The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler - HTML preview
Download the book in PDF, ePub, Kindle for a complete version.
So important did Theobald consider this matter that he made a special journey to Roughborough before the half year began. It was a relief to have him out of the house, but though his destination was not mentioned, Ernest guessed where he had gone.
To this day he considers his conduct at this crisis to have been one of the most serious laches of his life--one which he can never think of without shame and indignation. He says he ought to have run away from home. But what good could he have done if he had? He would have been caught, brought back and examined two days later instead of two days earlier. A boy of barely sixteen cannot stand against the moral pressure of a father and mother who have always oppressed him any more than he can cope physically with a powerful full-grown man. True, he may allow himself to be killed rather than yield, but this is being so morbidly heroic as to come close round again to cowardice; for it is little else than suicide, which is universally condemned as cowardly.
On the re-assembling of the school it became apparent that something had gone wrong. Dr Skinner called the boys together, and with much pomp excommunicated Mrs Cross and Mrs Jones, by declaring their shops to be out of bounds. The street in which the "Swan and Bottle" stood was also forbidden. The vices of drinking and smoking, therefore, were clearly aimed at, and before prayers Dr Skinner spoke a few impressive words about the abominable sin of using bad language. Ernest's feelings can be imagined.
Next day at the hour when the daily punishments were read out, though there had not yet been time for him to have offended, Ernest Pontifex was declared to have incurred every punishment which the school provided for evil-doers. He was placed on the idle list for the whole half year, and on perpetual detentions; his bounds were curtailed; he was to attend junior callings-over; in fact he was so hemmed in with punishments upon ever side that it was hardly possible for him to go outside the school gates. This unparalleled list of punishments inflicted on the first day of the half year, and intended to last till the ensuing Christmas holidays, was not connected with any specified offence. It required no great penetration therefore, on the part of the boys to connect Ernest with the putting Mrs Cross's and Mrs Jones's shops out of bounds.
Great indeed was the indignation about Mrs Cross who, it was known, remembered Dr Skinner himself as a small boy only just got into jackets, and had doubtless let him have many a sausage and mashed potatoes upon deferred payment. The head boys assembled in conclave to consider what steps should be taken, but hardly had they done so before Ernest knocked timidly at the head-room door and took the bull by the horns by explaining the facts as far as he could bring himself to do so. He made a clean breast of everything except about the school list and the remarks he had made about each boy's character. This infamy was more than he could own to, and he kept his counsel concerning it. Fortunately he was safe in doing so, for Dr Skinner, pedant and more than pedant though he was, had still just sense enough to turn on Theobald in the matter of the school list. Whether he resented being told that he did not know the characters of his own boys, or whether he dreaded a scandal about the school I know not, but when Theobald had handed him the list, over which he had expended so much pains, Dr Skinner had cut him uncommonly short, and had then and there, with more suavity than was usual with him, committed it to the flames before Theobald's own eyes.
Ernest got off with the head boys easier than he expected. It was admitted that the offence, heinous though it was, had been committed under extenuating circumstances; the frankness with which the culprit had confessed all, his evidently unfeigned remorse, and the fury with which Dr Skinner was pursuing him tended to bring about a reaction in his favour, as though he had been more sinned against than sinning.
As the half year wore on his spirits gradually revived, and when attacked by one of his fits of self-abasement he was in some degree consoled by having found out that even his father and mother, whom he had supposed so immaculate, were no better than they should be. About the fifth of November it was a school custom to meet on a certain common not far from Roughborough and burn somebody in effigy, this being the compromise arrived at in the matter of fireworks and Guy Fawkes festivities. This year it was decided that Pontifex's governor should be the victim, and Ernest though a good deal exercised in mind as to what he ought to do, in the end saw no sufficient reason for holding aloof from proceedings which, as he justly remarked, could not do his father any harm.
It so happened that the bishop had held a confirmation at the school on the fifth of November. Dr Skinner had not quite liked the selection of this day, but the bishop was pressed by many engagements, and had been compelled to make the arrangement as it then stood. Ernest was among those who had to be confirmed, and was deeply impressed with the solemn importance of the ceremony. When he felt the huge old bishop drawing down upon him as he knelt in chapel he could hardly breathe, and when the apparition paused before him and laid its hands upon his head he was frightened almost out of his wits. He felt that he had arrived at one of the great turning points of his life, and that the Ernest of the future could resemble only very faintly the Ernest of the past.
This happened at about noon, but by the one o'clock dinner-hour the effect of the confirmation had worn off, and he saw no reason why he should forego his annual amusement with the bonfire; so he went with the others and was very valiant till the image was actually produced and was about to be burnt; then he felt a little frightened. It was a poor thing enough, made of paper, calico and straw, but they had christened it The Rev. Theobald Pontifex, and he had a revulsion of feeling as he saw it being carried towards the bonfire. Still he held his ground, and in a few minutes when all was over felt none the worse for having assisted at a ceremony which, after all, was prompted by a boyish love of mischief rather than by rancour.
I should say that Ernest had written to his father, and told him of the unprecedented way in which he was being treated; he even ventured to suggest that Theobald should interfere for his protection and reminded him how the story had been got out of him, but Theobald had had enough of Dr Skinner for the present; the burning of the school list had been a rebuff which did not encourage him to meddle a second time in the internal economics of Roughborough. He therefore replied that he must either remove Ernest from Roughborough altogether, which would for many reasons be undesirable, or trust to the discretion of the head master as regards the treatment he might think best for any of his pupils. Ernest said no more; he still felt that it was so discreditable to him to have allowed any confession to be wrung from him, that he could not press the promised amnesty for himself.
It was during the "Mother Cross row," as it was long styled among the boys, that a remarkable phenomenon was witnessed at Roughborough. I mean that of the head boys under certain conditions doing errands for their juniors. The head boys had no bounds and could go to Mrs Cross's whenever they liked; they actually, therefore, made themselves go-betweens, and would get anything from either Mrs Cross's or Mrs Jones's for any boy, no matter how low in the school, between the hours of a quarter to nine and nine in the morning, and a quarter to six and six in the afternoon. By degrees, however, the boys grew bolder, and the shops, though not openly declared in bounds again, were tacitly allowed to be so.
I may spare the reader more details about my hero's school days. He rose, always in spite of himself, into the Doctor's form, and for the last two years or so of his time was among the praepostors, though he never rose into the upper half of them. He did little, and I think the Doctor rather gave him up as a boy whom he had better leave to himself, for he rarely made him construe, and he used to send in his exercises or not, pretty much as he liked. His tacit, unconscious obstinacy had in time effected more even than a few bold sallies in the first instance would have done. To the end of his career his position inter pares was what it had been at the beginning, namely, among the upper part of the less reputable class- -whether of seniors or juniors--rather than among the lower part of the more respectable.
Only once in the whole course of his school life did he get praise from Dr Skinner for any exercise, and this he has treasured as the best example of guarded approval which he has ever seen. He had had to write a copy of Alcaics on "The dogs of the monks of St Bernard," and when the exercise was returned to him he found the Doctor had written on it: "In this copy of Alcaics--which is still excessively bad--I fancy that I can discern some faint symptoms of improvement." Ernest says that if the exercise was any better than usual it must have been by a fluke, for he is sure that he always liked dogs, especially St Bernard dogs, far too much to take any pleasure in writing Alcaics about them.
"As I look back upon it," he said to me but the other day, with a hearty laugh, "I respect myself more for having never once got the best mark for an exercise than I should do if I had got it every time it could be got. I am glad nothing could make me do Latin and Greek verses; I am glad Skinner could never get any moral influence over me; I am glad I was idle at school, and I am glad my father overtasked me as a boy--otherwise, likely enough I should have acquiesced in the swindle, and might have written as good a copy of Alcaics about the dogs of the monks of St Bernard as my neighbours, and yet I don't know, for I remember there was another boy, who sent in a Latin copy of some sort, but for his own pleasure he wrote the following -
The dogs of the monks of St Bernard go To pick little children out of the snow, And around their necks is the cordial gin Tied with a little bit of bob-bin.I should like to have written that, and I did try, but I couldn't. I didn't quite like the last line, and tried to mend it, but I couldn't." I fancied I could see traces of bitterness against the instructors of his youth in Ernest's manner, and said something to this effect.
"Oh, no," he replied, still laughing, "no more than St Anthony felt towards the devils who had tempted him, when he met some of them casually a hundred or a couple of hundred years afterwards. Of course he knew they were devils, but that was all right enough; there must be devils. St Anthony probably liked these devils better than most others, and for old acquaintance sake showed them as much indulgence as was compatible with decorum.
"Besides, you know," he added, "St Anthony tempted the devils quite as much as they tempted him; for his peculiar sanctity was a greater temptation to tempt him than they could stand. Strictly speaking, it was the devils who were the more to be pitied, for they were led up by St Anthony to be tempted and fell, whereas St Anthony did not fall. I believe I was a disagreeable and unintelligible boy, and if ever I meet Skinner there is no one whom I would shake hands with, or do a good turn to more readily."
At home things went on rather better; the Ellen and Mother Cross rows sank slowly down upon the horizon, and even at home he had quieter times now that he had become a praepostor. Nevertheless the watchful eye and protecting hand were still ever over him to guard his comings in and his goings out, and to spy out all his ways. Is it wonderful that the boy, though always trying to keep up appearances as though he were cheerful and contented--and at times actually being so--wore often an anxious, jaded look when he thought none were looking, which told of an almost incessant conflict within?
Doubtless Theobald saw these looks and knew how to interpret them, but it was his profession to know how to shut his eyes to things that were inconvenient--no clergyman could keep his benefice for a month if he could not do this; besides he had allowed himself for so many years to say things he ought not to have said, and not to say the things he ought to have said, that he was little likely to see anything that he thought it more convenient not to see unless he was made to do so.
It was not much that was wanted. To make no mysteries where Nature has made none, to bring his conscience under something like reasonable control, to give Ernest his head a little more, to ask fewer questions, and to give him pocket money with a desire that it should be spent upon menus plaisirs . . .
"Call that not much indeed," laughed Ernest, as I read him what I have just written. "Why it is the whole duty of a father, but it is the mystery-making which is the worst evil. If people would dare to speak to one another unreservedly, there would be a good deal less sorrow in the world a hundred years hence."
To return, however, to Roughborough. On the day of his leaving, when he was sent for into the library to be shaken hands with, he was surprised to feel that, though assuredly glad to leave, he did not do so with any especial grudge against the Doctor rankling in his breast. He had come to the end of it all, and was still alive, nor, take it all round, more seriously amiss than other people. Dr Skinner received him graciously, and was even frolicsome after his own heavy fashion. Young people are almost always placable, and Ernest felt as he went away that another such interview would not only have wiped off all old scores, but have brought him round into the ranks of the Doctor's admirers and supporters--among whom it is only fair to say that the greater number of the more promising boys were found.
Just before saying good-bye the Doctor actually took down a volume from those shelves which had seemed so awful six years previously, and gave it to him after having written his name in it, and the words [Greek text], which I believe means "with all kind wishes from the donor." The book was one written in Latin by a German-- Schomann: "De comitiis Atheniensibus"--not exactly light and cheerful reading, but Ernest felt it was high time he got to understand the Athenian constitution and manner of voting; he had got them up a great many times already, but had forgotten them as fast as he had learned them; now, however, that the Doctor had given him this book, he would master the subject once for all. How strange it was! He wanted to remember these things very badly; he knew he did, but he could never retain them; in spite of himself they no sooner fell upon his mind than they fell off it again, he had such a dreadful memory; whereas, if anyone played him a piece of music and told him where it came from, he never forgot that, though he made no effort to retain it, and was not even conscious of trying to remember it at all. His mind must be badly formed and he was no good.
Having still a short time to spare, he got the keys of St Michael's church and went to have a farewell practice upon the organ, which he could now play fairly well. He walked up and down the aisle for a while in a meditative mood, and then, settling down to the organ, played "They loathed to drink of the river" about six times over, after which he felt more composed and happier; then, tearing himself away from the instrument he loved so well, he hurried to the station.
As the train drew out he looked down from a high embankment on to the little house his aunt had taken, and where it might be said she had died through her desire to do him a kindness. There were the two well-known bow windows, out of which he had often stepped to run across the lawn into the workshop. He reproached himself with the little gratitude he had shown towards this kind lady--the only one of his relations whom he had ever felt as though he could have taken into his confidence. Dearly as he loved her memory, he was glad she had not known the scrapes he had got into since she died; perhaps she might not have forgiven them--and how awful that would have been! But then, if she had lived, perhaps many of his ills would have been spared him. As he mused thus he grew sad again. Where, where, he asked himself, was it all to end? Was it to be always sin, shame and sorrow in the future, as it had been in the past, and the everwatchful eye and protecting hand of his father laying burdens on him greater than he could bear--or was he, too, some day or another to come to feel that he was fairly well and happy?
There was a gray mist across the sun, so that the eye could bear its light, and Ernest, while musing as above, was looking right into the middle of the sun himself, as into the face of one whom he knew and was fond of. At first his face was grave, but kindly, as of a tired man who feels that a long task is over; but in a few seconds the more humorous side of his misfortunes presented itself to him, and he smiled half reproachfully, half merrily, as thinking how little all that had happened to him really mattered, and how small were his hardships as compared with those of most people. Still looking into the eye of the sun and smiling dreamily, he thought how he had helped to burn his father in effigy, and his look grew merrier, till at last he broke out into a laugh. Exactly at this moment the light veil of cloud parted from the sun, and he was brought to terra firma by the breaking forth of the sunshine. On this he became aware that he was being watched attentively by a fellow-traveller opposite to him, an elderly gentleman with a large head and iron-grey hair."My young friend," said he, good-naturedly, "you really must not carry on conversations with people in the sun, while you are in a public railway carriage."
The old gentleman said not another word, but unfolded his Times and began to read it. As for Ernest, he blushed crimson. The pair did not speak during the rest of the time they were in the carriage, but they eyed each other from time to time, so that the face of each was impressed on the recollection of the other.
Some people say that their school days were the happiest of their lives. They may be right, but I always look with suspicion upon those whom I hear saying this. It is hard enough to know whether one is happy or unhappy now, and still harder to compare the relative happiness or unhappiness of different times of one's life; the utmost that can be said is that we are fairly happy so long as we are not distinctly aware of being miserable. As I was talking with Ernest one day not so long since about this, he said he was so happy now that he was sure he had never been happier, and did not wish to be so, but that Cambridge was the first place where he had ever been consciously and continuously happy.
How can any boy fail to feel an ecstasy of pleasure on first finding himself in rooms which he knows for the next few years are to be his castle? Here he will not be compelled to turn out of the most comfortable place as soon as he has ensconced himself in it because papa or mamma happens to come into the room, and he should give it up to them. The most cosy chair here is for himself, there is no one even to share the room with him, or to interfere with his doing as he likes in it--smoking included. Why, if such a room looked out both back and front on to a blank dead wall it would still be a paradise, how much more then when the view is of some quiet grassy court or cloister or garden, as from the windows of the greater number of rooms at Oxford and Cambridge.
Theobald, as an old fellow and tutor of Emmanuel--at which college he had entered Ernest--was able to obtain from the present tutor a certain preference in the choice of rooms; Ernest's, therefore, were very pleasant ones, looking out upon the grassy court that is bounded by the Fellows' gardens.
Theobald accompanied him to Cambridge, and was at his best while doing so. He liked the jaunt, and even he was not without a certain feeling of pride in having a full-blown son at the University. Some of the reflected rays of this splendour were allowed to fall upon Ernest himself. Theobald said he was "willing to hope"--this was one of his tags-that his son would turn over a new leaf now that he had left school, and for his own part he was "only too ready"--this was another tag--to let bygones be bygones.
Ernest, not yet having his name on the books, was able to dine with his father at the Fellows' table of one of the other colleges on the invitation of an old friend of Theobald's; he there made acquaintance with sundry of the good things of this life, the very names of which were new to him, and felt as he ate them that he was now indeed receiving a liberal education. When at length the time came for him to go to Emmanuel, where he was to sleep in his new rooms, his father came with him to the gates and saw him safe into college; a few minutes more and he found himself alone in a room for which he had a latch-key.
From this time he dated many days which, if not quite unclouded, were upon the whole very happy ones. I need not however describe them, as the life of a quiet steady-going undergraduate has been told in a score of novels better than I can tell it. Some of Ernest's schoolfellows came up to Cambridge at the same time as himself, and with these he continued on friendly terms during the whole of his college career. Other schoolfellows were only a year or two his seniors; these called on him, and he thus made a sufficiently favourable entree into college life. A straightforwardness of character that was stamped upon his face, a love of humour, and a temper which was more easily appeased than ruffled made up for some awkwardness and want of savoir faire. He soon became a not unpopular member of the best set of his year, and though neither capable of becoming, nor aspiring to become, a leader, was admitted by the leaders as among their nearer hangers- on.
Of ambition he had at that time not one particle; greatness, or indeed superiority of any kind, seemed so far off and incomprehensible to him that the idea of connecting it with himself never crossed his mind. If he could escape the notice of all those with whom he did not feel himself en rapport, he conceived that he had triumphed sufficiently. He did not care about taking a good degree, except that it must be good enough to keep his father and mother quiet. He did not dream of being able to get a fellowship; if he had, he would have tried hard to do so, for he became so fond of Cambridge that he could not bear the thought of having to leave it; the briefness indeed of the season during which his present happiness was to last was almost the only thing that now seriously troubled him.
Having less to attend to in the matter of growing, and having got his head more free, he took to reading fairly well--not because he liked it, but because he was told he ought to do so, and his natural instinct, like that of all very young men who are good for anything, was to do as those in authority told him. The intention at Battersby was (for Dr Skinner had said that Ernest could never get a fellowship) that he should take a sufficiently good degree to be able to get a tutorship or mastership in some school preparatory to taking orders. When he was twenty-one years old his money was to come into his own hands, and the best thing he could do with it would be to buy the next presentation to a living, the rector of which was now old, and live on his mastership or tutorship till the living fell in. He could buy a very good living for the sum which his grandfather's legacy now amounted to, for Theobald had never had any serious intention of making deductions for his son's maintenance and education, and the money had accumulated till it was now about five thousand pounds; he had only talked about making deductions in order to stimulate the boy to exertion as far as possible, by making him think that this was his only chance of escaping starvation--or perhaps from pure love of teasing.
When Ernest had a living of 600 pounds or 700 pounds a year with a house, and not too many parishioners--why, he might add to his income by taking pupils, or even keeping a school, and then, say at thirty, he might marry. It was not easy for Theobald to hit on any much more sensible plan. He could not get Ernest into business, for he had no business connections--besides he did not know what business meant; he had no interest, again, at the Bar; medicine was a profession which subjected its students to ordeals and temptations which these fond parents shrank from on behalf of their boy; he would be thrown among companions and familiarised with details which might sully him, and though he might stand, it was "only too possible" that he would fall. Besides, ordination was the road which Theobald knew and understood, and indeed the only road about which he knew anything at all, so not unnaturally it was the one he chose for Ernest.
The foregoing had been instilled into my hero from earliest boyhood, much as it had been instilled into Theobald himself, and with the same result--the conviction, namely, that he was certainly to be a clergyman, but that it was a long way off yet, and he supposed it was all right. As for the duty of reading hard, and taking as good a degree as he could, this was plain enough, so he set himself to work, as I have said, steadily, and to the surprise of everyone as well as himself got a college scholarship, of no great value, but still a scholarship, in his freshman's term. It is hardly necessary to say that Theobald stuck to the whole of this money, believing the pocket-money he allowed Ernest to be sufficient for him, and knowing how dangerous it was for young men to have money at command. I do not suppose it even occurred to him to try and remember what he had felt when his father took a like course in regard to himself.
Ernest's position in this respect was much what it had been at school except that things were on a larger scale. His tutor's and cook's bills were paid for him; his father sent him his wine; over and above this he had 50 pounds a year with which to keep himself in clothes and all other expenses; this was about the usual thing at Emmanuel in Ernest's day, though many had much less than this. Ernest did as he had done at school--he spent what he could, soon after he received his money; he then incurred a few modest liabilities, and then lived penuriously till next term, when he would immediately pay his debts, and start new ones to much the same extent as those which he had just got rid of. When he came into his 5000 pounds and became independent of his father, 15 pounds or 20 pounds served to cover the whole of his unauthorised expenditure.
He joined the boat club, and was constant in his attendance at the boats. He still smoked, but never took more wine or beer than was good for him, except perhaps on the occasion of a boating supper, but even then he found the consequences unpleasant, and soon learned how to keep within safe limits. He attended chapel as often as he was compelled to do so; he communicated two or three times a year, because his tutor told him he ought to; in fact he set himself to live soberly and cleanly, as I imagine all his instincts prompted him to do, and when he fell--as who that is born of woman can help sometimes doing?--it was not till after a sharp tussle with a temptation that was more than his flesh and blood could stand; then he was very penitent and would go a fairly long while without sinning again; and this was how it had always been with him since he had arrived at years of indiscretion.
Even to the end of his career at Cambridge he was not aware that he had it in him to do anything, but others had begun to see that he was not wanting in ability and sometimes told him so. He did not believe it; indeed he knew very well that if they thought him clever they were being taken in, but it pleased him to have been able to take them in, and he tried to do so still further; he was therefore a good deal on the look-out for cants that he could catch and apply in season, and might have done himself some mischief thus if he had not been ready to throw over any cant as soon as he had come across another more nearly to his fancy; his friends used to say that when he rose he flew like a snipe, darting several times in various directions before he settled down to a steady straight flight, but when he had once got into this he would keep to it.
When he was in his third year a magazine was founded at Cambridge, the contributions to which were exclusively by undergraduates. Ernest sent in an essay upon the Greek Drama, which he has declined to let me reproduce here without his being allowed to reedit it. I have therefore been unable to give it in its original form, but when pruned of its redundancies (and this is all that has been done to it) it runs as follows -
"I shall not attempt within the limits at my disposal to make a resume of the rise and progress of the Greek drama, but will confine myself to considering whether the reputation enjoyed by the three chief Greek tragedians, AEschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, is one that will be permanent, or whether they will one day be held to have been overrated.
"Why, I ask myself, do I see much that I can easily admire in Homer, Thucydides, Herodotus, Demosthenes, Aristophanes, Theocritus, parts of Lucretius, Horace's satires and epistles, to say nothing of other ancient writers, and yet find myself at once repelled by even those works of AEschylus, Sophocles and Euripides which are most generally admired.
"With the first-named writers I am in the hands of men who feel, if not as I do, still as I can understand their feeling, and as I am interested to see that they should have felt; with the second I have so little sympathy that I cannot understand how anyone can ever have taken any interest in them whatever. Their highest flights to me are dull, pompous and artificial productions, which, if they were to appear now for the first time, would, I should think, either fall dead or be severely handled by the critics. I wish to know whether it is I who am in fault in this matter, or whether part of the blame may not rest with the tragedians themselves.
"How far I wonder did the Athenians genuinely like these poets, and how far was the applause which was lavished upon them due to fashion or affectation? How far, in fact, did admiration for the orthodox tragedians take that place among the Athenians which going to church does among ourselves?
"This is a venturesome question considering the verdict now generally given for over two thousand years, nor should I have permitted myself to ask it if it had not been suggested to me by one whose reputation stands as high, and has been sanctioned for as long time as those of the tragedians themselves, I mean by Aristophanes.
"Numbers, weight of authority, and time, have conspired to place Aristophanes on as high a literary pinnacle as any ancient writer, with the exception perhaps of Homer, but he makes no secret of heartily hating Euripides and Sophocles, and I strongly suspect only praises AEschylus that he may run down the other two with greater impunity. For after all there is no such difference between AEschylus and his successors as will render the former very good and the latter very bad; and the thrusts at AEschylus which Aristophanes puts into the mouth of Euripides go home too well to have been written by an admirer.
"It may be observed that while Euripides accuses AEschylus of being 'pomp-bundleworded,' which I suppose means bombastic and given to rodomontade, AEschylus retorts on Euripides that he is a 'gossip gleaner, a describer of beggars, and a rag-stitcher,' from which it may be inferred that he was truer to the life of his own times than AEschylus was. It happens, however, that a faithful rendering of contemporary life is the very quality which gives its most permanent interest to any work of fiction, whether in literature or painting, and it is a not unnatural consequence that while only seven plays by AEschylus, and the same number by Sophocles, have come down to us, we have no fewer than nineteen by Euripides.
"This, however, is a digression; the question before us is whether Aristophanes really liked AEschylus or only pretended to do so. It must be remembered that the claims of AEschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, to the foremost place amongst tragedians were held to be as incontrovertible as those of Dante, Petrarch, Tasso and Ariosto to be the greatest of Italian poets, are held among the Italians of to-day. If we can fancy some witty, genial writer, we will say in Florence, finding himself bored by all the poets I have named, we can yet believe he would be unwilling to admit that he disliked them without exception. He would prefer to think he could see something at any rate in Dante, whom he could idealise more easily, inasmuch as he was more remote; in order to carry his countrymen the farther with him, he would endeavour to meet them more than was consistent with his own instincts. Without some such palliation as admiration for one, at any rate, of the tragedians, it would be almost as dangerous for Aristophanes to attack them as it would be for an Englishman now to say that he did not think very much of the Elizabethan dramatists. Yet which of us in his heart likes any of the Elizabethan dramatists except Shakespeare? Are they in reality anything else than literary Struldbrugs?
"I conclude upon the whole that Aristophanes did not like any of the tragedians; yet no one will deny that this keen, witty, outspoken writer was as good a judge of literary value, and as able to see any beauties that the tragic dramas contained as nine-tenths, at any rate, of ourselves. He had, moreover, the advantage of thoroughly understanding the standpoint from which the tragedians expected their work to be judged, and what was his conclusion? Briefly it was little else than this, that they were a fraud or something very like it. For my own part I cordially agree with him. I am free to confess that with the exception perhaps of some of the Psalms of David I know no writings which seem so little to deserve their reputation. I do not know that I should particularly mind my sisters reading them, but I will take good care never to read them myself."
This last bit about the Psalms was awful, and there was a great fight with the editor as to whether or no it should be allowed to stand. Ernest himself was frightened at it, but he had once heard someone say that the Psalms were many of them very poor, and on looking at them more closely, after he had been told this, he found that there could hardly be two opinions on the subject. So he caught up the remark and reproduced it as his own, concluding that these psalms had probably never been written by David at all, but had got in among the others by mistake.
The essay, perhaps on account of the passage about the Psalms, created quite a sensation, and on the whole was well received. Ernest's friends praised it more highly than it deserved, and he was himself very proud of it, but he dared not show it at Battersby. He knew also that he was now at the end of his tether; this was his one idea (I feel sure he had caught more than half of it from other people), and now he had not another thing left to write about. He found himself cursed with a small reputation which seemed to him much bigger than it was, and a consciousness that he could never keep it up. Before many days were over he felt his unfortunate essay to be a white elephant to him, which he must feed by hurrying into all sorts of frantic attempts to cap his triumph, and, as may be imagined, these attempts were failures.
He did not understand that if he waited and listened and observed, another idea of some kind would probably occur to him some day, and that the development of this would in its turn suggest still further ones. He did not yet know that the very worst way of getting hold of ideas is to go hunting expressly after them. The way to get them is to study something of which one is fond, and to note down whatever crosses one's mind in reference to it, either during study or relaxation, in a little note-book kept always in the waistcoat pocket. Ernest has come to know all about this now, but it took him a long time to find it out, for this is not the kind of thing that is taught at schools and universities.
Nor yet did he know that ideas, no less than the living beings in whose minds they arise, must be begotten by parents not very unlike themselves, the most original still differing but slightly from the parents that have given rise to them. Life is like a fugue, everything must grow out of the subject and there must be nothing new. Nor, again, did he see how hard it is to say where one idea ends and another begins, nor yet how closely this is paralleled in the difficulty of saying where a life begins or ends, or an action or indeed anything, there being an unity in spite of infinite multitude, and an infinite multitude in spite of unity. He thought that ideas came into clever people's heads by a kind of spontaneous germination, without parentage in the thoughts of others or the course of observation; for as yet he believed in genius, of which he well knew that he had none, if it was the fine frenzied thing he thought it was.
Not very long before this he had come of age, and Theobald had handed him over his money, which amounted now to 5000 pounds; it was invested to bring in 5 pounds per cent and gave him therefore an income of 250 pounds a year. He did not, however, realise the fact (he could realise nothing so foreign to his experience) that he was independent of his father till a long time afterwards; nor did Theobald make any difference in his manner towards him. So strong was the hold which habit and association held over both father and son, that the one considered he had as good a right as ever to dictate, and the other that he had as little right as ever to gainsay.
During his last year at Cambridge he overworked himself through this very blind deference to his father's wishes, for there was no reason why he should take more than a poll degree except that his father laid such stress upon his taking honours. He became so ill, indeed, that it was doubtful how far he would be able to go in for his degree at all; but he managed to do so, and when the list came out was found to be placed higher than either he or anyone else expected, being among the first three or four senior optimes, and a few weeks later, in the lower half of the second class of the Classical Tripos. Ill as he was when he got home, Theobald made him go over all the examination papers with him, and in fact reproduce as nearly as possible the replies that he had sent in. So little kick had he in him, and so deep was the groove into which he had got, that while at home he spent several hours a day in continuing his classical and mathematical studies as though he had not yet taken his degree.
Ernest returned to Cambridge for the May term of 1858, on the plea of reading for ordination, with which he was now face to face, and much nearer than he liked. Up to this time, though not religiously inclined, he had never doubted the truth of anything that had been told him about Christianity. He had never seen anyone who doubted, nor read anything that raised a suspicion in his mind as to the historical character of the miracles recorded in the Old and New Testaments.
It must be remembered that the year 1858 was the last of a term during which the peace of the Church of England was singularly unbroken. Between 1844, when "Vestiges of Creation" appeared, and 1859, when "Essays and Reviews" marked the commencement of that storm which raged until many years afterwards, there was not a single book published in England that caused serious commotion within the bosom of the Church. Perhaps Buckle's "History of Civilisation" and Mill's "Liberty" were the most alarming, but they neither of them reached the substratum of the reading public, and Ernest and his friends were ignorant of their very existence. The Evangelical movement, with the exception to which I shall revert presently, had become almost a matter of ancient history. Tractarianism had subsided into a tenth day's wonder; it was at work, but it was not noisy. The "Vestiges" were forgotten before Ernest went up to Cambridge; the Catholic aggression scare had lost its terrors; Ritualism was still unknown by the general provincial public, and the Gorham and Hampden controversies were defunct some years since; Dissent was not spreading; the Crimean war was the one engrossing subject, to be followed by the Indian Mutiny and the Franco-Austrian war. These great events turned men's minds from speculative subjects, and there was no enemy to the faith which could arouse even a languid interest. At no time probably since the beginning of the century could an ordinary observer have detected less sign of coming disturbance than at that of which I am writing.
I need hardly say that the calm was only on the surface. Older men, who knew more than undergraduates were likely to do, must have seen that the wave of scepticism which had already broken over Germany was setting towards our own shores, nor was it long, indeed, before it reached them. Ernest had hardly been ordained before three works in quick succession arrested the attention even of those who paid least heed to theological controversy. I mean "Essays and Reviews," Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species," and Bishop Colenso's "Criticisms on the Pentateuch."
This, however, is a digression; I must revert to the one phase of spiritual activity which had any life in it during the time Ernest was at Cambridge, that is to say, to the remains of the Evangelical awakening of more than a generation earlier, which was connected with the name of Simeon.
There were still a good many Simeonites, or as they were more briefly called "Sims," in Ernest's time. Every college contained some of them, but their headquarters were at Caius, whither they were attracted by Mr Clayton who was at that time senior tutor, and among the sizars of St John's.
Behind the then chapel of this last-named college, there was a "labyrinth" (this was the name it bore) of dingy, tumble-down rooms, tenanted exclusively by the poorest undergraduates, who were dependent upon sizarships and scholarships for the means of taking their degrees. To many, even at St John's, the existence and whereabouts of the labyrinth in which the sizars chiefly lived was unknown; some men in Ernest's time, who had rooms in the first court, had never found their way through the sinuous passage which led to it.
In the labyrinth there dwelt men of all ages, from mere lads to grey-haired old men who had entered late in life. They were rarely seen except in hall or chapel or at lecture, where their manners of feeding, praying and studying, were considered alike objectionable; no one knew whence they came, whither they went, nor what they did, for they never showed at cricket or the boats; they were a gloomy, seedy-looking conferie, who had as little to glory in in clothes and manners as in the flesh itself.
Ernest and his friends used to consider themselves marvels of economy for getting on with so little money, but the greater number of dwellers in the labyrinth would have considered one-half of their expenditure to be an exceeding measure of affluence, and so doubtless any domestic tyranny which had been experienced by Ernest was a small thing to what the average Johnian sizar had had to put up with.
A few would at once emerge on its being found after their first examination that they were likely to be ornaments to the college; these would win valuable scholarships that enabled them to live in some degree of comfort, and would amalgamate with the more studious of those who were in a better social position, but even these, with few exceptions, were long in shaking off the uncouthness they brought with them to the University, nor would their origin cease to be easily recognisable till they had become dons and tutors. I have seen some of these men attain high position in the world of politics or science, and yet still retain a look of labyrinth and Johnian sizarship.
Unprepossessing then, in feature, gait and manners, unkempt and ill- dressed beyond what can be easily described, these poor fellows formed a class apart, whose thoughts and ways were not as the thoughts and ways of Ernest and his friends, and it was among them that Simeonism chiefly flourished.
Destined most of them for the Church (for in those days "holy orders" were seldom heard of), the Simeonites held themselves to have received a very loud call to the ministry, and were ready to pinch themselves for years so as to prepare for it by the necessary theological courses. To most of them the fact of becoming clergymen would be the entree into a social position from which they were at present kept out by barriers they well knew to be impassable; ordination, therefore, opened fields for ambition which made it the central point in their thoughts, rather than as with Ernest, something which he supposed would have to be done some day, but about which, as about dying, he hoped there was no need to trouble himself as yet.
By way of preparing themselves more completely they would have meetings in one another's rooms for tea and prayer and other spiritual exercises. Placing themselves under the guidance of a few well-known tutors they would teach in Sunday Schools, and be instant, in season and out of season, in imparting spiritual instruction to all whom they could persuade to listen to them.
But the soil of the more prosperous undergraduates was not suitable for the seed they tried to sow. The small pieties with which they larded their discourse, if chance threw them into the company of one whom they considered worldly, caused nothing but aversion in the minds of those for whom they were intended. When they distributed tracts, dropping them by night into good men's letter boxes while they were asleep, their tracts got burnt, or met with even worse contumely; they were themselves also treated with the ridicule which they reflected proudly had been the lot of true followers of Christ in all ages. Often at their prayer meetings was the passage of St Paul referred to in which he bids his Corinthian converts note concerning themselves that they were for the most part neither well- bred nor intellectual people. They reflected with pride that they too had nothing to be proud of in these respects, and like St Paul, gloried in the fact that in the flesh they had not much to glory.
Ernest had several Johnian friends, and came thus to hear about the Simeonites and to see some of them, who were pointed out to him as they passed through the courts. They had a repellent attraction for him; he disliked them, but he could not bring himself to leave them alone. On one occasion he had gone so far as to parody one of the tracts they had sent round in the night, and to get a copy dropped into each of the leading Simeonites' boxes. The subject he had taken was "Personal Cleanliness." Cleanliness, he said, was next to godliness; he wished to know on which side it was to stand, and concluded by exhorting Simeonites to a freer use of the tub. I cannot commend my hero's humour in this matter; his tract was not brilliant, but I mention the fact as showing that at this time he was something of a Saul and took pleasure in persecuting the elect, not, as I have said, that he had any hankering after scepticism, but because, like the farmers in his father's village, though he would not stand seeing the Christian religion made light of, he was not going to see it taken seriously. Ernest's friends thought his dislike for Simeonites was due to his being the son of a clergyman who, it was known, bullied him; it is more likely, however, that it rose from an unconscious sympathy with them, which, as in St Paul's case, in the end drew him into the ranks of those whom he had most despised and hated.
Once, recently, when he was down at home after taking his degree, his mother had had a short conversation with him about his becoming a clergyman, set on thereto by Theobald, who shrank from the subject himself. This time it was during a turn taken in the garden, and not on the sofa--which was reserved for supreme occasions.
"You know, my dearest boy," she said to him, "that papa" (she always called Theobald "papa" when talking to Ernest) "is so anxious you should not go into the Church blindly, and without fully realising the difficulties of a clergyman's position. He has considered all of them himself, and has been shown how small they are, when they are faced boldly, but he wishes you, too, to feel them as strongly and completely as possible before committing yourself to irrevocable vows, so that you may never, never have to regret the step you will have taken."This was the first time Ernest had heard that there were any difficulties, and he not unnaturally enquired in a vague way after their nature.
"That, my dear boy," rejoined Christina, "is a question which I am not fitted to enter upon either by nature or education. I might easily unsettle your mind without being able to settle it again. Oh, no! Such questions are far better avoided by women, and, I should have thought, by men, but papa wished me to speak to you upon the subject, so that there might be no mistake hereafter, and I have done so. Now, therefore, you know all."
The conversation ended here, so far as this subject was concerned, and Ernest thought he did know all. His mother would not have told him he knew all--not about a matter of that sort--unless he actually did know it; well, it did not come to very much; he supposed there were some difficulties, but his father, who at any rate was an excellent scholar and a learned man, was probably quite right here, and he need not trouble himself more about them. So little impression did the conversation make on him, that it was not till long afterwards that, happening to remember it, he saw what a piece of sleight of hand had been practised upon him. Theobald and Christina, however, were satisfied that they had done their duty by opening their son's eyes to the difficulties of assenting to all a clergyman must assent to. This was enough; it was a matter for rejoicing that, though they had been put so fully and candidly before him, he did not find them serious. It was not in vain that they had prayed for so many years to be made "TRULY honest and conscientious."
"And now, my dear," resumed Christina, after having disposed of all the difficulties that might stand in the way of Ernest's becoming a clergyman, "there is another matter on which I should like to have a talk with you. It is about your sister Charlotte. You know how clever she is, and what a dear, kind sister she has been and always will be to yourself and Joey. I wish, my dearest Ernest, that I saw more chance of her finding a suitable husband than I do at Battersby, and I sometimes think you might do more than you do to help her."
Ernest began to chafe at this, for he had heard it so often, but he said nothing.
"You know, my dear, a brother can do so much for his sister if he lays himself out to do it. A mother can do very little--indeed, it is hardly a mother's place to seek out young men; it is a brother's place to find a suitable partner for his sister; all that I can do is to try to make Battersby as attractive as possible to any of your friends whom you may invite. And in that," she added, with a little toss of her head, "I do not think I have been deficient hitherto."Ernest said he had already at different times asked several of his friends.
"Yes, my dear, but you must admit that they were none of them exactly the kind of young man whom Charlotte could be expected to take a fancy to. Indeed, I must own to having been a little disappointed that you should have yourself chosen any of these as your intimate friends."Ernest winced again.
"You never brought down Figgins when you were at Roughborough; now I should have thought Figgins would have been just the kind of boy whom you might have asked to come and see us."
Figgins had been gone through times out of number already. Ernest had hardly known him, and Figgins, being nearly three years older than Ernest, had left long before he did. Besides he had not been a nice boy, and had made himself unpleasant to Ernest in many ways.
"Now," continued his mother, "there's Towneley. I have heard you speak of Towneley as having rowed with you in a boat at Cambridge. I wish, my dear, you would cultivate your acquaintance with Towneley, and ask him to pay us a visit. The name has an aristocratic sound, and I think I have heard you say he is an eldest son."Ernest flushed at the sound of Towneley's name.
What had really happened in respect of Ernest's friends was briefly this. His mother liked to get hold of the names of the boys and especially of any who were at all intimate with her son; the more she heard, the more she wanted to know; there was no gorging her to satiety; she was like a ravenous young cuckoo being fed upon a grass plot by a water wag-tail, she would swallow all that Ernest could bring her, and yet be as hungry as before. And she always went to Ernest for her meals rather than to Joey, for Joey was either more stupid or more impenetrable--at any rate she could pump Ernest much the better of the two.
From time to time an actual live boy had been thrown to her, either by being caught and brought to Battersby, or by being asked to meet her if at any time she came to Roughborough. She had generally made herself agreeable, or fairly agreeable, as long as the boy was present, but as soon as she got Ernest to herself again she changed her note. Into whatever form she might throw her criticisms it came always in the end to this, that his friend was no good, that Ernest was not much better, and that he should have brought her someone else, for this one would not do at all.
The more intimate the boy had been or was supposed to be with Ernest the more he was declared to be naught, till in the end he had hit upon the plan of saying, concerning any boy whom he particularly liked, that he was not one of his especial chums, and that indeed he hardly knew why he had asked him; but he found he only fell on Scylla in trying to avoid Charybdis, for though the boy was declared to be more successful it was Ernest who was naught for not thinking more highly of him.
When she had once got hold of a name she never forgot it. "And how is So-and-so?" she would exclaim, mentioning some former friend of Ernest's with whom he had either now quarrelled, or who had long since proved to be a mere comet and no fixed star at all. How Ernest wished he had never mentioned So-and-so's name, and vowed to himself that he would never talk about his friends in future, but in a few hours he would forget and would prattle away as imprudently as ever; then his mother would pounce noiselessly on his remarks as a barn-owl pounces upon a mouse, and would bring them up in a pellet six months afterwards when they were no longer in harmony with their surroundings.
Then there was Theobald. If a boy or college friend had been invited to Battersby, Theobald would lay himself out at first to be agreeable. He could do this well enough when he liked, and as regards the outside world he generally did like. His clerical neighbours, and indeed all his neighbours, respected him yearly more and more, and would have given Ernest sufficient cause to regret his imprudence if he had dared to hint that he had anything, however little, to complain of. Theobald's mind worked in this way: "Now, I know Ernest has told this boy what a disagreeable person I am, and I will just show him that I am not disagreeable at all, but a good old fellow, a jolly old boy, in fact a regular old brick, and that it is Ernest who is in fault all through."
So he would behave very nicely to the boy at first, and the boy would be delighted with him, and side with him against Ernest. Of course if Ernest had got the boy to come to Battersby he wanted him to enjoy his visit, and was therefore pleased that Theobald should behave so well, but at the same time he stood so much in need of moral support that it was painful to him to see one of his own familiar friends go over to the enemy's camp. For no matter how well we may know a thing--how clearly we may see a certain patch of colour, for example, as red, it shakes us and knocks us about to find another see it, or be more than half inclined to see it, as green.
Theobald had generally begun to get a little impatient before the end of the visit, but the impression formed during the earlier part was the one which the visitor had carried away with him. Theobald never discussed any of the boys with Ernest. It was Christina who did this. Theobald let them come, because Christina in a quiet, persistent way insisted on it; when they did come he behaved, as I have said, civilly, but he did not like it, whereas Christina did like it very much; she would have had half Roughborough and half Cambridge to come and stay at Battersby if she could have managed it, and if it would not have cost so much money: she liked their coming, so that she might make a new acquaintance, and she liked tearing them to pieces and flinging the bits over Ernest as soon as she had had enough of them.
The worst of it was that she had so often proved to be right. Boys and young men are violent in their affections, but they are seldom very constant; it is not till they get older that they really know the kind of friend they want; in their earlier essays young men are simply learning to judge character. Ernest had been no exception to the general rule. His swans had one after the other proved to be more or less geese even in his own estimation, and he was beginning almost to think that his mother was a better judge of character than he was; but I think it may be assumed with some certainty that if Ernest had brought her a real young swan she would have declared it to be the ugliest and worst goose of all that she had yet seen.
At first he had not suspected that his friends were wanted with a view to Charlotte; it was understood that Charlotte and they might perhaps take a fancy for one another; and that would be so very nice, would it not? But he did not see that there was any deliberate malice in the arrangement. Now, however, that he had awoke to what it all meant, he was less inclined to bring any friend of his to Battersby. It seemed to his silly young mind almost dishonest to ask your friend to come and see you when all you really meant was "Please, marry my sister." It was like trying to obtain money under false pretences. If he had been fond of Charlotte it might have been another matter, but he thought her one of the most disagreeable young women in the whole circle of his acquaintance.
She was supposed to be very clever. All young ladies are either very pretty or very clever or very sweet; they may take their choice as to which category they will go in for, but go in for one of the three they must. It was hopeless to try and pass Charlotte off as either pretty or sweet. So she became clever as the only remaining alternative. Ernest never knew what particular branch of study it was in which she showed her talent, for she could neither play nor sing nor draw, but so astute are women that his mother and Charlotte really did persuade him into thinking that she, Charlotte, had something more akin to true genius than any other member of the family. Not one, however, of all the friends whom Ernest had been inveigled into trying to inveigle had shown the least sign of being so far struck with Charlotte's commanding powers, as to wish to make them his own, and this may have had something to do with the rapidity and completeness with which Christina had dismissed them one after another and had wanted a new one.And now she wanted Towneley. Ernest had seen this coming and had tried to avoid it, for he knew how impossible it was for him to ask Towneley, even if he had wished to do so.
Towneley belonged to one of the most exclusive sets in Cambridge, and was perhaps the most popular man among the whole number of undergraduates. He was big and very handsome--as it seemed to Ernest the handsomest man whom he ever had seen or ever could see, for it was impossible to imagine a more lively and agreeable countenance. He was good at cricket and boating, very good-natured, singularly free from conceit, not clever but very sensible, and, lastly, his father and mother had been drowned by the overturning of a boat when he was only two years old and had left him as their only child and heir to one of the finest estates in the South of England. Fortune every now and then does things handsomely by a man all round; Towneley was one of those to whom she had taken a fancy, and the universal verdict in this case was that she had chosen wisely.
Ernest had seen Towneley as every one else in the University (except, of course, dons) had seen him, for he was a man of mark, and being very susceptible he had liked Towneley even more than most people did, but at the same time it never so much as entered his head that he should come to know him. He liked looking at him if he got a chance, and was very much ashamed of himself for doing so, but there the matter ended.
By a strange accident, however, during Ernest's last year, when the names of the crews for the scratch fours were drawn he had found himself coxswain of a crew, among whom was none other than his especial hero Towneley; the three others were ordinary mortals, but they could row fairly well, and the crew on the whole was rather a good one.
Ernest was frightened out of his wits. When, however, the two met, he found Towneley no less remarkable for his entire want of anything like "side," and for his power of setting those whom he came across at their ease, than he was for outward accomplishments; the only difference he found between Towneley and other people was that he was so very much easier to get on with. Of course Ernest worshipped him more and more.
The scratch fours being ended the connection between the two came to an end, but Towneley never passed Ernest thenceforward without a nod and a few good-natured words. In an evil moment he had mentioned Towneley's name at Battersby, and now what was the result? Here was his mother plaguing him to ask Towneley to come down to Battersby and marry Charlotte. Why, if he had thought there was the remotest chance of Towneley's marrying Charlotte he would have gone down on his knees to him and told him what an odious young woman she was, and implored him to save himself while there was yet time.
But Ernest had not prayed to be made "truly honest and conscientious" for as many years as Christina had. He tried to conceal what he felt and thought as well as he could, and led the conversation back to the difficulties which a clergyman might feel to stand in the way of his being ordained--not because he had any misgivings, but as a diversion. His mother, however, thought she had settled all that, and he got no more out of her. Soon afterwards he found the means of escaping, and was not slow to avail himself of them.
On his return to Cambridge in the May term of 1858, Ernest and a few other friends who were also intended for orders came to the conclusion that they must now take a more serious view of their position. They therefore attended chapel more regularly than hitherto, and held evening meetings of a somewhat furtive character, at which they would study the New Testament. They even began to commit the Epistles of St Paul to memory in the original Greek. They got up Beveridge on the Thirty-nine Articles, and Pearson on the Creed; in their hours of recreation they read More's "Mystery of Godliness," which Ernest thought was charming, and Taylor's "Holy Living and Dying," which also impressed him deeply, through what he thought was the splendour of its language. They handed themselves over to the guidance of Dean Alford's notes on the Greek Testament, which made Ernest better understand what was meant by "difficulties," but also made him feel how shallow and impotent were the conclusions arrived at by German neologians, with whose works, being innocent of German, he was not otherwise acquainted. Some of the friends who joined him in these pursuits were Johnians, and the meetings were often held within the walls of St John's.
I do not know how tidings of these furtive gatherings had reached the Simeonites, but they must have come round to them in some way, for they had not been continued many weeks before a circular was sent to each of the young men who attended them, informing them that the Rev. Gideon Hawke, a well-known London Evangelical preacher, whose sermons were then much talked of, was about to visit his young friend Badcock of St John's, and would be glad to say a few words to any who might wish to hear them, in Badcock's rooms on a certain evening in May.
Badcock was one of the most notorious of all the Simeonites. Not only was he ugly, dirty, ill-dressed, bumptious, and in every way objectionable, but he was deformed and waddled when he walked so that he had won a nick-name which I can only reproduce by calling it "Here's my back, and there's my back," because the lower parts of his back emphasised themselves demonstratively as though about to fly off in different directions like the two extreme notes in the chord of the augmented sixth, with every step he took. It may be guessed, therefore, that the receipt of the circular had for a moment an almost paralysing effect on those to whom it was addressed, owing to the astonishment which it occasioned them. It certainly was a daring surprise, but like so many deformed people, Badcock was forward and hard to check; he was a pushing fellow to whom the present was just the opportunity he wanted for carrying war into the enemy's quarters.
Ernest and his friends consulted. Moved by the feeling that as they were now preparing to be clergymen they ought not to stand so stiffly on social dignity as heretofore, and also perhaps by the desire to have a good private view of a preacher who was then much upon the lips of men, they decided to accept the invitation. When the appointed time came they went with some confusion and self- abasement to the rooms of this man, on whom they had looked down hitherto as from an immeasurable height, and with whom nothing would have made them believe a few weeks earlier that they could ever come to be on speaking terms.
Mr Hawke was a very different-looking person from Badcock. He was remarkably handsome, or rather would have been but for the thinness of his lips, and a look of too great firmness and inflexibility. His features were a good deal like those of Leonardo da Vinci; moreover he was kempt, looked in vigorous health, and was of a ruddy countenance. He was extremely courteous in his manner, and paid a good deal of attention to Badcock, of whom he seemed to think highly. Altogether our young friends were taken aback, and inclined to think smaller beer of themselves and larger of Badcock than was agreeable to the old Adam who was still alive within them. A few well-known "Sims" from St John's and other colleges were present, but not enough to swamp the Ernest set, as for the sake of brevity, I will call them.
After a preliminary conversation in which there was nothing to offend, the business of the evening began by Mr Hawke's standing up at one end of the table, and saying "Let us pray." The Ernest set did not like this, but they could not help themselves, so they knelt down and repeated the Lord's Prayer and a few others after Mr Hawke, who delivered them remarkably well. Then, when all had sat down, Mr Hawke addressed them, speaking without notes and taking for his text the words, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" Whether owing to Mr Hawke's manner, which was impressive, or to his wellknown reputation for ability, or whether from the fact that each one of the Ernest set knew that he had been more or less a persecutor of the "Sims" and yet felt instinctively that the "Sims" were after all much more like the early Christians than he was himself--at any rate the text, familiar though it was, went home to the consciences of Ernest and his friends as it had never yet done. If Mr Hawke had stopped here he would have almost said enough; as he scanned the faces turned towards him, and saw the impression he had made, he was perhaps minded to bring his sermon to an end before beginning it, but if so, he reconsidered himself and proceeded as follows. I give the sermon in full, for it is a typical one, and will explain a state of mind which in another generation or two will seem to stand sadly in need of explanation.
"My young friends," said Mr Hawke, "I am persuaded there is not one of you here who doubts the existence of a Personal God. If there were, it is to him assuredly that I should first address myself. Should I be mistaken in my belief that all here assembled accept the existence of a God who is present amongst us though we see him not, and whose eye is upon our most secret thoughts, let me implore the doubter to confer with me in private before we part; I will then put before him considerations through which God has been mercifully pleased to reveal himself to me, so far as man can understand him, and which I have found bring peace to the minds of others who have doubted.
"I assume also that there is none who doubts but that this God, after whose likeness we have been made, did in the course of time have pity upon man's blindness, and assume our nature, taking flesh and coming down and dwelling among us as a man indistinguishable physically from ourselves. He who made the sun, moon and stars, the world and all that therein is, came down from Heaven in the person of his Son, with the express purpose of leading a scorned life, and dying the most cruel, shameful death which fiendish ingenuity has invented.
"While on earth he worked many miracles. He gave sight to the blind, raised the dead to life, fed thousands with a few loaves and fishes, and was seen to walk upon the waves, but at the end of his appointed time he died, as was foredetermined, upon the cross, and was buried by a few faithful friends. Those, however, who had put him to death set a jealous watch over his tomb.
"There is no one, I feel sure, in this room who doubts any part of the foregoing, but if there is, let me again pray him to confer with me in private, and I doubt not that by the blessing of God his doubts will cease.
"The next day but one after our Lord was buried, the tomb being still jealously guarded by enemies, an angel was seen descending from Heaven with glittering raiment and a countenance that shone like fire. This glorious being rolled away the stone from the grave, and our Lord himself came forth, risen from the dead.
"My young friends, this is no fanciful story like those of the ancient deities, but a matter of plain history as certain as that you and I are now here together. If there is one fact better vouched for than another in the whole range of certainties it is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ; nor is it less well assured that a few weeks after he had risen from the dead, our Lord was seen by many hundreds of men and women to rise amid a host of angels into the air upon a heavenward journey till the clouds covered him and concealed him from the sight of men.
"It may be said that the truth of these statements has been denied, but what, let me ask you, has become of the questioners? Where are they now? Do we see them or hear of them? Have they been able to hold what little ground they made during the supineness of the last century? Is there one of your fathers or mothers or friends who does not see through them? Is there a single teacher or preacher in this great University who has not examined what these men had to say, and found it naught? Did you ever meet one of them, or do you find any of their books securing the respectful attention of those competent to judge concerning them? I think not; and I think also you know as well as I do why it is that they have sunk back into the abyss from which they for a time emerged: it is because after the most careful and patient examination by the ablest and most judicial minds of many countries, their arguments were found so untenable that they themselves renounced them. They fled from the field routed, dismayed, and suing for peace; nor have they again come to the front in any civilised country.
"You know these things. Why, then, do I insist upon them? My dear young friends, your own consciousness will have made the answer to each one of you already; it is because, though you know so well that these things did verily and indeed happen, you know also that you have not realised them to yourselves as it was your duty to do, nor heeded their momentous, awful import.
"And now let me go further. You all know that you will one day come to die, or if not to die--for there are not wanting signs which make me hope that the Lord may come again, while some of us now present are alive--yet to be changed; for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, for this corruption must put on incorruption, and this mortal put on immortality, and the saying shall be brought to pass that is written, 'Death is swallowed up in victory.'
"Do you, or do you not believe that you will one day stand before the Judgement Seat of Christ? Do you, or do you not believe that you will have to give an account for every idle word that you have ever spoken? Do you, or do you not believe that you are called to live, not according to the will of man, but according to the will of that Christ who came down from Heaven out of love for you, who suffered and died for you, who calls you to him, and yearns towards you that you may take heed even in this your day--but who, if you heed not, will also one day judge you, and with whom there is no variableness nor shadow of turning?
"My dear young friends, strait is the gate, and narrow is the way which leadeth to Eternal Life, and few there be that find it. Few, few, few, for he who will not give up ALL for Christ's sake, has given up nothing
"If you would live in the friendship of this world, if indeed you are not prepared to give up everything you most fondly cherish, should the Lord require it of you, then, I say, put the idea of Christ deliberately on one side at once. Spit upon him, buffet him, crucify him anew, do anything you like so long as you secure the friendship of this world while it is still in your power to do so; the pleasures of this brief life may not be worth paying for by the torments of eternity, but they are something while they last. If, on the other hand, you would live in the friendship of God, and be among the number of those for whom Christ has not died in vain; if, in a word, you value your eternal welfare, then give up the friendship of this world; of a surety you must make your choice between God and Mammon, for you cannot serve both.
"I put these considerations before you, if so homely a term may be pardoned, as a plain matter of business. There is nothing low or unworthy in this, as some lately have pretended, for all nature shows us that there is nothing more acceptable to God than an enlightened view of our own self-interest; never let anyone delude you here; it is a simple question of fact; did certain things happen or did they not? If they did happen, is it reasonable to suppose that you will make yourselves and others more happy by one course of conduct or by another?
"And now let me ask you what answer you have made to this question hitherto? Whose friendship have you chosen? If, knowing what you know, you have not yet begun to act according to the immensity of the knowledge that is in you, then he who builds his house and lays up his treasure on the edge of a crater of molten lava is a sane, sensible person in comparison with yourselves. I say this as no figure of speech or bugbear with which to frighten you, but as an unvarnished unexaggerated statement which will be no more disputed by yourselves than by me."
And now Mr Hawke, who up to this time had spoken with singular quietness, changed his manner to one of greater warmth and continued -
"Oh! my young friends turn, turn, turn, now while it is called to- day--now from this hour, from this instant; stay not even to gird up your loins; look not behind you for a second, but fly into the bosom of that Christ who is to be found of all who seek him, and from that fearful wrath of God which lieth in wait for those who know not the things belonging to their peace. For the Son of Man cometh as a thief in the night, and there is not one of us can tell but what this day his soul may be required of him. If there is even one here who has heeded me,"--and he let his eye fall for an instant upon almost all his hearers, but especially on the Ernest set--"I shall know that it was not for nothing that I felt the call of the Lord, and heard as I thought a voice by night that bade me come hither quickly, for there was a chosen vessel who had need of me."
Here Mr Hawke ended rather abruptly; his earnest manner, striking countenance and excellent delivery had produced an effect greater than the actual words I have given can convey to the reader; the virtue lay in the man more than in what he said; as for the last few mysterious words about his having heard a voice by night, their effect was magical; there was not one who did not look down to the ground, nor who in his heart did not half believe that he was the chosen vessel on whose especial behalf God had sent Mr Hawke to Cambridge. Even if this were not so, each one of them felt that he was now for the first time in the actual presence of one who had had a direct communication from the Almighty, and they were thus suddenly brought a hundredfold nearer to the New Testament miracles. They were amazed, not to say scared, and as though by tacit consent they gathered together, thanked Mr Hawke for his sermon, said good- night in a humble deferential manner to Badcock and the other Simeonites, and left the room together. They had heard nothing but what they had been hearing all their lives; how was it, then, that they were so dumbfoundered by it? I suppose partly because they had lately begun to think more seriously, and were in a fit state to be impressed, partly from the greater directness with which each felt himself addressed, through the sermon being delivered in a room, and partly to the logical consistency, freedom from exaggeration, and profound air of conviction with which Mr Hawke had spoken. His simplicity and obvious earnestness had impressed them even before he had alluded to his special mission, but this clenched everything, and the words "Lord, is it I?" were upon the hearts of each as they walked pensively home through moonlit courts and cloisters.
I do not know what passed among the Simeonites after the Ernest set had left them, but they would have been more than mortal if they had not been a good deal elated with the results of the evening. Why, one of Ernest's friends was in the University eleven, and he had actually been in Badcock's rooms and had slunk off on saying good- night as meekly as any of them. It was no small thing to have scored a success like this.
Chapter 50Ernest felt now that the turning point of his life had come. He would give up all for Christ--even his tobacco.
So he gathered together his pipes and pouches, and locked them up in his portmanteau under his bed where they should be out of sight, and as much out of mind as possible. He did not burn them, because someone might come in who wanted to smoke, and though he might abridge his own liberty, yet, as smoking was not a sin, there was no reason why he should be hard on other people.
After breakfast he left his rooms to call on a man named Dawson, who had been one of Mr Hawke's hearers on the preceding evening, and who was reading for ordination at the forthcoming Ember Weeks, now only four months distant. This man had been always of a rather serious turn of mind--a little too much so for Ernest's taste; but times had changed, and Dawson's undoubted sincerity seemed to render him a fitting counsellor for Ernest at the present time. As he was going through the first court of John's on his way to Dawson's rooms, he met Badcock, and greeted him with some deference. His advance was received with one of those ecstatic gleams which shone occasionally upon the face of Badcock, and which, if Ernest had known more, would have reminded him of Robespierre. As it was, he saw it and unconsciously recognised the unrest and selfseekingness of the man, but could not yet formulate them; he disliked Badcock more than ever, but as he was going to profit by the spiritual benefits which he had put in his way, he was bound to be civil to him, and civil he therefore was.
Badcock told him that Mr Hawke had returned to town immediately his discourse was over, but that before doing so he had enquired particularly who Ernest and two or three others were. I believe each one of Ernest's friends was given to understand that he had been more or less particularly enquired after. Ernest's vanity--for he was his mother's son
-was tickled at this; the idea again presented itself to him that he might be the one for whose benefit Mr Hawke had been sent. There was something, too, in Badcock's manner which conveyed the idea that he could say more if he chose, but had been enjoined to silence.
On reaching Dawson's rooms, he found his friend in raptures over the discourse of the preceding evening. Hardly less delighted was he with the effect it had produced on Ernest. He had always known, he said, that Ernest would come round; he had been sure of it, but he had hardly expected the conversion to be so sudden. Ernest said no more had he, but now that he saw his duty so clearly he would get ordained as soon as possible, and take a curacy, even though the doing so would make him have to go down from Cambridge earlier, which would be a great grief to him. Dawson applauded this determination, and it was arranged that as Ernest was still more or less of a weak brother, Dawson should take him, so to speak, in spiritual tow for a while, and strengthen and confirm his faith.
An offensive and defensive alliance therefore was struck up between this pair (who were in reality singularly ill assorted), and Ernest set to work to master the books on which the Bishop would examine him. Others gradually joined them till they formed a small set or church (for these are the same things), and the effect of Mr Hawke's sermon instead of wearing off in a few days, as might have been expected, became more and more marked, so much so that it was necessary for Ernest's friends to hold him back rather than urge him on, for he seemed likely to develop--as indeed he did for a time-- into a religious enthusiast.
In one matter only, did he openly backslide. He had, as I said above, locked up his pipes and tobacco, so that he might not be tempted to use them. All day long on the day after Mr Hawke's sermon he let them lie in his portmanteau bravely; but this was not very difficult, as he had for some time given up smoking till after hall. After hall this day he did not smoke till chapel time, and then went to chapel in self-defence. When he returned he determined to look at the matter from a common sense point of view. On this he saw that, provided tobacco did not injure his health--and he really could not see that it did--it stood much on the same footing as tea or coffee.
Tobacco had nowhere been forbidden in the Bible, but then it had not yet been discovered, and had probably only escaped proscription for this reason. We can conceive of St Paul or even our Lord Himself as drinking a cup of tea, but we cannot imagine either of them as smoking a cigarette or a churchwarden. Ernest could not deny this, and admitted that Paul would almost certainly have condemned tobacco in good round terms if he had known of its existence. Was it not then taking rather a mean advantage of the Apostle to stand on his not having actually forbidden it? On the other hand, it was possible that God knew Paul would have forbidden smoking, and had purposely arranged the discovery of tobacco for a period at which Paul should be no longer living. This might seem rather hard on Paul, considering all he had done for Christianity, but it would be made up to him in other ways.
These reflections satisfied Ernest that on the whole he had better smoke, so he sneaked to his portmanteau and brought out his pipes and tobacco again. There should be moderation he felt in all things, even in virtue; so for that night he smoked immoderately. It was a pity, however, that he had bragged to Dawson about giving up smoking. The pipes had better be kept in a cupboard for a week or two, till in other and easier respects Ernest should have proved his steadfastness. Then they might steal out again little by little--and so they did.
Ernest now wrote home a letter couched in a vein different from his ordinary ones. His letters were usually all common form and padding, for as I have already explained, if he wrote about anything that really interested him, his mother always wanted to know more and more about it--every fresh answer being as the lopping off of a hydra's head and giving birth to half a dozen or more new questions- -but in the end it came invariably to the same result, namely, that he ought to have done something else, or ought not to go on doing as he proposed. Now, however, there was a new departure, and for the thousandth time he concluded that he was about to take a course of which his father and mother would approve, and in which they would be interested, so that at last he and they might get on more sympathetically than heretofore. He therefore wrote a gushing impulsive letter, which afforded much amusement to myself as I read it, but which is too long for reproduction. One passage ran: "I am now going towards Christ; the greater number of my college friends are, I fear, going away from Him; we must pray for them that they may find the peace that is in Christ even as I have myself found it." Ernest covered his face with his hands for shame as he read this extract from the bundle of letters he had put into my hands-- they had been returned to him by his father on his mother's death, his mother having carefully preserved them."Shall I cut it out?" said I, "I will if you like."
"Certainly not," he answered, "and if good-natured friends have kept more records of my follies, pick out any plums that may amuse the reader, and let him have his laugh over them." But fancy what effect a letter like this--so unled up to--must have produced at Battersby! Even Christina refrained from ecstasy over her son's having discovered the power of Christ's word, while Theobald was frightened out of his wits. It was well his son was not going to have any doubts or difficulties, and that he would be ordained without making a fuss over it, but he smelt mischief in this sudden conversion of one who had never yet shown any inclination towards religion. He hated people who did not know where to stop. Ernest was always so outre and strange; there was never any knowing what he would do next, except that it would be something unusual and silly. If he was to get the bit between his teeth after he had got ordained and bought his living, he would play more pranks than ever he, Theobald, had done. The fact, doubtless, of his being ordained and having bought a living would go a long way to steady him, and if he married, his wife must see to the rest; this was his only chance and, to do justice to his sagacity, Theobald in his heart did not think very highly of it.
When Ernest came down to Battersby in June, he imprudently tried to open up a more unreserved communication with his father than was his wont. The first of Ernest's snipelike flights on being flushed by Mr Hawke's sermon was in the direction of ultraevangelicalism. Theobald himself had been much more Low than High Church. This was the normal development of the country clergyman during the first years of his clerical life, between, we will say, the years 1825 to 1850; but he was not prepared for the almost contempt with which Ernest now regarded the doctrines of baptismal regeneration and priestly absolution (Hoity toity, indeed, what business had he with such questions?), nor for his desire to find some means of reconciling Methodism and the Church. Theobald hated the Church of Rome, but he hated dissenters too, for he found them as a general rule troublesome people to deal with; he always found people who did not agree with him troublesome to deal with: besides, they set up for knowing as much as he did; nevertheless if he had been let alone he would have leaned towards them rather than towards the High Church party. The neighbouring clergy, however, would not let him alone. One by one they had come under the influence, directly or indirectly, of the Oxford movement which had begun twenty years earlier. It was surprising how many practices he now tolerated which in his youth he would have considered Popish; he knew very well therefore which way things were going in Church matters, and saw that as usual Ernest was setting himself the other way. The opportunity for telling his son that he was a fool was too favourable not to be embraced, and Theobald was not slow to embrace it. Ernest was annoyed and surprised, for had not his father and mother been wanting him to be more religious all his life? Now that he had become so they were still not satisfied. He said to himself that a prophet was not without honour save in his own country, but he had been lately--or rather until lately--getting into an odious habit of turning proverbs upside down, and it occurred to him that a country is sometimes not without honour save for its own prophet. Then he laughed, and for the rest of the day felt more as he used to feel before he had heard Mr Hawke's sermon.
He returned to Cambridge for the Long Vacation of 1858--none too soon, for he had to go in for the Voluntary Theological Examination, which bishops were now beginning to insist upon. He imagined all the time he was reading that he was storing himself with the knowledge that would best fit him for the work he had taken in hand. In truth, he was cramming for a pass. In due time he did pass-- creditably, and was ordained Deacon with half-a-dozen others of his friends in the autumn of 1858. He was then just twenty-three years old.
Ernest had been ordained to a curacy in one of the central parts of London. He hardly knew anything of London yet, but his instincts drew him thither. The day after he was ordained he entered upon his duties--feeling much as his father had done when he found himself boxed up in the carriage with Christina on the morning of his marriage. Before the first three days were over, he became aware that the light of the happiness which he had known during his four years at Cambridge had been extinguished, and he was appalled by the irrevocable nature of the step which he now felt that he had taken much too hurriedly.
The most charitable excuse that I can make for the vagaries which it will now be my duty to chronicle is that the shock of change consequent upon his becoming suddenly religious, being ordained and leaving Cambridge, had been too much for my hero, and had for the time thrown him off an equilibrium which was yet little supported by experience, and therefore as a matter of course unstable.
Everyone has a mass of bad work in him which he will have to work off and get rid of before he can do better--and indeed, the more lasting a man's ultimate good work is, the more sure he is to pass through a time, and perhaps a very long one, in which there seems very little hope for him at all. We must all sow our spiritual wild oats. The fault I feel personally disposed to find with my godson is not that he had wild oats to sow, but that they were such an exceedingly tame and uninteresting crop. The sense of humour and tendency to think for himself, of which till a few months previously he had been showing fair promise, were nipped as though by a late frost, while his earlier habit of taking on trust everything that was told him by those in authority, and following everything out to the bitter end, no matter how preposterous, returned with redoubled strength. I suppose this was what might have been expected from anyone placed as Ernest now was, especially when his antecedents are remembered, but it surprised and disappointed some of his cooler- headed Cambridge friends who had begun to think well of his ability. To himself it seemed that religion was incompatible with half measures, or even with compromise. Circumstances had led to his being ordained; for the moment he was sorry they had, but he had done it and must go through with it. He therefore set himself to find out what was expected of him, and to act accordingly.
His rector was a moderate High Churchman of no very pronounced views--an elderly man who had had too many curates not to have long since found out that the connection between rector and curate, like that between employer and employed in every other walk of life, was a mere matter of business. He had now two curates, of whom Ernest was the junior; the senior curate was named Pryer, and when this gentleman made advances, as he presently did, Ernest in his forlorn state was delighted to meet them.
Pryer was about twenty-eight years old. He had been at Eton and at Oxford. He was tall, and passed generally for good-looking; I only saw him once for about five minutes, and then thought him odious both in manners and appearance. Perhaps it was because he caught me up in a way I did not like. I had quoted Shakespeare for lack of something better to fill up a sentence--and had said that one touch of nature made the whole world kin. "Ah," said Pryer, in a bold, brazen way which displeased me, "but one touch of the unnatural makes it more kindred still," and he gave me a look as though he thought me an old bore and did not care two straws whether I was shocked or not. Naturally enough, after this I did not like him.
This, however, is anticipating, for it was not till Ernest had been three or four months in London that I happened to meet his fellow- curate, and I must deal here rather with the effect he produced upon my godson than upon myself. Besides being what was generally considered good-looking, he was faultless in his get-up, and altogether the kind of man whom Ernest was sure to be afraid of and yet be taken in by. The style of his dress was very High Church, and his acquaintances were exclusively of the extreme High Church party, but he kept his views a good deal in the background in his rector's presence, and that gentleman, though he looked askance on some of Pryer's friends, had no such ground of complaint against him as to make him sever the connection. Pryer, too, was popular in the pulpit, and, take him all round, it was probable that many worse curates would be found for one better. When Pryer called on my hero, as soon as the two were alone together, he eyed him all over with a quick penetrating glance and seemed not dissatisfied with the result--for I must say here that Ernest had improved in personal appearance under the more genial treatment he had received at Cambridge. Pryer, in fact, approved of him sufficiently to treat him civilly, and Ernest was immediately won by anyone who did this. It was not long before he discovered that the High Church party, and even Rome itself, had more to say for themselves than he had thought. This was his first snipe-like change of flight.
Pryer introduced him to several of his friends. They were all of them young clergymen, belonging as I have said to the highest of the High Church school, but Ernest was surprised to find how much they resembled other people when among themselves. This was a shock to him; it was ere long a still greater one to find that certain thoughts which he had warred against as fatal to his soul, and which he had imagined he should lose once for all on ordination, were still as troublesome to him as they had been; he also saw plainly enough that the young gentlemen who formed the circle of Pryer's friends were in much the same unhappy predicament as himself.
This was deplorable. The only way out of it that Ernest could see was that he should get married at once. But then he did not know any one whom he wanted to marry. He did not know any woman, in fact, whom he would not rather die than marry. It had been one of Theobald's and Christina's main objects to keep him out of the way of women, and they had so far succeeded that women had become to him mysterious, inscrutable objects to be tolerated when it was impossible to avoid them, but never to be sought out or encouraged. As for any man loving, or even being at all fond of any woman, he supposed it was so, but he believed the greater number of those who professed such sentiments were liars. Now, however, it was clear that he had hoped against hope too long, and that the only thing to do was to go and ask the first woman who would listen to him to come and be married to him as soon as possible.
He broached this to Pryer, and was surprised to find that this gentleman, though attentive to such members of his flock as were young and good-looking, was strongly in favour of the celibacy of the clergy, as indeed were the other demure young clerics to whom Pryer had introduced Ernest.
"You know, my dear Pontifex," said Pryer to him, some few weeks after Ernest had become acquainted with him, when the two were taking a constitutional one day in Kensington Gardens, "You know, my dear Pontifex, it is all very well to quarrel with Rome, but Rome has reduced the treatment of the human soul to a science, while our own Church, though so much purer in many respects, has no organised system either of diagnosis or pathology--I mean, of course, spiritual diagnosis and spiritual pathology. Our Church does not prescribe remedies upon any settled system, and, what is still worse, even when her physicians have according to their lights ascertained the disease and pointed out the remedy, she has no discipline which will ensure its being actually applied. If our patients do not choose to do as we tell them, we cannot make them. Perhaps really under all the circumstances this is as well, for we are spiritually mere horse doctors as compared with the Roman priesthood, nor can we hope to make much headway against the sin and misery that surround us, till we return in some respects to the practice of our forefathers and of the greater part of Christendom."Ernest asked in what respects it was that his friend desired a return to the practice of our forefathers.
"Why, my dear fellow, can you really be ignorant? It is just this, either the priest is indeed a spiritual guide, as being able to show people how they ought to live better than they can find out for themselves, or he is nothing at all--he has no raison d'etre. If the priest is not as much a healer and director of men's souls as a physician is of their bodies, what is he? The history of all ages has shown--and surely you must know this as well as I do--that as men cannot cure the bodies of their patients if they have not been properly trained in hospitals under skilled teachers, so neither can souls be cured of their more hidden ailments without the help of men who are skilled in soul-craft--or in other words, of priests. What do one half of our formularies and rubrics mean if not this? How in the name of all that is reasonable can we find out the exact nature of a spiritual malady, unless we have had experience of other similar cases? How can we get this without express training? At present we have to begin all experiments for ourselves, without profiting by the organised experience of our predecessors, inasmuch as that experience is never organised and co-ordinated at all. At the outset, therefore, each one of us must ruin many souls which could be saved by knowledge of a few elementary principles."Ernest was very much impressed.
"As for men curing themselves," continued Pryer, "they can no more cure their own souls than they can cure their own bodies, or manage their own law affairs. In these two last cases they see the folly of meddling with their own cases clearly enough, and go to a professional adviser as a matter of course; surely a man's soul is at once a more difficult and intricate matter to treat, and at the same time it is more important to him that it should be treated rightly than that either his body or his money should be so. What are we to think of the practice of a Church which encourages people to rely on unprofessional advice in matters affecting their eternal welfare, when they would not think of jeopardising their worldly affairs by such insane conduct?"
Ernest could see no weak place in this. These ideas had crossed his own mind vaguely before now, but he had never laid hold of them or set them in an orderly manner before himself. Nor was he quick at detecting false analogies and the misuse of metaphors; in fact he was a mere child in the hands of his fellow curate.
"And what," resumed Pryer, "does all this point to? Firstly, to the duty of confession--the outcry against which is absurd as an outcry would be against dissection as part of the training of medical students. Granted these young men must see and do a great deal we do not ourselves like even to think of, but they should adopt some other profession unless they are prepared for this; they may even get inoculated with poison from a dead body and lose their lives, but they must stand their chance. So if we aspire to be priests in deed as well as name, we must familiarise ourselves with the minutest and most repulsive details of all kinds of sin, so that we may recognise it in all its stages. Some of us must doubtlessly perish spiritually in such investigations. We cannot help it; all science must have its martyrs, and none of these will deserve better of humanity than those who have fallen in the pursuit of spiritual pathology."Ernest grew more and more interested, but in the meekness of his soul said nothing.
"I do not desire this martyrdom for myself," continued the other, "on the contrary I will avoid it to the very utmost of my power, but if it be God's will that I should fall while studying what I believe most calculated to advance his glory--then, I say, not my will, oh Lord, but thine be done."This was too much even for Ernest. "I heard of an Irish-woman once," he said, with a smile, "who said she was a martyr to the drink."
"And so she was," rejoined Pryer with warmth; and he went on to show that this good woman was an experimentalist whose experiment, though disastrous in its effects upon herself, was pregnant with instruction to other people. She was thus a true martyr or witness to the frightful consequences of intemperance, to the saving, doubtless, of many who but for her martyrdom would have taken to drinking. She was one of a forlorn hope whose failure to take a certain position went to the proving it to be impregnable and therefore to the abandonment of all attempt to take it. This was almost as great a gain to mankind as the actual taking of the position would have been.
"Besides," he added more hurriedly, "the limits of vice and virtue are wretchedly illdefined. Half the vices which the world condemns most loudly have seeds of good in them and require moderate use rather than total abstinence."
Ernest asked timidly for an instance. "No, no," said Pryer, "I will give you no instance, but I will give you a formula that shall embrace all instances. It is this, that no practice is entirely vicious which has not been extinguished among the comeliest, most vigorous, and most cultivated races of mankind in spite of centuries of endeavour to extirpate it. If a vice in spite of such efforts can still hold its own among the most polished nations, it must be founded on some immutable truth or fact in human nature, and must have some compensatory advantage which we cannot afford altogether to dispense with.""But," said Ernest timidly, "is not this virtually doing away with all distinction between right and wrong, and leaving people without any moral guide whatever?"
"Not the people," was the answer: "it must be our care to be guides to these, for they are and always will be incapable of guiding themselves sufficiently. We should tell them what they must do, and in an ideal state of things should be able to enforce their doing it: perhaps when we are better instructed the ideal state may come about; nothing will so advance it as greater knowledge of spiritual pathology on our own part. For this, three things are necessary; firstly, absolute freedom in experiment for us the clergy; secondly, absolute knowledge of what the laity think and do, and of what thoughts and actions result in what spiritual conditions; and thirdly, a compacter organisation among ourselves.
"If we are to do any good we must be a closely united body, and must be sharply divided from the laity. Also we must be free from those ties which a wife and children involve. I can hardly express the horror with which I am filled by seeing English priests living in what I can only designate as 'open matrimony.' It is deplorable. The priest must be absolutely sexless--if not in practice, yet at any rate in theory, absolutely--and that too, by a theory so universally accepted that none shall venture to dispute it."
"But," said Ernest, "has not the Bible already told people what they ought and ought not to do, and is it not enough for us to insist on what can be found here, and let the rest alone?"
"If you begin with the Bible," was the rejoinder, "you are three parts gone on the road to infidelity, and will go the other part before you know where you are. The Bible is not without its value to us the clergy, but for the laity it is a stumbling-block which cannot be taken out of their way too soon or too completely. Of course, I mean on the supposition that they read it, which, happily, they seldom do. If people read the Bible as the ordinary British churchman or churchwoman reads it, it is harmless enough; but if they read it with any care--which we should assume they will if we give it them at all--it is fatal to them.""What do you mean?" said Ernest, more and more astonished, but more and more feeling that he was at least in the hands of a man who had definite ideas.
"Your question shows me that you have never read your Bible. A more unreliable book was never put upon paper. Take my advice and don't read it, not till you are a few years older, and may do so safely."
"But surely you believe the Bible when it tells you of such things as that Christ died and rose from the dead? Surely you believe this?" said Ernest, quite prepared to be told that Pryer believed nothing of the kind.
The foregoing conversation and others like it made a deep impression upon my hero. If next day he had taken a walk with Mr Hawke, and heard what he had to say on the other side, he would have been just as much struck, and as ready to fling off what Pryer had told him, as he now was to throw aside all he had ever heard from anyone except Pryer; but there was no Mr Hawke at hand, so Pryer had everything his own way.
Embryo minds, like embryo bodies, pass through a number of strange metamorphoses before they adopt their final shape. It is no more to be wondered at that one who is going to turn out a Roman Catholic, should have passed through the stages of being first a Methodist, and then a free thinker, than that a man should at some former time have been a mere cell, and later on an invertebrate animal. Ernest, however, could not be expected to know this; embryos never do. Embryos think with each stage of their development that they have now reached the only condition which really suits them. This, they say, must certainly be their last, inasmuch as its close will be so great a shock that nothing can survive it. Every change is a shock; every shock is a pro tanto death. What we call death is only a shock great enough to destroy our power to recognise a past and a present as resembling one another. It is the making us consider the points of difference between our present and our past greater than the points of resemblance, so that we can no longer call the former of these two in any proper sense a continuation of the second, but find it less trouble to think of it as something that we choose to call new.
But, to let this pass, it was clear that spiritual pathology (I confess that I do not know myself what spiritual pathology means-- but Pryer and Ernest doubtless did) was the great desideratum of the age. It seemed to Ernest that he had made this discovery himself and been familiar with it all his life, that he had never known, in fact, of anything else. He wrote long letters to his college friends expounding his views as though he had been one of the Apostolic fathers. As for the Old Testament writers, he had no patience with them. "Do oblige me," I find him writing to one friend, "by reading the prophet Zechariah, and giving me your candid opinion upon him. He is poor stuff, full of Yankee bounce; it is sickening to live in an age when such balderdash can be gravely admired whether as poetry or prophecy." This was because Pryer had set him against Zechariah. I do not know what Zechariah had done; I should think myself that Zechariah was a very good prophet; perhaps it was because he was a Bible writer, and not a very prominent one, that Pryer selected him as one through whom to disparage the Bible in comparison with the Church.
To his friend Dawson I find him saying a little later on: "Pryer and I continue our walks, working out each other's thoughts. At first he used to do all the thinking, but I think I am pretty well abreast of him now, and rather chuckle at seeing that he is already beginning to modify some of the views he held most strongly when I first knew him. "Then I think he was on the high road to Rome; now, however, he seems to be a good deal struck with a suggestion of mine in which you, too, perhaps may be interested. You see we must infuse new life into the Church somehow; we are not holding our own against either Rome or infidelity." (I may say in passing that I do not believe Ernest had as yet ever seen an infidel--not to speak to.) "I proposed, therefore, a few days back to Pryer--and he fell in eagerly with the proposal as soon as he saw that I had the means of carrying it out--that we should set on foot a spiritual movement somewhat analogous to the Young England movement of twenty years ago, the aim of which shall be at once to outbid Rome on the one hand, and scepticism on the other. For this purpose I see nothing better than the foundation of an institution or college for placing the nature and treatment of sin on a more scientific basis than it rests at present. We want--to borrow a useful term of Pryer's--a College of Spiritual Pathology where young men" (I suppose Ernest thought he was no longer young by this time) "may study the nature and treatment of the sins of the soul as medical students study those of the bodies of their patients. Such a college, as you will probably admit, will approach both Rome on the one hand, and science on the other--Rome, as giving the priesthood more skill, and therefore as paving the way for their obtaining greater power, and science, by recognising that even free thought has a certain kind of value in spiritual enquiries. To this purpose Pryer and I have resolved to devote ourselves henceforth heart and soul.
"Of course, my ideas are still unshaped, and all will depend upon the men by whom the college is first worked. I am not yet a priest, but Pryer is, and if I were to start the College, Pryer might take charge of it for a time and I work under him nominally as his subordinate. Pryer himself suggested this. Is it not generous of him?
"The worst of it is that we have not enough money; I have, it is true, 5000 pounds, but we want at least 10,000 pounds, so Pryer says, before we can start; when we are fairly under weigh I might live at the college and draw a salary from the foundation, so that it is all one, or nearly so, whether I invest my money in this way or in buying a living; besides I want very little; it is certain that I shall never marry; no clergyman should think of this, and an unmarried man can live on next to nothing. Still I do not see my way to as much money as I want, and Pryer suggests that as we can hardly earn more now we must get it by a judicious series of investments. Pryer knows several people who make quite a handsome income out of very little or, indeed, I may say, nothing at all, by buying things at a place they call the Stock Exchange; I don't know much about it yet, but Pryer says I should soon learn; he thinks, indeed, that I have shown rather a talent in this direction, and under proper auspices should make a very good man of business. Others, of course, and not I, must decide this; but a man can do anything if he gives his mind to it, and though I should not care about having more money for my own sake, I care about it very much when I think of the good I could do with it by saving souls from such horrible torture hereafter. Why, if the thing succeeds, and I really cannot see what is to hinder it, it is hardly possible to exaggerate its importance, nor the proportions which it may ultimately assume," etc., etc.
Again I asked Ernest whether he minded my printing this. He winced, but said "No, not if it helps you to tell your story: but don't you think it is too long?"
"Thanks for your last, in answer to which I send you a rough copy of a letter I sent to the Times a day or two back. They did not insert it, but it embodies pretty fully my ideas on the parochial visitation question, and Pryer fully approves of the letter. Think it carefully over and send it back to me when read, for it is so exactly my present creed that I cannot afford to lose it.
"I should very much like to have a viva voce discussion on these matters: I can only see for certain that we have suffered a dreadful loss in being no longer able to excommunicate. We should excommunicate rich and poor alike, and pretty freely too. If this power were restored to us we could, I think, soon put a stop to by far the greater part of the sin and misery with which we are surrounded."These letters were written only a few weeks after Ernest had been ordained, but they are nothing to others that he wrote a little later on.
In his eagerness to regenerate the Church of England (and through this the universe) by the means which Pryer had suggested to him, it occurred to him to try to familiarise himself with the habits and thoughts of the poor by going and living among them. I think he got this notion from Kingsley's "Alton Locke," which, High Churchman though he for the nonce was, he had devoured as he had devoured Stanley's Life of Arnold, Dickens's novels, and whatever other literary garbage of the day was most likely to do him harm; at any rate he actually put his scheme into practice, and took lodgings in Ashpit Place, a small street in the neighbourhood of Drury Lane Theatre, in a house of which the landlady was the widow of a cabman.
This lady occupied the whole ground floor. In the front kitchen there was a tinker. The back kitchen was let to a bellows-mender. On the first floor came Ernest, with his two rooms which he furnished comfortably, for one must draw the line somewhere. The two upper floors were parcelled out among four different sets of lodgers: there was a tailor named Holt, a drunken fellow who used to beat his wife at night till her screams woke the house; above him there was another tailor with a wife but no children; these people were Wesleyans, given to drink but not noisy. The two back rooms were held by single ladies, who it seemed to Ernest must be respectably connected, for well-dressed gentlemanlylooking young men used to go up and down stairs past Ernest's rooms to call at any rate on Miss Snow--Ernest had heard her door slam after they had passed. He thought, too, that some of them went up to Miss Maitland's. Mrs Jupp, the landlady, told Ernest that these were brothers and cousins of Miss Snow's, and that she was herself looking out for a situation as a governess, but at present had an engagement as an actress at the Drury Lane Theatre. Ernest asked whether Miss Maitland in the top back was also looking out for a situation, and was told she was wanting an engagement as a milliner. He believed whatever Mrs Jupp told him.
This move on Ernest's part was variously commented upon by his friends, the general opinion being that it was just like Pontifex, who was sure to do something unusual wherever he went, but that on the whole the idea was commendable. Christina could not restrain herself when on sounding her clerical neighbours she found them inclined to applaud her son for conduct which they idealised into something much more self-denying than it really was. She did not quite like his living in such an unaristocratic neighbourhood; but what he was doing would probably get into the newspapers, and then great people would take notice of him. Besides, it would be very cheap; down among these poor people he could live for next to nothing, and might put by a great deal of his income. As for temptations, there could be few or none in such a place as that. This argument about cheapness was the one with which she most successfully met Theobald, who grumbled more suo that he had no sympathy with his son's extravagance and conceit. When Christina pointed out to him that it would be cheap he replied that there was something in that.
On Ernest himself the effect was to confirm the good opinion of himself which had been growing upon him ever since he had begun to read for orders, and to make him flatter himself that he was among the few who were ready to give up ALL for Christ. Ere long he began to conceive of himself as a man with a mission and a great future. His lightest and most hastily formed opinions began to be of momentous importance to him, and he inflicted them, as I have already shown, on his old friends, week by week becoming more and more entete with himself and his own crotchets. I should like well enough to draw a veil over this part of my hero's career, but cannot do so without marring my story.In the spring of 1859 I find him writing -
"I cannot call the visible Church Christian till its fruits are Christian, that is until the fruits of the members of the Church of England are in conformity, or something like conformity, with her teaching. I cordially agree with the teaching of the Church of England in most respects, but she says one thing and does another, and until excommunication--yes, and wholesale excommunication--be resorted to, I cannot call her a Christian institution. I should begin with our Rector, and if I found it necessary to follow him up by excommunicating the Bishop, I should not flinch even from this.
"The present London Rectors are hopeless people to deal with. My own is one of the best of them, but the moment Pryer and I show signs of wanting to attack an evil in a way not recognised by routine, or of remedying anything about which no outcry has been made, we are met with, 'I cannot think what you mean by all this disturbance; nobody else among the clergy sees these things, and I have no wish to be the first to begin turning everything topsy- turvy.' And then people call him a sensible man. I have no patience with them. However, we know what we want, and, as I wrote to Dawson the other day, have a scheme on foot which will, I think, fairly meet the requirements of the case. But we want more money, and my first move towards getting this has not turned out quite so satisfactorily as Pryer and I had hoped; we shall, however, I doubt not, retrieve it shortly."
When Ernest came to London he intended doing a good deal of house- to-house visiting, but Pryer had talked him out of this even before he settled down in his new and strangelychosen apartments. The line he now took was that if people wanted Christ, they must prove their want by taking some little trouble, and the trouble required of them was that they should come and seek him, Ernest, out; there he was in the midst of them ready to teach; if people did not choose to come to him it was no fault of his.
"My great business here," he writes again to Dawson, "is to observe. I am not doing much in parish work beyond my share of the daily services. I have a man's Bible Class, and a boy's Bible Class, and a good many young men and boys to whom I give instruction one way or another; then there are the Sunday School children, with whom I fill my room on a Sunday evening as full as it will hold, and let them sing hymns and chants. They like this. I do a great deal of reading--chiefly of books which Pryer and I think most likely to help; we find nothing comparable to the Jesuits. Pryer is a thorough gentleman, and an admirable man of business--no less observant of the things of this world, in fact, than of the things above; by a brilliant coup he has retrieved, or nearly so, a rather serious loss which threatened to delay indefinitely the execution of our great scheme. He and I daily gather fresh principles. I believe great things are before me, and am strong in the hope of being able by and by to effect much."As for you I bid you God speed. Be bold but logical, speculative but cautious, daringly courageous, but properly circumspect withal," etc., etc.
I think this may do for the present. I had called on Ernest as a matter of course when he first came to London, but had not seen him. I had been out when he returned my call, so that he had been in town for some weeks before I actually saw him, which I did not very long after he had taken possession of his new rooms. I liked his face, but except for the common bond of music, in respect of which our tastes were singularly alike, I should hardly have known how to get on with him. To do him justice he did not air any of his schemes to me until I had drawn him out concerning them. I, to borrow the words of Ernest's landlady, Mrs Jupp, "am not a very regular church-goer"--I discovered upon cross- examination that Mrs Jupp had been to church once when she was churched for her son Tom some five and twenty years since, but never either before or afterwards; not even, I fear, to be married, for though she called herself "Mrs" she wore no wedding ring, and spoke of the person who should have been Mr Jupp as "my poor dear boy's father," not as "my husband." But to return. I was vexed at Ernest's having been ordained. I was not ordained myself and I did not like my friends to be ordained, nor did I like having to be on my best behaviour and to look as if butter would not melt in my mouth, and all for a boy whom I remembered when he knew yesterday and to-morrow and Tuesday, but not a day of the week more--not even Sunday itself--and when he said he did not like the kitten because it had pins in its toes.
I looked at him and thought of his aunt Alethea, and how fast the money she had left him was accumulating; and it was all to go to this young man, who would use it probably in the very last ways with which Miss Pontifex would have sympathised. I was annoyed. "She always said," I thought to myself, "that she should make a mess of it, but I did not think she would have made as great a mess of it as this." Then I thought that perhaps if his aunt had lived he would not have been like this.
Ernest behaved quite nicely to me and I own that the fault was mine if the conversation drew towards dangerous subjects. I was the aggressor, presuming I suppose upon my age and long acquaintance with him, as giving me a right to make myself unpleasant in a quiet way.
Then he came out, and the exasperating part of it was that up to a certain point he was so very right. Grant him his premises and his conclusions were sound enough, nor could I, seeing that he was already ordained, join issue with him about his premises as I should certainly have done if I had had a chance of doing so before he had taken orders. The result was that I had to beat a retreat and went away not in the best of humours. I believe the truth was that I liked Ernest, and was vexed at his being a clergyman, and at a clergyman having so much money coming to him.
I talked a little with Mrs Jupp on my way out. She and I had reckoned one another up at first sight as being neither of us "very regular church-goers," and the strings of her tongue had been loosened. She said Ernest would die. He was much too good for the world and he looked so sad "just like young Watkins of the 'Crown' over the way who died a month ago, and his poor dear skin was white as alablaster; least-ways they say he shot hisself. They took him from the Mortimer, I met them just as I was going with my Rose to get a pint o' four ale, and she had her arm in splints. She told her sister she wanted to go to Perry's to get some wool, instead o' which it was only a stall to get me a pint o' ale, bless her heart; there's nobody else would do that much for poor old Jupp, and it's a horrid lie to say she is gay; not but what I like a gay woman, I do: I'd rather give a gay woman halfa-crown than stand a modest woman a pot o' beer, but I don't want to go associating with bad girls for all that. So they took him from the Mortimer; they wouldn't let him go home no more; and he done it that artful you know. His wife was in the country living with her mother, and she always spoke respectful o' my Rose. Poor dear, I hope his soul is in Heaven. Well Sir, would you believe it, there's that in Mr Pontifex's face which is just like young Watkins; he looks that worrited and scrunched up at times, but it's never for the same reason, for he don't know nothing at all, no more than a unborn babe, no he don't; why there's not a monkey going about London with an Italian organ grinder but knows more than Mr Pontifex do. He don't know--well I suppose--"
Here a child came in on an errand from some neighbour and interrupted her, or I can form no idea where or when she would have ended her discourse. I seized the opportunity to run away, but not before I had given her five shillings and made her write down my address, for I was a little frightened by what she said. I told her if she thought her lodger grew worse, she was to come and let me know.
Weeks went by and I did not see her again. Having done as much as I had, I felt absolved from doing more, and let Ernest alone as thinking that he and I should only bore one another.
He had now been ordained a little over four months, but these months had not brought happiness or satisfaction with them. He had lived in a clergyman's house all his life, and might have been expected perhaps to have known pretty much what being a clergyman was like, and so he did--a country clergyman; he had formed an ideal, however, as regards what a town clergyman could do, and was trying in a feeble tentative way to realise it, but somehow or other it always managed to escape him.
He lived among the poor, but he did not find that he got to know them. The idea that they would come to him proved to be a mistaken one. He did indeed visit a few tame pets whom his rector desired him to look after. There was an old man and his wife who lived next door but one to Ernest himself; then there was a plumber of the name of Chesterfield; an aged lady of the name of Gover, blind and bed- ridden, who munched and munched her feeble old toothless jaws as Ernest spoke or read to her, but who could do little more; a Mr Brookes, a rag and bottle merchant in Birdsey's Rents in the last stage of dropsy, and perhaps half a dozen or so others. What did it all come to, when he did go to see them? The plumber wanted to be flattered, and liked fooling a gentleman into wasting his time by scratching his ears for him. Mrs Gover, poor old woman, wanted money; she was very good and meek, and when Ernest got her a shilling from Lady Anne Jones's bequest, she said it was "small but seasonable," and munched and munched in gratitude. Ernest sometimes gave her a little money himself, but not, as he says now, half what he ought to have given.
What could he do else that would have been of the smallest use to her? Nothing indeed; but giving occasional half-crowns to Mrs Gover was not regenerating the universe, and Ernest wanted nothing short of this. The world was all out of joint, and instead of feeling it to be a cursed spite that he was born to set it right, he thought he was just the kind of person that was wanted for the job, and was eager to set to work, only he did not exactly know how to begin, for the beginning he had made with Mr Chesterfield and Mrs Gover did not promise great developments.
Then poor Mr Brookes--he suffered very much, terribly indeed; he was not in want of money; he wanted to die and couldn't, just as we sometimes want to go to sleep and cannot. He had been a serious- minded man, and death frightened him as it must frighten anyone who believes that all his most secret thoughts will be shortly exposed in public. When I read Ernest the description of how his father used to visit Mrs Thompson at Battersby, he coloured and said-- "that's just what I used to say to Mr Brookes." Ernest felt that his visits, so far from comforting Mr Brookes, made him fear death more and more, but how could he help it?
Even Pryer, who had been curate a couple of years, did not know personally more than a couple of hundred people in the parish at the outside, and it was only at the houses of very few of these that he ever visited, but then Pryer had such a strong objection on principle to house visitations. What a drop in the sea were those with whom he and Pryer were brought into direct communication in comparison with those whom he must reach and move if he were to produce much effect of any kind, one way or the other. Why there were between fifteen and twenty thousand poor in the parish, of whom but the merest fraction ever attended a place of worship. Some few went to dissenting chapels, a few were Roman Catholics; by far the greater number, however, were practically infidels, if not actively hostile, at any rate indifferent to religion, while many were avowed Atheists
-admirers of Tom Paine, of whom he now heard for the first time; but he never met and conversed with any of these.
Was he really doing everything that could be expected of him? It was all very well to say that he was doing as much as other young clergymen did; that was not the kind of answer which Jesus Christ was likely to accept; why, the Pharisees themselves in all probability did as much as the other Pharisees did. What he should do was to go into the highways and byways, and compel people to come in. Was he doing this? Or were not they rather compelling him to keep out--outside their doors at any rate? He began to have an uneasy feeling as though ere long, unless he kept a sharp look out, he should drift into being a sham.
True, all would be changed as soon as he could endow the College for Spiritual Pathology; matters, however, had not gone too well with "the things that people bought in the place that was called the Stock Exchange." In order to get on faster, it had been arranged that Ernest should buy more of these things than he could pay for, with the idea that in a few weeks, or even days, they would be much higher in value, and he could sell them at a tremendous profit; but, unfortunately, instead of getting higher, they had fallen immediately after Ernest had bought, and obstinately refused to get up again; so, after a few settlements, he had got frightened, for he read an article in some newspaper, which said they would go ever so much lower, and, contrary to Pryer's advice, he insisted on selling- -at a loss of something like 500 pounds. He had hardly sold when up went the shares again, and he saw how foolish he had been, and how wise Pryer was, for if Pryer's advice had been followed, he would have made 500 pounds, instead of losing it. However, he told himself he must live and learn.
Then Pryer made a mistake. They had bought some shares, and the shares went up delightfully for about a fortnight. This was a happy time indeed, for by the end of a fortnight, the lost 500 pounds had been recovered, and three or four hundred pounds had been cleared into the bargain. All the feverish anxiety of that miserable six weeks, when the 500 pounds was being lost, was now being repaid with interest. Ernest wanted to sell and make sure of the profit, but Pryer would not hear of it; they would go ever so much higher yet, and he showed Ernest an article in some newspaper which proved that what he said was reasonable, and they did go up a little--but only a very little, for then they went down, down, and Ernest saw first his clear profit of three or four hundred pounds go, and then the 500 pounds loss, which he thought he had recovered, slipped away by falls of a half and one at a time, and then he lost 200 pounds more. Then a newspaper said that these shares were the greatest rubbish that had ever been imposed upon the English public, and Ernest could stand it no longer, so he sold out, again this time against Pryer's advice, so that when they went up, as they shortly did, Pryer scored off Ernest a second time.
Ernest was not used to vicissitudes of this kind, and they made him so anxious that his health was affected. It was arranged therefore that he had better know nothing of what was being done. Pryer was a much better man of business than he was, and would see to it all. This relieved Ernest of a good deal of trouble, and was better after all for the investments themselves; for, as Pryer justly said, a man must not have a faint heart if he hopes to succeed in buying and selling upon the Stock Exchange, and seeing Ernest nervous made Pryer nervous too--at least, he said it did. So the money drifted more and more into Pryer's hands. As for Pryer himself, he had nothing but his curacy and a small allowance from his father.
Some of Ernest's old friends got an inkling from his letters of what he was doing, and did their utmost to dissuade him, but he was as infatuated as a young lover of two and twenty. Finding that these friends disapproved, he dropped away from them, and they, being bored with his egotism and high-flown ideas, were not sorry to let him do so. Of course, he said nothing about his speculations-- indeed, he hardly knew that anything done in so good a cause could be called speculation. At Battersby, when his father urged him to look out for a next presentation, and even brought one or two promising ones under his notice, he made objections and excuses, though always promising to do as his father desired very shortly.
By and by a subtle, indefinable malaise began to take possession of him. I once saw a very young foal trying to eat some most objectionable refuse, and unable to make up its mind whether it was good or no. Clearly it wanted to be told. If its mother had seen what it was doing she would have set it right in a moment, and as soon as ever it had been told that what it was eating was filth, the foal would have recognised it and never have wanted to be told again; but the foal could not settle the matter for itself, or make up its mind whether it liked what it was trying to eat or no, without assistance from without. I suppose it would have come to do so by and by, but it was wasting time and trouble, which a single look from its mother would have saved, just as wort will in time ferment of itself, but will ferment much more quickly if a little yeast be added to it. In the matter of knowing what gives us pleasure we are all like wort, and if unaided from without can only ferment slowly and toilsomely.
My unhappy hero about this time was very much like the foal, or rather he felt much what the foal would have felt if its mother and all the other grown-up horses in the field had vowed that what it was eating was the most excellent and nutritious food to be found anywhere. He was so anxious to do what was right, and so ready to believe that every one knew better than himself, that he never ventured to admit to himself that he might be all the while on a hopelessly wrong tack. It did not occur to him that there might be a blunder anywhere, much less did it occur to him to try and find out where the blunder was. Nevertheless he became daily more full of malaise, and daily, only he knew it not, more ripe for an explosion should a spark fall upon him.
One thing, however, did begin to loom out of the general vagueness, and to this he instinctively turned as trying to seize it--I mean, the fact that he was saving very few souls, whereas there were thousands and thousands being lost hourly all around him which a little energy such as Mr Hawke's might save. Day after day went by, and what was he doing? Standing on professional etiquette, and praying that his shares might go up and down as he wanted them, so that they might give him money enough to enable him to regenerate the universe. But in the meantime the people were dying. How many souls would not be doomed to endless ages of the most frightful torments that the mind could think of, before he could bring his spiritual pathology engine to bear upon them? Why might he not stand and preach as he saw the Dissenters doing sometimes in Lincoln's Inn Fields and other thoroughfares? He could say all that Mr Hawke had said. Mr Hawke was a very poor creature in Ernest's eyes now, for he was a Low Churchman, but we should not be above learning from any one, and surely he could affect his hearers as powerfully as Mr Hawke had affected him if he only had the courage to set to work. The people whom he saw preaching in the squares sometimes drew large audiences. He could at any rate preach better than they.
Ernest broached this to Pryer, who treated it as something too outrageous to be even thought of. Nothing, he said, could more tend to lower the dignity of the clergy and bring the Church into contempt. His manner was brusque, and even rude.
Ernest ventured a little mild dissent; he admitted it was not usual, but something at any rate must be done, and that quickly. This was how Wesley and Whitfield had begun that great movement which had kindled religious life in the minds of hundreds of thousands. This was no time to be standing on dignity. It was just because Wesley and Whitfield had done what the Church would not that they had won men to follow them whom the Church had now lost.
Pryer eyed Ernest searchingly, and after a pause said, "I don't know what to make of you, Pontifex; you are at once so very right and so very wrong. I agree with you heartily that something should be done, but it must not be done in a way which experience has shown leads to nothing but fanaticism and dissent. Do you approve of these Wesleyans? Do you hold your ordination vows so cheaply as to think that it does not matter whether the services of the Church are performed in her churches and with all due ceremony or not? If you do--then, frankly, you had no business to be ordained; if you do not, then remember that one of the first duties of a young deacon is obedience to authority. Neither the Catholic Church, nor yet the Church of England allows her clergy to preach in the streets of cities where there is no lack of churches."Ernest felt the force of this, and Pryer saw that he wavered.
"We are living," he continued more genially, "in an age of transition, and in a country which, though it has gained much by the Reformation, does not perceive how much it has also lost. You cannot and must not hawk Christ about in the streets as though you were in a heathen country whose inhabitants had never heard of him. The people here in London have had ample warning. Every church they pass is a protest to them against their lives, and a call to them to repent. Every church-bell they hear is a witness against them, everyone of those whom they meet on Sundays going to or coming from church is a warning voice from God. If these countless influences produce no effect upon them, neither will the few transient words which they would hear from you. You are like Dives, and think that if one rose from the dead they would hear him. Perhaps they might; but then you cannot pretend that you have risen from the dead."
Though the last few words were spoken laughingly, there was a sub- sneer about them which made Ernest wince; but he was quite subdued, and so the conversation ended. It left Ernest, however, not for the first time, consciously dissatisfied with Pryer, and inclined to set his friend's opinion on one side--not openly, but quietly, and without telling Pryer anything about it.
He had hardly parted from Pryer before there occurred another incident which strengthened his discontent. He had fallen, as I have shown, among a gang of spiritual thieves or coiners, who passed the basest metal upon him without his finding it out, so childish and inexperienced was he in the ways of anything but those back eddies of the world, schools and universities. Among the bad threepenny pieces which had been passed off upon him, and which he kept for small hourly disbursement, was a remark that poor people were much nicer than the richer and better educated. Ernest now said that he always travelled third class not because it was cheaper, but because the people whom he met in third class carriages were so much pleasanter and better behaved. As for the young men who attended Ernest's evening classes, they were pronounced to be more intelligent and better ordered generally than the average run of Oxford and Cambridge men. Our foolish young friend having heard Pryer talk to this effect, caught up all he said and reproduced it more suo.
One evening, however, about this time, whom should he see coming along a small street not far from his own but, of all persons in the world, Towneley, looking as full of life and good spirits as ever, and if possible even handsomer than he had been at Cambridge. Much as Ernest liked him he found himself shrinking from speaking to him, and was endeavouring to pass him without doing so when Towneley saw him and stopped him at once, being pleased to see an old Cambridge face. He seemed for the moment a little confused at being seen in such a neighbourhood, but recovered himself so soon that Ernest hardly noticed it, and then plunged into a few kindly remarks about old times. Ernest felt that he quailed as he saw Towneley's eye wander to his white necktie and saw that he was being reckoned up, and rather disapprovingly reckoned up, as a parson. It was the merest passing shade upon Towneley's face, but Ernest had felt it.
Towneley said a few words of common form to Ernest about his profession as being what he thought would be most likely to interest him, and Ernest, still confused and shy, gave him for lack of something better to say his little threepenny-bit about poor people being so very nice. Towneley took this for what it was worth and nodded assent, whereon Ernest imprudently went further and said "Don't you like poor people very much yourself?"Towneley gave his face a comical but good-natured screw, and said quietly, but slowly and decidedly, "No, no, no," and escaped.
It was all over with Ernest from that moment. As usual he did not know it, but he had entered none the less upon another reaction. Towneley had just taken Ernest's threepenny-bit into his hands, looked at it and returned it to him as a bad one. Why did he see in a moment that it was a bad one now, though he had been unable to see it when he had taken it from Pryer? Of course some poor people were very nice, and always would be so, but as though scales had fallen suddenly from his eyes he saw that no one was nicer for being poor, and that between the upper and lower classes there was a gulf which amounted practically to an impassable barrier.
That evening he reflected a good deal. If Towneley was right, and Ernest felt that the "No" had applied not to the remark about poor people only, but to the whole scheme and scope of his own recently adopted ideas, he and Pryer must surely be on a wrong track. Towneley had not argued with him; he had said one word only, and that one of the shortest in the language, but Ernest was in a fit state for inoculation, and the minute particle of virus set about working immediately.
Which did he now think was most likely to have taken the juster view of life and things, and whom would it be best to imitate, Towneley or Pryer? His heart returned answer to itself without a moment's hesitation. The faces of men like Towneley were open and kindly; they looked as if at ease themselves, and as though they would set all who had to do with them at ease as far as might be. The faces of Pryer and his friends were not like this. Why had he felt tacitly rebuked as soon as he had met Towneley? Was he not a Christian? Certainly; he believed in the Church of England as a matter of course. Then how could he be himself wrong in trying to act up to the faith that he and Towneley held in common? He was trying to lead a quiet, unobtrusive life of self-devotion, whereas Towneley was not, so far as he could see, trying to do anything of the kind; he was only trying to get on comfortably in the world, and to look and be as nice as possible. And he was nice, and Ernest knew that such men as himself and Pryer were not nice, and his old dejection came over him.
Then came an even worse reflection; how if he had fallen among material thieves as well as spiritual ones? He knew very little of how his money was going on; he had put it all now into Pryer's hands, and though Pryer gave him cash to spend whenever he wanted it, he seemed impatient of being questioned as to what was being done with the principal. It was part of the understanding, he said, that that was to be left to him, and Ernest had better stick to this, or he, Pryer, would throw up the College of Spiritual Pathology altogether; and so Ernest was cowed into acquiescence, or cajoled, according to the humour in which Pryer saw him to be. Ernest thought that further questions would look as if he doubted Pryer's word, and also that he had gone too far to be able to recede in decency or honour. This, however, he felt was riding out to meet trouble unnecessarily. Pryer had been a little impatient, but he was a gentleman and an admirable man of business, so his money would doubtless come back to him all right some day.
Ernest comforted himself as regards this last source of anxiety, but as regards the other, he began to feel as though, if he was to be saved, a good Samaritan must hurry up from somewhere--he knew not whence.
Next day he felt stronger again. He had been listening to the voice of the evil one on the night before, and would parley no more with such thoughts. He had chosen his profession, and his duty was to persevere with it. If he was unhappy it was probably because he was not giving up all for Christ. Let him see whether he could not do more than he was doing now, and then perhaps a light would be shed upon his path.
It was all very well to have made the discovery that he didn't very much like poor people, but he had got to put up with them, for it was among them that his work must lie. Such men as Towneley were very kind and considerate, but he knew well enough it was only on condition that he did not preach to them. He could manage the poor better, and, let Pryer sneer as he liked, he was resolved to go more among them, and try the effect of bringing Christ to them if they would not come and seek Christ of themselves. He would begin with his own house.
Who then should he take first? Surely he could not do better than begin with the tailor who lived immediately over his head. This would be desirable, not only because he was the one who seemed to stand most in need of conversion, but also because, if he were once converted, he would no longer beat his wife at two o'clock in the morning, and the house would be much pleasanter in consequence. He would therefore go upstairs at once, and have a quiet talk with this man.
Before doing so, he thought it would be well if he were to draw up something like a plan of a campaign; he therefore reflected over some pretty conversations which would do very nicely if Mr Holt would be kind enough to make the answers proposed for him in their proper places. But the man was a great hulking fellow, of a savage temper, and Ernest was forced to admit that unforeseen developments might arise to disconcert him. They say it takes nine tailors to make a man, but Ernest felt that it would take at least nine Ernests to make a Mr Holt. How if, as soon as Ernest came in, the tailor were to become violent and abusive? What could he do? Mr Holt was in his own lodgings, and had a right to be undisturbed. A legal right, yes, but had he a moral right? Ernest thought not, considering his mode of life. But put this on one side; if the man were to be violent, what should he do? Paul had fought with wild beasts at Ephesus--that must indeed have been awful--but perhaps they were not very wild wild beasts; a rabbit and a canary are wild beasts; but, formidable or not as wild beasts go, they would, nevertheless stand no chance against St Paul, for he was inspired; the miracle would have been if the wild beasts escaped, not that St Paul should have done so; but, however all this might be, Ernest felt that he dared not begin to convert Mr Holt by fighting him. Why, when he had heard Mrs Holt screaming "murder," he had cowered under the bed clothes and waited, expecting to hear the blood dripping through the ceiling on to his own floor. His imagination translated every sound into a pat, pat, pat, and once or twice he thought he had felt it dropping on to his counterpane, but he had never gone upstairs to try and rescue poor Mrs Holt. Happily it had proved next morning that Mrs Holt was in her usual health. Ernest was in despair about hitting on any good way of opening up spiritual communication with his neighbour, when it occurred to him that he had better perhaps begin by going upstairs, and knocking very gently at Mr Holt's door. He would then resign himself to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and act as the occasion, which, I suppose, was another name for the Holy Spirit, suggested. Triply armed with this reflection, he mounted the stairs quite jauntily, and was about to knock when he heard Holt's voice inside swearing savagely at his wife. This made him pause to think whether after all the moment was an auspicious one, and while he was thus pausing, Mr Holt, who had heard that someone was on the stairs, opened the door and put his head out. When he saw Ernest, he made an unpleasant, not to say offensive movement, which might or might not have been directed at Ernest and looked altogether so ugly that my hero had an instantaneous and unequivocal revelation from the Holy Spirit to the effect that he should continue his journey upstairs at once, as though he had never intended arresting it at Mr Holt's room, and begin by converting Mr and Mrs Baxter, the Methodists in the top floor front. So this was what he did.
These good people received him with open arms, and were quite ready to talk. He was beginning to convert them from Methodism to the Church of England, when all at once he found himself embarrassed by discovering that he did not know what he was to convert them from. He knew the Church of England, or thought he did, but he knew nothing of Methodism beyond its name. When he found that, according to Mr Baxter, the Wesleyans had a vigorous system of Church discipline (which worked admirably in practice) it appeared to him that John Wesley had anticipated the spiritual engine which he and Pryer were preparing, and when he left the room he was aware that he had caught more of a spiritual Tartar than he had expected. But he must certainly explain to Pryer that the Wesleyans had a system of Church discipline. This was very important.
Mr Baxter advised Ernest on no account to meddle with Mr Holt, and Ernest was much relieved at the advice. If an opportunity arose of touching the man's heart, he would take it; he would pat the children on the head when he saw them on the stairs, and ingratiate himself with them as far as he dared; they were sturdy youngsters, and Ernest was afraid even of them, for they were ready with their tongues, and knew much for their ages. Ernest felt that it would indeed be almost better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of the little Holts. However, he would try not to offend them; perhaps an occasional penny or two might square them. This was as much as he could do, for he saw that the attempt to be instant out of season, as well as in season, would, St Paul's injunction notwithstanding, end in failure.
Mrs Baxter gave a very bad account of Miss Emily Snow, who lodged in the second floor back next to Mr Holt. Her story was quite different from that of Mrs Jupp the landlady. She would doubtless be only too glad to receive Ernest's ministrations or those of any other gentleman, but she was no governess, she was in the ballet at Drury Lane, and besides this, she was a very bad young woman, and if Mrs Baxter was landlady would not be allowed to stay in the house a single hour, not she indeed.
Miss Maitland in the next room to Mrs Baxter's own was a quiet and respectable young woman to all appearance; Mrs Baxter had never known of any goings on in that quarter, but, bless you, still waters run deep, and these girls were all alike, one as bad as the other. She was out at all kinds of hours, and when you knew that you knew all.
Ernest did not pay much heed to these aspersions of Mrs Baxter's. Mrs Jupp had got round the greater number of his many blind sides, and had warned him not to believe Mrs Baxter, whose lip she said was something awful.
Ernest had heard that women were always jealous of one another, and certainly these young women were more attractive than Mrs Baxter was, so jealousy was probably at the bottom of it. If they were maligned there could be no objection to his making their acquaintance; if not maligned they had all the more need of his ministrations. He would reclaim them at once.
He told Mrs Jupp of his intention. Mrs Jupp at first tried to dissuade him, but seeing him resolute, suggested that she should herself see Miss Snow first, so as to prepare her and prevent her from being alarmed by his visit. She was not at home now, but in the course of the next day, it should be arranged. In the meantime he had better try Mr Shaw, the tinker, in the front kitchen. Mrs Baxter had told Ernest that Mr Shaw was from the North Country, and an avowed freethinker; he would probably, she said, rather like a visit, but she did not think Ernest would stand much chance of making a convert of him.
Before going down into the kitchen to convert the tinker Ernest ran hurriedly over his analysis of Paley's evidences, and put into his pocket a copy of Archbishop Whateley's "Historic Doubts." Then he descended the dark rotten old stairs and knocked at the tinker's door. Mr Shaw was very civil; he said he was rather throng just now, but if Ernest did not mind the sound of hammering he should be very glad of a talk with him. Our hero, assenting to this, ere long led the conversation to Whateley's "Historic Doubts"--a work which, as the reader may know, pretends to show that there never was any such person as Napoleon Buonaparte, and thus satirises the arguments of those who have attacked the Christian miracles.Mr Shaw said he knew "Historic Doubts" very well. "And what you think of it?" said Ernest, who regarded the pamphlet as a masterpiece of wit and cogency.
"If you really want to know," said Mr Shaw, with a sly twinkle, "I think that he who was so willing and able to prove that what was was not, would be equally able and willing to make a case for thinking that what was not was, if it suited his purpose." Ernest was very much taken aback. How was it that all the clever people of Cambridge had never put him up to this simple rejoinder? The answer is easy: they did not develop it for the same reason that a hen had never developed webbed feet--that is to say, because they did not want to do so; but this was before the days of Evolution, and Ernest could not as yet know anything of the great principle that underlies it.
"You see," continued Mr Shaw, "these writers all get their living by writing in a certain way, and the more they write in that way, the more they are likely to get on. You should not call them dishonest for this any more than a judge should call a barrister dishonest for earning his living by defending one in whose innocence he does not seriously believe; but you should hear the barrister on the other side before you decide upon the case."This was another facer. Ernest could only stammer that he had endeavoured to examine these questions as carefully as he could.
"You think you have," said Mr Shaw; "you Oxford and Cambridge gentlemen think you have examined everything. I have examined very little myself except the bottoms of old kettles and saucepans, but if you will answer me a few questions, I will tell you whether or no you have examined much more than I have."Ernest expressed his readiness to be questioned. "Then," said the tinker, "give me the story of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ as told in St
I am sorry to say that Ernest mixed up the four accounts in a deplorable manner; he even made the angel come down and roll away the stone and sit upon it. He was covered with confusion when the tinker first told him without the book of some of his many inaccuracies, and then verified his criticisms by referring to the New Testament itself.
"Now," said Mr Shaw good naturedly, "I am an old man and you are a young one, so perhaps you'll not mind my giving you a piece of advice. I like you, for I believe you mean well, but you've been real bad brought up, and I don't think you have ever had so much as a chance yet. You know nothing of our side of the question, and I have just shown you that you do not know much more of your own, but I think you will make a kind of Carlyle sort of a man some day. Now go upstairs and read the accounts of the Resurrection correctly without mixing them up, and have a clear idea of what it is that each writer tells us, then if you feel inclined to pay me another visit I shall be glad to see you, for I shall know you have made a good beginning and mean business. Till then, Sir, I must wish you a very good morning."
Ernest retreated abashed. An hour sufficed him to perform the task enjoined upon him by Mr Shaw; and at the end of that hour the "No, no, no," which still sounded in his ears as he heard it from Towneley, came ringing up more loudly still from the very pages of the Bible itself, and in respect of the most important of all the events which are recorded in it. Surely Ernest's first day's attempt at more promiscuous visiting, and at carrying out his principles more thoroughly, had not been unfruitful. But he must go and have a talk with Pryer. He therefore got his lunch and went to Pryer's lodgings. Pryer not being at home, he lounged to the British Museum Reading Room, then recently opened, sent for the "Vestiges of Creation," which he had never yet seen, and spent the rest of the afternoon in reading it.
Ernest did not see Pryer on the day of his conversation with Mr Shaw, but he did so next morning and found him in a good temper, which of late he had rarely been. Sometimes, indeed, he had behaved to Ernest in a way which did not bode well for the harmony with which the College of Spiritual Pathology would work when it had once been founded. It almost seemed as though he were trying to get a complete moral ascendency over him, so as to make him a creature of his own.
He did not think it possible that he could go too far, and indeed, when I reflect upon my hero's folly and inexperience, there is much to be said in excuse for the conclusion which Pryer came to.
As a matter of fact, however, it was not so. Ernest's faith in Pryer had been too great to be shaken down all in a moment, but it had been weakened lately more than once. Ernest had fought hard against allowing himself to see this, nevertheless any third person who knew the pair would have been able to see that the connection between the two might end at any moment, for when the time for one of Ernest's snipe-like changes of flight came, he was quick in making it; the time, however, was not yet come, and the intimacy between the two was apparently all that it had ever been. It was only that horrid money business (so said Ernest to himself) that caused any unpleasantness between them, and no doubt Pryer was right, and he, Ernest, much too nervous. However, that might stand over for the present.
In like manner, though he had received a shock by reason of his conversation with Mr Shaw, and by looking at the "Vestiges," he was as yet too much stunned to realise the change which was coming over him. In each case the momentum of old habits carried him forward in the old direction. He therefore called on Pryer, and spent an hour and more with him.
He did not say that he had been visiting among his neighbours; this to Pryer would have been like a red rag to a bull. He only talked in much his usual vein about the proposed College, the lamentable want of interest in spiritual things which was characteristic of modern society, and other kindred matters; he concluded by saying that for the present he feared Pryer was indeed right, and that nothing could be done.
"As regards the laity," said Pryer, "nothing; not until we have a discipline which we can enforce with pains and penalties. How can a sheep dog work a flock of sheep unless he can bite occasionally as well as bark? But as regards ourselves we can do much."
Pryer's manner was strange throughout the conversation, as though he were thinking all the time of something else. His eyes wandered curiously over Ernest, as Ernest had often noticed them wander before: the words were about Church discipline, but somehow or other the discipline part of the story had a knack of dropping out after having been again and again emphatically declared to apply to the laity and not to the clergy: once indeed Pryer had pettishly exclaimed: "Oh, bother the College of Spiritual Pathology." As regards the clergy, glimpses of a pretty large cloven hoof kept peeping out from under the saintly robe of Pryer's conversation, to the effect, that so long as they were theoretically perfect, practical peccadilloes--or even peccadaccios, if there is such a word, were of less importance. He was restless, as though wanting to approach a subject which he did not quite venture to touch upon, and kept harping (he did this about every third day) on the wretched lack of definition concerning the limits of vice and virtue, and the way in which half the vices wanted regulating rather than prohibiting. He dwelt also on the advantages of complete unreserve, and hinted that there were mysteries into which Ernest had not yet been initiated, but which would enlighten him when he got to know them, as he would be allowed to do when his friends saw that he was strong enough.
Pryer had often been like this before, but never so nearly, as it seemed to Ernest, coming to a point--though what the point was he could not fully understand. His inquietude was communicating itself to Ernest, who would probably ere long have come to know as much as Pryer could tell him, but the conversation was abruptly interrupted by the appearance of a visitor. We shall never know how it would have ended, for this was the very last time that Ernest ever saw Pryer. Perhaps Pryer was going to break to him some bad news about his speculations.
Ernest now went home and occupied himself till luncheon with studying Dean Alford's notes upon the various Evangelistic records of the Resurrection, doing as Mr Shaw had told him, and trying to find out not that they were all accurate, but whether they were all accurate or no. He did not care which result he should arrive at, but he was resolved that he would reach one or the other. When he had finished Dean Alford's notes he found them come to this, namely, that no one yet had succeeded in bringing the four accounts into tolerable harmony with each other, and that the Dean, seeing no chance of succeeding better than his predecessors had done, recommended that the whole story should be taken on trust--and this Ernest was not prepared to do.
He got his luncheon, went out for a long walk, and returned to dinner at half past six. While Mrs Jupp was getting him his dinner- -a steak and a pint of stout--she told him that Miss Snow would be very happy to see him in about an hour's time. This disconcerted him, for his mind was too unsettled for him to wish to convert anyone just then. He reflected a little, and found that, in spite of the sudden shock to his opinions, he was being irresistibly drawn to pay the visit as though nothing had happened. It would not look well for him not to go, for he was known to be in the house. He ought not to be in too great a hurry to change his opinions on such a matter as the evidence for Christ's Resurrection all of a sudden-- besides he need not talk to Miss Snow about this subject to-day-- there were other things he might talk about. What other things? Ernest felt his heart beat fast and fiercely, and an inward monitor warned him that he was thinking of anything rather than of Miss Snow's soul.
What should he do? Fly, fly, fly--it was the only safety. But would Christ have fled? Even though Christ had not died and risen from the dead there could be no question that He was the model whose example we were bound to follow. Christ would not have fled from Miss Snow; he was sure of that, for He went about more especially with prostitutes and disreputable people. Now, as then, it was the business of the true Christian to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance. It would be inconvenient to him to change his lodgings, and he could not ask Mrs Jupp to turn Miss Snow and Miss Maitland out of the house. Where was he to draw the line? Who would be just good enough to live in the same house with him, and who just not good enough?
Besides, where were these poor girls to go? Was he to drive them from house to house till they had no place to lie in? It was absurd; his duty was clear: he would go and see Miss Snow at once, and try if he could not induce her to change her present mode of life; if he found temptation becoming too strong for him he would fly then--so he went upstairs with his Bible under his arm, and a consuming fire in his heart.
He found Miss Snow looking very pretty in a neatly, not to say demurely, furnished room. I think she had bought an illuminated text or two, and pinned it up over her fireplace that morning. Ernest was very much pleased with her, and mechanically placed his Bible upon the table. He had just opened a timid conversation and was deep in blushes, when a hurried step came bounding up the stairs as though of one over whom the force of gravity had little power, and a man burst into the room saying, "I'm come before my time." It was Towneley.His face dropped as he caught sight of Ernest. "What, you here, Pontifex! Well, upon my word!"
I cannot describe the hurried explanations that passed quickly between the three--enough that in less than a minute Ernest, blushing more scarlet than ever, slunk off, Bible and all, deeply humiliated as he contrasted himself and Towneley. Before he had reached the bottom of the staircase leading to his own room he heard Towneley's hearty laugh through Miss Snow's door, and cursed the hour that he was born.
Then it flashed upon him that if he could not see Miss Snow he could at any rate see Miss Maitland. He knew well enough what he wanted now, and as for the Bible, he pushed it from him to the other end of his table. It fell over on to the floor, and he kicked it into a corner. It was the Bible given him at his christening by his affectionate aunt, Elizabeth Allaby. True, he knew very little of Miss Maitland, but ignorant young fools in Ernest's state do not reflect or reason closely. Mrs Baxter had said that Miss Maitland and Miss Snow were birds of a feather, and Mrs Baxter probably knew better than that old liar, Mrs Jupp. Shakespeare says:
O Opportunity, thy guilt is great
'Tis thou that execut'st the traitor's treason: Thou set'st the wolf where he the lamb may get; Whoever plots the sin, thou 'point'st the season; 'Tis thou that spurn'st at right, at law, at reason; And in thy shady cell, where none may spy him, Sits Sin, to seize the souls that wander by him.
If the guilt of opportunity is great, how much greater is the guilt of that which is believed to be opportunity, but in reality is no opportunity at all. If the better part of valour is discretion, how much more is not discretion the better part of vice
About ten minutes after we last saw Ernest, a scared, insulted girl, flushed and trembling, was seen hurrying from Mrs Jupp's house as fast as her agitated state would let her, and in another ten minutes two policemen were seen also coming out of Mrs Jupp's, between whom there shambled rather than walked our unhappy friend Ernest, with staring eyes, ghastly pale, and with despair branded upon every line of his face.
Pryer had done well to warn Ernest against promiscuous house to house visitation. He had not gone outside Mrs Jupp's street door, and yet what had been the result?
Mr Holt had put him in bodily fear; Mr and Mrs Baxter had nearly made a Methodist of him; Mr Shaw had undermined his faith in the Resurrection; Miss Snow's charms had ruined--or would have done so but for an accident--his moral character. As for Miss Maitland, he had done his best to ruin hers, and had damaged himself gravely and irretrievably in consequence. The only lodger who had done him no harm was the bellows' mender, whom he had not visited.
Other young clergymen, much greater fools in many respects than he, would not have got into these scrapes. He seemed to have developed an aptitude for mischief almost from the day of his having been ordained. He could hardly preach without making some horrid faux pas. He preached one Sunday morning when the Bishop was at his Rector's church, and made his sermon turn upon the question what kind of little cake it was that the widow of Zarephath had intended making when Elijah found her gathering a few sticks. He demonstrated that it was a seed cake. The sermon was really very amusing, and more than once he saw a smile pass over the sea of faces underneath him. The Bishop was very angry, and gave my hero a severe reprimand in the vestry after service was over; the only excuse he could make was that he was preaching ex tempore, had not thought of this particular point till he was actually in the pulpit, and had then been carried away by it.
Another time he preached upon the barren fig-tree, and described the hopes of the owner as he watched the delicate blossom unfold, and give promise of such beautiful fruit in autumn. Next day he received a letter from a botanical member of his congregation who explained to him that this could hardly have been, inasmuch as the fig produces its fruit first and blossoms inside the fruit, or so nearly so that no flower is perceptible to an ordinary observer. This last, however, was an accident which might have happened to any one but a scientist or an inspired writer.
The only excuse I can make for him is that he was very young--not yet four and twenty-and that in mind as in body, like most of those who in the end come to think for themselves, he was a slow grower. By far the greater part, moreover, of his education had been an attempt, not so much to keep him in blinkers as to gouge his eyes out altogether.
But to return to my story. It transpired afterwards that Miss Maitland had had no intention of giving Ernest in charge when she ran out of Mrs Jupp's house. She was running away because she was frightened, but almost the first person whom she ran against had happened to be a policeman of a serious turn of mind, who wished to gain a reputation for activity. He stopped her, questioned her, frightened her still more, and it was he rather than Miss Maitland, who insisted on giving my hero in charge to himself and another constable.
Towneley was still in Mrs Jupp's house when the policeman came. He had heard a disturbance, and going down to Ernest's room while Miss Maitland was out of doors, had found him lying, as it were, stunned at the foot of the moral precipice over which he had that moment fallen. He saw the whole thing at a glance, but before he could take action, the policemen came in and action became impossible.
He asked Ernest who were his friends in London. Ernest at first wanted not to say, but Towneley soon gave him to understand that he must do as he was bid, and selected myself from the few whom he had named. "Writes for the stage, does he?" said Towneley. "Does he write comedy?" Ernest thought Towneley meant that I ought to write tragedy, and said he was afraid I wrote burlesque. "Oh, come, come," said Towneley, "that will do famously. I will go and see him at once." But on second thoughts he determined to stay with Ernest and go with him to the police court. So he sent Mrs Jupp for me. Mrs Jupp hurried so fast to fetch me, that in spite of the weather's being still cold she was "giving out," as she expressed it, in streams. The poor old wretch would have taken a cab, but she had no money and did not like to ask Towneley to give her some. I saw that something very serious had happened, but was not prepared for anything so deplorable as what Mrs Jupp actually told me. As for Mrs Jupp, she said her heart had been jumping out of its socket and back again ever since.I got her into a cab with me, and we went off to the police station. She talked without ceasing.
"And if the neighbours do say cruel things about me, I'm sure it ain't no thanks to HIM if they're true. Mr Pontifex never took a bit o' notice of me no more than if I had been his sister. Oh, it's enough to make anyone's back bone curdle. Then I thought perhaps my Rose might get on better with him, so I set her to dust him and clean him as though I were busy, and gave her such a beautiful clean new pinny, but he never took no notice of her no more than he did of me, and she didn't want no compliment neither, she wouldn't have taken not a shilling from him, though he had offered it, but he didn't seem to know anything at all. I can't make out what the young men are a-coming to; I wish the horn may blow for me and the worms take me this very night, if it's not enough to make a woman stand before God and strike the one half on 'em silly to see the way they goes on, and many an honest girl has to go home night after night without so much as a fourpenny bit and paying three and sixpence a week rent, and not a shelf nor cupboard in the place and a dead wall in front of the window.
"It's not Mr Pontifex," she continued, "that's so bad, he's good at heart. He never says nothing unkind. And then there's his dear eyes--but when I speak about that to my Rose she calls me an old fool and says I ought to be poleaxed. It's that Pryer as I can't abide. Oh he! He likes to wound a woman's feelings he do, and to chuck anything in her face, he do--he likes to wind a woman up and to wound her down." (Mrs Jupp pronounced "wound" as though it rhymed to "sound.") "It's a gentleman's place to soothe a woman, but he, he'd like to tear her hair out by handfuls. Why, he told me to my face that I was agetting old; old indeed! there's not a woman in London knows my age except Mrs Davis down in the Old Kent Road, and beyond a haricot vein in one of my legs I'm as young as ever I was. Old indeed! There's many a good tune played on an old fiddle. I hate his nasty insinuendos."
Even if I had wanted to stop her, I could not have done so. She said a great deal more than I have given above. I have left out much because I could not remember it, but still more because it was really impossible for me to print it.
When we got to the police station I found Towneley and Ernest already there. The charge was one of assault, but not aggravated by serious violence. Even so, however, it was lamentable enough, and we both saw that our young friend would have to pay dearly for his inexperience. We tried to bail him out for the night, but the Inspector would not accept bail, so we were forced to leave him.
Towneley then went back to Mrs Jupp's to see if he could find Miss Maitland and arrange matters with her. She was not there, but he traced her to the house of her father, who lived at Camberwell. The father was furious and would not hear of any intercession on Towneley's part. He was a Dissenter, and glad to make the most of any scandal against a clergyman; Towneley, therefore, was obliged to return unsuccessful.
Next morning, Towneley--who regarded Ernest as a drowning man, who must be picked out of the water somehow or other if possible, irrespective of the way in which he got into it--called on me, and we put the matter into the hands of one of the best known attorneys of the day. I was greatly pleased with Towneley, and thought it due to him to tell him what I had told no one else. I mean that Ernest would come into his aunt's money in a few years' time, and would therefore then be rich.
Towneley was doing all he could before this, but I knew that the knowledge I had imparted to him would make him feel as though Ernest was more one of his own class, and had therefore a greater claim upon his good offices. As for Ernest himself, his gratitude was greater than could be expressed in words. I have heard him say that he can call to mind many moments, each one of which might well pass for the happiest of his life, but that this night stands clearly out as the most painful that he ever passed, yet so kind and considerate was Towneley that it was quite bearable.
But with all the best wishes in the world neither Towneley nor I could do much to help beyond giving our moral support. Our attorney told us that the magistrate before whom Ernest would appear was very severe on cases of this description, and that the fact of his being a clergyman would tell against him. "Ask for no remand," he said, "and make no defence. We will call Mr Pontifex's rector and you two gentlemen as witnesses for previous good character. These will be enough. Let us then make a profound apology and beg the magistrate to deal with the case summarily instead of sending it for trial. If you can get this, believe me, your young friend will be better out of it than he has any right to expect."
This advice, besides being obviously sensible, would end in saving Ernest both time and suspense of mind, so we had no hesitation in adopting it. The case was called on about eleven o'clock, but we got it adjourned till three, so as to give time for Ernest to set his affairs as straight as he could, and to execute a power of attorney enabling me to act for him as I should think fit while he was in prison.
Then all came out about Pryer and the College of Spiritual Pathology. Ernest had even greater difficulty in making a clean breast of this than he had had in telling us about Miss Maitland, but he told us all, and the upshot was that he had actually handed over to Pryer every halfpenny that he then possessed with no other security than Pryer's I.O.U.'s for the amount. Ernest, though still declining to believe that Pryer could be guilty of dishonourable conduct, was becoming alive to the folly of what he had been doing; he still made sure, however, of recovering, at any rate, the greater part of his property as soon as Pryer should have had time to sell. Towneley and I were of a different opinion, but we did not say what we thought.
It was dreary work waiting all the morning amid such unfamiliar and depressing surroundings. I thought how the Psalmist had exclaimed with quiet irony, "One day in thy courts is better than a thousand," and I thought that I could utter a very similar sentiment in respect of the Courts in which Towneley and I were compelled to loiter. At last, about three o'clock the case was called on, and we went round to the part of the court which is reserved for the general public, while Ernest was taken into the prisoner's dock. As soon as he had collected himself sufficiently he recognised the magistrate as the old gentleman who had spoken to him in the train on the day he was leaving school, and saw, or thought he saw, to his great grief, that he too was recognised.
Mr Ottery, for this was our attorney's name, took the line he had proposed. He called no other witnesses than the rector, Towneley and myself, and threw himself on the mercy of the magistrate. When he had concluded, the magistrate spoke as follows: "Ernest Pontifex, yours is one of the most painful cases that I have ever had to deal with. You have been singularly favoured in your parentage and education. You have had before you the example of blameless parents, who doubtless instilled into you from childhood the enormity of the offence which by your own confession you have committed. You were sent to one of the best public schools in England. It is not likely that in the healthy atmosphere of such a school as Roughborough you can have come across contaminating influences; you were probably, I may say certainly, impressed at school with the heinousness of any attempt to depart from the strictest chastity until such time as you had entered into a state of matrimony. At Cambridge you were shielded from impurity by every obstacle which virtuous and vigilant authorities could devise, and even had the obstacles been fewer, your parents probably took care that your means should not admit of your throwing money away upon abandoned characters. At night proctors patrolled the street and dogged your steps if you tried to go into any haunt where the presence of vice was suspected. By day the females who were admitted within the college walls were selected mainly on the score of age and ugliness. It is hard to see what more can be done for any young man than this. For the last four or five months you have been a clergyman, and if a single impure thought had still remained within your mind, ordination should have removed it: nevertheless, not only does it appear that your mind is as impure as though none of the influences to which I have referred had been brought to bear upon it, but it seems as though their only result had been this-- that you have not even the common sense to be able to distinguish between a respectable girl and a prostitute.
"If I were to take a strict view of my duty I should commit you for trial, but in consideration of this being your first offence, I shall deal leniently with you and sentence you to imprisonment with hard labour for six calendar months."
Towneley and I both thought there was a touch of irony in the magistrate's speech, and that he could have given a lighter sentence if he would, but that was neither here nor there. We obtained leave to see Ernest for a few minutes before he was removed to Coldbath Fields, where he was to serve his term, and found him so thankful to have been summarily dealt with that he hardly seemed to care about the miserable plight in which he was to pass the next six months. When he came out, he said, he would take what remained of his money, go off to America or Australia and never be heard of more.
We left him full of this resolve, I, to write to Theobald, and also to instruct my solicitor to get Ernest's money out of Pryer's hands, and Towneley to see the reporters and keep the case out of the newspapers. He was successful as regards all the higher-class papers. There was only one journal, and that of the lowest class, which was incorruptible. I saw my solicitor at once, but when I tried to write to Theobald, I found it better to say I would run down and see him. I therefore proposed this, asking him to meet me at the station, and hinting that I must bring bad news about his son. I knew he would not get my letter more than a couple of hours before I should see him, and thought the short interval of suspense might break the shock of what I had to say.
Never do I remember to have halted more between two opinions than on my journey to Battersby upon this unhappy errand. When I thought of the little sallow-faced lad whom I had remembered years before, of the long and savage cruelty with which he had been treated in childhood--cruelty none the less real for having been due to ignorance and stupidity rather than to deliberate malice; of the atmosphere of lying and self-laudatory hallucination in which he had been brought up; of the readiness the boy had shown to love anything that would be good enough to let him, and of how affection for his parents, unless I am much mistaken, had only died in him because it had been killed anew, again and again and again, each time that it had tried to spring. When I thought of all this I felt as though, if the matter had rested with me, I would have sentenced Theobald and Christina to mental suffering even more severe than that which was about to fall upon them. But on the other hand, when I thought of Theobald's own childhood, of that dreadful old George Pontifex his father, of John and Mrs John, and of his two sisters, when again I thought of Christina's long years of hope deferred that maketh the heart sick, before she was married, of the life she must have led at Crampsford, and of the surroundings in the midst of which she and her husband both lived at Battersby, I felt as though the wonder was that misfortunes so persistent had not been followed by even graver retribution.
Poor people! They had tried to keep their ignorance of the world from themselves by calling it the pursuit of heavenly things, and then shutting their eyes to anything that might give them trouble. A son having been born to them they had shut his eyes also as far as was practicable. Who could blame them? They had chapter and verse for everything they had either done or left undone; there is no better thumbed precedent than that for being a clergyman and a clergyman's wife. In what respect had they differed from their neighbours? How did their household differ from that of any other clergyman of the better sort from one end of England to the other? Why then should it have been upon them, of all people in the world, that this tower of Siloam had fallen?
Surely it was the tower of Siloam that was naught rather than those who stood under it; it was the system rather than the people that was at fault. If Theobald and his wife had but known more of the world and of the things that are therein, they would have done little harm to anyone. Selfish they would have always been, but not more so than may very well be pardoned, and not more than other people would be. As it was, the case was hopeless; it would be no use their even entering into their mothers' wombs and being born again. They must not only be born again but they must be born again each one of them of a new father and of a new mother and of a different line of ancestry for many generations before their minds could become supple enough to learn anew. The only thing to do with them was to humour them and make the best of them till they died-- and be thankful when they did so.
Theobald got my letter as I had expected, and met me at the station nearest to Battersby. As I walked back with him towards his own house I broke the news to him as gently as I could. I pretended that the whole thing was in great measure a mistake, and that though Ernest no doubt had had intentions which he ought to have resisted, he had not meant going anything like the length which Miss Maitland supposed. I said we had felt how much appearances were against him, and had not dared to set up this defence before the magistrate, though we had no doubt about its being the true one.Theobald acted with a readier and acuter moral sense than I had given him credit for.
"I will have nothing more to do with him," he exclaimed promptly, "I will never see his face again; do not let him write either to me or to his mother; we know of no such person. Tell him you have seen me, and that from this day forward I shall put him out of my mind as though he had never been born. I have been a good father to him, and his mother idolised him; selfishness and ingratitude have been the only return we have ever had from him; my hope henceforth must be in my remaining children."
I told him how Ernest's fellow curate had got hold of his money, and hinted that he might very likely be penniless, or nearly so, on leaving prison. Theobald did not seem displeased at this, but added soon afterwards: "If this proves to be the case, tell him from me that I will give him a hundred pounds if he will tell me through you when he will have it paid, but tell him not to write and thank me, and say that if he attempts to open up direct communication either with his mother or myself, he shall not have a penny of the money."
Knowing what I knew, and having determined on violating Miss Pontifex's instructions should the occasion arise, I did not think Ernest would be any the worse for a complete estrangement from his family, so I acquiesced more readily in what Theobald had proposed than that gentleman may have expected.
Thinking it better that I should not see Christina, I left Theobald near Battersby and walked back to the station. On my way I was pleased to reflect that Ernest's father was less of a fool than I had taken him to be, and had the greater hopes, therefore, that his son's blunders might be due to postnatal, rather than congenital misfortunes. Accidents which happen to a man before he is born, in the persons of his ancestors, will, if he remembers them at all, leave an indelible impression on him; they will have moulded his character so that, do what he will, it is hardly possible for him to escape their consequences. If a man is to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, he must do so, not only as a little child, but as a little embryo, or rather as a little zoosperm--and not only this, but as one that has come of zoosperms which have entered into the Kingdom of Heaven before him for many generations. Accidents which occur for the first time, and belong to the period since a man's last birth, are not, as a general rule, so permanent in their effects, though of course they may sometimes be so. At any rate, I was not displeased at the view which Ernest's father took of the situation.
Chapter 64After Ernest had been sentenced, he was taken back to the cells to wait for the van which should take him to Coldbath Fields, where he was to serve his term.
He was still too stunned and dazed by the suddenness with which events had happened during the last twenty-four hours to be able to realise his position. A great chasm had opened between his past and future; nevertheless he breathed, his pulse beat, he could think and speak. It seemed to him that he ought to be prostrated by the blow that had fallen on him, but he was not prostrated; he had suffered from many smaller laches far more acutely. It was not until he thought of the pain his disgrace would inflict on his father and mother that he felt how readily he would have given up all he had, rather than have fallen into his present plight. It would break his mother's heart. It must, he knew it would--and it was he who had done this.
He had had a headache coming on all the forenoon, but as he thought of his father and mother, his pulse quickened, and the pain in his head suddenly became intense. He could hardly walk to the van, and he found its motion insupportable. On reaching the prison he was too ill to walk without assistance across the hall to the corridor or gallery where prisoners are marshalled on their arrival. The prison warder, seeing at once that he was a clergyman, did not suppose he was shamming, as he might have done in the case of an old gaol-bird; he therefore sent for the doctor. When this gentleman arrived, Ernest was declared to be suffering from an incipient attack of brain fever, and was taken away to the infirmary. Here he hovered for the next two months between life and death, never in full possession of his reason and often delirious, but at last, contrary to the expectation of both doctor and nurse, he began slowly to recover.
It is said that those who have been nearly drowned, find the return to consciousness much more painful than the loss of it had been, and so it was with my hero. As he lay helpless and feeble, it seemed to him a refinement of cruelty that he had not died once for all during his delirium. He thought he should still most likely recover only to sink a little later on from shame and sorrow; nevertheless from day to day he mended, though so slowly that he could hardly realise it to himself. One afternoon, however, about three weeks after he had regained consciousness, the nurse who tended him, and who had been very kind to him, made some little rallying sally which amused him; he laughed, and as he did so, she clapped her hands and told him he would be a man again. The spark of hope was kindled, and again he wished to live. Almost from that moment his thoughts began to turn less to the horrors of the past, and more to the best way of meeting the future.
His worst pain was on behalf of his father and mother, and how he should again face them. It still seemed to him that the best thing both for him and them would be that he should sever himself from them completely, take whatever money he could recover from Pryer, and go to some place in the uttermost parts of the earth, where he should never meet anyone who had known him at school or college, and start afresh. Or perhaps he might go to the gold fields in California or Australia, of which such wonderful accounts were then heard; there he might even make his fortune, and return as an old man many years hence, unknown to everyone, and if so, he would live at Cambridge. As he built these castles in the air, the spark of life became a flame, and he longed for health, and for the freedom which, now that so much of his sentence had expired, was not after all very far distant.
Then things began to shape themselves more definitely. Whatever happened he would be a clergyman no longer. It would have been practically impossible for him to have found another curacy, even if he had been so minded, but he was not so minded. He hated the life he had been leading ever since he had begun to read for orders; he could not argue about it, but simply he loathed it and would have no more of it. As he dwelt on the prospect of becoming a layman again, however disgraced, he rejoiced at what had befallen him, and found a blessing in this very imprisonment which had at first seemed such an unspeakable misfortune.
Perhaps the shock of so great a change in his surroundings had accelerated changes in his opinions, just as the cocoons of silkworms, when sent in baskets by rail, hatch before their time through the novelty of heat and jolting. But however this may be, his belief in the stories concerning the Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ, and hence his faith in all the other Christian miracles, had dropped off him once and for ever. The investigation he had made in consequence of Mr Shaw's rebuke, hurried though it was, had left a deep impression upon him, and now he was well enough to read he made the New Testament his chief study, going through it in the spirit which Mr Shaw had desired of him, that is to say as one who wished neither to believe nor disbelieve, but cared only about finding out whether he ought to believe or no. The more he read in this spirit the more the balance seemed to lie in favour of unbelief, till, in the end, all further doubt became impossible, and he saw plainly enough that, whatever else might be true, the story that Christ had died, come to life again, and been carried from earth through clouds into the heavens could not now be accepted by unbiassed people. It was well he had found it out so soon. In one way or another it was sure to meet him sooner or later. He would probably have seen it years ago if he had not been hoodwinked by people who were paid for hoodwinking him. What should he have done, he asked himself, if he had not made his present discovery till years later when he was more deeply committed to the life of a clergyman? Should he have had the courage to face it, or would he not more probably have evolved some excellent reason for continuing to think as he had thought hitherto? Should he have had the courage to break away even from his present curacy?
He thought not, and knew not whether to be more thankful for having been shown his error or for having been caught up and twisted round so that he could hardly err farther, almost at the very moment of his having discovered it. The price he had had to pay for this boon was light as compared with the boon itself. What is too heavy a price to pay for having duty made at once clear and easy of fulfilment instead of very difficult? He was sorry for his father and mother, and he was sorry for Miss Maitland, but he was no longer sorry for himself.
It puzzled him, however, that he should not have known how much he had hated being a clergyman till now. He knew that he did not particularly like it, but if anyone had asked him whether he actually hated it, he would have answered no. I suppose people almost always want something external to themselves, to reveal to them their own likes and dislikes. Our most assured likings have for the most part been arrived at neither by introspection nor by any process of conscious reasoning, but by the bounding forth of the heart to welcome the gospel proclaimed to it by another. We hear some say that such and such a thing is thus or thus, and in a moment the train that has been laid within us, but whose presence we knew not, flashes into consciousness and perception.
Only a year ago he had bounded forth to welcome Mr Hawke's sermon; since then he had bounded after a College of Spiritual Pathology; now he was in full cry after rationalism pure and simple; how could he be sure that his present state of mind would be more lasting than his previous ones? He could not be certain, but he felt as though he were now on firmer ground than he had ever been before, and no matter how fleeting his present opinions might prove to be, he could not but act according to them till he saw reason to change them. How impossible, he reflected, it would have been for him to do this, if he had remained surrounded by people like his father and mother, or Pryer and Pryer's friends, and his rector. He had been observing, reflecting, and assimilating all these months with no more consciousness of mental growth than a school-boy has of growth of body, but should he have been able to admit his growth to himself, and to act up to his increased strength if he had remained in constant close connection with people who assured him solemnly that he was under a hallucination? The combination against him was greater than his unaided strength could have broken through, and he felt doubtful how far any shock less severe than the one from which he was suffering would have sufficed to free him.
As he lay on his bed day after day slowly recovering he woke up to the fact which most men arrive at sooner or later, I mean that very few care two straws about truth, or have any confidence that it is righter and better to believe what is true than what is untrue, even though belief in the untruth may seem at first sight most expedient. Yet it is only these few who can be said to believe anything at all; the rest are simply unbelievers in disguise. Perhaps, after all, these last are right. They have numbers and prosperity on their side. They have all which the rationalist appeals to as his tests of right and wrong. Right, according to him, is what seems right to the majority of sensible, well-to-do people; we know of no safer criterion than this, but what does the decision thus arrived at involve? Simply this, that a conspiracy of silence about things whose truth would be immediately apparent to disinterested enquirers is not only tolerable but righteous on the part of those who profess to be and take money for being par excellence guardians and teachers of truth.
Ernest saw no logical escape from this conclusion. He saw that belief on the part of the early Christians in the miraculous nature of Christ's Resurrection was explicable, without any supposition of miracle. The explanation lay under the eyes of anyone who chose to take a moderate degree of trouble; it had been put before the world again and again, and there had been no serious attempt to refute it. How was it that Dean Alford for example who had made the New Testament his speciality, could not or would not see what was so obvious to Ernest himself? Could it be for any other reason than that he did not want to see it, and if so was he not a traitor to the cause of truth? Yes, but was he not also a respectable and successful man, and were not the vast majority of respectable and successful men, such for example, as all the bishops and archbishops, doing exactly as Dean Alford did, and did not this make their action right, no matter though it had been cannibalism or infanticide, or even habitual untruthfulness of mind?
Monstrous, odious falsehood! Ernest's feeble pulse quickened and his pale face flushed as this hateful view of life presented itself to him in all its logical consistency. It was not the fact of most men being liars that shocked him--that was all right enough; but even the momentary doubt whether the few who were not liars ought not to become liars too. There was no hope left if this were so; if this were so, let him die, the sooner the better. "Lord," he exclaimed inwardly, "I don't believe one word of it. Strengthen Thou and confirm my disbelief." It seemed to him that he could never henceforth see a bishop going to consecration without saying to himself: "There, but for the grace of God, went Ernest Pontifex." It was no doing of his. He could not boast; if he had lived in the time of Christ he might himself have been an early Christian, or even an Apostle for aught he knew. On the whole he felt that he had much to be thankful for.
The conclusion, then, that it might be better to believe error than truth should be ordered out of court at once, no matter by how clear a logic it had been arrived at; but what was the alternative? It was this, that our criterion of truth--i.e. that truth is what commends itself to the great majority of sensible and successful people--is not infallible. The rule is sound, and covers by far the greater number of cases, but it has its exceptions.
He asked himself, what were they? Ah! that was a difficult matter; there were so many, and the rules which governed them were sometimes so subtle, that mistakes always had and always would be made; it was just this that made it impossible to reduce life to an exact science. There was a rough and ready rule-of-thumb test of truth, and a number of rules as regards exceptions which could be mastered without much trouble, yet there was a residue of cases in which decision was difficult--so difficult that a man had better follow his instinct than attempt to decide them by any process of reasoning.
Instinct then is the ultimate court of appeal. And what is instinct? It is a mode of faith in the evidence of things not actually seen. And so my hero returned almost to the point from which he had started originally, namely that the just shall live by faith.
And this is what the just--that is to say reasonable people--do as regards those daily affairs of life which most concern them. They settle smaller matters by the exercise of their own deliberation. More important ones, such as the cure of their own bodies and the bodies of those whom they love, the investment of their money, the extrication of their affairs from any serious mess--these things they generally entrust to others of whose capacity they know little save from general report; they act therefore on the strength of faith, not of knowledge. So the English nation entrusts the welfare of its fleet and naval defences to a First Lord of the Admiralty, who, not being a sailor can know nothing about these matters except by acts of faith. There can be no doubt about faith and not reason being the ultima ratio.
Even Euclid, who has laid himself as little open to the charge of credulity as any writer who ever lived, cannot get beyond this. He has no demonstrable first premise. He requires postulates and axioms which transcend demonstration, and without which he can do nothing. His superstructure indeed is demonstration, but his ground is faith. Nor again can he get further than telling a man he is a fool if he persists in differing from him. He says "which is absurd," and declines to discuss the matter further. Faith and authority, therefore, prove to be as necessary for him as for anyone else. "By faith in what, then," asked Ernest of himself, "shall a just man endeavour to live at this present time?" He answered to himself, "At any rate not by faith in the supernatural element of the Christian religion."
And how should he best persuade his fellow-countrymen to leave off believing in this supernatural element? Looking at the matter from a practical point of view he thought the Archbishop of Canterbury afforded the most promising key to the situation. It lay between him and the Pope. The Pope was perhaps best in theory, but in practice the Archbishop of Canterbury would do sufficiently well. If he could only manage to sprinkle a pinch of salt, as it were, on the Archbishop's tail, he might convert the whole Church of England to free thought by a coup de main. There must be an amount of cogency which even an Archbishop--an Archbishop whose perceptions had never been quickened by imprisonment for assault--would not be able to withstand. When brought face to face with the facts, as he, Ernest, could arrange them; his Grace would have no resource but to admit them; being an honourable man he would at once resign his Archbishopric, and Christianity would become extinct in England within a few months' time. This, at any rate, was how things ought to be. But all the time Ernest had no confidence in the Archbishop's not hopping off just as the pinch was about to fall on him, and this seemed so unfair that his blood boiled at the thought of it. If this was to be so, he must try if he could not fix him by the judicious use of bird-lime or a snare, or throw the salt on his tail from an ambuscade.
To do him justice it was not himself that he greatly cared about. He knew he had been humbugged, and he knew also that the greater part of the ills which had afflicted him were due, indirectly, in chief measure to the influence of Christian teaching; still, if the mischief had ended with himself, he should have thought little about it, but there was his sister, and his brother Joey, and the hundreds and thousands of young people throughout England whose lives were being blighted through the lies told them by people whose business it was to know better, but who scamped their work and shirked difficulties instead of facing them. It was this which made him think it worth while to be angry, and to consider whether he could not at least do something towards saving others from such years of waste and misery as he had had to pass himself. If there was no truth in the miraculous accounts of Christ's Death and Resurrection, the whole of the religion founded upon the historic truth of those events tumbled to the ground. "My," he exclaimed, with all the arrogance of youth, "they put a gipsy or fortune-teller into prison for getting money out of silly people who think they have supernatural power; why should they not put a clergyman in prison for pretending that he can absolve sins, or turn bread and wine into the flesh and blood of One who died two thousand years ago? What," he asked himself, "could be more pure 'hanky-panky' than that a bishop should lay his hands upon a young man and pretend to convey to him the spiritual power to work this miracle? It was all very well to talk about toleration; toleration, like everything else, had its limits; besides, if it was to include the bishop let it include the fortune-teller too." He would explain all this to the Archbishop of Canterbury by and by, but as he could not get hold of him just now, it occurred to him that he might experimentalise advantageously upon the viler soul of the prison chaplain. It was only those who took the first and most obvious step in their power who ever did great things in the end, so one day, when Mr Hughes-- for this was the chaplain's name--was talking with him, Ernest introduced the question of Christian evidences, and tried to raise a discussion upon them. Mr Hughes had been very kind to him, but he was more than twice my hero's age, and had long taken the measure of such objections as Ernest tried to put before him. I do not suppose he believed in the actual objective truth of the stories about Christ's Resurrection and Ascension any more than Ernest did, but he knew that this was a small matter, and that the real issue lay much deeper than this.
Mr Hughes was a man who had been in authority for many years, and he brushed Ernest on one side as if he had been a fly. He did it so well that my hero never ventured to tackle him again, and confined his conversation with him for the future to such matters as what he had better do when he got out of prison; and here Mr Hughes was ever ready to listen to him with sympathy and kindness.
Ernest was now so far convalescent as to be able to sit up for the greater part of the day. He had been three months in prison, and, though not strong enough to leave the infirmary, was beyond all fear of a relapse. He was talking one day with Mr Hughes about his future, and again expressed his intention of emigrating to Australia or New Zealand with the money he should recover from Pryer. Whenever he spoke of this he noticed that Mr Hughes looked grave and was silent: he had thought that perhaps the chaplain wanted him to return to his profession, and disapproved of his evident anxiety to turn to something else; now, however, he asked Mr Hughes point blank why it was that he disapproved of his idea of emigrating.
Mr Hughes endeavoured to evade him, but Ernest was not to be put off. There was something in the chaplain's manner which suggested that he knew more than Ernest did, but did not like to say it. This alarmed him so much that he begged him not to keep him in suspense; after a little hesitation Mr Hughes, thinking him now strong enough to stand it, broke the news as gently as he could that the whole of Ernest's money had disappeared.
The day after my return from Battersby I called on my solicitor, and was told that he had written to Pryer, requiring him to refund the monies for which he had given his I.O.U.'s. Pryer replied that he had given orders to his broker to close his operations, which unfortunately had resulted so far in heavy loss, and that the balance should be paid to my solicitor on the following settling day, then about a week distant. When the time came, we heard nothing from Pryer, and going to his lodgings found that he had left with his few effects on the very day after he had heard from us, and had not been seen since.
I had heard from Ernest the name of the broker who had been employed, and went at once to see him. He told me Pryer had closed all his accounts for cash on the day that Ernest had been sentenced, and had received 2315 pounds, which was all that remained of Ernest's original 5000 pounds. With this he had decamped, nor had we enough clue as to his whereabouts to be able to take any steps to recover the money. There was in fact nothing to be done but to consider the whole as lost. I may say here that neither I nor Ernest ever heard of Pryer again, nor have any idea what became of him.
This placed me in a difficult position. I knew, of course, that in a few years Ernest would have many times over as much money as he had lost, but I knew also that he did not know this, and feared that the supposed loss of all he had in the world might be more than he could stand when coupled with his other misfortunes.
The prison authorities had found Theobald's address from a letter in Ernest's pocket, and had communicated with him more than once concerning his son's illness, but Theobald had not written to me, and I supposed my godson to be in good health. He would be just twenty-four years old when he left prison, and if I followed out his aunt's instructions, would have to battle with fortune for another four years as well as he could. The question before me was whether it was right to let him run so much risk, or whether I should not to some extent transgress my instructions--which there was nothing to prevent my doing if I thought Miss Pontifex would have wished it-- and let him have the same sum that he would have recovered from Pryer.
If my godson had been an older man, and more fixed in any definite groove, this is what I should have done, but he was still very young, and more than commonly unformed for his age. If, again, I had known of his illness I should not have dared to lay any heavier burden on his back than he had to bear already; but not being uneasy about his health, I thought a few years of roughing it and of experience concerning the importance of not playing tricks with money would do him no harm. So I decided to keep a sharp eye upon him as soon as he came out of prison, and to let him splash about in deep water as best he could till I saw whether he was able to swim, or was about to sink. In the first case I would let him go on swimming till he was nearly eight-and-twenty, when I would prepare him gradually for the good fortune that awaited him; in the second I would hurry up to the rescue. So I wrote to say that Pryer had absconded, and that he could have 100 pounds from his father when he came out of prison. I then waited to see what effect these tidings would have, not expecting to receive an answer for three months, for I had been told on enquiry that no letter could be received by a prisoner till after he had been three months in gaol. I also wrote to Theobald and told him of Pryer's disappearance.
As a matter of fact, when my letter arrived the governor of the gaol read it, and in a case of such importance would have relaxed the rules if Ernest's state had allowed it; his illness prevented this, and the governor left it to the chaplain and the doctor to break the news to him when they thought him strong enough to bear it, which was now the case. In the meantime I received a formal official document saying that my letter had been received and would be communicated to the prisoner in due course; I believe it was simply through a mistake on the part of a clerk that I was not informed of Ernest's illness, but I heard nothing of it till I saw him by his own desire a few days after the chaplin had broken to him the substance of what I had written.
Ernest was terribly shocked when he heard of the loss of his money, but his ignorance of the world prevented him from seeing the full extent of the mischief. He had never been in serious want of money yet, and did not know what it meant. In reality, money losses are the hardest to bear of any by those who are old enough to comprehend them.
A man can stand being told that he must submit to a severe surgical operation, or that he has some disease which will shortly kill him, or that he will be a cripple or blind for the rest of his life; dreadful as such tidings must be, we do not find that they unnerve the greater number of mankind; most men, indeed, go coolly enough even to be hanged, but the strongest quail before financial ruin, and the better men they are, the more complete, as a general rule, is their prostration. Suicide is a common consequence of money losses; it is rarely sought as a means of escape from bodily suffering. If we feel that we have a competence at our backs, so that we can die warm and quietly in our beds, with no need to worry about expense, we live our lives out to the dregs, no matter how excruciating our torments. Job probably felt the loss of his flocks and herds more than that of his wife and family, for he could enjoy his flocks and herds without his family, but not his family--not for long--if he had lost all his money. Loss of money indeed is not only the worst pain in itself, but it is the parent of all others. Let a man have been brought up to a moderate competence, and have no specially; then let his money be suddenly taken from him, and how long is his health likely to survive the change in all his little ways which loss of money will entail? How long again is the esteem and sympathy of friends likely to survive ruin? People may be very sorry for us, but their attitude towards us hitherto has been based upon the supposition that we were situated thus or thus in money matters; when this breaks down there must be a restatement of the social problem so far as we are concerned; we have been obtaining esteem under false pretences. Granted, then, that the three most serious losses which a man can suffer are those affecting money, health and reputation. Loss of money is far the worst, then comes ill-health, and then loss of reputation; loss of reputation is a bad third, for, if a man keeps health and money unimpaired, it will be generally found that his loss of reputation is due to breaches of parvenu conventions only, and not to violations of those older, better established canons whose authority is unquestionable. In this case a man may grow a new reputation as easily as a lobster grows a new claw, or, if he have health and money, may thrive in great peace of mind without any reputation at all. The only chance for a man who has lost his money is that he shall still be young enough to stand uprooting and transplanting without more than temporary derangement, and this I believed my godson still to be.
By the prison rules he might receive and send a letter after he had been in gaol three months, and might also receive one visit from a friend. When he received my letter, he at once asked me to come and see him, which of course I did. I found him very much changed, and still so feeble, that the exertion of coming from the infirmary to the cell in which I was allowed to see him, and the agitation of seeing me were too much for him. At first he quite broke down, and I was so pained at the state in which I found him, that I was on the point of breaking my instructions then and there. I contented myself, however, for the time, with assuring him that I would help him as soon as he came out of prison, and that, when he had made up his mind what he would do, he was to come to me for what money might be necessary, if he could not get it from his father. To make it easier for him I told him that his aunt, on her deathbed, had desired me to do something of this sort should an emergency arise, so that he would only be taking what his aunt had left him."Then," said he, "I will not take the 100 pounds from my father, and I will never see him or my mother again." I said: "Take the 100 pounds, Ernest, and as much more as you can get, and then do not see them again if you do not like."
This Ernest would not do. If he took money from them, he could not cut them, and he wanted to cut them. I thought my godson would get on a great deal better if he would only have the firmness to do as he proposed, as regards breaking completely with his father and mother, and said so. "Then don't you like them?" said he, with a look of surprise.
"Like them!" said I, "I think they're horrid."
"If you like it," said I, "I will say all your family are horrid except yourself and your aunt Alethea. The greater part of every family is always odious; if there are one or two good ones in a very large family, it is as much as can be expected."
"Thank you," he replied, gratefully, "I think I can now stand almost anything. I will come and see you as soon as I come out of gaol. Goodbye." For the warder had told us that the time allowed for our interview was at an end.
As soon as Ernest found that he had no money to look to upon leaving prison he saw that his dreams about emigrating and farming must come to an end, for he knew that he was incapable of working at the plough or with the axe for long together himself. And now it seemed he should have no money to pay any one else for doing so. It was this that resolved him to part once and for all with his parents. If he had been going abroad he could have kept up relations with them, for they would have been too far off to interfere with him.
He knew his father and mother would object to being cut; they would wish to appear kind and forgiving; they would also dislike having no further power to plague him; but he knew also very well that so long as he and they ran in harness together they would be always pulling one way and he another. He wanted to drop the gentleman and go down into the ranks, beginning on the lowest rung of the ladder, where no one would know of his disgrace or mind it if he did know; his father and mother on the other hand would wish him to clutch on to the fag- end of gentility at a starvation salary and with no prospect of advancement. Ernest had seen enough in Ashpit Place to know that a tailor, if he did not drink and attended to his business, could earn more money than a clerk or a curate, while much less expense by way of show was required of him. The tailor also had more liberty, and a better chance of rising. Ernest resolved at once, as he had fallen so far, to fall still lower--promptly, gracefully and with the idea of rising again, rather than cling to the skirts of a respectability which would permit him to exist on sufferance only, and make him pay an utterly extortionate price for an article which he could do better without.
He arrived at this result more quickly than he might otherwise have done through remembering something he had once heard his aunt say about "kissing the soil." This had impressed him and stuck by him perhaps by reason of its brevity; when later on he came to know the story of Hercules and Antaeus, he found it one of the very few ancient fables which had a hold over him--his chiefest debt to classical literature. His aunt had wanted him to learn carpentering, as a means of kissing the soil should his Hercules ever throw him. It was too late for this now--or he thought it was- -but the mode of carrying out his aunt's idea was a detail; there were a hundred ways of kissing the soil besides becoming a carpenter.
He had told me this during our interview, and I had encouraged him to the utmost of my power. He showed so much more good sense than I had given him credit for that I became comparatively easy about him, and determined to let him play his own game, being always, however, ready to hand in case things went too far wrong. It was not simply because he disliked his father and mother that he wanted to have no more to do with them; if it had been only this he would have put up with them; but a warning voice within told him distinctly enough that if he was clean cut away from them he might still have a chance of success, whereas if they had anything whatever to do with him, or even knew where he was, they would hamper him and in the end ruin him. Absolute independence he believed to be his only chance of very life itself.
Over and above this--if this were not enough--Ernest had a faith in his own destiny such as most young men, I suppose, feel, but the grounds of which were not apparent to any one but himself. Rightly or wrongly, in a quiet way he believed he possessed a strength which, if he were only free to use it in his own way, might do great things some day. He did not know when, nor where, nor how his opportunity was to come, but he never doubted that it would come in spite of all that had happened, and above all else he cherished the hope that he might know how to seize it if it came, for whatever it was it would be something that no one else could do so well as he could. People said there were no dragons and giants for adventurous men to fight with nowadays; it was beginning to dawn upon him that there were just as many now as at any past time.
Monstrous as such a faith may seem in one who was qualifying himself for a high mission by a term of imprisonment, he could no more help it than he could help breathing; it was innate in him, and it was even more with a view to this than for other reasons that he wished to sever the connection between himself and his parents; for he knew that if ever the day came in which it should appear that before him too there was a race set in which it might be an honour to have run among the foremost, his father and mother would be the first to let him and hinder him in running it. They had been the first to say that he ought to run such a race; they would also be the first to trip him up if he took them at their word, and then afterwards upbraid him for not having won. Achievement of any kind would be impossible for him unless he was free from those who would be for ever dragging him back into the conventional. The conventional had been tried already and had been found wanting.
He had an opportunity now, if he chose to take it, of escaping once for all from those who at once tormented him and would hold him earthward should a chance of soaring open before him. He should never have had it but for his imprisonment; but for this the force of habit and routine would have been too strong for him; he should hardly have had it if he had not lost all his money; the gap would not have been so wide but that he might have been inclined to throw a plank across it. He rejoiced now, therefore, over his loss of money as well as over his imprisonment, which had made it more easy for him to follow his truest and most lasting interests.
At times he wavered, when he thought of how his mother, who in her way, as he thought, had loved him, would weep and think sadly over him, or how perhaps she might even fall ill and die, and how the blame would rest with him. At these times his resolution was near breaking, but when he found I applauded his design, the voice within, which bade him see his father's and mother's faces no more, grew louder and more persistent. If he could not cut himself adrift from those who he knew would hamper him, when so small an effort was wanted, his dream of a destiny was idle; what was the prospect of a hundred pounds from his father in comparison with jeopardy to this? He still felt deeply the pain his disgrace had inflicted upon his father and mother, but he was getting stronger, and reflected that as he had run his chance with them for parents, so they must run theirs with him for a son.
He had nearly settled down to this conclusion when he received a letter from his father which made his decision final. If the prison rules had been interpreted strictly, he would not have been allowed to have this letter for another three months, as he had already heard from me, but the governor took a lenient view, and considered the letter from me to be a business communication hardly coming under the category of a letter from friends. Theobald's letter therefore was given to his son. It ran as follows:-
"My dear Ernest, My object in writing is not to upbraid you with the disgrace and shame you have inflicted upon your mother and myself, to say nothing of your brother Joey, and your sister. Suffer of course we must, but we know to whom to look in our affliction, and are filled with anxiety rather on your behalf than our own. Your mother is wonderful. She is pretty well in health, and desires me to send you her love.
"Have you considered your prospects on leaving prison? I understand from Mr Overton that you have lost the legacy which your grandfather left you, together with all the interest that accrued during your minority, in the course of speculation upon the Stock Exchange! If you have indeed been guilty of such appalling folly it is difficult to see what you can turn your hand to, and I suppose you will try to find a clerkship in an office. Your salary will doubtless be low at first, but you have made your bed and must not complain if you have to lie upon it. If you take pains to please your employers they will not be backward in promoting you.
"When I first heard from Mr Overton of the unspeakable calamity which had befallen your mother and myself, I had resolved not to see you again. I am unwilling, however, to have recourse to a measure which would deprive you of your last connecting link with respectable people. Your mother and I will see you as soon as you come out of prison; not at Battersby--we do not wish you to come down here at present--but somewhere else, probably in London. You need not shrink from seeing us; we shall not reproach you. We will then decide about your future.
"At present our impression is that you will find a fairer start probably in Australia or New Zealand than here, and I am prepared to find you 75 pounds or even if necessary so far as 100 pounds to pay your passage money. Once in the colony you must be dependent upon your own exertions."May Heaven prosper them and you, and restore you to us years hence a respected member of society.--Your affectionate father, T. PONTIFEX."
Then there was a postscript in Christina's writing. "My darling, darling boy, pray with me daily and hourly that we may yet again become a happy, united, God-fearing family as we were before this horrible pain fell upon us.-Your sorrowing but ever loving mother, "C. P."
This letter did not produce the effect on Ernest that it would have done before his imprisonment began. His father and mother thought they could take him up as they had left him off. They forgot the rapidity with which development follows misfortune, if the sufferer is young and of a sound temperament. Ernest made no reply to his father's letter, but his desire for a total break developed into something like a passion. "There are orphanages," he exclaimed to himself, "for children who have lost their parents--oh! why, why, why, are there no harbours of refuge for grown men who have not yet lost them?" And he brooded over the bliss of Melchisedek who had been born an orphan, without father, without mother, and without descent.