BY BARRY PAIN.
ILLUSTRATED BY W. DEWAR
"SO unto that peace may He bring us all at the last." These were the last words of the sermon, spoken without gesture or theatrical diminuendo, in the deep, steady, resonant voice of a strong man.
The evening service was at an end. The village congregation trooped out, clattering on the stone floor, crunching on the box-edged gravel paths of the churchyard. Then the door of the old-fashioned important square pew opened, and old Lady Follace hobbled out. She came slowly down the aisle, one hand resting on the arm of a vacant-faced servant, the other holding her ebony stick. Her lips were compressed. The religious joy in her ecstatic eyes changed at times when her physical pain became very acute; she was devout and very rheumatic. Her carriage was waiting for her outside the churchyard; the overfed roans fretted impatiently.
Slowly the churchyard emptied, the people going away in quite a happy frame of mind. They had not been lashed for their sins; they had not been bidden to do hard things or to fear hell. The preacher had dwelt with a passionate unreasoned hope on the end of all, the quieting of noisy troubles, the coming right of things that were now wrong, the ultimate peace.
At last there were but two left in the churchyard. The one was a man of about forty, a little man with blood-shot eyes who seemed ashamed of himself. His silk hat, rather too large for him. came down on to his ears, and looked grotesque. He wore black clothes, and a pale fawn-coloured made-up necktie. The other person was his wife, slightly older than himself. She wore a traditional silk dress and a Sunday bonnet. Her expression was severe, and her hair of a pale indeterminate colour with grey streaks in it. She had been crying.
"I shall stop here," she said. "I shall stop. I have my word to say as well as you."
"You won't," the man said, with that hysterical obstinacy which takes the place of firmness in the weak-chinned. "I don't want to be harsh, but you won't, and you shan't. If I speak to Mr. Lake, which I am willing to do, I speak to him alone. See that door?" He pointed with his silk umbrella to the entrance to the churchyard.
"Gate," said his wife, censoriously.
"That gate then—and it doesn't matter what you call it. If you stop, out of that gate I go. You talk to Mr. Lake alone,"
"After last night," the woman said, inserting a plaintive tone in her voice, "I should have thought you'd have done anything you could to make up. Twelve years I've been married, and I never thought it 'ud come to this. A bye-word—that's what we shall be."
"You've said that all before," the little man exclaimed. "And I'm dead sick of hearing it. Who knows? nobody—if you'll only keep a still tongue in your head. At least, nobody except Mr. Lake."
" 'Im of all people!" said the woman, beginning to snivel again.
"Oh, look here!" the man said, growing distressed. "It's only once. It won't 'appen again."
"It's happened once. Last night you were——"
"I don't say I wasn't, but it won't 'appen again. I'm goin' to explain it ter Mr. Lake. I'll own up ev'rything. I 'ont defend myself. Only—only—I can't speak about it if there's anyone else there."
"Mind yer," the woman said, relenting. "I shall want to know every word as passes between you. You'll come 'ome straight after seeing 'im. I shall wait supper till nine."
"I don't want any supper," the man said with despair. "Don't keep any for me, Louisa."
"No," the woman said, as she moved. "You're upset, and no wonder. Such filthiness!"
She went down the path, paused, looked back, called out, "Nine's the latest," and then vanished from sight behind the yews at the entrance.
The man took off his hat and wiped his forehead with his handkerchief. It was a warm summer evening. He sat down on the low and convenient tombstone of Sir Jarvis Embrook. Sir Jarvis lived, the tradition of the village said, very excessively every moment of his life; he died, the tombstone declared, "in the Sure Hope of a Blessed Resurrection."
The man leant his head on his hands. Seen from the churchyard gate, the small head and large hat were silhouetted grotesquely against the scarlet disc of the setting sun. The man (his name was Albert Porling) was in great anguish of mind. He groaned audibly, and said "Oh, God!"
He waited for the Rev. William Lake to come out of the vestry. He wanted to talk about the event of the previous evening, and hated to do it, and felt that he must. Yet when he heard that firm, quick step coming along the gravel his courage forsook him, and he rose to flee. He was too late. Mr. Lake called him by name, and he was compelled to stop.
Mr. Lake said, "Good evening, Mr. Porling."
"Good evening, sir," said Porling. "I was, as a matter of fact, waiting to see you——"
"It looked rather as if you were running away."
"Because I 'adn't the face. When I heard your step, last night come over my memory all in a bursting flash. I 'adn't the face, and to think that only two years ago I was in office, and my name in print as churchwarden for any man to read, and looked to as an example! After last night's misfortune I shall never hold my 'ead up again."
They had reached the rectory garden.
"Come into my study and talk about it. Here, wait a minute."
Under a chestnut tree in the garden sat Lord Ornington, who had not been to church, though he was stopping at the rectory. He had been a friend of Lake's at Cambridge, and was about the same age as the parson, but looked older. He had a clever face, and an expression that was sometimes bitter and sometimes sensual. He sat in a comfortable chair, clad in a suit of grey flannel, with a low table by his side. On the table were the cigarettes and matches, a tall glass, from which he had been drinking a mixture of dry champagne and seltzer-water, and two books. One of the books was Huysmann's En Ménage, and the other was the Christian Year, and he had been reading them alternately. The table was more or less indicative of the man.
The Rev. William Lake stepped up to Lord Ormington and said: "With you in a few minutes, Harry. Got some business with this man first."
"Right, Bill," said his lordship, laconically, and then Mr. Lake went back to Porling.
In the study Mr. Porling put his hat on the floor, sat down on the edge of a chair, and clasped his hands over his knees. He blinked his eyes, cleared his throat and began:
"I was beastly drunk last night, sir, and you found me in that state. It's never happened before, and it will never happen again. But I'm very sorry for it, and I'll sign any pledge you like, only if my character was to suffer in the village, Louisa—the wife, sir,—would break her pore 'eart."
The Rev. William Lake talked to Albert Porling, and did his best for him, and sent him away. Then be wandered forth into the garden and secured Lord Ornington and brought him into supper.
Lord Ornington ate a very little chicken mayonnaise, and a very few strawberries; he drank dry champagne seriously.
"Well, Bill," he said, "and who's your friend?"
"A man who was in trouble wanted to see me."
"Ah! Secrets of the confessional. Well, don't let me intrude. And what did you preach about?"
Lake smiled good-naturedly, and said, "Do you want your head punched?"
"Certainly not. Most emphatically not."
"Then don't try to draw out for your worldly amusement the simple country parson."
"It wasn't that," said lord Ornington, shaking his head. "Ridicule is the privilege of the young—I have given up ridicule. I don't suppose I shall ever laugh at anything again—at least not at anything more than anything else," He finished his champagne and leaned back in his chair. "I spoke honestly—out of a wistful curiousness. Isn't it hot in here?"
"Yes; come on to the verandah." They passed out, through the open windows, and seated themselves. "What are you curious about?" the parson asked.
"About the other world. There is another world, and I don't know it. I don't refer to the hereafter. I refer to the present, but you can call it the spiritual world if you like. I meet the people who belong to it, or I read them. They speak a language I don't know, and live a life I can't understand. To-night I read some Keble. A man of some education, I should say, and with a considerable natural gift—amounting in spots almost to the gift of poetry. But he found his ecstasy—well, you know my opinions, and I needn't throw them in your face—he found his ecstasy where I cannot find mine. Come to the reverse of the Keble type. To-night you were with a man who from appearances must have been a successful village tradesman."
"You are right. He is a grocer. I believe I get things there."
"Very natural exchange of patronage, I am sure."
The Reverend William Lake made an impatient movement.
"Oh, all right! I'm not going to sneer. But I know that sort. In social life he does not shine, but in business he's as hard as nails. But if you told him seriously that his soul's future salvation depended upon his selling Demarara under cost, he would sell it so until he broke. That is to say, the strongest possible motive for your Keble or your grocer would be something I don't understand—something that is not at all concerned with this world."
"But, my good man," said Lake, "you're not a Christian, and other people are—that's all your discovery amounts to."
"Pray don't call it a discovery. I wouldn't discover anything for worlds. Enterprise is not in my line. All I do is to be greatly struck by the absolutely obvious—to feel this impression vividly. To-night these strangely different types, all actuated by the same motive, interest me exceedingly. There is Keble; there is your grocer; there is Lady Follace, who sends a groom on a galloping horse with a note to you whenever she has spoken harshly to her footman, to ask you what she is to do. For the matter of that, there is yourself. You're an athlete——"
"Oh, that'll do about me!" Lake interrupted.
"Sorry, but it won't. You're an athlete and a scholar. You have by nature," he added with a flickering smile, "some warm sympathies with the world and the flesh—or had at any rate in the days when we were at Cambridge together. There are four different types. What brings such strange company together? Preach me the secret."
"I've preached it, as far as I know it, already to-night. Of course, fear may play its part with less noble natures, and the love of the good because it is good with the more noble, but with most of us the motive is different. I preached to-night about a kind of peace that does not admit of understanding and definition. Everyone who sees that so many things are all wrong, and longs for them to come right and settle down in some way that he is not clever enough to work out for himself, is a potential Christian."
"Well," said Lord Ornington, "I suppose I am by predestination lost. For I see that many things are all wrong, but I do not in the least want them to come right. The wrongness of things either does not affect me, or amuses me. My servant, for instance, used to get drunk, and wear my clothes; and on one occasion took my watch and pawned it, if you please, in my name. I got rid of the man, but it really amused me. It did not make me long for a world in which there were no pawnshops, and dishonesty, and intemperance. But I am hopeless, and it is not about myself that I have paid this sudden visit to you. I have come with a purpose. For two days I have sat and observed, and now I will expound my purpose, the proposal that I have to make."
"Well, go on."
"You give away more than you receive from this place?"
"The living has always been held by a man with independent means. It is expected."
"Put it that way. Again, you belong emphatically to the current year; your people of the parish are a collection of bad back numbers, all out of date, and incoherent, and scrappy. I remember old Sir Jarvis. He certainly talked, but then he died before you came here."
"I don't complain of the people here. They're not clever, but then, I am not so dead sweet on cleverness as you are."
"Again, why don't you hunt? You've no prejudice against hunting parsons. Yet you keep one old hack."
"I've no prejudice against parsons hunting, if they can afford it. I can't."
"You used to manage it—and very well."
"Of course, I was an extravagant young donkey once. But even then I was not so extravagant as I seemed; I bought 'em in the rough, put 'em to school, and sold 'em again. I can't do that now. A parson who deals in horses has got to lose either his money or his character—and I want both."
"I won't argue with you about that. I will turn to yet another point. You are not married—you ought to be."
The Rev. William Lake looked away. He was a handsome man, and his profile was particularly strong and good. He seemed just a little in doubt what to answer. "Well," he said, laughing, "I'm not a hardened believer in the celibacy of the clergy. All the same, I can't force women to marry me. If they won't, they won't."
"I may be wrong, Bill, and I don't want to be inquisitive, but I believe that if you had the income which you considered sufficient you would be married in six months."
"Now look here, Harry. What's all this leading to? It seems to me that you're trying to persuade me this place isn't good enough for me, and that I ought to make more money."
"I'm convinced of both points myself. I have sometimes spoken to you of Thelsford."
"Yes—exceptionally fat living—beautiful country—next to no poor in the parish. Undoubtedly, Hessinge is a lucky man, and he is also quite young."
Lord Ornington lit another cigarette. "The Rev. Charles Hessinge," he observed, drily, "was quite young."
"What do you mean?"
"He is dead—died last Wednesday. Caught cold a few weeks ago—pneumonia."
"I didn't know him at all; but it's a pity that he should have died so young."
"The rest, of course, you can guess," said Lord Ornington. "By a pretty irony of fate the living of Thelsford is in my gift. I have come here to offer it to you, and I shall feel personally aggrieved if you don't accept it. I don't pretend to have any conscience, but if I had I should still offer it to you. I do not know any parson who is better fitted for it, or who deserves Thelsford as you do."
"Why do you say that?" Lake asked.
"If you ask me, I will tell you, I don't want to commit the unspeakable vulgarity of chaffing you about the past—about the days when you had not the remotest intention of taking orders. That damnable young stock-broker, Machellar, sniggered when I told him that you were a parson, and he has found that snigger the most expensive luxury in which he ever indulged. But, as a matter of fact, we were both of us hot-blooded young brutes in those days; you were rather worse—rather more excessive than I was."
"That is true."
"You see what I mean. You were not born a saint. You are the natural man all through. The bloodless curate with no physique and no temptations has an easier time than you can possibly have had. You have been heavily handicapped and you have won in spite of it. I have been through this parish; I have been on to Enton and talked to the men at the mills there; they are all ready enough to talk, and they all tell the same thing. I won't repeat their compliments."
"They knew, of course, that you were my friend, and stopping here?"
"My good Bill, do give me credit for a little finesse. When I want evidence for myself, I get it good. At the mills they did not even know my name. You have worked very hard. Without going in for the hair-shirt and scourge method of giving one's self something to brag about, you have always put your work before yourself, and you've suffered for it. Now, I never work, and I have never practised self-denial in the slightest degree; but, looking at the thing from the outside (I'm a spectator in life, you know), it seems to me that work and self-denial deserve reward—in your case, Thelsford. You can take Thelsford with a clean conscience."
"Well, Harry, I'm very grateful to you, and I don't want to make you mad. It was very good of you to think of me when Thelsford fell vacant, but I can't take it."
"Nonsense! Why not?"
"Well—I needn't bother you with details—a question of conscience, if you'll pardon a parsonic phrase."
"I won't pardon it; not because it is parsonic, but because I don't understand it." He rose from his chair and paced up and down. "I had not dreamed that you could refuse. This annoys me exceedingly. Give me your reasons—in language that I can understand."
The Rev. William Lake knocked out his pipe on the heel of his boot, and said: "I'll try—it's due to you. Your account of Lady Follace is exaggerated amusingly, but it's true that she does send for me when she has committed some trifling fault, and asks me if it is an unforgivable sin. That little man who came in before supper was drunk last night—drunk for the first time in his life. I found him in a ditch and carried him home. He was in the greatest possible agony of mind about it. Do you know what my impulse is on these occasions? I want to say to lady Follace: 'Morally I am not fit to enter your house.' To that wretched little man I wanted to say: 'I have been drunk scores of times, and without your excuse of an evil-tempered, nagging wife.' "
"Nonsense again. Your offences (more or less excusable on the ground of youth and ignorance) belong to the past. The past is dead."
"Don't believe it. The past is as real as the present; to me it seems often even more real. The only reason why I do not give way to these impulses is that if I did I could do no good. As it is I do some good. I can make people who are infinitely better than I shall ever be become a little better than they are now. I am the sinner set to work to make saints. I can help others, though I can help myself so little. I preach to them the peace of God that passes all understanding, and some of them realise it from me, though to me it has never been more than words or hope. I make them believe more than I can believe. Do you think the old difficulties are dead because the agnostic novel is no longer fashionable? They are not clever, you say, these people? If they were I should do less good. I am not worthy of the work. My one consolation is that I do not make money out of it, and chat, extraordinary though it may seem in a man like myself, I do some good."
"Why this hysterical self-abasement? I hate this miserable sinner business. If you can do good here, you can do good at Thelsford. Look here. Bill, I don't want to be irreverent, but you believe in Providence——how do you know that Providence does not mean you to take Thelsford? I speak as a layman—from the outside—but there seems to me to be something in the ailment."
"If an omnipotent power wanted me to go to Thelsford, it would be as easy for the power to provide the inclination in me as the vacancy at Thelsford. You're the first man who's called me hysterical, by the way. I have no delusions—I have only given you the facts. You yourself have owned that I am not a faddist. Is there any fanatical asceticism in giving up one's hunters? If so, fanatics are common, I live in comfort, and I don't injure my health. I'm not mad with self-depreciation; the reasons I've given you for my decision are quite sane and sober. If I took money for my work—if I did not lose money by my work I should feel myself a hypocrite."
"If you took Thelsford you would be able to marry. You ought to marry."
Lake did not answer this directly.
"I can't help it," he said. "It's very kind of you, Harry; but if I took Thelsford I should be miserable. I can only thank you once more, and leave it And now I'm going to be rude enough to say good-night if——"
"Of course. Up most of last night, and working all to-day, of course you're utterly done up. Go to bed, and let me forget how savage I feel with you. Good-night, old man. Here, wait. Why don't you go for a missionary or do slumming. You could give up even more, die sooner, get all the little treats that appeal to you morbid martyrs."
"I'm not morbid, I'm not a martyr, and I'm not going to be a missionary. There are always enough volunteers for the heroic, and too few for the humdrum. Well——"
He stopped. Carriage-wheels rattled on the gravel. Lady Follace's coachman reined in the roans sharply. Lake came forward and took a note. He glanced through it, and turned to Lord Ornington.
"I'm not to go to bed after all. Lady Follace has been taken seriously ill, and wants me."
Lord Ornington shrugged his shoulders. In another minute Lake was driven away in the carriage,
"Damn the man!" said Lord Ornington to himself as he paced up and down the verandah. "Who else would have—— 'Almost thou persuadest me ...' Damn him!"
A servant came on to the verandah to remove the coffee apparatus. "There is," said Lord Ornington, "a yellow-covered French book on the table under the plane-tree there. Kindly fetch it, and let me have a lamp here. Mr. Lake may be late to-night. I will wait up for him."