historical statements are correct.'"
"I gave my ladies' Bible-class a serious lecture about it all the other day. I said: 'Do, my dear ladies, get rid of these childish notions, these uncivilised hankerings after marvels and magic, which make you the dupe of one charlatan after another. Take up science, for a change; study natural philosophy; try and acquire accurate notions of the system under which we live; realise that we are not moving on the stage of a Christmas pantomime, but in a universe governed by fixed laws, in which the miraculous performances you describe to me never can, and never could, have taken place. And be sure of this, that any book and any teacher, however admirable their moral teaching, who tell you that two and two make anything but four, are not inspired, so far as arithmetic and common sense are concerned.'"
"Hear, hear!" cried Atherley heartily.
The Canon's brow contracted a little.
"I need hardly explain," he said, "that what I said did not apply to revealed truth. Jane, my dear, as I must leave by an early train to-morrow, I think I shall say good-night."
I fell asleep that night early, and dreamt that I was sitting with Gladys in the frescoed dining-room of an old Italian palace. It was night, and through the open window came one long shaft of moonlight, that vanished in the aureole of the shaded lamp standing with wine and fruit upon the table between us. And I said in my dream—
"Oh, Gladys, will it be always like this, or must we part again?"
And she, smiling her slow soft smile, said: "You may stay with me till the knock comes."
"What knock, my darling?"
But even as I spoke I heard it, low and penetrating, and I stretched out my arms imploringly towards Gladys; but she only smiled, and the knock was repeated, and the whole scene dissolved around me, and I was sitting up in bed in semi-darkness, while somebody was tapping with a quick agitated touch at my door. I remembered then that I had forgotten to unlock it before I went to bed, and I rose at once and made haste to open it, not without a passing thrill of unpleasant conjecture as to what might be behind it. It was a tall figure in a long grey garment, who carried a lighted candle in his hand. For a moment, startled and stupefied as I was, I failed to recognise the livid face.
"Canon Vernade! You are ill?"
Too ill to speak, it would seem, for without a word he staggered forward and sank into a chair, letting the candle almost drop from his hand on to the table beside him; but when I put out my hand to ring the bell, he stayed me by a gesture. I looked at him, deadly pale, with blue shadows about the mouth and eyes, his head thrown helplessly back, and then I remembered some brandy I had in my dressing-bag. He took the glass from me and raised it to his lips with a trembling hand. I stood watching him, debating within myself whether I should disobey him by calling for help or not; but presently, to my great relief, I saw the stimulant take effect, and life come slowly surging back in colour to his cheeks, in strength to his whole prostrate frame. He straightened himself a little, and turned upon me a less distracted gaze than before.
"Mr. Lyndsay, there is something horrible in this house."
"Have you seen it?"
He shook his head.
"I saw nothing; it is what I felt."
I looked towards the grate. The fire had long been out, but the wood was still unconsumed, and I managed, inexpertly enough, to relight it. When a long blue flame sprang up, he drew his chair near the hearth and stretched towards the blaze his still tremulous hands.
"Mr. Lyndsay," he said, in a voice as strangely altered as his whole appearance, "may I sit here a little—till it is light? I dread to go back to that room. But don't let me keep you up."
I said, and in all honesty, that I had no inclination to sleep. I put on my dressing-gown, threw a rug over his knees, and took my place opposite to him on the other side of the fire; and thus we kept our strange vigil, while slowly above us broke the grim, cold dawn of early spring-time, which even the birds do not brighten with their babble.