Dorothy Forster, by Walter Besant

Chapter xviii.

A Case of Conscience.

So, after a long ride of three days, we arrived again at Bamborough —— what things had I seen since last we left the Manor House! —— and in the quiet life as of old I had leisure to read and reflect upon the tracts and books given to me Mr. Howard. In so far as they spoke of obedience to authority, then truly I was entirely at one with his friends, because I had always been brought up to submit myself dutifully to those in authority, and especially my spiritual pastors and masters. Yet I was thankful that our own rule was so light and our yoke so easy to be borne compared with the practices imposed upon the faithful in that other flock —— as fasting throughout Lent, and on Fridays, and on many other days in the year. But when the books spoke of Early Fathers, and writings almost sacred, and Decretals, and so forth, then was I lost; because if these things were true, why was not the Lord Bishop converted long since, and the Vicar of Bamborough? And if things were not true, as were therein stated, why was not the Pope himself long since converted? Ah! how happy a thing it would be for the whole world if the Pope could be converted! There would then be no more Inquisitions, no more tortures, no more quarrels, no more parting of lovers. The Bishop of Rome would be but as the Bishop of Canterbury —— and this is a foolish woman’s idle dream.

Truly, I was little forwarded for all my reading. I had no one with whom I could consult, because, as my lord’s proposals had not been made either to Tom or to my father, they were in a manner secret, at least for six months. Strange that Tom suspected nothing. Never was there at any time a man whose thoughts ran less upon love or anything to do with love; and as he never fell in love himself (which in the sequel proved a fortunate circumstance), so he never thought that any would fall in love with his sister. Still less would it appear to him possible that this could be the case with so great and exalted a man as Lord Derwentwater, for whom he entertained a profound veneration in spite of continual assurances, made to gratify his own vanity, that a Forster was as good as a Radcliffe (which no one has ever doubted, I believe).

For a time, therefore, I meditated alone upon this important matter. It would be foolish to deny that I was greatly taken by the prospect which thus suddenly and unexpectedly opened out before my eyes. Natural pride in my own family forbade any feeling of inferiority —— that James Radcliffe was the third Earl was only owing to his father’s marriage with King Charles’s daughter, who must needs have a husband among the Peers. The first baronet of the House received this title after —— not before —— the honour of knighthood was conferred upon Sir Claudius Forster. There was, therefore, no inequality as to family; and as for lands, possessions, and wealth, it may be truly said that these entered little into my mind. But I acknowledge that my imagination was fired with the person and the qualities possessed by the owner of this coronet and these lands; and never since have I looked upon the like of that noble gentleman —— call him rather a prince —— in whom were gathered together so many virtues without one defect. I felt in some sort even ashamed that such a man might offer his hand and service to one simple and inexperienced as I was, a mere gentlewoman with nothing but my beauty (such as that might be) and my virtue and piety (why, there was the rub) to recommend me. He knew Courts, and the great ladies of Versailles and St. Germain’s. Was there one of them too high for him? Was there, among the greatest ladies of the proudest aristocracy in the world, even the Rohans, the Montmorencies, or the Lusignans, any who would not be honoured by such an offer from James Radcliffe, Earl of Derwentwater?

To refuse it would seem madness; yet to accept it would be —— might be —— a sin so great that it would never be forgiven. It is cruel when religion is pitted against love, and when a girl has to choose between her lover and her hopes of heaven.

For who can be converted by merely wishing? Who, by argument, reading, or thinking, can put away from his mind the doctrines in which he hath been brought up from childhood? A woman might bring herself to hear Mass, to call herself a Catholic, to confess, to submit to the Church for the sake of her lover and her husband; but with what despair must she look forward to that day when she must give up the pretence, and confess the falsehood of her life before an offended Judge!

I had from infancy been taught, and now firmly held, the doctrines of the Christian faith as professed by the Church of England. By what reasoning could I, unassisted, exchange these for the Roman Catholic doctrines? And, even if assisted —— say by Mr. Howard —— with what face could I ever afterwards meet the Bishop, and own to him that the authority of this simple Romish priest had more weight for me than the authority of himself, the great and lordly Bishop of Durham? Or with what reply could I meet the charge that I had thrown away my religion to get me a lover? Oh, shame! Yet such a lover!

The soul can play all manner of juggling tricks with herself. Therefore it is not wonderful that a woman should be led away for a time with cases and arguments which at first looked pretty enough, yet soon crumbled into dust and ashes. As that Naaman was allowed to go with his master into the Temple of Rimmon, though it is nowhere stated that he was to profess the worship of that idol, whoever he may be. (Mr. Hilyard said it was the Pomegranate and the symbol of fertility; but who would be so foolish as to worship a mere fruit? Naaman’s master must surely have been better than a fool.) And again, the example of Henry IV. of France, which hath misled many. Truly no more wicked speech could have been made than that of his, in which he spoke of valuing the crown of France at more than a Mass. Put against this the noble example of Queen Elizabeth, who, in the reign of Queen Mary, went daily in peril of her life, yet would not give up the Protestant religion; and, if you will, the examples of King James II. and his son, who gave up three crowns rather than relinquish the faith which they (wrongly) believed to be true. There is no help for it, I suppose, but that women brought up in the Roman Faith must needs abide in it, How much the more, then, that we, who belong to the Pure and Reformed branch of the Universal Church, should cling to it as the only hope of our souls! As for controversy, Mr. Hilyard once said well, ‘There is nothing more excellent than religion; but to raise quarrels over it is to dishonour it. Why should that which is designed to make us happy in another world make us miserable in this? Wherefore it comes to this, that we shall never all be perfectly happy till we are all agreed upon the Thirty-nine Articles of the Faith.’

When that happy event will happen none can predict —— perhaps not till long after the present century —— a third part of which is, while I write these words, already gone; perhaps not till the nineteenth century itself is drawing to a close, and the end of all things is approaching.

Then I laid the case, but with feigned names and false circumstances, before Mr. Hilyard. I inquired of him his opinion as to change of creed in general, whether there were no cases in which it would be allowed (always supposing that reason and conscience went the other way). Thus I put before him (as if the Prince was in my mind) the case of a sovereign whose conversion, real or pretended, would bring happiness to his country; or a godly minister whose obedience to the law would secure his services to his helpless parishioners; or a bishop, who, by outward conforming, might keep moderate doctrines in his diocese; or a gentleman, who, by professing himself of the Church of England, might obtain a commission of the Queen, and so rise to great honour; or a woman who, by acknowledging a faith in which her conscience forbade her to engage, might make her lover happy, and, perhaps in the event, lead him to her own Church.

There never, surely, was a man stronger in the cause of virtue than Mr. Hilyard. If there were more like him, the wickedness of the age would long since have wholly vanished. As for the example of his private life, it becomes not a fellow-sinner to judge. If we may compare small with great, it cannot be denied that the King who wrote (by Divine guidance) the most perfect book of rules for the conduct of life, did by no means set a pattern of self-denial in his own practice. So with Mr. Hilyard.

I put forward my question with much confusion and many blushes, because I feared that Mr. Hilyard might guess the cause and secret purpose of my simulated cases. He answered not for some moments, looking earnestly into my face. Then he, too, changed colour, and gave his answer, walking about the room and in some agitation of manner which surprised me.

‘As for the cases advanced,’ he said, ‘there are none to be for a moment considered, except the last. The King who sacrificed his conscience to his ambition laid open a way to greater evils. Heaven raised up in Henry IV. a champion for the Protestant Faith second only to that great and god-like man, Coligny. Had he adhered, the wars might have continued and France might have been partitioned; but the Protestants would have won their freedom. The duty of a minister is clearly indicated in the history and example of Mr. Gilpin, of Houghton-le-Spring, who persevered in his Protestant teaching throughout the reign of Bloody Mary, ever keeping ready a white shirt in which to present a comely appearance at the stake. Yet, being haled up to London, he broke his leg, which, causing him to lie in bed, saved his life, because Mary died, and good Queen Bess succeeded. As for a young gentleman of a Catholic family, we have,’ he said, ‘many instances around us of those who, for want of a profession, pass idle and ignoble lives, as if drinking and sport were the only objects for which man, a rational being, was created. But as for their consciences, you must please to excuse me. I doubt much whether the conscience of such a young gentleman would trouble him so much as his sense of honour; and once entered upon the roll of regiment, there would be mighty little further question as to religion. The English armies,’ he added, ‘are Protestant to the backbone. That cannot be denied. Yet how far their lives and daily conversation are guided by their religion, and how far their practice is conversant with their profession, I am not prepared to say. If, therefore, Miss Dorothy, any of his honour’s Catholic friends are minded to renounce the Pope, in order to bear a pike or carry the colours, encourage them by all means.’

‘There remains,’ he went on to say, ‘the last case.’ Again he stopped, and again earnestly gazed upon my face. ‘I am not, I confess, skilled in casuistry; nor can I advise as to the case. Yet, were it to arise, I would advise the woman to whom it occurs to take the matter seriously in hand, and if she have friends and relations in authority and high places, to lay the decision before them, as one which affects not her happiness only or the happiness of her lover, but also her conscience and her soul.’ He said this very seriously, so that his words fell deeply into my heart.

‘I know,’ he went on, ‘that a beautiful woman can persuade a man who loves her to any course which she desires; for which cause Kings are led by their mistresses, and, in Catholic countries, the mistresses are guided by the priests. We need not go back to consider the case of Achilles, of Samson, Æneas, David, Mare Antony, and Solomon. There are instances enough of own times. Witness our own Charles II., and the Grand Monarque himself, now a slave to Madame de Maintenon. Truly, Miss Dorothy, an amorous man is like a Weathercock in the hands of the woman whom he loves. Wherefore the poets have rightly feigned that love turns one into a boar, and another into an ass, and a third into a wolf —— why, the French King hath been boar, wolf, and ass in turn. But, you may argue, the virtuous love of one woman and one man is not to be compared with the fleeting amours of a King. That is indeed true; not the less is it true that the woman able to fix the affections of one who, though a husband, remains a lover, may lead him whithersoever she pleases. The case, Miss Dorothy, is too high for me. If I were a Jesuit, I should say, “The end justifies the means; let the maiden confer happiness upon the man, relying on her strength to lead him into a better way.” But I am an English Churchman, and I doubt. The rule is laid down plain for all to read, “The lip of truth shall be established for ever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment.” Wherefore let this young gentlewoman seek counsel of those in authority.’

Mr. Hilyard said this with so much gravity that his words sank into my heart, and I began to ask myself seriously whether, even for my lover, I ought to do so grave a thing. For several days afterwards I observed that he was agitated, and would go a-walking by himself in the garden, shaking his forefinger as he went, as one does who is in trouble. I knew very well, poor man, that he was in trouble about me, and that he had divined my secret.

I followed not his advice, however, in asking the counsel of those in authority. Rather I put the decision off, as is the custom of women when in a doubt. Time, accident, authority, would decide. Again, a woman must not for ever be thinking about her love affairs. Was there not my brother Tom to think of? Then came the spring, and June was upon us, and my lord’s visit was to come within a very little while, and I was so nearer the Altar and the Mass (yet open to persuasion) than I had been at the New Year.

I know not how Lady Crewe became possessed of my secret, and therefore I was greatly astonished when I received, only the day before my lord arrived, the following letter, sent to me all the way from Durham by special messenger. The letter, wrapped in three folds of paper, was superscribed: ‘These for the private eye of my niece, Dorothy Forster.’ I opened it with such fear and trembling as always seize the person who receives a letter. And all the more because I knew from whence it came, and guessed quickly what it might contain.

‘My dear and loving Niece,’ the letter began ——‘It hath been brought to my knowledge that a young gentleman, whose name need not be mentioned between us, is desirous of making thee an offer of his hand and estate. The hand is most honourable and the estate is goodly. Also the young gentleman is reported to possess virtues and accomplishments quite uncommon even among those of exalted rank. For these reasons, the Bishop and myself would be willing to give our approval to the proposal as one likely to lead to the earthly happiness of both, although the suitor is still a man in very early manhood. My own happiness, as my niece knows very well, has been obtained by marriage with a man forty years my senior, and immeasurably above what any woman can hope in wisdom, benevolence, and true piety. Yet I say not that happiness may not be had between persons more nearly of an age —— when, that is, the husband is able to inspire respect, if not awe, and the wife is filled with the desire of doing her duty according to the submission enjoined by Apostolic law.

‘There is, however, in this case, the difficulty that the young gentleman is a Catholic, and may not marry any outside the pale of his own Church. Nor can he, being bound in honour, change the faith in which he hath been educated. My lord the Bishop hath very seriously considered the case, and asked himself the question whether a young woman in such a position may with a good conscience embrace the religion of her lover. He bids me now admonish you that such an act, even with the intention of, perhaps, weaning her lover from his opinions, cannot be allowed as lawful or permitted on the ground of expediency. Wherefore, my dear Dorothy, should this suit be persevered in, we look from thee for such behaviour as becomes the dignity of a Forster and the duty of a Churchwoman. And think not but that thou shalt be rewarded in some way —— how, we know not, yet believe that she who doth righteously shall receive a crown. Marriage, child, is an honourable condition; yet they do well sometimes who are not married; and truly, I myself waited until I was already twenty-seven before I married my lord.

‘I learn, further, that thy brother knoweth nought of this matter. It is well; Tom is more generous than prudent; his counsels are too much guided by the wine of yesterday. Tell him nothing unless it be necessary; let it not be known for vanity’s sake that this alliance was offered to you; let it be kept a secret, for the sake of the young gentleman, that you refused him. In all difficulties, my dear niece, write to me for guidance, resting well assured that the Bishop is ever ready to give his consideration to the affairs of his wife’s family.

‘I hear little or nothing new from London. They talk of letters between the Prince and his sister; and that he is now at Bar-le-Duc. Our friends in London are daily growing more confident, and the country is reported more impatient; therefore we hope and pray daily that when the Queen dies, though this event may not happen for a great many years, the Prince will quietly return and take his place without opposition, or any bloodshed.

‘I grieve that my nephew Tom doth not yet consider it to be his duty to marry, so that heirs may be reared for the great estate which he will some day obtain. The misfortunes of the Forsters in losing three goodly sons without issue have been so great that I would fain see another generation arise in whom the line should be continued. There were nine of us as children —— who would desire more? —— and now but one survives —— myself. I learn that the monument I have ordered for my late brothers’ memory is nearly ready for Bamborough Church; wherefore I purpose this summer, if my lord’s health continues good, to journey northwards, in order to see that my design hath been faithfully carried out. I am desired by the Bishop to convey to thee his blessing.

‘Thy loving Aunt,

‘Dorothy Crewe.’

This letter was like a surgeon’s knife, so keen was its edge and so intolerable was its pain, even though it was wholesome for the soul!

The inclination of a girl is not a thing with which the world is concerned. Yet I must confess that the pain, the anguish, the bitterness of losing that dear hope which had made me happy for six months, were more than I could well bear. Alas! I know the pains of love as well as the blessings of love. Oh! why —— why could they not let me alone? Why should not I make my lord happy for a short lifetime, and pretend for his dear sake the belief which I could not feel? Happy those who number not a bishop among their parents and superiors!

So farewell, love! And now for a time the sun was to be darkened, the moon was to shed no light; there would be no perfume of flowers, sweet breath of wind: the sea should be a blood-red sheet, and the green fields as a desert of sand, until the Lord should send a softened heart with resignation to the Heavenly will.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51