Weary with many thoughts, the vicar came to the door of the bank. There were several carriages there, and a crowd of people swarming in and out, like bees round a hive-door, entering with anxious faces, and returning with cheerful ones, to stop and talk earnestly in groups round the door. Every moment the mass thickened — there was a run on the bank. An old friend accosted him on the steps —
‘What! have you, too, money here, then?’
‘Neither here nor anywhere else, thank Heaven!’ said the vicar. ‘But is anything wrong?’
‘Have not you heard? The house has sustained a frightful blow this week — railway speculations, so they say — and is hardly expected to survive the day. So we are all getting our money out as fast as possible.’
‘By way of binding up the bruised reed, eh?’
‘Oh! every man for himself. A man is under no obligation to his banker, that I know of.’ And the good man bustled off with his pockets full of gold.
The vicar entered. All was hurry and anxiety. The clerks seemed trying to brazen out their own terror, and shovelled the rapidly lessening gold and notes across the counter with an air of indignant nonchalance. The vicar asked to see the principal.
‘If you want your money, sir —’ answered the official, with a disdainful look.
‘I want no money. I must see Mr. Smith on private business, and instantly.’
‘He is particularly engaged.’
‘I know it, and, therefore, I must see him. Take in my card, and he will not refuse me.’ A new vista had opened itself before him.
He was ushered into a private room: and, as he waited for the banker, he breathed a prayer. For what? That his own will might be done — a very common style of petition.
Mr. Smith entered, hurried and troubled. He caught the vicar eagerly by the hand, as if glad to see a face which did not glare on him with the cold selfish stamp of ‘business,’ and then drew back again, afraid to commit himself by any sign of emotion.
The vicar had settled his plan of attack, and determined boldly to show his knowledge of the banker’s distress.
‘I am very sorry to trouble you at such an unfortunate moment, sir, and I will be brief; but, as your nephew’s spiritual pastor —’ (He knew the banker was a stout Churchman.)
‘What of my nephew, sir! No fresh misfortunes, I hope?’
‘Not so much misfortune, sir, as misconduct — I might say frailty — but frailty which may become ruinous.’
‘How? how? Some mesalliance?’ interrupted Mr. Smith, in a peevish, excited tone. ‘I thought there was some heiress on the tapis — at least, so I heard from my unfortunate son, who has just gone over to Rome. There’s another misfortune. — Nothing but misfortunes; and your teaching, sir, by the bye, I am afraid, has helped me to that one.’
‘Gone over to Rome?’ asked the vicar, slowly.
‘Yes, sir, gone to Rome — to the pope, sir! to the devil, sir! I should have thought you likely to know of it before I did!’
The vicar stared fixedly at him a moment, and burst into honest tears. The banker was moved.
”Pon my honour, sir, I beg your pardon. I did not mean to be rude, but — but — To be plain with a clergyman, sir, so many things coming together have quite unmanned me. Pooh, pooh,’ and he shook himself as if to throw off a weight; and, with a face once more quiet and business-like, asked, ‘And now, my dear sir, what of my nephew?’
‘As for that young lady, sir, of whom you spoke, I can assure you, once for all, as her clergyman, and therefore more or less her confidant, that your nephew has not the slightest chance or hope in that quarter.’
‘How, sir? You will not throw obstacles in the way?’
‘Heaven, sir, I think, has interposed far more insuperable obstacles — in the young lady’s own heart — than I could ever have done. Your nephew’s character and opinions, I am sorry to say, are not such as are likely to command the respect and affection of a pure and pious Churchwoman.’
‘Opinions, sir? What, is he turning Papist, too?’
‘I am afraid, sir, and more than afraid, for he makes no secret of it himself, that his views tend rather in the opposite direction; to an infidelity so subversive of the commonest principles of morality, that I expect, weekly, to hear of some unblushing and disgraceful outrage against decency, committed by him under its fancied sanction. And you know, as well as myself, the double danger of some profligate outbreak, which always attends the miseries of a disappointed earthly passion.’
‘True, very true. We must get the boy out of the way, sir. I must have him under my eye.’
‘Exactly so, sir,’ said the subtle vicar, who had been driving at this very point. ‘How much better for him to be here, using his great talents to the advantage of his family in an honourable profession, than to remain where he is, debauching body and mind by hopeless dreams, godless studies, and frivolous excesses.’
‘When do you return, sir?’
‘An hour hence, if I can be of service to you.’
The banker paused a moment.
‘You are a gentleman’ (with emphasis on the word), ‘and as such I can trust you.’
‘Say, rather, as a clergyman.’
‘Pardon me, but I have found your cloth give little additional cause for confidence. I have been as much bitten by clergymen — I have seen as sharp practice among them, in money matters as well as in religious squabbles, as I have in any class. Whether it is that their book education leaves them very often ignorant of the plain rules of honour which bind men of the world, or whether their zeal makes them think that the end justifies the means, I cannot tell; but —’
‘But,’ said the vicar, half smiling, half severely, ‘you must not disparage the priesthood before a priest.’
‘I know it, I know it; and I beg your pardon: but if you knew the cause I have to complain. The slipperiness, sir, of one staggering parson, has set rolling this very avalanche, which gathers size every moment, and threatens to overwhelm me now, unless that idle dog Lancelot will condescend to bestir himself, and help me.’
The vicar heard, but said nothing.
‘Me, at least, you can trust,’ he answered proudly; and honestly, too — for he was a gentleman by birth and breeding, unselfish and chivalrous to a fault — and yet, when he heard the banker’s words, it was as if the inner voice had whispered to him, ‘Thou art the man!’
‘When do you go down?’ again asked Mr. Smith. ‘To tell you the truth, I was writing to Lancelot when you were announced! but the post will not reach him till tomorrow at noon, and we are all so busy here, that I have no one whom I can trust to carry down an express.’
The vicar saw what was coming. Was it his good angel which prompted him to interpose?
‘Why not send a parcel by rail?’
‘I can trust the rail as far as D—; but I cannot trust those coaches. If you could do me so great a kindness —’
‘I will. I can start by the one o’clock train, and by ten o’clock to-night I shall be in Whitford.’
‘Are you certain?’
‘If God shall please, I am certain.’
‘And you will take charge of a letter? Perhaps, too, you could see him yourself; and tell him — you see I trust you with everything — that my fortune, his own fortune, depends on his being here tomorrow morning. He must start to-night, sir — to-night, tell him, if there were twenty Miss Lavingtons in Whitford — or he is a ruined man!’
The letter was written, and put into the vicar’s hands, with a hundred entreaties from the terrified banker. A cab was called, and the clergyman rattled off to the railway terminus.
‘Well,’ said he to himself, ‘God has indeed blessed my errand; giving, as always, “exceeding abundantly more than we are able to ask or think!” For some weeks, at least, this poor lamb is safe from the destroyer’s clutches. I must improve to the utmost those few precious days in strengthening her in her holy purpose. But, after all, he will return, daring and cunning as ever; and then will not the fascination recommence?’
And, as he mused, a little fiend passed by, and whispered, ‘Unless he comes up to-night, he is a ruined man.’
It was Friday, and the vicar had thought it a fit preparation for so important an errand to taste no food that day. Weakness and hunger, joined to the roar and bustle of London, had made him excited, nervous, unable to control his thoughts, or fight against a stupifying headache; and his self-weakened will punished him, by yielding him up an easy prey to his own fancies.
‘Ay,’ he thought, ‘if he were ruined, after all, it would be well for God’s cause. The Lavingtons, at least, would find no temptation in his wealth: and Argemone — she is too proud, too luxurious, to marry a beggar. She might embrace a holy poverty for the sake of her own soul; but for the gratification of an earthly passion, never! Base and carnal delights would never tempt her so far.’
Alas, poor pedant! Among all that thy books taught thee, they did not open to thee much of the depths of that human heart which thy dogmas taught thee to despise as diabolic.
Again the little fiend whispered —
‘Unless he comes up to-night, he is a ruined man.’
‘And what if he is?’ thought the vicar. ‘Riches are a curse; and poverty a blessing. Is it not his wealth which is ruining his soul? Idleness and fulness of bread have made him what he is — a luxurious and self-willed dreamer, battening on his own fancies. Were it not rather a boon to him to take from him the root of all evil?’
Most true, vicar. And yet the devil was at that moment transforming himself into an angel of light for thee.
But the vicar was yet honest. If he had thought that by cutting off his right hand he could have saved Lancelot’s soul (by canonical methods, of course; for who would wish to save souls in any other?), he would have done it without hesitation.
Again the little fiend whispered —
‘Unless he comes up to-night he is a ruined man.’
A terrible sensation seized him. — Why should he give the letter to-night?
‘You promised,’ whispered the inner voice.
‘No, I did not promise exactly, in so many words; that is, I only said I would be at home to-night, if God pleased. And what if God should not please? — I promised for his good. What if, on second thoughts, it should be better for him not to keep my promise?’ A moment afterwards, he tossed the temptation from him indignantly: but back it came. At every gaudy shop, at every smoke-grimed manufactory, at the face of every anxious victim of Mammon, of every sturdy, cheerful artisan, the fiend winked and pointed, crying, ‘And what if he be ruined? Look at the thousands who have, and are miserable — at the millions who have not, and are no sadder than their own tyrants.’
Again and again he thrust the thought from him, but more and more weakly. His whole frame shook; the perspiration stood on his forehead. As he took his railway ticket, his look was so haggard and painful that the clerk asked him whether he were ill. The train was just starting; he threw himself into a carriage — he would have locked himself in if he could; and felt an inexpressible relief when he found himself rushing past houses and market-gardens, whirled onward, whether he would or not, in the right path — homeward.
But was it the right path? for again the temptation flitted past him. He threw himself back, and tried to ask counsel of One above; but there was no answer, nor any that regarded. His heart was silent, and dark as midnight fog. Why should there have been an answer? He had not listened to the voice within. Did he wish for a miracle to show him his duty?
‘Not that I care for detection,’ he said to himself. ‘What is shame to me? Is it not a glory to be evil-spoken of in the cause of God? How can the world appreciate the motives of those who are not of the world? — the divine wisdom of the serpent — at once the saint’s peculiar weapon, and a part of his peculiar cross, when men call him a deceiver, because they confound, forsooth, his spiritual subtlety with their earthly cunning. Have I not been called “liar,” “hypocrite,” “Jesuit,” often enough already, to harden me towards bearing that name once again?’
That led him into sad thoughts of his last few years’ career — of the friends and pupils whose secession to Rome had been attributed to his hypocrisy, his ‘disguised Romanism;’ and then the remembrance of poor Luke Smith flashed across him for the first time since he left the bank.
‘I must see him,’ he said to himself; ‘I must argue with him face to face. Who knows but that it may be given even to my unworthiness to snatch him from this accursed slough?’
And then he remembered that his way home lay through the city in which the new convert’s parish was — that the coach stopped there to change horses; and again the temptation leapt up again, stronger than ever, under the garb of an imperative call of duty.
He made no determination for or against it. He was too weak in body and mind to resist; and in a half sleep, broken with an aching, terrified sense of something wanting which he could not find, he was swept down the line, got on the coach, and mechanically, almost without knowing it, found himself set down at the city of A — and the coach rattling away down the street.
He sprang from his stupor, and called madly after it — ran a few steps —
‘You might as well try to catch the clouds, sir,’ said the ostler. ‘Gemmen should make up their minds afore they gets down.’
Alas! so thought the vicar. But it was too late; and, with a heavy heart, he asked the way to the late curate’s house.
Thither he went. Mr. Luke Smith was just at dinner, but the vicar was, nevertheless, shown into the bachelor’s little dining-room. But what was his disgust and disappointment at finding his late pupil tete-a-tete over a comfortable fish-dinner, opposite a burly, vulgar, cunning-eyed man, with a narrow rim of muslin turned down over his stiff cravat, of whose profession there could be no doubt.
‘My dearest sir,’ said the new convert, springing up with an air of extreme empressement, ‘what an unexpected pleasure! Allow me to introduce you to my excellent friend, Padre Bugiardo!’
The padre rose, bowed obsequiously, ‘was overwhelmed with delight at being at last introduced to one of whom he had heard so much,’ sat down again, and poured himself out a bumper of sherry; while the vicar commenced making the best of a bad matter by joining in the now necessary business of eating.
He had not a word to say for himself. Poor Luke was particularly jovial and flippant, and startlingly unlike his former self. The padre went on staring out of the window, and talking in a loud forced tone about the astonishing miracles of the ‘Ecstatica’ and ‘Addolorata;’ and the poor vicar, finding the purpose for which he had sacrificed his own word of honour utterly frustrated by the priest’s presence, sat silent and crestfallen the whole evening.
The priest had no intention of stirring. The late father-confessor tried to outstay his new rival, but in vain; the padre deliberately announced his intention of taking a bed, and the vicar, with a heavy heart, rose to go to his inn.
As he went out at the door, he caught an opportunity of saying one word to the convert.
‘My poor Luke! and are you happy? Tell me honestly, in God’s sight tell me!’
‘Happier than ever I was in my life! No more self-torture, physical or mental, now. These good priests thoroughly understand poor human nature, I can assure you.’
The vicar sighed, for the speech was evidently meant as a gentle rebuke to himself. But the young man ran on, half laughing —
‘You know how you and the rest used to tell us what a sad thing it was that we were all cursed with consciences — what a fearful miserable burden moral responsibility was; but that we must submit to it as an inevitable evil. Now that burden is gone, thank God. We of the True Church have some one to keep our consciences for us. The padre settles all about what is right or wrong, and we slip on as easily as —’
‘A hog or a butterfly!’ said the vicar, bitterly.
‘Exactly,’ answered Luke. ‘And, on your own showing, are clean gainers of a happy life here, not to mention heaven hereafter. God bless you! We shall soon see you one of us.’
‘Never, so help me God!’ said the vicar; all the more fiercely because he was almost at that moment of the young man’s opinion.
The vicar stepped out into the night. The rain, which had given place during the afternoon to a bright sun and clear chilly evening, had returned with double fury. The wind was sweeping and howling down the lonely streets, and lashed the rain into his face, while gray clouds were rushing past the moon like terrified ghosts across the awful void of the black heaven. Above him gaunt poplars groaned and bent, like giants cowering from the wrath of Heaven, yet rooted by grim necessity to their place of torture. The roar and tumult without him harmonised strangely with the discord within. He staggered and strode along the plashy pavement, muttering to himself at intervals —
‘Rest for the soul? peace of mind? I have been promising them all my life to others — have I found them myself? And here is this poor boy saying that he has gained them — in the very barbarian superstition which I have been anathematising to him! What is true, at this rate? What is false? Is anything right or wrong? except in as far as men feel it to be right or wrong. Else whence does this poor fellow’s peace come, or the peace of many a convert more? They have all, one by one, told me the same story. And is not a religion to be known by its fruits? Are they not right in going where they can get peace of mind?’
Certainly, vicar. If peace of mind be the summum bonum, and religion is merely the science of self-satisfaction, they are right; and your wisest plan will be to follow them at once, or failing that, to apply to the next best substitute that can be discovered — alcohol and opium.
As he went on, talking wildly to himself, he passed the Union Workhouse. Opposite the gate, under the lee of a wall, some twenty men, women, and children, were huddled together on the bare ground. They had been refused lodging in the workhouse, and were going to pass the night in that situation. As he came up to them, coarse jests, and snatches of low drinking-songs, ghastly as the laughter of lost spirits in the pit, mingled with the feeble wailings of some child of shame. The vicar recollected how he had seen the same sight at the door of Kensington Workhouse, walking home one night in company with Luke Smith; and how, too, he had commented to him on that fearful sign of the times, and had somewhat unfairly drawn a contrast between the niggard cruelty of ‘popular Protestantism,’ and the fancied ‘liberality of the middle age.’ What wonder if his pupil had taken him at his word?
Delighted to escape from his own thoughts by anything like action, he pulled out his purse to give an alms. There was no silver in it, but only some fifteen or twenty sovereigns, which he that day received as payment for some bitter reviews in a leading religious periodical. Everything that night seemed to shame and confound him more. As he touched the money, there sprang up in his mind in an instant the thought of the articles which had procured it; by one of those terrible, searching inspirations, in which the light which lighteth every man awakes as a lightning-flash of judgment, he saw them, and his own heart, for one moment, as they were; — their blind prejudice; their reckless imputations of motives; their wilful concealment of any palliating clauses; their party nicknames, given without a shudder at the terrible accusations which they conveyed. And then the indignation, the shame, the reciprocal bitterness which those articles would excite, tearing still wider the bleeding wounds of that Church which they professed to defend! And then, in this case, too, the thought rushed across him, ‘What if I should have been wrong and my adversary right? What if I have made the heart of the righteous sad whom God has not made sad? I! to have been dealing out Heaven’s thunders, as if I were infallible! I! who am certain at this moment of no fact in heaven or earth, except my own untruth! God! who am I that I should judge another?’ And the coins seemed to him like the price of blood — he fancied that he felt them red-hot to his hand, and, in his eagerness to get rid of the accursed thing, he dealt it away fiercely to the astonished group, amid whining and flattery, wrangling and ribaldry; and then, not daring to wait and see the use to which his money would be put, hurried off to the inn, and tried in uneasy slumbers to forget the time, until the mail passed through at daybreak on its way to Whitford.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52