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THE VICAR'S MISGIVINGS.
Mrs Steele, the Vicar's wife--a refined, shy little woman, somewhat austere in self-discipline and her own devotional exercises, but incapable of harsh judgment upon any other living soul--had spent Bank Holiday in writing letters and addressing them (from a list drawn up in long consultation with her husband) to "women-workers" of all denominations in the parish, inviting them to meet in the Vicarage drawing-room at 3.30 P.M. on Wednesday, to discuss "what steps (if any) could be taken to form sewing-parties, ambulance classes, &c.," and later to partake of afternoon tea.
The list was a depressing one, and not only because it included the names of Mrs Polsue and Miss Oliver. "It makes my heart sink," Mrs Steele confessed. "I hadn't realised till now, dear, how lonely we are--after five years, too--in this parish. Three out of every four are Nonconformists. It seems absurd, my taking the chair," she added wistfully. "Most likely they will wonder--even if they don't ask outright--what business I have to be showing the lead in this way."
The Vicar kissed his wife. "Let them wonder. And if they ask--but they won't, being west-country and well-mannered--I shall be here to answer."
"I wish you would answer them before they start to ask. That would be running no risks. A few words from you, just to explain and put them at their ease--"
He laughed. "Cunning woman!" said he, addressing an invisible audience. "She means, 'to put her at her ease,' by my taking over the few well-chosen remarks expected of the chairwoman. . . . My dear, I know you will be horribly nervous, and it would be easy enough for me to do the talking. But I am not going to, and for two reasons. To begin with, you will do it better--"
"My dear Robert!"
"Twice as effectively--and all the more effectively if you contrive to break down. That would conciliate them at once; for it would be evident proof that you disliked the job."
"I don't quite see."
"The religion of these good people very largely consists in shaping their immortal souls against the grain: and I admire it, in a sense, though on the whole it's not comparable with ours, which works towards God by love through a natural felicity. Still, it is disciplinary, and this country will have great use for it in the next few months. To do everything you dislike, and to do it thoroughly, will carry you quite a long way in war-time. The point at which Protestantism becomes disreputable is when you so far yield to loving your neighbour that you start chastising his sins to the neglect of your own. I have never quite understood why charity should begin at home, but I am sure that discipline ought to: and I sometimes think it ought to stay there."
"That Mrs Polsue has such a disapproving face! . . . I wonder she ever brought herself to marry."
"If you had only been following my argument, Agatha, you would see that probably she had no time for repugnance, being preoccupied in getting the poor fellow to do what he disliked. . . . Secondly--"
"Oh! A sermon!"
"Secondly," pursued the Vicar with firmness, "this War is so great a business that, to my mind, it just swallows up--effaces--all scruples and modesties and mock-modesties about precedence and the like. If any one sees a job that wants doing, and a way to put it through, he will simply have no time to be humble and let another man step before him. The jealousies and the broken pieces of Etiquette can be left to be picked up after the smoke has cleared away; and by that time, belike, they will have cleared away with the smoke. Do you remember that old story of Hans Andersen's, about the gale that altered the signboards? Well, I prophesy that a good many signboards will be altered by this blow, up and down England, perhaps even in our little parish. If it teach us at all to see things as they are, we shall all be known, the rest of our lives, for what we proved ourselves to be in 1914."
"I saw in this morning's paper," said Mrs Steele, "that over at Troy they have an inn called the King of Prussia, and the Mayor and Corporation think of changing its name."
"Yes," said her husband gravely; "the Kaiser wrote to the Town Clerk suggesting the Globe as more appropriate: but the Town Council, while willing to make some alteration, is divided between the Blue Boar and the Boot. . . . But that reminds me. If I am to attend your meeting, let us call in the Wesleyan Minister as a set-off. There's nothing makes a Woman's Meeting so womanly as a sprinkling of ministers of religion."
"Robert, you are talking odiously, and you know it. I hate people to be satirical or sarcastic. To begin with, I never understand what they mean, so that I am helpless as well as uncomfortable."
The Vicar had taken a step or two to the bay-window, where, with hands thrust within his trouser-pockets, he stood staring gloomily out on the bright flower-beds that, next to the comeliness and order of her ministering to the Church--garnishing of the altar, lustration of the holy vessels, washing and mending of vestments,--were the pride of Mrs Steele's life.
"See how the flowers, as at parade, Under their colours stand display'd: Each regiment in order grows, That of the tulip, pink, and rose.-- O thou, that dear and happy Isle, The garden of the world erstwhile, Thou Paradise of the four seas Which Heaven planted us to please, But, to exclude the world, did guard With wat'ry, if not flaming, sword; Unhappy! shall we never more That sweet militia restore? When gardens only had their towers, And all the garrisons were flowers. . . ."
He murmured Marvell's lines to himself and, with a shake of the shoulders coming out of his brown study, swung round to the writing-table again.
"Dear, I beg your pardon! . . . The truth is, I feel savage with myself: and, being a condemned non-combatant, I vented it on the most sensitive soul I could find, knowing it to be gentle, and taking care (as you say) to catch and render it helpless." He groaned. "Yes, yes--I am a brute! Even now I am using that same tone which you detest. You do right to detest it. But will it comfort you a little to know that when a man takes that tone, often enough it's because he too feels helpless as well as angry? 'Mordant' is the word, I believe: which means that the poor fool bites you to get his teeth into himself."
She rose from her writing-chair and touched him by the arm.
"Robert!" she appealed.
"Oh, yes--'What is the matter with me?' . . . Nothing--or, in other words, Everything--that is to say, this War."
"It's terrible, of course; but I don't see--" She broke off. "Is it the War itself that upsets you, or the little we can do to help? If that's your trouble, why, of course it was silly of me to worry you just now about my being nervous of facing these people. But we're only at the beginning--"
"Agatha!" The Vicar drew a hand from his pocket, laid it on his wife's shoulder, and looked her in the eyes. "Don't I know that, if the call came, you would face a platoon? It's I who am weak. This War--" He stared out of the window again.
"It is a just War, if ever there was one. . . . Robert, you don't doubt that, surely! Forced on us--Why, you yourself used to warn me, when I little heeded, that the Germans were preparing it, that 'the Day' must come sooner or later: for they would have it so."
"That's true enough."
"So positive about it as you were then, proving to me that their Naval Estimates could spell nothing else! . . . And now that it has come, what is the matter with us? Have we provoked it? Have we torn up treaties? Had you, a week ago--had any one we know-the smallest desire for it?"
"Before God, we had not. The English people--I will swear to it, in this corner of the land--had no more quarrel with the Germans than I have with you at this moment. Why, we saw how the first draft--the Naval Reservists--went off last Sunday. In a kind of stupor, they were. But wars are made by Governments, Agatha; never by peoples."
"And our Government--much as I detest them for their behaviour to the Welsh Church--our Government worked for peace up to the last."
"I honestly believe they did. I am sure they did . . . up to the last, as you say. The question is, Were they glad or sorry when they didn't bring it off?"
"I am trying--as we shall all have to try--to look at things as they are. This trouble has been brewing ever since the South African War, . . . and for ten years at least Germany has been shaping up for a quarrel which we have hoped to decline. On a hundred points of preparation they are ready and we are not; they have probably sown this idle nation with their spies as they sowed France before 1870: they make no more bones about a broken oath or two to-day than they made about forging the Ems telegram. They are an unpleasant race,-- the North Germans, at least--and an uncivilised--"
"They make the most appalling noises with their soup. . . . Do you remember that German baron at the table d'hote at Genoa?"
"The point is that, with all their thoroughness in plotting, they have no savoir faire; they are educated beyond the capacity of their breeding; and the older, lazier, civilised nations have--as the saying is--caught the barbarian stiff. It is--as you choose to look at it--a tragedy of tactlessness or a triumph of tact; and for our time, anyway, the last word upon the Church of Christ--call it Eastern or Western, Roman, Lutheran, or Anglican."
Mrs Steele looked at her husband earnestly. "If you believe that--"
"But I do believe it," he interrupted.
"If you believe that," she persisted, "I can understand your doubting, even despairing over a hundred things. . . . But below it all I feel that you are angry with something deeper."
"With something in yourself."
"Yes, you're right," he answered savagely. "You shall know what it is," said he, on the instant correcting himself to tenderness, "when I've taken hat and stick and gone out and wrestled with it."
As luck would have it, on his way down the hill he encountered Mr Hambly, and delivered his message.
"The notion is that we form a small Emergency Committee. Here at home, in the next few weeks or months, many things will want doing. For the most important, we must keep an eye on the wives and families whose breadwinners have gone off to fight; see that they get their allotments of pay and separation allowances; and administer as wisely as we can the relief funds that are already being started. Also the ladies will desire, no doubt, to form working-parties, make hospital shirts, knit socks, tear and roll lint for bandages. My wife even suggests an ambulance class; and I have written to Mant, at St Martin's, who may be willing to come over (say) once a week and teach us the rudiments of 'First Aid' on the chance--a remote one, I own-- that one of these days we may get a boat-load of wounded at Polpier. I'll admit, too, that all these preparations may well strike you as petty, and even futile. But they may be good, anyhow, for our own souls' health. They will give us a sense of helping."
Mr Hambly took off his spectacles and wiped them, for his eyes were moist. "Do you know," said he, smiling, "that I was on my way to visit you with a very similar proposal? . . . Now, as you are a good thirty years younger than I, and, moreover, have been springing downhill while I have been toiling laboriously up--" He glanced down at his club foot.
--"That I took duty for you and did the long-windedness," put in the Vicar with a laugh. "And I haven't quite finished yet. The idea is (I should add) that, as in politics, so with our religious differences, we all declare a truce of God. In Heaven's name let us all pull together for once and forget our separation of creeds!"
The Minister rubbed his eyes gently; for the trouble, after all, seemed to be with them and not with his spectacles.
"And I ought to add," said he, "that the first suggestion of such a Committee came from the ladies of my congregation. The only credit I can claim is for a certain obstinacy in resisting those who would have confined the effort to our Society. . . . Most happily I managed to prevail--and it was none the easier because I happen just now to be a little out of odour with some of the more influential members of what I suppose must be termed my 'flock.'"
"Yes: I heard that your sermon last Sunday had caused a scandal. What was it you said? That, in a breakdown of Christianity like the present, we might leave talk of the public-houses and usefully consider Sunday closing of churches and chapels--or something of the sort."
"Was it in that form the report reached you?" the Minister asked with entire gravity. "There is an epigrammatist abroad in Polpier, and I have never been able to trace him--or her. But it is the truth--and it may well have leaked out in my discourse--that I feel our services to have lost their point and our ministrations their savour. . . . I--I beg your pardon," he corrected himself: "I should have said 'my ministrations.'"
"Not at all. . . . Do you suppose I have not been feeling with you-- that all our business has suddenly turned flat, stale, unprofitable?"
"It is a natural discouragement. . . . Let us own it to none until we have found our hearts again. I see now that even that hint of it in my sermon was a momentary lapse of loyalty. Meanwhile I clutch on this proposal of yours. It will give us all what we most want--a sense of being useful."
The Vicar stepped back a pace and eyed him. Then, on an impulse--
"Hambly," he said, "you have to hear Confession. I am going to tell you something I have kept secret even from my wife. . . . I have written to the Bishop asking his permission to volunteer for service."
"May God bring you safely back, my friend! If I were younger. . . . And the Army will want chaplains."
"But I am not offering myself as a chaplain."
"I am asking leave to fight. . . . Don't stare, man; and don't answer me until you have heard my reasons. Well, you have read your newspaper and must have noted how, all over Britain, the bishops, clergy, and ministers of all denominations are turning themselves into recruiting sergeants and urging men to fight. You note how they preach this War as a War in defence of Law, in defence of Right against Might, a War for the cause of humanity, a War for an ideal. In to-day's paper it has even become a War against War. . . . Well, if all this be true, why should I as a priest be denied my share in the crusade? Why should I be forbidden to lay down my life in what is, to these people, so evidently my Master's service? Why should it be admirable--nay, a fundamental of manhood--in Tom and Dick and Harry to play the Happy Warrior life-size, but reprehensible in me? Or again, look at it in this way.--You and I, as ministers of the Gospel, have gone about preaching it (pretty ineffectively, to be sure) for a Gospel of Peace. Well now, if these fellows are right, it turns out that we have been wrong all the time, and the sooner we make amends, by carrying a gun, the better. Any way--priest or no priest--I have in me certain scruples which deter me from telling Tom or Dick or Harry to take a gun and kill a man, and from scolding him if he is not quick about it, while I myself am not proposing to take the risk or earn the undying honour-- or the guilt--whichever it may be."
"My mind moves slowly," said the Minister after a pause, during which the Vicar drew breath. "And often, when confronted in a hurry with an argument which I dislike but see no present way to controvert, I fall back for moral support on the tone of the disputant. . . . I have a feeling at this moment that you are in the wrong, somewhere and somehow, because you are talking like an angry man."
"So my wife assured me, half an hour ago. . . . Then let me put it differently and with a sweet reasonableness. If this War be a Holy War, why may I not share actively in it? Or on what principle, if the military use of weapons be right for a layman, should it be wrong for a clergyman? What differentiates us?"
"In a vague way," said the Minister, "I see that a great deal may differentiate you. Suppose, now, I were to ask what separates you from a layman, that you should have a right, which you deny him, to pronounce the Absolution. You will answer me, and in firm faith, that by a laying-on of hands you have inherited--in direct succession from the Apostles--a certain particular virtue. You know me well enough by this time to be sure that, while doubting your claim, I respect its sincerity. . . . It is a claim, at least, which has silently endured through some hundreds of generations of men, to reassert itself quietly, times and again, after many hundreds of accesses of human madness. . . . I do not press the validity of my mission, which derives what sanction it may merely from a general spiritual tradition of the race. But yours is special, you say; by it you are consecrated, separated, reserved. Then if you are reserved to absolve men of their sins, may you not be rightly reserved against sharing in their combats?"
"I am hot," the Vicar acknowledged; "and in my heat the most I can manage is sarcasm. But I have the grace to hope that in process of time I shall acquire the sweeter temper of irony."
A dull thud shook the atmosphere overhead, and was followed some four seconds later by another and louder reverberation. The two men, startled for a moment, smiled as they collected their thoughts. "That means security, not danger."
"Gun-practice. We were warned of it by advertisement in this morning's paper. A 9.4-inch gun, by the sound of it--and there goes another! A battle-cruiser at least!--Shall we walk out to the cliffs for a sight of her?"
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