When It Was Dark/Chapter 3

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THE servant had turned on the lights in the drawing room, where a low fire still glowed red upon the hearth, and left Constantine Schuabe alone to await the vicar's arrival.

On either side of the fireplace were heavy hangings of emerald and copper woven stuff, a present to Helena from an uncle, who had bought them at Benares. Schuabe stood motionless before this background.

The man was tall, above the middle height, and the heavy coat of fur which he was wearing increased the impression of proportioned size, of massiveness, which was part of his personality. His hair was a very dark red, smooth and abundant, of that peculiar colour which is the last to show the greyness of advancing age. His features were Semitic, but without a trace of that fulness, and sometimes coarseness, which often marks the Jew who has come to the middle period of life. The eyes were large and black, but without animation, in ordinary use and wont. They did not light up as he spoke, but yet the expression was not veiled or obscured. They were coldly, terribly aware, with something of the sinister and untroubled regard one sees in a reptile's eyes.

The jaw, which dominated the face and completed its remarkable ensemble, was very massive, reminding people of steel covered with olive-coloured parchment. Handsome was hardly the word which fitted him. He was a strikingly handsome man; but that, like "distinction," was only one of the qualities which made up his personality. Force, power—the relentless and conscious power suggested by some great marine engine—surrounded him in an almost indescribable way. They were like exhalations. Most people, with the casual view, called him merely indomitable, but there were others who thought they read deeper and saw something evil and monstrous about the man; powerless to give an exact and definite reason for the impression, and dubious of voicing it.

Nevertheless, now and again, two or three people would speak of him to each other without reserve, and on such occasions they generally agreed to this feeling of the sinister and malign, in much the same manner as the vicar and his curate had been agreeing but half an hour before his arrival at the house.

The door opened with a quick click of the handle, and the vicar entered with something of suddenness. One might almost have supposed that he had lingered, hesitant, in the hall, and suddenly nerved himself for this encounter.

Mr. Byars advanced to take the hand of his visitor. Beside the big man he seemed shrunken and a little ineffectual. He was slightly nervous in his manner also, for Basil's impassioned and terror-ridden words still rang in his ears and had their way with him.

The coincidence of the millionaire's arrival was altogether too sudden and bizarre.

When they had made greetings, cordial enough on the surface, and were seated on either side of the fire, Schuabe spoke at once upon the object of his visit.

"I have come, Mr. Byars," he said, in a singularly clear, vibrant voice, "to discuss certain educational proposals with you. As you probably know, just at present I am taking a very prominent part in the House of Commons in connection with the whole problem of primary education. Within the last few weeks I have been in active correspondence with your School Board, and you will know all about the scholarships I have founded.

"But I am now coming to you to propose something of the same sort in connection with your own Church schools. My opinions on religious matters are, of course, not yours. But despite my position I have always recognised that, with whatever means, both the clergy and my own party are broadly working towards one end.

"Walktown provides me with very many thousands a year, and it is my duty in some way or another to help Walktown. My proposal is roughly this: I will found and endow two yearly scholarships for two boys in the national schools. The money will be sufficient, in the first instance, to send them to one of the great Northern Grammar Schools, and afterwards, always providing that the early promise is maintained, to either university.

"My only stipulation is this. The tests shall be purely and simply intellectual, and have nothing whatever to do with the religious teaching of the schools, with which I am not in sympathy. Nevertheless, it is only fair that a clever boy in a Church school should have the same opportunities as in a secular school. I should tell you that I have made the same offer to the Roman Catholic school authorities and it has been declined."

The vicar listened with great attention. The offer was extremely generous, and showed a most open-minded determination to put the donor's personal prejudices out of the question. There could be no doubt as to his answer—none whatever.

"My dear sir," he said, "your generosity is very great. I see your point about the examinations. Religion is to form no part of them exactly. But by the time one of our boys submits himself for examination we should naturally hope that he would already be so firmly fixed in Christian principles that his after-career would have no influence upon his faith. Holding the opinions that you do, your offer shows a great freedom from any prejudice. I hope I am broad-minded enough to recognise that philanthropy is a fine, lovely thing, despite the banner under which the philanthropist may stand. I accept your generous offer in the spirit that it is made. Of course, the scheme must be submitted to the managers of the schools, of whom I am chief, but the matter practically lies with me, and my lead will be followed."

"I am only too glad," said the big man, with a sudden and transforming smile, "to help on the cause of knowledge. All the details of the scheme I will send you in a few days, and now I will detain you no longer."

He rose to go.

During their brief conversation the vicar had been conscious of many emotions. He blamed himself for his narrowness and the somewhat fantastic lengths to which his recent talk with Gortre had gone. The man was an infidel, no doubt. His intellectual attacks upon Christian faith were terribly damaging and subversive. Still, his love for his fellow-men was sincere, it seemed. He attacked the faith, but not the preachers of it. And—a half thought crossed his brain—he might have been sent to him for some good purpose. St. Paul had not always borne the name of Paul!

These thoughts, but half formulated in his brain, had their immediate effect in concrete action.

Won't you take off your coat, Mr. Schuabe," he said, "and smoke a cigar with me in my study?"

The other hesitated a moment, looked doubtful, and then assented. He hung his coat up in the hall and went into the other room with the vicar.

During the conversation in the drawing-room Helena had come back from the concert, and Basil, hearing her, had left the study and gone to her own private sanctum for a last few minutes before saying good-night.

Helena sat in a low chair by the fire sipping a bowl of soup which the maid had brought up to her. She was a little tired by the concert, where a local pianist had been playing a nocturne of Chopin's as if he wanted to make it into soup, and the quiet of her own sitting-room, the intimate comfort of it all, and the sense of happiness that Basil's presence opposite gave her were in delightful contrast.

"It was very stupid, dear," she said. "Mrs. Pryde was rather trying, full of dull gossip about every one, and the music wasn't good. Mr. Cuthbert played as if he was playing the organ in church. His touch is utterly unfitted for anything except the War March from Athalie with the stops out. He knows nothing of the piano. I was in a front seat, and I could see his knee feeling for the swell all the time. He played the sonata as if he was throwing the moonlight at one in great solid chunks. I'm glad to be back. How nice it is to sit here with you, dearest!—and how good this Bovril is!" she concluded with a little laugh of content and happiness at this moment of acute physical and mental ease.

He looked lovingly at her as she lay back in rest and the firelight played over her white arms and pale gold hair.

"It's wonderful to think," he said, with a little catch in his voice, "it's wonderful to me, an ever- recurring wonder, to think that some day you and I will always be together for all our life, here and afterwards. What supreme, unutterable happiness God gives to His children! Do you know, dear, sometimes as I read prayers or stand by the altar, I am filled with a sort of rapture of thankfulness which is voiceless in its intensity. Tennyson got nearer to expressing it than any one in that beautiful St. Agnes' Eve of his—a little gem which, with its simplicity and fervour, is worth far more than Keats's poem with all its literary art."

"It is good to feel like that sometimes," she answered; "but it is well, I think, not to get into the way of inducing such feelings. The human brain is such a sensitive thing that one can get into the way of drugging it with emotion, as it were. I think I am tinged a little with the North-country spirit. I always think of Newman's wonderful lines—

"'The thoughts control that o'er thee swell and throng;
They will condense within the soul and turn to purpose strong.
But he who lets his feelings run in soft luxurious flow,
Shrinks when hard service must be done, and faints at every blow.'

"I only quote from memory. But you look tired, dear boy; you are rather white. Have you been overworking?"

He did not answer immediately.

"No," he said slowly, "but I've been having a long talk with the vicar. We were talking about Mr. Schuabe and his influence. Helena, that man is the most active of God's enemies in England. Almost when I was mentioning his name, by some coincidence, or perhaps for some deeper, more mysterious, psychical reason which men do not yet understand, the maid announced him. He had come to see your father on business, and—don't think I am unduly fanciful—the Murillo photograph, the head of Christ, on the mantel-shelf, fell down and was broken. He is here still, I think."

"Yes," said Helena; "Mr. Schuabe is in the study with father. But, Basil dear, it's quite evident to me that you've been doing too much. Do you know that I look upon Mr. Schuabe as a really good man! I have often thought about him, and even prayed that he may learn the truth; but God has many instruments. Mr. Schuabe is sincere in his unbelief. His life and all his actions are for the good of others. It is terrible—it is deplorable—to know he attacks Christianity; but he is tolerent and large-minded also. Yes, I should call him a good man. He will come to God some day. God would not have given him such power over the minds and bodies of men otherwise."

Gortre smiled a little sadly,—a rather wan smile, which sat strangely upon his strong and hearty face—, but he said no more.

He knew that his attitude was illogical, perhaps it could be called bigoted and intolerant—a harsh indictment in these easy, latitudinarian days; but his conviction was an intuition. It came from within, from something outside or beyond his reason, and would not be stifled.

"Well, dear," he said, "perhaps it is as you say. Nerves which are overwrought, and a system which is run down, certainly have their say, and a large say, too, in one's attitude towards any one. Now you must go to bed. I will go down and say good-night to the rector and Mr. Schuabe—just to show there's no ill-feeling; though, goodness knows, I oughtn't to jest about the man. Good-night, sweet one; God bless you. Remember me also in your prayers to-night."

She kissed him in her firm, brave way—a kiss so strong and loving, so pure and sweet, that he went away from that little room of books and bric-à-brac as if he had been sojourning in some shrine.

As Basil came into the study he found Mr. Byars and Schuabe in eager, animated talk. A spirit decanter had been brought in during his absence, and the vicar was taking the single glass of whisky-and-water he allowed himself before going to bed. Basil, who was in a singularly alert and observant mood, noticed that a glass of plain seltzer water stood before the millionaire.

Gortre's personal acquaintance with Schuabe was of the slightest. He had met him once or twice on the platform of big meetings, and that was all. A simple curate, unless socially,—and Schuabe did not enter into the social life of Walktown, being almost always in London,—he would not be very likely to come in the way of this mammoth.

But Schuabe greeted him with marked cordiality, and he sat down to listen to the two men.

In two minutes he was fascinated, in five he realised, with a quick and unpleasant sense of inferiority, how ignorant he was beside these two. In Schuabe the vicar found a man whose knowledge was as wide and scholarship as profound as his own. From a purely intellectual standpoint, probably Gortre and Schuabe were more nearly on a level, but in pure knowledge he was nowhere. He wondered, as he listened, if the generation immediately preceding his own had been blessed with more time for culture, if the foundation had been surer and more comprehensive, when they were alumni of the "loving mother" in the South.

They were discussing archæological questions connected with the Holy Land.

Schuabe possessed a profound and masterly knowledge of the whole Jewish background to the Gospel picture, not merely of the archæology, which in itself is a life study, but of the essential characteristics of Jewish thought and feeling, which is far more.

Of course, every now and again the conversation turned towards a direction that, pursued, would have led to controversy. But, with mutual tact, the debatable ground was avoided. That Christ was a historic fact Schuabe, of course, admitted and implied, and when the question of His Divinity seemed likely to occur he was careful and adroit to avoid any discussion.

To the young man, burning with the zeal of youth, this seemed a pity. Unconsciously, he blamed the vicar for not pressing certain points home.

What an opportunity was here! The rarity of such a visit, the obvious interest the two men were beginning to take in each other—should not a great blow for Christ be struck on such an auspicious night? Even if the protest was unavailing, the argument overthrown, was it not a duty to speak of the awful and eternal realities which lay beneath this vivid and brilliant interchange of scholarship?

His brain was on fire with passionate longing to speak. But, nevertheless, he controlled it. None knew better than he the depth and worth of the vicar's character. And he felt himself a junior; he had no right to question the decision of his superior.

"You have missed much, Mr. Byars," said Schuabe, as he arose to go at last, "in never having visited Jerusalem. One can get the knowledge of it, but never the colour. And, even to-day, the city must appear, in many respects, exactly as it did under the rule of Pilate. The Fellah women sell their vegetables, the camels come in loaded with roots for fuel, the Bedouin, the Jews with their long gowns and slippers—I wish you could see it all. I have eaten the meals of the Gospels, drunk the red wine of Saron, the spiced wine mixed with honey and black pepper, the 'wine of myrrh' mentioned in the Gospel of Mark. I have dined with Jewish tradesmen and gone through the same formalities of hand-washing as we read of two thousand years ago; I have seen the poor ostentatiously gathered in out of the streets and the best part of the meal given them for a self-righteous show. And yet, an hour afterwards, I have sat in a café by King David's Tower and played dice with Turkish soldiers armed with Martini rifles!"

The vicar seemed loath to let his guest go, though the hour was late, but he refused to stay longer. Mr. Byars, with a somewhat transparent eagerness, mentioned that Gortre's road home lay for part of the way in the same direction as the millionaire's. He seemed to wish the young man to accompany him, almost, so Basil thought, that the charm of his personality might rebuke him for his tirade in the early part of the evening.

Accordingly, in agreement with the vicar's evident wish, but with an inexplicable ice-cold feeling in his heart, he left the house with Schuabe and began to walk with him through the silent, lamp-lit streets.