John Brent/Chapter XIV
Mr. Clitheroe grew more and more communicative, as we wandered about over the open. I drew from him, or rather, with few words of guidance now and then, let him impart, his history. He seemed to feel that he had an explanation to offer. Men whose life has been error and catastrophe rarely have much pride of reticence. Whatever friendly person will hear their apology can hear it. That form of more lamentable error called Guilt is shyer of the confessional; but it also feels its need of telling to brother man why it was born in the heart in the form of some small sin.
Again Mr. Clitheroe talked of the scenes of his youth and prosperity. He “babbled of green fields,” and parks, and great country-houses, and rural life. So he went on to talk of himself, and, leaving certain blanks, which I afterward found the means of filling, told me his story. A sad story! A pitiful story! Sadder and more pitiful to me because a filial feeling toward this hapless gentleman was all the while growing stronger in my heart. I have already said that I was fatherless from infancy. This has left a great want in my life. I cannot find complete compensation for the lack of a father’s love in my premature manhood and my toughening against the world too young. I yearned greatly toward the feeble old man, my companion in that night walk on the plain of Fort Bridger. I longed to do by him the duties of sonship; as, indeed, having no such duties, I have often longed when I found age weak and weary. And as I began to feel son-like toward the father, a sentiment simply brotherly took its place in my heart for the daughter, whose love my friend, I believe, was seeking.
A sad history was Mr. Clitheroe’s. He was a prosperous gentleman once, of one of the ancient families of his country.
“We belong,” he said, “to the oldest gentry of England. We have been living at Clitheroe Hall, and where the Hall now stands, for centuries. Our family history goes back into the pre-historic times. We have never been very famous; we have always sustained our dignity. We might have had a dozen peerages; but we were too much on the side of liberty, of free speech and free thought, to act with the powers that be.
“There was never a time, until my day, when one of us was not in Parliament for Clitheroe. Clitheroe had two members, and one of the old family that gave its name to the town, and got for it its franchises, was always chosen without contest.
“It is a lovely region, sir, where the town, of Clitheroe and the old manor-house of my family stand, — the fairest part of Lancashire. If you have only seen, as you say, the flat country about Liverpool and Manchester, you do not know at all what Lancashire can do in scenery. Why, there is Pendle Hill, — it might better be called a mountain, — Pendle Hill rises almost at my door-step, at the door of Clitheroe Hall. Pendle Hill, sir, is eighteen hundred and odd feet high. And a beautiful hill it is. I talked of the Wind River Mountains this afternoon; they are very fine; but I never should have learned to love heights, if my boyhood had not been trained by the presence of Pendle Hill.
“And there is the Ribble, too. A lovely river, coming from the hills; — such a stream as I have not seen on this continent. I do not wish to make harsh comparisons, but your Mississippi and Missouri are more like ditches than rivers, and as to the Platte, why, sir, it seems to me no better than a chain of mud-pools. But the Ribble is quite another thing. I suppose I love it more because I have dabbled in it a boy, and bathed in it a man, and have seen it flow on always a friend, whether I was rich or poor. Nature, sir, does not look coldly on a poor man, as humanity does. The river Ribble and Pendie Hill have been faithful to me, — they and my dear Ellen, always.
“Perhaps I tire you with this chat,” he said.
“O no!” replied I. “I should be a poor American if I did not love to hear of Mother England everywhere and always.”
“I almost fear to talk about home — our old home, I mean — to my dear child. She might grow a little homesick, you know. And how could she understand, so young and a woman too, that duty makes exile needful? Of course I do not mean to suggest that we deem our new home in the Promised Land an exile.”
And here he again gave the same anxious look I had before observed; as if he dreaded that I had the power to dissolve an unsubstantial illusion.
“I wish I had thought,” he continued, “to show you, when you were at tea, a picture of Clitheroe Hall I have. It is my daughter Ellen’s work. She has a genius for art, really a genius. We have been living in a cottage near there, where she could see the Hall from her window, — dear old place! — and she has made a capital drawing of it.”
“You had left it?” I asked. He had paused, commanded by his melancholy recollections.
“O yes! Did I not tell you about my losses! I was a rich man and prosperous once. I kept open house, sir, in my wife’s lifetime. She was a great beauty. My dear Ellen is like her, but she has no beauty, — a good girl and daughter, though, like all young people, she has a juvenile wish to govern, — but no beauty. Perhaps she will grow handsome when we grow rich again.”
“Few women are so attractive as Miss Clitheroe,” I said, baldly enough.
“I have tried to be a good father to her, sir. She should have had diamonds and pearls, and everything that young ladies want, if I had succeeded. But you ought to have seen Clitheroe Hall, sir, in its best days. Such oaks as I had in my park! One of those oaks is noticed in Evelyn’s Silva. One day, a great many years ago, I found a young man sitting under that oak writing verses. I was hospitable to him, and gave him luncheon, which he ate with very good appetite, if he was a poet. I did not ask his name; but not three months after I received a volume of poems, with a sonnet among them, really very well done, very well done indeed, inscribed to the Clitheroe Oak. The volume, sir, was by Mr. Wordsworth, quite one of our best poets, in his way, the founder of a new school.”
‘‘A very pleasant incident!”
“Yes indeed. The poet was fortunate, was he not? But if you are fond of pictures, I should have liked to show you my Vandykes. We had the famous Clitheroe Beauty, an earl’s daughter, maid of honor to Queen Henrietta Maria. She chose plain Hugh Clitheroe before all the noblemen of the court; — we Clitheroes have always been fortunate in that way. I said plain Hugh, but he was as handsome a cavalier as ever wore rapier. He might have been an earl himself, but he took the part of liberty, and was killed on the Parliament side at Edgemoor. I had his portrait too, a Vandyke, and one of the best pictures he ever painted, as I believe is agreed by connoisseurs. You should have seen the white horse, sir, in that picture, — full of gentleness and spirit, and worthy the handsome cavalier just ready to mount him.”
As the old gentleman talked of his heroic ancestor, a name not unknown to history, he revived a little, and I saw an evanescent look of his daughter’s vigor in his eye. It faded instantly; he sighed, and went on.
“I should almost have liked to live in those days. It is easier to die for a holy cause than to find one’s way along through life. I have found it pretty hard, sir, — pretty hard, — and I hope my day of peace is nearly come.”
How could I shatter his delusion, and thunder in his ear that this hope was a lie?
“I had a happy time of it,” he continued, “till after my Ellen’s birth, and I ought to be thankful for that. I had my dear wife and hosts of friends, — so I thought them. To be sure I spent too much money, and sometimes had rather too gay an evening over the claret at my old oak dining-table. But that was harmless pleasure, sir. I was always a kind landlord. I never could turn out a tenant nor arrest a poacher. I suppose I was too kind. I might better have saved some of the money I gave to my people in beef and beer on holidays. But it made them happy. I like to see everybody happy. That was my chief pleasure. The people were very poor in England then, sir, — not that they are not poor now, — and I used to be very glad when a good old English holiday, or a birthday, gave me a chance to give them a little festival.”
I could imagine him the gentle, genial host. Fate should have left him there in the old hall, dispensing frank hospitality all his sunny days and bland seasons through, lunching young poets, and showing his Vandykes with proper pride to strangers. His story carried truth on its face. In fact, the man was all the while an illustration of his own tale. Every tone and phrase convicted him of his own character.
“It sometimes makes me a little melancholy,” he continued, “to speak of those happy days. Not that I regret the result I have at last attained! Ah, no! But the process was a hard one. I have suffered, sir, suffered greatly on my way to the peace and confidence I have attained.”
“You have attained these?” I said.
“Yes; thank God and this Latter-Day revelation of his truth! I used to think rather carelessly of religion in those times. I suppose it is only the contact with sin and sorrow that teaches a man to look from the transitory to the eternal. Shade makes light precious, as an artist would say. I was brought up, you know, sir, in the Church of England; but when I began to think, its formalism wearied me. I could not understand what seemed to me then the complex machinery of its theology. I thought, sir, as no doubt many people of the poetic temperament and little experience think, that God deals with men without go-betweens; that he acts directly on the character by the facts of nature and the thoughts in every soul. It was not until I grew old and sad that I began to feel the need of something distinct and tangible to rest my faith upon, and even then, sir, I was sceptical of the need of revelations and Messiahs and miracles, until I learnt through the testimony of living witnesses — yes, of living witnesses — that such things have come in the Latter Day. Yes, sir, the facts of what you call Mormonism, its miracles, its revelations, which do not cease, and its new Messiah, have proved to me the necessity of other like supernatural systems in the past, and given me faith in their evidences, which before seemed scanty.”
“Ah! old Mother Church of England!” I thought, “could you do no better by your son than this? Whose fault is this credulity? How is it that he needs phenomena to give him faith in truth?”
“But I have not told you,” the old gentleman went on, “about my disasters. Perhaps you are getting tired of my prattle, sir, my old man’s talk. I am really not so very old, if my hair is thin, and my beard gray, — barely fifty, and after this journey I expect to be quite a boy again. I suppose you were surprised this afternoon, when I spoke of having worked in a coal-mine, were you not?”
The old man seemed to have some little pride in this singularity of fortune. I expressed the proper interest in such a change of destiny.
“You shall hear how it happened,” he said. “You remember, — no, you are too young to remember, but you have heard how we all went mad about mills and mines in Lancashire some twenty years ago.”
“Yes,” said I, “it was then that steam and cotton began to understand each other, and coal and negroes became important.”
“What a panic of speculation we all rushed into in Lancashire!” said the old gentleman. “We all felt, we gentlemen, that we were mere idlers, not doing our duty, as England expects every man to do, unless we were building chimneys, or digging pits. We were all either grubbing down in the bowels of the earth for coal, or rearing great chimneys up in the air to burn it. I really think most of us began to like smoke better than blue sky; certainly it tasted sweeter to us than our good old English fog.
“Well, sir,” continued he, “I was like my neighbors. I must dabble in milling and mining. I was willing to be richer. Indeed, as soon as I began to speculate, I thought myself richer. I spent more money. I went deeper into my operations. One can throw a great treasure into a coal-mine without seeing any return, and can send a great volume of smoke up a chimney before the mill begins to pay. It is an old story. I will not tire you with it. I was all at once a ruined man.”
He paused a moment, and looked about the dim, star-lit prairie, with the white wagons and the low fort in the distance.
“Well,” said he, in the careless, airy manner which seemed his characteristic one, “if I had not been ruined, I should have stayed stupidly at home, and never worked in a coal-mine, or travelled on the plains, or had the pleasure of meeting you and your friend here. It is all fresh and novel. If it were not for my daughter and my duties to the church, I should take my adventures as lightly as you do when your gun misses fire and you lose a dinner.
“The thing that troubled me most at the time of my disasters,” he resumed, “was being defeated for Parliament. There had always been a Clitheroe there. When my father died, I took his seat. I used to spend freely on elections; but I thought they sent me because they liked me, or for love of the old name. When I lost my fortune there came a snob, sir, and stood against me. He accused me of being a free-thinker, — as if the Clitheroes had not always been liberal! He got up a cry, and bought votes. My own tenants, my old tenants, whom I had feasted out of pure good-will a hundred times, turned against me. I lost my election and my last shilling.
“It was just then, sir, that my dear wife died, and my dear Ellen was born.”
He turned sadly around to look at his daughter. She was walking at some distance with Brent. The earnest murmur of their voices came to us through the stillness. I felt what my friend must be saying in that pleading tone.
“Everything went disastrously with me,” continued Mr. Clitheroe. “I tried to recover my fortunes, fairly and honestly, but it was too late. My creditors took the old Hall. Hugh Clitheroe in Harry the Eighth’s time built it, on land where the family had lived from before Egbert. I lost it, sir. The family came to an end with me. I found sheriff’s officers making beer rings on my old oak dining-table. The Vandykes went. Hugh of Cromwell’s days was divorced from his wife, the Beauty. I tried to keep them together; but scrubs bought them, and stuck them up in their vulgar parlors. Sorry business! Sorry business!”
“You kept a brave heart through it all.”
“Yes, until they accused me of dishonesty. That I felt bitterly. And everybody gave me the cold shoulder. I could get nothing to do. There is not much that a broken-down gentleman can do; but no one would trust me. I grew poorer than you can conceive. I lost all heart. Men are poor creatures, — as a desolate man finds.”
“Not all, I hope,” was my protest.
“Truly not all. But the friends of prosperity are birds that come to be fed, and fly away when the crumbs give out. All are not base and time-serving; but men are busy and careless, and fancy that others can always take care of themselves. I could not beg, sir; but it came near starvation to me in Christian England, — to me and my young daughter, within a year after my misfortunes. Perhaps I was over-proud or over-vain; but I grew tired of the slights of people that had known me in my better days, and now dodged me because I was shabby and poor. I wanted to get out of sight of the ungrateful, ungracious world. The blue sky grew hateful to me. I must live, or, if life was nothing to me, my daughter must not starve, I had a choice of factory or coal-mine to hide myself in. I sank into a coal-mine.”
“A strange contrast!” I said, after a pause.
“I am trying to make the whole history less dreamy. Each seems unreal, — my luxurious life at Clitheroe Hall, and my troglodyte life down in the coal-pit. Idler and slave; either extreme had its own special unhappiness and unhealthiness.”
How much wisdom there was in the weakness of the old man’s character! The more I talked with him, the more pitiable seemed his destiny. “O John Brent!” I groaned in my heart, “plead with the daughter as man never pleaded before. We must save them from the dismal fate before them. And if she cannot master her father, and you, John Brent, cannot master her, there is no hope.”
My friend made no sign that he was ready to close his interview with the lady. The noise of the ball still came to us with the puffs of the evening wind. I prompted the communicative old gentleman to renew his story.
“I have seen the interior of some of the Lancashire mines; I have read the Blue Book upon them,” I said. “You must have been in a rough place, with company as rough.”
“It was hard for a man of delicate nurture. But the men liked me. They were not brutes, — not all, — if they were roughs. Brutes get away from places where hard work is done. My mates down in the mine made it easy for me. They called me Gentleman Hugh. I was rather proud, sir, I confess, to find myself liked and respected for what I was, not for what I had. It was a hard life and a rough life; but it was an honest life, and my child was too young to miss what her birth entitled her to.
“It was in our mine that I first knew of the Latter-Day Church. For years I had drudged there, and never thought, or in fact, for myself, much cared, to come out. I had tried the pleasures and friendships of gay life; they had nothing new or good to give me. For years I had toiled, when the first apostle came out and began to make proselytes to the faith in our country. They have never disdained the mean and the lowly. I tell you, sir, that we in our coal-pit, and our brothers in the factories, listened to apostles who came across seas and labored among us as if they loved our souls. The false religions and outgrown religions left us in the dark; but the true light came to us. My mates in the Lancashire mine joined the church by hundreds. I was still blind and careless. It was not until long afterwards that the time for my conversion came.
“As my daughter grew up, I felt that I ought to be by her. I had worked a long time in the mine, and was known to have some education. The company gave me a clerkship in their office, and there I drudged again for years, asking no help or favor. It was in another part of the county from my old residence, where nobody knew me. My dear child, — she has always been a good child to me, except that she sometimes wishes to rule a little too much, — my dear Ellen became almost a woman, and all I lacked was the means of giving her the position of her rank. Education she got herself. We were not unhappy, she and I together, lonely as we might be, and out of place.”
The old gentleman had been talking of himself in such a cheerful, healthy way, and showed that he had borne such a brave heart through his troubles, that I began to puzzle myself what could have again changed his character, and made of him the weakling I had recognized in the interview with Sizzum.
“It is very kind of you,” he said, “to listen to a garrulous old fellow. Your sympathy is very pleasant; but I must not test it too far. I will end my long story presently.
“I supposed myself entirely forgotten, as I was quite willing to be. By and by I was remembered and sought. A far-away kinsman had left me a legacy. It was enough for a quiet subsistence for us two, for Ellen and me. I returned to the neighborhood of my old home. I found a little cottage on the banks of Kibble, within sight of my old friend, Pendle Hill. There we lived.”
From this point Mr. Clitheroe’s manner totally changed. His voice grew peevish and complaining. All the manly feeling he had showed in briefly describing his day-laborer’s life passed away. He detailed to me how the new proprietor at Clitheroe Hall patronized him insufferably; how his old neighbors turned up their noses at him, and insulted him by condescension. How miserable he found it to cramp himself and save shillings in a cottage, with the house in sight where he had lavished pounds as Lord of the Manor! How he longed to have his daughter as well dressed as any of the young ladies about, her inferiors in blood, — for no one there could rival the Clitheroes’ lineage. How he wished himself back in his mine, in his industrious clerkship, and how time hung drearily on his hands, with nothing to do except dream of by-gone glories. I saw that he had sighed to be a great man again, and had a morbid sense of his insignificance, and that this had made him touchy, and alienated well-meaning people about him. He spoke with some triumph of his arguments with the rector of his parish, who endeavored to check him when he lent what influence he had, as a gentleman, to get the Mormons a hearing about Clitheroe. He did not, as he said, as yet feel any great interest in their doctrines; but he remembered them with good-will from his coal-pit days, and whenever an emissary of the faith came by, he always found a friend in Hugh Clitheroe. They had evidently flattered him. It was rare, of course, to find a protector among the gentry, and they made the most of the chance.
Poor old man! I could trace the progress of his disappointment, and his final fall into that miserable superstition. He had been a free-thinker; never industrious or self-possessed enough to become a fundamental thinker. No man can stand long on nothing, — he must think out a religion, or accept a theology. Now that busy days were over, and careless youth gone by, Mr. Clitheroe began to be uneasy, and was ready to listen to any scheme which promised peace. If a Jesuit had happened to find him at this period, Rome would have got a recruit without difficulty. The Pope and Brigham Young are the rival bidders for such weaklings in the nineteenth century. Brigham with polygamy is the complement of Pio with celibacy.
Instead of Jesuit, Sizzum arrived. Sizzum was far abler than any of his Mormon compeers. He was proselyting about Clitheroe, where he found it not difficult to persuade the poor slaves up in the mill and down in the mine to accept a faith that offered at once a broad range on earth, and, in good time, a high seat in heaven.
Sizzum was the guest of the discontented and decayed gentleman. He saw the opportunity. There was an old name and a man of gentle birth to rally followers about. It would be a triumph for the Latter-Day Saints to march away from Clitheroe, a thousand strong, headed by the representative of the family who named the place, and had once been in Parliament for it. Here was a proselyte in a class which no Mormon had dreamed of approaching. Here too was some little property. And here was a beautiful daughter.
I could divine the astute Sizzum’s method and success with his victim, enfeebled in body and spirit. How, seeing his need of something final and authoritative in religion, Sizzum showed him the immanence of inspiration in his church. How he threatened him with wrath to come, unless he was gathered from among the Gentiles. How he persuaded him that a man of his education and station would be greater among the saints than ever in his best days in England. How he touched the old man’s enthusiasm with tales of caravan life, with the dust of the desert and the pork of the pan quite left out of view. How, with his national exaggeration run riot, he depicted the valley of the Great Salt Lake as a Paradise, and the City as an apocalyptic wonder, all jasper and sardonyx, all beryl and chrysoprase; and no mud and no adobe. How he suggested that in a new country, under his advice, the old man’s little capital would soon swell to a great inheritance for his daughter.
By the light of that afternoon’s scene, over the tea, I could comprehend the close of Mr. Clitheroe’s dreary story, and see how at last Sizzum had got him in his gripe, property, person, and soul.
Did he wish to escape?
No. On! on! he must go on. Only some force without himself, interposed, could turn him aside.
What was this force to be?
Nothing that I could say or do; that I saw clearly. His illusions might be nearly gone; but he would hate and distrust any one who ventured to pull the scales from his eyes, and show him his crazy folly. Indeed, I dreaded lest any attempt to enlighten him would drive him into actual madness by despair. If he had given me a shadow of encouragement, I was ready to follow out the hint I had dropped when I said to Brent, “What a night for a gallop!” My own risk I was willing to take. But escape for the lady, without him, was barbarous, and we could not treat him like a Sabine damsel, and lug him off by the hair.
What could his daughter do? Clearly nothing. He had evidently long ago revolted against her. If I did not mistake her faithful face, she would stand by her father to the last. Plead as he might, John Brent would never win her to save herself and lose her father; and indeed that was a desertion he could never recommend.
A dark look for all parties.
Whence was the force to come that should solve the difficulty?