I pause for a moment in my narrative to request the sympathy of such readers as may be capable of affording it, for a man whose honesty makes him appear egotistic. When a man, finding himself in a false position, is yet anxious to do the duties of that position until such time as, if he should not in the meantime have verified it, and become able to fill it with honesty, he may honourably leave it, I think he may well be pardoned if, of inward necessity, he should refer to himself in a place where such reference may be either the greatest impiety, or the outcome of the truest devotion. In him it was neither: it was honesty--and absorption in the startled gaze of a love that believed it had caught a glimmer of the passing garment of the Truth. Thus strengthened--might I not say inspired? for what is the love of truth and the joy therein, if not a breathing into the soul of the breath of life from the God of truth?--he looked round upon his congregation as he had never dared until now--saw face after face, and knew it--saw amongst the rest that of Helen Lingard, so sadly yet not pitifully altered, with a doubt if it could be she; trembled a little with a new excitement, which one less modest or less wise might have taken--how foolishly!--instead of the truth perceived, for the inspiration of the spirit; and, sternly suppressing the emotion, said,
"My hearers, I come before you this morning to utter the first word of truth it has ever been given to ME to utter."
His hearers stared both mentally and corporeally.
"Is he going to deny the Bible?" said some.
--"It will be the last," said others, "if the rector hear in time how you have been disgracing yourself and profaning his pulpit."
"And," the curate went on, "it would be as a fire in my bones did I attempt to keep it back.
"In my room, three days ago, I was reading the strange story of the man who appeared in Palestine saying that he was the Son of God, and came upon those words of his which I have now read in your hearing. At their sound the accuser, Conscience, awoke in my bosom, and asked, 'Doest thou the things he saith to thee?' And I thought with myself,--'Have I this day done anything he says to me?--when did I do anything I had heard of him? Did I ever'--to this it came at last--'Did I ever, in all my life, do one thing because he said to me DO THIS?' And the answer was NO, NEVER. Yet there I was, not only calling myself a Christian, but on the strength of my Christianity, it was to be presumed, living amongst you, and received by you, as your helper on the way to the heavenly kingdom--a living falsehood, walking and talking amongst you!"
"What a wretch!" said one man to himself, who made a large part of his living by the sale of under-garments whose every stitch was an untacking of the body from the soul of a seamstress. "Bah!" said some. "A hypocrite, by his own confession!" said others. "Exceedingly improper!" said Mrs. Ramshorn. "Unheard-of and most unclerical behaviour! And actually to confess such paganism!" For Helen, she waked up a little, began to listen, and wondered what he had been saying that a wind seemed to have blown rustling among the heads of the congregation.
"Having made this confession," Wingfold proceeded, "you will understand that whatever I now say, I say to and of myself as much as to and of any other to whom it may apply."
He then proceeded to show that faith and obedience are one and the same spirit, passing as it were from room to room in the same heart: what in the heart we call faith, in the will we call obedience. He showed that the Lord refused absolutely the faith that found its vent at the lips in the worshipping words, and not at the limbs in obedient action--which some present pronounced bad theology, while others said to themselves surely that at least was common sense. For Helen, what she heard might be interesting to clergymen, or people like her aunt who had to do with such matters, but to her it was less than nothing and vanity, whose brother lay at home "sick in heart and sick in head."
But hard thoughts of him could not stay the fountain of Wingfold's utterance, which filled as it flowed. Eager after a right presentation of what truth he saw, he dwelt on the mockery it would be of any man to call him the wisest, the best, the kindest, yea and the dearest of men, yet never heed either the smallest request or the most urgent entreaty he made.
"A Socinian!" said Mrs. Ramshorn.
"There's stuff in the fellow!" said the rector's churchwarden, who had been brought up a Wesleyan.
"He'd make a fellow fancy he did believe all his grandmother told him!" thought Bascombe.
As he went on, the awakened curate grew almost eloquent. His face shone with earnestness. Even Helen found her gaze fixed upon him, though she had not a notion what he was talking about. He closed at length with these words:
"After the confession I have now made to you, a confession which I have also entreated everyone to whom it belongs to make to himself and his God, it follows that I dare not call myself a Christian. How should such a one as I know anything about that which, if it be true at all, is the loftiest, the one all-absorbing truth in the universe? How should such a fellow as I"--he went on, growing scornful at himself in the presence of the truth--"judge of its sacred probabilities? or, having led such a life of simony, be heard when he declares that such a pretended message from God to men seems too good to be true? The things therein contained I declare good, yet went not and did them. Therefore am I altogether out of court, and must not be heard in the matter.
"No, my hearers, I call not myself a Christian, but I call everyone here who obeys the word of Jesus, who restrains anger, who declines judgment, who practises generosity, who loves his enemies, who prays for his slanderers, to witness my vow, that I will henceforth try to obey him, in the hope that he whom he called God and his Father, will reveal to him whom you call your Lord Jesus Christ, that into my darkness I may receive the light of the world!"
"A professed infidel!" said Mrs. Ramshorn. "A clever one too! That was a fine trap he laid for us, to prove us all atheists as well as himself! As if any mere mortal COULD obey the instructions of the Saviour! He was divine; we are but human!"
She might have added, "And but poor creatures as such," but did not go so far, believing herself more than an average specimen.
But there was one shining face which, like a rising sun of love and light and truth, "pillowed his chin," not "on an orient wave," but on the book-board of a free seat. The eyes of it were full of tears, and the heart behind it was giving that God and Father thanks, for this was more, far more than he had even hoped for, save in the indefinite future. The light was no longer present as warmth or vivification alone, but had begun to shine as light in the heart of his friend, to whom now, praised be God! the way lay open into all truth. And when the words came, in a voice that once more trembled with emotion--"Now to God the Father,"--he bent down his face, and the poor, stunted, distorted frame and great grey head were grievously shaken with the sobs of a mighty gladness. Truth in the inward parts looked out upon him from the face of one who stood before the people their self-denied teacher! How would they receive it? It mattered not. Those whom the Father had drawn, would hear.
Polwarth neither sought the curate in the vestry, waited for him at the church-door, nor followed him to his lodging. He was not of those who compliment a man on his fine sermon. How grandly careless are some men of the risk of ruin their praises are to their friends! "Let God praise him!" said Polwarth; "I will only dare to love him." He would not toy with his friend's waking Psyche.