The little man led the way into a tolerably large room, with down-sloping ceiling on both sides, lighted by a small window in the gable, near the fireplace, and a dormer window as well. The low walls, up to the slope, were filled with books; books lay on the table, on the bed, on chairs, and in corners everywhere.
"Aha!" said Wingfold, as he entered and cast his eyes around, "there is no room for surprise that you should have found me out so easily, Mr. Polwarth! Here you have a legion of detectives for such rascals."
The little man turned, and for a moment looked at him with a doubtful and somewhat pained expression, as if he had not been prepared for such an entrance on a solemn question; but a moment's reading of the curate's honest face, which by this time had a good deal more print upon it than would have been found there six months agone, sufficed; the cloud melted into a smile, and he said cordially,
"It is very kind of you, sir, to take my presumption in such good part. Pray sit down, sir. You will find that chair a comfortable one."
"Presumption!" echoed Wingfold. "The presumption was all on my part, and the kindness on yours. But you must first hear my explanation, such as it is. It makes the matter hardly a jot the better, only a man would not willingly look worse, or better either, than he is, and besides, we must understand each other if we would be friends. However unlikely it may seem to you, Mr. Polwarth, I really do share the common weakness of wanting to be taken exactly for what I am, neither more nor less."
"It is a noble weakness, and far enough from common, I am sorry to think," returned Polwarth.
The curate then told the gate-keeper of his uncle's legacy, and his own ignorance of Jeremy Taylor.
"But," he concluded, "since you set me about it, my judgment has capsized itself, and it now seems to me worse to use my uncle's sermons than to have used the bishop's, which anyone might discover to be what they are."
"I see no harm in either," said Polwarth, "provided only it be above board. I believe some clergymen think the only evil lies in detection. I doubt if they ever escape it, and believe the amount of successful deception in that kind to be very small indeed. Many in a congregation can tell, by a kind of instinct, whether a man be preaching his own sermons or not. But the worse evil appears to me to lie in the tacit understanding that a sermon must SEEM to be a man's own, although all in the congregation know, and the would-be preacher knows that they know, that it is none of his."
"Then you mean, Mr. Polwarth, that I should solemnly acquaint my congregation next Sunday with the fact that the sermon I am about to read to them is one of many left me by my worthy uncle, Jonah Driftwood, D.D., who, on his death-bed, expressed the hope that I should support their teaching by my example, for, having gone over them some ten or fifteen times in the course of his incumbency, and bettered each every time until he could do no more for it, he did not think, save by my example, I could carry further the enforcement of the truths they contained:--shall I tell them all that?"
Polwarth laughed, but with a certain seriousness in his merriment, which however took nothing from its genuineness, indeed seemed rather to add thereto.
"It would hardly be needful to enter so fully into particulars," he said. "It would be enough to let them know that you wished it understood between them and you, that you did not profess to teach them anything of yourself, but merely to bring to bear upon them the teaching of others. It would raise complaints and objections, doubtless; but for that you must be prepared if you would do anything right."
Wingfold was silent, thoughtful, saying to himself--"How straight an honest bow can shoot!--But this involves something awful. To stand up in that pulpit and speak about myself! I who, even if I had any opinions, could never see reason for presenting them to other people! It's my office, is it--not me? Then I wish my Office would write his own sermons. He can read the prayers well enough!"
All his life, a little heave of pent-up humour would now and then shake his burden into a more comfortable position upon his bending shoulders. He gave a forlorn laugh.
"But," resumed the small man, "have you never preached a sermon of your own thinking--I don't mean of your own making--one that came out of the commentaries, which are, I am told, the mines whither some of our most noted preachers go to dig for their first inspirations--but one that came out of your own heart--your delight in something you had found out, or something you felt much?"
"No," answered Wingfold; "I have nothing, never had anything worth giving to another; and it would seem to me very unreasonable to subject a helpless congregation to the blundering attempts of such a fellow to put into the forms of reasonable speech things he really knows nothing about."
"You must know about some things which it might do them good to be reminded of--even if they know them already," said Polwarth. "I cannot imagine that a man who looks things in the face as you do, the moment they confront you, has not lived at all, has never met with anything in his history which has taught him something other people need to be taught. I profess myself a believer in preaching, and consider that in so far as the church of England has ceased to be a preaching church--and I don't call nine-tenths of what goes by the name of it PREACHING--she has forgotten a mighty part of her high calling. Of course a man to whom no message has been personally given, has no right to take the place of a prophet--and cannot, save by more or less of simulation--but there is room for teachers as well as prophets, and the more need of teachers that the prophets are so few; and a man may right honestly be a clergyman who teaches the people, though he may possess none of the gifts of prophecy."
"I do not now see well how you are leading me," said Wingfold, considerably astonished at both the aptness and fluency with which a man in his host's position was able to express himself. "Pray, what do you mean by PROPHECY?"
"I mean what I take to be the sense in which St. Paul uses the word--I mean the highest kind of preaching. But I will come to the point practically: a man, I say, who does not feel in his soul that he has something to tell his people, should straightway turn his energy to the providing of such food for them as he finds feed himself. In other words, if he has nothing new in his own treasure, let him bring something old out of another man's. If his own soul is unfed, he can hardly be expected to find food for other people, and has no business in any pulpit, but ought to betake himself to some other employment--whatever he may have been predestined to--I mean, made fit for."
"Then do you intend that a man SHOULD make up his sermons from the books he reads?"
"Yes, if he cannot do better. But then I would have him read--not with his sermon in his eye, but with his people in his heart. Men in business and professions have so little time for reading or thinking--and idle people have still less--that their means of grace, as the theologians say, are confined to discipline without nourishment, whence their religion, if they have any, is often from mere atrophy but a skeleton; and the office of preaching is, after all, to wake them up lest their sleep turn to death; next, to make them hungry, and lastly, to supply that hunger; and for all these things, the pastor has to take thought. If he feed not the flock of God, then is he an hireling and no shepherd."
At this moment, Rachel entered with a small tea-tray: she could carry only little things, and a few at a time. She cast a glance of almost loving solicitude at the young man who now sat before her uncle with head bowed, and self-abasement on his honest countenance, then a look almost of expostulation at her uncle, as if interceding for a culprit, and begging the master not to be too hard upon him. But the little man smiled--such a sweet smile of re-assurance, that her face returned at once to its prevailing expression of content. She cleared a place on the table, set down her tray, and went to bring cups and saucers.