The Marquis of Lossie/Chapter LIII

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The Marquis of Lossie - Chapter LIII
by George MacDonald

CHAPTER LIII.

A NEW PUPIL.

The sermon Lady Clementina heard with such delight had followed one levelled at the common and right worldly idea of success harbored by each, and unquestioned by one of the chief men of the community: together they caused a strange, uncertain sense of discomfort in the mind diaconal. Slow to perceive that that idea, nauseous in his presentment of it, was the very same cherished and justified by themselves, unwilling also to believe that in his denunciation of respecters of persons they themselves had a full share, they yet felt a little uneasy from the vague whispers of their consciences on the side of the neglected principles enounced, clashing with the less vague conviction that if those whispers were encouraged and listened to, the ruin of their hopes for their chapel, and their influence in connection with it, must follow. They eyed each other doubtfully, and there appeared a general tendency amongst them to close-pressed lips and single shakes of the head. But there were other forces at work, tending in the same direction.

Whatever may have been the influence of the schoolmaster upon the congregation gathered in Hope Chapel, there was one on whom his converse, supplemented by his preaching, had taken genuine hold. Frederick Marshal had begun to open his eyes to the fact that, regarded as a profession, the ministry, as they called it in their communion, was the meanest way of making a living in the whole creation — one deserving the contempt of every man honest enough to give honorable work — that is, work worth the money — for the money paid him. Also, he had a glimmering insight, on the other hand, into the truth of what the dominie said — that it was the noblest of martyrdoms to the man who, sent by God, loved the truth with his whole soul, and was never happier than when bearing witness to it, except, indeed, in those blessed moments when receiving it of the Father. In consequence of this opening of his eyes the youth recoiled with dismay from the sacrilegious mockery of which he had been guilty in meditating the presumption of teaching holy things, of which the sole sign that he knew anything was now afforded by this same recoil. At last he was not far from the kingdom of heaven, though whether he was to be sent to persuade men that that kingdom was amongst them, and must be in them, remained a question.

On the morning after the latter of those two sermons, Frederick, as they sat at breakfast, succeeded, with no small effort — for he feared his mother — in blurting out to his father the request that he might be taken into the counting-house; and when indignantly requested, over the top of the teapot, to explain himself, declared that he found it impossible to give his mind to a course of education which could only end in the disappointment of his parents, seeing he was at length satisfied that he had no call to the ministry. His father was not displeased at the thought of having him at the shop, but his mother was for some moments speechless with angry tribulation. Recovering herself, with scornful bitterness she requested to know to what tempter he had been giving ear, for tempted he must have been ere son of hers would have been guilty of backsliding from the cause — of taking his hand from the plough and looking behind him. The youth returned such answers as, while they satisfied his father he was right, served only to convince his mother, where yet conviction was hardly needed, that she had to thank the dominie for his defection, his apostasy from the Church to the world.

Incapable of perceiving that now first there was hope of a genuine disciple in the child of her affection, she was filled with the gall of disappointment, and with spite against the man who had taught her son how worse than foolish it is to aspire to teach before one has learned; nor did she fail to cast scathing reflections on her husband, in that he had brought home a viper in his bosom, a wolf into his fold, the wretched minion of a worldly Church, to lead her son away captive at his will; and partly no doubt from his last uncomfortable sermons, but mainly from the play of Mrs. Marshal's tongue on her husband's tympanum, the deacons in full conclave agreed that no further renewal of the invitation to preach "for them" should be made to the schoolmaster — just the end of the business Mr. Graham had expected, and for which he had provided. On Tuesday morning he smiled to himself, and wondered whether, if he were to preach in his own schoolroom the next Sunday evening, any one would come to hear him. On Saturday he received a cool letter of thanks for his services, written by the ironmonger in the name of the deacons, enclosing a cheque tolerably liberal as ideas went, in acknowledgment of them. The cheque Mr. Graham returned, saying that, as he was not a preacher by profession, he had no right to take fees. It was a half-holiday: he walked up to Hampstead Heath, and was paid for everything, in sky and cloud, fresh air and a glorious sunset.

When the end of her troubled week came, and the Sunday of her expectation brought lovely weather, with a certain vague suspicion of peace, into the regions of Mayfair and Spitalfields, Clementina walked across the Regent's Park to Hope Chapel and its morning observances, but thought herself poorly repaid for her exertions by having to listen to a dreadful sermon and worse prayers from Mr. Masquar, one of the chief priests of Commonplace — a comfortable idol to serve, seeing he accepts as homage to himself all that any man offers to his own person, opinions, or history. But Clementina contrived to endure it, comforting herself that she had made a mistake in supposing Mr. Graham preached in the morning.

In the evening, her carriage once again drew up with clang and clatter at the door of the chapel. But her coachman was out of temper at having to leave the bosom of his family circle — as he styled the table that upheld his pot of beer and jar of tobacco — of a Sunday, and sought relief to his feelings in giving his horses a lesson in crawling; the result of which was fortunate for his mistress: when she entered the obnoxious Mr. Masquar was already reading the hymn. She turned at once and made for the door.

But her carriage was already gone. A strange sense of loneliness and desolation seized her. The place had grown hateful to her, and she would have fled from it. Yet she lingered in the porch. The eyes of the man in the pulpit, with his face of false solemnity and low importance — she seemed to feel the look of them on her back, yet she lingered. Now that Malcolm was gone, how was she to learn when Mr. Graham would be preaching?

"If you please, ma'am," said a humble and dejected voice.

She turned and saw the seamed and smoky face of the pew-opener, who had been watching her from the lobby, and had crept out after her. She dropped a curtsy, and went on hurriedly, with an anxious look now and then over her shoulder: "Oh, ma'am, we sha'n't see him no more. Our people here — they're very good people, but they don't like to be told the truth. It seems to me as if they knowed it so well they thought as how there was no need for them to mind it."

"You don't mean that Mr. Graham has given up preaching here?"

"They've given up astin' of 'im to preach, lady. But if ever there was a good man in that pulpit, Mr. Graham he do be that man."

"Do you know where he lives?"

"Yes, ma'am, but it would be hard to direct you." Here she looked in at the door of the chapel with a curious, half-frightened glance, as if to satisfy herself that the inner door was closed. "But," she went on, "they won't miss me now the service is begun, and I can be back before it's over. I'll show you where, ma'am."

"I should be greatly obliged to you," said Clementina; "only I am sorry to give you the trouble."

"To tell the truth, I'm only too glad to get away," she returned, "for the place it do look like a cemetery, now he's out of it."

"Was he so kind to you?"

"He never spoke word to me, as to myself like, no, nor never give me sixpence, like Mr. Masquar do; but he give me strength in my heart to bear up, and that's better than meat or money."

It was a good half-hour's walk, and during it Clementina held what conversation she might with her companion. It was not much the woman had to say of a general sort. She knew little beyond her own troubles and the help that met them, but what else are the two main forces whose composition results in upward motion? Her world was very limited — the houses in which she went charing, the chapel she swept and dusted, the neighbors with whom she gossiped, the little shops where she bought the barest needs of her bare life — but it was at least large enough to leave behind her; and if she was not one to take the kingdom of heaven by force, she was yet one to creep quietly into it. The earthly life of such as she — immeasurably less sordid than that of the poet who will not work for his daily bread, or that of the speculator who, having settled money on his wife, risks that of his neighbor — passing away like a cloud, will hang in their west, stained indeed, but with gold; blotted, but with roses. Dull as it all was now, Clementina yet gained from her unfoldings a new outlook upon life, its needs, its sorrows, its consolations, and its hopes; nor was there any vulgar pity in the smile of the one, or of degrading acknowledgment in the tears of the other, when a piece of gold passed from hand to hand as they parted.

The Sunday-sealed door of the stationer's shop — for there was no private entrance to the house — was opened by another sad-faced woman. What a place to seek the secret of life in! Lovelily enfolds the husk its kernel; but what the human eye turns from as squalid and unclean may enfold the seed that clasps, couched in infinite withdrawment, the vital germ of all that is lovely and graceful, harmonious and strong, all without which no poet would sing, no martyr burn, no king rule in righteousness, no geometrician pore over the marvelous must.

The woman led her through the counter into a little dingy room behind the shop, looking out on a yard a few feet square, with a water-butt, half a dozen flower-pots, and a maimed plaster Cupid perched on the window-sill. There sat the schoolmaster, in conversation with a lady, whom the woman of the house, awed by her sternness and grandeur, had, out of regard to her lodger's feelings, shown into her parlor, and not into his bedroom.

Cherishing the hope that the patent consequences of his line of action might have already taught him moderation, Mrs. Marshal, instead of going to chapel to hear Mr. Masquar, had paid Mr. Graham a visit, with the object of enlisting his sympathies if she could — at all events, his services — in the combating of the scruples he had himself aroused in the bosom of her son. What had passed between them I do not care to record, but when Lady Clementina — unannounced of the landlady — entered, there was light enough, notwithstanding the non-reflective properties of the water-butt, to reveal Mrs. Marshal flushed and flashing, Mr. Graham grave and luminous, and to enable the chapel-business eye of Mrs. Marshal, which saw every stranger that entered "Hope," at once to recognise her as having made one of the congregation the last Sunday evening. Evidently one of Mr. Graham's party, she was not prejudiced in her favor. But there was that in her manner which impressed her — that something ethereal and indescribable which she herself was constantly aping — and, almost involuntarily, she took upon herself such honors as the place, despicable in her eyes, would admit of. She rose, made a sweeping curtsy, and addressed Lady Clementina with such a manner as people of Mrs. Marshal's ambitions put off and on like their clothes. "Pray, take a seat, ma'am, such as it is," she said with a wave of her hand. "I believe I have had the pleasure of seeing you at our place."

Lady Clementina sat down: the room was too small to stand in, and Mrs. Marshal seemed to take the half of it. "I am not aware of the honor," she returned, doubtful what the woman meant — perhaps some shop or dressmaker's. Clementina was not one who delighted in freezing her humbler fellow-creatures, as we know; but there was something altogether repulsive in the would-be-grand but really arrogant behavior of her fellow-visitor.

"I mean," said Mrs. Marshal, a little abashed, for ambition is not strength, "at our little Bethel in Kentish Town. Not that we live there," she explained with a superior smile.

"Oh, I think I understand. You must mean the chapel where this gentleman was preaching."

"That is my meaning," assented Mrs. Marshal.

"I went there to-night," said Clementina, turning with some timidity to Mr. Graham. "That I did not find you there, sir, will, I hope, explain ——" Here she paused, and turned again to Mrs. Marshal: "I see you think with me, madam, that a true teacher is worth following." As she said this she turned once more to Mr. Graham, who sat listening with a queer, amused, but right courteous smile. "I hope you will pardon me," she continued, "for venturing to call upon you, and, as I have had the misfortune to find you occupied, allow me to call another day. If you would set me a time, I should be more obliged than I can tell you," she concluded, her voice trembling a little.

"Stay now if you will, madam," returned the schoolmaster with a bow of the oldest-fashioned courtesy. "This lady has done laying her commands upon me, I believe."

"As you think proper to call them commands, Mr. Graham, I conclude you intend to obey them," said Mrs. Marshal with a forced smile and an attempt at pleasantry.

"Not for the world, madam," he answered. "Your son is acting the part of a gentleman — yes, I make bold to say, of one who is very nigh the kingdom of heaven, if not indeed within its gate, and before I would check him I would be burnt at the stake — even were your displeasure the fire, madam," he added, with a kindly bow. "Your son is a fine fellow."

"He would be if he were left to himself. Good-evening, Mr. Graham. Goodbye, rather, for I think we are not likely to meet again."

"In heaven, I hope, madam, for by that time we shall be able to understand each other," said the schoolmaster, still kindly.

Mrs. Marshal made no answer beyond a facial flash as she turned to Clementina. "Good-evening, ma'am," she said. "To pay court to the earthen vessel because of the treasure it may happen to hold is to be a respecter of persons as bad as any."

An answering flash broke from Clementina's blue orbs, but her speech was more than calm as she returned: "I learned something of that lesson last Sunday evening, I hope, ma'am. But you have left me far behind, for you seem to have learned disrespect even to the worthiest of persons. Good-evening, ma'am," She looked the angry matron full in the face with an icy regard, from which, as from the Gorgon eye, she fled.

The victor turned to the schoolmaster. "I beg your pardon, sir," she said, "for presuming to take your part, but a gentleman is helpless with a vulgar woman."

"I thank you, madam. I hope the sharpness of your rebuke —— But indeed the poor woman can hardly help her rudeness, for she is very worldly, and believes herself very pious. It is the old story — hard for the rich."

Clementina was struck. "I too am rich and worldly," she said. "But I know that I am not pious, and if you would but satisfy me that religion is common sense, I would try to be religious with all my heart and soul."

"I willingly undertake the task. But let us know each other a little first. And lest I should afterwards seem to have taken an advantage of you, I hope you have no wish to be nameless to me, for my friend Malcolm MacPhail has so described you that I recognized your ladyship at once."

Clementina said that, on the contrary, she had given her name to the woman who opened the door. "It is because of what Malcolm said of you that I ventured to come to you."

"Have you seen Malcolm lately?" he asked, his brow clouding a little. "It is more than a week since he has been to me."

Thereupon, with embarrassment such as she would never have felt except in the presence of pure simplicity, she told of his disappearance with his mistress.

"And you think they have run away together?" said the schoolmaster, his face beaming with what, to Clementina's surprise, looked almost like merriment.

"Yes, I think so," she answered. "Why not, if they chose?"

"I will say this for my friend Malcolm," returned Mr. Graham composedly, "that whatever he did I should expect to find not only all right in intention, but prudent and well-devised also. The present may well seem a rash, ill-considered affair for both of them, but ——"

"I see no necessity either for explanation or excuse," said Clementina, too eager to mark that she interrupted Mr. Graham. "In making up her mind to marry him Lady Lossie has shown greater wisdom and courage than, I confess, I had given her credit for."

"And Malcolm?" rejoined the schoolmaster softly. "Should you say of him that he showed equal wisdom?"

"I decline to give an opinion upon the gentleman's part in the business," answered Clementina, laughing, but glad there was so little light in the room, for she was painfully conscious of the burning of her cheeks. "Besides, I have no measure to apply to Malcolm," she went on, a little hurriedly. "He is like no one else I have ever talked with, and I confess there is something about him I cannot understand. Indeed, he is beyond me altogether."

"Perhaps, having known him from infancy, I might be able to explain him," returned Mr. Graham in a tone that invited questioning.

"Perhaps, then," said Clementina. "I may be permitted, in jealousy for the teaching I have received of him, to confess my bewilderment that one so young should be capable of dealing with such things as he delights in. The youth of the prophet makes me doubt his prophecy."

"At least," rejoined Mr. Graham, "the phenomenon coincides with what the Master of these things said of them — that they were revealed to babes, and not to the wise and prudent. As to Malcolm's wonderful facility in giving them form and utterance, that depends so immediately on the clear sight of them that, granted a little of the gift poetic, developed through reading and talk, we need not wonder much at it."

"You consider your friend a genius?" asked Clementina.

"I consider him possessed of a kind of heavenly common sense, equally at home in the truths of divine relation and the facts of the human struggle with nature and her forces. I should never have discovered my own ignorance in certain points of the mathematics but for the questions that boy put to me before he was twelve years of age. A thing not understood lay in his mind like a fretting foreign body. But there is a far more important factor concerned than this exceptional degree of insight. Understanding is the reward of obedience. Peter says, 'The Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him.' Obedience is the key to every door. I am perplexed at the stupidity of the ordinary religious being. In the most practical of all matters he will talk and speculate and try to feel, but he will not set himself to do. It is different with Malcolm. From the first he has been trying to obey. Nor do I see why it should be strange that even a child should understand these things, if they are the very elements of the region for which we were created, and to which our being holds essential relations, as a bird to the air or a fish to the sea. If a man may not understand the things of God whence he came, what shall he understand?"

"How, then, is it that so few do understand?"

"Because where they know, so few obey. This boy, I say, did. If you had seen, as I have, the almost superhuman struggles of his will to master the fierce temper his ancestors gave him, you would marvel less at what he has so early become. I have seen him, white with passion, cast himself on his face on the shore and cling with his hands to the earth as if in a paroxysm of bodily suffering; then after a few moments rise and do a service to the man who had wronged him. Were it any wonder if the light should have soon gone up in a soul like that? When I was a younger man I used to go out with the fishing-boats now and then, drawn chiefly by my love for the boy, who earned his own bread that way before he was in his teens. One night we were caught in a terrible storm, arnd had to stand out to sea in the pitch-dark. He was then not fourteen. 'Can you let a boy like that steer?' I said to the captain of the boat. — 'Yes, just a boy like that,' he answered. 'Ma'colm 'll steer as straucht's a porpus.' — When he was relieved he crept over the thwarts to where I sat. 'Is there any true definition of a straight line, sir?' he said. 'I can't take the one in my Euclid.' — 'So you're not afraid, Malcolm?' I returned, heedless of his question, for I wanted to see what he would answer. — 'Afraid, sir!' he rejoined with some surprise. 'I wad ill like to hear the Lord say, O thou o' little faith!"' — 'But,' I persisted, 'God may mean to drown you.' — 'An' what for not?' he returned. 'Gien ye war to tell me 'at I micht be droon't ohn him meant it, I wad be fleyt eneuch.' I see your ladyship does not understand: I will interpret the dark saying: 'And why should he not drown me? If you were to tell me I might be drowned without his meaning it, I should be frightened enough.' Believe me, my lady, the right way is simple to find, though only they that seek it first can find it. But I have allowed myself," concluded the schoolmaster, "to be carried adrift in my laudation of Malcolm. You did not come to hear praises of him, my lady."

"I owe him much," said Clementina. "But tell me, then, Mr. Graham, how is it that you know there is a God, and one — one — fit to be trusted as you trust him?"

"In no way that I can bring to bear on to the reason of another so as to produce conviction."

"Then what is to become of me?"

"I can do for you what is far better. I can persuade you to look and see whether before your own door stands not a gate — lies not a path to walk in. Entering by that gate, walking in that path, you shall yourself arrive at the conviction, which no man can give you, that there is a living love and truth at the heart of your being and pervading all that surrounds you. The man who seeks the truth in any other manner will never find it. Listen to me a moment, my lady. I loved that boy's mother. Naturally, she did not love me — how could she? I was very unhappy. I sought comfort from the unknown Source of my life. He gave me to understand his Son, and so I understood himself, knew that I came of God, and was comforted."

"But how do you know that it was not all a delusion, the product of your own fervid imagination? Do not mistake me: I want to find it true."

"It is a right and honest question, my lady. I will tell you. Not to mention the conviction which a truth beheld must carry with itself, and concerning which there can be no argument either with him who does or him who does not see it, this experience goes far with me, and would with you if you had it, as you may — namely, that all my difficulties and confusions have gone on clearing themselves up ever since I set out to walk in that way. My consciousness of life is threefold what it was; my perception of what is lovely around me, and my delight in it, threefold; my power of understanding things and of ordering my way threefold also: the same with my hope and my courage, my love to my kind, my power of forgiveness. In short, I cannot but believe that my whole being and its whole world are in process of rectification for me. Is not that something to set against the doubt born of the eye and ear, and the questions of an intellect that can neither grasp nor disprove? I say nothing of better things still. To the man who receives such as I mean, they are the heart of life — to the man who does not, they exist not. But, I say, if I thus find my whole being enlightened and redeemed, and know that therein I fare according to the word of the man of whom the old story tells; if I find that his word, and the result of action founded upon that word, correspond and agree, opening a heaven within and beyond me, in which I see myself delivered from all that now in myself is to myself despicable and unlovely; if I can reasonably — reasonably to myself, not to another — cherish hopes of a glory of conscious being divinely better than all my imagination when most daring could invent — a glory springing from absolute unity with my Creator, and therefore with my neighbor; if the Lord of the ancient tale, I say, has thus held word with me, am I likely to doubt much or long whether there be such a Lord or no?"

"What, then, is the way that lies before my own door? Help me to see it."

"It is just the old way — as old as the conscience — that of obedience to any and every law of personal duty. But if you have ever seen the Lord, if only from afar — if you have any vaguest suspicion that the Jew Jesus, who professed to have come from God, was a better man than other men — one of your first duties must be to open your ears to his words, and see whether they commend themselves to you as true: then, if they do, to obey them with your whole strength and might, upheld by the hope of the vision promised in them to the obedient. This is the way of life, which will lead a man out of the miseries of the nineteenth century, as it led Paul out of the miseries of the first."

There followed a little pause, and then a long talk about what the schoolmaster had called the old story, in which he spoke with such fervid delight of this and that point in the tale, removing this and that stumbling-block by giving the true reading or the right interpretation, showing the what and why and how — the very intent of our Lord in the thing he said or did — that, for the first time in her life, Clementina began to feel as if such a man must really have lived, that his blessed feet must really have walked over the acres of Palestine, that his human heart must indeed have thought and felt, worshipped and borne, right humanly. Even in the presence of her new teacher, and with his words in her ears, she began to desire her own chamber that she might sit down with the neglected story and read for herself. The schoolmaster walked with her to the chapel door. There her carriage was already waiting. He put her in, and, while the Reverend Jacob Masquar was still holding forth upon the difference between adoption and justification, Clementina drove away, never more to delight the hearts of the deacons with the noise of the hoofs of her horses staying the wheels of her yellow chariot.