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I have said, near the beginning of my story, that my parish was a large one: how is it that I have mentioned but one of the great families in it, and have indeed confined my recollections entirely to the village and its immediate neighbourhood? Will my reader have patience while I explain this to him a little? First, as he may have observed, my personal attraction is towards the poor rather than the rich. I was made so. I can generally get nearer the poor than the rich. But I say GENERALLY, for I have known a few rich people quite as much to my mind as the best of the poor. Thereupon, of course, their education would give them the advantage with me in the possibilities of communion. But when the heart is right, and there is a good stock of common sense as well,--a gift predominant, as far as I am aware, in no one class over another, education will turn the scale very gently with me. And then when I reflect that some of these poor people would have made nobler ladies and gentlemen than all but two or three I know, if they had only had the opportunity, there is a reaction towards the poor, something like a feeling of favour because they have not had fair play--a feeling soon modified, though not altered, by the reflection that they are such because God who loves them better than we do, has so ordered their lot, and by the recollection that not only was our Lord himself poor, but He said the poor were blessed. And let me just say in passing that I not only believe it because He said it, but I believe it because I see that it is so. I think sometimes that the world must have been especially created for the poor, and that particular allowances will be made for the rich because they are born into such disadvantages, and with their wickednesses and their miseries, their love of spiritual dirt and meanness, subserve the highest growth and emancipation of the poor, that they may inherit both the earth and the kingdom of heaven.
But I have been once more wandering from my subject.
Thus it was that the people in the village lying close to my door attracted most of my attention at first; of which attention those more immediately associated with the village, as, for instance, the inhabitants of the Hall, came in for a share, although they did not belong to the same class.
Again, the houses of most of the gentlefolk lay considerably apart from the church and from each other. Many of them went elsewhere to church, and I did not feel bound to visit those, for I had enough to occupy me without, and had little chance of getting a hold of them to do them good. Still there were one or two families which I would have visited oftener, I confess, had I been more interested in them, or had I had a horse. Therefore, I ought to have bought a horse sooner than I did. Before this winter was over, however, I did buy one, partly to please Dr Duncan, who urged me to it for the sake of my health, partly because I could then do my duty better, and partly, I confess, from having been very fond of an old mare of my father's, when I was a boy, living, after my mother's death, at a farm of his in B--shire. Happening to come across a gray mare very much like her, I bought her at once.
I think it was the very day after the events recorded in my last chapter that I mounted her to pay a visit to two rich maiden ladies, whose carriage stopped at the Lych-gate most Sundays when the weather was favourable, but whom I had called upon only once since I came to the parish. I should not have thought this visit worth mentioning, except for the conversation I had with them, during which a hint or two were dropped which had an influence in colouring my thoughts for some time after.
I was shown with much ceremony by a butler, as old apparently as his livery of yellow and green, into the presence of the two ladies, one of whom sat in state reading a volume of the Spectator. She was very tall, and as square as the straight long-backed chair upon which she sat. A fat asthmatic poodle lay at her feet upon the hearth-rug. The other, a little lively gray-haired creature, who looked like a most ancient girl whom no power of gathering years would ever make old, was standing upon a high chair, making love to a demoniacal-looking cockatoo in a gilded cage. As I entered the room, the latter all but jumped from her perch with a merry though wavering laugh, and advanced to meet me.
"Jonathan, bring the cake and wine," she cried to the retreating servant.
The former rose with a solemn stiff-backedness, which was more amusing than dignified, and extended her hand as I approached her, without moving from her place.
"We were afraid, Mr Walton," said the little lady, "that you had forgotten we were parishioners of yours."
"That I could hardly do," I answered, "seeing you are such regular attendants at church. But I confess I have given you ground for your rebuke, Miss Crowther. I bought a horse, however, the other day, and this is the first use I have put him to."
"We're charmed to see you. It is very good of you not to forget such uninteresting girls as we are."
"You forget, Jemima," interposed her sister, in a feminine bass, "that time is always on the wing. I should have thought we were both decidedly middle-aged, though you are the elder by I will not say how many years."
"All but ten years, Hester. I remember rocking you in your cradle scores of times. But somehow, Mr Walton, I can't help feeling as if she were my elder sister. She is so learned, you see; and I don't read anything but the newspapers."
"And your Bible, Jemima. Do yourself justice."
"That's a matter of course, sister. But this is not the way to entertain Mr Walton."
"The gentlemen used to entertain the ladies when I was young, Jemima. I do not know how it may have been when you were."
"Much the same, I believe, sister. But if you look at Mr Walton, I think you will see that he is pretty much entertained as it is."
"I agree with Miss Hester," I said. "It is the duty of gentlemen to entertain ladies. But it is so much the kinder of ladies when they surpass their duty, and condescend to entertain gentlemen."
"What can surpass duty, Mr Walton? I confess I do not agree with your doctrines upon that point."
"I do not quite understand you, Miss Hester," I returned.
"Why, Mr Walton--I hope you will not think me rude, but it always seems to me--and it has given me much pain, when I consider that your congregation is chiefly composed of the lower classes, who may be greatly injured by such a style of preaching. I must say I think so, Mr Walton. Only perhaps you are one of those who think a lady's opinion on such matters is worth nothing."
"On the contrary, I respect an opinion just as far as the lady or gentleman who holds it seems to me qualified to have formed it first. But you have not yet told me what you think so objectionable in my preaching."
"You always speak as if faith in Christ was something greater than duty. Now I think duty the first thing."
"I quite agree with you, Miss Crowther. For how can I, or any clergyman, urge a man to that which is not his duty? But tell me, is not faith in Christ a duty? Where you have mistaken me is, that you think I speak of faith as higher than duty, when indeed I speak of faith as higher than any OTHER duty. It is the highest duty of man. I do not say the duty he always sees clearest, or even sees at all. But the fact is, that when that which is a duty becomes the highest delight of a man, the joy of his very being, he no more thinks or needs to think about it as a duty. What would you think of the love of a son who, when an appeal was made to his affections, should say, 'Oh yes, I love my mother dearly: it is my duty, of course?'"
"That sounds very plausible, Mr Walton; but still I cannot help feeling that you preach faith and not works. I do not say that you are not to preach faith, of course; but you know faith without works is dead."
"Now, really, Hester," interposed Miss Jemima, "I cannot think how it is, but, for my part, I should have said that Mr Walton was constantly preaching works. He's always telling you to do something or other. I know I always come out of the church with something on my mind; and I've got to work it off somehow before I'm comfortable."
And here Miss Jemima got up on the chair again, and began to flirt with the cockatoo once more, but only in silent signs.
I cannot quite recall how this part of the conversation drew to a close. But I will tell a fact or two about the sisters which may possibly explain how it was that they took up such different notions of my preaching. The elder scarce left the house, but spent almost the whole of her time in reading small dingy books of eighteenth century literature. She believed in no other; thought Shakespeare sentimental where he was not low, and Bacon pompous; Addison thoroughly respectable and gentlemanly. Pope was the great English poet, incomparably before Milton. The "Essay on Man" contained the deepest wisdom; the "Rape of the Lock" the most graceful imagination to be found in the language. The "Vicar of Wakefield" was pretty, but foolish; while in philosophy, Paley was perfect, especially in his notion of happiness, which she had heard objected to, and therefore warmly defended. Somehow or other, respectability--in position, in morals, in religion, in conduct--was everything. The consequence was that her very nature was old-fashioned, and had nothing in it of that lasting youth which is the birthright--so often despised--of every immortal being. But I have already said more about her than her place in my story justifies.
Miss Crowther, on the contrary, whose eccentricities did not lie on the side of respectability, had gone on shocking the stiff proprieties of her younger sister till she could be shocked no more, and gave in as to the hopelessness of fate. She had had a severe disappointment in youth, had not only survived it, but saved her heart alive out of it, losing only, as far as appeared to the eyes of her neighbours at least, any remnant of selfish care about herself; and she now spent the love which had before been concentrated upon one object, upon every living thing that came near her, even to her sister's sole favourite, the wheezing poodle. She was very odd, it must be confessed, with her gray hair, her clear gray eye with wrinkled eyelids, her light step, her laugh at once girlish and cracked; darting in and out of the cottages, scolding this matron with a lurking smile in every tone, hugging that baby, boxing the ears of the other little tyrant, passing this one's rent, and threatening that other with awful vengeances, but it was a very lovely oddity. Their property was not large, and she knew every living thing on the place down to the dogs and pigs. And Miss Jemima, as the people always called her, transferring the MISS CROWTHER of primogeniture to the younger, who kept, like King Henry IV.,--
"Her presence, like a robe pontifical, Ne'er seen but wonder'd at,"
was the actual queen of the neighbourhood; for, though she was the very soul of kindness, she was determined to have her own way, and had it.
Although I did not know all this at the time, such were the two ladies who held these different opinions about my preaching; the one who did nothing but read Messrs Addison, Pope, Paley, and Co., considering that I neglected the doctrine of works as the seal of faith, and the one who was busy helping her neighbours from morning to night, finding little in my preaching, except incentive to benevolence.
The next point where my recollection can take up the conversation, is where Miss Hester made the following further criticism on my pulpit labours.
"You are too anxious to explain everything, Mr Walton."
I pause in my recording, to do my critic the justice of remarking that what she said looks worse on paper than it sounded from her lips; for she was a gentlewoman, and the tone has much to do with the impression made by the intellectual contents of all speech.
"Where can be the use of trying to make uneducated people see the grounds of everything?" she said. "It is enough that this or that is in the Bible."
"Yes; but there is just the point. What is in the Bible? Is it this or that?"
"You are their spiritual instructor: tell them what is in the Bible."
"But you have just been objecting to my mode of representing what is in the Bible."
"It will be so much the worse, if you add argument to convince them of what is incorrect."
"I doubt that. Falsehood will expose itself the sooner that honest argument is used to support it."
"You cannot expect them to judge of what you tell them."
"The Bible urges upon us to search and understand."
"I grant that for those whose business it is, like yourself."
"Do you think, then, that the Church consists of a few privileged to understand, and a great many who cannot understand, and therefore need not be taught?"
"I said you had to teach them."
"But to teach is to make people understand."
"I don't think so. If you come to that, how much can the wisest of us understand? You remember what Pope says,--
'Superior beings, when of late they saw A mortal man unfold all Nature's law, Admired such wisdom in an earthly shape, And show'd a Newton as we show an ape'?"
"I do not know the passage. Pope is not my Bible. I should call such superior beings very inferior beings indeed."
"Do you call the angels inferior beings?"
"Such angels, certainly."
"He means the good angels, of course."
"And I say the good angels could never behave like that, for contempt is one of the lowest spiritual conditions in which any being can place himself. Our Lord says, 'Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones, for their angels do always behold the face of my Father, who is in heaven.'"
"Now will you even say that you understand that passage?"
"Practically, well enough; just as the poorest man of my congregation may understand it. I am not to despise one of the little ones. Pope represents the angels as despising a Newton even."
"And you despise Pope."
"I hope not. I say he was full of despising, and therefore, if for no other reason, a small man."
"Surely you do not jest at his bodily infirmities?"
"I had forgotten them quite."
"In every other sense he was a great man."
"I cannot allow it. He was intellectually a great man, but morally a small man."
"Such refinements are not easily followed."
"I will undertake to make the poorest woman in my congregation understand that."
"Why don't you try your friend Mrs Oldcastle, then? It might do her a little good," said Miss Hester, now becoming, I thought, a little spiteful at hearing her favourite treated so unceremoniously. I found afterwards that there was some kindness in it, however.
"I should have very little influence with Mrs Oldcastle if I were to make the attempt. But I am not called upon to address my flock individually upon every point of character."
"I thought she was an intimate friend of yours."
"Quite the contrary. We are scarcely friendly."
"I am very glad to hear it," said Miss Jemima, who had been silent during the little controversy that her sister and I had been carrying on. "We have been quite misinformed. The fact is, we thought we might have seen more of you if it had not been for her. And as very few people of her own position in society care to visit her, we thought it a pity she should be your principal friend in the parish."
"Why do they not visit her more?"
"There are strange stories about her, which it is as well to leave alone. They are getting out of date too. But she is not a fit woman to be regarded as the clergyman's friend. There!" said Miss Jemima, as if she had wanted to relieve her bosom of a burden, and had done it.
"I think, however, her religious opinions would correspond with your own, Mr Walton," said Miss Hester.
"Possibly," I answered, with indifference; "I don't care much about opinion."
"Her daughter would be a nice girl, I fancy, if she weren't kept down by her mother. She looks scared, poor thing! And they say she's not quite--the thing, you know," said Miss Jemima.
"What DO you mean, Miss Crowther?"
She gently tapped her forehead with a forefinger.
I laughed. I thought it was not worth my while to enter as the champion of Miss Oldcastle's sanity.
"They are, and have been, a strange family as far back as I can remember; and my mother used to say the same. I am glad she comes to our church now. You mustn't let her set her cap at you, though, Mr Walton. It wouldn't do at all. She's pretty enough, too!"
"Yes," I returned, "she is rather pretty. But I don't think she looks as if she had a cap to set at anybody."
I rose to go, for I did not relish any further pursuit of the conversation in the same direction.
I rode home slowly, brooding on the lovely marvel, that out of such a rough ungracious stem as the Oldcastle family, should have sprung such a delicate, pale, winter-braved flower, as Ethelwyn. And I prayed that I might be honoured to rescue her from the ungenial soil and atmosphere to which the machinations of her mother threatened to confine her for the rest of a suffering life.
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