The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/A Study in Temptations/Chapter 3

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III.

Touching The Masculine Conscience And The Feminine Reason.

Farmer Battle, meanwhile, had retired to the solitude of his own chamber, to review a domestic situation, which, as Miss Caroline had rightly guessed, he had foreseen, and to some extent prepared for. It may be, however, that he had overlooked the serious difficulties of the case, in the seemly joy of composing a speech which would crush it; at all events, he saw plainly enough now, that the trouble, so far from being ended, had only begun. The outlook perplexed, worried, and distressed him more than his dignity was willing, but as his nerves soon forced him, to admit. His first act, therefore, on reaching his room was to pour out and swallow a large dose of a noxious preparation known as Gump's Elixir, and, as he was able to gulp this down with comparatively few qualms, it assured him, that his system could still endure the most extraordinary and violent shocks without surrender.

But though he could recall the physical man to duty, his mind remained in rebellion, and he sat down, with his body forward, his arms resting on his knees, and his hands clasped, the picture of doubt and embarrassment. He was a man of governed but primitive emotions, and knew nothing of the thousand-and-one complications and combinations, which the cultured mind can make out of one rough passion chopped into polished fragments. His love was love, and his hate was hate, and his rage was rage: to excite either one was like pulling out the stop of an organ.

Like most proud men he was extremely sensitive, and he had been quick to notice his nephew's want of interest in farm matters and the comfortable home—the home which Battle himself had spent his days in making, and which was the crown of his earthly labours. The old man did not desire—nor indeed could he conceive—a greater happiness than to stand in his porch, and see the smoke rising from his tenants' chimney-pots, to gaze at the fine barn (once a miserable cowshed), at the dairy, and at the model hen-house built after his own design, with a patent door! Every twig and every stone on the estate had its value and association for him; every inch of the ground knew his tread; every corner, nook, and cranny stood for something in the sum of his experience. But De Boys could sit opposite the barn with his nose in a book; he accepted the dairy as a matter of course; he talked of crops and prize bullocks as though land which did not yield crops, and bullocks which did not win prizes were things unheard of; he ate his good fare and slept between linen sheets, not with gratitude, but as though he would have been very scurvily treated if he did not have such luxuries.

All this was a never-failing source of bitterness to the old man: what he gave he gave liberally; he only asked, when his gifts were accepted so freely, that he should be remembered with like readiness as the giver. There was certainly nothing unreasonable in this desire; it was a very natural craving for some recognition of the toil and endeavour, the heart-aches and struggles which had gone to the making of his—as it must to every man's—success. The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, and if it is the weak and the slow who win, how is it done save, by the most painful efforts, the sternest self-discipline, the most dogged courage, and the most touching patience? Battle, unable to analyze his feelings, was only conscious that he had fought a hard fight for sixty odd years, was still fighting, and not one member of his family showed, nor ever had shown, the smallest knowledge of it. The women he forgave, for two (his wife and his eldest daughter) were dead, one was a careful housekeeper, and the other, a slip of a girl, but De Boys—he could not forgive De Boys. That his experience was the common one of many husbands and fathers only aggravated the wound: he wished, in pardonable if foolish pride, to think that his family were altogether exceptional, patterns of goodness, sobriety, discretion and—quality so necessary to domestic comfort—obedience.

Much, no doubt, was to be said for the farmer, but De Boys was not without defence. He had appeared on the scene when things were prosperous, and he was still an untravelled youth of twenty; he was therefore quite unable to contrast the old farm with the new, or properly estimate a force of character which he could only know to be uncommon, by mixing with the world. In De Boys's green judgment all elderly relatives were severe, a shade despotic, and a little too religious; all women mended socks, made incomparable pies, and scolded incessantly; all girls spent too much time titivating, were feeble in argument, yet pleasing enough in their way. These opinions he expressed with much confidence, and, boy-like, was so proud of his power of criticism, that he forgot he was directing it against the beings he loved best in the world. Boy-like, too, he was not only very shy of showing his affection, but he did not even know that he had it. Healthy-minded lads do not sit brooding over their instincts till they are hatched into Christian virtues and deadly sins: their conscience warns them which to follow and which to shun, but the why, the wherefore, and the psychological meaning of it all does not trouble them in the least. Thus, while De Boys would have defended his uncle with the last drop of blood in his body, he would not have been able to say just why. From this it will be seen, how far the farmer and the aspiring scholar were from a mutual understanding.

Battle's strongest impulse, after the scene at the dinner-table, was to order an immediate bonfire of all the Pagan authors in the house, and if it had been in his power to include the curate among them, it is not hard to guess how he would have dealt with that amiable gentleman. To think that De Boys should prefer the example of a weak-kneed parson (who could hardly keep his own body and soul together), before that of his lawful guardian, whose flourishing circumstances were the best possible proof of his fitness to advise! Yet De Boys was a clever lad, apt and well-spoken—if he liked books better than the fields, he had inherited the taste from his pitiable father. For a moment Battle wavered. If he could call to mind one, even one, scholar who was able to show gumption at a crisis and keep a family in comfort, he would let the boy go his own gait. He was searching his experience for such a prodigy when a doubt assailed him: was not learning sinful? He consulted the third chapter of Genesis and read no further. Evidently, knowledge was not for man.

The farmer's relief was unbounded: he could not only make a virtue of his own ignorance, but stand opposed to his nephew on the vantage-ground of a great moral principle. He had a text—Ye shall not eat of it; he could not be held responsible for the hard sayings of Scripture, his only duty was to expound, and, when necessary, enforce them. His mind was fixed: he had settled the matter for ever—there should be no more weak relenting, no more teasing of conscience. He knelt down by his bed, and, thanking God for giving him light on the subject, was studiously careful not to ask Him for more: he even besought the Almighty to restrain his eyes from wandering to other texts, which might seem to contradict the sound doctrine of the one before him. He wound up by hinting, that if the Almighty saw fit to remove the Rev. Fitz Ormond O'Nelligan to another parish—or sphere—he (Samuel Battle) could only admire His divine wisdom and clemency. Strengthened and refreshed by this prayer, he rose from his knees, and, almost smiling, opened the door at which Miss Caroline had been softly tapping for some seconds.

"Well?" he said.

Miss Caroline studied his face with a half-fearful, half-imploring expression. She had come to make intercession for young Mauden.

"I want to say something about the boy," she began. If the circumstances were ordinary, her heart, at all events, was heroic, and it is the heart which makes the situation.

"There is nothing to be said," said her father, sternly; "leave him to me. There has been enough of women's meddling as it is."

"I have a notion," she faltered.

"A notion! The whole house is swarming wi' notions. A man cannot sleep nor eat for them: they sour the milk and turn his bread to ashes; they confront him on his threshold and break in upon his converse with the Lord"—here he fixed his iron-grey eye on Miss Caroline—"they make his own flesh and blood a heaviness and his children's children as vipers!"

"The Lord forbid that a notion o' mine should work such mischief!" said Miss Caroline, drawing down her lip.

"I have no fault to find wi' you, Caroline," said Battle, in a milder tone, " but I do say that you ha' pampered that boy till he's fit for nought, but to sip tea wi' curates, and lose his liver seeking after lost Niobes!"

He had once overheard a brief conversation between O'Nelligan and Mauden, in the course of which they had referred to the lost Niobe of Aeschylus. This mystery, Battle had no doubt, was a heathen god whom the world was all the richer for losing. "The difference," he went on, "so far as I can see between a man wi' notions and a man without 'em is this—the man without 'em pays the bill!"

"I see no harm in book-learning," said Miss Caroline, firmly; "we are told to add to faith, virtue, and to virtue, knowledge, and——"

Her father waved his hand. "Beware of twisting the Word of God," he said, hurriedly; "there's no telling what mischief may come of perking up on a false meaning. I don't hold wi' women quoting texts," he added, "and I doubt the wisdom of dragging Scripture in by the ears whether it will or no. Ten to one if it don't bite you for your pains!"

"Aye! " said Miss Caroline, "and for that reason ministers should have learning." She drew a long breath and flushed. "Why shouldn't De Boys be a minister?"

Battle plunged into thought. He never, in his own phrase, "fooled round the edge of an idea."

"A minister!" he said, at last. "What sort of a minister? If De Boys is the kind to be yanked about by deacons he hasn't much of the Battle stock in him!"

"There's room for all in the Church of England," said Miss Caroline. "A doctrine or two needn't stand in a man's way. What's doctrine? Why should De Boys call himself a Dissenter and spoil his chances, poor lad, when he might just as well be Broad and hold his own wi' the best? When folks begin to quarrel about doctrine they are really spearin' at politics. Any fool knows that!"

"I will think it over," said Battle; "but I could never see bone of my bone picked bare by deacons. Whenever I see a deacon I always think of the roaring lion seeking whom he can devour. Look at Hoadley —a pleasant enough man till they made him senior deacon. There's very few men, Caroline, that can bear authority if they haven't been born with the shoulders for it. If you gave a man a nose who had never had one, he would be blowing it all day. If De Boys can see his way to do without deacons—well, I will think it over."

Miss Caroline went downstairs, scolded the dairy-maid on general grounds, called Jane to task for tearing her frock the Sunday before, hinted of dead parents turning in their grave, made a pudding with as little sugar as possible, and finally withdrew to her own room, where she indulged in a good cry. Heroism has a reaction.

Battle, however, had been so fascinated by the idea of De Boys entering the Church and "coming the Rectory" on his own account, that when his daughter had left him, he once more opened his Bible and found his thumb on the following sentence in Isaiah—"Their strength is to sit still."

"The Lord's will be done," he murmured. "It is not for me to thwart the working of the Spirit. If the boy's call is to the ministry, he must obey it!"


It would be tedious to recapitulate the numerous consultations, plans, and hopes of which De Boys was the object, not only for days, but for weeks following. At first he had been tempted to quarrel with the profession so suddenly forced upon him: his religion, like the religion of the young, was an untried force, and, as his idea of God was somehow associated with his Uncle Battle, it was largely tempered with unutterable private opinions. But though he had often questioned the infallible justice of the Almighty (with regard to fishing on Sundays and the like), his faith was so knit in his bones that it was more valuable as a ruling principle than any wider creed, based on the mere mental acceptance of doctrinal truths. The fear of God was before his eyes; the prospect, therefore, of becoming His minister put no strain on his sincerity. If it failed to stir his enthusiasm it was because his easy-going nature hung aloof from the self-denial and hard work which, oddly enough, he conceived to be a clergyman's portion.

Where his books had formerly been ordered aside for the most trivial domestic duty, he was now frowned at if he ventured to look up from them; if he showed the smallest disposition to levity, the farmer would remind him that it was time to put away childish things and reflect on the dignity of his calling: at his approach gossip was silenced, and Baptismal Regeneration, Predestination, and Justification by Faith became the lively topics of conversation; if he betrayed even the mildest interest in "new trouserings," references would be made to Demas, who loved the things of this world, and to the young man who had great possessions. He began to see that a reputation for virtue and wisdom (however gratifying to one's vanity), brings with it pains and penalties so various, so exquisite, and so incessant, that Job himself would seem a false type of persecuted excellence, since he lived longer than his plagues. De Boys's patience, at no time of remarkable endurance, would not have lasted under the petty but fretting annoyances which now formed his daily lot, and which promised to grow in severity as he advanced in grace, if his determination to go to Oxford had not been made with a firm resolve to suffer all things rather than fail to fulfil it. When the time came to leave home, he went with a sigh of relief so heartfelt, that Miss Caroline mistook it for a sob.

"The plum-cake is just inside the bag," she whispered, "but the currant wine is at the bottom of the box. I didn't put it on top because—as you are going to be a minister—it would not look well if the lid flew open!"

He heard no more, for the driver whipped up his horse, and, followed by tears, blessings, exhortations, and warnings, he rode off in the market cart towards fame and the railway station. He was so lost in fair dreams of the future that he did not notice Jane, who, by running across the fields and jumping a few ditches, had managed to reach a certain tree which commanded a fine view of the high-road. This she had climbed, and there she sat on a branch waiting for him to pass.

But while he did not see her for dreaming, she could not see him for tears. Thus her long run, and her jumps, and her climb were for nothing.

De Boys, however, had wished her farewell the night before, and he had felt the parting to the best of his ability. He still felt it—dear, sweet little Jane! (she was tall)—but now other matters were naturally foremost in his mind. Jane, woman-like, utterly unable to understand this, thought him very unloving, and decided to waste no more of her affection where it was not wanted. She was young—but seventeen in fact, impulsive, wilful, passionately fond of romances, but singularly practical in her criticism of life: weeping for her heroines as heroines, yet scorning them not seldom as fools, admiring the heroes, yet finding much to be said for the villains, and displaying, for her age, sex, and inexperience, an unusual desire for strict—indeed rigorous—justice. Even now, smarting under De Boys's fancied indifference, she blamed her own poverty of attractions, not his callousness, which, since she promised—to the seeing eye—to be a beautiful woman, was as wrong-headed and feminine as it well could be.

As the days dragged on she realized how much De Boys had been to her, how much of her supposed independence had rested on his support, how much her courage had fed on his sympathy, how everything in her mind which gave her the smallest satisfaction was not her own at all, but borrowed from him. And now he was gone, it seemed as though the earth which she trampled on as a right, had suddenly slipped away, and left her without a footing, to sink, and sink, and sink, as one does in a nightmare. At first she saw a substitute for De Boys in a tow-headed youth who sang in the chapel choir, and she talked to him of the books she read, as she would to her lover, only to grow absent-minded, however, and wake to catch an unsympathetic and wondering eye: phrases, jokes, and little words full of meaning to herself and De Boys lost all their point when exchanged with her few friends in the village, and very soon she learnt the absolute dissimilarity in minds, and how very little except weakness one human being has in common with another.

Jane had always found such balm for all her small troubles in being understood by De Boys, which meant, no doubt, that he saw no fault in her, and made a grace out of every shortcoming—that is to say, where her shortcomings affected others. He made nicer distinctions in her offences against himself. But in her dealings with the world at large he always proved her in the right, even when she knew herself in the wrong, and thus when she least agreed with him, he was most consoling. True, now he was absent, he wrote to her, but the letters were for family perusal, and even though "Do not forget the guinea pig" stood for "My very dearest, how I long to see you," it was a flimsy substitute for a love letter, her own, and bristling with "dearests" in plain English. Gradually restraint showed itself in her replies: the guinea pig untimely died, De Boys adopted a more learned tone, Jane found him more difficult to answer, she doubted whether she loved him, and grew pale at the doubt; spent whole hours trying to prove that she was perfectly happy without him, and whole nights crying because she was not.

When she heard that he did not intend to return home till the end of his third term, she made no comment, but brought her lips so sharply together, that they lost their look of childish indecision for all time.