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Chapter 29

"For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."

John Wesley laid his Bible down beside him on the rustic seat under the filbert-tree, and leaned back against the trunk with half-closed eyes. By and by he frowned, and the frown, instead of passing, grew deeper. His sermons, as a rule, arranged themselves neatly and rapidly, when once the text was chosen: but to-day his thoughts ran by fits and starts, and confusedly--a thing he abhorred.

In truth they kept harking back to the text, "For if ye forgive men their trespasses. . . ." He had chosen it with many searchings of heart, for he knew that if he preached this sermon it would exasperate his father. Had he any right, knowing this, to preach it from his father's pulpit? After balancing the pro's and contra's, he decided that this was a scruple which his Christian duty outweighed. He was not used to look back upon a decision once taken: he had no thought now of changing his mind, but the prospect of a breach with his father unsettled him.

While he pondered, stabbing the turf with his heel, Molly came limping along the garden-path. Her face was white and drawn. She had been writing for two hours at her father's dictation, and came now for rest to the seat which she and Hetty had in former days made their favourite resort.

Seeing it occupied, she paused in the outer shade of the great branches.

"You are thinking out your sermon?" she asked, smiling.

He nodded. "You seem tired," he remarked, eyeing her; but he did not rise or pick up his Bible to make room for her.

"A little," she confessed; "and my ears are hot. But Charles very good-naturedly left his De Oratore--on which I heard him say he was engaged--to relieve me. Johnny Whitelamb had to finish colouring a map."

"I don't think Charles needs much persuasion just now to leave his studies."

"He will not require them if he is to be an Irish squire."

"You count upon his choosing that?" John's frown grew deeper.

"Not if you dissuade him, Jack."

"I have not even discussed it with him. Once or twice on our way down he seemed to be feeling his way to a confidence and at the last moment to fight shy. No doubt he knows my opinion well enough. 'What is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?' But why should my opinion have so much weight with him?"

For a moment Molly considered her brother's cold and handsome young face. She put out a hand, plucked a twig from a low drooping bough, and peeling the gummy rind, quoted softly:

     "'Why do you cross me in this exigent?'
      'I do not cross you; but I will do so.'"

"If I remember," mused John, "that is what Shakespeare makes Octavius say to Mark Antony before Pharsalia."

She nodded. "Do you know that you always put me in mind of Octavius. You are so good-looking, and have the same bloodless way of following your own path as if you carried all our fates. Sometimes I think you do carry them."

"I thank you." He made her a mock bow.

"And I still think it was kind of Charles to come to my rescue; for I was tired." She glanced at the seat and he picked up his book. "No; you are composing a sermon and I will not interrupt you. But you must know that father expected you to help him this morning, and was put out at hearing that you had walked off."

"He and I have not agreed of late, and are likely to agree still less if I preach this sermon--as I shall."

"What is the subject?"

"I have not thought of a title yet; but you may call it 'Universal Charity,' or (better perhaps) 'The Charity due to wicked persons.'"

"You mean Hetty?" She limped close to him. "Hetty may have done wickedly, but she is not a wicked person, as you might have discovered had you let Universal Charity alone and practised it in particular, for once, by going to visit her. It is now close on four months that you and Charles have been home, and from here to Lincoln is no such great distance."

"You are a sturdy champion," he answered, eyeing her up and down. "As a matter of fact you are right, though you assert it rashly. How are you sure that I have not visited Hetty, seeing that three times I have been absent from home and for some days together?"

Molly winced. "The worse reproach to all of us, that her only champion was the weakling whom you all scorn! You do not understand weakness, Jack. As for my knowing that you had not visited her, Johnny Whitelamb took his holiday a fortnight ago and trudged to Lincoln to see her. She is living behind a dingy little shop with her husband, and his horrible old father, who drinks whatever he can filch from the till. They wink at it so long as he does not go too far; but William is trying to find him lodgings at Louth, which was his old home, and hopes to sell up the business and move to London with Hetty, to try his fortune. Uncle Matthew has written to her, and will help them to move, I believe. And there was a baby coming, but mercifully something went wrong, poor mite! All this news she sent by Johnny, who reports that she is brave and cheerful and as beautiful as ever--more beautiful than ever, he said--but she talked long of you and Charles, and is said to have seen neither of you."

"So Whitelamb is in the conspiracy? Since you have so much of his confidence, you might warn him to be careful. Doubts of our father's wisdom must unsettle him woefully. I do not ask to join the alliance, but it may please you to know that in my belief Hetty has been treated too fiercely for her deserts, and in my sermon I intend to hint at this pretty plainly."

Molly stared. "Dear Jack, it--it is good to have you on our side. But what good can a sermon do?"

"Not much, I fear. Still a testimony is a testimony."

"But the folks will know you are speaking of her."

"I mean them to."

"But--but--" Molly cast about, bewildered.

"I am venturing something," John interrupted coldly, "by testifying against my father. It is not over-pleasant to stand up and admit that in our own family we have sinned against Christ's injunction to judge not."

"I should think not, indeed!"

"Then you might reasonably show a little more pleasure at finding me prepared, to that extent, to take your side."

Molly gasped. His misunderstanding seemed to her too colossal to be coped with. "It will be a public reproach to father," she managed to say.

"I fear he may consider it so; and that is just my difficulty."

"But what good can it do to Hetty?"

"I was not, in the first instance, thinking of Hetty, but rather using her case as an example which would be fresh in the minds of all in the building. Nevertheless, since you put the question, I will answer, that my argument should induce our mother and sisters, as well as the parish, to judge her more leniently."

"The parish!" murmured Molly. "I was not thinking of its judgment, And I doubt if Hetty does."

"You are right. The particular case--though unhappily we cannot help dwelling on it--is merely an illustration. We, who have duties under Christ to all souls in our care, must neglect no means of showing them the light, though it involve mortifying our own private feelings."

Molly, who had been plucking and twisting all this while the twig between her fingers, suddenly cast it on the ground and hobbled away.

John gazed after her, picked up the book and set it down again. The sermon came easily now.

Having thought it out and arranged the headings in his mind, he returned to the house and wrote rapidly for two hours in his bedroom. He then collected his manuscript, folded it neatly, scribbled a note, and called down the passage to the servant, Jane, whom he heard bustling about the parlour and laying dinner. To her he gave the note and the sermon, to be carried to his father; picked up a crust of bread from the table; and a minute later left the house for a long walk.

Returning a little before supper-time, he found the manuscript on the table by his bedside. No note accompanied it; there were none of the usual pencil-marks and comments in the margin. The Rector had restored it without a word.

For a moment he was minded to go and seek an interview; but decided that, his resolution being fixed, an interview would but increase pain to no purpose. He washed and went down to the parlour, walking past the door of the study, in which his father supped alone.

Next morning being Saturday, Mr. Wesley walked over to Epworth, to a room above a chandler's shop, where he and John lodged in turn as they took Epworth duty on alternate Sundays. The Rectory there was closed for the time and untenanted, the Ellisons having returned some months before to their own enlarged and newly furnished house. There, to be sure, a lodging might have been had at no cost, and Sukey offered it as in duty bound. She knew very well, however, that neither her father nor John could stomach being a guest of Dick's. The invitation was declined, and she did not press it.

So on Sunday, August 28th, Mr. Wesley took the services at Epworth while John stayed at home and preached his sermon in Wroote church.

From the pulpit he looked straight down into the tall Rectory pew, and once or twice his eyes involuntarily sought its occupants. Once, indeed, he paused in his discourse. It was after the words-- "We are totally mistaken if we persuade ourselves that Christ was lenient towards sin. He made no hesitation in driving the money-changers from His Father's temple even with a whip. But He discriminated between the sin and the sinner. The fig-tree He blasted was one which, bearing no fruit, yet made a false show of health: the Pharisees He denounced were men who covered rottenness with a pretence of religion; the sinners He consorted with had a saving knowledge of their vileness. Sin He knew to be human and bound up in our nature: all was pardonable save the refusal to acknowledge it and repent, which is the sin against the Holy Ghost testifying within us. If we confess our sins not only is He faithful and just to forgive them, but He promises more joy in Heaven over our repentance than over ninety-and-nine just persons which need no repentance. And why? Because, as David foretold, a broken spirit is God's peculiar sacrifice: 'a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.' Yet we in this parish have despised it. With sorrow I admit before you that in the household to which you should reasonably look for example and guidance, it has been despised. What then? Are we wiser than Christ, or more absolute?"

He paused. His mother sat stiff and upright with her eyes bent on the ground. Only Charles and Molly looked up--she with a spot of red on either cheek, he with his bright pugnacious look, his nostrils slightly distended scenting battle with delight. Emilia and Patty were frowning; Kezzy, who hated all family jars, fidgeted with her prayer-book.

The sermon ended and the benediction pronounced, he fetched from the vestry the white surplice in which he had read the prayers, and came back to the pew in which the family waited as usual for the rest of the congregation to leave the church. Mrs. Wesley took the surplice, as she invariably took her husband's, to carry it home and hang it in the wardrobe. They walked out. A fortnight before, his sisters had begun to discuss his sermon and rally him upon it as soon as they found themselves in the porch. To-day they were silent: and again at dinner, though John and his mother made an effort to talk of trivial matters, the girls scarcely spoke. Charles only seemed in good spirits and chattered away at ease, glancing at his brother from time to time with a droll twinkle in his eye.

Early next morning John set out for Epworth, having promised to relieve his father and visit the sick and poor there during the week. At Scawsit Bridge he met the Rector returning. The two shook hands and stood for a minute discussing some details of parish work: then each continued on his way. Not a word was said of the sermon.


Arthur Quiller-Couch