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VISITORS FROM THE HALL.
When I came near my own gate, I saw that it was open; and when I came in sight of my own door, I found a carriage standing before it, and a footman ringing the bell. It was an old-fashioned carriage, with two white horses in it, yet whiter by age than by nature. They looked as if no coachman could get more than three miles an hour out of them, they were so fat and knuckle-kneed. But my attention could not rest long on the horses, and I reached the door just as my housekeeper was pronouncing me absent. There were two ladies in the carriage, one old and one young.
"Ah, here is Mr. Walton!" said the old lady, in a serene voice, with a clear hardness in its tone; and I held out my hand to aid her descent. She had pulled off her glove to get a card out of her card-case, and so put the tips of two old fingers, worn very smooth, as if polished with feeling what things were like, upon the palm of my hand. I then offered my hand to her companion, a girl apparently about fourteen, who took a hearty hold of it, and jumped down beside her with a smile. As I followed them into the house, I took their card from the housekeeper's hand, and read, Mrs Oldcastle and Miss Gladwyn.
I confess here to my reader, that these are not really the names I read on the card. I made these up this minute. But the names of the persons of humble position in my story are their real names. And my reason for making the difference will be plain enough. You can never find out my friend Old Rogers; you might find out the people who called on me in their carriage with the ancient white horses.
When they were seated in the drawing-room, I said to the old lady--
"I remember seeing you in church on Sunday morning. It is very kind of you to call so soon."
"You will always see me in church," she returned, with a stiff bow, and an expansion of deadness on her face, which I interpreted into an assertion of dignity, resulting from the implied possibility that I might have passed her over in my congregation, or might have forgotten her after not passing her over.
"Except when you have a headache, grannie," said Miss Gladwyn, with an arch look first at her grandmother, and then at me. "Grannie has bad headaches sometimes."
The deadness melted a little from Mrs Oldcastle's face, as she turned with half a smile to her grandchild, and said--
"Yes, Pet. But you know that cannot be an interesting fact to Mr. Walton."
"I beg your pardon, Mrs. Oldcastle," I said. "A clergyman ought to know something, and the more the better, of the troubles of his flock. Sympathy is one of the first demands he ought to be able to meet--I know what a headache is."
The former expression, or rather non-expression, returned; this time unaccompanied by a bow.
"I trust, Mr. Walton, I TRUST I am above any morbid necessity for sympathy. But, as you say, amongst the poor of your flock,--it IS very desirable that a clergyman should be able to sympathise."
"It's quite true what grannie says, Mr. Walton, though you mightn't think it. When she has a headache, she shuts herself up in her own room, and doesn't even let me come near her--nobody but Sarah; and how she can prefer her to me, I'm sure I don't know."
And here the girl pretended to pout, but with a sparkle in her bright gray eye.
"The subject is not interesting to me, Pet. Pray, Mr. Walton, is it a point of conscience with you to wear the surplice when you preach?"
"Not in the least," I answered. "I think I like it rather better on the whole. But that's not why I wear it."
"Never mind grannie, Mr. Walton. I think the surplice is lovely. I'm sure it's much liker the way we shall be dressed in heaven, though I don't think I shall ever get there, if I must read the good books grannie reads."
"I don't know that it is necessary to read any good books but the good book," I said.
"There, grannie!" exclaimed Miss Gladwyn, triumphantly. "I'm so glad I've got Mr Walton on my side!"
"Mr Walton is not so old as I am, my dear, and has much to learn yet."
I could not help feeling a little annoyed, (which was very foolish, I know,) and saying to myself, "If it's to make me like you, I had rather not learn any more;" but I said nothing aloud, of course.
"Have you got a headache to-day, grannie?"
"No, Pet. Be quiet. I wish to ask Mr Walton WHY he wears the surplice."
"Simply," I replied, "because I was told the people had been accustomed to it under my predecessor."
"But that can be no good reason for doing what is not right--that people have been accustomed to it."
"But I don't allow that it's not right. I think it is a matter of no consequence whatever. If I find that the people don't like it, I will give it up with pleasure."
"You ought to have principles of your own, Mr Walton."
"I hope I have. And one of them is, not to make mountains of molehills; for a molehill is not a mountain. A man ought to have too much to do in obeying his conscience and keeping his soul's garments clean, to mind whether he wears black or white when telling his flock that God loves them, and that they will never be happy till they believe it."
"They may believe that too soon."
"I don't think any one can believe the truth too soon."
A pause followed, during which it became evident to me that Miss Gladwyn saw fun in the whole affair, and was enjoying it thoroughly. Mrs Oldcastle's face, on the contrary, was illegible. She resumed in a measured still voice, which she meant to be meek, I daresay, but which was really authoritative--
"I am sorry, Mr Walton, that your principles are so loose and unsettled. You will see my honesty in saying so when you find that, objecting to the surplice, as I do, on Protestant grounds, I yet warn you against making any change because you may discover that your parishioners are against it. You have no idea, Mr Walton, what inroads Radicalism, as they call it, has been making in this neighbourhood. It is quite dreadful. Everybody, down to the poorest, claiming a right to think for himself, and set his betters right! There's one worse than any of the rest--but he's no better than an atheist--a carpenter of the name of Weir, always talking to his neighbours against the proprietors and the magistrates, and the clergy too, Mr Walton, and the game-laws; and what not? And if you once show them that you are afraid of them by going a step out of your way for THEIR opinion about anything, there will be no end to it; for, the beginning of strife is like the letting out of water, as you know. I should know nothing about it, but that, my daughter's maid--I came to hear of it through her--a decent girl of the name of Rogers, and born of decent parents, but unfortunately attached to the son of one of your churchwardens, who has put him into that mill on the river you can almost see from here."
"Who put him in the mill?"
"His own father, to whom it belongs."
"Well, it seems to me a very good match for her."
"Yes, indeed, and for him too. But his foolish father thinks the match below him, as if there was any difference between the positions of people in that rank of life! Every one seems striving to tread on the heels of every one else, instead of being content with the station to which God has called them. I am content with mine. I had nothing to do with putting myself there. Why should they not be content with theirs? They need to be taught Christian humility and respect for their superiors. That's the virtue most wanted at present. The poor have to look up to the rich"--
"That's right, grannie! And the rich have to look down on the poor."
"No, my dear. I did not say that. The rich have to be KIND to the poor."
"But, grannie, why did you marry Mr Oldcastle?"
"What does the child mean?"
"Uncle Stoddart says you refused ever so many offers when you were a girl."
"Uncle Stoddart has no business to be talking about such things to a chit like you," returned the grandmother. smiling, however, at the charge, which so far certainly contained no reproach.
"And grandpapa was the ugliest and the richest of them all--wasn't he, grannie? and Colonel Markham the handsomest and the poorest?"
A flush of anger crimsoned the old lady's pale face. It looked dead no longer.
"Hold your tongue," she said. "You are rude."
And Miss Gladwyn did hold her tongue, but nothing else, for she was laughing all over.
The relation between these two was evidently a very odd one. It was clear that Miss Gladwyn was a spoiled child, though I could not help thinking her very nicely spoiled, as far as I saw; and that the old lady persisted in regarding her as a cub, although her claws had grown quite long enough to be dangerous. Certainly, if things went on thus, it was pretty clear which of them would soon have the upper hand, for grannie was vulnerable, and Pet was not.
It really began to look as if there were none but characters in my parish. I began to think it must be the strangest parish in England, and to wonder that I had never heard of it before. "Surely it must be in some story-book at least!" I said to myself.
But her grand-daughter's tiger-cat-play drove the old lady nearer to me. She rose and held out her hand, saying, with some kindness--
"Take my advice, my dear Mr Walton, and don't make too much of your poor, or they'll soon be too much for you to manage.--Come, Pet: it's time to go home to lunch.--And for the surplice, take your own way and wear it. I shan't say anything more about it."
"I will do what I can see to be right in the matter," I answered as gently as I could; for I did not want to quarrel with her, although I thought her both presumptuous and rude.
"I'm on your side, Mr Walton," said the girl, with a sweet comical smile, as she squeezed my hand once more.
I led them to the carriage, and it was with a feeling of relief that I saw it drive off.
The old lady certainly was not pleasant. She had a white smooth face over which the skin was drawn tight, gray hair, and rather lurid hazel eyes. I felt a repugnance to her that was hardly to be accounted for by her arrogance to me, or by her superciliousness to the poor; although either would have accounted for much of it. For I confess that I have not yet learned to bear presumption and rudeness with all the patience and forgiveness with which I ought by this time to be able to meet them. And as to the poor, I am afraid I was always in some danger of being a partizan of theirs against the rich; and that a clergyman ought never to be. And indeed the poor rich have more need of the care of the clergyman than the others, seeing it is hardly that the rich shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, and the poor have all the advantage over them in that respect.
"Still," I said to myself, "there must be some good in the woman--she cannot be altogether so hard as she looks, else how should that child dare to take the liberties of a kitten with her? She doesn't look to ME like one to make game of! However, I shall know a little more about her when I return her call, and I will do my best to keep on good terms with her."
I took down a volume of Plato to comfort me after the irritation which my nerves had undergone, and sat down in an easy-chair beside the open window of my study. And with Plato in my hand, and all that outside my window, I began to feel as if, after all, a man might be happy, even if a lady had refused him. And there I sat, without opening my favourite vellum-bound volume, gazing out on the happy world, whence a gentle wind came in, as if to bid me welcome with a kiss to all it had to give me. And then I thought of the wind that bloweth where it listeth, which is everywhere, and I quite forgot to open my Plato, and thanked God for the Life of life, whose story and whose words are in that best of books, and who explains everything to us, and makes us love Socrates and David and all good men ten times more; and who follows no law but the law of love, and no fashion but the will of God; for where did ever one read words less like moralising and more like simple earnestness of truth than all those of Jesus? And I prayed my God that He would make me able to speak good common heavenly sense to my people, and forgive me for feeling so cross and proud towards the unhappy old lady--for I was sure she was not happy--and make me into a rock which swallowed up the waves of wrong in its great caverns, and never threw them back to swell the commotion of the angry sea whence they came. Ah, what it would be actually to annihilate wrong in this way!--to be able to say, it shall not be wrong against me, so utterly do I forgive it! How much sooner, then, would the wrong-doer repent, and get rid of the wrong from his side also! But the painful fact will show itself, not less curious than painful, that it is more difficult to forgive small wrongs than great ones. Perhaps, however, the forgiveness of the great wrongs is not so true as it seems. For do we not think it is a fine thing to forgive such wrongs, and so do it rather for our own sakes than for the sake of the wrongdoer? It is dreadful not to be good, and to have bad ways inside one.
Such thoughts passed through my mind. And once more the great light went up on me with regard to my office, namely, that just because I was parson to the parish, I must not be THE PERSON to myself. And I prayed God to keep me from feeling STUNG and proud, however any one might behave to me; for all my value lay in being a sacrifice to Him and the people.
So when Mrs Pearson knocked at the door, and told me that a lady and gentleman had called, I shut my book which I had just opened, and kept down as well as I could the rising grumble of the inhospitable Englishman, who is apt to be forgetful to entertain strangers, at least in the parlour of his heart. And I cannot count it perfect hospitality to be friendly and plentiful towards those whom you have invited to your house--what thank has a man in that?--while you are cold and forbidding to those who have not that claim on your attention. That is not to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. By all means tell people, when you are busy about something that must be done, that you cannot spare the time for them except they want you upon something of yet more pressing necessity; but TELL them, and do not get rid of them by the use of the instrument commonly called THE COLD SHOULDER. It is a wicked instrument that, and ought to have fallen out of use by this time.
I went and received Mr and Miss Boulderstone, and was at least thus far rewarded--that the EERIE feeling, as the Scotch would call it, which I had about my parish, as containing none but CHARACTERS, and therefore not being CANNIE, was entirely removed. At least there was a wholesome leaven in it of honest stupidity. Please, kind reader, do not fancy I am sneering. I declare to you I think a sneer the worst thing God has not made. A curse is nothing in wickedness to it, it seems to me. I do mean that honest stupidity I respect heartily, and do assert my conviction that I do not know how England at least would get on without it. But I do not mean the stupidity that sets up for teaching itself to its neighbour, thinking itself wisdom all the time. That I do not respect.
Mr and Miss Boulderstone left me a little fatigued, but in no way sore or grumbling. They only sent me back with additional zest to my Plato, of which I enjoyed a hearty page or two before any one else arrived. The only other visitors I had that day were an old surgeon in the navy, who since his retirement had practised for many years in the neighbourhood, and was still at the call of any one who did not think him too old-fashioned--for even here the fashions, though decidedly elderly young ladies by the time they arrived, held their sway none the less imperiously--and Mr Brownrigg, the churchwarden. More of Dr Duncan by and by.
Except Mr and Miss Boulderstone, I had not yet seen any common people. They were all decidedly uncommon, and, as regarded most of them, I could not think I should have any difficulty in preaching to them. For, whatever place a man may give to preaching in the ritual of the church--indeed it does not properly belong to the ritual at all--it is yet the part of the so-called service with which his personality has most to do. To the influences of the other parts he has to submit himself, ever turning the openings of his soul towards them, that he may not be a mere praying-machine; but with the sermon it is otherwise. That he produces. For that he is responsible. And therefore, I say, it was a great comfort to me to find myself amongst a people from which my spirit neither shrunk in the act of preaching, nor with regard to which it was likely to feel that it was beating itself against a stone wall. There was some good in preaching to a man like Weir or Old Rogers. Whether there was any good in preaching to a woman like Mrs Oldcastle I did not know.
The evening I thought I might give to my books, and thus end my first Monday in my parish; but, as I said, Mr Brownrigg, the churchwarden, called and stayed a whole weary hour, talking about matters quite uninteresting to any who may hereafter peruse what I am now writing. Really he was not an interesting man: short, broad, stout, red-faced, with an immense amount of mental inertia, discharging itself in constant lingual activity about little nothings. Indeed, when there was no new nothing to be had, the old nothing would do over again to make a fresh fuss about. But if you attempted to convey a thought into his mind which involved the moving round half a degree from where he stood, and looking at the matter from a point even so far new, you found him utterly, totally impenetrable, as pachydermatous as any rhinoceros or behemoth. One other corporeal fact I could not help observing, was, that his cheeks rose at once from the collar of his green coat, his neck being invisible, from the hollow between it and the jaw being filled up to a level. The conformation was just what he himself delighted to contemplate in his pigs, to which his resemblance was greatly increased by unwearied endeavours to keep himself close shaved.--I could not help feeling anxious about his son and Jane Rogers.--He gave a quantity of gossip about various people, evidently anxious that I should regard them as he regarded them; but in all he said concerning them I could scarcely detect one point of significance as to character or history. I was very glad indeed when the waddling of hands--for it was the perfect imbecility of hand-shaking--was over, and he was safely out of the gate. He had kept me standing on the steps for full five minutes, and I did not feel safe from him till I was once more in my study with the door shut.
I am not going to try my reader's patience with anything of a more detailed account of my introduction to my various parishioners. I shall mention them only as they come up in the course of my story. Before many days had passed I had found out my poor, who, I thought, must be somewhere, seeing the Lord had said we should have them with us always. There was a workhouse in the village, but there were not a great many in it; for the poor were kindly enough handled who belonged to the place, and were not too severely compelled to go into the house; though, I believe, in this house they would have been more comfortable than they were in their own houses.
I cannot imagine a much greater misfortune for a man, not to say a clergyman, than not to know, or knowing, not to minister to any of the poor. And I did not feel that I knew in the least where I was until I had found out and conversed with almost the whole of mine.
After I had done so, I began to think it better to return Mrs Oldcastle's visit, though I felt greatly disinclined to encounter that tight-skinned nose again, and that mouth whose smile had no light in it, except when it responded to some nonsense of her grand-daughter's.
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