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THE FIRST SERMON.
Some ten minutes after the brakes had departed, Mrs Polsue and Miss Oliver, bound for divine service, encountered at the corner where Jolly Hill unites with Bridge Street, and continued their way together up the Valley road.
"Good-morning! This is terrible news," said Miss Oliver, panting a little, for she had tripped down the hill in a great hurry.
"I have been expecting it for a long while," responded Mrs Polsue darkly. Like some other folks in this world, she produced much of her total effect by suggesting that she had access to sources of information sealed to the run of mankind. She ever managed to convey the suggestion by phrases--and, still more cleverly, by silences-- which left the evidence conveniently vague. To be sure, a great-uncle of hers had commanded in his time a Post-Office Packet plying between Falmouth and Surinam, and few secrets of the Government had been withheld from him: but he was now, as Mrs Polsue had to confess, "no more," and when you came to reflect on it (as you sometimes did after taking leave of her), the sort of knowledge she had been intimating could hardly have been telegraphed from another and better world. She had also a cousin in London, "in a large way of drapery business," who communicated to her--or was supposed to communicate--"what was wearing": an advantage which she used, however, less to refresh her own toilettes than to discourage her neighbours'. Moreover, there was a brother-in-law somewhere "in the Civil Service," to whom she made frequent allusion. But the knowledge she derived from him concerning State secrets or high politics could, at the best, but be far from recent, because as a fact the pair had not been on terms of intercourse by speech or letter since her husband's decease twelve years ago. (There had been some unpleasantness over the Will.)
"I have been expecting it for a long while," asseverated Mrs Polsue. "Gracious! Why?"
"You are panting. You are short of breath. You should be more careful of yourself than to come hurrying down the hill at such a rate, at your time of life," said Mrs Polsue. "It reddens the face, too: which is a consideration if you insist on wearing that bit of crimson in your hat. The two shades don't go together."
"It is not crimson. It is cherry," said Miss Oliver.
"The ribbon, Mary-Martha. You should wear glasses. . . . But I started late," Miss Oliver confessed. "I didn't like to show myself walking to Chapel, and so many of the men-folk passing in the opposite direction. It seemed so marked." She might have confessed further (but did not) that she had waited, peeping over her blind, to see the brakes go by. "But you were late too," she added.
"If you will use your reason, Cherry Oliver, it might tell you that I couldn't get past the crowd on the bridge, and was forced to wait."
"Dear me, now! Was it so thick as all that? . . . You know, I can't see the bridge from my back window--only a bit of the Old Doctor's house past the corner of Climoe's: and I shan't see the bridge even when the old house comes down. But I called in builder Gilbert last Monday on pretence that the back launder wanted repairing; and when he'd examined it and found it all right, I asked him how pulling down that house would affect the view: and he said that in his opinion it would open up a bit of the street just in front of the Bank, so that I shall be able to see all the customers going in and out."
This was news to Mrs Polsue, and it did not please her at all. Her own bow-window enfiladed the Bank entrance (as well as that of the Three Pilchards by the Quay-head), and so gave her a marked advantage over her friend. To speak in military phrase, her conjectures upon other folks' business were fed by a double line of communication.
"Well, my dear, you won't pry on me going in and out there," she answered tartly, with a sniff. "Whenever I wish to withdraw some of my balance, to invest it, I send for Mr Pamphlett, and he calls on me and advises--I am bound to say--always most politely."
But here Miss Oliver put in her shot. (And Mrs Polsue indeed should have been warier: for the pair were tried combatants. But a tendency to lose her temper, and, losing it, to speak in haste, was ever her fatal weakness.)
"Why; of course, . . . and that accounts for it," Miss Oliver murmured.
"Accounts for what?"
"Oh, nothing. . . . There was a visitor here last summer--I forget her name, but she used to go about making water-colours in a mushroom hat you might have bought for sixpence--quite a simple good creature: and one day, drinking tea at the Minister's, she raised quite a laugh by being so much concerned over your health. She said she'd seen the doctor calling at your house almost every day with a little black bag, and made sure there must have been an operation. She mistook Mr Pamphlett for the doctor, if you ever heard tell of such simple-mindedness."
"And the awkward part of it was," Miss Oliver continued in a musing voice, searching her memory--"the awkward part was, poor Mrs Pamphlett's being present."
"And you never told me, Cherry Oliver, until this moment!" exclaimed the widow.
"One doesn't go about repeating every little trifle. . . . And, for that matter, Mrs Pamphlett was just as much amused as everybody else. 'Well, the bare idea!' she cried out. 'I must speak to Pamphlett about this! And Mary-Martha Polsue, of all women!' These were her very words. But of course one had to say something to explain to the other innocent woman and stop her running on. So I told who you were; and that, as everybody knew, you were a well-to-do woman, and no doubt would feel a desire to consult your banker oftener than the most of us."
"If you had money of your own, Cherry Oliver, you'd know how vulgar it feels to have the thing paraded like that."
"But I haven't," said Miss Oliver cheerfully. "And, anyway, you weren't there, and I did my best for you. . . . Well, now, I'm glad sure enough to know from you that 'tis vulgar to make much of your wealth, and I'll remember it against the time my ship comes home. . . . Somebody did explain--now I come to think of it--that maybe you'd be all the more dependent on Pamphlett's advice, seein' that you hadn't been used to handle money before you were married, and it all came from your husband." ("There! And I don't think she'll mention my cherry ribbon again in a hurry," thought Miss Oliver.)
After a moment's silence Mrs Polsue rallied. "I was saying that this War didn't surprise me. The wonder to me is, the Almighty's wrath hasn't descended on this nation long before. He must be more patient than you or me, Charity Oliver; or else more blind, which isn't to be supposed. Take Polpier, now. The tittle-tattle that goes about, as you've just been admitting; and the drinking habits amongst the men-- I saw Zeb Mennear come out his doorway, not fifteen minutes since, wiping his mouth with the back of his sleeve; and him just about to board the brake and go off to be shot by the Germans!"
"Maybe 'twas after kissin' his wife good-bye," Miss Oliver suggested. "I should!"
"There's no accounting for tastes, as you say. . . . But I've had good reason to know for some time that they order a supply into the house and drink when nobody is looking. I've seen the boy from the Pilchards deliver a bottle there almost every Saturday. . . . So, the publics being closed this morning, he can't help himself but go off with (I dare say) a noggin of Plymouth gin for a stiffener; and might, for all we know, be called to the presence of his Maker with it still inside him."
"What hurries me," confessed Miss Oliver, "is the Government's being so inconsistent. It closes the public-houses on a six-days' licence and then goes and declares War on the very day the magistrates have taken the trouble to hallow." She shook her head. "I may be mistaken--Heaven send that I am!--but I can't see on any Christian principles how a nation can look to prosper that declares war on a Sabbath. If it's been coming this long while; as everybody seems to say now; why couldn't we have waited until the clocks had finished striking twelve to-night--or else done it yesterday, if there was all that hurry?"
"The Battle of Waterloo was fought on a Sunday," Mrs Polsue put in. "I've often heard my great uncle Robert mention it as a remarkable fact."
"Then you may be sure the French began it, with their Continental ideas of Sunday observance. I suppose we mustn't speak ill of the French, now that we're allies with them. But I couldn't, when I heard the news, help fearing that our King and his Cabinet had been led away by them in this matter: and once you begin tampering with the Lord's Day--" Miss Oliver shivered. "We shall have the shops open next, I shouldn't wonder."
"You are right about the Battle of Waterloo," said Mrs Polsue. "My great-uncle Robert was always positive that the French began it. He had that on the best authority. The Duke of Wellington, he said, had no choice but to resist: and it must have gone all the more against the grain because he was distantly connected with John Wesley, only for some reason or another they spelt their names differently. My great-uncle, in the room that he called his study, had two engravings, one on each side of the chimney-piece. One was John Wesley, when quite a child, being rescued from a burning house, with his father right in the foreground giving thanks to God in the old-fashioned knee-breeches that were then worn. The other represented the Duke of Wellington in a similar frame on his famous charger Copenhagen and in the act of saying in his racy way, 'Up, Guards, and at 'em!' My great-uncle would often point to these two pictures and spell out the names for us as children, 'W-e-s-l-e-y' and 'W-e-l-l-e-s-l-e-y,' he would say. 'What different destinies the Almighty can spell into the same word by sticking a few letters in the middle!'"
"It's to be wished we had more men of that stamp in these days," sighed Miss Oliver. "I should feel safer."
"I hear Lord Kitchener well spoken of," said her friend guardedly. "But I think we go too fast, my dear. It does not follow, because the Reserves are called up, that War is actually declared. It is sometimes done by way of precaution--though God forbid I should say a word in defence of a Government which taxes us for being patriotic enough to keep domestic servants. That doesn't, of course, apply to you, my dear; still--"
"It only makes matters worse," Miss Oliver declared hastily. "If they haven't declared War yet, there's the less hurry to gallivant these Reservists about in brakes when to-morrow's a Bank Holiday. And, as for patriotism, if I choose to fall downstairs taking up my own coals, surely I'm as patriotic as if I employed another person to do it: though for some reason best known to itself the Law doesn't compensate me."
"There's something in what you say," agreed Mrs Polsue, a little mollified, having caused her friend to rankle. "And the Law--or the Government, or whatever you choose to call it--could afford the money, too, if 'twould look sharper after compensating itself. . . . A perfectly scandalous sight I witnessed just now, by the bridge. There was that Nicholas Nanjivell called up to take his marching-orders, and--well, you know how the man has been limping these months past. The thing was so ridic'lous, the other men shouted with laughter; and prettily annoyed the Customs Officer, for he went the colour of a turkey-cock. ''Tis your own fault,' I had a mind to tell him, 'for not having looked after your business.' Pounds and pounds of public money that Nanjivell must have drawn first and last for Reservist's pay, and nobody takin' the trouble to report on him."
"I suppose," said Miss Oliver, "the man really is lame, and not shamming?"
"The Lord knows, my dear. 'Twas somebody's business to have a look at the man's leg, and not mine nor yours, I hope. . . . Put it now that the case had been properly reported and a doctor sent to see the man. If he's shamming--and unlikelier things have happened, now you mention it--the doctor finds him out. If the man's sick, and 'tis incurable, well, so much the worse for him: but anyway Government stops paying for a fighting man that can't fight--for that is what it amounts to."
"You can't make it less," Miss Oliver agreed. "But doctors are terribly skilful nowadays with the knife," went on Mrs Polsue. "Very likely this growth, or whatever it is, might have been removed months ago."
"He ought to be made to undergo an operation."
"And then, most like, he'd have gone off with the others to be fed at the country's expense and no housekeeping to worry him, instead of giving Mr Pamphlett trouble. For he has been giving Mr Pamphlett trouble. Three times this past week I've seen him call at the Bank, and if you tell me 'twas to put money on deposit--"
"If builder Gilbert is right," put in Miss Oliver with a sigh of envy, "I shall be able to see the Bank as well as you, when that house comes down: and I shan't want to use spectacles neither." She cut in with this stroke as the pair joined the small throng of worshippers entering the Chapel porch. Also she took care to speak the last seven words (as Queen Elizabeth danced) "high and disposedly," giving her friend no time for a riposte.
The Minister, Mr Hambly, gave his congregation a very short service that morning. He opened with three sentences from the Book of Common Prayer: "Rend your heart, and not your garments. . . . Enter not into judgement with thy servant, O Lord. . . . If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us."
Then, after a little pause, he gave out the hymn that begins "On earth we now lament to see." . . . It had not been sung within those walls in the oldest folks' remembrance--nay, since the Chapel had been built; and many were surprised to find it in the book. But at the second verse they picked up the tune and sang it with a will:--
"As 'listed on Abaddon's side, They mangle their own flesh and slay, Tophet is moved and opens wide Its mouth for its enormous prey; And myriads sink beneath the grave And plunge into the flaming wave."
"O might the universal Friend This havoc of his creatures see!" . . .
They sang it lustily to the end. With a gesture of the hand Mr Hambly bade all to kneel, opened the Book of Common Prayer again, and instead of "putting up" an extempore prayer, recited that old one prescribed for use "In the Time of War and Tumults":--
"O Almighty God, King of all kings, and Governour of all things, whose power no creature is able to resist, . . . Save and deliver us, we humbly beseech thee, from the hands of our enemies; abate their pride, asswage their malice, and confound their devices; that we, being armed with thy defence, may be preserved evermore from all perils, to glorify thee, who art the only giver of all victory;" . . .
The voice, though creaking in tone and uttering borrowed words, impressed many among its audience with its accent of personal sincerity. Mrs Polsue knelt and listened with a gathering choler. This Hambly had no unction. He could never improve an occasion: the more opportunity it gave the more helplessly he fell back upon old formulae composed by Anglicans long ago. She had often enough resented the Minister's dependence on these out-of-date phrases, written (as like as not) by men in secret sympathy with the Mass.
Mr Hambly arose from his knees, opened the Book, and said: "The portion of Scripture I have chosen for this morning is taken from Paul's Letter to the Ephesians, vi. 10:--"
'My brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.'
He paused here, and for a moment seemed about to continue his reading; but, as if on a sudden compulsion, closed the book, and went on:
"My Brethren,--choose any of those words. They shall be my text; they and those I read to you just now: 'If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.'
"In entering upon this War we may easily tell ourselves that we have no sin: for in fact not a man or a woman in this congregation--so far as I know--harbours, or has harboured a single thought of evil disposition against the people who, from to-morrow, are to be our enemies, in whose distress we shall have to exult. In a few days this will seem very strange to you; but it is a fact.
"So it might plausibly be said that not we, but our Government, make this war upon a people with whom you and I have no quarrel.
"But that will not do; for in a nation ruled as ours is, no Ministry can make war unless having the people behind it. That is certain. The whole people--not only of Great Britain, but of Ireland too-- seems to be silently aware that a War has been fastened upon it, not to be shirked or avoided, and is arming; but still without hate. So far as, in this little corner of the world, I can read your hearts, they answer to my own in this--that they have harboured no hate against Germany, and indeed, even now, can hardly teach themselves to hate.
"None the less, the German Emperor protests, calling on God for witness, that the sword has been thrust into his hand: and, if he honestly believes this, there must be some great confusion of mind in this business. One party or the other must be walking under some terrible hallucination.
"The aged Austrian Emperor calls on his God to justify him. So does the German; while we in turn call on our God to justify us.
"Now, there cannot be two Gods--two real Gods--president over the actions of men. That were unthinkable. Of two claimants to that sceptre, one must be a pretender, an Anti-Christ.
"Therefore our first duty in this dreadful business is to clear our minds, to make sure that ours is truly the right God. Let us not trouble--for it is too late--about any German's mind. Our business is to clear our own vision.
"I confess to you that, however we clear it, I anticipate that what we see in the end is likely to be damaging to what I will call 'official' Christianity. However you put it, the Churches of Europe (established or free) have been allowing at least one simulacrum of Christ to walk the earth, claiming holiness while devising evil. However you put it, the slaughter of man by man is horrible, and-- more than that--our Churches exist to prevent it, by persuasion teaching peace on earth, good-will towards men.
"Disquieted, unable to sleep for this thought, I arose and dressed early this morning, and sat for a while on the wall opposite, gazing at this homely house of God across the roadway. It looked strange and unreal to me, there in the dawn; and (for Heaven knows I can never afford to slight the place it holds in my affection) I even dared in my fondness to reckon it with great and famous temples such as in our Westminster, in Paris, in Rheims--aye, and in Cologne--men have reared to the glory of God. I asked myself if these, too, looked impertinent as this day's sun took their towers, dawning so eventfully over Europe; if these, too, suffered in men's minds such a loss of significance by comparison with the eternal hills and the river that rushed at my feet refreshing this valley as night-long, day-long, it has run refreshing and sung unheeded for thousands upon thousands of years.
"Then it seemed to me, as the day cleared, that whatever of impertinence showed in this building was due to us--and to me, more than any--who in these few years past have believed ourselves to be working for good, when all the while we have never cleared our vision to see things in their right proportions.
"We are probably willing to accept this curse of War as a visitation on our sins. But for what sins? O, beware of taking the prohibitions of the Decalogue in a lump, its named sins as equivalent! In every one of you must live an inward witness that these sins do not rank equally in God's eye; that to murder, for instance, is wickeder than to misuse the Lord's name in a hasty oath; that to bear false witness against a neighbour is tenfold worse than to break the Sabbath. Yet we for ever in our Churches put these out of their right order; count ourselves righteous if we slander our neighbour, so it be on the way to worship; and in petty cruelties practice the lust of murder, interrupting it to shudder at a profane oath uttered by some good fellow outside in the street. To love God and your neighbour, summed up, for Christ, all the Law and the Prophets: and his love was for the harlot and the publican, as his worst word always for the self-deceiver who thanked God that he was not as other men.
"I verily believe that in this struggle we war with principalities and powers, with the rulers of darkness in this world, with spiritual wickedness in high places. But make no mistake: the men who are actually going out from England to brave the first brunt for us are men whom we have not taught to die like heroes, who have little interest in Church or Chapel or their differences, who view sins in an altogether different perspective from ours; whom we enlisted to do this work because they were hungry and at the moment saw no better job in prospect: whom we have taught to despise us while they protect us.
"The sins of our enemy are evident. But if We say we have no sin, we shall deceive ourselves and the truth will not be in us."
"Did you ever hear a feebler or a more idiotic sermon?" demanded Mrs Polsue of Miss Oliver on their way home down the valley.
"If ever a man had his chance to improve an occasion--"
"Tut! I say nothing of his incapacity. There are some men that can't rise even when 'tis a question of all Europe at war. But did you hear the light he made, or tried to make, of Sabbath-breaking?"
"I didn't hear all that," Miss Oliver confessed: "or not to notice. It seemed so funny his getting up at that hour and dangling his legs on a wall."
"We will press to have a married man planned to us next time," said Mrs Polsue. "A wife wouldn't allow it."
"Do you suppose he smoked?" asked Miss Oliver.
"I shouldn't wonder. . . . He certainly does it at home, for I took the trouble to smell his window-curtains; and at an hour like that, with nobody about--"
"There's an All-seeing Eye, however early you choose to dangle your legs," said Miss Oliver.
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