THE CASE OF RICHARD MEYNELL
BY MRS. HUMPHRY WARD
TO THE MEMORY OF A BELOVED CHILD
May I ask those of my American readers who are not intimately acquainted with the conditions of English rural and religious life to remember that the dominant factor in it—the factor on which the story of Richard Meynell depends—is the existence of the State Church, of the great ecclesiastical corporation, the direct heir of the pre-Reformation Church, which owns the cathedrals and the parish churches, which by right of law speaks for the nation on all national occasions, which crowns and marries and buries the Kings of England, and, through her bishops in the House of Lords, exercises a constant and important influence on the lawmaking of the country? This Church possesses half the elementary schools, and is the legal religion of the great public schools which shape the ruling upper class. She is surrounded with the prestige of centuries, and it is probable that in many directions she was never so active or so well served by her members as she is at present.
At the same time, there are great forces of change ahead. Outside the Anglican Church stands quite half the nation, gathered in the various non-conformist bodies—Wesleyan, Congregational, Baptist, Presbyterian, and so on. Between them and the Church exists a perpetual warfare, partly of opinion, partly of social difference and jealousy. In every village and small town this warfare exists. The non-conformist desires to deprive the Church of her worldly and political privileges; the churchman talks of the sin of schism, or draws up schemes of reunion which drop still-born. Meanwhile, alike in the Church, in non-conformity, and in the neutral world which owes formal allegiance to neither, vast movements of thought have developed in the last hundred years, years as pregnant with the germs of new life as the wonderful hundred years that followed the birth of Christ. Whether the old bottles can be adjusted to the new wine, whether further division or a new Christian unity is to emerge from the strife of tongues, whether the ideas of modernism; rife in all forms of Christianity, can be accommodated to the ancient practices and given a share in the great material possessions of a State Church; how individual lives are affected in the passionate struggle of spiritual faiths and practical interests involved in such an attempt; how conscience may be enriched by its success or sterilized by its failure; how the fight itself, ably waged, may strengthen the spiritual elements, the power of living and suffering in men and women—it is with such themes that this story attempts to deal. Twenty-two years ago I tried a similar subject in "Robert Elsmere." Since then the movement of ideas in religion and philosophy has been increasingly rapid and fruitful. I am deeply conscious how little I may be able to express it. But those who twenty years ago welcomed the earlier book—and how can I ever forget its reception in America!—may perhaps be drawn once again to some of the old themes in their new dress.
MARY A. WARD
ILLUSTRATIONS BY CHARLES E. BROCK
"'My dear fellow! No woman ought to marry under nineteen or twenty'"
"Meynell, as he hesitatingly advanced, became the spectator of a scene not intended for his eyes"
"He shook hands with the Dean"
"'I wonder whether she's ever had any real joy—a week's—a day's—happiness—in her life?'"
"The old shepherd looked after her doubtfully"
"Truth fails not; but her outward forms that bear The longest date do melt like frosty rime, That in the morning whitened hill and plain And is no more; drop like the tower sublime Of yesterday, which royally did wear His crown of weeds, but could not even sustain Some casual shout that broke the silent air, Or the unimaginable touch of Time."
"Hullo, Preston! don't trouble to go in."
The postman, just guiding his bicycle into the Rectory drive, turned at the summons and dismounted. The Rector approached him from the road, and the postman, diving into his letter-bag and into the box of his bicycle, brought out a variety of letters and packages, which he placed in the Rector's hands.
The recipient smiled.
"My word, what a post! I say, Preston, I add to your burdens pretty considerably."
"It don't matter, sir, I'm sure," said the postman civilly. "There's not a deal of letters delivered in this village."
"No, we don't trouble pen and ink much in Upcote," said the Rector; "and it's my belief that half the boys and girls that do learn to read and write at school make a point of forgetting it as soon as they can—for all practical purposes, anyway."
"Well, there's a deal of newspapers read now, sir, compared to what there was."
"Newspapers? Yes, I do see a Reynolds or a People or two about on Sunday. Do you think anybody reads much else than the betting and the police news, eh, Preston?"
Preston looked a little vacant. His expression seemed to say, "And why should they?" The Rector, with his arms full of the post, smiled again and turned away, looking back, however, to say:
"Wife all right again?"
"Pretty near, sir; but she's had an awful bad time, and the doctor—he makes her go careful."
"Quite right. Has Miss Puttenham been looking after her?"
"She's been most kind, sir, most attentive, she have," said the postman warmly, his long hatchet face breaking into animation.
"Lucky for you!" said the Rector, walking away. "When she cuts in, she's worth a regiment of doctors. Good-day!"
The speaker passed on through the gate of the Rectory, pausing as he did so with a rueful look at the iron gate itself, which was off its hinges and sorely in want of a coat of new paint.
"Disgraceful!" he said to himself; "must have a go at it to-morrow. And at the garden, too," he added, looking round him. "Never saw such a wilderness!"
He was advancing toward a small gabled house of an Early Victorian type, built about 1840 by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners on the site of an old clergy house, of which all traces had been ruthlessly effaced. The front garden lying before it was a tangle of old and for the most part ugly trees; elms from which heavy, decayed branches had recently fallen; acacias choked by the ivy which had overgrown them; and a crowded thicket of thorns and hazels, mingled with three or four large and vigorous though very ancient yews, which seemed to have drunk up for themselves all that life from the soil which should have gone to maintain the ragged or sickly shrubbery. The trees also had gradually encroached upon the house, and darkened all the windows on the porch side. On a summer afternoon, the deep shade they made was welcome enough; but on a rainy day the Rector's front-garden, with its coarse grass, its few straggling rose-bushes, and its pushing throng of half-dead or funereal trees, shed a dank and dripping gloom upon the visitor approaching his front door. Of this, however, the Rector himself was rarely conscious; and to-day, as he with difficulty gathered all the letters and packets taken from the postman into one hand, while he opened his front door with the other, his face showed that the state of his garden had already ceased to trouble him.
He had no sooner turned the handle of the door than a joyous uproar of dogs arose within, and before he had well stepped over the threshold a leaping trio were upon him—two Irish terriers and a graceful young collie, whose rough caresses nearly made him drop his letters.
"Down, Jack! Be quiet, you rascals! I say—Anne!"
A woman's voice answered his call.
"I'm just bringing the tea, sir."
"Any letter for me this afternoon?"
"There's a note on the hall-table, sir."
The Rector hurried into the sitting-room to the right of the hall, deposited the letters and packets which he held on a small, tumble-down sofa already littered with books and papers, and returned to the hall-table for the letter. He tore it open, read it with slightly frowning brows and a mouth that worked unconsciously, then thrust it into his pocket and returned to his sitting-room.
"All right!" he said to himself. "He's got an odd list of 'aggrieved parishioners!'"
The tidings, however, which the letter contained did not seem to distress him. On the contrary, his aspect expressed a singular and cheerful energy, as he sat a few moments on the sofa, softly whistling to himself and staring at the floor. That he was a person extravagantly beloved by his dogs was clearly shown meanwhile by the exuberant attentions and caresses with which they were now loading him.
He shook them off at last with a friendly kick or two, that he might turn to his letters, which he sorted and turned over, much as an epicure studies his menu at the Ritz, and with an equally keen sense of pleasure to come.
A letter from Jena, and another from Berlin, addressed in small German handwriting and signed by names familiar to students throughout the world; two or three German reviews, copies of the Revue Critique and the Revue Chretienne, a book by Solomon Reinach, and three or four French letters, one of them shown by the cross preceding the signature to be the letter of a bishop; a long letter from Oxford, enclosing the proof of an article in a theological review; and, finally, a letter sealed with red wax and signed "F. Marcoburg" in a corner of the envelope, which the Rector twirled in his hands a moment without opening.
"After tea," he said at last, with the sudden breaking of a smile. And he put it on the sofa beside him.
As he spoke the door opened to admit his housekeeper with the tray, to the accompaniment of another orgie of barks. A stout woman in a sun-bonnet, with a broad face and no features to speak of, entered.
"I'll be bound you've had no dinner," she said sulkily, as she placed the tea before him on a chair cleared with difficulty from some of the student's litter that filled the room.
"All the more reason for tea," said Meynell, seizing thirstily on the teapot. "And you're quite mistaken, Anne. I had a magnificent bath-bun at the station."
"Much good you'll get out of that!" was the scornful reply. "You know what Doctor Shaw told you about that sort o' goin' on."
"Never you mind, Anne. What about that painter chap?"
"Gone home for the week-end." Mrs. Wellin retreated a foot or two and crossed her arms, bare to the elbow, in front of her.
The Rector stared.
"I thought I had taken him on by the week to paint my house," he said at last.
"So you did. But he said he must see his missus and hear how his little girl had done in her music exam."
Mrs. Wellin delivered this piece of news very fast and with evident gusto. It might have been thought she enjoyed inflicting it on her master.
The Rector laughed out.
"And this was a man sent me a week ago by the Birmingham Distress Committee—nine weeks out of work—family in the workhouse—everything up the spout. Goodness gracious, Anne, how did he get the money? Return fare, Birmingham, three-and-ten."
"Don't ask me, sir," said the woman in the sun-bonnet. "I don't go pryin' into such trash!"
"Is he coming back? Is my house to be painted?" asked the Rector helplessly.
"Thought he might," said Anne, briefly.
"How kind of him! Music exam! Lord save us! And three-and-ten thrown into the gutter on a week-end ticket—with seven children to keep—and all your possessions gone to 'my uncle.' And it isn't as though you'd been starving him, Anne!"
"I wish I hadn't dinnered him as I have been doin'!" the woman broke out. "But he'll know the difference next week! And now, sir, I suppose you'll be goin' to that place again to-night?"
Anne jerked her thumb behind her over her left shoulder.
"Suppose so, Anne. Can't afford a night-nurse, and the wife won't look after him."
"Why don't some one make her?" said Anne, frowning.
The Rector's face changed.
"Better not talk about it, Anne. When a woman's been in hell for years, you needn't expect her to come out an angel. She won't forgive him, and she won't nurse him—that's flat."
"No reason why she should shovel him off on other people as wants their night's rest. It's takin' advantage—that's what it is."
"I say, Anne, I must read my letters. And just light me a bit of fire, there's a good woman. July!—ugh!—it might be February!"
In a few minutes a bit of fire was blazing in the grate, though the windows were still wide open, and the Rector, who had had a long journey that day to take a funeral for a friend, lay back in sybaritic ease, now sipping his tea and now cutting open letters and parcels. The letter signed "F. Marcoburg" in the corner had been placed, still unopened, on the mantelpiece now facing him.
The Rector looked at it from time to time; it might have been said by a close observer that he never forgot it; but, all the same, he went on dipping into books and reviews, or puzzling—with muttered imprecations on the German tongue—over some of his letters.
"By Jove! this apocalyptic Messianic business is getting interesting. Soon we shall know where all the Pauline ideas came from—every single one of them! And what matter? Who's the worse? Is it any less wonderful when we do know? The new wine found its bottles ready—that's all."
As he sat there he had the aspect of a man enjoying apparently the comfort of his own fireside. Yet, now that the face was at rest, certain cavernous hollows under the eyes, and certain lines on the forehead and at the corners of the mouth, as though graven by some long fatigue, showed themselves disfiguringly. The personality, however, on which this fatigue had stamped itself was clearly one of remarkable vigour, physical and mental. A massive head covered with strong black hair, curly at the brows; eyes grayish-blue, small, with some shade of expression in them which made them arresting, commanding, even; a large nose and irregular mouth, the lips flexible and kind, the chin firm—one might have made some such catalogue of Meynell's characteristics; adding to them the strength of a broad-chested, loose-limbed frame, made rather, one would have thought, for country labours than for the vigils of the scholar. But the hands were those of a man of letters—bony and long-fingered, but refined, touching things with care and gentleness, like one accustomed to the small tools of the writer.
At last the Rector threw himself back in his chair, while some of the litter on his lap fell to the floor, temporarily dislodging one of the terriers, who sat up and looked at him with reproach.
"Now then!" he said, and reached out for the letter on the mantelpiece. He turned it over a moment in his hand and opened it.
It was long, and the reader gave it a close attention. When he had finished it he put it down and thought a while, then stretched out his hand for it again and reread the last paragraph:
"You will, I am sure, realize from all I have said, my dear Meynell, that the last thing I personally wish to do is to interfere with the parochial work of a man for whom I have so warm a respect as I have for you. I have given you all the latitude I could, but my duty is now plain. Let me have your assurance that you will refrain from such sermons as that to which I have drawn your attention, and that you will stop at once the extraordinary innovations in the services of which the parishioners have complained, and I shall know how to answer Mr. Barron and to compose this whole difficult matter. Do not, I entreat you, jeopardize the noble work you are doing for the sake of opinions and views which you hold to-day, but which you may have abandoned tomorrow. Can you possibly put what you call 'the results of criticism'—and, remember, these results differ for you, for me, and for a dozen others I could name—in comparison with that work for souls God has given you to do, and in which He has so clearly blessed you? A Christian pastor is not his own master, and cannot act with the freedom of other men. He belongs by his own act to the Church and to the flock of Christ; he must always have in view the 'little ones' whom he dare not offend. Take time for thought, my dear Meynell—and time, above all, for prayer—and then let me hear from you. You will realize how much and how anxiously I think of you.
"Yours always sincerely in Christ,
"Good man—true bishop!" said the Rector to himself, as he again put down the letter; but even as he spoke the softness in his face passed into resolution. He sank once more into reverie.
The stillness, however, was soon broken up. A step was heard outside, and the dogs sprang up in excitement. Amid a pandemonium of noise, the Rector put his head out of window.
"Is that you, Barron? Come in, old fellow; come in!"
A slender figure in a long coat passed the window, the front door opened, and a young man entered the study. He was dressed in orthodox clerical garb, and carried a couple of books under his arm.
"I came to return these," he said, placing them beside the Rector; "and also—can you give me twenty minutes?"
"Forty, if you want them. Sit down."
The newcomer turned out various French and German books from a dilapidated armchair, and obeyed. He was a fresh-coloured, handsome youth, some fifteen years younger than Meynell, the typical public-school boy in appearance. But his expression was scarcely less harassed than the Rector's.
"I expect you have heard from my father," he said abruptly.
"I found a letter waiting for me," said Meynell, holding up the note he had taken from the hall-table on coming in. But he pursued the subject no further.
The young man fidgeted a moment.
"All one can say is"—he broke out at last—"that if it had not been my father, it would have been some one else—the Archdeacon probably. The fight was bound to come."
"Of course it was!" The Rector sprang to his feet, and, with his hands under his coat-tails and his back to the fire, faced his visitor. "That's what we're all driving at. Don't be miserable about it, dear fellow. I bear your father no grudge whatever. He is under orders, as I am. The parleying time is done. It has lasted two generations. And now comes war—honourable, necessary war!"
The speaker threw back his head with emphasis, even with passion. But almost immediately the smile, which was the only positive beauty of the face, obliterated the passion.
"And don't look so tragic over it! If your father wins—and as the law stands he can scarcely fail to win—I shall be driven out of Upcote. But there will always be a corner somewhere for me and my books, and a pulpit of some sort to prate from."
"Yes, but what about us?" said the newcomer, slowly.
"Ah!" The Rector's voice took a dry intonation. "Yes—well!-you Liberals will have to take your part, and fire your shot some day, of course—fathers or no fathers."
"I didn't mean that. I shall fire my shot, of course. But aren't you exposing yourself prematurely—unnecessarily?" said the young man, with vivacity. "It is not a general's part to do that."
"You're wrong, Stephen. When my father was going out to the campaign in which he was killed, my mother said to him, as though she were half asking a question, half pleading—I can hear her now, poor darling!—'John, it's right for a general to keep out of danger?' and he smiled and said, 'Yes, when it isn't right for him to go into it, head over ears.' However, that's nonsense. It doesn't apply to me. I'm no general. And I'm not going to be killed!"
Young Barron was silent, while the Rector prepared a pipe, and began upon it; but his face showed his dissatisfaction.
"I've not said much to father yet about my own position," he resumed; "but, of course, he guesses. It will be a blow to him," he added, reluctantly.
The Rector nodded, but without showing any particular concern, though his eyes rested kindly on his companion.
"We have come to the fighting," he repeated, "and fighting means blows. Moreover, the fight is beginning to be equal. Twenty years ago—in Elsmere's time—a man who held his views or mine could only go. Voysey, of course, had to go; Jowett, I am inclined to think, ought to have gone. But the distribution of the forces, the lie of the field, is now altogether changed. I am not going till I am turned out; and there will be others with me. The world wants a heresy trial, and it is going to get one this time."
A laugh—a laugh of excitement and discomfort—escaped the younger man.
"You talk as though the prospect was a pleasant one!"
"No—but it is inevitable."
"It will be a hateful business," Baron went on, impetuously. "My father has a horribly strong will. And he will think every means legitimate."
"I know. In the Roman Church, what the Curia could not do by argument they have done again and again—well, no use to inquire how! One must be prepared. All I can say is, I know of no skeletons in the cupboard at present. Anybody may have my keys!"
He laughed as he spoke, spreading his hands to the blaze, and looking round at his companion. Barron's face in response was a face of hero-worship, undisguised. Here plainly were leader and disciple; pioneering will and docile faith. But it might have been observed that Meynell did nothing to emphasize the personal relation; that, on the contrary, he shrank from it, and often tried to put it aside.
After a few more words, indeed, he resolutely closed the personal discussion. They fell into talk about certain recent developments of philosophy in England and France—talk which showed them as familiar comrades in the intellectual field, in spite of their difference of age. Barron, a Fellow of King's, had but lately left Cambridge for a small College living. Meynell—an old Balliol scholar—bore the marks of Jowett and Caird still deep upon him, except, perhaps, for a certain deliberate throwing over, here and there, of the typical Oxford tradition—its measure and reticence, its scholarly balancing of this against that. A tone as of one driven to extremities—a deep yet never personal exasperation—the poised quiet of a man turning to look a hostile host in the face—again and again these made themselves felt through his chat about new influences in the world of thought—Bergson or James, Eucken or Tyrell.
And to this under-note, inflections or phrases in the talk of the other seemed to respond. It was as though behind the spoken conversation they carried on another unheard.
And the unheard presently broke in upon the heard.
"You mentioned Elsmere just now," said Barron, in a moment's pause, and with apparent irrelevance. "Did you know that his widow is now staying within a mile of this place? Some people called Flaxman have taken Maudeley End, and Mrs. Flaxman is a sister of Mrs. Elsmere. Mrs. Elsmere and her daughter are going to settle for the summer in the cottage near Forked Pond. Mrs. Elsmere seems to have been ill for the first time in her life, and has had to give up some of her work."
"Mrs. Elsmere!" said Meynell, raising his eyebrows. "I saw her once twenty years ago at the New Brotherhood, and have never forgotten the vision of her face. She must be almost an old woman."
"Miss Puttenham says she is quite beautiful still, in a wonderful, severe way. I think she never shared Elsmere's opinions?"
The two fell silent, both minds occupied with the same story and the same secret comparisons. Robert Elsmere, the Rector of Murewell, in Surrey, had made a scandal in the Church, when Meynell was still a lad, by throwing up his orders under the pressure of New Testament criticism, and founding a religious brotherhood among London workingmen for the promotion of a simple and commemorative form of Christianity.
Elsmere, a man of delicate physique, had died prematurely, worn out by the struggle to find new foothold for himself and others; but something in his personality, and in the nature of his effort—some brilliant, tender note—had kept his memory alive in many hearts. There were many now, however, who thrilled to it, who could never speak of him without emotion, who yet felt very little positive agreement with him. What he had done or tried to do made a kind of landmark in the past; but in the course of time it had begun to seem irrelevant to the present.
"To-day—would he have thrown up?—or would he have held on?" Meynell presently said, in a tone of reverie, amid the cloud of smoke that enveloped him. Then, in another voice, "What do you hear of the daughter? I remember her as a little reddish-haired thing at her mother's side."
"Miss Puttenham has taken a great fancy to her. Hester Fox-Wilton told me she had seen her there. She liked her."
"H'm!" said the Rector. "Well, if she pleased Hester—critical little minx!"
"You may be sure she'll please me!" said Barron suddenly, flushing deeply.
The Rector looked up, startled.
Barron cleared his throat.
"I'd better tell you at once, Rector. I got Hester's leave yesterday to tell you, when an opportunity occurred—you know how fond she is of you? Well, I'm in love with her—head over ears in love with her—I believe I have been since she was a little girl in the schoolroom. And yesterday—she said—she'd marry me some day."
The young voice betrayed a natural tremor. Meanwhile, a strange look—a close observer would have called it a look of consternation—had rushed into Meynell's face. He stared at Barron, made one or two attempts to speak, and, a last, said abruptly:
"That'll never do, Stephen—that'll never do! You shouldn't have spoken."
Barron's face showed the wound.
"She's too young," said Meynell, with increased harshness, "much too young! Hester is only seventeen. No girl ought to be pledged so early. She ought to have more time—time to look round her. Promise me, my dear boy, that there shall be nothing irrevocable—no engagement! I should strongly oppose it."
The eyes of the two men met. Barron was evidently dumb with surprise; but the vivacity and urgency of Meynell's expression drove him into speech.
"We thought you would have sympathized," he stammered. "After all, what is there so much against it? Hester is, you know, not very happy at home. I have my living, and some income of my own, independent of my father. Supposing he should object—"
"He would object," said Meynell quickly. "And Lady Fox-Wilton would certainly object. And so should I. And, as you know, I am co-guardian of the children with her."
Then, as the lover quivered under these barbs, Meynell suddenly recovered himself.
"My dear fellow! No woman ought to marry under twenty-one. And every girl ought to have time to look round her. It's not right; it's not just—it isn't, indeed! Put this thing by for a while. You'll lose nothing by it. We'll talk of it again in two years."
And, drawing his chair nearer to his companion, Meynell fell into a strain of earnest and affectionate entreaty, which presently had a marked effect on the younger man. His chivalry was appealed to—his consideration for the girl he loved; and his aspect began to show the force of the attack. At last he said gravely:
"I'll tell Hester what you say—of course I'll tell her. Naturally we can't marry without your consent and her mother's. But if Hester persists in wishing we should be engaged?"
"Long engagements are the deuce!" said the Rector hotly. "You would be engaged for three years. Madness!—with such a temperament as Hester's. My dear Stephen, be advised—for her and yourself. There is no one who wishes your good more earnestly than I. But don't let there be any talk of an engagement for at least two years to come. Leave her free—even if you consider yourself bound. It is folly to suppose that a girl of such marked character knows her own mind at seventeen. She has all her development to come."
Barron had dropped his head on his hands.
"I couldn't see anybody else courting her—without—"
"Without cutting in. I daresay not," said Meynell, with a rather forced laugh. "I'd forgive you that. But now, look here."
The two heads drew together again, and Meynell resumed conversation, talking rapidly, in a kind, persuasive voice, putting the common sense of the situation—holding out distant hopes. The young man's face gradually cleared. He was of a docile, open temper, and deeply attached to his mentor.
At last the Rector sprang up, consulting his watch.
"I must send you off, and go to sleep. But we'll talk of this again."
"Sleep!" exclaimed Barron, astonished. "It's just seven o'clock. What are you up to now?"
"There's a drunken fellow in the village—dying—and his wife won't look after him. So I have to put in an appearance to-night. Be off with you!"
"I shouldn't wonder if the Flaxmans were of some use to you in the village," said Stephen, taking up his hat. "They're rich, and, they say, very generous."
"Well, if they'll give me a parish nurse, I'll crawl to them," said the Rector, settling himself in his chair and putting an old shawl over his knees. "And as you go out, just tell Anne, will you, to keep herself to herself for an hour and not to disturb me?"
Stephen Barron moved to the door, and as he opened it he turned back a moment to look at the man in the chair, and the room in which he sat. It was as though he asked himself by what manner of man he had been thus gripped and coerced, in a matter so intimate, and, to himself, so vital.
Meynell's eyes were already shut. The dogs had gathered round him, the collie's nose laid against his knee, the other two guarding his feet. All round, the walls were laden with books, so were the floor and the furniture. A carpenter's bench filled the further end of the room. Carving tools were scattered on it, and a large piece of wood-carving, half finished, was standing propped against it. It was part of some choir decoration that Meynell and a class of village boys were making for the church, where the Rector had already carved with his own hand many of the available surfaces, whether of stone or wood. The carving, which was elaborate and rich, was technically faulty, as an Italian primitive is faulty, but mutatis mutandis it had much of the same charm that belongs to Italian primitive work: the same joyous sincerity, the same passionate love of natural things, leaves and flowers and birds.
For the rest, the furniture of the room was shabby and ugly. The pictures on the walls were mostly faded Oxford photographs, or outlines by Overbeck and Retsch, which had belonged to Meynell's parents and were tenderly cherished by him. There were none of the pretty, artistic trifles, the signs of travel and easy culture, which many a small country vicarage possesses in abundance. Meynell, in spite of his scholar's mastery of half-a-dozen languages, had never crossed the Channel. Barron, lingering at the door, with his eyes on the form by the fire, knew why. The Rector had always been too poor. He had been left an orphan while still at Balliol, and had to bring up his two younger brothers. He had done it. They were both in Canada now and prospering. But the signs of the struggle were on this shabby house, and on this shabby, frugal, powerfully built man. Yet now he might have been more at ease; the living, though small, was by no means among the worst in the diocese. Ah, well! Anne, the housekeeper and only servant, knew how the money went—and didn't go, and she had passed on some of her grievances to Barron. They two knew—though Barron would never have dared to show his knowledge—what a wrestle it meant to get the Rector to spend what was decently necessary on his own food and clothes; and Anne spent hours of the night in indignantly guessing at what he spent on the clothes and food of other people—mostly, in her opinion, "varmints."
These things flitted vaguely through the young man's sore mind. Then in a flash they were absorbed in a perception of a wholly different kind. The room seemed to him transfigured; a kind of temple. He thought of the intellectual life which had been lived there; the passion for truth which had burnt in it; the sermons and books that had been written on those crowded tables; the personality and influence that had been gradually built up within it, so that to him, as to many others, the dingy study was a place of pilgrimage, breathing inspiration; and his heart went out, first in discipleship, and then in a pain that was not for himself. For over his friend's head he saw the gathering of clouds not now to be scattered or dispersed; and who could foretell the course of the storm?
The young man gently closed the door and went his way. He need not have left the house so quietly. The Rector got no sleep that evening.
The church clock of Upcote Minor was just striking nine o'clock as Richard Meynell, a few hours later than the conversation just recorded, shut the Rectory gate behind him, and took his way up the village.
The night was cold and gusty. The summer this year had forgotten to be balmy, and Meynell, who was an ardent sun-lover, shivered as he walked along, buttoning a much-worn parson's coat against the sharp air. Before him lay the long, straggling street, with its cottages and small shops, its post-office, and public-houses, and its occasional gentlefolks' dwellings, now with a Georgian front plumb on the street, and now hidden behind walls and trees. It was evidently a large village, almost a country town, with a considerable variety of life. At this hour of the evening most of the houses were dark, for the labourers had gone to bed. But behind the drawn blinds of the little shops there were still lights here and there, and in the houses of the gentility.
The Rector passed the fine perpendicular church standing back from the road, with its churchyard about it; and just beyond it, he turned, his pace involuntarily slackening, to look at a small gabled house, surrounded by a garden, and overhung by a splendid lime tree. Suddenly, as he approached it, the night burst into fragrance, for a gust of wind shook the lime-blossom, and flung the scent in Meynell's face; while at the same time the dim masses of roses in the garden sent out their sweetness to the passers-by.
A feeling of pleasure, quick, involuntary, passed through his mind; pleasure in the thought of what these flowers meant to the owner of them. He had a vision of a tall and slender woman, no longer young, with a delicate and plaintive face, moving among the rose-beds she loved, her light dress trailing on the grass. The recollection stirred in him affection, and an impulse of sympathy, stronger than the mere thought of the flowers, and the woman's tending of them, could explain. It passed indeed immediately into something else—a touch of new and sharp anxiety.
"And she's been very peaceful of late," he said to himself ruefully, "as far at least as Hester ever lets her be. Preston's wife was a godsend. Perhaps now she'll come out of her shell and go more among the people. It would help her. Anyway, we can't have everything rooted up again just yet—before the time."
He walked on, and as the farther corner of the house came into view, he saw a thinly curtained window with a light inside it, and it seemed to him that he distinguished a figure within.
"Reading?—or embroidering? Probably, at her work. She had that commission to finish. Busy woman!"
He fell to imagining the little room, the embroidery frame, the books, and the brindled cat on the rug, of no particular race or beauty; for use not for show; but sensitive and gentle like its mistress, and like her, not to be readily made friends with.
"How wise of her," he thought, "not to accept her sister's offer since Ralph's death—to insist on keeping her little house and her independence. Imagine her!—prisoned in that house, with that family. Except for Hester—except for Hester!"
He smiled sadly to himself, threw a last troubled look at the little house, and left it behind him. Before him, the village street, with its green and its pond, widened under the scudding sky. Far ahead, about a quarter of a mile away, among surrounding trees, certain outlines were visible through the July twilight. The accustomed eye knew them for the chimneys of the Fox-Wiltons' house, owned now, since the recent death of its master, Sir Ralph Fox-Wilton, by his widow, the sister of the lady with the cat and the embroidery, and mother of many children, for the most part an unattractive brood, peevish and slow-minded like their father. Hester was the bright, particular star in that house, as Stephen Barron had now found out.
Alack!—alack! The Rector's face resumed for a moment the expression of painful or brooding perplexity it had worn during his conversation of the afternoon with young Barron, on the subject of Hester Fox-Wilton.
Another light in a window—and a sound of shouting and singing. The "Cowroast," a "public" mostly frequented by the miners who inhabited the northern end of the village, was evidently doing trade. The Rector did not look up as he passed it; but in general he turned an indulgent eye upon it. Before entering upon the living, he had himself worked for a month as an ordinary miner, in the colliery whose tall chimneys could be seen to the east above the village roofs. His body still vividly retained the physical memory of those days—of the aching muscles, and the gargantuan thirsts.
At last the rows of new-built cottages attached to the colliery came in view on the left; to the right, a steep hillside heavily wooded, and at the top of it, in the distance, the glimmering of a large white house—stately and separate—dominating the village, the church, the collieries, and the Fox-Wiltons' plantations.
The Rector threw a glance at it. It was from that house had come the letter he had found on his hall-table that afternoon; a letter in a handwriting large and impressive like the dim house on the hill. The handwriting of a man accustomed to command, whether his own ancestral estate, or the collieries which had been carved out of its fringe, or the village spreading humbly at his feet, or the church into which he walked on Sunday with heavy tread, and upright carriage, conscious of his threefold dignity—as squire, magistrate, and churchwarden.
"It's my business to fight him!" Meynell thought, looking at the house, and squaring his broad shoulders unconsciously. "It's not my business to hate him—not at all—rather to respect and sympathize with him. I provoke the fight—and I may be thankful to have lit on a strong antagonist. What's Stephen afraid of? What can they do? Let 'em try!"
A smile—contemptuous and good-humoured—crossed the Rector's face. Any angry bigot determined to rid his parish of a heretical parson might no doubt be tempted to use other than legal and theological weapons, if he could get them. A heretic with unpaid bills and some hidden vice is scarcely in a position to make much of his heresy. But the Rector's smile showed him humorously conscious of an almost excessive innocence of private life. The thought of how little an enemy could find to lay hold on in his history or present existence seemed almost to bring with it a kind of shamefacedness—as for experience irrevocably foregone, warm, tumultuous, human experience, among the sinners and sufferers of the world. For there are odd, mingled moments in the lives of most scholars and saints—like Renan in his queer envy of Theophile Gautier—when such men inevitably ask themselves whether they have not missed something irreplaceable, the student, by his learning—the saint even, by his goodness.
Here now was "Miners' Row." As the Rector approached the cottage of which he was in search the clouds lightened in the east, and a pale moonshine, suffusing the dusk, showed in the far distance beyond the village, the hills of Fitton Chase, rounded, heathy hills, crowned by giant firs. Meynell looked at them with longing, and a sudden realization of his own weariness. A day or two, perhaps a week or two, among the fells, with their winds and scents about him, and their streams in his ears—he must allow himself that, before the fight began.
No. 8. A dim light showed in the upper window. The Rector knocked at the door. A woman opened—a young and sweet-looking nurse in her bonnet and long cloak.
"You look pretty done!" exclaimed the Rector. "Has he been giving trouble?"
"Oh, no, sir, not more than usual. It's the two of them."
"She won't go to her sister's?"
"She won't stir a foot, sir."
"Where is she?" The nurse pointed to the living-room on her left.
"She scarcely eats anything—a sup of tea sometimes. And I doubt whether she sleeps at all."
"And she won't go to him?"
"If he were dying, and she alone with him in the house, I don't believe she'd go near him."
The Rector stepped in and asked a few questions as to arrangements for the night. The patient, it seemed, was asleep, in consequence of a morphia injection, and likely to remain so for an hour or two. He was dying of an internal injury inflicted by a fall of rock in the mine some ten days before. Surgery had done what it could, but signs of blood-poisoning had appeared, and the man's days were numbered.
The doctor had left written instructions, which the nurse handed over to Meynell. If certain symptoms appeared, the doctor was to be summoned. But in all probability the man's fine constitution, injured though it had been by drink, would enable him to hold out another day or two. And the hideous pain of the first week had now ceased; mortification had almost certainly set in, and all that could be done was to wait the slow and sure failure of the heart.
The nurse took leave. Meynell was hanging up his hat in the little passageway, when the door of the front parlour opened, after being unlocked.
Meynell looked round.
"Good evening, Mrs. Bateson. You are coming upstairs, I hope, with me?"
He spoke gently, but with a quiet authority.
The woman in the doorway shook her head. She was thin and narrow-chested. Her hair was already gray, though she could not have been more than thirty-five, and youth and comeliness had been long since battered from her face, partly by misery of mind, partly by direct ill usage of which there were evident traces. She looked steadily at the Rector.
"I'm not going," she said. "He's nowt to me. But I'd like to know what the doctor was thinkin' of him."
"The doctor thinks he may live through to-night and to-morrow night—not much more. He is your husband, Mrs. Bateson, and whatever you have against him, you'll be very sorry afterward if you don't give him help and comfort in his death. Come up now, I beg of you, and watch with me. He might die at any moment."
And Meynell put out his hand kindly toward the woman standing in the shadow, as though to lead her.
But she stepped backward.
"I know what I'm about," she said, breathing quick. "He made a fule o' me wi' that wanton Lizzie Short, and he near killt me the last morning afore he went. And I'd been a good wife to him for fifteen year, and never a word between us till that huzzy came along. And she's got a child by him, and he must go and throw it in my face that I'd never given him one. And he struck and cursed me that last morning—he wished me dead, he said. And I sat and prayed God to punish him. An' He did. The roof came down on him. And now he mun die. I've done wi' him—and she's done wi' him. He's made his bed, and he mun lig on it."
The Rector put up his hand sternly.
"Don't! Mrs. Bateson. Those are words you'll repent when you yourself come to die. He has sinned toward you—but remember!—he's a young man still—in the prime of life. He has suffered horribly—and he has only a few hours or days to live. He has asked for you already to-day, he is sure to ask for you to-night. Forgive him!—ask God to help him to die in peace!"
While he spoke she stood motionless, impassive. Meynell's voice had beautiful inflections, and he spoke with strong feeling. Few persons whom he so addressed could have remained unmoved. But Mrs. Bateson only retreated farther into the dreary little parlour, with its wool mats and antimacassars, and a tray of untasted tea on the table. She passed her tongue round her dry lips to moisten them before she spoke, quite calmly:
"Thank you, sir. Thank you. You mean well. But we must all judge for ourselves. If there's anything you want I can get for you, you knock twice on the floor—I shall hear you. But I'm not comin' up."
Meynell turned away discouraged, and went upstairs. In the room above lay the dying man—breathing quickly and shallowly under the influence of the drug that had been given him. The nurse had raised him on his pillows, and the window near him was open. His powerful chest was uncovered, and he seemed even in his sleep to be fighting for air. In the twelve hours that had elapsed since Meynell had last seen him he had travelled with terrible rapidity toward the end. He looked years older than in the morning; it was as though some sinister hand had been at work on the face, expanding here, contracting there, substituting chaos and nothingness for the living man.
The Rector sat down beside him. The room was small and bare—a little strip of carpet on the boards, a few chairs, and a little table with food and nourishment beside the bed. On the mantelpiece was a large printed card containing the football fixtures of the winter before. Bateson had once been a fine player. Of late years, however, his interest had been confined to betting heavily on the various local and county matches, and it was to his ill-luck as a gambler no less than to the influence of the flimsy little woman who had led him astray that his moral break-up might be traced.
A common tale!—yet more tragic than usual. For the bedroom contained other testimonies to the habits of a ruined man. There was a hanging bookcase on the wall, and the Rector sitting by the bed could just make out the titles of the books in the dim light.
Mill, Huxley, a reprint of Tom Paine, various books by Blatchford, the sixpenny editions of "Literature and Dogma," and Renan's "Life of Christ," some popular science volumes of Browning and Ruskin, and a group of well-thumbed books on the birds of Mercia—the little collection, hardly earned, and, to judge from its appearance, diligently read, showed that its owner had been a man of intelligence. The Rector looked from it to the figure in the bed with a pang at his heart.
All was still in the little cottage. Through the open window the Rector could see fold after fold of the Chase stretching north and west above the village. The moorland ridges shone clear under the moon, now bare, or scantily plumed by gaunt trees, and now clothed in a dense blackness of wood. Meynell, who knew every yard of the great heath and loved it well, felt himself lifted there in spirit as he looked. The "bunchberries" must just be ripening on the high ground—nestling scarlet and white amid their glossy leaves. And among them and beside them, the taller, slender bilberries, golden green; the exquisite grasses of the heath, pale pink, and silver, and purple, swaying in the winds, clothing acre after acre with a beauty beyond the looms of men; the purple heather and the ling flushing toward its bloom: and the free-limbed scattered birch trees, strongly scrawled against the sky. The scurry of the clouds over the purple sweeps of moor, the beat of the wind, and then suddenly, pools of fragrant air sun-steeped—he drew in the thought of it all, as he might have drunk the moorland breeze itself, with a thrill of pleasure, which passed at once into a movement of soul.
"My God—my God!"
No other words imagined or needed. Only a leap of the heart, natural, habitual, instinctive, from the imagined beauty of the heath, to the "Eternal Fountain" of all beauty.
The hand of the dying man made a faint rustling with the sheet. Meynell, checked, rebuked almost, by the slight sound, bent his eyes again on the sleeper, and leaning forward tried to meditate and pray. But to-night he found it hard. He realized anew his physical and mental fatigue, and a certain confused clamour of thought, strangely persistent behind the more external experience alike of body and mind; like the murmur of a distant sea heard from far inland, as the bond and background of all lesser sounds.
The phrases of the letter he had found on the hall-table recurred to him whether he would or no. They were mainly legal and technical, intimating that an application had been made to the Bishop of Markborough to issue a Commission of Inquiry into certain charges made by parishioners of Upcote Minor against the Rector of the parish. The writer of the letter was one of the applicants, and gave notice of his intention to prosecute the charges named, with the utmost vigour through all the stages prescribed by ecclesiastical law.
But it was, rather, some earlier letters from the same hand—letters more familiar, intimate, and discursive—that ultimately held the Rector's thoughts as he kept his watch. For in those letters were contained almost all the objections that a sensitive mind and heart had had to grapple with before determining on the course to which the Rector of Upcote was now committed. They were the voice of the "adversary," the "accuser." Crude or conventional, as the form of the argument might be, it yet represented the "powers and principalities" to be reckoned with. If the Rector's conscience could not sustain him against it, he was henceforth a dishonest and unhappy man; and when his lawyers had failed to protect him against its practical result—as they must no doubt fail—he would be a dispossessed priest:
"What discipline in life or what comfort in death can such a faith as yours bring to any human soul? Do, I beg of you, ask yourself this question. If the great miracles of the Creed are not true, what have you to give the wretched and the sinful? Ought you not in common human charity to make way for one who can offer the consolations, utter the warnings, or hold out the heavenly hopes from which you are debarred?"
* * * * *
The Rector fixed his gaze upon the sick man. It was as though the question of the letter were put to him through those parched lips. And as he looked, Bateson opened his eyes.
"Be that you, Rector?" he said, in a clear voice.
"I've been sitting up with you, Bateson. Can you take a little brandy and milk, do you think?"
The patient submitted, and the Rector, with a tender and skilful touch, made him comfortable on his pillows and smoothed the bedclothes.
"Where's my wife?" he said presently, looking round the room.
"She's sleeping downstairs."
"I want her to come up."
"Better not ask her. She seems ill and tired."
The sick man smiled—a slight and scornful smile.
"She'll ha' time enough presently to be tired. You goa an' ask her."
"I'd rather not leave you, Bateson. You're very ill."
"Then take that stick then, an' rap on the floor. She'll hear tha fast enough."
The Rector hesitated, but only for a moment. He took the stick and rapped.
Almost immediately the sound of a turning key was heard through the small thinly built cottage. The door below opened and footsteps came up the stairs. But before they reached the landing the sound ceased. The two men listened in vain.
"You goa an' tell her as I'm sorry I knocked her aboot," said Bateson, eagerly. "An' she can see for hersen as I can't aggravate her no more wi' the other woman." He raised himself on his elbow, staring into the Rector's face. "I'm done for—tell her that."
"Shall I tell her also, that you love her?—and you want her love?"
"Aye," said Bateson, nodding, with the same bright stare into Meynell's eyes. "Aye!"
Meynell made him drink a little more brandy, and then he went out to the person standing motionless on the stairs.
"What did you want, sir?" said Mrs. Bateson, under her breath.
"Mrs. Bateson—he begs you to come to him! He's sorry for his conduct—he says you can see for yourself that he can't wrong you any more. Come—and be merciful!"
The woman paused. The Rector could see the shiver of her thin shoulders under her print dress. Then she turned and quietly descended the cottage stairway. Half way down she looked up.
"Tell him I should do him nowt but harm. I"—her voice trembled for the first time—"I doan't bear him malice; I hope he'll not suffer. But I'm not comin'."
"Wait a moment, Mrs. Bateson! I was to tell you that in spite of all, he loved you—and he wanted your love."
She shook her head.
"It's no good talkin' that way. It'll mebbe use up his strength. Tell him I'd have got Lizzie Short to come an' nurse 'im, if I could. It's her place. But he knows as she an' her man flitted a fortnight sen, an' theer's no address."
And she disappeared. But at the foot of the stairs—standing unseen—she said in her usual tone:
"If there was a cup o' tea, I could bring you, sir—or anythin'?"
Meynell, distressed and indignant, did not answer. He returned to the sick-room. Bateson looked up as the Rector bent once more over the bed.
"She'll not coom?" he said, in a faint voice of surprise. "Well, that's a queer thing. She wasn't used to be a tough 'un. I could most make her do what I wanted. Well, never mind, Rector, never mind. Sit tha down—mebbe you'd be wanting to say a prayer. You're welcome. I reckon it'll do me no harm."
His lips parted in a smile—a smile of satire. But his brows frowned, and his eyes were still alive and bright, only now, as the watcher thought, with anger.
"I will say the church prayers, if you wish it, Bateson. Of course I will say them."
"But I doan't believe in 'em," said the sick man, smiling again, "an' you doan't believe in 'em, noather, if folk say true! Don't tha be vexed—I'm not saying it to cheek tha. But Mr. Barron, ee says ee'll make tha give up. Ee's been goin' roun' the village, talkin' to folk. I doan't care about that—an' I've never been one o' your men—not pious enough, be a long way—but I'd like to hear—now as I can't do tha no harm, Rector, now as I'm goin', an' you cawn't deny me—what tha does really believe. Will tha tell me?"
He turned, open-eyed, impulsive, intelligent, as he had always been in life.
The Rector started. The inward challenge had taken voice.
"Certainly I will tell you, if it will help you—if you're strong enough."
Bateson waved his hand contemptuously.
"I feel as strong as onything. That sup o' brandy has put some grit in me. Give me some more. Thank tha ... Does tha believe in God, Rector?"
His whimsical, half-teasing, yet, at bottom, anxious look touched Meynell strangely.
"With all my life—and with all my strength!"
Meynell's gaze was fixed intently on his questioner. The night-light in the basin on the farther side of the room threw the strong features into shadowy relief, illumining the yearning kindliness of the eyes.
"What made tha believe in Him?"
"My own life—my own struggles—and sins—and sufferings," said Meynell, stooping toward the sick man, and speaking each word with an intensity behind which lay much that could never be known to his questioner. "A good man, Bateson, put it once in this way, 'There is something in me that asks something of me.' That's easy to understand, isn't it? If a man wants to be filthy, or drunken, or cruel, there is always a voice within—it may be weak or it may be strong—that asks of him to be—instead—pure and sober and kind. And perhaps he denies the Voice, refuses it—talks it down—again and again. Then the joy in his life dies out bit by bit, and the world turns to dust and ashes. Every time that he says No to the Voice he is less happy—he has less power of being happy. And the voice itself dies away—and death comes. But now, suppose he turns to the Voice and says 'Lead me—I follow!' And suppose he obeys, like a child stumbling. Then every time he stretches and bends his poor weak will so as to give It what it asks, his heart is happy; and strength comes—the strength to do more and do better. It asks him to love—to love men and women, not with lust, but with pure love; and as he obeys, as he loves—he knows—he knows that it is God asking, and that God has come to him and abides with him. So when death overtakes him he trusts himself to God as he would to his best friend."
"Tha'rt talkin' riddles, Rector!"
"No. Ask yourself. When you fell into sin with that woman, did nothing speak to you, nothing try to stop you?"
The bright half-mocking eyes below Meynell's wandered a little—wavered in expression.
"It was the hot blood in me—aye, an' in her too. Yo cawn't help them things."
"Can't you? When your wife suffered, didn't that touch you? Wouldn't you undo it now if you could?"
"Aye—because I'm goin'—doctor says I'm done for."
"No—well or ill—wouldn't you undo it—wouldn't you undo the blows you gave your wife—the misery you caused her?"
"Mebbe. But I cawn't."
"No—not in my sense or yours. But in God's sense you can. Turn your heart—ask Him to give you love—love to Him, who has been pleading with you all your life—love to your wife, and your fellow men—love—and repentance—and faith."
Meynell's voice shook. He was in an anguish at what seemed to him the weakness, the ineffectiveness, of his pleading.
A silence. Then the voice rose again from the bed.
"Dost tha believe in Jesus Christ, Rector? Mr. Barron, he calls tha an infidel. But he hasn't read the books you an' I have read, I'll uphold yer!"
The dying man raised his hand to the bookshelves beside him with a proud gesture.
The Rector slowly raised himself. An expression as of some passion within, trying at once to check and to utter itself, became visible on his face in the half light.
"It's not books that settle it, Jim. I'll try and put it to you—just as I see it myself—just in the way it comes to me."
He paused a moment, frowning under the effort of simplification. The hidden need of the dying man seemed to be mysteriously conveyed to him—the pang of lonely anguish that death brings with it; the craving for comfort beneath the apparent scorn of faith; the human cry expressed in this strange catechism.
"Stop me if I tire you," he said at last. "I don't know if I can make it plain—but to me, Bateson, there are two worlds that every man is concerned with. There is this world of everyday life—work and business, sleeping and talking, eating and drinking—that you and I have been living in; and there is another world, within it, and alongside of it, that we know when we are quiet—when we listen to our own hearts, and follow that voice I spoke of just now. Jesus Christ called that other world the Kingdom of God—and those who dwell in it, the children of God. Love is the king of that world, and the law of it—Love, which is God. But different men—different races of men—give different names to that Love—see it under different shapes. To us—to you and to me—it speaks under the name and form of Jesus Christ. And so I come to say—so all Christians come to say—'I believe—in Jesus Christ our Lord'. For it is His life and His death that still to-day—as they have done for hundreds of years—draw men and women into the Kingdom—the Kingdom of Love—and so to God. He draws us to love—and so to God. And in God alone is the soul of man satisfied; satisfied—and at rest."
The last words were but just breathed—yet they carried with them the whole force of a man.
"That's all very well, Rector. But tha's given up th' Athanasian Creed, and there's mony as says tha doesn't hold by tother Creeds. Wilt tha tell me, as Jesus were born of a virgin?—or that a got up out o' the grave on the third day?"
The Rector's face, through all its harass, softened tenderly.
"If you were a well man, Bateson, we'd talk of that. But there's only one thing that matters to you now—it's to feel God with you—to be giving your soul to God."
The two men gazed at each other.
"What are tha nursin' me for, Rector?" said Bateson, abruptly—"I'm nowt to you."
"For the love of Christ," said Meynell, steadily, taking his hand—"and of you, in Christ. But you mustn't talk. Rest a while."
There was a silence. The July night was beginning to pale into dawn. Outside, beyond the nearer fields, the wheels and sheds and the two great chimneys of the colliery were becoming plain; the tints and substance of the hills were changing. Dim forms of cattle moved in the newly shorn grass; the sound of their chewing could be faintly heard.
Suddenly the dying man raised himself in bed.
"I want my wife!" he said imperiously. "I tell tha, I want my wife!"
It was as though the last energy of being had thrown itself into the cry—indignant, passionate, protesting.
"I will bring her."
Bateson gripped his hand.
"Tell her to mind that cottage at Morden End—and the night we came home there first—as married folk. Tell her I'm goin'—goin' fast."
He fell back, panting. Meynell gave him food and medicine. Then he went quickly downstairs, and knocked at the parlour door. After an interval of evident hesitation on the part of the occupant of the room, it was reluctantly unlocked. Meynell pushed it open wide.
"Mrs. Bateson—come to your husband—he is dying!"
The woman, deadly white, threw back her head proudly. But Meynell laid a peremptory hand on her arm.
"I command you—in God's name. Come!"
A struggle shook her. She yielded suddenly—and began to cry. Meynell patted her on the shoulder as he might have patted a child, said kind, soothing things, gave her her husband's message, and finally drew her from the room.
She went upstairs, Meynell following, anxious about the physical result of the meeting, and ready to go for the doctor at a moment's notice.
The door at the top of the stairs was open. The dying man lay on his side, gazing toward it, and gauntly illumined by the rising light.
The woman went slowly forward, drawn by the eyes directed upon her.
"I thowt tha'd come!" said Bateson, with a smile.
She sat down upon the bed, crouching, emaciated; at first motionless and voiceless; a spectacle little less piteous, little less deathlike, than the man on the pillows. He still smiled at her, in a kind of triumph; also silent, but his lips trembled. Then, groping, she put out her hand—her disfigured, toil-worn hand—and took his, raising it to her lips. The touch of his flesh seemed to loosen in her the fountains of the great deep. She slid to her knees and kissed him—enfolding him with her arms, the two murmuring together.
Meynell went out into the dawn. His mystical sense had beheld the Lord in that small upper room; had seen as it were the sacred hands breaking to those two poor creatures the sacrament of love. His own mind was for the time being tranquillized. It was as though he said to himself, "I know that trouble will come back—I know that doubts and fears will pursue me again; but this hour—this blessing—is from God!"...
The sun was high in a dewy world, already busy with its first labours of field and mine, when Meynell left the cottage. The church clock was on the stroke of eight.
He passed down the village street, and reached again the little gabled house which he had passed the night before. As he approached, there was a movement in the garden. A lady, who was walking among the roses, holding up her gray dress from the dew, turned and hastened toward the gate.
"Please come in! You must be tired out. The gardener told me he'd seen you about. We've got some coffee ready for you."
Meynell looked at the speaker in smiling astonishment.
"What are you up for at this hour?"
"Why shouldn't I be up? Look how lovely it is! I have a friend with me, and I want to introduce you."
Miss Puttenham opened her garden gate and drew in the Rector. Behind her among the roses Meynell perceived another lady—a girl, with bright reddish hair.
"Mary!" said Miss Puttenham.
The girl approached. Meynell had an impression of mingled charm and reticence as she gave him her hand. The eyes were sweet and shy. But the unconscious dignity of bearing showed that the shyness was the shyness of strong character, rather than of mere youth and innocence.
"This is my new friend, Mary Elsmere. You've heard they're at Forked Pond?" Alice Puttenham said, smiling, as she slipped her arm round the girl. "I captured her for the night, while Mrs. Elsmere went to town. I want you to know each other."
"Elsmere's daughter!" thought Meynell, with a thrill, as he followed the two ladies through the open French window into the little dining-room, where the coffee was ready. And he could not take his eyes from the young face.
"I am in love with the house—I adore the Chase—I like heretics—and I don't think I'm ever going home again!"
Mrs. Flaxman as she spoke handed a cup of tea to a tall gentleman, Louis Manvers by name, the possessor of a long, tanned countenance; of thin iron-gray hair, descending toward the shoulders; of a drooping moustache, and eyes that mostly studied the carpet or the knees of their owner. A shy, laconic person at first sight, with the manner of one to whom conversation, of the drawing-room kind, was little more than a series of doubtful experiments, that seldom or never came off.
Mrs. Flaxman, on the other hand, was a pretty woman of forty, still young and slender, in spite of two boys at Eton, one of them seventeen, and in the Eleven; and her talk was as rash and rapid as that of her companion was the reverse. Which perhaps might be one of the reasons why they were excellent friends, and always happy in each other's society.
Mr. Manvers overlooked a certain challenge that Mrs. Flaxman had thrown out, took the tea provided, and merely inquired how long the rebuilding of the Flaxmans' own house would take. For it appeared that they were only tenants of Maudeley House—furnished—for a year.
Mrs. Flaxman replied that only the British workman knew. But she looked upon herself as homeless for two years, and found the prospect as pleasant as her husband found it annoying.
"As if life was long enough to spend it in one county, and one house and park! I have shaken all my duties from me like old rags. No more school-treats, no more bean-feasts, no more hospital committees, for two whole years! Think of it! Hugh, poor wretch, is still Chairman of the County Council. That's why we took this place—it is within fifty miles. He has to motor over occasionally. But I shall make him resign that, next year. Then we are going for six months to Berlin—that's for music—my show! Then we take a friend's house in British East Africa, where you can see a lion kill from the front windows, and zebras stub up your kitchen garden. That's Hugh's show. Then of course there'll be Japan—and by that time there'll be airships to the North Pole, and we can take it on our way home!"
"Souvent femme varie!" Mr. Manvers raised a pair of surprisingly shrewd eyes from the carpet. "I remember the years when I used to try and dig you and Hugh out of Bagley, and drive you abroad—without the smallest success."
"Those were the years when one was moral and well-behaved! But everybody who is worth anything goes a little mad at forty. I was forty last week"—Rose Flaxman gave an involuntary sigh—"I can't get over it."
"Ah, well, it's quite time you were a little nipped by the years," said Manvers dryly. "Why should you be so much younger than anybody else in the world? When you grow old there'll be no more youth!"
Mrs. Flaxman's eyes, of a bright greenish-gray, shone gayly into his; then their owner made a displeased mouth. "You may pay me compliments as much as you like. They will not prevent me from telling you that you are one of the most slow-minded people I have ever met!"
"H'm?" said Mr. Manvers, with mild interrogation.
Rose Flaxman repeated her remark, emphasizing with a little tattoo of her teaspoon on the Chippendale tea-tray before her. Manvers studied her, smiling.
"I am entirely ignorant of the grounds of this attack."
"Oh, what hypocrisy!" cried his companion hotly. "I throw out the most tempting of all possible flies, and you absolutely refuse to rise to it."
"You expected me to rise to the word 'heretic?'"
"Of course I did! On the same principle as 'sweets to the sweet.' Who—I should like to know—should be interested in heretics if not you?"
"It entirely depends on the species," said her companion cautiously.
"There couldn't be a more exciting species," declared Mrs. Flaxman. "Here you have a Rector of a parish simply setting up another Church of England—services, doctrines and all—off his own bat, so to speak—without a 'with your leave or by your leave'; his parishioners backing him up; his Bishop in a frightful taking and not the least knowing what to do; the fagots all gathering to make a bonfire of him, and a great black six-foot-two Inquisitor ready to apply the match—and yet—I can't get you to take the smallest interest in it! I assure you, Hugh is thrilled."
Manvers laid the finger-tips of two long brown hands lightly against each other.
"Very sorry—but it leaves me quite cold. Heresy in the Church of England comes to nothing. Our heretics are never violent enough. They forget the excellent text about the Kingdom of Heaven! Now the heretics in the Church of Rome are violent. That is what makes them so far more interesting."
"This man seems to be drastic enough!"
"Oh, no!" said the other, gently but firmly incredulous. "Believe me—he will resign, or apologize—they always do."
"Believe me!—you don't—excuse me!—know anything about it. In the first place, Mr. Meynell has got his parishioners—all except a handful—behind him—"
"So had Voysey," interjected Manvers, softly.
Mrs. Flaxman took no notice.
"—And he has hundreds of other supporters—thousands perhaps—and some of them parsons—in this diocese, and outside it. And they are all convinced that they must fight—fight to the death—and not give in. That, you see, is what makes the difference! My brother-in-law"—the voice speaking changed and softened—"died twenty years ago. I remember how sad it was. He seemed to be walking alone in a world that hardly troubled to consider him—so far as the Church was concerned, I mean. There seemed to be nothing else to do but to give up his living. But the strain of doing it killed him."
"The strain of giving up your living may be severe—but, I assure you, your man will find the strain of keeping it a good deal worse."
"It all depends upon his backing. How do you know there isn't a world behind him?" Mrs. Flaxman persisted, as the man beside her slowly shook his head. "Well, now, listen! Hugh and I went to church here last Sunday. I never was so bewildered. First, it was crowded from end to end, and there were scores of people from other villages and towns—a kind of demonstration. Then, as to the service—neither of us could find our way about. Instead of saying the Lord's Prayer four times, we said it once; we left out half the psalms for the day, the Rector explaining from the chancel steps that they were not fit to be read in a Christian church; we altered this prayer and that prayer; we listened to an extempore prayer for the widows and orphans of some poor fellows who have been killed in a mine ten miles from here, which made me cry like baby; and, most amazing of all, when it came to the Creeds—"
Manvers suddenly threw back his head, his face for the first time sharpening into attention. "Ah! Well—what about the Creeds?"
Mrs. Flaxman bent forward, triumphing in the capture of her companion.
"We had both the Creeds. The Rector read them—turning to the congregation—and with just a word of preface—'Here follows the Creed, commonly called the Apostles' Creed,'—or 'Here follows the Nicene Creed.' And we all stood and listened—and nobody said a word. It was the strangest moment! You know—I'm not a serious person—but I just held my breath."
"As though you heard behind the veil the awful Voices—'Let us depart hence?'" said Manvers, after a pause. His expression had gradually changed. Those who knew him best might have seen in it a slight and passing trace of conflicts long since silenced and resolutely forgotten.
"If you mean by that that the church was irreverent—or disrespectful—or hostile—well, you are quite wrong!" cried Mrs. Flaxman impetuously. "It was like a moment of new birth—I can't describe it—as though a Spirit entered in. And when the Rector finished—there was a kind of breath through the church—like the rustling of new leaves—and I thought of the wind blowing where it listed.... And then the Rector preached on the Creeds—how they grew up and why. Fascinating!—why aren't the clergy always telling us such things? And he brought it all round to impressing upon us that some day we might be worthy of another Christian creed—by being faithful—that it would flower again out of our lives and souls—as the old had done.... I wonder what it all meant!" she said abruptly, her light voice dropping.
Manvers smiled. His emotion had quite passed away.
"Ah! but I forgot"—she resumed hurriedly—"we left out several of the Commandments—and we chanted the Beatitudes—and then I found there was a little service paper in the seat, and everybody in the church but Hugh and me knew all about it beforehand!"
"A queer performance," said Manvers, "and of course childishly illegal. Your man will be soon got rid of. I expect you might have applied to him the remark of the Bishop of Cork on the Dean of Cork—'Excellent sermon!—eloquent, clever, argumentative!—and not enough gospel in it to save a tom-tit!"'
Mrs. Flaxman looked at him oddly.
"Well, but—the extraordinary thing was that Hugh made me stay for the second service, and it was as Ritualistic as you like!"
Manvers fell back in his chair, the vivacity on his face relaxing.
"Ah!—is that all?"
"Oh! but you don't understand," said his companion, eagerly. "Of course Ritualistic is the wrong word. Should I have said 'sacramental'? I only meant that it was full of symbolism. There were lights—and flowers, and music, but there was nothing priestly—or superstitious"—she frowned in her effort to explain. "It was all poetic—and mystical—and yet practical. There were a good many things changed in the Service,—but I hardly noticed—I was so absorbed in watching the people. Almost every one stayed for the second service. It was quite short—so was the first service. And a great many communicated. But the spirit of it was the wonderful thing. It had all that—that magic—that mystery—that one gets out of Catholicism, even simple Catholicism, in a village church—say at Benediction; and yet one had a sense of having come out into fresh air; of saying things that were true—true at least to you, and to the people that were saying them; things that you did believe, or could believe, instead of things that you only pretended to believe, or couldn't possibly believe! I haven't got over it yet, and as for Hugh, I have never seen him so moved since—since Robert died."
Manvers was aware of Mrs. Flaxman's affection for her brother-in-law's memory; and it seemed to him natural and womanly that she should be touched—artist and wordling though she was—by this fresh effort in a similar direction. For himself, he was touched in another way: with pity, or a kindly scorn. He did not believe in patching up the Christian tradition. Either accept it—or put it aside. Newman had disposed of "neo-Christianity" once for all.
"Well, of course all this means a row," he said at length, with a smile. "What is the Bishop doing?"
"Oh, the Bishop will have to prosecute, Hugh says; of course he must! And if he didn't, Mr. Barron would do it for him."
"The gentleman who lives in the White House?"
"Precisely. Ah!" cried Mrs. Flaxman, suddenly, rising to her feet and looking through the open window beside her. "What do you think we've done? We have evoked him! Parlez du diable, etc. How stupid of us! But there's his carriage trotting up the drive—I know the horses. And that's his deaf daughter—poor, downtrodden thing!—sitting beside him. Now then—shall we be at home? Quick!"
Mrs. Flaxman flew to the bell, but retreated with a little grimace.
"We must! It's inevitable. But Hugh says I can't be rude to new people. Why can't I? It's so simple."
She sat down, however, though rebellion and a little malice quickened the colour in her fair skin. Manvers looked longingly at the door leading to the garden.
"Shall I disappear?—or must I support you?"
"It all depends on what value you set on my good opinion," said Mrs. Flaxman, laughing.
Manvers resettled himself in his chair.
"I stay—but first, a little information. The gentleman owns land here?"
"Acres and acres. But he only came into it about three years ago. He is on the same railway board where Hugh is Chairman. He doesn't like Hugh, and he certainly won't like me. But you see he's bound to be civil to us. Hugh says he's always making quarrels on the board—in a kind of magnificent, superior way. He never loses his temper—whereas the others would often like to flay him alive. Now then"—Mrs. Flaxman laid a finger on her mouth—"'Papa, potatoes, prunes, and prism'!"
Steps were heard in the hall, and the butler announced "Mr. and Miss Barron."
A tall man, with an iron-gray moustache and a determined carriage, entered the room, followed by a timid and stooping lady of uncertain age.
Mrs. Flaxman, transformed at once into the courteous hostess, greeted the newcomers with her sweetest smiles, set the deaf daughter down on the hearing side of Mr. Manvers, ordered tea, and herself took charge of Mr. Barron.
* * * * *
The task was not apparently a heavy one. Mrs. Flaxman saw beside her a portly man of fifty-five, with a penetrating look, and a composed manner; well dressed, yet with no undue display. Louis Manvers, struggling with an habitual plague of shyness, and all but silenced by the discovery that his neighbour was even deafer than himself, watched the "six-foot-two Inquisitor" with curiosity, but could find nothing lurid nor torturous in his aspect. There was indeed something about him which displeased a rationalist scholar and ascetic. But his information and ability, his apparent adequacy to any company, were immediately evident. It seemed to Manvers that he had very quickly disarmed Mrs. Flaxman's vague prejudice against him. At any rate she was soon picking his brains diligently on the subject of the neighbourhood and the neighbours, and apparently enjoying the result, to judge from her smiles and her questions.
Mr. Barron indeed had everything that could be expected of him to say on the subject of the district and its population. He descanted on the beauty of the three or four famous parks, which in the eighteenth century had been carved out of the wild heath lands; he showed an intimate knowledge of the persons who owned the parks, and of their families, "though I myself am only a newcomer here, being by rights a Devonshire man"; he talked of the local superstitions with indulgence, and a proper sense of the picturesque; and of the colliers who believed the superstitions he spoke in a tone of general good humour, tempered by regret that "agitators" should so often lead them into folly. The architecture of the district came in, of course, for proper notice. There were certain fine old houses near that Mrs. Flaxman ought to visit; everything of course would be open to her and her husband.
"Oh, tell me," said Mrs. Flaxman, suddenly interrupting him, "how far is Sandford Abbey from here?"
Her visitor paused a moment before replying.
"Sandford Abbey is about five miles from you—across the park. The two estates meet. Do you know—Sir Philip Meryon?"
Rose Flaxman shrugged her shoulders.
"We know something of him—at least Hugh does. His mother was a very old friend of Hugh's family."
Mr. Barron was silent.
"Is he such a scamp?" said Mrs. Flaxman, raising her fine eyes, with a laugh in them. "You make me quite anxious to see him!"
Mr. Barron echoed the laugh, stiffly.
"I doubt whether your husband will wish to bring him here. He gathers some strange company at the Abbey. He is there now for the fishing."
Manvers inquired who this gentleman might be; and Mrs. Flaxman gave him a lightly touched account. A young man of wealth and family, it seemed, but spoilt from his earliest days, and left fatherless at nineteen, with only an adoring but quite ineffectual mother to take account of. Some notorious love affairs at home and abroad; a wild practical joke or two, played on prominent people, and largely advertised in the newspapers; an audacious novel, and a censored play—he had achieved all these things by the age of thirty, and was now almost penniless, and still unmarried.
"Hugh says that the Abbey is falling into ruin—and that the young man has about a hundred a year left out of his fortune. On this he keeps apparently an army of servants and a couple of hunters! The strange thing is—Hugh discovered it when he went to call on the Rector the other day—that this preposterous young man is a first cousin of Mr. Meynell's. His mother, Lady Meryon, and the Rector's mother were sisters. The Rector, however, seems to have dropped him long ago."
Mr. Barron still sat silent.
"Is he really too bad to talk about?" cried Mrs. Flaxman, impatiently.
"I think I had rather not discuss him," said her visitor, with decision; and she, protesting that Philip Meryon was now endowed with all the charms, both of villainy and mystery, let the subject drop.
Mr. Barron returned, as though with relief, to architecture, talked agreeably of the glories of a famous Tudor house on the west side, and an equally famous Queen Anne house on the east side of the Chase. But the churches of the district, according to him, were on the whole disappointing—inferior to those of other districts within reach. Here, indeed, he showed himself an expert; and a far too minute discourse on the relative merits of the church architecture of two or three of the midland counties flowed on and on through Mrs. Flaxman's tea-making, while the deaf daughter became entirely speechless; and Manvers—disillusioned—gradually assumed an aspect of profound melancholy, which merely meant that his wits were wool gathering.
"Well, I thought Upcote Minor church a very pretty church," said Rose Flaxman at last, with a touch of revolt. "The old screen is beautiful—and who on earth has done all that carving of the pulpit—and the reredos?"
Mr. Barron's expression changed. He bent toward his hostess, striking one hand sharply and deliberately with the glove which he held in the other.
"You were at church last Sunday?"
"I was." Mrs. Flaxman's eyes as she turned them upon him had recovered their animation.
"You were present then," said Mr. Barron with passionate energy, "at a scandalous performance! I feel that I ought to apologize to you and Mr. Flaxman in the name of our village and parish."
The speaker's aspect glowed with what was clearly a genuine fire. The slight pomposity of look and manner had disappeared.
Mrs. Flaxman hesitated. Then she said gravely: "It was certainly very astonishing. I never saw anything like it. But my husband and I liked Mr. Meynell. We thought he was absolutely sincere."
"He may be. But so long as he remains clergyman of this parish it is impossible for him to be honest!"
Mrs. Flaxman slowly poured out another cup of tea for Mr. Manvers, who was standing before her in a drooping attitude, like some long crumpled fly, apparently deaf and blind to what was going on, his hair falling forward over his eyes. At last she said evasively:
"There are a good many people in the parish who seem to agree with him. Except yourself—and a gaunt woman in black who was pointed out to me—everybody in the church appeared to us to be enjoying what the Rector was doing—to be entering into it heart and soul."
Mr. Barron flushed.
"We do not deny that he has got a hold upon the people. That makes it all the worse. When I came here three years ago he had not yet done any of these things—publicly; these perfectly monstrous things. Up to last Sunday, indeed, he kept within certain bounds as to the services; though frequent complaints of his teaching had been made to the Bishop, and proceedings even had been begun—it might have been difficult to touch him. But last Sunday!—" He stopped with a little sad gesture of the hand as though the recollection were too painful to pursue. "I saw, however, within six months of my coming here—he and I were great friends at first—what his teaching was, and whither it was tending. He has taught the people systematic infidelity for years. Now we have the results!"